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All the Seas of the World  by Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay tells small stories of hope and resilience in an expansive fantasy world modeled on the Renaissance era.

All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

Babel by R.F. Kuang

Set in an alternate Victorian Britain, R.F. Kuang’s standalone historical fantasy is an unforgiving examination of the cost of power.

Babel jacket

The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

Dean’s deliciously dark debut is a haunting story that’s part fairy tale and part nightmare.

The Book Eaters jacket

Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid

Inspired by Eastern European history and folklore, this fantasy novel is a tender love story as well as a chilling tale of escape from abuse.

Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid jacket

Leech by Hiron Ennes

Dark and horrifying, Leech is perfect for readers who wish that Wuthering Heights had been more like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.

Leech by Hiron Ennes jacket

The Maker of Swans  by Paraic O’Donnell

If you like beautiful things, read The Maker of Swans, an enthralling dance over the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy.

The Maker of Swans jacket

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

This dark fantasy starring a possessed chicken and a feminist avenger represents the burgeoning “hopepunk” ethos at its finest.

Nettle & Bone jacket

A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

Marske’s second historical fantasy is a stunning, sensual love story wrapped in an exciting murder mystery.

A Restless Truth jacket

Sign Here by Claudia Lux

Sign Here is both a hilarious reimagining of Hell as a corporate nightmare and a painfully realistic exploration of morality in the modern world.

Book jacket image for Sign Here by Claudia Lux

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott

Inspired by traditional tales of Baba Yaga, Nethercott’s Thistlefoot is a weird and wonderful triumph.

Book jacket image for Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott

Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

There is probably no better way to sum up 2022 than to say it was a year dominated by both horror and hopepunk—sometimes even in the same book.
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After a lifetime as an archetypal fantasy hero—embarking on quests, slaying monsters, collecting loot, etc.—Viv the orc is ready to settle down. Inspired by a revolutionary gnome creation called coffee, all she wants is to open a cafe in the bustling city of Thune. Starting a brand-new business, however, is a lot harder than it looks, even for someone in possession of a legendary artifact and a sack full of silver. A mafia-esque group is looking for a “monthly involuntary donation” from every business on the block, figures from Viv’s past life as a warrior keep popping up and, worst of all, students are taking up the seating without even buying a cup of coffee. Ugh. Thankfully, Viv has buddies Cal, Tandri and Thimble to help her on her most arduous journey yet.

This cozy slice-of-life adventure (which was originally self-published and quickly went viral on BookTok) is Stardew Valley meets Dungeons & Dragons; it’s perfect for fantasy fans who don’t always want their stories grimdark and bloody. Legends & Lattes keeps a sedate pace as it follows the rise of Viv’s cafe, letting the reader spend quality time in its endearing world while Viv tries out various strategies to introduce a populace to a drink they’ve never heard of and get them to come back for more. In the process, Baldree casts a light on the lesser-seen elements of a fantasy world: its everyday citizens and more commonplace happenings that deserve attention just as much as high-born heroes and epic quests.

Some readers may find Viv’s adventures a little too low stakes and the plot predictable, but that’s part of Legends & Lattes’ atmospheric allure. It feels like a book to read by the fireplace (especially if that fireplace happens to be at an inn where heroes rest on their way toward the next stage of a quest). Those looking for a more peaceful story set in a world reminiscent of the fantasy landscapes they love will adore Legends & Lattes—and keep an eye out for Baldree’s next charming tale.

Legends & Lattes, Travis Baldree’s cozy slice-of-life adventure, is Stardew Valley meets Dungeons & Dragons.
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Despite being a book about augurs and warlocks, angels and demons, C.L. Polk’s stylish magical noir Even Though I Knew the End is distinctly and heartbreakingly human.

It’s the late 1930s in grimy Chicago. Helen Brandt, a brilliant wizard who was exiled by her order and now works as a detective, has a terrible secret: She offered her soul to a demon to save her family from a car crash. Her part of the bargain is due on Jan. 13, 1941—Helen’s last day on Earth.

