Icy Prisons and a Frogkisser | Fantasy You Haven't Read Before

New, delightful middle grade fantasies have tweaked the familiar, added humor and heart, and created something entirely original.
To an avid fantasy reader, it can seem that every variety of the magical tale has already been told. Fairy tales have been mashed up, twisted, and turned inside out. Every archer has had her day. Every chosen one has seen the sun. To readers experiencing some of these tropes for the very first time it's all magical, but surprising a passionate follower of the genre is bit of a tall order. This spring, three entirely delightful middle grade fantasies have tweaked the familiar, added humor and heart, and created something entirely original and marvelously fun on the other side. The literal LOL's start early and come often in Garth Nix's witty wonder Frogkisser! (Scholastic, Feb. 2017, Gr 5-7). Princess Anya doesn't just have a wicked stepmother—she has a wicked, stepfather, too. And while her sister has both great beauty and a knack for failing in love with princes who have been turned into frogs, she also has a nasty habit of falling out of love with them before planting a kiss that can return them to their human form. Anya, a budding sorceress, is left with the unenviable task of painting spell-reversing lip balm on her lips and kissing any number of beasts, fair or foul. It appears this will be her lot in life—to clean up her sister's romantic messes and her evil stepfather's magical ones—until the day her stepfather moves to take the kingdom for his own. Now Princess Anya has a quest: to save her kingdom and her sister. Along the way, she'll meet characters who seem like old friends—until revealing themselves to be something else entirely. Nix tweaks the expected formulas until readers are breathless with the need to know what could possibly happen next. Though the setup feels familiar, in Frogkisser, Snow White is a wizard with a snowy beard hiding a secret behind enchanted robes, animals that have been changed into people don't always want to change back, magic carpets can kill if pushed too far, and entire ponds of frogs need kissing. Coupled with richly detailed descriptions, a hearty dose of humor, and a plot that moves at a breakneck pace, this charming pastiche of fairy tale and swashbuckling adventure is like nothing readers have experienced before, but will feel as comfortable as a favorite pair of slippers. Described as "The Hunger Games meets Prison Break," Prisoner of Ice and Snow (Bloomsbury, Apr. 2017; Gr 5-7), Ruth Lauren's debut, more than lives up to its marketing. Readers meet a strong-willed, stubborn, bow-and-arrow wielding protagonist (with all the shades of Katniss that implies) as she races through the frozen capital city on her way to attempt a horrendous crime—to murder the crown prince. Why Valor would want to kill a young man who recently was her friend is a mystery, at first. But when Valor is sentenced to the same frozen prison as her sister, who was unjustly sentenced months earlier, the Prison Break reference becomes clear. Tyur'ma is a true frozen hellscape of a place, where child inmates toil deep in mines all day and sleep in frozen cells open to the elements at night. Valor knows her sister is innocent of the crime she allegedly committed, and she has a plan to break her out. Though the plot description paints a picture with a clear path forward, Lauren dodges the pitfalls of familiarity in this page-turning tour de force. The twists begin immediately and never stop coming: inmates aren't who they say they are, enemies might be friends, double-crossers are double-crossed, and Valor is keeping secrets from everyone, including from herself. Through it all, a palpable sense of cold and dread, and a dreary, wintry numbness permeates the storytelling. So effective are the icy aspects of the tale that readers will be tempted to leap into the pages and offer blankets and hot chocolate to the freezing prisoners. A few plot threads may not hold up under scrutiny, but there's no time for analysis with a pace this fast and an adventure as absorbing. There have been more books compared to The Hunger Games than a librarian can count, but this arrowy fete of sisterly devotion earns the comparison, one frozen breath at a time. Witty as Frogkisser and featuring a protagonist with more stubbornness and talent than Katniss Everdeen herself, Sage Blackwood's magnificent Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded (HarperCollins, Mar. 2017; Gr 4-6) joins the group as another remarkably fresh take on classic fantasy tropes. Chantel is a "surplus female" learning to be "shamefast and biddable" at the titular magic school. As the student with the most magic and the least bit of decorum, the girl is constantly in trouble, despite being the best at the limited amount of magic the girls in Lightning Pass are allowed to learn. Chantel has a familiar, a snake, who lives around her neck. One day he crawls up her head and into her ear, settling somewhere in the vicinity of the part of her brain responsible for impulse control. With that completely unexpected development, the girl and her friends are off on an adventure to save the sorceresses of their city and their entire way of life, though astute readers will notice early on that little about it appears to be worth saving. Blackwood paints a clear picture of Lightning Pass, a city of tiny, twisting walkways, farmed terraces that can only be accessed on certain days of the week, and fastidious, ridiculous adults adverse to the change the protagonist represents. As the tale wends its way through confrontations with dragons, fiends, barbarians, and ancient prophecies, Chantel's brain-snake goads her into ever-more rash decisions, making for an amusing, turned-around plot that never leads quite where readers expect it to go. The final battle (because there's always a final battle) has something truly profound to say about the nature of responsibility and choice. Devoted fantasy fans and readers new to the genre alike will be charmed by these tales. Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla (@liswithanS) is the Assistant Head of Children’s Services and Collection Development Coordinator at Darien Library in Darien, CT. An avid sci-fi and fantasy fan, she can usually be found with her nose buried in a book.

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