The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). 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.

It’s been a couple of weeks since one of these posts largely due to the holidays, and I was fortunate to receive a few books as Christmas gifts to include here along with some other books that sound intriguing.

In case you missed it, I posted a list of my favorite books of 2017 last week. This includes both 2017 releases and books I read published before 2017, and it was a great year of reading!

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

The Black Tides of Heaven (Tensorate #1) by JY Yang

The Black Tides of Heaven is one of two novellas that were both released on the same day last year. Though they are each supposed to stand alone, this one comes before The Red Threads of Fortune in chronological order.

You can read an excerpt from The Black Tides of Heaven on Tor.com, and you can learn more about the series from an interview with JY Yang on io9.

Both novellas have absolutely gorgeous cover art, and I’ve thought it sounded like an interesting series since I first heard of it. I did read The Black Tides of Heaven shortly after I received it for Christmas and now want to read The Red Threads of Fortune as well.

 

The Black Tides of Heaven is one of a pair of unique, standalone introductions to JY Yang’s Tensorate Series, which Kate Elliott calls “effortlessly fascinating.” For more of the story you can read its twin novella The Red Threads of Fortune, available simultaneously.

Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as infants. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While Mokoya received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What’s more, they saw the sickness at the heart of their mother’s Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue as a pawn in their mother’s twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond they share with their twin?

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes #1) by Sabaa Tahir

The first two books in this series, An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night, are available now. The third book in the series, A Reaper at the Gates, is scheduled for release in June.

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from An Ember in the Ashes.

This is another book I’ve been wanting to read since I first heard about it, and I was thrilled to receive a copy for Christmas!

 

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage, the first book in a new series set in the same world as His Dark Materials, was released last year. The publisher’s website has an excerpt from La Belle Sauvage.

I enjoyed His Dark Materials so I was excited to receive a signed copy of La Belle Sauvage for Christmas!

 

Philip Pullman returns to the parallel world of his groundbreaking novel The Golden Compass to expand on the story of Lyra, “one of fantasy’s most indelible characters.” (The New York Times Magazine)

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy….

Malcolm’s parents run an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.

He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust—and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, he sees suspicious characters everywhere: the explorer Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a daemon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl—just a baby—named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

Torn by Rowenna Miller

Torn (The Unraveled Kingdom #1) by Rowenna Miller

This fantasy debut novel will be released on March 20 (trade paperback, ebook).

I read the first 50 pages and it piqued my curiosity.

 

TORN is the first book in an enchanting debut fantasy series featuring a seamstress who stitches magic into clothing, and the mounting political uprising that forces her to choose between her family and her ambitions, for fans of The Queen of the Tearling.

Sophie is a dressmaker who has managed to open her own shop and lift herself and her brother, Kristos, out of poverty. Her reputation for beautiful ball gowns and discreetly-embroidered charms for luck, love, and protection secures her a commission from the royal family itself — and the commission earns her the attentions of a dashing but entirely unattainable duke.

Meanwhile, Kristos rises to prominence in the growing anti-monarchist movement. Their worlds collide when the revolution’s shadow leader takes him hostage and demands that Sophie place a curse on the queen’s Midwinter costume — or Kristos will die at their hand.

As the proletariat uprising comes to a violent climax, Sophie is torn: between her brother and the community of her birth, and her lover and the life she’s striven to build.

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold (Red Rising Saga #4) by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold, which follows events in the #1 New York Times bestselling Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star), will be released on January 16 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt from Iron Gold.

 

In the epic next chapter of the Red Rising Saga, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Morning Star pushes the boundaries of one of the boldest series in fiction.

They call him father, liberator, warlord, Slave King, Reaper. But he feels a boy as he falls toward the war-torn planet, his armor red, his army vast, his heart heavy. It is the tenth year of war and the thirty-third of his life.

A decade ago Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk all he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself?

And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever:

A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp, and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined.

An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life.

And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the Sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes.

Red Rising was the story of the end of one universe. Iron Gold is the story of the creation of a new one. Witness the beginning of a stunning new saga of tragedy and triumph from masterly New York Times bestselling author Pierce Brown.

Additional Books:

Though 2017 was a terrible year in many ways, it was an extraordinarily good reading year. When looking back, I found that about half of the 40 books I completed are particularly memorable, and I think that’s largely because I’ve gotten a lot better at dropping books that aren’t working for me and moving on to another book I want to read. There are many more books that I attempted in 2017 and set aside after reading the first 50–100 pages: I’ve learned that if there is nothing about the writing, characters, world, or plot that intrigues me by that point, the chances of it being a book worth reading when there are so many books out there waiting to be read is pretty low. In a couple of cases, I do plan to go back to books I set aside because there was something worthwhile about them even if I wasn’t currently in the mood to read them, but the vast majority of them did not seem compelling enough to revisit.

Without further ado, here are my personal highlights of 2017!

