Fantasy Bingo 2020-2021 Wrap-Up + (25!) Mini Reviews

Posted 8th April 2021 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reading Challenges, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

Every year the r/Fantasy subreddit hosts a fantasy books bingo, with a new card full of prompts. It runs from April 1st-March 31st. Last year was the first time I participated, so here’s my (late) summary-post, complete with mini-reviews for each of the books I read!

Novel translated from its original language: Troll – a love story

Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo, Herbert Lomas
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Magical Realism
Representation: Gay MC
ISBN: 0802141293

Everyone has their rough nights, but things have clearly taken a turn for the surreal when Angel, a young photographer, finds a group of drunken teenagers in the courtyard of his apartment building, taunting a young troll. Trolls are known in Scandinavian mythology as wild beasts like the werewolf, but this troll is just a small, wounded creature. Angel decides to offer it a safe haven for the night. In the morning Angel thinks he dreamed it all. But he finds the troll alive, well, and drinking from his toilet. What does one do with a troll in the city?

Angel begins researching frantically. Angel searches the Internet, folklore, nature journals, and newspaper clippings, but his research doesn't tell him that trolls exude pheromones that have a profound aphrodisiac effect on all those around him. As Angel's life changes beyond recognition, it becomes clear that the troll is familiar with the man's most forbidden feelings, and that it may take him across lines he never thought he'd cross. A novel of sparkling originality, Troll is a wry, peculiar, and beguiling story of nature and man's relationship to wild things, and of the dark power of the wildness in ourselves.

Yeeeeeeah, this was a weird one! It’s been on my radar for years, vaguely, way back before I knew it was a translated novel. When looking for books for this prompt last year, it seemed perfect – by a Finnish author, originally in Finnish, set in Finland, where I live now! And the writing was actually wonderful, I thought – it was a really good read. But then…it sort of…goes in a direction…that is maybe-probably bestiality? And the thing is, even if it’s not bestiality, if the eponymous troll is intelligent like a human (which isn’t 100% clear)…well, then it’s pedophilia, because it’s a baby troll. So it made me very uncomfortable and left me conflicted and confused about whether or not I liked it. While at the same time, I do think it’s a well-written book. Like, on a technical level, I think Sinisalo is a great writer. But I still have no idea what to think about it!

Setting featuring snow/ice/cold: Blue Salt Road

The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M. Harris, Bonnie Helen Hawkins, Joanne Harris
Genres: Fantasy
ISBN: 1473222214

An earthly nourris sits and sings
And aye she sings,
"Ba lilly wean,
Little ken I my bairn's father,
Far less the land that he staps in. (Child Ballad, no. 113)

So begins a stunning tale of love, loss and revenge, against a powerful backdrop of adventure on the high seas, and drama on the land. The Blue Salt Road balances passion and loss, love and violence and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless, wild young man.

Passion drew him to a new world, and trickery has kept him there - without his memories, separated from his own people. But as he finds his way in this dangerous new way of life, so he learns that his notions of home, and your people, might not be as fixed as he believed.

Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairytale.

Oh, this one ripped my heart out. I’ve loved Harris’ books for a long time, and got very excited when she started to write overtly fantastical books. Like Pocketful of Crows, The Blue Salt Road is inspired by the Child Ballads, and several passing details make me think they take place in the same universe. (Although they can each be read as standalones just fine.) Unlike Crows, though, Blue is about selkies, magical creatures that are seals until they take off their seal-skins, at which point they appear human. Selkies are some of my favourite magical creatures, so I was extra excited for this one – even moreso when I discovered that the book is about a male selkie (the vast majority of the selkie mythos focuses on female selkies).

Most selkie stories don’t end happily; they tend to have bittersweet endings, at best. This one…I guess Harris meant it to be on the hopeful side of bittersweet. Me? I flat-out cried, because that kind of ending reads as a tragedy to me. The prose is as beautiful as all Harris’ works, poetic and lush with a fairytale-flavour…but don’t read this when you want something warm and happy, okay? Because it isn’t. Beautiful, but painful as an ice-burn.

Optimistic spec fic: Lovequake

Lovequake by T.J. Land
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Black pansexual MC, M/M or mlm, F/F or wlw, cast of colour, trans, asexual and aromantic character, disability

No one knows what to make of Sunday.

