Audio/Book Reviews: Four fantasy titles!

Traveling during vacation gave me a lot of time for listening.  My preference is usually fantasy, and so that’s what I read!  Er…listened to.  These four were not my favorites (in fact, one is the worst audio book I’ve ever listened to!) but the other three were pretty solid choices.

* * *

Eyes Like Stars
by Lisa Mantchev, Read by Cynthia Bishop and the Full Cast Family
8 CDs, 8 hours, 30 minutes

Bertie lives in The Theatre Illuminata…she has all her life.  As a baby, she was left on the doorstep, and The Company joined together to raise her.  She lives on the stage (although she has to get off for performances) eats with the crew in the Green Room, and gets her clothing (and hair dye) from Wardrobe.  She has everything she needs to live a full life…or does she?

The problem with living in the Theatre is that no one can leave. Whether it’s Ariel from The Tempest, Nate from The Little Mermaid, or Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and Moth, Bertie’s fairy companions from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not one of them has ever made it past the EXIT sign.  Only the mysterious Ophelia claims to have returned to the Theatre from Outside.

So when Bertie manages to get into enough mischief to alienate the Theater Manager, the Stage Manager, and Mr. Tibbs, the Properties Master, she is in terrible trouble.  These three, who never agree on anything, band together to tell Bertie that she will have to leave the Theater and the only life she has ever known.  At the protests from some of the Company, she is given an out: if she can find an invaluable way to contribute to the Theater, she will be allowed to stay.

Bertie is determined to find a way to keep her home, even if she has to turn it upside down to do so. And she has help from several of the players.  The only problem is…are they trying to help her, or help themselves?

The audio recording was done by Full Cast Audio, who have one reader for the narrative sequences, and different actors reading the voices of the characters.  I love the Full Cast Audio recordings, because I find them very easy to listen to–sort of a cross between a play and an audio recording. It’s nice to have male characters reading male voices, female characters reading female voices, and children who sound like children.  This production company always manages to make the best match-ups in voices.  The director of the production makes sure that the mood of the scenes are reflected in the voices, and the action sequences have a faster pacing that the slow scenes.  I loved the reading.

I’m not quite sure about the intended audience for this book though. It seems to be aimed at a middle school audience, but there is an assumption that the reader (or listener) has enough background to know who the Shakespearean characters (from at least five plays) are, and what their stories are.  There is also quite a bit of information that relies on knowing the background of a stage production.  And I was confused a bit about what is covered by the Theatre.  Is it all plays, or just classic plays?  It’s not just Shakespeare, because a bunch of characters from The Little Mermaid (the Disney version, as far as I can tell) are also thown into the mix. The internal logic of Bertie’s world seems a little flimsy, under close observation.

This book is the first book of a trilogy about Bertie. She’s an interesting and opinionated character, strong-willed and imaginative.  I am curious about the rest of her story, so the audio/book did succeed in making me want more.

This would be best for kids in middle and high school who are interested in theater production, Shakespeare and putting on a play.

* * *

The Demon King: A Seven Realms Novel
by Cinda Williams Chima, Narrated by Carol Monda
13 CDs, 15.25 Hours

Han Alister is a child of the streets in the city of Fellsmarch.  He does get a slight break from the city though…for some reason his mother has always sent him into the mountains in the summer, to spend the summer months at the Marisa Pines Camp with the Clans.  Between his two homes, Han has been a street lord, a thief, a ragpicker, a healer, a merchant and a warrior.  Because of his younger sister Mary though, Han has vowed never again to steal or practice his darker crafts, wanting something better for her and his Mam.

But when walking through the mountains with his friend Fire Dancer of the Marisa Pines Camp, Han sees three wizards start a fire on the sacred mountain. That is something neither he nor Dancer can ignore. They stop the young wizards, and to keep one from killing Dancer, Han demands his jinxpiece. The arrogant young wizard finally hands it over, and the boys leave them to try to deal with their out-0f-control magical fire.  Han has no idea that this encounter will change his life forever.

Inthe palace, Princess Raisa ana’Marianna is the Princess Heir, destined to rule the Queendom after her mother. She has no idea of the conditions  the poor people in her queendom live with on a daily basis. But when her childhood friend, Amon, returns from a three-year apprenticeship to take his rightful position in the Guard, Raisa convinces him to let her go into the city to see what are the issues her people must deal with.

