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May 9, 2023

8 Fantasy Novels to Read This Month

by MK French

If you love fantasy then you are in for a treat this month. There are so many good ones coming out this month. I made you a list so you don't miss them - I also threw in one that was published a couple of months ago so you will have plenty to read while waiting for the rest to come out.

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

Half a Legend by Palle E.K. Oswald

book cover of fantasy novel Half a Legend by Palle Oswald
March 2023; Indie; 978-1737799931
ebook, print (420 pages); fantasy

Half a Legend
is the sequel to Half A Lion (my review here) where brothers competed for the opportunity to rule the Lion tribe. Sakhan had been looked down upon because of his status as a mixed tribe son, and his brothers warred for supremacy. He became the chief, and now must rule an array of people who distrust him. This novel directly follows that one, so absolutely read that one first. It's been a hot minute since I read the first novel, so I was confused as to who was who and what happened earlier.

The different clans, named after the great animals of Africa, will only follow leaders that show strength, and Sakhan has to convince each tribe he's worthy of it. It's a delicate balance, as each tribe has different traditions they value, and the threat of war hangs over them all. Battles are intense, with bow and arrow, swords, spears and death among different tribes. Alliances shift back and forth, and the allies that Sakhan thought he could count on failed him. Frequently there are arguments as different tribes seek the best route to attack others and gain ground while protecting the weaker members of their tribes. The battles are fierce and frequent, with various leaders concerned about the loyalty of their men and who will betray them for power. In fact, chapter sixteen is even titled "Every Army Knows A Traitor" because of this continual concern.

Battles take up quite a bit of this book, and there are many warriors to keep track of. Even when we think the war is over, the deaths of the women, children, wounded and old leaves the coalition devastated. War is hell, and carried a toll of thousands. It's not the end, not when revenge is now on everyone's minds. The tribes now want to take the war south into the Sarahan lands, setting up the third novel in this series.

Buy Half a Legend at Amazon

In an Orchard Grown from Ash by Rory Power

book cover of fantasy novel In an Orchard Grown from Ash by Rory Power
May 2023; Del Rey; 978-0593355008
audio, ebook, print (480 pages); fantasy

In the second book of the Wind Up Garden duology, the Argyros siblings have lost everything. Their father is dead, and the four of them are scattered across the continent. Rhea struggles with her power over death as she works within a distrustful rebel group. Chrysanthi travels to a  war-torn land in search of Nitsos, sure he is working to restore the family to its former glory with himself at its head. Lexos is stripped of power and is a political prisoner of the Domina family, dreaming of revenge. The four must find a path forward together, or everything will remain fallen apart.

The first book of the duology was "In A Garden Burning Gold," (my review here) and this book picks up where that one left off. The sumptuous and Greek-influenced world is still here, and the unsettling and unlikeable characters are back to face the consequences of their actions. Lexos paid a heavy price for keeping the status quo the same, and the sisters still are the most sympathetic characters for me. Lexos is a captive, starting off the novel paraded around and then locked up, swept up in someone else's plans all over again. Rhea is isolated and ignored, just as she was in the first book, and poor Chrysanthi is out of her element as she's sent to find Nitsos. The four siblings each have a story thread in the beginning, and it feels like they'll never be knit back together again.

Ultimately, the world here is one of scrabbling for power. There is a background tension of war in various countries, people looking to collect the marks and gifts that they bestow, and the search for more about the saints from hundreds of years before. The four siblings are little more than pawns for others to push around, and my heart went out to them as it happened. Nitsos remained distant, but I actually felt sorry for Lexos in this one. Rhea of course kept trying to break herself to pieces emotionally, pushing herself to prove that she was worthy to everyone else around her. The ones to survive to the end aren't who you expect it to be, and the conclusion of the duology is sad. There's such a melancholy air in the second half of this book, and the end took me by surprise. I didn't think it would be concluded in that manner, but it makes sense, too. There are those in power who will do anything to keep it, and will always survive in this kind of world. Those who seek it out to prove themselves will fail, because ultimately they don't have a core sense of self to support that journey. The ones that get power and don't want it will do the right thing for the world at large, and if there were more people like that, the world could fall back into balance. Hopefully, others will make the right decision for this world's future.

