Last week we announced that Lowell H. Press’s The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
Here’s the set-up: Winner of the 2015 Gold Benjamin Franklin Award for Teen Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Silver Benjamin Franklin Award for Young Reader Fiction
The König is a tyrant. His subjects are starving. And all-out war is fast approaching. Will a pair of young, courageous brothers save their kingdom? When an emissary sent by the König himself stops by the remote mouse colony of Long Meadow, the peaceful life Sommer and Nesbit have shared is turned upside down-and the brothers are catapulted into separate death-defying adventures. Sommer, levelheaded and clever, is ordered to the palace to join the König’s illustrious Eagle Guard as it prepares to face a full-scale invasion by the nefarious Emperor Wolfsmilch and his army of a hundred thousand forest mice. Meanwhile, the small but spirited Nesbit is banished to the Forest of Lost Life for insulting the König, and must dodge hungry predators at every turn. The brothers struggle to reunite and defy the oppressors who threaten everyone and everything they have ever known and loved. But time is quickly running out for both of them-and the fate of the kingdom hinges on one last, daring mission. Set against the magnificent backdrop of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon is an action-packed adventure story for young readers and adults alike. Ages 10 and up.
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Chapter 1: A Deadly Remark
Nesbit awoke in his underground nest with a start. He had been dreaming of a world where owls were tiny and mice were gigantic. He stretched, rubbed his whiskers, turned in a circle, lay down next to his brother, Sommer, and tried to go back to sleep. A few minutes later, still wide awake, he turned and curled up against Sommer once again, but it was no use—there would be no return to the land of miniature owls.
Leaving his burrow, Nesbit scurried up the tunnel leading to the meadow. He popped his head aboveground, raised his nose to the cool breeze, sniffed for enemies, and then— froze. Along with the smell of fading blackberries and decaying leaves, there was the foreboding scent of an unfamiliar mouse, and it was getting stronger with each passing moment.
Nesbit began to shiver. It had been a sunny day at Schönbrunn Palace, but when the sun dipped behind a bank of clouds, everything had turned gray and cold. With winter looming, the orange leaves of the linden trees were falling in a blizzard onto the gravel pathways of the garden. It was not the most pleasant time to be out and about, but tired mice throughout the park were beginning to rally themselves for a long night of foraging.
Nesbit, however, never much liked to think about foraging and preparing and working hard on something he did not enjoy in the least. In fact, at the moment he was less interested than ever in the mundane tasks of life. All he wanted was to determine the source of the unfamiliar scent. He glanced around, but the only other mouse in the meadow was his father, Lavendel, who was sitting alone near the farthest hedgerow. As Lead Mouse of the Long Meadow colony, Lavendel was always the first aboveground at dusk, scouting for enemies before any other mouse was even awake.
It was just as Nesbit was about to set off across the grass to warn his father of the potential intruder that an old mouse— the source of the scent—appeared from under the hedgerow. The mouse spotted Lavendel and hobbled toward him. Nesbit immediately recognized the visitor, and became unnerved. No! Not him!, he thought, sitting back and anxiously rubbing his snout. He began to shake with apprehension. This is bad—very, very bad.
He tried to calm himself by taking deep breaths—a tactic Sommer had taught him. Doing so was meant for those terrifying moments when a predator was near, not for when a fellow mouse stopped by the colony to say hello. But this was different. Nesbit had an ominous feeling, and deep breathing was definitely called for.
The visitor, Field Marshal Osterglocke, was no ordinary mouse. He was commander of the entire Thistle Guard, the army of mice tasked with keeping order among the dozens of colonies scattered throughout the massive garden.
Osterglocke was a grumpy old mouse with a stern face and a patch of black on one side of his otherwise gray coat. In addition to a bad leg that dragged behind him, he had one eye that had been injured in a supposed skirmish with a squirrel and was always half closed. At the moment, his good eye was twitching.
Only once before had Field Marshal Osterglocke come to the far-flung colony of Long Meadow. That was when the leaves of the linden trees were still bright and new, and Nesbit was only a few weeks old. The purpose of the Field Marshal’s visit at that time had been to recruit Nesbit’s oldest brother, Blum, to join the elite Eagle Guard in the palace. Blum, a big, strong mouse who had shown great promise as a future leader, never returned home. He died on an important secret mission at the behest of the most powerful mouse in the kingdom—the König.
As Nesbit watched Osterglocke approach his father, his fear grew; his stomach tightened and his breath quickened. He had little doubt that Osterglocke had come to recruit his only remaining brother for the same sort of deadly mission that had killed Blum. Above all, Nesbit feared for Sommer’s safety, but also he could not imagine life in the colony without him. After all, they did everything together, from climbing trees to exploring the farthest reaches of the Sunset Side of the garden.
But wait—maybe Osterglocke has come for me, Nesbit thought, entertaining the notion for only a few moments before realizing how ridiculous it was. Right! Me, an Eagle Guard! Osterglocke doesn’t even know who I am.
