Tag: witches

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

vassa-in-the-night-by-sarah-porter

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter (InfoSoup)

When the nights in Brooklyn seem to be getting longer and longer, lasting almost entire days, Vassa finds herself looking forward to school just not to be home any longer. Part of it is her stepmother and stepsisters and part is pure boredom. It doesn’t help that Erg, the wooden doll that Vassa’s mother gave her before she died, is stealing things from her stepsisters which are then blamed on Vassa. So when one of her stepsisters basically dares Vassa to head to the dangerous local convenience store, Vassa accepts the challenge. She heads to Babs Yagg’s store, the one that dances on chicken legs and that you have to sing down. She makes sure that Erg is with her, as always, and knows that she is in for an unusual experience. What Vassa doesn’t realize is that she is headed straight into her dangerous destiny and will discover an entire magical world that she never knew existed: one with bleeding swans, a dark motorcyclist, severed hands, and beheaded teens.

Inspired by the Russian folktale, Vassilissa the Beautiful, this novel for teens embraces all of the strange and bizarre in that story and takes it even further. Baba Yaga’s home on chicken feet becomes an amazing convenience store filled with some treats that are tempting and others that seem odd and still others that nauseate. The modern Babs Yagg is still very much a witch, and one that toys with her prey in haunting and excruciating ways. There are impossible tasks, the need for plenty of bravery, and real loss and death threatened at every turn.

This is a mesmerizing book, one that is filled with gorgeous writing that stays out of its own way and then rises beautifully to create new moods. Throughout the book the story turns briefly away and into other perspectives like those of the swans themselves or of the attorneys who are after Babs. The language changes and weaves new patterns, creating completely different worlds and experiences and then gently carrying the reader back to the main story. It’s a powerful magic all its own.

Beautifully written, this twist on a folktale is bizarre, wild and extraordinary. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Tor Teen.

 

 

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (InfoSoup)

Every year, the youngest child in the Protectorate must be left in the woods for the witch. The sacrifice of the child has ensured the survival of their small community for years. Unfortunately, the entire witch story was made up by those in power to keep the population sad and controllable. Still, there is a witch who lives in the woods, but Xan is gentle and kind. She rescues the children who are left in the clearing, taking them to other communities where they are loved and adored. Then one year, Xan accidentally feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the small child with magic. Xan decides to keep the child, whose magic will need to be controlled. As Luna grows, her magic starts to seep out everywhere, so Xan locks it away deep inside Luna who grows up knowing nothing of magic, despite living with a small dragon and a large swamp monster. As truth starts to appear, those in power struggle to maintain control even as Luna begins to discover what is hidden inside her.

Barnhill has created a brand new classic fairy tale with this book. Her writing is rich and filled with emotion. She allows magic to be incorporated throughout her book with a natural feel and flair. It becomes almost as normal as the trees in the woods, allowing readers to realize that Luna must discover her own magic or not be living at all in this world. The world building is brilliantly done with each piece clicking neatly in, forming a full pattern of the world.

The book does have Luna as a protagonist but it is so filled with rich characters that there are many heroes and heroines. There is Antain, the boy who refused to witness babies die. There is the amazing Xan, elderly and full of life, determined to do good even with her last breath. Glerk and Fyrian the monster and dragon are perfect for both humor and wisdom. Luna herself has to be even more special to stand out against these other characters, and she certainly is!

This book is magical, clever and luminous. Definitely one for young fans of fantasy or for anyone looking for a rich reading experience. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan (InfoSoup)

The first in a series, this teen novel is a breathtaking blend of magic, witchcraft, mythology, and Victorian England. Julia is spying on the wealthy people she is pretending to work for as a maid. She is really working with the group of thieves and con artists that she was raised by in the squalid world of the Twist. Julia is an ideal spy because she has the ability to step between worlds and disappear. This well-paying job though has her spying on people who protect those who have magic from a society that drowns witches, including Julia’s own mother who was killed years ago. As the mysteries around Julia grow,  her own life is in danger and she must decide what side she is on and who she is going to become.

