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.
Author: Holly Black
My rating: 4 of 5
Tana lives in a world fascinated by death. Vampirism has seen an unprecedented spread across the nations, like some terrible plague. But mostly, anymore, it’s a plague that is contained, locked away in “Coldtowns” where it won’t touch people’s normal lives. Children watch TV shows broadcast from within these Coldtowns and see a life portrayed as glamorous . . . and even though it means death, they think they want it. Not Tana though. She’s seen what it’s like to be turned first-hand, and she wants no part of it. But when a normal high-school party turns into a tragedy, she finds herself dragged straight to the Coldtown she wanted to avoid, protecting her ex-boyfriend Aiden from himself and helping a vampire boy, Gavriel, against her better judgment. But no matter how deep she is dragged, Tana is determined to do whatever it takes to go home.
Having just recently complained about the excess of vampire stories in contemporary literature, I find myself in the awkward position of having read and enjoyed one. To be fair, I didn’t realize The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a vampire story until after I started reading, and by then I was too into the story to stop. Plus, Holly Black’s a great author, so it was worth at least giving it a try. I did appreciate that, while it is a vampire story, the setting feels almost more zombie/post-apocalyptic. The whole socio-economic setup, as well as the actual dynamics of how vampirism works were well developed and original in this book, making it definitely more than your typical “girl meets vampire” story, although there ends up being some of that as well (you have been warned). The writing style and story development worked quite nicely as well, although I found it awkward that the plot mostly focused on present-tense Tana but also occasionally drifted to other people and other times. I would have preferred sticking to just one, or maybe having a few consistent points of view that are distinctly separated and labelled. Another thing that I found . . . uncomfortable about this book was the excessive emphasis on the topic of death–both in the story and in quotations at the chapter heads lauding death in various aspects. I know the story is dark anyhow, but maybe it pushes the topic a bit far. Or maybe that’s just me. Just, if you struggle with this topic, exercise caution about reading this book, that’s all. I really enjoyed the character development, especially in Tana. She’s not your typical heroine, neither is she totally pure and idealized, but she’s willing to push against the flow, find the truth in the midst of the glamour, and do what is necessary even if it’s not pretty. I think that if you enjoy YA paranormal stories with a darker tinge, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown might be an enjoyable story for you. I enjoyed it in spite of myself.