A potentially compelling historical fantasy that sadly squanders its sense of place.

NOVEMBER IN SALEM

THE BARGAIN OF WITCHES

From the November Series series , Vol. 2

Russell’s (Death of an H.O.E., 2013, etc.) YA fantasy novel, the first in a planned series, sends three middle schoolers on a quest through time to prevent a dark bargain that’s been centuries in the making.

When her mother and stepfather leave the country, seventh-grader November Atwood is sent to Danvers, Massachusetts, to live with her late father’s sisters and her 12-year-old twin cousins, Jeffrey and Stephen Atwood; the latter is nicknamed “Hawk” after the scientist Stephen Hawking, with whom he shares both a love of quantum physics and the use of a wheelchair. Near the abandoned State Asylum, the three tweens dig up an old wooden box; it contains a cryptic document, dated “In the second year of the reign of our Sovereign King William III,” or 1700. It includes the mysterious instruction to “Go beneath the stones of Hathorne / On The Eve of Hollandtide.” As they puzzle over what this statement could mean, they’re startled by the sudden appearance of November’s supposedly imaginary friend, Dynnis, who explains that the three Atwood children are part of a line of magic users destined to break the Bargain, a more than 300-year-old blood oath that will otherwise doom their town. But can they overcome the ancient evil of the demon called Astaroth, and save their family’s past and future? Russell’s exciting premise promises to connect the well-known story of the Salem witches with the history of the real-life Danvers State Hospital. Unfortunately, the details of these local legends are soon replaced by a standard tale of good vs. evil, and the use of Celtic lore seems irrelevant to the setting. This aspect is particularly disappointing because Russell’s writing is often vivid, incorporating not just visuals but sound and even scent: “it stunk of mildew, rotted plaster, and wood, but there was something more. This smell was almost sweet—like stale gingerbread.” It’s worth noting, though, that November’s narration is frequently ableist until late in the novel: “Up until now I’d done a pretty good job avoiding anyone in a wheelchair. I didn’t even make eye contact with them in public places.”

A potentially compelling historical fantasy that sadly squanders its sense of place.

Pub Date: May 26, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4401-1900-2

Page Count: 358

Publisher: Tiny Cottage Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 10, 2017

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally...

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NINTH HOUSE

Yale’s secret societies hide a supernatural secret in this fantasy/murder mystery/school story.

Most Yale students get admitted through some combination of impressive academics, athletics, extracurriculars, family connections, and donations, or perhaps bribing the right coach. Not Galaxy “Alex” Stern. The protagonist of Bardugo’s (King of Scars, 2019, etc.) first novel for adults, a high school dropout and low-level drug dealer, Alex got in because she can see dead people. A Yale dean who's a member of Lethe, one of the college’s famously mysterious secret societies, offers Alex a free ride if she will use her spook-spotting abilities to help Lethe with its mission: overseeing the other secret societies’ occult rituals. In Bardugo’s universe, the “Ancient Eight” secret societies (Lethe is the eponymous Ninth House) are not just old boys’ breeding grounds for the CIA, CEOs, Supreme Court justices, and so on, as they are in ours; they’re wielders of actual magic. Skull and Bones performs prognostications by borrowing patients from the local hospital, cutting them open, and examining their entrails. St. Elmo’s specializes in weather magic, useful for commodities traders; Aurelian, in unbreakable contracts; Manuscript goes in for glamours, or “illusions and lies,” helpful to politicians and movie stars alike. And all these rituals attract ghosts. It’s Alex’s job to keep the supernatural forces from embarrassing the magical elite by releasing chaos into the community (all while trying desperately to keep her grades up). “Dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.” A townie’s murder sets in motion a taut plot full of drug deals, drunken assaults, corruption, and cover-ups. Loyalties stretch and snap. Under it all runs the deep, dark river of ambition and anxiety that at once powers and undermines the Yale experience. Alex may have more reason than most to feel like an imposter, but anyone who’s spent time around the golden children of the Ivy League will likely recognize her self-doubt.

With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally dazzling sequels.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31307-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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