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January 15, 2021

4 Middle Grades Fantasy Novels to Entertain Your Kids

by MK French

This past year with its virtual learning and stay-at-home order, you may be struggling to find things to keep them entertained. These 4 books will transport your kids to a different world and they can be a fun family read as well.

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City of the Plague God by Sarwat Chadda

City of the Plague God
Jan 2021; Rick Riordan Presents; 978-1368051507
audio, ebook, print (400 pages); fantasy
Thirteen-year-old Sik has an ordinary life of school and helping in his parents' deli, but he doesn't know that he's actually immortal. In order to save New York City, he teams up with Belet, Ishtar's adopted daughter, and Gilgamesh, the hero that has since become a gardener in Central Park. The trio has to retrieve the Flower of Immortality to save Manhattan from disease, and the way is treacherous.

City of the Plague God is part of the Rick Riordan Presents series, where authors from other cultures explore their mythology in brand new stories. In this volume, we have gods and goddesses of Muslim mythology, one that isn't often seen in American media in a positive light. Daoud even says "Guys like us don't get to be heroes, " which this volume gleefully corrects. 

As a first-generation born in the United States, Sikander straddles the commercial world of American culture as well as the traditional Iraqi one. Nergal, the plague god, is nourished by the hatred that people have for whoever is different. Ishtar is the goddess of love and war, whether it's a petty fight over a parking spot or a world war, and the love fueling either helps intensify her power. It's a common theme for gods of old to survive to the present with the worship of mortals and the catastrophic chaos of the world. As with other heroes drawn into the struggles between gods, he doesn't want the responsibility. He wants to save the deli, which is the culmination of his parents' savings and efforts as refugees. And as other heroes found out, their human wants pale in comparison to the epic story that fate has in store for them.

Sik and Belet have different roles in the story: Belet's the fighter, and Sik uses diplomacy as his primary weapon. While he runs away from fighting a lot, he gathers allies, intelligence and tries to regroup. He has a quest to go on in order to reverse the damage Nergal wrought. As Rick stated in the introduction, "the plague god's gonna plague." It's an adventure that mirrors mythology, one that puts him in the starring role. He realizes that things and people aren't always what they seem and that his strengths and knowledge are still worthy to cultivate and depend on. There were details along the way that I didn't expect that led to complications and a way to fulfill some of Sik's emotional needs. The ending was so satisfying, but I was disappointed there wasn't more to read. I didn't want to get out of Sik's version of New York City, and I hope there are future books detailing future adventures that he has.

The Crowns of Croswald by D. E. Night

The Crowns of Croswald
July 2017; Stories Untold; 978-0996948654
ebook, print (320 pages); fantasy
Ivy Lovely had been a maid in a castle containing slurry fields that suppressed magic. When she is sixteen and kicked out, she crosses the boundary and is swept into the world of magic. She is brought to the Hall of Ivy, a place where those with magic in their blood or given a crown imbued with magic are taught to hone their talents. The Dark Queen had been in isolation for some time, but now is on the move and going into magical towns. Ivy has to learn how to use her magic and unearth the history of her birth before Croswald is destroyed.

In keeping with other magical academy books, Ivy is awakened to her powers and then leads the reader into this new world with her. She has to buy her school supplies and textbooks, using up the carefully explained money that had been left for her. As she learns about the different texts and shops, so do we. There are different kinds of magic uses, different magical creatures, as well as the class system of royals, nobles, and differently ranked commoners. Inevitably, there will be comparisons to Harry Potter for middle-grade magical academy books. Ivy needs quills and some oddly named textbooks, for sure, and her scauldron dragon is welcomed in the school. At the same time, this is not meant to be a separate magical world in the modern-day, but it’s all a medieval-inspired world.

Everyone knows about the Cloaked Brood working for the Dark Queen, though what they’re looking for isn’t well known as we begin. Time is spent more on worldbuilding, meeting Ivy’s friends, learning about magic and the items in the world. Of course, there’s a mean girl who bullies Ivy and likes to poke fun at the mistakes she makes or get other students to turn against her. Ivy makes friends and discovers more about the lost Princess Isabella, as well as mysterious scrivenists that were lost to time. The school year passes rapidly in the book until we get to the showdown between Ivy and the Dark Queen. Ivy knows about her heritage now, and her role for the future of Croswald.