He’s handsome. He’s stylish. He’s got endless amounts of cash that he splashes around like water.

But there’s something just a little bit wrong about the way he talks – like he’s never had a conversation before – and the way he walks – like he expects walls to simply get out of his way. Though his hair and beard are immaculately groomed, he never brushes the former or trims the latter. And he talks to the sky.

All of which are very solid, sensible reasons for Zip Fletcher, cheerfully rude Welsh sex worker, not to develop a crush on him.

Zip is, however, not a sensible man.

LOVEQUAKE is an M/M + F/F romantic scifi adventure set against the backdrop of a quintillion-year-old cosmic war.

I’m going to have to reread this sooner rather than later, because I couldn’t capture in words how amazing it was the first time around so clearly, another read-through is needed – this time with me taking notes! But it is without question one of the best books I read in 2020, and one of my favourite books ever. It’s just so much fun, so relatable and enjoyable and meaningful, and diverse as fuck, and the sci-fi worldbuilding is minimal but phenomenal. (By which I mean, it’s not shoved in your face, but what we get of it is incredible.) I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want to; it appeared in my life when I was in a lot of pain and misery, and managed to have me laughing like a lunatic more than once. I love, love, love this book, and I absolutely insist that you read it too!

(Seriously, how is this not all over the bestseller lists???)

Novel featuring necromancy: Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #2) by Tamsyn Muir
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Sapphic MC, sapphic secondary character, bi/pansexual secondary characters
ISBN: 1250313228

Harrow the Ninth, the sequel to Gideon the Ninth, turns a galaxy inside out as one necromancer struggles to survive the wreckage of herself aboard the Emperor's haunted space station.

She answered the Emperor's call.

She arrived with her arts, her wits, and her only friend.

In victory, her world has turned to ash.

After rocking the cosmos with her deathly debut, Tamsyn Muir continues the story of the penumbral Ninth House in Harrow the Ninth, a mind-twisting puzzle box of mystery, murder, magic, and mayhem. Nothing is as it seems in the halls of the Emperor, and the fate of the galaxy rests on one woman's shoulders.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor's Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?

This one was almost a cop-out, because…well. Did anyone not read Harrow the Ninth for this square??? I actually enjoyed the first book, Gideon, much more the second time around (in preparation for reading Harrow) than I did the first, which was a huge relief because my original ‘meh’ reaction to it made me wonder if I was broken.

But after all that, Harrow was extremely different from Gideon. Not bad at all – I really enjoyed it, even if it also confused the hell out of me – but very different, and not just because Gideon and Harrow are very different characters who are obviously going to give a different vibe to the books they feature in. Gideon was written in third-person past-tense, and ultimately had a big murder-mystery element with a very large cast; Harrow, on the other hand, is written in second-person present-tense, which, omg, and the biggest mystery is what the fuck. There’s a heavy dose of unreliable narrator, a much-shrunk cast that is far easier to keep track of, and the worldbuilding is massively expanded upon – all of which I appreciated immensely.

And gods damn I did not see any of that coming.

Ace/Aro spec fic: Rogue Protocol

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries, #3) by Martha Wells
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Asexual agender MC
ISBN: 1250191785

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

MURDERBOT MURDERBOT MURDERBOT! Yeah, this was probably a cop-out too – unless especially arranged otherwise a robot is ace+aro by default, and being ace all in all less important to Murderbot than it would be to a human… Still! I don’t really need to tell you that a Murderbot book was awesome fun, but allow me to tell you anyway: this was a lot of fun, albeit slightly less so than the previous novella, imo.

Novel featuring a ghost: Empress of Salt and Fortune

The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle, #1) by Nghi Vo
ISBN: 125075030X

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

The bingo allows you one reread, and this was mine, in preparation for reading the sequel! If you haven’t read this novella yet, you really do HAVE TO: the prose is exquisite and the story itself is literally breathtaking. There are mammoths and fortune-tellers and talking birds with photographic memories, okay, what more do I need to say???

But for real, this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – as is the sequel, which I reviewed here. I can’t wait for Vo’s debut novel in a few months, and I hope she comes back to the Singing Hills verse soon!

