What YA Fantasy Standalone Should You Read? (Flow Chart)

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

This is the story of a bear-hearted girl . . .

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide.
Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding.

Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard.

And now there’s a spirit inside her.

The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defence when she is sent to live with her father’s rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.

But as she plans her escape and heads out into a country torn apart by war, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession – or death.”

A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

Thea Hope longs to be an alchemist out of the shadow of her famous mother. The two of them are close to creating the legendary Philosopher’s Stone—whose properties include immortality and can turn any metal into gold—but just when the promise of the Stone’s riches is in their grasp, Thea’s mother destroys the Stone in a sudden fit of violent madness.

While combing through her mother’s notes, Thea learns that there’s a curse on the Stone that causes anyone who tries to make it to lose their sanity. With the threat of a revolution looming, Thea is sent to live with the father who doesn’t know she exists.

But there are alchemists after the Stone who don’t believe Thea’s warning about the curse—instead, they’ll stop at nothing to steal Thea’s knowledge of how to create the Stone. But Thea can only run for so long, and soon she will have to choose: create the Stone and sacrifice her sanity, or let the people she loves die.

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

The forest is a dangerous place, where siren song lures men and women to their deaths. For centuries, a witch has harvested souls to feed the heartless tree, using its power to grow her domain.

When Owen Merrick is lured into the witch’s wood, one of her tree-siren daughters, Seren, saves his life instead of ending it. Every night, he climbs over the garden wall to see her, and every night her longing to become human deepens. But a shift in the stars foretells a dangerous curse, and Seren’s quest to become human will lead them into an ancient war raging between the witch and the king who is trying to stop her.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Hazel Evans and her brother Ben live in the town of Fairfold, where the locals know that Fae inhabit the forest and that if you are smart you leave out milk to appease them and go indoors after dark.  Tourists come each year to view the prince in the glass coffin, the boy with horns on his head.  And Hazel and Ben dream that he is their prince and they can set him free.  But when he finally awakes, he is  not the prince they were expecting.

Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë possess the secret of literally jumping into their imaginary world of Verdopolis, and their sister Emily is tired of being left behind.  Once all three of them, along with Anne, travelled there together as the all-powerful Genii, but now the elder Brontës keep that power to themselves.  Charlotte and Branwell, however, pay a price the others do not see.  Will the four of them ever be able to escape the mysterious hold that Verdopolis has on them?

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

Freya was never meant be queen. Twenty third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

Freya may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councillors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, Freya knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom – and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisors. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her, but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

The Nightmare Thief by Nicole Lesperance

The Nightmare Thief

Information

Goodreads: The Nightmare Thief
Series: Nightmare Thief #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: January 2021

Official Summary

Maren Partridge loves working in her family’s dream shop where she can hand-craft any dream imaginable. The shop has only one rule. Dreams cannot be given to a person without their consent. Maren has no problem with this—until her sister, Hallie, has an accident that leaves her in a coma. Maren’s certain she can cure Hallie with a few well-chosen dreams. And when no one is watching, she slips her a flying dream.

But a strange new customer from the shop has been following Maren and knows what she did. Now she’s laid the perfect trap to blackmail Maren into creating custom nightmares for a dark and terrible purpose. As Maren gets drawn further into the sinister scheme, she must make a choice: to protect her family or to protect the town from her family’s magic.

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Review

The Nightmare Thief seemed, on the surface, like just my kind of book. A girl with dream magic who ends up creating nightmares for a sinister woman out for revenge? Perfect. Unfortunately, however, I found the worldbuilding and the characterization to be lacking. And no book can rely solely on its premise. So while The Nightmare Thief lured me in with its summary, I ultimately found the experience lackluster.

The delight of many a fantasy is not only the plot, but also the world. I was excited to learn about what appears to be a contemporary American society, complete with regular shops and the internet, that coexists with small types of magic: the ability to send a letter to its recipient at once, a talent for gardening, the creation of singing and sparkling novelty toys. However, I quickly realized that my expectations would remain unfulfilled. The book has very little interest in exploring the different types of magic, how they work, how they interact, and how they are received. Rather, the book name drops a few types of magic, then quickly focuses on the major plot point: a suspicious-looking woman keen to purchase nightmares in bulk.

