A dreamlike, poetic fantasy bildungsroman explores the power of choice and the meaning of home.
Marni has lived 16 years in a hut near the magic-haunted woods, growing flowers for the nobility with her grandfather. But Gramps was once the king—before his daughter ran away to the woods only to return with a baby rumored to be “the dragon’s daughter,” before Gramps gave up everything to protect Marni from her murderous uncle. Now Gramps is gone, and the king’s court has noticed that his only heir is an unmarried girl...and the woods are invading the kingdom, calling Marni to return. A fully satisfying fairy tale, this can also be read as an elegant metaphor for adolescence, as Marni is tempted in turn by obscurity, power, vengeance, romance and (most seductive) the freedom of eternal childhood. Her vivid narration is rustic and even coarse at times. She is bitterly resentful of her unjust treatment but also aching with loneliness and lyrically passionate about the beauty of nature and magic alike, and she is always perceptive, acute and honest. Torn between human and dragon, Marni (unlike too many otherwise “strong” teen heroines) fiercely maintains her own agency. Thoughtful readers will embrace the ambiguous conclusion and appreciate the triumph of Marni’s commitment to keeping her possibilities open.
Deliberate at first, Hahn’s debut is cumulatively stunning.
(Fantasy. 12 & up)
This far-future science-fiction sequel skips tired genre tropes to offer a fresh and thrilling adventure about hazardous archaeological excavation, a mystery in the sky and a potential threat to all of humanity.
It’s 2789. People portal between planets in seconds, often many times per day—except the Handicapped, like Jarra, whose immune systems can survive only on Earth. After her recent life-threatening work helping rescue the crew of a crashed spacecraft (Earth Girl, 2013), she plans to continue studying prehistory by excavating sites of long-dead cities. But before the next dig begins, Jarra and boyfriend Fian are whisked off to a military base and inexplicably sworn in as officers. An unidentified alien sphere is hovering above Africa. Are the aliens hostile? Is their technology superior or archaic? Jarra’s skills, intelligence and courage are both exciting and believable. She evacuates Earth’s Handicapped residents to underground caverns; she solves puzzles about the sphere; she grapples with layers of anti-Handicapped hatefulness; and she becomes a hero again—all due to smarts and hard work, not destiny. Explosions, serious injuries, death and suspense mesh with fizzy romance that includes some sparkling gender-role reversal. Nitty-gritty archaeology details are vivid, and easy slang creates color (“Twoing” is dating; “amaz” means amazing). Edwards shows that speculative fiction needn’t be dystopic, conspiracy-filled or love-triangled to be riveting and satisfying.
Destined to destroy the evil overlord, the chosen one adjusts to a disappointing life after his friend does the job instead.
The prophecy stated that Ewan Mao was the one who would kill the tyrant Duff Slan. He spent years training for when the time would come to dispatch the dark lord who had been ruling Britain with an iron fist. But when the final battle took place, Ewan's best friend, Oliver Abrams, dealt the killing blow. Five years later, Ewan is a footnote in Oliver's story, working in a crummy coffee shop while Oliver swiftly rises through the ranks of the local police force. Anger and jealousy have festered, and when a secret society approaches Ewan with an opportunity to take Oliver down a peg, Ewan quickly accepts. Ewan and Oliver's friendship-cum-rivalry offers true pathos, exploring a bond that was supposed to be stronger than steel but that may now be twisted and damaged beyond repair. Claiborne serves up more than just a clever inversion of the "Chosen One" narrative trope by perfectly balancing satire and genuine affection for the genre made popular by Rowling's series. Those hoping for a Harry Potter sequel and constantly checking Pottermore for updates would do well to put this book on the tops of their to-read piles.
A smart, funny and emotionally engaging tale perfect for any reader who longs for another train ride to Hogwarts.
(Fantasy. 12 & up)
A teenage sorceress without magic attempts to solve a murder in a cave full of killers. What could possibly go wrong?
Deemed expendable due to her rapidly dwindling power, Ileni is sent to the Assassins’ Caves to teach magic—and secretly to investigate the sudden deaths of the previous tutors dispatched there. Resigned to her task (and likely murder), Ileni despises the assassins and all their works yet is also reluctantly drawn to the unexpected grace and even joy in their lives, as well as their selfless dedication to a greater purpose. Cypess has a talent for bringing freshness and depth to tired tropes; her lyrical prose and understated imagery evoke the claustrophobic caverns and the unbearable stress of ever-present danger. Ileni, with her complex blend of intelligence, arrogance, longing, despair and determination, is an exceptionally vibrant heroine. While her delicately passionate romance with her assassin bodyguard appears uncomfortably close to Stockholm syndrome, it also encapsulates the constant tension between popular perceptions of assassins as awesome and sexy superninjas and as callous, mercenary, bloodthirsty thugs. As her constricted surroundings paradoxically result in a more nuanced appreciation of the wider world, Ileni gradually learns the difference among those things worth killing for, worth dying for and worth living for.
