Zhao, Amelie Wen. Song of Silver, Flame Like Night. Delacorte Press, 2023. 978-0593487501. $19.99. 480p. Grades 9-12.
Lan is a performing song girl in Haak’gong, and although her life appears to be the same as the other girls she lives and performs with, she has a secret. Lan spends her days trying to understand the message behind the strange mark left on her arm by her mother before she died. In her quest for answers, she meets Zen. Zen is a practitioner and only uses his magic in secret. When their worlds collide one fateful night, Zen agrees to take Lan to his practitioner masters after she uses her powers in a moment of panic. As Lan begins to understand her powers and the fate of her mother and her people, Lan realizes that everyone has secrets. She’s swept up in a war to overthrow the Elantian regime who want to outlaw her magic. Drawing upon ancient Chinese myths and legends, Zhao has crafted a story of love, loss, betrayal, and power. Will Lan and Zen use the powers they possess to save their world, or will they destroy it?
THOUGHTS: This book really kept me on my toes! I felt that a lot of the characters made surprising decisions that somewhat “broke the mold” of what I would expect of a YA character. There is a ton of gray area when it comes to the magic the characters possess and the decisions they make when it comes to obtaining power to protect the ones they love. Readers will enjoy the action, mystery, and adventure this fantasy novel provides as well as the inclusion of ancient Chinese mythology.
Bracken, Alexandra. Silver in the Bone. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2023. 978-0-593-48165-3. $19.99. 496 p. Grades 9-12.
In a world full of magic, Tasmin Lark has none. After being abandoned by their guardian Nash, she and her brother, Cabell, must learn to survive on their own. Years later, as members of the Hollowers, they spend their time breaking curses and entering ancient crypts in search of treasure. When Tamsin takes a job from a sorcerer, the race to find an ancient ring begins. According to the rumors, Nash was the last to have it, and Tamsin hopes to find it to break a curse on Cabell. Others are after the ring as well, including her rival, Emrys. Suddenly, Tamsin finds herself in Camelot, navigating the myths and legends of old while discovering the dark and dangerous secrets of the realm and learning to open her heart to others.
THOUGHTS: I love the fantasy world created by Bracken for her newest series. It’s a mix of urban and ancient fantasy, and she is able to blend the two worlds seamlessly. This one hooked me from the start, and I think the uniqueness of the story will draw in other fantasy readers as well. The slow burn romance between Tamsin and Emrys was also a highlight of this novel, and I’d recommend this one to any reader who loves fantasy or the stories from the Arthurian legends.
Wilkinson, Lili. A Hunger of Thorns. Delacorte Press, 2023. 978-0-593-56266-6. $19.99. 432 p. Grades 9-12.
When Maude and Oddette were young girls, they were best friends. Maude, a daughter of witches, processed magic in the form of storytelling. They would have grand and wild adventures through the stories Maude would tell. Now, they’re grown up. Maude has lost her magic, and Odette, no longer her friend, is missing. Odette has always longed to possess magic as her friend did, and Maude knows she went into the forbidden Sticklehurst to hunt for it. Armed only with her stories and flashes of her past inside of the abandoned power plant, Maude journeys into Sticklehurst to rescue her former friend and become the hero of one of her own stories. Will she be able to defeat the monsters once and for all?
THOUGHTS: A Hunger of Thorns is an urban wonderland full of magic, stories, cursed princes, monsters, and wild girls trying to find their place in the world. I’d recommend this one to readers looking for a more sinister and darker fantasy. Although this can be read as a stand alone novel, a sequel planned for the same world, but with different characters and storylines, will be published next year.
Hobson, Brandon. The Storyteller. Scholastic, 2023. 978-1-338-79726-8 224 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.
Sixth-grader Ziggy Echota is diagnosed with anxiety, likely stemming from his Cherokee mother’s disappearance ten years ago when Ziggy was just a baby. Despite efforts to locate his mother, his family has no leads, and Ziggy’s pretty sure his dad gave up hope when the police did. Ziggy’s grandmother and older sister Moon have shared with him stories of the Nunnehi, wise storytelling spirits who protect Cherokees. Ziggy asks an acquaintance Alice for help in searching the desert for Nunnehi caves, in hopes of finding answers to his mother’s disappearance. Soon Ziggy, Alice, and Moon have begun their nighttime journey, and their encounters range from a coyote and a buzzard to a Shakespearean actor and a fortune teller. In each chapter they meet a different spirit, with Ziggy learning something from each of their encounters, which he logs diligently in each chapter. By the end, he doesn’t have clear answers, but he has worked through some of his grief and finds he has community and strength to go on.
Fantasy (Magical Realism)
THOUGHTS: This story is a helpful way to showcase realistic Cherokee beliefs–and realistic disappearances of Native American women.
Lam, Michelle. Meesh the Bad Demon. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2023. 978-0-593-3727-6. unpaged. $21.99. Grades 3-6.
