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.
In their high-octane and highly entertaining update of Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel about a band of noble bandits facing off against an oppressive government, S.L. Huang evokes the joyous spirit of classic martial arts films.
The characters of Lin Chong, a combat instructor who eventually joins the bandits, and Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s aristocratic students, feel like they are in conversation: One strives for big change and the other strives to be a model minority. Did you conceive of them as two sides of the same coin from the start? It’s somewhat unusual for me to plan a character arc to this extent, but yes, that was 100% planned. In the real world, I’m frequently frustrated by a sort of “flattening” of people who are in marginalized spaces; we’re frequently perceived as a monolith who must all have the same views and make the same choices. In reality, there are plenty of difficult intracommunity conversations.
I wanted to portray real-feeling people who cannot be easily “purity tested.” Lin Chong has had to fight and claw to achieve an unusual job and status for a woman, but is determined to keep her head down so as not to lose what she’s wrought for herself. Lu Junyi has more high-flying ideals, but she can also afford to: She’s wealthy and insulated, and her social progressivism is more of an academic than a lived variety. Both are good people on the whole, and both are somewhat frustrated by the other’s politics.
Without giving too much away, I wanted their arcs to, in a way, reflect and cross—and for both of them to fall toward a messier gray area where they have to acknowledge hard truths about themselves and their society.
What do you think Lu Junyi would have been if she could have chosen for herself? Hm, I think it depends on what life experiences she’s faced with. If you plopped her in modern times, she’d probably start off as the type of annoying college student who thinks she knows exactly what all the correct and moral answers are, and is a little bit judgy of people with other opinions. (Lots of us were like that in college!)
On the other hand, she’s open-minded enough that more and more exposure to people different from her would start to expand and complicate her worldview, just as it happens in the book. Although, hopefully less painfully for her.
Eventually, if she were born in modern-day America, I think she’d probably end up doing some pretty amazing media work for a nonprofit she’s passionate about! Elsewhere in the world, she’d probably be doing something similar, though perhaps with slightly more danger to herself . . .
Historically, there’s been a dearth of middle-aged protagonists—especially middle-aged women—in science fiction and fantasy, but that has begun to change in recent years. Why did you decide to center this story around older characters? Partly because there HAS been such a dearth of such characters—I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.
But also, for the story I wanted to tell, I needed characters who had some amount of life experience. I didn’t want this to be a story of only young prodigies; I wanted this to be a story that included people who’d had time to build extensive pasts, histories and baggage.
Many scenes—and characters!—are equal parts humorous and deadly. How did you strike that balance, and why was it important to you to bring it to the forefront? The light but true answer is that I grew up on action-comedy movies! I love action, and I love it even more when it’s lightened by humor.
As much as I tried to treat the themes of The Water Outlaws deeply and seriously, I also wanted it to be escapist and fun.
In addition to your work as an author, you’re also a Hollywood stunt performer and professional armorer. Your love of choreography definitely shines in The Water Outlaws, as does your love of wuxia, the Chinese historical fantasy genre that focuses on martial artists. What originally drew you to those worlds? Honestly, I think the same thing that draws a lot of us to sci-fi & fantasy—a hunger for adventure and a love of imagination.
I’ve said before that I think I ended up doing stunts because it’s basically extreme LARPing, ha. I guess I never grew out of yearning for that immersive experience of living the stories I grew up with. And my favorites were always the ones with swords!
How did you approach translating the fantastical brutality of wuxia onto the page? I tend to write my action in what I like to describe as a “cinematic” way, in that I want it to feel both real and also slightly larger than life. This fits very well with wuxia, which tends to have a similar feel—think, for instance, of martial arts movies that engage in fantastical wire work without any acknowledgment of special powers.
It’s always important to me to engage with the harm and consequences of physical violence—but equally important to me to write glorious, imagination-spanning sword fights!
We don’t see a lot of magic in the early parts of the book, but it’s always hovering on the edges of your world. What was interesting to you about taking this understated approach to magic? This was very much informed by my love of wuxia! Supernatural elements are often extremely understated, or an accepted part of the world that only comes up when it comes up. It’s not an approach I see a lot in European-derived fantasy—where the magical world building is often a central focus—and I was very interested in writing in that paradigm.
Classical Chinese literature also tends toward this approach to the supernatural, that it’s an expected part of the world and not the focus of the narrative. This includes Water Margin, which was the direct inspiration that I was reimagining in this book!
You have a beautiful, poetic way of describing gender and bringing the nuances of gender fluidity to life. Why was it important for you to explore this territory in The Water Outlaws? Well, it’s personal to me and to many of my friends. My day-to-day life intersects with a lot of queer spaces, so the gender diversity of the bandits is simply a reflection of my reality!
(Although I adjusted the terminology and dialogue about it for my fantasy world, as I didn’t want it to feel exactly one-to-one with how any modern culture talks about it today.)
Was there anything in Water Margin that you wanted to put in The Water Outlaws that just didn’t fit? And was there anything you were happy to leave behind in your own retelling? There was so much that didn’t fit! In particular, three of my favorite characters—Hua Rong, Dai Zong and Wu Song—don’t appear in the main narrative. Hua Rong I managed to add into the epilogue as a master archer, but Dai Zong’s main ability, Taoist powers of traveling magically fast, was slightly too story-breaking to introduce. And Wu Song’s tale, which is full of tiger-fighting, adultery and revenge, was just far too large and expansive to do justice along with all the other pieces I was already focusing on.
Hopefully I can add some of them if there are sequels!
In terms of what I was happy to leave behind, there was plenty of that, too. I love Water Margin to death, but part of the reason I wanted to do a genderswapped version in the first place was that the original is such a highly male-centric and misogynistic tale. So that was first on my list to turn on its head in my retelling.
In particular, one of the bits I was pettily excited to cut was the marital fate of Hu Sanniang, one of only female bandits out of the 108. Despite its misogyny, the original rarely has our ultra-violent heroes engage in sexual violence or coercion, thankfully. But unfortunately, the reason for this feels a lot less like a knowledge that it’s wrong, and much more like a scorn of anything having to do with carnal desires. The bandits have a single member who shows strong desire for women, which is somehow equated with him carrying off women by force—and the leader stops him by “finding him a wife,” i.e., marrying him to one of the onlythree female bandits.
That female bandit is Hu Sanniang, an amazing fighter who is capable of beating most of the men, and one of the best characters in the original novel. I strongly object to how done wrong she was by this piece of the original book, and I took great delight in giving my Hu Sanniang a backstory of escaping an undesired marriage and cutting her would-be forced husband entirely.
Photo of S.L. Huang by Chris Massa.
The Water Outlaws is a paean to liberation and resistance—and also an absolute blast.
Inspired in equal parts by action-packed wuxia films (a Chinese genre focused on martial artists) and the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, S.L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws follows a group of heroes struggling to build a place for themselves in an alternative imperial China. Lin Chong, a former arms master who lost her position thanks to a petty and vengeful member of the royal court, is nearly killed en route to a prison camp. She joins forces with a group of outlaws known as the Liangshan Bandits, who have created a refuge for those who are on the wrong side of the law—and the wrong side of gender and power hierarchies. Lin Chong begins to redefine her life alongside poets, progressive thinkers and others rejected by the empire. But their refuge isn’t guaranteed to last forever, and Lin Chong and her new companions must fight in order to preserve their community.
With The Water Outlaws, Huang explores the space between what is good and what is lawful. Despite often claiming to work for the good of the emperor and the empire, Lin Chong and her compatriots do not always (or even usually) stay within the confines of the law. They lie, cheat and even kill to maintain the peace that they have carved out for themselves within a society they see as corrupt. Their cause is just, Lin Chong reminds herself, even if their methods are not always lawful.
