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Miliani, Inez, Natalie and Jasmine are best friends bound by magic and love. When Jasmine is killed by a drunk driver, everything the four girls once shared is shattered. Mili, Inez and Nat try to support one another in the wake of the tragedy while also dealing with illness, addiction and the threat of deportation within their own families. But Mili, the last of the girls to see Jas alive, isn’t content to merely mourn. Drawing on the magical traditions of her Filipino heritage, she convinces her friends that they can bring Jas (or at least a version of her) back from the dead. Though Inez and Nat hesitate, they are spurred onward by Mili’s insistence that their efforts can succeed.

Soon, the girls are attending seances at Mili’s mysterious Aunt Lindy’s house, performing rituals of their own and testing the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead. But magic always comes with a price, and as the trio descend deeper into spellwork, they uncover terrifying secrets about one another and their families that endanger the plan to resurrect Jas—and could break apart their lives completely. Can the three friends perform the final ritual before everything crashes down around them?

Riss M. Neilson’s ambitious debut novel, Deep in Providence, is a dense, meticulously plotted story. It sits at a curious crossroads, functioning both as a contemporary YA novel about grief and a fantasy rooted in magical practices from Filipino and Jamaican cultures. Remove the novel’s magic and you’d have an emotional yet often-told tale. But by incorporating elements of fantasy, a genre historically predisposed to whiteness and straightness, Deep in Providence becomes a boundary-pushing addition to the canon of teen witches.

Alternating between Mili’s, Inez’s and Nat’s perspectives enables Neilson to create a multifaceted portrait of their close-knit friend group, in which private hurts and joys are refracted and magnified by the girls’ constant proximity. The book’s magic system serves as a metaphor that provides an added layer to the book’s exploration of loss. As the girls’ desperation grows, so too do their powers—and what the trio is willing to do with them. Neilson doesn’t shy away from emotional intensity: The girls’ grief isn’t pretty or palatable, and the spirits answer in full force.

At almost 500 pages, Deep in Providence suffers a bit from too much table setting. Early chapters focus on the girls’ backgrounds without much rising tension, and not all readers will be hooked by the slow start. But once magic enters the scene, the story deepens and widens, eventually arriving at a satisfying emotional climax and denouement.

Deep in Providence is a beautiful, haunting novel about letting go and finding peace for yourself and for those who are gone.

Three girls set out to raise their friend from the dead in Riss M. Neilson’s ambitious, haunting and boundary-pushing addition to the canon of teen witches.

The Nile’s mythic reputation as the longest river in Africa, and arguably the world, once inspired generations of European explorers to seek its source—and exploit Africa’s vast resources in the process. Now, thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces. In River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, 19th-century explorers’ egos loom godlike over expeditions, their abused local guides save lives and prompt discoveries, and the second largest continent on Earth finally gets mapped.

Millard, the prize-winning author of Hero of the Empire, among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable. Richard Burton, “an army of savants in a single man,” was chosen by the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 to head the expedition to locate the source of the Nile—“one of the most complex and demanding expeditions ever attempted.” But he soon ran afoul of his quirky colleague, John Hanning Speke, and barely survived their quest. It was Speke who earned the discoverer’s fame and glory, though his character flaws (paranoia and narcissism among them) marred his reputation and may have cost him his life. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the previously enslaved man who guided the expedition and repeatedly saved them from treachery, disease, injury and themselves, didn’t immediately receive recognition for being integral to their success. Burton’s wife, Isabel Arrundell, was a fervent Catholic who defied her mother to marry Burton, a proclaimed agnostic who proposed by dropping off a note on his way to Africa.

Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.

In River of the Gods, a mythic and unforgettable history of the Nile, European explorers’ egos may loom godlike but East African guides save lives.

This is what River McIntyre knows about who they are: They are a competitive swimmer. They were born and raised in Haley, Ohio, a town infamous for its failing marine park, SeaPlanet, and they feel a bitter kinship with the park’s captive-raised creatures. They have two parents and an older brother, and they’re Lebanese on their mom’s side. These are the facts River knows for certain.

River begins to realize that everything else is a lot more complicated after a run-in at SeaPlanet with Indigo Waits, an out and proud teenager from River’s past. Seeing Indy forces River to admit that they’ve been drowning under the tide of gender dysphoria and internalized homophobia for far too long. In the absence of the words to process their feelings, however, River jumps into SeaPlanet’s shark tank and sets off a chain of events that will forever link Indy’s and River’s lives.

In Man o’ War, author Cory McCarthy engages with every aspect of River’s life to create an extraordinary story with incredible depth. River’s experiences as a competitive swimmer enable McCarthy to explore the complex relationships that trans athletes have with their bodies, while River’s Arab American heritage raises discussions about biracial identity and passing in a world that’s prejudiced in favor of white, cisgender people.

McCarthy’s prose is suffused with emotion and often employs SeaPlanet’s sharks, orcas, Portuguese man-of-wars and other creatures as beautiful metaphors for River’s feelings. The jagged edges of dysphoria, the suffocating pressure of familial expectations and the all-encompassing need for love bleed through River’s internal monologue with biting clarity.

