The Demon King
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 14+
Here is the first book of the "Seven Realms" series, by the author of the "Warrior Heir" trilogy. Unlike that earlier trilogy, this story is set not in a magically-enhanced version of our present-day world, but in a fully imagined fantasy world in which wars are fought with horses, bows, swords, and magic. Where both trilogies are alike is that the fate of a whole world rests in the hands of a handful of sexy and highly sexed teenagers. In other words, young adults who have grown up on (and perhaps out of) Harry Potter will take to it like fish to water. For in the Queendom of the Fells, history begins—and could very easily end—with a reckless romance between two beautiful young people: a queen from a long line of rulers of the indigenous vale folk, and a wizard from a magically-gifted race of conquerors from the north.
As a result of the "breaking" of the world some thousand years ago, these wizards are now sworn enemies of the upland clan whose "green magic," in tune with the Spirit Mountains themselves, includes the fashioning of powerful amulets the wizards need to focus their power. In the thousand years since the Breaking, these three peoples—wizard, vale, and clan—have lived together in an uneasy peace, mediated by a covenant called the Naéming. According to this law, the queen of the Fells can never again marry a wizard. Wizards, no longer able to rule, are instead magically bound to serve and protect the line of queens. They are also forbidden to trespass on the high ground held by the clan-folk. The latter, in turn, continue to supply the wizards with the amulets they need to work magic, but with a built-in catch: these amulets lose their power over time, so that the wizards depend on the goodwill of the clan to keep them supplied.
These rules are meant to keep the Breaking from happening again. But now there are ominous signs that the wizards may be gathering their nerve for a grab at power. From the point of view of young Han "Cuffs" Alister—a trader, hunter, medicinal-herb-gatherer, booze smuggler, sometime street hood, and all-around misfit who doesn't know what to make of himself or the silver cuffs he has worn on his wrists as long as he can remember—the first sign of these new menaces comes in the form of an amulet older than the Breaking or the Naéming. He robs it off an underage wizard named Micah Bayar, whose father is the most powerful wizard in the queendom. Micah has been using this powerful and illegal artifact without permission, and now Han has it—if only he can figure out what to do with it. He seems to be the last person to figure out that an outbreak of grisly murders is a direct result of his theft of the charm, which Lord Bayar will go to any length to recover. By the time he does realize it, Han has lost those he loves the most, and must face a truth about himself that he would have dreaded knowing if he had even begun to guess it.
Meanwhile, Raisa—the princess heir to the queendom—is approaching her sixteenth name day, when she becomes eligible to marry and to be officially named the next in line for the throne. But the closer she gets to the big day, the more she becomes aware of the growing danger swirling about her: another facet of the Bayar family's plan to overthrow the Naéming and seize power. Their excuse for all this, when they bother to make one, is that the wars between the southern realms may soon spread to the Fells, and a union between the power of the wizards and the throne will be needed to defend their country. But as much as Raisa lusts after the magnetic Micah, she is horrified to learn of her mother's plan to force her to marry him on the very night of her naming feast. This just isn't done—and nor are the tactics used by the Bayars and the queen to keep Raisa's father and the queen's loyal Guard Captain out of the way at this crucial moment.
By the end of this first book, both Raisa and Han are fleeing the Fells with friends, and though separate from each other, they share the same destination. By this time our two protagonists have met only once, and under less than ideal circumstances; yet they are drawn together in a way that suggests that their relationship may prove to be the ultimate test of whether the Fells can survive another Breaking like what happened a thousand years ago. Or, perhaps, they may become useful allies as their country becomes increasingly hard-pressed between foreign enemies and the ambitions of the wizard gentry. The next stages of their fate will be bound up with those of a loyal young guardsman, a clan youth whose magical talents have made him an outcast among his own people, a warrior maiden whose vocation makes her the sworn enemy of those she loves the most, and a charming young wizard who, until now, has been the willing if unwitting instrument of his father's dastardly designs.
Whatever happens next, count on it being fraught with the torments of being a teenager: infatuation, jealousy, the struggle to figure out one's own identity, and the conflict between doing what is right and what feels good. Expect it to be filled with mystery, intrigue, combat, and magic. And, if Chima continues to write at the same high pitch of thrilling entertainment, expect the needle on the fantasy-adventure gauge to get stuck at the high end of the scale. Further books in this series, which was originally planned as a trilogy, include The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, and The Crimson Crown.
The Old Country
by Mordicai Gerstein
Recommended Ages: 9+
This slim book is by a prolific children's author and illustrator whose previous book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, won the 2004 Caldecott Medal and has been adapted into both an animated short film and a ballet. Even so, it would have to be a book of incredible lyricism to top this story, in which a boy's great grandmother tells him how she lived both as a poor peasant girl and as a fox—bushy tail and all—back in the Old Country. The result is a strange, terrible, wonderful, gently touching, yet deeply troubling tale, seemingly universal in its themes but also susceptible to a variety of very specific allegorical interpretations. It could be about something that happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or about something that happened to the Jews under Nazi Germany, or about something that happened in Russia any time in the past few centuries. Or it could be about evils that are at home anywhere, at any time. It is a story about war and genocide, ethnic prejudice and totalitarian oppression, magic and family and pain and love, and the possibility of the world's most powerless people overcoming the malice of the very powerful. It is about what makes people human—and how dumb animals sometimes have more of it than some people.
