YA Fantasy

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang

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The monkey king masters the disciplines of kung-fu but cannot earn the respect of the gods because he wears no shoes.  Jin Wang moves from China to America and tries to adjust to the new culture while dealing with the prejudices–not all of them ill-intentioned–of his classmates.  Danny lives in a world similar to a sitcom where his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee constantly embarrasses him with his unusual behavior.

Yang weaves these three stories together to highlight the challenges of moving to a new culture and struggling to develop one’s identity as an individual.  The graphic novel earned him the Printz Award in 2007.  It may seem disjointed at first, but it comes together in the end.  It will probably appeal most to teenagers, especially high schoolers.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

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The man Jack had always completed his assignments thoroughly and efficiently.  His knife dispatched the man, the woman, and the little girl before even a scream could pass their lips.  So it comes as a great surprise to him when he discovers that the toddler has somehow escaped into the night.  The man Jack follows the little boy’s scent up the hill and into the graveyard, but there he loses the trail as a mysterious, black-velvet-clad man named Silas escorts him from the graveyard, persuading him that he never saw the child there in the first place.  The inhabitants of the graveyard, the ghosts of all of those laid to rest within its gates over the centuries, offer the child their protection.  The ghosts Master and Mistress Owens adopt the child, whom they name Nobody (Bod), and Silas, who is neither living nor dead and can therefore leave the graveyard to procure food for the child, agrees to be his guardian.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, seeing as the dead see, moving through walls, fading into shadow, and exploring worlds on the border between life and death.  He grows up safe inside the graveyard, but outside its gates, the man Jack has not abandoned his search for child.

The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, which is somewhat surprising given the book’s subject matter–the dark, fantastical world stands out from typical Newbery winners–but fully deserved.  Gaiman builds a vivid world in the graveyard and explores themes of life, death, family and friendship, love and loyalty, identity, and morality.  He weaves these themes into his brilliantly imagined storyline, which keeps readers engaged in characters and plot from beginning to end.  Fair warning: you will reach a point in the story where you will become unable to put this book down.  Plan your time accordingly.

I highly recommed this book for upper elementary, teen, and adult readers who can handle dark fantasy and murder mysteries. I also cannot recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s audio book performance of this book!  It is one of my top two favorite audiobooks of all time–an absolutely stunning performance.  It is great to listen to, whether you are experiencing the book for the first time or reading it again.  You should definitely check the audio book out!

RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE by D., S., & N. Hale

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Rapunzel’s mother, Gothel, raised her in a beautiful home surrounded by luscious gardens–the product of Gothel’s growth magic–and a high stone wall which separated them from the outside world.  When Rapunzel grows old enough to wonder what lies beyond the wall, she disobeys her mother’s orders and climbs to the top.  There she sees the barren wasteland outside her mother’s protected garden, land stripped of all fertility by the witch’s powers and peopled by laboring peasants, Gothel’s slaves.  Rapunzel also learns that one of the peasants is her true mother, from whom Gothel stole her in infancy.  When Rapunzel confronts the witch with her new knowledge, Gothel takes her to a far off forest and imprisons her in the hollow of a tall, tall tree.  Gothel expects that her “daughter” will eventually come to her senses and choose to support the system of slavery that keeps them living in luxury.  Instead, Rapunzel grows increasingly bitter in her isolation.  Gothel’s growth magic that made the tree tall also makes Rapunzel’s hair grow quickly and soon she has enough to create a lasso to help her in her escape.  Teaming up with a young thief named Jack, Rapunzel adventures across the desert countryside, trying to devise a plan to destroy Gothel’s empire and using her hair to bring vigilante justice to the lawless towns she passes through.

This adventurous Wild West retelling of Rapunzel is tons of fun.  The graphic novel format is perfect for the story’s fantastic action sequences.  Plus, it is very, very funny!  I highly recommend this book to middle grade and teen readers.

The sequel Calamity Jack came out recently and I am very excited to read it!

RECKLESS by Cornelia Funke

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After his father disappeared, twelve-year-old Jacob sneaked into his study searching for answers.  Instead he found a magic mirror.  For twelve years, Jacob journeyed back and forth from his own world to the Mirrorworld, a parallel dimension where dark fairy tales became real: questers can sell magical objects on the black market, dangerous fairies seek human lovers, and sleeping princesses decay in eternal sleep, waiting for princes who never arrive.

For Jacob, the Mirrorworld is an escape from everything that he does not want to face in his own world.  But when his younger brother, Will, follows him and is wounded by a stone Goyl, everything changes.  As Will begins to turn to jade stone, Jacob and the fox-girl who loves him have to guide Will and Will’s fiancee, Clara, through his dangerous world, hoping to find a cure, though he is fairly sure none exists.  Meanwhile Goyl army, led by the Dark Fairy, race to find the jade Goyl who has been prophesied to protect their king and lead them to victorious dominion over the human empire.

Based in a German fairy tale tradition that is already fairly dark, Funke’s Mirrorworld is chilling and grotesque.  The book is marketed for teens, and will certainly appeal especially to an older teen audience, although adults who enjoy these kinds of twisted fairy tale fantasies will find the characters very accessible as well.  I enjoyed reading this book very much.  

