17 perfect books for newcomers to fantasy

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Shubeik lubeik translates from the Arabic to “your wish is my command,” an iconic fairy-tale phrase that’s also the title of a brilliantly original graphic novel from Egyptian comics creator Deena Mohamed. Her richly detailed drawings imbue contemporary Cairo—and its all-too-familiar atmosphere of bureaucracy, rigid laws and class-based bias—with the magic of wishes, dragons, flying cars and talking donkeys. 

Originally self-published, Shubeik Lubeik won the grand prize at the Cairo Comix Festival in 2017; by the end of the year, Mohamed had signed on with the agent who discovered Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. For the book’s highly anticipated American publication, Mohamed translated Shubeik Lubeik into English herself and requested that the book be printed like Arabic books, to be read from right to left.

Mohamed’s novel introduces a world where wishes are real and sold in three tiers. First-class wishes are the most expensive and last the longest, while third-class wishes are the budget option, carrying a higher risk of things going wrong. The story begins at a modest kiosk where three first-class wishes are for sale. The first is purchased by Aziza, a struggling widow whose economic status makes it difficult for her to own—let alone use—her wish. The second wish goes to Nour, a privileged college student who is conflicted about wishing away their severe depression. Finally, Shokry, owner of the kiosk and thus the remaining wish, struggles with the morality of using his wish to improve the health of a dear friend. 

Mohamed’s bold, expressive illustrations split the difference between cartoon and realism, with brightly colored details contrasting against the monochromatic tedium of government documents. Records of wish laws, facts and trivia are as dense as any legal text, but they also offer a sly nod to such real-life social issues as mental health, poverty and sexism. The rendering of Nour’s depression via graphs, charts and maps is particularly effective. 

These characters’ struggles and successes are equally heartbreaking and uplifting, creating a wholly satisfying reading experience. Our wish is Mohamed’s command.

This article was updated to correct the description of Nour.

Deena Mohamed’s richly detailed drawings imbue contemporary Cairo—and its all-too-familiar atmosphere of bureaucracy, rigid laws and class-based bias—with the magic of wishes, dragons, flying cars and talking donkeys.
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In her debut novel, Sign Here, author Claudia Lux presents a modern vision of hell as a capitalist bureaucracy of the most inane, obnoxious variety.

Souls arrive in Hell on different levels, depending on how badly they sinned in their former lives. The worst of the worst head to what is known as Downstairs. Some sent there become line workers, tasked with applying various methods of torture. In other cases, they’re the ones on the rack. Protagonist Peyote Trip, however, is a resident of the fifth floor of Hell, so his afterlife is a little less bleak: He lives in an apartment and works in an office as a caseworker. Peyote tracks the plights and problems of mortals, and when one of them has a dire need, to the point that they’re willing to do anything to achieve what they desire, he arrives to make a deal via infernal contract. The mortal gives up their soul, and Peyote uses his abilities to make all their earthly dreams come true.

Despite being an agent of Hell, Peyote tries to treat both his “clients” and his co-workers with dignity and honor, especially when it comes to helping his new co-worker, Calamity, adjust to the myriad annoyances of life on the fifth floor. Peyote and his peers bring five pens everywhere, because the first four will never work. If a soul hates country music, it will be the only station available on their radio and it cannot be turned off. No food is truly hot or cold, and neither is any living space. Lux’s Hell is the epitome of absolute discomfort, like an itchy wool sweater on a humid day.

How Claudia Lux found humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.

Calamity soon gets involved in Peyote’s ultimate career goal: securing his fifth and final contract from the wealthy Harrison family. Attaining five souls from the same family, also known as a Complete Set, will grant Peyote an important promotion. Lux tells much of this story from the perspectives of three members of the Harrison family: Silas; his wife, Lily; and Mickey, their daughter. Lux takes the reader deep into each Harrison’s point of view, highlighting their dark temptations, shame and awkwardness in equal measure and creating such a high level of empathy for her painfully realistic characters that it borders on uncomfortable. It all adds to the ever-growing, nearly palpable feeling of imminent disaster. With their desires on such clear display, it’s impossible to forget that any one of the Harrisons could be Peyote’s next victim.

Lux’s unique iteration of hell is consistently engaging, grounded in relatable discomforts yet spiked with surrealist imagery, but readers will also be enthralled with the sheer humanity displayed on each page. No character comes off as mostly good or evil; they’re all just products of their natures and upbringings. With surgical precision, Sign Here captures the difficulties of morality in a complicated modern world.

