The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1) by Rick Riordan

Of Gods and Demigods

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.46.23 PMRick Riordan has done it again. Diving right back into the modern day mythical world featuring the Greek and Roman gods and their demigod children, Riordan gives us a new treat: instead of following a demigod, we get insight into the mind of the god Apollo. What’s brilliant about this series is that until now, we have only ever gotten the perspectives of the demigods who feel abandoned and ignored by their parents, the Greek and Roman gods. Now we get a sense of what it means to be an immortal being–why don’t they spend more time and attention on their children? What does time and history mean for them if they cannot die? Does love mean something different when you have lived thousands of years and loved many people? Riordan jumps right in to all these questions and adds a few more for good measure.

Punished for his part in the events of Riordan’s previous series, The Heroes of Olympus, Zeus casts Apollo out of Olympus and turns him mortal. Apollo wakes up in a dumpster on Earth as a sixteen-year-old acne-faced boy with nowhere to go and no clear path forward. He no longer bleeds the golden ichor of the gods but instead bleeds the red of humans. He can’t eat ambrosia to heal and sustain himself and he most certainly can die. He lacks his abilities (like changing his shape and form or sing a song so emotionally that it moves people to tears) and has no real direction for how he can win back his father’s favor.

While on the streets of New York, he is rescued by the twelve-year-old demigod Meg. Together they find Percy Jackson and enlist his help in reaching Camp Half-Blood, a camp for demigods. Apollo hopes to find help there, but instead he finds the camp in need of help–all prophecy has stopped and campers are going missing. Maybe Apollo can put things to rights and prove himself to his father.

Riordan might have created his most interesting series yes. He makes Apollo arrogant and self-centered, normally traits that would make readers root against a character. But manages to balance this arrogance with comedy and self-discovery. Apollo’s journey toward humanity makes him the type of hero you want to root for.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A Lesson in Style and Story

night circusThis story shouldn’t work. Third person, present tense, interspersed with the occasional second person chapters, lots of exposition, very little direct character interaction. According to every writing class I have ever taken, every article on writing I have ever read, every editorial report I have ever written, this novel should be a non-starter. And yet, Morgenstern has managed to create something magical. All these elements, normally a recipe for disaster, come together to create an atmosphere of mystery and enchanting.

The circus arrives in town with no warning. It has no schedule, no itinerary. Its customary black and white tents appear unexpectedly, its gates only open at night. Its tents and performers are as mysterious as its  presence. But the wishing tree, cloud maze, and garden of ice hide something more sinister.

Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair have been raised for one purpose: to compete against one another in a game of magic that will test their skills and wills. They don’t know the rules, who their opponents are, or even how a winner is determined, but still they must prove themselves for their masters. The arena: Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams. What’s at stake is more than either can imagine.

Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a lesson in writing. This is what it means to develop a unique style and voice. This is what it means to know the rules so you can break them. Every writer should take note.

That’s not to say the book is perfect. I’m not convinced when it comes to the love story and sometimes the cast of characters is unwieldy, but these are minor quibbles to the reading overall experience.

The Forever Man (W.A.R.P., #3) by Eoin Colfer

A Slightly Confusing Ending to Another Fun Colfer Series

the forever manWhere time travel is concerned, things are always going to get a little wibbily wobbly timey wimey, as Doctor Who might say. Colfer does not spend a significant amount of time exploring the details and complexities, which is perhaps why I found myself a little confused by what exactly happened. While it was made clear that changes made to the past can impact the future and alter reality, but in what way or how extensively is never really made clear. On the upside, Colfer knows how to have fun with his writing and with talking dogs, ghostly scientists, and a magician’s assistant, this book does not fail to deliver on that count.

Riley is an orphan raised as the assistant to a magician-turned-assassin Albert Garrick in Victorian London. With the help of of time-traveling FBI agent Chevie Savano, from the 21st century, he was able to free himself from his master and become a famous magician. But now Garrick is back, and thanks to the wormhole he was trapped in, he is stronger and more dangerous than ever. And he wants revenge.

Things seem hopeless when Chevie and Riley find themselves in trapped in the 1600s and Garrick has the run of the town. Thanks to a quirk in the time tunnel that sent them there, Chevie finds herself with cat-eyes and Garrick uses this to accuse her of being a witch. The punishment: death.