Sadly, however, the plot is not all that gripping. It is immediately obvious that this evil-looking woman is an old resident out for revenge, and that she is using dream magic to chase people out of town. Yet no one seems to be aware of her nefarious plot, or to care that all the charming magical shops are being transformed into wicked emporiums. Only Maren starts to grasp the overall plan, and she decides her best course of action is to do whatever the villain wants, in the name of protecting not her family (as the book summary states) but rather herself. Because the punishment for sneaking people dreams without consent is never to be allowed in her family’s dream shop again. And apparently sacrificing the whole town is worth being able to go into the shop.

One might hope that the characterization would save the book at this point. If Maren were really sympathetic and the characters all drawn compellingly, the reading experience might have been worth it. Alas, however, Maren is barely fleshed out. Readers basically know that that she loves her sister and she sometimes takes tap dance lessons, and those seem to be her major character traits. She is also having friendship troubles (because this is a middle grade book, after all) because her best friend is hanging out with another boy who is mean to her. But that is all glossed over quickly in the name of recruiting her friend to try to help her defeat the villain. Her friend pretty much has zero personality, though readers know his grandfather is ill and his parents are not together. Indeed, the attempts at creating characters in this book seems to boil down in most cases to associating each person with one or two random tidbits–she dances, he visits his ailing grandfather, and so on. I could not truly describe any of the characters’ personalities.

The Nightmare Thief has plenty of potential–magic shops! vengeful citizens! talking birds! Ultimately, however, the book seems to rely primarily on its premise to capture readers, and barely pays attention to worldbuilding or characterization. Though a sequel is promised, I simply do not care enough to read it.

3 Stars

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart

Information

Goodreads: This Poison Heart
Series: The Poison Heart #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: June 29, 2021

Official Summary

Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants from tiny seeds to rich blooms with a single touch.

When Briseis’s aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Bri and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind for the summer. Hopefully there, surrounded by plants and flowers, Bri will finally learn to control her gift. But their new home is sinister in ways they could never have imagined–it comes with a specific set of instructions, an old-school apothecary, and a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world that can only be entered by those who share Bri’s unique family lineage.

When strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs, Bri learns she has a surprising talent for creating them. One of the visitors is Marie, a mysterious young woman who Bri befriends, only to find that Marie is keeping dark secrets about the history of the estate and its surrounding community. There is more to Bri’s sudden inheritance than she could have imagined, and she is determined to uncover it . . . until a nefarious group comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir. Up against a centuries-old curse and the deadliest plant on earth, Bri must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.

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Review

With a smart, determined protagonist, ties to Greek mythology, and magic that permeates our real world, This Poison Heart has a lot of potential, and I can see why Goodreads users are loving it. Personally, however, I was put off by poor pacing, clunky characterization, and general vagueness about the magic system, and the novel didn’t grip me the way I’d hoped.

The urban fantasy aspect is fun, and I love the idea that protagonist Briseis has plant magic she’s trying to hide in the heart of Brooklyn. Things get a bit more fantasy traditional when she takes her magic to a mysterious estate in upstate New York, but there’s still the cool feel that Bri is practicing magic in our real world, and her talents are rare if not necessarily unique.

I like Bri as the protagonist. She’s clever and persevering and seems to be a good friend. She’s not perfect, and she knows it, but she works on her strengths while acknowledging she’s not good at everything. However, I do think the book suffers from trying to make her (and the other characters) model “correct behavior” — which I think is a trend in YA in general and not something particular to this book. That is, the characters always talk out their feelings, always say the “right” thing, admit when they’re wrong, etc. Sometimes they do this in ways that seem as if they’re using a script someone would come up with for use in the “ideal” conversation, instead of saying things I imagine real people would ever say. I know a lot of readers actually like this, and I’ve seen books particularly praised for it, but it’s not my thing, and it’s one minor reason among many that I ultimately didn’t love the book.

