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Book Review: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Publisher’s description

From the acclaimed author of The Real Boy and The Lost Girl comes a wondrous and provocative fantasy about a kingdom beset by monsters, a mysterious school, and a girl caught in between them.

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. 

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy—a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself—things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

Amanda’s thoughts

Listen. That tweet up there should tell you everything you need. Also, 100% of the book was interesting, and yet as I read I repeatedly shouted in my head, “IT JUST GOT INTERESTING!” Because it kept getting MORE and MORE interesting. Go order this book. Now.

Marya knows her place in life. As a girl, she’s seen as a helper, a caretaker, a disappointment, and a background character in her own life. Her golden boy brother, Luka, is potentially gifted as a sorcerer and Marya is just this annoyance, this threat to perfection, this problem. Thank goodness she has Madame Bandu, a neighbor who has her watch her boys. Marya can be a “wild girl” with them, and, bonus, Madame Bandu is teaching her how to read. She’s also teaching her to question everything. From Madame Bandu, Marya learns to question the stories you’re told, question who’s telling them, who they benefit. She teaches her to see coded secrets and truths in the tapestries that record history. Marya learns that reading and learning is the best way to keep away the monsters that plague their land.

But all that learning comes to a halt when Marya is sent to a reform school, where she will get a fresh start and learn how to be a lady. And maybe, if she’s really good, she will be allowed to go work on a sorcerer’s estate in some kind of helping role! At Dragomir, Marya meets other girls who were also exiled to this school and it’s clear that the way they are “troubled” has little to do with anything serious. The girls there are sullen, awkward, haughty, inquisitive, and smart. They are too much, they are inappropriate, they are girls that no one knows what to do with. So they will learn how to behave at Dragomir. They will be cast off, isolated, broken down. After all, girls are obviously either evil or weak, and they must be reformed. They can’t be running around, thinking thoughts and being willing to run headlong into monsters!

Meanwhile, the Dread is looming, but the sorcerer assigned to their school says it’s all under control. But Marya doesn’t believe him. She starts to wonder if he’s there to protect them or to monitor them. Also, how, exactly, do these “troubled” girls pose a threat? Are they in danger or are they the danger? Why does it seem like all of the men Marya meets are lying? What’s this school really about?

By the end of the story, we see the myriad ways men fail women, the way they are cowards and liars and manipulators. We see the truth, we see the lies, we see the control, the power, and the bravery. We also see that Anne Ursu is a master storyteller (which, of course, we already know) who knows just how to skewer the patriarchy and leave readers feeling inspired by the brave actions of her characters. I could not put this book down and when I did, I felt hopeful, which is an amazing feeling to experience for even two minutes these days. A smart story about control, rebellion, story itself, and the fearsome power of girls allowed to be themselves. A great book for girls who can’t follow the rules and, better yet, don’t want to.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062275127
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

WE NEED MORE HEROES OF COLOR IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASIES: A SOUTH ASIAN PERSPECTIVE, a guest post by Payal Doshi

As a kid, any free time I got, I devoured books. I read about kids who traveled to fantasy lands through a wardrobe, carried out investigations as amateur detectives, navigated the politics of school, had crushes and heartbreaks, and became heroes who saved realms with their magical powers. Oh, I loved these books! And yet, not one of them had characters who looked like me: a brown Indian girl.

India alone has a population of 1.3 billion people. Add in the diaspora which is spread across the world and that’s about another 18 million people. When there are so many of us, why do I rarely find South Asian kids on the cover of books especially those who are magic-wielding, realm-saving main characters?

Payal age 11-12

Thanks to initiatives for diverse books, the statistic is changing, and we are seeing more books with South Asian main characters (although there is a long way to go). However, a majority of the books being published center on stories of struggle. These stories delve into important subjects such as the immigrant experience, finding one’s identity in a foreign land, fitting in while sustaining microaggressions, tackling racism, learning the language, or escaping poverty and hardship for a better life. These stories are vital. These stories are needed. These stories open a door into a life many haven’t seen.

