Hello lovely readers, and welcome to Magic from the Mothership! It’s been far too long since the last time we saw you, especially since the last time we saw you we were over at Bookmarked, talking about all the coolest books we’ve read from March to May of this year. But now Bookmarked is here at WWAC again, and your editors Christa and Paige are excited to keep the ball rolling with the best books we read in June and July, as well as share some greatest hits from earlier in the year, because why not?
So, what did the hottest months of the year have in store for the book world? We’re looking at a brave new world of vengeful gods and monsters looking to reclaim the Earth, alien invaders interested in intergalactic singing competitions, lots of queer and trans romance in several different genres, even more corrupt legal justice systems, and multiple cute boys named Kai. Check out our highlights below, and get ready to find your next great summer read before August ends!
June 12, 2018
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Jacqueline Carey for almost a decade now, since the publication of her queer, werewolf, dystopian boxing epic Santa Olivia. If that concoction of plots doesn’t stir something deep within you, a rumbling reminiscent of all your most cherished self-indulgent fantasies (or fanfictions) from childhood, then there is no way you can fully appreciate what Carey brings to the table. Her work is consistently ambitious in scale and character, dancing on the boundaries between genres and social conventions alike until that line in the sand has all but disappeared.
Starless is among her most forward-thinking works yet, even while the plot itself seems rudimentary in the epic fantasy scene. The novel’s main character, Kai, is literally destined from birth to serve as the protector of Princess Zariya of the “Sun-Blessed” House of the Ageless. While their society takes Kai’s prophetic future seriously, training him in the arts of killing and stealth with a band of warriors throughout his entire childhood, people are more skeptical of the prophecy that one member of the Sun-Blessed and their protector are destined to save the world from the resurrection of the dark god Miasmus. You can probably guess where this one is going: it is Kai and Zariya who become embroiled in this latter apocalyptic prophecy, which Zariya might not survive given an increasingly deliberating physical illness. Mixed into this plot are other pretty common tropes concerning love and courtly intrigue, which become prominent as Kai starts falling for Zariya and begins to doubt the effectiveness of his lifelong mission.
One of the most compelling components of this novel is Kai, who finds out relatively early in the story that he was originally assigned female at birth, but was raised as a man. Subjectively, Carey handles Kai’s blossoming self-acceptance as a non-binary person with much-appreciated care and explores this reality against the wider context of Kai’s interpersonal relationships in a way that feels both heartrendingly realistic and fantastically refreshing. A similarly well-crafted narrative is constructed around Zariya’s existence in the world as a disabled person, navigating the prejudices of others and her own journey towards a positive self-image. And watching them navigate the world together is a fantastic read, one that deserved to be the full focus of this novel, to be honest, considering how slightly rushed and underdeveloped the final third act felt with the battle against Miasmus’ resurrection.
But I can’t complain too much about Carey here. Sometimes her literary dance is not as effective as one would like in certain elements, but her commitment to pushing boundaries means that when she does get it right, it is exemplary. And Starless is that for the most part.
June 19, 2018
There’s something magical about turn-of-the-century England. That’s why we have so very many fantasy stories set during that time period, particularly during the Victorian era and just as often set sometime after WWII. In that sweet spot of possibility lies C.L. Polk’s debut novel Witchmark, which blends mystery, magic, and sociopolitical intrigue in an alternate version of post-WWI England that is secretly run by magical noble families.
Miles Singer is from such a family of influential mages, but all he wishes to do is escape his family’s convoluted and live a peaceful life. He tries to find escape in war, where he pretends to have been killed in order to start a new life for himself as a traumatized, but finally independent, doctor at a veteran’s hospital. But out in the world oblivious to magic, he must hide his magical healing abilities lest he be sent to the asylum. This should have been an easy enough trade-off for his freedom if it weren’t for the handsome Tristan Hunter, and the mysterious murder he is investigating that concerns one of Miles’ patients. To help them both, Miles must return to the family he tried leaving behind and confront the political warfare threatening to tear the magical world apart in the shadows.
Polk crafts her world’s mythology with the kind of mastery in one grand standalone that other authors spend years, and multi-volume content, to achieve. The magical systems, spells, creatures, and sociopolitical influence within and without the magical community are incredibly innovative, and yet are so expertly woven into the narrative that they avoid the dreaded info-dump trap. And personally, I always love a good queer romance, which dreamily unfolds among all the madness around Miles and Tristan. It certainly helps that all these cool background elements are tied together by a tightly paced and truly surprising plot, which is an achievement in and of itself. After such a stunning introduction, Polk is definitely one to watch.
Trail of Lightning
June 26, 2018
June 2018 was an exceptional month for new fantasy releases, so of course it ended with another knockout debut. Many longtime readers view the genre as dead in the water, void of any new plots or mythologies that can be elevated to the heights of new literary canon for readers. But those detractors are likely missing out on all the fantastic new material coming from marginalized writers whose cultural experiences provide a rich tapestry for stories that deserve to be read.
Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel Trail of Lightning is one such gorgeously developed example. After years of environmental degradation and subsequent uncontrollable climate changes, most of the Earth is now submerged under the sea, and gods and monsters have reclaimed the land. Yet, humanity refuses to fade from existence without a fight. Maggie Hoskie is part of one such group of humans resisting against the dangerous new world order: a former Navajo reservation has transformed itself into a new group called the Dinétah, and they have become skilled and supernaturally gifted monster hunters. In this sacred role, Maggie deals with a slew of local issues, like the strange disappearances of young children in a nearby town. Enlisting the help of handsome medical man Kai Arviso, Maggie goes out to solve this mystery and finds ancient mythological creatures, mercenaries, dark witchcraft, and hints about her own past waiting for her.
Roanhorse has crafted a world that draws inspiration both from Indigenous mythology and their lived realities in the United States, and she thus breathes new life into the post-apocalyptic genre. Her world-building is a deftly handled balancing act between background exposition and foreground plot, both of which come together to form one of the most perfectly realized and vastly unknown worlds I have read in recent memory — realized in how self-contained it is, and unknown because for readers there feels like so much palpable history just under the surface.
And all this intrigue exists before we even get into the plot! Romantic intensity practically cackles between Maggie and Kai, the mysteries of Maggie’s past and her connection to the disappearances sizzle with increasing tension. Trail of Lightning is the kind of book that demands rereads, and headcanons, and its own TV series, and honestly its own wiki site as well to host all the unique information that went into its creation. It just feels flawless in every conceivable way.
Heart of Thorns
Katherine Tegen Books
July 31, 2018
In a river kingdom, the people live in fear of the Gwyrach, demons who can manipulate flesh and blood with a single touch. And if that wasn’t scary enough, it is impossible to tell one from a non-magical human woman. After her mother is murdered by a Gwyrach, Mia plans to train and join the kingdom’s warriors hunting these demons down. But these plans are interrupted when her father announces that instead, she’ll be marrying the prince. The wedding itself is a bit of a disaster and before they can be announced “man and wife” Mia and the prince find themselves running for their lives, discovering secrets they never expected.
I originally picked this up because it was described as a “feminist fantasy.” Now I don’t necessarily think that having a female lead who would rather wear pants and fight than wear dresses is feminist, but there are some strong feminist themes running throughout this book. Heart of Thorns explores the different ways women lose control over their own bodies and that constantly being pushed in this way could lead to the evolution of certain powers. There are also some references to LGBTQ+ relationships, as well as a bi love interest, which is always nice to see in a genre novel. These relationships could have been explored in much more detail though to have really enriched the representation.
There are some additional weak spots in the novel and a number of elements that could have been explored in more detail. The almost wedding occurs very early in the story, but I would have liked to see more of Mia’s training to hunt the Gwyrach, as well as her relationship with her father and her sister since so much of the second act references those relationships. It also plays into a number of common fantasy tropes which can feel a bit tired. All that being said, I think the good outweighs the bad. I am looking forward to picking up the sequel to find out what happens to Mia and the prince next and what the fate of the Gwyrach will be.
In Case You Missed It
Heart of Iron
Balzer + Bray
February 27, 2018
I’m a little overdue on actually writing about Heart of Iron, but I’ve been singing the praises of this book since February to anyone who will listen. Trust me when I say it’s the science fiction retelling of Anastasia you didn’t realize you’d been waiting for.
The novel takes the reader on a wild space adventure alongside 17-year-old Ana. At a young age, Ana was taken in by a space pirate and her crew, and ever since she has been kicking butt and taking names alongside her best friend, a sentient android called D09. So when D09 starts glitching their new mission is clear: find a way to save him. Along the way, their paths cross with an Ironblood, who happens to be a member of the royal family, and soon the entire kingdom is after them. If they all want to make it out alive they’ll have to find a way to put their differences aside and work together.
Now there are a number of reasons you should read this book. It has great action, it’s fast-paced, and you’ll fall in love with every one of the protagonists. There are four different POVs in this book: Ana, D09, Robb, the Ironblood, and Jax, the roguish pilot of the pirate crew. Each character has a distinct, unique voice and they are all fabulous in their own way. Ana and D09’s lives are so intertwined, but there are some difficult obstacles standing in their way (like his dwindling lifespan); yet, it was actually the relationship between Robb and Jax that I was truly obsessed with. If you ship Finn and Poe than you are going to love these two.
Six months and many, many books later, this is still one of my favourite reads of 2018, and I think any fan of the Star Wars expanded universe novel Lost Stars or the Defy the Stars series, both by Claudia Gray, will feel the same. The only downside is we have to wait until 2019 to find out what happens next.
