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Book Review: The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

Publisher’s description

gauntletA trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.

When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?


Amanda’s thoughts

Bangladeshi Farah Mirza plays lots of board games with her family, which is good, because she’s about to play the game of her life. On her twelfth birthday, The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, a mysterious board game, appears. It’s wrapped up like a gift, which she thinks is from her aunt, but she quickly learns that that the game seems to have a mind of its own and has somehow found its way to her. Farah figures she’ll play the game quickly with Essie and Alex, her best friends, then return to her birthday party (though she’s in no real hurry—the party is mostly populated with people from her new school, where she feels out of place as the only girl in a hijab). But before she knows it, her little brother, 7-year-old Ahmad, disappears into the game. Farah and her friends will need to win the game to destroy it and rescue Ahmad. If they lose a challenge, they’ll have to stay in Paheli, the game’s city, forever. They’re warned that there are time limits, to watch out for surprises, and also cautioned that the game cheats. The three kids must work together, plan, play games within the game, and outsmart others. Just when it seems like they are making progress, obstacles crop up, making it feel like they may never get out of the game and back to their real lives.


This middle grade fantasy will appeal easily to younger readers. It’s fast-paced, the stakes are high, and the innovative world-building within the game will keep readers guessing what may happen next. A solid debut and a very welcome addition to the growing field of books starring Muslim main characters. 


ISBN-13: 9781481486965

Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Setting a New Default for Readers and Myself: A Guest Post by LABYRINTH LOST author Zoraida Cordova

Today we are very honored to host a guest post by LABYRINTH LOST author Zoraida Córdova. Labyrinth Lost is book one in the Brooklyn Brujas series published by Sourcebooks Fire. It is the story of Alex, a girl who wants to reject her magical destiny and in doing so banishes her family to another plane where she must journey to find them before they become victims of the Devourer.

labyrinthlostI started my writing career very young and never had a back up plan. When I was 13 I decided this is what I wanted, and I started writing. When I was 16 and 17, I attended the National Book Foundation’s writing camp. Though camp no longer exists, it was the most defining experience in my life, both as a person and writer. Led by poet and author, Meg Kearney, a group of students spanning all ages and backgrounds took summer workshops in Bennington College in Vermont.

There are two lessons I remember the most from camp, and still use when writing. Cornelius Eady, poet and co-founder of Cave Canem, would tell us to “trim the fat.” Every time I have a massive first draft, the kind of draft that makes my agent and editor pause, I tell myself to “trim the fat.” The second lesson was by Jacqueline Woodson. First of all, it was incredible having someone like Jackie teaching us. As we shared our short stories, Jackie always pointed out the white default in our characters. I was a teen, the fourth youngest in our group. I went to public school. I knew about metaphor and symbolism, but I’d never heard of the “white default” before. Looking back, I’m guilty of this as well. My tv shows, my books, my movies, my music, my magazines. Everything I read was predominantly white. As an adult, I went back to my very first manuscript: a ground breaking teenage epic at 20 something pages, based on the Jessica Simpson song “Final Heartbreak.” You can laugh. I certainly do. “Final Heartbreak” was written by a thirteen year old who had internalized the white default. All of my beautiful characters were white. The two exotic characters were the only ones described as having slightly darker skin. This was the first time I ever wrote the white default.

After hearing Jackie Woodson tell us, “If you describe one person’s race, you have to do it for everyone else. Otherwise, they’re white by default,” my world changed. Thanks to discussion that’s at the forefront of publishing thanks to We Need Diverse Books, Diversity in YA, and other like-minded organizations, we know what the white default is. But as a teenager who wanted to write fantasy novels, it felt like everything had shifted. When you don’t see yourself represented in media, you start to erase yourself. The default has to change.

