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: Ophelia After All + What’s Coming to Me (ARC review)

I am late with both of these reviews because of my blogging hiatus, but it works out really well because Latinx Heritage Month is just around the corner and both of these would make great reads for that month. Both Racquel Marie and Francesca Padilla make their debuts this year. I was impressed with both books and though they are really different from one another, I think they would both make a tremendous impact on their intended audiences.

Title: Ophelia After All Author: Racquel Marie Series: N/A Pages: 352 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Release Date: February 8th 2022

TW: homophobia, racism

"A teen girl navigates friendship drama, the end of high school, and discovering her queerness in Ophelia After All, a hilarious and heartfelt contemporary YA debut by author Racquel Marie. Ophelia Rojas knows what she likes: her best friends, Cuban food, rose-gardening, and boys - way too many boys. Her friends and parents make fun of her endless stream of crushes, but Ophelia is a romantic at heart. She couldn't change, even if she wanted to. So when she finds herself thinking more about cute, quiet Talia Sanchez than the loss of a perfect prom with her ex-boyfriend, seeds of doubt take root in Ophelia's firm image of herself. Add to that the impending end of high school and the fracturing of her once-solid friend group, and things are spiraling a little out of control. But the course of love--and sexuality--never did run smooth. As her secrets begin to unravel, Ophelia must make a choice between clinging to the fantasy version of herself she's always imagined or upending everyone's expectations to rediscover who she really is, after all."

Racquel Marie debuts with Ophelia After All, an engaging coming of age YA novel about discovering new parts of yourself and embracing change while entering adulthood. Ophelia thinks she has her life figured out. She has an incredible group of friends, no shortage of boy crushes, and is going off to college to study botany. When she finds herself unexpectedly crushing on Tanya, a new friend, Ophelia must reevaluate what she knows about herself. As she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality, Ophelia’s relationships with her friends and parents also begin to change. Ophelia After All features a wide range of compelling characters beside its lead. Ophelia has a great group of friends whose personalities all leap off the pages. These characters are messy and selfish. They make mistakes and step on each other’s toes. They don’t always make the right decisions and can sometimes be dismissive of each other’s feelings. They are only beginning to understand what emotional maturity means and with growth comes growing pains. Ophelia is used to straddling different worlds with her multicultural heritage, but this also means she understands that being a part of both these worlds can sometimes feel like she doesn’t truly belong to either. Likewise, Ophelia knows that everyone expects her to have yet another crush on a boy. She’s a romantic and doesn’t go long without someone catching her eye. She isn’t sure she’s ready for other people to see her differently if they also learn she is interested in girls. Ophelia After All is perfect for teens questioning their queer identity and anyone who loves great friend groups.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: What's Coming to Me Author: Francesca Padilla Series: N/A Pages: 336 Publisher: Soho Teen Release Date: August 2nd 2022 TW: sexual harrassment, death of a parent, drug use, grief

**Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review.**

"Seventeen-year-old Minerva Gutiérrez plans revenge on her predatory boss in this equally poignant and thrilling contemporary YA about grief, anger, and fighting for what you deserve, perfect for fans of Tiffany D. Jackson and Erika L. Sánchez. In the seaside town of Nautilus, Minerva Gutiérrez absolutely hates her job at the local ice cream stand, where her sexist boss makes each day worse than the last. But she needs the money: kicked out of school and stranded by her mom's most recent hospitalization, she dreams of escaping her dead-end hometown. When an armed robbery at the ice cream stand stirs up rumors about money hidden on the property, Min teams up with her neighbor CeCe, also desperate for cash, to find it. The bonus? Getting revenge on her boss in the process. If Minerva can do things right for once—without dirty cops, suspicious co-workers, and an ill-timed work crush getting in her way—she might have a way out . . . as long as the painful truths she’s been running from don’t catch up to her first."

Francesca Padilla’s YA debut, What’s Coming to Me, examines grief, poverty and retaliation through a poignant and sometimes messy lens. Minerva Gutiérrez is barely keeping afloat. Her mother’s health condition has deteriorated beyond hope, she is skipping school, and working a tedious job in order to build up her “Probable Orphan Fund.” To outsiders, Minerva appears to be an apathetic teen with no motivation, who is just going through the motions. But Minerva is not okay. She is not dealing with her anticipatory grief, but is actively avoiding it. She doesn’t want to talk about her mother because then everything will be real and in order to get up every day, even to a life that is starting to feel more and more hopeless, she has to close herself off from this reality. It is a defense mechanism that often has her retreating into herself and often lashing out at others. She is angry and desperate to get out of her small town. This desperation leads her into dangerous territory when she and a friend decide to rob her shady boss. What’s Coming to Me starts off slow and made me wonder where it was going, but once its plot found its footing, it sunk its claws into me and never let go. Padilla’s debut is quietly mesmerizing, about the lengths people will go to to survive, what justice can look like when conventional avenues aren’t available to you, and how protecting yourself from grief can sometimes leave you drowning anyways.

★ ★ ★ ★