If you liked Reckless, you might like Dreamwood by Heather Mackey or Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (both for a slightly younger audience).

EYES LIKE STARS by Lisa Mantchev

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Bertie has grown up in the Theatre Illuminata.  She doesn’t really know how she ended up there, except for some vague memories about a Mistress of Revels bringing her to the door as a toddler.  But from that moment on, she has spent her life in the living theater, surrounded by the Players—all of the characters from all of the plays ever written.  Some of them are annoying, like the fairies Peasblossom, Moth, Cobweb, and Mustardseed who never seem to leave Bertie alone.  Others are just odd, like Ophelia who drowns herself ever night and seems to enjoy it.   And then of course there is Nate, the young, burly sailor from The Little Mermaid who Bertie is just a little bit in love with.  But the problem is, Bertie is not a Player.  She isn’t in the Management or Stage Crew either.  Bertie is just a girl who seems to get into mischief when left to her own devices.   When the Theater Manager threatens to throw her out, she must find a way to become indispensible—and try to stop The Tempest’s Ariel from thwarting her plans.

Although the writing is clunky and many of the characters flat and predictable, the concept of Eyes Like Stars is engaging, especially for someone who has done theatre and knows many of the plays (mostly Shakespeare) from which jokes are drawn.  One moment I particularly enjoyed was Macbeth contemplating a buffet table (“Is this a doughnut which I see before me?”), then running off shrieking at the sight of raspberry jelly.  Mantchev also takes advantage of the complexities of Shakespeare’s characters, particularly Ariel the fairy-slave, when weaving her plot.  Aside from the quirky theatre-based humor, Eyes Like Stars is a coming of age story, as Bertie tries to discover and cultivate her talents to make a difference in her world.   Her story is concluded in the sequel, Perchance to Dream.  Both books will primarily interest an audience of junior high and high school girls.

THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff

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Mackie Doyle’s father has always taught him to avoid attention.  If he keeps a low profile, no one will notice his unusually dark eyes, or his severe allergy to iron, or his inability to set foot on the consecrated ground of the church.  No one will notice that he is just a replacement, a changeling left by the faerie folk when they stole the real Mackie Doyle from his crib and offered him up as a blood sacrifice.  Of course Mackie’s parents and his sister Emma realize the truth, and others certainly suspect, but the people of Gentry are used to turning a blind eye every seven years when another child is taken.  It is just the way things are.

Unlike most replacements who die in infancy, Mackie has survived to the age of sixteen, but as his allergic reactions and difficulty breathing become more acute, he doesn’t know how much longer he can live.  When his sister Emma takes a terrible risk to save his life, Mackie finds himself suddenly caught up in the world of the “others,” the creatures he once belonged to and the only ones with the power to save his life.  Unfortunately, it is the year for the blood sacrifice, and they have stolen his friend Tate’s little sister.  When Mackie learns that young Natalie is still alive, he must decide where his loyalties lie, and how much he is willing to risk to protect those he cares about.

This book is exciting, incredibly creepy, and brilliantly imagined!  Yovanoff combines the world of Celtic folklore with the world of modern high school seamlessly and believably, with a great balance between the fantasy conflict and Mackie’s struggles with friendships, love, and identity.  I enjoyed every minute of this book, and highly recommend it to fans of dark fantasy, or just creepy gothic literature in general!

FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK by Melina Marchetta

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When Finnikin was nine years old, he and Balthazar and Lucian completed a ritual sacrifice that would change their lives.  Having been warned in their dreams that the royal family of Lumatere was in danger, the three boys cut a pound of flesh from their thighs as a sacrifice to protect the kingdom.  Just a few days later, assassins invaded Lumatere and slaughtered Balthazar’s parents, the King and Queen, and his sisters.  The body of the youngest princess, Isaboe, was found torn to shreds by a wolf where she had tried to escape into the forest.  Only Balthazar’s body failed to appear.  Despite the best efforts of Finnikin’s father and the rest of the King’s Guard, a false king usurped the throne and began a reign of violence and oppression, beginning with the massacre of the forest dwellers, scapegoats in the royal family’s assassination.  But as the leader of the forest dwellers was being burned at the stake, she set a curse upon the land of Lumatere.  Until the rightful heir to the throne returned, a magical barrier would separate Lumatere from the surrounding lands–no one could get either out or in.

And so for ten years, Finnikin and countless other exiles found themselves wandering the countries beyond Lumatere, searching for their loved ones and some sense of a home or identity.  Finnikin was separated from his father and traveled instead with Sir Topher, a former palace tutor and the King’s First Man.  They managed to avoid persecution, although news always reached them when other exiles were discriminated against or even massacred in their refugee camps.  What keeps them going is the hope that they can find the lost Prince Balthazar and return home.  When a novice at a convent summons them, claiming to have walked through the sleep of the living Prince Balthazar and other Lumaterans, Topher and Finnikin join her on a quest for the heir.  With Evanjalin’s help, they locate Finnikin’s father and begin to round up the Lumateran exiles to prepare for the return home.

This book is very dark, definitely aimed at a high school age audience and older.  There is plenty of action, but the focus of the novel is on the search for identity and homeland in diaspora.

If you liked Finnikin of the Rock, you might also be interested in The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor.