Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Black Butcher Chima

by Holly Black
Recommended Ages: 14+

Subtitled "A Modern Tale of Faerie," this companion to Tithe transports the magical world of mermaids, trolls, and other fey creatures into present-day New York City. Parents concerned about "adult content" might want to evaluate this book for themselves before sharing it with their kids, or prepare to discuss it with them. This isn't your godmother's fairyland. It's a gritty, "ghetto" Faerie featuring runaway children and orphans squatting on an abandoned subway platform, getting mixed up in sex, drugs, and murder—plus an eensy weensy plot to assassinate the king of the Unseelie Court.

It's an underside of New York in which exiled fey folk cope with the deadly iron that surrounds them by taking a potion brewed by an alchemically-inclined troll who lives under the Manhattan Bridge. And when that troll, named Ravus, is framed for the poisoning murders of several members of the magical community, and the real killer cuts the heart out of his chest and makes a getaway, who will save him? Who, indeed, but a confused, angry, runaway junkie named Val who, against all odds, has fallen in love with him?

Val gets mixed up in this business after she catches her mum making out with her (Val's) boyfriend. Before she has time to think about what she's doing, Val shaves her head and moves in with a trio of flaky teens who live mostly by diving for junk in dumpsters and selling what they find. Luis has one messed-up eye, but can see through magical glamors. He serves Ravus in exchange for saving the life of his brother Dave, who was shot when their similarly gifted father went nuts and killed their mother. While Luis tries to protect his brother, Dave is making trouble of his own with the help of his sometime girlfriend Lolli. The two of them have been skimming the potion Luis is supposed to deliver to Ravus's clients. Why? (This part of the review is where parents might want to cover their kids' eyes.) Because they have figured out that when smoked or injected, this so-called Nevermore makes them feel groovy. It gives them not only weird hallucinations, but also the power to make people see, think, or do whatever they want.

This is not a book that (no pun intended) glamorizes drug use. In fact, it depicts the harm these kids do to themselves so vividly that anyone brave enough to continue reading will squirm with discomfort while doing so. But also, by the way, it tells a compelling story of love that sees past surface appearances, of the girl power of one flawed yet fierce heroine, of powers too awful to be used for good, of a mystery with a solution that will sadden you, of a quest whose urgency will keep you on edge throughout the final third of the book. Though at first this book does not seem in any hurry to take you anywhere appealing or desirable to visit, it finally proves to be a fast-paced adventure. By the end, you will recognize some old friends, visit a place of wonderful danger, and witness a battle that will leave you buzzing with eagerness to explore the next book in the series: Ironside.

Ghost Story
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book 13 of (so far) 14 in "The Dresden Files" finds Harry Dresden—detective, wizard, guardian of all things Chicago—tasked with solving his own murder. It's not easy, being dead. When you're only a shade of your former self—an intangible, invisible, inaudible presence made up of memories, thoughts, and a pinch of will—there isn't much you can do. Even with loads of raw magical power, you're limited to spells that affect denizens of the spiritual world. Unless... well, there are a couple of exceptions. Having friends who can see (or at least hear) dead people, for example. Friends like "ectomancer" Mortimer Lundquist, who doesn't even need a magically doctored walkie-talkie to converse with ghosts, and who is the first person who seems even remotely capable of helping Harry. But Morty hasn't done much helping when he is abducted by a super-ghost, backed up by an army of clairvoyant thugs, bent ghosts, and soul-eating wraiths. And now Harry has a new problem: Without Morty to control the city's most violent ghosts, Chicago could become a really dangerous place.

Not that it hasn't already become more dangerous in the six months(!) since Harry caught a sniper's bullet. In Harry's previous case, he single-handedly wiped out the entire Red Court of vampires. While this might sound like a good idea, other evil things were just waiting to rush into the power vacuum. Things such as the Fomor: an alliance of baddies from the Nevernever whose moves are backed up, in our world, by an army of turtleneck-wearing commandos with a fanatical but deadly lack of an instinct for self-preservation. Then there's the street gang led by a sorcerer who uses mind-control magic to force his teenaged minions to do his criminal bidding. And don't forget Superghost, whose plans for Morty are connected to yet another way a mere shade can reach out and touch the physical world: by being crazy enough, and powerful enough, to manifest in the flesh. What can a wizard whose spells pass straight through solid objects, and whom only a handful of his friends can see or hear, do about it?

About his friends: Harry understands the stakes of solving his own murder. He has it on good authority that unless he closes the case, at least three of his nearest and dearest will come to a horrible end. Could it be Karrin Murphy, whose career as a cop is over, and who now pursues paranormal baddies in an unofficial, vigilante capacity? Or Waldo Butters, the mild-mannered medical examiner who inherited Dresden's talking skull named Bob? Or maybe Harry's former apprentice Molly, who has transformed herself into a feared figure of underworld justice known as the Rag Lady? Molly, whose sensitive mind may not be what it used to since she witnessed the demise of the Red Court, has been under the dubious tutelage of Harry's fairy godmother—a creature who is not nearly as sweet and dainty as she sounds. Other former allies of the late wizard detective are doing what they can to fight the evil that has been raining down on Chicago since Dresden disappeared.

