Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron (9781328635181)

Maya has started noticing strange things happening at school and around her South Side Chicago neighborhood. Cracks appear, black lightning forms, and time freezes for others near her. Her best friends try to help her figure out what is happening: one thinks it might be paranormal and ghosts which he loves, and the other believes that it can be explained by science. Maya’s father travels regularly for work, but when she follows him he doesn’t seem to be heading for the airport, instead vanishing right in front of her as if he was swallowed by the shadows. Soon Maya discovers the truth, that her father is a god-like orisha who protects the veil between their world and the Dark. That makes Maya (and her two best friends) half-orisha or godlings. When her father doesn’t return from the Dark, Maya and her friends use their budding powers to enter the Dark themselves and rescue him. But things are not that simple as the human world itself is threatened by the Lord of Shadows.

Barron blends modern American Midwestern life with African legends into one amazing world where gods walk among humans, veils obscure parallel worlds, and dangers emerge from darkness. The Chicago neighborhood is full of gods and godlings, all black and brown characters who create a real community. The world building offers explanations of the various legendary creatures that the characters encounter, woven nicely into the narrative.

Maya and her friends are a great team, offering a mix of beliefs in paranormal, African magic, and science. The three of them also always have each other’s backs, using their powers to help, their intelligence to solve the puzzles they face, and their care for one another and their community as a foundation.

A great middle-grade fantasy with African origins and strong characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HMH Books for Young Readers.

The Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson

Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson

The Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson, illustrated by Jo Rioux (9781626728783)

Based on a Briton folktale, this graphic novel takes us to the fantasy world of Ys. There, two sisters grow up together in a castle crafted by their mother at the edge of the sea. The two sisters each have elements of their mother’s personality, but when their mother dies the two drift apart. Rozenn, the eldest and heir, is most comfortable out on the moors with the animals. Dahut though enjoys the castle and figures out how to control the sea monster that protects their city from attacks from the sea. Dahut must make dark choices to keep her power flowing, something she resents as Rozenn spends her time away from court. When that darkness attacks Ys, secrets are revealed and battles waged.

Intriguing and fascinating, this graphic novel is marvelously dark and twisted. Anderson focuses on the two sisters, leaving the weak king to his own devices. The two are very different, one abandoning her station and the crown while the other sacrificed herself to keep Ys vibrant and safe. At the same time, Rozenn remains the pure and natural one while Dahut must do the dirty work of power. The question of who is the heroine of the book is haunting.

The art is equally unique, moving from brightness to almost murky underwater colors. The illustrations follow the story perfectly, becoming almost oppressive as the choices made come back to challenge both sisters. The two sisters on the page are depicted very differently too, showing one beautiful but plainly adorned while the other wears finery and jewels.

Rich, dramatic and wild. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by First Second.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (9781646140053)

Elatsoe has the ability to raise the dead, though raising human dead is dangerous and filled with too much risk. She has though raised her dog back from the dead and he goes everywhere with her. Now Elatsoe’s cousin has been murdered. He came to her in a dream to tell her who killed him. Elatsoe and her family travel to Willowbee, a picture-perfect town where the man who killed her cousin reigns as the owner of the medical clinic and wealthy citizen. Elatsoe and her best friend begin to investigate Willowbee and this man, uncovering a sinister world of medical procedures, greed and the undead. They just have to stay alive long enough to figure out how everything fits together.

The author has created a debut fantasy novel that features a familiar American landscape that is imbued with magic of several varieties. The main character and her family use skills that come from their Lipan Apache heritage. Others use fey magic and travel via rings of mushrooms. Still others are vampires or psychics. It’s a rich tapestry of fantasy, centered on Native American culture. That tapestry is impressive on its own but adding to the appeal is a deep murder mystery as well as a facade that must fall. It’s a gripping mystery solved via sleuthing and magic.

The characters are marvelously drawn. Ellie is the main character, a girl deeply connected to her Lipan Apache heritage and who longs to explore her powers further. She is brave, determined and resilient in the face of a favorite cousin being murdered. Her best friend helps with research, showering her with texts as he learns more. The two of them together are funny and warm, just what the book needs to offset the grim mystery at times.

An incredible new voice in fantasy. Here’s hoping she writes many more! Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Levine Querido.

