Tag Archives: magic

UKYA Review: The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The Scarecrow Queen, Melinda Salisbury, (Scholastic, March 2017)

Genres in the mix: Fantasy (high)

Age target: YA

Be warned: this reviews the conclusion to a trilogy, so there may be spoilers for the first two books. If you haven’t read the first two, my advice is simple – do that. It’s a cracking fantasy series and I am even more convinced of that now I’ve read the whole thing. I would especially recommend it if you tend to notice shades of anti-feminism or poor female representation creeping into books and media that claim to have ‘strong female characters’ or to be ‘for girls’. These books will not let you down. Mel’s ethics shine through in her realistically-portrayed-and-therefore-flawed characters (sidenote: strong female character does not equal robotically tough) and her commitment to offering her female characters in particular genuine choices, great relationships (and by that I mean friendships with each other as well as romance possibilities) and real growth. If you’re new to the series, now’s the time to leave…

Story basics (from Goodreads): The final battle is coming . . .

As the Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever . . .

Explosive, rich and darkly addictive, this is the stunning conclusion to Mel Salisbury’s internationally best-selling trilogy that began with The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

The emotional ride: Tricky and intense. There were moments in both Twylla’s and Errin’s sections when I thought I might cry (this is not a common thing for me), as well as moments of genuine joy. Brilliantly handled pace.

Narrative style: I loved the switching between Twylla’s and Errin’s points of view and felt it really increased the tension as well as clearly showing different parts of the story. It gave it a very filmic feel, like we were switching scenes: ‘meanwhile, at the castle…’

Plotting and pacing: A real strength of the book, heightened by the narrative style, I feel. Shifting the focus between the two viewpoint characters from the first two books really helped to keep the pace shifting. I also really liked that this was in large chunks, rather than chapter by chapter as it’s often done – this worked great for this particular story.

Main character: Obviously, there were two main characters here, and I loved them both. Twylla has grown so much from the naive young woman we first met in Sin Eater’s Daughter – poor thing, she’s had to! I do like that both she and Errin defy a lot of the ‘strong heroine’ stereotypes and yet really grow into their roles as leader-types in this book. It feels very organic and realistic here.

Supporting cast: These are also really well drawn. I think Merek comes into his own here and I enjoyed his development. I appreciated the arc of Lief’s character, difficult though it is and the Sleeping Prince is a marvellous full-on moustache-twirling baddie. However, it’s the supporting cast of women that I loved and who I feel make the series. The Sisters really are the heart of it all.

One final note: I loved the ending. I commented at the beginning that I see this as a strong series in terms of representation of women and I think that the ending is a crucial part of that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I feel the ending is perfect in that it is true to the novel’s own spirit. It gives the characters the ending they deserve, on their own terms, and that is the most satisfying ending possible.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

The Scarecrow Queen is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I am counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

Guest Review: Ever After High – The Storybook of Legends by Shannon Hale

This review was kindly provided by my 10 year old (who has been bugging me to read this book, and to find out when the next will be out. She is not happy that she has to wait until March, which probably tells you all you need to know about this book already!)

Storybook of Legends

Book Description

I thought it was a funny (not silly) read about fairytale character’s children ready to become the next generation of fairytales for children.

Each year, on Legacy Day, the princes, princesses, evil villains and animals would all sign The Storybook of Legends ready to fulfil their destinies as the next heroes, heroines and evil villains! But Raven Queen, daughter of the Evil Queen in Snow White, doesn’t want to be evil. If Raven doesn’t sign, then both she and Apple White (daughter of Snow White) will vanish.

My review: Ever After High – The Storybook of Legends

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it a very well written book for girls aged about 7 – 11. I’d recommend it to anyone that enjoys twisted fairytales. I found the ending (epilogue) very shocking yet very clever. I can’t wait for the next one in the series to come out! 🙂

I think Raven made the right choice in the end. I thought it had a great moral lesson whilst being an enjoyable read. Maddie Hatter has to be my favourite character by far, I loved how strange and funny she was without being too silly for girls to read. If I could choose any character to come to life I’d most definitely choose Maddie. I thought she was a great friend to everyone and I particularly enjoyed it when Maddie spoke to the narrator.

