Review of Moira’s Pen, by Megan Whalen Turner

Moira’s Pen

A Queen’s Thief Collection

by Megan Whalen Turner
illustrations by Deena So’Oteh

Greenwillow Books, 2022. 203 pages.
Review written December 19, 2022, from my own copy pre-ordered from amazon.com
Starred Review

I’m so happy to enter the world of the Queen’s Thief again! Moira’s Pen is a collection of stories about the beloved characters from The Queen’s Thief series, giving a little more insight and backstory in some cases, in other cases letting us know what happened later or with side characters. The time range goes from Gen’s childhood to the life of one of his descendants.

Because it’s so wrapped up in the other six books, I don’t recommend this as a gateway to the series, but it’s a delightful dessert after you’ve read the books — and will make you want to reread the whole thing.

Megan Whalen Turner also includes some pictures of actual artifacts that inspired elements of the series. So you’ve got some insight into the stories behind the stories. This is a lovely volume, as besides those illustrations, there are full-page pictures for each story.

Here’s the explanation for the title from the front of the book:

Moira is the messenger of the gods. She carries a feather pen, sometimes in her hand, sometimes behind her ear. In the past, Moira loaned her pen to mortals. When the historian Eutritus succumbed to temptation and used it not just to record history, but to alter it, Moira promised the Great Goddess Hephestia never to do so again. After that, historians could only pray that she would guide their pens and be their muse.

Not only historians prayed to her, though. All wordwrights did. Every year a playwriting competition was held in Moira’s honor in the city of Attolia. The plays were performed during the Moirian Festival, and the winner of the competition would receive a feather pen crafted from solid gold.

Nearest of the gods to mortals, Moira sees them in all their folly and their wisdom and records what she sees. When people wished for something to come true they would say, “May it be written with Moira’s pen.”

I faced a dilemma when my preordered copy of this book arrived. I was reading for the Cybils, so I didn’t have time for this book (which was published after the deadline). But how could I resist? Well, the answer came when I realized that since it’s short stories, I could read a short story from this book as a reward for finishing another book. That ended up spreading out the book and making me happy each time I treated myself to another story.

Fans of Megan Whalen Turner will be delighted with this book.

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Review of Garlic & the Vampire, by Bree Paulsen

Garlic and the Vampire

by Bree Paulsen

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 154 pages.
Review written January 9, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Garlic and the Vampire is a fun graphic novel suitable for early elementary school kids. The book opens with bulb of garlic with a body oversleeping and being teased by her friend Carrot when she’s late. They’re part of a whole group of sentient vegetables made by kindly Witch Agnes. Garlic and her friends help Agnes tend her garden and sell the produce in the village market. They happily interact with the people in the village.

Garlic has some anxiety about doing her job well. Witch Agnes tries to reassure her and encourage her that she’s doing fine.

But then somebody moves into the castle overlooking the valley. Agnes’s magic mirror shows them that a vampire has returned. The vegetables go into a panic. What about the people in the village?

But everybody knows that vampires are afraid of garlic, so they decide that Garlic should confront the vampire.

Witch Agnes gives her tools to help her, but it takes all Garlic’s courage to do the job.

And things turn out like no one expects – in a fun and child-friendly way.

A delightful, quirky, and very sweet story about a little bulb of garlic being brave.

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Review of Little Thieves, by Margaret Owen

Little Thieves

by Margaret Owen
read by Saskia Maarleveld

Macmillan Audio, 2021. 14 hours.
Review written October 31, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2022 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2022 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Teen Fantasy Fiction

Oh, this book is so, so good! I listened to it while on a road trip four hours away to New River Gorge National Park and found myself looking forward to spending more time in the car, almost more mesmerized by the audiobook than I was by the stunning autumn leaves. The narrator did a wonderful job weaving the spell, and I was hooked from the very beginning.

The book begins with a dark tale:

Once upon a time, on the coldest night of midwinter, in the darkest heart of the forest, Death and Fortune came to a crossroads.

They’ve come to the crossroads to meet with a woman and her four-year-old child. The mother believes her child is bad luck. The woman was a thirteenth child, and this child is her thirteenth. So that is how Vanja gets Death and Fortune as her godmothers.

But then we fast forward twelve more years. Vanja is wearing the face of a princess, and she’s planning a jewel heist at the house party of another noble family.

We learn that for a year, Vanja has been masquerading as the princess whom she once served, using the princess’s enchanted pearls that give her a beautiful appearance and play on the desires of those who look upon her. She’s betrothed to the margrave of Boern, but he has been away at war for a year, so she’s had charge of his castle.

As she pulls off the elaborate jewel heist, at the end of the first chapter we read:

Once upon a time, there was a girl as cunning as the fox in winter, as hungry as the wolf at first frost, and cold as the icy wind that kept them at each other’s throats.

Her name was not Gisele, nor was it Marthe, nor even Pfennigeist. My name was — is — Vanja. And this is the story of how I got caught.

I saw on the flap that this book is a retelling of “The Goose Girl,” and for a little while, I was faintly horrified to find myself sympathizing with the horrible maid who stole the princess’s life, a princess I came to love in Shannon Hale’s version, The Goose Girl. But this is a very different retelling! I think it’s kind of funny that now two of my favorite books came from that fairy tale, but in such different versions.

In this version, the truly terrible villain is actually the margrave the princess was traveling to marry.

And as Vanja pulls off her jewel heist as the Pfennigeist, she learns that the margrave is coming home. And he’s called in the Order of the Prefects of the Godly Courts to uncover the Pfennigeist. And on her way back to the margrave’s castle, she runs afoul of another of the Lower Gods and gets cursed to slowly turn into a statue of jewels by the full moon — unless she makes up for all she has taken.

Of course, that may not be the worst thing, because now that the margrave is back, he wants to get married quickly. And what are these monsters that keep coming after his bride?

But oh, there’s so much more — I’d better not try to tell all the threads woven together and then skillfully unwound.

I will say this is a very loose retelling of the fairy tale, with many more details woven into the story. Instead of being an actual goose girl, the deposed princess works in an orphanage which in German (or something like it) is called Gosling House. A junior prefect who comes to investigate the thefts is named Conrad, and yes, a dead horse is important to the plot by the end.

Besides being a very loose retelling, it’s also much darker than Shannon Hale’s retelling, but after all, we’re pulled into sympathy with the villain of that tale — she hasn’t been treated well by the nobility, including sexual assault by the margrave when she had the appearance of a servant. (Nothing sexual is onstage, but there are some innuendoes and some dark moments.)

But oh my goodness, how well the plot is woven!

I thought of it as an alternate-reality medieval Germany, since they use a Germanic language and The Goose Girl is a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. So then I was pulled up short when same-sex relationships and transgender people are seen as entirely normal. Kind of pulled me out of the medieval Germany vibe. But then I laughed at myself. It was a world where the religion involved tribute to the Lower Gods, including gods of place and the gods of Death and Fortune. So without our same Scripture, why wouldn’t same-sex relationships be seen as normal?

But oh my goodness, the plot of this book is wonderful! Vanja’s set up with lots of problems — She also wants to gain enough money to get out of the Blessed Empire so she won’t have to serve one of her godmothers for the rest of her life. But she also needs to evade justice for her thefts and break the curse so she doesn’t get turned into a statue and continue to hide her true identity and stay alive despite the monstrous attacks and also try to avoid marrying the margrave.

Yes, it’s complicated, but magnificently so.

Oh, and the title? It comes from a proverb from the Blessed Empire:

The little thief steals gold, but the great one steals kingdoms;
and only one goes to the gallows.

margaret-owen.com
fiercereads.com

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Review of Windswept, by Margi Preus

Windswept

by Margi Preus

Amulet Books (Abrams), 2022. 288 pages.
Review written September 30, 2022, from an advance reader copy I got at ALA Annual Conference
Starred Review

Windswept is a new fairy tale, crafted full of references to the old Norwegian fairy tales, and some influences from the Brothers Grimm. Since I read lots of fairy tales as a child, I appreciated the way this one wove in themes that show up again and again.

And since they’re Norwegian fairy tales, there have to be trolls! Expect some danger from trolls, and you will not be disappointed.

