The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch)!
Content: There are some intense images of violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’d been seeing this one on a LOT of the best-of 2018 lists and I realized I knew NOTHING about it (I had gotten it in, but really paid no attention to it), so I realized I needed to get this one and read it. And since it looked up K’s ally, I decided to buy both it and the sequel as well.

Aster is part of this old magical family, where the girls are all witches and the boys are all shape-shifters. But Aster, at 13, has realized that his talents lie with being a witch rather than a shape-shifter. Except, because that’s what GIRLS do and he’s obviously not a girl, he’s forbidden. Like actively. Every time they find him sneaking around trying to learn witchcraft, the women shame him and shun him. Especially since the last time a boy tried to be a witch — Aster’s grandmother’s brother — he turned into a monster and was never seen again.

(Yes, I do think this is meant to be a feminist allegory for gender roles and toxic masculinity and how silly they are. If a boy wants to be a witch, then LET HIM BE A WITCH.)

Things get complicated when Aster’s cousins — all of whom embrace the traditional male role and become shape-shifters — start disappearing. And Aster — because he’s both male and a witch — is the only one who can save them.

The story continues in The Hidden Witch; Aster’s family has (kind of sort of) accepted him as a witch and is trying to teach him, when his non-magical friend, Charlie, gets attacked by a bit of dark magic called a “Fetch”. It turns out that there’s a rogue witch in town, and the family has to figure out how to take care of them.

This one, honestly, wasn’t as good as Witch Boy, which I adored. She did wrap up the story of the grandmother’s brother, which was left hanging in the first book, but I’m not sure how much I cared about that. I did like seeing Aster use his witchcraft to help Charlie figure out where the Fetch was coming from, but it just didn’t have the larger conflict that Witch Boy had. Even so, it’s delightful series, expertly drawn (Ostertag worked on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and her art style fits that). I adore the friendship between Aster and Charlie, and I liked how Ostertag worked in diversity without making it a huge “look at me, I’m diverse” issue.

She’s a solid graphic novelist, and someone I’m excited to see more from.

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The Boneless Mercies

by April Genevieve Tucholke
First sentence: “They say dying makes you thirsty, so we always gave our marks one last drink.”
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Content: There is a lot of death and some drinking. It’s in the Teen sectiong (grades 9+) but it’d be appropriate for younger kids as well.

Frey and her companions — Ovie, Runa, Juniper — are Boneless Mercies: women who roam the country performing mercy killings for payment, such as it is. They’re shunned by society, even while they’re treated with respect. But the girls — and they are all girls, ranging from 15 to 19(ish) — are tired of the death trade. Frey, especially, longs for something More out of life. So, when they here of a monster — a giant — who is terrorizing the Blue Vee area of Vorseland, they head out to perform that impossible task.

There’s more to it, of course. And it’s very much an Epic Tale in the tradition of the Odyssey, or (more accurately) one of the Norse myths. In fact, it’s deliberately Norse (without being explicitly so): the Boneless Mercies worship the goddess Valkree, and others follow Obin. It’s Vorse and Finnmark and Dennish. Warriors die and go to Holholla, and they believe in Hel. This bugged me, at first, because why be Norse without really being Norse? But, eventually, I settled in and it didn’t bother me as much.

It’s a very feminist book, without hitting the reader over her head: it’s female-centric (there are about five male characters in the whole book), it’s a world where while females don’t have power (there are references to the way women and girls are kept down), they search out the power they do have and wield it to the full extent, while working for change. But, mostly, it’s beautifully written. Tucholke has a gift for words in the same way Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater do: she keeps the story going, while painting beautiful word pictures.

It’s a lovely epic story, and one I’m very glad I read.

A Mad, Wicked Folly

by Sharon Biggs Waller
First sentence: “I never set out to pose nude.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s one steamy kissing scene and some posing “undraped” (it’s not naked, it’s nude if it’s art). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

it’s 1908, and all Vicky Darling wants is to be an artist. She has found a community in Paris that she sneaks away to, away from her finishing school, and draws to her heart’s content. The thing is: Art is not done in Vicky’s social circles. At least not by women. Sure, they can paint… but only acceptable things: flowers, furniture, etc. Not Art. And definitely not Nudes.

So, when Vicky poses nude for her (all-male) art class, it causes a scandal. And she’s sent home to London where her parents decide the best thing is to marry her off as quickly as possible (she’s 16!) to curb her desires to Make Art. Because, of course, being a wife and mother will be so fulfilling that Vicky won’t have time for Art.

Except, it doesn’t really work. it’s also the time of the suffragette movement, and Vicky is inspired to help out. Initially, it’s only to draw them to work on her application to the Royal Art College, but eventually, she finds herself emboldened and empowered by these women who are fearlessly trying to exercise their right to vote.

It doesn’t help, either, that she’s met a supportive (and cute!) police officer, who’s willing to be her muse.

Vicky ends up faced with a choice: please her parents and society and give up her passion or follow her passion and give up her place in society?

Two guesses as to which one she picks.

I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s good to be reminded of the initial fight for equal (such as they are) rights for (white, mostly) women, and the struggles and trials they went through. And while Waller was sympathetic to Vicky and the suffragettes, she never really painted the upper class world that Vicky ran in as completely morally bankrupt. Constricting, yes. And lacking in understanding. But her parents did care for her (even if her friends and their parents did not). I especially liked the end (well, most of it), when Vicky left. Waller never hid the amount of privilege she had. She didn’t sugarcoat what it cost Vicky — monetarily, but also personally — to leave, and how much she had to learn when living on her own.

It was a really well done bit of historical fiction. And thoroughly enjoyable.

Monstress: Awakening

by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Lots of f-bombs and graphic violence and some nudity. It’s in the graphic novels section of the bookstore.

