Today I’m thrilled to have a guest post by storyteller, poet, and essayist Jane Yolen with a giveaway of her latest book, The Scarlet Circus! She’s the author of over 400 books, including Briar Rose, the Pit Dragon Chronicles, the Great Alta series, the Young Merlin Trilogy, Sister Emily’s Lightship and Other Stories, and The Emerald Circus. Her work has won Nebula, World Fantasy, and Mythopoeic Awards, among others, and she is a recipient of the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, the SFWA Grand Master Award, and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association Grand Master Award.

The Scarlet Circus, a collection of romantic fantasy short stories, will be released in trade paperback and ebook next week—on Valentine’s Day! I also have two copies to give away courtesy of Tachyon Publications: a print copy for a reader from the US and an ebook for someone outside the US. See below for more information on the book and author, Jane Yolen’s guest post, and the giveaway!

 

Cover of The Scarlet Circus by Jane Yolen
More Information & Book Excerpt

About THE SCARLET CIRCUS:

The Scarlet Circus, the fourth volume in Yolen’s award-winning short fiction series brings you passionate treasures and unexpected transformations. This bewitching assemblage, with an original introduction from Brandon Sanderson, is an ideal read for anyone who appreciates witty, compelling, and classic romantic fantasy.

A rakish fairy meets the real Juliet behind Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. A jewelry artist travels to the past to meet a successful silver-smith. The addled crew of a ship at sea discovers a mysterious merman. More than one ignored princess finds her match in the most unlikely men.

From ecstasy to tragedy, with love blossoming shyly, love at first sight, and even love borne of practical necessity—beloved fantasist Jane Yolen’s newest collection celebrates romance in all its glory.

I think there are two basic kinds of fantasy love stories: straight-ahead romance (all sex withheld ’till marriage) and truly sexy stories, all faucets and facets and laced pieces open wide.

But within those two rather large spaces, there is room for a bunch of other kinds of romantic tales: western romances, mystery romances, historical romances, LGBTQIA+ romances, magical romances, fairy-tale romances, romances with animals of all sorts, hip or hippy romances, upper-class romances, cross-continents romances, cross-religions romances, cross-sexualities romances, polymorphous romances, and on and on and on.

How mermaids do it fascinates me in a slippery sort of way. How do vampires—in a bloody kind of way? How do aliens do the deed? Depends on whether you are from Venus or Mars, I suppose. We are endlessly fascinated.

I have written a bunch of romance short stories published in magazines, anthologies, and collections, with mostly fantastical, supernatural, or cross-species romances, almost by accident. And it is the love elements, only secondarily the sexual elements that I find interesting to explore. (By day and in a book.) My editor and I have fashioned The Scarlet Circus out of our favorites, adding back notes for those interested in how each story came to be written and an additional romantic poem that “speaks” to each story.

Also, many of my fantasy novels are romantic as well. I’d like to point especially to Briar Rose and Except the Queen.

At night, I am amazingly single-minded. Not alone. But single-minded. One me. One man at a time. Twice married with a death between us, both widowed for years, and meeting again in our 80s.

As to both those love stories—they were both super romantic. My first husband climbed in through the window of my first-floor apartment that I shared with two New York City librarians. We were having a housewarming, and too many people (including the folk band the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem) were crowding into the front door.

This handsome and brilliant young man climbed in; spotted me, standing in the middle of the apartment, hands on my hips, my long dark braid hanging past my bottom (it was the 1960s); kissed me on the nape of the neck; and said, “My name is David Stemple, and I am a friend of one of the girls in the apartment.” And I—a born Manhattanite and no stranger to snark—replied, “I am one of the girls in the apartment and you are no friend of mine.”

Dear Reader, two years later I married him!

The second round, after I had been many years a widow, ten years of which I was also a very bad date (evidently), I got an email from a man I had dated for two months in college—both of us the “school poet.” Peter Tacy had been at Williams, I was at Smith. Mostly we talked about Dickinson and Yeats, our two favorite poets. Not a romance. And then we broke up. And two weeks later he spotted a young woman at Bennington, whom he married. And two years later, I met my first husband. Peter and I bumped into one another at two conferences over the years, both educational conferences. Shook hands. And then, after I was widowed and after he was widowed as well, The New Yorker published a five-and-a-half-page review of YA Holocaust novels by someone I didn’t know, but three of the books she kept talking about were mine.

Since I don’t subscribe to The New Yorker and they have never taken single poem of mine nor reviewed me before, I was surprised when this voice from the past, Peter, sent me a copy of the review and said that he was going to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum/House, and wasn’t it somewhere near my house? “Twenty minutes!” I said. We had lunch. I fell in love with his dog. And then with him.

And now, Dear Reader, we have been together since Covid broke out and we had to live for three months seeing no one else but one another while living in his house. And we write poems together that are published in small magazines. And we are living as happily ever after as an 83- and an 85-year-old can.

 

Here’s a poem written just for you. It is about Peter and me and the Now.

Some Men

Some men are from Jupiter,
some from Mars,
and some with wider spider wisdom
trap their wives
with recipes from the best
French cooks,
or their Italian teachers.
I supply the chocolate
on my own.
And love soaks through
the pores of his enchantment,
the lines of our poems.