Review: Museum Mayhem by Sara Grant (Magic Trix 4)

More delightful witchery from the Magic Trix series for young readers 

This series is really just lovely. If it’s new to you, don’t despair, there’s time to catch up. Here are my reviews for the earlier titles: The Witching Hour, Flying High, Birthday Wishes.

In this instalment, Trix gets witching cough, which leads to all manner of mayhem on a trip to the Natural History Museum with her family and Holly. As ever, Sara Grant’s gentle storytelling emphasises the traits Trix will need to be a good Fairy Godmother one day, offering sound messages about friendship and kindness to her young readers.

I was happy to see Jinx – Trix’s magical kitten familiar – getting a good portion of the action in this story. I always enjoy the portions of the story told from his perspective, and it was great to see him more actively involved in the plot.

I really can’t recommend this series enough. It will definitely appeal to little girls, offering them funny stories, magic and the chance to see girl characters doing things and having an impact. Great stuff!

From the Back Cover

The three signs that you may be a witch . . .

  • You occasionally see witches flying across the midnight sky on their broomsticks.
  • Rhyming spells pop into your head at the drop of a (witch’s) hat!
  • You love planning magical surprises for your friends.
When you’re a witch, coughs and sneezes can have surprising special effects – as Trix finds out when a trip to the museum leads to spotty mammoths and lively dinosaurs! Can Jinx the magic kitten help Trix find a cure before her witchy secret is revealed?

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Published 4 July by Orion Children’s Books
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy (which seems to have migrated to my daughter’s shelves…)

Review: Birthday Wishes (Magic Trix 3) by Sara Grant

Another charming story about the trainee witch 

I love these little books! Pitched at the 5-8 crowd, but perfectly enjoyable for older readers too :), they capture all the magic and charm I remember from my own childhood reads such as Enid Blyton and Jill Murphy.

In this instalment, Trix is desperately hoping that her best friend Holly, whose tenth birthday is coming up, will learn that she too is a witch. At the same time, there are new witchly skills to learn and more trouble from the less-than-nice Stella. Another thing I appreciate about these books is that they are also about friendship, with good models for young readers without a whiff of preachiness.

Trix is a great main character. She’s not perfect, but she is good and kind and tries hard. She’s easy for young readers to both like and look up to. I also love her familiar, Jinx the visible-only-to-witches cat. He is so sweet and it’s a real bonus that some sections are narrated from his point of view – a real stroke of genius!

If you have an under-10-year-old around, I’d definitely recommend this series. Or, you know, for yourself if you’re a kidlit reader 🙂

See my reviews of the earlier books in the series: The Witching Hour and Flying High

From the blurb:

The three signs that you may be a witch…

* You occasionally see witches flying across the midnight sky on their broomsticks.

* Rhyming spells pop into your head at the drop of a (witch’s) hat!

* You love planning magical surprises for your friends.

Parties and potions. Secrets and surprises!

Witch-in-training, Trix Morgan, is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend, Holly. But nothing goes according to plan – especially when mean-girl Stella adds a secret ingredient to Trix’s magic potion…

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Published May 2013 by Orion Children’s Books
Find it on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy

Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Brilliant second instalment in this glorious YA fantasy trilogy 

I adored Shadow and Bone last summer (initially published in the UK as The Gathering Dark), and couldn’t wait for book 2 to see how Alina’s adventures would continue. If you haven’t read the first book, I wouldn’t recommend reading on, as I can’t be sure to avoid spoilers for it here.

(Did they go yet? Can I get on with it? Good.)

Siege and Storm jumps straight in with Alina and Mal on the run, helping us to recall all the reasons they should be together. But having reminded us of their connection, their love, the wicked Ms Bardugo throws all manner of stuff at them to complicate things. At different points in the novel I was frustrated with each of them – both being realistic characters (yes, despite the high fantasy world with tons of magic), they both acted badly (or at least ill-advisedly) at different points. It’s a clear indicator that characterisation is a strength of the series that many of us as readers have shifted allegiances at different points and felt that characters ‘should have’ behaved differently, whilst also understanding why they did act as they did. When readers talk about characters as though they were real, you’ve cracked it as a writer.