The novel’s exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process. River’s journey of self-discovery takes years, and Man o’ War follows them through high school and college. They try on different labels, experience both acceptance and rejection from their queer peers and navigate the joys and trials of medical transition. Along the way, McCarthy’s story provides space for every uncertain step, portraying River’s attempts to untangle the snarl of confusion and self-loathing inside themself with empathy and patience.

In Man o’ War, McCarthy validates how finding your name, accepting your name and telling others your name can all be separate, unique battles. Despite the pain those battles sometimes bring, River’s transition is driven by an irrepressible hope—a hope that will assure readers their true happiness is always worth the fight.

River's plunge into the shark tank at SeaPlanet sets off a journey of self-discovery and transition driven by an irrepressible hope for true happiness.

As This Time Tomorrow opens, Alice Stern is about to turn 40, and her life is mostly fine—not great, but fine. She works in the admissions office of the private school she once attended, she has a boyfriend and a handful of good friends, and she’s content to live alone in her basement studio in Brooklyn. But one aspect that’s not fine is Alice’s dad, Leonard, who’s dying. Leonard is essentially Alice’s only family, and she spends all of her free time visiting the unconscious Leonard in the hospital.

Late on the night of Alice’s birthday, something mysterious happens, and when she wakes the next morning, she’s 16 years old and in her childhood home. With the help of her longtime best friend, Sam, who was with Alice on her original 16th birthday, Alice begins to puzzle out her new reality.

What follows is a time-travel story that blends aspects of other time-travel and time-loop stories, such as the movies Peggy Sue Got Married and Groundhog Day, which Alice references as she unravels her own mystery. The novel lays the groundwork for its more fantastical elements by situating Alice in a storybook setting: She grew up in a small house on Pomander Walk, a tiny hidden neighborhood of Tudor-style houses on New York City’s Upper West Side. When Alice was little, Leonard wrote a time-travel novel, Time Brothers, a mega-bestseller that spawned a much-loved TV series. He never published another book, but instead devoted himself to caring for Alice and attending fan conventions, where he and his writer friends debated fictional time travel.

While This Time Tomorrow is propelled by Alice’s quest to figure out what happened and learn what she can about her dad’s illness, it’s also a dual coming-of-age story. The novel’s more meditative passages convey Alice’s midlife regrets, her loneliness at being left behind by the friends who’ve married and had children, her yearning for something beyond the life she’s made and her grief and love for her dying dad.

Like Alice, author Emma Straub is a New York City native whose father is a well-known novelist. With wonderful place details, This Time Tomorrow evokes the Upper West Side of the 1990s and offers some sly observations on class, especially the subtle gradations between New York’s merely privileged and its ultra-privileged. Alice’s high school scenes are sprinkled with ’90s music and pop culture references, which will be especially enjoyable for millennial readers.

This Time Tomorrow’s many references to other time-travel stories occasionally stray into metafictional territory, but ultimately it’s a story with a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Emma Straub’s time-travel novel has a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Post-World War II London was a grim place, despite the Brits’ nominal victory: The skies seemed forever gray, rationing made life difficult, and rubble from the London Blitz needed to be cleared away. Still, some things persevered, like the monarchy and even quirky little bookstores. One such bookshop is the setting for Natalie Jenner’s captivating second novel, Bloomsbury Girls.

Something else that survived the war was unrepentant male chauvinism. It’s in just about every move made by Herbert Dutton, general manager of the century-old Bloomsbury Books. It is the reason Evie Stone is working at Bloomsbury Books instead of at Cambridge University, despite being one of the first women to earn a degree from that institution. It’s why Grace Perkins, Herbert’s secretary, has to rush home to make tea for her lousy layabout of a husband, and it’s what’s driving Vivien Lowry, who works in the store’s fiction department, out of her mind with rage.

Fortunately, the bookstore owner is a genuinely kind man despite his lofty status as an earl, and the head of the store’s science and naturalism department, Ash Ramaswamy, has a gentle demeanor as well. However, Ash is from India, so his mildness might be a defense mechanism against English racism, which is just as bad as English sexism. Ash and Evie strike up a sweet relationship, but in this world, men make the decisions, and women, as Evie says, “abide ’em.”

Until they don’t.

Jenner boldly mixes real history with her fictional creations, and readers who enjoy the “nonfiction novel” genre will find pleasure in parsing facts from embellishments. In particular, Evie’s great passion for cataloging books leads her to the rediscovery of one of the rarest books in the world, a science fiction novel titled The Mummy! This real-life prescient work was published in 1827 by 17-year-old Jane Webb, who went on to write more anodyne books on gardening. The Mummy! might be the way out for the downtrodden women of Bloomsbury Books. It might even be a vehicle for revenge.

Jenner, the bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, draws readers into her tale with a genial, matter-of-fact style that’s exactly what’s expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore. Each chapter begins with one of Herbert’s many ridiculous rules, most of which are broken over the course of the book. But Bloomsbury Girls’ surface coziness puts the tumult of its characters in relief, giving the novel unexpected depth and complexity.

Natalie Jenner's captivating Bloomsbury Girls has a genial, matter-of-fact style that's exactly what's expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore.

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.

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