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All Fantasy Coverage

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

★ Summer Sons

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

Revelator

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

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

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

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

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.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


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.

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

The Death of Jane Lawrence takes place in an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain. The eponymous heroine is headstrong, wonderfully smart and knows that to live independently, she must wed. It seems illogical, but finding the right man would allow Jane to continue her own hobbies and pursuits, as a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden.

Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option for Jane. He agrees without too much fuss, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. She’s to spend her nights above his medical practice, while he retires to Lindridge Hall for the evening. Eventually, of course, Jane finds herself spending the night at Lindridge Hall following a carriage accident, and where she slowly and methodically uncovers the skeletons lurking in Augustine’s closet.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent, twisted job steering clear of the obvious plot beats. There are surprises galore in the secrets these characters keep and the lengths they’ll go to conceal them. Key to many a successful horror novel is having a main character to root for, one whom readers will want to see come out of everything not only alive but also stronger. Jane is absolutely that kind of character, a beacon of light in a dark world through her sheer tenacity alone, making her exploration of Lindridge Hall a white-knuckle reading experience.

Fans of Starling’s debut, the sci-fi horror novel The Luminous Dead, will find the same steadily growing sense of eeriness here, despite the markedly different setting. Jane isn’t exploring caves on an alien planet, but her journey still feels claustrophobic, almost asphyxiated by the estate’s mysterious walls. Are the horrors she senses of a supernatural nature? Or are they merely born of a man with too many internal demons? “Both” is also an option, and Starling keeps readers guessing until the very end.

For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, The Death of Jane Lawrence is a must-read.

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

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.

M.J. Kuhn’s fantasy heist caper Among Thieves introduces readers to the world of Thamorr. Its five kingdoms have lived in harmony for years, all thanks to the subjugation of Adepts, magic users forced to live in slavery due to their superhuman abilities.

Kuhn efficiently introduces several memorable and distinct characters: Ryia, a deadly mercenary known as the Butcher of Carrowwick; Nash, a smuggler for the notorious crime boss Callum Clem; Tristan, a swindler paying off his never-ending debt; Ivan, a master of disguise; and Evelyn, the disgraced former captain of the king’s guard. Through various circumstances, secrets and plots, they’re thrown together in order to steal a mystical artifact from the most powerful man in Thamorr. The heist that ensues veers quickly off course, but the makeshift crew is determined to see it through to the end, each for varying reasons.

Though Kuhn employs a large cast, she effortlessly maintains each character’s clear-cut perspective and continues to balance their motivations and backstories with grace. Ryia in particular is a thunderbolt of a protagonist, brimming with intrigue as flashes of her cruel upbringing come to light.

Kuhn builds out her world with a deft hand, never falling into info-dump territory but remaining detailed enough that Thamorr feels tangible and lived-in. Among Thieves’ central heist mechanism is energizing, too, and rarely lets the novel’s stakes fall even an inch. Kuhn’s writing shows immense promise, often offering gems such as, “If Callum Clem was a change in key, the Butcher of Carrowwick was a dissonant chord” and, “He read like an old poem; everything could be expected to have three meanings or none at all.” The novel’s ending ties up plotlines while hinting at the possibility for more stories in the same universe, which plenty of readers will be clamoring for after finishing this fabulous debut.

M.J. Kuhn’s fantasy heist caper Among Thieves introduces readers to the world of Thamorr. Its five kingdoms have lived in harmony for years, all thanks to the subjugation of Adepts, magic users forced to live in slavery due to their superhuman abilities.

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