Blessings and Trials
Set in many times and places, Thomas Davidsmeier’s Blessings and Trials spans a large and fascinating world filled with angels, either exiled from heaven or sent from heaven to help mankind. In this world, humans receive powerful blessings from God or grotesque powers from fallen angels. For this first entry of a planned series, the various stories seem largely disconnected. Some events even appear unrelated to any other parts of the story. Still, these flaws don’t restrain the work’s overall intriguing concept, and later books in the series may make the connections clearer. A strong Christian message and gospel presentation make this book worth a read.
Best for: Teens and young adults.
Discern: A good bit of fighting and killing, even with children present and involved; some liberties are taken with spiritual beings, powers, and gifts.
To be sixteen is to have troubles, but Emily has more than her share: distracted parents, PTSD flashbacks, sudden uprootings to new states and new countries. But when a series of calamities maroons her on an uncharted island, she will learn what trouble can be. In Castaways, Jes Drew combines contemporary YA with the old fancy of a desert island harboring mysteries. Through the first-person narration of its young heroine, the book achieves a memorable and entertaining tone. A current of Christian belief runs through the story, and an innocent romance dominates many of the pages. Adults may wonder if uncharted islands are still possible, and if any seventeen-year-old boy could be so impressive, even to a sixteen-year-old girl. But younger readers will take delight in this light, sweet tale.
Best for: Teenagers, especially girls; romance and YA readers.
Discern: Mild violence; peril to children and teenagers; a young girl suffers PTSD after an attempted robbery.
Which is worse: being so ugly that others beg you to veil your face, or turning into a ravenous serpent whenever anyone sees you? For Princess Laidra, cursed with internal beauty and a notable deficit of the other kind, happiness may hinge on the answer. When she discovers that the monster scheduled to eat her is actually a comparably cursed prince, Laidra embarks upon a quest to unwind a kingdom-shattering dilemma that an enemy intended for evil. But with the gods driven by petty rivalries, arranging divine intervention may prove even more difficult for Laidra than making eye contact with her boyfriend. In Coiled, H. L. Burke weaves faux-mythology and complex characterization into a narrative that slithers along at a brisk clip, exploring the pitfalls of attraction and the deficits of polytheism while our heroes’ young love buds.
Best for: Teens and adults seeking tender romance set against a backdrop of hostile politicking and mythical machinations.
Discern: Pervasive sexual tension and the frank discussion thereof, some sensuality and innuendo, non-graphic nudity, brief savage violence.
R. S. Burghardt’s Experiment 93 demonstrates good storytelling mechanics. The story of Nina, an alien-made robot-with-a-soul trying to fit into life on Earth as a high school student, serves a light and enjoyable read. Though the characters are not deep, they are likeable and sympathetic, and the author does well in using Nina’s naivete about her new home world for both humor and bits of insight. If the story has one negative, it’s that this light tone cannot support the weight of some heavier themes, such as death, grief, and severe religious persecution. Like the black diamond that reinforces the story-world’s structures, shifts to a more serious tone could have better supported the serious issues raised.
Best for: Teens and young adults; science fiction fans.
Discern: Statements about characters’ Christian beliefs, such as regarding prayer.
The Gevaudan Project
Misanthropic ideologies, international conspiracies, and experiments in bioengineering have always proved a toxic mix. But when conservationist and former soldier Philip Caster travels to Sumatra to release captive tigers in the wild, he’s ensnared in the effects of a plot so insidious it threatens all life on earth. Cornered by an implacable foe, Caster must draw upon all his skills and stubbornness just to survive. And if he makes it out alive, he’ll have a tiger by the tail. With The Gevaudan Project, A. K. Preston has spliced together a bone-hard, near-future sci-fi in the tradition of Michael Crichton. Philosophic contextualization imparts thematic depth to the action. Though jungles of overwrought prose impede the narrative, a verisimilitude born of meticulous research shines through every page. This world feels real, and so does its danger.
Best for: Older teens and adults seeking a contemporary creature thriller that confronts the implications of radical environmentalism.
Discern: Graphic violence and terror, disturbing scientific experimentation, brief mild innuendo, and a clinical description of tiger semen extraction.
Imani Earns Her Cape
When a merman falls for a fae woman, the outcome can prove all too human. Such is the experience of twelve-year-old Imani Chausiku, a geeky half-fae raised by her magical single mother in Washington, D. C. Fitting in has always been Imani’s struggle, but when she journeys to the homeland of her maternal tribe to complete an initiation ceremony, awkward revelations and unexpected threats force her to stand out even more than she did in Virginia. Meanwhile, the young half-mer ruler of the underwater city of Wanesh bucks tradition to search for his vanished mother—a figure who seems familiar. With Imani Earns Her Cape, Bokerah Brumley paints a colorful urban-fantasy backdrop and peoples it with distinctive characters. But interminable angst ends up swamping the action, and loose ends dangle past an abruptly cloying resolution.
