Tennal Halkana is a problem. He’s a problem for his family because he prefers drinking in gambling dens to fulfilling the demands of being part of one of the most prominent political families on the planet Orshan. He’s a problem when it comes to relationships, flitting from one affair to another in rapid succession. But most of all, he’s a problem for society: Tennal is a reader, a person with telepathic abilities that were genetically engineered by the Orshan Fedstate. When Tennal breaks one too many rules, his aunt conscripts him into the army and orders him to sync, or completely merge his mind, with an architect, a person who can mentally control other people.
Lieutenant Surit Yeni, the architect ordered to link his mind to Tennal, is everything Tennal is not. The child of a notorious traitor, Surit ensures that his every move is thoughtful, controlled and—above all else—principled. Thanks to that last quality, Surit refuses to sync with the unwilling Tennal. The two men fake the bond instead, all while looking for a way to get Tennal out of the army and to the safety of the wider galaxy.
Ocean’s Echo is a slow burn that eventually blazes into a supernova, a novel constrained in its location but massive in its ambition. Its opening scene in a gambling den is exciting, but that action-packed sequence is paltry compared to what’s to come. Set in the same universe as author Everina Maxwell’s debut, Winter’s Orbit, this standalone novel layers intrigue atop intrigue, ratcheting up the stakes one excruciating notch at a time. Maxwell uses her space station settings as pressure cookers, creating close-proximity environments that force her main couple to change and bond with each other. Tennal’s sharp edges bring Surit’s stoicism into relief, while Surit’s rule-abiding nature clashes with Tennal’s chaotic inability to tell the truth. All the while, the pair is wrapped in a world built with care by Maxwell, a writer with a keen eye for detail and nuanced social interactions. Rather than getting lost in the weeds of the mechanics of faster-than-light travel or how exactly readers and architects were made, Maxwell zeroes in on the small moments of soldiers’ daily lives, from tokens that communicate fellow officers’ genders or the politics of getting a second slice of cake from the mess hall vending machine.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a massive amount of world building to absorb: Between various branches of the military, syncing, readers and architects, the wealth of vocabulary and protocol to wade through can be overwhelming at first. The learning curve will be less steep for readers who loved Maxwell’s first foray into this universe, but rest assured that this is still a standalone novel that reads like one. Perfect for lovers of science fiction served medium-hard, Ocean’s Echo is the optimal blend of emotional maelstrom and suspenseful military drama.
Ocean’s Echo is the optimal blend of emotional love story and suspenseful military sci-fi.
Horror takes many forms: from the terror of losing control of one’s mind to another entity, to the fear of things that move around unseen in the night, to the inescapable certainty that one day we all must meet our ends. Each of these stories features a different kind of horror, making for a perfect sampler platter for anyone wanting to dip their toes in the murky depths of dread.
In the far reaches of the North, in a chateau abutting a frozen forest and a forbidding mine, a doctor has died. For the powerful Interprovincial Medical Institute, the worrying thing is not the doctor’s death; the Institute’s bodies die all the time. An ancient parasitic life form, the Institute takes over promising young minds and guides them into the field of medicine; all of the unsuspecting human race’s doctors are being controlled by the Institute. What is worrying is that the Institute isn’t sure how the body stationed in the chateau died. To find out exactly what happened, the Institute sends a new body to investigate the chateau and its denizens. That doctor soon discovers another parasite that could upend life as they know it, threatening both the Institute’s supremacy and the humans it seeks to protect.
Hiron Ennes’ debut novel, Leech, is a chilling study in the the loss of bodily autonomy, the terrors of a frigid winter wood and the undeniable creepiness of ancient homes that have long since fallen into disrepair. Set thousands of years after an apocalypse, Leech is decidedly a gothic novel, complete with seemingly cursed family homes, the dark consequences of human progress and unknown dangers lurking in every crevice and icy forest. Tantalizing references to the monsters of humanity’s past, chiefly destructive airships and killer biological agents, feel almost mythic as they fill readers’ imaginations with possible explanations for what exactly went wrong. Full of trepidation and mystery, Leech is perfect for readers who wished that Wuthering Heights had been just a little more like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.
Young adult author Ainslie Hogarth’s first novel for adults, Motherthing, opens in the waiting room of an intensive care unit, and it doesn’t get less stressful from there. Ralph and Abby Lamb have moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, to help care for her. Plagued by her rocky relationship with her own mother, Abby had hoped to kindle a better relationship with her mother-in-law but was instead met with distrust and cold condescension for being the woman who ‘took” Laura’s son from her. After Laura dies by suicide at the beginning of Motherthing, Abby thinks that her and Ralph’s obligation is over; they will sell the house and move away, free to start the perfect family that they deserve. But when Laura’s spirit begins to haunt the couple, driving Ralph into a pit of depression and tormenting Abby night after night, it is clear that Abby will have to dig deep if she is going to wrest the life of her dreams from the nightmare that her home life has become.
Deeply dark and often funny, Motherthing explores the contours of what it means to be in a relationship with a mother (or mother-in-law) figure and the porous boundaries among grief, anger and the supernatural. Motherthing can be a difficult book to read on an emotional level, given Abby’s frustratingly optimistic “I can fix him/it/this” attitude, but its scares and surprises are well worth the discomfort it causes—as well as the sleepless nights it will engender.
