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October 15, 2020

4 New & Notable Fantasy Novels

by MK French

I read a lot of fantasy novels, both for adults and young adults. If you love fantasy as much as I do, I have four recently released novels you'll want to read now.
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Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black Sun
October 2020; Gallery / Saga Press; 978-1534437678
audio, ebook, print (464 pages); epic fantasy
The winter solstice is a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare event considered the unbalancing of the world. On a ship bound for the holy city of Tova, the captain Xiala has a gift that can calm the seas or unsettle minds. Her only passenger is the blind Serapio, a young man described as harmless. With a description like this, it's highly unlikely that he is.

Black Sun is the first of a trilogy exploring pre-Colombian culture and myth. The great city of Tova has its priestly elite beneath the Sun Priest, a title currently held by the baseborn Naranpa. The great clans are named after the animal gods they worship, all of whom pay tribute to the tower at Tova. There is intrigue surrounding Naranpa, who despite her origins remains idealistic about the role of the priests and their need to serve the city. Our other POV characters are Xiala and Serapio; Xiala is an exile from her seafaring people but still able to use her Song to soothe the open sea that is otherwise too dangerous to sail, and Serapio had been trained since age twelve to make him the vessel of the Carrion Crow.

There is a layered history and culture here, as our three main characters are caught up in a greater plot than they know. Nara has been isolated in the tower, becoming an academic, and Xiala never much cared for gods when she keeps gaining a job as ship captain and then losing it in spectacular fashion. Serapio had long since figured out what his fate was to be and accepted it from the start. Along the way to the conclusion of this novel, we see flashes of different ethnic groups and traditions, different gods, magic, and shape changing. Each chapter starts with an epigraph about the people in Tova or the beliefs of the Crow Clan, adding to the weight of history behind the events of the novel.

We do have a complete arc for this story, with enough questions left over to fuel the rest of a trilogy. This entire book is beautifully written and will linger in your mind long after you finish it.

Buy Black Sun at Amazon

The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

The Midnight Bargain
October 2020; Erewhon; 978-1645660071
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); historical fantasy
Beatrice has the ability to cast spells, but young women aren't allowed to study magic and create bonds with spirits to become full mages until they're past childbearing years. She has no interest in marriage, and only wants to study. Making a pact would eliminate her marriage potential. It all goes wrong, but her rival also needs to make a pact with a spirit. The choice to remain a celibate Mage is also made more difficult when the wealthy Ianthe Lavan understands her and loves her for herself. If she marries him, her family will recoup their lost fortune and she will lose her magic. If she rejects him, she will study and lose all social standing. Whatever she chooses, she will regret the road not taken.

As with other books Polk has written, the language is gorgeous and layered, with a lot of thought put into every phrase. It looks effortless and natural, pulling you into the world faster than you realize. This is a Regency or Victorian styled society, and Chasland is intensely patriarchal. There are good reasons to fear a pregnant sorceress, as unbound spirits would love the opportunity to inhabit the fetus, and their magic would be impossible to control as that child grows. Men lockdown women immediately upon marriage and her wants are always secondary to his. Even in love matches such as Beatrice's parents, this is the case. Beatrice has an impressive magical ability, but all men see are her family connections, ability to bear sons, and whether she can serve their interests. Of course, she has no interest in this kind of relationship! She still yearns for love and a family, and Ianthe is more progressive than Chaslander men by virtue of living in an area where birth control is common.

In contrast with Beatrice, Ysbeta has zero interest in marriage, having children, or a romantic relationship at all. Her goal is knowledge itself, and to disseminate the lost magic styles. This is great aromantic or asexual representation and doesn't diminish her character at all. Her goals certainly play up the differences in magic, cultures between countries, and the ways that women were constrained in her own more liberal country. There is a strong feminist current with Beatrice and Ysbeta, both determined to make their own way and further the talents they have. Beatrice's romance with Ianthe isn't as well fleshed out, so the declarations of love don't feel as heartfelt as her entreaty to study magic. The story took a few unexpected turns along the way, and the final third of the book proceeded at a fairly rapid pace. The deadlines imposed on the women were sudden, accelerating their timetable and pushing forward to the end. This novel was impossible for me to put down, and I enjoyed it very much.

Buy The Midnight Bargain at Amazon

The Fifth Kingdom by Lisa M. James

The Fifth Kingdom
February 2020; Indie; 978-1650160542
ebook, print (363 pages); sword & sorcery
This is a compilation of the four novellas in The Fifth Kingdom Series: A Whisper of Shadows, A Castle of Ashes, A Realm Forgotten, and The One True Queen. In this series, the Four Kingdoms exist in harmony. A prophecy means that Princess Lucinda of the East Kingdom might pose a threat to that harmony, and that her life is entwined with that of Prince Matthew of the West Kingdom. The legend of the fifth kingdom states that its queen, who died tragically, will wreak terrible vengeance on the other kingdoms, destroying them.

