Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Curse of the Phoenix and Dragon Ops

Carter, Aimee. The Curse of the Phoenix
June 8th 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Twins Lu and Zac are struggling since the death of their mother, especially since their father is so grief stricken that he can't take care of them properly, and throws himself into his work instead of educating himself about Zak's life threatening allergies to almost everything. When their great Aunt Merle offers to have the children spend their summer break with her and her wife, Rowena, the father packs up the children and flies with them to England. Their mother left the family estate to marry their father, and only came back rarely, but shared fantastical stories about Wildewood with the twins. Zac is working on a graphic novel of them but the twins are gobsmacked to find that the tales are actually true. Rowena, along with Conrad and his children Penelope and Oliver, cares for an array of magical creatures in a preserve, helped by a phoenix whom no one has seen for quite some time. The phoenix was very fond of the twins' mother, and even though Rowena doesn't want them to enter the sanctuary, they do, and are branded. This means that they won't be able to leave and go back to the US, lest they die! Was the phoenix also responsible for their mother's death? And will the two be able to help with the magical creatures but be free to embrace their own destiny?
Strengths: Traveling to a family estate in England is always a great way to start a book, and when the family has a preserve of magical creatures that they are tending, even better! Zac and Lu are interesting characters who are more than happy to investigate their family background, and I especially enjoyed that their mother shared information about the preserve as stories that Zac is using to write a graphic novel. Zac's allergies are a great inclusion. Merle is a great character who misses the twin's mother and wants to take care of them, and Rowena is her abrasive foil who doesn't want them near, but mostly for their own safety. Penelope is a cousin who enjoys the preserve, and Oliver's longing to go back to a life without it is a realistic twist. The variety of creatures, and the twins' interactions with them, are superb. I have soccer fields behind my house-- I think that these should be given over to the care of centaurs, fairies, and other creatures,and young readers will also be able to put themselves right into the story. 
Weaknesses: I am never a fan of books that depict a parent as so grief stricken that the care of children suffers. Given Zac's allergies, this is even more unforgivable.
What I really think: This is very similar to Mull's Fablehaven series or Sutherland's The Menagerie trilogy. I haven't had a lot of readers for those recently, so may pass on purchase. If your copies of those books have fallen apart, this would be a great replacement, updated for the 2020s with various social and personal concerns.

Mancusi, Mari. Dragon Ops: Dragons vs. Robots (#2) 
June 8th 2021 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After their adventures in Dragon Ops, Ian and Lilli have coped differently. Ian doesn't want to play ANY video games, and Lilli has thrown herself into playing sports, including soccer with Josh, whom Ian dislikes. Even their cousin Derek spends his time playing guitar instead of gaming. The dragon from the first book, Atreus, has escaped its video world and is on the loose, and Ian feels himself being followed by it. When the two find that Ikumi has possibily been kidnapped by a rival gaming company, they go back to gaming to try to get a position of beta testers for the updated game Mech Ops from Admiral Appleby, who worked with Ikumi's grandfather. Appleby's grandson is Josh, who is just as annoying to Ian in video gaming as he is in soccer. When it turns out that Ikumi's father is also missing, the stakes get even higher. Once in the game as testers, they meet up with Yano, who is a big help, but the real world intervenes. The closer they seem to come to rescuing Ikumi, the more people from the Mech Ops organization try to pull them out of the game. WIth help from arcade owner Maddy and a rivl gamer named Starr, will Ian and Lilli be able to figure out what is going on in Mech Ops, and how it involves Ikumi, before it is too late?
Strengths: I like Ian and Lilli as characters. They have complicated relationships with gaming, and even though they occasionally play all night and want to skip activities to sleep during the day (and have a video game playing mother who understands this!), they don't do this often, and have both stepped away from games when they felt the rest of their lives were suffering. They really do want to help Ikumi and her father, despite their complicated relationship. Josh ends up being an interesting character as well, and the history of both the Dragon Ops and Mech Ops games (and their intersection) was intriguing. There's lots of action, tons of video game detail, and some really cool creatures! 
Weaknesses: While not as step-by-step of a recreation of a video game as the Cube Kid Minecraft books, there was still a lot of video game details that I didn't quite get. This will not be a problem for younger readers, or anyone who has more knowledge of video games than I have, which is pretty much limited to computer solitaire!
What I really think: This is a great sequel to a popular title. There's room for another book, but a duology would be fine as well.  I have students eagerly waiting for this one!

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