“Daughter of the Burning City” by Amanda Foody

I’m not sure what it is about YA fantasy books taking place during carnivals, but I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. There’s something seductive about a dark dangerous carnival where magic thrives and mysteries abound. In the past little while I’ve read Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” and Melissa Marr’s “Carnival of Souls.” So what makes “Daughter of the Burning City” different from the others?

First, the magic in “Daughter of the Burning City” is more subtle perhaps than other fantasy books. The heroine Sorina has an unusual power of illusion-work. Although other people in this novel’s carnival have more flashy kinds of magic such as mind reading and fire abilities, the main focus is on Sorina and her illusion-work which allows her to create illusions that are people with their own personalities. These people become her family. Since this kind of illusion-work requires a lot of skill, Sorina doesn’t ever create a family member in the novel. Her family shows up in the novel already made. Instead of magic, most of the plot revolves more around the mystery, which we’ll get to later.

Another thing that makes “Daughter of the Burning City” stick out is that Sonia’s family is really, really bizarre. There is a life-like tree man, a dude with fingernails growing out of his head, and a half-fish half-man. Together with Sorina, they form a Freak Show. Even though the characters are grotesque and unusual, they are given fairly likeable personalities, although admittedly the tree man doesn’t have much to say. Because he’s a tree. These characters are unlike any that you’ve ever seen before.

The final component that differentiates “Daughter of the Burning City” from other carnival YA fantasies is the plot. When one by one, Sorina’s family members are murdered, Sorina needs to find the killer to protect them. In itself this isn’t that groundbreaking, however the way in which the killer is found is pretty unique. Sorina enlists the help of Luca, a gossip-worker. Although some twists were easy to pick up on, one of most major twists in the novel I did NOT see coming and it was a biggie. Amanda Foody has an unusual creativity that makes this novel worth a read even if you’ve read other carnival YA novels. It’s exciting and mysterious and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

“Furthermore” by Tahereh Mafi

“Furthermore” is a middle grade fantasy novel written in the style of such old time classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” or the more recently written “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.” The author, as an  omniscient narrator leads us through the scenes with gentle and sometimes humourous commentary. Although this point of view has fallen out of fashion recently, it was so refreshing to see it here and really added colour to this fairytale in every sense of the world.

You see, Alice is from the land of Ferenwood where the more colourful you are the more magic you have. As Alice lacks all pigment except for some colour in her eyes, she feels like she is an outcast. During the Surrender, a festival where all twelve-year-olds showcase their talents, Alice places last, confirming that she doesn’t belong in her community.

However, an unusual opportunity presents itself where she teams up with an unlikely ally and sets off on a quest to find her father. The pair have to journey to a strange new land called Furthermore. There, Alice will be forced to accept her unusual form of magic and her identity in order to bring her father home.

This is a beautifully written book that often has a lyrical flow not unlike poetry. The fantastical world is both whimsical and terrifying. “Furthermore” has many uplifting messages about friendship, family and accepting oneself. It is a suitable read for readers both young and old alike.

“Rebel Mechanics” by Shanna Swendson

“Rebel Mechanics” takes place in an alternate history where British magic prevents the American Revolution from ever occurring. Verity Newton arrives in New York to find a job as governess and winds up working for one of the most powerful magical families in the city. Concerned about toeing the line in such a household, she discovers that not everyone in the family is as they seem. Although this magical family has held power for years, many members sympathize with the rebels, a group in the city reliant on engineering and machines instead of magic.

Verity finds herself swept away by the rebel group she encounters in the city. She agrees with their cause to bring equality to the non-magical people and decrease reliance on magic. It also helps matters that Verity starts falling for a rebel inventor. But will her magical employers mind the company she’s keeping? Although some of them are opened minded, Verity isn’t sure if they’ll be opened to all her secrets.

This book had a rollicking steampunk feel. The characters wore strange clothing and made quirky inventions and had unusual gatherings. As a reader you can’t help but like Verity who struggles as a bookish outsider to New York. I love authors who make their characters avid readers – a sure way help the readers of their own books identity with their characters! Although I caught many of the plot twists before they happened, a quite a few of them I didn’t see coming.

Swendson does a good job creating morally grey situations where the truth is stretched with good intentions and characters who seemed likeable display their dark sides. In all, “Rebel Mechanics” is a fun read.

“The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place” by Julie Berry

I have to start this post by saying I usually don’t like works that joke about death. “The Loved One” by Evelyn Waugh made me cringe instead of giggle, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” made me worry about corpses in my own basement instead of shriek with delight at Teddy’s constant yells of “charge!” However, maybe I’m loosening up with increasing age and maturity or simply Julie Berry’s clever dialogue, because I definitely chuckled more than once while reading “The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place.”

