Claudine Tapsell brings us this latest batch of junior fiction reviews, featuring a splendid standalone novel, a gripping sequel, and the finale to a (locally and internationally) well-loved series! Read on to see what she had to say about them.
The Last Fallen Realm: Gifted Clans #3, by Graci Kim
The only thing stronger than fear is courage.
The only thing greater than ignorance is compassion.
And the only thing more powerful than hate is love.
Graci Kim has cast a spell over me with her debut fantasy trilogy. I cannot rave enough about the richly imagined world she has created. Inspired by Korean mythology, Kim deftly weaves ancient deities, forbidden spells, and magical creatures into a contemporary Los Angeles setting. There are numerous relatable characters that middle-school readers will love. A former Korean-Kiwi diplomat turned writer, Kim is an impressive woman and well worth a Google search.
Graci Kim has cast a spell over me with her debut fantasy trilogy
I devoured the first two books in the series before diving into this spectacular concluding novel, but will avoid giving away too many details that may spoil the reading experience. The trilogy centres around Riley Oh, whose family are skilled healing witches within the Gom clan. Despite feeling loved by her adoptive family, Riley despairs over her lack of magical abilities. Desperate to belong, Riley and her sister, Hattie, cast a forbidden spell, flinging them into a wild adventure where lives are at stake and limits are tested. Throughout the first two books, they forge strong friendships, discover secret identities, and find the true meaning of family. Fast forward to the final novel, and our heroes are preparing for an epic battle to save the world from powerful enemies.
The gentle and respectful navigation of self-doubt and anxiety will resonate with young readers.
I am an experienced reader of fantasy novels, so I can say with certainty that The Last Fallen Realm ticks all the boxes for this genre. The world-building is stunning, and explanations of the magical system are woven seamlessly into the story. I am pleased Kim avoided clunky information dumps. Riley has grown in confidence but still has some vulnerable moments. The gentle and respectful navigation of self-doubt and anxiety will resonate with young readers. At times, the tension in this novel was palpable, with some jaw-dropping revelations, tear-inducing moments, and exciting action sequences. I was wholeheartedly invested and eager to learn the fate of the realms. I loved the creative magical items Kim invented, such as the surprisingly powerful fidget spinner. Readers will also be delighted with the many adorable creatures Kim has plucked out of her imagination. Taggy, the furry little wakerpiller, was my favourite. Finally, the writing was gorgeous, and the plot flowed beautifully.
With writing royalty Rick Riordan endorsing her, I expect to see many more fantastic novels from Graci Kim. I am thrilled that Disney has optioned this trilogy for a live-action TV series. Hopefully, we will see Riley and her friends on screens soon!
The Last Fallen Realm: Gifted Clans #3
By Graci Kim
Published by Random House US
Once Upon a Wickedness, by Fleur Beale
Well-known New Zealand writer Fleur Beale delivers a magical tale with a fierce and determined heroine. Once Upon a Wickedness has traditional fairytale elements that will appeal to younger readers. It features a plucky heroine, vindictive teachers, terrified children who need saving, an evil hellion, and an enormous fire-breathing dragon. Lily Uivel’s beautiful illustrations enhance the storytelling and immerse us further into the fantasy world Beale has created.
After the death of her parents, Dance Violet was given to a wise woman to raise. Schooled in ancient wisdom and kept safe from the world, Dance had a happy upbringing. However, when the wise woman returns to the home of The Ancestors, Dance is once again alone in the world. Heartbroken, she speaks to her spirit and says, I will not fail you. I will live in the world. I will do the work and I will make friends. This, I promise.
[Once Upon a Wickedness] features a plucky heroine, vindictive teachers, terrified children who need saving, an evil hellion, and an enormous fire-breathing dragon.
She starts attending the village school, where the despicable teachers, Mr Murk and Miss Misselthwaite, terrorise the children. Our brave heroine realises that she needs to harness her growing magical powers to save them and solve the mystery of the disappearing villagers. A battle between good and evil follows, where teamwork, intelligence, and bravery are needed to bring peace and joy back to the community.
