YA Fantasy

RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

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

As a Floramancer and young woman of Afrikan ancestry, Laura has always known the Prohibition targeted her people specifically. When the Great Rust set in in the 1930s, the small-time Negro mages bore the brunt of the blame, even though white Mechomancers were the ones who’d taken the purity of the power imbued in in nature (the Possibilities) and exploited it for financial gain in their Industrial Revolution. But the Blights are getting worse, and the U.S. government has put the dangerous burden of fixing it on the Bureau of the Archane’s Colored Auxiliary.

With few options for gaining a license to practice Floramancy–or even earn enough money to live–Laura takes a new name (the Peregrine) and an apprenticeship with the Floramancer known as the Skylark who is tasked with finding the source of a particularly rotten Blight in Ohio. But when the Colored Auxiliary arrives, the Peregrine and her mentor realize something is wrong. The Blight bears an alarming resemblance to the Klan’s Necromancy–a horrific evil that touched the Skylark’s life once before. And as they travel toward the heart of the dark magic, the Peregrine realizes that there were secrets within her power she was keeping even from herself.

Justina Ireland once again proves herself the queen of historical fantasy, crafting a richly grounded world with a detailed, inventive magic system that both accentuates past evils and demands that readers recognize and analyze alarming trends in the modern world. She perfectly balances her voice with historical colloquialisms and modern sensibility and weaves a cast of nuanced secondary characters to support her heroine. This novel is a must-read for YA and NA fantasy fans! I cannot recommend it highly enough.

ALL OF OUR DEMISE by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman (Audiobook)

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Sequel to ALL OF US VILLAINS.

Seven teens were chosen by their families to battle to the death in the generational Ilvernath blood tournament for high magic. But none of this year’s champions is content to die. Some want to win. Some want to break the tournament for good. With secrets, twists, and dangers both within the tournament and without, one way or another, the blood veil will fall. The question: will any of the champions survive?

The thrilling, brutal conclusion to the All of Us Villains duology does not disappoint, with astronomical stakes, jaw-dropping twists, and a dose of doomed romance. Emotionally, the story focuses on the teens struggle to define themselves as independent from their families and grapple with the ways they’ve been abused–by parents and by society. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown and Raphael Corkhill, and I was riveted. Character voices felt distinct without being affected. There was one scene I personally found very difficult to listen to read aloud due to the graphic violence (torture, in this case) so be aware that if you usually skim through particularly graphic scenes, this might be one to read yourself rather than listen to. But if you have the stomach for some violence, this is a great audiobook for older teens and adults.

THE UNDEAD TRUTH OF US by Britney S. Lewis

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Since Zharie’s mother died, her world has changed drastically. There are the practical changes: the fact that she now has to live with her aloof aunt and has had to quit dancing at the expensive studio where her mom used to work.

And then there are the zombies.

Zharie sees them everywhere, kids she used to know with the flesh peeling off of them, but no one else seems to notice anything wrong. She knows it has something to do with her mother, who seemed to be decaying in the few days leading up to her unexpected death. When Zharie meets Bo, a boy who for some reason morphs in and out of a zombie state in her eyes, she hopes that forging a friendship with him will provide some answers about her undead visions. But getting close to Bo just raises more questions–about friendship, love, and how people can be killed but keep on living.

Grief and heartbreak shimmer through Lewis’s poetic prose and symbolic fantasy as she explores the pain that comes with deep love. Within the story, Lewis shares the origins of zombies in Kongo, Haiti, and the Vodou religion. Fans of Amber McBrides’s inimitable Me (Moth) may enjoy this novel due to its lyrical style, heavily allegorical fantasy/horror, and grounding in African diasporic religion (although that last is more prominent in McBride’s work). A great addition to YA literary fiction collections.