When the headmistress of Prickwillow Place drops dead at Sunday dinner, her pupils devise a clever plan. The girls bury their headmistress in the vegetable patch – covering her with manure of course – and begin their lives as free women. However, their tiny Victorian community refuses to leave them alone. They are visited by the village busy-body, the doctor, and several romantic interests. Although the girls dress unfortunate Stout Alice up to pose as their late headmistress, the upcoming Strawberry Social puts strain on their disguise. And when they realize their headmistress died from poisoning, they are forced to consider that murder may be among them as well…

The dialogue and plot were funny and clever, and although some of the ruses weren’t entirely unexpected, I was more than willing to go along for the ride. British humour at its finest, “The Scandalous Sisterhood” recalls old black and white movies and comical plays with a modern message for women. Simply delightful!

“The Challenge” by Tom Hoyle

After Ben’s best and only friend Will disappears, everyone suspects he’s been murdered. However, no one has found his killer. A year passes by, and Ben is left to grieve his friend alone. Everyone else has moved on, but Ben hasn’t forgotten Will and he isn’t eager to make any new friends. That is, until the twins show up.

Even though the twins are the new kids in town, everyone likes them immediately. And when the twins prevent Ben from being bullied, and allow him into their inner circle, Ben falls under their spell too. With the twins, Ben is finally accepted and when the twins let Ben into an online game, Ben is eager to compete. Even when the challenges become more dangerous than ever.

“The Challenge” is the perfect book for you if you like reading about creepy events in small towns and friendships that are based on coercion. That is to say, this book is a thriller with high stakes. Ben shifts into a character that makes some challenging decisions (get it? challenging decisions?) that will shape him forever. I definitely couldn’t put this book down.

The book leads you towards the ending the entire time, and even still the ending is not what I expected. The ending was unsettling and I’m not sure I fully understood it and agreed with it. However, it wasn’t a let down like some endings. Really made you think.

“Boy 23” by Jim Carrington

“Boy 23” is a strange dystopian sci fi thriller. The boy in question, Jesper has only known the four walls of My Place, a comfortable room with his pet squawk and a screen where he interacts with The Voice. He has never met another human being. He has never left My Place. This is the extent of Jesper’s experience.

Until one night, Jesper’s abducted and abandoned in a forest and forced to run for his life. The Voice claims that he’ll meet him somewhere far, far away. But can Jesper trust The Voice? Why was he kept in My Place? Who can he trust?

This book is a quick read. There’s a lot of interesting information about the setting and Jesper’s adaptation to the real world. There’s other points of view in the novel, however none of them were as strong as Jesper’s. I liked the science behind the story, as well as the unusual setting. However, I didn’t understand how all of the character’s viewpoints came together in the end.

 

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

This book had an epic fantasy feel where the world building is intense and distinctly different. Tea is a girl whose magical powers differ from the norms. Instead of being able to harness the elements to do her bidding, she can raise the dead. She discovers her powers when she raises her older brother from his grave. Despite the centre of this book being rather grisly – my husband took one look at the title and went “are you reading that isn’t it scary?” – this book is really pretty tame compared to what’s on the YA shelves these days. Even though death is present, Tea’s brother gets to come back as a shadow from his early demise.

Then, Tea is forced to move away from her family for her training under an older bone witch, where she learns how to become an Asha. Asha are some sort of witch and geisha hybrid and although how the women entertain the men besides clean music and dancing is never divulged, I began to wonder “Are they prostitutes?” Again, this wasn’t revealed and the book is very clean, but due to the gendered nature of the work I was unsure.

This book moves slowly and the description is dense and detailed. Usually this would be con for me, however I enjoyed living in this strange world for a few days. I inhale books, so it was nice to encounter one that took me more than a night to read. Since there are two narratives at once – an older, stranger, more sinister Tea and a younger, apprentice Tea it was interesting to wonder when the two narratives will converge. I found it hard to keep track of all the various kingdoms and cultures, however something about the book just works.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a heartglass, where people wear their hearts on a necklace with their emotions for all to see. Perhaps it was the world of the ashas and Tea starting her apprenticeship as a servant which reminded me of a newfangled “Spirited Away.” Perhaps it was the creepy nature of Tea’s powers which could bring skeletons to life from the earth. Perhaps it was the suggestion of romance with a prince. I’m a huge sucker for romances with princes.

Anyway, “The Bone Witch” is a highly original fantasy. I look forward to seeing how the series will conclude.

