Tag Archives: magic

Akata Witch (Akata Witch #1)

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12-year-old Sunny moved to Nigeria from New York City three years ago. Albino and sensitive to the sun, she can’t do what she wants.  Which is to play football in the sun with her brothers, avoid her father’s temper, and have a friend at school.  But instead, she is left out of the games, beaten by her father when he is displeased with her, and constantly bullied at school for being different.

Until the day after she sees the end of the world in the flame of her candle. Her classmate Orlu sides with her during her daily humiliation at school, standing up to the bullies, and then takes her under his wing.  He suspects what she is and introduces her to Chichi and Sasha and Anatov, and suddenly Sunny learns that all her strangeness and differences mean one thing: she is a Leopard Person, and she has power. Great, mystical power.  As part of this ancient community, she is finally accepted, even sought after, for who she is.

This novel is fantastic. An African-based fantasy in which learning and reading are rewarded, where tradition is interwoven with fantasy and magic, and the main character is an athletic, curious girl who goes against all stereotypes and expectations, without any of it seeming forced.

Sunny has had a life of challenges. She looks different, feels different, and must be treated differently that the other children her age. She has to carry an umbrella to shade her skin from the sun, and her pale brown skin stands out from the ebony of her classmates and family. Her classmates call her “akata” which means “bush animal,” slang for foreign-born blacks.

But when Sunny realizes that she is different, that she has magic and knowledge that is restricted to a very few, she handles it pretty much how any normal 12-year-old would.  She has moments of fear and disbelief, she lets it take over in a moment of anger, she learns the responsibility that comes with it, and she embraces the opportunity to learn and grow.  I love her.  She leads a double life as she studies juju and magic and learns to call her spirit face, all the while still going to school and keeping her new-found abilities a secret from the Lambs, or non-magical population.

All the characters aside from Sunny have distinct personalities and roles which move the story along while building the group of friends into a coven of power.  Chichi is blunt and superior but underneath understanding of Sunny’s reluctance and nervousness. Orlu is the peacemaker and the surprisingly powerful yet humble member of the foursome, while Sasha is the brash American, sent home to Nigeria to keep him out of trouble, which gives him great opportunity to find new mischief.

Leopard Knocks, the gathering place of the Leopard People, is a world within a world and is world-building at its absolute best. Visitors to the mystical town must summon their spirit faces, or true selves, in order to see the bridge that leads in.  Once across it, there are shops and cafes to visit, buildings that look like only magic can keep them from toppling over and the Obi Library containing knowledge and power. The people who both live there and visit understand the power of the Leopard People, and celebrate the differences that make everyone unique.

All the while there is an element of danger just below the surface. Not only is the four’s coven tasked to hunt down a serial killer, but even the training they go through can be deadly. But to counter the darkness is light, falling bronze chittim (magical currency) when a new skill is learned, a football game with other Leopard children that strikes a blow for girls’ rights, and an artist wasp that creates sculpture and craves applause and praise.

I love how author Nnedi Okorafor included Fast Facts for Free Agents, a book-within-a-book that Sunny reads to learn more about the Leopard People and her own powers. Written in a patronizing and arrogant tone, the informative book gives Sunny a starting off point for catching up with all she needs to know about herself, while also providing background for the reader without it seeming like an info dump.

This is a coming-of-age story about a young girl discovering power within herself. Sunny learns what she is capable of even as she learns what it means to be part of a community and family. These are common elements enough to any YA or middle-grade fantasy story, but Okorafor takes them and writes twists to make the story surprising and fresh.

Akata Witch was published April 14th, 2011 by Viking Children’s Press.

Three Dark Crowns (#1)

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Kendare Blake has done it again. This is fantasy and horror at their best.

The island of Fennbirn eagerly awaits its next queen. The inhabitants have been ruled by the Black Council for the past 10 years, but the time is coming for the Queen to take her rightful place. But who will be Queen remains a mystery. For now.