The eponymous island of Lute by Jennifer Thorne stands apart from the modern world. Even as war lingers on their doorstep and climate change and water shortages ravage the lands around them, the islanders are sheltered and seemingly immune to the turmoil. In exchange for these blessings, the island extracts a tithe: Every seven midsummers, exactly seven of the people of Lute die on what is referred to as “The Day.” Nina Treadway, a transplant to Lute and lady of the island by virtue of her marriage to Lord Hugh Treadway, doesn’t believe in the fairy tale, chalking it up to the superstitions of a quaint and isolated island. But as The Day dawns and brings a series of waking nightmares, Nina must accept her duties as the Lady of Lute in order to preserve the stability of the island she has come to love.
Part idyllic fantasy and part Final Destination, Lute asks a question that harks back to works like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: What is the price of prosperity? While Lute’s citizens have willingly agreed to that price, it is steep and horrific. The novel’s pages are dotted with gore and loss, sure to pull on the heartstrings—and occasionally the stomachs—of even the most stoic of readers. However, despite the bloodshed and tension, Lute is a story of the creation of a haven away from the pressures of the modern world. More cynical readers might balk at the story’s hopeful tone and occasionally predictable plot turns. However, for those looking for a thriller replete with both terror and fantasy, Lute delivers in spades.
Led by Hiron Ennes' chilling debut novel, Leech, these thoughtful, well-crafted frights will scare you on multiple levels.
The Interprovincial Medical Institute is the sole provider of medicine in a post-apocalyptic world. But unbeknownst to anyone, the Institute is a hive mind, a parasite living within, controlling and training the world’s doctors. When one of the Institute’s bodies dies, it sends a new doctor to investigate—and discovers it isn’t the only parasite interested in the human race. We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
Parasites aren’t new to speculative fiction and horror, but your choice to tell this story from the perspective of the Institute, a hive mind that is both a medical professional and a parasite, is extremely original. What did writing from that point of view allow you to do as an author? Building a narrator out of a many-minded parasite was not easy, but it let me take advantage of a sort of pseudo-omniscience, which was such a boon for world building. Writing from the Institute’s point of view was also an opportunity to delve into the threat a microscopic antagonist might pose. We all get it, parasites are spooky. That isn’t saying much at all. Where the true intrigue lies, I think, is in the mechanism of infection and the cellular changes that take place in a host. A protagonist needs to be proficient in microscopy to see the terrifying devil in those details.
The Institute harks back to classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Were there any particular stories that informed your creation of the doctor? At the moment I can’t think of any fiction that influenced me as much as the stories science can tell us about our own cells. I was particularly taken by the theory of endosymbiosis: Deep in our mitochondria lives a strand of DNA separate from our nuclear chromosomes, an essential piece of our cellular network without which we would die. This strand is circular, like a bacterium’s, leading scientists to propose it is the genome of a foreign organism that hitched a ride inside us back when we were single-celled. It’s been sitting there ever since, perpetuating itself through the maternal line and providing the basis of a fun mind game I like to call “Am I even me?” Is that DNA truly mine? Am I being parasitized by my own genome? Does it care about me, or does it only care about my reproductive success? Is everything I do and think at the behest of a little self-interested string of nucleotides living inside me? You stay awake so many nights thinking about stuff like that, and eventually you write Leech.
Bodily autonomy is always going to be a ripe subject for horror, but it is something particularly terrifying for many people right now. What drew you to writing a book that delved so deeply into body horror and questions of bodily and mental autonomy? I knew autonomy would end up being one of several themes, as a consequence of writing about parasitism, but the narrative quickly shoved autonomy to the forefront seemingly of its own volition. Leech was a demanding animal. It wouldn’t let me stop at the microscopic ecosystems parasites use to commandeer behavior but demanded I touch on the equally parasitic structures of hierarchy, power, abuse and some of the ways these structures rob us of our own bodies.
Despite the fact that Leech epitomizes a gothic novel, it’s also set in a post-apocalyptic world. What led you to marry these two genres? To put it simply, I think they work well together. Gothic literature is usually predicated on the exploration of some sordid past, whether of an individual, a family, an old house or an isolated township—often all of the above. If a single dead child can make for a terrifying poltergeist, what hauntings might manifest from the cruel impulses of a dead society? In what ways will human cycles of exploitation, bigotry and imperialism haunt the future? What monstrous forms might their resurrections take?
There’s a definite shift in the language the doctor uses to talk about humans throughout the book, moving from a clinical analysis, to becoming more familiar, to a sort of horror. Can you talk about this shift in language? Was this a conscious decision, or did it develop organically? The shift in language was a conscious development, and an excruciating one. I can’t count the hours I spent going back and forth, micromanaging colloquialisms, contractions, turns of phrase and intrusive thoughts. At the extreme ends of the story, the narration styles are pretty distinct, but it gets muddy enough in the middle that I’m fairly sure I underwent some sort of ego death while writing it.
There are hints as to what happened to society that caused everything to go wrong. Can you tell us what plunged your world into this dark age and how humanity survived? I don’t think there is any one thing that plunged this world into ruin. The collapse of a society is a slow, mundane and brutal process (a process we are currently witnessing in real time). I don’t know how the world ended, or how many times it ended, but I do know humanity survived by virtue of resilience, ingenuity, mutual aid and cooperation. And trains. I suspect the resurgence of the locomotive was vital to the resurgence of human society. I don’t know why. I just feel it in my heart.
