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Best YA Historical Fiction of 2018

A dense story with rich associative leaps, the novel will prompt discussions about race, class, sexuality, and gender.

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IRON RIVER

Haunted by nightmares and the dangers of life in a Los Angeles barrio, Manuel Maldonado Jr.’s courageous testimony forever changes his community.

Born with a port-wine stain that earns him the nickname “Man-On-Fire,” 12-year-old Manny plays with a group of three friends in the shadow of the Pacific Railroad in the late 1950s. He and his buddies engage in dangerous games along the tracks, throwing oranges at hobos who ride on the cars. When they find a dead body and run into trouble with a crooked policeman, they seem destined for juvenile detention. With the return of an uncle from prison, a drug-ridden hometown, and a racist cop on the loose, Manny’s small circle of friends and family is his only safety net. In the wake of another death, a secret comes to light, leading the way to forgiveness in his family. A story about a sensitive Mexican boy in a multicultural community that also includes Japanese-Americans and African-Americans, the novel treats difficult themes with hope. “I’m telling you this now because I don’t know when I’m going to die,” our young narrator says at the beginning of the novel. By the end of the story, readers will understand the obstacles thrown in the paths of youths from disadvantaged communities.

A dense story with rich associative leaps, the novel will prompt discussions about race, class, sexuality, and gender. (Historical fiction. 12-18)

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-941026-93-9

Page Count: 225

Publisher: Cinco Puntos

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

A must-read for fans of heart-wrenching, sob-your-heart-out YA.

THE BIRD AND THE BLADE

A Mongol slave must choose between escaping her captivity and saving the man she loves.

When the Chinese Song dynasty is conquered by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty in 1279, Jinghua is enslaved by the Khipchak khanate. In autumn of 1280, the khanate itself is overthrown by enemy forces, and the exiled Timur Khan and his youngest son, Prince Khalaf, must flee. Jinghua joins their fugitive party disguised as a boy. Traveling across the vast Mongol Empire, Khalaf finds comfort in Jinghua’s companionship, and they bond over Hanyu (Mandarin Chinese) lessons and poetry as, against her better judgment, she falls in love with him. Alas, Khalaf devises a plan of last resort to save his kingdom—he will marry Turandokht (yes, as in Puccini’s Turandot), the beautiful but heartless daughter of the Great Khan; however, potential suitors must solve three riddles or face execution. With Khalaf’s life at stake, Jinghua must prove her mettle, even if it means sacrificing the one thing that she holds most dear. Though the tale is ancient and epic, this is a fast-paced page-turner. Thorough research helps build a believable 13th-century Mongolia, and the Romanized Mandarin Chinese is used precisely, right down to the tonal inflections. Lavish, sweeping, and powerful, this is a love story, tragicomedy, and history lesson rolled into one.

A must-read for fans of heart-wrenching, sob-your-heart-out YA. (cast of characters, map, historical notes, author’s note, glossary) (Historical fiction. 12-18)

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-267415-9

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

A stunning and compassionate portrait of a young woman fighting to retain her sense of self under a repressive regime.

THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYES

In 1980s East Germany, where everyone is always watching, all Lena Altmann wants to do is disappear.

After her parents die in a factory accident, Lena has a nervous breakdown, drops out of high school, and is taken in by her Aunt Adelheid, the widow of a high-ranking member of the Communist Party. Auntie does her best to take care of Lena, securing her a coveted position as a night janitor at the headquarters of the Stasi, or secret police. Although she knows she should be grateful, Lena hates the job, not only because it makes people fear her, but also because an officer she nicknames Herr Dreck (Mr. Filth) sexually assaults her in his office every night. The only person who makes Lena happy is her Uncle Erich, a writer. When he disappears, a devastated Lena knows she must risk everything to find out what really happened to him. The narrative pulses with suspense due to a skillfully rendered cast of characters that are repeatedly forced to choose between preserving their humanity or their lives. The rich historical details plunge readers into a chillingly realistic world where it is impossible for citizens to trust each other and in which Lena struggles with mental illness, sexual assault, and grief.

A stunning and compassionate portrait of a young woman fighting to retain her sense of self under a repressive regime. (Historical fiction. 16-adult)

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-77321-071-1

Page Count: 354

Publisher: Annick Press

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

Victor, Victoria and Shakespeare in Love: Meet your thrilling new sister. Or brother.

AN ASSASSIN'S GUIDE TO LOVE & TREASON

A spy for the queen and a vengeful Catholic intent on regicide bend genders and battle their lovesick hearts in Elizabethan England.

