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STARRED REVIEW

Top 10 books for February 2024

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse

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Book jacket image for A Love Song for Ricki Wilde by Tia Williams

Tia Williams broke out in a big way in 2021 with her emotional second-chance romance, Seven Days in June, and her follow-up novel sounds like

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Book jacket image for The Last Stand by Antwan Eady

Antwan Eady, author of the lovely Nigel and the Moon, unites with Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey! The acclaimed sibling duo wrote and illustrated This Old

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Book jacket image for Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

It’s a special gift when a favorite poet writes a novel. Martyr! is Kaveh Akbar’s fiction debut, after poetry collections Calling a Wolf a Wolf

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In 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to the forest in rural Maryland and began building their new residence, the State Hospital for the Negro

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Award-winning author Amber McBride teams up with acclaimed poets Taylor Byas and Erica Martin to curate an electric, extraordinary lineup of contemporary and classic Black

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Book jacket image for City of Laughter by Temim Fruchter

Temim Fruchter’s remarkable debut novel is a book full of belly laughs, intergenerational wonder, queer beauty, Jewish history and storytelling that reshapes worlds.

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Book jacket image for Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

Visit an alternate America where European colonization never took place in this intricately plotted police procedural from Francis Spufford.

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Book jacket image for The Gardener of Lashkar Gah by Larisa Brown

Larisa Brown’s The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the harrowing story of the Afghan aid workers that NATO left to their fates when the Taliban

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Book jacket image for The Cancer Factory by Jim Morris

Jim Morris’ urgent, heartbreaking The Cancer Factory traces how a known toxic chemical destroyed the health, happiness and lives of Goodyear factory workers.

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Recent Reviews

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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On December 6, 1917, a cargo ship exploded in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a minor collision with another ship started a fire on the deck. The blast was the largest ever human-made explosion at the time, flattening an entire district of the city. About a month earlier, one of the most horrific battles of World War I, the Battle of Passchendaele, had staggered to a close. These things really happened.

However, Laura Iven, a decorated Canadian army nurse who recently lost both of her parents, one in the Halifax explosion, was not a real person. Neither was her brother, Freddie, declared dead on the Western Front after Passchendaele; Hans Winter, the German soldier Freddie finds himself trapped with; or Penelope Shaw, a beautiful widow who lost her only son to the war. And while the First World War was certainly hellish, there were no actual devils wandering the wounded Flemish countryside.

In The Warm Hands of Ghosts, these carefully chosen fictions amplify the facts to render a gorgeously written, brutally honest portrait of the unremitting horror of trench warfare. Author Katherine Arden (The Winternight Trilogy) deliberately frames the story in apocalyptic terms, opening each chapter with a quote from the book of Revelations and portraying Laura’s resistance to her parents’ messianic belief in Christian prophecies of the End Times. Arden knows that her heroes cannot end the Great War. Their battles are smaller: Laura and Penelope travel to a Belgian field hospital seeking news of their lost loved ones, and Freddie and Winter seek to save each other. Arrayed against them are chateaux-dwelling generals playing Risk with real lives; the deliberate, protective myopia of countries coping with years of trauma; and the mysterious Faland. A Stygian violinist haunting the battlefields, Faland offers his victims a choice: Will they keep their memories, or hand them over to his safeguarding? Since humankind persists in creating an Armageddon, Faland argues that his deviltry is, in fact, merciful.

Not all the heroes succeed. The Warm Hands of Ghosts is not one of those war stories where a brave soldier snatches their comrades from the jaws of certain death before riding off into the sunset with a medal for their trouble. But each of Arden’s protagonists chooses their own fate. And as she argues in this exquisitely researched, heartbreaking book, that small revanchism is enough when the world ends.

Exquisitely researched, gorgeously written and utterly heartbreaking, Katherine Arden’s The Warm Hands of Ghosts is a triumph of historical fantasy.

Heather Fawcett’s second installment in the Emily Wilde series is a cozy read sure to entrance fans of fantasy and romance alike. A charmingly cantankerous and brilliant Cambridge professor, the titular Ms. Wilde might be the world’s foremost expert in faerie lore. She traces the history and habits of the Hidden Folk, and she’s recently written the first encyclopedia about them. In Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands, while working on the titular map, Emily is faced with a number of challenging and life-altering adventures—which are complicated by the presence of her former academic rival and now lover, Wendell Bambleby. 

