YA Fantasy

MALICE by Heather Walter

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Alyce knows her place. She is the Dark Grace, not quite human enough, not quite Grace enough, tasked with mixing her potions and curses at the request of patrons from the town and then–for some reason–reviled for it. But when she discovers a castle on the cliffs and talks with the shadowy stranger imprisoned there, Alyce learns that there is a deeper magic inside her, capable of more than mixing elixirs and poisons. After a chance meeting with the princess Aurora, heiress to an ancient curse that dooms her to death by her next birthday, Alyce is shocked to learn that the princess is not searching for her true love to kiss her and break the spell. In fact, Aurora means to break it on her own–or with the help of a Vila. Alyce is skeptical; as the Dark Grace, she is capable only of destruction. But as her command of her powers grows, Alyce is noticed by another, more dangerous royal. And as her attraction to princess Aurora blossoms, Alyce will have to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice for love.

With so many fairytale twists on the market, it is a beautiful thing to find one so fresh, imaginative, and engrossing! The romance between Alyce and Aurora is believable with a strong foundation, and both teens and adults will resonate with the struggles of both young women to fit in and be true to themselves when who they are seems at odds with society’s values. (The characters are twenty years old, but the vibe is YA.) I highly recommend this one to all fans of magic-laden YA fantasy or heartfelt queer genre fiction.

Amazon.com: Malice: A Novel: 9781984818652: Walter, Heather: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

FORESTBORN by Elayne Audrey Becker

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Rora and her brother have been living as refugees in Telyan since they escaped the deadly forests of the Vale, and before that, the slaughter of their entire village. But although the king and his youngest son have been welcoming of the two shapeshifters, not everyone trusts them. And when the magic-hating king to the north starts threatening war against both Telyan and the magical creatures in the Vale, Rora’s position is more tenuous than ever.

When the young prince is taken ill with a deadly magical plague, Rora and her brother are as desperate as the king to find a cure–desperate enough to consider returning to the Vale. Unfortunately, the king insists they take his eldest son, Weslyn, with them. Weslyn has never appeared to like Rora, and the feeling is mutual. But on their dangerous journey, they will all need to cooperate, and when they uncover an even more dangerous secret, it will take more than just cooperation to save their friends, their home, and all of the magical beings from anihilation.

FORESTBORN is a new high fantasy in the classic tradition: a magical heroine, outcast for her powers, wrestling with her place in the world of humans while being swept up in their politics. It brought to mind Graceling, Frostblood, The Wizards of Once, The Last Magician, with hints of Oz or Wonderland in the shifting, sometimes antagonistic landscape, and of Game of Thrones, as questions of parenthood, madness, and morality arise to complicate the story. It feels timeless (I would believe that it was written in the early 2000s, the ’90s, the 80s) and yet not dated. As the protagonist and her brother are refugees, and as the king tyrant in the neighboring kingdom uses the magical people as scapegoats in his power grab, the themes will certainly resonate with modern readers. I loved every minute of this book and am looking forward to a sequel!

Amazon.com: Forestborn (Forestborn, 1): 9781250752161: Becker, Elayne  Audrey: Books

BAD WITCH BURNING by Jessica Lewis

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Katrell has been communicated with the dead (for paying clients) for years. It’s the only way she can pay for rent and utilities and food with her mother unemployed and her mom’s deadbeat boyfriend living at their place. But the money Katrell brings home never seems to be enough for her mom or her boyfriend, who can’t seem to help himself from beating on Katrell whenever he’s in a bad mood. When the boyfriend threatens Katrell with a gun–and ends up murdering Katrell’s beloved dog–she doesn’t know how she’ll survive her miserable life without her best friend.

Until she brings him back.

Katrell didn’t know she had the power to raise the dead, at least not until she accidentally raised her dog. But she immediately realizes the money-making potential. Who wouldn’t pay a fortune to have a loved one back, even if there’s something a little off about the revenants? And Katrell won’t have to worry about the rent (or her mom’s boyfriend) ever again. But raising the dead has costs Katrell didn’t anticipate, and as the revenants begin to slip out of her control, Katrell remembers a ghostly forewarning: is she really about to burn herself–and everything else–down?