After taking photographs of the crime scene of a horrific murder that she’s investigating, Helen brings her evidence to Marlowe, an underworld crime boss and bona fide femme fatale. Marlowe confirmes what Helen already suspects: The murder is the work of the White City Vampire, the most dangerous villian in the city. Marlowe wants Helen to find the vampire and is willing to pay handsomely. The prize? “A thousand dollars cash . . . and your soul.” As it turns out, Marlowe is a demon, and this job can give Helen the thing she thought she’d never have: salvation and a chance to live a full life with her lover, Edith.

Even Though I Knew the End rockets along from the very first page, and Polk’s ability to enrich the story while upping the pace is impressive. Their alternate Chicago reveals itself efficiently, each detail woven into the narrative exactly when it’s required. A sense of mystery and discovery is ever present, which is quite fitting for a detective story.

Fans of John Constantine, the occult PI of DC comic books and film fame, will find a lot to like in Polk’s fantastically rendered depiction of a celestial war. With corrupt motivations on both sides, it’s often unclear which is more dangerous. Mortals aren’t defenseless, especially if they can wield magic (enchanted bullets make more than one appearance), but there’s still a constant sense of danger, and humans often end up as collateral damage.

Despite the aforementioned fantastical elements, Even Though I Knew the End is, at its heart, a love story. Helen and Edith’s tender relationship is immediately compelling, and, as befits a noir, Edith’s importance to the story grows as Helen’s investigation deepens. Helen’s past choices weigh heavily upon her, and we see how tightly she clings to Edith, especially in the gripping final chapters. To be without her would be hell on Earth, Helen thinks. But Even Though I Knew the End ultimately poses a torturous question: Is the price ever too high to be with the one you love?

Even Though I Knew the End is a stylish magical noir with a heartbreakingly human love story at the center.
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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.

Freya Marske’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, A Marvellous Light, is a stunning, sensual companion novel that follows the threads of the same overarching mystery: a threat to the magical community in Edwardian England. A Restless Truth focuses on Maud Blyth, sister to A Marvellous Light’s Robin, as she discovers her own strengths and explores her sexuality in this magical murder mystery. 

Maud is working as a lady’s companion for the older and sometimes aggravating magician Elizabeth Navenby aboard the transatlantic ocean liner Lyric. When Mrs. Navenby is found dead in her room with several valuable items missing, Maud suspects foul play. As Maud learns more about her employer’s life, she realizes the murder may be connected to the mission Robin and his partner, Edwin, pursued in the first book in the series: to protect three artifacts so powerful they can affect all of the magic in the world.

A delightfully brash and boisterous cast of possible suspects and allies drives the story. There’s Lord Hawthorne, a gentleman with a reputation for sexual prowess; Alan Ross, a shady journalist with a keen ear for gossip; and Violet Debenham, an alluring actor-turned-heiress whose scandalous past only makes her all the more enticing. As they turn the decks of the Lyric upside down in their search for the killer and the objects they stole, Maud is the relatable center of the storm. She’s an immediately engaging protagonist, both because of her desire to prove herself to her brother and the magician community and because of her evolving understanding of her sexuality. Marske conjures yet another spellbinding romance, this time between Maud and Violet, who is as sharp-tongued and adventurous as Maud is wide-eyed and curious. Sparks fly between the two young women upon their first meeting, but will their connection last after the murder is solved? 

A Restless Truth is a thrilling mystery and a lush historical fantasy that will leave readers breathless—both from its exciting plot twists and its captivating romance.

Freya Marske’s follow-up to A Marvellous Light is a stunning, sensual love story wrapped in an exciting murder mystery.
Review by

In her debut novel, Sign Here, author Claudia Lux presents a modern vision of hell as a capitalist bureaucracy of the most inane, obnoxious variety.

Souls arrive in Hell on different levels, depending on how badly they sinned in their former lives. The worst of the worst head to what is known as Downstairs. Some sent there become line workers, tasked with applying various methods of torture. In other cases, they’re the ones on the rack. Protagonist Peyote Trip, however, is a resident of the fifth floor of Hell, so his afterlife is a little less bleak: He lives in an apartment and works in an office as a caseworker. Peyote tracks the plights and problems of mortals, and when one of them has a dire need, to the point that they’re willing to do anything to achieve what they desire, he arrives to make a deal via infernal contract. The mortal gives up their soul, and Peyote uses his abilities to make all their earthly dreams come true.

