The Extincts: Quest for the Unicorn Horn

Lug the Wooly Mammoth, Martie the Passenger Pigeon, Scratch the Saber Toothed Tiger, and Quito the Collins Poison Frog make up a special group known as ROAR – the Rescue Ops Acquisition Rangers. ROAR exists to protect environmental artifacts, especially those that have become exposed by climate change. Their leader, Dr. Z, has just sent them on their first real mission, to rescue a rare horn from a Siberian unicorn, an extinct creature similar to a rhinoceros, which may have inspired the legend of the unicorn. The horn is thought to possess medicinal qualities which could be squandered if it falls into the wrong hands or is lost to the melting effects of climate change. ROAR travels via futuristic vehicles like a hovercraft and an all-terrain mobile support vehicle called the MoSUV. They also have a computerized guide named GAIA which shares facts with them during their mission. 

At first the story seems fairly straightforward. The group embarks on their mission with little trouble apart from being followed through Siberia by a mysterious cave bear on a motorcycle. However, astute readers may wonder why no origin story is presented for this group. It is also perplexing why these animals are alive and well even though they are members of extinct species. The cave bear who finally catches up to ROAR knows the truth, and a twist in the plot will surely surprise readers. Future volumes in the series will undoubtedly provide more adventure as “The Extincts” find their place in a world that was never made for them. 

The Extincts: Quest for the Unicorn Horn has a lot to delight middle grade readers. The story is action-packed, with an interesting illustration scheme that’s dynamic and attention-grabbing. Scott Magoon makes each character distinctive from the others and from the human world around them. Young readers will enjoy the characters’ ROAR uniforms, gadgets, and vehicles. There are typically two to three colors used per page, but the colors alternate frequently, making the book visually interesting and reflecting the different settings of the story. There is also plenty of age-appropriate silly humor—Lug the wooly mammoth has to go to the bathroom through much of the story and opens a new cave tunnel with a giant fart.

The book also teaches a great deal of science, especially about the effects of climate change on the arctic regions, including melting permafrost, collapsing buildings, and habitat loss. The end matter Includes an experiment you can try at home with supercooled liquid. Other features in the end matter are information about all the extinct species featured, a glossary of terms, more about the Siberian setting of the Batagaika Crater, and things readers can do to help the earth. The Extincts is a strong new series for middle grade readers, and its opening volume, Quest for the Unicorn Horn is as entertaining as it is educational.

The Extincts, vol. 1: Quest for the Unicorn Horn
By Scott Magoon
Abrams Amulet, 2022
ISBN: 9781419752513

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel

If your family was torn in two, what would you do to try to find the other half?

When 15 year old Lina Vilkas and her family are taken from their home in Lithuania one night in 1941 by Soviet officers, the women and children are forced onto separate trains from the men. Lina, her brother, and her mother end up in a work camp in the frozen tundra of Siberia, far from the life she used to know, but her father’s destination is unknown. Terrified that she will never see her father again, and inspired by her love of drawing, she devises an incredibly risky plan: she will use her skills as an artist to draw secret clues on scraps of paper, in the hopes that they will reach her father, and bring him back to them. 

As weeks turn into months, Lina finds herself fighting for her life and the lives of those imprisoned with her as they try to endure the horrific conditions of the camp. And even as new connections are forged (and maybe, just maybe, even a little bit of love is found), one question still persists over everything: will her drawings be enough to reunite her family? 

Can art keep you alive even in the darkest times?

Ten years after the original publication of Ruta Sepetys’ young adult novel, writer Andrew Donkin and illustrator Dave Kopka have adapted it into a graphic novel format which will bring Sepetys’ story to a whole new audience. Though the original is over 300 pages long, the graphic novel does not lose anything by being a shorter length. Donkin’s written adaptation feels complete and whole, and Lina’s point-of-view narration translates well into the graphic novel format, along with longer panels of dialogue. In fact, any text that may have been “lost” in this reduced page count is gained back tremendously through Kopka’s evocative illustrations. 

Kopka’s choice to use a limited color palette that especially features shades of brown and the titular gray is a perfect one for this bleaker tale, as it sets a more somber tone right from the start. The combination of pencil line art and soft watercolor lend the illustrations a sketchbook-like look, something that can perhaps give readers a deeper connection to Lina and her own drawings and sketches, which are such a central part of the story. There is an almost frantic, harried look to the character design that feels tonally appropriate, along with vivid facial expressions that leave no emotion unexplored. 

Additionally, Kopka does not shy away from depicting the harrowing experiences of life in an NKVD (Soviet secret police) work camp, yet his illustrations do not feel exploitative or unnecessarily graphic. Instead, they are necessary to punctuate specific narrative beats.

So many stories set during WWII traverse the same ground that teen readers have read about often, whether by choice or in school, which is what makes Sepetys’ original novel and Donkin’s adaptation stand out. Lina’s experience as a Lithuanian prisoner in a Soviet work camp in Siberia is unfamiliar narrative territory for many teens, and though her specific tale is fiction, it is of course based in fact. Her struggles and her resilience will resonate with readers, as will her amazing ability to find hope and love even in the darkest place. Her desire to leave behind a message for the world that she was here, that this happened, will feel especially poignant to teens whose own stories are often unheard, or worse, are intentionally covered up. 

Recommended for teens ages 12 and up, Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel would be a worthy addition to any library collection, as it makes a recent classic young adult novel accessible to a wider variety of readers, as well as providing a window into a lesser known part of history. 

Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel
By Andrew Donkin
Art by  Dave Kopka
Penguin Random House, 2021
ISBN: 9780593204160

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)


In the imperial Russia of 1916, the city of Petrograd is mired in class warfare and despair. Embittered soldiers languish on the eastern front of the Great War, commoners queue in bread lines, intelligence operatives engage in furtive combat with Bolshevik revolutionaries, and people from all strata of society gossip about Rasputin, the charismatic mystic whose influence with the Tsarina threatens Russia’s stability.

Enter Cleary, a British intelligence officer of Irish extraction who’s been assigned to duty in Petrograd. Cleary isn’t patriotic; in fact, he harbors secret sympathies with Irish revolutionaries back home. But he’s committed to remaining in Petrograd, far from the terrors of the war—even if it means being tasked by distant bureaucrats to solve the Russian problem in a surprising manner. Cleary’s orders are simple: he must arrange the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.

What follows is less spy thriller, more absurdist satire in the “war is hell” tradition of World War I literature. Cleary’s plot is soon co-opted by a pair of dilettante Russian noblemen, whose modus operandi as amateur assassins resembles a Looney Tunes sketch. Rasputin himself is a shadowy opportunist whose political importance is dubious and whose spooky reputation mostly exists in the minds of his fellow Russians. And Cleary is not so much an action hero as a dupe, as he quickly realizes that, when this ill-conceived assassination goes south, he’ll be left holding the bag.

I liked a lot of the storytelling and artistic choices in Petrograd, particularly those that ground the mythology of Rasputin and revolutionary-era Russia in the gritty reality of class politics and global imperialism. In crafting the story of Petrograd, author Philip Gelatt draws on an unsubstantiated theory that British intelligence was involved in Rasputin’s death; though fictionalized, the story draws on a wealth of scholarly sources. Illustrator Tyler Crook elevates the project with evocative sepia-toned art that conveys the calm-before-the-storm atmosphere of a Russia on the verge of revolution.

Yet as spy fiction, Petrograd fell flat for me. Cleary is an intriguing character, a pawn of the British Empire whose need to save his own skin puts him at war with his better self. Yet the other characters who populate this story—with the exception of the elusive Rasputin—feel one-dimensional, without any of the subtleties and hidden motivations that make spy capers so darn fun. Nor did this script really gel for me as an adventure story; scenes are weighed down with dialogue and “as you know, Bob” exposition, with action hijinks mostly confined to the book’s climactic pages.

Ultimately, not only did this flat storytelling make for an unsatisfying read, but it did a disservice to the subject matter. By positioning Cleary as the only fully realized character in the dystopian landscape of wartime Petrograd, this book falls into Orientalist cliché, casting Russia as a backward nation whose inhabitants are nefarious, hapless, and doomed. Cleary may be an antihero, but he’s nevertheless the only character who feels like he has any real agency. A scene near the end places him in a crucial role in the 1917 February Revolution; in other words, Russians aren’t even given full credit for their own political revolution.

Petrograd will appeal to historical comic readers interested in a fresh, unusual retelling of the events of 1916/17 Russia, as well as fans of Tyler Crook’s award-winning art. The comic did rekindle my interest in 20th-century Russian history, from its revolutionary politics to the figure of Felix Yusupov, the queer, crossdressing nobleman who was one of the chief co-conspirators of the Rasputin assassination. While this one was ultimately a pass for me, Gelatt and Crook do succeed in bringing this history to life and making its complexities accessible to general readers.

By Philip Gelatt
Art by Tyler Crook
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150153

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: British, Irish, Russian, Queer, Gender Nonconforming

The Gift

In this imagined tale of fifteen-year-old Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, a camera mysteriously arrives as a welcome gift, first to photograph her life behind the palace walls, and then beyond the liminal space that the Russian revolution has generated for her and her family.

The story begins on a snowy winter day with a moth attending the birth of the fourth Romanov princess. The disappointment in the birth of a fourth daughter is only mitigated by the subsequent birth of her brother. His illness, while often a large part of this family historic record, is only a side note to both Anastasia’s historical and fantastical experiences with the revolution and the filmic documentation with the mysterious camera. Although she never discovers the identity of the gift giver, the camera becomes an integral part of her daily life. She carries it everywhere with her, seemingly having an unlimited supply of film that is developed on a regular basis. At first, the photographs are benign pictures of the monotonous life of the children behind the palace walls but soon Anastasia is visited by vivid dreams and then, in her peripheral vision, discovers that she is being followed by a creature that may not be human. The most haunting aspect of this creature, and ultimately the story itself, is that it is not a foreshadowing of the devastation and death that we know is coming for this family but a personal connection for Anastasia that becomes violently disconnected at the end of the tale. The reader is left with many questions and no distinct answers.

The moth returns at the end to this succinct and partially wordless narrative to replicate the feeling of the circular action of many folktales, which initially attracted this reader to the storytelling in the book. Also, previously, eons ago, I had been fascinated by the Romanov story, and this book, while not factually truthful, brought me full circle to my earlier self which was an additional unexpected gift for me. While not an uplifting tale, The Gift satisfied and delighted me in so many ways.

Canadian illustrator and writer, Zoe Maeve, undertook a great deal of research on the Romanov family history for the story but soon deviated from historical accuracy to create her own backdrop for her tale. While not adhering to the historical record, this research is paramount in making her story rich and inviting for the reader. The generally unadorned but detailed illustrations, done in delicate inks and rendered in varied shades of blue, establish, and embellish the evocative and poignant dreamscape of the story.

This is not an uncomplicated novel to ignore and easily forget. Initially intended for a young adult audience, this book should appeal to a wide age range of readers interested in the supernatural, horror, Russian history, and photography.

The Gift Vol. 
By Zoe Maeve
Conundrum, 2021
ISBN: 9781772620559

Publisher Age Rating: YA
Series ISBNs and Order
Related media: 

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Russian, Chronic Illness,