But these are not our only stories. The South Asian narrative is multifaceted with myriad, if not a countless, stories.

When I first began writing my debut novel, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, I wrote all 70,000 words of it with white characters who lived in the English countryside. I was an adult, nearly 24 years old when I wrote the first draft. Never having seen myself in ‘happy’, ‘joyful’, ‘adventurous’, or ‘magical’ stories as a kid, my subconscious led me to write about characters who I had read about umpteen number of times doing those exact things, except they looked nothing like me. The plot of my novel was not based on the immigrant experience or rooted in the challenges of living in poverty or war (in the case of historical fiction), so I assumed no one wanted to read a book about a girl like me from India, going on an adventure, discovering she had magic, and being the ‘chosen one’ to save her brother and a magical realm.

I didn’t think my Indian background was interesting enough to be the driving force of an exciting, heroic story. Since I had only ever read children’s books with white characters, it had trained my mind into thinking that those were the stories worth telling. That my own story, one that I hadn’t ever read about or seen portrayed, was not worth telling. Without my knowing it, this diminished my identity, my experiences, my uniqueness, and my self-worth.

When my writing teacher in India asked me with great disappointment why I hadn’t chosen to write about Indian kids (it was clearly not the first time she had come across a young Indian writer who had written about white characters), I felt deflated. I loved my life in India. I loved the food, the culture, the clothes, the deep sense of family, my years of schooling and university. I realized I should be proud of writing about my experiences and celebrating them with the world. If Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Nancy Drew can have incredible adventures, why can’t an Indian kid have them too? A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm.

Right then, I knew I wanted to change that. So, I wrote a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture with Indian kids going off on thrilling adventures and becoming heroes. It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and believe that their stories can be fun, fierce, and empowering too. Themes in children’s books about family, friendship, discovering your identity, the trials of growing up, dealing with complex emotions like grief, loss, death, as well as the exhilaration of escaping into fantasy lands and being a hero are themes every kid can relate to no matter the color of their skin, the location of their home, or their race and nationality.

My hope is for all types of narratives from underrepresented minorities to be brought to the forefront. Kids from marginalized backgrounds shouldn’t have to be typecast into having only one kind of story define their whole existence. We need to see kids from marginalized backgrounds in every avatar: from neurotypical, neurodiverse, queer, to disabled kids being portrayed as heroes, leaders, realm savers, popular kids, magic-wielding rebels with a cause, sci-fi explorers, and those who fall in love.

We, each, have our own hardships, struggles and insecurities but we also want to share joy, feel special, and be the ‘chosen ones’. Only by sharing varied narratives of marginalized groups will we create a world where people see each other without bias against the culture or the color of their skin.



So, let’s break stereotypes. Let’s broaden the perspectives of our young readers. Let’s unshackle our minds from the boxes we put others into without fully knowing their stories.

And until this revolutionary change comes, I’m going to write stories with flawed, fierce, and fabulous South Asian characters who go on adventures, solve mysteries, find love, be heroic, wield magic, and are unapologetically themselves.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rachel Nadeau

Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR, her debut middle grade novel. Raised in Mumbai, India, she currently lives in Minneapolis, MN and can be found daydreaming about fantasy realms to send her characters off into. Learn more at www.payaldoshiauthor.com, @payaldoshiauthor on Instagram and @payaldwrites on Twitter.

About Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea’s life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found. 

It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan’s gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortuneteller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal to an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it.

Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him, and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

ISBN-13: 9781645437635
Publisher: Mango & Marigold Press
Publication date: 06/15/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Book Review: Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore

Publisher’s description

The highly anticipated next book in the New York Times bestselling, award-winning Graceling Realm series, which has sold 1.3 million copies.