As well as testing Mal and Alina and making it impossible for their relationship to progress naturally (to the point that we begin to question, at times, whether they can have a relationship beyond friendship), Leigh Bardugo has introduced some brilliant new characters to this instalment. Sturmhond the privateer (don’t say pirate!) and his crew are a particular high point of this book. Sturmhond is unpredictable, unreliable and harbouring a secret (which I absolutely did not even begin to guess at) – but Alina and Mal may have no choice but to depend on him. I haven’t yet mentioned the Darkling, but don’t worry, he is not missing from the novel. Still dark, still alluring and still troubling Alina with his ability to say the most unsettling thing possible, he also has a new and dangerous power.

Siege and Storm continues in the truly epic vein of Shadow and Bone, ramping up the tension and the obstacles in Alina’s way. As well as having to deal with her personal feelings, her uncertainties about what is right and her growing power, her life is now complicated by the fact that she has been elevated to the status of a saint in popular belief.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this series. It’s beautifully written to the point that you can luxuriate in the language; the plotting is first rate and the characterisation is powerful and skilled. Be warned, though – it’s a long wait until next summer for book 3 and the ending of this novel may just leave you desperate. Leigh Bardugo is a superb writer, but she has no qualms about making her characters or her readers suffer!

From Goodreads’ book description:

Darkness never dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

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Siege and Storm is out now (published 6 June 2013) from Indigo
Find more info on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing me with a review copy

Review: The Fate in the Box by Michelle Lovric

Exciting, highly original adventure for 8+ readers 

Michelle Lovric has created a truly bizarre and unsettling version of Venice under the dictatorship of the cruel and peculiar tyrant Fogfinger. In the best children’s book tradition, he is unequivocally evil and the adults seem helpless and, in many cases, clueless that they are even in a bad situation. Michelle Lovric’s child heroes are resourceful and brave, as well as being readily relatable for child readers.

The characters are definitely a strength in this novel (and in others I’ve read by the same author). These Venetian fantasies are peopled by a mixture of humans and creatures (some real, some fantastic) with strongly differentiated characteristics. I love the determination and tenacity of little Amneris, first seen in peril in the prologue as she climbs up into a tower where death may await her. From this opening, we jump back three months to see how this climax is reached, meeting Tockle, son of kaleidoscope makers, and Biri, Amneris’s best friend, along the way. The child characters are realistic and recognisable and I’m sure many children will view them as friends and will recognise aspects of their friends (and of themselves) in them. The evil and magical characters are gloriously larger-than-life and inventive.

The novel is tightly and intricately plotted, with plenty of clues (and red herrings) as to how it will all fit together. I certainly wasn’t able to predict the details of the story and there is more than enough to surprise and delight a child reader. Michelle Lovric uses magic and fantastic beasts to help the children, working within the quest and fairy tale traditions of magical helpers, but it is their own bravery which ultimately spurs them on, resulting in a satisfying tale for young readers.

Overall. I would readily recommend this for young readers of fantasy and adventure. It has all the characteristics of the best-loved children’s stories, including larger-than-life characters alongside believable child heroes, magic and mystery and clear lines between good and evil.

From the publisher’s website:

Fogfinger rules Venice. His Fog Squad and spies are everywhere. The Venetians fear him and obey him. Every year one of their children is lost in a grisly Lambing ceremony. The child must climb the bell tower and let the Fate in the Box decide their destiny. Most end their days in the jaws of the primeval Crocodile that lurks in the lagoon. Or so Fogfinger tells them. But a chance meeting by a green apricot tree between Amneris and Tockle may be the beginning of the end for Fogfinger.

