Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

Cover image for Blood Like Magic.

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury (9781534465282)

Voya’s time to get her Calling has finally arrived. While she isn’t excited about the trial that she must undergo, she is thrilled that she will get her witch’s power. Voya hopes that her power will set the course for the rest of her life, likely keeping her close at home with her multigenerational family who live in a house that was magically moved to Canada. When Voya’s hesitation causes her to have to ask her ancestor for another chance, she is given an impossible task: to destroy her first love. If Voya doesn’t succeed, every witch in her family will lose their magic. It also means that Voya’s young sister will die since magic keeps her alive. As Voya tries to get her cousin a great internship, she also meets a boy who is the perfect genetic match for her. The trouble is, they don’t like each other at all and he has no interest in even meeting her again. As Voya struggles to solve the mystery of her Calling, she learns more about her family’s pure magic, the cost of darker magical power, and what duty to her family means.

This book is full of Black magic that is at once both powerful but also marvelously mundane. Sambury brings us into a family of witches who are coming to the end of their power and tied to being pure, meaning that they won’t kill or torture other people to gain power. The family dynamics are beautifully drawn, from divorced parents who are forced to live together under the same roof to a grandmother who controls them all to a group of cousins who are very different from one another but also watch out and help one another constantly. The dialog is well written, full of small touches that bring each character to life.

Voya is an unusual protagonist. First, she has not only her parents but a huge extended family around her all the time. Second, she has trouble making choices that impact her life to the point of grinding to a halt regularly. When given tasks that force her to make decisions, she falters but doesn’t give up. She finds other ways, other paths and asks for help. This is the opposite of a solo protagonist, as she is surrounded by people who love her even if they don’t trust that she will succeed.

Magical, powerful and unique, this novel is fantastic. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

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Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland (9780062915894)

When Ophie’s father is killed in a racist attack on their home in Georgia, Ophie discovers that she can see and communicate with ghosts. Her father’s ghost encourages her to flee with her mother. They make their way to Pittsburgh to stay with relatives. Ophie’s mother finds them both jobs with a wealthy family in their old manor that happens to be filled with ghosts and secrets. In post World War I America, work is hard to find and they can’t afford for Ophie to continue to attend school. As Ophie learns the tasks to be a maid for the elderly woman who owns the house, she realizes how dull her future looks, caught in endless domestic work. Ophie must also learn the tricks of dealing with all of the ghosts who surround her both at work and outside. Some are far more demanding than others. One spirit in the house though is friendly to Ophie, teaching her the small elements of being a maid that will make Ophie’s life easier. But even that spirit has secrets, ones that may not stay hidden once she has a voice.

The author of Dread Nation has turned to middle-grade novels with historical fiction that wrestles with racism and prejudice while offering an enticing mystery to unravel. The fantasy elements of the ghosts around Ophie add to the mystery and effectively isolate Ophie from those around her as she figures out how to handle both ghosts and her wealthy employers. Ireland doesn’t shy away from the blatant racism of the time, but also effectively demonstrates how those same racist forces are in our modern world.

Ophie is such a great protagonist. She is dynamic and smart, hurting from the loss of her father and trying to help her mother find a way forward for them both. As she has to stop going to school, she finds ways to keep learning, including romance magazines that she finds around the big manor. Ireland cleverly ties all of the elements of the book together with her reveal at the end, keeping Ophie and her powers fully central.

A marvelous mystery full of fantasy elements and Black history. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (9781547603909)

Briseis has a magical gift that she works hard not to reveal. Plants respond to her touch and presence, growing more lush and leaning in towards her, sometimes with destructive force. When Briseis inherits an estate in rural New York, she and her mothers jump at the new opportunity. The home is dirty and needs attention, and it also holds a lot of secrets for Briseis to figure out. There is the apothecary shop that seemed to deal in more normal herbs, but also ones that are extremely poisonous and rare. Then there is a trail of clues that lead Briseis to a neglected garden on the property that has regular herbal plants but also hidden poison gardens that only Briseis can reach thanks to her newly discovered immunity to poisonous plants. As strangers arrive on the property to seek services from Briseis, she finds herself part of another mystery. What is behind the locked door in the garden, and could it have been why so many women in her family have died or disappeared?

