Category Archives: YA Urban Fantasy

Johnny Worthen, Eleanor

David Venn loves her as she is. But she knows that she is a monster.

That is Eleanor’s biggest problem. Though she has plenty of other problems. Like high school — where she does her best to be the unseen Eleanor, always in the background, because it’s safer that way. Because if anyone finds out that she’s really a skinwalker — a shapeshifter — she’ll have to run away to survive. That’s what she did before, when the Navajo came to kill her parents, and she hid for fifty years in the form of a coyote.

But Eleano’rs biggest problem, other than being a monster, is the fact that her adoptive mother Tabitha is dying of cancer, which makes the social worker want to put her in a foster home. She doesn’t want to leave Tabitha. She wants to live a normal life, like a normal girl.

This is one of the most original takes on shapeshifter legends I’ve seen in YA fantasy, based upon Indian legends about skinwalkers — witches who can take another person’s shape, kill them, and then take their place in society. It’s also a very carefully crafted narrative, with two characters — Eleanor, and David Venn — who really come to life. This is one of a few books I’ve read this that goes down on my long term favorites list, along with Cruel Beauty. I got a copy out from the library along with a big stack of other new adult and YA fantasy. Then I read it out loud to my wife, because I thought she would love it (and she did). Then I ordered a copy for myself, which I don’t usually do when I can get a book from my local library.

Just one nitpicky point. Jolly Fish Press should really have hired a better proofreader. This book looks like it was proofread by somebody who thought that running a spell-check was good enough, and that caused me a series of low-level irritations. Pallet where there should have been palette. Homonym pairs like to/two confused a couple of times. Missing words, or extra words, or misplaced words, here and there. One place where they didn’t remember to use lay instead of laid (though I’ve seen books from big houses miss that point). It wasn’t frequent enough to ruin the experience of reading the book, but if there’s any way for them to at least fix the e-book, and any future print runs, I’d say they should make the investment. This is a book that ought to be more widely known than it is.

Victoria Schwab, The Archived and The Unbound

Perhaps we need to invent a category of YA fiction for books that feature an unusual afterlife. In the world Victoria Schwab, the afterlife is like a library. Most people stay shelved, but a few are withdrawn from the stacks and get to be a librarian. This whole system is protected by a special group drawn from among the living – Keepers, whose job it is to return Histories to the library if they wake up and wander.

In The Archived, Mackenzie is a teenage Keeper who has inherited the job from her recently deceased grandfather. The number of Histories escaping is increasing horribly, and she has to find out why before she gets overwhelmed. To do so, she has to solve the mystery of people who used to live in her apartment building, and appear to have been murdered, but but whose names do not appear in the library’s Index. She does so with the help of another teenaged Keeper, Owen, but only barely manages to survive the schemes of a rogue Librarian and the suspicious attentions of the Library staff. In The Unbound. Mackenzie has to negotiate the conflict between her ordinary life as a schoolgirl (and a new, prep school, at that) and her life as a Keeper, even as the rogue librarian (who should be dead and gone) haunts her thoughts until she begins to wonder if she is going mad. Which would definitely disqualify her from being a Keeper, in which case the library staff would wipe any inconvenient memories, so she HAS to succeed.

After these two books, there will be at least one more sequel, which will enable us to see deeper into the nature of the Library, and determine whether Mackenzie is going to be an afterlife revolutionary.

These novels have staple elements you expect to see in YA fantasy – the fitting-in-at-school theme, the uncertainties-of-first-love theme, and the need for the character to grow up quickly and make very consequential moral choices, but they definitely deliver them with a unique twist.
Two thumbs up. I’m definitely going to get book #3 when it comes out.

Note: I checked the first book out from my local public library, then bought the second. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Lenore Appelhans, The Memory of After

It isn’t all that often that we encounter a YA fantasy where the heroine and one of the male love interests belong to a church youth group and the other love interest is a fallen angel. It’s even rarer to have a novel that starts in the afterlife. But that’s what we have here, and it’s a pretty neat ride.

Who would have thought that the afterlife would be a series of endless replays (unless you manage to borrow someone else’s memories?) But that’s what Felicia’s stuck in, until an old boyfriend named Julian bursts into the hive and engineers her escape into an afterworld in which fallen angels called the Morati are holding up everyone’s progress toward heaven (or hell) in order to collect enough power from the waylaid spirits to mount an assault on heaven itself. The plot unfolds with plenty of unexpected twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion, and it sets up possible sequels with a premise that could prove very interesting.

