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Dragonbride

Raani York. CreateSpace, $14.99 paper (424p) ISBN 978-1-5002-3210-8

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First in the planned Dragon Chronicles trilogy, York’s fantasy has its merits but doesn’t entirely hit its mark. Raised as the only magician in the world, a 16-year-old named Shalima learns that she must fulfill an ancient prophecy and become the bride of the Golden Dragon, the king of all dragons and protector of good in the world. Shalima quickly comes to love Dragan, the Golden Dragon’s human form, but their wedded bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the Kalman, the Golden Dragon’s evil counterpart. York’s worldbuilding is rich in detail, and her cast of characters is widely diverse, but meandering writing (“As a Princess, my position definitely was higher than theirs, but this was not a matter of rank. They were close friends and very brave, but I needed space”) and a lack of character development overshadow these strengths. Unfortunately, the characters’ struggle to defeat the Kalman amounts to an exercise in being in the right place at the right time and deciphering prophecies that spell out exactly what’s going to happen. Ages 14–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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We All Looked Up

Tommy Wallach. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4814-1877-5

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An asteroid named Ardor is on course to destroy the world. As four Seattle teenagers count down the weeks until impact, they wrestle with the meaning of their lives and their possible deaths. Peter, a basketball golden boy, must decide if he should save his sister from her nihilistic boyfriend and whether true love is worth ignoring the status quo. Eliza, a photographer with an unseemly reputation, negotiates her father’s cancer diagnosis, her mother’s abandonment, and the need to chronicle the chaos erupting around her, while finding herself drawn to Peter. Rounding out the story’s rotating voices are Anita, a straight-A student who just wants to sing, and Andy, a slacker who must decide where his loyalties lie and how to handle his dangerous friends. Debut novelist Wallach increases the tension among characters throughout, ending in a shocking climax that resonates with religious symbolism. Stark scenes alternating between anarchy and police states are counterbalanced by deepening emotional ties and ethical dilemmas, creating a novel that asks far bigger questions than it answers. Ages 14–up. Agent: John Cusick, Greenhouse Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Tightrope Walkers

David Almond. Candlewick, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7636-7310-9

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In a powerfully realistic bildungsroman from award-winning author Almond (The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean), Dominic Hall, the son of a working man from Newcastle, seems destined for greater success than was possible for his ill-educated and often angry father. It’s the late 1960s, and the times are definitely changing. Though Dom “was born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then,” his quick mind has opened up to him a wider world of ideas and the chance to be the first in his family to attend college. Like good and bad angels on either shoulder, however, are his friends, Holly Stroud, an eccentric child of the middle-class, and Vincent McAlinden, an incorrigible and sometimes frightening troublemaker who shares the Halls’ blue-collar background. Dom is drawn in opposite directions by these two as he negotiates a difficult, sometimes dangerous world. Almond’s characteristic penetrating writing and finely drawn characters are on full display in a story more fully grounded in a specific and important historical moment than anything he has published heretofore. Ages 14–up. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Storyspinner

Becky Wallace. S&S/McElderry, $17.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-4814-0565-2

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Political games meet magical intrigue in this Portuguese-flavored fantasy debut, first in a planned series. After Johanna Von Arlo’s father dies during a high-wire act, her family tries to scrape by in their home of Santarem. When Lord Rafael DeSilva mistakes Johanna for a (male) poacher and attacks her, he incurs a debt of honor and offers her employment as a Storyspinner. Meanwhile, in the neighboring mage-run nation of Olinda, Jacaré of the Elite Guard realizes that the heir of Santarem is in danger and that, without her, the magical barrier that separates these two lands will collapse. Jacaré crosses into Santarem in search of the lost princess, a search made all the more urgent when he discovers that girls who resemble the heiress are being murdered. Chapters shift among several viewpoints, keeping the action lively but diluting the narrative, and readers are asked too readily to accept a relationship between Johanna and a man who beat her into unconsciousness and, even when he’s trying to make amends, “itched to slap the smug grin off her face.” Ages 14–up. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Playing a Part

Daria Wilke, trans. from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. Scholastic/Levine, $18.99 (176p) ISBN 978-0-545-72607-8

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Given the relative rarity of English translations of international YA fiction, first-time author Wilke’s coming-of-age story is a bold and welcome addition. Grisha is a Moscow teen who attends high school by day and volunteers at a puppet theater by night. The novel confronts Russian homophobia (and made headlines when it was originally published amid the enactment of laws forbidding the distribution of gay “propaganda” to minors), particularly through Grisha’s encounters with bullies at school; Grisha’s unwillingness to kiss a girl on a dare and his involvement with the theater are enough for the students to tease him, believing he is gay. Grisha’s grandfather also figures importantly as Grisha grapples with his sexuality: “When I’m next to him, I always feel like something’s wrong with me. That I’m worse than I really am.” His uncertainty about his feelings for an actor named Sam unfold gradually, with Wilke allowing space for Grisha to better understand himself. Grisha’s voice is authentic and soulful, and his descriptions of the vibrant world of the puppet theater, his refuge, are sumptuous. Ages 12–up. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Not Otherwise Specified

Hannah Moskowitz. Simon Pulse, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4814-0596-6

