Like Thunder, Nnedi Okorafor’s sequel to Shadow Speaker, returns to chaotic, post-apocalyptic West Africa and reunites readers with Dikéogu Obidimkpa, a mage currently leading a squad of special forces to liberate a camp of enslaved children producing chocolate.
To be more precise, it starts with Dikéogu introducing himself and the format of the book: transcriptions of voice recordings he made on a device called an e-legba. They vary in tone and precision, depending on Dikéogu’s state of mind when recording. It is a fascinating take on an epistolary novel, told by an often-unreliable narrator who frequently assumes that the reader knows more about past events than they actually do. He does explain where people like himself—called Changed Ones for their inhuman abilities, such as summoning thunderstorms, controlling the wind or reading people’s minds—come from and the prejudice they face. But the opening chapters focus on setting the tone for the rest of the story rather than exposition, trusting the reader to figure things out as they go.
A tale of mad mages and jealous lovers, of tyrants and demagogues, and of a catastrophe deferred, Like Thunder revolves around three people: Dikéogu, his old friend Ejii (protagonist of Shadow Speaker) and another Changed One named Arif. They are among the strongest Changed Ones, and reunite just as the peace treaty between Earth and its sister planet, Ginen—the peace treaty that saved both planets from destruction—is disintegrating. Dikéogu, Ejii and Arij are seeking a haven for Changed Ones, where they will be safe from the demonization of conservative internet pundits like Dikéogu’s own parents. And they are also caught up in a love triangle that may be crucial to saving the world.
Okorafor is an undeniable master of her craft, having won the Hugo and Nebula Best Novella awards for Binti and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel with Who Fears Death, and Like Thunder is a well-written adventure story with surprising depths. Instead of drawing on the typical dystopian tropes, Okorafor relies on her signature blend of Africanfuturism (speculative fiction specifically about and written by people from Africa, as opposed to Afrofuturism, which focuses on African Americans), utilizing her familiarity with cultures from the Western Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea, and spiritual movements from the African diaspora such as Santeria. These rich mythological and historical influences add complexity to Okorafor’s work, but the relatively straightforward story in Like Thunder makes them easier to parse without prior knowledge. For anybody wanting an approachable—if not exactly gentle—introduction to one of today’s most thought-provoking science fiction writers, or anybody who just wants a good story told well, Like Thunder will more than satisfy.
A well-written sci-fi adventure story with surprising depths, Like Thunder will please longtime fans of Nnedi Okorafor and beguile newcomers.
Louise Joyner left home as soon as she could, fleeing the humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, for a career in industrial design in Silicon Valley. Her brother, Mark, stayed put, his meandering and dysfunctional lifestyle patronized to his face and savaged in his absence by his family, as is so often the case with mildly disappointing scions of good Southern families. But now, Louise and Mark must figure out what to do with the relics of their recently departed parents’ lives: their father’s idiosyncratic economics research, their mother’s vast collection of Christian puppets and their house. However, some revenants will not go quietly into that good night. There are burdens this family has politely buried for far too long, and the Joyners are about to discover that some hauntings are neither stagecraft nor hellspawn. Some hauntings are homemade.
Author Grady Hendrix is a Charleston native, and How to Sell a Haunted House completely nails its Lowcountry setting. This reviewer is also a South Carolinian and can confirm that neither the idea of a Christian puppet ministry nor the actual Fellowship of Christian Puppeteers are made up. The depiction of Carolina culture is also accurate, especially Hendrix’s portrayal of how someone who grew up in it, left and then came back would perceive it: familiar and peculiar, unsettling and comforting, prompting a reckoning with how deeply strange its version of normal truly is. Hendrix only departs from this reality in one way: In no gauzy South Carolina summer that I can recall did the knickknacks acquire a vengeful sentience and wreak havoc on the strained psyches of a family’s prodigal offspring.
How to Sell a Haunted House effectively marries tropes ripped straight from the pages of a midcentury pulp magazine to a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma. Families are warm and lovely but also stifling, just like the summers; rituals are banal but also sacred, their violation the gravest of transgressions; and there are always skeletons (or puppets) in the sewing closets. How to Sell a Haunted House may be a heightened tale of horror, but it is built on something true. And it’s a lot of fun, as well.
How to Sell a Haunted House blends pulp horror with a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma—plus haunted puppets.
Biddy lives on the secret island of Hy-Brasil at the beginning of the 20th century, her only human contact being the kind but mercurial Irish magician Rowan (when he isn’t a raven) and his companion, Hutchincroft (when he isn’t a rabbit). Hy-Brasil has been particularly blessed by magic, which seeps into existence from some unspecified ether, suffusing the world with good fortune and happy circumstances. However, magic has been growing scarce, and mages have become misers. Rowan has been doing what he can, leaving the island to raid his fellow magicians’ storehouses and let a little luck back into the world. Until, one day, he doesn’t come back, and Biddy must leave the island for the first time and go to England in order to find him.
A pandemic project for author H.G. Parry, The Magician’s Daughter was clearly influenced by the enforced isolation of lockdown and the inescapable fear that the world might actually be a dismally unjust place. There are subtle allusions to the Victorian novels that are Biddy’s collective almanac to the world beyond Hy-Brasil, from workhouses and tubercular young women to subversions of traditional gender roles that somehow still end in marriage. But Parry has not crafted a dystopia. Rather, she infuses the book’s industrial-era grime with a literal manifestation of optimism: magic.
The Magician’s Daughter is beautifully crafted, balancing a lushly detailed 1912 London with a narrative leanness. It’s reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—if Susanna Clarke were an optimist. It’s a story about an imperfect world that desperately wants to be better, where true evil is an aberration and even monsters may be redeemed. Biddy meets various mages on her journey to find Rowan, and most of their grievances are petty things, twisted beyond recognition by too many decades of coiled resentments and having to fight off one anothers’ magic. Even the villains are more greedy and corrupt than anything, motivated by human failings rather than inhuman desires. In these pages, idealism is a virtue and the world can be saved by the magic in an ordinary girl’s heart.
This is not the kind of fantasy that exposes society’s ills or probes some deep philosophical conundrum. Rather, it is representative of the escapist optimism that COVID-19 seemed to engender. In the face of an unrelentingly depressing reality, where every headline portends some creative new doom humankind must overcome, Parry writes of climbing out from the impending abyss. And she does it well enough that even devotees of fantasy’s darker halls will take solace in this little corner of storybook endings and happily ever afters.
Even devotees of fantasy’s darker corners will take solace in The Magician’s Daughter, a little paean to storybook endings and happily ever afters.
Arcady Dalca is a mage who specializes in shape-shifting, a thief and also the scion of the most infamous family in the city of Vatra. Their grandfather, the Plaguebringer, was widely believed to have caused the Strikes, virulent and deadly diseases that swept the world. But Arcady does not believe their grandfather was capable of such destruction and has embarked on a quest to discover the truth. Part of that quest requires stealing the Plaguebringer’s seal, a dragonstone amulet that allows the wearer to wield magic, and using its power to shape-shift into a new identity. But the spell Arcady casts to claim the seal rips a hole in the Veil separating worlds and lets an invader through: Everen, the last male dragon, failed seer and prince of a dying world. Everen wants to tear the Veil wide open, letting his fellow dragons back into the world that banished them so that they can escape extinction and wreak vengeance on humankind for their betrayal. Everen is trapped in human form, but he can regain his full power if he wins Arcady’s complete trust—and then kills them.
In writing Dragonfall, author L.R. Lam was clearly inspired by fantasy authors like Anne McCaffrey and Robin Hobb, both of whom have written iconic tales starring dragons. But Lam also injects this classic high fantasy quest with a healthy dose of sexual tension. The romance between Arcady and Everen is central to the plot, since the fates of both humans and dragons hinge on their bond. And while all is not well in their relationship by the book’s end, it seems clear that by the planned trilogy’s conclusion, these Veil-crossed lovers will be united, saving the world in the process.
Lam employs many common tropes of both romance and high fantasy, but their world building is still delightfully imaginative and richly detailed. Despite banishing dragons centuries ago, humans still worship them as gods, with different dragon deities being associated with different kinds of spells. All of the magic in Dragonfall involves asking the world to reshape itself in a specific way, which means that all humans who possess seals have the capacity to manipulate themselves or their environments to fit their needs or desires. Lam delves headlong into the philosophical implications of this, constructing a society built almost entirely around fluidity. This extends from architecture built on a premise of ephemerality, because it can be magically adjusted at any moment, to a concept of gender wholly based on personal preferences, as many people can change their appearances at will. Everen, whose world is one of rigid roles and clearly demarcated boundaries, finds this embrace of inconstancy confounding. But for the genderfluid Arcady, such liberation is the bedrock of existence. Lam’s deep exploration of this fascinating society beautifully balances the somewhat pulpy genre elements.
