Review of Elf Dog and Owl Head, by M. T. Anderson

Elf Dog & Owl Head

by M. T. Anderson
illustrated by Junyi Wu

Candlewick Press, 2023. 232 pages.
Review written February 21, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 Newbery Honor Book

Oh, I loved this book so much! It reminded me of the Edward Eager magic-filled books I read and loved as a kid.

But this is a modern take on magic. Clay is stuck doing school at home because of a global pandemic. Everyone in his family is getting on each other’s nerves. But his house is next to the woods. He goes out walking in the woods, thinking how stupid it is to carry a Frisbee by himself, when he sees a white dog with strange red ears. The reader knows she is a dog from the hunting pack of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, who didn’t go back to her den under the mountain quickly enough. But Clay only knows that she enjoys catching the Frisbee.

Clay notices right away that something’s off about the dog. When she fetches, she seems to use some kind of teleporting magic. When she follows him home, the family puts out notices, but no one seems to be missing a white dog with red ears. She settles in and finds that she likes playing with the boy instead of working all the time, and she likes sleeping on his bed instead of in a den.

And so Clay’s magical adventures begin. It turns out that his elf dog can easily take paths between worlds and take Clay to magical places he’s never seen before — with some interesting magical consequences. He even makes a new friend from a village in a parallel world — a boy with an owl head.

Clay has two sisters — one older teen sister and one younger tag-along sister. Even his sisters get some adventures. In fact, I especially like the older sister DiRossi’s encounters with magic. When she meets a depressed giant, the author makes gentle fun of her teenage angst in a way I thought was hilarious while also being spot-on. But a scene later in the book gives even DiRossi a nice dose of magical wonder and joy.

So this is a book about magical adventures, playful and joyful. Sometimes things go wrong, and they have to fix them. And there’s quite a bit of danger at the end.

It’s also a book about family and friendship and the magical bond between a boy and his dog.

I love that the Newbery committee this year chose some books that are fully children’s books, not even “middle grade” books — though middle graders will enjoy it, too. But Clay’s concerns are a kid’s concerns, with none of that burgeoning middle grade awareness of the opposite sex. And it’s refreshing that these younger kids get such distinguished books, too.

I said that I hope the Newbery winner, The Eyes and the Impossible, will get read in classrooms across America. I wish that for this book, too. But what this book really made me think of was back in the day when my husband and I read books at bedtime to our two kids, who were six and a half years apart. We looked for books with a wide age range to appeal to them both — and this book makes me wish for those days again, because this kind of family story with magic would have exactly filled the bill.

Oh, and spoiler alert: It’s an award-winning book with a dog on the cover — Yet no animals die!

candlewick.com
mt-anderson.com

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Review of The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi

by Shannon Chakraborty
read by Lameece Issaq and Amin El Gamal

HarperAudio, 2023. 17 hours.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Oh, I enjoyed this book so much! First, I have to say that it was refreshing to read a book written for adults where the protagonist is fully an adult. Amina Al-Sirafi is a retired pirate captain, but now she lives in a remote location with her mother and her 10-year-old daughter.

But then a rich old lady tracks Amina down and blackmails her into finding the lady’s granddaughter who was kidnapped by a Frank (the Muslim world’s name for Christians in medieval times). Amina suspects it wasn’t exactly a kidnapping, but when she learns the teenage girl is the daughter of her former crewman who died in bad circumstances, Amina feels she should take the job for his sake.

This means rounding up her ship and her crew. And that alone requires swashbuckling adventure, as the man she left her ship with has gotten into a bit of trouble. When Amina realizes magical forces are involved, she tries to back out of the deal, but her daughter’s very life is at stake from the blackmailing schemer.

The rest of the book includes dramatic adventures on the Indian Ocean, with both natural and supernatural dangers. You can see from the cover this includes a sea monster. There are dark magical forces at work, and it turns out that Amina needs to save not only the girl but the world as well. On her team, she has a wonderfully varied crew, each with prodigious skills, and her latest husband even shows up with his own set of magical talents.

Recently a couple of my friends started reading Fourth Wing, and both told me it felt like a Young Adult novel. Both times I answered that they must not have gotten to the sex part yet. With that book, the sexy parts felt like the main reason it was marketed as a book for adults. So I appreciated that in this book, the adventurer herself is a middle-aged (well, maybe 40s) mom. Yes, there’s some mind-blowing sex, but she respects her faith and only has married sex — and she closes the door on the reader when it happens, leaving the details to our imaginations.

