Witchlanders: A Review

cover art for Witchlanders by Lena CoakleyMagic is a powerful thing in the Witchlands. The magic and the lands themselves are protected by witches who are mysterious and dangerous, creatures with little time for villages like Ryder’s.

That is if the witches are even real, which Ryder still doubts. After all, he has seen no evidence of them save the relics from her mother’s time as a witch and her addiction to the flowers that she insists will call the witches to her.

When the witches do finally show up to answer his mother’s call Ryder is forced to reconsider everything he thought he believed about the witches, the Witchlands, and his own role in the prophecies his mother has been seeing in Witchlanders (2011) by Lena Coakley.

Witchlanders is classic high fantasy with a unique magic system and detailed world building. It’s also an excellent standalone in a genre that is often over-saturated with trilogies or longer series.

The story follows two boys on opposite sides of a years-long war as they try to understand their growing magic and the bond that seems to be drawing them inexorably together. Chapters alternate between their points of view as they are drawn across the Witchlands to confronting shocking revelations about their pasts, their futures, and their own connections.

While Coakley’s world is fascinating, her characters often suffer in comparison with a lack of dimension. Witchlanders is decidedly free of romance but remains a solid testament to the power of friendship as its own kind of magic.

Possible Pairings: Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Black Wings Beating by Alex London, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

The Hidden Witch: A Graphic Novel Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Hidden Witch by Molly Knox OstertagAster’s family is still adjusting to his affinity for witchery–something totally unexpected in a family where boys usually become shapeshifters. Not everyone is thrilled with Aster’s witchcraft but his grandmother is more than happy to teach Aster so long as he in turn helps her try to rehabilitate his great-uncle whose own attempts to avoid shifting led to corrupted magic and all manner of havoc.

Off the compound Charlie, Aster’s non-magical best friend, is starting school and eager to make new friends–especially the mysterious new girl who keeps to herself. That turns out to be extra complicated when a curse tries to attach itself to Charlie.

Aster is able to remove the curse. But he can’t stop it without finding the witch who created it. Aster and Charlie (and even Aster’s cousin Sedge) will have to work together to find the witch before their magic ends up just as corrupted as Charlie’s great uncle’s did years ago in The Hidden Witch (2018) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Hidden Witch is the second book in Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which starts with The Witch Boy.

I love the smooth edges and bright colors of Ostertag’s artwork. The panels are once again dynamic and full of fun details. This story spans both day and night with fun design elements like white or black gutters between panels to differentiate.

Ostertag effectively smashes the strict magical binaries of Aster’s family as Aster continues to study witchcraft and one of his male cousins contemplates attending a normal school instead of studying (and shifting) on the family compound.

The primary focus of this story is Aster and Charlie’s friendships both with each other as well as with other. The Hidden Witch is another fun installment that expands the world and fleshes out the magic systems first introduced in The Witch Boy.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix,  Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Witch Boy: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for The Witch Boy by Molly Knox OstertagThirteen-year-old Aster leads a secluded life on the compound he and his extended family call home. The family has everything they need and is far away from prying eyes which is important since Aster’s family is magic. For generations this magic has been simple: girls become witches while boys become shapeshifters.

Aster desperately wants to be a witch despite his family telling him again and again (and again) that it’s impossible for a boy to learn witchery. Aster doesn’t care and keeps studying and practicing in secret.

When Aster meets Charlie–a new girl in town who refuses to let anyone else define her–Aster knows he has to keep following his dreams in The Witch Boy (2017) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Witch Boy is the start of Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which continues in The Hidden Witch.

Ostertag’s full color illustrations are approachable and vivid. Panels are full of motion and varied design (complete with witchery runes!) that draw readers through the comic. Entertaining characters and strong friendships more than make up for an otherwise slight (and sometimes not subtle) plot.

The Witch Boy is a great graphic novel for readers of all ages with a message of inclusion that is much needed and very welcome.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix,  Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Witch Born: A Review

cover art for Witch Born by Nicolas BowlingEngland, 1577: Alyce can’t trust anyone after her mother is burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. With only the barest instructions and a mommet doll to guide her, Alyce heads to London. She hopes it will be easy to follow her mother’s instructions to find the hangman.

Along the way Alyce has to dodge dangerous witch hunters and learn how to trust new friends and allies. But Alyce isn’t the only one in London with a mission. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are both searching intently for Alyce. Both queens want to use her, but only one of them for good in Witch Born (2018) by Nicholas Bowling.

Witch Born is a thoroughly researched historical fantasy. Bowling brings the squalor and wonder of the sixteenth century to life along with the near-constant terror of witchcraft. Genuinely frightening witch hunters and evocative settings make this slim novel a page turner.

