The Kingston Cycle by C. L. Polk

Covers of the three books in the series: Witchmark in blue, Stormsong in deep purple, and Soulstar in reds and pink. Each features figures in black silhouette against colorful backgrounds.

by Kristen B.

Ursula LeGuin wrote a famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a utopian city with a catch. The peaceful and joyous life of the city’s citizens is made possible only through the absolute suffering of a single child. Everyone is made aware of the bargain as they reach adulthood, and those who can’t sanction it become those who walk away. In Witchmark (also available as an e-audiobook), author C. L. Polk answers LeGuin’s moral question more firmly: Those who can’t sanction a bad bargain are destined to unmake it.

Meet Miles, a war veteran who works as a psych doctor in a veterans hospital. The book begins with a dying man dumped, almost literally, into Miles’ arms. Our brave doctor has been tracking some worrisome patterns at the hospital, with traumatized veterans reporting a mysterious malaise, one that actively promotes domestic violence and mayhem. Miles sees the connection but can’t figure out why it’s happening or how to stop it. Side note: the role of newspapers in this series delights me!

Miles has turned his back on a wealthy but constrained life to use his healing talents. In Kingston, capital city of Aeland, the uppermost class possesses magic to control the weather, particularly the huge storms that threaten every winter. Other witches are considered dangerous to themselves and others, and they are institutionalized around the country. The author provides an antidote to all these troubles with a lovely romance blossoming between Miles and Tristan Hunter. Tristan has a rather unusual background that plays into solving both the initial murder and the other issues.

Polk continues to weave a Gordian knot of interrelated troubles, because the problems aren’t limited to a single world. There’s also the Solace, which exists parallel to Aeland, where souls go to reside after death. The Amaranthines rule there, an immortal race that serves as a sort of overarching moral conscience to the regular world, though one with real teeth. It turns out that they have noticed strange happenings during and after the recent war, and they are concerned because no Aelander souls have come into the Solace in decades. Therein hangs the rest of the story, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Witchmark sets the stage for the next two books, which are substantially more political in nature. Miles’ sister, heir to the family’s fortune and magic, becomes the main point of view for the second book, Stormsong (also in e-audiobook format). Grace has to balance the country’s needs against her own as her one true love also happens to be a star newspaper reporter. She must further balance her magical duties to protect Aeland from increasingly violent storms with her political position as Chancellor to a queen who has no desire to make necessary changes. A locked door political assassination only adds to her difficulties.

The third book, Soulstar, moves to yet another character, Robin, who has been part of the proceedings all along as a nurse and friend at Miles’ hospital and a key player in Grace’s political striving. She belongs to a minority and operates as a secret witch, whose talent lies in seeing and communicating with the dead. As the books progress, we see Aeland’s highly inequitable, stratified, royalist society change drastically. Revolution is the name of the game in this final book. Modern parallels are clear, but it’s still fun to root for the underdogs who want a seat at the table and their fair share of pie. Maybe what we need is a magical, immortal race to encourage us to live with compassion and sympathy for others.

All three books take place in Kingston, in which Polk gives us a deeply imagined, tangible city that seems as real as the wonderful, persistent people who live there. In each installment, you get a rousing story, a queer romance, and a hero who is trying to make the world a better place. Because if you can’t condone living in a society that excels only by requiring the suffering of some people, what does that require of you?

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

A young woman with long wavy dark hair, dressed in a denim jacket, looks backward over her shoulder. A bright yellow and orange phoenix is rising behind her against the night sky, and its tail wraps around her.

By Sahana C.

Consider this: every fairy tale you’ve ever heard is at least a little bit true. The Kingdom of Avalon is full of castles and magic, Alice really did travel all through Wonderland, and most of all – magic? Definitely real.  

But at the exact same time, Rin Chupeco manages to surprise readers with twists on each story. Avalon is frozen (literally and metaphorically!) outside of time, Alice was a warrior, and all that magic has rules and regulations in ways that seem to make sense when you look around at the modern world.  

The book opens in the Royal States, a monarchical version of the U.S., where everything is almost exactly the same as reality with the exceptions of a king and quite a bit more magic. The story even involves governmental agencies, with ICE taking on a prominent (and punny!) role throughout the course of the plot. 

