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February 21, 2020

5 Books for Fans of Fantasy Novels

by MK French

Fantasy novels can be fun or dark, but almost always they are thought-provoking. Young adult fantasy novels can usually be enjoyed by all ages of readers, as is the case with the two on this list. As enjoyable as fantasy plots can be, it is often the world-building that sets them apart from other genres.

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Tales of the Westland (vol. 1 & 2) by J. B. Forsyth

Tale of the Westland vol 1
March 2017; ebook (197 pages); fantasy
Volumes One and Two each contain five short stories in the world of the Absence series, though they would still stand alone without having read them first. (Read the review of those two novels.) We see Della again, and her ability to astral project and be "absent" from her body, as well as the other characters. Some of the stories have a very dark cast to them because the Wilderness in this world has always been dangerous. There had also been a lot of intrigue in the city of Ironwood, and several characters from the novels had malevolent intentions.

In the Volume One opener, "Witchling," it follows the witchling, a poppet that brings bad luck to its current bearer according to superstition. The story touches on all the lives that it affects until it comes full circle. There is a bit more understanding as to the nuances of the characters if you have read the two Absence books, but it isn't necessary. We still see the ebb and flow of village life, and how pervasive superstitious fear can be, even in those who state they're above such things.

Tales of the Westland vol 2
June 2018; ebook (137 pages); dark fantasy
Other stories rely much less on character recognition and focus more on everyday events or the underbelly of society. Exorcism, declaring that an old woman losing her memory is a witch, and offering appeasement to witches in the woods. I really enjoyed that one, actually. "The Witch of Winter Wood" is within that world but could be anywhere. It's more about a family and holding to traditional beliefs, with a tinge of the supernatural before the twist ending.

Volume Two opens with "Anodyne," which continues Harlow's story as he manipulates ghosts to con people. The ghost is not the pushover that he thought she was until we get to an ending that fits the crimes he committed. The story "The Pumpkin King" is a small-town horror story that reminds me of early Stephen King novels, and others are inherently sad for some of the people involved. Children have no say in what happens to them, after all, so it's especially difficult to see how confused they are by superstitions or loss. In all, I think I like the stories in Volume Two better, for all of the sadness and pain present. They linger on more, and I keep hoping for a better future for the people involved.

Buy Tales of the Westland vol 1 and vol 2 at Amazon

Nameless Queen by Rebecca McLaughlin

Nameless Queen
January 2020; Crown Books; 978-1524700263
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); YA fantasy
In the city are the Royals at the top, then the Legals, and at the bottom of everything are the Nameless, who are not legally subject to the laws and can be subjected to any punishment that the legal citizens can imagine. The King has just died, and the royal tattoo is passed to the heir that he names. Instead of it being his daughter Esther, it's a Nameless girl. Now she's swept up into the intrigue in the city, with few who believe she is capable of rule, and there is a deadline for peacefully passing along the tattoo to another person... unless it's taken by force.

The world-building for the magic is fascinating. It was limited to those with Names, so that reading auras, inducing thoughts and hallucinations and receiving them cannot be used on the Nameless. While Coin is our entry into this world, waking up in the streets and then hearing the hullaballoo, it gradually gives us access to the wider world as she's introduced to it and forced to learn how the upper classes work. The entire underclass is ignored and exploited, and there are limits to how high the Legals can reach. Even within the royalty are difficulties in figuring out who to trust. It's more than just one class vs. another, though that certainly plays a role as the novel progresses. Characters have their own motivations, and Coin is thrust into the center of it and forced to react. As much as she is used to attacking just long enough to run away and live another day, now she has to learn how to strategize.

I was drawn into this novel and absolutely devoured it, staying up later than I intended to in order to finish this. While the ending of the novel is neatly done and there isn't likely to be a sequel, I sincerely hope that there will be. I would love to see what happens in future works!

