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The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

Book jacket cover of Black Leopard Red WolfSo I’ve got this list of 25 great fantasy series. I don’t change it terribly often and almost never for the first book in a projected longish series. I had to make an exception for The Ruin of Kings because I liked it that much. And not just me. Starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist.  Rave reviews from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. And perhaps most surprising to me, Kirkus (whose reviewers tend toward the critical) gave it a starred review, writing: “The story begins in a jail cell with a young man named Kihrin being guarded by Talon, a beautiful and monstrous shape-shifting assassin. Kihrin, awaiting what will surely be his death, begins telling her his life story. Talon complements Kihrin’s tale with her own memories of the past few years, and, together, they weave a jaw-dropping, action-packed story of betrayal, greed, and grand-scale conspiracy. It all begins when Kihrin—a thief who has been raised in the slums by a compassionate blind musician—witnesses a horrific murder while robbing a house. The sudden target of a group of morally bankrupt, and terrifyingly powerful sorcerers, Kihrin finds himself on the run. During his flight, he discovers that he may be the son of a depraved prince—and that the necklace he wears around his neck may be much more than a sentimental object from his long-dead mother. While the comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle will be unavoidable—in terms of story structure and general narrative content—the potential of this projected five-book saga may be even greater. Although a cast of well-developed characters and an impressively intricate storyline power this novel, it’s Lyons’ audacious worldbuilding that makes for such an unforgettable read. In a sprawling, magic-filled world populated by gods, dragons, krakens, witches, demons, ghosts, shape-shifters, zombies, and so much more, Lyons ties it all together seamlessly to create literary magic. Epic fantasy fans looking for a virtually un-put-down-able read should look no further.” I agree!

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.