MMGM and #IMWAYR: Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (plus an apology to Jessica Townsend)
So I have been a complete and utter blogging fiasco lately—I didn't comment on most people's blogs last week, I'm even further behind on my own comments, I haven't had time to read much at all, and I threw this review together on Saturday night/Sunday morning, which is not ideal! Chaos, seriously. At least I finally have my free time back (it was previously occupied by reading for several different book clubs), so I'm working on a graphic novel to review next week.
Also, why is Blogger such a complete pain in the neck?! Now adding photos is all weird—they are supposed to insert wherever you have the typing cursor positioned, but instead, they are showing up on the wrong rows, or—this one's new—inserting randomly in the middle of a sentence. And I also keep having a different problem where clicking on one row of text puts the cursor in the row above it every single time and you have to close out of the post editor and go back in. Sigh—I hate this platform sometimes. OK, most of the time. OK, maybe all the time.
Anyway, today I've got a review for you all of an extremely popular book that I have extremely mixed feelings about: Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston. And while I'm reviewing it, I figure I might talk a little bit about MG fantasy and also apologize to Jessica Townsend while we're at it, because I have OPINIONS about this genre. So we might as well get started.
There is one location in this post with slight spoilers that I have tagged so you can avoid it if need be.
Since I'm tired, behold the publisher's description of Amari and the Night Brothers:
Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.
So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.
Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.
OK, so we're all caught up. Here's some
quick lengthy background you'll need for this review. Amari and the Night Brothers came out in January and has a sequel, Amari and the Great Game, coming out in April of 2022. And it has been super, SUPER-popular lately. I know from email newsletters that it was the overall winner of the Barnes & Noble First Annual Children's and YA Book Awards (make of that what you will). And I suspect a huge chunk of you all have already seen approximately 3 billion reviews (math checks out) of it on MMGM or #IMWAYR—I know I have, and tons and tons of y'all have had glowing things to say about it, which is wonderful! As for me...um...well...I was really enjoying this book, and then I started to lose interest, and then I got really enraged, but the ending wasn't bad, but then I read about the sequel and wasn't thrilled either, and I have a lot of stuff going on personally so I'm bent out of shape in general, and...yeah. This is almost-definitely not going to be a rational review, and I am going to try and make sure that I don't spend the whole time criticizing someone's labor of love and pride and joy, especially if that criticism is just coming from my crankiness and not from it actually being warranted. But I may fail regardless. Also, I feel like this book (including the upcoming movie adaptation) is having a peak in popularity very similar to the Morrigan Crow MG fantasy books (Nevermoor, Wundersmith, Hollowpox, and the upcoming Silverborn) by Jessica Townsend, and I had offered up some snarky-but-ultimately-mild criticism of the series in my review of Hollowpox—but honestly, even before I got irritated with Amari and the Night Brothers, its mediocrity in certain places also made me realize just how uniquely good the Morrigan Crow books actually are, so I'm going to take some time and apologize to Jessica Townsend too. In short: prepare for ALL THE RANTING.
So, now that I'm bent out of shape, I took a minute to try and remember what got me really interested in this book. And I think what primarily got me so excited was the characters, including Amari herself. I'll save Amari for a later paragraph, because my feelings about her have changed and she is actually quite pertinent to one of my larger discussions. But there's a lot of other excellent cast members in this book. Most of this book is set at a
boarding school boarding "summer camp" where Amari lives, as she attempts to get ready for her tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. But Amari's aforementioned illegal talent makes her a whole lot of enemies when it comes to the other kids. (Speaking of frowned-upon talents, this book's premise is superficially VERY similar to the Morrigan Crow books—but it actually isn't that similar overall, and that isn't one of my issues.) And yet, Amari meets some intriguing other kids. Like Elsie, her nervous-but-kind roommate who is a fantastic inventor, can detect other people's emotions, and has a small supernatural arc of her own—I hope we see more of her in book 2 (except that I honestly may not read book 2—I'm so conflicted!). Amari also meets Dylan, who is hard to pin down—at first, he seems like just another obnoxious member of his wealthy family (his twin sister, Lara, isn't hard to pin down at all—she's just awful). But there might be more to Dylan—a lot more—than meets the eye. And there are a few other fun additions to the cast, like Agent Fiona, a super-cool secret agent with a Scottish/Irish accent (which is really just saying "ye" instead of "you," but I liked it anyway) who actually has a heart under her brave exterior...and an entertaining love life we see glimpses of as well. There are some fun people we get to meet! And B. B. Alston is very good at dialogue and character relationships—except in the part of the book where I was enraged (we're getting there, I promise). But overall, dialogue is snappy and realistic, and characters seem to understand each other and genuinely connect—and you root for them! It worked very well at getting me invested early on.
