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.

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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.