I think it's fair to say that a lot of us are feeling a bit stir-crazy these days. Something to consider: There's no safer way to have an adventure than via the medium of a good quest story.
These three YA fantasies offer up creative magic systems and mythologies, stakes as high as they come, and girls with the grit to get it done.
‘A Thousand Steps Into Night’ by Traci Chee
The only daughter of a country innkeeper, Miuko grew up hearing stories about the spirits and demons that roam the roads outside the gates of her small village. But girls — even too-loud, curious girls like her — aren't allowed to venture far alone, so she's never seen any of these wonders for herself. That changes one fateful evening when an errand keeps her out on the road too late and a vengeful ghost sets a terrible spell upon her.
Cursed with a creeping death-touch and a demonic voice in her head, Miuko is forced to flee her village. She soon realizes that she isn't the only person with a demon problem: The doro, the crown prince, is also possessed by a terrible power that could destroy the land. In order to save herself and everything she's ever held dear, Miuko must bargain with spirits, outwit demons, and seek out the gods themselves.
What a delightful smorgasbord of characters. From magpie boys to demon hunters, every time Miuko turns around, she meets another charming friend or enemy to further her along the path of figuring out who she really wants to be. Fans of Hayao Miyazaki movies and their populations of animal-human spirts, trickster deities, and brave girls will love this book. The narrative has an episodic quality, and some of the plot pieces fall into place late in the story, making me wonder how I didn't see it coming all along.
What begins as a quest to lift a curse and save a prince becomes an epic battle for the right of a girl to meet her own potential.
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‘A Far Wilder Magic’ by Allison Saft
Not all quests are journeys.
Sharpshooter Margaret Welty knows that the one way to get her estranged alchemist mother to come back home is to enter the Halfmoon Hunt and kill the hala, a mythical white fox monster that spreads violence and rot wherever it goes. The problem is, only two-person teams of hunters can register — and she needs an alchemist.
Weston Winters has been kicked out of every alchemy apprenticeship that was willing to teach an immigrant like him. His last chance to make something of himself rests on convincing Margaret Welty's mother to take him on. But when he arrives at the Welty's remote manor, all he finds is her hostile daughter who's better at shooting foxes than she is at making friends.
They make an unlikely team, but as their confidence in the hunt grows, so too do their feelings for each other.
If simmering romance between two people with their walls all the way up is your jam, then this book will win your heart. Margaret has made herself an island in a sea of loneliness and abandonment issues. Weston is all swagger and grins, desperate for attention and approval. He wears his charm like a mask to hide how flawed he feels. When they eventually let each other in, it's as satisfying as these things get.
The setting also stands out — there isn't a ton of YA fantasy with a more rural 1920s vibe, and the slightly tweedy, field and forest charm of Margaret's village is balanced with a sadly realistic undercurrent of bigotry. Romantic but not romanticized, A Far Wilder Magic suggests that the true quest isn't hunting the mythical beast, it's finding the truth within yourself.
‘A Magic Steeped in Poison’ by Judy I. Lin
For Ning and her family, making tea is more than a culinary art — it's an act of magic. When she unwittingly brews a poisoned brick of tea that kills her mother and sickens her sister, she must journey to the royal court and take her sister's place in a competition to find a new shénnóng-shī — a tea magician fit to serve the princess herself. Winning the favor of the princess is her only hope to get the help her sister needs to survive the poison.
But once she arrives at court, she realizes that the challenge of the competition will be rivaled only by the difficulty of navigating the tumultuous waters of political intrigue. Everyone seems to have terrible secrets — even the charming boy who takes a shine to her and shows her around the city. Ning's blunt honesty and naiveté may prove to be more of a hinderance than an asset when it becomes clear that the assassins intent on killing people like Ning's family with poisoned tea may be getting their orders from someone within the court itself.
Drawing inspiration from Chinese medicinal and culinary practices, A Magic Steeped in Poison takes a fairly standard YA fantasy royal competition plotline and uses it to display a very creative and compelling magic system. Food as magic is a favorite trope of mine, and tea, with all its variations and real-life medical applications, is a very clever medium to focus on. The most compelling passages are those where Ning connects to people through tea and determines which ingredients she needs to work her art.
While at times the exact objective of Ning's quest gets a little muddied, she finds her strength in the tea magic that is her birthright.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
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