A phantasmagoria of dark imagery that never loses sight of its human core, The Dissonance solidifies Shaun Hamill’s place as one of genre fiction's brightest rising stars.
A phantasmagoria of dark imagery that never loses sight of its human core, The Dissonance solidifies Shaun Hamill’s place as one of genre fiction's brightest rising stars.
Part mystery, part slowly building romance, Sylvie Cathrall's lyrical fantasy, A Letter to the Luminous Deep, utilizes poignant details and quaint language to conjure an evocative underwater world.
Part mystery, part slowly building romance, Sylvie Cathrall's lyrical fantasy, A Letter to the Luminous Deep, utilizes poignant details and quaint language to conjure an evocative underwater world.
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Shaun Hamill’s fiction jolts the reader with an immediate sense of ambition, a sense that they are about to be not just immersed, but plunged into something enormous that nevertheless keeps a grip on its humanity. With his follow-up to A Cosmology of Monsters, The Dissonance, Hamill once again retains that massive scope while telling a deeply felt story of loss, love and a chance at redemption, solidifying his place as one of genre fiction’s brightest rising stars.

In their teenage years, Hal, Erin and Athena were introduced to an obscure and powerful magical system known as the Dissonance. They spent their high school summers being tutored by a local professor in their hometown of Clegg, Texas, learning the right way to wield the uncommon and often frightening power that stemmed from their own negative emotions. Then tragedy struck, leaving the trio missing a friend and separated by time, grief and a disconnection from the magic they once shared.

Two decades later, Hal, Erin and Athena reunite in Clegg as the 20-year memorial for the event that rent them apart looms and strange happenings rock the landscape around them. Together with a local teen named Owen, who is caught up in a supernatural mystery of his own, the trio hurtle toward something dark, something that could spell the end of everything or be the beginning of their path back from the brink.

Hamill’s story is packed with fantasy and horror delights, from dark rituals in cemeteries to monsters in the forest to powerful swords that were once thought to be merely mythical. The sense that these characters are caught in the midst of something much bigger than themselves, are being buffeted on all sides by something titanic, is immediate, thrilling and seductive. But even as supernatural weather and the realities of living in a magical world are ever present, the characters always come first. Hal, Athena and Erin emerge as fully formed people carrying heavy burdens that are simultaneously fantastical and relatable, their emotions nearly tangible thanks to Hamill’s direct and page-turning prose.

The Dissonance will hook you with its phantasmagoria of dark imagery, but it will keep you reading because it’s a story about how the shared traumas of our youths can both shape us and save us. It’s fantasy, horror, a coming-of-age journey and so much more.

A phantasmagoria of dark imagery that never loses sight of its human core, The Dissonance solidifies Shaun Hamill’s place as one of genre fiction's brightest rising stars.
Review by

Sylvie Cathrall’s debut fantasy, a series opener, offers an aquatic variation on dark academia, unfolding entirely through a series of letters and other documents. Set 1,000 years after a mysterious event called “the Dive” sent almost all of humankind underwater, A Letter to the Luminous Deep (12.5 hours) begins with reclusive E. Cidnosin writing to scholar Henerey Clel about her discovery of an unidentified “elongated fish.” Listeners soon discover, through letters between E.’s sister, Sophy, and Henerey’s brother, Vyerin, that E. and Henerey have disappeared under unexplained circumstances. Part mystery, part slowly building romance, Cathrall’s lyrical fantasy utilizes poignant details and quaint language to conjure an evocative underwater world. The use of different narrators for each letter writer—Claire Morgan, Kit Griffiths, Justin Avoth and Joshua Riley—is an effective way to differentiate the characters, and the novel’s unhurried pacing allows listeners to relish the art of letter writing.

Read our starred review of the print version of A Letter to the Luminous Deep.

Part mystery, part slowly building romance, Sylvie Cathrall's lyrical fantasy, A Letter to the Luminous Deep, utilizes poignant details and quaint language to conjure an evocative underwater world.

