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January 14, 2022

Take a Break With These 5 Fantasy Novels

by MK French

January is full of great fantasy new releases. This month can fill very long as we come off the holidays and face some of the coldest days of the year. If you are needing to take a break from everything and escape into a different world, these fantasy novels are just the ticket.

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Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls
January 2022; Tordotcom; 978-1250213624
audio, ebook, print (160 pages); dark fantasy

In the seventh book of the Wayward Children series, an anti-magic school is the primary location. Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children is a school for children that fell through portals then back again. Not every child wants to be there, and Cora is one of them. She requests a transfer to Whitethorn Institute, and it's run very differently from the Home for Wayward Children.

If you've never read any of the Wayward Children series, don't worry. Yes, those who read prior books will recognize characters, but it's not necessary to dive into this one. All you really know is that there are portals to different realities that children sometimes fall into, and Cora had gone to the Trenches and was a mermaid there. She was more than happy to go; as a fat girl, she had been relentlessly bullied and saw no reason to stay in her world when a new one beckoned. But she has nightmares from some of the traumatic aspects of fighting in a war, and the Drowned Gods still call to her. She thinks that the Whitethorn Institute will be her way to escape the nightmares and the calling, enabling her to be normal again and return home to her parents. But the means of becoming "normal" are almost cruel in their severity, and the headmaster isn't what any of the children thought he was.

There are elements of mystery in this story, as well as a lot of growth for Cora. She's tired of teasing for her weight or her blue hair or shimmery complexion that is reminiscent of scales. She's tired of nightmares and fear. The thing about going through portals is that it's running away from reality and diving headfirst into a new one, and in essence Cora wanted to run away from being back in our reality after being a hero with the mermaids. Running from the awkward and painful doesn't help her, much as it hasn't helped any of the other children, and when she realizes that, she's able to take steps to lead others.

Even with the fantastical parts of the series, there are still very real problems for the teens to contend with. Bullying, weight issues, discussion of suicide and eating disorders, the pressure to conform, the need for individuality... It's a complicated matter for kids to figure out. Magic doesn't stop these problems or solve them immediately, and it's up to individuals to determine what's right for them and how to go about getting it. I enjoyed Cora's story and seeing her gain confidence. She'll still struggle, but she knows where she belongs and what makes her feel whole again. In the long run, that's the best kind of growth that teens can have.

The Ivory Key by Akshaya Raman

The Ivory Key
January 2022; Clarion Books; 978-0358468332
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); YA fantasy

Vira, Ronak, Kaleb, and Riya are siblings that followed different paths, and magic is nearly depleted in their country. The siblings plan to search for the Ivory Key, a legendary item able to lead to a new source of magic. Each sibling has a reason to find the key, and something to lose if they fail. Vira wants to live up to her mother's legacy, Ronak plans to sell the key to get out of a political marriage, Kaleb wants to clear his name, and Riya must prove her loyalty to the rebels. The siblings must work together or they may not survive

The Ivory Key is the first book of a duology, Indian inspired, and a brilliant debut novel. Chapters vary between the four siblings, and we're thrown into the deep end of the drama right away; Vira is in disguise with her guards and they find her fiance dead in the forest, and the rebel group known as the Ravens are in the forest as well. Magic in this world is a tangible thing, mined out of the earth and molded into physical objects by special crafters. The only known mine in the kingdom is petered out, and there is the myth of a map and an Ivory Key to find the other mines that had been locked away. I was immediately drawn into the sibling conflicts, and the drive to find the key.

While each of the four siblings has their own reasons to get the key, they all realize that it's for the best of Ashoka that magic is brought back to the nation. To find it means following clues left behind by the Kamala Society generations before, which their father had collected as a hobby before his death. They must collect pieces of a map, look for its current day location, then travel by foot through dangerous territory to get there. Each of the siblings had absorbed different lessons from their parents, so it's only by working together that they can get past the traps, the mercenaries in the jungle, or survive the jungle itself to find that actual key. Once they do, however, their problems aren't magically solved. It opens up more questions for them, which will be solved in the second book of the duology.

What really gives the book a sense of weight and history is the sense of time throughout the text. Each of the siblings mentions what they know about history, the founding of the kingdom, the history that their father had loved so much, and the importance of heritage. Even though there are few kingdoms mentioned, the two that are at odds have a long history with magic and the disputed territories they fought over. Food, clothing, culture, and language are all mentioned with differences in culture and time mentioned. It's beautifully done, and will no doubt close in an equally fascinating way in the second book.

Buy The Ivory Key at Amazon

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves by Meg Long

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves
January 2022; Wednesday Books; 978-1250785060
audio, ebook, print (368 pages); YA fantasy

On a frozen planet, a girl and wolf are on the run from ice goblins, giant bears, and a ruthless leader intent on trapping them both. There are few hiding places and fewer resources. Where will they go?

