Today’s stack includes books in series—most of them are follow-ups to series that I’ve read before, and one is an older series that I’ve finally gotten around to.
Don Brown’s Big Ideas series are non-fiction comics for kids, each focusing on a particular big idea and following its development and history. Back in 2019 I wrote about Rocket to the Moon!, which follows the invention of rockets and leads up to the moon landing. This book, published last April, is all about vaccines, a particularly timely topic. It’s narrated by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who popularized inoculation during a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s. The book tells her story, but also outlines the various practices and experiments used by various cultures to combat diseases, even well before the biology underlying them was fully understood. It includes some of the ugly sides of things, too, like the British army giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans, or when mis-manufactured polio vaccines resulted in deaths of thousands of patients.
The book also addresses anti-vaccination sentiments, which are nothing new. People mistrusted the science, held marches, and even ran a family out of town for inoculating themselves. The book mentions Andrew Wakefield and his falsified report linking vaccines to autism as well, explaining that not all big ideas are actually good ideas. It ends with the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic and the search for a vaccine, which was still being researched at the time the book was written.
Obviously, this book is solidly pro-vaccination, but it explains the science behind it in a clear, easy-to-understand way. If you’ve got kids who want to know more about how vaccines work, this is a good place to start. It not only teaches the scientific basis of vaccines, but also provides some historical context.
This is the second book in this comic book series (I wrote about the first book last month), featuring a couple of teenagers solving strange mysteries in the 1960s, and it comes out this week! The mystery this time is about Gideon Drake, a rock star who recently left his band to go solo, and has now turned up in Port Howl for unknown reasons. Pete and Gideon immediately hit it off, but Alastair, who was star-struck at first, is starting to have suspicions about Gideon. At the same time, there’s a group of mothers who are protesting rock music—Gideon’s in particular, which they’ve declared the “devil’s music.” Is there magic, sinister or otherwise, in Gideon’s music? Alastair wants to keep Pete safe, though Pete feels like Alastair is just envious that he’s not the center of attention.
Meanwhile, we also find out a bit more about the mysterious Faculty, which has something to do with the teaching of magic, as the twin’s adoptive parents are summoned to give an account of the events that took place in the first book. We (along with the twins) also learn a bit more about the twins’ past, some of which had been kept from them. It’s an excellent follow-up to the first book, and I really like the way that the characters continue to develop and mature in this volume, figuring out a bit more about who they are. And since there are some things introduced in this book that weren’t wrapped up by the end, I’m sure there are more Montague Twins stories yet to come.
The late John Lewis collaborated with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell to write the graphic novel trilogy March, the story of the civil rights movement from his own perspective. Before his passing in 2020, the team (with the addition of artist L. Fury) had started a new series, Run. The culmination of the civil rights movement was the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965—but the story wasn’t really over, of course. Black citizens had won the right to vote, but it didn’t mean there weren’t still significant obstacles for them to cast a ballot. They faced threats when trying to register Black voters, when trying to claim their legal rights. And they weren’t all in agreement about how to respond, either: Lewis eventually parted ways with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as members of the Black Panther took leadership.
What struck me while reading this one was all of the really difficult choices that had to be made, and how hard it was to have one unified message that all of the activists could agree on. I could also see how painful it was for Lewis to cut ties with SNCC, a group in which he had played such a huge role. The book actually ends on a poignant note, with Lewis feeling a bit adrift, and looking for where he would go next. I’m not sure what will happen to the series now; the pages for Book One were almost all finalized before Lewis’ death, but the story is definitely not over. Hopefully there will be some way for the team to complete the series based on Lewis’ notes as well as interviews with his contemporaries.
Last month I shared about the first two books in the LIFEL1K3 young adult trilogy, and now I’ve finished the third book as well. This final volume is the big showdown, with several different players involved. Daedalus Corporation manufactures all of the machines, both the (human-controlled) machina and the AI-driven logika. BioMaas provides the food for the nation, and is all about genetically modified plants and creatures. And the lifelikes, who are stronger and faster and smarter than humans, have almost unlocked the ability to create more of themselves, with the goal of wiping out humanity altogether and freeing their robot siblings from their software shackles.
But you can’t count out two other groups, either: the Brotherhood, a group of religious fanatics who value purity and hunt down the “deviates,” and those deviates themselves—a ragtag band of kids who have gained remarkable powers due to the nuclear radiation from the wars.
The story takes us to the centers of each of the factions: the walled fortress of Daedalus, the plant-based spires of BioMaas, the nuclear wasteland called Babylon that originated the lifelikes. Alliances are formed and broken, and all of our main characters wrestle with the same questions: “Who am I? What does it mean to be human?”
I don’t want to say much more because it’s hard to talk even about the characters in the third book without giving away major plot points from the first two, but it’s an action-packed conclusion with lots of twists and turns. I enjoyed it, though I have to admit that since I’d just finished reading The Murderbot Diaries, it was hard not to compare the two, and Murderbot is just so good that it really wasn’t fair. Still, I’m glad I read this trilogy and can recommend it for those who like stories about dystopian wastelands and high-tech robots.
Seraphina and Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
This two-book series is set in a medieval fantasy world, where dragons and humans are currently living in peace, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a lot of prejudices held by both sides. Dragons are able to transform and take on human form, though their behavior still sets them apart: dragons see emotions as irrational and dangerous, so they tend to be blunt and don’t adhere to much social etiquette.
Seraphina is a young woman who has a big secret … it takes a few chapters for you to discover it, though you’ll find out if you read just about any summary of the book. (That said, in case you don’t know already, I won’t spoil it for you here.) She works in the palace as the assistant to the court composer, and when a member of the royal family is found dead—apparently murdered by a dragon—she gets pulled into the investigation. The country is preparing to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of the treaty between the humans and dragons, but rising tensions threaten to undo all of that.
I really loved the world that Rachel Hartman created in these books. Although it is fantasy, there’s a lot that feels like a parallel to our own society. The way dragons are treated by humans often reflects the way we behave toward those who aren’t like us: people of a different race, or immigrants, or even of a different political party. There is also a lot of political maneuvering in the books, and some of that is a mystery that Seraphina is working to solve: who’s behind the murder? How is it tied to the anti-dragon group, Sons of St. Ogdo?
The books were first published in 2012 and 2015, but reading them now I also felt like they reflected a lot of our recent and current politics, including a charismatic villain who manages to rise to power by playing to everyone’s prejudices. The religion in this world centers around a host of Saints who lived several hundred years ago, and the mythology surrounding them (and the powers ascribed to them) are really fascinating, and we find out more about them in the second book, too.
Hartman has a second series set in this world. I just started Tess of the Road this week, and the second book, In the Serpent’s Wake, was just published earlier this month. I’m looking forward to both!
My Current Reads
As I mentioned, I’m reading Tess of the Road now (which is about Seraphina’s half-sister, and takes place a few years after the events of the first two books), but I’m also reading a few more Art Of books, which I’ll share … soonish? There are books on Encanto, Soul, Turning Red, Kevin Smith movies, and even one about the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books covered in this column; affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent booksellers!