Stephanie Cohen-Perez

Christina Henry’s Horseman is an atmospheric and haunting reimagining of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” perfect for both fans of classic horror and those new to the tale of the Headless Horseman. Henry’s retelling centers on 14-year-old Bente “Ben” Van Brunt, the grandson of Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones, whose tale-as-old-as-time romance once sparked rumors of the ghostly Horseman and ran a gangly, awkward schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane out of town. When a child is killed, supposedly by the shadowy folkloric monster the Kludde, the usually sleepy little town of Dutch descendants erupts into chaos as more murders ensue and people point fingers at the Horseman and each other.

The orphan Ben has lived his entire life in this small town with his Oma Katrina and Opa Brom. Ben, who is transgender, experiences much frustration with fellow townsfolk who insist on repeatedly misgendering him and accusing him of witchcraft, a traditionally feminine stereotype. Henry’s depiction of Ben’s experience as a trans boy feels a little forced, bordering on stereotypical. There are several descriptions of him being a “boy soul in a girl’s body,” as well as an assumption that he will not be able to have a family or children.

But there is even more that sets him apart from the other folks in the Hollow. Ben can hear whispers in the woods at the end of a forbidden path, and he has visions of the Horseman, who says he is there to protect him. And perhaps worst of all, he’s the only person who actually wants to leave the tightknit community marked by old wives’ tales and superstitious secrets.


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With visceral visions of nightmares, creepy prose and a pace as fast as the rush of horses’ hooves, Henry’s take on Irving’s classic story is a one-sitting read, a chilling romp into the forest that will remind readers that sometimes the scariest monster in the room is human nature (not even pumpkin-headed horsemen or the author’s horrifying twist on Ichabod Crane’s fate). While there are some truly shiver-inducing, gruesome scenes in which victims of the Kludde are discovered decapitated and handless, Henry depicts the evil that resides inside the human inhabitants of the Hollow as the most terrifying form, from racism and bigotry to transphobia and the sexualization of children.

Ben has staunch allies in his best friend, Sander; his Opa Brom; and eventually his Oma Katrina—not to mention in his guardian Horseman—but the closed-mindedness of the Hollow, and the nefarious intentions of some of its inhabitants, create a stifling atmosphere, one ready to erupt into flames from the strike of a single match. Readers should also be aware that Henry frequently includes dialogue that reflects the transphobic and sexist beliefs many people held during the Colonial era, while also depicting customs that reflect such beliefs. As Ben unravels the energetically paced mystery and makes connections between the death of his parents and the recent murders, he will inspire readers who love their families but long to forge their own paths.

Christina Henry’s Horseman is an atmospheric and haunting reimagining of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” perfect for both fans of classic horror and those new to the tale of the Headless Horseman.

Marjorie Liu’s haunting collection of short stories, The Tangleroot Palace, is an astonishing foray into fantastical escapism. These are reworkings of older works of short fiction, and together they create both a love letter to Liu's illustrious career and a curious and joy-filled glimpse into the future. Readers who want to be immersed in otherworldly adventures with feminist themes will find a gifted and enchanting guide in Liu.

As readers find themselves gleefully lost in the labyrinthine forest of stories and monsters that Liu has created, certain beloved tropes will ring true. Liu’s love for superheroes is apparent, especially in the tale of lonely geneticist Alexander “Lex Luthor” Lutheran, who fantasizes about being a comic supervillain. Liu consistently returns to themes of found family, freedom from societal expectations and grappling with the good, the bad and the ugly of family legacy to forge one’s own path as a strong hero. Her various reconstructed fairy tales will also be pleasant surprises for those who grew up wondering why princesses never had more agency and why witches were often portrayed in a negative light.

While common motifs develop across these tales, Liu’s versatility within and mastery of multiple fantasy subgenres also shines. In “Sympathy for the Bones,” teenage Clora reluctantly helps her guardian, Old Ruth, create poppets to kill locals on demand; “The Briar and the Rose” and “The Last Dignity of Man” showcase two very different queer love stories; “Call Her Savage” envisions an alternate history in which women are respected and feared in the military and across timelines; and “After the Blood” is a post-pandemic Amish vampire story (talk about words you never expected to see together in a sentence!) that tests a couple’s love and offers hope and light in the face of a ravaged world.

