10. Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro and Inkheart’s Cornelia Funke is set in 1944 Spain where a young girl Ofelia encounters a mysterious faun creature in a mythical labyrinth nearby the mill she must call her new home. The faun reveals to Ofelia that she is the reincarnation of the lost princess Moana of the underworld, but to return to her kingdom, she must complete three tasks to prove she is worthy of returning to her kingdom. This novel dove deeper into the world of the cult-classic movie, including beautiful illustrations that make it feel like an ancient fairy tale.
Thirteen years after its release the unique received a book co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Inkheart’s Cornelia Funke and published through Bloomsbury Publishing. This novel dove deeper into the world of Ofelia, including beautiful illustrations that make it feel like an ancient fairy tale.
Unlike the film, the book adaptation gives us backstory into the world created by del Toro thought the form of short fairy tales. We learn the origin of how all the key elements and characters of the movie came to be. For instance, the Pale Man was a man who worked for a priest in a Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition who persecuted and killed all those who questioned the church. He killed his first child at age thirteen and continued to kill until one day his own eyes could bare his cruel deeds any longer and dropped out of their sockets. The mere attention to detail made the story as a whole more monstrous than the film.
Everything is explained, the creation of the labyrinth, the history of the frog who poisoned the fig tree and how he came in possession of the Pale Man’s golden key, the magical book that Ofelia was given, and most importantly the faun’s backstory is explained (which turned my heart a bit into mush). We also get to meet Ofelia’s real father and his undying love for his daughter.
Much like the film, the novel follows the story of Ofelia, Captain Vidal, Mercedes, and the doctor. However, in the novel, we are given deep glimpses into their subconscious mind. Their hopes, dreams, fears, cruelty, and backstory. If you thought Captain Vidal was a cruel man in the movie, wait until you read in his point of view. He will send violent shivers down your spine. The alternating narrative in the story might seem a bit confusing because in one paragraph you are following Mercedes’ point of view and then we are seeing Captain Vidal’s POV in the next, but it flows smoothly and never disrupts the narrative.
Funke and Del Toro combined myth with reality, showing us that children can see the cruelty and beauty of the world more truthfully despite their innocence. But most importantly that monsters exist and they surround us in all shapes and forms, but we must be brave for the sake of others and confront these monsters.
9. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a story of realizing that sometimes leaving a toxic relationship is hard, and we must not leave our friends when they ask for help.
Freddy is a teenager in love, living in a world where no one judges her for her sexuality. This is not a coming-out story nor a story about defeating the odds. This is a self-love story and realizing our worth and the importance of friends — with beautiful soft art. The art was soft and curvy. It reminds me of the art style from Steven Universe. No one character was the same, everyone had their own personality, shape and style.
This LGBTA friend novel will bring back memories of how messy it is like to be a teenager thinking we knew what we were doing when in reality we were just fish flopping around. We need more diverse and beautiful stories like this one. In graphic novels, novels, movies and tv shows.
Pick up this novel if you want to experience the warmth of friendship!
8. Wicked Saints
Wicked Saints is a unique dark fantasy. Unlike the majority of young adult fantasy novels — which are based on western European culture — Emily A. Duncan’s novel roots of fantasy derive from Eastern European culture.
We follow the story of Nadezhda (Nadya) Lapteva — a young girl who lives in a monastery in Kalyazi, however, this girl is special because she is the last known cleric in her land and the only one who has been able to speak to all the gods. While this may ring like special and perfect butterfly vibes — Nadya is nothing like that. Nadya is a young girl who has been given an impossible fate since her birth — save Kalyazi from their neighbouring country Tranavian and bring back the gods to Tranavian’s godless lands.
Living in her monastery bubble Nadya had accepted her fate and throughout most of the book we see her true to her believes (not really influenced by the main love interest. When her bubble begins to pop it is not by a boy but by her own venture into outside her closed space. Nadya was able to see problems in everything she knew based on her new experiences and the knowledge she acquired along the way. It felt very real. Especially since her core believes and values still dominated her decision making to the very last page.
After Nadya’s monastery (and home) is attacked by Tranavian prince Serefin Meleski, she begins her adventure and the fate that was expected from her since birth. Along the way, she meets dark conflicted soft boy Malachiasz Czechowicz, a Tranavian blood-mage who also wants to end the century-long war between Kalyazi and Tranavian (he is also the love interest who is just dreamy and I just want to give him a hug honestly). The romance was sweet — not lovey dove sweet but Nadya constantly beating herself up because she realizes she is developing feelings for “the enemy.” The way she handled the whole situation was amusing.
The two work together to try to do the one thing that could bring the war to a close — assassinating the king of Tranavian.
Wicked Saints is told through the point of view of ruthless and bad-ass Nadya and tired and awkward bisexual Serefin. Which was brilliant since we can the through the eyes of a Kalyazi and a Tranavian and it shows how there are truly two sides to every story and not everything is what it seems from the other side.