Princess Lucinda has the ability to control elements, and her father sees it as a curse. The West Kingdom instead sees it as a gift, and plans to nurture and train her abilities. Eventually, the legend of the Fifth Kingdom and Queen Nycilla is told, and how the other four kingdoms betrayed her out of fear. Lucinda is believed to be her reincarnation, and her frightening dreams are memories that have to coalesce. Prince Matthew, to whom she's drawn to, is the reincarnation of Queen Nycilla's love, Prince Thomas, who was tortured and eventually killed.

Chapters are short, so even though this is four novels in one, it's a fairly quick read and they blend together easily. Overall it follows a lot of fantasy novel tropes, with the young girl possessing magic powers and a destiny she has to fulfill. Her chosen husband has a destiny of his own and can trigger memories of the past to return. People that were dismissed as love interests will still hang around, and the patriarchal societies are still frightened of a woman in charge. I didn't always get a good sense of Lucinda or Matthew in the beginning, or why they were so drawn to each other other than the reincarnations. When there are dangers within the kingdom and with spirits of the past trying to tear them apart, I don't quite feel the same emotional intensity that they do.

I would put this as a YA fantasy series based on the ages of the protagonists in book one, as well as the fact that they have many coming of age milestones to move through: adolescence, individuation, family discord, first jobs, romantic love, marriage, and forging a future. Given how some YA stories have more sophisticated plotting than this series, advanced middle-grade readers might enjoy this series as well.

Buy The Fifth Kingdom at Amazon

Spellcrest Academy - Year One by Michael Pierce

Spellcrest Academy Year One
April 2020; Indie; 979-8634973463
ebook, print (764 pages); urban fantasy
In helping an elderly woman, Maeve Rhodes receives a tattoo across her chest and a host of powers she can't control. She has the opportunity to attend Spellcraft Academy, a prestigious place to learn where she is partnered with characters and crushes on her senior advisor. Aside from this, she soon discovers there are plots against her to get those powers she received, as well as a magical war she had no idea about.

This omnibus is a collection of books one through three of the Spellcrest Academy series, covering the first year of the academy: Spellcrest Academy, Crestfallen, and Crystallize. Maeve is the classic character that is suddenly thrust into a new world she knows nothing about, then is sent off to a magical school to learn about new powers dumped into her lap. There's a whole genre of academy books in urban fantasy, and this slots neatly into that collection. I'm glad I read this as the omnibus; books build on information from the prior ones, so you can't skip straight into the story without being really confused, and book one is so much worldbuilding that I didn't feel the same level of threat that the characters did.

Growing up in the foster care system, Maeve is firmly attached to her younger brother Finley and won't attend school without him, so she transfers magical ability to him so they both can attend the Academy. Because they're both first years, we get an introduction into the magical world, the creatures that live in it, the kinds of magic, and even the structure of the school. The danger shows up pretty rapidly in the first book, and I raced through the book until the end. This is where having an omnibus is a good thing because I could go straight to book two after the devastating ending for Maeve.

Book Two, Crestfallen, picks up soon after the first book ends. Instead of rooming with Nym and Razielle for the second trimester of the year, she's given her own room. Maeve doesn't think she can actively participate in classes after the end of book one, but she remains very intense and often angry. This fuels her ability to summon magic for spells; it definitely gets her into trouble and makes me sigh and roll my eyes at her a lot. Yes, she's seventeen and has no formal training prior to this, but she has such a chip on her shoulder that she can't appreciate help or even keep her head down to avoid attracting further notice of bullies when she knows there's a war. There are more revelations, which are expounded further in Book Three; it calls into question a lot of things that Maeve knew about herself, her family, and the people around her. I feel it also paints the Headmistress in an even worse light.

Maeve remains brash and likely to throw a punch more often than she is to sit still and think, but she does grow and change over the course of this arc of books. She still isn't quite eighteen at the end of this series, so keep that in mind if you get twitchy about teenagers getting frisky. Nothing is detailed, but it's mentioned. Overall, this omnibus is a solid start, and I like that she actually has training and attends her classes to improve her skill and fight for the friends and family that she makes.

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, three young children, and a golden retriever. 

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  1. The premise of The Midnight Bargain is really interesting, thanks for sharing.