Shadows of the Dark Crystal by J. M. Lee

Shadows of the Dark Crystal is the first of a series of books set in the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance universe. It might be worth noting that while I’ve seen the original Dark Crystal movie probably a dozen times, I’ve not yet seen the new series.

The story centers around Naia, a young Sog Gelfling woman who isn’t quite old enough to be considered an adult, but certainly is ready to make her way into the world. She’s got a twin brother named Gurjin who works at the Crystal Castle…. until word arrives on the back of a Gelfling soldier that Gurjin has committed treason against the Skeksis who guard the crystal.

Naia rapidly learns that to defend her brother she must make her way across Thra, the land of the Crystal to the All-Maudra to stand trial in his stead. The journey takes a rapid turn for the worse when she, her father, and the soldier, discover that the creatures of Thra have turned dark and violent for reasons that seem to lead back to the crystal roots that permeate the world.

As in all good coming-of-age stories, things continue to go downhill from there.

If you were a kid when The Dark Crystal came out, there’s a few things to recognize about this book before reading. It’s classed as a Young Adult book (ages 12-17 on Amazon’s scale) but I’d definitely put it at the low end of that scale based on the simplicity of the reading level and the generally-slower pace of the book. This story simultaneously relies on building tension throughout while not scaring the pants off its intended audience, and so can feel a bit slow at the beginning and/or a bit rushed at the end.

It’s also written as the first book of a prequel set to a story we already know — a story that’s going very badly for the Gelflings at the beginning of the movie. In other words, if you’re looking for a series with a happy ending, or heck, even a pick-me-up, this book is probably not where you want to look. Once again, it’s important to remember this is a Young Adult book and speaking as someone who was once a Young Adult that read almost every Young Adult in the local Waldenbooks, angst and disaster is a craving at that age. So, yeah, might not be your thing (even if you are a YA) but typical of the genre.

Overall it’s a good enough book that I’m getting the sequels… and seriously considering watching the series, which is a big deal for someone who has trouble sitting still in front of a TV.

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

I’m hooked.

A twelve year old Black girl goes from normal Chicago South Side pre-teen to staff-wielding “godling” when she discovers that her father is an Orisha, a god, and that he’s been captured by another god and taken to The Dark.

That’s a heck of a way to start summer vacation.

Maya and the other child characters in Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron are solidly twelve, sometimes afraid and willing to go to adults for help, and sometimes stubbornly unwilling to admit when something is probably out of their reach. The characters are majority minority, and South Side is represented as what it is — a place where there are risks above and beyond losing a bicycle. Maya’s not facing down the standard risks of Chicago, though. She’s facing down a god from millennia ago who is nursing a grudge against her father and planning to destroy all of Earth and its humanity to exact his revenge.

Maya is also anemic, which, well, it’s important for kids to see that even if they are half-god, they can get anemia…. and that even if they have anemia, they can save the world.

I, on the other hand, am a 44 year old white woman from rural Pennsylvania where the likes of David Eddings and other “traditional white high fantasy” authors made up the bulk of my library. I’ve been raised so far from the African mythology in the book that I have to keep checking the spelling of Orisha to ensure that I haven’t messed it up. These gods and goddesses were definitely not available for me at age 12, and I am thrilled to see that they’re available now.

A bunch of elves and the like marching around to save the world, the ones that I was raised on? It’s been done to death.

A bunch of Chicago kids who were attacked by the forces of evil first, and who have to discover the magic that lies within them if they’re going to save their families and prevent a war? Kids and adults that regret death every time it occurs? The possibility that the Darkbringers on the other side of the veil are no different from the Humans on this side, when it comes to raising families and doing some farming and trying to live their lives? Not something we normally see.

Even the character most associated with pure evil has strong motivation for his revenge. Not enough for us to root for him, but enough for us as readers to recognize that there have been wrongs on both sides of the veil.

This is a wonderful addition to the middle-grade science fiction / fantasy canon, and I look forward to the next one in the series.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon)

This book, y’all. This book.

The setting is somewhere between Saladin Ahmed’s Dhamsawaat (but much wetter) and Terry Pratchett’s Ank Morpork (but slightly less Ank Morpork) and any one of the adults could easily have been Commander Vimes or Doctor Adoulla…. but they were not.

For the matter, they were exactly the kind of fallible adults that anyone fourteen and up is embarrassed to find out adults are.

But A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking isn’t about the adults, not directly. This book is about a fourteen year old girl named Mona who is good with baking.

REALLY good with baking.

I mean I’ve done my fair share of baking (around Mona’s age) and I never saved a single cookie by asking it not to burn. I never had a gingerbread man get up and dance off the cookie sheet (which was probably good), nor did I have a pet sourdough starter.

Maybe I should say a sourdough starter familiar because Bob’s a bit more than your average Covid-19 “the stores are out of yeast” bakery pet.

It would be difficult to say that Mona would’ve had a boring life, she was already an orphan when the book opened, and all the folks living in the area already knew she was one of the many minor wizards in the city. Still, one presumes that her life would’ve been a big quieter if Mona hadn’t found a dead girl named Tibbie on the floor of the bakery one morning, then been charged with the crime, then been found innocent, then been threatened by a high official then discovered the real murderer was trying to kill her.

Frequently in this book, Mona loses her lunch and I think it’s a very reasonable reaction to what’s going around her. Like many T Kingfisher protagonists, Mona is pragmatic, but in this case she’s only as pragmatic as a fourteen year old can manage, and let’s face it, that’s not very far.

But Mona’s got a sourdough familiar, a gingerbread cookie familiar, dough tricks up her sleeves she doesn’t even know she has, and allies in a ten-year-old thief, a crazy dead-horse witch, a Duchess, and an Aunt I want to grow up to be some day.

And if you’re going to save a whole city, it turns out those are good allies to have.

Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal by A.C.H. Smith

The Dark Crystal was a fascinating movie, and it’s just as fascinating book; the coming-of-age and saving-of-world story of a Gelfling, Jen, who didn’t know about the prophecy that his people would restore their world to balance until his master died.

The book follows the plot of the movie quite precisely. Jim Henson worked closely with A. C. H. Smith to ensure he had the information he needed to do so. More importantly, it captures the feel of the movie and the world precisely. This isn’t Earth. The things that happen on Thra couldn’t happen here, and so unexpected sights and creatures and events are the norm.

Still, the book isn’t one I’d hand over to any kid who loved the movie. It’s written with a voice that reminds me of midcentury authors. It’s very heavy in world building and exposition, and compared to the movie is a bit slow.

Definitely a book for fans, not necessarily a book you’d necessarily want to hand over to a reluctant reader, is what I’m saying.