What are your bookstore rituals? For example, where do you go first in a store?
I go first to the new in paperback section. I love the feel and heft of a paperback as well as its affordability and convenience. I also love reading staff recommendations, even for books that I’ve read before. It’s always fun to see where opinions align or diverge. 

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child. 
My favorite library as a kid was the Shanghai Library. It’s on the same subway line as my family apartment, so it was always convenient to access. You had to arrive early to secure a study desk, but once you’d secured it, it was yours for the rest of the day. And the canteen on the ground floor had plenty of cheap but delicious and healthy meals. 

While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful, or a surprising discovery among the stacks? 
When I was 13, I discovered a new favorite novel by chance—when a librarian accidentally shelved the wrong book to be placed on hold for me. The book was most likely adult, so some of the more mature content was a bit of a surprise for me, but at the same time, it opened my eyes to all adult themes of the world beyond my bubble. I learned about betrayal and suffering and hurt beyond forgiveness. I remember reading this book in one breathless sitting, then rereading the book again the very next day. Experiences like this made me want to become a writer, to touch someone’s life in such a tangible way. 

“My special talent is balancing a coffee, sunglasses and several books all in one hand.”

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature? 
One of my favorite books that I read as a child was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. In the novel there is a hidden library in Barcelona, Spain, called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which of course inspired all sorts of daydreams of mine of stumbling upon secret magical libraries hidden within the cities I grew up in. 

Do you have a bucket list of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet? What’s on it? 
Yes! I’ve always wanted to visit the Mill Valley Library in Northern California, which is a sunlit library within the woods, as well as the Beitou Branch Library in Taipei, Taiwan, which is Taiwan’s first green library and is absolutely gorgeous. 

What’s the last thing you checked out from your library or bought at your local bookstore?
Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang. She’s been recommended to me over a dozen times, but I’m only now getting into her work! 

How is your own personal library organized?
I once tried to organize my books by spine color before realizing I could never find anything I was looking for and it drove me bananas. Now they’re organized by genre and theme, with my favorite covers facing out. 

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs? 
Bookstore cats! I’m more of a dog person when it comes to the outdoors, but for bookstores, cats perfectly fit the vibe. 

What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack? 
I love a good iced Americano while browsing. My special talent is balancing a coffee, sunglasses and several books all in one hand.

The author of The Night Ends With Fire, a new fantasy romance inspired by the legend of Mulan, shares her bookstore habits and favorite library memories.

What are your bookstore rituals? For example, where do you go first in a store?
I am a sucker for the display tables. I love to browse through the latest releases and staff picks, searching especially for books that haven’t yet come to my attention from another source. After that I tend to make a beeline for the paper products that are the standard equipment of this writer’s life: notebooks, pens, rulers, erasers. I’m forever on the lookout for the “perfect” pen, eraser, pencil bag—you name it. After these two basic needs are met, I trawl the history, mythology and nonfiction sections, which are my preferred genres. Final stop is always the cookbook section, because those books are heavy and I always want more than I can carry.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child. 
The Montgomery County Library Bookmobile. It came once a week to a retail parking lot, opposite the elementary school I attended, that was pitted with potholes. It was in this rolling paradise, at the ripe age of 8 years old, that I was introduced to the interlibrary loan request. My elementary school librarian, Kay Wersler, taught me how to scour books for hints on other books to read and request them through the Bookmobile. I still remember the sound of the running engine, the climb up the stairs, the small selection of books to browse and the patient librarian who did not bat an eye when I asked for 19 biographies of Henry VIII.

“There are so many ‘lost’ treasures on the shelves of libraries all over the world.”

While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful, or a surprising discovery among the stacks? 
How much space do we have? As an academic who has been doing research since age 8 (see above), it would be far easier to tell you the librarians who weren’t especially helpful (exactly zero). I am enormously fond of the rare books and manuscripts librarians all over the world, but especially at the Bodleian Library and the British Library because I have relied most heavily on their collections. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the wise and generous former Keeper of Rare Books at the Bodleian, Julian Roberts, who was very kind when I discovered a John Dee book was missing from his collection and helped me locate another copy. This gave me something of a reputation in the academic community for finding strange items lurking in library collections—not only missing books but also a 16th-century bladder stone kept in a metal tube!