Silk and sewing, a magical glass kaleidoscope, mermaids and misunderstood Sea-Saurs, talking statues and winged cats, blue glass sea-horses, a spoiled rich girl and a secret society are just some of the ingredients in Michelle Lovric’s exquisitely imagined and superbly plotted fourth fantasy set in Venice.

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Published May 2nd by Orion Children’s Books
Find more information on the publisher’s website
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a proof copy for review

Midweek Magic: The Moon

This post was originally here at the Hearthfire two years ago, in January 2011. I’ve dusted it off and brought it back out in honour of this week’s lovely Full Moon.

Symbol, deity, influence: people believe the moon to be many things.  This flexibility as a literary or filmic metaphor or motif allows it to be used and re-used again and again.  For me, the moon is mysterious but beautiful.  She (there’s no possibility, for me, of a masculine moon) has subtle power, less direct than the sun, but all the more interesting for it.  Contemporary representations tend to be ‘spooky’ however: a full moon on screen practically always indicates danger to come.

In the Tarot, the Moon card is the Unconscious, the unknown and the unpredictable.  For some, it represents falsehood (since we see more clearly by sunlight, the moon is thought to be deceptive), but I cannot square that view, personally – it feels like a relic of more openly misogynistic times when women’s wisdom was inherently mistrusted.

Women are related to the moon perhaps because of her liminal nature, waxing and waning, which seems to be mirrored in the lives of human women, most clearly through our menstrual cycle, but also through the longer cycle of girlhood, fertility and post-menopause.   Lunar deities, however, are often virginal – e.g. Diana, Artemis – although the moon’s phases are also associated with aspects of the wiccan Triple Goddess (maid/waxing moon, mother/full moon, crone/waning and dark moon).  Perhaps it is the relative ‘coldness’ of the moon’s light which leads to its association with virginity, especially in the case of the Roman Diana and the Greek Artemis, both of whom are depicted as strongly protective of their single status.

Plath and The Moon
In teaching Sylvia Plath’s Ariel collection, I often find myself having interesting discussions with students about the ‘meaning’ of the moon.  For me, “The Moon and the Yew Tree” is a beautiful poem about the failure of the church to satisfy Plath’s desire for truth, while the moon, although (or perhaps because?) she is “bald and wild”, is ultimately more appealing to her as a symbol.  In that poem and elsewhere she associates the moon with her mother, which complicates her use of the symbol, ascribing it negative qualities as well as the ‘wildness’ which I suspect she admires.  It is largely because of this negative association with her mother that some find “The Moon and the Yew Tree”‘s moon difficult to read positively.  Personally, I think this is symptomatic of the complications of the mother-daughter relationship.

image by Graur Codrin from freedigitalphotos.net

Powers and Gifts in Fiction

Note: I’m recycling! This post originally appeared in August 2011, back when no-one was looking… 

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories where characters have powers, but I especially enjoy it when those powers are somehow unusual or limited. In some story universes, magic exists and anyone (or certain people) can learn to manipulate it, while other stories exist in our world, but with magic accepted here too.

I remember being really impressed when I first read Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, in which a particular family in an American small town is known locally for having certain abilities, including unusual and very specific gifts such as: knowing the right place for everything and everyone; being able to create everyone’s perfect hairstyle; giving people strange items that will become essential later (she can’t ‘see the future’ as such, just knows that so-and-so is going to need a small hairbrush, chewing gum or a mirror). This small-scale magic is a pattern repeated in her other books that I’ve read too, and part of the delight of reading them lies in discovering these quirky powers.

I think that in many ways it’s more interesting to give a character (or a family or other group of characters) specific and limited powers, rather than more general ones. It all depends on the world you’ve created, of course, and the genre you’re working in. High Fantasy, for example, arguably requires magic to be a more general power, which can be used for good or ill in a number of ways. I suppose that, in this as in many other aspects, writing in sub-genres allows more freedom to be a bit quirky with it.

What magic-using stories have you enjoyed? If you write using magic, do you use it as a broad force, or in a more specific way?