This book reminded me greatly of Matilda and Harry Potter, where the titular characters display grit and determination to overcome significant challenges. They also have sinister adults who loathe and torment them. However, Mr Murk in Once Upon a Wickedness gives Miss Trunchbull a real run for her money as he is viciously cruel, which makes for some uncomfortable moments in the book. My eyebrows shot up at one point, and I wondered if things went a little far, given that it is junior fiction.
This book reminded me greatly of Matilda and Harry Potter, where the titular characters display grit and determination to overcome significant challenges.
I enjoyed that Beale respects younger readers enough to use some scrumptious language that will intrigue and delight them. With a background in teaching, Beale has written a challenging and engaging story that will help young readers develop creativity and language skills.
Overall—and nasty teacher aside—this was an enjoyable book. However, I would have appreciated more detail, as I had some unanswered questions about the silver people and the magical abilities that Dance developed. With a strong message about the power of hope, this will undoubtedly reach a large audience of adventure-loving children. Once Upon a Wickedness adds to an already impressive body of work by one of our national treasures.
Once Upon a Wickedness
By Fleur Beale
Illustrated by Lily Uivel
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
Children of the Rush: Book 2, by James Russell
Set amidst the heyday of gold rush fever in 1860s New Zealand, James Russell presents an exciting middle-school adventure story. This novel is book two in the series and is a tremendous exploration of the harsh realities of surviving when gold is scarce and tempers are high. It also gives us a glimpse into the prejudice Chinese miners and Māori faced in nineteenth-century New Zealand.
Children of the Rush: Book 2 follows the main characters from the first book, Michael and Atarangi, as they deal with their next challenge. In the first book, we discovered that the two 12-year-olds have remarkable abilities. Michael can see coloured auras around people that reveal their feelings, giving him insight into their personalities and hidden motivations. Atarangi’s gift is one that, if discovered, would put her in grave danger—she can sense the location of gold in the ground. In the poverty-stricken mining town, many desperate people would consider her a valuable asset to capture. Both children use their abilities to help and protect their community.
…book two in the series […] is a tremendous exploration of the harsh realities of surviving when gold is scarce and tempers are high.
In book two, Atarangi’s mother, Hinewai, discovers her homeland is threatened by ‘Wool Lords’ claiming northern tribal lands as their own. When their parents leave to join the resistance, the children and their new friend, Siu, face many dangers after a gang of greedy robbers returns to Gabriel’s Gully. The three children must use their magical powers and work together to make the area safe again and find Siu’s missing father. I enjoyed reading the children’s perspectives as the narration switched between the three main characters.
Russell gives an accessible account of the grim realities of life in a mining town during this time. There was a lot of desperation and lawlessness as gold became hard to find, with cruel thieves wreaking havoc and stealing miners’ hard-earned gold. This story will thrill young readers, as it is utterly gripping. The children get pursued relentlessly, leading to some intense chase scenes. However, the dominant themes of courage, friendship, and helping others will balance the frightening elements.
Russell gives an accessible account of the grim realities of life in a mining town during this time.
Te reo Māori is used frequently in the novel and adds depth to the storytelling. Translations of the Māori phrases were woven expertly into conversations and did not hinder the flow of the story. Russell also frequently uses figurative language to evoke vivid imagery. Here is a great example: “But with a puff of smoke and a furious hiss the wick ignites, and starts to jump and snake as the chain reaction speeds along its length.”
My only real gripe with this book is the cover. It is dull and uninspiring and doesn’t reflect the exciting story within. As a former history teacher, I loved the ‘Fascinating Facts and Fun Activities’ section at the end of the book. I predict that kids will test their strength by heaving buckets of dirt around the backyard. Maybe families could incorporate this activity into a gardening day at home. I thoroughly recommend this engaging New Zealand novel to middle-school libraries.
Children of the Rush: Book 2
By James Russell
Published by Dragon Brothers Books Ltd
She champions the value of reading and developed a successful reading engagement programme. She was acknowledged by SLANZA and LIANZA with awards of recognition for her work in the area of reading engagement. She also loves the four C’s: cheese, chocolate, coffee, and cats.