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The Hero And The Crown by Robin McKinley

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Aerin could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it. It was the story of her mother, the witchwoman who enspelled the king into marrying her, to get an heir that would rule Damar; and it was told that she turned her face to the wall and died of despair when she found she had borne a daughter instead of a son.

Aerin was that daughter.

But there was more of the story yet to be told; Aerin’s destiny was greater than even she had dreamed – for she was to be the true hero who would yield the power of the Blue Sword…
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In the same conversation that brought The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to my attention, The Hero and the Crown was mentioned and recommended, in this case by the amazing Amal El-Mohtar; she rarely steers me wrong, so I picked up a copy of this classic Newbery Medal winner…

The Hero and the Crown has a slightly odd structure, for a fundamentally simple book: it starts in media res, before a poorly signposted jump back, and catching itself up again after almost half the book. The plot covered by this jump back is the childhood of Aerin and the way she has prepared herself for the moment that the book starts at, while the second half of the book is rather more climactic: it covers the grand epic fantasy quest we’re all used to in this kind of novel. McKinley combines both well, but there’s a lot more drive and heart in the book before Aerin discovers her destiny; up until that point, there’s humour, there’s darkness and light on recognisable scales, there’s humanity. After that point, all that becomes eclipsed by the grand destiny Aerin has to deal with; once she’s discovered that she has a destiny, The Hero and the Crown stops having a plot that feels like messy elements in a life that work together, and becomes much more single-focused.

The other thing we lose a lot of is personality, at that point. Until then, The Hero and the Crown follows a hero with a very strong personality; not necessarily a strong person, but a self-willed, driven one, who is curious, demanding to know things or discover them, who is willing to perservere until she can find a way to get what she wants. Afterwards, she becomes rather more simply a puppet of her destiny; McKinley doesn’t make her stupid from this point, but she does lose her stubbornness, her determination, and also her individual grit and courage. The rest of the cast was, on the whole, never as well fleshed out, tending towards archetypes like the good king, or the slightly awkward older relative (with inevitable end results); thankfully, the exception to this, Teka, retains her brilliant humour and sharpness through to the very end of the novel.

As a book for children, The Hero and the Crown doesn’t have a simplistic morality; although the Northerners are evil and strange (they’re also physically deformed), the Damarians themselves aren’t paragons of purity. McKinley’s novel has a strong strand of looking at bullies and the response to bullies, as well as looking at people as shades of grey, to it; the Damarian courtiers may be cruel to Aerin, and shallow, but they also have characters of their own, and motivations, and they respond to their own sorrows and griefs.

In the end, McKinley’s classic isn’t quite as classic as I was hoping; while Aerin is fantastic for half the book, The Hero and the Crown could have done without the lashings of Destiny and Fate that it has.

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The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

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Aventurine is the fiercest dragon in the mountains. But what happens when such a fierce dragon is tricked into drinking enchanted hot chocolate and becomes… a HUMAN?
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With a blurb and cover like that, who could resist a children’s book about dragons and hot chocolate? Inevitably, not this reader, so I picked up Stephanie Burgis’ latest book at work, intrigued. Children’s books aren’t my normal thing, but this one?

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is what our American cousins call a middle-grade novel, what we classify at work as a 9-12 book; it’s a slim volume, at 240 pages, but packed full of content and plot. Burgis starts the book with a perfectly ordinary opening, a young girl feeling stifled by her parents’ strictures; of course, this girl is a dragon, the brother she scuffles with a dragon reading philosophy, and her overbearing elder sister a brilliant poet… and dragon. So, rather than escaping from court, or from a hovel, she escapes from a mountain lair, to try and catch prey… but her human prey tricks her into drinking a hot chocolate, that renders her human. Burgis manages to showcase everything great that permeates this novel in these first few chapters…

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is absolutely brilliant in its psychology; it really gets into things like the feeling of being stifled as a child, and the terrifying realisation of what one is being protected from; Burgis shows us panic attacks and anxiety and depression in their grim reality, but without making them magical or extraordinary, showing them powerfully and beautifully and horribly as they are; shows us the joy of finding one’s calling; and the wonders of friendship, all vividly portrayed.

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is also a very physical novel; that is, it’s deeply invested in physicality, most of all in a sense often neglected, that of smell. Burgis talks about the changing shape of Aventurine’s body in terms of how she interacts with the world, how things seem different sizes and shapes, how balancing and movement are different; she describes a world centred not on sight alone but also heavily on smell, with Aventurine making extensive use of a preternaturally good sense of it; and uses taste beautifully, to the point that reading the book required a hot chocolate just because the descriptions of the taste were so evocative.

