Title: Nura and the Immortal Palace
Author: M. T. Khan
Stars: ★★★ (3 stars)
Whether you’re a specialty press out of the midwest or a big hitter like Hachette, using Studio Ghibli as a comparison in your sell line is dangerous. Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away holds a special place in my heart, and in a generation of teens who are growing up in an age where loving anime is popular, comparing to the legend of Hayao Miyazaki begs criticism, so I went into M.T. Khan’s story expecting to be let down. Adding to my love of Studio Ghibli was the repeated disappointment I’ve felt with books put out under the James Patterson imprint at Little Brown.
To be frank, I’m still conflicted. The first third of this book delivers a colorful world filled with vibrant characters. I could easily imagine the brilliant scenery, and Nura took center stage as a young heroine in a horrendous situation. Unlike Chihiro of Spirited Away, she isn’t a privileged child. She’s unable to attend school, working to help support her family after her father’s death. Still, she is shown to be a child, coveting small treats. Nura is wonderfully imperfect and desperately trying her best in horrible circumstances. Even without the fantasy elements, an exploration of the aftermath of the horrors desperation can unintentionally lead to would be incredible.
However, that wasn’t how the rest of the book felt. Nura’s desire to help her family became entangled in the same moral quagmire I’ve noted before. Obedience and subservience to the will of her living parent is placed in a category of higher importance than the actual socioeconomic wellbeing of her family. Demanding an education and placing the belief that this is the harder path upfront but the better path overall utterly ignores the current job market globally.
Obviously, I understood the mother’s desperation for her daughter to have a better life and not endanger herself in the mines. There are some great moments where child labor and poverty are explored in ways rarely seen in MG literature; however, sometimes Khan became rather heavy handed. Her subtler scenes work better, and the first third of the book honestly does a significantly better job of dealing with those topics before we go off the fantastical deep end.
When it comes to the latter two thirds, we once more are given a colorful and fascinating world; however, the characters get very two dimensional. If this was on purpose, then it’s an unfortunate tumble down the heavy-handedness you’d expect from Aesop. Not entirely effective writing. Which is unfortunate as the story itself is good.
By the end, I felt caught between two worlds. One, where Khan creates an ideal where academic and financial advancement correlate, which has proven to be less and less consistently true. In the second, the weighty wheel of power crushes anyone who isn’t at least attempting the climb.
Where that leaves me? Impressed by Khan when compared to other James Patterson titles and disappointed when compared to Studio Ghibli.