by J.T. Ashmore
Plot: Scaled is a layered and fiercely intelligent story that focuses on three very different high school students who are united by a common experience that results in a mysterious and isolating affliction.
Prose: Ashmore's prose is smart and smooth, with a convincing blend of authentic teen voices and a poised, mature writing style.
Originality: Ashmore delivers a highly unique YA novel with a deeply compelling premise. While anchored in the lived experiences of contemporary teens, Ashmore's story pivots into an engrossing and thought-provoking work of sci-fi that integrates ideas of self-awareness, otherness, and empathy.
Character/Execution: Each main character is afforded a distinctive voice. The impact of their shared bodily transformation is powerfully felt both individually and collectively.
by Tom Hoffman
Plot: The Translucent Boy and the Girl who Saw Him is an elaborately conceived—at moments convoluted— playfully esoteric story that, for all its fantastical content, delivers a quietly resonant message about the power of being authentically seen and how great strength of character arises from strife and misfortune.
Prose: Hoffman quickly establishes a fairy tale-like storytelling structure and tone, with prose that offers a fine blend of authoritative exposition, action, candid descriptions, and meaningful dialogue.
Originality: While messaging about acceptance of differences, friendship, and the greater good are universal, this work is undoubtedly original in the ways that it examines such ideas. The integration of scientific principles and metaphysics in tandem with the magical, provides an unexpected dimension, while the novel’s wordplay and use of the absurd, calls to mind classic works of children’s literature.
Character/Execution: Hoffman’s characters are shaped by ideas rather than the mere force of their personalities and experiences. Within the world Hoffman creates, their somewhat archetypal nature is an asset rather than a fault.
by Mark Paul Oleksiw
Plot: Oleksiw’s searching literary novel focuses on an inexplicable childhood incident that forever connects two friends and bridges the past and future. Sci-fi, fantasy, and coming-of-age elements richly intermingle within a framework of literary fiction.
Prose: The prose in Time’s Musicians is vivid, tense, lyrical, and rich, with memorable and unnerving insights.
Originality: Deeply philosophical, ambiguous, and profound, this narrative starkly defies genre categorization and stands apart as exceptionally unique.
Character/Execution: Oleksiw’s novel presents a continuum, of sorts, between the childhood and adulthood of the primary character. The puzzling, thought-provoking exploration of identity will perhaps best be appreciated by adult readers.
by Ruthy Ballard
Plot: Ballard’s fantastical collection of stories blends elements of fairy tale, fable, and sci-if for a strikingly imaginative feat of storytelling.
Prose: Ballard’s prose is sophisticated, serene, and consistently aligns with the author’s unique, endearingly esoteric vision.
Originality: Wholly original, this collection blends elements of magic, science, and wordplay in a patchwork of loosely interconnected, bite-size tales. The warm and evocative illustrations are an enhancement to an already brilliant offering.
Character/Execution: The characters seen throughout these tightly woven, seamless stories, are whimsical and distinctive, peculiar and performative. Each individual plays perfectly into the dynamic and wonderfully inventive universe Ballard creates for them.
by Alex Bryant
Plot: This unusual and ambitious fantasy adventure unfolds in a world of both magical machinations and ordinary life. Bryant integrates an intriguing mystery/detective story element into the narrative, as a villain wrecks havoc while disguising his every move.
Prose: Bryant's prose is lively, fresh, and filled with both humor and darkness.
Originality: While some of the story's myriad elements can be head-spinning, the highly unique society Bryant establishes adheres to its own laws and dynamics, resulting in an alternate world that is both magical and believable. The integration of mixed-media further elevates the book's originality.
Character/Execution: Bryant's novel features diverse, enjoyable, and sympathetic characters who display individuality and purpose within the broader narrative. An alternately witty--and deadly serious--protagonist and a layered villain anchor the story.
by L.N. Mayer
Plot: This excellent, wildly inventive middle grade story follows the path of an abandoned boy as he discovers his unusual capabilities and encounters a bevy of otherworldly beings. Unresolved questions set up the potential for a sequel--one that readers will eagerly await.
Prose: Mayer's prose is sophisticated, immediately engrossing, and highly detailed, if somewhat verbose. Wordplay provides an element of playful absurdity to the text, while the storytelling unfolds in an enjoyably dreamlike fashion.
Originality: Stories of troubled boys left alone to navigate complicated, magical worlds, are familiar. However, Mayer's delightfully strange worldbuilding allows for the story to stand apart from other fantastical works of children's literature.