Gisella's family lived in the Old Country so long ago that no one can be sure what country it is now. One day Gisella's older brother Tavido marches off to war, pledging to fight for his country, even though his family comes from a despised minority group that has no country of its own. While one side of the war rounds up the Crags for extermination and the other side sends them to the front lines unarmed, Gisella gets caught up in a magical adventure involving a thieving fox, a cat with a night-school law degree, and a forest courtroom with a spider judge and a jury of birds. By the time the dust settles, Gisella has swapped bodies with the fox, and her family has joined an exodus of refugees, taking with them the fox in Gisella's body. The poor girl must learn to live as a fox and find a way to save her family, and indeed her whole people, aided only by a dancing bear and a tiny faerie named Quick.
It doesn't seem like she could have much of a chance. Yet chance favors Gisella through a series of encounters with the brutal forces of both sides in the war, a visit to an appalling prison camp, and a peace conference between two monstrous monarchs who are ready to divide up the world between them over a hen that lays golden eggs. How this self-same hen, together with Gisella, her animal friends, her witchy great aunt, and her war-wounded brother, manage to turn the tables for the good of millions, is a feat that will amaze you, and even perhaps move you to tears. But the greatest surprise in the tale is one the great grandmother saves for last, one that made my heart brim full as I turned the last page of this beautiful book.
Readers touched by this book may be interested to know the titles of some of Gerstein's other books, which include Bible-story retellings, alphabets, and a guide for drawing pictures of birds. Wiki lists a number of them, including the interesting-sounding Stop Those Pants, Behind the Couch, and The Shadow of a Flying Bird.
The Coming of Dragons
by A. J. Lake
Recommended Ages: 11+
The shipwreck was caused by a storm. The storm was caused by a dragon, which even in pre-Norman-conquest Britain would be thought beyond belief. And the only two survivors owe their lives to a mysterious chest whose lock has no keyhole.
Nevertheless the girl (the ship master's daughter, named Elspeth) figures out how to open it, though wizards and warriors have long tried and failed to do so. Inside she finds a silver gauntlet which, at her slightest touch, jumps onto her hand and fades into her skin, becoming part of her body. Whenever she needs it, it reappears with a glowing sword in its grip, a sword able to cut through anything. But because of this weapon with a mind of its own, the children are pursued by an evil necromancer and his armed henchmen, hunted by a fire-breathing monster named Torment, and fated to fight the will of an evil god whose only chance to be set free upon the earth—or to be destroyed—now lives in Elspeth's hand.
As for the boy (Edmund, the son of the king of Sussex, traveling incognito), he has a magical gift and burden of his own. He has only now realized that he possesses the power of the Ripente: a hated caste of spies and traitors, distinguished by their ability to see through others' eyes. Edmund also has dreams of the future, and carries the guilt of not acting on them on time when they warned of death and destruction. Edmund fears that he is a coward and a weakling, whereas in fact he throws himself into protecting Elspeth with fearless loyalty. But between fear for his kingly father, not heard of since he went to war against the Danes, and shame about his deep connection with an enemy who shares the same powers, Edmund has a torment of his own, apart from the dragon of that name.
This fast-paced, stormy, scary, and thrilling adventure, set in a pre-Arthurian era of magic and legend, launches the "Darkest Age" trilogy with convincing authority and enervating momentum. I am already saving nickels and dimes for the books that follow it: The Book of the Sword and The Circle of Stone.
Anne of Windy Poplars
by L. M. Montgomery
Recommended Ages: 12+
In this fourth book of the series that began with Anne of Green Gables, the infectiously romantic Anne Shirley devotes her first three years out of college to serving as a high school principal in the small town of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Narrated in part through Anne's letters to her beau Gilbert, who is away at medical school, this career gets off to a rough start owing, in part, to the hostility of the town's ruling family. Thanks to an inadvertent stroke of genius that will surely make you laugh, Anne wins them over (as she wins everyone over) in time to make her stay in Summerside a warm, happy period of teaching, match-making, whimsical adventures, and touching experiences.
Anne looks out for ways to brighten the future of her brightest students, one of whom goes on to become a famous actress, another to discover family he never knew he had. Anne keeps the silly secrets of the two widows who board her and their tough-minded housekeeper Rebecca Dew. Anne brings the unpopular teacher of her school's middle class out of her crabbed, misanthropic shell. Anne spends a night in a house full of ghosts, provides respite care for a manipulative old biddy, saves several marriages from the danger of not happening, fails to prevent one from happening, and brightens the life of a little girl whose dead mother, deadbeat father, and deadly serious grandmother have made her childhood cold and lonely. And she manages all this not simply by being wise and virtuous, but sometimes by being silly and fallible and given to a streak of vanity that makes her endearing precisely because she is imperfect.
The admission is due: This is no great novel, in the sense of a book that holds itself together by the deft weaving of plot threads firmly knotted at the beginning and end of the pattern. Rather, it is a collection of episodes loosely held together by their common setting, their attractive heroine, and the distinct phase they represent in Anne's life. A few slender strands of character development, both among the denizens of Summerside and the folks back home in Avonlea, give the book what additional unity it has; while, at the same time, many of the episodes in Anne's Summerside sojourn involve characters specially introduced for them and scarcely mentioned afterward. It's a far cry from a Dickens novel, in which that master of the form frequently and almost unfalteringly juggled the fates of dozens of characters from one end of a novel to the other.
Yet it is not surprising to read that after Dickens, Maud Montgomery is the most popular author in Canada, and appeals to many readers in the U.S. as well. Her books are wholesome without over-moralizing or becoming bland. They are spiced by wit, romance, nostalgia, and just a drop of melancholy sentimentality. Her heroine is as spirited and quick as she is virtuous and sweet. And while heartbreaking tragedy, conflict, sinister rumors, and creepy atmospherics sometimes come into play, these stories and the world in which they take place partake of an amiable spirit of lightness and grace. And so they offer a very welcome escape from these cynical and broken times.