Mapmakers and the Lost Magic by Cameron Chittock & Amanda Castillo

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic

Information

GoodreadsMapmakers and the Lost Magic
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Alidade is tired of living in a small village ruled over by the cruel Night Coats, who prevent anyone from leaving. Running into the forest, she discovers a secret treehouse where a group of Mapmakers once worked to protect the Valley. Now, if Alidade wants to free her home from the Night Coats, she will have to take up the ancient art of mapmaking.

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Review

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic possesses an intriguing premise, but ultimately proves a lackluster story that relies on tired tropes and does nothing original with them. Alidade lives in a valley ruled by the Night Coats, a group of guards whose sole duty seems to put down the locals and make them dig dirt in a pit (for unknown reasons). Alidade longs for more, however. She longs for travel. And, so, after running away yet again, she stumbles upon a magic treehouse and learns that the valley was once free, and once guarded by the Mapmakers and their magical companions–now lost to time. Alidade has to unite the villagers to stand against the Night Coats and reclaim their land. It all sounds good. It just…feels really boring in practice.

The concept of a village that lives isolated from the rest of society and is oppressed by outsiders is nothing new. To stand out, Mapmakers and the Lost Magic really had to do something different, whether that meant creating especially lovable characters or providing a plot twist on the old tale. It does not. Alidade is a one-dimensional character whose sole point of interest is that she seems to be the only villager who has ever thought of leaving. Her friend is the standard homebody who distrusts adventure, but is loyal to Alidade. The plot is standard and predictable. Even the art does not make the story feel more magical.

I really wanted to see more depth in Mapmakers and the Lost Magic. I wanted to know more about the Night Coats, who they are, how they came to power, and what they are even doing bothering to police a small village of people who are not even interested in rebelling. What is their overall goal? Are they hiding something bigger? Is someone in the capital leading them in their nefarious deeds–whatever those are? I have no idea. The Night Coats are in Alidade’s village, and they are a nuisance, and aside from some commentary about humans always seeking power, that is all readers get because, in the end, the Night Coats are just around to give Alidade an antagonist.

The rest of the story is just as underdeveloped and lackluster. Politics and history are glossed over with the barest minimum needed to give Alidade a reason to try to become a Mapmaker. Her victory over the Night Coats is swift, confusing, and so easy it feels anti-climatic. Do I want to read a sequel to this book? No, not at all.

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic has a lot of promise, but it does not live up to that promise. If you are seeking an insightful book on politics, power, and oppression, other books have done a similar plotline and they have done it more effectively. With all the compelling middle grade graphic novels out there, this one is not really fleshed out enough or original enough to feel necessary.

2 star review

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okafor

Akata Witch Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsAkata Witch
Series: Nsibidi Scrolls #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but grew up in the United States. She is also albino. And she feels like she does not fit in anywhere. Then, she learns that she has latent magical abilities. She is what is known as a free agent–a magical person with non-magical parents. And she has to keep her powers a secret.

Soon, she is training with three other students to learn how to control her abilities. But there is a criminal on the loose, a magical person who has been kidnapping and killing children. And Sunny and her friends might be the only ones who can stop him.

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Review

Akata Witch transports readers to a unique magical world where Leopard people train in secret right next to their Lamb neighbors. Where a person can walk between the physical and spiritual realms. Where the creatures of myth just might be real. Readers looking for a young adult fantasy that does not feel derivative or, indeed, like anything else on the market, will want to check out the inspired world of Akata Witch.

As in with any book that feels different, Akata Witch risks alienating some readers. The pacing and the build-up to the climax are uncommonly slow for a young adult read; most YA books seem to prioritize action-based, lightning-fast plots over anything else. Nnedi Okafora, however, takes time to develop the worldbuilding, luring in readers as slowly as the protagonist Sunny is lured into a strange new world of magic and danger. Without exaggerating, I believe I could estimate that the first three quarters of the book (at least) are just Sunny finding out that she has powers, attending magical lessons, and experiencing the magical world. Eventually, Sunny learns that she and friends will be called on to face and (hopefully) defeat a Leopard man who has been kidnapping children for his dark rituals. But, even then, the four do not undergo any special training or feel any sense of urgency about the matter. They attend a festival and play soccer instead. All this slow pacing ends abruptly in the fast-paced climax, however, when Sunny and her friends somehow manage to defeat an ancient evil without really knowing what they are doing.

The worldbuilding is, however, a delight, and readers who value that aspect of fantasy writing will find much to revel in here. Nnedi Okafor draws upon Nigerian folklore to create a world steeped in meaning and magic, a world that feels quite like anything else on the YA market. From the terrifying lessons with her Leopard teacher, to the magical market, to the recipes that apparently can kill or injure should the slightest ingredient go wrong, Sunny’s world is one that constantly surprises. It also keeps Sunny and the readers on their toes as, with any good fantasy world, the price of magic is very often danger. Sunny’s initiation into the Leopard world confronts her with a training system and a belief system that often seems cruel and heartless to her–but the way the Leopard people understand and interact with the world is also thought-provoking, and certainly a key to this coming-of-age story.

Akata Witch is a precious find, a YA fantasy that feels unique and that invites readers into a world that not only enchants and surprises, but also explores questions of identity and belonging. If you are looking for a thrilling YA fantasy, don’t wait! Pick this one up today!

4 stars

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A. F. Steadman

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

Information

GoodreadsSkandar and the Unicorn Thief
Series: Skandar #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Skandar Smith dreams of leaving the Mainland to join the Island as a unicorn rider. All he has to do is pass the Hatchery exam, and he will be one of the chosen few to travel to the island and hatch a real, life unicorn. But not the type of unicorns people on the Mainland thought were cute (and imaginary). Real life unicorns are vicious, violent creatures who can control the elements, and share that magic with their bonded riders.

But the Hatchery exam does not go as planned, and Skandar finds his world shrinking–until a stranger knocks on his door at midnight and smuggles him onto the Island. People are disappearing, and a mysterious figure known as the Weave is stealing unicorns. And Skandar might be the only one who can save the Island.

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Review

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief proved a bit of a rollercoaster read for me. While it starts out feeling a bit slow and rather derivative, over time the pace picks up and the action drew me in. I initially thought I would end up DNFing the book, but discovered that I eventually enjoyed it for what it is–a fun middle grade fantasy that does not try to do much of anything new, but does relish in bringing out all the old favorite tropes. A solid read I think tween readers especially will enjoy.

The main draw for Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is presumably the “twist” on unicorn lore–the book makes a big deal out of noting that unicorns in this world are not the cute, rainbow-pooping creatures trending in pop culture right now, but rather vicious monsters who can kill. There are actually numerous fantasy books were unicorns are presented as wild and dangerous, so it’s not that original. However, I will accept that today’s tweens are so immersed in the glittery kind of unicorns that this might seem incredibly weird and innovative to the target audience.

And that’s the main draw, initially. “Look how scary these things are!” the book shouts. “They shoot lightning! They can trample you to death!” The dangerousness of unicorns is so hyped up, I began to wonder exactly why the protagonist wanted a unicorn of his own. Unicorn riders are treated as international celebrities, and audiences gather worldwide to watch the riders and their unicorns fight it out to see who will be in charge of the unicorn Island. But…it all seems so bloodthirsty! Why should I sympathize with Skandar wanting a unicorn of his very own so he can try to kill or maim another rider just so he can be on TV?? But this is to wonder too much. I think it’s just supposed to be like Pokemon, where you watch “caring” humans battle and injure their beloved animals and cheer them on instead of reporting them to the authorities responsible for animal welfare. So, if you or your child likes Pokemon, maybe Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is for you!

Despite all the hype about these bizarrely non-sparkly unicorns, however, the beginning feels slow. I felt like I could have been reading just about any other middle grade fantasy and getting a similar experience. The worldbuilding tried for something unique, but making the boarding school be a series of treehouses did not feel all that innovative. Then, once the pacing picked up, it felt choppy, with Skandar and his friends too easily completing different tasks that should have been impossible for a bunch of new students with almost no training.

By the middle of the book, however, I did somehow find myself immersed. I began to get more interested in the question of who the Unicorn Thief was, and what their end goal is. The pacing was still a bit uneven, with Skandar and his friends again completing tasks with a bit too much ease. But I enjoyed the action and the drama for what it was, without worrying too much that the book and its elements do not particularly stand out from similar titles.

If you enjoyed middle grade fantasy, and are looking for your next read, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is worth a try!

