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Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James

Book jacket cover of Black Leopard Red WolfThis book has been getting major buzz and showing up on a lot of “Best of” lists already. No less a superstar author than Neil Gaiman loved it (“Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the kind of novel I never realized I was missing until I read it. A dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa, which becomes a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made, with language as powerful as Angela Carter’s. It’s as deep and crafty as Gene Wolfe, bloodier than Robert E. Howard, and all Marlon James. It’s something very new that feels old, in the best way. I cannot wait for the next installment.”) Other reviews are equally enticing: Booklist wrote “[t]he first installment in the Dark Star trilogy has been touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones,’ and, indeed, James, author of the Man Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), throws pretty much every fantasy and horror creature known into this brilliantly chaotic mash-up of genres and styles. Readers will discover mermaids, vampires, zombies, and witches, along with edge-of-your-seat chills and cheeky humor. James’ tale digs its hooks in and never lets go, rather like the claws of the flesh-eating Zogbanu trolls, or the teeth of a vicious ghommid. Yet for all the fantasy and action, James never loses sight of the human story as his hero, Tracker, searches for the truth about a mysterious boy. Tracker’s quest across wildlands and through cities brings him tantalizingly closer to the elegant, shape-shifting Leopard. James’ world building weaves in cultural references from Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Burkina Faso, and Senegal as he spins his griot’s tale of love, revolutions, murder, and magic. Gender-bending romance, fantastical adventure, and an Afrocentric setting make for an inventive and engaging read.” Definitely on my to read list!

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Six years ago, with bombs and air raid sirens screaming all around them, Philippa, Jamie, and Evelyn Hapwell stepped from the dark and terror of their parents’ London bomb shelter in 1944 and into another world.  The Woodlands are sunlight and starlight and magic, a place where tree spirits sing, rivers have water guardians, centaurs and other mythical beasts roam the forests, and a mighty stag is the Guardian of all its creatures.  The Woodlands are also on the brink of war with the Empire.  Greeted by Cervus, Guardian of the Wood, the three siblings discovered that it was the power of Evelyn’s desperate wish to be free of their own world that allowed Cervus to call them.  And though death and destruction loom heavy on the horizon in the Woodlands, just as in their own world, Philippa and Jamie and Ev agree to help in any way they can – as long as Cervus promises to send them home at the end, with no time lost in their own world.

Almost six years spent in the Woodlands – five years, and a war, and many friends and enemies made and lost.  And now, six years after returning, the Hapwells are the same age they were when Cervus sent them back.  Philippa is in America at college, trying to become her own person, trying desparately to forget and fit into her life.  Jamie is at Oxford, and Ev at St. Agatha’s, her first year at school without her sister to hold her together.  Ev wants only to remember – and to go home.  After all, Cervus made a promise – A Woodlands heart always finds its way home.  And Ev’s heart will forever belong to the Woodlands.  But as she clings to hope and searches for a way home, long after Philippa and Jamie have resigned themselves to an ordinary life in our world, Ev begins to falter under the weight of hope, love, and family.  When she vanishes into the wood behind St. Agatha’s one cold winter night, Philippa and Jamie must decide how far they are willing to go to find their sister – or if she wants to be found.

If you’re the sort of person who looks for magic in the woods and the fields and all the dark, deep green places of the world, and hopes for secret passages in old houses, and talks to trees because you know they might be listening, and feels that fizzing frisson of hope and dread (but mostly hope) every time you step through a stone passage, or a birch ring, or find a fairy ring of mushrooms, this gorgeous book is for you.  Inspired by Narnia and the question of what becomes of heroes after they’re returned to their world, this lovely book is one of my favorite reads of this year.  Haunting, lyrical, and full of a fierce longing for magic found and lost, The Light Between Worlds explores what it would be like to come back and try to live in the world as an ordinary person when you’ve been everything – and everywhere – extraordinary.  If you’re hoping for a little magic to find you in the coming year, you’ll be sure to find it in the pages of this beautiful gem of a book.

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Contrary, inclined to impish adventures and wild flights of fantasy, frequently to be found on clandestine evening trips to scientific lectures (quite un-ladylike, especially when one exits via bedroom window and ends the evening in a pub), uninterested in courtly manners or acquiring a titled husband, Tess Dombegh knows she is naught but a thorn in her family’s side – especially in comparison with her twin, Jeanne, a girl of almost angelic goodness.  When her nightly escapades with a young scholar (neither titled nor landed, and certainly not gentry) called Will eventually comes to a disastrous end, after a sojourn in the country with her aging grandmother, her family decides to pass Tess off as the younger twin and Jeanne the elder at court.  As such, Tess has spent the last months at the Goreddi palace as her sister’s lady-in-waiting, hoping to help snare a rich husband for Jeanne and bring relief to the family’s financial troubles.

At Jeanne’s wedding to Lord Richard (who, although madly in love with Jeanne, is in most unfortunate possession of horrible brothers and parents that are even worse), months of stuffing herself into the uncomfortable persona of a good, quiet, mannerly girl, along with years of built-up resentment at her lack of choices in life and the help of a good deal too much wine, finally explode into yet another disastrous end, and Tess finds she can take no more goodness.  Taking only her boots and herself, Tess sets off into the world and on to the road to discover what wonders there are above and below the earth – and inside herself.

If you read Rachel Hartman’s duology about Tess’s older half-sister Seraphina, you’ve already travelled the roads of Goredd and Ninysh with Seraphina on her quest for Saints.  If you haven’t, a glorious medieval fantasy world awaits you inside the covers of this marvelous book.  Dragons, castles, bandits, thieves (not the least of which is Tess), sinkholes, caverns, farmers, explorers, geologists, inventors, nuns, monks, and great mysteries wait for Tess around each bend of the road.  A powerful novel of friendship, family, and learning to love yourself and all your faults, Tess of the Road is an epic journey out and through the dark places of the world and into the light.  Don’t miss it!