A thoughtful exploration of identity and responsibility wrapped in a twisty, suspenseful mystery and set in a gorgeously realized fantasy world.
(Fantasy/mystery. 12 & up)
Nalia lives in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, a glittering world of parties and fast cars. She can have anything she wants—except her freedom.
Nalia is “just another jinni on the dark caravan” of the slave trade, forced to spend her days granting wishes on behalf of her human master, Malek, in order to advance his wealth and power. Nalia was trafficked in a bottle from her home realm of Arjinna to Earth after a coup wiped out her entire caste. She is the only surviving Ghan Aisouri, a royal knight and the heir to the Arjinnan throne. Arjinna is now under the martial law of the ruthless Ifrit, the lowest and most despised caste, and all that matters to Nalia is returning home to rescue her 8-year-old brother from the brutal Ifrit work camps—but Nalia can only be free when Malek makes his third and final wish. Enter Raif, sexy leader of the revolution in Arjinna, who makes her an offer; Nalia must decide whether she’ll break her most sacred vow to save the person she loves most, but she’ll pay any price to be her own mistress. The story unfolds at a swift, even pace, and the worldbuilding is superb; the jinn inhabit an intoxicating, richly realized realm of magic, politics, spirituality and history.
Readers will wish they had a jinni to grant them the next book in the series.
(Fantasy. 15 & up)
The first in a deliciously macabre trilogy for middle graders and young teens channels Dickens crossed with Lemony Snicket.
The Iremongers made their fortune scavenging the discards of London, and now the enormous extended family resides in the eponymous agglomerated mansion surrounded by feral rubbish heaps. Sickly Clod Iremonger, on the cusp of being “trousered” and saddled with adult responsibilities, is distrusted for his queer talent: He hears voices from those assorted “birth objects” (including his own sink plug) to which every member of the household is bonded for life. But now the objects are going astray, there are reports of an ominous Gathering, and storms are brewing in the heaps. When Clod teams up with the spunky servant Lucy Pennant, the sinister heritage of the Iremongers can no longer be concealed. Morbid black-and-white portraits reminiscent of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey punctuate a Gothic tale in turns witty, sweet, thoughtful and thrilling—but always off-kilter—and penned with gorgeous, loopy prose just this side of precious. The malevolent setting and delightfully loathsome cast highlight the odd likability of Lucy, so gleefully felonious and brash, and poor, strange, diffident Clod, whom she inspires to genuine heroism. Suspense and horror gradually accumulate into an avalanche of a climax, leading to the most precipitous of cliffhangers, yet what lingers are uncomfortable questions about treating things—and people—as disposable.
Hope for a promising epilepsy treatment brought Leilani, 16, and Mike, her ecologist father, to Honolulu; when a global catastrophe plunges the world’s most isolated metropolitan area into chaos, they’re desperate to return to family on the Big Island of Hawaii—it won’t be easy.
Lei—half-Hawaiian, half-white—still feels like an outsider three years after moving from California to Hilo. Nevertheless, her island heritage speaks to her and could be the key to understanding the cataclysmic technological disruptions changing the world. Satellite-based GPS and other electronic communications systems fail, and only well-heeled tourists can buy their ways home. To combat mounting chaos, the military herds those at large, including Leilani and Mike, into internment camps. Leilani’s seizures carry voices to her, while an alarming discovery makes her quest to unravel their message and escape from the camp increasingly urgent. Seeking home drains their dwindling resources but strengthens their trust in each other. Flashes of kindness and empathy provide respite from the chaos and cruelty. Anchoring the story, the powerful bond between father and daughter reminds readers that love is as potent as fear and greed. Aslan’s debut honors Hawaii’s unique cultural strengths—family ties and love of home, amplified by geography and history—while remaining true to a genre that affirms the mysterious grandeur of the universe waiting to be discovered.
A suspenseful and engaging series opener made all the more distinctive through its careful realization of setting.
