STARRED REVIEW
October 14, 2020

Tales as old as time, made new

Feature by
STARRED REVIEW
October 14, 2020

Tales as old as time, made new

Feature by
October 14, 2020

Tales as old as time, made new

Feature by
Share this Article:

What makes a fairy tale? Is it the presence of witches and demons, magic mirrors and secret spells? Are fairy tales always stories about finding one's true love, righting the wrongs of previous generations or navigating the cost of meddling in powers beyond your understanding? Are wishing wells and dark forests required? What about a magic . . . spoon? These three YA novels explore, stretch and expand our notions of what a fairy tale can be.

The Mirror: Broken Wish

When a package from their neighbor arrives at Agnes' doorstep in the winter of 1848, her husband Oskar warns her to ignore it: Everyone in their small German village knows that their neighbor is a witch. But what could be wrong with honey cake, lavender tea and an offer of friendship? Agnes longs to have a family, and Mathilda offers her a potion she promises will end Agnes’ childlessness. But magic comes with unexpected consequences, and associating with Mathilda comes with unexpected costs. Agnes makes her decisions and hopes for the best.

Seventeen years later, Elva pins sunflowers in her hair for the dance, hoping to catch the eye of handsome farmhand Willem. Her parents, Agnes and Oskar, have warned her never to share her secret—when she looks into water, she sees visions of the future—but maybe telling Willem will be fine. Besides, she'll need his support: A frightening vision and the discovery of a stash of hidden letters has led Elva to seek out the only other person she knows of with magical powers, the witch Mathilde, who's rumored to kidnap children as they play in the woods.

Julie C. Dao’s Broken Wish is the first in an innovative quartet of novels called The Mirror. Each book will be written by a different author, but the four authors will share notes and ideas throughout the creative process. Together, the four books will follow four generations of a family—and a magic mirror—from 19th-century Germany to New Orleans in the 1920s, then to San Francisco in the 1960s, before finally resolving in New York City in the early 2000s.

The ingredients are all here for a quintessential fairy tale (including a reference to the Brothers Grimm), but be prepared for some surprises too. Elva's watery visions are always true, they're not always truly complete. The familiar fairy tale elements of Broken Wish never once feel derivative, thanks in part to Dao’s effortless prose and heartfelt characters. It’s an important reminder that, done well, even tales as old as time can feel fresh and enjoyable.

The Puppetmaster’s Apprentice

How would the story of Pinocchio be different if the eponymous child had a talent for woodcrafting—and if she was a girl? In The Puppetmaster's Apprentice, Piro and her father Gep own a woodworking shop and are hard at work on a special order—a hundred life-sized wooden soldier marionettes, each with a unique face, for the ruling Margrave's sickly son. A secret attic cubbyhole connects Piro and Gep’s home above their shop to the shop next door, where Bran, the tailor's son, is trying to find the courage to tell his parents that he'd rather make clocks than clothes. He longs to help the town clockmaker repair a long-broken glockenspiel clock, another project also recently commissioned by the Margrave.

Because magic is banned on penalty of death, no one must ever know that Piro came to life after a spell recited under a blue moon. But it’s hard to keep the secret because of the trace the magic left behind: A wooden splinter bursts from her skin whenever Piro tells a lie. When the Margrave summons Piro to the palace for a special commission, she'll need all of her skill as a puppet-maker—and as a magical creature herself—to defeat the frightened tyrant's twisted imagination.

Debut author Lisa DeSelm proves herself just as much of a talented maker as her characters. She uses detailed imagery to craft an imaginative world of wooden assassins and princesses, metal gears and glass eyes. Fairy tale staples including an enchanted forest, a rhyming spell and a mysterious crone join elements of dark fantasy, romance and political intrigue as Piro works together with her fellow makers to save her town and break her curse. Amid the pounding of hammers and the scraping of chisels, the magic of the blue moon reminds Piro of her father's favorite maxim: "A maker will always prevail.”

The Way Back

Just about everyone knows the tales of Snow White's magic mirror, Hansel and Gretel's child-eating witch and Pinocchio's extendable nose. But how many teens are familiar with the gilgul, the Sisters of Lileen or the demon Belial? In Gavriel Savit’s The Way Back, a 19th-century Eastern European village becomes the departure point for two teens' tour through the demonology of Jewish mysticism.

Yehudah, hiding from a mysterious stranger who may be responsible for his father's long-ago disappearance, follows a crow to a treasure house run by a bargain-making demon whose agreements never quite turn out well for his petitioners. Bluma, meanwhile, flees a dark spirit in her house that leaves behind a very strange spoon, stumbles into a graveyard and is soon surrounded by the vengeful demon Lilith and her cat-like entourage. Yehuda and Bluma’s paths cross and they find themselves in the Far Country beyond the living lands. There’s a ferryboat operator who must be paid, a red scarf whose protective value is much more than mere warmth and a magical library that returns answers to visitors' questions in their own handwriting. Back in the everyday world, a famous Rebbe is about to host his youngest granddaughter's wedding, and everyone is invited—guests from the world of the living and from the world of the dead.

Told in repetitive rhythms reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, The Way Back is a quiet and contemplative tale. Like more familiar fairy tales, the story contains magical incantations, talking animals and dark hooded figures. But bring your tissues, because this one is a tearjerker—especially one scene in which Death appears to each character in the guises they’ll understand best. By striking bargains, serving demons, stripping away their identities and asking themselves whether what they seek is truly what they want, Yehudah and Bluma, lost among creatures of the dark, haltingly attempt to find their way back.

Review By

Get the Books

The Mirror: Broken Wish

The Mirror: Broken Wish

By Julie C. Dao
Disney-Hyperion
ISBN 9781368046381
The Puppetmaster’s Apprentice

The Puppetmaster’s Apprentice

By Lisa DeSelm
Page Street
ISBN 9781645670803
The Way Back

The Way Back

By Gavriel Savit
Knopf
ISBN 9781984894625

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!