Middle Grade Review

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Publication Date: May 5, 2020

Summary from NetGalley:

Twelve-year-old Maya is the only one in her South Side Chicago neighborhood who witnesses weird occurrences like werehyenas stalking the streets at night and a scary man made of shadows plaguing her dreams. Her friends try to find an explanation—perhaps a ghost uprising or a lunchroom experiment gone awry. But to Maya, it sounds like something from one of Papa’s stories or her favorite comics.

When Papa goes missing, Maya is thrust into a world both strange and familiar as she uncovers the truth. Her father is the guardian of the veil between our world and the Dark—where an army led by the Lord of Shadows, the man from Maya’s nightmares, awaits. Maya herself is a godling, half orisha and half human, and her neighborhood is a safe haven. But now that the veil is failing, the Lord of Shadows is determined to destroy the human world and it’s up to Maya to stop him. She just hopes she can do it in time to attend Comic-Con before summer’s over.

ARC provided by HMH Books for Young Readers via NetGalley for an honest review.

This is a lovely story and a nice addition to the mythology/urban fantasy genre that has been cropping up of late for the middle grades. I enjoyed learning about this African mythology, and meeting Maya and her family and friends.

Maya is a wonderful main character. She is sweet and loyal and has a great relationship with her parents. I really enjoyed learning about the people in her neighborhood, some of whom turn out to be orisha. Maya has some confidence issues like all kids her age, but she does step up when things get crazy and lives are at stake. Her friendships with Eli and Frankie were spot on. They all look out for each other but still support each other in wonderful ways. I loved Frankie’s scientific theories, that she tried to use to explain the magic. And Eli’s fascination with the paranormal was fun as well. Maya’s relationship with her father was great, and I just loved his ‘stories’ that he told her to actually teach her something about his world.

There are lots of other adults that are supportive of Maya and her friends, but I especially enjoyed the twins, Ida and Lucille Johnston. They often showed up just in time to help save the kids, but they also added some moments of levity to the situation.

The Dark is full of pretty scary creatures and the Lord of Shadows made for a good villain. There were a few times that I was worried that Maya and her friends were going to get into some real trouble, but they always managed to get out of it in time. I appreciated that they tried to avoid killing some of the creatures, and when it was unavoidable, they felt bad about it and had some guilt. Not something you usually see in fantasy.

The basic plot is typical of the genre, but it is well done. We get enough backstory on the mythology from Maya to make the story engaging and fun. The pacing was good, but sometimes felt a little rushed. There are some scary bits, but nothing too bad, the werehyenas in particular were not my favorites. The world building was good, I especially liked the descriptions of the wormholes through the veil and the Dark.

Overall a nice addition to this growing genre. A must read if you enjoy learning about other culture’s mythology with a fantasy twist.


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