Book Review: A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1) by S. A. Patrick


This is a personal unsolicited review of a public library copy of S. A. Patrick, A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1), Usborne, November 2018, ISBN 9781474945677 

What sorcery is this?

I first stumbled upon A Darkness of Dragons by S. A. Patrick through the Waterstones Book of the Month list for November 2018. The stunning cover illustration by artist George Ermos was part of an instant appeal to seek out this book. It’s a truly magical looking paperback and I’ve found a new fantasy illustrator to follow. A Darkness of Dragons went straight onto my list of books that my eleven-year-old dragon-mad daughter might want to read. She is an avid reader of Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series.

We walked into our tiny local library on Christmas Eve, and in a serendipity that felt magical in itself, there, on full display on top the children’s shelf, was A Darkness of Dragons! As my daughter had a huge tower of books, I begged her to let me read this first while I had a gap between deadlines for reviews of other books…

Be still my heart, this is one of the most achingly engaging fantasy adventures I have recently read.

Although I am supposed to be purchasing fewer books, I’m afraid this is going straight to my must- purchase pile after reading it.

Sincerely this:- if you love tales of fantasy adventure, this book should be your next read.

I’m sorry that my review of this book is quite long, but I need to say all of this, even if it is just for me to capture the feeling of reading it for the first time. If you are short on time, don’t waste time reading my words, just go out and read this book now!

However, if you need convincing, I’m going to try and write clearly and sensibly…actually…nope… I’m not, this is going to come right from the heart…

Conjuring echoes

In A Darkness of Dragons, S. A. Patrick takes me back to the feeling I got when I began reading some of my most loved series. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter,  Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Most recently, the same with Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. This story has a dark edge a bit like Alan Garner’s books. A spookiness of Robert Holdstock. A darkness of Susan Cooper. Within a few chapters A Darkness of Dragons earned a permanent place in my inner cache of imagined fantasy literary worlds that I can call on when doing mundane tasks like hanging washing. (I hope everyone has one of these inner caches, otherwise forget I just mentioned this!)

An epic imagined landscape

Just pines and mountains in Scotland
(or…is this resting on route to the Gemspar Mountain Range? on the edge of the Dragon Territories? or the Islands of the Eastern Seas?)

The story opens in the village of Patterfall, clad with pines, mountains, snow and forest. There is no map in the book, but there could be. (Maybe in Book #2??) The story traverses landscapes of mountains, forests, seas and vividly described vistas with names that remind me of imaginary childhood adventures, lying awake in Australia listening to the exotic names of the BBC shipping forecast at midnight on the radio and dreaming of adventures beyond my town. (Again, ignore this if it’s abnormal).  It’s difficult to describe the feeling of a new fantasy world that feels so very plausible and believable. The laws and ways things are, are unreal, but in a way that does not jar with possibility. It’s actually very hard to cast such a spell with an imagined world with so many characters this quickly, but S. A. Patrick does it. What really excites me is that it feels so very richly mythopoeic, even having its own language, Merisax. Patrick’s world of Patch Brightwater and his friends is instantly habitable, and yet it also has some incredibly biting edges too. I could feel the darkness creeping in chapter by chapter. This contributes to the absolute compulsion to carry this book everywhere with me so that I could snatch a read at any opportunity.

Kangaroo Island, South Australia (or the Dragon Wastes?)

Three friends on an adventure

Patch Brightwater is an instantly likeable, imperfect 13 year old. (Note: some descriptions say Patch is 12, but there are multiple specific references in the book to Patch being 13, the same age as his friend Wren). On the surface, his recent illegal acts make Patch a criminal. However, Patch’s compassion, acts of kindness and charity, truly challenge us to think about how the judgement of good and bad deeds are made. Patch’s friends, Barver the dracogriff (half dragon, half griffin) and Wren, a girl who is cursed by a sorcerer to live as a rat are inspiring, brave and wonderful characters. They are complex and believable as friends. I developed a soft-spot for Barver’s personality quirks. S. A. Patrick has created a believable half dragon, half griffin who interacts seamlessly with a diverse spectrum of primary and secondary characters. This isn’t easy writing territory! The dialogue emerges from diverse characters ranging from salt-of-the-earth personalities through to the cruel and deranged. We meet powerful and imposing law keepers, dragons, rats, sorcerers, witches, monks and more, all who feel so very genuine.

