MMGM and #IMWAYR: City of Illusion by Victoria Ying

Before we get to the review, I'd like to share some random tidbits with you all. First of all, exciting news—I'm going to be a Round 2 Judge for Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction for the Cybils Awards this year!!! You can click here to see my full announcement post.

Next, I apologize for being so behind on replying to my own blog comments—I'm trying to prioritize reading other people's posts and commenting on those, but my schedule has forced me to leave some gaps in my usual blogging routine, so I will try to get caught up at some point.

Speaking of my schedule, in my personal life, I recently had the rewarding-but-draining experience of helping to coordinate a big project that was a massive pain in the neck for days on end but ended up being a lot of fun for a lot of people—so definitely worth it, but also quite exhausting!

Another random thought—is anyone else waiting semi-impatiently for the sequel to Awkward, Brave, and Crush by Svetlana Chmakova? Her website said in one of the older News posts that the next book was supposed to come out in 2021, but it's September and there's not even a title, so I suspect that's off the table. I do hope the next one comes out soon, since I seriously love those books—but I suppose if she's taking her time on it, that just means it will be even better when it comes out!

And one more thing—on occasion, I like to recommend music I've enjoyed (I made a label of my past recommendations), and I figured I would make some new recommendations.
  • I told you all back in January that one of my favorite music albums of all time is A Good Day by Priscilla Ahn (from 2008)—well, now I've been listening to Ahn's second album, When You Grow Up (from 2011), and it's awesome too! My favorites are "When You Grow Up" (which is very different from the rest), "One Day I Will Do," "City Lights (Pretty Lights)," "Lost Cause," "Empty House," and "I Will Get Over You."
  • Also, I cannot believe it, but I have never once recommended one of my other favorite albums of all time—case/lang/veirs (from 2016), which is a collaboration between an artist I used to love, Neko Case, and two other artists I was unfamiliar with, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs. Literally every single song on the album is almost equally perfect (don't you love it when you find albums like that?), but if you imprisoned me in a violent manner (akin to the violence of the book I'm reviewing today) and forced me to recommend some specific tracks, I would say "Honey and Smoke," "Blue Fires," "Greens of June," "Supermoon," "Down I-5," "Why Do We Fight," and "Georgia Stars." But if you have the time and like any of the songs, just listen to the whole album all the way through—I've done it many times over the last five years, and it's well worth it.
Now, with all of my ramblings out of the way, today I am reviewing the graphic novel City of Illusion by Victoria Ying.

There are a few spoilers of this book in the review that I have marked with tags so you can avoid them if need be. I have also managed to avoid spoilers of the first book in the series!

This book is an MG (middle grade) book, but it does contain some surprisingly violent scenes (a gun is visible, someone's shadow is visible as their body is chopped in half, etc.), so I will give a content warning for particularly sensitive readers. Honestly, though, most kids will probably be unfazed and have a blast with it all.

Preview the illustrations on Amazon

        City of Illusion is the sequel to City of Secrets, an action-packed graphic novel that I read and mostly enjoyed back in January! Here's a summary of this sequel without spoilers of the first book: Ever Barnes and Hannah Morgan have uncovered the secrets of their beloved city of Oskars, and survived plenty of danger and intrigue in the process. Now they're off to the city of Alexios, and although Hannah's father (an investigator in his own right) expects them to stay out of trouble, this is a book, after all, so you can expect that advice to go completely unheeded. Alexios is less filled with giant gears, hot-air balloons, and old-fashioned switchboards than Oskars was—but it's got plenty of hidden underground passageways, some exciting city life, and a group of kids on the streets with their own mysteries who are not quite friend, not quite foe. But—shock of the century, I know—there's danger afoot, and when Hannah's father goes missing, Ever and Hannah have to figure out what's going on with the other kids, figure out the secrets of Alexios too, and save Hannah's father (and maybe the whole city) before it's too late.