Favorite Books Released in 2017

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Book of the Year
1. The Girl in the Tower (Winternight #2) by Katherine Arden

The first two books in Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy were both released this year and are both phenomenal, and The Girl in the Tower is my favorite of the two. It’s beautifully written, atmospheric historical fantasy set in a wintry fourteenth century Rus’ in which Slavic folktales come to life—though most remain unaware of the mythical figures living among them, unlike Vasya. In The Girl in the Tower, Vasya travels to Moscow astride her extraordinary horse, posing as a boy in order to freely be herself without question, and reunites with her brother the warrior-monk and her sister the princess. It has all the strengths of the previous novel, plus it’s more focused and has more excitement than the first. I absolutely loved it, and I just barely managed to read this December release in time for it to be part of this list!

Book of the Year Runner-Up
Epic Fantasy of the Year
(Also, That Book I Kept Recommending Throughout 2017)
2. Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence
My Review

Red Sister topped my list as Book of the Year for most of 2017, although it was a close call between this and the next book on this list! This trilogy opener is the story of Nona, a young girl who would have been hanged for murder had she not been rescued at the last minute by the abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy. As she trains in subjects including fighting and poisons, she also can’t escape her mysterious past that she attempts to keep secret from everyone—including the reader. Her obvious unreliability is part of what makes her such a compelling protagonist, as are her fierceness and devotion to her friends, and I was incredibly invested in Nona and her story. Though she herself was the highlight, I also enjoyed just about everything else about it including the other characters, the friendships, the sharp dialogue, and of course, the badass nuns.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Debut of the Year
Author of the Year

3. The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight #1) by Katherine Arden
My Review

In addition to writing my very favorite 2017 release, Katherine Arden also wrote another book that I thought was among the very best of the year: her lovely debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s a beautifully written, atmospheric novel that brings to life the wintry rural setting of fourteenth century Rus’ and the spirits that inhabit it—as well as it’s wonderful heroine, Vasya.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

YA Book of the Year
4. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
My Review

Laini Taylor is one of my favorite authors due to her creativity and characters and, most of all, her exquisite prose: beautifully phrased writing infused with wit and wisdom. Strange the Dreamer features everything I’d expect from one of her books, and though the individual elements of the story are not necessarily unique, they are combined into a unique whole. It’s the tale of a kindhearted librarian (who “couldn’t have belonged at the library more truly if he were a book himself”) obsessed with a magical city whose inhabitants have not been seen or heard from in 200 years—and the vast depths of its mysteries and a problem faced by its residents that turns out to be larger than they realize. The fairy-tale-like first part and Lazlo (the titular Strange the Dreamer himself) are particular highlights of the novel—in addition to Taylor’s gorgeous prose, of course!

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Atmosphere of the Year
Dragons of the Year

5. The House of Binding Thorns (Dominion of the Fallen #2) by Aliette de Bodard
My Review

The House of Binding Thorns is an incredibly atmospheric work of mythic art with gorgeously written descriptions of its alternate version of Paris lying in ruins, and Aliette de Bodard particularly excelled at capturing the wonder and decay of the dragon kingdom beneath the Seine. It’s both thoughtful and different (in a very good way!) as it follows the struggle for survival in this devastated city populated by fallen angels and other powerful individuals. In particular, I enjoyed exploring the dragon kingdom and reading about Thuan, a dragon posing as a teenager in order to investigate House Hawthorn’s potential involvement in the affairs of his kingdom. (I liked the dragons. A lot.)

Debut of the Year Runner-Up
Compulsively Readable Book of the Year
(Or, That Book That Kept Me Reading Until 2:00 AM)
6. The Tethered Mage (Swords and Fire #1) by Melissa Caruso
My Review

Melissa Caruso’s Venetian-inspired fantasy debut novel was so exciting and compulsively readable that I kept telling myself I’d just read one more chapter before going to sleep—and then decided to ignore fatigue to keep reading until it was done at 2:00 AM because I really needed to know what happened right now. It’s the story of Lady Amalia Cornaro, a young woman who accidentally breaks the rules in order to save her city, also accidentally binding herself to a fire mage in the process. The worldbuilding surrounding the system for handling magic is incredibly well done, and I also enjoyed reading about Amalia stepping into her role as her mother’s heir and (slowly) learning to work together with the fire mage (who never lets anyone forget that she is not happy about the whole situation!).

Monstress, Volume 2 by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda

Beautiful Book of the Year
(Surely One of the Prettiest Books of Any Year)
7. Monstress, Volume Two: The Blood Written by Marjorie Liu and Illustrated by Sana Takeda

I finally caught up with the latest volume of Monstress on the very last day of 2017, and it continues to be extraordinary. Though Maika’s story is compelling, particularly when delving further into her relationship with her mother, it’s the gorgeous illustrations that truly make it stand out. Each individual panel is a work of art, and the exquisite details and color palettes are absolutely stunning. As beautiful as the first volume was, I think this one is even more so if that’s even possible, and this volume left me even more in awe of Sana Takeda’s artistry.

Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy Kress

Science Fiction Book of the Year
8. Tomorrow’s Kin (Yesterday’s Kin #1) by Nancy Kress
My Review

Nancy Kress’ skill as a writer never ceases to amaze me: though Tomorrow’s Kin integrates science into the plot, it’s done seamlessly without a bunch of dry infodumps, culminating in a book that is both smart and compulsively readable. In addition to being grounded in biology, it’s also about societal changes and humanity as a whole and has events unfolding in a believable way. A highlight of the novel is main protagonist Marianne Jenner, who is not an action heroine or a potential savior of the world but a geneticist, mother, and grandmother whose not-terribly-momentous (though interesting) scientific discovery leads to her being among the first to meet the aliens and learn why they came to earth.

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Brilliant Book of the Year
9. The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3) by N. K. Jemisin

When I read a book by N. K. Jemisin, I feel as though I’m reading a book written by an author who understands humanity on a far deeper level than most, one who has the skill to capture those nuances and complexity and bring them to light—and her brilliant Broken Earth trilogy does this best of all. The world, characters, and prose are all exquisitely crafted in this trilogy that tackles oppression, features complicated relationships, and revolves around a complex heroine. Though I didn’t find The Stone Sky as engaging as much of Jemisin’s previous work including both the previous books in the series (The Obelisk Gate was my favorite book last year) due to pacing, the writing and characterization is far superior to that in most of the books I encountered in 2017.

The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

Adventure of the Year
10. The Burning Page (Invisible Library #3) by Genevieve Cogman
My Review

The Invisible Library series, which follows the adventures of a woman who collects books from various alternate worlds for an organization existing outside of time and space, is consistently entertaining. Irene (the main protagonist) is a practical, competent quick-thinker who handles even the most absurd situations with aplomb, and I particularly enjoyed her face-off with the villain in this fun-filled third installment.

Honorable Mentions of 2017

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1) by Rin Chupeco
My Review

The Bone Witch is the story of Tea, a powerful young necromancer who was unaware she had these abilities until she raised her brother from the dead, as told to a bard who finds her living alone in exile. Though it’s primarily the tale of a younger Tea, it also provides fascinating glimpses of an older, different Tea through the bard’s viewpoint. Given the lovely writing and how much I’m now invested in Tea, I’m really looking forward to the sequel—especially learning more about how Tea went from being the girl she remembers to the harder young woman with sharp edges the bard encounters.

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
My Review

Miranda and Caliban, a prequel/retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest told from the perspectives of both Miranda and Caliban, is a quiet, character-driven novel with some lovely writing. It particularly excels at narrative voice, and Jacqueline Carey does a wonderful job of making the antagonist chilling through his wholehearted belief in his own righteousness as a servant of God.

Favorite Books Published Before 2017

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

1. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
My Review

Patricia A. McKillip’s World Fantasy Award–winning novel The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a masterpiece of fantasy and one of my favorite books of all time. It was re-released last year with a striking new cover and an introduction by Gail Carriger, and I read this new edition for the first time and the novel itself for the second time—and still absolutely loved this elegantly written story of a mage becoming entangled in human affairs after living in seclusion with her menagerie of legendary animals. Though it contains many familiar elements—a king, mages, a dragon and intelligent animals, an emphasis on threes and sevens—it’s an imaginative, memorable story about power, love and hate, and choice that still seems fresh and unique more than 40 years after its initial publication.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

2. The King of Attolia (Queen’s Thief #3) by Megan Whalen Turner
My Review

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series is brilliantly executed, particularly the second and third books, and I appreciate them even more after having read them for the second time last year. (I reread the first three books in the series while exercising with the intention of refreshing my memory before reading the fourth and fifth books, but I still haven’t read the last two since I wanted to devote more attention to them when reading them for the first time.) Though The Queen of Attolia was my favorite of the three the first time I read them, I enjoyed The King of Attolia the most this time (but I did love Queen too!). Clever Eugenides is one of my favorite characters, and I savored every word of The King of Attolia and the way it read like character-driven suspense: though it’s not action-packed, it’s tense and exciting given its structure and what Turner chooses to reveal and when. When I first reviewed it in 2010, I gave it an 8/10, but today I would give it a 10/10.

Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler

3. Wild Seed (Patternist #1) by Octavia E. Butler
My Review

Like every other book I’ve read by Octavia E. Butler, Wild Seed is a fascinating novel, particularly when examining the complex bond between the two central characters. It spans 1690 to the mid-1800s, beginning with the meeting of two immortals who have similar unique abilities but are opposites in just about every other way. Doru has always done whatever he wants without letting pesky beliefs like People Should Have Free Will or Murder and Incest Are Not Okay stand in his way as he attempts to breed other people with special abilities, and no one has ever been able to challenge him in 3700 years—until he meets Anyanwu, a shapeshifter. Like Doru, Anyanwu has lived longer than the average human but she is compassionate and selfless, though she is also a survivor who can be fierce when necessary.