Novel featuring exploration: The Ninth Rain

The Ninth Rain (The Winnowing Flame Trilogy, #1) by Jen Williams
Genres: Queer Protagonists, High Fantasy
Representation: Sapphic MC, secondary gay character
ISBN: 1472235177

The great city of Ebora once glittered with gold. Now its streets are stalked by wolves. Tormalin the Oathless has no taste for sitting around waiting to die while the realm of his storied ancestors falls to pieces - talk about a guilt trip. Better to be amongst the living, where there are taverns full of women and wine.

When eccentric explorer, Lady Vincenza 'Vintage' de Grazon, offers him employment, he sees an easy way out. Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, the prospect of facing down monsters and retrieving ancient artefacts is preferable to the abomination he left behind.

But not everyone is willing to let the Eboran empire collapse, and the adventurers are quickly drawn into a tangled conspiracy of magic and war. For the Jure'lia are coming, and the Ninth Rain must fall...

I loved this so much that I went and bought the rest of the trilogy before I’d even finished book one. It’s set in a world that has been besieged by monster-aliens eight times, each time driven back by the Eborran tree-god and his winged warrior beasts. The Ninth Rain, though, takes place after the tree-god has died, and the Eborrans, who were immortal thanks to drinking the tree’s sap, have pretty much dissolved as a people and a civilisation. The story follows Vintage, an older woman fascinated by the Wild (those parts of the world that were mutated by the alien-monsters) and her Eborran escort; and Fell, a young girl who can turn life-energy into balefire and who, like all her kind, is enslaved so her balefire can be used for making lucrative drugs. Their storylines converge with a bang (literally). I really loved the worldbuilding, and Vintage is an amazing character, and I couldn’t stop turning pages to find out what happened next. There are so many mysteries, and some of them you can put together if you’re familiar with fantasy tropes, but some have completely unexpected reveals at the end of them.

Climate fiction: City in the middle of the night

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Sapphic MC
ISBN: 0765379961

Would you give up everything to change the world?

Humanity clings to life on January--a colonized planet divided between permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other.

Two cities, built long ago in the meager temperate zone, serve as the last bastions of civilization--but life inside them is just as dangerous as the uninhabitable wastelands outside.

Sophie, a young student from the wrong side of Xiosphant city, is exiled into the dark after being part of a failed revolution. But she survives--with the help of a mysterious savior from beneath the ice.

Burdened with a dangerous, painful secret, Sophie and her ragtag group of exiles face the ultimate challenge--and they are running out of time.

Welcome to the City in the Middle of the Night

Sigh. This book pissed me off, because it was amazing and clever and poignant and beautifully written…and then it had a stupid not-ending. The narrative just stops, long before the actual story is over, exactly like All the Birds in the Sky did. Standalones are hard because you have to fit a whole story into one book, but just not-writing the last third of the story to make it fit is cheating. So yeah, this left me sour. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more standalone from Anders, because I can’t trust her to end them properly!

Novel with a colour in the title: House in the Cerulean Sea

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
Genres: Queer Protagonists
Representation: M/M or mlm
ISBN: 1250217288

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours

It feels like the entire internet fell in love with this book, which…okay! I didn’t love it, but it was nice. It’s not at all a bad book. I didn’t find it as much of a heart-home/comfort-read as a lot of other people did, but that’s fine. It’s sweet and nice (and a proper standalone). It did not displease.

r/Fantasy book-club/readalong: The Bone Ships

The Bone Ships (The Tide Child, #1) by R.J. Barker
Genres: High Fantasy
Representation: Queernorm world
ISBN: 0316487961

A brilliantly imagined saga of honor, glory, and warfare, The Bone Ships is the epic launch of a new fantasy from David Gemmell Award-nominated RJ Barker.
Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.

For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war.

The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.

Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

I didn’t take part in the book club/readalong discussion, but damn this book!!! The worldbuilding is phenomenal, with a matriarchal archipelago whose livlihood and culture revolve around their ships – ships made from the bones of now-extinct sea dragons, because there is no wood in this world. !!! I loved the premise immediately, and the writing was intense and addictive. Barker writes with an unusual rhythm that takes a few minutes to adjust to, but that quickly sweeps you up and away with the story. I wish the editors had been better at catching typos – there were enough to make me twitchy, but they were pretty minor. And that’s really the only negative thing I have to say about the book.