The book is steeped in history I’d known nothing about, told from the perspective of a faithful Muslim with a checkered past. The adventures get bigger and more magical as the story goes on. Great fun.

sachakraborty.com

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Review of The Eyes and the Impossible, by Dave Eggers

The Eyes and the Impossible

by Dave Eggers
illustrations of Johannes by Shawn Harris

Alfred A. Knopf, 2023. 256 pages.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 John Newbery Medal Winner

This book is told by a dog who lives in a park. He introduces himself:

I am a dog called Johannes and I have seen you. I have seen you in this park, my home. If you have come to this park, my vast green and windblown park by the sea, I have seen you. I have seen everyone who has been here, the walkers and runners and bikers and horse-riders and the Bison-seekers and the picnickers and the archers in their cloaks. When you have come here you have come to my home, where I am the Eyes.

Three Bison live in an enclosure in the park. They rule over the park, but can’t leave their enclosure, so they appointed Johannes to be their Eyes. He has Assistants who help, and together the Bison keep the Equilibrium.

But as the Equilibrium gets upset, the animals devise a plan to do the Impossible.

Meanwhile, Johannes is delightful company.

I have seen all of you here. The big and small and tall and odorous. The travelers and tourists and locals and roller-skating humans and those who play their brass under the mossy bridge and the jitterbug people who dance over that other bridge, and bearded humans who try to send flying discs into cages but usually fail. I see all in this park because I am the Eyes and have been entrusted with seeing and reporting all. Ask the turtles about me. Ask the squirrels. Don’t ask the ducks. The ducks know nothing.

I run like a rocket. I run like a laser. You have never seen speed like mine. When I run I pull at the earth and make it turn. Have you seen me? You have not seen me. Not possible. You are mistaken. No one has seen me running because when I run human eyes are blind to me. I run like light. Have you seen the movement of light? Have you?

But some new things come into the park that Johannes has not seen before. Mysterious rectangles with things inside that are Impossible. And new animals that eat even the prickly grass that took over the tulip field. And thus new adventures and plans begin.

I like it that the Newbery this year went to a book that is truly for children — not even a middle-grades book. Now, like most great books, everyone in a wide age range will enjoy it, including this old person, but this would make a fabulous read-aloud even for young elementary school children. In fact, I hope that winning this award will make The Eyes and the Impossible the read-aloud choice for classrooms across the country.

daveeggers.net
rhcbooks.com

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Review of Sing Me to Sleep, by Gabi Burton

Sing Me to Sleep

by Gabi Burton

Bloomsbury, 2023. 417 pages.
Review written July 9, 2023, from an Advance Review Copy sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Teen Speculative Fiction

Sing Me to Sleep is the story of Saoirse, a siren living in a kingdom ruled by fae, where her existence is illegal. Fortunately, she has access to magic that enables her to change her appearance. By night, she sets aside that magic and works as a hired assassin. She has the power to sing to her marks and convince them to kill themselves. This satisfies the instincts that being near water rouse in her – water calling to her to kill.

By day, working in the training academy, Saoirse has posed as a fae who has no affinity for water or fire or air, even though they are generally despised, so that her power to control water will not be noticed. Then she must work to outperform all the other trainees. But when she achieves the top ranking, she is assigned to serve the Prince, part of the regime she despises.

The reader is of course not surprised when romantic tension sparks between them, despite Saoirse’s disguise with a scar across her face. But this leads Saoirse into conflict about the people she’s been asked to kill and the goals of her employer. The question of who her employer is becomes more important. Did the people she killed deserve death? Does she want the monarchy overthrown if it means the prince will die? And who, exactly, can she trust?

The world-building in this book is expertly done, without info dumps, as we gradually come to see there are more nuances than simply the monarchy is bad and needs to come down.

All the characters in this book have black or brown skin – a simple given, which is refreshing. Saoirse is stunningly beautiful – that’s her deadly weapon, and it’s nice seeing a black girl in that role.

The book does come to a finish at a nice place – but provides a lead-in to more. That’s how I like fantasy series to work. A danger was averted and the kingdom saved – but there’s still more to be done. And I’m looking forward to reading on.

gabiburton.com
bloomsbury.com

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Review of Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Once There Was

by Kiyash Monsef
read by Nikki Massoud

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 11 hours, 28 minutes.
Review written July 3, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Odyssey Award Honor Book
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Speculative Fiction

Once There Was is a contemporary fantasy tale interwoven with Persian stories that begin, “Once there was, once there wasn’t…”

Marjan is 15 and owns a veterinary clinic after the violent death of her father a few weeks ago. The police don’t have any clue who did it, and Marjan feels detached from it all, trying to keep the clinic running.

