The Magic Misfits #1

Street magician Carter is used to distrusting everyone because of the trickery and pickpocketing he must pull off in order to survive on the street. He can’t afford to make meaningful connections with anyone besides his Uncle Sly. So, when he runs away from his uncle, he never expects to find new friends in a sleepy New England town. But like a magic spell, his life changes fast when Bosso and his crew arrive and try to steal any valuables they can get their hands on. 

After one fateful encounter with Dante Vernon, the local purveyor of illusions, Carter meets five like-minded illusionists: the escape artist Leila, the inventor Ridley, the violinist Theo, and the comedy duo Olly and Izzy. With magic and teamwork, the six kids will set out to save the town from Bosso’s villainous schemes.   

Magic Misfits focuses on Carter’s point of view, allowing the reader to gain insight into Carter’s love of sleight of hand and how he adjusts to being in a group of like-minded people. Readers will empathize with Carter’s move to a new place and his adjustment to his new life there. In addition, an omniscient, unnamed narrator occasionally interjects with a summary of events that happened in the story or information about the characters. The narrator’s commentary and humor blend in seamlessly with the rest of the narration. Black-and-white pictures scattered throughout the story also aid in the understanding of the action.  

Uncle Sly taught Carter to be wary of people. However, Carter learns to trust people. Leila helps him break down his guard. His other friends not only help in terms of emotional support, but they also help him get settled in his new town. For instance, Theo invites Carter to stay at his house for a few days, highlighting and reinforcing the idea that friends help friends, no matter the situation. 

Another positive aspect of the story is the how-to-magic tricks that are sprinkled throughout the story. These break up the action and include instructions for readers to try the tricks, with a few illustrations as reference points. These tricks, such as rolling coins on your knuckles and making color predictions, are easy to do, but adults are encouraged to help their little ones with these activities.   

Magic Misfits is a fun, entertaining story that draws upon the flare and grandiosity of magicians. The excellent narration and colorful descriptions of the town alongside the pictures make the setting come alive. There is a diverse cast, not just in the main characters but also the supporting characters; notably, Leila has two dads. Readers will enjoy reading about how Carter’s friendships develop as well as the teamwork between him and his new friends. Plus, the inspiring conclusion shows Carter and his friends besting the villains with their talents and with their trust in one another. If you are looking for more stories about magic, friendship, and teamwork, try Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • When finding out that Uncle Sly had rigged the shell game, a passerby yells, “You no-good, dirty cheat!” 
  • Uncle Sly calls one of their neighbors an “old broad.” 

Supernatural 

  • Many of the characters use tricks and illusions, such as Leila’s escape artist tricks or Dante Vernon’s sleight of hand. These are illusions, not supernatural magic.  

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Double Helix

The mystery deepens and the action intensifies for 12-year-old Cruz Coronado and his friends in this exciting third book of the Explorer Academy Series.

Cruz, Emmett, Sailor, and Bryndis continue their studies at sea and travel to exotic locations around the world. A mysterious person alerts Cruz to impending danger while he and a few trusted pals explore ancient ruins in Petra, Jordan to search for another piece of the puzzle his mother left behind. Worst of all, now his father has gone missing, which prompts Aunt Marisol, his number one protector, to leave the ship in search of him. Who is the new professor who takes her place? Does the new technology this professor introduces help or hurt Cruz’s quest? And why is Nebula determined to stop Cruz before he turns 13? The clock is ticking as Cruz’s first teen birthday draws near…a milestone that will change his life forever. 

The action intensifies as Cruz tries to figure out a way to save his father without giving in to Nebula’s demands. Back in Hawaii, Cruz’s best friend, Lani, tries to track down Cruz’s father. Readers will enjoy seeing more of the smart, gutsy girl who isn’t afraid to jump into danger. As Lani investigates, she must decipher clues that Cruz’s father has left behind. The chapters jump back and forth between multiple perspectives—Cruz, Lani, and the bad guys. This increases the suspense and reinforces the idea that Nebula will do anything to get what they want.  

Even though Cruz is on Orion, the academy’s ship, Nebula is still able to get to him. Cruz should be safe aboard the ship, but several times someone tries to kill him. Cruz has no idea who to trust, but he’s determined to solve the clues that his mother left behind. However, Cruz is unaware of the fact that Nebula needs him dead before his thirteenth birthday. The reason for this is not revealed, but it adds another layer of mystery to the story.  

The Double Helix’s mystery becomes more complex, which will keep readers intrigued. With danger around every corner, new gadgets, and the introduction of archaeology, The Double Helix will keep readers on their toes. The story packs in interesting science. For instance, when the explorers learn about archaeology they also learn about the lucrative and illegal business of looting archaeological sites and selling cultural objects to private collectors. While The Double Helix educates readers, the lessons are brief and are well- integrated into the story, so they never feel like a lecture.    

The Explorer Academy Series is perfect for science-loving readers who want to see smart teens solve problems. The diverse group of characters are intelligent and likable because they are not perfect. However, Cruz makes a dangerous mistake when he goes off alone on an archaeological field trip and falls into a hidden ancient well. The conclusion ends in a cliffhanger that will have readers eagerly reaching for the next book in the series, The Star Dunes. 

Sexual Content 

  • When a girl’s hand brushes Cruz’s hand, “he felt a tiny shock go through him.” 

Violence 

  • While at a Halloween party, Cruz is blindfolded. Someone grabs him. “Another hand was on his neck, this one sliding around to his throat. As the glove tightened, Cruz’s pulse began to race. He thrust his elbow straight back as hard as he could. . . the attacker’s grip loosen[s].” Cruz escapes. 
  • Someone pushes a rock off a cliff intending to hit Cruz, but someone pushes him out of the way.  
  • In the previous book, the bad guys kidnap Cruz’s father. Cruz meets with the bad guys, intending to give them what they want. At the last minute, Cruz changes his mind and tries to run. “Cruz tried to pull away, but the man in the cap was too strong. He began to bend Cruz’s arm back, pushing him to the ground. Pain shot through Cruz’s wrist. His knees buckled. . .” Someone helps Cruz escape. 
  • Someone pushes Cruz into an ancient well. Cruz “felt a jolt, and suddenly, Cruz was falling. . . Skin was scraping rock. Falling. . . A point punctured his spine . . .Cruz hit the unforgiving ground with a bone-crushing thud. Pain shot through his shoulder.” He’s stuck in a well with no way out. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • During a Halloween party, when a zombie grabs a girl, she says “Bloody undead.” 
  • Dang is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Many of the archaeological objects have carvings of ancient gods. 

Escape from Falaise

After their plan to rescue the Prince of Gallica has gone horribly wrong, Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, are being held captive at the Chateau des Falaises in Gallica. The dangerous baron, Lassigny, is intent on keeping them—and the prince—no matter what. But Will and Maddie are determined to escape.

If they ever want to return to their home, they’ll have to find ways to outwit the baron and get outside the locked tower. When friends from home endeavor to find their own way to help, it seems escape is closer than ever. But the dirty tricks of the baron are no laughing matter.

Facing dangerous threats, battles with knights, and a new and risky plot to save the prince, the odds are stacked against them. But the Rangers will use all the tools of their trade to save themselves and save the day.

Escape from Falaise concludes the story arc that began in The Missing Prince. In this installment, Horace and Halt join in the effort to free Maddie and Will. Even though the two Rangers successfully escape the castle, they go back in to finish their mission—free the Gallican prince, Giles. The story highlights the qualities of an honorable leader by using Lassigny and the Gallican king to demonstrate examples of abuse of power. The political intrigue is interesting and introduces a new twist to the Royal Ranger Series.

 One positive aspect of the story is that the Rangers go out of their way to avoid killing someone. For example, Lassigny’s guards use deadly force to try to stop Maddie and Giles from escaping the castle. Despite this, Will and Halt try to incapacitate the guards instead of killing them. Another positive aspect of the story is the camaraderie and respect among the rangers. Even though Maddie is significantly younger than Will and Halt, both men listen to her and take her opinion into consideration. Plus, they trust her to save Giles even though she must do it alone.

Readers who fell in love with the characters in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy seeing them in a new light. While the story focuses on Maddie’s role as a ranger, Halt, Horace, and Will play a major role in the story’s plot. Because the Royal Ranger Series is an extension of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series readers will want to read it before they jump into Flanagan’s companion series, the Brotherband Chronicles. If you’re looking for a book series with honorable characters who demonstrate loyalty, courage, and perseverance, all of Flanagan’s series will hit the mark.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Armand, one of the king’s senior officers, is “unpopular among the servants” because he “wasn’t above physical punishment for those who attracted his anger. He was free with his fist when it came to the male servants and had been known to lash out at some of the female staff with the short riding whip he always carried.”
  • Armand and Maddie have a duel. Maddie “let fly with two rapid shots, smashing the lead-weighted hardwood arrowhead into the heavy iron helmet. . .” During the fight, Maddie uses her arrows repeatedly. “Three massive blows slammed against Armand’s helmet, deafening him, blurring his sight and hurling him sideways to the right. . .” Maddies’ horse Bumper charges Armand’s roan “shoving him upward and sideways.” Armand falls of the horse, ending the battle.
  • To escape from captivity, Halt, Will and Maddie hide in a stable. When the stablemaster is about to see them, “an iron-hard arm clamped around his throat from behind. The stablemaster gave a short, startled gasp. . .He struggled wildly for a minute or so, but Halt’s grip was relentless, tightening further and further, cutting off the air to the man’s lungs.” When the stablemaster is unconscious, Halt ties him up.
  • While trying to leave the castle, a solider attempts to stop Halt, but his horse Tug “set his shoulder and thudded into the man, knocking the halberd from his grasp, and sending him crashing against the stone wall . . .Fortunately for the guard, he was wearing chain mail and a helmet, as his head slammed into the stonework. His eyes glazed and he slid down the wall, semiconscious.”
  • When Will and Maddie escape, Lassigny gets angry and orders someone to flog several of the soldiers.
  • Maddie sneaks into Lassigny’s castle to free Giles, who is being held captive. While they are sneaking out of the castle, Maddie uses her sling to incapacitate two guards. “The smooth, round stone slammed into the guard’s forehead . . . He gave a startled grunt, threw out his arms and crashed over. . .” Then Maddie throws a stone at the other guard. “The impact of the stone on the man’s head. . . was sickening. Like his comrade, the guard threw out his arms and collapsed backward onto the floor.” Maddie checks the men, who are unconscious but breathing.
  • When Giles is moaning in fear, Maddie “drew back a hand and slapped him hard across the cheek. Instantly, he sat up, his eyes wide-open. . . The moaning stopped.” Later, to escape, Maddie hit Giles again, knocking him unconscious.
  • As Maddie and Giles are escaping the castle, soldiers spot them. Halt shoots at the men. “Maddie saw another guard on the battlement go down.”
  • When Lassigny and his soldiers start leaving the castle, Will and Halt shoot arrows. “The results were devastation. The three riders in the front rank behind Lassigny were plucked from their saddles. Two of them lay where they fell.”
  • Lassigny challenges Horace to a “fair combat.” Lassigny charges Horace. “Lassigny, prepared to resist an upward flick, was caught unprepared for the powerful downward force of Horace’s stroke. The point of his lance was hammered violently down, so that it slammed into the ground. . .Then the lance shaft could bend no further and it shivered into splinters, and he fell, crashing down on his back.”
  • Lassigny recovers and attacks Horace with his sword. When Horace “delivered stroke after stroke,” Lassigny’s arm “was numbed by the impact and his knees buckled beneath him, forcing him to give ground.” After Lassigny gives up, Horace turns his back. Lassigny’s “face was a mask of hatred as he stepped towards Horace’s unprotected back, raising the dagger for a treacherous killing stroke. The three Rangers shot within the same heartbeat. Three arrows thudded into Lassigny, the force of the triple impact hurling him sideways.” The scene is described over five pages.
  • The king orders his brother to be executed for treason.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • During a meal, alcohol is served, but “Maddie didn’t drink alcohol, and Will only imbibed sparingly.”
  • At another meal, alcohol is served. “Will signaled that he would have a glass. Maddie opted for water.”
  • When Will and Maddie are being held prisoner in the castle, they are served wine.
  • When Maddie sneaks the prince out of the castle, she waits for two men to move off the stairs. The men “were sitting and passing a flask of wine back and forth.”
  • While eating with the king, wine is served.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Missing Prince

Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, have been urgently summoned to Castle Araluen. When they arrive, they learn a shocking truth: the Prince of Gallica is missing—and the King of Gallica has asked for help. All reports suggest that the young prince has been taken prisoner by the dangerous and powerful Baron Joubert de Lassigny. King Duncan knows that sending troops to Gallica to rescue the prince could start a war, as could openly helping Gallica resolve internal conflict. But there’s another way to save the prince: the Ranger Corps.

Soon, Will and Maddie are on the road to rescue the missing prince, disguised as father and daughter jongleurs. Maddie will have to use her knife throwing skills to keep up her disguise, and her ranger’s apprentice training to complete the mission. But going undercover is dangerous—and the road presents its own hazards. Can she and Will use all of their talents to save the prince, or will the arrogant Baron uncover their plans and put their lives– and their kingdom– at risk?

Unlike the other books in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series, The Missing Prince is missing action. For most of the story, Will and Maddie are traveling to the castle where the Prince of Gallica is being held captive. Along the way, Will and Maddie face bandits which adds excitement to the story. However, their trip drags and when the two finally reach their destination, the book suddenly ends leaving the reader wondering what will happen in the next book, Escape from Falaise.

Will and Maddie are admirable characters who willingly face danger in an attempt to free the missing prince. However, the book’s slow start focuses more on the political reasons to help the Gallican prince. In addition, Maddie’s mother is reluctant to let Maddie go on a ranger mission. Readers may quickly become bored with the political and parental aspects of the story. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will be happy that Will Treaty plays a major role in The Missing Prince.

Some of the story’s plot feels redundant because Will again disguises himself as a jongleur. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy Will and Maddie’s relationship and the two working together. Plus, the conclusion has several surprises and leaves readers with several unanswered questions. Even though The Missing Prince lacks the action of other books, the cliffhanger will have readers reaching for Escape from Falaise.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • To stop a band of thieves, Will dresses like an old farmer. When the thieves see Will, they try to stop him. Will shoots an arrow and “Jem was down, rolling in agony on the ground and clutching an arrow that had transfixed his left calf.”
  • One of the bandits, Barton, tries to hit Will, who lifts the man and throws him. “Barton landed with a heavy thud, flat on his back. . . When he recovered, he found himself looking along the blade of a very sharp saxe knife, which pricked the soft skin of his throat.” Will and Maddie take the men to the local law.
  • While Will and Maddie are entertaining, thieves appear and demand everyone’s money. A young man tries to intervene, but “the bandit leader stepped in close to him and swung the butt of the crossbow so that it slammed into Simon’s forehead.” The man is injured.
  • As the thieves are celebrating their newfound wealth, the leader “held his bottle up prior to drinking from it. Will’s arrow smashed through it, showering the drunken bandit chief with wine and shattered fragments of glass, before thudding, quivering into a log lying ready by the fire.” To take down the bandit leader, Maddie “whipped the sling up and over and the lead shot hissed through the air across the clearing, striking Vincent’s skull behind the ear with an ugly thud. The bandit’s eyes glazed, and he let out a sickly little moan. . . he crashed to the forest floor, stunned.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • While Will and Maddie are restraining the bandits, “a man rose onto one knee and leveled the crossbow.” Will sees the movement and “he drew his throwing knife and sent it spinning across the clearing. . .the knife hit him in the center of his chest.”
  • While searching the castle tower for the missing prince, “a burly figure” sees Maddie. When the man grabs her, “she suddenly stepped toward him. . .she grabbed a handful of tunic, bent her legs and shoved her backside into his body.” She then knees him in the groin and runs.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Will and Maddie pose as jongleurs and perform in local taverns. The customers often drink wine and ale. When they eat at the castle, ale and wine are also served.
  • A man who has been following Will and Maddie, goes into a tavern and is “nursing a tankard of ale.”
  • After the thieves rob the townspeople, they hide in the forest. The eight men were “sprawled around the camp. They stole some wine from the tavern last night and they’re all drinking.” The men turn into a “nosy, drunken group.”
  • Will and Maddie see a peddler who had “casks of ale and wine.”

Language

  • A man thinks that the Gallic king is a “pompous prat.”
  • Damn is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

The Falcon’s Feather

In the exciting follow-up to The Nebula Secret in the seven-book Explorer Academy Series, Cruz, Sailor, and Emmett, along with their new ally Bryndis, embark on their first globe-trotting mission aboard the ship Orion. Cruz jumps right back into school and starts using the latest technology in submersible underwater dives, but is soon reminded of the dangers of exploration when his equipment fails and he almost drowns. Determined to keep his eyes on the prize, Cruz sneaks away to find answers but unknowingly lures his friends into bigger trouble. When a friend of Cruz’s mom meets an untimely end, Cruz’s luck seems about to run out and the questions multiply. What does his mother’s message mean? Where will it lead? Who is following him? And why?  

Cruz’s adventure takes him and his friends to the land of the Norse gods. While there, Cruz and his classmates are introduced to amazing technology that is prominently featured. The technology is interesting and gives The Falcon’s Feather the opportunity to educate readers on several different global threats facing our world, including melting glaciers, endangered whales, and the lack of biodiversity in crops. For example, Cruz and his team go on a mission to save whales trapped in fishing nets. Before they leave, they learn “it’s not uncommon for larger marine animals to get snagged in lines and nets. . . More than three hundred thousand whales, dolphins, and porpoises die this way every year—that’s one every two minutes.” The facts are well-integrated into the story and never feel like a lecture or an encyclopedia. 

The Falcon’s Feather combines a well-written story with maps and illustrations that appear every two to twelve pages. Many of the illustrations are a mix of photographs and drawings, which gives the pictures a touch of realism. Another positive aspect of the book is that the academy encourages cooperation, respect, and honor. While all the students do not necessarily like each other, they are still expected to work together to reach a common goal. Plus, the book includes a section titled The Truth Behind the Fiction, which combines pictures and short blurbs on people featured in the book who have interesting jobs. While this story recaps important plot points from the first book, the series should definitely be read in order. 

As the second installment of the Explorer Academy Series, The Falcon’s Feather ramps up the action and gives readers more insight into the different characters. The large cast of characters that appeared in The Nebula Secret are beginning to feel like friends. Plus, suspense is created because the reader knows there is someone inside the academy who wants Cruz dead. The Explorer Academy Series will appeal to many readers because it has mystery, technology, animals, and an interesting cast of characters. The Falcon’s Feather ends on a cliff-hanger, so readers will be eager to begin the next book in the series, The Double Helix.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Cruz and his friends help whales who are trapped in nets. The group learns that if whales are “unable to break free in time, it can lead to serious injury or even death. The ropes can slice through their skin and cause infection. They can deform bones, cut off part of a tail, and restrict breathing, swimming, and eating.” Many whales die due to nets. 
  • A friend of Cruz’s mom, Nóri, was planning to meet Cruz at a hot spring. When Cruz arrives, he discovers that Nóri was pushed into the hot pools and “badly burned…From the chest down, Nóri was wet and violently shivering.” Nóri dies from his injuries. 
  • While looking for an artifact in an ice cave, Cruz and his friends are cornered. “Cruz was facing two men. One was Officer Wardincorn. The other was Tripp Scarlatos. Both were holding guns.” The two men question the kids and then “Tripp tossed something round and green into the air. . . a massive boom rocked the cave. Ice began raining. Cruz could feel the sting of hundreds of shards pelting his head, neck, shoulders, and back.” No one is seriously injured. 
  • During a phone conversation, one of the villains reveals that his henchman “is dead. Fell into a crevasse.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Dang is used once.  
  • One of Cruz’s friends calls Tripp a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When someone knocks on the door to Cruz’s room, his roommate quickly hides a vacuum. Cruz says “a silent prayer of thanks that [his aunt] insisted he bring it.” 

Curse of the Forgotten City

It’s been one month since Tor Luna inherited the Night Witch’s power and received a warning that greater threats would come to Emblem Island. Tor and his friends, Melda and Engle, have found the past month to be drearily ordinary, with Engle remarking that he misses a bit of adventure. That is, until a girl named Vesper washes ashore on the beaches of Estrelle proclaiming that a band of evil pirates, called the Calavera, have come to conquer Estrelle and Emblem Island. Before the pirates make their attack, the Calavera are searching for the Pirate’s Pearl, which would give them the power of the sea (and an easy way to crush any resistance from the people of Estrelle). Tor, Melda, and Engle, are determined to find the pearl before that happens.  

Along with Vesper, the four friends find a magical ship in the Night Witch’s castle and set sail. Like their last adventure, the group has a guide, The Book of Seas, which they use to outsmart creatures and curses they encounter on their journey. While tracking down the Pirate’s Pearl, the four also accept Captain Forecastle, a pirate, into their makeshift crew. In addition to battling threats at sea, Melda and Tor distrust Vesper’s secretive nature. They discover that Vesper’s brother is working with the Calavera. Vesper has no intention of helping the pirates but rather wants her brother to be safe. 

During a run-in with the Calavera, Tor, Melda, Engle, and Vesper manage to outsmart the pirates and obtain the Pirate’s Pearl. The group travel back to Estrelle to confront the pirates before they attack Emblem Island. Now that Vesper’s loyalty has been proven, Tor gives Vesper the pearl, which she uses to control the sea and defeat the Calavera. Emblem Island is safe once again. . . but not long after, Tor realizes that a strange mark on his arm has something to do with the Night Witch’s obscure powers.  

Curse of the Forgotten City’s plot twist and villains aren’t as complicated or shocking compared to the first book in the series, Curse of the Night Witch. However, readers will enjoy learning more about Tor’s newfound magical abilities since Tor must master the witch’s powers even though he doesn’t want them. For example, he finds its easier to accept his destiny as the Night Witch’s heir when he stops wishing he didn’t have her abilities and instead tries to use them for good. By embracing his new skills, Tor is able to command the ship that retrieves the Pirate’s Pearl. His willingness to accept something for the sake of others makes Tor a selfless and admirable character. 

Another key aspect in the book is the loyalty between Tor, Engle, and Melda. Their relationship is strained due to the secrets they keep from one another and their mixed opinions on Vesper. However, they find that trusting each other and extending that trust to outsiders is well worth the risk. For example, Tor realizes that he “had been focused on his own pain. His own regret. . . Tor should have realized that [Engle] had been hiding his hurt behind jokes and laughs.” Tor’s decision to be honest helps the friends not feel so alone in their struggles. Additionally, when three friends decide to trust Vesper, she ends up being their most useful ally as she is the one who defeats the Calavera in the end. The story teaches that letting others into our hearts is essential to bringing out our inner strength. Readers who want to jump into another magical world with a strong protagonist should also read Tristan Strong by Kwame Mbalia. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Book of Seas tells the Calavera’s history. “The Calavera made their ships from the bones of their victims – and there were many. . . They sunk each vessel that dared sail their way, vowing to be the last ships on the sea. And the killings did not stop when they reached land. They docked only to wreak havoc.” The Night Witch decides to stop them by sinking all their ships except one, which is cursed to sail forever without docking.  
  • The story of the blood queen is another story from The Book of Seas. In this story, Mora, a mermaid who unwillingly lost her tail for legs, becomes the blood queen with the help of the Night Witch. Mora “made a deal with the Night Witch. In exchange for being the keeper of keys to the Night Witch’s curses at sea, Mora’s lifeline would lengthen for every person she killed.” Mora has lived for over 200 years.  
  • The blood queen takes Tor’s blood in exchange for information, reopening an old wound he has. The blood queen “swiped a sword-sharp nail across [Tor’s] lifeline. Tor cried out, not just because of the pain, but because of the memory of another person who had done the exact same thing. The wound reopened, and blood came spilling out.” 
  • A giant squid attacks Tor. “Something wrapped around Tor’s chest so tight he gasped. It pulled him back down in a whoosh. . . [Tor] punched its tentacle with all his might, but its skin was tough as leather, its suction cups stuck tightly against him. . . The squid jerked its tentacle – and Tor – forward. Toward its mouth.” 
  • Vesper helps Tor fight the squid. She “jumped over a crumbled part of the balcony, landing on another one of the monster’s tentacles. It whipped her back and forth, but she gripped its skin and stayed on. Tor watched as she took a charm from her bracelet and made it big – a dagger. Then, she aimed for the soft skin in between the beast’s suction cups. It roared as the blade found its mark, and the tentacle around Tor loosened.” Vesper and Tor swim away from the squid without harming it further. It later comes back to attack them again, but no one is hurt. 
  • Bluebraid, a pirate, boards their ship with her crew and hurts Captain Forecastle. Bluebraid “dug her blade hard enough against Captain Forecastle’s throat that it produced a tumbling droplet of blood.”  
  • A pirate who is part of Bluebraid’s crew restrains Tor. He hurts Tor when Tor tries to escape. “The pirate’s scaled arm sliced against Tor’s [arm] as the pirate fought to get ahold of [Tor].” Tor is only scratched. He contracts a disease from the injury called stormscale that is lethal. Later, he’s healed by a magical object. 
  • Tor’s arm breaks when the ship crashes. “Tor hit the side of the ship and bone snapped – his arm erupted in pain, like fireworks going off beneath his skin. . . the bone in his arm stuck out in a strange direction, almost through his skin.”  
  • Captain Forecastle defeats a group of spectrals. A spectral “crumbled to ash as an arrow hit it. Another arrow whizzed right past Tor’s nose, finding its next target. The third remaining spectral . . . threw a mighty beam of purple fire through the air, aiming for where the arrow had come from. But another pierced it, from the opposite direction. And the spectral fell to pieces.” 
  • Vesper cuts her hand to activate a spell with blood. “Vesper made her dagger charm large enough that Tor could see its blade and pierced her hand with it.” 
  • Tor pierces his hand with a quill in order to use his blood to sign a magical contract. “He dug its sharp metal tip into his palm without hesitation. Crimson broke through the skin.” 
  • A Calavera spectral fights Tor, Melda, Engle, Vesper, and Captain Forecastle. “A fiery burst of purple lightning lit up the room, striking Tor right in the chest. . . Captain Forecastle aimed more arrows, one after the other, pushing the spectral back, getting close enough to make a deadly blow. The spectral narrowed its eyes, and, with a whip of his wrist, brought up a new barrier, purple as his fire. The two arrows hit it, then ricocheted and pierced [Captain Forecastle] right through the stomach. He slumped to the floor.” Tor and the Captain are injured in the fight, which lasts two pages. 
  • In the same battle, the spectral kills Vesper’s brother, Calder, who was working with the Calavera. “Before [Calder] could grip [Vesper’s] fingers, the spectral struck [Calder’s] chest with a fistful of purple flame. And he was thrown back through the window, down to the rocks below. Vesper’s scream coincided with another strike of lightning.” 
  • After the battle, Captain Forecastle is gravely injured. “Blood pooled out of Captain Forecastle. Two arrows stuck out of his stomach.” He is later healed and recovers.  
  • Vesper defeats the Calavera by using the Pirate’s Pearl. Vesper “sent giant waves crashing against each Calavera ship, forcing them together, their wood groaning and shattering as they rammed into each other. With the pearl clutched tightly in her fist, she split through two ships with slices of sea that she had honed to cut as sharply as blades. Screams pierced the air as the Calavera fell into the water, their ships falling to pieces around them. The Calavera captain yelled orders, and the shark at the helm of his vessel broke free, then made a path for Vesper. It was five times her size, a monstrous beast that could devour her whole without a single chomp of its teeth. But she controlled the sea. And, with a flick of her wrist, the shark turned, then launched toward its captain instead. The mammoth creature flew out of the water, mouth opened wide to devour him. He fell back, but the shark caught his hand – ripping it clean off before disappearing underwater.” Vesper spares the remaining pirates by making them and their ships so small they fit in a fishbowl. 
  • The Book of Seas tells of a girl named Lune who could control the waves, but accidentally kills people by using her power. Lune “created a wave as tall as a mountain, just to test her abilities. . . Little did she know, a ship sailed not far away. It [the wave] tore the vessel in half, and all were dead before Lune realized what she had done.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Due to Engle’s nightmares, Melda and Tor make an elixir to help him sleep that they secretly put on Engle’s pillow. Engle is upset when he learns Melda and Tor drugged him without his consent, but the friends talk it out and apologize.  
  • Captain Forecastle drinks a bottle of rum. 

Language 

  • Engle says Captain Forecastle is “nuttier than a cashew.” Melda calls him “Captain Cuckoo.” 
  • Captain Forecastle tells someone to have a “good, bloody day!” 
  • Melda asks Captain Forecastle to tell the truth by asking for “no exaggerated hogwash.” 

Supernatural 

  • Most people in the story have two features: an emblem and a lifeline. An emblem is a symbol on the body representing a skill that usually becomes their profession. For example, Tor’s mother, is the town’s chief and has a leadership emblem. The people also have a lifeline, which is a line on the body that shows the high and low points in their life, representing hardships and victories, as well as when that person will die. In this book, Vesper and her people commonly have two emblems and lifelines at sea become too unpredictable to read. 
  • Tor has inherited the Night Witch’s power, which gives him the ability to have multiple emblems. He gains a water breathing emblem that allows him to walk and talk underwater without the need to breathe. Melda has a leadership emblem to inspire others, Engle’s sightseer emblem lets him see long distances, and Vesper has two emblems: water breathing and the ability to change the size of objects, which she uses often. 
  • The world is full of magic creatures, objects, and curses.  
  • The Calavera are a group of pirates that want to take over Emblem Island. They were formerly cursed by the Night Witch to sail forever, however after she passed her power to Tor, the curse was broken. 
  • The group visits the Night Witch’s castle to find items to help them on their journey. They find a ship there that can be controlled by Tor and a magical snowflake that they use to freeze the Calavera ship in the water to buy them time to find the Pirate’s Pearl. 
  • A spectral is a creature that is part of the Calavera crew. One is always with the captain. He is humanoid “without a mouth” and “sickly pale flesh pulled too tightly across his face. His eyes were black, only a dot of bright yellow alive in them.” Another man in the Calavera company uses magic to teleport.  
  • The blood queen tells Tor that he is likely immortal after gaining the Night Witch’s power.  
  • The city Vesper is from, Swordscale, can teleport. It can be accessed by an underwater portal. 
  • Tor can control the ship Vesper finds in the Night Witch’s castle by magically commanding the rigging. 
  • Tor receives a new emblem, a shield. Tor’s “chest burned and he winced. It felt like the skin there had been charred and cut away. He pulled down the top of his shirt and saw something glimmering, fresh and still hot to the touch. A new emblem. A shield.” 
  • Tor talks about dark enchantments. “They were born from pain – usually from forcing someone to enchant an object. And they always required blood.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Missing Prince

Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, have been urgently summoned to Castle Araluen. When they arrive, they learn a shocking truth: the Prince of Gallica is missing—and the King of Gallica has asked for help. All reports suggest that the young prince has been taken prisoner by the dangerous and powerful Baron Joubert de Lassigny. King Duncan knows that sending troops to Gallica to rescue the prince could start a war, as could openly helping Gallica resolve internal conflict. But there’s another way to save the prince: the Ranger Corps.

Soon, Will and Maddie are on the road to rescue the missing prince, disguised as father and daughter jongleurs. Maddie will have to use her knife throwing skills to keep up her disguise, and her ranger’s apprentice training to complete the mission. But going undercover is dangerous—and the road presents its own hazards. Can she and Will use all of their talents to save the prince, or will the arrogant Baron uncover their plans and put their lives– and their kingdom– at risk?

Unlike the other books in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series, The Missing Prince is missing action. For most of the story, Will and Maddie are traveling to the castle where the Prince of Gallica is being held captive. Along the way, Will and Maddie face bandits which adds excitement to the story. However, their trip drags and when the two finally reach their destination, the book suddenly ends leaving the reader wondering what will happen in the next book, Escape from Falaise.

Will and Maddie are admirable characters who willingly face danger in an attempt to free the missing prince. However, the book’s slow start focuses more on the political reasons to help the Gallican prince. In addition, Maddie’s mother is reluctant to let Maddie go on a ranger mission. Readers may quickly become bored with the political and parental aspects of the story. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will be happy that Will Treaty plays a major role in The Missing Prince.

Some of the story’s plot feels redundant because Will again disguises himself as a jongleur. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy Will and Maddie’s relationship and the two working together. Plus, the conclusion has several surprises and leaves readers with several unanswered questions. Even though The Missing Prince lacks the action of other books, the cliffhanger will have readers reaching for Escape from Falaise.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • To stop a band of thieves, Will dresses like an old farmer. When the thieves see Will, they try to stop him. Will shoots an arrow and “Jem was down, rolling in agony on the ground and clutching an arrow that had transfixed his left calf.”
  • One of the bandits, Barton, tries to hit Will, who lifts the man and throws him. “Barton landed with a heavy thud, flat on his back. . . When he recovered, he found himself looking along the blade of a very sharp saxe knife, which pricked the soft skin of his throat.” Will and Maddie take the men to the local law.
  • While Will and Maddie are entertaining, thieves appear and demand everyone’s money. A young man tries to intervene, but “the bandit leader stepped in close to him and swung the butt of the crossbow so that it slammed into Simon’s forehead.” The man is injured.
  • As the thieves are celebrating their newfound wealth, the leader “held his bottle up prior to drinking from it. Will’s arrow smashed through it, showering the drunken bandit chief with wine and shattered fragments of glass, before thudding, quivering into a log lying ready by the fire.” To take down the bandit leader, Maddie “whipped the sling up and over and the lead shot hissed through the air across the clearing, striking Vincent’s skull behind the ear with an ugly thud. The bandit’s eyes glazed, and he let out a sickly little moan. . . he crashed to the forest floor, stunned.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • While Will and Maddie are restraining the bandits, “a man rose onto one knee and leveled the crossbow.” Will sees the movement and “he drew his throwing knife and sent it spinning across the clearing. . .the knife hit him in the center of his chest.”
  • While searching the castle tower for the missing prince, “a burly figure” sees Maddie. When the man grabs her, “she suddenly stepped toward him. . .she grabbed a handful of tunic, bent her legs and shoved her backside into his body.” She then knees him in the groin and runs.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Will and Maddie pose as jongleurs and perform in local taverns. The customers often drink wine and ale. When they eat at the castle, ale and wine are also served.
  • A man who has been following Will and Maddie goes into a tavern and is “nursing a tankard of ale.”
  • After the thieves rob the townspeople, they hide in the forest. The eight men were “sprawled around the camp. They stole some wine from the tavern last night and they’re all drinking.” The men turn into a “nosy, drunken group.”
  • Will and Maddie see a peddler who had “casks of ale and wine.”

Language

  • A man thinks that the Gallic king is a “pompous prat.”
  • Damn is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

The Enchantress Returns

Alex and Conner Bailey have spent a long time waiting to return to the Land of Stories, a magical world they thought only existed in their favorite fairytales. However, after the events of the first story, The Wishing Spell, the twins know that all their favorite stories are true. After they defeated the Evil Queen in the last book, they returned home dreaming of their next adventure. But, their Grandmother, the legendary Fairy Godmother, has been missing for months, cutting off the twin’s contact to the magic realm. Then, their mother is suddenly kidnapped by the evil Enchantress. In order to bring their mother home, the children are forced to return the Land of Stories without their Grandmother’s help. 

Once in the Land of Stories, the twins quickly realize why their Grandmother has been so busy. The Enchantress Ezmia, a wicked sorceress responsible for the former curse on Sleeping Beauty, has returned to take over the fairytale world and the human world. Their only hope to stop her is the Wand of Wonderment, a staff powerful enough to best Ezmia’s magic. The twins must travel through the fairytale kingdoms with their allies in search of magical items to make the Wand, all while avoiding Ezmia and the wrath of other evil beings. Once the staff is assembled, the twins confront the greatest threat of all: Ezmia’s unwavering cruelty. Is magic powerful enough to convince the Enchantress to put an end to her evil plans?  

The thrilling second installment in the Land of Stories Series has just as much action, adventure, and fairytale magic as the first book. The Enchantress Returns will hold the reader’s attention at every turn, and readers will be fascinated by the conclusion. Unlike fairytales and their shallow villains, the evil characters in this series have more depth than the average book, making this story an interesting read. In the final battle against the Enchantress, Alex says, “Ezmia, I’ll never be like you. I would rather have nothing and a big heart, than everything and no heart at all. . . I’ll always have the most powerful magic of all inside me–compassion. And I have enough inside of me even for you.” When Alex forgives the Enchantress, Ezmia loses her power, proving that love can overpower hate, even when it’s difficult to extend sympathy to others. Alex’s willingness to forgive shows that she’s not only kind but powerful, even without the use of magic.  

The Enchantress Returns also emphasizes the need for belonging. The Enchantress never felt like she belonged, so she made others feel powerless. Alex also never felt like she belonged in the human world since other kids didn’t understood her love for fairytales and magic. Even though it’s a hard decision, Alex chooses to stay in the Land of Stories where she doesn’t feel like an outcast. This parallel ending shows that the heroes and villains of the stories aren’t so different, but how they handle their situations shows their true character.  

Readers searching for a funny yet intricate fantasy about the characters from their favorite bedtime stories will find what they’re looking for in The Land of Stories Series. However, there are some scenes that may disturb sensitive readers. Despite this, The Enchantress Returns is an engaging book that teaches important lessons about forgiveness and compassion. Readers who want more fairytale action can jump into an intriguing world where famous villains such as Cinderella’s stepmother and the Big Bad Wolf have changed their ways and become good in the Fairy Tale Reform School Series by Jen Calonita. 

Sexual Content 

  • A kiss wakes Sleeping Beauty. 
  • Sleeping Beauty’s husband kisses her hand.  
  • Alex is in the library secretly looking at books. When Conner finds Alex, he says, that he is also reading, but “I didn’t try to get to first base with any of [the books].”  
  • Mother Goose says she had a “fling” with Leonardo da Vinci. 
  • While drinking, Mother Goose admits, “I haven’t had this much fun since I was so very young – and used to rub-a-dub-dub with the three men in the tub!” 
  • Jack and Goldilocks kiss once. 
  • Red kisses Froggy. “She pulled [Froggy] closer and kissed his slimy green lips.” She also kisses him later “repeatedly all over his big frog head.” 
  • The twins’ mom kisses her boyfriend. 

Violence 

  • Originally, the Enchantress cursed Sleeping Beauty and her entire kingdom to die after pricking her finger on the spinning wheel, but the curse was reformed by the fairies so that everyone fell asleep instead. 
  • The Enchantress causes a thornbush to grow over Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. “Scattered all across the castle grounds, [Sleeping Beauty] saw soldiers and servants fighting off the rogue thornbushes and vines growing around them. The plants grew straight out of the ground and attacked them, like serpents wrapping around their prey. The vines crept up the sides of the castle, breaking through the windows and pulling people out, dangling them hundreds of feet in the air… [Sleeping Beauty] saw villagers fall victim to the leafy monsters.” 
  • The Enchantress attacks Sleeping Beauty’s carriage and her soldiers. “Sleeping Beauty looked out the window just in time to see a soldier and his horse thrown high into the forest beside the path. A whooshing sound swooped toward them, and another soldier and his horse were thrown into the trees on the other side of the path. Every other second was filled with the terrified cries of the soldiers and horses as they were flung into the forest. . . One final swoop took the remaining horses and soldiers with it; their cries echoed in the night.”  
  • In the same attack, Sleeping Beauty is hurt when her carriage is overturned. “The carriage crashed to the ground, falling on its side and skidding across the ground until coming to a stop. . . Sleeping Beauty crawled through the carriage door. . . she was limping and clutched her left wrist.” 
  • Soldiers attack Bob, the twin’s mother’s boyfriend. “A dozen soldiers dressed in silver armor barged through the door. One slammed Bob hard against the wall. Alex screamed.” No one is injured. 
  • The Enchantress, Ezmia, says that The Evil Queen, Evly, tried to kill her. “Evly laced a small dagger with poison and stabbed me with it. The poison almost killed me; I shriveled down to the state of a dying human.” Ezmia is later nursed back to health. 
  • The Enchantress kidnaps Cinderella’s daughter. Cinderella threatens the Enchantress by saying, “I’ll pull you apart limb from limb if you hurt my daughter.” 
  • Ezmia describes the abusive nature of one of her past affairs with a man she calls The Locksmith. “The Locksmith was a troubled man. A testament to his profession, he liked keeping his properties locked down, and I was no exception. . . He never looked me in the eye and when he touched me, it was rarely out of affection. He definitely left his mark on me – several, actually.” 
  • A polar bear hurts Goldilocks. The polar bear “charged toward Goldilocks. With one swipe of his paw, he knocked Goldilocks to the ground.” Goldilocks is not injured. 
  • Jack is hurt during a battle with the Snow Queen. “The Snow Queen heard [Jack] and pointed her scepter directly at him. A bright icy blast erupted from its tip and hit Jack. He crashed into a pillar. He scrambled to his feet but was hit again by another icy blast from the Snow Queen – this time, a sheet of thick ice pinned his hands and chest to the pillar behind him.” 
  • The Sea Witch’s cave is filled with her past victims. “Dozens of mermaids were hung upside down from their tails across the dome-shaped cave ceiling. They were all weak and frail; some breathed heavily while others didn’t breathe at all; some were just skeletons, while others were close to becoming one.” 
  • The Sea Witch attacks Froggy and the twins. “The Sea Witch threw her cuttlefish and it hit Froggy, wrapping its legs around his face. [The twins and Froggy] frantically fought off the sea creatures attacking them, but it was no use. The crabs pinched and poked the twins, scratching them and drawing blood. Jack ran to the twins’ side and, with two quick blows of his ax, chopped both the crabs in half.” 
  • Jack, Froggy, Goldilocks, Red, and the twins escape the Sea Witch’s lair, but she sends an army of sharks and fish after them. “Jack was quick to punch [a shark] in the nose. . . Froggy kicked another one and it crashed into yet another. . .” Then mermaids come to their rescue and “the twins saw hundreds of mermaids shooting through the ocean and tackling the harmful fish around them.”  
  • While visiting Sleeping Beauty’s Kingdom, the twins see the destruction left by Ezmia. “The twins saw soldiers and servants and villagers spread across the land with vines coiled around them like serpents covering their prey. Some were pinned to the ground, while others were suspended hundreds of feet in the air over the castle.” It’s unclear if they are living or dead. 
  • Ezmia dangles Queen Cinderella’s daughter, Princess Hope, over a fire. “Ezmia snapped her fingers and her vines pulled Princess Hope through the cage. The child was screaming; tears and snot ran down her terrified face. The vines dangled the princess over the flames of the fire.” Hope is not injured and is returned to Cinderella afterwards. 
  • Rumpelstiltskin, who formerly worked for Ezmia, saves Alex’s life. Rumpelstiltskin “came out of nowhere and jumped in front of Alex. The blast [from Ezmia] hit him in the chest and he fell to the ground. . . [Rumpelstiltskin] smiled up at the twins, closed his eyes for the last time, and died in Alex’s arms.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • The twins get a dog named Buster who misbehaves often. Conner says, “that dog needs to be on medication.” 
  • Mother Goose seems to be constantly intoxicated, indicated by the thermos she always carries with her. She calls the liquid inside “bubbly.” Conner says, “[Mother Goose] really lets loose after a few sips of whatever she was drinking.” 
  • Mother Goose was friends with Humpty Dumpty before he fell off the wall due to being intoxicated. Mother Goose says, “Humpty had a fall, right there and right then, because poor Humpty couldn’t hold his gin.” 
  • Alex gives Mother Goose a bottle of champagne, which Mother Goose drinks. 

Language   

  • Mother Goose reprimands her flying goose by saying, “Good lord. . . You call that a landing?!” She also calls the goose a “stupid gander,” and a “stupid bird.” 
  • Mother Goose says, “Jack is nimble, Jack is quick, but Jack can be such a —” the rhyme isn’t written, but implied. “[Mother Goose] stopped herself from finishing the thought, perhaps remembering she was talking to thirteen-year-olds.” 
  • Conner says, “what the heck.” 
  • Queen Red Riding Hood calls the twins “brats.” Alex calls Ezmia a brat later on as well.  
  • Queen Red and Goldilocks dislike each other. When Goldilocks visits, Queen Red says, “You bet your porridge-loving indecisive behind you won’t be harming me.” 
  • Conner says, “God, I hate this flipping cat.” 
  • Darn, damn, and crap are all used once. 
  • Conner calls Ezmia a “wench.” 
  • “Good lord” is said once. 
  • Sleeping Beauty says, “Dear God. . . Does the Enchantress have no soul?” 

Supernatural 

  • The Land of Stories is a fairytale world where classic fairytales are real, such as Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood. Talking animals and mythical creatures like unicorns, mermaids, and trolls are also featured in the story. 
  • Contact exists between the fairytale world and the human world (known as the “Otherworld”) due to portals. One portal exists in the Land of Stories storybook that belongs to Alex and Conner’s grandmother. 
  • The twins’ grandmother is the Fairy Godmother. Fairies can teleport and do magic. One fairy has hair that is constantly on fire. 
  • Buster, the twins’ dog, turns out to be a soldier in disguise. He is transformed from a human into a dog by the Fairy Godmother. 
  • Prince Charlie Charming is known as “Froggy” to the kids because he’s been transformed into a walking, talking frog. 
  • Conner sees a ghost, who eventually guides the twins on their journey. 

Spiritual Content 

  • The twins’ father is dead. When they learn their mother is dating someone new (Bob), Conner says, “It’s something I’ve always wondered about people who lose their husbands or wives. But one day, if we’re all in, well, heaven, I guess, isn’t it going to be a little awkward with Bob and Dad there?” 
  • Ezmia collects the souls of people she dislikes and keeps them in jars. 

Unplugged

Jett Baranov is the son of one of the wealthiest tech moguls in the world and has just been dubbed “Silicon Valley’s Number One Spoiled Brat” by the tabloids. As much as that title may seem cute and funny, Jett’s father finds it to be anything but, and he decides Jett needs some time away from the privileged world he knows all too well.  

In comes Oasis, the center for wellness and all things naturalism, where Jett will be spending the summer. There is just one catch . . . Oasis is completely unplugged and therefore Jett must surrender every piece of technology he has in order to ensure he can truly immerse himself in the experience. Without his phone, Jett has no idea how he is going to entertain himself for the whole summer or what he will eat since the camp is fully vegetarian. That is until he finds himself joining together with fellow campers: Grace, Tyrell, and Brooklyn, to raise a mysterious lizard named Needles. Soon, the group dubbed Team Lizard find themselves taking late night trips to a small island off the coast of the Oasis to get fresh meat for Needles and to enjoy a few non-vegetarian meals themselves.  

Finally, with help from Needles and Team Lizard, Jett starts to feel that the summer spent at Oasis may just be bearable. But something suddenly seems to be going wrong with the other patrons at the Oasis, one of them being Jett’s babysitter, Matt. All the patrons are beginning to take private meditation sessions with the Oasis’s second in command, Ivory. But Jett can’t seem to figure out why everyone raves about Ivory. And why are they donating large sums of money to her? Whatever the reason may be, Jett and Team Lizard must figure it out immediately!  

As the team works to uncover the secrets of the Oasis and its workers, they find themselves in more trouble than they know what to do with. Solving the secrets of the wellness center will take them everywhere from a creepy mansion that sits on a small island near the Oasis to an alligator infested swamp. As Team Lizard take on each new mystery, they find that sometimes the friends you always needed can be found where you never expected them to be. 

Each chapter is narrated by a different member of Team Lizard and provides the reader with more insight into the inner thoughts of each character. This format of storytelling adds a fun twist and makes the plot more intriguing than if it had been told through Jett’s perspective alone. In addition, each member of Team Lizard was brought up in different circumstances which changes the way each member views challenges. For example, Jett grew up never needing to obey the word no, and he therefore refuses to stop digging for clues to solve the mystery of the Oasis, even when the rest of Team Lizard tells him to stop. While Jett and Grace are sometimes annoying, they eventually evolve into more mature individuals. Jett finally understands that not every problem in life can be solved through technology and Grace comes to terms with the fact that sometimes our initial perception of someone can be wrong.  

Unplugged is the perfect novel for readers who want a simple and fun read. While the novel may be lacking in heavy-hitting topics, it does reinforce valuable lessons in friendship and courage. For example, Jett begins the novel unable to complete any small task without the use of his phone and by the end, he is setting out on a dangerous mission by himself for the sake of saving others. Jett and Team Lizard set out to solve the mystery of the Oasis and to save the other attendees showcasing that courage is within all of us; it just takes one small moment for courage to shine through.  

A story of friendship, laughter, and mystery, Unplugged is the perfect feel-good book for those that want a little bit of mystery mixed with a coming-of-age story of friendship. The reader will actively feel as though they are in the novel, solving mysteries with Team Lizard and growing in friendship with each character. The friendships formed between the characters of Team Lizard allow for this novel to be one that radiates love and that content feeling that comes from having a friend that knows you better than you know yourself.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Jett bites down on his tongue in order to stop himself from telling Ivory about his illegal candy bar business. “I bite down on my own tongue hard enough to taste blood. The sudden spasm of pain jolts me from my trance. I lash out and smack that pen from Ivory’s hands.” 
  • Brandon talks of wanting to punch Jett because Jett is lying about his secret candy stash. “Jett pops the last piece into his mouth, chews, swallows, and has the nerve to demand, ‘What snickers?’ I unfold the wrapper and hold it about an inch away from his face. ‘The one that came from this?’ He looks me right in the eye. ‘I never saw that before in my life.’ The urge to punch him is almost irresistible.” 
  • Needles, the pet alligator, bites Brandon’s finger and causes it to bleed. “[Grace] joins the tug-of-war on my finger, and between the two of them, they manage to get the jaws apart. I whip my hand away and grab Jett by the front of his shirt. That’s when I see that my finger is covered in blood. My anger disappears in a wave of queasiness and I have to sit down on the floor and keep my head at knee level so I won’t pass out.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • While talking about Jett, Brandon says, “Jett’s such a loser that he needs an extra guy whose whole job is to make sure that his life is smooth and happy. Who gets that? Not me, that’s for sure.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Iron Tomb

When Sam Force goes to Egypt to spend the summer with his Uncle Jasper, he is ready for the usual vacation filled with museums and lessons about pharaohs and ancient gods. Instead, Sam arrives at the airport and learns that his uncle is missing and wanted by the police.

After narrowly escaping his own arrest, Sam sets off to find his uncle using a series of clues that Jasper left behind. But a group of mysterious men is hot on his trail, and Sam knows they’re willing to do whatever it takes to track down Jasper and whatever he was looking for.

Now all Sam has to do is find him first.

With the help of his new friends, Hadi and Mary, and using knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, Sam makes his way across Egypt determined to find his uncle. And if he does find Jasper before it’s too late, he may also uncover the secret of the Iron Tomb. . . a secret that could change Sam’s life forever.  

The Iron Tomb starts off with instant suspense as Sam gets to Egypt and is forced to hide from the police. Since Sam doesn’t know anyone from Egypt, except for his uncle, he must rely on Hadi and Mary, two teens he just met. Despite just meeting them, Sam puts his full trust in them which is unrealistic considering their unusual behavior. For example, Sam is riding in the back of a delivery truck and the police are hot on his trail. Mary suddenly calls and tells Sam to move to the truck’s roof. Then, Mary and her ‘handler,’ fly over the truck in a helicopter and save Sam. Despite this, Sam doesn’t question Mary’s motives until he overhears a phone conversation where Mary reveals that she is sure Sam can lead them to his Uncle Jasper. 

Even though many of the events are unrealistic, middle-grade readers will enjoy the non-stop action and unexpected twists. Learning about Egyptian history is a bonus. Black and white pictures are scattered throughout the book. The illustrations show maps and clues, and help readers picture some of the complicated plot points. Readers who enjoy ciphers and deciphering clues will enjoy trying to solve the mystery along with Sam.  

Even though The Iron Tomb focuses on the mystery of Jasper’s disappearance, the book doesn’t shy away from bloody violence. For example, when Sam is going through the sewers, two men dump a body into the water and a hoard of rats begins feasting on the corpse. The scene is graphic, bloody, and doesn’t advance the plot. In addition, one man kills another, then drinks his blood in order to survive. The graphic descriptions of violence will upset some readers.  

Despite the book’s flaws, readers eager for a dangerous adventure with plenty of surprises will find The Iron Tomb an entertaining read. While Sam is too trusting, he is also a smart, determined boy who doesn’t give up. Sam’s bravery and determination can be admired even though he often makes mistakes. Even though The Iron Tomb solves the mystery of Jasper’s disappearance, the conclusion clearly sets up another mystery that will take Sam to Belize in the second book of the series, Bones of the Sun God. Readers who want to learn more about Egyptian history should trek to the library and also grab a copy of The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Readers who are up for more action-packed adventure should also read Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra by Stuart Gibbs and Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas by Jonathan W. Stokes.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Five years prior to the book, Sam’s parents were murdered “in a hotel room robbery.”  
  • While in his uncle’s apartment, a man grabs Sam. “A thick woolen sweater snaked itself around his chest and wrenched him away from the sink. Sam cried out in surprise as he was pulled back against the body of a large man.” Sam is able to escape. 
  • A man with short hair is following Sam, who tries to hide in a store. When the man finds him, Sam throws jars of olives at him. “The Short-Haired Man laughed as the first one smashed near his boots. . . But the laughing stopped when the second bottle of olives exploded on the wall, showering Sam’s target with olives and shards of glass.” In order to escape, Sam pushes a shelf unit onto the man. “The ceiling-high wall of goods crashed on top of him. . . Sam could hear the man screaming and cursing.” The scene is described over two and a half pages. 
  • To escape the Short-Haired Man, Sam goes into the sewers where a “furry mass” of rats follows him. Sam shoots a rat and then “tiny fangs flashed in the light as the mob attacks their wounded comrade.” 
  • When Sam is in the sewer, someone throws a body into the water. “Sam watched with sick fascination as the rats went to work on their floating buffet.”  
  • One of the men who disposed of the body goes into the water after the man’s wallet. “Using the flashlight as a club, he belted the rats out of the way, grabbed the wallet, and waved it triumphantly. . . The wallet was covered in so much blood it looked like it had been pulled out of the victim’s chest. . .The blood dribbled down the man’s arm as he held his prize in the air.” 
  • When the rats attack the man with the wallet, he “howled and swatted one of his attackers with his flashlight. . .Rats began launching themselves at the terrified Egyptian, who dropped the wallet and began swatting rats. . .” The rat scene is described over two pages. 
  • When Sam tries to escape the sewer, the killers go after him. Sam throws his flashlight at the men. “The thud of metal on flesh triggered a stream of harshly spoken Egyptian, but the figure kept climbing. . .” The man grabs Sam, but Sam is able to escape. 
  • Sam, Bassem, and Mary try to escape two men on motorcycles. “Bassem took one step back and flicked the rod up like a samurai presenting his sword to his opponent. As the first bike came toward him, he swung down and across in one smooth, vicious motion that caught the rider in the middle of his chest.” The man crashes to the ground. Sam and his companions flee. 
  • The other biker continues to follow Sam and his companions, who hide in an open-air market. When the biker is in the middle of the crowd, Bassem throws smoke bombs into the crowd. “Chaos had exploded in the square. High-pitched shrieks from goats, donkeys, and men combined. It was like a bomb going off on Noah’s Ark.” Sam and his companions escape into the desert. 
  • When Sam finds his Uncle Jasper, Jasper looks like a “lifeless, blood-splattered body.” At first, Sam thinks Uncle Jasper is dead, but later Sam finds out the blood was from Jasper’s bloody nose. 
  • The Short-Haired Man slaps Sam. “The lighting-fast slap across the face sounded like a snapping stick in the confines of the dining room. His vision clouded; his eyes watered.” Later, the man slaps Hadi, a boy who works for him. “Hadi eyed his attacker through blood-covered fingers as he tried to stem the gush coming from the pulpy mess that had been his nose.” 
  • In an effort to kill Sam and Uncle Jasper, the Short-Haired Man causes an explosion that leaves Sam and Uncle Jasper buried underground.  
  • Sam finds a letter about how two men—Jason and Thomas—were trapped in a boat that got caught in a storm and buried by sand. The two men fight, and Jason “drove the wooden stake into the jugular vein and watched as his life force spilled out of him. . . A rich red pool, creeping out from his body across the floor. . .” Later, the man confesses that he “fed upon another” and drank the dying man’s blood. 
  • The Short-Haired Man plans to kill Hadi because Hadi knows too much. The man “straightened his arm and took aim at the back of Hadi’s head. The boy’s whimpering died away. . .” Sam distracts the man and saves Hadi’s life. 
  • Sam tries to shoot the Short-Haired Man with an old flare gun. The man mocks him and pulls the trigger several times. When the flare gun doesn’t go off, the man puts the gun in his pants. Then, “Thick and white, the smoke belched from the Short-Haired Man’s jacket, and he began to scream. . . Fat red tongues of flame signaled the second stage of an explosion that was meant to happen hundreds of feet up in the air. The Short-Haired Man was transformed into a fiery ball of flailing arms and legs. . .” The man falls into a shaft. 
  • The Short Haired Man climbs up the shaft, and grabs onto Sam’s ankle. Sam sees “five bloody, burn-ravaged fingers were locked around his ankle . . . hovering in the white smoke coming out of the shaft, was barely recognizable as human—a burnt and swollen head coated in sand made wet by the weeping skin.” Eventually, the man falls into the shaft and is buried by sand. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • After breaking his ribs, Sam is given an “injection” to dull the pain.  

Language   

  • Pissed off is used twice. 
  • The Short-Haired Man calls Hadi “a sewer rat working for money.” 

Supernatural 

  • Sam is given a scarab beetle necklace because “it is good luck and will keep us safe.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Akhenaten was named “the heretic king because he banned the worship of all the gods and decreed there would be only one. Aten, the sun god.” 

The Ring of Honor

Middle school geniuses Sam, Martina, and Theo arrive in New York City on a mission. They need to find the third artifact left behind by the Founding Fathers before it falls into the wrong hands. After all, together, these objects unlock a secret weapon designed by Benjamin Franklin. The trio has escaped the forest of Glacier National Park at great cost—Evangeline, their chaperone and friend, was captured by the nefarious and dangerous Gideon Arnold.

Now the three friends must navigate New York City, following clues related to Alexander Hamilton to solve and survive the puzzles and traps they encounter along the way, and uncover the third artifact before Gideon Arnold does. The stakes have never been higher, and Sam, Martina, and Theo might not all make it out alive.

The Ring of Honor takes the reader on another fast-paced and fascinating story that educates readers on Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the United States’ financial system. When the kids meet Hamilton’s descendant, Jack, they are surprised to find an aspiring actor who has no interest in Hamilton’s history. While Jack plays a minor role, his appearance adds humor. While many of the characters reappear—Gideon Arnold, Abby Arnold, and Evangeline—Jack’s appearance gives the story an interesting twist.

While trying to solve Hamilton’s clues, the kids discuss the idea of sacrificing your own well-being for the good of a cause, and they learn facts about how Hamilton died in a duel, and the belief that he developed (shot into the air during the duel). As the kids follow Hamilton’s clues, they must use all their brainpower to analyze historical events and ciphers. Readers will enjoy trying to decipher the clues before they are revealed in the story.

The Ring of Honor is the third and final installment of the Secrets of the Seven Series. While the story of Sam and his friends searching for clues is fast-paced, suspenseful, and entertaining, the conclusion is frustratingly poor because of all the unanswered questions. First, Theo’s mother, who was presumed dead, miraculously reappears under odd circumstances. Evangeline, who is being held captive by Gideon Arnold, fades into the background and is forgotten. Even though Sam and Martina were instrumental in finding three of the founders’ artifacts, Theo’s mother thanks them and sends them home. Plus, Gideon Arnold is still a danger to the kids and to the country. The book’s conclusion negates all of Sam and Martina’s hard work. Instead of leaving the story open-ended, the conclusion leaves the reader wondering why Sam and Martina were dragged into the founder’s problems in the first place.

Secrets of the Seven Series will appeal to readers who love history, puzzles, and ciphers. While readers will thoroughly enjoy the Secrets of the Seven Series, the conclusion is cringe-worthy. Readers who are ready for more advanced and exciting clue-solving mysteries should add the Charlie Thorne Series by Stuart Gibbs and the City Spies Series by James Ponti to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While trying to escape from Gideon Arnold, the kids find a woman “sitting hunched in a corner. One of her wrists was handcuffed to a pipe beside her. . .” The kids try to help the woman, but she tells them to flee before Gideon Arnold finds them.
  • The kids go to see Jack, one of the founders. When they walk into his apartment, “Gideon Arnold, who’d been standing behind the open door, smiled at them like a snake might smile at its dinner. . .. Another man in a dark suit stepped out. . . a gun in his hand, and pointed the weapon straight at Theo.”
  • To escape the villains, Theo “who’d just grabbed his own backpack, swung the arm holding it so his elbow smashed into Dane’s [a thug] already-broken nose. The man doubled over with a roar of pain. . .”
  • As the kids are running, Sam falls. Gideon Arnold’s daughter, Abby, threatens to shoot Sam. “Abby now had the pistol in one hand, and was pointing it up at the sky . . .” Abby shoots and then tells Sam to run.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Marty calls Sam a doofus and an idiot.
  • Sam thinks someone is a slimeball and scum.
  • OMG is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Theo repeats Alexander Hamilton’s last words, “I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me.”

The Nebula Secret

Adventure, danger, and a thrilling global mission await 12-year-old Cruz Coronado as he joins an elite school for explorers.

Cruz leaves his tranquil home in Hawaii to join 23 talented kids from around the globe to train at the Explorer Academy with the world’s leading scientists. Their goal is to become the next generation of great explorers.  

But for Cruz, there’s more at stake. The moment he arrives at the Academy, he discovers his family has a mysterious past with the organization that could jeopardize his future. In the midst of codebreaking and cool classes, new friends and augmented-reality expeditions, Cruz must tackle the biggest question of all: who is out to get him … and why? 

The Nebula Secret focuses on Cruz, but the third-person narration allows readers to get a glimpse into other characters as well. Due to the large cast of characters, Cruz is the only character that has any depth. As far as the other academy students, most of them are only introduced briefly and readers will have to pay close attention to remember all their names.  

Cruz’s conflict is multifaceted. Someone is trying to kill him, but Cruz doesn’t know who or why. This makes it difficult for Cruz to know which students and teachers to trust. In addition, Cruz’s mother left him clues to decode. The questions behind Cruz’s mother’s death add to the mystery. Plus, the story is interspersed with suspense and high action that keeps readers entertained until the very end. 

The Explorer Academy has high expectations for the students. Despite this, making mistakes is seen as a learning opportunity. While students’ grades are important, getting an A isn’t the priority. Instead, the school encourages integrity, honesty, and compassion. Furthermore, teachers reinforce the importance of teamwork and often require students to work with their classmates. No one is expected to be a perfectionist. In the end, this theme is reinforced when one student’s desire to be perfect leads to him being expelled. 

The Nebula Secret combines a well-written story with maps and illustrations that appear every two to twelve pages. Many of the illustrations are a mix of photographs and drawings, which give the pictures a touch of realism. Another positive aspect of the book is that famous people and places are mentioned, including the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and Nellie Bly, who said, “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” These references may spark readers’ interest to learn more about these people and places. Plus, the book includes a section titled The Truth Behind the Fiction; these pages combine pictures and short blurbs on people mentioned in the book who have interesting jobs.  

Unfortunately, the conclusion of this story isn’t believable. Instead of wrapping up the story thread, Cruz learns that his mother has left more clues that will lead him to a formula that she invented. Even though Cruz’s mother knew it would endanger her son’s life, she left him these clues that only he can follow. To make matters worse, Cruz will have to find eight different locations to piece the formula together. Not only does this make the scenario difficult to believe, but it also sets up a series that must be read in order. Before you pick up the Explorer Academy Series, make sure you’re willing to invest the time to read all seven books in the series. Readers who aren’t ready to jump into a long series may want to check out the Secrets of the Seven Series by Sarah L. Thomson or the City Spies Series by James Ponti instead. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While surfing, a scuba diver grabs Cruz and pulls him under water. Cruz “lashed out and his fist hit something smooth and hard. . . His thrashing had knocked the air hose loose from the diver’s tank. Cruz felt a sharp pain in his ankle and then, suddenly, he was free!” Cruz makes it to safety with only a cut ankle. 
  • Cruz was alone in a hallway when “he saw an arm shoot out. Fingers locked on to the front of his shirt and spun him around so fast he nearly went airborne. Cruz’s spine hit cold stone. The person warns Cruz, ‘They killed your mother. They will not hesitate to kill you, too.’” 
  • A man chases Cruz and his friends, who run and hide in a janitor’s closet. “Tendrils of smoke were curling up from under the door. . . His vision blurring, Cruz couldn’t tell if his friends were still conscious.” The students realize that the gas is deadly. With the help of Cruz’s drone, they escape. A teacher finds them and gives them an antidote to the gas.  
  • During a simulated mission, Cruz and his classmate Sailor see men illegally chopping down trees. When the men see the students, they begin shooting. “Cruz had lost the trail, but spotted an opening in the trees ahead of them. The clearing! If they could reach the group, maybe the men would give up chase . . .” The kids become trapped between the men and a waterfall. Cruz says, “We might survive the fall. We won’t survive the gunshots.” They jump over the cliff. “In the simulator, however, the pair had dropped only about 15 feet before landing on a huge inflatable cushion.” 
  • While on a simulated mission, a man corners Cruz. The man tells Cruz that he is going to kill him, but before he can attack “his attacker collapsed at his feet. . . Next to him was a lanky man in a lab coat clutching a giant dinosaur bone.” The attacker is arrested. 
  • The academy’s librarian, Rook, threatens Cruz and his father with a laser. “A red laser beam shot from the device. In seconds, the burst had burned a hole clean through the ceiling. And the roof, too!” 
  • In order to get free from Rook, Cruz “flung the book at Rook, who ducked, but not fast enough. The novel smacked him in the face. . .” Then Cruz’s honeybee drone “zeroed in on Rook, and began poking the librarian. She zipped up and down, left and right, stinging him on the shoulder, the face, the head, the chest, then back to the face.” Rook is arrested. 
  • While struggling with Rook, Cruz is hit with the laser. The doctor tells him, “A few millimeters to the right and it would have burned a hole right through you.” As it was, Cruz’s injury was “starting to blister and ooze.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Occasionally, a student calls another boy a dingleberry. 
  • Heck and darn are both used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

George Washington’s Spy

Ten-year-old Matt Carlton and six friends are accidentally swept back in time—to Boston in 1776! The British now occupy the city, and Redcoat guards are everywhere! While the boys are being held captive by a den of Patriot spies, the girls have been taken in by a wealthy Tory family.

The pox is rampant; danger lies around every corner—and there’s no hope for returning home to their own time. How will these seven children survive?

Even though Matt and his friends agree with the Patriot’s efforts to rid America of the British soldiers, the story is not one-sided. The girls who traveled back in time are cared for by a Tory family, who show them kindness. The girls wonder how someone who is loyal to the king can be a good person. Master Hewson, who supports the king, explains his motivation, “In the end, I find I can only be true to my beliefs. I have to provide for my family—and my love for them is what guides me.”

The theme is explored in more detail when Matt wonders how Master Hewson, who is a Loyalist and the enemy, can have a good heart. When an angry mob grabs one of the girls, Master Hewson gives himself up to save the girl. While talking about the family, a girl says, “The Hewsons were born in America. They just chose to stay loyal to their king. Isn’t loyalty supposed to be a good thing?” This encourages readers to think about how the revolution affected both the Loyalists and the Patriots.

George Washington’s Spies is a fast-paced, suspenseful story that brings history to life. However, the story takes a grimmer look at the war than the first book in the series, George Washington’s Socks. The brutal deaths are described in more detail and may upset sensitive readers. Even though the Battle of Dorchester was a milestone in American’s freedom, the book does not glorify the war. A Patriot spy, Moses, tells Matt, “There is nothing nice about war. It feeds on lies and treachery. It is about killing or being killed.”

Along their journey, Matt and his friends meet a variety of people on both sides of the war. Plus, they meet Benjamin Franklin. While Dr. Franklin’s appearance is brief, he adds some much-needed humor. History loving readers will learn interesting facts about the Battle of Dorchester, the medical practices of the time, and how the war affected both the Loyalists and the Patriots. The entertaining story will keep readers at the edge of their seats, and while the humor is minimal, there are several parts of the story that will leave the reader grinning. Plus, the author’s note includes five pages of additional historical information including information about the Loyalists, women who played a role in the revolution, and the use of leeches in medicine. More advanced readers who want to learn more about the Revolutionary War should also read Susanna’s Midnight Ride by Libby Carty McNamee.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While looking for a doctor, Matt is told that “the nearest physician was hung as a rebel spy last month.”
  • While looking into an old mill, “Matt spun around just in time to see a rough-faced man grab hold of Q and bring a knife up to his neck! Seconds later, three other men stepped out of the shadows. There were muskets in their hands and tomahawks in their belts!” The men discuss killing the kids.
  • One of the men, “grabbed hold of Matt by his collar and roughly lifted him off the ground. . . The man slammed Matt up against the building. Matt gasped at the pain that shot through him.”
  • While in town, an officer stops a group of men. “One of the men fitted his musket with a bayonet and drove it into the head of the pig that hung before the butcher’s shop. He lifted the horrible-looking thing into the air and swung it around. The animal’s dulled, glassy eyes stared straight ahead, and its mouth hung dumbly open.”
  • The girls witness four thieves being lashed. The thieves were “caught stealing wood for their fires, and one for stealing a goose.” One of the “criminals” was a “young girl of twelve or thirteen.” The girl’s “thin shoulders” stiffened and then “the whip cracked, and a piercing scream ripped through the chilled afternoon air. . . There was another loud Crack of the whip, followed by another bloodcurdling scream.” The scene is described over two pages.
  • While in town, Matt sees a wagon that “was rigged with a wooden frame. Hanging from the bar atop the frame were three large butcher’s hooks that held the dead bodies of three young men! From each of their necks hung a sign painted in bold red letters that said TRAITOR!”
  • Matt and Moses are on a mission when a soldier stops and questions them. Matt says something wrong causing the soldier to reach for his musket. “But as he did, Moses lunged forward, and the soldier jabbed him hard in the side with his bayonet. The two wrestled to the ground . . . Moses slammed the soldier against the wall. . . the young soldier slumped to the ground and went limp . . .”
  • When Moses realizes the soldier is dead, “his face was white as ash and his hands were trembling. ‘He was hardly old enough to grow a beard.’”
  • When Patience becomes ill, the doctor treats her. “A bloodied rag hung over [the doctor’s] arm, and in her wrinkled hands she held a large glass full of squirming, fat black leaches. She had placed a rope in Patience’s mouth to bite down on to keep her from screaming. . . Even more terrifying was the sight of little Patience lying on the bed—with her bare arms outstretched and five shiny black wormlike leeches sucking blood from the open vein in her arm!”
  • An angry mob attacks Master Hewson’s house. The cook says, “Someone threw a rock through the kitchen window. It nearly hit me in the head!”
  • The angry mob was “in the street wielding torches, clubs, and iron pokers. Their eyes were wild and angry. And like a pack of mad dogs about to attack, they had formed a circle around their prey.” They circle around Katie, and “a large, fierce looking man grabbed her by her wrists.”
  • In order to save Katie, Master Hewson trades places with her. A man “bound him with rope. . . the men rip off Master Hewson’s shirt, take a pot of steaming tar, and pour it over Master Hewson’s head and torso. As he writhed in pain, they emptied a sack of feathers over him. Then, with ropes, they hoisted him up on a cart and drove down the street. . .” The scene is described over three pages.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • The kids meet a man that “stank of sweat, and rum, and something gone sour.”
  • A man tells Matt, “I may have emptied my neighbor’s jug of ale, but I can still remember the year.”
  • A man uses gun powder to brush his teeth, then “he took a swig of rum from a pewter flask.”
  • The girls are offered Portuguese wine with their dinner. They turn it down and ask for water instead.
  • When a coach stops at a tavern, the driver says, “the house ale is hearty.”

Language

  • The Redcoats are referred to as lobsterbacks, blasted bloodybacks, and British dogs.
  • Good God, dear God, My God, and Good Lord are rarely used as exclamations.
  • When the Redcoats stop a coach, a passenger grumbles, “What the devil do these Redcoats want with us?”
  • A mob attacks a house. One of the men yells, “A Tory is someone with his head in England, his body in America, and his neck in need of a noose!”
  • Master Hewson and his family are called “Tory trash.”
  • A servant is called an impudent rascal and a clumsy oaf.

Supernatural

  • A time traveling rowboat puts the kids under a spell. When the kids get close to the boat, “the boat silently glided beside them, beckoning them to come in. The group fell suddenly quiet under its spell. . . A blue mist rose up around them. . . seconds later there were neither boy, or girls, nor a boat to be seen.”
  • When the boat time traveled it “spun and spun as it was thrust into darkness and space. It kept on spinning until it landed with a thud and a splash.” The kids are transported to the Revolutionary War.

Spiritual Content

  • The kids pray three times. For example, at one point Emma “kept her eyes on the river, praying that the boat would return.”
  • Four times, a character says “God willing” something will occur.
  • A man says, “God grant that be so.”
  • Someone says, “Loyalty and obedience are God’s way. Rebelliousness is the way of the devil. We must remain true to our king—and be thankful for all God has blessed us with.”
  • One of the Patriots, who is using Moses as a fake name, tells Matt, “God’s not seen fit to come down from his heaven with tablets to guide me through this miserable world of ours.”
  • When Moses’s sister sees his wounds, she says, “God help him.”
  • While preparing for a battle, a man says, “The Redcoats will start firing back on our men soon. Say a prayer they miss their mark.”

The Griffin’s Feather

Life is good for Ben, the dragon rider. Two years after the events of the first book, Dragon Rider, Ben is living in Norway with the Greenbloom family on a remote sanctuary for magical creatures. Firedrake, his dragon friend, is visiting. However, a problem arises when a male Pegasus, one of the last in the world, loses his mate and leaves three unborn Pegasus eggs behind. The magical care needed for them to hatch can only be provided by the mother, so the Greenbloom family rushes to find a solution to keep the foals alive: a griffin feather.

A griffin feather may provide the right magical touch to incubate the eggs, however, numerous problems arise. First, Griffins are fearsome predators and only exist in sparse numbers around the world. Second, the Greenblooms and their friends only have two weeks to convince a griffin to give up a sun feather, a rare feather that only grows after a griffin performs a great deed. Lastly, griffins are the sworn enemy of dragons, and Firedrake won’t be able to accompany Ben on the journey. The odds are stacked against them.

Though Ben is upset to journey without Firedrake, he decides to undertake the adventure with his adoptive father Professor Greenbloom, a troll named Hothbrodd, his old friend Lola, and his constant companion Twigleg. Before the group leaves, Firedrake gives Ben one of his scales as a parting gift, which will allow them to share emotions no matter how far away they are from one another.

The group travels to Indonesia, where Professor Greenbloom believes griffins live. They do find griffins, but to the group’s surprise, the island is embroiled in a griffin civil war headed by the island’s evil ruler Kraa, who is challenged by his nephew Shrii. Before the group can meet the infamous Kraa, Ben and the others are captured by monkeys. Sensing Ben’s distress, Firedrake, Sorrel, and a young dragon named Tattoo, travel to rescue their friends. Together, the group of adventurers defeats Kraa, restoring freedom to the island. Plus, they retrieve the griffin feather necessary to ensure the survival of the Pegasus foals.

The Dragon Rider Series is great for readers with an active imagination. The Griffin’s Feather is rich with fantasy elements and adventure. However, the number of relevant characters and magical creatures may be confusing. The back of the book has an index of the characters, but it is easy to get lost in the multitude of names and species.

Even if the series can be confusing, the willingness of the characters to extend love and care to others makes reading this story worthwhile. At one point, Ben thinks “revenge can even drown out love.” Firedrake has a similar thought when he is so angered that he has trouble suppressing his violent instincts. In addition, the final battle stands as a reminder to care for others, even when they may not deserve it.

The Griffin’s Feather unites the characters from the first installment with new friends who undertake a dangerous journey to save a threatened species. This story will leave readers with a strong desire to do what is right, as all the characters would gladly sacrifice themselves for the good of others and the world. Readers who want to jump into a realm where mystical creatures live should also enter the world of The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black and Rise of the Dragon Moon by Gabrille K. Byrne. Both are excellent books that will be less confusing than the Dragon Rider Series.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Ben remembers his parents, noting that they died in a car crash soon after his third birthday.
  • A parrot warns Ben and Twigleg that if they go to where the griffins live, death awaits them. The parrot says, “[The griffins] will line their nests with your feathers and adorn their treasure chambers with the horn of your beak. They’ll use your bones to skewer their prey, and they’ll feed your beating hearts to their young.”
  • A monkey says all of the travelers are spies. The monkey says, “We ought to throw them into the sea. Or send them back to Kraa dead, like all the others whose bones are bleaching beneath the ruins of our nests.” Later, the monkey thinks that Kraa will kill him and the others for helping the group. The monkey says, “He’ll eat us and line his nest with our skins.”
  • Kraa has many names attesting to his violent nature, such as “Kraa the Merciless,” “Kraa of the Blood-Drenched Feathers,” or “Eater of Hearts.”
  • Twigleg has a nightmare. “It was a dreadful dream. . . [Monkeys] were pulling his master [Ben] to pieces the way children take an insect apart! Crowds of monkeys, screeching and baring their teeth, and [Twigleg] was kneeling in front of the parts trying to put them together again, but he simply couldn’t remember what Ben had looked like.”
  • Kraa’s palace is decorated with drawings, some of which show griffins at war with men and monsters, others where griffins are “perching triumphantly on the dead body of a dragon.”
  • A monkey hopes that a servant dies. The monkey says, “May the jackal scorpions tear him limb from limb! May the jenglots drink his blood—I’m sure it’s even more poisonous than theirs!”
  • Kraa plans Shrii’s demise. “Shrii will be the last [of the prisoners] to die. I’ll clip his claws and wings, and feed him on the gold I get for his servants until he chokes on it. And then I’ll tear his heart out of his colorful breast and eat it. Although it will probably taste as soft and sweet as an overripe melon.”
  • The dragon Tattoo sinks the poachers’ ship. “Their boat was already moving out to sea when Tattoo broke out of the forest. He breathed fire after them, and when the blue flames reached the boat’s hull it sank into the waves with the poachers.”
  • Shrii, Tchraee, and the others fight. During the fight, a human boy “hit [Tchraee] on the chest with the club . . . When Tchraee, striking out desperately with his claws, tore one of Firedrake’s wings open, Tattoo lost his self-control. . . the young dragon began breathing fire. Tchraee was enveloped in pale blue flames. . . Tchraee’s body turned to ash-gray stone and fell from the sky, rigid and petrified. With uncomprehending horror, Tattoo watched as the stone body crashed through the canopy of leaves below them and disappeared.” The battle is described over two pages.
  • Kraa says he wants to “rip out Shrii’s beating heart and eat it, so that everyone on the island will know who is their king.” He also says to Ben that, after he kills Firedrake, he’s going to “dip all my feathers in the blood of your dragon friend.”
  • Kraa, Firedrake, and others fight. “Feathers and scales. Claws and paws. Tawny yellow and silver-gray wings; Kraa’s dreadful beak; Firedrake’s bared teeth . . . But the sounds, if anything, were even worse. The dragon’s roar; the griffin’s screech.” The battle lasts two pages.
  • During the battle, Kraa pecks Sorrel’s hand and his snake tail bites her, but she recovers.
  • Tattoo defeats Kraa. “Tattoo soared into the air and breathed fire down on Kraa. Flames licked around the griffin’s coat and feathers… And when it went out, Kraa had turned into stone.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Sorrel is known to be ill-tempered and she insults creatures and humans frequently, using mushroom names as expletives. For example, “Oh, lopsided liberty caps,” “moldy midgets,” and “mildew fungus of a homunculus.”
  • Other characters also occasionally call each other names such as “idiotic,” “thieving vermin,” “stupid,” “cudgel-swinging fur-faced kidnappers,” and “cowardly moorhen.”
  • Hothbrodd, who is from Norway, curses by referencing Norse mythology. “By Surtr’s flaming sword. . . This island is like an oven. Nifhel on earth.” Surtr is a god and Nifhel is the lowest level of Hell.
  • A monkey calls Kraa a “crook-beaked monkey-murderer.”
  • A character insults griffins. “Plaguey rapacious felines! Brood of snake-tailed robbers!”
  • The poachers refer to a character as an “imp of Satan.”

