“Book Review: The Eagle and the Sparrow”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Light-hearted mythical beings develop strong friendships in this enchanting exploration of Japanese history
In 1875, in a magical version of Meiji-Era Japan, there are fairies, dragons, and dual beings: humans who shapeshift into animals and creatures. This is Book 7 in Claire Youmans’ The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, appropriate for middle-grade readers.
The toki-girl Azuki and the sparrow-boy Shota (who both appear in previous books) are siblings who have lost their adoptive parents. They have befriended Renko, a “mixed heritage” Asian-European dragon princess who gives them rides. Renko’s older brother, Irtysh, a European dragon prince, frolics in his Lake of Jewels, made brilliant with light that “spread rainbow beams through prisms mounted in the ceiling and sparkled off the gemstones,” and he courts the attention of the Asian dragon princess Otohime. Azuki and Shota have also befriended Akira, an eagle-boy. As the story opens, they must help him recover from an injury.
Through the reality-based setting, this story—despite its obvious fantasy elements—teaches young readers about the truths of Japanese social history. On one instance, the boys enjoy an outing on a fishing boat in the harbor, and they learn that nations are manufacturing weapons to prepare for war. The author studied Japan for many years, and her knowledge comes through clearly.
The characters will entertain young readers with their light, cheerful banter. These dual beings also aim to impress as they experiment with the limits of their physical and fantastical powers. The premise that it is normal to shapeshift into animals and back again may open minds and inspire children. “You aren’t only an eagle,” Akira’s host tells him. “You are also human, and you need to be able to live as one.”
The dual beings’ biological and magical mechanisms aren’t fully described, and readers just have to take the author’s word that their bodies operate in certain ways. For example, the dragons possess Wishing Rocks to communicate; these tools allow them to hear one another’s voices at a distance, and we are simply told that “nobody was quite sure how Wishing Rocks worked.” Dragons can also form air bubbles around themselves to aid them when they dive underwater or fly to high elevations, and the bubbles’ containers are sturdy enough that large birds cannot pop them, but there’s no explanation of how the dragons create such shells. And one dragon, despite not having the inherent power to shapeshift, nevertheless manages “to create a simulacrum of a human form”—which seems to amount to the same thing.
One of the strengths of this book lies in how the half-human characters contemplate their special powers. As a dragon asks the eagle-boy: “What would you do if you could do anything?” These moments let the reader stop to think about what they would do if they spread their arms and their arms became wings. This gentle romp through a detailed historical landscape will expand horizons for any curious reader.
Paperback: 454 pages
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