Changing the default starts with the authors. Daniel José Older tweeted, “If a character’s white I say it. Otherwise, assume they’re not. The default is POC.” Reading this made me think about what Jackie Woodson said all those years ago. Even though, I was conscious of what the default was, I was afraid. When I wrote The Vicious Deep, I did my job. I designated an ethnicity for all my characters. But that wasn’t enough. What was I so afraid of? Four years later, I know. When you’re an author of color, you fear being “too” diverse. You wait so long for the market to be ready, not just for your book, but also for you as a person.

Writing Labyrinth Lost was liberating. I’ve written Brooklyn before, but even that Brooklyn was white washed. In this world, the default in characters is POC. One of the reasons I started reading fantasy was because I hated contemporary stories as a kid. The only books I could find were about poor or struggling Latinxs (never Ecuadorian like me). And while those stories are brilliant and important and still need to be read, I also wanted to be a superhero. I wanted to be Buffy and Sabrina and Prue Halliwell. The issue in Labyrinth Lost isn’t my protagonist’s ethnicity or bisexuality. These are things that should’ve been normalized a long time ago. The issue that Alex Mortiz has is her magic and power. Being afraid to have power is something that everyone can relate to, especially when you’re a girl. How are you influenced by the people who surround you? How do you deal with feeling abandoned by a parent? How do you cope with the pressure of being sixteen and the pressure of school? These are the things that make Alex relatable to teens, no matter where they come from, and despite that the default in this book is POC.

Alex lives in an untraditional house. If you take the magical aspect for a second, what am I left with? A single mother. A working class home in a (made up) part of Brooklyn. A huge extended family. A girl with anxiety. A trio of sisters. A girl trying to find her place in the world.

I’m twenty-nine and sometimes I still feel like I haven’t fully understood my place in the world, so in my book, Alex Mortiz is already on the right track. In setting a new default for myself and for my readers, I hope others will see themselves in Alex’s strength.

Publisher’s Book Description

“Enchanting and complex. Every page is filled with magic.”-Danielle Paige, New York Times best-selling author of Dorothy Must Die

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Praise for Labyrinth Lost

“Zoraida Cordova’s prose enchants from start to finish. Labyrinth Lost is pure magic.” -Melissa Grey, author of The Girl at Midnight

“Magical and empowering, Labyrinth Lost is an incredible heroine’s journey filled with mythos come to life; but at its heart, honors the importance of love and family.” -Cindy Pon, author of Serpentine and Silver Phoenix

“A brilliant brown-girl-in-Brooklyn update on Alice in Wonderland and Dante’s Inferno. Very creepy, very magical, very necessary.” -Daniel Jose Older, author of Shadowshaper

“Labyrinth Lost is a magical story of love, family, and finding yourself. Enchanting from start to finish.” -Amy Tintera, author of Ruined.

Karen’s Thoughts

This was a unique and interesting twist on magic from a cultural perspective that I am not very familiar with. It was fascinating, dark and compelling. I highly recommend it.


Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of the Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and Labyrinth Lost. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. Send her a tweet @zlikeinzorro

Book Review: Burn by Elissa Sussman

Publisher’s description

burnBurn is the thrilling companion to Elissa Sussman’s masterful and original fairy tale, Stray. This engaging and imaginative continuation of the original fairy tale begun in Stray will appeal to readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and fans of the musicals Wicked and Into the Woods.

After helping to rescue Princess Aislynn, Elanor has finally rejoined the rebel camp she calls home. Stolen from her parents at a young age and forced into service by the Wicked Queen, Elanor now wants nothing more than to see the queen removed from power. But Elanor has secrets, mistakes she’s spent years trying to forget, and the closer the rebels get to the throne, the harder it is for Elanor to keep her past hidden away. Booklist said of Stray, “Sussman delightfully mixes dystopian tension with retold fairy tales, and the result is something wholly original.” Includes a map.