The first book in the series, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faerie, revealed that Bambleby is an exiled faerie king, which means Emily’s commitment to him is a high-stakes endeavor. His dangerous and powerful mother is trying to find him, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discover a portal back to his realm. Most stress-inducing of all, if Emily commits to Bambleby’s proposal of eternity together, she’ll be giving up her quiet and predictable existence as a humble professor. The two lovers are the very definition of opposites attract, and their every interaction, whether awkward or fiery, delights and excites.

Fawcett’s melodic writing style immediately transports readers to early 20th-century Cambridge, beckoning them to stride down cobblestone streets, stroll along the scenic River Cam and sit saturated in old-book smell in gothic university libraries. This immersion into English academia is heightened by Emily’s narration, as she’s unable to compose any sort of writing without a smart peppering of footnotes and references. Each clever addition is a tiny showcase for the character’s dry humor, quick wit and wealth of wisdom. 

The intimately close perspective allows Fawcett to highlight how Emily blooms and grows as she and Bambleby pursue their goals. Love can change a person—or a faerie—in the most unexpected of ways, and it’s impossible to walk alongside Emily on her journey of scholarship, mapmaking and true love without rooting for her.

Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands immerses readers in a cozy and magical 20th-century Cambridge while reuniting them with the wry and clever Professor Wilde.
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The epigraph of Louisa Morgan’s The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird comes from Emily Dickinson: “One need not be a chamber—to be haunted— / One need not be a House— / The Brain—has Corridors surpassing / Material Place—”. This brief passage beautifully encompasses the novel’s core idea, that plumbing the depths of one’s past trauma can reveal, and hopefully abolish, the shades that haunt us all. 

Dr. Beatrice Bird is quite happy being alone. Self-isolated on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest in 1977, she takes care of simple things in her small cottage. She milks the cows the previous owner left behind. She watches the shoreline. She picks up groceries when they come over on the ferry. She misses her partner, Mitch, whom she left behind in San Francisco.

But Beatrice’s solitude keeps the ghosts at bay. 

She sees them whenever she encounters another person: Their fears, pains and shames orbit grimly around them where only Beatrice can see. When a young woman named Anne Iredale arrives on the island to escape her own past, Beatrice senses a kindred spirit and offers to take her in. A psychologist by trade, Beatrice slowly uncovers Anne’s story. But the ghosts that haunt Anne are some of the foulest Beatrice has ever seen. Can she and Anne heal enough to banish the ghosts once and for all?

This book has a healer’s heart, revolving around Morgan’s inquisitive, sensitive and measured look at trauma. Yes, ghosts are present and yes, they do inject tension, but they’re used more as conduits for the real work of psychological examination. As Morgan jumps between both women’s perspectives, including some flashbacks to key moments before the island, the reader feels as if they’re putting together the pieces alongside Beatrice as she helps Anne start her healing journey. Morgan knows how to let a conversation develop slowly, and Beatrice and Anne’s friendship blooms at the same natural pace. Trust is earned, truths are confessed and time passes. No one can rush someone like Anne into a breakthrough. It has to happen naturally. 

The importance of women healing other women appears in many of Morgan’s other novels (The Great Witch of Brittany, The Age of Witches), and The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird is an especially kind and empathetic expression of the same theme. Though Beatrice sets out to help Anne, Anne inevitably helps Beatrice. Pain is wiped clean by understanding, like a gust of air off the ocean. Find a comfy seat and settle in. You’ll be glad you did.

In this inquisitive, sensitive novel from Louisa Morgan, ghosts become a vehicle for psychological examination—and a healing friendship.

Ally Wilkes takes readers on a journey beyond their wildest nightmares in Where the Dead Wait, which follows two 19th-century Arctic expeditions gone extremely wrong.

William Day is a young sailor who reluctantly steps up to take command of the crew of Reckoning when the men are marooned in frigid waters in 1896. Day depends on the guidance of his ruthless, mysterious right-hand man, Jesse Stevens—and grapples with clandestine romantic feelings for him. Chaos and cannibalism ensue before their rescue, after which Day is castigated as the heartless butcher of the North, while the lauded Stevens evades ostracization. An ominous 13 years later, Stevens goes missing in the Arctic and Day is called upon to lead the crew sent to uncover whatever might remain of him—and, horrifically, the trail of mutilated and dead bodies he’s left behind. 

Where the Dead Wait is an exemplary (and gruesome) character study. Day begins his seafaring career as a hopeful 24-year-old, only to find himself making increasingly heinous judgment calls when matters get out of hand. Nightmarish flashbacks to that traumatic time plague Day as he helms the rescue expedition for Stevens, memories that Wilkes makes increasingly chilling. To make things even more difficult, Day is also saddled with Stevens’ spirit-medium wife, an American reporter who is too nosy for his own good and a crew that is all too familiar with his reputation and ready to mutiny at any moment. As the waters grow more perilous and his post-traumatic stress symptoms swell with every wave, Day must contend with the ghosts of all his worst sins, which may be on the verge of taking corporeal form.  

With its slow-burn pacing and array of creative body horror surprises, Where the Dead Wait is perfect for fans of “Yellowjackets” and The Thing. Embarking with Day on his ghostly voyage is not an easy task but the rewarding end of this haunting adventure makes the harrowing journey worth it.

Where the Dead Wait is an exemplary (and gruesome) character study of a Victorian sailor who must confront the terrible things he did to survive a harrowing shipwreck.

After 15 glorious years exploring the 12th-century Indian Ocean with her tightknit crew—acquiring precious jewels and artifacts, prevailing in all manner of violent encounters and reveling in the wildness of life on the sea—pirate captain Amina al-Sirafi grounded herself. Why, after all her legendary adventures, would she leave behind her beloved Marawati and abandon the great wide ocean? Because she gave birth to her daughter, Marjana, whom she wants to protect from the sorts of people she used to live among—the sort of person she used to be herself. 

But as Shannon Chakraborty’s historical fantasy The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi begins, the past calls to Amina in the form of an irresistible job offer from the wealthy and imperious mother of Amina’s former crewmate Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can rescue the girl, she will receive a million dinars, a life-changing sum that could buy the security and privacy she craves. “It was tempting,” Amina thinks. “It was tantalizing. It was me. For I have always had a gambler’s soul . . .” 

Shannon Chakraborty sets sail for a new horizon.

Desire and ambition prevail over misgivings, and Amina returns to the sea after 10 years in hiding, convincing her former crew to join her once again. They encounter people, creatures and secrets that inspire fascination right along with terror and doubt. After all, everyone is older, wiser and burdened by regrets about roads (well, sea routes) not taken. But they’re also thrilled to be together again, and Chakraborty creates a rousing and inspiring portrait of the beautiful alchemy that results when a group of people fit perfectly together, challenging and supporting one another in invaluable and often hilarious ways.

As in Chakraborty’s internationally bestselling Daevabad trilogy, magic and dark forces and bizarre beings pop up in the pages of The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, the first volume in a new trilogy. Impressively researched history underpins it all, offering fascinating context and realism that elevate this swashbuckling, adventurous tale of a fantastical heist as it explores parenthood, faith, ambition, friendship and the enduring allure of forging a legacy.

Shannon Chakraborty’s follow-up to her bestselling Daevabad trilogy is a swashbuckling high seas quest that’s rousing, profound and irresistible.
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Biddy lives on the secret island of Hy-Brasil at the beginning of the 20th century, her only human contact being the kind but mercurial Irish magician Rowan (when he isn’t a raven) and his companion, Hutchincroft (when he isn’t a rabbit). Hy-Brasil has been particularly blessed by magic, which seeps into existence from some unspecified ether, suffusing the world with good fortune and happy circumstances. However, magic has been growing scarce, and mages have become misers. Rowan has been doing what he can, leaving the island to raid his fellow magicians’ storehouses and let a little luck back into the world. Until, one day, he doesn’t come back, and Biddy must leave the island for the first time and go to England in order to find him.

A pandemic project for author H.G. Parry, The Magician’s Daughter was clearly influenced by the enforced isolation of lockdown and the inescapable fear that the world might actually be a dismally unjust place. There are subtle allusions to the Victorian novels that are Biddy’s collective almanac to the world beyond Hy-Brasil, from workhouses and tubercular young women to subversions of traditional gender roles that somehow still end in marriage. But Parry has not crafted a dystopia. Rather, she infuses the book’s industrial-era grime with a literal manifestation of optimism: magic. 

The Magician’s Daughter is beautifully crafted, balancing a lushly detailed 1912 London with a narrative leanness. It’s reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—if Susanna Clarke were an optimist. It’s a story about an imperfect world that desperately wants to be better, where true evil is an aberration and even monsters may be redeemed. Biddy meets various mages on her journey to find Rowan, and most of their grievances are petty things, twisted beyond recognition by too many decades of coiled resentments and having to fight off one anothers’ magic. Even the villains are more greedy and corrupt than anything, motivated by human failings rather than inhuman desires. In these pages, idealism is a virtue and the world can be saved by the magic in an ordinary girl’s heart.

This is not the kind of fantasy that exposes society’s ills or probes some deep philosophical conundrum. Rather, it is representative of the escapist optimism that COVID-19 seemed to engender. In the face of an unrelentingly depressing reality, where every headline portends some creative new doom humankind must overcome, Parry writes of climbing out from the impending abyss. And she does it well enough that even devotees of fantasy’s darker halls will take solace in this little corner of storybook endings and happily ever afters.

Even devotees of fantasy’s darker corners will take solace in The Magician’s Daughter, a little paean to storybook endings and happily ever afters.

Anyone embarking on a boat-based vacation should not expect to encounter Shannon Chakraborty on the lido deck. It’s not that she has anything against shuffleboard, per se; it’s more of a self-preservational instinct. “The idea of open ocean terrifies me,” the bestselling fantasy author explained in a call from her home in New Jersey. “I joke with my family that I will never go on a cruise. I love the water, but I have enough fear and respect for it that I never want to be out of sight of land.”

Fortunately for her fans—all around the world, as her work has been published in more than a dozen languages—Chakraborty’s imagination is not so landlocked. In The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, her inventive and exhilarating start to a new historical fantasy trilogy, the author enters full pirate mode. Her titular protagonist is a seasoned 12th-century sea captain who’s lured out of self-imposed retirement by an offer she can neither resist nor refuse. 

Amina left home at age 16 and was at sea for 15 years, becoming one of the most notorious pirates in the Indian Ocean. But after her daughter, Marjana, was born, Amina left her criminal activities behind, choosing instead to hunker down in her family’s mountainous home in southern Arabia, surrounded by jungle that protects them from prying eyes but close enough to the coast to hear the sea.

” . . . you can love your children, they are the center of your world . . . but you can still want more.”

Staying in one place for 10 years has stirred up a discomfiting swirl of emotions in Amina. The time with her daughter is precious, as is the knowledge that staying away from the ocean has kept them safe. But Amina also misses the freedom of doing whatever she desired, surrounded by her crew, a loyal and talented found family that understood and reveled in the thrill of never knowing where they’d end up next. 

Thus, Amina is particularly primed to accept an unexpected offer from Salima, the uber-wealthy mother of Amina’s former crewman Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can figure out who captured her and bring her home, the reward money means Amina will never again have to worry about providing for her family. And, most enticingly, it’s a chance for Amina to achieve one last impossible victory, which could boost her legacy from well known and slightly infamous to unquestionably legendary.

Amina’s powerful combination of fierce maternal instinct and undeniable ambition was top of mind for Chakraborty as she embarked on her new literary adventure, which began mere months after she concluded her beloved Daevabad trilogy with 2020’s The Empire of Gold

Book jacket image for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

When Chakraborty began writing The City of Brass, the first book in the trilogy, “I never actually imagined I would be a published author,” she says. “I had slight hopes, but I was [writing] mostly to keep my sanity.” She was caring for her newborn daughter and working full time while her husband contended with a demanding medical residency. “I wrote as enjoyment so I could play in the historical worlds I loved,” she says, having always wanted to pursue a graduate degree in medieval history. And then, she says with a laugh, “when the books went to auction, I was like, okay, I guess I do this now!”

Although she was an established and acclaimed author by the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chakraborty was consumed by uncertainty when virtual schooling took over her home life. “I think we can kind of forget the doom of that first six months of the pandemic,” she says. “I just assumed I was never going to have time to write again. And it almost felt selfish; my husband was treating COVID patients and my daughter was having an incredibly difficult time.” 

But then, she says, “I pushed into that, because I wanted to write about parenthood and motherhood and talk about the points where you can love your children, they are the center of your world . . . but you can still want more. And it’s not selfish to want that.”

The thought of other mothers experiencing the same feelings led to the creation of Amina, a woman who deeply loves her daughter but is also proud of her decades of experience as a ship’s captain and the accompanying wide range of skills she’s developed, from prevailing in hand-to-hand combat to diffusing crew quarrels to navigating stormy seas. “I wanted to write a story for us,” Chakraborty says of her fellow mothers, “and talk about how that [struggle] is something that has always happened.”

“Adventure doesn’t stop when you’re 22 years old . . .”

Chakraborty also drew on her abiding affinity for the ancient past. “My love of history has always come before my love of fantasy,” she says. “I was one of those strange kids reading up on the Titanic at 9 years old.” That zeal for research has helped Chakraborty immerse herself and her readers in fabulous and fantastical new worlds. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi’s Indian Ocean setting is rife with danger and intrigue, peopled with memorable characters, crackling magic and supernatural creatures. “I always found the idea of these littoral oceanic societies fascinating,” Chakraborty says. “We look for land-based empires and trade routes, and we don’t really look at the ways that oceans and seas connect people. . . . You see a lot of shared cultures and storytelling, and you find very similar stories in India that you then find in Yemen and in East Africa.”

One of those common elements, per her extensive research, was a pervasive belief in the supernatural. “Magic was just considered real,” she says. “It was accepted by a majority of the population.” Chakraborty knows that this concept “could be difficult for modern readers to understand, but if you’re going to write about the past you’ve got to write about where people were coming from.”

Chakraborty is constantly thinking about the disparity between historical reality and the false impressions people draw from what is taught in school or gleaned from popular culture. “Not everybody is privileged to go to college and take undergraduate and graduate courses on history, so a lot of what we understand of the past is very much determined by fictional presentations of it,” she says. “And when we have discussions of the medieval world in particular, especially in the West, we often have this very grim, dark idea that Europe was [completely] white, we talk about the Dark Ages when everything was miserable for women . . . but you have to peel back and say, well, where did those ideas come from? What work are we highlighting?”

The author provides suggestions for further reading on her website, hoping to stimulate such questions in pursuit of a more critical discourse. “By being able to show my receipts and my historical work,” Chakraborty says, “I’m [encouraging] my readers to look at the past a little differently.”

Read our starred review of ‘The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi’ by Shannon Chakraborty.

Another shift in perspective that Chakraborty is passionate about is her certainty that fantasy has room for exciting, inspiring stories about women who are no longer in their 20s. She says, “Adventure doesn’t stop when you’re 22 years old, and so much fantasy is focused on this extremely narrow age range. . . . But you still don’t know what you’re doing at 40 or 50, you still make mistakes, you’re still trying to have fun and take care of your family.” 

“I also feel like life experiences do matter and time does matter,” Chakraborty adds. “It would be completely unfathomable to me that Amina’s crew would be able to work on this mystery if they hadn’t been at sea and sailing and learning and thieving and poisoning and researching for the past 20 or 30 years. You need those talents, and they take time.”

Having a middle-aged woman as a protagonist also allowed Chakraborty to explore complex themes of faith and growth. “I wanted to write a story about a character who deals with struggle and hardship in a way that comes back to her faith,” she says. “Amina is a devout Muslim, but she’s also someone who is very open about the ways she has failed, particularly in her early life. She’s a pirate, she’s a criminal, she was a thief and murderer, and she’s still coming back to religion and to God in ways that I felt we don’t have a lot of stories about—people who fail and then find their faith later in life.” 

“As someone who is religious myself,” she adds, “it speaks to an idea of mercy and compassion about God and about faith that I don’t think we see enough or talk about enough.”

Readers curious about how this new series will diverge from Chakraborty’s previous books will be interested to know that “whereas the Daevabad trilogy was told from the point of view of magical creatures, this book is very much from the point of view of the humans who have to deal with them.” She also says that “there are lots of Easter eggs, and a character from Daevabad does show up.” 

After all, Chakraborty says with the sort of enthusiasm that any bibliophile will recognize, “All of history is a story. It’s how we understand the world, how we understand the past, how we put facts together, how we describe anything. Everything is story. . . . I think it’s probably one of the most profoundly human things we engage in.”

Picture of Shannon Chakraborty by Melissa C. Beckman.

The author of the bestselling Daevabad trilogy returns with a rip-roaring fantasy adventure starring a 12th-century pirate captain.
STARRED REVIEW
May 2, 2023

Our 10 favorite historical fantasies

The world of historical fantasy is wide and vast—but these books are the best of the best.
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The Bear and the Nightingale

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Gods of Jade and Shadow

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The Harp of Kings

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Recent Features

The world of historical fantasy is wide and vast—but these books are the best of the best.
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In Lauren J. A. Bear’s take on Greek mythology, the Olympian deities are abusive, banal and acrimonious while mortals, usually women, suffer the consequences for their deadly chicanery. Medusa’s Sisters, Bear’s retelling of the tale of the immortal Stheno and Euryale and their very famous mortal sister, focuses mainly on their youth, spent exploring the contradictions of humankind, and their lives after Medusa’s decapitation.