With its vivid characters and relatable themes, The Tangleroot Palace is, frankly, a marvel. Liu is a chameleon of a writer when it comes to settings and world building. From another writer, these various stories might have felt haphazardly cobbled together, but not here. These are all stories of survival and strength, no matter the cost, in which women are joyously celebrated as heroes, warriors, scientists, sorceresses and duelists. On every page of The Tangleroot Palace, women have the power to take their own stories back and rework them in ways that are resilient, powerful and new.

Marjorie Liu’s haunting collection of short stories, The Tangleroot Palace, is an astonishing foray into fantastical escapism.

T.L. Huchu’s first installment of the Edinburgh Nights series, The Library of the Dead, is a kaleidoscopic adventure that melds the phantasmagoric with the mundane.

Ropa Moyo is struggling to both make ends meet and take care of her beloved Gran and little sister, Izwi. She dropped out of school to work as a ghosttalker, a messenger between the deceased and the people they left behind. Ropa is always eager for a quick gig, but an eerie pattern has begun to emerge. Ghosts all over Edinburgh have been warning her of cursed and bewitched local children, and Ropa is wary of whatever powerful entity might be employing this dark magic. To help her figure out what’s going on, her childhood best friend, Jomo Maige, takes Ropa to the mysterious Library where his father works, an occult research facility where Ropa can check out books on magic to supplement her patient Gran’s ghosttalker lessons and where her library card is a desiccated ear. Huchu’s twisty and devilishly macabre novel follows Ropa, Jomo and Ropa's new Library ally, Priya, a healer who uses a wheelchair, as they unravel a mystery so chilling that even the ghosts of Edinburgh shudder in revulsion.

Huchu has crafted an unforgettable character in Ropa, from her green locs to her black lipstick to her sense of humor, which is sharp enough to rival the dagger she carries on her body at all times. Ropa is a smart-talking, intelligent survivor, and she wants to provide the best opportunities for Izwi and a safe, stable home for her benevolent Gran. Ropa secretly finds joy in helping set spirits free, though she hides this soft spot with her sardonic quips. She gives off the impression of being a lone wolf, but her friendship with Jomo is constantly endearing, and her connection with Priya provides her with a new ride-or-die pal who is just as passionate about all things strange and unusual.

Ropa conveys messages from the dead to their unrequited high school crushes and alleviates tensions to prevent intrafamily hauntings, so how difficult could this new adventure be? But her Library explorations push her skills further than she ever imagined, while helping her learn more about the magical abilities passed down through her Zimbabwean family. Ropa’s pursuit of greater power and knowledge is always tied to how she can best protect her community, which is one of the most charming aspects of this very charming book. She is dedicated to becoming not only a proper magician but also a more compassionate ghosttalker, trailing the footsteps of those who came before and forging a new path for those who will follow.

T.L. Huchu’s first installment of the Edinburgh Nights series, The Library of the Dead, is a kaleidoscopic adventure that melds the phantasmagoric with the mundane.

Heather Walter’s debut novel, Malice, transforms the familiar fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a captivating fantasy romance between the storybook Princess Aurora and the dark sorceress Alyce.

Walter’s immersive world building plunges readers into the Briar Kingdom, built on a system of inequality and discrimination. The fae, known as Graces, are kept as magical servants for cold-blooded mortal nobles. The Graces can create beauty and light, but Alyce’s magic seems to produce only ugliness and pain. Known as the Dark Grace, Alyce is the last descendant of a type of fae known as the Vila, and her relationship with the other fae is complicated—some avoid her, all fear her and most are willing to throw her under the bus. 

When Alyce decides to attend a masquerade ball despite not being invited, she is outed as the dark fairy by one of Princess Aurora’s failed and jealous suitors. Alyce flees, but Aurora runs after her and Alyce is shocked at how down-to-earth the princess is. Aurora must find her true love by age 21 or she will be cursed to sleep forever. She has been kissed by many noblemen, often strangers, to try and break the curse, but none have succeeded. As Alyce and Aurora grow closer, the Dark Grace becomes determined to find a way to break the spell.

Told through the puckish voice of Alyce, Malice is a sympathetic take on the traditionally one-dimensional figure of the dark fairy. Alyce’s wry wit and determination to save Aurora make her instantly sympathetic, a refreshing change from other fairytale retellings that attempt to conjure some meticulous, outlandish backstory to explain the evil doings of a nefarious character. Alyce is feared, yes, but for things she’s had from birth and can’t control. Her growing love for Aurora and her increasing resistance to the status quo shine through her gloomy outlook, and as she learns about the history of Briar and the truth behind the treatment of the fae, Alyce learns some unexpected truths about her powers as well.

This heartfelt, ever-escalating story of true love burns bright, encouraging readers to brush aside shame or condescension and follow their hearts.

Heather Walter’s debut novel, Malice, transforms the familiar fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a dark and compelling fantasy romance between the storybook princess and the dark sorceress Alyce.

Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, Winter’s Orbit, takes the marriage of convenience trope and flings it into an intergalactic web of intrigue. Hedonistic Prince Kiem of the Iskan Empire and his new husband Jainan, the devoted ruler of one of the empire’s vassal planets, forge a tentative partnership while investigating the somewhat mysterious death of Jainan’s first husband. We talked to Maxwell about how the forbidding and wintry environment of the planet Iskat functioned as a symbol and the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.

Do you prefer one genre (romance or science fiction) over the other, as a reader or writer? If you had to name your fusion of romance and science fiction, what would you call it?
The genres of my heart are sci-fi and fantasy; they were what I read growing up and what I borrowed piles of from the library. But I also read fanfiction, which prizes character and relationships above all else. Published romance was a later—delightful!—discovery that hit many of the same beats, and I loved its commitment to happy endings. I call Winter’s Orbit a “queer romantic space opera,” but in fact it’s just the type of book I wanted to read: an imaginary second world, with that sense of wonder and discovering new things, but a story centered on two characters overcoming their past and finding happiness.

The birds of Iskat are mysterious—and frightening—omens that complement the planet’s frigid and frozen exterior. What inspired you to add this element?
Part of it is character-based: Iskat is strange and hostile because Jainan, a foreign diplomat, has always found it that way. But it’s also beautiful, and to Prince Kiem, this landscape is his home. A minor arc of the story shows Jainan’s feelings about the landscape and wildlife gradually changing. Also, to be honest, I found the marital argument over “what is a bear” funny, and I firmly believe SF is improved by adding jokes wherever possible.

"[M]y goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go."

Kiem and Jainan’s experiences with the Iskat government, the media and more allow you to explore corruption and greed, from blackmailing reporters to the suppression of the vassal planets. Did you see this as commentary on the state of the world today, or was there a more fantastical inspiration for the setting and characters?
This is a tricky question to answer. Winter’s Orbit isn’t about a specific political event, and I wouldn’t class it actively as commentary. But of course speculative fiction is directly influenced by the real world, and any attempt to write galactic politics is necessarily drawn from, or in conversation with, the recent history of our own planet. After all, it’s the only model we have for systems affecting billions of people with access to technology. I tried to keep this in mind while writing.

Relationships in Winter’s Orbit range from monogamous to polyamorous, and the choosing of certain tokens in Iskat culture represent binary or non-binary gender expression. And obviously, same-sex marriage and love is displayed positively throughout the narrative. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
The planet of Iskat is a “queernorm” world, which just means it’s a world where the acceptance of queer identities is background radiation, not a plot point, and no more remarkable than the existence of buildings or drinking water. As a queer person myself this was just a pure joy to write. Many people, both queer and straight, have family or friend groups where they already experience this, so all this book says is, what if that was everywhere in the future? What if you never needed to worry about defending who you are? What if you could use that brain space for something else?

Winter’s Orbit doesn’t stand alone here. You can find queernorm worlds in a growing body of recent(ish) SFF. It’s thanks to the people who came before us that we’re in this place: Queer authors wrote coming-out stories and academic essays and polemics for decades so we could be here, claiming a space where queer identities can just exist. And although at the moment we have to imagine that space, imagining it gets us one step closer to realizing it.

Jainan’s journey to becoming an open, communicative partner while also dealing with grief was a wonderful, healing element of this book. How did that aspect of the book evolve for you while writing?
Jainan’s arc is very much at the core of the story. He’s had some difficult experiences in his past which now lead him to second-guess both other people’s actions and his own worth as a person. My aim with his arc was to show the slow, bumpy healing process, while avoiding “magical” transformations where everything is suddenly okay because he’s fallen in love. Jainan still has a lot to work through by the end of the book, but my goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go.

