Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

Froi of the ExilesReading level: ~5.4
Lexile: ~820
Series: Lumatere Chronicles book 2
Genre: Fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Three years after the curse on Lumatere was lifted, Froi has found his home… Or so he believes…

Fiercely loyal to the Queen and Finnikin, Froi has been trained roughly and lovingly by the Guard sworn to protect the royal family, and has learned to control his quick temper. But when he is sent on a secretive mission to the kingdom of Charyn, nothing could have prepared him for what he finds. Here he encounters a damaged people who are not who they seem, and must unravel both the dark bonds of kinship and the mysteries of a half-mad Princess.

And in this barren and mysterious place, he will discover that there is a song sleeping in his blood, and though Froi would rather not, the time has come to listen.

I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t like Froi as much as Finnikin because I was so mad at Froi the character that I didn’t see how I could love a book centered around him – a book much longer than Finnikin. It took just a few pages for me to change my mind completely. Froi is transformed from a thief with no values to an honorable young man. Froi’s character is beautifully constructed from his dedication to Lumatere to his caring for innocent human life. I am a fan.

I will never forget how Froi tried to rape Evanjeline. And neither will she. And neither will he. In fact, we learn that it is a constant source of shame and guilt for him. When he is presented with the opportunity to “lay with a woman” he refuses over and over because the girl in question does not do so willingly.

That said, this book is not exactly appropriate for middle school because a huge chunk of the book is about getting the princess of Charyn pregnant with Froi being the man for the job whether he likes it or not. There’s nothing terribly explicit but it is certainly at the forefront of the plot.

The plot twist in Finnikin really got me. It was one of those where I told my husband about how amazed I was even though he had no idea what I was talking about. With Froi, though, I wasn’t as blown away. Not sure why. It wasn’t like I saw it coming, but when it did, I wasn’t surprised. But that twist is one that caused me to really think about the story. Vague, I know, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

There isn’t much else to say about Froi that hasn’t been said about Finnikin. The world building continues to amaze me, and the characters are rich in ways few writers can achieve. It hasn’t been leveled through Scholastic, so the reading level and lexile are taken from what was provided for Finnikin. My only complaint is that the plot is a little stagnant at times, making it perhaps a bit longer than necessary. And boy, it is long. But worth it.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the RockReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Series: Lumatere Chronicles book 1
Genre: Fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

At the age of nine, Finnikin is warned by the gods that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh to save his kingdom. He stands on the rock of the three wonders with his friend Prince Balthazar and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucian, and together they mix their blood to safeguard Lumatere.

But all safety is shattered during the five days of the unspeakable, when the king and queen and their children are brutally murdered in the palace. An impostor seizes the throne, a curse binds all who remain inside Lumatere’s walls, and those who escape are left to roam the land as exiles, dying by the thousands in fever camps.

Ten years later, Finnikin is summoned to another rock–to meet Evanjalin, a young novice with a startling claim: Balthazar, heir to the throne of Lumatere, is alive. This arrogant young woman claims she’ll lead Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, to the prince. Instead, her leadership points them perilously toward home. Does Finnikin dare believe that Lumatere might one day rise united? Evanjalin is not what she seems, and the startling truth will test Finnikin’s faith not only in her but in all he knows to be true about himself and his destiny.

I am not the first to be impressed by this book, and I hope to do it justice with this review. This is one of those books where I had the feeling I was in the presence of something great but didn’t quite know for sure until about the middle and I realized, wow, this is pretty excellent. Not to mention the giant plot twist. In particular (and I am not the first to say this, either), the world-building is fantastic. It compares to The Lord of the Rings in that way, minus unnecessary details and complexities.

I struggled to get into the characters, but now that the first book is over, Finnikin and Evanjalin are sticking with me. Finnikin of the Rock focuses less on character development for a majority of the story and more on the struggles of the people of Lumatere. But through that shared struggle and how each person deals with it, we come to learn more about each character, little by little. This is one of those stories that legitimately needs a sequel or two to build on the characters. I’m going to be really upset if Finnikin and Evanjalin are not highlighted in the books to come.

Most importantly, these characters are so real. They’re not perfect and don’t always make good decisions. They are inconsistent with their strengths and falter when heroes in fairy tales would not. This is fantasy at its finest because it could almost, almost be real. Or so I’d like to think.

