Mini-Reviews: The Stardust Thief + Witchlings

I’ve got two fantasy book reviews for you today, but they are quite different as one is an adult novel and the other is a middle grade. These were two of my most anticipated reads this year and they did not disappoint. Both have sequels coming out next year as well and I will be the first in line for both.

Title: The Stardust Thief Author: Chelsea Abdullah Series: The Sandsea Trilogy, #1 Pages: 464 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Release Date: May 17th 2022

TW: parental death, torture

"Neither here nor there, but long ago… Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn. With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality. Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp."

Chelsea Adbullah’s The Stardust Thief is an exciting fantasy debut filled with jaw-dropping twists and turns that will have you begging for more. Loulie al-Nazari is known as the Midnight Merchant, an infamous dealer of illegal magical relics. When her reputation reaches the sultan’s ears, she and her mysterious bodyguard are coerced into finding an ancient relic said to grant its owner authority over a powerful jinn. Accompanying them on this perilous journey is one of the sultan’s sons and a jinn hunter. Abdullah paints an incredibly vivid world with her Arab-inspired fantasy novel. Humans and jinn have a complicated and often vicious history. In Madinne, jinn are regarded as evil and the sultan has created a culture where their murders are celebrated. But history often gets rewritten and over the course of the novel, we learn ugly truths about both sides and how evil is often in the eye of the beholder. I really loved getting to know the four main characters in this novel. Loulie has spent her life fueled by the tragic events of her past. She is equal parts brave and reckless. Her closest relationship is with her bodyguard and companion, Qadir, and though the years have allowed her to be open with him, being vulnerable with others does not come easy to her. Qadir is an enigma. His loyalty lies with Loulie, but there are many things he has kept from her that threaten to cause a rift between them. Aisha, a jinn hunter, sees only one path for herself: to kill jinn. Jinn are evil and must be eradicated no matter the cost. She is straight-forward, often abrasive, and incredibly stubborn. But the more time she spends with these new companions, the more her narrow views are challenged. My favorite character by far was Prince Mazen. Though he is young, naïve, and inexperienced, he represents what a better Madinne could be. Many see him as weak and untried and though this is true, I loved how the novel framed his arc. He is only at the beginning of his journey and we have yet to see who he will become because of these trials. Tragic pasts and present secrets both threaten to thwart these characters’ quest, but forming new bonds may be the key for their very survival. Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief is perfect for fans of epic fantasy who enjoy slowly peeling back the layers of its characters.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: Witchlings Author: Claribel A. Ortega Series: Witchlings, #1 Pages: 334 Publisher: Scholastic Press Release Date: April 5th 2022 TW: death of a sibling, abuse, assault, child abuse

"A magical adventure for fans of Amari and the Night Brothers and Nevermoor, about three witchlings who must work together to do the impossible if they have any hope of earning their full powers. Every year, in the magical town of Ravenskill, Witchlings who participate in the Black Moon Ceremony are placed into covens and come into their powers as full-fledged witches. And twelve-year-old Seven Salazar can't wait to be placed in the most powerful coven with her best friend! But on the night of the ceremony, in front of the entire town, Seven isn't placed in one of the five covens. She's a Spare! Spare covens have fewer witches, are less powerful, and are looked down on by everyone. Even worse, when Seven and the other two Spares perform the magic circle to seal their coven and cement themselves as sisters, it doesn't work! They're stuck as Witchlings—and will never be able to perform powerful magic. Seven invokes her only option: the impossible task. The three Spares will be assigned an impossible task: If they work together and succeed at it, their coven will be sealed and they'll gain their full powers. If they fail... Well, the last coven to make the attempt ended up being turned into toads. Forever. But maybe friendship can be the most powerful magic of all… With action-packed adventure, a coven of quirky witchlings, Claribel A. Ortega's signature humor and girl-power vibes, this middle grade Latine witch story is truly a modern classic."

With Witchlings Claribel A. Ortega has created an immersive world of witches in this charming middle grade fantasy. Seven Salazar has been dreaming for years about the Black Moon Ceremony, where Witchlings are placed in covens and finally embark on their magic-learning journeys. But then the worst-case scenario happens, Seven is a Spare, unsuited for any of the covens and doomed to be a Witchling forever. Unable to accept this as her fate, Seven invokes the Clause of the Impossible Task. Now she, along with the other two Spares, must take down a dangerous monster or be turned into toads forever! Seven makes a great main character. She’s driven, forgiving, and has a strong sense of justice. She is very different from her two companions, Valley and Thorn, but it is their differences that make them a better team. Valley, from Seven’s perspective, is the mean girl, but there is more to Valley than meets the eye. She’s fierce and smart, but making new friends isn’t something that comes easy to her. Thorn is sweet, but often anxious. She’s not as outgoing as Seven and Valley, but her openness and kindness is hard not to love. These three characters have a lot of ups and downs. Seven and Valley especially have issues involving bullying and jealousy they have to resolve. Friendship doesn’t come easy for these characters, but when it finally does, it felt truly earned. I also love that Ortega does not shy away from tackling heavy topics in her middle grade novel. Bigotry toward Spares plays a key role in the plot. Seven begins to see just how cruel her world has been to Spares and is determined to see this change. With three young Witchlings determined to forge their own destiny, Claribel A. Ortega’s Witchlings is sure to delight readers of all ages.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Mini-Reviews: Lakelore + My Mechanical Romance

Please excuse these very late reviews. I am currently trying to draft all my reviews, so I’m not in a frenzy trying to put them together. Though I enjoy writing my reviews on various apps and sometimes on paper, when it comes time to draft them, I easily forget where I wrote them.