Every royal generation starts as three. Triplets are born to the current Queen, who gives up her Crown and her children and disappears.  The three girls possess magic and are equal heirs to the throne, fostered out from age 6 until the night they turn 16 years old. Then the fight begins. Will it be Katherine the poisoner, Arsinoe the naturalist, or Mirabella, controller of the elements?  The young queens must fight each other in order to claim the crown. Only one can live.

Let me start by saying I AM SO HAPPY THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL!  I will buy the hardcover and put it on my shelf next to this one and build a shrine to the series and look at them every day. (That’s normal, right?? Right. My precious…)

Fantasy requires extensive world building, and in Three Dark Crowns it is fabulous. Thankfully, the novel starts with a detailed map, something every fantasy should have on page one. Add in Blake’s descriptions and the island comes alive, immersing me in each village and manor and gathering place. I visited the forests of Wolf Spring, experienced storms over the cliffs of Rolanth, and watched the Black Council in action at Ingrid Down.

Katherine is the Heir Apparent. The last three generations of Queens have been poisoners. Poisoners are perfectly creepy. They wear only black and ooze attitude and superiority. They turn up their noses at untainted food and enjoy showing off their power by ingesting poisons in all their food and drink. Except Katherine’s gift doesn’t seem to have fully developed. Poison makes her ill. She is weak and thin, and the odds of her winning the Crown seem to slip away with each passing day. Her guardian, Natalia, will not let that happen. Her family has served the poisoner Queens for generations, and she will not let the line end with Katherine.

Arsinoe is the naturalist queen. Picture a hippie commune where everyone talks to animals and hugs trees. Arsinoe should be able to make fruit ripen and blooms grow and fish and game leap to her table. She should have a powerful animal familiar as her companion. Except she suffers from the same fate as her poisoner sister. Her gift has yet to appear. Her best friend Jules is the most powerful naturalist of her generation and strives to cover for Arsinoe’s weaknesses.

Mirabella has the strength that her two sisters lack. Elementalists are self-assured and have swagger. And Mirabella has power. She brings storms and controls fire and commands the waters and the earth. And she is beautiful. But she has her own weakness, one that would put her in danger if ever discovered. Mirabella alone of the three queens remembers their lives together, and misses their companionship. But the hopes of the elementals rest on her powerful shoulders and she cannot fail them.

There are love interests and consorts and backstabbing politics and wonderfully unexpected friendships. I am not usually the biggest fan of the love triangle, but this one  added a whole new layer to the story. Giselle, Pietyr, Sara, Luca, Rho, Joseph, Billy, Bree, Elizabeth and so many more supporting characters add a myriad of relationships throughout, and make the Queens so much more real.

There are twists and turns in the story throughout. And while I loved the entire book, it does take some time to build the characters and relationships, so the pacing is much slower for the first half.  It was the last few chapters that had me turning pages almost before I’d finished reading them. And the ending. Holy crap, the ENDING. I did NOT see any of it coming. What an epic cliffhanger!

If there is one weakness to the novel, it is that the histories of the Goddess and the Queens and the Island are hinted at, but not fully explained. I am hoping more is revealed in the second book.

Read this one. There is violence and gore, and some very PG-13 sex, but is still appropriate for the entire YA range.

Three Dark Crowns was published September 20th, 2016 by HarperTeen.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

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15-year-old Brooklyn teen Alejandra is a bruja, the latest in a long line of witches in her family. But magic doesn’t hold a thrall for her; she has seen the dark side of it far too often. So as her own magic wakens and she realizes her incredible power, she makes the fateful decision to turn her power back to the Deos. Easier said than done. She tries a new canto at her Deathday celebration, and her entire family disappears, banished to Los Lagos.

Her only hope is Nova, the strange new brujo who has mysteriously entered her life and raises only questions with his tattoos and odd behaviours.