For the past five years, Bitterblue has reigned as Queen of Monsea, heroically rebuilding her nation after her father’s horrific rule. After learning about the land of Torla in the east, she sends envoys to the closest nation there: Winterkeep—a place where telepathic foxes bond with humans, and people fly across the sky in wondrous airships. But when the envoys never return, having drowned under suspicious circumstances, Bitterblue sets off for Winterkeep herself, along with her spy Hava and her trusted colleague Giddon. On the way, tragedy strikes again—a tragedy with devastating political and personal ramifications.

Meanwhile, in Winterkeep, Lovisa Cavenda waits and watches, a fire inside her that is always hungry. The teenage daughter of two powerful politicians, she is the key to unlocking everything—but only if she’s willing to transcend the person she’s been all her life.

Amanda’s thoughts

What a delight to get to return to this world after all these years.

We begin with meeting a treasure-collecting sea creature, perhaps the creature the humans have mythical stories about, the Keeper, and some telepathic purple silbercows, who also reside in the ocean. They set up the initial parts of the story and draw the reader in with the mystery of what is happening and what part they will play. The reader will come back to their perspective and roles throughout the story, and for me, their small sections were among my favorite parts of the book.

When two of Queen Bitterblue’s men go missing, she decides to pursue what happened herself. Along with Giddon and Hava, she travels to Winterkeep, a democratic republic home to the Keepish people, a respected academy, advanced medicines, and powerful fuels. Their initial question, what is the Keepish interest in Monsea, grows to become many questions as they meet more people and uncover more details. Every character is complicated and richly drawn, a potential enemy or ally to Bitterblue’s crew (it’s often hard to be sure which they will be). Much of the story revolves around Lovisa, a 16-year-old Keepish girl skilled in spying, eavesdropping, observing, and skulking around. When her story intersects with Bitterblue’s, things really take off, leading the reader on an adventure full of mystery and uncertainty. I don’t want to spoil any of what happens, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the existence of telepathic foxes (who can bond with humans) in this book. They play a vital role in the story and how it unfolds and one small fox must grapple with how to control the course of events and carries the heavy burden of wondering how to keep the secrets of foxkind.

Winterkeep deals with heavy themes, many of which are common to all of the Graceling stories—love, loss, grief, trauma, manipulation, and toxic families. The biggest themes, however, are environmentalism and warfare, themes that all the humans must grapple with as they trek through Winterkeep and themes that are at the heart of what the silbercows and their giant sea creature friend must do.

While this story can be read alone, reading it in context of the rest of the Graceling Realm books would be more meaningful. This particular book also has wide crossover audience appeal. Bitterblue is 23, Giddon is 31, and Hava is 20. Lovisa and friends are the teens in the story. Parents and other adult family members of various characters also play large roles in what unfolds.

This is a story of choices and survival. It is one of bullying, gaslighting, abuse, and fear. It is about government, politics, and war. But more than anything, it is about truth, strength, warmth, love, support, and healing. This is a strong addition to the series—perhaps my favorite—and I hope we see more of this expanding world.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780803741508
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Series: Graceling Realm
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Publisher’s description

Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

Amanda’s thoughts

As I write this, it’s the final days of 2020 and Minnesota has decided to be very Minnesota-y and is having a rather unexpected blizzard. I’m tired and cranky and just over EVERYTHING lately. I stop and start books, I scroll on my phone, I rewatch The Office. Nothing feels interesting. But then! BUT THEN! I picked up this book. I read it slowly, delighting in every clever department name and plot twist. I got completely caught up in Amari’s world and only really set the book down to text people how great this book is. This book is stupendous.

Amari is off on a fantastical adventure after she receives a mysterious interactive recording from her missing brother. Under the guise of it being a summer camp, she goes to attend training at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother was apparently working before his disappearance. There, she’s paired up with her new roommate, Elsie Rodriguez, a weredragon and mastermind inventor, and learns that her brother was one of the most famous agents in recent history, responsible for helping bring about the end of two powerful magicians who were waging war on the supernatural world. Amari, whose aptitude and talents make it seem like she might be a hero, isn’t concerned about anything like that—she doesn’t want to be a hero; she just wants to find her brother. But when her talent is revealed to show her true abilities, suddenly Amari is seen as a potential villain, an enemy of the Bureau.

