Today's Top Picks

Spice RoadClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Maiya Ibrahim


In the hidden desert city of Qalia, there is secret spice magic that awakens the affinities of those who drink the misra tea. Sixteen-year-old Imani has the affinity for iron and is able to wield a dagger like no other warrior. She has garnered the reputation as being the next great Shield for battling djinn, ghouls, and other monsters spreading across the sands. 

Her reputation has been overshadowed, however, by her brother, who tarnished the family name after it was revealed that he was stealing his nation's coveted spice—a telltale sign of magical obsession. Soon after that, he disappeared, believed to have died beyond the Forbidden Wastes. Despite her brother's betrayal, there isn't a day that goes by when Imani doesn't grieve him.   

But when Imani discovers signs that her brother may be alive and spreading the nation's magic to outsiders, she makes a deal with the Council that she will find him and bring him back to Qalia, where he will face punishment. Accompanied by other Shields, including Taha, a powerful beastseer who can control the minds of falcons, she sets out on her mission.   

Imani will soon find that many secrets lie beyond the Forbidden Wastes—and in her own heart—but will she find her brother?

BookBrowse Review

Imani is a Shield, a warrior who is renowned for her fighting abilities and for her iron dagger, with which she has a special bond. Her reputation, however, has been tarnished by her older brother, Atheer. After being accused of stealing, Atheer disappeared, leaving Imani and her family heartbroken at his supposed death. When Imani finds proof that Atheer may not only be alive but fighting a war in the kingdom of Alqibah — a kingdom the Council of Qalia claim doesn't exist — she embarks on a mission to bring him back. Accompanied by Taha, a rival Shield who holds a grudge, and Qayn, a magical djinni whose long past holds many secrets, Imani must discover how far she's willing to go to reunite her family. Maiya Ibrahim's Spice Road is a magical debut and a thrilling start to the Spice Road trilogy.

One of the novel's most interesting features is the city of Qalia's magic system, which is centered on drinking a special tea called misra or the Spice. Individuals who drink the tea are temporarily granted a supernatural ability to use in defense of Qalia, with abilities ranging from shapeshifting or speaking with animals to elemental control or an affinity for weapons. Although the Spice is supposed to be reserved for use by Shields, other individuals who drink it also display an ability. Thus the tea itself — rather than any quality inherent in the drinker — provides the power, revealing not only why the supply of misra tea is so tightly controlled, but also why Atheer's theft of the Spice causes such concern. The nature of these superpowers — granted by an external source and lasting only as long as the tea is in the drinker's system — sets them apart from special abilities found in other young adult fantasies.

Since this is the first book in a trilogy, Ibrahim spends a lot of time developing this fantasy world as well as setting up the conflicts that will feature in the next two books. Ibrahim effectively uses small details to help create a setting that feels entirely real. Readers will feel the heat and emptiness of the Forbidden Wastes, smell the myriad spices in the bazaar and shudder at the brokenness and despair of those whose lives have been destroyed by the war in Alqibah. The narrative also takes pains to show the similarities between the people of Qalia and those in Alqibah, which serve as justification for Atheer's actions as well as Imani's in the book's latter half. Additionally, the impact that the war in Alqibah will have on Qalia is made clear, providing the groundwork for the major action in the remainder of the trilogy. Thus, although the conflict feels a bit simplistic in this volume, the plot suggests that the story will grow in complexity and scope as the saga continues.

Ibrahim's skill at character development also indicates her ability to develop a story with complexity and nuance. Imani, who has lived a privileged life, is initially rather naïve, refusing to believe anything but the best about her brother and her family. Her views change, however, as Taha forces her to face not only the prejudices she holds against him and his supposedly lesser clan, but also the ways in which Atheer's acions have placed Qalia in danger. Her rose-colored view of the Council and their long-held laws also fades as she learns more of Qayn's story and the truth about the magical beings which she as a Shield has been tasked to kill. This shift in character is a bit drawn out, as the traveling party is often beset by monsters and dangerous magic, but the Imani at the end of the story is far different from the one in the story's opening pages. One thing that does not change, however, is her love for her family.

The theme of family plays a significant role throughout; in Imani's case, family provides the initial motivation for her mission, in contrast with the more antagonistic family relationship between Taha and his father explored later in the book. The differences between Imani and Taha's families are stark and serve as realistic and tragic catalysts for the two Shields' drastically different choices in the novel. Ibrahim will surely continue to focus on the ways family can influence a person's choices in the next two novels.

Spice Road does have its flaws: there should be more showing than telling, and the ending is a bit abrupt. Also, considering that the characters are the most gifted Shields in their generation, they read young and somewhat immature: instead of focusing on their mission, Imani and her travel companions constantly bicker over who would beat whom and tease one another about crushes. Nevertheless, Ibrahim has, overall, written a wonderful debut filled with unique magic, vivid imagery, and extensive worldbuilding that will appeal to fans of fantasy, strong female leads, and unbreakable family bonds.

Book reviewed by Jordan Lynch

Beyond the Book:
The Healing Properties of Tea

Spice Road, the debut novel by Maiya Ibrahim, features the Shields, a group of warriors sworn to protect the desert city of Qalia from magical beings and monsters. These warriors are gifted with magical abilities to perform their duties, but these powers only manifest when they drink misra, an ancient tea gifted to the people of Qalia. Misra tea's supernatural powers may be fictional, but scientists have discovered that tea does offer "superpowers" in the form of health benefits for the drinker.

Camellia sinensisNot to be confused with herbal infusions, which are often labeled "tea," true tea, regardless of type, is traditionally prepared by pouring hot water over the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, or tea plant. Different preparations produce different types of tea, and herbs, fruits and other compounds may be added to provide flavor. Tea is typically categorized into one of six types: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and dark (Pu'er); this article includes a helpful chart differentiating the types based on their level of polyphenolic oxidation. Although about two-thirds of the world population drinks tea, the most popular type of tea varies by region: Americans tend to prefer black tea, while oolong tea is popular in Southern China and green tea is the most common variety in Asia overall.

The earliest known writings about tea come from 3rd century CE China, describing the drink as a medicinal beverage, a claim that is supported by modern medicine. All teas contain flavonoids, a compound shown to have antioxidant properties, but the literature is divided about the clinical effectiveness of these compounds. Studies show that specific flavonoids can prevent and even kill cancer cells in mice, but only a few human studies have examined such outcomes and results are conflicting. Some scientists suggest that factors such as adding milk or honey to tea or brewing the tea for too long may reduce the antioxidant capacity of the flavonoids and thus reduce any ability to fight cancer. More research is therefore needed to determine whether tea can truly protect against cancer in humans under real-world conditions.

The effects of tea on cardiovascular health are more established: a review of 96 studies looking at 40 different health outcomes found that tea reduced the risk of cardiac death, coronary artery disease and stroke, with greater benefits conferred by drinking two to three cups per day. Three large cohort studies have produced similar findings. A 2022 study of a half million British tea drinkers found that drinking two or more cups per day correlated with decreased mortality from cardiovascular disease, ischemic heart disease and stroke. A study of approximately 77,000 Japanese tea drinkers found that green and oolong tea consumption decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. A similar study followed more than 80,000 Japanese men and women for an average of 13 years and showed an association between tea and a decreased risk of stroke, with the risk decreasing for each additional cup consumed per day. There's also some evidence that tea may help lower blood pressure, with regular consumption of black tea decreasing blood pressure and of green and oolong tea reducing the risk of developing hypertension. Some studies have also shown tea drinking may decrease cholesterol, although more data are needed to support this outcome.

Tea can also help those looking to stay awake. Tea naturally contains caffeine, providing drinkers with a boost of wakefulness. However, tea typically contains as little as half the amount of caffeine found in coffee, which may mean less of the jittery feeling that can come with drinking coffee. One small study showed that although consumption of coffee or tea provided similar levels of stimulation, participants slept better after having drunk tea compared with coffee, indicating that tea may be a better choice for those particularly affected by caffeine.

Although more research is needed to support some of the associations found between tea drinking and improved health, the data clearly show that tea can help the body in myriad ways.

Camellia sinensis, courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens

A Mystery of MysteriesClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Mark Dawidziak


It is a moment shrouded in horror and mystery. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, at just forty, in a painful, utterly bizarre manner that would not have been out of place in one of his own tales of terror. What was the cause of his untimely death, and what happened to him during the three missing days before he was found, delirious and "in great distress" on the streets of Baltimore, wearing ill-fitting clothes that were not his own?

Mystery and horror. Poe, who remains one of the most iconic of American writers, died under haunting circumstances that reflect the two literary genres he took to new heights. Over the years, there has been a staggering amount of speculation about the cause of death, from rabies and syphilis to suicide, alcoholism, and even murder. But many of these theories are formed on the basis of the caricature we have come to associate with Poe: the gloomy-eyed grandfather of Goth, hunched over a writing desk with a raven perched on one shoulder, drunkenly scribbling his chilling masterpieces. By debunking the myths of how he lived, we come closer to understanding the real Poe―and uncovering the truth behind his mysterious death, as a new theory emerges that could prove the cause of Poe's death was haunting him all his life.

In a compelling dual-timeline narrative alternating between Poe's increasingly desperate last months and his brief but impactful life, Mark Dawidziak sheds new light on the enigmatic master of macabre.

BookBrowse Review

Edgar Allan Poe biographers have an advantage over other writers because they don't have to come up with a hook. Their subject, the still-famous author of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and other spine-tingling treasures, took care of that by dying like one of his characters might have; at a premature age, of undetermined causes, soon after being discovered on a Baltimore street, delirious and wearing someone else's clothes. It's standard to wonder: Was he marked for death? Haunted? Born under a bad sign?

Yet in this enlightened century, when we've used artificial intelligence to scan Poe's writings for thought patterns consistent with clinical depression, when we've tested extant locks of his hair for traces of lethal chemicals that may have entered his system via a loose gaslight, most of us probably don't honestly view the unexplained phenomenon of his death as particularly sensational. Besides, in Poe's lifetime, when tuberculosis took one in seven lives, wasn't everyone kind of cursed by our standards?

The author of A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe, film and television critic Mark Dawidziak, wants this new biography to leave you curious about the complexities of the masterful poet and storyteller's life, rather than satisfied with a tall tale, which modern fans still sometimes prefer in spite of all the unromantic truths that belie it. The so-called godfather of horror also invented the Holmesian detective archetype and wrote a tongue-in-cheek creative writing manual, as well as a sincere "Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe," which Einstein would call "a beautiful achievement."

Dawidziak gets the shallow but stubborn misconceptions about Poe's appearance out of the way first. Rather than a gloomy, ghoulish wreck, as popular media, merchandise and psychoanalytic criticism suggest, Poe was a robust and dynamic gentleman for the unphotographed majority of his life. Athletic and playful, he would challenge visitors to outdoor leaping games even as an adult. He could be witty and tender, and was "profoundly excited by music."

He was also egotistical (he declared "The Raven" "the greatest poem that ever was written"), an elitist who was scandalized when members of the merchant class started attaining the high status of planters, as racist as the next white antebellum Virginian, by turns blindly optimistic and tortured (an angle he often played up to get sympathy and much-needed funds). He married his 13-year-old cousin too, and had a habit of getting involved in ugly feuds over literature and women as soon as good fortune came his way. A weakness for alcohol, the severity of which is debated, was another means of self-sabotage.

It's not a great leap to blame some of Poe's faults on a series of early traumas. He was the son of one gifted and one hopeless actor, his mother and father respectively. His father abandoned the family when Edgar was two and his mother died of "consumption" a year later. He was taken in by the philanthropic Allan family of Richmond, Virginia. John Allan, the patriarch, loathed the concept of dependence and treated young Edgar like a charity case for the duration of their relationship, ensuring that the boy was never formally adopted. Instead of inheriting a piece of his foster father's fortune like he hoped, the orphan got nothing, and was left to endure immense financial woes. No wonder he had a profoundly needy personality.

What sounds like a recipe for failure may be the reason Poe is a household name today. If he had been economically free to pursue his passions, he probably would have wound up a knock-off of his hero Lord Byron, a footnote in the history of American romantic poetry. But, as it happened, there was a market for horror and mystery stories, led by now-forgotten bestselling authors Charles Brockden Brown and George Lippard. It was by exquisitely exploiting that market that "Eddy," as his mother-in-law affectionately called him, became known as "The Raven Man" across the nation; children followed him along the street, throwing stones at his heels so he would do his catchphrase: "Nevermore!" He had five years to relish his fame.

A Mystery of Mysteries pivots between two timelines until they meet: Poe's entire life story and his final days. This novelistic technique is apt given the subject's affinity for building suspense by artfully arranging the facts. We know the young Poe's ultimate fate (sort of) but not how exactly he arrives there, so we're constantly revising our expectations. The concept of "known-unknowns" is thematic to this biography as well as to Poe's macabre works. As human beings, we are aware of our limits, know that we will eventually decline and die, but we don't know how it will go down, we might never.

Though Dawidziak arranges Poe's life into a gripping story, he emphasizes objectivity and research. At the very beginning, he disabuses the reader of the notion that any serious biographer knows how Poe died with complete certainty. A supposed quest for his cause of death is valuable only insofar as it turns the reader's attention to the underappreciated "knowns" of his life, many of which inspire even more unanswerable questions.

A potentially disappointing aspect of this book, besides its slimness, is its copious use of quotations from other biographies, scholars and famous Poe acolytes like Stephen King and Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the most insightful analyses of the life and work presented are not Dawidziak's. For instance, it's the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Chris Semtner, who, observing Poe's hypocritical class pretensions, notes, "He always [seemed] to be straddling different worlds. He [seemed] to have the ability to be on the inside yet remain the outsider at the same time." Still, it's Dawidziak who convincingly extends this reading to Shakespeare and Twain, literary giants who also captured and fundamentally changed the broad cultural imagination. He additionally devises a compelling unified theory of Poe's various genre choices, which were manifestations of his inner contradictions: the horror author points out unexplainable problems; the mystery author believes there are logical solutions; the poet searches for unity; the critic searches for high ideals.

A Mystery of Mysteries is a fine entry point into the reality of a legendary figure that will get you puzzling out the ambiguities of existence in the same half-skeptical, half-awestruck frame of mind as America's foremost mystery writer. Death is unresolvable, but it's pleasant to marvel at the complex ways mortals have attempted to cheat that fact, to give death a face and a meaning, however frightful. Few have tried as craftily as Edgar Allan Poe.

Book reviewed by Jacob Lenz-Avila

Beyond the Book:
Edgar Allan Poe and Gothic Fiction in 19th Century Philadelphia

Photograph of Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, showing statue of a raven with shadow cast against brick wall By 1838, Edgar Allan Poe had earned a reputation as a sharp literary critic and skillful editor while based in Richmond, Virginia. To make the most of his talents, he had to move to a bigger and better arena. Boston was the center of book publishing, and New York led the nation in daily journalism and newspapers. But the magazine trade and American Gothic fiction, Poe's niches, flourished in Philadelphia, which was at that time, in the words of The Library Company of Philadelphia, "perhaps the most enlightened, genteel, urbane, and humane of American cities." In Mark Dawidziak's Poe biography A Mystery of Mysteries, scholar Edward G. Pettit of Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum notes, "During the first half of the nineteenth century, more Gothic works [were] published in Philadelphia than in any other American city."

In Pettit's view, the brand of Gothic fiction Philadelphia is famous for was somewhat of a departure from the classical, European, haunted-castles-and-deceased-women variety. The innovation was psychological: "The Horror no longer tends to be a supernatural outside threat. It's now inside the home and inside someone's head… Philadelphia becomes the crucible for Poe's imaginative genius."

Why would this city founded by Quakers, where the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, an early leader of foreign commerce, be America's main producer of nightmarish tales? For precisely those reasons. William Penn acquired the land from King Charles II with the intention that it be a place for religious tolerance. Due to its prime location, where the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers met, near plenty of farmland and coal and ore deposits, Philadelphia became a very wealthy area during the early Industrial Revolution. Social freedoms and economic prosperity drove an arts culture informed by the city's historical connection to the democratic ideal. Gothic fiction was a way to examine that ideal by speculating about its darker side.

For reference, while he was living in the City of Brotherly Love from 1838 to 1844, Poe's creative development moved from "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), a tale taking place in a declining country estate, concerning insanity, the suggestive power of art, heredity and doom on various symbolic levels, to "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), which explores mental illness much more intimately, practically simulating it.

However, it's not so easy to say precisely to what degree the city was responsible for Poe's evolution. Proto-Gothic texts about madness and the seduction of innocents, such as the bestseller Charlotte Temple (1791) by Susanna Rowson, begin appearing in Philadelphia in the late 1700s. The wide appeal of Rowson's novel didn't have so much to do with viscerality, like the kind later seen in Poe's story "The Pit and the Pendulum," but with its representation of the double bind the new class of educated American women were in at this time: Having a wider social and intellectual purview meant they were open to more abuse from men. The novel is about a girl who is seduced by a military officer with the complicity of a teacher at her boarding school. This teacher, who, the narrator notes in coded language, "possessed too much of the spirit of intrigue to remain long without adventures," had been taken away from her convent by an officer when she was a young girl herself.

The Philadelphia writers more commonly linked to Poe, Charles Brockden Brown and George Lippard (a friend of and money lender to the author), were political like Rowson, rather than acutely psychological like the later "Raven Man." Brown's Wieland (1798), as described by the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, deals with central New World issues such as, "the perils of wilderness, the problematic indebtedness of the young democracy to old Europe, and the repressed legacies of war, colonization, and slavery." And Lippard's The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1845) similarly critiques the American aristocracy and the lack of a committed stance on abolition by the religious sect who founded Philadelphia. (Both Charlotte Temple and The Monks of Monk Hall have been cited as the most successful pre-Uncle Tom's Cabin American novels in their times.)

So perhaps the city's influence on Poe was less direct than it seems at first blush. But it wouldn't be beyond the master of fictitious personality to have channeled broad social anxieties into the cramped psyches of his deranged characters. Knowing what was in the air during Poe's most productive period could give us insight into the apparently unmotivated murder in "The Tell-Tale Heart," for instance. Maybe in the mind of the narrator, in which there is no separation between the personal and the cultural, the old man deserves to die because he represents Europe, the parental figure, refusing its child, America, its complete independence. The zeitgeist works on creativity in mysterious ways. In any case, Philadelphia was undoubtedly fertile ground for Poe's imagination to grow.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
Source: National Park Service

Moonrise Over New JessupClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jamila Minnicks


It's 1957, and after leaving the only home she has ever known, Alice Young steps off the bus into the all-Black town of New Jessup, Alabama, where residents have largely rejected integration as the means for Black social advancement. Instead, they seek to maintain, and fortify, the community they cherish on their "side of the woods." In this place, Alice falls in love with Raymond Campbell, whose clandestine organizing activities challenge New Jessup's longstanding status quo and could lead to the young couple's expulsion—or worse—from the home they both hold dear. But as Raymond continues to push alternatives for enhancing New Jessup's political power, Alice must find a way to balance her undying support for his underground work with her desire to protect New Jessup from the rising pressure of upheaval from inside, and outside, their side of town.

Jamila Minnicks's debut novel is both a celebration of Black joy and a timely examination of the opposing viewpoints that attended desegregation in America. Readers of Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half and Robert Jones, Jr.'s The Prophets will love Moonrise Over New Jessup.

BookBrowse Review

Jamila Minnicks' debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Our First Impressions reviewers appreciated its nuanced look at the civil rights era, with 26 out of 29 readers awarding it 4 or 5 stars.

What the book is about:

Could separate be equal? This striking picture of the civil rights movement, from a Southern Black perspective not so far included in the mainstream white-dominated narrative, raises that question through the compelling emotional struggle of Alice Young, who flees a plantation-minded, nominally integrated and repressive rural Alabama, hoping to find her sister in Birmingham, but ends up in the prosperous all-Black town of New Jessup, where she finds dignity, opportunity, love and hope … citizens fear integration will destroy their freedom to be left in peace, to flourish … though they are still unable to vote, or to separate their town officially from a neighboring white community, so they don't get back their fair share of tax funds for their school. Most feel that's a price they are willing to pay to raise their children with pride and respect. Alice feels that way too—her new home is Eden compared to the brutal treatment, daily insults and injustice she experienced under "integration." But the man she loves is part of a clandestine group seeking to peacefully challenge the status quo. As this work gains urgency, pressures mount, for Alice and for New Jessup (Janice P).

Several reviewers noted that they learned about aspects of American history that were new to them from Minnicks' novel.

Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks is an awakening to the many mindsets around the complexities of desegregation. She presents the nuances of the movement that history books fail to capture (Lorraine D). I was not aware of this phase of the civil rights movement. That a Black community wanted to remain a Black city, but with individual freedoms and governmental freedoms, rather than an integrated municipality was not an issue I'd ever been exposed to in any history lesson (Martha G).

Many mentioned that the book's unique prose style and vivid writing added to their enjoyment of the reading experience.

There is drama, tension and joy in the telling. The events gently unfold, frequently with humor and poetic nuances. One tense moment was descriptively preceded with "The sky vacuumed up the air like it did before a storm." Jamila Minnicks' style and phraseology makes one feel that they are right there (Lorraine D). In addition to fully developed characters, the love story narration and opposing viewpoints of the civil rights movement, the book is beautifully written. "Cool morning air thick with a low autumn fog," "paper with my dried tears and defenses … went up in smoke" and "exhale to release the inside noise" are examples of imagery that fill the pages of this book. I found joy in the imagery and could see and feel and smell and hear as if I were there. Everyone who loves beautiful writing will enjoy this book (Judith M).

A few readers felt the plot was a bit overly ambitious with its multiple storylines…

It felt like there were a lot of different storylines going on, but they were all disconnected from each other (Amber H). I expected this book to come together with its various storylines but there seemed to be too much going on at once. The book presents the mystery of Alice's sister Rosie, the back and forth with the family's involvement with the integration vs. segregation efforts, and local business relationships. There's a good amount of detail related to the various subplots but not enough depth (Melanie B).

...but overall, reviewers found Moonrise Over New Jessup to have profound societal importance, with some suggesting that it is likely to spark great discussions.

While the story is fictional it has great value as socially responsible literature. I recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction, likes pondering why people believe as they do and book clubs who love discussing such (Karna B). I really enjoyed the book and think it would be an excellent book club selection. Also, I predict that readers who liked The Vanishing Half and The Prophets will be fans of Moonrise Over New Jessup (Rosemary C).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
Historic Black Communities in the United States

Black-and-white photo showing the house belonging to S.M. Moseley, a mayor of Eatonville, Florida Jamila Minnicks' debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup takes place in an all-Black town in 1950s Alabama. Residents are wary of integration, preferring to exist in their own space rather than being left to contend with racism in a white-dominated society. In an interview with The Rumpus, Minnicks explains that she wanted to write about this type of community because "Towns and places like New Jessup did exist, and many still do … Between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, it is estimated that more than 1,200 Black towns and settlements were founded in the US." She goes on to specify, "New Jessup embodies some of the larger communities that we built for ourselves … places where Black people owned acreage and the community employed city planners to manage growth. Where Blackness was the center of everything from our celebrations to our disagreements."

The first legally sanctioned Black settlement in what is now the United States was Fort Mose in the territory of Florida. It was established in 1738 by the Spanish, who granted sanctuary to some enslaved people fleeing English plantations during a time when various European powers were struggling for control in the New World. Following the Civil War, all-Black towns founded by former slaves, known as "freedmen's towns," cropped up all over the US. Communities founded by and for Black people continued to regularly form and be maintained well into the 20th century. Examples include Brooklyn, Illinois, a town founded in 1823 by Black families, some fleeing slavery, who had left the state of Missouri; the resort town of Highland Beach, Maryland, founded in 1893 by Laura and Charles Douglass (son of Frederick Douglass); and the rural settlement of DeWitty, Nebraska (later Audacious), established by Black homesteaders in 1908.

Minnicks suggests in her novel that settlements like these could offer Black Americans a level of freedom and support they were unlikely to experience elsewhere, giving them the power to build economic and social stability as a community. However, Black towns, as well as Black neighborhoods in cities, also sometimes became targets for large-scale racist violence. One of the worst of these incidents was the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a white mob destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a prosperous area known as "Black Wall Street," and killed as many as 300 people.

Jameelah Nasheed explains in an article for Teen Vogue that intentional settlements and communities for Black people, formed within American cities or built as their own legal entities, have historically been established in spite of and in opposition to the white-created "ghetto": "Racist housing policies like redlining and racial covenants … prevented Black people from buying or even renting property in certain sections of many cities … To this day, white society remains complicit in allowing Black people to be relegated to these strategically created ghettos." Nasheed's article also focuses on how Black spaces continue to be built on Black-owned land, mentioning a group of families who bought 97 acres of land in Georgia in September of 2020 to create a community named Freedom.

While Black communities like those described by Nasheed still often lack inclusion in mainstream American history, Minnicks is far from the first novelist to portray one. Another contemporary writer who has set a story in a historic Black community is Kaitlyn Greenidge, whose Reconstruction-era novel Libertie takes place in the settlement of Weeksville, a Black neighborhood founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1821. And to cite a much earlier example, Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, an all-Black city incorporated in Florida in 1887, and wrote it into her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Residence of S.M. Moseley, a mayor of Eatonville, Florida (1907)
Source: New York Public Library

The Magician's DaughterClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by H.G. Parry


Off the coast of Ireland sits a legendary island hidden by magic. A place of ruins and ancient trees, sea salt air, and fairy lore, Hy-Brasil is the only home Biddy has ever known. Washed up on its shore as a baby, Biddy lives a quiet life with her guardian, the mercurial magician Rowan. A life she finds increasingly stifling.

One night, Rowan fails to return from his mysterious travels. To find him, Biddy must venture into the outside world for the first time. But Rowan has powerful enemies—forces who have hoarded the world's magic and have set their sights on the magician's many secrets.

Biddy may be the key to stopping them. Yet the closer she gets to answers, the more she questions everything she's ever believed about Rowan, her past, and the nature of magic itself.

BookBrowse Review

"Magic isn't there to be hoarded like dragon's treasure. Magic is kind. It comes into the world to help. Our job is to make sure it gets to where it needs to go."

In H. G. Parry's novel The Magician's Daughter, sixteen-year-old Biddy lives on the wild, remote, hidden island of Hy-Brasil, cloaked from the world by powerful magic. Her home is an island of fairy stories and folktales, shadowy forests and mysterious castle ruins, black rabbits and a golden-eyed, shape-shifting animal spirit known as a Púca. Since she washed up on the island in a lifeboat as a baby, Biddy has been brought up by the mage Rowan and his familiar, a rabbit-sometimes-turned-human named Hutchincroft, the only companions she has ever known. Through them, she learns that magic is everywhere; in every star, every leaf and every grain of sand.

Rowan, a powerful magician, regularly transforms himself into a raven to make trips to the mainland for supplies. But Biddy never leaves Hy-Brasil, and as she grows up, her entire worldview stems from the books she reads and the lessons in spells taught to her by Rowan. Even though she understands that she is not a mage herself, with her origins shrouded in mystery, Biddy dreams she is destined for a great purpose. No longer a child, she finds herself caught between worlds: between her idyllic past childhood and the adulthood for which she yearns and has read about in books; and between the isolated, magic-infused realm of Hy-Brasil and the world beyond that she longs to see.

However, Rowan's trips soon turn ominous; he comes home wounded, and one night he does not return at all. Biddy's use of a spell to find him sparks a series of devastating revelations about the outside world, the perilous place of magic in it and the true mystery about herself. At last, Biddy will get to leave Hy-Brasil, but only to embark upon a dangerous journey to discover the truth and save magic…

The early chapters of The Magician's Daughter superbly evoke the beauty, wonder and fairy-tale aura of Hy-Brasil, the joys and adventures of Biddy's childhood and adolescence and her deepening relationships with her adopted father and his familiar. The sense of place on the island is powerfully rendered, lending the vivid descriptions an air of enchantment and mystery while invoking a history that reaches far back into the mists of time. But, like all fairy tales, the initial idyll cannot last, and darkness must ultimately be faced and fought.

In the novel's second half, the tone effectively changes to reflect Biddy's impressions of a human world new and unknown to her, dealing perceptively with the sudden shock of crowds of people, trains, chimneys, noise, smells and smoke. Biddy's memories of Hy-Brasil and her earlier knowledge gleaned only through books provide a stark contrast to the later chapters' gritty, haunting rendition of the outside world: London in 1912, ravaged by poverty and illness. At the orphanage where she goes to work undercover, Biddy must awaken to a grim reality that would have been hers but for a twist of fate. Her journey of discovery makes it clear that outside of Hy-Brasil, the magical world mirrors the darkness and cruelty of the ordinary mortal world in many ways, and Biddy's choices in the face of her new knowledge make her a sympathetic and compelling protagonist.

