The Shadow Cadets of Pennyroyal Academy: Pennyroyal Academy, Book 2

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Shadow Cadets of Pennyroyal Academy: Pennyroyal Academy, Book 2 Book Poster Image
Lessons, magic, gore in exciting princess-school sequel.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Author Larson's light, well-paced writing style demands readers who can handle vocabulary such as "concentric," "dominate," "bemusement," "westernmost," and "existentially ridiculous." He also uses a lot of German and faux-German character and place names (for example, the word for Evie's kingdom, Väterlich, means "fatherly," but other words are grammatically off or complete nonsense) -- best to check your translation app before assuming they're correct.

Positive Messages

The importance of family -- the one you're born to, the one that takes you in, the one you make for yourself -- is an essential theme, along with the connection between family members, even when they're estranged. Or bickering. There are strong messages of friendship and loyalty -- including making things right when one of you does something wrong or maybe just ill-advised. Also courage, determination, and trying to figure out the right thing to do in challenging circumstances. There's a lot of violence, death, and revenge -- and the beginnings of the idea that kindness and compassion might restore order. Author Larson is something of a rock star in the My Little Pony universe for broadening the Ponies' appeal to adults and boys, so it's not surprising that he's big on not letting conventional gender roles get in the way of being who you are, as represented here by princess-in-training and skilled swordsman Basil.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Evie and her friends take their obligations as princesses seriously, whether it involves showing compassion or changing battle strategy on the fly. When they do things like sneak out of the dorm or break into forbidden areas, it's usually for a good cause. They also fall out among themselves in highly relatable ways (as when new classmates disrupt comfortable relationships) but have the courage and determination to make things right. Kindness often comes when it's most needed -- and from the unlikeliest of sources. Evie's loving fathers -- the biological one she never knew, and the adoptive one who raised and protected her -- are both long dead but play a strong role in inspiring her.

Violence

Hunting and killing witches and assorted monsters is a core duty of princesses. As the story begins, three mysterious women murder an innkeeper's wife with swords, and swordplay is important to many characters (and plot developments). Evie and Basil have good skills with swords -- and, usually, the wisdom to know when they're not the right tool for the job. Characters good and evil die or suffer grave injury in hand-to-hand combat. A once-beautiful character is now grotesquely hideous. The deadly tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is the beginning of the war between the princesses and the witches.

Sex

A couple of brief, sweet kisses. On the darker side, one of the princesses takes the bleak view that "the best outcome for me is to be married off as some sort of diplomatic tool."

Language

Brief mentions of "bum," as in rear end. A few matter-of-fact references to pee and poop (bear urine is an important element in one class), but U.S. parents will find little to worry about. British parents should be forewarned that author Larson is very fond of putting "bloody" and, on one occasion, "sod" in the mouths of adult and kid characters.

Consumerism

Several references to Book 1, Pennyroyal Academy, mostly as background to the current plot.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters drink, and a king describes past hunting trips that involved a lot of mead. In two key scenes, characters drug or cast spells on others to make them unconscious. In one case, it's part of a plan and the character has consented, but in the other, the character's tranquilized to keep her quiet.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Shadow Cadets of Pennyroyal Academy, the second installment in M.A. Larson's Pennyroyal Academy series, covers the second-year adventures of four friends and princesses-in-training at a magical academy: protagonist  Evie, who finds herself dealing with fame and fans after her feats in Book 1; Demetra, wealthy and titled royal; smart, conscientious Maggie; and Basil, whose mom gave up on having girls and sent her 22nd son to princess training. Fighting and killing (often horrific-looking) witches, who in turn kill many others, is a central theme, and there's a lot of violence, from magic spells to swordplay. Characters die, often violently. But there's a lot of light in the darkness, including humor. Along with relatable moments galore (such as the friends dealing with changes in their relationship and trying to be true to themselves and their bonds), author Larson delivers a raft of positive messages about friendship, family, loyalty, and kindness, often from unlikely sources. Expect a couple of brief, sweet kisses between two young characters.

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What's the story?

As the cadets return to Pennyroyal Academy for the second year, protagonist Evie finds herself in a new role: the object of fan adoration in the wake of her killing a witch in Book 1. She's troubled by the murder of an innocent innkeeper's wife she witnessed on her journey and soon gets frightening evidence that it's part of the witches' latest evil plot. Worse, it seems THE SHADOW CADETS OF PENNYROYAL ACADEMY -- students expelled from the Academy -- have joined the dark side in a new alliance. And just when they need one another most, Evie and her friends are often on the outs.

Is it any good?

M.A. Larson may get cartoonish and clichéd here and there, but appealing characters with relatable issues, plus a lot of heart and humor, carry the day in his latest magic-academy installment. The Shadow Cadets of Pennyroyal Academy will be too dark and gory for some, but there's a lot of light. The engaging, well-paced narrative keeps the pages turning as central characters struggle with cosmic evil -- and also the day-to-day troubles of friends and school. In the process, the author delivers strong, comforting messages, such as this, from Evie's long-dead father in a dream: "We're family ... We will always be inside of you, just as you will always be inside of us. We are together, even when we're apart. Even after we die."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about boarding-school stories, especially ones at magic-themed boarding schools. Why are they so popular? How does The Shadow Cadets of Pennyroyal Academy compare with others you might know about?

  • Have you ever been shown kindness by someone you didn't expect it from at all? What happened? Did your relationship with that person change?

  • Why do you think people sometimes feel more at home with their friends than their families? Do you think one has to be more important than the other, or is it possible to have strong connections with both?

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