Now Amari has to prove herself to those in charge or she’ll be cut loose from the program and have her memory wiped. Staying and succeeding is the only chance she has at tracking down her brother. As Amari thinks, this is not so different from being a Black girl from the projects attending a private school (as she did). She’s used to standing out, to being judged. She doesn’t like being underestimated and will prove people that they’re wrong about her, but will have to deal with secrets, lies, blackmail, creatures, illusions, tests, and traitors along the way.

Every page of this story was a delight. Really all I want in life right now is for this whole series to be out and all the movies so I can just live inside the world of Amari and friends. I’m obsessed. Go order this right now. And get ready for it to fly off library shelves. One of the best starts to a fantasy series that I’ve read in a very long time.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062975164
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Series: Supernatural Investigations #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Escaping from Reality Shows Us How to Change It, a guest post by Ryan La Sala

REVERIE takes place in our world. Connecticut, to be specific. It’s a version of Connecticut you’d recognize, even if you’ve only seen postcards. We have old mills and slow rivers and vibrant autumns. The usual stuff. There is, however, one major difference. 

In REVERIE’s imagining, Connecticut is slowly being warped by a strange magic that mines the secret, subconscious worlds people build within themselves, and manifests those worlds in our reality. The characters refer to these phenomena as reveries, because that’s what they are: fantasies that superimpose themselves over our reality. Fantasies that entrap, and refuse to dislodge themselves from reality until they are appeased. 

I developed the concept of the reverie around the idea of inverting escapism. Dreams are common territory in fiction, but usually as an act of solitary, inward exploration (or prophecy, if we’re being uncanny). I love those stories but my goal with REVERIE wasn’t to dig into fantasies that one could simply wake up from. I wanted fantasies that were aggressive, and moody, and dead-set on surviving once they’d been manifested. So I created a magic that gives material form to belief, and I created a magic system that gives power to those typically rendered powerless by reality. 

Why?

By explanation, let me start with Kane, the unlikable hero of REVERIE. Kane uses escapism as a form of self-preservation. He is lonely and disenchanted with a reality that has been unkind to him, as reality often is to young queer. Kane withdraws into books, movies, and anything that provides a realm other than our own. And he’s content with this, until the sudden inheritance of power—and the ensuing responsibility—reveals to him how ill-equipped he is to navigate relationships, leadership, community, and other hallmarks of a hero. 

With Kane, I wanted to show how a person can become so insulated by daydreams that they forget how to manage the world around them. When we withdraw, the world only notes our absence for so long. It then continues on without us, and often the things that forced us to withdraw get the luxury of continuing unchecked, as we drift further into ourselves. 

Do I fault Kane for using escapism as self-preservation? Absolutely not. Fantasy’s function as refuge is very important to me. His reaction to reality is not his fault. But his inaction eventually is his fault, especially as he learns about his own ability to affect the reality around him. Eventually, running away means abandoning people he could otherwise help. Eventually, running away is not an option. 

I like this journey for Kane. His path out of himself contrasts well with his adventures into the interior worlds of other people. I think his point of view enables him to be an effective narrator to drive home an important lesson. 

Escapism isn’t always bad. Reality is a harsh place, and no one should be faulted for wanting a break. But there are people among the escaping ranks with power. People like Kane, who has the advantage of privilege, and stability, and—sure—magical reality bending magic. Maybe you don’t have Kane’s magic, but you do have his imagination. Lots of writers and bookish people share that. They spend hours in other worlds, analyzing system of magic, fantastical machinations, and mind-boggling world building. They — really we— are practically trained on both imagining a more fantastic world, but also manifesting it through bravery, heroics, honesty, and determination. 