The hero here is a young girl named Tala. She comes from an incredibly powerful legacy, with her family hailing from both the Philippines and Avalon. Her entire lineage is made up of magic, despite being convinced that she lives in the most boring town in the entire Royal States, and she’s been told that she’s fairly powerful, too. She’s hesitant to believe it, though, considering her powers are exclusively centered on disrupting magic.  

Her life changes in a big way when her family is called to protect the Crown Prince of Avalon, Alexei, who is the sole survivor of the royal family and has been in hiding for his whole life. Alexei’s dream is to revive his home country and take back his homeland by breaking the curse of the Ice Queen. In the meantime, though, he and Tala become fast friends, and he manages to enjoy a little bit of a normal high school, being sheltered by the Makiling clan, Tala’s super powerful family.  

When the Firebird, the symbol of Avalonian royalty, finally arrives, Tala and Alexei are thrown into a whirlwind adventure, accompanied by the children of Avalon’s best and brightest heroes. All of them have something to prove and they don’t always get along, but they do come together to save a country they’ve all loved and longed for from afar.  

You see, this whole book is a thinly veiled analogy for the immigrant experience and various facets therein. Tala’s whole family is Filipino, and she’s never been to the Philippines but longs to know more about her culture. Alexei had to leave Avalon as a child, forced out by war. The rest of the group that accompanies Tala and Alexei on their adventure also have varying levels of connection to Avalon: some have fond memories of childhood there, others have most of their family members stuck behind the border.  

Chupeco makes it clear, through Tala, that regardless of how connected to country she is, she can still fully claim her heritage. Tala is told by trusted adults time and time again that she belongs, and Chupeco makes it even more explicit when she writes, “Just because you’ve never been to the Philippines doesn’t mean that their rivers don’t course through your blood. It doesn’t mean you don’t have their mountains in your eyes. It’s not where we are, it’s who we are. You’ll always be both a Makiling and a Warnock, and always a Filipina. Never forget that.” 

I will say that some of the worldbuilding was a touch heavy-handed, and I had to go back and forth on the rules of magic and power in this universe Chupeco creates. Those moments could have benefited from a bit less, but they did not take away from the heart present in every chapter. First and foremost, this is a story about family, ones that are forged by blood and those that are found through friendship. For readers who are interested in YA fantasy, with an incredibly diverse and vibrant cast of characters who talk about the immigrant experience and recognize just how important food is as a bonding tool, this is the book for you.  

Wicked As You Wish is available in print and as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

Author Works: Sarah Gailey

Black and white photo of the author, with short hair and one hand tucked inside her jacket, sits next to a cover of The Echo Wife. The cover shows an engagement ring and its reflection in gold with blue highlights, the title appears in blue inside the rings.

Tue, May 17 at 7 pm online
Register at bit.ly/echowife.

by Kristen B.

Author Sarah Gailey discusses their acclaimed novel The Echo Wife (also eBook and eAudiobook) in conversation with Maggie Tokuda-Hall, author of Also an Octopus (reviewed here). Gailey’s most recent novel, The Echo Wife, and first original comic book series with BOOM! Studios, Eat the Rich, are available now. Other shorter works and essays have been published in Mashable, The Boston Globe, Vice, Tor.com, and The Atlantic, and their work has been translated into seven languages and published around the world.

Publisher’s Weekly review of The Echo Wife:

This creepy, exhilarating science fiction outing from Gailey (Magic for Liars) dissects an unconventional affair that violates both a couple’s marriage vows and scientific integrity. Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is startled to discover that her husband, Nathan, has been seeing another woman—and even more shocked to learn that the other woman is a clone of Evelyn herself. Nathan created Martine to be everything Evelyn isn’t: attentive, submissive, and family-oriented. Adding insult to injury, Nathan used Evelyn’s own research to do so. An explosive confrontation among the three ends in Nathan’s murder, leaving Evelyn and Martine forced to work together to cover up the crime. It’s a situation that is not entirely unfamiliar for Evelyn, whose troubled past is teased out bit by bit. The women slowly discover that Nathan was hiding more secrets than either of them knew, forcing Martine and Evelyn to think on their feet in order to save themselves and the odd little family they create along the way. Gailey’s story unspools as a series of dark reveals that leave both the characters and the audience reeling. Readers won’t want to put this one down. (Feb.)

Gailey is a Hugo Award winning and bestselling author of speculative fiction, short stories, and essays. They have been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for multiple years, and their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published by Tor Books in 2019.

