Before I start, I need to point out something about how I read books in order for this review to make sense. I’m not a very visual reader, I see words and they echo in my head. Sometimes pictures come if I concentrate hard enough, but that slows down my ability to read. Intricate descriptions of an object’s physical properties do very little to paint a picture in my mind. Action scenes often have to ride on emotional momentum. For me, words inform the mood of a book and suck me in through intensity, atmosphere, and emotion. I think it’s why I tend to gravitate towards a large vocabulary; fine-tuned wording is more effective at enhancing my personal reading experience. So take the following review with a grain of salt as this inclination very much tailored my experience with Companion by Luke Matthews. Companion, also a self published novel, is a risky follow up to Construct. It bets on high characterization over the strong plotting seen previously, leaving me with mixed emotions. However, while I adored the introspective elements, the sometimes overly detailed stage dampened my enjoyment of the book.
Companion picks up a little while after the end of Construct. Jacob splits off from Eriane and Samuel, his plan is to close up some loose ends so they do not hinder the group in their ultimate quest. Samuel follows Eriane on her own separate quest to find the fabled Gunsmith. Eriane had broken her gun in their climatic fight in Construct, and direly needs it fixed. Unfortunately, in this world, even owning a gun, let alone using one, is grounds for execution. Then there is Dal, a man who has lost his memories and returns to his old crew by accident. Despite his former crew’s misgivings and suspicions about him coming back, he tags along for an escort mission through some of the most dangerous territory in the land. He doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for, but he feels he’s in the right place anyway, even though his life is very much on the line.
Alright, let’s dive in. I had trouble with Companion. While some areas of the book reduced my enjoyment, Matthews made some choices I particularly liked. I enjoyed Matthews’ switch to a more introspective story, especially given the ending of Construct. The characters each had their own journey, all of which feel earned and in some ways necessary for future installments. They each had their own pasts to resolve with their perceived futures and wanted to prepare for the fights ahead. There was a solid theme of identity portrayed through each character as they tried to reconcile who they were and who they are. I also appreciated that the introspection did not require fighting through bodies to come to their respective ends within the book. Dal was a wonderful addition to the cast that helped increase the weirdness within the world of The Chronicler Saga. He added some grit even though he was bewildered most of the time, trying to catch up with the madness of his previous life.
Their individual travels also allowed for a further realization of the world. Not a whole lot, but there were the beginnings of a larger place with small towns scattered about. It’s not as fleshed out as I normally would like, but the glimpse was nice and added to the dark western feel I got from the previous book. Matthews took a slower route this time, and it was scenic enough. But I think this was where I had some trouble. Where Construct hooked me with its driving plot and thick atmosphere, Companion had to rely mostly on the characters and a curiosity of the world. Both were handled, and in some cases handled well, I just didn’t particularly jive with some of the choices made throughout the book. Especially the decision to backseat Samuel’s own role within the story, but I digress.
Part of it comes back to the issue I described in the introduction. Companion seemed to be filled with more character and object description than I remembered from the first book. I don’t have the distinct feeling that it was as prevalent in Construct as it was here. There were intricate details of things in places that I didn’t really care about. People covered in trinkets, dusty tables covered in books, and other fantasy paraphernalia that didn’t add too much to the flavor for me. So I tried to ignore that by really ramping up my attention to the characters. The problem I ran into here wasn’t so much the development as much as there were no foils. The characters were different enough, I just didn’t get the distinct feeling that their journeys were very different from each other. Construct benefitted from the back and forth between the perceived good and bad guys, giving you a different taste of story beats. But Companion has three protagonists that are all on similar internal quests that lead to similar outcomes. The lack of variety made it feel slower and more of a trudge than the previous book, which was frustrating for me.
Ultimately I had a very middling experience with Companion. I didn’t hate it at the end nor did I feel betrayed, but in some ways I did feel appreciative. Appreciative that Matthews took some interesting risks that for me paid off two-thirds of the time. In part my particular reading style got in the way, but also because of those same risks. If you liked Construct, I think you’ll like this one and your mileage may vary depending on the kind of reader you are. The characters are better and more interesting, and the world just has a little more to it. I’m still interested in the world, and I really want to see Samuel’s and his friends’ journeys to the end and unveil the revelations of the Chroniclers. I didn’t like it as much as Construct, but don’t let that deter you if you’re curious. Matthews has certainly put in the work, and I hope he continues to do so in the next book.
They say it’s never a good idea to judge a book by it’s cover. After a while, when it comes to actual books, that advice gets harder and harder to follow. It’s not easy with all these amazing artists out there, providing color and form to black and white text. Some of my favorite covers are striking juxtapositions between the title and the actual picture. However, the cover for this book felt oppressive and mysterious and it just lured me in. A dark tower invades the page, punctuating the cover’s foggy negative space. Even though the perspective is from above the gargantuan feat of engineering, it still towers over you, begging you to throw stones at it while it cackles at your powerlessness. The owner of this cover, Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov, is a flurry of a novella, and delivers its meticulously planned punches with style and heart.
