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 an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Although I am working on a review of a GREAT book that I hope to have finished soon, there have been no new posts since the last of these spotlights—but if you missed it and want to discover some books coming out in 2022, I covered 30 of them here. Today’s featured book is also coming out this year, but it will be out a lot sooner than most of those since it’s being released this week!

Good Neighbors by Stephanie Burgis - Book Cover

Good Neighbors: The Full Collection by Stephanie Burgis

This fantasy romance collection following the same couple will be released on February 2 (paperback, ebook).

Good Neighbors contains a short story, a novelette, and two novellas that first appeared on Stephanie Burgis’ Patreon:

  1. Good Neighbors
  2. Deadly Courtesies
  3. Fine Deceptions
  4. Fierce Company

Stephanie Burgis wrote that it’s “about 60,000 words of metal magic, fake dating, undead minions, midnight balls, illicit opera house adventures and more!” on her blog, and she has a couple of snippets from it here.

This sounds like fun, and I was immediately intrigued by the first line: “It wasn’t so bad living next door to a notorious necromancer, most of the time.”

 

When a grumpy inventor meets her outrageous new neighbor in the big black castle down the road, more than one type of spark will fly!

Mia Brandt knows better than to ever again allow her true powers to be discovered. Ever since her last neighbors burned down her workshop in a night of terror and flame, she’s been determined to stay solitary, safe, and – to all outside appearances – perfectly respectable…

But Leander Fabian, whose sinister castle looms over her cozy new cottage, has far more dangerous ideas in mind. When he persuades Mia into a reluctant alliance, she finds herself swept into an exhilarating world of midnight balls, interfering countesses, illicit opera house expeditions, necromantic duels, and a whole unnatural community of fellow magic-workers and outcasts, all of whom are facing a threat more ominous than any she’s confronted before.

Luckily, Mia has unnatural powers of her own – but even her unique skills may not be enough to protect her new found family and help her resist the wickedly provoking neighbor who’s seen through all of her shields from the beginning.

This novel-length collection includes all four stories and novellas originally published on Stephanie Burgis’s Patreon in 2020-2021: Good Neighbors, Deadly Courtesies, Fine Deceptions, and Fierce Company.

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.

It has been a while since I did one of these features between the holidays and working on blog posts about highlights of the previous year and upcoming books of the new year. I have the best time putting together these lists, but they also take a lot of time to do!

Here are the links to everything I’ve posted since the last Leaning Pile of Books, in case you missed them:

Since it would take me forever to cover every single book I bought or received as gifts over the holidays in this post, I limited this to 4 books: 2 ARCs that came in the mail and 2 books that I got for Christmas.

Servant Mage by Kate Elliott - Book Cover

Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott’s latest, a standalone fantasy novella, was just released last week (hardcover, ebook).

If you’d like to take a look at a sample, Tor.com has an excerpt from Servant Mage.

 

In Kate Elliott’s Servant Mage, a lowly fire mage finds herself entangled in an empire-spanning conspiracy on her way to discovering her true power.

They choose their laws to secure their power.

Fellian is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines.

Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good.

But Fellian has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas - Book Cover

The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas

This YA retelling of “The Ballad of Mulan” is one of the books I received for Christmas, and it is available in several formats (hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook).

Sherry Thomas’ website has an excerpt from The Magnolia Sword with an author’s note about how this novel came to be.

 

CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise

All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty

Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling—the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion . . . before it’s too late.

Inspired by wuxia martial-arts dramas as well as the centuries-old ballad of Mulan, The Magnolia Sword is perfect for fans of Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, or Kristin Cashore—a thrilling, romantic, and sharp-edged novel that lives up to its beloved heroine.

Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller - Book Cover

Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller’s short story collection will be released on May 10 (trade paperback, ebook). This volume contains an introduction by Amal El-Mohtar and 14 stories, including Nebula Award finalists “When Your Child Strays from God” and “Things with Beards” and a new story.

The author’s website has more information, including the table of contents.

 

In Nebula Award-winning author Sam J. Miller’s devastating debut short-fiction collection, featuring an introduction by Amal El-Mohtar, queer infatuation, inevitable heartbreak, and brutal revenge seamlessly intertwine. Whether innocent, guilty, or not even human, the boys, beasts, and men roaming through Miller’s gorgeously crafted worlds can destroy readers, yet leave them wanting more.

