The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis
The first book in a new series, this novel invites readers along on a journey into a series of worlds that are tied together by the Pirate Stream, a river of pure magic. Fin is an orphan with a strange power where no one remembers him after a few minutes, not even the people at the orphanage who cared for him as a child. He uses that skill to be a master thief, but then he receives a letter with instructions that take him on a quest to find his mother. Marrill is living in Arizona, a perfectly dull life, when a ship suddenly appears next to her in the desert. Climbing aboard, she suddenly finds herself on an adventure in the Pirate Stream with a wizard, the ship’s captain, and the crew of rats. She has to find the parts of the Map in order to make her way home, exactly what Fin also needs to find his mother. This adventure takes readers to unknown worlds filled with sinister magic, great friendships, and plenty of action.
Ryan and Davis have crafted a wild fantasy novel that is constantly surprising. Thanks to the strange waters of the Pirate Stream, the travels on board the ship bring readers and the characters to lands that are unique and fascinating. There is an island of trees that speak and think where rumors and whispers rule. There is a frozen land with a leaning tower filled with treasure. There is a bird made from part of the Map that can lead them to the other pieces. There are mad wizards who create sorrow wherever they go and are determined to destroy themselves and all of the worlds.
While the adventure is a large part of the book, at its heart is the friendship of Marrill and Fin. Both of them are lonely children before they meet one another, Marrill because she has traveled a lot with her parents and never settled in one place and Fin because everyone forgets him. Marrill though does not forget Fin, because she cares so deeply. Their friendship offers both of them riches beyond treasure and delight beyond the adventure.
This strong middle grade fantasy novel will have readers looking forward to the next book and returning to the dangers and wonders of the Pirate Stream. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe
Marah lives in a world where the magicians are in power. She helps out in the market at the book stall and has managed to teach herself many languages in the process. There she witnesses the brutality of the magicians and knows to fear them. But it is also where she meets a little girl who doesn’t mind that Marah is a poor Sparker. Soon Marah is visiting their home, which is much more opulent than her own. She meets the girl’s brother and discovers that he shares her love of languages. When a plague hits their city and people whom both of them love are threatened, the key to figuring out the cure is in a forbidden language. Marah has to find the courage to trust those she fears as well as her own intelligence in order to save the world she loves and those she holds most dear.
Glewwe herself has a background in linguistics, which means that when she writes about languages it all makes sense and really clicks. The world she has created is complex with almost a caste system of rank within it. Tied directly to magical ability, the differences are also racial, so the entire story ties closely to our own world’s struggles with racism and bigotry in a variety of forms. Glewwe has created a story where the children are truly those who save the world. They cross the barriers of their society and proceed to have the knowledge themselves to create the solution, but only because they worked together.
The world building here is exceptional. The society is unique but also frighteningly familiar at the same time. The central theme of exclusion and privilege and abuse of power makes for a taut novel that will keep readers going. The mystery of the plague carries the story forward, so that readers will be compelled to read to the end to figure out the extent of the deception and greed.
A very strong middle grade fantasy that grapples with some of the most difficult of societal issues, this book is a magical and danger-filled read. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Princess Magnolia was having hot chocolate and scones with Duchess Wigtower when then monster alarm sounded. Dressed in along dress of pink with a tiara, no one would expect that Princess Magnolia is actually also the Princess in Black who battles monsters and protects her kingdom. After all, princesses don’t wear black! Waiting outside the castle is Frimplepants, the princess’ unicorn, but he is also Blacky, the trusty pony of the Princess in Black. The two of them galloped off to face the monster who is threatening the herd of goats. Now the princess has to save the goatherd, battle the monster, and keep her secret identity from the nosy Duchess Wigtower!
Bravo for a princess figure who neither scorns the tiaras and dresses and pink nor is limited by them for the way she lives her life! This is one amazing young woman who transforms into a hero, but clearly lives her princess life with the same heroism and dedication as she has in her alter ego. The writing is light and fresh with rather dim-witted huge monsters who just want a meal and remember vaguely that there is a reason they don’t eat the kingdom’s goats. Happily too, the princess does the fighting, isn’t terrified at all, and routs the monsters from her kingdom. Clever, strong and brave, she’s exactly the heroine that her kingdom needs.
Pham’s illustrations show a young princess who is not stick-thin or Barbie-like in any way. Instead, she is strong in her body, built like a young girl actually is, and when she does battle it feels right and she doesn’t come off as weak at all. The illustrations of the monsters add to the humor, though their size is daunting.
A real treat for young readers looking for a real girl doing real battle whether she is a princess or not. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
Released November 4, 2014.
