Welcome to the Drearcliff Grange School, where the girls have something missing or something a little extra. In The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School author Kim Newman introduces us to the school’s most recent arrival, Amy Thomsett, who was sent hastily by her mother after she was found sleeping on the ceiling. Luckily, Drearcliff encourages this particular strangeness in its students and Amy soon finds herself at home amongst the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians.
In her first term, Amy makes fast friends with three roommates possibly even stranger than herself: Light Fingers, the daughter of criminal stage-magicians whose hands move “like hummingbird wings;” Kali, the princess of a bandit kingdom whose English is informed by Hollywood gangster movies; and Frecks, the orphan daughter of spies who’s inherited magic chainmail blessed by the Lady in the Lake.
Together, they discover that even a school as strange as Drearcliff has its secrets, and the four set out to uncover them. Who are the hooded strangers collecting girls in the night? Why does a snowman in the yard seem to be marching closer to the school every day? And why can’t anyone get that sinister jump rope song out of their head, no matter how hard they try? The answer is terrible enough to unite an entire school of misfits against a common enemy.
Just as in his Anno Dracula books, Newman has crafted a world that is overflowing with original ideas as well as allusions to classic works like Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft. Even those who don’t appreciate Newman’s imaginative world building will enjoy the novel’s fast pace and refreshing focus on female friendship. It’s the literary mash-up of Harry Potter and Mean Girls you never knew you wanted.
If you have heard of Scheherazade, the woman who stayed alive night after night by telling a murderous king cliffhanger stories, then you may want to check out A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston, a retelling of The Arabian Nights.
She knows her village is next on Lo-Melkhiin's list. Bound by the laws of men, he has to choose a wife from each city district and each village before beginning again. He has taken three hundred wives and all have died in his palace. She fears that her fiery sister will be his next victim and her love for her sister is so strong that she successfully devises a way to make it impossible for Lo-Melkhiin not to choose her instead.
Her goal is to stay calm and to survive the night at the palace. And she does. When she survives the next night and the next, the servants and guards of the palace take notice. There's something different about her and it has to do with her sister's love and fierce will. Although she still lives, her sister prays to her as does her mother and her sister's mother. Soon, all of the women in her village and in the palace pray to her, and the longer she survives the more her story spreads. Praying to a deceased person brings comfort and goodwill to the living; praying to one who still lives translates to power that person can use to combat evil.
She tells Lo-Melkhiin stories about her sister and her family, falls into trances while spinning thread and weaves images into cloth that begin to come true. Her power grows; but the more she uses, the more she weakens. As she unravels the secrets of the palace and of Lo-Melkhiin, she feels she may have just enough power to defeat evil. For her sister. For her village. For all of the unmarried women under Lo-Melkhiin's rule. For herself.
A Thousand Nights is an elegant and descriptive retelling that stands on its own. You do not need to be familiar with The Arabian Nights to enjoy Johnston's version. The only named character is Lo-Melkhiin, which lends an air of mystery and power to the other characters, especially the women and the protagonist. A Thousand Nights starts off at a slow crawl and doesn't pick up much pace for the majority of the book, but if you can look past that you will find the beauty in the descriptions of the desert and its people and the feminist undertones in the quiet strength and cleverness and power of its women. Look out for Johnston's companion novel, Spindle, its publication date to be announced.
Sam Bosma’s debut graphic novel Fantasy Sports is a late gift to any kid who felt gym class lacked a Tolkien-esque quality.
Fantasy Sports introduces us to Wiz, a young magician beginning her internship in the mage’s guild under the tutelage of the older, grumpier Mean Mug. It’s not going great. They don’t get along, and Wiz is less than thrilled that Mean Mug doesn’t seem to know any magic. But after a chewing out from their supervisor, the two are sent to prove themselves on a treasure hunt in a mummy’s tomb. This leads them to evil skeletons, magic puzzles and a basketball game with a smack-talking mummy (of course).
Similar to Scott Pilgrim or Adventure Time, this book mixes the tropes of fantasy and video games with the heightened drama of adolescence. Like peanut butter and chocolate, it works like a charm. Although a couple of crude remarks make this book inappropriate for young children, older readers will find it infectiously fun. You’ll feel yourself swept back to a time when a friendly game of basketball had the life-or-death stakes of a boss battle.