Despite his ability to control the ambient digital cloud, a foster teen falls for a clever con-man. Luring bullies to a quarry, a boy takes clearly enumerated revenge through unnatural powers of suggestion. In the aftermath of a shapeshifting alien invasion, a survivor fears that he brought something out of the Arctic to infect the rest of the world. A rebellious group of queer artists create a new identity that transcends even the anonymity of death.

Sam J. Miller (Blackfish CityThe Art of Starving) shows his savage wit, unrelenting candor, and lush imagery in this essential career retrospective collection, taking his place alongside legends of the short-fiction form such as Carmen Maria Machado, Carson McCullers, and Jeff VanderMeer.

The Annotated Arabian Nights - Book Cover

The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1001 Nights edited by Paulo Lemos Horta and translated by Yasmine Seale

This gorgeous hardcover illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights was another Christmas present. I’ve been wanting to read a version of this, and I added this one to my wish list after seeing S. A. Chakraborty recommend it.

 

A magnificent and richly illustrated volume—with a groundbreaking translation framed by new commentary and hundreds of images—of the most famous story collection of all time.

A cornerstone of world literature and a monument to the power of storytelling, the Arabian Nights has inspired countless authors, from Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe to Naguib Mahfouz, Clarice Lispector, and Angela Carter. Now, in this lavishly designed and illustrated edition of The Annotated Arabian Nights, the acclaimed literary historian Paulo Lemos Horta and the brilliant poet and translator Yasmine Seale present a splendid new selection of tales from the Nights, featuring treasured original stories as well as later additions including “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and definitively bringing the Nights out of Victorian antiquarianism and into the twenty-first century.

For centuries, readers have been haunted by the homicidal King Shahriyar, thrilled by gripping tales of Sinbad’s seafaring adventures, and held utterly, exquisitely captive by Shahrazad’s stories of passionate romances and otherworldly escapades. Yet for too long, the English-speaking world has relied on dated translations by Richard Burton, Edward Lane, and other nineteenth-century adventurers. Seale’s distinctly contemporary and lyrical translations break decisively with this masculine dynasty, finally stripping away the deliberate exoticism of Orientalist renderings while reclaiming the vitality and delight of the stories, as she works with equal skill in both Arabic and French.

Included within are famous tales, from “The Story of Sinbad the Sailor” to “The Story of the Fisherman and the Jinni,” as well as lesser-known stories such as “The Story of Dalila the Crafty,” in which the cunning heroine takes readers into the everyday life of merchants and shopkeepers in a crowded metropolis, and “The Story of the Merchant and the Jinni,” an example of a ransom frame tale in which stories are exchanged to save a life. Grounded in the latest scholarship, The Annotated Arabian Nights also incorporates the Hanna Diyab stories, for centuries seen as French forgeries but now acknowledged, largely as a result of Horta’s pathbreaking research, as being firmly rooted in the Arabic narrative tradition. Horta not only takes us into the astonishing twists and turns of the stories’ evolution. He also offers comprehensive notes on just about everything readers need to know to appreciate the tales in context, and guides us through the origins of ghouls, jinn, and other supernatural elements that have always drawn in and delighted readers.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with art from Europe and the Arab and Persian world, the latter often ignored in English-language editions, The Annotated Arabian Nights expands the visual dimensions of the stories, revealing how the Nights have always been—and still are—in dialogue with fine artists. With a poignant autobiographical foreword from best-selling novelist Omar El Akkad and an illuminating afterword on the Middle Eastern roots of Hanna Diyab’s tales from noted scholar Robert Irwin, Horta and Seale have created a stunning edition of the Arabian Nights that will enchant and inform both devoted and novice readers alike.

One good thing about the past few years has been the abundance of amazing speculative fiction books, and yet again, it was difficult to narrow down my list of 2022 releases that sound promising to a somewhat reasonable number. Like last year, I searched the web for early reviews, excerpts, and information from the author and/or publisher and came up with 30 books. (And of course, that wasn’t necessary for some of these because I’ve loved the author’s other works or previous books in the series!)

As always, this is not even close to a comprehensive list of all the speculative fiction being published in 2022: these are just the books I found that sound most appealing to me personally. There are always more that I hear about throughout the year that I would have included if I’d known about them earlier, and this list does not include books that are not fantasy or science fiction that I’m also excited about (namely, Tasha Suri’s Wuthering Heights reimagining, What Souls Are Made Of).

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.