A bright pink cover shows a black hand upside down with its fingers crossed and a mystical eye on the wrist. the title of the book frames it in large yellow layers.

My book club (Books on Tap) read Magic for Liars for our May meeting. As with many other of Gailey’s books, it doesn’t fit neatly into one category. Yes, it’s a murder mystery complete with clues, red herrings, multiple suspects, and gory details. The book also tackles grief, illness, and how families deal with both. These weightier topics rather sneak around the edges of the crime scene. Our protagonist and Private Investigator, Ivy Gamble, is hired to solve the death of a teacher at the school for magical students where her sister teaches. She tells us up-front that she’s a liar, that she resents the living daylights out of her magical sister, and that she’s not proud of how the situation resolved. To say they are estranged doesn’t begin to cover the levels of distrust and bitterness that separate these twin sisters – one magical, one not. Do you trust that sort of narrator? It’s a terrifically entertaining read that nonetheless leaves you thinking about what you might do in a similar situation.

Magic for Liars is available in print, as an eBook and an eAudiobook.

A Deadly Education

A black cover with gold text and a mysterious illustration of the phases of the moon, a mystical eyes, and spiral all centered above a book.

By Gabriela P.

Did you think your high school years were tough? Count yourself lucky that you could at least eat lunch without having monsters come at you. In Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education, Galadriel “El” Higgins goes to her classes, studies, and navigates her social sphere all while trying to stay alive. She attends the Scholomance, a school for magic, where there are no teachers, holidays, school events, or friendships. Attending students are suddenly thrown into this school located within a terrifying inter-dimensional void. With monsters, or “mals”, in every shadow and around every corner, the students have only one goal – to graduate, which means staying alive.

El is a junior at the Scholomance, and has a unique problem. While every other student has to figure out how to protect themselves from mals and students-gone-dark, she has to concentrate on not destroying everything she touches. A rather bothersome prophecy, something about her being the bringer of mass destruction, keeps her more preoccupied with making sure she doesn’t end up destroying the world than with making friends. Though in this school, friendships are usually strategic. When we are introduced to the snarky, anti-social El, she makes it clear that her only plan is to make it as close to graduation as she can without attracting unwanted attention to herself. Then, in her senior year, she plans to figure out how to impress students from well known magical enclaves to guarantee her and her mother’s safety during and after graduation. However, her not-so pleasant disposition means her chances are slim.

Orion Lake, a student from a major enclave with a major savior complex, is famous among the student body, mainly because he is pretty much responsible for the higher-than-normal survival rate of their junior class. When he saves El’s life once, then twice, the spotlight suddenly turns to her. Suddenly El has to figure out how to use the attention for her benefit, but ends up finding herself drawn into a much bigger problem. On top of all that, she finds herself stumbling upon the discovery that she might be…making friends.

A Deadly Education is a refreshing spin on well-known tropes; magic schools, I-hate-him-I-like-him, monsters with a taste for children – the usual. Naomi Novak skillfully builds a fantastical universe with dynamic characters that you can’t help but fall for. Darkly funny and terrifyingly captivating, this book is definitely one that you won’t put down until the end.

You can borrow A Deadly Education as a book, an eBook, and an eAudiobook.

A dark green cover with golden text and illustration of a keyhold with points and rays, and a dangling key.

The story continues (which you will want to do immediately) with The Last Graduate, and the third installment, The Golden Enclaves, is due this fall. The second book is also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.

Spooktacular Chapter Books for Kids

By Jessica L.

This illustrated book cover shows two Black children on bicycles, framed by white ghostly pillars and colorful strange plants. The title type is wiggly hand-drawn in a purple to orange fade.
Ghost Squad cover

Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Claribel Ortega’s debut novel is perfect for middle grade readers who love the paranormal, magic, adventure, and a little mystery. This book celebrates Dominican culture and lore, while also providing beautiful examples of caring adults and loving relationships among families and friends.This book also explores themes of grief, loss, and found family. 

Twelve year old Lucely Luna lives a pretty supernatural life in a haunted house with her father, who gives ghost tours in St. Augustine, Florida. She is surrounded by the spirits of her loved ones who have passed. These spirits, familial fireflies, assume their ghostly human forms to comfort and care for Lucely. Something strange happens to her beloved grandmother’s spirit and Lucely and her best friend, Syd, inadvertently awaken malicious spirits in their efforts to help bring back her grandmother’s spirit. These malevolent spirits not only threaten the existence of Lucely’s fireflies, but desire to drag St. Augustine into the underworld. Lucely, Syd, Syd’s abuela Babette (a real witch), and Babette’s chonky kitty, Chunk, must work together to make everything right once more.

The book cover shows Willa in a green dress with a bear cub at her side in a spooky forest, with dark tree trunks and a purple-twilight background.
Willa of Dark Hollow cover

Willa of Dark Hollow by Robert Beatty

This is the second installment in the Willa of the Wood series by Robert Beatty. However, it’s also a standalone story, so you won’t miss anything if you haven’t read the first book. This story stresses the importance of conserving our natural world and the invaluable relationships we build with family and friends. Themes of found family and the complexity of doing what’s right abound.

Willa is among the last of an ancient Indigenous people of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Faeran. Willa is deeply connected with the forest and the animals with which she can communicate via her Faeran language. Her magical abilities also include camouflage and making trees grow instantly. She is, after all, a young teenage wood witch trained and brought up by her grandmother against the harmful norms of Faeran society. Willa feels helpless against the industrial loggers who continue to destroy the forest in the name of progress. She discovers a dark hollow with strange and beautiful creatures, but the mystery and danger grows as she learns how these dark forces are hunting humans. But are these hunters the right answer to dealing with the loggers as their handiwork endangers her own adoptive family? Can Willa find a way to save her family, the forest, and the animals she loves all by herself?

Other titles and series for kids who enjoy the paranormal and supernatural, fantasy and magic, mystery and adventure: 

Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol by Andres Miedoso
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Regan Barnhill
The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown
The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix is the first in the Greystone Secrets series
My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O’Hara
The School is Alive! by Jack Chabert is the first in the Eerie Elementary series
The Witches of Benevento by John Bemelmans Marciano
Short & Shivery: 30 Chilling Tales by Robert D. San Souci
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Three Books to Chill Your Bones By Alvin Schwartz
That One Spooky Night (Graphic Novel) by Dan Bar-el
Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories by Jeff Kinney
Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

JP has worked for HCLS since 2006. She loves playing with her new orange tabby kittens, Mando & Momo.

Be Yourself, and Maybe a Little Magical

The picture shows all six book covers discussed in the blog post, against a dark background with the title "Books Are Inherently Magical" above them in gold letters.  Clockwise from upper right:  The first image is of the cover of The Witches of Brooklyn with main character of Effie in the forefront. A cityscape is set behind her.  The second image shows the cover of The Sand Warrior, the first in the 5 Worlds series. Main character Oona is in the middle with her friends An Tzu on the left playing a flute, and Jax Amboy on the right, whose left hand is glowing with energy. Oona is manipulating sand. The bottom of the image shows an alien landscape.  The third image is of the cover of Snapdragon with the main character Snap and her bike and dog who is missing a leg in the basket atop the back of the bike. The background is a forest with a spirit of a buck behind Snap.  The fourth image is the cover of The Witch Boy. Main character Aster reads a spell book over an altar made of liquid in a bowl, candles, and a mortar and pestle.  The fifth image is the cover of Beetle and the Hollowbones. Main character Beetle and best friend Blob Ghost are sitting atop a ledge set in front of a full moon over top of houses and trees.  The sixth image is the cover art for The Okay Witch. Main character Moth is riding atop a broomstick with a black cat behind her and pages flying out of a book in her backpack.

By Peter N.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I haven’t had the desire nor the motivation to read. I know that’s a horrible thing to say as an employee of a library (a 5-Star Library system as a matter of fact), but it took me quite a while to get back into reading novels. So you know what I did? I did what I’ve suggested to many a parent who has come in trying to find something to get their child to like reading; I picked up a graphic novel.

Graphic novels can be about literally hundreds of subjects across any number of genres. Many authors have written wonderful original stories as well as graphic representations of classic novels. When a parent needs a suggestion for a book for their reluctant child or when someone wants something interesting to read, I almost always suggest a graphic novel. Why? Well, as a visual learner, I find myself more engaged with the story and with the characters when I see them visually represented, and it’s easier for my brain to follow along without distraction. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve read graphic novels for adults, teens, tweens, and children. From the many I’ve recently read, here are six picks that teach everyone to be who you are unapologetically, and if you can, be a little magical, too.

