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September 11, 2023

9 Fantastic Fantasy Novels You Won't Want to Miss

by MK French

Halloween will be here before we know it and to get us ready for the holiday there are so many fantasy novels coming out this month that you might not know where to start. I round up 9 fantastic novels you will want to your reading list. There is a little of everything - dark fantasy, humorous fantasy, paranormal romance, young adult, supernatural thriller, and more.

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

Mammoths at the Gate by Nghi Vo

book cover of historical fantasy novel Mammoths at the Gate by Nghi Vo
September 2023; Tordotcom; 978-1250851437
audio, ebook, print (128 pages); historical fantasy

Cleric Chih returns to the Singing Hills Abbey and learns their mentor Cleric Thien has died. Cleric Thien is laid to rest among the archivists and storytellers in the storied abbey, but his granddaughters arrive on mammoths demanding his body for burial. Chih wishes to honor their mentor’s wishes and keep the women from destroying the abbey. Cleric Thien’s own companion is grieving, and her sorrow may be more powerful than anyone could anticipate.

This is the fourth book of the Singing Hills cycle, following Cleric Chih and their search for the stories and folklore of the land. (Prior volumes are The Empress of Salt and Fortune, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and Into the Riverlands) The themes in this novella revolve around grief, family, and home. Everyone in the abbey is transformed by grief, and the usual memorial service in the abbey involves storytelling. The two granddaughters want to reclaim the grandfather they never knew from the place he spent decades, hoping to complete their family after their grandmother's death. The neixin grieve as well, with their long lives and flawless memories. As with prior novellas, what seems like a chance saying as part of a small story becomes the solution to the impasse. This novella is quiet and subdued compared to earlier ones due to its topics, but it's just as beautifully crafted. 

Buy Mammoths at the Gate at Amazon

Dreambound by Dan Frey

book cover of supernatural thriller Dreambound by Dan Frey
September 2023; Del Rey; 978-0593158241
audio, ebook, print (400 pages); supernatural thriller

Reporter Byron Kidd’s twelve-year-old daughter vanishes, leaving behind a note saying she left to explore the Hidden World. This is a magical land from a series of novels, and she's not the only one to have done so. Byron is determined to find the children and gets an interview with the eccentric author of the series. The truth is more fantastic than he ever could have dreamed, and trying to find his daughter might have him losing himself.

Told in epistolary format, we see the emails, journal entries, and interview transcripts as Byron searches LA. He meets a scholar of the series and host of the fansite and wrangled an interview with the reclusive author herself. He's overbearing and incredibly logic-minded from the start so his approach easily can turn others away. His persistence keeps him going, and as he finds clues that his daughter went from Boston to LA, the oddities continue piling up and start to defy a logical explanation. Magic and the fairy lands of the Hidden World start to bleed through, and it's by making the leap of faith of belief Byron can find his daughter. 

I lost myself in this book much like Byron lost sight of objectivity in the search. This format feels at once close and distant because it puts us at a remove even as we're present for the journey. We're along for the ride, and it's quite a ride indeed. The parallels and overlap between the two worlds are fascinating and remind me very much of other novels that use parallel worlds and realities. 

Buy Dreambound at Amazon

A Market of Dreams and Destiny by Trip Galey

book cover of romantic fantasy novel A Market of Dreams and Destiny by Trip Galey
September 2023; Titan Books; 978-1803363684
audio, ebook, print (432 pages); romantic fantasy

In the Under Market, anything and everything is for sale. Seventeen years ago, Deri was sold to one of the most powerful merchants of the Under Market as a human apprentice. When a runaway princess hopes to sell her destiny, Deri sees a chance to buy his freedom if he can sell it. If he's caught with it before the sale, his chance at freedom is lost. A charming young man will give him advice and guidance for three dates, giving him even more to lose. News of the princess spreads quickly, and Deri must stay ahead of the Master Merchant.

The market itself is fantastic and such a vivid place for much of the action. The goods bought and sold, even before the princess sells her destiny away, are wonderful. There's buying an hour of strength or intelligence, ink of midnight, healing tears, charismatic speaking, candles that absorb light until they're burned again, as well as information or goods and services we would recognize. The bells and metals have a language of their own that Deri understands even if Owain doesn't, and there are rules to the market that must be obeyed, or else the buyers are ejected. This extension of faerie exists in an alternate version of London, where magic contracts indentured children to work for merchants in the market or for industrialists aboveground. This is the system that Deri works in and is trying to buy himself out of. Owain and his coworkers are exploited and abused, so the two work in tandem not only to date but to get themselves free of their contracts.

