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All Historical Fantasy Coverage

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Jarvis’ debut fantasy, The Lights of Prague, welcomes readers into an arresting and vivid historical fantasy world.

Set in 19th-century Prague, Jarvis’ careful and effective world building suggests an abundance of research and showcases her descriptive skill. In her version of the culturally rich European city, creatures from Czech folklore haunt its streets and endanger its citizens. Pijavice—vampiric monsters consumed by bloodlust—are particularly terrifying to those who walk alone at night. The Lights of Prague follows Domek Myska, an earnest member of the lamplighters, who in this world are also a monster-hunting secret society that keeps these creatures at bay, and Lady Ora Fischerová, a charming widow with her own ties to Prague’s supernatural underground.

The two protagonists’ paths cross and uncross as they each unravel the threads of a conspiracy that threatens the safety of the city, each bringing their own skillset to the fight to save Prague from doom. Their interactions exude chemistry when Ora’s playful flirtations bounce off Domek’s endearing shyness, a dynamic bolstered by how tangible and layered both characters feel when they are apart from each other. As the many secrets of her past unfold, Ora becomes especially engrossing. An intriguing cast of supporting characters surround the central duo, from a sentient and manipulative will-o’-the-wisp to an aristocratic pijavice who feeds on unwitting servants in his looming castle. Everything feels real, from the intriguing lore to the communities of people (and not quite people) who make up the gothic, powerful city.

The story unfolds at a measured pace, submerging the reader into moments of reflective exposition or lush descriptions of Prague. The book clocks in at more than 400 pages, and some of these passages can drag. Readers hoping for a fast-moving adventure might be left a bit wanting, but those interested in a story that’s meditative will enjoy spending their time in the world Jarvis has built. The Lights of Prague is an impressive and mature feat from a debut novelist.

Nicole Jarvis’ debut fantasy, The Lights of Prague, welcomes readers into an arresting and vivid historical fantasy world.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world and let all manner of magic into our own. Decades later, someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz returns from the dead goes on a murderous rampage through Cairo, threatening both the delicate balance between the world powers and the uneasy accord between humans and the supernatural. We talked to Clark about the inspirations behind his alternate history.

I love the world you've created! How do you start world building at the very beginning of a project? Was there any specific moment or image that kickstarted your vision of an alternate Cairo?
Thank you! I think for this world—what I think is now called the Dead Djinn universe—the idea began with an image in my head of the main character, Fatma, in the suit and a dead djinn hovering over her. Who knows what made me dream that up? But once it was there, I needed to figure it out. Who was this person? Was this a detective story? Maybe she’s a detective. No, maybe she’s an agent. OK, what’s with the dead djinn? What’s even the larger mystery here? And it went on and on like that, until I had a story.

Egyptian mythology (among other African and Middle Eastern cultures) has a strong influence in this book. Was there any specific work that inspired you? What draws you to the stories of that corner of the world?
My earliest years growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Caribbean folklore, Hindu cosmology and Muslim festivals (like Hosay)—part of my environment. So the non-“Occidental” has always been part of my lived experience. And I think I’ve always found myself searching for it, no matter where I’ve ended up.

"I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo.' It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more."

Fatma, Siti and Hadia are such fun characters to see interact. How do you approach writing dynamic conversations?
With all characters, I try to imagine how they would approach a situation or react to others. I think of them the way I would real people, with certain personality traits, habits, quirks, etc. So when Siti says something, I ask myself how Fatma would respond, or Hadia. And I just try to stay true to who they are.

Dr. Hoda is my favorite side character so far, so I have to ask—will she get her assistant?
LOL. Great question. I like side characters like Dr. Hoda precisely because they leave the door open to revisit them later. In the meantime, if I can get readers to identify with them (despite their limited presence) and see them as characters with depth, I’m happy.

Is there anything from your personal life you drew on to write this book? Or do you prefer not to think consciously about what parts of your life go into your work?
There are parts that are based heavily on my memories of visiting Cairo. And certainly, I pulled from themes and issues in my head at the time I was writing. The Dead Djinn world as a nod to anti-colonialism reflects much of my own personal bias. But overall, the characters and whatnot have their own experiences and lives that are quite separate from my own. Also, I haven’t yet actually seen a djinn.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Master of Djinn.

Do you want to continue writing stories in this world? If so, do you have a plan for how many more books you would like to write, or will you just see where the story takes you?
Plan? No plans here. I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more. Fortunately, because I enjoy world building, I always leave myself different doors and paths to explore. So, I don’t have anything yet in mind. But who knows?

What have you read and loved recently?
I am reading Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. The prose and imagination are magnificent!

What else are you working on?
A project I’m not yet supposed to talk about. But let’s just say, I may be writing for a decidedly younger audience. Though the rest of you are welcome to come along, too.

What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading A Master of Djinn?
A satisfied smile. And a hunger for Egyptian street food.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world.

P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn is the literary equivalent of a cup of lovely mint tea: a refreshing, delightful and magical mystery to enjoy while absorbing vitamin D on a crisp spring day. The fourth installment and first full-length novel of Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe series, the smooth and welcoming A Master of Djinn provides the perfect amount of fan service to engage returning fans without alienating new readers.

In this fantastical version of our world, a man named Al-Jahiz tore a hole in reality in 1872, unleashing Djinn and magic across the earth. In the 50 years since, international governments have taken a variety of approaches to the new existence of the supernatural. In Egypt, magic has not only been allowed, but embraced. This decision put Egypt on the map as a world power, driving other countries (seemingly on the precipice of this world’s version of World War I) to meet for a peace summit in Cairo. The summit is only a few weeks away when a man claiming to be Al-Jahiz returned from the dead commits a series of grisly murders. Fatma, a famous agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is assigned to the case. She is one of the Ministry's few female operatives, and her success has made her one of the Ministry’s favorite agents for difficult cases.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How P. Djèlí Clark came up with the idea for his magical vision of Cairo.

Clark’s characters have wholesome, wonderful interactions with each other, never waiting long to address their interpersonal conflicts and always resolving on friendly terms. “Friendly” is an apt description of the book as a whole. While there is certainly conflict, tension and danger in A Master of Djinn, the reader will find themselves propelled along through the book by the likeability and relatability of Fatma. Even if you guess the plot's various twists and turns, Fatma’s endearing style, gruffness and no-nonsense approach make A Master of Djinn worth reading.

While A Master of Djinn admittedly breaks little new ground, Clark has created an engaging mystery and a vivid world with intrigue, arcane secrets and an epic climax.

P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn is the literary equivalent of a cup of lovely mint tea.

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