Tag Archive: fantasy


west of the moon

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Astri lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and younger sister until she is sold to the cruel goat farmer.  He takes her to his home, refuses to ever let her bathe, has her do drudge work, and doesn’t let her ever return to see her sister.  Then Astri discovers another girl kept locked in a storage shed, who spins wool into yarn all day long.  Astri escapes the goat farmer, taking his book of spells and his troll treasure.  She heads off with the other girl to find her younger sister and then all three flee, heading to find their father in America.  But it is a long trip to get to the sea and an even longer trip from Norway to America.  Along the way, the goatman continues to pursue them, they meet both friendly faces and cruel, and the story dances along the well-traveled roads of folk tales.  Astri slowly pieces together her own story and then resolutely builds herself a new one with her sister by her side.

An incredible weaving of the gold of folktales with the wool of everyday life, this book is completely riveting.  Preus has created a story where there are complicated villains, where dreams are folktales and folktales build dreams, where girls have power and courage, and where both evil and kindness come in many forms.  It is a book that is worth lingering over, a place worth staying in from awhile, and a book that you never want to end.

Astri is a superb character.  Armed with no education but plenty of guts and decisiveness, she fights back against those who would keep her down and separate her from her sister.  As the story progresses and she escapes, she becomes all the more daring and free spirited.  Her transformation is both breathtaking and honest.  One roots for Astri throughout the story, fights alongside her and like Astri wills things to happen. 

A wondrously successful and magical story that is interwoven with folktales, this book is a delight.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

nightingales nest

Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

Based on a story from Hans Christian Andersen, this book takes “The Nightingale” and turns it into magical realism.  Little John’s family is in turmoil.  His little sister died jumping out of a tree, his mother can’t deal with the loss and often forgets that her daughter died, and his father is struggling to make enough money to keep them from being evicted.  So Little John has to help his father take down trees to make money.  It is at Mr. King’s home that Little John first meets Gayle, a young foster child whose singing voice seems to heal people and who has built a nest high in one of the trees.  Then Mr. King decides that he has to record Gayle’s voice and hires Little John to bring her to him within a week.  Little John doesn’t want to, so Mr. King resorts to blackmail and money to get him to do it.  This story explores responsibility, betrayal, and loss in a poignant and beautiful way.

Loftin’s writing is exquisite and simple.  She has taken an old tale and breathed freshness and vibrancy into it.  Her setting is tightly woven, just the scope of Little John’s own summer days.  It makes the focus very close, intensifying the choices that Little John is forced to make.  More than most books for tweens, this one truly asks a character to face an impossible decision and then shows what happens afterwards and how that decision has repercussions for many people. 

Little John is a great male protagonist.  He is pure boy, resentful of the situation his family is in but also bound to them by love and blood.  At the same time, he is a gentle soul, worried about Gayle and the circumstances she is living in.  The only character who stretches believability is Mr. King who reads like a stereotypical villain, but he is the only character without nuance. 

Magical and beautiful, this is perfect for discussion in a classroom, this book begs to be talked about thanks to its complexity.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.

mark of the dragonfly

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Piper survives alone in the house she once shared with her father in Scrap Town #16.  The scrap town is built around an area where meteors crash carrying items from other worlds.  Piper makes the little money she has by salvaging things from the meteors and using her knack with machines to repair them to working order.  Then one day, Piper finds an unconscious girl in a destroyed caravan.  She takes her back to her home, where she discovers that the girl, Anna, has lost her memory but also bears the mark of the king of the Dragonfly Territories, putting her under his protection.  Anna is not alone though, there is a man following her that she calls “The Wolf” and who desperately wants Anna back.  Piper and Anna flee and sneak onto a slow-moving freight train with the help of Piper fooling the alarm systems.  They aren’t able to stay hidden on the train for very long, but Anna’s mark gets them a free ride in luxury.  Still, the train ride is not without risk and the first hurdle is convincing the young head of security that they can be trusted. 

