Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Cameron Battle and City Spies

Perry, Jamar J. Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms
February 1st 2022 by Bloomsbury Children's Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Cameron, who is being raised by his grandmother after his parents' deaths, has always taken comfort in a family heirloom book. The Book of Chidani is based on Igbo legends, but his grandmother has banished the book to the attic and forbidden Cameron from reading it because it brings up so many memories for her. Cameron used to read the book with his best friend, Zion, and when bad weather in Atlanta has the two stuck inside with another friend, Aliyah, they read the book against the grandmother's wishes. They manage to get sucked into the book and travel to Chidani, a secret country in Nigeria where the queen, Ramala, has been replaced by her sister, Amina, who does not have the best interest of the people of Chidani OR the people in Cameron's realm at heart. Cameron suspects that his parents' death has something to do with the book, especially when he is hailed as the hero who can save Chidani because he is a descendant of the founders. Ramala has sent for the children to get help in defeating her sister and reclaiming the throne so that both worlds remain protected. In order to do that, Cameron and his friends have three moons to find three gifts that imbue leaders with power: a crown, a ring, and a scepter. The trio receive training on how to fight and also fly, and have help from Halifa, Bakari, and Makai, who are in service to Ramala. They travel throughout the kingdom in order to find the gifts. It's a hard task, and even though Cameron unearths new powers and ties to the Book of Chidani, he has only found two of the gifts by the end of book one. After a brief return to our world, will Cameron be able to find the ring and save Chidani in book two?
Strengths: My favorite part of this was the slight tension between Cameron and Zion over including Aliyah in their adventure. Friendships are so difficult in middle school, and these tensions don't make it into middle grade literature often enough. This was a solid middle grade fantasy that was well-paced and easy for me to follow. Chidani is very well described, from the clothing to the style of fighting, and Queen Ramala is a beleaguered but capable leader who has good reasons for needing Cameron to help her. Cameron's family dynamic compels him more convincingly to undergo the travail of the quest even when he would rather not. Zion and Aliyah are helpful friends, but also are not always on the same page as Cameron, which is a great source of friend drama, which is always a good choice in middle grade literature. I love the cover!
Weaknesses: This is labeled as LGBTQ+, but I don't remember what the representation was and didn't make any notes about it as I read. In a way, that's good, because we need more books with LGBTQ+ characters where that is just one facet of their personalities. I should not have waited almost a week to write the review, even with notes.
What I really think: This is a solid fantasy adventure, and bringing Igbo and Nigerian culture into a fantasy book made this very interesting. While the plot doesn't break any new ground, it's much less confusing for casual fantasy readers, since the unfamiliar mythology is layered over a typical fantasy quest. It's a great read for anyone wanting an action-packed hero's journey, but will be especially nice for some of my students with African ancestry who have read a ton of Anglo-Germanic fantasy books and can finally see themselves represented in a mythical world. Hand to fans who like the Rick Riordan Presents series, aficionados of magical book tales, and especially to readers who enjoyed Mbalia's and Makonnen's Last Gate of the Emperor or Okarafor's Ikenga.

Ponti, James. Forbidden City (City Spies #3) 
February 1st 2022 by Aladdin
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Now that we know that characters in City Spies and Golden Gate, it's fun to see them involved in more adventures with Mother. In this third installment, we find Brooklyn having to stay in Scotland to take summer school classes at Kinloch Abbey to catch up with everyone else academically, even though she does make friends with Charlotte, who quit the City Spies program. This is hard when Paris and Kat are sent to a birthday party for a young socialite in London, Tabitha Banks. While they are their, they find that Tabitha's father, Sir Reg, is most likely involved with Umbra, but they aren't quite sure what he's up to. When it is clearer that he is probably after North Korean scientist Park Jin-sun, Paris is recruited to go undercover to play chess against the scientist's son, Dae-jung. The mission unfolds as Paris has to win four chess tournaments to qualify for a larger competition in Russia, and Kat gets a job reporting for a website, All Roads Lead to Audrey, so she can befriend Tabitha Banks. Monty is working with Sydney, who is trying very hard to crack a code that involves Instagram shots of different landmarks, some with just slight color changes, that leads them to Nicholas Sorokin. To make matters more complicated, his twin sisters hang around Tabitha Banks. While the fate of Park and Dae-jung hangs in the balance, there is also a larger issue concerning nuclear missles that are going missing. Will the City Spies be able to complete all parts of their mission and be able to make it back for another school year living at the FARM?
Strengths: Ponti, like Stuart Gibbs, has a writing style that is just so easy to read and enjoyable that I just want to let the books wash over me in a wave of brilliant plot twists and character experiences, and not write a review. I can't imagine the flow charts and notes keepign track of the intricately woven plot! The characters are also easy to follow, and have distinct personalities and mannerisms. The theme of families that you choose is great, and Mother is a fantastic fictional father. We don't see a lot of the school or FARM in this book, but the glimpses that we have are quite fun. Traveling to both Russia and China is a treat, and my favorite part (aside from two amusing Easter Eggs-- look for mentions of a writer's child and the childhood home of a famous singer) was how the City Spies are able to save the day by giving information about a more pressing problem to someone who was right on their heels. A fantastic third book in this series that leaves room for more. 
Weaknesses: I'm not sure how I should feel about Charlotte, and I feel like I have missed a whole bunch about her. 
What I really think: Mr. Ponti must be doing some mad traveling to research these books, or else is able to derive a heck of a lot of details from travel brochures. Little did I know, when I went to Mt. Vernon to see him for the launch of Framed! that he would become such a force in the world of middle grade mystery books! If you haven't looked at this series, you definitely need to. Just the ticket for die hard fans of Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker of Gibbs' Spy School series. 

Ms. Yingling

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