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October 4, 2021

5 Books for Fantasy Fans

by MK French

Fantasy novels can be so much fun to read. They can explore societal issues wrapped in an entertaining story. They can instill a sense of empowerment in the reader. Or provide an escape from our everyday lives. You will find these things and more in the stories I'm featuring today. Some of these are available now and others you will want to pre-order so you don't miss them. A few are considered young adult, but fantasy readers of any age will enjoy them.

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

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

Wicked As You Wish
October 2021; Sourcebook Fire; 978-1728225289
audio, ebook, print (421 pages); YA fantasy

In a world where magic is real and the kingdoms we know from fairy tales and stories actually exist, the Snow Queen attacked Avalon and froze it. Citizens that managed to escape are refugees in various countries all over the world. Tala Makiling is under the family curse as a spellbreaker and lives in Invierno, Arizona, which has a low magic aura. There, the Avalonian crown prince Alex lived in hiding for a time. When the firebird appears in town, the two are joined by a number of protectors. Prophecies and a possible traitor follow them, but if they can survive then they'll be the stuff of legends.

Originally published in 2020, this is the first book of a series and now there's a new cover for the reprint. Tala and her family are so very much like the Filipino families I grew up around, down to the food and the myriad aunties and uncles. Tala is blindsided by so many new bits of information in the first quarter of the novel but manages to keep going. Her curse neutralizes magic around her, while others have magic weapons and various other curses that carry down their bloodlines. Alex has the pressure of being the crown prince of a frozen kingdom that he must restore, which is daunting for a teenager to face.

Rin Chupeco has amazing worldbuilding in all of her novels, and this one is no different. The main characters are all teens, and there is a good amount of representation: Alex is gay, Loki is nonbinary and has two fathers. Immigration concerns and ICE agents show up in this book, grounding the fantastical elements of the world and the plot. As with any YA novel, teens must save a frozen kingdom, and as annoying as Alex can be at times, he very much feels like a teenager that doesn't know how to handle the responsibilities that he was given. Tala is still learning herself, as are the other Bandersnatch kids; it's going to be fun to see how they all grow into their prophecies and become the adults they're meant to be. 

Buy Wicked As You Wish at Amazon

Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

Scales and Sensibility
October 2021; Five Fathoms Press; 979-8450717692
ebook, print (380 pages); fantasy romance

In 1817 England, dragons were rediscovered. Elinor Tregarth moved to Hathergill Hall and accidentally took her cousin's pet dragon and fell in love with the fortune hunter courting Penelope. Though she was always the sensible one, she must be resourceful when participating in an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters' futures.

This is Sense and Sensibility with dragons! As in, Elinor as the poor relations had to put up with Penelope, and when she reached her limit after six months with Penelope's poor treatment of her pet dragon, Elinor shouted at her and took off. The self-centered Penelope sees everything that doesn't go her way as an insult and affront to her innocence, even when she and her two friends are far from it. Elinor goes through an elaborate scheme to help Penelope with the help of her dragon to avoid her uncle writing to the relatives taking care of her two younger sisters, even though she can't her cousin. On top of that, some people determine the truth about her altered appearance, and the wishes she makes with her dragon have consequences she could never foresee.

Scales and Sensibility is an adorable Regency romance with a dash of magic. We still have the rules and responsibilities of titled gentry with class and gender role differences, with magic to offset some of the hardships Elinor would have otherwise. As a romance novel, we know that the problems will resolve somehow by the end, and I enjoyed how it all played out. There will be stories in this world involving Elinor's two sisters in the future, and I hope they're as fun as this one was.

Buy Scales and Sensibility at Amazon

The Orphan Witch by Paige Crutcher

The Orphan Witch
October 2021; St. Martin's Griffin; 978-1250823632
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); coming-of-age fantasy

Abandoned as a baby and shifted through foster care families, Persephone May is alone and strange. Odd things always happen around her, and she's been cast out as a result. Now she doesn't get attached to others, doesn't date, and works odd jobs she can easily leave. When she gets an invitation to Wile Isle, she discovers answers to questions she's always had. She also finds out about curses and a family feud.

I really enjoyed getting into Persephone's story. From the beginning, we're told a lot of how she grew up alone because people tended to do weird things around her if she looked them directly in the eyes. Strong emotions triggered reactions in others, and this is what powered her spells. She didn't use incantations, just strong intent, which meant she had no control and feared what she could do. When another incident in a coffee shop scared her, getting an invitation from her friend Hyacinth was a great escape plan.

From there, the picturesque island home where Hyacinth lived contained magic cousins, ties to a family Persephone had never known, as well as a curse created a hundred years before that she's destined to break. Magic is intent, herbs, crystals, directions, and power from the land itself. Persephone has cousins, some of whom begin to teach her magic properties and control in the hopes that she can break the curse. There is a lot she doesn't know, like how she can walk between worlds, or how she can reach the Library of the Lost, as well as the secrets the different branches of the family tree are hiding. These are the secrets that draw me in, as well as the desperate race to fix the mistakes that multiple generations have made in trying to undo the curse.

