Heroes of the Water Monster

Edward isn’t sure about this whole “step-brother” thing, especially now that his dad is moving in with his girlfriend and her preteen son, Nathan. Their new place in Arizona may be nice, but relocating is already hard enough due to their family’s Navajo—also known as Diné—heritage. According to the Diné, children lose communication with the Holy Beings once they hit puberty, and Nathan’s already started the process of becoming a man. For most people, this is part of growing older, but Nathan has become the guardian of a young water monster named Dew. Nathan’s ability to see her is fading, so he quickly has to entrust Dew’s care to Edward.  

To make matters more complicated, Dew’s older sister, a powerful water monster named Yitoo, is coming to The Fourth World—Earth—to teach Dew the traditional songs of the water monsters. Having been away in the Third World for nearly 150 years, Yitoo’s return is ruined when she discovers that something is wrong in the Fourth World. The waters from her river are depleted and the environment is suffering. Alongside Dew, Edward, and Nathan, Yitoo travels the length of her river to find the source of the cutoff. To her dismay, the city of Pheonix, Arizona has redirected her river to service the population’s waterparks, golf courses, and sprinkler systems. This frivolous use of her precious resource prompts her to vow revenge on humankind. 

Together, Dew, Edward, and Nathan team up to stop Yitoo from using her water monster power to unleash a massive hurricane on the Phoenix area. They meet other creatures and people from Diné creation stories who give them advice and special gear for their final confrontation. Eventually, the team of friends is able to stop Yitoo before she can punish humanity. As Nathan sees Dew, Yitoo, and the other Holy Beings for the last time before growing up, he and Edward promise to keep their Diné heritage alive and work towards a future where humans treat the natural world with respect.  

Heroes of the Water Monster’s plot is a straightforward save-the-world type of story, but the traveling between different worlds and mythical creatures can be confusing at times. As for the narrators, the story switches between the perspectives of Nathan and Edward. Nathan’s point of view is more mature and forgiving towards others, while Edward is more impulsive and childish. Edward is also half Diné, half white, which creates interesting tension as he struggles with his mixed identity. The difference between the narrators gives a unique perspective on the events of the story, especially when Edward and Nathan disagree on whether or not to help Yitoo. Because Edward and Nathan are both likable and thoughtful narrators, the reader understands why each boy feels the way they do. Despite their different ages, both Edward and Nathan had valuable input and opinions on the story’s events. 

Heroes of the Water Monster is an interesting tale filled with many cultural references. If readers have no prior experience with Navajo/Diné culture, this story may be a bit difficult to read. However, in order to understand the story, some readers may need to use the glossary provided at the end of the book.  

The main theme of Heroes of the Water Monster is generational trauma, which is showcased through the water monster Yitoo. While Yitoo is the villain in the end of the story, she is also Edward and Nathan’s friend. She has lived for hundreds of years, which means that she lived through the forced relocation of the Diné. She exhibits the rage that displaced people experience when they are horribly mistreatment and the destruction of the sacred environment they once called home.  

At first, Edward and Nathan don’t know if they have a right to stop Yitoo, but they realize that they have a shared history, and a shared future, too. While they may not be the legendary Twin Heroes who defeated fearsome creatures of legend in Diné stories, they do have the power to impact the world their descendants will inherit. A Holy Being advises Nathan and Edward that, “It stands to reason that a Modern Enemy would surrender to Modern Heroes.” 

Thus, the modern heroes, Edward and Nathan, work to convince Yitoo and themselves that they can’t hold the current population responsible for what their ancestors did. A better future isn’t achieved through revenge, but by educating and making changes for the better. Edward, Nathan, Yitoo, and Dew all have to grapple with their identity and the painful past that comes with it. In order to heal, they have to accept the past as part of their identity and use their grief in constructive ways. Edward’s father says, “We Diné, like all Indigenous Nations, have a past filled with heartbreak and devastation. But we also have a brilliant, shining future.” 

Sexual Content 

  • Janet, Nathan’s Mom, and Ted, Edward’s Dad, greet each other. “Janet . . . walked into [Ted’s] arms. They kissed.”   

Violence 

  • Occasionally, the Diné’s forced relocation is discussed. These stories mention some of the abuse, murder, torture, and death of the Diné at the hands of the U.S. government. One story mentions two brothers whose parents were killed in front of them. “From the cornfield, the boys saw their dad arguing with a soldier. The other solider pointed their rifles at the mom and dad. . . [They] covered their eyes but still heard the loud shots.”  
  • After killing their parents, the soldiers kill all their livestock and force the boys to walk to Fort Defiance, Arizona where they are imprisoned. They were almost fed poison, but were saved by a handful of nurses who tossed their food on the ground. “[Those] who had eaten the rations became deathly ill. . . The sick were left to die. . . The rest were forced to march in many long lines eastward. . .” 
  • On the trail, there was more hardship and death. Those who fell behind were killed. Elderly, young kids, and even pregnant women. The Diné were also forced to swim across a river, and one of the brothers drowns. “The elderly and the young people around them struggled against the strong current. . . A sound more disturbing than the screaming of the drowning grew. It was silence. Many bodies sank beneath, did not rise again, and drifted downriver. Halfway across, the river took [the] younger brother.” 
  • Yitoo describes her perspective of the aforementioned story: the forced relocation of the Diné crossing her river. “One by one, the Diné walked down the hill and into the river. The elderly and youth struggled around the strong current. Blankets of water smothered them. I did my best to calm the waters. But I couldn’t sing. I was too shocked at everything around me. . . A curtain of bubbles arose from all the violent thrashing of the drowning. Their screams quieted. Their bodies became cold. When I’m alone, I still hear their screams. When I sleep, I dream of the faces of those who sank beneath the river and did not rise again.” 
  • When Nathan and Drew try to stop Yitto from attacking Phoenix, Yitoo attacks them with her water. “A rope of water wrapped around [Nathan’s] waist and Dew’s neck and pulled them into the crater. Warm water invaded every atom of Nathan’s being. . . He couldn’t stop the invisible force yanking his waist. . . Just then, Dew appeared in front of him. With a mighty jaw snap near his belly button, she severed the pull.”  
  • Edward, Nathan, and Dew are attacked by a Guardian when visiting a sacred mountain that takes the shape of a mountain lion. The Guardians are creatures meant to protect the mountains from intruders. “Edward yelled in horror as in seconds a mountain lion with velvet fur, the color of sunflower petals, had already snuck up on them. It leaped into the air and landed in front of them with an earthquaking thud. . .  Its tree-thick tail slammed into Nathan’s chest, sending him flying yards away from them. The Guardian lifted a paw and slapped Dew across her jaw. Dew dizzily walked forward and then was pinned under the Guardian’s other paw. . . Then the most horrifying thing happened. The Guardian bit down into the back of Dew’s neck. Dew squealed a blood-curdling wail that made Edward nauseous. Dew’s body went completely silent and limp.” Dew survives.  
  • The final fight between Edward, Dew, Nathan, and Yitoo lasts nearly 30 pages. Much of the confrontation is conversation, but it does get violent when Yitoo fights back against Edward, Nathan, and Dew. Yitoo has impenetrable armor that protects her for the majority of the fight, but the armor is weakened when the boys use one of the Sacred Arrows against her, and it breaks open a spot in Yitoo’s armor that Edward stabs. “Edward jabbed the tip of the knife against Yitoo. Immediately, ribbons of lightning raced across Yitoo’s body. They covered her entire body from head to tail, shoulders to toes, and entered her throat as she howled in pain. Even if she wasn’t his favorite Holy Being, [Edward] hated hearing how much pain she was in. Still, he held the knife on to her. More and more bolts of lightning raced from the tip of the knife throughout her massive body. But finally, after a few seconds that felt like an hour of seeing Yitoo squirm and spasm, the lightning disappeared and her entire body fell against the ocean, creating one last final wave. . . Yitoo lay limp, and smoke emerged from her mouth.” This does not kill Yitoo, and she is exiled to the Fifth World.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Nathan’s Uncle Jet, who is briefly mentioned, deals with PTSD which led to his alcoholism and depression. He is not shown drinking during the story. 

Language   

  • Yitoo calls the behavior of “The Pale People,” a term for white colonists, “damnable.” 

Supernatural 

  • Water monsters are a type of Holy Being that play a large role in the story. They are creatures of legend that inhabit bodies of water. They have many powers, including controlling water, turning it to ice, using it to travel long distances and more. They use these powers frequently, which is done by singing.  
  • Yitoo and Dew are both water monsters. Water monsters look like lizards. Edward describes Dew as “a tiny Komodo dragon” with “diamond designs like a Diné rug” on her back and stomach. They can also speak.  
  • Nathan learns water monster songs, which gives him some control over water. Water monsters are also able to control their size by taking in or expelling water, such as when Yitoo grows herself into a massive size to create the hurricane.  
  • Yitoo can keep her water as jewelry and unleash it at will.  
  • Nathan has a ring made of turquoise that allows him to communicate with all beings. He uses it to speak to the water monsters. Later, Edward gets one too. 
  • Two Holy Beings called Jet Stone Boy and Jet Stone Girl meet Nathan. They have crystal-like skin and travel on a rainbow. 

Spiritual Content 

  • There are countless references to Diné beliefs. The main ones include creation stories, Holy Beings, and the water monsters. The Diné language is also used frequently, which can be translated using a glossary in the back of the book.  
  • Some of the Holy Beings include Spider Woman, a legendary weaver, Father Sun, who created the universe, Mother Earth, Moon Lady, and Tall Woman. 
  • In addition to the Holy Beings, which are typically good or neutral beings, there are evil beings called Enemies who, in Diné legend, are defeated by the Twin Heroes, two Holy Being brothers who fought the Enemies. Edward gives examples of the Enemies: “Thunderbird, who could summon dangerous lightning storms; and Wild Boar, who could run at unheard-of speeds to hunt humans for hundreds of years.”  
  • One of the references in the story is to the Third World, Fourth World, Fifth World, and Celestial Realm. The Third World is a realm where Holy Beings, such as the water monsters, come from.  
  • Yitoo came from the Third World. She was the first water monster to come into the Fourth World, Earth. “Yitoo was the first one. She’s so powerful that she bit into the ocean of the Third World and brought that water [to the Fourth World].” The Fifth world is a mystical land beyond these worlds that Yitoo travels to when she is exiled. 
  • Diné Bikéyah is the term for the holy land of the Diné, located between the Four Sacred Mountains.  
  • Three times in the story, sweetgrass is discussed. The burning of sweetgrass is a native ritual practice used to purify the spirit. “Nathan asked Yitoo for some of her energizing sweetgrass. She happily provided some from her medicine bag. . . Nathan lit the tips of the sweetgrass and then immediately blew them out. A thin trail of smoke wafted in the air. Both Nathan and Edward inhaled. The delicious smoke flowed into their nostrils. . . The dark shadows underneath Edward’s eyelids disappear[ed] and his posture straighten[ed]” 
  • Edward and Nathan climb one of the sacred mountains, Tsoodził. After sprinkling corn pollen on the ground as a sign of respect, Edward says, “Ted had said that only medicine folk were allowed to set foot on the mountains to gather sacred medicine and sands. The medicine folk had to sing ceremonial songs the entire time they were on the mountain to protect themselves and as a gesture of respect.” Each of the scared mountains are protected by a Guardian, a powerful creature meant to kill intruders.  
  • Edward and Nathan obtain two objects when visiting the Celestial Realm, the Obsidian Armor and Sacred Arrows. The arrows can create various magical effects, such as a bright light or a rainbow, and the Obsidian Armor will protect the wearer against Holy Beings and fit them perfectly.  

Valley of Kings

If Alex and Ren are going to stop the Death Walkers, they must find the powerful Lost Spells. So, they head to the Valley of the Kings, deep in the Egyptian desert — where they discover that Egypt is in the grips of madness. Voices in the air whisper dark secrets and flashes of light burn across the night sky. Plus, their hunt for the Spells keeps getting sabotaged. Every step they take, The Order is hot on their trail. There’s no dodging, no hiding. Is someone leaking their secrets? Is there anyone they can trust?

With the help of his best friend, Ren, and his cousin, Luke, Alex continues his search for his mother. When they get to Egypt, The Order – “a criminal cult that had haunted Egypt for thousands of years” – is on their trail, leading to many action-packed chase scenes. Soon, the three kids are heading to the Valley of Kings. While there, their search for clues proves fruitless.

Along the way, the kids meet King Tut, who is looking for his heart. King Tut’s appearance adds some much-needed humor and teaches about ancient Egyptians. While the kids do fight a Death Walker, most of the story is focused on keeping away from The Order. In the end, the Death Walker’s demise is anticlimactic because he rarely appears and his strange powers are never explained. 

Valley of Kings is a disappointing installment in the TombQuest Series. Alex and his companions spend too much time running away from thugs and not enough time investigating his mother’s disappearance. The Order ramps up the violence and shows that they are willing to kill innocent people to gain power. But by the end of the story, Alex is no wiser and has no new information about his mother or the Order. In addition, there is a shocking betrayal that will leave readers confused and heartbroken. King Tut is the one bright spot in the story. However, readers interested in learning about King Tut and Ancient Egypt’s culture would do better to wrap their hands around The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • A man who works for The Order takes a new employee named Abdel to a warehouse. Abdel opens a door, “releasing a rush of stinking air and a swarm of dark whispers so strong that Abdel could feel them, like snake tongues on his skin.” Abdel sees an “abomination.” The other man pushes Abdel into the room and locks the door.
  • After being locked in a room, Abdel hears “ten thousand whispers combined. . . Unleashed, the heavy whispers cut into him, no longer tongues but teeth! Each one grabbed a piece, tore it off, gobbled it down. It wasn’t his body they were devouring; it was his soul.” The man dies as his body “was torn to bits, devoured.”
  • When Alex and his friends get to Egypt, a cab driver tells them about a doctor who “heard voices and then attacked a patient with a metal crutch.” 
  • When Alex sees an Order thug, he “gripped his amulet tighter with his left hand as his right shot up and unleashed a spear of concentrated wind that knocked the man back against the wall. . . his head hit the bricks and his eyes fluttered closed.” Then, “a flash of crimson light lit the Egyptian dusk and people began to fall to the ground.” Alex and his group run and hide.
  • The Order tries to find Alex and his group. They break down a door and Alex “turned just in time to see the last figure in line glide silently into the house: a very thin woman wearing a pale white mask — the skull of a lioness. . . As she disappeared inside, the doorway lit up red. The Order had followed the wrong trail and someone else had just paid the price.”
  • Peshwar and other members of The Order break into a museum to kidnap Alex and his friends. Tired of running, Alex grabs his amulet and “his right hand shot up, his fingers spread slightly. . . a column of desert air rose up and rushed forward. . . the lioness [Peshwar] staggered backward a few steps. . . A heavy main door slammed shut. A thick crunch and a pitiable wail could just be heard over the shipping winds as the forearm of the man about to enter was pinned in place. . .”
  • Peshwar goes on the offensive. “Alex looked up in time to see a red glow sprout from Peshwar’s closed right hand and form itself into something like an icicle: A jagged, uneven shard of crimson light. . . The glowing energy dagger flew through the air.” To save Ren, Alex jumps in front of her. “The blood-red slice of light pierced the elbow of Alex’s outstretched left arm.” The light causes pain, but no lasting damage. 
  • As Alex and his group flee, Alex hears “the thick whisper of a silencer — Frummp! — and then a bullet plinked off the heavy stone sarcophagus.” No one is hit.
  • Hessan, the museum curator, helps Alex and his friends escape. As a diversion, he goes to fight Peshwar and her group. Alex “heard the sharp sound of a pistol handle to the skull and the dull thump of Hessan’s stocky body hitting the floor.” Alex and his friends escape through a secret tunnel. The chase scene is described over seven pages. 
  • While on a train, The Order drugs Alex and tries to kidnap him. When a man tries to zip tie Alex, Luke “clocked the intruder in the head with a shiny new ten-pound dumbbell . . . the man collapsed heavily to the floor.” The two boys “dragged the guy out into the hall” and push him off the train. “They watched the man tumble limp-limbed down a sandy bank.”
  • Alex and his friends discuss King Tut. “A lot of people think he was murdered. His heart was missing when they found him. And my mom says there was a hole in his head.”
  • Alex and his friends go into an Egyptian tomb and find grave robbers. When Alex questions them, he hears the cock of a gun. The grave robbers threaten them but then leave.
  • In King Tut’s tomb, Alex finds human bones and “scraps of scorched uniforms; the remains of a pistol, its melted barrel drooping down like a water faucet; two skulls, two large rib cages.”
  • While in the Valley of Kings, a Death Walker tries to kill Alex and his friends. “A pulse of pure white light flashed out from the man’s eyes. All three friends called out in pain and surprise. Every inch of exposed skin had been suddenly and severely sunburned. . .” 
  • The kids run from the Death Walker, who creates a “rolling ball of fire” and prepares to throw it at Ren. Alex uses his amulet. “A wind more powerful than Alex expected rose instantly and swept across the floor of the valley. . . Alex saw the glow of the flaming orb smothered completely. . .” The kids escape. The scene is described over eight pages.
  • Peshwar and her goons steal ancient sacred stones. “A few men tried to get in front of the truck as it pulled away. A warning shot was fired in the air. There were angry shouts, but in the end the men moved. . .. “
  • While walking at night, an adult friend of Alex is attacked when by a random man. The man stepped out and “Todtman saw a kitchen knife in his hand. The blade flashed out fast—but not fast enough. The man was already spinning up and away, tossed through the air like a Frisbee. He hit the pole of the streetlight. . .” The man dies.
  • The story ends with a multi-chapter face-off between Alex, his friends, and the Death Walker. The Death Walker, Akhenotra, creates a fire ball. “Alex swung his head back around and flame filled his vision. The Walker had released his fire ball, and it was rocketing toward him. . .” Alex holds up a book which the fire hits. “Alex was left shaking his burned fingers.” 
  • The Death Walker tries to destroy Alex and his friends so he can eat their souls. “Akhenotra’s jaw suddenly dropped open. Flame poured from his open mouth. Alex lurched to the side and tried to fall back out of the way. . .he screamed as he felt the searing flames burn through his shirt and bite into the soft flesh of his left shoulder.”
  • Akhenotra tries to kill Tut by throwing a fire ball at him. “But Tut merely pressed both hands together in front of him as if praying. The flames broke on his hands like a wave splitting against a pier. Tut was shrouded in fire, but uninjured.”
  • During his life, Akhenotra stole Tut’s heart in order to use it as an offering to the sun God. Now, Tut attacks to take his heart back. Tut brought “his sword down hard only to have it blocked by the thick handle of the mace. He brought his sword up and down four more times in quick succession, each blow blocked. . . The heavy curved blade of Tut’s khopesh [sword] cut clean through the handle of the mace and sunk deep into the Death Walker’s chest. Both halves of the mace thunked to the floor.” However, the Death Walker cannot be killed because he’s already dead. 
  • Alex reads a spell from the Book of the Dead. Afterwards, Alex looks up to see “Tut was standing with his own bronze sword buried deep in [Akhenotra’s] chest, the blade no longer aflame but still sizzling slightly. . . And Akhenotra—Alex gazed at the space in front of Tut—Akhenotra wasn’t standing at all.” 
  • When Alex is in Tut’s tomb, “the crack of a rifle and the ping of a bullet jarred him back to brutal reality. . . An energy dagger exploded into the sandy ground at Alex’s feet with a vicious crackle. . . A chorus of rifle fire followed, and the two remaining friends dove for cover.” 
  • Alex and Ren try to hide. Ren sees “the toe of a boot poke out from the side of the altar. One of the gunmen had reached them. . . [Ren] brought the sword up and down. . . blood rushing out the chopped-off end of his boot.”
  • To escape The Order, Luke runs into the desert. “The valley floor in front of him lit up rose-red. . . The energy dagger sank into his back with a dull crackling sound and a pain more intense than he’d ever imagined possible. He fell to the hard desert ground, full-speed and face-first, like a gazelle gunned down mid stride.” Luke dies.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • The Order drugs Alex, who “tried to get up but his body felt so heavy that the best he could do was roll out of his bunk. . . his numb body barely registered the impact.” Both his mind and body become numb.
  • When asked to use her amulet, Ren thinks that it isn’t like “freaking Google!”
  • Luke calls Ren and Alex “nerds” and “Goofball-ese.”
  • The Death Walker calls Alex a “little heretic.”

