Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Nightshade Chronicles #3: Lords of Trillium by Hilary Wagner

Lords of Trillium (Nightshade Chronicles, #3)My name is Billycan, and I've changed since the effects of lab experiments have slowly weakened. Other creatures should still fear me, since I've killed more rats than I can count. However, I don't like the old me, and the Tuscans have told me about the terror of a former major. I've returned to Nightshade to stop her from destroying the peaceful city and murdering my brother and son. However, something else is happening too. I still have nightmares from my time in the Trillium labs, and it seems events are leading me back there. I've learned the scientists wanted my race of rats due to the effects of living above an extinct volcano. They did unspeakable experiments on us that caused the vicious killings in my past. Memories of the lab incense me, but its secrets may lie below the old library.

I recommend you read the previous books in the series, especially book one, to fully appreciate the transformation of Billycan's character. Seldom do you see a terrifying evil character become a major protagonist. Most of the minor characters found this hard to believe, although Billycan's brother, son, and niece were more supportive. The uncertainty behind his change added suspense to the story, since it was unclear if he might revert back to his violent past. The author does a nice job of describing Billycan's inner turmoil, as battles memories and urges of violence. The issue of experimenting on animals in lab research is a central theme, but it's told from the lab rats' points of view. The scientists are trying to discover a way to reverse human aging, but the side effects of the serum are devastating. This book especially reminds me of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, since the plot leads to a face-off between the human scientists and the lab animals. I'm not sure where the sequel will lead. The end of this book is rather cryptic with three unidentified lab rats heading out into the world. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically MindedMy name is Chantel, and Miss Ellicott and all the other sorceresses who control the wall protecting Lightning Pass have been taken away. Anna, Bowser, and I met a young Marauder named Franklin who has told us strange things about our home city. It seems our rulers charge heavy tolls to people outside the walls wanting to use the nearby roads and port. We thought the Marauders kidnapped the sorceresses for ransom, but we have now discovered they're not to blame. We've met our king and question his motives. I didn't understand why Miss Ellicott seemed to take a special interest in me until I spoke to His Highness. It all comes down to my familiar, a snake. It was strange when it entered my head, but it was more shocking when it came back out. My familiar's real name is Lightning, and he is the most powerful dragon ever!

This book was a finalist for the 2017 Cybils Award in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction and was a very strong contender for the title. Be forewarned that the first part of the plot is slow-moving. The interest level picks up after Miss Ellicott disappears and the kids find themselves outside the wall. The snake character was a little confusing early on, as it was very independent of Chantel, coming and going as it pleased. Once it entered Chantel's head, I expected it to communicate with her, but she was only able to sense its emotions and restlessness. I expected more from the character and got it after it became the dragon. I found out it was learning about Chantel while inside her head. Chantel was able to control the dragon, but there was an interesting twist to their relationship. The dragon wouldn't do anything that Chantel wouldn't do herself. For example, the dragon would not kill other villagers. Another element to the book involved the role of women in this culture. They were expected to be submissive and obedient to the men. Chantel was chastised for questioning the men in power, and the female adult characters even gave her a hard time for not being proper. Despite these expectations, Chantel challenged unfair decisions and tried to determine which people were looking out for the city's best interests. Overall, the plot started off slow, but it was well worth the wait in the end. I enjoyed the book very much.

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

Spirit HuntersMy name is Harper, and I hate that we've moved to Washington D.C. My bedroom is stifling hot, but my four-year-old brother Michael's room is eerily cold. I've noticed he's been talking to himself recently, although he says he's talking to his "best friend" Billy. It's making me feel uneasy. I thought I felt hands in my back before falling down the stairs, and Michael's fire truck struck my face, requiring me to get twenty-five stitches. If Michael's not yelling at me, he's staring into space with blank eyes. I've lost part of my memory from before the move, and I think it's important to what's happening now. I was sent to a mental hospital after setting a fire at school, but I don't know why I did that. I now believe my brother's change in behavior is because of a dangerous spirit haunting this house. Then, an old friend reappeared, and I learned there are more dangers in this house than I ever imagined.

This book is a finalist for the 2017 Cybils Book Award in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. It's a throwback to traditional ghost stories, and the author did a great job of creating a spooky atmosphere. There were the traditional creepy sounds, whispering voices, cold rooms, and glimpses of hazy images. The added twist of Harper's memory loss left additional possibilities open to the imagination. Harper was a typical seventh grader, except for having been sent to an asylum and having an unusual aptitude for sensing ghosts. Given the evidence, I was a little surprised at how long it took her to accept the fact there were spirits haunting the house. Also, she felt like nobody would believe her even though her friend was the first person to say Harper was actually living in a haunted house. She was still reluctant to tell her friend about Rose later in the plot. Harper was frightened by the house and didn't know what to do, but she was determined to stop the spirits. The book was very engaging and exciting, and I found myself reluctant to put it down as I neared the climax. The description during the climax itself will be pretty intense for younger readers. Overall, it was a very entertaining book and is worthy of a best book nomination.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

A Face Like GlassMy name is Neverfell. I snuck away from Master Grandible but was imprisoned when my mask fell off. My face clearly changes expressions with my thoughts and emotions, and this frightens the people of Caverna; they don't have the ability. I was placed in the custody of the Grand Steward, but I've become a pawn in the politics of different families seeking power. Some people thought I was an assassin, but assassins have been trying to kill me! Everyone calls me an outsider,  but I don't understand why I'm different. I know Master Grandible discovered me seven years ago, but I don't remember anything of my life before that. I have dreams of the overground, but what if they're actually memories? The truth is slowly emerging in my mind. Madame Appeline and Maxim Childersin hold horrible secrets that will rock the Council and all of Caverna. It's up to me to make things right. 

