Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: The Ninja Librarians by Jen Swann Downey

When I got my ARC of The Ninja Librarians by Jen Swann Downey (@jenswanndowney) over the weekend, I was thrilled. It seems like I waited forever to get approval for the ARC. I must admit, it was the title itself that attracted my attention. Ninjas are awesome! Librarians are awesome(r)!  Put the two together, and it’s an explosion of awesomeness. At least, that’s what was going on in my mind as I requested the preview of The Ninja Librarians from NetGalley.

The Ninja Librarians is Downey’s first novel, which is already being set up as a series of books. In this first novel, swash-buckling Dorothea Barnes (aka Dorrie), and her brother, Marcus, accidentally stumble into Petrarch’s Library, and a secret society of fighting “lybrarians.”

Although most of the story is set in the time-bending Petrarch’s Library, the theme of the book is linked to modern-day as recent news reports point to an increase in world-wide censorship. The purpose of this secret society is to travel through the history of mankind and try to save some of the world’s greatest thinkers from torture and death for challenging the status quo. (Did you know that a jury convicted Socrates for impiety and “corrupting youth” and condemned him to death by hemlock? It’s mentioned in the book!) Other influential persons in history mentioned in this book include Cyrano de Bergerac,  Timotheus of Miletus, and Saul of Tarsus who is also known as Paul the Apostle.

During their time in Petrarch’s Library, Dorrie and Marcus have to deal with difficult circumstances. None of the lybrarians anticipated an opening between the 21st Century and Petrarch’s Library, and the two newcomers are regarded by some as spies, members of the Foundation which wants to destroy the lybrarians’s work to undo censorship. Nonetheless Marcus is allowed to start an apprenticeship with his new love interest, and Dorrie talks her way into a sword apprenticeship with Cyrano de Bergerac, who teachers her a valuable lesson about her own desire to censor a rival back home.

There is a lot of action in The Ninja Librarians. It is full of sword fights, spying, close calls and double crossing. But there are also lots of funny moments, a la Marcus and his Star Wars fascination. In fact, Marcus persuades Casanova to change some of the dialog one of his plays and title it “The War of the Stars.”

The writing in this book keeps the story moving along at a fast pace. But I think the message in the book is even more important than its ability to keep readers engaged. It is imperative for our young readers to understand the dangers faced by the greatest authors and philosophers in our history. Without their courage to challenge conventional wisdom and unwillingness to back down, Western civilization would not have advanced to the point which it has today. We owe these great thinkers our gratitude for being brave and refusing to bow down to political pressures. We also owe Jen Swann Downey our gratitude for keeping their memory alive by honoring their work in such a way that incorporates the interests of today’s youth.

The book is set to be released in April 2014. Publisher recommends for ages 9 and up. I highly recommend to teachers, librarians and parents of middle grade readers as well. 

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