4 stars

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by by Tọlá Okogwu (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun
Series: Onyeka #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: June 14, 2022

Official Summary

Onyeka has a lot of hair­—the kind that makes strangers stop in the street and her peers whisper behind her back. At least she has Cheyenne, her best friend, who couldn’t care less what other people think. Still, Onyeka has always felt insecure about her vibrant curls…until the day Cheyenne almost drowns and Onyeka’s hair takes on a life of its own, inexplicably pulling Cheyenne from the water.

At home, Onyeka’s mother tells her the shocking truth: Onyeka’s psycho-kinetic powers make her a Solari, one of a secret group of people with super powers unique to Nigeria. Her mother quickly whisks her off to the Academy of the Sun, a school in Nigeria where Solari are trained. But Onyeka and her new friends at the academy soon have to put their powers to the test as they find themselves embroiled in a momentous battle between truth and lies…

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Review

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is a unique and fun-filled adventure about magic and finding a place for oneself sure to appeal to fans of magic school stories. Onyeka, upon suddenly finding the hair she’s always hated and struggled to manage is magic and that her abilities are related to her missing father, is whisked off to her home country of Nigeria, where she must navigate controlling her new powers while also making friends and adjusting to living in a new place.

The descriptions of the magic academy and of Nigeria will draw readers in and make the story feel real, as do the little hints of darkness scattered about: the fact that the children at the academy must live away from their parents, the idea they don’t know everything about their powers, the suggestion that something terrible has happened to Onyeka’s own parents.

Yet the darkness is balanced by Onyeka’s resilience, making her a character to root for, while her new friends are brave and loyal and just about everything one could hope for in a support group.

I do think:

1) the mentions of Onyeka’s hatred of her own hair could have been toned down. I appreciate it as a central theme of the story; I simply mean that the character seems to bring it up every 2 pages, and I believe the author could have created the same effect and explored the same things while cutting a few of these references.

2) the pacing feels a bit off. It took me a while to get into the story at the beginning, and then things begin to happen extremely quickly, and then the whole book ends on a cliffhanger. This is by no means a standalone book; expect it to end seemingly in the middle of the story, just as events start to really start going somewhere.

Overall, this is an immersive tale that feels fresh, and it will likely keep a lot of readers on the edges of their seats. Just wait for the sequel to be released if you’re the type of person who likes to read a full story all at once.

Briana
3 Stars

The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis

The Raven Heir

Information

GoodreadsThe Raven Heir
Series: The Raven Crown #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Gift
Publication Date: August 2021

Summary

Cordelia lives in an enchanted forest with her triplets Giles and Rosalind, her mother, older brother, and a servant. The triplets have been hidden away from the outside world for years, not knowing that one of them is heir to the Raven Throne. But then a group of men breach the castle, determined to take one of the triplets for the throne. But the triplets are just a pawn in an unending war. Taking the crown would mean certain death. So, when their mother and brother are taken prisoner, the three flee into the forest. Only by restoring their connection to the land can they save their mother–and maybe the kingdom.

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Review

The Raven Heir has a fascinating premise. Three triplets live in the forest, unknowing that one of them–the eldest, whichever that is–is actually the heir to the Raven Throne. But, for now, they live a sheltered life where their mother protects their home with magic and Cordelia learns to shapeshift into various animals, while Giles writes songs and Rosalind practices swordplay. Their life is shattered when a group of knights comes to take one to act as a puppet ruler. But however wonderful the premise, the execution falls short. I thought the politics were nonsensical, the characters annoying, and the plot too episodic and fast-paced. I wanted to love such a magical-sounding book, but I found myself desperately hoping the book would just end already.

Logic is one of the aspects of a book I highly value, and any politics that do not make sense are likely to make me immediately skeptical of a book. The Raven Heir does not have logical politics. Or, at least, I do not think it does; they are too thinly sketched for readers to have any deep understanding of what is actually happening in the kingdom. One gets the sense that the author wanted to provide just enough information to explain why the triplets have to flee, but that fleshing out an actual political landscape was deemed unnecessary. The idea is basically that a group of knights have to kidnap a triplet to act as ruler, while they actually rule behind the scenes. Other factions favor other puppet rulers. I…really did not understand why a group of men had to kidnap a random child at all. If they are all fighting for the throne, and everyone knows the child ruler is a farce, one of them can just fight for the throne and sit on it themselves. That is normally how new dynasties start, isn’t it? The strongest army wins. No need to chase a bunch of children through the forest.

