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Magic, secrets, and urban legend: 3 new YA fantasy novels to read this spring

NPR

As the flowers bloom and the sun starts to spread more warmth this spring, we have three new YA fantasy novels for you.

All of these new releases keep one foot grounded in reality while examining what their protagonists can do if they embrace the magic within themselves. Enjoy!

A Tempest of Tea by Hafsah Faizal

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Chosen-family siblings Arthie and Jin may be the proprietors of the Spindrift tea house in White Roaring, but that doesn't make them respectable. They've earned a reputation for being the kind of underworld characters you don't want to cross — and it's not even a real secret that by night, Spindrift transforms from a tea house to an establishment that serves a different drink entirely, catering to the city's population of vampires. When the city's ruling power decides to shut them down, they have to assemble a motley crew to steal a well-guarded ledger book that may be the key to more than just saving their home.

Anyone who enjoys the rhythms of a heist will find a lot to love in this book. Arthie is a clever and determined leader, and the team she puts together includes unique characters like a vampire painter with ennui and a rich girl on the run from the law for her forging habit. The magic that creeps into the edges of the story is fairly subtle, and never feels like an easy answer to the problems and conflict at hand, making me genuinely worry that everyone wasn't going to make it through to the end.

This heist also comes with a social conscience. Many historical-flavored fantasies peddle the trappings of wealthy European society without ever interrogating where the trappings of the genre come from. Characters sip their tea and wear their cotton lawn dresses, and we never have to think about who grew the tea or the cotton. A Tempest of Tea takes the opposite road, framing the lives of immigrants who are integrated into a society that exploits their homelands and who are intent on finding some way to take their power back.

The Vanishing Station by Ana Ellickson

Ever since her mother's death, Ruby has had her hands full trying to keep things together. She and her father, who struggles with chronic pain and alcoholism, are living in the basement of her mother's beloved house so the upper floors can be rented out to pay the bills. When she discovers that her father owes a debt to the mysterious people he works for, and that given his unreliability, they intend to call it in by taking away the house, she volunteers to take over his position and pay the debt in his place.

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It comes as a shock when she finds out that her father works for a clandestine rail delivery business and uses magic to jump from one train line to another to move illicit goods and money around the world. As she learns how to do his job, she realizes that while the magic of the trains speaks to something inside her, the people she's working for are ruthless and cruel. But what choice does she have but to do their bidding, if she wants to save her home?

I've always found that subways and trains intrinsically have a special magic to them, and it's very exciting to see that used to such good effect in a fantasy novel. The Vanishing Station really captures that feeling of entering a liminal space and being swept through to darkness, destined to emerge once more in a new place. Ruby is one of those characters who is so accustomed to shouldering too much of the burden that she doesn't realize when she's in over her head, and it's easy to root for her as she comes into her power and demands that the people around her do better.

I found that the middle of the story idles a bit in the station, but then rapidly picks up speed as romance builds between Ruby and her magical train mentor, Montgomery, who himself feels trapped in a role he never wanted. By the end, I was very invested in how they could escape a domineering power that can go anywhere the rail lines run, and what they might do with their own magic if they could be free.

The Bad Ones by Melissa Albert

In one night, four people go missing in Nora's small town, and one of them is her best friend Becca. At first, Nora wonders if it's just another way for Becca to hurt her in the wake of a fight that has fractured their relationship. But Nora senses that there is a connection between all the people who vanished, and she begins to believe that it may have something to do with the Goddess Game – an urban legend turned sleepover dare that the whole town seems to know about. Nora follows a trail of clues in search of Becca, and eventually realizes that in order to find her friend, she will have to play the Goddess Game and break a chain of tragedy and revenge that has been passed down through the decades.

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Melissa Albert is an author I've followed since she made her debut with her dark fairytale series (beginning with The Hazel Wood). This book continues in the vein of taking familiar mythologies and patterns and doing something original with them. A haunting, a mystery, a goddess worshipped by teenaged girls: All of these elements blend together in The Bad Ones to create a missing persons supernatural thriller that feels like it has something new to say.

Most impressive is the complicated, deeply important depiction of the friendship between Nora and Becca. Their connection is one of adoration and ride-or-die dedication, but with all the trials that come with growing up alongside someone. Books depicting "toxic friendships" often fall into a trap of making one party the villain, but that's not the case here. The Bad Ones shows a much more realistic version of this dynamic, where two friends love each other so much that they need space to grow into their own people, independent of who they are together. It's only once they allow themselves to change that they come into the power they need to truly set things right.

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

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[Copyright 2024 NPR]