Then a mysterious woman sends her plane tickets to London to visit a griffin. When Marjan places her hands on the griffin, she senses everything the griffin is feeling, and he is very sick. And that is how she learns that one of the stories her father told her is true – and she inherited a gift from her father going back to an ancestor who was pierced by a unicorn’s horn. Oh, and besides that – griffins and other magical creatures are real.

But then Marjan gets entangled with more than one powerful group who wants to control who has access to these amazing creatures, and she wants to be on the side of the creatures, but which side is that? In her efforts to help, she has some amazing adventures, while trying to understand her place in all this, keep the clinic afloat, and figure out who killed her father – all while trying to keep her friends from worrying about her.

She gains some allies along the way, including a rich boy from London whose family has hosted the griffin for centuries and a teenage witch whose familiar is ill – and needs a place to stay. It’s good she has help, because it turns out that everything is riding on the fate of these magical creatures, and Marjan and her friends are going to need to save the world.

My one little complaint about the book is that the big climactic world-saving action happens with still more than an hour left in the audiobook. But the things that follow are pretty crucial to Marjan’s story, too, so I don’t think I’d want it changed – or put off and resolved in another volume.

The publisher is marketing this for children (ages 10 to 14), but Marjan is 15, in high school, and dealing with adult things like running a business, and has a friend who drives. So I think teens will enjoy the book, too.

I didn’t begin this eaudiobook until it was almost due to expire, so on the last day, I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle and listened to the last 4 hours (sped up a tiny bit), and thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this book. I love the way the interspersed Persian tales illuminate the story and keep the feeling of magic strong.

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Review of The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen

The Merciful Crow

by Margaret Owen
read by Amy Landon

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2019. 12 hours, 58 minutes.
Review written January 2, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Teen Speculative Fiction

I’ve become a big fan of Margaret Owen’s work after Little Thieves was my favorite book read in 2022, and the sequel Painted Devils was one of my favorites in 2023. So I was happy to find her debut book available as an eaudiobook on Libby.

As in the other series, The Merciful Crow features a girl who’s a scrappy underdog. In this case, she’s part of the caste of Crows — the very lowest and most despised caste in the kingdom of Sabor. There are twelve castes altogether, all named after birds. Each caste has a certain number of witches with an inherited magic for their caste. The ruling family of Phoenixes, for example, can manipulate fire.

Crows don’t have a specific magic of their own — but if they have teeth from someone of another caste, living or dead, they can manipulate that person’s magic. And fortunately, the Crows have access to teeth, because they are the caste that deals with bodies. Crows are immune to the Sinner’s Plague – so when a village lights a Plague Beacon, Crows go in and give the person with the plague a merciful killing, then remove the bodies from the village and burn them.

Fie is the daughter of a chief of the Crows, and she’s training to use the magic of teeth and become a chief herself. As the book opens, they’ve been called to the palace for the first time in 500 years. Fie’s Pa goes in and brings out the shrouded bodies of Prince Jasimir and his bodyguard Tavin. And then they negotiate for payment.

But after they get out of the royal city, it turns out the prince and his companion aren’t dead. It was a ruse to escape from the Queen, who is trying to kill him. Now he wants to travel with the Crows to get to his allies before he shows up as miraculously recovered from the Plague.

But things begin to go wrong. Due to treachery, after their next stop, Fie ends up traveling with the prince and Tavin on her own, with her whole family held hostage. She has a string of teeth, including Phoenix teeth, she has a charge from her father, and she has determination to look after her own. She’ll help the prince to save her family.

The journey is long and difficult, and there are twists and turns all along the way. As they travel, the prince and Tavin are surprised to learn how badly Crows are treated. Fie doesn’t know if she can ever trust the prince to treat them like people, as he’s promised. On the other hand, the Queen intends to allow vigilantes to attack Crows in broad daylight instead of only at night like they do now.

Using caste in a fantasy world was an interesting way to talk about racism in the real world and treating all people as people of worth. This book held magic, romance, adventure, and the story of a girl learning to be a leader.

Research shows this is the first of a duology (but it does stop at a good stopping place), so the advantage of reading it years after publication is that I can start the next book right away.