VIOLET MADE OF THORNS by Gina Chen

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Since saving Prince Cyrus’ life as a child, Violet has lived a charmed yet precarious life as the king’s official Seer, tasked with relaying prophecies to the entire kingdom, whether they are real prophecies from her dreams or the harmless ones she invents at the king’s behest. A previous Seer predicted the kingdom’s destruction unless it is averted by Prince Cyrus’ as yet hypothetical bride, but Violet is determined that nothing will threaten her hard-won security and comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately, Cyrus is the one person who never listens to Violet.

Tortured by dark dreams of the Fates and frustrated with “Princey’s” obstinacy, Violet fakes a prophecy about Cyrus’ “true love,” hoping his bride–any bride–will be able to break the curse. But the woman the king selected is wrapped in her own curse, spun by a witch of nightmares. As beasts swarm the land and fairy glamours flicker, Violet and Cyrus search for the truth behind the veil of deceit, and their mutual hatred sparks into something passionate, thrilling, and infinitely more dangerous. With her life hanging in the balance, Violet will have to decide on which side of the fairytale she belongs–the dream or the nightmare–and whether she can claim either of them without being someone else’s pawn.

Deep, dark, and immersive, VIOLET MADE OF THORNS had me devouring its pages as ravenously as the characters fed on one another. Although tastes of well-known fairytales call attention to the storytelling theme, Chen creates a wholly new fairytale, not directly a twist of any individual story. Her characters are addictive, her steamy romance writing as compelling as any master of that genre, and her world-building a perfect blend of well-worn high fantasy tropes and a new, exciting magic system. I cannot praise this book highly enough. If you read high fantasy (whether you are a young adult or not) don’t miss this exceptional debut!

GALLANT by Victoria Schwab

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Olivia Prior has no real memories of her parents–nothing but her mother’s journal. She doesn’t even know their names, just that her father is dead and her mother went mad before leaving her on the doorstep of the dismal boarding school where she has grown up. So when the letter arrives–a summons from the uncle she didn’t know she had, back to the family estate she didn’t know existed–the temptation to finally have a real home and family is too great to resist.

Even though her mother’s journal warns her of unnamed dangers within the halls of Gallant.

But the welcome at the manor is not what she expected. Her uncle is dead–and died too long ago to have sent her the mysterious letter–and the only remaining relative, her cousin Matthew, is determined that she should be sent away. Matthew is tortured by violent dreams, and the halls are haunted by ghouls that only Olivia can see. Yet none of that compares to the darkness on the other side of the stone wall in the garden, where a shadowy master of crumbling reflection of Gallant has been waiting for Olivia to arrive…

Atmospheric and horrifying, Schwab’s latest YA sits solidly in the horror genre and is impossible to put down. As you can expect from Schwab’s prose, every word hits like a gunshot, creating an atmosphere and story so immersive that you are as ensnared as her protagonist. This story is a must-read for teen and adult fans of paranormal horror!

THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA by Axie Oh

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

Mina didn’t plan to dive into the sea. She had just hoped to reach her older brother on the boat before he did something deadly–like try to save his beloved from the Sea God. For the past hundred years it has been the fate of the most beautiful girl in the country to be thrown into the sea in hopes that she may be the Sea God’s true bride, the only one who can break his cursed sleep and bring an end to the violent storms and wars that ravage the land. But when Mina sees her brother in the prow of the boat facing down the Sea God’s dragon to save the girl he loves, Mina takes fate into her own hands, and dives into the sea in her place.

In the world of spirits, nothing is as Mina expected. As soon as she arrives, three young men slice through the Red String of Fate that ties her to the Sea God–supposedly for his protection–and the leader, Lord Shin, traps her soul in a cage before vanishing. Mina is not about to surrender her soul without a fight, but when she tracks her soul down at Lord Shin’s mansion, she stumbles into an attempted rebellion, and when her soul breaks free it binds her not back to the Sea God but to Shin. Shin takes Mina under his protection, hoping that they can work together to break the Sea God’s curse. But the more Mina sees of the callous gods, the more her faith wavers, and there may be more than a red ribbon tying her heart to Shin. With the fate of her people hanging in the balance and the Sea God’s enemies seeking her life, Mina will have to trust in herself and the stories she was raised on to find the right path to walk.

