The School Between Winter and Fairyland by Heather Fawcett

Cover image for The School Between Winter and Fairyland.

The School Between Winter and Fairyland by Heather Fawcett (9780063043312)

Autumn and her family are servants at the Inglenook School, a magical boarding school for wizards. Her family cares for the magical monsters in the menagerie, including plant-loving gardening dragons, wisps who need to be clubbed before they are gathered up, and a grumpy Boggart who loves Autumn more than anyone. But Autumn has a mystery to solve, her twin brother Winter disappeared almost a year ago, and she is certain that he isn’t dead. The Boggart spotted him in the school kitchens, but she is not allowed to venture much into the school itself. Meanwhile, Cai Morrigan, the boy prophesized to one day kill the Hollow Dragon, needs Autumn’s help. It turns out that he is terrified of dragons to the point that he can’t stay conscious around them. The deal is that he must help her find Winter while she helps him stop fainting dead away. Now the two of them must search the school and discover hidden parts while also entering the dangerous forest and dealing with dragons big and small.

It is inevitable that people will compare this to Harry Potter due to the magical boarding school at its center, but this middle-grade fantasy novel is something quite different. With a broad sense of humor about monsters, posh wizards, and older brothers, the book also takes on serious subjects like discrimination against different magics, the treatment of those who are different, and one girl’s determination to find her brother no matter what.

The characters are marvelously written. From the powerful and gruff Gran who raises Autumn and her siblings to the brothers who are both heroic and terrible to the family dog who just knows everyone loves him to the dark Boggart who loves deeply and hates to use his full powers. There are monstrous delights throughout the book, the creatures beautifully detailed and fascinating.

A grand fantasy full of twists, magic and mucking out stalls. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzar + Bray.

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

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Little Thieves by Margaret Owen (9781250191908)

Vanja has a plan to escape the powerful forces in her life. It involves a string of stolen magical pearls that turn her into the princess and stealing a lot of jewelry. As the adopted daughter of Death and Fortune, she has only to ask for their help, but she refuses to be servant to either one of them in return. Abandoned by her mother to them, Vanja knows she can trust no one since everyone in her life has always betrayed her. Caught in a new trap where her body is steadily turning into jewels, she must find a way out of the curse before the month’s end and before she has to marry the violent and abusive margrave as the princess. She may have to start trusting someone after all.

This book is delicious. It is a mixture of thievery, cleverness, magic and betrayal. From the author of The Merciful Crow series, this is a new fantasy world which is beautifully detailed. Owen has layered royalty, elected imperials, inheritance laws, dark nightmare magic, forest gods, high gods, and one human thief. Untangling it all alongside Vanja is a true joy, the ripples of each discovery carrying through the entire tale. It’s a puzzle of a fantasy that is unique and very special.

At the heart of the puzzle is Vanja, who also goes by Gisele and Gretl in the story. Her brilliance at finding relative safety in a world that sees her as disposable is amazing. Her history of trauma rings so real, helping readers understand her lack of trust. Owen uses these twists and turns to great effect, surprising the reader along the way to the breathless ending where things are not as they may seem. Devastating and so smart.

One of the best fantasies of the year. Get this in the hands of feminist fantasy fans. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Henry Holt and Co.

Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen

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Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen (9780062995094)

Garlic works at the farm market with the other living vegetables brought to life by the witch. Garlic tends to stressed and anxious, and is even more so when she accidentally sleeps in again on market day. The next day, the witch encourages Garlic to try using some magic to get her garlic to grow, encouraging Garlic to look beyond helping her in the garden too. But Garlic doesn’t want adventures at all, she’s much happier staying on the farm. So when a vampire moves into the abandoned castle nearby, it seems that Garlic is exactly the right one to send to get rid of him. After all, vampires can’t abide garlic.

This debut graphic novel for children is a look at anxiety and stress, all in one garlicky wrapper. With one bully on the farm to contend with, Garlic can’t seem to see the kindness of the others around her, instead getting fretful, sleeping too much, and doubting her own abilities. When she is sent on her mission, she finds her footing and eventually takes care of it in her own special way, making the ending satisfying on multiple levels.

The art style is unique and is something that will draw readers into the story. It has a great vintage feel to it from the classic vampire to the vegetables themselves. The humanoid veggies are marvelous characters, their emotions clear on both their faces and in their body language. The book plays characters that one might be afraid of against their tropes, showing dimensions to them in inventive ways both in the storyline and in the images.

A cozy graphic novel full of witches and vampires. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.

