A Curse So Dark and Lonely

cursesodarkby Brigid Kemmerer
First sentence: “There is blood under my fingernails.”
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Release date: January 29, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some inferences to sex and lots of violence. It’ll be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I bet a 7/8th grader who wants to tackle this might really enjoy it.

Rhen is the crown prince of Everfall, but 5 years ago he made the worst decision of his life: he slept with, and then rejected, an enchantress. She (because she can) put a curse on him: at the end of every season (spring, summer, etc.) he will turn into a monster for a length of time. He has to find True Love to break the curse.

(If this sounds like Beauty and the Beast, you’re right.)

Harper lives in DC, and her family has fallen up on hard times. Her mother’s terminal illness has sucked the family finances dry, and so her father turned to loan sharks and other shady characters for money. And then he split, leaving Harper and her older brother Jake to clean up the mess. That is, until she’s inadvertently kidnapped (she wasn’t the intended target; in fact, she tried to stop the original kidnapping) by Rhen’s captain of the guard, Grey. And then she finds herself in Everfall.

There was so much to love in this book. The nods to the original fairy tale. The banter between Rhen and Harper. Harper’s fierceness (she’s not a warrior, but she cares about people and she’s willing to defend them). Rhen has a painful backstory, and Grey is an amazing foil. And the enchantress? Is wonderfully, justifiably awful.

It pulled me in on page one, and didn’t let me go until I finished. The only complaint I have? That it wasn’t a stand-alone (it could have been), but instead left a thread open for a sequel (which I will probably read).

Still. It was excellent.

 

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Bruja Born

by Zoraida Cordova
First sentence: “This is a love story.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There is some mild swearing and a few f-bombs. There is also a lot of violence. It would be in the Teen section (grades 9+) if the bookstore had it, but I think a 6-8th grader who was interested could read it. 

I’ll be forthright: this is a second in a series. And no, I haven’t read the first one (yet). But this one worked as a stand alone; Cordova gives enough information that it kept me in the loop with the backstory (though I do wonder if it was too much, if you’ve already read the first one?) but didn’t really get in the way of this story. 

Lula has been growing distant from her boyfriend, Maks, for many reasons (most of which have to do with book 1, but also because she’s a bruja – a witch) and he decided that he was done trying to make this work. So, on the way to a soccer game — he’s a player, she’s part of the cheer/dance team — he did. And then the bus got into a fatal accident. Lula’s family — who are all brujas — was able to save her through magic, but Maks, well, died. Except Lula, when she recovered, wasn’t able to accept that. So, she and her two sisters — Alex and Rose — performed a canto (a spell) to save him. Which… worked. Sort of. What it actually did was trap Death (the Lady de la Muerte) in between realms and created a whole hoard of casimuertos — zombies who eat hearts instead of brains — that quickly took over Brooklyn. 

What Lula (and Alex and Rose by extension) need to do is figure out how to get the Lady back to her realm and figure out a way to stop the casimuertos before they kill everyone. 

I’ve already addressed how nice it was that this was its own story rather than a continuation of a story that began in the first book, but it’s also a lot of fun. I enjoyed the Latinx flair that Cordova brought to witches (and zombies) and I thought the story was just a lot of fun. There was romance gone wrong, consequences to choices, some fun sidekicks, and a great family relationship. 

I’m going to try and go back and get my hands on the first book in the series. It’s really a LOT of fun. 

The Wicked Deep

by Shea Ernshaw
First sentence: “Three sisters arrived in Sparrow, Oregon, in 1822 aboard a fur trading ship named the Lady Astor, which sank later that year in the harbor just beyond the cape.”
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Content: There are instances of teenage drinking and lots of talk about sex. There is also swearing, including several f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

This one a hard one to summarize: it’s a slowly unfolding tale of three sisters who were accused of being witches and drowned, of a town that’s paid for their deaths for nearly 200 years through drownings of boys each summer. It’s the story of forgiveness and sacrifice and of falling in love. It’s the story of judgement and the price paid for not being open and accepting. 

It was atmospheric, as it slowly unfolded the historical tale of the Swan sisters and the contemporary tale of Penny and Bo. I was interested enough to keep reading to the end, but once there I was left with a shrug. I think I was supposed to care about the sacrifices made, about the love story. But mostly, it was all just a big meh. I guessed the twist fairly early on, and once I got to the Big Reveal, I was left kind of shrugging: yeah, so? 

I suppose I just wanted to like this one a lot more than I actually did. 

Spinning Silver

by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.”
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Content: There is some domestic violence and other violence as well as some more mature themes. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore. 

If you’ve read Novik’s Uprooted, then you know what you’re in for with this book. (If you haven’t read Uprooted, why not?) 

This takes place in much of the same place that Uprooted does: a vaguely Eastern-European/Russian country. We follow the story of Miryem, the daughter of an inept Jewish money lender, who decides to take on the family business for herself. She becomes successful enough that it captures the attention of the Staryk, a viscous race of faerie who, during the winter, stole from the humans, goods, yes, but often money. She is tasked with turning silver into gold — which she does — and as a “reward” is kidnapped and taken to the Staryk kingdom. 