Duncan’s Eastern European inspired fantasy draws heavily on the religious entities of saints and gods. She creates her own set of Pantheons which she introduces slowly throughout the novel. Even while everything is her own creation, it is obvious that Duncan did proper research on religious practices of believing in saints. Everything felt natural.
The magic in this fantasy novel is said to be inspired by Joan d’Arc, but honestly, it is inspired by Dungeons and Dragons clerics and wizards — which is obvious to see if you play the tabletop game. The way Nadya’s magic and the magic of the blood mage work is very D&D and I absolutely loved it. It is subtle and you only realize it if you know how those two classes work in D&D.
Everything about this novel was spectacular. The plot, the world-building, the pacing, the magic system, the lore, the characters. I was instantly hooked. I thought I had figured out the plot twist — turns out I was wrong and there were more twists than I was anticipating.
7. Permanent Record
Pablo Rind is a recent college dropout working the graveyard ship at his local twenty-four-hour health food store. This Korean/Paksitani kid dropped out of his dream school, NYU, after a single semester and is trying to build the courage to reapply while saving up money as the debt collectors continuously flood his phone with calls.
Pablo desperately wants his life to go well, but he does not know what he wants. He does not even know what he wants to do in college. He just does not know. Then one night while at work, a young Mexican girl comes crashing in getting an arrange of snacks that Pablo appreciates. While ringing her items up he realizes that the girl in front of him is none other the Leanna Smart, one of America’s biggest star…so he does the only logical thing and asks about credit cards with the best flight mileage points.
While this is a “romance” contemporary novel, the romance plays a small factor in the story. Yes, Pablo is header heels over Leanna Smart, but during their relationship, he has other things on his mind. He is constantly thinking about how his life is falling apart and he wants this relationship to work so he could at least have something positive occur. Through Leanna, Pablo can discover who he is and get a general idea of what he might want to do with his life.
Pablo’s inner monologue throughout the novel is witty, agonizing and relatable. Life is hard when you have a strict Korean mom who happens to a be a doctor and a college professor Princeton alum dad with a loose Muslim faith that is trying to become a playwright. The relationship Pablo has with his family is a bit heart wrenching, because you, as a reader, can see how worried his mom, dad, and brother are, but Pablo is too ashamed of his failures to truly face them.
Choi’s language in her writing allows the characters to be undeniably millennial. She’s able to truly make the reader care for Pablo in moments of anxiety and emergency. She was unforgivingly brutal how money shapes and changes a person, painting a clear picture of how painful it is to see $400 disappear in front of your eyes for the sake of health and how baffling it is to watch someone drop $4,000 on a gift.
Pablo is the true essence of what it feels like to be in your twenties in the USA — struggling to pay got college, realizing the dangers of credit cards, trying to pay rent, and having an anxious pit in your stomach while you watch people around you be successful while you feel like you are stuck in a singular pothole with no way out.
6. They Called Us Enemy
This graphic novel is a memoir of George Takei, known for his role of Sulu in the first rendition of Star Trek. This graphic novels is the story of his childhood during the 1940s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that every person of Japanese descent on the west coast get rounded up and sent to “relocation centres” because they ere seen as enemies of the state due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in World War 2. He tells the story of a shameful action taken by the US and how it seems to be almost be erased from history — now allowing for a new for of relocation centres. The novel is centred around Takei and his family and the Japanese community around him trying to make the best of a clearly brutal and uncalled for the situation.
Even though the novel might be intended for a younger audience to educate them in a dark part of American history, it focuses on adult themes of racism, xenophobia, prejudice, government mandates and attitudes of the time. It’s a window to a moment in history usually forgotten or swept aside that everyone should read.
5. Sorcery of Thorns
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson follows the story of Elisabeth Scrivener, an apprentice librarian who has lived her whole life in the library filled with grimoires — sentient magical books and is taught that all sorcerers are evil. That is until one day she’s branded as a traitor and criminal. Soon she is whisked away to the capital in order to face trial for her crimes, only to find out there’s more going than it appears. She allies herself with Nathaniel Thorn — a sorcerer with an interesting demon servant — and together they have to stop a centuries-old conspiracy.
Rogerson’s fantasy novel follows similar themes as her debut novel “An Enchantment of Ravens” however since the previous novel her delicate imagery and her world-building techniques have grown. Rogerson’s word choice and imagery will truly project a movie onto your mind as each sentence makes you fall deeper into the story. I never wanted it to end!!
Sorcery of Thorns draws elements from popular fantasy themes such as Diana Waynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, Ghibli films and Pan’s Labyrinth but is still to be completely unique. An Enchantment of Ravens and Sorcery of Thorns are two completely different novels; with Sorcery of Thorns being its superior.
Elisabeth and Nathaniel’s flirtatious dynamic was natural and completely gut-punching as they got to know each other. Their hate to love relationship will have you laughing at their banter and have your heart feeling warm when they finally kiss (the smile I had while on the bus probably freaked people out).