Mostly I found the pacing off. The beginning is a little slow, but that’s not an issue for me. I’m fine with immersing myself in world building and learning things about the book. The main issues are that 1) so many hints are dropped about things that happen later in the story that none of them are really that surprising as reveals and 2) the pace moves from slow to rocket ship fast in the final chapters of the book, and I nearly found myself laughing at all the wild things that happened one after another. Bri’s relationships with new characters also progress strangely quickly. If the pace had been more even throughout the story, I would have liked it better.

This Poison Heart is fine. I understand why a lot of other readers love it. It’s not for me, though, and I have no plans to read the sequel.

Briana
2 star review

Other Books by Kalynn Baryon

The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni

Information

Goodreads: The Prison Healer
Series: The Prison Healer #1
Source: Library
Published: April 13, 2012

Official Summary

Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov, working as the prison healer.

When the Rebel Queen is captured, Kiva is charged with keeping the terminally ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal: a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water, and earth, assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals.

Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order: “Don’t let her die. We are coming.” Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the queen will be granted their freedom.

But no one has ever survived.

With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun.

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Review

Possible minor spoilers!

The Prison Healer takes what readers think they know about how YA fantasies work and tries to twist some of the tropes into something new. A protagonist who finds strength in healing, hoping, and helping others, all while keeping her head down and doing what she’s told so she can survive her term in prison adds to the appeal of the story. Unfortunately, the world building, plot, and characterization are extremely illogical, and I couldn’t enjoy the book in the end. The more I thought about it all, the less sense it made. Logic, however, is not a core point most YA readers seem to look for in their books (The Prison Healer has a 4.31 average rating on Goodreads as I type this), so if you’re a YA fantasy fan, it’s likely you’ll love this book even though I didn’t.

The opening of the story has promise. I liked Kiva, a protagonist who freely admits her one talent is healing people. She can’t even claim any “mundane” skills like cooking or sewing, much archery or swordsmanship or whatever other elements of physical prowess one typically sees in a YA “strong female character.” She does what she’s told because it keeps her alive, and she does her job in the infirmary, and she stays out of people’s way. It’s refreshing, and reading about her daily life navigating the prison is interesting.

Then the main plot starts, and things go downhill. Characters are introduced, and Kiva becomes BFFs with them for no apparent reason, even though her “thing” is not being friends with anyone because it’s prison and half of them die anyway. Then there’s the Rebel Queen and Kiva’s decision to volunteer in her stead in the Trial by Ordeal (not a spoiler; this is in the plot summary!). This . . . just doesn’t work. The idea of the Trial by Ordeal doesn’t make sense in the first place; there seems to be no clear reason why it’s sporadically invoked, and it’s basically a show trial since the only way to survive is to have elemental magic, and only the royal family has elemental magic. (This also means the royal family is above the law, since they would all survive it?) And BECAUSE no one ever survives and there is literally no way to survive without magic, I simply could not understand why all Kiva’s friends were so optimistic about the whole thing, telling her she could do it and she just had to believe in herself and be confident and it would be find. There is no reason anyone would ever think she would be fine!

A lot of YA fantasies have the trial plot. Usually the idea is that the tasks are almost impossible but not entirely impossible and the protagonist has some cool skills they will use to triumph against the odds, and readers can cheer for them and their dramatic feats. This isn’t that. This is someone who (to make up an example not actually in the book) is going to jump off a skyscraper without any tools or magic or skills and hope she survives. And other characters are telling her she can do it. By the sheer power of her belief in herself??? It’s all too weird. I spent the whole book wondering if all the characters were out of their minds.

My only explanation for most of the book, and most of the decisions the characters made, was that they were all lying about everything. Some of them must have had different motivations for what they were doing than what they were saying, some of them must know things they weren’t letting on about, etc. I read hoping and praying this was the case and everything would come together in the end. And I think even the author knows logic is an issue because she spends so much time trying to explain things about the Rebel Queen and the world building and the royal family, etc. and make it fit, and yet it never fully does.

