The Bear House by Meaghan McIsaac

Oh, wow, I do hope this is the start of a series, because Meaghan McIsaac makes some truly great narrative and world-building choices here!

Imagine a realm where the kingdoms are devoted to the animal constellations that we readers more or less already know, with the Bear House ruling supreme over them all. The leaders of each kingdom, including the Major of Bear House, are selected by the divine symbols of each house, sacred beasts reared to battle and rule. The current Major is Jasper Lourdes, and his heirs are his daughters Ursula and Aster, young teenagers with a reputation for being silly and spoiled.

When the Minor of Bear House, Jasper’s older brother Bram, suddenly makes a powerful, blasphemous play for the throne, it catches nearly all of Highen unawares. Bram is a man who’s spent almost his entire life supporting his Major, but plans now to do away with his nieces and install his own daughter Bernadine in Jasper’s place.

Unfortunately for him, Bernadine grew up with her cousins and has little interest in being a part of this treasonous plot. Instead, she helps the sisters escape with Alcor, the holy Hemoth Bear that will choose the next Major, as well as with Dev, the novice Keeper who’s supposed to both rear Alcor and record the kingdom’s history in his Star Writ. But will Bernadine change her mind about taking on the role of Major when she finds out the true reason for her father’s treachery?

Meanwhile, the refugees from Bear House are desperately looking for safety while trying to rally the realm’s other heirs to their cause. For Bram hasn’t been the only person waiting in the wings to upset the status quo, as the House of the Shadow Dragon and the House of Hounds learn to their dismay. But who will answer the Lourdes sisters’ call? Will they be able to save the Highen? More importantly, does it even need saving, or is Bram on the forefront of a much-needed religious reform?

This was a surprisingly thoughtful look at revolution and responsibility in the form of a middle-grade fantasy novel. None of the characters were stock: everyone had complex reasons and relationships, even if/when they were being shitheads. Ms McIsaac skillfully shows off how assumptions fail in the face of lived experience. At first, I was a bit annoyed that the sisters were considered spoiled when Dev was by far brattier than them both combined, but then I realized that that was the point, that the girls were meant to be considered frivolous despite all their accomplishments, simply because they’re pretty young women who like nice clothes and don’t make a big deal about their skills. It was honestly pretty neat to see how character counted for so much. As an older sister myself, I’m ngl: I’m hoping that Ursula gets her propers in the next book, assuming there is a next book! I love the entire constellation premise and would love to read so much more in this setting, especially under the even-handed, clever guidance of Ms McIsaac.

The Bear House by Meaghan McIsaac was published October 5 2021 by Holiday House and is available from all good booksellers, including

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