They’re back from the dunes, but their fate keeps shifting like sand. Stella Dorthwany’s Blood Traitors continues from Legendary Magic series book 1, Sand and Storm, and brings cousins Cora and Faryn back home to the capital, where nonstop action and intrigue swiftly ensue. Estoria City is founded—literally—in magic, and old currents pull the girls and their friends into an approaching maelstrom involving the royal family. Cora’s not sure she could save her new kiss-less political marriage even if she wanted to. And after Faryn’s heart is broken, she’s conscripted into spycraft where her empathy and honesty are both her weaknesses and greatest strengths. Old friends, new friends—can anyone be trusted when the power of the empire hangs in the balance?
Best for: Fans of fast-paced action, fun new twists on stock fantasy elements, and sizzling-yet-clean romances.
Discern: Very magic-infused plot, characters, and even houses, with some dark overtones, and blood-related scenes.
The Book of Secrets
When your curiosity overpowers all good sense, you will need courage to face the trouble you create for yourself. Gabriel doesn’t have that courage, but maybe he will learn it. He will certainly have opportunity. M. L. Little’s The Book of Secrets imagines fantasy that hovers in a sci-fi setting, playing with magic in industrialized societies and alternate dimensions. Through the eyes of its young heroes, the novel attains a clear view of how love can tangle with pain, and how a family’s support can entwine with its dysfunction. The strokes of world-building are simple, colorful, and bold, although the climax feels unfocused—abruptly bringing back minor characters while remaining disconnected from crisis resolution. Despite this, The Book of Secrets is vibrant fantasy, with an imagination as powerful as its heart.
Best for: Fans of science fantasy and the Wingfeather Saga.
Discern: Several people die violent deaths and one major battle; danger and injuries to children; one character is said to have had a mental breakdown and engaged in acts of self-harm; family tensions hint at a troubling, though unexplained, relationship between a mother and her young daughter.
The Darkened Land
Much like The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Darkened Land begins with a conversion journey, but then takes a The Lord of the Rings–style turn as an army of evil creatures lay siege to a city of good people. Larry Paris’s novel is an ambitious work, filled with heroes battling various grotesque monsters. But these heroes, rather than being paragons of perfection, exhibit struggles typical of real people. The story seems to falter upon a few cumbersome devices, such as a trans-dimensional “closet” that characters must enter when they pray, and the titular gloom, which seems to cause darkness or blindness that keeps heroes from seeing. Despite these potential fumbles in the dark, however, the story possesses a good heart.
Best for: Older teens and adults.
Discern: Some allegorical parallels to evangelical practices, such as “prayer closets,” and at least one scene with a character promised a kind of spiritual elitism.
Escape to Vindor
What happens when your imagination gets away from you—literally? In Emily Golus’s Escape to Vindor, Megan Bradshaw, ordinary middle-school girl, finds herself on an extraordinary adventure to the fantasy land of Vindor she created in her daydreams. But this Vindor isn’t quite the same as the place she’d thought up. Colors are richer, people are a bit different, and details abound that she’d never imagined at all. Soon she realizes she’s no longer author of events or outcomes. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a nightmare shadow destroying Vindor, and everyone agrees Megan is the one to conquer it. But how? She’s just an ordinary, anxious kid. This uplifting story rumbles along at a good pace and avoids preachiness in its God-talk, remaining accessible to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Best for: Middle-school readers.
Discern: Nothing objectionable.
The Heir of Ariad
It is bad enough to be the son of a traitor, and worse to be the half-breed son of a traitor. Kyrian will find it worse yet to be a fugitive, and strangest of all to be the heir of Ariad. In The Heir of Ariad, Niki Florica crafts an archetypal fantasy with chosen heroes, strange creatures, and quests that carry the fate of the world. The plot is modeled loosely after the story of Moses, with verses from Exodus frequently heading chapters, and the mystical Woodsman parallels Christ. The book’s world-building is vivid and comprehensive. Races of starkly different natures inhabit the same world uneasily, and the stone-like stworfs and half-sentient river offer both fascination and menace. Although the story moves slowly at times, with backward glances, The Heir of Ariad is a richly imaginative fantasy.
Best for: Young-adult audiences, fantasy fans.
Discern: One brutal brawl; a child is nearly killed by his bullying classmates; one character experiences periods of insanity in which he turns violent; a soldier repeatedly strikes an old man who seems to be suffering from dementia.
The Jehzydak Prophecy
What happens when you find out you’re a wizard in a land that denies the existence of magic? The Jehzydak Prophecy, A. R. Morgera’s series opener, tells of brothers who really, really don’t get along. Young Zaiden grew up in the shadow of his abusive stepbrother Rayder. But when Zaiden’s anger results in an accidental death, Zaiden learns he is a Jehzydak, a warrior wizard like his late father. Two other wizards, one of whom is Zaiden’s long-lost twin brother, have slaughtered whole towns in the magic lands. People there feel helpless, but cling to a prophecy about a Jehzydak savior. Could this be untrained Zaiden? He must decide what to do—and whom to ask for help. Although this tale may be difficult to dig into at first, readers who persevere will discover an identifiably Christian page-turner.
Best for: Readers who like complex psychology mixed with high action.
Discern: Plenty of gore, but it’s not dwelt on.
You know, if space aliens plan to go around abducting people, they should at least have the decency to return those people to wherever they found them. But in Jordan’s World, the aliens just take people from earth and dump them on another planet without a by-your-leave or any explanation. Allen Steadham’s story focuses on a young human woman named Jordan as she lives on another planet and goes on a journey to try to find answers and even a way home. Parts of the story may suspend disbelief to the breaking point (such as a planet whose overall technology is so primitive that electricity hasn’t been harnessed, but still, generations ago, one tribe somehow built machines that allowed them to create portals to other planets). But overall, Jordan’s World provides engaging escapism with a cast of likable characters.
Best for: Young adults and older.
Discern: Subtle mentions of God.
Lady Isabella Farrah has everything she needs to enjoy her life alone—except an answer for why one of her oldest friends suddenly exploded. This murder is linked to others, and soon Isabella is also linked to them, with a thread of darkness that will draw her closer to the mad killer. W. R. Gingell’s Masque is a fairytale retelling for the top shelf. In this dazzling romp through high society tea rooms and ambassadorial balls, a fashion-conscious heroine with no magical gifts must use her wits to outmaneuver not only those who want her dead, but also the Beast Lord trying to keep her safe—that is, safely out of the investigation. Utterly delightful with every page, this installment in The Two Monarchies Sequence is so light on its feet that readers won’t want the dance to end.
Best for: Lovers of fairytales, Victorian-era settings, high-society intrigue, shenanigans of impertinent nobility, and clean romance.
Discern: Pervasive depictions of magic and magic-users, some violent demises.
A girl named Mouse wakes up in a compound named Misty Summit, with no memory of her past. But if there’s anything worse than ignorance, it’s deception. When she manages to escape, she learns that Misty Summit was not a healing community, but a prison. In Mouse, book 1 of the Elmnas Chronicles, Kaylena Radcliff unveils a post-apocalyptic science-fiction world with fantasy elements. On the run from the ruling government and aided by a farm boy and a mysterious warrior, Mouse embarks on a journey to Elmnas in search of answers. Who is she, and what’s really going on in the world? Mouse is an intriguing adventure whose characters draw in readers, with a complex world that promises to become even more rich and vibrant as the series continues.
Best for: Young adults who enjoy adventure and intrigue.
Discern: Violence and some references to sexual assault.
Tinsel in a Tangle
A mudblood elven woman, famous companion of Chaos and Destruction, sparks events that may bring misery upon the entire planet. Or, to phrase it another way, Tinsel, a young woman known for being over-tall for a Christmas elf (because her recent heritage is not entirely elven) and for being destructively klutzy, struggles to find her place in Christmas elven society. She especially struggles with her strong, changeable, and even forbidden feelings for a very human man with the family name of Kringle—only to end up putting Christmas itself in jeopardy. Laurie Germaine’s Tinsel in a Tangle is a young-adult holiday romance following the highs and lows of Tinsel’s attempts to fit in and even make right her all-too-frequent snafus. This isn’t swords and sorcery fantasy, but a nice and enjoyable story set in a fanciful version of Santa’s town.
Best for: Young adults and older.
Discern: The romance is mostly clean, though it does push boundaries on occasion. God-talk is sparse and vague.
Thomas, reeling from his mother’s death and feeling so alone, had little reason to be fond of the world. But when he stumbled out of his world and into ancient Europe on Halloween night, all he could think of was returning home. But that’s not easy, even for the Fey. In Wilding, L. A. Smith combines fantasy, historical fiction, and just a touch of biblical fiction. Seventh-century England is convincingly realized though largely unexamined in this novel. Its historical milieu is infused with rich veins of magic and legend, shaded slightly by the Bible’s oldest stories. Unfortunately, the hero is rarely proactive in his desires, and the plot meanders between loosely connected events. All the same, Wilding offers a lively journey through the foreign world of ancient Europe and the wild world of the Fey.
Best for: Young-adult audiences; fans of fantasy and historical fiction.
Discern: A serial killer murders an entire family off-screen, and his handiwork is briefly seen; a number of small-scale fights; a husband strikes his wife and a master beats a slave; animals are gruesomely butchered and the corpses left as threats; some language, mostly mild.
What say you?