(Science fiction. 12 & up)
Lacing traditional fairy tales through real-life perils, Heppermann produces short poems with raw pain, scathing commentary and fierce liberation. There’s no linear arc; instead, girls buck and fight and hurt. One poem takes the expression “You Go, Girl!” literally, banishing anyone with “wetness, dryness, tightness, looseness, / redness, yellowing, blackheads, whiteheads, the blues.” In a structure heartbreakingly inverted from “The Three Little Pigs” (and nodding to “Rumpelstiltskin”), one girl’s body goes from “a house of bricks, / point guard on the JV team” to “a house of sticks, / kindling in Converse high-tops,” until finally “she’s building herself out of straw / as light as the needle swimming in her bathroom scale. / The smaller the number, the closer to gold.” She’s her own wolf, destroying herself. Sexual repression, molestation and endless beauty judgments bite and sting, causing eating disorders, self-injury, internalization of rules—and rebellion. A hypothetical miller’s daughter says, “No, I can’t spin that room full of straw into gold. / …. / No, I can’t give you the child; / the child will never exist.” Gretel’s act of eating will literally rescue Hansel; Red Riding Hood reclaims sexual agency, declaring, “If that woodsman shows up now, / I will totally kick his ass.”
Full of razors that cut—and razors to cut off shackles: a must.
(author’s note, index of first lines, index of photographs)
After four years in Hell, Mitchell thinks he’s found a way to escape by going back in time and preventing his death. Inside Hell’s vast bureaucracy, he works as an intern to Septimus in the accounting department. It seems that most souls go to Hell rather than Up There, as the damned call Heaven. Hell is becoming seriously overcrowded and has financial issues. When Mitchell learns that Septimus has possession of the Viciseomater, a pocket-watch–like time-travel device, he unites with almost-girlfriend Medusa and best friends Alfarin, a Viking prince from the year 970, and his girlfriend, Elinor, who died in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The team first lands in New York and checks into the Plaza. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go according to plan, and the group begins to sense that some nasty characters from Hell are after them. Hosie writes with a decidedly wry comic style even as she unfolds her dramatic story. The worst job in Hell, cleaning out the ground-floor toilets, is reserved, for example, for reality TV stars. For all the story’s lightness, she doesn’t ignore the ever present problem of paradox: What happens if these characters succeed in preventing their own deaths?
Just outstanding fun for those who enjoy snarky comedy and suspense.
(Paranormal suspense. 12-18)
In an alternate world where humans and dragons battle over fossil fuels, the tale of one slayer and his bard becomes a celebration of friendship, family, community and calling.
Once, every village had its own dragon slayer, but those days are long gone; now, slayers are drafted by governments or sponsored by corporations. Sixteen-year-old Owen Thorskard, scion of a renowned line, wants to help reverse that—starting with the rural Canadian town of Trondheim. While Owen is brave, dedicated and likable, this story really belongs to Siobhan McQuaid, dauntless bard-in-training. In her witty account, Siobhan learns alongside Owen from his heroic aunt and her blacksmith wife, schemes with classmates to create local Dragon Guards and enlists the entire county in a daring scheme to attack the dragons’ own turf. Humor, pathos and wry social commentary unite in a cleverly drawn, marvelously diverse world. Refreshingly, the focus is on the pair as friends and partners, not on potential romance; Siobhan places as much emphasis on supporting her allies as extolling Owen’s deeds. Smart enough to both avoid unnecessary danger and be scared when appropriate, they prove all the more valiant when tragic sacrifices have to be made.
It may “[take] a village to train a dragon slayer,” but it takes an exceptional dragon slayer to deserve a village—and a storyteller—like this one.
Irish fantasist Kiernan (The Poison Throne, 2010, etc.) explores the dynamics of love and loss.
In 1974, 15-year-old identical twins Pat and Dom move with their family into a drab summer cottage after their senile grandmother inadvertently burns down their house. Nerves still raw from the disruption of their lives and the loss of their home, the twins start to have strange dreams. Then Pat hears Dom talking in the night and sees a goblin-boy peering down from the bunk above him. The harrowing series of events that follows convinces Pat that he’s losing his brother: Dom becomes possessed by a 10-year-old boy stuck in a gray fog that’s neither this world nor the next, endlessly searching for his twin, a soldier who died in the trenches of World War I. Pat’s narration is marked by vivid descriptions and consistently polished, well-paced prose: “Yesterday morning, I’d had a brother. I’d had a best friend. He’d been fun. He’d been interesting: my slow-burn, articulate counterweight. Now I was lopsided, a boat with one paddle, rowing frantically and spinning in a slow, maddening circle around the space that should have been him.” The otherworldly goings-on are grounded in the family lives of the village their Nan grew up in, adding intriguing nuances to the psychological drama.