Sign Here is both a hilarious reimagining of hell as a corporate nightmare and a painfully realistic exploration of morality in the modern world.
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Sure, Thistlefoot is about a house with chicken legs, but it’s also about so much more. A vibrant, shape-shifting collage of family saga, Jewish folklore and magical adventure, GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, is, like its namesake, weird and wonderful.

The Yaga siblings haven’t seen each other in a long time. Bellatine has thrown herself into woodworking as she searches for meaning in her life. Her brother, Isaac, on the other hand, has thrown himself into street performance, transience and petty crime. They’re reunited when a lawyer tells them that one of their long-lost Russian relatives has left them something. Bellatine and Isaac open an enormous shipping container—and a sentient house named Thistlefoot, complete with chicken legs, squats before them.

Isaac promises to let Bellatine keep the house for herself after they use it to tour the country for a series of marionette performances. But a sinister specter known only as the Longshadow Man gives chase to the Yagas, bringing ghostly destruction along with him. It’s a race to see if Isaac and Bellatine can stay one step ahead of the Longshadow Man and unlock the mysteries of Thistlefoot before it’s too late.

How GennaRose Nethercott made herself at home with Slavic folklore.

Thistlefoot is inspired by the tales of Baba Yaga, a powerful witch from Eastern European folklore who lives in the woods in a house that stands on chicken legs. The fables of Baba Yaga and her children hold special significance for the descendants of Russian Jews the world over, but Nethercott will quickly bring those who don’t know the stories up to speed with chapters told from Thistlefoot’s point of view interspersed with ones from Isaac’s and Bellatine’s perspectives. In the chapters narrated by the house, Thistlefoot tells stories of Baba Yaga, her daughters and her at-times frightful sense of justice. These interludes, vividly voiced and perfectly paced, are some of the book’s best moments. Nethercott’s warm embrace of her source material makes these fairy tale-esque stories welcome interludes amid Isaac and Bellatine’s more modern woes.

Nethercott’s gorgeous writing continually surprises and delights, and she pulls off some amazing turns of phrase with confidence. The first few pages give a brief history of an invasive plant that everyone thinks of as uniquely American but is actually from another country entirely—and they’re so engagingly written that I was immediately hooked. Even if a few passages feel overwrought, something marvelous comes along in short order to make up for it, such as a queer love story in which Nethercott patiently brings to life the tender joy of a new romance.

Thistlefoot is a triumph. Strange and heart-wrenching, perplexing and beautiful, it’s an open door and a warm hearth, inviting you to stay awhile and listen.

Inspired by traditional tales of Baba Yaga, GennaRose Nethercott's Thistlefoot is a weird and wonderful triumph.

The Book Eaters, Sunyi Dean’s debut, is a dark, haunting fantasy that follows Devon Fairweather, a Book Eater who subsists on ink and paper and the knowledge it provides her. The Book Eaters, or ‘eaters, live on the fringes of human society, and were it not for the special, fang-like teeth that they unsheathe before a literary meal, they would look like ordinary people. Devon has always detested the staunch traditions of her isolated clan, and The Book Eaters jumps back and forth in time as she tries to forge her own path. 

One of the most memorable and haunting elements of Dean’s world is how Book Eater society is structured around elements of Arthurian legend that are used to justify patriarchal, tyrannical rule. The young Devon lives a sheltered life as a Princess. Female Book Eaters are rare, and she is expected to marry early and promptly give birth to more of their kind. While her brothers eat books about politics, history and academics, she is limited to the same old fairy tales time and time again. Knights maintain order and govern the Dragons, who are born as Mind Eaters, unpredictable individuals who constantly crave human souls. Drugs keep their hunger at bay and force them to submit to their handlers’ orders. 

Devon has always seen through the facade of the happily ever afters she consumes, and when she gives birth to a Mind Eater son, Cai, she realizes she is the only person who can save him from becoming a Dragon. In the present timeline, Devon and the now 5-year-old Cai have escaped the ‘eaters, but Devon is struggling to keep him under control and out of the Knights’ grasp while she searches for a way that they can both be free for good.

Dean fully invests readers in Devon’s struggles, both as a girl attempting to prise tiny snatches of freedom from a patriarchal society and as an adult mother frantic to protect her son. The Book Eaters‘ depiction of the sacrifices and joys of motherhood is particularly nuanced, grounding the fantasy elements of the story in the relationship between Devon and Cai. And Dean expertly expands the scope of the story to explore even more characters’ experiences, such as the other ‘eater women’s oppression and loneliness, Devon’s friend Yarrow’s isolation as an asexual person in the procreation-obsessed ‘eater society and Cai’s pain at being viewed as a monster.

The Book Eaters is a far cry from the fairy tales Devon consumes: It is a winding, harrowing, deliciously nightmarish story of people taking control of their bodies and destinies after generations of repression and abuse.

