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Cassie Schulz

Love, Death, and The Gothic in Belladonna by Adalyn Grace

It’s a culmination of the last couple of years—as well as the last couple of months for me, personally—that’s led to me being drawn to books hyperfocused on death. You don’t need to look far lately to find books with themes on grief, death, and horror, especially in the YA genre. There’s a boom happening here with standouts across all genres, and Adalyn Grace’s Belladonna is an enticing romantic gothic fantasy that carves out its own space among the macabre.

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Fairy Tale Magic in Elizabeth Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes

I’ve always loved fairy tales. Like many people my age, I grew up on the Disney fluff and stayed on the fairy tale train for the darker, Into the Woods style takes. Then, I fell into anime and started learning about fairy tales, folk tales, and mythologies from other cultures. Fairy tale retellings and reimaginings are nothing new in the young adult world, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my hands on every single one that I can. Sometimes, they’re fairly predictable but still fun to read. Other times, they completely blow you away.

I loved Elizabeth Lim’s Blood of Stars duology, and Six Crimson Cranes immediately rocketed up to the top of my most anticipated reads list. I am so thrilled to say that it exceeded all hype and expectations.

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Adaptation Anxiety: Can Chaos Walking Live Up to the Books?

When I was a teenager, one of the most beloved trilogies in our home was Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. At the time, my mom was a middle school reading teacher, and it was constantly in circulation. I hung out in the school cafeteria while she stayed after school and devoured the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go in one sitting. The same thing happened with book two, The Ask and the Answer, and book three, Monsters of Men.

Characters from the trilogy became part of our daily conversations, and my mom and I even began developing inside jokes that referenced the series. I still can’t listen to “Hello” by Lionel Ritchie without hearing my mom’s improvised lyrics, “Todd, I Gotta Poo,” passionately sung in what we imagined to be Manchee the Dog’s voice. It’s impossible to really say how much we loved this book and how it brought my mom and me closer together.

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Diving Into Christopher Paolini’s New Science Fiction Epic, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

When Eragon (and I promise, this review isn’t secretly an Eragon retrospective) released in 2002, I picked it up with deep interest and excitement. By the end of middle school, four friends and myself were obsessed. We started writing our own stories of dragons and eggs, mysterious elves, orcan languages, and flight. We passed notebooks of our handwritten epics around in class the way other kids passed notes of gossip. The four of us even wrote Christopher Paolini fanmail, and he responded with notes of his own—to be fair, I’m still unsure if that was actually him answering his mail or if it was just an adult feeling really bad for us. Paolini, if you’re reading this, do you remember fanmail from a gaggle of young Iowan teens? Did you send them replies? Inquiring minds must know.

Anyway, up until that point, I had been reading fantasy passed down to me: Narnia, Belgariad, and more were stories suggested, placed in my hands. I devoured them, but I never felt like they were my stories to share with others. The Eragon series was the first time I had chosen a fantasy story to read that was just mine.

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Unpacking Truth in Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Anyone who has spent approximately five minutes with me knows how much I adore Lindsay Ellis’ work. Watching her grow from her early internet days to the video essay behemoth has been so inspirational to me. She continues to keep me on my toes, keep me thinking, while entertaining and so many artists, writers, and creators.

So, naturally, I was over the moon when I learned that Lindsay Ellis was releasing her debut novel in 2020. I had everyone at the bookstore keep an eye out for an advanced copy. When several of them went to Baltimore for a conference, I sent our book buyer a friendly reminder with a picture of the cover to make sure that if they saw it, they would get me an advanced copy. Of course, this created a lot of pressure when I finally had a copy in my hands: this was my most anticipated release of 2020. I know I naturally have a lot of bias and adoration for Ellis’ work, but this was a debut novel, not a video essay. I felt a sudden surge of anxiety when I opened the book.

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Fields of Foreboding in Rory Power’s Burn Our Bodies Down

When I was in elementary and middle school, I lived in Iowa. At my summer camps, I would play in cornfields. My favorite part of the farmer’s market along the Mississippi River was getting fresh sweet corn to eat. I am an Iowan stereotype, and corn is one of my true loves. I was also an anxious little thing who couldn’t even fathom doing anything scary. The T-Rex in the Land Before Time films had me hiding behind my hands until he’d been crushed by rocks or whatever, and the Hydra from Disney’s Hercules? No, thank you, I was not interested, we left the movie theater. My mom has never let me forget we wasted money on the tickets for that one. I had the peer pressure fueled desire to go to the local haunted house at the time, Terror in the Woods, but never the guts to ask to actually go with my classmates.

Not much has changed for me as an adult. My time in Iowa left me feeling incredibly connected to corn—I wax nostalgic whenever I drive by a cornfield—and I have too much natural anxiety to want to participate in anything related to horror. Sometimes it happens, but usually for reasons adjacent to the scary media. When I discovered that Carrie was a musical, I had to see the Sissy Spacek film and read the book. Two years ago, I finally went to my first haunted house, convinced by an ex that it was a good idea since the proceeds went to a local charity, and I hated every second of it. It takes a special creator to truly make me want to dabble in horror.

Rory Power is that creator.

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Fighting Alongside Friends in Isabel Sterling’s This Coven Won’t Break

The end of Isabel Sterling’s YA debut, These Witches Don’t Burn, left readers with a lot of exciting questions: Would they really bring Benton and his parents to justice? How would they stop the witch hunters? What’s the real story behind Hannah and Veronica’s encounter with the NYC Blood Witch? And, something I always want to know in every situation, is the queer couple still happy?

By the end of These Witches Don’t Burn, Hannah had suffered. Her dad died, her childhood home was destroyed in a fire, and she’d nearly died several times herself throughout the novel in excruciating ways. I mean, a car crash that nearly drowned her, saving Veronica from a home invasion, and nearly being burned at the stake? That’s a lot for a girl to handle. This is where we begin This Coven Won’t Break.

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Connecting the Realms in Sara Holland’s Havenfall

Something about mountains in general has always felt like a perfect magical setting to me. When I went to college in the Blue Ridge mountains, they took my imagination by storm. I spent much of my time writing about witches and wizards, picturing all the ways magic was soaked up by nature all around me. Grandfather, Sugar, and Beech mountain kept my mind fluttering with possibilities. The mountains are the perfect place for a magical community to thrive.

As soon as I heard that Sara Holland’s Havenfall took place in a hidden, magical inn nestled in the Rocky Mountains, I knew I had to read it.

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Celtic Mythology with a Magical Twist: E. Latimer’s Witches of Ash and Ruin

If you’ve been around in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably seen Dahlia Alder’s article on Tor titled Season of the Witch. In it, Dahlia explains how Queer Magic in YA is trending. If you haven’t read it, go do it now, and then come back.

I’ll wait.

Did you read it? Okay, good.

Dahlia is SO right. Queer Magic is a big thing right now in Young Adult Lit, and I am absolutely here for it. We’ve gone beyond the basic coming out narrative, and we’ve moved into something new. We now have enough queer stories out there to have trends in genre, in style, in character. As someone who spent an immeasurable amount of her youth (and, let’s be honest, I still do this) on a creative writing roleplay site based on Harry Potter lore and making every character I could incredibly gay, I am the prime target for anything queer and magical. I’ve loved so many of the books that have pushed this forward in the zeitgeist: Zoriada Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost, literally anything written by Amy Rose Capetta, and now I get to add E. Latimer’s Witches of Ash and Ruin to this list.

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Ephemeral, Eternal, Bountiful: Libba Bray’s The King of Crows

“Did you think the King of Crows would not come to collect on a bargain?”

Libba Bray’s series The Diviners is one that has stuck with me for a long time. I remember each time I encountered the first three novels: In 2014, I was drawn to the original hardcover gazing at me from a clearance shelf, fascinated by the intricate design—purples, golds, a mysterious eye staring out into the world. It brought me out of a reading slump, and I began to read again.

I remember having my first bookselling job when Lair of Dreams released, and I devoured that book on the metro ride to and from my props design gigs in D.C. My first year of teaching, Before the Devil Breaks You came out, and I curled up with Evie, Sam, Theta, Jericho, and the entire Diviners crew in my new apartment I’d been relocated to after Hurricane Harvey.

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