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. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

It’s been a while since I did one of these features! Here are the blog posts that have gone up since the last one of these in case you missed any of them:

Since the pandemic started, there have not been as many books in the mail, and most of the ones that have arrived lately are covered in the 30 Anticipated Speculative Fiction Book Releases post mentioned above. There have been a few weekends that I thought about covering e-ARCs that I’d downloaded, but I ended up running out of time for various reasons. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of my weekend time on work projects and preparing for the tenth annual Women in SF&F Month in April—which I am very excited about! (Here is more about last year’s event if you missed it.)

Since I have missed some books I’d like to mention, I am covering an e-ARC that I just downloaded as well as a couple of others somewhat recently added to my Kindle in this week’s Leaning Pile of Books.

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu - Book Cover

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

Writer, editor, and translator S. Qiouyi Lu’s debut novella will be released on August 31 (trade paperback, ebook).

Tor.com has more information on In the Watchful City, including quotes from both the author and editor. Here’s some of what the author said that made me especially curious about this upcoming novella:

The city in which the frame narrative is set, Ora, arose out of a fusion of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and a bio-cyberpunk take on surveillance, one extrapolated from current technology that I got to see in Hangzhou, China. The city is not one cohesive place, but layers and layers, facets upon facets; this novella sees Ora from multiple perspectives while also looking out into the world.

In the Watchful City is more than just an illustration of a city, too. It is also a collection of stories about diaspora, about power, about longing, about growth and transformation.

This sounds fantastic, and I must admit, I was also intrigued by the gorgeous cover illustration by Kuri Huang!

 

S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City explores borders, power, diaspora, and transformation in an Asian-inspired mosaic novella that melds the futurism of Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station with the magical wonder of Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest.

The city of Ora uses a complex living network called the Gleaming to surveil its inhabitants and maintain harmony. Anima is one of the cloistered extrasensory humans tasked with watching over Ora’s citizens. Although ær world is restricted to what æ can see and experience through the Gleaming, Anima takes pride and comfort in keeping Ora safe from all harm.

All that changes when a mysterious visitor enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around the world, with a story attached to each item. As Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places—and possibilities—æ never before imagined to exist, æ finds ærself asking a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people?”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers - Book Cover

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk and Robot #1) by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers begins a new series with A Psalm for the Wild-Built, coming July 13 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Her Hugo Award–winning Wayfarers series is known for its optimism, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built is also supposed to be a hopeful story.

 

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Lostetter - Book Cover

The Helm of Midnight (The Five Penalties #1) by Marina J. Lostetter

Marina J. Lostetter begins her first fantasy series with The Helm of Midnight, coming April 13 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). She is also the author of the science fiction trilogy Noumenon.

The Tor/Forge Blog has an excerpt from The Helm of Midnight.

 

Hannibal meets Mistborn in Marina Lostetter’s THE HELM OF MIDNIGHT, the dark and stunning first novel in a new trilogy that combines the intricate worldbuilding and rigorous magic system of the best of epic fantasy with a dark and chilling thriller.

In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power—the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city.

Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.

It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

Since I’ve fallen rather far behind on reviews given 2020, I’ll probably be writing some shorter reviews. Usually when I write posts covering more than one book, the titles have little in common other than being speculative fiction that I’ve read, but this time I’m covering two fantasy books about magical women pushing back against patriarchies: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk and The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Midnight Bargain
by C. L. Polk
384pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.3/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.88/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.78/5
 

Book Description:

From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes The Midnight Bargain, a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

The Midnight Bargain, a standalone fantasy of manners novel by World Fantasy Award–winning author C. L. Polk, kept me turning the pages, eager to find out how two young women’s attempts to make it through Bargaining Season with lots of magical knowledge and no fiancés went—especially after Beatrice falls for someone in spite of herself and is caught between her lifelong dream of practicing magic and her newfound wish to wed.

With her family’s financial difficulties, Beatrice is expected to find a match among the many eligible sorcerers who could prevent her household from falling into ruin. It shouldn’t be a problem for her to find a suitable match since her strong aura makes it obvious she’s an exceptionally powerful magician—or rather, she would be an exceptionally powerful magician if women were given the opportunity to study magic. Instead, women like Beatrice are valued for their ability to pass on magic to their children and must wear a collar that suppresses their own magic once married, as it protects any future children they carry from spirit possession.

Beatrice cannot bear the thought of being separated from her own power and has other plans: finding the secret spells women magicians have hidden and using them to prove she’s more useful to her family as a sorcerous business partner than a means of procuring financial security.

