By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Momotaro: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters
Written by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon
Disney Hyperion, 2016
Xander Miyamoto is not exactly what you’d call hero material. Athletics are not his strength and at 12, all the sixth-grader wants to do is draw comics and create computer programs. The last thing he wants to do is listen to his social studies teacher, Mr. Stedman, drone on about weather disasters around the world. One thing he does really want though, is for his classmate Lovey to stop harassing him for being half Asian.
Then spring break arrives and Xander is looking forward to a week of playing computer games with his best friend, Peyton. But then his father distracts him with a comic book about Momotaro, a samurai warrior born out of a peach pit. Xander dismisses it, but Peyton finds it interesting.
The comic is a catalyst that leads to Xander’s father being taken by oni, demons, and monsters from Japanese folklore that turn out to be real, and the boys being thrust into a journey to a mysterious island to get Xander’s father back.
I love a good underdog story and “Lost Island” is exactly that. On the surface, Xander isn’t the first person you would pick to lead a hero’s journey — a fact that is constantly brought up by Jinx, a girl they rescue along the way and who joins them. In fact Peyton, with his golden boy looks and natural athleticism, would probably be your first choice. Even when Xander learns he is descended from Momotaro and is destined to become a great warrior, he still has his doubts. The fact that he is the first Momotaro to be of a mixed-race heritage doesn’t help because nobody knows how his white side will affect things.
In addition to being a story about finding your strength in what could be seen as weaknesses, “Lost Island” is a fun adventure story filled with action and heart as, the youths work together to fight the oni and get to Xander’s father.
Her Nightly Embrace: The Ravi PI Series
By Adi Tantimedh
Atria/Leopoldo & Co., 2016
Ravi Chandra Singh’s career as a private detective came about by accident. As a failed religious scholar whose first career as a high school teacher ended horribly, he joined the Golden Sentinels private investigations agency in London after an old college friend brought him into the firm.
Made up of eccentric individuals — ranging from two ex-cops who are also a gay couple and a cheerful former American publicist, to a burned-out stoner with a brilliant mind and a financial analyst who is actually one of the best hackers in the world — the group investigates cases that nobody knows about.
Ravi quickly finds himself in over his head and questioning if this is the right path for him.After some of the shenanigans he and his colleagues get into, he begins to worry about his karma.
He also begins having visions of gods — mostly Hindu, with a few other religions thrown in — on a regular basis (mostly observing him, though sometimes possibly tweeting about him) and has to pay off his mother’s gambling debt with the neighborhood loan shark, who is part of what he calls the “Asian Housewife Mafia.”
While “Her Nightly Embrace” is made up of multiple cases that Ravi and his coworkers investigate, the book as a whole reads as one story filled with dark humor.
In addition to complex cases that will have readers wondering how Ravi and the gang will solve them, this book is filled with complex characters who all have more to them than meets the eye. On the surface, readers may wonder how a team with almost no investigative training would work to solve cases, but Tantimedh shows us that their eccentricities and various qualities are exactly what makes them such a strong team.
Flame in the Mist
By Renée Ahdieh
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2017
As the daughter of a samurai, Mariko’s life is planned out for her. She may be clever and more cunning than her brother Kenshin, but that doesn’t matter because she was born a girl.
At the age of 17, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort — all to improve her family’s status. But while en route to meet her future husband, Mariko’s convoy is ambushed and she is the only one left standing. All she knows is that the perpetrators were a gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who were hired to kill her, specifically.
Stranded and alone in the middle of a forest, Mariko decides not to return home, as her father would just send her back to Raiden. Instead, she uses her smarts to disguise herself as a boy, track down the Black Clan, and infiltrate their ranks to learn who hired them to kill her.
Although she fears being discovered and killed, Mariko finds herself fitting in with others for the first time in her life, as the clan appreciates her intellect and abilities.
While Mariko is the main protagonist in “Flame,” the story is told from various points of view, giving readers the bigger picture of what’s at stake and the risks and sacrifices the characters must make. The characters are complex and multifaceted, and Ahdieh constantly challenges them in ways that will have them questioning everything they once believed was true.
One of the things about “Flame” that I really appreciated was how Ahdieh showed the different ways girls and women challenged the social constraints and requirements put on their gender during this time period — Feudal Japan. She shows that there are many different ways to be strong and none is more or less right than the others.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.