When Katherine’s father (a Catholic and therefore heretic) is killed by order of Queen Elizabeth I, Katherine escapes and, assuming the male identity of Kit Alban, stage actor, vows to avenge his death. Toby is a royal spy, intercepting coded letters, unraveling secrets, and unveiling traitors (it was his skill that unearthed Katherine’s father’s plot to kill the queen). Besotted with power and Toby’s dreamy blue eyes, HRH enlists him to ensnare her would-be-assassin. His solution? Bait the zealot with a role in Twelfth Night, to be performed mere feet from the monarch. Kit and a team of co-conspiring Catholics bite, arming Kit with a dagger and little hope for escape. Enter stage right: unexpected attraction between Toby and Kit. The first-person, present-tense dual narration of Kit/Katherine and Toby shows their tandem turmoil of pretense: hiding true missions, veiling sexual identity and orientation (Toby is bisexual), simultaneously hoping to actualize and be unfettered from their mutual affection. Though the author’s note declares liberties in storytelling, the meticulous design and execution make it read as a scrumptious slice of history. The conflicts of religion, sexuality, class, and gender identity are apropos to contemporary times.

Victor, Victoria and Shakespeare in Love: Meet your thrilling new sister. Or brother. (author’s note, maps, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 12-adult)

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-32734-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

A necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora—an introduction to its brokenness and a place to start healing.

DREAM COUNTRY

Gibney (See No Color, 2015) skillfully navigates centuries of colonial violence, emphasizing the importance of privileging impact over intention in historical texts.

A comprehensive, but not entirely cohesive, timeline introduces a family beginning in 1827 at a plantation in Virginia. The story moves through the brutal colonization of Liberia, detailed further in the backmatter, by Europeans alongside white Americans and freed or escaped black slaves and ends with the prescient voice of Angel, a “black-African-queer” woman in present-day Minnesota. Gibney creates clear voices for her characters, most strikingly with 16-year-old Kollie, a Liberian refugee whose experience at his high school explores a microcosm of real discord between African-Americans and immigrants or refugees from myriad African countries living in the U.S. The naming of specific tribes in what became Liberia, and the inclusion of traditional proverbs alongside quotations from African-American writers, further spotlights the complicated, ever intertwined existences of black people all over the world. A nuanced focus on Liberia through the perspective of this one family, five generations described in five parts, therefore becomes a moving and melancholic metaphor for the struggle for place and home experienced by those still trapped by the legacy of the triangle of trans-Atlantic trade.

A necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora—an introduction to its brokenness and a place to start healing. (author’s note, further resources, timeline) (Historical fiction. 15-adult)

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-3167-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

An empowering and energetic adventure that celebrates friendship between women.

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THE LADY'S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACY

Felicity Montague fights to take up space in a world that demands she remain invisible.

Barred from study at hospitals and universities because of her sex, Felicity chases her dreams of medical study from London all the way to Stuttgart, where her idol, Alexander Platt, an expert in preventative medicine, plans to marry before embarking on an expedition. Without any money of her own since she ran away from home, white English girl Felicity must rely on Sim, an Algerian Muslim woman with connections to piracy and secret motives. To make matters worse, Platt’s fiancee, Johanna Hoffman, also white, used to be Felicity’s best friend until falling out over their changing interests. As in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (2017), Stonewall Honor recipient Lee (Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World, 2018, etc.) develops a world rich in historical detail, crafts a plot wild with unexpected turns, and explores complex topics like colonization and identity. Felicity’s brother, Monty, and his boyfriend, Percy, play smaller roles in this volume; the story focuses on the relationships between Felicity, Sim, and Johanna as the three women fight their own battles for respect and recognition within societal systems built to suppress them. Traveling alongside Sim and Johanna challenges Felicity to acknowledge the flaws of her not-like-other-girls self-image and realize that strength comes in more than one form.

An empowering and energetic adventure that celebrates friendship between women. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279532-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

A brilliant blend of historical fact and artistic license.

MY NAME IS VICTORIA

Historian Worsley’s (Jane Austen at Home, 2017, etc.) second novel for young adults puts a unique spin on Queen Victoria’s childhood and path to the throne.

Miss Victoria Conroy, daughter of Sir John Conroy, the royal comptroller, is going to London to be a companion for Her Royal Highness the Princess Victoria. The 11-year-old “Miss V” finds the prospect of meeting the princess and living at Kensington Palace both thrilling and terrifying. However, the quiet, obedient, and shy Miss V is surprised to find that the possible future queen of England is dirty, boisterous, and prone to tantrums. Claiming he has Victoria’s best interests at heart, Miss V’s father has devised the oppressive Kensington System ostensibly to protect the princess from would-be assassins. As the years pass, the girls grow closer, and Miss V discovers her father is using the System to feed his own hunger for power. Miss V’s duty is to the princess, and it’s up to her to beat the System and help ensure that Victoria takes her rightful place on the throne at 18. Contemporary customs and royal politics round out the narrative to provide an intriguing glimpse into the girlhood of one of the most powerful women in European history as imagined by one of Britain’s most popular historians.

A brilliant blend of historical fact and artistic license. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 12-adult)

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7636-8807-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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