YA – The Queen’s Assassin

De la Cruz, Melissa. The Queen’s Assassin. Penguin Random House, 2020. 978-0-525-51591-3. $18.99. 384p. Grades 9-12.

In the land of Renovia, Shadow of the Honey Glade longs to be an official member of the Guild in which she was raised and become an apprentice to Caledon Holt, the Queen’s Assassin like his father before him. When their paths inadvertently cross and he saves her life, she takes advantage of an opportunity to return the favor. When Cal is sent to Deersia prison to protect his identity as an assassin and await his next assignment from the queen, Shadow helps him escape and convinces him that she was sent to break him out and accompany him on his mission to infiltrate the country of Montrice to discover any plots against Renovia. Shadow is actually disobeying her aunts and mother, members of the Guild, to avoid becoming a lady of the queen’s court, but Cal believes her story, especially since her magic makes her a valuable partner as they travel to Montrice. Posing as brother and sister, Cal and Shadow are quickly swept up into Montrice society, making friends with aristocrats and the king, but as they attend hunts and balls for the sake of their mission, they can’t deny their growing attraction to each other. However, Cal’s life won’t be his own unless he can locate the missing Deian scrolls for the queen, and Shadow’s secrets are preventing her from living the life of an assassin. Will their love be enough without their freedom to choose the lives they want?

THOUGHTS: The Queen’s Assassin is perfect for anyone that enjoys fantasy and romance, and I loved this book for that very reason. The story is told from both Shadow’s and Caledon’s perspectives, and I always enjoy books that have more than one POV. Both main characters are essentially trapped in a life they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves, and that’s one of the reasons they are drawn to each other as they work together throughout the novel. The novel is split into three parts, including a prologue that contains some world building information and an epilogue that sets the scene for book two. This would be a great recommendation for readers who enjoy Throne of Glass and Serpent & Dove.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Gloom Town

Smith, Ronald. L. Gloom Town.  Clarion Books, 2020. 978-1-328-84161-2. 269 p. $16.99. Grades 5-7.

Smith’s latest work is a mixture of horror and fantasy. Twelve year old Rory lives with his mother in the town of Gloom in Europica. In this seafaring town, the flowers are wilted, and it is always overcast. To help with the family’s dire financial situation, Rory takes a job as a valet in the spooky Foxglove Mansion. He quickly learns that something sinister is going on there after meeting the unfriendly butler Malvonius and the eccentric Lord Foxglove. After hearing mysterious sounds coming from behind a red door in the mansion, Rory begins having dreams about a strange woman’s voice coming from a dark mist, who hungers and thirsts. When the butler learns that Rory has discovered a human heart buried in the garden, he barely escapes from the mansion with his life.  With the help of his friend Izzy, a tarot card reading witch, Rory uncovers the dark secrets that are hidden in the mansion and learns about the diabolical plans that are being devised. And when a huge brigantine ship docks in the harbor, Rory learns something about himself that changes his life forever.

THOUGHTS: This book is a bit of a chameleon. The benign looking cover and the likeable main characters seem to put it in the fantasy genre. However, there are some horrific plot elements in the book, such as two murders, including that of a child, that appear to be out of balance with a fantasy and make the story more creepy. The reader may think that these macabre incidents will all be explained away like a Scooby Doo cartoon, but they are not. The book would benefit from better development of the background of the evil supernatural creatures and their effect on the town, as well as that of a mythic figure named Goldenrod. This is a Junior Library Guild selection. Purchase for middle school libraries where horror stories or books by the author are popular.

Horror, Fantasy          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – Ink in the Blood

Smejkal, Kim. Ink in the Blood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-1-328-55705-6. 442  p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Celia and Anya were chosen by the Divine. Inked on the ankle with a thin band, a band that appeared out of nowhere, the girls were marked for service. Once a mark appears a child leaves their family, their community, and everything they’ve ever known to answer the Divine’s calling, a life spent inking magical tattoos on strangers that would direct them to their destinies. But this life is not all it’s cracked up to be; there are flaws in the system, loopholes to be exploited, and Celia and Anya must find a way out. When an opportunity arises to escape, to join a close-knit troupe of performers as they travel the land, the girls jump at the chance. Despite a lack of theater skills and nothing to perform, the girls audition using an act featuring an angel and a devil, a performance so good not only will they become members but they’ll eventually incite riots and incur the wrath of the Divine herself.

THOUGHTS: Ink in the Blood is a fantastical tale of the connections that rule our lives, the bonds we form that define us, and the strength it takes to change.

Fantasy (Magic)          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – The Middler

Applebaum, Kirsty. The Middler. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. 978-1-250-31733-9. 262 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Eleven year old Maggie is a middler, nothing special like an eldest, and is mainly ignored and invisible in her town of Fennis Wick. When Maggie meets a “wanderer” who lives outside the boundary, she decides she wants to step up and get noticed by trying to capture her. Once Maggie steps outside her town and into the boundary that has always kept her isolated, everything she has ever known and believed gets turned upside down. Join Maggie in this dystopian adventure that exposes the lies her town has told for years and changes the way of their world forever. Fans of The Giver will love this debut novel!

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Fantasy          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

Elem. – The One and Only Bob

Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Bob. Harper Collins, 2020. 978-0-062-99131-7. $18.99. 352 p. Grades 3-6.

Taking center stage to tell his story, Bob’s voice is honest, “I’m no saint, okay?” and readers will delight in his humorous antics, “If we could talk to people, they’d get an earful.” When Bob wakes to a familiar bark, something in his memory is jogged. But he shrugs it off and goes about his day, looking forward to a visit with Ivan and Ruby. The weather forecast showed another hurricane is on the way, though, so this day won’t be like all of the others. When Bob is separated from his friends, he reverts back to his puppy survival instincts and experiences an adventure of his own. Fans of Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan will delight in this new installment that updates readers on much beloved characters Bob, Ivan, Ruby, and Julia.

THOUGHTS: A must have for elementary libraries, copies of this title will be in high demand. 

Adventure          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Quintessence

Redman, Jess. Quintessence. Farrar, Straus, Giroux,  2020. 978-0-374-30976-3. $16.99. 384 p. Grades 3-6.

Twelve year old Alma, a once curious girl, hasn’t felt like herself since moving to the town of Four Points. Shortly after moving, Alma began having panic attacks, and though she’s managed to convince her parents that they stopped, they really haven’t. Instead of going out to explore like she used to love doing, Alma spends afternoons after school in her parents’ new law office. When she meets the reclusive shopkeeper of the Fifth Point, a local junk store with a legendary lookout on its roof, he gives Alma a quintescope. It seems like a sign when – while running out of school – Alma spots an astronomy club flyer on the door. Her curiosity piqued, Alma decides to stop by to see what the club is like. There she meets Hugo, a brilliant young mind who lacks some awareness of himself socially; Shirin, a girl who seems to be part of the popular crowd but doesn’t feel like she fits there; and Dustin, a boy who has more to himself than the bully like he seems. With a shared interest of helping the Starling, this group of misfits learns about each other while learning about more themselves.

THOUGHTS: With a lovable cast of characters, each with his or her own insecurities, Quintessence captures what it means to find oneself at a time in life where many struggle. Give this book to fans of the inexplicable, those who recently moved or are looking for a new friend, or those who need a little magic in their lives. This book deserves a place in all middle school library collections.

Fantasy          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem./MG – Hollow Dolls

Connolly, MarcyKate. Hollow Dolls. Sourcebooks, 2020. 978-1-492-68819-8. 259 p. $16.99. Grades 2-5.

After being trapped for years by the evil Lady Aisling, who held comet-blessed individuals captive to make use of their unique magical abilities, Simone is free. A mind-reader, Simone was particularly prized by Lady Aisling. But while all of her friends are eventually reclaimed by their families, Simone has no one. She is grateful that her best friend, Sebastian, has taken her in, but Simone restlessly pines for a family she cannot remember. When an opportunity arises for Simone to research her family, in hopes of locating them, Simone is ecstatic. However, she becomes concerned when she learns of the existence of a body walker, one who can take over another’s body and will. All too soon the body walker strikes close to home, and the young pair must unmask its identity before it controls them as well. This mildly creepy story is aimed at young readers ready for a slightly more complex story. The plot emphasizes the loyalty Simone and Sebastian have for each other, as well as their continued difficulties overcoming their horrific existence at the hands of Lady Aisling. Connolly brings an interestingly moral viewpoint to possessing magical abilities. While readers may think mind-reading would be a fascinating ability, Simone stresses how overwhelming it can be to hear so many thoughts, and she strives to not accidentally invade an individual’s mental privacy. But when she needs to locate her missing friends and save them from harm, she gladly uses all her abilities. Book one of a duology, readers will be looking for book two to see how Simone and Sebastian’s story ends.

THOUGHTS: Rather like a good bedtime story, Hollow Dolls is just creepy enough for young or more timid readers not ready to dive into Goosebumps-type horror. This is a delightful transition-level book for those readers who want the next step up from early chapter books.

Fantasy (Paranormal)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Bookish and the Beast

Poston, Ashley. Bookish and the Beast. Quirk, 2020. 978-6-836-9193-8. 283 p. $18.99. Grades 6-10. 