Supernatural

  • The story is filled with endless mythical creatures. Some are based on legend and others are completely made up. The creatures include dragons, fungus folk, krakens, mist ravens, centaurs, mermaids, elves, and kelpies, among many others. Only some of the creatures are described below.
  • Magical creatures give other creatures, including non-magic ones, the ability to comprehend the same language.
  • Firedrake is a silver dragon; his species lives off of moonlight.
  • Sorrel is a forest brownie, a bipedal, cat-like creature.
  • Twigleg is a homunculus, a small humanoid that was made by alchemy.
  • Hothbrodd is a troll that can make anything out of wood, including machines. He can also communicate with trees. Trolls also have magical spit with healing properties. He has other magical abilities as well.
  • Pegasi are winged horses that come in many colors, and hatch from magical eggs that can’t open unless cracked by the mother. “The egg of the winged horse, Pegasus unicus, is one of the greatest wonders of the world. . . It’s shell . . . resembles the most valuable glass. Yet it is as hard as diamonds. . . If [the mother] comes to any harm, the egg will not grow, and the foal will stifle in the unbreakable shell.”
  • Jenglots are dwarflike zombies who drink blood. Twigleg is often mistaken for one when the group of travelers is in Indonesia.
  • Since magical creatures attract one another, there is no shortage of them appearing in the story. When the group travels through the jungle, they see “a fist-sized spider with a frog’s head let itself down from a teak tree. A cat with fur that shone like molten gold made its way out of the thicket.”
  • Jackal scorpions, scorpions with jackal heads, are under Kraa’s command. Their stingers are made of gold and they eat human flesh. According to Professor Greenbloom, Mesopotamian kings fed their enemies to these scorpions. He also says they “love to tear their victims to pieces with their pincers after paralyzing them with their stingers.”

Spiritual Content

  • The dragons refer to the afterlife as “The Land of the Moon,” and believe that all dragons go there when they die. Additionally, once a dragon dies, it creates new stars.
  • The traveling companions stop at a temple to Garuda, who is a god-like creature from Hindu mythology, the mount of Vishnu. Ben describes him as, “The creature ridden by Vishnu. Thief of immortality and god of the birds.” Birds from all over the world are at the temple to pray to him.
  • A bird insults Twigleg by comparing him to Apasmara, a dwarf in the Hindu faith known for its stupidity and nonsense.
  • Ben thinks that a statue of a griffin with a dish in its hands “reminds [him] of the sacrificial vessels in which bloody gifts to the gods had once been left in ancient temples.”
  • When scared, one of the characters suddenly prays. “He implored whatever god protected homunculi and human boys.”

by Madison Shooter

The Race Around the World

When Nellie Bly read Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, she had an amazing idea. What if she traveled around the world in real life, and did it in less than 80 days? In 1889, people doubted it could be done—especially by a woman. But with one small bag and a sturdy coat, Nellie set out anyway. Soon the whole world was rooting for her. Could she make it back home in time?

Nellie Bly began her life with the name Elizabeth J. Cochran. When her father died, Nellie needed to work to help her family make money. She wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but most people believed that a “woman should stay out of the workplace. . .women should turn their attention to cooking, cleaning, and making a nice home.” Nellie believed that she could do anything a man could do, including being a reporter. However, at the time “women did not sign their names to articles. It was considered improper.” So, Elizabeth wrote articles with the byline under a man’s name: Nellie Bly. Nellie wrote about how hard factory work was for women and how some low jobs were dangerous. But what made Nellie Bly so famous, was her record-breaking trip around the world.

During Nellie Bly’s time, her adventures were exciting and newsworthy. However, today’s readers will find Nellie Bly’s travels mundane. Nellie Bly visits many countries, but nothing exciting happens and the reader will not learn much about each place in which she stops. The Race Around the World is informative and has many interesting facts, but the pacing is slow.

The Race Around the World uses short chapters and easy vocabulary, which makes the book accessible to young, fluent readers. Large black and white illustrations appear every 3 to 7 pages and show some of Nellie Bly’s adventures. At the end of the book, there is more information about Nellie and the time period in which she lived.

The Race Around the World would be interesting for readers who want to learn more about news reporters and travel during the 1800s. While the book would be helpful if you are looking to learn, it reads much like a history book. Readers who want a modern, imaginative adventure that revolves around Jules Verne’s story, Around the World in 80 Days, should add the Max Tilt Series by Peter Lerangis to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Men used canes to keep the beggars away.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

Several months have passed since Gregor’s first trip to the Underland. Just as his life is returning to normal, his baby sister Boots is kidnapped by the cockroaches, and Gregor is forced to journey back to the subterranean city of Regalia. Once there, Gregor reunites with the rebellious Luxa and his bat Ares whom Gregor has pledged his loyalty and protection. Gregor soon discovers that the Underlanders have kidnapped Boots because of The Prophecy of Bane. This ancient prophecy implies that if Boots were to be killed, the rats would have the key to power. 

The Underlanders believe that Gregor is the prophesied Warrior who must kill an evil rat cloaked in a coat of white: the Bane, an enormous, snow-white 10-foot rat that threatens to destroy Regalia and subject all of the Underland to his rule. The Prophecy of Bane mysteriously says that the Warrior will be fatally weakened if: “Die the baby die his heart, die his most essential part. Die the peace that rules the hour. Gnawers [another term for rats] have their key to power.” Believing that Boots is the baby spoken of in the prophecy, the rats kidnap her.  

In order to save his sister, Gregor and his companions must embark upon a long and dangerous voyage, sailing into the heart of rat territory.  Gregor is determined to destroy the Bane before the rats can kill Boots. Gregor must learn to fight for those he loves while encountering dangers, close calls, and surprises along the journey. He must also discover what it means to be a warrior. 

Those who read Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane will enjoy its simple yet engaging plot, its pulse-pounding action, and its variety of characters and settings. The character and mythos of the Underland are deepened in this worthy sequel. New and dangerous creatures are introduced, the uncharted, watery depths of the Underland are explored, and at the end of this long voyage lies a mysterious and powerful foe: the Bane. 

Once readers enter the world of the Underland, the quick-moving plot and the dynamic characters will sweep middle school readers up, keeping their minds and imaginations engaged for the entirety of the book. To keep the suspense high, each new chapter introduces a new danger, an exciting development, and an intriguing complication to the plot. The action, often violent and bloody, is kicked up a notch from the first book. However, like the first book in the series, it is often the creatures and not the humans that suffer wounds and death in battle. Despite this, sensitive readers may be upset by the vivid battle descriptions. 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane is rife with themes of familial love and sacrifice, compassion, friendship, and duty. Gregor will stop at nothing to protect his friends and family. However, Gregor is faced with many difficult situations and moral dilemmas, all of which develop his character. Gregor discovers that he possesses incredible powers as a fighter. In fact, whenever he is near or in the midst of battle, Gregor’s mind enters into “rager mode;” a “rager” is a gifted warrior who possesses fighting abilities that approach the supernatural. Throughout the book, Gregor must learn to harness and control these abilities, lest they control him. The danger of letting his violent, rager instincts overpower his kind nature forces Gregor to consider the nature of violence and how it should be used only to protect and defend. 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane provides a story that is an incredibly entertaining blend of mystery, travel, and adventure. Every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, providing ample reason for even the most reluctant of readers to devour it quickly. Furthermore, the ending perfectly sets up the sequel, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. Readers will not be able to help themselves, they’ll have to immediately reach for the next installment. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Underlanders practice their swordplay by having a contraption that throws small, golfball-sized balls at them in rapid succession. The Underlanders’ goal is to slice as many balls as possible. These balls are filled with red liquid that mimics blood. Gregor first goes into “rager mode” when training with the blood balls. “He was aware only of the blood balls flying toward him from all directions . . .  He could hear his blade making a whistling sound. Something splattered against his face. . . He could feel liquid dripping off his face and hands. The pounding of his heart was audible. He looked down at the ground. At his feet lay the oozing shells of fifteen balls.” 
  • The verbiage of the Prophecy of Bane itself is somewhat violent. For example, If Under fell, if Over leaped,/ If death was life and Death life reaped,/ Something rises from the gloom,/ To make the Underland a tomb./ Hear it scratching down below,/ Rat of long forgotten snow,/ Evil cloaked in coat of White,/ Will the Warrior drain your light?/ What could turn the Warrior weak?/ What do burning Gnawers seek?/ Just a barely speaking pup / That holds the Land of Under up/ Die the baby, die his heart/ Die his most essential part/ Die the peace that rules the hour,/ Gnawers have their key to power.” 
  • Twitchtip, a rat that aids the humans in their mission, threatens a giant talking firefly, saying “. . . if you don’t stop your incessant babble, that big rat sitting in the boat next to you [referring to herself] will rip your head off.” 
  • While discussing effective ways to kill rats, Ares the bat says, “The neck is vulnerable. The heart, but one must get past the ribs. Through the eyes to the brain. Under the foreleg is a vein that bleeds greatly. If you strike at the belly, you may not kill instantly, but the rat will likely die within days from infection.” 
  • As the group is sailing, they are attacked by a giant squid. Gregor is grabbed by “a slimy red tentacle,” and nearly pulled overboard. However, Ares manages to grab him, and “a tug-of-war ensued, with Gregor as the rope.”  
  • As the battle against the squid continues, Gregor “sank his teeth into the tentacle as deeply as he could” and “slice[d] through a tentacle that had encircled his ankle.” Trying to free Gregor, the humans and bats slice and claw at the tentacles. Gregor enters again into rager mode and, “His sword began to move—not in a premeditative way, but with some instinctive precision and force utterly beyond his control. He hacked away at tentacle after tentacle.”  
  • After the battle, “Four angry red circles, sucker marks, swelled on his forearm” where Gregor was initially grabbed. These sucker marks “begin to ooze pus.” The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Gregor’s tentacle wound worsens. “The whole forearm was badly swollen. The sucker wounds, which had turned a revolting shade of purple, oozed fluorescent green pus. They burned as if they were on fire.” 
  • As Pandora, a bat, flies over a volcanic island, a large cloud of flesh-eating mites emerges from the jungle. “[Pandora] had no time to react. One moment she was darting around eating mites, the next moment they were eating her. In less than ten seconds they had stripped the writhing bat down to the bone. Her white skeleton hung for an instant in the air, then crashed into the jungle below.” Ares barely escapes these flesh-eating mites and is bitten on his tail several times while fleeing. 
  • The group is attacked by large, dinosaur-like serpents. As the monsters attack, large waves wash the rats “into the serpents’ mouths.” Various members of the quest are injured. “One of Mareth’s pant legs was soaked in blood. In front of him, Gregor saw the shuttering heap of wet fur that was Twitchtip. Blood poured from her nose, which appeared to have been smashed in, and oozed from the stump that had been her tail.” 
  • When a serpent tries to eat Twitchtip, Gregor stabs the serpent’s tongue. As a fellow quester is attempting to dress Mareth’s wound, he rips “off the remains of Mareth’s blood-soaked pant leg, revealing jagged flesh around a gaping wound.” 
  • Two rats, Snare and Goldshard, fight each other to the death. “The fighting was vicious . . . Snare lost an eye. Goldshard’s ear dangled from a shred of fur. You could see the bone in Snare’s shoulder. Goldshard’s left front paw was snapped in two. Finally, the gold rat came in on her opponent’s blind side and locked her fangs on his neck. In the final throes of death, Snare got his hind feet between their bodies and slashed open the length of Goldshard’s belly . . . Her intestines spilled out on the ground . . . With a terrible gurgling sound, Snare suffocated in his own blood.” 
  • After returning from their journey, the Regalian crowds that have gathered are outraged to learn that Gregor has not killed the Bane. They begin throwing objects at him and Ares. “Something hit [Gregor] on the side of his head. His hand went up and came away bloody . . . More objects began to rain around him . . . The one thing they had in common was that they were all made of stone . . . he and Ares were being stoned to death.”  
  • Because of his failure to slay the Bane, Gregor and the other Underlanders stand trial for treason. Ares informs Gregor that if convicted, “They will bind my wings and your hands and drop us off a very high cliff to the rocks below.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • In response to the taunting of Ripred (a rat), Gregor says, “Just shut up, okay?” 
  • After the mission’s failure, Ripred offers Gregor a warning saying, “And you know, there will be hell to pay in Regalia.” 

Supernatural 

  • Nerissa, a member of Regalia’s royal family, is a soothsayer, and interprets the Prophecy of Bane. 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Curse of the Night Witch

Everyone on Emblem Island has a symbol that decides their fate, but Tor Luna seems like the only person who hates the one he’s been given. While other people can speak with animals, have beautiful singing voices, or culinary talent, Tor’s emblem is for leadership. He expects to live an uneventful life and take over his mother’s position as town chief. On the New Years’ holiday, Eve, the town gathers to send their yearly wishes to the wish god. Tor decides that this Eve he’ll wish for a new emblem. However, rejecting one’s emblem is a sure-fire way to get cursed, which is exactly what happens when Tor wakes up the next day with a curse mark where his leadership emblem once was.  

Tor teams up with his friends, Melda and Engle, to find the legendary Night Witch, a fearsome woman who is said to have hundreds of emblems that she gained from killing their original owners. To find her, the group uses The Book of Cuentos, a storybook that includes legends about Emblem Island’s history that turn out to be more than just stories. Eventually, they reach the Night Witch – but things aren’t as clear-cut as they have been written in the storybook. 

The Night Witch used The Book of Cuentos to frame herself as a villain in order to prevent her from getting her power stolen. She warns Tor that a greater darkness, one that is all evil, is rising and that she has picked Tor as her successor. Tor is unwilling to inherit her abilities, but the Night Witch passes on her power anyway. She picked Tor because the Night Witch believes he won’t abuse her skills. She says: “the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to lead.” The book ends with Tor shouldering the heavy burden of the Night Witch’s abilities with his friends and family at his side to defend Emblem Island from the coming darkness.  

Curse of the Night Witch is steeped in Latin American folklore amplified by the author’s rich imagination. The book is heavy on worldbuilding that is relevant to the plot and is an immersive part of the story’s adventure. The stories from The Book of Cuentos can be unsettling, but they help craft a world where darkness lingers under a colorful exterior. In addition to being a detailed story, Curse of the Night Witch is a coming-of-age story as Tor and his friends undertake a dangerous journey. When Tor thinks the Night Witch is going to kill him, Tor wishes he would’ve been more grateful for what he had. However, he realizes that his journey has taught him to appreciate what he’s gained: Melda and Engle, “two friends he would trust his life with” as well as a deeper respect for his former emblem.  

Tor is a thoughtful and determined main character who will quickly earn the sympathy and respect of readers. His drive to improve himself while still protecting innocent people shows his emotional complexity. The story emphasizes the power of friendship through Melda, Engle, and Tor, who are always ready to support one another and see their journey through until the end, no matter what happens. The plot twists and compelling lore make this an interesting story, however, there is gore and violence that some readers may find disturbing. Readers who want to read another tale that combines a rich cultural world with three friends who will protect each other until the end will enjoy Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Night Witch has an emblem that allows her to kill people by touching them. She kills her father and other innocent people. The Night Witch “had a gift never seen before. The power to kill with a single touch. And kill she did. One day, the girl emerged from her home, covered in blood, her father’s emblem on her skin. . . [The Night Witch] traveled across the island, leaving only death in her wake, emblems appearing on her arms after each kill, the ones she had stolen from children in their beds and from the poor souls who found themselves alone on a dark night.” 
  • A troll attacks Tor for trespassing in its territory. “A troll reached forward, and Tor screamed as its claw ran down the length of his arm.” The troll also bites him. Tor “screamed. It was like a giant needle had skewered his toes. Sparks of pain ignited in his toes and his entire foot went numb.” This feeling comes from a toxin that dissolves after a few hours, so Tor is not injured.  
  • A pelilarga attacked Melda. “[Melda] screamed as the pelilarga reached up and clawed her ankle, leaving five long, bloody scratches. . . The pelilarga hissed, and Melda winced, like it had scratched her again.” Melda is scratched up, but nothing worse. The attack ends when Melda, Tor, and Engle are able to distract the pelilarga with fireworks so they can escape. 
  • A giantess cuts Tor’s ear with an arrow for trespassing on her tribe’s land. “Tor winced and reached for his ear. His fingers came back covered in blood. The tiniest part of his ear, at the very tip, had been cut away.” Other than the cut, which later heals, Tor is not injured. 
  • The Book of Cuentos describes a mother who tried to kill herself and her children. The children escape, but the woman dies and becomes a monster called “The Woman.” The Woman “walked into the water, holding [her children’s] hands, intending to drown them and herself. But, before they were submerged, her children escaped. . . The Woman roams the island in search of children to take for her own.”  
  • A kidnapper hurts Tor for freeing his prisoners. “The man charged at Tor, managing to grab his arm so tightly Tor was actually afraid the bone might snap in half. . . Tor struggled until the man elbowed him right in the ribs. [Tor] bent over, gasping, the air sucked right out of him.” Engle saves Tor by hitting the kidnapper with The Book of Cuentos. “The kidnapper made a grunting noise, blinked, and fell to the ground. Engle stood there, The Book of Cuentos still held high above his head.”  
  • Emblem thieves are people born without emblems that kill others to steal their emblems. Killing someone allows the murderer to take the emblem of the victim. A group of prisoners caught by the emblem thieves are freed by Melda, Tor, and Engle. The prisoners fight back against their captors. “A woman cried out and leapt forward, taking down a guard in a single motion. . . A teenage girl disappeared right before [Tor’s] eyes, then reappeared after having struck a thief in the head with a bucket. An old man with a telekinesis emblem threw a chair at another.” The battle lasts a few paragraphs and ends when someone with a snowflake emblem freezes the remaining guards. 
  • An old woman in an abandoned town admits she resorted to eating her children to survive. 
  • Engle’s curse mark hurts him when he steps into the Night Witch’s territory. Engle “doubled over, crying out in pain and gripping his arm. . . the skin on Engle’s arm ripped open like the slow tearing of a seam. In a few horrifying moments, blood spilled over the cape Melda had made, and a clear message appeared, carved deep into his skin.”  
  • The same skin-tearing happens to Melda as the group gets closer to the Night Witch. “Then it was Melda’s turn to scream out. She clutched her arm, and loudly ground her back teeth together.” Lastly, it happens to Tor. “[Tor’s] palm suddenly split open. He gasped in pain, blood puddling at his feet.” 
  • Creatures take Engle into the water. After Melda rescues Engle, he’s very close to dying. “Engle’s eyes remained closed, and large gashes had been sliced through his clothes. He was bleeding, everywhere. But he was still breathing.” He lives.  
  • When Tor confronts the Night Witch, she admits that she didn’t kill her father; he was killed by other men. “The men who came [to the Night Witch’s home] were emblem thieves. There to take my father’s alleged two powers. By killing him. Once they realized one of his marks was false, they came back. And found me. But I was ready this time. I killed each one where they stood. My father’s emblem became mine. . . I roamed the island, searching for thieves just like the ones that had killed my father. I killed them before they could end anyone else. And so, my markings grew.” 
  • Tor fights the Night Witch. The witch “raised her hand, and the ground beneath Tor’s feet began to shake. It broke open, and dozens of shards of rock like teeth trapped his legs, then torso. The sharp stone tips pierced his clothes, crimson stains blooming through the fabric in blotches.” The battle lasts two pages and ends with the Night Witch transferring her power to Tor. 
  • Tor wakes in the middle of the night as his first new emblem appears. “He awoke screaming at the top of his lungs, feeling like someone was carving at his arm with a butcher knife, then scrubbing it with sea salt.” Tor learns that the process of getting a new emblem is painful.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Troll bites contain a toxin that induces drowsiness. Engle says, “Troll bites are nothing but annoying. Their teeth release just a bit of a chemical that promotes drowsiness, making it hard for their victims to escape.” 

