Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Last Gate of the Emperor and The Last Fallen Star

Mbalia, Kwame and Makonnen, Prince Joel. Last Gate of the Emperor
May 4th 2021 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Yared Heywat has lived with his Uncle Moti since the death of his parents. They have moved around in very mysterious ways, often living in abandoned buildings that they fortify heavily. Yared has learned many skills from his uncle, along with a lot of mythological tales about Addis Prime and Akum, and his uncle has helped him build a robotic cat companion named Besa. When he sneaks out of school to play the popular augmented reality game, The Hunt for Kaleb's Obelisk, things go badly wrong. Even though Yared is a top player, the game (which isn't quite legal) was reset, and all of the players have to start from the beginning, he has to register with his own name instead of an alias as his uncle has recommended, and he has to have a partner. He is paired with a girl called the Ibis, and is rather annoyed by her, mainly because she is probably a better player than he is! They head to the Gebeya, an outdoor shopping area in an airborne woreda. When the game starts to go badly wrong, and real threats emerge, Yared learns a lot of information about what really happened to his family, and who Uncle Moti really is. Even Besa turns out to be more than just Yared's robotic best friend. While the Meshenitai, the sworn protectors of the Emperor and Empress of Axum are ready to defend the rulers, there is a huge threat from the Werari and their monster, the Bulgu. Will Yared and the Ibis be able to work with the protectors to save Addis Prime and Axum?
Strengths: This had a lot of good action and adventure, along with cool technology like the robotic Besa. There are lots of details about Ethiopian culture as well, and it's very cool to have an actual prince's perspective! Any book involving video or role playing games is automatically intriguing to my students, and of course, Yared's skill in this game is part of the hope of saving the world. 
Weaknesses: Remember, I personally sometimes find fantasy VERY difficult to understand. Like this author's Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, this book has a lot going on. Because this is creating an Afrofuturist world while incorporating lots of cultural details that might not be known to my students, it would have been helpful to have more deliberate world building. An introductory chapter (perhaps a flashback, after a chapter in medias res, with plenty of things blowing up) explaining how Yared and Uncle Moti lived, and some of the history of the areas difficulties with the Werari, would make this more accessible to readers who have not read a lot of fantasy. It helped that I read an E ARC of this book on a tablet and was able to look up any unfamiliar terms. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and also adding to my list of books that include video games. This reminded me a little bit of Riazi's The Gauntlet (2017) with the market and the family secrets. 

Kim, Graci. The Last Fallen Star
May 4th 2021 by Rick Riordan Presents
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Riley and her sister Hattie work in their family's Korean alternative medicine practice in Los Angeles, but while Hattie is soon going to be initiated as a healer, Riley is "saram" and lacks magic. She was adopted, and while she loves her family, she is sad that she can't be part of their Gom world of healers. There are six gifted witch clans, each with a protective goddess, although one clan, the scholarly Horangi, has been banished after confrontations that led to the death of Riley's birth parents as well as her friend Emmet's mother. When Hattie expresses a desire to share her magic with her sister, the two investigate the possibility, and find that their family does have such a spell. They liberate the book in which it is written, obtain the ingredients, and plan to cast it at Hattie's initiation. All goes well until they are stopped by the elders, who tell them that the spell could possibly kill them both. Looking for other methods to share the magic, they decide to contact Mago Halmi, the mother of all creation, and plead for Riley to have powers. Instead, Hattie collapses and they end up summoning Gom's Cave Bear Goddess, who does have a plan. In exchange for a relic called the last fallen star, this goddess will not only give Riley powers, but she will restore Hatties life. Finding the last fallen star, when she has no idea where it could be, seems daunting, but with her sister's shrunken heart in a glass vial around her neck, there really isn't much choice but to get help from Emmett and other friends to find the relic. This quest takes them around Los Angeles as well as the magical realm, puts them in contact with a variety of magical creatures (I did enjoy the tiny talking horse, although others were scarier!), uncovers family and clan secrets, and teaches Riley a lot about herself. 
Strengths: Riley is an appealing character who very much embodies a typical middle school students; it doesn't matter what they CAN do, they want to do the things they are told they CAN'T. It's nice to see a good sisterly relationship, and this reminded me a bit of Levine's The Two Princesses of Bamarre, one of my daughters' favorites. The secondary characters of Noah and Jennie are used well, as are the various adults. The magical creatures on the quest are exceptionally good, and this is nice and twisty-- I don't want to ruin any of the family secrets. The Korean culture, from Saturday school to food, to mythical creatures, is covered nicely. I am often confused by fantasy books, but Kim's writing kept me on track with a minimum of notes, which is quite an accomplishment. Looking forward to more by this author. 
Weaknesses: This almost needed a list of characters and their respective clans at the beginning. The fact that there were six clans but five elements caused me some confusion. Wasn't keen on the theme that love is important, since loving people just means that eventually, they will disappoint you, but the target demographic doesn't know this yet.
What I really think: This is probably one of my favorite of the Rick Riordan Presents titles, and I'll purchase it, but the title and cover are very similar to other fantasy books, making this a bit harder to remember. It would be great if this is just a three book series. My students used to be able to stretch to five, but few are willing to make this kind of time investment these days. Also, can we have more books with cultural connections that aren't fantasy? I could use a lot more realistic fiction (AND SPORTS BOOKS) like that.


1 comment:

  1. I have both of these on hold at my local library. Rick Riordan Presents is an impressive line; I've liked all the ones I've read so far.