Prepare to be devastated by this gorgeously rendered sapphic fantasy. It takes place in a dystopian city where a portion of the population is imprisoned in a town behind walls, while the High Kith live a life of luxury and magic. Nirrim is one of the imprisoned — an orphan with the ability to flawlessly forge any document and who remembers everything with perfect clarity. Yet memory cannot substitute for the fallacies of emotional interpretation. Nirrim’s caretaker constantly gaslights and abuses her, yet Nirrim persists in loving her and excusing all her faults. Then Sid, a charming traveler from distant lands, comes into Nirrim’s life. I listened to the audiobook read by the amazing Justine Eyre, whose ability to create a unique voice for each character made it feel like I was listening to a full-cast radio drama. The ending shook me, but thankfully this is the first in a two-book series.
Confession: This is my first Sarah J. Maas book. I realize she’s a bestselling author, and my first-year college students have been recommending her for years, but somehow I never got around to reading her! That will change now that I’ve read House of Earth and Blood, the first in her new contemporary fantasy series. While I loved the mix of fae, werewolves, demons, and magic in a modern city, and the action-packed scenes, it’s the relationships between characters that made me want to keep reading. I’ll admit to rolling my eyes at the overly beautiful characters, but I couldn’t help but be charmed particularly by the half-fae protagonist Bryce. I hesitate to give too many details because a major plot point was spoiled when I read the synopsis after 30 pages, but know that this is a magical murder mystery with a healthy dose of romance of the dark and brooding variety.
Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc (Coach House Books; March 3)
While not a fantasy novel, this fairy-tale analysis combined with memoir is important reading for anyone who reads fairy tales and fantasy. It’s a phenomenal book that entwines Leduc’s memoir of living with cerebral palsy with an examination of how disabilities are depicted in fairy tales. “Why,” Leduc asks, “in all these stories . . . was it always the individual who needed to change, and never the world?” In other words, nothing is wrong with the disabled person; it’s the society and culture surrounding them that creates barriers. Yet in fairy tales and fantasy, where literally anything is possible, disabled characters are inevitably either the villains or cursed heroes who will have their disabilities erased by the end of the narrative. Wouldn’t it be great to have a fantasy narrative where a disabled protagonist forces their society to accept them and becomes an advocate for change? Happily ever afters can happen for disabled folk, too, after all.
As a flute player who’s played Mozart about a thousand times, I was so excited when I heard the premise for Lu’s first historical fantasy novel. Nannerl Mozart and her brother Wolfgang are both talented musicians, but in 18th-century Europe, only boys are allowed to pursue their passions. Nannerl must marry. Then the stranger Hyacinth appears and offers Nannerl the option of journeying to the magical Kingdom of Back and becoming who she dreams of being. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s essay “If Shakespeare Had a Sister,” though the real Wolfgang Mozart did have an older sister named Nannerl. This immersive, stand-alone historical fantasy is a must-read for Lu fans, and also a great jumping-off point for her work.
The Chukchi are the indigenous peoples of the Chukchi Peninsula, within the Russian Federation. Yuri Rytkheu is Chukchi, and while his works have been translated in many countries, very few have been translated into English. This beautiful novella retells a Chukchi myth about the first humans. It opens with Nau relishing the nature around her because she believes that she and nature are the same entity. Then she sees a whale for the first time, and immediately feels a difference between her and it. As she watches, the whale turns into a man, and the two are the first people on Earth. When the Whales Leave is a gorgeous meditation on the magic of the natural world and why we need to preserve it.
Magical children are forced into “orphanages,” which are really prisons, in this heartfelt book that takes place in a world somewhat like our own. Linus is a social worker who investigates these orphanages to ensure they’re running well and the children are safe. Unlike the other caseworkers at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, he truly cares for the magical children he thinks he’s helping. Then Extremely Upper Management gives him a top-secret job to investigate an orphanage on an island in the Cerulean Sea. This is no ordinary orphanage. The children here are more magical than most, to say the least: There’s Lucy, aka the Antichrist, Talia, a possibly murderous gnome, a wood sprite; a boy who changes into a pomeranian; a wyvern who collects buttons; and an unidentified blob who dreams of being a bellhop. And let’s not forget their handsome and charming caretaker Arthur Parnassus. What begins as a terrifying job for Linus turns into an opportunity to find the happiness he’s always craved.
Though it’s being compared to Margaret Atwood, this fantasy novella reminded me more of the anthropological leanings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work set in an imperial Chinese fantasy world. Each chapter begins with Cleric Chih cataloging the goods in a house where the late Empress In-yo resided during her banishment. Chih is accompanied by a sentient bird that remembers every story it’s ever told. Though Empress In-yo supported the clerics and their cataloging of history, she wouldn’t allow them to investigate her banishment and how she came to power. Now that she’s dead, no such restrictions apply, so Chih has been sent to this out of the way home, where only an old servant of the late empress lives — a woman named Rabbit. As Rabbit shares stories of Empress In-yo and their shared past, Chih uncovers a nuanced history of how the disenfranchised shape history, and can come to rule it, though at great cost.
I didn’t think N.K. Jemisin could top her Broken Earth trilogy, which won three consecutive Hugo Awards, one for each book in the series. And yet The City We Became is a masterpiece of eldritch urban fantasy, a glorious annihilation of the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It’s based on her short story “The City Born Great” and imagines a New York City that literally comes to life, its midwife a starved graffiti artist. It’s not the first city to do so, but it is unique in that it chooses human avatars for each of its boroughs that encapsulate the feeling of each area. These avatars must team up in order to destroy the woman in white, a primordial, multidimensional evil that seeks to destroy cities as they’re born. The woman in white utilizes the racist anger of alt-right groups to attack each borough. Jemisin’s writing is immersive; though I’ve never been to New York, her rendering makes me feel the city’s richness, diversity, stubbornness, and independence.
Fourteen-year-old orphan May Owens stole bread, and for that, she’s sentenced to live the rest of her life as a Sin Eater, a person (always a woman) who consumes the sins of the dying by eating food that represents those sins. If this sounds weird, Sin Eaters did exist in 16th-century England, though it’s unknown exactly what they did. Sin Eaters are forbidden to speak or interact with others, a particularly jarring punishment for May, who talks incessantly of whatever randomness pops into her head and craves the conversation of others. Her constant chatting had already outcast her before she was imprisoned. After her sentencing, she’s apprenticed to another Sin Eater at the royal court, and May soon becomes immersed in a murder mystery. The atmospheric, historical fantasy setting combined with May’s jarringly eccentric personality creates a novel as strange as it is captivating.
At the beginning of my review copy of Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko describes how this is the book she needed growing up as a fairy tale–loving daughter of Nigerian immigrants who could never find herself in the available YA fantasy novels. While there are more choices today — novels by Nnedi Okorafor, Tochi Onyebuchi, and Tomi Adeyemi all spring to mind — there is still a lack of diversity in YA fantasy. Raybearer is an excellent and needed addition to diverse fantasy, and the writing and characters immediately captivated me. Tarisai can only be touched by her mother, who rarely visits her, and even when her mother does visit she hardly glances at or speaks to her. To win her mother’s visits, Tarisai must excel in academics, which she desperately tries to do as one tutor replaces another. When her mother sends her to the empire’s capital of Aritsar to murder the prince, Tarisai realizes the parent she’s worshipped her entire childhood has never deserved her devotion. But bound by djinn magic, denying her mother’s commands is no easy task.
Tamra was once a champion kehok racer (kehoks are dangerous creatures that were once human), but now, a member of a poorer class, she’s desperate for money to send her daughter to school. If she can’t find the funds, her daughter will be taken away. So she agrees to train upper-class teenagers in how to race kehoks. When two students get hurt, all the parents withdraw their children from her class. With the looming threat of her daughter being taken away, she purchases a human-killing kehok and agrees to train Raina — a girl with nowhere else to go and no experience — in kehok racing. Animal lovers will see a lot of themselves in Tamra. Her irreverent attitude and stubbornness immediately drew me into the book and kept me there for the amazing world building and action. And the kehoks are such amazing creatures.
This is a young adult fantasy that feels very of this moment. It begins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement pounding on a door and the protagonist, Manu, hiding under the bed with her mother. Manu has lived her entire life in hiding: She wears sunglasses that cover her strangely shaped eyes, and her mother fled from Argentina when she was too young to remember. They’ve lived as undocumented refugees in Miami ever since. Manu conceals something from her mother as well — every month on the full moon, she dreams she’s in another world, a magical world where she belongs. After her neighbor is attacked and her mother arrested by ICE, Manu can only find the answers to who or what she is by going to that dream place. Steeped in Argentine folklore of lobizonas (werewolves) and brujas (witches), this is such an important story to tell, and it’s also an engrossing read. While a little heavy on the YA tropes at times, the lush setting and folklore more than make up for it (and those YA tropes will probably be enjoyed by many). This is the first book in what’s currently a two-book series.
Soraya cannot be touched. Cursed by Divs (a society of magical creatures) as an infant so that her skin is poisonous, she lives in isolation — despite being the twin of the Shah of Golvahar — and finds solace in her garden. But when her brother arrives home from a campaign with a captured Div, she grabs at the chance of possibly finding out how to cure her curse. Accompanying her brother is a handsome stranger who helped capture and defeat the Div. What begins as a “Rapunzel” and “Sleeping Beauty” retelling is subverted in the second half of the novel when everything Soraya knows as reality is overthrown. I loved the Persian setting and mythos. When I interviewed Bashardoust about this book, she told me she “wanted to see how else I could use touchstones of Persian myth and culture to explore and reframe a fairy tale [‘Sleeping Beauty’] I loved. By bringing them together, I could find a way to honor both my cultural background and the fairy tales I had grown up with and am still fascinated by.” Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a lovely entwining of Persian culture and myth with well-known fairy tales. ●