by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+
When we last visited the Dresden Files, wizard-detective Harry Dresden had recently been maimed by an overflow of fire magic, adopted by the Dalai Lama of demon-fighting dogs, and staggered by the discovery that white-court vampire Thomas is his half-brother.
A year or two later, this seventh novel in the series finds Harry rooming with Thomas while the latter struggles to overcome his dependency on the life force of fertile women (please, don't ask) and house-sitting for his cop friend Murphy while she takes a romantic vacation in Hawaii. Then a red-court vampire named Mavra threatens to destroy Murphy's career unless Dresden brings her a grimoire by a notorious necromancer.
The book is going to be hard to get hold of, what with Halloween coming up and a reunion of the late necromancer's disciples converging on Chicago with plains to raise all kinds of hell. Whichever one of Kemmler's disciples succeeds in cooking the recipe in The Word of Kemmler has a chance to become the next god, and a lot of people are going to suffer in the process. Harry's considerable powers are stretched to their limit and beyond as not one, not two, but three demonic duos come at him with battle-magic galore.
Besides this, Harry has to protect an innocent mortal who has been targeted for all kinds of badness, resist the temptation of a demon from hell who has taken up residence in his subconscious, and join forces with—rather, let's just say "join"—the wizardly Wardens who have made his life a pain until now, thanks to their side's massive losses in an ongoing war with the vampires which is, ultimately, Dresden's fault.
And so Harry gets a tantalizing touch of romance, an extra helping of violent action, a test of his ability to make snap decisions, and a wild ride on the back of a tyrannosaur(!), all to prevent the Apocalypse from coming early in Chicagoland. Gumshoeing the dead never looked like a livelier beat. You won't find a series that packs in more hardboiled sleuthing, hardcore action, magic, humor, and sex appeal, page for page. And the series continues with Proven Guilty.
by Lev Grossman
Recommended Ages: 16+
What if you grew up wishing that you could really go through the wardrobe to the perfect world of Narnia and stay there forever, and then you found out that you could? Wouldn't that just make you insanely happy? Well, don't be so sure. Quentin Coldwater, this book's hero (in a a loose sense of the word), believes the elusive secret to happiness lies in such a world, the magical world of Fillory depicted in a series of famous children's books. But when an unexpected twist in his pursuit of college entrance exams leads him to a real school of magic in upstate New York—a sort of post-secondary Hogwarts, if you will—he brings his unhappiness with him, right into the very fantasy world he used to dream of.
Unlike most of his classmates, Quentin doesn't seem to have a magical specialty, only a generally strong talent. Nevertheless he gets moved to the head of his class (promoted to the next year up, in fact), and grouped with the elite students of the Physical discipline (which blends, like, magic and physics). He experiences the pressure of competitive exams, the horror of a classroom lecture gone hideously wrong, the marvels of being transformed into a goose, the rigors of a semester in Antarctica (a.k.a. "Brakebills South"), the diversion of a game called Welters (which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Quidditch), the joys and disappointments of first love, and a graduation ritual absolutely guaranteed to surprise you. And then, all too soon, he is turned loose on the world, a fully qualified magician...
...And remains as unhappy as ever. He has lots of reasons for it. His family isn't particularly warm and fuzzy. His high school pals did not live up to his hopes for them. He is dissatisfied with his career prospects, and even his love affair with the brilliant Alice (who is like Hermione Granger might have been, had she been born to an all-magical family). He spends most of his time wasted on drugs and alcohol. And then... and then, out of nowhere, one of his former classmate shows up, claiming to have discovered the way to Fillory. For real.
Fillory turns out not to be the happy, morally instructive place the books depicted. Things have deteriorated. The country needs human kings and queens again, to set right all that has gone wrong. But are Quentin and his friends the right humans for the job? As they fight their way through hordes of Fillorians—giant, talking animals and half-human creatures who seem fanatically opposed to their quest—the Brakebills alumni cope with Fillory's ugly, violent reality in different ways, ranging from a rampage of deadly magic to being sickened by what they must do, to falling apart entirely. In the unspeakably awful disaster that awaits them at the end of their quest, Quentin—the one who wanted this more than anybody—achieves unheard-of levels of unhappiness.
