Force of Fire by Sayantani DasGupta

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Force of Fire by Sayantani DasGupta (9781338636642)

The author of the Kingdom Beyond books returns with a stand alone novel set in the same universe. Pinki is the daughter of two of the most renowned rakkhosh members of the resistance to the take over of the Kingdom Beyond by the snakes. But Pinki resolutely refuses to join the resistance, focusing on herself instead. She is a rakkhosh who has fire magic but can’t control it at all. So when a handsome snake prince offers her a way to learn to control her fire, she agrees to find the hidden moonbeams for him. But the moonbeams are not what Pinki had thought they were. As she follows the trail to find the moonbeams, she finds herself learning about what the snakes are doing to people and children in particular, including one of Pinki’s own little cousins, who has lost the ability to speak. But can Pinki forgive her neglectful parents and find a way to embrace her fire and her heritage?

The world building here is marvelous, full of beings from Bengali folktales and stories. As they journey through cave complexes, into ornate palaces and beneath the sea, the entire landscape not only is revealed but becomes a large part of the story as it is impacted by the snake magic and decrees. Readers will also see ties to the Indian Revolution against British rule throughout the story, something that is mentioned in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. This use of a real tyranny as a basis offers a strong foundation for this fantasy to rest upon.

The characters are well drawn. Pinki in particular is a delight of a female character, full of pride in her largess, her horns and her talons, she also struggles to make friends and to rely on others for help. This is all made understandable as her personal story is revealed. She is a character who starts out as surprisingly selfish and steadily proves that she is not, again and again. With funny characters who add charm, like the egg-gifting little cousin, the book also has a lot of humor throughout to offset the darkness.

Fiery, fun and fabulous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson

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The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson (9781481480215)

The first in the Thirteen Witches trilogy, this fantasy novel tells the story of Rosie Oaks who survived a witch attack as a newborn baby. She was left though with a mother who cannot love her and can barely care for her at all. Rosie has always known her mother to be this way, so she doesn’t expect anything else. Rosie spends her time reading books and writing her own stories until one day she decides that she is too old for them and burns her stories. That triggers the sight, allowing her to see the ghosts that live all around her. Ebb, a ghost boy, shows her the Witch Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, a book her mother hid that contains all she knew about the thirteen witches that control the world. Rosie discovers that her mother has been cursed, her memories stolen by the Memory Thief, a witch who may be the weakest but is also unstoppable. As Rosie learns more about the witches, her mother’s curse, family secrets and friendship, she realizes that she is the one who must now hunt the witch but at what cost?

Anderson has written a unique fantasy novel where witches are profoundly powerful beings, able to steal memories, stop time, and inflict curses. The world building is skillfully crafted, offering a world parallel to our own where a ladder goes to the moon, where ghosts exist and strive to head to the Beyond, and where witch hunters have magical weapons they craft themselves. Through Rosie, readers get to experience the wonder of discovering that world as well as feel the tragedy of her mother’s curse deeply too.

Anderson populates her book with characters who are fascinating and worthy of their own novels. There is Ebb, the ghost boy who has his pet ghost spider and who befriends Rosie when she needs it most. There is Germ, Rosie’s only friend, who loves Rosie and can see ghosts suddenly just like Rosie can. There is the Murderer, an angry ghost with his own tragic story who Rosie discovers holds the secret to her own survival as an infant. The Memory Thief herself is a fascinating mix of tragedy, danger and horror.

A great start to a new fantasy trilogy, this book mixes ghosts, magic and witches into something spectacularly new. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

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The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna (9781984848697)

At age 16, Deka is preparing for the blood ceremony in her village that will prove that she is pure and worthy of marriage. When her village is attacked by deathshrieks though, Deka’s blood flows gold rather than red. Deka is discovered and held in a cell where she is drained of her blood regularly. Now unable to die permanently, she suffers through several deaths while her blood is sold by the elite members of her village. When a strange woman arrives wielding the power of the Emperor, she takes Deka with her to join a new elite force of fighters, all of them girls with gold blood and immortality. It is there that Deka becomes a warrior, learning to fight the deathshrieks and also learning about the powers she seems to have that no one else does, including the ability to order the deathshrieks to obey her commands. But all is not what it seems in the training camp. Steadily, Deka and her friends discover what is being hidden from them all.

Written in wildly engaging style, this book is a gripping and tense look at a society that denigrates women yet has to depend on them for their very survival in war. The pacing is strong, the book moving ahead with new discoveries and new revelations nicely. The diverse characters fill the entire cast, making a rich reading experience in an interesting fantasy world with monsters who are more than they seem at first.

Deka is an engaging protagonist. She must push back on the way she was raised to be submissive, something that many girls and women in our own society must do as well. Stepping into her own power is a theme of the book, learning to wield her new weapons and then figuring out who the real enemies are. Readers will figure out the puzzle long before Deka even seems interested in wondering about it. There are a few surprises along the way though, making it worth reading even if the reader has it mostly solved.