Photo of Jane Yolen JANE YOLEN is the author of more than four hundred books, including children’s fiction, poetry, short stories, graphic novels, nonfiction, fantasy, and science fiction. Her publications include Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Briar Rose, Sister Emily’s Starship, and Sister Light, Sister Dark. Among her many honors are the Caldecott and Christopher Medals and multiple Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Golden Kite, and Jewish Book awards. Yolen is also a teacher of writing and a book reviewer. She lives in Western Massachusetts and St Andrews, Scotland.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out Fantasy Cafe’s Scarlet Circus Giveaway Google form, linked below. One entry per household and the winner will be randomly selected. Those from the US are eligible to win a print copy. Everyone else is eligible to win the ebook. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, February 17. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them after 24 hours has passed, a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winners. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Enter Fantasy Cafe’s Scarlet Circus Giveaway

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

It’s been a while since the last one of these features since I was working on some time-consuming posts and other things that are in the works, but I’m back with a couple of books today!

Here are the most recent posts since the last Leaning Pile of Books in case you missed any of them:

  • Review of The Final Strife (The Ending Fire #1) by Saara El-Arifi Both thoughtful and fun with amazing worldbuilding, oral stories, and epigraphs, this was my favorite book I read last year.
  • Favorite Books of 2022 & Year in Review This includes links to all the Women in SF&F Month 2022 guest posts and discussion of my 10 favorite books of 2022.
  • Anticipated 2023 Speculative Fiction Book Releases I scoured the internet for books coming in 2023 and put together a list of 24 that sounded especially intriguing to me. This includes fantasy inspired by various mythologies and histories, space opera, foes having to work together, a couple of books featuring animals (including a giant bird of prey), stories with dark magics, dark academia and a dragon academy, a couple of creepy houses, and more.

Also, keep an eye out for a guest post by Jane Yolen and a giveaway of her upcoming book The Scarlet Circus later this week!

This week’s book highlights are an upcoming book that came in the mail and an ebook I purchased a little while ago. (Since my time is a bit limited this weekend, I’ll cover holiday gift books in a later feature.) There are also a couple of ARCs that showed up since the last feature, but both of these were covered in my latest post on 2023 releases: Witch King by Martha Wells and The Bone Shard War by Andrea Stewart.

Cover of City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This standalone epic fantasy novel by British Fantasy and Arthur C. Clarke Award–winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky will be released in the US on May 2 (hardcover). This novel is out in the UK, and it is already available in the US in some formats (audiobook, Kindle ebook).

Amazon US and Amazon UK have excerpts from City of Last Chances. The first chapter, which is titled “Yasnic’s Relationship with God,” is actually the main reason I want to read this novel. It’s about the last priest of a nearly-forgotten deity, and it begins with “That morning, God was complaining again.”

 

Arthur C. Clarke winner Adrian Tchaikovsky’s triumphant return to fantasy with a darkly inventive portrait of a city under occupation and on the verge of revolution.

There has always been a darkness to Ilmar, but never more so than now. The city chafes under the heavy hand of the Palleseen occupation, the choke-hold of its criminal underworld, the boot of its factory owners, the weight of its wretched poor and the burden of its ancient curse.

What will be the spark that lights the conflagration?

Despite the city’s refugees, wanderers, murderers, madmen, fanatics and thieves, the catalyst, as always, will be the Anchorwood – that dark grove of trees, that primeval remnant, that portal, when the moon is full, to strange and distant shores.

Ilmar, some say, is the worst place in the world and the gateway to a thousand worse places.

Ilmar, City of Long Shadows.

City of Bad Decisions.

City of Last Chances.

Praise for Adrian Tchaikovsky:
‘Brilliant science fiction and far out worldbuilding’ James McAvoy
‘Entertaining, smart, surprising and unexpectedly human’ Patrick Ness
‘A refreshingly new take on post-dystopia civilizations, with the smartest evolutionary worldbuilding you’ll ever read’ Peter F. Hamilton

Cover of The City of Dusk by Tara Sim

The City of Dusk (The Dark Gods #1) by Tara Sim

I purchased the ebook edition of The City of Dusk, Tara Sim’s first adult novel, during a sale. (It actually looks like this may still have a sale price since it is currently $4.99 on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The City of Dusk, and the author’s website has the option to view trigger warnings.

The author also wrote about her journey as a reader and writer, including the influence Alanna: The First Adventure had on the type of girl she wanted to write in this novel, in her Women in SF&F Month 2022 guest post:

I was still in college when I first came up with the idea for The City of Dusk. All I had was something along the lines of: noble houses all descended from the monarchy, contending for the throne. I gave it the codename Lastrider, the last name of who I perceived would be the main character, or at least one of them. It wasn’t until later that I began to seriously plan it, bringing in vengeful gods, multiple realms and magic systems, and demons.

Still, it was simply called Lastrider for ten years. For a decade I held on to that name and wondered who exactly it belonged to. From the beginning I knew it would be a girl, but what kind of girl?

I think reading Alanna at such an impressionable age steered me into the answer.

It would, of course, be a girl with a sword. A girl who has so many deep flaws but nonetheless perseveres until she gets what she wants, or thinks she wants. A girl who fights first and thinks later. A girl who loves her family and hates the system she was born into. A girl with muscles and shadow magic and a crass sense of humor.

The second book in The Dark Gods series is scheduled for release on August 22 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook), and the cover of The Midnight Kingdom was recently revealed.

 

“Tara Sim’s adult debut is a glorious tapestry of magic and murderous gods and a perfect entry for anyone looking for a new series starter.” —BuzzFeed News

DARKNESS FALLS. GODS RISE.

The Four Realms—Life, Death, Light, and Darkness—all converge on the City of Dusk. For each realm there is a god, and for each god there is an heir.

But the gods have withdrawn their favor from the once vibrant and thriving metropolis. And without it, all the realms are dying.

Unwilling to stand by and watch the destruction, the four heirs—Angelica, an elementalist with her eyes set on the throne; Risha, a necromancer fighting to keep the peace; Nikolas, a soldier who struggles to see the light; and Taesia, a shadow-wielding rogue with a reckless heart—will become reluctant allies in the quest to save their city.