Johnson has created a rich world filled with elements of fantasy, steam-punk and science fiction.  Blended together into one, they work to a certain point but much is left unexplained and unexplored.  Readers will have immediate questions about the meteors but those are quickly left behind as questions about fantastical beasts arise, and still more questions about the steam punk elements. That said, the book does work and there is hope that more of the world will be understood in upcoming books in the series. 

Piper is a wonderful protagonist.  I enjoyed reading a book where a girl is the one who can handle machinery better than anyone else.  She is also incredibly brave and has a huge heart that is quick to embrace new people.  Her personality shines in the book.  The pacing of the novel will keep young readers engaged in the story.  It is near breakneck speed, rushing headlong into the next part of the adventure. 

Rich and delightful, get this book into the hands of young steampunk fans who are looking for a new adventure.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

winners curse

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Kestrel refuses to join the military like her father wants her to.  They live on an island conquered by the Valorian army and her father is a general, but Kestel wants to continue playing her music not killing people.   She also doesn’t want to get married, which is her other option in Valerian society.  When in the markets with her best friend one day, Kestrel finds herself at the slave market and then against her better judgment she buys a young man.  Arin is an unusual slave, a gifted blacksmith, he also has a connection to music though he tries to hide it.  The two of them slowly begin to fall in love with one another, though both of their societies forbid it.  But the world is about to twist and turn around them, bringing their love into question, their motives into doubt, and placing their very lives at risk. 

Rutkoski has created a world tinged with magic but not overflowing with it.  While her book has the feel of a light romance, it has much more depth than that.  It is a book that explores questions about slavery, about what victors in a war should be able to take and own, about protection and when that becomes a sort of slavery or jail.  There is romance, definitely, but it is a romance built on unequal footing and even lies. 

This is a society in a precarious state, delicately balanced and written so that  the reader is very aware not only of how uncertain things are but also of the forces at work to destroy that balance.  Rutkoski does a great job of creating a world where the enslaved people had recently lived in the homes where they now work as servants.  The tug and pull of this and their connection to the land is a vital part of the book and makes the world unique and riveting.

The two main characters each have chapters of the book from their points of view.  Kestrel struggles against the constraints of her warrior upbringing, a society that is strict and formal but also bloodthirsty.  Arin has lost everything and much of the story is the reader trying to figure out what and who Arin once was.  Their relationship mirrors the world they are caught in.  It is rebellious, as delicate as blown glass, and yet with a core of strength. 

A stunning cover will have teens finding themselves thrown headlong into a world of corruption, war and slavery but also one of romance and beauty.  Powerful and magnificent, there are no easy answers between these covers but the questions are certainly worthy of exploration. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.

story of owen

The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston

When the world saw Lottie Thorskard fall from a girder, everyone wondered what she would do next.  No one expected her to move to the tiny town of Trondheim and start slaying dragons there with her wife, her brother and his son.  But that is how Owen started attending the same school as Siobhan.  Siobhan is not a popular student, but she gets good grades and loves to play and write music.  None of this should have made her even noticeable by Owen, whom everyone wanted to know better.  Somehow though Siobhan with her biting wit gets invited over to Owen’s home for dinner and Owen’s family including the famous Lottie have a plan that involves Siobhan.  They want her to be Owen’s bard.  Which will involve being nearby when they fight dragons.  So Siobhan must train to defend herself with a sword, learn more about different types of dragons, and she becomes an important piece of Owen’s story herself.

This is one of those books that surprises right from the beginning.  Somehow I didn’t realize that this is a modern-day dragon tale set in Canada.  In this book, the world has always had dragons and they form the heart of literature and song going back into history.  Johnston takes the time to rewrite the lives of famous people for the reader, building her world so successfully that it all makes perfect sense that dragons are here and have always been. 

The juxtaposition between the two main characters is brilliantly done.  But perhaps the very best part is that this is not a romance.  Yes, a male and female main character but no sparks, no kissing, no sex.  Instead they are busy trying to save their community together.  Siobhan and Owen are both vibrant and intelligent.  They have the sort of brilliant dialogue that one would expect from a John Green book.  Except they do it while fighting dragons!  Amazing.

A completely incredible debut book, this takes fantasy and turns it on its head with a thoroughly modern take on battling dragons and extraordinarily deep world building.  This is one of the best and most unique fantasy novels I’ve read in years.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Carolrhoda Books.

