Summer is often a slower time for book releases, which can feel like a shame when school is finally out and the days stretch out ahead, waiting to be filled with reading for pleasure. Fear not: This summer delivers, with great new young adult stories for all interests and genres!
And I Darken
What if Vlad the Impaler had been a girl? I will admit that I was skeptical. Would this be yet another pop mangling of history, dancing on the desecrated grave of the YA vampire craze?
I've never been so happy to be wrong. And I Darken is an evocative imagining of the life of two noble children who are handed over to the Ottoman Empire to ensure that their father, the Prince of Wallachia, will be on his best behavior. What begins as resentful imprisonment soon becomes a source of internal and external conflict for siblings Lada and Radu, as they're torn between hanging on to their past identities and assimilating into the empire that they ought to despise. Lada is unflinching in her ambition and determination, refreshing as a girl protagonist who is cruel, calculating, and utterly devoted to her passions. Her brother Radu seems open and friendly in comparison, but his true feelings run so far beneath the surface that even he struggles to understand them. While captive, they meet Mehmed, the sultan's son, and soon their lives and hearts are entangled, shaping the destiny of an empire. This book takes no prisoners, offering up brutal, emotional historical fiction in a seldom explored setting.
How to Hang a Witch
It must be hard to write a fun story about the Salem witch trials. It's a dark corner of our history, and the temptation is often to throw out everything except the witches and start from scratch. Being a huge nerd for witch folklore, I went into this book with a lot of hope and a good measure of trepidation, and was delighted to find that it's solidly grounded in actual history, while still offering up the right mixture of bitchy teen witches and familial curses.
Samantha Mather, descendant of the infamous witch trial enthusiast Cotton Mather, reluctantly moves from New York City to her ancestral home in Salem. As she tries to settle unobtrusively into her new high school, she immediately finds herself at odds with a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. She soon comes to realize that they are all at the center of a centuries-old cycle of violence and hatred that is doomed to repeat itself – unless she can convince The Descendants that they all need to work together to break the curse.
How to Hang a Witch strikes a careful balance of creepy, fun, and thoughtful. Oh, and there's also a sexy teenage ghost boy. If, like me, you watched Hocus Pocus at a formative age and had a huge crush on the ghost of Thackery Binx, this is most definitely a book for you.
This Savage Song
Monsters, a city divided, a star-crossed friendship: These are tropes that feel Shakespearean in scope, but come together more like a punk yowl than a madrigal in This Savage Song. Kate is the daughter of the local mob-boss, in a city split in two by disaster. All she wants is to prove that she can be every bit as brutal as her father. August is a monster, tormented by powers he doesn't understand and guilt for things he can't control. More than anything, he longs to be human. Together, Kate and August uncover a conspiracy that puts them both in mortal danger.
Near-future dystopia about tough teens trying to save their world has become almost cliché in recent years, but this book has enough heart to cut through the layers of expectation and make the familiar tropes feel fresh.
Mirror in the Sky
Tara has always felt like an outsider at Brierly, her elite private school, where she watches the popular kids and envies their perfect lives from afar. When her one friend abandons her for a year abroad, Tara suddenly finds herself pulled into their circle, orbiting uneasily around Halle, Brierly's brightest star. Halle comes from wealth, she doesn't have to worry about being the only brown girl at Brierly, and the hottest boy in school loves her. The offer of her friendship is a golden ticket – but can Tara really trust her?
As important as all the cool kid drama seems, it pales in comparison to an amazing interstellar event: NASA discovers Terra Nova, a far-away planet that is a slightly distorted mirror-version of Earth. Soon everyone begins to wonder if the Terra Nova versions of themselves have made better choices, and both Tara's family and friends begin to fracture under the pressure.
I was expecting this to be primarily a sci-fi book, but it's really more of a psychological drama. While Terra Nova serves as a catalyst for many thoughts and actions within the story, it could just as easily have been replaced by something more mundane with the same results. The true strength of the book is in Tara's observations of the little societies she must navigate, and the very real pain that comes from hiding your true self from the people around you.
A Torch Against the Night
In the eagerly-awaited sequel to An Ember in the Ashes, we find Laia and Elias on the run, desperately trying to stay alive long enough to rescue Laia's brother from prison. Every step of the journey is dogged by danger as they fight off the new Emperor, the Commandant, and, worst of all, Elias' friend Helene, now the Blood Shrike, who has been ordered to kill them both. But the Blood Shrike hesitates, torn between her duty and her love for Elias – with the fate of the Empire hanging in the balance.
As in the first book, the stakes here are high and the plot runs like a well-oiled machine, ratcheting up the tension with every chapter and seamlessly blending character motivation and action. Elias, Laia, and Helene are all pushed to their limits, and there's a certain grim satisfaction in seeing how each of them has faced a reckoning by the end of the book. Also satisfying is the wide range of female secondary characters – it is still sadly rare to find a fantasy world where women occupy as many of the side roles as men, and this series continues to deliver in this regard. Middle books can sometimes feel a little aimless, but A Torch Against the Night swept me up and made me excited to see what comes next.