Read a Sorcery of Thorns, for you will be swept away by this whimsical epic story of a clever girl, a broken boy, a loyal demon and signing books.
4. The Adventure Zone: Murder of Rockport Limited!
The Adventure Zone by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy and Carey Pietsch, follows the adventures of three very different individuals who are trying to complete a simple mission but get dragged into a much larger adventure.
Tako — an elvish wizard with a prideful personality, Magnus Burnsides — a human fighter that is pretty much the human version of a golden retriever, and Merle Highchurch — a dwarf cleric who seems to get the bad end of the stick. All they wanted to do was rescue Merle’s cousin and get paid. Obviously, it became much more than that.
This beautifully illustrated comic book is an adaptation to a Dungeons and Dragons podcast with the same name, that has a large fanbase emotionally invested in the journey of these three boys.
As someone who went into the comic book story blind and with very little knowledge of the podcast I was immediately captivated by the characters personalities and their interactions with each other.
Pietsch’s illustrations are beautiful and simple. Her cartoon art style truly matches the general gist of what “The Adventure Zone” is; goofy characters making poor and silly decisions while trying not to die.
You will laugh, you will gasp, you will hold your breath, but most importantly you will want to go on your own adventure.
3. How It Feels to Float
This proudly poetic novel follows the story of Biz, an Australian teenager who can see her dead dad’s ghost. But it is much more than that, this is a story of the reality of living with panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and PTSD. How it Feels to Float is an honest take on mental health and how sometimes it might not make sense but be completely sensible.
It is hard to describe this book without giving it all away because it is an experience rather than a story. It pulls no punches on what it means to be a teenager, being lost, losing the person you considered your best friend, finding new friends and most importantly finding peace with oneself.
If you are looking for the tangible feeling of pain and emptiness with no space left for your to process your emotions, then this is the perfect book to pick up. Helena Fox will make you wail with Biz on a great outback adventure.
2. Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokski
Welcome to a Paris where magic hides before your eyes. In the story of The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, we follow the lives of five (six…kinda) friends who are working together to achieve their own personal goals.
Séverin wishes to restore what ripped away from him. Enrique wishes to be acknowledged and praised for his knowledge. Tristan wishes to live a happy life and help his best friend’s dreams become true. Zalia wishes to unwrapped the secrets of her talent. Zofia wishes to take care of her sister and return to University. Hypnos wishes to have true friends.
Each character is an outcast in their own way, each very different but these differences is what makes them an unstoppable team that could change the world. Chokshi’s work could be compared with Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, but The Gilded Wolves is a whole different level. While Six of Crows was edgy and intense, The Gilded Wolves was dazzling and powerful.
Through the various perspectives, the character-driven story will make you forget that you are reading a historical fantasy instead of a straight-out fantasy novel.
You can see that Chokshi took her time to research and learn about the history and lore of various countries to later twist them to make them her own. This attention to detail is much like a fancy dessert at a French bakery.
The prose is like an exquisite delicate fruit tart purchased at that French bakery, each bite worth every penny as you are transported into a world that is exactly and nothing like your own. Chokshi’s mystical writing is poetry to the senses that will keep you captivated till the very last page. I fell so deeply in love with her whimsical writing that I found myself reading certain paragraphs over and over because the writing was a beauty that deserves to be read multiple times.
Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves is a work of art that will keep you yearning for more after tearing your heart out.
1. Starless Sea by Erin Morgernsten
The Starless Sea is an intricate weaving of a story within a story within a story. Almost an endless sea of different tales unfolding to tell a much larger and epic tale.
It is hard to describe The Starless Sea in proper coherent words. This fantasy world is a bibliophile dream come true. We follow the story of Zachary Erza Rawlins, a graduate student who finds solace in books. His life remarkably ordinary until he found a particular book in his university’s library. This book tells a single story of him, one from his childhood where he did not open the door that was not a door. Soon Zachary starts investigating the book, trying to figure out its origin and how it knew of the event he had so long forgotten. This leads him to find two individuals who know more than they lead on. And eventually to the Starless Sea.The Starless Sea takes place in the real world, and a magical underground archive library of sorts that tracks the stories of all those who walked the Earth and all those who ventured into the Starless Sea — which is a place, a being, a thought and you. It is a place where people go to enjoy themselves or become guardians and protectors or to become found and lost. It’s hard to describe what it is without ruining the magic written across the pages.
Weaving Zachary’s narrative, along with fairy-tale-like stories within the novel Erin Morgenstern illustrates what it truly means to be in love with books and finding magic within each of the pages. It’s a story of heartache, adventure, romance, desperation, finding and acceptance. Morgenstern’s poetic writing is like getting home from a long day and melting into bed being surrounded by everyone and everything you love to comfort you with sweet whispers of a better day in your ear. Similar to Night Circus, she makes you nostalgic for a place that never existed but will always welcome you home.
Morgenstern has outdone herself again with an unforgettable love letter to the magic available around us, but precisely to the magic in stories, storytelling and storytellers.