How did your background in medicine inform the writing of Leech? Is there anything that you’ve learned in your studies that you wish you could have included that didn’t quite fit? To be honest, my background when I started Leech was in physics. My background when I finished it was in medicine, which definitely informed some of the details but not the core of the story. There are a few aspects of doctoring I might’ve incorporated if I’d had a more solid grasp of the realities of clinical practice—namely, a deeper exploration of the unique and sometimes mystifying relationships people have to their own bodies. I think I touched on this with Hélene’s (perceived) hypochondria, but I have seen some truly fascinating disconnects between internal and external experiences of disease: Munchausen’s syndrome, functional disorders and one case of a lovely, cheerful patient whose stated history painted a picture of health and who, almost as an afterthought, lifted her sweater to show me a massive open wound she had been nursing for nearly a year.
In gothic literature, deformity and physical differences are often cast as physical manifestations of sin, which is a theme now understood to be ableist at best. You manage to incorporate these bodily differences without that baggage. What drew you to including these elements of the gothic, and how did you navigate including them while avoiding the negative connotations that they usually hold? I won’t claim that Leech is free of ableist baggage; after all, ableism is one of the many flavors in that soup of oppression in which we all grow up swimming. That said, I did consciously set out to subvert traditional, moralistic depictions of deformity. I wanted pretty much every “normal” patient to have some unconventional physical attribute. In a world where everyone has a mechanical limb or a migratory birthmark or a literal doppelganger, it’s hard to view these things as anything but variations of the norm. This allowed the narrative to focus more on the unique roles these attributes play in the characters’ lives and how they might be admired, celebrated, exploited or fetishized on an interpersonal, rather than societal, level.
A few characters speculate about where they think the monstrous, mysterious ventigeaux that stalk the woods near Verdira came from.Do you have an answer, or are they mysterious to you as well? The ventigeaux are a mystery even to me. In the future, if there is an opportunity to dissect them, I might uncover their origins. For now, I share the Institute’s suspicions that they are orphans of biotechnology, but I can’t guess what sort of misguided endeavors led to their creation.
One of your characters tries to make sure that humans don’t regain the ability to make flying machines, believing that they are what caused the apocalypse in the first place. If the denizens of this world recovered lost technologies, do you think they would be doomed to the same self-destruction as their forebears? I’m a utopian at heart, so I genuinely hope not. But I believe that without significantly, consciously dismantling institutions of power, people will end up re-creating the oppressive structures that haunt our past. Not as any function of “human nature” or some such evolutionary psychology nonsense, but by dint of centuries of vicious cultural selection. People tend to emulate their forebears, and the world of Leech is no exception. Fortunately, in that world, as in ours, there are those working to demolish monopolies of power, technology and capital. And in that world, as in ours, there will be monumental successes and devastating failures. Let us hope the former is more frequent than the latter.
Picture of Hiron Ennes courtesy of the author.
We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with post-apocalyptic sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
These superbly crafted retellings present an opportunity to revel in tales we might think we know well but that still have the ability to surprise.
The Book of Gothel
Framed as a medieval text found in a German woman’s attic, The Book of Gothel centers on the woman who became the witch who imprisoned Rapunzel in her tower. As a young girl, however, Haelewise is neither powerful nor a witch. She is merely an outsider, marked by both her intermittent fainting spells and her deep, black eyes. Her mother, Hedda, is the respected local midwife, but most in their village believe that Haelewise’s fainting spells are of demonic origin. After her mother dies and her father remarries, Haelewise takes refuge in a secluded tower called Gothel, where she becomes an apprentice to a wise woman. But despite her existence on the margins of her world, Haelewise is soon pulled into intrigue, from princesses fleeing cruel fiancés to princes with wicked spells cast upon them. With secrets behind every whisper, Haelewise must tread carefully if she is to survive.
Mary McMyne’s debut novel is dark and moody, full of distrust, doubt and more than a little bit of drama. Far from being a simple villain origin story, it explores Haelewise’s family, her epilepsy and the stark world of 12th-century Germania. Despite the bleak nature of the era, McMyne’s prose is full of vivid color, whether it’s the mysterious golden fruit that Haelewise finds growing in Hedda’s garden or the madder-red gown given to Haelewise by a childhood friend turned would-be lover. It’s a world where Christianity and older religions and traditions coexist but where even a hint of witchcraft could put herbalists and midwives in danger of being stoned. This atmosphere, combined with the deep longings and confusion of a girl just entering womanhood and the fact that readers have a good idea of the fate that awaits her, shadows The Book of Gothel with an overwhelming sense of dread—but will also compel readers to keep going to the very end.
★ The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, starts in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the 19th century, as the titular doctor is looking for an assistant. He finds one in Montgomery Laughton, an Englishman with alcoholism and a mountain of debt. Montgomery helps the aging doctor create human-animal hybrids, which are destined to work the plantations of Dr. Moreau’s wealthy benefactor. Carlota Moreau, the doctor’s daughter, leads a relatively carefree life on the estate, with plenty of hybrid companions and her studies to keep her company. The only thing marring her life is a lingering childhood illness that requires her to have weekly injections of one of her father’s mysterious serums. When the handsome son of Dr. Moreau’s benefactor, Eduardo Lizalde, unexpectedly visits, the sheltered estate is thrown first into discord and then into total disarray as the Moreaus’ secrets are pulled slowly into the light.