Onyx and Ivory
Balzer + Bray
May 15, 2018
Kate’s life now is much different than it was growing up. Not long ago she was well off, living among the kingdom’s elites, and hopelessly in love in the king’s second son Corrina Tormane. All that changed, however, when her father tried to assassinate the king. Now she’s doing her best to survive on her own as a member of the Relay, the imperial courier service. It’s a dangerous job, and only the best riders survive, because when the sun goes down the nightdrakes—the deadly creatures that haunt the kingdom—come out. But she can’t hide forever. Her past comes back to haunt her when one day she is drawn to a caravan that’s been attacked by nightdrakes during the day, something that has never happened before. And the only survivor is her former love, Corwin. In order to protect the kingdom from this new threat, and hopefully stop a civil war while they’re at it, the two must put old wounds behind them and work together.
I’m always happy to see a new novel by Mindee Arnett. Her Arkwell Academy series was charming, with a great mystery. And her sci-fi series, Avalon, was a compelling tale of ragtag thieves in space. All of her series are unique but share similar qualities that keep making me come back for more. Her world building is always so robust, and the stories themselves are so deliberately plotted. It’s so easy to lose yourself in the worlds she creates and Onyx and Ivory is no different. And If you’re a fan of the “enemies to lovers” trope, then you are going to love Kate and Corwin.
Catherynne M. Valente
April 10, 2018
Not long into the future, aliens have finally made contact with Earth, and we’re exposed to the greater universe that is weirder and wilder than we could have ever expected. For example, our ambassadors into this new reality are an alien species known as the Esca, who look a little like giant pink flamingos. They’ve come to welcome us to the galaxy, but there’s a catch. Humankind has to fight for its place at the table, and not with guns or war but with song.
Years earlier, after the Sentience Wars nearly ripped the galaxy apart, a new tradition was agreed upon as a way to keep the peace while still having a little fun. Every ten years all of the sentient species come together for Galactivision, basically Eurovision on a much larger scale, with much higher stakes. As an applicant species, if humankind comes in the last place then our “solar system shall be unobtrusively quarantined for a period of no less than 50,000 years, [our] cultures summarily and wholly Binned, [our] homeworld mined responsibility for resources and…[our] civilization precision-incinerated from orbit.” And our representatives for this competition? A washed-up glam-punk band, with only two surviving members, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes. Will they show the universe we know how to rock? Or doom us to be wiped out of existence?
I think it’s safe to say that a lot of books want to be like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though not many succeed. But Space Opera really does have a Hitchhiker’s feel to it. It’s fun and quirky, but also well plotted with brilliantly crafted sentences and snark that’s actually hiding some much deeper insight about humanity. It’s a story of sex, aliens, and rock and roll that is simultaneously silly and extremely profound. The concept of this book is unique and extremely tricky to pull off, but Valente never misses a beat. Her execution is exceptionally clever.
One last thing I wanted to mention is that I read a print copy of this book, but I also heard a sample of the audiobook. The audiobook’s narrator, Heath Miller, was a perfect fit. I don’t think it will be long before I’m ready for another round of Galacticvision, this time in audio form.
May 24, 2018
In 84k, World Fantasy Award winner Claire North imagines a dystopian future where a private organization known as The Company controls many aspects of daily life previously handled by the government, including crime. Instead of the regular judicial system many of us are familiar with, each crime is assigned a value. If you can pay the penalty, you go free. If you can’t then you go to work in Company-owned industries until you’ve earned back the amount. Which means if you have enough money you can literally get away with murder.
Theo is one of the auditors in the Criminal Audit Office who assigns these values. He assesses each crime and its effect on society then, using very specific breakdown, decides exactly what the penalty will be. And for the murder of Dani Cumali, the number he arrives at is £84,000. But this time Theo can’t let it go with just another bank deposit. He was the one to find Cumali’s lifeless body and the killer standing over her. Determined to find out what happened to her, he starts digging and discovers there may be even more at stake than the murder of one girl. It’s a compelling narrative, and Theo, who has some secrets of his own, faces a number of moral dilemmas on his mission to get justice for Dani.
This is one of those dark and disturbing dystopian novels that really gets under your skin. It’s a version of the future that touches on so many of the issues we face today, and those moments make it feel all too possible. We’ve already seen some of the drawbacks of privatization of public services, especially prisons in the US, so the idea that the whole criminal justice system could become a for-profit industry doesn’t feel so far fetched.
One thing that some readers may find off-putting is some of the formatting choices North made throughout the novel. Some sentences are left unfinished, others break into multiple lines. It can make for a more challenging read, and at times I’m not sure what it was supposed to accomplish. I did eventually get used to it but others may not.