Noah Fram

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, the acclaimed young adult and romance author Zoraida Córdova takes inspiration from her Ecuadorian heritage to create a family saga that’s more than worthy of its comparisons to works by Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. An instant classic, Córdova’s tale is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.


You’ve won acclaim for your YA and romance novels, and Orquídea is your first adult fantasy. Who did you write Orquídea for? Was it for a specific audience, or more of a story you felt you just needed to tell?
Every book I write is for myself. My YA is for my teen self, who hungered for magical stories. My middle grade is for the painfully shy kid I once was, one who wanted adventure. My adult romance is for the version of myself that denies being a romantic (though I am). The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is for the person I am now. It was always meant to be an adult novel, though its inspiration came from a short story I wrote for the YA witch anthology Toil & Trouble. The more I explored the characters, who’ve changed quite a bit from the short story source, the more I knew there was no way this book could be YA.

Many of your previous novels have belonged to series or collections. Do you envision Orquídea as the start of a new series?
No, the story of the Montoyas was always going to be a standalone. I’m starting to become very partial to standalones. There are a lot fewer rules to keep track of from book to book.

“I wanted to pose the question, ‘What price would you pay for survival?’”

All of the names in the book have meanings that are important to the plot, but you only explicitly explain some of them. Where did you get the inspiration behind the names you chose?
As with all my books, I reach for family names first. Orquídea’s name [which means orchid in Spanish] was originally Rosa, but the more I wrote her backstory, it didn’t feel right. As for Marimar, Orquídea’s granddaughter, I borrowed the name from “Marimar,” my favorite telenovela starring Mexican superstar Thalia. I spend way too much time on names and will sometimes fill entire pages with a character’s name, plus alternates, until it looks, sounds and feels right when I speak it.

How did the story change between when you started writing it and when you finished?
This book taught me how to slow down. Young adult editors tend to give suggestion notes like “cut for pacing” quite a bit. When it came to Orquídea, my editor at Atria gave me breathing room and space to explore the heart of the story. Every editorial round was another layer of a large house, but that house needs a strong foundation.

There’s an amazing amount of detail in your characterizations! How did you go about deciding which details mattered and how to weave them into the final book?
I wish I had a better answer than “I write for myself first.” But I do. I’m a visual writer and spend a lot of time thinking about what a scene looks like. Smells like. Sounds like. I need to want to live there first. Then, my editor comes in and tells me when I’ve gone too far or not far enough.

You draw on your own family stories throughout the novel, but were there other key inspirations behind the fantastical elements of this book?
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is perhaps the first time some readers are going to read about an Ecuadorian family. That is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting for obvious reasons, but terrifying because it’s hard to encompass all the experiences of any one place. I pulled from my own family stories for inspiration. For instance, when I was a little girl, my uncle had a visible scar on his belly, and he told 5-year-old Zoraida that he’d wrestled a crocodile in the river. I don’t know if that actually happened, but that was the inspiration for the River Monster that Orquídea meets. It was also important to me to include bits of history about Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is why I set pivotal scenes on the Cerro Santa Ana, the birthplace of the city, as well as La Atarazana, which is where I grew up. I hope readers enjoy those details.

How did the need to incorporate both English and Spanish impact your writing, especially with a story that’s in conversation with classic Spanish-language magical realism?
Spanish is my first language. When I was in junior high school, I was embarrassed to speak it because there were a few kids who made fun of me. We’re also living in a xenophobic climate where we see videos of Spanish speakers getting screamed at or accosted for speaking something that isn’t English. I’m proud to speak two languages, and when I write a Spanish-speaking character or family, it’s only natural that Spanish should be incorporated, even if it’s in small phrases. Magical realism, as a literary movement, sprung from Latin America, which is another reason why I didn’t pull back from any instance where a character speaks Spanish.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina.


Do you think of the magic in your book as an intrinsic part of the world you built or as a foreign entity?
Absolutely intrinsic. The magic is a part of Orquídea’s journey and the very thing that gives her the ability to transform and survive. I did want to balance the magic with the contemporary world. I wanted to pose the question, “What price would you pay for survival?” The answer is of course extrapolated into the magical.

 

Author photo by Melanie Barbosa.

Zoraida Córdova’s first adult fantasy is an instant classic.

Through an accident of timing and celestial alignment, Orquídea Montoya was born unlucky. But unlike most unlucky children, she knows how to bargain, even with creatures of myth and magic, and how to phrase a wish. Her search for luck leads her from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to the small Midwestern town of Four Rivers, where she finally puts down roots and starts a family.

Decades later, Orquídea’s descendants are summoned home to Four Rivers, to the house and verdant valley she conjured. Once there, they discover they have inherited a deadly legacy of ill-used power and festering secrets.

Acclaimed young adult and romance author Zoraida Córdova’s first adult fantasy novel, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, is strongly influenced by the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism. Córdova weaves the story of Orquídea’s childhood with that of her family’s struggle in the present, masterfully synchronizing revelations in both timelines. In the process, she successfully casts those who mistrust or are suspicious of magic as irrational and unwilling to believe their own eyes. After all, magic is everywhere in Córdova’s enchanted reality, both the endemic sort of magic found coursing through rivers and creeping up trees and more alien varieties. Magic is an absolute cornerstone of this world, and Córdova evokes it beautifully.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Zoraida Córdova blended the traditions of magical realism with her own family history.


Most striking, however, is her careful and deliberate use of language. Córdova’s gorgeously compelling prose brings a natural sense of humor and poignancy to even the darkest moments of the story, and the way she uses Spanish to enhance and add depth to her narration is remarkable. Additionally, she has paid extraordinarily close attention to the names of characters and settings. Every single one has meaning to it, and while some are explained in the story, others are left for the reader to discover. This lends a unique sense of purpose to the writing and exemplifies the uncommonly poetic precision of Córdova’s prose. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina demands to be savored and read with care.

A commandingly propulsive story with a complex writing style that is best enjoyed slowly makes The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina a challenge, but one well worth the time.

Through an accident of timing and celestial alignment, Orquídea Montoya was born unlucky. But unlike most unlucky children, she knows how to bargain, even with creatures of myth and magic, and how to phrase a wish.

One of the hallmarks of the Arthurian saga is its peculiar fluidity. Out of the same building blocks—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Merlin and so on—have come so many reimaginings as to render the source material almost, well, immaterial. Its most mutable features are the female characters: Some stories paint Morgan (also known as Morgaine, or Morgana) as a villain, others as a heroine and still others as a bit player; Nimue is sometimes the mystical Lady of the Lake and other times Merlin’s vengeful apprentice; some Guineveres are the chaste objects of Arthur and Lancelot’s doomed affections, while other Gwens are confident and thoroughly in command of their twinned relationships. 

And yet from this panoply of characterizations, Laura Sebastian, the bestselling author of the young adult Ash Princess series, has found an entirely new perspective for her first adult fantasy. Half Sick of Shadows centers Elaine of Astolat, the one the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson dubbed “The Lady of Shalott,” in a reference to her home castle. Elaine's primary role in the classical telling is as one of the many maidens who falls in love with Lancelot. When she dies of heartbreak due to his lack of affection for her, the noble knight guiltily grants her a lavish funeral. It is a Romantic tragedy, and one badly in need of rescue.

Much as Marion Zimmer Bradley reclaimed Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon, Sebastian masterfully changes the narrative for Elaine in Half Sick of Shadows. But unlike Bradley’s sweeping masterpiece, Half Sick of Shadows is fascinatingly personal, finding the intimacy in one of English literature’s grandest tragedies. Elaine spent her childhood and early adolescence being bullied and repressing her magical gifts, until she becomes a seer and apprentice to Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Under Nimue's guidance, Elaine comes of age alongside Morgana, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. When Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and High King of England, dies, the quintet returns to the land of men from Nimue’s fay realm so Arthur can claim his throne over the objections of Mordred (whom Sebastian casts as Arthur’s half-brother, not his incestuous son).

Arthurian aficionados will note several departures from the most commonly accepted version of the tale. Many of these are par for the course in this particular corner of historical fantasy, such as Mordred’s presence as Arthur’s rival from the beginning and the reference to a war between men and the fay. And rather than focusing solely on the goings-on at Camelot, Half Sick of Shadows splits its time between Avalon and Britain, with a notable venture into the mythical and monstrous land of Lyonesse. Even more striking is the near-total absence of religion from the story. 

But perhaps Sebastian's most provocative choice is her use of Elaine as a partially omniscient, first-person, present-tense narrator and her emphasis on the part of the story that precedes Arthur’s coronation. The entire span of time between Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone and Mordred cutting him down in battle happens in the space between consecutive chapters. Rather than rehash the enormous tragedies of Arthur’s death, Sebastian instead focuses on the smaller tragedies of his life and the lives of those around him. In doing so, she transforms a story dominated by archetypes, clear-cut right and wrong, and women who are either docile or demonic into a tale of three confident, powerful women all honestly striving for good, only to find that it can be hard to determine exactly what “good” is, especially for the prophecy-cursed Elaine.

In an author’s note, Sebastian warns that Half Sick of Shadows deals very frankly with themes of mental illness and suicide, and her warning is very much necessary. Although it handles these topics decorously, there are certainly places where the tragic romance of the Arthurian saga is in unavoidable conflict with the realities Sebastian is interested in exploring. This is most definitely not a book for everyone; it is often deeply upsetting. However, it is a vital new contribution to the Arthurian canon and to fantasy more broadly, and a beautifully executed star turn for Elaine of Astolat.

Laura Sebastian has found an entirely new perspective from which to retell the Arthurian saga: that of Elaine of Astolat, Lady of Shalott.

Dex is a monk of Allalae, the god of small comforts, living in the only city on the planet of Panga. Their city and its satellite villages are the only parts of their world where humans have lived since the Factory Age, which ended when human-built robots suddenly achieved consciousness and asked to be given the freedom to choose their own path through existence. The robots vanished into the wilderness, and the humans have lived in their cities alone ever since.

After Sibling Dex begins ruminating on a recording of evening crickets—a sound that they have never heard in reality, as generations ago, crickets were rendered extinct in areas inhabited by humans—they start to see all the other ways they feel unfulfilled. They decide to become a tea monk, a vocation devoted to helping people in the satellite villages through a combination of good listening and good tea. But after years tending to the villages, Dex’s cricketsong wanderlust remains unfulfilled, and they leave the trails between human habitations behind, striking off into the foreign forests.

Typically, we assume that stories require conflict, and this is particularly true in genre fiction, in which there are worlds to be saved, aliens and elves to be romanced and new technologies and ancient incantations to be discovered. So it is striking that Becky Chambers’ novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built is narratively compelling without anything approximating a typical science fiction conflict. Rather, it is a story of discovery, fueled by the tension of exploring a small slice of an unknown world, like a more tightly constructed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In keeping with the rest of Chambers’ work, Psalm is a remarkably personal story set within a much larger saga; in this instance, she sets Sibling Dex’s journey across Panga against a canvas of rapid, large-scale sociocultural evolution. And although Psalm is separate from Chambers’ Wayfarers series, it follows many of the same themes: the strength of platonic bonds, thoughtful engagement with one’s environment and personal growth. It also retains the fundamental hopefulness and aspirational nature of her longer works.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the perfect length. If it were shorter, it would be unsatisfying. But if it were longer, its meditative tenor might have become unsustainable, even with Chambers’ sense of whimsy shining through as frequently and naturally as it does. Introspection and humor are perfectly balanced, to the point that these two tones literally bracket the novella: The first line is a shot of humor that admirably sets the mood and grabs the reader’s attention, while the last line is a draught of peaceful gratification reminiscent of one of Dex’s prized brews. This duality is characteristic of Chambers’ work, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built admirably demonstrates how it can translate beautifully into shorter formats.

