Mariel Fechik

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Vega is a girl with stars on her skin. Her mother created the tattoos when Vega was small, knowing that one day she would take up the mantle of the last Astronomer. Vega has never left their valley and knows only the safety of her mother’s cottage. But her mother is dying from a sickness that has claimed much of the world’s population, and twin stars have appeared in the sky, signifying that Vega must fulfill her duty: to find the Architect and go to the sea.

Vega is unprepared for the dusty, desperate world outside the valley, where branded men called Theorists hunt her mercilessly, believing she holds the key to a cure for the sickness. She is rescued by a girl named Cricket, who leads her to Noah, a mysterious, secretive boy with green eyes. Together, the three of them set off across the desert, guided by ancient stories and starlight. But as the twin stars move along their orbital path, Vega knows that time is running low.

A Wilderness of Stars is an atmospheric adventure romance that pulls from a constellation of genres as author Shea Ernshaw crafts a world that seems both familiar and alien. Full of ghost towns and outlaws, much of the setting feels straight out of a Western, but without the identifiable geography of the American West. Ernshaw employs a similar tactic with the novel’s temporal scope, giving enough clues to place the story in a far-off future where our current technologies are considered ancient myths, but no real specifics about when the story takes place. 

Ernshaw’s narrative relies on intentional ambiguity and the slow unspooling of secrets, which is sometimes effective and other times frustrating. Many characters hold their cards close to their chests, and as a consequence, Ernshaw often writes around plot points rather than through them. Although her writing can be dense, readers who appreciate a focus on romance will enjoy the time she spends lavishing Vega and Noah’s love story with florid prose. 

Overall, A Wilderness of Stars will delight readers who love soft science fiction, measured reveals and romances that are written in the stars.

This atmospheric adventure will delight readers who love soft science fiction, measured reveals and romances that are written in the stars.
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People are the true monsters in two thrilling novels from acclaimed authors Tiffany D. Jackson and Lamar Giles, while shadows gather menacingly in an anthology of folk horror stories from popular YA authors including Chloe Gong, Erica Waters, Aden Polydoros and more.

The Weight of Blood

Maddy Washington is living a lie. To protect herself from the brutal bullying she’s received in her small town of Springville, Georgia, she avoids her peers whenever possible. But she’s also protecting her secret: Though Maddy passes as white, she’s actually biracial. Her fanatically religious father forces her to hide her Blackness, supposedly to protect her, while also hiding the truth about Maddy’s mother from her. 

When an unexpected rainstorm causes Maddy’s perfectly straightened hair to revert to its natural state, the bullying that follows is caught on video. The footage goes viral, painting an ugly portrait of a former sundown town where Black residents are still expected to follow archaic, unspoken rules, such as attending a separate, segregated prom—even in 2014. In response to the negative attention, several students start planning Springville’s first integrated prom, unaware that they’ll lay the groundwork for a night that will never be forgotten—but for very different reasons than they expect, because Maddy has another secret, and after the devastation occurs, all the survivors can say is “Maddy did it.”

Inspired by the real-life town of Rochelle, Georgia, which held its first integrated prom in 2013, The Weight of Blood is an unflinching indictment of racism and cruelty in the Deep South. Critically acclaimed author Tiffany D. Jackson has described her seventh YA novel as a “remix of Carrie,” and The Weight of Blood follows much of Stephen King’s horror classic beat for beat. But Jackson’s sophisticated framing elevates her book from a basic retelling to a brilliant de- and reconstruction.

One of Jackson’s most significant talents is her refusal to talk down to her readers. She offers no concessions or apologies in her portrayal of the chokehold of small-town racism. Take, for instance, Kenny Scott, Springville High’s Black all-star quarterback, who brushes off his friends’ racist jokes to keep the peace, even as Kenny’s sister, Kali, reads Ta-Nehisi Coates and tries to get through to her brother. Jackson highlights the quiet insidiousness of racism through Kenny’s white girlfriend, Wendy, who doesn’t understand her own prejudices or privileges. Jackson also portrays racism at its most violent through cruel pranks played by Wendy’s best friend, Julia, and through acts of brutality from white police officers.

