Laura Hubbard

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As teens, best friends Jeremy Cox and Rafe Howell disappeared into a stretch of West Virginia wilderness known as Red Crow. They reappeared six months later, perfectly healthy and fit save for a series of scars on Rafe’s back. Fifteen years later, the two men are estranged. Rafe is an artistic recluse with no memory of their time away, and Jeremy is a preternaturally gifted missing persons investigator. Rafe knows that Jeremy remembers the truth of what happened, but Jeremy has long refused to reveal a single detail. When a young woman named Emilie Wendell tasks Jeremy with finding her birth sister—who coincidentally also disappeared in Red Crow—Jeremy knows that he’ll need Rafe’s help to find her.

Meg Shaffer’s The Lost Story is a gorgeously wrought tale of yearning, grief and hope. Taking heavy inspiration from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Shaffer imagines what life would be like after a magical world changes you forever and then sends you home. Would you be Rafe, whose subconscious wants so desperately to return that he tries to drive to Red Crow in his sleep? Or Jeremy, who can remember every moment, but clearly has very strong reasons for not sharing them with Rafe? Or would you be the one left behind, who never knew what happened to your loved ones and could only hope that one day they’d return? The Lost Story gives us a window into all of these perspectives, depicting each with compassion without sacrificing a whit of drama. Layered atop it all, a delicious smattering of meta-narrative keeps the story feeling less like a tragedy and more like the warmhearted fairy tale that it is, reminding us that there is likely a happy ending (at least of sorts) waiting for us at the end of it all.

A spiritual epilogue to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Meg Shaffer’s The Lost Story explores what happens after you return from a magical realm.
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Rose Rushe wants to be a court musician more than anything else in the world. With Queen Elizabeth I newly ascendant on the throne, her goal feels within reach if she can only get an audition. But the universe (and Rose’s mother) have different plans for her. After the death of her father, Rose, her mother and her friend Cecely are all accused of witchcraft and forced to flee to London. Rose finds refuge in the home of Richard Underhill, the son of one of her late father’s friends. Security for her family is within reach as long as Rose plays the meek woman and secures a place within Underhill’s household as his wife. But the prospect of such a life is anathema to Rose. As she struggles to avoid the web of her mother’s well-intentioned meddling, an escape path lined with brothels, astrology and a young writer named William Shakespeare presents itself—if only Rose is brave and foolhardy enough to take the first step. 

In A Rose by Any Other Name, author Mary McMyne explores a question that scholars and English teachers have debated for centuries: Who was the “Dark Lady” depicted in some of Shakespeare’s most iconic sonnets? McMyne gives this mystery woman shape, autonomy and desire in the figure of Rose, whom she guides through a dark Elizabethan England full of traps for women—especially queer women like Rose—who crave independence from the men who hold their leashes. While Rose’s struggle for freedom may include some familiar tropes and character types, the original world that McMyne has created shines. Her descriptions of magic are rich with heavy, cloying scents and skin-tingling sensations. Her streets feel full of possibility and danger. And Rose and her imperfect, wild compatriots seem to spring from the page. A captivating blend of forensic literary analysis and dark magic, A Rose by Any Other Name is a fascinating exploration into the world of “what if.”

In A Rose by Any Other Name, Mary McMyne uses the mystery of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady as the foundation for a dark and captivating Elizabethan fantasy.
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Bounty hunter Cynbelline “Cyn” Khaw is best known for ruthlessly killing a ship full of slavers. But before that, she was Bella, a disgraced constable on a backwater planet whose cousin was kidnapped by the infamous Abyssal Abductor and dropped into an oceanic trench when their family couldn’t pay the ransom. So when a scion of one of the galaxy’s most powerful families recruits Cyn to rescue her daughter from the same kidnapper, there’s no way Cyn can refuse. Even if the job means going home to a family that’s clueless about her career. Or if it means joining up with the crew of the Calamity, whose hospitality she infringed upon during a previous mission and whose well-muscled and entirely too perceptive medic she can’t get out of her head. As she chases down the shadows of her own past, Cyn must learn how—and whom—to trust if she is to capture the Abyssal Abductor and gain justice for her family.