The book is fine, I guess. It’s interesting. People will probably like the hunky love interest. I liked Kiva myself, and her 11-year-old helper in the infirmary. I wanted to like the book, but I just couldn’t when so much of it doesn’t make sense. I know I’m in the minority on this point, however, because I always am.

Briana
2 star review

The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: The Wolf’s Curse
Series: None
Source: ARC for Review
Publication Date: September 21, 2021

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he witnessed a Great White Wolf steal his grandpapá’s soul, preventing it from reaching the Sea-in-the-Sky and sailing into eternity. When the superstitious residents of Bouge-by-the-Sea accuse the boy of crying wolf, he joins forces with another orphan to prove his innocence. They navigate their shared grief in a journey that ultimately reveals life-changing truths about the wolf––and death. 

Star Divider

Review

The Wolf’s Curse is a completely unique book, focused on grief but told with the feeling of a folk tale or fairy tale, softening some of the darkness. Readers will mourn with protagonist Gauge after the death of his grandfather while hoping he will find his way through the sadness — and through the cruelty of the villagers who believe Gauge is evil — and emerge stronger and ready to face on the world, even if his grandfather is no longer in it.

The treatment of death and grieving in The Wolf’s Curse is nuanced. Author Jessica Vitalis touches on the different ways people might react to death, the different ways they might grieve, and the different things they might believe happens to the soul. The book also engages with ritual, as Gauge and begins to notice that not all rituals are preformed for all people who die in the village and that different materials are used for their burial boats and must work through questions of whether the rituals are “real” and why they “matter.” It’s a complex journey of observation, questioning, and discovery, and I think it could help many young readers work through dealing with death or understanding what someone else who is grieving might be doing through.

The one thing that gives me pause is that the book is straightforward that what the villagers believe happens to the soul after death is not actually what happens to it. Souls still end up in a nice place, and there’s some discussion of the fact that what one calls the afterlife might not be the important part if it’s enjoyable place either way, but . . . I don’t know if this would be a sticking point for a young reader. The Wolf’s Curse is a good story on its own, but as it is so strongly an exploration of grief it also seems like the kind of book an adult would hand a child who is dealing with a recent death, and I question how the point of “What the characters believe about the afterlife is totally incorrect” would go over.

The plot, I think, is less complex than the themes explored, but it’s well-paced. Gauge travels a lot of the town and gets into and out of a few scrapes, and I believe the target audience will be charmed by him and the new friends he makes along the way. The slight simplicity of the plot also help the story feel more like an old folk tale we’re all comfortably familiar with, something that it is known and somehow true. The book could have felt preachy; instead, it feels as timeless as the Wolf that narrates it.

If you’re looking for something thoughtful and deep and different. The Wolf’s Curse is an excellent middle grade story that is sure to continue to win over reader after reader.

Briana
4 stars

The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea

Information

Goodreads: The Girl from the Sea
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2021

Official Summary

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a secret: She can’t wait to escape the perfect little island where she lives. She’s desperate to finish high school and escape her sad divorced mom, her volatile little brother, and worst of all, her great group of friends…who don’t understand Morgan at all. Because really, Morgan’s biggest secret is that she has a lot of secrets, including the one about wanting to kiss another girl.

Then one night, Morgan is saved from drowning by a mysterious girl named Keltie. The two become friends and suddenly life on the island doesn’t seem so stifling anymore.

But Keltie has some secrets of her own. And as the girls start to fall in love, everything they’re each trying to hide will find its way to the surface…whether Morgan is ready or not.

Star Divider

Review

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet summer romance centered around one girl’s search for her identity. Morgan has plans to leave her island home as soon as she can go to college. Only then does she plan to reveal to the world that she is gay. However, when a girl named Keltie appears from the ocean, Morgan finds herself trying to balance her attraction to Keltie with her desire to blend in with her friend group. When hiding her budding relationship becomes unsustainable, Morgan will have to decide what she values more: the life she has crafted on the island or the life she could have. Fans of Molly Knox Ostertag will enjoy this new graphic novel.

