Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Dragon Assassin, The Girl Who Speaks Bear, Mulan: Before the Sword, Bones in the Wall, and The Barren Grounds

February 18, 2021 Reviews 4

The Cybils Awards winners have been announced, and you should definitely check them out! Congrats especially to Rival Magic, which won in the MG spec fic category, which is the category I judged for round one.

Even though the awards have been doled out, I still want to feature some very quick reviews of the nominees I read since there were so many good ones. It will take me quite some time to get to them all! I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction.


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Dragon Assassin, The Girl Who Speaks Bear, Mulan: Before the Sword, Bones in the Wall, and The Barren GroundsDragon Assassin by Arthur Slade
Series: Dragon Assassin #1
Published by Scholastic Canada on December 26, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 360
Source: The Publisher
Cover Artist: Sally Gottschalk
My content rating: Upper MG/Lower YA (A bit darker and more violent than your typical MG)
My rating:
4.5 Stars

A thrilling new fantasy novel from award-winning author Arthur Slade!

Carmen is a student at Red Assassin School. She’s an expert at bladed weaponsand poisons, and she’s desperate to finish at the top of the class—ahead of hertwin brother. The students have been trained to hunt using giant black swans, butCarmen has discovered a dragon. All she has to do is get on his back.One problem: he’s killed everyone who gets near him.Then the Emperor declares war on assassins. And there might be a traitor amongthem.Carmen wants to graduate. But the emperor wants her dead. Her classmates might,too. Graduation night is about to become the fight of her life.In this heartstopping adventure by Arthur Slade, readers will root for Carmen —an assassin with a heart of gold, determined to follow her dream against all odds.

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A dark adventure full of rogue assassins ready to kill and a dragon who will do whatever he has to in order to earn his freedom. I have to start by saying that this book is definitely upper MG; in fact, in my opinion, it seems like YA (Carmen, the MC, is sixteen and is trying to graduate from Assassin School). The themes are dark, and there’s quite a bit of violence (including an eye being removed!). Still, I suppose Carmen does come off as rather young and naive, and the book lacks anything more than the tiniest hints of romance, which is probably why it’s being marketed as MG. I think it fits nicely in that “in-between” space that gets lost so often.

I ended up loving this book and its morally gray heroine. It’s fast-paced, full of adventure and danger, and it left me wanting to read more!! As a one-eyed assassin, Carmen constantly has to prove herself. Things are harder for her, but she won’t allow it to be an excuse to fail. She is determined to graduate from Assassin School, no matter what she has to do to make that happen. Oh, and did I mention that her jealous brother is the one who took out her eye in the first place? The complicated rivalry between Carmen and her brother creates tensions and tests loyalties. Then there’s the relationship between Carmen and a certain dragon—I was left feeling constantly torn about that, but I won’t spoil all the reasons why. Suffice it to say, all those complications kept me turning the pages.

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in order to read it for the Cybils Awards. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Dragon Assassin, The Girl Who Speaks Bear, Mulan: Before the Sword, Bones in the Wall, and The Barren GroundsThe Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson
Published by Scholastic Press on March 3, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Retellings
Pages: 304
Source: Library
Cover Artist: Red Nose Studios
My content rating: MG (Some minor violence)
My rating:
5 Stars

The newest heart-expanding, magical adventure from Sophie Anderson, author of the critically acclaimed House with Chicken Legs."They call me Yanka the Bear. Not because of where I was found. Only a few people know about that. They call me Yanka the Bear because I am so big and strong."

Discovered in a bear cave as a baby, 12-year-old Yanka dreams of knowing who she really is. Although Yanka is happy at home with her loving foster mother, she feels out of place in the village where the other children mock her for her unusual size and strength.
So when Yanka wakes up one morning to find her legs have become bear legs, she knows she has no choice but to leave her village. She has to find somewhere she truly belongs, so she ventures into the Snow Forest with her pet weasel, Mousetrap, in search of the truth about her past.

But deep in the forest there are many dangers and Yanka discovers that even the most fantastic stories she grew up hearing are true. And just as she draws close to discovering who she really is, something terrifying happens that could trap her in the forest . . . forever.

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Yanka was found abandoned in a cave when she was just a toddler, with only a bear for company. Since then, she’s been raised by her loving adoptive mother, but she knows she’s different from the rest of the village (if for no other reason than her size and strength), and she’s always felt the lure of the forest calling to her. When Yanka wakes up one day with bear legs, she flees her village and goes on a journey of self-discovery, determined to find out where she truly belongs. The answer is more complicated than she imagined, which is what makes this story so beautiful. One of my favorite elements of the book is the way that folklore is woven into Yanka’s story. It all threads together masterfully in the end, and it does so in some surprising ways. The book features themes of found family and self-acceptance, and Yanka discovers that her differences don’t have to mean that she doesn’t belong. The writing is gorgeous and the setting is beautifully atmospheric. Any fan of fairy tales will love this twist on old Russian folklore.


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Dragon Assassin, The Girl Who Speaks Bear, Mulan: Before the Sword, Bones in the Wall, and The Barren GroundsMulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin
Published by Disney Press on February 11, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pages: 384
Source: Library
Cover Artist: B. Jackson
My content rating: MG (Some Minor Violence)
My rating:
5 Stars

From New York Times best-selling author, Grace Lin, comes a novel filled with adventure and wonder set before the Walt Disney Studios film, Mulan.

