YA books that changed the game #4: Wild Magic (Pierce)

The series on classic (pre-Harry Potter) YA books continues with another book by Tamora Pierce.

Wild Magic (Pierce) Review

Sometimes you don’t need a superhero. Sometimes you just need a Daine.

Thirteen-year-old Daine is missing a lot in her life: her family, a home, the identity of her father, the reason she can interact with animals almost like she’s one of them…She’s a puzzle, including to herself. She also has a self-esteem level in the negative digits and needs to make her way on her own.

Fortunately, a job bringing horses to Tortall sends her on a far better path.

Wild Magic is full of scarier creatures, higher stakes and more warm and fuzzy feelings than Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book of Tamora Pierce’s previous series. In many ways, it’s Alanna‘s exact opposite.

Alanna comes from a noble family; Daine comes from the middle of nowhere. Alanna can read; Daine can’t. The list goes on, but in essence, Alanna is an empowered young person chasing her dreams by bucking gender roles. Daine doesn’t know who she is, what she needs, or the first clue how to get it. She’s a girl alone in the world. But she’s also very, very special.

Diamond in the rough: Daine has extraordinary abilities, no faith in herself and little self-worth. The adventures get more serious–and more magical–as the series continues.

In all honesty, I didn’t get as much out of a grown-up re-read of Wild Magic as I did Alanna. I was struck and almost annoyed by how very little self-esteem Daine had, and how she continually was shocked by kindness and the differences in Tortall’s culture from that of her homeland. She can’t believe someone lets her have a book. That wide-eyed, What? For me? But I’m just a peasant girl! bit gets trying after a while. But fantasy is full of female characters who, at best, only act like they have low self-esteem. Poor Daine is the real deal.

Daine has amazing powers of her own, to be sure, but she’s no powerful sorcerer like her new teacher Numair. She lacks training, strength and reliability compared to the lovely, chummy cast of characters from the Song of the Lioness series, plus Numair.

This means Daine is never reduced to her abilities. Many “nice” young female characters have their personalities defined by what they can do for others: become a hero in a battle, lead a movement, learn the conniving ways of the people in power and beat them at their own game. Daine is defined by her powerlessness, by the way she lacks control and can hurt others.

She’s the ultimate underdog.

When I first read this as a teen, I was doing all the normal teen things, like negotiating my self-worth on a daily basis and figuring out myself and the world. Every other book had a girl empowered in some way. Sure, Daine has great abilities, but she doesn’t want them. They’re double-edged swords. She’ll use them to round up animals (also awesome), but she’s rightly terrified of hurting others, including her animal friends. Daine is trying to figure out how to be a good person and survive, and in the process almost diminishes herself into nothing.

If there’s a lesson to Wild Magic, it’s that even the meekest, most frightened of us are deserving of love. There are so many young people (and adults!) out there who need that message, and it’s why Wild Magic is still one of the best.

Review: A Song Below Water (Morrow)

A Song Below Water Review

I adored this book and the beautiful relationship between its two narrators, Tavia and Effie.

The story lines in A Song Below Water feel timely, but would have fit decades ago, too (with one exception: this YA fantasy is anchored to the present by Tavia’s devotion to a fictional YouTube star). Its themes are comprehensive: activism, fear rooted in bigotry (through mythos), racism, sexism, the drive a parent feels to keep a child safe from that discrimination and, rising above them all, friendship and found family.

Tavia’s voice is power—literally, when she uses her siren voice. But being a siren is dangerous, tied into the fact that only black women and girls have been sirens in recent times. Tavia’s throat burns when she suppresses her voice, but—according to her father—being outed as a siren is the worst thing that could happen. She’s worn down by a life spent wading through society’s fears, her father’s and her own.

A Song Below Water‘s other protagonist, Effie, is the antidote for all that, even if she can’t take it away. They aren’t really sisters, but now that they live together they might as well be. Oh, and she’s a mermaid. Not in real life, but she plays one at the Renaissance faire she loves. Effie’s love for it goes back to her mother, who was a performer, too, and since her mother’s death, it’s how she holds on.

She might not be a real mermaid, but it’s clear Effie is something. As the girls negotiate a sometimes cruel and frequently, dangerously misunderstanding world (same goes for their high school), their bond of sisterhood guides them through and propels the story line. That and the mysterious gargoyle that roosts on Tavia’s roof.

This is a great story, well told, and more. A Song Below Water is chuck full of lessons in empathy for non-black readers. Morrow does some of her best work in Tavia’s narration. “I’m not up for educating anyone on how many things exist that they don’t know about or support, even if we are basically friends,” says Tavia, too worn to explain when she’s questioned about why she watches hair videos on YouTube. And, later, “the only ones who seem to stand for Black girls are Black girls.”

The popular girls have magic to boost their charm, but Tavia and Effie have it all on their own. They read like real girls.