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay (9781534462762)

When Abi’s father starts to date and then marries Max and Louis’ mom, her entire life is upended. The best part though is that they move into a very special house together, where Abi has her own room, there is a cemetery with foxes, and Abi can have a bit of space. Still, she does have to put up with a new mother, a rather dirty little brother, and become a middle child instead of being an only child. The house the family moves into, after a long search for a home they can afford, is covered with ivy and soon strange things start to happen. When Abi, who loves to read, truly becomes engrossed in a book, she actually enters it, returning covered in salt spray or with parrots flashing across the room. Louis finds a new friend who emerges from the ivy, a cat-like thing that becomes larger as time goes by. It’s all beautiful and enchanting, until suddenly the danger becomes real and the three children must figure out how to save themselves from the magic of the house.

I have always adored McKay’s books about realistic families who tumble through life in a mash of spilled book bags, beloved stories, messy rooms, and lots of love. McKay uses that same template here, providing readers with a blended family just barely making things work with damp school uniforms, a French babysitter more interested in art, and three new siblings finding their way at school and home. Here though, she injects a burst of real magic that takes the story directly into magical realism and fantasy, something she is incredible good at as well.

As always, it is McKay’s characters who are at the center of her book and story. Here we have the quiet and deep Abi, Max who is in a desperate fight with his best friend at school, and Louis who is looking for comfort. Take their blended family and remove the mother to work for a few months and you have a teetering story full of adoration, messes and wonder.

A marvelous venture into fantasy by an acclaimed author, this is worth entering the green ivy for. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne (9781534441538)

Beetle longs to be a sorceress but instead she is a goblin and learning magic from her grandmother at home. Her best friend is Blob Ghost, who she visits in the failing mall. When an old friend returns to ‘Allows from going to sorcery school, Beetle is smitten and intimidated. Kat is everything that Beetle wants to be. Kat’s teacher has targeted Blob Ghost’s mall for demolition in the near future. But Blog Ghost can’t leave the mall, tied to it by an unbreakable force. As the demolition is suddenly moved up, it’s up to Beetle and Blog Ghost to free them before they are destroyed along with the building. Beetle is going to have to find the magic inside of her and fight for those she loves.

Layne has created a graphic novel for middle schoolers and teens that is an intoxicating mix of magic, goblins and love. The book looks at being left out and left behind by people you thought were your friends. It also explores the impact of family ties, of destiny and how those elements can be used for good or evil. Best of all, it’s a book that embraces an LGBTQ+ relationship that blossoms right in front of the reader. And don’t miss the pronoun used by Blob Ghost. It’s a treat to see someone referred to so easily as they/them/their.

The art in this graphic novel is just as exceptional as the story itself. Filled with colors that change from one page to the next, teals to purples to blob pink to goblin greens. Layne beautifully shows the ties and impact of magic on those who use it, turning Beetle into a floating witch of power at times. Kat with her skeletal aspect is a marvelous visual foil for the green and orange of Beetle, the two of them forming a full Halloween together.

Here’s hoping for more dangerous broom flights alongside Beetle! Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

 

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (9781419739828)

Published August 18, 2020, after being delayed in April. 

Tarisai was raised in luxury but kept at a distance from everyone lest she steal their stories through her touch. Only her mother, The Lady, touches her, but she is always away and visits rarely. Tarisai is sent to the capitol of the Empire to compete to become a member of the heir’s Council. Only eleven children are selected, one from each part of the realm. But Tarisai is part ehru and has been ordered to kill the heir when she gets close to him and has his trust. The magic of the wish binds Tarisai to comply, but her destiny is not that simple.

The depth of this teen novel is remarkable, particularly for a debut novel. It is a book that submerges the reader into a world they have never seen or experienced before. The world building is incredibly detailed, each element supporting the entirety, woven together into a complex but whole pattern. Based on the author’s Nigerian roots, the book is filled with African notes, settings and tributes.

The characters are so well drawn, particularly Tarisai, who is just as complex as the world she inhabits. As she learns more about herself, she transforms in front of the reader yet never leaves her lonely little girl beginnings behind. The result is an organic growth that makes sense and will leave the reader entirely satisfied.

One of the best fantasy novels this year, give this one to fans of Tomi Adeyemi. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Amulet Books.

