“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.

“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.

“I am Princess X” by Cherie Priest (illustrations by Kali Ciesemier)

I love webcomics, like Dumbing of Age, Questionable Content, Yume Dream and Girls with Slingshots. In fact, an afternoon spent discovering a new webcomic and reading every single episode with a friend is my idea of an afternoon well spent. So, a YA novel with a webcomic in it is basically a marriage between two of the best art forms ever. It also helps that Ciesemier’s art is gorgeous in black, white and hot pink.

The two best friends in this novel make comics together. May writes the story, the Libby draws the art. The heroine of the comic – Princess X – beats stuff up with a massive sword. I definitely related to this a lot. (The comics, not the sword welding princess. (Actually, scrap that. I related to the princess too. She was awesome.)

When I was in middle school, I briefly drew and wrote a comic for my friends. I don’t know what the exact plot was – I don’t think there was much of a plot beyond my friends meeting all the cute cartoon boys we loved (like Inuyasha and Kyo from Fruitsbasket and maybe Spader from Pendragon, who isn’t a cartoon shut up) and freaking out because they were cute. Anyway, it was fun. It brought my friends and me together.

So I was feeling for May, when Libby and her mom drove over a cliff one night and died. No more friendship, no more comics. But here’s the creepy thing – many years later, May starts seeing Princess X around the city again. She becomes convinced her friend didn’t die and tries to find her based on a popular webcomic called – you guessed it – Princess X.

Another aspect of “I am Princess X” that really struck me is that it gets a lot done with a surprisingly small cast. Every sentence, every plot point, every character really counts. The writing is gripping and creepy, yet minimalist. Priest’s style works well. The pacing at the end will have you staying up “just a few more minutes” to find out what happens.

The one character I wasn’t completely sold on was May’s ally Patrick. Patrick’s main service to the plot was his made tech skills. Yes, mad tech skills were needed for the plot, but his connection to May wasn’t entirely clear to me. It didn’t seem believable that he would risk so much for a May’s old best friend. Especially since May and he just met.

However, the villain is complex. May’s backstory is realistic and gives the reader empathy. The scientific logic is solid. All in all, “I am Princess X” is a fast-paced read with beautiful illustrations.