I was really looking forward to this one. It was released the day that I finished Shadowshaper, and I was so eager to dive into a culture of which I know next to nothing. The trouble with this story is that I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I wanted to love it, and parts of it I did. It draws on the magic and history of the Latin-American culture, which I found to be brilliant. And another enticing and intoxicating cover. But the execution and the characters felt rushed and thrown together.

I like that it is a diverse cast, including a bisexual main character. And written without stereotypes, just a normal teen. Fantastic.

But. I did not connect with Alejandra. Actually, I did not connect with any of them. Although I can understand the daily turmoil Alejandra went through, her choices were unimaginable. After living her life surrounded by magic, after seeing mysterious death, after being chased by malevolent spirits and almost dying herself and seeing her family scarred, and after realizing that her own powers were immense and out of control, she decides she doesn’t want the power, and attempts dispel it with no idea how to go about it properly? And then she blamed the one person who had warned her not to do it? It makes no sense.

The relationships in the novel never struck me as authentic. No one really seems to know each other (at least of Alejandra’s generation), and I’m not sure that you could date or be friends with a witch of the power displayed by her family and have NO IDEA that something odd is going on.

As for the bisexual element of this story, it just falls flat for me. Alejandra’s relationship with both Rishi and Nova is disappointing. While I am not the biggest fan of the love triangle to begin with, I did think this could be an interesting new approach. But the characters lacked chemistry, and while I applaud the attempt to add diversity to the novel, this feels like an afterthought thrown in. Nova is too much the stereotypical bad boy with the troubled past, and Rishi just lacks spark.

The pacing of the novel is way off. At first, author Zoraida Córdova does a good job building to the big event as Alejandra struggles with her powers, unable to control them, and wanting them gone. But after her family disappears and she has to follow them to Los Lagos to rescue them, the plot seems to slow down and takes one confusing turn after another. The characters make bad decisions, take the wrong path (even though they were warned), trust the wrong characters (again, after being warned), and then all of a sudden *poof* and Alejandra figures out a new aspect of her immense power just in time to correct the mistake. Ten minutes ago, she couldn’t control any of it. It is frustrating, not suspenseful.

I did enjoy the author’s notes at the end of the novel, where Córdova explains what is real, and what is straight out of her imagination. It is a great mix between the two.

So I will say not bad, but it never reached its full potential. And for all that I did not love this story, I seem to be in the minority. Most reviews I have read are glowing, so I do think the book is worth the read, just to see what you think. It is appropriate for the entire YA range.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) was published September 6th, 2016 by Sourcebooks Fire.

Shadowshaper

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OH. This cover. Possibly the most beautiful I have seen in forever, and a perfect representation of what you will find inside.

Brooklyn teen Sierra Santiago is a talented artist and is looking forward to a great summer. The first party of the season is tonight, and then she’ll spend her months off hanging with friends and painting a huge dragon mural on the wall of the abandoned eye-sore of a  building next to the junklot. But everything starts to change when she sees the colours of one mural, a tribute to a friend’s brother who was shot by the police, start to fade, and a tear slide down the face of another. To top it off, the night of the party she is chased down the street by a dead body. Things you don’t tend to see day-to-day, normally.

These fantastical occurrences lead Sierra to the world of shadowshapers – people who call the spirits forth through art and storytelling and music. Sierra had not been aware of her family’s connection to the spirit world, but her brush with danger leads her to question and start digging into the world of the shadowshapers. She find out that not only does her family have a powerful connection to them, but also that someone is using the shadowshaper power for evil, trying to take all their spiritual force, and destroying the ‘shapers and the link to their ancestors.

I am in love. With this story, with Sierra, with Robbie, and with Tee and Izzy and Big Jerome and Manny and the whole cast of characters that make the novel come alive. And maybe a touch with Daniel José Older too, because the magic flowed through his pen.

Older weaves the experiences a person of colour would have in a white dominated society throughout the story, but within the context of an urban fantasy. I am in awe. Police brutality, misogyny, racism, spirituality, diverse culture, as well as the small, not unimportant, everyday bigotries and judgments that all people exhibit. Sierra’s own aunt passes judgment on her niece’s natural afro and Robbie’s darker skin. And while none of these experiences are the main focus of the novel, they serve to enhance the plot and develop the characters.