Most cover images link to Bookshop. As an affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan - Book Cover
Daughter of the Moon Goddess (Celestial Kingdom #1) by Sue Lynn Tan
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: January (Out Now in the US and UK)

Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel, the first book in a duology, has a gorgeous cover and sounds fantastic with its inspiration from the legend of Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess.

Sue Lynn Tan wrote a bit about what to expect on Goodreads (including content warnings) and mentioned it features:

Chinese mythology & legendary creatures
Fierce female warrior fighting for her family
A gentle prince & a ruthless soldier
Friends—Lovers—Enemies…

This is one of the 2022 debuts I’ve been most looking forward to, and I just got the copy I preordered.

 

A captivating debut fantasy inspired by the legend of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e , in which a young woman’s quest to free her mother pits her against the most powerful immortal in the realm and sets her on a dangerous path—where choices come with deadly consequences, and she risks losing more than her heart.

Growing up on the moon, Xingyin is accustomed to solitude, unaware that she is being hidden from the powerful Celestial Emperor who exiled her mother for stealing his elixir of immortality. But when Xingyin’s magic flares and her existence is discovered, she is forced to flee her home, leaving her mother behind.

Alone, untrained, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity, she seizes an opportunity to learn alongside the Crown Prince, mastering archery and magic, even as passion flames between her and the emperor’s son.

To save her mother, Xingyin embarks on a perilous quest, confronting legendary creatures and vicious enemies across the earth and skies. When treachery looms and forbidden magic threatens the kingdom, however, she must challenge the ruthless Celestial Emperor for her dream—striking a dangerous bargain in which she is torn between losing all she loves or plunging the realm into chaos.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess begins an enchanting, romantic duology which weaves ancient Chinese mythology into a sweeping adventure of immortals and magic, of loss and sacrifice—where love vies with honor, dreams are fraught with betrayal, and hope emerges triumphant.

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James - Book Cover
Moon Witch, Spider King (The Dark Star Trilogy #2) by Marlon James
Scheduled Release Date: February 15

The Dark Star trilogy sounds like a fascinating approach to a series: instead of being linear, each book explores the same story from a different perspective.

Marlon James discussed why he chose to tell the story this way in an interview on io9:

In several traditional African and diaspora stories, there is no authentic version, no director’s cut, no one truth to rule them all, which is very much a western thing to do, but also a reductive thing to do.

Then there is this—in a lot of African folk tales, the trickster is the one telling you the story, or it’s about him, which ties you to his perspective, his world view, even his biases and prejudices. Sometimes you are told different versions of the same story each night. The burden of truth is not on the tale itself, but in what you discern truth to be. I’ve always been interested in how two people seeing the same thing can come to very different conclusions— I can walk into a room and see somebody gobbling a bag of chips and think he’s starving, while you’ll think he’s greedy. It’s also pretty topical of the moment we’re in—even though I didn’t set out to be—where people really do think truth is a choice, and that choice is up for grabs. So in that spirit, I will never tell the reader which character or story to believe. I’m leaving the burden of truth up to the reader, so it will be interesting when this trilogy is done, seeing whose story they count as true.

I love stories that play with perspective like this, and I was excited to discover I could actually start with the second book in the series when an ARC of Moon Witch, Spider King unexpectedly showed up in the mail.

 

From Marlon James, author of the bestselling National Book Award finalist Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the second book in the Dark Star trilogy, his African Game of Thrones.

In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Sogolon the Moon Witch proved a worthy adversary to Tracker as they clashed across a mythical African landscape in search of a mysterious boy who disappeared. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon takes center stage and gives her own account of what happened to the boy, and how she plotted and fought, triumphed and failed as she looked for him. It’s also the story of a century-long feud—seen through the eyes of a 177-year-old witch—that Sogolon had with the Aesi, chancellor to the king. It is said that Aesi works so closely with the king that together they are like the eight limbs of one spider. Aesi’s power is considerable—and deadly. It takes brains and courage to challenge him, which Sogolon does for reasons of her own.

Both a brilliant narrative device—seeing the story told in Black Leopard, Red Wolf from the perspective of an adversary and a woman—as well as a fascinating battle between different versions of empire, Moon Witch, Spider King delves into Sogolon’s world as she fights to tell her own story. Part adventure tale, part chronicle of an indomitable woman who bows to no man, it is a fascinating novel that explores power, personality, and the places where they overlap.

The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood - Book Cover
The Thousand Eyes (The Serpent Gates #2) by A. K. Larkwood
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: February 15

The Unspoken Name, A. K. Larkwood’s debut novel, is about an orc woman in the service of a powerful mage who kept her from being sacrificed to a god. It features world-hopping, a lovely f/f romance, some humorous dialogue and lines, and a highly entertaining dynamic between the main character and another one of the mage’s servants who hate having to work together. I’m looking forward to reading more about them in The Thousand Eyes.

If you missed it before, A. K. Larkwood wrote about why she chose to write about a non-human protagonist in these books in her Women in SF&F Month 2020 guest post:

So, why did you decide to write a non-human protagonist? Why do you love monsters so much?

I’ve been asked these questions pretty often since The Unspoken Name was published. I have a range of flippant answers, including “hey, I just love weird stuff”. And that’s basically true — I’ve always had a bit of a fixation with whatever is monstrous, villainous, bizarre.

But I wanted to think about it more seriously. For me, the whole point of fantasy is to look at our reality from another angle. I’m interested in the idea that there could be a way of experiencing the world that is far from “human”, that it might be possible to make a fantasy world which moves beyond the idea of humanity as normative.

(A German translation of the entire essay can be found on the FISCHER Tor website.)

 

The sequel to A. K. Larkwood’s stunning debut fantasy, The Unspoken NameThe Thousand Eyes continues The Serpent Gates series—perfect for fans of Jenn Lyons, Joe Abercrombie, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Just when they thought they were out…

Two years after defying the wizard Belthandros Sethennai and escaping into the great unknown, Csorwe and Shuthmili have made a new life for themselves, hunting for secrets among the ruins of an ancient snake empire.

Along for the ride is Tal Charossa, determined to leave the humiliation and heartbreak of his hometown far behind him, even if it means enduring the company of his old rival and her insufferable girlfriend.

All three of them would be quite happy never to see Sethennai again. But when a routine expedition goes off the rails and a terrifying imperial relic awakens, they find that a common enemy may be all it takes to bring them back into his orbit.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh - Book Cover
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: February 22

The gorgeous cover caught my eye first, and then I read the description and wanted to read The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea even more. I love folklore/fairy tales and retellings, and this YA fantasy based on the Korean folktale “The Tale of Sim Cheong” sounds right up my alley.

 

Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is an enthralling feminist retelling of the classic Korean folktale “The Tale of Shim Cheong,” perfect for fans of Wintersong, Uprooted, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Deadly storms have ravaged Mina’s homeland for generations. Floods sweep away entire villages, while bloody wars are waged over the few remaining resources. Her people believe the Sea God, once their protector, now curses them with death and despair. In an attempt to appease him, each year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to serve as the Sea God’s bride, in the hopes that one day the “true bride” will be chosen and end the suffering.

Many believe that Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in the village—and the beloved of Mina’s older brother Joon—may be the legendary true bride. But on the night Cheong is to be sacrificed, Joon follows Cheong out to sea, even knowing that to interfere is a death sentence. To save her brother, Mina throws herself into the water in Cheong’s stead.

Swept away to the Spirit Realm, a magical city of lesser gods and mythical beasts, Mina seeks out the Sea God, only to find him caught in an enchanted sleep. With the help of a mysterious young man named Shin—as well as a motley crew of demons, gods and spirits—Mina sets out to wake the Sea God and bring an end to the killer storms once and for all.

But she doesn’t have much time: A human cannot live long in the land of the spirits. And there are those who would do anything to keep the Sea God from waking…

The River of Silver by S. A. Chakraborty - Book Cover
The River of Silver by S. A. Chakraborty
Scheduled Release Date: March 1 (Audiobook); October 11 (Hardcover/Ebook)

I rather enjoyed S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, especially the second and third books (which were some of my favorite books of 2019 and 2020). Of course I’m excited about this collection of related stories, especially getting to see more of Manizheh’s past.

 

Bestselling author S.A. Chakraborty’s acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy gets expanded with this new compilation of stories from before, during, and after the events of The City of BrassThe Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold, all from the perspective of characters both beloved and hated, and even those without a voice in the novels. The River of Silver gathers material both seen and new—including a special coda fans will need to read—making this the perfect complement to those incredible novels.

A prospective new queen joins a court whose lethal history may overwhelm her own political savvy…

An imprisoned royal from a fallen dynasty and a young woman wrenched from her home cross paths in an enchanted garden…

A pair of scouts stumble upon a secret in a cursed winter wood that will turn over their world…

Now together in one place, these stories of Daevabad enrich a world already teeming with magic and wonder. From Manizheh’s first steps towards rebellion to adventures that take place after The Empire of Gold, this is a must-have collection for those who can’t get enough of Nahri, Ali, and Dara and all that unfolded around them.