Although The Weight of Blood is Maddy’s story, much of the novel happens around her rather than with her. Jackson circumnavigates the horrors of Maddy’s life via newspaper clippings, testimonies and a true crime podcast investigating Maddy’s case. In the rare moments that the reader spends alone with Maddy, the mystery of her life only grows denser and more shrouded, and even readers intimately familiar with Carrie will be on tenterhooks as they wait to discover how Jackson twists the story’s most infamous moments—and twist she does. The Weight of Blood seizes readers quickly and never lets go. Long after the sirens have quieted and its fires have burned to ash, its heat lingers.

The Getaway

Jay Butler and his family live in Karloff Country, a massive amusement park known as “the funnest place around.” Selected to be part of the lucky few who live and work in one of the park’s residences, the Butlers are safe from the ongoing climate disaster and societal collapse outside the compound’s walls. Jay and his friends Connie and Zeke live in the Jubilee neighborhood, but the final member of their friend group, Chelle Karloff, the biracial daughter of Blythe Karloff and the heir to her hateful grandfather’s massive fortune, lives a life of uneasy privilege on her family’s estate. 

The Karloffs—wealthy, white and seemingly progressive—have promised to provide a good life for the families under their proverbial roof. Though Chelle makes her distaste for her mother’s performative “wokeness” clear and her friends agree with her assessment, everyone is grateful to live inside Karloff Country’s protective walls, and no one scrutinizes anything too closely—until families begin to go missing. Soon, shady rumors of conspiracies become reality. When the park’s trustees arrive, no one is safe, least of all its Black and brown residents. As a place that once represented security becomes a cage to be escaped, time is running out before Karloff Country’s gates close—forever.

Author Lamar Giles began his career with YA thrillers such as Fake ID and Endangered. He returns to the genre with his sixth YA novel, The Getaway, which is sure to garner well-deserved comparison to Jordan Peele’s masterpiece psychological thriller Get Out. Much like Peele’s film, The Getaway exists in a strange limbo. Its story is simultaneously propulsive and meandering, and Giles smartly utilizes Jay’s “go along to get along” attitude to create and dispel tension. Jay is the archetypical frog in boiling water who frequently doesn’t notice danger until it’s too late. Brief interludes from Zeke’s, Connie’s and Chelle’s perspectives act like security cameras, providing new perspectives at new angles and sightlines into previously hidden corners. 

Though the book’s pacing and plot twists occasionally get away from him, Giles crafts a story that’s difficult to look away from. He uses classic thriller tropes such as disturbing amusement park mascots to great effect, creating an atmosphere of creeping dread, and artfully juxtaposes the artificial brightness of Karloff Country against scenes of graphic violence.

Giles’ only misstep is the subtlety with which he depicts the true nature of the park’s politics. Although he heavily implies that people of color are the true targets of the Karloffs’ cruel plans and many teen readers will read between the lines, others may need more clarity to understand the entirety of Giles’ large, extended metaphor. Regardless, The Getaway is an excellent addition to the quickly growing canon of YA social horror novels. 

The Gathering Dark

Something lurks in the shadows of the trees. An ancient being stirs. The dead are restless and hungry. A house carries a curse in its walls. A town echoes with whispered legends of burned girls. Enter the realm of folk horror with The Gathering Dark, an anthology edited by YA author Tori Bovalino and featuring original stories from Erica Waters, Chloe Gong, Hannah Whitten, Allison Saft, Olivia Chadha, Courtney Gould, Aden Polydoros, Alex Brown, Shakira Toussaint and Bovalino herself.

Folk horror has long been a controversial horror subgenre, as it often relies on disorientation and ambiguity to build a sense of terror. Its monsters creep through the dark but do not always make themselves known, so catharsis is not easily granted. These types of stories explore themes of memory, tradition and what we sometimes leave buried inside—which, for many readers, hits uncomfortably close to home. 