Sena ekes a living stealing and playing messenger, as she refuses to work on the wolf sled teams after her mothers' deaths on one. She knows a lot about the world and how to survive in it, a legacy of one mother's life as a scavver, a descendant of the original terraformers. Newer corporate citizens hate them, and the newest, fanciest corporate citizens feel they're above all the others. It's a harsh world to live in, where storms, ice, cold and the natural predators of the world ravage those outside the narrow confines of the city. The city is loosely governed by corporations and crime syndicates, adding to the lawlessness and chaos of the place. We know from the beginning that a world like this won't let Sena get what she wants, which is the simple but expensive ticket off world.

Sena is fascinating, resisting how much everyone keeps pushing her into the narrow roles defined for those living on Tundar. She is stubborn but not mean, no matter what life has thrown at her. If anything, the wolf Iska is the same. I was drawn into her journey, from facing down the bosses and their goons to the team that Kassen built to race to the exocarbon site, to the wildlife of the planet, and even Iska herself. Without spoiling this very worthy read, I could guess where Sena had to go by the way the book was set up but still had to see how she got there. Sena and the other characters had incredible stories throughout the book, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Servant Mage
January 2022; Tordotcom; 978-1250769053
ebook, print (176 pages); historical fantasy

Fellian is a Lamplighter, an indentured servant using her magic to provide illumination. Rebel Monarchists free her and bring her with them to rescue their trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines. There's a conspiracy to kill the royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement, and Fellian is caught up in it. But she has more than just her Lamplighter skills to work with.

We see Fellian as a servant, bound to serve the state by cleaning bathrooms and creating Lamps to light the way for others. Reading and writing is a crime, especially for the poor, and any infraction or benefit is bought or paid for with added days of labor. It's a stark existence, with few highlights, and Fellian is abducted by those willing to use her services for their own gain. Royalty isn't determined by direct lineage as we would think, but by the presence of the rare birth of "a five-souled child," or a baby that is infused with the ability to command five elements of magic. While it's posited as a Liberation vs. Monarchist issue, Fellian points out how similar their actions can be. In either government style, the poor aren't seen to have any value for those with titles and riches. Either government would've had her humble beginnings as a farmer as a stumbling block for her advancement. Between the two, the Monarchist government valued teaching, but only for the element that she could control.

I was fascinated by the world building here. Wraiths imbued in bodies gifted them with magic, one of the five elements. Alternate planes of reality exist, and the feeling of a large kingdom is hinted at even if we're shown only small pieces of it. Fellian grew up with an Older Father and Younger Father as well as her mother, a situation treated as normal and beneficial for the families involved. Magic cuts down on travel, which would take too long by foot to cross the territories and cities involved in this story.

I get the feeling that this book is the start of a series, given that there are threads throughout the rest of the world that are left dangling. Fellian is at a crossroads, and (somewhat of a spoiler) is known as an Apprentice by virtue of her skill level. She learned this all on her own, so any formal schooling for her gift will undoubtedly bring her further up the chain. I liked Fellian, for all that she could blurt out questions and try to find out from others what they know. She's new to their world, as we are to hers, and I liked reading her story. If there is more to it, I'd definitely go looking for the books.

Buy Servant Mage at Amazon

Half a Lion by Palle Oswald

Half a Lion
January 2022; Indie; 9781737799917
ebook, print (365 pages); fantasy

The Lion tribe lives in a land known for brutal conquest and magic. There are three potential heirs to the tribe, and only one can ascend. Sakhan cares for his mother, vowing to win the throne he isn't even interested in. Haikachi wants revenge and is working with the tribe's sworn enemies. Neneh's wife was murdered, so others feel he's cursed; this means he has nothing left to lose and everything to prove. Who will lead the Lion tribe?

Inspired by African folklore of the 240 different tribes in his country of origin, Palle Oswald crafted a story of rival brothers, shamans, and dangerous magic. The brothers are all in a struggle for their father's throne, and their personalities were set long before their father died. Each wife looks down on the others, but especially Sakhan's mother, who was from an enemy tribe. She genuinely cared for their father but was still cast out. Machinations on every front exist: the two brothers Haikachi and Neneh that want the throne, enemy tribes, uncertain allies, and the vagabonds on the road that want to eventually find a home. The Lion tribe occupies very fertile land with gold in the river, and many area men conspire to control it. Sakhan wants none of it, but of course, would never be believed when men are expected to war and save face at all times.

Half a Lion is an epic tale, with men vying for thrones and power. It definitely draws you in as you travel with the brothers, particularly Sakhan. As the underdog in the story, I cared more about his thread than the others. He had to balance between the different tribes and identities that he carried as he struggled to survive in the wilderness. There's a hook for future novels, and there is definitely more to this story that can be explored.

Buy Half a Lion 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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