Give Me Shape-Shifting, Mind-Warping, Bone-Rattling, Blood-Letting
Modern life is messy and frightening—and at certain times, the best alternative is to disappear into a good book. Imagine a world where good triumphs over evil, magic obeys its mistress, and the world’s many savage tribes meet on the battlefield to decide their worlds’ fate. Spring 2017 brings many tempting fantasy escapes for readers, from dragons and mythical beasts to psychedelic adventures in parallel universes.
A. J. Smith
Head of Zeus
Softcover $14.95 (512pp)
Suffering from Game of Thrones withdrawals? The latest book in A. J. Smith’s twisted fantasy series, The Dark Blood, has enough renegade clerics, murderous assassins, and unholy pacts and feuds to soothe even the most passionate fan’s fever. With nearly one corpse per page, Smith races through this installment of the Long War cycle, leaving a bloody, impenitent smear in his wake.
Smith’s rule of thumb seems to be that “nothing is sacred,” and from the first chapter, he’s quick to start slitting throats. Rebellious religious sects, acting on behalf of the blighted, ancient gods, have divided into orders. They seek an albino Black cleric who threatens their order: Utha of Arnon, “pale-skinned, white-haired and terrifying.” Assisted by a younger priest and a Dokkalfar, a forest giant, Utha seeks to clear his name.
In this world—part Dungeons and Dragons and part Guillermo Del Toro fantasy—magic and reality blend seamlessly. It’s not surprising to learn how the world’s races mix, or what powers each character has inherited from what spirit or ritual. If anything, Smith’s cast is so diverse that it’s unsettling to come across a character who is merely mortal, and good with a sword.
Smith’s writing is dense and fast paced, and short on backstory. Although Smith spent twelve years in the world-building stage, there aren’t many surprises in the plot department. Revenge, old scores, sexual rivalry—the old favorites work here, too. Smith seems to delight in creating fascinating and hideous new monsters to pit against one another. Strong description makes the graphic action scenes come to life, with pages in the proverbial splatter zone.
Whatever glitters, in Smith’s world, is certainly not gold. He keeps it dark, and then blows out the torches, one by one.
Deborah A. Wolf
Hardcover $24.99 (320pp)
Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy is a powerful, compelling read that combines elements of epic fantasy with strong storytelling. Reminiscent of the classic fantasy novel Dune, The Dragon’s Legacy is an addictive start to a promising, exciting trilogy.
Sulema Ja’Akari of Aish Kalumm, a warrior and desert daughter, has finally completed her ritualistic naming ceremony. She’s eager to take her place among the ferocious women of her tribe, who consort with massive saber-toothed cats and use magic to protect their people. Wolf’s careful world building makes Sulema’s desert seem believable—there may be dreamshifters, but people still drink coffee in the morning, and mothers adore their sons. Sulema, excited to come of age, is the perfect protagonist to explore Atualon’s landscapes and cultures.
Sulema crosses paths with Jian, a child of the two-moon dawn who “imagined he would steal one of the Western barbarians’ dragon-faced ships and sail to the Twilight lands.” Their destinies mingle, and soon they’re adventuring together to the throne of the all-powerful Dragon King. Telling the story from multiple viewpoints, Wolf unveils Atualon’s many cultures, magics, and rituals in a way that is both lyrical and satisfying.
Wolf lingers in description, painting scenes that include both familiar and fantastical elements. Coffee, with fish-and-jiinberry pemmican? Yum. There’s little backstory—instead, the narrative is immersive. Wolf leaves generous room for the trilogy’s forthcoming volumes and never paints herself into a corner. The Dragon’s Legacy is similar to the Prydain Chronicles in this way, and has the same sense of urgency. After all, the future is at stake—not just Sulema and Jian’s, but the fate of their world as well.
Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy is a welcome, desert-scented breath of fresh air, worth devouring, again and again.
Peter S. Beagle
Hardcover $19.95 (176pp)
Fans of The Last Unicorn will recognize Peter S. Beagle’s signature style immediately in his new novel, In Calabria. Touching gently on themes of faith, mythology, and poetry, In Calabria is a modern fairy tale that shows what happens when true magic meets modern technology.
Claudio Bianchi has, for lack of a better phrase, put himself out to pasture. Although healthy and only forty-seven, he has no passion aside from farming and poetry. Beagle takes a close third-person perspective and spins Bianchi’s story slowly and deliberately. The lovely use of metaphor, allusions, and imagery make the details of In Calabria shine like opals in a riverbed.