Fans of atmospheric, folkloric horror like Krystal Sutherland’s House of Hollow, Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls and Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement will find their niche in The Gathering Dark. Among the collection’s best stories are Hannah Whitten’s “One Lane Bridge,” a masterclass in rising tension. Its terror stems not only from eldritch beings in the woods but also from the cruel ways friends can hurt each other without even trying. Erica Waters’ “Stay” introduces a lonely girl who tends to the graves of her family, while Allison Saft’s haunting “Ghost on the Shore” explores the nightmare of unresolved grief and loss without closure.

As with many anthologies, the collection is somewhat unbalanced in terms of quality. Some of the stories are a tad too obvious to be frightening or rush toward their climax without ample buildup. But the standout stories leave their mark. For teens who grew up reading Alvin Schwartz’s iconic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Gathering Dark will be the perfect shivery autumnal read. 

Warning: These terrifying YA novels may be accompanied by goosebumps, a feeling of lurking unease and a desire to sleep with the lights on. The only known remedy? Keep reading.
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Ray is a seer, but instead of visions of what’s to come, she sees the truth of the present—the way things really are. Her rare ability has made her a pragmatist and a realist, but it’s also left her lonely. Ray believes her ability precludes her from forming close relationships, so she avoids physical contact and romantic endeavors. Instead, her goal is to become a member of the Council, the ruling body of the magical world, so she can use her gift to help others and eventually learn to see the future. When she needs a break, Ray slips into her favorite bakery, a place where emotions are magically baked into every sweet treat.

Laurie desperately wants to be a musician. Between unsuccessful auditions, he works at his aunt’s bakery, smiling at the cute girl who comes in every day for tea and a pastry. Masking his own insecurities and grief with that smile, Laurie strikes up an easy friendship with Ray, which soon gives way to flirtation and the possibility of a deeper connection. For the first time, Ray wants to give romance a shot, but if she joins the Council, she’ll be erased from the memories of everyone she knows and loves. Does dedicating her life to helping others mean giving up on her own dreams?

The web comic that would become Crumbs saw massive popularity on the online comics platform WebToon before being acquired for publication, and it’s easy to see why. Danie Stirling offers a warm and lightly fantastical slice-of-life tale about choosing your path. As Laurie and Ray navigate their new relationship, they must also traverse the nebulous transition to adulthood and the many choices that come with it.

Stirling’s art style is sweet and fluffy, all rounded edges and soft lighting. Though it’s not a manga aesthetic, the characters’ expressiveness and frequently glittering eyes will resonate with anime fans. The illustrations exude as much warmth as the story, with subtle visual renderings of magic that become sweet garnishes atop a richer cake. 

Crumbs’ cozy vibes will attract fans of Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes, but its emotional complexity will keep them turning the pages. Within the narrative framework of a rom-com, Stirling has written a poignant book about the danger of putting others’ happiness before your own, the burnout that can come from idealism and working in public service, and the realization that no one is ever given a single path to follow. As Ray learns to summon visions of the future, she must also learn to see them for what they are: potential futures in a universe of limitless possibilities. 

Danie Stirling’s debut graphic novel is a cozy, poignant and lightly fantastical story about protecting your happiness and choosing your path in life.
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In her fourth novel, Katzenjammer, author Francesca Zappia crafts a surreal and frightening world that parallels the innate horrors of high school. This story of subversion and sleight-of-hand trickery is difficult to discuss—or forget.

Cat and her classmates live at School. They don’t know why. No one can remember when School’s doors and windows went away. Cat has lost her face, her eyes and even her real name. The class president is a life-size porcelain doll; Cat’s best friend, Jeffrey, has a cardboard box for a head. Some students wander the constricting halls, alone and unmoored, while a few others rule over private domains in School’s underbelly. 

The tenuous equilibrium between School and its students is broken when the class president is found brutalized in the courtyard. More broken bodies follow, and the students’ fear grows. Someone—or something—is killing them, and they can feel the clock beginning to tick. As Cat desperately searches her memories for answers, she circles around truths that are too unbearable to look at directly. But to find the way out of School, Cat must face the thing waiting in the shadows of her mind.