But their rebellion will cost them dearly.

Set in a world of bone palaces and shadow magic, of vengeful gods and defiant chosen ones, The City of Dusk is Tara Sim’s crackling adult fantasy debut.

For the past few years, there have been so many speculative fiction books that sound wonderful that it has been difficult to narrow down a list of anticipated releases to a somewhat reasonable number. Like the last couple of years, I scoured the web for book descriptions and interviews with their authors, early reviews, and excerpts to learn more about some of the books coming out this year. (And of course, there were some books that were already on my list because I loved the previous book in the series or other books by the same author.) In the end, I came up with 24 science fiction and fantasy books I wanted to highlight for 2023.

As always, this is not a comprehensive list of all the speculative fiction books being published this year: these are just the books I came across that sound most captivating to me. This includes fantasy inspired by various mythologies and histories, space opera, foes having to work together, a couple of books featuring animals (including a giant bird of prey), stories with dark magics, dark academia and a dragon academy, a couple of creepy houses, and more. I hope those of you with similar tastes and interests discover some books here that appeal to you, too.

These books are ordered by scheduled publication date, if they have one, and these are US release dates unless otherwise stated.

Due to the length of this blog post, I’m only showing the first 6 books on the main page. You can click the title of the post or the ‘more…’ link after the sixth book to read the entire article.

Cover images link to Bookshop if available, and the rest link to Amazon or other pages for the book. As a Bookshop affiliate and Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Cover of The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai
The Daughters of Izdihar (The Alamaxa Duology #1) by Hadeer Elsbai
Read or Listen to an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: Out Now (Released January 10)

This debut novel is the beginning of a fantasy duology inspired in part by the women’s suffrage movement in Egypt during the 1950s and its leader, Doria Shafik. Hadeer Elsbai discussed her new novel in an interview on The Nerd Daily, which includes this overview:

Readers can expect a somewhat slice-of-life fantasy that tackles patriarchy and examines the intersections of injustice and privilege. There’s sapphic romance, hidden easter eggs for Egyptian readers, trope subversions, female friendships, a vast array of female characters, a magic school, and elemental magic.

This sounds wonderful, especially its themes and magic… and female friendships… and subverting tropes… Ok, it just sounds all-around fantastic!

 

From debut author Hadeer Elsbai comes the first book in an incredibly powerful new duology, set wholly in a new world, but inspired by modern Egyptian history, about two young women—Nehal, a spoiled aristocrat used to getting what she wants and Giorgina, a poor bookshop worker used to having nothing—who find they have far more in common, particularly in their struggle for the rights of women and their ability to fight for it with forbidden elemental magic

As a waterweaver, Nehal can move and shape any water to her will, but she’s limited by her lack of formal education. She desires nothing more than to attend the newly opened Weaving Academy, take complete control of her powers, and pursue a glorious future on the battlefield with the first all-female military regiment. But her family cannot afford to let her go—crushed under her father’s gambling debt, Nehal is forcibly married into a wealthy merchant family. Her new spouse, Nico, is indifferent and distant and in love with another woman, a bookseller named Giorgina.

Giorgina has her own secret, however: she is an earthweaver with dangerously uncontrollable powers. She has no money and no prospects. Her only solace comes from her activities with the Daughters of Izdihar, a radical women’s rights group at the forefront of a movement with a simple goal: to attain recognition for women to have a say in their own lives. They live very different lives and come from very different means, yet Nehal and Giorgina have more in common than they think. The cause—and Nico—brings them into each other’s orbit, drawn in by the group’s enigmatic leader, Malak Mamdouh, and the urge to do what is right.

But their problems may seem small in the broader context of their world, as tensions are rising with a neighboring nation that desires an end to weaving and weavers. As Nehal and Giorgina fight for their rights, the threat of war looms in the background, and the two women find themselves struggling to earn—and keep—a lasting freedom.

Cover of Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim
Spice Road (Spice Road #1) by Maiya Ibrahim
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: Out Now (Released January 24)

Maiya Ibrahim’s debut novel, the beginning of a YA epic fantasy series, has tea magic inspired by reading about Arab spice traders and how they tried to keep others away from desirable spices: by making up stories about monsters guarding the places they grew. I was especially intrigued by what she had to say about her law background being helpful when worldbuilding in this interview at The Quiet Pond:

Law is a surprisingly useful background to have when it comes to worldbuilding. Knowing how real-world governments and legal systems work has helped enormously in building functioning fantasy societies. Thematically, I’ve always been interested in the concepts of justice and the rule of law. What happens when not everyone has equal access to justice? Or when some members of a society aren’t subject to the same laws as everyone else? I think these questions boil down to issues of privilege, corruption, and inequality, and these are all themes I explore both in Spice Road and other works.

The whole Q&A is great, and the author’s discussion of her book, protagonist, and influences made me want to pick up her novel.

 

The first book in an epic fantasy series for fans of Sabaa Tahir, Hafsah Faizal and Elizabeth Lim, set in an Arabian-inspired land. Raised to protect her nation from the monsters lurking in the sands, seventeen-year-old Imani must fight to find her brother whose betrayal is now their greatest threat.

In the hidden desert city of Qalia, secret spice magic awakens affinities in those who drink the misra tea. With her affinity for iron, seventeen-year-old Imani can wield a dagger like no other – and for that she has gained a reputation as the next greatest Shield, battling djinn, ghouls, and the other monsters spreading across the sands.

Her reputation has been overshadowed, however, by her brother, who tarnished the family name after it was revealed that he was stealing their nation’s coveted spice—a tell-tale sign of magical obsession. Soon after that, he disappeared, believed to have perished beyond the Forbidden Wastes. Despite her brother’s betrayal, there isn’t a day that goes by when Imani doesn’t grieve him.

Then Imani discovers signs her brother may be alive, and spreading their nation’s magic to outsiders. Desperate to find him – and to protect him – she joins the mission sent to hunt him down.

Accompanied by Taha, a powerful beastseer who enthrals and enrages her in equal measure, Imani soon discovers that many secrets lie beyond the Forbidden Wastes – and in her own heart.

Caught between her duty to her nation, and her love for her brother, she must decide where her loyalties lie… before it is too late.

Cover of Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo
Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo
Scheduled Release Date: March 14

This science fiction novella by Summer Suns author Lee Mandelo sounds like it explores some fascinating subjects. In the book announcement on Tor.com, the author said:

The novella emerged from the earliest months of the COVID-19 lockdowns, which for me were spent in full isolation pouring research reading from a social theory seminar on animals into my eyeballs… then stewing in the resultant swamp of ethical discomfort, grim awareness of the world around me caught fire, and gnawing disillusionment with the procedures of academia. At its core Feed Them Silence is digging at the underbelly of neoliberalism, scientific research, and the unavoidable sticky web of power—whether that appears in the marital arena, like Sean’s complicated relationship to her wife, or between human and non-human beings, like the researchers and their wolf.

Lee Mandelo and editor Carl Engle-Laird both contributed some thoughts on the book, and the questions surrounding human/animal relationships they discuss sound especially interesting to me. (Plus I like wolves.)

 

Lee Mandelo dives into the minds of wolves in Feed Them Silence, a novella of the near future.

What does it mean to “be-in-kind” with a nonhuman animal? Or in Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon’s case, to be in-kind with one of the last remaining wild wolves? Using a neurological interface to translate her animal subject’s perception through her own mind, Sean intends to chase both her scientific curiosity and her secret, lifelong desire to experience the intimacy and freedom of wolfishness. To see the world through animal eyes; smell the forest, thick with olfactory messages; even taste the blood and viscera of a fresh kill. And, above all, to feel the belonging of the pack.

Sean’s tireless research gives her a chance to fulfill that dream, but pursuing it has a terrible cost. Her obsession with work endangers her fraying relationship with her wife. Her research methods threaten her mind and body. And the attention of her VC funders could destroy her subject, the beautiful wild wolf whose mental world she’s invading.

Cover of Lone Women by Victor LaValle
Lone Women by Victor LaValle
Scheduled Release Date: March 21

Though I don’t read a lot of horror, I was curious about this novel, both because I’d heard good things about Victor LaValle’s writing and because I found the historical inspiration intriguing. A Columbia University article on the author discusses this aspect of Lone Women (and the upcoming TV adaptation of The Changeling):

Of Lone Women, LaValle says, “It’s about women homesteaders in Montana in 1915. I stumbled across a book that said the US government was so desperate to have this land homesteaded after taking it from the Native Americans who lived there, that they essentially relaxed what would have been the usual legal prejudices at the time.”

Lone Women is the only book mentioned in this post that I’ve already read. I added it to this list after reading the first chapter, and I finished the book before this post. It’s an excellently written page-turner, and I especially enjoyed the theme of letting go of toxic ideas engrained into one throughout childhood, no matter one’s age.

 

Blue skies, empty land—and enough wide-open space to hide a horrifying secret. A woman with a past, a mysterious trunk, a town on the edge of nowhere, and a bracing new vision of the American West, from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

”If the literary gods mixed together Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison, the result would be Victor LaValle.”—Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See

Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk opens, people around Adelaide start to disappear.

The year is 1915, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, forcing her to flee California in a hellfire rush and make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will become one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can tame it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing that will help her survive the harsh territory.

Crafted by a modern master of magical suspense, Lone Women blends shimmering prose, an unforgettable cast of adventurers who find horror and sisterhood in a brutal landscape, and a portrait of early-twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen. And at its heart is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—or redeem it.

Cover of Rose House by Arkady Martine
Rose/House by Arkady Martine
Scheduled Release Date: March 30

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire was one of my favorite books read in 2021, and I’m curious to see what she does with this novella coming from Subterranean Press. From reading the early reviews on Goodreads, it sounds like it raises some interesting questions related to the science fictional scenario of having AI houses.

 

Arkady Martine, the acclaimed author of the Teixcalaan Series, returns with an astonishing new novella.

Basit Deniau’s houses were haunted to begin with.

A house embedded with an artificial intelligence is a common thing: a house that is an artificial intelligence, infused in every load-bearing beam and fine marble tile with a thinking creature that is not human? That is something else altogether. But now Deniau’s been dead a year, and Rose House is locked up tight, as commanded by the architect’s will: all his possessions and files and sketches are confined in its archives, and their only keeper is Rose House itself. Rose House, and one other.

Dr. Selene Gisil, one of Deniau’s former protégé, is permitted to come into Rose House once a year. She alone may open Rose House’s vaults, look at drawings and art, talk with Rose House’s animating intelligence all she likes. Until this week, Dr. Gisil was the only person whom Rose House spoke to.

But even an animate intelligence that haunts a house has some failsafes common to all AIs. For instance: all AIs must report the presence of a dead body to the nearest law enforcement agency.

There is a dead person in Rose House. The house says so. It is not Basit Deniau, and it is not Dr. Gisil. It is someone else. Rose House, having completed its duty of care and informed Detective Maritza Smith of the China Lake police precinct that there is in fact a dead person inside it, dead of unnatural causes—has shut up.

No one can get inside Rose House, except Dr. Gisil. Dr. Gisil was not in North America when Rose House called the China Lake precinct. But someone did. And someone died there. And someone may be there still.