Despite being an agent of Hell, Peyote tries to treat both his “clients” and his co-workers with dignity and honor, especially when it comes to helping his new co-worker, Calamity, adjust to the myriad annoyances of life on the fifth floor. Peyote and his peers bring five pens everywhere, because the first four will never work. If a soul hates country music, it will be the only station available on their radio and it cannot be turned off. No food is truly hot or cold, and neither is any living space. Lux’s Hell is the epitome of absolute discomfort, like an itchy wool sweater on a humid day.

How Claudia Lux found humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.

Calamity soon gets involved in Peyote’s ultimate career goal: securing his fifth and final contract from the wealthy Harrison family. Attaining five souls from the same family, also known as a Complete Set, will grant Peyote an important promotion. Lux tells much of this story from the perspectives of three members of the Harrison family: Silas; his wife, Lily; and Mickey, their daughter. Lux takes the reader deep into each Harrison’s point of view, highlighting their dark temptations, shame and awkwardness in equal measure and creating such a high level of empathy for her painfully realistic characters that it borders on uncomfortable. It all adds to the ever-growing, nearly palpable feeling of imminent disaster. With their desires on such clear display, it’s impossible to forget that any one of the Harrisons could be Peyote’s next victim.

Lux’s unique iteration of hell is consistently engaging, grounded in relatable discomforts yet spiked with surrealist imagery, but readers will also be enthralled with the sheer humanity displayed on each page. No character comes off as mostly good or evil; they’re all just products of their natures and upbringings. With surgical precision, Sign Here captures the difficulties of morality in a complicated modern world.

Sign Here is both a hilarious reimagining of hell as a corporate nightmare and a painfully realistic exploration of morality in the modern world.
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Peyote Trip is an office drone on the Fifth Floor of Hell, which resembles a particularly soul-crushing corporation. But a promotion is within Peyote’s grasp, and all he has to do is snag a fifth soul from the wealthy Harrison family. Peyote sets out with Calamity, his potential new workplace bestie, to snare his final Harrison and escape the doldrums of the Fifth Floor, but complications both logistic and ethical soon arise. We talked to author Claudia Lux about finding humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.

Have you ever worked in a corporate environment? If so, are there any specific memories that inspired the idiosyncrasies of Hell’s office spaces? What were some of your other inspirations for Hell-as-bureaucracy?
I’ve worked in the social work version of a corporate environment, which is like a normal corporate environment with less money and loftier aspirations. But the initial scene in the Fifth Floor’s kitchen before the morning meeting was based largely on the kitchen in that office, in which the coffee machine never worked and people hoarded plastic silverware like we were preparing (poorly) for the apocalypse. 

The first kernel of the idea started when I was streaming TV shows on a work trip and the same insurance commercial started for the millionth time. Without thinking, I yelled, “THIS IS HELL.” Of course, it was not. It was a nice hotel room. But I started noticing it more: How quick we are to compare our momentary discomfort to eternal damnation; how low the colloquial bar has gone for suffering. I began asking people for their most recent “Hell” moments, and, unsurprisingly, a lot of them took place at work. The conversations were so fun and unifying, and soon I had a world to explore and a character to explore it.

Sign Here is told from several different perspectives. How did you decide how much time each character would spend narrating the story? Did any of them take over the plot more than you initially expected?
I wish that I had an answer to this that made me sound like a put-together writing mastermind, but honestly, I didn’t really decide, I wrote it as it came, switching perspectives when it felt like the previous section was complete. Besides the broad strokes, I was in the dark about what would happen until I got there. That being said, the character who took over the plot more than I could’ve possibly anticipated was Calamity. 

One night, after a long bout of writing, I got this kind of cheeky, mischievous feeling, like right before you challenge someone to eat a pepper you know is super hot, and I typed: “Calamity Gannon, human name redacted, got her taste for blood the first time one of her brothers beat another to death in front of her.” Before that moment, I didn’t have any plans to go into Cal’s background. And I certainly had no idea how I would explain that sentence the next day. But I found myself really excited to get back to it, to rise to the challenge. Now Cal and her background are some of my favorite content. 

“Realistically uncomfortable is my whole jam.”