I have to point out that the world-building is a bit on the light side. Exactly why spirits’ memories provide power to the fallen angels remains a bit vague, and it’s even vaguer why Felicia is special – explanations are offered, but to my ear they’re not fully convincing. However, that’s no obstacle to getting a fun read (unless, like me, you’re super-critical about things like that.). It’s also worth noting that this is a book you can easily give to a younger teen – it’s quick-paced, easy to read, and pretty clean (though well-stocked with kisses, so it’s most distinctly not hormone-neutral!)

It’s fun. So enjoy! I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Note: I got a signed copy of this book for free at Book Expo America. I have no other connection with the publisher.

Maggie Stiefvater, Sinner

Cole St. Clair is a rock star. Was a rock star – is about to be a rock star again. No one knows why he disappeared from public view, or exactly why his band dissolved (though the death of the bassist might have something to do with it). But he’s coming back, by starring in Baby North’s reality TV show – as himself. People expect to see yet another of Baby North’s trademark celebrity melt-downs, but that’s not what he really wants. Los Angeles also happens to be where Isabel Culpepper, his former girlfriend, lives, and he wants her back.

But she knows his secret. He is now a werewolf. A werewolf in LA.

It is odd, sometimes, what makes a story tick. On one level, this is another urban fantasy set in the world of Maggie Stiefvater’s Mercy Falls werewolf series, and in that context it serves to tie up a couple of loose ends, and give a two characters a chance to shine on their own. But there’s a deeper sense in which this novel is not a fantasy novel at all.

The only genre fantasy element at work in this story is the fact that Cole St. Clair is a werewolf. But turning into a werewolf only has one role in this story. It’s just another drug — a better drug than heroin or crack, but still fundamentally an addiction. What this story is really about is fame, or at least celebrity, and the point at which a performer starts wondering how much of his self is constructed – essentially, performance art – and whether there is anything authentic left that he can call his own.

In a sense, you could almost call this novel Vampires in LA — because the real theme is the parasitic nature of the entire culture.

This is a very good book and will be enjoyable both to general readers, who will enjoy its exploration of the pathologies of fame, not just to fans of the Mercy Falls series.

Holly Black, The Darkest Part of the Forest

Tropes have staying power because they bring up something primal in us. The concept of Faerie depends utterly on a vision of beauty and power unattached to any code of morality. The fairy folk belong neither to heaven nor hell, but they pay a tithe to hell, and it is perilous to know them or to see their beauty.

Of course, one of the problems with a trope is that writers love to blur their edges. After a hundred urban fantasies featuring the Fair Folk, they start to seem pretty tame; kind of like glittery vampires who only eat Bambi.

So that makes Holly Black’s forthcoming novel a welcome change. She’s gone back to the root of the trope — a world in which Fairies are mad, bad, dangerous to know, and beautiful beyond imagining, and only an idiot or a fool tries to bargain with them.

So there is a town where people know how to protect themselves from the Fair Folk (though tourists are often not so lucky), a town that has its own Sleeping Beauty, a fairy prince encased in glass, a place where a girl who dreams of being a knight may just find her wish fulfilled. A place where you need to be careful what you wish for.

That is the world of The Darkest Part of the Forest, and it’s well worth a visit, if only because in this book the primal trope wakes up and gives a Tarzan yell.

I got the advance review copy of this book at Book Expo America, and have no other connection with the author. The Darkest Part of the Forest will be published in January, 2015.

Rachel Hawkins, School Spirits

She’s been raised to hunt monsters. But when Izzy nearly gets killed by a vampire, her mother decides she needs to try something simple and easy for a change. Like handle a simple school haunting. At a high school. Which means enrolling as a student.

School? What’s school, when you’re ten kinds of ninja. Should be a piece of cake.

Not.

This is a fast, fun read, and if you’re wanting what this book promises, it delivers.

The girl’s name is Isolde. Mom is Aislinn. Pronounced Ashleen. There’s a wizard trapped in a mirror, a witch raising the dead, a wild party with a police raid.

Naturally she falls in love. With a high school student. And doesn’t want to leave.

I’ll classify this one as around a three out of five. It’s fun, if a bit too much of a perfect tongue-in-cheek romp down a bunch of urban fantasy tropes. Definitely worth a read.

(I got this book from the local library. I have no connection with author or publisher.)

Aurelio Voltaire, Call of the Jersey Devil

A lot of people are going to love this book. (Of course, that does mean that there will be others who won’t get it.) So here’s why!

Do you remember that B movie? The one that was so utterly ‘B-movie’ that you couldn’t possibly take it seriously? The one that was so over the top you loved it precisely because it so gleefully did everything a B movie does, and worse?

