Fantasy, Fiction

The Goblin Emperor

Cover image for The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

by Katherine Addison

ISBN 9781429946407

“Dach’osmin Ceredin had warned him about Min Vechin, but he wanted a dutiful companion no more than he wanted a mercenary one. He wanted a friend, and that, it seemed, was exactly what he could not have.”

When an airship crash leads to the death of the Emperor of the Elflands and all his immediate successors, the youngest son of Varenechibel IV unexpectedly finds himself on the throne. Half-goblin prince Maia Drazhar has lived his life in exile from his father’s court. Since the death of his mother when he was eight, he has been raised by a relegated cousin who was also out of favour with the emperor. Friendless and largely unschooled in the customs of the court, the new emperor will need to find allies quickly if he is to seize control of a country in turmoil. But there are factions of the court that will never stand for a half-goblin on the throne, and to survive the Untheileneise Court Maia will have to outwit the opposition while also investigating the suspicious deaths of his estranged family.

The Goblin Emperor gets off to a relatively slow start, opening with Maia receiving the stunning news that he his emperor but then spending the first quarter of the book getting him crowned. Add this to the esoteric naming conventions, and the formal court speech style which can feel quite stilted, and this is the type of worldbuilding that it can take a while to sink into. The setting is introduced via an excerpted travelogue or guidebook that gives an overview of the Elflands and the customs of the court. There is also an extensive glossary of places and characters. Please see below for a much livelier introduction to the important characters, humorously detailed by my friend Amelia, who recommended the book!

Presenting: "Who the heck is that!?" by Amelia Garcia Scott, A Very Accurate Guide to the Characters in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia never imagined himself at court, let alone on the throne, and he has little taste for power. In fact, in Maia we find a surprisingly kind and reflective character who is determined not to perpetuate the injustices he has suffered at the hands of his father. As much as he would like to abdicate the responsibility of the crown, the only other possible heirs are still children, and Maia knows enough history to understand that the regency of a minor could result in a disastrous power struggle. At eighteen, he is barely more than a child himself, but the task nevertheless falls to him. The plot follows Maia as he reluctantly learns the ways of the court while also trying to mount an investigation into the airship crash the landed him on the throne.

While the plot follows the investigation into the crash of the Wisdom of Choharo, the emotional arc of the story bends around Maia’s loneliness from his time in exile, and the new form of loneliness he discovers at court as the newly crowned emperor Edrehasivar VII. Surrounded by courtiers, servants, secretaries, and bodyguards, he is nevertheless more isolated than he has ever been. What Maia wants more than anything else is a friend, but it seems that is the one luxury even the Emperor of the Elflands cannot obtain. Everyone at court wants something from him or has their own agenda. However, The Goblin Emperor is more character- than plot-driven, resulting in a surprisingly cozy court intrigue as Maia builds the relationships he will need to rule long and well despite the prejudice that surrounds him.

You might also like:

A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

Hell Bent (Alex Stern #2)

Cover image for Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9781250313102

“To pay your debts, you had to know who you owed. You had to decide who you were willing to go to war for and who you trusted to jump into the fray for you. That was all there was in this world. No heroes or villains, just the people you’d brave the waves for, and the ones you’d let drown.”

After the events of Ninth House, Daniel Arlington—the part of him that isn’t trapped in hell—is bound in the warding circle in ballroom of Black Elm, but that binding will not hold forever. Without his soul, the gentleman of Lethe isn’t quite human, and there is no saying what destruction might be unleashed when the circle finally fails. Alex Stern and Pamela Dawes will need to find the gateway to hell rumoured to be hidden in New Haven and either steal Darlington’s soul back or destroy him before he harms anyone. Forbidden by Lethe from attempting the rescue, Dante, Oculus and Centurion shed their official roles and—with the help of an unexpected ally—set about planning a covert operation to extract Darlington. But no one can walk into hell without paying a price.

Heading into her second year with Lethe, Alex is trying to keep too many balls in the air. She needs to attend class, save Darlington from hell, appease the reactionary new praetor of Lethe, assuage her mother’s worries, and ensure that her roommates don’t find out anything they shouldn’t about the supernatural. Worse, the past she thought she’d left behind in Los Angeles has come calling, and now she has a drug lord to worry about. And if that weren’t enough, Alex doesn’t just see the Greys, she now hears them as well, raising more questions about what it means to be a Wheelwalker.