The book follows one minister Shea Ashcroft after he has been banished to the border for defying the queen’s orders to gas a crowd of protestors. His task is to aid in the construction of the largest anti-air defense tower in history. Having no other choice, Ashcroft heads to the bordertown of Owenbeg and begins to learn about the construction and the hazards that plague it. Upon discovering that risky Drakiri technology is being used to prop up the giant tower, Ashcroft is pulled into conspiracy after conspiracy. Some want the tower finished to aid in the coming war with their neighbor, others want it destroyed as it will fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy. Ashcroft just wants his life back and will do what he must to make sure the construction succeeds.
One of the most standout aspects of this book is Barsukov’s writing. It’s flowery, but in the way that kudzu is flowery. It’s dense and tangled, and obscured much of my understanding beyond the surface. Barsukov doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little lost, but I think that’s partially the point. Interesting things are clearly afoot, but at the same time they are clouded by Ashcroft’s perspective. It’s often manic, jumping between past memories, present events, and futures imagined. Barsukov sometimes highlights these different mental spaces within the writing. Other times it blends together, allowing Ashcroft’s guilt and pain to come to the forefront, blurring his current reality. It’s clever, even if sometimes confusing. My advice, take it slow to fully appreciate the whirlwind.
I also had a blast with Barsukov’s worldbuilding. It’s minimal, and forces you to ask questions and pay attention to everything. Often my curiosity on a subject was answered by the character’s own ignorance. It creates this neat little push forward that compels the reader to keep digging in the hopes they might discover the answer to the mysteries themselves. A lot of these answers remain ambiguous, but in a way that feels thematically fulfilling. Barsukov plays it tight to the chest, only giving the reader what the flawed narrator discovers, allowing Owenbeg to slowly flesh itself out as needed. It doesn’t hurt that Ashcroft is not a great investigator, but he does know a thing or two about the technology from the secretive race of Drakiri that is being used to cut corners. It makes the world feel exciting, and casts Ashcroft as a bull-fish in a chinashop out of water.
However, I will say I was lukewarm on Ashcroft himself. I think there are aspects to him that are compelling, but I wasn’t entirely sure of his drive. The book starts out with his refusal to follow the queen’s orders, and while I admire his moral standing on not gassing protestors, I never got the sense it was part of who he was. He has a past, but it’s never satisfactorily explained how he gets from his history to the place we meet him in the opening pages. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much, but the gap in Ashcroft’s development is disappointing when the book seems to explore the desire for power and the atrocities one has to carry out in order to achieve and secure it. I didn’t feel his own lust for power that propelled him to the capitol, and in the queen’s graces, he just happened to be there. Everyone around Ashcroft has their own agenda, pushing him to complete or destroy the tower for intangible and tangible reasons. It leaves him bewildered as there is just not enough time to inform himself before committing to one side or another. Yet, Ashcroft feels like a dog chasing cars. There wasn’t enough of a foundation to make me feel this was who he was leading up to defying the queen. It’s not a deal breaker, and if you read the book as some fever dream, that is packed with innuendo and metaphor, it works really well. It’s just something that stuck out to me, and kind of hampered some of the introspective tension in the climax.
All in all, Tower of Mud and Straw is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. In the ever growing market for novellas, Barsukov’s story is a contender for the top brackets. It’s clever, it’s feverish, and he leaves much up for interpretation. There aren’t any real answers to the myriad of questions, and the whip crack transitions between plot points cover Barsukov’s tracks even better. Some people might want explanations, but I was quite satisfied by the end of the book. It’s a real treat, and I implore you to check it out.
I’ve never been entirely enamored with Norse mythology. Or at least, I’ve never been exposed to it in a way that has subsumed me in the ways that Greek mythology has permeated a lot of western pop culture. When I get snippets, there is a small part of me that begins to crave, but I never fully take the plunge. Sure, I know few of the names of the gods, along with several denizens of their bestiary, but it’s not ingrained in my psyche like the Greek myths. So when I saw a debut author releasing a Norse inspired fantasy, I just had to put on the Dark Horse list. Hall of Smoke, by H.M. Long, despite it’s rocky start, is a worthy read with the feel of a legend in the making.
The story follows the Eangi warrior priestess Hessa in her journey to earn back her goddess’ favor. Hessa recently fell out of Eang’s grace by not killing a traveller that stayed within her temple, as she was ordered to do. Hessa was just following hearth law, so the visitor came and went. While Hessa was waiting for a sign from Eang to know how to gain back her favor, Eang sent the very subtle omen of having her home village raided and burned down by a band of Algatt warriors. Her husband was killed and the survivors were enslaved, her goddess nowhere in sight. Hessa tries to fight back with what little fire of Eang she had within her, but she is ultimately captured herself. Hessa herself is then sold to Omaskat, the man her god demanded she kill. In a scuffle she breaks free, is whisked away by a river miles away from her home with only one goal in mind, vengeance.
There was a lot I like about this book, but before I get to that, I do want to address the main issue I ran into while trying to get into the story. The first third of the book was a slog for me. Generally, this is somewhat a me issue, since I generally dislike straight forward first person perspectives, but I just didn’t find Hessa all that compelling on her own. She’s a bit narrow minded and blind to the world around her beyond her duties to the Goddess Eang and preparing for the annual raiding parties by nearby tribes. It makes sense, but I just found it hard to care for the struggles she was facing. It didn’t help that a lot of her internal monologue felt very repetitive. The aspect I did enjoy the most about this time in the book was Long’s description of the environment. However, once the reader experiences the Gods Hessa has to contend with, the story kicks off and Hessa truly begins her journey.
Hessa really starts to shine once she encounters Nisien at a place known as Oulden’s Feet, named for the god of the Soulderni people. Here she has to contend with someone outside her village, and learn more about their ways. Nisien works as a good foil because he’s seen a lot of the world, since he used to be an auxiliary in the Arpa (similar to the Roman Empire) army. I particularly liked that meeting someone who was not a raider of her lands, and being cared for by them doesn’t really seem to change her, as much as it allows her to open up. Not long after meeting Nisien, the pantheon of Gods within Hall begins their parade, and what a parade it is. Long’s Norse themed gods were a delight, and the story she weaves within her tale is filled with nice twists and turns fueled by Hessa’s choices and the whims of the gods. Ogam, the son of Eang and Winter (yeah, THE WINTER) steals the show every time he shows up. He has an unmatched charisma and bravado that really sets him apart from the other humans and gods Hessa encounters. Every encounter she has with something in the world feels meaningful in a mythical way, and it became fun to just explore the land with her while she tries to carry out her mission of revenge.
The land itself feels alive and breathing. Obviously, there are many gods, and each one seems to have their own tribes of people worshipping them and carrying out their will in the mortal realm. There are conflicts spurned by belief, as much as there is acceptance in their existence. There is an ebb and flow to the land and the people that Long portrays quite well, even as it starts to fall apart. The regions felt solid, but breathable as if most of the people didn’t recognize any sort of borders (except for the Arpans) beyond their particular villages and places of worship. There is a map at the end of my copy, but personally, I think Long captures the feeling of knowing the land, without the map. There are places that Hessa feels comfortable in, and there are places that are mythical to her, even though they are not hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I truly felt transported to another world where the vastness of the world had yet to be realized by the people you were engaged with and it was magical.
Long has written a solid debut. Sure it has a rocky start, but if you stick with the story just a little bit, it will definitely be worth it. The descriptions of the land, and the people who inhabit it are fun and mesmerizing. The mythology is a blast in it’s own right, and Hessa’s journey through it truly is fantastic. I didn’t even get into how enjoyable the action scenes were, but I was honestly more impressed with the rest of the book. It is Hessa’s story, and Long does an admirable job of making the revelations feel like they are hers and not just an expansion of the world. If you are at all interested in Norse inspired fantasy, I definitely recommend you check out Hall of Smoke.
It’s gift-giving and last-minute-shopping time. And if you’re looking to get something for the bookworm in your life, a perfunctory “Gifts for book lovers” Google search will undoubtedly feed you a deluge of bookish trinkets and products. But here’s the thing. The best gift for a bookworm isn’t some fancy bookmark or library scented candle. The best gift you can give to your SFF-obsessed friend is a hefty tome they can enjoy. And lucky for you, we’ve assembled a quick ‘n’ easy gift guide for your book-loving friends and relatives.
But first, here’s our Best of 2020 list. If you have a bookworm on your list, here’s a sampling of the latest and greatest in the SFF genres. If that doesn’t scratch the itch, just keep on reading for some “books-as-gifts” recommendations.
This is for the friend who needs a good ole fashioned space fight, with a dash of heroism and intrigue. It moves fast, and doesn’t let the reader breathe, so they’ll be glued to the page just like they’ve always wanted.
This one is for the folks who just love people, no matter who they are or how they live their life, they just love meeting people. Unfortunately, the people in this book don’t talk back and will most likely make them cry, but they’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
What’s that, you have a friend who likes politics with their politics, and with a side of more politics with a dessert full of intrigue? Give them Too Like The Lightning. they probably won’t be quiet about it, but hey, it’s a good story about the evolving nature of political systems.
For murder mystery buffs: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
A mysterious death. Native American magic. Ghost dogs. Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe has it all.
For your “I want to read the book first” friend: Dune by Frank Herbert
It’s a flagship sci-fi novel, but the movie is delayed to 2021. Perfect time for your cinema-buff friend to catch up on Frank Herbert’s masterpiece.
You don’t often hear this series mentioned next to Game of Thrones, Kingkiller Chronicle, Gentleman Bastards, and the like…but you should. Bradley P. Beaulieu crafts a sweeping adventure that any epic fantasy fiend will devour.
For people looking to explore a magical school other than Hogwarts: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Don’t beat a dead horse. Revive it and make it ten times cooler than it was before. Enter Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education. Oh, you thought the well of magic school content had been tapped dry? Think again.
For someone who wants to feel all the feels: The Divine Citiesseries by Robert Jackson Bennett
These books will make you laugh, cry, gasp, sigh, and everything in between. Simply put, some of the best fantasy we’ve ever read. Also, there’s Sigrud. You’ll thank us later. We linked the first book, City of Stairs, but don’t sleep on City of Bladesor City of Miracles. They’re all amazing.
Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book Of The Fallen is a beefy, 10-book epic fantasy of gargantuan proportions. And the series ended, as in the author finished it, in 2011. Be careful who you buy it for, though, Malazan is one of the biggest pillars of fantasy you can find. It’s an undertaking, and your friend may need this primer.
For someone who loves superheroes: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
They might not like you for giving them a book that makes them unironically like the supervillain and want to see them win, but they’ll at least love the book.
For someone who loves fairytales: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
The world’s sexiest man uhhhhh Henry Cavill uhhhhh Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher himself, fights monsters and explores twisted versions of popular fairy tales in this collection of stories from Andrzej Sapkowski.
For someone who wants to go on an adventure: Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell
If your friend’s idea of a good time is getting involved in a fight they have no particular right to be in, that allows them to piss off people in power for the heck of it, and having an absolute blast doing it, this is the book for them.
It’s really hard to avoid reading about the conditions that a lot of people are working under today. Before the pandemic it was already questionable, especially with the rise of the gig economy. But the pandemic, particularly in the United States, has brought a lot of those issues into sharp detail. So when I heard of a book about a group of women banding together to strike in the nineteenth century using magic, I was instantly sold. I know it’s not exactly a solution to our current predicaments (I wish it was), but because stories about solidarity are so rare, it’s important to read stories that focus on actually banding together. It’s a nice and (in my opinion) important break from the single good guy/girl protagonist who “wins” through sheer willpower. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is a book about such solidarity that scratches the surface of labor history in the Northeastern United States. It serves as an interesting exploration of these ideas but falls short in delivering a solid story.
Our storyfollows the exploits of women workers in the milltown of Lowell, Massachusetts, adding a fantastical flair to real life events of 1836. The two main characters are Judith, the ringleader of the strike, and Hannah, one who still practices the forgotten art of witchcraft. There is a budding romance between the two as they navigate the strike, facing opposition from management and helping to keep the other women involved. Magic isn’t a silver bullet in their schemes, so while Hannah practices, she still has to work to find the right spells to counteract the papercraft of capital. How can a young group of women succeed, when there have been several attempts before them? Will the magic be enough?
Promisingly, the book opens in media res, with the women performing magic during a strike planning session. There is a sense of wonder that fills the pages; the reader is introduced to the characters as they submit their hair to the collective spell. This spell would in essence form a magical bond of solidarity, preventing women from crossing the picket line at the promise of individual benefit from management. What I particularly enjoyed about the magic in Witches is how cleverly Malerich interweaved it into the class politics and machinations of capitalism. Setting Hannah up as someone who understood the basic tenets, but had to use her foundations to analyze and build new spells was really fun, and also fairly informative from a material analysis perspective (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Beyond the magic, however, I had a hard time connecting with the story, and I think that is mostly due to its length. Witches relies a lot on the historical aspect as a given, and people’s common understanding that working conditions in the nineteenth century were awful and extremely exploitative. There are tidbits here and there about the specifics of working conditions such as the kiss of death (in which women had to inhale the string through loops, thus inhaling the linens and dust, developing coughs), but I never got a general sense of their lives. While I understand that there probably was not much of a life outside of work in these conditions, I barely got a sense of who the women wanted to be outside work, or if they even saw the work as important. It was a fairly large cast of characters, centered around two particular women, but overall most of the characters barely had any defining traits even though they were often talked about in reverent and defining ways. I get that there is a very fine line to walk before you stray into anachronism, or modern progressive ideals showing up in historical fiction, but I had a hard time caring about the strike beyond my already pro-labor power tendencies. I’m not saying this had to be a “teachable moment” — it is fiction and deserves to be fun, I just mean that purely from a story standpoint I did not buy in. I think I expected historical fiction with a charming fantasy twist, but I just got the charming fantasy twist with historical labor trivia thrown in.
In the end it’s hard to say how much of this could be made more compelling with length, because I do think that’s my major complaint with the book. Witches is 120 pages, and so much is crammed into it. Everything moves so fast, there’s no time to appreciate the characters or their struggles. The texture of their lives feels missing, and while there are plenty of dissections of the book from a political perspective that are enlightening (if you are interested, I definitely recommend looking into them because there is a lot to learn about), I had trouble with it as a story. I wish it was a little less subtle, and had more “oomph” to the narrative. I still liked it and loved the way Malerich used magic in a grounded way to highlight how capitalism as a system functions. However, I wanted more from it, and maybe that’s a personal problem.
So you are sitting at home, reading a great fantasy book, and you think to yourself, “man, I wish I could pull every friend, family member, and random child on the street into this amazing hobby… but what are the best books to get someone into the genre?” Look no further random person I am asking extremely specific rhetorical questions to. Below is a list – well, actually three lists – that provide perfect material for converting almost any kind of person (or at least three kinds) into a fantasy reader. This method has a 100% success rate with the three people I tried it on, so have absolutely no doubt it will always work for you. No need to thank me, your enormous donations to the site via using our Bookshop page to purchase books is thanks enough – and it helps support authors and bookstores!