Meesh lives with her grandmother in Mount Magma, home of the demons and land of the lava. In fact, lava is the essence of life in Mount Magma, and most demons will spend their lives working at one of its lava plants. Meesh, however, would rather be a fairy than a demon. She loves flowers, struggles to breathe fire, and doesn’t find rainbows and unicorns disgusting in the slightest. She also idolizes television star Princess Nouna and her charmed life in Plumeria City. In other words, she is a bad demon. When the lava is infected with a toxin that turns everyone in Mount Magma to stone, Meesh escapes in the nick of time with her grandmother’s amulet. She makes her way to Plumeria City, where she stumbles into Princess Nouna’s birthday party and then right into a portal, with Nouna in tow. When they emerge, they must work together to save Mount Magma, and maybe heal the rift between fairies and demons. Volume 1 of Meesh’s adventures is a little heavy on world-building, but it works to set up Volume 2 with an unresolved plot point.
THOUGHTS: Meesh the Bad Demon is a heartwarming adventure story that will hook readers with its manga-style artwork, high stakes, and themes of friendship and loyalty.
Hill, Amanda Rawson. Once Upon a Family. Astra Publishing, 2023. 978-1-635-92317-9. 272 p. $19.99.Grades 4-7.
It has always been Winnie and her Mom for as long as she can remember. Now her mother is marrying Jeff, and they move from Denver to boring Wyoming. Winnie has to make new friends and get used to having a younger stepbrother, Sam. Like the fairy tales she loves, Winnie tries to concoct something magical to get her mother to return to Colorado and their old life. When she notices the blackbird with the gold-tipped wings and the glowing nest in the oak tree, she thinks she just may be able to wish herself to a happily ever after. Winnie suffers from anxiety stemming from a traumatic experience and, at times, it makes her an unsympathetic protagonist. She misreads teasing from a classmate, who has his own insecurities, and alienates a potential friend. Despite seeing her mother’s happiness grow, Winnie is suspicious of Jeff, her future stepfather, and annoyed by six-year-old Sam. When her worry erupts into impulsive behavior and threatens her new family, though, Winnie courageously enlists the assistance of the neighborhood curmudgeon and her friends to set things right. All characters appear to be white.
THOUGHTS: Some readers will identify this authentic view of a blended family. Winnie is an interesting character. She suffers from high anxiety that ratchets up into a caustic meanness, but she also is a prolific reader who alludes to fairy tales and stories constantly. The magical part is a nice surprise. The main characters all have another layer that confirms what you see may not be what you get, which may generate interesting discussion. In one flashback, Winnie’s trauma is described. It stems from a domestic violence abuse situation involving one of her mother’s old boyfriends. After a breakup, the boyfriend stalks Winnie’s mother and escalates into yielding a gun.
Schmidt, G.Z. The Curious Vanishing of Beatrice Willoughby. Holiday House/Peachtree, 2023. $17.99. 267 p. Grades 3-6.
The quirky town of Nevermore’s most auspicious couple, Maribelle and Mort Amadeus, host a grand party at their mansion every All Hallow’s Eve. Thirteen years ago, the despotic Mayor Willoughby’s six-year-old daughter, Beatrice, vanished during the party, and Mort Amadeus was accused of the crime and arrested. The parties have ceased until now. Selective citizens of the town have been invited to convene before the statute of limitations on the crime is up at midnight. Joining them are drifters, Chaucer O’Conner and his inquisitive eleven-year-old son, Dewey. With his trusty notebook and copper goggles, Dewey follows the odd guests from clue to clue to unravel who really took Beatrice and to exonerate the imprisoned Mort Amadeus. Each guest draws on their unique specialty, like Dr. Frankenstein Foozle makes a phantom dog from a vial of ground bone that can sniff out the essence of a person. Intermittently in their investigations, Chaucer interjects a story he collected in his travels that sounds strangely familiar to well-known fairy tales. Author G.Z. Schmidt couples fast-paced narration with creepy descriptions and a dash of subtle humor. The reader’s mind will do double-duty matching up the clues with the townsfolk’s characteristics and Chaucer’s tales until the epilogue that starts the search all over again.
THOUGHTS: What middle schooler doesn’t enjoy a light-hearted, creepy book? The characters have multiple quirks, and Dewey exhibits sufficient charm to sustain interest. Give this book to students who enjoy Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society series or Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm or Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm. This book also made me think of Ronald L. Smith’s Gloom Town, and there are elements in both that can be compared. I think Gloom Town is more character-driven and has a stronger plot. What The Curious Vanishing of Beatrice Willoughby lacks in craft, it makes up for in a captivating story and its ability to maintain high interest to its targeted audience.
Hartman, Aubrey. The Lion of Lark-Hayes Manor. Little Brown and Company, 2023. 978-0-316-44822-2. $16.99. 314 p. Grades 3-8.