Grimdark aficionados should steer clear, but Dragonfall will delight fans of well-designed worlds, heroes’ journeys and slow-burning romance. Here there be (sexy) dragons.
Here there be (sexy) dragons: Dragonfall will delight fans of well-designed worlds, heroes’ journeys and slow-burning romance.
Centuries ago, the humans of Lumet banished dragons. But in a ritual gone wrong, shape-shifting thief Arcady accidentally lets the last male dragon back into the world. Trapped in human form while on this side of the Veil, Everen is intent on ripping apart the Veil between worlds so that his people can return, but the dragon finds himself forging a surprising bond with Arcady.
There is such a great balance between romance and fantasy in Dragonfall. How do you envision this evolving as you continue the trilogy? From the beginning, it was always meant to be a pretty equal balance. I absolutely love “romantasy,” as it’s been coined. I decided to try my hand at it because I thought it would be really fun to essentially smuggle a paranormal shifter romance into a fantasy setting with a lot of history and lore and see if I could get away with it. I really love playing with romance tropes, too, so I sprinkled in enemies-to-lovers and made it so the characters are in forced proximity but can’t really physically touch, which resulted in a lot of slow burn. I’m not opposed to it shifting more one direction or the other as I go on; it’ll end up being whatever best serves the story, I expect.
When talking about this book, you’ve mentioned writers like Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey, both of whom have created iconic dragons. Were there any fictional dragons that were particularly inspirational to you? I have been wanting to write my own take on dragons for ages, but it took awhile to find my angle (which was apparently making them turn into quite hot not-quite-humanoids, giving them feathers like dinosaurs, and having them reproduce via parthenogenesis and be mostly female due to rising temperatures in a dying world). Dragons are, after all, the ultimate fantasy creature, but I always wanted to know more. In many stories and myths, dragons are the monsters to be slain, or creatures that were in some way fundamentally unknowable. I knew early on that I wanted to tell this story partly from a dragon’s point of view. What would a dragon society be like?
When I was younger, I was very into Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. As you mentioned, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey have some of my favorite dragons. There are also, of course, the dragons in “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon.” Other big inspirations were Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale, which have dragons that turn into humans as well. More recently, I adored ThePriory of the Orange Tree by the incredibly talented Samantha Shannon. I enjoyed Julie Kagawa’s Talon series as well. I’m also inspired by film, and one of my comfort movies is the Russian film I Am Dragon, which has gorgeous fairy-tale aesthetics and a dragon learning how to be human who seemingly never learns to wear a shirt.
What were you reading while you were writing Dragonfall, and in general, how do you approach reading while writing? I see reading and writing as intrinsically linked and believe that part of my job is to read both the classics that came before and the work that’s coming out now. I feel like we’re in a new golden age of fantasy. While drafting Dragonfall, I reread some old favorites such as The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, some Mercedes Lackey and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (a big influence on me merrily using first-person direct address for Everen’s point of view). And I read new titles such as Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, The Unbroken by C.L. Clark, The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart and more. I also read history, science fiction and nonfiction and listened to audiobooks and podcasts about all sorts of things—writers should always just be magpies and pick up anything shiny, in my opinion.
One of the central plot points in Dragonfall is the Strikes, a disease that gives people black markings on their skin and interferes with their ability to use magic. What were your inspirations for this disease and for how your society responded to it? I was inspired by the Black Death, which had several resurgences, and by how the radical reduction in population shifted medieval society. The peasant class changed, feudalism’s days were numbered and you had more people moving from the country to the cities, particularly London. I also really liked the idea of there being such a heavy cost to using too much magic. However, I wrote most of the book during the U.K.’s various COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, so that inevitably had an impact, intentionally or otherwise.
As a reader, rather than a writer, do you gravitate toward stories where who the “good guys” are depends on where you’re standing, or ones with a consistent villain? Why? As a reader, I’ve always found unambiguously good or evil characters a little boring, I have to say. I’m not good with binaries in general—shades of gray are far more interesting. I love antagonists who believe they are the hero or who are doing things that aren’t necessarily evil. I also love a good corruption or redemption arc. Antagonists in stories can exist to remind you that, under the right circumstances, you could very well turn into a villain yourself. Or other people might make you a villain in their minds, even if it’s not necessarily rooted in your actions, because it’s an easier narrative to tell themselves. In the right light, a hero could make a terrible decision in the name of “the greater good.” The greater good doesn’t mean much to the people who suffer the actual negative consequences of that decision. It’s rarely as simple as the Chosen One versus the Dark Lord or good always triumphing over evil.