Moreno-Garcia (Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow) is a master of dramatic tension. Her decision to reimagine H.G. Wells’ visionary 1896 novel on an isolated estate instead of an island creates a sense of furtiveness, a constant fear of discovery. The insertion of Carlota, who is not a character from the original book, gives a human face to an inhuman (or, at the very least, inhumane) story, adding something precious that could be lost if the delicate equilibrium of Moreau’s estate is unbalanced.
Moreno-Garcia revels in her setting’s tropical color palette, which is reflected in the rich green of Eduardo’s eyes and the bold colors of Carlota’s dresses. Moreno-Garcia also includes small, down-to-earth details of pastoral life on the estate, resulting in a world that feels immediate enough to slip into. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau will pull readers in even as a pit grows in their stomachs, given all the things they know can—and likely will—go wrong.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia takes on The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the witch from "Rapunzel" gets a haunting origin story.
Young witch Marlinchen and her sisters live under the iron thumb of their father, a wizard intent on preserving the old ways and keeping his daughters safe from the degradations of the rapidly changing outside world. But when Marlinchen falls in love with ballet dancer Sevas, she begins to chafe against her father’s rule. We talked to Ava Reid about her unique Eastern European-inspired world and the gruesome fairy tale that inspired her sophomore novel.
Juniper & Thorn is inspired by the “The Juniper Tree,” one of the more obscure stories from Grimms’ Fairy Tales in which a woman murders her stepson and the father eats him. What drew you to this story? I was always beguiled by its unofficial moniker of Grimms’ darkest fairy tale. There are a lot of horrific and grisly stories in the Grimms’ repertoire, many with the same themes. There’s cannibalism in “Hansel & Gretel,” murder and bloodshed galore in classics like ‘Red Riding Hood’ and “Snow White.” So what sets “The Juniper Tree” apart?
One thing I noted is that there are very few quintessential fairy-tale tropes in “The Juniper Tree.” It’s a strangely quiet, intimate story about domestic violence within a single family.
Once I came to that realization, it seemed most honest to make this retelling a gothic horror novel. It did not feel sweeping in scope or appropriate for an epic fantasy setting. I wanted to maintain this thread of bleak, almost claustrophobic violence, which is the core of the gothic genre. That unnaturalness and upending of a foundational expectation—that parents should love and care for their children—is what makes “The Juniper Tree” so horrible, and what makes Juniper & Thornfirmly a horror novel.
Despite the fact that Juniper & Thorn and your debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, are set in the same universe, they feel like very different stories. Did your writing process or sources for inspiration change between the two? I like to think of The Wolf and the Woodsman and Juniper & Thornas fractured mirror images: If Woodsman is about the pain of being excluded from the narrative, then Juniper & Thornis about the pain of being forced into the narrative, acting out the same rigidly defined role over and over. So while they are very different books that span different subgenres, the common threads are, I think, what makes an “Ava Reid book.”
As for the writing process, by dint of the fact that Juniper & Thornwas the second book in my contract, I had to write it fairly quickly and did so in a month. It changed very little from its initial draft. I had a much stronger sense of my identity as a writer and a very clear idea of what I wanted this book to be from page one.
While Juniper & Thorn is set in a fictional world, it’s obviously influenced by Eastern European culture and especially the conquest of parts of the region by Russia. Why did you set your story in this context? Eastern Europe is the setting of many major contemporary fantasy novels, but with few exceptions, these books present an Eastern Europe that is bleak, wintry, remote, forested and very culturally homogeneous. I was intrigued by writing an Eastern Europe that was different: wind-chapped steppes, black sand beaches, boardwalks, smoke-chuffing factories, vibrant with urban life, diverse and dynamic. Early 20th-century Odesa, Ukraine, the city upon which Oblya is based, was considered the jewel of the Russian empire. It was an entirely planned city that became a regional hub of immigration, export and industry. It is also a city where a large number of Ashkenazi Jews lived, including my own family.
Enormous change—industrialization, urbanization, immigration—was disrupting traditional lifestyles, often violently. This setting was fundamental to the story I wanted to tell. I like to set books during periods of upheaval, uncertainty, transformation and violence, where what has always been is not synonymous with what will always be.
The conflict between modernity and magic bleeds into the sisters’ lives in a lot of different ways. Do you think the kind of magic you depict in Juniper & Thorn can coexist with modernity as we think of it? Magic in Juniper & Thornrepresents the old world, a world that is regressive and stubbornly resistant to change. When Marlinchen gives examples of her father’s transformations, they are always instances in which he turns something dynamic or technologically advanced into something lifeless or outdated: a swan into a swan-vase, an electric lamp into a candle. His transformation is reaching backward while the city around them leaps forward. I think it’s inherently anti-modernity. It parallels the way a lot of contemporary European ethnic nationalists imagine their countries’ mythic pasts’magical, in touch with the natural world and of course devoid of any ‘foreign’ or ‘corruptive’ element. Is there a place for this way of thinking in the modern world? Unfortunately, yes, but ideally, these prejudicial, violent attitudes would go the way of the spinning wheel.
