Amari and the Night Brothers is the first book that I’ve read as a direct result of #booktwitter. My previous book discussion spots didn’t hit middle grade too hard, but my Twitter feed was buzzing about B.B. Alston’s debut, and I’d been looking to dip my toe back into fantasy for younger audiences (Harry Potter and Narnia hold up for adults, so why not?), so it seemed a perfect fit. And, while this isn’t a book that made me forget I wasn’t the intended audience, it was still a whole lot of fun.
Thirteen year-old Amari Peters lives in an Atlanta housing project with her mother, struggling to fight discrimination as a scholarship kid at a fancy school, never mind the long shadow of her genius brother Quinton. Even worse, Quinton has been missing for almost six months, and the authorities–assuming he was secretly involved in some sort of illicit dealings–aren’t even bothering to look. But one night, Amari receives a message nominating her for a position in the mysterious Bureau, a secret organization with headquarters in downtown Atlanta posing as a summer camp for secondary school kids–the same camp that Quinton had attended years before.
This begins a wild ride that sees Amari enroll in a training program in an organization dedicated to keeping the supernatural world hidden from ordinary humanity. Amari quickly discovers her magical talent, but this doesn’t lead to acceptance. As someone coming from a non-magical family and wielding unusual abilities, she faces just as much discrimination in the magic school as she did in her ordinary school. And she can’t spend too much time trying to gain acceptance into the supernatural world, because that would interfere with her true purpose: finding out what really happened to Quinton.
I didn’t have to scan reviews too long to see “Harry Potter meets Men in Black” comments, and it honestly captures the setting perfectly. The Men in Black inspiration is no secret–the Bureau even has devices to overwrite memories of supernatural occurrences. But Amari and the Night Brothers really leans into the weirdness and wonder in a way that’s more reminiscent of the early Harry Potter books. However, while Alston’s supernatural world is designed to be more wondrous than logical, it doesn’t quite capture that combination of magic and humor that made the Harry Potter books stand out. But it does get full marks for the characters–Amari is so likable, and the combination of her desire to find her place in the world and the love for her brother and desperation to find him drive the narrative right from the start. Add in her roommate, Elsie the were-dragon, and the rich and famous Van Helsing twins that serve as rivals, and it’s an interesting and well-rounded cast.
Once the narrative progresses past the introduction to the supernatural and deeper into the main plot, things start moving more quickly, and Amari’s training and her search for Quinton both have plenty to keep the reader engaged. The twisting plot drops enough hints to make every development feel earned, but without telegraphing every surprise to the extent that more genre-savvy readers can predict each turn in advance. And there are some fantastic individual moments that echo beyond the pages.
Just because we’re afraid doesn’t give us the right to attack.
It does require the usual middle grade suspension of disbelief–how does a thirteen year-old break all the rules while trying to solve a mystery the adults can’t solve without getting herself kicked out of school?–and the whirlwind ending could’ve used more time to process the bevy of new developments before rushing on to the next step. But on the whole, Amari and the Night Brothers was hard to put down in the back half. A lovable protagonist and an exciting plot make this one a whole lot of fun, an easy recommendation to readers who enjoy middle grade stories.
Recommended if you like: middle grade fantasy, magic schools, Black girls showing out.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.