The Girl from the Sea is one of those books that shows the power of literature to help readers see things from new perspectives and empathize with others. Were the story told from another point of view, Morgan could easily look like the villain. She brushes off her brother, who is obviously trying to get her attention and connect with her, in favor of hanging out with her new girlfriend Keltie. She lies to her friend group about where she is and what she is doing–again, to hang out with her girlfriend. She then publicly rejects her girlfriend and makes fun of Keltie behind her back in order to keep fitting in with her friends from school. Morgan is not particularly kind to anyone in this story, but, because it is told from her perspective and not from her brother’s or her friends’, readers feel sorry for her. She wants to be able to be with Keltie, but she is also not ready to tell the world that she is gay. If keeping her secret means hurting others, she is willing to do it.

This all creates a lot of drama and suspense, and readers will find themselves eagerly turning the pages in hopes that things will get better. Only by being true to herself can Morgan repair her relationships and save the local wildlife in the process. The narrative is relatively fast-paced while still providing enough detail to flesh out most of the characters. The only really rushed bit is the insta-love; Morgan and Keltie see each other once, kiss immediately, and are a couple forevermore. The book does at least try to explain this away by saying Keltie is a selkie and it is destined. Readers may just have to try to accept that and move on.

The Girl from the Sea is an engrossing story that expertly blends a story of self-acceptance with a hint of romance and a dash of magic. The beautiful artwork only adds to the tale. Readers who enjoy graphic novels, especially ones that blend the fantastic with the everyday, will want to pick this one up.

4 stars

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

A Pinch of Magic book cover

Information

Goodreads: A Pinch of Magic
Series: A Pinch of Magic #1
Source: Library
Published: 2019 (UK), 2020 (US)

Official Summary

All Betty Widdershins wants is an adventure–one that takes her far away from Crowstone, the gloomy island where she’s always lived. But instead of an adventure, Betty and her sisters, Fliss and Charlie, are given of a set of magical objects, each with its own powers: a scruffy carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror. And these magical objects come with their own terrible secret: the sisters’ family is haunted by a generations-long curse that prevents them from ever leaving their island–at the cost of death.

The sisters set out to break the curse and free their family forever. But after stumbling upon a mysterious prisoner who claims to be able to help them, they find themselves in great danger. And in order to break the curse–and stay alive–they must unravel a mystery that goes back centuries, one that involves shipwrecks, smugglers, and sorcery of the most perilous kind. 

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Review

I picked up A Pinch of Magic because I love middle grade fantasy, and this one has excellent reviews. However, upon finishing it, I find myself in the awkward spot of not having anything particular to say about it. In the end, it seems like one of those books that’s very solid and leaves me little to complain about — but it’s not so much a standout that I have much to praise either.

The book does everything it sets out to do. Harrison successfully creates the limited world of Crowstone, a group of fairly depressing islands where the protagonists have spent most of their lives. Readers can feel the confines that the children chafe against as they long to explore the world and feel the salty sea hour and the hint of sadness created by living so near to a prison, where everyone seems to have a relative.

The plot is interesting. Three children set out to break a curse, using just a pinch of magic. They get into danger, and things go wrong, and sometimes help unexpectedly pops up. What not to love about that? I enjoyed it; I just wasn’t riveted, dying to know what would happen next.

The best part of the story is definitely the relationship of the three sisters. A lot of books claim they are about siblings, but then the main character’s siblings are barely present. Here, the focus is on Betty because she’s 13 and this is a middle grade book, but her two sisters (16 and 6) are equal parts of the team breaking the curse, and readers actually get some looks into their minds, as well, how older sister Fliss likes to flirt but really wants love and how younger sister Charlie wants to be taken seriously and seen as valuable. The three fight, of course, but they always have each other’s backs, and that’s lovely.

