Ticking clocks, German folklore, and classic storytelling with a self-aware edge...this was a delight.
Y'all, I have been enjoying the heck out of Algonquin's middle grade line of novels these past few years. There is something about the niche of fantasy middle grade coming out of this publishing hosue that I just really, really enjoy. They tend to have that extra something, that extra oomph of world building mixed with lyrical folktale-esque writing structure, and they tend to have writer's humor mixed in with the narrative. I love it every time. The Counterclockwise Heart was no exception.
In this tale we have Alphonsus, a prince with a ticking clock where is heart is supposed to be. Raised by his adoptive mother, the empress of the land, he's told to hide his clock heart from the world and to ignore the prophecy that was attached to his newborn body when the empress found him one night in a gear-filled bassinet. The counterclockwise heart...
Of course, one day Alphonsus's heart stops ticking clockwise like normal. It starts winding backwards, counting down. But to what, and why?
In another thread of the story we have Esme, a young girl from the magical community of Hierophants. She enters Alphonsus's kingdom in search of Nachtfrau, a powerful sorceress. Esme has her own reasons for searching for Nachtfrau, and she has some fate-tied words of her own.
As Alphonsus and Esme twine closer and closer, their fates begin to unravel as well. The clock is ticking... literally.
This was such a fun ride! With the classic spins of a good middle grade adventure folktale, The Counterclockwise Heart surprised me with its self-aware narration, clever twists, and ultimate sense of grounded Germanic-based folktale. It was just a good blend.
I do think that this novel will appeal to certain types of fantasy readers over others--in particular, there were some darker themes and meandering elements to the storytelling that I think are dependent on personal taste. It worked for me, but I'm an adult fantasy reader who likes those things!
Recommended for fans of The Oddmire, Laini Taylor's writing style if she wrote a classic fairytale, and Seanan McGuire's obscure short stories.
Thank you to Algonquin for Young Readers for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A much-needed breath of fresh air within the YA fantasy "there's a magic world among us!" trope, with a lot to say and a lot of heart to give.
"Moms raised a diamond..."
Rue comes from the East Row, where the families look out for each other and happiness, love, and loyalty bloom amid the concrete. She and her half-sister, Tasha, live with their mom and are doing pretty well.
Until, that is, their mom is shot on their doorstep and life as Rue knows it ends.
Suddenly, Rue's absent dad arrives on the scene with a puff of magic (literally) and whisks Rue away to the magical island of Ghazan. Where apparently a land of magical, gray-tinged white people reside, and Rue and her father are the only brown-skinned people in the whole joint.
Yes, it's just as weird as you're thinking...And Rue's having none of it.
Rue's pissed. Dragged away from her sister, reeling from her mom's murder, NOT on board with her no-good father's weird return, and now struggling with a magic she didn't want and a people she doesn't understand.... it's a lot.
And oh, there's also some serious sh** going on and more people are turning up in trouble.
...And diamonds never crack.
Told through a past/present split timeline and through Rue's intensely personal point of view, Wings of Ebony was a unique voice in the realm of today's young adult fantasy and really highlighted a lot of the internal/external issues surrounding Black teens today. And it was a damn fun time too, that also needs to be in there.
There's a lot of "real world" involved right in with the fantastical, so do go into this novel with the expectation that it's not a high fantasy/magical school concept—Rue is back and forth within the magical and non-magical scene throughout the entirety of this book and so are the rest of the characters.
In truth, I thought that Wings of Ebony stood apart from many other fantasies in its tropes BECAUSE of the intermeshed realities of Rue's ties between the magical community and her home of the East Row. There was no clean break, no escapism, no forgetting your roots to embrace the new like we've seen done before in so many other (let's be honest, traditionally white) books.
I know my voice in the discussion as a white adult woman might not add much to the discussions of this book (and frankly, that's fine - this was not a book meant for me or traditionally white audiences, I do recommend checking out the other wonderful reviews coming from more relevant voices) but I do think it was truly awesome to read a book that was clearly for young Black women and teens that didn't cater to white audiences in terms of its dialogue, plot points, or references. There was a lot outside of my personal experience in Wings of Ebony, and to be honest I loved that, Rue taught me things through the page just by her experiences and how she framed her thoughts to the other non-Black characters in this book—but that teaching wasn't her job, or the novel's job, to do that so I'm taking those points as a good personal side benefit, not anything that I came to this novel with as an expectation.
The only caveats to Wings of Ebony in terms of its technical structure, for me, was its pacing. At times, I really did struggle with the flow of the past-to-present timelines and in general found it easy to pick up and put down this book because the flow from action point to action point felt uneven in places. But those are quibbles, this was still an incredibly solid and extremely unique debut.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.