The third in the His Fair Assassin trilogy, this book follows a third sister from the convent of Mortain. Annith has been kept at the convent longer than her two friends and has never been sent on assignment. Now she has excelled at all of her training to such an extent that she has surpassed the skills of many of her teachers. With their Seeress very ill, Annith is proposed to be the next Seeress for the convent, but that would mean that she would never leave, be stuck in stuffy rooms all the rest of her life, and would never put her skills to use. So Annith works to make sure that the existing Seeress survives her illness, spending long hours nursing her back to health. When she discovers that even then she will not be sent into the field, she begins to question whether the convent and the Abbess are truly doing the work of Mortain. So Annith escapes, heading out to see what Mortain has planned for her and her life. Soon Annith is caught up in the perils of traveling across a war-torn country, fighting for her and her country’s freedom, and falling in love.
LaFevers ends her trilogy on a high note with this book about Annith. Her trilogy has focused on a different daughter of Mortain in each book, offering a strong cohesion across the series but also a unique perspective and voice with each new protagonist. Each of the girls is quite different from the other, yet all of them have their demons to face and problems to overcome. Placed against a backdrop of war and political intrigue, the books ride that wave of ferocity, honor and strategy to great effect.
Annith herself is a very intriguing character. While the other two books in the series showed her as friendly but rather aloof, this book delves deeply into her motivations and how she came to be the person she is. As each layer is revealed, her complex personality makes sense and as she begins to leverage it to create the life she wants and deserves, she becomes all the more passionate and powerful. LaFevers writing is so readable, it gallops along at a fast pace but also is clearly trained and focused.
A fitting end to a grand trilogy, I can’t wait to see what LaFevers has for us next! Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from HMH Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
Emma and the Blue Genie by Cornelia Funke, illustrations by Kerstin Meyer
Emma often spends her nights out by the sea with her dog, away from her pesky brothers. One night she finds a bottle floating in the waves and opens it to discover Karim, a very small blue genie inside. Karim has had most of his magic stolen away when Sarim, the huge yellow genie, stole his nose ring and trapped him in the bottle. Now Karim has to head back to avenge himself and to save the kingdom from the evil rule of Sarim. Emma decides to go with him and she sets off aboard his magic carpet for the kingdom of Barakash. There, she is quickly caught up in the battle against Sarim, but once he sees her yellow hair, he immediately takes her prisoner. There’s not much that a girl can do to escape from an evil genie who keeps you in a cage, but all is not lost when you have a blue genie and a brave dog on your side!
Funke has written a wonderfully original book for young readers. The Middle Eastern setting comes alive as Emma walks through the busy castle on her way to see the young king. Funke incorporates many references to the desert into people’s vernacular, even more firmly setting this book in a specific place. Emma is a great female character, filled with plenty of gumption and not scared of much. She doesn’t shrink away from anything in the book, enjoying flying on a magic carpet, seeing new places and having wild adventures.
The illustrations are in full color and add a lot of life to the book. Used differently from one page to the next, they add a dynamic piece to the book design. The differences between the two genies could not be more clearly shown, with the calm blue and the wild yellow. Meyer also manages to show the opulence without things becoming too busy and overwhelming for the eye.
Fun and original, this book will share aloud well with a class and will be an inviting pick for children reading chapter books. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Random House Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
Hunters of the Great Forest by Dennis Nolan
Released October 28, 2014
This wordless picture book is the story of a group of hunters who head out from their small village one day and into the forest. Bringing only a handful of items with them, the group must face large rocks, mountains and enormous trees. It quickly becomes apparent that the hunters are tiny people as they are forced to run from buzzing dragonflies and then from a hungry toad. After escaping those creatures, the hunters must then flee from a bird and a chipmunk. Sneaking out later from their hiding place, the hunters discover a girl sitting by a campfire roasting marshmallows. But even though they have food to bring back to their village, the dangers are not over for our intrepid group of hunters.
Wonderfully detailed pictures make this a spectacular picture book to share. The journey of the hunters makes for a page-turning delight filled with dangers, mishaps and surprises. If you pay close attention to the illustrations, some of the surprises can be predicted with clues about the next page. For example, you can see the toad’s legs in the corner of the page before the toad is fully revealed after the page turn. This makes for a book that reads as a continual stream of story, rather than individual images strung into a story.
I applaud Nolan for including plenty of little female hunters on the journey as well. There are young and old little people too. And even better, if you watch, it is not the women who need rescuing on the journey. In fact, the older of the little women carries the spear the entire journey and seems ready to use it at times.
