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Catherine the Ghost

Kathe Koja. CLASH, $16.95 trade paper (142p) ISBN 978-1-960988-29-4

A companion to Wuthering Heights much in the way that Wide Sargasso Sea is a companion to Jane Eyre, this brilliant retelling from Koja (Dark Factory) whisks readers to the wild English moors but shifts the focus from romantic relationships to a familial one. The narration alternates between the ghost of Catherine Linton, nee Earnshaw, who longs for Heathcliff and yearns to be let back into her former home, and her daughter, Catherine Linton the younger, who, having never known her mother, is newly widowed and living at Wuthering Heights. Those familiar with Brontë’s original work will recognize this as the novel’s later period, set six months after narrator Nelly first recounts the tale to Heights visitor Lockwood. Koja digs deeper into this period, keeping an admirable constancy to the tone of Brontë’s novel while giving greater voice to the two Cathys and their turbulent mother-daughter relationship. Ghost-Catherine’s sections are surreal, disconsolate depictions of her frustration and desire, while Catherine’s show her to be a capable, self-possessed young woman. Fans of the original will be thoroughly impressed. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Northern Nights

Edited by Michael Kelly. Undertow, $19.99 trade paper (298p) ISBN 978-1-988964-47-8

World Fantasy Special Award winner Kelly (editor of Shadows & Tall Trees) brings together 20 horror shorts in this wide-ranging if uneven “all-Canadian anthology of dark tales” tackling “the adversarial nature of Canada’s wilderness.” Standouts include Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s lyrical “Sandstone,” about an unsettling vacation to the Canadian Gulf Islands; David Neil Lee’s vampiric western “The Church and the Westbound Train”; and Marc A. Goin’s folkloric Acadian historical “The Mi-Carême.” Children pay the price for their parents’ mistakes in Nayani Jensen’s “Rescue Station,” set 109 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, while Senaa Ahmad’s “What Is Waiting for Her” tackles the tricky dynamics between employer and employee. Siobhan Carroll’s “In the Gulf, the Night Comes Down,” Rory Say’s “The Key to Black Creek,” and Preme Mohamed’s “The Night Birds” all explore horrible disappearances made possible by supernatural cults. Less successful are EC Dorgan’s “Prairie Teeth,” a send-up of New England gothics which is more interested in mocking “paperback heroines” than conjuring a coherent narrative; Rich Larson’s oddly paced “Do Not Open,” which is distractingly full of crossed-out words; and the gruesome body horror of Camilla Grudova’s “The Fragments of an Earlier World.” Still, this Whitman’s sampler of Canadian horror explores so many subgenres that there’s bound to be something here for every reader. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Metal from Heaven

August Clarke. Erewhon, $28 (528p) ISBN 978-1-64566-098-9

YA author Clarke (the Scapegracers trilogy, written as H.A. Clarke) makes their adult debut with a slick and sexy queer fantasy western. Ignavia City is on the cusp of industrial revolution and roiling with discontent. When Marney Honeycutt’s family and childhood sweetheart are murdered in a strikebreak, she swears revenge on Yann Chauncey, the foundry owner who ordered the massacre. Fleeing the city, she falls into the hands of the Highwayman’s Choir, a troop of bandit revolutionaries fighting to bring about the Hereafter: a golden future with no work, wages, or poverty. Thanks to in-utero exposure to ichorite, the toxic, eerie metal on which Yann Industry’s fortune was built, Marney can control the metal and perceive memories of how it’s been worked but suffers debilitating fits if she touches it. The Choir give Marney shelter, family, and identity, but don’t hesitate to use her powers to further their cause. Together they hatch a plot that hinges on Marney seducing Gossamer Chauncey, Yann’s daughter. Clarke delivers a masterful and tragic exploration of the intersections of violence, faith, sexuality, and power, perfect for readers of challenging political fantasy in the vein of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Tyrant Philosophers series. Lyrical prose, meticulous worldbuilding, and steamy lesbian sex scenes make this a surefire hit. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Rogue Community College