Review: Half Bad by Sally Green

half bad

Half Bad by Sally Green

I always approach fantasies that are supposed to be the “Next Big Thing” with a lot of caution.  But this one is a wonderful surprise.  Nathan lives in a cage outside of the house where the woman paid to keep him lives.  He is let out of his shackles at dawn, forced to run for miles, train in combat, and kept close to home by wristbands filled with acid that will detonate if he goes too far.  Nathan is a witch.  But that is not why he is in a cage.  He is in a cage because he is a mix of white witch and black witch and worse, he is the son of the most notorious black witch of all time.  The white witches who keep Nathan imprisoned are training him to kill his father.  Through a series of flashbacks, Nathan’s childhood and the abuse he suffers from the white witches is exposed.  The question quickly becomes who the bad guys really are and how Nathan can survive in a world where no one trusts half of him.

Set in an alternative England where witches are real and in a constant battle for power, Nathan is trapped not just in a cage but also in between the two powerful factions.  The writing here is wonderfully clean and clear, even when it turns to violence which it does often.  Thanks to the quality of the writing, the moral questions shine on the page, clearly linking this witch world to the various moral questions at play in our own world.  Yet this does not become overbearing at all, since the world is compellingly built.

The characters are also well done.  While the “white” and “black” labels designate the factions, the question of good and evil goes much deeper.  Nathan is an exceptional protagonist.  He is complex and both in his character and the world, nothing is simple.  As he learns the truth about his parents, his family and himself, his reactions are honest, violent and superbly done.

This book is worthy of all of the fanfare it has received, but the reason to read it is to enter the violent world of witches where everyone is at least half bad.  Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from copy received from Viking.

snicker of magic

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Felicity’s mother loves to move to new places, so Felicity has lived all over the country.  But when her mother returns to the small town of Midnight Gulch, Felicity quickly realizes she has never lived in any place quite like this one.  Midnight Gulch had once been full of magic of all sorts, but then a curse took the magic away and drove two brothers apart as well.  But there is magic left in town, if you know where to look.  It’s not big magic, just little pieces that were left behind.  Felicity has one of those pieces of magic herself, she can see words everywhere, words spoken aloud and words thought silently.  She is a word collector keeping a list of the words she finds.  Others in town have some magic too, including Jonah, a mysterious boy who calls himself the Beedle and does good deeds around town.  Then there’s also the ice cream factory that makes a flavor that evokes memories both sweet and sour.  Felicity loves Midnight Gulch, but can she figure out a way to keep her mother from moving on to new places again?

This book was such fun.  Lloyd has created an entire town that is filled with a wonderful mix of magic and history.  Throughout the book, we learn about what first made Midnight Gulch so magical and then how it was taken away.  Then little by little in tantalizing ways readers see the magic that is left and are offered clues about how it may return someday.  It’s a book that is surprising and very readable.

Felicity is a great protagonist as she struggles to keep her family in one place.  As she finds out more about her own family history and discovers members of her family and community she never knew before, she finds herself less lonely in a way that she never though possible.  Perhaps the most delightful piece of all is that Felicity does not need her magic to solve her family’s issues, rather it is about piecing together a mystery and solving a riddle. 

Glowing with magic, this novel is a shining read that should be savored just like an ice cream cone on a hot day.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

cruel beauty

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

A stunningly inventive retelling of Beauty and the Beast, this debut novel turns the entire tale around over and over again.  Born into a world captured under a paper sky, Nyx has been promised as a bride to their demon ruler since she was born.  Her father promised tribute when he made a deal with the demon, so Nyx is to be sacrificed.  But her sacrifice is not to be without results, so she has been trained to kill her demon husband.  On her seventeenth birthday, she is sent to live with her new husband whom she has never met in his incredible castle.  She is not expecting to be beguiled by her new husband or by his silent shadow that serves him.  But once in the realm of her husband things are different, answers are not as clear, and even the questions shift and change just like the rooms and doors in the castle.  Nyx must figure out how she can save not only her family and her world but whether her newfound love can be saved too.