Poston continues her delightful, fairy tale based Once Upon a Con series with a reworking of Beauty and the Beast to which Belle would give her stamp of approval. In the “no good deed goes unpunished” category, high school senior Rosie Thorne attempts to return a run-away dog with disastrous results. Following the dog into an apparently vacant house, she discovers a swoon–worthy library, filled with the books of the Starfield space saga universe, the very books her recently deceased mother read to her growing up. When Rosie is startled by another individual in the house she attempts to flee, accidentally dropping a rare first-edition in the pool. Sopping wet, Rosie learns the house is currently occupied by Starfield bad-boy actor Vance Reigns, serving a parental imposed timeout from his celebrity antics. She is now on the hook to organize the library, with the assistance of the self-absorbed star, to work off her debt. As if Vance Reigns would deign to dirty his hands working with books. But as any bibliophile knows, books have a magic all their own, and surely some magic will happen between the book-loving beauty with the mousy brown hair and the gorgeous guy hiding behind a beastly bad-boy persona. The book is populated with an appealing supporting cast of diverse characters, including Rosie’s bisexual librarian father and a gender-fluid best friend, and in a sop to series fans, Poston offers a few brief appearances by characters from the previous two novels. The Gaston plotline does double duty emphasizing that in the relationship world No should always mean No. While the plot is grounded in the Starfield Excelsi-Con world of the previous two books, the Con plays only a minor role this time, which should open the book to a wider romance audience.

THOUGHTS:  A thoroughly delightfully romp through Beauty and the Beast. Rosie is independent, feisty, and sweet, and while she deserves her happily-ever-after, she would have been OK without it. A solid purchase for collections where romance and fairy tale rewrites are popular, as well as an addition to LGBTQ+ collections.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Blood & Honey

Mahurin, Shelby. Blood & Honey. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-87805-2. $18.99. 532 p. Grades 9-12.

Louise and Reid are on the run. In order to escape Lou’s mother, Morgane le Blanc, Reid was forced to make a terrible sacrifice that unintentionally unleashed magic of his own. Hunted by the witches, the king, and the chasseurs, their group splits up. Lou, Coco, and Ansel head to the Dames Rouges in the hopes of gaining allies, while Reid, Beau, and Madame Labelle join a traveling troupe and disguise themselves as performers. As the characters look for allies, they must also learn to trust each other. While Lou begins to unleash more of her powers, Reid desperately tries to suppress his own. As their enemies draw closer, secrets, doubts, regrets, and sorrows cause Lou and Reid to pull away from each other. Will their love be enough to keep them together, or will they remain enemies as a witch and witch hunter?

THOUGHTS: Blood & Honey is the sequel to Serpent & Dove, and while the former focused on the love story of Lou and Reid, the latter explores survival, loss, and sacrifice. After experiencing trauma, both Lou and Reid are trying to discover who they really are, and must decide who they may become. Although this is a fantasy series, many of the themes will still resonate with readers today. For example, Reid has been brought up to hate witches and magic, but through his own experiences, he learns that not all witches are evil, and not all magic is bad. Readers will certainly feel a roller coaster of emotions as they experience the confident, lighthearted Lou descend slowly into darkness, and her golden cord will tug on their heartstrings as Reid stands by to pull her back.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – The Lost Book of the White

Clare, Cassandra, and Wesley Chu. The Lost Book of the White. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-481-49512-7. $24.99. 365 p. Grades 9-12.

The Dark War has ended, and Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane are trying to live a normal life with their adopted son, Max, in New York City, but when you’re a shadowhunter and warlock, attempting to raise a warlock child, life is never really normal. When old and new enemies show up at their apartment to steal The Book of the White and stab Magnus with a magical weapon, they must go to Shanghai to retrieve the book, find a cure to Magnus’s wound, and attempt to save a dear friend. However, they won’t be traveling alone. Jace Herondale, Clary Fairchild, Isabelle Lightwood, and Simon Lovelace accompany the couple to Shanghai where they meet Tian of the Shanghai institute and reconnect with Jem Carstairs. The group faces many challenges on their quest and eventually end up in the demon realm of Diyu. Alec and Magnus must trust each other, and the rest of their friends, if they plan to make it out alive, and all of the characters must grapple with tough choices and decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice to save the ones they love.

THOUGHTS:  The Lost Book of the White is the second book in The Eldest Curses, and while the first book focused mainly on Alec and Magnus’s relationship with each other, this book focuses on their new responsibilities as parents and the relationships they have with their friends and family. As a couple, Magnus and Alec have faced many hardships, and although this is a fantasy novel, their struggle for acceptance among their peers is a topic that many readers will also relate to. One of my favorite things about Clare is the diversity among her characters, and the way she strives to tell all of their stories with the help of fellow authors, like Chu. Fans of Clare’s The Infernal Devices and The Mortal Instruments will be delighted to read more about these beloved characters and what becomes of their lives after the events of The Dark War.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD