Mariel Fechik

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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