Psalm also highlights Chambers’ talent for world-building without excessive description. The ubiquity of ox-bikes, which are bicycles aided by electric motors to handle towing loads and climbing hills, speaks more clearly to Panga’s wholesale commitment to sustainable technology than pages of exposition. Similarly, the nature of this world’s six gods—including their separation into Parent Gods representing natural forces (Bosh, the god of the life cycle; Grylom, the god of the inanimate; and Trikilli of the framework of natural laws) and Child Gods representing human creation or action (Allalae of small comforts; Chal, the god of constructs; and Samafar, the god of mysteries)—paints a remarkably detailed picture of the cultural ethos of Panga society. And the tea monks, journeying through satellite villages, providing solace with a kind ear and a warm mug of tea, highlight this culture’s deeply collectivist bent.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a worthy addition to Becky Chambers’ already burgeoning oeuvre. It distills her established interest in moving the grand conflicts of genre fiction to the background, in favor of more inspiring personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.

Dex is a monk of Allalae, the god of small comforts, who abruptly decides to leave the familiarity of the only city on the planet of Panga to become a tea monk.

Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, a former pickpocket and private detective who now sits on the board of the powerful Kanados Trading Company, has discovered that playing host to a piece of a sleeping god is an effective way to kick a drug habit, but it comes with some annoying side effects. Specifically, she is convinced that her best friend and star-crossed love interest, Eldritch “Eld” Nelson Rawlings, hates her now, and she is constantly arguing with said god-bit that she does not, in fact, want to be entirely possessed. Buc is especially reticent to entirely give in to her Sin, as the slivers of this particular god call themselves, because she is still committed to destroying all the gods, including Sin. And just to make things more complicated, the chair of the Kanados board is plotting to exile her, someone is trying to murder the ruler of Servenzan Empire, the gangs of the empire’s capitol city have started an all-out war and at some point, Buc will have to learn how to dance. Welcome to The Justice in Revenge.

Author Ryan Van Loan’s debut novel, The Sin in the Steel, was reminiscent of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, and his sophomore book hews closer than ever to that template: There are rival urban gangs being co-opted by a shadowy figure, a classic brains-and-muscle pairing in which the muscle is smarter than one would assume and even a city built on trade and canals. However, Van Loan puts his own stamp on this familiar territory, ably incorporating the romantic tension between Buc and Eld and fusing the setting with steampunk tendencies that feel necessary to the story, rather than merely tacked on for flavor. Buc’s interactions with her Sin (which is an evocative thing to name a god, or even part of one), with Eld and with the few people she dares call her friends are uniquely entertaining, and although they occasionally veer into cliché (in particular, Van Loan’s descriptions of Buc’s attempts at romance trend this way), they nevertheless remain convincing. Both Buc and Eld are well-written protagonists with complex morals and motivations. Van Loan excels at writing unexpectedly dark stories with quick, high-energy prose, propelling the reader through this fairly convoluted plot with a twisted kind of brio.

This speed contributes directly to what is, initially, The Justice in Revenge’s most infuriating aspect: Van Loan hides information from the reader by, well, just skipping things and filling them in later. Most of the time. Some gaps are never filled, so readers who want their novels to leave no questions unanswered should beware. But these spaces are never accidental, and the loose ends still dangling on the last page are clearly intended to be there. Van Loan carries off this stylistic choice with conviction, even starting the story in the middle of a plot that is not really explained for several chapters. It is a welcome reprieve from excessive exposition, as well as an incredibly effective hook. However, this lack of exposition means that The Justice in Revenge relies even more heavily on the reader’s familiarity with its predecessor than most fantasy sequels already do.

The Justice in Revenge may not be especially innovative, and it requires a lot of attention to read without getting horribly lost in Servenza’s labyrinthine subplots. But it is a lot of fun.

Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, a former pickpocket and private detective who now sits on the board of the powerful Kanados Trading Company, has discovered that playing host to a piece of a sleeping god is an effective way to kick a drug habit.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021, it became free game for adaptation. But unfortunately for any future reimaginings of the iconic Jazz Age novel, it’s going to be hard to top Nghi Vo’s historical fantasy, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Shifting narrators from Nick Carraway to Jordan Baker, Daisy’s best friend and a fan favorite, Vo adds even greater power to Fitzgerald’s depiction of the haves and have-nots of American capitalism by making Jordan the adopted Vietnamese daughter of a rich, white couple. We talked to Vo about Jordan's idiosyncratic allure, the dangers of Hemingway and more.

The Chosen and the Beautiful is a stunning book in its own right, but I’m essentially obligated to ask: What led you to adapt The Great Gatsby and why did you choose this particular genre?
Well, I'm absolutely a fantasist, so of course I was going to write it as a fantasy, and plus, it's just too much fun to miss. The ’20s were wild to begin with, and the temptation to imagine people drinking demon's blood cocktails, trading faces and chasing ghosts was far too strong for me.

The idea of writing something like The Chosen and the Beautiful has been in my mind since I read the book in high school, but it didn't leap to sharp focus until I was chatting with my agent Diana Fox, and she asked if I had any projects I might like to tackle in the future. I told her about what I would do with The Great Gatsby, she told me to stop writing what I was writing to work on that story instead, and that's how Chosen came about.

One of the challenges of adapting a widely known work of fiction is creating something new and vital on a well-established canvas. How did you go about finding spaces to add intrigue, twists and surprises, especially since your readers will most likely be familiar with the events of The Great Gatsby itself?
So in writing The Chosen and the Beautiful, I more than doubled Fitzgerald's word count. This actually makes a lot of sense to me because when I went back to read The Great Gatsby, what I found from a mechanical perspective is that Gatsby is a brick of a book in disguise. Fitzgerald doesn't spell things out so long as the reader walks away with the general point. There are a ton of spaces to explore in the original. The ones that stand out most significantly to me are the secret conversations Jordan Baker is canonically having with Jay Gatsby, the ones that actually set the whole thing into motion, but those are far from the only ones! (cough, lever scene, cough)

"This is one memorable summer in what is going to go on to be a very strange but excitingly entertaining life."

The Chosen and the Beautiful is an exquisitely researched book. Is research a typical aspect of your writing process? And how did you go about it in this case?
Well, I started by reading The Great Gatsby a few times and highlighting everything I didn't understand, every throwaway reference and every sentence that made me wonder what was going on. Then I went after that specific thing, and usually what that did was open the door to a better understanding not only of what Fitzgerald was doing, but of the era itself. One good example is Daisy's casual mention of the twilight sleep when she gave birth to Pammy—I had no idea what the twilight sleep was, and looking it up sent me down a rabbit hole of reproductive rights, medical history and period views on childbirth, motherhood and the rights of women. In general, I find that the more granular my research gets, the better off I am.

I sometimes find myself talking or writing in the tone of whatever I just read or my current long-term project, even in unrelated contexts. Early 20th-century prose is so distinctive, especially that of Fitzgerald, so I’m a little curious: Did it bleed over into other things you were doing as well?
It did! I went to read Kathy Acker's Pussy, King of the Pirates to fix myself up afterwards. I'm a deeply susceptible writer, so I have to actually regulate my reading when I'm in project mode. A poorly timed dash of Hemingway can be disastrous.

Jordan Baker is often thought of as an accessory to the core tragedy of The Great Gatsby, but in The Chosen and the Beautiful you’ve given her a tragedy all her own. What drew you to fleshing out that character in particular?
I think one of the cool things about The Great Gatsby is that Jordan absolutely has something going on in the background. Nick doesn't see it because his eyes are full of Gatsby and the glory of the American Dream turned pyrotechnic, but Jordan's living her own life already in the book. She has her own motivations and her own agenda, things that are murky in the original text, so when I sat down to figure her out for Chosen, it was a lot like working backwards to find her. And then, you know. I added a magical Vietnamese heritage.