I'm saving my rage for the end of the review, so let's talk about something else that was...well, this was meh, but it wasn't rage-worthy. Let's talk worldbuilding. To be frank, the worldbuilding of this book was the first thing that made me regret my previous inner/not-so-inner hostility toward the Morrigan Crow books I'll be bringing up all review long—Jessica Townsend has the skill of creating one fully-realized and shockingly-unique-and-fun-and-whimsical setting after another and making them all perfectly aligned with whatever the plot needs at that moment, and I didn't realize how rare of a skill that was until I read Amari and the Night Brothers. Unfortunately, B. B. Alston does not have that skill. It's not that the worldbuilding is bad necessarily. This book is set in parallel to the real world—Amari is a regular kid from a poor, predominantly-Black neighborhood, not a magical realm or anything. And even the magical elements of the book are generally hidden in the cracks and crevices of the real world. So there wouldn't be a ton of worldbuilding anyway, and even then, we still get to see some cool magical places, various elements of the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, some fun scenes with things like magical gossip magazines, and stuff like that. I think my main issue is that there is no strategy to the worldbuilding. And I feel like a lack of strategy is a recurring theme in this book in general, but before I race off into topics coming up later, I should just finish my thought and say: there is no systematic plan by which the lives of people in the magical world is set up. We get glimpses and peeks when it's convenient or entertaining, or when it adds comic relief, but there is not enough underlying structure or thematic unity. I mean, a magical society built on secret agents cannot also be a magical society built on fortune-telling. You can't be Artemis Fowl and The Girl Who Drank the Moon at the same time, people, come on. When I think about the Morrigan Crow books, or the Harry Potter books, or Keeper of the Lost Cities, I can envision a fully-formed fantasy society—and especially considering that Amari's life slowly moves away from the real world and into the magical one, the fact that I can't envision that society in this book is aggravating. So in short: the worldbuilding here is meh.
And now for a brief discussion about this book's handling of race. Amari, our protagonist, is Black (and this book is #ownvoices there), and as I mentioned, she lives in a poor, predominantly-Black neighborhood. And the depiction of Amari's experiences here are very well-executed. At the very opening of the book, Amari is grappling with racist bullying at the private school she attends (between being Black and being on a scholarship, she stands out from the wealthy White kids there)—and even at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, the racial hierarchy still exists (if for slightly different reasons). Amari has a friend in her neighborhood named Jayden who has unfortunately become involved in a gang, and he reappears from time to time throughout the story with surprising depth considering his low amount of "screen time." The parallel between racism and prejudice toward Amari's magical powers continues throughout the story as Amari is able to change some people's minds, but slowly, and not without tons of pushback. It's a pretty thorough and thoughtful exploration of Amari's experiences. I will say, there is a point later in the book where B. B. Alston tries to oversimplify the whole thing into some kind of believe-in-yourself NONSENSE that ties into the general rage I am trying to contain with regards to this book—but overall, I think kids will learn a thing or two or even feel seen in Amari's experiences and the excitement that, despite them, she gets to be the awesome protagonist of a fantasy novel!