Character/Execution: Though character development is sometimes overshadowed by Mayer's layered language, the author effectively establishes a colorful cast of characters--human or otherwise. Tell is convincingly emotionally conflicted, with dimensions beyond that of a "chosen" child.
by M. A. Stewart
Plot: Stewart delivers a whip-smart, humor-filled, and surprisingly tender YA novel about complicated family and the realities of supervillainy.
Prose: Stewart writes in a crisp, witty, and immediately engaging prose style that effectively establishes voice, setting, and provides a fun, distinctive story.
Originality: While supervillainy is an oft-explored topic, Stewart brings a fresh sensibility to the story through its exploration of estranged familial relationships and what it means to belong.
Character/Execution: Stewart nicely contrasts Carmen's normal life spent immersed in "the Company," with the more mundane circumstances of high school. Carmen's voice is wry, crackling, and refreshingly candid. A cast of distinctive, vivid central and side characters round out the well-dramatized story.
by Michael Milton
Plot: Milton's exceptional YA novel chronicles the changing relationship dynamics between three teens as they navigate and strive toward their meaningful individual short-term goals which may or may not ultimately involve one another. Small moments and life-altering circumstances are equally well-conveyed and contribute weight and substance to the story of coming together and moving apart.
Prose: Chapters fluidly alternate between the POV’s of the three primary characters, each immediately distinctive. Milton’s prose is refined, textured, and a great joy to read.
Originality: Milton's novel integrates familiar young adult conflicts, including disappointing romance, sexual identity, and the search for self-fulfillment through travel. However, this work stands apart from other YA novels via its punchy, confessional prose that allows for the voices of its characters to fully and memorably emerge.
Character/Execution: This truly character-driven novel brings to life individuals with vivid personalities and idiosyncratic passions—from Mortal Combat to The Cure—that compellingly influence their actions and worldviews.
by Scott Semegran
Plot: This nostalgic, graceful coming-of-age adventure story centers on a group of friends whose discovery of a bag of money puts them in the crosshairs of a local gang.
Prose: Energetic, detailed, and endearing, Semegran's prose offers a graceful blend of youthfulness and adult retrospection, allowing readers to remain fully immersed in the unfolding adventure and the surefooted storytelling.
Originality: Readers will likely be reminded of classic coming-of-age stories (Stephen King's The Body is certain to come to mind), but this work remains fresh, soulful, and filled with enough danger to keep readers turning pages.
Character/Execution: Semegran excels at crafting vivid, realistic characters through sharp and nuanced descriptions. The narrator's warmth humor, and candor is a joy to read.
by C.K. Donnelly
Plot: Donnelly's YA novel is set in a strikingly well-conceived fantasy world. Gifted--or cursed--with a trifecta of powers, Mirana Pinal is one of a select few tasked with an enormous moral responsibility. Readers will become fully immersed in Mirana's narrative as she struggles to come to terms with her potential for restoration or destruction.
Prose: Donnelly excels at crafting a seamless narrative that conveys the unique parameters of the universe at-hand through dialogue, character introspection, and balanced exposition. Descriptions are lyrical, vivid, and nicely polished.
Originality: Stories of exceptional teens are frequent, but Donnelly's convincing worldbuilding elevates the somewhat conventional underpinnings of the premise.
Character/Execution: Mirana's behavior, thought processes, and motivations are clear and authentic. Villainous characters and allies are portrayed with nuance and dimension, while the world of Kinderra emerges as an engrossing character in its own right.
by Bryan (B.L.) Smith
Plot: Smith's charming, sprightly teen mystery novel pits a team of engaging young sleuths against five cases, each plotted with clever precision. Smith plays fair – readers will get all the clues necessary to crack the cases themselves, but the solutions will most likely come as welcome surprises. Unlike some of the older book series that this novel resembles, a strong narrative throughline connects the disparate mysteries, and Smith hooks readers early with the promise that the individual cases are building to something bigger. Here are fun and varied mysteries, marvelous characters, a handful of satisfying "Eureka!" moments, and a welcome thematic maturity, especially as the detectives wonder whether their work actually helps people or just makes matters worse.
Prose/Style: For the most part, Smith's prose is as pared down as it is inviting. The dialogue is sharp and funny, with a finely tuned sense of what kids find humorous, and the characters and important details get sketched with such quick clarity that readers likely will not catch the sleight of hand of the author's careful clue planting. Occasionally, the characters chatter on longer than might be necessary, and some passages have some flat or extra words.