So, I definitely recommend A Pinch of Magic. It’s quite nice. Other fans of fantasy MG will certainly like it. I simply don’t find it memorable, and I think by next year it’s going to be one of those books I kind of forgot I read at all.

Briana
3 Stars

Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

Mister Impossible

Information

Goodreads: Mister Impossible
Series: Dreamer Trilogy #2
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

The stakes have never been higher as it seems like either the end of the world or the end of dreamers approaches.

Do the dreamers need the ley lines to save the world . . . or will their actions end up dooming the world? As Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde try to make dreamers more powerful, the Moderators are closing in, sure that this power will bring about disaster. In the remarkable second book of The Dreamer Trilogy, Maggie Stiefvater pushes her characters to their limits – and shows what happens to them and others when they start to break.

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Review

Mister Impossible brings back all the drama, intrigue, and suspense of Call Down the Hawk. Ronan and Hennessey are now on the run, attempting to stop the Moderators before they can kill any more dreamers. Jordan is haunting the black market, trying to find an artifact rumored to keep dreams awake. And Declan and Matthew are dealing with the fallout from the revelation that Matthew himself is a dream. The story takes plenty of unexpected twists and turns as it travels towards its thrilling conclusion.

What was perhaps most notable about the Raven Cycle and even Call Down the Hawk is that the previous books do not really have a defined plotline. Gansey and his friends kind of meander around pleasantly in the Raven Cycle, before finally stumbling upon the object of their quest. Ronan, Declan, Jordan, and Hennessey kind of stumble around helplessly in Call Down the Hawk, until they finally realize that a secret group called the Moderators has been systematically killing dreamers the whole time. In Mister Impossible, however, the characters start to have clear agendas: save the dreamers, wake the dreamt, destroy the Lace. What makes the story fascinating is how their goals shift and overlap as they gain more information about the effects their actions could have.

A fast-paced plot with plenty of action is not all the book has to offer, however. Stiefvater does a wonderful job of making her characters come alive, and it is a real treat to see, in particular, how Declan and Matthew reveal themselves in this novel. In the Raven Cycle, we see the two other brothers primarily through Ronan’s eyes, and his portraits are evidently both unflattering and not entirely accurate. I came to love Declan’s and Matthew’s chapters perhaps more than the rest. Sometimes Ronan, Jordan, and Hennessey can read more like aesthetics than characters, but Declan and Matthew feel like people I want to know more intimately.

Finally, it is notable that Stiefvator tones down her overwrought prose in this book. She is known for her beautiful writing, but, at times, it can get a bit out of hand with all the repetitions and convoluted metaphors. Here, the writing is relatively crisp and clear. The wonderful sense of irony is still present, but without the unnecessary frills. This made the reading experience far more enjoyable than Call Down the Hawk.

Mister Impossible is a worthy addition to the Dreamer trilogy, a whirlwind ride of action, adventure, and mystery. Fans of Stiefvater’s work may miss some of the characters that they have come to love in previous volumes, but this story gives them new ones to enjoy. And the cliffhanger will certainly have readers clamoring for book three, that they may know that everyone lives happily ever after. We hope.

5 stars

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Information

Goodreads: Six Crimson Cranes
Series: Six Crimson Cranes #1
Source: Purchased
Published: July 6, 2021

Official Summary

Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted, but it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

Raikama has dark magic of her own, and she banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes, and warning Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and, on her journey, uncovers a conspiracy to overtake the throne—a conspiracy more twisted and deceitful, more cunning and complex, than even Raikama’s betrayal. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to contain—no matter what it costs her. 

Star Divider

Review

Six Crimson Cranes is an imaginative, immersive fairy tale retelling that focuses on family and friendship and finding oneself through hard work and sacrifice. Readers will fall in love with protagonist Shiori as she fights to free herself and her brothers from a curse, before their kingdom falls to usurpers.

