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  • 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.

  • Plot: Portals that transport people over geographical distances and tapestries that enable time-travel are just some of the delights that await readers in this sumptuous fantasy novel. At its heart is a story about a young girl who is the long-awaited Dawnstar that will save the world from the dark forces of Dragath. Aurora's personal quest is to step into and believe in her capabilities, and the reader navigates that thrilling journey with her.

    Prose/Style: The Return of the Dragon Queen is well-written and flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter. Oomerbhoy skillfully creates the suspense needed to keep readers engaged throughout an eventful and lengthy narrative.

    Originality: This novel contains a diverse cast of imaginary creatures such as hamadryads, fae, witches, and Drakaar. Numerous elements of the book seem to be drawn from classic fantasy novels by Tolkien and Rowling, but here they are combined into a uniquely charming story.

    Character Development: While the chief protagonist Aurora is an engaging and sincere young queen who carves out her own path, she can be a frustrating to follow because of her constant guilt. Conversely, her love interest Rafe stands out as one of the most memorable characters, a compassionate prince who cares about the wellbeing of people in general, not just those in his kingdom. He is the archetypal hero whose unquenchable love and loyalty to Aurora proves endearing. Along with Rafe, Abraxas the dragon is particularly alluring. 

  • Phoebe Unfired

    by Amalie Jahn

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: In Phoebe Unfired, Amalie Jahn presents a teen protagonist struggling with a debilitating phobia that circumscribes her life and all of her relationships. Set some few years in the post-COVID future, the story imagines a young woman in whom the almost paranoiac germaphobia that became endemic in the first months of lockdown lingers, and refuses to allow her to get in sync with a world in which most have returned to their pre-COVID lifestyles.

    Prose/Style: The tension and anxiety suffered by Phoebe are well-conveyed in vivid, urgent prose. While the descriptions of Phoebe's paralyzing bouts with anxiety can sometimes verge upon the repetitious, the fact that they do so is nevertheless the very nature of the malady.

    Originality: To take a germophobic heroine and drop her into the depths of the NYC subway system is a surefire recipe for creating dramatic tension. It is refreshing to see a YA novel address the debilitating limitations an anxiety disorder imposes on the one who suffers from it.

    Character Development/Execution: Phoebe is a smart, appealing heroine with impressive self-awareness. The book is a first-person narrative; at times, the self-awareness becomes self-centeredness, but this can be said to be largely due to the heroine's anxiety disorder blocking her ability to form connections to others. This unfortunately also means the other characters are not as well-rounded as they have the potential to be.

  • MESOPO

    by Eva Dietrich

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Though Dietrich's novel is somewhat inconsistent in its pacing, the story introduces a well-drawn magic system and a heartfelt adventure to an uncommon fantasy realm.

    Prose/Style: The world of Mesopo comes alive spectacularly in Dietrich’s rich, lyrical, and inviting prose.

    Originality: Mesopo is stunning in its originality. A world evoking the love of words, Mesopo is unforgettable and colorful – a vibrant and highly visual setting that will live on in memory.  Dietrich's characters sing and the love of words flows through the ink on each page. 

    Character Development: Although Ankido often comes across as younger than his years, the characters are generally all distinct and finely developed. Written in third-person POV, the reader is able to fully experience the characters within Dietrich's novel.

  • Plot: A winning set-up—a quirky 11-year-old who sets out to prove the existence of Bigfoot—will prove to be immediately enticing to readers. Fun, smoothly paced, and engaging, the novel’s predictable elements are unlikely to interfere with reader enjoyment.

    Prose/Style: The prose is perfectly inviting for younger readers. Rivera’s narrative voice is clear, heartfelt, and authentic.

    Originality: “Frederick Moody” follows typical tropes of the middle grade mystery genre, but the entertaining circumstances, charismatic leads, and vivid mountain town setting allow the novel to quietly shine.

    Character Development: Frederick and Cindy make the roles of bona fide investigators look easy - their complicated relationship is well developed, and the third person narration is a comfortable fit for telling this middle-grade mystery.

  • Pickman's Descendants

    by Jeannie Rivera

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Rivera hatches a clever and fun concept: H.P. Lovecraft wasn't a writer of fiction, but was instead a supernatural historian who based his work on the experiences of the Pickman family. Andrea and Jackson are tasked with carrying on their family's tradition of monster hunting in this lively middle grade romp.

    Prose: Rivera's prose is age-appropriate, energetic, and clear. The voices of the young protagonists are endearing and relatable.

    Originality: Though stories of monster-hunting families are somewhat familiar within the realm of middle grade and YA fiction, ‚Äčthe Lovecraft angle provides a degree of originality, and the idea of ghouls that escape from works of art, is decidedly fresh. 