Because of Alyce’s young age, this novel is also ideal for readers of all ages. Alyce is a winsome heroine sure to endear herself to readers in this gripping debut. Recommended for readers of both fantasy and historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley, Savvy by Ingrid Law, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Bruja Born: A Review

*Bruja Born is the second book in Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Labyrinth Lost.*

cover art for Bruja Born by Zoraida CórdovaLula Mortiz has always been the healer, the beautiful one. That was before her younger sister Alex accidentally trapped Lula and all of her family in the underworld of Los Lagos, before maloscuros attacked Lula leaving her with scars across her cheek.

Sisterly bonds and everything Lula thought she knew about magic are tested as she struggles to move on the way the rest of her family has. When Lula is involved in a fatal bus crash she’s determined bring back her boyfriend, Maks, who has been the one stable thing in her life. But every bruja knows it’s impossible to beat Death–even with powerful magic on your side in Bruja Born (2018) by Zoraida Córdova.

Bruja Born is the second book in Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Labyrinth Lost.

This fantasy sequel picks up shortly after the events of Labyrinth Lost where readers meet the Mortiz family as Alex first tries to magic away her powers and then has to rescue her family from Los Lagos with her best friend (and now girlfriend) Rishi. This time around the story is narrated by Lula as she tries to cope with the aftermath of Los Lagos including the attack that has left her face scarred and the sudden return of her long-missing father.

Córdova blows the world of the Brooklyn Brujas series wide open as readers learn more about the Mortiz family and the Deos. Brooklyn Bruja also introduces the Knights of Lavant and the leaders of the Thorne Hill Alliance who manage all magical beings within the city. (The Thorne Hill Alliance made their first appearance in the author’s debut series The Vicious Deep.)

Excessive zombies and hunts for answers bring Lula and her sisters across Brooklyn in this plot-driven novel. Lula’s introspective narration shifts neatly to high action as the zombie outbreak heats up and Lula works to restore the balance between life and death.

A cliffhanger of an epilogue and questions surrounding youngest sister Rose and the family’s sometimes ally Nova will leave fans eager for the next volume. Bruja Born is a fast-paced story sure to appeal to fans of the first novel in particular and urban fantasy in general.

Possible Pairings: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Nocturna by Maya Motayne, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Charmed (TV series)

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the May 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

The Price Guide to the Occult: A Review

“Any decent human being, witch or otherwise, has the capacity to do good in this world. It’s merely a case of whether one chooses to do so.”

cover art for The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye WaltonMore than a hundred years ago Rona Blackburn arrived on Anathema Island with little more than her dogs and her magic. She built a home for herself and made a place on the island but even then the original eight settlers viewed Rona with fear and, eventually, with enough hate to try and burn her out of her home.

Rona survived. Determined to see the original eight and their descendants suffer she bound herself and her line to the island. But in casting her curse Rona inextricably tied daughters down the Blackburn line not just to the island but to the original eight families as well.

In the present all Nor wants to do is keep her head down, her unexceptional powers under control, and her love life nonexistent and untethered to any of the original eight families.

But when a strange price guide to the occult appears at her part time job Nor knows that the time for hiding is almost over in The Price Guide to the Occult (2018) by Leslye Walton.

The Price Guide to the Occult is Walton’s sophomore novel.

Written in close third person this novel, much like its heroine, keeps readers at a remove even as they are drawn deeper into the mysteries and intrigue that surround Anathema Island and its founding families. Each chapter is named for a spell and features an epigraphy from Rona Blackburn’s writings on witchcraft and magic.

Circuitous writing and lush descriptions bring Anathema Island and its magic to life especially as things begin to change when the Price Guide surfaces. Walton deftly builds a world where magic feels both plausible and inevitable with subtle twists on everyday moments that bring Nor’s world startling close to our own.

Nor is a cautious girl, if not by nature then through painfully learned lessons. Self-harm is a thread throughout The Price Guide to the Occult as Nor struggles with knowing that she can’t return to self-harm while wishing for a solution that could seem as simple as cutting herself once did.* She watches with growing horror as her home, the rest of the island, and beyond fall threat to dangerous magic being performed at a great cost.

This story is equal parts sexy and gritty as Nor experiences the elation of young love with an unlikely boy while searching for the source of the Price Guide and its magic that is slowly ruining the island and everything Nor loves. The novel, and the island itself, features a deliberately inclusive cast notably including Nor’s grandmother and her longterm partner Apothia Wu.

The Price Guide to the Occult is an unexpected and fascinating story that only begins to reveal the secrets surrounding Anathema Island and its founding families. Ideal for readers looking for a twisting fantasy whose memory will linger long after the book is closed. Recommended.

*Resources for readers who have struggled with self-harm themselves can be found in a note at the end of the novel.

Possible Pairings: The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Leslye about The Price Guide to the Occult too!