What appealed to you about creating a signed lingua franca like Trade? I always wondered why sign language isn’t taught by default in schools. It would make society a lot more accessible for deaf people, and it would have so many other useful applications. In a world where there was a more standardized sign language dialect, you could at least communicate basic things across language divides. Inevitably, things would be lost in translation or nuance would be lost, but you’d have an easier starting point. So I imagined that Trade arose as a result of needing to haggle at markets, though it can also be used for things as innocuous as telling your friend what drink to order from the other side of a crowded tavern or as important as clarifying your gender.
Your magic system is one where language can directly alter the world, and that idea harmonizes beautifully with the nuanced ways you handled gender and status. Is that a connection you see as well? What was important or meaningful to you about exploring the power of language? I had a reader message me asking if I was a linguist because of the choices I made in Dragonfall, which delighted me. I’m not, but I made a lot of deliberate decisions about how language functions in Lochian society, so this is a nice excuse to geek out about it a little. Humans recite spells, which are really mangled words of the dragons’ language, Celenian. (This greatly offends Everen the dragon.) I worked with a linguist, my friend Seumas MacDonald, who created Celenian as a working language, and we’ll keep developing it over the series. Language can be such a tool of power, as Babel by R.F. Kuang demonstrates so beautifully. Humans already stole dragons’ magic and their world. Stealing their language to wield that magic without even remembering what their ancestors did is salt in the wound.
In Loc, it’s considered rude to assume a stranger’s gender, no matter how they present. A percentage of society can shape-shift, and healing magic can change a fair amount about the body, so biology isn’t seen as something immutable and unchanging, and gender roles are likewise fluid. You therefore default to “they” until that person quickly flashes their gender in Trade, often not even breaking the conversation. It’s a sign of trust and familiarity, like when you switch from the formal to informal “you” in languages like French and Spanish.
Status is also important. If you really respect someone or they’re higher class than you, you capitalize They and there’s a certain inflection to spoken speech. So nobility, clergy, rich merchants or guilders, or those who teach at the university might all be referred to with that honorific. You see it playing out in characters’ attitudes as well: One of the characters, priest assassin Sorin, uses They for most people she meets because she sees everyone as higher status than her, whereas Arcady, a genderfluid thief who despises a lot of the nobility and rages against society’s unfairness, largely refuses to use that honorific for the rich.
If you had a choice of dropping into this world, would you choose to be a human or a dragon? Oh, dead easy. No contest. Why be human when you could be a dragon? And fly?
How do you balance aspiration and escapism with social critique in your work? When I’m teaching, I ask new writers to consider this, too. I sigh a bit when people complain about “politics in their fantasy” as if it’s something new. All art is political, even if it chooses to uphold the status quo. In epic fantasy, there’s often a strong pro-monarchy angle, for example, and gender roles can be regressive in the name of “historical accuracy” despite these medieval-inspired worlds having things like potatoes and, you know, magical creatures. Those are political decisions, technically. That said, you don’t want to have a diatribe, either. It can be a difficult balance, and no writer will get it right for every reader. Fantasy can defamiliarize elements of our world or society, but it does it at more of a distance than contemporary fiction. The mirror is distorted.
For Dragonfall, I tried to focus on story and character first. As I mentioned, in Loc there’s no judgment in regard to sexuality or gender, whereas another country, Jask, is patriarchal. I suppose it is still subversive to imagine a world that tolerant, even in fantasy. I wrote Dragonfall as an escape when I was stuck inside most of the time. We’re seeing rising threats to transgender and reproductive rights, and the rhetoric and vitriol is honestly quite frightening, both in my original home of the U.S. and my current home in the U.K. This book is launching when queer books are increasingly getting banned. Even saying this in this interview makes me a little anxious. Are people going to say I’m banging on about politics instead of just focusing on the book? But I can’t exactly separate them out.
I obviously hope readers enjoy meeting these characters and falling into the world of the Lumet, but perhaps the book will make them think, too.
The start of a new series, Dragonfall is an enemies-to-lovers romance between a sexy dragon and a clever thief.
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series is suffused with the kind of philosophical explorations typical of high-concept speculative fiction, including the nature of conflict, the desire for community and what it means to be human. But these books have also posed another question, one left tantalizingly unanswered: What are the Presger? The terrifying, technologically advanced but rarely seen aliens hover on the edges of the series, their former habit of ripping into spaceships and people alike held at bay by a long-standing treaty with humanity.
