Book Review: Of Monsters And Marvels // Alysa Wishingrad

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The second middle-grade adventure from The Verdigris Pawn author Alysa Wishingrad, Between Monsters and Marvels follows a young girl named Dare whose mother has moved her to the bustling City-On-The-Pike following her father’s tragic and unexplained death. Although Dare is convinced that he was slaughtered by a monster, the people around her insist that monsters were eradicated from her pristine island home years ago.

But were they really?

With a lush cover, illustrated by George Ermos, and pleasing prose, this book does an excellent job of remaining gripping—there isn’t a moment where it feels overstretched despite its length, which is a hefty page count for a middle grade novel. In fact, the length allows the plot to have ample time to stretch its wings; the world that Wishingrad has built for Dare is large and sprawling, and a shorter book might have confined it too much. Even the introductory chapters, which establish Dare’s island home and tragic circumstances, keep you engaged despite the fact that, if you’ve read the blurb, you already know what they’re leading up to. The author understands the importance of developing a relationship between characters so that the loss of it is even more devastating—seeing a few tender moments between Dare and her father makes the plot far more impactful than if the story began with him already buried.

The book does not shy away from loss—it doesn’t coddle the reader in any sense, in fact. It has its fair share of frightening and downright visceral moments in which the ugly truth of some parts of humankind is revealed – middle grade readers had best not be faint of heart. It’s refreshing to find more middle grade books that don’t talk down to young readers or, in an attempt to sound like one, dumb themselves down—that is not a tool young readers need when they are reading to learn about themselves and the world.

The one thing that might make readers want more from the book is the worldbuilding. A rich, layered world has clearly been crafted by Wishingrad, but it doesn’t feel as though enough of it is explained to us at times. One example of this is the monsters—their names and aspects of their appearances are at times mentioned, but these details get lost in the rest of the text and readers are treated a little too much like they know everything the author knows. A helpful detail would be something like the ‘Book of Dragons’ entries in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon books, with which this shares themes—passages dedicated specifically to each monster, that the reader can refer back to. In addition, despite how present they are throughout the story, the workers’ strikes going on in the city are not acknowledged as much as one might expect – they seem to fade into the background after a little while where one might expect them to be more integral to the themes of exploitation in the book. Granted, fitting yet more detail into a nearly four hundred page book is difficult—but one wonders if a few slower, ‘day-in-the-city’ passages might have been able to be sacrificed for the sake of this.  

Despite this, though, Between Monsters And Marvels is a four-star book. Every twist and turn is crafted in that expert way that means the reader is able to connect the dots and see it coming, but not so much that things become boring. Hints laid down early on are followed through very satisfyingly, and owing to how well-developed the characters are we genuinely care about these hints coming to fruition. Each chapter is perfectly paced—just enough happens to keep you on the edge of your seat, without becoming crowded. Overall, Alysa Wishingrad is one to watch.  

Words by Casey Langton

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