The Water Outlaws is above all else a story of femme and queer resistance. In Liangshan, Huang creates an accepting alternative society that celebrates marginalized gender identities, a mirror of the communities that exist in our own world to protect the most vulnerable. That isn’t to say that The Water Outlaws is a gentle story: Its pages are filled with violence against the Liangshan Bandits and also against women like the noble Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s former students who is trying to work within the confines of the empire to enact change. But amid the darkness its characters face, The Water Outlaws captures the wonder and fun of wuxia, complete with epic fight scenes, death-defying feats of martial arts and the occasional bit of actual magic. Huang champions the underdogs, even in the face of the impossible.
S.L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws is a glorious, wuxia-inspired saga of femme and queer resistance in the face of oppression.
In their youth, sisters Signy and Oddny and their friend Gunnhild were linked by a prophecy portending great sacrifice and sorrow—but also the potential for great power. The three girls swore themselves to one another after hearing the prophecy, promising to always be there for one another. But their paths diverged after the seer ferried Gunnhild away to train as a witch, allowing her to escape her mother’s constant abuse. Years later, Signy and Oddny’s homestead is attacked and Signy is stolen away by raiders led by a mysterious and vindictive witch, forcing Gunnhild to return to the home she fled so many years ago. From the future king of Norway to one of the very raiders who stole Signy away, Gunnhild and Oddny must befriend unlikely allies in their quest to save their bonded sister and, in the process, confront the prophecy that linked them all those years ago.
Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was lyrical and dreamlike, but The Weaver and the Witch Queen is as precise as a needle, threading together a vivid tapestry of the joys and terrors of 10th-century Viking life under the reign of King Harald Fairhair. Gornichec obviously revels in historical accuracy, and never sugarcoats what it meant to live in medieval Northern Europe. From frank depictions of the lot of Viking thralls (people enslaved during raids) to the threat of being married off for political alliances, she doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of the society that she’s recreated. But despite the less than savory parts of this world, Gornichec’s joy in being able to share it is palpable, suffusing her prose with a wonder befitting a story dripping in ancient magic.
While The Weaver and the Witch Queen includes legendary male figures from Norwegian history such as Harald Fairhair and Eirik Bloodaxe, it focuses on the struggles of women. Eirik and his ilk are certainly interesting characters, but theirs are stories that have largely been told. Gornichec’s novel, rather, is about women in conflict, whether that conflict is with their own mothers, with rival witches or between two best friends. Gornichec exults the cleverness of these women and their power to thrive through their communities and their own strength of will. It’s a saga of blood and magic and hardship that explores what we owe to those we love—and what it costs to actually pay that debt.
Genevieve Gornichec’s sophomore novel, The Weaver and the Witch Queen, is a vivid tapestry of the struggles and triumphs of Viking women, including the legendary Queen Gunnhild.
Montserrat grew up gorging herself on classic horror films with her best friend, Tristán, reveling in the craft of suspense, blood and terror. Now a sound editor whose projects are parceled out each week by her misogynistic boss, Montserrat still loves film and her role in creating it. But more and more, her boss is assigning the work to younger editors who can be paid less to do the same job. Tristán’s lot is no better: Once a rising soap opera actor, his life and career were derailed 10 years ago in a tragic accident that left his superstar girlfriend dead. So when Tristán’s neighbor, the legendary horror director Abel Urueta, asks them to help him finish a film that was supposedly imbued with a magical spell by a Nazi defector, the two figure that they have little to lose. But as Tristán begins to see gruesome visions of his dead girlfriend and Montserrat is stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure, they begin to suspect that there was more danger to Urueta’s crackpot scheme than he let on.
After bringing new life to the haunted house (Mexican Gothic) and the evil scientific genius (The Daughter of Doctor Moreau) tropes, author Silvia Moreno-Garcia puts a new spin on Nazi occultists and eldritch rituals in this love letter to classic horror cinema. Much like the horror films to which it pays homage, Silver Nitrate has deliberate pacing and deep character development, but these elements don’t hinder its capacity for utter terror, as it summons the fear of what’s hiding at the edge of your vision, just out of sight in the dark. Moreno-Garcia plays in this space well, recognizing that when the inexplicable happens, the subsequent doubting of your own sanity can be just as frightening as the initial event. After all, as Montserrat points out, the fear of being cursed can be much more powerful than the curse itself.
While the horror is effective and then some, the sentence-by-sentence craft of Silver Nitrate is not to be overlooked. Moreno-Garcia’s prose is enchanting, full of perfect phrases that dot every page. Whether they are describing the brilliant whites produced on old film or the visage of a ghostly apparition, her sentences deliver tidy packages of imagery like motes of light in the darkness, their beauty so great that sometimes you forget—just for a moment—about the things that go bump in the night.
Mexican Gothic author Silvia Moreno-Garcia puts a new spin on Nazi occultists and eldritch rituals in Silver Nitrate, a love letter to classic horror cinema.
Does it matter that your happily ever after is built on a lie? D.L. Soria’s Thief Liar Lady has a clear answer: of course not, especially if the lie will protect the ones you love. According to the stories, Ash Vincent—Lady Aislinn to her husband-to-be, Prince Everett of Solis—defied her stepmother, went to a ball, lost her shoe and snagged the prince. But the stories are to reality as a kitten is to a lion. The complete opposite of a damsel in distress, Ash orchestrated her meet cute with the help of her supposedly dastardly stepmother and a healthy dose of illegal magic. If she can marry Everett, she can use her new position as his wife to improve the lot of her family and to help free the people of the conquered nation of Eloria.
There’s only one problem: Prince Verance, aka Rance, the hostage prince of Eloria and Everett’s best friend. Rance is arrogant, lazy and nosy, a combination that both attracts and distracts Ash even as it threatens her mission. To save her family, Eloria and her own hide, Ash must stay the course, even if it brings her closer to Rance than is strictly comfortable.
Some reimaginings of Cinderella critique the titular character’s meekness and seeming lack of agency. But Thief Liar Lady takes a different tack, portraying femininity and its perceived weaknesses as weapons sharper than steel and just as deadly. Soria’s cunning protagonist wields her fake backstory to affect political change and personal gain, all while appearing wholly unthreatening. This combination of savvy and dedication makes Ash easy to love, even when her methods are neither pure nor kind.
Thief Liar Lady has a compelling plot, but its real beauty is the depth of its characters. Everett is both an idealist and a colonizer whose biases often stand in the way of justice. Rance is neither as lazy nor as heartless as he seems, and members of the Elorian resistance can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.
Soria’s snappy prose and Ash’s quick wit lighten what could have been, in other hands, a rather dark tale. Less “Game of Thrones” and more Throne of Glass, Thief Liar Lady is comforting in its familiarity even as it adds new dimensions to an old tale. Instead of surprising the reader or subverting tropes, Soria instead relies on flawless execution, timing each turn of her tale to perfectly capture the tensions—romantic and otherwise—of Ash’s journey.
Happily ever after is no more than a grift in D.L. Soria’s highly entertaining Thief Liar Lady, which transforms Cinderella into a cunning political operator.
The Holy Vaalbaran Empire has ruled the small moon of Koriko for nearly a generation, imposing its will over her people with an iron fist. Like the rest of Koriko’s inhabitants, scribe Enitan has adapted to imperial rule, becoming fluent in the empire’s holy language. When her former lover is assassinated and her sibling, Xiang, goes missing, Enitan travels into the heart of the empire to search for Xiang. Once there, she is caught between two enormous forces. On one side, the Ominirish Republic, the Vaalbaran Empire’s only rival, asks her to spy on the empire in exchange for help finding Xiang. And on the other, the newly crowned Imperator Menkhet, God of the Vaalbaran Empire, has asked for Enitan’s help in exchange for the freedom of Koriko. To save her sibling and liberate her people, Enitan must strike a delicate balance and play a game of intrigue far more challenging than she ever anticipated.
The Splinter in the Sky is an engrossing novel that captures, in impressive prose, the deep discomfort of living under occupation. Kemi Ashing-Giwa’s present-tense writing pulls readers deep into Enitan’s rich inner life, behind the mask she is forced to wear in order to survive. To achieve her goals, Enitan must stay silent in the face of being told that she’s not like the “other savages” and smile as members of the imperial elite auction off her people’s priceless religious artifacts. The result is a firmly anti-colonialist novel that doesn’t balk at examining how even the best intentioned colonizer can cause real harm to real people.
Ashing-Giwa’s world, where even the God-Emperor is subject to manipulation and betrayal, is filled with political intrigue. However, it’s also a world where hope still exists. Even in the darkest moments of her journey, Enitan is propelled forward by hope—hope that Xiang is still alive and hope that she may be able to fulfill her mission and free her people.
The Splinter in the Sky is an engrossing sci-fi novel that captures, in impressive prose, the deep discomfort of living under occupation.
After spending several years as one of the reigning queens of science fiction, Martha Wells plunges into a high fantasy world of empires and body-hopping demons with Witch King. Centuries ago, someone killed the powerful demon Kai-Enna and trapped his consciousness in a magical prison. When a foolish mage tries to take his powers, Kai breaks out of his prison, takes over the mage’s body and sets out to get his revenge and see what has become of the world in his absence.
For the past few years, you’ve been working in the realm of sci-fi, giving readers the glorious Murderbot Diaries. What drew you back to fantasy, and especially fantasy of this scale?
I’ve always loved fantasy, and there have been a large number of original, innovative fantasy novels coming out in the last several years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I did a lot of reading and also started to watch a lot of international TV shows, such as Chinese and Korean fantasy dramas. This was all a big inspiration, and I started to play with fantasy ideas again. I had writer’s block for the first six months or so of the pandemic, and I realized I needed a change to shake me out of it, so I decided to run with some of those ideas. Witch King is my pandemic book, basically.
Your take on demons is really unique. What drew you to telling a story with a demon as a main character, and why did you set them up as these body borrowers?
That was really the idea that first sparked the book. I wanted to write a non-human character again, in a fantasy context, someone who would be an outsider to the human cultures they interact with but who would be functionally immortal, and be able to observe and participate in a long swath of history. I wanted the demons to have powers that were potentially terrible to humans, and the idea of being able to take over a dead or living body worked with the idea of how the Saredi and the demons became allies through Kai’s grandmother. The first scene was something I had in mind for a long time but just never had a story to go with it.
The idea of the Saredi bargain—having a demon carry out the legacy of a dead human by taking over their body—is really beautiful. Can you talk a little about the evolution of this idea?
I wanted the Saredi clans and the demons to be closely related, to be old enemies who had come to an agreement that evolved into an almost symbiotic relationship. I also wanted that relationship to seem normal to the Saredi (and the reader) but strange and terrible to an outsider who had only heard rumors about it. I wanted it to be very much open to misinterpretation.
Witch King shows a revolution in flashbacks, but the main thrust of the story is set generations later. Did you always have these two storylines in mind, or did one inspire the other?
I don’t really think of it as a revolution; the characters are repelling a colonial invasion. Originally the flashbacks weren’t going to be as prominent, but once I started, I realized the story of meeting Bashasa and the escape and destruction of the Summer Halls was really important to understanding what was happening to Kai in the book’s present day. It was also a lot of fun to write.
Kai’s past relationships—with the members of the Saredi tribe; with Bashasa; and with Tahren, Ziede and Dahin—are important but also very clearly only seasons within a very long life. Were there any other significant moments or people from his past that ended up on the cutting room floor but that you wish you’d found a place for?
Not really. I did want to write more about Ziede and Tahren and Kai’s present-day family, how it evolved, and show the reader more of those characters, but it didn’t fit into the storyline. Hopefully I can have room for that in a future book.
Questions about the legacy of extractive colonization and imperialism are an undercurrent in your recent works. The Murderbot Diaries critique colonization, whereas Witch King goes one step further and asks us to think about the process of decolonization. What interests you about this topic, and why do you think you keep returning to it in your fiction?
I think the Murderbot Diaries focus more on corporate greed and control over the economy than colonization. But I think colonization is something I keep coming back to because I live in the United States; we’re surrounded by its legacies. The present is an overlay of the past, and all those conflicts and injustices are still very visible in everyday life.
You are very intentional when it comes to people’s clothing and the nuances of fashion. Where did the inspiration for the clothes in Witch King come from?
I looked at a lot of historical sources, especially ancient South Asia, ancient Egypt and ancient Syria, as well as fantasy versions of historical sources. I wanted the different cultures to have their own styles but also reflect how they had been trading and borrowing from one another for a long period of their history.
Is there a particular ensemble that’s a favorite of yours?
My favorite is probably the Arike coat; I’d really like to have one in real life.
How has the world of SFF changed since you published your first book?
It’s changed a lot. I think the publishing world has finally realized that diverse voices, international voices and different cultural or original ways of telling stories are what the reading audience wants. SF and fantasy don’t have to stay within narrow boundaries or conform to past norms to find readers. The books and authors showing up on the award lists every year are proof of that.
Photo of Martha Wells by Lisa Blaschke.
In Witch King, the beloved author of the Murderbot Diaries introduces another snarky hero for readers to adore.
Some fans of Martha Wells’ Murderbot series may not realize that long before she wrote of wormholes and space battles, Wells was already an established fantasy writer. The complex and thoughtful Witch King is her return to the genre, a product of a master world builder with a flair for creating sweeping stories and lush settings.
The demon prince Kai-Enna has been assassinated, his body imprisoned in a watery grave. His friend, the witch Ziede Daiayahah, has been put into an enchanted sleep nearby. Unfortunately for Kai’s assassins, however, demons are difficult to kill, and after Kai frees himself and Ziede, he is determined to uncover who was behind his attempted murder—and why they came after him in the first place.
To make matters more complicated, Ziede’s wife, Tahren Stargard, and Tahren’s brother, Dahin, have also gone missing. Tahren and Dahin are Blessed, a powerful race of beings that can often have magical powers and immortality. Tahren, one such Immortal Blessed, forsook her people’s alliance with the Hierarchs, an imperialist force that once almost conquered the world. Tahren is a key symbol for the continued cooperation among mortals, witches, demons and the Immortal Blessed; her disappearance could jeopardize the precarious peace established after the defeat of the Hierarchs. As Kai and his allies investigate, they are forced to revisit the wounds they incurred during the revolution, and they discover how their past deeds have impacted the present—and possibly the future—of their world.
Kai’s environment is brilliantly layered, not just full of the requisite political intrigue, well-choreographed battles and world-shattering magic that mark a good epic fantasy, but also stuffed with lore from multiple cultures. Within this framework, Wells asks readers to sit with something that is underrepresented in mainstream fantasy: the postcolonial period. Many fantasies feature or deconstruct colonialism, and while plenty of these stories depict revolutions to overthrow tyrannical regimes, they don’t often explore the instability and moral uncertainty of what comes next. The brilliance of Witch King is that it captures the feeling of this tentative peace with emotional depth but also has plenty of nail-biting moments of combat and dazzling magic, too.
While its memorable characters and clear stance against authoritarianism are similar, Witch King is no Murderbot. Its prose is more lyrical and complex, less full of punchy one-liners (though there are flashes of the sardonic humor that marks Wells’ other hallmark series). What the two do share, however, is a compelling story that understands humanity at its best and worst—despite being told from the perspective of a robot or a demon.
Martha Wells’ Witch King explores the instability of a post-revolution world, with plenty of nail-biting moments of combat and dazzling magic, too.
The descendent of a Chinese medicine god, Elle is far more powerful than her sedate job at a charm shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, demands. But she would rather cast underpowered spells for the faerie agency that owns the shop and cautiously flirt with French half-elf Luc than live up to her full potential. Concealing the extent of her abilities means she can stay in hiding and keep her older brother, Tony, safe from those who would harm him. Luc has problems of his own, including forced service in the same agency Elle works for and two orphaned children stuck in an enchanted sleep from a mission gone wrong. When Luc, who has long suspected the depth of Elle’s power, commissions a special charm to help him ace his assignments (and get some necessary time off so he can focus on a cure for the kids), Elle at first refuses. Demonstrating magic that strong could put the fragile life she has so carefully constructed at risk. But she eventually relents, and as she and Luc work together, their spark of attraction develops into a steady flame. There’s only one problem: Luc’s latest mission is actually to find Elle’s younger brother, who is the reason she and Tony are in hiding in the first place.
At turns tender and exhilarating, Mia Tsai’s debut, Bitter Medicine, is part gentle contemporary romance, part paranormal action novel. At first, Elle and Luc’s interactions are bumbling and awkward, the perfect dynamic for two characters who are entirely focused on duty and don’t know how to put themselves first. The success of their romance hinges on some pivotal questions: Who is Luc when he isn’t at Elle’s shop? Who are either of them, truly, and who do they want to be? This ever-present tension allows Tsai to temper the gentle moments of Luc and Elle’s budding affection with the dangerous reality of their situation, which is that they are trying to live a romantic comedy in the middle of a spy novel. Luc’s secret missions, close calls between Elle and her younger brother’s associates and the web of secrets woven between Elle and Luc are thrilling. But both characters are capable of transcending the espionage genre in favor of a more hopeful narrative—as long as they are brave enough to take the plunge.
Full of heart and hope, Bitter Medicine is both a heartwarming look into the relationships that shape our lives and an all-consuming narrative about a hidden world of magic and intrigue, combining dreamy prose with sharp wit and a propulsive story. It’s perfect for those who are looking for a cozier read but still want enough action to keep things interesting.
A gentle contemporary romance wrapped within a thrilling paranormal adventure, Bitter Medicine is a sharp and propulsive debut from Mia Tsai.
Prospect Hill is a place where the veil between worlds is thin, where mortals leave out pieces of glass and bits of brilliantly colored string for the Fae in exchange for a bit of luck or good weather. But none save for the most foolhardy—or the most uninformed—dare make larger deals than that, let alone directly communicate with the Fae. Small bargains have helped sisters Alaine and Delphine build a life they cherish with their family, granting them good weather, good harvests and the very land they cultivate. But times are changing.
Delphine has recently married the heir of a glass manufacturing empire but is finding it difficult to make inroads into the high society she’s always wanted to be a part of. Her husband, who was commanding but full of appreciation for her when they were engaged, has since revealed himself to be cruel and controlling. The family orchard, once prosperous, has defaulted on its mortgage payments and is one misstep away from failure. To save her sister and the farm, Alaine knows that she’ll need more than small trades and good luck. She’ll have to make an enormous bargain with the Fae and pray that the safety of her family is worth the cost.
The opening act of Rowenna Miller’s The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill is lyrical and sedately paced, feeling more like historical fiction than a fantasy novel. But as the family’s situation worsens and the deals begin to stack up, magic begins to run amok and things spiral into chaos. The broader literary landscape may be swamped with more romanticized versions of fairies, but Miller’s Fae are dangerous and fickle, reminiscent of the cruel fairy kings of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or the dark creatures that lurk at the edges of traditional folklore.
But no matter how powerful its Fae may be, The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill reminds us that even magic cannot change what is in a person’s soul. Delphine’s husband’s abuse and the orchard’s financial worries are wrenching portrayals of the cycles of self-delusion that can accompany a looming crisis. The masterful balance of the uncanny and the inhumanly strange with complex, realistic issues makes The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill a powerful, if at times difficult, read.
The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill is a powerful, if at times difficult, read that balances dangerous, uncanny Fae magic with all-too-human issues.
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