Family is important to Hua Mulan-even if her parents don't understand why she would rather ride her horse, Black Wind, than weave, or how her notorious clumsiness can be so different from the graceful demeanor of her younger sister, Xiu. But despite their differences, Mulan has a deep love for her family, especially Xiu. So when her sister is bitten by a poisonous spider, Mulan does everything she can to help, including seeking out a renowned healer. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to both the mysterious spider bite and the healer than meets the eye.

On a quest with the Jade Rabbit of legend, Mulan visits extraordinary places, meets Immortals, and faces incredible obstacles while searching for an antidote for her sister. And the danger only rises when Mulan learns of a prophecy foretelling that a member of the Hua family will one day save the Emperor . . . and of the powerful enemies who will stop at nothing to prevent it from coming to pass.

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If you’re expecting a bland extension of Disney in this book, you’ll be incredibly surprised. This was my first time reading Grace Lin, but I see what all the fuss is over her now. Her lyrical prose is utterly beautiful, and she truly brought the character of Mulan to life. You don’t need to be familiar with the story of Mulan at all to enjoy this, but of course, there are little nods to the Disney version that serve to enrich the story. The book follows Mulan as she goes on a quest to save her sister from a deadly magical spider bite (see the tie-in there to Mulan’s sister’s fear of spiders?). She is joined by a healer, who actually turns out to be the famous Jade Rabbit of Chinese lore. The folklore is woven into the story as Mulan journeys through mythological lands to find the spider bite cure. When she learns about the prophesy that a member of the Hua family will one day save the Emperor, she is sure it is her sister, who has always met their parents’ expectations for what a girl of honor should be. Through her journey, Mulan learns that she might be able to bring honor to her family in other ways. Like I said, the book is perfect for fans of Mulan (I watched the live-action movie shortly after reading this, and loved it that much more because of the tie-in to this prequel), but it’s also wonderfully accessible to all fantasy readers!


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Dragon Assassin, The Girl Who Speaks Bear, Mulan: Before the Sword, Bones in the Wall, and The Barren GroundsBones in the Wall by Susan McCauley
Series: Ghost Hunters #1
Published by Celtic Sea Publishing on February 9, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Pages: 240
Source: The Publisher
Cover Artist: Bill Ferguson
My content rating: Upper MG (Some violence; Definitely spooky!)
My rating:
4 Stars

Twelve-year-old Alex may have lost his ability to play sports, but he gained the ability to see ghosts. Now he must figure out how to put an evil spirit to rest--or die trying.

Once an athlete and popular kid, Alex is in a terrible car accident that severely injures his hip and leaves him with a rare power: he can hear and see ghosts. All Alex wants is to be normal. But when a malevolent spirit begins haunting him, Alex must accept his unwanted psychic powers and work with his best friend, his paranormal investigator cousin, and two friendly spirits to solve the mystery of the bones in the wall and put the vicious ghost to rest. If he fails, he'll lose his family and friends to a gruesome fate.

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This book imagines an alternate reality in which ghosts were released into the world in a cataclysmic accident back in 1900. Because of this, people regularly ward themselves against ghosts, which are a normal, if unpleasant, fact of life. Some people are spiritualists who can detect supernatural activity in various ways, but these people are looked at suspiciously or with downright hostility because they were the ones who caused the ghosts to be released in the first place (even though it was hundreds of years ago, the prejudices still exist). Alex, the MC of the book, knows he’s not a spiritualist since kids develop their powers by the age of 10, and he’s 12. So, when he starts seeing and hearing ghosts, he thinks he’s gone crazy. This book will especially appeal to fans of Supernatural because the ghost-hunting aspects of the book mirror that show pretty closely—sigils and salt and such. (I’m not implying that the author stole those elements from the show since they’re all based on “real” ghost-hunter lore.) And the whole story is told with great middle-grade appeal!

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in order to read it for the Cybils Awards. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***


Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Dragon Assassin, The Girl Who Speaks Bear, Mulan: Before the Sword, Bones in the Wall, and The Barren GroundsThe Barren Grounds by David Alexander Robertson
Series: The Misewa Saga #1
Published by Puffin Books on September 8, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pages: 256
Source: The Publisher
Cover Artist: Natasha Donovan
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
My rating:
4 Stars

Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations in an epic middle grade fantasy series from award-winning author David Robertson.

Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home -- until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything -- including them.

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The Barren Grounds is a fantastic exploration of Canadian First Nations culture and folklore, a culture that hasn’t gotten the respect or attention it deserves. The story follows Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children who have been taken from their communities and placed into foster care. Morgan feels completely disconnected from her culture, and she’s been in so many foster care situations that she’s lost her ability to trust and connect to people in any real way. Because of this, she doesn’t see Eli as much more than a person to share a house with. But when the two of them are swept away into a magical First Nations alternate world that is dying because of a perpetual winter, they must come together and decide whether to help save this new world or find a way home. I loved the exploration of a folklore I knew nothing about, and the setting was captivating. It was easy to root for these kids because I so wanted them to find ways to connect to their culture and also feel a sense of belonging in their new home. A wonderful fantasy for anyone who loves adventure and folklore!

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in order to read it for the Cybils Awards. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***


That’s it for now! Have you read any of these? What did you think? Do you have any books you’re rooting for when it comes to the Cybils Awards? I wanna know!

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