Aside from that, the characters were really, really annoying. Even though there is an armed force at the gates, none of the children takes it seriously and Cordelia decides to just leave the castle and wander around their camp. This naturally leads to disaster, creating a series of events where Giles and Rosalind also do not take their imminent deaths seriously, instead choosing to dilly dally in the forest while being chased by armed soldiers, shout at the tops of their voices while they are being hunted, and generally squabble about everything instead of working together to make a plan and survive. It ends with an out-of-the blue betrayal just for dramatic effect. I did not care about any of the triplets and certainly did not care if they managed to save the kingdom or not.

The plot pacing was really fast-paced, with the children going through a series of episodes to constitute a grand adventure of some sort, before they reached the dramatic climax. Because the pacing is so fast, the children seem to get out of each situation with unbelievable ease. Rosalind, for instance, is apparently, as a child, equal to nine fully trained knights in battle. How convenient. I simply could not suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy this tale.

The idea of a shapeshifting protagonist is cool, but it is not enough to outweigh the other aspects of the work. I can see this book being received more favorably by the children it is intended for, however, since they may not care as much about logical politics or even having child protagonists exhibit more believable training. There is only book one in a series, but I do not see myself continuing any farther.

2 star review

A Taste of Magic by J. Elle (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: A Taste of Magic
Series: Park Row Academy #1
Age Category: Middle grade
Source: Netgalley from Bloomsbury for review
Publication Date: August 30, 2022

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Kyana has just discovered she’s a witch! This means classes every Saturday at Park Row Magic Academy, a learning center hidden in the back of the local beauty shop, and Kyana can’t wait to learn spells to help out at home. The only downside is having to keep her magic a secret from her BFF, Nae. But when the magic school loses funding, the students must pay huge fees at the fancy school across town or lose their magic! Determined to help, Kyana enters a baking contest with a big cash prize. Will she be able to keep up her grades while preparing for the competition and without revealing her magic? What about when a taste of magic works its way into her cupcakes?

Exciting up-and-coming author J. Elle combines the perfect balance of real-world issues and magical mishaps to create real magic. 

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Review

A Taste of Magic is a fun middle grade fantasy that will bring a touch of the familiar to readers who love a good story about a child discovering they have magic and then learning how to use it.

The book starts out with elements similar to middle grade stories, but a few chapters in, it branches out in something a bit more unique. And Kyana helps the book stand out with her strong personality and determination to excel at magic and help her family. There’s also a new take on the idea of a magic school here in that, one, there’s a small school for each neighborhood in the city instead of one large school and, two, Kyana’s school has the misfortunate of being painfully underfunded compared to some of the other school’s. The story becomes one that is as much about Kyana’s community and her mission to get her school its fair share of funding as it is about the magic of, well, discovering you have magic.

Add in a subplot about baking, which ties in a bit to Kyana’s skills with potions, and some cool magical cats, and you have a book that is sure to please a ton of readers. (And there are recipes in the back of the book! Not that I ever personally remember to get around to trying any recipes listed in the back of books . . .)

There are a couple of what I personally consider to be major plot holes in the book (which I won’t elaborate on here because I want to avoid spoilers, but you can DM me on Twitter or something if you really want to know!). I assume the hope is that the target audience won’t notice or care. Considering none of the current reviews on Goodreads mention these plot holes either, I also have to assume I am, once again, the only person scratching my head at the clear lack of logic in a book.

Overall, the book is solid, and I think it will really resonate with its target audience. I love the main character and her heart, and I love that there’s a slightly different take on how to learn magic here.

Briana
3 Stars

The Mapmakers by Tamzin Merchant (ARC Review)

The Mapmakers

Information

Goodreads: The Mapmakers
Series: The Hatmakers #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: ARC from publisher
Published: May 2022

Summary

Cordelia Hatmaker has managed to stop a war, but the Maker families are still divided and her seafaring father is still missing. Each night she travels under the stars, trying to decipher the map he left behind for her, trying to find her way to him. Then the dangerous traitor Lord Witloof disappears from the scaffold, throwing the nation into chaos and threatening magic everywhere. Only the Makers uniting can stop him–but that seems like an impossible task indeed. Sequel to The Hatmakers.