In Hell Bent, Leigh Bardugo employs a non-linear narrative structure similar to Ninth House; we get a glimpse into a moment of crisis before returning to the beginning of the school year and learning how Alex came to that critical point. The story is told predominantly from Alex’s point of view, but with additional sections from the other characters. In particular, on the descent to hell, we see from the perspective of each of the four pilgrims the murder that qualifies them to descend, deepening our insights into the secondary characters. The not-quite-human Darlington also gets a stint in the second half.

Hell Bent comes in at nearly 500 pages, and is divided into two parts, entitled “As Above” and “So Below.” While there are constant puzzles and dangerous occurrences driving the action, the pacing was recursive, particularly around the mid-point when a failed first attempt to extract Darlington from hell sets Alex and her allies back to square one in many respects. And with the door to hell cracked open, additional complications rear their heads in the second act, not all of which are resolved in this installment. On Twitter, Bardugo has hinted there may be as many as five book in the series, though nothing is certain in publishing.

Like its predecessor, Hell Bent absolutely runs the gamut of possible content warnings for everything from death and violence to police brutality and animal cruelty. If you need more information, consider checking out the book’s page on Storygraph. This Goodreads alternative allows users to submit warnings along with their reviews, an extremely useful feature for helping you decide if a book or series might be your speed right now. However, do note that since these are user submitted, the feature necessarily works better for more popular books that have a lot of reviews. I’ve been trying it out for the last year or so, and you can find me here on Storygraph.

You might also like Babel by R.F. Kuang

Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Stolen Heir

Cover image for The Stolen Heir by Holly Black

by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316592703 

“My greatest weakness has always been my desire for love. It is a yawning chasm within me, and the more that I reach for it, the more easily I am tricked. I am a walking bruise, an open sore. If Oak is masked, I am a face with all the skin ripped off. Over and over, I have told myself that I need to guard against my own yearnings, but that hasn’t worked. I must try something new.”

New to the world of Elfhame? Start here with The Cruel Prince!

Prince Oak, heir to the Greenbriar line, has grown up under Heather and Vivi’s care in the mortal world and has now returned to the treacherous fae court in Elfhame. General Madoc is being held prisoner in the Court of Teeth, and despite his betrayals, Oak is still determined to save the father who raised him, with or without help from Jude and Cardan. But to do that, he’ll need find Lady Suren, the true queen of the north and the one person with the power to defeat Lady Nore thanks to the oath the High Queen forced Lady Nore to swear to her daughter and queen. Meanwhile, Wren has been living half-wild in the mortal world, close but not too close to her former human family. She makes a place for herself breaking the curses and traps that faeries try to trick mortals into. But without a strong talent for glamour, she cannot truly become part of the mortal world again thanks to her blue skin and knife-sharp teeth. When Oak appears in the mortal world asking for her help, Wren knows she cannot not trust him, but nor can she deny the desire to follow him.

The adventure of The Stolen Heir takes the form of a quest, crossing from the mortal world and traveling north to the Ice Citadel where Lady Nore is holding Madoc captive in her dungeons. After stealing Mab’s bones from the bowels of the court of Elfhame, Lady Nore has been using the magic of the dead fae queen’s remains to raise a terrible army. But she is still bound by oath of fealty to Lady Suren; a word from her could ruin all of Lady Nore’s plans—if Wren can get close enough. Doing so will require her to work closely with Oak. Our protagonists are two damaged children who have spent their lives being used as political pawns and now find themselves on the verge of adulthood. A true alliance between them could reshape the political landscape of Elfhame, but trust is terribly hard to come by.

Since the events of The Queen of Nothing, mischievous little Prince Oak has grown up to be beautiful and charming. Wren is afraid that Oak is a gancanagh—a lovetalker, like his birth mother before him, who ensnared first the High King, and then his son. Having spent her time in the mortal world as a cursebreaker, Wren knows all too well that she should never trust the beauty or charm of one of the fair folk. It does not help matters that Oak and Tiernan still hold Grimsen’s bridle, the magical artifact that Wren’s parents once used to control her. Worse, they are actively using it on Hyancinthe, keeping him prisoner and taking him north with them on their mission. Wren fears being put back in the bridle, but it is terrible in an entirely different way to see it inflicted upon another, and to do nothing.

In Holly Black’s new duology set in the world of Elfhame, Oak and Wren take center stage, with a side plot featuring Oak’s bodyguard Tiernan and his former lover Hyacinthe, who found themselves on opposite sides of the war. Jude and Cardan are firmly off-page, though the conclusion of The Stolen Heir makes it likely that they will feature more significantly in The Prisoner’s Throne, due out in 2024.