There is just so much to love with this novel. It’s a mesmerizingly lovely look at contemporary Black life that is imbued with magic and mystery. Briseis’ talent with plants moves from being problematic to being celebrated, something that really shines at the center of the book as she gains confidence in her own powers. Against the green wonder of her magic is the danger of poison that darkens the entire story very effectively, and is steadily revealed as more characters appear in the story.

Bayron paces the mystery out very cleverly, allowing readers to both enjoy and doubt several characters who are close to Briseis. The inclusion of queer characters is done naturally and woven into the story. Briseis has lesbian mothers and is queer herself. Briseis herself is a great protagonist, richly drawn in both her self doubt, her initial friendlessness, and how that transforms into a dangerous dance of trust and betrayal.

Beautifully written, full of strong Black women and filled with magic, this teen novel is spellbinding. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

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Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera (9780062947550)

Cece lives in Tierra del Sol, a town at the edge of the desert where criatura, powerful legendary beings, roam. Devoted to the Sun, the town stands against the influx of these beings. Cece though is unique in her town. She has a water spirit, given to her when she was young, that is considered a curse by the rest of the residents, including her own family. When her older sister is stolen away by a criatura to become his bride, Cece blames herself for bringing her sister into the desert. Now Cece must figure out how to rescue her sister. She decides that the only way is to become a bruja herself and control the soul of a criatura. The first criatura she meets is the legendary Coyote, who agrees to join her in her quest. As Cece joins the brutal contests of the bruja, she must find her own way, a way that may just change the relationships between criatura, bruja and humans.

Rivera’s novel is entirely immersive and engaging. She invites readers into the world of Mexican folklore, highlighting several legendary figures both kind and cruel. Still, the world she creates is also entirely her own with the small community of humans standing in the way of the powerful criatura and the disdain that those people have for Cece and what she becomes. The world of criatura, bruja and humans is a delicate balance where power if vied for and battles are commonplace. Just knowing who to trust is difficult and may lead to ruin.

The characters placed in this world are beautifully written. From Cece herself, who is courageous, caring and unwilling to lose herself in order to gain power. To Coyote, who is funny, wild and true. The soft spot that Coyote has for humans is one that will be shared by readers towards him. His character is complex and so much a heart of this book.

A great middle-grade fantasy full of magic, legend and individuality. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

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The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (9781338540581)

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a plan. She just needs to survive high school and then she can leave her small island and become the real person she keeps secret from everyone. She has a group of friends, but she’s different from them. Her family has fallen apart with her father leaving, her mother sad and her little brother raging. Morgan is about to have another huge secret to keep. When Morgan meets Keltie, she rediscovers someone she met as a child. With a kiss, Morgan allows Keltie to take on a human form and leave her seal form behind. The two become close friends, but Morgan is worried about people seeing them touching or together at all. Keltie though has something she hasn’t told Morgan either. As the secrets pile up, Morgan has to see if she has the courage to live as the person she truly is before it’s too late.

From the author of The Witch Boy trilogy comes this magical sea breeze of a graphic novel that is just right for summer beach reading. The twist on a traditional selkie tale is lovingly created, offering moments of real connection, beauty and pain. Morgan is closeted and pretending to be everything she is not. It’s great to see that as she moves into her truth, she becomes better connected with her family as she shares things with them. The setting of the novel is a large part of the story with the seaside, the island and the seal nursery just offshore.

The illustrations show that setting with detail, inviting readers down to the beaches, out to the seals, deep underwater, and onto the rocks. They are drenched in summer sun, tantalizing moonlight, and the blue greens of the sea.

Beautiful, aching and full of LGBTQIA magical fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

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.