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Books in Brief: The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen; Epic Athletes Stephen Curry by Dan Wetzel


The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen; Henry Holt, 369 pages ($18.99) Ages 14 and up.


Publishers Weekly used the phrase "visceral fantasy" for Margaret Owen's extraordinary debut novel, and there's no better phrase to describe her vivid prose, that sings and sparks as it plunges  the reader into a meticulously crafted world, into the headlong rush of a thrilling tale of kings and caste, of witches, of privilege and injustice, of magic sparked from bones and teeth.

Brave, resourceful, sharp-tongued Fie, born a witch, is future chieftain of the Crows, the despised lowest caste in the Kingdom of Sabor. Crows are Mercy Killers, tasked with disposing of bodies taken by the plague, dispatching victims not yet dead by slitting their throats. After the Crows, in their beaked masks and black robes, are summoned to the palace to collect royal dead, young Fie finds that Phoenix prince Jasimir and his Hawk bodyguard Tavin have faked their deaths to escape scheming Queen Rhusana.

Defying all tradition, Jasimir agrees to Fie's demand  for a Covenant oath, that he will protect the Crows. In return, the Crows must escort him safe to his allies,  a dangerous mission that will exact a terrible price. Fie is still learning to channel her magic through the bones and teeth of the dead, and Owen brilliantly depicts the physical strain and mental exertion of Fie's efforts to control her magic as the three are pursued by Rhusana with her Vulture riders with their tracking spells, by skinwitches and ghasts.  Most fearsome of all is the Klan-like Oleander Gentry, "rich and poor, nameless and infamous," united by hatred for the Crows, riding at night with "faces in pale paints and undyed cloth" to hunt down and kill Crows.

A sample of Owen's musical prose: "For awhile, only their footfalls and rattling wheels broke the forest's birdsong-speckled hush; not even Madcap dared a walking song this far off the flatway. Then Pa stripped off his mask and tossed it into the cart. Fie followed suit, dragging fresh air through her teeth. Soon a pile of masks rested atop the shrouds and firewood." The novel is rich with humor; there's a cat named Barf. Here: "The prince pulled a face like he'd found a hair ball in his sandals." The verbal sparring between Fie and Tavin is particularly engaging.

The true genius at the heart of Owen's  novel is the way she evokes, in Fie's fiery voice, the emotional scars of unspeakable loss (she was only four years old when her mother was hunted down by the Oleander Gentry, who left a bloody calling card in a trail of 10 severed fingers),  the biting discomfort of hunger and privation, the shame at being shunned and disposable, the fury at the injustice. As all great fantasies must, this one has a map of Sabor on the inside book cover, and it is a wonder of evocative place names: the Marovar mountains, the cities of Cheparok and Trikovoi, the Gray Waste, the Hassura Plains. A legend at the start lists the castes by birthright:  fire for the Phoenix royals;  glamour for the wealthy Peacock, blood for the Hawk, hunting for the Vulture, "none" for the Crow.

This brilliant fantasy, the first of a duology, will appeal to fans of Leigh Bardugo, Sabaa Tahir and Christelle Dabos (the Mirror Quartet).


Epic Athletes: Stephen Curry by Dan Wetzel; illustrations by Zeke Pena; Henry Holt, 142 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


Yahoo! Sports national columnist Dan Wetzel has a winning formula in his excellent Epic Athletes series (others feature Alex Morgan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams), sure to appeal to young sports fans. He opens with thrilling play by play of a pivotal moment in a superstar athlete's career, then traces the early influences of family and coaches on the athlete's life (interesting that Curry and LeBron James were born in the same hospital in Akron, Ohio) and the hard work and determination that made him or her a star. Artist Zeke Pena offers an "instant replay" at the end, a short graphic novel presentation of a pivotal contest, in this case the Feb. 27, 2016, game against Oklahoma City, when Curry scored the deciding three-pointer for Golden State in OT from 37 feet.


The Last Word by Samantha Hastings; Swoon Reads, 251 pages ($17.99) Ages 12 and up.


This entertaining romance, another title from the Swoon Reads imprint of Feiwel and Friends, tells the tale of one Lucinda Leavitt and her quest to learn more about her favorite author who died before finishing the final chapter of a romance published in serial form in the newspaper. Lucinda has a head for numbers, but her father won't even consider allowing her to assist in his accounting firm. Instead he hires a chaperone to escort her everywhere, meaning Lucinda must enlist her father's employee to assist in her investigation of her favorite author.  Hastings has crafted an entertaining bit of fluff here, with likeable characters and some interesting color from 19th century England including the Tooley Street Fire that destroyed 11 acres of London in 1861 and the hazard posed by the crinoline cage women wore under their dresses, making it impossible to extinguish flames if a skirt caught fire (she notes that Henry David Longfellow's wife died of burns after her dress caught fire).

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