Originality: Teen detectives have long been a mainstay of publishing for young people. Smith shrewdly updates and adapts the formula, adding vital continuity and interiority, while still honoring everything fun and exciting about the genre. The mysteries themselves are exceptional. When the lead sleuth, Bert Mintenko, gets to announce (more than once!) that, actually, the crook is right here in the room, Smith's pushing a tradition forward.
Character Development: From the first real description of him, Bert Mintenko is a vivid and appealing invention. Smith forces Bert and his crew into an array of memorable, character-revealing situations, such as performing in a school play (Bert works a case while dressed as Tiny Tim), playing school kickball, or working together to save a bear. Smith has achieved the most difficult task facing any author of a possible series of books: he's created characters readers will want to hang out with.
Blurb: Clever, twisty, and utterly delightful, this novel of small-town junior high detectives finds its memorable heroes cracking case after case – and facing the consequences.
by Marjory Kaptanoglu
Plot: Although this is the third book in an imaginary fantasy world series, Kaptanoglu has written it both as a continuation of the story line from the first two titles and satisfyingly self-contained tale. Its account of conjurer Tessa Skye’s adventure to save the kingdom of Wilderyn and its people from the tyrannical ambitions of King Slayert of Grimslow by rising to the challenge of the Kingshackle, is suspenseful and full of surprises that set up future installments in the series.
Prose/Style: Kaptanoglu’s prose style suits the high fantasy character of her story. It accommodates both the description of fantastic transformations that punctuate the story and the physicality of the action and warfare sequences with which the novel climaxes.
Originality: The fantastic and realistic elements of Kaptanoglu’s novel are familiar to many high fantasy novels, but the way they are blended to serve the plot of this specific tale make them seem pleasingly original.
Character Development: Kaptanoglu’s characters, especially Tessa Sky, are very well drawn. Tessa and her cohort, including Calder and Ash, are sympathetic, especially in their fallibilities which often lead to unforeseen plots twists. Even her more malevolent characters, among them Ryland and the woman who presents herself as Marguerite Ratcher, have a complexity that makes their duplicitous actions understandable, if unforgivable.
by Marjory Kaptanoglu
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.
by Donald Burge
Plot: Donald Burge's Blind Journey is a crisp, exciting, thoughtful historical adventure novel that follows a blind, nameless goatherd and his brother Zizi from their raided desert village to Damascus and then Jerusalem. The boys face desert cats, imprisonment by nomadic bands, and dehydration, situations that Burge dramatizes with suspense and a refreshing realism -- the boys are brave, but they're not action heroes. As the boys flee raiders, they discover purpose in a rumor they've heard: that a prophet in Jerusalem can restore sight to the blind. Burge offers tantalizing glimpses of people and events familiar from the Gospels, but the story's heart is always on its protagonists, who must make their own way, using their own faculties, through a world long lost to us. Burge also shrewdly avoids charges of "ableism" by demonstrating throughout his story that the protagonist's blindness is a difference rather than a wound to be healed.
Prose/Style: Burge excels at clear, engaging action and convincing, revealing dialogue. That's crucial, because the novel's narrator is blind and cannot describe what his world looks like, so its revealed to us through the other senses. Often, Burge finds possibilities in the lack of physical description; at times, though, the prose becomes thin, with just dialogue and brusque statements of action. The prose in the opening chapter is not especially inviting, and there accounts of the protagonist's actions are often cluttered with extra clauses and phrases. The prose will grow leaner in later chapters, and the narrator will increasingly confide to the reader in compelling direct address, which greatly enriches the storytelling.
Originality: Historical fiction set against the backdrop of the crucifixion of Jesus is not especially new. But Burge invests the material with vigor, heart, and wisdom, and the author wisely avoids letting divine intervention solve his characters' problems. The novel's suspense, in many ways, centers on whether the boys will meet the prophet -- and whether this is the kind of book in which miracles occur. That's unique and fascinating.
Character Development: The narrator is a strong, stirring creation, a young man who has developed courage and skill despite having essentially been outcast in his village. The boys triumph over their trials but only at great cost. The book's climax is no battle or glimpse of divinity; it's the protagonist discovering how his years as a goatherd have given him a skill that can secure him his place in the world -- and do some good.
