The fantasy novel The Almost Queen begins in the aftermath of eight years of war, when Aulen is soaked in blood. Terran comes to its throne having lost his entire family in the war. He most wants to forge peace, both between the remaining factions, and between the humans and witches banished to Outerland.
Ellara is a light witch. She fought in the war to ensure the freedom of the witches, backing whichever self-declared kings promised to release them from their banishment. Taller than humans, and possessing powerful abilities and green skin, witches are feared and loathed by humans; for now, their exile protects them from genocide.
When Ellara is captured and learns Terran is Aulen’s new king, she requests an audience with him, presenting the token he gave her a decade earlier when she saved his life at school. She offers him a deal: her freedom, and the freedom of her people, in exchange for her service as his sorceress and an alliance with the witches.
Terran, under pressure to marry and produce an heir, counters with an offer of marriage. Though Ellara swears she can never love him, and Terran is certain he can never fully trust her, they agree to a marriage of convenience. But not everyone in Aulen wants peace. The couple learns how to lower their defenses against one another, working to fight on a united front.
This battle-scarred world is built in perfect balance, with enough details to ensnare attention while skirting exposition. While Ellara and Terran’s relationship develops quickly, their stories are shared in a more deliberate manner, within their alternating perspectives. In some ways, they warm to one another more easily than they are able to make peace with themselves.
With a focus on embracing scars and maintaining hope within heartache, The Almost Queen is an intimate fantasy romance.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (August 27, 2021)
In Kwon Yeo-sun’s novel Lemon, the unsolved murder of a high school student reverberates through the years.
Hae-on was killed on a summer night in 2002. But for those left behind, this was just the beginning. After the initial shock wears off, Hae-on’s loved ones come to realize that even a new normal is impossible to achieve. The memory of her cold beauty and of her violent death drive her family and friends to desperate measures in search of a peace they will never find.
There was always something ethereal about Hae-on: her beauty was intimidating, her mind half in this world and half in another. Her younger sister, Da-on, was friendlier but ordinary. After her sister’s death, Da-on, egged on by her mother, falls into obsession. She wears clothes that resemble the outfit Hae-on died in and even gets plastic surgery to look more like her. Later, her obsessions take more sinister form, with life-shattering consequences.
Da-on’s narrative is interspersed with those of other people who knew Hae-on. Taerim, the girlfriend of a former suspect, uses Christianity to cope with traumatic events and her own dark past. Sanghui, one of Da-on’s school friends, only sees her twice after the murder, each time gleaning unsettling clues about how badly Hae-on’s family has coped with the loss.
Through skillful, emotional prose, the novel offers tantalizing hints about the truth without giving away all of its secrets. The real horror lies in what remains unsaid, including the real possibility that both Da-on and Taerim possess information that could bring peace to the other—and they will take that information to the grave.
Lemon is a haunting novel about women trapped in an endless cycle of trauma and grief.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (August 27, 2021)
Matt Madden uses multiple methods of visual storytelling in the surreal, inventive graphic novel Ex Libris.
A troubled person enters a room that holds a bookshelf stocked with comics and graphic novels. Wondering about the provenance of the books, they undertake a mission to “become a true reader” of comics. They have no memory of coming to the room, a situation echoed in a story they read about a person marooned at a remote desert outpost.
As the book proceeds, the person sees other echoes in different kinds of graphic stories, including superhero, horror, and romance titles. Most of the stories seem to involve people who are “trapped or stuck somewhere,” and their pages serve as clever tributes to their respective genres, with appropriate fonts, colors, and art styles. Humor comes through as they emphasize hallmarks, like the angsty problems of money, love, and adulthood in a “serious” graphic novel.
The unnamed person suffers the effects of a breakup with M., a conceit that keeps them mysterious while still providing an intimate point of view. A panel reads: “That’s exactly what M. said —no, what I said… Well, one of us said it.” Inspired by a story about a witch who escapes prison by climbing into her own drawing, they take control of the larger story and leave the room.
This elegant showcase of graphic storytelling displays deep knowledge of the language of comics. The book’s metafictional forays always serve the unnamed reader’s tale, too; the subtle build of the mood and suspense around them results in a dazzling graphic novel.
PETER DABBENE (August 27, 2021)
Andy Zuliani’s haunting and compact debut novel weaves the stories of four troubled people into an unsettling view of the future.
The book begins in the close future with Ana and Win, a best friend driver and scrubber pair. Ana, a former subway driver, turned to driving after a tragedy; she became friends with Win on the job. Now, one drives through cities and suburbs taking pictures, while the other “scrubs” the human faces out of the pictures, so that they can be presented to those who want to change and gentrify the areas.
The two accept an assignment on an underdeveloped island off of the Pacific Northwest that boasts a new resort, hoping to treat it like something of a holiday. However, the island community is more than it seems. Its eclectic community includes a longtime resident, Lena, who’s an oceanographer and climatologist, and is convinced of an impending catastrophic event, and a millionaire fashion mogul, Kitt, who believes that the island surfers and activists are out to get him and prevent his construction efforts. After a couple of accidents, their lives converge, and island life becomes unsettled for all.
Ana, Lena, Kitt, and Win have complex back stories that impact their decisions in the present, although some of their decisions are not fully addressed. However, the setting, with its powerful waves and unforgiving rocks, becomes like its own character, a kind of force that forces the characters to act, though often in seeming opposition to each other. Within that space, the town council, hippies, old timers, surfers, and moguls all become part of the compelling, finely drawn landscape as well.
With four emotionally complicated characters and a cunning setting, Last Tide’s detailed story of gentrification and the power of money pales before the stunning power of nature.
CAMILLE-YVETTE WELSCH (August 27, 2021)
A boy takes a dog for a walk through magical realms in this wordless seek-and-find book. The illustrations are an intricate delight for both children and their helpers, while finding the boy—in his red baseball cap—and his fluffy white dog remains an age-appropriate challenge. In the spirit of scavenger-hunt books, the illustrations are busy—a cluttered curio shop; an underwater playroom—but a fantastical twist makes this title a unique addition to the genre.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (October 8, 2021)