Ferocious, feminist, fierce and great fun. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Press.

The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody

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The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody (9781534477568)

Barclay has only ever wanted to be an apprentice to the town’s mushroom farmer. He’s worked hard and followed all of the rules after his parents’ death when a Beast attacked their small town. The town has lots of rules, some small and some large. One of the biggest is not to wander into the Woods that surrounds it. Barclay wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules, until one day he finds himself a bit farther into the Woods than he meant to be. It’s when he’s there that he bonds accidentally with a Beast and becomes what his entire town fears: a Lore Keeper. Barclay tries to hide it at first, but is soon run out of town by an angry mob. With the help of another Lore Keeper, he reaches the closest town of Lore Keepers where all he hopes to do is have his bond with the Beast removed. But that isn’t as simple as he hoped and soon he is drawn into a competition to get an apprenticeship with the hopes that the masters can save him and allow him to return to a simple life of mushroom gathering.

Foody’s writing is immediately engaging. She has created a fantasy world that is a delightful mix of everyday elements, a dangerous competition and amazing magic and Beasts. Readers get to learn about Lore Masters alongside Barclay even though he does his best not to be impressed or too interested in their ways. The world in particularly well built with elements that all work to form a fascinating and unique whole. The beast-bonding element is interesting and has collectible and connection elements similar to Pokemon but much more physical and with shared abilities that the person receives too.

Barclay is one of those protagonists who has a completely different take on what he is experiencing than the reader will. Even as the reader is delighting in the elements of the Lore Keeper society, Barclay is often whining or looking for a way out. Viola is a great foil for Barclay, someone who was raised as a Lore Keeper and yet has found herself asking questions about their world too. She and the other characters bring diversity to the story, so I often found myself longing for this to be her story instead.

The first in a series, this book is a wild fantasy romp. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Simon & Schuster.

The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance

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The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance (9780593116227)

Eli was born in the tiny community of Svalbard, Norway. She was raised by a mother who loved stories that made their lives extraordinary. From magical tales in front of the fire to three girls set free from their destinies to marry princes, her stories were both a comfort and a concern. Then one night, Eli’s mother vanished from a frozen fjord leaving Eli behind in the icy darkness as she was swept up by the Northern Lights. Since then, Eli has lived a very normal life with her father in Cape Cod. Everything changes though when she receives a mysterious note brought by the wind and left in a bush for her. The Northern Lights are coming to Cape Cod, and Eli realizes that she may be able to bring her mother back. After whistling for her mother under the sweep of colors in the sky, her mother does return, but not without other consequences. Her mother is icy cold with fingernails that melt away and eyes full of darkness. When meteorites start to fall around them and narwhals beach nearby, Eli knows she must make the trip to Svalbard and find out how to save her mother.

Lesperance’s fantasy novel is beautifully crafted, full of echoes of stories like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” It builds from these stories, creating something new and magical. The story spans continents, taking readers from Norway to America and back again. The contrasts between ways of life are profound and interesting. They support the wild and raw stories that come to life around Eli and her family. The settings are both depicted with clarity and a real attention to the details that make them special.

Eli and her mother are fabulous characters. Eli must find her way through the layers of the stories to see the truth within them that will lead her to her mother. She has to figure out how to trust, and it may just be the most unlikely people around her. The depiction of her grandmother is one of the best in the book, showing what could have stayed a stereotypical cruel woman and turning her into something complex who supports the entire story.

Clever writing, beautiful world building and a twist on classic folk tales make this a book worth exploring, perhaps with mittens. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Razorbill.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan (9781984848598)

When Aidan disappears one day, Lucas and his family spend all their time searching for him. The police and the entire community come out, looking for Aidan. After six days of being gone, Aidan suddenly reappears in the attic of their house. He tells an incredible story of entering a fantasy world through the cupboard in the attic. Lucas, his younger brother, desperately wants to believe him. The two spend the darkness before they fall asleep talking about where Aidan was. But their parents don’t believe him at all and the police, while not pushing for him to tell the truth, clearly see his tale as a coping mechanism. When his story is accidentally released by the police, the entire school begins mocking Aidan. Lucas sticks by his brother’s side, though underneath is still not sure what to believe.

Levithan has published books for teens primarily and this time turns his talent to a book for middle graders. It’s a book that asks a lot of questions and allows them to linger, hanging in the air without resolution for some time. It’s a book that forces readers to ask themselves what they believe in, what they would do, what choices they would make in this situation. As always, Levithan’s prose is engaging and his pacing is skillful, something that is particularly important in a book like this, not allowing it to drag but carrying the book forward.

The central question of believing his brother places Lucas in a precarious position. He finds himself knowing more than anyone else about Aidan’s claimed experience and then also in the public having to not reveal all that he knows. He is a great younger brother, standing with his older sibling despite the mockery they both face. Told from Lucas’ viewpoint, the book relies on his take on what is happening, what he himself witnesses and his love for his brother.

