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January 10, 2021

6 New Fantasy Novels to Read This Month

by MK French

You know that I love a good fantasy novel, and this month there are several great stories coming out. I don't want you to miss any of them so I've highlighted 5 fantasy books that will come out later this month and 1 that you can pick up today. I hope you enjoy them, too.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. Free books were provided for an honest review.

At the Gates and Other Stories by Patrick Samphire

At the Gates and Other Stories
January 2021; Five Fathoms Press; 979-8577847609
ebook, print (370 pages); anthology
This is a collection of sixteen short stories in different fantasy worlds. Each story has a little forward giving us Patrick Samphire’s thought process behind the story, then the story itself begins. The title story, “At The Gates,” details Grace’s struggle to save an abandoned dog and give justice to the tenant in her home that her would-be stepfather wants to throw out. She’s told repeatedly she can’t save everyone, and she only wants to save her dog, who she named Hope. It’s a small, everyday kind of story, and the thought of Grace saving Hope is a wonderful one to have. “Five Things of Beauty” follows, and is a quiet, melancholic story with an ending I didn’t expect at the start. For such a short story, it still gives quite the sucker-punch at the end. This start pretty much establishes the theme for the rest of the book: the fantastic elements and everyday magic just point out and enhance the relationships that people have with each other. These stories ultimately feature magic, but they're not about magic.

While Patrick is a little hard on himself for how he wrote Benji in “Uncle Vernon’s Lie,” his anxiety is very relatable as he goes to visit his uncle and is unsure about everything new around him. Vernon’s words also resonate: “The world’s a frightening place. But it’s also wonderful. You can’t have one without the other. You just have to go poking into the corners to find the wonderful things.” It has a bittersweet ending when we figure out what the lie of the title actually is, and it’s such a beautifully written story. Similarly, elements of grief and loss feature heavily in "Dawn, By The Light of A Barrow Fire" and "Camelot," with poignant endings. Loss is difficult to deal with, and sometimes the characters don't deal with it at all.

As a fan of fractured fairy tales, "The Glass Slipper" is a fun and interesting take on the ways that fairy tales can be twisted into new stories. They take on a life of their own after a fashion, and in this tale, the Path is almost literal in its need to reach the conclusion of the story. There are also stories based on mythology and ancient history, from Greek-influenced "The Land Beyond Thule" and Egyptian history for "The Land of Reeds." It's sad, the loss that plagues these stories and the ones that close the book; pain and suffering seem to fuel the otherworldly elements of these stories.

This is a wonderful collection of stories, with glimpses into other worlds just beyond our normal day-to-day.

The Brass Queen by Elizabeth Chatsworth

The Brass Queen
January 2021; Camcat Publishing; 978-0744300093
ebook, print (464); steampunk
In a steampunk world, Lady Constance Haltwhistle sells illegal firearms as “The Brass Queen” to keep her estate paid for, but will lose it all if she doesn’t marry. Losing time to do so, she throws herself a lavish party to attract a noble spouse. Instead, she meets the inept spy J.F. Trusdale, following the scientist that developed an invisibility serum. Unfortunately, an airship crashes through the ceiling and kidnaps the scientist, putting his formula in the hands of countries willing to create an invisible army. Constance and Trusdale have to work together to stop them.

The Brass Queen is billed as being in line with the Parasol Protectorate series or the Invisible Library series, and I can see why. I loved Constance’s voice from the beginning, where she muses on alternate dimensions because her behavior at a ball draws all the wrong kinds of attention, she’s wearing a chain mail corset and literally runs smack into Truesdale. There are times when she’s overbearing and almost unlikable, but she comes across as well-meaning despite that. She simply steamrollers over conversations to get her own point across, which is exactly why she isn’t married and has no real friends other than scientists who also tend to avoid social niceties. When we meet her family members and hear more about her father, I completely understand how she got that way. 

Some of the advisors to this version of Queen Victoria are multicultural, which is a fun little addition to the story, as is the fact that she loves to design firearms and flamethrowers. Bumbling police work and the use of phrenology aside, I love the touches that really solidify this as a novel set in 1897, though apparently there’s quite a lot of hanging in this parallel universe and Queen Victoria has a nasty and potentially lethal temper. Apparently, the rest of her family does as well. Her grandson, conspiring for the throne, is narcissistic and violent in a genteel manner. It's fascinating as well as repulsive to get in his head when chapters are from his POV. I was not only rooting for Constance and Truesdale to get together, but for them to take him down. 

As with any good steampunk novel, there is mad science, tinkering, and conspiracies galore to deal with. I wish I saw the Brass Queen at work in selling her arms or developing new forms of weaponry, rather than seeing them at work in others' hands. There are so many other details and fun throwaway lines in this novel, though, so it's still a joy to read through the book and guess what madcap adventure will lead to the conclusion. The world-building is fantastic, but the level of detail did bog down the action in a few spots. The conclusion is so very Constance, and I nearly face palmed while reading it, much like her staff and cousin would. I definitely wouldn't mind reading more madcap adventures in this world to see how the relationship between Constance and Truesdale continues to develop. 

Buy The Brass Queen at Amazon

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Across Green Grass Fields
January 2021; Tordotcom; 978-1250213594
audio, ebook, print (176 pages); dark fantasy
Regan had to deal with a lot of drama at school before she fell through a portal that told her to "be sure." She winds up in a world of magical equines that expects humans to step up and be heroes. While with the herd, Regan learns that there are different kinds of bravery, and not all quests are what they seem.

Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth book of the Wayward Children series, but is a standalone novel with new characters. New readers to the series can jump in here and not worry about a cast of characters they don't recognize. With our first introduction to Regan explaining she was as perfectly normal as physical exams at age 7, we know something is going to be off. She's so determined to remain the best friend of the local Mean Girl Laurel that she will ostracize those that Laurel wants to exclude and will do all of the performative feminine things that Laurel approves of. Laurel has very fixed ideas of what is a proper girl and liking snakes or bugs or excessive physical activity sets her off. Regan finding out she is genetically XY with androgen insensitivity, a very real condition leading to intersex children, means that Laurel has more than enough ammunition to exclude Regan and publicly shame her. Laurel is essentially a TERF, doing more harm to girls that don't fit her narrow view of biology and gender roles.

Regan is a Horse Girl, loving to ride and care for them. Tumbling into a world of centaurs taking care of unicorns is perfect for her. We spend more time in the beginning of the book getting to know her and the world, seeing her grow into herself. She doesn't believe in Destiny, and the family she creates protects her as much as she protects them. It's a wonderful thing to see because this family is one of choice and love, not appearance and behaving as others feel she should be, which is the world that Laurel represents. She still loves her parents, and it was never a question of her leaving them deliberately or trying to hurt them, which we sometimes see in portal fantasies. When she does meet her Destiny (not a spoiler to say that she does, it's the way of these kinds of fantasy novels), she takes this into consideration. She has come to love Hoofland, nature, and cooperation, and these are the lessons she had learned as she grew into herself. I enjoyed seeing that side of her really come to the fore, and for her to be sure about who she was, even if she didn't know much else. Books like this are exactly why Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

Mask of Mirrors
January 2021; Orbit; 978-0316539678
audio, ebook, print (672 pages); dark fantasy
Within the slums of NadeÅūra, Arenza Lenskaya is a liar and a thief, determined to leave that world behind to find her sister.  Renata Viraudax is a con artist looking to find a comfortable future. Corrupt magic is snaking through the city, and the different classes are feuding. Ren is at the center of it, and may not be able to stop the destruction of her world.

The Mask of Mirrors is the first book in the Rook and Rose trilogy. There is exquisite world-building here, with different nations wielding influences over the people, and accurate ways of showing how mixed heritage can help or hurt peoples' goals. We have varying levels of nobility, the poor in the slums forming gangs to take control of the underbelly, the myths, and legends that the different cultures have. This comes across in how they treat each other, the things that matter to the characters, clothing choices, masks, language for directions and time, and even the curse words that they use. I love this in books, and this novel makes me want to pull out the chef's kiss meme images.

I was drawn into Ren's story, how she built up the Renata persona as well as Arenza. All she wanted was to be safe, but there are too many dangers in the city and each of her personae know different facets of the same problems. Her main loyalty is to Tess, her bonded sister, and the memory of her bonded brother that had died and led her to escape the slums with Tess. The magic of the numina, numbers, and sacred geometry, butts up into the patterning, or card reading magic that is reminiscent of Tarot cards. Astrology falls somewhere between the two magic systems, and Ren's conception, birth and lies all come into play as she tries to make a name for herself in the noble house she chose to infiltrate. It's in decline and has enemies that become hers, and using the Arenza persona to gain more information brings temporary reprieve. I grieved along with the characters when we hit the halfway point in the novel, and I wasn't sure what other surprises were in store for them.

The mystery of the Rook is partially answered by the very end, and we see the Lady Rose of the trilogy title. This novel is complete, but I made whiny noises and have mental grabby hands for the next two novels. So much happened in this book and so much will happen in the next two, and I want to read them all right away!

Buy The Mask of Mirrors at Amazon

Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long

Hall of Smoke
January 2021; Titan Books; 978-1789094985
audio, ebook, print (432 pages); mythology
Hessa can turn people to dust with a scream, a special ability she has as Eangi, a priestess for the Goddess of War. She can't bring herself to kill a stranger on command and is sent away to repent. This means she's the only one that isn't in the temple when her village is razed. Different clans and legionnaires are trying to take over the land, and Hessa has to carve a path of revenge and redemption. Along the way she realizes that the gods are dying, the High Halls of the afterlife might not be there, and her prayers go unheeded. In addition, older gods exist, and are starting to wake up.

In this world of different tribes and people dedicating themselves to different gods, Eang is a merciless one. She's the goddess of War and gives the power of fire to her priestesses, but expects them to kill on command without giving a reason for it. Those who don't do this immediately are seen as weak, so Hessa believes that the loss of her village and the fact that she's the only priestess left is because she didn't kill the traveler she had been commanded to in a vision. The Algatt razed her village in their journeys south, selling the survivors into slavery; their own lands were being overtaken in the same way, and this is worse than the raids that had occurred back and forth for generations beforehand. The gods the people worship don't come when called all the time and don't always give the powers that they promised to their priests and priestesses. This allows the Old Gods to come and sow discord, threatening those they call the New Gods; Eang is afraid of them and what they herald, which in turn frightens Hessa.

Hessa eventually learns why her people were targeted, what the Fire is, and why other people are on the move. There is a war between the Old Gods and the New, and those that came even before them. Mortals like Hessa are caught up in it and treated as little more than playthings, a realization that leaves her bitter and unsure where her allegiance lies. She still cares for her people, and other villages that might've escaped the Algatt slaughter are held essentially hostage by the Arpa forces and their reverence for their own god, who they believe is stronger and the primary god of all. With gods able to walk the world, possess humans and bind or kill each other, these are all weighty questions for Hessa to think about, especially when she doesn't know her place in these plans. She starts off as an ignorant pawn, after all, but this changes as time goes on.

I found it a little difficult to connect with Hessa at first. She was so determined to push away the people she loved because she thought she had to be punished and then out of fear that the death was all her fault. It's when she starts connecting to others that I feel more of a connection to her, and I'm caught up in the quest she is on and the fate she has to fulfill. Because there are so many characters, each with their own agenda, I'm soon sucked into it, hoping to figure out the truth and where the story will go. It's not quite where I thought it would be, but it's a massive story peopled by gods and those pretending to be gods, and in the end, it's about friendship and love and trying to create a better world to live in.

Buy Hall of Smoke at Amazon

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood
January 2021; Nyx Publishing; ebook; fantasy
Constanta was saved from death, becoming one of Dracula’s brides. A former medieval peasant, she didn’t get along with his other brides, who were her rivals. When Dracula pulled an aristocrat and a starving artist into his web, Constanta was confronted with his cruelty. Now taking comfort with her rivals, Constanta began unraveling their husband’s secrets. She must choose between freedom and love, and the looming threat of death.

Much like the Dracula story itself, Constanta is writing her history and thoughts, coming to grips with events after the fact. Constanta has the benefit of centuries to understand the importance of what had happened to her, and the understanding is also layered with an appreciation of beauty. Her language used is poetic and visual in nature: “I wanted to dash myself against your rocks like a wave, obliterate my old self and see what rose shining and new from the sea foam.” From her limited perspective, we move through the plague, Vienna at the start of the Renaissance, and then afterward all over Europe into the Enlightenment. Dracula can be calculating and cruel, with a “quiet sort of violence” that is very much like that of an abuser in the relationship. Constanta doesn’t believe she has the power to leave him and returns immediately when he demands it of her the one time she tried. As with many abused spouses, Constanta excuses much of Dracula’s behaviors until there’s actual witnessed violence.

The first quarter or so of the novel is just Constanta and Dracula. He wants her to himself, at once a jealous husband and a scholar studying her for weaknesses. It’s when they get to Vienna that the honeymoon phase ends; soon after he brings Magdalena into the relationship. He essentially coerces Constanta’s consent for adding her to the relationship, though Constanta learns to love Magdalena in time. She tries to steel herself against Alexi in the early 1900s, but falls for him just the same, even when mortals call them mother and son. I admittedly laughed when Constanta mentioned the Harkers as “some dreadful Victorians.” The dynamics of all four of them in the polycule are different, but there is still love for each other even as resentment builds when the others are pushed even further under Dracula’s will.

Once spurred to action and working all together, Constanta, Magdalena, and Alexi are able to coordinate a plan of attack. I was cheering them on the entire way, and that part of the story moved fast. A lot of it is because they had to wait for the opportunity, and also because after an entire novel lasting for centuries, the final takedown was in a single night. I wouldn’t have thought that a second person perspective would work, but it does. This is Constanta’s confession to Dracula, the “you” she keeps addressing, and that makes all of what she sees, hears, and thinks to feel even more claustrophobic and private. It also makes Dracula’s casual cruelties feel even worse because it feels directed at the reader as well. I really enjoyed the novel, and wish Constanta well in her future. She’s certainly earned it.

Buy A Dowry of Blood 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, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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  1. wow, would The Brass Queen be a good way to jump into steampunk? Any other book in that genre you would recommend to a neewbie?