Fiasco is a delightful mix of space noir and romance, combining an adrenaline-fueled tale of justice and the search for closure with a compelling love story. Some of the tropes within Constance Fay’s second novel may feel familiar to those who love the genre (a ragtag crew, a well-worn spaceship, a ruthless bounty hunter), but Fay refuses to color inside the lines. While the novel’s action and high-impact chase scenes are brilliantly wrought, so too is Cyn’s inner life. Far from being a stock character, she springs from the page with her struggle to trust others and Fay’s visceral depictions of her traumatic past. Cyn is a woman obsessed with doing the right thing who will go above and beyond for those she loves. But Fay doesn’t make her heroine a superhero: Rather, Cyn’s shortcomings (and there are many, from her squeamishness around combat to her flighty nature) make her all the more compelling. A perfect mix of kinetic action, romance and mystery, Fiasco is heady, anxiety-inducing and—above all else—endlessly entertaining.

A perfect mix of kinetic action, romance and mystery, Constance Fay’s sci-fi romance Fiasco is endlessly entertaining.
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In The Ministry of Time, an unnamed narrator serves as “bridge” (read: guide and guardian) to Victorian polar explorer Graham Gore, who’s been transported from his doomed mission to present-day London. From there, what at first seems to be a fish-out-of-water comedy unfolds into a meditation on the lure of bureaucracy, an exploration of both the liberation and trauma of Graham and his fellow “expats,” and an unexpected love story between Graham and the bridge.

If you were a bridge, what type of person would you want your charge to be?
Someone like Arthur Reginald-Smyth, the expat from the First World War—quiet, kind, sincerely interested in the world around him. The alternative would be to commit myself to the stress and anxiety of a really difficult, badly adjusted expat for the humor. Oh, you’re trying to kill the television because you think it’s full of demons? OK then. Make sure you put the ax back when you’re done.

Why did you choose for your main character, the bridge, to remain nameless?
There’s a hierarchy of names in the book. The bridge never names herself to herself, because she is herself, and doesn’t need to: She sees herself as the still, universal point of the turning narrative. The expats, whom she monitors, studies and obsesses over, she names in full: Graham Gore, Margaret Kemble, Arthur Reginald-Smyth, etc. People like Simellia, Adela and Quentin are major enough “characters” in her narrative for her to name, but she doesn’t name them “in full” as she does the expats, because she doesn’t imagine them in the same level of detail (which—no spoilers—is a major mistake on her part). Then there are people referred to by their jobs, like the Secretary and the Brigadier, who are not even people to her, but functions of institutions—another telling example of how she views the world and authority.

Early on, the bridge thinks about paperwork and the safety it provides, whether that’s for an immigrant or just for someone with a great deal of social anxiety. Do you see a connection between this sentiment and the way the bridge connects with the Ministry and bureaucracy?
Definitely. The bridge is fixated on the idea of control, and excessive documentation, choosing and fixing a narrative, is one way she maintains this. Though she would never admit this—would probably consider it a sign of character weakness—she has had to deal with the inherited trauma of a profound and terrifying lack of control, and it has made her obsessive about always having control, stability, protection. The specific way she has channelled this is into a fondness for bureaucracy, and a certain moral blind spot about the methods one might use to maintain control over a situation or a person.

“Time travel, in this world, isn’t a matter of cutting a door in space-time and stepping into another era; there are grisly consequences.”

Of all of the members of the Erebus and the Terror, why did you choose Graham Gore?
Our eyes met across a crowded Wikipedia page . . . I was watching “The Terror,” a 2018 show about the Franklin expedition, and I was trying to keep track of who was who in each episode by checking the fan wiki. Graham Gore appears in the first two episodes and I was intrigued by his name, so I looked him up. That was really all it took. I loved the pen portrait drawn by his commander, James Fitzjames: “a man of great stability of character, a very good officer, and the sweetest of tempers.” Who could resist?!

Book jacket image for The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

Every polar exploration aficionado has their favorites. Other than your charming re-creation of Graham Gore, who are yours?
My other polar exploration favorite is a wretched man named Robert McClure, who was eventually knighted and became a vice admiral. He is briefly mentioned in my book by Graham, who (historically) knew him and sailed with him. I couldn’t have made McClure a romantic lead. He was a severe, bullying officer who once gave his cook 48 lashes for swearing. But I find him fascinating, because his private letters and expedition diaries also reveal him to be a lonely, yearning, rather funny man who was fond of animals and suffered terrible stomachaches. I could write a whole novel about him, though the tone would be very different.

The other expats, especially Maggie and Arthur, absolutely stole my heart. Were these characters based on real figures as well, or more general research about their time periods?
The other expats are all entirely fictional! For Maggie and Arthur, I chose the Great Plague of London and the First World War because these events occupy such a major place in the British collective imagination. Given that one of the things I was keen to explore in the book is the way that history, as a narrative construct, informs national and personal identity, I wanted to offer them as representatives from British history who in fact completely break from stereotype and expectation.

Any scene involving Maggie took the longest to write because I wanted to get her language right. I’m particularly proud of “pizzle-headed doorknob.”

What is your favorite piece of research that did (or didn’t) make it into the book?
I extrapolated a lot about Graham’s personality from Robert McClure’s 1836–7 diary. They sailed together as part of an earlier Arctic expedition (which was successful, in that it came back with most of its crew alive). One of my favorite discoveries was that Graham—then 26—kept himself occupied by growing peas in coal dust. When they were harvested, he gave them to a sailor who was dying of scurvy in a sick bay. According to McClure, the poor fellow enjoyed them very much. There’s also the story of Graham cross-dressing . . . but I’ll save that for another time.

How did you decide on the way that time travel works within your world? When did the image of a door between times come to you?
For me, the core part of the time-door is not the doorframe, which is just a receptacle, but the actual machine that catches and funnels time. Though it isn’t seen until very late in the book, the reader knows by that time that it has been repeatedly mistaken for a weapon—and indeed, every time it’s turned on, something awful happens to someone. Time travel, in this world, isn’t a matter of cutting a door in space-time and stepping into another era; there are grisly consequences for using it. The machine is a technology, a tool, that can be violently exploited, like gunpowder or the split atom.

“If you want to be a good immigrant—whether from another country or another era—to what extent should you allow yourself to be exploited by your host state?”

I was so taken with the concepts of “hereness” and “thereness” with the expats, and the implication that surveillance systems could only pick them up depending on how moored they were within their new time period. Can you talk about where this idea came from?
Thank you! I was inspired by a beautiful and important book, Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley, which was written in the aftermath of the death of Riley’s son. It is an extended meditation on the ways that grief can take you out of the normative flow of time, so you exist in a different, frozen version of time to the people around you—there, not here. I was also thinking about the idea of a lost home that exists only in memory or stories, like Victorian Britain or pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Even when those places are no longer “here,” they are always just “there,” in retelling, just out of reach.

As with the time-door, the physiological consequences of time travel, of choosing to be “here” or “there” and so visible or invisible to modern surveillance technology, can also be exploited. Imagine a spy who can be invisible on CCTV! If you want to be a good immigrant—whether from another country or another era—to what extent should you allow yourself to be exploited by your host state? As Y-Dang Troeung says in her memoir, Landbridge, the question asked of refugees is never “Are you grateful?” but “How grateful are you?”

Food is such a vital part of how Gore attempts to relate to his bridge. What drew you to food (and cigarettes) as a way to build the connection between them?
Almost every meal cooked by Graham in the book is one that my fiancé has cooked for me or that I’ve cooked for him. (I also stole some of my fiancé’s jokes for Graham, such as calling electric scooters “a coward’s vehicle.”) They are meals that remind me of what it feels like to be in love. Rather less romantically, The Ministry of Time started as a silly piece of wish fulfillment, to bring my favorite polar explorer into the present day, and among other wishes I would like to fulfill, I would really really really really really really REALLY like to have a cigarette. Imagine being a Victorian and getting to chain-smoke all day without knowing about the consequences. Dreamy.

Read our starred review of ‘The Ministry of Time’ by Kaliane Bradley.

Photo of Kaliane Bradley © Robin-Christian.

In the debut author’s dazzling The Ministry of Time, Victorian explorer Graham Gore is transported to modern-day London.
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The Ministry of Time tells the story of a British agency with a singular mission: to determine whether time travel is safe, feasible and practical. Using civil servants known as “bridges” as expert live-in companions and aids for individuals forcibly relocated through time (called “expats”), the ministry seeks to study not just the effects of time travel, but whether these time refugees can integrate into modern British life.

One bridge, a nameless former translator, is paired with Graham Gore, a British officer and explorer from a doomed 1845 mission to the Arctic. Gore is the embodiment of the 19th century: proper, reserved and dedicated to the British Empire. His bridge, meanwhile, is the biracial daughter of a British man and a Cambodian refugee, and sometimes struggles with the relationship between her identity and her position. As they navigate Gore’s integration into the 21st century together, cautious regard turns into something more precious. But a shadowy conspiracy within the ministry itself is threatening Gore’s life as well as the lives of all the expats whom the bridge has come to care for.

Kaliane Bradley is about to turn us all into Arctic explorer fangirls: Read our Q&A.

A fantastical combination of time-travel novel, spy thriller and slow-burn romance, The Ministry of Time uses its fish-out-of-water story to explore cultural identity and the legacy of British imperialism. Thoughtful and deliberately paced, Kaliane Bradley’s debut novel mainly focuses on the relationship between the nameless bridge and her charge, from the explanation of the last 170 years of history to the evolution of feminism, relationships and racism. These careful, often gentle moments between bridge and expat are complicated by their respective backgrounds: One is the product of an imperial world, the other of a post-colonial one. Even as they fall in love, they find no easy answers as to how to navigate a century and a half of history or their cultural divide. Instead, The Ministry of Time shows people who are doing their best, even as the world around them is changing, knowing there is honor in the struggle itself.

A fantastical combination of time-travel novel, spy thriller and slow-burn romance, The Ministry of Time uses its fish-out-of-water story to explore cultural identity and the legacy of British imperialism.
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What’s the difference between witchcraft and a miracle? According to The Familiar, beloved fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s latest novel, the answer is simple: politics. This distinction is of life-and-death importance for Luzia Cotado, a scullery maid in a less-than-fashionable Madrid household whose milagritos, or little miracles, can lighten a heavy load or make flowers bloom in winter. As a conversa, a descendant of Jews who converted to Catholicism under the threat of death, Luzia is careful to appear devout lest she fall under the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition. That means keeping her milagritos, with their incantations derived from a patois of Hebrew and Spanish, secret. But when her lonely, petty mistress discovers her gifts, Luzia is forced to display her power publicly and thus increase her employers’ standing in society. If she successfully navigates the elite’s whims, a more comfortable life awaits. If she fails, she can only hope the Inquisition will offer her a quick death.

The Familiar is a book where candles cast deep shadows and even sunlit scenes take on an air of unease. At its center is Luzia, a difficult woman to like, both in-world and for a reader. Foolhardy and ambitious without wisdom, she makes decisions that endanger her life for little reward, time and again. Her counterpoint is Guillén Santángel, the eponymous familiar. As with so many of Bardugo’s morally gray (and potentially evil) male characters, Santángel is immediately compelling, even before readers venture into his perspective. The mysterious immortal wraith holds not just Luzia’s attention, but that of the entire city. Through his ancient eyes and almost alien mannerisms, Bardugo adds depth and intrigue, preserving the mystique of the pre-modern world even as the Age of Exploration begins. Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet, a remarkable portrait of the magic of exiles and the traumatic echoes of the Spanish Inquisition.

Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet.
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Ever since the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of her aunt and childhood guardian, Hester, Ellie has been determined to be as unremarkable as possible. Interesting people, she thinks, go missing. She’s content with her life working as a librarian and taking care of her aging aunt—with the occasional trip to Pittsburgh for dates with women she rarely sees twice. But when an impeccably dressed, impossibly handsome woman appears in the library sipping a cup of tea, Ellie’s world is set off its carefully controlled tracks. After a near-death experience involving an unfortunately placed cow, Ellie learns that she has magical powers and is teleported to the city-state of Crenshaw, where the strong are required to stay and learn to control their abilities, and the weak are often stripped of their magic and cast out. Despite the draw of Prospero, the mysterious witch in the library, Ellie wants nothing more than to go back to her ordinary life. There’s just one problem: She’s also the solution to a prophecy concerning the salvation—or destruction—of Crenshaw itself.


Melissa Marr’s Remedial Magic is a satisfying addition to the magic school subgenre. Crenshaw is a witchy community college-cum-commune that exists somewhere outside of normal existence. It’s equal parts melting pot and pressure cooker, where people with disparate goals and fears collide with sometimes electric effects. Marr highlights the friction by hopping among the perspectives of Ellie and a variety of other Crenshaw inhabitants, like Maggie, a lawyer and mother desperate to get back to her son, and Dan, for whom magic provides an escape from cancer. While Marr’s shifting points of view does mean that Remedial Magic unfolds slowly, the variety keeps the novel from feeling like it has leaned too far into the “chosen one” trope. From the twists and turns of its sapphic romance to Crenshaw’s internal politicking, Remedial Magic is an excellent series starter that combines the aesthetics of a classic fish-out-of-water story with the sensibilities of a book for and about adults.

Melissa Marr’s Remedial Magic is a satisfying addition to the magic school subgenre—written for and about adults.
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Tiankawi may be a city half-submerged in water, but like so many cities, it is divided between the haves and the have-nots. The haves, who inhabit Tiankawi’s sweeping spires, are nearly all human. Some of the have-nots are too, but the majority of the city’s dispossessed are of the fathomfolk diaspora: people of the sea who have been forced out of their underwater havens by pollution and human-mediated destruction. Mira straddles both worlds. The first half-siren captain in the border guard, she wants to make a difference in the lives of those who she grew up with—if anyone will let her. Mira’s way of making change is slow and methodical, often relying on her well-connected water dragon boyfriend to help push for better legislation and provide an image of a model minority. Her boyfriend’s sister, Nami, has other plans. Banished to Tiankawi for her rebellious ways, she begins to associate with groups who view violence as necessary for revolution. As she bonds with these new friends, she begins to realize that their methods may be questionable, and soon both Nami and Mira will be forced to grapple with the fallout.

A modern urban fairy tale, Eliza Chan’s Fathomfolk pairs futuristic cityscapes with fantastical races and real-world politics. The folk are in many ways climate refugees, feared by their hosts and forced to wear bracelets that suppress their powers and prevent them from harming humans, even in self-defense. While it is tempting to draw parallels between the central struggle for the rights of fathomfolk and the rights of refugees in general, Chan’s focus on the intersectionality of issues within Tiankawi makes it satisfyingly difficult to draw a straight line between our world and hers. Chan shows the divisions among the folk, from species-based class divisions among the sea dragons, kappa and kelpies to a distaste for families of mixed heritage. But she also shows that a society bent on oppressing one group will surely not stop there: Tiankawi’s slums are as full of humans as they are full of folk, and its draconian policies harm everyone. This message, both obscured and amplified by the fantasy elements of the story, makes Fathomfolk a nuanced, powerful and complex parable, one that raises questions that linger far after the novel reaches its conclusion.

Set in a city that’s half aboveground and half underwater, Eliza Chan’s Fathomfolk pairs fantastical races and real-world politics.
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The legacy of Sherlock Holmes is a wide one, spanning genres. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup give two vigorous nods to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries while embodying radically different tones: While the first is a cozy sci-fi whodunit with romance sprinkled in, the other combines the classic Holmesian ethos with the sort of existential threat epic fantasy can provide. Both novels, however, are tightly constructed celebrations of the mystery form.

The second in Malka Older’s Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti series, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles rejoins Investigator Mossa and her paramour, the botanist Pleiti, as they investigate a series of disappearances around Valdegeld, the university community on the rings of Jupiter in which Pleiti makes her home. As they search for 17 missing students, staff and faculty, Pleiti and Mossa travel from the habitable platforms that surround the planet to Mossa’s childhood home on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. All the while, the specter of their last case looms large in Pleiti’s mind, the conclusion of which shook her faith in both the university and herself. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is a delightful cozy mystery: engaging, concise and as focused on its characters’ relationships as it is on the puzzle itself. If that wasn’t enough, Older delivers a world that is detailed enough to be believable but sidesteps away from distracting technical issues that could bog down the story. While lovers of hard sci-fi might feel frustrated by some of the implausibilities of Older’s depiction of life in Jupiter’s rings, the fantastical backdrop not only enables a clever mystery, but also serves as a subtle reminder of what might be in store for humanity if we can’t get our act together about climate change and income inequality.

Despite those faint warnings, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is ultimately a warm hug of a book. Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Tainted Cup, however, is a shot of distilled paranoia. The city of Daretana is under persistent threat of magical contamination and attack from the massive Leviathans that stalk the waters outside its sea walls. When an officer of the imperial engineering corps dies in a way that is both gruesome and horticulturally intriguing, famed investigator and notorious eccentric Ana Dolabra is pulled onto the case. Ever wary of engaging directly with the outside world, she sends her new assistant, the young Dinios Kol, in her stead. Magically engineered to remember everything he ever experiences, Din becomes Ana’s eyes and ears, and as they dig into the engineer’s death, they find a trail of intrigue that threatens the safety of the empire itself. The mystery within Bennett’s latest novel is slow and methodical, unspooling subtly throughout its 400-plus pages. True to the promise of its epic fantasy backdrop, the novel spins the consequences of the murder into something bigger than any could anticipate. Bennett expands the scope of this story in a way that feels both natural and occasionally surprising, dazzling readers with both his imaginative world building and perfect pacing.

As with many homages to Sherlock Holmes, both The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup are told not from the perspective of their singular investigators, but from the perspective of their assistants. Just as with Conan Doyle’s John Watson, both assistants are in many ways far more three-dimensional than their partners. Older’s Pleiti spends as much time thinking about her research and her budding relationship with Mossa as she does on the case itself. And Bennett’s focus on Din and his occasional misgivings about Ana are often more compelling than any depiction of Ana’s antics.

But even as both novels focus on the everyman features of their investigative assistants, they also continue the tradition of the idiosyncratic, possibly neurodivergent, investigator. Both Ana and Mossa are singular entities, their intellects unmatched by their peers and just as quixotic as Sherlock Holmes himself. While neither wakes up the neighbors at all hours of the night playing the violin, each will worm their way into readers’ hearts in similarly unlikely ways, whether it’s Ana’s tendency to question visitors about the smell of their urine or Mossa’s encyclopedic knowledge of every food stall in the greater Jupiter area. Their lineage is clear, and their prowess is unquestionable.

The Great Detective’s heirs take to the stars and tangle with magical murders.
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Nestled in the mountains of Kentucky, not far from the Red River Gorge, is a valley whose ghostly victims hunger for flesh and pain. When graduate student Clay finds the valley while doing research for his doctorate, the possibilities seem endless—it could very well be the next new climbing hot spot. He enlists fellow student Sylvia and climbers Dylan and Luke to join him as he maps the area. It’s miles away from the road, let alone civilization, and as soon as they get there, things go wrong. Starting with the disappearance of Luke’s dog and culminating in an accident that leaves them cut off from the rest of the world, the valley seems determined not just to end their lives but to make them suffer in the process.

There is no final girl in This Wretched Valley, Jenny Kiefer’s startlingly bloody survival horror debut. Readers know from the very beginning how our heroes’ stories end, that their lives and deaths will become forensic mysteries for coroners and the conspiracy-obsessed. Despite this, Kiefer has crafted characters whose will to live is so strong that it’s possible to believe they just might make it. Modeled loosely on the infamous 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident, in which nine young Soviet alpinists died under mysterious circumstances, This Wretched Valley pays careful homage to its outdoorsy roots, weaving in enough jargon to let you know that Kiefer has done her research. Even Luke’s dog’s name, Slade, is a reference to the real Kentucky town in the Red River Gorge that often serves as home base for climbers. 

Kiefer’s insider knowledge sets the table, but her pacing is the main course. Despite the novel’s relatively short length, it feels like a slow burn at first, as the forest holds back its malice. But once the floodgates break, Kiefer doesn’t slow down. From gangrenous injuries to more gruesome body horror, the climbers (and readers) are put through a gauntlet of nonstop action that grinds to a sudden, deadly stop when the valley finally gets its due. A masterclass in both suspense and gore, This Wretched Valley is a treat for climbers and horror lovers alike.

A master class in both suspense and gore, This Wretched Valley is a treat for climbers and horror lovers alike.
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Twins Natasha and Clara have always been two sides of the same coin, cursed and blessed in equal measure by their godfather, the sorcerer Drosselmeyer. Clara is beauty and light incarnate, but has little interest in understanding the world around her; Natasha may be dark and homely, but she has a penetrating mind. On the night of their family’s Christmas Eve soiree, Natasha seeks revenge for another of her sister’s thoughtless betrayals. Using one of her godfather’s magical gifts to travel to the deceptively beautiful Kingdom of Sweets, Natasha meets the Sugar Plum Fairy, a demonic being whose power and vindictiveness are neither sweet nor fanciful. Natasha’s deal with the fairy sunders the sisters and changes her life forever, pulling her into a web of power far greater than her godfather’s paltry tricks.

Set in the wintry, decadent atmosphere of late-19th century Russia, Erika Johansen’s The Kingdom of Sweets puts a disturbing twist on the classic Nutcracker, transporting readers into a world where dark bargains lurk beneath ornate facades. Johansen explores the casualties of the era’s gender and beauty politics, and every display of the excesses of the Russian Empire comes with the knowledge that revolution is only a few years away.

In this retelling, even the traditional wonders of the holiday tale, from its delicate dancing fairies to its sugared delights, are but illusions hiding the Sugar Plum Fairy’s true identity and motives. Hers are not the only obfuscated intentions, however. Johansen delves into the dissonance between how her characters present to the world and the truth of their hearts. From Conrad, Natasha’s former lover whose straightforward nature Natasha mistakes for true kindness, to Drosselmeyer, whose cruelty is just a byproduct of his greater aims, The Kingdom of Sweets is rife with characters who use their status or polite misdirection to hide their true faces.

Just like its characters, The Kingdom of Sweets has hidden depths: Lyrical and terrifying, it is just as likely to disturb as it is to enchant.

Erika Johansen’s lyrical and terrifying retelling of The Nutcracker is just as likely to disturb as it is to enchant.
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Long before the events of Legends & Lattes, Travis Baldree’s bestselling novel about an orc who opens a coffee shop, Viv was a young warrior who acted first and asked questions later—and it got her into trouble. While on the hunt with her mercenary companions for the necromancer Varine, Viv takes a sword to the leg, temporarily hobbling her and leaving her stranded in the town of Murk, far from the front and feeling absolutely useless. With her expenses temporarily paid for by her boss, Viv is left with nothing to do but concentrate on healing. Boredom and curiosity draw her to Fern, the rattkin (a toddler-sized talking rat) purveyor of a failing bookstore on Murk’s outskirts. In Viv, Fern sees a book lover who just doesn’t know it yet. In Fern, Viv sees a new friend in need of a helping hand. As their friendship grows, Viv looks for ways to help Fern turn her failing bookshop into a place where people actually want to be. Together, they build a community of found family and literary enthusiasm that sustains them both. But the darkness that Viv once chased lurks on the horizon. In order to protect her temporary home, Viv will need to trust in the new friends she has grown to love, even as she knows that none of it can last.

Bookshops & Bonedust is the perfect prequel to Legends & Lattes. Seeing Viv before she leaves the mercenary life for good gives fans of Travis Baldree’s cozy fantasy novel a new perspective on a beloved character. The Viv of this book is a little more rough around the edges: She hasn’t learned to love books (yet) and the sword is the only life she’s ever known. Her transformation via the powers of friendship and a good story is the soul of Bookshops & Bonedust. Baldree’s sophomore novel is comfortable in its pacing and generous with its characterization. It thrives in the “medium stakes”: danger is present in the background, but nothing ever feels so pressing that readers are legitimately worried for the characters. And since readers already know that Viv survives to retirement, Bookshops’ dark action subplot is still relatively lighthearted. The lack of real danger gives the characters freedom to explore and grow outside the context of a standard fantasy adventure story, keeping Viv and her new friends the focal point of the story.

Baldree’s novel revels in those budding (but time-limited) friendships. As in Legends & Lattes, what romance exists between Viv and her compatriots is fairly chaste and builds relatively slowly. This isn’t a book for grand gestures or dramatic declarations of love. After all, we know going into this book that Viv isn’t with any of her friends from Murk in Legends & Lattes. Instead, Bookshops & Bonedust is a gentle, relatively quiet story perfectly designed for people who love books. It’s also a great entry point for anyone who wants to start the series—just wait to read the epilogue if you don’t want spoilers for Legends & Lattes!

Bookshops & Bonedust is the perfect prequel to Legends & Lattes: a gentle, relatively quiet story perfectly designed for people who love books.
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Living through a real-life slasher attack changes a town. For Proofrock, Idaho, the Independence Day Massacre has left scars but has also drawn in new residents—some for the horror of it all, and others for the offer of free college in the aftermath of the traumatic event at the center of Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Set four years later, Don’t Fear the Reaper returns to Chainsaw’s protagonist, Jade Daniels, who is not the same slasher-obsessed girl she once was. She is older and wiser, less compelled by the tidy plots of the films that once captured her imagination. But when a vehicle convoy transporting serial killer Dark Mill South wrecks outside of Proofrock, a whole new terror is unleashed on the town. The killer is out for revenge for the death by hanging of 38 Dakota men in 1862, and he walks into Proofrock with carnage on his mind. Over the course of 36 hours, the town’s carefully rebuilt peace is shattered as Dark Mill South carves his way through its residents, high schoolers and older townies alike. Jade’s fight to survive will test the very mettle of her being and every lesson she’s learned from her beloved horror films.

Jones’ second entry in his Indian Lake Trilogy is an all-consuming dive into the aesthetics of slasher films of yore, married with prose that takes itself seriously enough to be captivating but not so seriously that it feels needlessly glum. Don’t Fear the Reaper is a love letter to horror classics: Its characters reference iconic Final Girls and blood-spattered, seemingly immortal murderers in their dialogue even as Dark Mill South (a hulking monster whose preternatural gift for gore is remarkable even compared to his predecessors) plays out those tropes in front of them. Even the chapter titles are named after classics of the genre, from It Follows to Silent Night, Deadly Night. However, Jones doesn’t just deftly employ the tropes of slasher films; he expands them, giving his cast of teen characters the depth and motivation that is often lacking in a film genre that demands a tight 90-minute timeline. A perfect mix of compelling writing, characters who never cease to surprise and just the right amount of schlock, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a modern essential for anyone who loves rooting for the Final Girl.

A perfect mix of compelling writing, characters who never cease to surprise and just the right amount of schlock, Don’t Fear the Reaper is essential reading for anyone who loves rooting for the Final Girl.

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