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.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Beautiful storytelling makes this novel, set mostly in Cornwall and Peru in 1859, compelling reading. Adventure, magical secrets, betrayal, and a different sense of time are all part of the adventure. Readers of Pulley’s first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, may suspect that the large moving statues guarding the salt line of the forest in Peru are clockwork, especially as there are windup lanterns filled with glowing pollen. But Pulley’s imagination takes the story in a very different direction, in a village set on stacks of volcanic glass. Botanist Merrick Tremayne, whose father and grandfather spent time in Peru, is recruited for an expedition to Peru to smuggle cuttings of cinchona trees, the source of quinine, badly needed in India for a malaria epidemic. The risk is high, and Merrick’s leg was badly injured while working for the East India Company. Watchmaker Keita Mori of the first book makes a cameo appearance, but Merrick’s intriguing guide/priest Raphael takes center stage here, bridging the border of the Spanish and Quechua speaking worlds, and with a poignant connection to Merrick’s grandfather. Creative and unpredictable, I look forward to more from this enchanting author. For readers of historical fiction and fantasy.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Tristan Lyons recruits Boston linguist Melisande Stokes for a top secret government project, translating modern and ancient documents. Their research shows that magic did exist, but abruptly stopped in 1851. Mel gets absorbed into D.O.D.O. (so secretive that it’s months before she learns she works for the Department of Diachronic Operations) as the pair work with physicist Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca to build an ODEC. At first, the office memos and messages are just something to get through between Melisande’s diary and action scenes. As the pace picks up, the messages get funnier and wilder as the improbable becomes mundane, even as the acronyms pile up. The ODEC is a time travel machine that can only be operated by a witch, and the person sent through time by the witch arrives empty handed and naked. Melisande tries repeatedly to acquire a rare book to help fund their work, Tristan learns to fence, an Irish witch plots to stop the end of magic, Vikings plunder Wal-Mart, and Melisande gets stuck in Victorian London, close to the ending of magic. A complicated, mostly entertaining, and lengthy tale that blends technology, history, and fantasy, along with a good dose of humor.
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
A fantasy novel set in an alternate version of the American West, this sequel to Silver on the Road lives up to the promise of the first book. Teen Isobel and her mentor Gabriel, along with two horses and a mule, are traveling through the Territory, as Isobel learns the land, the people, and her new role as Left Hand for the Master of the Territory. Alone temporarily, Isobel comes upon a field of slaughtered bison, and promises to remember them. Small animals and birds are strangely absent, and it’s as if the land is poisoned. Gabriel can sense water, but neither can sense the main road for a while, and then the earthquakes begin. Something is very wrong, and it’s Isobel’s charge to investigate. They find a Marshall who’s arrested two scouts from east of the Mississippi, probably sent by President Jefferson. They are accused of encouraging a group of magicians to work together to trap a spirit. Isobel and Gabriel, with the remaining magicians, join the Marshall in a journey to a small, warded town for a trial. Although Isobel seems more mature than most 16-year-olds, it’s fascinating seeing the Territory through her eyes. The writing is compelling, the characters fully realized, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens next, while dreading what they might encounter. Clearly, Isobel and Gabriel are living in an unsettled and unpredictable time, and there are likely several more adventures ahead for them. Here’s my review of Silver on the Road, which I suggest reading first.
I enjoyed these three fantasy novellas, set in the World of the Five Gods. The first book in the loosely connected series is The Curse of Chalion, but the Penric novellas are a good place to start.
Lord Penric is the younger son of a minor noble, and is on the way to his betrothal to a cheesemaker’s daughter when he stops to help an elderly lady who’s fallen ill. She is a temple divine and when she dies, her demon unexpectedly transfers to Penric. Penric names the demon Desdemona, and her previous hosts, all female, tell him amazing stories. No one expects the demon to be allowed to stay with young, untrained Penric, except the reader. Penric has always wanted to go to university, and is happy to get the education he needs for his new station in life, and gradually learns to cope with the demon.
Penric and the Shaman
Several years later, Penric’s education is complete, and he is sent on a mission to help locate Inglis, a runaway shaman accused of murder. There are magical dogs, an avalanche, and adventures in the mountains and a small town. This is the shortest of the novellas. Penric is learning to use Desdemona’s powers when necessary, but there are consequences, so he must get creative.
In Penric’s Mission, Penric is an agent for the Duke of Adria. He is travelling by sea to Cedonia, home of an earlier host of Desdemona, to meet with a young general. Instead, Penric is imprisoned, and General Arisaydia is arrested and badly injured. Using Desdemona’s skills, Penric escapes, and finds that the general has been released to the care of his widowed sister, Nikys. Penric uses his healing skills, and the trio have a cross country adventure escaping their enemies, and Penric gets to battle another wizard. This story was great fun, and I liked the possibility of a future romance with Nikys. So far, Penric’s Mission is only available as an ebook.