Language   

  • Melda calls the Plains, a city on the island, “stupid.” 

Supernatural 

  • The Book of Cuentos is an important book of legends that tells the history of Emblem Island, as well as detailing information about the island’s creatures and curses. It is kept by the community’s leader, Tor’s mother, until she passes it on to him. Some of the stories from The Book of Cuentos appear at the end of chapters. They are often dark tales of murder, punishment, and otherworldly beings.  
  • The story takes place on Emblem Island, a place where everyone has two distinct features: an emblem and a lifeline. An emblem is a symbol representing a magical skill somewhere on the body. A lifeline is a line, usually around the hands, that shows high and low points representing hardships and victories. It also shows when the person’s life will end. 
  • People with two or more emblems are known as wicked or a witch. “Witch was a foul name for a person who had been born with multiple emblems.” The people of Emblem Island believe that people with multiple emblems have too much power which drives them to evil deeds. The Night Witch is the most infamous of these witches, as she has hundreds of emblems. 
  • Tor and Melda have leadership emblems, which help them inspire people. Engle has a sightseer emblem, which allows him to see long distances. There are emblems for just about everything, including cooking, talking to animals, and water breathing. 
  • The world is full of magic creatures and objects. Familiar objects, like peaches, grow purple, and some animals have gigantism; a starfish is the “size of a rug.”  
  • Some magical creatures include gnomes, mermaids, trolls, giants, and fairies, among others. 
  • A “barbed malkin” is a cat-like creature with spike-like fur along its back.  
  • The mention of curses or cursed objects is very common. Stories like this are present in nearly every chapter. “Tor knew that touching the Bone Boat’s treasure was strictly forbidden. Doing so would unleash a fury-storm of repercussions: a hundred years of curses, teeth falling from the sky, the sea turning gray, blah blah blah, the same old tales Tor liked to roll his eyes at.” These legends often turn out to be true.  
  • Due to his Eve wish, Tor is cursed. It manifests in the form of an eye on his arm that blinks. Engle touches Tor, and the curse spreads to Engle in the form of a mouth that can speak.  
  • A myth in The Book of Cuentos tells of the creation of a hydroclops, a snake with a head on either end.  
  • Melda has a necklace that contains a “drop of color.” “Drops of color were extremely rare – they could only be extracted from special creatures. The liquid from Melda’s necklace could turn anything in the world that shade of blue.” Colors on Emblem Island are very important and can be stolen or changed with powerful magic.  
  • Captivates, siren-like mermaids, capture Tor, but his friends help him break the spell. 
  • Pelilargas, fantastical women with long hair, have the ability to steal souls, which makes their hair grow longer and stronger.  
  • Goblins are greedy creatures who have the ability to suck color from objects. In exchange for passage on a boat, a goblin takes the color from Melda’s eyes.  
  • A vanor is a creature able to take on the appearance of other people and craft illusions. Tor encounters one. “The [vanor] had no face, only a flesh covered canvas where a face should have been. But he wanted one. All vanors did. They lived to steal faces to add to their collections.”

Spiritual Content 

  • The residents of Emblem Island believe in karma. Melda says, “I’m only helping you [Tor] because I don’t want any bad karma affecting my Eve wish.” 
  • Souls exist. Some creatures, such as pelilargas, have the ability to steal them. 

The Duel at Araluen

King Duncan and Princess Cassandra are trapped in the south tower of Castle Araluen and under near-constant attack from the Red Fox Clan. Sir Horace and Ranger Commandant Gilan are holed up in an old hill fort, surrounded by the enemy. And Ranger’s apprentice, Maddie, is the only one who can save them all.

With the help of Hal, Thorn, and the rest of the Heron brotherband, Maddie will have to break her father and his men out of the hill fort, but will they reach Castle Araluen in time?

As the third installment of the Royal Ranger Series, Duel at Araluen continues the story of the Red Fox Clan who plan to kill King Duncan, Princess Cassandra, and Maddie. Unlike the previous two books in the series, Duel at Araluen describes many skirmishes between the rebels and the Araluens. While the book has less adventure, there is non-stop action as three groups—the Scandians, Horace and his soldiers, and Cassandra and her loyal army—prepare to defeat the Red Fox Clan.

While the book revolves around war, there is never senseless killing. Even though the Red Fox Clan planned to kill Horace and his men, when the rebels are defeated, Horace doesn’t execute the traitors. Instead, Horace orders his men to “leave the tents there for them so they won’t die of exposure. . . We’ll leave them what medical supplies and bandages we can spare and they can take care of one another.” Like the previous books, many people die, but all of the killings are in self-defense.

Duel at Araluen highlights the importance of loyalty, friendship, and bravery. For example, Jesper, one of the Scandians, makes several mean comments to one of his shipmates. Afterwards, Jesper claimed he was just joking. Hal scolds Jasper, saying, “A joke is when everyone can have a good laugh together. But when you do something that’s spiteful and hurtful and causes misery to someone else, that’s not a joke. That’s cruelty.”

Duel at Araluen uses the same format of all The Ranger’s Apprentice books. Even though the format is familiar, readers will be happy to see returning characters such as the Scandians from the Brotherband Series. Seeing the world from Maddie’s point of view gives the setting a fresh outlook. Plus, both Cassandra and Maddie have strong roles that involve leadership, planning, and fighting. Instead of being portrayed as stereotypical damsels in distress, Cassandra and Maddie are well-developed, capable characters who have many admirable traits. Readers who want to explore books with a strong female character and plenty of action should also add the League of Archers Series by Eva Howard to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After the Red Fox Clan took over the castle, the King, Cassandra and a group of loyal soldiers lock themselves in a tower. The Red Fox Clan started throwing projectiles at the tower. In response, Cassandra’s archers shoot arrows at the invading army. “Two of the first three shots found their targets. One man fell away from the windlass, an arrow in his upper body. Another. . . went down with a shaft in his thigh.”
  • The Red Fox Clan builds a trebuchet and uses it to throw rocks at the castle tower. Cassandra’s archers shoot fire arrows at the trebuchet and the invading army. “Two men went down. One of them stayed down. The other one hauled himself to his feet. . . an arrow through his lower leg. . . All the while, the tree archers peppered the trebuchet with arrows, but to no real effect. The only reward for their efforts was a sole figure lying unmoving on the flagstones.”
  • The Red Fox Clan begins throwing fire bladders at the tower. “Cassandra started in fear as the bladder struck the tower. . . Almost instantly, there was a roar of flame as the oil and pitch ignited, and a flood of fire erupted over the balcony, some of it clinging to the walls, while the rest dripped down and spread tendrils of flame over the floor.” No one is injured by the fire bladders.
  • The Red Fox Clan plan to swarm the fort that Horace, Gilan, and their army are hiding. “The light flared up, revealing a mass of some twenty men on the walkway. Instantly, the archers on the east and west walls drew, aimed and shot. A storm of arrows slammed into the attackers as they bunched together. . . more arrows slammed into them as they hesitated.”
  • During the attack, the rebels use ladders to scale the fort’s walls. “Their leader ran to be the first down one of the ladders. But, five spaces short of it, he was struck by an arrow and hurled back against the rough timbers of the palisade.”
  • One of the rebels lunges at Gilan with a sword. “Gilan’s sword, gleaming blood-red in the smoky firelight, struck like a viper, driving the man’s upper body, piercing the chain metal there. The swordsman gasped and stepped back. . . [Gilan] swung in a diagonal overhead cut at the man on his left. The stroke went home and the man fell to his knees, crying out in pain and shock. Then he toppled sideways.” The battle is described over nine pages.
  • After the battle, a man gives a casualty report. The Araluen’s lost two men and three others were injured. The rebels lost at least a dozen men and eight are wounded and cannot flee.
  • Along with the Scandians, the Araluens attack the rebel army. The Araluens use their lances to try to break up the enemy’s shield wall. “Some of the lances penetrated, forcing their way between the shields, hitting bodies, legs, and arms.” The battle is described over eight pages.
  • During the battle, one of the rebels “reared up in agony, clutching vainly at an arrow that had magically appeared between his shoulder blades.”
  • One of the leaders of the rebel army, Trask, steals his own soldier’s horse and tries to flee. But Maddie sees Trask and uses her sling as a weapon. Trask “felt a thundering impact on his helmet, right in the center of his forehead. . . Vaguely, he felt himself topple backward from the saddle and crash onto the soft grass. Then everything went black.”
  • The rebels set a door on fire, trying to chase Cassandra and her army to flee. One of Cassandra’s sergeants goes around the wall and a crossbowman “raised his weapon and shot. . . Then the crossbow bolt hit him and he reared back, falling dead at Cassandra’s feet.”
  • The book ends with a multi-chapter battle between the Araluens and the Red Fox Clan, where many people die. During the battle, one of Cassandra’s archers is stabbed and “with a startled cry of pain, the archer fell back on the steps, his spear clattering on the stonework as he dropped it.” Many men are killed in a similar manner.
  • During the attack, one of the rebels “felt a chill of fear clutch his heart as he realized he was seriously outmatched. . . In total panic, he turned to run, but Hal leaped forward and, reversing his sword, brought the heavy hilt down on the back of the man’s head, sending him sprawling unconscious on the boards of the walkway.”
  • Cassandra and the rebel leader, Dimon, fight. Cassandra injures him. “Blood dripped slowly from Dimon’s left arm, but not in sufficient quantities to weaken him.” At one point, Cassandra “twisted desperately to the right. The blade scored across her ribs, opening a long, shallow slash in her side. Blood welled out instantly, staining her jerkin.” Cassandra kills Dimon. The sword fight is described over five pages.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • One of Cassandra’s sergeants was “nursing a mug of ale—a small mug, in view of their limited supply.”

Language

  • Damn is used three times. For example, Dimon says, “I should have thought of this damned tower, should have remembered how impregnable it can be.”
  • Maddie’s horse says, “By Blarney’s perpetual beard, when you sleep, you really sleep, don’t you?”
  • Maddie calls her horse a know-all and a blowhard.
  • Twice a Scandian uses “Orlog’s ears” as an exclamation.
  • The king calls the rebel’s leader scum.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Maddie’s horse makes a comment about Blarney, “a minor Hibernian deity. . .His beard grew constantly down to his feet, no matter how often he cut or shaved it.”

Maya and the Return of the Godlings

Training to be a guardian of the veil isn’t easy, but 12-year-old Maya is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps, especially since he hasn’t been the same since their last run-in with the Lord of Shadows, the evil being who controls the Dark. On the brink of an upcoming war between Earth and the Dark, the Lord of Shadows snatches Papa’s soul.  Maya rounds up her friends, fellow “godlings,” Frankie and Eli, for another journey into the Dark to retrieve Papa’s soul and stop the veil from collapsing.

Once back in the Lord of Shadows’ domain, Maya is faced with difficult moral choices. She finds an imprisoned Darkbringer, named Zeran, who doesn’t want a war with the human realm. For the first time, she considers that not all Darkbringers are evil, which makes it harder to fight them since most have been recruited into the Lord of Shadows’ ranks by force. Allied together, Maya, Frankie, Eli, and Zeran continue to the Crystal Palace, the Lord of Shadows’ lair.

In the confrontation between the Lord of Shadows and Maya, she learns her half-sister Eleni is still alive. Not only is Eleni being used by the Lord of Shadows for her power, but she was the one who let the Lord of Shadows into the human realm which allowed him to start a terrible war years ago. Maya wonders if it’s her fate to also open the gateway, which would allow the Lord of Shadows to wage war on the human realm for the second time. Determined to prevent that from happening, Maya steals back Papa’s soul and rescues Eleni. Back on Earth, Maya may have won this battle, but she knows the war is far from over.

Maya’s character is both funny and thoughtful, as she has a penchant for disobeying orders but for the right reasons—she will always save her friends and family even if the world is against her. Her determination to keep people safe is admirable. However, the friends have repeated setbacks because random creatures attack them. These scenes get tiring since they do not add to the plot.

Despite this, Maya and the Return of the Godlings is an interesting read that takes time to develop the characters such as Zeran, a darkbringer rebel. Zeran’s character is interesting because he forces Maya to change her perspective. At first, Maya perceived him to be the enemy, but now she feels a duty to protect him. This is what makes the plot most worth reading: Maya’s unwavering determination to make the world safe for all who wish to do good.

The story has a sense of unpredictability because the plot does not stray away from mentioning the death of past characters, such as Papa’s first family. Plus, the situation in Maya’s world continues to grow in gravity, making it increasingly likely that her friends and family won’t escape unscathed. With a war brewing, Maya and the Return of the Godlings explores dark topics.

Readers who enjoy books with magical worlds and rich cultural ties should also read Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston and Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Maya and Papa get attacked by shadows while repairing the veil. Maya explains, “Something whipped out of the tear and snatched my legs from underneath me. . . writhing shadows. I hit the ground hard on my butt, and the staff spun out of my hand. . . Papa lunged for me, but his legs buckled, and he stumbled instead. He reached for the place between his chest and stomach, his face twisted in pain. . . The shadows still had my ankles and were dragging me into the tear. . . Papa stepped into the mouth of the tear. His dark skin glowed silvery-white and pushed back the darkness. The shadows hissed as if they couldn’t stand the light and let go of my legs. I whacked one with my staff before they fled back into the Dark.”
  • Frankie was adopted after her mother, an orisha, was killed. Frankie learns that her mother, Zala, hunted down rogue magical creatures. Maya thinks, “If Frankie’s mom’s death hadn’t been an accident, it meant someone – or something – had killed her.”
  • Zeran, a young darkbringer, deserted the army and is subjected to all sorts of punishment. The guards who have him in custody threaten to send him to the stocks and lock him in a cage with bars that kill on contact.
  • While stealing a map, Maya, Frankie, and Eli are attacked by a darkbringer. “An electric shock hit me in the back. My whole body seized up, and the staff slipped from my hand. I hit the ground hard. The impact knocked the wind out of me, and my teeth tore into my cheek. I couldn’t move as the metallic taste of blood filled my mouth. . . Frankie hit him with a ball of raging energy, but instead of falling back, the darkbringer seemed to absorb her magic. . . the darkbringer advanced on Frankie, and she stumbled back. I screamed inside my head and fought against the electricity winding through my body. My insides were on fire, and sweat stung my eyes. . .” The fight lasts for five pages, ending with Eli knocking the darkbringer out.
  • Maya and Frankie are caught by Nulan, the former commander of the darkbringer army. Nulan fights with the new commander, Rovey, over who gets to kill Maya, Frankie, and Eli. Their fight lasts eight pages. “Rovey locked Nulan in a bear hug, and electricity shot through her. Her whole body shook… Nulan head-butted Rovey. He dropped her and she crashed to the ground. Rovey stumbled back, looking dazed and confused while Nulan gave him a vicious smile. Knives appeared in her hands…” After this point, we don’t see the resolution of the fight because Maya runs away, but Rovey and Nulan live since they come back in the end of the story.
  • Maya, Zeran, Frankie, and Eli get lost in a forest where they are attacked by shadow monsters.  Maya “slammed my staff into the shadows hard. The impact vibrated up my arms into my teeth. My vision was a blur as I twisted and turned to keep out of their grasp. The shadows screamed as white veins of light started to form around the places my staff stuck. After enough hits, they fled into the forest.” The fight lasts four pages, and no one is injured.
  • Zeran quickly disarms Nulan with an anti-magic collar. “Zeran flew straight into Nulan. They crashed and rolled on the floor. One of her magical blades materialized out of thin air, and she aimed it for Zeran’s heart. But he was quicker. He pulled the collar from his neck and snapped it around Nulan’s throat. Her blade instantly disappeared. Nulan clawed at the collar right before Zeran head-butted her and knocked her out cold.”
  • The Lord of Shadows tries to stop Maya from getting her father’s soul. “His ribbons snapped around my ankle. . . searing cold snaked up my leg. The lower half of my body fell still, and I couldn’t move. . . Why was I suddenly so sleepy? I saw a reflection of myself in the glass. My skin had turned ash gray. The Lord of Shadows was draining the life from me!”
  • Maya, Frankie, Eli, and Zeran fight with the school bullies, Winston, Tay, and Candace, who also have orisha powers. “Winston stepped in our path with his friends at his side. Sparks of fire lit up on his arms. Candace grew to pro-wrestler size. Tay cracked his knuckles, and the floor shook beneath our feet. . . Winston jabbed his finger into my chest. Zeran grabbed his hand and twisted. Winston fell to his knees, and Tay sprang into action. Frankie flung out an energy lasso that smacked Tay on the nose. He winced as he grabbed his face, looking annoyed. Candace tripped over Eli’s invisible foot. With the bullies disarmed, Zeran let go of Winston and shoved him back.” The fight ends when they get caught by a teacher.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Papa says, “Mama’s going to skin both our hides if I don’t get you back in time for school.”
  • Maya drops her staff and it hits a passerby. Maya censors the word. “‘What the bleep?’ the man says. Okay, he didn’t say ‘bleep,’ but Mama said that I better not even think of cursing.”
  • A secretary named Clara is annoyed at someone commenting on her instagram posts. She calls that person “a little twit.”
  • Winston, a godling who bullies Maya at school, calls her “guardian of giant turds” after learning of her role as guardian of the veil.
  • Maya says, “Oh crap!”
  • Winston calls Zeran a “freak.”

Supernatural

  • Orishas are celestial spirit beings who are featured prominently in the story. Maya’s father and other community members are orishas. They each have different orisha powers. Some are specialized – like Eli who can turn invisible. Others, like Oshun, the orisha of beauty, have a certain domain.
  • Orishas speak Sekirian, the first language of the universe.
  • Maya and Papa are orishas whose duty is to protect the veil, a magical forcefield made by Papa to separate the human world from the Dark, a parallel universe of magic and evil creatures. Throughout the story, Maya and her father repair “tears” in the veil.
  • Papa and Maya can teleport by bending space. They can also open gateways which create a door between Earth and the Dark.
  • Maya uses a magical staff that acts as a conduit for her power. It magically changes shape into everyday objects like a hair pin or ring.
  • Because of the incoming war, the power of other orishas in Maya’s community manifests. For example, Winston, a school bully, gains the ability to control fire.
  • Papa conjures magical horses to take the godling children to the celestial city Azur. “His magic started to take shape. First a cluster of sparks here and another there. Then lines of light connected the sparks like a constellation of stars. Eli gasped as the magic settled into four winged horses.”
  • Glamour, a special magic, prevents humans from perceiving orishas and other magic. For example, the horses that Papa conjures appear as bikes to humans across the street. Maya explains, “The horses would look like something completely normal to human eyes.”
  • The children and Papa go to Azur, the city of the celestials. “The city sat on a cloud that spanned for miles among the stars. . . Sunlight dances off the buildings made of silver and gold and glass. The whole city glowed.”
  • The city is populated with Azurians, other celestials. Maya describes them. “The Azurians were tall and lanky, short and plump, and every shape and size. Some had skin as smooth as marble or scales and gills. . . Tails swept along the ground. Wings tucked against backs. Long tentacles wiggled among feet. . .” Humans also live there, but a rare type of human that have the natural ability to see magic. Elokos, creatures that eat humans, also live there when they no longer have a taste for human flesh.
  • Frankie meets a kishi while in Azur. “They had two faces – one human and one hyena. In his stories, they were always tricksters who literally had two faces.”
  • The Dark is populated by winged, blue-skinned monsters called darkbringers.
  • The darkbringers use dog-like creatures to hunt down Maya, Eli, and Frankie. “The dogs turned out to be not dogs. Instead of fur, green scales covered their bodies and they had a row of sharp spikes across their backs. What was it with the Dark and its deadly animals? Last time we were here, we had to fight off large birds with needle-like spines on their underbellies.”
  • In the Dark, the kids go to a city where darkbringers live, reminiscent of Chicago but with magical technology. The darkbringers have magical creatures for pets.