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Review

The Mapmakers takes readers back to the enchanting world of The Hatmakers, where five powerful guilds work to create magical items of clothing that can do anything from curing stage fright to making a person nigh invisible. Tamzin Merchant uses all her wit and whimsy to make this world come alive, expanding the scope of the story as new places, new characters, and new types of magic are introduced. Though some aspects of the story seem a bit undeveloped or rushed, on the whole, The Mapmakers is a charming tale–just the type of fantasy I like to curl up with at night.

This story begins right where the last one left off, with young Cordelia Hatmaker still convinced that her father did not die at sea, but that he is alive and sent her a map to find him. Meanwhile, the nation is still recovering from Lord Witloof’s treachery, and the Maker guilds are still refusing to work together. Familiarity with the first book is recommended, as The Mapmakers spends no time recapping previous events or reminding readers who characters are or what their relationships are. It is all action from the start.

A bit of whimsy does seem lost in this new tale, however, as there is less focus on the Maker guilds and their particular types of magic. Instead, Merchant expands her world, showing that other types of magic, and plenty of magical places also exist–as does a secret society of Mapmakers, dedicated to preserving those places. These plot points feel a bit more standard and less original than the ones in the previous book; I would have preferred a book that required Cordelia to use her magical hats more, since that is what is unique about the series. By the time characters are joining secret societies to find hidden keys to access portal worlds, it just feels less inventive.

Even so, The Mapmakers is a charming book. The Maker guilds are still there, as are all the characters readers have come to know and love. Though I preferred book one, I still enjoyed book two–and I am most decidedly hoping for a book three.

4 stars

Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater

Bravely

Information

Goodreads: Bravely
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Princess Merida of DunBroch loves her home and her family, but nothing ever seems to change. Unfortunately, the god of ruin, Feradach agrees. It is Feradach’s duty to root out rot and decay, so new things can grow. But Merida is not yet ready to give up on DunBroch, so she strikes a bargain. She has one year to change her family–or death will come to them all.

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Review

Though I am not typically one to read media tie-ins, I am also not one to pass up on a new Maggie Stiefvater book. Bravely takes place a few years after the events of the Disney/Pixar movie Brave, following Merida as she returns home from after a bit of travel, only to realize that life at DunBroch seems to be stagnating. This sets the scene for a plotline that seems a natural fit for Stiefvater–a wager between Merida and a god, witnessed by the Cailleach. Mythology and history are where Stiefvater shine, along with her golden liquid prose. But, somehow, Bravely never really comes to life. The pacing is uneven and the characters–even though they are in a story about change–feel flat on the page. Maybe there are too many constraints when writing a media tie-in. The characters can never really stray far from the source material–and so this story probably would have been far more interesting and innovative if it were not a sequel to Brave at all, but simply a book set in a magical/historical Scotland.

Because some years have passed, the characters in Bravely do not feel quite the same as their movie counterparts. Merida still loves archery and can be fiery and passionate, but she also seems to have matured. Meanwhile, the good parts of Fergus and Elinor have disappeared–they are lazy and lax, allowing their adopted housemaid (a servant who is considered Merida’s “sister” but who still ostensibly works for them??) to get away with being flighty and slovenly, and not really taking an interest in guiding their three young sons as they grow up. Stiefvater does notably attempt to differentiate the triplets (something the movie seemed uninterested in, preferring to treat them as a unit), but this also seems a bit unsuccessful. It’s not really enough to have “the serious one,” “the musical one,” and “the loud one,” as if one part of their personality defines them. Altogether, the characterization here is lacking.

The one character who really comes alive, and who makes the book interesting, is Feradach, the god of destruction. Feradach is a shifting character, one who is seen by every person in a different way, and thus one who has never needed to grow into being any particular way; they start anew each time. Feradach, however, does eventually change in a real, meaningful way, moving from feeling righteous about the necessity of ruin to bring growth, to reluctance to perform their duty. Feradach’s appearances in the story are the one bright spot in a book where otherwise the pacing is slow and uneven, and only a few of the other characters exhibit any really interesting development (even though the whole point of the book is obviously that Merida needs to get her entire family to be different).