Supernatural

  • Alex’s amulet “was a symbol of resurrection in ancient Egypt, and his amulet dealt with life, death, and rebirth.” It gives Alex the ability to control wind.
  • While walking in the Valley of Kings, Ren sees a man change. “His loose clothing shimmered and faded away, gone just like the heat haze that had surrounded him. In its place, an ancient outfit: a white tunic laced with golden thread. . . the face beneath it was dark tan . . . and horribly blistered.” The man was a Death Walker. Later, the Death Walker changes shape again.
  • “The ancient Egyptians believed that if they had a statue of themselves built before they died, they could, like, inhabit it in the afterlife. Their spirit could take on its shape.”
  • The Death Walker has the ability to create fire balls.
  • Alex and Ren run through a false doorway that leads into the afterlife and then pop out in some unknown location.

Spiritual Content 

  • The Egyptians believed that after someone dies, they must pass the weighing of the heart ceremony — “a test to get into the afterlife.” The Death Walkers were “beings evil enough that they knew they would fail the test. . . they had clung to the edge of the afterlife, in between life and death, waiting for an opportunity to escape.” 
  • During the heart ceremony “the god Thorth stood by to record the result: Would the heart be weighed down by guilt or Ibe destroyed forever?”
  • After meeting King Tut, Luke describes him as a “total dive.” Alex explains Tut’s behavior: “Pharaohs were told they were living gods. I could see that going to your head.” 
  • King Tut appears in the Valley of Kings. He tries to pet Pai, but when the cat hisses, Tut said, “Fine, you little beast, flea receptacle. All I did was restore the worship of the old gods, your master included. All I did was rebuild their temples.” Later Tut explains that his father “banned the old gods, worshiped the sun — my whole childhood I was sunburned from praying to the thing.”
  • Inside a tomb, the chamber has the Aten on the walls. “The sun disk—the symbol of the pure light religion imposed by Tut’s father.”
  • During mummification, the Ancient Egyptians always left the heart in the body. “Tut was the only pharaoh ever discovered without one. . . Without the heart, Tut couldn’t go through the heart ceremony to gain entrance into the afterlife. He would be forever between worlds.”

The Great Escape

Back for their third adventure, siblings Peter and Mary journey back in time to Egypt, where Moses fights for the Israelites’ freedom and plagues wreak havoc.

The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls Series follows siblings Peter and Mary and their dog, Hank, as they discover ancient scrolls that transport them back to key moments in biblical history.

In The Great Escape, Peter, Mary, and Hank journey to the pyramid-studded desert of ancient Egypt. When the trio becomes friends with the Pharaoh’s daughter, Princess Shephara, they witness first-hand as Moses petitions the Pharaoh for the Israelites’ freedom. Plagues wreak havoc as the group races to decode the scroll, gets chased by a panther, and battles the Pharaoh’s cunning advisor, the Great Magician.

Peter and Mary’s third adventure into the past is an exciting story because the Great Magician and his panther try to stop God’s plan. Through it all, the Pharaoh’s daughter stays by the siblings’ side, which gives Peter and Mary perspective into the Pharaoh’s reasoning. When the twins are in imminent danger, the angel Michael swoops in to help the kids. Even though the reason for the Pharaoh’s stubborn behavior is unclear, the ultimate message is clear: God is with us even in the midst of our troubles. 

Black and white illustrations will help young readers visualize the story and understand the plagues that affected the Pharaoh’s people. As each day ends, Peter uses a journal to document his activities; this helps readers keep track of the important events. Readers who want to learn more about Pharaoh and the plagues will find a list of related Bible chapters at the end of the book.

Readers who are interested in learning about the Bible will enjoy The Great Escape series. In each book, Satan appears as a different person which may confuse some readers. However, the angel Michael always appears to give the siblings help and guidance, and readers will look forward to the angel’s return. Link to time traveling book. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • The Pharaoh’s magicians turned their staffs into snakes. “Snakes slithered everywhere! . . . The snake rose up and was face-to-face with Princess Shephara. Its forked tongue flicked between sharp fangs. . . Mary spun and kicked the snake in the side of the head. It fell to the floor with a thud!”
  • The captain of the Pharaoh’s army takes Peter’s bag and begins looking through it. “Mary ran straight at the Captain, who was still bending over. She jumped in the air and did a spinning kick right to his backside. . . The Captain fell flat on his face. The sword and the royal dagger slid across the floor.” The kids escape.
  • Peter and Mary are trapped in a room with the Great Magician and his panther, Midnight. “Suddenly, a rushing wind blew through the room, extinguishing the candles. A ball of light flew into the room and slammed into Midnight. The panther slid across the floor. . . The ball of light transformed into Michael.” 
  • Moses explains how, according to God’s plan, “At midnight, all of the firstborn sons in Egypt will die. . .He pointed to a lamb lying dead on a small table. . .Moses picked up a small bowl filled with blood from the lamb.” He paints the door with the lamb’s blood which protects them.
  • The Great Magician tries to follow the Israelites through the Red Sea. When the man takes away Peter’s scroll, “Peter saw a glowing ball in the water. It grew bigger and burst through the wall of water. It flew into the chariot and knocked the wheels off. . . The ball of light became Michael.” Michael saves Mary from the panther and helps Peter get the scroll back. The scene is described over two pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • With the help of a scroll, Peter and Mary transport back in time. When the seal is broken, “the walls shook, the floor quaked, and books flew off the shelves. . . The library crumbled around them. Then everything was still, quiet, and hot—very hot.”
  • Moses told the Pharaoh, “The God of Israel said to let his people go.” The Pharaoh wanted to see a miracle so Moses’ brother, “Aaron threw his staff on the ground. It turned into a big slithery snake.” The Great Magician was also able to turn his staff into a snake.
  • When Aaron waves his staff, “frogs flooded out of the river. Thousands of frogs were hopping everywhere.” The Great Magician also waved his staff and “mumbled some mysterious words. . .Two tiny frogs hopped out of the fountain.”

Spiritual Content 

  • The Great Magician teaches Shephara that there are over a hundred gods. But Peter says, “I believe there is only one true God.”
  • The Great Magician believes the Israelites’ God is weak because he has allowed the Israelites to become slaves. Peter says, “God is strong. . . Maybe he is waiting for the right time.”
  • Peter and Mary realize that the Great Magician is Satan.
  • The Great Magician, Satan, mocks Peter and Mary, saying “Where is God? You’re all alone.” Peter is unafraid because he believes, “God is always with us.” 

The Puppy War

Wild has been on the run—jumping from one family to the next—ever since she left Chance almost a year ago. But when a mysterious canine corporation, C.A.T., abducts her and threatens to hurt Chance, she will stop at nothing to escape and find her old friend.

Together again, Wild and Chance must enlist the help of Junebug to hack into C.A.T.’s computer to discover what they really want. Along the way, the group is reunited with an old friend and introduced to the Puppio puppies, which are love-at-first-sight cute, with massive eyes, and smell like apple pie. Yet even though they look cute on the outside, Wild is convinced everything isn’t as it seems.

When Wild finds out a shocking discovery about her past, she must decide who is more important to protect—her past, her best friend, or the greater Los Angeles area that is in incredible Puppio danger.

The second installment in the Wild & Chance Series has just as many heart-stopping moments as the first book. However, in this installment, Wild isn’t sure who the real threat is. Is it the Russian men in suits that tried to dognap him, or is it Dr. Pao the woman who invented the technology that created Wild? Unlike the previous book, Wild, Chance, and Junebug aren’t working together. Instead, the three have gone their separate ways, leaving Wild to find out what the puppy war is all about.

Readers will fall in love with Wild, who wants to protect her friends. However, when she realizes that Dr. Pao has used her DNA to create puppies, Wild is torn between protecting her children or protecting the humans she loves. To make matters even more difficult, Chance is given one of Dr. Pao’s genetically altered puppies, and the two instantly bond. Wild must use her stealth to discover Dr. Pao’s real reason for creating the puppies.

The Puppy War uses the unique perspective of Wild to create a suspenseful story that is also full of heart. The story combines intense chase scenes, friendship difficulties, and two separate groups who want to make Wild their property. Plus, an old nemesis appears and showcases that dogs (and people) can change for the better. However, the true gem of the story is the relationship between Wild and her two human friends, Chance and Junebug.

While The Puppy War is a solid story, the conclusion is rushed and unrealistic. In order to allow room for a third book, Zadoff leaves several threads untied which is frustrating. Despite this, The Puppy War uses a unique concept that will have readers on the edge of their seats—and contemplating the ethics behind manipulating DNA. Dog-loving readers who want to view life through a heroic dog’s point of view should also read the Pawtriot Dogs Series by Samuel P. Fortsch and the Hero Series by Jennifer Li Shotz. If you’re in the mood for a less serious, humorous dog series, check out Two Dogs in a Trench Coat by Julie Falatko.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • After being kidnapped, Wild wakes up in an airplane. In order to escape, Wild knocks a man off his feet. “I seize the opportunity to dart toward the skinny man, avoiding his attempt to kick me by biting down on his arm. He howls in pain and tries to get away from me, but I clamp harder.”
  • Wild drags the man out of the flying plane. “A second later we’re falling into open air, my jaws firmly attached to the skinny man’s arm.” The man tries to detach Wild from his arm, but Wild twists and “bite[s] down on his calf.” As the two fall, the man deploys a parachute. When they land, the man “is alive and breathing, but it looks like he’s going to be out for a while.”  
  • Men go to Chance’s home with the intent to kidnap him. Wild jumps out and “I hit the first man like a bowling ball, sending him careening into his friend, the two of them stumbling into the wall. . . I land and spin in place, instantly jumping towards the third man. I kick him in the throat and he falls, breathless and clutching his chest.”
  • The men in suits find Wild and Chance again. Wild sees “one of the men in suits coming toward us, a can of knockout spray in his hands. . . I roar and leap at the man, knocking the can from his hands and striking him dead center in the chest.” They escape.
  • The men in suits drag Chance, Wild, and Junebug into a car. In order to get Wild to talk, “the man puts a hand on Chance’s shoulder, squeezing in a claw motion. Chance grits his teeth against the pain as the man’s fingers turn white with effort.”
  • Someone drives a vehicle into the men in suits’ SUV. Wild hears “brakes screaming around us and the sound of multiple crashes.” Wild sees one of the men “stumbling out of the car, a trickle of blood on his forehead where he injured himself during the crash.”
  • During a training exercise, Wild attacks several men. “I leap from the sidewalk into the first man’s chest, knocking him back into his friend . . . I snatch his paint leg, ripping it with my teeth and knocking him to the ground.”
  • Two puppies, Sebastian and Scarlett, get into a fight. “Sebastian tries to dominate her, two paws slapping down hard on Scarlett’s face. Her head bounces off the floor with a crack.” Wild stops the fight.
  • An animal control officer tries to capture Wild. “Suddenly, a Taser hits me, the electric shock passing down my spine and through my nerves. My muscles contract and release in rapid succession, freezing me in place. . . A needle goes under my skin. It burns when the injection goes in and the tranquilizer enters my bloodstream.” Wild wakes up in a cage.
  • The head of the puppy project, Dr. Pao, orders her men to euthanize Wild. When Wild wakes up, she’s on a medical table. Wild kicks “the medical tray to the floor, then I use a paw to whip off my muzzle.” One of the men goes for a weapon and Wild races “toward him, vaulting over the table and smashing his head into the side of the cabinet . . . He groans and goes down, unconscious.” The other man passes out from fright and Wild escapes.
  • On the puppy release day, Dr. Pao holds Junebug and Chance as hostages. Wild confronts Dr. Pao and then Wild “leap[s] at her from across the room, smashing against her chest and sending the two of us sprawling backward.” A struggle ensues and is stopped when the men in suits take Dr. Pao away. It is unclear who the men work for.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Men kidnap Wild and drug him with something that makes him go to sleep.
  • Wild and Chance go to a secret Ukrainian hangout spot where Wild smells “food, combined with alcohol.”  

Language   

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Amulet Keepers

Strange things are happening in London. Red rain is flooding the streets. People are going missing. And someone is opening graves in Highgate Cemetery . . .
 
Only Alex and his best friend, Ren, suspect the truth. A Death Walker, a powerful ancient Egyptian evil, is behind the chaos. Their quest to stop him takes them from New York to London, and from the land of the living to the deep underground tombs of the long dead. Will they stop the Death Walker before he gets too powerful . . . or will the tombs claim them, too

The second installment of the TombQuest Series jumps into action right from the start. Even though the plot is similar to The Book of the Dead, Amulet Keepers ramps up the fear factor, especially since part of the mystery revolves around a missing boy. Amulet Keepers has more violence and may frighten younger readers, especially because the Death Walker steals people’s souls. In order to break up the tense scenes, Alex’s cousin Luke appears several times. Luke adds some humor to the story and his athletic abilities come in handy while fighting several thugs.

Many readers will empathize with Alex, who is desperate to find his missing mother. However, Alex’s short temper occasionally borders on the side of being thoughtless and mean. Nevertheless, Alex’s best friend Ren has Alex’s back, even when she becomes frustrated by his bossy attitude. Despite Alex’s behavior, readers will appreciate how all three characters — Alex, Ren, and Luke — have different strengths that help defeat the Death Walker. Amulet Keepers also introduces a mummified cat to the cast of characters, which adds an interesting twist. 

TombQuest is an exciting series full of action and adventure that will keep readers engaged but might frighten some readers. Readers wanting a fast-paced story where danger — and mummies — lurk around every corner will find Amulet Keepers entertaining. Readers who want an adventure that doesn’t involve the dead coming back to life will find Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger more to their liking.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • A man is walking in his neighborhood when a dead mummy attacks. The man screams, but “the neighbors stayed in their beds, pulling the sheets a little closer. And so none of them saw the powerful figure of one man drag the limp frame of another out of the light at the edge of the village. . .” 
  • While leaving the airport, Alex and Ren are ambushed by Liam, a thug that works for The Order. Alex’s “own heavy suitcase crashed into him. Liam swung the thing like a Ping-Pong paddle, clocking Alex hard on the shoulder and sending him sprawling to the pavement. . . Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Liam bring the suitcase down toward Ren, trying to swat her like a fly.” Ren is “knocked flat.”  Then, Liam puts a zip tie around Alex’s wrists.
  • Liam tries to put Ren and Alex into a van. “As he reached out for Alex, a shoulder slammed hard into Liam’s gut and a pair of arms wrapped up the tops of his thick legs. . . Liam’s mouth formed a perfect round O as he fell backward and his head slammed into the side of the van.” After Alex’s cousin, Luke, incapacitates Liam, the kids escape. The scene is described over three pages.
  • Liam follows the kids to a museum. To get into the parking lot, Liam has to take care of the security guard, Glenn. Liam “grabbed the back of Glenn’s head with one powerful hand as the other one shot up towards the guard’s neck. The gleaming metal point of a large hypodermic needle sank deep into the soft, pale flesh of Glenn’s neck. . . the guard fell still.” The guard was injected with horse tranquilizers and was “lucky to be alive.”
  • When a Death Walker comes after Ren and Alex, Alex grabs the scarab, and “a powerful phantom wind rose up. . . it was enough to slow [the Death Walker] and knock him off balance.” During the fight, Alex shoots a “spear of wind” at the Death Walker, but “the creature opened his mouth wide and ate it. The wind disappeared into a howling vacuum inside.” The creature tries to feed on Ren’s soul. Alex saw “a flicker and a blur as a mirror image of his best friend slowly began to pull away from her body. . .He looked down and saw the same thing happening to him.”
  • Alex uses his scarab’s magic when the Death Walker tries to feed on Alex and Ren. With his eyes, Alex breaks a tree branch. “The Walker looked up in surprise, pointing his open mouth at the falling branch. . . A moment later, the branch crashed down on his oversized frame, knocking the foul man-thing to the ground.” The kids are able to run away from the Walker. The scene is described over four pages.
  • Dr. Aditi, who was helping Alex and Ren, is in a cemetery when the Death Walker sees her. “Two strong hands clamped down on her shoulders. . . The powerful hands dug into her shoulders as he opened his mouth wide and showed her oblivion. The world went cold, and the last thing she saw as her eyes turned white and her lips edged past purple was her very self, slipping away.”
  • While in an isolated part of a museum, Liam corners Ren. “There was nowhere to go, no other exit, but she put the room’s one bench in between her and the towering thug.” Liam takes out a syringe of horse tranquilizer. “He stabbed out with the syringe. . . she screamed as the point of the needle raked across her left arm.”
  • Ren tries to run from Liam, but “he reeled her in like a wriggling trout as the drop of tranquilizer began to take effect and her vision began to blur.” Luke and Alex jump in to help Ren. Alex uses his amulet to push Liam’s lookout down the stairs. Then, Alex “squeezed his fingers into a sharp point and . . . a lance of concentrated air caught Liam directly under his chin, sending him reeling backwards.” Then, Luke “lowered his shoulder and crashed into the back of Liam’s legs, sending the big man toppling over him and onto the floor.” 
  • When Liam tries to take an unconscious Ren, Alex attacks the thug with wind. “As Liam rose onto one knee, his body jerked violently off the floor and spun toward the other two men. His big frame caught them at shoulder level and all three landed in a heap . . . grunting from pain and surprise.” All three kids escape without injury. The scene is described over six pages.
  • After failing to capture Alex and Ren, Liam is taken to the Death Walker. “Liam felt his body lift off the ground, his feet kicking out from underneath him. He could only flap his arms helplessly as he was slammed back down. The back of his head crashed into the hard-packed dirt and knocked him out cold.” Liam is mummified.
  • Alex and Ren are in a series of tunnels under a cemetery when “a massive force struck Alex so hard that he flew sideways into the wall . . . he left an Alex-shaped impression in it as he slumped down to the floor . . . Ren spun around to find the long iron snout of a crocodile mask turned toward her like the barrel of a gun. Her hands wrestled futilely with an unseen force clamping down hard on her throat, cutting off the blood flow.” The Death Walker’s servant, Te-mesah, ties up Alex and Ren.
  • To force Alex to talk, Te-mesah hurts Ren. “Ren gasped with pain and surprise as her bound hands were yanked over her head. . .Ren’s feet were a foot off the ground. . . Her face was a mask of pain and despair.” 
  • Pai, a mummified cat, comes to Ren’s aid. “Pai hissed again, gathered her haunches underneath her, and jumped. . . Te-mesah put his hands up, but it was too late. . . He stumbled backward and smacked into the wall, then . . .attempted to pry the hissing whirlwind from his head.” While Te-mesah is occupied, Ren and Alex escape. The scene is described over three pages.
  • While in the tunnels, Alex and Ren find Willoughby (a Death Walker). Willoughby had Robbie, “a young boy, tied to a stone slab in front of him. The boy turned his tear-streaked face toward them. He screamed for help, but a filthy rag tied over his mouth muffled the words.” 
  • A mummy begins to chase Robbie but he “executed a nifty soccer-field fake. . . the mummy barreled straight ahead, as mummies do. Alex grasped his amulet, raised his right hand, and released the most powerful lance of wind yet. . .The mummy toppled forward at full speed and wiped Willoughby out.” 
  • Willoughby focuses on Alex, deciding “who to kill first. . . [the Death Walker] punched his hand forward again, and Alex’s body convulsed hard on the floor. . .He reached up and wiped his mouth painting a red smear across the back of his hand.”
  • Robbie cuts off Willoughby’s hand. “The metal shears snapped shut, making a grotesque sound as they cut through muscle and old bone. Robbie squeezed with every muscle in his small body – and all the anger in there, too – leaning his chest and all his weight down on the handles. . . Willoughby’s hand dropped to the dirt floor with a dull thud.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • After using his magic, Alex’s head hurts so he “rifled through his stuff for his bottle of headache pills, took two too many, and collapsed onto his bed.” 

Language 

  • When Alex is being mean to Ren, she tells him, “Don’t be a jerk.”
  • Alex calls the Death Walker’s servant a scumbag.
  • Freaking and heck are both used once.

Supernatural

  • In England, it rains blood several times.
  • Alex has a scarab amulet that gives him special powers such as being able to sense the dead and control wind.  
  • Ren befriends the mummy of Bastet. “Part protector and part predator, the cat-headed goddess was both revered and feared in ancient Egypt.” 
  • The mummy of Bastet gives Ren an amulet in the shape of an ibis, “the symbol of Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing.” The amulet gives Ren visions, but she doesn’t understand what they mean.
  • Captain Winfred Willoughby was a tomb raider who was accused of murder. Upon his death Willoughby was mummified, and he comes back to the world of the living as a Death Walker.
  • An archeologist was mummified and brought back to life. “Everything about him was wrong, an abomination. . . The man’s skin was mottled and uneven; in some places it was stretched taut and dry, like a mummy’s, and in others, it hung loose, like a pale old man’s.” To stay alive, the mummy must feed on the souls of the living.
  • To send Willoughby back to the land of the dead, Alex uses his amulet to activate the Book of the Dead. Alex recites, “O thief! O usurper! Get back! Return, for you should know justice. . .” The spell does not work until Ren cuts off Willoughby’s hand, which was the ancient Egyptian’s punishment for stealing.

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane

Emmy, a twelve-year-old girl from Connecticut, is being sent to boarding school in England so her mother can advance her career. Emmy’s mom is a child psychologist and “mentor for the moms and dads of America.” Emmy’s mother wants to make sure that her daughter will “get a top-notch education,” even if Emmy doesn’t love the idea of a boarding school. However, Wellsworth (Emmy’s new school) provides her with an exciting opportunity — to learn more about her mysterious father, who went missing when she was just three years old. Following instructions from a mysterious letter from “a friend,” Emmy searches her family’s home for any “relics” from her dad. Emmy finds a box with a letter from her father on top. He asks her to “keep them safe.” The box contains twelve beautiful medallions, but Emmy has no idea why these are so important to her father. 

Emmy is a sympathetic character, as she confronts issues readers may relate to, such as struggling to make friends in a new school. She explains, “Wellsworth wasn’t the first school her mom had sent her to so she could get a ‘top-notch education,’ and it probably wouldn’t be the last. She figured out a long time ago that friends never stuck around when she switched schools, so why bother making new ones?” However, Emmy’s mindset changes when she meets Lola and Jack; the three friends bond over difficulties with their families’ relationships. Lola’s mom is in charge of disciplining and ensuring order of all of the students in their dormitory, and Jack’s family is deeply involved with the dangerous Order of Black Hollow Lane. After spending so much time with them, Emmy realizes, “They really had become like her family.” 

One of the major themes in Nobel’s book is the danger of being greedy and seeking power. While researching the school’s architecture, Emmy and her friends find a book with information about the Order of Black Hollow Lane, a secret society that started at Wellsworth. A teacher explains, “There will always be people who crave power. And people who will go to any lengths to hold onto it.” This perfectly encapsulates the members of the Order and, as Emmy discovers, this is why her father tried to stop them by stealing their “only one complete collection of medallions” that act as keys for them to access their vaults of money.

Another major theme is growing to love a new school or environment, as Emmy ultimately does with Wellsworth. She bonds with her friends, Lola and Jack, and also finds that, “It doesn’t matter if it feels weird. This is my home.” Readers who enjoy mystery or books about secret societies will love this novel as its twists and turns will leave you wanting more. At first, Emmy feels completely alone at her new school as she deals with a cruel roommate on top of a completely new environment. But when Emmy meets Lola and Jack, she is finally able to share her feelings with them and they become her best friends. 

Emmy also finds herself most comfortable representing her new school on the soccer field. Emmy joins the soccer team with her friend Lola and playing helps Emmy gain confidence. She explains, “This was where she belonged. Her heart was meant to pound with the rhythm of fast feet . . . No matter where she was in the world, the smell of freshly cut grass meant she was home.” Though the book mainly centers around Emmy and her friends searching for information on her missing father and about the awful intentions of the Order, readers who enjoy soccer will enjoy that Emmy spends a great deal of time discussing and playing soccer with Lola. 

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane wraps up Emmy’s first semester at Wellsworth and ends with her returning home to Connecticut for the summer. Emmy has seemingly convinced the members of the Order that she has thrown the box containing the medallions into the sea, “Now that [the Order’s medallions] are gone, there’s no reason for the Order to come after [Emmy].” However, the book leaves the readers on edge as it sets up for The Secret of White Stone Gate, as Emmy reveals to Jack and Lola that she actually still has the real box of medallions. Readers will be thrilled to find out what Emmy will do next as she returns to Wellsworth after her summer at home. If you’re up for more intriguing mysteries, check out the Wolfe & Lamb Series by Lauren St. John and the City Spies Series by James Ponti. Strong readers looking for more suspense and mystery should also read Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • In her humanities class, Emmy’s friend, Lola, explains that Anne Boleyn is “a queen who got her head hacked off.”
  • Lola describes a time during a soccer game in which she “punched a girl in the middle of a match and got herself banned for most of last season.” Lola explains that this was because the girl was bullying her teammate.
  • Lola recounts the time she “slugged Brynn [her cousin]” and then “had to do community service.” Lola explains, “He thinks his side of the family is so much better than ours because they have more money.”
  • It is not described in detail, but students gossip about Jack’s brother, Malcom, who “fell off the chapter house roof.” He is injured but okay. 
  • While Emmy searches to find out more information about a mysterious letter from “Brother Loyola,” she runs into Brynn who approaches her and “ripped the letter from her hand.” Brynn is furious and demands to know where she got the letter. “He shoved her into the wall. Pain shot through her back as she crunched into the hard stone. She tried pushing back but he had her pinned.” To get away from Brynn, Emmy “sprang forward and kicked him in the shins as hard as she could. He grunted and limped back, and Emmy launched her whole body into his. He crashed into the display case, and Emmy ran past him.”
  • After constantly dealing with bullying from her snobby roommate, Victoria, Emmy comes back to her room to find her side completely trashed. “Something had finally snapped. She kept running until she reached Victoria and shoved her so hard she fell back onto the couch.”
  • Brynn is bullying Lola and Emmy and he calls Emmy’s father a “deadbeat,” which makes Emmy completely furious. “It happened in the blink of an eye: Emmy let go of Lola, reached back, and punched Brynn square in the face. He doubled over, hand on his eye, moaning like a wounded animal.”
  • As Emmy and her friends uncover the entrance to the Order of Black Hallow Lane, Emmy is separated from them in the tunnels and encounters a figure in the darkness. She is horrified to realize it is the security guard, Jonas. “Jonas’ kindness . . . All his helpful suggestions. It was all fake.” He reveals that he is the leader of the Order, Brother Loyola, and that he has been “keeping a close eye on [Emmy] for a while. Ever since [she] asked [him] about [her dad].” He blocks her path to exit the tunnels and threatens her. Jonas says, “We should be far enough away now that your friends won’t hear us.”
  • Jonas describes how Emmy’s father, Thomas Allyn, joined the Order with him but refused to participate in the illegal activities they did. “As our influence has grown, it has needed to move outside the law. Dealing in weapons, the black market, the underground diamond trade — these are all necessary parts of our work.” Emmy is afraid of Jonas and wonders, “What lengths would Jonas go to?”
  • Emmy’s father decided he did not want to participate in the Order when, “One of his friends was injured when an initiation ritual went too far.” Jonas chocks this up to, “The girl was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just an accident.” But Emmy senses that is not true.
  • To escape Jonas in the tunnel, Emmy “grabbed a lantern off its hook and flung it at Jonas with all her might. The flame blew out, but the sound shattering lantern glass and garbled yelling told her that she’d hit her mark.”
  • Jonas corners Emmy in the belfry of the school’s church where, “Even the teachers’ housing is too far away to hear us.” And then he approaches her, “He took a knife out of his pocket.” He tries to force Emmy to give him the box of medallions. He says, “Hand it over, or I’ll have to take it one way or another. You’d be amazed by what I can pass off as an accident.” Emmy escapes by jumping onto the giant rope connected to the bell, sliding down until she can jump to her escape.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Occasionally, mild language, such as suck and stupid, is used by the main characters. 
  • When they are frustrated or confused, the British characters, such as Emmy’s friends Lola and Jack, use bloody for emphasis.
  • Rarely, Lola uses prat to refer to someone she thinks is a bad person. 

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lola explains to Emmy that she only punched the girl during the soccer game because, “That girl was making fun of [her teammate’s] hijab. She’s Muslim, and she likes to keep her head covered when she plays. What else was I supposed to do?”
  • On Emmy’s birthday, which she laments “her mom hadn’t once mentioned,” Lola explains that the school celebrates “Saint Audrey’s Feast Day! We get a proper feast tonight to honor our house’s illustrious patron, Saint Audrey.”
  • Jack explains the “houses” or dormitories the students are separated into are “named after saints . . . Edmund, Felix, Withburga . . . they were all saints from this part of England.”

Race to the Ark

In their second time-traveling adventure, siblings Peter and Mary get sent back to the time of Noah just days before the flood comes. The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls Series follows siblings Peter and Mary and their dog, Hank, as they discover ancient scrolls that transport them back to key moments in biblical history.

In Race to the Ark, Peter, Mary, and their faithful dog Hank travel back to the time of Noah. With only seven days to solve the riddle of the scroll and escape the impending flood, Peter, Mary, and Hank must race to help Noah and his family finish the ark. Along their journey, Peter and Mary evade a group of young ruffians and ultimately come face to face with the Dark Ruler, an evil man who reminds them of a snake they met in the Garden of Eden. Enthralling action and compelling illustrations will have children glued to the pages of this rambunctious Bible-based story.

In Race to the Ark, Peter and Mary see some of the evil that caused the great flood. Instead of trusting in God, people believed it was okay to do whatever they wanted, including steal. The siblings run into a gang of kids that want to steal all their belongings, including their dog Hank. This adds action and suspense to the story. Through their experiences, the twins learn that God will protect them in every situation. When the rain begins to fall, Peter and Mary have an opportunity to find safety on the ark; however, instead of taking this route, the twins trust that God will save them. Through all their hardships, their trust in God never falters.

The book has several aspects that will help readers understand the story’s plot. First of all, in order to help young readers visualize the story’s events, the book includes black and white illustrations that appear every one to three pages. As each day ends, Peter uses a journal to document his activities; this helps readers keep track of important events. Readers who want to learn more about Noah and the flood will find a list of related Bible chapters at the end of the book.

As Peter and Mary learn about Noah’s time period, they must solve the secret of the scroll by translating six Hebrew words. However, the kids do not actively try to solve the secret. During their normal conversation, the kids say one of the missing words from the scroll, and then “the bag glowed. Peter unzipped it and unrolled the scroll. The fourth word glowed and transformed into WILL.” The passage the kids translate helps reinforce the theme, but the kids spend little time actively trying to translate the Hebrew words.

Race to the Ark takes the biblical story of Noah and presents it to young children in a way that is both engaging and easy to understand. The story uses humor to show the difficulties Noah’s family faced while trying to build the ark. The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls Series uses a kid-friendly format that is easy to read to make the Bible’s stories come alive. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Peter almost reveals that he is from the future. “Mary kicked Peter before he could finish saying ‘future.’ Peter rubbed his shin. Mary’s karate lessons were really working.”
  • Durfus and his friends try to steal the twins’ belongings and their dog, Hank. In order to escape, Mary “ran straight at Darfus. She jumped in the air and aimed a spinning kick at his belly. Darfus fell back and rolled across the dusty ground.” Mary and Peter run into the forest and hide from the bullies.
  • When Peter and Mary go into town to buy a hinge, they run into Darfus and his friends. When the twins try to run, “Darfus pulled a net from behind his back and threw it over Hank. . . He yanked a rope from his waist and whipped it around Peter and Mary. . . Peter twisted and turned, but there was no escape.” Darfus takes the kids to the “Dark Ruler.”
  • After talking to the Dark Ruler, Peter, Mary, and Hank are taken to the dungeon. “Darfus pushed them into a damp and smelly jail cell and slammed the gate shut.”
  • The Dark Ruler tries to convince Peter and Mary to join him. When the Dark Ruler threatens to “destroy” the twins, a “lion crashed through the trees and stood face to face with the Dark Ruler. . . The Dark Ruler dropped the scroll and swung his staff at the lion. It sent the lion rolling. . .”
  • The angel Michael defends the kids. “A bolt of lightning sliced through the sky. It hit the Dark Ruler and knocked him back into the woods. . . Michael spread his mighty wings and flew straight at the Dark Ruler. The lion leapt and joined Michael. Sparks flew from Michael’s sword. Branches snapped under the lion’s powerful claws.” As the fight ends, the twins run back to the ark.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • The Dark Ruler calls Noah crazy and an old fool.

Supernatural

  • Peter and Mary are transported back to Noah’s time with the help of a scroll. When Peter opens the scroll’s wax seal, “the walls shook, books fell off the shelves, and the floor quaked. . . The library began to crumble around them and disappeared. Then everything was still and quiet.”
  • The angel Michael tells the kids, “You have to solve the secret of the scroll in seven days or you will be stuck here.” The scroll has six Hebrew words that the siblings must translate.
  • The angel Michael appears as a bolt of lightning and then changes into his angel form. 

Spiritual Content 

  • The story often reminds readers that “God will help us.” For example, when Noah talks about building the ark, he says, “There were times I wondered if I was crazy. I had to learn to always trust God.”
  • When the kids are being chased by bullies, the angel Michael helps by slamming the gate shut. Michael says God helped by sending the wind that caused a dust storm and hid the twins. Michael says, “Remember, God is always with you.”
  • Peter and Mary meet Noah and his family. The siblings also help get ready for the flood. When asked if they are ready for the flood, Noah says, “I don’t know if we’re ready. But God is.”
  • Noah explains why God is sending a flood. “The earth is full of violence, sickness, hate, and greed. It is not what God created it to be. . . The world has gotten so bad that God is sending a flood to wash it clean. To start over.”
  • It took Noah and his family 100 years to build the ark. Noah knew how big to make it because “God told me. He said to build it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall.” 
  • The Dark Ruler says, “There is NO GOD! He is dead.” Then “a bolt of lightning cracked through the sky.” Despite the Dark Ruler’s words, Peter believes “God is alive. He’s going to rescue the animals and Noah’s family.”
  • After the flood, “God made a rainbow in the sky as a promise to never destroy the earth with a flood again.”

Pilfer Academy: A School So Bad It’s Criminal

George Beckett is a natural-born thief, or at least, that’s what the teachers at Pilfer Academy think. 

When a mysterious individual recognizes George’s talent for sneaking around unnoticed and taking things he shouldn’t, he is kidnapped and brought to the mysterious and captivating Pilfer Academy. At Pilfer Academy everything, including the students, has been stolen.

At first, George is excited to have the opportunity to escape his family and play with thief gadgets. However, he soon realizes that applying the lessons he learns at Pilfer Academy to real-life situations is a lot harder than he imagined. George doubts his abilities and wonders if he can keep up with the other students. Despite his doubts, George dives right in and works to become one of the best thieves to attend Pilfer Academy. Along the way, he makes new friends and discovers that there’s more to being a thief than just stealing things. George also learns the importance of loyalty and making difficult moral decisions.

Dean Dean Deanbugle, the goofy antagonist that runs Pilfer Academy, views George as a prospective top pupil. He has a unique way of grooming his students, using praise and rewards to encourage them to engage in mischief and thievery. While George is initially enthralled by the new way of life, the pressure to adjust to the school’s expectations becomes overwhelming. His peers become jealous of the favoritism Deanbugle shows George, creating tension and conflict in the classroom.

As George becomes more involved in the school’s culture, he begins to question the morality of his actions. Is it right to steal from others, even if an adult tells you to? He wrestles with these ethical dilemmas as he navigates his way through Pilfer Academy, trying to balance the desire to impress his teachers with his own sense of right and wrong.

Despite his misgivings, George continues to thrive in the school’s environment. He becomes more skilled at thievery and mischief, earning high marks from his teachers and the admiration of his classmates. However, as the stakes get higher and the tasks more dangerous, he begins to wonder if the price of success is worth the cost. Will he continue to follow Deanbugle’s lead, or will he find the courage to forge his own path? This all comes to a head when he is forced to steal a teddy bear from a baby for his midterm grade. The depravity of the task is enough to tell George all he needs to know about his future at Pilfer Academy. 

Pilfer Academy: A School So Bad It’s Criminal is perfect for middle-grade readers who enjoy adventure, mystery, and humor. The world-building is creative and unique, and the characters are well-developed and relatable. One primary example of this is Tabitha Crawford, George’s partner in crime. Tabitha is intelligent, sweet, and honest. Her humility and loyalty towards George make her a loveable sidekick, but Magaziner does a beautiful job of including her flaws as a friend as well. This makes the friendship between George and Tabitha highly relatable. Pilfer Academy is a fun and entertaining read with has a positive message about the importance of doing the right thing, even when it’s difficult. Additionally, the plot is engaging and will keep readers hooked from the first page to the last.

In summary, Pilfer Academy: A School So Bad It’s Criminal is an excellent book for young readers who enjoy a thrilling adventure with a positive message. The story follows a young protagonist as he navigates an unexpected kidnapping, a school full of criminals, discovering what a true friend really is and where the lines are drawn morally. It teaches readers that friendship is about trusting and supporting someone else and that it is okay to have disagreements sometimes. It also covers the topic of when it is okay to question an authoritative figure and what is morally right or wrong. These themes are presented in a palatable and humorous way that will have readers hooked on every page.

Sexual Content 

  • When touring Pilfer, George is brought through many exhibits including “big ones and small ones, portraying Greek gods and naked people and cupid babies. One even squirted yellow liquid out of its mouth, which George thought looked positively disgusting.”

Violence 

  • One of the opening scenes displays George being stolen from outside his home when he attempts to buy ice cream from a van. George “screamed and tried to bite [the kidnapper], but the netting was small and thick, and George ended up with a mouthful of mesh . . . The woman fastened him down with some heavy-duty duct tape. . . George pushed her—she tumbled back and hit the wall of the truck.” The kidnappers drape George in a net and secure him with duct tape which holds him for several hours.
  • Students repeatedly exhibit bullying behaviors. Pilfer doesn’t just accept bad behavior but encourages some of these interactions between students. This causes a lot of fights and antics to occur amongst classmates. “But the class would have been a lot better if he didn’t feel like he was being hazed by Milo and his friends.” These incidents of “hazing” include George’s roommate, Milo, stealing his bedding, sabotaging his class assignments, and convincing the Dean that George should be sent to the whirlyberg.
  • There are many instances when the “whirlyberg” is brought up. It is a broken-down carousel the Dean uses as a torture device when students are not listening. “I’m going to take these children down to the whirlyblerg for ETERNITY.” Deanbugle tells this to the staff after finding George and Tabitha attempting to escape Pilfer. 
  • Trying to escape, George and Tabitha encounter a set of lasers. “ZZzzzzzzzt!!! came the sound from across the room. ‘What’s that?’ George shouted. He was stuck between three lasers and couldn’t see her. ‘Tabitha! Did you get hit?’” Tabitha is okay, but her hair is burnt by the lasers. They continue to move because they know their options are to escape and get help or spend eternity in the whirlyberg.
  • The rightful owner of the mansion that Pilfer Academy resides in comes to try to airlift it off the ground. He needs it to be airlifted is because the rightful owner of the mansion is the Duke Valois of France, the sworn enemy of Dean Dean Deanbugle. “There came sounds of glass shattering and students screaming. A wave of lemonade from the fountain in the foyer spilled over and drenched a bunch of third years, who ran into the hall, shrieking.” The mansion is successfully airlifted off the ground with a majority of students and teaching staff having jumped out of the building. George, Tabitha, and the rest of the staff are carried all the way to France where they are greeted by the Duke.
  • When Deanbugle is close to being captured by the Duke, he shouts and jumps out the window. “Then he began to kick his legs and throw the biggest temper tantrum George had ever seen. His wails echoed into the night sky. He beat his fists and pulled at his eyebrows. He sneezed onto his sleeve. He punched the living stuffing out of a scarecrow. He ran around like a rabid dog, cursing the day that George and Tabitha had been born and vowing for revenge.” He is apprehended by police cars while throwing his temper tantrum.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Browbeat is a teacher who utilizes goofy acronyms to teach her lessons, but one acronym creates the curse word “piss.”  “Browbeat lectured for an hour and fifteen minutes on the basic principles of stealthiness, which he called the P-I-S-S method: Patience, Imperturbability, Silence, and Surprise.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Book of the Dead

Nothing can save Alex Sennefer’s life. That’s what all the doctors say, but his mother knows it’s not true. She knows that the Lost Spells of the Egyptian Book of the Dead can crack open a door to the afterlife and pull her son back from the brink. But when she uses the spells, five evil ancients—the Death Walkers—are also brought back to life. 

An ancient evil has been unleashed. Mummies are awakening. New York is overrun with scorpions. And worst of all for Alex, his mom and the Lost Spells have both disappeared. He and his best friend, Ren, will do anything to find his mom and save the world . . . even if that means going head-to-head with a Death Walker who has been plotting his revenge for 3,000 years. 

From the very first sentence, readers will be hooked on Book of the Dead because of the nonstop action that features an ancient Egyptian mummy that comes back to life. Plus, Alex is a likable protagonist who willingly faces dangers in order to find his mom. Along the way, Alex learns that his mom’s scarab amulet has magical powers that could help him defeat the Death Walker. The supernatural aspects of the story add danger and suspense while also incorporating the Egyptian legend of the Stung Man.

The book is broken up into small sections which increases the story’s pacing as well as makes it accessible to readers. Even though the story is packed full of Egyptian lore, Northrop gives just the right amount of information so readers can understand the Egyptian legends without bogging them down in details. The addition of ancient powers adds interest to the story and leaves readers wondering what will happen next. While the story revolves around danger, there are surprising pockets of humor that will leave readers smiling. 

Anyone who is interested in Egypt will love Book of the Dead; it will also appeal to readers who enjoy action and adventure. As the first installment of the TombQuest Series, Book of the Dead sets up an exciting adventure that will have readers quickly reaching for the second book in the series, Amulet  Keepers. Don’t start Book of the Dead unless you have time to finish the entire book in one sitting because you will not want to put it down. Readers who want to learn more about ancient Egypt should also read the nonfiction book, The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • The Stung Man was a thief who was running from the pharaoh’s men. The thief’s “hiding spot was full of scorpions. . . The thief was stung again and again, all over his body; his legs, his torso, his arms, his neck. His face.” When the pharaoh’s men found the thief, he was “swollen past recognition.” The Stung Man comes back to life.
  • During the night, a boy named Hamadi went to fetch water for his sick sister. As he walked, he heard a strange noise and then “a withered hand flashed across his vision like a cobra striking. . . Silence finally fell over the southern desert, and dawn rose. . . In the heart of the village, one family hadn’t slept at all. . . Now they waited for a boy who would never return.”
  • A man wearing a dried hyena face breaks into a museum and confronts the guard. “The man in the mask raised his hand and Oscar felt his fingers crunch, jammed backward as if he’d thrust them into a concrete wall instead of empty air. Gasping from the pain, he tried to pull his hand back but couldn’t.” The guard is frozen in place. 
  • A mysterious man, Al-Dab’u, finds Alex’s mom, Dr. Bauer, alone in the museum. “His right hand shot out, flexing a power much greater than mere muscle. Dr. Bauer’s feet left the ground and her slender frame flew backward and slammed against the wall.” Al-Dab’u kidnaps Dr. Bauer.
  • When running from the Stung Man, Al-Dab’u sees Alex and Ren and orders them to stop. Ren tries to run but, “the man in the mask extended his right hand, palm down, and pressed it toward the floor. A great force hit Alex and Ren and flattened them against the ground.”
  • When the strange man stops the kids from running, he explains that the Stung Man was going to feed on Alex and Ren. The man says, “He may not consume your bodies, but he will certainly take your souls.”
  • When the kids continue to leave the museum, Al-Dab’u uses magic. “Alex and Ren threw themselves on the ground just as a massive display case hurtled over them and landed in a crash of glass and metal.” The museum scene is described over 12 pages.
  • Al-Dab’u helps the Stung Man recreate his tomb. A professor, Todtman, and the kids try to stop them. Al-Dab’u uses his power to begin crushing Todtman and a construction worker runs “with his shovel raised in the air . . . Todtman’s hand already held his falcon amulet. The worker slammed the shovel into Al-Dab’u’s shoulder, sending him reeling.” This scene is described over two pages.
  • The Stung Man tries to kill Alex. “The Stung Man struck out with his left hand. The stinger flew toward Alex on the end of a long, segmented tail. Alex ducked. . . the stinger shot over his shoulder and slammed into the wall behind him.”
  • In order to defeat the Stung Man, Alex uses a spell from the Book of the Dead. “As Alex chanted, the writing seemed to come alive on the page. . .” The Stung Man’s “skin pulled tight on his skull, threatening to split. . . Alex finished the chant. The dried corpse toppled and fell.” The scene is described over three pages.
  • As the kids leave the recreated tomb, they see a group of construction workers “closing in on Al-Dab’u from the left with a raised hammer. Another approaching from the right with a power drill. . . Al-Dab’u extended his hand menacingly as the workers closed in, first twisting one to the floor, then crushing the breath from another, but he was surrounded and couldn’t take them all at once.” Al-Dab’u runs but falls off a platform. The story implies that Al-Dab’u died.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Alex has an unnamed illness that he takes pills for. 
  • After Alex gets into a fight, he sees double so he “took three aspirin.” 
  • One of the adults takes “headache pills” once.

Language 

  • Oh my God is used as an exclamation once. 
  • Heck is used twice.
  • Ren calls Alex an idiot one time.

Supernatural

  • Alex’s mom uses an ancient book, the Book of the Dead, to bring Alex back to life. The Book of the Dead is “a cross between prayers and spells” that are used to help people “cross over into the afterlife.” The words of the spells are not given.
  • When Alex’s mom chants a spell from the Book of the Dead, “The desert breeze became a strong wind, whipping through the little [hospital] room.” She also heard “phantom whispers, dry and raspy, emerging from the air itself and echoing her words.” Alex’s mom feels the “old magic” flow through her and save her son’s life.
  • The ancient Egyptians believed that after one died, their heart was weighed. Alex explains some hieroglyphics that depict a scale with a feather on one side and a heart on the other side. Alex says, “That dude just died, and he’s waiting to see if his heart passes the test. If it’s not weighed down by bad deeds, it will be as light as a feather, and he can enter the afterlife.” If the heart fails, it is fed to “a large, crocodile-headed creature.” 
  • After reciting a spell from the Book of the Dead, ancient Egyptians begin to rise from the dead. Alex and his friend are in the museum when they hear a strange noise. “They both turned and looked back down at the little mummy. She was looking right at them. Her whole body had shifted, and her empty eye sockets gazed blankly up at them.”
  • When the Stung Man comes back to life, his skin “was livid and covered with swollen welts. The Stung Man turned and stared into the room, not with empty eye sockets but with wet, sinister eyes.”  
  • Several of the characters have an amulet that gives them power. A man explains, “All of them can do certain things. Move small objects. . . but mine, well, I can see things quite clearly sometimes. When the power went out, I knew to go straight to the sarcophagus. I can also control people to an extent.”
  • Alex has an amulet that allows him to fight Al-Dab’u and the undead. “Grasping the scarab, Alex punched out his fist. A powerful gust of wind rose up and battered the ragged corpse, who stumbled and faltered against it.”

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Breaking Time

When a mysterious Scotsman suddenly appears in the middle of the road, Klara thinks the biggest problem is whether she hit him with her car. But, as impossible as it sounds, Callum has stepped out of another time, and it’s just the beginning of a deadly adventure.

Klara will soon learn that she is the last Pillar of Time—an anchor point in the timeline of the world and a hiding place for a rogue goddess’s magic. Callum believes he’s fated to protect her at all costs after being unable to protect the previous Pillar, his best friend, Thomas. For a dark force is hunting the Pillars in order to claim the power of the goddess—and Klara and Callum are the only two people standing in the way.  Thrown together by fate, the two must learn to trust each other and work together. . . but they’ll also need to protect their hearts from one another if they’re going to survive.

Since the death of her mother and moving to Scotland, Klara’s life has been turned upside down. Things only get worse when Callum arrives. At first, Klara doesn’t believe he has traveled from the past nor does she understand the strange powers that have manifested through her. While many readers will relate to Klara’s grief and her inability to be honest with her father, Klara is not a very memorable character. Even after a man steps out of a mist and tries to kill her, Klara is still unwilling to believe Callum’s story. This conflict takes too long to resolve and slows the story’s pacing.

Breaking Time introduces many ancient Gods as well as some lore for the Fair Folk; however, some of the story’s magical elements are inconsistent. For example, while one goddess is only able to appear to Klara at a mystical site, another appears to her through a dream, and demon monsters can appear anywhere. Since Klara doesn’t understand her powers, she goes on a quest to different mystic sites in an attempt to understand them. At each place, she learns more about herself and what it means to be a Pillar. Unfortunately, the story’s worldbuilding is lacking and the magic elements are inconsistent which causes confusion.  In addition, some of the people and events are not clearly connected to the central conflict. To make matters worse, the conclusion is ambiguous and doesn’t wrap up any of the conflicts, which many readers may find frustrating.

Unfortunately, Breaking Time’s unremarkable protagonist and inconsistent worldbuilding make the story difficult to enjoy. Readers who have some previous knowledge of Scottish folklore may still find Breaking Time an interesting read; however, readers who have no previous knowledge of Scottish folklore may want to leave the book on the shelf. If you’re looking for a time-traveling romance, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone and the Ruby Red Trilogy by Kerstin Gier both have mystery, excitement, and some swoon-worthy scenes.

Sexual Content

  • Klara sees Callum watching for danger. Klara goes to him and Callum “took her waist between his strong hands, pulling her close. In a swift movement, he turned Klara so that her back was against a nearby tree. His body flush against hers. She could feel every inch of him. . . His lips pressed hungrily against hers, and she grasped the nape of his neck, wanting him closer. . . Their lips danced. She willed him to move faster, harder against hers. Her tongue dipped into his mouth and he moaned at the contact.” The two do not go further. The scene is described over a page.
  • After kissing Klara, Callum thinks about how “He had only kissed one girl before.”
  • After a near death experience, Klara tells Callum to kiss her. “His lips descended on hers, slow and meaningful. . . He slid the palm of his hand down to the back of her neck, she shuddered.”
  • Klara told Callum that she could send him back to his own time. He refuses her offer. Then, “his lips found her hairline and lingered there. He felt her palms up his back, felt his muscles tighten in response to her touch. . . Klara wanted him here, too. . . Everything that was fierce and gentle in Callum flowed out of his touch and into her . . .” They stop kissing when they are interrupted. The scene is described over a page.
  • While listening to a band and dancing, Callum “pulled her even closer, lifting her so she was on her toes. . . She pushed her fingers into his hair. He moaned, feeling euphoric. His lips descended to hers.” The kiss is described over half a page.

Violence

  • To pay for their meals, Callum and his friend, Thomas, fought in a local pub. Callum recalls one fight when “Thomas got pummeled. . . Sounds still rang in Callum’s ears: the thud of fist and flesh, the sickening crunch of bone.”
  • One night, Callum comes across Thomas lying in the street. “Thomas lay on the ground, his legs splayed at sickening angles. Blood seeped through his shirt. . . [Callum] pressed his hands against the deep slice that marred his friend’s torso. A knife wound.” 
  • While Callum kneeled next to Thomas, his “world flipped sideways. A blow had hit Callum like a runaway carriage. . . pain exploded along his ribs.” Thomas’s killer steps out of the shadows and “Callum didn’t see the blow coming, only felt the pain searing across his temple as he was thrown to the ground again.” 
  • During the fight, the man stabs Callum. “Callum touched his side, and his fingers came away with blood. He watched as crimson spread across his shirt. . . He tried to take a step, only to crumple to the ground beside Thomas, whose head rested limp against his chest.” Callum passes out. When he awakens, he is in another time period and he assumes Thomas is dead. The fight scene is described over four pages. 
  • A man steps out of a fog and grabs Klara’s throat. “He squeezed tighter, making her sputter. Her lungs worked fruitlessly, burning and straining like her ribs had been welded shut. He was trying to kill her. Was killing her.” Callum jumps to Klara’s aide and “ lunged forward and sunk his dagger into the man’s thigh. . . crying out in pain, the man released his grip slightly, allowing Klara to pull out of his grasp.”
  • While fighting the man, “A powerful burst of energy exploded inside [Klara], moving in electric waves outward from her chest into her limbs. Her fingertips felt like live wires. . . it suddenly sparked into a bright, white light that wiped away everything else.” Klara’s power sends the man into a different realm. The fight scene is described over four pages.
  • A beast appears “standing as tall as a horse and twice as wide, it bore the head of a snake, the form of a panther, and the cloven hooves of a demon.” The beast corners Klara, and Callum comes to her aid. “The creature lunged at Callum. He threw all of his strength at the beast, ducking down and ramming his shoulder into its stomach. . . [Klara] slam[ed] her phone into the beast’s snapping jaws.” 
  • During the fight with the beast, “the monster swung its neck like an unbroken horse, throwing Callum head over heels into the nearest partition wall. . . His body exploded with pain.” While Callum is down, “The monster lumbered toward [Klara], its tongue lashing the air as its hideous head darted and swayed. Its monstrous skull smashed into Klara’s side and sent her sliding along the floor.”
  • As the fight with the beast continues, Callum “slammed the rock into the beast’s spine, the spot on the neck where the scales met fur. The monster shrieked in pain. . . its scaled back, [was] now slick with dark blood as the monster fell on its side.” After being injured, the monster turned into “a pile of dust on the floor.” The bloody fight is described over five pages.
  • While fighting in the pubs, if Callum had a bad fight, his master “would be so mad that the beatings wouldn’t stop until I did better in the next fight.”
  • While in the forest, a god in the shape of a stag appears to Klara. Soon, another monster appears and attacks the stag. “The stag was crumpled before her, his neck in the jaws of another beast. Familiar teeth sunk into the animal’s furred flesh.”
  • Once the stag is out of the way, the monster goes after Klara. The beast “snapped its head up from the stag’s neck, blood dripping from the pearly points of its teeth.” Klara ran, but “spit flew from its mouth and landed with a heavy smack on the tree, acid sizzling where it met the bark—right next to her face.” Eventually, “the leopard-like tail came around and pinned Klara against the tree. Splinters cut through the back of her jacket and into the soft flesh of her skin. She convulsed with a full-body shiver as its jaws opened.” 
  • During the fight, the stag recovers and charges the monster that has Klara pinned against a tree. Once free, “Klara grabbed the broken antler from the forest floor and rammed it into the beast’s eye. The black pupil sunk like putty around the shard, which shuddered violently in her hand the deeper she plunged it in . . . the beast shrieked then collapsed into darkly shimmering dust.” The fight is described over six pages.
  • Aion, a man who Callum has only seen once, follows Callum. When Callum confronts him, Aion refuses to answer any questions. “Callum’s knuckles sunk into Aion’s cheek and nose, glancing off bone. His cry was muffled by Callum’s fist. He drew his hand back, chest heaving. A line of dark blood trickled from Aion’s nostril and over his lip.”
  • While at a mystic site, another monster attacks Klara and Callum. “Callum crouched in front of the beast, sword raised. With a twist of her heart, she noticed the blood splashed across his leg. His limp. . . [Callum] lunged again, this time striking the beast’s neck with the broad side of the sword. Rearing its head, the beast cried out. Then, it swung down in a flash. . . sinking its teeth into Callum’s side.”
  • As Callum and the beast fight, Klara jumps in. “She grabbed the hilt and ran headlong toward the creature. . . leaping as high as she could, Klara bore down and drove the blade into the monster’s open mouth.” When nothing else works, Klara uses her power against the beast, causing the beast to dissolve “until nothing more than a shimmering curtain of gold dust remained.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • Four beasts that “looked as if they were plucked straight from the pits of hell” attack Callum. When the lead beast runs at him, Callum “dropped, flattening his body against the ground to avoid the snarling beast . . . One hand grasped the beast’s muzzle, the other the meat of its neck. Callum felt the crunch of its crooked and uneven teeth under his fingers as he tightened his grip, then used the beast’s own weight to swing it away—and let go.”
  • As the fight continues, “Callum fell to his knee and thrust the dirk upward, catching the creature’s soft belly with his blade. . . The terrible sound of ripping flesh filled his ears. Hot blood splattered in his hair and face. . .” 
  • The beasts almost overtake Callum when one of them “sunk its claw into the front of Callum’s chest. The bite of fang and flesh tore a scream from his lungs.” After Callum fights the beasts, Llaw, a demigod who is trying to kill all of the Pillars, appears and attacks. “Llaw was strong. He stole the remaining breath from Callum’s belly with a sharp kick, sending his body reeling like he had run full force into one of the standing stones. Pain flared in his injured shoulder. Callum fell to his knees. Llaw drove a fist into his chest.”  At the end of the six pages of fighting, Callum’s “vision faded, along with the beat of his heart.”
  • When Klara finds Callum’s body, she pleads to the god Cernunnos. However, Llaw appears. “Llaw’s boot slammed against her chest, pinning her to the ground. The hound by his side. . . crouched. With its sickening sharp claws carving up the earth as it moved, the creature inched toward her until its snapping, snarling jaw was nearly pressed against her throat.” Llaw “pressed his foot down on her chest until a rib snapped.”
  • Klara calls on her powers and is able to distract Llaw. Then, she swung her sword. “The hilt shuddered in her fingers as the blade met resistance—as it cut through the flesh and bone of Llaw’s arm. Then the sword was free again, a swatch of blood on silver the only evidence that she hadn’t missed.”
  • At the end of the fight, Klara stabs Llaw in the chest. “He shuddered violently, like he’d been pushed onto her blade. . . She felt his body go limp.” Klara and Llaw’s fight scene is described over seven pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Callum thinks back to a time when he had whisky at a pub.     
  • After Callum gets into a fight, Klara calls a doctor. The doctor assumes Callum is drunk. The doctor said, “this young man needs aspirin, water, and perhaps to reconsider his life choices, if he’s already this drunk so early in the morning.” 
  • Klara and Callum go to a bar to listen to a band. Other people are served beer.
  • Klara’s grandmother “smoked a joint every Christmas.”
  • Klara’s father talks about the night before he married Klara’s mother when they had champagne.

Language

  • Profanity is used infrequently. Profanity includes ass, bastard, crap, damn, hell, pissed, and shit.
  • Goddamn is used once.
  • God, oh my God, and Jesus are used as exclamations a few times. 

Supernatural

  • In the woods, Klara and Callum come across an area that looks like a fairy ring. Then, a fog begins to take form. “The air in front of [Klara] began to shimmer as if it was the height of summer—but the air turned suddenly cold. . . The mist grew thicker still with every passing second, until it was a curtain of light and shadow. . . Callum watched in horror as a hand emerged from the mist and reached for her.” A man steps out of the fog. 
  • The story revolves around Samhain, “a Gaelic holiday, similar to Halloween, celebrating the barriers of the human and spirit world thinning out on October 31 through November 1, allowing crossover from both realms.”
  • Callum learns that Thomas was visiting mystical centers. A man tells Callum, “Different centers are thought to be closer to different gods or different locations in the Otherworld. . . Some say energy flows at these sites – at these mystic centers, or thin places— especially at certain times of the year, or with specific celestial events, the power of which is beyond our understanding.”
  • If Klara concentrates, she can feel the “pull of the Otherworld.” While trying to understand her powers, Klara walks into a forest and a stag steps out of the mist. “She watched in awe as the stag fell away, its body transforming until the only thing that remained of the beast were its antlers” that “crowned a man.” The man is Cernunnos, the god of the wilds, of nature, and of life itself. He tells Klara that “my essence is connected to the soil, the leaves, the trees, the ocean.” 
  • Callum wants to find the “bean-nighe” who is part of the Fair Folk. The bean-nighe “appears to those she chooses, and those who will die.” To find a bean-nighe, Callum will need to go to a lake, take part of his shirt, “soak it in your blood, and leave it in the waters. With it, you must swear to leave your life—if the bean-nighe would so choose to take it.” When Callum follows these directions, he asks the bean-nighe for “the strength of ten men” so he can protect Klara.
  • Klara goes to a mystic site. While there, a “pearl of light” appears. “The pearl grew. . . the spin stopped abruptly, and it flattened in the air in front of her, casting her in a blaze of white. . . Klara cried out, at first in shock, then in agony. It felt like she was being scorched alive.” The light takes her through a vision of the past.

