Author: T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Oliver knew he wasn’t very impressive, only a twelve-year-old minor mage with three spells, an armadillo familiar, and a bit of herb lore. But he was all his small village had, and he did his best by them. Which is why it hurt all the more when it stopped raining and his small community turned into a mob, ready to force him to go to the Cloud Herders in the mountains to go get rain–because scared and ill-prepared or not, he had already been packing to go.
I’ve heard good things about the work of T. Kingfisher (pen name of Ursula Vernon) in the past, and having read Minor Mage, I get why. This novella (or short novel, nearly) is a delightful fantasy tale in so many ways. The main character isn’t some big, impressive individual who has it all together. He’s just a kid who tries, who cares what happens to others and does his best. So the story has an approachable “everyman” sort of feel to it. The writing is approachable as well, comfortable to just dive into and enjoy. And what a tale poor Oliver gets himself involved in! He’s got monsters trying to eat him, bandits kidnapping him, and a crooked mayor falsely accusing his friend. But that’s just it–he makes a friend along the way, a really interesting individual as well. Plus, there’s the armadillo, whose sarcastic humor and insight are a blast. And really, who would write an armadillo familiar? It’s brilliant. As far as intended audience, I do have to side with the author in saying it’s a children’s book, although one that could be greatly appreciated by adults as well; however, I can totally see how most adults would consider it too dark and violent for kids as well so . . . parental guidance recommended, I guess. In any case, I would definitely recommend Minor Mage as a fabulous fantasy coming-of-age story, and I’m planning to try more of the author’s work.
Author: Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5
Harlowe and her friends have been there, done that. They’ve made a name for themselves as teen detectives. Solved cases adults wouldn’t touch, even some paranormal ones. But now they’re growing up, and Harlowe feels like they’re losing something, maybe losing each other. So in one last try to keep the group together and make it work, she brings them something special: a haunted house, tied to her own family history and possibly to her parents’ deaths, with a huge payout if they manage to find the original deed and find out who the house really belongs to. None of them can resist. But they aren’t the first who have ventured into the house. Who’s to say whether they’ll be the first to succeed and make it back out alive?
I really enjoyed In the Shadow of Spindrift House, a paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant. Right off the bat, I loved the idea of teen detectives who have grown past the point where they can call themselves that, who have already had their popularity and are no longer cute. I mean, you see stories about kids going around solving mysteries and doing crazy stuff all the time. But what happens when those kids grow up? Are they able to adapt, or do they keep doing that crazy stuff . . . only now, it will get them killed or arrested or something? Just saying, it’s an interesting idea to play with, and I thought the author addressed it well, putting this solidly in a new adult fiction kind of genre. Only with lots of eerie paranormal stuff going on. I also liked the way the mystery and the atmospheric creepiness gradually built, tiny details adding up over the course of the story. The author also did a great job of creating characters and relationships that I cared about–enough so that certain parts of this story actually hurt, so fair warning there. There’s a certain lack of definition to some of the paranormal elements of this story, and I still can’t quite decide if there was enough definition, or if I would have preferred a bit more clarity. For instance, there’s a good bit of effort put into building the themes of nature and the sea, and we definitely can tell a lot just from that and from the historical stories that Harlowe and her friends uncover. But we never get a name for what we’re dealing with, or an actual explanation, or anything like that. So I guess I’d recommend this book for those who prefer things a bit more mysterious and open-ended. I would definitely recommend In the Shadow of Spindrift House, though, and I certainly intend to try more of the author’s writing.
Author: Scott Heim
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Three siblings travel back to a hometown they’d left far in the past, glad to forget it except in nightmares. They’re going to bury their father and handle his estate. But before they even get into town, they find themselves confronted with horrors from their childhood and with the guilt of what they had done all those years ago.
Loam is one of those stories that starts out reading like some slice-of-life family-drama sort of thing–relatively innocent and safe for the most part. But as the story proceeds and the author starts unpacking the skeletons in this particular family’s closet, the horror element begins building gradually, atmospherically, until by the time you get to their childhood home, you’re ready for something horrific to jump out at you. Nothing ever does quite jump out, which is almost worse, leaving a slimy feeling that it might at any time. The ending is kind of like that, too–open-ended enough that we don’t know if the horror is actually over or not. I’ve heard some people complain that the story “just ends abruptly,” but I liked the way it left things open for interpretation rather than tying everything up nearly, which I honestly think might have killed the story. Also of note, the author does a fabulous job of giving us a lot of backstory early on, so we’ve got context, without making it an info-dump. There’s a lot of detail woven seamlessly into the story in such a way that it’s just picked up on without even realizing it sometimes. The author also employs an interesting use of flashbacks mixed with the main storyline to give us more information and build the tension. The use of potentially faulty memories adds an interesting sense of uncertainty to the atmosphere as well. I will say that Loam feels like a story that would generally fit better in a short story collection than as a standalone novella, but it was still an enjoyable, eerie read.
Author: Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Illustrator: Goñi Montes
My rating: 4 of 5
Jack is special. Ever since he was little, he’s been able to see shades of those who have died, but things got even weirder when he was in 5th grade. He says it’s like he’s got spikes on his back that ghosts can grab onto and stick around. This is the story of his first three ghosts, the ones who changed his life forever.
Ghost Hedgehog is the first of Hoffman’s stories that I’ve read, and I have to say that it’s whetted my appetite for more. The story is creative and interesting, with a timeless feel that’s broken only by the occasional reference to a cell phone or suchlike. The writing style is accessible and down to earth, very enjoyable to read. It’s told in first person, focusing on a small period of time when Jack was eleven, although the tone of the writing is more mature than that–like maybe he’s looking back as an adult to how he got where he is. This story’s pretty short and could easily be read in one sitting. The ending leaves a promise of so much more, though, whether in the reader’s imagination or in other stories. I would certainly be interested in reading a sequel and definitely plan to try more of Hoffman’s books. Recommended.
Note: This is a Tor.com original story and can be purchased digitally or read only for free at https://www.tor.com/2011/11/16/ghost-hedgehog/.
Author: Elizabeth Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5
She knew she shouldn’t approach the derelict old house. Everyone knew it was abandoned–probably haunted too. But Blake Callaghan’s curiosity is just too much, so she scales the wall and wanders through the overgrown, unkempt garden towards the house. You can imagine her surprise when she encounters an old man in the garden; so very old he is. He introduces himself as Mr. Donn and begins to tell Blake stories, wondrous stories of the Sidhe, of changelings, and of the Dullahan. Stories of the brevity of life and the certainty of death that change Blake somehow in the hearing of them.
House of the Dead is an incredible novella/short story collection that I would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys fantasy or mythology. It pulls from old Celtic legends, but presents the tales in a fresh, insightful way, uniting the individual stories within Blake’s story and making them part of a greater whole. I first discovered the author through her Merlin fanfics, writing under the pseudonym Emachinescat; they are wonderful, and I fell in love with the author’s writing then. This novella displays the same brilliance, but perhaps even more finely crafted. There is both a richness of imagery and a sparseness of dialogue in this book that is unusual, I think, and I found it oddly moving. There were several times when the stories moved me to the point of chills, and by the end of the novella, I was crying. The perspective on life and death offered here is truly powerful, echoing the Doctor’s idea that “we’re all stories, in the end” and the desire to really live life to the fullest, to write a good story with your life. As I said, highly recommended.
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.