Patricia A. McKillip, . . Ace, $22.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-441-01130-8

Those who have bemoaned the death of the true fairy tale will be delighted by this charming foray from World Fantasy Award–winner McKillip (Ombria in Shadow ). She skillfully weaves together two eras and two sets of believable characters to create a single spellbinding story that brilliantly modernizes a beautiful old formula: the clever orphaned foundling has no desire to seek out her parents nor ambition for high office; the powerful wizard is a disguised woman deeply in love with the conquering king, who treats his subjects kindly; the sullen young queen catapulted to her throne by her father's unexpected death turns out to have both skill and humor in unexpected places; the haughty witch finds herself honestly baffled by turns of events that she never predicted. Moreover, where another author might have played up slapstick clumsiness for cheap laughs, McKillip evokes compassion for the characters' frustrations as they take their befuddled steps toward their predestined meeting. Best of all, the strong female leads neither rail against nor submit to patriarchy. In this magical world blissfully free of bias, people are simply themselves, equally intelligent and witty and thoroughly capable while prone to the occasional error, in a manner that transcends feminism and becomes a celebration of essential humanity. The brisk sweep to the slightly abrupt conclusion leaves the reader longing for more. (Feb. 3 )

Forecast: The small trim size and the exquisite, gentle jacket art that evokes classic fairy tale volumes will grab the attention of YA readers.