That brings us to Amari herself—and back to Jessica Townsend and the Morrigan Crow books again. My major criticism of the Morrigan Crow books—the one that I feel slightly guilty about but also think was justified—is that Morrigan herself is pretty-darn-lacking in personality. And it wasn't so much that I was bothered by that as I read the books—in certain moments, yes, but overall, not really—as it was that I felt like it was a missed opportunity, considering how engaging the Morrigan Crow books are in other ways, to make a series of books that would be literally unforgettable. Now, I think it's important to note that I do understand why protagonists end up this way. With the kinds of books I often read, realistic fiction, you have protagonists who are very specific. Readers will either relate to them and like them—or think they're obnoxious and put the book down. But that's OK—books aren't expensive to create, so you just publish a lot of them, with something for everyone (hopefully), and it all works out. It's not like movies or TV, where you're paying so much to make the thing in the first place that you can't afford to limit your interest by making your protagonist, let's see, compassionate when most people aren't, or shy when most people are extroverted, or diverse when most people are bigots, or what have you. And then we get to fantasy novels. Fantasy novels aren't expensive to make, but if you only look at the ones that have already made it to peak popularity, then what should you expect? You should expect that those are the ones with the bland protagonists, the protagonists everyone can like and relate to because no one really likes or relates to them. (I can't imagine that even Harry Potter fans sit around saying how awesome Harry is—because come on.) That brings us to Amari. For most of Amari and the Night Brothers, Amari has an incredibly strong personality—unusually so for a fantasy protagonist, which made me very excited! She's a little snarky, reasonably compassionate and thoughtful, occasionally insecure or scared, sometimes just plain sick of all the bigots, etc. She has a vivid inner world, and the surprising choice to let her narrate in FIRST PERSON really lets that inner world come through. But then, in the last chunk of the book, I feel like her personality fades. Amari starts to morph into just another generic Chosen One—as my brother put it (this was another family read-aloud), she has the "hero personality," which is NOT a personality. Her inner world seems to drop off a little bit at the end, and it may have just been my perception, but I felt less invested in her story at the end. So that's my rant there.
And then we arrive at the biggest of my rants. And that is my thoughts about Amari and the Night Brother's plotting. In short: it's kind of all over the place. In a bad way. Now, before I begin tearing things to shreds, I think it bears noting that B. B. Alston does not deserve the full blame for any of the flaws of this book—this book was literally published by Balzer + Bray, the imprint of HarperCollins that publishes Julie Murphy and Angie Thomas and Becky Albertalli and other super-popular authors. I can absolutely imagine these kinds of plotting issues in an early/middle draft of a novel, but the idea is that the editors at such a large, glamorous imprint would then get this into tip-top shape before sending it out into the world, and they did not! So there. Now I'm just going to list the many plot issues that irritated me as I read this book—some are obviously minor and petty, but some are not. There are some pretty hilarious plot holes tucked into these pages that it's almost impossible not to notice—at one point, a character is using a special power of theirs that requires them to touch things with both of their hands, and then as they are using that power, that character hands something to Amari. So I guess that character also has the special power of a third hand. The fortune telling thing I mentioned a few paragraphs ago really got on my nerves too, because things happen in the story entirely because the characters knew they would happen because they had their fortune told, and then they made it come true. I seriously can't stand that trope. The pacing of Amari's tryouts is really poorly done—the early tryouts are several pages long and filled with exciting action and adventure, as they should be, but ***slight spoilers*** the super-mega-climax final tryout is incredibly short and not a challenge to Amari at all—tension is injected at this point in other ways, but it still makes readers feel like Amari's whole journey to this point was just a waste of anticipation. ***end of spoilers*** Returning to Jessica Townsend, the tryouts that Morrigan went through in Nevermoor were so absolutely clever and filled to the brim with happenings and excitement (and occasional moments where I wanted to punch everyone in the face, but in a good way), and it makes me sad that Amari and the Night Brothers couldn't replicate that plotting brilliance. Also, the mechanics of characters' superpowers/talents, especially Amari's, have ZERO logic whatsoever. We learn that Amari's talent requires some kind of concentration, but then at one point, she does this incredibly dramatic thing that would seem to require tons and tons of concentration—but she does it with no concentration at all and never having learned it, all because she—I can't believe this is the reason, but it is—believed in herself. (How is that still an explanation for anything in books. How.) And even in other contexts, the limitations of Amari's powers get bent and removed with virtually no explanation—I am thinking of a specific example here, but sharing it would be a spoiler, so I won't share it. But compared to the fascinating, in-depth, and strict explanations of powers in Jessica Townsend's Hollowpox, or even the fleshed-out mechanics of magic in The Witch Boy and its sequels by Molly Knox Ostertag, the set-up here feels like such an absolute cop-out.