A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston

4. A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston
My Review

A Thousand Nights, a loose retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, is a fairy-tale-like book to savor with writing so lovely that I kept stopping to reread passages. When word reaches the nameless narrator that Lo-Melkhiin is coming to her village seeking a new wife, she knows the one chosen will meet the same fate as the three hundred other queens who came before her: she will soon die. She also knows that her dearest companion, her beautiful sister, will be the most desirable bride, and unable to bear the thought of her closest friend’s imminent death, she takes her place. The heart of A Thousand Nights is not just the bond between these two sisters but also the power of women who are undervalued and underlooked as a whole, especially when they work together.

Night's Master by Tanith Lee

5. Night’s Master (Tales from the Flat Earth #1) by Tanith Lee
My Review

Night’s Master is an unusually structured book without a central plot or a main character, though the one commonality between its tales is the titular character: Azhrarn Prince of Demons, who enjoys visiting the Flat Earth to make mischief among the mortals. Dark and fairy-tale-like with rich prose, I very much enjoyed the tales of trickery and that it added more dimension to Azhrarn by the end.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

6. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
My Review

Nimona is an entertaining, humorous, delightful graphic novel about a young shapeshifter who convinces a notorious villain to accept her as his sidekick but is rather disappointed to learn that he abides by certain rules, such as not murdering people. Given Nimona’s tendency to disobey orders and refusal to adhere to the accepted protocol for encounters between heroes and villains, she turns the life of both her boss and his nemesis upside down. Though fun and lighthearted, it also has some depth as it delves into the characters and examines heroism and villainy—and there’s more to Nimona herself than it may first appear.

In the Forests of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip

7. In the Forests of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip
My Review

Though not my favorite of Patricia A. McKillip’s books, In the Forests of Serre has much of what I love about her work: elegant writing, a fairy tale quality, subversion of tropes, and quiet moments of humor. The story begins with a prince angering a witch by first riding his horse over her hen and then refusing to come into her house, as all the stories warn against entering her abode. The witch curses him, and he’s driven to wander the forest in pursuit of a beautiful bird-woman while the princess he’s to marry is left without a groom—which makes it more likely that the conflict between their countries that this marriage was supposed to prevent will occur after all. I tend to appreciate McKillip’s female characters, and clever, resourceful Princess Sidonie was a particular highlight of this novel.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). 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.

Last week brought a few books that sound quite interesting, and in case you missed it, my review of Katherine Arden’s phenomenal novel The Bear and the Nightingale also went up last week. It’s beautifully written, atmospheric, and overall excellent—and one of my two favorite books of 2017 so far!

Now, the latest books in the mail.

Beneath the Haunting Sea by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Beneath the Haunting Sea by Joanna Ruth Meyer

This young adult fantasy debut novel will be released on January 9 (hardcover, ebook). The author’s website has an excerpt from chapter six of Beneath the Haunting Sea.

This sounds intriguing, and the cover is beautiful!

 

Can’t you hear it, Talia?
Can’t you hear the waves singing?

Sixteen-year-old Talia was born to a life of certainty and luxury, destined to become Empress of half the world. But when an ambitious rival seizes power, she and her mother are banished to a nowhere province on the far edge of the Northern Sea.

It is here, in the drafty halls of the Ruen-Dahr, that Talia discovers family secrets, a melancholy boy with a troubling vision of her future, and a relic that holds the power of an ancient Star. On these shores, the eerie melody of the sea is stronger than ever, revealing long-forgotten tales of the Goddess Rahn. The more dark truths that Talia unravels about the gods’ history—and her own—the more the waves call to her, and it may be her destiny to answer.

The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

The Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman

The fourth book in the Invisible Library series was recently released in the UK and will be released in the US on January 9 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook). The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Lost Plot.

The Invisible Library series is immensely entertaining and especially wonderful for bibliophiles. It follows Irene, who works as a Librarian spy for an organization existing outside of space and time as she collects books (and, of course, has adventures!) on a variety of alternate worlds.

The first three books in the series are as follows:

  1. The Invisible Library (Excerpt | My Review)
  2. The Masked City (Excerpt | My Review)
  3. The Burning Page (Excerpt | My Review)
 

After being commissioned to find a rare book, Librarian Irene and her assistant, Kai, head to Prohibition-era New York and are thrust into the middle of a political fight with dragons, mobsters, and Fae.

In a 1920s-esque New York, Prohibition is in force; fedoras, flapper dresses, and tommy guns are in fashion: and intrigue is afoot. Intrepid Librarians Irene and Kai find themselves caught in the middle of a dragon political contest. It seems a young Librarian has become tangled in this conflict, and if they can’t extricate him, there could be serious repercussions for the mysterious Library. And, as the balance of power across mighty factions hangs in the balance, this could even trigger war.

Irene and Kai are locked in a race against time (and dragons) to procure a rare book. They’ll face gangsters, blackmail, and the Library’s own Internal Affairs department. And if it doesn’t end well, it could have dire consequences on Irene’s job. And, incidentally, on her life…

Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins

Daughters of the Storm (Blood and Gold #1) by Kim Wilkins

This Aurealis Award–nominated novel by five-time Aurealis Award–winning author Kim Wilkins will be published in the US on March 6 (hardcover, ebook).

I’ve heard good things about Kim Wilkins’ books, and this sounds rather interesting.

 

Five very different sisters team up against their stepbrother to save their kingdom in this Norse-flavored fantasy epic—the start of a new series in the tradition of Naomi Novik, Peter V. Brett, and Robin Hobb.

FIVE ROYAL SISTERS. ONE CROWN.

They are the daughters of a king. Though they share the same royal blood, they could not be more different. Bluebell is a proud warrior, stronger than any man and with an ironclad heart to match. Rose’s heart is all too passionate: She is the queen of a neighboring kingdom who is risking everything for a forbidden love. Ash is discovering a dangerous talent for magic that might be a gift—or a curse. And then there are the twins—vain Ivy, who lives for admiration, and zealous Willow, who lives for the gods.

But when their father is stricken by a mysterious ailment, these five sisters must embark on a desperate journey to save him and prevent their treacherous stepbrother from seizing the throne. Their mission: find the powerful witch who can cure the king. But to succeed on their quest, they must overcome their differences and hope that the secrets they hide from one another and the world are never brought to light. Because if this royal family breaks, it could destroy the kingdom.

Mad Hatters and March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow

Mad Hatters and March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow

This anthology of stories inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books was just released last week (hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, audiobook). It’s edited by World Fantasy and Hugo Award–winning editor Ellen Datlow and includes stories by Seanan McGuire, Jane Yolen, Catherynne M. Valente, Jeffrey Ford, Priya Sharma, Ysabeau S. Wilce, and more!

 

From master anthologist Ellen Datlow comes an all-original of weird tales inspired by the strangeness of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

Between the hallucinogenic, weird, imaginative wordplay and the brilliant mathematical puzzles and social satire, Alice has been read, enjoyed, and savored by every generation since its publication. Datlow asked eighteen of the most brilliant and acclaimed writers working today to dream up stories inspired by all the strange events and surreal characters found in Wonderland.

Featuring stories and poems from Seanan McGuire, Jane Yolen, Catherynne M. Valente, Delia Sherman, Genevieve Valentine, Priya Sharma, Stephen Graham Jones, Richard Bowes, Jeffrey Ford, Angela Slatter, Andy Duncan, C.S.E. Cooney, Matthew Kressel, Kris Dikeman, Jane Yolen, Kaaron Warren, Ysbeau Wilce, and Katherine Vaz.

Additional Books:

 

The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
336pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.13/5
 

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first book in the Winternight trilogy, is Slavic-folklore-inspired historical fantasy set in northern Rus’ during the fourteenth century. This phenomenal book has made quite a mark since its publication early this year: it was a Goodreads Choice Award finalist in both the Best Fantasy and Debut Author categories, Amazon selected it as the best science fiction and fantasy book of 2017, and it has begun appearing on numerous best of the year lists (which I am confident will include my own since, even though very little of 2017 is left, it’s still one of my two favorite new releases!).

Though The Bear and the Nightingale is primarily Vasilisa’s story, it begins before her birth, soon after her mother realizes a fifth child will be joining their family. When she tells her husband the news, she also tells him that their next child will be a girl with the gifts of her own mother, a mysterious woman whose grace and beauty captured the heart and hand of the Grand Prince of Moscow—and who was rumored to be a witch.

Vasya’s mother does not survive childbirth, and for years, the grieving lord never so much as thinks of remarrying. However, after six-year-old Vasya becomes lost in the woods and is found insisting that she saw a gnarled old tree and a one-eyed man that are nowhere to be found, one of her older brothers convinces their father that a wild girl like she must have a mother. He travels to Moscow in search of a wife and returns wed to another Grand Prince’s daughter, a religious young woman named Anna who had hoped to spend the rest of her days in a convent: for only within the walls of a church can she hide from the devils.

