Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hammer of Witches: review

Hammer of WitchesHammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Magic, Monsters, and Christopher Columbus

“My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story.”
In Shana Mlawski’s debut novel, “Hammer of Witches” (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, 2013), stories are magic—quite literally. Fourteen year-old Baltasar Infante has grown up listening to his bookmaker uncle’s stories—tales about imps who ruin the work of scribes, giant clay creatures that can be summoned with a word, and most of all, Amir al-Katib, the legendary Moorish sorcerer who turned traitor to Spain. But Baltasar always thought they were just that—stories—until he gets into a tight spot and accidentally summons a golem.
The creature saves his life, but he soon finds himself on the run from the Malleus Maleficarum, the sinister witch-hunting arm of the Spanish Inquisition. Along the way, he picks up a genie (although she doesn’t grant wishes; “[o]nly attention-starved genies do that, and I am not attention-starved!”) and pays a visit to Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore, who tells him that his true mission is to find al-Katib and prevent the destruction of the world as they know it.
He finds himself on a ship named the Santa Maria, captained by one Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus), heading into unchartered waters. Along the way, Baltasar masters his powers as a Storyteller, even summoning the Biblical Leviathan, with near-disastrous results.
Mlawski spins a terrifically entertaining tale, but her writing can sometimes be awkward and clunky (“In the middle of the room sat a large table carved from a single piece of wood, and in the corner lounged a fur-covered bed.” One can lounge on a bed, but I have never seen a bed lounge.). Baltasar can sometimes be annoyingly clueless. “So you’re saying there are spells that can make girls look like boys?” he asks one character, who responds, “Yes! In fact there are about a thousand stories that can do that. Because there are about a thousand stories about women dressing up as men to get the respect they deserve!” Well, knock me over with a feather duster.
These quibbles are distractions, but they shouldn’t be deal-breakers for most readers twelve years and older, especially if they like fast-paced historical fiction with a generous helping of fantasy. There is also a terrific author’s note at the end in which she explains which events and characters are historically accurate and which are products of her imagination (she acknowledges that while the people upon which the characters Baltasar and Pedro are based are real, they were most likely not wizards).

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally appeared in the May 19, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jazz-era New York City comes to live in supernatural thriller

Once again, Libba Bray has sprinkled whatever magical fairy dust she employs onto her computer keyboard and come up with something utterly new and compelling. In the past, she has written Gothic fantasies (the Gemma Doyle trilogy), a book about a dying teenager who goes on a road trip with a loopy punk angel that somehow manages to be both wacky and heartbreaking (“Going Bovine”), and a novel about teen beauty queens stranded on a desert island (“Beauty Queens”). While her subject matter appears to be all over the literary map, her books have this in common: they are wildly inventive.
Libba Bray’s latest, “The Diviners” (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) is no exception. That said, “The Diviners” strikes me as even more ambitious in its attempt to make a statement about the American psyche in a particular place and time: New York City in the jazz age.
Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neill has a party trick lands her into trouble: she can divine information about people from their personal objects. When she reveals an inconvenient secret about the son of a well-to-do family in their Ohio town, she is sent to live in New York City with her uncle, who runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Not that Evie, a party girl and would-be flapper, minds leaving her boring hometown for the bright lights, nightlife, and shopping of the big city; she’s “pos-i-toot-ly thrilled.”
But when a paranormal serial killer (“Naughty John, Naughty John, does his work with this apron on. Cuts your throat and takes your bones, sells ‘em off for a coupla stones.”) begins to terrorize the city, Evie uses her power of divination to help catch the murderer—if he doesn’t get her get her first.
Bray brings 1920’s-era New York to sparkling life, from the slang of the era (Gossip is “chin music,” and a gullible young woman “was a real tomato who was not hitting on all sixes.”) to the speakeasies. But Bray brings in larger issues as well, touching on eugenics and the uneasy and sometimes ugly race relations of the time, the aftermath of World War I, and the intense interest in the spiritualist movement of the late nineteenth century. What brings it all to life are the amazing characters, many of whom, like Evie, have some supernatural power. There is Memphis Campbell, a seventeen-year-old numbers runner who once had the power to heal; a con man named Sam Lloyd who can make himself disappear; Theta Knight, a Ziegfeld girl who falls in love with a certain Harlem poet; and Henry Bartholomew Dubois IV, possibly the next George Gershwin.
“The Diviners” is the first in a planned series, made evident by the many dangling threads Bray neglects to wrap up by the end of the book. They only serve to make you tap your foot impatiently until the next installment in the series appears.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally appeared in the April 28, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette. (

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