A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee - Book Cover
A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee
Scheduled Release Date: March 1

This is another book with a cover I love, and it also sounds fantastic: a Japanese-influenced YA fantasy novel with a thieving magpie spirit.

 

From New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award finalist, Traci Chee, comes a Japanese-influenced fantasy brimming with demons, adventure, and plans gone awry.

In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter. But when Miuko is cursed and begins to transform into a demon with a deadly touch, she embarks on a quest to reverse the curse and return to her normal life. Aided by a thieving magpie spirit and continuously thwarted by a demon prince, Miuko must outfox tricksters, escape demon hunters, and negotiate with feral gods if she wants to make it home again. But with her transformation comes power and freedom she never even dreamed of, and she’ll have to decide if saving her soul is worth trying to cram herself back into an ordinary life that no longer fits her… and perhaps never did.

(more…)

It was a rough year between the ongoing pandemic and then being evicted, buying a home, and needing to do lots of work on said home, and I didn’t write nearly as many book reviews as I would have liked. (And a few of those I did write were catching up on books I’d read in 2020 and struggled to review because of, well, 2020.)

But it was a great year in other ways. Women in SF&F Month 2021 was fantastic, and it featured the following guest posts (which are eligible for nonfiction/related work awards):

It was also an amazing reading year: even though I’ve read more books during other years, I’ve rarely read so many books I absolutely LOVED in a single year. Maybe it’s because difficulty concentrating during the pandemic forces me to be pickier if I’m to read at all, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten better about just not finishing books that aren’t working for me, but I ended up with 6 books that I not only found absorbing from start to finish but also found memorable after reading them. (Actually, 9 books since these include a series omnibus.)

So for 2021, I did something a little different with this list: instead of ranking books, I divided the books mentioned above into 2021 Books of the Year and Books of the Year Published Before 2021. As usual, I wanted to add all the books I found especially notable, so I also added some Additional Favorites and Honorable Mentions. These are the books I recall quite fondly but had small issues with (basically, these are about 4 star reads for me).

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

2021 Books of the Year

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri - Cover Image

The Jasmine Throne (Burning Kingdoms #1) by Tasha Suri
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Jasmine Throne, inspired in part by Indian epics like the Mahabharata and a conflict for the throne during the Mughal period, is epic fantasy following multiple characters—and one of the best of these I’ve read. It has gorgeous prose, exquisite worldbuilding that makes both the fantastic and social aspects vividly real, and memorable characters. As I wrote in my review:

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

I loved everything about this novel, and I am in awe of Tasha Suri’s ability to craft books like this: immersive stories filled with complexity and poetic, quietly sharp introspection that cuts deep. (I also loved both of her previous novels, Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash.)

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng by K. S. Villoso - Book Cover

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #3) by K. S. Villoso
My Review
Read an Excerpt
Read K. S. Villoso’s Essay on Queen Talyien

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng is a phenomenal conclusion to the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy (following The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon). K. S. Villoso ramps up the complexity with new revelations galore in this final installment, making this entire series a memorable, heart-wrenching epic fantasy with some of the best characterization I’ve encountered. Queen Talyien grapples with a lot throughout this trilogy: being a queen, mother, and her father’s daughter; deciding who she wants to be and forging her own identity apart from her father’s ideas of who she should be; and trying to create something better despite the mess her predecessors made. (Oh, and a powerful mage, monsters, and dragons, too.) By the end of the trilogy, she is a more knowledgeable, thoughtful person than she was in the beginning, and I love how this is reflected in her voice as she tells her story. This entire series is superb—one of the best I’ve read—and this conclusion ranks among the best final installments I’ve read as well.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan - Cover Image

She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan
Read an Excerpt

Shelley Parker-Chan’s excellent debut novel is a reimagining of the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu Chongba is destined for greatness—but he dies young without having done anything of note, and his sister takes his name and decides she will have his great destiny for herself as well. This historical fantasy in a low-magic setting (at least, so far) follows Zhu and a foe of hers, a general captured and made a eunuch by the Mongols—and the last of his family. Their stories hooked me immediately, and I loved this novel’s exploration of gender and two enemies who could see some of themselves in each other. Gorgeously written with hard-hitting betrayal, She Who Became the Sun devastated me in the very best of ways. (In fact, I bought the hardcover when I saw it in the bookstore recently because I want to be devastated by this book again someday.)

