Tag Archives: Magical Monday

Magical Monday Review: Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings

Sharp and sassy with plenty of witchy action.

Author: Sean Cummings
Title: Poltergeeks
Series: Sean Cummings’ blog mentions a sequel – yay!
Genre: Urban Fantasy (YA)
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Published: 4 October 2012

Source: review copy received via Netgalley

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says…

15-year-old Julie Richardson is about to learn that being the daughter of a witch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When she and her best friend, Marcus, witness an elderly lady jettisoned out the front door of her home, it’s pretty obvious to Julie there’s a supernatural connection.

In fact, there’s a whisper of menace behind increasing levels of poltergeist activity all over town. After a large-scale paranormal assault on Julie’s high school, her mother falls victim to the spell Endless Night. Now it’s a race against time to find out who is responsible or Julie won’t just lose her mother’s soul, she’ll lose her mother’s life.

My verdict: fab teen urban fantasy. Highly recommended.
I loved this book. Julie’s narrative is so beautifully ‘sarcastic teen’, you can hear her eyes roll. She’s smart and powerful and has a geeky male best friend with no supernatural powers – marvellous! There is other teen stuff going on – school, relationships, romance – but the supernatural quest and associated battles are the main point of the story. It’s also cool to see the main character’s family relationships be important to the plot, as the main quest is to save her mother, with whom she has a complicated – and therefore realistic – relationship.
Julie and Marcus are brilliant characters, very easy to get behind and cheer for, and that is a key strength of this book. Sean Cummings has created a convincing set of characters who operate in a way that has emotional realism, helping us to suspend disbelief for the fantasy plot they’re embroiled in to work. The humour is another important factor in this book’s success, coming both from implausible and humorous scenarios (hello, cat ejected via chimney in the first scene) and from Julie’s snarky commentary on events.
The plot is tightly-constructed, making it complex and satisfying and yet easy to follow. There is clearly more to know about the world of witchcraft that Julie inhabits, but we are drip-fed enough info to make sense of this particular adventure and to wonder where the next instalment will take us.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend this to YA fantasy and urban fantasy fans, particularly those who appreciate sarcastic heroines and geeky boy sidekicks.

Magical Monday Review: Magic and Mayhem by Marcus Sedgwick

Hugely funny and highly inventive fun for 7+

Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Title: Magic and Mayhem
Series The Raven Mysteries 5
Genre: Gothic Humour (childrens)
Publisher: Orion Children’s
Published: Apr 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says…
Join the wonderfully weird Otherhand family and their faithful guardian, Edgar the raven, and discover the dark secrets of Castle Otherhand. 

A trip to the circus has far-reaching consequences for the Otherhands when Fellah goes missing. Before long the Castle is plagued by a duck, a suspect fortune teller, and several cartloads of lethal cabbages. The family is preoccupied: Valevine is busy inventing a cabbage-counting machine; Minty is waiting to hear the secrets of the universe; and Solstice has discovered that Cudweed is concealing three hundred and forty-two rabbits in his bedroom. When chaos strikes and thieves infiltrate the Castle, it falls to Edgar to extract his family from a very fluffy predicament.

My verdict: hilarious fun. Highly recommended series for 7+.
I love this series! Narrated by the family raven, Edgar, we see the Otherhands in all their crazy glory through his dry and witty voice. There is enough madcap action in these books to entertain 7 yr olds, while Edgar’s voice carries enough subtlety and sarcasm to amuse teens and adults too.
As well as Edgar’s fabulous narration, the story is chock-full of madcap characters, from head of the family Valevine with his incredible new invention to count cabbages, to the youngest, Cudweed, with his new-found friends Mucky Duck and  Mr Whiskers the hamster in a top hat and dinner jacket. The only sane and sensible character is the lovely Solstice, who keeps Edgar in check and solves the mysteries.
The plot in this case is sufficiently complex to surprise, yet made clear enough for the youngest Otherhand fans to follow. Combining disparate elements gives the overall story a farcical element that is sure to have kids giggling, particularly delivered in Edgar’s disapproving tones.
The quirky line illustrations support the text perfectly, complementing the story and adding to the overall goth atmosphere.
All in all, this in a fantastic package for young readers, which I greatly recommend. A confident reading level is needed to appreciate these stories, but the books can also readily be enjoyed as a shared read.