But two wealthy siblings, Ysbeta and Ianthe, complicate matters for Beatrice. Ysbeta also seeks the grimoires disguised as ordinary books with extraordinarily dull titles, and she purchases one that Beatrice discovered first and was intending to buy. Not knowing the true nature of the book, Ianthe suggests that his sister and Beatrice share the volume: a suggestion that his sister likely would have conveniently forgotten if not for the fact that she does not know how to read the grimoires she’s collected and learns that Beatrice can. As the two pursue their mutual goals of increasing their knowledge and remaining single, they become friends—and the more time Beatrice spends with Ianthe, the more she falls for him.

The Midnight Bargain is a delightful story that didn’t take long to draw me in, and I had fun reading it. The romance is closer to insta-love than the more drawn out type of slow burn that I tend to prefer, but it was a sweet love story that had me rooting for Beatrice and Ianthe to get their HEA from the start. However, my favorite relationship was the friendship that developed between Beatrice and Ysbeta because of their determination to find ways around the constraints placed upon them by their patriarchal society and become sorcerers themselves. Ysbeta was my favorite secondary character with her tenacity and spirit, and I enjoyed that this Regency-style novel not only had a romance but also a major character who did not want to marry at all, regardless of whether or not it had any effect on her own magic.

Though it kept me engaged enough to distract me from the world (in 2020, no less!), The Midnight Bargain did not have the amount of depth or beautiful prose that tends to make a novel and its characters memorable to me. It’s one of those books that I’m happy I read, but I doubt I’ll reread it even though I do appreciate C. L. Polk’s skill in writing such an entertaining, compelling story.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from The Midnight Bargain

The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow
528pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.14/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.11/5
 

Book Description:

In the late 1800s, three sisters use witchcraft to change the course of history in Alix E. Harrow’s powerful novel of magic and the suffragette movement.

Named One of the Best Books of the Year by NPR Books • Barnes and Noble • BookPage

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters―James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna―join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote―and perhaps not even to live―the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

An homage to the indomitable power and persistence of women, The Once and Future Witches reimagines stories of revolution, motherhood, and women’s suffrage—the lost ways are calling.

The Once and Future Witches was a book I had been especially excited about. It’s Alix E. Harrow’s second novel after her enchanting, beautifully written portal fantasy The Ten Thousand Doors of Januarymy 2019 Book of the Year—plus it’s about suffragette witches. Unfortunately, I struggled to make it through this one, even taking a break about halfway through to read another book. Although it did improve after that point, I probably still would have left it unfinished if I hadn’t loved the author’s previous novel as much as I did.

This standalone novel sounded like one I would love, and there certainly were a lot of elements that I appreciated. It’s a book brimming with feminist anger as women fight back against the patriarchy in an alternate 1890s United States, and it explores the Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes through the three sisters who make up the heart of the story. It has remade fairy tales and women passing down spells through oral and written words like songs and rhymes, and though this is a book with men’s magic and women’s magic, magic is not actually gender-based: those divisions were created by people.

It has so many pieces that make it seem like one of my types of books, but I found it rather boring. I don’t mind slower pacing at all if the writing, characters, or exploration of themes resonate with me, but that was not my experience with this book. The characters never came alive enough to get me invested in their stories, and the exploration of the sisters’ archetypes didn’t delve into them deeply enough to make up for them seeming more like constructs than complex characters. There were occasional glistening lines that exemplified the gorgeous prose Alix E. Harrow does so well, but they didn’t shine as brightly as in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, in which nearly every single sentence felt finely crafted.

Though The Once and Future Witches attempted to do some interesting things, it didn’t manage to keep me interested. In the end, I didn’t find it memorable, and it didn’t have enough good qualities to make it seem worth persevering through that many pages.

My Rating: 5/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Once and Future Witches

The Ikessar Falcon
by K. S. Villoso
640pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 10/10
Amazon Rating: 4.7/5
LibraryThing Rating: 5/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.28/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Although the bulk of my reading is speculative fiction because of its myriad worlds and endless possibilities, I primarily read for characters. In particular, I appreciate stories with characters so vividly multifaceted that I have complicated, difficult-to-articulate feelings about them—when I don’t simply love or hate them, when the way I think about them changes from moment to moment, when I’m left uncertain precisely what to think of them because they have decent qualities amidst glaring flaws or vice versa.

And a major reason I loved The Ikessar Falcon the way I did is that K. S. Villoso created characters eliciting just that reaction, filtered through the perspective of a protagonist who is far from perfect and frequently frustrating herself—and is one of the best-realized, well-written protagonists I’ve ever encountered.

