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: Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1 + A Pho Love Story

Can you believe that I’ve already met my reading goal for the year? I didn’t read a ton this month, but overall this year has been kind of amazing. I’ve had so many five-star reads that I know I am going to struggle later in the year picking my very favorites. I’m so excited to bring you two five-star reviews for this mini-reviews post. Both of these brought me so much joy and I hope if they aren’t on your TBR, you add them.

Title: Witch Hat Atelier, #1 Author: Kamome Shirahama Series: Witch Hat Atelier, #1 Pages: 208 Publisher: Kodansha Comics Release Date: April 2nd 2019

"In a world where everyone takes wonders like magic spells and dragons for granted, Coco is a girl with a simple dream: She wants to be a witch. But everybody knows magicians are born, not made, and Coco was not born with a gift for magic. Resigned to her un-magical life, Coco is about to give up on her dream to become a witch…until the day she meets Qifrey, a mysterious, traveling magician. After secretly seeing Qifrey perform magic in a way she’s never seen before, Coco soon learns what everybody “knows” might not be the truth, and discovers that her magical dream may not be as far away as it may seem..."

Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1 by Kamome Shirahama radiates joy and charm. From the very first page, you are transported to a world of magic that is both mysterious and mesmerizing. Young Coco has always been fascinated by magic and once dreamed of becoming a Witch until she learned that witches can only be born. Coco’s enthusiasm is infectious and it is so easy to fall in love with her character. She is kind and curious, but also resilient and creative. The world of magic is like an unopened box that Coco cannot resist opening, but the knowledge she gains has consequences. One of my favorite aspects of this manga is the art. Every illustration is so lively with scenes practically leaping off its pages. Its beautiful and dynamic illustrations captured movement in both an elegant and powerful way, sweeping reading off their feet and into a world like no other. Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 1 is a must for anyone looking for a manga with a heroine whose trouble-making you won’t mind following.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Title: A Pho Love Story Author: Loan Le Series: N/A Pages: 402 Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers Release Date: February 9th 2021

TW: racism, grief, anxiety

"If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal. If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant. For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition. But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember. Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories? When Dimple Met Rishi meets Ugly Delicious in this funny, smart romantic comedy, in which two Vietnamese-American teens fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship amid their families’ age-old feud about their competing, neighboring restaurants."

Loan Le delivers an expertly paced YA contemporary with A Pho Love Story, about the children of rival Vietnamese restaurants falling in love. Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai have kept careful distance from one another over the years. They may not know why their families hate each other but they know to stay away from the other. Until one night when one of them is in desperate need and the other offers to lend a hand. Boa and Linh quickly discover how much they enjoy each other’s company. But when their tentative new friendship might turn into something romantic, they both must decide if it’s worth the risk. The more time they spend together, the more both of them want to figure out the truth behind the rift between their families, but the truth could drive them apart for good. Linh has been an artist for as long as she can remember, but painting isn’t what her parents have imagined for her when it comes to her future. Bao is feeling a bit directionless. Unlike Linh’s parents, Bao’s just wants him to find one thing he can be passionate about. Bao has never really found an avenue to express himself. When an opportunity to work more on his school newspaper comes along, Bao finds a knack for writing. I loved both Bao and Lihn’s journeys as they discovered more about themselves, their voices, and what they want out of life. A Pho Love Story is an example of how well dual POVs can work in a romance. Not only did it add insight into each character’s life, it didn’t leave readers wondering what the other character was thinking during their interactions. But it also allowed both leads to breathe and feel like real, independent characters. Loan Le’s A Pho Love Story is at its core a celebration of Vietnamese culture and bridging gaps between families and generations. And the cute love story is just the cherry on top.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★