Book jacket image for The Black Bird Oracle by Deborah Harkness

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature? 
Marks & Co Antiquarian Booksellers, made famous in Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. I thought all English bookstores were like this one, and discovered to my enormous delight that they were still common in the England of the 1980s, when I visited the country as a solo traveler for the first time.

Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet? What’s on it? 
It is my great dream to shelf read every collection of rare books and manuscripts in the world. This is, of course, not possible, but it is telling that it’s not a particular item or location that attracts me, but the ability to draw books down from the shelves and glance through them looking for interesting notes and marginalia. I include all local public libraries with historical materials in this count, by the way. There are so many “lost” treasures on the shelves of libraries all over the world. I love bringing them to light for their librarians and patrons.

What’s the last thing you checked out from your library or bought at your local bookstore?
The last book I bought was at Moonraker Books on Whidbey Island, Washington. I went in to say hello to Josh Hauser and browse her impeccably curated selection of nonfiction and found a copy of The Connaught Bar: Cocktail Recipes and Iconic Creations by Agostino Perrone, Giorgio Bargiani and Maura Milia. Two of my favorite places collided there by the sea, as I have spent many happy hours in the care of Agostino, Giorgio and Maura (who has moved on to her next adventure now). I took a copy back to the house to inspire future celebrations.

How is your own personal library organized?
By subject. It’s a working library, so there is none of this color-coding or last name malarkey. Give me a subject heading and I’m happy! My cookbooks are even organized this way. 

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs? 
Yes. And if there are bookstore horses, please let me know the address of the shop because I will be making a stop soon. With carrots.

What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack? 
I hope you mean post-browsing snack! If so, then it is a cup of tea with milk and honey, and a small pastry of some sort. Madeleines, if they have them, an ordinary shortbread biscuit or chocolate chip cookie if they do not. Coffee walnut cake if I am in England and it is autumn. British bookstores have brilliant little cafes tucked into their corners where you can sit with your pile of books and a nibble before heading back home with your new treasures.

The author of the bestselling All Souls series reveals her bookshelf organization principles and sings the praises of the interlibrary loan.
STARRED REVIEW
June 19, 2024

The best SFF novels of 2024—so far

The year’s biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
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Book jacket image for The Parliament by Aimee Pokwatka

The Parliament

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.
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The Familiar

Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet.
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The Warm Hands of Ghosts

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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The Tainted Cup

Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy spin on Sherlock Holmes will dazzle readers with both its imaginative world building and perfect pacing.
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A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.
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Recent Features

The year's biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
STARRED REVIEW
June 26, 2024

The 11 best SFF novels of 2024—so far

The year’s biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
Share this Article:
Book jacket image for The Parliament by Aimee Pokwatka

The Parliament

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.
Read more
Book jacket image for The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

The Familiar

Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet.
Read more
warmhands

The Warm Hands of Ghosts

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 ...
Read more
Book jacket image for The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Tainted Cup

Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy spin on Sherlock Holmes will dazzle readers with both its imaginative world building and perfect pacing.
Read more
mooringsmackerelsky

The Moorings of Mackerel Sky

A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.
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The year's biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
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STARRED REVIEW

July 16, 2024

Something old, something new: 3 bold new SFF retellings

Arthurian legend, Peter Pan and The Chronicles of Narnia serve as inspiration for three fresh, ambitious new fantasy novels.

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Arthur is dead and the Round Table lies shattered in The Bright Sword by Lev Grossman, author of the bestselling Magicians trilogy. The story begins with Collum of the Isle of Mull, a character who does not appear in Arthurian legend, embroiled in a duel with an unnamed knight. The knight spits uncouth insults about Collum’s mother, and at the end of their brawl, Collum makes his first (extremely messy) kill of the book. This resolution to a duel outlines how most plot points are resolved in The Bright Sword: Someone inevitably dies, and no one is happy.

