Move over Percy Jackson and Harry Potter: Amari Peters is the hero we have been waiting for! She leads an imaginative, action-packed middle grade fantasy which is sure to be hugely popular.
Amari Peters is in trouble. The posh private school that she attends is full of elitist snobs who want her out because she isn't like them. They have been tormenting her about her missing older brother, Quinton, in an attempt to provoke her. After one of them tells Amari that he must be dead, she retaliates by pushing her which means that she may lose her scholarship. Amari is a bright, outspoken young girl who feels out of place at the exclusive, fee-paying school which Quinton had also attended. Her mother is a single parent and they live in a neighbourhood which has a reputation for being rather tough and dangerous, but the people that live there are not all criminals and thugs. Most, like Amari and her family, are just struggling to make ends meet. When the book opens, Amari and her mother are in the Principal's office discussing the pushing incident and she is sent home.
That same afternoon, while her mother is at work, a strange courier delivers a bag from her brother. When she opens it, she discovers that Quinton was actually working for the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs when he disappeared and has secured Amari a place in their special summer training camp. The Bureau polices the magical and supernatural creatures hidden throughout the unsuspecting human world and Quinton and his partner were their best agents. To find her brother, she must earn a place as a junior agent by competing against children who have always lived in this world.
B.B. Alston has created a fantastic character in Amari and a complex, enchanting world for her adventures. This is the first of what I believe will be a very successful middle grade series in the tradition of Percy Jackson or Harry Potter: a young child who faces lots of adversity in their life discovers a secret, supernatural world which exists alongside our own and they are drawn into an adventure there. The plot is fast paced and kept me guessing right until the end with the cliff hanger chapters driving me on to read more each time. The magical setting and the variety of creatures within it provide one delightful surprise after another for the reader. Alston's writing style is very informal and chatty, so while there are comparisons to be made with the Harry Potter series, it is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of Amari. It is much more like the Percy Jackson series in this sense, as well as the fact that it is American. The complexity of the supernatural world, its history and the amazing characters that Amari encounters promise a long-running and exciting series which will, no doubt, reveal more of the world with each book.
B.B. Alston's debut also must be acknowledged for the much needed diversity that it brings to children's literature. According to the most recent 'Reflecting Realities' survey conducted by the CLPE here in the UK, the percentage of books featuring a BAME lead character is still only 10% and the number of BAME authors is even lower at 8%. As a book by a Black author, featuring a Black girl as the lead, 'Amari and the Night Brothers' is something we have been waiting a long time for. I was impressed to see that it doesn't shy away from acknowledging the experience of Amari as a Black child. On entering the training programme, Amari discovers that she is a magician, which is a rare and dangerous thing to be in the supernatural world. She is immediately treated as an outcast before she has had a chance to prove herself to her superiors or peers. One of the few people willing to overlook her magician status is Agent Magnus, who is one of her trainers and a friend of Quinton's. He points out that Amari is going to have to put up with a lot of nasty remarks and behaviour from people because of their mistrust of magicians and asks if she's prepared for that:
I smile a little. Am I prepared for that? It's kind of like how being a Black kid from the projects makes Mr Jensen feel the need to watch me extra close every time I come in his store. Or how suprised my scholarship interviewers were that I could speak so well. People assume things about you based on stuff you can't change about yourself. So I just do my best to prove them wrong, to be the person that they're not expecting... 'I'm prepared,' I say. 'I've been practising my whole life.'
Amari and the Night Brothers, page 91.
So many children will love the character of Amari: she is brave, clever, resourceful and resilient. As a huge fan of this 'child-discovers-a-secret-magical-world' trope (I'm sure there is a better name for it - do let me know!), I am overjoyed to see a female lead character, which would have thrilled me as a young girl. I can only imagine what it will feel like for any girls of colour out there to finally see a character like Amari leading such a fantastic, electrifying series. Alston himself writes a note at the back of the book explaining how he first began writing this story with a white male protagonist because he assumed that no-one wanted to buy or publish a fantasy book featuring a person of colour. He had never seen characters who looked like him in books like this when he was growing up, but Amari kept popping into his head and so he produced this wonderful book. Regardless of the background of the reader, I think 'Amari and the Night Brothers' is wonderful and is going to be a hugely popular series. The hardback has also been beautifully designed as you can see from the pictures here, so do get it if you can. I can't wait for the next installment!