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5 new YA books that explore the magic of the arts and the art of magic

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Art and magic so often go hand in hand. It makes sense — art has the power to transform and to transport, whether through a theatre production, a painting, or some other form.

It also seems right, then, that when we imagine magic, we often envision it as a sort of creative act. These five new YA releases all explore both art and magic as the means to heal trauma, communities — and even worlds.

Wolfwood by Marianna Baer

Indigo is struggling. Her mom was once a celebrated artist, but now the two of them live in poverty, always one small crisis away from disaster. But her mom has an opportunity to finally finish the painting series that made her famous — Wolfwood, which depicts the struggle of four teenage girls in a terrifying jungle full of monsters. There are collectors willing to pay inconceivable amounts of money for the end of the Wolfwood saga. The only problem is that Indigo's mother isn't willing to do the work.

Desperate, Indigo begins working on the paintings herself, and soon discovers that painting Wolfwood sends her into a trance where she experiences the battles being fought by the girls in the paintings. It seems like a small price to pay, until she realizes that there's a deeper, horrifying reason why her mother stopped painting Wolfwood.

Wolfwood combines the compelling day-to-day struggle of a teenager forced to act as a parent to her mother under desperate conditions with the metaphor of art as a means to confront the dark corners of the psyche. Indigo lies to everyone around her and attempts to commit a major act of fraud, and yet the text never suggests that the reader should sit in judgement of her. Her motivations and self-judgements are so painfully sympathetic that all I could do was hope that she would survive the unfair choices presented to her.

Baer is also excellent at ratcheting up the tension of Indigo's increasingly dire situation as her troubles spin more and more out of control with each lie she tells, and somehow her real-world struggles feel even more frightening than the monstrous terrors in the world of Wolfwood. In the end, Wolfwood paints a heartrending portrait of intergenerational trauma and the ways in which art can heal us.

That Self-Same Metal by Brittany N. Williams

Joan Sands has a special affinity with metal. Blessed by the Orisha spirit Ogun, she uses her powers to help her goldsmith father in his workshop and to tend the stage weapons of the King's Men, the renowned acting company run by the one and only William Shakespeare. Joan's twin brother is a player in the company, and the actors are like Joan's second family.

Joan knows that, like the Orisha, the Fae are a very real magical presence in London, but an ancient pact keeps them from making too much mischief. When that pact is broken, malicious Fae flood London, no longer bound to behave, and Joan discovers that she may be the only one who can stop them. Swept up into a stage-worthy conflict that will enmesh her in the dangerous politics of both Fae and humans alike, Joan must decide how to protect the people she loves.

What more alluring fantasy is there for a theatre kid (or former one) than imagining oneself among the ranks of the almost mythical King's Men? That Self-Same Metal takes what one expects from the setting (endearing theatre people, Elizabethan London hijinks, gender-bending) and layers in a unique perspective by centering a queer Black heroine whose beliefs meld seamlessly with both the fairy lore and the historical realities that Shakespeare immortalized in his plays.

The magic system that Joan works within is also very creative, and I especially enjoyed her relationship with a very opinionated prop sword that she manipulates using her powers. There is no better foe for a host of Fae creatures than a mage who can control iron with her will, and the tactile nature of this magic really makes it blend into the historical setting. Fast-paced and full of enthusiastic little winks to real-life people and events, That Self-Same Metal offers a fresh take on inclusive historical fantasy.

The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway by Ashley Schumacher

Madeleine Hathaway has spent her whole life on the road, working the Renaissance Faire circuit with her artist parents and helping them run their booth. Her mother's death at the beginning of the Faire season didn't change that, but nothing feels the same with her gone. When they arrive at her mother's favorite Faire a year later, Madeleine isn't exactly sure what she was hoping to find. Maybe some sort of closure? But instead, she discovers that new management have turned a small event into an elaborate faux-medieval playground. Even worse, there's an annoying new bard intent on calling her Gwen (as in the Guinevere of Arthurian legend) and convincing her to take on the role of Princess of the Faire!

Madeleine has had enough change — but who can resist a bard on a mission?

As someone who went to a lot of Renaissance Faires as a teenager, I was delighted when I first heard about this book. It's the perfect wacky setting for a YA novel, rife with the possibility of absurd antics and charming setups for both comedy and romance. The book definitely makes good on that promise, and while I think the logistics of how a real event like this works are pretty far from the fantasy portrayed here, no one goes to the Ren Faire for reality anyway.

Schumacher's previous books have embraced poetic melancholy, and despite leaning distinctly more in the direction of romantic comedy, The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway still has a sadness at its core, with Madeleine's struggles with grief and mental health central to everything that happens. The depiction of that and of the gentle romance that forms between her and Arthur (the persistent bard) feel very genuine amidst the colorful backdrop of the Faire. Schumacher's inventive premises and emotional explorations of first love will definitely keep me coming back for more.

Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker

Twins Cris and Clem Trudeau have grown up knowing that their family once ruled over all the practitioners of generational magic in New Orleans. But a terrible massacre ended that reign, and since then the Trudeau family has suffered. With their father dead and their mother ill, Chris has sworn off magic altogether, and Clem doesn't have the confidence to practice without her guidance.

But then they discover that their mother isn't sick at all, but was being slowly killed by a curse, cast on her by the same people that profited from the Trudeau's downfall. One clue at a time, the twins begin to pick apart the secrets and lies told by the magical families of New Orleans, and realize that the only way to make things right is to fight for justice – whatever the cost.

When a book begins with multiple family trees, you know you're in for a real family epic! Blood Debts features a large cast of intriguing characters and a complicated history that is revealed bit by bit as the story progresses, ultimately uncovering deeper secrets about the nature of both the trauma and the magic that is passed down through families. Sometimes the enchantment itself is the trauma; the magic wielded by the Trudeaus and their fellow practitioners is often gruesome and unpredictable to use, even as they use it to rebalance the scales.

Blood Debts takes on issues of racism, intergenerational trauma, assault, and homophobia though the fantastical lens of magical families in conflict, but it also finds joy in the power of reclaiming lost knowledge and rebuilding community. It's an ambitious debut that sets the stage for more stories infused with generational magic.

Unraveller by Frances Hardinge

When you live in a world where anger and resentment can grow into curses, you never know when you might end up turned into a bird or a magic harp or a tree. But if you're lucky, a boy named Kellen might come along and unravel your curse, setting you free. Kellen's power is mysterious even to him, but he does his best to right the terrible wrongs that cursers create and ensure that they will not curse again, with the help of his companion Nettle, a girl whose curse he unravelled.

But, eventually, bringing all those cursers to justice catches up with Kellen, and he himself is cursed. His unravelling powers spin out of control, and everything — from his clothing to his friendships to his plans — begins to unravel around him. He and Nettle must embark on a madcap journey into the dangerous and unpredictable Wilds to seek out the truth behind curses once and for all.

Each of Hardinge's books creates a new, gloriously weird and folksy world full of eccentric characters, and Unraveller is no exception. The magic and mythology of the Wilds and the lands they border is just enough like real world lore to feel believable while being wholly unique. The logistics of curses and unravelling them are complicated enough to be fascinating without being incomprehensible — and I appreciate that even though things get fairly chaotic in terms of plot, the characters' emotional journeys are so strong that they keep the story grounded.

Unraveller is like a fairy tale from a forgotten tome, but rather than just accepting that everything goes back to normal when the spell is broken, it examines the cost of transformation and the true price paid by the villain and the victim alike.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlyn Paxson
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