But actually, the following lists are all great examples of extremely accessible books for different ages, life stages, and mentalities. Hopefully, someone will find these helpful in bringing people they care about into the loving and wonderful fantasy family. Books with hyperlinks in their titles lead to their reviews!
Books to Get Teens and Young Adults Into Fantasy at an Early Age (Or BtGTaYAIFaaEA for short): If you want to give someone the lifelong gift of fantasy books, the best way to do that is get to them at a young age when their mind is malleable. Below are a number of books that are good for all ages, but are particularly good at capturing a spark of passion in younger readers. These books are easy to read and digest, showcase some of the best classic ideas in the fantasy genre, and are just fun and imaginative – perfect to show new readers some of the best of what the genre has to offer.
Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
Mistbornhas an easy-to-grasp but incredibly layered story, a defined roster of magic and monsters, and fantastic character development. The Mistborn trilogy serves as an excellent fantasy starting point because it’s a taste of what top-notch storytelling and a melting pot of captivating ideas can do. New fantasy readers will likely find Mistborn a great gateway to the genre because it mixes all of these elements with relatable themes and simple, elegant prose. If you’re looking for your first fantasy book, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Brandon Sanderson.
Added bonus–here’s our chat about Mistborn, in which a first-time Sanderson reader takes the plunge.
Spellslingerhas a relatable protagonist, a fun companion animal, witty dialogue, ambiance and style based on card sharks, and a wild west setting. The main character is a perfect self-insert for newer readers and the supporting cast is filled with teachers and mentors that teen (and older) readers tend to love. It’s got a plot with tons of twists that are hard to see coming, but the themes are very accessible and easy to digest without being hamfisted. This six-book series by Sebastian de Castell is an amazing entry point for anyone.
The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, is one of the cornerstones of classic fantasy and practically defined the chosen one trope in modern fantasy. Reading it gives you an enormous appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the story is beloved by thousands of fantasy fans for good reason. But, what makes it great for newer readers is its huge page count and epic storyline. Many newer readers prefer to stick to a single series or story as they get their baring in a genre and The Wheel of Time with its fourteen books has content to spare. In addition, its genuinely epic scope and story will be mindblowing to readers who want their books to be bigger and grander.
Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton
Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands is a solid entry point for fantasy initiates thanks to its incredible world and relatable characters. It has a sweeping narrative that highlights how fun (and dangerous) a journey into the unknown can be. Plus, protagonist Amani’s self-discovery arc carries with it a lot of power, the type literary fiction readers might be used to. But the primary reason I recommend this to fantasy newcomers is the exquisite melding of different genre elements. There’s sharpshooting, djinni, and a desert world all packaged in a story of self-realization and immense growth.
Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway opens the Wayward Childrenseries. The saga tells stories of children who have returned from magical, fantastical, and brutal worlds and must cope with coming back to our reality. New fantasy initiates will enjoy McGuires deft handling of heavy themes mixed with the whimsical worlds the titular children visit. Wayward Children as a whole skews toward an older demographic (swearing, thematic elements), resting on the thin line between teen and adult fantasy. Every Heart A Doorway fuses our world with infinite fantasy locales, giving you a deep-dive into the possibilities of the genre. It’s an excellent starting point for newcomers with its short page-length and hard-hitting explorations of the real-world impact of portals to strange lands.
Books to Help Readers Transition From YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy: One of the most powerful moments of my reading experience was when I picked up my first true adult fantasy book. It was The Black Company, which I have spoken a ton about already, and it showed me that fantasy could be so much more than mindless escapism. This book opened the door to heavier concepts, tons of new ideas, and a whole ocean of content that helped me grow and evolve as a person in my early 20s. If you, or someone you know, are looking to move from Harry Potter to something with a little more depth – these are the books for you.
Hey look, it’s the series I just mentioned in the introduction. I have a lot of things to say about The Black Company, by Glen Cook, much of which you can find here in one of our most popular posts. But, if I had to boil it all down to a single line it’s this: while much of fantasy helps you flee the troubles of reality via escapism – The Black Company instead uses escapism to force you to look closely at the horrors of reality, namely war. This series is a window into what it was like to be a part of a war and it is haunting. It is a powerful piece that will place you in the shoes of a number of people very different to yourself and help you understand what they went through. For me, reading TBC was an inspirational moment that taught me the power of empathy and stories and how fantasy can help us better understand our fellow man and the real world.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
According to posters in my elementary school library, reading is FUNdamental. And no book is as fun or fundamentally funny as The Lies Of Locke Lamora. First, just say that title out loud. Fun, right? You’re gonna feel that way on every single page of Scott Lynch’s humorous fantastical heist. The prose is poetic and breezy. The jokes are constant. The plot resembles an M.C. Escher painting in the best possible way. The setting (essentially fantasy Venice) is breathtaking. And the characters are the chef’s kiss of it all. I’ve never had more fun reading a book than I did with The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a daring novel that showcases just how entertaining fantasy can be, but its large size and layered plot do a lot to ease new readers into bigger novels.
