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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Nightbirds is the first book in an exciting fantasy series by debut author Kate J. Armstrong. If you're looking for a book to discuss with high school girls especially, look no further. In this story about four young women discovering their magic and their place in the world, there's so much food for thought on how difficult it is for women to claim their own power. There's a difference between power being "allowed" by established rules of society, whether it be those set by a male-dominated class system or a religious one, and power women claim for themselves on their own terms. Each of the main characters haling from diverse class backgrounds has their own way of fighting for this power. Expect some heavy drinking, wine and spirits, especially at social gatherings; some passionate kissing; very little swearing ("ten hells," "bitch," "bastard"); and violence that includes some deaths by crossbow, knife, and poison. There is some sexual violence that doesn't go beyond kissing and groping and a jarring childhood recollection by a woman who suffered whippings by her caretaker for having magical abilities.
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What's the Story?
In NIGHTBIRDS, Matilde and her Nightbird sisters Sayer and Aesa have a simple yet very secretive job: sit in a room, masked, in a great mansion and impart kisses to a vetted few willing to pay a small fortune. The kisses are worth a fortune because they contain magic, and the job is secret because magic is forbidden in the Eudean Republic -- although the upperclass on the island of Simta seem to have figured out how to flout the strict church's rules against it. Still, with the Great Houses protecting her, it's not wise for Matilde to kiss and tell. But after giving her magic to a careless young lord, she sees him at a party and insinuates her position as a Nightbird, regretting her indiscretion right afterward. Will he tell the secret? What about an old childhood friend who visits her room and warns her that the government wants to possess the Nightbirds and their magic? Or the Aesa's old flame from her distant island home who tracks her down and tries to compel her to leave with him? Or a man who visits Sayer, claiming to be a client, who draws a knife in the name of a religious sect that wants to punish all girls with magic? The man promptly kills himself with poison after he's subdued, but surely other zealots will come looking for him? And where will the Nightbirds go when they do? Just as the Nightbirds find out their secret is no longer safe, they find out that those who were keeping them "safe" were misleading them. It turns out their magic isn't just for giving away to rich patrons, it's a magic they can possess for themselves, and to protect themselves it's time they learn how to wield it.
Is It Any Good?
There's so much to love in this debut fantasy that is equal parts thrilling magic, well-drawn characters, and compelling feminist themes. And all weave seamlessly together like a well-cast spell. The magic the Nightbirds wield morphs dramatically. At first they are masked young women in beautiful dresses giving away spell-laced kisses for money. At least Matilde, the most upper crust of the group, thinks giving away her magic is the right, safe thing to do and never questions why it's not hers. But as their lives become more dangerous and exposed, they discover what they can really do. And no one is more afraid of the Nightbirds' power than the mostly-male government and a religious sect called the Red Hand. They want to tame it, possess it, and put women in their place. If women are the only magical ones, of course a church like that one thinks there's some evil afoot.
The best part about the characters is that each of the women has a very different take on how to handle her power in the face of all the danger it poses. They are sisters in the struggle, bound together by the elements they mold, but also driven and conflicted for their own reasons. Some battle shame and fear that they will cause harm, one yearns to use her power for revenge but knows the costs, and one is desperate to find a way to invoke change from within so the persecution stops. By the end of the story, after all the chases and kidnappings and jailings and narrow escapes, it's sad when this exciting and empowering story comes to an end. But luckily there's more magic from this series to come.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about women and power with the help of Nightbirds. The lone woman with a position of political power in this story, Epinine, says of her place, "Men don't like powerful women unless they can control them, especially in the realm of politics." Do you think this is true just in this story or in our world as well?
What is considered the "safe" way to do magic at the beginning of the story? Whom does this "safe" magic benefit? Matilde is raised to believe this is the best way to use her magic. Who of Matilde, Sayer, and Aesa is the most willing to claim their magic for themselves? Why?
What do you think will happen to Matilde, Aesa, Sayer, and Fenlin? Did Matilde make the right decision at the end of the story? What about the others?
- Author: Kate J. Armstrong
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Princesses, Fairies, Mermaids, and More, Friendship, Great Girl Role Models
- Character Strengths: Courage, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
- Publication date: February 28, 2023
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 13 - 17
- Number of pages: 480
- Available on: Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: March 7, 2023
Our Editors Recommend
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Excellent and violent fantasy-adventure-romance.
The Black Witch: The Black Witch Chronicles, Book 1
Overlong but engaging fantasy tackles prejudice.
Possessed nun fights dangerous ghosts in exciting read.
For kids who love fantasy and strong girls
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