But their help may not be enough. Harry may need to enlist the aid of his own "army of darkness" if he's going to stop some serious badness from coming down. And even when his mission is complete, after a friendly archangel explains what the case was really about, after Harry makes the unsettling discovery of his murderer's identity and he is sent to his final rest... what comes next, even then, may not be what you expect. But expect this: a fourteenth book, titled Cold Days.

The Exiled Queen
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 13+

In Book Two of the "Seven Realms" quartet, the author of The Warrior Heir and its sequels continues to amaze with her ability to keep a large-scale piece of world-building interesting, convincing, and hopping with action. This installment takes us out of the Queendom of the Fells and shows us more of the seven realms, particularly the Academy of Oden's Ford—a sort of multi-disciplinary university and an island of peace on the neutral ground between two war-torn kingdoms. It heightens the risk the main characters must face just to survive from day to day, aside from the complicated tangle of intersecting agendas, alliances, and enmities that keep them all on edge with each other. And it creates a powerful sense of the romantic and political possibilities in store for them—most of which fall somewhere in the range between "recklessly dangerous" and "hopelessly doomed." Forbidden magic, betrayal, assassination attempts, possession, blackmail, kidnapping, attempted rape, comportment lessons, and a deadly serious form of dormitory hazing are just part of the curriculum during Year One at a school that is most definitely not Hogwarts.

If you read The Demon King, you may remember that the Seven Realms were once a united Queendom... Until the wizards of the Northern Isles invaded and tried to subvert the sovereignty of the queen. Sometime between then and the dangerous romance between one Queen Hanalea and a great wizard, now remembered as the Demon King, things got really bad. The magic almost destroyed the world. Since the Breaking, as that period is known, the queenly line, the wizards' council, and the upland clans who control the making of magical amulets have been held in tension by a magically-enforced accord known as the Næming. As this story unfolds, the Næming continues to come unraveled, drawing the Fells closer to the brink of a civil war—which would be especially disastrous, given the ambitions of the cruel and warlike kings of the neighboring realms.

It is through those realms that Raisa, the Princess Heir of the Fells, must ride on her way to the military officers' school at Oden's Ford. So, obviously, the trip to school is full of danger for her, even protected as she is by the young cadet who is the love of her life—though the magic that binds him to her means they can never be a couple. But there is danger behind her and ahead as well. The High Wizard wants to force Raisa to marry his son, cementing his control over the royal line. If he can't catch her, he may have Raisa killed and then focus his designs on her younger sister instead. Much depends on Raisa getting past the border checkpoints, through hostile territory, and into the Academy without being captured or recognized... and then, somehow, getting the education she believes the future Fellsian Queen will need while, at the wizards' college just across town, the children of her worst enemy are learning to use magic.

Meanwhile, at that very wizard's school, former street-lord and Raisa's sometime kidnapper Han "Cuffs" Alister is fending off the same wizardly Bayar twins and their equally odious cousins, studying magic on the dime of the same upland clans who helped raise him, and who are now sworn to kill him if he crosses their interests. His only confidant is Fire Dancer, a clan youth who—unlike any uplander before him—has also gone to school to study magic. But while Dancer obsesses over how to create trinkets for storing magical power, Han finds himself forced to study defensive and offensive magic, just to keep his head on his shoulders and his neck out of the noose. The headmistress of Mystwerk House (Han's college) wants to use him as a pawn in her intrigues within the Wizard Council. A mysterious tutor named Crow comes to Han in the dreamworld, promising to make Han the perfect wizard assassin—while operating his own, sinister agenda. Fiona Bayar offers herself to Han, asking in return that he help put her on the throne.

And then there's the girl Han knew in his his street-lord days, who stirs up trouble of her own... not to mention Raisa, whom he knows as Rebecca. As a romance develops between this strangely matched pair, it becomes increasingly obvious that the secrets they don't know about each other could destroy any chance of happiness for both of them—could even destroy the Queendom itself. But this book doesn't show us where all this leads. It takes us only as far as the end of their first year at school, when Raisa falls into the worst hands you could have imagined... and then she and her kidnappers, together, fall into even worse hands... and when Han, outraged by the disappearance of his friend Rebecca, yet still oblivious to her identity as the princess the clans are now forcing him to protect, must leave school with his wizard training unfinished.

For the time has come for Han to face the danger written in his fate, whether he is ready for it or not. And as for Raisa, the question at this crisis is whether she, and the queenly line in which she stands, will survive. Somehow, though these characters are not always as high-minded as you might wish, you'll reach this point caring enough about what comes next to be on the lookout for Book Three: The Gray Wolf Throne. And for those of you who can't wait to see the saga through, Book Four, The Crimson Crown, became available in October 2012.

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