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.
The Fire Wish by Amber Lough
The war between the jinnis and the humans has been going on for years. Najwa is a young jinni who is being specially trained in covert operations and visiting the human world. Zayele is a human, selected to marry a prince whom she’s never met. When the two of them meet, Zayele makes a wish on Najwa and switches their places. Now Zayele is the jinni, living among other jinnis in the crystal caves under the earth and Najwa is the human, heading for marriage to a prince. The two must keep themselves secret, both knowing that they will be killed by the people around them if they are discovered. But war and love make everything more complicated and the two discover secrets about themselves and their worlds that will change everything.
Lough’s debut novel is the first in a series. It intelligently combines the author’s experience in the deserts of the Middle East with the fantasy elements of jinnis and wishes. The setting is vividly depicted, both the crystal caverns of the jinnis with the lakes of dancing flame and the desert world of the humans are well drawn. The differing cultures juxtapose clearly against one another, each with different freedoms and neither considered wrong or right. There is a lot of respect for cultures in this novel.
The two main protagonists are also nicely different from one another. While Najwa is a character who is very likeable and easily related to, Zayele serves as her foil. Najwa worries more for her entire people while Zayele makes choices that focus more on herself and her situation. Neither character would completely work without the other there too and both display nice and natural growth as the story progresses. The book also has an element of romance to it, it too is handled with a natural pace and progression.
A strong debut book that is a tantalizing blend of romance, magic and wishes. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke
The author of Zita the Spacegirl has created his first picture book and it has all of the charm and zip one would expect. Julia lives in a house carried on the back of a turtle. They arrive on a quiet beach by the sea where Julia quickly settles in, but it is far too quiet. So Julia makes a sign that says “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” She didn’t have to wait long before something is at the door, and then more and more creatures. Soon she has a house full of odd beasts, including a dripping troll, a patchwork cat, a dragon, a ghost, and a mermaid. Things quickly get out of hand as they all make themselves at home. Now Julia needs another plan, and maybe another sign or two.
Hatke’s jaunty protagonist is what makes this book work. She moves quickly and with plenty of determination and is filled with ideas. One can almost see her thinking on the page. Perhaps the best part of the book is when she becomes overwhelmed and has to rethink. The book has been galloping along and then pauses as Julia does, slowing to a pace that lets one catch their breath. It’s a wonderfully done moment just like many others in the book.
Told very simply, the book relies nicely on the illustrations to show much of the action rather than the text explaining it. This makes for a very readable picture book, but also one that is better for lap reading than for a group. Listeners will want to look closely at the page even before the amazing creatures fill them.
An exceptional picture book debut, one hopes that Hatke keeps created both picture books and graphic novels for children. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
Will found his first adventure when he headed out into the wilderness on a train to see his father after the transcontinental railroad was completed. Will not only got to witness the final golden spike being driven but got to finish driving it in himself! After the ceremony though, disaster struck with an avalanche that took Will and his father along with it. They survived despite the large amount of snow and being attacked by sasquatches. Now a few years later, Will and his father are aboard the Boundless, the most amazing train ever created. Will’s father is no longer a laborer, instead working as an engineer aboard the train where Will will be riding first class. The train carries with it a circus as well as thousands of people riding in different classes. But there is also danger aboard the train and it’s headed right for Will.
Oppel, the author of Airborn, has created a great adventure aboard a marvelous train. The train itself is incredible from its sheer size to the number of people aboard. The descriptions of each class of the train are done with an attention to detail and to the feeling of each area, each one significantly different from the others. This setting is richly drawn and used as a clever device to keep the plot moving and also to isolate Will and the others from help.
Will is a fine protagonist. He is brave, somewhat bored, artistically gifted and living a surprising life. Through it all he shows a spunk and willingness to throw himself into life, exactly the thing that his father despairs of him ever having. The other characters are also well drawn: the villains are horrifically awful, Will’s companions are complicated and have their own motivations that are revealed as the book progresses.
This is top-notch adventure writing set on a moving train traveling across a world filled with monsters, many of which are human. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The first book in a trilogy, this fantasy is dark and marvelously filled with monsters. Rye has grown up in the worst part of Village Drowning. Her mother owns a shop in the market section of town where Rye helps out. Together with her two best friends, Rye begins to piece together the story of her family and her father. It all has to do with the monstrous Bog Noblins, creatures that are considered extinct but that Rye is convinced have returned to the village. The problem is that the only people who can defend the village against the monsters are the illegal Luck Uglies, a troupe of villains who had been driven from the village and are considered just as evil as the monsters. But all is not what it seems in Village Drowning as Rye is soon to discover.
Durham has crafted a fabulous fantasy for middle-grade readers. The book is filled with moments of real fear and true danger, making it ideal for that age. It also has plenty of humor along the way, usually involving Rye’s friends and family, allowing a lightness in the novel that is very appealing in such a dark novel. Durham has created a world in this book that is unique and fascinating but also pays homage to more traditional tales. This book slips neatly into European tales of monsters and goblins, yet still manages to be telling its own story.