So escapism has its educative uses, doesn’t it? From the negative of the world, it creates a technicolor solution to the reality that necessitates it. My argument, if I have one, is that escapism can be a harbinger for change. As a reaction to reality, escapism can be the exercise of deconstructing our reality’s faults, experimenting with their improvement, and ultimately devising actionable ways to create that change in our material world. The last part, the action part, is what Kane needs to learn. As a person with power, it’s up to him to find a way to bring his reality and his dreams together; to bring his dreams home, because ultimately it is reality where he must live.

A reverie is a fantasy imposed upon reality, borne from a person’s interior world. Often that interior world is much more hospitable than the world that inspires it. Reverie’s make me think of safe spaces, of shelters, of refuge. They make me think of gay bars full of pride, and libraries full of wonder. Places where the fantasy of what the world could be like kiss against the partition of what it is.

So I don’t discourage dreaming. Ever. I support escapism with my whole heart. Whether for indulgence, or comfort, or thrill, I see escapism as not just necessary, but deeply practical. Because it’s escapes that help us feel safe, and coax us towards dreaming.

And, ultimately, it’s escapes that show us the work that needs doing once we’re ready to wake up.

Meet Ryan La Sala

Photo credit: Lauren Takakjian

RYAN LA SALA grew up in Connecticut, but only physically. Mentally, he spent most of his childhood in the worlds of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess, which perhaps explains all the twirling. He studied Anthropology and Neuroscience at Northeastern University before becoming a project manager specialized in digital tools. He technically lives in New York City, but has actually transcended material reality and only takes up a human shell for special occasions, like brunch, and to watch anime (which is banned on the astral plane). Reverie is Ryan’s debut novel. You can visit him at ryanlasala.com or follow him on Twitter @Ryality.

About REVERIE

Inception meets The Magicians in this wildly imaginative story about what happens when the secret worlds people hide within themselves come to light.

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember anything since an accident robbed him of his memories a few weeks ago. And the world feels different—reality itself seems different.

So when three of his classmates claim to be his friends and the only people who can tell him what’s truly going on, he doesn’t know what to believe or who he can trust. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident, and only he can stop their world from unraveling.

ISBN-13: 9781492682660
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 12/03/2019

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Publisher’s description

we set theIn this daring and romantic fantasy debut perfect for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Latinx authors Zoraida Córdova and Anna-Marie McLemore, society wife-in-training Dani has a great awakening after being recruited by rebel spies and falling for her biggest rival.

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.

And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.

Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I WANT THE NEXT BOOK! NOW! And after you read this, you will too.

 

Freshly out of the Medio School for Girls, 17-year-old Dani is now the Primera to a promising young politician from a wealthy and respected family. Dani understands her role as Primera, one of two wives in the household, means she will run the home and be her husband Mateo’s equal. She quickly learns that secretive and cold Mateo, who is being groomed to run for president, views her as little more than a personal assistant. She’s not thrilled to be placed with Carmen, an enemy from school, who is Mateo’s Segunda, the second wife. Together, they all live in the heart of the capital, where luxury abounds. Money and power are important in the inner island, and Mateo’s family has both. But not far away, things are very different. Long ago, a wall was built around the inner island, and those suffering on the other side know nothing of the riches afforded to those lucky enough to be inside the wall. Dani knows intimately what life is like there and the risk many take to cross the militarized border that has a shoot-on-sight policy. Now part of the island’s elite, she is appalled at the wealth and resources taken for granted here. Life as a Primera could be extremely dull—be responsible and think of nothing more than supporting your husband—but Dani never gets to experience that.

 

Dani becomes involved with La Voz, a resistance group. The road to her involvement is complex—first she’s blackmailed, then she’s spying, and eventually she has to choose were her allegiances are. Their repeated message of “if we’re not all free, none of us are free” begins to really eat away at Dani, making her think hard about her past, the wall, her role as Primera, and what action she could take to affect change. Dani is supposed to exist to bring order and stability to the home (with Carmen there for warmth and beauty), but with her eyes opened more than ever to the injustices and resistance movement, she knows she needs to act. Being a spy is a complicated enough idea on its own, but throw in the fact that Dani isn’t sure who she can trust, from La Voz to her new family to Carmen, and it’s a real mess full of potential spies, liars, and double agents. As she struggles with her place now, she discovers many surprising revelations about Carmen, not the least of which is that they both have feelings for each other that go well beyond just being a paired Primera and Segunda. But as Dani untangles all of the prejudice, privilege, lies, and hatred around her, she wonders who, if anyone she can trust. And as her roles both at home and within La Voz continue, she worries that every part of her life is now a lie. How and where is Dani the most useful? And what price for freedom?