And Sierra is the type of female main character you want to find in a YA novel. She is strong, self-aware, has a great sense of her history and culture, and adds humour and  humility, and a touch of teenage angst. In short, she is authentic.

Sierra’s friends are also such a wonderful cross-section. Older writes these characters effortlessly, almost as if he picked teens off the street and had them describe themselves and their friends. Sierra has lesbian best friends, she has friends with African, Haitian, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican heritage, and all stand out as individuals while mixing together in a great representation of Brooklyn youth. And their dialogue is fresh and hilarious, and the use of slang throughout is perfect. (Well, I assume it is. I’m old, so it definitely isn’t MY vernacular.)

I love that while Sierra is interested in Robbie, she doesn’t let that get in her way. Too many times in YA the romance is made the most important aspect of the heroine’s life. Not here. Sierra finds Robbie hot, but she has other things to do first, like save her family, her heritage, the world.

I think my only complaint is the length of the novel. I wanted to learn more about Sierra and the shadowshapers and magic and the different cultures that were all touched upon, but could have taught me so much more.

This is a must-read for anyone of any age.

Shadowshaper was published June 30th, 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Le Fay (series)

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I hate writing negative reviews. I don’t ever want to turn someone off reading a book or series – just because something didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else. This series did not work for me. At all. But I seem to be in the minority. On Goodreads, Henge and Sword get a LOT of love. I must be missing something important.

Le Fay is a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend. Magic is both controlled and mistrusted. The King is served by the best magicians in the Kingdom, as his knights and his advisors.

Morgan le Fay has fire magic. She can create and control fire; in her hands it is both powerful and deadly. She wants to use her abilities for the good of the Kingdom. She has dreamed of being Maven, the right hand of the future king, Arthur, since she was a young child. She competes and is selected to join Arthur’s Round, an elite group of young magic users from which the new Maven will be chosen.

Trained and tested along with the other outstanding magicians of her generation, she is one of the top students. The new Maven will stand at the future King’s side for his entire reign, so while magical power is essential, so is diplomacy and political savvy. Morgan wants to serve, and she wants to see magic returned to its exalted status. But all does not go as planned.

I LOVE the Arthurian legend. LOVE it. So when I heard about this series, I was so excited. There could be so much to love. But no. Just … NO. While the first book was good enough to grab my attention, the second punished me for it.

Morgan, the central figure in the series, was my greatest disappointment. She could have been great. She has so much potential as a character, she is a central figure in the original legend. And while she starts off in the first book as a strong-willed, focused girl, intent on serving the Kingdom, she makes one disastrous decision after another, and none of them make sense. NONE.

Her behaviour with her classmates is erratic. She suspects plots against the Crown, she herself is attacked, but she keeps her mouth shut.

She has a vision about her future, and can make no sense of it. She was warned this would happen, that what the candidates see is not always going to be a clear message for them, and needs to be studied and interpreted. So does she tell the examiners what she sees? Of course not. She tells them of a vision she had as a child.

If you are sworn to protect the King, and you learn of a plot to assassinate him, don’t you at least tell someone? Or do you kidnap him and run away? What personal strength and morality she displays in the first book is completely lost in the second; if she truly wanted to serve the King and Kingdom, she would get off her a** and do it. Instead, she spends the first part of the book pouting, and the rest making horrible choices and refusing to speak up for herself, and there is no reason for it, other than ego.

And the incident with Lancelot near the end of the second book? Shoot me now. Where did that scene come from?!?!?

Arthur is interesting, and in many ways true to the legend (minus the petulant video-game obsessed stage he goes through). He is a tortured, young, unsure of who he is and what he wants. Although he does find himself, the reader is left with the feeling of instability. He equally fears and respects Morgan.