Cover of Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh
Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: April 11

I’ve been looking forward to this space opera novel since reading what the author and editor said about the protagonist in the announcement on Tor.com. In particular, I took notice when Emily Tesh said, “The villain of Kyr’s journey is Kyr herself.” And then I saw Ruoxi Chen said, “Kyr is a protagonist who is the absolute worst. I’d die for her of course.” Kyr sounds like just the type of messy, complex sort of character I enjoy reading about.

 

A thrillingly told queer space opera about the wreckage of war, the family you find, and who you must become when every choice is stripped from you, Some Desperate Glory is Astounding Award Winner and Crawford Award Finalist Emily Tesh’s highly anticipated debut novel.

“Masterful, audacious storytelling. Relentless, unsentimental, a completely wild ride.”—Tamsyn Muir

While we live, the enemy shall fear us.

Since she was born, Kyr has trained for the day she can avenge the murder of planet Earth. Raised in the bowels of Gaea Station alongside the last scraps of humanity, she readies herself to face the Wisdom, the powerful, reality-shaping weapon that gave the majoda their victory over humanity.

They are what’s left. They are what must survive. Kyr is one of the best warriors of her generation, the sword of a dead planet. When Command assigns her brother to certain death and relegates her to Nursery to bear sons until she dies trying, she knows she must take humanity’s revenge into her own hands.

Alongside her brother’s brilliant but seditious friend and a lonely, captive alien, Kyr escapes from everything she’s known into a universe far more complicated than she was taught and far more wondrous than she could have imagined.

(more…)

Happy New Year! Last year was another not-so-great year in a lot of ways, and the last couple of weeks included a storm that knocked out our power for two days and was overall an unpleasant experience. But I also got to visit a cat cafe and spend time with some adorable kitties as an early Christmas gift, and as usual, I read some wonderful books.

One of the biggest highlights of 2022 was the eleventh annual Women in SF&F Month, which was filled with amazing essays by speculative fiction authors discussing their thoughts, experiences, and work. It featured the following guest posts (which are eligible for nonfiction/related work awards):

Every year, I reflect on what I read over the last year and make a list that feels right for my thoughts and feelings about that particular set of books. This year, I came up with 10 books I wanted to highlight: 8 released in 2022, 1 slightly older book, and 1 much older book. Other than the first two—my Book of the Year and Book of the Year Runner-Up—these are not ranked but appear in alphabetical order.

Cover images link to Bookshop. As an affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Favorite Books Released in 2022

Cover of The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

Book of the Year
The Final Strife (The Ending Fire #1) by Saara El-Arifi
My Review
Read an Excerpt

Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths, is phenomenal. Set in a perilous empire with destructive tidewinds and social classes based on blood color, it follows three women striving to make an impact on their world. Sylah, whose mission to win the tournament that would make her the leader of one of the empire’s four guilds was ruined years before, finds new purpose in using her knowledge of the trials to aid another. Anoor seeks to prove herself to the mother who hates her by competing to succeed her as Warden of Strength, but when she learns more about the cruel treatment of the other classes, she’s driven by the desire to improve lives instead. And Hassa (my favorite character) uses the fact that she’s overlooked and underestimated as a clear-blooded person to hide clandestine activities.

Simultaneously thoughtful and fun, The Final Strife explores injustice amidst storylines about uncovering mysteries about the world, a newfound friendship with potential for romance, and a tournament that’s about a variety of types of strength, not just who can fight the best. This fantasy setting feels real and lived in due to having a rich history that’s fleshed out through the characters’ perspectives, oral stories, and epigraphs. With a prologue that drew me in immediately and wonderful worldbuilding, storytelling, protagonists, and pacing that kept me hooked, The Final Strife is easily my favorite book of 2022.

Babel by R. F. Kuang - Book Cover

Book of the Year Runner-Up
Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang
Read an Excerpt

Babel is set in a version of our world in the 1800s, but in this scenario, England’s power came from silver-working enchantments done by skilled translators. The magic system is a word nerd’s dream, and I loved the classroom lectures on translation and etymology, which were engagingly written and full of interesting tidbits, and the extra details in the footnotes. This is a story about a young man who loves and excels at languages and translation but has to grapple with his growing understanding of how this magic exploits other peoples while raising England. It’s both a gripping novel and a fascinating exploration of the betrayal and imperfections of translation, and of course, colonialism and revolution as well.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan - Book Cover

Daughter of the Moon Goddess (The Celestial Kingdom #1) by Sue Lynn Tan
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Daughter of the Moon Goddess, an epic fantasy novel inspired by the legend of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, is one of those books that was easy to sink into and get lost in with its fantastic mythology and storytelling. In this version of the tale, Chang’e had a daughter, Xingyin, that she kept secret while she was imprisoned on the moon. But when the empress of the Celestial Kingdom visits, Xingyin is forced to flee her home and leave her mother behind. While hiding her identity, she becomes a prince’s companion and a great archer—and plans to save her mother from exile. I loved the mythology and the immortal realm, Xingyin’s drive and ambition, and even the love triangle that developed. (Heart of the Sun Warrior, the second part of this duology, recently came out, but I haven’t read it yet.)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh - Book Cover

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
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Nothing extraordinary is ever done out of reason or logic, but because it’s the only way for your soul to breathe.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a retelling of the Korean folktale “The Tale of Shim Cheong,” but in this version, a girl named Mina dives into the waves as the Sea God’s sacrifice to save the titular character from her fate. She does this for her brother, who is in love with Shim Cheong, but once Mina is in the Spirit Realm, she tries to find a way to save her people from the storms that they believe to be the Sea God’s curse—but of course, the truth differs from the stories she’s heard all of her life. This is a lovely, hopeful, fairytale-like book, and I appreciated its exploration of myths and the stories we tell. I especially loved that both girls’ desires were respected: Mina’s wish for her brother’s happiness that led her to throw herself into the sea and try to change things for the better, and Shim Cheong’s wish to remain with her family and the man she loved.