Your characters have such realistic (and realistically uncomfortable) tendencies and thoughts. Were any of them based on real people?
Thank you! Realistically uncomfortable is my whole jam. As far as the characters being based on real people, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I mine my daily life for character traits. For example, Silas Harrison’s childhood bedroom in New Hampshire is verbatim my high school friend’s bedroom, down to the Playboy poster and the hidden pot. (Sorry, Mom!) But that’s all. The rest of Silas, and everyone else—as scary as it is to admit—is just me and my wacky, disturbingly curious imagination. 

What excites you about digging into a character’s psyche?
Part of my work as a therapist, my profession before transitioning to writing full time, was designing and facilitating group therapy programs. At first, I was super intimidated by the concept. One-on-one therapy was already intense; why add in nine more people? But I wound up completely won over by its therapeutic power: the realization that we’re not alone in our thoughts or feelings, especially the darkest ones; that there is nothing we’ve experienced that no one else could understand, even if no one else lived it exactly. If a writer makes a character real enough, reading can provide the same realization. So that’s what excites me the most about developing a character’s psyche—the catalyst for empathy. The possibility that someone who didn’t yet know that feeling seen was possible might feel seen by a character I write. 

Book jacket image for Sign Here by Claudia Lux

What’s your favorite way to work? Do you have any drafting or editing rituals?
Up until recently, I have always worked full time while writing, whether as a social worker or in the gig economy, cobbling five wages into something livable. So out of necessity, I developed the ritual of only writing at night, which has continued even though it’s no longer required. I write for long chunks, five hours at least at a time, and I love the stolen quiet of the night. I also have a specific candle from Paddywax Candles that I used the whole time I was writing/editing Sign Here. Not cheap, but whether placebo or genuine sensory memory tool, it really helped get me in the zone. I need a new one for the next book (it’s a one-scent-per-book kind of deal), so I’m currently on the hunt for that, if anyone has any suggestions!

I also love setting up a specific writing space wherever I live, and I always include a framed copy of “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin on my desk. It is a brilliant take on the writing process that never fails to give me goosebumps and makes me feel so insanely lucky that I get to do this. 

What is your favorite piece of media (book, movie, TV show, anything) from the last year, and why?
Oh man, what a big question! Off the top of my head:

I just finished Before Everything by Victoria Redel, and it completely rocked my world. I studied with Victoria at Sarah Lawrence when I was in college, and I have always been in awe of her and her work, but Before Everything had me full on ugly-crying in the middle seat of a transatlantic flight and also cackle-laughing like a maniac. (The people next to me were thrilled!) She writes about grief and friendship with equal parts humor and raw sadness, and that makes every single character feel so real that I keep finding myself missing them. She’s got that writing-as-empathy-catalyst thing down pat. 

I’ve also been totally captivated by “Reservation Dogs” on FX. The writing and the acting are incredible, and it’s one of those rare shows that provides both escape and nourishment. It’s hilarious and completely captivating, and at the same time, watching it makes me feel like I am being fed only the best ingredients. Like its quality is improving my own. 

Finally, anything Phoebe Robinson does blows me away. I just read her third book of essays, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, and I am devouring her new show, “Everything’s Trash.” She’s my Bono. 

If you could pick one author from the past or present to have tea with, who would it be?
Honestly, my dad, Thomas Lux. I would give anything to have tea (well, not tea. Coffee? Screwdrivers?) with him again. 

Read our starred review of ‘Sign Here’ by Claudia Lux.

What was the biggest thing you learned from this experience? What’s next for you? 
I’m just so amazed and grateful; I still can’t quite believe it. I first started writing novels in 2014. Sign Here is my third but the first to get picked up. So it’s been a long process, and I’ve definitely learned a lot. Most profoundly, I’ve learned to listen to myself. Not to the trolls who live in my head and tell me how terrible I am but to the me underneath their noise. The consistent beacon in the chaos, that steady blink. My whole life, no matter where I took my career or how much I loved social work, which was a lot, that beacon was there, telling me to write. But it terrified and intimidated and exhausted the hell out of me. Following it would require complete faith, against all odds, with little to no external validation, likely ever. So I tried to ignore it. I set the trolls loose to berate and mock and admonish it. Until eventually, I started to follow it. Nearly a decade later, I am grateful every single day that I did. Not only because of the publication, which is an absolute dream come true, but because now that I know I can hold the faith through the hard parts, listening to myself—in any area of my life—doesn’t scare me anymore. Now, it excites me. 