Merlin is also fairly close to the Merlin we know. He is difficult to read, powerful, and political. He kept me on my toes throughout both books, always wondering what side he would take. I found him totally unlikeable, which is fine, at first. But in the second book, his behaviour and interactions with Morgan stop making sense. And it ends with me still unsure of his intentions and loyalties.

All the other characters were unpredictable and I had to keep rereading parts to make sure I had the right person in my mind for various scenes.

The book really fell apart for me with the modern setting, which I initially thought could be fabulous. But it just does not work. The magic and the history and knights and even Camelot itself evoke too many images, and the modern conveniences of texting and trains and cars seemed thrown in and forced, as if the author was not sure how to fit her ideas on the page.

I don’t know if there is going to be a third book, but if there is, I think I’ll pass. But if anyone reads this series and can explain to me what I so obviously missed, I would appreciate it.

Henge was published November 11th, 2014, and Sword on November 10th, 2015.

My Lady Jane

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If you are the type of person who really wishes that history class could be livened up a little, the type who reads your textbooks and thinks up alternative endings to actual events, the type who wouldn’t mind chopping off a few heads that did NOT belong to the wives of Henry VIII, then My Lady Jane is for you. Especially if you are also amused by men who turn into horses at sunrise, a king who doesn’t actually shoot the messenger but eats him instead, and the mystery of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays finally being solved.

16-year-old King Edward Tudor is dying. But given that he has yet to have even kissed a girl, much less done anything that could produce an heir (bastard or otherwise), England is on the edge of turmoil. Moreso than even Brexit could cause, because not only is the land to be without a monarch, there is also trouble brewing between the Edian and the Verities. Or, those that can shapeshift into an animal form at will, and those that believe such a skill is an abomination. This is unrest on the scale of Henry VIII’s Catholic vs Protestant divide, but much more fun.

Edward’s favourite cousin is Lady Jane Grey. Practically raised together, the two are fast friends and understand each other completely. Edward knows Jane would rather read a book about the cultivation of beets in Eastern Europe than get married. She’d rather read a book about anything than do anything else, actually. She has spent her life avoiding social interaction on any level. But Edward needs an heir, and Jane is one of the few people he trusts. So he marries her off to Gifford Dudley, second son to a Duke and afflicted with an “equine issue,” proclaims her heir the Throne, dies, and Jane becomes Queen. Much to her dismay.

HO. LEE. CRAP. I have not giggled so much and so continuously in I don’t know how long. This book was recommended to me by Kim over at By Hook or By Book, and you need to visit her right away. She has fabulous posts on everything from book reviews to current events, and I lose hours perusing her site. She called this novel a cross between Monty Python, the Princess Bride (as you wish!) and Ladyhawke, and I cannot improve on that description.

This is a hilarious, laugh-out-loud, historical comedy. There is not one serious word in it, and when even an impending beheading can make you giggle, you know it is going to be good. It is full of mockery and jokes and puns and quips and plays on words that will have you snorting your proper English tea straight out of your nose.

The story behind the humour is backroom politics that would impress even today. Backstabbing and plotting and deal-making are apparently timeless pursuits. Not sure that it makes me feel any better, but at least we know it is an honoured practice. Then add in a battle of the sexes and a few budding romances, and you have an unbeatable plot.

Obviously, what makes this story so outstanding is the characters and their language. Edward’s obsession with a second opinion that he might like better than his diagnosis of death, his realization that maybe everyone was letting him win when they practiced swordplay and played games (he approves), and his acknowledgment that being king was maybe not the be all and end all that he initially thought were all done so smoothly and with so much humour.  Jane’s desire to read and not be married to a horse is totally understandable, and her choice of frying pan as a weapon practical. And above all, Edward’s and Jane’s devotion to each other is written so wonderfully and believably, a deep abiding affection that doesn’t need humour to prop it up.