Once Collum gets to Camelot, none of the remaining knights are particularly happy either. After a few chapters about Collum, a new knight of the Round Table is introduced, and, as if remembering the reader may not know anything about this person, Grossman suspends the main story to relate how the knight arrived at Camelot. These consistently shifting perspectives, combined with an extremely loose approach to time and distance, creates a dreamlike vibe, suggestive of a story told around a campfire by a narrator who keeps getting distracted. Those with little patience will likely find The Bright Sword frustrating, but readers willing to savor the book over many nights will find each chapter a neatly arranged, miniature adventure of its own.

Traditionally minimal side characters in the story of Arthur—like Sir Bedivere, Sir Palomides and even Dagonet the Fool—receive intricate, deep backstories that erase the mythological buildup around each figure, viewing them instead in a far more human and often more modern light. In many older tales, Palomides is a Middle Eastern stereotype, used entirely as a foil to elevate Sir Tristan’s status as an honorable and just knight. But in Grossman’s story, Palomides is a prince and explorer who is wildly misunderstood by his knightly peers, with his own journey of self-discovery and growth.

At once full of desperate hope and grievous loss, The Bright Sword is a moody reflection on Arthur’s tale. This saga is not marked by optimism, but instead a dignified cynicism. Collum and his endearing band of Round Table Rejects (album out soon) simply live and persevere, knowing that if they do not try to bring peace to the now-fractured Britain, no one else will.

At once full of desperate hope and grievous loss, Lev Grossman’s The Bright Sword is a moody reflection on the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table.
Review by

As teens, best friends Jeremy Cox and Rafe Howell disappeared into a stretch of West Virginia wilderness known as Red Crow. They reappeared six months later, perfectly healthy and fit save for a series of scars on Rafe’s back. Fifteen years later, the two men are estranged. Rafe is an artistic recluse with no memory of their time away, and Jeremy is a preternaturally gifted missing persons investigator. Rafe knows that Jeremy remembers the truth of what happened, but Jeremy has long refused to reveal a single detail. When a young woman named Emilie Wendell tasks Jeremy with finding her birth sister—who coincidentally also disappeared in Red Crow—Jeremy knows that he’ll need Rafe’s help to find her.

Meg Shaffer’s The Lost Story is a gorgeously wrought tale of yearning, grief and hope. Taking heavy inspiration from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Shaffer imagines what life would be like after a magical world changes you forever and then sends you home. Would you be Rafe, whose subconscious wants so desperately to return that he tries to drive to Red Crow in his sleep? Or Jeremy, who can remember every moment, but clearly has very strong reasons for not sharing them with Rafe? Or would you be the one left behind, who never knew what happened to your loved ones and could only hope that one day they’d return? The Lost Story gives us a window into all of these perspectives, depicting each with compassion without sacrificing a whit of drama. Layered atop it all, a delicious smattering of meta-narrative keeps the story feeling less like a tragedy and more like the warmhearted fairy tale that it is, reminding us that there is likely a happy ending (at least of sorts) waiting for us at the end of it all.

A spiritual epilogue to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Meg Shaffer’s The Lost Story explores what happens after you return from a magical realm.

In a world full of Peter Pan reimaginings and remakes, P.H. Low’s These Deathless Shores stands apart. This evocative, thrilling flight follows Jordan, a 22-year-old woman who was once one of Peter Pan’s loyal Lost Boys. It’s been nine years since she and Baron, her childhood friend, were exiled from Peter’s Island. Both have tried to make a life in San Jukong, a sprawling city reminiscent of Southeast Asian metropolises, but Jordan’s been in withdrawal from Tinkerbell’s Dust ever since she left the Island and has become addicted to a drug called karsa in order to cope with her symptoms. Jordan decides to return and steal Tinkerbell in order to gain an unlimited supply of Dust, and drags Baron along on the perilous journey. But when sinister truths are revealed about Peter’s machinations, Jordan sets her sights on a new goal: revenge. 