Like Vasya, Anna has the second sight, which allows her to see the domovoi and other spirits. While Vasya accepts them as a part of her world and befriends them, her frightened stepmother does all that she can to avoid them. Anna’s only comfort can be found in the teachings of a charismatic young priest from Moscow, who further instills terror of the old ways into the people of the village—who also come to fear Vasya herself, not realizing that her unique sight may be all that can save them…

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book I read in 2017, and as the year nears its end, it’s still one of the very best books I read this year. It’s taken me a long time to review this one simply because I don’t believe I can adequately describe this gem of a novel and all that it encompasses. The writing is lovely: it’s not dense, yet the smallest of details bring to life both the real-world setting of the wintry wilderness and the fairy tale aspects of the book with its spirits and Morozko the frost-demon. It’s about many things, especially family and humanity, and it follows a heroine who refuses to be anything but who she is on her journey from childhood into young adulthood—but most of all, I appreciate Katherine Arden’s mature approach to ideas that are often portrayed as clearly black and white and how she further enhanced this by making even the least sympathetic of her characters understandable.

From the plot description, it may sound as though this is yet another novel about the evils of organized religion and Christianity in particular. Though it does acknowledge atrocities done by the Church and focus on the conflict between Christianity and the older ways with a lot of empathy for those who held to the latter, I also didn’t read it as being completely anti-religion. One of the more compelling characters is Vasya’s older brother, Sasha, a pious young man who also struggles to carve his own path against his father’s wishes. When he accompanies his father to Moscow, Sasha travels to meet a monk reputed to be a humble servant rather than obsessed with wealth and position, and he decides to become a monk as well—even though this decision causes a rift between him and his father. Showing some earnest men of faith allows Father Konstantin to stand on his own as a flawed representative of the Church rather than a representative of all of Christianity. Additionally, Vasya herself never seems to be rebelling against their religion: she doesn’t appear to have an issue with it coexisting alongside the spirits she sees.

In general, Vasya doesn’t come across as particularly rebellious or mischievous but simply someone who remains steadfastly who she is despite society’s disapproval. She loves to be outdoors, she enjoys horseback riding (and is more interested in fine lord’s horses than fine lords themselves), and she sees no reason to meekly lower her eyes as is expected of good Christian girls. Though she’s uniquely special and the only one in her household to reject feminine norms, it never seems as though she’s supposed to be superior to girls who choose otherwise. Vasya cares for her two sisters, and just as she accepts herself, she accepts them for who they are.

I found it incredibly refreshing to read about a heroine who did not doubt herself even though many others did, as well as one who had a caring relationship with her half-sister despite her stepmother’s constant attempts to make Vasya feel inferior to her own daughter. The sibling relationships are especially wonderful and are one of my favorite parts of the story, especially the closeness between Vasya and her youngest brother, Alyosha. They basically grew up together since Alyosha is only three years older than Vasya, and he is the one who best understands her and stands up for her the most.

The most villainous characters (other than the main mythical villain) are not particularly likable but they’re very human. Anna is terrible to Vasya, and it was clear that much of this was coming from a place of terror and unhappiness. She was forced into a marriage she didn’t want, and Vasya is a constant reminder of the frightening ‘devils’ she tries to escape from as much as possible. Though Father Konstantin is not at all sympathetic since he brings most of his problems upon himself, the pride, self-loathing, and shame that drive him are palpable.

The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent in nearly every way, but it is slower paced and somewhat meandering. The pacing didn’t especially bother me since it was an absorbing tale regardless, plus it was stronger because of the extra insight into the different characters. However, I did feel that it took a long time to build up to the bigger folktale-related conflict that was the meat of the plot and that the climax was over rather quickly in comparison to the rest.

It’s no wonder that The Bear and the Nightingale is commonly being lauded as one of the best books of the year: it’s absolutely magical. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and the beautiful writing and characterization work together to create a subtly different type of book. The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredible novel, especially astonishing considering it is the author’s debut. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next in the newly released sequel, The Girl in the Tower, and the conclusion, The Winter of the Witch (coming in August 2018).

My Rating: 9/10

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

Read the First 50 Pages from The Bear and the Nightingale on Unbound Worlds

Read Katherine Arden’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Heroines

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). 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.

Last week’s mail brought several books that sound quite interesting, and in case you missed it, my review of Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence also went up last week. It’s my favorite 2017 release so far with its compelling and unreliable main protagonist, plus it has other wonderful qualities and badass nuns!

Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Markswoman (Asiana #1) by Rati Mehrotra

This debut novel will be available on January 23, 2018 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

Rati Mehrotra shared a little about the Asiana duology’s origins on her website:

Reading about Kali some years ago, an idea began to form in my head. What if there was a group of women devoted to her worship, women who wielded the power of life and death over others in a post-apocalyptic world? Thus was the Asiana cycle born.

This sounds rather intriguing, and the book description had me from the very beginning with “an order of magical-knife wielding female assassins.”

 

An order of magical-knife wielding female assassins brings both peace and chaos to their post-apocalyptic world in this bewitching blend of science fiction and epic fantasy—the first entry in a debut duology that displays the inventiveness of the works of Sarah Beth Durst and Marie Lu.

Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, a highly trained sisterhood of elite warriors armed with telepathic blades. Guided by a strict code of conduct, Kyra and the other Orders are sworn to protect the people of Asiana. But to be a Markswoman, an acolyte must repudiate her former life completely. Kyra has pledged to do so, yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her dead family.

When Kyra’s beloved mentor dies in mysterious circumstances, and Tamsyn, the powerful, dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. Using one of the strange Transport Hubs that are remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past, she finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a young, disillusioned Marksman whom she soon befriends.

Kyra is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof. And if she fails to find it, fails in her quest to keep her beloved Order from following Tamsyn down a dark path, it could spell the beginning of the end for Kyra—and for Asiana.

But what she doesn’t realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is razor thin . . . thin as the blade of a knife.

The Two of Swords: Volume 1 by K. J. Parker The Two of Swords: Volume 2 by K. J. Parker The Two of Swords: Volume 3 by K. J. Parker

The Two of Swords (Volumes #1–3) by K. J. Parker

World Fantasy Awardwinning author K. J. Parker’s The Two of Swords, which was released digitally in serialized installments beginning in 2015, is being published in three books available in trade paperback and ebook. Volumes One and Two were released in October and November, respectively, and the concluding volume will be on sale on December 12 (Tuesday!).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Two of Swords: Volume One.

 

“Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it’s better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings,” he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, “mostly from force of habit.”

A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no one knows how it will end.

The Two of Swords is the story of a war on a grand scale, told through the eyes of its soldiers, politicians, victims and heroes.

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer

The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota #3) by Ada Palmer

The third novel in the Terra Ignota quartet will be released on December 19 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The first novel in this science fiction series, Too Like the Lightning, won the Compton Crook Award and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and Ada Palmer won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Tor.com has excerpts from the first two novels, and the Tor-Forge blog has an excerpt from the third:

  1. Too Like the Lightning
  2. Seven Surrenders
  3. The Will to Battle
 

The Will to Battlethe third book of 2017 John W. Campbell Award winner Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota seriesa political science fiction epic of extraordinary audacity

“A cornucopia of dazzling, sharp ideas set in rich, wry prose that rewards rumination with layers of delight. Provocative, erudite, inventive, resplendent.” ―Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings

The long years of near-utopia have come to an abrupt end.

Peace and order are now figments of the past. Corruption, deception, and insurgency hum within the once steadfast leadership of the Hives, nations without fixed location.

The heartbreaking truth is that for decades, even centuries, the leaders of the great Hives bought the world’s stability with a trickle of secret murders, mathematically planned. So that no faction could ever dominate. So that the balance held.

The Hives’ façade of solidity is the only hope they have for maintaining a semblance of order, for preventing the public from succumbing to the savagery and bloodlust of wars past. But as the great secret becomes more and more widely known, that facade is slipping away.

Just days earlier, the world was a pinnacle of human civilization. Now everyone―Hives and hiveless, Utopians and sensayers, emperors and the downtrodden, warriors and saints―scrambles to prepare for the seemingly inevitable war.

Seven Surrenders veers expertly between love, murder, mayhem, parenthood, theology, and high politics. I haven’t had this much fun with a book in a long time.” ―Max Gladstone, author of Three Parts Dead

International bestselling author Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, Red Sister, is the first installment in the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, which is set in a new world unrelated to his two previously published trilogies. It follows Nona, a young girl with a turbulent past, as she trains in a convent after having been found on the brink of being hanged for murder. It’s both very familiar and yet a little different, particularly in its approach to conventional tropes, and I was completed immersed in it largely because of this compelling main character and her obvious unreliability.

By saving her friend Saida, Nona condemned them both. The two children, each of whom strongly exhibited one of the four traits of the old tribes, had both been sold to a man who kept fighters, but they were assigned chores in lieu of training until they were old enough for their potential gifts to fully manifest. One day, Nona heard screams coming from the warrior’s room Saida was cleaning and rushed to the scene to find the giant man holding her friend off the floor by one of her arms, apparently having lost his temper over a broken vase. After he ignored Nona’s cries to stop hurting the other girl, she slit his throat—and would have killed him had his father not been a ridiculously rich nobleman who could afford the powerful magic necessary to keep him alive.

Nona may have succeeded in rescuing her friend from the fighter, but she was not able to rescue either of them from their resulting death sentence. Saida is hanged first, but Nona is rescued shortly before her own hanging. Abbess Glass of the Convent of Sweet Mercy believes Nona has the fiery spirit of a Red Sister, a warrior who serves the Ancestor through combat, and uses her position—along with a bit of deception—to free Nona and make her a novice.

At the convent, Nona begins taking classes with other girls around nine years of age. There, they are not just educated in subjects such as reading, writing, history, and religion but also fighting, poisons, and magical arts. Though Nona finds friends and belonging at Sweet Mercy, her place at the convent is threatened by those who will not forgive her near-murder of a nobleman—and Nona will never truly feel like she belongs anywhere as long as she will not forgive herself the secrets of her past that led to her mother giving her away in the first place.