In Sunyi Dean's debut, beings who consume books to survive hide on the fringes of society. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it's actually a nightmare.
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The Monsters We Defy is a book about demons—or as Clara Johnson calls them, Enigmas. Clara was born with the ability to see and interact with Enigmas, making her highly sought after as a sort of broker between these dangerous spirits and the people who seek their help, costs be damned. Clara is all too aware of the severity of those costs: The only reason she has continued to act as spiritual go-between is to satisfy a compulsion from her own deal with an Enigma, made years ago. But when young people in her orbit start becoming listless or disappearing, she is dragged into a sordid conspiracy that could wreak havoc in the mortal world and must fight for both the survival of her peers and her own freedom.

Author Leslye Penelope successfully blends a folkloric sense of the supernatural, derived from sources such as Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast, with a Gatsby-esque vision of the Roaring ’20s in Washington, D.C’s ‘s African American community. Replete with historical figures, including a youthfully insouciant Langston Hughes, the unflappably paternal Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Journal of Negro History, and even a cameo from W.E.B. Du Bois, The Monsters We Defy is a fascinating blend of the real and imagined. Even Clara is based on a real person: Clara Minor Johnson, a Black teenager who killed a white policeman in self-defense when she was a teenager. Penelope seamlessly weaves the historical figure into the character of Clara and her world of spirit magic. Throughout, she emphasizes the tenuous nature of Black high society in this era, existing within a white-dominated world it can never fully penetrate but cannot afford to ignore. In Penelope’s hands, the glamour of all-Black masquerade balls, where bootleggers mingle with politicians and opera stars, is an act of defiance, both of the racial power structure of the day and of stereotypical depictions of African American life during this era.

The most effective aspect of The Monsters We Defy is how Penelope portrays the Black experience on its own terms. Even the magic is derived from a combination of African mythology and traditions from the African diaspora, particularly hoodoo. The result is a novel that is both a well-crafted fantasy romp (with a healthy dose of happily-ever-after romance) and a work of revisionist fiction that elevates a vital, oft-overlooked slice of history.

The Monsters We Defy is a well-crafted fantasy romp set among the Black elite of 1920s Washington, D.C.
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In the alternate modern-day U.K. setting of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, a recent civil war among witches and warlocks has left their community in shambles. The titular congregation of witches has protected and supported the monarchy through wartime and peace alike, but their coven is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Many of its members were killed in the violence of the internecine war, while others have left in favor of either practicing in solitude or forming more inclusive covens than the stodgy and traditional HMRC.

Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle were bound by their girlhood oath to the HMRC and their friendships with one another. But those friendships, like the HMRC itself, are showing wear. While Helena, the new high priestess of the HMRC, has stayed within its stifling halls, the others have moved on. Niamh, still reeling from the death of her fiancé and the betrayal of her twin sister in the war, has retreated into her veterinary practice. Elle, who hails from an ancient line of powerful witches, has elected to live as a mundane housewife, while Leonie has risen as the queen of a new coven that welcomes witches from marginalized backgrounds into its ranks. Their bonds are further tested when a powerful young warlock threatens to destroy the HMRC for good.

British author Juno Dawson’s adult fiction debut is a femme-forward story of power, morality and fate that is not shy about its politics. While the political arguments in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are couched in magical terms, they closely align with issues in our own world. Dawson explores the complexities of modern feminism with particular poignancy: The HMRC is stuck in its ways and takes a rigid view of womanhood and witchcraft, holding up a mirror to the failures of modern feminism. Despite its stated good intentions, the coven often discounts or even demonizes both trans witches and the traditional practices of non-white witches.

Beyond its politics, what especially makes Her Majesty’s Royal Coven shine is its impeccable voice. Dawson’s conversational, matter-of-fact tone calls to mind writers like Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones; it’s at times funny, at others heartbreaking, but always perfectly calibrated. Dawson makes you feel like she has laid all her cards on the table, but every so often she manages to pull a hidden ace from her sleeve that shocks you.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is a thoughtful entry into the witch canon that intrigues and challenges as much as it delights.

Her Majesty's Royal Coven uses the setting of an alternate Britain where witchcraft is real to mount a delightful and thoughtful exploration of modern feminism.
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On the island of Skyros, trans women are given safe harbor. When Wrath Goddess Sing begins, Achilles is hiding out on this island from those who wish her ill. She was a “wild spider of a boy-girl” when she first arrived but now has a cherished lover and an accepting community. All of that is threatened when Odysseus and Diomedes arrive, searching for the hero they know as the “prince” and “son” of the goddess Athena to help them win back the stolen Helen of Troy. Achilles herself would rather die than be forced to serve as a man in war, but Athena grants her another option: to fight with the body she’s always wanted. Due to her talent in combat, Achilles proves herself in Troy to be a valiant soldier. But the gods have endless secrets and machinations, and Achilles is now at the center of a deadly, divine game.