Rye is a wonderful heroine. She is bright and inquisitive and immensely brave particularly when someone she loves is in danger. At the same time she is fully human, frightened at times, holding on tight to her own viewpoint, and learning to trust too. She is certainly not without flaws, but she is immensely likeable and exactly the person you want when the Bog Noblins return.
Dark, dangerous and delightful, this book is a strong new fantasy series for middle-grade readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
The Thickety by J. A. White
Kara saw her mother killed for being a witch when she was just six years old. Ever since then, she and her sickly little brother have been treated horribly by the village they live near. Her father played a role in accusing her mother of witchcraft, and now he cannot function well at all, spending his days writing the same thing over and over again in a notebook. So Kara at age 12 takes care of her brother and tries to keep their small farm functioning and her family fed. The entire village lives in fear of the Thickety, a deep woods nearby. So when a strange crow leads Kara deep into the woods right to the heart of the Thickety, she almost doesn’t follow. There she discovers a book of spells that seems to promise great power, a book that will mark Kara as a witch in everyone’s eyes. What is a witch’s daughter to do?
White creates a book that is just as dark and tangled as the Thickety itself. Her writing is a treat to read, focused on creating characters that are complicated in their motivations in a world that is lush and vivid. She doesn’t shirk away from truly frightening scenes in the book, including the opening scene of the mother’s death and Kara being accused as a small child of witchcraft. That scene alone warns you of the horrors to come, horrors that are scary in a deep, dark way but ones that are also appropriate for the middle grade readers.
Kara is a strong heroine. She is an outsider from a young age, shunned by her peers, beloved by her younger brother. Even the adults in the community have abandoned their family, leaving them to fend for themselves. Speaking of the community, it is another strength in this novel, a tight-knit and fanatical community on an isolated island that shuns magic. White manages to stay away from any sort of Salem-type setting while still maintaining clear links to that puritanical rage.
Well written with a strong protagonist and impressive world building, this dark fantasy is ideal for middle grade readers. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Feral Child by Che Golden
Maddy’s parents died recently, so she is sent to Ireland to live with her grandparents. She misses London and her friends dreadfully and doesn’t like her cousins or the town of Blarney. Though she has been told not to enter the grounds of the castle in town, she does anyway one evening because she is so angry and just doesn’t care. She stays longer than she means to when her grandparent’s dog George runs off. It is then that she meets a strange boy. That same boy returns to her house later, tapping at the window and asking Maddy to join him, but she refuses to go to the window at all, because she has realized that he is not what he seems to be. When the boy goes to her neighbor and steals their little boy from out of his bedroom window, Maddy sees it all. But with a changeling in the little boy’s place, no one even knows he is actually missing. It is up to Maddy, her cousins, and George the dog to save him, because no one else can. They must enter the faerie realm to do so and face incredible dangers on their quest.
Golden manages to not actually modernize the faeries and their world, which is quite refreshing. Instead what you have in this middle-grade novel is a modern girl thrust into the strange and timeless world of the faeries. She takes the most menacing and amazing parts of folklore and brings them fully to life, creating a dazzling array of faeries and beasts as the children travel. The dangers are brutally displayed and there are times when death is so close, readers will be amazing that the characters survive.
Maddy is not a particularly likeable character at first in the novel, nor are her cousins. Maddy is the main protagonist and undergoes a believable transformation into heroine as the novel goes on. The same can be said for one of her cousins who comes out of her shell and into her own. The other cousin, the bully, has too easy a transformation and it happens a bit to early in the book as well. But that is a quibble in an impressive faerie tale.
Faeries, Ireland and an amazing quest all come together to create a book that is frightening, riveting and a rip-roaring read. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Quercus.
Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
When Margaret’s father is sentenced to death, she can’t believe it since she is certain he is innocent. But this is what happens when someone tries to stand up to the company that owns the entire town. It’s also the company that owns Judge Biggs. The only way that Margaret can see to save her father is to change Judge Biggs’ mind. According to Grandpa Josh, her best friend’s grandfather, Judge Biggs used to be a good person until his father was accused of murder and hung himself. The only person who can change the course of time is Margaret who has to use her family’s forbidden power of time travel. But history resists change and Margaret only has a few days before history rejects her to make the necessary changes to save her father.
De los Santos and Teague have written a book that takes on time travel in a very refreshing way. The idea that history actively resists change and that there is a physical toll on the time travelers makes for frustrating time travel. Yet it feels right and also creates tension in the story at just the right moment. The authors also explore company towns and how workers tried to stand up to unfair business practices. Here there is plenty of action in that fight, including murder and gunfire as well as quiet desperation.
Margaret is a winning character, one who travels in time very reluctantly but is given little choice when she is the sole person who has a chance of saving her father. The story dives into complexity, never making things easy or simple. One aspect of this is the way that redemption is viewed. Characters are seen as changeable, able to be rescued from what happened to them even in their elder years. This book is about getting chances to make the right choice in the end, forgiveness for poor choices earlier, and friendships that stand through time and betrayal.
A rich and vibrant look at time travel, this fantasy will also appeal to history buffs. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.