Self-published novel: Night Shift Dragons

Night Shift Dragons (DFZ, #3) by Rachel Aaron
Representation: Korean MC, major Korean secondary character

They say family always sticks together, but when you’re your dad’s only lifeline and the whole world—humans, dragons, and gods—wants you dead, “family bonding” takes on a whole new meaning.

My name is Opal Yong-ae, and I’m in way over my head. I thought getting rid of my dad’s bad luck curse would put things back to normal. Instead, I’m stuck playing caretaker to the Great Dragon of Korea. That wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t such a jerk, or if every dragon on the planet wasn’t out to kill him, or if he was my only problem.

Turns out, things can always get worse in the DFZ. When a rival spirit attacks my god/boss with the aim of turning the famously safety-optional city into a literal death arena with Nik as his bloody champion, I’m thrust onto the front lines and way out of my comfort zone. When gods fight, mortals don’t usually survive, but I’m not alone this time. Even proud old dragons can learn new tricks, and with everything I love falling to pieces, the father I’ve always run from might just be the only force in the universe stubborn enough to pull us back together.

Rachel Aaron has been in my auto-buy list since the start of her Heartstrikers series. Night Shift Dragons is the last book of a series that takes place in the same world as Heartstrikers, a few years later with a whole new cast (although we do get a glimpse of a few old friends). I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did the Heartstriker books, but it’s still a lot of really clever fun, fast-paced and easy to read with characters you can’t help but adore.

Novel with chapter epigraphs: We unleash the merciless storm

We Unleash the Merciless Storm (We Set the Dark on Fire, #2) by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Representation: Cast of colour, lesbian MCs, F/F or wlw
ISBN: 0062691341

In this nail-biting sequel to Tehlor Kay Mejia’s critically acclaimed fantasy novel We Set the Dark on Fire, La Voz operative Carmen is forced to choose between the girl she loves and the success of the rebellion she’s devoted her life to. Perfect for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Anna-Marie McLemore.

Being a part of the resistance group La Voz is an act of devotion and desperation. On the other side of Medio’s border wall, the oppressed class fights for freedom and liberty, sacrificing what little they have to become defenders of the cause.

Carmen Santos is one of La Voz’s best soldiers. She spent years undercover, but now, with her identity exposed and the island on the brink of a civil war, Carmen returns to the only real home she’s ever known: La Voz’s headquarters.

There she must reckon with her beloved leader, who is under the influence of an aggressive new recruit, and with the devastating news that her true love might be the target of an assassination plot. Will Carmen break with her community and save the girl who stole her heart—or fully embrace the ruthless rebel she was always meant to be?

There’s no getting around it: this was a major disappointment. The first book in the duet was fantastic, but this was just…so meh. All the fierceness of the first book just fizzled out, I guess. It might be that the first book set my expectations so high; possibly Storm wouldn’t feel like a let-down if I didn’t have the first book to compare it to?

Novel published in 2020: Docile

Docile by K.M. Szpara
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: M/M or mlm, queernorm world
ISBN: 125021615X

There is no consent under capitalism

Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, a challenging tour de force that at turns seduces and startles.
To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents' debts and buy your children's future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

There aren’t many books that pull off fucked up properly, but Docile definitely did. The subject matter was obviously horrifying, but I still ended up loving it – I’ve loved Szpara’s style since I came across his short fiction, and getting a whole novel of it was fantastic. I was also massively impressed with how deftly he pulled off the…let’s not call it a love story, because it’s way more complicated than that, but the relationship between the two main characters, the development of it and the arc of it and how they both evolve over the course of the book. The way Szpara doesn’t try to romanticise it or sweep the inconvenient aspects under the rug. In some ways it feels like a middle finger aimed at 50 Shades of Grey – this is how you actually handle kink and D/s and Stockholm Syndrome and rape, asshole – while also being a pretty damning indictment of capitalism, and all of it wrapped up in a powerful, difficult story with addictive prose. To put it mildly, I loved this book.