Magical Monday Review: A Witch in Love

Fabulous blend of witchcraft, romance and intrigue.
Author: Ruth Warburton 

Title: A Witch in Love
Series: This is book 2 (review of book 1, A Witch in Winter)
Genre: Romance/Supernatural (YA)
Publisher: Hodder Children’s
Published: 5 July 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says…
Anna still finds it hard to believe that Seth loves her and has vowed to suppress her powers, no matter what. But magic – like love – is uncontrollable and soon, Anna is being hunted. Abe wants Anna to embrace her power, while Seth is pushing Anna to accept that his feelings are real. She finally does … a moment too late. Suddenly, it’s like the Salem witch trials all over again: burnings, torture and faceless judgements. In the face of the ultimate betrayal, who will save her?

The second novel in the Winter trilogy, this follows the critically acclaimed debut A WITCH IN WINTER.

My verdict: Fabulous development from the wonderful A Witch in Winter
This is a short review as I don’t want to discuss the plot in anything other than the broadest terms to avoid spoilers. Quite simply – this is an excellent series with epic battles, romance and witchcraft in a contemporary UK setting, and if any of that appeals: read it!

I really enjoyed the first novel in this series for its voice, its realistic setting and the intrigue created by the way magic was overlaid onto our world. This second instalment doesn’t disappoint, and ups the ante considerably. The plot is tight and twisty and moves quickly, putting the well-drawn characters into increasingly difficult situations.

This novel expands out in many ways from the first, opening out the action as Anna’s world also expands. I hoped to learn more about the magical world that Ruth Warburton has created and I certainly got my wish, although not in the ways I expected. There are revelations in this book that I didn’t see coming at all, and which move the plot forward by adding new conflicts and tension for Anna to deal with, while also not forgetting those set up in the first novel.

I enjoyed seeing Anna’s development as a character, and the progression in her relationships with Seth and with witchcraft. These developments feel realistic and plausible to me as a reader, so the novel has the emotional realism which is vital to keep fantasy grounded enough to get lost in. Again, the narration in Anna’s voice helps us to appreciate her point of view and to see her thought processes.

Overall, I strongly recommend this series as a strong urban fantasy for teens and up.

Magical Monday Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Gloriously spooky, yet witty and weirdly romantic, I really enjoyed this.

Author: Kendare Blake
Title: Anna Dressed in Blood
Series: This is book 1 of 2
Genre: Ghost/chiller (YA)
Publisher: Orchard
Published: 5 July 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says…
Cas Lowood is no ordinary guy – he hunts dead people.

People like Anna. Anna Dressed in Blood. A beautiful, murderous ghost entangled in curses and rage. Cas knows he must destroy her, but as her tragic past is revealed, he starts to understand why Anna has killed everyone who’s ever dared to enter her spooky home.

Everyone, that is, except Cas…

My verdict: Creepy and tense reading for teens and above.
I really enjoyed this spooky supernatural read with a romance sub-plot. I feel the chiller and urban fantasy elements were far more important than the romance. Cas is wonderfully sarcastic and straightforward, even if he is a bit arrogant. But then, if you were a supernaturally gifted teen who never stayed anywhere long enough to make friends, how self-reliant and cocky do you think you’d be?

