Authors: Tom & Nimue Brown
Illustrator: Tom Brown
Hopeless, Maine, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Hopeless . . . both a place and a state of being on this cursed island off the coast of Maine. It is a place where the sun never shines, a place that invites demons–both metaphorical and actual. Salamandra is found alone (apart from the creepies) in a huge gothic house. Not a place to leave a child, so she is brought to an orphanage where she fits in not one bit. In her friendless state, she is approached by a smiling girl . . . whom no one else can see.
Personal Demons is not your typical graphic novel, that’s for sure. It’s more atmospheric rather than action oriented. And the atmosphere is done brilliantly. The whole setting is this eerie, dark gothic island inhabited not just by people but by all sorts of oddities that appear inspired by Hieronymus Bosch himself. The art is beautiful but atypical. (I believe this started as a webcomic, and there’s the freedom and individuality of style to this graphic novel that you would expect in a high-quality webcomic.) It’s done almost entirely in a dark monochromatic palette, barring a few flashes of brilliant color to emphasize the presence of magic (and yes, there’s definitely magic in this story). For the art, the concept, and the actualization of the concept I would have to give this book a 5 out of 5 rating. Where it fell flat for me, personally, was in the story itself. I didn’t fall in love with the characters, and the plot was not particularly original . . . thus the 3.5 instead of 5 stars. Still, Personal Demons is definitely an interesting graphic novel if only for the originality of the concept and the art–well worth giving it a try.
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 5 of 5
Finding her place and her own rhythm seems nearly impossible for twelve-year-old Sunny. She’s just moved to Nigeria–her parents’ native home–from the United States where she was born. She has Nigerian features but albino skin . . . which means she can’t play ball with the other kids outside during the day like she wants. Plus, her father never can seem to approve of her. Then there’s that terrifying vision she recently had in a candle flame. . . . But when Sunny becomes friends with Orlu (after all her so-called friends at school desert her) and subsequently also becomes friends with his friend Chichi, life begins to take shape for her. It begins to expand in unexpected, wonderful, dangerous ways into a world of magic where Sunny can become her true self.
I was unfamiliar with Okorafor’s work when I randomly heard that Diana Wynne Jones had praised her writing–certainly sufficient incentive for me to try reading her books, and I’m glad I did. Akata Witch is a wonderful journey into unknown places both without and within. The writing itself is superb from the descriptions to the characters to the brilliant fusion of Nigerian culture and magic. There are elements of this book that remind me almost of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–mostly in the sense that a young person goes from knowing nothing of magic to being immersed in the world of magic and all its wonders. That whole experience is presented here, and it’s glorious, especially since Sunny’s world is so richly imagined and so unique from anything I’ve ever read before . . . while still being reminiscent of Rowling’s world in all the best ways. I really enjoyed the rich cultural experience that Okorafor presents here; she could totally have written a slice-of-life coming-of-age story in this setting and it would have been wonderful. Adding this whole huge magical, epic fantasy element to the tale is just overkill, not that I’m complaining. The one thing I found . . . not bad so much as just unnerving, was the teachers’ attitude towards their students being put in dangerous situations. They seem almost to not care whether they survive or not, which is just really different from the mindset of anyone in a role mentoring and leading children that I’ve experienced. I think because of that, I would recommend Akata Witch as more of a YA/Adult book, even though the main character is twelve and the content is otherwise fine for middle-grade readers.
Author: Philip Pullman
Illustrator: Leonid Gore
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In a small German town, a group of townsfolk gather by the fireside in the tavern to hear a story. And a horrifying tale it is, in keeping with the usual for Fritz, one of princes and strange happenings and creepy clockwork makers. But things go from typically frightening to truly terrifying when said creepy clockwork maker walks right into the tavern in a gust of wintry air as if he’d stepped right out of Fritz’s story by magic.