I am currently working on my second book with Berkley, which will be out in a couple of years. It’s not a sequel, but it will have the same combination of humor, sincerity, darkness and nutty thought experiment! 

Photo of Claudia Lux © Sarah Moore.

The debut author explains how she found humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.
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Throughout history, female healers have been cast out, feared and labeled as witches, even though their work in herbalism and midwifery helped shape medicine as we know it today. In fiction, the witch—that wise, rebellious female character—can be even more disruptive, her healing gifts even more supernaturally powerful.

Nettle & Bone 

T. Kingfisher’s dark (but still extremely funny) fantasy novel is full of female characters who carve out power for themselves: protagonist Princess Marra, who cherishes the peace of her convent home; the Sister Apothecary at Marra’s convent; and two frighteningly powerful fairy godmothers. But the only witch of the bunch is the dust-wife, and folks, she is an icon. A necromancer who tends a graveyard, the dust-wife can talk to the dead, keeps a demon-possessed chicken as a familiar, and agrees to help kill Marra’s sister’s abusive husband even though she believes their quest will fail—because wicked men should be held accountable. Despite her ruthlessly realistic view of the world, the dust-wife values the optimism of other characters, even Marra’s fairy godmother, Agnes, a sweet older dear who gives only good health as a blessing and frets over baby chicks. The dust-wife and Agnes bicker their way to becoming ride-or-die besties, and I would read an entire series about their adventures. 

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Little Witch Hazel

If you look up charming in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll find the entry illustrated with a portrait of the titular hero of Phoebe Wahl’s delightful picture book, Little Witch Hazel. In four short tales—one for each season of the year—Wahl captures the close-knit forest community to which Little Witch Hazel belongs. In “The Blizzard,” we see Little Witch Hazel make her rounds, visiting a chipmunk with a toothache, a mole with an injured paw and Mrs. Rabbit and her four new kits. Wahl also conveys how the residents of Mosswood Forest care for Little Witch Hazel: Her friends Wendell and Nadine encourage her to take a much-needed break from her errands on an idyllic summer day, and later in the year, Otis the owl rescues her from a fierce snowstorm. With a classical tone, Wahl offers a still-revolutionary portrayal of a female healer and the difference she makes in her community.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Year of Wonders

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders fictionalizes the true story of a small English village that was nearly overcome by the bubonic plague in 1665. When the local rector convinces the town to close their gate to prevent the plague’s spread, young widow Anna Frith finds herself quarantined with a few hundred of her neighbors, watching their numbers dwindle over the course of an extraordinary year. Among those neighbors are Mem and Anys Gowdie, an aunt and niece whose extensive knowledge of herblore gets them accused of, then executed for, witchcraft. When Anna visits the Gowdies’ abandoned house shortly after, she realizes that all of their dried herbs and foraged weeds, their tinctures and potions—the very things that had gotten them killed—are what had kept the pair from catching the Black Death before their violent ends. As Anna learns the Gowdies’ trade and brings their healing knowledge to the rest of the town, the novel becomes a moving portrait of women’s community-centered heroism in the face of unjust persecution.

—Christy, Associate Editor

A Discovery of Witches

Tenured professor Diana Bishop is a brilliant woman—a formidable entity in her own right—but she is also a witch with impressive magical powers. The hero of Deborah Harkness’ bestselling All Souls trilogy turned away from the magical community after her parents’ untimely death, swearing off her family legacy and instead creating a name for herself in academia. But her worlds crash together when she discovers a long-lost enchanted manuscript, which awakens an enormous power within her. Diana is the first person to have seen the manuscript in 150 years, and suddenly the whole magical community is after her. A centuries-old vampire named Matthew Clairmont becomes her protector as she navigates a dangerous world that she had purposely avoided for most of her life. Hunted for her power and knowledge, Diana realizes that she can no longer hide from her destiny. She must embrace her power, her magical legacy and herself—her whole self.

