It Doesn't Take a Genius, by

But soon he's hatched a plan to get his summer with Luke back--he sends in an application to the camp, and amazingly he's accepted with a scholarship!  His mother is furious that he went behind her back like this, but still it's a great opportunity for him (and for her, a widowed mother studying for medical school, it will be a welcome chance to focus)....and so Emmett gets to go.

Emmett has always known he's pretty darn smart; he's got a long list of academic achievements and debate club wins. The kids at Camp DuBois, though, have taken achievement up several more notches, and Emmett quickly feels utterly inadequate.  Luke wants nothing to do with him, and indeed, his job responsibilities don't leave him time for giving his little brother special attention.  But almost despite himself, Emmett makes friends, discovers his talent for dance is greater than he thought, and starts to grow up.  

He also learns tons about famous Black people, the cultures of the African Diaspora, and is forced, as part of the planned curriculum of the camp, to think hard and seriously about what it means to be Black (though the book doesn't include specifics of current events).  The way all this information was presented will especially appeal to smart kids who like to know things--I bet, based on my own reaction, that they will feel, like the kids at camp, appreciation and interest, rather than a feeling of being lectured to.

My one regret is that Emmett's time at camp is such a whirl of experiences and learning and food and fellow campers and movie making and dance practice and the disaster of swimming lessons etc. that there's no down time for either him, or the reader, to take a break to think and process.  Though a lot of the goings-on are presented in a light-hearted, even humorous, way, Emmett could have used more thinking and processing.  He is rather selfish and thoughtless at times, and even does something really cruel.  Though this is believable, it was disappointing, but Emmett's welcome growth by the end of the book mostly makes up for it.  

Apart from that reservation, I just turned the pages quickly, learning and enjoying this extravaganza of Black excellence alongside the campers!  

(This was written as a sequel to the movie, Boy Genius, which I have not seen, and so I can't speak to how it works as such).

(review of ARC provided by the book's publicist)


Tunnels of time, by Mary Harlekin Bishop, for Timeslip Tuesday

So in my quest to read every time slip book for kids and teens ever published in English (excluding all of the Magic Treehouse books and the Time Warp trio books...) I picked up Tunnels of Time, by Mary Harlekin Bishop (Coteau Books, 2000) for a buck at a used bookstore recently.  It was worth the dollar, though not all that much more to me personally, because I'm not really interested in prohibition and gangsters, and that's what the book delivered.

13-year-old Andy is not best pleased to be a junior bridesmaid for her cousin.  And so she arrives at the family's home town of Mouse Jaw, in Saskatchewan, in a sullen and sulky mood.  When it turns out the restaurant where the rehearsal dinner's being held has openings into a maze of tunnels, her interest is piqued. When she gets to look inside one of them, her interest becomes rather more intense; she bangs her head going into it, and travels back in time to the 1920s!

The tunnels are used by gangsters, whose leader, Big Al (Al Capone!), is running his forbidden alcohol business with an iron hand.  Andy is befriended by Vance, a boy in the crew of tunnel kids who run errands, guide visitors, and go places the grown men don't want to.  Before she really has time to process what's happened to her, she's working for Big Al too, under the spell of his charismatic personality.

Very quickly, though, she realizes just how cruel he really is, and so, with a bit of help from Al's discarded lover and Vance's kid sister, she lays a trap for him....and comes back to her own time wiser and more mature than when she left, ready to be nicer to her own sane, non-killer-gangster family.

It's rather light on the things I like best about time travel--the cultural dislocation, and the tension of wondering how to get home again.  Lop off the beginning and end, set in 2000ish, and tweak a few details, and it's historical fiction.  Andy spends most of the book down in the tunnels, doing gangster work and gangster foiling, so it's not a particularly wide canvass.  Which is fine if you like tunnels, prohibition, and gangsters, but like I said above, I don't much. But it is educational, and is based on the real history of Moose Jaw, so for kids who find time travel an appealing framing device to make historical fiction more palatable, and of course for gangster and tunnel adventure loving kids, especially the Moose Jawians, it has appeal.  

