Our 10 favorite historical fantasies

After 15 glorious years exploring the 12th-century Indian Ocean with her tightknit crew—acquiring precious jewels and artifacts, prevailing in all manner of violent encounters and reveling in the wildness of life on the sea—pirate captain Amina al-Sirafi grounded herself. Why, after all her legendary adventures, would she leave behind her beloved Marawati and abandon the great wide ocean? Because she gave birth to her daughter, Marjana, whom she wants to protect from the sorts of people she used to live among—the sort of person she used to be herself. 

But as Shannon Chakraborty’s historical fantasy The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi begins, the past calls to Amina in the form of an irresistible job offer from the wealthy and imperious mother of Amina’s former crewmate Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can rescue the girl, she will receive a million dinars, a life-changing sum that could buy the security and privacy she craves. “It was tempting,” Amina thinks. “It was tantalizing. It was me. For I have always had a gambler’s soul . . .” 

Shannon Chakraborty sets sail for a new horizon.

Desire and ambition prevail over misgivings, and Amina returns to the sea after 10 years in hiding, convincing her former crew to join her once again. They encounter people, creatures and secrets that inspire fascination right along with terror and doubt. After all, everyone is older, wiser and burdened by regrets about roads (well, sea routes) not taken. But they’re also thrilled to be together again, and Chakraborty creates a rousing and inspiring portrait of the beautiful alchemy that results when a group of people fit perfectly together, challenging and supporting one another in invaluable and often hilarious ways.

As in Chakraborty’s internationally bestselling Daevabad trilogy, magic and dark forces and bizarre beings pop up in the pages of The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, the first volume in a new trilogy. Impressively researched history underpins it all, offering fascinating context and realism that elevate this swashbuckling, adventurous tale of a fantastical heist as it explores parenthood, faith, ambition, friendship and the enduring allure of forging a legacy.

Shannon Chakraborty’s follow-up to her bestselling Daevabad trilogy is a swashbuckling high seas quest that’s rousing, profound and irresistible.
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Despite being a book about augurs and warlocks, angels and demons, C.L. Polk’s stylish magical noir Even Though I Knew the End is distinctly and heartbreakingly human.

It’s the late 1930s in grimy Chicago. Helen Brandt, a brilliant wizard who was exiled by her order and now works as a detective, has a terrible secret: She offered her soul to a demon to save her family from a car crash. Her part of the bargain is due on Jan. 13, 1941—Helen’s last day on Earth.

After taking photographs of the crime scene of a horrific murder that she’s investigating, Helen brings her evidence to Marlowe, an underworld crime boss and bona fide femme fatale. Marlowe confirmes what Helen already suspects: The murder is the work of the White City Vampire, the most dangerous villian in the city. Marlowe wants Helen to find the vampire and is willing to pay handsomely. The prize? “A thousand dollars cash . . . and your soul.” As it turns out, Marlowe is a demon, and this job can give Helen the thing she thought she’d never have: salvation and a chance to live a full life with her lover, Edith.

Even Though I Knew the End rockets along from the very first page, and Polk’s ability to enrich the story while upping the pace is impressive. Their alternate Chicago reveals itself efficiently, each detail woven into the narrative exactly when it’s required. A sense of mystery and discovery is ever present, which is quite fitting for a detective story.

Fans of John Constantine, the occult PI of DC comic books and film fame, will find a lot to like in Polk’s fantastically rendered depiction of a celestial war. With corrupt motivations on both sides, it’s often unclear which is more dangerous. Mortals aren’t defenseless, especially if they can wield magic (enchanted bullets make more than one appearance), but there’s still a constant sense of danger, and humans often end up as collateral damage.

Despite the aforementioned fantastical elements, Even Though I Knew the End is, at its heart, a love story. Helen and Edith’s tender relationship is immediately compelling, and, as befits a noir, Edith’s importance to the story grows as Helen’s investigation deepens. Helen’s past choices weigh heavily upon her, and we see how tightly she clings to Edith, especially in the gripping final chapters. To be without her would be hell on Earth, Helen thinks. But Even Though I Knew the End ultimately poses a torturous question: Is the price ever too high to be with the one you love?

