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February 9, 2024

6 Fantasy Novels You Don't Want to Miss

by MK French

If you love reading fantasy novels then get out your list of books to read because you are going to want to add these to your list. 

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

The Absinthe Underground by Jamie Pacton

book cover of young adult fantasy romance novel The Absinthe Underground by Jamie Pacton
February 2024; Peachtree Teen; 978-1682634929
audio, ebook, print (304 pages); YA fantasy

Severon is full of cafes, cabarets, nightclubs, and the place where Sybil Clarion ran away from home to live in. She hopes that Esme Rimbaud will not only give her a place to stay but become something more. When the two steal and sell rare posters that have cropped up around town, they're caught by Maeve, the subject of the posters. Instead of pressing charges, she invites both girls to the Absinthe Underground, an exclusive club she co-owns. Maeve reveals that she's a fairy and in need of thieves able to pull off a heist that would set her free. She's willing to pay the girls enough that they will never have to worry about rent again. It's an offer that's too good to be true, and the story doesn't quite add up.

Maeve can't enter the Fae realm and asks Sybil and Esme to sneak into the realm to steal jewels. She uses them to make the signature absinthe in her club, but the specific moonstone crown jewels from Queen Mab would allow her to return home. The girls have two days to steal them, as they're only taken out at certain times. Sybil is the flighty and adventurous one, Esme is the one who loves clocks and order. The two have crushes on each other that they don't want to disrupt, and will do anything for each other. It's an undercurrent as they try to pull off a heist, starting with getting the tools they'll need to make it happen. Of course very little goes according to plan, which is part of the fun in a heist book!

Echo of the Blue Mountain by JF Lee

book cover of young adult fairy tale Echo of the Blue Mountain by JF Lee
February 2024; Indie; 979-8863269498
ebook, print (546 pages); YA fantasy

As the last Blue Mountain swordsman hovers between life and death, the Black Tigers swell in number. The emperor has sent the White Crane General to quell the uprising in the southern province, prompting her search for the Black Tiger and a powerful weapon that will end his cause. She doesn't care who she harms in her search, so Tao Jun returns to aid the heroes of the Blue Mountain and train Shu Yan in their traditions.

Events directly follow Fall of the King Saber, and is in the same general universe as many of his other wuxia-inspired novels. If you have read the first three novels, look them up. They're lots of fun, though we have a summary of the books as an opener if you've missed them. The White Crane General is ruthless and coldly efficient; we see that in the opening chapter so we know what the South is in for. In the meantime, Shu Yan is studying under Magistrate Tao Jun while Li Ming is in a coma. He has his own series of tales, which are hilarious because he hates paperwork and will go on adventures solving mysteries to avoid it. At the same time, his tendency to talk means he explains the concepts that Li Ming never did. Shu Yan (and the reader) benefits from this, and we get a chance to see the training, the relationships among the Blue Mountain disciples, and learn about some of its secrets.

The characters have all been greatly affected by the events of the last novel's conclusion, and it's a slower wind-up in this one as they try to recover. There are still battles, as well as discussions regarding honor, justice, and the needs of the people. There are two more volumes in this series, and this book feels like a setup for those volumes. There were many emotional sequences, and Shu Yan's loyalties are tested by them. The finale of this series is definitely going to be a big one, with many players involved.

The Briar Book of the Dead by A. G. Slatter

book cover of fantasy novel The Briar Book of the Dead by AG Slatter
February 2024; Titan Books; 978-1803364544
ebook, print (400 pages); dark fantasy

Silverton is a small town to the outside world, but there are witches running the town. Now mystical forces come into play as Ellie Briar is the first non-witch to be born into the family for the first time in three hundred years.

The Briar cousins of this novel take on the traditional roles to care for the town: the Briar Witch to lead, her steward to support, the physicker to deal with public health, and the marshal to handle security. Ellie has no magic but is organized and has the role of steward. Strange things are starting to happen in the outer reaches of Silverton, so there's quite a bit of world-building before Ellie's grandmother dies, the Briar Witch status passes to her cousin, and a knock to the head leading to a head wound in the cemetery leads to her seeing ghosts. This is a different kind of magical gift, one not seen or known about for generations, so she has a lot to learn. After this first third of the book, the story moves quickly. Ellie talks with the dead and figures out part of what bothers the town. The outlying areas are empty, and in time Ellie realizes that something sinister is happening. 

I like the stories told within the story, the variations depending on who tells it, and how the hidden tales are the most important ones. It gives Ellie the sense of where to go next, but she still has the feeling of responsibility for her town and the people in it. Magic or not, she does the right thing even when it's the hard thing. I really enjoyed seeing her story and the world she lives in.