The secondary characters are as in depth and developed as Jane and Edward. I love that the authors do not make them farcical, but individuals in their own right, even when they shapeshift into skunks. Gracie and Pet and G and Bess and even Mary, Queen of Scots, are so alive and totally dominate their scenes. And Gran is friggin’ hysterical. Strong, opinionated, sarcastic, forceful and lovely, but hysterical. I think I might love her.

Coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows manage what I would have thought to be near impossible. Three authors, writing three different characters that flow seamlessly. They keep the humor constant throughout the novel, it never feels forced or contrived, and the thought of them writing together makes me picture three friends sitting with glasses of wine, throwing out ideas and laughing themselves silly far into the night. I absolutely adored the references to poems and stories and people and events throughout the novel, most of which won’t occur for the next hundred years or so. And the editorial notes throughout are as funny as the dialogue.

The novel might initially intimidate at 500 pages, but I flew through it in one sitting. It is impossible to put down. Take an evening, pour a glass of wine (or three), ignore the family, and prepare to laugh your a** off.

My Lady Jane was published June 7th, 2016 by HarperTeen.

The Voyage to Magical North (Accidental Pirates #1)

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The adorable cover captures the story inside perfectly. Who wouldn’t want to sail aboard a pirate ship and battle sea monsters to find endless magic and treasure? Especially on a charmed ship called The Onion? (Some pirates don’t spell so well).

12-year-old Brine Seaborne was found floating in a boat at sea when she was just a young girl. She has no memory of how she got there, or where she comes from. Claimed by a mediocre magician as his servant, she has grown up in a house of magic, serving the magician and his apprentice, Peter. Which is a bit of an issue, as she is allergic to magic.

One day, Brine and Peter overhear the magician making plans that will change their lives for the worse, so they steal the magician’s source of magic and flee in the middle of the night. Through one misstep after another, they get lost at sea and end up as crew of the great pirate ship The Onion, captained by none other than the beautiful and captivating (when she washes her hair) Cassie O’Pia. What follows is an adventure of a lifetime, as the crew searches for the legendary Magical North.

Oh, squeal of delight! (10 points to the sci-fi nerd who can tell me the obscure show that comes from. Without mocking me). What a completely delightful and surprising story. Love love LOVE the magic and pirates and library and bad-ass librarians and messenger gulls and sea monsters and evil bird-fish and giant octopi and ice that stalks its prey. Love all the plays on words and quips and puns. Love Brine and Peter and Tom and Ewan and Tim and Trudi and Cassie and their friendships.

The characters just leap off the page at you. Brine and Peter take a slow route to friendship, overcoming initial jealousy and dislike and mistrust to acceptance and mutual admiration. Tom comes later to the crew, but is open and eager for friends his age, something his isolated life has never allowed. And the pirates are fantastic! They are just what pirates should be – loud, dirty, distrustful, funny, scheming, with hearts of gold. If you don’t stand in the way of them getting gold. A ship full of colorful oddball individuals with quirks and personalities that had me howling with laughter. Add a sociopathic villain that strikes just the right balance between crazy and terrifying and you have the perfect cast of characters for a great adventure.

The world building is fabulous. Ships and star shells and mysterious lands and magical storms and land beneath ice and an island that holds all the world’s stories in a library that goes on and on and on. The ocean makes an endless, ever-changing backdrop that gives author Claire Fayers the opportunity to take the story in any direction. She takes full advantage, and the fast pace will keep you turning pages right to the end. And then wishing the sequel was already written!

I love how Fayers writes the novel around the idea of the stories we tell, and the ones we leave out. How stories define our lives and how others see us, how we sometimes try to manufacture the life we want others to believe. And how sometimes, we might want to erase the stories, and rewrite them. (If only… My teenage years, anyone? *cringes*)

This is an awesome middle-grade book for everyone who loves a fun adventure, with enough magic and mystery to keep it totally unpredictable. But still believable! I want to sail again on The Onion and explore the eight oceans with her crew, and cannot wait to read their next adventure.

The Voyage to Magical North was published July 5th, 2016 by Henry Holt and Co.