And then there's the end of the book. And—well, a whole lot happens at the end of the book. First of all, beyond just the characters' powers, things happen involving the main villain of the story that set up such a complete-and-utter anything-goes mentality in the novel that it makes it hard to expect any tension at all in the sequels—what happens at the end of Amari and the Night Brothers should have happened in book 3, not book 1. And then there's also a revelation. And I won't say what it is—I'm not evil—but I will say that dramatic twists of this nature require an author to have really gained the readers' trust. (I suspect that's why most books save these kinds of twists for later in the series.) B. B. Alston was already losing my trust, and then this twist happened—and it basically threw some of my favorite parts of the book out the window and made clear that they would not be returning for book 2, and then it failed to institute a new storytelling structure that I could expect to see in book 2. I feel like we're now at a weird clean slate that book 2, Amari and the Great Game, is going to have an incredibly hard time filling in. And reading that book's summary on Amazon, and seeing plotlines that should be over getting dragged on and seeing characters making obviously stupid decisions before I've even started the book, I feel like whatever potential this series had to be enjoyable and exciting is about to get rapidly squandered thanks to the ending of book 1. B. B. Alston will need to pull off quite the feat with Amari and the Great Game if it holds up to the first two-thirds or so of Amari and the Night Brothers—and I'm not sure he can pull off that feat.
So yeah. Those are my thoughts. I think I need to clarify a lot of things as part of my overall verdict. First of all, I wouldn't be so frustrated at the end of this book if I hadn't been enjoying the first two-thirds or so as much as I was—that's why I am still ultimately recommending this book with a rating of "Pretty good!," despite the fact that the series as a whole seems to be flying off the rails. Also, from an author's perspective, I can absolutely understand that writing Amari and the Night Brothers was a feat of monumental proportions—just creating any kind of fantasy novel is a huge challenge, let alone one with a plot that can be followed, characters that readers are invested in, and even some meaningful real-world representation. But from a reader's perspective, I can't in good conscience tell you to go add another book to your overflowing, weirdly-stressful TBR stack if it's not going to be completely worth your time. And this book, honestly, is just an average fantasy novel, whereas series like the Morrigan Crow books that I thought were average are—I am now realizing—rare gems created by ridiculously talented authors like Jessica Townsend. So here are my takeaways. One—I'm sorry, Jessica Townsend, for criticizing the Morrigan Crow books without understanding how utterly exceptional they are and how much incredible effort they must take to create. Two—I hope that I managed not to tear Amari and the Night Brothers into pieces for no reason and instead offered up a reasonably-balanced depiction of this book's successes and flaws. And three—Amari and the Night Brothers just isn't a must-read, in my opinion, but if it intrigues you and you want to stay caught up on the latest popular MG fantasy books, it might be worth your time. Just know that whether the sequels live up to it will unfortunately be an entirely different matter.
Thank you for reading this long and blither-y review! I would be shocked if I haven't provoked a single thought in your mind during all of this, so please do share whatever agreements, rebuttals, or absolute outrage at my claims came to mind as you read this review. I hope, if nothing else, reading this was an adventure!
My rating is: Pretty good!