Thanks to the success of Harry Potter—and then Percy Jackson—there are lots of bad fantasy novels for younger readers out there. But there are also some good ones, even in the vein of "unlikely young person finds in themself surprising magical talent". Like The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, which I enjoyed for myself a couple months ago and am now reading to the boys.
In this book, set in the present day, a 12-year-old boy names Nick runs away from his abusive uncle only to wind up pretty much imprisoned in an establishment called "Evil Wizard Books." The proprietor is the eponymous evil wizard, who takes Nick in as his apprentice (read: kitchen scullion and farm hand) after Nick tells him he doesn't know how to read. Of course, Nick was lying about that—like he does about lots of things—and as soon as he has his feet under him again he's hard at work learning as much magic as he can behind Smallbone's back.
There are lots of ways this book plays on fairy tale tropes—some of them quite explicitly—but it stands out because of the convincing characterization. Smallbone is an evil wizard by trade and crotchety old Mainer besides, but besides that he's not a bad guy—as long as you put aside the time he turns Nick into a spider. And Nick is just as grumpy, plus stubborn and cursed with a lack of fore-thought. They make a good pair. Then there's the perfect Maine village where things are starting to go wrong, and another evil wizard, this one a naturally magical shapeshifter with a gang of were-coyotes. It all sounds like a bit much, but it comes together into a wonderful story—one of the best and most convincing tales of what it would be like to learn magic I can remember.
Kate Milford's The Left Handed Fate isn't as good. Set in a sort of steampunk version of 1812, it's about a young privateer named Lucy and her scientist friend Max who are trying to assemble the pieces of a mysterious ancient device—weapon?—in order to bring an end to the seemingly endless wars against Napoleon. There's some interesting world-building: "philosophical iron" that moves on its own, a mad-house that you need a passport to enter, fantastically skilled confectioners and weavers, jacquard loom cards containing programing information from a civilization older than the Egyptians... But it's all just a little too much.
The first part of the book takes place on shipboard—the Left Handed Fate being the main characters' privateering schooner—and it's clear right away that the author owes a huge debt to Patrick O'Brian. Then, after some battles and tragedy, they reach the port of Nagspeak, where their famous vessel can be hidden in the half-floating Flotilla district while they search the byways and "hacker's markets" of the town for the piece of the device that's eluding them. There's a lot going on, and most of the time the ornamentation overwhelms the plotting, and the characterization, and... everything else.
Worse, despite the lovely originality of some specific settings and scenes, the book as a whole feels vaguely derivative. For anyone who's read the Aubrey-Maturin series, the echoes of it in this book are overwhelming—and early scene with a dropped watch and sweet oil is obvious it feels like a deliberate call-out. I like—love!—O'Brian's stories (though we hated that movie) but I don't need someone else doing his writing. Especially since, unlike O'Brian, Milford lets the 19th century mask slip a few too many times. Besides the O'Brian influence, I couldn't help also noticing a heavy debt to Joan Aiken—besides the alt-historical fiction setting, this book shares with many of hers a feeling of strange darkness around the edges. It's not only the ominousness of the scenery (and literal darkness lots of the time too) in the story, but also the sense that nothing beyond the characters' experience really exists: like it's all being called into being for them as it's needed. Which isn't always a bad thing: most Joan Aiken books are delightful. But it's more of a flaw in a book that's notable mostly for it's world-building. (Also Left-Handed Fate picks up like it's in the middle of an existing story, just like Black Hearts in Battersea, which also felt to me like a deliberate call-out; but I'm probably overthinking there.)
Of course, The Evil Wizard Smallbone also has nothing but gray haze beyond the boundaries of the action. But the action—and the setting and characterization—is so concise you don't mind, or even notice, the lack. The Left-Handed Fate tries to do too much; The Evil Wizard Smallbone tries less but does it perfectly. Read them both if you have time; if you want just one, well, you know what I'd suggest!