Popular even before it was complete, award-winning before it was published, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is a unique debut graphic novel about heroes, villains, monsters and peeling off those labels to see the people underneath. Our story begins when longtime supervillain Ballister Blackheart receives an unexpected visitor in his secret lair — stout little Nimona, a young and eccentric shape-shifter who insists on becoming his evil sidekick. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Nimona’s commitment to evil might be a little more heartfelt than Blackheart’s, and the question of which side of the fight is truly righteous comes into question not too long after.
Emotional backstory, in-depth character writing, a complex, strangely believable fantasy universe that combines medieval-style armor with apparatus of science fiction are all to be found in Nimona. Stevenson’s cartooning style, often praised for its expressive energy and humor, proves equally effective when expressing the dark, dismal and threatening — and a cool shadow dragon or two. LGBT readers can take note of the warm handling of the gay relationship in the book as well. It is written so subtly it has the effect of normalizing the subject rather than pointing aggressive arrows towards it.
Virginia Boecker was able to cross an item off her bucket list when she published her debut novel The Witch Hunter. As an English history buff, Boecker was spending time in London when she was inspired to write the novel. Though this story takes place in a very different world, where witches and other paranormal creatures are common place, the setting is reminiscent of old world England.
It’s 1558, in a place known as Anglia, where witches and other creatures are pitted against the monarchy for the right to live and practice their beliefs freely. The country is divided with many wanting to see witchcraft practiced openly. King Malcom and his grand inquisitor do all they can to eradicate witches and witchcraft by having a small and elite band of witch hunters that tracks and captures witches who are later burned alive.
By day, Elizabeth Grey is a servant in the kitchen. By night, she is one of the king’s most capable witch hunters. When she is caught with a collection of suspicious herbs, she is arrested as a witch. It’s while she sits rotting in a cell and awaiting her execution that she finds an unlikely ally who leads her to question her black and white world. Could it be that she has been manipulated by the very people she trusts the most, or is she simply being misled?
This young adult novel is a wicked mashup of genres, from romance to adventure, with a healthy dose of historical paranormal fiction to tie it all together. If this is your magical brew, look to Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes for another gripping historical paranormal fantasy with a strong female protagonist, who also has a tendency to challenge authority.
An Ember in the Ashes is a deftly written debut novel by Sabaa Tahir, a promising new author not to be ignored. With alternating chapters, this teen novel skillfully intertwines the lives of two young people living in a martial society.
The book opens with Laia, a member of the colonized Scholar society. Though they’re called Scholars, these people have been beaten down and denied their heritage to the point that people are no longer even taught to read. When Laia’s home is invaded by law enforcement, her life is forever changed. She’s put on a path to go against her demure disposition and rally to save the only family she has left.
On the other end of this society, we follow Elias as he completes his training to become a “Mask.” Masks are the highest form of defense in the Serra community. They are both feared and revered. As a Mask, Elias is trained to be a graceful killing machine, a skill which disgusts him to the point that he contemplates desertion.
The setting and power struggles of this book are reminiscent of Game of Thrones while the trials that Elias faces are evocative of the Hunger Games or Divergent. Despite this book being suggestive of these other series, Tahir creates a unique and captivating read that is hard to put down.
Amy McCulloch is an editorial director for a children’s publisher, so while this is her debut as a novelist, she is no stranger to the writing process. It’s clear from this novel that she carefully constructed a young adult series that weaves together mysticism, intrigue and suspense.
The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is the first in McCulloch’s The Knots Duology. This introductory novel is set in a fantasy world where a person’s oath is their soul and the consequences of going back on your word have a devastating effect. It’s the very foundation of the world’s structure and is infused in every decision each character makes.
Raim, the protagonist, is from a nomadic tribe of goat herders and has been raised as a warrior apprentice since he was 7. He was just a baby when he was given an oath that he wears as a knot around his wrist — a reminder of a promise he cannot remember. It’s this oath, made long before his memories start, which holds a mystery that could unravel his well-planned future or be the answer that saves a kingdom.
This historical fantasy is a fast-paced whirlwind of a ride that will leave you eager for more. Its sequel The Shadow’s Curse, though already published in Canada and the UK, does not yet have a publication date for the US. After The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, you won’t be able to wait for its release.