Spiritual Content

  • Orishas are celestial spirit beings that are gods in this story. They have certain domains and powers, such as Shangó, the god of lightning. Their children, which have orisha blood, are known as godlings, and they often manifest supernatural powers.
  • Papa’s soul being stolen is one of the major plot points. Obatala, an orisha, and Maya discuss the soul. Obatala explains that orishas’ souls are not replaceable. “For those of us born of the universe, the essence of what we are is complicated. Our soul is our bond to the universe – it is our immortality. We cannot forge a new one.”
  • Eli controls an army of spirits trapped in a bog in the fight against the Lord of Shadows. At one point, he allows a ghost to possess him, sharing its power.

by Madison Shooter

Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra

After tracking down incredible discoveries by Einstein and Darwin, Charlie is back. This time, the great ruler Cleopatra has left behind an extremely valuable and powerful treasure, its location encoded on an ancient stone tablet.

In 30 BCE, Cleopatra and her husband, Marc Antony, lost their war against Octavian for control of the Egyptian Empire. However, Cleopatra knew Octavian was really after the mysterious item that was the source of all her wealth and influence, so she hid it before committing suicide. She left a series of devious clues behind for her children to find, but they were lost to history. . .until now.

In a breathless adventure that takes her across the globe, Charlie must fight for her life against ruthless enemies, match wits with Cleopatra, and solve the two-thousand-year-old mystery to prevent the most powerful treasure of the ancient world from falling into the wrong hands. 

Because the story revolves around finding Cleopatra’s hidden treasure, the story contains many historical facts about Cleopatra, Caesar, and other important people. The history lessons are not boring; the interesting facts help the reader understand the political issues surrounding Cleopatra and will help readers empathize with Cleopatra, who was misjudged because she was a woman.  

Charlie is an extremely likable character, who is intelligent, capable, and brave. In order to keep Cleopatra’s treasure out of the wrong hands, Charlie puts her trust in her half-brother and CIA agent, Dante, and his partner, Milana. Along the way, they must avoid both the CIA, the Israeli, and the Egyptian agents who are willing to kill to take control of Charlie. Despite being chased around the globe, Charlie is remarkably down to earth. At one point, when the Israelis capture her, she tells the agent, “If you were actually nice people, you wouldn’t have dragged me down into the bowels of the Colosseum to talk to me. You would have taken me out for gelato.” 

Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra is best suited for older readers because of the violence, power-hungry villains, and deadly agents who are trying to capture Charlie. The action-packed story has a complicated plot, intense fight scenes, and life-or-death chases. The constant danger makes for an exciting book that readers will not want to put down. The mystery of Cleopatra adds an interesting dimension that will engage readers. Readers who are looking for another fast-paced mystery should check out the City Spies Series by James Ponti and the Secrets of the Seven Series by Sarah L. Thomson.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Charlie sneaks into Ahmet’s office. When he appears, “Charlie tricked him into turning his back on her. Now she clamped the chloroform-soaked rag. . . over his nose and mouth. . . He tried to fight back. . . Charlie simply leapt onto his back as if he were giving her a piggyback ride, wrapping her arms around his head and keeping the rag pinioned directly over his face.” Ahmet collapses to the floor. 
  • While leaving Ahmet’s party, two bodyguards chase after Charlie. Before she can take off on a motorcycle, Charlie “headbutted another man who was trying to catch her.” She escapes the house but is followed. 
  • Hoping to lose her pursuer, Charlie drives into the desert and allows her motorcycle to fly over a sand dune. Then, Charlie sees “the stocky, muscular shape of his body. He was aiming a gun at her.” The man forces Charlie to surrender. The chase scene is described over two chapters. 
  • The men who captured Charlie encounter a roadblock. “And then the shooting started. The snipers were aiming at the tires of the van, and they were extremely accurate. All four tires were blown out within seconds.” Charlie is let go. 
  • The Egyptian secret service questions Charlie’s captor, Semel. When Semel doesn’t answer the questions, “someone clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of a rifle. Not hard enough to knock him unconscious but close. He saw stars, felt blinding pain, and fell forward in the dirt.” 
  • While interrogating Semel, someone shoots the agent, who “yelped in pain, spun, and fell.” Multiple agents are shot in the leg, and Semel and his men escape.  
  • In order to get Charlie to comply with orders, one of her friends is captured by a man named Lembris. “Lembris stood behind Eva, pressing a crowbar against the front of her neck. Eva was crying.” Eventually, Milana fights Lembris and frees Eva. 
  • The following scenes are described over eleven pages. Ramses has his men surround Charlie, Milana, and Dante. In order to escape, Charlie “reached behind [Ramses’s] back and yanked on the electrical cord that dangled like a vine from the scaffolding above. The power drill attached to it tumbled off the scaffolding and landed squarely on Ramses’s head. . . The heavy drill hit Ramses hard, and he dropped like a stone.” 
  • Then, Milana goes after Ramses’s bodyguard. “She quickly disarmed him, then jabbed him with the sedative she had. . . it was just enough to incapacitate the big man.” 
  • When Ramses begins to get up, Dante “drove the Egyptian’s head down into the marble floor, knocking him out for good.” One of Ramses’s men, Baako, throws a crowbar at Dante. “Pain shot through him, but he could tell no bones were broken.” 
  • Baako and Dante continue to fight. Baako slammed into Dante, driving him backward into the scaffolding so hard that all four stories of it trembled. . .” Eventually the scaffolding falls onto Baako and he “lay unconscious beneath it all.”  
  • After finding one of Cleopatra’s clues, Charlie, Dante, and Milana are ambushed by their own agency, the CIA. Without warning “bullets came from all around. . . Dante sprang from where he’d been crouched and fired back, aiming at where the shots were coming from. There was a cry of pain in the darkness, and then at least one of the shooters stopped.” In order to escape, the group flees separately. 
  • As Charlie runs from the bullets, two cars begin following her. “The second car struck the first again, sending it into a low embankment, where it flipped and landed upside down. The second car was badly damaged as well. Its front axle snapped and it ground to a halt in the plaza in front of Charlie, blocking her escape.”  
  • When the driver of the car attempts to “escape through a shattered window. He was only halfway out when Semel clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of his gun, knocking him cold. . .” 
  • The chase scene is described over 10 pages. Dante had “a burn across one bicep where a bullet had nicked him. Milana had a gash from a knife in her left arm. . .” 
  • In an epic multi-chapter conclusion, several CIA agents try to take down Dante and Milana, who they believe are rogue agents. Milana “disarmed the stunned CIA operative and threw her to the ground” and then ran into Central Park. Eventually, Milana is able to incapacitate all of the agents. 
  • A rich villain, Ahmet, tries to kill Charlie with cobra venom. “Charlie hated to use the elixir to defend herself, but she had no other choice. The remaining drops of liquid flew through the air, caught Ahmet in the face, and instantly began to react. His flesh smoked and sizzled.” Ahmet’s skin begins to burn. 
  • Despite being injured, Ahmet chases Charlie. “He stepped on the jagged glass of the syringe with his bare foot. It cut into his flesh, and he suddenly realized that, in addition to everything else, the very cobra venom he had brought with him to kill Charlie Throne was now in his system as well.” When Ahmet continues to chase Charlie, she hits him with a helmet made of medieval armor. Ahmet is too injured to continue after Charlie.  
  • Two villains, Israeli agents, Egyptian agents, and the CIA agents all try to capture Charlie, Dante, and Milana. During the chase, several people are injured. One villain lunges at Charlie, trying to poison her with cobra venom. “Charlie hit him with the mace. . . the heavy iron ball struck his forearm, snapping both bones. . . He cursed at Charlie and charged toward her, leaving her no choice but to defend herself. She leapt aside and swung the mace at him once more. . . the iron ball glanced off his head, sending him reeling.” The villain falls off a ledge and “onto the rocks below.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Instead of allowing Octavian to capture her, Cleopatra “drank her poison and imagined how horrified Octavian would be when he learned what she had done.” 
  • At a party full of adults, Charlie talks to a man who “had a glass of scotch in his hand and was slightly unsteady on his feet; this obviously wasn’t his first drink of the evening.” 
  • In order to find one of Cleopatra’s clues, Milana needs to get an archaeologist out of the way, so she drugs her.  
  • Milana uses sedation darts to incapacitate rival agents who are trying to kidnap Charlie.  
  • During dinner, Dante drinks wine. 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Cleopatra’s treasure is the philosopher’s stone which turns “base metals into gold.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • Some people considered Cleopatra “more than human. They thought her to be a goddess, the living incarnation of Isis.” 
  • Isis was “the most important goddess in Egyptian mythology, the goddess of life and magic, and the protector of women and children. Cleopatra sometimes claimed to be Isis in the flesh and a lot of Egyptians believed it.” 
  • During Cleopatra’s time, the Nile flooded almost every year. People believed “a good flood year meant the gods were smiling on the Egyptians.” 

Curse of the Phoenix

Fraternal twins Zac and Lu live rather estranged lives despite living in the same household. Zac is always indoors due to his asthma and severe allergies. Lu can go outside and hang out with her friends, yet feels burdened by her brother’s medical emergencies. The only thing they have in common is that they both grew up listening to their mother’s stories about the Wildewoods, an imaginary land where mythical beasts roam free. These creatures fill up the pages of Zac’s sketchbooks and inspire Lu’s love of animals.  

When their mother dies, the twins are sent to England to spend the summer with relatives they’ve never met: their aunts Merle and Rowena, their uncle Conrad, and their cousins Penelope and Oliver. It doesn’t take long for the twins to discover the incredible secret hidden in the forest of their ancestral home. Their mother’s stories about centaurs, unicorns, and dragons were not made-up after all. Their family is the keepers of the Wildewoods, the last place on earth where mythical creatures can live safely away from human harm.  

There are many dangers that lie in these lands—and a terrible curse. When Zac and Lu become victims of the curse, their only hope is tracking down the last living phoenix. On their search, they discover family secrets, learn about the magical creatures, and come to terms with their mother’s death.

The chapters alternate between Lu’s and Zac’s perspectives which gives insight into each twin’s point of view. Because Lu is more cautious than her brother, Lu’s perspective focuses on the danger of the Wildewoods and helps the reader understand the lay of the land as well as how the family cares for the creatures. On the other hand, Zac sees the mystique of the magical creatures and is less mindful of their inherent danger to humans. Some readers will relate to the responsibility of an older sibling, and other readers will relate to the joy of discovering and exploring a new place.  

Zac and Lu stumble into danger whenever they venture into the lands and their relatives get hurt while fending off the mythical beasts that the twins stumble upon. For instance, their cousin Penelope fights a manticore to protect the twins but gets a lethal dose of the manticore’s venom, which incapacitates her for the rest of the summer. While the Wildewoods are scary and dangerous, they are portrayed as a traversable place for the family members to explore.  

The Curse of the Phoenix is a fun, magical story that captures the magnificence of magical creatures and depicts the weight of the consequences of one’s actions. This novel has a quick pace, and it seamlessly integrates the Wildewoods into Zac and Lu’s new lives. Questions about the curse are answered early on, giving more chances for the main characters to explore the vast parts of the Wilde, the family’s estate. Throughout the story, the relatives allude to past events, giving the story a sense of mystery. Readers will eagerly flip pages to see if their predictions were correct. This is a must-read book for its unique perspective on humans and their relationships with magical creatures. Readers who like exciting adventures with intriguing mysteries will enjoy Aimée Carter’s Simon Thorn Series as well as Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • On their first visit to the Wildewoods, Zac and Lu come across a dragon. The twins try to escape, but Lu accidently steps on a twig, grabbing the dragon’s attention. Lu tackles Zac into a heap of dirt right as the dragon attacks them with fire. “A plume of fire exploded from the dragon’s snout, missing them by inches.” A bright flash distracts the dragon, but it eventually refocuses on the twins. The dragon tries to attack with fire, but the twins’ Aunt Rowena protects them with a shield.  Then, she drives “the dragon into the trees with a massive shield.” Despite her protective equipment, “she was limping as she moved forward.” The encounter with the dragon lasts for two pages.  
  • Zac goes out to the Wildewoods to find the phoenix with Lu and Penelope in tow. They encounter the manticore. Zac draws its attention by throwing a stick at it. Zac “hurled his stick straight for its hindquarters. And as it made contact with a loud thwack, the monster roared again and whirled around, launching itself directly toward Zac instead.”  
  • To save Zac, Penelope jumps on the manticore’s back, and tries to cut the manticore’s flesh. “Penelope held on, clutching its stunted mane and continuing to press the knife into the manticore’s flesh, but it was too strong.” Penelope’s grip begins to slip, but their cousin Oliver cracks a whip at the manticore to distract it from her. However, the manticore had already stung Penelope and “she was unconscious and deathly pale.” Zac and Lu are uninjured, but Penelope remains bedridden for most of the story. The encounter with the manticore lasts for two pages.  
  • Oliver, using a bow and arrow, tries to shoot the phoenix so he can weaken it and capture it. The phoenix warned Zac about Oliver’s attempt. “That was when [Lu] heard it—a faint whistling sound. In that same instant, as her brother crashed into her, the whistling was punctuated by a loud rip, and Zac’s agonizing cry.” Lu stumbled backward, fighting to hold him up. “To her horror, blood began to stain his sleeve.” The arrow nicked Zac in the arm. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zac takes Benadryl to stop his allergic reactions and an inhaler to relieve his asthma symptoms. 

Language   

  • One of the twins’ aunts uses the word “bloody” multiple times. “Bloody” is a British slang word that means “very,” but it is considered a swear word in other regions. 
  • Zac thinks of the word “crap” when he tries to hide from Oliver, but accidentally gets Oliver’s attention.  

Supernatural 

  • The phoenix cursed the Wilde family as punishment for their ancestor’s cruel actions against magical creatures. Those born into the Wilde family are forced to stay near the Wildewoods estate. At the age of thirteen or upon entering the Wildewoods before turning thirteen years old, each blood-related family member receives a W-shaped mark on the palm of one of their hands. The marked family members cannot travel too far from the estate or else they will die.  
  • Zac gets occasional visions about the past due to his bond with the phoenix.  
  • The phoenix blood is a powerful healing agent that can heal any injury and cure any illness.  
  • The phoenix willingly gives Zac a drop of phoenix blood so he can heal Lu from an injury. When she drank the blood, “the arrow began to work itself out of her body . . . he wound in her stomach magically [closed] on its own.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Dragon Rider #1

Firedrake, a dragon living in a small valley in Nothern Scotland, is stunned when he learns that humans are about to flood his home. Firedrake consults his family of dragons, who tell him of a time past, where dragons lived in solitude in the far east, in a range of mountains called the Rim of Heaven. Since his fellow dragons are unable to hide from the humans forever, Firedrake, along with his brownie companion Sorrel, set out to find a new home in the Rim of Heaven.

As they travel in search of a mapmaker, they encounter an orphaned human boy, Ben, who they take with them on their travels. At the mapmakers, they learn of the existence of “The Golden One,” a fearsome creature named Nettlebrand, a dragon who hunts other dragons and is armored with impenetrable golden scales. Even with the threat of this mysterious creature, the group is determined to continue their journey and find the Rim of Heaven.

Flying over moonlit lands and sparkling seas, they encounter fantastic creatures, summon up surprising courage – and cross the path of a ruthless villain with an ancient grudge who’s determined to end their quest. Only a secret destiny can save the dragons in this enchanting adventure about the true meaning of home.

Dragon Rider is a tale with many twists and turns as the characters meet many new friends and confront countless setbacks on their way to the Rim of Heaven. The story’s focus on Firedrake’s travels does not allow for any real character development. However, Twigleg undergoes the most change since he develops from a spy to a trusted friend. The remaining cast of characters is entertaining as they do their best to protect one another on their misadventures. Furthermore, the characters’ reactions to situations are entertaining. For instance, the brownie Sorrel is full of insults, but she is also full of wit and concern for friends. The blundering yet cruel persona of Nettlebrand contrasted to his timid servants also earns a few laughs, making this story an overall enjoyable read for its humor and adventure.

Dragon Rider will become some readers’ favorite book because of its thrilling magical aspects. But, the many random encounters with magical creatures does not necessarily add to the plot development and the worldbuilding lacks detail. Despite this, the many funny and interesting characters make this story worthwhile. Another positive aspect of the story is that it highlights the need for one to find a sense of belonging which is reinforced by Firedrake’s desire to protect his kin. In the end, all the characters find themselves a new place to belong, but they never would’ve found it had they not gone looking. Dragon Rider will appeal to readers looking for an entertaining story full of adventure and creatures of legend.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Sorrel threatens Rat. “Stop winding us all up like this or I’ll tie a knot in your tail!”
  • Sorrel threatens to hurt another rat, Gilbert. “I’ve got a good mind to shut you in one of your own drawers!” Sorrel later says, “I ought to have tied that silly fat podge to his globe with his own tail.”
  • It is known that Nettlebrand ate eleven of Twigleg’s siblings, but this is not described.
  • Nettlebrand threatens to eat Professor Greenbloom. “Talk away! I’ll eat you any moment now.”
  • To escape the Professor, Gravelbeard, a dwarf, bites his hand. It is not injured.
  • A sea serpent briefly describes a fight with Nettlebrand. She fought with her sister against The Golden One. “We [the serpent sisters] wound our coils around [Nettlebrand’s] armor and kept [Nettlebrand’s] jaws shut with our bodies. But his golden scales were cold as ice and burned us.”
  • Sorrel suspects a raven is a spy, so she strikes the raven with a stone. Since brownie spit is magical, she spits on the stone first, then throws it. “Like lightning, she took aim and hurled the stone into the sky. It flew straight as an arrow to the raven, struck his right wing, and remained stuck to his feathers like a burr. Cawing angrily, the black bird fluttered about, beating his wings violently and lurching around in the sky as if he had lost all sense of direction. Ben watched incredulously as the raven pecked more and more frantically at his wing and finally few unsteadily away.”
  • Twigleg describes the consequences of Nettlebrand’s creation. “The more bored [Nettlebrand] was, the more violent and evil-tempered he grew . . . Nettlebrand, in his rage, ate all my brothers . . . [Nettlebrand] ate our maker too. . . but [Nettlebrand’s] still searching for dragons.”
  • When he finds out that he’s been betrayed, Nettlebrand threatens to kill Twigleg. “I’ll trample him to death! I’ll crack him like a nut! I’ll eat him alive the way I ate his brothers!”
  • Ben is caught by a giant bird who takes Ben to his nest as food for its chick. “Beating his wings vigorously, Firedrake landed on the edge of the nest, as close as possible to where Ben was sheltering. The huge chick retreated in fright. It uttered a hoarse crock and opened its beak menacingly . . . when [the chick] tried lunging at Ben again, the dragon bared his teeth and roared so threateningly that it flinched back in terror.” Ben is rescued before any harm comes to him.
  • No one is hurt in the final stand against Nettlebrand. The friends cover him in brownie spit and breathe dragon fire on him, which makes him turn into his original form, a toad. “The dragons swooped toward him. . . their blue fire licked at him, burning his limbs. Nettlebrand stared down at himself. His armor was melting into a sticky, golden sludge. . . White vapor, damp and cold as ice, surged from his jaws. Hissing, the chill escaped his body until he collapsed like a punctured balloon.” A toad hops out of the puddle of gold, unharmed.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • During a run-in with sand elves, the mischievous creatures toss around sleeping powder, which affects Ben. The next day, Firedrake asks Ben if he has “slept off his elfin hangover.”