The novel uses Cas’s voice as narrator, allowing us access to his secrets and helping to ensure we’re on his side. He narrates in a chatty tone and in the present tense, also providing an immediacy to the story, and heightening the sense of danger (with the past tense, you always know they’ve lived to tell the tale). I loved his voice and this was definitely one of the strengths of the book for me; I love a smart character with attitude! I also enjoyed his awkwardness as he was forced to deal with others far more than was comfortable for him. The character development here is great, and some of the secondary characters are brilliant – well-drawn and engaging.

Anna is the most fleshed-out ghost character I’ve read (forgive me, please). At first, she’s the stuff of whispered legend, but as her story unfolds, she becomes more human and the line between aggressor and victim blurs. The link between Cas and Anna is strange and not fully explored, but that is kind of the point. Cas is narrating and since he’s fairly blind to it himself, and doesn’t understand it even once he is more aware of it, he can’t really explain it to us.

Some of the mythology behind the story remains unexplained, but not (for me) to the point of irritation. There are mysteries that may well be explored in the second book (Girl of Nightmares), but key facts are clearly established and Cas’s voice is self-assured enough that you can’t help but trust he knows what he’s doing. I’m intrigued to know more, but don’t feel let down by the mysteries behind Cas’s gift and his family history.

The tension is steadily built at first, with startling peaks. I was surprised at the graphic intensity of the violence in this book, violence which is perhaps more shocking than frightening. The book didn’t give me nightmares, but did compel me to keep reading to see what would happen, and I am keen to read the second in the series.

Overall, I felt this was a very well put together package of creepy plot, quirky mythology and great characters. Definitely recommended to teens and the (ahem) older YA reader.

Magical Monday Review: A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton

Fabulous witchy novel set in a realistic small-town community.

Author: Ruth Warburton
Title: A Witch in Winter
Series: This is the first in a trilogy.
Genre: Romance/Supernatural (YA)
Publisher: Hodder Childrens
Published: 5 Jan 2012

Source: purchased on my Kindle

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says…
Anna Winterson doesn’t know she’s a witch and would probably mock you for believing in magic, but after moving to the small town of Winter with her father, she learns more than she ever wanted to about power. When Anna meets Seth, she is smitten, but when she enchants him to love her, she unwittingly amplifies a deadly conflict between two witch clans and splits her own heart in two. She wants to love Seth, to let him love her – but if it is her magic that’s controlling his passion, then she is as monstrous as the witch clan who are trying to use her amazing powers for their own gain.

When love is tangled up in magic, how can you be sure what’s real?

My verdict: A great read for fans of magic and mystery in ‘real-world’ settings.
This is a skilful debut, creating a town with a long history with magic, and a group of realistic characters. It will be enjoyed by many YA paranormal romance readers, whilst offering them something slightly different.
The story is narrated directly by Anna, so understanding why she does things is effortless and we easily root for her. The novel begins with her move to a new town, Winter, into a spooky and dilapidated house, following family financial difficulties. We bond with her as she struggles to settle into a new place – a small-town community where clearly everyone knows everyone else’s business, ensuring our sympathies are well-established with her before magic is brought into the story. And when it is, her reactions feel realistic and human, and we see her moral goodness through her horror at the spell’s effect.

Seth is an interesting character, and the reasons for him and Anna to be drawn to one another (aside from physical attraction) are established, alongside some funny-but-disturbing scenes of spell-induced stalkerishness. I felt that (witchcraft aside) their relationship was a believable construction, and that the central barrier (can she ever be sure he isn’t just bewitched?) was a really good one to unsettle the relationship.

The setting worked brilliantly in several ways: the realistic and modern sixth-form experience that Anna gets at school; the intriguing nature of Winter itself and its relationship to magic (which I hope we’ll learn more about in books 2 and 3) and the glorious gothic ramshackle nature of Wicker House with its ‘witch’s house’ reputation and general creepiness. Again, I’m sure there’s more of the house’s history to be discovered in later novels. The setting (and the dialogue) is very British, which was very welcome after reading a few US YA novels recently. There’s something really comforting about the familiarity this offers, even when that familiarity is shot through with magic! As a language geek, I also enjoyed the Old English style spells, suggesting something ancient that’s always been there, hidden.