In Translation State, Leckie’s latest standalone installment in the Radch universe, three characters approach the question of the Presger from different angles. Enae is a human diplomat tasked with finding out what happened to a missing Presger emissary. Reet is an engineer who discovers he may be the scion of the long-lost leaders of an oppressed people. And Qven is a juvenile Presger Translator, one of the strange creatures that the Presger bioengineered to communicate with species they consider to be Significant, or worthy of a diplomatic relationship. Looming over it all is the approaching renegotiation of the treaty that keeps humanity safe from the Presger.
In some ways, Translation State reads like a witty, action-packed retelling of “The Measure of a Man,” a classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode that debates whether the android Data is legally a person or a machine. The question here is not whether the characters think of themselves as Significant, but whether the Presger will think they are. Although the explicit stakes are legal, the terms of the debate are closer to theology than anything else. The Presger are essentially gods, with their treaty of nonviolence toward Significant species a particularly abstruse gospel. It brings to mind the Tarthenal from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, who prayed to gods only to ask them to stay far away. Every party must make decisions regarding the Significance of other species based on not only what serves their own interests but also what will prevent the Presger from tearing everything apart.
Despite the existential nature of its conflict, Translation State still has an essential optimism. Every character’s motivations are understandable, even if they are not sympathetic, as each person is genuinely trying their best under challenging and potentially lethal circumstances.
Translation State also has an absolute whirlwind of a plot. An aristocratic family’s fortune vanishes at a funeral in the first chapter, and later, Qven vivisects and devours multitudes of their fellow juveniles in what is, apparently, a normal part of Presger Translator development. (This book is not for the squeamish.) As ever, under all the excitement and plot machinations, Leckie uses contact among different species and cultures to discuss complicated constructs such as gender. For example, Qven’s initial confusion over how gender works mirrors the Radchaai inability to distinguish between genders in Leckie’s original Radch trilogy.
However, if you are the kind of reader who wants all their questions answered, beware: I still don’t really know what the Presger are.
Translation State, Ann Leckie’s latest Imperial Radch novel, is an ever-fascinating whirlwind with tantalizing clues about some of the series’ biggest mysteries.
Some horror doesn’t require jump scares. Sometimes only a rambling country estate, an eternally fallow field and the mountainous grief of a parent mourning a child are needed. Starve Acre is a meditative disaster story, a slow-motion record of life imploding.
When Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s troubled 5-year-old son, Ewan, dies unexpectedly, their lives become a daily struggle to maintain equilibrium. Eventually they stop leaving the titular country estate Richard inherited from his father, nursing their wounds in rural isolation. Juliette continues her descent into bereaved delirium and Richard spends his days conducting archeological research on the ancient oak that once stood in the dead field behind the house. Slowly, it becomes indelibly clear that something is very, very wrong at Starve Acre.
Author Andrew Michael Hurley (The Loney) is a beautiful writer and a clever narrative architect. He doles out information piecemeal in remarkably fluid prose, leaving ample space to dissect his fascinating, flawed characters. Richard and Juliette are coping with Ewan’s death in understandably dysfunctional ways, while Juliette’s sister, Harrie, proselytizes the services of the therapist who rescued her from her own trauma. Were it not a horror novel, Starve Acre would make an excellent Ibsen play.
But Starve Acre is, in fact, a horror novel, and so it inevitably seeks to explain the human tragedies of isolation, mental illness and grief via inhuman foes. In this universe, the normal cruelty of children pales before the fey capriciousness of the spirits hidden in the Willoughbys’ lifeless yard. At times, the novel teeters on the edge of casting aspersions at children deemed “antisocial” and folk spirituality, and strays dangerously close to outdated ideas that psychiatric or developmental disorders were caused by demonic possession. Psychiatry itself also comes out worse for the wear, with practitioners portrayed as rigidly manualized know-it-alls unwilling to step outside the annotated bounds of their anesthetized profession.
Still, Hurley succeeds in crafting a remarkably realistic world where there are no paragons and no ideal institutions. Starve Acre is a beautifully crafted slice of melancholy, a dig through the darker corners of British folklore and a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how grief can linger.
A frightening dig through the darker corners of British folklore, Starve Acre is also a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how grief can linger.