The characterization and world expand masterfully from the foundation built in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the excellent first book in The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy and a shorter, more contained volume that nevertheless conveys a lot through its rich first-person narration. I was drawn into Queen Talyien’s story from the very first line, and I ended the book feeling that her voice was one of the strongest I’ve read.

Talyien’s personality comes through every page, and her complexity shines through her expressive, poetic narrative. I particularly loved how she made me question just how self-aware she truly was as she related her tale—fitting for someone who never had the chance to be herself or explore exactly who that person may be, given that the course of her life was shaped by her warlord father and his ambitions. Even though her father is long deceased by the start of the trilogy’s main plot, Talyien still carries the weight of attempting to live up to his expectations and legacy. It’s not until close to the beginning of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, after being separated from her guards overseas and meeting a kind-hearted conman (really!), that she gets to experience what it might be like to just be herself—not a queen, not a notorious warlord’s daughter, not the wife of the Dragonlord or the mother of the next Dragonlord, but simply Tali.

Tali’s confidence about the world and her place within it is further upended in The Ikessar Falcon. It picks up about three months after the previous novel with Tali in much the same situation we left her: far from home and unsure of when she’ll be able to return, worried about her son, and shaken by the realization that she may not have known her father or his plans very well after all. In this installment, Tali comes to understand that there is actually a lot she didn’t know as well as she had heretofore thought, including the husband with whom she was so desperate to reunite, her country, and her people. Though she’s well versed in warlord politics so she can fulfill the duty she’s had since birth—preventing civil war—she has not given much thought to the lives and needs of the common people. She neglected regions of her country, remaining oblivious to some rather large problems that had been developing there for some time, and though some of the blame for that falls on those who provided her with information, she also ignored several requests for meetings from those who live there.

Partially due to faults like these, I loved reading about Tali because she has depth that makes her seem real. As she’s often reminded throughout this novel, she’s not been a good ruler, and she has a habit of being oblivious to other people—such as forgetting that her guardswoman/cousin has a daughter and not even remembering the girl’s name or face after being reminded she gave her niece a gift for her last nameday. Yet when she does care, she loves fiercely and can be loyal to a fault, giving a second chance after a betrayal instead of doing what one may expect from a sword-wielding queen with her reputation. Tali doesn’t shy away from violence, especially defense of herself or others, but she’s not one to revel in bloodshed and cruelty, either.

Tali’s many layers make her a fascinating protagonist, as does the way she navigates a society that makes her feel powerless in a lot of ways despite literally being a queen. From the moment she was born, she’s had the weight of being the embodiment of peace on her shoulders and had people telling her how she must act and behave. She’s judged more harshly as a woman—instead of blaming her husband for leaving her and their child, people tend to blame her for not being a good enough wife to make him want to stay. And from her perspective, she does seem to be trying her best amid the huge mess she inherited.

At least, she seems to be trying her best some of the time. Though she’s certainly been left with a lot of problems created by previous rulers and their systems, some of her mess is of her own making, and there were certainly times I found Tali and her decisions intensely frustrating. But even when I wanted to yell at her for making a terrible choice, I wanted to applaud her author for her terrible choice because it felt so very true to Tali.

Overall, the characters are wonderfully done. The Ikessar Falcon is filled with complex people with a mixture of good and bad that made me feel complex emotions with a couple of exceptions: a despicable villain, and Khine, the aforementioned kind-hearted conman. Khine is my favorite secondary character and only frustrated me by not fleeing the chaos and destruction following in Tali’s wake when he deserved so much better.

Khine is also the only one of the three men who spend the most time in Tali’s company who did not make me want to throw the whole man away, but I really appreciated how the other two were written. Often, I’d find myself wondering why Tali put up with her former childhood friend turned guardsman and husband, though I understood she did for complicated reasons related to loyalty, guilt, and nostalgia. Then there would suddenly be a moment when seeing them through Tali’s eyes made me really understand—not in my head, but in my heart—why she put up with them. After spending the whole book loathing them, they’d show a different side of themselves or have such camaraderie with Tali that I’d find myself kind of liking them in spite of myself and realize it’s complicated. Everything in this story is complicated, even these fraught relationships with men who make me want to throw the whole man away.

Even the pacing ties into the characterization. As in the first book, I thought the most engaging parts were the more introspective ones and those focusing on Tali’s past, but I found the main storyline more compelling in this installment since it took some time to breathe and really show the world and characters. The faster pacing with Tali constantly jumping into situations was suitable for who she was at that point, and though a lot still happens in The Ikessar Falcon, it also allowed more time for reflection and getting the most out of a scene—just as Tali herself seems to be pausing to think a bit more at this point in her life.

The Ikessar Falcon is complex, character-driven fantasy at its very best, as it takes everything I loved about The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and expands on it to make both books stronger. Every conversation and description seems significant, it has more banter and revelations, and it also has more dragons and magic. But most importantly, for me as a reader, it’s about a protagonist who has me invested in her story, and I can hardly wait to read the rest of it in The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng (coming May 4).

My Rating: 10/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Ikessar Falcon

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

Reviews of Other Book(s) in The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen:

  1. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Happy book release day to Namina Forna! I’ve been excited about her debut novel, The Gilded Ones, ever since I read an excellent interview with her on Refinery29 discussing why she wrote a YA epic fantasy book in which women literally bleed gold, among other subjects—and I’m thrilled to have a guest post by her to share today!

 

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna - Book Cover
Read an Excerpt

About THE GILDED ONES:

The most anticipated fantasy of 2021. In this world, girls are outcasts by blood and warriors by choice. Get ready for battle. 

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

The start of a bold and immersive fantasy series for fans of Children of Blood and Bone and Black Panther

The Importance of Feminist Boys in YA Literature

Some weeks ago, I was scrolling Twitter when I came upon a heinous tweet. It was written by a man, and it espoused some truly concerning thoughts regarding women. It was the type of tweet I would have usually rushed to correct, but before I could do so, one of my mutuals, a young African man, waded in. He battled the tweet-sogynist with facts and data. He was not just a feminist ally—he was a feminist himself.

Growing up in the hypermasculine cultures of Sierra Leone, West Africa, and Atlanta, Georgia, I saw precious little in the way of male feminists. Boys were supposed to be tough and strong. They weren’t supposed to be soft, weren’t supposed to cry, and certainly weren’t supposed to defer to women.

Somewhere along the way, this dynamic changed. Boys started to realize that the patriarchy was just as much a trap for them as it was for girls. It helped that there were new portrayals of heroes in books and film, particularly young adult and middle grade works.

Malik, one of the dual protagonists from this summer’s A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, is one such hero. A nervous, but sweet soul, he is understanding of his weaknesses and respects his reluctant partner in crime, the calculating princess Karina, knowing that she is both bolder and more ruthless than him—necessary characteristics to survive in the cutthroat city of Ziran, the main location in the book.

Other notable feminist boys include Peeta Mellark of the Hunger Games franchise—a much kinder and softer person than protagonist Katniss Everdeen; Peter Kavinsky in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; Daniel Bae from The Sun Is Also a Star; and Rishi from When Dimple Met Rishi.

In film and TV, there’s Ang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Otis in Sex Education—even Uber-masculine icon Mad Max has undergone a bit of a transformation in recent years. In Mad Max: Fury Road, he defers to protagonist Imperator Furiosa, even going so far as to hand a gun to her when he can’t get a shot right. Progress.

In my novel, The Gilded Ones, Keita, the love interest of my protagonist, Deka, is a soft boy with a hard shell. He has no choice but to be. The world of The Gilded Ones is brutal and deeply misogynistic, especially Otera, the empire in which my story unfolds. Otera is absolute theocracy: women are considered lesser than men and required to undergo a ritual to prove the purity of their blood—red for pure, and gold for impure.

Even worse, the alaki—girls who bleed gold and are stronger and faster than regular humans—are branded as demons and executed on the spot. That is, of course, if they aren’t bled first. Gold is gold, even if it comes straight from the veins.

Despite all this, Keita, a hardened warrior with the battle scars to prove it, develops a deep and abiding respect for Deka. He listens to her when she speaks, doesn’t try to change her, and genuinely cares for her as a human being. In a world where women are considered little less than property, he sees her as an equal, and that’s an important thing.

We have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality, but portrayals of boys in books and film are helping along the way. That, for me, is an awesome thing, because now, whenever I go on Twitter, I can always find a feminist boy there, ready to do the work of dismantling the patriarchy.

Photo of Namina Forna Namina Forna is a young adult novelist based in Los Angeles, and the author of the epic fantasy YA novel The Gilded Ones. Originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, she moved to the US when she was nine and has been traveling back and forth ever since. Namina loves telling stories with fierce female leads and works as a screenwriter in LA.

It seems like it becomes harder to limit my anticipated speculative fiction book releases post to a semi-reasonable number of works every year, and it was incredibly difficult to narrow down my initial long list of titles coming out in 2021. But after scouring the web for early reviews, excerpts, and more information from the author and/or publisher, I managed to cut it down to 30 books that I think look especially promising. (Of course, a few of these books are also ones that I do not need to know much about yet because of the strength of their authors’ previous works!)

As always, this is nowhere close to being a comprehensive list of speculative fiction being published in 2021, and I’m sure I will hear of more books that sound noteworthy throughout the year. A couple of these books appeared on my list last year since they were originally scheduled for publication in 2020, and some of these may end up being pushed back as well. I did not include books I’m hoping to see over the next few months if I couldn’t find anything from the author or publisher saying it was scheduled for this year (such as the sequel to Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, which would absolutely be near the top of a list like this one!).

This list is ordered by release date, if known, and these dates are US release dates unless otherwise stated. The first book on this list just came out this month, but the rest are upcoming.

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

Some cover images or titles link to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long - Cover Image
Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: January 19 (Out Now!)

H. M. Long’s debut novel sounds right up my alley with its warrior priestess and meddling gods. The FAQs section on the author’s website has a brief description with a little about who may be especially interested in checking it out:

Hall of Smoke is an epic fantasy with a Viking flavour, packed with action, meddling gods, and an atmospheric world of pines and mountains and creatures that want to eat you.

Readers, if you’re a fan of Brian Staveley, Robin Hobb, Tasha Suri, and RJ Barker, you will love Hall of Smoke.

Gamers? If you’re into Skyrim, God of War, or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Hall of Smoke is for you.

Binge-watchers? If Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Netflix’s Barbarians are your thing, Hall of Smoke will be too.

And how could I not want to read a book after catching a glimpse of the line “I was the first to offend the goddess this season” on the very first page?

 

Epic fantasy featuring warrior priestesses, and fickle gods at war, for readers of Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.

Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveller, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.

While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller and atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.

Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.

Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.

Midnight Doorways by Usman T. Malik - Cover Image
Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan by Usman T. Malik
Scheduled Release Date: February

Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Award–winning author Usman T. Malik’s debut collection is being released as a one-print run illustrated hardcover with artwork by Pakistani artists. I have been hearing lots of praise for these stories and it sounds like a gorgeous book!

 

From the winner of  The British Fantasy Award and The Bram Stoker Award

* Stranded by the Taliban in the ruins of a pre-Islamic city, a woman chaperoning a school trip faces ancient horrors as boys go missing and the fog rolls in.
* Two lovers are set adrift amidst rising floodwaters in 1960s Old Lahore
* A Lahori orphanage for girls is haunted by birds and eerie visions.

With a meticulously designed cover and beautiful black-and-white illustrations by seven different Pakistani artists, Midnight Doorways is a unique community project highlighting the scope of speculative art and literature in Pakistan.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu - Cover Image
On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu
Scheduled Release Date: February 2

Astounding Award—winning author E. Lily Yu’s short fiction has been selected for a dozen best-of-the-year anthologies, and her stories have been finalists for several awards, including but not limited to the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. On Fragile Waves, her debut novel, is coming soon from Erewhon Books and sounded particularly intriguing to me because of its integration of fairy tales and storytelling and the mentions of lyrical, poetic prose.

 

The haunting story of a family of dreamers and tale-tellers looking for home in an unwelcoming world.

Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia.

As the family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru, heading toward a hope of home, they must rely on fragile and temporary shelters, strangers both mercenary and kind, and friends who vanish as quickly as they’re found.

When they arrive in Australia, what seemed like a stable shore gives way to treacherous currents. Neighbors, classmates, and the government seek their own ends, indifferent to the family’s fate. For Firuzeh, her fantasy worlds provide some relief, but as her family and home splinter, she must surface from these imaginings and find a new way.

This exquisite and unusual magic realist debut, told in intensely lyrical prose by an award winning author, traces one girl’s migration from war to peace, loss to loss, home to home.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna - Book Cover
The Gilded Ones (The Gilded Ones #1) by Namina Forna
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: February 9

Namina Forna’s debut novel is one of those books I was excited about last year that ended up being pushed back to this year. I’ve been eager to read this YA fantasy series since I came across a fantastic interview with the author at Refinery29, in which she describes The Gilded Ones as “a book of my anger about being a woman.” She expanded on that later in her answer by saying:

It’s just this idea that women, we are seen as objects. It doesn’t matter where in the world we are. That’s why women in my book literally bleed gold. If someone bleeds gold, then you can use that as a basic value, so that’s that metaphor right there.

(And I have a guest post by Namina Forna to share with you next month!)

 

The most anticipated fantasy of 2021. In this world, girls are outcasts by blood and warriors by choice. Get ready for battle. 