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky (9780593124185)

When Lalek and Sanja meet at the marketplace, their lives could not be more different. Lalek is a traveling witch while Sanja works at her family’s market stall. Lalek also sells fake items, which lands her in some trouble. It’s during one of those incidents that the two girls meet, with Lalek taking Sanja hostage and forcing her to teach Lalek how to fight. Soon the two reach an understanding where Lalek won’t use her magic to force Sanja to comply, Lalek will stop cheating people, and Sanja will teach her to fight. The two also come up with a plan on how to make money by challenging the witches in each village to a duel. As the two journey on, Lalek’s tragic story is revealed along with the loss of her real magic. The two bond with one another from the beginning, steadily forming a romantic connection with each other.

Set in a diverse medieval fantasy universe, this graphic novel demands that people of all races and abilities be seen and accepted. The various witches are a marvel of different ages, magic types and races. There are bigots and evil in the world too, some close to home. The book is full of action from the witches’ battles as well as journeys through fascinating lands with interesting features. The development of the two main characters is well done and their romance feels organic and fills the pages with joy.

The art is fresh with nods to manga. It takes time to offer special glances between the two characters before the true romance begins as well as dramatic frames that are quiet yet profound. Zabarsky successfully plays with light and dark in the illustrations, illuminating space with Lalek’s candle.

Perfect for fans of Nimona, this book beautifully shows LGBTQ romance in a magical fantasy world. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon (9781534449671)

Yolanda’s family has lived on the pecan farm for generations, but they aren’t accepted by the townsfolks who call the brujas, or witches. Yolanda herself seems to have not gotten a magical gift though. Her younger sister has hers, with bees flying around her head and the ability to make plants grow and flower. It’s similar to her Wela’s gift with butterflies. Now though, Yolanda’s family is dwindling with only her sister and grandmother left. As her grandmother falls into a strange sleep, Yolanda sets out on a journey across their property. Joining her is her ex-best friend, her sister whom she also isn’t really speaking to, and a boy who may have a big crush on Yolanda. The grass has magically grown over the last few days, obstructing the view across their land, lengthening the journey to several days rather than hours, and putting real dangers in their path. They must all work together, Wela included, to complete the journey and find the answers to their family puzzle.

Impossible to summarize in any way that makes sense, this novel is a marvel of natural magic, connection to a place, and an in-depth exploration of a family. The connection to nature is evident throughout the novel both in the way that characters can work their magic with insects and plants but also through the grass that grows and the way the land stretches to create a world to explore. Throughout the book there is an intensity, a focus that allows the strange world to become solid and real.

A large part of that intensity is Yolanda herself, a character who holds grudges and demands to walk her own path, even if it’s foolish. She has lost contact with the people she had been closest to in the world, her best friend and sister, and had also lost connection with her grandfather before his death. The journey is just as much about her finding a way back to these people as it is about solving the larger family puzzle.

Strange and unique, this magical realism novel is an enticing summer read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.

Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams

Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams (9780316487337)

Agnes has only ever lived in Red Creek with her younger siblings, attending the Prophet’s sermons, and following his rules. Her mother has withdrawn into her room, not even attending church any more. Only Agnes’ sister Beth can get her mother to even eat any more. Agnes is the devoted sister, working to keep her siblings safe and never breaking the rules. No one knows that she has been sneaking insulin into Red Creek for her youngest brother, Ezekiel, to keep him alive. Beth spends much of her time dreaming of escaping Red Creek and kissing a boy. But soon the world around them changes with a virus that brings the end of civilization. The Prophet uses the virus to his advantage, facing the reckoning and putting everyone in Red Creek at risk. Agnes must figure out how to flee Red Creek to keep Ezekiel safe while Beth finds herself trapped in the nightmare that the Prophet has created. The two sisters each face the end of the world, one with the faith, power and abilities to create a new future for everyone.

McWilliams has written the perfect pandemic read, a book that takes all of our fears of our current pandemic and multiplies them into true horror as the virus hits animals and people alike. The world of Red Creek is haunting and shocking, the cult exactly the right place to find Agnes and Beth as society crumbles. McWilliams uses the cult’s brutality, patriarchy and abuse to create a crucible for these two young women as they find their way forward.

Beth and Agnes are marvelous characters, quite different and yet both wrestling with their fundamentalist upbringing and struggling to leave it behind in ashes. Yet their duty to family and the world itself is what keeps them focused and drives their choices in the apocalyptic world they find themselves in.

A dark and harrowing mix of cults, pandemics and faith-based magic. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.