Spiritual Content

  • Arianrhod, the Goddess of the Silver Wheel is “a primal figure of female strength—often associated with the moon, she had dominion over the sky, reincarnation, and even time and fate itself.” The goddess appears to Klara and Callum. Arianrhod shows a vision to Callum. “The fog gathered around them again. . . A familiar form took shape in front of Callum’s eyes. His chest wrenched open with disbelief and wonder.” Callum is shown his friend Thomas, and Arianrhod explains that “Thomas’s life was precious—more precious than most of the humans who walk this earth. There was a power in his blood more valuable than any mortal treasure. . .”
  • The Goddess reveals that Callum’s friends, Thomas, and Klara are both “pillars.” Arianrhod divided her powers “amongst ten human souls that would be born into your world. . . Spread across the centuries, each of the ten chosen ones became a Pillar of Time, with my power sealed within their blood.” 
  • Arianrhod’s son, Llaw, is a demigod who is trying to kill all the Pillars so he can gain their power. The goddess explains that “Llaw has already taken the power from the other nine vessels, but my power can all be restored as long as you live past Samhain.” If Llaw isn’t stopped, chaos will reign and time itself will be destroyed.

The Beginning

The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls Series follows siblings Peter and Mary and their dog, Hank, as they discover ancient scrolls that transport them back to key moments in biblical history.

In the first adventure in the series, Peter and Mary find themselves witnesses to the creation of the world just as God is speaking it into existence. Can they unlock the mystery of the scrolls and return home before they get trapped in history forever? Children will discover the answer as the two characters ride rhinos, meet the angel Michael, and talk to a certain snake in the Garden of Eden. 

For many young readers, God creating the Earth may be a difficult concept to understand. The Beginning will help readers understand how God created the earth. While the story revolves around the creation story, Peter and Mary must also discover three clues that will help them answer the secret of the scroll. If they fail to solve the secret, they will never be able to return home. Finding the clues to answer the secret adds suspense. However, Peter and Mary stumble upon the answers, which takes away some of the fun of discovering the clues. 

Readers will get caught up in Peter’s and Mary’s adventures and feel awe as God creates the world. The story includes black and white illustrations that appear every one to three pages. The illustrations will help young readers understand the plot as well as show the beauty of God’s creations. For example, when God says, “Be fruitful and multiply to fill the water and the sky,” one illustration shows birds and another illustration shows sea life.

Since Satan plays a part in the creation story, readers will also learn how Satan can deceive you. The angel Michael warns the siblings, “You can’t trust everyone or everything you may hear.” Peter and Mary are saddened when Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden. However, their uncle reminds them, “God still loved man and woman. . . God provided for their needs. Even though Satan and sin entered the world, God would forgive and fix everything someday.”

The Beginning is perfect for children who want to learn about the creation story. Peter and Mary are likable protagonists, and their dog Hank adds some humor to the story. While the story is not fast-paced, it has enough suspense to keep readers engaged. The kids’ uncle makes a brief appearance at the beginning and end of the book. While he doesn’t play a large role in the story, Peter and Mary share their adventure with their uncle and he is able to add insight into the kids’ experience. The Beginning is an entertaining story that teaches the importance of listening to God’s truth and not being tricked by Satan’s lies. For more exciting time-traveling adventures that teach biblical truth, check out the Imagination Station Series by Marianne Hering & Paul McCusker.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Satan, disguised as a snake, tries to trick Peter and Mary. When the snake’s plan does not work, “the snake wrapped himself tighter and tighter around Peter, Mary, and Hank. Peter tried to get his arms free, but they were trapped in the snake’s powerful grip. The snake was squeezing the hope out of Peter.” 
  • The snake eventually lets Peter and Mary go. In order to get the scroll back, “Mary ran straight toward the snake. She did a front flip and jumped into the air with a spinning kick to the snake’s mouth.”
  • When the kids get the scroll back, the snake “sprang toward Hank and the scroll. Mary jumped with another kick, but the snake slipped under it this time. The snake put another deadly grip around Peter, Mary, and Hank. It was much tighter this time.” 
  • The angel Michael helps the kids escape. “Michael swung his flaming sword and struck the snake’s head. . . The snake coiled tightly, showing his sharp fangs, and then darted straight at Michael. But Michael held out a large, shining shield. The snake’s head smashed into the shield and he fell to the ground with a thud.” The snake scene is described over a chapter.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • Peter and Mary transport back in time, to before God created the world, with the help of a scroll. When Peter opens the scroll’s wax seal, “the walls shook, books fell from the shelves, and the floor quaked. . . The library began to crumble around them. Then everything was dark. . . completely dark.”

Spiritual Content 

  • The story retells how God created the Earth in seven days.
  • While in the past, the angel Michael helps Peter and Mary. When Michael first meets the siblings, he explains that he is “an angel of God. I am the head of God’s angel army, and I have been sent to protect you.” 
  • Michael tells the kids to “trust God and remember what you have been taught.”
  • While enjoying the sunset, Mary says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky shows the work of his hand.” 

Wild & Chance

When a girl wakes up trapped on a sinking ship with no memory of who she is, she has nothing but her instinct to survive. As she fights her way to freedom, she quickly discovers two incredible facts: she is a dog and she can understand human speech. Soon, she befriends a thirteen-year-old boy named Chance who gives her a name of her own: Wild. 

But Wild and Chance find themselves running for their lives, pursued by relentless Animal Control officers. Joined by a mysterious hacker girl named Junebug, the unlikely trio fight for survival while trying to solve the mystery of Wild’s extraordinary strength, super-intelligence, and high-tech collar.

Wild’s heart-pounding story will grab readers from the very first page when she almost dies in a yacht explosion. After surviving the ocean, a dog fighting ring, and Animal Control, Wild thinks her problems are over. When Chance befriends Wild, the two connect over the discovery that they are both looking for a home. However, the two are forced to flee as they realize that Maelstrom, a secret military organization, will stop at nothing to silence Wild forever.

Readers will instantly get wrapped up in Wild’s fight for survival. Wild’s unique perspective shows her struggle to fight against her breeding—she was genetically engineered to make humans love her and then kill them. Wild has no desire to hurt anyone, but she must constantly fight her instincts. Despite her past, Wild is determined to keep her new friends, Chance and Junebug, safe. However, Wild isn’t completely sure that Junebug can be trusted. Despite this, Wild is determined to keep her promise to Chance and reunite him with his mother.

Even though Wild is a dog, many readers will relate to her desire to understand her past and determine her own future. The fast-paced mystery is full of action-packed chases, several intense dog fights, and a dramatic conclusion that will leave readers in tears. Wild, Chance, and Junebug are complex characters who are thrown together by circumstance but connect through friendship. While Wild & Chance is a heart-stopping, entertaining book, readers who want to avoid violence should instead read the Wild Rescuers Series by Stacy Plays and the Survival Tails Series by Katrina Charman.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Wild wakes up on a yacht that smells of gasoline. She sees a boat of soldiers off to the side. One soldier shoots a flare. “There’s a loud whoosh as the flare hits the yacht and the fuel ignites. The explosion comes less than a second later, a thunderclap that shakes the entire vessel and causes the deck to tilt at a steep angle.” Wild jumps into the ocean before the yacht sinks.
  • A man captures Wild and takes her to a dog fighting ring. Not wanting to fight, Wild tries to get off the platform. “I try to run between [the bystanders’] legs to get away, but they kick at me, boots connecting with my hindquarters.” 
  • Wild is forced to fight Thunder, a rottweiler. “The moment I turn, he leaps at me, mouth open wide as he springs for my neck. . . It seems there’s no way to escape this fight, but I no longer want to escape. I want this dog’s throat in my teeth.” Wild forces herself not to kill Thunder. Instead, she twists “to the side, flinging Thunder away from me, hearing him yelp as the big dog goes airborne across the pit. . . “. The dog fight is described over three pages before Wild finds a way to escape the fight.
  • Wild comes across a kid who is corned by a group of boys. “Without warning, the older kid punches him in the stomach, doubling him over. The boy tries to get away, but he’s trapped between a brick wall and the three kids hovering over him.” The older boy hits the kid again and Wild jumps in. Wild is “overwhelmed by a desire to protect the skinny boy. . . I bare my teeth and roar at full volume.” The bullies leave. The scene is described over two pages.
  • Chance hides Wild in his closet. The next morning, two men dressed as animal control appear offering money in exchange for the dog. In the exchange, the men reveal that they plan to kill Wild. When Wild runs, “both officers flick open their zappers and sparks fly. . . The small officer points his zapper in my direction, and an arc of electricity shoots out like a lightning bolt.” In order to escape, “I spin and kick him in the chest with my hind legs, hard enough to knock him backward into the small officer and send the two of them crashing to the ground.” Wild and Chance run. The scene is described over four pages.
  • In order to remove a GPS tracking device, Wild uses her teeth to bite it out. Wild bites “down, ignoring my disgust, and get a fang into my skin. I feel a sharp pain as my tooth pierces the flesh. . .” The dog removes the tracker and throws it out the window.
  • Chance, Wild, and Junebug get picked up by a police officer, who puts them in the back of his police car. The kids know they are in trouble when the police officer drives past the police station and begins heading to a remote location. On the way there, a truck intentionally runs into the police car. “The truck hits us at full speed. Metal grinds against metal and glass shatters. For a few seconds, the patrol car is airborne, and then it crashes down hard, rolling over on itself, flinging us violently from side to side.” The kids and Wild wake up with their wounds cleaned and no serious injuries.
  • In order to find out why Wild has special abilities, Wild and her friends go to see Dr. Pao, who lives in a fenced compound. While there, they hear an explosion. “Another explosion knocks us to the ground, and the rear wall of the compound shatters in front of me. . . A wall of electricity floods the compound, beams crisscrossing, smashing whatever they touch.” Dr. Pao shows the kids a way to escape.
  • As the kids try to escape the soldiers that are on the compound, “Junebug rears back and kicks him hard in the groin, cutting off his sentence and doubling him over with a grunt of pain.” Junebug runs, but Chance disappears. Wild finds Chance. “A Maelstrom soldier has an arm around Chance’s throat, holding him tight. He also has a fully charged zapper with sparks flying from the tip.” Wild free Chance and the two escape. The chase scene is described over eight pages.
  • Another specialized Maelstrom dog is sent to kill Wild. Wild describes, “The dog turns to Chance, his eyes red, drool flowing. He charges without warning . . . I howl and attack, my heart pumping, eyes blind with range. I crash into him from the side, catching him off guard, and my jaws close around his neck.” When Wild realizes that the dog will hurt the children, Wild twists “and throw[s] him high into the air, as hard and as far as I can.” The dog falls over a cliff and dies. The scene is described over four pages.
  • Wild has a flashback to before she was on the yacht. Wild was placed with a family so she could spy on the mother. Once Maelstrom had enough information, Wild was ordered to kill the family. Wild refused and instead, she “lunged at my handler, clamping down on his arm, stripping him of the zapper, and attacking him. His screams are the ones I’ve been hearing in my nightmares.”
  • General Rupani, a Maelstrom soldier, holds Chance captive in order to force Wild to kill a family. Instead of killing the family, Wild breaks into the Maelstrom command center. “The soldiers realize what’s going on and come at me, but I’m moving on instinct, arcing in the air and smashing as I go, a whirlwind of legs and body strikes, and take out the entire room in a matter of seconds.”
  • In order to save Chance and Wild from her father, Junebug takes a zapper “using it like a baseball bat and striking the general in the back of the head with a loud smack. General Rupani grunts and his eyes roll back into his head.” The escape scene is described over six pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A man finds Wild who is thirsty and hungry. In order to capture Wild, the man gives Wild “a little something. . .to relax you.” The drug makes Wild fall asleep.
  • When Wild wakes up, she’s in a warehouse with a bunch of rich people who are drinking cocktails.
  • Chance’s mom is in drug rehab. Chance tells Wild, “She isn’t a bad person, Wild. She’s an addict. The drugs make you do things you wouldn’t do if you were thinking straight.”

Language   

  • Bullcrap is used once.
  • Heck is used twice.
  • Damn and darn are both used once.
  • As Chance and Wild are running from Animal Control, they hear a helicopter. Chance shouts, “Animal Control doesn’t have friggin’ helicopters!”
  • Junebug says, “My dad can be a real jerk sometimes.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

A Grimm Warning

While his sister, Alex, decided to stay in the fairy world to become a fairy trainee, Conner hasn’t had any adventures and he’s starting to like it that way. While he misses the Land of Stories and its endless fun, the real world has presented Conner with exciting opportunities, such as a school trip to Europe with his crush, Bree. While Alex busies herself with her upcoming acceptance into the Happily Ever After Assembly – the council of kings, queens, and fairies – Conner travels to Europe for a reading of three recently recovered stories written by The Brothers Grimm that had been sealed away for 200 years. 

But the final story reveals a grave warning for the fairytale world, and Conner knows fate has brought him here to decipher the message. He must warn Alex and his friends that General Marquis, a French officer from Napoleon’s Army, wanted to launch an attack on the Land of Stories centuries ago. The Brothers Grimm were able to delay them until the present time, but very soon a portal will open and the French Army will pour into the fairytale world to wreak havoc. Conner must warn them before the army arrives. 

Bree, who has been suspicious of Conner’s tales, tags along as they travel through Europe with the help of a German boy named Emmerich and search for an entrance to the Land of Stories. Conner warns Alex of the coming threat, but sadly, Alex has news in return: The Fairy Godmother, their grandma, is sick. Despite their grandmother’s impending death, the twins work together to rally the kingdoms and prepare for war. Though the battle is difficult, the fairytale world is able to beat back the French Army, but the victory is bittersweet. The Fairy Godmother passes away and now Alex must step up and take on the role of Fairy Godmother. But at least through everything, the twins still have each other.

Alex and Conner are entertaining and relatable narrators. Alex’s serious and scholarly nature contrasts Conner’s witty and easy-going personality, making them a fun duo. As the twins grow older, this installment of the Land of Stories attempts to deal with more mature themes, such as first love and the death of close family members. However, Alex and Conner always support each other during rough times. The twins’ selflessness is admirable, as is their dedication to doing what’s right even if it interferes with their personal desires.

Though the plot for this novel was a bit more outlandish than the previous stories, the Land of Stories series stays true to its themes of relying on family, protecting one’s friends, and staying brave in the face of evil. Additionally, one of main conflicts in this book is that to defeat General Marquis’ army, all the factions in the fairytale world will need to work together. The kingdoms haven’t always seen eye to eye, and they have also excluded certain groups like the elves and troblins (the name used to refer to the troll and goblin community) due to past grievances. However, everyone is stronger together. Alex says, “Every creature is an individual and we can’t punish an entire race for mistakes made by individuals. As easy as it is to label large groups with the reputation of their ancestors, it isn’t right.” 

With the new council in place, Alex and Conner hope that the Land of Stories can recover from the war and move towards a more united future. However, the book ends by suggesting that the twins’ greatest personal battle is about to begin: a strange, masked prisoner who vows to eliminate all fairies is caught stealing an unknown potion from the twins’ late grandmother’s bedroom. It seems that Alex and Conner will still have plenty of adventures ahead of them. Readers who enjoy epic stories with feats of bravery should also check out the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan and the Kingdom Keepers Series by Ridley Pearson

Sexual Content 

  • Conner makes a joke to Alex about how their personalities are so different. Conner says, “Alex, I’ve been impressed by you since the womb. I’m sure your part of the uterus was much neater and more organized than mine.” Alex replies, “Really, Conner? A uterus joke?”
  • Goldilocks and Jack, members of the Land of Stories, kiss at their wedding. “Jack and Goldilocks locked lips and their crowd of guests cheered wildly.”
  • Rook, a village boy who Alex is crushing on, kisses Alex several times throughout the story. “Rook stepped even closer to [Alex] and placed a hand on the side of her face. He looked into her eyes for a moment and then slowly leaned his head closer to hers. . . Rook kissed her for the first time.” Later, Alex says that her favorite days are the ones that end with a good-night kiss from Rook. 
  • Bree kisses Conner on the cheek. Conner says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I might – possibly – maybe – do have a crush on you.” Bree replies, “I have a crush on you too.” 

Violence 

  • General Marquis threatens the Brothers Grimm. “. . . The brothers were gagged again, their hands retied behind their backs, and the black sacks placed over their heads. . . “ Then the general says, “Find a portal in two months or I’ll make you watch as I personally kill everyone you love.”
  • The talking lion statue explains how Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm made the magical portal open. “Mother Goose took a dagger and made a cut in her hand and one in Wilhelm Grimm’s hand . . . they held their hands tightly together and let some of the magic from Mother Goose’s blood flow into his.”
  • When the portal is opened and all the French soldiers fall out, the scene is gruesome. “Hundreds of men and pieces of equipment rained from the sky . . .  many soldiers barely missed being crushed by the carriages or cannons or horses that fell beside them . . . Most of [the soldiers] held their heads in agony or vomited.” 
  • General Marquis executes an old man who helped the soldiers. “‘Unfortunately, you know too much,’ [General Marquis] said. ‘Get rid of him.’ The old man screamed. ‘No! Please! I have a family!’ he pleaded, but it was no use. The general didn’t have an ounce of mercy to spare. [The soldiers] dragged the old man into the foggy woods and his screams echoed through the trees around them. A moment later a gunshot was heard and the woods were silent again.”
  • While Alex and Conner are on the back of one of Mother Goose’s geese—Lester—a cannon shoots him. “A rogue cannonball bolted through the sky and blasted through Lester’s right wing. The gander squawked in pain as he and the twins began rapidly descending toward the trees on the horizon. . . They crashed hard into the ground. . . Alex and Conner were too wounded to get to their feet. They both had broken several bones. They heard Lester squawking in the distance – he was perhaps in even more pain than they were.” Alex and Conner fall unconscious. Their injuries are magically healed by a witch. 
  • A witch describes how she healed Little Bo Peep’s broken heart. “I cut out a small piece of Little Bo’s heart, the part that was full of hurt and longing for the men in her life, and I turned it to stone.”
  • General Marquis shoots two of his soldiers. “General Marquis turned to [the soldiers] and shot them both in the foot. They fell backward and slid down the canyon walls. They moaned as they tried to get to their feet. A low growling noise vibrated up the canyon walls and the [soldiers’] moaning increased. A series of deafening screeches echoed next from the canyon, but they weren’t human. . . the camp heard the [soldiers] scream as they were eaten alive” by a dragon.
  • The battle between General Marquis’s army and the Land of Stories takes place over nearly 40 pages. A few people’s deaths are described. There is some violence, such as when Alex fights back by using magic. “Alex swished her wand through the air at [the soldiers]. Their rifles were transformed into long-stemmed roses that pricked their fingers before they could shoot.” 
  • When Rook betrays Alex, she gets angry and lashes out violently. “Without thinking, Alex took her heartbreak out on the soldiers charging at her. She cracked her wand like a whip and a burst of white light sent the soldiers flying into the air.” 
  • Gator, a troll, dies in the battle. “Gator was too small to fight the soldier off alone and lost his balance. The soldier stabbed him in the stomach and Gator fell to the ground. . . the little troll died before he could say another word.” 
  • Little Bo Peep dies. “Bo Peep clutched the side of her chest. . . [she] collapsed on the ground and became very still. . . Little Bo Peep had died of a broken heart.” 
  • The unicorns help fight the dragon. “The unicorns stabbed their horns into the dragon’s feet and he roared in pain. The dragon picked the unicorns up with his front claws and threw them into the forest. . . The dragon grew impatient and scorched the remaining unicorns with his breath.” 
  • The dragon turns on General Marquis and kills him. “The dragon took a deep breath and exhaled a long and powerful fiery geyser from his lungs. The geyser hit the general and he was consumed in its vicious flames. When the dragon stopped, the ground beneath the general had been scorched black and General Marquis was gone.” 
  • The Fairy Godmother kills the dragon. “A long, silvery trail erupted from the tip of the Fairy Godmother’s wand. She happily waved her wand in the air as if she were conducting an orchestra and the trail slashed through the air like a giant whip. The trail grew longer and longer by the second. The dragon jumped back and forth, trying to avoid it. Eventually, the trail was so long the dragon tangled himself in it when he tried flying away. . . She cracked her wand like a whip again, and the trail that was wrapped around the dragon grew brighter and brighter. The others covered their eyes at the blinding sight and the dragon burst into clumps of ash.” 
  • When defeating the dragon, the Fairy Godmother exhausted her powers. “The Fairy Godmother’s eyes closed for the final time. Her body became weightless in [the twins’] hands, transformed into hundreds of bright sparkling lights.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Mother Goose gets poisoned while in a tavern. 
  • Mother Goose says, “Last time I officiated a wedding, Puss in Boots drank all my bubbly.” 
  • Mother Goose has a flask hidden in her hat and “takes a swig” from it twice. 
  • Mother Goose talks about a tavern that she went to with her “drinking buddies.” 
  • Mother Goose wakes the unconscious Conner by splashing him in the face with alcohol. “Mother Goose removed her flask from her hat and splashed [Conner’s] face with the liquid inside.”