Eastern European names are all about diminutives, a nickname formed by adding -sha to the initial syllable of a name. In a book that draws from those cultures, why did you make the majority of your characters’ names defy this custom? I wanted to set the Vashchenko family apart from the rest of society as much as possible. They live an outmoded and traditional lifestyle, and the rigidity of their names, which eschew diminutives, represents this attitude of isolation.
Surnames with the suffix –enko are uniquely Ukrainian, first recorded in the 1400s. Unlike most other Russian and Ukrainian surnames, they do not change with grammatical gender. Ordinarily a father whose surname is Sorokin would have a daughter surnamed Sorokina. But I chose the name Vashchenko specifically because it doesn’t change with gender, to further represent the total dominion Zmiy has over his daughters.
Despite the fact that this is ostensibly a book about witches, there is precious little magic of the wand-waving variety. Instead, your magic is at turns visceral (Marlinchen’s divining ability is all about touch) and existential (Zmiy’s curse). What inspired you to make a magic system that is so sparse and yet so threatening? I often think about what separates dark fantasy from horror, because while The Wolf and the Woodsman is a dark fantasy novel, Juniper & Thornis very clearly horror. And I always return to the idea that fear is different from horror. Fear is staring down a man with a knife; horror is staring down a monster made of knives. Horror shifts your view of the world, your view of yourself. It is something beyond comprehension. So the magic in Juniperis—by intention—a bit blurry around the edges. And I think that’s what makes it frightening.
There are very few physical demonstrations of Zmiy’s magic, even though he makes plenty of threats. Marlinchen begins the book convinced that her father is all-powerful. The fear that he instills in her is real, but whether it is the result of physical, tangible magic is uncertain. This uncertainty is the nature of horror, and it’s also the nature of abuse. Marlinchen is gaslighted and manipulated into a state of bewilderment and insecurity, unable to trust herself or her perceptions. A more ambiguous and elusive form of magic felt fitting for a book that’s so much about psychological abuse.
Whilethe characters (Sevas in particular) insist that they are not in a fairy tale, there are a lot of elements of Juniper & Thorn that use the mechanics of such stories. How did you toe that line between being inspired by a fairy tale and creating something completely new? Fairy tales remain essential parts of our culture because they contain themes or lessons that feel universal, even aspirational: Strangers are dangerous (“Red Riding Hood”), beauty is goodness (“Cinderella”), justice is always done (take your pick). These beliefs are so fundamental that they are rarely ever questioned or even remarked upon. I wanted to write a book that dismantled as many of these foundational assumptions as I could. Sevas, a stranger, is in fact Marlinchen’s savior. Marlinchen, plain-faced, unremarkable, is the story’s heroine. The world of Juniper & Thornis by design deeply cruel and unjust. Once I had my list of tropes and mechanics, I began trying to take them apart. So while I was obviously inspired by fairy tales, my goal was always to turn them on their heads.
In several scenes, Marlinchen talks about her storybook-infused views on family, such as the dangers of having sisters or the fact that you can have a kind mother or a mother who’s alive but not both. Why do you think these themes are so ubiquitous in fairy tales? Folklorists and anthropologists have had hearty debates on this subject. One defining element of fairy tales is their simplicity: There are archetypes, not characters, the settings are always vague, and the plots are straightforward. As Marlinchen says, they are stories that aren’t meant to be questioned. They are answers in and of themselves. Italo Calvino defines a fairy tale by its brevity and concision of language. They occupy a strange space in our culture that seems to be outside the realm of logic or realism—yet they have their own logic that is seductively easy to swallow.
Juniper & Thornis a recrimination about how fairy tales are weaponized as instruments of oppression and abuse, and I do believe that is often true. At the same time, I’m not ready to surrender fairy tales entirely, to give them over to the Zmiy Vashchenkos of the world. I think certain motifs occur and remain because of our common humanity. It’s easy to see the strains of misogyny, patriarchy, antisemitism, etc., as nefarious—and they are—but they are also evidence of a shared past. Reminders of this common humanity can be powerful, restorative and brimming with hope.
Your descriptions of the ballet, in particular of Sevas’ skill as a dancer, are breathtaking. What drew you to the imagery of dance? Ballet is an important part of Russian culture and Russian national identity, particularly in the early 20th century, when the book is set. Iconic ballets like ‘The Firebird’and ‘Swan Lake’draw from Russian folklore and fairy tales, and of course, both feature imagery of birds and themes of transformation’so it seemed deeply fitting.
I also thought a lot about ballet as both an art form and a sport; it requires incredible physical strength and an almost ascetic level of dedication, especially to achieve the success that Sevas has. But unlike many other sports, aesthetics are crucial to its performance. Ballet’s emphasis on beauty, fluidity and effortless grace while camouflaging the physical toll it takes on the dancers knits together very well with the larger themes of the book.
Do you think that Marlinchen would have eventually rebelled if she hadn’t met Sevas? Where would they both be now if they hadn’t met each other? It’s honestly impossible for me to conceive of these two characters apart from each other, because I wrote them to be soulmates: They understand each other instantly to the deepest possible degree, and even though they appear quite different on the surface, they are perfect mirror images. They have been trapped, misused and pushed to the bleakest point of desperation, and that’s when they find each other. I think it’s easy to see Sevas as Marlinchen’s knight in shining armor, but she rescues him just as much as he rescues her.
Photo of Ava Reid courtesy of the author.
The author's gothic horror novel, Juniper & Thorn, is inspired by Grimms' most gruesome tale.