Red Sister is not the smartest, most unique, or most elegantly written book I’ve read this year (though it is well-written with some interesting touches), but it is certainly the most engaging new book I’ve read this year. It’s the one that made me become the most invested in the main character and her story, plus it features sharp dialogue, characters with personality, some mystery, a focus on friendship, and badass nuns—and it’s not just my favorite 2017 release so far but also my favorite book read for the first time this year.

Though it has multiple wonderful qualities, I found the highlight of Red Sister to be Nona herself. From the very beginning, she’s a compelling character, a young girl who was nearly hanged for murder and whose dear friend was hanged for a murder she did not commit, and her fierceness, loyalty, and drive to protect her friends leaps from the page. Despite being rather up-front and honest about many of her thoughts—she has no qualms about chastising Abbess Glass for saving her but not Saida or letting the most zealous of nuns know that she doesn’t think all that highly of the Ancestor—Nona is secretive about her past. When she’s asked to tell the tale of how she came to the convent, it’s clear that she’s not being entirely truthful and she also has a tendency to downplay her capabilities stemming from this incident, leaving one to wonder what so terrifies this otherwise fearless girl. The third person narrative does not delve into Nona’s every thought so this is kept from the reader as well, and Nona’s perspective in general can be rather misleading, especially in the first half when she’s around nine years old. She does not always reach the correct conclusions, and (I suspect because she herself doesn’t mince words in most cases) she does often take people’s words at face value when she shouldn’t.

The other characters and Nona’s relationships with them are also captivating. The second part of the book focuses on Nona and her friends when they’re around the age of young teens, and Nona’s relationships are not stagnant as she sometimes realizes she was wrong about people. Her friendships (especially the one with Hessa) and their dialogue was wonderful, even if I did find a couple of her less prominent friends interchangeable, but the best characters besides Nona are the nuns. Abbess Glass is politically minded and practical and encourages Nona to speak her mind to her even if she is being blasphemous, though she does discourage her from doing so in front of one of the more devoted nuns who despises Nona. Sister Kettle is kind and her girlfriend, Sister Apple, can be kind as well—but not when she’s in her role as Mistress Shade, the teacher whom the students understandably consider to be the worst, largely due to her habit of poisoning students with non-lethal (yet nevertheless unpleasant) substances.

Though there are certainly other parts to the story, most of the tale takes place in the convent and a fair amount of time is spent on classes and training. Blade (combat) and Shade are rather intriguing subjects, and I really appreciated that despite Nona’s heightened speed (unusually fast even for those with this particular trait) and natural ability with the former, she still has to work to improve. She isn’t automatically the best at every weapon or the first student to pick up a particular skill, and sometimes she has to find her own way since the nuns’ teaching methods don’t always apply to her as an individual.

Those lessons are often related to character development and showing that there’s more to Nona than she’s letting on, but some of Nona’s lessons are mainly a vehicle for exposition about the convent or the world as a whole. At times, this slowed down the pacing, but I didn’t find it to be a huge issue since the dialogue showed personality instead of being dull and rote, plus the world is interesting. Most of the planet is covered in ice, and the convent is on a narrow strip near the equator that is not frozen due to technology set up long ago. The descendants of the four tribes whose ships landed on this dying world sometimes possess one of the four primary traits of the tribe—or maybe two or even three, in extremely rare cases—to varying degrees, and many believe a prophecy that a four-blood Chosen One will save them all. There are some twists regarding the truth behind this prophecy throughout the novel, and it seems unlikely that it will follow a predictable course.

In addition to the puzzles surrounding Nona’s past and the prophecy, there’s also some mystery due to a second storyline introduced in the prologue. It’s not immediately clear how it relates to Nona’s story, but it does clearly illustrate just how powerful a Red Sister is from the very first gripping paragraph:

 

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

About halfway through the book, this thread is continued in an interlude, and at that point, enough information has been supplied to begin piecing it together. The big picture is more apparent when it concludes with the epilogue, though there are still questions involving the details left for the rest of the trilogy to address.

Red Sister is a fantastic book built around a fascinating main protagonist who is all the more captivating due to her reticence about her past and abilities. It can be harsh and violent given that it’s about a fighter-in-training with some bloodthirsty tendencies who has already killed and lost a friend to injustice (and the ending is especially bloody), but it’s not overly grim in tone. Friendship is a precious gift to Nona, who is loyal to a fault and is not in the habit of drawing blood unless she is defending herself or others, and there’s enough light throughout the darkness to keep it from becoming a slog of bleakness. I absolutely loved it, and there is no 2018 release I’m more excited for than Grey Sister.

My Rating: 9/10

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

Read an Excerpt from Red Sister