Hall of Smoke
by H. M. Long
432pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.56/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.88/5

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Hall of Smoke, H. M. Long’s Viking-inspired epic fantasy debut novel, follows a priestess of the Goddess of War as she tries to set things right after having failed her deity—and discovers there’s far more to her world and its pantheon than she’s been taught when she becomes entangled in a war between the gods of the Old and New Worlds.

Hessa was only a child when she learned she was destined to serve Eang, Goddess of War. During her fifth year, she killed two raiders attacking her family, though she did not not understand how she did so and could only remember the feeling of heat in her blood and mouth afterward. Later, Hessa was told she was one of those who possessed the goddess’ Fire, hot magic with a variety of purposes including slaying one’s enemies, healing oneself, and writing runes. She and a cousin with the same gift were sent to the Hall of Smoke, where the High Priestess trained them to wield their power.

The main story begins several years later with Hessa begging her goddess to spare her life. A few years before, Eang had tasked her with killing a man who would come to the Hall of Smoke, but on the day he arrived, Hessa welcomed him as a guest before she realized who he was—and could not bring herself to break Hearth Law and murder the kindly visitor when she realized he was the one she’d been commanded to kill. After being stripped of her priestess collar and banished from the Hall for her disobedience, Hessa went to a shrine to plead with her goddess for mercy. But she received no answer and as she continued to await one, attackers descended on the Hall and killed nearly everyone there, including her husband and the cousin she had grown up with—leaving Hessa as one of the last with Eang’s power, even though she’s no longer technically a priestess.

Hessa blames herself for the massacre, fearing that the timing is not coincidental and it would not have happened if she had just slain the visitor as her goddess willed. She determines to find the traveler she let live and complete her goddess-given task, hoping that she’ll then be forgiven and reunited with her husband in the High Halls one day.

But Hessa’s quest leads her to question much of what she thought she knew to be true about the gods and their history, and she begins to wonder how much faith she should have in Eang, a goddess who wants a man dead for reasons she will not reveal—a goddess who failed to protect her people and seems to be growing weaker.

H. M. Long tells a great story narrated from Hessa’s first-person perspective in Hall of Smoke, and I especially appreciated how it felt different despite having a lot of familiar elements. The various cultures and gods with rather human flaws and emotions could be interesting with their mysterious motivations, but other than Hessa’s goddess, they did not seem especially unique or fleshed out. Yet, Hessa’s tale of survival and discovery wandered down unexpected paths, and the execution of her story felt refreshingly different to me for a combination of reasons.

In part, I think that’s because death and destruction are treated seriously in Hall of Smoke. The book’s description calls Hessa a “battle-hardened priestess of the Goddess of War,” and though she certainly has fought and killed—and fights and kills in this novel, which does indeed have violence—she’s not the type of wisecracking, “edgy” protagonist with a penchant for dark humor that has become rather common. Sure, she can be hot tempered and quick to summon her magic at times, especially when near people she doesn’t trust, but she also tries to reign that in when she realizes what she’s doing (as long as she’s not actually in battle at the time). She and her people are shown to be protectors rather than aggressors, and Hessa doesn’t revel in dealing death: after all, her entire journey stems from her decision to disobey her goddess’ command and let someone live. Hessa was taken aback by the fact that the man she was told she was destined to kill was not an obvious bad guy who murdered children or some such thing, but instead seemed to be the amiable sort of person she thought was all too rare in the world—and she could not understand why her goddess would want him dead or bring herself to end the life of someone who seemed unusually kind.

She does later curse herself for what she sees as her weakness, thinking that he must have sent the horde that massacred her people and that they’d still be alive if she’d just done as she’d been told. But despite that and the book’s description mentioning her path towards revenge, I didn’t think Hessa seemed particularly vengeful, even after she decided she needed to do what her goddess commanded. The path toward redemption also mentioned seems more applicable: she wanted forgiveness from her goddess and the knowledge that she would be reunited with her loved ones after her own death more than anything. And perhaps it’s because she’s not consumed by a desire for revenge that she’s able to evaluate new information in the course of her travels and be (somewhat) open to realizing things may be more complicated than she’d thought. Though she is reluctant to let go of what she’s always believed, she’s also not so stubbornly set in her ways that she can’t reconsider and adapt her views when presented with new knowledge that she can’t deny to be truth.

Of course, that by itself doesn’t make this novel unique, and I don’t think I can adequately put into words all the factors that went into making Hessa’s story seem atypical to me. Her journey felt natural with its combination of her being swept into events bigger than her but also making some choices that had an impact, and it didn’t follow a pattern of her running into the same obstacles over and over again, constantly being in situations designed to showcase certain character traits: she just took things in stride and kept persevering. Hall of Smoke is very focused on Hessa and other characters come and go without getting a chance to know them well, yet she doesn’t do everything on her own and still has attachments and forms new ones—particularly with a friend who survived the massacre, whose newborn son Hessa vows to protect, and a man she meets in her travels, who remains a platonic friend without any hint of romance.

And that is a large part of why I liked but did not love Hall of Smoke: that relationships between characters were not explored in depth. My favorite part of reading tends to be learning about the characters through their interactions and various relationships with others, and even the friendships that were most central to this novel didn’t seem especially developed. Hessa obviously cared about those closest to her and would go to great lengths to help them, but I did feel like I was told more about her bonds with others than I saw them come to life on the page.

There were also parts of the novel that I found rather dull, especially during the first half. I really enjoyed the earlier chapters that focused on the more immediate aftermath of Hessa’s disobedience and how she came to be a priestess, as well as her run-ins with Eang’s mysterious, flirtatious son who believes he is a godly gift to women (not just because he is supernaturally beautiful but because he can provide them with children with a decent chance of being immortal, and parenting is so much less worrisome with an immortal child). But aside from those parts, there were stretches throughout the first half that were too heavy on traveling, meeting a lot of new people, and introducing a lot of different names of gods to be compelling to me, although I did like the parts that involved Hessa’s goddess and were more personal to her. That said, I did find the second part of the novel solidly engaging even though it had some of the same features, and I think that’s because later parts did seem more personal for Hessa, rather than merely expanding the scope of the world and revealing new information about it.

Hall of Smoke didn’t stand out to me as a must-read novel since it didn’t always keep me riveted, but I did appreciate the unpredictability of Hessa’s story—and the storytelling in this debut was strong enough that I am a bit curious about what will happen in the standalone sequel set 10 years later, Temple of No God, which is scheduled for release in January 2022.

My Rating: 7/10

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

Read an Excerpt from Hall of Smoke

Read H. M. Long’s Women in SF&F Month 2021 Guest Post, “Creativity in Crisis”

The Best of World SF: Volume 1 comes out in the US on June 1—tomorrow—and I am thrilled to be giving away a copy and sharing an excerpt from it today! This anthology contains stories by authors from twenty-three countries and includes works by Aliette de Bodard, Tade Thompson, R.S.A. Garcia, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Zen Cho, and more (see the book description below for a list of the stories, authors, and translators). Read on for an excerpt from the introduction by editor Lavie Tidhar and to learn more about entering the giveaway.

THE BEST OF WORLD SF Edited by Lavie Tidhar - Book Cover


Twenty-six new short stories representing the state of the art in international science fiction.

The future is coming. It knows no bounds, and neither should science fiction.

They say the more things change the more they stay the same. But over the last hundred years, science fiction has changed. Vibrant new generations of writers have sprung up across the globe, proving the old adage false. From Ghana to India, from Mexico to France, from Singapore to Cuba, they draw on their unique backgrounds and culture, changing the face of the genre one story at a time.

Prepare yourself for a journey through the wildest reaches of the imagination, to visions of Earth as it might be and the far corners of the universe. Along the way, you will meet robots and monsters, adventurers and time travellers, rogues and royalty.

In The Best of World SF, award-winning author Lavie Tidhar acts as guide and companion to a world of stories, from never-before-seen originals to award winners, from twenty-three countries and seven languages. Because the future is coming and it belongs to us all.


“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard
“Debtless” by Chen Qiufan (trans. from Chinese by Blake Stone-Banks)
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
“Virtual Snapshots” by Tlotlo Tsamaase
“What The Dead Man Said” by Chinelo Onwualu
“Delhi” by Vandana Singh
“The Wheel of Samsara” by Han Song (trans. from Chinese by the author)
“Xingzhou” by Yi-Sheng Ng
“Prayer” by Taiyo Fujii (trans. from Japanese by Kamil Spychalski)
“The Green Ship” by Francesco Verso (trans. from Italian by Michael Colbert)
“Eyes of the Crocodile” by Malena Salazar Maciá (trans. from Spanish by Toshiya Kamei)
“Bootblack” by Tade Thompson
“The Emptiness in the Heart of all Things” by Fabio Fernandes
“The Sun From Both Sides” by R.S.A. Garcia
“Dump” by Cristina Jurado (trans. from Spanish by Steve Redwood)
“Rue Chair” by Gerardo Horacio Porcayo (trans. from Spanish by the author)
“His Master’s Voice” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Benjamin Schneider’s Little Greys” by Nir Yaniv (trans. from Hebrew by Lavie Tidhar)
“The Cryptid” by Emil H. Petersen (trans. from Icelandic by the author)
“The Bank of Burkina Faso” by Ekaterina Sedia
“An Incomplete Guide…” by Kuzhali Manickavel
“The Old Man with The Third Hand” by Kofi Nyameye
“The Green” by Lauren Beukes
“The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Karin Tidbeck
“Prime Meridian” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“If At First You Don’t Succeed” by Zen Cho

Excerpted from the introduction of The Best of World SF, by Lavie Tidhar. Head of Zeus, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

They say the more things change the more they stay the same, but things do change, and science fiction has to change in order to survive. For too long, the future was dominated by one country and one viewpoint: the future was white, male and American, and it was going to stay that way: until it didn’t.

I look at The Best of World SF with something like awe, because it doesn’t feel real. As I write this, it isn’t yet real. I look to the future and imagine holding the book, reading the introduction. I have read anthologies and I’ve been published in anthologies but I never thought I would see one like this. The sheer breadth of talent from across the planet gathered here is something no one could imagine twenty years ago. Publishing certainly wasn’t interested. And it wasn’t just then. I spent ten years trying to get someone, anyone, to publish this book, or one like it. The last time I tried it took the publisher an hour to turn it down.

Less than an hour, if I’m being honest.

If you make yourself enough of a pain, eventually people notice. Or so I tried to tell myself. In 2008, I convinced my friend Jason Sizemore to publish an anthology of international speculative fiction. Jason runs a small press out of Kentucky, of all places, and is a stubborn man, and I told him he will make no money doing this but that it will be good. We put together The Apex Book of World SF out of string and sticks and polish and buttons and it came out in 2009. No one had done a book like that before, not in this way, not with an editor who himself didn’t belong to the Anglo world. And I was right: we didn’t make any money, but the book was good.

It was a ridiculous thing to do. And no one was interested. Reviewers didn’t even know how to talk about the book. It wasn’t exotic, it wasn’t strange: it was just a collection of stories written by people from places like Malaysia and China, Croatia and the Philippines, and the only thing they did share was that they weren’t a part of Anglo-American science fiction. And they were good.

So we did it again. I edited The Apex Book of World SF 2 in 2012. And then we did it again with The Apex Book of World SF 3 in 2014. We published writers no one had heard of – then. Aliette de Bodard and Tade Thompson and Lauren Beukes and Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Nnedi Okorafor’s in there. So are Hannu Rajaniemi and Amal El-Mohtar. Between them, now, these writers are science fiction. They have the awards and the hardcovers in the bookstores and the film and TV deals. It was easy to see this is how it should be, back then, because they were good. But then you’d talk to publishers and they’d say things like, ‘Oh, we don’t publish books set in Nigeria.’ And that would be the end of the discussion. I had never heard a more ridiculous thing. I went and wrote a science fiction novel set in Israel in the sure and liberating knowledge no one would publish it, and it came out from an independent press and won a couple of awards and ten editions in translation, at last count. And I had to face up to the fact that maybe the world really was changing.

Mahvesh Murad came on board to edit The Apex Book of World SF 4. I think she is the first editor from Pakistan to edit a genre anthology, and she went on to do more, and get nominated for a World Fantasy Award, though not for that book, because still no one cared.

Cristina Jurado came on board to edit The Apex Book of World SF 5, and it was great, and there we stopped. And I tried to sell a bigger version of those books to publishers large and small, and kept hearing that familiar ‘no’ – or, more commonly, not hearing anything at all. I watched those writers I published early on become established, and I watched talented new writers pouring in to the new magazines and the electronic publications, and they were terrific. Some of them are in this volume. And some of the old gang are here too.

Science fiction has to change to stay relevant. It deals in futures, after all. And the Internet was a great liberating force for those of us who lived elsewhere, who spoke English in a strange accent, who wrote in it as a second language or not at all. There are more translators now, enthusiasts mostly, but there are more places open to those stories now. They weren’t there before. The editors weren’t there and the publications weren’t there and we had to create them somehow. The future couldn’t stay uniform or it would die.

And we weren’t there. There was a time where every year Aliette de Bodard and me would be placed on the same panel at the same SF convention to talk about the same thing in front of the same people, and one year a guy accused me of taking publication spots from native speakers and why can’t we publish in our own countries? And the next year he repeated the question because he said he didn’t think I understood him the first time he’d asked.

But I did understand. And I never did that panel again after that. In fact I try not to do panels at all and let other people speak instead, and I refuse to talk about translation. I have my own body of novels now and my own awards, but for some reason I never get asked to talk about that – that privilege is still reserved for ‘proper’ writers. Things change, but slowly…

Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Osama (2011), The Violent Century (2013), the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), and the Campbell Award-winning Central Station (2016), in addition to many other works and several other awards. He works across genres, combining detective and thriller modes with poetry, science fiction and historical and autobiographical material. His work has been compared to that of Philip K. Dick by the Guardian and the Financial Times, and to Kurt Vonnegut’s by Locus.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “The Best of World SF Giveaway.” One entry per household and the winner will be randomly selected. Those from the continental US are eligible to win. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Monday, June 7. The 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 winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Update: The giveaway has ended.

I’m delighted to have a guest post by Jeffe Kennedy to share with you today! She has published more than 50 works, including The Twelve Kingdoms trilogy, whose final volume won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Romance, and The Uncharted Realms, a series set in the same universe whose first installment won the RITA Award for Paranormal Romance. Her recent books include Dark Wizard, The Sorceress Queen and the Pirate Rogue, and her latest novel, The Promised Queen—the final book in the romantic high fantasy trilogy Forgotten Empires, which just released yesterday!


The Promised Queen by Jeffe Kennedy - Book Cover
Read an Excerpt

About THE PROMISED QUEEN (Forgotten Empires #3):

Claim the hand that wears the ring, and the empire falls.

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, claimed the hand that wears the Abiding Ring, but the prophecy remains unfulfilled. Queen Euthalia of Calanthe returned to her island kingdom, but broken in mind and body. With the blood of war unleashing ancient terrors, Calanthe isn’t the haven it once was.

Lia must use her magical bond with Calanthe to save their people while Con fights to hold off the vengeful Emperor Anure and his wizards. Con and Lia will have to trust in each other—and in love—to fend off ultimate disaster.

I remember vividly the first time someone told me I “had made it” as an author. It was summer of 2000 and I’d sold an essay to Redbook for a dollar a word. I’d been writing and publishing personal essays and creative nonfiction for about six years at that point and that $3,000 sale was the pinnacle.

It still is in some ways. I’ve never again made that much money on a work that short. I have novels that still haven’t earned that much.

But at that heady time, more than one person congratulated me. “Wow, you’ve made it!” they’d exclaim, as if I’d crossed some invisible finish line into a land where people would regularly hand me checks for my writing.

Reader: that did not happen.

The truth is, there is no such land. If you ask any author who’s been around a while about times their career crashed, was “over,” when they had to reinvent themselves, I can promise you they will have stories to tell. It is, in fact, one of my favorite questions to ask when I have the opportunity to listen to a career author talk about their life and work. Not because I’m a rubbernecker, but because I learn so much from those stories. At first, I hesitated to ask, feeling uncertain as to whether they’d be insulted or offended by the implication that they might not have sailed the literary seas with golden sails and treasure in the hold.

“Has there ever been a time,” I’d ask with careful phrasing, “when you had to reinvent yourself as a writer?”

Invariably, they laugh, roll their eyes, and say, “Oh, yes. Let me tell you…”

Listen to what they tell you, because the take-home message is always the same. “Making it” is an illusion. Authors who sell their debut book to great acclaim and showers of money? They struggle with later books. Authors who hit it big with a later book and finally, finally receive the attention their books so richly deserve? They spent years scrapping and reinventing before the lightning struck their diligently placed assembly of lightning rods. And they might have to do it again.

Even back in that celebrational summer of 2000, I knew I hadn’t made it. When people said so, I nodded and smiled. But the editor who bought that essay had left the magazine before the issue even went to press, and editor who replaced her brushed me off. I was going to need a lot more $3,000 essays to quit my day job—and most of them paid far less than that. Especially when, not very long after that, the internet billowed into an inferno of free written words. Paid writing gigs vanished almost overnight. Entire magazine and newspaper staffs were laid off. And a whole lot of them decided to try their hand at the blogging thing to make a living.

I kept at it, writing my essays, honing my craft, sending out queries. Going to work at my day job.

In 2004, my first book was published. A university press published my collection of my essays—including the one that had been in Redbook—to lovely acclaim and very little money. I was called “a writer to watch.” Agents contacted me about my next project. One that absolutely none of them liked.

Over the ensuing couple of years, I fought the rising panic at the feeling of an opportunity slipping from my grasp. Once again, I’d “made it”—and found myself nowhere at all. I kept working on my narrative nonfiction project, despite that I could see people’s eyes roll back in their heads when I described it. When my editor at the university press read it, she told me to put it in a drawer for a year, that I wasn’t ready to write it yet.

A year… and my opportunity well and duly lost. I’d never felt so far from having made it. I felt like I’d gone backward.

But, the only way to keep from going backward is to go forward. I kept at it. Because I’d been instructed to put my much-unloved narrative nonfiction project in a drawer, I played around with some fiction. And I sold some stories, then some novellas, then a novel, then a trilogy. Fifteen years after that $3K essay sale, I finally quit the day job.

I now have 56 published titles—including that first essay collection—and you know what? I still haven’t found that “made it” land where people just hand me money and I don’t have to worry about selling my writing. Interestingly enough, somewhere along the way, people stopped saying that I’d made it. Oh, every once in a while, an interviewer asks how and when I knew I’d made it. I try really hard not to snicker as I compose my expression and try to give a meaningful answer.

But when someone asks, “Has there ever been a time when you had to reinvent yourself as a writer?” Then I let myself laugh. I roll my eyes and lean forward. Let me tell you some stories…

Photo of Jeffe Kennedy
Photo by Pritschow Photography

Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning, best-selling author who writes fantasy with romantic elements and contemporary romance. She serves on the Board of Directors for Science Fiction Writers of America as a Director at Large.

Her recent works include the high fantasy trilogy The Chronicles of Dasnaria, in the same world as her award-winning fantasy series The Twelve Kingdoms and The Uncharted Realms. She is a hybrid author, and also self-publishes a romantic fantasy series, Sorcerous Moons. Her books have won the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2015 and won Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award in 2017. The Dragons of Summer, a novella in The Uncharted Realms series, was also a RITA finalist in 2019.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website, every Sunday at the SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and on Twitter.

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 (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). 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 cover links are affiliate links to Bookshop.

This weekend’s feature covers books that came in the mail during and after Women in SF&F Month—and if you missed that, you can find all of this year’s guest posts here!

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

The final book in K. S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy was just released last week (trade paperback, ebook). The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng, as well as one from The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the first book in the series.

I haven’t had a chance to dig into this yet with the busyness of April, but I plan to read it after I finish the book I’m currently reading. I LOVED the first two books in this series, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon. Queen Talyien, the narrator and protagonist, has one of the best voices I’ve read, and the world and characters get more and more complex.

You can also read more about Queen Talyien from the author’s perspective in K. S. Villoso’s Women in SF&F Month guest post from 2020, which opens with “Queen Talyien is a badass.”


In The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng, the queen of a divided land must unite her people against the enemies who threaten to tear her country apart. K. S. Villoso is a “powerful new voice in fantasy.” (Kameron Hurley)

Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin-Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten - Book Cover

For the Wolf (Wilderwood #1) by Hannah Whitten

Hannah Whitten’s debut novel will be released on June 1 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

I actually just finished reading For the Wolf, which Hannah Whitten described as “fairytale soup” in her recent guest post, and really enjoyed that aspect of it, the woods and magic, and Red’s journey. The conclusion also left me very curious about what will happen next in For the Throne, which is scheduled for release next summer.


The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.

For fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale comes a dark, sweeping debut fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn’t the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose—to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood—and her world—whole.

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani - Book Cover

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani and illustrated by Julia Iredale

This short story collection by Soman Chainani, New York Times bestselling author of The School for Good and Evil series, will be released on September 28 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).


You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong.

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Thank you so much to all of this year’s guests for the amazing essays and another fantastic Women in SF&F Month! And thank you so much to everyone who shared guest posts and news of this year’s series—I really appreciate it!

This year’s series may be over, but I wanted to make sure there was a convenient way to find all of this year’s guest posts in case you missed any of them or are finding this later. This April was the tenth annual Women in SF&F Month, which is dedicated to highlighting some of the many women doing wonderful work in speculative fiction. Guest posts include both discussions related to women in science fiction and/or fantasy and more general discussions about the genre(s), influences, writing, and creating stories, characters, and worlds.

You can browse through all the Women in SF&F Month 2021 guest posts here, or you can find a brief summary of each and its link below.

2021 Women in SF&F Month Guest Posts

Beaton, E. J. — “The Imperfection of Clever Women”
The Councillor author E. J. Beaton explored the question “How clever are women allowed to be in novels?” and discussed allowing intelligent fictional women to be messy and human and fallible.

Bovalino, Tori — “On the Amorphous Nature of Horror”
The Devil Makes Three author Tori Bovalino discussed the horror genre and horror elements in fantasy and science fiction.

Brown, Ashaye — “Fantasy as Lucid Dream”
Dream Country author Ashaye Brown explored the relationship between fantasy and dreams in an ode to imagination and creativity—and discussed why the fantasy genre does not deserve the derision often aimed its way.

Divya, S.B. — “Through the Eyes of Women”
Machinehood author S.B. Divya discussed questioning whether or not she should include a male protagonist in her science fiction debut novel upon realizing all three of her planned POV characters were women.

Duane, Diane
Middle Kingdoms and Young Wizards author Diane Duane discussed food and the role it can play in fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding.

Garcia, R.S.A. — “The Things I Love”
Lex Talionis author R.S.A. Garcia wrote about literature, film and television, and community—specifically, those things she loved that loved her back and had an impact on her.

Gong, Chloe — “The Mary Sue Club Is Still Taking Applicants”
These Violent Delights author Chloe Gong discussed the criticism many female characters in YA SFF receive for being “Mary Sues” and these types of characters still being necessary—especially after the We Need Diverse Books movement led to more books by authors of color being published.

Henderson, Alexis — “Writing Dark Fiction: An Exercise In Self-Acceptance”
The Year of the Witching author Alexis Henderson discussed how she came to write horror and her complicated kinship with it.

Hur, Angela Mi Young
Folklorn author Angela Mi Young Hur discussed weaving Korean folktales into her novel about “the inheritance of myth from parents and culture”—in particular, the inclusion of her ancestress Queen Heo Hwang-Ok, whose story she heard from her mother and now tells her daughter.

Kornher-Stace, Nicole
Archivist Wasp author Nicole Kornher-Stace discussed the double standard in the perception of men and women with the same asshole qualities and writing women who aren’t traditionally “nice” in her own books, including 2021 releases Firebreak and Jillian vs. Parasite Planet.

Kuhn, M. J.
Among Thieves author M. J. Kuhn discussed some of the subtler sexism that can make its way onto the page and fighting internalized misogyny when writing.

Long, H. M. — “Creativity in Crisis”
Hall of Smoke author H. M. Long wrote about her difficulties with writing after the pandemic hit and shared some of the things that helped her continue to create.

Smart, Ciannon — “Building an Empire”
Witches Steeped in Gold author Ciannon Smart shared how she came to create the Jamaican-inspired secondary world of her YA fantasy debut novel.

Wecker, Helene
The Golem and the Jinni author Helene Wecker shared how writing the sequel, The Hidden Palace, was more difficult than she’d expected and how thinking about the acts of Into the Woods helped her shape the dynamic between her main characters.

Whitten, Hannah
For the Wolf author Hannah Whitten discussed agency: how the first fantasy she loved, The Castle of Llyr, was also the first she read that gave the “princess” character agency and how choice and wanting are a big part of Red’s story in her own debut novel.

Wisoker, Leona — “Of Being So Damn Tired”
Children of the Desert author Leona Wisoker discussed Tove Jansson and what it meant to her that Moominmamma had a story arc about being so damn tired in one of the Moomin books.

Yu, E. Lily — “Four Godmothers”
On Fragile Waves author E. Lily Yu celebrated women in fantasy by discussing four authors whose work taught her about writing, giving her gifts like the wrong (but actually right) dreams and showing her the sorcery of language.

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Today’s guest is Hannah Whitten! Her first Wilderwood novel, For the Wolf, is described as “a dark, sweeping debut fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom” that is for “fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale.” It has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus, and it will be released in about a month—on June 1!

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten - Book Cover

The first fantasy I ever fell in love with was the Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, best known for the animated movie Disney made based off the second book in the series, The Black Cauldron. The movie was, to put it lightly, very bad. Thankfully, by the time I got around to watching it, I had already devoured all of the books and thus couldn’t have what is a really excellent story marred by lackluster execution (I did develop a weird crush on The Horned King, though, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone).

Oddly, it wasn’t the first book in the series that caught my eye at the library and made me want to read them all, though. It was the third.

The Castle of Llyr, the third book, had a gorgeous illustrated cover depicting Princess Eilonwy, the love interest of main character Taran, holding a golden sphere and a crescent necklace. I remember her face so vividly—she looked so sad. And despite her fairly passive pose, her expression is quietly fierce, in a way I can’t quite explain but definitely feel. The artist managed to capture something in her eyes that was both soft and aching and spoke of barely-harnessed power. I picked up the series just because I wanted to read this book and know this girl’s story.

The Castle of LLyr by Lloyd Alexander - Book Cover

It didn’t disappoint. Spoilers ahead: Eilonwy is a gifted sorceress, imbued with ancestral magic that her former foster mother, Achren, is desperate to wield. She’s kidnapped and brainwashed, with Achren planning to rule through her by controlling her mind and thus her magic. Taran and her friends, naturally, travel to rescue her from her literal tower prison. When they arrive, Eilonwy has no memory of them, and barely any memory of herself. The things that make her a whole person have been stripped away, leaving only her power as a sorceress and her position as a princess.

I don’t know whether the metaphor was completely intended—having Eilonwy reduced to only an archetypal placeholder, her power viewed as something to be controlled rather than inherently her own—but it stuck with me. It made me think about power structures in fantasy, specifically power given to non-cis-male characters, and how it’s so rarely allowed to be kept. How power wielded by anyone other than a (usually white) cis man is often seen as something that must be done away with in order to be “good.”

In The Castle of Llyr, at least, Eilonwy doesn’t stay devoid of her agency—and when she regains it, it’s through the reclaiming of her magic. As part of her plan to take over Prydain, Achren has Eilonwy read from a spellbook that only she can decipher. But rather than read the spells and fully bind herself into Achren’s thrall, Eilonwy burns the book and saves herself.

Achren, the villain who locked the princess in the tower, is saved, too. Her plans are dashed, and in subsequent books she joins with the heroes to take down Arawn, the Big Bad of the series to whom she previously owed fealty.

The book isn’t groundbreaking, especially by our standards now. But it was the first high fantasy book I read that truly gave the “princess” character agency—that really gave her wants and desires of her own, to the point where the absence of them was a marked tragedy. Granted, they were squeaky-clean, nice desires, desires that didn’t ask much of the narrative to give to her. But they were there.

I have my qualms, sure. When Eilonwy regains her magic, she burns her family’s spellbook, reducing the scope of her power (because Too Much Power Bad, you see), and by the end of the series, she becomes little more than a prize for Taran to win. But for all that, I still think about The Castle of Llyr often. I think about a princess who owns her magic, and how the narrative (mostly) let her have it. How the story was about her learning to use it, rather than the magic being good or bad in and of itself, and how the resolution of the tale came down to Eilonwy’s choice.


So much epic fantasy is about being caught in destiny’s teeth. Pulled along as a moving piece inside a story so much bigger than you, playing a role that maybe you feel unequipped for, but managing to rise to the occasion nonetheless. Our unassuming main character defeats the empire, throws the ring in the volcano, becomes the rightful ruler, successfully completing every step despite their shortcomings or internal debate, because They Were Destined For This, even if they fought against it at first.

I didn’t want to write that story.

Or, to be more precise, I wanted to write a story that could’ve been that, but wasn’t. A story where choice was the central factor. The characters might be caught in destiny’s teeth, but they were going to make damn sure destiny had a hard time swallowing them down.

FOR THE WOLF is, fundamentally, about choice. And, to quote Season 7 Episode 1 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s about power.

I attribute a lot of that to Red. I’m very much a character-first, plot-second writer, and when Red first dug into my brain, she was not the noble hero, or even the “angry girl” protagonist that has seen so much love in recent years. She was resigned and reckless. She was both strong and brittle, a study in contrasts, imbued with power that she detested and was fascinated by in equal measure.

And she wanted so much.

That was the most crystallized part of her, the center from which it all grew, the plot and the world-building and everything else—Red wanted, and she was in a position where all her wanting was pointless. A Second Daughter meant for sacrifice from the beginning, barely a person at all. A bundle of raw nerves and lashed-down power and endless yearning for things she’d never have.

And then: a life, after she’d thought it was all over.

At the risk of spoiling a book that isn’t out yet, I won’t go into plot details. But it turns out the power that seemingly resigns Red to one fate is more malleable than she thinks. It turns out the situation she and Eammon, the Wolf, find themselves in, forced into roles of villain and victim, is more able to be changed than either of them anticipates.

Because all of it comes down to choice. To giving destiny the finger and forging a different path with nothing but your will, forcing the life you’ve been given to change shape around you, rather than the other way around.

Red does that with her magic. She takes the power within her and makes it bend, makes it do what she wants, remakes the world because she wants and she wants and she’s going to find a way to get it.

And she never has to give a single bit of that magic up.


I refer to WOLF often as fairytale soup—it’s a bunch of different influences tangled up in knots, the pieces of them taken apart and fitted back together. But while there are elements of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Snow White and Rose Red,” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s no accident that the Red Riding Hood factors are the ones that are most in play.

It’s easy to see the thread of a morality tale in the Grimm Brother’s version of the Red Riding Hood story, the one we’re most familiar with. Between the scarlet cloak, the basket full of sweets, and a literal admonition to the heroine to “stay on the path,” it couldn’t be more of a purity tale if you smacked an early-2000s Christian alt-soundtrack behind it. Stay on the path, don’t get lured into the woods, because the things that look harmless are just waiting to eat you up.

My Red is a little different.

She’s an adult, for one thing. She carries nothing into the woods, because she herself is the sacrifice required. And these woods have no path for her to follow—she has to make her own, wandering into the dark, thinking it’s her end when it’s only her beginning.

Like the fairytale, my Red is susceptible to temptation. To making her own way rather than following the trajectory laid out for her. To wanting so much more than she’s been given, maybe wanting too much. To having a soft spot for monsters.

But she isn’t punished for her wanting, or for her power. Instead, it becomes the catalyst for the transformation of her world, and herself. Red has no illusions of being good. She just wants what she wants, and she fights tooth and nail to get it.

Those are the kinds of stories I want to read. The kinds of stories I plan to write for as long as they’ll let me. Stories that tell us there is power in our wanting, and that the magic we have is ours alone.

Photo of Hannah Whitten

Hannah Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and sometime in high school, figured out that what amused her might also amuse others. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @hwhittenwrites.