The last wizard in the city of Oblya has three daughters, and his youngest, Marlinchen, is meek and subservient, bending to her father’s tempestuous nature and her sisters’ scornful criticisms. But Marlinchen knows the boundaries of her proscribed life and does not stray outside them. That is, until her sisters drag her into the city to go to the ballet. The dance awakens something in Marlinchen, as does the sight of its principal dancer, Sevas. The door to rebellion now cracked open, Marlinchen begins to strain against the cords that bind her to her father’s will. And as she steps out of his shadow bit by bit, there is no returning to the way things used to be.
Set in the same universe as Ava Reid’s debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Juniper & Thorn tells a haunting story of modernization, love and escape from abuse. Reid’s prose is at times heavy and muted and at others soaring and poetic, contrasting Marlinchen’s family home, the only world she has ever known, with Sevas’ seemingly liberated life—a life Marlinchen desperately wishes to experience. The expansiveness Reid evokes in Marlinchen’s interactions with Sevas (via his dancing but also simply his earnest, luminescent presence) is welcome and necessary, turning a claustrophobic story into one that is also transcendent and hopeful. This combination of sweeping, emotional descriptions and scenes of tightly wound suspense brings to mind both Eastern European ballet classics such as Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and gothic horror like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—a juxtaposition that makes Juniper & Thorn an utterly compelling read.
Readers who would prefer to avoid themes of abuse and self-harm, as well as intense depictions of gore and body horror, should avoid Juniper & Thorn, since these elements recur with frequency. However, readers who are prepared for such territory will find a brilliant novel both tender and chilling, one that will challenge their ideas about monstrosity and magic and drag them from the depths of dread to the heights of hope.
Set in the same world as her debut, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Ava Reid's Juniper & Thorn is a tender, chilling story of love and escape from abuse.
In the alternate modern-day U.K. setting of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, a recent civil war among witches and warlocks has left their community in shambles. The titular congregation of witches has protected and supported the monarchy through wartime and peace alike, but their coven is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Many of its members were killed in the violence of the internecine war, while others have left in favor of either practicing in solitude or forming more inclusive covens than the stodgy and traditional HMRC.
Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle were bound by their girlhood oath to the HMRC and their friendships with one another. But those friendships, like the HMRC itself, are showing wear. While Helena, the new high priestess of the HMRC, has stayed within its stifling halls, the others have moved on. Niamh, still reeling from the death of her fiancé and the betrayal of her twin sister in the war, has retreated into her veterinary practice. Elle, who hails from an ancient line of powerful witches, has elected to live as a mundane housewife, while Leonie has risen as the queen of a new coven that welcomes witches from marginalized backgrounds into its ranks. Their bonds are further tested when a powerful young warlock threatens to destroy the HMRC for good.
British author Juno Dawson’s adult fiction debut is a femme-forward story of power, morality and fate that is not shy about its politics. While the political arguments in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are couched in magical terms, they closely align with issues in our own world. Dawson explores the complexities of modern feminism with particular poignancy: The HMRC is stuck in its ways and takes a rigid view of womanhood and witchcraft, holding up a mirror to the failures of modern feminism. Despite its stated good intentions, the coven often discounts or even demonizes both trans witches and the traditional practices of non-white witches.
Beyond its politics, what especially makes Her Majesty’s Royal Coven shine is its impeccable voice. Dawson’s conversational, matter-of-fact tone calls to mind writers like Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones; it’s at times funny, at others heartbreaking, but always perfectly calibrated. Dawson makes you feel like she has laid all her cards on the table, but every so often she manages to pull a hidden ace from her sleeve that shocks you.
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is a thoughtful entry into the witch canon that intrigues and challenges as much as it delights.
Her Majesty's Royal Coven uses the setting of an alternate Britain where witchcraft is real to mount a delightful and thoughtful exploration of modern feminism.
Some horror novels grab you by the throat and pull you through them, rubbing your face in the uncomfortable, terrifying things that lurk in the dark. Other horror novels can feel more sinister, slowly creeping up on you out of the banality of everyday evil. Two new novels explore these facets of fear to great effect, creating worlds that are both fantastical and terribly real.
Set along Oregon’s foggy coast, Black Tide by KC Jones is the story of two strangers who are thrust together when the world comes to an end. Beth might be a disaster (even her mother says so), but her latest gig housesitting for wealthy vacationers at least keeps her from living in her car. The night before everything changes, she meets Mike, a film producer with no new projects in sight. In the early morning hours after their champagne-soaked one-night stand, they realize that something is terribly wrong. The power is out, cell phone service is down and the beach is littered with bowling ball-size meteorites that smell as if they have been pulled from a landfill in hell. Soon the unlikely pair learn a horrifying truth: Far from being an isolated incident, the meteor shower was the harbinger of an apocalyptic encounter with creatures from another world. Stranded together on an Oregonian beach, Beth and Mike must rely on each other if they are to have any chance of survival.
Jones’ debut novel reads like a summer blockbuster stuffed with adrenaline-pumping action scenes and moments of heart-stopping suspense. Jones deftly punctuates long, tense scenes of Mike and Beth trying to avoid notice by the alien creatures with short, intense bursts of them fighting for their lives. Moments of relative calm allow for character exploration, bringing readers into Mike’s and Beth’s minds as they work through their feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Jones lets both characters take turns as first-person narrators, demonstrating the difference in how they see themselves (flawed to the point of worthlessness) and how the other person sees them (flawed but essentially good).