This fairy tale is set in a future earth without technology, with people living in villages, governed by the Powers That Be. There are lots of artifacts around from the Other Times — especially plastic, which is cluttered all over the place. But the Powers That Be have declared the only books Youngers should read are field guides and factual things like that.

But above all, Youngers must be kept indoors. We’re told the tale from the perspective of Tag, whose real name is Hyacinth, but who was always a tagalong to her three older sisters. But one fateful day almost seven years before her adventure begins, their guard fell asleep and Tag’s sisters went Outside. Tag was slow getting her shoes on, and didn’t quite make it over the threshold, so she saw with her own eyes the snow squall that suddenly descended and the wind that swept her sisters away.

In the seven years since, her father spent all his money looking for them, and died of a broken heart. Instead of keeping a guard, her mother keeps Tag indoors, with all the windows and doors boarded up. There’s one little knothole through which she can see a piece of the Outside.

But one day another eye appears on the other side of the knothole, and then an invitation pops through.

And when Tag finds a way to accept the invitation, encouraged along by something with a bit of magic, she finds four other Youngers and a little dog who are also defying the Powers That Be. They decide together to do something. And together, they set out on a quest to rescue their siblings, who were all windswept like Tag’s sisters.

Their quest is full of fairy tale logic and a little chaotic, but involves finding what they need to help along the way, with old crones to advise them. Not to mention trolls! And of course the ever-present danger from the wind. And they’d better watch out for small curses.

Of course, one of the best things about Norwegian fairy tales is you often have a little girl doing the impossible and overcoming against all odds. This tale falls nicely into that category.

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Review of A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I. Lin

A Magic Steeped in Poison

by Judy I. Lin
read by Carolyn Kang

Listening Library, 2022. 11 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written September 19, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

The first thing I need to say about this book is that it’s one of those where the story doesn’t finish at all. In fact, it ends right at a point where things are looking bad for the main character. However, the good news is that the second volume is already out, and the literature says it’s a duology. So I plan to finish the story soon.

But the story is a good one — magical and imaginative, all about magic inherent in tea as well as the skills of the person making and pouring the tea.

The book begins as Ning is preparing to go to the capital city to compete to be the court shennong-shi — the best in the art of wielding the magic of tea. The winner of the competition will be granted a favor from the princess. And Ning thinks this is her only chance to save her sister Shu, who is desperately ill, having been poisoned with the same tainted tea that killed their mother.

Shu was the one who trained to be their mother’s apprentice in the arts of shennong-shi. But Ning learned many of those skills, as well as some of the art of their father, a physician.

When she gets to the palace, there’s plenty of contempt among the other competitors for girls from a rural province, but Shi befriends another like herself. She encounters a handsome stranger who turns out to be part of the imperial family — the part that is in rebellion to the emperor.

Besides the competition, which is full of creative and challenging ways for Ning to use her gifts, the book is full of court intrigue and danger. Ning wants to find out who was responsible for the poisoned tea that killed her mother. And then she needs to combine her physician skills with shennong-shi to save a life. But her skills may put her in grave danger.

I’m glad I listened to this audiobook, because I wouldn’t have known the correct pronunciations for many words, and the narrator did a nice job pulling me into the story. The original magic made this a fantasy tale that stood out, and Ning’s a character who’s resourceful and unstoppable. This book left her in a bad place, and I very much want to read on and discover how she gets out of it.

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Review of Star Daughter, by Sveta Thakrar

Star Daughter

by Shveta Thakrar

HarperTeen, 2020. 435 pages.
Review written October 21, 2020, from a library book

Star Daughter is a fantasy story refreshingly different for me, informed by Indian mythology. It’s about Sheetal, an American teen of Indian descent, who’s the daughter of a star and a mortal astrophysicist. Sheetal is almost seventeen, and her mother left them years ago and returned to her place in the celestial court.

But something’s going on with Sheetal. Her shining silver hair has stopped holding the black dye she tries to cover it with, and the music of the stars is getting harder and harder to ignore. When she accidentally gives her father a heart attack with her star fire, she must go to the heavenly court to get a cure. Her grandmother is willing to give it – if Sheetal will help them out.