For what it is worth, the grown-ups liked it--it was picked as an Our Choice title by the Canadian Children's Book Centre.  There are three sequels, also down in the tunnels....and though I won't be actively looking for them, I will certainly pick them up if they come my way!

And the fact that the tunnels are open to visitors today sure makes me more likely to visit Moose Jaw next time I find myself in Saskatchwan (which would also be the first time...)


This week's round-up of mg fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (4/11/21)

Welcome to this week's round-up, the first in all the years I've being doing it that there is no book that starts with the letter "S."  So if I missed your post (probably about a book starting with S), let me know!

The Reveiws

Bridge of Souls (Cassidy Blake #3), by Victoria Schwab, at Hidden in Pages and Jill's Book Blog

The Chosen One, by James Riley (The Revenge of Magic #5), at Carstairs Considers 

 The Colt of the Clouds (Wings of Olympus #2, by Kallie George, at Say What?

Dragon Fury (Unwanteds Quest 7), by Lisa McMann, at Say What?

The Eye of the North, by Sinead O'Hart, at Book Craic

Featherlight, by Peter Bunzl, at Library Girl and Book Boy

The Frozen Telescope, by Jennifer Bell, at Sifa Elizabeth Reads

The Gilded Girl, by Alyssa Colman, at Books, Iced Lattes, Blessed and Cracking the Cover

Go the Distance (A Twisted Tale, #11), by Jen Calonita, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Homer on the Case, by Henry Cole, at Always in the Middle and Books YA Love

Maya Loop, by Lisa Anna Langston, at Say What?

Merlin:  The Lost Years, by T.A. Barron, at proseandkahn

The Messengers (Greystone Secrets #3), by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at The Children's Book Review 

The Mostly Invisible Boy by A.J. Vanderhorst, at Avalinah's Books

Rome Reframed, by Amy Bearce, at Charlotte's Library

The Runaway (Valkyrie #2), by Kate O'Hearn, at Say What?

The Thieves of Weirdwood, by Willliam Shivering, at Say What?

Threads of Magic, by Alison Croggon, at Log Cabin Library

Time Jumpers, by Brandon Mull, at Fantasy Literature

Unicorn Island, by Donna Galanti, at Children's Books Heal

Authors and Interviews

B. B. Alston (Amari and the Night Brothers) at  Dead Darlings

Dana Middleton (Not a Unicorn) at MG Book Village

Amanda Foody (The Accidental Apprentice) at MG Book Village

Kathleen Jae (Elanora and the Salt March Mystery) at Carpinellos Writing Pages

Leah Cypess (Thornwood)  at Say What?


Rome Reframed, by Amy Bearce, for Timeslip Tuesday

Rome Reframed is Amy Bearce's second middle grade time travel story--the first, Paris on Repeat, was lots of fun, so I was happy to be taken on a visit to Rome!

There we meet Lucas, an 8th grader from Austin, Texas, who's scholarly parents are working on a book that involves a six month trip through Europe.  The parents had hoped that Lucas and his two little brothers would have a great time; Lucas isn't.  He didn't want to leave his friends and soccer team, and be dragged from place to place while having to write a journal about what he sees, with accompanying photographs, for school back home.  And the excitement his parents and next older brother feel about all they are seeing and learning makes him feel like the odd one out in the family--he struggles with school work, and feels like a failure.  When he learns he's in danger of failing his project, and 8th grade as a result, his spirits sink further.

But Rome takes an interest in him, in the form of a strange old woman who give him a mysterious coin, which takes him back in time.  A visit to the colosseum, when it was still in use, give him a visceral appreciation for history, and a visit to Michelangelo painting the Sistine chapel gives him a new appreciation for dedication to art, and he begins to think that his own photographic talent is possibly more real than he'd previously thought.  And then other trips to past, some accompanied by his new Italian friend, Vivi, a girl with her own dreams of a career as a singer, cement his growing realization that he isn't a failure after all.

