STARRED REVIEW

November 9, 2022

12 fantasy romances you have to read

Escape into magical worlds full of love and adventure.

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A cursed soldier and a bastard prince get a second chance at love amid a world on the brink of disaster in this barbarian fantasy romance. Author Milla Vane continues her Gathering of Dragons series in A Touch of Stone and Snow, which begins as the western realms prepare for war.

Lizzan has been twice shunned. First, she opted to become a soldier instead of a healer, a choice that was a grave disappointment to her family. Then she became the only survivor of a massacre, though no one quite believes her story of being ambushed by wraiths. Her scarred visage marks her as cursed, exiled from her home and avoided by any who dare to look at her. She’s since become a dangerous mercenary. But she is determined to clear her name, even if that means appealing to the goddess Vela. Her task seems simple: complete a quest and bask in glory. Sadly, the quest involves her childhood friend and former lover, who is a painful reminder of all she’s lost: Prince Aerax.

Aerax never thought he would ascend to the throne, given that he is an illegitimate heir. But after the entire Koth line is murdered, he is the only person with a drop of royal blood left to rule. When he and Lizzan are finally brought back together, Aerax is determined to right his wrongs. Lizzan isn’t getting away a second time.

Like its predecessor, A Heart of Blood and Ashes, A Touch of Stone and Snow is a grand and sweeping fantasy romance, an absorbing and story-rich tome of warring kingdoms and dangerous dragons. Expect a slow burn here, as Vane takes her time with the details of the world and its inhabitants.

Lizzan is the ultimate warrior woman, which is a nice departure from the typical scarred soldier hero. A force to be reckoned with in work and play, she broadens the definition of a romance heroine. However, Lizzan and Aerax are not quite a full role reversal from typical hero and heroine archetypes, as Aerax is just fearsome in his own right. While Aerax has always loved and valued Lizzan, and he has many qualities that make him a wonderful complement to her, the most important part of his characterization for this reader is that he’s a cat owner. And not just any cat owner. This hero has a snowy version of a saber-toothed tiger. There are undoubtedly several other readers out there who will join me in leading the charge for more cats in romance novels.

A quick read, this is not; Vane’s work is immersive in every aspect. There’s a grand quest to triumph over evil, Lizzan’s drive to finally gain the acceptance that’s been wrongfully taken from her, a bittersweet romance between two warriors steeped in grief—oh, and a giant snow cat.

A Touch of Stone and Snow is a grand and sweeping fantasy romance, an absorbing and story-rich tome of warring kingdoms and dangerous dragons.

Kerrelyn Sparks is back with a fourth book set in the magical world of Aerthlan, home to magical heroes and heroines, dragons, witches and elves. Two moons inhibit Aerthlan’s night sky, and it’s said that any child born on an eclipse when the moons overlap becomes one of the Embraced and is gifted with magical powers. How to Love Your Elf is a light-hearted launch to a new Aerthlan series, Embraced by Moonlight.

Sorcha, one of the Embraced, is a princess of a country at war with its elven neighbors. Brave, adventurous and loyal, Sorcha refuses to stand by when her loved ones are in danger—which is how she finds herself deceived, captured and imprisoned by their enemies. But the mysterious Woodsman, impressed with Sorcha’s spirit, comes to her rescue.

The Woodsman is a throwback to classic characters like Robin Hood and the heroic woodsman in “Red Riding Hood.” He’s enigmatic, brave and strong, and has sex appeal out the wazoo. He’s working on behalf of a sect of elves who want peace between the kingdoms, and he’s got a substantial secret of his own to keep. But until the political subterfuge can play out, the Woodsman remains an elusive presence in Sorcha’s life.

How to Love Your Elf is an inspiringly positive fantasy romance. Aerthlan is inhabited by all kinds of paranormal and magical beings that have their own histories, goals and expectations, yet when cooler heads prevail and diplomacy and a yearning for understanding enter the picture, the world is a happier place. Because, what if? What if I talk to and befriend this being that looks and speaks differently from me? What if I open my heart to the possibility of love and a happy ever after with this individual? What if we laid down arms and forged a peaceful path?

The romance is less prominent in this novel than the preceding three Aerthlan books, but the sweeping adventure and the potential for Sorcha and the Woodsman’s future relationship make How to Love Your Elf a promising start to Sparks’ new series.

Kerrelyn Sparks is back with her book set in the magical world of Aerthlan. How to Love Your Elf is a fun, light-hearted addition to this series of magical heroes and heroines, dragons, witches and the aforementioned elves.

Dame Grace Hensley, the newly appointed Chancellor of the island nation of Aeland, doesn’t quite match her name—she’s impulsive, vibrantly passionate, physically capable to the extreme and willing to risk everything to protect those she loves. Author C.L. Polk takes Grace on a rollercoaster of a journey through a fantastical dystopia that nonetheless feels organic, genuine and believable in Stormsong, the sequel to their acclaimed debut, Witchmark.