With the help of some unlikely allies–the town drunkard, a talking dead, and the ghost of a scientist Riley and Chevie have see die twice–Riley must rescue Chevie before she dies a gruesome death at Garrick’s hands.

Chevie and Riley make for an entertaining, wisecracking pair. Together, they find a sense of family and happiness that they had been missing for most their lives. It is easy to root for their success against the out-of-his-mind villainy of Garrick. This series isn’t quite at the level of Artemis Fowl cleverness, but fans of Colfer will not be disappointed either. I would have liked more on the rules of time travel and the effects of the time tunnel in this particular story because the rules differ in ever series and knowing how they work makes believing the universe of the story easier. Because of this confusion, it was a little unclear to me where Chevie and Riley end up at the very end of the story.

As always, Colfer delivers and I am excited to see what he comes up with next.

5 Books If You Love Norse Mythology

A Trip to Valhalla Has Never Been More Fun

Greek and Roman mythology have been popular in children’s tales for a while now, thanks in no small part to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. Other mythology, on the other hand, has been in much sparser supply. But readers who find themselves more interested in Thor and Odin than Zeus and Poseidon can have hope. Norse mythology is on the rise.

1. Valkyrie by Kate O’Hearn

valkyrie

As the youngest of the Valkyries, Freya has always been different. And not just because she was born with jet-black feathers. Where her fellow-Valkyries love their responsibilities, she is anything but thrilled to officially become one of the reapers of the valiant dead. Growing up around battlefields and reveling warriors, it’s no wonder that Freya finds humankind disdainful. But when she reaps her first soldier, he turns out to be nothing like the mead-drinking, fight-loving men she expected. Instead, he is a man desperate to get back to his family and help keep them safe. Freya agrees to find his wife and children, even though it means crossing to Midgard (Earth) without permission and losing her wings if she is discovered. What she finds there is nothing like she expected–the humans remember little about the Norse gods and the world is more than a battlefield. But can she fulfill her mission before she’s missed in Valhalla.

2. Loki’s Wolves (The Blackwell Pages, #1)  by K.L. Armstrong

blackwell

Matt has always known he’s a descendant of the god, Thor. In fact, just about everyone in the town of Blackwell, South Dakota is a descendant of Thor or Loki. But where his brothers are perfect examples of what a Thorsson should be–tough, physical, and competitive–Matt has always felt like the runt of the family. Which is why he’s so surprised to discover that he has been named Thor’s champion. Together with Loki descendants and fellow classmates Fen and Laurie Brekke, Matt must go on a quest to find Thor’s hammer and shield, build a team of god’s descendants, and find a way to prevent the coming Ragnarok–the end of the world. But to succeed, Matt must learn who his friends are, who to trust, and how to use the abilities that being Thor’s champion and descendant grants him. More importantly, he must learn to have faith in himself.

3. The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #1) by Rick Riordan

magnus chase

Following in the vein of Riordan’s Percy Jackson and The Kane Chronicles comes Magnus Chase, a teen who has been living on streets since his mother’s mysterious murder by a pack of wolves. When he is tracked down by his uncle, a man his mother had always said was dangerous, his entire life changes. Or rather, his entire life ends. And starts again. Because it turns out that the Norse myths are very real and Magnus is the son of a Norse god. Upon his death, Magnus finds himself in (Hotel) Valhalla as an einherji, one of the noble dead. There he is in the ways of war and battle in order to fight a coming war for the gods. Magnus must find the Sword of Summer, which hasn’t been seen in generations. As a bonus to fans of his pervious series, Magnus Chase is set in the same universe as Riordan’s Greek-, Roman-, and Egyptian-inspired tales, with a special guest appearance by a key figure in the Percy Jackson series.

4. The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB by Adam Shaughnessy

fib

Prudence “Pru” Potts is mourning the death of her father with hostility and holding everyone at arm’s length. Finding a letter–which no one else seems able to see–with the question “What is the unbelievable FIB?” may be just the distraction she needs. Only one other kid can see the card: new kid ABE. ABE shares Pru’s love of puzzles (which she inherited from her detective father). Together they manage to unravel the clue on the card and meet the mysterious Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox recruits Pru and ABE to help investigate the reason that Norse beings have been sneaking into the town, causing thunderstorms and dark skies. ABE and Pru must track down the Eye of Odin, the source of knowledge, before a dangerous enemy can destroy the realms of both the humans and the gods. But she has to uncover truth and lies about the world around her and learn who she can trust.

