No, I'm not continuing into 2024.
Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed a lot of things about this project, but well...ranking a "winner" is not one of them. I may do a monthly post in a different form to capture the things I did enjoy about the brackets but...TBD.
And what a way to end! Oh. My. GOD that final battle!!!
It’s kind of remarkable that this is the first round that has really really felt like comparing apples to oranges. I thought that might be where this whole idea falls apart, way back last January, but I guess I read in batches? And half the fun of this project has been finding unexpected resonances between books that happen to line up in my to-read list.
But uh…this was just chaos.
How do you even compare the gorgeous illustrations of Zagarenski to the gorgeous prose and world-building reveals of Novik? Or the fun and humor of Klassen and Barnett both at the height of their powers to the utter joy a three year old experiences doing the page-turn “Ahhhh!”s of Snicket? And that was just the semi-finals!!
Anyway, this is a weird final bracket for the year (or slightly thereafter), but I suppose it was inevitable to have one that is just a…How Do You Even Measure That? Bracket.
The Last Graduate is beautifully and perfectly made and is not afraid to issue that final devastating punch (a couple of different times in the course of the story) in the way that would be rather inappropriate in the goofy loveliness that is How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? So it feels like a weird contest.
But, in the end, I’m a sucker for a book that’s willing to punch you in the gut.
Winner: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
The middle book of a trilogy is always either the best or clunkiest of a series, and this book is perfection. It takes advantage of the book one set-up and character building to break the world wide open, show you that what you thought is not all there is, and also the advantage of a middle book in a series to end on a gut punch of a cliff hanger.
Seriously, this book is SO GOOD. The moments of incandescent inspiration are thoroughly earned and feel almost painfully real. I read so much fantasy and middle grade that I've gotten used to accepting the occasional "too easy" victory...the sort of thing where you're happy for the people everything worked out for, but it feels like a moment of grace...like everything happened just so and you're glad but...
This book isn't that. It's about building in a realistic, heartlessly practical, suspicious and desperate-murder-plot-ridden but somehow therefore all the more realistic and possible avenue toward hope.
And, of course, also hope's opposite.
This book is also the story of a protagonist being helped by a loving but somewhat eye-rolling community to realize that she is not born to be the villain...but the heroine. All she has to do is come out of the shadows, where she has been hiding too long.
Runner-Up: How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
How could this book be anything less than perfection with Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen? Two geniuses at the top of their game, taking on Christmas in a delightful way. The illustrations add SO much character to the probing but delicately crafted questions, and the layers of stories are utterly fantastic. Also a nice way to dodge questions -- absurd answers!
Really these books are part of a set, of course, and The Last Graduate wouldn’t work without the meticulous set-up of A Deadly Education, but I just loved the way that the sense of “well, chaos just keeps happening, doesn’t it? But like a fairy tale it all falls into place perfectly” developed in the sequel to an actual plan…even more magical.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
It's been awhile since I've fallen so hard for a book in the first chapter. Just a stunning piece of work that is, and yet it gets in an absurd amount of just straight exposition?
If the craft of the novel is not enough of a draw, then the best way to sell it spoiler free is the phrase I used when I turned to the housemate who recommended the book to me and said, "She's dark magic Murderbot!"
If you haven't read Martha Wells, then I offer the story of a girl fighting so hard not to become a destroyer of worlds slowly learning that...actually...well, maybe there are some worlds than need to burn.
The trilogy as a whole is her journey to find the path of least destruction to purging the world of a particularly capitalism-like horror that proves that [for real spoiler] proves all hells are manmade.
Like I said up top, apples and oranges. But both books did have a sense of relaxation to them, though for Chalice of the Gods that is very much ONLY in comparison to the other adventures of Percy, Grover, and Annabeth.
And knowing that these books are set between Heroes of Olympus and Trials of Apollo. But it was just fun to see the adventuring as, well, adventuring at last. He’s been a protagonist in a MG/YA series for a long time with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it was nice to see him going through trials with stakes like…getting into college. You could feel, in scenes, how relieved Percy really was to be complaining about school and detentions not Furies and Prophecies.