It's a fun story, with time travel both as teaching tool and sightseeing adventures, and many kids might find Lucas's journey to a sense of self-worth inspiring (although it turns out he is in fact a super talented photographer, which is nice for him, but which might make kids who don't actually have undiscovered talents feel depressed).  I was annoyed with Lucas's parents, who basically have been using him as a baby-sitter for his younger brothers while going about their work, but they are more supportive than he thinks they are.

On the plus side for all ages--this is a great sightseeing trip to Rome, and worth reading just for that!


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (4/4/21)

Here's what I found in my blog reading this week; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Amari and the Night Brothers, by B.B. Alston, at Aotales

Bloom, by Nicola Skinner, at Bellis Does Books

City of Secrets, by Victoria Ying, at books4yourkids

The Hedgehog of Oz, by Cory Leonardo, at Puss Reboots

The In-Between, by Rebecca K. S. Ansari, at Aotales

The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke, by Kirsty Applebaum, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Quintessance by Jess Redman, at Silver Button Books

Root Magic, by Eden Royce, at Fuse #8

Rumaysa, by Radiya Hafiza, at Sifa Elizabeth Reads

The Secret Lake, by Karen Inglis, at Charlotte's Library 

Switched, by Bruce Hale, at proseandkahn

The Three Impossibles, by Susie Bower, at Scope for Imagination

Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything, by Sam Copeland, at Twirling Book Princess

Unicorn Island by Donna Galanti, at Jean Little Library

The Weather Weaver by Tamsin Mori, at Laptrinhx

Four at  A little but a lot--The Wizard in the Wood, by Louie Stowell,  Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest by Vashti Hardy, Real Pigeons Fight Crime, by Andrew MacDonald,  Space Detectives byMark Powers

Authors and Interviews

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Sisters of the Neversea) in conversation with Kathi Appelt at Cynthia Leitich Smith

Jenna Lehne (Bone Tree) at Spooky MG

Adam Perry (The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children’s Books), at MG Book Village

Eli Brown (Oddity) at Nerdy Book Club

Other Good Stuff

In case you don't have enough to read already, here's a nice list of mg coming out in April (lots of great fantasy!) at The Contented Reader

Here are the children's books shortlisted for Australia's Aurealis Awards:

The Lost Soul Atlas, Zana Fraillon (Hachette Australia)

Tricky Nick, Nicholas J Johnson (Pan Australia)

Across the Risen Sea, Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)

The Chicken’s Curse, Frances Watts (Allen & Unwin)

Hodgepodge: How to Make a Pet Monster, Lili Wilkinson, illustrated by Dustin Spence (Allen & Unwin)

Her Perilous Mansion, Sean Williams (Allen & Unwin)

and Happy Easter to all who are celebrating today. I enjoy finding a peculiar Victorian Easter card for this round-up every year, and though there were many remarkable ones, this one tickled me with its seasonal confusion.


Wildlore: the Accidental Apprentice, by Amanda Foody

Wildlore: the Accidental Apprentice, by Amanda Foody (March 30th 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books), is a particularly excellent middle grade fantasy for Pokemon fans, but is also a fun read for the rest of us!

When we first meet Barclay Thorne, he's an apprentice mushroom farm in Dullshire.  It's a place that lives up to its name--after it was attached by a ferocious magical being, Gravaldor, when Barclay was little (his parents were killed during the mayhem),  numerous rules were put into place to deter future deadly excitements.  Magic, especially the magic of the Lore Keepers and the Beasts they control, is at the top of forbidden things.  So when Barclay strays to far outside the town gathering mushrooms, meets a young Lore Keeper, Viola, and accidently acquires one of these beasts himself, he's desperate to get rid of it.

The beast, a legendary Lufthound, is contained by a mark on Barclay's arm; if he wanted to, he could summon it and its storm magic forth, or simply draw on the power of speed it gives him.  He wants no part, though, in the world of Lore Keepers and their beasts--the death of his parents from that magic haunts him.  But when the magic stirs in him despite himself, he must flee Dullshire for his life.