 

A tense cliffhanger that reveals secrets and sets up book two will leave readers (me!) desperate to see what happens. This well-written book has great world building, strong characters, and so much intrigue. A smart and engrossing read full of twists and turns. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062691316
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/26/2019

Book Review: The Collectors by Jacqueline West

Publisher’s description

collectorsEven the smallest wish can be dangerous. That’s why the Collectors are always keeping watch.

The Collectors sweeps readers into a hidden world where wishes are stolen and dreams have a price. Fast-paced, witty, and riveting, this contemporary fantasy adventure has magic woven through every page.

It’s the first book in a two-book series from Jacqueline West, the New York Times–bestselling author of The Books of Elsewhere series. For fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak, The Isle of the Lost, and The Secret Keepers.

Van has always been an outsider. Most people don’t notice him. But he notices them. And he notices the small trinkets they drop, or lose, or throw away—that’s why his collection is full of treasures. Then one day, Van notices a girl stealing pennies from a fountain, and everything changes. He follows the girl, Pebble, and uncovers an underground world full of wishes and the people who collect them. Apparently not all wishes are good and even good wishes often have unintended consequences—and the Collectors have made it their duty to protect us. But they aren’t the only ones who have their eyes on the world’s wishes—and they may not be the good guys, after all.

Jacqueline West, author of the New York Times–bestselling Books of Elsewhere series, draws readers into a story about friendship, magic, and the gray area between good and evil. The Collectors is for fans of Cassie Beasley’s Circus Mirandus and Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This is totally one of those books where I finish reading it and want to demand the next book be in my hands RIGHT NOW so I can find out what happens. After lots of fabulous twists and turns, and being left uncertain who to trust or believe, I just want to see where this story goes. I suspect many readers will be just as drawn in as I was.

 

11-year-old Van wears hearing aids, and while he may not always hear everything, he certainly sees everything. A keen observer, he notices little things that others overlook, like small, forgotten items that he secrets home to his model stage, where they become part of his imaginary world. His opera singer-mother is often preoccupied with other things, and while shopping one day, Van comes across a strange girl stealing pennies from a fountain. He tries to figure out what her deal is, but his mother appears and the girl disappears before he can learn much. Eventually, his quest to find out more leads him to hidden underground chambers, where he follows the girl to a room labeled The Collection. Here, he finds shelves filled with glass bottles, which turn out to be captured wishes. Van has so many questions: who would steal wishes? Why? Do they help make them come true? Or do they stop them from coming true? What does Pebble, the girl, have to do with all of this? And how come Van can talk to and understand animals? Things grow more complicated when Van meets Mr. Falborg, an Opera Guild member with vast collections of his own. When Van is kidnapped by men from the underground chambers, he’s told he’s dangerous because he knows their secrets. He’s given instructions to prove he’s not their enemy and released. Unfortunately, that proof requires him to steal something from Mr. Falborg, who also tells Van he is in danger. Suddenly, it seems impossible to know who to trust, who is good or bad. Pebble claims that the collectors keep people safe from what could happen if wishes came true, but Falborg is telling Van a different story. And when Van discovers the most secret part of Falborg’s collection, he really doesn’t know what to think or who to believe. Forced to choose a side to align himself with, Van is confused. Wishes are hard to control and could bring chaos, but who can really be trusted to carry them out in the best way? When wishes are tied up with power, control, and good/bad, how can you even make a wish? And when Van finds out Pebble’s big secret, we’re all left wondering what will happen as the book closes.