Amanda’s thoughts

As the description up there tells you, this is a companion novel. The main character from book one becomes a secondary character in this book. This can pretty easily be read as a stand alone novel, though it might take the reader a bit to catch on to what is happening. Elanor and the other Orphans have lived for years in a hidden camp behind a barrier of magic. Now, with huntsmen getting near their border, it appears that the evil queen (the one who stole and abused all of the Orphans) is looking to expand her rule. When Ioan, Elanor’s brother, is captured by the queen’s men, she goes to rescue him, also bringing home Matthias, a young man who was part of the caravan they had just robbed. Elanor and the others come up with a plan to attack Josetta, the queen. We learn in bits and pieces about Josetta’s terrifying rule, her abuse of the Orphans, and Elanor’s experiences while working as Josetta’s servant, where her main role was to taste her food for her. Once they successfully get into the castle, they learn that not everything is as it has seemed. By the story’s end, we know a lot more about what has been happening and what may happen going forward, but it’s clear that another book (or books) will need to answer all of the new questions.


The characters in this book are wonderfully diverse. There’s Dimia, who has very little hearing and communicates via sign language. The Orphans have remade themselves into families, so Elanor’s mom, Tasmin, is her adoptive mother, and her brother, Ioan, isn’t her brother by blood. It’s clear that family isn’t about blood ties but about love. There are many small details that indicate many of the characters are not white—Bronwyn’s dreadlocks, Tasmin, Rhys, and Matthias’s brown skin, etc. We learn that Heck has one leg, that Brigid is in love with Linnea. Heck and Ioan have a bonding ceremony and pledge their love to one another. Elanor and Brigid have a revealing conversation.

“You like princesses?” The look on Aislynn’s face spoke to her confusion. “And Matthias?”

“I like who I like,” said Elanor. “Same as Heck.”



There are many particularly great passages, such as this one:

Elanor loved her body. She loved the muscles in her arms and her legs. She loved the thickness of her thighs and the width of her shoulders. She loved that she could climb a tree faster than anyone else and nearly outrun Dagger. She loved that her stomach had a softness to it, a roundness owed to Tasmin’s food…. She loved what her body could do. It was strong and it was soft and it was capable.


I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I really enjoyed this story. There are a lot of interesting things going on here with power—only the girls and women have magic and men try to use/steal/abuse this magic for their own purposes. I wanted to know more about all of the characters–both their pasts and how they now relate to one another. This is a quick and satisfying read filled with diverse characters and led by lots of strong (if sometimes rash and foolish) girls and women. It will be easy to recommend this one to fantasy fans.


Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062274595

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 01/19/2016


Book Review: The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker, by teen reviewer Lexi

witchhunter“I’m quiet for a moment, enchanted by the idea of something stealing over you, settling into you, and telling you, with absolute certainty, who you are and what you’re meant to do.”


The magic and suspense of Graceling meet the political intrigue and unrest of Game of Thrones in this riveting fantasy debut.

Your greatest enemy isn’t what you fight, but what you fear.
Elizabeth Grey is one of the king’s best witch hunters, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and doling out justice. But when she’s accused of being a witch herself, Elizabeth is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake.

Salvation comes from a man she thought was her enemy. Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful and dangerous wizard in the kingdom, offers her a deal: he will save her from execution if she can break the deadly curse that’s been laid upon him.

But Nicholas and his followers know nothing of Elizabeth’s witch hunting past–if they find out, the stake will be the least of her worries. And as she’s thrust into the magical world of witches, ghosts, pirates, and one all-too-handsome healer, Elizabeth is forced to redefine her ideas of right and wrong, of friends and enemies, and of love and hate.


This is one of those types of books that you wish you could reread for the first time again so that you could experience the way you did when you read it the first go round.

This book was absolutely brilliant. The plot was spectacularly planned and executed. The characters had so much life in them that I felt like I knew exactly who they were. The imagery is also phenomenal, it was all so vivid in detail. Every part of this book had me mentally and emotionally attached. I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up, it was that good.