Review: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Magic, mysteries and a resilient heroine – fab start to a new series for 7+

Sally Gardner is so great! I’ve never been disappointed with one of her books, and this quirky magical tale is no different. With shades of Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson, this is classic young fiction at its best.

As the first book in a new series, it lays the groundwork for the future, showing how the wonderful cat Fidget and little Emily Vole on the book cover come to be working together at a Fairy Detective Agency. The gorgeous illustrations are perfect, starting with the cover style that shows us this is no ‘pink and sparkly’ fairy book.

Emily’s life has fairytale elements: she’s an orphan, found in a hatbox at Stansted Airport and quickly adopted by the incredibly wealthy Dashwoods, who soon grow frustrated by Emily’s inability to perfectly complement their otherwise perfectly coordinated life and treat her shockingly. It’s through Emily’s adoptive parents that comparisons to Dahl are most valid, with their caricature-like superficiality and materialism. Once the magical elements start featuring, things look up for Emily and the adventure truly begins.

Children of around 7 and up will lap this up, revelling as they do in deliciously bad parent-figures and tough and resourceful child protagonists, not to mention magical talking animals. I know I would have loved this as a child (umm, actually I loved it now 🙂 ) and my 9yr old will too.

Overall, this is definitely a fun read for newly confident readers (shortish chapters and lovely b/w illustrations throughout), or would work well as a shared bedtime read.

From the Back Cover:

When Emily Vole inherits an abandoned shop, she discovers a magical world she never knew existed. But a fairy-hating witch, a mischievous set of golden keys, and a train full of brightly coloured bunnies are just a few of the surprises that come with it.

With the help of a talking cat called Fidget and a grumpy fairy detective called Buster, it’s up to Emily to get to the bottom of Operation Bunny.

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Published in October 2012 by Orion Children’s
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy
For more info: publisher’s website

Review: Lance of Truth by Katherine Roberts

Second instalment in the fabulous Pendragon Legacy quartet of Arthurian adventures for a new generation

Warning: this review could include spoilers for Sword of Light, book 1 in the series. If you haven’t yet read Sword of Light, my review of it can be found here.

This adventure is every bit as fast-paced and gripping as the first, with Rhianna and friends seeking out the second of the lights. They’ll need all four to revive Arthur and restore Britain.

The quest is again central to the narrative and, although the story is clearly original (with the new invention of Rhianna in particular), there is plenty here that is familiar from Arthurian legend and the courtly tradition. I particularly enjoyed the verses at the start of each chapter, which form a ballad that gives an overview of the story when put together (yes, I did read them as such once I’d finished the novel!). The map and decorated headings also add to the feel of an older book, strengthening the presentation to make this a lovely package. These little hardbacks would make lovely gifts because they feel special and exciting as objects, thanks to these well-considered touches.

I love Rhianna as a character particularly and she is what makes this series special, amongst quests and fantasy adventures for the 9-12 age group. Her absolute refusal to comply with what a lady of Camelot ‘ought’ to be continues to delight and inspire, and the introduction of new characters enables Katherine Roberts to revisit and underline this point, just as some of the knights from book one are starting to see what Rhianna has to offer and treating her less as ‘just’ a damsel.

These are many-faceted books with a broad appeal, containing magic, mystery, adventure, danger, friendship, family and a richly-imagined medieval setting. I would definitely recommend the series to both boys and girls of 9+.

From the back cover:

The quest for Camelot’s survival continues – King Arthur’s secret daughter, Rhianna Pendragon, has faced mortal danger, ice-breathing dragons and dark magic to win Excalibur, the Sword of Light. But the sword is just one of four magical Lights that she must find to restore Arthur’s soul to his body and bring him back to life.

Now Rhianna must head into the wilds of the North, to find the second Light, the Lance of Truth, before her evil cousin Mordred claims it. But Mordred is holding her mother Guinevere captive – can Rhianna stay true to her quest for the Lights and save the mother she’s never known, before Mordred wreaks his terrible revenge?

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Published October by Templar Books
My grateful thanks go to the publishers for sending a review copy
Check out Lance of Truth at Amazon UK