Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Cover image

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (9780062975164)

Amari still believes her brother is alive, even though everyone else thinks he is dead, including the bullies at her private prep school that she attends through a scholarship. When she gets a strange delivery, sending her to her brother’s closet where she finds a briefcase, she is introduced to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother works. Offered a spot in their competitive summer program, Amari finds herself learning about the hidden supernatural world that surrounds us all. It also turns out that her brother is part of a very famous two-person team who brought down the evil magicians. He has disappeared, and Amari is determined to find him, even though the Bureau doesn’t want to share any of the information they have. Helped by her roommate, who happens to be part dragon and a classmate connected to a famous family, Amari starts to unravel the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, but not before discovering that she has powers of her own that mark her as evil in everyone’s eyes.

A perfect new title for fans of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Percy Jackson, it is great to see a Black author create a Black protagonist who enters a fantasy world. Brilliantly, Alston layers the prejudice of the real world with that found in the supernatural, showing how profound racism is by combining it with hatred of magicians, who are labeled as illegal. The writing is strong and the pace is fast, quickly bringing readers and the characters into the world of the supernatural.

The world building is delightful, with nods to Harry Potter and classic myths but also staying connected to an urban landscape and modern issues. Amari is a great character, who sees little potential in herself while revealing throughout the book how unusual she actually is in more than her powers. Her loneliness, courage, loyalty and desire to figure out what happened all make for a book that has real depth but also offers a wild and fun ride through the supernatural.

Sure to be a popular read, this book has plenty of substance too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

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.

The Montague Twins: The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page

The Montague Twins The Witch's Hand by Nathan Page

The Montague Twins: The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page and Drew Shannon (9780525646761)

Pete and Alastair make money solving mysteries along with their stepsister. When a magical storm appears near the lighthouse, elements of their skills are suddenly revealed. Despite being separated from one another during the storm, all three of the teens meet the witch behind the magic. Soon they are taking new lessons from a student of their guardian, magic power lessons! With three girls missing, including the daughter of the prominent Bradford family, there is a mystery to be solved that will require both their detective skills and their emerging magical powers.

This is the first graphic novel in a planned duology, which is good enough for readers to hope for even more than two! The book is set in the late 1960’s, giving it an engaging original Scooby Doo meets Sabrina vibe. Sprinkled liberally with humor, thanks to the twins, the book offers adults who stand back and let the teens solve mysteries but who also provide solid support and knowledge themselves. It also has a great villain, though untangling who that might be is a big part of the fun.

The art is engagingly 1960’s as well with apparel and cars clearly placing it in time. Using bold colors and classic cartoon boxing, the result is dynamic and engaging with clear nods to comics that have gone before.

A winning new series that offers magic and mystery. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

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

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.