In Lauren J. A. Bear’s take on Greek mythology, the Olympian deities are abusive, banal and acrimonious while mortals, usually women, suffer the consequences for their deadly chicanery. Medusa’s Sisters, Bear’s retelling of the tale of the immortal Stheno and Euryale and their very famous mortal sister, focuses mainly on their youth, spent exploring the contradictions of humankind, and their lives after Medusa’s decapitation.
Three beautiful children of the monstrous gods of the deep sea, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa are fascinated by the mortal world from an early age. During their travels in the human realm, they encounter famed figures such as Semele, the mother of Dionysus, who in Bear’s hands is a Roman candle of a princess, plunging incandescently towards tragedy. Bear also introduces original characters, such as Erastus, a talented singer but poor songwriter, and Ligeia, his wife and creative partner. An instinctive musical genius, Ligeia is trapped by the sexism of her time, which prohibits talented women from publicly upstaging their male peers. In Medusa’s Sisters, men both mortal and divine, laden with fetishes and presumptions, run the table while everyone else saves who and what they can. And through it all, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa try, and fail, to hold true to one another.
Many works, from Dan Simmons’ Ilium to Madeline Miller’s Circe to William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, have depicted the gods of Homer and Hesiod as pompous assholes. But Bear throws a few wrenches in the gears. Her novel is not as bleak as those aforementioned works; rather, it is a celebration of love in all its complex, contradictory guises. The affection among sisters bound by blood, choice or circumstance often takes center stage, as does maternal compassion, whether embodied by the gracious Leto, mother of twin gods Apollo and Artemis, or the monstrous sea-dragon Echidna. Erastus and Ligeia’s mutual adoration makes his helpless inability to win her the celebration he fervently believes she deserves beautiful instead of just heartbreaking. Despite the brutal tragedy at its heart, Medusa’s Sisters is a tapestry woven of fondnesses, relentlessly seeking the beauty and laughter along the road to the inevitable statuary.
Medusa’s Sisters, like the eponymous immortals themselves, is many things. It is a retelling of an old, old story, but one that conjures an unexpected ending from its familiar source materials. It is gorgeously crafted, with an uncommon lyricism and attention to detail. But most of all, it is simply an exceptional story of the many faces love can wear.
A gorgeously crafted retelling of Greek mythology, Medusa’s Sisters is a celebration of the many faces love can wear.
Kissen is a veiga, or godkiller, sanctioned by the Middren government to kill nascent minor deities when they become troublesome. She holds a deep hatred of gods, given that her family, who was favored by the sea god Osidisen, was sacrificed to the rising fire god Hseth. So she’s deeply uneasy when she encounters Inara Craier, a recently orphaned noble girl who is somehow bonded to Skediceth, a minor god of white lies. Inara and Skediceth’s connection is an abomination in a land like Middren, which recently fought a war against and killed most of the gods. Soon, the three are traveling to the city of Blenraden, the only place with shrines powerful enough to potentially break the bond between Inara and Skediceth. Joining them on their quest is Elogast, a baker on a secret mission for the king himself.
In Hannah Kaner’s Godkiller, gods are creatures who feed on human devotion, much like Stephen Eriksen’s fading deities or C.S. Friedman’s symbiotic, emotion-eating Iezu. This symbiosis turns, all too easily, to predation and, eventually, bitter generational enmities between gods and their subjects. Unlike the dizzying political intrigue of Eriksen’s Malazan Book of the Fallen or Friedman’s character-driven Coldfire trilogy, Kaner’s work centers on her divine magic system. Godkiller is not a commentary on religion or free will; rather, it is about what happens when power lies in the hands of entities who simply do not care about the consequences of its use.
By far, the best characters are the gods themselves. Humans in Godkiller tend to be defined by single traits, whether Elogast’s honor, Kissen’s anger or Inara’s resilience. The gods are similarly one-note, but because they are all so deeply focused on their own self-preservation, they possess an amoral selfishness that is consistently interesting. Osidisen’s fury at Hseth seems largely motivated by how she stole his worshippers; Hseth herself simply requires an ever-growing coterie of human thralls to survive, like a fire needs a constant supply of fuel. Even Skediceth, despite his friendship and bond with Inara, views acting in his own best interest as the ultimate moral good.
But archetypes are common in fantasy for a reason: They’re compelling and fun. And there are few things more enjoyable than watching a bruised yet honorable man and a vengeance-seeking assassin escort a young girl and her manipulative, telepathic divinity of a familiar to the forbidden city of the gods. Especially when the world they’re traipsing through is so rich and laden with narrative potential.
In Hannah Kaner’s Godkiller, the world is filled with gods both major and minor, all of whom are as powerful as they are monstrously selfish.