Katzenjammer is a postmodern nightmare, a David Lynchian spiral of terror. Absurdist body horror mingles with slasher-film suspense, and the consistent suspension of reality gives the novel a disorienting, dreamlike quality. Yet Katzenjammer‘s potency is undeniable. Cat’s memories are frequently as disturbing as her new reality. “We all take from each other. We take and take and take,” Cat says of her peers. It’s a cynical view of adolescence, but it will strike true for many teens. Zappia makes no effort to shroud her novel’s darkness. Visceral, bloody and cruel, it almost dares the reader to look away.

Katzenjammer is not a book for every reader, and Zappia includes a series of content warnings on the book’s copyright page: “School bullying and violence, mention of eating disorders, and scenes of gore, blood, and death.” Although she’s not the first YA author to depict school violence and its aftermath, she writes brutality with a frankness that’s virtually unmatched. Teens so often go ignored by their parents, their teachers and people in positions of power. What Katzenjammer ultimately offers its teen readers is the feeling, finally, of being heard.

Francesca Zappia crafts a surreal and frightening world that directly parallels the innate horrors of high school in this disorienting, dreamlike novel.
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Miliani, Inez, Natalie and Jasmine are best friends bound by magic and love. When Jasmine is killed by a drunk driver, everything the four girls once shared is shattered. Mili, Inez and Nat try to support one another in the wake of the tragedy while also dealing with illness, addiction and the threat of deportation within their own families. But Mili, the last of the girls to see Jas alive, isn’t content to merely mourn. Drawing on the magical traditions of her Filipino heritage, she convinces her friends that they can bring Jas (or at least a version of her) back from the dead. Though Inez and Nat hesitate, they are spurred onward by Mili’s insistence that their efforts can succeed.

Soon, the girls are attending seances at Mili’s mysterious Aunt Lindy’s house, performing rituals of their own and testing the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead. But magic always comes with a price, and as the trio descend deeper into spellwork, they uncover terrifying secrets about one another and their families that endanger the plan to resurrect Jas—and could break apart their lives completely. Can the three friends perform the final ritual before everything crashes down around them?

Riss M. Neilson’s ambitious debut novel, Deep in Providence, is a dense, meticulously plotted story. It sits at a curious crossroads, functioning both as a contemporary YA novel about grief and a fantasy rooted in magical practices from Filipino and Jamaican cultures. Remove the novel’s magic and you’d have an emotional yet often-told tale. But by incorporating elements of fantasy, a genre historically predisposed to whiteness and straightness, Deep in Providence becomes a boundary-pushing addition to the canon of teen witches.

Alternating between Mili’s, Inez’s and Nat’s perspectives enables Neilson to create a multifaceted portrait of their close-knit friend group, in which private hurts and joys are refracted and magnified by the girls’ constant proximity. The book’s magic system serves as a metaphor that provides an added layer to the book’s exploration of loss. As the girls’ desperation grows, so too do their powers—and what the trio is willing to do with them. Neilson doesn’t shy away from emotional intensity: The girls’ grief isn’t pretty or palatable, and the spirits answer in full force.

At almost 500 pages, Deep in Providence suffers a bit from too much table setting. Early chapters focus on the girls’ backgrounds without much rising tension, and not all readers will be hooked by the slow start. But once magic enters the scene, the story deepens and widens, eventually arriving at a satisfying emotional climax and denouement.

Deep in Providence is a beautiful, haunting novel about letting go and finding peace for yourself and for those who are gone.

Three girls set out to raise their friend from the dead in Riss M. Neilson’s ambitious, haunting and boundary-pushing addition to the canon of teen witches.
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Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have nothing in common except their goal of beating each other in a ruthless race to become valedictorian of Willowgrove Christian Academy, the best school in their small Alabama town. Chloe is a queer former Californian with two moms and a mean streak; Shara is the principal’s daughter and the de facto princess of Willowgrove. So when Shara corners Chloe in an elevator at school one day and kisses her, questions arise. Things get even stranger when Shara vanishes in the middle of prom, leaving the prom king without a queen and the school buzzing with rumors.