Even Though I Knew the End is a stylish magical noir with a heartbreakingly human love story at the center.
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With its hundreds of spires and stone facades, Oxford University looks like a cathedral of knowledge, unassailable and ancient. What dangerous texts might its highest towers and deepest libraries contain? R.F. Kuang’s Babel perfectly employs Oxford as a backdrop for the story of a group of eager students in the middle of a magical war. A standalone fantasy that takes its cues from The Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Babel is a methodical, unforgiving examination of the cost of power and the pain of achieving it.

When the family of a young boy named Robin Swift dies of cholera, a stern English professor takes him away from China. He arrives in an alternate Oxford, England, in 1828 and is thrust into lessons in language so that he might one day join the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. Throughout his years of study, Robin hopes to eventually attain the highest knowledge Babel offers: the mysteries of silver-working, a magical process that has helped the British Empire maintain its worldwide dominance for decades. Sensitive to the injustices wrought by Babel and silver-working, Robin joins the Hermes Society, a secret organization that steals silver and sabotages the expansion of British power from within. Are Robin and his fellow members revolutionaries? Or are they doomed to be powerless witnesses to the march of empire?

Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy is one of the most acclaimed fantasy series of the last few years. A finalist for the Nebula and Locus awards, the series was vicious and engrossing, dark and thoughtful; I personally couldn’t put it down. Babel feels different from her first trilogy, but this is undoubtedly a Kuang novel. There’s a sense of inevitability in her work, each book moving toward a climactic breaking point. 

This carefully built momentum results in an addicting read. Kuang takes her time ramping things up, focusing for the first half of Babel on Robin’s assimilation into school and broader English culture, finding friends and growing up. Kuang nails the ups and downs of being young with precision. It’s nearly impossible not to compare Babel to Harry Potter, but Kuang’s magical teens feel more grown-up, more layered than J.K. Rowling’s well-known trio. Their banter, camaraderie and angst consistently satisfy as anger and loss harden them, and as they eventually realize the horrible truths they couldn’t grasp as young students.

Kuang, who is completing her Ph.D. in East Asian languages and literature, has gone to incredible lengths to wrap the history and evolution of language into silver-working, which is an impressively unique magic system. The Bablers, as students in the Institute of Translation are called, uncover meanings lost in translation and historical connections between words and then etch them into silver bars. If the words have a strong connection, magic happens. It’s a wonderful way for Kuang to incorporate a topic she clearly loves and deeply understands.

Ultimately, Babel asks a pointed question: What is the price of power? The novel’s full title is Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, which both gives the book a sense of realism and hints at Kuang’s ultimate answer. British colonialism perpetrated destruction on every civilization it encountered. Babel provides a long overdue reckoning, cast in silver and doused in blood.

Babel, R.F. Kuang's standalone follow-up to her acclaimed Poppy War trilogy, is an unforgiving examination of the cost of power.

In Francesca May’s stunning, gorgeously composed fantasy debut, Wild and Wicked Things, a dissipated coven of witches and a meek young woman become unexpected allies.

Annie Mason has led a quiet and ordinary life. When her estranged father dies shortly after the end of World War I, she reluctantly travels to Crow Island to take care of his estate. The island also happens to be the very place her former best friend, Bea, resides in a fancy house on the sea with her new husband. Crow Island is famous across the land for its faux magic parlors and fake spells and potions, but Annie soon learns that its inhabitants also practice true, darker-than-imagined magic. When she rents a summer cottage next to the infamous Cross House, where a coven throws lavish parties that feature Prohibited magic, Annie is given an opportunity to find a place—and maybe a person—that actually feels like home.

May seamlessly transports readers to the shores of Crow Island, straight into the shoes of Annie and de facto coven leader Emmeline Delacroix. Annie is whisked away by the island’s enchantment, and May’s prose echoes F. Scott Fitzgerald to capture the finery and wild parties of the era. And while Annie originally thinks she’s being bewitched by the coven’s magic or the island, she comes to realize that she is simply following her innermost desires. The supposedly cursed island gives her time and space to come to terms with grief over lost loved ones and her internalized shunning of her sapphic sexuality. Emmeline’s inexplicable and undeniable magnetism is a clever plot complication but also the perfect setup for a passionate, slow-burning queer romance that feels forged in destiny.