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel - Book Cover

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
My Review
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Kaikeyi is a “what if” style reimagining of the story of the queen who exiled the hero Rama in the Indian epic the Ramayana, told from her own perspective. Her prettily written narrative had me hooked from the very first page, and Kaikeyi was a remarkable protagonist who channeled her anger at the patriarchy into doing her best to make the world a better place. I appreciated that she was compassionate but also had her flaws and lacked self-awareness at times, and I admired her determination to carve a place for herself in a world that wanted to prevent a woman with ambition from being her fullest, truest self. Kaikeyi’s voice and story, her discovery and mastery of the magic of the Binding Plane, and her familial ties were all fantastic, as were the more epic scenes involving gods and other supernatural beings.

Cover of One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

One Dark Window (The Shepherd King #1) by Rachel Gillig

One Dark Window, the first book in a dark fantasy duology, is one of the most fun, difficult-to-put down books I’ve read this year. Set in a kingdom where the only acceptable form of magic is rare cards with different powers created by a king long ago, people who have their own innate magic are hunted. Elspeth, the protagonist, is hiding magic that has saved her life: ever since she touched a Nightmare card as a child, she’s heard a voice in her head, which belongs to something that can make her more powerful when she’s in danger. I particularly enjoyed the lore surrounding the Shepherd King and the cards he created, the dynamic between Elspeth and the monster she carries (which Rachel Gillig discussed here), and the romance with the king’s nephew, who has secrets of his own. It also had a fantastic ending—I always appreciate it when authors don’t wrap everything up easily or take the easy way out, as is the case here.

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez - Book Cover

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
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The Spear Cuts Through Water is the most unique, creative book I read this year. It’s difficult to describe with its interweaving narrative—it’s memories and pieces of a tale told by your lola (grandmother), it’s a play in a mythical theatre performed in your dreams, it’s a journey through a fantastical world of royal demigods and telepathically linked tortoises. It’s a love story (according to your lola, who disagrees with other family members’ beliefs that it is not); it’s connected to the spear you hold in your dream, the one that you’ve seen hanging on your family room mantel; it’s an account of how the moon god escaped her imprisonment, aided by two young men who traveled with her. It’s a gorgeously written myth, an ambitious novel exploring family and redemption.

A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee - Book Cover

A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee
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Long ago, in the noble realm of Awara, where all creation, from the tallest peaks to the lowliest beetles, had forms both humble and divine, there lived an unremarkable girl named Otori Miuko. The daughter of the innkeeper at the only remaining guesthouse in the village of Nihaoi, Miuko was average by every conceivable standard—beauty, intelligence, the circumference of her hips—except for one.

She was uncommonly loud.

A Thousand Steps into Night had me hooked from those first few sentences, and I found Miuko’s story and adventures in a land with Japanese-influenced mythology a delight. I also really loved the things that Traci Chee discussed in her Women in SF&F Month essay about it—the way she examined heroism and what makes a hero, the desire to shake things up instead of restoring status quo, the discovery that “bad” qualities can actually be strengths, and the acknowledgment that changing the world is a community project. This is such a charming, thoughtfully executed story, both an adventure and an exploration of being a girl who doesn’t fit into the box marked “Proper Lady” in a patriarchal society.

Favorite Books Published Before 2022

Cover of Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

 Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

I’ve been on a quest to read everything Patricia A. McKillip has written after discovering her short story collection Wonders of the Invisible World, followed by her enchanting novels The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Changeling Sea. (However, I have been taking my time as I want to savor every word.) When I heard the devastating news of her death earlier in 2022, I decided to read one of her books I hadn’t read yet: Alphabet of Thorn, which I had recently gotten as a birthday gift.

And it was exactly the sort of reading experience that is uniquely McKillip, magical and warm with exquisitely crafted prose and a dash of whimsical, understated humor. (Such as when Nepenthe is told her face looks just like one seen on an old parchment: “The librarian looked curiously at Nepenthe; she wished she could take off her head and look at herself.”) With multiple threads and characters, it’s difficult to briefly summarize, but it’s largely about an orphan, a translator taken in and raised in a library, who is utterly enchanted by a book written in a thorny language that comes to her with ease. From its pages, she learns the true story of The Emperor of Night and the Hooded One, a ruthless conqueror and the powerful masked sorcerer key to his success. Theirs is an epic love story, and one of the themes that runs through the novel is the invisibility of women: women who did great feats but were forgotten, women who had to hide parts of themselves to follow their dreams.

Although this is not my favorite of McKillip’s novels (that would be The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Changeling Sea), it’s the best book released before 2022 that I read this year and one of the best books I read this year, period.

The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu - Cover Image

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie Liu
My Review

Technically, I read much of The Tangleroot Palace in 2021, but it still stands out as a highlight when looking over books I completed in 2022—it is one of the best short story collections I’ve read, after all! These seven tales—six short stories plus one novella—are all quite different from one another since they encompass a variety of subgenres, settings, tones, and styles, but they also have some common threads and seem like they are in conversation with each other in some ways. Marjorie Liu’s introduction says they share “a longing for home, friendship, love—characters often driven by a weary hope in the possibility of something good.” Although I did prefer some stories to others, I appreciated and enjoyed them all and didn’t think there were any that were far better or worse than the rest. I especially loved how Marjorie Liu parceled out details, as I often was unsure about what was going on at first but there was enough of a hook that I wanted to find out—and everything tied together wonderfully in the end.