While this is a story about magic, it's also a story about family, love, and forgiveness. I was completely enthralled, and rooting for Persephone and her newfound family the entire time.

Buy The Orphan Witch at Amazon

The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker

The Keeper of Night
October 2021; Inkyard Press; 978-1335405661
audio, ebook, print (400 pages); YA dark fantasy

Half Reaper and half Shinigami, Ren Scarborough was reviled by most of the British Reaper society even as she worked collecting souls for centuries. Her Shinigami powers were feared, and when she lost control of them when tormented, she's driven from London and forced to escape rather than be killed. She went to Japan with her younger half-brother, the only one who loved her, and even there had to prove herself. Desperate, she accepted the impossible mission to eliminate three yokai.

As the first half of a duology, we get a lot of world-building woven into the beginning of the story. Each of these Reapers is given special clocks that allow them to stop time to do their work or eliminate obstacles, paying for that time with minutes off of their own lengthy lifetimes. It's fascinating to see Ren at

work, even as every Reaper and High Reaper goes out of their way to harass her and inflate their own egos and position in Reaper society. Even accepting Ren when her mother abandoned her had lowered her father's status, making me wonder why he bothered in the first place. He certainly didn't love her or care about her wellbeing past the basic clothing and shelter and didn't think well of his son either.

In contrast to the gaslamp London of the 1890s, Japan's underworld is literally darker than night. There are still rigid structures and functions in this world, with shinigami exalted over the deformed and the ordinary dead. Yokai are monsters that don't conform to the Goddess of Death's rules, and the three that Ren is tasked to eliminate had devoured and otherwise taken more than their fair share of human souls. Killing them doesn't leave Ren feeling victorious or better, and the glimpse of her future made her feel even more hollow. The connection with Hiro and the hope of being accepted somewhere was strong, and nothing could shake her desire to find a place to belong, even when her brother warned her that it wasn't what they thought it would be.

Ren has a quiet desperation to her that she calls selfish, but being of mixed ancestry caused its own problems that are difficult to explain to someone not in that category. The casual racism of both halves of her ancestry means she feels alone in both places, and that she discounts the warnings to try to fit in. She doesn't realize what this does to her until it's too late, setting up the sequel. Ren and all of the secondary characters feel fully fleshed out and real as I devoured this book. The second half of this duology comes out next year, and I'm looking forward to it!

Buy The Keeper of Night at Amazon

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales
October 2021; Faber & Faber; 978-0571360185
audio, ebook, print (208 pages); YA fairy tales

We're familiar with tales of young girls and princesses in need of rescue. What happens if the stories are swapped so that the main characters are men? None of the characters' actions are changed, only their genders. This married team had applied a computer algorithm to classic tales from the Lang color fairy books, and this current volume is the result. They're fully aware that gender is a social construct separate from sex, and isn't necessarily on a binary. But for the sake of simplicity, male and female terms were swapped, leading to interesting changes for us to read.

"Handsome and the Beast" opens this book, with his mother the merchant in dire straits traveling through the forest. Handsome is not a rough-and-tumble kind of boy as they are in most fairy tales; taking over Beauty's role, he enjoys flowers, animals, and the finery of the castle as well as the Beast's conversation, and sees through her facade to the soul beneath. In "Cinder, or the Little Glass Slipper," the stepbrothers hope to appear slender for the ball and laugh at a cinderboy being allowed to attend. His fairy godfather supplies the accouterments we know of, and everyone talks about how beautiful the young prince is. "How To Tell A True Prince" is a retelling of "The Princess and the Pea," and we have "Jacqueline and the Beanstalk." The women are the more active players in these stories and are the agents of change.

"Gretel and Hansel" flips the roles of the two children, and they're imprisoned by a wizard. In "Mr. Rapunzel," the husband is the one that longs for rampion so badly that his wife has to steal it from the wizard's garden. Their son is delivered to the wizard, and he grows a long beard that the wizard uses as a rope. It's a princess who hears him singing and gets her eyes torn out by thorns when they're discovered. "Snowdrop" is the reversed tale of "Snow White," and it's certainly odd for me to read about a vain King determined to kill his stepson to be the most beautiful King in the land. I'm less weirded out by  the reversed "Red Riding Hood" or even "The Sleeping Handsome in the Wood." Seeing "Frau Rumpelstiltskin" was interesting, as was "Thumbelin."

The subtle changes by swapping gender really make you think about the gender roles in Western culture that we've grown up with and take for granted. The characters do exactly as the tales originally had them do, it's very much our filtered view of humanity that makes the stories sound odd. Here, men are emotional and will hug and kiss others, remarking on their manners or beauty. The women are cold and haughty, proud of fighting skills, and determined to protect others. This is a fascinating collection of stories and one that will no doubt spark many conversations and creative minds.

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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