        So I'm going to be frank—I didn't love this book. City of Secrets isn't one of my favorite books of all time or anything—I'm not generally a reader of the kinds of action-adventure stories that graphic novels used to be known for (back before Smile completely revolutionized everything). But City of Secrets did have intriguing protagonists, a well-crafted mystery, and awesome art, so I ultimately felt that it was worth the read. Unfortunately, City of Illusion only has about one-and-a-half of those things. We can start with protagonists and characterization. Ever and Hannah don't get as much screen time in City of Illusion simply because so many new characters have been introduced—beyond the group of kids I mentioned in the synopsis, we also get some new characters out in the countryside (a surprising setting for the series, but I'll get to that), and old friends (or foes—but I won't say who's who) like Lisa and Madame Alexander make their returns as well. I'm generally fond of having a broad cast of characters that all get developed, but unfortunately, City of Illusion buckles under the weight of its large cast and doesn't really develop anyone that well. Ever and Hannah should only have gotten more interesting after the developments (including those in Ever's personal life) of City of Secrets, but we get very little exploration of their relationship beyond a weirdly shoehorned-in conflict that ends 5 pages later. Hannah in particular lost a ton of personality—she was slightly less developed than Ever in City of Secrets, but she was still a fun and intriguing foil with her own story, whereas City of Illusion doesn't really know what to do with her at all. And the new characters fell short too—the group of kids are clearly supposed to be ones we connect with emotionally, but when the gut-wrenching emotional climax hit, I honestly didn't even care that much, because they just weren't developed enough. I think it would have made more sense to forget the idea of a new group of kids and just add a new kid, singular, who could then connect with Ever and Hannah and draw from the pairing we already know and love. Instead, we don't see enough of Ever and Hannah and instead spend a weird balance of too much and not enough time watching the other kids "develop." I will say, one of the characters from the countryside, Sarita, was a fun addition as far as minor characters go, but that's about all I can praise with characterization, which is a real shame considering City of Secrets's impressive balance of emotional layers and action-filled plot.

        So intriguing protagonists was the half-thing—what about the other thing that City of Illusion lost compared to City of Secrets? That would be the well-crafted mystery. I distinctly remember feeling in City of Secrets like I honestly never knew what would happen next—and whatever did happen was all cleverly foreshadowed. But with City of Illusion, there was a weird mix of well-executed plotting and abysmal-plotting. Some things are foreshadowed in clever ways that seem to set the stage for one thing but actually set the stage for the next—and then there's the part where ***minor-ish spoilers begin*** Ever and Hannah need to defeat something, and the secret to doing so is that someone else tells them that there's a weakness on the lower back! Really? (I ask with raised eyebrows.) ***spoilers end*** There are some attempts to jump from one character's plot to another, Tillie Walden-style, but there just isn't enough time in the story to do it all, so the extra plotlines fall short. And then there's the dialogue. The dialogue in City of Secrets was perfectly fine, so I'm not entirely sure what happened in City of Illusion. Here's an example—***minor-ish spoilers begin*** when one character discovers that they can use something not normally used as a weapon to gain some level of advantage in a fight, Ever says aloud, "Your ___! It has power!" Literally no human would say that ever. ***spoilers end*** So that's all disappointing. One strange-but-unrelated thing is that this series—including part of City of Illusion itself—seems to hint at it being a trilogy, but the ending of City of Illusion makes me pretty confident it is just a duology, which is a bit odd.

