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This week I’m sharing about some series I love that I think deserve more readers and more discussion in bookish/SFF communities. Today I’m raving about Swords and Fire by Melissa Caruso, a Venetian-inspired epic fantasy trilogy containing The Tethered Mage, The Defiant Heir, and The Unbound Empire. This is one of my favorite somewhat recent series for a lot of reasons, but basically, the first book kept me up reading until 2:00 AM and the next two books were even better.

Cover of The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso Cover of The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso Cover of The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

The Swords and Fire trilogy is a well-paced, entertaining series with heart, humor, and sharp dialogue. I think it’s a wonderful example of how to write a trilogy that works from start to finish, and I love how it takes common story beats and tropes and does something a little different with them (such as the heroine’s overall arc and the love triangle that develops later in the series).

This wonderful series is one I frequently recommend to readers looking for fantasy books containing settings with gender equality or governments other than monarchies. Though characters can be discouraged from doing things due to their class, there are no restrictions or expectations based on gender, and same-sex relationships/marriages are accepted and common. The protagonist’s country is headed by a doge, elected for life by an assembly, and has a council comprised of both elected officials and representatives from ruling families.

Their nation seeks to prevent mages from taking over everything by pairing each of them with someone who can control their power: these “Falconers” can bind the magic of their “Falcons” if necessary or unbind it if needed. This is contrasted with a neighboring country that is divided into different territories that are each ruled by a Witch Lord, and this is explored more in the last couple of books after the first shows the intricacies of the Falcon/Falconer system (including why some mages hate it while others actually prefer it to the alternative).

The first book in the series, The Tethered Mage, starts with the protagonist Amalia inadvertently binding herself to a fire mage who lost control of her power and is on the verge of burning down the city. Given the urgency of the situation, there wasn’t time to ask a lot of questions—like if Amalia is perchance from a ruling family and therefore not supposed to be bound to a mage—but it’s apparent there’s a problem once the city is safe and Amalia is identified as a council heir. Amalia has tried to avoid politics, focusing her attention on scholarly pursuits instead (to her mother’s great chagrin), but this incident changes that.

One of the many things I love about this trilogy is how this part of her character arc progresses. Instead of escaping the shackles of expectation to pursue her own interests, Amalia embraces the role she would never have chosen for herself and makes it her own. She doesn’t try to think or make decisions just like her mother would but makes her own judgments and supports the causes she finds important. Throughout the course of the series, she becomes more politically savvy and discovers that her scholarly background can be a strength.

There are a lot of other great characters in this series, too. Zaira, the fire mage, is blunt and outspoken, and she never lets the other characters forget that she is one of the mages who is not happy about being a Falcon. (The development of her eventual friendship with Amalia is also a highlight in this trilogy.) All the Witch Lords who are introduced are quirky and memorable, and one of them is my absolute favorite character in this series: Kathe, the Crow Lord, who becomes Amalia’s ally in the second book. Despite their alliance, he keeps telling Amalia he can’t be trusted, but he’s just so charismatic that Amalia really wanted to trust him (and so did I!). The main villain, another one of the Witch Lords, is the irredeemably evil sort, but he’s more compelling to me than most of those types. He’s capable, he uses his magic in unexpected ways at times, and he doesn’t always rely on his power in his pursuit of continental domination: he also studies, experiments, and creates macabre horrors in the process.

Swords and Fire is an excellent series. I can’t recommend it highly enough to those looking for page-turners with banter and well-written dialogue, great relationships, interesting worldbuilding, and just overall well-executed, fun fantasy books.

Additional Reading on Swords and Fire and Melissa Caruso:

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This week I’m sharing about some series I love that I think deserve more readers and more discussion in bookish/SFF communities. Today I’m gushing about Mirage by Somaiya Daud, a Moroccan-inspired young adult science fiction duology containing the books Mirage and Court of Lions. In particular, I want to highlight the wonderful protagonist and the complicated female friendship that lies at the heart of both books.

Cover of Mirage by Somaiya Daud Cover of Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

Mirage and Court of Lions are gorgeous novels, and they are some of the first books that come to mind whenever I think of books I’d love to see recommended and discussed more in SFF communities. These are beautifully written stories that explore colonialism and empire, rebellion, and the power of literature, and though they contain heartbreak, they are ultimately hopeful. I found these two books incredibly intense—not because they’re action-packed (they’re not), but because they are emotion-packed with a wonderful protagonist and a developing sort-of friendship at their center.

I wrote “sort-of friendship” because this starts as a rocky relationship, and furthermore, it’s not a relationship between equals since Amani, the protagonist, is forced to serve Maram, the princess, as a body double. Fearing that someone will assassinate his heir before she can take the throne, the king had his minions search for a look-alike to pretend to be Maram. They discovered Amani, who had an uncanny resemblance to the princess, and took her from her family and home moon to learn to emulate their future queen, from her mannerisms to her maliciousness and sharp tongue.

Amani is one of the best protagonists I’ve encountered in fairly recent speculative fiction, and I just adored her. She’s a woman of faith, a scholar, and a poet, and her beautiful voice is a perfect fit for someone with words and lyricism in her soul. She has courage and is willing to take personal risks if she decides the potential good is worth the potential consequences. Amani is also one of those “quiet” protagonists I admire so: she doesn’t have powerful magic or flashy skills, but she has subtle weapons like her wit and insight, her compassion, and her hope. A lot of her strength lies in her empathy and her ability to understand others, and this is the main reason it seems she may actually be capable of bringing out the best in Maram.

I really loved the slow build of the sisterly friendship that develops between Amani and Maram as the former begins to realize she’s actually developed some fondness for the princess. It never seemed as though Maram’s cruelty was swept under the rug or excused because of her difficult childhood, but it also shows how much of a struggle it’s been for her to survive within her father’s empire. Though her father is the infamous conqueror, her deceased mother belonged to the people he conquered, and as a result, Maram doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. She’s alone, fearful of the half-sister who hungers to take her place, and thinks it necessary to hide any vulnerability. Amani is probably the first to clearly see and understand the person beneath the mask Maram presents to the world when most view her as a princess to be feared and obeyed, the daughter of the man who conquered the stars. Plus Amani tries to connect with her in a way no one else has, through the part of herself Maram doesn’t really know due to her mother’s death.

Though there are a couple of romances in these novels (including a sapphic one in the second book), the Mirage duology is primarily focused on Amani, Maram, and their platonic relationship. I found it to be an unusually stunning work of science fiction literature for its writing and characterization, and I hope that Somaiya Daud publishes more novels in the future. (I keep hoping and looking for more by her!)

Additional Reading on Mirage:

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This week I’m sharing about some series I love that I think deserve more readers and more discussion in bookish/SFF communities. Today I’m enthusing about Chronicles of the Bitch Queen (sometimes called Chronicles of the Wolf Queen) by K. S. Villoso, an epic fantasy trilogy told from the first-person perspective of a queen grappling with her role(s) in the world. In particular, I’m highlighting K. S. Villoso’s masterful use of voice and skill at creating unusually real, complex characters in this series.

Cover of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso Cover of The Ikessar Falcon by K. S. Villoso Cover of The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng by K. S. Villoso

“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

From the opening line of her narrative in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I suspected I was going to rather like Queen Talyien (and I did!). K. S. Villoso did an incredible job writing her voice and examining themes like womanhood, legacy, and identity in Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, a series that becomes more complicated as subsequent books delve further into the world, its magic, and various political factions. I was fascinated by the setting and its mysteries, delighted by the banter, and devastated at times, but what I appreciate most about this series is the incredible character work and how real K. S. Villoso made these messy, complicated people. (Yes, I consider being devastated by fiction a positive thing.)

Although she’s far from the only well-crafted character in these three novels, Queen Talyien (Tali) remains most memorable, as she should given she’s the heart of these books. The daughter of a ruthless warlord, Tali grew up hearing that her eventual marriage would bring peace to their nation, but that didn’t go well in practice: her husband left, and even people who know nothing about what happened blame her for his departure. The main story begins when Tali accepts her estranged husband’s invitation to meet across the sea five years after their falling out, but that ends disastrously: their dinner is filled with uncomfortable barbed comments about whose father started a war and whose uncle released a mad dragon into their homeland, and then assassins attack. As a result, Tali is separated from her travelling companions and must fend for herself in this unfamiliar place, and her journey leads to the discovery that she may not have known her father and his plans for her as well as she’d always believed—shattering her worldview and sense of who she is.