This image shows the cover of The Witch Boy. Main character Aster reads a spell book over an altar made of liquid in a bowl, candles, and a mortar and pestle.
The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

What I loved about this book is that it challenges the gender norms in Aster’s family and society. In his family, the girls are raised as witches while the boys are raised as shape-shifters. But that isn’t who Aster is, and he practices in secret since it is forbidden for boys to study magic. He desperately wants to be a witch but is afraid of his family finding out. When trouble brews and his magical skills are what’s needed to help save the day, he has to find the courage within himself to be who he feels in his heart that he is meant to be.

The image shows the cover art for The Okay Witch. Main character Moth is riding atop a broomstick with a black cat behind her and pages flying out of a book in her backpack.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

Many will see the similarity between the events of the Salem witch trials and the events of Founder’s Bluff in this book. Moth has always loved all things witchy and magical, so when her powers emerge, she is immediately thrust into a world where the history of her hometown is intertwined with that of her own family. She discovers that her mother was once a member of a powerful coven of witches who separated from a world that despised them but broke away to live a life free of magic. As she discovers this history, she must come to terms with being a witch (which she finds kind of cool) along with the existence of people in town descended from those who discriminated and hated her family and those like her. What’s a fledgling young witch with a talking cat to do?

This image shows the cover of Beetle and the Hollowbones. Main character Beetle and best friend Blob Ghost are sitting atop a ledge set in front of a full moon over top of houses and trees.
Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle and the Hollowbones is a tale of outgrowing what society expects you to be, standing up for your friends even if it means standing up to them, and embracing and loving who you are. Much like the Witch Boy, Beetle is a goblin and goblins are only supposed to do a specific type of magic and none other. One day she meets Blob Ghost, a, well, ghost blob haunting the local mall that is inexplicably tied to its location. So when the mall is due to be demolished, it is up to Beetle to find out why he’s connected to the mall and rescue him. Along the way she reconnects with an old friend (and love interest) who needs to be reminded about their friendship, who they are, and to stand up to family even if they are family.

This image is of the cover of The Witches of Brooklyn with main character of Effie in the forefront. A cityscape is set behind her.
Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

How would you feel if your life was turned upside down and inside out all of a sudden? That’s what happens to Effie. Having lost her mom and the only home she ever knew, she is suddenly taken to live with two estranged aunts. Once there, Effie learns more about her family than she ever thought possible, including the fact that they can do magic! This newfound knowledge and ability is almost too much for Effie, and it rears its ugly head at the worst of times. She soon starts to accept that this is her life now, that magic is a part of it, and that zany things are going to happen, including helping one of her favorite singers when she comes to Effie’s aunts for help with a nasty curse.

This image is of the cover of Snapdragon with the main character Snap and her bike and dog who is missing a leg in the basket atop the back of the bike. The background is a forest with a spirit of a buck behind Snap.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Snap’s town has a witch. Maybe. Possibly. At least that’s the rumor going around. When Snap needs help from the town “witch”, she learns that there’s more than meets the eye and discovers the power she has within herself. Aside from the super cool supernatural elements, the characters are all a delight to read. And especially the children. They’re the perfect example of prejudice being made, not born, because when given an upbringing that doesn’t include any of that, they can be perfectly accepting of everyone around them without thinking it’s “weird.” They celebrate and encourage uniqueness.

This image shows the cover of The Sand Warrior, the first in the 5 Worlds series. Main character Oona is in the middle with her friends An Tzu on the left playing a flute, and Jax Amboy on the right, whose left hand is glowing with energy. Oona is manipulating sand. The bottom of the image shows an alien landscape.
5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior by Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun

What happens when three friends are brought together by unforeseeable circumstances and their group, particularly young sand dancer Oona Lee, is what stands between saving the five worlds and their destruction? Oona must find the power within herself that she didn’t know she had, as well as the confidence to travel the five worlds, light all the beacons, and fend off attacks from the evil hiding in the shadows. Between all of this, she has to save her friend An Tzu, who also has mysterious origins and a tie to what can save everything, from a mysterious ailment. Beautiful art, rich characters, and full of world-building elements, you’ll love this series!

Disclaimer: There are a number of graphic novels on the same subject but these are only the most recent I’ve read. Please visit any Howard County Library branch to learn more!

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and LOVES graphic novels and dogs. Especially fluffy dogs.