The actual plot of The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart isn’t nearly so innovative; it follows a quite traditional structure of children’s books, although it does it very well, with few if any surprises on the way. The beats are played well, and the pace is good, with the whole thing moving at a good clip, lingering a little on some of the more homely scenes but keeping action fast-paced and drudgery slight when present; this isn’t a book to get caught on and stuck in a rut with, it’s a book to keep going through and just read. The characters are similarly expected, from Aventurine herself, via her family, to her found human family; they’re all well-written, but all are somewhat slight, without much depth, with the exception of Marina, who has depths that are only revealed when important to Aventurine.

Of course, that’s arguably to be expected of a children’s book; they’re not intended to be deep character studies, for the most part! The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is fun, fast-paced, and an exercise in impressively physical writing from Burgis. Recommended for the child of all ages!

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? by C. J. Atkinson, illus. Olly Pike

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Meet Kit – a 12 year old undergoing medical transition – as he talks about gender and the different ways it can be explored. He explains what it is like to transition and how his friends, family and teachers can help through talking, listening and being proactive.

With illustrations throughout, this is an ideal way to start conversations about gender diversity in the classroom or at home and suitable for those working in professional services and settings. The book also includes a useful list of recommended reading, organisations and websites for further information and support.
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Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? first came to my attention thanks to its media coverage in the wake of condemnation by such luminaries as Norman Tebbit, former Thatcherite Cabinet member and rabid queerphobe, and Sarah Vine, columnist for the vile rag the Daily Mail. It is a resource for (young) children and for adults who work with them to better understand gender diversity, and part of a series of such volumes on different issues from the same publisher.

The book is divided into two parts: first, forty-odd pages, with illustrations, about Kit, a fictional trans boy who tells us about growing up so far, accessing the Gender Identity Clinic, accessing school facilities, resources and support, going onto hormone blockers, and his trans friends, who include nonbinary people and a trans girl. This section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is clearly aimed at children, both those who are trans and those who are cis, as a broad explanation of trans issues; it uses simpler language, although it introduces things like neopronouns and legal issues around the Equality Act (2010). It also presents, very clearly, things like the difference between gender identity, gendered stereotypes, sex, and sexuality, and explains how those are unrelated, a key thing for children.

The second section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is about half the length and focuses heavily on explaining to adults how they can support trans children, at home, at school and in other settings. This section gets more technical and specific, but also brushes lightly over a number of issues; one of the major problems is its UK-centric nature (GICs, GIRES, and the Equality Act (2010) are all UK institutions), given that it is for distribution internationally, and another is its occasional inaccuracies. Atkinson’s guidance about the law, for instance, suggests that the Equality Act (2010), in protecting gender reassignment, protects people whether or not they medically transition; in reality, however, the position is that only those who intend to, are, or have undergone medical transition are protected (therefore, for instance, I am not), an important mistake. However, the clarity of explanation of the duties of confidentiality and support are welcome.

The one other area Atkinson glosses over rapidly in Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is that of intersex people. There is one brief mention of intersex people, and there is an entry in the glossary, but some more information, especially for parents and professionals, might have been helpful; after all, intersex children are more likely than most to have medical procedures forced upon them by adults who do not understand intersex conditions, and to be raised in ways that very strictly enforce gender conformity. A little more attention paid to these issues would have been welcome.

In the end, though, I wish something like Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? had been in circulation when I was at school; something that might have put a name to some of the unease I felt about myself, and helped me understand it. C. J. Atkinson has produced a vitally important resource I hope schools across the UK capitalise on.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman illus Chris Riddell

The Sleeper And The Spindle by Chris Riddell

A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.

Lavishly produced, packed with glorious Chris Riddell illustrations enhanced with metallic ink, this is a spectacular and magical gift.
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The Sleeper and the Spindle is a strange mash up of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, sold largely on a single image by Chris Riddell of Snow Whie, as an armoured knight, kissing Sleeping Beauty.

That’s not unreasonable; Riddell’s art is absolutely essential to the experience of this book, his characteristic, strong, clear illustrations telling the story themselves as well as illuminating the text. The integration of text and art is excellent, not going down the route of comic books but nor simply describing the text; The Sleeper and the Spindle is as much an art project as anything else, and splash pages such as the famous kiss emphasise that. The high production values – a beautiful translucent dust jacket, metallic inks providing detail highlights that really make the pages pop.