With weeks left until graduation, Chloe is determined to find Shara, but she’s not the only one looking. Star quarterback Smith Parker, Shara’s longtime boyfriend, and Shara’s next-door neighbor, bad-boy Rory Heron, have both been “kissed and ditched” like Chloe. With only the memory of vanilla-mint lip gloss and an increasingly convoluted string of clues to follow, the unlikely trio reluctantly band together to track down Shara—who may not want to be found.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler, the first YA book by adult romance sensation Casey McQuiston, brilliantly deconstructs many tropes common to teen novels published during the first decade of the 21st century, including popular yet troubled girls, outsider heroes and scavenger hunts, complicating them by incorporating queerness, religious trauma and a deep interiority. Likewise, Chloe, Shara, Smith and Rory push against the outlines of their archetypes. The result is a messier and more grounded take on contemporary YA fiction that will appeal to current and former teens alike.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler is self-aware but not self-conscious, and it never condescends to its readers. McQuiston’s prose is quick, witty and referential, striking a balance between the wry way that characters speak in rom-coms and the way that real teenagers actually talk. McQuiston maintains the tone (and frequent absurdity) of the novels they’re emulating as their characters explore issues that teens have always faced. They handle trauma and its impact with nuance and sensitivity, and even tertiary characters feel dimensional.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler audiobook cover
Read our starred review of the audiobook for ‘I Kissed Shara Wheeler.’

Shara herself is the most impressive accomplishment here. As if anticipating comparisons to the oft-derided manic pixie dream girls of John Green’s novels, McQuiston takes an affectionate jab at Paper Towns early on: “Of course Shara cast herself as the main character of her own personal John Green novel,” Chloe thinks. Like the seekers in that novel, Chloe, Smith and Rory initially learn more about themselves and each other than about Shara. But as she does with many other elements in this novel, McQuiston twists this trope, going one step further than Green and peeling back Shara’s layers, revealing her to be deeply complicated—smart, insecure, gregarious, selfish and more. She’s clearly no one’s manic pixie anything, and her desperation to be found speaks to her sublimated desire to find herself.

In a letter included with advance editions of the book, McQuiston writes that “I Kissed Shara Wheeler started off as a feeling.” The book’s most potent impressions are also feelings: the rush of nerves before the opening night of the spring musical; the strange magic of driving familiar streets at night; your crush’s name appearing on your phone screen. I Kissed Shara Wheeler assures readers that although hurt is real, love is complicated and friends can let you down, the world is wide and nothing is impossible.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler, the first YA book by adult romance sensation Casey McQuiston, brilliantly deconstructs tropes common to early-2000s teen novels.
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Armed with knitting needles, retractable swords and a mean cup of tea, the pink-clad Ladybird Scouts are the covert defenders of the world. High school junior Prudence Perry left her Ladybird circle after her best friend was killed three years ago. She wants nothing to do with the competitive toxicity of the group, but she’s part of a legacy scout family, so her grief, anxiety and PTSD share space in her heart with a daily dose of guilt. Still, she strives for normalcy with her rebellious nonscout friends—but a life of fighting enormous interdimensional mulligrubs that feed on human emotions isn’t so easy to shake.

Now that Prue’s cousin Avi is of training age, Prue is expected to begin training her own circle of Ladybirds. Intending to fulfill that duty but nothing more, Prue throws herself back into battle while grappling with her mental health and her family’s expectations. As she becomes unexpectedly close with her trainees, Prue must choose: forget the Ladybirds and leave that life behind for good, or help lay the groundwork for a kinder, more supportive sisterhood?

With a sly sense of humor and nostalgia, Scout’s Honor riffs on postmodern horror classics like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and recent hits like “Stranger Things.” Author Lily Anderson offers a clever subversion of “chosen one” narratives as the novel explores tantalizing “what ifs” like “What if Buffy had just gone to a psychiatrist?” and “What if Girl Scouts were masters of cookies—and karate?”