The plot moves along effectively, and (other than questions of history/background) everything is resolved in this volume. The tension creeps up steadily before the spell is cast, as Anna is simply trying to settle into a new place and there is no explicit suggestion of witchcraft – but of course we know that this is where the story is going to go. The stakes are raised rapidly after this, and we’re quickly into much bigger conflicts.

Overall, this was a book that I really enjoyed and would definitely recommend. The second in the series came out this month, and the third will be out early next year.

Magical Monday: In Defence of Fantasy Novels

It was suggested to me recently that, as a teacher, I shouldn’t be reviewing (or presumably by extension reading) fantasy novels, since kids have ‘real problems’ to contend with and should read books that help them to face these problems. By this logic, only so-called gritty realism is appropriate for teachers to recommend. There are two things (for now) that I would like to point out in response to this view.

1: Reading does not have to have any purpose beyond entertainment. 

As it happens, I believe that reading for pleasure often tends to have additional ‘improving’ benefits, but there is no reason why anyone can’t pick a book up simply for fun.

2: Fantasy is just as able to address ‘real problems’ as realism. 

Epic fantasy often deals with big themes like truth, honour, good and evil; how can that not be beneficial for teens (or anyone else) to be exposed to? And it has to be said that lessons are often learnt most effectively at a metaphorical distance.

This is also the same kind of snobbery that considers literary fiction better than genre, often unreasonably. I’m not going to go on at length here, because I’m in danger of getting very grumpy.

Am I right in assuming that you’d agree with me?

Magical Monday Review: Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts

Fabulous Arthurian-themed fantasy introducing a new character to the legends.

Author: Katherine Roberts

Title: Sword of Light
Series: Pendragon Legacy 1
Genre: Fantasy (Kids)
Publisher: Templar
Published: Feb 2012 (hardback; paperback due out Oct 2012)
Source: won from Feeling Fictional
Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
It is the darkest hour of the darkest Age. King Arthur is dead, killed by his wicked nephew, Mordred. Saxon invaders rampage across the land and forces of evil are gathering. The path to the throne lies open to Arthur’s only remaining flesh and blood – Mordred. But there is one with a better claim than Mordred – Arthur’s secret child. Brought by Merlin to enchanted Avalon as a baby and raised there for protection, the king’s heir must take up a vital quest: to search for the four magical Lights with the power to restore Arthur’s soul to his body. Introducing Rhianna Pendragon: unlikely princess and Camelot’s last hope.

My verdict: A great read! Exciting adventure, magic and mystery for the 9-12 crowd
I really enjoyed this one. Katherine Roberts has created a world that it’s a great pleasure to get lost in. Familiar elements of the Arthur stories are woven seamlessly with the new inventions and children will delight in Rhianna’s adventures. It’s a treat to see a female protagonist in this kind of novel and, as you can see from the cover, this is not a ‘girly’ book. I would happily give it to a boy or girl to enjoy.
Rhianna is a fabulous character. At the opening of the book, she doesn’t know who she is – she’s simply the only human in Avalon, allowing for some ‘odd one out’ feelings to be explored. As a girl, she faces difficulties in persuading others that she can play an active role in protecting her heritage. She’s feisty and determined, in keeping with her unruly red hair, and this can lead her into rashness but she also – sometimes – shows signs of wisdom and cunning in dealing with her enemies.
Her best friend, Prince Elphin of Avalon, accompanies her on her journey into the mortal realm. He is calm and gentle and, as a fairy prince, has magical abilities. He makes a good contrast to Rhianna and allows her a young friend and ally in the uncertain world of mortals, in which she mostly has to deal with adults who (of course) assume they know best.
No review of this book is complete without a mention of the fairy horses ridden by Elphin and Rhianna. These are a brilliant addition, increasing the magic and enchantment in the story, as well as providing the Avalonian pair with more allies. Child readers will love them and dream of their own magical friends, I’m sure.
Overall, this is a tightly-written, classic quest tale with engaging characters and a well thought out premise.  There are going to be four in this series, and I will definitely be looking out for the others as they are released.