Han is one of her people, running from the guard, who accuse him of murder, from the demons, who are hunting for him, and from his destiny, which is wrapped up in the jinxpiece he stole from the young wizard.  When he is cornered, he kidnaps Raisa, thinking she is a governess called Rebecca Morley.

Will Han be able to escape his pursuers? Will Raisa be able to help her people?  Will these two very different teenagers, separated by their circumstances, be able to work towards peace?

I really enjoyed the narration of this audio book. Carol Monda manages to keep track of dozens of characters and give each a different voice, relying on speech patterns, cadence and accents.

The story alternates between Han’s and Raisa’s stories; they know many of the same people, but from very different perspectives. When the story starts, both characters are fifteen, and headed towards their name days, the day where they turn sixteen and take on adult responsibilites.  Because of their circumstances though, both are already responsible for not only their own lives and destiny, but for many other people. Headstrong and proactive, they may be at odds, but they’re both trying to do the right thing.

I would recommend these books to kids in middle school and high school, and even adults who enjoy a good fantasy series. A good fifth grade fantasy fan would be able to enjoy them too.  There are currently four books in the series; I believe there will be seven titles.

* * *

The Exiled Queen: A Seven Realms Novel
by Cinda Williams Chima, Narrated by Carol Monda
16 CDs, 17.75 Hours

This is the second book in the Seven Realms series.  Han and Raisa are both escaping from the queendom, Han because everyone he knows in the city has been murdered, Raisa because her mother tried to marry her off to a wizard, forbidden by the agreements put into place after The Breaking, a thousand years ago.

Both head to school at Oden’s Ford, where wizards, soldiers, diplomats, musicians and talented students are trained.  There, Han is set to learn wizardry, while Raisa, in disguise as Rebecca Morley, learns warfare, culture and diplomacy.  Both are concentrating exclusively on their studies, ignoring the social opportunities that the school offers. Neither knows the other is at Oden’s Ford, although they do have several friends in common.  Until one day, their paths cross again…

Like the first book, this is a wonderfully imagined fantasy.  There were a few times when I wanted to shake both characters (and a few of the minor characters as well) and tell them to stop being so pigheaded and open their eyes!  But that’s a minor quibble.  I still want to read or listen to the rest of the series, although I may take a break for a bit.  They’re long, and I need a little variety!

Again, these would be enjoyed by fantasy fans of all ages. Adults might find the teenage angst a little frustrating, but this would make a good listen for a car trip for a family with older kids.

* * *

Wildwood
written by Colin Meloy, performed by Amanda Plummer
13 CDs, 15 Hours

Prue is a normal sixth grader with a horrible secret. When she was supposed to be watching her baby brother Mac, he was carried off by a murder of crows, lifted right off the playground and taken into the Impassable Wilderness on the outskirts of Portland.  Prue managed to keep the secret of what happened from her parents overnight, and the very next day she sets out to find her brother.

With help from Curtis, a super-hero drawing aquaintance with too much curiosity for his own good, the two find their way into the Wildwood, hoping to find Mac. Braving coyotes, magic, brigands and evil nannies, they bravely search for Mac.  Prue knows she can’t return home without him, but can she survive finding him?

Okay, this is it. The worst audio book I have ever attempted to listen to.  The story is full of adventure, danger and cliffhangers…but the narrator reads with a child-like lisp, her voice sing-songy and seemingly unconnected with the events of the story.  I couldn’t tell the differences between the characters at all. The pace was all over the place…slow in action scenes, slightly faster in slow scenes.  It was so soft that I couldn’t understand what the narrator was saying when I was driving.  I gave up.

Wildwood might work as an audio book for someone who is trying to go to sleep and doesn’t care about what the voice is reading.  But if you want to experience the adventure that this book offers, you’ll have to read it or find someone with a better grasp of the story to read it to you.

I never expected to write a review like this!  When I went back to the library and read the book, I realized that the reason for the narration style is provided in the last sentence of the story.  Unfortunately, that was too long for me to wait.  Maybe this issue is just with me, so if you listen to this audio book and enjoy it, let me know!

* * *

And that’s it.  Next week, we should return to our regular schedule of Old Favorites on Tuesdays, the Teen Open Book newsletter every other Friday, and other reviews as we finish reading or listening.  Also keep your eyes out for our favorite summer reviews by students in the Summer Reading Program.

Until then, happy reading!

::Kelly::

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