A dark spin on a terrifying folktale

At first, the idea of a retelling of the “fairy tale” of the Pied Piper of Hamelin didn’t immediately appeal to me. I thought I already knew how that story would go, because my own childhood had rather sugar-coated versions of this story. Although I love folklore, not knowing the depth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, I was a bit concerned that this might be tame tale territory. I urge you to let the title lead you. There is a terrible darkness in the original folklore of the Hamelin Piper, a German folk story dating back to around 1284. Various versions evolved, based on real events, twisting branches from the original story. S. A. Patrick has a gift in conjuring an ancient evil from the roots of the story. It will thrill young adults and grown-ups alike.

There be dragons…and music!

Another ancient piper .

Although Songs of Magic as a series will undoubtedly attract fans of dragon-based tales, there is another theme accompanying the fantasy. The magic of making music. S. A. Patrick’s ability to weave in the art of piping, whistling and playing music through Patch as a young piper, should pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever trembled because of a piece of music. Patch’s description of piping skills led my thoughts to the ghosts of my grandfather and those before him as traditional Scottish pipers. I remember my failed childhood attempts at trying to cast a single note on a bagpipe chanter, and then watching spellbound as my grandpa produced songs from the chanter, his fingers waving and moving as if conjuring magic. The passages describing Patch’s playing took be back to these childhood moments. For younger readers, Patch as a thirteen-year-old discovering his own music is so relevant for readers in this age group. Afer all, music is often the first time we can find a way to express the complexity of what we hold inside us, that words sometimes can’t muster.

Dragons at arm..chairs

The real magic

This is S. A. Patrick’s first novel for younger readers, but under his name as Seth Patrick, he has a series of horror for grown-ups (The Reviver trilogy) if you are so inclined.

I also had a moment of enlightenment on reading that Seth Patrick has a game programming and mathematics background. This makes a lot of sense! I can begin to understand where his power as a writer and scaffolder of imagined worlds emerges from. In A Darkness of Dragons, Patrick is beautifully demonstrating my belief that computer coding and computational thinking have elements transferable to creative writing. I wonder if this is the secret ingredient that I can’t quite explain as to why this imagined world works its enchantment so quickly. Patch’s world unfolds with a structural efficiency, a necessary underlying logic and a sequence needed to lay good strong foundations for a first-in-series fantasy novel. Yet, whilst staying true to the conventions and rules of a novel, there are still so many surprises, unexpected results and lingering questions for our minds to ponder. Although there is structure, there is space made for big hearts to feel things keenly, and amusing comments and asides to explain context so that everything feels naturally unfolding. There is a perfect tension of order and chaos, compiled with enough complexity to keep you turning pages.

Songs of Magic – the series

I truly can’t wait for Patch Brightwater’s next adventure with his friends. I hope some small snippet of my raving enthusiasm encourages you to read it and also purchase this novel to support an incredible author of young adult stories, S. A. Patrick.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in need of friendship, magic and courage, head to the Usborne website, there is a Song of Magic for recorder that you can listen to and learn to play.

S. A. Patrick, A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1), Usborne, November 2018, ISBN 9781474945677 

And finally, just because reading the book conjured a song for me…

If this book was a song!

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Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness illustrated by Jim Kay

This is an unsolicited and personal review of Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771

I’m not sure how long I spent imprisoned in an ancient twisted yew tree back in 2016, but clearly it was long enough to have have missed the existence of both the book and film of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I arrived at this book after recently reviewing the paperback release of Jim Kay’s illustrated version of J K Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  This is part of why I love the partnership of authors and illustrators, as illustrators sometimes wander you off your usual garden path, into the words of a wonderful author.

After reading this book, I probably won’t be taking tree photographs like this
again when camping – too spooky now!

I have wanted to read the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, but it has been a while since I’ve felt able to find the emotional space for a dystopian series, so I’ve waited. I wondered if A Monster Calls was going to be terrifying and I steeled myself. The cover of the special collectors edition that I bought and the amazing ink-black illustrations by Jim Kay were definitely pointing to things crawling out from nightmares.

