If you are into snack-sized fantasy novellas, you will probably have heard of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. And if you are into that, let me tell you that her middle grade fantasy is just as lovely. I recently read the third one in the Up-and-Under series, so let’s have a look.
When we meet Avery and Zib, they also meet each other for the first time. Neatness meets wildness, a sense of duty meets a yearning for adventure. Due to a burst pipe, both have to take a different route to school and find themselves climbing over a wall into another world altogether – the Up-and-Under. It is a world filled with talking trees, drowned girls and ones who can burst into a murder of crows.
On their quest to find their way back home, they follow the improbable road through different smaller kingdoms named after the elements. The first book mainly takes place in the woods, representing Earth. The second book takes place on a pirate queen’s ship on the Saltwise Sea.
In the third book, their winding path home takes them to the land of Air and its cruel ruler, the Queen of Swords. To escape without being turned into her latest monsters, they have to rely on her son Jack Daw. Once again, the writing style is wonderfully whimsical. It is one of those books that are meant to be mainly read by children, but it is just as fun as an adult. Over time, Avery, Zib and their companions really take up a space in your heart.
The fourth and last book should be out later this year, and I’m sure it will be a great conclusion as Avery and Zib cross into the land of Fire.
The Counterclockwise Heart is a middle-grade fantasy by Brian Farrey, published by Algonquin Young Readers on 01 February 2022.
Short summary provided by the publishers:
Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
Time is running out in the empire of Rheinvelt.
The sudden appearance of a strange and frightening statue foretells darkness. The Hierophants—magic users of the highest order—have fled the land. And the shadowy beasts of the nearby Hinterlands are gathering near the borders, preparing for an attack.
Young Prince Alphonsus is sent by his mother, the Empress Sabine, to reassure the people while she works to quell the threat of war. But Alphonsus has other problems on his mind, including a great secret: He has a clock in his chest where his heart should be—and it’s begun to run backwards, counting down to his unknown fate.
Searching for answers about the clock, Alphonsus meets Esme, a Hierophant girl who has returned to the empire in search of a sorceress known as the Nachtfrau. When riddles from their shared past threaten the future of the empire, Alphonsus and Esme must learn to trust each other and work together to save it—or see the destruction of everything they both love.
The ARC for this book was offered to me, with the words:
Perfect for fans of Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, THE COUNTERCLOCKWISE HEART demonstrates that, in the words of Esme, “stupid compassion must be contagious.”
Perfect might be overstretching it, but I enjoyed my time with the book, once I sat down and read it. (My fault, I kept pushing the book back onto the virtual #MountARC.) It’s definitely perfect for the kind of middle-grade reader who likes to read more mature books and can handle darker topics of death, grief, violence; those are done gracefully not gory and too dark.
Although I am a native of German, I actually struggled with the German words within the story. They pulled me out of the flow of the story more often than I liked. This might be a problem for younger readers, too. Even more so, since most of the words are not explained or translated. Young readers might not bother about the hidden meaning of those words, but I was wondering what Germanic folklore exactly Farrey was hinting at. So I checked the word “Nachtfrau” (night woman), for example. It’s been out of use for a long time, and I was only vaguely familiar with the term. It used to refer to a female ghost-like creature that was supposed to drain the blood from children’s bodies; a bo(o)geyman story told to children to make them behave well. The Nachtfrau in The Counterclockwise Heart isn’t a ghost, nor does she drink children’s blood, nevertheless she is a figure people are afraid of.
My favourite character is Esme. She’s strong. She was brought up in a small community of Hierophants in the North who blames the Nachtfrau for their problems. Despite having been told to loathe the sorceress, Esme is strong enough to trust her own instincts. She weighs what she learned growing up against what she learned during her travels. She uses her brain and heart to determine whether what she had been told is actually true, and makes an informed decision based on facts, rather than ‘fiction’.