I love Philip Pullmans’ writing, both the craftsmanship of it and the variety of it. I think Clockwork might be surprising–and possibly disappointing–to those who know his work mainly from the His Dark Materials books. Rather than being some big fantasy tale, Clockwork is a tightly woven, neat little fairy tale of novella length. And viewed as what it is, I think this book works excellently. The characters are distinct, and you get to know exactly what you need to about them to really appreciate the roles they play in the story. And the interwoven storylines fit together while still leaving just enough unexplained to maintain the eeriness of the story. The atmosphere and the tension that’s developed throughout is one of the strongest points of this story, to my mind–one of the reasons this works best as a novella, since this atmosphere would be impossible (or at least exhausting for the reader) to maintain through a longer story. Finally, this book has the makings of an excellent fairy tale: the sense of rightness, the magic, the darkness, and the happy ending. For those who love a good dark fairy tale, I would definitely recommend Clockwork.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Teddy Kristiansen
My rating: 4.5 of 5
A hard-boiled detective investigates the legendary case of Humpty Dumpty’s murder. A boy wanders off along the railroad tracks and has a close encounter with a troll under a bridge. Another boy finds himself at the wrong party, where the guests talk about the strangest things. An intergalactic scam artist tells the tale of one of his greatest cons. And a group of jaded epicureans bemoan that there’s nothing new for them to taste . . . until one of their members mentions the legendary Sunbird. In other words, pure literary magic.
In the spirit of Ray Bradbury’s classic children’s book R Is for Rocket, Neil Gaiman pulls together a collection of his short stories that seem well suited to a younger audience, and publishes them together in one neat volume, M Is for Magic. I love it. These tales are some of Gaiman’s best short stories, whatever the age of the reader. They evoke the things I love best of his writing–the wit, the magic, the amazing literary style that is both captivating and easy to read. One thing I found unique about this collection (as compared with his adult short-story collections) is the picture it gives of growing up in the sixties. Probably an unexpected but natural result of most of the stories being written in respect to the author’s own childhood, but there’s an authenticity to the feel of that era as demonstrated in these stories that’s really neat to read. I do have to warn: while a more child-friendly collection than his others, there are still a few things in these stories that might be a bit old for some children. Generally speaking, I’d say this collection would be best for a 12 and up audience. Whether you’re looking for a fun fantasy/sci-fi short story collection for a kid you know or you’re interested for yourself, I think M Is for Magic is a choice that’s, well, magical.
Author: V. E. Schwab
Shades of Magic, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Kell lives in a London where magic is the norm, where children play games involving testing their magical abilities from the time they’re young. But unlike any other citizen of his world, Kell has been to other Londons where things are very different. You see, he is an Antari, one of the last, an individual who has the ability control the magic that allows one to cross between the worlds. As a loyal subject–and adopted prince of what he terms “Red London”–Kell works for the king and queen, delivering messages to the royalty of the other Londons, “Grey London” and “White London”. He’s been known to carry other items across the boundaries between worlds as well, which is technically illegal but also profitable and exciting. Kell’s smuggling habits become a bit too exciting, however, when a package turns out to be a trap. And the help of an unmagical, Grey London girl may be his only hope for surviving the ensuing mess.
Okay, so you’ve all been telling me for . . . what seems like ages that A Darker Shade of Magic is amazing. So I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, and I agree. I probably should have read it before, but there you have it. V. E. Schwab crafts quite the exciting and enjoyable story. The writing style is very approachable, with a good balance of description and action. I really appreciated the third-person style that the author used; you see so much first-person writing now that a well-done third-person story is quite refreshing. One of my only complaints about the writing is the use of different languages for people from the different worlds–and I totally get why this was used, it was just annoying to me to try to read unpronounceable words that I ended up just skipping in the end. Minor issue on the whole, though. The characters were fantastic, and I really grew to care for Kell, Lila, and Rhy by the end of the story. I also really loved that the story developed in the way it did–worlds-impacting choices and meaningful camaraderie as opposed to unnecessary and forced romance (which I see way too much of). I would definitely recommend A Darker Shade of Magic for those readers out there who haven’t read it yet, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes of this series–as well as anything else I can find by the author.