Judaism, magic and dragons: how could I not love a novel that combines those three elements? They explain not only my reaction to Sofiya Pasternack’s first tween novel “Anya and the Dragon” (see the review at www.thereportergroup.org/past-articles/feature-book-review/feature-book-review-stream/book-review-stream/off-the-shelf-music-dragons-alternate-worlds-and-time-travel), but why I was so excited to learn a sequel was due. I immediately asked for a review copy. The good news is that “Anya and the Nightingale” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is as well done as, if not better than, the first Anya novel. It contains great characters, an absorbing plot, just enough suspense and a few interesting twists.
As I noted in the review of the first book, the story takes place in a magic-filled version of 10th century Eastern Europe. However, parts of it are based on real history: the Jewish population is persecuted by the tsar and his minions. In this world, magic is also forbidden except to a select few. The three main characters return: Jewish Anya; her friend, Ivan, who comes from a family of court jesters, better known as fools; and Hakon, a dragon (who looks like an Asian dragon because he has no wings). The story begins just before Sukkot with Anya attempting to build a sukkah, although one of the family’s goats keeps eating the branches she’s using to make the walls. Her family is hoping for the return of Anya’s father, who was illegally taken to serve in the tsar’s army. Unfortunately, they learn that won’t happen. Anya decides to run away to see if she can bring her father back, and Ivan and Hakon choose to accompany her.
The three are helped by another magical creature who decides it’s dangerous for Hakon to travel and changes... Sorry, to tell you that would spoil the plot. On their journey, the three meet a dangerous creature known as the Nightingale, who has magical powers and whom the tsar wants captured and jailed. However, as in any good novel, things are not quite what they seem, and that includes Misha, who serves in the tsar’s daughter’s guard, and has a secret he also must hide – one that Anya guesses.
“Anya and the Nightingale” is delightful. The characters are flawed enough to make them interesting, and the interactions between Anya and her friends – when they act like the tweens they are and misunderstand each other’s intentions – were great fun to read. Those familiar with the first novel will understand more of the story’s background, but Pasternack includes enough detail so that this sequel can be read on its own. The work ends with hints of yet another mystery, which leaves me hoping a third book is in the works. If so, that one will immediately go on my must-read list.