"Jordan wears her identities with defiance because to do otherwise is to disappear, and she won't have that."

This book tackles a variety of issues, but seems to keep coming back to questions of agency, especially in communities that lack it. What were the broad themes you were considering when writing this book, and what made this format—a literary adaptation, yes, but also historical fantasy more broadly—so well-suited to that task?
One of the posts that I wrapped this narrative around was the idea of being a foreigner, of being othered so often and so rigorously that it became an identity all its own. Jordan wears her identities with defiance because to do otherwise is to disappear, and she won't have that. There's what Jordan wants, what Jordan has resigned herself to and the emerging realization of what she is capable of. It seemed like the liberation and modernization of the ’20s combined with the shadows of World War I and the Spanish flu would be a great place to explore those ideas!

In some ways, The Chosen and the Beautiful lives in multiple genres at once. How do you think about where this book fits alongside other fantasy novels? Were there other books or writers that served as inspirations, other than The Great Gatsby?
When I think about literary inspirations for The Chosen and the Beautiful, I inevitably come back to Angela Carter, most specifically, her work in Nights at the Circus. In that novel, it never mattered what was real or true—what mattered was the story. You didn't have to decide whether or not to believe it, whether it could have happened or not. You're just along for the ride, and that's what I hope for with Chosen, that it's good enough people will come along for the ride.

Fantasy writers (and reviewers, truth be told) can obsess about magic systems, which is part of why I found it so remarkable that your magic is as indistinct and varied as it is. What kinds of inspirations did you draw on for it? Or more generally, where did it come from? 
This is one of the joys and challenges of writing in a first-person perspective and from the perspective of a person who's as strong-willed and canny as Jordan. Jordan exists very hard in her world, and through a lot of effort, she makes it look effortless. To me, that meant that I absolutely had to know how Jordan's world works, but since I'm writing as Jordan, I have to be entirely blasé about it. It's a fun balance to strike, and the moments where it does come out, in Daisy's water witch abilities, in Gatsby's own skills, felt enormously validating.

About halfway through the book, Jordan talks about how much space and air men could take up. That talk crystallized the theme of female agency running through The Chosen and the Beautiful and the historical pattern of male heroes in fantasy. You’ve talked in previous interviews about the importance of point of view when writing historical fiction. Did those considerations change at all for you while writing a historical fantasy?
This would have been a very different story if I had chosen to write it from anyone else's point of view! Jordan's lens allows me and, by extension, the reader to look where Jordan looks. It's at once wonderful because we're suddenly at right angles to the original narrative, and at the same time, it's maddening because Jordan doesn't look like a historian or an anthropologist might. She doesn't even look at things like a storyteller does. If anything, I hope I succeeded in creating the impression that this is one memorable summer in what is going to go on to be a very strange but excitingly entertaining life.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Chosen and the Beautiful.


I won’t get into specifics so as to not spoil anything, but I love the ending of The Chosen and the Beautiful. It is profoundly moving, and it changed the way I interpreted things from earlier in the book. When did you decide on the ending, and its connections to the flashbacks from Jordan’s past?
Okay, I had that ending in mind from the moment I decided to write this. It's there because of a specific line in The Great Gatsby, and it felt so natural that I keep forgetting other people aren't in on it. It was like something falling into place, and I'm still so pleased with that ending and how it feels to me.

What advice would you give to other writers setting out to adapt canonized literary classics or existing historical narratives?
Whatever it is, just start out by loving it. I'm the last person to tell you that you can't write out of spite, but when it comes to adapting someone else's story and putting your mark on it, loving it or being able to find something to love in it is going to get you through a lot more than anger.

Lastly, what’s next on your plate? Do you have any more projects coming up?
More Singing Hills, more dead people, more people who should be dead, and oddly enough, a lot of weaponry!

Nghi Vo takes The Great Gatsby on a dizzying, magical joyride in her new historical fantasy, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

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