Novel set in a school/university: What Fresh Hell

What Fresh Hell (The Gods are Bastards #1) by D.D. Webb

It was a world of sword and sorcery... But that was a thousand years ago.

In the Empire of Tiraas, an age of fantastic adventures is grinding to a halt. The gods have all but ceased calling paladins, new Rail networks connect far-flung cities, and heroic exploits are being replaced by bureaucracy and mass production. Dungeons, once sources of peril, loot, and thrilling tales, are now emptied or sealed off. The dwarven kingdoms are in decline, the mysterious elves have been pushed back into isolated forests, and dragons are rarely seen. Adventurers, once the backbone of human power, are considered relics of the past. Even the Demon Queen and her vile minions have gone strangely quiet...or so the world believes.

A few holdouts of a more heroic age continue to gather at the University in Last Rock, a lone school still teaching its students to fulfill grand destinies. This year, two new paladins are among them, rekindling hope that the gods have not abandoned the world after all. Unfortunately, the newest crop of would-be adventurers quickly prove to be more of a threat to each other than to any demonic invaders. In a peaceful modern world, after all, most don't expect to be called on for any heroics.

In the Imperial capital, however, a plot against the throne shows that the Demon Queen hasn't given up on her ambitions, but learned to adapt to the new age of machines and laws. The Empire, the Universal Church, and the followers of the quiet gods scramble to face a threat they've forgotten how to meet, while next generation of heroes squabble among themselves with no idea what's coming.

Evil is returning to the world, and no one is ready.

What Fresh Hell is the first part of The Gods Are Bastards webserial, which you can read online here, but you can buy the (massive) first part as an ebook. It describes itself as a ‘high fantasy western’, which actually gives you a pretty accurate idea of the level of magic and technology of the world, but What Fresh Hell takes place almost exclusively in the University at Last Rock, an eclectic and eccentric institution that makes it perfect for the eclectic and eccentric group of students who attend it.

Book about Books: Midnight Bargain

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Brown love interest, asexual-coded secondary character
ISBN: 1645660079

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

Oh, but this was beautiful. Unquestionably one of my favourite books of last year, The Midnight Bargain is all gorgeous prose and heart-in-your-throat emotion, as I detailed in my review. This was a book that made me FEEL, swinging me between anxiety and delight and empathic rage and swooning. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that invested in a romantic plotline before, and I absolutely ached for Beatrice and the terrible position she was in. Her world felt so real, so believable, that it was chilling at times – maybe that made it easier to empathise with her – but the writing was stunning, and I loved all of the characters (including the spirits!) so very much.

I mean, I knew this was going to be a book for me when two pages in, Beatrice was hunting books and getting strangled by the necessities of politeness. I can relate!

Book that made you laugh: Paladin’s Grace

Paladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Minor nonbinary character

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…

Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…

From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

This is another one I managed to review, although only a little while ago, when I was refreshing my memory before I jumped into the sequel! But like all of Kingfisher’s books, Paladin’s Grace was hysterically funny while also being deeply emotional. Kingfisher’s romantic relationships are always so emotionally healthy, and I love it. She always writes people that feel like real people – I’m never rolling my eyes at the dialogue because ‘NO ONE TALKS LIKE THAT’; instead I’m always nodding approval as the great big paladin sits down to knit socks…

5 short stories: see list

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix Harrow
This was a really beautiful story about the magic of books…and also the witch-librarians who help the right people find the books they need the most. It made my heart ache, though – I was more than a little jealous of all the characters involved!

The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix Harrow
This one is set in the same world as The Once and Future Witches, about a woman who turned herself into a tree to get away from a man…and who takes an interest in the life of another young woman who passes under her branches. It’s a quiet but fiercely feminist story that has exactly the same feel as OaFW.

The Ransom of Miss Coraline Connelly by Alix Harrow
I laughed; this one utterly delighted me! There was a bit of a Labyrinth vibe, if the Goblin King began to panic that no one was coming to take back the infant he stole. I really adored the little bits of worldbuilding that got snuck into the letters that were coming back to Coraline’s mum, and the ending made me grin like a total idiot.

Geometries of Belonging by RB Lemberg
A standalone story in Lemberg’s beautiful Birdverse – a world of magic overseen by the goddess Bird – Geometries is about a healer who has figured out how to use their magic to heal (or at least help) mental illnesses and disorders, and is then confronted by an asshat who wants their child cured of autism.

Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds by RB Lemberg
A prequel to Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves, I do not recommend jumping into Weaves before you’ve read this story. (Really, I think it should have been included in the book, but there you go.) Again, this is set in the Birdverse, and follows the daughters of a matriarchal trading people as they go out into the world to make their fortunes…more or less. It’s a fair bit more complicated than that, but I don’t want to spoil it for you!

Big dumb object: Obsidian Tower

The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin, #1) by Melissa Caruso
Genres: Queer Protagonists, High Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual MC, nonbinary secondary character, queernorm world
ISBN: 035651319X

The mage-marked granddaughter of a ruler of Vaskandar, Ryx was destined for power and prestige at the top of Vaskandran society. But her magic is broken; all she can do is uncontrollably drain the life from everything she touches, and Vaskandar has no place for a mage with unusable powers.

Then, one night, two terrible accidents befall her: Ryx accidentally kills a visiting dignitary in self-defense, activating a mysterious magical artifact sealed in an ancient tower in the heart of her family’s castle.

Ryx flees, seeking a solution to her deadly magic. She falls in with a group of unlikely magical experts investigating the disturbance in Vaskandar—and Ryx realizes that her family is in danger and her domain is at stake. She and her new colleagues must return to the family stronghold to take control of the artifact that everyone wants to claim—before it destroys the world.

I read this without having read the author’s Defiant Mage trilogy, set in the same world but in the empire next door to this book’s setting – and I’m really glad I read them in that order. You don’t need to have read the trilogy to get Tower, and I recommend that you don’t read it until you’re done with Tower. Entering Vaskandar without preconceptions is for the best, I think.

This is a political fantasy about a bisexual mage who can’t touch people without killing them – a premise that’s always going to get my attention. All in all, though, despite the fact that this is supposed to be Adult Fantasy, it reads as very YA – the politicking is kept pretty simple, and the story feels a little simplified from what it could have been. That said, it’s still well-written and interesting, and I really sympathised for the poor MC, who is left with a hell of a mess in hands that cut her off from any kind of close relationships. The wider cast is really solid, too, right down to the most minor of characters – they all feel like fully-realised people, whether you like them or not.

Feminist novel: The Fortress

The Fortress by S.A. Jones
ISBN: 1645660028

Jonathon Bridge’s arrival at The Fortress – a society run and populated by women – begins with a recitation of the conditions of his stay: he is forbidden to ask questions, to raise his hand in anger, and to refuse sex. 

Jonathon has offered himself as a supplicant in The Fortress after his pregnant wife Adalia discovered the ugly sexual violence pervading his top-tier firm. She has agreed to continue their fractured relationship on the condition he enter The Fortress for one year.

Jonathon is utterly unprepared for what will happen to him over the course of the year – not only to his body, but his mind and his heart.

This absorbing, confronting and moving novel asks questions about consent, power, love and fulfilment. It asks what it takes for a man to change, and whether change is possible without a radical reversal of the conditions that seem normal.

I was majorly impressed by The Fortress, and couldn’t tear myself away from the pages even when very disturbing things were happening on those pages. It’s a rough read, and it’s meant to be; it’s a very incisive look at feminism and misogyny and toxic masculinity, and challenges you not to look away. It’s also about violence and rehabilitation and questioning the things we take for granted, in the world and in ourselves. So yes, it’s very much an Issues Book, but it’s also a really enthralling story about a kind of awful guy going through a kind of rehab for misogyny by stepping into (and submitting to) an isolationist, indigenous matriarchy. There’s no overt fantastical or sci fi elements – it’s just an alternate modern day, where this matriarchy exists alongside what we think of as modern America.

It’s pretty freaking brilliant. If you can stomach it.

Novel by a Canadian author: Wolf of Oren-Yaro

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1) by K.S. Villoso
Genres: High Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour
ISBN: 0316532665

A queen of a divided land must unite her people, even if they hate her, even if it means stopping a ruin that she helped create. A debut epic fantasy from an exciting new voice.

"I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me."