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

The start of a bold and immersive fantasy series for fans of Children of Blood and Bone and Black Panther

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton - Cover Image
The Councillor by E. J. Beaton
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: March 2

E. J. Beaton’s debut novel piqued my interest with the description “Machiavellian fantasy,” and I was only more intrigued by it after learning more about how the author’s study of Renaissance literature was a major influence in this interview at The Fantasy Hive.

 

This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar’s quest to choose the next ruler of her nation amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine - Cover Image
A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan #2) by Arkady Martine
Read an Excerpt
Scheduled Release Date: March 2

A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to Arkady Martine’s Hugo Award–winning debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, which was also a finalist for the Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Goodreads Choice Award for Science Fiction, among numerous other awards. I’m about halfway through A Memory Called Empire now and am LOVING it—from the beautiful writing, to its appreciation of words and literature, to the exquisite details and politics, to the way it captures the loneliness and complications of suddenly finding oneself ambassador to a place one is visiting for the first time.

 

A Desolation Called Peace is the spectacular space opera sequel to Arkady Martine’s genre-reinventing, Hugo Award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Their failure will guarantee millions of deaths in an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction—and allow the empire to continue its rapacious expansion.

Or it might create something far stranger . . .

(more…)

Truth be told, 2020 was not the easiest year for concentrating on reading (or writing for that matter, which is why it took me so much longer than usual to get this post together). But it was a year filled with AMAZING books, and I am so grateful to every author on this list for their work, as well as many others whose stories helped me get through this year.

Cover images link to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Favorite Books of 2020

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso - Book Cover The Ikessar Falcon by K. S. Villoso - Book Cover

Books of the Year
1–2. The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1–2 by K. S. Villoso
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon
My Review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
Read Excerpts: Book One | Book Two

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and The Ikessar Falcon were both re-released by Orbit Books in 2020 after having been self published, and the first book in this series was my absolute favorite book of the year until I read the phenomenal sequel, which is even better.

Set in an epic fantasy world whose “worldbuilding is a love letter to the Philippines,” the series is narrated from the first-person perspective of Queen Talyien, who has one of the best, most vivid, distinct voices I have ever read. Her personality shines through every page, bringing the world and events to life, and her opening line hooked me immediately:

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

Alternating between a fast-paced main story and eloquent introspection, Talyien’s tale explores her past and the events that shaped her—primarily those set in motion by her father, a warlord whose civil war ended with his newborn daughter’s betrothal to her enemy’s young son—and the impact they had. Talyien has always carried the weight of being her father’s daughter and shouldered the burden of those duties, and I really loved how I kept wondering just how self aware she truly was as she told her story, both because it added character-focused suspense and seemed fitting for a protagonist who never got to just be herself.

As wonderful as The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is, The Ikessar Falcon takes the series to the next level (and I have been having the hardest time writing a review of it because it’s so amazing I don’t know how to even begin to properly do it justice). It expands on the world and characters, it’s better paced, and it has more magic, adventure, dragons, and revelations. I think this series is epic fantasy at its very best, mainly because of Talyien, a complex character who seems real. Even when I wanted to yell at her for her decisions, I wanted to cheer for her author because the ways she frustrated me felt so very true to Talyien.

For more about Queen Talyien, you can read K. S. Villoso’s 2020 Women in SF&F Month essay on her.

Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud - Cover Image

New Release of the Year
3. Court of Lions (Mirage #2) by Somaiya Daud
My Review of Mirage
Read Excerpts: Mirage | Court of Lions

Court of Lions was one of my top anticipated 2020 releases after reading Somaiya Daud’s excellent debut novel, Mirage, and I loved it every bit as much—maybe even a little more. This Moroccan-inspired science fiction duology follows Amani, a young woman the Emperor has taken from her home and family due to her uncanny resemblance to his heir. She is then trained to be the princess’ body double, and while she experiences the cruelty that made her father want someone to pretend to be her during public events, she also comes to understand her struggles and vulnerabilities as she walks in her shoes. Amani realizes the princess’s demeanor does not necessarily reflect her heart and that it may still be possible for her to decide to be the better version of herself and work toward being better than her father.

Both Mirage and Court of Lions are thoughtful, beautifully written books with a lot of depth. The writing and characterization are superb, particularly how they intertwine to create a lyrical voice perfectly encapsulating Amani’s insight, empathy, and poetic soul. She has compassion, inner strength, and determination, and she considers potential outcomes before taking risks—and decides that the good she can do with her unique position is worth the potential danger of joining the rebellion against the Empire. But it’s a delicate dance as she also comes to care for the Emperor’s heir, a lonely young woman unsure of who she is as a daughter of both the conquered and the conqueror, and begins to develop a complicated potential friendship with her. This relationship is the heart of the books, and I loved how well-developed both characters were—and how the princess became more dimensional, sympathetic, and likable without brushing away her worse actions.

Court of Lions is a fantastic conclusion that continues to explore this dynamic and expands on the world’s history and lore, particularly by revealing more about the tesleet birds. This duology is something rare and special with its gorgeous prose and richly developed characters and setting.

For more about why she used a futuristic setting for this story, read Somaiya Daud’s 2019 Women in SF&F Month essay titled “Ideologies of Space.”

The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso - Cover Image

4. The Obsidian Tower (Rooks & Ruin #1) by Melissa Caruso
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Obsidian Tower is the first book in a new epic fantasy series set in the same world as Melissa Caruso’s Sword and Fire trilogy (The Tethered MageThe Defiant HeirThe Unbound Empire). All three of those books were among my favorites during their respective publication years, and once again, Melissa Caruso has written one of the most absorbing books I read over the course of a year—and one that is especially notable for managing to thoroughly hook me during one of the times I’d most been struggling to read during the trash fire that was 2020.

Set about 150 years after the previous books, The Obsidian Tower follows Ryx, the granddaughter of a powerful Witch Lord. Given her heritage, Ryx should have awe-inspiring, life-sustaining magic like others in her family—but instead, she has to steer clear of plants, animals, and people because her power kills all that she touches. When she came of age, her grandmother made her the Warden of her castle with its Door to the mysterious black tower that tradition says must remain sealed, but everything goes wrong when a guest ambassador sneaks in, opens the Door, and dies by direct contact with Ryx when the latter tries to prevent her from further meddling.

This became one of those books that I could hardly put down—and better yet, I kept pondering the mysteries surrounding the Black Tower and Ryx’s magic and questioning which characters were trustworthy after I couldn’t avoid putting it down. The Obsidian Tower is an incredibly fun story with entertaining banter, plenty of family drama, and heartwarming friendships-in-the-making (and how I loved Whisper, the castle’s resident fox-like chimera).

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse - Cover Image

5. Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Read an Excerpt

Black Sun, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by the pre-Columbian Americas, shows what led to momentous events that took place in the holy city of Tova on the day of Convergence, when the winter solstice coincided with a solar eclipse. Though it’s not linear and does delve into previous years, it primarily focuses on the days nearing Convergence and follows four characters: a man whose mother told him he’d become a god, a sea captain with an affinity for water and a Song that can calm it, a Sun Priest in the midst of political intrigue and on the brink of betrayal, and a member of the Carrion Crow clan who has a giant crow companion.

Black Sun is fantasy storytelling at its best. It’s not fast-paced as it leads up to a big finale, but it’s an immersive book that had me riveted from start to finish. It’s a novel that feels much longer than it is, and I mean that as a compliment: there is so much worldbuilding and characterization packed into its pages that it’s awe-inspiring to realize it’s not a massive tome. As a corvid fan, I also loved that there was an avatar of a crow god and a crow rider, but my favorite character was the sea captain. (I knew I would be fond of her from her introduction, in which she woke up in an unfamiliar place and came to realize she was in jail…again.) This is an amazingly vivid book with a world and characters that feel real, further aided by details like the wonderful epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter.

The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty - Book Cover

6. The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3) by S. A. Chakraborty
Read an Excerpt/Listen to an Audio Sample

The Kingdom of Copper, the second book in the Daevabad Trilogy, was one of my favorite books of 2019 (and remains my favorite book in this series), and I also very much enjoyed the series conclusion. The trilogy starts with a con woman living in Cairo in the eighteenth century, not knowing why she has unusual healing abilities and can understand languages she’s never studied. Then she accidentally summons a djinn who recognizes her as a member of the powerful family he served and informs her she’s only half human. He brings her to the djinn city of Daevabad, which was ruled by her ancestors until they were overthrown by the current royal family, where she meets the only other character to have a perspective throughout all three books: the younger of the king’s sons, an idealistic warrior who is usually either ardently admired or ardently despised for his deeply held principles.

I love the blend of history and myth and how real the author made both, from the practice of non-magical human medicine to the politics and factions within Daevabad, and the characters and lush writing are fantastic. The relationship between the two primary characters is well developed whether they’re currently on friendlier or rockier terms, and the vivid yet accessible prose pulled me into their stories and the entertaining family drama. The Empire of Gold is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy, and it continues the trend of avoiding expected paths for characters in certain situations as it explores redemption and looking toward a more just world.

Omake by Karin Lowachee - Cover Image

7. Omake: Stories from the Warchild Universe by Karin Lowachee
My Review of Warchild (Warchild #1)
My Review of Burndive (Warchild #2)
My Review of Cagebird (Warchild #3)

Karin Lowachee’s Warchild series is character-driven science fiction at its very best, and it was wonderful to return to this universe and read more about these characters (and get a sneak peek at the next novel, Matryoshka, which focuses on Cagebird protagonist Yuri’s brother). Although a few of these stories are set before the novels, it would be best to read the previously published books first since these are largely character studies, many of which will not have the same impact without context. Karin Lowachee masterfully creates deep characters with distinct voices who have been through a lot of trauma—usually related to the war between humans and aliens and/or space pirates—and the worst of their experiences tends to be left unsaid in this collection, though understanding what they’ve been through helps understand who they are. I cannot recommend this series highly enough to fans of character-driven stories (but with the caveat that these do explore the effects of war on young people and content warnings include violence, sexual assault/rape, and child abuse/grooming).

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Book Cover

8. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My Review
Read an Excerpt

Silvia Moreno-Garcia intertwines Mexican history with the supernatural in her standalone Gothic horror novel following Noemí, a university student living in Mexico City in the 1950s. Noemí visits a mountain town inspired by the British-influenced town Real del Monte to check on her recently married cousin after she sent a letter rambling about poison, ghosts, and whispers in the walls of her new residence. There, Noemí finds herself staying in a creepy old mansion inhabited by a creepy family—both of which only become creepier the more time she’s in their presence.

Mexican Gothic keeps increasing the stakes with each chapter, growing more and more disturbing as Noemí learns more about the family her cousin married into and begins having strange visions and oddly realistic dreams herself. But as haunting as her experiences are, the revelations about how those horrors came to be are even more so, given that they were created because of an all-too-familiar disregard of others and their humanity. Mexican Gothic and its resourceful, loyal, determined heroine stuck with me and piqued my interest in reading more Gothic horror.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Book Cover

9. The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Bone Shard Daughter, the first book in an Asian-inspired epic fantasy trilogy, follows five different characters in an archipelago ruled by a mad-scientist-like Emperor who practices bone shard magic. His subjects are required to give him pieces of their bones that are then used to animate his constructs, creatures made from various sewn-together animal parts that follow his commands and help him run the Empire.

The five perspectives, which range from that of royalty to that of a bookseller who grew up on the streets, merge to show a bigger picture of what life is like in the Empire and the ill treatment of the common people. The Emperor’s daughter tries to regain her memories and uncover the secrets of her father’s bone shard magic while the bookseller gets herself and her girlfriend, a governor’s daughter, entangled in a revolution. Meanwhile, a woman awakens from a fog to wonder why she has no memories of life before the island she’s been living on with a group of people doing the same things every day, and a smuggler inadvertently gains a reputation as a legendary rescuer of children after he does so one time—and keeps agreeing to do so against his better judgment, largely due to the urging of the otter-kitten-like mystery animal he also rescued.

The opening lines of The Bone Shard Daughter made me want to read more, and I really appreciated how most of these stories did not feel like a beginning: these characters were already in the midst of interesting stories, and their situations just became more compelling from there. Although I also very much enjoyed the story of Lin sneaking through the castle and discovering the Emperor’s creepy secrets, my favorite story was that of the smuggler and the adorable animal companion who ends up bringing out the best in him—but in general, it follows characters who are trying to do their best and learn to do better in the process.

For more about the already established relationship between the governor’s daughter and the former street orphan, read Andrea Stewart’s 2020 Women in SF&F Month essay, “Happily Ever Aftermath.”

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood Book Cover

10. The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates #1) by A. K. Larkwood
Read an Excerpt

A. K. Larkwood’s debut novel, The Unspoken Name, is about an orc who was raised to be sacrificed to the Unspoken One—but when she’s about to meet her fate, a mage convinces her to come with him and live despite her concerns about upsetting the god. She trains as an assassin and serves the powerful, power-hungry mage who gave her a choice other than death, particularly by aiding him in his obsessive search for an artifact that would allow him to attain great knowledge.

The Unspoken Name drew me in immediately with its atmospheric depiction of life in the Shrine of the Unspoken One, and the different worlds explored via Gate-travel and the sweet romance that developed between the orc and a priestess were also highlights. But my favorite parts of this novel were the interactions between characters—particularly the dynamic between the main character and another one serving the mage, who despise each other but are often forced to work together anyway—and the frequent entertaining line of dialogue or narrative.

For more about why she chose to write about a non-human protagonist in The Unspoken Name, see A. K. Larkwood’s 2020 Women in SF&F Month guest post.