Why You Need to Read: “Over the Woodward Wall”

The Up-and-Under, #1: Over the Woodward Wall

By: A. Deborah Baker

Published: October 6, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Children’s Literature

            Because of their houses, Avery’s and Zib’s both, were on the side of the street where the forest loomed, there were no corners: they lived, unwittingly, only three doors down from one another. But across the street from them was another road, right between the one where Avery walked to school and the one where Zib walked to school. They approached it, Avery walking with quick, precise steps, Zib skipping and strolling and sometimes outright running, and they reached their respective corners at the same time, (One: The Same Ordinary Town). 

            Creativity and imagination are used interchangeably when fiction writers—especially genre fiction—are praised for their stories. The stories presented by these authors remind us how infinite creativity and imagination are to everyone else. The range of such talent goes from authors who devote their entire lives constructing 1 world with 1 extensive timeline, to authors who can juggle multiple worlds with their own set of characters, timelines, and—at times—rules about magic. Seanan McGuire is an example of the latter, and this time she is writing as A. Deborah Baker with Over the Woodward Wall, the first book in The Up-and-Under series, which is mentioned in her novel, Middlegame.

            The protagonists are 2 children—a boy and a girl—who are the same age and live 3 doors down from each other, but whose paths have crossed barely until now. Hepzibah, or Zib, lives with her “eccentric” parents, and Avery (Alexander Grey) lives with his “efficient” parents. One day, at the same time for the same reason, both children take a detour to school, come across a wall, climb over it, and find themselves in a new world. Avery and Zib—who focus more on their differences over their similarities—must travel to the Impossible City on the Improbable Road so they can return home. During their journey they meet: a crow, an owl, a queen, a page, and a king. Throughout their journey, both Avery and Zib must learn about each other, learn how to get along with each other (they are young children), and learn about the Up-and-Under—the world they entered unknowingly. The protagonists are as resilient as children can be, but they cling on to the rules of our world as they move away further from it. Avery and Zib are not complex, but the other characters are, which makes the protagonists more intriguing. 

            The plot of this book is straightforward in its own way. Two children stumble into a world that isn’t familiar to them (or, to us), and in order to return to our world, they must meet with the ruler who lives in the center of it. Hence, their adventure begins. Along the way, Avery and Zib meet the inhabitants of the Up-and-Under. Each meeting with each denizen is a subplot within the story. During these encounters, the children learn more about the world and its rules. Each subplot develops alongside the plot as the children travel closer to the heart of the world they stumbled into by accident.

            The narrative is presented from the points-of-view of both Zib and Avery in the present. In addition, the story is told in 3rd person omniscient which is relevant to how the story is being told. Given that the protagonists are young children, it would make sense for the narration to be from a figure who knows more about what is happening because otherwise, the story would be confusing for everyone. Not to mention, this type of narration makes Zib and Avery reliable narrators. Their streams-of-consciousness—and, the narrator’s—allows the story to be followed easily. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses as A. Deborah Baker is both an allusion and a tribute to classic children’s literature, particularly adventure stories. The word choice and the sentence structure expands the audience of readers (children to adults), while the story itself will remind other readers of books written by Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Holly Black, and others. However, this book tells its story in a way that is can be distinguished from the series by the authors mentioned. The mood in this book is improbable—which comes directly from the book. All of the events throughout this adventure should be unlikely, but occur because the Up-and-Under follows the rules of its world. The tone in this book is eccentric. From when we first meet the protagonists to the end of this book, EVERYTHING deviates from the norm from the protagonists’ actions to the Improbable Road.

            The appeal for Over the Woodward Wall have been positive. That being said, there has been some confusion about The Up-and-Under series. According to the author, this series is mentioned in Middlegame, but there is NO (direct) connection or tie-ins between the 2 series. This means that both series can be read and enjoyed separately. So far, this series belongs in both the speculative fiction and the children’s literature canons. Fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the Oz series, and The Spiderwick Chronicles should read this series because they will enjoy it the most. The next book in this series, Along the Saltwise Sea—which will be released later this year, will pick up where the first book ended.

            Over the Woodward Wall is a brilliant series based on the Hugo nominated book, but you don’t have to read Middlegame to enjoy this story. A. Deborah Baker presents a story that is familiar to readers, yet it manages to stand on its own. Fans of the genre shouldn’t hesitate to read this book, and fans of Seanan McGuire should not wait any longer to read this book. The story is a delightful throwback to children’s (fantasy) adventure books. Seanan McGuire’s talent for storytelling is as lengthy as The Improbable Road.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

The Light of the Midnight Stars

By: Rena Rossner

Published: April 13, 2021

Genre: Historical Fantasy/Folklore

            There are tales of red-haired mountain men and women who could work miracles, of a people who could trace their lineage all the way back to the great King Solomon himself. Tales of a people who kept to themselves, who lives in a tiny quarter of the city of Trnava where they built their own house of worship. They say that on the ceiling of their synagogue there were a thousand tiny stars, (Prologue).

