I picked up my second middle grade fantasy book of the year and I have to tell you how much I’ve been loving these books. I haven’t read middle grade since I was a middle grade student, but these books (especially the ones with a lot of diversity) are really making me feel so much for the characters and I keep rooting for them to all succeed.
Pahua Moua has a bit of a reputation for being a weirdo. A lonely eleven-year-old Hmong girl with the unique ability to see spirits, she spends her summer days babysitting her little brother and playing with her best friend, a cat spirit no one else can see.
One day Pahua accidentally untethers an angry spirit from the haunted bridge in her neighborhood–whoops. When her brother suddenly falls sick and can’t be awoken, Pahua fears that the bridge spirit has stolen his soul. She returns to the scene of the crime with her aunt’s old shaman tools, hoping to confront the spirit and demand her brother’s return. Instead, she summons a demon.
Thankfully, a warrior shaman with a bit of an attitude problem shows up at the last minute and saves her butt. With the help of this guide, Pahua will have to find her way through the spirit worlds and rescue her brother’s soul before it’s too late. Little does she know she’ll have her own discoveries to make along the way. . . .
With its unforgettable characters, unique nature-based magic system, breathtaking twists and reveals, and climactic boss battle, this story based on Hmong oral tradition offers everything a fantasy lover could want.
This was definitely your chosen one/hero’s journey and I was all for it. I loved Pahua and her destiny, discovering more about being a shaman with Zhong by her side, and really being much bigger than the average 11-year-old. This was such a funny book with a ton of heart and it made me so excited to read and ignore my adult responsibilities. She’s got a cat familiar, which I just adored. I’m a huge fan of characters with talking pets/spirits that guide them along the way. They are always sassy in the books I end up reading.
Pahua isn’t your typical strong character. There were some moments when it felt like she can do more than you expect her to at that point, but I loved that she and Zhong were a team who worked closely together despite there being some obvious animosity from Zhong. Pahua is also dealing with a lot in this story and it’s not just losing her brother’s soul to a mysterious spirit. She’s also struggling with the loss of her father from her life. After her parents separated, it seems like she feels neglected and lost with what to do next. I can definitely relate to that in many ways and compounded on top of that, she’s ostracized at school for being Asian without anyone to help her. It was so relatable to me that I could feel my heart pulling for Pahua’s.
Despite some of the heavier themes, the book was still exciting with a lot of action and adventure as Zhong and Pahua journey into the spirit realm and back again. I loved meeting all the different kinds of spirits while they were traveling. From the aunties who fed them when they were hungry to the old woman watching over the Tree of Souls, there was a warmth to the spirits in these worlds that felt so absent from Pahua’s reality. Even the demons and dragon boys were fun at times.
The adventures don’t quit either. Seriously, once Pahua and Zhong figured out one piece of the puzzle, there was another something they needed to battle or face. It made the story really compelling and I wanted to keep on reading to see what happens next!
One of the aspects I really loved about Pahua is how non-violent she is. Instead of running right at the problem with her ax, she talks to the enemy or negotiates with them. To me, that’s just big brain thinking and I loved having Zhong be the anti-thesis of this as well, but it really surprised me to see Pahua take a different route.
Overall, it was such an action packed story with tons of adventure and friendship. I loved learning about the Hmong culture and folklore through Pahua and Zhong’s journey. It made me laugh super hard and root for these girls to save the day.