Poppy Woodlock’s parents make a living by restoring historic properties. Moving frequently is a part of Poppy’s life. At each new school she finds her niche through books. Poppy loves to dress as different characters, loves to read, loves to find friends with similar interests. The latest move brings the Woodlocks to Oregon to fix up the massive Lark-Hayes Manor. Poppy feels the manor is magic, and imagines herself crossing into a fantastical new adventure as she tours the building for the first time. Poppy is excited to find new friends at her middle school. A bit shy and quiet, Poppy has developed a tried-and-true method of figuring out how to fit in. Poppy always appears in her new school clutching a copy of her favorite book: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Someone always notices the title and starts a conversation, and Poppy finds a group of friends. The only problem is the kids at Chatlain Middle School don’t seem all that interested in books. Lonely and neglected by her overwhelmed parents, Poppy longs for a friend. Though forbidden from entering Lark-Hayes Manor by herself, Poppy is eager to find some true magic that will help her to fit in. As she carefully tours the massive home she distinctly hears a voice. Following the sound, Poppy discovers a water nymph lurking in the crumbled ruins of the manor’s pool. The water nymph offers to grant Poppy a magical wish, but explains that magic comes at a price. Poppy decides to wish for a winged-lion like Aaslyn in Narnia. The nymph asks what magic she can trade for the wish. Poppy, a true believer in the magic of books, quickly offers up her copy of Wardrobe for the chance to witness true magic. True to her word, the nymph delivers a winged lion cub to Poppy. Distracted by the daunting task of raising a lion cub, and keeping this magic a secret, Poppy doesn’t realize that the nymph has continued to take books from Poppy’s collection. As each volume disappears, so too does the memory of the book itself. Soon Poppy’s family members are not acting like themselves. Poppy’s mom can’t remember favorite recipes, her history teacher removes all of his ancient Greek classroom decorations, and her rebel brother begins to conform to his classmates in Chatlain High. Poppy realizes it is up to her to stop the nymph from destroying the people she loves, the books she cherishes, and in fact, all of literature for humans. Threatened with losing everything, Poppy finds her voice and becomes a strong leader.
THOUGHTS: This middle grade fantasy novel is sure to be a hit with book lovers. Are any of us truly ourselves without the stories and characters we love? Are we shaped and formed by the books we read? Poppy’s adventure shows us a glimpse of a world without books, stories, and the community they are capable of creating. A tribute to the power of books.
Mafi, Tahereh. These Infinite Threads. HarperCollins, 2023. 978-0-062-97247-7. $19.99. 416 p. Grades 9-12.
In the fantastic world of Ardunia, humans and Jinn are allowed to live among each other, according to the Fire Accords set in place by the current king, as long as they don’t use their powers and lie low. Despite the accords, Alizeh keeps her Jinn identity a secret from everyone around her. Although Alizeh is a powerful Jinn with ice in her veins, she lives a lonely life as a servant cleaning the home of a duchess and working as a seamstress on the side for extra money. When she accidentally crosses paths with Prince Kamran, both her world and his are turned upside down. After a disastrous ball honoring Prince Kamran, King Cyrus of Tulan whisks Alizeh away on a dragon after murdering the King of Ardunia. As Alizeh attempts to understand Cyrus’s actions in a strange, new place, Kamran, badly injured, must keep his hold on his crown in a time of chaos and turmoil within his kingdom. Both Alizeh and Kamran have to decide who they can trust and what their futures now hold.
THOUGHTS: This book was not what I expected at all. The entire novel takes place in a 24 hour time frame, and although a lot of information is provided about the characters, it doesn’t advance the plot in a major way. It does, however, establish a group of characters that will be either working together or against each other and introduces a potential love triangle. As a reader, I was at times frustrated with the novel, but I also couldn’t stop reading! Mafi doesn’t always follow the rules when it comes to what a reader may expect from a sequel, and I think that’s what makes this series, as well as her others, so appealing and unique. I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading fantasy with a touch of romance.
Bailey, Linda. Cinderella – with Dogs! Freya Harris. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2023. 978-1-984-81382-4, 32 p. $18.99. Grades K-2.
What if your fairy Godmother appears, and she is a fairy dogmother? This story spins the tale of Cinderella and her fairy dogmother. She learns to take in the moment and enjoy the little things, like chasing squirrels. Her dogmother creates her ball gown out of a cozy blanket that any dog would love to lay on. Her hair ensemble resembles a poodle. When she shows up to the ball, she runs in like a dog chasing a toy not caring what the other people are thinking. All the royal dogs join in with her, as well as catching the eye of the royal prince who is a dog lover as well.
THOUGHTS: With colorful, vibrant illustrations, this picture book would make a great read aloud. Most students know the story of Cinderella and will get a kick out of the dog version. Students will enjoy seeing the various dogs throughout the story. Any dog lover will enjoy reading this modern twist on a fairy tale classic.