Sunday, 8 September 2013

review: Spirit Animals: Wild Born

by Brandon Mull
Scholastic Press, September 10 2013
middle-grade fantasy
review copy received via publisher (thank you!)

In a world where spirit animals come to only a few, Conor, Abeke, Meilin and Rollan each drink the Nectar… and each call forth one of the Fallen Four, a legendary group of animals who died to stop an ancient war between the Greencloaks and the Devourer. The appearance of the panda, leopard, falcon and wolf can only mean one thing: the Devourer is back.
The cover:

It. Is. Fabulous. The illustrator—Angelo Rinaldi—has the perfect style for a middle-grade fantasy: not too cartoon-looking, but dramatic and detailed. I hope Scholastic paid him lavishly, because look at all those details—the beautiful background, the POC characters, the significance of the cloaks, the positioning of the animals and characters… oh, and the typography is pretty darn good, too.

The book:

This is Scholastic’s next interactive multi-author series, a direct descendant of The 39 Clues. With this series, they branch into the fantasy genre, with big name authors to go along with it (seriously: Maggie Stiefvater writes book 2, Garth Nix writes book 3, Shannon Hale writes book 4 and Marie Lu writes book 7). I was skeptical heading in, since from my experience multi-author series have minimal character development and the plot takes precedence over everything. While I can’t say my fears were unfounded, the reading experience was, for the most part, positive.

So, yes. Each character doesn’t have much of a voice. One gets a general sense of each protagonist’s general personality and chapters are written from inside one of the protags’ heads, but there’s no real sense of engagement. This is not aided by the surprisingly clunky writing, considering Brandon Mull’s extensive résumé.

But if there’s one thing that can make up for dry, neutral narration, it’s the diversity (in fantasy, no less!). There’s an even gender split (in the protagonists, at least, if not in the secondary characters), both girls are POC and the four major countries are clearly based off the Americas, Europe, Africa and Eastern Asia: Amaya, Eura, Nilo and Zhong, respectively. (The renegade country, incidentally, is Australia, or Stetriol.) One hopes that as the series goes on, authors take advantage of the diversity and develop the cultures of each protagonist more fully.

The plot is rather stationary for the first two-thirds of the book, as our protagonists are introduced and slowly brought together for training and info-dumping. Still, this is a short book, and each chapter is brief; readers will most likely not find the going slow. The climax gets messy even as it gets more exciting; the sheer number of characters almost guarantees it. With a hook-y ending, Wild Born is all that one can expect from a multi-author MG series.

Ethnic balance: 4.5 out of 5. Seriously guys, I almost cried with joy when I saw the cover.

Rating: 3.3 out of 5