I was amazed when I discovered that this is a debut novel.  The writing has a polish and steadiness that would not lead one to believe that when reading.  Hodge has managed to take the foundation of the Beauty and the Beast storyline but then transform it, writing her own original world on top of it yet never quite leaving the original too far behind.  It is a critical balance in reworking familiar stories, and Hodge manages it admirably.  She turns it into something wilder, more frightening and just as beautiful.

Nyx is a wonderful protagonist.  I love how prickly she is, how feisty and fiery.  She can stand right up to a demon and match wits with him.  Yet she is also entirely human, torn by the fact her father chose to sacrifice her, awash with a mix of love and hate for her twin sister, and at times overcome with the situation she finds herself in.  Hodge allows these opposite forces to linger, building the tension and not resolving it until the end. 

Dramatic, romantic and completely beguiling, this retelling of Beauty and the Beast will get teen hearts racing even as the world twists and turns changing the story.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.

Review: Defy by Sara B. Larson

defy

Defy by Sara B. Larson

This debut YA novel is a mix of romance and fantasy.  In a jungle kingdom with a cruel ruler, Alexa and her twin brother survive the murder of their parents.  Alexa has been raised by her father to fight, something very unusual for a girl in their society.  This lets her disguise herself as a boy and avoid being taken to a rape house and used by the king’s soldiers.  She becomes one of the best fighters in the prince’s guard.  But the prince is aloof and cold to everyone, never showing any interest in becoming a ruler.  Alexa finds herself guarding the prince personally after an attempt on his life.  Then she is taken hostage along with the prince and another of his guard.  She finds herself drawn to the man the prince is behind his cold exterior and also drawn to the other guard, a man she has known for years.  But how will they ever accept her as a girl when they have only known her as a man? 

Larson has created a very compelling world here.  The jungle setting is refreshing as is the kingdom ruled by fear and cruelty.  The pacing is fast, almost breakneck, making it a very riveting read.  Larson’s characters are complex as well.  In particular, the prince himself is very well drawn as a mysterious figure that is constantly revealing new aspects.  The ending is satisfying with a build up that adds to the tension.

At the same time, the book does suffer from some debut mistakes.  Alexa is constantly losing consciousness throughout the book.  She is tough as nails, except for her skull.  Then she seems to recover from long blackout periods with few ill effects.  The rape house aspect of the kingdom was not necessary for the story at all.  I hope that it becomes vital in the rest of the series, because otherwise it was a poor choice to be included.  When Alexa’s real sex is revealed, it is very anticlimactic.  For something that was seen to be life or death, the result is lukewarm at best.

While it does suffer from some plot issues, readers who enjoy fantasy mixed with romance will enjoy this new series.  Appropriate for ages 14-16.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Scholastic.

jinxs magic

Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood

In this second book in a trilogy, Jinx’s entire life has changed since his death.  He can now listen to the voices of the trees in the huge Urwald forest and they tell him things.  But his life is also in danger still.  The Bonemaster has been defeated but Jinx’s master, Simon believes he is stronger than the bindings that surround him.  Yet none of the other magic wielders of the Urwald will help Simon keep the Bonemaster restrained.  Jinx is sent to Samara, a land reached via a portal in Simon’s house and also the place where Simon’s wife lives.  Jinx must find a way to enroll in the school in order to discover the magic he needs to save their own world.  But magic is forbidden in Samara and Jinx may put the Urwald at risk as he desperately tries to save it.

Blackwood takes her already impressive world and adds onto it with Samara, a desert land where knowledge and magic intertwine.  She also deepens the readers’ understanding of the Urwald and its own sort of magic.  This interplay between different types of magic and societies makes for a book that is rich and layered. 

Blackwood also takes time to develop Jinx’s own character further, pushing him to reach the extent of his power and yet also allowing readers to see that there is more there as well.  Jinx is a hesitant hero and never quite believes he is doing the right thing along the way.  Even as his power grows, he remains fully the same character and yet changes and grows in a real way throughout. 

A web of magic and mystery, this book is a fitting follow up to one of my favorite reads of 2013.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Katherine Tegen Books.

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