            I’ve said more than once that history never stays buried forever because it always finds a way to be unearthed. At the same time, the knowledge finds other ways to be spread and passed on through posterity—storytelling. It is through these stories the audience can piece together what might have occurred in the past, especially when the audience knows what to expect from such stories. Rena Rossner presented a lovely tale of magic and sisterly love in her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her latest novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, we get a similar story, which is set during a much darker era. 

            This story follows 3 sisters: Hannah, Sarah and Levana. They are the daughters of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar and his wife, Esther, and they are the descendants of King Solomon. Hannah is the eldest and her father’s favorite daughter, and her talents include recording events and growing plants. Sarah is the middle daughter, whose temperament matches her fire magic—impulsive and strong. Her talent is the same as her father’s, but he refuses to teach her anything until after she learns control. Levana is the youngest sister, and she is always looking at the stars. She can decipher the messages they communicate to her. The sisters live a happy and prosperous life in the Jewish quarter of Trnava, where their parents hope to find them husbands who are worthy of them. Hannah meets Jakob, the son of the Duchess of Trnava; and, Jakob is willing to meet Rabbi Isaac’s conditions so that he can marry Hannah. Sarah meets Guvriel, one of Rabbi Isaac’s students; he takes it upon himself to teach Sarah about her magic, and the two of them bond over their shared talent and thirst for knowledge. Unbeknownst to her family, Levana starts seeing someone and it is someone who has spent the same amount of time watching her as Levana has spent watching him. The 3 sisters approach adulthood thanks to their parents’ guidance and the love that blooms from the young men in their lives. However, will it be enough for the sisters to survive their first trials as adults? 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first focuses on the love lives of Hannah, Sarah and Levana and what ensues because of it. Hannah falls for a non-Jew, Sarah must wait until she is allowed to marry Guvriel, and Levana doesn’t know how to tell her family about her beloved. Just as it seems like the sisters will live out their lives happily ever after, a tragedy occurs. The sisters flee Trnava with their parents leaving everything behind, including the men they love. The second plot delves into identity and the consequences surrounding it. Hannah, Sarah and Levana must choose on how much of themselves they are willing to reveal to their new acquaintances as they survive the circumstances which led them to their current predicament. How long can one’s identity be hidden before the truth emerges? There are 2 subplots in this novel and they develop alongside the plots. The first subplot is about love and loss. As cliché as it sounds, the protagonists and other characters have lost something (or someone) they love, and they are all struggling to overcome the grief and the trauma enclosing it. The second subplot is hope, which is cliché, too. Hope is what motivates all of the characters as death and violence continues to ravage the country. Hope brings out the resilience in people (and in fictional characters).

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Hannah, Sarah and Levana in the 1st person. However, Hannah’s P.O.V. chapters are in the past tense because her chapters are written as journal entries, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to pick up on Hannah’s stream-of-consciousness. Sarah and Levana’s chapters are told in the present but in different styles, which is done because they match their personalities (anyone whose read the author’s first novel will know what to expect), and present their streams-of-consciousness, too. Each narrator unveils what they must do in order to survive in a world that seeks to eradicate them and others who share their heritage. 

            The style Rena Rossner uses in The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the history of the persecution of Jews throughout our history. The Jewish community were often scapegoats for any and all misfortunes that befell a town, a region, or a country. For example, during the Black Plague, the Jews were blamed for the deaths and the continuation of the pandemic. Many Jewish quarters were obliterated, leaving any survivors to wander to other places where some of them had to hide their heritage from the outside world in order to live. In addition, this book contains many allusions of Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) texts and fairy tales, which are well-written into this novel. This story will make readers recall what they believed they have forgotten about those tales. The mood in this novel is ominous. Who should the protagonists fear more, the Black Mist or those who wish to harm them for who they are? The tone in this novel is resilience. The protagonists demonstrate that they will do everything that is imperative for their survival. The style in the novel replicates all of the adversity the Jewish community dealt (and continues to deal) with and how they continue to overcome it all.

            Fans of the author’s first novel will love this one. The appeal for The Light of the Midnight Stars will be positive because the author wrote a strong follow up to her debut novel. Fans of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, Alix E. Harrow and Tasha Suri will enjoy this book the most. This book is an excellent addition to both the historical fantasy subgenre and the speculative fiction genre. Likewise, this novel is a great reminder of the importance of Jewish folklore. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop until the end; and, that’s with all of the twists that transpired throughout the narrative. 

            The Light of the Midnight Stars is a strong standalone novel about family, heritage and survival. Rena Rossner’s style immerses her readers into the past where it was not always safe to parade one’s heritage. While I don’t believe the author meant for this book to be topical, it does serve as a reminder that there will always be opposition towards a group of individuals. Yet, it is those groups of persecuted individuals where we continue to get inspiration from for our daily lives. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Thank you Redhook (and Angela) for sending me a copy of this book!