Chris Pickens

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David Dalglish’s beautiful, grandiose and expansive The Bladed Faith begins at the roots of a rebellion.

Cyrus Lythan, heir to Thanet’s throne, witnessed his parents’ capture and execution when their small island nation was invaded by the Everlorn Empire. Having been held as a political prisoner ever since, Cyrus was helpless as the empire worked to eradicate his kingdom’s culture and religion. But during a skirmish with Thanet resistance fighters, Cyrus is rescued by Thorda Ahlai, a wealthy aristocrat bent on overthrowing the empire. With his two highly trained daughters and vast wealth, Thorda seeks to avenge his homeland’s destruction. Cyrus is all too happy to join the effort, but the price of reclaiming the country may be steeper than he realized. Cyrus will need to become something new: a folk hero and vigilante who exacts bloody revenge from the shadows. Will his and Thorda’s need for vengeance cost them their souls?

It’s a tale as old as time: Country is overthrown by authoritarians; heir forms resistance band to win back the country; revolution ensues. Of course, it’s never quite that easy in practice, and Dalglish grounds The Bladed Faith in reality as he charts his hero’s rocky path forward. It is extremely hard to run a rebellion. It’s also extremely hard to change one’s body and mind so completely as to become someone else, so Cyrus’ training lasts a lot more than one page. There are plenty of bumps in the road to liberation. Things go wrong for our heroes, and The Bladed Faith is all the more interesting because of it. 

The world around Cyrus and Thorda is vivid in every way, and the opening sequence depicting the fall of Thanet is particularly breathtaking. The nation’s two guardian spirits, who take physical form as a massive golden lion and a woman with shimmering wings, are cut down by goliath super soldiers from Everlorn. It’s sad, brutal and beautiful. But Dalglish takes equal care with smaller details, too, like Cyrus’ running route as he trains or the details on a character’s ax. At every turn, The Bladed Faith feels fully formed, without a single description haphazardly thrown in. Dalglish has an uncanny ability to predict his readers’ thoughts; more than once I found a character explaining answers to my own internal questions in real time.

Yes, rebellion against an evil empire is a familiar plot in fantasy. But this is a rebellion with soul, and one that promises to reach even greater heights as the series continues. Given Dalglish’s track record, don’t be surprised if he somehow manages to top the triumphant standard he sets with The Bladed Faith.

David Dalglish’s beautiful, grandiose and expansive fantasy The Bladed Faith tells a familiar story of rebellion with uncommon soul.
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John Scalzi had lofty goals for his next book, but like many of us, he found that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted even the best-laid plans. He found himself looking for a release, something to keep his mind off the unmitigated disaster that was 2020. Writing the funny and endearing Kaiju Preservation Society turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.  

Food app delivery driver Jamie Gray has just about had it—with work, New York City and the pandemic. But a chance encounter leads Jamie to Tom, an old friend who offers Jamie a job working for a mysterious animal rights organization called the KPS. Eager to do anything to get out of town, Jamie jumps at the chance. But this job is unlike anything anyone could have imagined. On another Earth, one warmer and devoid of humankind, gargantuan creatures called Kaiju roam. It’s up to the Kaiju Preservation Society to make sure the incredible, powerful monsters don’t hurt anyone—and that no one tries to hurt the Kaiju.

Why writing ‘The Kaiju Preservation Society’ was the most fun John Scalzi’s ever had as a writer.

It’s impossible to read this book without sensing how much fun Scalzi was having while writing it. The Kaiju Preservation Society revels in its own nerdiness, joyfully calling out the absurdities that Jamie and the other new KPS employees experience in their journey to the other Earth. The dialogue practically skips along, with jokes and minor insults pinging off each character at a near-constant pace. And the richness of the alternate Earth, with all its odd flora and fauna, is clearly the result of a creative mind let loose.

The camaraderie formed among the hodgepodge group of scientists and explorers entertains throughout. Jamie’s optimism and enthusiasm for the mission provide the focal and entry points, from which readers can track how tightknit the group becomes. No one character is too unlikable or outright obtuse all of the time, and everyone gets a good line, a heroic moment or a chance to shine. 