It’s an absurd premise, but Anderson makes it work through unself-conscious world building and a skillful blend of fantastical and real-world threats. While Prue and her “babybirds” fight literal monsters, they’re also railing against toxic female institutions, intergenerational conflict and the notion that women should shoulder the burden of emotional labor. Scout’s Honor works as both allegory and satisfying speculative fiction, portraying battles with mulligrubs and the challenges of mental illness with equal grace. It’s hilarious and heart-wrenching in equal measure.

Anderson understands the necessity of characters who feel grounded in reality, despite the absurdities of their situations, and Scout’s Honor poses powerful questions: How do you let grief move with you rather than letting it swallow you whole? How do you balance the weight of obligation with your own needs? How do you remain soft in a hardened world? With the support of her friends, Prue works to figure out her own answers. As her favorite mantra goes, “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it.” The only way out is through.

Meet the Ladybird Scouts, armed with knitting needles, retractable swords and a mean cup of tea as they defend the world from interdimensional monsters.
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Romania 1989: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s longtime leader, has told the world that Romania is a land of bounty, and the world believes him. But Cristian Florescu, who lives with his parents, sister and grandfather in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, knows the truth. Gray, lifeless buildings line the streets, and food scarcity, unreliable electricity and constant paranoia are part of daily life under Ceaușescu’s regime.

Cristian is a high school student who dreams of becoming a writer, but the Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, have other plans for him. Called to the principal’s office one day, Cristian is greeted by an imposing member of the Secu. Under threat of blackmail, Cristian agrees to become an informant and to report on the American diplomat whose apartment his mother cleans.

As Cristian begins his double life, he starts to doubt everyone around him, even his closest friends and family. Glimpses of the world outside Romania stir feelings of confusion and curiosity and leave Cristian reeling as he tries to make sense of the contradictory truths he is uncovering about his country. All the while, Romania rushes toward revolution.

Part espionage thriller and part bildungsroman, Ruta Sepetys’ fifth novel, I Must Betray You, focuses on a lesser-known aspect of Cold War history and provides a window into the chilling reality of 1980s Romania, the dictator who fooled the world and the events that led to his downfall.

The novel is a master class in pacing and atmosphere. Much of the book unfolds slowly, creating a foreboding sense of rising tension, until the dam suddenly breaks. Months of caution and paranoia cascade into a frightening series of bloody protests.

As a writer of historical fiction, Sepetys’ greatest strength is her dedication to research. The novel’s diaristic tone and its laser focus on one boy and one country’s story don’t leave much space for the broader context of historical communism and Marxist ideologies within the narrative, though copious endnotes are packed with tales from Sepetys’ research trips across Romania, photos from the period that offer profound visuals and plentiful source notes.

“When we don’t know the full story, sometimes we create one of our own,” Cristian writes in the novel’s final moments. “And that can be dangerous.” I Must Betray You makes its potent message clear: If the truth sets us free, its power comes from how we choose to wield it.

Ruta Sepetys’ new novel is an atmospheric and masterfully paced historical thriller set during the end of the regime of a dictator who fooled the world.
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In the summer of 2020, amid an unending news cycle of fear and death, millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest the murders of not only George Floyd but also many other Black people by police officers. In Ain’t Burned All the Bright, award-winning author Jason Reynolds and artist Jason Griffin portray this claustrophobic spiral from the perspective of a young boy.

The book begins in medias res: “And I’m sitting here wondering why / my mother won’t change the channel,” the narrator says, “and why the news won’t / change the story.” In sections titled “Breath One,” “Breath Two” and “Breath Three,” the narrator’s seemingly mundane desire to change the channel transforms into fearful imaginings of his family being consumed by smoke, water or illness.

Reynolds’ words are spare, scattered in brief lines or, occasionally, single words filling an entire page in thick, powerful letters. The narrator shifts between the minutiae of everyday life, as when his “sister talks to her homegirl / through the screen of her phone,” and the things that complicate it: “and they talking about a protest.” On the opposite page appears the most carefully rendered image in the whole book, a detailed portrait of George Floyd.