 

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The Final Strife is Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel and the first book in The Ending Fire trilogy, an epic fantasy series inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths. It’s also a spectacular first novel with fantastic worldbuilding and storytelling (the epigraphs and oral tales are especially wonderful additions), and I was eager to read more of it every time I had the chance. It had been some time since I’d been this immersed in a book from beginning to end, and I haven’t read anything I’ve enjoyed as much or thought worked as well since, making The Final Strife my current favorite of this year.

It’s set in a perilous empire, dangerous due to both the tidewind, a destructive blend of blue sand and salt air that sweeps through the land wreaking havoc every night, and the people in power. It mainly follows three young women—one from each social class based on blood color—striving to impact their world in their own way: by helping another prepare for a tournament to choose a guild’s leader, competing to become a Warden of one of the four guilds, or using the fact that she’s overlooked and underestimated to hide clandestine activities.

Sylah was born with the red blood of the elite that would enable her to do blood magic, but she never learned the runes since she was kidnapped by rebels. During the Night of the Stolen, this group sneaked into the homes of several noble families, swapping Sylah and the other highborn children with their own blue-blooded babies. These revolutionaries raised the children they abducted to understand just how terribly those with blue blood were treated: they were forced to do manual labor, such as working plantation fields; they could be brutally executed without a fair trial; and they were impoverished. The rebels also trained the children, preparing each of them for one of the tournaments to determine the next Warden of one of the four guilds—strength, truth, duty, or knowledge. Sylah was a strong fighter and an especially promising candidate for a future Warden of Strength, but the rebels’ plans to install these children in positions of power someday failed when they were discovered and massacred—except for Sylah and her mother, who alone managed to escape. Filled with grief over the loss of her loved ones and destiny, Sylah lost herself in drugs and became an addict, earning money by fighting in the pits run by the so-called fifth guild leader, the “Warden of Crime.” She’s especially wistful when the tournament she was supposed to enter draws near, but she has an opportunity to influence it after all—even if it’s not how she’d always imagined—when she breaks into the rooms of the Warden of Strength’s daughter and meets Anoor.

Anoor is a rarity, having reached young adulthood after being left in another child’s place on the Night of the Stolen. Although most parents killed the replacement children, the Warden of Strength at the time did not. Too many people would question her ability to protect the empire if they knew she had failed to protect her own daughter, so she hid the fact that her child was taken. She raised Anoor as her own, sending her to an elite school and arranging for her to mix a dash of her blue blood into a servant’s red to do blood magic. However, the Warden despised Anoor and made it clear she resented her for not being her trueborn daughter. Wishing to prove herself after a lifetime of abuse and belittlement, Anoor enters the tournament that will decide the next Disciple of Strength, who will prepare to succeed her mother when her term ends in ten years. But when she agrees to teach Sylah blood magic in exchange for being trained for the various strength trials, Anoor comes to realize just how sheltered she’s been from the horrors the other classes endure—and determines to win so she can better their lives, blue- and clear-blooded alike.

Hassa is a servant due to the clear blood that runs through her veins. Like all with her blood color, her tongue and hands were removed when she was a baby—the empire’s punishment for a rebellion that happened 400 years before. Most red- and blue-blooded people ignore those they see working with their special tools designed to accommodate their lack of hands, and they don’t tend to learn even the basics of the servants’ language: as long as their orders are followed, the other classes don’t care what those serving them might have to say. But Hassa has befriended one of the only people outside their community who does understand what some of their body movements mean: Sylah. And Hassa knows more about her friend and the empire than Sylah realizes, using secret tunnels and her invisibility to others to hide her doings, in pursuit of a better life for her people.

The first few pages of The Final Strife are a shining example of how to write a prologue. It starts with a typical night in the empire’s capital city, showing the danger of the tidewind and how wealthier people and their homes are better protected from its destruction. Then the focus turns to a tavern in a poorer part of the city, where a griot tells a tale: a very important one, that of the Night of the Stolen. The oral story is lifelike, vivid, and rhythmic, and I could clearly hear the cadence of the teller’s voice and the beat of his drum. This is a wonderful introduction that relates a lot about the setting in just a few pages and drew me into the story immediately—and from there, this book had me from beginning to end.

Although The Final Strife is mainly set in the capital of an empire with only 13 cities, it seems vast and epic due to rich history and storytelling that makes it feel real and lived in. The fantastic epigraphs add to this effect, as well as the interludes containing more oral stories, such as that of the clear-blooded people’s rebellion 400 years before and the tale of the god Anyme and the spider. I just loved all the details that fleshed out this world, especially since part of the story involves characters seeking the truth after finding a piece of a map that doesn’t fit the historical accounts they’ve all heard. The way Saara El-Arifi parcels out information leading to bigger revelations is expertly done, and there are some great twists—even when they’re expected, they work well because of how it gradually builds to the clear conclusion. (And there was still a revelation right at the end that I was not anticipating at all.)

This novel also had an interesting approach to the tournament storyline. There were different sets of trials for each guild, and the trials for the next Warden of Strength shown through Anoor’s perspective were about more than just fighting opponents. Although targets and combat were part of the test, competitors also had to prove their skills in other areas: tactics, stealth, blood magic, and strength of mind. And even once there was a victor, the winner was not automatically installed in their new position, but instead, they would spend the next ten years preparing to follow the current Warden. Sometimes the next leader had already been in that position before, but if they were new to it, they had plenty of time to learn before being thrust into a leadership role. (That said, it did seem a bit short-sighted that there didn’t seem to be any runners-up in training just in case the next Warden has some sort of accident like being wiped out by a tidewind before starting their term. But then, maybe that will be addressed in a later book in the series since this one focused on the competition more than the ins and outs of the guilds.)