Under all the glamour, Wild and Wicked Things is also a nuanced exploration of intergenerational trauma and abusive relationships. Emmeline hovers over her adoptive siblings, Isobel and Nathan, even though their abusive guardian, coven founder Cilla, is long gone. Annie finds herself in a similar situation as she tries to shield Bea from a marriage gone wrong, and she and Emmeline bond over their roles as protectors and healers. But nothing is truly black and white, from the witches’ backstories and intentions, to Bea’s desires, to Annie’s past. May does not shy away from the macabre, and every twist is better and eerier than the last.

May’s thrilling fantasy takes familiar tropes, mashes them with a mortar and pestle, sprinkles them with a bit of herbs and throws them into the cauldron, creating a fresh and exciting take on witchy historical fantasy.

Wild and Wicked Things is a stunning, gorgeously composed historical fantasy with a compelling queer romance at its heart.
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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.

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Adapting classic works of literature is always challenging, not least because the adapting author must decide how much novelty is appropriate. Too much and fans will shun it out of pique; too little and they’ll shun it out of disinterest. This dilemma is only heightened when the book in question is as widely read as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And yet, in The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo perfectly strikes that balance of the new and the familiar.

Retold from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, amateur golfer Jordan Baker—here recharacterized as a wealthy Louisville missionary family’s adopted Vietnamese daughter—the familiar contours of Fitzgerald’s tragedy are warped with a hazy dash of demonic and earthly magic. The result is an utterly captivating series of speakeasies, back-seat trysts, parties both grand and intimate and romances both magical and mundane, all spiraling through a miasma of Prohibition-era jingoism and entitlement toward its inevitably tragic conclusion.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Summer reading 2021: 9 books to soak in this season

Vo is a remarkable writer whose talent for reviving Fitzgerald’s style of prose is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke channeling Jane Austen in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But it is Vo’s additions to Gatsby’s original plot that truly shine. By foregrounding Jordan’s and Daisy’s perspectives rather than Nick’s, she recasts a story about the consequences of male overreach as one about the limitations of female and non-white agency. This is further complicated by Jordan’s inability to remember anything of her childhood in Vietnam before she was brought to Kentucky. She sees herself as American, the daughter of the Louisville Bakers, but neither her white peers nor the Vietnamese immigrants she meets agree with her. 

For both Jordan and Daisy, magic can offer some surcease, but only to a point. In the first scene of the book, for instance, when the two women go flying through Daisy’s house with a magic charm, they must return demurely to the couch when Daisy’s husband comes home. Throughout the book, the women’s choices are constrained by those of the men surrounding them. Even magic, whether a charm, an enchantment or a potion (which are always consumed as cocktails), can only win them a brief reprieve from the decisions others make for and about them.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Nghi Vo on the dangers of Hemingway.

In this alternate America, the fear of demons is consistently paralleled with the fear of immigrants. Magic is unavoidable in Vo’s West and East Egg, but although it may be consumed by those at the center of American society, it emanates from those at its periphery. To its consumers and connoisseurs, it is valuable precisely because it is foreign, while those who create and practice it are ostracized and hated for precisely the same reason. The fetishization of earthbound magics is reminiscent of the real-world fascination with traditions like folk medicine, and even demoniac, the psychotropic beverage derived from demon’s blood that several characters drink, could represent any number of exoticized vices prized by the American wealthy. There are lessons here for those of us living in the mundane reality of the 21st century, just as there are in Jordan’s commentary on the ways her agency is constrained as a Vietnamese American woman.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, like the novel it retells, is as much a tragedy as it is a social commentary. The reader will likely know how Daisy’s story ends, but Jordan is in the spotlight here, and her story is just as captivating, if not more so. By putting her in the foreground, and highlighting the voice among Fitzgerald’s core characters that was the least heard, Vo has transformed The Great Gatsby utterly.

Nghi Vo perfectly balances the new and the familiar in her magical adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

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Hiram was born into “tasking”—what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls slavery in this beautiful, wrenching novel—but he has always stood slightly apart from the other people who are “Tasked” on the Virginian estate called Lockless. 

