The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. Cover images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

There’s one book to highlight this weekend, but first, here’s a review from last week in case you missed it:

  • Review of Servant Mage by Kate Elliott This novella does some really interesting things with fantasy and storytelling conventions and has a great main protagonist, but I found seeing the big picture in the end more compelling than the overall journey (even though I did find it an enjoyable story).

Now, an August release that sounds rather intriguing!

Book Cover of The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu

The Art of Prophecy (The War Arts Saga #1) by Wesley Chu

The Art of Prophecy is the first book in a new epic fantasy series by Astounding Award winner and #1 New York Times bestselling author Wesley Chu. It will be released on August 9 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Art of Prophecy. (The link is below the cover image.)

There’s so much about this book that sounds fantastic: a prophecy that turns out to be wrong about the chosen one, a chaotic assassin, and an older woman who had thought she was done with adventures, to name a few examples from its description.

 

A “superb fantasy saga” (Helene Wecker) of martial arts and magic, about what happens when a prophesied hero is not the chosen one after all—but has to work with a band of unlikely allies to save the kingdom anyway, from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lives of Tao

“An ambitious and touching exploration of disillusionment in faith, tradition, and family—a glorious reinvention of fantasy and wuxia tropes.”—Naomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

So many stories begin the same way: With a prophecy. A chosen one. And the inevitable quest to slay a villain, save the kingdom, and fulfill a grand destiny.

But this is not that kind of story.

It does begin with a prophecy: A child will rise to defeat the Eternal Khan, a cruel immortal god-king, and save the kingdom.

And that prophecy did anoint a hero, Jian, raised since birth in luxury and splendor, and celebrated before he has won a single battle.

But that’s when the story hits its first twist: The prophecy is wrong.

What follows is a story more wondrous than any prophecy could foresee, and with many unexpected heroes: Taishi, an older woman who is the greatest grandmaster of magical martial arts in the kingdom but who thought her adventuring days were all behind her; Sali, a straitlaced warrior who learns the rules may no longer apply when the leader to whom she pledged her life is gone; and Qisami, a chaotic assassin who takes a little too much pleasure in the kill.

And Jian himself, who has to find a way to become what he no longer believes he can be—a hero after all.

As an Amazon Associate and Bookshop affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Note: You may want to read this review on the website (instead of by email or feed reader). There are spoiler tags following the fourth paragraph that should be hidden on the website but may be visible elsewhere.

Kate Elliott’s latest book, the standalone epic fantasy novella Servant Mage, tells the story of a commoner swept into an overthrown monarchy’s struggle against the new regime. Fellian, like all mages since the so-called Liberationists came into power, is forced to use her gifts in service of the new government, and she’s working as an indentured servant at an inn when she’s found by a group of Monarchists seeking her aid. They need someone with her type of magic to light the way for people trapped in a mine, and they sneak her out of the inn so she can do just that. But they don’t get very far before their plans change, and they embark on a new mission that they are uniquely suited for as a group of mages with all five elemental powers: trying to save a newborn dragon queen from the new ruler, who will try to kill her.

There’s a lot that I appreciate about Servant Mage, from the way it subverts a lot of common fantasy/storytelling elements to its focus on a commoner’s perspective. Although this is a quest tale set amidst a power struggle, it’s also about the regular people who live through all these big events. Fellian is thrust into an ongoing epic story, surrounded by others who have had an impact on recent history and been involved in the conflict between the Monarchists and the Liberationists. She’s not a chosen one or someone who is so uniquely powerful that she is the only one who can carry out an important task. The group that finds her needs someone who can do basic fire magic—creating light—and selected her because she was not going to be sympathetic to the Liberationists’ cause after they made her an indentured servant and executed her family.

And Fellian is a great protagonist: she’s unafraid to ask questions that might show people the error of their ways, determined, clever, and resourceful. Despite her lack of training, she’s managed to teach herself a bit about her magic and has potential to be a powerful fire mage, and she does what she can to help other people even when doing so could have terrible consequences for her. But the qualities that really made her shine were her unshakeable confidence in who she is and what she believes and the way she cared about the more ordinary people who are often overlooked. As someone who has been politically powerless throughout her life, she sees them, their suffering, sacrifices, and struggles—and not just the nobles, rulers, and dragon queens of the world.

There’s another aspect of this novella that I particularly enjoyed that becomes clearer and clearer throughout the book. I don’t expect this to necessarily be much of a surprise, especially to those already familiar with Kate Elliott and her work, but I’m hiding it behind spoiler tags for those who’d rather avoid knowing too much about what unfolds.