You might also like:

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

A Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Fantasy, Fiction

The Angel of the Crows

Cover image for The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

by Katherine Addison

ISBN 97880765387394

“I know losing your name isn’t as disastrous for you as it would be for one of us. But it still seems terrible to me that all of these women, either nobody noticed they were gone, or nobody cared enough to go to the police and tell them the dead woman’s name.”

The Angel of the Crows is set in a fantasy 1880s England where angels and demons, werewolves and vampires, all are real. But so too are the depravities of mankind, and an all too human serial killer is stalking London’s East End, preying on the vulnerable women who reside there. Guardian angels protect churches and public houses and train stations, but no angel can protect the streets, or claim an entire city. But the Angel of the Crows, who sometimes styles himself the Angel of London, is determined to try, even if it makes him a pariah among his own kind. Meanwhile, Dr. J.H. Doyle has returned from Afghanistan with a secret, following a near-death encounter with the Fallen, former angels who have lost their names. When Dr. Doyle takes up rooming with Crow, unable to afford London living alone on his meagre pension, he finds himself pulled into Crow’s cases and discovers a new sense of purpose.

Unique among angels, Crow is not bound to a single habitation, nor has he slipped back into the ranks of the Nameless or become one of the dreaded Fallen. Crow is a contradiction of a character who both understands humans intimately enough to deduce their motivations, and yet is baffled by certain social conventions and mores. Doyle is more worldly, however he is still grappling with ableism and self-hatred, disgusted by the infirmity of his war wound but unwilling to seek out a aetheric practitioner for fear of his secret being exposed. Together they make approximately one fully functional detective, albeit still very much in need of the services of their landlady and her kitchen staff for day-to-day sustenance.

The book opens with two epigraphs, one from the BBC’s Sherlock, and the other from the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. In episode three of the second season, “The Reichenbach Fall,” Sherlock says “I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.” But as the author’s note at the end of the book acknowledges, this book “began as a Sherlock wingfic.” Crow and Doyle are, of course, the analogues for Sherlock and Watson. The majority of the secondary characters, from Inspector Lestrade to Mary Morstan, retain their canonical names. The novel is no racier than the Victorian source material, but Addison does lightly explore gender and sexuality, if perhaps not in the ways that you might be expecting if you’re a Johnlock shipper.

The Angel of the Crows interleaves the Whitechapel Murders with the traditional Sherlock Holmes cases, some of which include A Study in Scarlett and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Katherine Addison mixes in some supernatural elements, but keeps human grievances and motivations at the core. The Whitechapel Murders have been added as a connecting throughline with middling success. Crow has empathy for the women killed by the Whitechapel Murderer, particularly when they are nameless and friendless, unidentified. It is perilously close to the dissolution of a Nameless angel that has lost its habitation. But while there was empathy, there was little nuance or humanity added for these women, and the final resolution—in which Crow and Doyle catch the murderer—felt rushed and anticlimactic.

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The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Jackaby by William Ritter

Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

Canadian, Fantasy, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Novella

Even Though I Knew The End

Cover image for Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

by C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781250849458

“I had done the worst thing anyone could imagine. Soul-bargaining was the only likely act in the whole Anathemata—who had ever seen a unicorn or an angel, much less killed one?”

A decade ago, Helen sold her soul to save her younger brother, Ted. For her trouble, she was exiled from her remaining family and the larger magical community. Now she gets by doing magical odd jobs, knowing that her clock is ticking; a demon bargain only gets you ten years, and her time is almost up. That is, until Helen is offered a new, once in a millennium bargain. All she must do is find the serial killer known as the White City Vampire and she can have her soul back, along with a chance to make a new life with her girlfriend, Edith.

Even Though I Knew the End is a noirish mystery novella set in a magical version of 1940s Chicago haunted by angels and demons alike. Helen is a magical private eye, but she must tread carefully in order to avoid the Brotherhood, the magical order from which she was expelled as anathema. When Helen takes one last job from a wealthy client in order to put by a little more money for Edith, she stumbles into more than she bargained for: a serial killer being hunted by the Brotherhood, including her own estranged brother Teddy.

Helen is a gruff character who plays her cards close to the chest. She hasn’t told Edith, her girlfriend of two years, about her bargain, even though she has been putting her affairs in order so that Edith will inherit all her earthly goods. The possibility that Helen and Edith might get to be together after all adds a thrumming core of urgency to the mystery. Only three days remain before Helen’s bill will come due but perhaps if she solves this mystery they can still fulfill their dream of moving to San Francisco and buying a little house together in a city that “didn’t mind us much.” However, Helen is far from the only one keeping secrets in this relationship.

While there is a certain magical romanticism to Polk’s Chicago, it also has an undeniable dark side. Raids are an ever-present threat for queer clubs like the one where Helen and Edith first met. Sometimes women disappear from their community, perhaps found out by their families or worse. When they visit an asylum for women to try to interview a victim, Helen is confronted by the imprisonment of a woman she recognizes from the club. We are reminded that this is a setting where electroshock aversion therapy is considered a valid treatment for homosexuality. At the same time, in a world where demons and angels are real, Polk makes it extremely clear that “the revulsion for homosexual love is a human prejudice.”

With an excellent setting and characters, Even Though I Knew the End is a haunting story with a bittersweet ending. It is the kind of novella that makes you absolutely want more, even while you grudgingly acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is.

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novel, Young Adult

Demon in the Wood

Cover image for Demon in the Wood by Leigh Bardugo and illustrated by Dani Prendergast

by Leigh Bardugo

Illustrated by Dani Prendergast

ISBN 9781250624642

“I would burn a thousand villages, sacrifice a thousand lives to keep you safe.”

Eryk has lived his life on the run, with his mother Lena as his only companion. Eryk and Lena share a secret, a unique power that divides them even from the other Grisha who can summon or manipulate the elements. Eryk has been taught to trust no one, to don a new name and a new backstory at a moment’s notice, but he longs for a place of safety to call home, for other people who he can trust and confide in. When Eryk and Lena decide to winter in a Grisha camp on the border of Ravka and Fjerda he meets Sylvi and Annika and begins to harbour a tiny hope of a home. But when the truth comes out, the consequences of his secret will have a terrible price.

Others have described Demon in the Wood as the Darkling’s villain origin story, but really it is more like a single step along that path. In this case, it is the story of how a boy temporarily going by the pseudonym Eryk discovers the depths Grisha will sink to in order to protect themselves in a world that believes the only good witch is a dead witch. Rather than turning him against his own people, it drives him to imagine a world where Grisha have an exalted place, and their power raises them up rather than making them a target of persecution. But the methods he is learning as he begins the pursuit of that agenda hint at the dictator he will one day become.

The Darkling’s mother, going by the name of Lena for the moment, is perhaps the more interesting of the two characters. Lena recognizes that their power is unusual, even among Grisha, and tries to teach her son to protect himself from those who would use him, whether mundane or magical. However, the lengths to which she is willing to go to protect her son, and the value she teaches him to place on his own life above the lives of others will have dark echoes down the years. Both characters have understandable motivations, but they have many years yet to be twisted and warped before we encounter the characters we know from Shadow and Bone as Baghra and the Darkling.

Demon in the Wood is developed from a short story that was originally published in 2014 as a bonus item alongside the release of the third Grishaverse book, Ruin and Rising. Like The Language of Thorns and The Lives of the Saints, this is a beautiful edition for fans of Bardugo’s work, but not an essential addition to the main story. Dani Prendergast joins Daniel J. Zollinger and Sara Kipin among the ranks of artists that have done striking work to bring Bardugo’s world alive through their illustrations. Her colours and lines are particularly evocative at depicting Grisha powers in action, from shadow to water and especially ice.

Fantasy, Fiction, LGBTQIA+

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Cover image for A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

by Alexandra Rowland 

ISBN 9781250800381 

“Reciprocity was a thing you had to learn. Someone had to tell you, first, that you deserved to be treated well, before you knew it for yourself.” 

Prince Kadou Mahisti of Arasht has no interest in the throne. It’s more than stressful enough being the brother of the sultan; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. Unfortunately, politics pull in even unwilling participants, and something has shifted at court since the birth of his sister’s heir. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is newly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Despite their differences, Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. 