“The Cage” by Megan Shepherd

When Cora wakes up in an usual landscape with a group of teenagers – none of whom she’s ever met before – she is determined to solve the mystery. However, what she finds out she could’ve never anticipated. The teenagers are kept as test subjects in a human zoo. As for their captors… well… they aren’t exactly human.

This book has a lot going on and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most well-thought out sci fi YA novels I have ever read. There’s some pretty “Lord of the Flies” dynamics going on between the teens in captivity. Although everyone’s on the same page at first and wants to escape, various factions and alliances develop over time. I also really enjoyed the dialogues about ethics and purpose. What is the essence of humanity? How can you convince another being about your apparent intelligence and what rights you deserve if they are convinced otherwise?

Although the science in this book was somewhat fantastical at times, it was grounded in some pretty stable discussions about experimental conditions where the teens tried to figure out exactly what was going on. And the characters had substance. Cora has a pretty intriguing back story that isn’t divulged right away and is linked without her knowledge to one of the boys in “the cage.” She isn’t just some flat action hero advocating for justice.

The back of this book really advertises Cora’s romance with her captor and although this is a factor, this book really achieves so much more. I found the teenage interactions to be much more interesting than the so-called romance. This isn’t “Twilight” with an alien folks. This is a physiological discussion of exploiting living creatures as resources. Although there is a fair discussion about what makes humans tick, there is a clear parallel with how humans treat other living creatures on our own planet as well.

The one complaint I’d have is about the ending. Since this is the first book in a series, obviously not everything will be resolved. However, I would’ve liked something to be tied up, instead of being left with a collection of loose ends. Although I must admit, I’m happy to read the rest of the series to see what happens next.

“Caraval” by Stephanie Garber

Scarlett has always longed to attend Caraval, a far away week-long magical performance that occurs once a year. However, she and her sister live on a far away isle with a controlling and abusive father and Caraval remains an impossibility. Until the impossible finally happens.

The sisters receive an invitation in the mail. They manage to escape their home and travel to the island with the help of a sailor. However, as soon as they reach the show, Scarlett’s sister vanishes. It soon becomes to Scarlett that her sister’s disappearance is this year’s theme for the show. This performance gives the audience a choice: they either watch or participate in the show. For Scarlett the choice is obvious. She has to participate to help her sister.

It isn’t easy.

Scarlett has to find her sister in the chaos and magic of Caraval. She has to decide who to trust and what is fabrication and what is real. She has to question what she desires out of life and how to achieve it.

This book had many strengths, the strongest perhaps being Scarlett’s character development. The Scarlett at the beginning is drastically different than the Scarlett at the end of the novel. Her decisions during the plot change her at a pretty fundamental level and it was fascinating to watch her grow.

However, undoubtedly fantasy fans will be drawn to the world-building in “Caraval,” which is also excellent. Think about the unpredictable and wondrous atmosphere of a theme park and then add in a healthy dose of magic and mystery and then raise the stakes with the threat of losing someone you love. The descriptions in “Caraval” accost the senses with sound, with colour, with vibrancy. It’s a world that is both dangerous and intriguing.

Even though “Caraval” has a cast of relatively few characters, the interactions between the characters are well done. Scarlett’s love interest will satisfy the need for romance. And Scarlett’s bond with her sister, even though her sister remains missing for much of the book, is complex and real.

“Caraval” is a fun read with lots of cliff hangers. You won’t regret it.

 

“Carnival of Souls” by Melissa Marr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa Marr’s books are twisted, violent, and unpredictable. After “Wicked Lovely,” I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for “Carnival of Souls” and after reading it, I must conclude indeed I wasn’t indeed. A new world of daimons and witches completely swept me off my feet.

The beauty of Marr’s style is she is able to build worlds that have unusual magic and social norms. It’s actually the social norms that govern her fantasy worlds more than the magic. The norms affect what relationships the characters are able to have versus what relationships they desire. The caste system of the daimons impacts friendships, romances, and alliances in unexpected ways.

Many people are forced to work together and usually the relationship isn’t entirely positive. Someone usually is working the system to their own benefit, and the reader is left wondering how the character’s choices will impact the plot. A Hunger-Games-like battle to the death in the daimon world certainly raises the stakes.

Of course, Marr grounds her fantasy world with a link to the human world as well. One of the characters is a human girl who’s been adopted by a witch father and is aware of witch customs. Her true identity has been hidden from her, and she spends most of the book trying to work it out. However, she is also important to the daimon world as well. Her witch father has taught her to fear daimons and she has to decide which world she belongs to.

Although the girl in the human world should’ve been the most relatable, I found her the most frustrating. She assumes a passive role through most of the plot and although this isn’t entirely her fault, her obedience does turn her into a weak character. I look forward to seeing how she grows during the rest of the series.