Yet, as much as I appreciated Servant Mage, I didn’t love it, in part because of the very same things that make it interesting. It’s a wonderful exploration of fantasy and storytelling conventions, and it successfully subverts common tropes and story cues while focusing on someone who has little power but nevertheless finds ways to have an impact. However, by holding back from revealing too much too soon so that readers can lean into their assumptions about how stories are supposed to go, it keeps some distance from Fellian’s thoughts and feelings. Given that she mainly interacts with people she doesn’t know very well, that means she’s not an especially vibrant character to read about, though she is admirable and it’s clear who she is by the end.

That wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t completely invested in this story, though. Fellian is the only character who is at all fleshed out, and the rest of the group seems to fill certain roles rather than having much personality of their own: there’s the leader, the leader’s loyal second-in-command, the male love interest, the female love interest, etc. There’s also quite a bit of discussion about the world and magic, and I don’t tend to find more knowledgeable people explaining these to a less knowledgeable main character particularly compelling, although this was at least interspersed between other scenes and never went on for so long that I completely lost interest.

Ultimately, that’s why I liked but did not love Servant Mage: it was readable enough that I was never tempted to set it aside, but I found the way the story fit together more engaging than a lot of the actual journey. It’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into crafting this story, and it beautifully ties the beginning together with the ending, making it a book I valued more after finishing it and seeing the full picture. But it has neither the heart nor teeth that would make me care intensely about the story or characters, and there’s no reveal so mind-blowing that it makes up for that completely, even if it does some interesting things.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC and finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Servant Mage

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. Cover images are affiliate links to Amazon, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

There are no new reviews since last time due to a work project, health problems, house problems, and car problems, but you can see a brief overview of my 2022 book highlights so far on Twitter. (And you can read a review of one of them, Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel, here.)

This week’s book sounds like a fun, magical read, and it has me very curious about “Undead Philosophy 101.”

Cover of Touchstones: A Collection by Stephanie Burgis

Touchstones: A Collection by Stephanie Burgis

Touchstones is a collection containing sixteen fantasy short stories by Stephanie Burgis, including two new ones. It will be released in ebook and paperback on July 11 (tomorrow!).

There is a page that includes links to read or sample some of these stories, as well as others, on the author’s website.

 

The glass molded to my foot as neatly—and as chillingly—as if it had been made for me.

“This,” I said, “is a most unfortunate coincidence…”

From tongue-in-cheek fairy tale reframings to forbidden Victorian-era romance and contemporary ghosts, dive into an immersive world of magic. Touchstones is a collection of sparkling short fantasy fiction from Stephanie Burgis, including two new stories as well as fourteen short stories and novelettes that have been previously published in magazines and anthologies.

This collection includes The Wrong Foot, Undead Philosophy 101, A Cup of Comfort, Dreaming Harry, Offerings, Dancing in the Dark, The Disastrous Début of Agatha Tremain, The Wildness Inside, The Art of Deception, Midnight, Clasp Hands, Crow, True Names, Good Neighbors, Love, Your Flatmate, and House of Secrets.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. Cover images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

This is a week late since I was waiting for an issue with text formatting on the site to be resolved to post anything (and although it was fixed before then, it took forever to catch up and switch over to that version). Sorry about that if you ran into it, but that should be all set now!

Today’s featured book is one I’m very excited about—another one from my 30 Anticipated 2022 Speculative Fiction Releases list! Also, a new review went up a couple of days ago. Here’s the link in case you missed it:

  • Review of Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel — Although I preferred the first half or so to the second, this Ramayana retelling is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year with pretty writing that drew me in immediately and a compassionate yet imperfect protagonist.

On to the latest book on the TBR!

Book Cover of House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

Alexis Henderson’s second novel, a Gothic horror story with inspiration from the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, will be released on September 27 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

I’ve been looking forward to reading more by Alexis Henderson since reading her Goodreads Choice Award–nominated debut, the Gothic horror novel The Year of the Witching. It was a book that kept me turning the pages when I’d been having difficulty concentrating on reading in 2020. Here’s a couple of snippets from my review:

Terror is twofold in The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson’s dark fantasy/Gothic horror debut novel, with its story involving mysterious witch spirits as well as the everyday atrocities that occur in a patriarchal puritanical society—the latter of which is magnified for protagonist Immanuelle Moore, a biracial sixteen year old followed by her mother’s sins and connection to the witchy woods.

[Immanuelle is] one of the types of characters I enjoy reading about: one who grows and ends up in a different place from where she started, one brimming with determination and the desire to do what’s right, one who is loyal to those she cares about and generally compassionate yet has a sharp edge. The choices she made at the end said a lot about her as a person, and I loved that despite having a different outlook in the final chapters, she still seemed like the same character from the beginning—just one whose experiences had pulled a deeper part of herself from the shadows into the light.

(And if you missed it in 2021, Alexis Henderson wrote about her kinship with horror in her guest post for Women in SF&F Month, “Writing Dark Fiction: An Exercise in Self-Acceptance.”)

