Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.
Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.
As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.
On the surface, Sorcery of Thorns seems like just another YA fantasy novel. And in some ways, it is. At its center, there is a girl with unknown powers, a brooding love interest, an evil man hiding in plain sight, and a demon who is clearly experiencing more than demonic emotion. What makes Sorcery of Thorns special is its dedication to its world and magic system. Margaret Rogerson has taken the tropes of young adult fantasy and placed them into a unique and fresh-feeling setting.
Elisabeth Scrivener is an apprentice in one of the Great Libraries, running through the stacks of grimoires that raised her from the time she was dropped on the library’s steps as a baby. In a world where librarians guard magical knowledge and sorcerers are the patrons, grimoires rustle, sing, murmur, and have the ability to become monsters if provoked. A sorcerer can only become such with the help of a demonic servant.
As tragedy strikes and Elisabeth leaves the comforting confines of the only home she’s ever known, the world opens up to both her and the reader. The year is 1824, and the reader is treated to a lovely reimagining of a world teeming with magic. The cities are full of political and magical intrigue, as sorcerers make up much of the ruling class. Elisabeth’s learned assumptions and beliefs about magic and sorcerers are challenged as she slowly befriends Nathaniel Thorn, the heir to a family of necromancers, and his demonic servant Silas.
One of Rogerson’s talents resides in the way she has built the book’s atmosphere. Rather than overexplaining, she lets the settings and details unfold slowly, keeping the reader engaged and curious. The magic doesn’t overwhelm the story, and the inclusion of demons is an excellent extended metaphor: each sorcerer is literally followed by his or her demons. The characters are complex and believable, each bringing something different to the story, and none of them feeling like cookie-cutter characters. Seasoned YA fantasy readers will relish in Rogerson’s attention to detail and beautiful writing, as well as the slow-burn romance between Elisabeth and Nathaniel that burgeons throughout the book’s 453 pages. Fans of richly imagined fantasy worlds like those in Leigh Bardugo’s work will find a similar feeling here.
There is also the inclusion of casual diversity in sexuality and race, which can be incredibly important for young readers to see. I also appreciate that though the main characters of the books are teenagers with adult responsibilities, they still act and think like teens in many ways. I think teens will see themselves in Elisabeth’s anxieties and feelings, as well as in Nathaniel’s. The book does start a little slow, which may be something to warn teens about, but once the reader is hooked, they’re in for good.
Non-Book Readalikes: If you like the sorcerer and grimoire-filled anime Black Clover, you’ll love Sorcery of Thorns.
Slay by Brittney Morris
By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the “downfall of the Black man.”
But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.”
Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?
Slay is a conceptually ambitious novel. For fans of The Hate U Give, Black Panther, and VR/MMORPGs, the book will be an easy sell. The book follows teenage game developer Keira as she navigates the frightening reality of a young boy’s death being directly linked to her game, trying to keep herself from being doxxed, and dealing with her white friends acting as though she’s the sole voice of all Black people. Slay deals with some extremely heavy topics, and Keira ultimately handles the situation with the grace and maturity of an adult – which is where we come to an impasse. Many of these characters don’t read like teens. As a white adult woman, I know that this book was not written for me. I know that many young Black girls may find much that resonates with them in this novel, which is why it’s an important one. However, the way Morris has written this book leaves much to be desired.
I found there to be a big issue with both the writing style and pacing in the novel. Without giving too much away, there are many high-stakes problems presented in the novel without equal emotional stakes. So much is glossed over and so quickly resolved that the reader doesn’t really get the chance to latch on to what’s happening. The death of the player “Anubis,” aka Jamal, doesn’t feel like a concrete part of the book, even though it’s essentially the catalyst for the entire plot. The concept of SLAY (Black people from across the diaspora coming together to celebrate their culture) is an incredible one, and what it does include is highly referential and clever. But I also think that many die-hard gamers will find both the worldbuilding and the plausibility of the mechanics of Keira’s game lacking, and even frustrating. If a teen came to this book hoping for an immersive experience, they wouldn’t get it. The writing, too, is somewhat bland, and though the book is quick-paced, I disagree that it’s action-packed: much of the book’s action happens in quick bursts that are surrounded by chapters containing a lot of telling, and little showing.
When I said the book was conceptually ambitious, I meant that Morris tried to include so many aspects of the socio-political landscape that Black people face today – including Black Lives Matter, neo-nazis, racism in the gaming world, hotepery, respectability politics, misogyny, etc. – that the book feels slightly more like a primer on woke culture than a novel. The dialogue often does not feel natural, feeling rather more like sitting in a cultural studies classroom in college than a high school lunchroom. This is not to say at all that this information and discourse doesn’t belong in YA novels; on the contrary, the growing prevalence of #OwnVoices books and complexly drawn situations and characters is something to celebrate. But the information is presented in such a way that it makes me wonder about its intended audience.
In general, American teens are intelligent, more politically involved than ever, and incredibly outspoken. At the same time, it’s difficult to know what kinds of things teen readers are internalizing online, in their social spaces, and from their families. For Black teens (and likely many readers in their 20s), this book could certainly resonate and provide a sense of solidarity and comfort, especially because so many Black teens are facing many of these issues every day of their lives. For non-Black teens, I worry about the danger of some of them coming away with this book with biases more firmly entrenched in prejudice, or a confused sense of what is and what isn’t in Black culture. As Keira so often states in the book, Black people (like any marginalized group) are not a monolith, and the experiences and opinions of those within its circles will vary wildly from one community to the next. I want this book to be available to the right teens. But ultimately, Slay spreads itself too thin and the book’s resolution fails to empower its characters in light of the high stakes set up by its premise.
Non-Book Readalikes: If you like the aesthetic, action, and complexity of the Black Panther movie, you’ll love the VR world of Slay.
The Winner: Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
The winner of this round is Sorcery of Thorns. These books are incredibly different and were very difficult to review up against each other, and I think Slay is great for the right reader. Additionally, I would encourage teen services staff to seek out a variety of reviews about Slay. But Sorcery of Thorns is a beautifully written, rich novel that will capture the heart of any fantasy reader and any lover of books!
Mariel Fechik is a Teen Services Advisor at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. She is a musician, a poet, and a lover of YA lit.