The book's worldbuilding is fun and exciting to read about, and there are so many potential avenues that can be explored. Aboveground, the search for the princess brings the Knight down into this realm of magic and rules she can't understand; the rumors also kick up currents within the market itself. Deri has plans and funds saved up, and disasters arrive along the way to complicate things. The big finale wasn't what I had expected, and the showdown was a thing of beauty. It kept me up late at night reading and was worth being tired the next day.

Buy A Market of Dreams and Destiny at Amazon

Cursebreakers by Madeline Nakamura

book cover of dark fantasy novel Cursebreakers by Madeline Nakamura
September 2023; Canis Major Books; 978-1939096128
audio, ebook, print (284 pages); dark fantasy

Adrien Desfourneaux is a disgraced physician and current professor of magic who discovered a conspiracy. Within Astrum, people are falling into magical comas. One side of the problem involves academics and another is the schism within the military. Adrien works with the damaged soldier Gennady and his best friend Malise to find a way to stop the comas. Standing in his way is himself: his bipolar disorder, his self-destructive tendencies, and his entanglement with the man who doesn’t love him back.

Adrien suffers from dithymic akrasia, which is their world's term for bipolar disorder, and a daimon is how he references the fluctuations in his mood and the erratic decisions he makes as a result. He has self-harmed, with past hallucinations, paranoia, and addiction. That didn't stop him from being a good chirurgeon, though the experimental treatment failed. It adds to his guilt, and he can't practice medicine so he teaches to maintain his livelihood and his magic license. His world is one where magic and gaslamp technology coexist, as well as a military armed with witchfinders and officers with animal companions. As much as he tries to handle himself and his volatile moods in a world where medicine doesn't exist, his mood still flares. This can go in any which way, complicating his life and attachments to others. It broke my heart to realize that his past is held against him and even his closest friends think he's paranoid and hallucinating when he first tries to approach them with the conspiracy.

Adrien's closest friends are essentially his doctor and keeper until Gennady insists on working with him to help identify what happened to the fallen soldiers as well as students. Gennady calls himself odd or crazy or broken, but the difficulty in relating well to others, needing routine, and problems understanding social situations make me think he's on the autism spectrum. He charges forward full bore, unable to read the room and temper his reactions. Adrien is exhausted by social situations, but it's mostly because he knows (and is correct) that some of his fellow professors think less of him because of his past as a chirurgeon who failed his patients and some because they know he is an akratic. He's drawn into the problem and is pulled farther than safety would allow. As he discovers the truth, it puts him and his loved ones in harm's way; those involved in the conspiracy wouldn't mind killing him, and those wanting him to provide evidence about the conspiracy won't offer protection.

I was admittedly a little confused at first; the usual advice to start in media res means that terms are used without clear explanation within the opening scene or two. It's worth getting past the first chapter to figure out what's going on. The differences in terms, whether the university names, different terms for what we're used to, and the steampunk atmosphere solidly place this novel in an entirely different world than ours. There are enough similarities that we can connect to the characters, and feel for how alone Adrien is, how much he yearns for connection and to do the right thing, yet is hamstrung a bit by his own weaknesses. His mental health is used against him lovingly by his friends and like a weapon by enemies but is part and parcel of who he is and also allows him to see truths that others don't. He's still very much the hero of this story, and does the right thing no matter how stressful it is.

Buy Cursebreakers at Amazon

This Too Shall Burn by Cat Rector

book cover of historical fantasy novel This Too Shall Burn by Cat Rector
September 2023; Indie; 978-1778076367
ebook, print (258 pages); dark fantasy

Arden lives in the woods, practicing magic and staying in tune with nature. The deeply religious town of Arrothburg has members who will come to her cabin late at night for healing despite the fact that they hate witches. Verity's mother had burned as a witch six years ago, so she must take care of her father and younger siblings. Verity is expected to endure and serve, and she feels cursed. A chance encounter between Arden and Verity leaves their skin charred. Now they have questions that may get them killed.

There is a list of trigger warnings in the beginning because this is not a story that shies away from the potential harm done to witches. Arden works with and loves spirits, and fully understands from the start that she walks a careful balance between that life and that of humanity that would quickly turn on and burn her if they could. She tries to keep nature and the needs of humans in balance, but those of the village take and don't replace. The church Verity belongs to is rigid, misogynistic, and eager to burn women as witches. She isn't told the truth about the world, the better to serve others and ignore her own needs. After their chance meeting, Verity begins to hear thoughts and see visions, something that terrifies her based on her upbringing.

