Laura Hubbard

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. 

Black Tide

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.

In the thrilling second installment of Chloe Neill’s fantasy spin on the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Kit Brightling, a magically gifted naval officer in direct service to Queen Charlotte of the Isles, has been plagued by dreams. Dreams of rising water and nearing danger, yes, but also dreams of the charming and maddening viscount of Queenscliffe, Colonel Rian Grant. But questions of romance must wait as Kit is asked to find whatever information she can about the machinations of Gerard Rousseau, the exiled former emperor of Gallia.

However, Kit’s quest leads instead to the war criminal La Boucher in a small town on the coast of Gallia. The magic La Boucher wields in Rousseau’s name is deadly and immense, capable of costing hundreds their lives. There is no stopping the oncoming war, but stopping La Boucher can help Kit put the Isles on the right side of it. And to do that, she’ll need all the magic she can muster—as well as the help of a certain handsome nobleman. 

If the first book in Neill’s Captain Kit Brightling series was a slowly rising tide, A Swift and Savage Tide is the flood. Gone is the fragile peace between the Isles and Gallia, replaced by a sense of inevitable conflict and kinetic explosions of all-out war on the high seas. Gone too is the slow-burn romance of the first book, abandoned in favor of an open acknowledgement of mutual desire between Kit and Grant. What remains, however, are the elements that have made the Kit Brightling series a success so far: a wicked sense of humor and the ability to turn tropes on their sides. In addition, Neill’s already-impeccable grasp of pacing has, if possible, improved. Like the waters upon which her captain sails, Neill’s prose ebbs and flows, pulling readers into the bone-crushing anxiety of a reconnaissance mission or a tender moment with Kit’s caring (if mildly insubordinate) crew before thrusting them headfirst into the throes of battle or the rising heat of Kit’s evolving relationship with Grant. A Swift and Savage Tide teases both mystery and adventure for the two in the road that lies ahead.

A Swift and Savage Tide is perhaps even better than A Bright and Breaking Sea, but it cannot be fully enjoyed without having read that first book in the series. New readers should be informed, therefore, that the two books are best enjoyed when read back to back, all while drinking a cup of heavily sugared tea alongside a pile of Kit’s favorite pistachio nougats. The lack of sleep (and cavities) are well worth the effort for such engrossing reads. 

Chloe Neill’s second Captain Kit Brightling adventure improves upon the already stellar first book in the series.

While set in very different worlds and starkly different eras, Summer Sons and Revelator are marvelous modern additions to the Southern gothic canon, full of paranoia and the grotesque (as well as the occasional jump scare).

★ Summer Sons

Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons opens in tragedy. After the death of his adoptive brother and best friend, Andrew is left with a legacy he never asked for: Eddie's money, Eddie’s sports car, Eddie’s house, the American Studies graduate program at Vanderbilt in Tennessee that Eddie picked out for the two of them and even Eddie’s roommate. Driven by grief and convinced that there is more to Eddie’s death than meets the eye, Andrew slides into the life that Eddie prepared for him, discovering all that Eddie had tried to conceal. As Andrew dives deeper into a world of sun-soaked men, racing and trouble, he is forced to deal with another unwanted legacy. Eddie’s revenant won’t leave him alone, and neither will Eddie’s research into their shared supernatural experience, a topic they had agreed to let lie. Summer Sons is raw and chaotic, driving readers through the disordered grief and anger of its main character. Mandelo’s visceral writing tugs at readers’ hearts as well as their amygdalas. Alternating between discussions of identity and sexuality, the horror of grief and an actual haunting, it is part The Fast and the Furious, part The Shining and part Ninth House.

Revelator

While Summer Sons deals in the present, Daryl Gregory’s Revelator is a story of ancestry and ancient powers. Set in the 1930s and ’40s, in the mountainous triangle where Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia collide, it follows Stella Birch: moonshiner, businesswoman and Revelator and prophet to Ghostdaddy, the god under the mountain. The red splotches across Stella’s face signaled this title when she was born and sealed her destiny. She would be the one to go under the mountain and commune with Ghostdaddy, bringing his word out to be recorded and interpreted by the men of her family. That is, until tragedy and rebellion struck. Stella fled, leaving her role and god behind. But when her grandmother Motty’s death calls Stella back to her childhood home and to Motty’s adopted daughter, Sonny, whom Stella has long ignored, she will have to deal with her past if she is to have any hope of a future.

Full of matter-of-fact descriptions of unthinkable horror, Revelator is both weird and wonderful. On the one hand, it tells a story familiar to Southern literature: the chaos resulting from the death of a matriarch. And on the other, it tells the story of a creature so alien that it’s difficult to wrap your head around. Perfect for fans of Lovecraft Country and anyone who wished the 2000 film Songcatcher had a few more monsters, Revelator is full of surprises both fascinating and stomach-clenching.

Both Summer Sons and Revelator serve a slice of cold terror, paired with a view of humanity that is equal parts revelatory and humbling.

Two new novels put their own horrifying spin on the Southern gothic.

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