Yeah, that movie. And this is that book.

Don’t read it if you’re looking for soul-searching (unless you mean the kind a ghoul does when it wakes up and discovers it hasn’t got one any more.)

Don’t read it if you’re looking for a romantic interest (unless you don’t mind the pretty girl turning into a wicked, ugly hag right when things get interesting.)

Don’t read it if you’re looking for distant lands (unless you’re from New York, in which case New Jersey qualifies.)

But if you’d love that B-movie feel, complete with clueless teenagers, animated corpses, and undead figures shambling through the mouth of hell, this book will give you a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek adventure.

Just remember the rules for surviving a horror flick. Especially the one that warns you never to say, “I’ll be right back.”

Oooh, this looks like a fun story, filled to the brim with horror and B-movie tropes, cheerfully exploiting every stereotype anybody every dreamt up involving goth teenagers, shopping malls, and lonely spots deep in the woods.

I’ll be right back!

Not Every Prince is Charming, by Elliott James

Funny how obvious it is now that I think about it.

Urban fantasy is 40s noir, decked out differently. Dark themes, brightly lit up by flashes of morbid humor.

Sometimes literally. Lots of urban fantasy goes with some variant of the detective-for-hire angle. But even when they don’t, you still have the brooding male lead with a dark past, and the beautiful woman who comes seeking his help …

Or you have those things with a twist. That’s this book. The girl is a Valkyrie, and doesn’t really need his help (except, in the end, when she does). The hero is a hunted man, not a detective.

But when his problem is that his internal Werewolf is trying to get out, the noir tropes come hot and heavy, because the sexiness of the noir male protagonist is that sense of danger, that he could so easily be one of the bad guys the girls need saving from, instead of the hero.

Difference from paranormal romance is that the danger is unavoidable, like the scent of blood on the air after a hive of vampires has been taken down.

I guess I’m getting a bit too metaphorical here. This is a good book. It starts with the usual tropes for urban fantasy, but the humorous title (and for that matter, all the humorous chapter titles too, and the other flashes of humor embedded throughout) should not confuse the reader.

This isn’t a light and funny book. It’s noir.

And it all comes down to a knife-fight in the dark.

(Though come to think of it, fangs and claws have something to recommend them.)

I got an advanced review copy of Not Every Prince is Charming at Book Expo America. The book will come out Sept. 23, 2013.

Awoken, by Timothy Miller

This is a fast, fun YA read that younger teens especially should enjoy. In the middle of the night, Michael Stevens, a boy bounced from one foster care to another, witnesses a cat being killed by strange doll-men. He is frightened to awaken the next night to discover doll-men in his room, insisting that he drink from a cup of stone, and be ‘Awoken’. Things go downhill from there, as bloodthirsty beast-men and intelligent beasts with mismatched eyes (plus one mad scientist) chase him and his friends to obtain a mysterious source of power called earthbone.

The great strength of this book is the swift-moving plot and the ease with which we can sympathize with the main character. His is an easy head to get into, and his to-be-girlfriend, Lina, is well-drawn and engaging. Weaknesses fall into the category of things-you-maybe-shouldn’t-ask-for-because-they-weren’t-aimed-for-either. This isn’t a deep book (nor was it intended to be). The characterization is done in broad strokes. The world-building is plausible but not to the degree of rigor that I personally prefer (though I admit to being a perfectionist when it comes to fantasy elements in a book.) The way the doll-men talk … grates on me a bit, but the effect feels intentional. After all, what’s the point being a great hero if those who call the hero into action don’t TREAT him a bit like a hero? He might decide he’s just the kid who doesn’t have friends and that nobody wants as he’s bounced from one foster home to the next, and then he might not be motivated enough to save the world!

Sit back, enjoy the ride, don’t look at the man behind the curtain, and it’s great fun. It’d be a good book to give to a 12-14 year old who enjoys adventure stories, because that’s what it delivers. An adventure story, with a hero who gets unprecedented powers and uses them to stop the mad scientist, save the world, and incidentally, get the girl.

I got this book at Book Expo America. It is scheduled for release on August 13, 2013.

Lisa Goldstein, The Dream Years

I’m starting on this blog with short reviews of works that really made an impact on me when I read them. Eventually I’ll review newer works, but for now … another work not to miss.

Urban? Check.

Fantasy? Check.

Romance? Check.

Time travel? Check.

Revolution? Check.

Surrealism? Check.

This isn’t your normal fantasy. It’s a dream-walk. Almost literally. Vivid, powerful, and imaginative.

Read it.