What better way to escape the feeling of being trapped inside, from pandemic-related reasons or anything else, than to go somewhere vibrant and unique, where you can feel loved by your friends, valued by your job and morally unassailable as you fight to preserve vulnerable wildlife? It certainly works for Jamie, and it will work for anyone lucky enough to pick up a copy of The Kaiju Preservation Society.

Feeling trapped? Go to another Earth and take care of some monsters in John Scalzi’s totally endearing new sci-fi novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society.
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Dead Silence

A small, underequipped crew discovering a long-lost ship sounds like an interesting enough premise for a novel. But what if that long-lost ship holds a gruesome and unexplainable secret? Now you’ve got my attention. S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence mixes horror, mystery and sci-fi into a thrill ride sure to shock you out of your reading rut. The crew of a small repair ship at the edge of space picks up an unexpected signal. It leads them to the hulking, dark shape of the Aurora, a luxury space cruiser lost 20 years ago. Team leader Claire Kovalik decides they should salvage the wreck and bring in the lost ship. Once aboard, however, the crew discovers that something went very, very wrong on the Aurora. What follows is a claustrophobic race against time as the ship’s horrors begin to affect the crew one by one. Dread slowly builds as small, frightening moments inside the Aurora multiply, showcasing Barnes’ patient plotting and steady pacing. This is one of those time-warp books—the ones where you look away from the clock, then look back and it’s suddenly way past your bedtime.

Redwood and Wildfire

Sometimes reading a book is like paddling a rushing river: You just have to jump in and see where it takes you. Such is the case with Andrea Hairston’s richly layered Redwood and Wildfire. In early 1900s America, magic is as old as the swamps, the woods and the bayous. Some people, descended from those who have lived for generations under canopies of cypress trees and Spanish moss, can harness that magic. In Peach Grove, Georgia, Redwood, a Black woman, and Aidan, a Seminole Irish man, both have this talent. The two kindred spirits set out on a grand adventure in search of a place of their own, with Chicago, the City of Lights, as their final destination. Hairston describes a country at the tipping point between an ancient past and an electrified, dazzling future. The reader will feel this tension within the prose, as well as these two misfits’ yearning to create a life in which they can be their fullest selves. It’s immediate, it’s unflinching and it’s wonderful.

Hunt the Stars

Jessie Mihalik’s thrilling first entry in her Starlight’s Shadow series, Hunt the Stars, is a perfect example of why bounty hunters are such classic sci-fi characters. It’s hard to find a more compelling conflict between getting paid and doing the right thing. War veteran-turned-ship’s captain Octavia “Tavi” Zarola gets a job offer that could make her and her crew rich for years. The problem is that the one paying is Torran Fletcher, a ruthless alien general that Tavi once fought against. Despite her misgivings, Tavi brings Torran and his crew of fellow telepathic Valoffs on board. During the job, Tavi and her crew discover a plot that threatens peace in the galaxy, forcing her to choose a side even as she grows closer to Torran. Amid all the action and adventure, Mihalik also shows how a group of people in close quarters can become a family. Those developing relationships form the emotional center of the story, especially the connection between Tavi and Torran, which evolves and deepens in unexpected ways. Fans of “The Mandalorian” or “Firefly” will love this sci-fi romance.

A terrifying thriller set on a spaceship and a wonderfully unique historical fantasy will shock you out of your reading rut.
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When I reviewed Fonda Lee’s excellent first installment in her Green Bone Saga, Jade City, I noted how family played such a vital part in the story of the island nation of Kekon. This remains a central pillar of the trilogy’s conclusion, but what surprised me most about Jade Legacy is how willing Lee is to subvert readers’ expectations of how the families at the heart of her world will act. When the world constricts around the Green Bone clans and their powerful jade magic, Hilo, Shae, Anden and the rest of the No Peak clan have to break their own rules in order to survive.

