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5 new fantasy novels invigorate old tropes

Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

The fantasy genre is known for its standard motifs — the magical elements derived from lore and history that turn up again and again whenever such tales are told.

Spell books, dragons, mermaids, fairies and a magic circus all take on new life in the pages of these five enchanting tales hitting shelves in May and June.

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs

You could say that sisters Joanna and Esther are estranged. They grew up together, hidden away with their family's collection of magical books. Each book is a spell, written in blood. Now Joanna tends to the collection, alone and isolated. Esther fled years before when she found out she was endangering her family with her presence. Tired of living on the run, she decides to risk everything and remain at the Antarctic station where she spent the past year and finally began to put down roots. But almost immediately, magic catches up with her, putting her, Joanna, and their family's books at risk. Soon they realize that the spells controlling their lives go back further and have much more complicated origins than they could have imagined.

Confident, compassionate, and incredibly engrossing, Ink Blood Sister Scribe grabbed me with its first pages and put me completely under its spell — despite not being written in blood. Elements of many different genres entwine to form the cleverly paced narrative as we travel from Antarctic station thriller to new England murder mystery to the secret society intrigues of Europe's magical elite. The characters are all delightfully warm in their own weird ways, despite being traumatized and frazzled, and the plot zigs and zags along with just the right amount of twists and reveals. Ink Blood Sister Scribe stands out as a stellar and original debut novel.

To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

Anequs has grown up on the Island of Masquapaug with her family, and would have happily stayed there forever. But when a dragon hatches among her people for the first time in recent memory, it chooses her to bond with. She soon finds out that the Anglish settlers who have colonized the lands around Masquapaug have rules about who can have dragons and how they must be trained to shape the dragon's breath and hone its powers. With her community and her dragon under threat, she has no choice but to enroll at an Anglish school for dragoneers on the mainland. But it soon becomes clear that there are many people who want Anequs to fail, and she realizes that shaping her dragon's breath and her own sense of self based on Anglish values could destroy everything she cares about.

Magical schools have always been a staple of the fantasy genre, but these days, I find that it's hard to read a boarding school setting without considering the inherent colonial undertones of such institutions, even when they're imaginary. To Shape a Dragon's Breath cuts right to the chase and is about that, offering a scathing rejection of the idea that there is one right way for a person to be educated. The idea that a creature like a dragon is also something that could be colonized, and that there is power in honoring Indigenous ways of knowledge keeping and working harmoniously with the forces of nature rather than seeking to dominate them is a brilliant approach that brings something truly current to the genre. To Shape a Dragon's Breath is also a very entertaining and fun read, full of loveable characters and intricate, original worldbuilding. I tore through it, caught up in an enthusiasm for dragons that I hadn't experienced since I was a teenager obsessed with Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea and Anne McCaffrey's Pern. I can only hope that there will be more stories set in this engaging new world.

The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

In this story, a king takes a mermaid as a wife and their children are born with a ravenous hunger. The mermaid departs her former husband's ravaged kingdom and travels the land with a strange but gentle plague doctor, seeking a new story — but it may prove to be even more harrowing than the one they left behind.

This slip of a novella reads more like a poem or a fireside oration recited by some bard of old than it does like a traditional fantasy or horror novel. It is gory and grotesque, full of severed body parts and the sort of people who consume them. But it is also beautiful in its darkness; much like the mermaids of lore — before they were transformed into manatee-sweet, soft-haired sirens — it has teeth. Readers in the mood to savor a silver-tongued little nightmare will sink happily into its depths.

Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall

This sapphic historical romance with a supernatural twist is narrated by none other than that shrewd and knavish sprite called Robin Goodfellow, servant of the fairy king. Or rather, former servant. Out of favor, our narrator is forced to live as a mortal and (ugh) make a living telling tales...

In an England rife with little but powerful gods and spirits around every corner, a certain Miss Mitchelmore finds herself under the power of a curse that seeks to ruin her. Her ballgown dissolves into shreds around her, swarms of bees chase her into dangerous waterways — it's clear that someone wishes her to meet with great, or even fatal, misfortune. Could it be the mysterious Lady Georgiana, whom everyone calls the Duke of Annadale, seeing as she (purportedly) murdered her own father and brothers via magical means in order to seize their estate? If the Duke is the cause of Miss Mitchelmore's misfortunes, then she certainly ought not to be attracted to the prickly, impossible woman! But if the curse has some other source, it may be that the Duke is the only one who can help her be free of it.

Alexis Hall can always be counted on to deliver a sweet and compelling historical romance that explores the paths that queer people forged to find love in the past. Mortal Follies definitely fits this brief, though it does stray a bit from the traditional romance framework, relying on the observations of its third-party narrator to tell us how the characters are feeling rather than delving directly into their thoughts. And while this conceit does keep both Miss Mitchelmore and the Duke at a bit more of a distance from the reader, Robin Goodfellow's hilarious asides and grumbles more than make up for it. Also worth noting are the secondary characters, who are so compelling that I rather hope Hall intends to give several of them their own follow-up books — most especially Miss Mitchelmore's best friend, Miss Bickle, who truly deserves some romantic escapades of her own. In the meantime, Mortal Follies more than satisfies.

The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson

When Windy Van Hooten's Circus of the Fantasticals rolls into town, it is always with purpose. The management, lead by the Ringmaster, can see the future and even travel back and forth through time using powers called Sparks, which manifested in a chosen few in the wake of the Great War. Everyone in the circus is a Spark, and by performing for the right people on the right nights, they hope to set the world on a path to a better future. Because the Ringmaster knows that another war is coming, somehow even worse than the one that was meant to end all wars. And she also knows that another Spark circus is on their heels — one led by a man who once sought to dominate her with his power.

Over the years, magical circus books have become a staple of the fantasy genre, and it can be difficult for a new example to really distinguish itself. The First Bright Thing's use of time travel and its characters' dedication to shaping the future they hope for is where it shines. Themes of found family, faith, queerness, and free will weave in and out of the timelines along with the Ringmaster and her crew. The circus itself serves, as it often does, as a symbol of a place where the impossible becomes reality — and the power of that is the reason why circus stories will continue to enchant readers for years to come.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlyn Paxson
[Copyright 2024 NPR]