        OK, so I have lots of criticism about City of Illusion, apparently. It's not that this book is bad—it's just that it was a sequel to a book that wasn't a favorite in the first place, and I've changed a lot since I read it, and there are some clear issues with the sequel. But there's also some good stuff that returns in this second addition to the series, and I want to make sure all of that gets its due. First, the art. The art in City of Illusion is GORGEOUS. I mean, wow. Victoria Ying gives the art in this book a watercolor-esque style that feels slightly old-fashioned and glamorous and slightly dark and moody—now that I think of it, if you've read and enjoyed Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan (which is actually really good!), then you might enjoy the vibe of this series. The art complements the books' steampunk nature quite well (I explain what that means in my review of City of Secrets, and I'm too tired to re-write it here—did I mention I'm writing this review frantically on Sunday night?). The art is pretty clear overall, so if you're new to graphic novels, you shouldn't have an awful time figuring out what's going on, even in the action scenes—it's impressive that Ying depicts such exciting action without resorting to the unfortunately-time-tested technique of making a bunch of swooshes and swipes of the brush/pen that are completely indiscernible as different characters, limbs, or behaviors. And the art is in full color too, which only makes it even more visually interesting. I also find it intriguing that the objects in panels, the panels themselves, and even the speech bubbles don't have any kind of black outline—it doesn't make it harder to interpret, surprisingly, but it does create a unique stylistic signature. And the art lends itself well to depicting the setting of the book—the city of Alexios has some visible differences from the city of Oskars in City of Secrets, with a bit less mystery and a bit more glamor and bustle, which is fun to see through things like the ballet or the city streets. And as I mentioned earlier, we also get a few fun trips into the countryside, which break up any monotony in the story quite nicely and are honestly pretty fun overall.

        I said this about All Together Now and Truly Tyler and I'll say it again about City of Illusion—unfortunately, this book is not a reason to read this series. The dialogue is iffy, the plot is not as well-constructed, and the characters are dramatically weaker, leaving only beautiful art, plenty of action, and an interesting setting to attempt to sustain the story—and it's just not enough. I will say, I feel like I'm starting to outgrow some of the MG graphic novels I was able to stick with for a surprisingly long time—some are still intriguing, but others lack the luster that the earlier books in the series brought me some years ago. So I'll need to consider that as I make future reading plans, but unfortunately, it doesn't change the fact that City of Illusion just isn't worth a read unless you really liked City of Secrets (a much better book!) and want to know what happens next. If City of Secrets interests you, by all means, try it out! But I unfortunately wouldn't expect a ton from this sequel, though I do hope to see some new intriguing works from Victoria Ying soon!

My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!


  1. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this book, especially since it's a graphic novel and they are so good for hooking kids in. And congratulations on becoming a Cybils round 2 judge. I am also one, but in poetry. Hopefully, we both have some good reading ahead.

  2. Congrats on being a Cybil judge. Thanks for being honest in your review of this book. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it more.

  3. Don't worry about getting behind in our blogging world. We're all busy and do what we can. I always appreciate your posts and comments. Congrats on being a CYBILS judge. I've done this in the past and it's always a rewarding experience. Thanks for your thoughts on this intriguing graphic novel. I might still give it a go when time allows. Happy MMGM!

  4. I read and enjoyed City of Secrets. Good to read your thoughts about the sequel.

  5. Well, my list is so long, I suspect I'll only get to City of Secrets anyway. Thanks for your thorough & honest review. Congratulations on being a Cybil's Judge. I am, too, but in poetry. I've done it more than once & it is a lot of fun.

  6. Sorry to hear that City of Illusion isn't a top notch sequel to City of Secrets. Thanks for your honesty. I always know to look for good graphic book suggestions on your site. I don't read a lot of graphic novels, so I really depend upon your site for good graphic novels for grand kids. Congrats on being a CYBILS judge. I'm listing my nominations now. Have fun with CYBILS.

  7. Too bad this one wasn't a hit with you. I can see it appealing to a certain set of middle grade students, however.

  8. Congrats on being a Round 2 Cybils judge!! That’s FANTASTIC news!! I’m so glad you applied and I’m sincerely grateful for the work you judges do each year. It takes real dedication! No worries on blog comment responses. I discovered I completely left a week blank a while back. Eeeek!

    Thank you for marking spoilers in your review. I’d like to at least read City of Secrets and I have it on my list to grab from our library system later this fall. But it’s good to know how you feel about this sequel. Have a wonderful reading week!

  9. Congratulations on being a Cybils judge! It’s great to hear your opinions about this book.

  10. Great news on being a Cybils judge. Congrats! This book doesn't sound like one I would like. Violence and graphic novels are things I usually avoid in MG books. Thanks for telling me about it though. It's good to know about it.


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