Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Barren Grounds (The Misewa Saga, #1)
by David Alexander Robertson

Synopsis (via Goodreads): Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations in an epic middle grade fantasy series from award-winning author David Robertson.

Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home -- until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, AskΓ­, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything -- including them.

"When you take more than the land can provide, it stops giving."
I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thoughts and opinions are my own. Any quotes I use are from an unpublished copy and may not reflect the finished product.

I really wanted to love this book, but everything that happened in The Barren Grounds was just way too convenient. I had to suspend my disbelief often. Morgan would yell and lose her temper, only to realize seconds later that she was wrong and projecting her feelings of anger, insecurity, and fear onto others. Her emotions would "boil" and "bubble" inside of her until she exploded, but an outburst never lasted long. I don't think a thirteen-year-old is that in control of themselves. I'm thirty-one and even I can't be fuming one second and easily rationalize my anger the next. It takes time.

The other characters were the same way - - everyone was just so understanding. Fisher would get worked up, yell, and then immediately apologize for his behavior. He would even concede that someone else was right, and that he had been in the wrong. People rarely do that! It made everyone's actions feel fake and nearly impossible to relate to. In a perfect world, yes, people would instantly apologize for any and every transgression, and they would see where they were wrong. However, this isn't a perfect world, and children don't have that much self-awareness (at least not in my experience). 

I also wasn't a fan of how easy everything was for the characters. They had to travel across a permanent winter wasteland, yet they encountered very few problems. When they did, those problems resolved themselves almost as quickly as they appeared. A solution would just fall out of the sky, or someone would have a change of heart. It wasn't believable. The characters should have struggled more to save the world and learn life-changing lessons.

Morgan's dreams, visions, memories - - whatever they were - - weren't explained very well and made little to no sense. Sure, they were able to help Morgan come to terms with her current situation (the fact that she was in foster care, not that she fell into a magical world). Additionally, her anger seemed to evaporate without really being addressed. I'm not sure how less than a week in Misewa was able to change her personality so drastically, but she was downright bubbly after a few days. She learned how to live off the land (sort of), understand a mom she doesn't remember (sort of), and save people she initially didn't care a about (sort of). 

Other things that bugged me:

  1. Morgan's teacher told her that her poem was good, but refused to grade it because it lacked "heart." I'm sure Morgan's poem was better than some of the others in her class, and she actually spent a lot of time on it. The teacher's response was dumb. Then she tells Morgan to redo her poem (in a single day), and her reaction to Morgan's revision was equally as frustrating. 
  2. "When she got to the other side, she let out a huge breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding."
  3. A "bad guy" told them that he was going to kill them after x happened, and they apparently forgot all about his warning despite it being a BIG DEAL. They were so surprised when x actually happened, but didn't think to have someone keep watch? Ochek kept a midnight vigil earlier in the book for no real reason, so his lack of a defense was baffling and unbelievable. Ochek is also super good with traps, so why didn't he set one?
  4. The way the animals talked, the information they knew, how their world worked - - confusing. It was poorly explained, and rarely elaborated on. Someone from Misewa would say something super vague, and then tell the kids not to worry about it. What?? You have to elaborate when you're describing a fantasy world! Details and the inner-workings are important! Also, what they knew about humans versus what they didn't was super convoluted. 
  5. Maybe the most important of them all: The animals have been living in an endless winter - - dying from the cold, hunger, etc. - - and the solution was just over a mountain? It took them like two days to get there. Why didn't they band together when it first happened and send scouts in all directions? They would have been better equipped, had more numbers and resources, and probably had fewer problems overall. They've never had to defend or protect themselves before?
That brings me to the conclusion of the book: It was unsatisfying and came together way too easily. The "final confrontation" was worse than some of the fights my three-year-old's have with each other. Basically, it was people yelling nonsense on repeat. I'm sure the author was trying to make a point about people taking more than they should (something that was repeated multiple times throughout the book - - we get it), but the Villain was ridiculous. It was also WAY TOO EASY for them to "fix" everything. Nothing was heavily guarded or patrolled, and their thought-of-it-on-the-spot plan was laughable. I was expecting more after all of the build up.

There's a death in the book that should have gutted me, but I honestly didn't care. Their death was a waste and totally avoidable. Pretty much every issue they had was preventable, if they'd just thought through what they were going to do beforehand. Poor planning and sloppy execution were their downfall. Besides, what they needed to retrieve would have been dead long before they'd arrived, if they'd really been kept in those conditions. Also, no explanations whatsoever (other than the greed of humans and what have you). 

Morgan's lack of self-preservation was also noticeable, and her bravado unconvincing. Her lackluster everything didn't make her a very likable or relatable character. Eli, Ochek, and Arik were better, but not by much. The animals knew some human expressions but not others, and it all just felt weird and off. We also don't learn why Morgan or Eli were in foster care to begin with, or why Eli has such a violent, knee-jerk reaction to a wolf.

Okay, so things I did like: 
  1. The book focuses on Indigenous children!
  2. Foster care!
  3. The foster parents weren't monsters (although Morgan does talk about previous bad experiences), and they tried to incorporate the children's culture into their home to make it feel more welcoming. They accepted the children and didn't want to change them into some cookie cutter version they had in their heads.
  4. The book discuses respite care (an aspect of foster care), which isn't something I've seen before in books.  
  5. I love that there was Cree (an Indigenous language) peppered in throughout the book. Most of the words and phrases were explained, and others I understood based on the context.
  6. The story is based on traditional Indigenous stories, but with a modern twist.
  7. Misewa was a really interesting (albeit confusing) place, and I only wish it had been better explained and explored.
I know The Barren Grounds is meant for a younger audience, but I felt like I was reading the bones of the book. Like, the author hadn't yet added all of the fleshy bits needed for it to function properly. Maybe the finished product will have more substance and hardship, because I do think this book has a lot of potential. It's unique despite clearly being inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia. Everything just happened too easily, the impossible was accepted with hardly any pushback, and important elements were left unaddressed. (★★★⋆☆)


  1. What a pity it wasn't fleshed out better. Sounds like it could do with a bit of a going over by a good editor to tighten it up a bit.

    1. It was such a bummer! The story had a solid foundation, but the execution was rocky.

  2. I hate plot conveniences. Thanks for the heads up. πŸ‘✨

    1. No problem! It seems to be a reoccurring theme in the MG books I've been picking up lately. πŸ˜”


Click the "Notify me" box if you want to be notified when someone responds!

“Stuff and nonsense. Nonsense and stuff and much of a muchness and nonsense all over again. We are all mad here, don't you know?”
― Marissa Meyer, Heartless