I really have mixed feelings about this book. I wanted to love it because Stiefvater wrote it. And it has some beautiful parts when Stiefvater focuses on the mythology, and has room to explore the contest between Feradach and the Cailleach. The other parts of the book, however, feel a bit constrained, as if Stiefvater must be very careful not to introduce anything too un-Disneylike or anything that would be a problem later if considered canonical. I suppose this book would appeal mostly to hardcore fans of Stiefvater, or those who really loved the movie Brave. But I don’t think it’s a must-read for fans of YA fantasy in general.

3 Stars

Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty (ARC Review)

Blood and Moonlight book cover

Information

Goodreads: Blood and Moonlight
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: June 28, 2022

Official Summary

In this medieval YA fantasy thriller, an orphan with a secret, magical sight gets caught between a mysterious genius and the serial killer he’s hunting.

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into the web of a dangerous man who will definitely strike again. Assigned to capture the culprit is the mysterious, brilliant, and enigmatic Simon, whose insights into the mind of a killer are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between murderer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims . . .

Star Divider

Review

Blood and Moonlight combines medieval architecture, a murder mystery, and fantasy to create a compelling story unique in the YA scene. Multi-faceted characters kept me riveted to the pages, as they attempted to get into the mind of a serial killer and stop him before his victims pile even higher.

To some extent, I think this is the book Four Dead Queens hoped to be (and failed, in my opinion). It expertly combines three genres — historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery — and does it seamlessly. The “main” plot is solving the murder, but Cat’s magic powers are integral to the process, as is her status as a worker at the Sanctum and her knowledge of architecture. None of the parts seem out of place or as if they are distracting from the others. They are all fully developed, from the magic system to the world building, and they work together perfectly. The result is a book that feels different, even if you’re an avid reader of YA fantasy.

Personally, I did find the lengthy discussions of what the killer was doing and probably thinking a bit much, and at times I didn’t really “get” it — and then I struggled with not connecting with it or thinking it sounded right because I have to believe that the author spent a lot of time researching the minds of serial killers while I have . . . spent literally zero time doing so. That is, the author and the characters are probably right, so I’m not quite sure why some of the speculation sounded off to me.

The best part is: I really had no idea who the killer was throughout the entire novel. I was like the characters themselves, going back and forth suspecting one person, then another, then another, then the first person. I couldn’t figure it out, and I always love a book that is truly unpredictable.

This is a must-read book this year for anyone who loves YA.

Briana
4 stars

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo Song

Information

Goodreads: Cuckoo Song
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade/ Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Official Summary

When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; she keeps waking up with leaves in her hair, and her sister seems terrified of her. When it all gets too much and she starts to cry, her tears are like cobwebs…

Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying Underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family – before it’s too late…

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Review

Frances Hardinge once again brings a highly original fantasy world to life in Cuckoo Song, a book that is part atmospheric Gothic horror story and part fairy tale. A delicious feeling of suspense slowly builds up through the story, as the protagonist Triss wakes up from an accident, only to discover that her family seems unfamiliar and her hunger is insatiable. Once the revelations begin, however, the plot is all flash and danger; I simply could not predict the twists and turns the story would take. Hardinge is one of my favorite authors writing today, and Cuckoo Song lives up to the expectations I have for her novels–an inventive, quirky, and supremely satisfying read.

Much of what I love about Hardinge’s work is how different it feels–not only from anything else on the market, but also from whatever else Hardinge has written. Cuckoo Song takes readers to 1920s England, but one they have never before experienced. In this England, magic coexists with the mundane, and that magic is nothing expected. Even as Hardinge employs familiar elements of fairy tale and folklore, she subverts them, making the villains seem sympathetic and the usual protagonists seem cruel. But readers’ sympathies will likely shift and change over the course of the story, because these characters are complex and there are no easy answers.

More than a fairy tale, Cuckoo Song is also a family drama, one that digs deep into the fractures in the Crescent household after the death of their son Sebastian in the war. The family has tried to paper over the hole left by Sebastian’s death, and all are silently suffering as a result. Thus, even when the characters seem brutal, they are also understandable. Horrible things have been done in the name of grief, and guilt, and jealousy. Cuckoo Song does not look away from these terrors. But it also holds out hope–that courage and love can still make a difference.

Cuckoo Song will enthrall readers with its deeply atmospheric world, its dark suspense, its twists and its turns. But it will also capture them with its complex characters and beautiful prose. Frances Hardinge always delivers an exception story–Cuckoo Song is no exception.

5 stars