To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

book cover of fantasy novel To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose
May 2023; Del Rey; 978-0593498286
audio, ebook, print (528 pages); fantasy

Fifteen-year-old Anequs finds a dragon’s egg and bonds with its hatchling. Her people are delighted, revering Anequs as Nampeshiweisit—a person in a unique relationship with a dragon. The Anglish conquerors have a very specific idea of how a dragon should be raised, and who should be doing the raising, and it's not Anequs. She's reluctantly enrolled in a proper Anglish dragon school on the mainland. If she cannot succeed there, her dragon will be killed. Anequs is socially and academically challenged, but she's determined to learn what she needs to help her dragon. The one thing she refuses to do, however, is become the meek Anglish miss that everyone expects.

Beginning with life in the village, we see the way Anequs and her people revere nature, Dragon's, and their way of life. The Anglish and the other cultures they conquered have a very precise and structured way of looking at the world, with rigid class structures and gender roles. Their conquest and "civilizing" those "savage" lands winds up stripping it of resources and organizing everything according to "best" use. Even dragons are treated as tools to be trained properly, and the native people are treated as illiterate and unwashed masses. It's appalling and has us sympathizing even more with Anequs at how callous she's treated. Her headmistress, cold and distant at first, had to break gender norms to become a dragonrider, much less rise to headmistress, and we soon enough discover that she hopes Anequs will become a role model and help break even more barriers at the school.

Anequs is a tough cookie, refusing to conform to "civilized" society or allow herself to be belittled and made small for others' amusement. She and her dragon are definitely underdogs, but so are other students dismissed for being different. I enjoyed the world-building, in the ways that the Anglish are Nordic and much of the culture is heavily influenced by what we know of the Norse Vikings as much as the Regency and Victorian ideas of class and the "right" to conquer and "civilize" others. We see the culture of Anequs' people and the stories that she collects from others. As she learns the subjects she needs to know to become a dragoneer by Anglish terms, she also grows more into herself as a person. She always loved her people and home, which carries her forward through hardships, but there's less fear of the unknown or handling difficult situations. I read each chapter with rapt attention, eager to know more about her journey. I'm so glad this is the start of a series, because it's such a fantastic world with wonderful characters, dragons, and places to explore. 

The Essential Peter S. Beagle, Volumes 1 and 2

book cover of fantasy anthology The Essential Peter S Beagle volume 1
May 2023; Tachyon Publications; 978-1616963880
ebook, print (352 pages); fantasy anthology

While most people know Peter Beagle for The Last Unicorn, he has quite a body of work in a similar vein, with a career beginning in the 1960s. Volume one opens with "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros," where the professor sees the rhinoceros at the zoo and can hear it talk; it says it's a unicorn, and the two argue philosophy and the naming of things. No one else can see it, though the professor's best friend saw some evidence of its presence. The story plays the fantastic elements straight, and never once makes Gus seem like a joke. As Jane Yolen puts it, Peter Beagle invented urban fantasy long before the genre had a name, and this sets the tone for the rest of the volume. Werewolves in New York City is a fun concept, though the visual of Lila changing and attacking dogs is a visceral one that was a bit uncomfortable to read. Gordon the mouse made an excellent cat, and it isn't what he thought it would be. That particular story made me a little sad, because many who try to go beyond expectations are treated like he was. To make up for it, his fables are hilarious. His tale "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and The Angel" is my favorite in the book. A little over thirty pages, it's the tale of the painter Chaim and the blue angel ordered to become his muse. It feels very much like a love letter to the NYC art scene, painting, family and Jewish traditions. It isn't until the end of the story that we understand the purpose of becoming a muse, and we see how pain and suffering becomes a hell of its own. 

book cover of fantasy anthology The Essential Peter S Beagle volume 2
May 2023; Tachyon Publications; 978-1616963903
ebook, print (352 pages); fantasy anthology

Volume two is introduced by Neg Elison, who compares his works to being fed pieces if his heart. Any author dredges up parts of their soul for their stories, and this second book is full of heavy emotions as much as the fantastic edge of magic within the ordinary day. The first story, "Sleight of Hand," is a melancholic elegy, grief and love entwined in her journey after the loss of her husband and daughter. As with volume one, the story sets the tone for the volume, and I especially feel that in the story "The Rabbi," where the grief comes in when you least expect it. It's beautiful and cleverly woven in, adding the sense of wonder and mystery to the ordinary world. Peter Beagle wrote about dragons as well as his famed unicorn, in the world of Avicenna that's pretty much northern California. And in that story he appears himself, as the author creating a dragon for a novel and scrapping it, leaving it homeless in Oakland. That's a fantastically meta concept for a story, and it was a really fun read. It's not the only story that Beagle shows up in, though he's not named outright in that one. 

Peter Beagle says it perfectly himself in one of his stories: "...the artist isn't the magic. The artist is the sight, the artist is someone who knows magic when he sees it." To our everlasting benefit, we get to see the magic that he did.

The Battle Drum by Saara El-Arifi

book cover of fantasy novel The Battle Drum by Saara El-Arifi
May 2023; Del Rey; 978-0593356975
audio, ebook, print (560 pages); fantasy

As the first blue-blooded ruler, Anoor is under considerable amounts of stress. This is increased dramatically when she's accused of a murder she didn't commit and must prove her innocence without Sylah, who had left for new lands. Sylah is at a crossroads herself, as she isn't sure if she should sacrifice everything about her old life in order to fight. In the meantime, Hassa is following a trail of crimes in the city, uncovering the extent of the atrocities the empire had committed, both past and present. All three are looking for answers, but they're not going to find the ones they wanted.

The Battle Drum is the sequel to The Final Strife (read my review), an imaginative fantasy with rules based on the magic able to be created by the color of someone's blood. We have a summary of the first book in the form of a griot tale, and then it takes off from there. We have aspects of the story not only from the three young women but from a new yellow-blooded POV. Sylah is sent to the Ghostings' enclave, and from there to the world her ancestors came from. Anoor is trying to learn how to be a good disciple but her adoptive mother is killed and the council thinks she did it. Hassa is teaching the ghosting sign language and sees bodies around town that were murdered then left for the tidewinds to scour and cover their tracks. Neyeli is from the Volcanic Isles, believing in the prophecy of the Child of Fire. This same prophecy led the Wardens to create their empire, and she's determined to see the truth of the prophecy as she interprets it come to fruition. 

Many sequels deepen the world-building, and this novel is no different. Now we go beyond the Warden's empire, to the continent and the volcanic islands where the other groups live. There are eight colors of blood, each with their corresponding personality types, rather like a zodiac sign or the Asian blood type. This is reductive but plays a role in how Neyeli sees others, as she's more ambitious than others with yellow blood around her. This led her to take risks push beyond expectations, making others uncomfortable; we see at the very end what came out of that ambition, and it was shocking. I didn't see that coming at all. Anoor was floundering for so long, and Sylah was sick for a while; both of them are not good alone but need people with them to bring out their better selves.

I was sucked into their tale, staying up late to read it, and found the ending to be completely different from what I had expected. In a good way! I was so emotional and invested in their lives, and had to see that through. I look forward to the next step in their story because it doesn't end here. They're all looking to effect change, and I know they're going to do that. It might not be what they want, but it's definitely going to be a wild ride to get there.

Buy The Battle Drum at Amazon

The Will of the Many by James Islington

book cover of fantasy novel The Will of the Many by James Islington
May 2023; Gallery / Saga Press; 978-1982141172
audio, ebook, print (640 pages); fantasy

Orphan Vis Telesmus is accepted to Catenan Republic's prestigious academy, but things aren't what they seem. He was sent there to solve a murder and find a weapon that can bring down the Republic that led to his parents' execution. In order to do so, Vis must advance in the ranks and be liked; if anyone finds out the truth or he is no longer useful to those who know who he really is, he'll be killed.

This is book one of the Hierarchy Trilogy. It very much feels influenced by early Roman Empire history. Here, the Hierarchy is the way the Catenan people have their lives organized. It's tier based, with a portion of their Will bequeathed to the higher ranked person they're beholden to. Above particular ranks, that can translate Tonto the power to imbue their bodies or objects with special powers, giving them greater command over the population and prestige in the kingdom. Vis was born a prince of a neighboring country swallowed up by the Catenan Republic, and he starts off trying to avoid all notice and "donating" his Will. It's not enough, as he's noticed by Ulciscor Telesmus, a highly ranked Senator sure his brother's suicide was actually a murder. The balance between the Senate, Religious and Military arms of the government is likely to destabilize soon, as there aren't more lands to conquer, and there's a group determined to bring an end to the Republic.

Vis is found, adopted, and trained for the Academy in the first part of the book, but his trials don't end there. Even in the Academy there's social jockeying, politics and the secrecy around the nearby ruins that could contain technology or weapons from the pre-Cataclysm age that the current population can't replicate. In other words, layers of conspiracy spanning the different branches of government, prejudice against conquered people, and a desperate bid to ensure that his true identity isn't discovered. He's clever, but easily angered and not privy to all the secrets around him. As the book progresses and there are more trials ahead, he does temper some of that anger. The final section of the book is stressful, horrifying in places, and heartbreaking. Then comes a twist that had my jaw drop, which is the perfect way to get someone wanting the next book. This was a very layered and incredibly detailed, and I can't wait for the next one!

Buy The Will of Many at Amazon

Where The Lightning Goes by Jackary Salem

book cover of fantasy novel Where the Lightning Goes by Jackery Salem
May 2023; Derealization Press; 978-1958362020
ebook, print (320 pages); fantasy

A wizard broke Elle’s soul into pieces and stole her memories. Her last memory was of falling from the sky, which made no sense. After escaping the house she was locked into, the outside world seemed vicious and beautiful. Magic was everywhere, everyone was selfish, and even those telling the truth lied. Elle believed recovering her memories was possible with the sky-castle from her dreams, but getting there required magic she didn’t have. Getting an enchanted painting, stealing a sword from a dragon’s den, and outwitting a demon was the beginning of her journey, and she didn't know where it would end.

This is the first volume in a new series and is very fast-paced. With Elle's missing memories, just about everything is a mystery. This definitely serves as a hook to draw us in from the start. The House was empty, and she had a single friend willing to help her escape. Then she met Adair, a master wizard who was callous and cruel, who had magically cut out his heart and placed it inside a painting, where it named itself Leslie. The wizard's full name had been Leslie Adair, Leslie wanted to help Elle while Adair wanted to remain alone. The trio eventually joins up to find the castle in the air from Elle's dreams, and the dwarf adventurer Honeycutt needs her magic soul-rending sword to defeat the magician calling himself a God within the castle. 

The journey to gain allies and find the castle is a fun and twisting one. There are some clues along the way as to what really happened, but it all clicks into place in the final quarter of the novel. Elle learned magic the hard way and tried to figure out how the Demon manipulated them throughout the journey. We still don't know exactly why by the end, though demons bartering in souls for power and boredom seems to be as good an answer as any. The soul splitting and memories tied to it was new to me and kept me reading for more. It's an interesting concept, and a great start to a series exploring the world, the magic available, and what happens next.

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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