An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson

book cover of fantasy horror novel An Education in Malice by ST Gibson
February 2024; Redhook; 978-0316501453
audio, ebook, print (368 pages); Gothic fantasy

At the prestigious St. Perpetua's College, Laura Sheridan has an intense academic rivalry with the beautiful and enigmatic Carmilla. Their demanding poetry professor De Lafontaine draws them together, and the professor is also obsessed with Carmilla. Laura is drawn into a game of politics, blood thirst, and desire. She isn't as innocent as she wanted to believe, and both Laura and Carmilla must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in their ruthless pursuit of knowledge.

This book takes place in 1968 New England in a small Episcopalian school, with characters named like the vampire story Carmilla. We also have a few content warnings prior to the text to give clues as to what we're in for; dark academia has several flavors, and this one has added blood and vampirism. Laura is freshly arrived from Mississippi in Massachusetts, out of her depth and somewhat reserved from the start, hoping to study writing. Carmilla is a senior, the favorite in the poetry seminar and the kind of girl that others either gravitate toward or hates. The two become rivals in the class, with an undercurrent of desire for each other and the favoritism of De Lafontaine. Even after Laura discovers De Lafontaine's secret and keeps it, she's drawn further into that world and her dominant tendencies as well as her desire for Carmilla.

The book is about toxic, obsessive love as well as vampirism and debauchery. Really, the topics seem to go hand in hand; what else can keep people going for decades or hundreds of years other than obsession? Jealousy, favoritism and secrets abound as a result, with Carmilla at the center of the V relationship. Or W, as it turns out that De Lafontaine has other obsessions besides Carmilla. The prose readily conveys the lush atmosphere and wanting of each character, until they come into their own at the end and no longer dwell in the past or on impossibilities. This was an engrossing read, keeping me up until I finished it. 

Buy An Education in Malice at Amazon

The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

book cover of fantasy mystery novel The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo
February 2024; Henry Holt and Co.; 978-1250266019
audio, ebook, print (400 pages); fantasy mystery

In 1908 Manchuria, a courtesan found frozen to death in a doorway leads to rumors of fox spirits. They lure people by transforming themselves into beautiful women and handsome men. Bao is a detective hired to uncover the dead woman’s identity. At the same time, a family with a famous Chinese medicine shop can cure illness but not the curse that has eldest sons die before their twenty-fourth birthdays. When Snow enters their household as a new servant, the family’s luck seems to change. She has many secrets, but above all she's looking for the one that murdered her child. She follows the trail from China to Japan, Bao following her in turn.

In the traditional stories, foxes are tricksters intent on harming humans for fun, and we see one of those tales as the opening of this novel. We meet Snow, on the hunt for her daughter's killer, and a series of events send her to the medicine hall of the cursed Huang family. Over the course of the novel, we learn the story of the family and the grandmother that she's hired on to help, as well as Bao's story and the struggles he had along the way to becoming an investigator. He can discern truth from lies and eventually discovers how he developed that ability. His story dovetails not just because of the investigation, but because of his past.

I lived the book, with its interwoven history and folklore. Foxes are still feared, but ultimately are people. They grieve and love and long for connections, which is where the issues with humans come from. They're supernatural creatures, and susceptible humans react badly to that power. Snow is the fox wife of the title, unwittingly setting into motion some of the complications we see in the book. Others are not, but she's caught up in their wake just the same. We have a great conclusion to the tale, and it feels like one of the many myths circulating about foxes. I adore this book and how its story was told.

Buy The Fox Wife at Amazon

Heartless Hunter by Kristen Ciccarelli

book cover of young adult dark fantasy novel Heartless Hunter by Kristen Ciccarelli
February 2024; Wednesday Books; 978-1250866905
audio, ebook, print (416 page); YA dark fantasy

In the aftermath of the revolution, witches are now outcasts ruthlessly hunted. Rune must hide what she is, pretending to be a socialite by day as she becomes the Crimson Moth at night to rescue witches from the purge. After a rescue gone wrong, Rune tries to throw witch hunters off her trail by courting the most notorious one of all, Gideon Sharpe. She falls for him in spite of herself, and he falls for her despite his loathing of superficial people. How will it end?

Witches use blood to cast spells, leaving silvery scars behind when the blood is used. Rune would have been killed as well as her grandmother if she hadn't turned her in when the revolution upended everything in the small island country. But the poor are still poor, witch sympathizers are marked or killed, and the rich continue with balls and superficial pursuits. The Crimson Moth uses magic to save witches from being killed, but Rune isn't as clever as she thinks she is, and Gideon is fueled by trauma as well as duty to the revolution. It's a bad combination, especially when others keep pushing Gideon and neither are able to be completely honest with each other. 

This gaslamp fantasy is heavily inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel, and its a tense chase to see if Rune will escape suspicion or if she can rescue the powerful witch in custody. While I was able to guess some of the twists in the final third of the book, I didn't see the exact ending coming. I hope there's a sequel to pick up where this left off, I really want to know what happens next!

Buy Heartless Hunter 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, all of these books sound amazing. The only one I had heard of before was Heartless Hunter. I will definitely be adding some or maybe even all of these to my TBR.