New in Town by Kevin Cornell

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New in Town by Kevin Cornell (9780374306090)

One morning, the residents of Puddletrunk woke up to discover that their bridge had collapsed. It certainly wasn’t the first time. They were lucky to have Mortimer Gulch, who had built and replaced over 200 bridges for the town. Mr. Gulch said it was the termites again and they’d just all have to donate to replace the bridge again. He was willing to accept jewelry and cash. But the new traveling clock repairman refused to pay, instead saying he would pay by fixing the clock tower for free. So bridge #272 began construction! Everyone worked hard to build it while Mr. Gulch orated, drummed and motivated them. Then they ran out of wood, but the clock repairman had some. When he refused to share his wood with Mr. Gulch, lest it get eaten by termites, readers soon find out exactly what has been happening to the bridges. But the traveling clock repairman just may have understood it all along.

Cornell has created an atmospheric picture book of an isolated town built in a marvelously ramshackle way on a small circle of land surrounded by a pit. Readers will immediately know that Mr. Gulch is a bad guy, but they won’t quite understand how bad until it is revealed that bridges (and clock towers) are simply delicious. The quiet and reserved repairman has a plan of his own that results in a wonderfully satisfying ending, neatly solving the bridge problem in a permanent way.

Cornell’s illustrations are a delight. They play with light and dark, filling with ominous shadows. The ramshackle town is full of small details as are the people in town. The ending works particularly well because of the art, showing the height of the tower, how precarious it looks, and the rather sad wooden bridge that connects them to the world. Even the font used for the book is unusual and interesting, swirling with promise of a fantastic tale.

A great villain, quiet hero and one doozy of a solution come together to make this fantasy picture book pure joy. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba

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Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, illustrated by Miho Satake, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa (9781632063038)

When Kazu sees a strange girl leaving his house in the middle of the night wearing a white kimono, he wonders about it. But things are even stranger at school, when he is the only person who seems not to know Akari, the girl who exited his house that night. Everyone else seems to have known her for years and years. When Kazu follows Akari home, he realizes that her mother is invisible! As Kazu explores the history of his Kimyo Temple neighborhood, which doesn’t have a temple, he finds himself angering some of the older people in his community. Putting the pieces together, Kazu discovers that a small Buddha statue from his family’s home has the power to restore dead people to life! After getting to know Akari and her mother from her previous life, Kazu has a new quest, to give Akari the chance to read the ending of an unfinished story from decades ago. It may be the key to keeping Akari alive this time around and also the answer to the questions about Kazu’s own family and community.

Written by one of Japan’s most well-known and prolific children’s and YA fantasy authors, this book is a marvel. Kashiwaba weaves together multiple layers to create a book that is satisfying and full of magic. There is Kazu’s own life, going to school and having friends, going to the beach and enjoying his summer. There is the mystery of Akari with her empty house and invisible mother. There is the story of Kazu’s own family and the missing temple in his neighborhood to explore. Then the story that Akari loved in her previous life is shared on the pages, giving readers a witch-filled and magical story that is full of danger, cold and heroes. The last is to find the author herself and see if they can get the story finished. By that point, the reader is hoping that they can, because you simply must know how it ends!

Beautifully, Kashiwaba changes the style of her writing from Kazu’s story to the fantasy tale embedded in the novel. Kazu’s story is more modern with shorter lines and more exclamations. The lines lengthen in the witch’s story, becoming more storytelling. It’s very cleverly done. The characters are marvelous from Kazu himself at the heart of this unique zombie story to Akari who is learning to live a new life and loving every moment to the friends, parents and newly met people that Kazu meets along the way.

Unique, fascinating and completely wonderful, this Japanese import is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

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Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim (9780593300916)

Shiori is the only princess of Kiata, a land where magic is forbidden. She lives in the palace with her six older brothers, her father the emperor and his consort, her stepmother. None of them know that Shiori has magic of her own, but her stepmother, who is also a sorceress, discovers it. Shiori meets a dragon in the waters when she almost drowns, soon becoming friends and learning more about her magical powers with his help. But when Shiori followers her stepmother into her snake-filled garden, her stepmother banishes her and her brothers. Shiori is cursed with having to wear a bowl on her head that covers most of her features and being unable to utter a sound without killing one of her brothers. Her six brothers are turned into cranes by day and human by night. Shiori must find a way to reunite with her brothers and break the curse before her stepmother takes over the empire. But things may not be as simple as Shiori first thinks, and certainly meeting her betrothed while unable to speak was never in her plans.

An impossible book to summarize in any way that conveys it fully, this novel is a wonderful interwoven net of The Wild Swans and other folk tales. The world building here is so masterful where the magic makes sense, the curses bind and force the story forward, and there are layers of the empire, magical and human to explore. The setting of Kiata offers extensive forests, an icy northern castle, long stretches of sea, and mountains of magic and demons.

Against that setting, Lim offers readers characters who change and grow as the novel progresses. The most changed is Shiori, who steadily learns about herself and her betrothed, thinking deeply about who she once was and who she has become due her stepmother’s curse. The romance is slow and steadily builds in a way that is organic and lovely. Readers will love the secondary characters too. Plus the villains themselves are complicated and add to the twists and turns of the novel.

A great fantasy full of magic and curses. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

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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.