Born under the crumbling towers of Oren-yaro, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart. Her upcoming marriage to the son of her father's rival heralds peaceful days to come.
But his sudden departure before their reign begins fractures the kingdom beyond repair.

Years later, Talyien receives a message, urging her to attend a meeting across the sea. It's meant to be an effort at reconciliation, but an assassination attempt leaves the queen stranded and desperate to survive in a dangerous land. With no idea who she can trust, she's on her own as she struggles to fight her way home.

I still don’t know how I feel about this one, whether I enjoyed it or not. I definitely got sucked into it, but I’m still not sure if I liked it. I loved the setting, which is inspired by the Philippines and is so different from the standard quasi-western-Medieval (quasi because, sorry, even in Western Europe the Medieval period had a lot more Black and Brown people, and more influential women, than Those Writers want to admit), but I did get confused as to what was going on in the third quarter of the book. In fairness, I’m pretty sure I was supposed to be confused, since the main character also didn’t know what was happening.

I wasn’t overly fond of most of the cast, but again, I don’t think most of the main characters were made to be likable. (With one obvious exception!) I definitely found myself glued to the pages; I just can’t tell you how that happened. On paper, Wolf doesn’t really look like something I’d enjoy. And yet… I’m halfway through the sequel already.

It’s one of those books, you know?

Novel with a number in the title: Seven Endless Forests

Seven Endless Forests by April Genevieve Tucholke
Genres: Fantasy
ISBN: 0374307091

In this gorgeous standalone companion to the critically acclaimed fantasy, The Boneless Mercies, April Tucholke spins a bold and blood-hungry retelling of the King Arthur legend that is perfect for fans of Naomi Novik, Garth Nix, and Laini Taylor.

On the heels of a devastating plague, Torvi’s sister, Morgunn, is stolen from the family farm by Uther, a flame-loving Fremish wolf-priest who leads a pack of ragged, starving girls. Torvi leaves the only home she’s ever known, and joins a shaven-skulled druid and a band of roaming Elsh artists known as the Butcher Bards. They set out on a quest to rescue Torvi’s sister, and find a mythical sword.

On their travels, Torvi and her companions will encounter magical night wilds and mystical Drakes who trade in young men. They will sing rowdy Elshland ballads in a tree-town tavern, and find a mysterious black tower in an Endless Forest. They will fight alongside famous Vorseland archers and barter with Fremish wizards. They will feast with rogue Jade Fell children in a Skal Mountain cave, and seek the help of a Pig Witch. They will face wild, dangerous magic that leads to love, joy, tragedy, and death.

Torvi set out to rescue a sister, but she may find it’s merely the first step toward a life that is grander and more glorious than anything she could have imagined.

I really loved The Boneless Mercies by the same author, and this is actually set in the same verse, but a few countries away from where Mercies went down. It’s very dreamy and poetic, with dozens of side-quests that draw inspiration from a few different Arthurian and Viking etc myths…it really reads like dozens of self-contained stories rather than one big overarching plot, and sometimes that annoyed me, but mostly I could let it go and just drift in the beautiful prose. Every issue that comes up, every side-quest and all, is resolved with irritating ease, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be an action-heavy story. It was a really wonderful book to curl up with before bed – it has that kind of feel, soft and magical, just what you want before drifting off into dreams…

Romantic fantasy: Emerald Blaze

Emerald Blaze (Hidden Legacy, #5) by Ilona Andrews
ISBN: 0062878360

As Prime magic users, Catalina Baylor and her sisters have extraordinary powers—powers their ruthless grandmother would love to control.

 Catalina can earn her family some protection working as deputy to the Warden of Texas, overseeing breaches of magic law in the state, but that has risks as well. When House Baylor is under attack and monsters haunt her every step, Catalina is forced to rely on handsome, dangerous Alessandro Sagredo, the Prime who crushed her heart.
The nightmare that Alessandro has fought since childhood has come roaring back to life, but now Catalina is under threat. Not even his lifelong quest for revenge will stop him from keeping her safe, even if every battle could be his last. Because Catalina won't rest until she stops the use of the illicit, power-granting serum that's tearing their world apart. 