Join the hunters on their quest for the elusive marshmallows in this journey through a forest filled with dangers of all sorts. It’s a jolly read that is sure to please. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen
Gabriel is a 12-year-old who loves riddles, he collects them and loves puzzling over them, just like his father did. But his father has disappeared, leaving Gabriel behind in the care of his loving aunt. Outside the house, Gabriel is unaware of the raven’s nest and the little raven growing up in it. Paladin is a special raven though, one that is destined to have a magical bond with Gabriel, but only if he can survive the attacks upon him. Owls hunt ravens for food, but worse are the valravens, creatures who serve Corax, a half-man, half-raven. As Gabriel learns more about his father and his family’s special relationship with ravens, he is drawn into a quest that will lead him and his friends into the underground world of Aviopolis to confront Corax and save his father.
Inventive and unique, this middle-grade fantasy novel is something special. Gabriel is an interesting protagonist, cautious with the friends he makes and living in a world where magic is suddenly part of his life. He adapts quickly but believably to what is happening and responds with bravery but also curiosity. He and his friends have a variety of skills, and they all nicely come into play during their adventures. There are other characters who may be friends or not, they are written with a wonderful ambiguity that is allowed to be unresolved for a long time, adding richness to the tale.
Hagen has added a lot of depth to her novel with his creation of a raven society where they test one another to see if they are valravens with riddles. Valravens don’t care for humor, so they are easily identified opposed to the merry ravens. Much to my delight, it is revealed later in the book that owls love puns. So the book is filled with wordplay, a grand element of the plot.
A vibrant mix of riddles, adventure and animal tale, this book is definitely one worth discovering. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.
The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Two masters of the fantasy genre come together to create a strong new series for middle graders. Call was raised by his father to fear the Magisterium and magic itself. When he accidentally split the sidewalk wide open with his powers as a child, his father was not pleased. So when Call is required to go through testing for entering the Magisterium, he makes a plan to fail. But the tests are not what he expected at all and soon he is entering the dreaded Magisterium, a place where he believes people are imprisoned against their will and killed for the sake of magic. As Call joins the students, he finds himself making friends for the first time in his life. But all is not what it seems, even for the nightmares that Call has thought up. It is the ultimate battle of good and evil, but not in the way you’d ever expect.
Black and Clare play with similarities with the Harry Potter series, since theirs is also set in a school for magic. But the magic here is different, as is the school itself. Call too is no Harry, being a prickly and unusual protagonist who is at times quite nicely unlikeable. This book is also set during a magical war, one that is actively being waged. There are tests that are literally as dull as dirt, others that have the students battling elementals, and then there is a student who tries to escape the school.
Black and Clare have great pacing throughout the book. They have also created a very strong setting with the book, the school has a feeling of eternity about it, though we also know that Call is somehow very special. It is that specialness that makes the book’s twists work so well. They are completely surprising, shocking even. In a genre like this where readers will come to it with a certain jadedness, it is great to read a book with that kind of zapping electrical charge.
Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy both the differences and similarities here, though readers of Percy Jackson will also find themselves right at home. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Scholastic and NetGalley.
Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
The final book in the Grisha trilogy, this is an amazing ending to an incredible series. After her failed battle with the Darkling, Alina has been hiding in the White Cathedral, slowing healing from the damage of the fight. But Alina has lost much of her power and must rely on trickery to display the light of the Sun Summoner. She is surrounded by those who believe her to be a saint, but also by those who would control her for their own means. It is soon time for Alina to escape, but in her battered body and mind, planning such a thing is insurmountable. Luckily, she still has some of her faithful friends around her, who are only too pleased to free her and themselves from the protection of the Cathedral. Now Alina must figure out how to find the final amplifier that will allow her to complete the set and access her full power. But the Darkling is still hunting her, and he will not stop until she is under his control.
This is one of those books that you read at breakneck pace, turning the pages quickly. Bardugo has created such a rich world in this series that it is one that is hard to leave behind, and when you do it continues to call to you as a reader to finish the story. Mixing Russian aspects into the story makes this very unique, but she also has a world that has its own rules, ones that make sense and hold true throughout the books.
Rife with romance, the book also offers different choices in future lives to Alina. There is the ever-steady Mal who is the only one who can track the final amplifier for Alina. There is the prince who is charming and funny, giving Alina freedom but also making her a queen. And of course, there is the choice of the Darkling himself, destructive and evil but so alluring. Alina is a wondrous mix of delicacy and steel. She is a stunning heroine.
Make sure to start this trilogy from the beginning, but also make sure to read it through to this riveting, dark and sun-streaked ending. Pure bliss! Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.