The opening of the story felt a bit shaky to me, as I (and many of the characters) couldn’t quite comprehend why literally running away from her betrothal ceremony seems a reasonable thing to do to Shiori. (Not run away as in escape and live a life disguised as a nicely unmarried peasant, as some characters do but just . . . vaguely run off to the palace grounds.) But things pick up as Shiori has to live with the consequences of that decision and navigate learning more magic in a land where it is forbidden. Readers get to see Shiori established in her life at the palace before the curse kicks in, which grounds the book and helps readers see why she is so fond of her brothers and determined to bring them all safely home.

The real adventure begins with the curse, however, and I enjoyed seeing a range of Kiata’s geography as Shiori travels and looks for ways to put her life back to rights I also enjoyed seeing her transformation from a princess who was spirited but admittedly had little “real life” experience into someone willing to put in hard work and consider other people’s points of views.

However, the story has some of the same flaws as Lim’s other work, which is that the plot starts off at a steady pace, only to rocket off at the end of the book, where a ton of new events happen at once and new problems are introduced, all while the author is still trying to more or less wrap everything up. (Though there will be a sequel to this book.) This could be exciting, but mainly I found it confused, and I’d like to see more even pacing throughout the entirety of the story.

The book also has ties with Lim’s previous duology, as readers see enchanters, demons, and other pieces of magic introduced in Spin the Dawn and Unravel the Dusk, though no knowledge of these books is necessary to read Six Crimson Cranes.

Overall, the book is exciting and fun and a little bit romantic. If you like fairy tale retellings, this is definitely one to pick up.

Briana
4 stars

The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Kay O’Neill

Tea Dragon Tapestry

Information

Goodreads: The Tea Dragon Tapestry
Series: Tea Dragon #3
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Over a year since being entrusted with Ginseng’s care, Greta still can’t chase away the cloud of mourning that hangs over the timid Tea Dragon. As she struggles to create something spectacular enough to impress a master blacksmith in search of an apprentice, she questions the true meaning of crafting, and the true meaning of caring for someone in grief. Meanwhile, Minette receives a surprise package from the monastery where she was once training to be a prophetess. Thrown into confusion about her path in life, the shy and reserved Minette finds that the more she opens her heart to others, the more clearly she can see what was always inside.

Told with the same care and charm as the previous installments of the Tea Dragon series, The Tea Dragon Tapestry welcomes old friends and new into a heartfelt story of purpose, love, and growth.

Star Divider

Review

The Tea Dragon Tapestry brings the same quiet charm as the previous installments in the trilogy. No major quests are undertaken. No drama unfolds. Rather, the story focuses on the everyday choices of the protagonists as they seek to determine what they want out of life and how to get there. For Greta, this means choosing a piece to submit as her application to become a blacksmith’s apprentice, while also trying to help her tea dragon Ginseng deal with grief. For Minette, it means finding purpose and passion now that she no longer lives in the monastery. Fortunately, they have friends and family to support them every step along the way. The Tea Dragon Tapestry will have readers wishing they lived in as magical and loving a world as the characters.

Much of the charm of the Tea Dragon series comes, not from its fantasy elements, but from the relationships of the characters. Like a Miyazaki film, the books present communities where the people choose to uplift each other, rather than fight or try to get ahead at another’s expense. The magic is not really that tea dragons (and actual dragons) exist, but that people care about each other. When Greta and Minette question their paths in life, their friends and family are there to offer reassurance, support, and advice. As the books choose to focus on the quieter moments in life, they remind readers that every aspect of life can be quite thrilling. Not everything has to be loud and exciting to be important.

The artwork in The Tea Dragon Tapestry also continues to be just as beautiful and rich as in previous installments. Each panel is so gorgeous, it looks like it ought to be framed. These are not illustrations simply to move the story along, but real works of art, created with love. And Kay O’Neill uses the opportunity to visually represent so much diversity in her characters–something many readers have appreciated over the course of the trilogy.

The Tea Dragon Tapestry is the perfect end to this series, a gift to readers who have fallen in love with the characters, the world, and the art. Saying goodbye is bittersweet, but it is a comfort to know that the books will always be waiting to be opened again.

4 stars