I’ve been surprised from day one by how much I adore the Hidden Legacy series; the covers, in particular, scream Tropy Paranormal Romance, which is so very far from my thing. But the first trilogy absolutely hooked me, and I am here for the sequel trilogy featuring Catarina. Ilona Andrews constantly subverts expectations when it comes to their romances – the love interests are never quite what they seem to be at first – and Emerald Blaze is probably the best reveal to date. I liked Alessandro before, and was already plenty invested, but after this book I’m a full on cheerleader for these two. Pom-poms and everything!

A huge amount of fun, plenty of action, and a romance that takes an unexpected and sweet turn in this book.

Novel with a magical pet: Crown of Feathers

Crown of Feathers (Crown of Feathers, #1) by Nicki Pau Preto
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour
ISBN: 1534424628

I had a sister, once…

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I promised her the throne would not come between us.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

Sometimes the title of queen is given. Sometimes it must be taken.

I enjoyed Crown of Feathers a lot, but I have to admit it was the gorgeous cover art that drew my attention first. And I just love the idea of phoenix-riders! I thought the worldbuilding was wonderful, but I admit that by the end I was struggling. I’m kind of tired of stories where girls and women are struggling against a male-dominated system – and there’s never a good reason for it. At least in the real world, I can trace how we ended up with a patriarchy – kind of comes down to male physical strength, in the end – but when you have a culture that was ruled for centuries by warrior-queens, why would they just up and decide that girls can’t be phoenix riders in the resistance??? It’s just…stupid. And I know people are stupid all the time, but I don’t want to read about stupid people.

The ending came with a fantastic twist-and-reveal that means I’ll definitely be reading the sequel, though.

Audiobook or graphic novel (at least one volume): Sera and the Royal Stars

Sera and the Royal Stars, Vol. 1 by Jon Tsuei, Audrey Mok, Raul Angulo, Jim Campbell
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour
ISBN: 1939424577

A sprawling female-led epic fantasy in the vein of Monstress and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Civil war rages in the Empire of Parsa, and famine has struck. As the seasons refuse to turn, Princess Sera receives a vision from the deity Mitra telling her to find the Royal Stars and restore them to the heavens. Despite her kingdom and her troops' need of her command, Sera embarks on a quest to find the fallen stars-now trapped on earth-and save her people from dearth and death.

I don’t usually read graphic novels, although I’ve started experimenting with audiobooks because of my fibromyalgia (when my hands hurt too much to hold my ereader, I can still listen to an audiobook). Sera and the Royal Stars had a beautiful art style, and a premise that drew on mythologies I don’t see getting used very often. The character designs for the various supernatural/divine characters are simply amazing, and although the storyline itself isn’t that unique – a quest is a quest, you know? – the worldbuilding is wildly unique and exciting, and the scriptwriting is amazing. I wrote a glowing review for volume one way back when, and I’m about to start reading volume two!

Novel featuring politics: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (The Shadow Histories, #1) by H.G. Parry
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Representation: Black pov character
ISBN: 0316459089

A sweeping tale of revolution and wonder in a world not quite like our own, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is a genre-defying story of magic, war, and the struggle for freedom in the early modern world.

It is the Age of Enlightenment -- of new and magical political movements, from the necromancer Robespierre calling for revolution in France to the weather mage Toussaint L'Ouverture leading the slaves of Haiti in their fight for freedom, to the bold new Prime Minister William Pitt weighing the legalization of magic amongst commoners in Britain and abolition throughout its colonies overseas.

But amidst all of the upheaval of the early modern world, there is an unknown force inciting all of human civilization into violent conflict. And it will require the combined efforts of revolutionaries, magicians, and abolitionists to unmask this hidden enemy before the whole world falls to darkness and chaos.

This one got a full review from me, which you can read over here. Originally I put it down for my ‘necromancy’ square, but really, it fit the politics prompt a lot better. It’s the French Revolution and Britain’s slave trade in a world where tons of people have magic, but only aristocrats are allowed to use it. The magical system seems a little simple at first, but there are so many layers to this book; my review ended up reading a lot more like one of the essays I used to write for English Lit class. I adored it, though; couldn’t put it down, even during the horrifying parts.

Aaaaaand, that’s all of ’em! I’m putting together a tentative tbr for this year’s bingo card, and I’ll post more about that in the coming days! Anyone else taking part?

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