As A Song Below Water progresses, Tav moves ever closer to activism, and gets a big jolt forward when another young woman reveals herself as a siren. It gives Tavia more than one reason to join in, and more than one reason to be afraid. Yet, at the protest, she says, “I feel honest here. I feel like a battery being recharged. Like an orphan coming home.”

A Song Below Water is wonderfully crafted, too. The mystery of Effie’s identity—and that of her father—kept me turning pages late into the night (even when I guessed part of the answer). I had to know what happened to these fully realized characters. The story might be wrapped up a little quickly and neatly, but it’s not without heartache. For some of the characters, it will never be neat enough.

And one other thing: these are real girls on the page. (I can’t speak to whether their slang is accurate, but it did make me feel old, so there’s that.) It was refreshing. Tavia and Effie’s stories are crammed full of the ache of facing the world (and boys, and parents) as young adults. Their emotions and fears feel real and unforced, and their characters are never diminished just because they do something girly. They’re competent, confident, and capable of independently navigating the world, even if all the supernatural happenings are overwhelming them. They cry without looking like crybabies, without ever seeming weak.

Yes, they also care about their hair and poor Effie’s skin, but they aren’t made to look vapid or silly while doing it. They’re two teenagers taking charge, trying to figure out how to grow up and how to write the manuals for their lives, the way we all have to. Effie gets self-conscious. Tav braves the minefield of popular elokos who have it all. She also worries about whether she will be allowed to grow up because of who she is.

The romance angles are never soapy or sappy, only authentically awkward and sweet (or heartbreaking. In both cases, it doesn’t consume either girl’s life). Its characters could easily walk off the page, but it’s the bittersweet nature of A Song Below Water that makes its plot feel true. In that way, this is not just timely but a timeless story, with a universal message you don’t need to be young to remember:

True friendship is rare, and growing up, no matter who you are (or because of who you are), is no small feat.

Indie Book Spotlight: Daughter of Shades (Mercedes)

It’s time for another…

No book can be Sabriel. But fans of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series may want to pick this one up.

Main character Ayleth is a fighter. She’s possessed by a shade, a wolf-like spirit named Laranta—and that happened on purpose. As a member of the Order of St. Evander, she shares her body with a magically, musically suppressed shade so she can battle other shades from the Haunts. But giving her shade a name, and even identifying Laranta as female, is forbidden by the Order. In fact, young Ayleth’s bordering on heresy.

Ayleth, like her shade, is still a bit feral. She works on instinct, even after years of training under her mistress in a woodsy outpost. But she’s incomplete in other ways, too: Ayleth has no memory of her life before she was joined by Laranta. She knocks on the door of those memories from time to time, but no dice.

What she really wants is a post of her own. She wants to get out of her tiny, safe-ish world. It’s a classic story with an intriguing twist, thanks to its fantastic world building.

Better than just romance: Ayleth finds rivalry and curse-breaking smooches along her speculative journey.

Daughter of Shades really gets moving around chapters six and seven. Ayleth’s story benefits from new, long-term characters, who bring out qualities other than those in her defiant-teen dynamic with her mistress. Her newly independent status also comes with a touch of romance—thankfully, not too much, thought it threatens to be at first. Poor Ayleth never sees men outside her work, and she’s more than a bit overly impressed. That portrayal is awkward, because she’s no starry-eyed damsel. I don’t think most readers would want her to be.

Fortunately, her story veers in a far better direction: a rivalry blossoms where a soapy romance might, and gives the story further layers.

There’s a fun nod to the Sleeping Beauty folktale in a type of curse, a unique magic system of different types of shades, magics and poisons, and pleasantly chilling settings. From a cursed forest to the unwatchable glimpses of the haunts, it has enough of a touch of horror to make a really good campfire tale, but still left me still able to sleep at night. (Yes, I’m that big of a scaredy cat.)

My one issue, which probably kept me from getting into the book sooner, is the way Daughter of Shades begins with the possessed body of a dog. It’s not for the squeamish or the animal lovers, but after the first few chapters that plotline is over. I did find it hard to read before that, and while the world interested me, I think the opener (which included a little bait and switch from Ayleth) held it back. The hardened venatrix she first appears as is an interesting gal, and it takes a while for the real Ayleth to catch up.

Ultimately, Daughter of Shades leaves readers with a lot to wonder about (not in a bad way), and the growing action in the last quarter or so of the book keeps the pages turning. Both things, combined with the unusual world-building, made it an easy call for me to keep reading The Venatrix Chronicles.

(And to be honest, I’ll be waiting to see how that romance comes along, too…but don’t spread that around.)

Sure, you can find better writing out there, but that’s no guarantee it can build interest and suspense like this book. Ayleth’s spirited adventures are worth tagging along for—and sometimes, a person just needs a good (slightly!) scary story, with or without the campfire.