Best for: Older children seeking a coming-of-age tale set in a parallel world of magic.
Discern: Mild peril, emotional drama, themes of parental separation, and references to “the universe” as a providential force.
Keeper of Shadows
We are all born to trouble, but some of us are especially so. Lyssanne—debilitated by a painful disease, exiled from home, and pursued across the wilderness by monsters—holds a place of honor among those especially so. But she will learn the secret beginning of her troubles, and maybe even bring them to an end. In Keeper of Shadows, Bridgett Powers creates something unusual in fantasy: a heroine who, physically damaged to the point of disability, can fight only through spiritual strength. The religion of this fantasy world, constructed strictly along Christian lines, coexists easily with magic, sorcery, and otherworldly creatures. The story moves too leisurely at times, but this gentle, imaginative fantasy has magic of its own.
Best for: YA readers; fans of romance, fantasy, and Anne Elisabeth Stengl.
Discern: Mild violence, including non-graphic battles; mentions of murder and suicide; a child witnesses her mother’s murder in a very brief but disturbing scene.
The Kinsman’s Tree
Timothy Michael Hurst’s The Kinsman’s Tree is built around the biblical creation account set in a fantasy world, but goes its own way by focusing on the minuscule Etom, a race of three-inch-tall little people. The world becomes more engaging as the story unfolds, but suffers from one of great banes of Christian storytelling—main characters whose perfection and niceness are less realistic than any fantasy creature. However, readers will find charm in the everyday life of the Etom boy Nat, his mother Nida, and the other Etom who are part of their Eben’kayah. And the novel succeeds at offering real adventure when our heroes meet opposition in their hunt for the Kinsman, the story’s messiah figure.
Best for: Children who like old cartoons like The Smurfs or The Snorks.
Discern: Battle scenes and some characters’ interactions with evil spirits (with bad consequences).
Imagine if John Bunyan sought the help of John Rambo in writing an updated version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, filled with military action and modern firearms. The result might be like Peter Wisan’s Kristian’s War. Unfortunately, the story is set back by characters’ vague actions and decisions. Readers may empathize with the story’s pilgrim hero, Kristian, who suffers from a feeling of dissatisfaction, but struggle to see why following the path will help Kristian. More time explaining Kristian’s need for a Prince to die to set him free from his burden of sin would have improved the story. However, the writing is terse and focused on characters’ actions, making for a quick and enjoyable read.
Best for: Male readers, late teens and older; any reader interested in firearms and the military.
Discern: Lots of violence, including people being murdered.
The Last Runner
Shaun Stevenson’s The Last Runner is certainly well-named. The book opens with the protagonist, Eric, being chased, and ends with him being chased. Throughout the story, Eric survives insane training to be a runner. Then he’s sent by his Bookkeeper to perform a very dangerous mission. The poor boy barely gets a moment’s rest from being chased. Some more explanations would have made this story more understandable and given it room to breathe. Imagination dashes back in, however, with the strange and even horrifying creatures intent on getting their hands, teeth, or claws on Eric.
Best for: Young adults, adults, and fans of action.
Discern: Deaths of domesticated animals, and faith portrayed as a leap in the dark.
Life is full of promise for Demarcus. He’s a strapping sixteen, and just discovered he has superpowers. His prospects brighten even more when a tech giant invites him to a conference for America’s best and brightest youth. But there he will learn that other people have discovered his powers—and their uses for him. In Launch, Jason C. Joyner fuses the idea of superheroes with Christianity, drawing an inspired parallel between superpowers and the miraculous exploits of biblical figures such as Elijah and Samson. With the old man Iaonnes, Joyner even revives Christianity’s oldest urban legend of the disciple who would never die. The story, built around a core of teenagers, technology, and social media, inhabits its youthful, contemporaneous world with conviction. Fun and never airy, Launch offers a good ride.
Best for: Teenagers; fans of superheroes and sci-fi.
Discern: Some violence, often directed at teenagers; adults plot to sacrifice a young girl’s life for their plans.
The White Forest
Featuring a young child protagonist and other characters who speak and act and even bicker in child-like ways, Aviya Carmen’s The White Forest is a story geared for young readers. Fans follow the ten-year-old Prince Ayron’s journey through the White Forest to his mother’s people, the Zuries, after his father’s kingdom is betrayed. But his presence and his quest could affect the forest, which is itself under a curse. Many elements reference Christian ideas, such as a Rock of Prayer, a serpent as an enemy, and a Book of Wisdom similar to the Bible. Readers will also find references to several biblical accounts, such as creation and the end times.
Best for: Pre-teen readers who like fantasy stories.
Discern: A few references to bathroom tasks; and some details added to biblical accounts (such as God’s command for angels to worship man, and Lucifer’s refusal to worship leading to his rebellion).