The light and dark of trees

This is a darkly spooky tale, but within it, is the most moving story. Conor is haunted by a monster. From the cover, there is no mistaking that the monster is a terrifying tree beast. This constant haunting is entwined with the story of how Conor deals with the cancer that his mother is fighting. Instead of being spooked by this story, I found myself in tears, but also still spooked because the monster is unavoidably confronting and so raw and wild in its pursuit of what it wants from Conor.

Patrick Ness has won a range of awards for this story, and although primarily dealing with grief and bravery, if you are interested in wild nature mythology and the folklore of trees there is enough fantasy and nature mythology to root this firmly in the fantasy genre. Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, dark, inky and shadowy enable the twisted-limbed monster to skulk through every page, looming around the text or imposing its fear in double-page spreads that made this feel as luxurious as a graphic novel.

Patrick Ness completed this story for another author, Siobhan Dowd who passed away before she could take her concept further. This additional layer of poignancy is so powerful because the circumstances and story around this are explained up front.

At the time, I thought this tree was reaching out for a friendly hug.
On reflection, perhaps it was haunting me!

The collectors edition contains the novel, plus additional material the background story of the book and the making of the film. A truly beautiful book to be revered, particularly because it is printed onto the very paper soul of a tree that once stood in the earth.

Never lie to a tree. They are much bigger than us.

This was a heartbreaking and beautiful read, suitable for young adults and adults.

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771

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Book Review: The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

Best read with a cup of tea and a storm rattling the windows

Catherine Doyle, The Storm Keeper’s Island, Bloomsbury Childrens Books, 2018. ISBN 9781408896877.

This is an unsolicited and personal review.

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle is a luminous flame of a story! Smouldering in the pages mingle the wild, ancient strengths of nature and family love.


The story is set on Arranmore Island, a real island , Árainn Mhór off the west coast of Ireland. Fionn and his sister Tara have come to the island to stay with their grandfather, who is candlemaker. Malachy seems grown from the island and part of the ebbing tides of sea and the cycles of island folklore.


As Fionn and Tara try to settle into island life, the wellspring of ancient island magic stirs. It calls for the powers of the Storm Keeper of Arranmore. There are signs that times must change forever. New friendships must be forged and old ones mended. Finn must survive betrayals and peril, to quell an ancient evil that is rising to destroy the island.


This story is a wonderful read for middle-grades to young adult. It tackles the complexity and frailty of memory and time, as well as family relationships.


Wildly enchanting, there is also a bright light flickering on the horizon! This isn’t the end of Fionn’s story!

The next book in the series is due out in July 2019.

Teaching notes

The Storm Keeper’s Island teaching guide is available from Bloomsbury.

Maker/digital technology project ideas

craft: scented candle-making

technology: interactive candles

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Mycological mythologies – or a rite-of-passage

“Only you know where you’ll be when it happens. Drifting through a Wednesday counting emails in the office, bent over kale at the allotment, gearing up for the school-run dash through the rain.”

Martin Shaw, Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia

I return a lot to wilderness rite-of-passage guide and mythologist, Doctor Martin Shaw’s writings.

In this post, I’m describing the first time I felt what it was like to have the closest sense of what Shaw writes about when he describes a journey from dreaming to getting dreamt, which can happen as part of a wilderness vigil. When you know you will never have such a vigil, can your own stories conjur something close? Do yours?


It’s twilight and we grasp candles. I’m around nine years old,  and I am wearing my ceremonial brown clothing for the last time. It is adorned with cloth badges. Each badge represents a skill I have mastered. The paddock behind the beige brick suburban hall is unremarkable. Half dead weedy grass crunches underfoot. A depressed looking singular tree stands sentinel.

In the corner sits a small crafted monument of a fly agaric mushroom. It has been painted roughly, and seems quite out of place. But it is twilight, and so, for a moment we look beyond.

The women and other girls my own age sing, while some of us, who are now the right age, are each lifted by our arms, by our leaders. We each for a brief moment soar over the mushroom,  in the twilight.  My heart flutters in the sensation as my feet leave the ground, held gently by the women. In that lightning moment of voices and flying,  we are not children in a street where our neighbours grow drugs and fight each other in the street. We are lifted. Over.

Our rite of passage complete, the next time we meet, we will bear “robes” of blue. I am different.

This is the first time I remember understanding how enchantment and a bigger belief in yourself can be conjured by a simple ceremony. A rite-of-passage that feels connected to a myth, even though the myth and the symbol does not properly belong to the land here.

