It’s my stop on the blog tour for this fun and exciting middle grade fantasy!
Book: Mia and the Lightcasters by Janelle McCurdy, illustrated by Ana Latese
Publication date: 4th August 2022
Ownership: Proof and review copy sent free of charge by Faber Childrens. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence and injury; fear of parental/family death.
Beware of the shadows, the Reaper King is coming . . .
Mia always dreamed of being an umbra tamer until she met the wild creature on the Nightmare Plains. Since that day, she prefers to stay safe within the walls of Nubis. Safe, that is, until a surprise attack. With her parents captured, Mia’s only hope is to travel to the City of Light to find help. But with only her little brother, two friends and one solitary tamed umbra, the journey feels impossible. Mia not only has to overcome her fears, she also has to learn to harness her umbra taming abilities if they are to complete the quest in time.
Mia and the Lightcasters is a fun and inventive adventure story that starts with a bang and keeps getting more interesting from there! The setting sits somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy, with a high-tech world sharing space with magical creatures and ancient tales of kids with powers. There are definite similarities to Pokemon in the magical Umbra, trainable creatures who can change size at will and fight or work with their tamers – but while the book will definitely be a hit with Pokemon fans, it feels fresh and unique enough to work for everyone else too. It’s also great to see a book in such a classic middle grade quest style that has Black kids at the centre of it – there’s a very touching letter in the proof that talks a bit about the author’s intentions in writing the book, and I wish this had been included in the final copy as it was lovely to read (though there is a fun Q&A in the finished copy!)!
Mia is a really engaging heroine, with a lot of determination and pizazz but also a deep streak of kindness, as shown by the close connections she makes with the rest of the characters, from her little brother Lucas to her friends TJ and Jada. There’s quite a range of ages here, which makes things interesting as this isn’t just your usual middle grade band of twelve-year-olds; while Mia and TJ are twelve, Lucas is only four, while Jada is seventeen, which adds some fun dynamics to the group. There’s a good balance of action scenes and quieter character moments, and it’s nice to see Mia’s confidence in herself as an umbra tamer grow to match her confidence in her other skills.
I did have a couple of minor issues, but nothing that stopped me enjoying the book as a whole. Firstly, the dialogue is a little bit, well, cheesy. Almost every character has a different nickname for each of the others, and they use them almost constantly, which rang quite false to me and got a bit annoying by halfway through the book. I was particularly annoyed by Mia and Lucas calling each other ‘Mimi’ and ‘Lu-Lu’, as this felt a bit too saccharine for a real sibling relationship! I also thought that the pacing was a bit off. This is quite a long book for middle grade, but it dragged a little as the kids travelled to the city of Stella, and then things wrapped up incredibly quickly. In fact, at the 80% mark I was absolutely sure they would arrive in the city, hit a minor obstacle, and then there would be a big ‘to be continued’, with the major climax coming in the next book, but actually once they made it to Stella the story just zoomed ahead and everything was finished up in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss it scenes. A few threads are laid for a sequel, but for the most part everything wraps up (perhaps too) neatly. It’s probably the sort of thing you notice more as an adult reader than as a kid caught up in the excitement, though!
The illustrations are lovely, and a pleasant surprise in an older middle grade book. They’re full spreads interspersed between every few chapters, rather than smaller images inset into the text, and they add a really great atmosphere when you’re trying to picture the always-night setting and the mysterious umbras. They make me think that a graphic novel adaptation would really suit the story, with its battles and daring escapes!
If you’re looking for an exciting middle grade fantasy with a slightly futuristic bent, then you can’t go far wrong with Mia and the Lightcasters. Four out of five cats!