A fun, unusual contemporary fantasy that doesn’t skimp on violence.

HIGHFIRE

An accident-prone teenage boy named Squib forms an unlikely friendship with a dragon living in a Louisiana bayou.

Squib Moreau can’t catch a break. His kindhearted single mother, Elodie, works long hours as a nurse, and when she’s not worrying about what her son is up to, she’s fighting off the advances of the local constable, Regence Hooke. Elodie and Squib both get the feeling that Hooke is something more dangerous than a sleazy cop, and they’re right: He’s murderous, corrupt, and out to take over the local drug-running business. When Squib sees something he shouldn’t late at night out on the water and Hooke goes after him with a grenade launcher, Squib suddenly finds himself being rescued by a dragon. The dragon in question, Vern (short for “Wyvern, Lord Highfire”), believes he is the last of his kind and lives in secret deep in the swamp. Vern holds a centuries-old grudge against the race that killed off his fellow dragons but finds himself in need of a helper, or “familiar.” Vern may be a dragon, but he has a taste for TV, vodka, Flashdance T-shirts, and all sorts of things he can’t get for himself. Vern reluctantly lets Squib work for him, and over time they develop a camaraderie. But when Hooke sees Vern for himself, he decides to use Squib to force the dragon to do some of his dirty work. Colfer’s best-known writing is geared toward young adults (The Fowl Twins, 2019, etc.), but between some of the gorier scenes and Hooke’s sinister inner monologue, you wouldn’t know it. He writes this book in a folksy Louisiana voice that drawls right off the page: “Squib was as jumpy as a cat in a doghouse traversing the river.” Vern’s taste for modern life (he’s on the Keto diet) is clever, and he is a prickly but lovable foil to the unholy terror that is Constable Hooke.

A fun, unusual contemporary fantasy that doesn’t skimp on violence.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-293855-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Harper Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A celebration of fantasy that melds modern ideology with classic tropes. More of these dragons, please.

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THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE

After 1,000 years of peace, whispers that “the Nameless One will return” ignite the spark that sets the world order aflame.

No, the Nameless One is not a new nickname for Voldemort. Here, evil takes the shape of fire-breathing dragons—beasts that feed off chaos and imbalance—set on destroying humankind. The leader of these creatures, the Nameless One, has been trapped in the Abyss for ages after having been severely wounded by the sword Ascalon wielded by Galian Berethnet. These events brought about the current order: Virtudom, the kingdom set up by Berethnet, is a pious society that considers all dragons evil. In the East, dragons are worshiped as gods—but not the fire-breathing type. These dragons channel the power of water and are said to be born of stars. They forge a connection with humans by taking riders. In the South, an entirely different way of thinking exists. There, a society of female mages called the Priory worships the Mother. They don’t believe that the Berethnet line, continued by generations of queens, is the sacred key to keeping the Nameless One at bay. This means he could return—and soon. “Do you not see? It is a cycle.” The one thing uniting all corners of the world is fear. Representatives of each belief system—Queen Sabran the Ninth of Virtudom, hopeful dragon rider Tané of the East, and Ead Duryan, mage of the Priory from the South—are linked by the common goal of keeping the Nameless One trapped at any cost. This world of female warriors and leaders feels natural, and while there is a “chosen one” aspect to the tale, it’s far from the main point. Shannon’s depth of imagination and worldbuilding are impressive, as this 800-pager is filled not only with legend, but also with satisfying twists that turn legend on its head. Shannon isn’t new to this game of complex storytelling. Her Bone Season novels (The Song Rising, 2017, etc.) navigate a multilayered society of clairvoyants. Here, Shannon chooses a more traditional view of magic, where light fights against dark, earth against sky, and fire against water. Through these classic pairings, an entirely fresh and addicting tale is born. Shannon may favor detailed explication over keeping a steady pace, but the epic converging of plotlines at the end is enough to forgive.

A celebration of fantasy that melds modern ideology with classic tropes. More of these dragons, please.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-029-8

Page Count: 848

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

READY PLAYER ONE

Video-game players embrace the quest of a lifetime in a virtual world; screenwriter Cline’s first novel is old wine in new bottles. 

The real world, in 2045, is the usual dystopian horror story. So who can blame Wade, our narrator, if he spends most of his time in a virtual world? The 18-year-old, orphaned at 11, has no friends in his vertical trailer park in Oklahoma City, while the OASIS has captivating bells and whistles, and it’s free. Its creator, the legendary billionaire James Halliday, left a curious will. He had devised an elaborate online game, a hunt for a hidden Easter egg. The finder would inherit his estate. Old-fashioned riddles lead to three keys and three gates. Wade, or rather his avatar Parzival, is the first gunter (egg-hunter) to win the Copper Key, first of three. Halliday was obsessed with the pop culture of the 1980s, primarily the arcade games, so the novel is as much retro as futurist. Parzival’s great strength is that he has absorbed all Halliday’s obsessions; he knows by heart three essential movies, crossing the line from geek to freak. His most formidable competitors are the Sixers, contract gunters working for the evil conglomerate IOI, whose goal is to acquire the OASIS. Cline’s narrative is straightforward but loaded with exposition. It takes a while to reach a scene that crackles with excitement: the meeting between Parzival (now world famous as the lead contender) and Sorrento, the head of IOI. The latter tries to recruit Parzival; when he fails, he issues and executes a death threat. Wade’s trailer is demolished, his relatives killed; luckily Wade was not at home. Too bad this is the dramatic high point. Parzival threads his way between more ’80s games and movies to gain the other keys; it’s clever but not exciting. Even a romance with another avatar and the ultimate “epic throwdown” fail to stir the blood.

Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-88743-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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