Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
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.
Maya and the Rising Dark is a Middle Grade fantasy novel based on West African mythology in the same vein as the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. It’s fun, upbeat, and easy to read.
Like many of the RRP books, this story brings ancient myths into the modern world. In this case, South Side Chicago. Chicago is almost a character itself in the novel. Maya’s love for her neighborhood brings out the most vivid imagery and descriptions in the entire novel. That the most powerful Orishas in the universe would be living in Chicago just … makes sense when the city is seen through Maya’s eyes. Where else would they want to be?
However, this book is much more accessible to the younger readers than the RRP imprint. It is much shorter, the chapters are less dense, it doesn’t have such a slow start, and the plot moves quickly throughout. Percy Jackson always seemed to hover in the awkward space between Middle Grade and Young Adult, but Maya is a book that could be enjoyed easily by younger kids. I would suggest the target audience is probably fourth grade, or 10 years old.
The easy friendships between unique characters was a joy to read. Maya’s friends are delightfully quirky, one obsessed with ghosts, the other with science. Maya is super into comics. It was wonderful to read about nerdy kids who don’t come across as nerds. If that makes sense.
Another big strength of this book is the nuance with which violence is approached. Unlike in most fantasy adventures, bad guys are knocked down, not killed. Deaths of the past have left scars on characters, and Maya witnesses herself how scarring the death of an enemy can be. Honestly, Maya doesn’t even see them as “bad guys”. She wonders, how many of the Darkbringers even know what is happening. How many of them don’t want a war? As she goes through their world she realizes, most of them are just regular people, like me, not warriors.
That being said, this book doesn’t have the effortless feeling of the best of the MG fantasy genre. Some details and plot points felt rushed or forced. A McGuffin could perhaps have given the plot a clearer feeling of direction. The mythology wasn’t as fleshed out as I was hoping for, with the text mostly focusing on action sequences. That’s not to say this is a bad book, but it’s also not at outstanding as similar books on the market.
Overall, this was a fun book, and I would definitely recommend it for fans of mythology tales. Its PG action-sequences and easier writing might make it a nice introduction to younger kids who aren’t ready for some of the more hefty books in the genre yet, and its unique mythology and exciting pace makes it an enjoyable read.