Given that the entirety of the novel is told from Biddy's teenage point of view, it is understandable that the narrative offers less insight into some of the other characters, though at times it does feel that the story might be better served by better exploring some of their motivations. One of the more sinister, complex and resonant villains is built up powerfully throughout the narrative, only to make a rather abrupt volte-face towards the end, making the dénouement somewhat too easily resolved as a result. The ending, too, feels a little unfinished, as though there is more of the story left to tell, but, nevertheless, The Magician's Daughter is a captivating, erudite, beautifully written fantasy about growing up, being unselfish, showing courage and doing the right thing.

Book reviewed by Jo-Anne Blanco

Beyond the Book:
The Origins of Female Protagonists in Children's Literature

Bridget (known as Biddy), the protagonist of H. G. Parry's The Magician's Daughter, grows up on the magical, hidden island of Hy-Brasil, with only her father, the mage Rowan O'Connell, and his familiar, a rabbit named Hutchincroft. She is greatly influenced by the stories of heroines she reads about in her father's library; female literary figures with whom she identifies and who help shape her character and moral compass. Their influence proves crucial when, in 1912 at the age of 16, Biddy has to leave the island to right past wrongs and face the challenges of the human world. Biddy's coming of age from an idyllic, magical childhood to a cruel, harsh awakening follows in the footsteps of her heroines, such as Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, and Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.

The library of Biddy's youth is filled with volumes that today's readers might consider classics of children's literature, but would have been fairly new at the time. Fiction written specifically for children and adolescents has its origins in the 18th century. Prior to this, the oral tradition of nursery rhymes and published religious verses such as Isaac Watts' Divine Songs for the Use of Children (1715) was used to inculcate morals and values. Fairy tales, such as those by Madame D'Aulnoy and Charles Perrault, with their predominantly female protagonists, were not originally intended for children. Nor was the first fairy tale published in English in 1621, which featured a male hero, Tom Thumb, already a well-known figure from folklore. In his 1730 stage play The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, Henry Fielding used the same male character to comment satirically on gender roles of the time — and, indeed, Tom Thumb himself would usually be played by a female child actress.

Little Goody Two-Shoes frontispieceIn 1749, Sarah Fielding, Henry's sister, included two fairy tales in her novel The Governess, or Little Female Academy. This book is considered to be the first English-language novel written for children and it is notable that all its characters are female. The eldest pupil, Miss Jenny, leads by example, recounting the story of her life to teach the others how to aspire to goodness and happiness; all the other girls then tell the stories of their lives as well. A few years later, in 1765, John Newbery, the first major publisher of children's books, published The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, an anonymously written story of the poor but intelligent and virtuous Margery Meadwell, who is ultimately rewarded for her innate nobility and diligence.

By the 19th century, children's literature had begun to evolve away from religious-themed morality tales as society became more secularized. Elements of magic and fantasy permeated children's stories with the advent of Edgar Taylor's 1823 translation of the Grimm brothers' fairy tales and the 1846 publication of Hans Christian Andersen's stories. Although male protagonists continued to appear in popular works of the time such as Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), the most influential, enduring, and famous of 19th century children's books feature a female main character: Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1872). The heroine, Alice, is an exceptionally bright seven-year-old girl who enters dream worlds highly influenced by Edward Lear's nonsense verses, juxtaposed with the darkness and chaos of traditional nursery rhymes. Carroll's mentor, the Scottish author George MacDonald, deserves to be as well-known today as his protégé, being the creator of such memorable female protagonists as Tangle of The Golden Key (1867), Princess Irene of The Princess and the Goblins(1872), and Rosamunde and Agnes of The Lost Princess: A Double Story (1875).

At the time we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Biddy in 1912, J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan (1904) had been published as a book in 1911 and Frances Hodgson Burnett had published her novels A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911). The tradition of female protagonists in children's literature was well-established, and writers such as Frank L. Baum, E. Nesbit, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Angela Brazil, and many others were creating timeless heroines whose impact on children's literature would be profound and whose influence would be felt for generations to come.

Frontispiece and title page from The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, courtesy of the British Library

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.