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Young James, an earl's son, is a bit bothersome and always asking the oddest questions. When the last of his tutors quits, his mother sends him away to be educated at Cranford Abbey. But Cranford Abbey has its own problems.The Abbey is falling apart. Abbot Aelian believes he can save the abbey with his secret weapon: a recipe for golden apple cider passed down through his family for generations. One obstacle stands in his way-unicorns! Unicorns with very sharp horns that happen to feast specifically on the golden apples.In this new middle-grade fiction by bestselling author Jane Yolen, young readers will learn about life in a medieval monastery and be reminded that heroes come in all sizes.
I saw this on Booklook Bloggers and snapped it up, because it looked cute and fun and just my little sister's speed. I read it in one sitting, which took about a hour and a half, and thought it was largely just that: cute and fun and the kind of book my sister will like. It's got some great historical info mixed in with the usual fantasy fun. You can tell Yolen did her research on the time period before departing from actual history. My favorite nod to the past is the poem James and his sister come up with to remember the queens of England:
Tilda, Jane, Mary, Lizzy,
They all make me very dizzy.
I'm not exactly sure who "Tilda" is, but Jane is the often-overlooked three day queen who "ruled" before Bloody Mary (the "Mary" in the poem), and "Lizzy" is, of course, Mary's sister Queen Elizabeth I. I'm a bit of a history geek, so I thought it was fun seeing the book's references to actual history.
That said, this book has some major pacing issues. Literally the first half of the book focuses on world-building and backstory and character introductions. Those are all wonderful, necessary things to have in any engaging book - but this was the focus of the first half of the book. And that left only half of the (rather short) book to tell the actual events of the story.
And here we run into the next problem. Too many things happen in too few pages. We've got James' relationships with his sister, his mother, his uncle, and his absent father. We've got James' insecurities about being the next duke. We've got a rather (too) long bit where James is traveling to the Abbey. We've got the lukewarm welcome James receives from the boys living in the Abbey. We've got Brother Luke's lessons on caligraphy, with a bit of Latin thrown in. Then, of course, we've got the unicorns themselves and the long string of "heroes" who come to drive them away and inevitably fail. Which are important? Which are not? Who knows? There are too many characters and too many plotlines for a book this size.
Reallly, that's the issue. The book should have been longer. You could tell Yolen had a longer story to tell than she had pages to tell it with, and so she wound up spending the whole book setting up this wonderful premise and showing off her research of the era, then jumbling on a quick-finish ending last-minute when she realized she didn't have room to bring everything to fruition. I would have loved this book so much if she had made it longer and taken the time to flesh everything out. I would have called it a great kids book if she had snipped a bunch of the side plots, and evened up the pacing. As it is, all I can say is that it's a cute book with a great premise which will probably make kids blind to the pacing issues. Older readers will have a harder time ignoring all the "could have been"s.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers in exchange for an honest review.