The son of an enslaved woman named Rose, Hiram learned early in life that his father was the Lockless master, Howell Walker. Although Hiram worked in the apple orchards and the main house, he had something the other Tasked would never dream of: lessons from the Walker family tutor. But the lessons were no gift. Howell Walker’s plan was to prepare Hiram to spend his life caring for his older half-brother, Maynard, the charmless, dull heir to Lockless. A naturally smart child, Hiram subdued his thirst for knowledge. “I knew what happened to coloreds who were too curious about the world beyond Virginia,” he says.

Driving Maynard home one night from the horse races, Hiram is thinking of nothing but his “desire for an escape from Maynard and the doom of his mastery. And then it came.” Hiram doesn’t know why a strange mist comes up off the river or why the bridge falls away, revealing his long-gone mother dancing. 

He later learns this is Conduction, the rare ability to transport oneself on the power of memories. It’s a prized skill that recruiters on the Underground Railroad hope Hiram will put to use for their cause. They move him to Philadelphia, where he is shocked to see for the first time people of all colors mingling freely. He works to harness his gift of Conduction, while still feeling the pull of his people who have been sold and scattered throughout the South.

The Water Dancer confronts our bitter history and its violence and ugliness, which still resonate generations later. Coates’ fierce, thought-provoking essays on race composed We Were Eight Years in Power and the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me. Here he weaves a clear-eyed story that has elements of magic but is grounded in a profoundly simple truth: A person’s humanity is tied to their freedom.

“Breathing,” Hiram says. “I just dream of breathing.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel is grounded in a profoundly simple truth: A person’s humanity is tied to their freedom.
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The Harp of Kings, the first book in a new historical fantasy series by Juliet Marillier, follows a brother and sister amidst magic, music and their own grand ambitions.

Sibling bards Liobhan and Brocc are fighting to earn a place amongst a famous band of warriors and spies on Swan Island. When the warrior band learns that the Harp of Kings, an instrument of lore that has been used in the coronation of royalty, has gone missing, Liobhan and Brocc’s musical skills make them the ideal candidates for retrieving the harp. Though they’re still trainees, they embark on a mission to locate the instrument while disguised as traveling minstrels.

With every great fantasy quest comes a whole host of complications. Liobhan’s fellow trainee and rival, Dau, is desperate to beat her for the top spot in their class. The threat of political upheaval hangs over the mission should it fail. And, of course, schemes and deadly machinations are ever present.

Though Liobhan is a fearsome and admirable protagonist, Marillier rounds out her world by adding a slew of interesting secondary characters. Brocc is the protective and caring brother. Dau is the ambitious frenemy. There are mysterious witches and druids who know way more than they let on. Though the setting is fantastical, the characters are complex and reminiscent of all the wonderful and weird personalities we’d encounter in ordinary life.

To say both Marillier’s writing and Liobhan’s journey to becoming a warrior are magical feels too cliché—but it really is the perfect adjective. Liobhan’s dedication to achieve her dreams, to preserve the bond she has with her brother and to uphold what is right in the face of many conflicting forces is a joy to behold.

The Harp of Kings is set in the same world, though years ahead, of Marillier’s equally wonderful Blackthorn and Grimm series. While readers familiar with those books will enjoy discovering lovely Easter eggs, new readers should have no issues acclimating themselves to the environment. Quite frankly, I’m envious of readers who get to experience Marillier for the first time. If you’re unsure about where to begin with her body of work, The Harp of Kings is a fantastic place to start. It has all the hallmarks of a lush and epic high fantasy tale, as well as a dynamic, ambitious heroine.

Marillier’s enchanting characters, immersive details and truly stunning prose have all helped crown her an undisputed queen of the fantasy genre. The Harp of Kings is no different; readers new and returning will be undoubtedly captivated by Marillier’s newest tale.

The Harp of Kings, the first book in a new historical fantasy series by Juliet Marillier, follows a brother and sister amidst magic, music and their own grand ambitions.