Have your cake and eat it too. The Waking Fire is one third kick ass protagonists from different walks of life, one third giant dangerous dragons, and one third about how capitalism is a nightmare. This book is the shore between a sea of fun and a hard rocky beach of poignant criticisms of how our world works. One of the best parts about The Waking Fire is that you get out what you put in. If you just want a fun adventure story about people finding lost treasure – it can do that. If you want to explore heavy themes about how our reliance on substances that are destroying the Earth will eventually kill us all – it can do that as well. It’s the pitch hitter of transition adult fantasy.
The Deep – Rivers Solomon
The Deep, by its nature as a novella, is short, sweet and packed to brim with personality and world. Rivers Solomon does a lot of work in this book, introducing you to a world so vastly different than our own, but born of our crimes. Solomon fully immerses the reader in something special, positing a world built by the descendants of women thrown overboard in the slave trade. There is pain, and empathy abound in the story, but glimmers of hope sparkle like impossible rays of light on the dark ocean floor.
Books to Convince Serious Readers of Other Genres to Give Fantasy a Chance: The fantasy genre is the king of escapism, but it has so much more to offer. Unfortunately, in my years on this planet, I have run into any number of people who dismiss fantasy as elves, magic, and fluffy light adventures. Often the best way to convince people to give fantasy a chance is to ease them in with books that are closer to fiction with fantasy undertones. The following is a list of great bridge books to get people to slide into the fantasy genre sideways.
“There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an absolute powerhouse of a book. With absolutely outstanding prose, it sits somewhere between fantasy, historical fiction, and traditional fiction. It’s the story of small people in a big world trying to accomplish great things and find meaning in their lives. It is a hauntingly beautiful story about the human condition, and if you hand it to someone and they come back and say “sorry, I am just not into fantasy” I refuse to believe they even tried to read it. This book can make even the most stonehearted unbeliever cry.
If there is one thing that serious adults understand it is the soulless crushing weight of a job sucking the joy out of life – so why not explore a slightly more fun fantasy version with corporate necromancy! Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, is a book that serves up adult workplace escapism. It is a part of a series of stories about a modern world much like our own where magic and gods run rampant. It combines the troubles of your current life with an undercurrent of magic and provides a welcome relief in the form of incredible stories of triumph in a world much like our own. It’s also one of the weirder and more unique fantasy reads I regularly recommend and it does a great job showcasing how authors are constantly stretching the boundaries of what the fantasy genre is. I originally came across Three Parts Dead in a book club and every single person loved it – and I am sure you and the readers you give it to will as well.
I almost feel like I shouldn’t have to qualify this one due to its popularity, but here I go. It’s a love story between two dueling stage magicians who are using actual magic to one up each other as they try to win a competition for their lives. You have to have a cold, dead, unfeeling heart to not like this one. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a monument to the aesthetic power of incredible prose, fulfilling and relatable characters, and wonderful stories. The magic is quiet, subtle, and easy to ignore if the person reading isn’t into spells and magic system. But, the book also is a love letter to the mystery and beauty that magic can birth, making it a great salesman for the genre as a whole.
T.J. Klune’s The House In The Cerulean Seais one of the best books of 2020. Klune’s charming story features Linus Baker, a by-the-books case worker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. He gets sent on a unique assignment to a house where some extraordinary children are under the care of a mysterious man named Arthur Parnassus. Linus’ learns a lot about himself even as he investigates the conditions at Parnassus’ unconventional homestead. Cerulean Sea is heartwarming, charming, and a fantastic fit for readers who haven’t taken the fantasy plunge. There’s a reason we gave it a perfect 10. Cerulean Sea has a bevy of literary fiction elements blended nicely with a healthy dose of the whimsical. I’ve shared this book even with vehement lit-fic purists, and each one loved it.
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best known novel The Shadow of the Wind is, in a word, magical. It follows Daniel, a young man who discovers a book by an elusive author named Julian Carax, and makes it his goal to find his other works, and if he’s lucky, Carax himself. It’s honestly hard to describe what makes this book great without sitting you down in a big mansion library with the fire as the only light and reading it to you. Though it’s translated from Spanish, it reads like a painting. There are so many moments that still run chills up my spine. If you’re worried about it being about a kid on the verge of adulthood, don’t. Zafón perfectly bridges the gap between the world weary reality of being an adult with the magical discovery of being a child, igniting a joy I rarely feel when reading such stories. It’s not all lighthearted as the story takes place in post Civil War Spain, and as more of Carax’s life is revealed, the relationship between sadness, trauma and art is explored and Zafon has no easy answers. Ultimately, Shadow of the Wind is about rediscovering the magic of childhood and the ways in which growing up can hamper the creative soul within everyone.
Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover.
Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head.
Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dogKirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story.
And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages.
Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.
I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.