5. Frostborn (Thrones and Bones, #1) by Lou Anders

frostbornThe biggest difference between this series and the others on this list is that it is less overtly steeped in Norse mythology. Instead, it is a more subtle, Viking-inspired tale with frost giants, wyverns, and the undead. Karn is destined to take over the family farm in Norrøngard but he is much more interested in playing the strategy game Thrones and Bones, much to his parents’ chagrin. Thianna is a half-human, half-giantess, who at seven feet tall has always felt self-conscious about her height (she’s much too short to be a proper giant). When the two are forced to go on the run due to unexpected drama from their families’ pasts, they are lucky enough to find each other. Relying on each other’s strength, skills, and cleverness, the duo must navigate a world of dangers that includes trolls, dragons, and dwarves while uncovering the truth about their families’ pasts.

 

5 Books If You Love Fairytales

Fairytale Re-Imaginings Up the Ante

Gregory Maguire was my introduction into fairytale re-imaginings. From  The Wizard of Oz to Cinderella, those book re-envisioned how these well known stories came about while keeping the events and beats mostly the same. But where those books felt a little touch to digest, there have been a slew of middle grade and young adults books over the last few years that have gone a different route. These more approachable, fun-spirited tales keep the heart of the well-known tales and completely reimagine how they play out.

Here are the 5 fairytale re-imaginings that offer the most creative, exciting reads:

1. The Ever Afters series by Shelby BachScreen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.31.07 PM

Rory Landon thinks she is different because she’s the daughter of movie stars, but this is nothing compared to what she discovers at her after-school program: fairytales are real and recurring. Rory will one day have to play out one of the famous fairytales she thought were fictional, and if the disasters she must survive are any clue (giants, dragons, and evil queens to name a few), her story is likely to be one of the most dangerous and life-changing of them all. The characters are real and engaging; it is easy to root for Rory and her friends. Their personal problems never feel small compared to the bigger challenges they are facing, a balance that is rarely successfully met, and the blending of fairytale and modern day is seamless.

2. Half Upon a Time trilogy by James Riley

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.50.50 PMJack of Jack and the Beanstalk is an often overlooked fairytale. It isn’t romantic, there are no princesses or knights in shining armor. But though this seems like a small tale compared to some of the more popular tales, there is nothing small about this story. Jack isn’t looking for action and adventure, but that is what he gets when a “princess” falls out of the sky. May, who is from our world, is searching for her grandmother and Jack gets roped into helping her. James Riley has quickly become one of my favorite middle grade authors.He’s not afraid to be fun and creative and you can feel his love of the craft in every book.

3. Fairy Tale Reform School series by Jen Calonita

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.53.20 PM In most fairytales, the hero is the innocent, brave victims, but Fairy Tale Reform School switches things up. Gilly is the daughter of a cobbler (the one who created Cinderella’s glass slipper). As one of six children, she knows what it means to live a life of poverty-she blames the royal princesses for not crediting her father with the glass slipper-and she is not willing to let her siblings suffer. So she steals food for them to eat and trinkets for them to have nice things. But when she is caught, she is sent to reform school, run by the reformed Evil Stepmother and other fairytale villains, in order to learn how to become a productive member of society. There she uncovers a plot to hurt the royal princesses and must decide if she can truly reform and come to their aid. It’s fun to have a character who isn’t perfectly pure of heart, even though she means well. Throughout the series, we are forced to reconsider our assumptions of good and evil, no easy fete when the base-story is so black and white.

4. A Tale of the Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.56.06 PMPrincess Annie has always been something of a social pariah. It isn’t her fault. Most princesses are blessed with beauty, charm, and talent, but Annie’s blessing was of a different nature: magic can’t touch her. When those with magical enhancements come near, the effects of their blessings fade, so everyone stays as far away from her as possible. But when her sister’s wedding day is disrupted by a sleeping curse, it is up to Annie to save the day. This tale is the ultimate triumph of the underdog. The things that has made her an outcast, shunned even by her family, is the one things that can allow her to break the curse. But while out in the world, Annie realizes that she is stronger and braver than she ever imagined.