This feminist reimagining of Korean folklore is immersive with soaring emotions and a swoon-worthy romance. The world had its hooks in me from the earliest pages, and the story was captivating. One of the highlights for me was Mina’s wrestling with her faith as the gods disappoint her and her ultimate realization that she can forge her own fate. I highly recommend this novel to fans of YA fantasy and fairytale retellings!

NO BEAUTIES OR MONSTERS by Tara Goedjen

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

Riley is dreading moving back to the desert town of Twentynine Palms to all the traumatic memories they left behind when they left four years ago. She knows her mom doesn’t get to pick where she’s stationed, but it feels like they’re coming back because her estranged grandfather has died. Like now it’s safe.

But there’s nothing safe about Twentynine Palms. Riley’s former best friend has become the latest in a long list of people who have disappeared, and her grandfather for some reason has photographs of all of them in his basement, along with audio tapes that seem to have recorded the memories of local murderers, including a teen named Ethan who is terrorizing the community. And if her grandfather’s possible involvement in this dark mystery weren’t bad enough, Riley has terrifying gaps in her own memories–and a vision of herself covered in blood…

Sitting squarely at the intersection of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and thriller, this suspenseful, chilling novel will delight fans of STRANGER THINGS. The unrelenting pacing and unreliable narrator make it difficult to put down, and although I noticed a few I consistencies in the sci-fi, it didn’t really bother me because of the fantasy/horror vibe. I would definitely recommend this one to fans of the speculative genres and I’d put it on any STRANGER THINGS read-alike list!

MY CONTRARY MARY by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

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Mary, Queen of Scots, is as powerful as she is deviant. After all, it’s not every queen who dresses in a man’s clothes to sneak out for a night of revelry. But no one knows about her most secretive deviance–that she is one of the shape-shifters who can change into animals at will (in her case, a mouse) that are at the center of a political power struggle. Her fiancé, the french prince Francis, doesn’t even know. Of course he has problems of his own, now that his father has announced that he and Mary will be getting married within the week and even if he was sure that Mary loved him as much as he loved her (which he’s not), the wedding night is going to be incredibly awkward because his father plans to watch. Ew. Further complicating matters a Nostradamus (specifically the daughter of the Nostradamus) has been tasked with spying on the young queen and is about to discover her secret. And in case that isn’t enough going on, the king is about to die, and when that happens, everything is going to get very interesting…

This book is extremely weird (in a good way), guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. Narrators address the reader directly with a tongue-in-cheek, informal style as the utterly bizarre events unfold and the dialogue moves with perfect comedic timing. Pick up this one if you’re in the mood for a YA farcical twist on history!

Amazon.com: My Contrary Mary (The Lady Janies): 9780062930040: Hand,  Cynthia, Ashton, Brodi, Meadows, Jodi: Books

ALL OF US VILLAINS by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

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

Every time a Blood Moon appears, seven magical families must each send one of their teenaged children into a bloody battle. Whichever family has the surviving champion will control High Magick until the next Blood Moon–such is the ancient curse that dictates such things. But the Blood Moon appears earlier than expected, and on the heels of the publication of a tell-all book, exposing the violent secret to the world. With journalists surrounding them and government officials hoping to manipulate the battle for their own gain, seven champions are chosen and ready themselves for the slaughter. But not all of the champions are willing to be pawns for their families’ political gain, and as alliances form and dangerous romances spark, one champion is determined to end the curse forever…

I am so obsessed with this world and these characters! A thrilling blend of the Hunger Games and the Triwizard Tournament, the battle between the four morally gray protagonists features a balance of magic and bloodbaths, calculating strategy and hopeful idealism. My only complaint is that the sequel isn’t out yet! A fun page-turner for YA fantasy readers who can stomach a bit of gore.

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


More:

CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


More:

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.