Language   

  • General Marquis calls Mother Goose an “old lush.” 
  • Mother Goose calls Lester, her goose, “mattress filler”
  • Queen Red Riding Hood refers to her rival Bo Peep as “Little Bo Bimbo” and, “A pain in the shepherdess.” 
  • When the fairies don’t want to join the war, Conner says, “Screw the code.” 
  • Conner calls Rook a “stupid boy who needs a haircut.” 
  • Conner refers to the evil enchantress Ezmia as a “narcissistic wench.” 
  • General Marquis calls Conner a “stupid, pathetic, ignorant little boy.” 

Supernatural 

  • All fairytale stories are true in the Land of Stories . . . there is a portal connecting the Land of Stories to the human world, called the Otherworld.
  • Because Alex and Conner’s mother is from the human world but their father is from the Land of Stories, they have a bit of magic in their blood which brings them good luck.
  • The Fairy Godmother can do magic. She is described by General Marquis as someone who “wears robes that sparkle like the night sky, has white flowers in her hair, and carries a long crystal wand.” She can travel between the fairytale world and the Otherworld as well as transform objects. 
  • Mother Goose is another main character in the story. She can do magic, such as teleport, and she travels on a giant goose named Lester. 
  • Mother Goose escapes the Marquis by using magic. “She reached out an open hand and the golden egg floated straight out of the box and into the wagon where she sat. And, with a blinding flash, Mother Goose and the golden egg disappeared into thin air.”
  • Conner has a magic mirror that allows him to contact the fairy world so he can talk to Alex. He uses it periodically throughout the story.
  • Alex uses magic to transform her clothes. “Alex picked up her crystal wand from her nightstand and waved it around her body. Her plain nightgown was instantly turned into a long, sparkling dress the color of the sky, and a headband of white carnations appeared on her head.” 
  • Alex has a unicorn. Unicorns have silver horns that can guide them to people in need. 
  • As part of Alex’s fairy training, she goes out each day and performs three wishes to townspeople in need.
  • Conner and Bree get information from a talking lion statue. 
  • Conner and Bree open the portal to the fairy world with a magical panpipe.
  • The twins cast a magic spell that teleports all the soldiers of the Land of Stories’ kingdoms to the same place. “The world appeared in slow motion as they raised the wand above their heads. The twins could feel magic rush through their bodies and into the wand in their hands. . . a gigantic blast of white light erupted from the tip and surrounded them… Alex and Conner had turned themselves into a shooting star that bolted across the sky faster than anything had ever traveled before. . . Upon seeing it, every soldier of the armies, on duty or in hiding, turned into his or her own sphere of light and instantly shot through the sky to join the twins.” 
  • General Marquis hatches a dragon, the first of which to be seen in the fairytale world for many years. “The dragon emerged from the trees and landed at the edge of the fairy gardens. He was almost as tall as the fairy palace. Red scales covered his body and a forked tongue slipped in and out of his sharp teeth. He had two horns and sharp spikes covered his head and traveled down his spine. Two large wings grew out of the dragon’s back and a long tail whipped around behind him.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Mother Goose says, “Thank God.” 
  • Conner sees a painting of Jesus in a castle in Germany. 
  • When the dragon attacks and there is little hope left, Conner says that the only thing they can do is pray. 

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. 

The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit

Deer Creek is a small town whose only hope for survival is the success of the Founders’ Day Festival. But the festival’s main attraction, a time capsule that many believe holds the town’s treasure, has gone missing.   

Twelve-year-old Randi Rhodes and her best friend, D.C., are Bruce Lee-inspired ninjas and local detectives determined to solve the case. Even if it means investigating a haunted cabin and facing mean old Angus McCarthy, who is the prime suspect. The future of their whole town is at stake! Will these kids be able to save the day?  

Randi is a plucky heroine who isn’t afraid to jump into danger if it means solving a case. When her father decides to move the family to Deer Creek, Randi is convinced that she will die of boredom. However, she is soon sneaking around town looking for clues that will reveal who took the town’s time capsule. Along the way, Randi meets D.C. and the two connect over their love of martial arts. As they hunt for clues, they also learn about the importance of friendship. This theme is reinforced when they read a letter written by the town’s founding fathers who wrote, “We were prosperous because our friendship is more precious to us than any riches on earth.”  

Many readers will relate to Randi and her friend D.C., who face real-world conflicts. Randi is not only struggling with the loss of her mother; she also believes her father doesn’t understand her. Randi’s friend D.C. worries about his mother’s financial issues. He also gets frustrated because his mother treats him like a sick little boy because he has asthma. While the story focuses on Randi and D.C., the town is full of interesting people who add both conflict and humor to the story.  

With plenty of action and suspense, The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit will entertain mystery-loving readers. In addition, readers will learn the necessary skills to sleuth on their own. Throughout the story, readers are prompted to go to the appendix and complete a “Ninja Task.” These tasks include how to conduct a stakeout, how to make a footprint cast, how to collect a dusty footprint, etc. The appendix also includes recipes for making caramel apples and ice cream. Another positive aspect of the book is the full-page, black-and-white illustrations that appear, on average, every 24 pages. 

The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit is a fast-paced story that brings the town of Deer Creek alive. Like many stories, the book has a group of bullies, a misunderstood town outcast, and a small-town sheriff. Despite this, Randi’s love of ninja’s, spying, and solving mysteries makes The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit a fun read. Plus, the conclusion adds several surprises that tie up all the story threads and remind readers that friends help each other become better people.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Randi and D.C. go into an abandoned house that is rumored to be haunted. When they hear someone opening the front door, the two kids hide in a bedroom. When someone opens the bedroom door, D.C. kicks the person. “The kick he delivered must have been powerful. The figure rocked backwards and fell.” Once the man is down, the kids run from the house. 
  • When Randi and D.C. go back to the abandoned house, two bad guys appear. The kids overhear a man saying, “Next time you should drag the little brats out and take them back to the caves. There are places down there where no one would ever find them.” 
  • Randi, D.C., and their friend Pudge follow the bad guys to a cave. While there, Angus appears and a man “crept up behind Angus McCarthy, put an arm around his neck, and trapped the old man in a headlock. . .” 
  • While in the cave, the main henchman orders a man to, “Take Mr. McCarthy away and deal with him. And make sure he won’t be coming back. I don’t want that old coot causing any more trouble.”  
  • In order to help Angus, the kids follow behind the bad man who is hauling Angus deeper into the cave. Randi “tapped the thug on the shoulder. . . When the thug wheeled around to see who was behind him, he was greeted with a lightning-fast punch. . . Once he was down on the ground, Randi delivered a chop to the right side of his head that would make sure he stayed nice and quiet. . .” 
  • The other bad guys see Randi, D.C., and Pudge. When they try to capture the kids, Randi “leaped forward in a gravity-defying jump kick, connecting with the first foe’s abdomen. It was so powerful, it sent him reeling backwards and onto another guy. . . By the time the agents realized what had happened Randi was already spinning and kicking low to the ground, smashing ankles, kicking up dust, and exhibiting textbook form on a tornado kick.” The scene is described over four pages.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Mean girl Amber-Grace often calls people names, including freak, Yankee scarecrow, idiot, and a loser. 
  • Amber-Grace calls D.C. a “little deaf punk.” 
  • Randi thinks that Amber-Grace is an “obnoxious brat.”  
  • A man asks, “You think I was the one who took the durn capsule?” 
  • A woman calls someone a “miserable old coot.” 
  • D.C. is hard of hearing. While D.C. was working at his mom’s fruit stand, a boy “wriggled his fingers as if using sign language. ‘Didn’t you hear me, deaf boy?’”  
  • A group of kids ambush D.C. and start making fun of him. One boy refers to D.C. as Bruce Wee. The boy says, “You know why Bruce Wee’s belt is yellow and not black? It’s ‘cause he’s’ so scared to fight that he pees in his pants.” Randi jumps in to help and she tells the boy, “Well, anyone who’s earned a yellow belt wouldn’t have any trouble kicking a bloated butt like yours.” 
  • Darn is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Into the Storm

After their victory in Texas, the Pawtriots are en route back to their home in Washington, DC. But when a massive storm on the Atlantic Ocean rolls in, Sergeant Rico and his unit are forced to take shelter on a mysterious island in the Caribbean.

While on the island, the Pawtriots meet M—the leader of the island’s animals. M tells them the story of the thrice-cursed pirate Sea Wolf, his crew, and his ship, the Calico Jack. When Sea Wolf and his crew are brought back to life, it’s up to the Pawtriots to defeat the pirates and return peace to the island.

While aboard a Coast Guard Ship, Rico and the Pawtriots meet two brothers: Jet and Jag. While Jag is a “hard-liner” who follows all the rules, Jet breaks rules at every opportunity. The two dogs add interest to the story, but they also give mixed messages. At times rules are followed, but others believe “that some rules are meant to be broken.” Sometimes breaking the rules cause problems, but other times breaking the rules is the only solution.

Rico and the Pawtriots follow Army morals. For example, to save the Pawtriots, Rico agrees to serve Sea Wolf. Rico thinks, “When I was in the Army, there were times when sacrifices had to be made for the greater good and the sake of the mission. This is one of those times.” Because of Rico’s leadership and courage, the Pawtriots are successful in eventually defeating Sea Wolf.

Into the Storm begins by recapping the events from the previous book, Everything is Bigger in Texas. While chapter one is heavy on the military lingo, the sayings are explained. For example, Rico explains that “debrief you” is “Army-talk for ‘getting up to speed on the details of the mission. . . and quickly.’” Despite this, younger readers may struggle with the advanced vocabulary such as makeshift, flotilla, interceptor, and liaison.

Each chapter starts with the location, date, and military time, which makes the timeline easy to follow. Black and white illustrations appear every 1 to 6 pages and show the animals in action as well as some of the dangers they face—including Sea Wolf, the Kraken, and the various characters. The back of the book also includes the Soldier’s Creed, and a glossary of Army terms.

the Pawtriots fight and defeat supernatural pirates, and throughout the story, Rico leads his unit and reinforces the importance of duty, respect, courage, and helping others. As the Pawtriot Dogs Series progresses, readers will have to remember a large cast of characters whose personalities are not well developed. Readers will enjoy Into the Storm because it is a suspenseful story that follows a group of heroic dogs. Dog-loving readers who want more fun adventures should add the Puppy Pirates Series by Erin Soderberg to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Sea Wolf throws Jet off a tower. Rico says, “All I can do is watch as she crashes into a cluster of tall trees below, helplessly clawing at the branches in a desperate effort to slow her fall. She hits the ground hard. . .”
  • Sea Wolf commands his crew to attack the Pawtriots. The fight is not described, but Rico is captured and put in chains.
  • The Pawtriots must face a kraken that has “twelve long, slimy tentacles with suction cups that can pull your skin clean off and fangs that will rip you to shreds.” Rico describes how “a tentacle sweeps my legs out from under me. . .the wet rock presses up against my fur. I try to wrestle free from the Kraken’s grip on my tail, but it’s useless.”
  • Someone kills the Kraken to save Rico. Rico sees “Penny, who has Sea Wolf’s sword in her paw. It’s covered in Kraken blood.”
  • The Pawtriots are in a cavern that starts to collapse. Rico is the last to exit. “I am squeezed in between rocks. . . I wiggle my body and shimmy as fast as I can, falling out of the tunnel onto ground just as the tunnel caves in completely.”
  • Sea Wolf makes the Pawtriots walk the plank. As they struggle to remain afloat in the ocean, they are saved.
  • To defeat Sea Wolf, the “Pawtriots don’t hesitate, and in an instant, they’ve swarmed the Cutthroats, engaging them in fierce paw-to-paw combat.” No fighting is described.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Sea Wolf calls someone a “treacherous bilge rat.”
  • Sea Wolf calls his crew, “Yellow-bellied sapsuckers.”
  • Sea Wolf calls his former first mate a “backstabbing traitor.”

Supernatural

  • Rico and the Pawtriots end up on a cursed island. While there, a cat tells the story of the “Thrice-Cursed Pirate Sea Wolf” and his ship, the Calico Jack. Sea Wolf’s sword, ship, and crew were cursed. Sea Wolf’s “very soul was trapped inside the eternal flame. . . If the bell were ever to be run, then Sea Wolf would have until sunset to raise his crew, his ship, and retrieve his sword before the flame dies out and Sea Wolf with it.” Someone rings the bell and reawakens Sea Wolf and his crew.
  • When Sea Wolf reappears, “his eyes are bloodshot, and the moon paints his gray fur with an ominous glow.”
  • Sea Wolf’s “strength grows with each passing minute that his lungs draw breath.”
  • The Sea Wolf’s first mate was cured with immortality. She says, “Being alive forever gets old. I’m tired. Very, very tired. And the only way I can rest is if Sea Wolf rises and falls.”
  • In the end, Sea Wolf is defeated and “Sea Wolf vanishes.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

Fall of Hades

Now that the small island nation of Tuvalu has become the base of Dr. Hatch’s operations, Michael and the Electroclan plan to stop him by taking down the Elgen’s floating treasury, a ship named the Joule. In addition, Dr. Hatch’s remaining loyal electric children have turned against him. Before Hatch can have them executed for treason, Michael wants to rescue them, along with the innocent Tuvaluan citizens who have become prisoners on the island the evil doctor renamed “Hades.”

For Dr. Hatch, it seems like things are finally falling apart due to his number one in command, Welch, disappearing with the help of Quentin, his former favorite electric child. However, Hatch’s feelings change when he learns of the Electroclan’s plans. The Electroclan have enlisted a captain named J.D. to help them sink the Joule – but J.D. is on Hatch’s side. Hatch allows J.D. to go along with the Electroclan’s plan to infiltrate the island so the Electroclan is in his grasp.

A bloody battle ensues at a prison in Hades during an intense storm. A few of the Electroclan, such as Tanner and Gervaso, die in the fight. At the end of the book, Michael climbs a tower to get struck by lightning. The subsequent massive explosion ends the battle, though Hatch escapes from the island. The Joule is destroyed and Hades has fallen, but Michael, the symbol of hope for the resistance, is gone.

This installment of the Michael Vey series dedicates a large amount of time to the story’s minor characters, often skipping from the action to flashbacks or other characters’ dilemmas. While it can be distracting from the main plot, readers who have followed the story until now will want to keep reading to see if Michael can finally defeat Hatch. Because Michael is fighting an all-out war, the events may be difficult to connect to, but readers will likely sympathize with Michael’s motives. Michael believes that the best sacrifice is the one made for others, even if isn’t successful. He says, “I’m fighting a battle for humanity. Of course, I could die and not win any victory, but I think that’s got to be worth something too.”

Though this book ends with Michael’s disappearance, picking up the last book is a must. The most moving part of the story is Michael’s climb up the tower, where he reflects on the journey he has taken with his friends and family. “So many memories. Most of them recent, it seemed. I suppose I had lived more life in the last year than most people live in eighty. That was good. Because I knew mine was coming to an end.” The final book of the series, Michael Vey: The Final Spark explores what motivation remains for the Electroclan once Michael is gone and whether they can keep the fight alive in Michael’s memory.

Sexual Content

  • As part of Welch’s backstory, we learn that he fell in love with a girl named Mei Li despite the Elgen’s rule forbidding romantic relationships. Welch stays with her while he’s on the run, and they kiss.
  • Michael and Taylor are dating. They kiss a few times.
  • When Nichelle is getting a tattoo, the artist says, “What do you need, babe? I have a special for the ladies as long as it’s on lady parts.”
  • Jack recalls a time when he sent a girl a text that got him in trouble. “I sent a text to a girl that said I wanted to kiss her. Her father ended up on my doorstep with the police. The autocorrect had changed my text to I wanted to kill her.”
  • A captain named J.D. who is assisting the Electroclan takes an interest in Taylor. He calls her beautiful and kisses her hand. He says, “I might just have to keep this one for myself.” Michael remarks that Taylor looks uncomfortable with the comment and when he shakes the captain’s hand, he shocks him.
  • When the Electroclan find out that captain J.D. has sold them out, Taylor says, “he sold us all out for money. He wants the million-dollar bounty on Welch, and he asked Hatch if he could own me. As his pet.”