The most brilliant (and most disturbing) aspect of this quasi-horror novel is the fact that the darkness doesn’t come from the revenants. It comes from the humans. With all of the fantasy elements removed, this story would still be a torturous story of the physical and emotional abuse of a child and the strength she finds to endure and ultimately accept help. It is truly a battle for Katrell to cling to her own self-worth and recognize the found-family of supportive adults and friends that has grown up around her. And it is her righteous anger at the way her mother and her mother’s boyfriend treat her that manifests as the ghosts and revenants and Katrell’s own need to burn things down. Despite its often disturbing content, the book has a cathartic feel that I believe the author intended. Although I would advise readers to consider their own life experiences and whether this content is likely to be triggering or unduly disturbing before picking it up, I think some readers with difficult or even cruel family backgrounds will find solidarity and hope in Katrell’s experiences.

Amazon.com: Bad Witch Burning (9780593177402): Lewis, Jessica: Books

STRANGE CREATURES by Phoebe North

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Jamie invented Gumlea, the magical land in the woods behind their house. Annie knew it was real from the minute he described it. The woods came to life, bathed in golden light. She wasn’t Annie, Jamie’s little sister, anymore. She was Emperata Annit, and he was the Nameless Boy. They had adventures together in Gumlea, adventures no one else could understand. They made a pact to tell no one else about Gumlea, and to break that pact was punishable by a death price.

But everything changed when Jamie entered middle school. He changed, not just physically. He started pulling away from Annie and from Gumlea. And then he disappeared altogether. Eventually the police gave up the search. Even her parents started talking about him in the past tense. But Annie knew where Jamie really was. He was in Gumlea, and she was the only one who could find him.

Told in parallel with the mythology of Gumlea, this coming-of-age story is both beautiful and heart-breaking. Lyrical language and the suspense of Jamie’s disappearance makes it difficult to put down. I’d recommend this one to fans of dark YA contemporary with a literary feel.

Strange Creatures by Phoebe North

THE ENDLESS SKIES by Shannon Price

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Shirene only became a Sentinel and counselor to the king when a traitor defected, leaving his homeland and his fellow shape-shifting winged lions for the land of the humans–the enemy. In a kingdom whose motto is “Loyalty Above All,” such an action is unforgivable. And yet, the traitor is back and the king seems to have forgiven him. Shirene can’t imagine why, until she learns of the mysterious sickness that has started to claim the kingdom’s children. The sickness came from the land of the humans and the traitor is the only one who knows of a cure, a plant on the far outskirts of the humans’ kingdom.

Shirene’s sister Rowan has been dreaming of becoming a warrior for her whole life. But now at the moment when her dream is about to come true, the plague has put those dreams on hold. Rowan is desperate to join the teams on a quest for the cure, but since she hasn’t taken her oath yet, she is ineligible. And when Shirene accidentally reveals to Rowan that the traitor is the one who told the king about the sickness and the cure, Rowan grows uneasy. This story is completely at odds with the one being told to the warriors. With her two closest friends on a quest in enemy lands and her sister almost inaccessible in the king’s inner circle, Rowan will have to decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her dreams and where her loyalties truly lie.

This epic fantasy is fast-paced and character-rich. Though there is a lot of (necessary) world-building up front, it doesn’t feel too dense, and the immediate hook of the plague and Shirene’s new position made me eager to turn pages. I loved the inventive magical species and the suspense that is drawn through political intrigue and social commentary. This one is for teen and adult fans of high, epic fantasy.

DEAD WEDNESDAY by Jerry Spinelli

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Perfect Day.

Worm murmurs it on the bus–not loudly; he’s shy, after all–but soon it’s picked up by the rest of the eighth graders as their mantra and their cheer. It’s the second Wednesday in June, “Dead Wed” in Worm’s small Pennsylvania town, a day that school administrators designed to scare the eighth graders out of future reckless behavior but that every eighth grader knows as the day they can get away with anything. In homeroom, they will each receive a black shirt and a card with the name and picture of a teenager who died in PA last year as a result of preventable car accidents or dangerous stunts–and from that moment, every eighth grader will be “dead.” No teacher can acknowledge their presence, not even to stop them from walking out of school if they feel like it. Perfect Day.

But Worm’s perfect day veers off course almost immediately when the dead girl from his card, Rebecca Finch, starts showing up in real life. He’s the only one who seems to be able to see her or speak to her, although she’s 100% real and tangible. Becca doesn’t know how she ended up back on Earth, but she’s positive it has something to do with Worm. She’s here to save him–because let’s face it, Worm hasn’t really been living. As Mean Monica once announced, he needs to get a life. As Becca drags Worm on an impulsive jaunt around his hometown, Worm starts to realize that there is more than one way to “be bold” and that maybe Becca needs some saving of her own.