Blurb: This thoughtful and exciting historical novel seamlessly weaves the daring desert-crossing journey of a blind goatherd and his brother with readers' knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The adventure is crisply written, always exciting, and richly evocative of desert life and ancient ways of thinking. The suspense lies in the fascinating question of whether this brutally realistic novel will or will not build to an encounter with the "Hebrew prophet" the boys have heard can restore sight to the blind.
by Susanne Dunlap
Plot: In two earlier novels, Theresa Schurman, the Viennese violinist/sleuth who passes herself off as a man for the chance to play music professionally, has solved mysteries in the age of Haydn and Mozart. Now, at age 18, she's dispatched to Paris by Emperor Joseph II to observe and suss out a potential court conspiracy against Marie Antoinette. Schurman's undercover adventures in pre-revolutionary Paris encompass a stay in a marvelously described brothel, visits to balls and salons, a night in the Bastille, and a potential romance with the violin virtuoso the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the best swordsman in Paris. The settings and situations are enchanting and varied; Dunlap is adept at on-the-fly description and at lacing intrigue with romance. This novel's central mystery, though, takes quite a number of chapters to come into focus, and the stakes feel low for Theresa throughout the novel's first half.
Prose/Style: Dunlap proves an arresting tour guide through this rich milieu, summoning up the past without slowing down the storytelling. Author and protagonist alike boast an epigrammatic wit. The touch is light, but the scenery and chatter are sumptuous.
Originality: There's much that's delightful in Dunlap's evocation of court life and dressmaking in late 18th-century Paris. The author’s eye for compelling detail and ear for memorable dialogue keep "The Paris Affair" fresher than its somewhat generic title promises. The mystery itself, ultimately, proves less engaging than the characters and revelations that Theresa encounters as she chases down the truth. Theresa's musings about music, or the power of fine lace, or her eavesdropping on the dishing of a pair of seamstresses, are the heart of the novel's appeal.
Character Development: Theresa stands as a fascinating protagonist, a woman whose nimble navigation of society's expectations and several burgeoning romances are exciting and inspiring, even more so than the sleuthing that drives the novel's plot. The people she encounters are likewise memorable, complex, and surprising, especially the chevalier.
Blurb: This sparkling historical mystery conjures up the salons, fashion, and gossip of Marie Antoinette's Paris, with a winning emphasis on the power of music and the roles that society allowed women.
by Jean Gill
Plot: Arrows Tipped in Honey, the second novel in Jean Gill's inventive Natural Forces YA fantasy series, continues the story of the first book and sets up intriguing possibilities for future volumes. It offers suspense and surprises of its own, particularly in scenes in which young Kermon ventures outside the realm of the living and encounters the ghost of Rinduran, a villain defeated in the first book, and in Mielitta's efforts to understand bee life and the secret history of the somewhat dystopian society called Perfection. The scheming of the Council of the Citadel dominates the narrative, despite the apparent decimation of that body in the first book; a strong theme here is the ease with which victories can get corrupted. The novel's incidents and intrigue are individually exciting, and the mysteries surrounding Arven and Verity are satisfying, but the story reads like aftermath and set-up rather than its own coherent whole.
Prose/Style: Gill's milieu shifts from Citadel to Forest, from council intrigue to buzzing beehive. The author’s vivid, lyric prose brings both worlds to life with thrilling attention to the senses -- and to pacing. The rich descriptions and memorable metaphors never impede the storytelling. Dialogue is crisp and persuasive, and the characters' feelings power their point of view chapters. Gill's work is deeply engaging.
Originality: Some of the Citadel intrigue plotting (political marriages, a rite-of-passage test for young mages, a dystopia that gets rid of old people) are overly familiar from recent popular fantasy and dystopian franchises. But Gill finds fresh spins on those, and the author’s own inventions are singular. Mielitta's time with bees is beautiful yet tense, and Kermon's adventures "in the walls" prove continually surprising and exciting. Best of all, Gill's characters are convincing and unique.
Character Development: Gil's cast are well drawn and often feel torn between worlds and courses of action. Their choices are never cleanly predictable yet feel inevitable in hindsight. That's true of the leads and the secondary characters, too -- one of the book's highlights comes when Verity, the daughter of the dead Rinduran, spurns the ghost father who has manipulated Kermon into bringing them together. The book's heart, though, is in the hearts of Kermon and Mielitta, which each power those characters' respective point-of-view chapters.
Blurb: Jean Gill's Natural Forces series offer a rich, strange, and alluring adventure that buzzes with intrigue and nature.