A gripping, highly original ghost story.
(Fantasy. 12 & up)
An indictment of our times with a soupçon of magical realism.
The daughter of a gifted photographer who spun out Sylvia Plath–style, Glory seems bent on following in her mother’s footsteps in more ways than one as she finishes high school. But after Glory and her lifelong frenemy and neighbor Ellie make a reckless late-night decision, they are cast headlong into a spell that allows them to see the pasts and the futures of the people who cross their paths, stretching many generations in both directions, and Glory’s life changes course. As with King’s other protagonists (Please Ignore Vera Dietz, 2010; Reality Boy, 2013), Glory’s narration is simultaneously bitter, prickly, heartbreaking, inwardly witty and utterly familiar, even as the particulars of her predicament are unique. The focus on photography provides both apt metaphors and nimble plot devices as Glory starts writing down her visions in order to warn future Americans about the doom she foresees: a civil war incited by a governmental agenda of misogyny. Glory’s chilling visions of the sinister dystopia awaiting the United States are uncomfortably believable in this age of frustrated young men filling “Pickup Artist” forums with misogynistic rhetoric and inexperienced young women filling Tumblrs with declarations of “I don’t need feminism because….”
With any luck, Glory’s notebook will inspire a new wave of activists.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
Two girls switch identities while colliding with Baba Yaga and the Firebird in Czarist Russia.
Elena, a child of rural Russian poverty in the town of Miersk, is desperate to help her ailing mother and to recover her older brothers, Alexei, at work for another family, and Luka, conscripted into the czar’s army. Her determined journey finds her life suddenly swapped with that of Ekaterina, also 13, a daughter of privilege. Plot details include a pilgrimage to Saint Petersburg to meet the czar and his godson, Prince Anton, a Fabergé egg, a Firebird’s egg, a legacy of matryoshka dolls, and the powerful presence and proclamations of Baba Yaga. Maguire, a veteran writer of reimagined traditional tales for a new world, jauntily explores themes no less profound than hunger and satiety, class and influence, and the sharing of resources in a world wracked by climate change. While not without flaws—a bit protracted, cluttered, overly grand and infused with some metafictive moments that occasionally take the reader out of the story—this is an epic rich with references, aphorisms and advice.
An ambitious, Scheherazade-ian novel, rather like a nesting-doll set of stories, that succeeds in capturing some of the complexities of both Russia and life itself.
(Historical fantasy. 12 & up)
Punk street kid Cass runs away with sheltered pianist Maia in the lyrical stand-alone prequel to All Our Pretty Songs (2013).
The intimate third-person narrative perspective alternates fluidly between the two girls’ voices, as well as between “Now”—as the girls take a breathless, speed-fueled road trip down the West Coast—and “Then”—as they become friends and Maia decides to leave her stifling, sterile home. Readers of All Our Pretty Songs will know that Cass and Maia retain their close bond as adults, that both have daughters and that Maia, after a tragedy, stays lost in a drugged haze. But these fates are only gently alluded to here. Instead, readers see a skeletal red-eyed Hades figure, grimly recognizable even to readers unfamiliar with Cass and Maia’s futures. He haunts Cass’ dreams, demanding a terrible bargain and waiting with an eerie patience until Cass is vulnerable enough to give him what he asks. The prose is exquisitely crafted, moving effortlessly from dizzying to heartbreaking. Each setting—an exhaustingly filthy punk house, the New York street where Maia’s hermitlike father suddenly comes to life, the Mexican beach town where the girls’ road trip ends—is vibrantly constructed through careful detail and spare but evocative prose.
A breathtaking companion volume, fully readable on its own and devastating in the context of its predecessor.
(Urban fantasy. 14-18)
A Sherlock Holmes–style adventure featuring the egotistical and eccentric R.F. Jackaby and his bewildered but invaluable assistant, Abigail Rook.