This novel is exquisite. It exists somewhere between middle grade and YA, between fantasy and realistic fiction, but the book is full of betweens. Becca is caught between life and death, Worm between middle school and high school, childhood and adulthood, responsibility to his parents and individuality, a desire to be noticed and a desire to fade into the background. The narrative is masterfully woven, sending readers on an undulating emotional journey that builds to its climax so subtly that it is both unexpected and grounded. There is humor, realistically cringe-worthy teen interactions, and true heartache (warning to parents: this may upset you more than it will your kids), and Worm’s personal journey is authentic and meaningful. This book is a must-read for middle schoolers and an excellent pick for M.S. book clubs.

Dead Wednesday: Spinelli, Jerry: 9780593306673: Amazon.com: Books

SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

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Princess Shiori does not want to get married. Even if her betrothed turns out to be as kind and wonderful as her father claims, she will still resent him for taking her away from her home–from her beloved father and stepmother and her six fun, loving, infuriating brothers. And what if her future husband discovered her secret–the magic she tries to keep hidden?

When a near-drowning experience brings her in contact with a dragon, Shiori finally begins to experiment with using her magic with the dragon as her guide. But when she discovers that her stepmother has been hiding magic of her own, Shiori panics. She tries to warn her brothers, but her stepmother catches her, placing all seven siblings under a dreadful curse. The brothers turn to cranes, and Shiori must tame her voice because for each sound she utters, one of her brothers will die. As Shiori travels the countryside in search of a way to break the curse, she realizes she will need help–from her brothers, from her dragon friend, and from the one person she had sworn to hate: her betrothed.

A brief summary cannot do justice to the complexity and beauty of this novel. The number of folktales Lim twists into this story could have been overwhelming, but every one serves the character development and relationship growth which drive the narrative. In addition to uniquely Asian folklore (such as the dragons), Lim incorporates the Asian variants of stories that are also common in the Western canon (e.g., the Chinese fish-girl “Cinderella” Ye Xian and the use of cranes in her reinterpretation of Andersen’s Wild Swans). The world she builds through this interwoven folklore is exquisite. For any reader who enjoys reimagined fairytales, this is a must-read!

Amazon.com: Six Crimson Cranes (9780593300916): Lim, Elizabeth: Books

THESE FEATHERED FLAMES by Alexandra Overy

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Izaveta and Asya have always known their destiny. As twin princesses, Izaveta will succeed their mother as queen and Asya will become the Firebird, keeper of the magic of the firestone, tasked with exacting a blood-price from anyone who misuses magic. But when their mother is murdered, Asya and Izaveta are swept into their new roles much sooner than they expected, and if they have any hope of achieving justice, they will have to put aside their long-instilled mistrust of one another and uncover the darkest secrets of their imperiled queendom

A lot to love in this lush high fantasy, including an F/F enemies-to-lovers romance! Slavic folklore runs deep in the world-building and the consequences of magic are both weighty and believable. Recommend to high fantasy fans who don’t mind some bloodshed in their books!

Amazon.com: These Feathered Flames (These Feathered Flames, 1)  (9781335147967): Overy, Alexandra: Books

HOUSE OF HOLLOW by Krystal Sutherland

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After they disappeared ten years ago, Iris Hollow and her sisters were never the same. It wasn’t just their eyes (now black) or their hair (now white). There were things they couldn’t remember, and things they wanted to forget–strange nightmares that sometimes came when they were awake. Her eldest sister, Grey, seemed especially different, now possessing strange abilities to influence other people. The change was enough to drive their father mad, to drive away their friends, and to cause strangers to stalk them.

But as much as Iris has tried to distance herself from her hazy past, when Grey disappears, she knows she can run from the truth no longer. With rotting flesh and carrion flowers to lead her forward, Iris searches for Grey–and the terrifying reality of what happened to all three Hollow sisters a decade ago.

Part fantasy, part horror, HOUSE OF HOLLOW will lead readers into a grounded nightmare in the space between life and death. The shining thread through the whole narrative is the theme of family–of love, loyalty, and belonging–that exists on two sides of a coin: life-giving and deadly, good and evil. Great pick for a YA book club and any older teen who loves dark fantasy. Highly recommend!

Amazon.com: House of Hollow (9780593110348): Sutherland, Krystal: Books