The magic system Farrey came up with is wonderful. It’s a system of balance: if you use energy for your spell that means you have to give back something. Some sort of energy conservation. This way magic actually added to the story, since it couldn’t be used as a panacea for all sorts of problems; using magic carelessly might cause more trouble.
A good middle-grade novel that, since that’s the one I read and liked, fans of Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon will certainly enjoy.
3/5 Harpy Eagles (or Goodreads stars)
About the author:
Brian Farrey is the author of The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the Stonewall honor book With or Without You. He lives in Minnesota with his husband and their sweet but occasionally evil cats. You can find him online at brianfarreybooks.com and on Twitter: @BrianFarrey.
T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead, published 04 February 2021, is the first book in a new Urban Fantasy series set in a post-apocalyptic(?) Edinburgh.
Ropa is a 15 year old ‘ghostalker'[sic], which means she talks to ghosts and delivers their messages to friends and family within the city limits of Edinburgh. From time to time she dabbles in exorcism too. When a charity case ghost asks her to find her lost son, Ropa finds herself in the middle of a scheme that she can only solve with the help of old and new friends.
I liked most of the world-building, though I would have liked to know more about how Edinburgh, or Great Britain, or even the world, ended up being what it is right now. It’s hinted at only very vaguely. The titular Library of the Dead also only makes up a small part of the story and I would have liked to see much more of it. I hope it gets a bigger part in the sequel(s).
This is a fast paced story that’s taking you through the streets of Edinburgh, with a fun group of characters. Potential YA readers might be stumped by the 80s and 90s pop culture references throughout the book. I’m still curious to know how young Ropa – in a time sometime in the future(?) – came to know all those things.
3.5/5 Harpy Eagles; I’ll give it 3 Goodreads stars though, because I wanted more background knowledge to the world and wanted to see more of the library.
That’s more or less what I am taking from reading The Beholder by Anna Bright, published 19 June 2019.
This YA just shows me, again, that YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi should no longer make it onto my TBR. In other words, I had so many issues with this book, …
The main character, Selah, is the Seneschal-Elect of Potomac. That means she’ll be the leader of her people once her father dies. Her task is it, as the future leader, female but definitely NOT feminist, to find herself a husband. Since The One she fell for at home doesn’t want her, her stepmother is sending Selah to Europe to find her match. Fairy tale retellings ahead. Selah seems to see herself as Snow White, since her step-mother will certainly kill her father now that she has sent Selah out to never come back home one way or another. Either she’ll marry one of her suitors and then stay in Europe, or the Baba Yaga will eat(?) her; that irrational fear is based on a fairy tale and a nursery rhyme Selah keeps repeating.
Selah is the perfect pawn of her story; literally, plot happens to her not because of her. She’s naive and trusts people too easily. She wears her feelings on her sleeve, and her tongue, unwisely telling everyone and their grandmother what she thinks and feels. And she feels a lot, especially very fast for the members of her crew and the suitors she meets. Hello insta-love.
The story is supposedly set in something similar to the late 18th or early 19th century. Which means, I was annoyed at the anachronistic use of words like “barf”. I was further annoyed at how ignorant Selah was. For a YA heroine she had no backbone whatsoever. She ranted about one of her suitors being nine years older than her, but a nearly arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons was obviously alright to her; why then is the age difference important? And why, oh why, do we see a tiny sliver of feminism when her friend wants to choose her own husband, but Selah is unaware that her situation is the same?
The writing is nothing to write home about. There’s more tell than show throughout the book, and the retellings of fairy tales do not always work advantageously.
To come back to my initial question. Why is there a picture of a ship on the cover? Especially an artfully carved one that immediately reminded me of the TV series Black Sails, and hence of pirates. Not to mention the title of the book being the name of the ship, yet most of the story doesn’t even take place on the ship. I was definitely blindsided by the cover. Shame on me!
For The Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten is the first book in the Wilderwoods series and was published on 1st June 2021.