Polk’s accessible, elegant writing makes it possible for readers new to the series to jump in and immerse themselves in their magical vision of an alternate Edwardian England, which incorporates concepts that are no stranger to the contemporary reader. Stormsong’s multi-layered plot includes an overarching war between classes and races, including the subjugated and unfortunate witches of Aeland, who possess otherworldly mystical powers, but are discriminated against because of fear, hate and disgust.

Stormsong is also full to the cauldron’s brim with dark family secrets and complicated dynamics. Grace’s brother, Miles, is a witch and advocates for their cause, while her murderous, imprisoned father whispers plans and lies to those in power. Prince Severin of Aeland seems to be a trustworthy ally, but still harbors some shady habits and keeps strange company. And most fascinatingly, Grace continues to cross paths with fervid reporter and former heiress Avia Jessup, with whom she is utterly entranced. Grace must figure out whom she can trust and whom she must abandon in her mission to preserve order as a massive winter storm approaches and Aeland teeters on the edge of revolution.

Readers will grow increasingly anxious as Grace’s world slips into war, genocide and corruption, but her budding romance with Avia adds warmth to this otherwise chilling tale of deceit and dishonesty.

Dame Grace Hensley, the newly appointed Chancellor of the island nation of Aeland, doesn’t quite match her name—she’s impulsive, vibrantly passionate, physically capable to the extreme and willing to risk everything she knows to protect those she loves in the most turbulent of times.

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As fans of “Downton Abbey” can attest, there will always be an appetite for stories of family drama and forbidden love set in the bucolic, modestly glittering England that was. Cue Witchmark by C.L. Polk, a startlingly beautiful fantasy debut that is both magical conspiracy thriller and supernatural love story. But Polk weaponizes their quasi-Edwardian setting: An ornate family home’s staid beauty hides horrifying abuse. A bicycle chase through quaint, narrow city streets is the opening salvo in a battle that will become increasingly macabre. There is something wrong with this world at its core, and all its beauty and decorum serve only as distraction, camouflage or lure for the Anglophilic reader.

After a vicious, victorious campaign to conquer the country of Laneer, soldiers are returning home to Aeland, a small yet powerful island nation and Polk’s alternate vision of England. The mild weather enjoyed by the country’s inhabitants is secretly the work of a hundred mages called Storm-Singers, who together cast elaborate spells to control the weather. The Storm-Singers come from an upper class that calls itself the Invisibles, since they hide their powers from the rest of the country. Not every member of this elite, however, has weather-related abilities. The ones who don’t, no matter the utility of their powers, are bound to the more powerful Storm-Singers, and essentially used as human batteries.

Dr. Miles Singer escaped such a fate by running away from his family and joining the army, secretly using his healing powers to help wounded and traumatized soldiers. But when he discovers a mysterious mental ailment is infecting veterans, and possibly causing them to commit violent acts, he must balance his own self-preservation against the deadly consequences of staying silent. It’s not hard to draw parallels between this tension and Miles’ identity as a gay man, which he must also hide, and Polk depicts his calculations with heartbreaking restraint. Miles doesn’t have the time or space to truly feel how unjust his situation is, which only drives home to the reader how unfairly constrained his existence has become.

Polk’s reticence serves them well in Witchmark’s central love story, which adds another layer of supernatural intrigue. When a handsome, unfailingly kind man named Tristan Hunter starts asking the same questions about the returning veterans, Miles doesn’t know what to make of him. He’s too open to be an agent of Miles’ powerful family, and too seemingly naïve to be a fellow fugitive Invisible. The reason Tristan gives Miles for his lack of knowledge initially sounds insane—he’s not a human being, and he’s not from this world at all. But Polk’s prose is never more beautiful or soothing when describing Tristan and his surroundings, reaching du Maurier-esque gauzy ease, and soon the reader is convinced as well as Miles that the mysterious man is something otherworldly.

The attraction between the two of them unfolds haltingly, a port of calm established over cups of tea and excellent meals, as their investigation reaches further and further into the dark imperialist heart of Aeland. But it is a center that will not hold, and both know that. The increasing darkness of Witchmark is beautifully modulated by Polk, who slowly dims the initial vibrancy of their book, funneling the reader closer to a chilling, utterly fantastic final reveal.

As fans of “Downton Abbey” can attest, there will always be an appetite for stories of family drama and forbidden love set in the bucolic, modestly glittering England that was. Cue Witchmark by C.L. Polk, a startlingly beautiful fantasy debut that is both magical conspiracy thriller and supernatural love story.

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