This is a post I was initially inspired to make by World Book Day, an international day of celebration of books/reading founded by UNESCO for the purpose of encouraging children to love books. Just before the day, I realised I could mark it on my blog; why not write reviews of series that my 13-year-old daughter and I have loved sharing? I didn’t get the post finished in time for the day itself, but I wanted to go ahead with writing it anyway. So, here are reviews of two multi-series that we’ve both loved… and that also carry some great messages for children.
Rick Riordan: the Percy Jackson world
Currently stands at: three sequential five-book series, two spin-off series of three books each dealing with different pantheons, one crossover series of novellas, and so many spin-off novels and novellas I’ve completely lost count.
This infamous multiseries starts with a simple premise: What if all of Greek mythology were actually true… including the part about gods having affairs with humans and conceiving demigod children? What would life be like for those children, growing up with powers and quests and monsters to fight? Riordan’s explorations of this are the kind of wonderful, readable books that combine great plots, humour, (just skim through the chapter titles in a Percy Jackson or Magnus Chase book to see what you’re in for) and warmth and poignancy. They look at what it’s like to grow up thinking of yourself as a loser and then find out you’re anything but, and at what heroism and bravery mean. All with superpowers and snark.
I have a caveat here; The first five-book series is not only (as you would probably expect) not quite as well written as the later books, it’s also for the most part pretty much structured as ‘White male hero solves everything and repeatedly saves the day, white female love interest gets to be Hermione Granger so that somebody can provide all the useful info, most other people get minor supporting roles’. I still loved the series, but be aware of that problem. (Ana Mardoll’s post on The Curse Of The Smart Girl is well worth a read.)
(Oh, and I just looked back at the beginning; there’s an ablist term on about the second page. Forgot that one.)
However… I don’t know whether Riordan realised this for himself or whether someone else pointed it out to him and he listened, but, either way, it’s something he improves on enormously in subsequent series. In the next five-book story arc, he brings in five new protagonists, two of whom are girls and four of whom are from ethnic minorities on their human side (Hispanic, Native American, Black and Chinese). Annabeth (the Hermione Granger character from the first book) gets a much bigger role as well. Percy’s still one of the protagonists, but his role has been scaled back a lot; in fact, he’s not in the first book at all (other than being the ‘Lost Hero’ of the title), and one of the themes from the later books in the series is that he has to learn to step back and let other people do things sometimes. Oh, and there’s a character from the first series who turns out to be gay and who has a happy relationship on the horizon by the time the series ends, with more gay/bi characters in the next series (including the third series’ protagonist). On top of that, we also get the Kane Chronicles in which the co-protagonists are a biracial brother and sister, and the Magnus Chase books in which we get a Moslem Valkyrie, a biracial einherji, a genderfluid einherji, and a disabled elf (who’s deaf and has had to deal with his family’s ablism). So, on top of all the other great things about these books, they’ve also ended up showing good diversity.
Tui Sutherland: Wings of Fire series
Currently stands at: two complete sequential five-book series, four out of five published books in a third series, a prequel, a spin-off novel, and four novellas looking at the backstories of some of the minor characters.
The ‘Wings of Fire’ series is set in a fantasy world where the characters are dragons. (Humans exist; the dragons call them ‘scavengers’ and think of them pretty much the way we think of mice, although they do come into the plotline in some key ways. The spin-off novel I mentioned above tells the parallel stories of the humans encountered during the first series, and the most recent book has linked up the two.) There is some adorable worldbuilding, with multiple different dragon tribes who have different abilities. In some places this leads to a trope known as Fantastic Racism (‘fantastic’, for those who don’t know the trope, referring here to the fantasy setting rather than being a compliment); overall, the message is about overcoming differences and working together.
Each of the main books tells the story through the eyes of a different character (with the prologue and epilogue in each case being from the viewpoint of yet other characters, used to flesh out the plot further), and thus each book has an individual character development arc as well as contributing to the overall plot arc. This makes it a great series on multiple levels; not only hugely readable with gripping plots, but with some good character development and great messages as well. It also means we get multiple female as well as male protagonists; in fact, there’s a slight preponderance of female protagonists overall. There’s also one protagonist in a gay relationship and we see a couple of same-gender crushes, all treated as completely normal by the characters. And, again, we get bucketloads of humour and snark and warmth.
I have one reservation to mention. In both of the last two books, we’ve seen a relationship (a romance in one, a friendship in the other) in which the protagonist is regularly angry and quite verbally aggressive towards the other person, who reacts by laughing it off and not being bothered by it. In the second case in particular, the other person sticks around for quite a lot of this, and the tactic eventually works; the protagonist softens. That’s… kind of problematic, given how often emotional abuse in relationships can start out like this, and I’d rather this kind of dynamic wasn’t painted as NBD. I did have a chat with my daughter about it and she does recognise that it’s not a good idea to put up with this kind of behaviour in practice, or to feel obliged to manage it. So, if you have or know children who are reading this series, it’s worth being aware of.
Other than the reservations I’ve raised, both these multiseries are majorly awesome. If you know tweens or teens with a possible interest in fantasy, these make perfect presents; and if you like YA fantasy yourself, absolutely give these a go.