Fantasy writers have long found inspiration in the past, whether in folkloric traditions or historical events. This season is no exception; PW spoke with editors and authors of forthcoming fantasies about the way old tales and forgotten truths have shaped our understanding of the world and how reclaiming them allows new stories to be told.
Tread of Angels by Hugo, Locus, and Nebula winner Rebecca Roanhorse, a November release from Saga Press, is among several new historical fantasies that tackle real-world issues. It takes place in 1883 in the fictional Colorado mining town of Goetia, where it’s not terrestrial matter that’s being harvested, but the divine remains of a dead angel. (The term goetia, used in the 17th-century grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon, signifies the calling of angels and demons.)
The book, which PW’s review described as “skillfully blending a noir atmosphere with western tropes and biblical mythology,” highlights the exploitation of labor in a mythological yet historically based western United States, says Saga Press editorial director Joe Monti. The main character, Celeste, a descendant of both angels and demons, and Mariel, her sister, also present Roanhorse the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of passing, Monti explains: one sister blends in while the other struggles to do so.
With Uncanny Times, which Saga is publishing in October, Laura Anne Gilman launches a gaslamp monster-hunting fantasy series that Monti says emphasizes the turmoil of its era: “The turn of the 20th century was a time of uncomfortable change, with many groups of people being othered.” In the book, siblings Rosemary and Aaron Harker, who have pledged to protect the world from monsters known as the Uncanny, travel to Brunson, N.Y., after the mysterious death of their cousin. Over the course of the novel, brother and sister find that what they thought they knew about the Uncanny could be entirely wrong.
PW’s review praised the way the author’s “evocative descriptions blend history with rich supernatural lore” while effortlessly evoking “the social and industrial upheaval of 1913: Rosemary professes conflicted feelings about the suffragette movement, and the Harkers’ investigation results in the police suspecting them of being union agitators.”
The Daughters of Izdihar (Harper Voyager, Jan. 2023), Hadeer Elsbai’s debut and the first installment in a duology, also foregrounds a social movement—women’s rights, specifically—in a second-world fantasy inspired by modern Egypt. Nehal
and Giorgina are Weavers, or elemental magic wielders, who come from divergent backgrounds: Nehal is an aristocrat, Giorgina an impoverished bookseller. Both are drawn to the titular group, a radical women’s rights coalition fighting for the vote and led by the mysterious Malak Mamdouh.
Elsbai, an Egyptian American, sees the story as a rare chance to depict modern Egyptian sensibilities, as opposed to the stereotypical and often caricatured aesthetics of ancient Egypt. “It’s historical, yes, influenced by 19th-century as well as mid-20th century Egypt,” she says. “But I also used a lot of my own experiences and the experiences of other Egyptians to capture all these cultural idiosyncrasies and lived realities.”
H.G. Parry has explored social inequities in her fiction before, as in 2020’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (“a knockout,” per PW’s starred review). Her new novel, The Magician’s Daughter, out in February from Redhook, is a coming-of-age story that opens on the Irish coast at the turn of the 20th century. Hy-Brasil, a legendary island full of lush greenery and ancient magic, has been Bitty’s home ever since she washed ashore as an infant. When her guardian, the magician Rowan, fails to return home one day, Bitty sets out into the harsh, unfamiliar world of early 1900s London, which is defined by inequality and often deadly labor.
Nivia Evans, senior editor at Orbit/Redhook, describes the broader setting of The Magician’s Daughter as “a world that used to be full of magic. As people move into the city, you lose smaller connections to cultural folklore and to nature. Moving toward modernity, are people losing that magic?”
Recasting a spell
The mystical may inspire wonder, but it can also have more sinister implications. Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill’s second books for adults, The Crane Husband (Tordotcom, Feb. 2023), is a modern retelling of the Japanese folktale “The Crane Wife,” which “focuses on a small family group and what happens to them when something surreal, unsettling, and supernatural happens,” says Jonathan Strahan, who edited the novella. In the contemporary American Midwest, a 15-year-old girl is determined to protect her family from a sinister interloper: a six-foot tall crane that enthralls the mother, demanding that she complete a seemingly impossible task.
Though not a bird herself, the Slavic folk figure of Baba Yaga is associated with them—for one, her hut stands on chicken legs. She’s one of mythology’s most infamous crones, typically associated with evil, cruelty, and the fear of wise, older women, and she figures in no fewer than three fantasies this season.
Poet GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, out in September from Anchor Books, alternates between the early 20th-century Russian pogroms, which ancestors of both the author and the book’s editor, Anna Kaufman, were entangled in, and modern America. In the present day, Baba Yaga’s descendants Isaac and Bellantine inherit the canonical chicken-legged house and take it on a country-spanning road trip, all the while pursued by an old adversary from the homeland. Nethercott depicts Baba Yaga as “a figure of righteous rage,” Kaufman says, “someone who protects their loved ones against great external violence and generational trauma.” PW’s review called the book a “heartbreaking reinterpretation of the myth.”
The women-in-horror anthology Into the Forest presents Baba Yaga as a formidable elder of great power and knowledge through “23 dark, feminist fairy tales exploring the folkloric figure,” per PW’s review. Stories include EV Knight’s “Stork Bites” (a “timely standout,” the review said), in which a young woman in need of an illegal abortion seeks out Baba Yaga, and “Water Like Broken Glass” by Carina Bissett (a “wonderfully queer update to the tale against the backdrop of WWII”). Lindy Ryan, editor of the anthology and president of Black Spot Books, which is releasing the book in November, explains, “Baba Yaga became our muse, a way of talking about feral women, motherhood, wifelihood, the grandmother witch versus the fairy godmother, and what it means to be a woman at all.”
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, author of The Witch and the Tsar (Ace, Sept.), has had a long relationship with Baba Yaga. Born in Moscow, Gilmore emigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child and first encountered the folktales as a bedtime moralizing force. She returned to the stories as an adult and found an ambiguous, contradictory character ripe for interpretation. “What would it have been like,” she says, “if the character of Baba Yaga was not this fearsome, old, ugly witch that we know from the fairy tales?” Gilmore’s Baba Yaga, inspired by a fertility and earth goddess worshiped by ancient Slavs, is a half-mortal, half-goddess named Yaga Mokoshevna, who lives in 1560 Russia as a feared but sought-after practitioner of magic. When Anastasia Romanova, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, comes seeking her help, Baba Yaga is pulled into a political plot, one involving Czar Ivan the Terrible and even higher powers that be.
PW’s review said Gilmore’s “enchanting debut adds to the growing genre of mythological retellings that reframe the acts of supposedly villainous women,” and the author has some thoughts on Baba Yaga’s appeal in particular. “She’s intelligent and she has an attitude,” Gilmore says. “The dichotomy of good and bad fascinates people, of course. But also, there’s the fascination with Russia. It’s a wild, mysterious place that no one can seem to understand, and here’s Baba Yaga, one of the more famous Russian myths, to turn to.”
Such retellings, Gilmore and others suggest, amplify voices that have long been misheard or silenced altogether. Strahan emphasizes the inspirational nature of the past, saying, “History and a sense of place give writers and readers a rich starting point for any story.”
Gilmore sees something a little more radical: “It’s a reframing of the mythological and the historical.”
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