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Beyond its intricate world building and incisive cultural commentary, Siren Queen is a moving exploration of romance, loss and complex family dynamics.
Beyond its intricate world building and incisive cultural commentary, Siren Queen is a moving exploration of romance, loss and complex family dynamics.
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Set in the same Renaissance Mediterranean-inspired world as Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago, Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World follows Rafel ben Natan and Nadia bint Dhiyan, merchants and privateers on a mission to assassinate the khalif of Abeneven. On the way, they travel with feared warlords; consort with kings, emperors and popes; and inadvertently start a war of vengeance that some call holy. But because they are always a few steps removed from real power, Rafel and Nadia are never able to correct the injustices they encounter. Kay’s fictional worlds, while beautiful, are defined by this bleak inertia; his characters see their homes fade from the map and their own lives taken for the pettiest of causes. This perspective allows Kay to address serious topics within the framework of a fantasy adventure novel, but he never tips into the sort of grimdark cynicism that would cheapen his insights (and seriously depress some readers).

Nowhere in All the Seas of the World is this more apparent than in its treatment of religion. Kay’s other works set in this world have depicted internecine strife within the Jaddite faith (an analogue of Christianity) and the recurrent wars between the Jaddites and the Osmanlis (similar to the Islamic Ottoman Empire). All the Seas of the World turns to the Kindath, Kay’s fictionalized version of the Jewish people. Society will never accept the Kindath, no matter how successful they become or how much they conform. They achieve their victories through survival, finding ways to navigate a hostile, mistrustful world without endangering their community.

Throughout All the Seas of the World, the Kindath contend with this reality in myriad ways. They try to assimilate, only to learn that true assimilation is impossible. They seek security in success, only to find that such success makes them targets of vitriol and violence. When Kay enters Rafel’s perspective, he makes it painfully clear how every decision Rafel faces is weighted by the potential consequences not just for himself but for his family and the entire Kindath community, given that his and Nadia’s mission is one of great importance to the Jaddite world.

Nadia spends much of the book coping with the trauma of being taken by Osmanli slavers as a child, and Kay depicts her inner landscape with sensitivity and nuance. She nurses a visceral, bigoted hatred of all things Osmanli that thinly masquerades as Jaddite zealotry, but as the flames of her hatred sputter out, she wonders where she belongs in a world that views her as less valuable because of her abduction. In Kay’s world, both women and the Kindath are under extraordinary pressure to conform to ever-shifting ideals that are entirely determined by outsiders.

And yet, All the Seas of the World is a story of resilience winning out, of these two individuals finding a way to vanquish their demons in spite of all the powers arrayed against them. A master of telling small stories in a big world, Kay reveals spots of hope amid the cold cynicism of history.

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

In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo presents an alternate history of golden age Hollywood that is at times dreamlike, at times nightmarish.

When Chinese American movie fan Luli Wei stumbles onto a film set as a child and snags a minor role, her career aspirations are forever altered. She decides to plunge headlong into an industry where she is not accepted or celebrated, and must constantly claw her way through adversity to gain even the smallest achievement.

Luli is no stranger to enchantments—her mother weaves intricate household spells from time to time—but her time in Hollywood reveals their darker side. In Vo’s alternate America, movie magic isn’t just makeup, costumes and special effects. Young, vulnerable actors sell their souls, bodies and identities for fame and fortune, and still, the show must go on.

Vo’s spellbinding prose captures the allure and discomfort that Hollywood holds for outspoken, witty Luli. She experiences constant prejudice and possible danger as a queer Asian woman, but the film community also provides her with an opportunity to explore her sexuality in relative, if tenuous, safety. Formidable and talented, Luli is adamant that she will be the Asian actress who breaks the mold to play more than a scorned lover or a servant. At first, she sacrifices parts of herself to achieve this goal, but she eventually reaches the limit of what she is willing to give. The more secrets she learns, the more determined she becomes to overturn the status quo and create a safe haven for other marginalized actors.

Beyond its intricate world building and incisive cultural commentary, Siren Queen is a moving exploration of romance, loss and complex family dynamics. Readers will be fully invested in Luli’s journey as she comes into her own, defies the industry’s attempts to own her and pursues her happiness.

