Fantasy

Book Review: The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

I received a copy of this novel for free in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my opinion.

Murder, political intrigue, science, mathematics, airships, and time machines. “The Time Roads” by Beth Bernobich is a smorgasbord of delicious steampunk and mystery elements. When I switched on my Galley of “The Time Roads”, I was not expecting a political thriller. Truthfully, I expected yet another steampunk story where the plot and characters are second to the quest to add as many fantastical elements to the world as possible. The mention of mathematics in the summary goaded me into requesting the novel, and I am glad I did. What I found was a mature and nuanced tale set in a believable alternate story.

The story opens and closes in the first person point of view of Aine, queen of Erie, in an alternative history where Ireland, not England, is head of the great western empire at the turn of the century. There is no East India Company here, but there are plots. Aine is not safe from those who wish to take or change her empire, all complicated by the work of mathmeticians and scientists that are striving to conquer time itself. In the beginning, Aine is young and scared. The books starts off feeling like it could belong to the new adult scene, but as the pages turn, the story evolves. The reader grows with Aine. I found myself wrapped up in her story. I wanted to follow her to the end.

As Aine and the other main characters, Siomon and Aidrean, delve into and face the consequences of time travel, we switch into the third person point of view. Each of the four intertwined stories , each with a different character behind the lens felt a bit disjointed at first. The switch between them was disconcerting and confusing. Rather than being put off by it, I was drawn in even more. Time travel is full of, to quote The Doctor, “Wibbley Wobbly Timey Wimey,” stuff. It is enough to make your head spin. The characters were confused by the twists and turns of the Time Roads. They were lost without a map, remembering events that didn’t seem to have happened, and seeing shadows of other timelines. I felt like my confusion mirrored theirs. I was a part of their world, facing it right alongside them.

I can see the separate points of view and stories within the story confusing some readers and putting them off of the story. Not many books attempt to confound the traditional linear structure of a story. It can be trying for those who are unaccustomed to it. The mathematical theorems might also confuse. I was lucky enough to have a math professor who had taught English previously regale us with stories of Pythagoras and other famous mathematicians. That knowledge definitely enhanced my reading experience.

This title is an excellent choice for adult steampunk fans who are looking for something a bit more mature than the usual offerings. I also recommend it for alternate history and murder mystery fans who may not have yet attempted steampunk before. I have not read anything quite like it before, and I think it will appeal to many different readers. Please let me know what you think if you decide to pick this title up!

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

Book Review: The Mystery of Dragon Bridge by Ann Howard

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. That has not in any way influenced my opinion.

I was asked to review “The Mystery of Dragon Bridge” by a good friend of mine, and son of the author. We were sharing a meal of homemade and thoroughly Americanized bibimbap and chatting the night away while my son played around us when he asked, sheepishly, if I reviewed children’s books. I happily said yes and a couple of weeks later had my copy in hand, knowing how incredibly awkward things could get should I not enjoy the book. Thankfully, we were spared the discomfort because I found everything about “The Mystery of Dragon Bridge” to be utterly charming from the author’s authentic voice to the brilliantly detailed illustrations that graced the pages. “The Mystery of Dragon” bridge is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to write and illustrate a children’s book and Ann Howard’s passion and dedication shows through on every page.

Illustrations are the heart of a good children’s book. Kids are visual creatures and fickle beasts. They lack the vocabulary and attention spans needed to digest massive blocks of text until they are well into their school years. The first thing I noticed about “The Mystery of Dragon Bridge” were the striking paintings within, sometimes taking up an entire two page spread. The illustrations, reminiscent of old Chinese paintings, are colorful and imaginative, setting a perfect stage for the story.

The prose flow over the pages in a style that reminds me of oral storytelling. I can imagine myself hearing the tale from an elder in front of the fire, surrounded by eagerly listening children. It has the quality of a story passed down through generation after generation.

The entire story is steeped in the richness of Chinese culture. With simplified Chinese text right alongside the English text, it is a perfect fit for bilingual families and classrooms. It also invites a conversation about cultural diversity and identification in a classroom of students who do not speak Chinese. “The Mystery of Dragon Bridge” touches on and opens up the discussion to issues of environmental responsibility, community, and the importance of keeping promises and traditions. It is a great story to practice reading with, and would be a good addition to both classrooms and home libraries.

I would recommend this book for older readers if they are reading solo, perhaps second grade and above as there are several pages that only have text. I tried to read it to my three-year-old nephew and my one-year old son. The former was not very interested, and the latter attempted to eat the book when we reached a page with no pictures. My five-year-old nephew would definitely have been interested as he could interact with the mystery and take guesses as to where the bridge had gone.