I really had no idea what to expect when going into this one; I just knew that Liu had won the Eisner for writing and I figured I should give the story a try.

It’s… a lot.

It’s set in this world where humans have been at work with Arcanics, who are a human/animal mix. It’s a racial war: the humans feel the Arcanics are sub-human and are trying to wipe them out. Throw into the mix the Cumaea — witch women who aren’t on anyone’s side, but use the Arcanics for their own purpose (and who I kept calling chimera) and you’ve got a hot mess of violence. Maika Halfwolf is our main character, possibly an Arcanic, but also possibly something else, who breaks into the Cumaea stronghold and (after killing pretty much everyone) absconds with a mask that awakens a demon she barely can control, in hopes to sway the tide of this war.

I think.

As I said, it’s a lot. I’m not entirely sure if I got all the plot or even the people straight. I don’t know if I liked it, but I’m not sure this one is meant to be liked. It’s super feminist — a ton of female characters of all shapes and sizes and stripes and in positions of power and not, and there are very few male characters at all. And it’s super pretty to look at; the art is gorgeous and elaborate and incredible. There is a lot to think about: it’s dealing with slavery and power and racism and seclusion and what circumstances can do to individuals.

But…

I don’t know. I’ve thought about it quite a bit over the time since I finished it, so that’s definitely something. It’s definitely one of the more unique and challenging graphic novels I’ve read recently.

Heart of Thorns

by Bree Barton
First sentence: “On the eve of her wedding to the prince, Mia Rose ought to have been sitting at her cherrywood dresser, primping her auburn curs and lacing her whalebone corset.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is an on-screen almost rape, some talk about other rapes, and a lot of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d probably be a little hesitant giving it to the younger end of the age range.

MIa has spent her whole life believing two things: 1) any woman could be a Gwyrach – a witch, who can (and will) kill anyone they touch  and 2) Gwyraches are evil and must be eradicated. So, when on the day of her (forced) marriage to Prince Quin, Mia discovers that she’s a Gwyrach, her whole world’s foundation is shattered. If she’s a Gwyrach, that must mean her beloved (dead) mother must have been a Gwyrach. And since a Gwyrach killed her mother, what did that mean? And does that mean that Mia is evil?

On the run from assassins with the prince, Mia sets out to figure out answers to all the questions she now has, and to rethnink everything she has believed her whole life.

Okay, yes, this is probably more than a little tropey. It was pretty obviously “HEY LOOK AT ME, I”M FEMINIST”. But, even though the parallels were kind of obvious, I still really liked this book. I thought Barton created some interesting characters, and Mia’s journey was a fascinating one (especially since I like character growth arcs). I thought the magic system Barton dreamt up was a good one, and I liked the world she built. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the different countries (which is good, since the  book leaves things hanging) and I want to see how Mia and Quin develop. It was a solid debut book, and not a bad fantasy, even if it was a bit heavy handed with the metaphors.

Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there.
Others in the series: Seraphina, Shadow Scale
Content: There are many allusions to sex (including rape). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

As a head’s up, while this one references Seraphina and Shadow Scale, it’s a completely separate story, and you can probably get away without reading them if you’re not interested. (I didn’t re-read them, and so really didn’t remember much, and still enjoyed Tess.)

Let me say this at the start: I love Hartman’s writing. It’s not elegant like Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater, but Hartman knows how to tell a story in such a way that you lose yourself in it. Tess is a human girl — Seraphina’s half sister — who just wants to be intellectually challenged. But raised in a strict household (they’re paying for Seraphina’s “sin” of being a dragon), what’s expected of her is to marry well. But Tess messes that up when she gets pregnant (at age 14!) and has a baby. And now, when she’s 17, faced with the prospect of raising her twin sisters children or going to a convent she does the unthinkable: she disguises herself as a boy and takes to walking the road, ostensibly to help her quigutl (a sub-species of dragon) friend find the World Serpent.

This is such a remarkable book: a heartfelt and emotional tale as Tess’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, but also an adventurous one, as we experience Tess and Pathka’s adventures on the road. It’s a deeply feminist book as well, as Hartman explores the consequences of not teaching your kids sex ed or discouraging girls from getting an education, if they want. It’s all about expressing anger and compassion and helping others out along they way and redemption and forgiveness.

And it’s left open-ended, so we may (or may not) get to join Tess for more adventures.

It’s wonderful.

Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amal has a goal: she loves school, and wants to go to college and become a teacher. It seems simple, but for a 12-year-old girl in a Pakistani village, it’s means everything, She sees her future before her, and feels like she can make a difference.

That is, until one day she decides to stand up for herself… with the wrong person. Jawal Sahib is a member of the Khan clan, the people with the most money and influence in the region. And he’s not a person you cross. So, the next thing Amal knows, her father’s debts have been called in (he took out loans to cover his orange groves), and he can’t pay. So Jawal Sahib takes Amal as “payment”. She’s put to work in the household as a personal servant for Jawal Sahib’s mother, Nasreen Baji. It’s not something Amal wants, but she has no choice. And so, she tries to make the best of a (very bad) situation.

There’s more to the story than that; Saeed not only deals with involuntary servitude but also the treatment and education of women, she touches on corruption in politics and commerce in Pakistan; the Khans are so influential because they have bribed so many people. It’s enough that Jawal Sahib feels that he is above the law, and everyone beneath him is resigned: that’s just the way things are.

It’s a very stark picture of what life can be like in Pakistan, and how many people are just scraping by while a few get rich off their backs. But it’s not a depressing one: Amal is an incredible character to spend a book with, one who really does find ways to make life bearable and who tries to make a difference wherever she goes.

And Saeed knows how to tell a story that will keep younger readers engaged as well.

Excellent.