As some of you might know that I am struggling with fairy tale retellings, especially YA, it might come as a surprise that I picked this up. Well, I picked it because it was hailed as a dark fantasy fairy tale retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that is not Young Adult.
Does it deliver? A resounding no! On so many levels. Quite contrary to some YA fantasy stories, where the characters seem to be much more mature than their late teenage years, this book’s heroine is supposed to be 20 years old but behaves like a moody teenager. Also, the story is more of a Beauty and the Beast retelling than LRRH. The parallels are very limited the heroine’s name, Red(arys), who wears a red cloak when she enters the Wilderwood to encounter the wolf; who’s actually just a young man.
I was very underwhelmed by this book. The characters are rather flat. The plot is not fully developed, neither is the magic system; the author seems to have added to the magic system whenever she needed another twist to the story, and so at around 90% I still hadn’t quite grasped all of the aspects. Furthermore, the writing, although good, is convoluted with a lot of repetitions of certain actions (people were slouching in door frames, or rubbing their faces with their palms,…) – this might have been added out of the final version, though.
1/5 Harpy Eagles for at least trying to write a Little Red Riding Hood retelling that’s not YA.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, published February 2021 (in the US).
The story is your obvious YA story. A young girl who used to be not very popular in her village, due to her heritage, has hidden powers with which she can help the emperor’s army defeat the demonic creatures that befall the land. Of course, everyone, even the emperor, has a hidden agenda. Soon it’s clear that Deka, the main character, has to become the saviour of all, especially of oppressed girls and women.
In this case the story has a west African background. The world-building is good. The main character, Deka, is strong and her character arc is interesting. But, sorry to say, it is a YA fantasy that distinguishes itself only by not being based on European or North American fantasy blueprints.
… you might want to give this a pass. This being Adrienne Young’s latest YA fantasy book Fable, published 01 September, 2020.
Fable is the 17 year old heroine of this story. Left stranded on an island four years ago, she eventually has managed to scrounge away enough money to leave the island. Where to? In search of her father, who had left her on the island, right after his ship drowned with Fable’s mother on board; who had carved a mark into her forearm; whom she wants to prove herself to as a worthy member of his pirate crew.
In order to reach the island where her father has his home port she joins the crew of the Marigold under it’s helmsman West. A vessel Fable had been trading jewels with for the past years.
The premise for the book is great: female heroine, pirates, ships, a crew of misfits, found family, and romance. The delivery though.
Neither character feels fully fleshed to me, they are all rather shallow. Yes, of course Fable’s character has a bit more flesh than the secondary characters, of whom West and Willa are the two memorable ones. I have already forgot the names of the three other members of the crew.
The plot is slow paced and rather boring. Nothing much happens for the first two thirds of the book. The crew sails the ship from island to island to trade. There is banter, there are shenanigans, but it’s all just foreplay for the last third of the book. Then suddenly so many things happen at once that it is difficult to keep up and then we are left with a cliffhanger.
The romance also happens from zero to sixty. First West hardly interacts with Fable and then, after one kiss -granted that underwater kiss was well-written- there are confessions of love? That’s way too fast.
Other reviewers have compared this book to Bardugo’s Six of Crows. I cannot see the connection. Yes, we do have a crew of misfits. Yes, West might be the brooding type with a rather dark streak. Yes, there is two-facing, there is cunning, and there is “sleight of hand” involved in this story; but, in my opinion, it doesn’t even come close to Six of Crows.
My childhood as a reader was influenced by the series we all know and love, mainly Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. But beyond that, I was obsessed with books by German author Kai Meyer. Last year I saw him at a reading and he announced that one of his trilogies was about to get a fourth book. I was hoping it would be one of my childhood favourites, either The Wave Walkers (US, or The Wave Runners in the UK) or Dark Reflections. Indeed, it turned out to be a fourth book for Dark Reflections and I was thrilled. Of course I had to read the original three books again – while I remembered loving them, the details were really blurry.