    Character/Execution: Andrea is the star of the story. The history of her eccentric family is made more impactful through her genuine, eye-rolling account. The decision to cast Andrea's chapters in first-person and Jackson's in third, is a curious one. While not a true detriment to the novel, readers may feel somewhat distanced from Jackson, while deeply engaged with Andrea.

     

  • I Am Unworthy: (Josh and Izzy, #1)

    by Angela Mack

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: While the plot of Mack's novel is simple, it is well executed, with balanced pacing, intriguing development, and vivid scene-building.

    Prose/Style: The prose within Mack's novel is powerful and even, while the voices of the individual  characters shine and are easily differentiated.

    Originality: The storyline is predictable at moments, but Mack's work pulls on the heartstrings of the reader, allowing forgiveness for any lack of originality.

    Character/Execution: Both Josh and Isabel jump to life from the pages of Mack's novel. Development of their relationship throughout the course of the novel is exquisite, as they are characters the reader passionately roots for.

    Blurb: A brutal depiction of the impact of abuse on a boy, his family, and all the lives he's touched. Written with raw emotion and spectacular ease, Mack's debut is wrought with emotional power - and is destined to break readers’ hearts.

  • The Wolf's Tooth

    by J. Steven Lamperti

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The Wolf’s Tooth is initially slow to develop, but is redeemed by the ever-changing fortunes of Twee, which make it a gripping read that is hard to put down. Nevertheless, unanswered questions remain.

    Prose/Style: The prose is delightfully lyrical in places, particularly at the opening of the novel, but is undermined by episodes of incongruous character dialogue.

    Originality: While the theme of being raised by wild animals is not a new one, it is followed by three distinct—and largely fantastical—periods in Twee’s life, which lend the book a decidedly unique spin.

    Character Development: The Wolf's Tooth introduces a range of quirky characters that will delight the reader—particularly the wonderful, compassionate, non-conforming female wolves.

  • Alpha and Omega

    by Carol T. Luna

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The post-apocalyptic rescue trope is well-developed and, in places, has an almost Ocean’s 11 feel to it. Where it trips slightly is with the plethora of loose ends left lying about that only vaguely seem to connect to the main storyline. There is definitely a great sense of adventure and even wonder to the narrative – it’s easy to get lost in the storytelling, but then lose pieces of the plot as things progress.

    Prose/Style: Well-written and vividly detailed, the prose flows beautifully, pulling readers into a sensory experience. The action sequences are particularly well done.

    Originality: With reflections of some of the great post-apocalyptic YA stories to come out in the past decade, the novel stands on its own thanks to tight writing and the foundations of exceptional worldbuilding.

    Character Development: While Ao, the main character, is fairly clearly drawn, and one or two of the secondary characters, like Daru, seem fleshed out, character motivation aside from the rescue of Doc is relatively murky. The novel begins in media res and never fully explains the backstory needed to truly connect with the characters.

  • Enlightened

    by Billie Kowalewski

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Billie Kowalewski's Enlightened kicks off with a fascinating existential premise: A soul named Harmony keeps being born again and again on Earth, only to die early. Split between a soul realm where the inhabitants can imagine any environments they would like to live in, and accounts of Harmony's short Earth lives, Enlightened is thoughtful and funny, even as it lacks a strong narrative hook in its first half. The stakes of death and rebirth are surprisingly low, and the mystery of why Harmony keeps dying is treated with little urgency. Still, the cycles of life and death are written with a light and appealing touch. Eventually, readers discover that Harmony and Kaleb, a soul in the "school" that Harmony attends, are "extreme soul mates" -- and the novel reveals itself to be a romance. It's some 200 pages into the book that Harmony discovers that she loves Kaleb, which imbues the narrative with greater emotional interest. Several chapters covering their blissful romance follow, all lovely -- but they slow the story just when the story's coming to life. The novel ends abruptly, before the key conflicts have resolved, which will likely frustrate readers, especially as nothing in the book suggests that this is the kick off to a series rather than a standalone story.

    Prose: Overall, Kowalewski writes with clarity and cleverness, and her attentiveness to Harmony's inner life -- and the inner lives of the humans Harmony occasionally lives as -- makes for engaging scenes and chapters. The novel's prologue, which concerns the story's metaphysics, is unnecessarily confusing and uninviting. Dialogue is persuasive and often amusing; the prose is at its most resonant and memorable in the chapters detailing Harmony and Kaleb's between-lives romance.

    Originality: Readers of this comic reincarnation romance will of course think of comedies like The Good Place or Topper. But Kowalewski invests the material with fresh energy and wit, especially in her treatment of the soul realm's forests and rock music clubs.

    Character/Execution: Harmony, Kaleb, and their various Earth selves are entertaining and sharply drawn. Their encounters on Earth are surprising and sometimes moving. Still, Enlightened doesn't give Harmony a strong, clear motivation for action until over halfway through the book.