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Review of Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans, by Isi Hendrix

Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans

by Isi Hendrix

Balzer + Bray, 2023. 338 pages.
Review written October 30, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

This debut middle grade fantasy novel is a sweet-hearted story of a girl named Adia who knows she has special powers, but needs to learn that doesn’t mark her as cursed.

The book is set in an alternate version of Africa. Adia is an orphan and lives in the Swamplands with her aunt and uncle, who seem to hate her. White missionaries came to their land years ago and have suppressed the old ways and inflicted their own control. All adults take Drops before church services, and they’re oddly compliant.

But Adia has made plans behind her aunt and uncle’s backs to spend her Year of Practicality working in the kitchen at the Academy of Shamans. She has a narrow escape before she leaves, and is startled when an earthquake happens when she gets angry.

Once at the Academy, she finds white-skinned students pretending to do spiritual work, but even Adia can sense more than they can.

Told with humor and heart, Adia witnesses one of the Alusi come to earth and learns that the demon that destroyed their land many years ago is now inhabiting the body of the child emperor – and coming to the Academy. One thing leads to another, and we’ve got a kid who’s been told she’s an evil influence discovering her power and using it to fight those who are actually evil.

The result is a delightful romp and an impressive debut. Adia’s the kind of person I enjoyed spending time with, and I look forward to reading more of her adventures as she learns more about her power.

Harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of The Kingdom Over the Sea, by Zohra Nabi

The Kingdom Over the Sea

by Zohra Nabi
read by Aysha Kala

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 8 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written October 7, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

This book begins in England after the death of 12-year-old Yara’s mother. Before she’s due to go with the social worker to a foster home, she reads instructions her mother has left for her. She’s told to go to the sea and follow particular instructions to get safe passage to a place called Zehaira. And once there, she’s given directions to find a certain sorceress who will look after her.

Yara is amazed by the magic that brings her over the sea to Zehaira. But once there, she learns that the sorceresses have been thrown out of the city, persecuted, and killed. Her next quest is to find the person her mother sent her to. Once she does, is there a place for Yara among the sorceresses? And she overhears the alchemists plotting further schemes against them. Can Yara help?

This fantasy tale won my heart. Yara’s bravery, setting off alone to a magical kingdom, had me rooting for her, and the characters she meets and the tales she uncovers made me love her and her new community. I was especially fond of the way activist Yara dealt with a jinn she met, and that jinn’s choice to take the form of a goat.

This book is only the beginning. Although they triumph over one major challenge, there is more to come. I will want to travel further with Yara and her community. This delightful fantasy tale will pull middle grade readers over the sea into the kingdom of Zehaira.

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Review of Bonesmith, by Nicki Pau Preto, read by Molly Hanson

Bonesmith

by Nicki Pau Preto
read by Molly Hanson

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 14 hours, 43 minutes.
Review written December 5, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.

Bonesmith is an epic fantasy tale in a world where smiths are born with magic and affinity for working with certain materials, and Wren is a Bonesmith, able to sense and manipulate the bones of the dead. (The living have too much flesh around their bones, protecting them.) As the book opens, she is ready for her trial in the Bonewood, and successful navigation of its obstacles will win her an official position as a valkyr, who fights the undead with weapons made of bone.

But Wren’s cockiness leads to her downfall — and a position at the outskirts of the Dominions next to the border wall. On the other side of the border are the Haunted Lands and the Breach which was caused when the ironsmiths dug too far. Before Wren was born, they orchestrated the Uprising because they didn’t like being left on the other side of the wall. Fighting in that was how Wren’s war hero uncle was killed. With his death, her father became heir to the House of Bone, but he (and Wren) can never please her grandmother like the fallen hero did.

Okay, the author does a much, much better job of explaining all this and smoothly building the world than I just did here. Let me say this: Wren ends up traveling with her supposed enemy, an Ironsmith, straight through the heart of the Haunted Territories and trying to cross the Breach itself, all while trying to fight off undead revenants and rescue a prince of the Dominions, but revealing more plots as they go.

I loved listening to every minute of this. The narrator has a British accent, and her voice is delightful to listen to. I wasn’t completely sure why Wren and her father have what I think is a Scottish accent, but maybe it was to show that even though they are nobility, they’re not as posh as the prince or even the Ironsmith.

