April 22, 2019

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Fascinating Alternate Histories in Four New Novels

Fascinating Alternate Histories in Four New Novels
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This raw portrait of a young activist coming into her own is not subtle, but it’s not meant to be. Layla deliberately draws direct comparisons between Mobius and Manzanar, the World War II Japanese-American internment camp. And it’s not hard to guess the inspiration for the novel’s political leaders, who praise Nazi sympathizers as “very fine people.”

These signposts compel readers to acknowledge the very real fear experienced by many Muslim Americans and other marginalized groups at this pivotal present moment. Though Layla angrily asserts, “Forgetting is in the American grain,” her near-future story serves as a potent and impassioned reminder of what American nationalism led to in our not so distant past.

381 pp. Little, Brown. $17.99.
(Ages 12 and up)

By Roshani Chokshi


In this glittering series opener, a scorned aristocrat assembles a talented team of outsiders to pull off an epic, high-stakes heist on the eve of the World’s Fair in an alternate, fantastical Paris.

The year is 1889, and the ability to “forge,” or transmute, physical matter into marvelous art, invention and weapons, determines a civilization’s might. This divine skill, which manifests in certain people at 13 or before, is believed to originate from globally scattered fragments of the biblical Tower of Babel. The Order of Babel, a secret society based in Western Europe, has consolidated power by stealing forged magical artifacts from colonized countries.

Séverin, a young French noble who was disinherited by the Order, has become adept at retrieving these artifacts with help from a crackerjack team of teenage accomplices, each with a complicated back story. When Séverin enters into a risky deal that could re-establish his lineage but potentially endanger his crew, everything — in so many jewel-toned, ornate sentences — goes spectacularly wrong.

Reading Chokshi’s prose is like sinking deeply into the overstuffed arms of a plush, purple velvet sofa. Her lavish descriptions of extravagant dinner parties, furtive meetings and daring escapes wrap you in sumptuous sensory detail. When the time comes to sit up, it can be difficult to extricate yourself from the sheer number of plot twists, political machinations and costumed dinner guests. Still, in spite of the gilding, this ingenious take on colonialism and cultural appropriation is wildly inventive and widely representative.

400 pp. St. Martin’s. $18.99.
(Ages 12 and up)

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