I was just a Brownie, graduating into being a Girl Guide, but in the twilight, flickering like candlelight, for a moment,  I was a little more.

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The unobservable universe.

“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Carl Sagan

There’s a concept in astronomy that I love. It’s the idea of the edge of the observable universe. I love it because our very attempt at defining the limitations of space, create room to imagine the infinite.

The fascinating unknown of the unobservable universe.

It might even be the most poetic thought thinkable about our universe. It reminds us of our imaginations.

What is there beyond what we can see and measure from our perspective?

Even with technology capable of seeing into deep space, and complex mathematics able to theorise, model, predict and replicate. It’s probable that there is far more beyond our edge,  that we can’t see.

As a learning designer, it feels like my job is to advocate always, for this unobservable universe in education.

Learning, and the dark art of measuring it, analysing it, predicting it, evaluating it and replicating it is what we do within the boundaries.

For me, to be able to reach outside of those false edges that we create around learning, like formal education,  it always has to start with big unanswerable questions.

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Book Review: Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl


“As a fan of classic sci-fi, having read my way through the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, before moving into fantasy for many years, Enchantress from the Stars has made me fall in love with science-fiction all over again. Although perhaps already hinted at in the critical acclaim and awards cited on the cover, Engdahl’s writing and how she expresses the inner thoughts of her characters is compelling from the outset.  In the prologue I could already sense a clear potential to hook those who believe that science-fiction isn’t a genre they enjoy.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

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Book Review: Blade of Shattered Hope (The 13th Reality #3) by James Dashner


“Dashner’s epic face-off in this ‘good kids versus evil grown up’ adventure has plenty of nightmarish mutant monsters and downright creepy scenarios faced by a likeable gang of young human characters.  The story builds into what becomes a terrifying page turner.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

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Book Review: The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for The Worlds Most Adventurous Kid  by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illustrated by Joy Ang. Workman Publishing. New York. ISBN 9781523503544 Available September 2018.

 

9781523503544_3D
Cover image: Worman Publishing

Here is an incredibly beautiful book aimed at young adventurers, or even young adventurers at heart. It’s the sort of book that you will want to read with a torch under the bed covers, sprawled out in a treehouse, curled up in a window seat on a winter’s afternoon or on the grass underneath the shade of a tree.

 

 

But, don’t wait for the right place. You are in the right place! This book should be read wherever you find yourself right now, at a bus stop, in the schoolyard or even at the kitchen table.

The text, beautifully written by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco unfurls your imagination over 100 pages of quirky, curious places and facts hidden in the nooks and crannies of our amazing planet. At times achingly poetic descriptions of watching sunsets rise over distant forests, or lowering yourself into the centre of the earth, sits alongside thoughtful questions to ponder alongside scientific facts and details.

You navigate country to country on a global romp, magically illustrated with sketches and some beautiful coloured artwork that bring an element of comic and manga epic-ness to real places, through illustrator Joy Ang.

You are encouraged to emerge from the pages with eyes wide open to the possibility of discovering this fascination around you. Be prepared to find your own way! Reading this book reminds me of the thrill of the first time reading a choose your own adventure book when I was a child.

For me, what makes this book stand out, is that as readers, we are challenged to find and connect the elements of wonder in the places around us now. Although the book contains just snippets of the world found in the borders and margins of places, the writers demonstrate that any two places in the world can be connected, so that you can traverse in thought from place to place.

There are no photographs of the destinations included, but with the related Atlas Obscura website to explore, photographs really aren’t needed in the book.

This is a book to read if you are a kid, aimed at ages 8-12, but also a book to read if you forgot or refused to grow up.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for The Worlds Most Adventurous Kid Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illustrated by Joy Ang. Workman Publishing. New York. ISBN 9781523503544 (Available September 2018)


A digital review copy was provided to me by the publisher and this review is also published on Netgalley.

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Book Review: Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers.

Through my explorations of Makerspaces, I keep returning to wonder about why we create separate, distinct spaces aside from others “for making”. In a similar way, we also create designated play spaces, like playgrounds “to play”.

These boundaries of space, led me to reading Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers.

Book Review: Coding as a Playground by Marian Umaschi Bers

 

 

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sharing wild spells of magic found in nature, books, stories, backyard farming, ecology, permaculture

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