YA Fantasy

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.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

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Peter was the leader of the orphan boys at St. Norbert’s for several reasons.  First, he was the oldest—or at least he said he was.  He was also very smart and very brave.  And he could spit the farthest, which is an important qualification for leadership.  So when Peter, James, Prentiss, Thomas, and Tubby Ted end up as cabin boys on the rickety old ship the “Never Land” on their way to become snake food at the royal palace of King Zarboff the Third, Peter takes charge.  He leaves the rat-infested cabin every night to find the other boys some food.  That’s how he meets Molly, a girl who can talk to porpoises, and discovers the mysterious trunk that she is guarding—a trunk with the power to make rats fly and men feel light as a feather.  Molly is the daughter of a Starcatcher, in charge of protecting the trunk’s magic from the evil “Others” in her father’s absence.  But when Molly learns that her enemies are onboard the “Never Land,” she needs Peter’s help to keep the trunk and its contents safe.  And then, there are the pirates: Black Stache and Smee and the terrible crew of the “Sea Devil” who also want to get their hands on the greatest treasure ever to be taken on the sea.

This prequel to Peter Pan is a wonderful adventure story full of action, magic, and humor (it is very clear that Dave Barry is one of the writers).  It is the first in a series, followed by Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon and Peter and the Sword of Mercy.   They are intended for an upper elementary/ middle grade audience, but this is one grown up who enjoys them very much!  There are also several “spin-off” books about the Lost Boys and the adventures of the Mollusk Indians: Escape from the Carnivale, Cave of the Dark Wind, Blood Tide, and The Bridge to Neverland.

A word on the series:  The first book can stand alone.  There are a few things that aren’t explained fully, but you can make the jump from the ending of Starcatchers to the beginning of Peter Pan pretty easily.  Shadow Thieves and Secret of Rundoon are a lot scarier than Starcatchers (I read Starcatchers aloud with a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old with a few minor alterations to pirate vocabulary and behavior, and they loved it, but I  did not continue on in the series because it would have been too scary).   It’s fine for 4-6th graders, who are the book’s intended audience, but just a heads up if you start it as a read aloud with younger kids—preview the Shadow Thieves before you jump in!  The fourth book, Sword of Mercy, breaks the prequel logic, unfortunately, because it occurs years after the first three end, and involves the Darling children, but does not fit into the original Peter Pan timeline.   So that disappointed me.  I might recommend only reading books 1-3.  But if you really enjoy the characters and won’t be bothered by the series becoming more “fan fiction” than true “prequel,” Sword of Mercy is a good book, too.

ARTEMIS FOWL by Eoin Colfer

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Artemis Fowl, Jr., is not your average twelve-year-old.  For one thing, he is the son of an incredibly wealthy crime lord and has grown up surrounded by advanced technology and bodyguards.  For another, since his father’s disappearance and the onset of his mother’s mental illness, Artemis has virtually no adult supervision, managing his own life and the family’s assets.  And most importantly, Artemis is a genius.  It is precisely his unique position on the boundary of childhood and very mature adulthood that allows him to perpetrate his latest scheme–because when he learned of the existence of fairies, he was just innocent enough to believe in them, and plenty brilliant enough to concoct a foolproof plan to extort their gold.

After stealing the Book of the People from an alcoholic sprite in Vietnam, Artemis returns to his home in Ireland to crack the fairy language and learn all of their secrets.  He then proceeds to Phase Two of the plan: kidnap a fairy and hold him for ransom, threatening to reveal their secret, underground world to the humans if the Lower Elements Police (LEP) do not comply with his financial demands.  Unfortunately for Artemis, he kidnapped Captain Holly Short, an officer in the LEP Recon division, and she just may be his match.  While Artemis uses his brilliant mind to stay one step ahead of Commander Root and the LEP technology, and his formidable bodyguard Butler keeps the perimeter secure, Holly tries to find a way to escape and take down the super-genius “mud-man.”

This book is a great blend of science fiction and fantasy, popular among upper elementary and middle grade readers (and certain nerdy librarians . . . ).  The characters are fantastic, there is a decent amount of action, and humor is blended in quite nicely.  I highly recommend this series to both eager and reluctant readers.  There are eight books in the series.

THE LOOKING GLASS WARS by Frank Beddor

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When Princess Alyss Heart was seven years old, her life changed forever.  Her evil Aunt Redd gathered an army of card soldiers and murdered Alyss’ mother and father, securing the Wonderland throne for herself.  Alyss barely escaped through the Pool of Tears into a parallel world, where for years she was trapped in a strange land called England.  Her magical powers of Imagination failed her in this new world, and eventually the memories of her childhood faded into seeming fairytales (tales which the Reverend Dodgeson would later record and publish in a work of “nonsense” entitled Alice in Wonderland).

But Alyss cannot stay lost in England forever.  Wonderland has suffered under Redd’s totalitarian regime, and people live in darkness and fear–their only hope being the return of the child queen Alyss and her powerful Imagination.  When Hatter Madigan, the deadly milliner bodyguard, whisks Alyss back to Wonderland, she, her childhood love Dodge Anders, and a rag-tag group of rebels must find a way to free their home from Redd’s tyranny.  This book is the first in a trilogy, followed by Seeing Redd and ArchEnemy.  

The trilogy is an incredibly clever, engaging, but dark re-imagining of Wonderland (think Alice in Wonderland meets 1984). Although it is sometimes shelved with juvenile fiction, I would recommend this book more to teens and adults.

If you liked The Looking Glass Wars, you might like Cinder by Marissa Meyer or Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta.