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

This weekend’s highlights include one upcoming book and a few of this year’s releases, three of which were books from my anticipated 2022 releases list that I ordered. (Technically, some of these should have been featured last weekend, but I ran out of time so they ended up being part of today’s post instead.)

In case you missed it, here’s the latest post since the last Leaning Pile of Books:

  • Review of The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne — I loved the concept of a historical account of the life of the witch from “Rapunzel” (with a dash of otherworldly abilities), but I found it to be a “just okay” novel since I didn’t find the story, writing, or characters particularly compelling.

Now for the latest book arrivals!

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo Book Cover

Into the Riverlands (The Singing Hills Cycle #3) by Nghi Vo

The third novella in Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle is scheduled for release on October 25 (hardcover, ebook).

The Empress of Salt and Fortune, the first book in this series of standalones about a wandering cleric, won the Hugo and Stabby Awards for Best Novella and garnered Nghi Vo a Crawford Award, which recognizes an outstanding new writer. It was also a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novella, Ignyte Award for Best Novella, and Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy.

Tor.com has an excerpt from When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, the second published novella in the series.

I’ve been wanting to read these for a while so I was thrilled to discover that this works as a standalone!

 

Nghi Vo’s Locus and Igynte Award Finalist, and Crawford and Hugo Award-Winning Series, The Singing Hills Cycle, continues…

“A remarkable accomplishment of storytelling.”—NPR on The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themself far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be.

Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story—beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel—bears more than one face.

The Singing Hills Cycle

The Empress of Salt and Fortune
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Into the Riverlands

The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih, but may be read in any order, with each story serving as an entry point.

Babel by R. F. Kuang - Book Cover

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang

R. F. Kuang’s latest novel recently came out in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. (This is largely what prompted me to place a book order.)

The publisher’s website has text and audio samples from Babel.

I’ve only heard wonderful things about Babel, and I’m excited to see what R. F. Kuang does with dark academia. I very much enjoyed The Poppy War, her debut novel, which was one of my favorite books of 2018. The final book is still on my TBR, but The Dragon Republic, the next book in the series, was one of my favorite books of 2019. (And if you missed it before, R. F. Kuang shared why she wrote about women who wanted power in this series in “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach” shortly before the first book’s publication in 2018.)

 

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire.

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.

Babel is the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…

Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen Book Cover

Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen

This historical/mythic fiction novel about the Trung Sisters was released earlier this month (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

The publisher’s website has a book club kit for Bronze Drum featuring discussion questions, an author interview, and a recipe.

This sounds like an amazing story, and I enjoy reading fictional accounts of legends.

 

A “gripping historical adventure” of ancient Vietnam based on the true story of two warrior sisters who raised an army of women to overthrow the Han Chinese and rule as kings over a united people, for readers of Circe and The Night Tiger (Booklist).

Gather around, children of Chu Dien, and be brave.
For even to listen to the story of the Trung Sisters is,
in these troubled times, a dangerous act.

In 40 CE, in the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam, two daughters of a Vietnamese Lord fill their days training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty, Trung Nhi is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.

But these sister’s lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. They are forced to adopt Confucian teachings, secure marriages, and pay ever‑increasing taxes. As the peoples’ frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war.

When Trung Trac and Trung Nhi’s father is executed, their world comes crashing down around them. With no men to save them against the Han’s encroaching regime, they must rise and unite the women of Vietnam into an army. Solidifying their status as champions of women and Vietnam, they usher in a period of freedom and independence for their people.

Vivid, lyrical, and filled with adventure, The Bronze Drum is a true story of standing up for one’s people, culture, and country that has been passed down through generations of Vietnamese families through oral tradition. Phong Nguyen’s breathtaking novel takes these real women out of legends and celebrates their loves, losses, and resilience in this inspirational story of women’s strength and power even in the face of the greatest obstacles.

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd - Book Cover

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd’s second novel was released earlier this year (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The publisher’s website has text and audio samples from The Cartographers.

I’ve been looking forward to reading more by Peng Shepherd since reading The Book of M, her imaginative debut novel about people suddenly losing their memories—and since hearing her discuss her next novel focusing on magical maps when she received the Neukom Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction. (She also wrote a guest post here about the—sometimes literal—magic of books, “The Time-Traveling Book That Made Me Love SFF.”)

 

From the critically acclaimed author of The Book of M, a highly imaginative thriller about a young woman who discovers that a strange map in her deceased father’s belongings holds an incredible, deadly secret—one that will lead her on an extraordinary adventure and to the truth about her family’s dark history.

What is the purpose of a map? 

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.

But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence…because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps…

Perfect for fans of Joe Hill and V. E. Schwab, The Cartographers is an ode to art and science, history and magic—a spectacularly imaginative, modern story about an ancient craft and places still undiscovered.

Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse - Book Cover

Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse

The second book in the Between Earth and Sky series was released earlier this year (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Nerdist has a chapter one excerpt from Fevered Star, and the publisher’s website has text and audio samples from Black Sun, the first book in the series.

Black Sun was one of my favorite books of 2020; I loved the world (and the crows and giant crows).

 

Return to The Meridian with New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Roanhorse’s sequel to the most critically hailed epic fantasy of 2020 Black Sun—finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Lambda, and Locus awards.

There are no tides more treacherous than those of the heart. —Teek saying

The great city of Tova is shattered. The sun is held within the smothering grip of the Crow God’s eclipse, but a comet that marks the death of a ruler and heralds the rise of a new order is imminent.

The Meridian: a land where magic has been codified and the worship of gods suppressed. How do you live when legends come to life, and the faith you had is rewarded?

As sea captain Xiala is swept up in the chaos and currents of change, she finds an unexpected ally in the former Priest of Knives. For the Clan Matriarchs of Tova, tense alliances form as far-flung enemies gather and the war in the heavens is reflected upon the earth.

And for Serapio and Naranpa, both now living avatars, the struggle for free will and personhood in the face of destiny rages. How will Serapio stay human when he is steeped in prophecy and surrounded by those who desire only his power? Is there a future for Naranpa in a transformed Tova without her total destruction?

Welcome back to the fantasy series of the decade in Fevered Star—book two of Between Earth and Sky.

 

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

Book Description:

This dark, lush, and beautiful reimagining of the story of Rapunzel presents the witch’s perspective in this tale of motherhood, magic, and the stories we pass down to our children.

“Smart, swift, sure-footed and fleet-winged, The Book of Gothel launches its magic from a most reliable source: the troubled heart. Mary McMyne is a magician.”—Gregory Maguire, NYT bestselling author of Wicked

Everyone knows the tale of Rapunzel in her tower, but do you know the story of the witch who put her there?

Haelewise has always lived under the shadow of her mother, Hedda—a woman who will do anything to keep her daughter protected. For with her strange black eyes and even stranger fainting spells, Haelewise is shunned by her village, and her only solace lies in the stories her mother tells of child-stealing witches, of princes in wolf-skins, of an ancient tower cloaked in mist, where women will find shelter if they are brave enough to seek it.

Then, Hedda dies, and Haelewise is left unmoored. With nothing left for her in her village, she sets out to find the legendary tower her mother used to speak of—a place called Gothel, where Haelewise meets a wise woman willing to take her under her wing.

But Haelewise is not the only woman to seek refuge at Gothel. It’s also a haven for a girl named Rika, who carries with her a secret the Church strives to keep hidden. A secret that reveals a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles behind the world Haelewise has always known…

Told from her own perspective, The Book of Gothel is a lush, historical retelling filled with dark magic, crumbling towers, mysterious woods, and evil princes. This is the truth they never wanted you to know, as only a witch might tell it.

The Book of Gothel, Mary McMyne’s debut novel, is the story of the woman who came to be known as Mother Gothel, the witch infamous for imprisoning Rapunzel. The bulk of the book is an account of her early life in twelfth-century Germany and the events that led to Rapunzel growing up in the tower, as recorded by Haelewise—the witch herself—as an elderly woman. It has little to do with Rapunzel given that the main plot ends shortly after her birth, and there are just a few pages covering some of the highlights of what happened afterward. This is very much Haelewise’s tale, a story that explores mothers and daughters, the treatment of women—especially those who don’t fit into traditional roles—in this historical setting, and the clash between the older ways and Christianity.

Starting with her childhood, the novel details how Haelewise was feared by nearly everyone in her village. With her black eyes, fainting spells, and ability to feel a new soul being pulled into the world when assisting her mother with midwifery, she was loved and accepted by very few people growing up: mainly her mother, one of her mother’s friends, and the latter’s son. When she’s in her late teens, her mother becomes ill and eventually passes, and Haelewise’s small support system dies shortly thereafter. Her father abandons her to marry a woman who will not abide having someone with such un-Christian qualities in her home, and her childhood-friend-turned-love interest is unable to convince his own father to let him wed her and is forced into a marriage he doesn’t want instead. Without being able to practice a trade of her own, Haelewise faces poverty after she sells the last of her mother’s handiwork (in disguise, of course, since no one would buy from her). But the few pieces of the old ways that her mother managed to pass down to her—in spite of her marriage to a Christian man who did not want her speaking of them—lead Haelewise to seek the wise woman in the tower and the other women who still adhere to these antiquated practices.

I loved the idea of telling the story of an herbalist and healer that almost seems like it could have been the origin of a folktale but for a touch of supernatural abilities, as well as its exploration of the lives of women and the ways they supported each other. However, The Book of Gothel is a novel I found more interesting in concept than execution. In part, this is due to my personal preference for complicated retellings that make me see the seeds of the fairy tale or folktale in a new light, and this tale of how Rapunzel came to be in the tower is very different from the Grimm version. Though a few of those seeds are there, some of the familiar details I was hoping to see addressed were not actually present in Haelewise’s story but had to have been added by the storytellers who spread the tale, morphing it into something new as it was retold throughout the years. Furthermore, although Haelewise is imperfect and makes mistakes, she doesn’t seem like someone likely to descend into villainy or a person with shades of gray—or more importantly, a complex character who makes difficult or interesting choices over the course of her journey.

Since this tale is intended to set the record straight after the protagonist’s life story was twisted to vilify her, that probably wouldn’t have mattered to me much if I’d just found the writing, characters and relationships, or the plot more compelling. I prefer books that go into depth in some way, and this one teased a lot of intriguing bits without diving below their surfaces. For the first half, I was interested in Haelewise’s life and predicaments; I wanted to learn more about her mother’s past and the old ways with her. But I ended up finding the rest of her journey unsatisfying as she went from place to place without the novel taking time to delve into the parts I most wanted to know more about, and the only memorable bond Haelewise had was the one with her mother that was so central to the novel. (The most major relationship after that is the one with her bland love interest, and although there was a mentorship and friendship that both had potential to be engaging, neither was developed much.)

The Book of Gothel is not at all what I consider to be a bad book, but I found myself underwhelmed by the time I finished it, especially considering that there were parts that had piqued my interest in the first half. This novel had potential, but in the end, it was just okay for this particular reader.

My Rating: 5/10

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

Read Mary McMyne’s Essay on Feminist Retellings and The Book of Gothel

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

This should have been last weekend’s post, but I ran out of time to finish it so it’s going up this weekend instead!

There have been no new reviews since the last of these features, but I expect to have a new one up in the next day or two.

On to the latest books—two upcoming debuts I’m excited about and two books I purchased by must-read authors!

Cover of Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling was the only one of Octavia E. Butler’s novels missing from my shelves, and I remedied that with this gorgeous hardcover edition with an introduction by Nisi Shawl from Seven Stories Press. There’s an excerpt from Fledgling accompanying another version of the book on the Hachette website.

All six of Octavia E. Butler’s novels I’ve read are fantastic. Her four Patternist books, which begin chronologically with Wild Seed, were among my favorites of last year.

 

Featuring a new introduction by Nisi Shawl

Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly un-human needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: she is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted—and still wants—to destroy her and those she cares for, and how she can save herself. Fledgling is a captivating novel that tests the limits of “otherness” and questions what it means to be truly human.

Cover of Notorius Sorcerer by Davinia Evans

Notorious Sorcerer (The Burnished City #1) by Davinia Evans

Davinia Evans’ debut novel is scheduled for release on September 13 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

This sounds like such fun, and I was thrilled to host the Notorious Sorcerer cover reveal along with Davinia Evans’ essay “The Reason” earlier this year.

 

In a city filled with dangerous yet heavily regulated alchemical magic, a man from the slums discovers he may be its only hope to survive certain destruction in this wickedly entertaining fantasy.

Welcome to Bezim, where sword-slinging bravi race through the night and rich and idle alchemists make magic out of mixing and measuring the four planes of reality.

Siyon Velo, Dockside brat turned petty alchemist, scrapes a living hopping between the planes to harvest ingredients for the city’s alchemists. But when Siyon accidentally commits an act of impossible magic, he’s catapulted into the limelight—which is a bad place to be when the planes start lurching out of alignment, threatening to send Bezim into the sea.

It will take a miracle to save the city. Good thing Siyon has pulled off the impossible before. Now he just has to master it.

A dazzling fantasy bursting with wild magic, chaotic sword-fighting street gangs, brazen flirting, malevolent harpies, and one defiant alchemist.

“From the razor-sharp social climbing to the glimmering alchemist’s library to the hidden realms beneath it all, I loved getting lost in this dazzling debut.” —Shannon Chakraborty

Cover of One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

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

Rachel Gillig’s gothic fantasy debut novel is scheduled for release on September 27 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

Earlier this year, Rachel Gillig discussed a key dynamic in her novel in her guest post “Maidens, Monsters, and the Lines That Blur Between Them.”

 

For fans of Uprooted and For the Wolf comes a dark, lushly gothic fantasy about a maiden who must unleash the monster within to save her kingdom—but the monster in her head isn’t the only threat lurking.

Elspeth needs a monster. The monster might be her.

Elspeth Spindle needs more than luck to stay safe in the eerie, mist-locked kingdom she calls home—she needs a monster. She calls him the Nightmare, an ancient, mercurial spirit trapped in her head. He protects her. He keeps her secrets.

But nothing comes for free, especially magic.

When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, her life takes a drastic turn. Thrust into a world of shadow and deception, she joins a dangerous quest to cure the kingdom of the dark magic infecting it. Except the highwayman just so happens to be the King’s own nephew, Captain of the Destriers…and guilty of high treason.

He and Elspeth have until Solstice to gather twelve Providence Cards—the keys to the cure. But as the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him

Cover of What Souls Are Made Of by Tasha Suri

What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix by Tasha Suri

This YA Wuthering Heights retelling may not include any fantasy elements, but I’m highlighting it anyway because I have loved everything I have read by Tasha Suri—Empire of Sand, Realm of Ash, The Jasmine Throne, and the first 200 pages of The Oleander Sword. (I also love Wuthering Heights and Tasha Suri’s Twitter thread on the novel.)

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from What Souls Are Made Of.

 

What Souls Are Made Of, British Fantasy Award-winning author Tasha Suri’s masterful new take on Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and fourth book in the Remixed Classics, will leave readers breathless.

Sometimes, lost things find their way home…

Yorkshire, North of England, 1786. As the abandoned son of a lascar—a sailor from India—Heathcliff has spent most of his young life maligned as an “outsider.” Now he’s been flung into an alien life in the Yorkshire moors, where he clings to his birth father’s language even though it makes the children of the house call him an animal, and the maids claim he speaks gibberish.

Catherine is the younger child of the estate’s owner, a daughter with light skin and brown curls and a mother that nobody talks about. Her father is grooming her for a place in proper society, and that’s all that matters. Catherine knows she must mold herself into someone pretty and good and marriageable, even though it might destroy her spirit.

As they occasionally flee into the moors to escape judgment and share the half-remembered language of their unknown kin, Catherine and Heathcliff come to find solace in each other. Deep down in their souls, they can feel they are the same.

But when Catherine’s father dies and the household’s treatment of Heathcliff only grows more cruel, their relationship becomes strained and threatens to unravel. For how can they ever be together, when loving each other—and indeed, loving themselves—is as good as throwing themselves into poverty and death?

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

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

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

Now, an August release that sounds rather intriguing!

Book Cover of The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

But this is not that kind of story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 7/10

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

Read an Excerpt from Servant Mage

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

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

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

Cover of Touchstones: A Collection by Stephanie Burgis

Touchstones: A Collection by Stephanie Burgis

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

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

 

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

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

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

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