Three beautiful children of the monstrous gods of the deep sea, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa are fascinated by the mortal world from an early age. During their travels in the human realm, they encounter famed figures such as Semele, the mother of Dionysus, who in Bear’s hands is a Roman candle of a princess, plunging incandescently towards tragedy. Bear also introduces original characters, such as Erastus, a talented singer but poor songwriter, and Ligeia, his wife and creative partner. An instinctive musical genius, Ligeia is trapped by the sexism of her time, which prohibits talented women from publicly upstaging their male peers. In Medusa’s Sisters, men both mortal and divine, laden with fetishes and presumptions, run the table while everyone else saves who and what they can. And through it all, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa try, and fail, to hold true to one another.

Many works, from Dan Simmons’ Ilium to Madeline Miller’s Circe to William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, have depicted the gods of Homer and Hesiod as pompous assholes. But Bear throws a few wrenches in the gears. Her novel is not as bleak as those aforementioned works; rather, it is a celebration of love in all its complex, contradictory guises. The affection among sisters bound by blood, choice or circumstance often takes center stage, as does maternal compassion, whether embodied by the gracious Leto, mother of twin gods Apollo and Artemis, or the monstrous sea-dragon Echidna. Erastus and Ligeia’s mutual adoration makes his helpless inability to win her the celebration he fervently believes she deserves beautiful instead of just heartbreaking. Despite the brutal tragedy at its heart, Medusa’s Sisters is a tapestry woven of fondnesses, relentlessly seeking the beauty and laughter along the road to the inevitable statuary.

Medusa’s Sisters, like the eponymous immortals themselves, is many things. It is a retelling of an old, old story, but one that conjures an unexpected ending from its familiar source materials. It is gorgeously crafted, with an uncommon lyricism and attention to detail. But most of all, it is simply an exceptional story of the many faces love can wear.

A gorgeously crafted retelling of Greek mythology, Medusa’s Sisters is a celebration of the many faces love can wear.
Review by

In their youth, sisters Signy and Oddny and their friend Gunnhild were linked by a prophecy portending great sacrifice and sorrow—but also the potential for great power. The three girls swore themselves to one another after hearing the prophecy, promising to always be there for one another. But their paths diverged after the seer ferried Gunnhild away to train as a witch, allowing her to escape her mother’s constant abuse. Years later, Signy and Oddny’s homestead is attacked and Signy is stolen away by raiders led by a mysterious and vindictive witch, forcing Gunnhild to return to the home she fled so many years ago. From the future king of Norway to one of the very raiders who stole Signy away, Gunnhild and Oddny must befriend unlikely allies in their quest to save their bonded sister and, in the process, confront the prophecy that linked them all those years ago. 

Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was lyrical and dreamlike, but The Weaver and the Witch Queen is as precise as a needle, threading together a vivid tapestry of the joys and terrors of 10th-century Viking life under the reign of King Harald Fairhair. Gornichec obviously revels in historical accuracy, and never sugarcoats what it meant to live in medieval Northern Europe. From frank depictions of the lot of Viking thralls (people enslaved during raids) to the threat of being married off for political alliances, she doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of the society that she’s recreated. But despite the less than savory parts of this world, Gornichec’s joy in being able to share it is palpable, suffusing her prose with a wonder befitting a story dripping in ancient magic. 

While The Weaver and the Witch Queen includes legendary male figures from Norwegian history such as Harald Fairhair and Eirik Bloodaxe, it focuses on the struggles of women. Eirik and his ilk are certainly interesting characters, but theirs are stories that have largely been told. Gornichec’s novel, rather, is about women in conflict, whether that conflict is with their own mothers, with rival witches or between two best friends. Gornichec exults the cleverness of these women and their power to thrive through their communities and their own strength of will. It’s a saga of blood and magic and hardship that explores what we owe to those we love—and what it costs to actually pay that debt.

Genevieve Gornichec’s sophomore novel, The Weaver and the Witch Queen, is a vivid tapestry of the struggles and triumphs of Viking women, including the legendary Queen Gunnhild.
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When I reviewed Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun in 2021, I had no doubt it would top all the best books lists of that year. Some books just have a gravitational pull, each sentence drawing you closer to their core. Parker-Chan’s sequel, He Who Drowned the World, matches and at times exceeds its predecessor; its darker tone, deeper intrigue and visceral set pieces more than live up to the promise of book one. Be warned: No one will be left unscarred in the war for supremacy in northern China, even the reader.