Shveta Thakrar’s (wait for it) stellar (I had to) debut comes from our 2020 Dark Horse list. Star Daughter journeys to the cosmos, telling a celestial coming of age story. Thakrar weaves Indian mythology and folklore with resonant characters from our world. The result? A pleasant and imaginative read.
Star Daughter follows Sheetal Mistry, 16-going-on-17-year-old with a cosmic secret. Her mom is a star–the celestial, twinkle twinkle kind, not the Hollywood walk of fame kind. Her dad, meanwhile, is human. Sheetal’s mom rejoined the constellations in her nakshatra (a celestial palace/governing body), leaving a 7-year-old Sheetal with her father. Ten years later, near Sheetal’s 17th birthday, she feels the pull of the starsong, a sidereal melody that pulls her toward the celestial realm. Just when she and Dev, her boyfriend, start to hit it off, Sheetal’s celestial origins start to manifest in ways she can’t control. In response, her aunt gives her a letter left by her mother many years ago. It instructs Sheetal to answer the starsong and travel to the stars. She follows the call, bringing her best friend Minal along for the ride, and sees her mother for the first time in 10 years. The current matriarch and patriarch of the stars are stepping down, which means it’s time for houses to compete for the right to rule. Sheetal must represent her nakshatra in the competition, which sees mortals perform or compose an art piece while being inspired by a star. Sheetal and Minal are thrust into an unfamiliar world, and with the competition looming, Sheetal has to work quickly to get a grip on the intricate starry politics, her family history, and the stars’ complicated relationship to humans.
Thakrar’s debut novel bursts at the seams with imagination. Star Daughter makes elegant use of Indian myths and legends. Every few pages introduced a reference to Indian folklore I had never heard of, and I eagerly Googled mythical beings and settings I was unfamiliar with. Thakrar weaves mythology into her story so well that Star Daughter felt as much like an education in unfamiliar tales as it did a gripping story. Astrology plays a huge role in the book, and the narrative Thakrar sets forth rests sturdily on a strong foundation of generations-old tales.
This otherworldly celestial mythos is a joy to behold through Sheetal’s eyes, who knows of her starry heritage but knows little about it. Sheetal struggles to balance her relationship with her father, having a boyfriend, missing her mother, and her yearning to answer the call of the starsong. She’s a distinct and rounded character with flaws and talents. It’s just easy to believe Sheetal is a living, breathing person. At the same time, Thakrar allows Sheetal to hold up a reader-facing mirror. The reader experiences the new world just as Sheetal does, and her uncertain exploration of her nakshatra welcomes readers in and provides a nice anchor through which the story can be read.
Even outside of the solid protagonist, Thakrar has a knack for characters. Every cast member feels fleshed out, even though Star Daughter reads at a brisk pace. Nani and Nana, Sheetal’s grandparents (also stars) have a quiet, controlling, subtle air about them with sinister undertones that unravel alongside the primary narrative. Sheetal’s mother, Charumati, shines bright with a love for her daughter, but there’s a hesitant air about her–another thread Thakrar gently pulls throughout the book. Every character–Sheetal’s best friend Minal, her boyfriend Dev, his cousin Jeet, and a whole cast of supporting stars (literal stars) all have meaningful and memorable moments in Star Daughter. Everything has a purpose, and Thakrar takes great care to give readers plenty of relatable and intriguing characters.
The settings of Star Daughter vary wildly from one another. I found myself riveted by some locales and underwhelmed by others. Sheetal’s home life on Earth is classic teenager fare. She dodges questions from her family about career and education. She sneaks out at night to meet Dev and make cookies. Her life as a human contrasts her place in the world of the stars, which Thakrar doles out with skill. My personal favorite locale was the Night Market, a waystation between the Earth and the celestial realm. At the Night Market, Sheetal encounters magical creatures that offer entire worlds contained in glass orbs and various other whimsical trinkets. She doesn’t spend much time there, but the Night Market stood out to me as a riveting setting for the beginning of Sheetal’s starry tale. On the other hand, the settings that follow the Night Market left me disappointed. Thakrar has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Star politics and policies are complex, and the author does a fantastic job entrenching the reader in her intricate world. But the actual celestial realm where the bulk of the novel takes place is hard for me to visualize.
Layered into all of this glorious cosmic madness is a story with high stakes. Thakrar has a tight, carefully plotted narrative, and she executes it well. Sheetal’s story quickly intertwines with centuries of celestial history and a faction of humans known to hunt stars. Her performance at the competition will determine whether her family will rule the stars for hundreds of years to come, but she isn’t sure if that’s the best path. Sheetal is presented with so many perspectives that it’s easy to relate to her flustered, pressured feeling throughout the majority of Star Daughter. Thakrar does an excellent job wrapping up the narrative loose ends and bringing the novel to a satisfying conclusion.
Star Daughter does so much right that it’s easy to overlook any small personal misgivings I had. Shveta Thakrar breaks new ground in fantasy by employing a mythology that (in my opinion) is under-utilized. By taking a grounded coming-of-age tale and bringing it to the stars, Thakrar has crafted a worthwhile and entertaining story.
Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves.
January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:
Repo Virtual– Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.
From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”
The Unspoken Name– The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first page to the last.