Of course, The Sleeper and the Spindle is as much Gaiman’s work as Riddell’s. The story itself is an interesting subversion of both the Snow White story and Sleeping Beauty; Snow White is, here, our protagonist, a queen engaged to marry the prince who woke her. Her kingdom is threatened by an encroaching plague of sleep, centred on the palace of Sleeping Beauty in the neighbouring kingdom, so with the help of some of the dwarves she met as a princess she infiltrates the country, expecting to have immunity to magical sleep from past experience. The Sleeper and the Spindle follows the small party through the country, and Gaiman raises the creepiness of the story throughout, making it eerie and unsettling even as the familiar elements of the children’s version of the fairy tale crop up, such as the whole kingdom having fallen into sleep except the spiders, the thorn-encrusted castle, and more.

It’s the climax of the story that really makes The Sleeper and the Spindle interesting; subverting not only what we know about the fairy tale from Disney and countless other modern retellings, it subverts expectations Gaiman and Riddell have themselves set up, turning the standard model of the fairytale on its head with some serious style and panache. It’s a wonderful twist and, while clear in hindsight, on first reading it’s actually very well concealed.

This is only a slim volume, but it is a beautiful one; Riddell and Gaiman have collaborated to, in The Sleeper and the Spindle, breathe a whole new kind of life into an old fairy tale. Lovely.

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

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Imagine a world… where cats can talk. Where fairies are snarling, bald beasts with needle-like teeth. Where a huge, dark library hides secrets in its shadows. And dangerous creatures prowl the pages of books. Dare you join Alice on her quest to find a happy ending?
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The Forbidden Library is one of those old examples of an author who writes for adults – in Wexler’s case, full-on musketry-and-magic fantasy – turning to the market of children’s/YA literature. And there the story could have ended, in an ignoble attempt to straddle the river…

But The Forbidden Library doesn’t do that. The Forbidden Library, in fact, has a very similar attitude in many respects to The Shadow Campaign novels; that is, it’s honest, open, up front, doesn’t try to be cleverer than the readers (which doesn’t mean it isn’t clever, only that it isn’t trying to put one over on the reader), and doesn’t talk down to its readers. The Forbidden Library has an excellent narrative voice, and one that is only ever found in children’s and YA literature; confiding, curious, kindly and impish all at once – here without asides to the reader, but with a lot of engagement with them all the same. It works excellently, feeling a little antique, as it should (the novel is set in the late 1920s/early 1930s) but also beautifully relatable.

That also goes for the central character, Alice. The Forbidden Library has a huge secondary cast, but one primary character who we follow throughout the book; Alice, a brilliantly independent, intelligent girl who is still very much also a girl of the early twentieth century. It’s an interesting balance, as Wexler doesn’t wholesale adopt the attitudes of the period – but does note them; Alice’s father is remarked on as being unusual in his treatment of his daughter, for instance. Alice is a character the reader (whatever their gender!) can identify with, the competing impulses of curiosity and rule-following treated in a serious way utterly unlike almost all YA fiction (no rebellious teenager, Alice!).

The rest of the cast are a little flatter, but this is in part because they tend to have little screen time; The Forbidden Library isn’t interested in Geryon, Mr Black, Isaac, Ashes or the rest per se, particularly, only in Alice. That doesn’t mean they’re dull characters; each is interestingly written and unique, with a personality of their own, it’s just that for the most part those personalities are rather simpler than the complex one Alice has. Isaac comes closest, with his layered deceptions and ability to play on Alice’s sympathy, and Ashes is an unbelievably fun companion, even by the standards of talking cats, but on the whole they’re simply less interesting because Wexler is less interested in them.

Of course, a young adult book, and arguably a fantasy novel in general, is nothing without a rollicking plot; on that score, The Forbidden Library is perhaps a little weaker. While individual episodes are fantastic, engaging, interesting, and indeed suspenseful, and while the reader can really be caught up in them, there are also frustrating lacunae where one feels Wexler forgot that the intermediate stages have to grab the reader too; getting from episode to episode can at times be like fighting through a swamp, while the action itself is more like running a properly maintained track. This uneveness does detract from the book, but the track is definitely worth the swamp, even if it does all leave one feeling a little like one’s read a three-hundred page prologue, with a lot of set up and very little payoff.

The Forbidden Library is not flawless, and is very binarist and heteronormative compared with Wexler’s epic fantasy, but as far as YA fantasy goes, you could do worse – for readers young or old – than this rather fun work.