I won't tell you more about what happens. It would be unforgivable to cheat you of the opportunity to experience this emotionally gripping adventure, probing the very boundaries of fantasy as such, except to say that Quentin returns alone to the mundane world, scarred by a terrible loss and nearly fatal wounds... and that, even at the lowest conceivable ebb to which his quest for happiness arrives near the end of this book, the story is not over. And I think we can expect still more mythopoeic marvels from Lev Grossman, crusading book reviewer at Time magazine by day and novelist by night. Besides this novel, Grossman has also written a science fiction novel titled Warp, an antiquarian thriller called Codex, and the recent sequel to this book, titled The Magician King.
The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex
Recommended Ages: 12+
They've landed. And they've taken off again. And now an eighth-grader named Gratuity Tucci ("Tip" to her friends) has been given a writing assignment about it. The winning essay on "The True Meaning of Smekday" will be placed in a 100-year time capsule. This book is, at least to start with, Tip's entry in the contest. By the end, however, it has become a very private memoir of how one girl joined forces with a many-limbed alien to save her family, and her world, from a menace from outer space.
With her tough mind, tender heart, and sharp wit, Tip is an enjoyable character and a belly-laugh-on-every-page narrator. The humorous stakes are raised by the fact that, writing for a classroom assignment, she has to watch her language. For example, in an early draft of her winning essay, Tip writes: "I nearly puked. Can I say that in a school paper? That I puked? Because when I said 'nearly,' what I really meant was 'repeatedly.'"
According to Tip's memoir, her mother was kidnapped by aliens in 2013. At least, so her mother said. Tip thought her mom might have gone a little crazy, but she changed her mind when she actually saw the aliens kidnap her again. The second abduction happened at the same time that the Boov - little tech-savvy people with eight limbs and a bubble-based language - conquered our planet in a bloodless coup and started herding everyone in the United States into Florida.
Tip decides to make a road trip of it, rather than fly the unfriendly skies with everyone else. By the time she reaches Florida, and finds that the United State of America has been relocated to Arizona, Tip and her cat Pig have been joined by a Boov named J.Lo, who for reasons of his own is on the run from his people. The first parts of Tip's essay read like a parable about imperialist whitey herding indigenous peoples onto reservations, reneging on treaties, changing the names of places and dates (such as changing Christmas into Smekday), and generally assuming their own superiority over the cultures they (we) have trampled on. The similitude cuts to the quick, right up to the point where a Native American character points out that the Boov are behaving no differently than the white man before them.
But then the stakes change. Another alien threat, even more disastrous than the Boov, arrives on the scene. Something even weirder and nastier is in store for the people of Earth, unless one girl, one Boov, and one cat (more or less) can put a stop to it. Though history doesn't remember it that way. Whatever history may remember, the time capsule will know the real story. And, privileged with an early peek at it, so will you. It is a peek you will enjoy, decorated with illustrations of polaroid photos, excerpts from a graphic novel depicting the history of the Boov, and (at the risk of spoiling the climax) over four solid pages of the word "meow" repeated over and over.
Adam Rex is also the author of teen novels Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story and the just-released Cold Cereal, which is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. He has also written several appealing picture-books for even younger readers, including Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich.
The Road to Bedlam
by Mike Shevdon
Recommended Ages: 14+
In this sequel to Sixty-One Nails, Niall Petersen is still training to be a Warder to the Council of the Feyre when a personal blow forces an early launch to his career as a sort of supernatural cop. While fellow faerie Blackbird carries his child, drained of her magical powers by the pregnancy, Niall and his ex-wife Katherine are crushed by the death of their teenage daughter Alex. What's even worse is to find out that Alex is actually alive, possessed of dangerous powers, and being held somewhere by humans who will kill her the instant they suspect that her father is trying to rescue her, and whose plans for her are part of an inconceivably evil experiment in biological warfare.