Despite her victories over the Mongol legions, Zhu Chongba, now called the Radiant King, knows the work has only just begun. Though her forces control the southernmost part of the Mongolian territory, she and her people are not safe as long as the Mongolian khan and his armies still threaten from the north. Meanwhile, the traitorous General Ouyang also seeks vengeance against the khan. Can Zhu and Ouyang, two mortal enemies, realize their shared ambitions and work together for a common victory? Perhaps, but unbeknownst to both, a cunning member of the Mongol court is secretly spinning a treacherous web.

She Who Became the Sun had to build up to the multifaceted, continent-crossing thrill ride it became, but He Who Drowned the World starts as a beautiful, brutal ride and never lets up. Military and political intrigue drive the plot forward as characters whiz across the map fighting battles, sneaking into hidden bases, charming pirate kings and so on. A helpful refresher opens the book, and Parker-Chan’s organization and clarity ensures that readers won’t ever lose track of the multiple opposing factions. 

The sharpness of each character’s ambitions, the depth of their emotion and the sheer beauty of the writing will grab hold of readers from the very first page. Sentence by sentence, Parker-Chan’s prose is unrivaled in modern fantasy. It’s so consistent in its richness, so precise in its sequencing that even the grimmest of moments become enthralling and vital. Several scenes between Zhu and Ouyang positively crackle with energy, supercharged by Parker-Chan’s writing as these two titans finally see each other for the first time.

The fearless Parker-Chan pulls no punches, repeatedly pushing characters to their limits and beyond. Their motives range from murky to outright despicable as Parker-Chan examines how identity and personal trauma drive ambition. Like flint against steel, characters spark against one another, often producing flames both literal and figurative. This may be the strongest lasting impression He Who Drowned the World leaves behind: The pain we carry reacts to another’s, and those who master their pain will rule.

He Who Drowned the World, Shelley Parker-Chan’s sequel to She Who Became the Sun, is the most finely crafted fantasy novel of the year.
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In their high-octane and highly entertaining update of Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel about a band of noble bandits facing off against an oppressive government, S.L. Huang evokes the joyous spirit of classic martial arts films.

The characters of Lin Chong, a combat instructor who eventually joins the bandits, and Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s aristocratic students, feel like they are in conversation: One strives for big change and the other strives to be a model minority. Did you conceive of them as two sides of the same coin from the start?
It’s somewhat unusual for me to plan a character arc to this extent, but yes, that was 100% planned. In the real world, I’m frequently frustrated by a sort of “flattening” of people who are in marginalized spaces; we’re frequently perceived as a monolith who must all have the same views and make the same choices. In reality, there are plenty of difficult intracommunity conversations.

I wanted to portray real-feeling people who cannot be easily “purity tested.” Lin Chong has had to fight and claw to achieve an unusual job and status for a woman, but is determined to keep her head down so as not to lose what she’s wrought for herself. Lu Junyi has more high-flying ideals, but she can also afford to: She’s wealthy and insulated, and her social progressivism is more of an academic than a lived variety. Both are good people on the whole, and both are somewhat frustrated by the other’s politics.

Without giving too much away, I wanted their arcs to, in a way, reflect and cross—and for both of them to fall toward a messier gray area where they have to acknowledge hard truths about themselves and their society.

“I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.”

What do you think Lu Junyi would have been if she could have chosen for herself?
Hm, I think it depends on what life experiences she’s faced with. If you plopped her in modern times, she’d probably start off as the type of annoying college student who thinks she knows exactly what all the correct and moral answers are, and is a little bit judgy of people with other opinions. (Lots of us were like that in college!)

On the other hand, she’s open-minded enough that more and more exposure to people different from her would start to expand and complicate her worldview, just as it happens in the book. Although, hopefully less painfully for her.

Eventually, if she were born in modern-day America, I think she’d probably end up doing some pretty amazing media work for a nonprofit she’s passionate about! Elsewhere in the world, she’d probably be doing something similar, though perhaps with slightly more danger to herself . . .

Historically, there’s been a dearth of middle-aged protagonists—especially middle-aged women—in science fiction and fantasy, but that has begun to change in recent years. Why did you decide to center this story around older characters?
Partly because there HAS been such a dearth of such characters—I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.

But also, for the story I wanted to tell, I needed characters who had some amount of life experience. I didn’t want this to be a story of only young prodigies; I wanted this to be a story that included people who’d had time to build extensive pasts, histories and baggage.