Low’s world building is lush and detail-laden, and they fully immerse readers into San Jukong and later Peter’s island, to the point that readers are sometimes left feeling as if they’re paddling to keep their heads above water. However, Baron and Jordan’s profound connection provides an emotional foundation. While Baron is content to forget Peter, Jordan knows that he will follow her to the ends of the earth to honor the bond they forged while masquerading as twins on the island. With each delicious and devastating twist, Low makes clear that the traditional archetypes of heroes and villains have been flipped on their head in this telling, especially when it comes to Jordan (who just so happens to wear a metallic prosthetic hand). As she and Baron fight the boy who never grew up, and navigate the traumatic memories that have come flooding back, can they rewrite the ending to this cursed bedtime story?

P.H. Low’s intriguing debut fantasy, These Deathless Shores, is a haunting modern spin on Peter Pan.

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Recent Features

Arthurian legend, Peter Pan, and The Chronicles of Narnia serve as inspiration for three fresh, ambitious new fantasy novels.

In a world full of Peter Pan reimaginings and remakes, P.H. Low’s These Deathless Shores stands apart. This evocative, thrilling flight follows Jordan, a 22-year-old woman who was once one of Peter Pan’s loyal Lost Boys. It’s been nine years since she and Baron, her childhood friend, were exiled from Peter’s Island. Both have tried to make a life in San Jukong, a sprawling city reminiscent of Southeast Asian metropolises, but Jordan’s been in withdrawal from Tinkerbell’s Dust ever since she left the Island and has become addicted to a drug called karsa in order to cope with her symptoms. Jordan decides to return and steal Tinkerbell in order to gain an unlimited supply of Dust, and drags Baron along on the perilous journey. But when sinister truths are revealed about Peter’s machinations, Jordan sets her sights on a new goal: revenge. 

Low’s world building is lush and detail-laden, and they fully immerse readers into San Jukong and later Peter’s island, to the point that readers are sometimes left feeling as if they’re paddling to keep their heads above water. However, Baron and Jordan’s profound connection provides an emotional foundation. While Baron is content to forget Peter, Jordan knows that he will follow her to the ends of the earth to honor the bond they forged while masquerading as twins on the island. With each delicious and devastating twist, Low makes clear that the traditional archetypes of heroes and villains have been flipped on their head in this telling, especially when it comes to Jordan (who just so happens to wear a metallic prosthetic hand). As she and Baron fight the boy who never grew up, and navigate the traumatic memories that have come flooding back, can they rewrite the ending to this cursed bedtime story?

P.H. Low’s intriguing debut fantasy, These Deathless Shores, is a haunting modern spin on Peter Pan.
Review by

Jared Pechacek’s The West Passage is a medieval(ish) fantasy novel awash in dualities. It’s richly detailed, but often lonely and stark. It’s whimsical, bordering on silly, before turning grotesque and haunting. It speeds up without warning, then slows down to closely examine some new oddity. The West Passage is consistently wondrous; the reader turns each page knowing they will encounter something wholly new.

Five towers rise from a massive palace, each one home to an ancient Lady. These giant beings, full of mysterious power, rule over the people who live there like beekeepers tending a hive. But not in Grey Tower, where the last Lady has long since died. All that remains are the women of Grey Tower, left to tend to a decaying fortress and observe their rituals even as their numbers dwindle. When the guardian of Grey Tower dies, two young apprentices’ journeys begin. Pell, the women’s apprentice, searches to find out why winter covers Grey Tower even in spring. Meanwhile, the guardian’s apprentice, Kew, must relay his mistress’ final, ominous message to Black Tower: The Beast, an eternal evil, stirs in the West Passage. If the Beast returns, the palace’s very existence will be in jeopardy. Can these two youths find the answers and save their world before the cataclysm?

The setting of The West Passage is as much a character as Pell and Kew. Following in the footsteps of Lewis Carroll, Pechacek has built a universe unique in modern fantasy. Solemnity and absurdity abound in equal measure: Bodies are given to the birds rather than being buried, and an eccentric schoolteacher tries to teach apes how to read and write. Strange things, lovely things and horrific things all blend together in a fable-like narrative of deceptive simplicity. It’s exciting to get lost in a world like this and be surprised and unsettled again and again. The West Passage deserves a chance to spellbind you: Dive headfirst into the rabbit hole.