Niall, meanwhile, has been packed away to a seaside village, where it is hoped his first case as a faerie sleuth will keep his mind off Alex, the diplomatic talks between the Council and his own estranged Seventh Court, and the danger Blackbird and his unborn child may be in when those mortal enemies of all who have mixed feyre and human blood come a-calling. At first it seems the case of five missing girls may be quickly explained as a series of unconnected runaways. But as Niall learns new uses of his power, he comes to suspect that two young lives have been taken, and that it has something to do with an otherworldly being that lurks behind the quaint, dying town.
To solve this mystery, save the next life that may be sacrificed, and get his daughter back, Niall must accept help offered by one of his own kind of feyre, in spite of the terrifyingly dubious motives behind the offer. And whether he can live with what he finds in the bowels of the secret government facility to which his daughter has been taken... that's a question that remains to be answered, even after the explosive and fiery bloodbath at the climax of this book.
If you like your magic served with the grit and action of a crime novel, the creepy darkness of a horror novel, the subtle intrigues of a spy novel, and an urban fantasy's juxtaposition of modern settings with creatures out of medieval folklore, shop no further. This series has something for fans of the Dresden Files, the blooming genre of London-under-London fantasies, and many other adult thrillers with a tint of the supernatural. It is a worthy sequel to Sixty-One Nails. And look out as Book 3 of "The Courts of the Feyre," titled Strangeness and Charm, materializes in 2012.
by Roland Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+
Meet Marty and Grace O'Hara, thirteen-year-old twins who are amazingly close, considering how totally unlike they are. One way they like to put it is that Marty is a foot taller, and Grace is a foot smarter. The fearless brother, blessed with talents for art, cooking, and trouble, is fiercely protective of the genius sister, even though both of them have spent most of their lives in the safety of an exclusive Swiss boarding school while their parents, a writer-photographer team who make journalism look like an extreme sport, travel the world in search of danger and adventure.
All that changes when their parents' plane goes down in the Amazon jungle. Even though no bodies have been found, and the kids don't know whether they're orphans or not, they are pulled out of school by a mysterious uncle they have never heard of. Travis Wolfe, a bear-like man who owns his own island off the coast of Washington State, likes to keep a low profile so that he and his high-tech partner Ted Bronson can follow their true calling—protecting the earth's last big-game creatures unknown to science—without their discoveries being scooped by a phony preservationist, and genuine psychopath, named Dr. Noah Blackwood.
Learning all this is sort of like finding out that a one-man combination of Jacques Cousteau, Marlon Perkins, and Jane Goodall is actually a gangster who lines the walls of his inner sanctum with the stuffed heads of the last members of extinct species. But that's only the beginning of the learning curve for Marty and Grace. Suddenly they are supposed to believe that creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster really exist. Scarcely have they arrived on Uncle Wolfe's secret island when they are whisked off again as Wolfe's team races to find the last Mokèlé-mbèmbé—that's Tyrannosaurus rex to you—before Blackwood's team of cryptid-hunting thugs, led by the pictorially named Butch McCall. The kids aren't supposed to get involved in the hunt for Mokèlé-mbèmbé, but after they free-fall out of an airplane over the Congolese jungle, they don't have much choice.
After that, their adventure is only a simple matter of surviving in one of the world's last completely untamed wild places, staying out of the clutches of McCall and his goons, finding a secret safehouse, and getting in touch with a man of the forest who can only be seen when he wants to be seen. Oh yes, and discovering the lair of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Surprisingly, considering that she has always been so easily frightened, Grace takes all this in stride... as if she's been there before... as if she is not, in fact, Marty's twin sister, but a child whose lineage poses a danger even greater than the creature that killed her real mother.