As the story progresses, we see how much the people of the village are being controlled, and how much of their beliefs are being shaped by those in power. It all comes to a head at the very end, a thrilling conclusion I raced through because of how intense it was. The only way to get through the difficulties and lies was to confront them head-on. Verity is so brave for doing that, for unlearning the lies she was raised with, to see the truth of the world around her. It's absolutely a mirror to the rest of us: how many "truths" do we carry that are things we absorbed as children and don't question? How much do we need to unlearn to be good citizens of the world and help those around us? The wonderful part about fiction is that we can see it with magical stakes, internalize the lesson, and become better people for it.

Buy This Too Shall Burn at Amazon

The Forest Grimm by Kathryn Purdie

book cover of young adult fantasy novel The Fores Grimm by Kathryn Purdie
September 2023; Wednesday Books; 978-1250873002
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); YA fantasy

Sortes Fortunae is the Book of Fortunes. Years ago it granted the deepest desires to those of the village until someone used it to kill another person. After that, the Forest Grimm hid it away and the village of Grimm's Hollow suffered. Anyone going into the forest to make amends never returned. While Clara's grandmother warned her to keep away from the woods, she now dares to enter with her friend Axel to reverse the curse on her village and save her mother. The forest is alive, with twists on the Grimm fairy tales.

Clara is sure she's cursed, as her grandmother uses oracle vards to divine futures and hers always contained the forest and death. Because of this, she heads into the forest to save her mother and the village. The forest has a consciousness of a sort, turning prior wanderers from the village into characters from fairy tales we know. Axel follows to save his former fiancee, as well as their friendship, and her best friend also follows. But the transformed villagers play the roles the forest gives them, adding to the danger that Clara faces. Finding the book and her mother might be the primary purpose for her journey, but Clara realizes along the way uncomfortable truths about those she loves, and that as much as tries to defy it, fate will have to happen.

I loved the flashes of fairy tales as the book went along, as well as the magic inherent in the village and woods. Clara keeps telling herself that she is going to do whatever it takes for the village and to get her mother back, but she doesn't realize that the magic doesn't answer directly.  This leads to a different kind of ending than she thought she would have, and the possibility of more stories in this world. It was a fun ride to the end, and I look forward to other books in this universe. 

Buy The Forest Grimm at Amazon

The Court of Shadows by Victor Dixen

book cover of historical fantasy novel The Court of Shadows by Victor Dixen
September 2023; Amazon Crossing; 978-1662505690
audio, ebook, print (382 pages); historical fantasy

In an alternate history, Louis XIV became the King of Shadows when he became a vampire. Ruling from the Court of Shadows at Versailles, he demands the blood of his subjects to give his nobles and ensure their loyalty. Jeanne Froidelac witnesses the king’s soldiers murder her family due to their role in a brewing rebellion involving the forbidden secrets of alchemy. Disguising herself as an aristocrat, Jeanne enrolls in a prestigious school for aspiring courtiers and is soon at Versailles. She's there for blood, but not in the way the king thinks.

This is the first book in the Vampyrica Saga. Jeanne is clever, taking on the identity of the reclusive lord's daughter the night her family is killed. As Diane, she escapes death. The vampire who accompanied the king's soldiers is her primary target at first, but then she realizes that one easily disgraced vampire wouldn't get at the root cause of the fourth estate's woes. Instead, she decides to set her target as the King himself. We then follow her days at the school, learning the various kinds of etiquette expected of nobility intending to serve the King and his elite vampire nobles. There are those who would help her fit in as well as those who feel she's a rival for their eventual goal of becoming part of the King's court.

There is a lot of fun world-building in this series, which the translator put into English flawlessly. The vampires here had begun with the Sun King's transfiguration into the first royal vampire, then it moved into the nobility and the European nations allied with him. There is a vast network of vampire rulers, as a result, and by the same token enough mortals who would want them gone. Jeanne as Diane wants to avenge her family, and soon learns that there is a very straightforward path to court. It brings its own risks and perils, and through her, we discover just what they are. We see many aspects of vampire culture at court, where they fuse vampire blood with plants, musical instruments, and even weapons for their eternal amusement at mortals' expense. The stakes are high if Jeanne loses, and pulling through only puts her in even more danger. Vampires are deadly foes, and the world in these novels, are full of them. They're my favorite supernatural creature, and I can't wait to see more about them in this world.

Buy The Court of Shadows at Amazon

The Undetectables by Courtney Smyth

book cover of humorous fantasy novel The Undetectables by Courtney Smyth
September 2023; Titan Books; 978-1803364780
ebook, print (448 pages); humorous fantasy

A magical serial killer is stalking the Occult town of Wrackton, using hypnotic whistling to make victims to chew their own tongues off. The Undetectables is a detective agency run by three witches and a ghost in a cat costume. Hired to investigate the murders, all of them have a lot more going on. Mallory is the forensic science expert, struggling with fibromyalgia and newfound feelings for Cornelia. Diana is hitting up all her ex-girlfriends for information. Ghostly Theodore is also the agency’s first and unsolved murder case. Can the Undetectables find the Whistler before they become the killer’s next victims?