Buy The Crowns of Croswald at Amazon

The Girl with the Whispering Shadow by D. E. Night

The Girl with the Whispering Shadow
January 2019; Stories Untold; 978-0996948661
ebook, print (384 pages); fantasy
Ivy learned about her past and her Queenly bloodline and now has been brought to Belzebuthe, a secret town for those with magical blood. She has to find the second part of the Kindred stone while avoiding the Dark Queen, all while feeling she is being followed. If she can’t, she might not be able to return to the Halls of Ivy.

Despite her bloodline, Ivy is still new to magic, magical items, and the town itself. This means the reader is now brought into the town itself, and we’re exposed to new types of scrivenist magic. Being so isolated in her early years means people growing up with magic see her as na├»ve, but she remains our entry into this world. Summer proceeds with making more friends and some covert magic practice, especially because Ivy isn’t returning to school right away. Of course, she does return for her second year of classes, and it’s a trick meant to draw her out into danger. It’s hardly the first time that happens over the course of the year until we get to the final quarter of the book. Now we’re at the end of the school year and the Dark Queen makes another appearance, facing off with Ivy directly.

All in all, Ivy is a fun middle-grade heroine. Some of the actions she takes and the mistakes she makes seem younger than her sixteen years, though her relative newness to magic and the customs of the scrivenist culture explains part of that. She has the best of intentions in mind as she and her friends do their best to find the Kindred Stone, as well as her attempts to discover why she is so important. There are consequences to Ivy’s actions as she tries to fight off the queen, all of which will ripple down into future novels of this four-book series.

Summer of L.U.C.K by Laura Stegman

Summer of L.U.C.K
Sept 2020;  Intense Publications; 978-1947796560
ebook, print (268 pages); fantasy
Darby stutters and can’t please her mother. Justin hasn’t spoken since his father died. Naz is struggling to learn English. The three children don’t believe in themselves and stumble across a magical carnival. The ghost of Leroy Usher is haunting it and needs their help to convince his family in restoring the carnival in its entirety. In return, he might be able to help them find their voices.

We meet the three children as they prepare to attend Camp Inch. Darby’s mother is highly critical and doesn’t realize that her constant reminders for breathing exercises and stress on communication skills to be successful actually intimidates Darby and makes her stutter worse. Justin doesn’t speak if he can avoid it and essentially isn’t stressed to. Newly arrived in Milwaukee from Morocco, Naz trips over some of the names and words and stresses in sentences. It doesn’t help that Wisconsin has tons of place names that are based on Native American tribes, so it would be even more difficult for him because they don’t always follow the same rules of English words that he learned so far. They literally crash into each other at camp and are the only ones hearing the calliope music from the carnival, so when they’re able to hear each others’ thoughts, I’m not surprised. They have a similar underlying problem in that they can’t speak well with others, as well as poor self-esteem. It doesn’t help that there are some children present at the camp only too willing to prey on them.

I felt bad for Leroy Usher’s children, too. They’re caught between the ideals they were raised in and the Real World that values money, so his children argue about selling the carnival to the summer camp for a modest fee vs a development company that will build condos. It’s obvious what Leroy would have wanted, and over time they’re able to reconcile their differences and speak to each other and work through their memories. The three children also work through their grief and difficulties as they try to help all of the Ushers; unknowingly, the adult Usher children each interact with our three preteens. The advice and discussions they have with the kids also helps them work through their own dilemmas.

This is a fun story for middle-grade readers, without being so unrealistic for adults to read as well. The messages within the book to believe in yourself and to keep working for your goals are all worthy ones, and especially in this time. I appreciate the message without it coming from a pandemic or apocalyptic book, and the bright descriptions of summer in the middle of a dreary winter’s day was also greatly appreciated! I really enjoyed this book and shared it with my daughter as well.

Buy Summer of L.U.C.K at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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