The truth was, Nesbit was unlikely to be recruited for anything at all. Smaller and weaker than the other bucks in his colony, he was easy to overlook, sporting the typical, uniform sandy-brown coloring. There was nothing at all to distinguish him.
Nesbit watched from afar as Osterglocke settled back on his haunches, scratched a bare, scaly spot on his neck, and waited for Lavendel to rise up on his hind legs and point his nose to the sky in the obligatory sign of respect. But Lavendel refused to salute. Osterglocke grunted his disapproval. Then the two mice proceeded to stare at one another, neither wanting to begin what would surely be an awkward conversation.
At that moment, Sommer dashed past Nesbit without so much as a glance, and eagerly approached the Field Marshal. Much more prone to obey authority than Nesbit, Sommer enthusiastically welcomed the old commander of the Thistle Guard. He gave the Field Marshal a respectful greeting, sitting up on his hind legs, pressing his forepaws close to his chest, and lifting his nose to the sky to expose his neck in deference.
Nesbit, still fearing the worst for his slightly older brother, scuttled up to the group and sat quietly behind his father, who finally broke the standoff with Osterglocke.
“Field Marshal, I think I know why you’ve come,” Lavendel said, struggling to keep a diplomatic tone. “It’s about the Essen, isn’t it? I know we haven’t given the König as much as we did last fall, but the fact is, we just can’t. We need every scrap to get us through winter. And look around, it’s almost here—the leaves are falling in bunches already.”
Lavendel took a deep breath. He knew Osterglocke would see his tone as a sign of disloyalty to the König, but he couldn’t help himself. All summer, his colony had collected and stored a great variety of seeds, berries, and insect parts, as well as breadcrumbs, lumps of apple and pear, bits of Emmentaler and Camembert, and other morsels dropped on the pathways by careless Menschen. It was all necessary for the colony’s survival. This wasn’t a simple matter of finders keepers—this was life or death.
Osterglocke muttered something unintelligible and then shook his head. “My dear Lavendel,” he sighed, “you know well that the König will look after your colony when the time comes. Why do you spew such nonsense?”
Lavendel could not allow such a rude and preposterous comment to go unchallenged. “Field Marshal, you know well that before last winter, the König promised to redistribute Essen to the colonies that needed it to survive, but he never did. And look what happened! Hundreds of mice in the garden died of starvation. So, I’m sure you can understand why we think it’s best to keep what little we have—you know, to live.”
“Exactly!” blurted Nesbit, surprising both the Field Marshal and Lavendel by speaking his mind.
Lavendel looked down at his son angrily. Nesbit scratched his ear and looked away.
At that moment, another mouse came scurrying up to the group. Nesbit sighed when he saw who it was. Holzbock was a bully who picked on the much smaller Nesbit anytime Sommer wasn’t around to protect him. As usual, Holzbock brought his two cohorts with him, Pit and Bruner. Sommer nodded to the newcomers politely, though he neither liked nor trusted Holzbock, his only real challenger to become Lead Mouse once Lavendel stepped down.
“We need everything we have just to survive,” Lavendel persisted with the Field Marshal. “And still, I’m not sure we have enough to last half the—”
“Nonsense!” Osterglocke bellowed. “The König will give you whatever you need, but for now he will have whatever you’ve got.”
“Field Marshal, you and I go way back,” Lavendel pleaded. “We served in the Eagle Guard together. Surely you can listen to reason—”
“No, you listen! The König must have more Essen!”
“The König has no idea what it’s like for mice in the garden!” Lavendel snapped. “He was born and raised in the palace. He wouldn’t know an ant from a firebug.”
Osterglocke carefully weighed his words. “I will give you one more chance, Lavendel, because I know that you do not actually mean to insult the König—”
“Yes, we do!”
Lavendel and Osterglocke stopped, speechless, and looked down at Nesbit. He was sitting up on his haunches, his nose twitching angrily as he added, “Because the König is stupid!”
The Field Marshal became very still. He wasn’t certain he had heard what he thought he had. Did the little mouse actually say the König was . . . “stupid”?
No—it was impossible! There was not a subject in the entire kingdom who would dare say anything that remotely sounded like “the König is stupid! ” He stared at the little mouse, and to his surprise, the little mouse stared right back. To the Field Marshal, a refusal to look away could mean only one thing: The rank-and-file colony mouse was challenging him— commander of the entire Thistle Guard—to a fight.
But Nesbit had no intention of fighting the Field Marshal; he just couldn’t stop staring. Osterglocke was not only an imposing figure, but his good eye had started twitching furiously.
“Nesbit!” Lavendel snapped, fearing for his son’s life. “Go belowground at once. I’ll deal with you later.”
“No, no,” said Osterglocke. “I want to speak with this little fellow. Step closer to me, mousie.”
“I said closer!” Osterglocke commanded.
Nesbit moved out from behind his father and inched forward, still staring at the old Field Marshal.
“I suggest, little friend, that you avert your eyes,” said Osterglocke. “If, that is, you know what’s good for you—and for your colony.”