Jared Pechacek’s The West Passage is consistently wondrous; in this experimental fantasy, the reader turns each page knowing they will encounter something wholly new.
Review by

As teens, best friends Jeremy Cox and Rafe Howell disappeared into a stretch of West Virginia wilderness known as Red Crow. They reappeared six months later, perfectly healthy and fit save for a series of scars on Rafe’s back. Fifteen years later, the two men are estranged. Rafe is an artistic recluse with no memory of their time away, and Jeremy is a preternaturally gifted missing persons investigator. Rafe knows that Jeremy remembers the truth of what happened, but Jeremy has long refused to reveal a single detail. When a young woman named Emilie Wendell tasks Jeremy with finding her birth sister—who coincidentally also disappeared in Red Crow—Jeremy knows that he’ll need Rafe’s help to find her.

Meg Shaffer’s The Lost Story is a gorgeously wrought tale of yearning, grief and hope. Taking heavy inspiration from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Shaffer imagines what life would be like after a magical world changes you forever and then sends you home. Would you be Rafe, whose subconscious wants so desperately to return that he tries to drive to Red Crow in his sleep? Or Jeremy, who can remember every moment, but clearly has very strong reasons for not sharing them with Rafe? Or would you be the one left behind, who never knew what happened to your loved ones and could only hope that one day they’d return? The Lost Story gives us a window into all of these perspectives, depicting each with compassion without sacrificing a whit of drama. Layered atop it all, a delicious smattering of meta-narrative keeps the story feeling less like a tragedy and more like the warmhearted fairy tale that it is, reminding us that there is likely a happy ending (at least of sorts) waiting for us at the end of it all.

A spiritual epilogue to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Meg Shaffer’s The Lost Story explores what happens after you return from a magical realm.
Review by

Hellevir can raise the dead, but Death demands a price. The gatekeeper of the afterlife makes demands of the rural herbalist for each life she reclaims, wanting a small part of Hellevir’s body as payment.

After Hellevir saves her mother from Death’s embrace, word of her ability spreads. When Princess Sullivain is assassinated, the queen demands Hellevir save the princess’ life—and once revivified, Sullivain demands Hellevir stay by her side. With Hellevir’s family under threat from the Crown if she does not comply, she is forced into the middle of court machinations and must try to find her freedom without literally carving away too much of herself. As assassins continue to come for Sullivain and as Death sets riddles for Hellevir to solve, she’ll have to trust her instincts and abilities before civil war crumbles the kingdom and destroys all the people she holds dear.

Fans of dark fairy tales and political schemes will find much to love in Marianne Gordon’s debut fantasy novel, The Gilded Crown. The only place that dwarfs Gordon’s fully realized main setting of Rochidain, a city where multiple faiths are at odds with one another, is Death’s realm, with its mirrored sky and enigmatic gatekeeper. The whole cast of characters is well-developed and compelling. Rather than foolish, Hellevir’s naiveté concerning city life and her staunch beliefs in the importance of all lives—from small ravens and cats to the princess herself—is endearing and unusually optimistic. Sullivain’s determination to do what is best for her city, despite her guilt over killing innocents to keep the peace, makes her a fascinating foil to Hellevir. Other standouts include Hellevir’s religious mother, Hellevir’s brother and the knight he loves and, of course, Death himself. 

While clearly first in a planned duology, the book’s conclusion will still satisfy readers who prefer standalones. But The Gilded Crown skimps on its romance. Sullivain and Hellevir are soulbound by Hellevir’s multiple resurrections of the princess and supposedly develop feelings for each other in their brief interactions. But the two women do not ultimately spend much time together, which makes Hellevir’s growing obsession with Sullivain at the cost of her family seem a bit unearned. Nevertheless, readers who adored Hannah Whitten’s The Foxglove King and Hannah Kaner’s Godkiller will find The Gilded Crown a lyrical, fantastical addition to their shelves.