5. The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 10.59.02 PM.pngTwins Alex and Bailey find themselves in the land of stories when their grandmother gives them a book of fairytales. But the stories they grew up on are not quite reality-Little Red Riding Hood is the spoiled head of a kingdom, Goldilocks is a wanted fugitive, and their grandmother is the Fairy Godmother. Colfer’s Land of Stories tale was a pleasant surprise and it stands out from the pack because it delves into a theme common in fairytales but rarely explored: the loss of a parent. Alex and Bailey are dealing with the death of their father and that pain plays a central role in the twins’ journey of self-discovery.

The Stolen Chapters (Story Thieves Book #2)

A Lesson in Writing Hidden in a Mystery

Owen Connors wakes up in the library beside fictional character Kiel Gnomenfoot with no memory of how he got there. What he does know is that the library is on fire, someone has framed him and Kiel for the crime, and his half-fictional friend Bethenny has been kidnapped. Owen is told that he has two hours two find Bethenny or he will have lost her forever. But how can Owen find her when he has no clues to go on, no powers (Kiel has magic and Bethenny can jump in and out of storybooks), and police hunting him down for arson?

In book two of James Riley’s Story Thief series, the adventure is taken to a whole new level. The villain, Doyle Holmes, is out for revenge because Bethenny and Owen accidentally disgraced his grandfather Sherlock Holmes in one of their book-hopping adventures.

What makes the Story Thieves series so clever is that it uses typical storytelling techniques while also serving as a sort of instruction manual for those techniques. The story uses flashbacks as a major method of conveying information, even as Owen bemoans the technique, pointing out that there was no tension in them: obviously the main characters survived or they couldn’t be flashing back to it.” With a Holmes at the heart of the mystery, Owen thinks about the way mysteries tend to have twists within twists and builds this into his plan to save the day. There’s something very meta and clever about the way Riley does this. He manages to teach readers how to write while not seeming to.

He also manages to set up and further the bigger mysteries of the Story Thief series. While in the fictional world of Doyle Holmes’s books, they discover that someone named James Riley wrote a book about their first adventures into the fictional world. But who is James Riley and how does he know what happened to them? And who is the seemingly omniscient Nobody, who keeps showing up at mysterious times to give words of warning to our heroes?

My only real complaint about the book was that it was hard to remember what role Nobody had played in the first book, so when he showed up again in the second, I was a little confused. I would have liked maybe a little more of a refresher of the first book to fill in some of the pieces. It’s a hard thing to balance when writing books in a series—how much do you recap, at what point do you bore your returning readers by telling them what they already know? But in this case, I think it could have just a little bit more.

Even so, Owen’s journey is a compelling one. He may not be magical like his friends, but he proves that he can contribute and be a hero too. This story shows something that most fantasy books for kids don’t—you don’t need powers and you certainly don’t need to be “the chosen one” to save the day.

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Good and Evil is More than the Light and Dark Side

star warsHow do good people come to commit great acts of evil? Does that make them evil in turn? These are the questions that Star Wars has always concerned itself with. But where it normally tells the story of the Jedi and how emotions can tip the scales and lead a hero to the Dark Side (“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda), this story, like the newest movie, The Force Awakens, concerns itself with the Imperial forces that so often serve as nameless, faceless troops.

Cienna Ree is a poor girl from the planet Jelucan. She is one of the valley-folk who believe hard work, honor, and an oath are the highest of all callings. Thane Kyrell is a second-waver, from a rich, self-important family that has never cared much for him. They may be from the same planet, but they might as well be from different worlds. If not for the fact that the two share one dream, one love: flying. They form an unlikely friendship, built on the desire to become pilots. Together they practice, building each other up, so that one day they can fly for the Empire, which seeks to bring order and stability to the galaxy.Mostly, Thane just wants to fly and escape his cruel family. Cienna believes the Empire can bring aid to those in need and wants to bring honor to her family. Thanks to their joint training, the pair not only get accepted into an elite Imperial Academy, they excel. They become first in their year and upon graduation are given important postings. But as they serve, their paths diverge. Thane becomes disillusioned with the Empire as he sees the destruction and devastation it creates while Cienna remains steadfast to her oath to serve and rages against the rebels that kills someone she cares for. When Cienna and Thane end up on opposite sides, can their love for each other and their inner goodness overcome everything that threatens to tear them apart?