Fortunately Viola finds him, and leads him to a Lore Keeper stronghold far off in the woods.  There he is plunged into a competition to become apprenticed to one of the greatest Lore Keepers of all, with the hope that by proving himself she can remove his mark and break the bond between him and his beast.

But gradually his heart, despite itself, warms to Root, as he calls the Lufthound.  And gradually he learns that the Lore Keepers and beasts aren't his enemy.  Placing first in the competition becomes his goal, and with Viola and other new friends at his side, and the magic of his beast, it starts to seem possible.  Unfortunately, there's a really nasty and powerful Lore Keeper who wants Root to add to his own beast collection, and who has an even more disturbing agenda on top of that!  Treachery, intrigue, and magical challenges fill the pages as Barclay starts questioning all his assumptions, and finally accepts that he and Root are not just a team, but a potential source of good for the folks of places like Dullshire.

So there are two great things about the book that will appeal lots to young readers.  The magic of the beast is very Pokémon-esque; the competitions were exhilarating and the range of beast and their magic fascinating.  The second is the relationship between Barclay and Root, and how Barclay changes his mind, in large part because of Root's intelligence and personality, about the Lore Keepers. Add to that fun supporting characters like Viola and her small dragon beast, and the result is a book with tons of kid appeal!

I myself, a cynical adult reader, was put off at first by "Dullshire" which I found utterly unsubtle.  But once into the world of the Lore Keepers, I was hooked (it helped that Barclay isn't just a simple mushroom gatherer--he really likes to read and learn! and indeed being a  mushroom gatherer requires many of the same traits that make for a successful Lore Keeper--keenness of observation, patience, and a tolerance for risk).  I raced to the book's finish, and now want more!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy, by Mary Winn Heider

When I first read the title, I thought The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy, by Mary Winn Heider (middle grade, Little Brown, March 2021), might have a touch of sci fi to it.  It almost did, but not in the way I was expecting.  The center of the galaxy, as far as the two main characters are concerned, is not deep space, but a football stadium.  There their father was the quarterback for a pro-team, the Chicago Horribles, failing for years to lead them to victory before retiring with traumatic brain injury.  He's no longer the father they remembered from when they were young; now he needs their care.  But then he takes leaving one step further, by simply walking out and disappearing one day.  

Winston and Louise, his two kids, are left with no answers, and lots of grief.  Winston distracts himself by fiercely committing to tuba playing in the school band.  Louise, something of a genius, seeks a cure for TBI by plunging into science.  Their lives start getting a bit odd, what with an actual bear being used for the team's new mascot (Louise becomes determined to save it), Louise's experiments with jellyfish leaving her glowing (this is the touch of sci fi I mentioned above), and the teachers apparently plotting something peculiar that leads to a tuba catastrophe.  It all cumulates with a giant popstar halftime concert with the one and only Kittytown Dynamo....and all this oddness moves them closer to healing and closure.

This is a book that deals with serious issues, while at the same time being warm and friendly as all get out.  There are no mean girls, for instance, of the sort that often plague middle grade protagonists.  Instead Louise shares science club with a group of girls who continuously offer friendship, and Winston shares tuba playing with another girl who's really nice and supportive.  I loved the tuba playing, the mad science, and the giant Kitty concert made laugh out loud--it is hilarious!  The plight of the bear will pull hard at kids who care about animals, and the plight of Winson and Louise's family tugs at the heartstrings of readers of all ages.  

short answer--a book I truly enjoyed!

(disclaimer--review copy received from the publisher)


The Secret Lake, by Karen Inglis, for Timeslip Tuesday

Just up the street from me is a strange little shop that sells junk, ostensibly raising money for animals.  As a used book hunter, it is both a great place to visit--I've had some good luck, and a horrible one--the children's books are in bins.  Big bins, overflowing.  Which means an awful lot of work is needed to go through them.  Nevertheless, I persist, and on my most recent trip I found an English time travel book for kids--The Secret Lake, by Karen Inglis (May 2018, Well Said Press, which is the author's own press).