Beyond its intricate world building and incisive cultural commentary, Siren Queen is a moving exploration of romance, loss and complex family dynamics.

When you were growing up, did you play with your shadow? In her wondrous, sinister and engrossing adult debut, Book of Night, young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black presents a decidedly mature perspective on our relationships with our silhouettes. It’s a wildly entertaining, magic-filled mystery haunted by criminals with murky intentions.

Charlie Hall slings drinks at a seedy bar in the Berkshires, but it’s better (well, safer) than her previous profession as a small-time con artist and thief. She’s happy to have some stability after her long involvement in the underground world of gloamists, magicians who can manipulate shadows. In this world, shadows can be altered to look different for entertainment, but they can also be used for more nefarious purposes such as influencing someone’s thoughts or even committing murder. Charlie’s been smart about avoiding trouble, but when a bar patron is murdered and a mysterious millionaire from Charlie’s past returns, she’s forced to revisit her former life in order to find a book filled with unimaginable power.

A consistent atmosphere of dread and foreboding reinforces the core magic system, giving shadow magic a sharp, dangerous edge. Black unspools the mystery patiently and deliberately, interjecting short chapters titled “The Past” that reveal specific moments from Charlie’s memory into the present-day narrative. I couldn’t help but think of film noir while reading, not only because of the dark aesthetic and criminal elements but also because of the incredible weight of each character’s past.

Shadow magic has a multitude of metaphoric implications, and Black keeps a firm hand on the wheel as she explores them. The idea of shadows, indelibly attached to us in our world, being a means for division and deception is intriguing; Think Peter Pan and his ongoing struggle to rein in his own shadow. Though humorous, the idea of losing control of something that is part of us is also uncomfortable. That sense of discomfort and destabilization is even greater in Book of Night as shadows are used in various creative yet frightening ways. An ongoing theme of obfuscation, of truths being hidden or only half-revealed, also contributes to this feeling of unease.

Black’s plot is expertly crafted, her magic system simple yet interesting, her characters wounded and very human (well, most of them anyway). Mystery fans will find a lot to love here, but so will lovers of more traditional fantasy. Book of Night will have you looking over your shoulder, out of the corner of your eye, wondering if your shadow just moved.

Young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black’s adult debut is a sinister and wildly entertaining mystery.

Some horror novels grab you by the throat and pull you through them, rubbing your face in the uncomfortable, terrifying things that lurk in the dark. Other horror novels can feel more sinister, slowly creeping up on you out of the banality of everyday evil. Two new novels explore these facets of fear to great effect, creating worlds that are both fantastical and terribly real. 

Black Tide

Set along Oregon’s foggy coast, Black Tide by KC Jones is the story of two strangers who are thrust together when the world comes to an end. Beth might be a disaster (even her mother says so), but her latest gig housesitting for wealthy vacationers at least keeps her from living in her car. The night before everything changes, she meets Mike, a film producer with no new projects in sight. In the early morning hours after their champagne-soaked one-night stand, they realize that something is terribly wrong. The power is out, cell phone service is down and the beach is littered with bowling ball-size meteorites that smell as if they have been pulled from a landfill in hell. Soon the unlikely pair learn a horrifying truth: Far from being an isolated incident, the meteor shower was the harbinger of an apocalyptic encounter with creatures from another world. Stranded together on an Oregonian beach, Beth and Mike must rely on each other if they are to have any chance of survival. 

Jones’ debut novel reads like a summer blockbuster stuffed with adrenaline-pumping action scenes and moments of heart-stopping suspense. Jones deftly punctuates long, tense scenes of Mike and Beth trying to avoid notice by the alien creatures with short, intense bursts of them fighting for their lives. Moments of relative calm allow for character exploration, bringing readers into Mike’s and Beth’s minds as they work through their feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Jones lets both characters take turns as first-person narrators, demonstrating the difference in how they see themselves (flawed to the point of worthlessness) and how the other person sees them (flawed but essentially good).

For readers used to tome-size horror novels, the length of Black Tide may be surprising. It’s just over 250 pages, but anything longer would have detracted from the frenetic pacing and torn attention away from Jones’ perfectly simple, extremely frightening premise: two people trapped at the end of the world, desperate to not be eaten by monsters. 