The pregnant unicorn, of course, is the novel’s fantasy element. Bianchi sees her one night in his melon patch, “moving with notable care around the fragile arbors, never touching the vines, but nibbling what weeds it could find on the cold ground.” Bianchi thinks the unicorn may be a vision or an omen, but when she reappears, visibly pregnant, Bianchi prepares to cross the divide between fantasy and reality. His poetry blooms, along with a strong connection to a woman from his village—despite his desire to be left alone, he can’t hide from the unicorn’s strange blessing.
Although Beagle’s characteristically dry humor brings a few chuckles, In Calabria leans more towards magical realism than high fantasy. Some passages evoke prose poetry, with paragraph-long, labyrinthine sentences. The action is slow, with plenty of exposition and backstory between scenes. This builds anticipation, though the suspense can be killing, too. What will happen when the secret of the unicorn makes it to the paparazzi’s ears? Is the world still welcoming to magical creatures? Beagle returns to familiar, welcome territory and invites readers to get lost for a while.
Softcover $17.00 (301pp)
When Cthulu calls, Department Zero listens. Paul Crilley’s zingy, hilarious new book takes a cheeky swipe at H. P. Lovecraft, Los Angeles, single fatherhood, and pretty much everything else. Peppered with pulpy slang and enough one-liners to choke a film-noir detective, Department Zero is a fun change of pace from an often-too-serious fantasy list.
Who doesn’t love a self-conscious, foul-mouthed, down-on-his-luck antihero? Harry Priest has failed at absolutely everything he’s tried, and he knows it. A full-time crime scene and corpse clean-up specialist, he still can’t stomach the smell of rotting flesh. His marriage has failed. And when he’s recruited to top-secret Department Zero, a supernatural crime-fighting team, he’s not totally sure he can handle the swarms of demonic spiders.
Or the feats of derring-do. He’s no Steve McQueen, but Harry has nothing to risk—except his custody arrangement. Whether Harry believes the parallel world he’s stepped into or not, he’s playing for keeps. Spear of Destiny? Cult of Azathoth? Whatever, Harry thinks. He just wants to get home to he can say goodnight to his daughter.
Crilley keeps things light and punchy, and to Harry’s horror, the monsters keep on coming. Harry takes on every obstacle in the known world—and apparently every one in the unknown world too. Crilley throws in some excellent references to Douglas Adams and at least one conspiracy theory, just to keep the pages turning. He’s a wonderful, natural writer, also the author of The Osiris Curse and The Lazarus Game.
Part video game, part graphic novel, Department Zero is juicy, hairy, squishy, satisfying fun.
The Overlook Press
Hardcover $26.95 (320pp)
Satanic rituals, vestments dripping with blood, and a battlefield of corpses. It’s World War I, and the Inquisition is still hard at work protecting the Vatican from the heretics in its midst. This is the rich soil that Tarn Richardson’s paranormal fantasy The Fallen sinks its roots into. This second installment in the Darkest Hand trilogy keeps the pages turning.
The Darkest Hand, a brotherhood of traitorous priests, has gathered to begin resurrecting Satan’s army on the Russian front. Their ritual is powerful, but only sets the apocalyptic wheels in motion. On the other side, the Inquisition tracks the dark forces, attempting to find their source. The only clue is in a secret letter that both sides are eager to find—and the outcome will decide more than the outcome of the war in Europe.
The task falls on Poldek Tacit, a determined but unorthodox inquisitor. He’s less interested in redeeming himself than protecting Isabella, an old flame who helps him track a trail of hideously mutilated corpses to the center of the conspiracy in the Vatican. The Antichrist’s sacrificial victims are everywhere Tacit and Isabelle turn. Not for the faint of heart, The Fallen continually ups the ante—and the body count—as Tacit draws closer to the conspiracy’s center.
Richardson is a disciplined, focused writer who balances quick pacing with ghoulish descriptions. He uses deft historical and architectural detail to paint a picture of 1915 Italy. Packed with vivid descriptions and heart-pumping action, The Fallen is a twisted, thrilling nightmare.