At first, I expected it to be that cliché love triangle where the main girl is so pretty but doesn’t think so and she gets the love interest of not only one boy but TWO!!! and she spends the whole book flipping back and forth between the boys trying decide which one she loves the most. HOWEVER!!, this was not the case. Elizabeth is quite ordinary and plain in the looks department. She at points compare herself to other girls but what girl doesn’t? It was her bravery, her strength, and her love that won her the boy. (Shout out to every girl who doesn’t meet the norm idea of what they should look like.) Elizabeth is a strong character with a flawless character development that blew me away when revealed in the end and in my opinion, we need more characters written like this. She goes through hell and back for the ones she cares about. She let’s go of the one person she had left because she knew she couldn’t hold on forever, that he was no longer good for her. To this I raise my tea cup to her. It is hard to let people go but this display of bravery teaches any person reading the book a valuable lesson about people who hold you back, the people whom assist you in advancing forward in life and what needs to be done to rid your life of the people who will only bring you down.

The last thing I want to touch on is the very first quote that caught my eye in this book: “But then he leaves. I watch him go, wishing more than anything I was the kind of girl who could make him stay.”

Every single friend i showed this to all had the same reaction: ‘Same’ *sad face*. This quote had everyone of us instantly relating to Elizabeth. That’s what the author needs to do in order to make their book a success with the reader. We need to connect to it somehow, relate to the characters, associate with it’s meaning. If we can’t do that then we lose interest. Virginia Boecker managed to get 5 teenage girls to relate and automatically love Elizabeth by one quote. That is amazing.

To end my review I must say that I could have easily wrote one word to sum up every emotion this book evoked. That word would have been WOW. It has been a very long time since I’ve read a fantasy novel this good. After a while it seems like every vampire book is the same and every witch book is the same but this one, this one was like drinking a cold glass of ice tea after going weeks suffering in the sweltering heat.

I hope there’s a sequel!!!

Published June 2, 2015 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780316327008

Cover Reveal: Beast in the Mirror by Laura Bradley Rede

We’re excited to share with you the cover reveal for Beast in the Mirror, Laura Bradley Rede’s forthcoming LGBT fantasy novella. Laura is a Minnesota author who I had the pleasure of meeting this past summer when she came to visit the YA book club I facilitate through the public library. We had a great time talking books and writing with Laura, as well as a bit of a wild (and fun!) time doing a writing prompt exercise. Check out Laura’s website, where you can find information on her other writing, and go follow her on Twitter, too. Laura’s novella will be available soon–we’ll share the release date when it’s out.


First, a blurb (isn’t blurb a weird word?):


Once upon a time, Bella Ashton was the teenage model to watch . That is, until her anorexia got the better of her and she passed out on the runway. Now, fresh off a year of eating disorder rehab, Bella is eager to get back in the game. But when she and her photographer cousin break into an abandoned Irish manor to stage a photo shoot, Bella finds herself face to face with the house’s owner: a hideous Beast who used to be a girl like her. Taken captive, the terrified Bella will do anything to escape. But as she learns more about the Beast, she discovers they aren’t that different—and that the Beast, in her own way, is a prisoner, too. How far will she go to save the Beast she’s slowly learning to love? And can finding the beauty in someone else help you find it in yourself?


Laura Bradley Rede gives the “tale as old as time” a fresh new twist in this queer, feminist reimagining.


(Please note:  This story’s intent is to be healing, but it does contains discussion of anorexia that may be triggering for some readers.)


And now for the stunning cover, designed by Damon Za



An excerpt from Beast in the Mirror:

“Teach me the bottom-hand part,” I say.

She looks at me doubtfully. “You play?”

“Not a note, but you can teach me, right? Just that one part.”

“Fine.” With her human hand, she arranges my fingers on the keys. “First this.”

I play a hesitant chord.