It's the story of two kids, Stella and Tom who move into a flat next to a lovely public garden.  There they find a tunnel that takes them down and out again into the past.  They meet a boy, Jack, who's suspected of being a thief, and believe in his innocence.  They also meet two girls who live in the very house where their flat is, and the youngest, Emma, becomes an ally.  They also meet in the past a dog they know in the present, who's always causing much distress for her owner, a very old woman, by constantly running away.

Stella and Tom help Jack clear his name, and return to their own time.  There they realize the old woman and her dog know about the time tunnel too....

It's a perfectly fine story, that I didn't mind reading at all, but which didn't move me much.  The author tries hard for the emotional weight that makes many of the best known time-slip stories (like Tom's Midnight Garden and Charlotte Sometimes) so very memorable, and though the effort is plain to see, the emotional heft didn't feel quite earned.  The fact that unexplained magic moles are responsible for the time travel perhaps contributed to this feeling.  The fact that the time travel experience was very easy, with little fraughtness or distress, resulting in little emotional growth for the two kids, was certainly a contributor.  

Short answer--not a bad book, but not a classic in the making. Perhaps kids who haven't read the great ones will be more satisfied than I was.


this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi (3/28/21)

A bit late with the round-up this week, because of getting a few hours of hard work done in the yard before the rain....but I hope you find something interesting here, and please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody, at Rajiv's Reviews and Jill's Book Blog

Addison Cooke and the Tomb of the Khan, by Jonathan W. Stokes, at Say What?

The Artifact Hunters (Rookskill Castle #2), by Janet Fox at Charlotte's Library

Bloom, by Nicola Skinner, at Always in the Middle

Crater Lake, Evolution, by Jennifer Killick, at Bellis Does Books

Dragon Fire (The Unwanteds Quests #5),  by Lisa McMann, at Say What?

Dragon Slayers (The Unwanteds Quests #6), by Lisa McMann, at Say What?

Harklights, by Tim Tilley, at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books

The Hedgehog of Oz, by Cory Leonardo, at Blythe and Bold

The Lost Fairy Tales (Pages & Co. #2), by Anna James, at Say What?

The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Entering the Enchanted Castle

Skin Taker, by Michelle Paver, at Book Craic and Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

The Smoking Hourglass, by Jennifer Bell, at Sifa Elizabeth Reads 

Time Travel for Love and Profit, by Sarah Lariviere, at Not Acting My Age

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads--The Haunting, by Lindsey Duga, and  Almost There and Almost Not, by Linda Urban

5 short reviews at A little but a lot

Authors and Interviews

Amanda Foody (The Accidental Apprentice) at The Nerd Daily

Other Good Stuff

Creepy Middle Grade Beasts at Spooky Middle Grade

All the covers from #the21ders MG spring debuts, compiled by My Brain on Books


The Artifact Hunters (Rookskill Castle #2), by Janet Fox, for Timeslip Tuesday

In The Artifact Hunters (middle grade, Viking, August 2020), Janet Fox returns to Rookskill Castle and its extraordinary children.  Though the castle is central to the story once again, this is a new adventure, with a new central character and new dangers! 

The Nazis have reached Prague, and it is no longer safe for Isaac Wolf and his parents to stay there.   Perhaps they would have, though, if it hadn't been for another evil that has arrived--an evil fey being, desperate to possess the treasures Isaac's father guards.  So Isaac's parents send him away to England, with an eternity knot pendent to be his talisman of passage leading him to where he needs to go.  They hope that they will be the target of the hunting fey, keeping Isaac safe.  And they hope as well that Isaac will be able to follow the clues that will lead him back in time, where, in the past, he will learn the secrets of the family magic.