Inspired by her father’s paleontological expeditions and frustrated by her mother’s expectations of femininity, Abigail arrives in the New England city of New Fiddleham with a suitcase of inappropriate attire and a need for money. She finds employment with the oddball supernatural investigator Jackaby, whose previous assistants have met unfortunate or fowl ends (literally). Aiding Jackaby, flirting with the secretive Detective Charlie Cane, and trying to avoid the wrath of Chief Inspector Marlowe and Commissioner Swift, Abigail discovers that the world is stranger and more dangerous than she ever imagined. Although Abigail is not a seer like Jackaby, able to pierce the glamour of New Fiddleham’s fairy-tale and folklore inhabitants, she learns that to “see the ordinary is extraordinary indeed.” Abigail’s attention to the everyday serves as a foil to Jackaby’s paranormal perception and makes her a refreshingly realistic and agreeable heroine. Secondary characters—including Jackaby’s house—are equally enchanting and well-drawn. Ritter’s debut skillfully blends science with the supernatural and balances whimsy with violence. The smartly paced plot wraps up neatly, but the rich world of this debut demands sequels.
A magical mystery tour de force with a high body count and a list of unusual suspects.
(Paranormal mystery. 12-18)
Rich characterization, exquisite worldbuilding and rock-solid storytelling make this a fantasy of unusual intelligence and depth.
Brilliant and wealthy Lady Kestrel seems destined for either an illustrious military career or a magnificent marriage, but all she cares about is her music—a passion her Valorian culture disdains, almost as much as they despise the Herrani they have enslaved. After Kestrel pays an outrageous sum for the slave Arin, society has even more to gossip about, particularly when Kestrel betrays her growing attachment to him. But Arin harbors his own deadly secrets, and the price might cost Kestrel everything she holds dear. Precise details and elegant prose make this world fresh and vivid. The intricate and suspenseful plot, filled with politics, intrigue and even graphic violence, features neither heroes nor villains; every character displays a complex mixture of talents, flaws and motives. Kestrel is an especially compelling protagonist, both determined and hesitant, honest and manipulative, ferociously observant and painfully naïve. Her bond with Arin develops slowly and naturally from congruent personalities. As much as it informs their choices, neither can (nor wishes to) elevate an impossible romance over loyalty to friends, family or nation. This integrity keeps them apart right through the heartbreaking (yet necessary) conclusion—but also kindles a tiny spark of hope for the next volume in the trilogy.
A meanderingly funny, weirdly compelling and thoroughly brilliant chronicle of “the end of the world, and shit like that.”
This is not your everyday novel of the apocalypse, though it has the essential elements: a (dead) mad scientist, a fabulous underground bunker, voracious giant praying mantises and gobs of messy violence. As narrated by hapless Polish-Iowan sophomore Austin Szerba, though, the “shit like that” and his love for it all take center stage: his family, including his older brother, whose testicles and one leg are blown off in Afghanistan; his mute, perpetually defecating golden retriever; the dead-end town of Ealing, Iowa; his girlfriend, Shann Collins, whom he desperately wants to have sex with; and most importantly, his gay best friend, Robby Brees, to whom he finds himself as attracted as he is to Shann. His preoccupation with sex is pervasive; the unlikeliest things make Austin horny, and his candor in reporting this is endearing. In a cannily disjointed, Vonnegut-esque narrative, the budding historian weaves his account of the giant-insect apocalypse in and around his personal family history and his own odyssey through the hormonal stew that is adolescence. He doesn’t lie, and he is acutely conscious of the paradox that is history: “You could never get everything in a book. / Good books are always about everything.”
By that measure, then, this is a mighty good book. It is about everything that really matters. Plus voracious giant praying mantises. (Science fiction. 14 & up)
As the Raven Boys grow closer to their goal of finding the Welsh king Glendower, not surprisingly, problems arise in this third book of a planned four-volume series.
Blue Sargent’s mother has been missing for three months, leaving behind only a cryptic note. She’s gone underground in search of her former lover, Blue’s dad. Her ex–hit man boyfriend is the only person besides Blue who seems concerned. Meanwhile, the Raven Boys—Gansey, Adam and Ronan, with ghostly Noah now struggling to appear corporeal—and Blue find a mysterious cave guarded by an Appalachian mountain man; inside is indeed an ancient Welsh coffin. Despite Adam’s new understanding that there are three buried sleepers, two to wake, one to leave sleeping, they open the lid, and out pops Gwenllian, the perhaps-not-asleep but long-buried daughter of Glendower. Friend or foe? Oh, and the person who hired the hit man is the boys’ new Latin teacher. Stiefvater weaves these separate threads together with a sure hand until magic seems expected yet never commonplace, always shimmering under the surface. Most credible and moving are the slow maturations of her characters—Adam comes to measure his worth in something other than money; Blue secretly phones Gansey in the night. If she kisses her true love, he will die.
Expect this truly one-of-a-kind series to come to a thundering close.
(Fantasy. 14 & up)