For readers used to tome-size horror novels, the length of Black Tide may be surprising. It’s just over 250 pages, but anything longer would have detracted from the frenetic pacing and torn attention away from Jones’ perfectly simple, extremely frightening premise: two people trapped at the end of the world, desperate to not be eaten by monsters.
★ The Fervor
Alma Katsu’s The Fervor casts a wide net. It starts in 1944 during the waning days of World War II. Meiko Briggs is a Japanese immigrant and wife of a white American man. Even though her husband is serving in the U.S. Air Force, she’s still torn from her new home by the American government and forced to live in an internment camp in the remote reaches of Idaho with her daughter, Aiko. When a mysterious illness starts to move through the camp, rage and distrust rise, threatening the fragile corner of relative normalcy Meiko has tried to create for her daughter.
Meanwhile, mysterious balloons have begun to appear and then explode across the West, leaving a similar illness in their wake. One of these bombs turns a preacher in Bly, Oregon, into a widower, driving him into the arms of hate movements cropping up across the country. A close encounter with another bomb leads a newspaper reporter to crisscross the region looking for answers, but she finds only closed doors and deep distrust. As the illness intensifies in both the camps and the surrounding towns, the sins of the past collide with the present to create an inescapable web of hatred, fear and desperation.
In light of the rash of anti-Asian violence of the 2020s, Katsu’s historical parable about the horrors—and the virulence—of racism and xenophobia feels particularly pressing. The Fervor gives readers a glimpse into one of the darkest moments of American history, and then gives the already-terrifying ethos of that time a new and frightening shape: As the disease spreads from person to person, it is often accompanied by mysterious, possibly supernatural spiders. The image of near-invisible spiders crawling from one person to another, over eyelids, mouths and bodies, is an indelibly creepy illustration of just how pervasive mistrust and prejudice are.
The terror only grows from there. From visitations from a ghostly woman in a red kimono to midnight car chases through the prairie, The Fervor delivers a punch that’s equal parts psychological horror and jump scare. It will make you want to read into the wee hours of the morning, even though you may question that decision when the shadows start to move.
KC Jones’ apocalyptic debut and Alma Katsu’s latest eerie novel have one thing in common: They will absolutely terrify you.
Far from being simple tales of birthrights and inheritances restored, these books delve into heady questions about power, privilege and the consequences of political intrigue. And while each does this in a different way, they do have one thing in common: They open with a death.
The Amber Crown
Jacey Bedford’s The Amber Crown begins with the death of King Konstantyn of Zavonia, poisoned by an unknown assassin. His personal guards are immediately blamed for the death and executed by the new king. Valdas Zalecki, head of the king’s guard, was out of the palace on the night of the murder, and it is up to him to find out who killed his beloved king—and to find Queen Kristina, who’s gone missing. Mirza, a witch and healer with the power to speak with the dead, promises Konstantyn that she will avenge his death. And the last piece of The Amber Crown’s puzzle is Lind, the assassin who killed Konstantyn. Haunted by the specter of his abusive childhood, Lind finds that the murder of a king is not an easy thing to live with. As their stories collide, these three outsiders must work together to prevent Zavonia from falling further into chaos.
Despite its conventional premise, The Amber Crown still represents a divergence from traditional high fantasy. The world building echoes Eastern Europe, with Zavonia serving as a fictionalized version of Poland. This allows Bedford to pull from supernatural practices of that region of the world, such as blood rituals and dream walking. And Bedford’s focus on marginalized and supposedly “unimportant” characters, rather than knights and princes, forces readers to reckon with the consequences of political upheaval outside of a royal court.
★ The Bone Orchard
Sara A. Mueller’s debut novel also begins with the death of a monarch, this time an emperor. In The Bone Orchard, Charm is a prisoner but a well-kept one. Taken from her home when her kingdom of Inshil was conquered and colonized by the Boren Empire, the necromantic witch has been confined to Orchard House for decades. Charm is surrounded by her children, of a kind: boneghosts who are grown (and often regrown) from the fruit of the bone-producing orchard. Charm and her boneghosts—Justice, Pain, Pride, Shame and Desire—serve the powerful men of the capital city of Borenguard as entertainers, masseuses and sex workers. Charm is mistress to the emperor himself, bound by a neural implant that keeps her magic in check and keeps her loyal to him. But when Charm is called to the emperor’s deathbed, she’s given a chance at freedom. If she finds the person who killed him, she will be free of the magic that keeps her bound to the crown.
While the mechanics of Charm’s bone orchard and the empathic power that some citizens of Borenguard wield are certainly magical, other aspects of The Bone Orchard evoke classic sci-fi tropes. Charm’s boneghosts harken all the way back to Frankenstein, and the oppressive, fascist Boren Empire is straight out of Fahrenheit 451. But despite these nods to foundational works, The Bone Orchard still feels fresh and ambitious. Charm enjoys access to power while still being marginalized herself, a contradictory position that Mueller analyzes to endlessly fascinating effect. It may be an otherworldly, genre-bending fantasy, but The Bone Orchard is still intensely human at its heart.
In a Garden Burning Gold
In a Garden Burning Gold’s opening death is not so much a murder as it is a sacrifice. Young adult author Rory Power’s first novel for adults centers on twins Rhea and Lexos, siblings gifted with immense power and responsibility. Rhea is the Thyspira, tasked with taking—and then sacrificing—a new consort each season to keep the world lush and the provinces that owe fealty to their father, Vasilis, in line. Lexos is their father’s second, trained from near birth to assist Vasilis in his political machinations and keep stability in the land. When Rhea’s latest suitor-cum-sacrifice is revealed to be embroiled in an independence movement that threatens the stability of the family’s demesne, the twins must scramble to maintain control and protect all they hold dear.
Set in a world patterned after ancient Greek city states, In a Garden Burning Gold dives deep into family love, political intrigue and filial duty. It’s rare to find a main character whose powers engender so much ambivalence as Rhea’s abilities do for her. She offers little in return to the families and communities from whom she has stolen a life, other than the continuance of the status quo. Power makes Rhea a compelling and often likable character, while never losing sight of the fact that, in the end, she always lives and her consort always dies. That imbalance compels readers to ask whether the sacrifice is really worth it, and whether that sort of power should sit in any one person’s—or family’s—hands. A grown-up version of Encanto mixed with a political thriller, all set against a dazzling Mediterranean backdrop, In a Garden Burning Gold is a strikingly original and thoughtful fantasy.
Readers who are eager for feats of magic and daring adventures but don’t want to retread the same old stories from decades past will be enthralled by these three novels, each of which strays outside of the traditional high fantasy playbook to great effect.
A River Enchanted, Rebecca Ross’ adult fiction debut, is an elegant fantasy novel of homecoming and mystery. With its lyrical prose and tight world building, this story is both modern and timeless, drawing from the traditions of genre greats like Steven Lawhead and marrying them to the sensibilities of modern works like Genevieve Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart and Tana French’s In the Woods.
The novel opens with the prodigal Jack Tamerlaine’s return to Cadence, the isle of his youth, a land where magic and spirits run free and gossip is carried on the wind as easily as smoke. He soon learns that young girls are going missing on Cadence, seemingly plucked from the air by a formless spirit, leaving no trace of them behind. Adaira, heiress to the laird and Jack’s childhood nemesis, has summoned Jack back to the island to help her find out exactly what has happened to the girls—and to get them back before it’s too late. She wants him to sing down the spirits as her mother once did so that Adaira can ask them what matter of mischief is afoot. But as Jack and Adaira delve deeper into the mystery, the spirits begin to suggest that a far darker secret lies behind the loss of the girls.
Already known for her young adult fantasy novels, Ross has created a world both rich and wonderful in Cadence. The island is full of so much magic, so many feuds and stories—enough that capturing them all in one novel, even a nearly 500-page one, seems a difficult task. But somehow Ross succeeds, guiding readers through the intricate warp and weft of the island and its traditions and creating a brilliant tapestry full of mystery and wonder. And while Ross does revel in world building, she doesn’t tell her story at a remove. The four characters that the book centers on—Jack, Adaira, guardsman Torin and healer Sidra—are vibrant and fully realized, keeping the myth-making quality of the book at bay and instead grounding the story in these characters’ heartaches and fears, their desires and attractions. A sublime mix of romance, intrigue and myth, A River Enchanted is a stunning addition to the canon of Celtic-inspired fantasy.
A sublime mix of romance, intrigue and myth, A River Enchanted is a stunning addition to the canon of Celtic-inspired fantasy.
Xingyin has never met her father, a mortal archer who saved the human world from destruction. She is also the daughter of Chang’e, the infamous moon goddess who became immortal after drinking a potion that was given to her husband in recognition of his heroic deeds. Xingyin has lived a lonely life, hidden away in her mother’s sky-bound prison. That changes when she accidentally accesses her own magical powers and is forced to flee to avoid detection by the Celestial Emperor and his court. While on the run, Xingyin is thrust into the uncomfortable role of learning companion to the Celestial Prince, the son of the very man who imprisoned her mother. As she trains and learns alongside the prince, Xingyin is torn between loyalty to her new friend and the desperate desire to free her mother from her eternal prison.
Daughter of the Moon Goddess, Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel, is filled with intricate world building, heartbreaking romance and mind-bending intrigue. Tan’s story is mythic in its scope yet personal in its execution. At times, she steps into a writing cadence reminiscent of a storyteller recalling a well-trod tale, as when Xingyin describes her childhood in her mother’s otherworldly prison or when she faces down monsters as First Archer of the Celestial Army. At other times, Tan’s prose is close and personal, pulling readers deep into Xingyin’s fears, drives and desires. The result is an all-consuming work of literary fantasy that is breathtaking both for its beauty and its suspense.
Daughter of the Moon Goddess starts out slowly. Indeed, the first quarter of the narrative seems to exist in an entirely different time zone than the rest of the novel, which careens from one adventure to another as Xingyin fights for her mother’s freedom. However, don’t let the languid pacing of the early scenes of Xingyin’s life with her mother fool you into thinking that this is a book where nothing happens. On the contrary, so much happens in this first installment of the Celestial Kingdom duology that it’s hard to imagine where Tan’s imagination might take Xingyin and her friends next. Wherever that road leads, however, it is sure to be one of boundless invention.
Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel is an all-consuming fantasy that is breathtaking both for its beauty and its suspense.
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