Kel has worked carefully to assimilate into the culture of her adopted homeworld of Loth. She’s a daredevil climber of xoffedil, the local megafauna, and is a somewhat dour friend to Lunna, a cheerful youth from the nearby village. But Kel has a secret buried under the floorboards of her house—the kind of secret best left right where it is, for everyone’s safety. However, when a derelict war machine left behind by an expansionist interstellar empire mysteriously reactivates, Kel’s best option is to dig out her old weapons and hope she doesn’t have to make use of them.
Valerie Valdes’ Where Peace Is Lost reads like Star Wars co-written by Scott Lynch and Tamsyn Muir. Kel and Lunna are soon joined by Savvy, an appropriately named space captain, and Dare, Savvy’s strong and silent companion. The four mismatched leads try to solve a problem that’s locally a very big deal, but beneath the notice of galactic politicians and imperial commandants. Along the way, there are hijinks at varying levels of violence, some involving the loquacious Lunna charming their way out of (or into) trouble, others involving Dare hitting things with a high-tech claymore. And then there’s Kel, whose secret could solve all their problems, but also create newer, much bigger ones.
Where Peace Is Lost could easily be the first book in a series revolving around this volatile quartet as they traipse around the galaxy, solving problems with implausibly big swords and amusing chatter. Valdes ties up the main plot without answering several significant questions about her core characters and their respective histories, perhaps leaving room to flesh things out in sequels. Or perhaps she’ll just . . . leave it at that. When the characters and their relationships are as well-drawn as they are in Where Peace Is Lost, a reader’s imagination can easily fill in the gaps.
Where Peace Is Lost, with its ambitious, imaginative brand of escapist social commentary, is part of the current resurgence in optimistic speculative fiction, where the good guys are actually good and some of the bad guys might be decent deep inside. Readers will forgive a few just-so plot twists and predictable romances in order to spend time in this gift of a story where nobody locks their doors, the greedy get what’s coming to them and and the artifacts beneath your quiet, secretive neighbor’s floorboards can save the world.
Where Peace Is Lost is an ambitious, imaginative space adventure with an escapist, soothing brand of social commentary.
Fantasy has always been a playground for social commentary. From Tolkien’s anti-industrial allegories in Lord of the Rings to Samantha Shannon’s deconstruction of the archetypal damsel in The Priory of the Orange Tree, magical worlds with dragons and wizards are almost never as escapist as they seem. Urban fantasy is no exception, being as defined by its penchant for cultural critique as by its city settings. More than any other subgenre, urban fantasy is often unambiguously about real life.
Take The Hexologists by Josiah Bancroft. It’s essentially a fantasy mystery novel, following magically talented detective Iz Wilby and her imposing yet soft-hearted husband (and de facto chef), Warren, as they try to identify who has hexed the king of Bancroft’s barely fictionalized analogue of early 20th-century London. Bancroft’s leads are staunchly anti-royalist and anti-capitalist, positions which are proven to be entirely justified over and over throughout the book. Bancroft’s point could have been made more subtly, although, to be fair, subtlety does not seem to have been his intent: He opens the book with an overgrown tree golem attacking Iz and Warren’s house and spends a surprising amount of time justifying the couple’s high libido by asserting that sex helps Iz think. But The Hexologists is effective and entertaining regardless, not least because it also includes Felivox, a gourmand dragon who lives in a handbag. He is utterly delightful, and debilitatingly British dragons with discerning palates should be in more books.
Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey’s The Dead Take the A Train, on the other hand, offsets its recognizable New York City setting with a relentless barrage of visceral body horror and deliriously twisted humor. So while their commentary—in their telling, Wall Street’s pursuit of money and power is literally devouring the world—is equally blatant, it feels more in line with the nature of the book. After all, we are introduced to the main protagonist, Julie, while she is amputating a bride-to-be’s arm in a nightclub with a penknife to extract a demon. After her plan to summon an angel to help a friend goes horribly awry, Julie tries to clean up her city-jeopardizing mess while also playing video games while high on possibly magical designer drugs, falling behind on rent and facing some creatively terrifying bogeymen. One antagonist is a seething mass of carnivorous worms, two others are twins who like to eat their sentient prey slowly, keeping it alive the whole time, and none of these is the one called The Mother Who Eats. This is most certainly not a book for the squeamish, the meek or the banker. (Remember: Wall Street is going to devour the world.)