So, yes: shades of Rumplestiltskin, but the inferences go deeper. There is playing with names and the importance of them (everyone who reads a lot of fantasy knows that one’s true name is to be kept close because there is magical power in them). But, there’s also a demon and quite a few very very smart women who are willing and able to play the system to get what’s not only best for them, but also for the country. 

My only real complaint is the shifting narrative — but that’s just because I’m in the middle of the Cybils, and it seems like there’s a lot of shifting narrative books out there and I’m a bit over it. I love the way Novik plays with fairy tales, meshing them with religion and folklore to create something wholly her own. 

Excellent. 

Mirage

by Somaiya Daud
First sentence: “He is the only one of his family without the daan.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some violence, and a few mild swear words. It was in the teen section (grades 9+) but I moved it to the YA, partially because there was nothing really “offensive” in it, and partially because I think 6-8th graders might be a better target audience. 

I’ve been thinking of this one as Star Wars with a Persian flair. Let me explain: in this universe, there is a cruel imperial overlord, the Vath, who conquer lesser systems, including the home world of our main character, Amani. The cruel overlords (and their droids) have wiped out the native language and customs, though they do keep some. 

The daughter of the emperor is about to come of age, and it turns out that she is very disliked on Andala, the world she is set to rule. So, Amani is kidnapped — because she looks exactly like the princess — and made to serve as a body double, something she resents, until she discovers (you guessed it: the resistance). See? Star Wars. 

The Persian flair is what made this book stand out to me: Daud infuses the world with a rich mythology, religion, and history, sewn together with poetry and family. I liked the developing relationship between Amani and the princess’s fiance, Idris. And I even really liked where the story went, though it took a long time to get to the climax. My only complaint is the usual one: I do wish it had been a stand-alone. 

Even so, it was a unique and interesting tale. 

Not Even Bones

by Rebecca Schaeffer
First Sentence: “Nita stared at the dead body lying on the kitchen table.”
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Content: There is a LOT of violence, and some of it is gory. There is also swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

First off: this is being billed as a horror novel, and in some ways, I guess, it is. I was wary about starting this one, mostly because I really don’t do horror, but it’s more surgical gross/violent. And I do better with that in print than I do on the screen. So, if there is ever a movie made of this one (and it’d be a cool movie), I probably wouldn’t see it. 

Nita’s parents — her mother, mostly — deal in the black market. Body parts of supernatural beings, specifically. And for as a long as she can remember, Nita has been doing the dissecting. Until one day, Nita’s mother brings home a live “specimen” and Nita decides that she has some ethics, and refuses to dissect a non-dead body. However, that ends up badly: Nita is kidnapped and finds herself on the wrong side of a cage, in a parts market along the Amazon river. Which means, since she really doesn’t want to die, she needs to find a way out. 

It was one part moral dilemma — all of Schaeffer’s characters are “bad”, ranging from despicable to just morally questionable — and one part suspense novel (will Nita make it out alive and in one piece? How did she end up kidnapped? Who sold her out?). But it was immensely readable, and highly unputdownable. I thought Schaeffer had a very clever take on mythical creatures; unicorns, for example, were men who preyed on virgins, but whose bones, once ground up, were more addictive than crack. It was a unique and interesting world, one I definitely would like to learn more about. I also liked that this book is compact: Nita has one goal, to get out, and while questions are raised, Schaeffer doesn’t spend a lot of time chasing them down. 

It’s a first in a series (at least two), which means Nita will have more adventures as she tries to figure out the answers to her questions, and I think I might be willing to follow her there.

Dread Nation

by Justina Ireland
First sentence: ” The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a lot of violence and some swearing and some references to the sex trade. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) but I think it’d be good for a younger reader, if they were interested. 

It’s the 1880s, and America is still trying to overcome the zombie — they call them shamblers — infestation that began during the Civil War. Sure, the war kind of petered out, but the south is pretty much wiped out, given over to shamblers. And the east coast is partially fortified, but mostly because the government ships blacks and native peoples into schools where they get training to be, well, shambler killers. 

Our main character is Jane McKeene, a half-black girl from a plantation in Kentucky, who has attended Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. She’s set to graduate and become an Attendant, protecting some rich white woman, when she discovers the seedy underbelly of the city. Which puts her into some definite hot water. And lands her in the West, where there are no rules. Especially for someone like her. 

I loved this one. Seriously. It’s a lot of fun, first of all (and I don’t really read zombie books), and I really liked the alternative history that Ireland created. It felt like it could have been a real history, just with zombies. But, I also really liked that it wasn’t all fluff and nonsense, that there were some real issues of racism and sexism and even zealotry in there. Things that would make for a good book discussion. 

And while there will most likely be a sequel, the story did come to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is always nice. 

A really really good book.