From our review: “This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.”
The Vanished Birds– Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.
Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat.
From our review: “Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms.”
Beneath the Rising– Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins.
From our review: “Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters.“
The Loop– Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely.
From our review: “…I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.”
The Dark Tide– Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.
From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.”
The Kingdom of Liars– The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series.
From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.”
Goddess in the Machine– Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept.
From our review: “…Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next.”
Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars delivers a strong debut that lays the foundation for a promising epic fantasy saga. Martell’s story of king killers, magic-induced memory loss, and political corruption springs off our Dark Horse 2020 list with fresh concepts and a high-speed narrative.
Michael Kingman wears the fire-seared brand of a traitor thanks to his dad. His father, David Kingman, was executed ten years ago for the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son. Now, Michael and his siblings Gwen and Lyon are also branded and ostracized, their Kingman name disgraced. As Gwen and Lyon struggle to rebuild lives removed from the Kingman legacy, Michael begins to find inklings of evidence that may prove his father’s innocence and expose the corrupt royal family of Hollows. But as Michael explores the possibility of his father’s innocence, he finds his life at risk when he learns that the mercenaries, politicians, Nobles, churches, and royalty of Hollows all have a stake in the game. Meanwhile, Michael begins to notice gaps in his memory, usually a symptom of using Fabrications (magic) without learning to control them first.
Michael tells his tale in the first person, ushering readers on a journey through Hollows (the primary setting) and the Endless Waltz, an extravagant multi-event celebration meant to pair High Nobles into political relationships and solidify powerful alliances. Michael joins the event thanks to the guiding hand of a rich maniac who the royals won’t dare defy. His presence alone sends ripples of discontent through the nobility, eventually reaching corrupt Prince Adreann, who makes his distaste for Michael abundantly clear.
Naturally, I’ve managed to scratch only the thinnest surface layer of what this novel has to offer. Michael’s trek through Hollows and the details of his family’s past, present, and future feel like a supercut parkour video. The story jumps from one plot point to the next at a breakneck pace with the occasional pause for dramatic effect. I think this tone is the result of Martell’s succinct-yet-descriptive prose and the myriad plot elements that Michael needs to encounter for the narrative to work. The Kingdom of Liars is one of those books that you pick up for a quick 20-30 page reading stint, only to end up flying through 150 pages. And that feeling fits the style of the novel really well. There are so many moving parts that even Michael has trouble tracking all the information he receives, the conversations he has, and the events he attends. Michael’s experience mirrors the reader’s; the more invested he becomes in the events unfolding throughout the novel, the more I felt drawn to the story. This breakneck spiral of a story could be a massive draw or a significant detriment, depending on the reader. Personally, I loved being whisked from one locale to the next through Michael’s eyes. Each page gave me something more than the last.
Kingdom’s scattershot worldbuilding slots neatly into the narrative. It’s clear that Martell has a unique and vivid setting constructed in his mind, and for the most part that translates to the page. Hollows is a poverty-ridden city with a rich history of turbulent politics. The military factions and rebellion add some nice flavor to the personal story Michael tells. The magic system is a novel concept: overuse your magic, and you risk losing memories. Not just recollections of events, but possibly the muscle memory of how to see or how to walk. The world of Kingdom has two moons, one of which has shattered into 7 separate pieces. Bits of the moon fall from time to time, and the city has an alarm system to indicate where the piece will hit.
All these worldbuilding tidbits offer refreshing takes on tried-and-true fantasy tropes. However, it’s tough as a reader to truly grasp what this world is like. Cogs turn and the story moves at a relentless speed, so much so that I often wished for a filler chapter that would tell me about one tiny aspect of the world. Martell constantly drops hints about the history of the shattered moon Celona, mercenaries, Hollows royalty, mythical beasts, and Fabrications. There’s a bigger picture here, but The Kingdom of Liars zooms so far in that it’s easy to miss things.
Space to breathe is the one thing Kingdom is missing, but the end promises much more from this richly imagined world, and I think Martell’s second and third outings will up the ante big time. Michael as a character has a fun arc. He begins the book as a stubborn, overly-independent child, but he spends much of the book learning from his mistakes and trusting those he loves. So much of the book’s central narrative results from Michael’s own growth, so I won’t spoil much here. One thing is worth noting, though: if you find Michael an insufferable brat for the first half of the book, you’re not alone. The second half makes it worthwhile, in my opinion. The supporting characters, meanwhile lend some verve to the book, much needed considering Michael’s single-minded purpose and frustrating first half. Domet, an incredibly rich aristocrat with a secret, stands out among them. Michael takes a job with the rich, elite, functioning alcoholic Domet that eventually catapults him into the center of political unrest. Michael’s siblings Gwen and Lyon have great moments as well. They both dealt with their father’s execution in different ways, shaping their unique relationships with Michael.
Like I mentioned, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve left out some details–a few because they’re spoilers and others because they take a backseat to the main points of the story. There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion. For now, though, I’m happy I picked up The Kingdom of Liars, and I look forward to following Nick Martell as he explores his unique world.