My friend tells me that his mother will eventually tour in our neck of the woods (Powell’s Books). I have not met her yet, but I am eager to. It is wonderful to know that a mother has followed her dreams and created something so stunning. I look forward to collecting future books for my son to read.

The Mystery of Dragon Bridge by Ann Howard

Book Review: The Stone of Valhalla by Mikey Brooks

This book was received free from NetGalley in Exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

I had what many would consider a turbulent childhood. In the darkest times I turned to books as a way to escape the very real stresses of my life. I often wondered, as it is evident in our literature many have, what it would be like to be pulled from my world into another. There is an entire sub-genre of fantasy books that involve such an idea, and it goes back decades. Faced with what must have felt like a lifetime more of abuse and neglect at the hands of his aunt and uncle, Harry Potter receives a letter from Hogwarts inviting him to the secret life of witches and wizards. In the heart of World War II, three children are ripped from their homes and forced to stay with their mysterious uncle. Tucked away in his house is a wardrobe that holds within a portal to the magical world of Narnia. Adventuresome Alice is being forced into a life on conformity she doesn’t want, and finds herself falling down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. During times of emotional or physical trial, whether it be large or small, these children are taken into another world where they learn about themselves, grow in maturity, and return to the real world more able to face life’s challenges than before. ‘The Stone of Valhalla’ is one such book. It is not spectacularly well written, nor is it groundbreaking, or even original, but I enjoyed it. ‘The Stone of Valhalla’ is an entertaining bit of escapism with some decent lessons for middle grade and young adult readers.

I think it is important to note here than I don’t feel that every book needs to be a show stopper. There are some amazingly well reviewed classics that I cannot stand, and there are some generic genre pieces that I sped through from start to finish and found myself wishing for more. This was one of those. What made me like it so much? I honestly could not tell you. I had a difficult time starting this review, because I could not figure out why I had rated this a four when other, more original stories, ranked a three. Ultimately, it comes down to a combination of factors, but mostly characters, setting, and message.

In ‘The Stone of Valhalla’, you find a veritable smorgasbord of fantasy classics. There is a young boy named Aaron who is slightly nerdy, and desperate to find out where he fits into this world. He is willing to do almost anything to fit into a group. He will undoubtedly appeal to the nerdy young folks out there who long to feel like they belong somewhere besides the pages of a book. Accompanying him on his adventures is a life loving orphan boy, a wise and grumpy old wizard with a chip on his shoulder, a sharp tongued old witch, and a gorgeous, kind hearted young witch in training. Each character is well developed and grows along with the story, with a few twists and turns along the way. Their interactions, for the most part, are beautiful from stories of ancient dragons being told around the fire, to dealing with broken hearts, to forgiveness for wrongs small and large. I was connected to them and found myself cheering them on as they moved through their adventure, and mourning with them when, inevitably, they were caused pain. Through their eyes, a young reader can learn lessons about love, loss, forgiveness, and the slippery nature of good and evil.

Aaron in particular goes through some amazing character development. If we think about the sub genre, one of the defining characteristics of it is that the protagonists learns about his/herself as he/she makes way from the beginning to, the end. At first I was confused because Aaron’s actions and thoughts seemed to be those of a younger character than 13. It is hard to say if it was intentional because I do not have a window into the author’s thought process, but intentional or not, it was artful. By the end of the book, he has matured quite a bit in a believable way.

The setting is equally classic and just as fun. Aaron is transported to a medieval fantasy world complete with competing factions, magic, witch burning, imps, goblin kings, and more. The reader gets to see much of this world as the characters travel through it adventurer style. D&D players and other gamers will recognize the setup, like I did, as the party faces random encounters along the way that ultimately lead them to a boss battle. There are some twists and turns in the road, some predictable, and others utterly surprising.

This story sang to the game loving, fantasy reading, nerd girl inside of me. It was a quick read, being targeted at middle grade readers. There were, alas, some elements I could have lived without. First, in the beginning of the story, the female characters are downright rude to the male characters. There is a bit of background story that explains why the witch and wizard have their magic knickers in a twist while dealing with each other, but I am growing tired of seeing so many sniping women and girls in middle grade and young adult fiction. Female characters can be strong without being abrasive or rude. It sends the wrong message. It is not all right for men to treat women that way, but it is all right for women to treat men terribly. I would love to see writers of fiction for young people change it up a bit.  In the same vein of broken records, I could have done without the love triangle. I feel like the story had enough conflict and emotion already without adding a triangle to the mix. It added nothing. How many must we suffer through before this fad finally dies out?

Problems aside, I think Stone of Valhalla will appeal to the demographic it was written for. It is a fun story with great character development. I look forward to checking out more of Mikey Brooks’ writing.

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