Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann

Alex and Aaron Stowe are twin brothers living in the dry, desolate land of Quill, a country ruled by the High Priest Justine, a tyrant who rules her country like “a puppet show – everyone doing as she, the puppet master, demands.”

Once a year, every person in Quill gathers for the Purge, where every 13-year-old is sorted into one of three categories: Wanted, Necessary, or Unwanted. The Wanteds go to the university, the Necessaries get the hard jobs like farming, army work, or burying dead bodies, and the Unwanteds are “eliminated.” In other words, they are killed.

Or at least that's what everyone thinks.

The Unwanteds are those who are creative. In Quill, everyone sees creativity as a weakness. Anyone caught being creative has committed an “infraction,” and on the day of the annual Purge, will be eliminated. Alex has several infractions.

Alex and the rest of the Unwanteds believe that they will die, from the moment that their names are announced as Unwanteds to the moment that they walk through the gates of the “Death Farm.” However, as they enter the Farm, they meet a magician named Marcus Today, and he tells them that the Unwanteds do not die; they are “saved.”

When the Unwanteds walk through those gates, they enter the world of Artimé, a world where creativity is embraced rather than shunned. Where people are taught to flaunt their creative skills, and where people are taught to use art not only as a hobby, but also as a weapon. You see, Artimé is not just a creative world, but a world of magic.

As well as learning to draw and paint better, Alex learns how to paint himself invisible, use scatterclips, and draw 3-D doors and windows in such a way that he can open and pass through them like normal doors or windows.

Aaron Stowe, Alex's brother, is a Wanted, and Alex misses him terribly. But since Aaron is a Wanted, he believes Alex to be dead and has likely forgotten all about him, like he was instructed to do. But just how far will Alex go to reach his brother? And what are the consequences?

Kirkus Reviews described the story as “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter,” which for the most part is true. Alex gets shipped off to some place where he goes to a school and learns magic (Harry Potter), and comes from a place with a seriously corrupt government (Hunger Games). This book shows the bond between siblings, and how important it is that that bond stays intact.

Here's a message that I got out of this story: Never hide your talent. Flaunt it and be proud.


Daddy's afterthoughts
Kirkus inadvertently indicts it as yet another trope-fest of recycled elements from better-known stories, though in this case, I cannot complain too much; the series is a good developmental stepping stone for heavier fantasy fare for developing young readers. This fun (well, as fun as a dystopian fantasy can be, anyway) series by Lisa McMann is seven books long, and each book is around the 400-500 page range. Where this differs from other works of that length in the fantasy genre is that, at least in the paperback edition that Julia has, the text is slightly larger and spaced in such a way that it is the equivalent of another book a good third shorter; in other words, this first book in the series, at 390 pages, reads like a 250-300 page book (by comparison, say, the first Potter book). This makes for a great opportunity for avid fantasy readers in the age 8-12 range whose reading stamina might not be quite up for 500-800 page books to bask in the genre without getting lost in the text; with Lexile scores hovering around 800, readers of most ability levels will be able to enjoy a set of characters and stories that spans over 3,000 pages. And older readers can enjoy the rich storylines despite the (relatively) easy reading level.

Another plus, the books (as of this writing anyway) seem to be about half the cost of normal YA fiction. As of December 2017, I see them for $4.99 each in paperback new on Amazon, and the complete hardcover box set, all seven volumes, is only $70 (ten dollars a volume for hardcover is pretty remarkable).

Also, in her online bio, author McMann specifically remarks that she likes bacon, so, you know, #winning.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

Image result for the school for good and evil

Two girls, Sophie and Agatha, have been friends all their life, but no two friends could be more different. They were practically exact opposites. For example, Sophie likes pink, while Agatha likes black. Sophie does a two-hour grooming routine each morning, but Agatha couldn't care less. 

Sophie believes in the fabled School for Good and Evil; Agatha thinks it's a myth.

Sophie and Agatha live in Gavaldon, a small village surrounded by woods, and every four years, something comes out of those woods, takes two children, and runs off. It started 200 years ago, and in those 200 years, the villagers have noticed a pattern. One of the two children is always good-natured and good-looking, while the other is selfish and ugly. In other words, one was Good, the other Evil.  
Later on, those same children (the ones who were taken) appear in fairy tales, as heroes and villains.

Of course, Sophie and Agatha up at The School for Good and Evil. So Sophie goes to Good and Agatha goes to Evil, and everything is fine, right? Wrong! Sophie goes to Evil and Agatha to Good! They think that there must've been a mix up and Agatha wants to go home but...

"The only way out of a fairy tale... is to live through it." 

After the little mix-up, Sophie finds out that while she always thought she had been good, there is a darkness in her soul that, as the story progresses, grows and takes control as she tries harder and harder to convince people that she is in fact Good; she feels betrayed, angry, and upset that she has been placed in the “wrong” school, and the angrier she gets, the more the anger changes her. Agatha may have appeared to hate everyone, but she hasn’t really given herself the chance to see the Good in herself. Maybe they are in the right schools after all?

Both of them have always seen themselves as what was on the surface, so when they find out who they really might be, it surprises them. Being in the “wrong” school helps them see themselves for how they truly are, not how they think they are, which is hard for most to do. But solving any problem has its price. Sophie’s and Agatha’s friendship is in danger. Sometimes, Agatha thinks that their friendship never even existed.

Intriguing, isn't it? And just because this book has something to do with fairy tales doesn't mean that this book is for 5-year-old girls. I mean, this book is close to 500 pages long. There is some violence, so this book wouldn’t be recommended for kids who easily get nightmares. At one point, the students from both schools clash and almost start a war. But this book has a little bit of everything: friendship, trust, a little bit of love, but also a bit of fear, sadness, betrayal, and of course, fighting. Mix it all up, let it simmer in a Crock-Pot, and you have this book: The School for Good and Evil, where fairy tales come to life.


Daddy's afterthoughts:   I don't have much to add. Yet another fairy tale/magical school/alternate world trope-fest, although like Adam Gidwitz's Grimm series that Julia reviewed book one of some time ago, this one flirts with the dark side a bit. I would, however, direct parents to this NPR article, with its interesting insights into the book's young author and his vision for the series, now several books long. The article itself is specifically focused on the fourth book ( I think) in the series, but the overview is general, and will give you a good sense of what is going on in the series as a whole. As far as trope-filled it's-been-done-before series goes, this one looks like a good 'un.


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