Throughout the book, Kadou is suffering from extreme anxiety, a condition which seems to have grown worse since his sister became pregnant with her first child, with all the dangers that entails. He is also socially anxious, replaying his interactions with the people around him, and constantly questioning his own capabilities and actions. This was written realistically enough that it was sometimes difficult to inhabit his POV. Additionally, his world does not have vocabulary to describe these experiences where he is struggling with his mental health. Those closest to him are aware of the prince’s strange affliction, which manifests in dizzy spells, and other physical forms. Kadou himself describes it as cowardice. This was hard to read, and while over the course of the book Kadou gains some healthier coping strategies, anxiety is an essential part of his character that cannot simply be healed by a new relationship. In fact, the main relationship is built around Evemer coming to understand that the behaviours he dislikes in Kadou are maladaptive coping mechanisms for a much deeper problem, but one that hides a prince who cares deeply for his country and his people, often at his own expense.  

Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down. Rowland dedicates the book to “the fanfiction writers, who taught me everything I know— including, most especially, the pursuit of joy,” and that joyful provenance is evident in the writing choices they make throughout the story.  

Beyond the romance, I particularly liked how Rowland handled the development of Tadek’s character, and the evolution of his new relationship with Kadou after their sexual connection comes to an end. We’re getting into mild spoiler territory here, so feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph! Early on, I was concerned that Tadek was trying to build a faction around putting Kadou on the throne, and that he might also be tied in some way to the counterfeiting ring that Kadou and Evemer are investigating. Instead, we get two men learning how to be friends instead of lovers and figuring out how to handle the fact that Kadou has moved on romantically, with someone who is Tadek’s polar opposite. It would have been easy to turn Tadek into a bitter spurned lover out for revenge, but Rowland makes the more complex choice. Tadek and Kadou aren’t good for one another romantically but that doesn’t make them enemies.  

Overall, A Taste of Gold and Iron is much more about the relationships than the mystery plot. In fact, there were several places in the story where relationship building conversations took place in the midst of, and even derailed, significant action beats. However, I think this may be as much a matter of expectations as good storytelling; if you are aware that the writing is prioritizing the development of relationships above world building or solving the mystery, the pacing makes a great deal more sense, and these choices seem less out of place. While this book certainly won’t be for everyone, I had a lot of fun along the way.  

You might also like Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Fantasy, Fiction

The River of Silver

Cover image for The River of Silver by S.A. Chakraborty

by S. A. Chakraborty

ISBN 9780063093737 

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.  

“This place, this palace, it eats people up from the inside. It takes everything that is kind and gentle in your heart and it turns it to stone.” 

S.A. Chakraborty returns to her popular series, with a collection of short stories from the world of the Daevabad Trilogy. The River of Silver is less a collection of stand-alone tales and more deleted or expanded scenes, alternative epilogues, and other such material that gets left on the cutting room floor of a large series. In that sense, it is a book for established fans of the series and would not make a good entry point for new readers. Chakraborty has arranged the material chronologically, and each story includes a brief introduction that contextualizes its place in the series, and notes which of the books it contains spoilers for.  

What I was hoping most for from this expanded peek into this world was an expansion on Jamshid and Muntadhir’s relationship, which was significant to the series, but took a bit of a backseat to Ali and Nahri’s (and of course all the many political machinations). Chakraborty did not disappoint, with four additional chapters about Jamshid and Muntadhir and their cross-caste romance. Muntadhir not only belongs to the ruling caste, but he is also a somewhat reluctant heir to his father’s crown. While Jamshid is the son of the king’s chief advisor, he is also a daeva, and the fire worshippers are the lowest class of djinn since they lost the throne. These additions allow us a peek at their first meeting, the development of their relationship, and an expanded look at how they are coping with the fallout of the invasion of Daevabad. 

If the Nahids are your favourite part of the series, never fear! The very first story offers the opportunity to gain insight into the decision that proved to be a critical turning point in Manizeh’s life and set the series itself into motion. However, I particularly enjoyed getting a deeper look at her brother Rustam, who had none of her hunger for power and is a bit of a shadow in the main trilogy, albeit one with outsize significance. For Nahri herself, we get to see some events from the long gap between The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, as well as a hopeful look to her future.  

While most of the scenes take place before or during the series, the collection also includes an alternative epilogue to The Empire of Gold that provides a glimpse into Zaynab and Aqisa’s adventures together after they leave Daevabad at the end. This was simultaneously satisfying and tantalizing; their journey feels like it could be a story of its own in much the same way I could imagine a version of the Daevabad trilogy that had Jamshid and Muntadhir as its central characters. This story, more than any other, left me hungry for more.  

If you missed these characters and wish this series weren’t over, The River of Silver allows fans to immerse themselves back in the world of Daevabad. The collection was released earlier this year in audio only, but for those of you have been waiting for print, your time has come!