Journalist, novelist and activist Cory Doctorow has teamed up with illustrator and cartoonist Jen Wang to create an unprecedented graphic novel about a girl gamer who discovers real social issues lurking behind the colorful facade of her favorite online world. In Real Life is one of the first books written for the burgeoning audience of self-identifying girl gamers, which is growing at an exponential rate as more girls — and women — embrace their passion for gaming.
Anda, the heroine of In Real Life, enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons with her friends during their lunch period, kicks butt in her Python computer programming class and walks the high school halls worrying more about surviving a tough boss fight than she does about staying fashionably relevant. With her mother’s blessing (and credit card), she delves into the digital world of Coarsegold Online and becomes totally enthralled, allying herself with a guild of other like-minded girl gamers. Quests call Anda and a feisty guildmate to a hidden verdant enclave lousy with gold farmers — players who repeatedly collect valuable items to sell to other players for real money. Anda and her friend defeat the illicit farmers and take their items and gold to stymie the questionable practice.
Initially, Anda is excited to be completing quests and leveling up her character, but after a gold farmer shows some compassion and helps her obtain a rare item, she begins to ponder the consequences of her actions. Who are the other players behind these foreign avatars? Why do they congregate in droves and move around in secrecy? What does "Ni Hao" mean? And most importantly, what happens when they’re killed and lose their farming progress?
Doctorow’s purpose-driven storyline presents many social issues that may be unknown to people who have yet to be acquainted with online gaming, and Wang’s adorable artwork inspires a world teeming with vibrant beauty and softens the blow of an otherwise rough reality check. In Real Life is a great read for anyone who enjoys young adult graphic novels, and is essential for MMO and gaming fanatics.
My True Love Gave to Me is a collection of 12 holiday stories from young adult authors like Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Laini Taylor and David Levithan, among others. Each story is unique — some are realistic, romantic stories set at Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations, others are fantasy stories filled with elves or set in far-off lands. They’re all sure to put readers in the holiday mood!
Though each story is delightful, Stephanie Perkins’ “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” was my personal favorite. Perkins, who is also the editor of My True Love Gave to Me, brings holiday romance into readers’ lives with Marigold and North’s story. When Marigold buys a tree at North’s family Christmas tree lot, he agrees to help her carry the tree across the street to her apartment, not knowing the night of adventures this decision will bring. Other stories deal with lesser known holiday traditions, like Holly Black’s “Krampuslauf” about a group of teenagers who live in a town who have an annual celebration for “Saint Nick’s creepy buddy, the Krampus.” Gayle Forman’s “What the hell have you done, Sophie Roth?” follows Sophie, a freshman at a college in the middle of nowhere, who is sad to be away from her mother on the last night of Hanukkah. Other stories are totally fantastical, like Laini Taylor’s “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer,” set on the Isle of Feathers, where a girl named Neve must face the Advent traditions of her home.
Perkins did a wonderful job editing a diverse group of stories dealing with holiday traditions both real and imaginary. My True Love Gave to Me is a great holiday read, especially for those looking to find new teen authors to enjoy in the future. As an added bonus, make sure to pay close attention to the cover, as you can see the couples from each of the stories!
The third book in Jessica Spotswood’s The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Sisters’ Fate, wraps up the Cahill sisters’ story. Cate, Maura and Tess are three very powerful witches living in an alternate America in which anyone suspected of being a witch is locked away in an asylum, or worse, sentenced to death. The Brotherhood who control the country has continued life in the Puritan tradition, oppressing women and blaming witches for the country’s problems.
In Born Wicked and Star Cursed, Cate tried to protect her sisters from the Brotherhood and other witches who are jealous of their powers, but now because of the betrayal of one sister and the burgeoning power of another, Cate is conflicted about how to proceed. Cate eventually begins to work with a group of people resisting the Brotherhood, attending secret meetings and planning ways to change life in the country. When a fever begins to ravage New London and the witches are blamed, change becomes essential to preventing the deaths of witches and humans alike, bringing Cate and the other witches to make extreme choices.
At turns a nail-biting, action-packed story and family story about sisters who just happen to be witches, Sisters’ Fate is a satisfying conclusion to Spotswood’s series. Spotswood does a wonderful job creating flawed, interesting characters who fight for what they know is right until the very end.