After a strange and dreamlike journey, passing from one courier to the next along the way, Isaac makes it to Rookskill Castle, where the magically gifted kids who call it home welcome him. Isaac is struggling to make sense of his occasional journeys back in time, and is relieved to find kids who can help and support him as he finds about ancient artifacts of tremendous power that must be kept safe.....

But the fey hunter wasn't distracted, and arrives in Scotland determined to use Isaac to gain control of the artifacts. And the strong magic within Isaac has woken an enemy closer to home, who also wants to breech the walls and magical wards of the castle....It's touch and go, and things get very tense indeed!

The time travel contributes a lot to the swing of the story--each journey back into the past, Isaac learns a bit more more about what's expected of him. Though he's only back in time for very short periods, it's still enough to give the reader vivid impressions of bits of the past (an ancient British settlement, the library of Alexandria, an Incan temple, and a visit with (13-century) King Arthur were the highlights), and it's fun to follow all the clues along with Isaac.

Isaac and his friends have a lot of darkness to fight against, and the strong message here is that there is a choice--the good thing is not always the easy thing. Isaac is presented with such a choice....and though of course he'll choose the right way, it will be a tense part of the book for younger readers than me! There were lots of dangers, including some that were quite horrific in a nightmarish way (warped mechanical modifications to living creatures, including people), but nothing the target audience (give or take) can't cope with.

My one complaint that I can articulate (and it's more a personal reaction than any sort of well-articulated literary criticism) is that there are two supernatural enemies attacking the castle, which is fine. The magic artifacts become more powerful and dangerous in times of war and must, so Isaac learns, be kept especially safe at such times. But the Nazis, who are right there and who tick all the boxes of people who should be actively involved in hunting down Isaac and the artifacts aren't, despite what the blurb say ("...soon he finds himself in a race against Nazi spies..."). The fantastical villains (especially the evil fallen fey) just seemed to me something of a forced set-up, and so I found it a bit hard to be frightened or interested in the evil fallen fey. Enemy 2 had a more interesting twist related to the castle's past, so I liked it better.

An additional regret--the reader who has some general knowledge will infer that Isaac is Jewish, based on names, and "what that Nazis were doing to his people," but this isn't said explicitly anywhere (to the best of my belief) and this indirection bothered me, and I think made the book somewhat weaker than it could have been otherwise.

In any event, if you are a reader who loves friendship, teamwork, terror, and magic in an old mysterious castle, this might work well for you! I know lots of people loved the first Rookskill Castle, but it didn't quite work for me (my review) I enjoyed this one somewhat more, perhaps because of the time travel element.


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (3/21/21)

Here's the first spring round-up of the year; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Casey Grimes at Trickery School, by AJ Vanderhorst, at Always in the Middle

City of the Plauge God, by Sarwat Chadda, at Charlotte's Library

Delphine and the Silver Needle, by Alyssa Moon, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Dragon Curse (The Unwanteds Quests #4), by Lisa McMann, at Say What?

The Edge of the Ocean (Strangeworlds Travel Agency #2) by L. D. Lapinski, at Bellis Does Books

A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge, at Sifa Elizabeth Reads

The Fire Keeper (The Storm Runner #2), by J.C. Cervantes, at Say What?

The Girl in Wooden Armour, by Conrad Mason, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest, by Vashti Hardy, at Book Craic

The Ickabog, by J.K. Rowling, at Children's Books Heal

The In-Between, by Rebecca Ansari, at Silver Button Books

The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade, by Mark Brallier, at Twirling Book Princess

The Night Spinner, by Abi Elphinstone, at Sifa Elizabeth Reads

Oddity, by Eli Brown and Karin Rytter, at Puss Reboots

Rumaysa: A Fairytale, by Radiya Hafıza, at legenbooksdary

The Shadow Crosser (The Storm Runner #3) by J.C. Cervantes, at Say What?