Author Maya Deane’s prose is lyrical without venturing into purple territory, poignantly guiding readers through Achilles’ internal and external trials. Take this moment, when Achilles contemplates returning to war as a man: “It would be worse than death—the death of her self, the inexorable corrosion of her soul, until even her name was forgotten and nothing was left but the shell of a man she never was.”

Why Maya Deane reimagined Achilles as a trans woman.

Some prior knowledge of the Iliad will maximize the enjoyment of this novel, if only to provide some context for Deane’s beautifully realized Mediterranean landscape and her depiction of the Greek gods as vivid, often malicious beings. Deane’s descriptions of these entities are utterly entrancing: Athena, for instance, has eyes “so unnaturally large [they were] too enormous to turn in their sockets—owl’s eyes.” Her vivid imagination also extends to the Iliad’s cast of complicated, iconic human characters, whom she brings to life with confidence and skill.

Wrath Goddess Sing is a mythic reinvention for the ages that asks questions about topics such as trans identity, passing and the politics of the body.

Wrath Goddess Sing is a mythic reinvention for the ages that follows a trans, female Achilles as she faces down divine machinations.
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Paraic O’Donnell’s strange, tense and utterly beautiful novel The Maker of Swans will haunt you. It dances along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy, but you’ll hardly notice. You’ll be too busy sinking deeper into its inescapable grasp.

On an estate in the English countryside live two men and a girl. One man is Eustace the butler, the guardian of the house and its daily rhythms. The other man is Mr. Crowe, a preternaturally gifted, magnanimous artist who is long past his glory days of creating wonder and beauty for aristocrats across the world. The girl is Clara, Mr. Crowe’s ward. Mute, inquisitive and able to recall any passage from any book in the library, Clara knows the house and the grounds better than anyone. This odd trio is on track to live out their lives uneventfully until one fateful night when a gunshot breaks the peace of the house: Mr. Crowe has killed a man in the driveway. Eustace, Mr. Crowe and Clara each rush to save what is important to them before the fallout from this act changes their lives forever.

To give any more details would ruin the particular spell of this book. Pasts and presents intermingle, bringing to the surface each character’s unique pain. Motivations are murky at best. Visions of swans on a lake are a surreal promise of what’s to come. This book is far more expansive than its 368 pages might suggest, and all credit goes to O’Donnell for cramming it full with as many ideas as he did. Alongside the magical elements are questions on the nature of the universe, on art and beauty, on instinct and knowledge. O’Donnell’s complex and agile prose jumps between dreamlike mysticism and terse, suspenseful action almost without warning. He knows when to expand language and when to contract it, when to throw in the kitchen sink and when to hold back.

Two key elements hold everything together. The first is how O’Donnell drives the story forward like a thriller, giving the more abstract elements a solid foundation. Even as things get stranger and stranger, the core plot is straightforward: A man was murdered, and people are coming to deliver the consequences. The relationships among the three inhabitants of the house provide the second grounding force, particularly the bond between Eustace and Clara. Their relationship is tender, reciprocal and, importantly in a book such as this, human and real in a sea of the strange and mystical.

Let The Maker of Swans invade you. Be challenged by it. Let it wash over you. If you like beautiful things, read this book.

Paraic O'Donnell's The Maker of Swans is an enthralling dance along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy. If you like beautiful things, read this book.

In 1955, hundreds of thousands of women disappeared. They were oppressed mothers and wives. They were brides on their wedding days and switchboard operators harassed by their male managers. Later reports—at least, those that were publicly acknowledged—omitted a key detail about this mass disappearance. The women didn’t vanish; they became dragons.

As Kelly Barnhill writes in When Women Were Dragons, “people are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” Just look at our own world, in which willful silence around the injustices of the past affects how history is taught (or isn’t taught) in American schools. The mass dragoning meets a similar fate, but despite her best efforts, Alex Green can’t forget: “I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence—an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.”

Alex’s Aunt Marla was one of the disappeared women. She was also one of the most influential people in Alex’s life; after all, Marla gave birth to Alex’s cousin and best friend, Beatrice. After Marla’s dragoning, Alex’s parents raised the two girls as sisters, but questions about Marla’s disappearance lingered at the edges of Alex’s consciousness.