Like the fantasy aspects, the social aspects of the world were well done. Although it certainly has fun parts between the tournament and a developing friendship (or maybe romance), The Final Strife is largely a story about injustice. This setting does not have obstacles for women or LGBTQ+ people—as shown through the lives of the three main characters, a trans woman and two women who are attracted to each other—but instead, has divisions based on blood color. The different classes do not always fit neatly into boxes, even in addition to two individual characters’ situations being reversed: although clear-blooded servants and blue-blooded workers are definitely treated worse than those with red blood, many of the latter are just doing their best to make a living. There are plenty of red-blooded people who need to take jobs doing necessary tasks like cooking and cleaning for those people who actually are living in luxurious homes dining in splendor.

All three main characters are interesting and sympathetic for various reasons. Anoor is part of a wealthy, respected family, but she’s not had a great life since her mother hates her and cannot get past any part of her that reminds her she is not her biological daughter, like her having a curvy figure so unlike her own. However, Anoor has still absorbed the propaganda about how everyone is treated justly, and she’s horrified to see how things really are in poorer parts of the city after Sylah takes her there: particularly, that fair trials do not actually apply to other people and they can be brutally executed without one. As a bright, dreamy, optimistic person, she then seeks to educate herself and consider what she might do to improve conditions for everyone if she does become the next Warden of Strength.

Sylah was raised to believe in justice and revolution, but she’s been depressed and jaded since the night she lost her family and her role in their mission. Part of her arc involves questioning her father’s methods and some of the teachings she grew up with, some of which stem from seeing that some red-blooded people are just ordinary kitchen workers with no real power of their own. And, despite the fact that her relationship with Anoor had a rocky start given that she broke into her rooms and was presumed an assassin, the two young women with the sunshine/grumpy dynamic start to develop a friendship—one that seems like it could turn into more as they grow closer, although there is a love triangle since Sylah was reunited with a man she had a relationship with in the past.

As much as I enjoyed both Anoor and Sylah’s stories, Hassa was easily my favorite character. She doesn’t have as many pages as the other two, probably because specific details about what she’s up to are kept mysterious and gradually revealed over the course of the novel. I loved the way her story unfolded and seeing all the pieces come together, and I have such a soft spot for quiet characters who are underestimated and use others’ perception of them to their advantage. (And I was excited to see the author state that Hassa will have a bigger character arc in the next book in an interview on The Fantasy Hive.)

The Final Strife was a near-perfect book for me: simultaneously thoughtful and fun with some unique details that made it stand out, such as the devices used for blood magic. The pacing, worldbuilding, story, and oral tales were all wonderful, and the only reason I’m not giving it a 10 is simply there are books and characters that I personally love more. However, The Final Strife is a phenomenal book—my favorite I’ve read this year by far—and The Battle Drum is perhaps my most anticipated new release coming in 2023.

My Rating: 9/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Final Strife

Read Saara El-Arifi’s Women in SF&F Month 2022 Essay, “Routes to my roots”

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.

Last week brought two upcoming books, both of which sound fantastic!

Please Note: The description for the first book listed below does contain spoilers for the first book in the series. If you’re viewing this post in a web browser, this should be hidden until you click the “View Spoiler” link, but the description may show up if you are reading this elsewhere (by email or feed reader, for example).

Cover of The Ivory Tomb by Melissa Caruso

The Ivory Tomb (Rooks and Ruin #3) by Melissa Caruso

The final book in the Rooks and Ruin trilogy will be release on December 6 (trade paperback, ebook).

The Hachette website has excerpts from the previous books in the series, The Obsidian Tower and The Quicksilver Court. If you’ve read the first book and want an overview of characters and what happened, Melissa Caruso’s website has a refresher from the first book (so far, as she’s hoping to add refreshers for more books when she has time).

I had the absolute best time reading The Obsidian Tower, which kept me riveted: it has a spooky castle with a door that should never be opened for some reason (but is, of course!) and a mysterious fox-like chimera who seems to have always been in the castle. And why does the protagonist kill everything she touches when her family normally has magic that brings life? (I also reviewed The Quicksilver Court, which I didn’t find as captivating though I did enjoy it.)

This series is set in the same world as Melissa Caruso’s first trilogy, Swords and Fire, but it’s not necessary to start with the previous series since this follows different characters about 150 years later. However, I loved this series (especially after the Crow Lord’s appearance in the second book) and reviewed all three books:

  1. The Tethered Mage
  2. The Defiant Heir
  3. The Unbound Empire

The book description of The Ivory Tomb is behind spoiler tags since it does contain spoilers about the Door that must not be opened in the first book.

 

Cover of Lone Women by Victor LaValle

Lone Women by Victor LaValle

This horror novel will be released on March 21, 2023 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Set in the 1900s, it’s partially inspired by the history of female homesteaders in the American West.

 

Blue skies, empty land—and enough wide-open space to hide a horrifying secret. A woman with a past, a mysterious trunk, a town on the edge of nowhere, and a bracing new vision of the American West, from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

”If the literary gods mixed together Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison, the result would be Victor LaValle.”—Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See

Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk opens, people around Adelaide start to disappear.

The year is 1915, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, forcing her to flee California in a hellfire rush and make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will become one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can tame it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing that will help her survive the harsh territory.

Crafted by a modern master of magical suspense, Lone Women blends shimmering prose, an unforgettable cast of adventurers who find horror and sisterhood in a brutal landscape, and a portrait of early-twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen. And at its heart is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—or redeem it.