Magical Monday Review: The Gathering Dark by Leigh Bardugo

A gorgeous and complex fantasy novel about magic for this week’s Magical Monday.

Author: Leigh Bardugo

Title: The Gathering Dark
Genre: Fantasy (YA)
Series: The Grisha Trilogy #1
Publisher: Indigo
Published: May 17 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher
Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
Sweeping, glorious fantasy romance about an orphan who must save her kingdom from the seductive and terrifying Darkling.

The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite – the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfil her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?

Glorious. Epic. Irresistible. Romance.

My verdict: Beautiful and satisfying fantasy for teens and up.
First, let me say that I might not have gone for this had I noticed that it was being billed as a romance above all else, but I’m really glad I did. Yes, there is a romance thread, but I would say that this gorgeous novel is much more about identity and finding yourself than it is about love. So if, like me, the romance being centred in the blurb makes you think again, I’d urge you to consider the book’s many other fine qualities: fabulous world-building, complex characters, a twisty plot (which concludes in a satisfactory way even though it’s the first in a trilogy).

Following a brief prelude (simply labelled ‘before’), in which we see Alina and Mal as children, the story is related in the first person by Alina, ensuring we see everything from her perspective. Her status as an orphan, and therefore effectively an outsider, allows for a lot of explanation and description without it feeling like info-dump. Of course, the orphan of indeterminate origin with inexplicable gifts is also a great fantasy trope, which is used well here. I expect that Alina’s curiosity about her background could take us into this territory in subsequent novels in the series. I certainly hope so, and am convinced enough of Leigh Bardugo’s skill as a storyteller that I doubt very much she’d leave this angle unexploited.

The world created here is fascinating. I believe that it uses ideas and/or themes from Russian folktale, about which I know nothing, so to me it all feels very original and intriguing. The ideas of magic being a part of some people and not others, and of gifts being simultaneously revered, envied and limiting (for the gifted) are well-handled and thought-provoking. I also appreciated that Leigh Bardugo doesn’t treat her reader like an idiot, or leave us confused. There are times in the novel that we are dropped into situations that are not fully explained up front, but enough detail is drip-fed through the story that it does make sense – again, without that annoying info-dump feeling. This is skilled fantasy writing.

There is a romance plot here, which develops throughout the novel. Although there are some familiar concepts from the world of YA, there is no hint of annoying insta-love and it all seems realistic to me. I feel that the romance angle is really all part of the identity theme, which is certainly appropriate for the YA age bracket.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed being lost in this world for a couple of days and would strongly recommend this to fantasy readers – teen and up.

Magical Monday: Review of Crossing Over by Anna Kendall

Enjoyable fantasy focused on an unusual gift.

Author: Anna Kendall

Title: Crossing Over
Genre: Fantasy
Series: this is the first in the Soulvine Chronicles trilogy
Publisher: Indigo
Published: Jan 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher
Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Goodreads description:
Whether it’s a curse, or a blessing, or an ability, the fact remains: whenever Roger is injured or in enough pain he crosses over to the land of the dead. Once there, there are rules: only the newly dead will talk, for example, and nothing will raise the longer dead from their tranquillity.

There are rules in the land of the living as well; rules which would have Roger hanged for witchcraft if he was ever caught. But refusing to cross over isn’t an option. His uncle depends on Roger to hide under the table in their fairground act, listen to the recently bereaved asking questions of their dear departed, and then cross over to find the answers. It’s a hard way of life, made all the harder as his uncle’s fists usually provide the trigger for Roger to cross over.