Griffin’s diaristic collage art is the linchpin of the book. Dynamic and visceral, it is composed with paint, pencil and notebook paper, as well as with Reynolds’ text itself, which Griffin has printed and cut out in small strips of short phrases and placed into each spread. Griffin incorporates Reynolds’ stark but carefully chosen words into larger scenes of fires, floods, houses and skies, creating a surreal experience across the book’s more than 300 pages. He skillfully juxtaposes vast spaces of black and white with color and texture; canvas tape and speckled paint make images feel urgently three dimensional, while the blank spaces feel expansive. Many of the illustrations recall the densely saturated colors and silhouette figures of artist Kerry James Marshall.

In the book’s final pages, Griffin depicts a large leaf growing out of a pot, its delicate green reaching the top of the page. The image calls to mind a poem written by Ross Gay in the year after Eric Garner’s death. In “A Small Needful Fact,” Gay writes that Garner, whose final words were “I can’t breathe,” worked in horticulture for New York City’s Parks and Recreation Department, where he might have planted seedlings, which “continue / to do what such plants do . . . like making it easier / for us to breathe.” As it ends, Ain’t Burned All the Bright doesn’t offer any platitudes, and the narrator still wants to change the channel. But he does, despite everything, remember to breathe.

Dynamic and visceral, Ain’t Burned All the Bright artistically portrays the claustrophobia of the summer of 2020 from the perspective of a young boy.
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Cas, the younger lord of the Oliveran fortress city of Palmerin, is no stranger to death. Mysteriously abducted near the Oliveran border in the midst of war with the neighboring kingdom of Brisas, he watched from afar for three long years as thousands fell to brutal violence and thousands more to a pestilence that ravaged the land. The plague’s only mercy is that it allowed Cas to escape his cruel captors. All Cas wants now is to return home, reunite with his older brother, Ventillas, and make up for the years he’s lost—but death still stalks the younger lord of Palmerin.

When he finally arrives in Palmerin, Cas—who was presumed dead—is met with chaos. A slippery assassin threatens the lives of the Oliveran royal family, who have fled the plague-ridden capital and taken up residence in the Palmerin Keep. As he enlists the help of Lena, a court historian and half-sister to the king, Cas realizes that the only path to tranquility will be to find the would-be killer. 

Makiia Lucier’s fourth novel, Year of the Reaper, is a fast-paced, fantastical mystery that’s rife with courtly intrigue and twisty secrets and rooted in nuanced depictions of personal and societal trauma. As Cas and Lena work together to identify the assassin, a wellspring of secrets begins to burble forth, engendering mistrust among the characters and threatening to break the tenuous peace between kingdoms. Lucier’s nimble plotting creates an ever-widening spiral of doubt that drives the story irresistibly forward. 

Set in a fictional land inspired by Spain in the late Middle Ages, the novel resists getting bogged down in overly expository world building, which can easily become dry. Instead, Lucier spends time refining small details such as local delicacies, colorful textiles and scents that give dimension to the kingdom of Oliveras and enrich the plot. War and plague have left deep scars, but the people of Oliveras are lively and engaging despite the terrible things they’ve endured. 

Lucier is particularly adept at portraying relationships. Cas and Ventillas’ brotherhood is complex; love and trust are foundational to the pair’s conversations, but resentment and suspicion seep in slowly through invisible cracks. Similarly, Cas and Lena’s budding romance is believable because of their genuine friendship, which Lucier develops through harrowing adventures and intimate, convincing dialogue.

Year of the Reaper is quick to enthrall, with enough of an echo of the COVID-19 pandemic to be frightening. Seasoned fantasy readers will be beguiled by its unusual setting and Lucier’s graceful sidestepping of cliches common to the genre. Though its conclusion leaves some threads untied and may not satisfy readers who prefer to have all their questions answered by the end of a book, Year of the Reaper is an emotionally immersive and consistently compelling read.

Year of the Reaper is a fast-paced, fantastical mystery that’s rife with courtly intrigue and rooted in nuanced depictions of personal and societal trauma.

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