David R. Slayton. Blackstone, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 979-8-200-96677-6

With this fun fantasy, Slayton launches the Liberty House series, set in the world of his White Trash Warlock. Isaac Frost was born with a strange skill—consuming a drop of a magic user’s blood will temporarily give him their powers—which he uses to rescue young sea elf Vran from goblin mercenaries. Vran knows of Isaac’s reputation as one of a gang of assassins led by the mysterious Undertaker, but Isaac explains that he’s run away from that deadly operation and he’s looking for answers about who he was before the Undertaker took him in. In gratitude, Vran brings Isaac to his home, a magical college where the elves educate the next generation of Guardians to protect their realms. Here, Isaac gets a chance at a normal life, with classes, friends, and, as he gets closer to Vran, even romance. But each of his new friends has something to hide, and Isaac’s own secret may be the biggest of all: he hasn’t really run away. The Undertaker sent him to assassinate the “beating, living heart” of the school itself. The college setting and accessible prose means this will have crossover appeal for YA readers. Propulsive, funny, and on-point with its social critique, this promises good things for the series to come. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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A Song to Drown Rivers

Ann Liang. St. Martin’s, $32 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-28946-9

Liang’s propulsive adult debut (after the YA novel I Hope This Doesn’t Find You) offers a straightforward retelling of the life of one of ancient China’s fabled Four Beauties. Xishi’s good looks are so arresting that, when she was born, “all the wild geese flew down from the sky, and the fish sank beneath the waves, having forgotten how to swim... beauty is not so different from destruction.” As she grows older, she wears a half veil in public to stop people from gawking. Word of her beauty spreads to Fanli, the Yue king’s top minister, who recruits her for a covert operation to bring down the enemy State of Wu by acting as a tribute concubine to the king. She’s reluctantly trained in court etiquette by Fanli—and both of them are surprised by a growing attraction. As the operation moves closer and closer to success, Xishi realizes the rumors about the evil king of Wu may not all be true and comes to question her role. The historical details occasionally feel fudged—including Xishi’s husband allowing her to remain a virgin—but Xishi’s narration brings personalized stakes to imperial court drama and shows the double-edged sword of beauty. Fans of plot-driven historical fantasy should take note. Agent: Kathleen Rushall, Andrea Brown Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Absolution

Jeff VanderMeer. MCD, $29 (528p) ISBN 978-0-374-61659-5

Nebula winner VanderMeer adds an eerie and evocative coda to his Southern Reach horror-fantasy trilogy with this prequel, set two decades prior and illuminating a fatal expedition into what would come to be known as Area X off the southeast coast of a bureaucracy-crippled country. In three discrete narratives told through multiple perspectives, VanderMeer explores the failure of human intelligence to deal with incomprehensible alienness. The first section chronicles the well-funded but doomed scientific expedition into the Forgotten Coast through former spy Old Jim’s reading of a long-lost Seance & Science Brigade diary. The second traces Old Jim’s tormented attempts to carry out a mind-controlled black op for “Jack,” his sinister former partner and now handler. The third and by far the most opaque section follows Lowry, a soldier, through a tragic drugged trip across the Border on orders from Jack, now revealed as a rogue Control agent. Drawing heavily on bioresearch and scientific extrapolations, this foray into the human cost of bureaucratic paranoia and the abandonment of logic to “hope, prayers, and blessings” provokes, mystifies, and challenges readers in turn. VanderMeer’s horrifying declaration of the impossibility of knowing the other is a knockout. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Fear the Flames

Olivia Rose Darling. Delacorte, $28.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-87389-2