The Fervor

Alma Katsu’s The Fervor casts a wide net. It starts in 1944 during the waning days of World War II. Meiko Briggs is a Japanese immigrant and wife of a white American man. Even though her husband is serving in the U.S. Air Force, she’s still torn from her new home by the American government and forced to live in an internment camp in the remote reaches of Idaho with her daughter, Aiko. When a mysterious illness starts to move through the camp, rage and distrust rise, threatening the fragile corner of relative normalcy Meiko has tried to create for her daughter. 

Meanwhile, mysterious balloons have begun to appear and then explode across the West, leaving a similar illness in their wake. One of these bombs turns a preacher in Bly, Oregon, into a widower, driving him into the arms of hate movements cropping up across the country. A close encounter with another bomb leads a newspaper reporter to crisscross the region looking for answers, but she finds only closed doors and deep distrust. As the illness intensifies in both the camps and the surrounding towns, the sins of the past collide with the present to create an inescapable web of hatred, fear and desperation.

In light of the rash of anti-Asian violence of the 2020s, Katsu’s historical parable about the horrors—and the virulence—of racism and xenophobia feels particularly pressing. The Fervor gives readers a glimpse into one of the darkest moments of American history, and then gives the already-terrifying ethos of that time a new and frightening shape: As the disease spreads from person to person, it is often accompanied by mysterious, possibly supernatural spiders. The image of near-invisible spiders crawling from one person to another, over eyelids, mouths and bodies, is an indelibly creepy illustration of just how pervasive mistrust and prejudice are. 

The terror only grows from there. From visitations from a ghostly woman in a red kimono to midnight car chases through the prairie, The Fervor delivers a punch that’s equal parts psychological horror and jump scare. It will make you want to read into the wee hours of the morning, even though you may question that decision when the shadows start to move.

KC Jones’ apocalyptic debut and Alma Katsu’s latest eerie novel have one thing in common: They will absolutely terrify you.

Hugo Award winner T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone is a dark, feminist fantasy that follows an unlikely heroine as she takes matters into her own hands to free her sister and other women from a cyclical system of abuse.

Princess Marra is shy and seemingly forgettable, content with being sent to a convent rather than married off for political gain. But when she learns of the death of her oldest sister, Damia, most likely at the hands of her husband, Prince Vorling, Marra worries that her other sister, Kania, will suffer the same fate. She’s destined to be Vorling’s second wife, after all.

Embarking on a quest to save what remains of her family, Marra turns to the dust-wife, a necromancer whose familiar is a demon-possessed chicken. The dust-wife tasks Marra with building a dog of bones, sewing a cloak of nettles and capturing moonlight in a jar. As Marra attempts to accomplish the impossible, she slowly assembles a team worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster montage. First, there’s Bonedog, whose creation occurs in the first chapter, an instantly gripping flash-forward to Marra midquest. Then there’s Agnes, Marra’s neurotic fairy godmother whose abilities are limited to granting good health. Rounding out the group is Fenris, a diplomatic knight who seems to have a bit of a death wish.

Fans of Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel trilogy will recognize her trademark blend of bleak world building and an affable cast of underdog characters. Marra’s evolution is an inspiration. She becomes a more confident version of herself as she works to save her sister, and then expands her mission once she realizes that if her vengeance remains focused on just Prince Vorling, it will leave many more women still in danger. But while Nettle & Bone is undeniably dark and sinister at times, Kingfisher balances the horror with well-placed levity. Any road trip is instantly made better by a demonic chicken, and who wouldn’t love a curious, energetic dog to tag along, even if he is made of bones? The more comedic characters allow readers to find comfort amid the larger, darker scope of the novel, bright spots in a world that can often feel hopeless.

Kingfisher is an inventive fantasy powerhouse, and Nettle & Bone represents the burgeoning “hopepunk” ethos at its finest, with its winsome characters and focus on their fight to make the world a better place.

Nettle & Bone is the burgeoning “hopepunk” ethos at its finest: a dark fantasy starring a demon-possessed chicken and a feminist avenger.

Far from being simple tales of birthrights and inheritances restored, these books delve into heady questions about power, privilege and the consequences of political intrigue. And while each does this in a different way, they do have one thing in common: They open with a death.

The Amber Crown

Jacey Bedford’s The Amber Crown begins with the death of King Konstantyn of Zavonia, poisoned by an unknown assassin. His personal guards are immediately blamed for the death and executed by the new king. Valdas Zalecki, head of the king’s guard, was out of the palace on the night of the murder, and it is up to him to find out who killed his beloved king—and to find Queen Kristina, who’s gone missing. Mirza, a witch and healer with the power to speak with the dead, promises Konstantyn that she will avenge his death. And the last piece of The Amber Crown’s puzzle is Lind, the assassin who killed Konstantyn. Haunted by the specter of his abusive childhood, Lind finds that the murder of a king is not an easy thing to live with. As their stories collide, these three outsiders must work together to prevent Zavonia from falling further into chaos.

Despite its conventional premise, The Amber Crown still represents a divergence from traditional high fantasy. The world building echoes Eastern Europe, with Zavonia serving as a fictionalized version of Poland. This allows Bedford to pull from supernatural practices of that region of the world, such as blood rituals and dream walking. And Bedford’s focus on marginalized and supposedly “unimportant” characters, rather than knights and princes, forces readers to reckon with the consequences of political upheaval outside of a royal court.

★ The Bone Orchard

Sara A. Mueller’s debut novel also begins with the death of a monarch, this time an emperor. In The Bone Orchard, Charm is a prisoner but a well-kept one. Taken from her home when her kingdom of Inshil was conquered and colonized by the Boren Empire, the necromantic witch has been confined to Orchard House for decades. Charm is surrounded by her children, of a kind: boneghosts who are grown (and often regrown) from the fruit of the bone-producing orchard. Charm and her boneghosts—Justice, Pain, Pride, Shame and Desire—serve the powerful men of the capital city of Borenguard as entertainers, masseuses and sex workers. Charm is mistress to the emperor himself, bound by a neural implant that keeps her magic in check and keeps her loyal to him. But when Charm is called to the emperor’s deathbed, she’s given a chance at freedom. If she finds the person who killed him, she will be free of the magic that keeps her bound to the crown. 

While the mechanics of Charm’s bone orchard and the empathic power that some citizens of Borenguard wield are certainly magical, other aspects of The Bone Orchard evoke classic sci-fi tropes. Charm’s boneghosts harken all the way back to Frankenstein, and the oppressive, fascist Boren Empire is straight out of Fahrenheit 451. But despite these nods to foundational works, The Bone Orchard still feels fresh and ambitious. Charm enjoys access to power while still being marginalized herself, a contradictory position that Mueller analyzes to endlessly fascinating effect. It may be an otherworldly, genre-bending fantasy, but The Bone Orchard is still intensely human at its heart. 

In a Garden Burning Gold

In a Garden Burning Gold’s opening death is not so much a murder as it is a sacrifice. Young adult author Rory Power’s first novel for adults centers on twins Rhea and Lexos, siblings gifted with immense power and responsibility. Rhea is the Thyspira, tasked with taking—and then sacrificing—a new consort each season to keep the world lush and the provinces that owe fealty to their father, Vasilis, in line. Lexos is their father’s second, trained from near birth to assist Vasilis in his political machinations and keep stability in the land. When Rhea’s latest suitor-cum-sacrifice is revealed to be embroiled in an independence movement that threatens the stability of the family’s demesne, the twins must scramble to maintain control and protect all they hold dear. 

Set in a world patterned after ancient Greek city states, In a Garden Burning Gold dives deep into family love, political intrigue and filial duty. It’s rare to find a main character whose powers engender so much ambivalence as Rhea’s abilities do for her. She offers little in return to the families and communities from whom she has stolen a life, other than the continuance of the status quo. Power makes Rhea a compelling and often likable character, while never losing sight of the fact that, in the end, she always lives and her consort always dies. That imbalance compels readers to ask whether the sacrifice is really worth it, and whether that sort of power should sit in any one person’s—or family’s—hands. A grown-up version of Encanto mixed with a political thriller, all set against a dazzling Mediterranean backdrop, In a Garden Burning Gold is a strikingly original and thoughtful fantasy. 

Readers who are eager for feats of magic and daring adventures but don’t want to retread the same old stories from decades past will be enthralled by these three novels, each of which strays outside of the traditional high fantasy playbook to great effect.

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