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker - Book Cover Image

The Hidden Palace (A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni) by Helene Wecker
John’s Review of The Golem and the Jinni
Read an Excerpt (with Author Interview)
Read Helene Wecker’s Essay on Writing a Sequel

This sequel to The Golem and the Jinni captivated me immediately, just like the first book about these characters (which was also one of the more notable books I read in 2021, although this one stuck with me more). I love the way Helene Wecker melds folklore with history by exploring immigrant life in New York City in the late 1800s/early 1900s through the eyes of a golem and a jinni who live there: the former a baker who pursues a degree in Domestic Sciences, and the latter a tinsmith and artist. The Hidden Palace introduces another golem and another jinni, and it delves more into the main characters’ relationship with each other, showing how their time among humans gives them a unique understanding of the other despite their differing natures. Like all of my selections for Books of the Year, I absolutely loved this book.

Books of the Year Published Before 2021

Seed to Harvest by Octavia E. Butler - Book Cover Image

Seed to Harvest (Patternist #1–4) by Octavia E. Butler
My Review of Patternist #1
Read an Excerpt from Patternist #1

Although this particular edition itself seems to no longer be published, Seed to Harvest is an omnibus containing the four Patternist books still in print: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. This collection has them in chronological order, beginning in 1690 and moving throughout the ages with the last book set sometime in the far future. When rereading Wild Seed (the only one I had read before this year), I was struck by just how true Octavia E. Butler’s imagining of an immortal like Doro seems: this 3700 year old being staves off boredom by traveling the world to find other people with special abilities and has embarked on the long-term project of trying to breed people to create more with specific strengths. This is how he meets Anyanwu, the other main character in the first novel, another immortal who can also shapeshift and heal herself—and how the telepathic patternmasters of later books came to exist.

The books in this series change characters and focus, but I was immediately riveted by each novel in this omnibus. I could hardly put this down at any point, even when reading Clay’s Ark, which barely seems related to the others until seeing how it fits in with the last book (and which is also an extremely disturbing story). Octavia E. Butler’s mastery of storytelling is rare and wonderful, and this series is now one of my favorites.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine Cover

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1) by Arkady Martine
Read an Excerpt
Read Arkady Marine’s Essay on Motherhood in SF

Although the second Teixcalaan book did come out in 2021 and I bought a copy, I am slow and haven’t read it yet. But I loved A Memory Called Empire, a beautifully written science fiction novel about an ambassador sent to learn the truth about her predecessor’s death—and who finds herself more lost than she expected, given that the technology that was supposed to give her the previous ambassador’s memories isn’t working as it should. This is a story with exquisite details and politics, as well as one that brims with appreciation for words and literature. In addition to those elements, I was especially struck by how Arkady Martine captured the loneliness and complications of being an outsider who fiercely wants to belong.

Honorable Mention

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson - Book Cover

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Although I didn’t LOVE this the same way I did the other books previously featured, I have to mention another older book I read and enjoyed in 2021: Shirley Jackson’s classic Gothic horror novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This is a testament to the power of character and narrative in story, as this could be a rather mundane book given all the details about the main character’s everyday life. But noticing the way she phrased things early in the book made me pause and think “Oh no,” and it just became creepier and more unsettling, culminating in an excellent tale with stellar characterization. I can definitely see rereading this and gaining new appreciation for it.

Additional 2021 Favorites

The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Emperor (The Drowning Empire #2) by Andrea Stewart
My Review of The Drowning Empire #1
Read an Excerpt
Read Andrea Stewart’s Essay “Happily Ever Aftermath”

The Bone Shard Daughter was one of my favorite books of 2020, and although it took me a little longer to get into the sequel, I ended up enjoying it very much as well. This series is set in an archipelagic Empire with some of the most interesting (and creepy) magic I’ve read about lately: the Emperor’s bone shard magic, in which parts of creatures are sewn together and powered by bone shards with commands written on them. The Bone Shard Emperor reveals more about the world introduced in the first book, particularly the magical people the Emperor’s bone shard magic defeated long ago, and we also learn more about what creature the adorable animal companion is. Even though the second book in the trilogy didn’t hook me immediately like the first book, I could hardly put it down once it did and was more invested in all the point-of-view characters’ stories by the end.

Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat - Book Cover

Dark Rise (Dark Rise #1) by C. S. Pacat
Read an Excerpt

This first volume in a YA fantasy trilogy kept me reading in part to see if my theory about where it was going was true, and I was delighted that it was because I think it went in a rather intriguing direction. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss what I loved most about it in detail because of spoilers, but it also hooked me pretty easily (although there were some parts in the middle I found slow as well as one point-of-view character I wasn’t especially interested in). Yet I was invested in what happened to Will, the boy trying to hide from the people who killed his mother, and Violet, the girl he befriends—especially the latter, who was my favorite main character.

Honorable Mention

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick - Cover Image

The Mask of Mirrors (Rook and Rose #1) by M. A. Carrick
Read an Excerpt

The Mask of Mirrors, the first book in a fantasy trilogy by Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, is an honorable mention because there were times I found it slow but there were also times I was REALLY into it—and I do find myself excited about reading the sequel that recently came out (The Liar’s Knot). I enjoyed Ren’s storyline about infiltrating a noble house by posing as a relative—and coming to actually like the people she’s planning to con—but I think I most want to read it because of Vargo, a crime lord with unclear motivations and secrets.

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng
by K. S. Villoso
640pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 10/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.5/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.44/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Note: Since I hope that this series will be discovered by more readers who will also appreciate it, I did my best to keep this review spoiler-free for all three books in the series.

The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng concludes K. S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy (sometimes called Chronicles of the Wolf Queen). It’s a stunning finale, simultaneously gripping with its many twists and turns and thoughtful in continuing the series’ examination of themes like identity, legacy, and power and privilege.

Now that I’ve read all three books, I even more firmly believe what I wrote in my review of the previous volume: this series is complex, character-driven epic fantasy at its very best. I absolutely loved it.

This trilogy is one big overarching story that grows vastly more complicated in each book with the final installment masterfully pulling everything together. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the smallest-scale of the three novels, introduces Queen Talyien (or Tali), an infamous warlord’s sole surviving heir. Shortly after her birth, she was betrothed to the son of the woman her father fought against as a peace agreement between the two foes, and she and her husband were to rule their nation together one day. But their marriage didn’t exactly go well, and the first line of Tali’s narration begins: “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

The main events of Tali’s tale start five years later when she travels across the sea to meet with her estranged husband, hoping to bring him home to their son. Their reunion goes about as well as the aforementioned murder/exile incident—their dinner is filled with barbed comments and accusations about whose father started a war and whose uncle released a mad dragon into their land, and then assassins attacked—and Tali is separated from the rest of her party in all the chaos. Much of this book focuses on her struggles to survive in an unfamiliar country while reflecting on her past, particularly her upbringing as the future Dragonlord and her relationship with her husband. As it nears the end, it also introduces more of the epic and fantastic, and Tali learns new information about her father that sets her on the path to reevaluating her entire life, shattering her view of her world and her role in it—and her very identity.

The following novel, The Ikessar Falcon, ramps up the complexity as it delves more into the characters and world, both the fantasy aspects like magic and dragons and the political aspects like the various warlords and factions wielding power. The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng continues in this vein, taking some interesting turns and dropping some large revelations as Tali learns more of the truth about her father—who remains a major player, despite the fact that he’s been dead and gone for 16 years. Warlord Yeshin was such a force that he still has schemes coming to fruition, and this last novel shows the rather impressive extent of his influence and planning.

The way this new knowledge unfolds is skillfully executed, as is this entire trilogy. Each novel builds on the last with the final installment showing a clearer picture of the characters and how things came to be as they are. The mistakes that people like Tali’s father and her husband Rayyel’s mother made and passed down to their children is a tragedy, and though it’s hopeful to see a generation of people who want to break the cycle they began, it’s also devastating to realize what could have been. If Tali and Rayyel had just managed to open up to each other from the start (a situation made more difficult by their own parents’ history and manipulations), they could have been a great pair. Their different personalities would have complemented each other in many ways, especially since they did share common values like a sense of duty and both proved to be people capable of growth and change.

Everything is wonderfully complicated, from political conflicts to personal relationships to the characters themselves. The last book especially tackles the various individuals with nuance. People sometimes have different outlooks on the other characters, but all their views have the ring of truth. Sometimes that’s because multiple things can be true depending on context or perspective, sometimes that’s because the characters are fleshed out as people who were at different places at different points in their lives, sometimes that’s because these are characters capable of both good and bad even if they lean further toward one extreme or the other—and sometimes it’s a combination of factors, because these characters do live and breathe.