 

WANTED – Bloodmaid of exceptional taste. Must have a keen proclivity for life’s finer pleasures. Girls of weak will need not apply.

A young woman is drawn into the upper echelons of a society where blood is power in this dark and enthralling Gothic novel from the author of The Year of the Witching.

Marion Shaw has been raised in the slums, where want and deprivation are all she know. Despite longing to leave the city and its miseries, she has no real hope of escape until the day she spots a peculiar listing in the newspaper seeking a bloodmaid.

Though she knows little about the far north—where wealthy nobles live in luxury and drink the blood of those in their service—Marion applies to the position. In a matter of days, she finds herself the newest bloodmaid at the notorious House of Hunger. There, Marion is swept into a world of dark debauchery. At the center of it all is Countess Lisavet.

The countess, who presides over this hedonistic court, is loved and feared in equal measure. She takes a special interest in Marion. Lisavet is magnetic, and Marion is eager to please her new mistress. But when she discovers that the ancient walls of the House of Hunger hide even older secrets, Marion is thrust into a vicious game of cat and mouse. She’ll need to learn the rules of her new home—and fast—or its halls will soon become her grave.

As an Amazon Associate and Bookshop affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Note: You may want to read this review on the website (instead of by email or feed reader). There are spoiler tags toward the end that should be hidden on the website but may be visible elsewhere.

Book Description:

A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is the story of the infamous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana. It is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.

So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.

Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.

But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind.

Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, is a reimagining of the story of the titular queen, who exiled the hero Rama in the Indian epic the Ramayana. The author described it as “a ‘what-if’ style alternative rather than a faithful retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana from someone else’s perspective” on Goodreads, and there is an author’s note at the beginning of the novel discussing some of the changes she made. In this, she shared how the idea grew from a minor disagreement between her grandmother and mother when the latter said that Kaikeyi actually helped Rama fulfill his destiny by sending him away. This conversation led her to look for literature focusing on the queen’s perspective, and she wrote this novel when she couldn’t find these stories, saying she “wanted to give Kaikeyi a chance to explain her actions and explore what might have caused a celebrated warrior and beloved queen to tear her family apart.”

As such, this standalone novel is a first-person account of Kaikeyi’s story covering her life from childhood through the immediate aftermath of her choice to exile one of her adult sons. It details how she learned at a young age just how unfair the world is to women and girls, from the banishment of her own mother to the differences between how she and her twin brother were treated. It shows how alone she felt as the only girl in a family with eight children, as one whose prayers went unanswered (despite being a princess, who she’d been taught was someone the gods always answered), and how she turned to the scrolls in the library and discovered a forgotten magical art: the Binding Plane, which allowed her to see her bonds with people and influence them. It tells of her convincing her twin to teach her to fight so she can better protect herself, and then learning to wield a weapon and drive a war chariot.

These early experiences shaped her into the woman she became: one who made a place for herself in a world in which she didn’t fit, one who strove to make the world a better and more just place for other women, and eventually, one who exiled someone she loved.

Although I’m not that familiar with the Ramayana, I was swept away from the very first page of Kaikeyi. (I had actually been considering reading a version of the Ramayana that I have beforehand, but I looked at Kaikeyi‘s opening and just had to keep reading.) The prettily written narrative with its references to the heartbreak to come drew me in immediately, and Kaikeyi’s a sympathetic protagonist with her all-too-palpable rising anger at patriarchy. I loved her character, a remarkable and persistent person who does her best and tries to make the world a better place yet one who is also imperfect. She falters at times, makes mistakes, and has regrets. She isn’t always aware of her privilege, and she seems more concerned with the potential negative outcomes of using the Binding Plane than the fact that she’s using magic to manipulate people. (When I first finished this, I wanted to see her hypocrisy related to the latter explored a bit more, but after reflecting on it, I appreciate that the author allowed Kaikeyi to just tell her story and exist as someone who isn’t always self-aware. As she relates her narrative, she doesn’t always examine herself or come to realize she was in the wrong, and that makes her all the more real.)

Kaikeyi’s relationships with others are another highlight of the novel, especially those with her twin brother and the family she marries into. She grows up close to her barely-younger sibling, but their connection increasingly simmers with tension and Kaikeyi comes to realize just how much more her brother is valued for being a boy. To make matters worse, her twin is oblivious to how differently the two of them are treated, and later, he supports their father’s wishes for her to marry a king after she’d been promised there would be more time before she had to wed.