I have read a number of Star Wars books over the years, but this might be my favorite. Cienna and Thane are both well-defined, real people who are relatable and easy to root for. Even as they make bad choices, you hope they will be able to see their mistakes and make up for them. In some ways they remain naive even as they reach the point where they should be jaded, but where it can be a turn-off in other stories, there is something endearing about this quality in Cienna and Thane.  This book puts a face on the nameless masses that help the Empire reach its great successes and shows how they might have come to fight for a tyrant.

The only thing that ruined my reading experience was the fact that I kept trying to figure out how everything fit into the bigger Star Wars universe. The back-of-book summary promises some sneak peeks into the new movie and I could not help but scrutinize every new character, every ship, every incident to see if I could  figure out what pieces would be relevant. Is there a character with the last name Ree or Kyrell? What about Windrider? Should I have heard of the planet Jelucan or the ship Mighty Oak Apocalypse? The questions were distracting and made it harder to stay in the mindset of the book. The exact timeline of the book is not laid out clearly in comparison to the cinematic universe. It took a lot to decipher when things in the book lined up with events in the movie. It was almost like a puzzle that I would have liked to spent less time solving, but it was not enough to keep me from enjoying Lost Stars anyway.

Voyagers: Project Alpha by DJ MacHale (Book 1)

The Multi-Author Series Trend in Middle Grade

voyagers1As Earth’s fuel sources are running out, the world must face blackouts and the threat of complete power loss. But there is hope. An extraterrestrial substance, known as “the Source” can provide power for everyone, if only it can be recovered from somewhere deep in space. The catch – only children could survive the trip in the Gamma Speed trip required to get there and back in time. Eight twelve-year-olds are tested to determine which four will be chosen for the mission. But as they compete in tests of intelligence, agility, and strength, it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot more they aren’t being told.

In my childhood, having multiple authors writing for a single series was a secret – Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley, Baby-Sitters’ Club. Times have changed. Rather than publish an entire series of books under the guise of a single author, now popular authors are being recruited to write a book or two in new series. The 39 Clues, first published in 2008was the first time I saw this. Now there are a number of series like this one, including Spirit Animals and Infinity Ring. It makes sense – you can put out more books in a much shorter span of time and each author brings their respective fan bases. But do these books hold up?

The struggle of the first book is in the sheer number of characters. We spend the first part of the series getting to know the eight children competing for a spot on this world-saving mission. There are simply too many of them to get to know them particularly well. Dash, as the center of the story, is fairly well fleshed out, but I barely remember the other characters, much less what made them unique. It would be helpful to see more of their personalities so they feel real. The strength of 39 Clues was that the main characters and siblings Amy and Dan were a grounding force in the story. No matter how crazy things got, no matter how many others were introduced in the story, they always felt real and relatable. This was what I felt was missing here. Dash did not have the emotional depth to anchor the story and we do not get to anyone else well enough to compensate for him.

Though the character development could use more work, the book shows promise. The strength of this first book is in the plotting. While some details (such as which four kids are chosen for the mission – a detail partially given away by the cover itself) were obvious, the story had a number of twists and surprises I did not see coming. While it is made clear fairly early that the characters are not being told everything, the extent of those secrets is not made clear until they are unexpectedly revealed. As the team travels to collect “the source,” readers can expect an array of surprises and exciting adventures.

Can book two, written by Robin Wasserman, make up for the character deficits here? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.

A Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick

A Deeper Look Into Disney’s Frozen

A_Frozen_HeartBy now most people know the story of Anna and Elsa of Arendelle. As children, the sisters are inseparable. Their favorite games involve playing in the snow generated by Elsa’s ice powers. But when a slip puts Anna’s life in danger, the sisters’ parents separate the girls. Anna’s memories of Elsa’s magic are removed, the gates of the castle are closed to visitors, and the girls grow up in isolation from everyone, including each other. At Elsa’s coronation years later, her magic is revealed, turning Arendelle’s summer into “eternal winter.” Elsa runs away to the mountains and Anna chases after her, determined to repair their relationship and bring back summer.

How interesting a book’s adaptation of a movie is depends on how much more it can tell readers beyond what they already know. While it is clear from Frozen that Anna’s isolation growing up makes her desperate to connect to other people–explaining why she fell so quickly for Hans–the rest of her thoughts are mostly hidden behind her bubbly exterior. How does she feel about Elsa keeping secrets from her? What is she really thinking when she meets Hans? Beyond Anna, a big question of the movie is how Hans became cruel and conniving. These questions and more are answered in A Frozen Heart, which tells the movie’s story with alternating chapters from Hans and Anna’s perspectives.