 

Great characters, interesting world-building, tons of suspense, and leaves readers wanting more. A great addition to any collection. Be careful what you wish for! 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062691699
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/09/2018

Book Review: Heart of Thorns by Bree Barton

Publisher’s description

heart of thornsInventive and heart-racing, this fierce feminist teen fantasy from debut author Bree Barton explores a dark kingdom in which only women can possess magic—and every woman is suspected of having it.

Fans of Leigh Bardugo and Laini Taylor won’t want to miss this gorgeously written, bold novel, the first in the Heart of Thorns trilogy.

In the ancient river kingdom, where touch is a battlefield and bodies the instruments of war, Mia Rose has pledged her life to hunting Gwyrach: women who can manipulate flesh, bones, breath, and blood. The same women who killed her mother without a single scratch.

But when Mia’s father announces an alliance with the royal family, she is forced to trade in her knives and trousers for a sumptuous silk gown. Determined to forge her own path forward, Mia plots a daring escape, but could never predict the greatest betrayal of all: her own body. Mia possesses the very magic she has sworn to destroy.

Now, as she untangles the secrets of her past, Mia must learn to trust her heart…even if it kills her.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

The prologue to this ARC says, “Once upon a time, in a castle carved of stone, a girl plotted murder.” Talk about immediately roping you in!

 

On the eve of her marriage to Prince Quin, Mia Rose is planning to stage her murder and run away. At 17, Mia has been trained as a huntress, and wants nothing more than to track down the demonic Gwyrach that killed her mother. Mia and her sister Angie, 15, are the daughters of an assassin, the leader of the Gwyrach hunters. The Gwyrach are half god, half human, and literally any girl or woman could be one. They transmit their magic via touch, so all girls are made to wear gloves to protect everyone from potential magic. All girls and women are under suspicion of being a Gwyrach and, as such, have their lives restricted. Mia has spent the past three years studying anatomy, hoping to learn how to protect against the Gwyrach power. She wonders what would happen if one could harness their power for good (instead of using it to enthrall and to wound, as they do now). If the hunters could eliminate magic, then no one could control another person’s body, thus girls would be free and could live full lives of their own choosing. These are all the thoughts Mia is having when she thinks about running away. Things grow even more complicated when she overhears a conversation between Quin and his parents in which they say Mia is dangerous and they speak of allegiances, leverage, and blackmail. All set to flee from her wedding, she is surprised when Quin is shot by an arrow and chaos breaks out at their ceremony. But that surprise is nothing compared to a revelation: while dragging Quin to safety, she somehow manages to heal him completely; Mia is a Gwyrach. Together, Quin and Mia flee the castle, uncertain where they will go, but desperately trying to get away from whoever wants them dead.

 

For me, the story really became good when they find themselves in a land where Mia begins to learn more about the Gwyrach and about her mother (and about herself and about Quin, for that matter). Here, the Gwyrach are acknowledged as creatures of the divine, a sisterhood, as angels and descendants of goddesses. She learns a lot about magic, including why the women are magic and why men are threatened by their power. The story looks at secrets, trust, lies, treachery, safety, traps, feminism, patriarchy, rape, love, hate, anger, dark magic, and betrayal. SO MUCH BETRAYAL. This is the first book in a series and I suspect readers will be anxious to see what happens to Mia and Quin, especially as we end on such a cliffhanger. Mia, who now knows she is a Gwyrach, as was her mother, and has been deeply shocked by a betrayal she couldn’t have seen coming, has many new understandings about her world. It will be interesting to see where her story goes. Full of action and intrigue, this will have wide appeal for fantasy fans. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062447685
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/31/2018

Book Review: The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani DasGupta

Publisher’s description

SERPENTMEET KIRANMALA:

INTERDIMENSIONAL DEMON SLAYER

(Only she doesn’t know it yet.)