Although The Hexologists is a mostly well-mannered British murder mystery and The Dead Take the A Train is a depraved carnival of nightmares and eldritch narcotics, they are both solid representatives of contemporary urban fantasy, addressing real-world injustices while also being very, very funny.
The Hexologists and The Dead Take the A Train blend social commentary with sensational genre thrills.
Siblings Rosemary and Aaron Harker rarely get mail, and when they do, it’s usually to alert them that some Uncanny creature has eaten its mundane human neighbor. As Huntsmen in 1913 New England, Rosemary and Aaron’s role is to hunt those dangerous supernatural beasts alongside their alarmingly large and faithful hound, Botheration, who can transform into a gargantuan hellhound when the situation calls for it. When they receive a letter from their cousin’s widow requesting they investigate his death, the two Huntsmen pack a trunk full of various deadly implements and, along with Botheration, board a train to the small milling town of Brunson in upstate New York. Once there, they find an unexpected morass of savaged bodies, unionization and the occult that will lead them past the typically abnormal to the stubbornly impossible.
The author of several fantasy series, Laura Anne Gilman is a practiced storyteller, and her expertise shows in Uncanny Times. She doles out answers to her plot’s puzzles with a miserly hand and tempered foreshadowing, spinning Rosemary and Aaron’s investigation into a parable of greed, vengeance and love gone horribly awry. The Harker siblings are more akin to proxies for the reader than protagonists: This story belongs to Brunson itself, and the Huntsmen’s role is to unravel the secrets of the town and its vibrant cast of inhabitants.
Gilman is clearly building an arc meant to span several books, so a number of key questions are left unanswered. The specific mystery plot of Uncanny Times is concluded cleanly, if not necessarily happily for all involved, but the book itself still ends on a cliffhanger. Important characters with extensive backstories relevant to the Harker family history flit in and out within single chapters, bringing tantalizing glimpses of a broader cataclysm unfolding just outside the atmospheric environs of Brunson. It feels like watching the first season of a slow-burn show and hoping it doesn’t get cancelled, both because the show is enjoyable and well crafted and because the remaining loose ends would forever weigh on your mind.
Uncanny Times may be a small story. But, like Botheration at the start of an Uncanny hunt, it is poised to explode into a much, much larger one. And Gilman is far too canny a writer to waste such a tempting start.
A tantalizing start to a new historical fantasy series, Uncanny Times follows siblings Rosemary and Aaron Harker as they hunt supernatural monsters in 1913 New York.
Siyon was only trying to save his friend, not destroy the city. Sure, Zagiri is more of an acquaintance, but she is more reliable than most foppish nobles who moonlight as streetwise soldiers for hire in the city of Bezim. A petty alchemist, Siyon spends his time in the shadows, harvesting materials from other planes of reality for richer and more powerful practitioners. But when Zagiri falls off a clock tower to what should have been her death, Siyon somehow manages to catch her in a feat of very illegal, should-be-impossible magic. It doesn’t matter that Siyon has no idea how he did it, because the most important rule about life in Bezim is that magic must never be done. Alchemy is science, but magic is instinctual and unexplainable, and it destroyed half the city centuries before. So when magic rears its incontrovertible head, it looks like Bezim itself could be in danger, and the authorities set their sights on Siyon.
Notorious Sorcerer, Davinia Evans’ debut novel, deploys genre tropes with delirious glee: Scientifically codified magic, supernatural bargains and zealous inquisitors all make appearances. The story flits from dirty streets to alchemical salons to private opera boxes at a heedless pace, driven by existential stakes but infused with an unshakable confidence that humanity will prevail. There are tragedies, of course, and hard lessons about loss and resilience and the kinds of violence those with power unconsciously inflict on those without. But there is also a romance or two, and while this is not the sort of book where the heroes ride off into the sunset, following Siyon and Zagiri on their quest to save their comrades and, eventually, their world is still good escapist fun.
While its narrow focus makes Notorious Sorcerer a tight, cleanly crafted read, it occasionally deprives Evans’ rich, fascinating world of oxygen; many tantalizing details are left by the wayside in favor of maintaining tension in Siyon’s journey. There is certainly room for this saga to grow, for secondary characters to take center stage, for readers to learn why one rogue is called the Diviner Prince or how the prefect came to power or why the chief inquisitor is so zealous. You”ll finish Notorious Sorcerer ready and eager for the promised sequel.
Davinia Evans' debut fantasy deploys genre tropes with delirious glee and builds a rich and fascinating world readers will be eager to return to.
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