Fans of dark fairy tales will find much to love in Marianne Gordon’s The Gilded Crown, which follows a young woman tasked with repeatedly resurrecting a princess.
Review by

Trains are, for whatever reason, surprisingly common in contemporary genre fiction. Perhaps it is their predictability, with their reliance on firmly laid tracks and regular timetables representing an imposition of order on a chaotic world. But rarely is this made so explicit as in Sarah Brooks’ The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands, where a train is the last bastion of civilization in the region that was once Sibera, which has now become a chthonic cauldron of mutated flora and fauna, all of it hostile to humankind.

Brooks never explains why, exactly, Siberia transformed into the riotous Wasteland. She simply asserts that it has, that it is enclosed by a wall and that only one entity dares cross it: the Company, via its Trans-Siberian Express. On its last voyage, there was an accident that resulted in the deaths of three people. The Company, being a sinister avatar of faceless, capitalistic inhumanity, is dedicated to preserving the secrecy around these events, while Marya Petrovna, daughter of the glassmaker who was blamed for the accident, has dedicated herself to piercing that veil. However, none of the train’s crew or its most frequent passengers seem to remember what happened, from its captain and first engineer, Alexei, on down to a bookish professor and the enigmatic Zhang Weiwei, who has spent her entire life on the train.

Part of me felt like I had read this book before, or perhaps seen it on film. The obvious comparison is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but I found more commonalities with classic sci-fi like Asimov’s Foundation and Earth and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, mixed with Borges’ more animistic magic and a few dashes of Agatha Christie for good measure. The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands reads more like magical realism than fantasy, forcing the reader to inhabit the same inexplicable universe as the characters themselves. Brooks’ concise prose prioritizes clarity over decoration, and is suffused with casual slang and inside jokes. This steampunk fairy tale may be largely populated with archetypes and borrowed tropes, but Brooks has still made it compelling and novel. Her train through perdition is a worthy addition to the pantheon.

The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands is a compelling steampunk fairy tale that follows a train journey through the dangerous place that was once Siberia.
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Arthur is dead and the Round Table lies shattered in The Bright Sword by Lev Grossman, author of the bestselling Magicians trilogy. The story begins with Collum of the Isle of Mull, a character who does not appear in Arthurian legend, embroiled in a duel with an unnamed knight. The knight spits uncouth insults about Collum’s mother, and at the end of their brawl, Collum makes his first (extremely messy) kill of the book. This resolution to a duel outlines how most plot points are resolved in The Bright Sword: Someone inevitably dies, and no one is happy.

Once Collum gets to Camelot, none of the remaining knights are particularly happy either. After a few chapters about Collum, a new knight of the Round Table is introduced, and, as if remembering the reader may not know anything about this person, Grossman suspends the main story to relate how the knight arrived at Camelot. These consistently shifting perspectives, combined with an extremely loose approach to time and distance, creates a dreamlike vibe, suggestive of a story told around a campfire by a narrator who keeps getting distracted. Those with little patience will likely find The Bright Sword frustrating, but readers willing to savor the book over many nights will find each chapter a neatly arranged, miniature adventure of its own.

Traditionally minimal side characters in the story of Arthur—like Sir Bedivere, Sir Palomides and even Dagonet the Fool—receive intricate, deep backstories that erase the mythological buildup around each figure, viewing them instead in a far more human and often more modern light. In many older tales, Palomides is a Middle Eastern stereotype, used entirely as a foil to elevate Sir Tristan’s status as an honorable and just knight. But in Grossman’s story, Palomides is a prince and explorer who is wildly misunderstood by his knightly peers, with his own journey of self-discovery and growth.

At once full of desperate hope and grievous loss, The Bright Sword is a moody reflection on Arthur’s tale. This saga is not marked by optimism, but instead a dignified cynicism. Collum and his endearing band of Round Table Rejects (album out soon) simply live and persevere, knowing that if they do not try to bring peace to the now-fractured Britain, no one else will.

At once full of desperate hope and grievous loss, Lev Grossman’s The Bright Sword is a moody reflection on the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table.

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