Art and magic so often go hand in hand. It makes sense – art has the power to transform and transport, whether through a theatrical performance, a painting, or any other form.
So it also seems right that when we imagine magic, we often think of it as some kind of creative act. These five new YA releases all explore both art and magic as a means of healing trauma, communities – and even worlds.
Wolfwood by Marianna Baer
Indigo fights. Her mother was once a celebrated artist, but now the two live in poverty, always a minor crisis away from disaster. But her mother has an opportunity to finally finish the series of paintings 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 unimaginable sums for the end of the Wolfwood saga. The only problem is that Indigo’s mother is not willing to do the work.
Desperate, Indigo begins work on the paintings herself and soon discovers that painting Wolfwood puts her in a trance where she witnesses the fights being fought by the girls in the paintings. It seems like a small price to pay, until she realizes there’s a deeper, more terrifying reason her mother stopped painting Wolfwood.
wolf wood combines the compelling daily struggle of a teenager, forced to act as his mother’s parent in 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 tries to commit a big scam, and yet the text never suggests that the reader should judge her. Her motivations and self-judgments are so painfully compassionate that I could only hope she would survive the unfair choices she was presented with.
Baer is also excellent at increasing the tension in Indigo’s increasingly dire situation, as her problems spiral out of control with every lie she tells, and somehow her real-world struggles feel even more frightening than the monstrous horrors in the world of Wolfwood. Finally, wolf wood paints a heartbreaking portrait of intergenerational trauma and how art can heal us.
That Self-Same Metal by Brittany N. Williams
Joan Sands has a special affinity for metal. Blessed by the Orisha spirit Ogun, she uses her powers to help her goldsmith father in his workshop and tend the stage weapons of the King’s Men, the renowned acting troupe directed by the one and only William Shakespeare. Joan’s twin brother is in the company and the actors are like Joan’s second family.
Joan knows that the fae, like the Orisha, are a very real magical presence in London, but an ancient pact keeps them from causing too much mischief. When that pact is broken, malicious fairies flood London, no longer required to behave, and Joan discovers she may be the only one who can stop them. Drawn into a stage-worthy conflict that will entangle her in the dangerous politics of fae and humans alike, Joan must decide how to protect the people she loves.
What more alluring fantasy could there be for a theater kid (or former theater kid) than imagining themselves in the ranks of the near-mythical King’s Men? The same metal takes what’s expected of the setting (lovable theater people, Elizabethan London hijinks, gender-bending) and layers in a unique perspective, centering on a queer black heroine whose beliefs flow seamlessly with both the storytelling and the merging historical realities that Shakespeare immortalized in his plays.
The magical system that Joan operates in is also very creative, and I particularly enjoyed her relationship with a very idiosyncratic prop sword that she manipulates with her powers. There is no better opponent for a variety of fae creatures than a mage who can control iron with her will, and the tactile nature of this magic really allows her to blend into the historical setting. Fast-paced and full of enthusiastic little winks to real-life people and events, The same metal offers a fresh take on inclusive historical fantasy.
The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway by Ashley Schumacher
Madeleine Hathaway has spent her entire life on the move, working with her artist parents on the Renaissance Faire Circuit and helping them run their booth. Her mother’s death earlier in Faire’s season hasn’t changed that, but nothing feels like she’s gone. When they arrive at her mother’s favorite carnival a year later, Madeleine isn’t quite sure what she was hoping to find. Maybe some kind of lock? But instead she discovers that new management has transformed a small event into an elaborate, mock medieval playground. Worse, an annoying new bard wants to name her Gwen (as in Arthurian legend’s Guinevere) and convince her to take on the role of Princess of the Faire!
Madeleine has enough spare change – but who can resist a bard on a mission?
As someone who attended many Renaissance faires as a teenager, I was thrilled when I first heard about this book. It’s the perfect zany setting for a YA novel, packed with the possibility of absurd escapades and charming arrangements of comedy and romance. The book definitely delivers on that promise, and while I think the logistics of how a real event like this works is pretty far from the fantasy portrayed here, nobody goes to ren faire for reality anyway.
Schumacher’s earlier books devoted themselves to poetic melancholy, and while leaning far more in the direction of romantic comedy, The Renaissance by Gwen Hathaway still has a sadness at its core, with Madeleine’s struggles with grief and mental health at the heart of everything that happens. The depiction of this and the gentle romance that forms between her and Arthur (the stubborn bard) feels very real amidst the colorful backdrop of the carnival. Schumacher’s inventive premises and emotional exploration of first love will definitely keep me coming back.
Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker
Twins Cris and Clem Trudeau grew up knowing that their family once ruled over all practitioners of generational magic in New Orleans. But a terrible massacre ended that reign, and the Trudeau family has suffered ever since. With her father dead and her mother ill, Chris has renounced magic altogether, and Clem is reluctant to practice without her guidance.
But then they discover that their mother is not ill at all, but was slowly being killed by a curse thrown at her by the same people who profited from the Trudeau’s sinking. One clue at a time, the twins begin to unravel the mysteries and lies of the magical families of New Orleans, and realize that the only way to make things right is to fight for justice – no matter what the cost wool.
When a book begins with multiple family trees, you know you’re in for a real family epic! blood debt features a large cast of intriguing characters and an intricate storyline that is revealed piece by piece as the story progresses, ultimately uncovering deeper mysteries about the nature of trauma and magic passed down through families. Sometimes the enchantment itself is the trauma; The magic wielded by the Trudeaus and their fellow practitioners is often cruel and unpredictable, even when they use it to rebalance the scales.
blood debt tackles issues such as racism, intergenerational trauma, physical harm and homophobia through the fantastical lens of magical families in conflict, but also finds joy in the power to reclaim lost knowledge and rebuild communities. It’s an ambitious debut that sets the stage for more stories steeped in generational magic.
Unraveller by Frances Hardinge
If you live in a world where anger and resentment can become curses, you never know when you may end up being turned into a bird, a magic harp, or a tree. But if you’re lucky, a boy named Kellen might come along, unravel your curse, and free you. Kellen’s power is mysterious even to him, but he does his best to right the terrible wrongs swearers do and make sure they don’t swear again, with the help of his companion Nettle, a girl whose curse he unraveled.
But eventually Kellen catches up with all those swearing in court and he himself is cursed. His unraveling powers spiral out of control, and everything from his clothes to his friendships to his plans begins to unravel around him. He and Nettle must embark on a crazy journey into the dangerous and unpredictable wilderness to find out the truth behind the curses once and for all.
Each of Hardinge’s books creates a new, delightfully quirky and folksy world full of eccentric characters and unraveler is no exception. The magic and mythology of the wilds and the lands that border them is just enough like the real-world lore to feel believable while being completely unique. The logistics of curses and their unraveling are complicated enough to be intriguing without being incomprehensible – and I appreciate that while things get quite chaotic plot-wise, the characters’ emotional journeys are so powerful that they keep the story grounded.
unraveler is like a fairy tale from a forgotten tome, but rather than simply accepting that everything will return to normal once the spell is broken, it examines the cost of the transformation and the true price paid by villain and victim alike.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Feder & Quire.
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