Barnhill writes from Alex’s point of view as an adult, looking back on a remarkable period in history that coincided with her formative years. Through teenage Alex’s perspective, readers witness dragons marching with civil rights protesters—because if we aren’t all free, none of us are free. Some dragons seem drawn to one another, rather than to the men they left behind, in a way that young Alex accepts intuitively. Meanwhile, Alex examines her relationship with Beatrice while reflecting on their mothers’ complicated sisterhood. And interspersed throughout these events, Barnhill includes research documents that Marla left in Alex’s care, offering thoughtful context for this eerily familiar world.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill, bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years. A close examination of the patriarchy and cultural inequalities, When Women Were Dragons is fantasy that is both political and personal.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years.
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To understand the brilliance of Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, Kaikeyi, we must step back—way back, to ancient India, when humans walked a strict line of tradition, sacrifice and devotion to Hindu gods in exchange for a life free of curses and other bad surprises. Questioning authority was not part of the human agenda.

The ancient Indian epic Ramayana is one of South Asia’s most famous and important religious texts. It tells of King Rama, the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is banished to the forest by his stepmother, Kaikeyi. Full of miracles, virtues and vices, the epic has been passed down for generations, making it an indispensable part of the cultural consciousness and, more importantly, providing a clear distinction between good and evil.

Into this long history comes Patel with her bold reimagining. A student of constitutional law and civil rights, Patel grew up hearing stories from the Ramayana from her grandmother, and during one of these storytelling sessions, Patel’s mother planted a seed of doubt regarding Kaikeyi’s characterization. Patel now recasts Kaikeyi, who has always occupied the role of wicked stepmother, a source of doom and the cause of unimaginable suffering for an entire kingdom and beyond. In Kaikeyi, she becomes the protagonist, the feminist, the godforsaken underdog.

Born on a full moon as a princess to the kingdom of Kekaya, Kaikeyi grows up knowing that her destiny is to be powerless and ornamental, yet she is resolute in her determination to change the world. With her twin brother’s help, she secretly learns how to ride horses and fight like a warrior. At 16, she is married off as the third wife of a king, and she gives birth to Bharat, who is promised to succeed his father, even though he is not the firstborn son.

For better or worse, the events of Ramayana unfold no differently with the reinvention of Kaikeyi’s character, but Patel’s changes certainly make the story much more engaging. Even readers unfamiliar with the ancient Indian epic will find a lot to love in Patel’s spellbinding details of mythological characters and ancient times.

In Vaishnavi Patel’s bold reimagining, Kaikeyi of the Ramayana has been recast as protagonist, feminist and godforsaken underdog.

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond its intricate world building and incisive cultural commentary, Siren Queen is a moving exploration of romance, loss and complex family dynamics.
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Through an accident of timing and celestial alignment, Orquídea Montoya was born unlucky. But unlike most unlucky children, she knows how to bargain, even with creatures of myth and magic, and how to phrase a wish. Her search for luck leads her from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to the small Midwestern town of Four Rivers, where she finally puts down roots and starts a family.

Decades later, Orquídea’s descendants are summoned home to Four Rivers, to the house and verdant valley she conjured. Once there, they discover they have inherited a deadly legacy of ill-used power and festering secrets.

Acclaimed young adult and romance author Zoraida Córdova’s first adult fantasy novel, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, is strongly influenced by the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism. Córdova weaves the story of Orquídea’s childhood with that of her family’s struggle in the present, masterfully synchronizing revelations in both timelines. In the process, she successfully casts those who mistrust or are suspicious of magic as irrational and unwilling to believe their own eyes. After all, magic is everywhere in Córdova’s enchanted reality, both the endemic sort of magic found coursing through rivers and creeping up trees and more alien varieties. Magic is an absolute cornerstone of this world, and Córdova evokes it beautifully.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Zoraida Córdova blended the traditions of magical realism with her own family history.

Most striking, however, is her careful and deliberate use of language. Córdova’s gorgeously compelling prose brings a natural sense of humor and poignancy to even the darkest moments of the story, and the way she uses Spanish to enhance and add depth to her narration is remarkable. Additionally, she has paid extraordinarily close attention to the names of characters and settings. Every single one has meaning to it, and while some are explained in the story, others are left for the reader to discover. This lends a unique sense of purpose to the writing and exemplifies the uncommonly poetic precision of Córdova’s prose. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina demands to be savored and read with care.

A commandingly propulsive story with a complex writing style that is best enjoyed slowly makes The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina a challenge, but one well worth the time.

Through an accident of timing and celestial alignment, Orquídea Montoya was born unlucky. But unlike most unlucky children, she knows how to bargain, even with creatures of myth and magic, and how to phrase a wish.

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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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