It’s not the only way of life, though, and when Roger sees a chance to escape he fights for it – little knowing that love, loss, shocking revelations and, ultimately, war lie ahead of him.

Just because Roger can cross over into the land of the dead doesn’t mean he wants to.

My verdict: fascinating world-building, intriguing concepts. I need to read books 2 and 3 now!
This is a classic fantasy in some respects: vaguely medieval-type setting, magical elements, strong sense of a class divide. At the same time, none of these are exactly as expected: the ‘land of the dead’ is an original idea (as far as I can tell), and the society is matriarchal – the characters find it completely bizarre that in other societies men rule, as women clearly should be in charge as the givers of life. Roger’s gift/curse/ability is a unique product of this unique world and is the main point of interest in this novel.
Roger narrates his own story and his voice convinced me as that of a relatively young teenager, although I was slightly jarred out of the story by his many references to erections. I also found his love for one of the court ladies irritating, as she was clearly a silly individual, but this didn’t strike me as necessarily unrealistic. Teens (of both sexes) do develop what they experience as strong lurve feelings for inappropriate people, after all.
The land of the dead itself was not at all what I expected, and this was refreshing. Strange things occur in this land in the course of the novel, and I’m sure there is much more to be discovered about how it works in the rest of the trilogy. Roger himself doesn’t really know much about it all, but he is beginning to be curious in this book, so perhaps he will find people who can explain it all to him in his travels.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It resolved the main plot issues, whilst leaving enough mystery about Roger’s gift and the bigger picture to resolve in the rest of the series. I’d recommend this to teen fans of paranormal fantasy who are looking for something different to vampires, werewolves, angels and fairies.

Magical Monday: Here Be Dragons

Since it’s St George’s Day, I thought I’d celebrate with some dragon lore.

How cute are these wallpapers?

The story of St George and the Dragon is very similar to that of Perseus and Andromeda. A beast (in this case the dragon) is appeased by the people by means of a regular sacrifice. In the St George story, this was a sheep, then two sheep, then eventually humans were offered, chosen by lots. When the Princess was selected to be offered to the dragon, the King pleaded for it not to be so, but it had been his decision to use lots and the people were unsupportive, since many had lost their own children. It is at this point that St George appears and steps in. Some stories simply state that he killed the dragon and the people then converted to Christianity, (presumably since George was such a great example) but in some versions he requires people to be baptised into Christianity before he will slay the dragon, effectively holding them hostage to his demands. The dragon can therefore be seen  as an allegory the devil, or of the ‘false’ way of paganism. This religious appendix is not present in the Perseus and Andromeda myth.

I suspect that for most Westerners, dragons are fire-breathing winged lizards with four legs, but there are also stories of water dragons, often known as ‘worms’ (or wurms, or wyrms), which are more snake- or eel-like and are not credited with fire power. In stories like that of the Lambton Worm, such creatures can emerge from water and attack livestock and children. In this legend, John Lambton caught the worm when he was fishing and was warned not to throw it back, but he dropped it down a well instead. Trapped, the creature grew huge and the well water became poisoned and murky. Eventually, it grew to full size, left the well and wrapped itself around a hill, leaving only to attack livestock until the villagers realised that they could appease it with a regular offering of milk. After seven years of this, John Lambton returned from the Crusades to be told by a wise woman that he was the only one who could kill the worm. He had to get special armour made, covered in spikes, and was warned that once the worm was dead, he must also kill the “first to cross his path” to avoid cursing his family. He arranged to blow his horn three times as a cue for his dog to be released so that he needn’t kill a person. Of course, this didn’t work out as he planned and his father ran out to greet him before the dog was released. He killed the dog rather than his father and seems to have triggered the curse, as many generations of Lambtons after met unnatural ends.

In a lot of recent fantasy literature, dragons are portrayed as wise creatures with positive attributes. I haven’t read much with dragons lately. Anyone got any good recommendations for dragon novels?