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Etta knows she doesn’t really fit in easy categories: she’s a “rich black was-ballerina in Nebraska,” who quit her elite ballet company after a choreographer told her to lose weight. Also, bisexual Etta is being shunned and bullied by her lesbian friends, who feel betrayed because she briefly dated a boy. As Etta focuses on recovering from an eating disorder, she learns about open auditions for scholarships to an arts school in Manhattan. But when she befriends two other applicants, a talented but troubled singer struggling with anorexia and her gay older brother, Etta must decide why she is working so hard to get accepted. Determined and irrepressible, Etta is a memorable narrator with smart insights into the particular challenges of bisexual teens (“If I end up marrying a guy, what the hell queer community is ever going to want me?”). However, Moskowitz (Teeth) doesn’t fully explore several of the issues she raises, which include eating disorders and codependent relationships, making them feel somewhat scripted. Ages 14–up. Agent: John Cusick, Greenhouse Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Down from the Mountain

Elizabeth Fixmer. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8075-8370-8

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All Eva has known since age five is the world of the Righteous Path and the word of Reverend Ezekiel. When Eva’s mother took her away from her father and her home in Chicago to join the itinerant congregation, neither anticipated the way their bond with each other would be severed, the brutal punishments they would face, or the reverend’s intention to marry Eva. Now nearly 15, Eva learns she must leave school to sell her jewelry to outsiders or the Righteous Path will starve. Fixmer (Saint Training) draws on her experience counseling former religious cult members to create believable and detailed accounts of Eva’s encounters with the “heathen” world. When Eva meets college student Trevor, his curiosity about her beliefs sparks her own questions. Eva faces difficult choices when the Reverend begins buying guns, one member flees, and her mother’s pregnancy complications turn dire. Fixmer’s references to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books persuasively contrast the image of a loving god against the harshness of Reverend Ezekiel in this absorbing and smartly paced novel. Ages 13–up. Agent: Minju Chang, BookStop Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Generation

Ben Robertson. Menadena Publishing, $16.95 paper (390p) ISBN 978-0-9835268-0-3

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In this historical coming-of-age story, Robertson spins a tale regarding the “last generation” of Viking-descended Greenlanders, those who vanished around the start of the 16th century. In 1501, 17-year-old Bridget Thorsdottir is one of those eking out an existence in an increasingly hostile, resource-starved region, as the ice gradually spreads to cover the Eastern Colony. When Bridget learns that her people are to travel to the New World to establish a fishing colony in Newfoundland, Bridget’s father refuses to go, but Bridget sees opportunity. She strikes out on her own with her stepbrother, Bjorn, but when their father is arrested for supposed sorcery, they turn back to rescue him, little realizing that they’ll have to fight for their lives. Robertson writes with a keen eye for atmosphere and a knack for historical research and description, and his story skillfully plays against the conflict between Christian and pagan beliefs, as well as the ethnic clash between Norse and Inuit peoples. However, the narrative suffers from repetitive, stilted dialogue and a meandering plot; Robertson’s prose doesn’t always match up to his worldbuilding. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Under a Painted Sky

Stacey Lee. Putnam, $16.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-16803-1

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Lee debuts with a vivid, nontraditional Western, set in 1849 on the Oregon Trail during the heart of the California Gold Rush. Filled with the expected difficulties and dangers of traveling the rugged, often hostile terrain, the novel features an unlikely protagonist—15-year-old Chinese-American Samantha, a passionate violinist—who offers a fresh perspective on the era and setting. Trapped in Missouri when her father dies in a fire, the orphaned Samantha accidentally commits a fatal crime and, accompanied by a teenage slave girl named Annamae, flees for California. Disguising themselves as boys looking to make their fortune, the fugitives soon team up with a trio of young cowboys; adventures ensue, with plenty of twists, as the girls struggle to keep their secrets from their new friends and the strangers they encounter. Growing romantic undertones with hints of uncertain sexuality add bonus interest to a story that distinguishes itself by integrating strands of Chinese lore and wisdom, Christianity, and music with themes of friendship, diversity, and survival. Ages 12–up. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Shadow Scale

Rachel Hartman. Random, $18.99 (608p) ISBN 978-0-375-86657-9

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In this strong follow-up to 2012’s Seraphina, Hartman continues the adventures of that book’s eponymous half-dragon, who is now assigned with finding and uniting her fellow “ityasaari” before the full-blooded dragons can resolve their civil war and mobilize to wipe out the southern human kingdoms. But some ityasaari don’t want to be found, and one, who has the power to enter and control minds, would rather see them united for her own bitter purpose. With numerous factions jockeying for power and war on the horizon, Seraphina must unlock her own long-dormant potential and find a way to save everyone she loves. As the page count attests, Hartman’s style is leisurely; she builds her epic fantasy carefully, with attention to detail and atmosphere, while letting the plot simmer and allowing just as much to happen off-screen as in Seraphina’s presence. She juggles the large cast skillfully, balancing wide-screen action with intimate character development (including some deft, thoughtful treatments of gender identity), allowing for some subtle yet surprising revelations. This is a worthy and wholly satisfying continuation of Seraphina’s tale. Ages 12–up. Agency: Writers House. (Mar)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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