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Reimagining the world: recent YA books put a new spin on old tales

New reads from Yaba Badoe, Laura Wood, Shappi Khorsandi, Caroline Busher and more

Yaba Badoe’s Lionheart Girl is a superb read

In The Witches of Gambaga (2010), documentary filmmaker Yaba Badoe interviewed mostly older women who had sought refuge in a “witches’ camp” in northern Ghana after exile from their homes and communities. Accusations of witchcraft made them pariahs, and it was clear that – as is so often the case, whether it’s in 17th-century Salem or having an opinion online – this attempt to control an alleged ill in society was really about that enduring menace, misogyny.

Calling attention to such things is a feminist act, and a strong feminist thread runs throughout Badoe's new novel, Lionheart Girl (Zephyr, £12.99). In a village inspired by that camp, protagonist Sheba learns from her mother that "we royal women are special . . . Our blood is enriched by generations of ritual and magic. Magic flows through us, Sheba, and whether you like it or not, it trickles out of us." She is told: "We women are wonderfully, gorgeously made, and men fear us because we give birth to them."

It feels like an empowering reimagining of the real history in the camp, celebrating rather than denouncing women’s strength and gifts – but it’s also not as straightforward as that, which makes it a far more interesting and satisfying work.

For a start, there’s the magic: real rather than mere superstition in this world. And magic is not inherently good or empowering or female; Sheba’s mother is in fact the villain of the piece, though that too is complicated. “Even though I’m aware of what Ma’s capable of, to be told that women loathe her wrenches my guts,” Sheba muses.


Being called to battle one’s own parent is a familiar trope in fantasy, but Badoe gives it the emotional weight it deserves. Sheba’s world, rooted in west African myth and tradition, is brought to life with a light and lyrical touch. This is a superb book.

European tales inform Laura Wood's latest novel, A Single Thread of Moonlight (Scholastic, £7.99), which reimagines Cinderella through the lens of The Count of Monte Cristo. Iris ran away after her father's death rather than live with her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters, but is now ready to return to her ancestral home. With the help of society tastemaker Nicholas Wynter, who has his own reasons for wanting revenge, she poses as Serena Fox, the sort of wealthy young woman likely to catch a prince's eye and earn a proposal by the end of his trip.

Readers will understand exactly where the story is going as soon as this is noted of Nicholas: “The man could certainly wear a waistcoat.” That sentence is a useful litmus test for this book: if it delights you, much more joy awaits you in this perfect, cosy winter read.

Retellings are at the heart of the Bellatrix imprint, and its latest offering sees comedian and author Shappi Khorsandi consider what life would be like for Emma Hamilton (mistress to Lord Nelson) if she were born today. Kissing Emma (Bellatrix, £7.99) begins with Emma remembering her father: "Fun sometimes, then giving my mum a black eye sometimes. All dads were like that, weren't they?"

After he dies in what is officially recorded as a drunken accident and what the rumour mill claims is murder at her mother’s hands, Emma is deemed to be bad news. A new school offers her the chance to reinvent herself – a trope a little too beloved in YA fiction, yes, but handled well here.

Khorsandi demonstrated her capacity to write authentically and unsentimentally about the darker edges of teenage experience with Nina Is Not OK, and this new novel is similarly fearless in depicting Emma’s exploitation – sexual, emotional, financial – at the hands of several boys and men. Her yearning for something better than the options that seem available to her – the low, limiting expectations people have for a girl like her – is believable, as is her inability to understand the shoddy behaviour of the boys who feel lust rather than love for her.

That Emma finds her own voice eventually is a hard-earned and welcome reward.

Caroline Busher’s The Legend of Valentine Sorrow is a pleasing blend of real historical detail and dark magic

Caroline Busher's third historical novel, The Legend of Valentine Sorrow (Poolbeg Press, £7.99), is indebted to another real-life figure: Charlotte Thornley Stoker, mother to Bram, whose tales of the 1832 cholera epidemic in Sligo informed his best-known work. In Busher's reimagining of this epidemic, the illness proves a convenient cover for vampires who need to consume human blood to survive.

The titular Valentine is turned into one of these immortal creatures by Clarabell, a centuries-old child vampire echoing Anne Rice’s Claudia, and becomes caught up in one of those inevitable vampire feuds. This is gently gothic rather than gory; a pleasing blend of real historical detail and dark magic.

The price of immortality is among several themes in Philip Womack's Wildlord (Little Island, £7.99), in which 16-year-old Tom arrives at the home of his long-lost uncle and is unsettled by what's going on there. He knows "this wasn't some weird hippy commune, full of yoga and gurus. This was something else." That it involves magic, even after he has experienced it and indeed performed it himself, takes a little longer to accept, but soon he learns of the Samdhya, who know "things that no man has known, or ever will".

Philip Womack’s stylish prose in Wildlord makes this fantasy novel very much worth reading

The precise relationship between these supernatural creatures and Tom’s uncle is a little murkier, but when Tom learns that one is being held captive, his course of action seems clear. It gets a little more complicated when his own powers are at stake, and when he might be able to see any point in time he desires – including revisiting his dead parents. Womack’s stylish prose makes this fantasy novel very much worth reading.

Finally, the latest science-infused novel from Lauren James is the climate-focused Green Rising (Walker Books, £7.99), in which certain teenagers, labelled Greenfingers, develop the power to grow plants from their own skin. Naturally, corporations want to exploit this, and so a research project begins, collaborating with a tech billionaire for whom "the collapse of civilisation was a profitable endeavour". Can the power of the Greenfingers be harnessed to save the planet – or is there something more sinister going on here?

Green Rising is set in the very near future, when colonising Mars is a possibility and therefore the richer in society can tell themselves, “It’s not even worth trying” to fix things on Earth. It is a world that still resembles ours in almost every way, with a particularly sharp eye on both social and traditional media. (Think-pieces spring up about “whether the Greenfingers were a result of spending too much time on their phones, or pollution”.)

The novel is unapologetically political, and for much of it the central characters – an activist, a poorer Greenfinger kid and a wealthy heiress – serve mostly to explore the issues from a variety of angles and levels of awareness. Yet while they don’t quite feel believable, the overall premise does; despite the magical elements this is a book very much grounded in reality, and a terrific example of how to explore environmental issues in playful, unusual ways.