I loved Tali and found her fascinating from the very first book. She didn’t seem like the most reliable narrator—not because she was trying to be misleading, but because it seemed that she might be deluding herself due to a lack of self-awareness, or perhaps because she found it easier than digging deeply and uncovering the truth. However, she is someone who reevaluates her views throughout the series, and in the third book, I admired the bravery it took for her to do this and work toward active change. As I wrote in my review of The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng:

“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.”

I appreciated how K. S. Villoso delved further into all her characters in later books, and she even managed to make me go from disliking a character in the first couple of books to loving them in the end. (Before this, I’d only had this sort of drastic reversal in opinion happen with two book characters: Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire and Malta Vestrit in Liveship Traders.) And even if I didn’t like Tali’s father, I found him extremely compelling, especially how he looms so large and somehow manages to be a major political player even 16 years after his death.

As I stated in my previous reviews, K. S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen has everything I want in an epic fantasy series, and I believe it to be complex, character-driven fantasy at its very best.

Additional Reading on Chronicles of the Bitch Queen:

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This week I’m sharing about some series I love that I think deserve more readers and more discussion in bookish/SFF communities. Today I’m raving about The Books of Ambha by Tasha Suri, a romantic epic fantasy duology partially inspired by Mughal India, with particular focus on how much I adored the two protagonists: sisters whose stories are set about ten years apart.


Cover of Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri Cover of Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

I love Tasha Suri’s Books of Ambha duology for so many reasons. Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash are both beautifully written, deeply affecting novels that have a lot to say about themes like choice, connection, oppression, and forging a new path. They’re set in a fascinating world with magic inspired by fairy tales and Indian classical dance (as Tasha Suri discussed in her Women in SF&F Month 2019 guest post), and its mythology involves people descended from gods who have power in their blood, including both books’ protagonists. Each novel has a wonderful romance that builds from trust and respect when two people have to work together.

But as much as I adore all those aspects, the most memorable part of this series for me is the two women who are the heart of each novel, sisters who inherited some power from their mother’s godly ancestry: a heritage hated by their father’s people. Both Mehr and Arwa have incredible inner strength that shines through their stories, and they have very different journeys and outlooks based on their experiences.

I especially adore Mehr, the protagonist of Empire of Sand. As much as I enjoy the catharsis that comes from characters who physically tear down the world with might or magic, it’s the “quieter” characters like her who tend to stick with me the most: those who are doing their best to survive the horrific circumstances they’ve been dealt and are able to have an impact because of their choices, wits, and people skills. When it’s clear both the Emperor and the priest who leads the faith want to use Mehr and her rare power for their own ends, she refuses to flee and hide as her father wishes, knowing it will probably be futile and put her family in danger (which I always thought was incredibly brave). She is not free, but she perseveres and does what she can, and she has a huge influence on events because of choices that may seem small: deciding to hope rather than despair, deciding to be kind and honest rather than distrustful and manipulative. These decisions shape how her story unfolds since they affect her relationships, what she’s able to learn from others, and how much support she receives.

Though it did take longer for her book to completely draw me in, I also loved and admired Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister and the protagonist of Realm of Ash. Set about ten years after the previous novel, this book starts shortly after Arwa is widowed after being the only survivor of a massacre—all because of the power in her blood that she’s learned to fear. Unlike her older sister, Arwa was raised by their father’s second wife, and she absorbed all her ideas about how she should be ashamed of that part of her lineage and behave like a proper noblewoman. Part of her journey is realizing that her rage and fury are misdirected and reclaiming a part of herself she never fully understood was missing, and Tasha Suri did amazing work with her character development and making this a more mature, complex story than her first novel.

These are two books that stand out to me as some of the best fantasy has to offer, and I can’t recommend this beautiful duology enough to those who enjoy character-centric, “quieter” books with lyrical prose that cuts deep.

Additional Reading on The Books of Ambha:

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for another wonderful week of Women in SF&F Month!