As portrayed in this novel, Kaikeyi is an aroace woman who never expresses any interest in romantic relationships, and she wanted to put off marriage as long as possible. She also initially resisted the match with her husband since she expected to be of no consequence as his third wife, but she agreed to the marriage when he promised that her son, should she have one, would be the next king. Though Kaikeyi does not fall in love with her husband, she does come to consider him a dear friend after gaining his respect in battle, and she comes to see his other two wives as sisters. Together, the three queens create the Women’s Council, allowing the people to come to them with their problems and giving more of a voice to the women in their kingdom. (And this is also influenced by Manthara, Kaikeyi’s servant, who was like a mother to her and showed her some of the problems other women faced.)

Though I found Kaikeyi’s entire story compelling, I did prefer the first half or so focusing on her childhood and the earlier parts of her time as a queen, wife, and mother. There are still wonderful scenes later in her story, such as some epic moments interspersed throughout and her reunions with various family members, but I did find it less engaging, especially since I have some reservations about how she came to exile Rama. Part of this is because of my personal preference for complexity that blurs the line between who’s right and who’s wrong, but I also felt that fleshing certain aspects out a bit more would have made it stronger. Spoilers related to this are below (and should be hidden if you’re reading this in a web browser).

However, that wasn’t a huge hindrance to my enjoyment of this novel, and I still think Kaikeyi is a wonderful book. I just didn’t end up loving it quite as much as I expected when I was partway through it. (Of course, I have not read or studied the Ramayana; I’ve only read about it on the internet and read a couple of stories from it in a book on mythology. It’s entirely possible there is additional context I’m missing.)

Kaikeyi is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I appreciated its focus on a compassionate but flawed heroine determined to carve a place for herself in a society that didn’t want her to be her true self as a woman with ambition: a queen and a warrior, a mother and a political adviser, an advocate for other women, and ultimately, someone who had a profound impact. It’s a fantastic debut—from the protagonist’s story and voice to the depth of her familial relationships to the more epic scenes involving gods and other supernatural beings—and I’m eagerly anticipating Vaishnavi Patel’s next novel.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Kaikeyi

Read “Divorcing the Evil Stepmother” by Vaishnavi Patel from Women in SF&F Month 2022

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. Cover images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

The most recent book in the mail is one of the books from my 30 Anticipated 2022 Speculative Fiction Book Releases list. But first, here’s last week’s post in case you missed it:

Now for the latest book, which is by one of my favorite authors!

The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri - Book Cover

The Oleander Sword (The Burning Kingdoms #2) by Tasha Suri

The second book in The Burning Kingdoms trilogy will be available on August 16 (hardcover library edition, trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

I have loved all of Tasha Suri’s books, starting with the two novels in The Books of Ambha, Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash. (Tasha Suri wrote a guest post about inspirations for this world’s magic system for Women in SF&F Month 2019, which opens with “Fairy tales are obsessed with feet.”)

The Jasmine Throne, the first book in the series, was one of my favorite books of 2021. Here’s a couple of snippets from my review:

Inspired in part by Indian epics like the Mahabharata and a conflict for a throne during the Mughal periodThe Jasmine Throne is largely about different characters surviving and influencing their world despite the perils of the Empire, with a heavy emphasis on the additional obstacles of patriarchy for the women who are the heart of this story. It’s about the dangers of underestimating these women, even—or maybe especially—when they appear to have been stripped of their power. It’s about the different, subtler ways they navigate their world and how they can use being underestimated to their advantage: whether they are a maidservant, an imprisoned princess, or a wife and mother-to-be with a reputation for being gentle.

The Jasmine Throne comes with my highest recommendation to those who share my taste for beautifully written, character-driven epic fantasy. Although I tend to come across several books a year that are exceptional, it’s rare that I come across one like this—a book that seems perfect to me in every way, one that is not only technically wonderful but also one that has my whole heart.

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Jasmine Throne.

 

The Jasmine Throne has been hailed as a series opener that will “undoubtedly reshape the landscape of epic fantasy for years to come” (Booklist, starred). Now, award-winning author Tasha Suri’s provocative and powerful Burning Kingdoms trilogy continues with The Oleander Sword.

The prophecy of the nameless god—the words that declared Malini the rightful empress of Parijatdvipa—has proven a blessing and curse. She is determined to claim the throne that fate offered her. But even with the strength of the rage in her heart and the army of loyal men by her side, deposing her brother is going to be a brutal and bloody fight.

The power of the deathless waters flows through Priya’s blood. Thrice born priestess, Elder of Ahiranya, Priya’s dream is to see her country rid of the rot that plagues it: both Parijatdvipa’s poisonous rule, and the blooming sickness that is slowly spreading through all living things. But she doesn’t yet understand the truth of the magic she carries.

Their chosen paths once pulled them apart. But Malini and Priya’s souls remain as entwined as their destinies. And they soon realize that coming together is the only way to save their kingdom from those who would rather see it burn—even if it will cost them.