  • Plot: The pacing in Whyte's ambitious time travel novel—book 3 in The Stelladaur series—offers a lively, if somewhat predictable concept. More balanced pacing and point-plotting would surely elevate this brisk, well-written portal story.

    Prose/Style: Atmospherically spectacular and evocative, Whyte's writing soars above and lifts up a premise that, while it offers some novel elements, ultimately relies on expected tropes.

    Originality: Whyte's novel features familiar genre elements, but effective worldbuilding and rich detail allows the novel to stand apart.

    Character Development: The characters in Fraction in Time serve the story, but don’t always enrich it. The writing style can at times feel at odds with the personalities that inhabit the world at-hand.

  • Gidjie and the Wolves

    by Tashia Hart

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Hart offers a fresh and compelling storyline that offers lively imagery. While the individual stories within each chapter shine, the collective narrative may benefit from a greater sense of wholeness and harmony.

    Prose/Style: The prose is capably written and immersive, although passages are at times overly detailed and clunky. Hart is often inconsistent in style, resulting in a reading experience that is not always smooth or organic.

    Originality: Through the incorporation of alluring illustrations, the reader is brought into a world filled with magical creatures. The worldbuilding, while compelling and imaginative, doesn't always directly benefit the storyline. By drawing on Anishinaabe culture, the author provides a novel layer to the work, and one that may invite readers to research further.

    Character Development: Hart integrates characters from Anishinaabe culture with ease and care. Gidjie is lovable, curious, and offers vivid insight into the world around her. While other characters sometimes blend together, and certain elements are underexplained - Gidjie is absolutely special and wholly memorable.

  • The Quad Squad

    by Don Freeborn

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Four friends prepare to say goodbye to elementary school while grappling with family troubles and competing in their first baseball championship. A tender, relatable middle grade story with particular appeal for reluctant readers,

    Prose: Freeborn writes clearly, evenly, and effectively captures the youthful voices of the protagonists as they navigate small conflicts, confront self-doubt, and face fears about their families and the future.

    Originality: While Freeborn's quiet story doesn't offer a great deal of originality, this novel will strongly appeal to sensitive boy readers who love baseball and value their close friendships.

    Character/Execution: Though the voices of the protagonists are not always starkly differentiated, readers will have no trouble following each character's individual concerns and trials.

  • Perfection and Other Illusive Things

    by J Mercer

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot: This charming, gently philosophical coming-of-age novel provides a genuine look at perception, acceptance, and growing into oneself.

    Prose: Like the book’s messaging, Mercer’s prose is occasionally on-the-nose. But the author ultimately delivers a warm, enjoyable, and character-driven novel for teen readers.

    Originality: While not entirely original in theme or execution, Mercer’s novel carries refreshing notes of candor and kindness.

    Character/Execution: Eden is a deeply relatable protagonist who wishes to be everything she isn’t, but eventually learns she’s exactly right. Eden’s peers—even those would-be antagonists—are nicely realized and well-rounded.

  • Wheel of Katarnum

    by James Calliotte

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot: Calliotte's endearing narrative follows a somewhat predictable pattern, though the work takes somewhat too long to expand into the fantasy world of Katarnum. Once there, the worldbuilding similarly drawn out, exhibiting the occasional info-dump; the novel would benefit from revisions that focus on structure, setting and clarity.

    Prose/Style: The prose is smooth and at times beautiful, if not ultimately memorable. Dialogue is generally lively and organic and effectively drives story momentum.

    Originality: Calliotte's narrative features moments of originality, while still borrowing significantly from well-worn classic fantasy stories.

    Character Development: The central characters are individually appealing with distinct traits. There is a degree of over reliance on highlighting racial stereotypes which, while well-intended, does not always serve the story well. Bobbel, the charming and outspoken donkey, is a particularly fun and alluring character.

  • Soulstealer: Nythan (Book 1)

    by Shane Boulware

    Rating: 5.25

    Plot: The plot in Boulware's novel becomes somewhat muddled as the book attempts to tackle too many topics at once. Religious arguments flood the narrative, bogging down the pacing of the plot, and would better serve the storyline if they were revised for focus and clarity.

    Prose/Style: Boulware's prose is filled with embellished metaphors, engaging plot, and a smooth style, but occasionally feels overwritten and suffers from an overutilization of dialogue between Nythan and Bane.

    Originality: Boulware takes demonic possession and manages to make the device slightly more original than most novels, but still leans too much into common tropes.

    Character Development: Nythan is described in excessive detail and loses individual characterization, instead becoming inseparable from the demon possessing him, Bane. Their relationship, while well-developed, overwhelms the narrative.

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