Darling’s uneven romantasy debut follows Princess Elowen Atarah of Imirath, who was born with a soul “forged from the fire of the gods, creating a link to the five dragons that could not be broken by any mortal or god.” When her violent father attempts to break this bond, the dragons attack, killing her mother, and Elowen spends the rest of her childhood imprisoned. As a young woman, she’s saved by her uncle Ailliard, and they flee Imirath to establish their own kingdom, Aestilian. Come winter, the snowed-in kingdom requires a fresh food supply, so Elowen comes out of hiding to sign a treaty with neighboring Vareveth, agreeing to join their war against Imirath in exchange for resources. Part of the deal includes allying with the fearsome Commander Cayden Veles to stage a heist to free Elowen’s dragons from Imirath’s castle. Romance soon sizzles between these two, but the chemistry is not enough to save the meandering story. The central heist feels disappointingly easy and low-stakes, draining the novel of suspense. There’s little to make this stand out in a crowded market. Agent: Jessica Watterson, Sandra Dijkstra Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Rewitched

Lucy Jane Wood. Ace, $19 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-82007-0

Wood’s cozy but underbaked debut finds witch Belladonna “Belle” Blackwood approaching her 30th birthday. Bookstore manager Belle’s quiet life among mortals has left her powers “not completely dormant” but “just a little sleepy,” which makes a summons back to her coven to prove herself worthy of keeping her magic particularly intimidating. If, after a designated mentorship period, she cannot pass the grimoire’s five tests, her days of witchery are over. With an infamous warlock as her mentor and a handsome watchman as her protector, Belle steadily works her way through all five challenges. Unfortunately, Wood gives Belle few characteristics outside of her spunkiness—which often comes off as combative arrogance—and the supporting cast is similarly underdeveloped. The plot doesn’t really ramp up until near the end, when the true villains, who have been working to ensure Belle’s failure, are revealed, adding some much-needed stakes. The gentle, witchy atmosphere appeals, but this doesn’t have much else going for it. Agent: Maddy Belton, Madeleine Milburn Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Lucy Undying

Kiersten White. Del Rey, $28.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-593-72440-8

Lucy Westenra gets the spotlight she deserves in this unique and powerful take on Dracula from White (Mister Magic). Spanning three timelines, the novel interweaves Lucy’s journey of self-discovery as she travels the world after Dracula changes her into a vampire, with the story of Iris Goldaming, a young woman on the run from her family’s multilevel marketing scheme. Lucy’s journals from 1890 chronicle her relationships with her mother, the men in her sphere (all of whom want something from her), and, most importantly, her dear friend Minas. A contemporary glimpse of Lucy’s life comes in the form of transcripts from her 2024 therapy sessions. In October of that same year, Iris arrives in London from the U.S. to evaluate her family’s property after her mother’s death and is immediately saved from a nasty fall by a beautiful woman named Elle. When Iris finds Lucy’s diary hidden in the floorboards of the house, she reads a story very similar to her own and begins to fall in love with the girl in the journal—even as she falls in love with Elle in real life. White paints familiar characters in a new light, and her enchanting prose will keep readers enthralled. This is a must-read for Bram Stoker fans who believe Lucy deserved better. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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What We Sacrifice for Magic

Andrea Jo DeWerd. Alcove, $18.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-63910-875-6

In this homespun debut, set in 1960s Minnesota, DeWerd serves up a hefty portion of comfort food and witchcraft. Eighteen-year-old Elisabeth Watry-Ridder longs to escape from her dysfunctional family, the insular immigrant community she’s grown up in, and the boy she dated through high school, but a spell cast by her grandmother Magda has locked half her heart in the family’s mysterious cedar chest. Magda has been tutoring her protégé in the dark arts since childhood and demands Elisabeth continue the family tradition of witchcraft, insisting that neither Elisabeth’s younger sister, Mary, nor her mother are gifted enough to do the job. Elisabeth starts to question this when she learns about a falling out between Magda and her mother that happened when Elisabeth was still a baby and witnesses Mary magically shield her paternal grandparents from a road mishap. Will Elisabeth be able to break away from her family—and if she does, will she be able to live without their magic? Though the plot slows to a snail’s pace as Elisabeth dithers over what to do with her life and how to free herself from Magda’s spell, there’s enough summer sausage, seances, and ’60s scene-setting to charm even the least nostalgic of readers. DeWerd should certainly win some fans. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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