Were there any real-life muses who served as inspiration for Kiem and Jainan? How about the delightfully no-nonsense character of Kiem’s secretary, Bel?
Kiem and Jainan feel like they just turned up in my brain one day, but in fact, like the other characters, they’re almost certainly snippets of various real people and literary influences. A large part of Bel is defined by how she does her job, since we mainly see her at work—I’ve done Bel’s job myself, so she’s fairly close to my heart!

What other intergalactic places and times—or types of planets—would you like to travel to in your fiction going forward?
I’m fascinated by far-future science fiction where it’s not totally clear how humanity spread across the stars from Earth. It provides an infinite sandbox and an almost fantasy-like air of discovery: One book deals with a solar system over here, and the next deals with a planet on the other side of the galaxy. Space is infinite! I love that.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Winter's Orbit.


What’s next for you and your writing?
I’m working on a sort-of-sequel-but-not-really, which is set outside the Iskat Empire but in the same universe. It stars two queer characters who are even bigger disasters than Kiem and Jainan and includes more about the Remnants, the quasi-magical alien artifacts that briefly turned up in Winter’s Orbit. I’m very excited for this one.

 

Author photo © Richard Wilson Photography.

We talked to Winter’s Orbit author Everina Maxwell about the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.

Though the planet of Iskat is cold and gray, with ferocious predatory avian species adorning the frozen environment, Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, Winter’s Orbit, is anything but frigid. This queer science fiction romance astounds not only through its believable, multilayered character development, but also in the eons of intergalactic political and cultural history that Maxwell weaves into a 400-page novel.

Kiem Tegnar is a playboy prince of Iskat in his mid-20s who would rather party until daybreak, drink at carnivals and cause a scene than deal with anything remotely resembling political responsibility. But his life is thrown into disarray when his grandmother, the Emperor, informs him that he will fulfill his lifelong duty as a minor noble by getting married the following day. Not only will this shock to the Emperor’s least favorite grandchild disrupt his hedonistic lifestyle, but his arranged marriage will be to Jainan nav Adessari, widower of Kiem's cousin Taam, whom Jainan still mourns but Kiem barely remembers. Their marriage will preserve the political alignment between Iskat and one of its seven vassal planets, Jainan's homeworld of Thea.

Suddenly thrust into a diplomatic role, Prince Kiem must navigate new etiquette to save face and maintain the relationship between Iskat and Thea. With the vassal contracts to be renewed soon, both Kiem and Jainan find themselves in awkward and uncomfortable situations as the relentless press hassles them for gossip about their impromptu marriage and a faceless Auditor comes to observe the veracity of their union—and thus, the veracity of the link between the planets. But while Kiem and Jainan share a common political goal, their strikingly different personalities pose challenges as they become a unit.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Everina Maxwell on the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.


Beneath Kiem’s slightly callous, celebrity exterior lies a loyal, likable potential leader with a strong sense of morality. Maxwell uses Kiem’s wry sense of humor to convey his insecurities and anxiety about his new position and his relationship with Jainan. There’s no question that he is attracted to his cousin’s handsome, highly educated widower, but because of both formal customs and Kiem's own internal compass, he feels guilt, shame and confusion as a newlywed married to a man he'd only just met. As he picks up on the Iskan government’s condescending treatment of Jainan’s fellow Theans and uncovers evidence that his cousin’s death might not have been accidental, Kiem is filled with a strong, genuine desire to help the mysterious man he has been forced to marry—and who has been forced to marry him.

Winter’s Orbit fits into the romance genre just as much as it does science fiction, and its central relationship develops and flourishes in a world devoid of homophobia. On Iskat and its vassal planets, characters wear certain tokens to indicate binary or nonbinary gender identities, and relationships, even royal ones, range from monogamous, polyamorous, queer (or not) and religious (or not). As Kiem adapts to his new relationship, he must also learn more about Thean customs and traditions if he is to truly understand and empathize with his new spouseand become both a good husband and nobleman.

Maxwell expertly weaves relatable issues—cultural tensions, strained family dynamics, relationship struggles and government and media corruption—into a stunning outer space setting where readers will be just as invested in Kiem and Jainan as they are in unraveling the dangerous mysteries afoot in Iskat. With its dark, dry humor and its unforgettable depictions of bereavement, heartbreak and new love, Winter’s Orbit is hopefully the start of much more to come from Everina Maxwell.

Though the planet of Iskat is cold and gray, with ferocious predatory avian species adorning the frozen environment, Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, Winter’s Orbit, is anything but frigid.

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