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A divine and diverting fantasy with an enthralling world and cast.

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In Sweeney’s epic YA debut, an Alabama tween lands in a magical place where he clashes with agents of Darkness.

Twelve-year-old Jesse Walker doesn’t know what to make of the letter in his backpack. It’s in his mother’s handwriting, but she died two years earlier from a terminal illness. And the letter certainly sounds familiar, referencing the Land of Miriam, the same mysterious kingdom his mother talked about in her last days, “babbling on about magic and battles of good and evil and her brother, the king.” Though Jesse dismisses most of what she said, he soon understands there may have been some truth to it, starting with the “Thwacker” that shows up in his bedroom. This humanoid, fur-covered “beast,” named Barrington, is friendly and takes the boy to Miriam. As it happens, the kingdom is in serious danger: Sinister black-eyed beings called the Gors have kidnapped the teenage Princess Eonia, who’s the key to unlocking the Book of Good and Evil.(The princess is a magic-wielding Magus; the Gors are Magi who have succumbed to the Dark.) If the Gors unlock the book (which they’ll have to find first), the Agents of Light (the Magi) will no longer be able to keep Darkness at bay. Now that Jesse is in Miriam, he must rescue Princess Eonia from captivity. He quickly learns more about the magical kingdom, including things his mother never told him about. With help from Thwackers and a host of dragons—and by tapping into his own, not-quite-realized power—Jesse might be able to thwart the Dark’s diabolical plan.

Sweeney excels at worldbuilding. It’s disappointing there aren’t more Alabama-set scenes featuring such great characters as Jesse’s best friend, Irvin McMurtry, and the Walker family’s housekeeper, Sophia; Miriam, however, is a memorable locale, from the swampy remote island of “grueling heat” where Eonia is held captive to the serene, forested Tanglewood, where the Thwackers live. Barrington is just one of a number of colorful creatures, including winged horses with horned noses; big, wormlike crawlies that are as creepy as they sound; and kooboo, which resemble deer. Even dragons, a fantasy staple, manage to stand out in this novel: Some species are Dark agents, but others, who don’t necessarily fly or breathe fire, prove to be benevolent, courageous beings. An unmistakable religious theme grounds the narrative; the Gors’ unnaturally “mangled” features (like a vertical mouth or an ear that winds up on a chin) are manifestations of sin, and several characters on the side of Light believe in and pray to a god. The author maintains a steady momentum with periodic action sequences while mixing in a bit of mystery, particularly regarding both Jesse’s and Eonia’s importance to the Book of Good and Evil. The book sadly has only a few examples of Jackson’s artwork—the black-and-white illustrations are simple but detailed, especially one depicting Jesse and a couple of Thwackers standing at a tree hut in Tanglewood. The book easily works as a stand-alone novel, though a smashing denouement leaves the story open for possible sequels.

A divine and diverting fantasy with an enthralling world and cast.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2023

ISBN: 9781649601308

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Emerald House Group, Inc.

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2024

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A heavy read about the harsh realities of tragedy and their effects on those left behind.

In this companion novel to 2013’s If He Had Been With Me, three characters tell their sides of the story.

Finn’s narrative starts three days before his death. He explores the progress of his unrequited love for best friend Autumn up until the day he finally expresses his feelings. Finn’s story ends with his tragic death, which leaves his close friends devastated, unmoored, and uncertain how to go on. Jack’s section follows, offering a heartbreaking look at what it’s like to live with grief. Jack works to overcome the anger he feels toward Sylvie, the girlfriend Finn was breaking up with when he died, and Autumn, the girl he was preparing to build his life around (but whom Jack believed wasn’t good enough for Finn). But when Jack sees how Autumn’s grief matches his own, it changes their understanding of one another. Autumn’s chapters trace her life without Finn as readers follow her struggles with mental health and balancing love and loss. Those who have read the earlier book will better connect with and feel for these characters, particularly since they’ll have a more well-rounded impression of Finn. The pain and anger is well written, and the novel highlights the most troublesome aspects of young adulthood: overconfidence sprinkled with heavy insecurities, fear-fueled decisions, bad communication, and brash judgments. Characters are cued white.

A heavy read about the harsh realities of tragedy and their effects on those left behind. (author’s note, content warning) (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781728276229

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2024

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From the Powerless Trilogy series , Vol. 1

A lackluster and sometimes disturbing mishmash of overused tropes.

The Plague has left a population divided between Elites and Ordinaries—those who have powers and those who don’t; now, an Ordinary teen fights for her life.

Paedyn Gray witnessed the king kill her father five years ago, and she’s been thieving and sleeping rough ever since, all while faking Psychic abilities. When she inadvertently saves the life of Prince Kai, she becomes embroiled in the Purging Trials, a competition to commemorate the sickness that killed most of the kingdom’s Ordinaries. Kai’s duties as the future Enforcer include eradicating any remaining Ordinaries, and these Trials are his chance to prove that he’s internalized his brutal training. But Kai can’t help but find Pae’s blue eyes, silver hair, and unabashed attitude enchanting. She likewise struggles to resist his stormy gray eyes, dark hair, and rakish behavior, even as they’re pitted against each other in the Trials and by the king himself. Scenes and concepts that are strongly reminiscent of the Hunger Games fall flat: They aren’t bolstered by the original’s heart or worldbuilding logic that would have justified a few extreme story elements. Illogical leaps and inconsistent characterizations abound, with lighthearted romantic interludes juxtaposed against genocide, child abuse, and sadism. These elements, which are not sufficiently addressed, combined with the use of ableist language, cannot be erased by any amount of romantic banter. Main characters are cued white; the supporting cast has some brown-skinned characters.

A lackluster and sometimes disturbing mishmash of overused tropes. (map) (Fantasy. 14-18)

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2023

ISBN: 9798987380406

Page Count: 538

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 9, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2023

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