Violence

  • Michael tells a story about a railroad worker who was forced to decide between killing his son or killing innocent people to illustrate his dilemma in fighting the secret war against the Elgen. “There was a man who was in charge of switching the railroad tracks for the train. It was an important job because if the train was on the wrong track, it could crash into another train, killing hundreds of people. One evening, as he was about to switch the tracks for an oncoming train, [the man] suddenly heard the cry of his young son, who had followed him out and was standing on the track he was supposed to switch the train to. This was the dilemma – if he switched the tracks, the train would kill his son. If he didn’t, the people on the train, hundreds of strangers he didn’t even know, might die. At the last moment, he switched the tracks. The people on the train went on by, not even knowing the disaster they had missed or the little boy who had been killed beneath them.”
  • In a flashback about Welch’s past, Welch remembers the time when he was a delivery boy on a job bringing pizza to the Elgen headquarters when he stopped an ex-employee from vandalizing the building. “The vandal sprang from the garden, sprinting diagonally across the building’s front walkway in Welch’s direction. Instinctively, Welch dropped his pizzas and took off to intercept the man… Welch leveled the guy, who was barely half his size, with a waist-high tackle. Then he picked him up by the waist and carried him over to the front entryway, where there were now three security guards rushing out of the building… The [vandal] suddenly tried to free himself from Welch’s grasp. Welch belted him across the face, knocking him out.”
  • Torstyn, one of the electric children, is tortured by Hatch in a cell that is meant to keep him uncomfortable, including lights that are always on. There is also a screen that plays a video of rats devouring animals or humans every 15 minutes. Torstyn also has a RESAT on, a torture device specifically engineered for the electric children. Hatch uses it to cause him pain when he tells Torstyn that he intends to feed him to the rats. Hatch also tells Torstyn how he will die. “If you cooperate with me, I will see that you are anesthetized before going into the bowl. You will not feel those little mouths, bite by bite, eat away your life… I can also promise you that if you don’t cooperate, I will make sure that your vitals are well protected so that the furry little creatures will have to gnaw their way up your body cavity to end your life.” Hatch also says, “It was medieval torture, you know. During the Inquisition, the torturer would place rats in a cage on top of a prisoner’s body, then put hot coals on top of the cage. The rats would burrow through the body to escape the heat… If you fail to help me, you will be terrifyingly aware of every rat’s bite. Your head and eyes will be caged, so you can see your own skeleton as the rodents strip the flesh from your legs and arms to the bones. You will witness your own slow consumption.”
  • When Quentin says that Michael Vey might be able to stop Hatch, Hatch replies by saying that he will feed Quentin Michael’s flesh. Hatch later says, “Today I will feast on my enemy” when he learns that Michael is coming for him.
  • When Quentin is put in a monkey cage like the former Prime Minister, he glimpses the former Prime Minister. “He looked more animal than human. He was pale and ill and had lost enough weight that his ribs seemed to stretch his skin. He was covered with filth and fleas and blood, as he bore dozens of bite marks [from the monkeys].”
  • Taylor’s father, Mr. Ridley, is shot in a confrontation with recreational hunters near the ranch the Electroclan are hiding at. Michael shocks them in retaliation. “I pulsed, and a massive blue-gold wave of electricity exploded, knocking Taylor and all four of the hunters to the ground… In the dark I could see something black around Mr. Ridley’s stomach.” Taylor also uses her powers to hurt the hunters. “The hunters were all on the ground rolling around, moaning in pain… two of them started screaming.”
  • The doctor that arrives at the scene wants Michael to cauterize Mr. Ridley’s bullet wound by shocking it. “I looked down at the mass of blood. The bullet wound was about the diameter of a dime and slightly ragged… I pulsed. Mr. Ridley’s body tensed… I could feel his blood boil against my finger. The pungent stink of burning blood filled the air.”
  • A few of the kids, including Michael, Jack, Ostin, and Nichelle, get mugged on their way back from a tattoo parlor. Michael attacks the mugger. “I blasted him up against the wall of the building behind him. His gun went off from the pressure of my pulse, but the strength of my pulse stopped the bullet in midair. The man fell to the ground.” He is only knocked unconscious.
  • Taylor and Jack punish a guard who hurt McKenna when the Elgen tracked them down. “She closed her eyes, and the man began shaking. When she stopped, he had a blank expression. Suddenly Jack walked up to the man and punched him, knocking him over… Then he walked around punching each of the terrified guards.”
  • When the Electroclan rescues Quentin, they have to dispose of some guards. Michael shocks them. “I reached out and pulsed. A massive wave blurred the air, sizzling with the rain it devoured. Both of the guards were knocked off their feet.”
  • When J.D. reveals that he gave them up, Zeus and Michael want to hurt him. Though they don’t, J.D. says that Hatch intends to kill them and has “special plans” for Michael: Hatch intends to eat him with a special cannibal fork used by the Fiji people called the ai cula ni bokola. J.D. says, “The general plans to serve you for the feast to celebrate the end of the resistance.”
  • A long battle ensues on the island of Tuvalu for control of a prison. Gervaso, the head of the resistance’s military operations, is shot and sacrifices himself in his final moments. “A gun opened fire, hitting Gervaso in the chest and knocking him back onto the dock… Gervaso feebly lifted his handgun but was hit two more times by Elgen bullets as the squad stepped up onto the dock… The front guard, barely older than twenty, walked on the blood-soaked dock until he was next to Gervaso. He pointed his gun at the back of Gervaso’s head. ‘Good-bye, man.’ Gervaso rolled over to look the young guard in the eyes. In his hand Gervaso held a grenade, its pin already pulled. ‘Yeah, good-bye.’ ‘Hit the deck!’ the guard shouted, but it was too late.  The grenade blew, igniting the chain of explosives. The entire dock exploded in a blinding flash.”
  • At another point in the battle, Michael is terrified due to the gruesome scene. “The dark grounds below us were chaos. The screaming of fallen prisoners echoed amid the hellish landscape of rain, smoke, and fire. The Elgen forces flowed in like demon shadows, darkening a courtyard lit only by gunfire or grenades. Occasionally, lightning would strike, illuminating the grounds for a second, like a strobe, capturing the dying and killing in frozen, violent stances.”
  • During the battle, to turn the tide in their favor, Ostin releases the rats who then eat the Elgen soldiers. “The ravenous rats swept across the yard in a powerful, glowing surge, running at guards, drawn to them by the smell of death and meat… The swarm of rats broke against the men like a wave hitting the shore, covering and devouring them, pouring over each other, as the guards were stripped of their flesh… The sounds of screams and machine guns echoed in the distance.”
  • Tanner, one of the electric children, dies in battle when they are being bombed. Michael is with Tanner in his final moments. “Through the smoke I could see Tanner lying on top of a desk against the west wall. His arm was dangling over the side, and I could see blood dripping from his fingers… He was mostly covered in the chalky plaster of the wall, except where the red of his blood had seeped through and stained his clothes and the dust crimson. There were holes all over his body. Shrapnel… Somehow Tanner was still conscious. His chin quivered, and a thin stream of blood fell down from the corner of his mouth… He looked into my eyes. Then his gaze froze and his hand went limp.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hatch occasionally drinks alcohol. He also takes sleeping pills in unhealthy amounts.
  • It is mentioned that Welch’s parents were drug addicts. Later, when asked to drink alcohol, Welch declines. He says, “My biological father was an alcoholic. I figured I inherited his genes.” Eventually, Hatch forces Welch to have a glass of alcohol when he becomes part of the company. He takes a sip of wine.
  • Welch smokes once in the book. Welch says, “I hope I get to die slowly of cancer.”
  • J.D. admits that he gave up the Electroclan because he needs money for drugs. His former friend, Gervaso, calls him a “junkie.” J.D. replies, “After I got shot saving you, they put me on painkillers. I got addicted. When the painkillers stopped working, I needed something stronger.”

Language

  • Occasionally the kids use insults like “stupid,” “freak,” and “idiot.”

Supernatural

  • The focus of the Michael Vey series is on seventeen Electric children with electricity-related powers. A full dossier is available in the front of the book. For example, Michael can pulse like an electric eel, Mckenna can create light and heat, and Taylor can use electrical brain signals to read minds.

Spiritual Content

  • Michael thinks about dying occasionally in the book. “Lately I’ve been wondering where Wade is – you know, the whole death thing. Life after life. Where do we go after we die? Or is this it and when we’re done, we’re done? I don’t know. It’s possible that Wade and my father are hanging out right now, watching us. Cheering us on. Maybe… I guess one day everyone finds out what death is about.”
  • When Hatch finds Welch, he remarks on it spiritually. “Hatch couldn’t believe his good fortune. ‘And to think I said there is no God.’”
  • Jack once says “choke on that karma.”
  • Michael quotes from the Bible. “As we walked off the dock onto the island, I felt a dark, eerie feeling of desolation. A line from the Bible came to me: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
  • When Tanner is dying, he comes to terms with killing others. Michael says, “It wasn’t your fault. It was never your fault. Hatch made you do it.” Tanner replies, “Maybe. . . God will see it that way.”
  • When Michael climbs the tower, he shouts “to the gods of lighting” to strike him. He also says, of getting shocked, “I felt what it feels like to be God. But I’m no god.”

by Maddie Shooter

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 Angel Experiment

Meet the flock. Max, Fang, Iggy, Nudge, the Gasman, and Angel are six kids who grew up in cages as the School’s most successful test tube experiments. The School is a science lab located in Death Valley, California where the scientists—or whitecoats—experiment on children’s genes. Four years prior, Jeb Batchelder, one of the scientists and the group’s father figure, escaped with the kids and took them to a cabin in Colorado. Two years afterwards, he disappeared, leaving the kids without an adult to care for them.  

These six kids aren’t your average American children. The whitecoats had the flock’s genes spliced with avian DNA, giving them the ability to fly via physical wings attached to their backs, along with some special abilities. Max, self-named Maximum Ride, is the oldest and leader of the flock at 14 years old. She serves as a mother figure even though she is still a kid herself. Fang is four months younger than Max, a sort of second-in-command, and is usually very quiet, “like a dark shadow come to life.” Iggy is younger than Max and blind due to the scientist’s unsuccessful attempt to surgically enhance his night vision. Nudge is an 11-year-old and, according to Max, “is a great kid, but that motormouth of hers could have turned Mother Teresa into an ax murderer.” The Gasman, or Gazzy, is eight years old, named after his ability to produce very rancid farts. He can also mimic any voice or sound. Lastly, Angel is Gazzy’s intelligent six-year-old sister who has the ability to read minds. 

Suddenly, the School’s Erasers capture Angel and plan to return the rest of the flock to the School. Erasers are half-human, half-wolf mutants who are usually armed and bloodthirsty. At first, they look like male models, but they can transform into hairy beings with claws and fangs. Leading the Erasers’ hunt is Ari. The last time Max saw Ari, he was a three-year-old boy. Now he’s a grown Eraser. Terrified about going back, the flock must rescue Angel from the School without getting. However, along the way they discover new things about themselves, their pasts, and the big plans the School has in store for them. 

James Patterson tells a fascinating story filled with science, action, and kids with wings and superhuman abilities. While most of the story is told from Max’s point of view, when the flock is separated, readers get a third-person perspective from a member of each group. The changing points of view allow readers to keep up to date with everyone. Occasionally, Max also addresses the reader using the second person, adding a memoir-like tone to the novel. Max’s voice is very distinct because of her sarcastic and sassy tone. Readers can easily fall in love with everyone in the flock and look forward to joining them in discovering who really they are. 

Some of the more prevalent themes are freedom, family, and fate. The flock hasn’t talked about their experiences and, as Max explains, they prefer to “forget when we were at the mercy of sadistic jerks in a place that’s a total nightmare and ought to be firebombed.” Because of their experiences, the flock values their freedom. In addition, the flock’s relationships show that family is not always formed through blood and that having a strong base of friends can be all the support one needs. Fate also becomes a part of this story as Jeb says, “Max, everything you’ve done, everything you are, everything you can be, is tied into your destiny.” According to Jeb, Max’s fate is predetermined, which makes her question her own autonomy and freedom.  

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment is a strong start to this sci-fi series. The chapters are short, the pacing is fast, and the language is clear and concise. These aspects of the novel match well with a large amount of action and the plot, which can be confusing. Max gives readers a warning in the beginning, saying, “If you dare to read this story, you become part of the Experiment. I know that sounds a little mysterious—but it’s all I can say right now.” So, if you decide to read this book, be prepared to become part of the flock. 

Sexual Content 

  • After a fight, Max went over to Fang to look at his injuries and, “With no warning, I leaned down and kissed his mouth, just like that.” 

Violence 

  • During one of Max’s dreams, she’s running from the Erasers. Her “arms [are] being scratched to ribbons by a briar” and her “bare feet hitting every sharp rock, rough root, [and] pointed stick.” When she comes across a drop-off on the mountain, she “let [herself] fall over the edge of the cliff.” However, one of the Erasers raises his gun and “a red dot of light appeared on my torn nightgown.”  
  • While the flock are picking strawberries, Erasers attack them. Max “landed another blow, then an Eraser punched me so hard that my head snapped around and I felt a burst of blood in my mouth.” While they fight, Max watches as “three other Erasers [were] stuffing Angel, my baby, into a rough sack. She was crying and screaming, and one of them hit her.” The fight ends when Max saw a “huge, black boot come at my head, felt my head jerk to one side, and everything went black.”  
  • After Max wakes up, she immediately thinks of Angel as “horror-filled images flashed through my mind—Angel being chased, being hurt, being killed.” 
  • In order to save Angel, the flock fly to the Humvee carrying Angel. Fang smashes a tree branch into the windshield. “The vehicle swerved, a window rolled down. A gun barrel poked out. Around [Max], trees started popping with bullets.” As a helicopter carries Angel away, Max tries to hang on to the landing skid and someone “picked up a rifle and aimed it at [Max].” 
  • The flock watches as the chopper carries Angel away. Max’s anger gets the best of her and she “made fists and punched the chunky bark of the fir tree hard, over and over, until finally, actual pain seeped into my seared consciousness. I stared at my knuckles, saw the blood, the missing skin, the splinters.” 
  • When the flock returns to the house, “Iggy howled and swept his hand across the kitchen counter, catapulting a mug through the air. It hit Fang in the side of the head.” 
  • At the School, the scientists force Angel to be experimented on. During the experiment, Angel ran on a treadmill for three and a half hours and was zapped by a “stick thing” any time she slowed down or stopped. The stick thing “jolted electricity into her, making her yelp and jump. She had four burn marks already from it.” By the end of the experiment, Angel collapses, and her feet get tangled in the treadmill belt. The scientists do a final scan of her body. As the scientists pull electrodes off of Angel’s skin, “ripping sounds and a new, searing pain on her skin pulled Angel back” from a dream.  
  • While traveling to California, Max sees a girl getting cornered by three guys. She decides to help. One of the men, “was holding a shotgun loosely in the crook of his arm.” Max confronts them and a fight breaks out. Max kicks the first guy and “a blow that would have only knocked Fang’s breath away actually seemed to snap a rib on this guy.” Max grabs the shotgun’s barrel and cracks it against his head. Max then punches the last guy, “feeling his nose break, and there was a slow-motion pause of about a second before it started gushing blood.”  
  • After Max beats up three bullies, one of the guys cocks the gun and runs at her but she flies away. The men start shooting at her and she felt “a sudden, searing pain in my left shoulder. I gasped and glanced over to see blood blossoming on my sleeve.” The bullet grazed her shoulder and nicked the bone of her wing. She also has a scratch on her cheek as well as a black eye.  
  • While Nudge and Fang wait for Max to return, they find nests of ferruginous hawks, the largest raptor in the U.S. They sit down at the mouth of the cave and watch as “one of the hawks had a partially dismembered gopher in its mouth” and gave it to its fledglings. 
  • In between experiments at the School, Angel is kept in a dog crate. The scientists had “taken blood from her arm, but she’d fought them and bit that one guy.” Angel bit a scientist, so he hit her. Then, Angel read the mind of another scientist who was thinking about the incident and the scientist thinks, “If he wrecks this specimen, I’ll kill him.” 
  • Iggy and Gazzy decide to build bombs for protection. They find an Eraser camp nearby and set an oil trap for the Humvees. The Humvees “hit the trees at an angle and went airborne, sailing upside down about fifteen feet before landing with a heavy crunching sound.” 
  • The Erasers ambush Iggy and Gazzy, but Iggy and Gazzy fly away and set off a bomb. In the air, “a fireball ten yards in diameter rose from where the cabin had been.” In the aftermath, Gazzy watches as “one dark body had flown upward in the blast,” and “the other Eraser had crawled a few feet away from the cabin, a burning silhouette that had collapsed, its outlines blurred by flame.” 
  • At the School, Angel runs in a maze that changes each time she finds the exit. “If she slowed down, she got an electric shock so strong it scrambled her brain, or red-hot wires under her feet burned her.” 
  • Angel reads the minds of the scientists around her and there are several mentions of them wanting to dissect her brain. 
  • In Arizona, Nudge and Fang are confronted by Erasers. Ari, an Eraser, and Fang fight each other. “Ari was sitting on Fang’s chest, punching him. Nudge gasped and put her hand over her mouth as she saw blood erupt from Fang’s nose.” Then “Ari roared and brought both hands down onto Fang’s chest with enough force to snap his ribs.” Ari pulled out a gun and a bullet soared by Nudge’s ear as Fang and Nudge flew away. 
  • Erasers ambush Max, Fang, Nudge, Iggy, and Gazzy. When the flock uses a van to escape, Max crashes into a sedan head-on. The airbags give Max a bloody nose. Max tells everyone to run, “then hissed in a breath as my nose took another jarring blow” from an Eraser. The Erasers capture Max, Fang, and Nudge but Gazzy and Iggy escape.   
  • At the School, Max, Fang, Nudge, and Angel are stuck in cages with other mutants. “Sometime in the next half hour, [Max] realized the ‘experiment’ was no longer breathing. It had died, right next to me.” 
  • Ari teases Max through the bars of her cage. Max “leaned over and chomped hard on Ari’s fingers.” Ari yells in pain, and “was shaking my cage, slamming it with his other hand, and my head was getting snapped around like a paddleball.” 
  • Iggy and Gazzy arrive at the School and free the others. Max, “backhanded [a scientist] against the jaw, feeling teeth knock loose.” Fang and Ari fought, and “Fang smashed him sideways with a kick, then punched the side of Ari’s head.” 
  • Several times, Max collapses due to “a blinding, stunning pain [that] exploded behind my eyes.” Nobody knows what causes this pain but after the pain passes, she hears a “Voice” in her head that gives her advice. 
  • While the flock navigates the underground rails of Manhattan, Gazzy asks what a sign saying to stay off the third rail meant. Fang says, “It means the third rail has seven hundred volts of direct current running through it. Touch it and you’re human popcorn.” 
  • In New York, the flock is running from Erasers, and “a heavy clawed hand grabbed [Max’s] hair, yanking me backward, right off my feet.” The Eraser starts to drag Max away when, suddenly, the Eraser “hit the ground with a sickening thud, and [Max] cracked [her] head against the sidewalk so hard [she] saw fireworks.” The Eraser had suddenly died. 
  • The flock was surrounded and grabbed by Erasers. Fang was “locked in battle with Ari, who raked his claws across Fang’s face, leaving parallel lines of red.” Max begged Ari to stop attacking Fang, but “Ari seized Fang’s head and brought it down hard on a rock.” Ari then “cracked Fang with an elbow. Blood sprayed from Fang’s mouth, and again he went down.” The fight ends when someone appears and tells Ari to back off.  
  • Max and Ari fight. While they exchange blows, “Ari punched [Max] again, and I thought I heard a rib crack.” Max then grabbed Ari’s neck and it “slammed against the hard side of the tunnel,” breaking his neck and killing him. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • The flock talks to a kid who was kicked out of MIT because he wouldn’t take his Thorazine. He said he didn’t like the Thorazine, “or Haldol, or Melleril, or Zyprexa.” 

Language   

  • God is used several times as an exclamation. 
  • The word hell is spelled out once as “h-e-double toothpicks” and used one other time. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • The flock seeks refuge in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. “As we passed through the door, the air was instantly cooler and scented with something that smelled ancient and churchy and just. . .  religious somehow.” Everyone in the flock starts to pray. 

This Vicious Grace

Alessa is the latest finestra in a long line of people chosen by the goddess Dea to protect her island. Her powers are supposed to help her save her home, but so far they’ve only managed to kill three suitors simply through her touch. Her suitors, called Fonte, are paired with her in order to hone her power and strengthen their own, but instead, she overwhelms them. Alessa’s running out of time to learn how to use her power and save her people. There are only a few weeks left until the god, Crollo, sends his demons to attack and wipe out all human life from the island.  

In order to keep her safe, Alessa is separated from her family, her old life, and even her name. In order to train, she is locked away. She is lonely. The Fontes she’s paired with are supposed to supply her with a partner, a mate, and a friend, but instead, their unusual deaths have caused an even deeper rift between her and everyone else on the island. Then, a powerful priest begins convincing people that her inability to control her power is evidence that she is a false prophet. He begins to amass a following of very angry, very scared people that are willing to do anything to prevent her from harming others, including kill her. One night, one of Alessa’s own guards even tries to assassinate her. In response, she hires a bodyguard, Dante, to protect her until she can learn how to control her powers and defeat the demons.  

A group of prospective Fonte joins Alessa in order to figure out who, if any of them, can handle her power enough to use it. These Fonte are the only hope Alessa has at defeating the demons. Alessa’s relationship with her new group of prospective Fontes starts off rocky. Because of her failures with the three prior Fontes, the new Fontes are skeptical of her abilities and wary of her motives. When Dante realizes he can handle Alessa’s power, he helps her understand how to wield it. Then, Dante slowly paves the way for Alessa to build a friendship with the new Fontes, and to work alongside them to master her powers.  

This Vicious Grace is told from Alessa’s point of view, and she is a very likable main character. Alessa is a kind, level-headed main character with an affinity for justice. Despite how she’s treated, she still chooses to fight the good fight over and over again and is rewarded for it in the end. Alessa stays true to herself and is a fair and good person who is willing to do whatever it takes to save her people.  

A tale of friendship, overcoming loneliness, and holding out hope despite insurmountable odds, This Vicious Grace is a good novel for readers who enjoy a slow burn romance within a fantasy world filled with gods, demons, and war. This Vicious Grace is Emily Thiede’s debut novel. It includes a lot of references to malevolent gods, vicious demons, and mystical powers and abilities. Though it is a fantasy world, it is not hard to understand the complicated plot and numerous characters. This action-packed book is a fun and interesting read for fantasy lovers. Readers looking for more books set in a fantasy world should also read Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin. 