The world building in this book is exemplary, truly capturing a twisted version of England filled with forbidden witchcraft, people with extraordinary powers, black market deals, and a lovely touch of steampunk as well. Add in mysteries that have people being murdered on the streets who are clearly being hunted and yet bear no connection to one another, and you have a world ripe with fear for our young magic user. As the mystery is solved, more arrive so that the richness of the world continues to grow as the novel concludes.

Throughout the novel, characters turn out to be far deeper than one might expect. Readers will identify a wolf man as a character far earlier than Julia does, but his character does not end there. Aristocrats and lowly old women alike turn out to be amazing creatures. Steampunk touches herald both heroes and villains. Among this cast of characters, there is Julia who herself is incredible, not just for her powers but for her strength, her ability to be detestable at times, and her determination not to be what one expects her to be.

This is a thrilling and impressive novel that bends genres and will delight fantasy fans. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon (InfoSoup)

The creator of Dragonbreath and Hamster Princess has an illustrated novel filled with sorcery, witches, magic and minions. The minions of Castle Hangnail are worried. If they don’t find a witch, wizard, sorceress or vampire to run the castle, it will be decommissioned and sold off by the Board of Magic. But the minions did not expect a twelve-year-old girl to show up on their doorstep, especially one that does not seem as wicked a witch as she should. Molly sets out to prove herself, taking on the list of requirements set by the Board of Magic. She is a natural witch and uses her magic to successfully turn a donkey into a dragon, though the spell does last a lot longer than expected. She also befriends the moles in the garden, vanquishes weeds alongside a local gardener, and tries to find a solution to the castle’s failing plumbing. But despite her success, Molly has been lying all along and her lies are about to tumble down around her and may have her leaving Castle Hangnail for good (or evil).

This novel works exceptionally well. Vernon captures a diverse set of characters. There is the guardian of the castle who is doubtful about Molly from the start, the animated suit of armor who would fight anyone who threatens the castle except that his knees seize up, Pins the animated fabric doll who is a great tailor, and his pet goldfish who suffers from being a hypochondriac. Against this wild cast Molly is refreshingly normal. She’s a girl who is not squeamish about bats or insects, enjoying that liking them counts as being wicked. She is clever in her solutions to the list of requirements and figures out how to use her uneducated power to accomplish great things.

The book is also illustrated, adding to the delight for the reader. There are just enough illustrations to have the book still be a novel but also to break up the blocks of text very nicely for young readers. Readers will enjoy seeing what Pins looks like, what a dragon-donkey appears as, and the little bat who is sent to stay with Molly because he likes being awake during the day. All of this adds to the friendly and fascinating menagerie of characters throughout the book, with Molly the wicked witch being the foil for all of it.

Filled with humor and a strong sense of home, this fantasy novel for children has enough action and magic to win the day. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.

Review: Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola

Baba Yagas Assistant by Marika McCoola

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll

A modern teen meets the legendary Baba Yaga in this graphic novel that mixes traditional Russian folklore with modern-day mixed families. Masha was raised primarily by her grandmother who told her stories of her own time with Baba Yaga in her house that walks on chicken legs as well as stories of other children who lived with the old witch. So when Masha sees an ad in the paper for an assistant, she sets off to take the job with some confidence, a lot more than she feels about her father’s new girlfriend and her daughter. Baba Yaga sets Masha through a series of tests like outwitting a huge bear, cleaning the filthy house, and even getting inside in the first place. But when the daughter of her father’s girlfriend shows up as one of the children ready to become Baba Yaga’s dinner, Masha intervenes and saves all of the children, even if they don’t want her help. But that act alone may have cost her the assistant position and her adventures with Baba Yaga.

McCoola’s story is a dark and dangerous tale, one that does not laugh at the legends of Baba Yaga, but instead makes her all the more frightening. Still there is a great sense of humor throughout. The story closely relates to other tales of Baba Yaga and her house. In fact, the characters refer to other tales, other adventures and use that knowledge to escape their situation. It’s a clever use of traditional stories to create a robust modern tale of adventure and magic.