—Meagan, Brand & Production Designer

Red Clocks

Human interdependence is at the heart of Leni Zumas’ 2018 novel, which shifts among the stories of four adult women and one girl, all living in a small Oregon fishing town. But this is no gentle sisterhood novel, as Red Clocks finds female characters pitted against one another in an America where reproductive freedoms have been severely limited and single-parent adoption is outlawed. Gin Percival, a reclusive healer who’s feared as a witch by superstitious fishermen, lives firmly outside the expectations placed on women: She’s messy and smells like onions, prefers animals over people and is “uninterested in being pleasing to other persons.” She also provides herbal remedies and menstrual care for the women who visit her, which means she’s operating outside the law. Through Gin’s story, which culminates in her arrest and subsequent trial, Zumas draws a connection between the 17th-century practice of blaming women for any misfortune and our contemporary society’s concern with women who buck social norms and don’t care one bit what you think about it.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

All hail the menders, rebel healers and witchy women.
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Sure, Thistlefoot is about a house with chicken legs, but it’s also about so much more. A vibrant, shape-shifting collage of family saga, Jewish folklore and magical adventure, GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, is, like its namesake, weird and wonderful.

The Yaga siblings haven’t seen each other in a long time. Bellatine has thrown herself into woodworking as she searches for meaning in her life. Her brother, Isaac, on the other hand, has thrown himself into street performance, transience and petty crime. They’re reunited when a lawyer tells them that one of their long-lost Russian relatives has left them something. Bellatine and Isaac open an enormous shipping container—and a sentient house named Thistlefoot, complete with chicken legs, squats before them.

Isaac promises to let Bellatine keep the house for herself after they use it to tour the country for a series of marionette performances. But a sinister specter known only as the Longshadow Man gives chase to the Yagas, bringing ghostly destruction along with him. It’s a race to see if Isaac and Bellatine can stay one step ahead of the Longshadow Man and unlock the mysteries of Thistlefoot before it’s too late.

How GennaRose Nethercott made herself at home with Slavic folklore.

Thistlefoot is inspired by the tales of Baba Yaga, a powerful witch from Eastern European folklore who lives in the woods in a house that stands on chicken legs. The fables of Baba Yaga and her children hold special significance for the descendants of Russian Jews the world over, but Nethercott will quickly bring those who don’t know the stories up to speed with chapters told from Thistlefoot’s point of view interspersed with ones from Isaac’s and Bellatine’s perspectives. In the chapters narrated by the house, Thistlefoot tells stories of Baba Yaga, her daughters and her at-times frightful sense of justice. These interludes, vividly voiced and perfectly paced, are some of the book’s best moments. Nethercott’s warm embrace of her source material makes these fairy tale-esque stories welcome interludes amid Isaac and Bellatine’s more modern woes.

Nethercott’s gorgeous writing continually surprises and delights, and she pulls off some amazing turns of phrase with confidence. The first few pages give a brief history of an invasive plant that everyone thinks of as uniquely American but is actually from another country entirely—and they’re so engagingly written that I was immediately hooked. Even if a few passages feel overwrought, something marvelous comes along in short order to make up for it, such as a queer love story in which Nethercott patiently brings to life the tender joy of a new romance.

Thistlefoot is a triumph. Strange and heart-wrenching, perplexing and beautiful, it’s an open door and a warm hearth, inviting you to stay awhile and listen.

Inspired by traditional tales of Baba Yaga, GennaRose Nethercott's Thistlefoot is a weird and wonderful triumph.
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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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Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac Yaga couldn’t be more different, both in their personalities and in their mysterious abilities. The restless Isaac embraces his gift for mimicry, while Bellatine lives a quiet life, fiercely resisting the urge to give life to inanimate objects. But when they reunite to collect a family inheritance, they get the shock of their lives: Their great-great-grandmother has left them Thistlefoot, a sentient cottage with chicken legs.

For readers that aren’t familiar with her, can you give a brief synopsis of Baba Yaga and her importance in Slavic folklore?
Baba Yaga is a magical crone, hidden deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. Lost in the woods? Maybe Baba Yaga will help you find your way home. Or . . . maybe she’ll devour you and display your glowing skull on pike. Depends on her mood, which is, to put it politely, finicky. She lives in a hut on chicken legs that never stands still, and she flies through the air in a mortar and pestle. Like any good monster, she is built of opposites: She’s ferocious and motherly, supernatural and one with nature, feminine and beastly, helper and harmer. And I think it’s the fact that she embodies all these elements, all this unpredictability, that makes her one of the most famous figures in Slavic folklore. Who is Baba Yaga? She’s whoever the story needs her to be—just before she kills the story and eats it for supper.

“Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining.”

What was it like working with preexisting characters like Baba Yaga and her chicken-footed house? Did it ever become confining, or was it easy to spin your own tale with the parts you had?
Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining. Instead of wrestling with a blank page and trying to conjure something from nothing, these archetypal figures serve as inspiration and guidance. Companions, of sorts.

A folk tale, a real folk tale, is designed to shape-shift, to adapt to new eras and new contexts. That’s how they survive over centuries, by mutating again and again to remain ever relevant to each new culture that adopts them. Thistlefoot leans into that transformative ability: What if Baba Yaga is no longer a crone in the woods but a young Russian Jewish woman during World War I? Or what if Baba Yaga’s hut weren’t in Russia at all but modern-day America? It becomes a game of experimentation, with endless variants. These tales have already been re-imagined a thousand times, so what’s one more?

Thistlefoot jacket

What does the folklore in Thistlefoot tell us about the people and places from which it originated?
This is what I adore about folklore: how it functions as a mirror. Specifically, a mirror reflecting a community’s taboos and fears. People would rather do anything than look at the prickly, ugly, awkward parts of life head-on. So rather than the embarrassment of, say, telling your young Scottish daughter not to sleep with hot, mysterious men on the beach, mothers would instead caution them to fear the handsome . . . kelpies . . . yes, that’s right, those sexy . . . horses . . . who would offer maidens a “ride”—before ripping out their organs. It’s supernatural metaphor at its best. Fantastical and exaggerated, while also serving as a metaphorical parallel for real-life issues.

In Thistlefoot, I use the folklore as a window into a violent period of European history—specifically pogroms in the Russian empire, which were systematic, military-sanctioned massacres against the Jewish people. In the center of the novel is the story of a pogrom my own ancestors lived through in 1919. Told plainly, the facts are horrific. Unbearable, really. But filtering it through folklore allowed me to explore this history with softened edges. Folklore lets us look at jagged truths through a sheer curtain, and then, once we’ve grown acclimated, that curtain can be yanked away. This is one of the themes throughout the book, in fact: Memory can be reformed into folk tales to make it not only more bearable, but more permanent. More easily honored and held.

How did you go about creating the magic that each of the Yaga siblings has?
The siblings both have these abilities that are intrinsically linked to who they are and to this generational history they’re discovering. It was important to me that each power held tension in it, and that the powers reflected who the characters are at their cores. Bellatine, who sees her power as a curse, is constantly battling with her ability. It turns her into a control freak, at war with her own body and the world around her. For Isaac, who has this incredible ability to mimic other people, his power is part of his restless nature, his self-hatred and his desperation to be anyone but himself. 

It’s funny, even I was conned a little by Isaac—because it wasn’t until a late-stage draft that I even realized Isaac’s abilities were magic. I think it was actually my editor or my agent who was like, “Uh, this isn’t like . . . a normal thing people can do.” Until then, I sort of listened to Isaac when he insisted that he was simply a skillful actor. But of course there was an element of the paranormal to it.

“In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.”

I mean this as a compliment: This book is stuffed full of weird. Was there ever a moment when you were writing that you thought, “OK, I may lose the reader on this bit”?
Ha. No. I mean, of course I feared losing the reader sometimes—drafting is full of insecure moments—but never because of weirdness. Honestly, I sometimes worried it wasn’t weird enough. The images in the book are fantastical, but the structure of the novel is fairly conventional. I love weird fiction. I’m most inspired by surrealism. Slipstream. I’m obsessed with Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, Karen Russell, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter. Writers who don’t shy away from operating on emotional logic and dream logic rather than worldly logic. So no, I did not worry it was too weird. In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.

There are so many details about Thistlefoot that I was drawn to: how it walks, what it looks like, what it sounds like. What was important to you to include when describing and creating a living house?
It was a unique challenge to create a being that is part setting, part character, part animal, part vehicle, etc. First off, I wanted it to have real personality, a sort of arrogance, but also be hospitable. It’s a fiercely protective being because it exists to be a haven for this family. Writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote such wry, winking shtetl stories, inspired the house’s voice in its first-person chapters. And of course, I had a lot of fun with the visuals. Covering it in velvet curtains and paper lanterns when it becomes a mobile theater. Cultivating a garden of yams and alfalfa in its sod roof.