Title: Lakelore Author: Anna-Marie McLemore Series: N/A Pages: 304 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Release Date: March 8th 2022

TW: transphobia, misgendering, bullying, sexual harassment, ableism

"In this young adult novel by award-winning author Anna-Marie McLemore, two non-binary teens are pulled into a magical world under a lake - but can they keep their worlds above water intact? Everyone who lives near the lake knows the stories about the world underneath it, an ethereal landscape rumored to be half-air, half-water. But Bastián Silvano and Lore Garcia are the only ones who’ve been there. Bastián grew up both above the lake and in the otherworldly space beneath it. Lore’s only seen the world under the lake once, but that one encounter changed their life and their fate. Then the lines between air and water begin to blur. The world under the lake drifts above the surface. If Bastián and Lore don’t want it bringing their secrets to the surface with it, they have to stop it, and to do that, they have to work together. There’s just one problem: Bastián and Lore haven’t spoken in seven years, and working together means trusting each other with the very things they’re trying to hide."

In Lakelore, Anna-Maria McLemore takes readers on an unforgettable journey of acceptance and love. Bastián is a transmasculine nonbinary teen with ADHD who has found many ways to deal with their often demanding brain. One such way is making alebrijes and sending them into the world beneath a local lake where they come alive. It is their way of dealing with days when the thoughts in their head become unbearable. Lore is a genderfluid and nonbinary new kid in town. They want very much to leave behind the events that led their family to make the move, but there are some things that will follow you no matter how far you go. As Bastián and Lore grow closer, they discover that something is causing the world under the lake to spill over into the real world. They must reckon with truths about themselves they would rather stay hidden in order to stop it. Both Bastián and Lore have dealt with transphobia and ableism in their lives. But having similar experiences doesn’t mean either are quite ready to share their wounds with the other. Bastián immediately finds a connection with Lore not just because they are both trans, but because they both have disabilities that make them navigate the world differently. For Bastián, it’s their ADHD, for Lore, it’s their dyslexia. McLemore always treats their characters with tenderness and care. One of my favorite things about their writing is how vulnerable they allow their character to be while also allowing them to explore parts of themselves that might hurt to do so. McLemore takes a lot of care walking readers through each of these disabilities and taking the time to explain how both characters struggle with them in a world that doesn’t often make room for them. Anna-Marie McLemore’s Lakelore is a tender novel that highlights both the beauty and fear of being known, of finding someone willing to wait while you peel back your layers, and gives its characters space to make mistakes and stumble.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: My Mechanical Heart Author: Alexene Farol Follmuth Series: N/A Pages: 272 Publisher: Holiday House Release Date: May 31st 2022 TW: misogyny

"Bel would rather die than think about the future. College apps? You’re funny. Extracurriculars? Not a chance. But when she accidentally reveals a talent for engineering at school, she’s basically forced into joining the robotics club. Even worse? All the boys ignore Bel—and Neelam, the only other girl on the team, doesn't seem to like her either. Enter Mateo Luna, captain of the club, who recognizes Bel as a potential asset—until they start butting heads. Bel doesn’t care about Nationals, while Teo cares too much. But as the nights of after-school work grow longer and longer, Bel and Teo realize they've made more than just a combat-ready robot for the championship: they’ve made each other and the team better. Because girls do belong in STEM. In her YA debut, Alexene Farol Follmuth, author of The Atlas Six (under the penname Olivie Blake), explores both the challenges girls of color face in STEM and the vulnerability of first love with unfailing wit and honesty. With an adorable, opposites-attract romance at its center and lines that beg to be read aloud, My Mechanical Romance is swoonworthy perfection."

My Mechanical Romance, Alexene Farol Follmuth’s YA debut contemporary, is a charming contemporary with flawed but lovable characters. Bel Maier doesn’t like thinking about the future. She’s isn’t ready to figure out where to go to college or what to do with the rest of her life. She’d rather live in the now, but when new opportunities arise at her new school, Bel discovers a love for robotics. Teo Luna is the golden boy at Essex Academy for Art, Science, and Technology. He is captain of the soccer and robotics teams with the road to MIT pretty much set in stone. When the unpredictable Bel joins the robotics team, it throws both of their lives into a whirlwind and has them both questioning their futures. My Mechanical Romance features two great lead characters whose flaws make them feel more real. They are both bright and tenacious which also makes you want to root for them. I loved how different Bel and Teo are from one another. Their differences cause a bit of tension in the beginning, but having somebody challenge them is actually a good thing. Both Bel and Teo have a lot to learn and they each bring something to the table that the other needs. Bel lacks direction and Teo pushes her to imagine more for herself. Teo has put an unbelievable amount of pressure on himself and his relationship with Bel gives him a chance to be himself without outside pressure telling him he has to be the best. The novel also explores how difficult it is for girls to navigate male-dominated spaces. Bel and the other female members of the robotics team are often looked down upon, not given enough credit, and have to work twice as hard to get any kind of recognition. I also really loved how much the novel focused on both characters’ familial relationships. These relationships are not always easy and contribute to the way both characters see themselves and their place in the world. Alexene Farol Follmuth’s My Mechanical Romance is a smart romance with off-the-charts chemistry and playful banter between its leads.

★ ★ ★ ★