On the morning of her twelfth birthday, Kiranmala is just a regular sixth grader living in Parsippany, New Jersey . . . until her parents mysteriously vanish and a drooling rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. Turns out there might be some truth to her parents’ fantastical stories-like how Kiranmala is a real Indian princess and how she comes from a secret place not of this world.

To complicate matters, two crush-worthy princes ring her doorbell, insisting they’ve come to rescue her. Suddenly, Kiran is swept into another dimension full of magic, winged horses, moving maps, and annoying, talking birds. There she must solve riddles and battle demons all while avoiding the Serpent King of the underworld and the Rakkhoshi Queen in order to find her parents and basically save New Jersey, her entire world, and everything beyond it . . .

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I could stare at this cover all day. Isn’t it beyond gorgeous? It makes me happy to think about this book being face-out in bookstores and on displays in stores and libraries. Who wouldn’t gravitate toward it? And, in this case, you can totally judge a book by its cover: awesome cover, awesome story.

 

Kiran certainly wasn’t expecting to come home from school on her 12th birthday and find that her parents had been swallowed by a rakkhosh (demon) and sent to another dimension. Though her parents had always told her stories about her being an Indian princess, the daughter of an underworld serpent king that they rescued, Kiran never believed them. Why would she? Surely those outrageous tales were just stories. But, much to Kiran’s shock, the events on her birthday prove that those wild stories were true—and they were just the beginning.

 

She hardly has time to pack a small bag and grab the note her parents left that stops mid-sentence before she is off with princes Neel and Lal to save her parents (despite their strict instructions to not try to find them). On their adventure, Kiran encounters flying horses, the spirit of  a tree in a bottle, demons, demon groupies, a bad-joke-telling bird, mountains of illusion, and so many more unexpected and mind-boggling things (like being accused of stealing someone’s mustache). Though definitely a great adventure full of close calls and unexpected twists, DasGupta’s story is also very, very funny. This book is packed full of silliness (I kept thinking of the Monty Python quote, “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. Tis a silly place.”)—so many of the characters and situations are just outright ridiculous, while also being challenging and possibly threatening. While Kiran works hard to find and rescue her parents, she learns that things (and people) are not always as they seem and that everything is connected to everything. Fast-paced and hilarious, with an excellent strong girl main character, this book is a must for collections. Because of Kiran’s age and the content/length/complexity of the story, this will widely appeal to readers from upper elementary through teens. 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338185706
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/27/2018

Book Review: Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom by Gigi D.G.

Publisher’s description

ra6What happens when an evil queen gets her hands on an ancient force of destruction?

World domination, obviously.

The seven kingdoms of Dreamside need a legendary hero. Instead, they’ll have to settle for Cucumber, a nerdy magician who just wants to go to school. As destiny would have it, he and his way more heroic sister, Almond, must now seek the Dream Sword, the only weapon powerful enough to defeat Queen Cordelia’s Nightmare Knight.

Can these bunny siblings really save the world in its darkest hour?

Sure, why not?

Adapted from the popular webcomic series, Cucumber Quest, The Doughnut Kingdom is the first graphic novel of a clever, adorable, and hilarious four-volume heroic adventure that is sure to make you hungry for sweets and action.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

cucumber questThe colors in this book are just bonkers. So bright and dramatic and thematic. I can picture this flying off the shelves simply because of how vibrant and dynamic the illustrations are.

Cucumber just wants to go to school, but suddenly his father NEEDS him to go on a big, important mission. Cucumber doesn’t want to and is not equipped to. Good thing he has a precocious and skilled little sister who doesn’t listen to everyone saying that girls and little sisters are not heroes of stories. Almond sure is. Cucumber, Almond, and some new friends they make along the way go off in search of certain items and people, and while practical Cucumber finds a way very early on to just be done with the whole scenario, Almond knows the fun is in the quest. The joyful illustrations of confectionery lands and characters add so much to this whimsical story of adventure. Good fun.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626728325
Publisher: First Second
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Series: Cucumber Quest Series , #1