The Undetectables formed as teens and disbanded to go their separate ways. Mallory felt stuck in town, with days it hurt to move or stay awake, and days where it was hard to think. She didn't go away for college as Cornelia did, or work long hours in costuming jobs or fabrication for TV the way Diana did. She's more than a little sorry for herself because of this when the book opens, but she did plenty of reading when she was able to. Now, days before Samhain, the bodies begin to show up. The first is a stranger, and the ineffectual mayor wants the Undetectables to find the killer while keeping it on the down low. We're light on suspects, and the frustration is mounting for our heroines. 

To be fair to Mallory, Cornelia, and Diana, the clues were a little difficult to decipher. The notes found weren't clear, and the trio did their best figuring out what kind of Occult creature did the murders, as well as motivation. The trio had no official standing, after all, and were figuring out magical forensics as they went. The trio had more resources than they thought they did, however, and discovered the killer at great personal cost. The book was a fascinating read, with neat details about the world-building that fed into the finale nicely. With a possibility that the Undetectables will be hired again, hopefully, we get to see the trio and the town of Wrackton as well.

Buy The Undetectables at Amazon

What Became of Magic by Paige Crutcher

book cover of paranormal romance novel What Became of Magic by Paige Crutcher
September 2023; Griffin; 978-1250905529
audio, ebook, print (320 pages); paranormal romance

After a disastrous middle school party, Aline Weir hid her ability to talk to ghosts. She uses her power in secret to help ghosts move on, enjoying her time in a bookstore with the three mysterious women who run it. When Aline discovers the Book of Mischief, her powers are enhanced and she's again observed using her power. This time, she's invited to Matchstick, a town that doesn't exist on any map. Within this town, magic is lost and needs to be found. However, she’s not told that Magic is a dangerous person waiting for a witch with a power like hers for centuries.

I felt for Aline from the start, as she was the odd girl that no one in her small town liked. It didn't help that she could see and talk to ghosts, as well as find trinkets allowing them to move on. Her own parents didn't care what happened to her or how she felt, which made me want to reach through the pages to give her a hug and invite her home. I guessed the identity of the three sisters running the bookshop based on their names and my knowledge of mythology, as well as their habit of knitting. All of this is pretty much the prologue to Aline's invitation to Matchstick; everyone insists on being vague and mysterious, not telling Aline anything outright. It's as annoying to a reader as it is for Aline, but she's determined to find her ghost and the sisters, who had become her family. Saving magic and Magic are incidental at first, and later takes on more and more importance.

I found this story a little more convoluted than her other novels, and I didn't really like Magic very much. It's as much about grief as it is about finding yourself and your purpose, using magic as a means of determining an identity. Aline has her work cut out for her, but she does have far more help than she thought she did. I think that says something about the rest of us, too. We're never as alone as we think we are.

Buy What Became of Magic at Amazon

The Witches of Bone Hill by Ava Morgyn

book cover romantic fantasy novel The Witches of Bone Hill by Ava Morgyn
September 2023; Griffin; 978-1250835437
audio, ebook, print (416 pages); romantic fantasy

Cordelia Bone had a carefully crafted life that was in direct opposition to her older sister Eustace's carefree one. Both are summoned to their great aunt's home in Connecticut after she dies. The mansion comes with strings attached that the lawyer won't fully explain, as well as a handsome tattooed groundskeeper. There are secrets present, and their health begins to fail. They must now embrace the lineage they wanted to ignore if they plan to survive.

Cordelia might have held herself as a businesswoman, but throughout chapter one we see how out of control everything is: her husband cheated on her with her assistant, ran up debts in her name, emptied their joint account, and then threw her under the bus for other debts he racked up because she was easier to find. The relationship she had with her sister was strained for years, and neither knew anything about their extended family before they were summoned to Connecticut. All she wants to do is be successful and secure, a wish that anyone would empathize with. This immediately draws in the reader, and the mystery surrounding the inheritance is another draw.

Cordelia and Eustace's relationship improves over time, and each have their strengths. They learn about the magic they're supposed to have, the ghosts of their ancestors, and about the people orbiting the estate. The mystery of it all deepens, and Cordelia finds it hard to trust anyone but Eustace. They can't survive alone, especially when they aren't able to leave the property without health issues. It comes to an amazing conclusion, which I raced through to discover. The Bone Witches are determined to save themselves, and it was an enthralling novel to read.

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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