The trope of a doe-eyed, innocent waif wandering a spectacular wonderland is well-worn by authors of classic fantasy and science fiction, but the magic that Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves in her 1920s-set historical fantasy, Gods of Jade and Shadow, immerses the reader in a fairy tale like no other. The author of Signal to Noise and The Beautiful Ones is known for celebrating remarkable heroines of Mexican heritage, and her protagonist Casiopea Tun certainly does not disappoint.

Casiopea is a star-crossed Cenicienta who refuses to let fate, mysticism, prophecies and other such rubbish dictate her life. Scorned and neglected by her wealthy family because of her supposedly bastard heritage,  she opts for curiosity and wit over lashing out against her cantankerous grandfather, Cirilo Leyva, and dangerously spoiled cousin, Martín. When the imaginative Casiopea opens a mysterious locked chest in Cirilo’s bedroom à la Pandora, she unleashes the bones of one of the gods of the underworld: the stoic and dryly humorous Hun-Kamé, former (and self-titled “rightful”) Lord of Xibalba.

After learning that she is inextricably bound to Hun-Kamé until he is able to defeat his treacherous brother, Vucub-Kamé, and that she and Martín will play important roles in the battle for the crown, the simultaneously sheltered and exploited Casiopea embarks on a cross-country, darkly whimsical adventure to both restore Hun-Kamé to the throne and regain her independence. Casiopea is not a damsel in distress, but rather a young woman coming of age in a time where music, myth, art and exploration thrum colorfully around her, and her affinity for poetry and storytelling, gleaned from her deceased father, keeps her motivated and hopeful.

Casiopea explores what it means to live on the fringe—she is neither Tun nor Leyva, of Middleworld nor Xibalba, country girl nor flapper of Mexico City’s Jazz Age renaissance—while learning about love and loss, grief and greed, strength and perseverance. Unlike her namesake in Greek mythology, she is far from vain, possessing instead resourcefulness and a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Casiopea encounters demons, succubi, monsters and sorcerers along the way, from Tierra Blanca to the Black Road—settings that glimmer like the Mayan obsidian and jade that the gods are so fond of. The book also includes bleak but nonetheless vivid depictions of Xibalba itself, a nightmarish hellscape home to dangerous, but wondrous, beings.

Readers will be floored by Moreno-Garcia’s painstaking attention to detail. Her descriptions of the emotionally charged interactions between realistic human characters and otherworldly gods, witches and demonic forces are unforgettable, as are as the fairy-tale and folktale aspects of the plot. As Hun-Kamé and Casiopea grow closer, physically and psychologically, the two experience and share what it truly means to live—and die. When Casiopea enters her new life, she is assured that “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

The trope of a doe-eyed, innocent waif wandering a spectacular wonderland is well-worn by authors of classic fantasy and science fiction, but the magic that Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves in Gods of Jade and Shadow immerses the reader in a fairy tale like no other.

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In her first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden has created a coming-of-age story rooted in folklore, set in the Russian wilderness and surrounded by the magic of winter.

In 14th-century Russia, Vasya is an unusual girl—wild and strong, perceptive and brave—who grew up captivated by her family’s frightening tales and legends. But when Vasya finds the stories to be true, and realizes she has special and coveted abilities, she must protect her family from ancient dangers long believed to be fairy tales.

Arden masterfully portrays the unbridled freedom of her young heroine, as ominous forces loom and the tension heightens between the old ways of the village and the new official religion of Orthodox Christianity. Vasya and her family live in a world of beeswax and wine, of warm ovens and deep sleep, described in gorgeous and lyrical prose. At the novel’s core lies a wonderfully woven family tapestry, with generations of sibling friendship, ancestral insight and marital love.

Arden, who has a B.A. in French and Russian literature, spent a year living and studying in Moscow, and her background in Russian culture delivers an added layer of authenticity. She includes a note concerning her transliteration process and a glossary of terms at the end, lending more context to this textured, remarkable blend of history and fantasy.

A commanding opening of an enchanting new series, The Bear and the Nightingale is a must-read for lovers of history, fairy tales and whirlwind adventures. With an unforgettable setting and an exceptional female protagonist, this literary fantasy is a spellbinding read.

RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Katherine Arden.

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Katherine Arden has created a coming-of-age story rooted in folklore, set in the Russian wilderness and surrounded by the magic of winter.

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