There will not be any new guest posts until the very end of April, but I am going to discuss five series I love this week. Before getting to a sneak peek of which books I’ll be featuring, here’s what happened last week in case you missed it.

All of the guest posts from April 2024 can be found here, and last week’s posts were:

Also, the giveaway for a copy of The Wings Upon Her Back by Samantha Mills just ended. I have not yet heard from the winner, so check your email if you entered!

This week, I’m going to focus on five series that I think deserve more readers and discussion in bookish/SFF communities. Here’s a preview of the books I’ll be discussing and which day of the week I’ll be posting about them.

Women in SF&F Month 2024 Schedule Graphic

April 22: The Books of Ambha Duology by Tasha Suri
April 23: The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen Trilogy by K. S. Villoso
April 24: The Mirage Duology by Somaiya Daud
April 25: The Swords and Fire Trilogy by Melissa Caruso
April 26: The Warchild Mosaic by Karin Lowachee

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Today I have two books to give away to two US residents, both from the InCryptid series by Seanan McGuire! Twice nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Series, InCryptid is described as “a witty urban fantasy series featuring an eccentric family of cryptozoologists who act as a buffer between the humans and the magical creatures living in secret around us.” Whether you’re new to this series or a longtime fan, there is a book here for you since you can enter to win the first book, Discount Armageddon, or the thirteenth and latest book in the series, Aftermarket Afterlife. (And on a personal note, I thought Discount Armageddon was entertaining, humorous, and well-paced and loved that being interesting seemed to be a common familial trait.)

Cover of Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire


First book in New York Times-bestselling Seanan McGuire’s witty urban fantasy InCryptid series about a family of cryptozoologists who act as a buffer between humans and the magical creatures living in secret around us.

“The only thing more fun than an October Daye book is an InCryptid book.” —Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Sookie Stackhouse series

Cryptid, noun: Any creature whose existence has not yet been proven by science. See also “Monster.”

Crytozoologist, noun: Any person who thinks hunting for cryptids is a good idea. See also “idiot.”

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night…

The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity—and humanity from them.

Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right?

It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed.

To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…

Cover of Aftermarket Afterlife by Seanan McGuire


Seanan McGuire’s New York Times-bestselling and Hugo Award-nominated urban fantasy InCryptid series continues with the thirteenth book following the Price family, cryptozoologists who study and protect the creatures living in secret all around us

Mary Dunlavy didn’t intend to become a professional babysitter.  Of course, she didn’t intend to die, either, or to become a crossroads ghost. As a babysitting ghost, she’s been caring for the Price family for four generations, and she’s planning to keep doing the job for the better part of forever.

With her first charge finally back from her decades-long cross-dimensional field trip, with a long-lost husband and adopted daughter in tow, it’s time for Mary to oversee the world’s most chaotic family reunion. And that’s before the Covenant of St. George launches a full scale strike against the cryptids of Manhattan, followed quickly by an attack on the Campbell Family Carnival.

It’s going to take every advantage and every ally they have for the Prices to survive what’s coming—and for Mary, to avoid finding out the answer to a question she’s never wanted to know: what happens to a babysitting ghost if she loses the people she’s promised to protect?

Photo of Seanan McGuire by Ryan Nutick
Photo: © Ryan Nutick

Seanan McGuire lives and works in Washington State, where she shares her idiosyncratic home with her collection of books, creepy dolls, and enormous cats. When not writing—which is fairly rare—she enjoys travel, and can regularly be found any place where there are cornfields, haunted houses, or frogs. A Campbell, Alex, Hugo, and Nebula Award–winning author, Seanan’s debut novel (Rosemary and Rue, the first entry in the New York Times–bestselling October Daye series) was released in 2009, and she has published more than fifty books since. Seanan doesn’t sleep much.

Keep up with her at seananmcguire.com.

Book Giveaway

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out Fantasy Cafe’s InCryptid Book Giveaway Google form, linked below, and specify whether you would like a copy of the first book or the latest book in the series. One entry per household and the two winners will be randomly selected. Those from the US are eligible to win. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, May 3. 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.

Note: The giveaway link has been removed since it is now over.