Diverse fantastical worlds

These six recent fantasy novels for middle schoolers and high schoolers speak to the genre’s ties to folklore and represent diverse cultures in their telling. And especially since March is Women’s History Month, we can’t not mention Ibi Zoboi’s new (starred) nonfiction book Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler, about the groundbreaking African American sci-fi/fantasy author. See our Women’s History Month tag for more recommendations.

Vial of Tears
by Cristin Bishara
Middle School, High School    Holiday    320 pp.    g
10/21    978-0-8234-4641-4    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5034-3    $11.99

Sam and her younger sister Rima live in a rundown trailer in Michigan with an unreliable yet loving mother who is trying to make ends meet after the girls’ father doesn’t return from a military mission. As the eldest daughter, Sam takes responsibility for her mom and sister, assuming household duties while simultaneously trying to finish high school. When Sam receives a mysterious package containing a jug and several coins from her great-grandfather who lives in Lebanon, her life changes forever. One coin is an obol, a burial token with the power to open a portal between worlds, and it belongs to Eshmun, a demigod who’s been searching for it for centuries. When Rima moves the coin, the portal activates and Eshmun drags Rima and her sister from their hometown to the underworld, where monsters, shapeshifters, and gods roam free. There, Sam must face several trials to save her sister, protect herself, and find their way back home — including learning to trust herself enough to face the very devil. Bishara’s narrative blends Lebanese history and Phoenician mythology to reflect the complications of familial love and the boundaries of life, death, fate, and choice. Through intricate world-building and storytelling, she brings forth a tale from an underexplored mythical foundation; perfect for fans of Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. S. R. TOLIVER

Skin of the Sea
by Natasha Bowen
High School    Random    320 pp.    g
11/21    978-0-593-12094-1    $18.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-12095-8    $21.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-12096-5    $10.99

Simidele is a Mami Wata, a mermaid who gathers the souls of the dead to be blessed by the Yoruba deity Yemoja. When Kola, a young man not yet dead, is thrown from a passing slave ship, she refuses to let him drown and carries him to a nearby island. But by interfering, Simi risks bringing punishment down on all the Mami Wata and on Yemoja herself. Simi sets out, with Kola’s help, to find two rings that can summon the Creator so she can beg for mercy. Bowen combines a classic quest plot with a rich and still-underrepresented mythology (see also Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, rev. 5/18), complicating the stakes with every plot twist. Creatures who assist or oppose Simi and Kola, as well as the ever-present grief of the slave trade (specifically the start of Portuguese slave trading in the mid-1400s, per an author’s note), also serve to build out the unearthly tale’s West African basis. As Simi and Kola travel together, the attraction between them grows, but Simi’s knowledge that acting on her feelings will turn her into sea foam makes for a slow-burn (if occasionally repetitious) romantic arc that enhances this inventive supernatural fantasy. ANITA L. BURKAM

Into the Bloodred Woods
by Martha Brockenbrough
High School    Scholastic    368 pp.    g
11/21    978-1-338-67387-6    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-67389-0    $11.99

In this fantasy novel with threads drawn from fairy tales (the non-Disney-fied ones, with all the gore, and then some), Albrecht is the king’s son, but his twin, Ursula, is the firstborn, setting the siblings in competition for the throne. Following their parents’ deaths, Hans and Greta, the woodcutter’s children, are taken against their will to serve in the palace, Greta to butcher animals in the kitchen, Hans as the apprentice — and torture subject — of Albrecht, who wants to build mechanical men not subject to the weaknesses of flesh and blood. Capella, who is Albrecht and Ursula’s cousin, loves Hans, whom she knows in his werewolf form. Sabine, a werebear, loves Ursula but hates the monarchy. When the king dies, Albrecht is able to stage a coup, drive out Ursula, and seize Greta as his unwilling bride. The frailty of bodies; the unnaturalness of medical experimentation; the vulnerability of women in a patriarchal world; and the disturbingly grotesque nature of torture, pain, and mutilation — these images recur throughout the story, which mixes magic and woodland folkloric elements with horror and steampunk. Readers may journey through Brockenbrough’s (The Game of Love and Death, rev. 5/15) compelling tale with a growing sense of dread, but they’ll likely be unable to put it down. ANITA L. BURKAM

