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The Tenacious Tale of Tanna the Tendersword by Dewey Conway and Bill Adams, is a middle-grade fantasy book about a heroine-in-training and her scribe-in-training going on their first quest. I received an ARC of this book and promptly read it to my children, twin 16-year-old boys with intellectual and learning disabilities. They loved it, as did I, for the reasons described below.

As the title shows, it’s full of wordplay perfect for middle grade readers, with numerous alliterations, onomatopoeias, and other linguistic shenanigans. It might be challenging in spots for younger MG readers, but the wackiness of the story and that of the language go hand in hand, so it’s probably the right kind of challenging for a lot of eager fantasy-loving young minds.

The Tenacious Tale of Tanna the Tendersword by Dewey Conway and Bill Adams, showing a girl with a sword and a boy with a staff fighting monsters in a forest.

Cover by Dewey Conway

The story begins in a town full of pigs and their mess, where the bumbling heroine and her equally bumbling chronicler begin looking for Tanna’s first quest. There’s a lot of slapstick and physical comedy in the opening, but as a creepy purple fog begins invading the town, the story becomes progressively darker and spookier, though still well within the bounds of the intended readership (keep reading for a slight caveat).

There’s a witch in the nearby woods thought to be responsible for the purple fog and its nefarious effects. The plot thickens along with the fog, and soon we’re flying over the land in a carriage carried by a giant bird and fleeing from lizard-people called Throgs. There’s fighting and peril, and a lot of running and mystery-solving as the two begin their quest and the story picks up steam. We never really fear for the lives of our heroes, but as we get deeper into the quest, the madcap adventure takes on a more sinister tone at times.

The book was well-paced, with the usual series of minor achievements building up to the larger ones, as is common in MG books. While some books in this age range have a rather formulaic structure, this one keeps the goal-to-goal technique that keeps readers engaged without feeling like a strict formula is at play, which I personally enjoyed. The fantasy aspects are revealed in a slowly building stream that has an epic feel to it, from the dirt and mess of the pigs to the big showy battle with the villain and her minions. There are lots of cool, quirky bits along the way, sure to engage young readers as it did my kids. I especially enjoyed the various portals in the book, which were a fun and unique twist on a classic plot device.

Another interesting side of the story is that the hero is a girl, brash and reckless, and her chronicler is a boy, nervous and cautious above all. As the story goes on, they influence each other in meaningful ways, both showing significant character growth while remaining true to who they are. The lore surrounding heroes and chroniclers is fascinating; they are part of a long tradition of such pairs, and this history is part of the story as well, and will no doubt continue to be so into the next book. Some readers might find the descriptions of the bureaucracy of the questing organization to be a bit much (my kids did), but others will enjoy it as I did. It’s not every day you get to read about a scholar character, and it was nice to see this detailed worldbuilding around something relatively esoteric.

In the second half of the book, things get a bit darker, and this is where my caveat comes in. While the violence is mostly bloodless and enemies tend to get knocked out or run away, the villain uses magic to transform and enslave her victims, some of whom are put into chains, beaten, and forced to do manual labor to help her fulfill her nefarious plans. Others suffer a grimmer (but thankfully not permanent) fate. My kids were totally on board with all of this, but some readers might struggle with just how evil the villain truly is, especially as contrasted with the comedic and slapstick elements of the book. Of course, no one dies, and everything turns out all right in the end, but it might be a lot for some readers, so I do advise a measure of caution for sensitive or younger readers approaching this story.

The climax is well-done, delivering a rather epic conclusion to a story that starts in a silly little pig town. The bad guys are defeated, the questers level up, and the stage is set for another adventure, which will no doubt be even more epic than the first.

The Tenacious Tale of Tanna the Tendersword is a raucous, fun-filled romp, an adventure of epic proportions sure to please younger readers looking for classic fantasy with just the right blend of whimsy and darkness. The chapter illustrations I saw, generously shared by the authors, were spectacular, and this is one you’ll want to order a physical copy of. I can’t wait to read the next installment to my kids!

The book comes out April 2 and the ebook can be pre-ordered from Amazon via the link below. Hard copies will be available to order from any bookstore, including the fabulous Silverstone Books!

Read PL Stuart’s list of his top 50 indie books

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