Buy Nameless Queen at Amazon

Diamond City by Francesca Flores

Diamond City
January 2020; Wednesday Books; 978-1250220448
audio, ebook, print (400 pages); YA epic fantasy
Aina SolĂ­s trained as an assassin after her parents' murder. She is given a big job by her ruthless and amoral boss, but everything crashes down around her. The blood magic frowned upon in the city is still practiced, and the Steels in charge have much more planned for the city and the wider world around it.

The world is richly built, and we start off seeing Aina's skill and strength as a Blade, one of Kohl's best assassins. She is dependent on his approval after six years of training, and her goal is to have a tradehouse of her own to prove that she isn't the addict street kid that she had been when he had found her. Diamonds are used in blood magic rituals as well as jewelry and adornments for the Diamond Guards, elite warriors that patrol the city and enforce its rules. Of course, the poorer areas have somewhat more leeway, though they also have fewer rights if caught by one. There are also gangs outside of Kohl's control, and the underground markets that the Guards don't know about. This is the world that Aina knows how to navigate in, with friends and associates as well as her reputation as a Blade. It's all ripped away abruptly, and much of the rest of the novel is her way to find that sense of importance again.

It isn't what she thinks it is, and there are quite a few revelations along the way, as well as setbacks. Her role in the wider city politics isn't just illegally selling raw diamonds for the Inosen blood mages or as an assassin, though it takes her a long time to understand what that role is. Not to spoil it, it's definitely worth the journey with her to get there. In addition, the flashes of other countries and cultures woven throughout the novel are beautiful. Some of it is understated, appearances or food, some of it plays a bigger role. The Inosen especially figure here, because of their role with magic and the hunt for them, but the religion associated with it as well is beautifully done. The world-building here is detailed and immersive, and I'm so glad there will be a second novel to complete this duology. This finishes neatly, with enough loose ends to fuel a second novel, but I definitely didn't want to leave this world when I got to the last page.

Buy Diamond City at Amazon

The Unwilling by Kelly Braffet

The Unwilling
February 2020; MIRA; 978-0778309406
audio, ebook, print (576 pages); epic fantasy
Lord Elban is the Lord of the City and holds everyone around him as if they were pawns to move around. That includes his eldest son Gavin, who is to be groomed as his successor, as well as Judah, the foundling that has ties to Gavin. Both would be expendable if Elban found his second son acceptable, which he doesn't, so all of them have to fall in line with Elban's plans. But outside of his palace walls, the commoners hold the Children in esteem, and a healer from the provinces has goals that include Judah.

There is a lot of abuse in this book. Judah and Gavin were both tortured as children because of the mystical tie they share, where one would experience the same injury or physical condition that the other has. The torture was intended to teach them to remain stoic in the face of pain so that no one would ever know about the bond. Judah is disdained, whispered about, nearly assaulted, and further physically tortured. Theron is laughed at for being an asthmatic tinkerer instead of the physically "perfect" son like Gavin is, and Gavin is essentially being groomed to be as callous and cruel as his father. Elly, his betrothed since they were eight, is sidelined on multiple occasions, and also came from a background of abuse. She was literally told to think of herself as furniture for others to move around to their convenience. In addition, animals are casually beaten or worn down for fun, "hunts" involve casual cruelty, and no one is immune from this kind of barbarous treatment. The elite courtiers don't care about the populace at large, and the main healer agrees with them that they're the first to die in plagues and the entire city is better off for it.

If you're able to get past that, there are many plots, double-crossings and what seems like meandering as the story progresses. There are several different groups who have plans in place, and sometimes those plans are at cross purposes. The only thing they seem to agree on is that Judah is important, and that they need her to do what they want in order to have their plan succeed. Some of the plans don't get explained until the end, and even then it isn't very detailed. I feel sorry for all of the suffering in this story; it's a very bleak world with few periods of brightness. Judah is tortured and twisted about, and seems to always react to others' statements and plans without thinking of her own needs. Elly and Theron characters I feel for the most, and there is little positive that I feel for Gavin. By the time we get to the end of the novel, I feel little positive emotion for most of the characters, especially those that were never meant to be sympathized with. It's a long journey until the end, in a well thought out but cruel universe.

Buy The Unwilling at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband and three young children.

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