“And then like so.” She rearranges my fingers slightly. Her hand is very warm. Does she get hot under all that fur? My own hand trembles on the keys as she teaches me the rest of the phrase.

“Are you cold?” It sounds like an accusation. She frowns at me. Concern and annoyance look identical on her inhuman face, and I can’t tell which one she is feeling.

I shrug. “I’m always cold.”

“Why?” It’s not polite curiosity. The Beast just demands.

I almost say, None of your business, but I tend to talk when I’m nervous. I can’t help it. “When I was thin—”

“You are thin.”

“When I was thinner, it screwed up my thyroid or something. Or maybe it was just that I didn’t have any fat to burn for warmth, or for insulation or whatever. I felt cold all the time.”

The Beast frowns. “That sounds unpleasant.”

“It was painful, really.  I would wake up in the night with numb feet. My toes hurt if I touched them, like I had frostbite.” I should stop talking, but I can’t. “Once a doctor told me I should watch out for numbness in my arms—because it’s a heart attack symptom, you know? And my body had started eating my heart muscle? He was like, ‘Tell me right away if your arm goes numb,’ and I was like, ‘My arm has been numb for a month.'”

I’m kind of trying to be funny, but the Beast doesn’t get it. I think her scowl is a look of concern. “That sounds like torture.”

I play a wistful little tune on the piano. “I liked it, actually, at the time. Shivering burns calories. I’d drink a big glass of ice water and wrap up in a blanket and shake.”

The Beast stares at me for a long moment. “You’re a very unusual person.”

I laugh. “You’re calling me unusual?”

“I am.” Those eyes. So serious.

“Well, I’m not really unusual. I’m just a little further up the spectrum than some people. They’re like here.” I plunk a note towards the middle of the piano. I have to reach across The Beast to do it, which feels bold. “And I’m more like here.” I reach even farther past her, my arm brushing against her warm fur, and plink the third to highest note. Even as I do it, I wish I could be the highest.

I pull my hand back, self-consciously.

“And where am I?” The Beast asks, “Here?” She reaches around behind me with her bird claw and thuds the very lowest note. It echoes her deep, growling voice.

I laugh. “Something like that.”

The Beast leaves her arm around me for a heartbeat. At least, I think it would be a heartbeat. My own heart seems to be frozen in my chest.

Then she lets her arm drop. She puts her hands back on the piano. There’s an itchy little silence.

“Here, you said?” She plinks that third-highest note and a little chill goes through me, like she just ran her finger down my spine.

“And here, right?” I sound the lowest note. Its so deep, I feel the vibration in my core.

Her hand feels too far away from mine now. How many keys are there on a piano? Eighty-eight? So that means we’re…My mind won’t do simple math. I’m too distracted.

I trip my fingers back towards hers, hitting random notes along the way. She slides her hand back to meet me. Our fingers brush somewhere just south of the note I called “normal.”

“Can we play that piece of a song now?” I ask.

“If you haven’t forgotten it.” Her facial expressions are still too hard to read, but I’m starting to recognize a little glint in her eyes that means she’s joking.

“Of course not!” I say, and then realize I could have faked forgetting it and she would have shown me again, with her hand over mine.  But that would be lame, right?

“Then we can play,” she says, “But only if you stop shaking. I’m starting to think you’re afraid of me.”

“Not in the least.” I smile up at her. I know what I’m saying isn’t entirely true. On the scale of “fear” to “not fear,” I am still a middle note.

“Then you have to warm up,” she says. With her bird-claw hand, she pulls the edge of her curtain cape around me, resting her claws on my shoulders.

I stiffen. The bird hand is so strange, the talons so curved and sharp.

But I don’t let myself flinch away. I let myself feel it, warm and dry, the skin like scales. This must be what it feels like to touch a dragon.


I nod. Together, we play: me haltingly thumping the chords, her patiently picking out the notes. It’s timed all wrong, the notes banging up against each other, like knocking teeth on a first kiss.