The plotting was a little clunky in places. There was a big reveal toward the end that I saw coming a mile away, but still felt somewhat coincidental. Even worse was a climactic scene that Wren witnessed that I really had trouble believing she could have watched without getting spotted herself. And in that climactic scene, all of the big reveal was conveniently spoken for her to hear. (Kind of like the bad guy in the old Batman series always explaining how he did it when he thinks he has Batman trapped.) And then she conveniently had time to grab something that helped her escape. And I should stop, because I don’t actually want to give a spoiler.

So, I wasn’t crazy about the plotting — but I loved the characters. Wren’s a delight, and so are the two companions on her journey. The sexual/romantic tension is well-done. The whole enemies-to-lovers trope doesn’t yet come to fruition in this volume, but it’s off to a perfect start with legit misunderstandings and lack of trust between them.

And yes, that reminds me that the story is only beginning. The book stops at a good stopping point, but we definitely need to find out what happens next. I will make it clear that my reservations are only minor reservations when I say that I am going to make sure I read the next volume when it comes out next August.

nickipaupreto.com

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Review of Iron Flame, by Rebecca Yarros

Iron Flame

by Rebecca Yarros
read by Rebecca Soler
with Teddy Hamilton

Recorded Books, 2023. 28 hours, 17 minutes.
Review written November 20, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Iron Flame is the second book in the Empyrean series, and yes, you absolutely should read these books in order, because we’ve got one epic adventure going on.

I will try not to give anything away. The first book ends with a big reveal and big reversal — as does this book. But the book does cover Violet Sorrengail’s second year at Basgiath War College, and her skills as a dragon rider and magic-wielder are growing. And once again, she has to escape death over and over again to get through it. In this book, she’s also trying to uncover knowledge hidden for centuries.

Violet’s romance continues — with plenty of conflict. Since, after all, they don’t want to put each other in danger with what they know. And there’s a new vice-commander at Basgiath who wants to know all of Violet’s secrets and has ruthless – horrible, in fact – ways of getting them.

There’s a content warning at the front of this book:

Iron Flame is a nonstop-thrilling adventure fantasy set in the brutal and competitive world of a military college for dragon riders, which includes elements regarding war, psychological and physical torture, imprisonment, intense violence, brutal injuries, perilous situations, blood, dismemberment, burning, murder, death, animal death, graphic language, loss of family, grief, and sexual activities that are shown on the page. Readers who may be sensitive to these elements, please take note, and prepare to join the revolution…

Yes, it has all these things. Yes, these books contain the most detailed and explicit sex scenes I’ve ever read. Not that I’ve read a lot of books with explicit sex scenes — but that’s why I feel like I should warn my readers — this is different from the books I normally rave about.

But also yes, I’m going to rave about it. Why did I even pick up the first book, with a content warning like that? Well, I heard more than one person I respect recommend it. And it has dragons! Once I started reading, I loved the main character, a young adult with what is probably Ehler-Danlos syndrome, with her bones easily going out of joint and lots of aches and pains — trying to make it at a school where the physical challenges kill a large percentage of cadets.

I have been a bit skeptical of a college where a large percentage of recruits and students die. So I thought it was interesting right when a controversy about spanking erupted on Twitter (I was spanked, and I’m against it, but we discussed how it often takes time before kids who have been spanked can even dare to think differently enough from their parents to challenge that it’s a good method.) — right after that, I got to a part in the book where Violet defends the deaths they’ve seen of their friends and classmates because it helped her face the brutality in an actual combat situation. However, several chapters later, she learns about the procedure in another country that griffons use to choose their fliers — and nobody dies. Even Violet notices the contrast and wonders if all the deaths at Basgiath are truly necessary.

It was also interesting to read about the scandal of governments letting civilians die — as the conflict in Israel and Gaza is going on. Fantasy always has commentary on real life.

Well, that’s as much as I’m going to say without giving away details of the plot. It’s fast-moving, one thing after another, and over and over again Violet and her friends face life-threatening situations. And it’s completely gripping in a way that I didn’t want to stop listening and would find myself thinking about it when I wasn’t listening.

Oh, and her dragons are awesome, too. Andarna is an adolescent in this book, and is full of attitude — plus some surprises.

I’m annoyed at the ending — because there is another reversal, and the next book isn’t written yet. I will probably do as I did with this one and monitor when the library is getting eaudiobook licenses and snag one of them right away.

This book continues an amazing adventure about characters you can’t help caring about faced with terrible odds, but triumphing in spite of them. (Well, so far)

RebeccaYarros.com
EntangledPublishing.com

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