Many scenes—and characters!—are equal parts humorous and deadly. How did you strike that balance, and why was it important to you to bring it to the forefront?
The light but true answer is that I grew up on action-comedy movies! I love action, and I love it even more when it’s lightened by humor.

As much as I tried to treat the themes of The Water Outlaws deeply and seriously, I also wanted it to be escapist and fun.

Book jacket image for The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang

In addition to your work as an author, you’re also a Hollywood stunt performer and professional armorer. Your love of choreography definitely shines in The Water Outlaws, as does your love of wuxia, the Chinese historical fantasy genre that focuses on martial artists. What originally drew you to those worlds?
Honestly, I think the same thing that draws a lot of us to sci-fi & fantasy—a hunger for adventure and a love of imagination.

I’ve said before that I think I ended up doing stunts because it’s basically extreme LARPing, ha. I guess I never grew out of yearning for that immersive experience of living the stories I grew up with. And my favorites were always the ones with swords!

How did you approach translating the fantastical brutality of wuxia onto the page?
I tend to write my action in what I like to describe as a “cinematic” way, in that I want it to feel both real and also slightly larger than life. This fits very well with wuxia, which tends to have a similar feel—think, for instance, of martial arts movies that engage in fantastical wire work without any acknowledgment of special powers.

It’s always important to me to engage with the harm and consequences of physical violence—but equally important to me to write glorious, imagination-spanning sword fights!

We don’t see a lot of magic in the early parts of the book, but it’s always hovering on the edges of your world. What was interesting to you about taking this understated approach to magic?
This was very much informed by my love of wuxia! Supernatural elements are often extremely understated, or an accepted part of the world that only comes up when it comes up. It’s not an approach I see a lot in European-derived fantasy—where the magical world building is often a central focus—and I was very interested in writing in that paradigm.

Classical Chinese literature also tends toward this approach to the supernatural, that it’s an expected part of the world and not the focus of the narrative. This includes Water Margin, which was the direct inspiration that I was reimagining in this book!

You have a beautiful, poetic way of describing gender and bringing the nuances of gender fluidity to life. Why was it important for you to explore this territory in The Water Outlaws?
Well, it’s personal to me and to many of my friends. My day-to-day life intersects with a lot of queer spaces, so the gender diversity of the bandits is simply a reflection of my reality! 

(Although I adjusted the terminology and dialogue about it for my fantasy world, as I didn’t want it to feel exactly one-to-one with how any modern culture talks about it today.)

Read our starred review of ‘The Water Outlaws’ by S.L. Huang.

Was there anything in Water Margin that you wanted to put in The Water Outlaws that just didn’t fit? And was there anything you were happy to leave behind in your own retelling?
There was so much that didn’t fit! In particular, three of my favorite characters—Hua Rong, Dai Zong and Wu Song—don’t appear in the main narrative. Hua Rong I managed to add into the epilogue as a master archer, but Dai Zong’s main ability, Taoist powers of traveling magically fast, was slightly too story-breaking to introduce. And Wu Song’s tale, which is full of tiger-fighting, adultery and revenge, was just far too large and expansive to do justice along with all the other pieces I was already focusing on.

Hopefully I can add some of them if there are sequels!

In terms of what I was happy to leave behind, there was plenty of that, too. I love Water Margin to death, but part of the reason I wanted to do a genderswapped version in the first place was that the original is such a highly male-centric and misogynistic tale. So that was first on my list to turn on its head in my retelling.

In particular, one of the bits I was pettily excited to cut was the marital fate of Hu Sanniang, one of only female bandits out of the 108. Despite its misogyny, the original rarely has our ultra-violent heroes engage in sexual violence or coercion, thankfully. But unfortunately, the reason for this feels a lot less like a knowledge that it’s wrong, and much more like a scorn of anything having to do with carnal desires. The bandits have a single member who shows strong desire for women, which is somehow equated with him carrying off women by force—and the leader stops him by “finding him a wife,” i.e., marrying him to one of the only three female bandits.

That female bandit is Hu Sanniang, an amazing fighter who is capable of beating most of the men, and one of the best characters in the original novel. I strongly object to how done wrong she was by this piece of the original book, and I took great delight in giving my Hu Sanniang a backstory of escaping an undesired marriage and cutting her would-be forced husband entirely.

Photo of S.L. Huang by Chris Massa.

The Water Outlaws is a paean to liberation and resistance—and also an absolute blast.

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