“Yes, I second that,” Holzbock jumped in, hoping to gain Osterglocke’s favor. “You do not deserve to call yourself a subject of our great König. Or even a member of this colony. Go hide your tail down a hole somewhere, you little runt. We’ll deal with you later.”
Sommer turned on Holzbock, ready to fight, but Lavendel moved between them.
“That’s enough, Holzbock,” he ordered.
Holzbock sat back and scratched his ear with his hind paw, trying to seem unflustered by the public reprimand.
Nesbit glanced back and forth between Osterglocke and his father. He did not want to be punished for his outburst, but he especially did not want anyone else in his colony to have to suffer. And so Nesbit slowly stood up high on his hind legs, cast his eyes to the sky, and pressed his forepaws to his chest, striking a pose of respect toward the Field Marshal.
Meanwhile, two of Osterglocke’s bodyguards, sensing trouble, had come out of their watch posts on the sunrise edge of Long Meadow. Acker and Zimbel, two of the largest, strongest Thistle Guards in the garden, stopped a few tail lengths away, ready to pounce on any mouse, or predator, that posed a threat to their leader.
Osterglocke sneered at Nesbit. “What’s your name, beetle?” he demanded, looking the young mouse up and down. The Field Marshal had used the worst insult a mouse could level at another mouse: beetle. A beetle was small, ugly, hardheaded, and seemingly oblivious to its surroundings. It was thought to be the stupidest of insects, though that perception was not true.
“Nesbit,” replied Nesbit obediently.
“What was it you said to me?”
“Sir?” Nesbit stalled.
“Just a moment ago!”
Nesbit gazed up at his father, whose eyes pleaded with him to be good. Then he glanced over at Sommer, and he was surprised by a look he rarely saw on his brother’s face: abject fear. He had not even seen such a look the time Sommer had battled the cat to try, against all odds, to save their mother’s life.
Nesbit lowered his head. “Nothing, sir. I didn’t say anything.”
“It was not nothing! It was something!” insisted Osterglocke.
“I sometimes say things I shouldn’t,” Nesbit explained. “It was, uh, accidental.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try my best not to do it again.”
“Try your best?” Osterglocke scolded. “TRY your best! You won’t TRY—you will DO. One more remark of that nature and it’s straight off to the Forest of Lost Life with you. Do you understand?” Osterglocke was so angry that his old yellow incisors clacked together loudly and his good eye twitched even more wildly.
“Yes, sir,” mumbled Nesbit.
“What was that? I couldn’t hear you!”
“Yes, of course, sir!” Nesbit retorted loudly with a hint of sarcasm.
Osterglocke hesitated, unsure whether the little mouse had apologized sincerely.
Sommer leapt into action.
“Field Marshal, sir!” he blurted. “I hear that Emperor Wolfsmilch’s Forest Army is amassing at the border in huge numbers. With winter approaching, they’ll be demanding more of our Essen than ever—at least that’s what most garden mice are saying. Do you expect an all-out assault if the Emperor’s demands are not met?”
“Yes, we do!” said Osterglocke. “That’s very astute, young mouse. In fact, that brings me to the main reason I stopped by today.” He turned back to Lavendel. “The König must shore up his Eagle Guard. The Forest Army, a hundred thousand strong, has not nearly enough rations to get its mice through the winter. So, unless we get them more to eat, they will attack and try to take all our Essen by force. But we may already be too late. Some say there’s sure to be an invasion before the first snowfall. They will raid the garden if they suspect there is more Essen here, and they might even storm the palace itself. It is therefore imperative that we have as many good, strong bucks around the König as possible. But that’s also why it is urgent that we bring in all the Essen from the garden—the Forest Army won’t invade if they know there’s nothing here! Does it all make more sense to you now, Lavendel?”
But Lavendel had heard only one thing. The words echoed in his head: “imperative that we have as many good, strong bucks around the König as possible.” Having already taken Blum, the Field Marshal was now going to take away his strongest remaining buck, the mouse he counted on to take over command of Long Meadow before the freeze—his older son, Sommer.
Lavendel desperately tried to think of an alternative to offer the Field Marshal. But before he could come up with one, Nesbit took it upon himself to stop the Field Marshal’s plan. “You can’t have my brother!” he protested.
“Nesbit!” cried Lavendel.
The Field Marshal reared back, not in preparation to pounce but in sheer confusion. No mouse had ever talked to him that way. No mouse had ever been so insubordinate. For the moment, he was too shocked to speak.
Nesbit stared steadily up at the Field Marshal’s cold, angry face, which suddenly drew closer. Osterglocke’s nose came within a whisker’s breadth of Nesbit’s right eye.
“What was that again, little mousie?” he whispered.
“I don’t want my colony to starve,” Nesbit replied firmly. “And you can’t take away my brother, either.”
Osterglocke slowly rose up on his hind legs and looked down on the little mouse with an unsettling smile. He swished his tail, and then thumped it on the ground. His two bodyguards were at his side in an instant.
“Acker! Zimbel!” he barked, still gazing at Nesbit. “Take this little beetle to the Forest of Lost Life . . . and make sure, no matter what it takes, he doesn’t get out alive.”