Language

  • Sorrel is bad-tempered. She often uses the names of mushrooms in place of expletives such as “festering fungus” and “putrid puffballs.”
  • Some of the characters constantly insult one another. For example, Rosa calls Sorrel a “brainless mushroom-muncher” and says, “What thanks do I get? I have to listen to her silly fur-brained fancies!” Another insult is used later, when someone says, “You leaf-burrowing, mushroom-munching, shaggy-haired brownie.”
  • Sorrel calls many of the characters names such as dimwit, idiot, and stupid.
  • Sorrel also says that humans stick their “nasty furless noses” in places they don’t belong.
  • Sorrel tells Gilbert the rat that he has a “fat little ratty bum.” She also calls him “stuck up.”
  • Nettlebrand frequently insults his armor cleaner, Twigleg. He calls Twigleg a “bone-brained homunculus.” He also calls him “beetle-brain.”
  • Twigleg does not think very highly of Sorrel. He thinks, “The stuck-up, suspicious brownie! Laughing at him for eating flies, then stuffing her own face with those stinking mushrooms!”
  • Twigleg calls sand elves “stupid little things.”
  • Twigleg calls Sorrel a “pig-headed, pointed-eared brownie,” and adds, “Do you only ever open your eyes to tell one mushroom from another?”
  • Nettlebrand curses Twigleg when he finds out that he’s been betrayed. “That stinking flea! That spidery monstrosity! That sharp-nosed birdbrain!”
  • Twigleg calls Burr-Burr-Chan, another brownie, a “great furry fool.”
  • Twigleg also calls Sorrel “a stupid, pointy-eared nitwit.”

Supernatural

  • The book features talking animals such as Rosa Greytail, a talking rat who lives with the dragons. It also includes many mythical creatures including dragons, brownies, elves, dwarves, fairies, and more. An unknown magical force draws magical creatures together and allows them to speak the same language.
  • Dragons in this story are a bit unusual from the typical view of them. They have calm demeanors and live entirely on moonlight. Dragon fire can also cure injuries and bring out the true nature of any creature that has been enchanted by magic.
  • Twigleg, one of the main characters, is a homunculus or manikin, a being that is animated by alchemy.
  • Brownies are fictional cat-like creatures that walk on two legs and have magical saliva. Some have four or six arms, but Sorrel has two.
  • A magical form of communication is used between Nettlebrand and Twigleg in which one of them spits in water and can contact the other.
  • Nettlebrand is a dragon created to hunt dragons, made by an alchemist from indestructible metal. The alchemist used the ivory from dragon horns to make gold, which is why he needed a creature to hunt them.
  • The group meets a four-armed brownie named Burr-Burr-Chan who accompanies them for some time. “He looked almost like Sorrel, except that his coat was paler and thicker. And he had four arms.” Burr-Burr-Chan explains that he is a special type of brownie called Dubidai who protect the dragons.

Spiritual Content

  • The group of adventurers stop at a monastery that worships the dragons. There, Professor Greenbloom talks briefly about reincarnation. “These people [the monks] believe that we all live many lives on this planet. So any one of these children could really be older than the oldest grown-up monk.”
  • The monastery also has a temple to “The Kindly Gods” and one to “The Angry Gods” which are mentioned. The Angry Gods, “are said to keep all evil from the monastery and the village.” The evil includes spirits and natural disasters.

by Maddie Shooter

Ratpunzel

Harriet does not like sitting around her house, so when her friend, Prince Wilbur, tells her that he needs help finding his hydra’s stolen egg, Harriet is more than willing to accept the quest. During their search, they come across a friend of Prince Wilbur’s mother, Dame Gothel, and a tower where a rat princess with a long tail lives, named Ratpunzel. While trying to find the stolen hydra egg, the two hamsters try to gain the princess’s trust and find out more about the dame, but there is more than what initially meets the eye when it comes to this quest.

Ratpunzel uses the story elements of Rapunzel to create a humorous and fun adventure that will have readers eagerly turning the pages. Harriet takes the quest, happy to help her friends and leave the castle. As Harriet and Prince Wilbur go on their adventure, they discover that Dame Gothel is an evil witch. Gothel makes Ratpunzel cry and then uses her tears to turn every visitor into a wooden statue so Ratpunzel cannot escape the tower. Ratpunzel’s tears are an important part of Gothel’s magic because they come from a magical maiden “true and fair,” so Gothel keeps the princess close. Gothel is scary yet funny, and the readers will enjoy seeing how Harriet will foil the witch’s plan and get the hydra’s egg back.

On one of the hamsters’ visits to Ratpunzel’s tower, they learn that Ratpunzel cooks food to pass the time, but she does not know that no one likes it since everyone is polite to her. On top of that, she is optimistic about becoming a good chef, despite her odd dishes consisting of “fish-flake ice cream,” “asparagus waffles,” “sugar-and-shrimp pancakes,” and more! Ratpunzel’s interjections about her peculiar cooking add hilarity to the adventure.

Blue and white illustrations add to the wackiness of the book. Drawings with dialogue balloons help break up the text and keep the action moving. Ratpunzel shows the value of teamwork and will engage even the most reluctant readers. Ratpunzel is the third book in the Hamster Princess Series but can be enjoyed as a standalone book. With an unconventional heroine and many hilarious moments, Ratpunzel is a story that delights and amuses.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Weasel-wolves attack Harriet, Wilbur, and the battle quails. Harriet fought a weasel-wolf one on one, but “she didn’t have to do anything. She just held her sword up and the weasel-wolf’s jump carried it right into the pommel, cracking itself in the forehead.” When the weasel-wolf hit the pommel, it “fell on the ground.” The fight continues for two pages.
  • Another weasel-wolf shows up and tries to bite a battle quail, but he ends up with a mouthful of tail feathers. The battle quail spins around and kicks the weasel-wolf. The battle quail’s “legs shot out—one-two—and lifted the weasel-wolf off its feet. It [the weasel-wolf] flew through the air [and] bounced off a tree trunk.” Finally, the weasel-wolf ran away; the rest of the weasel-wolves ran away too. The fight lasts for two pages.
  • Ratpunzel hits Dame Gothel with a hydra eggshell. “WHACK! . . .And then [Dame Gothel] slumped over into the grass, knocked out cold.” Later, Dame Gothel wakes up groggy.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • Gothel turns Wilbur into a wooden statue using Ratpunzel’s tears. “Harriet heard a sploosh! a thud! and a very loud SNAP! . . . It was unmistakably Wilbur. It looked like a perfect wooden carving, down to the individual strands of hair and nails on his hands and his alarmed expression.”
  • Gothel traps Harriet with vines. “Green bands were snaking up her legs and were holding her in place. She swatted at the vines with her hands, and they whipped out and twined around her arms.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Jemima Cooke

The New Olympians

There is a horse named Tornado Warning that’s winning every race he enters—and faster than ever before seen—and Emily thinks the animal looks a lot like Pegasus. Afraid of what this might mean and of what Jupiter might do if he finds out, Emily, Joel, Paelen, Pegasus, and the sphinx Alexis decide to go to Earth to investigate. There they discover a plot to replicate Olympians and Nirads. The CRU has already created dozens of clones. Now they want to create their own Emily clone—and it doesn’t matter to them if the original Emily dies in the process. 

Can Emily and her friends put a stop to the CRU’s plans before Jupiter finds out and follows through on his threat to destroy the Earth? 

The New Olympians’ plot revolves around the CRU’s ability to make clones of the Olympians. The Olympians believe making clones is unnatural and that the humans must be stopped. Emily’s thoughts, the descriptions of the clones, and the Olympian’s views all reinforce the idea that making clones is immoral. To make matters worse, the CRU hopes to use the clones to dominate the world. An agent explains, “One world order isn’t a bad thing, Emily. There will be no more borders, no more wars . . . One language, one people and one country. . . The CRU is going to create Olympus on Earth.” In order to achieve this, the CRU will murder anyone who opposes them. While Emily has no desire to hurt anyone, she has no choice but to destroy the CRU facility and anyone who tries to stop her.  

The New Olympians has a more serious tone and ramps up the violence. Sensitive readers may be upset by the treatment of the clones, some of which have deformities and are kept in cages. While none of the actual deaths are described, the number of people who are injured, killed, and punished may be upsetting.  

One negative aspect of the story is inconsistencies in the characters’ actions. For example, even though the CRU can identify Paelen, he still puts himself and others in danger when he goes to the Las Vegas strip to see the sights. In the first two books, Paelen tries desperately to prove that he is no longer a thief. However, in The New Olympians, he steals several times and acts as if he enjoys the thrill of thievery. In another instance, Emily and her friends’ original goal was to verify that the CRU had indeed made clones. However, instead of reporting back to Jupiter once they’ve confirmed the existence of clones, the group decides to confront the CRU. Despite their knowledge of the CRU’s cruel tactics, the group makes several unrealistic decisions. For example, Agent T, who used to work for CRU, leads the group to a small town close to Area 51. Even though he knows the area is crawling with agents, Agent T thinks the group will go unnoticed. However, Agent T is quickly dispatched. Agent T’s presence doesn’t shed light on any new information which makes that section of the story feel unimportant and a waste of pages. 

Readers who have read the first two books in the series will find The New Olympians frustrating because of the story’s inconsistencies, Emily’s lack of character growth, and events that do not advance the plot. However, readers may enjoy the reappearance of several characters from the previous books. The New Olympians wraps up the main conflict with the CRU’s clone-making abilities, which allows the next book in the series, Pegasus and the Origins of Olympus, to take Emily back in time to the origins of Olympus and to the deadly battle between the Olympians and the Titans. Readers who love traveling to other worlds where pegasi live should also read the Riders of the Realm Series by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. 

Sexual Content 

  • After Joel scores a winning goal, the sphinx Alexis “brushed back the hair from Joel’s eyes, leaned forward, and kissed him full and long on the lips.” The kiss makes Emily jealous. 
  • The newspaper prints a picture of Tornado Warning, who looks like Pegasus’ twin. One of the Olympians asks Pegasus, “Did you get up to some mischief while you were in Emily’s world?” 

Violence 

  • Emily and her friends break into a house that belongs to Agent T and Earl. When Agent T comes down the stairs, he screams. “Alexis knocked to the floor a long-haired man wearing a brown bathrobe. Emily received her first look at Alexis’s eating teeth as the Sphinx stood on the man’s chest and prepared to kill him. . . Huge, sharp canines filled her mouth as her jaw unhinged to allow her to open her mouth wider than Emily had thought possible.” Joel calms the sphinx down before anything worse happens.  
  • A newspaper article describes a robbery, saying “there was only one survivor of the massacre.” 
  • Another newspaper article describes a boy who broke into a chocolate store. “One witness said he was super strong and tossed everyone around like they weighed nothing.”  
  • When Pegasus sees Tornado Warning, Pegasus attacks him. “Tornado Warning charged out of his stable. Rearing up, the two glowing stallions attacked each other with all the fury they possessed. Pegasus’s wings opened and smashed at Tornado’s head, knocking him into the large open training ring.”  
  • Pegasus’s brother tries to stop the fight, but “all his presence did was to infuriate Tornado Warning further. The gray stallion rose high in the air and came crashing down on Chrysaor with his powerful front hooves. Driven to the ground, the winged boar squealed in pain.” Chrysaor is injured.  
  • Ranch hands hear the horses fighting and go to investigate. “A blast from a shotgun fired at Pegasus alerting the group. . . [Emily] raised her hands in the air. No flame emerged, but the man was lifted over the heads of the fighting stallions and thrown to the opposite side of the stable.” Agent T holds the ranch hands at gunpoint.  
  • The stallions continue to fight. “Pegasus was steadily gaining over Tornado. Despite the racing stallion’s strength, he was no match for the enraged Olympian . . . Tornado Warning was covered in blood from the deep cuts caused by Pegasus’s hooves. His eyes were closed, and he wasn’t breathing.” The fight is described over six pages. 
  • Agent T needs information about Tornado Warning. A ranch hand named Rip refuses to talk, so Agent T “slapped Rip across the face.” Rip is still defiant and Alexis attacks. “Moments later Rip Russell was on the ground, crying in pain and grasping his lower legs. His jeans were torn from Alexis’s claws, and blood was rising to the surface.”  
  • When Rip and some other ranch hands try to grab Emily, Alexis attacks them. Emily closes her eyes, so she doesn’t see the attack, but Agent T tells her, “Keep your eyes shut; you don’t want to see this.” Alexis kills the men who were “going after Emily.” Later, Emily sees blood on her clothes.  
  • When Agent T tries to talk to the CRU, they attack him and Alexis. Alexis’ wings are dislocated. Alexis thinks Agent T is dead, so she runs to warn the others. 
  • The CRU soldiers try to capture Emily and her friends. When the soldiers arrive, “Popping sounds filled the air as they fired. [Emily] felt the stings on her arms and back and realized they were using tranquilizer darts. . . She held up her hand and released the laserlike flame at the nearest military vehicle. It exploded in a brilliant blast.” This causes a chain reaction that blows up the other vehicles.  
  • The CRU also try to capture Tornado Warning. The horse “stopped, spun around, and charged the soldiers who were trying to capture him. . . He instinctively used his wings as weapons. He flapped them and struck the men who were trying to catch him. Others were kicked by his lethal hooves. . . the winged racehorse [was] finally brought down by the countless tranquilizer darts being shot into him.” 
  • During the attack, Joel is shot. In anger, Emily goes after the military helicopters. “Emily focused her eyes on the closest helicopter. . . Emily raised her hands and unleashed the flame.” The story implies that Emily destroys all the helicopters. The attack is described over five pages. 
  • While walking down a Las Vegas street, two men “pulled out weapons and shoved them into Paelen’s and Joel’s backs.” They take Paelen, Joel, and Frankie to their mob boss. After the mob boss threatens to kill them, Joel and Paelen attack the men. “A shot went off and hit Joel’s arm, but the bullet ricocheted off the silver and hit one of the men.” Paelen is shot in the head. “The bullet knocked Paelen backwards. He felt a searing pain in the center of his forehead. . . Joel charged the shooter. . . The tattooed man cried out as the bones in his arm shattered under the impact of Joel’s silver arm.” The scene is described over seven pages. 
  • After subduing the mob boss’ men, Joel tries to get the mob boss to talk. When he refuses, Joel “put his silver hand around the man’s throat and hoisted him up in the air. As the tattooed man squirmed and tried to break free, Joel slammed him hard against the wall.” The man eventually talks. Joel and Paelen then tie up the man and leave. 
  • When Paelen’s clone sees him, the clone attacks. The clone “smashed through the diner door and turned on Paelen. It screeched and roared and charged at him with murderous fury in his eyes. . . The clone lifted Paelen in the air and threw him through the plate-glass window of the diner. . . The clone struck out at Joel with a brutal blow that threw him several meters in the air. Joel landed on the roof of a seller’s pushcart and slipped down to the ground, badly winded.” 
  • As the fight continues, Paelen “tore up a streetlight from the pavement and used the pole like a bat, smashing the clone into a tall, brightly lit casino sign. Lightbulbs burst and sparked as debris poured down into the street.” As Paelen and the clone throw each other around, they start a fire. 
  • Ignoring the fire, Paelen “hurled the clone at the biggest, heaviest thing he could find—a lighted wall of a casino. The casino’s sign exploded with the impact, and the wall crumbled. As the clone fell to the ground, part of the lighted sign collapsed and fell on top of it.”  
  • A police officer raises his weapon at an injured Paelen. When Paelen refuses to stop, the officer shoots a taser. “Electrical current tore through him. He lost control of his muscles and collapsed to the ground, convulsing. The pain was intense, and he couldn’t move.” Paelen passes out and wakes up in jail. The fight scene is described over five pages. 
  • Paelen breaks out of jail, and returns to his hiding place, but the clone is still able to find him. “The clone, caught hold of him and, screaming in rage, lifted him high above its head. Snarling with uncontrolled hatred, it hurled Paelen at the painted window. . .” Paelen falls off the building and is presumed dead.  
  • In order to keep her friends safe, Emily shoots at the military helicopters that are shooting at them. “One by one, the helicopters exploded in the air and rained fire down on the dark desert floor. Soon they were alone.” 
  • In an epic, multi-chapter conclusion, the Olympians, led by Emily, fight the CRU. Emily tries to talk to the CRU soldiers, who shoot her. Emily “felt her body exploding in pain as several bullets found their mark. Thrown backwards, she hit her head on the ground with an explosive impact.” In a panic, Emily accidentally makes Alexis and Pegasus disappear and Emily assumes she has killed them. 
  • When Jupiter finds out what is happening on Earth, he takes his two brothers—Pluto and Neptune—to Earth. To help Joel, the three go to the police station. The police “opened fire on the chariots. Unaffected by their bullets, Jupiter returned fire with his lightning bolts. Suddenly the ground beneath the police exploded as Neptune commanded water to come forth.” 
  • When another police officer shoots at Pluto, “he swept his hand in the air. An instant later, the officer collapsed dead to the ground.” As they talk to the police, helicopters appear. “A second rocket was fired at the Olympians. Jupiter raised his arm, and the rocket shot away from the chariots and tore into the police station. The rocket exploded on impact. . .” Jupiter “fired powerful lightning bolts at [the helicopters]. They burst into flame and crashed down to the street in a heap of burning metal.” 
  • The military continues to shoot weapons at the Olympians, who remain unharmed. The weapons “were defeated by the Olympians’ powers and crashed into a big black pyramid-shaped building. The light at its top went out, the windows exploded, and the building burst into flame.”  
  • The CRU captures the Nirad prince, Toban. They secure him to a table with gold and the gold burns his skin. The gold “scalded him until his skin smoldered, opened, and bled. [Emily] watched scientists extracting fresh black blood and skin samples from the suffering young prince. . . The prince’s eyes were shut as he writhed and howled in pain. The tight gold bands were cutting deep into his smoking, open flesh.” 
  • To destroy the CRU’s ability to make clones, Emily destroys Area 51. “Emily unleashes her power. Laserlike flames rushed from her hands and burned their way into the buildings. . . The sounds of the groaning and crumbling facility filled the air and grew in intensity until they become almost unbearable . . . The dust settled, and where once stood the CRU facility was nothing but an impossibly large crater.” 

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Emily meets Tornado Warning, one of the workers tells her, “Tornado Warning is loco. He has killed two riders. No one can touch him unless he is drugged.” In order to control Tornado Warning, the horse is given sedatives.  
  • In order to keep Tornado Warning from fighting with Pegasus, the horse is given “heavy tranquilizers” that make him sleep.  
  • Paelen meets a homeless boy named Frankie. Frankie’s mother abandoned him, and the boy is being cared for by a man who is drunk often. 
  • In order to steal money, Paelen targets a drunk gambler. 

Language   

  • The adults use profanity infrequently. Profanity includes darn, heck, damn, and hell. For example, Agent T asks Emily, “what the hell are you doing back here?” 
  • Oh God and Lord are used as exclamations several times.  

Supernatural 

  • The story includes many Greek Gods, who have supernatural powers, such as the sphinx Alexis who can “read a human’s intentions.” 
  • The sphinx Alexis is given Pluto’s helmet of invisibility so she can travel around Earth without being seen. 
  • Emily can heal others. She also has new, unpredictable powers. She explains, “Sometimes I can move things. Sometimes items disappear and I can never find them again. And sometimes they explode.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • When Emily plans to go to Earth without permission, she “prayed she would be returning to him in Olympus soon with good news.” 
  • When Earl finds out about Tornado Warning, he says, “pray to God he’s just a horse and not an Olympian clone.” 
  • When Emily leads the military away from her friends, Paelen prayed, “Be safe, Emily.” 
  • At Agent T’s request, Jupiter turns him into a willow tree. Jupiter explains that Agent T is a “very happy” tree. “Agent T will never feel pain but can still experience joy. He can think, speak, and live a long and happy life with Alexis.” 
  • In order to punish the CRU staff, Pluto changes them into Prometheus Oak trees. “Being turned into a Prometheus Oak is living torture. He will remain fully conscious and aware of his previous life. He will feel everything. . . His bark is like breaking bones, and when the wind blow through his leaves, you will hear him screaming.” 

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