When you’re working in magical realism, that delicious sense of the uncanny is created by holding unfamiliar magic up against familiar, real-world details. In this case, the magic in Thistlefoot‘s world is that trauma can literally, physically alter a space—like causing a house to sprout legs. But to balance that, and to highlight the significance of that strangeness, it was essential that everything else in the world remained rooted in our own logic system. So I did a lot of research into what actual houses from Russian and Ukrainian shtetls would have looked like, including the materials and carpentry practices that would have been used. Yes, the house is wild and whimsical and cartoony, kicking around on these big chicken legs and laying giant eggs and telling tall tales—but it’s also historically accurate, down to the smallest detail. For example, I originally had Bellatine pulling old nails out of the walls while she refurbished it, but then a carpenter friend told me that back in early 1900s Russia, where the house was built, they wouldn’t have used nails because metal was too expensive. They would have fixed boards together with wooden joinery instead. So I went back in and cut the nails. Wooden joinery only! 

As a puppeteer yourself, what’s one misconception of the art form a layperson might have? What do you love most about performing?
Ah, so I actually can’t claim the esteemed title of puppeteer—yet! I did travel with a scrolling panoramic shadow puppetry show to promote my narrative poem The Lumberjack’s Dove, but that was designed by my collaborator, Wooly Mar. I just turned the crank. And I’m only starting to work with hand-held, figurative puppets now for the first time as I prepare for a very elaborate and kooky Thistlefoot book tour. So I’m going to defer to a conversation I had with my friend Shoshana Bass, who is a professional puppeteer.

While I was writing Thistlefoot, Shoshana was adamant that I refer to the puppets in the Yaga siblings” puppet show as being “animated” rather than “manipulated.” She told me that the most common misunderstanding about puppetry is that it’s about controlling something else. We even use “puppet master” as a means of saying someone is manipulative or Machiavellian. In reality, Shoshana explained, the art of puppetry is the opposite. It’s about stepping back to be a support system for this being in your care and allowing it to live. A puppeteer follows the puppet’s lead, not the other way around.

As for performing, I love the opportunity to collaborate with amazing artists and to connect with a live audience. Writing can be isolating as hell, so to switch from Hermit to Traveling Bard, where the book becomes a carriage I ride out into the world . . . that’s what makes all the isolation worth it. I was also raised as a professional child clown (as in, I was a child who was a clown, not a clown for children), so I guess it’s in my blood.

Read our starred review of ‘Thistlefoot’ by GennaRose Nethercott.

When you think back to writing this book, what sections stand out most in your mind?
First, the folk tale chapters in Thistlefoot’s voice. They were just such a joy to write. I loved existing in the house’s playful, unreliable, teasing voice and getting to tell these compact stories within the greater narrative. They’re my favorite parts of the book, both to read and to have written, and are the excerpts I’m currently working on with Wooly Mar and Shoshana Bass to translate into live puppet shows for my book tour.

And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, something that stands out is . . . my mortal enemy. A chapter I bitterly named “This Fucking Chapter.” A spiteful bastard of a chapter I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote at least 12 times, and it got worse each time. I won’t even bother mentioning which one, because it’s honestly a nothing of a chapter. You wouldn’t even notice anything odd about it at this point; it’s sort of a neutral, expositional moment. But oh god. It shaved years off my life. This chapter . . . it laid one eye on me and said, “That one. Let’s kill her. It’ll be fun.”

Anyway, it ultimately turned out just fine.

Would you rather be able to animate the inert or perfectly mimic anyone you met?
Ooh, that’s a good one! Hm. Probably animating the inert, just because it’s the more dramatic of the two. One of my prized possessions is a handmade cotton and silk doll I sewed a few years ago. Her name is My Beautiful Daughters, and she has two heads. My friends all think she’s cursed, but she’s my gal. Might be nice to wake her up for tea and a chat.

Photo of GennaRose Nethercott by Kirk Murphy.

GennaRose Nethercott makes herself at home with Slavic folklore in her debut novel, Thistlefoot.

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