The three books (The Water Mirror, The Stone Light and The Glass Word) take place in an alternative reality, in which Venice is a city alive with magic, living stone lions and mermaids. But there is a threat from the Egyptian Empire, which has conquered most of the world except the Russian Empire and Venice. While the Russians are protected by none other than Baba Yaga, Venice is protected by a mysterious presence called theFlowing Queen. The story itself follows Merle and Serafin, who are at the right place at the right time to save the city from being handed over to the Egyptians on a silver plate. Which leads to Merle drinking the essence of the Flowing Queen, escaping on a flying stone lion to set off on a trip to literal hell to get help and Serafin joining resistance forces in the city.
I loved the books as a child – next to this paragraph you can see the German edition of the first one – but reading them again now I was often irritated by the wild mix of concepts. Magic, hell, sphinxes, mermaids, sea witches, flying stone lions, Egyptian priests, traveling through mirrors, parallel worlds, seasons incarnated, …. it’s a lot to take in and sometimes does not fit together seamlessly. I still enjoyed the reread because it was so nostalgic, and I’m looking forward to getting to the fourth book.
Reading it as an adult you may come across some weird plot devices that seem extremely far-fetched, but I think younger readers will still enjoy this as much as I did in the past. One of the main reasons is that Kai Meyer manages to write believable female main characters. Many (or probably most) of his books are centered around girls and they are most definitely not princesses who need rescuing. The Wave Walkers for example is about a pirate girl who can walk on water. Geeky twelve year old me was totally on board for that.
The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, publishing date 5 May, 2020.
YA standalone about pirates, mermaids, the Sea as an entity, witches, imperialism, slavery, misogyny, arranged marriage, torture, …
A story about love between two women from very different sides of the tracks, the love of a mother for her children, the love of two siblings, the love between a found family, the love of profit. But it fell very flat.
There is Evelyn, a high born woman sailing towards her arranged marriage. She’s leaving behind her servant/lover/best friend without a care about the girl’s future. There is no love between her and her parents, she feels like a pawn in their game.
There is Flora/Florian, a black orphan, who, together with her brother, became a member of the crew of the Dove out of desperation. She turns a blind eye on the captain’s plans to sell the passengers into slavery once they are far enough from their port of departure.
The world-building is a Japan-inspired imperialistic world. There is lots of commentary about colonialism and misogyny.
Witchcraft is introduced in the second part of the book. It was intriguing, but there are only a few instances where magic is used.
The Sea as a mother caring for her children and plotting revenge on the men who kill her offspring is as interesting as the witchcraft element. It’s elaborated on similarly, too.
The romance between Evelyn and Florian is a set thing, soulmates, match made in heaven, why elaborate and show how they fall for each other? I didn’t buy the insta-love. Further, their love for each other is supposed to be what the whole plot rotates about, but we hardly see the two of them have meaningful dialogue.
The middle of the book was rather boring, compared to the interesting and well-paced first part and the rushed ending. Not all issues were resolved.
I wanted to like this book very much. It had a lot of potential. The execution though disappointed me.
Sisters of Sword and Song by Rebecca Ross, publishing date 23 June 2020.
Although this YA novel has a trope-y title, the fantasy stand-alone unexpectedly was not full of YA tropes. A giant plus, neither of the MCs is a princess, or even wants to be a princess.
Two sisters who haven’t seen each other for eight years are going to be reunited for a few days. The older sister Halcyon trained in the queen’s army, while Evadne stayed at home in the olive grove helping on her family’s farm. When Halcyon turns up early, on the run from her commander, Evadne swears to help her. Neither of them can imagine that this will turn into a quest to save the kingdom.
The world-building was reminiscent of ancient Greece, yet has its own system of deities and magic. The two female MCs might be underdogs, but they are strong heroines whose sisterly connection is evident throughout the story. Even when the two sisters are not sharing the scene, their bond is strong.
The writing is good. Some of the dialogue feels stilted, though. I think this story is suitable for a younger YA audience, too.