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  • Gravenwood: The Conjurer Fellstone Book Two

    by Marjory Kaptanoglu

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: At its start, the second volume of Kaptanoglu's Conjurer Fellstone trilogy might throw off readers who haven't recently finished the series' first book, as the story opens in media res, and Kaptanoglu's re-introductions of her characters and storylines come on the fly. But once readers catch up -- around the time friends Ash and Calder bust up the surprise wedding of Lady Tessa  -- the storytelling is clear and exciting. Kaptanoglu is adept at structuring a multi-perspective narrative with compelling end-of-chapter hooks that keep readers reading. She plots shrewdly, nesting quests within quests and mysteries within mysteries, keeping the story exciting while still finding time to lay bare the hearts of her heroes. She's especially good at setting up puzzles whose solutions, once sprung on the readers, prove delightful.

    Prose/Style: Kaptanoglu's prose is crisp and purposeful, charged with feeling, and always attuned to what will engage readers in each moment. Occasionally, though, her descriptions could be more clear or detailed. For example, when Ash and Calder enter a crypt to steal a powerful magic item, the novel focuses on the dialogue between the heroes at the expense of atmosphere or tension.

    Originality: As a fantasy of quests and intrigue and battles of dynastic succession, Gravenwood is situated within quite familiar territory. Kaptanoglu, though, imbues the familiar with fresh urgency. Her inventions are unique and resonant, such as the mother whose use of a magic amulet has left her tragically believing that she is a bird. While fantastical, that situation gets treated here with an aching emotional realism. Kaptanoglu takes great care, when creating her inventive wonders, to connect them to both real human feeling and to the weird essence and logic of folklore.

    Character Development: While a twisty adventure narrative and a succession of daring escapes keeps the story moving along, Gravenwood’s hallmark is the strong, intimate bonds between its unlikely trio of heroes. The plot turns on Lady Tessa losing her throne, but the book's heart is in the heroes' efforts to restore the mind of her enchanted mother. Tessa's anguish at her (apparent) failure to save a dying man is moving, as is her and gravedigger Ash's dedication to each other, a love that both understand doesn't quite fit into their lives.

  • Dragon Brothers

    by Lara Lillibridge

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: L.B. Lillibridge's Dragon Brothers stands as an uncommonly wise and empathetic fantasy, an adventure story whose royal heroes prevail not through heroic violence but by listening, questioning, and daring to upend the inequitable caste system that rewards them but punishes others. That heartening narrative, though, doesn't surge along the way the best fantasy adventures might, and the story develops little narrative momentum or continuity from chapter to chapter. The continual capturing and rescuing of hostages between the novel's two castes, the Shaynen and the Klor, feels repetitive rather than like suspenseful escalations.

    Prose/Style: Lillibridge excels at dialogue scenes, at the stirrings of conscience inside her characters, and at the invention and depiction of magic. Sometimes her paragraphs run long and lose some focus, detailing action after action without fully emphasizing any particular one. She knows her characters' hearts and gets them onto the page, but Dragon Brothers doesn't always tap into those characters' desires and fears for storytelling momentum.

    Originality: "Dragon born" fantasy characters aren't new, of course, and stories of royal succession and rebellion in fantasy kingdoms have been familiar for centuries. But Lillibridge invests her fantasy with fresh, appealing characters, engaging moral dilemmas, and an inventive blend of science and magic. Especially welcome is the book's humanistic bent in an age of darker and darker fantasy books for younger readers. Flying, here, feels truly magical.

    Character Development: Lillibridge’s dragon brothers are humble, big-hearted, and immediately appealing, as are the dragon toddler Haia, the apprentice Laney, and the sympathetic outlaw Rory. The adults are somewhat less vividly drawn, but, encouragingly, prove capable of change when the young people argue against longstanding injustice.

  • I Know When You're Going To Die

    by Michael J. Bowler

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Bowler's premise finds good-hearted, super-rich teenage Leonardo gifted or cursed by a dying homeless man with the power to see when someone is going to die just by looking into their eyes. When Leonardo learns that his best friend, J.C., will be murdered, Leonardo and friends entertainingly attempt to solve the murder preemptively, running afoul of bullies and a principal in the process and discovering some surprising truths about who they all are. The set-up is strong, though I Know When You're Going To Die works in surprisingly few variations on its supernatural hook, settling in as a murder mystery rather than a horror novel about what it's like to be burdened with terrible knowledge.

    Prose/Style: Bowler's prose is crisp, inviting, breezy, and propulsive, always moving his story forward and only occasionally getting bogged down in unnecessary detail, as in a scene set in a high school boiler room that offers more information about boilers than readers are likely to want. The dialogue among the trio of friends who power the narrative is likable and often amusing, if occasionally dated. Their frequent confrontations with a school bully named Chet, however, have a strained and repetitive quality, as the scenes play out those in teen stories for decades. In this case, the bully eventually is revealed to be performing his role to cover up his true self, but that doesn't make the earlier scenes more compelling the first time readers encounter them.

    Originality: The wealthy L.A. setting and sunny noir tone of I Know You're Going to Die suggests the TV series Veronica Mars, and the characterizations, especially of the bullies, echo many other teen entertainment narratives. The friendships feel fresh and vital, though, and this story's particular twists are its own.

    Character Development: Despite the horrific promise of its premise, the novel quickly settles into a teen mystery story, devoting few pages or scenes to the experience of walking through life with the ability to glimpse the truth of people's mortality. Leonardo is presented as so deep-down decent that he's never tempted to misuse this power out of spite, which makes him a somewhat flat protagonist. Meanwhile, Leonardo's pitiless thoughts about his mother's work as a Hollywood executive, her plastic surgery, and his belief that she only enrolled him in gymnastics to "have something to brag about" feel surprisingly sour in a book that's otherwise committed to empathy.

  • Bobby Ether and the Jade Academy

    by R. Scott Boyer

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Bobby Ether and the Jade Academy is a fast-paced adventure with many twists that will keep readers intrigued and hooked. While there are a number of subplots, the author offers a consistent and authentic message about the importance of community and fighting for the greater good of all.

    Prose/Style: The prose is pulsing with positive, high levels of energy and moves seamlessly throughout the narrative.

    Originality: At the heart of this novel is the perennial battle between good and evil. What sets it apart is a deeper spiritual message about removing oneself from distractions in order to cultivate the tools to be aligned to one’s higher purpose.

    Character Development: Overall, the characters are memorably engaging. They tend to fall within the paradigm of either “good” or “bad," with Cassandra being the most complex. Jinx is the most engaging figure of all, and it is beautiful to witness how he blossoms in his friendship with Bobby.