I really enjoyed my first trip to Roar in The Land of Roar, so I jumped at the chance to join the blog tour for its sequel – and this series just keeps getting better!
Book: Return to Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Egmont Books. All opinions my own.
I read the first book in this series, The Land of Roar, earlier this year, and loved it! Since finding out I was having a boy, I’ve been looking (perhaps a little pre-emptively…) for middle grade fiction with male protagonists that has the same magical feel and focus on relationships and self-belief as female-fronted MG tends to have (but that’s perhaps a post in itself). Anyway, I was thrilled to find a book that balanced fantastic adventure with that kind of personal journey in The Land of Roar, which focuses on Arthur as a main character as he is drawn back into the magical land of Roar he and his twin sister Rose invented when they were much younger. In Return to Roar, the focus is shared more equally between Arthur and Rose as, having saved their grandad from villainous scarecrow Crowky last time, they now have to recover a dangerous item that could unleash their worst fears into the world – both in Roar and in real life!
It’s great to see more of Roar – the world is clever and quirky, with places that are clearly derived from a child’s understanding of the world, such as the Archie Playgo archipelago and the mysterious “The End”. It’s a portal fantasy in the best tradition, but one that really appeals to my sense of nostalgia! Before the adventure kicks off, when we just get to see them enjoying the world they have created for themselves, you can really feel Rose and Arthur’s happiness. There are so many different parts to the world, from the sea to the forest to the icy wastes of The End, and they all feel distinct, while keeping that same magical feel. Ben Mantle’s illustrations are fantastic additions to the story – it’s pretty heavily illustrated for middle grade, which all helps to make the atmosphere of Roar really come to life. They’re full of action and spirit, especially where Arthur’s best friend Wininja is involved!
Roar is a kind of paradise filled with perfectly designed natural water slides, unicorns you can ride, and a host of fun inhabitants from wizard-ninjas to mer-witches, but as with all magical lands, there’s a darker side too. The first book explored what was happening to Roar as a result of Arthur and Rose no longer believing in it, but with belief restored, there’s space for the darkness to be more subtle; the unexpected complications of harmless wishes are front and centre. Crowky, the villain, continues to be one of the creepiest things I’ve read in children’s fiction, which is definitely intensified by the illustrations of his terrifying painted-on grin! I’ve been creeped out by scarecrows since I first read Howl’s Moving Castle, but Crowky is a particularly terrifying one. His goal is to unleash fantasy versions of Arthur and Rose’s biggest fears until one of them shows him the way out of Roar and into the real world, which is a gloriously dark way to go about it, and leads to some fascinating scenes.
Though the action takes place in this magical fantasy land, the themes of the book are really important ones for this world too. Arthur and Rose need to learn to act in the face of their greatest fears, and as with the previous book, the power of friendship is shown to be incredibly important in getting you to believe in yourself. Though their friends in Roar are wonderful, Rose has to deal with a group of toxic friends back in the real world too, and I was really pleased with how modern this storyline was – bullying has progressed from just name-calling in the playground into much more insidious, online forms that can follow you home, and I thought that this was sensitively shown. I also liked that though Rose and Arthur are twins, Rose is always shown to be the one pushing Arthur to grow up and stop playing, which speaks volumes about the ways girls are socially forced into maturity earlier – this is never mentioned explicitly, but it rings very true. Both of the twins feel like real people; Rose with her determination to show her best side even if she doesn’t believe in it, and Arthur with his worries and bravery jostling for space in his head. They’re just so well-written!
Return to Roar is, like the first book, an intelligent and sensitive read which perfectly balances excitement and peril with personal growth. It somehow captures the engrossing fantasy of playing make believe, but without ever losing that touch of realism in the characters that makes this feel so heartwarming. It’s also just completely fun – five out of five cats!