Starless by Jacqueline Carey
I really enjoyed reading this lush, compelling, standalone fantasy. Richly detailed with a strikingly unusual narrator, this story definitely exceeded my expectations. Khai has been raised in the desert by the Brotherhood of Parkhun, chosen to be the shadow or protector of a royal princess born the same day. Khai is trained by warriors and a thief, as well as an unlikely seer, facing his first opponent at age 9. Khai’s gender is non-binary, but that’s not a spoiler to anyone but Khai. The princess Zariya, youngest child of a very long lived king, has some physical problems from a childhood illness, but is brilliant, beautiful, and strong-willed. Later the pair journey across their starless, island-filled world in search of answers to a prophecy and companions to help in their quest. One reviewer compared their quest to Tolkien, but it reminded me more of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. The gods are creatively depicted, and include a giant octopus who’s an oracle. Giant sea worms tow their ship, and not all their companions are human. This is the first book I’ve read by Jacqueline Carey; I may try her Kushiel series next.
Red Waters Rising by Laura Ann Gilman
Isobel is riding with her mentor Gabriel, exploring the hot, humid southern portion of the Devil’s West, in the third book of the trilogy which began with Silver on the Road. Isobel is the young Left Hand of the territory; arbitrator and sometimes enforcer in this magical land. As Isobel and Gabriel approach the Mudwater River (aka the Mississippi), everyone they meet seems increasingly uneasy. Gabriel is feeling the call of the River while Isobel may be too closely connected to the land of the territory. In the city of Red Stick they may be facing a riot, or another flood. An imaginative, well-drawn book set in an alternate 19th century North America, which leaves room for more stories in the Devil’s West.
Year One by Nora Roberts
Bestselling romance and fantasy novelist Roberts goes in a new direction with this first book in a post-apocalyptic trilogy. A pandemic sweeps the globe from its start near a stone circle in Scotland. Returning home from a family holiday, Ross MacLeod and his wife bring the sickness to New York City. Their pregnant daughter Katie later continues the story. While many people die, some are immune and others, known as the Uncanny, develop paranormal powers. Reporter Arlys finished her final television broadcast, then heads west through the subway tunnels with intern Freddy, an Uncanny. Paramedic Jonah delivers Katie’s babies, and they head southwest with some others, ending up in New Hope, Virginia, where the small community thrives until challenged by enemies with paranormal powers. Several appealing characters and a fast-paced story showcase the author’s storytelling skills. While this isn’t the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read recently, it’s very good. For readalikes without the paranormal elements, try When the English Fall, by David Williams or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. For post-apocalyptic novels with paranormal elements, check out Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling, the first book in The Change series.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Picking up from where we left her in The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya Petrovna, disguised as a boy, makes her way to Moscow with the help of the frost demon Morozko and her faithful horse Solovey. Moscow is her first stop on her quest to see the world, and where she hopes to be reunited with her sister, Olga. However, trouble is never far behind, and Vasya finds herself rescuing a few maidens along the way. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother, Sasha, urges the Grand Prince Dmitrii to deal with the roving bandits that have been kidnapping girls and burning villages across Russia. Once in Moscow, Vasya enters a world utterly different from village she left. The grandeur of the city is like magic, and yet the magic Vasya knows holds little power there. She is also torn by the admiration she receives while masquerading as a boy, while knowing the fate that awaits her as a young woman: either to marry or enter a convent. On her journey, Vasya learns more about her family and her ties to Morozko, while a new dark power threatens to overtake Moscow.
There are several plot threads woven through The Girl in the Tower — the second book of the Winternight Trilogy — and Arden brings them together beautifully. As in the previous book, Arden’s lush prose transports the reader to medieval Russia, and her strong grasp of history and creative adaptation of folklore again makes for a winning combination. The story unfolds through the eyes of several characters, which enriches our understanding of them and the world they inhabit. Vasya is still as brave and strong-willed as ever but, thanks to the new setting and characters, she continues to grow as a character, too. The development of her relationships with her siblings and Morozko is particularly lovely. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here, and I’m sure readers will be champing at the bit for the next book!
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In a fantastical version of medieval Russia, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna inherits her grandmother’s ability to see and commune with the household spirits and mystical creatures that live side by side with the people of her village. Free-spirited Vasya would rather run wild in the woods than perform her duties as a rich boyar’s daughter. When Vasya’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, comes to the household, things begin to change. Anna can also see the spirits, though she fears them and believes them to be demons. Making matters worse, the zealous, handsome Konstantin comes to serve as the village priest, and he encourages the villagers to turn from the old ways. The spirits weaken, and an unnaturally harsh winter brings death, hunger, and fear to the village. Aided by the fabled frost demon Morozko, Vasya must embrace her gift to save both her family and the village (and maybe the world) before it’s too late.
Katherine Arden’s debut is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and completely gorgeous. Lush prose and fully formed characters make for a compelling read, and Vasya is a worthy heroine. This is the first in a planned trilogy, and readers will be anxious for the next installment. Highly recommended for historical or literary fiction readers who don’t mind a dash of the fantastic. Fantasy readers who liked Uprooted by Naomi Novik will also enjoy this. This book would also be a great pick for teens.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Essun’s daughter is missing, her son is dead, and the world may be ending, again. The Stillness is a volcanic world, with a fifth season occurring every so often that affects many of the small communities on the continent. It may be earthquakes, volcanoes, or plagues, but everyone has a stash of supplies handy if they need to travel to safety. Damaya is a young girl on her way to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained to safely use her talents as an orogene, one who can harness the powers of the earth. Syenite is a four ring orogene, sent to clear a harbor with her new mentor, ten ring Alabaster. With the women, a variety of small communities are explored, and some of the land’s history is explained. Gradually, we learn how the characters are connected, and the pages turn faster and faster to see what geologic calamity will happen next, and when Essun will find her daughter. The award-winning first novel in a fantasy trilogy, this may be a television series. The writing is lovely, the tone is dark and gritty, the creativity of the world building is stunning, the world itself is depressing, and I really cared about the main characters. Fantasy fans will appreciate the quality, but I’m ready for a fun, light read next, probably a cozy mystery. The second book in the trilogy is The Obelisk Gate.
Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
As a big fan of Cashore’s previous novels—The Graceling Series—I have long awaited Jane, Unlimited. I was happy to rediscover her immersive writing style and strong, complex characters. Her newest book is more of mystery with a fantasy twist than her other straight fantasy novels. Jane arrives at “Tu Reviens” Mansion with her friend Kiran for a seasonal ball, but after a number of peculiar things happen—missing art pieces, overhead late night conversations, and the disappearances and reappearances of people—Jane begins wonder what is actually happening at the mansion. As the mystery unfolds, Jane reaches a point where she must decide how she will uncover the truth. This decision changes her future in ways Jane could never have imagined. Created in an interesting format, readers who enjoy mysteries, multiverses, or unearthing new discoveries will enjoy this book. It also gets bonus points for having diverse representation.