I enjoyed the imaginative setting of this book and the details of the heavenly court. I enjoyed Sheetal’s best friend Minal, who was allowed to come along as a mortal companion. It was refreshing to see a good friendship portrayed in a teen novel. And it was touching that Sheetal had parents who loved each other, even if they couldn’t be together.

Beyond that, a lot of the motivations in the book seemed one-dimensional, and there were some fairly large coincidences that turned the plot. But I enjoyed my time reading this book and getting a window into the world of stars who provide inspiration to humanity.

shvetathakrar.com
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Review of The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

The Golden Enclaves

Lesson Three of the Scholomance

by Naomi Novik

Del Rey (Penguin Random House), 2022. 407 pages.
Review written October 2, 2022, from my own copy, preordered from Amazon.com
Starred review

Okay, this book is SO GOOD!!!!

All right, enough gushing, now for a serious review. First, I’m so happy that my preordered copy arrived just before Cybils season started, so I could read it before I need to start madly reading Young Adult Speculative Fiction books, which is the category I’m judging this year. Although this book is speculative fiction and features a young woman freshly out of school, it’s published for adults and isn’t eligible for the Cybils Awards.

First, let me say that this is a trilogy where you absolutely must read the books in order to understand what’s going on. So I’m going to speak about the trilogy in general terms in this review so as to not give anything away. If you haven’t read the earlier books yet, you are in luck! You won’t have to wait a year in between books to find out what happens after huge dramatic reversals at the ends of books one and two. But be prepared — once you start, you’re going to want to finish. I stayed up awfully late last night because of this book. (And I suspect I’ll want to reread the entire trilogy after my Cybils reading is done.)

The story is amazing how it pulls you in. I couldn’t stop thinking about it this morning. My shorthand way of talking about it is that it’s a story about a Wizard School that wants to kill you.

But I love the way Naomi Novik does the world-building, gradually telling us more and more about the world and the magic they use. This is why you really need to start at the beginning.

The trilogy follows El (short for Galadriel) whom the universe – and the Scholomance – seems to want to make a frightfully powerful death sorceress. This is in balance with her mother, who only works healing magic with sweetness and light. The first book starts with her junior year in the Scholomance.

We learn about the magic in that universe – parallel to ours – which always has a price. Wizards can get mana by doing work and helping others, which gives them power to do magic. But they can also use malia, which gets power from taking from the life force of others. The things that want to kill you in the Scholomance are malificaria, and they are drawn to magic, and especially to young and powerful wizards, so they flock to the Scholomance like a magnet. In the earlier books, we learn that El has a grudge against the kids from enclaves, where wizards band together to share magic. But it’s hard to get into enclaves, and there’s a prophecy about El destroying enclaves. And then there’s Orion, that annoying hero from the New York enclave who won El’s heart. He wound up in a bad place in the last book. Has she seen the end of him?

So in this book, El is out of the Scholomance and figuring out what she’s going to do with her life and what she’s going to do about Orion. She came out of the school with the Golden Sutras — powerful spell books about building Golden Enclaves without using malia.

And then a mawmouth is attacking the London enclave. A mawmouth is the most horrible kind of malificaria of all. It devours all in its path — and they don’t die, but remain suffering inside it forever after. Before El, there was only one living wizard who’d ever defeated a mawmouth. El, however, fought and destroyed more than one in the Scholomance. Her classmates know this, and call her to London. And that has consequences….

Another thing I love about this book is the way El, who started out friendless, now has a whole community who care about her and help her.

Okay, I’d love to say more, but I should stop. If you enjoy reading fantasy at all, tackle this brilliant trilogy. It’s outstanding.

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Review of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn

by Melissa Bashardoust
read by Nikki Massoud

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2020. 10 hours, 6 minutes.
Review written December 12, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a modern fairy tale rooted in Persian folklore. The story is told from the perspective of Soraya, twin sister to the young shah, but who is kept hidden from all outsiders. She has been cursed to be poisonous to the touch. If anyone touches her, they die instantly. She is even deadly to insects. So she travels the palace in secret passageways and wears gloves at all times.

