The Beckoning Shadow by Katharyn Blair; Katherine Tegen Books, 480 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
Cheerleader-turned-gladiator Vesper Montgomery takes her place with Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the pantheon of kick-butt teenage heroines in debut novelist Katharyn Blair's thrilling new fantasy, a spellbinding mix of creative world-building, magic, romance and expertly choreographed fight scenes.
As the novel begins, 17-year-old Vesper is on the run, away from the loving family she nearly destroyed by accident back home in Los Altos. Vesper is a Harbinger, able to detect and make real others' worst fears, but she has no control over her power and is afraid of the damage she might do to those around her.
During a late-night stop at a diner in San Francisco, she finds herself forced to use her power with near-fatal results and falls in with a group of teens, some Oddities like herself, also with unusual powers. Through Sam (who is a "Baseline," as in a human with no special powers), Alarick and the other teens, she learns about an underground gladiator tournament that offers the winner the chance for an "Unraveling," which Vesper sees as a way to undo the damage she's done to her family. As she trains, she finds herself falling for Sam, who is still mourning the death of his girlfriend, Elisa.
Blair notes she is a fan of UFC, and she offers thrilling action both in the training scenes and in the gruesomely violent tournaments, which are held in suitably spooky locations which she brings to life with cinematic detail – a shipyard, a prison, an arena the size of the Colosseum in Rome. Vesper conjures up a terrifying array of fears, whether it be fire, drowning or an abusive parent. Oddities' special powers include Stoneskin (temporary hardening of the skin), a poison stinger, fire. There's plenty of humor to leaven the suspense, as in this snippet of dialogue: "Hop to, my little mutant freak chickadees."
The poem "Invictus" is oft-quoted, as Blair offers a compelling portrait of a vulnerable girl, scarred by her past but learning to face down her fears and allow herself to love again.
The Oddmire, Book One Changeling by William Ritter; Algonquin Young Readers, 264 pages ($16.95) Ages 8 to 12.
From the author of the award-winning "Jackaby" series for Young Adults comes an entertaining fantasy for middle-grade readers, the first in a series.
Magic is dying in the Wild Wood. With muddled notions of saving it, a goblin named Kull steals into a home at the edge of the wood to switch a goblin baby for a human child. While Kull is distracted, the goblin baby morphs into the twin of the human in the bassinet and Kull can't tell the babies apart. So he leaves them both behind and they grow up as brothers, equally mischievous and equally beloved by their mother, who knows very well she gave birth to only one baby.
Tinn and Cole both harbor the secret suspicion they might be the changeling until the eve of their 12th birthday when they find a map and a scrawled note asking the goblin child to return to the horde to save the magic.
Ritter writes with humor and offers a vivid storybook setting in a time not so long ago. The town of Endsborough is on the edge of the Wild Wood and connected to the world by only a "single, winding road." It takes "two days' ride on a sturdy horse" to get to Glanville, "where modernity was all the rage. Gas lamps were on their way out.... fancy electric streetlights were on their way in." He does a masterful job crafting his tale, conjuring up the terrors lurking in the Wild Wood and the Oddmire swamp and the nature of the evil Thing that awaits. His colorful cast of characters includes a girl named Fable, a witch and a hinkypink named Candlebeard. The ending offers a resolution of sorts rather than a cliffhanger that might frustrate his target audience.
Samuel Morse, That's Who by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrated by el primo Ramón; Henry Holt ($18.99).
Tracy Nelson Maurer, author of more than 100 books for children, offers a fascinating and fun picture book biography of Samuel Morse, his initial inventions of a water pump ("almost nobody bought it") and a marble-cutting machine ("already patented") and his early dreams of becoming a great painter ("painting grand scenes - Hercules dying, Bible stories, historic battles"). She writes with wonderful humor: "His beautiful artwork earned little attention and even less money. Still, Samuel hoped Americans would learn to love fine art ... especially his."
A trip to Europe where he saw the French optical telegraph system (which couldn't be used if it were foggy or dark) and a shipboard discussion of possible uses for electricity inspired him to come up with the telegraph, using electric pulses in a new binary language to carry coded messages through wires. Then follows an eye-opening exploration of the careful testing and painful trial and error (a ship pulled up his underwater cable, poorly made lead pipes caused wires laid underground to fail) as he set out to prove the system worked. The illustrations are wonderful, and the book jacket when flipped over reveals a Morse code chart.