Stephen H. Provost
Softcover $14.95 (260pp)
Lost loved ones live on in our memories—at least, that’s what people say. For salty, sarcastic Minerva Rus, memory has the power to resurrect the people she’s lost. Part psychedelic journey, part conspiracy theory, Memortality is an unforgiving fantasy about unfulfilled desire and overcoming unimaginable obstacles.
After a tragic traffic accident that costs Minerva the use of her lower body and her best friend, Raven, Minerva learns that she can summon the dead through her memory. Her power gives her access to a world she didn’t know existed, but it also makes her a target for people who want to misuse her gift. Minerva, who uses a wheelchair, considers her first enemy to be her own unreliable body. However, as she learns to trust herself, she loses her self-hatred.
It’s refreshing to find a disabled main character who isn’t limited by her wheelchair, although Memortality does follow ableist tropes. When she’s reunited with her dead best friend, Raven, Minerva stops thinking of herself as “broken” and begins to see herself as powerful and desirable. Together, the friends face off against a government agent who pursues them through the labyrinth of Minerva’s imagination.
Punchy and fast paced, Memortality reads like a graphic novel. Its short chapters are exciting, well plotted, and compelling. Provost, a reporter, is a no-nonsense writer who delivers on the action without ruminating too much on character motivation or description. His style makes the trippy landscapes and mind-bending plot points more believable and adds a thrilling edge to the novel.
As Minerva regains her confidence, she finds out what she’s truly capable of. As she learns to use her incredible powers, she explores the depths of her mind in this vivid crossover fantasy.
Elisa S. Amore
Softcover $15.99 (428pp)
Love and death, permanently entwined. That’s the central image of Elisa S. Amore’s passionate paranormal romance Touched: The Caress of Fate. This Twilight-flavored fantasy explores the intersection between mortal lives and the Angels, Executioners, and other celestial guardians that hover around them, unseen. Translated from the Italian by Leah D. Janeczko, Touched is both sweet and dark.
When the veil between their two worlds is brushed aside, Evan, an Angel of Death, and Gemma, a high-school girl, are brought together. Evan isn’t a messenger from Heaven, though—he’s come to take her life. Instead of “transitioning” Gemma, he disappears, leaving her longing for another glimpse. Cupid and Psyche? Romeo and Juliet? Amore confidently plays with the plot’s many twists, adding layers of fantasy and suspense.
Amore, a seasoned writer, knows her audience. Although Touched isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the genre, it caresses all the right nerve endings. Gemma is intelligent but accepting of her lover’s supernatural origins. She’s still a child in some ways—excited for prom—but eager to grow up and certain that she’s meant to do great things. Amore’s wonderful scenes of Gemma’s home life and her interactions with her schoolmates read as true to life. Dialog and description are well balanced and make Gemma’s passion for Evan feel honest and earned.
Touched is smart, self-aware, and perfectly tuned to what works in adult and middle-reader fantasy.
Softcover $16.00 (224pp)
Family myth and superstition mingle in the Ozarks in the talented new novel The Legend of the Albino Farm. One part Bridge to Terabithia, one part Bag of Bones, Steve Yates’s novel is full of haunting scenes and stories that blur the line between reality and nightmare.
As Hettienne Sheehy comes of age in the late 1940s, it’s clear that she’s not just coping with the swells and strains of puberty: “she suffered episodes of catatonia, somnambulism, and jags of mystifying talk.” At times, she’s an ordinary, pretty girl; at others, especially at night, she seems possessed. Reviving from these spells, she shares goosebump-inducing stories about strange, pale people in black, listening to music that sounds “like a huge grandfather clock flying apart while some maniac wallops it with a cello.” At the same time, her sexuality awakens and her concept of the world changes. It’s a complete transformation, inside and out. Her dream world and the real world of the Ozarks intermingle, taking Hettienne and her cousins into dark new places.
Yates’s writing is confident and controlled. The lingo of the 1950s, as well as historic details, makes The Albino Farm almost disturbingly believable. Alternately wholesome and spine-tingling, the novel is full of surprises. Yates isn’t afraid to take risks, and the reward is an unusual, smart paranormal fantasy that effortlessly blends elements of the midcentury Midwest with classic ghost-story imagery.
In the end, it’s not Hettienne who’s the source of the family’s trouble—it’s something deeper. The Legend of the Albino Farm is satisfying, suspenseful, and full of good old-fashioned scares.
Claire Rudy Foster