Each seems like an individual by the end, with most seeming far more developed than mere words on a page. The only character who is outright awful was always cruel but also in part made into a villain since he was an emperor’s beloved son and therefore did not face consequences for his actions. Although he certainly was not likable or sympathetic, it was also understandable how he came to be the way he was and why he had certain emotional hang-ups.

K. S. Villoso developed her characters so well that I even came to like Rayyel, who became my favorite character after Tali by the end of the series. Like her, he has changed and matured a lot since the early days of their marriage, and I thought he was the best developed character other than her and really enjoyed reading their scenes together in the last book. Plus, the more that was revealed about his background, the worse I felt for him. Both Tali’s father and his mother used their children as pawns in their conflict, but Tali at least seems to have some affectionate memories of her father amidst the cacophony of mixed emotions she feels about the man who raised her. However, Rayyel has no illusions that his mother ever cared one whit for him as an actual person rather than as a means to an end.

And Rayyel’s infamous mother actually makes some appearances in this book, showing the ruthlessness that made her such a strong opponent for Tali’s father. I particularly appreciated that this book had more focus on some of the women who had been mentioned in the first two novels, including but not limited to Rayyel’s mother, and how they faced their world. Some were hardened and rebellious, some just tried to survive, but each had her own sort of steel and was fascinating in her own way.

But the real highlight is Tali herself—her distinctly vivid voice that grabbed me from the first sentence, her amazing growth between the first and third books, and the depth that made her seem real in a way that’s rare for fictional characters. Her messiness and contradictions fit together in a way that makes sense for this specific person, and even when she made decisions I found intensely frustrating, I felt they were so very Tali.

She has changed a lot by the end of the third book, but her development is natural and earned as it stems from her experiences and the people around her—and because of who she is. In the final installment, I was especially struck by her courage, a bravery that goes beyond the ease with which she jumps into fighting monsters and dragons. These books are written as her chronicles, narrated by her personally, and they show someone who is grappling with a lot—not just the upheaval in her land, but her roles as a queen, a mother, her father’s daughter. So much of her identity came from her father’s vision of who she was and would be, and as she learns more, she becomes more self-aware and evaluates who she wants to be, deciding to try to do better instead of ignoring the problems around her. Her story shows all sides of herself, her best and her worst, someone human and vulnerable who doesn’t always have the right answers—and she unflinchingly faces herself, acknowledging her imperfections and vulnerabilities as she lays them bare on the page, and keeps striving.

This review has grown into a lot of words, but it still does not convey the depth of Tali and her story, which are far too complex to condense into any semblance of simple terms. It’s as Tali mused on page 270:

 

“Another fallacy of history books, this: the idea that who we are can be reduced to a few words. He was a hero. She was a villain. He was a good man. She was a whore. As if we don’t, at the very least, change a little with every shift of the wind, molding ourselves to what was done to us.”

These books were nearly impossible to put down, they made me want to know more of the world and its mysteries, they delighted me with banter between characters, they made me pause to consider Tali’s reflections on humanity and the world around her, they ripped my heart out. They were everything I want from an epic fantasy series, and I think they’re among the very best of the genre—they are certainly now among my own favorites.

My Rating: 10/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng

Reviews of Other Books in The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen:

  1. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
  2. The Ikessar Falcon

Read K. S. Villoso’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Queen Talyien

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. Book images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

A couple of books I preordered and am very excited to read arrived last week!

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong Box Set

These Violent Delights Duet by Chloe Gong

This lovely hardcover box set contains the New York Times bestselling novels These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends. This duet was just released last week, following the second book’s publication last month.

The publisher’s website has excerpts from both books in this set:

This series is complete, but Chloe Gong is also writing a spinoff duology set during the 1930s. The first of these books, Foul Lady Fortune, is scheduled for release in fall 2022.

And if you missed it in April, Chloe Gong also wrote a Women in SF&F Month guest post about “Mary Sues” in YA SFF, “The Mary Sue Club Is Still Taking Applicants.”

 

A hardcover boxed set of Chloe Gong’s New York Times bestselling These Violent Delights and its sequel, Our Violent Ends—the lush fantasy duology reimagining Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Shanghai.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But something is brewing in the shadows, and as the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

This heart-stopping hardcover boxed set includes:
These Violent Delights
Our Violent Ends