In the Night Garden is more intentionally relaxing, but it also rewards close reading and much more directly attacks the mission of filling out the world around you and asking you to see what you miss if you try to race through to the next thing…or go back to the way things were once. No, be in the night garden. Be in your aging and your living and your dying. And your ridiculous brunching.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Chalice of the Gods by Rick Riordan
4.0 (see original review on StoryGraph)
Don't get me wrong, I have no complaints about this book. In many ways, it's the happily ever after I would actually like to imagine for the golden trio -- a series of battles not for the sake of the whole world but just to use their considerable collective powers to help someone caught in one of Olympus's uglier traps.
There's a lot of thematic resonance in the goddesses and gods visited and there's a lot of character-revealing pieces, but it's also just lovely to see Annabeth, Grover, and Percy continuing to be clever and strong and on each other's team no questions asked.
Find someone who loves you like Annabeth pushes Percy off a cliff, a best friend who
gets killer chickens to chase him through a playground without need for an explanation, a set of in-laws who you can lean on in good times and bad, and people to make fun of you as they write your college recommendation letters out loud.
That said, the book lacks the big build and heavy stakes of any of the miniseries, and something felt a bit missing the whole time...but also lighter.
In the Night Garden by Carin Berger
4.0 (see original review on StoryGraph)
This is a book that wonderfully rewards sitting with each spread of pages.
Pamela Zagarenski’s books are just so beautiful.
I did love Percy’s chapter titles back, but…so beautiful. Picturebooks are just hard to beat, ya know?
Sleep LIke a Tiger by Mary Logue, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
4.5 (see original review on StoryGraph)
I love anything illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, and this did not disappoint! It's a sweet bedtime book, and I love the options it gives kids to identify with that aren't the traditional "cuddly" options.
Like I said, picturebooks are HARD to beat! It’s one big joke is enough, especially when people fight over who gets to do the “Aaaaah!”
And I was THERE for the expanding of the world of the Scholomance and the cascade of consequences and the secrets kept from the young best and brightest and well…the secrets not kept. I was there until the same tidy conclusion brought all the threads together but with a far more sprawling set of inputs…imPRESSive.
The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: a christmas story by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown
4.25 (original review on StoryGraph)
Labeling the book as a Christmas story is complicated, but I do recognize that it is likely a story that is better at teaching Christian children tolerance and understanding than making Jewish children feel truly seen. I hope it does that, but it's a complicated positioning.
But a very fun story -- read-a-loud value is extremely high and it's a fun story with the kind of unapologetically dark ending that kids love...especially in an also heartwarming Christmas story.
The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
4.75 (original review on StoryGraph)
I do love an aftermath book, especially as the finale of a trilogy. Is there a more coming of age gut punch than fixing a major institution against all odds with an act of almost but not quite impossible grace...only to be told by all the adults that you need to sit down and listen to them again...only to find out that they are actively perpetuating evil all along? And that's at least half of their objection?
The book also feels like the payoff of what was earned in The Last Graduate as the younger generations unconditionally trust El now, paving her way and fighting back with her as their moral avatar, allowing her family's generations-long, sacrificing quest to change the way that enclaves work to happen as every piece needed falls into place at great cost.
Nothing is free, but this book proves that that cuts both ways. If putting evil into the world always incurs a cost, doing good also opens doors.
Apples and oranges I said about this bracket? Well, at least apples and oranges are both fruit! What am I supposed to do with this?!
Oh no. Now I’m imagining Murderbot and Perry/A.R.T. having this conversation. They spend most of their time solving problems and talking about battle tactics in this novel – not to mention getting ready to avenge one another and then immediately fighting but like…I didn’t think anything would make me love that absurdist but sincere and lovely picturebook more but…imagining the digital friendship of Martha Wells’s adventures weighing in on the Santa Claus chimney dilemma…I think that did it. Deeply adorable.
Network Effect by Martha Wells
4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)
An unusually long entry in the Murderbot Diaries, and if you've made it this far in the series then you're unlikely to complain about that. Every time I was tempted to complain about the back and forth nature of some plotlines and constantly peeling onion of a plot, some new element would reveal itself and I understood why the story unraveled exactly as it needed to.
Also, nice to really and properly meet you, Perry.