Space Detectives, by Mark Powers and Dapo Adeola, at Readaraptor

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads--Casey Grimes at Trickery School, by AJ Vanderhorst, and Bridge of Souls (Cassidy Blake #3), by Victoria Schwab

Authors and Interviews

Jennifer Adam (The Last Windwitch) at MG Book Village

Shane Arbuthnott (Guardians of Porthaven) at MG Book Village

Other Good Stuff

Here's the shortlist for the British Book Awards Children's fiction category:
  • The Danger Gang, Tom Fletcher & Shane Devries (Puffin)
  • The Ickabog, J.K. Rowling (Scholastic; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers UK)
  • Dragon Mountain, Katie & Kevin Tsang (Sterling Children’s; Simon & Schuster Children’s UK)
At Book Craic, here's a look at upcoming May releases in Ireland--lots of tasty looking mg fantasy!

"Laurence Fishburne will play The Schoolmaster and Michelle Yeoh Professor Anemone in The School For Good And Evil, joining Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Sofia Wylie and Sophia Anne Caruso in the Paul Feig-directed pic for Netflix." via Deadline


City of the Plauge God, by Sarwat Chadda

City of the Plague God, by Sarwat Chadda (Rick Riordan Presents, January 2021), brings Mesopotamian deities to New York city to great effect.   

Sik seems to be an ordinary Iraqi-New Yorker boy, going to school, working hard in the family deli, and grieving for his brother Mo, killed in an accident while doing humanitarian work in Iraq.  Sik, however, is the only 13-year-old in the city being hunted by Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of pestilence, who thinks Sik has something he wants. When Nergal's grotesque minions attack, he's saved by the sudden appearance of  a sword-wielding girl, Belet, the adopted daughter of Ishtar (goddess of war and passion).  Nergal then tries to force Sik's hand by spreading pestilence and disease across the city, starting  with the deli and Sik's parents, but since Sik has no clue what it is he's being asked to hand over, he can only watch in horror (from the comfort of Ishtar's very upscale home...).  

Sik isn't a heroic fighter, and pestilence is hard to beat with a sword in any event.  So when disaster strikes Ishtar, leaving the kids on their own, they are at a loss. Then in Central Park, in a glass greenhouse ziggurat, Sik meets Gilgamesh, who gives him a quest for the one thing that can stem Nergal's tide of death and decay--the flower of immortality.  To get there he'll have to travel through the land of the dead and use his wits to make it through many challenges.  

Fortunatly, he's not alone, because waiting for him there is his brother.  And Sik has the great blessing of being able to talk, working out bitterness and regrets as they travel together to save the world.

I'm realizing that I'm making it sound like a quest story, and it is except that the quest doesn't really take up all that much of the book.  Before we get to that point, there's much running around a fly-infested rotting city pursued by Nergal's gastly minions (there's also flying over the city in chariots pulled by winged lions...), as well as less action packed bits  of discussion, plotting, Ishtar being Ishtar and Belet being Belet (being Ishtar's adopted daughter is not easy...).   

The talking swords, disgusting minions,flying lions, and small bits of humor, will appeal lots to many readers; others will prefer the more introspective bits about grief, friendship, and family.  Little details, and little extra touches, like the line of cuneiform at the bottom of each page, bring a Mesopotamian zest that may well have readers looking for more about this ancient culture.  Sic's Islamic faith isn't a driver of the plot, but it's there and real (and rather surprisingly unthreatened by his trip to the land of the dead...).  And as an inclusivity bonus, toward the end we learn that Mo and another minor character were a couple.

The fact that this book came out during the current pandemic is just coincidence, but it's really such a different, exaggeratedly fantastical, kind of plague that I didn't find it a distressing reminder of the real world.

Of all the Rick Riordan Presents books, this is the one that felt to me closest in the structure of the story to the myths that it borrows from (possibly because I read the Epic of Gilgamesh fairly recently), and I although I of course wasn't aware of this until about 2/3 of the way through, it added to my overall appreciation, which was great.

(Middle grade readers might know Sarwat Chadda as the author of the Ash Mistry series (Hindu mythological adventures), but might not know that he is also Joshua Kahn, the author of the most excellent Shadow Magic series).

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