The book, while providing a few additional scenes and insights into Anna’s story, does not give us much more than we already know. Overall, Anna remains the cheerful, quirky character we know and love. There is one particular detail that I appreciate most: while she seems all-in with Hans in the movie, the book shows us something more complicated. There is clearly desperation behind her choice. After the coronation, the castle gates will be closed again. If she doesn’t meet the man of her dreams now, how will she ever find love? With that perspective in mind, it makes sense that she takes this chance, even if she does not know Hans well.

While we get little more about Anna than we already knew, A Frozen Heart gives Hans a backstory. As Anna grows up hidden behind the castle walls in Arendelle, Hans is stuck in the shadow of his twelve older brothers. Taking the lead from their father, the brothers bully Hans relentlessly. They insult him, throw things at him, and generally make his life miserable. Given his childhood, Hans looks for any chance he can to get away from the Southern Isles. His best chance comes in the form of Arendelle’s future queen. If he can get to Elsa’s coronation and make her fall in love with him, he can get away from his family forever. After all, his father would not deny him a pairing that would be beneficial for the kingdom. When he accidentally connects with Anna instead of her sister, he must rethink his plans a bit to get himself on the throne. While Hans’s motivation makes some sense, the level of cruelty he displays towards Anna at the end does seem out of character for this Hans. In movie we do not know him well enough to judge. Here, we see him actively trying not to be a brute like his siblings and having a soft spot for Anna.

This is not a book for those hoping to find a whole new take on Frozen, though it is a fun visit for those who are not quite ready to leave Arendelle behind. Personally, I would have liked to see Elsa’s perspective as well. How did she feel about being isolated from her sister? What must it have taken to constantly turn Anna away? Was she truly happy at the top of the mountain? What did she do all day in her room growing? Did she ever think of running away? A Frozen Heart  did not answer all my questions, but I love Frozen enough that this was good enough.

The Brotherband Chronicles: The Outcasts (Book 1)

A New Adventure in a Familiar World

outcastsHalf-Araluen, half-Skandian, Hal Mikkelson has always been an outcast. He is smaller and darker than the boys his age and has a penchant for inventing. In the first book in the series, The Outcasts, it is time for Hal and the other sixteen-year-olds to start their training to be proper Skandian warriors. Hal finds himself unexpectedly in charge of a group of boys who, like himself, have never fit in. The boys must band together to prove their mettle as Skandian warriors and Hal must prove himself a true Skandian.

For fans of The Ranger’s Apprentice, John Flanagan has offered up this new series, The Brotherband Chronicles, as a companion series set in the same world but in the Viking-like country of Skandia. The series begins in much the same way as Apprentice, with main character Hal Mikkelson beginning on the path to his future. But where Will Treaty began training to become a ranger in solitude with only his mentor for company, Hal starts his training with a group of outcasts like himself. A large part of his training is not only in learning the skills of his trade but in forming a bond with his brotherband.

While many authors are overwhelmed by managing so many characters—Hal, the other five boys in his brotherband, and a number of others—Flanagan does an admirable job of keeping each character distinct and memorable. It is impossible not to mention the drunk Thorn, a former Skandian champion with one arm who becomes a mentor figure for Hal. Though he does not delve deeply into many beyond Hal himself, we get a taste of what is to come from the rest of the series.

What I love most about this book is the way it builds out the world we already know. It gives just enough touches of the familiar (characters like Erak and Svengal, introduced in The Ranger’s Apprentice) to feed the nostalgia of regular Flanagan readers, but stands apart with its own flavor. Skandian traditions, with their heavy investment in fighting and seamanship, feel different than the duty to king and country that permeates the Araluen world.

If I were to change one thing, it would be how detailed Flanagan’s explanations and descriptions tend to be. When mid-action, Flanagan has a tendency to describe not only the action a character takes, but all the little insights that led to that action and how they came to be able to make those observations. For example, he may explain how, during a swordfight, a character recognized a coming attack and blocked it because, thanks to his long hours of practice, he noticed a slight shift in body language. While these insights are interesting, they tend to slow down the action significantly. It takes the reader out of the moment, effectively reducing the tension and excitement. These details could be reduced, or even removed, without hurting the story.

Overall, this is a series I plan to keep reading.