A Thousand Steps into Night
by Traci Chee
Middle School, High School    Clarion/HarperCollins    384 pp.    g
3/22    978-0-358-46998-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-46999-5    $9.99

Miuko is clumsy and loud, two qualities that are deemed unfeminine in the (fantastical, Japanese-coded) society she inhabits. While running an errand outside the protective village gates, she meets a demon spirit who kisses her, causing a blue spot to appear on her foot, a sign that she herself is turning into a demon. Shunned by her father, she sets out with Geiki, a magpie spirit who can shapeshift into a boy, to ask the House of December how to reverse the transformation. At the same time, a malevolent spirit, Tujiyazai, who has stolen the body of a prince, wants Miuko to embrace her demon nature and rule the world with him. As the action progresses, Miuko’s demon strength and fury make her unapologetic about championing other girls (as well as trans and nonbinary people) caught in restrictive gender roles. Amid the story’s abundance of spirits and gods inspired by Japanese folklore, cheerful, thieving Geiki supplies a leavening presence, providing Miuko with a solid friend to rely on. What starts out as a relatively standard quest fantasy undergoes a number of unexpected and inventive plot evolutions (time travel?!) that force Miuko to make some high-stakes choices before landing her, effortlessly, in the emotionally gratifying conclusion. ANITA L. BURKAM

by Akwaeke Emezi
High School    Knopf    272 pp.    g
2/22    978-0-593-30903-2    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-30904-9    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-30905-6    $10.99

In this prequel to Pet (rev. 11/19), teenage Bitter (the mother of that book’s protagonist) agonizes, from the safety of her arts boarding school, over whether her art and survival are morally sufficient answers to the violence and inequalities in her city, while her friends work on the dangerous front lines of protest and community response. When an act of police brutality pushes Bitter from crippling anxiety to rage, she paints — and summons — a living angel. It and other angels, summoned by other students, dismiss protest in favor of slaughter in their quest to free the city of “monsters.” In contrast to the secretive violence of Pet, Bitter’s confrontations are explosive and overt, and the setting is sharpened with real-world references, including modern protest language. The novel raises painfully complicated questions about responsibility, violence, and vengeance, though readers of Pet will know the answers: two decades on, it’s clear that the angels’ ruthlessness largely (if imperfectly) worked. This installment, accomplished in its use of uneasily surreal language, is at its strongest when depicting the hugely effective angels and Bitter’s own emotional through line as she tries to balance justified fear and desire for safety against moral obligation. ALEX SCHAFFNER

From Dust, a Flame
by Rebecca Podos
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    416 pp.    g
2/22    978-0-06-269906-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-269907-7    $11.99

Hannah doesn’t think too deeply about why her peripatetic mother, Malka, has always moved their family from place to place. Now, having earned a scholarship to a prestigious high school, high-achieving Hannah thinks she’s finally convinced Mom to settle down. Then she wakes up on her seventeenth birthday to eyes that have turned golden and snakelike. The next day it’s fangs. And then Mom disappears. An anonymous letter draws Hannah (now with ram’s horns) and her older brother to a small town in upstate New York in time to sit shiva for Jitka, the grandmother they never knew, and to meet the rest of their extended Jewish family. Hannah suspects that Mom is nearby; and in uncovering her family’s past, she believes she can solve the mysteries surrounding her own bodily transformations. Her search leads her to Jewish mysticism and folklore — and to the golem hidden in their barn. Interspersed chapters relate the tale of Malka’s doomed teenage love affair and of Jitka’s youth in Prague. Themes of family, love, identity (including LGBTQIA+ identities), betrayal, and redemption blend well with the author’s meditations on religion, ancestry, dreams, storytelling, and the significance of names and naming. Hannah is an engaging protagonist, and her interactions with her family members and the supernatural beings she encounters guide this layered tale to a suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

From the March 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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