But then she meets a young man who’s not afraid of her. When she finds out a way she may be able to remove her curse, he is willing to help her. There’s a little problem, though – She would have to put out the royal fire that protects her family.

I thought most of the book would be about Soraya trying to lift her curse, but it turns out there’s a lot more that happens, because there are consequences.

The narrator brought the story to life with her lilting accent.

I did enjoy this tale, and loved the Persian flavor. The story was a little convoluted for me – I didn’t completely buy Soraya’s motivations at every point. And there seemed to be coincidences at others. And I wondered at how easily she found out a couple of things – like how to discover an old criminal in hiding, long ago condemned to die.

But the concept – a princess who had been cursed to be poisonous, wondering if that makes her a monster – that concept was worth building a fairy tale around.

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Review of The Last Mapmaker, by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker

by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press, 2022. 355 pages.
Review written July 24, 2022, from my own copy, picked up at ALA Annual conference and signed by the author.
Starred Review

This book is wonderful! It took me on a voyage to enchanted lands, complete with danger, friendship, treachery, and self-examination.

The book begins with twelve-year-old Sai, who has been pretending to be from a good family lineage so she can serve her Assistant year with the old master mapmaker. She doesn’t know how she’ll hide it when she turns thirteen and should receive her lineal — a chain of gold links with one link for every generation of distinguished ancestors.

But then the Queen announces a contest, now that the island is at peace, to map the distant regions of the globe. Sai’s master is going, and he needs her to use her steady hands to get his observations on paper.

But after the voyage departs, Sai learns that they are looking for the Sunderlands — a vast southern continent thought to be mythical. But Sai also learns that there are consequences to “discovery,” that it often doesn’t work out well for those who are “discovered.” Yet if they succeed in mapping the Sunderlands, she can stop hiding her heritage.

Meanwhile, Sai helps a stowaway and makes friends on the voyage — but needs to figure out who she can trust. Storms at sea and mythical creatures add to the adventure. Yes, there are some coincidences in the plot, but they were easy to forgive because I was enjoying the story so much.

A magical tale of discovery, both of the world and in Sai herself.

Here’s a taste of Christina Soontornvat’s beautiful prose:

Paiyoon was the last mapmaker of his kind still working in An Lung. He used old-fashioned mapmaking techniques, drawing coastlines as intricate as a lace collar. This meant that he worked slowly, but in the end, each map was exquisite enough to hang in a museum.

Some people in An Lung said, That man would draw the pebbles on the beach if he had a pen fine enough. Others said, The spirits must have blessed him with the gift of far sight. And still others said (in frightened whispers), Stay away from that old Paiyoon. Everyone knows he sold his soul to a demon in exchange for his mapmaking talent. I liked that one best.

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Review of The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee

The Iron Will of Genie Lo

by F. C. Yee

Amulet Books (Abrams), 2020. 293 pages.
Review written December 15, 2020, from a library book

The Iron Will of Genie Lo is very much like a Rick Riordan book for teens, dealing with Chinese mythology, rather than Greek mythology. I hadn’t read the first book, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, but I never felt lost. Since this is the second book, the reader doesn’t have to learn along with Genie that she’s the reincarnation of the Riyu Jingu Bang, the legendary weapon of the Monkey King. She already knows about her powers of shrinking or growing, her healing abilities, and her fist made of impenetrable metal. The Monkey King himself is actually her boyfriend, Quentin.

In this book she’s already the guardian of the Kingdom of California – and a bunch of demons who have been confined there. But a new threat appears to the universe and all of existence, a threat that frightens even a guardian dragon. Genie and some gods and goddesses, some of whom she thought of as enemies, must travel to a different plane to attempt to save the universe.

What makes this for teens rather than the kids of Rick Riordan’s audience is that there’s more kissing and relationship issues. Genie and Quentin are fighting for most of the book. Also, Genie has some college choices to make. She visits a college on a long weekend and ends up getting pulled into a raucous college party. It’s unfortunate that then a bunch of demons show up, fleeing a power that frightens even them.

This book ended up being a lot of fun and perfect for high school students who still want to read about modern day teens hanging out with gods and goddesses and saving the universe.

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