Those familiar with Kekon will feel right at home from page one of Jade Legacy. Pushed by ever-growing pressure from foreign powers interested in controlling the country and gaining access to its jade, which grants users superhuman abilities, the Green Bone clans must decide how to respond. In addition, anti-clan terrorist factions within the capital city of Janloon continue to sow violence and disrupt the peace. The No Peak clan and the Mountain clan, which have always opposed each other, must decide if they will put their long-lasting and bloody war on hold in order to preserve the Green Bone legacy, or if they’ll finish each other off when the opportunity arises.

The Green Bone books are densely populated, but Jade Legacy thankfully includes a list of characters, which readers will find supremely helpful to flip back to. By this point, there are so many characters who have come and gone, but Lee always knows when to let a personal moment stretch out between central characters and gives fan-favorites plenty of room to shine.

Anything seems possible in this last volume, and Lee ratchets up the pressure to 10. (For readers of the previous two books, could you have imagined getting to this point? Where Hilo and Ayt Mada have to work together?) Tragic deaths and triumphant action sequences are as present as they ever were, but there are also moments of humility, forgiveness and even redemption in places where readers might not expect to find them. 

Quite simply, Jade Legacy is the best book in Lee’s fantastic trilogy. It’s the most complex, offers the most surprises and confidently navigates an intricate story with a huge number of characters and factions. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you simply wanted validation that the last entry is worth your time. The answer is goodness gracious, yes. And if by some miracle you’ve read this far and haven’t yet jumped headfirst into one of the best fantasy worlds of the last five years, here’s your signal: Do it and don’t look back.

Jade Legacy is a spectacular end to the Green Bone Saga, with triumphant action sequences, tragic deaths and unexpected moments of redemption.

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When Robin Blyth arrives at his new position in the Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division, he’s expecting a slightly overwhelming, but typical first day at a new job. What he’s not expecting is to learn that magic is real, and that his predecessor might have been murdered. The deliverer of this news, magician Edwin Courcey, becomes Robin’s guide to the magical underworld of Edwardian England. Freya Marske uses this imaginative framework to spin a tale of conspiracy and unexpected love in A Marvellous Light, first of a planned trilogy.  

Congrats on such a splendid debut. When you think back to the original inspiration for this book, did Robin and Edwin’s story turn out the way you expected?
Thank you! A lot of the worldbuilding and plot events did change in the telling—more on that below!—but the emotional core of the story, Edwin and Robin and their romance, was the first part of the book to cohere for me. I knew who they were, and I knew why and how they would fall in love. That part barely changed at all between the initial inspiration and the final draft.

Edwardian England is rendered so vividly in A Marvellous Light. Did this story and its setting always go hand in hand when you were coming up with the concept? In a similar vein, what does this setting give to the story that other time periods might not?
Somewhat hilariously, the reason I chose the Edwardian era is because of book two’s story and setting being extremely intertwined. I always knew the second book would be set on an ocean liner around the time of the Titanic. But once I started poking around and researching the time period, the manor house party-setting of book one fell perfectly into place. And the greatest contribution of this specific historical setting turned out to be the Arts & Crafts movement, which not only gave me a lot of wonderful visuals but also helped to bring out one of the most important character notes for Robin: his appreciation for art. 

What choices did you make spontaneously while drafting that added the most to the book?
I think of myself as a kitchen-sink kind of drafter. I’ll snatch at whatever offhand world building or character details drift across my mind, and shove them into the text, so that when I need a spanner to fix a plot problem later in the book I can turn around and say, “Well, I’m SURE there was a spanner back in Chapter Four.” Anything that gets used stays in; everything else gets painfully pruned in revisions. 

Read our starred review of ‘A Marvellous Light.’

I wrote myself a spanner-detail about how a magical family makes a contract with their house and land, then found myself at the very midpoint of the book realizing that in order to be consistent with my own world building, I would have to allow a certain unplanned thing to happen. And this thing was so fun and interesting that I immediately stopped and gleefully reworked the outline to see what sort of ripple effects it would have. (Good ones, it turns out!)

When thinking back to the writing process, what passage or section do you most vividly remember?
I don’t want to spoil too much, but the hedge maze scene was definitely the one I had the most fun with. I got to experiment with some more horror-esque tension, which doesn’t appear to a great extent anywhere else in the book, so that stretched some writing muscles for me!

Talk to me about the magic system. Were you inspired by any systems from other works when coming up with your own?
As someone with a methodical mind myself, I’ve always been drawn to magic systems that have an element of the academic to them: those that require study, and patient learning, and don’t come easily. (I’m a sucker for any book featuring a magical school, library or university.) Edwin as a character embodies that kind of magic. At the same time, I wanted this book to have a balance of logical magic and the wilder, more numinous, less explicable magic that lives in fairy tales. The kind of magic that upends an ordered life, just as Robin does for Edwin. 

“For me, the romantic moments in fiction that feel the most authentic are those that are also the most specific. What are the small details that one character is noticing about another?”

Some say that comedy is the hardest dialogue to write, but I imagine romantic declarations can be just as difficult. Do you have any tips for creating romantic moments that feel real and truthful?
A good love story is unique; It should feel like it could only arise between the two (or more) unique individuals within it. For me, the romantic moments in fiction that feel the most authentic are those that are also the most specific. What are the small details that one character is noticing about another, and how do those details become building blocks in the romance? What are the small things they can do for one another, or say to one another, that make the characters feel seen for who they are, and loved in their flawed entirety? Once you know those answers, you can write a line that shouts I love you! as loudly as if the words were spoken.

What work did you have to put in for this book so that the next installments would have a solid foundation to stand on?
When I got to the end of the first draft, I looked back and thought, “Oh—THAT’S what the theme of this trilogy is! And THIS is how it will play itself out in the other books!” Then I hopped on video chat with an author friend who patiently asked me questions while I wailed and gnashed my teeth until I’d properly worked out the backstory of certain characters and the solid bones of the magic system. The first and largest revision included a lot of careful work to lay the foundations for books two and three.

I also made sure to introduce one of book two’s main characters; ditto for book three. The further you get into a trilogy plot, the less room you have for leisurely character introductions. I want my readers to be able to hit the ground running in the later books, and to have the protagonists feel like existing acquaintances they’re keen to know in more detail.

Horrible families are fun as heck to read. I’m definitely fishing here, but will we see more of that in book two?
Horrible families provide a convenient way for a central couple to be drawn together in a you-and-me-against-the-world sort of way. Robin and Edwin are marooned in a book full of human monsters. However, I wrote book two during 2020, and for some reason I had the urge to escape into a fun romp of a book, full of basically decent people. It still has its nasty villains and its amusing assholes—and the two protagonists are definitely still products of less-than-ideal families—but the family setting itself is much less prominent.

Looking back on both the writing and the editing process, what parts of creating these characters and this story are you most proud of?
I’ll be frank: This is only the second novel I ever wrote, so I’m pleased as hell that it even exists. I’m proud that it has a coherent shape, a coherent aesthetic, a heady combination of all my favorite things (magic! murder mystery! sex!), and characters who are vivid in my mind. I’ve spent countless hours of drafting and revision with them, and I’m not sick of their company yet. I hope I never will be. And I’m more than ready for the world to meet them too.

Author Freya Marske shares how she brought a resonant, magical romance to life within the buttoned-up world of Edwardian England.
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A Marvellous Light

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light takes us to Edwardian England, where manners are surface-level, magic is real and mysteries abound around every cobbled street corner. Robin Blyth takes a mysterious job in the government’s Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division. In his rather baffling first 15 minutes on the job, Robin meets the somewhat awkward and brisk Edwin Courcey, who informs Robin that magic is real and that his predecessor was murdered by magical means. Though Robin and Edwin would each prefer working with someone else, it’s up to the two of them to find out what happened to the man Robin replaced, revealing a conspiracy that threatens all magical people in England. Come for the incredibly rich setting, stay for the romance: Robin and Edwin’s relationship anchors the narrative, and the way that they challenge and then question and then accept each other is captivating. Marske deftly contrasts the couple’s affection with the stuffiness of the world that surrounds them, making their love all the more resonant.


If you haven’t yet had a chance to experience Nnedi Okorafor’s singular voice, take the plunge now. In her sci-fi thriller Noor, Okorafor’s unique perspective is on full display. Anwuli Okwudili is a Nigerian girl who was born with deformities in her legs and one of her arms, intestinal malrotation and only one lung. After a car accident further limits the use of her legs and gives her debilitating headaches and memory issues, Anwuli gets a whole raft of biomechanical body enhancements. Viewed as half human and half machine, she flees her village after killing several men who attacked her. While on the run, she meets a shepherd called DNA (short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu), who is also on the run from the law. In a world where cameras track your every move, Anwuli and DNA try to stay ahead of a reckoning they know is coming. A leading voice in the subgenre of African futurism, Okorafor’s power on the page is confident, vivid and uniquely her own. This story is tight, violent, uplifting, damning and thoughtful all at once. Okorafor’s examination of technology’s influence on health, nature, local communities and so many other parts of life is as precise as it is disturbing. Noor is a cautionary thriller, told with exuberance and conviction.


If British history (and the mythology that surrounds it) sets your heart ablaze, then Lucy Holland’s mystical Sistersong is the book for you. A story of family, magic, romance and betrayal, Sistersong lingers long after its final page. Britain in A.D. 535, recently relieved of Roman rule, is full of many independent kingdoms. One of these, Dumonia, is home to three sisters. Each sister yearns for something: Riva for a body healed from the fire that disfigured her, Keyne for a place at her father’s side in battle, and Sinne for her true love. But it’s a tumultuous time for Dumonia. A Christian priest seeks to rid the kingdom of the old gods, the Saxons begin their invasion of Britain and new, unfamiliar faces appear at court. The sisters have to choose whether to take matters (and magic) into their own hands or let their kingdom fade into the past as a new Britain rises. Holland nails an early Middle Ages aesthetic, using it as the backdrop for some intensely personal storytelling. Be prepared for triumph and tragedy, fantasy and folklore, might and magic.

Think “Downton Abbey” would have been better with magic? Then this month’s SFF column is for you!
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It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! This month, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.

No doubt there are a multitude of mystery readers out there who love digging into classic spy stories from the golden age of espionage. Filled with ritzy postwar ballrooms, foggy alleyways and the smell of gunpowder, these stories conjure up boatloads of thrilling nostalgia, one swishing trench coat at a time. But have you ever imagined a Cold War that plays out in both this life and the afterlife? Or contemplated world powers vying for demonic runes in their quest for influence? Both of these supernatural mysteries excel at taking a familiar genre and time period and augmenting them with just enough otherworldly elements to make each page feel new and exciting.

In Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland, it’s 1938, and England and Russia are poised at the brink of war. Each has deployed a large number of spies to survey and counter the other’s covert operations around the world. Rachel White, an English operative, learns from a Russian asset that there’s a mole in British intelligence. After clashing with her superiors and being thrown back to a desk job, she takes it upon herself to bring him to justice, even if it’s off the record. But there’s a problem. Peter Bloom, the Russian traitor, doesn’t live on Earth. In fact, he doesn’t “live” at all. Peter is already dead and working as a spy in Summerland, an ethereal city filled with recently deceased souls. How do you expose a mole who isn’t even alive?

What’s so great about Rajeniemi’s writing is how much sympathy he engenders for both Rachel and Peter. This split-perspective novel had me nonplussed at first, as I assumed there would be a “right” and “wrong” spelled out for the reader. This wasn’t the case at all. Peter’s painful past and his dedication to the mission of communism make him a sympathetic figure. Rachel has a great deal of pain, too, as a woman in a man’s world, as wife to a husband with PTSD and as someone who just wants justice. Summerland also poses questions about the cost of knowing the afterlife exists. What is a life really worth if we knew there is somewhere else to go? Contemplative, exciting and utterly imaginative, it’s a wild ride for readers who want some sci-fi twists in their thrillers.

In Nick Setchfield’s dark, lightning-quick The War in the Dark, an English spy named Christopher Winter encounters a demon living inside a human. After battling the monster, being attacked by his dead partner and betrayed by his wife, he goes rogue, trying to understand what his colleague Malcolm tells him—there’s an entirely other war being fought here. The world powers are waging an occult war over the runes of power, which are ancient words that drive these supernatural beings. With the tenuous aid of a Russian KGB agent named Karina, Winter must try to navigate Cold War politics and avert the destruction caused by unholy, recently awakened forces.

The War in the Dark is a tight, high-intensity spook-fest that never wavers from its vision. Setchfield is a master at choosing just the right word to remind us where we are and how we should feel. The reader may rarely get a chance to breathe, but this breathlessness is invigorating. Set in 1963, The War in the Dark uses a more traditional noir aesthetic than the post-WWI Summerland as a foundation for its supernatural elements. And these elements are unequivocally creepy. Exploding demons, sacrificial bleeding wheels and faceless visions feel right at home in the fantasy genre. But Winter’s perspective grounds us with his dry wit and spy’s tenacity. Seekers of supernatural thrillers will find both familiar and entirely new elements in Setchfield’s deftly written, atmospheric spy caper.

No doubt there are a multitude of mystery readers out there who love digging into classic spy stories from the golden age of espionage. Filled with ritzy postwar ballrooms, foggy alleyways and the smell of gunpowder, these stories conjure up boatloads of thrilling nostalgia, one swishing trench coat at a time. But have you ever imagined a Cold War that plays out in both this life and the afterlife? Or contemplated world powers vying for demonic runes in their quest for influence? Both of these supernatural mysteries excel at taking a familiar genre and time period and augmenting them with just enough otherworldly elements to make each page feel new and exciting.

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Being a nerd has never been as cool as it is right now. Every second movie is a comic book adaptation, and celebrities admit publicly how much they’ve always loved Dungeons & Dragons.

As great as this new age is for us (yes, I count myself among this group), it can mean weeding through mountains of nerdy products to find good presents to give to your fellow dweebs. Look no further, true believers! A pair of books is here to save the day.

In Alec Nevala-Lee’s dynamic literary history, Astounding, John Campbell finds himself in the right place at the right time. A longtime contributor to the magazine Astounding Stories, he was named editor at just 27 years of age, beginning an incredible 40-year career collaborating, mentoring and stewarding some of the most famous sci-fi writers in history. The writings of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard directly or indirectly addressed America’s experience during World War II, the dawn of the Cold War and the advancement of digital technology. Brought together through Campbell’s magazine, these authors shaped what we now think of as the golden age of science fiction.

At no point does Astounding become stale or detached—each character is distinct, rendered with care and fidelity as their stories unfold. That said, Nevala-Lee is happy to point out his subjects’ missteps, weaknesses and, in the case of Hubbard, their outright lies. Some of the funniest passages involve Hubbard’s continued failed attempts to become a captain in the Navy, finally succeeding only to be removed from service due to ineptitude. Even a reader unfamiliar with sci-fi can get behind this poignant, funny and revelatory look at a group of iconic writers.

Jon Morris’ The League of Regrettable Sidekicks is full of a warmth all its own. A cross between a coffee table book and a nightstand page-turner, it is as singular a reading experience as its predecessor, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains. Where that book focused on the misguided bad guys that have graced the pages of comics, here readers get to relive some of the forgotten foils to the heroes we know and love. Who could forget Fatman, Unggh or Superman Jr.? That’s the best part: Most of us have. Accompanying each sidekick is an informational summary, including who created the character, when he or she debuted and with whom he or she is primarily associated. In addition, we get hundreds of images of these hopeless saps.

This snarky, vividly illustrated ride through comic book history is a hoot. However, there is some real substance here, particularly for uberfans of comic books. Sidekicks provides a good amount of context about the time or place the sidekick appears, and many will be delighted to see where these characters fit into the overall timeline of the genre. And digging for Morris’ many jokes (he categorizes the three Lieutenant Marvels as “triply redundant”) will have you coming back to this title for years.


This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Being a nerd has never been as cool as it is right now. Every second movie is a comic book adaptation, and celebrities admit publicly how much they’ve always loved Dungeons & Dragons.

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Starred Review
Sarah Gailey’s fresh, clever Magic for Liars is a study in balance. It’s funny, it’s familiar, it’s sinister, and it’s engrossing. When a teacher is found dead at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, private investigator Ivy Gamble is enlisted by Principal Marion Torres to investigate the possibility of murder. Ivy knows the school well, as her sister Tabitha teaches on campus. As she starts to interview students and teachers alike, the truth slowly comes into focus—there’s something wicked going on at Osthorne. Even the most casual Harry Potter fan will see similarities to Hogwarts, but Magic for Liars borrows without stealing. Teenage angst and school tensions are present, but Ivy’s adult perspective brings some needed cynicism to the whole affair. This impressive, confident debut is a total blast to read thanks to Gailey’s snappy, nimble writing.

Louis Greenberg’s Green Valley asks what’s more valuable: freedom or peace? Tucked away from the world behind a massive wall, the sense-­altering conclave of Green Valley promises an idyllic life. All inhabitants are fitted with brain-controlling hardware that coordinates a shared hallucination meant to block out the cruel realities of the outside world. When Lucie Sterling’s niece, Kira, goes missing inside Green Valley, Lucie must uncover the truth and expose the dark underbelly of this false refuge. The futuristic technology never distracts from the engaging narrative, and Greenberg centers the story on Lucie’s feelings of uncertainty and disgust even as she peels back the layers of her investigation.

I never thought I’d have much interest in 15th-­century Florence, but toss in about a million demons, and I’m hooked. Hugo Award-winning author Jo Walton does just that in Lent. Brother Girolamo is head of the church of San Marco, and not only can he confer with kings and sway city leaders, but he can also see demons. These creatures of hell gather in places of power to tip the scales in favor of Satan. When Girolamo discovers a treacherous plot at the highest levels of government, just as more and more demons flock to Florence’s walls, he must learn the dark secret of his power over hell in order to save the city. Walton’s detailed, vibrant vision of the Italian Renaissance is amazing, and Girolamo’s shifting relationship with hell is equally mesmerizing. Lent is unlike any other book I’ve read this year and is worth a look for history buffs and fantasy fans alike.

Starred Review Sarah Gailey’s fresh, clever Magic for Liars is a study in balance. It’s funny, it’s familiar, it’s sinister, and it’s engrossing. When a teacher is found dead at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, private investigator Ivy Gamble is enlisted by Principal Marion Torres to investigate the possibility of murder. Ivy knows the school […]
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A nontraditional take on Holmes and Watson and a sci-fi thriller overflowing with attitude will hook any reader.

In Khelathra-Ven, a city surrounded by portals to other universes, the only limit to the types of people one might meet is the imagination. Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter finds Captain John Wyndham, a war veteran with few options left, returning to Khelathra-Ven and moving into an apartment at 221B Martyrs Walk. However, his new roommate is different from any other he’s had, because Miss Shaharazad Haas is a sorceress. A consulting sorceress, to be precise. Unpredictable and strong-willed, Haas immediately pulls Wyndham into solving the case of who’s blackmailing one of Haas’ former lovers. Traveling across the multiverse and getting into more than a little bit of trouble, Wyndham and Haas must discover the identity of the blackmailer before the ever-
changing reality of Khelathra–Ven obscures it forever.

A Sherlock Holmes story through and through, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter takes the idea of homage to a completely different level. The genius of it is how closely Hall sticks to the voice of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The book is written as though Wyndham is writing a retro-spective serial for a future publication, so his words are straight out of Victorian England. He even eschews any foul language and inserts his own editorial filters for the sake of sparing his audience. Of course, ghoulish apparitions, necromancers with low self-esteem and other interdimensional nightmares contrast completely with his tone, leading to some absolutely hilarious juxtapositions. Wyndham is just as prudish as Watson, and reading his reactions to some of Haas’ theatrics will have readers in stitches. This book is simply magic from cover to cover.

Equally unique in tone is Jackson Ford’s surprising The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind. Teagan Frost, a young woman with telekinetic powers and a sarcastic streak, is part of a clandestine operation run by the government. As she’s considered to be one of a kind, Teagan is the star of the show until a man is murdered in a way only a telekinetic could achieve. With the government assuming her guilt, Teagan has just one day to discover who the murderer is and clear her name. But at the same time, she secretly hopes she will find something else—someone like her.

Teagan has such a strong identity, complete with the typical slang and profanity of any 20-something living in Los Angeles, that the reader is totally immersed even as the action charges forward. Ford’s breakneck pace keeps the tension high, and the thrills coming the whole way through. Every decision or mistake feels incredibly impactful as Teagan and her team avoid the cops while searching for the answers they desperately need. Teagan’s jokes, internal monologue and pop culture references are sure to please those looking for an adventure with a digestible amount of sci-fi thrown in.

A nontraditional take on Holmes and Watson and a sci-fi thriller overflowing with attitude will hook any reader.
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I love the beginning of a story. I love when the escaped droids crash-land on a sandy dessert in a galaxy far, far away or when the wizard shoves a ring into a hobbit’s hands and tells him to run. There is so much possibility, so many ways the world can change the hero, so many surprises to alter and confound my expectations. Usually I’m left wanting to go back in time to savor the adventure all over again. But sometimes we get rewarded for wanting more than a good start. We get sequels. Both of these series’ first volumes crossed my desk a year ago, and I’m happy to report that these follow-ups more than live up to their excellent beginnings.

Fonda Lee’s Jade War takes us back to the Kaul family of No Peak Clan, a crime syndicate vying for control over the city of Janloon. After the tragic events of Jade City, Kaul Hilo finds himself making a truce with his rivals, the Mountain Clan, to protect the mining and export of jade. Though he loathes the public nature of the alliance, the powers of jade are too important for the two clans to be in conflict. Hilo’s sister Shae, his second-in-command, struggles to steer the clan as international forces try to disrupt Janloon’s sovereignty over the precious jade. Their cousin Anden, banished from Janloon, starts to find his way in a new city. When aggressions finally spill over, will the clan be able to avoid an all-out war?

Lee effortlessly injects more complexity into an already-rich universe in Jade War. We get more storylines, more subterfuge and more cloak-and-dagger mafia business. But we also get some very tender and nuanced looks at what it means to be family, the meaning of community and the depths of love. And throughout it all is a sense of tenuous control, the possibility that the family could watch their success evaporate overnight. This is a maturation of the saga, an expansion in both storytelling and scale. But if you’re just craving some more jade-fueled magic, you’ll be right at home, too. There are moments when the statecraft and maneuvering between clans slowed the pace, but several scenes, including a fantastic duel in the middle of the story, picked it back up. Lee proves she’s still a master at mafia-magic storytelling, and this second volume is deeper and more ambitious than the first.

Though Rin was able to end the Third Poppy War with a massive inferno, R.F. Kuang’s The Dragon Republic finds our hero in a sorry state. Overcome with grief for her lost comrades and smoking opium in order to dull the voice of the Phoenix god in her mind, she spends her time planning revenge against the treacherous Empress. When a classmate rescues her and takes her to the powerful Dragon Warlord, she finds a new cause to believe in: democracy. With a proper army, the Dragon Warlord can establish a new government in the name of peace for all. But war with the Empress draws closer every day, and when Rin discovers that her power over fire might not be permanent, she’s left to grapple with who she really is and what she really cares about.

Rin saw more pain and more blood in The Poppy War than almost any other character I have encountered in the last year. Kuang does a wonderful job of showing the effects of that pain in the initial period of this book, as well as the impact of addiction and PTSD. Rin seems destined to find war wherever she goes, and Kuang is fantastic at putting us in Rin’s head to witness her internal conflict. Rin’s army unit serves as a source of both humor and camaraderie in a sometimes-bleak world, but Rin’s ongoing war in her own mind is the real through-line in Kuang’s powerful follow-up.

These fantasy follow-ups more than live up to their excellent beginnings.

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