Created by an author who specializes in wildlife stories for young readers, the O'Hara twins are great fun. Their vivid personalities, and especially Marty's sense of humor and mischief, raise this book above the common-or-garden adventure-thriller for middle-school and junior-high-age readers. I bought this book so that I could finally with good conscience read its sequel Tentacles, which I'd had on my bookshelf for way too long. You, meanwhile, might come at it from the other direction and find that the thrills, laughs, and creepy foreshadowings of this book lure you irresistably to the sequel.
by Roland Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+
By the beginning of this sequel to Cryptid Hunters, ex-twins Marty and Grace have found out that they're not even siblings. In fact, they are cousins—Marty the son of an adventure-journalist couple still missing after a plane crash in the Amazon jungle, Grace the daughter of cryptid hunter Travis Wolfe, who is now their guardian. Grace's father is the brother of Marty's mother; her mother, meanwhile, was the daughter of celebrity philanthropist and private monster Noah Blackwood, whose worldwide chain of wildlife parks and highly publicized voyages of discovery are only a front for a fiendish compulsion to capture, kill, and gloat over the trophies of the same cryptids Travis seeks to discover and protect.
What are cryptids? Well, if you had done your homework and read Cryptid Hunters, you would know that they are rare creatures unknown to science, often recognized only as tribal myths and quaint legends. Creatures such as the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness monster, and the Kraken. Currently Wolfe and Blackwood are in a race to capture the first live specimen of a giant squid from the deepest, darkest trenches of the Pacific Ocean. But even higher on the agenda is for Wolfe to protect, and for Blackwood to capture, the baby dinosaurs whose eggs Wolfe found in the Congolese jungle in the previous adventure. Hatched aboard the good ship Coelacanth, the last two offspring of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé (a.k.a. Tyrannosaurus rex) don't do much except eat, poop, and blow the minds of the few people who know they exist. Still, Blackwood and his henchman Butch McCall are ready to kill any number of people, including children, to get them.
Blackwood also intends to "liberate" his granddaughter Grace from Wolfe's protection. And in that pursuit he has one extra advantage: the fact that Grace is so confused about who she really is. But the Blackwood-McCall conspiracy has to go up against the high-tech resourcefulness of Wolfe's partner Ted Bronson, the no-nonsense defense skills of their security chief, and the ever-unpredictable wild card of Marty, who has a knack for making quick decisions that are equally likely to get him into as out of trouble. But then there are surprises on both sides: a traitor within the trusted inner circle... a too-smart chimp on a drug-induced rampage... a boatload of pirates who are as clueless about their true role as the people they are about to attack... an experimental vessel that brings reinforcements from where it is least expected—from below...
There will have to be a sequel to this book, but I don't know what or when. On the other hand, I hear tell that a character who briefly pass through this story is the star of another series of books by Roland Smith. For more on the Lansa father-son safari team, look for Jaguar and The Last Lobo. Other titles by this author include The Captain's Dog, Elephant Run, Jack's Run, Peak, Sasquatch, and Zach's Lie, plus mostly outdoors-themed non-fiction books and an upcoming installment in the 39 Clues series.
A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Ages: 13+
Book Four in the "Attolia" series focuses on Sophos, the prince of Sounis and sometime mage's apprentice introduced in the earlier books. Now, in as painful and dangerous a way as you can imagine, he becomes the king of Sounis. How a sweet-natured bookworm with a distinct lack of military skills can gather the strength to claim this throne, and at the same time to save his country from conquest by the ever-encroaching Medean empire, is the matter of this entire book.
With the skill to be expected of the author of the previous three books in this series, Megan Whalen Turner brings to life not only the manners and intrigues of courtly life in her dangerous alternate-history version of the ancient world, but the movements within the heart of the sensitive yet courageous youth at the center of the story.
Through Sophos, or rather Sounis as he soon becomes named, we come to see Eugenides (hero of the earlier books in the series) in a new light: as a leader of Machiavellian sublety. At times, Gen comes across as coldly ruthless, especially as he forces his sometime friend to submit to a strange alliance on which the fate of three small kingdoms may depend.
Meanwhile, we are touched by the delicate, hesitant romance between two sovereigns whose physical ugliness—in Sounis' case, recently acquired—conceals inner beauty. And we are left, once again, to wonder how long we will have to wait until Megan Whalen Turner brightens our world with another one of her delightful books.
NOTE: I have finally finished my long-threatened review of A Confederacy of Dunces, for what it's worth.