There are a few school-inappropriate parts that include Froi attempting to rape Evanjalin, Finnikin going to a whore, and brief foul language. These first two “issues” aren’t graphic and are in fact pretty subtle. We actually come to like Froi, and Evanjalin does too, although she never forgives him. But even though he almost commits one of the worst crimes a person can do to another, we can’t help but see the better side of Froi as he sees the best in himself.

I would recommend Finnikin of the Rock to fans of fantasy, particularly those who enjoy The Lord of the Rings or books like The False Prince/fantasy books involving royalty.

Because the lexile is high and names of people and places are complicated, it’s not very ELL friendly. The interest level is actually 9th grade, but I think it would be fine for upper middle school. I’d put a pg-13 sticker on it for the near rape of Evanjalin, those pesky whores stepping into the picture, language, and general violence. But again, there’s nothing graphic that might outrage anybody. The closest I got to being offended was the near-forgiveness of Froi for his attempted rape.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

the amber spyglassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 950
Series: His Dark Materials book 3
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Lyra and Will are in unspeakable danger. With help from Iorek Byrnison the armored bear and two tiny Gallivespian spies, they must journey to a dank and gray-lit world where no living soul has ever gone. All the while, Dr. Mary Malone builds a magnificent Amber Spyglass. An assassin hunts her down, and Lord Asriel, with a troop of shining angels, fights his mighty rebellion, in a battle of strange allies—and shocking sacrifice.

So much is happening in this final book of the series. So much. And with all the plot lines, one would hope that everything (or at least something) would come together in the end and make sense. But it didn’t. Too many undeveloped characters alongside confusing plots that never really answer our questions or deliver on the prophecy made me pretty disappointed.

One of the plots (the major one, in fact) throughout the entire series is Lord Asriel setting out to kill god. He kills the all-powerful angel who was taking over, but is god actually ever killed? Wait, was he the really old angel who disappeared and was only briefly mentioned? This entire, huge chunk of plot just fell apart for me.

I’m thoroughly confused about whether Ms. Coulter is redeemed or not. I don’t know if she was lying about her love for Lyra and how she’d changed. And if she was telling the truth, what made her change? She was an excellent villain that morphed into a crying, desperate lump of a woman with confusing motives.

My final bone to pick is about the love between Lyra and Will. It happened so quickly and messily that I was rather repulsed, which was also due to them being something like 12 and 14 years old. When they realized their love for each other, Lyra became a fairly useless teenager unable to read the alethiometer and unwilling to tell lies and stories. I prefer to remember her as she was in the first book.

With all the characters and plots happening all over the place, I legitimately enjoyed Mary’s adventures with the Mulefa. I loved the world building and the emphasis on what evolution can do. I also enjoyed Will and Lyra going to the World of the Dead, which reminded me of the necromancing of The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix that I loved so much.

Finally, I did like the final “message,” if that’s what you can call it. In order to allow a window between the worlds to remain open, Lyra and Will must spread good deeds and help people be…good. Okay, I like that. Spreading the word of being nice to each other is a great message. I don’t understand how that prevents dust from escaping, but I’ll just add that to the list of plot holes.

Any commentary I could give on recommendations for kids and what to do with this book in the classroom can be found in my reviews of The Golden Compass and/or The Subtle Knife.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife

Reading level: 7.6
Lexile: 890
Series: His Dark Materials book 2
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary

Having slipped through a newly formed astral portal, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in the beautiful, haunted world of Città gazze–a city where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies. For young Will Parry, in search of his father, has also stumbled into this strange new realm via a magic gateway.


Together the enlightened pair forge ahead on a perilous journey between worlds teeming with witches, angels, and sorcery–and uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. But with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat–and the shattering truth of their own destiny…

I struggled to like this book as much as The Golden Compass, although I loved the parts with Lyra and Will. Lyra is an amazing heroine and I adore her, but we only have glimpses of her adventure…which brings me to perhaps my biggest issue: this story is very complex. There are several puzzle pieces with various characters and their adventures, locations, and goals, and I struggled to create a clear picture with these pieces. Because there are so many components of the plot, we get flashes of many, many characters. I kept hoping that Lyra would take center stage, but she never did.

With so many characters and so many pieces of plot came fewer opportunities for me to fall in love with the characters. I adore books where one or more characters become very dear to me, and I felt less of that in this book than I would have liked. But that’s just my personal opinion.

I do not blame Will for stealing the show, just to be clear. I quite like Will’s character although he scares me with his tendency towards violence. Will and Lyra teaming up made me love and appreciate Lyra even more, and while I love Will, I love Lyra much, much more. I truly hope that we get more Lyra in the final book, even if it means less of Will.

I’m unsure of how Lord Asriel plans to do this, but apparently he’s trying to kill God. I guess someone is taking Nietzsche a little too literally. Anyway, I certainly see how some parents could be upset by this concept. But like one reviewer on Goodreads said, these books are not anti-God or even anti-religion. They are anti-organized religion that make people do horrible things, such as cutting people’s daemons away in this fantasy world or speaking out against certain types of people (gay people, for instance) in our world.

Here is an interesting part near the end that made my jaw drop. Seriously, I was in the car driving while listening to the audiobook and my mouth literally fell open. Mrs. Coulter is trying to get information out of Carlo, and she says, “You know I can please you more than this.” And then “her daemon’s little black horny hands were stroking the serpent daemon. Little by little the serpent loosened herself and began to flow along the man’s arm toward the monkey. “Ah,” says Carlo.  Um…wow. Not too subtle, there. In arguing that this book should be kept on school bookshelves, I’d say that very few young readers (middle school and younger, if not up through high school) would get the suggestive imagery, and there is absolutely nothing explicit. I just thought I’d let all the ghosts out of the attic in this review.

I’m about to start the final book of this trilogy, and I am hoping against hope that it’s better than this one and that I can leave this series with good memories more than mediocre ones.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

the golden compassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 930
Series: His Dark Materials, book 1
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

My mom tried reading this book aloud to me when I was younger, but we just couldn’t get through more than a few chapters. Then, in college, I read it for a young adult lit class, and I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. But I kept hearing great things about it from students and adults, so I thought I would give it another, honest try but with audiobooks this time. The superb narration of Philip Pullman himself, along with a slew of cast members’ voices, made me into a fan.

I think that part of the reason I didn’t get into The Golden Compass as a young child and maybe even again in college is because the story is complex and not always incredibly interesting, much like The Lord of the Rings series. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent, but there were times when explanations just took too long! Maybe that’s just me having a short attention span. Luckily, the audiobook is done so well that I was interested in these duller moments that I probably sped through without care upon my first read-through.

Now that you know the history of this book and me, I will say that I will happily place this book and its entire series (going through the second audiobook right now) in my classroom library at either the high school or middle school level. There are two issues that parents may have, however:

1. Tartars. These are the scapegoated, faceless bad guys. Tartars were actual people, however. We wouldn’t tolerate such insensitivity if “African Americans” or “Jews” were put in the place of Tartars, would we? So why is this okay? Well, it’s not okay and it’s not excusable. However, this race of people no longer exists (says Wikipedia). I suppose it’s sort of like scapegoating “vikings.” In any case, Tartars as bad guys might be insensitive, but the issue is minor in my eyes.

2. Promoting atheism – say some sources. I don’t think it’s promoting anything or has any agenda (Pullman’s personal beliefs aside), but there are some bits that made me cringe. There is one point where Lord Asriel reads aloud a part from Genesis (straight out of the the Old Testament I assume), but some parts are changed to add in daemons, which some could see as blasphemy. While doing so may also have been insensitive to who take the Old Testament as the word of God, Pullman is using and adapting a text under his creative license. I also don’t feel as though Pullman is saying that all religious people are bad – just that people can look at religious teachings and texts to interpret them in different ways, some of which are harmful to others. This has happened in history countless times.

Even if parents get hung up on these issues, I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. The Golden Compass is an astoundingly well-written, intriguing story with rich vocabulary. It stretches readers’ mind to consider other words, and the character of Lyra is unlike any other: stubborn, brilliant, driven, resilient, loving…

It’s not ELL friendly due to complex vocabulary, however. It’s got a pretty high lexile considering it’s leveled at under the 7th grade. The Golden Compass is one of those books that younger readers can enjoy (although I didn’t, myself…) for the story while older readers can appreciate in all its intricacies, characters, and world-building. Needless to say, I’m happy to have fallen in love with this story at last.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False PrinceReading level: 6
Lexile: 710
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy, book 1
Genre: Adventure, fantasy
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point — he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

Okay wow. Let’s start with that.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of Sage. I started to really dislike him because of his arrogance, but he grew on me quickly, especially after his insecurities become clearer and we see that he can be a kind (and incredibly clever) person. By the end, I learned to not necessary love him but admire him a great deal.

Conner reminded me of Mayor Prentiss from the Chaos Walking Series. Both are excellent villains that part of me loathed and part of me wanted to trust because they are so convincing. With the exceptions that I’ll write about in a second, all the characters are unique, complex, and amazingly written. Listening to the author talk about them, you’d think they were sitting with her while she wrote the story.

The only part that bothered me about The False Prince was the lack of women. There are two female characters. One is the princess who will marry the prince, but she has a minor say in all of this and doesn’t want to marry Prince Jaron but has to anyway. The second female is Imogen. She is content being a slave, takes beatings and verbal punishments, and, for reasons I cannot understand, trusts Sage with her deepest secret. The princess will probably have a larger role later in the series, and I have every hope that she will show her true colors and be another great character. My audiobook copy has a section at the end where Jennifer Nielsen talks about her book and the characters, and I think Imogen will redeem herself, too. Nielsen has plans for these ladies.

It’s basically ELL-friendly except for names of people and places and maybe some vocabulary here and there. The setting reminds me of Europe in the last few hundred years, thus making various names sound outdated. I could really see boys getting into this series because, like I said, there are only 2 female characters, it’s not all romantic, it’s full of adventure, and there are surprises, deceit, and danger at every turn.

I’m not going to spoil anything, but there are a few plot twists that really got me – in the best possible way. Nielsen writes the story from Sage’s viewpoint, and just as Conner and the boys are lying to and deceiving each other, Sage is keeping details from the reader that we would never suspect.

The False Prince is my twenty-fifth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu

the shadow thievesReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 850
Genre: Myth, fantasy
Series: Cronus Chronicles, book 1
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

See that girl, the one with the bright red hair, overstuffed backpack, and aura of grumpiness? That’s Charlotte Mielswetzski. And something extra-ordinary is about to happen to her.

Oh, it’s not the very cute kitten that appears out of nowhere and demands to go home with her. It’s not the sudden arrival of her cousin Zee, who believes he’s the cause of a mysterious sickness that has struck his friends back in England. It’s not her creepy English teacher Mr. Metos, who takes his mythology lessons just a little too seriously. And it’s not the white-faced, yellow-eyed men in tuxedos, who follow Charlotte everywhere.

What’s so extraordinary is not any one of these things….It’s all of them. And when Charlotte’s friends start to get sick one by one, Charlotte and Zee set out to find a cure. Their quest leads them to a not-so-mythical Underworld, where they face rhyme-loving Harpies, gods with personnel problems, and ghosts with a thirst for blood.

Charlotte and Zee learn that in a world overrun by Nightmares, Pain, and Death, the really dangerous character is a guy named Phil. And then they discover that the fate of every person — living and dead — is in their young hands.

Okay that summary was really long. But it was gripping, wasn’t it? The whole book is cleverly written with the reader hanging onto every word. But you’re probably thinking, “oh great, another Greek myth book.” This one is quite original and has more to do with the friendship between Charlotte and her cousin Zee and their maturity than gods and goddesses. I’d recommend The Shadow Thieves to students who want something else like Percy Jackson once the series is over or just students who have a great sense of humor and like a good, clean adventure story.

Aside from colloquialisms, it’s basically ELL-friendly. Key vocab words include shadow and underworld.

It’s also necessary to understand that the story starts in the middle and mostly focuses on Charlotte. Then it goes back in time and focuses on Zee. These transitions are quite clear and are expertly done. I didn’t expect to get Zee’s side of the story…or Grandmother Winter’s, which helps make all the characters well-rounded and loveable. Charlotte and Zee teach us to be ourselves and not worry about being like others while trying our hardest to accomplish our goals. And Grandma Winter demonstrates how to love one’s hardest.

It’s more of a middle school book because the main characters are in middle school and it’s a fairly simple story. But it’s also funny and snarky, which older students might enjoy, too. If you want to get students interested in this story, just read the goodreads summary of the first few paragraphs of the book. Kids will be hooked.

THE ENDING IS SO GORGEOUS. It concluds the book absolutely perfectly. Although it’s the first book in the series, it can certainly stand alone, but it’s one of those books that makes you want to keep reading because the characters are so fantastic.

The Shadow Thieves is my twenty-third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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