This book is a finalist for the 2017 Cybils Book Award in Elementary/Speculative Fiction. It's most appropriate for more mature readers due to the abstract concepts presented. Major aspects of the plot involve foods and drinks designed to influence others, and the back-stabbing drama found in the Caverna culture won't appeal to younger readers. Characters use wine to make others forget or remember past events, but some of them use wine on themselves. Neverfell is a wonderful main character and evokes sympathetic feelings. She's clueless in a society that doesn't accept her, and many of her "friends" use her for selfish reasons. She trusts everyone, but her face puts her at a disadvantage. Her thoughts and feelings are clearly displayed in her facial expressions, but everyone else in Caverna has learned to display a limited number of them. Their faces don't always match their intentions, and their desire for more "faces" is a key part of the plot's conflict. Overall, this book offers a very creative view of a dystopian society that will appeal to tween readers.

Chronicle of the Dark Star #1: Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson

Last Day on Mars (Chronicle of the Dark Star, #1)My name is Liam, and we needed to leave Mars before the sun went supernova, killing all living things in the solar system. Phoebe and I were scheduled to board the last ship, but our parents needed to finish some key experiments first. We climbed to the surface to open some vents for the lab when a powerful explosion rocked the planet. Phoebe and I discovered a huge structure that mysteriously no one had seen before. It's becoming apparent that alien lifeforms have visited Mars and someone, or something, is trying to sabotage the mission. I found an alien bracelet that allows me to briefly travel into the future, and what I've seen is disturbing. The adults will not believe me, so it's up to Phoebe and I to save hundreds of millions of human lives.

This book was a finalist for the 2017 Cybils Award in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The second half of the book was full of adventure, mystery, and action. The author introduced characters plotting the elimination of all humankind, but there was another character Liam met during his visions into the future. This person's motives were less clear. There were secret terrorist threats along with combat between characters, and the result was an exciting build-up to the climax. My biggest concern for this book was the first third of the book slowly moved along before developing any tension. It was clear the inhabitants needed to leave the planet within hours, but there was no sense of urgency until the explosion in the lab. Also, this novel is book one of a series, and the conclusion felt like it. A couple of conflicts were left to be resolved in the sequel.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, #1)My name is Aventurine, and I’ve been transformed into a puny human by enchanted hot chocolate. I could devour the food mage who did this to me, but I'm left will an obsession for chocolate! As a human, I understand that I must become an apprentice in order to survive. Impossible as it may seem, I've started working for Marian, making chocolate in the Chocolate Heart kitchen! Despite my bliss, a couple of things have happened recently that have me upset and frightened. I overheard battle mages talking about an attack on my dragon family living in the mountains, and I've ruined Marian's chocolate restaurant. Dragons never run away, but I've failed to protect my new hoard. I can't go back back to Marian, even though she's my new family, and my dragon family is preparing to attack.

This book is the winner of the 2017 Cybils Book Award in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, and it was my personal favorite of all the finalists! I was expecting a cute story of dragons and chocolate, but it presented dragons in a unique way. They were intelligent, cultured creatures that feared humans, as humans feared them in return. The author highlighted the highs and lows of humanity, as Aventurine had been raised to believe all humans were liars. The kingdom was full of prejudice toward social classes; the city was divided into three socioeconomic regions. Aventurine's character faced self-doubt and spent the whole book trying to discover herself. Being changed into a human was a creative vehicle to explore her own feelings and human behavior. It was fun reading about a "human" girl with dragon thoughts running through her mind. If someone angered Aventurine, she wanted to eat them or engulf them in flames. I loved the philosophical siblings and how the royal family mirrored her own. Overall, the book was entertaining, thought-provoking, and humorous.

The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky

The Countdown ConspiracyMy name is Miranda, and I’m the American cadet training for an international mission to Mars. However, Esteban and I were attacked on our way to the Antarctic training site; why would anyone want to kill us? As time has gone on, it seems apparent that we were not the targets; I am the one the assassins want dead. I'm trying to immerse myself in training, but the classes are really hard. I've never struggled with anything before. We've started practical exams in the spaceplane, and I'm feeling better actually doing something. The first exam was interrupted by an exploding helicopter outside the hanger, but I thought the new exam would go well. All of the cadets felt ready, but none of us expected the simulation to be so real. Now, our lives depend on focusing on our individual strengths and working together as a team. 

This book is a finalist for the 2017 Cybils Book Award in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. It was a science fiction version of six talented kids facing problems created by world conflict. Miranda was a robotics expert who experienced failure for the first time in her life. The other characters had their own special talents, and their support for Miranda varied over time. Miranda's self-confidence wavered, but I liked how she was able to persevere. The conflicts grew throughout the plot until the characters found themselves fighting for their lives. They were forced to set aside their differences and self-doubt in order to work as a team. The hero supporting the efforts was Ruby, Miranda's hand-built robot. It became her sidekick, kind of like a loyal dog. The spidery bot was able to perform difficult and dangerous tasks the humans could not, and made a human-like sacrifice in the end. The book addressed world politics and the fragility of maintaining peace. This was a central focus to the plot, and the action and mystery made it especially entertaining. It's definitely worthy of being considered the outstanding speculative fiction novel of 2017.