Sexual Content  

  • While playing a drinking game, Dante asks Alessa, “If you could do anything before Divorando, what would it be?” Alessa replies, “Lose my virginity.” 
  • Dante and Alessa are sleeping in the same bed when Dante starts to kiss and touch her in his sleep. Dante’s “lips brushed the sensitive spot just below her ear, kindling a fire just below her navel. Her thoughts scrambled as his fingers grazed the underside of her breast.” 
  • Alessa kisses Dante outside of her room one night on their way back from rescuing Dante from prison. “Parting her lips, she traced his lips with her tongue, and his control snapped. His hands were everywhere at once—cupping her face, running through her hair, gripping her waist. He pressed her against the door, pressed his mouth to hers, pressed his hips into her. . . ” 
  • Alessa and Dante have sex. There is an intense kissing scene that takes place over two pages prior to this. Dante’s “fingers cupped her bottom, pulling her into him, and she melted, softness yielding to the hard planes of his body. When his hand cupped her breat, she forgot how to breathe . . . He nuzzled her through fabric, his breath warming the bare skin of her thigh . . . ” 

Violence 

  • Alessa’s gift causes her to overwhelm people when she touches them. This causes them severe injury and even death. When she was younger, she almost killed a boy during a race. “She was sitting on his chest. . . she’d touched his forehead and declared ‘you lose’. . . Tendons taut as bowstrings, blood-flecked foam between clenched teeth, he’d spasmed beneath her. He’d nearly bitten his tongue off and still talked with a lisp.” 
  • A masked figure breaks into Alessa’s room and tries to kill her in her sleep. The assassin is convinced that she is a false prophet. She wakes up in her bed to someone choking her. “Something – someone – had her pinned, trapped, crushing her windpipe . . . Hands, encased in thick gloves, tightening around her neck.” 
  • Alessa is in the city and watches two fighters brawl. “The Bear landed his first blow, his fist smashing into the Wolf’s jaw . . . The Wolf landed a punch to the big man’s gut, but the next blow he took sounded like it cracked a few ribs . . . The Wolf slammed a fist into the big man’s cheek and looked about to land a second hit when someone smashed a glass against the bars . . .  The Bear’s opponent’s back was turned, and he slammed his fist into the Wolf’s lower back. He dropped.” The scene continues over two pages. 
  • Alessa unintentionally sneaks up on Dante. Before he sees who it is, he stabs her with his two knives in self defense. “Dante turned so fast she didn’t have time to speak . . . twin fires tore through her abdomen . . . she looked down at his fists, clutching the hilts of his knives, pressed against her . . .blood dripped between his fingers. With a ragged gasp, Dante pulled the knives free.” She begins bleeding out and Dante saves her from the brink of death using healing powers.  
  • Alessa, Dante, and the Fontes fight the demons. When Alessa looks at Dante, “he was already on the ground. A wide gash ran from his chin to one ear, and he was covered in so much blood.” A couple other characters have injuries but none are described, or serious.  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • After watching a fight in town, Alessa goes to a bar and overhears one of the fighters ordering a whiskey. She orders one for herself as well. “Alessa swirled the glass, watching the whiskey hug the sides and inhaled the sweet heat before she took a sip.”   
  • Alessa and Dante play a drinking game with limoncello in her room. Alessa says, “Truth or challenge . . . if you don’t perform the challenge or answer the question, you take a drink.” 
  • Someone tried to put poison in Alessa’s pastries.   

Language  

  • Profanity is used intermittently. Profanity includes shit, damn, and ass. 
  • Dante and Alessa are talking about how civilians have to pay families to take in their kids in case they die in battle. Alessa says, “It’s not my fault . . . I don’t make the rules I just have to follow them.” Dante replies, “Yeah, well, it’s a bit late to give a shit now.” 
  • Alessa hires Dante to be her bodyguard and they argue about what his duties will be. Dante says, “I don’t half-ass any job. You want me to guard, this is how I do it.”

Supernatural  

  • Demons sent by the malevolent god, Crollo, are the main antagonists in the book. There is no specification on where they come from or whether or not they have powers. They are sent to wipe out humanity because Crollo insists that people are “too flawed and too selfish to endure.” 

Spiritual Content  

  • The book includes God-given magic – the main character Alessa is referred to as a “divine weapon of the gods” throughout the book. There are also frequent references to their religious text, “Holy Verita,” their patron goddess, Dea, and the evil god, Crollo, who sends demons to the island.  
  • The Day of Divorando is a day when demon-like creatures will attack the islands. Kaleb, one of the prosepctive Fonte, says, “On the day of Divorando, we’re supposed to use our powers to ward off the invasion . . . The gods gave us the gifts for defense, so that is what we will use.” 
  • Alessa calls herself a “divinely ordained warrior.” 

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 

Storm of Lightning

The Elgen’s plans for world domination begin on the island of Tuvalu when the nefarious Dr. Hatch orders an invasion of the small nation following an unsuccessful attack on the resistance headquarters, the Timepiece Ranch. Meanwhile, the Electroclan return to America with Jade Dragon, the girl they rescued before she fell victim to Dr. Hatch’s schemes. When they learn what happened to the Ranch, Michael and the others rush there to inquire about the safety of their families, who were hiding at the base at the time of the attack.

After checking the Ranch and finding it devoid of survivors, the Electroclan goes on the run again. Their plan is to lie low until news of their families reaches them, but their period of rest ends abruptly with the news that Dr. Hatch has stationed warships from the Elgen fleet in the waters near Tuvalu. The Electroclan heads to Christmas Ranch in Utah, another resistance base, to devise a plan to stop the invasion of Tuvalu.

Meanwhile, the story shows the perspective of Hatch’s loyal electric children (Tara, Bryan, Quentin, and Kylee) as they discuss whether to rebel against Hatch, especially after he tortures Welch, a former Elgen commander, who is close to Quentin. Quentin has been Hatch’s “favorite,” but he no longer knows if Hatch’s plans align with his own.

Hatch successfully overthrows the Tuvaluan government and places Quentin in charge. Hatch offers Quentin advice on his new monarchy: “a divided people is a conquered people. . . Divisions in humanity can always be found. Turn men against women and women against men. Divide the young from the old, the rich from the poor. . . Teach them to shame others and to use shame as a tool to their own ends.” Hatch’s advice illustrates the difference between him and Michael, which is the focus of Storm of Lightning.

There is not much confrontation, and the Electroclan spends most of the book on the move, as the story focuses on Michael’s character and the effects of war. It’s clear that the Elgen and the Electroclan can never coexist, and Michael must be the one to stop them. He struggles with wanting to give up, and the fact that his power has been increasing, possibly leading to his own death. His power also gives him the ability to kill others on a large scale. While this threat has been present from the beginning of the series, Michael grapples with it throughout Storm of Lightning.

While Storm of Lightning is not the most interesting book in the series, the story discloses the next step of the Electroclan and highlights the value of hope – hope that the resistance can overcome the Elgen. While Michael’s role in the war is may be unrelatable to readers, Michael’s inner turmoil is understandable and crucial to the development of his character. Readers should pick up the next story, Fall of Hades, to find out if Michael is able to overcome his fate and confront Hatch once and for all.

 Sexual Content

  • Michael and his girlfriend Taylor kiss occasionally. “After a moment, she leaned into me, and we kissed. Suddenly I felt a current of electricity flowing through our mouths.”
  • Quentin and Tara have a developing romance. They kiss once.

Violence

  • A Mexican gang tries to rob Michael which ends in violence. As Michael “was walking away from them, an empty beer bottle hit me on the side of my head. Fortunately, it wasn’t a direct hit, or it probably would have knocked me out. Instead, it caught me in the back of my jaw, cutting the skin beneath my ear. . . It took every ounce of willpower I had not to fry them to ashes. . .”
  • The gang threatens to cut Michael, so Michael defends himself. “I spun around and pulsed, blasting the little dude so hard that his feet left the ground. He slammed into an adobe wall, and plaster fell around him as he crumpled to the ground, unconscious. . . I spread out my arms and pulsed. The force blew out from me in a shock wave more than fifty feet in diameter. When I looked around, all of the gang members were lying on their backs. Most of them weren’t moving. The tall guy was still conscious, staring at me in fear. As I started toward him, he pulled a gun. . . The guy fired six times, and the bullets flew around me, ricocheting against cars and buildings. One of the bullets hit his buddies. . . When he had used all his bullets. . . I blasted him so hard, his clothes caught on fire. Then I looked around. All of the gang members were still unconscious except for one. . . he had gotten to his feet and now raised a knife at me. . . I produced a lightning ball about the size of a volleyball. . . He weakly raised his hands to block it. It exploded on contact with his flesh, knocking him out with the force.” In the end, Michael is unsure if he killed them or not.
  • Michael sees the aftermath of the Elgen attack on the resistance base. They completely destroyed the area. Michael “could see the bones of a horse in a clearing. Other than that, there was no evidence of life. Or death. It looked like those war pictures from our history books. I had never seen such devastation in real life. I bent over and vomited.”
  • The Electroclan find one survivor from the aftermath – an Elgen soldier. “When I first saw the man, I didn’t recognize him as human. He was grotesque looking. His skin and clothes, which hadn’t been burned off, were charred black, and most of his hair was singed off his head. . . his injuries were so severe, it was difficult to even look at him.”
  • Jack talks briefly about his brother’s service in Afghanistan. “A Taliban soldier tried to stab my brother, but my brother turned the knife on him. While my brother’s squad was waiting for reinforcements, my brother had to sit in the room with the dead man for two hours. He took out the guy’s wallet. The man had a picture of his wife and a little boy. My brother said even though the guy had tried to kill him, it still made him sad.”
  • While staying at a hotel, Michael hears someone trying to break into the room when multiple Electroclan members are inside. They attack when the intruder enters. “Jack grabbed [the intruder] by the front of his shirt, then pulled him forward, slamming him face-forward onto the ground. I pushed the door shut with my foot as I grabbed the man’s leg and pulsed. His body went limp.”
  • Hatch threatens to flog the Tuvaluan people if they disobey his new laws. He also says that the citizens will be sent to “reeducation camps.” Hatch also says that those who don’t accept reeducation will be imprisoned and branded as fools to be publicly humiliated and punished.
  • Due to the former President of Tuvalu refusing to bow to him, Hatch has him punished as a public display. “You will be stripped of your clothing, bound, and your tongue will be cut off; then, for the rest of your life, you will be kept in the central square in a cage with monkeys. . . If you try to take your life, your sons and daughters will take your place.” Hatch follows through on his word. The prime minister is later displayed in front of the people. “Inside the cage were about a dozen bald-faced rhesus macaque monkeys and, in one corner, the naked prime minister huddled in the fetal position. He looked pale and sick; his mouth swollen from the amputation of his tongue.”
  • A man who protests Hatch’s rule is severely punished in front of the crowd. “The protestor was able to knock down just one of the guards before he was tased by three different guns, then beaten nearly unconscious by truncheons. The guards then dragged the man out before the crowd. He was lifted to his knees and pushed up against the pole next to the monkey cage. His arms were bound behind the pole, and a belt was cinched tightly around his waist to hold him up. . . The Elgen squad captain brought out a long, serrated knife and cut off the man’s ears as he screamed in agony.”
  • Hatch punishes Quentin for betraying him. “Hatch slapped Quentin hard enough to knock him back into his bed. A thin stream of blood dropped from his nose. . . Hatch stood, then grabbed Quentin by the foot and dragged him off the bed. Then he kicked him while Quentin tried to protect himself from the blows.” Hatch also punishes Quentin with an improved RESAT device called a RAVE, which inflicts physical pain on the electric children and renders them powerless.
  • Cassy, one of the electric children loyal to the resistance, threatens Schema, a former Elgen chairman, by using her powers on him. “As he stepped out onto the cement floor, he suddenly froze, unable to breathe. For nearly a minute he grasped at his throat; then he fell to his knees, then to his side, unable to even make a sound, his panicked, questioning eyes locked on Cassy. When he was just about to pass out, Cassy released him. Schema loudly gasped for breath, coughing and wheezing.” Cassy says to him, “In case you were feeling bold, I wanted you to know just how easy it is for me to kill you. . . this time, I paralyzed your lungs. If you disappear from my sight, even for a minute, I will stop your heart.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • The group talks about a hot sauce that’s named “hotter than hell.”
  • Tara and Bryan, two kids loyal to Hatch, have an argument in which Tara calls him an “idiot.”
  • Ostin and Michael call Dr. Hatch a “crazy freaking moron.”

Supernatural

  • Many of the youths in the story have electricity related abilities. There are 17 electric children in all. Michael can shock and pulse like an electric eel. Taylor can read minds via electrical signals. Nichelle can drain electrical power, Abi can take away pain, and Mckenna can create light and heat.
  • While staying at a hotel, Nichelle wants to stay in a room that is rumored to have a ghost haunting it. One of the workers says they encountered it when checking a fuse box in the basement. “The hair on the back of my neck rose, and I had this feeling that I was being watched. Then I saw a cloud in the shape of a man come toward me.” Michael, Nichelle, Taylor, and Ostin end up staying in the room and hear strange sounds at night.

 

Spiritual Content

  • When Hatch takes over Tuvalu, he orders the former President to kiss his hand to show his allegiance. The man replies, “I bow only to God.” Hatch replies, “Where is your God in your time of need. I will tell you where your God is. You are looking at him.”

by Madison Shooter

Gallant

Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for Girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home; it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile, or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.

Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now, Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family and where her father may have come from.

Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?

As a gothic, ghost story Gallant is surprisingly dull and unexciting. While Olivia can see “ghouls” and communicate with them through her thoughts, none of the ghouls she encounters are developed in detail. Instead of being interesting, the ghouls fade into the background and they evoke little emotion. Even though Olivia learns that she can communicate with ghouls, she doesn’t try to initiate a conversation with her dead uncle, who obviously killed himself. She also doesn’t try to communicate with her dead mother, who could answer many of her questions. Because of this, Olivia’s gift is not fully developed or explored.

Olivia is an interesting and unique protagonist, who is non-verbal and communicates only through sign language. This caused her childhood to be lonely and unpleasant. Not only does she have to struggle with being abandoned at Merilance, but she also has to deal with the other children who are cruel, and the matrons who are indifferent. Because of this, Olivia is willing to go to Gallant, even though her mother has warned her to stay away.

While the story has some interesting story threads—what happened to Olivia’s parents, why should she stay away from Galant, why can she see ghouls—none of them are well developed. Even though Olivia encounters the personification of Death, his soldiers, and other ghouls, the story only evokes mild curiosity, contains little suspense, and little scare factor. In addition, the conclusion is lackluster and depressing. In the end, the reader is left wondering why Olivia would stay at Gallant. Readers who are looking for an exciting paranormal story should read Schwab’s other series, The Archived, or The Breathless by Tara Goedjen.

Sexual Content

  • Sometimes boys would “linger at the edge of the gravel moat,” trying to get the girls’ attention. One day, Olivia goes to talk to a boy and “he kissed her, she waited to feel whatever her mother had felt for her father the day they met, the spark that lit the fire that burned their whole world down. But she only felt his hand on her waist. His mouth on her mouth. A hollow sadness.”

Violence

  • Anabelle, a girl at Merilance, tears pages out of Olivia’s mother’s journal. Olivia “fell on Anabelle, finger wrapped around her throat. Anabelle yelped, and Olivia squeezed until the girl could not speak, could not breathe, and then the matrons were there, pulling them apart.”
  • To get back at Anabelle, Olivia “went down into the cellar. . . she managed to fill the jar with beetles, and spiders, and half a dozen silverfish. She added a handful of ash from the head matron’s hearth.” Olivia dumps the content on Anabelle’s head.
  • Olivia cannot yell and she wonders if pain could free her voice, so she cuts herself. “The cut was deep. Blood welled and spilled onto the counter, and heat screamed up her arm and through her lungs, but only a short, sharp gasp escaped her throat, more emptiness than sound.”
  • In a dream, Olivia witnesses her uncle’s death. “The gun swings up against his temple. . .” then Olivia wakes up.
  • While in Death’s world, a ghoul pushes Olivia away. “And then a blade sings through the ghoul’s back, and it staggers, and Olivia knows the ghoul cannot die, knows it is already dead, but the sight of the metal spilling out of its chest, its knees buckling silently to the dirt, still sends a shock of horror through her bones.”
  • In order to get out from behind the wall, someone killed Matthew’s brother. “The door on the other side was soaked with blood. There was so much of it. Too much. Someone had painted the door with my brother’s life. Covered every iron inch . . . But that thing slaughtered my brother for nothing. Only a Prior’s blood can open the door, but it has to be willingly given.”
  • Olivia goes behind the wall, hoping to find Matthew’s brother. When she sees Death, “Olivia spins, drawing the blade. She doesn’t wait, but twists and drives the knife into his chest.” The knife doesn’t hurt Death.
  • Death tries to subdue Olivia, who “fights like a girl set loose on the world with nothing and everything to lose. But it’s not enough. A gauntlet closes over her wrist, flinging her into a plated chest, and the last thing she sees is the gleam of an armored shoulder as the third shadow looms.”
  • Olivia takes a piece of bone and “the sliver of bone becomes a beak, becomes a skull, becomes a crow, muscle and skin and feathers.” Olivia tells the crow to attack Death. “Olivia is on her feet, racing toward the door, even as she hears him pluck the bird from the air, the brittle snap of its neck. . .”
  • In a multi-chapter conclusion, Olivia and Matthew fight Death. Death captures Olivia. “His embrace tightens until she cannot move, cannot breathe. Her bones groan, and she lets out a stifled gasp.” Matthew comes through the door to help Olivia.
  • One of Death’s soldiers goes after Matthew, who “slashes out with his blade, but the wolfish soldier dodges lithely and kicks him in the chest. He collapses to his hands and knees, gasping for breath . . . The soldier lowers the dagger to his throat.”
  • One of Death’s soldiers grabs Olivia, “she writhes and tries to breathe, tries to think and time slows down. . . She slams her head back into the soldier.” Olivia is able to free herself and grab one of the soldier’s weapons. “The soldier rears back, but Olivia is already swinging, bringing the sword down a third time, carving deep into his shoulder. The collarbone comes free. . . he is already falling back into dust as the bone hits the grass.”
  • In order to save Olivia’s life, Matthew “pushed her out of the way the instant before the sword cut down. Matthew, who leans in the doorway, the blade driven through, the point jutting like a thorn from his back.” Matthew dies.
  • When death finds a way into the living world, Edgar “aims at Death a second time and fires, the bullet melting in the air above his floating cloak.”
  • Olivia calls on the ghouls, who “close over [Death] like ivy, their edges dissolving into one teeming mass of shadow as they force him back through the garden, back through the open door, back beyond the wall.” Then Olivia seals the door with her blood.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • One of the matrons at Merilance hides a bottle of brandy in a drawer.
  • In order to help Matthew sleep, Edgar drugs him.

Language

  • Damn is used once.

Supernatural

  • Olivia can see “ghouls.”
  • There is a stone wall at the back of Gallant’s garden. At night, a person can walk around the wall, but they end up in a different world—a world where Death lives. Olivia’s mother once went around the wall and saw Death “with his four shadows and his dozen shades, all silent in the bones of the ruined house.”
  • When Olivia crosses the wall, she sees “the shriveled remains of a garden. Withered limbs and wilting blooms, their petals, pale, their leaves devoid of color. . . And there, at the top of the ruined garden, sits another Gallant.”
  • In Death’s world, Olivia has the ability to give life. When Olivia picks up a tooth, it “jumps. Shudders like a bee against her palm. . . by the time it hits the ground, it is not a writhing bit of bone, but a mouse.”
  • Olivia meets Death. “His skin is not creased, yet here and there it peels away, the polished bone beneath showing through like stone under thinning ivy. And that is how she sees that there are pieces of him missing. . . The joint of one finger. The edge of one cheek. . .”
  • Death watches a group of people dancing. Death dances with a woman. And then, “the dancer crumbles against him, her body sagging into ash and he sighs. . . A pale white fragment shines on the wooden floor where the dancer stood . . . then it rises and tucks itself against the tear along his jaw, and she realizes it was a shard of bone.” Then other bones return to Death’s body and flesh regrows over the bones.
  • Matthew explains how his family, the Priors made the demon go back beyond the wall. The Priors “put the wall back up. And this time, they soaked it edge to edge in their blood and swore that nothing would ever cross that gate without their blessing.”

Spiritual Content

  • At Merilance, Olivia “was told to kneel and knit her fingers and speak to a God she couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t touch. . . She never believed in higher powers.” But when she meets death, she prays to the ghouls for help and they come.

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

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