The illustrations by Carroll embrace the darkness of the story. My advanced reader copy was entirely in black and white, so I can’t speak to the colors of the final version, but the drawings have a modern edge to them that makes them exciting and fresh. A different style is used when there are flashbacks to the other stories, making sure that readers know that it is a different tale. The final pages of my copy contain some character studies for the illustrations that make for fascinating reading too.

Dark, dramatic and great fun, this graphic novel is a memorable mix of old and new into something amazing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.

Review: The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke

lunch witch

The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke

What is a witch to do when no one believes in magic anymore? She has her family’s potion recipes and cauldron, but that’s about it. Then she realizes that there is one perfect job for someone who creates horrible brews – being a lunch lady! So Grunhilda becomes a lunch lady, one who scares all of the children. But Madison isn’t scared of Grunhilda despite the fact that she is the one person who knows that she is not what she seems. Madison has enough knowledge to blackmail the witch, but that’s a dangerous course even when the witch wants to help you. Grunhilda finds a kinship with Madison, but her horrible ancestors are maddened to find their magic being used for good, so they step in and cause all sorts of trouble for both Madison and Grunhilda.

Lucke’s story is a delightful mix of horrible potions, bats that don’t listen, nasty dead ancestors with too many opinions, and amazingly also two people who may just become friends through it all. Lucke creates a story around Grunhilde that offers her back story and makes her transformation to an almost-good witch believable and organic. Madison too has her own story, one that also makes the story work well and makes her own role and connection ring true.

The art of this graphic novel is gorgeously strange and wild. Each chapter leads in with a differently stained page, from oily splotches to actual tomatoes. The pages too are dark and stained, as if Grunhilda herself had been using the book in her kitchen. Against that the white of aprons and speech bubbles pops. Other subtler colors are also used and create a subtle effect against the dark page.

A funny and heartfelt story of unusual friendships created during the most unusual of times. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

beastkeeper

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

Sarah’s family moves all of the time, away from the cold that her mother despises.  But when her mother walks out one day, Sarah’s father falls apart.  He barely eats and never grocery shops.  It all falls to Sarah to keep them both alive.  Her father seems to be becoming less human by the day, descending into an animal with scruffy hair and yellowed teeth.  Unable to care for Sarah, he takes her to her grandparents’ home, grandparents she had been told were dead.  Left in a moldering castle in a deep woods, Sarah begins to figure out the deep curse that keeps her entire family prisoner.  Her grandmother treats her coldly, putting her to work in the gardens.  Her grandfather is trapped in a cage, fully transformed into a beast yet still able to speak to Sarah at times.  Sarah doesn’t believe in the magic at work at first but soon is forced to admit that something is happening as she witnesses it for herself.  Yet there are twists to the curse that bind her to witches, boys in the wood, and the beasts of her family, including the beast inside herself.

Hellisen beautifully converts the story of Beauty and the Beast into something quite different and extraordinary.  Her writing is as lush as the forest itself and she weaves amazing descriptions onto the pages that bring the entire book to life.  She uses this technique for both characters and the setting.  Here is her description of the castle when Sarah first sees it on page 48:

It was a single squat turret, like a jabbing finger or a lone tooth, made of mottled stone, dribbled and spattered with lichen in yellows and reds.  Furry clumps of moss clung velvety and green at the base.  Ivy grew wild, so thick in some places it distorted the shape of the tower, and sprays of leaves crowned with little blue-black berries rose over the low walls around the outskirts.  Tumbled boulders marked the faint outlines of rooms that had long since fallen.

Talk about showing and not telling!  She is a master at that, creating mood with details that linger in your mind.  This castle is no fairy tale one, or is it?

Hellisen does not set her protagonist on a simple quest either.  Sarah slowly reveals the twists and turns of the curse, binding herself closer and closer to disaster with each revelation.  Disaster waits on the other side of each breath and at times it seems to have already won.  Sarah though is up to the challenge, willing to sacrifice herself to try to prevent the curse from continuing onward in her family. 

This is a gorgeously written tale of love, betrayal, revenge and family.  Fans of retellings of classic fairy tales will find so much to adore in this fantasy novel.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Co.