An enticing book of fantasy and mystery. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Alfred A. Knopf.

A Vow So Bold and Deadly by Brigid Kemmerer

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A Vow So Bold and Deadly by Brigid Kemmerer (9781547602582)

The conclusion to the amazing Cursebreakers series, this book could not have higher expectations surrounding it. What at first was a twist on Beauty and the Beast has created its own tremendous fantasy world filled with an evil enchantress, a lost brother, a girl stolen from her world to become a princess in another, a prince who is also beastly, and a new queen who must find the respect of her people. Told in alternating points of view, the novel takes us into each person’s perspective. There is Harper, who can barely look at her once-beloved Rhen but has been learning to use a sword and defend herself. Rhen, who regrets what he was forced to do but remains terrified of the magic that flows in his brother. Grey, who now lives in a nearby monarchy and is steadily learning to use his magic, probably to attack his brother. Lia Mara, the new queen who must find her own way without using the bloodshed that kept her mother in power. As war between the two kingdoms nears, the tension builds as romance and magic mingle to create a great read.

Kemmerer has managed to keep a marvelously tight rein on this series which easily could have spiraled out of control with its many protagonists, complex world building and fantasy elements. She manages to keep it focused on what brought Harper, Rhen and Grey together from the very beginning, making sure that readers remember that, see what has been lost along the way, and then offers a possibility, a hopeful way forward.

The book is in turns heart-breaking, hopeful and horrifying. The swirl of emotions works for each of the characters, each caught in their own situation, dependent upon one another, hoping they can do better than those who came before. The world itself is so strongly built from the enchantress’s curse to the castles themselves to the villages and towns that make up the kingdoms. It all clicks together into a unit that is unusual to see done so solidly in teen fantasy.

If you are a fan of the series, this one will not disappoint. If you haven’t read them yet, what are you waiting for? Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard

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The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (9781945820687)

This graphic novel offers a series of strange and tantalizing short stories sure to give readers the shivers. Set in ordinary places like the beach, on a farm, and near a lake, these stories take the mundane and make it strange and horrifying. From a lonely girl who discovers the terrifying truth of what happened on the farm next door to a young girl who meets a boy on the beach who becomes her best friend but who only comes out at night, these stories invite readers to look under the surface to the darkness and weirdness that lurks there. The stories also ask whether monsters are kind or cruel, and how we know what a monster actually is. Some people trust too much, others too little and some find a new path.

I’m a huge fan of Howard’s 2020 graphic novel The Last Halloween: Children. She uses the same gorgeous pen and ink illustrations here, once again creating a world adjacent to our own that is bewildering and yet familiar. Her skill with storytelling is clear as she creates one tale after the other, stringing them together into a beautiful yet horrifying collection that can’t be put down.

She manages to quickly bring us into each story with both her text and her illustrations, showing us at first how normal each scene is and then swiftly ripping that away. It’s a pleasure to experience each reveal, timed just right for maximum impact and then to have the story play out in unexpected and surprising ways.

A great graphic novel for teen horror fans. Best read after dark. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Iron Circus Comics.

One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu

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One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu (9780062689856)

The author of Eventown returns with another book showing how children can see beyond the social façade to what is actually happening. Rose is the daughter of the most famous and successful magic capturer in her town, which is the most magical in the world. She has grown up as “Little Luck” knowing that she is the one who will be the one to carry on her father’s legacy, unlike her older brother. She spends her days going barefoot despite the cold, practicing by catching fireflies, and wearing her father’s sweaters and scarves. But all is not quite right in her family, and deep down Rose knows it. The entire family tiptoes around her father’s expectations, making sure they are perfect and happy all of the time. So when New Year’s Day finally comes, Rose just knows she will be the best at finding the magic, but she isn’t. In fact, she just gets one little jar of magic. Now Rose’s father won’t speak to her, her previous friends mock her and ignore her, and everything has changed. Rose has a strange new freedom, accompanied by a new friend who doesn’t use magic, where she can start to see what is really going on not just with magic and her town, but in her family as well.

Haydu moves smoothly into full fantasy with this latest novel for middle grades. She laces magic throughout a world that looks much like our own, adding glitter, rainbows and wonder. She manages to take readers through the same process that Rose goes through, dazzled at first by the magic around them, then questioning it, and finally seeing beyond it to the marvels of the real world beneath.

Haydu’s depiction of Rose’s father is particularly haunting: a man who himself is all glitter with real issues not quite hidden by the magic that surrounds him. His anger, insistence and control are all revealed steadily through the book, alarm bells that grow louder and steadier as it progresses. Rose is a great protagonist, raised to believe herself the most special of all, fallen from that pedestal and able to lift herself to a new place based on reality and her own resilience.

A great fantasy read that asks deep questions about magic, control and freedom. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.