Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

princesBook – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.

This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.

I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's DragonBook – Capt. Will Lawrence of His Majesty’s Navy is very happy with his career. When he captures a French corvette transporting a rare and precious dragon’s egg, he takes responsibility for the egg, which means being there for its hatching. Unfortunately, the little creature – who he christens Temeraire, after the ship – has taken a liking to him, and that means that Capt. Lawrence is going to have to leave the Navy and enter His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, to fight Napoleon from the back of his very own dragon.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think that the Aubrey/Maturin series is great but would be even better with dragons, and people who think the first type are crazy. If you’re the first type, this series is for you. While the first book is a fairly straightforward adventure, later books explore more parts of the world and how the presence of dragons changes them from what you’d expect. As Temeraire (and Will) learn more about how the rest of the world does things, they begin to seriously question the society in which they live.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

night circusBook - Step into Le Cirque des Rêves, which has literally appeared overnight, and it will impact your senses, sight, sound, smell, and touch. As an audience member of The Night Circus, one does not perceive some of the subtle changes that are periodically impacting the surrounding environments of aesthetic wonder. These changes are the result of a long-standing competition between two young illusionists; yet, the duel was not of their making. Cecilia and Marco are pawns in a game constructed by the two powerful rivals, who are also the young contestants’ guardians. However, these controlling mentors do not control the feelings the young magicians develop for each other. Unanticipated, Celia and Marco’s romantic feelings may inevitably have dire consequences for all who inhabit and attend the circus. For the audio-book one of my favorite narrators, Jim Dale, award-winning narrator of the Harry Potter series, adds depth to the large cast of characters populating this turn-of-the-twentieth-century world. His idiosyncratic method of narration is well matched for this story set just outside of reality.

 

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea ChangeBook – For the past several years I’ve been attending the awards ceremony for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Sometimes I’m already familiar with the winner, but usually I get a list of great new books to read. This year the only one of the nominees I’ve already read is Sea Change, a fairytale by S.M. Wheeler about a girl and her octopus.
Lilly lives a sad and miserable life as the only child of parents who hate each other, perched in their castle by the sea. Her best friend is Octavius, a kraken; the two of them talk about friendship and morality. Then one day Octavius is captured and sold to a circus, and Lilly sets out on a quest to rescue him.
This is an incredibly poetic book, written more for the beautiful language and the sense of a fairy-tale than for ease of reading. Lilly’s story is a hard one, but the way she perseveres and changes is inspiring. I’d recommend it for fans of Caitlín R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great WatersBook – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.

This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.

S. by J. J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

s.J. J. Abrams, the movie and television creator of popular works such as Armageddon and Lost, hired a writer and a graphic design team to bring this celebration of paper and ink reading to life. S. is a multi-layered set of mysteries, composed of a suspenseful love story handwritten in the margins of an enigmatic, fantastical adventure novel. 22 extra artifacts that arrived tucked into this novel, including a map on a napkin, a college newsletter, and a decoder wheel, required extra TLC from our cataloging department, and add to the fun of this eccentric reading adventure. The design team did a wonderful job of using textures, images, and fonts to provide the nostalgic look of a library book published in the 1940’s, as well as inscribing the seams and margins with delightfully realistic handwriting.

I especially enjoyed Dorst’s writing in the adventure novel. The story is an analogy of literary novels of the early twentieth century, in which prose and philosophy proliferated. As a four-time winner of Jeopardy, Dorst has a wonderful depth of vocabulary which he uses playfully and poetically. For example, an assassin moving in and out of time feels that he is sleepwalking through his endless assignments and that his only choice is “to live a life of vigilant somnolence or somnolent vigilantism”. In contrast, the writing in the margins between two students who are surreptitiously passing the book back and forth as they try to discover the true identity of the author, is informal and includes current digital acronyms.

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

replacementBook – Mackie Doyle is different. Then again, so is Gentry, the decaying steel town he lives in. Things are pretty good there, except when they aren’t, but mostly it’s a town where people have an unnatural ability to pretend that everything is OK. People pretend they don’t notice that Mackie is weird, and they pretend not to care when their children go missing on a startlingly regular schedule. Things start to change when Tate, a girl at Mackie’s school, loses her little sister, and refuses to pretend that it’s all OK.

I really enjoyed this dark and creepy YA interpretation of the myth of the changeling, babies stolen away by the faeries with alien children left in their place. Mackie is a wonderfully relatable character, a boy who knows he’s strange but doesn’t know how normal he is at the same time, and Tate is a fierce companion. Recommended for fans of Maggie Stiefvater and Holly Black.

The City & The City by China Miéville

Book – Tyador Bocity & cityrlú is a detective in Beszel, charged with investigating the murder of an unidentified woman found in one of their slums. His case would be much simpler if he did not believe she was murdered in Ul Quoma, the neighboring city and other half of Beszel, a city which intertwines with his own but whose borders are strictly policed by a shadowy force known as Breach. To unwind the mystery, he must travel across and between these borders, but carefully, because the murderers appear to be extremely powerful – and Breach is always watching.

Miéville’s books always revolve around cities, from the fantastical cities of Bas-Lag to a mystical London, but Beszel and Ul Quoma are perhaps the strangest yet, although there is almost fantastical about them, strictly speaking. This book also features two of the greatest chase scenes I’ve ever read, enabled by the cities’ particularly peculiar geography.

Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear

bone and jewelBook – Whatever assumptions you might have about fantasy novels, you can put them aside when reading something by Elizabeth Bear, because she will certainly do something different. Bone and Jewel Creatures packs a whole lot of different into a very few pages. The story revolves around Bijou the Artificer, an old, tired wizard who is ready to retire when she is given a feral child who has been poisoned by a mysterious agent. In healing the child, Bijou begins to unravel a plot rooted deep in her own past that threatens her home, the City of Jackals.

At only 136 pages, Bone and Jewel Creatures is slim, but not slight. Bijou and the feral child are both wonderfully realized characters with whom it’s a delight to spend an afternoon. My favorite part of the story, though, are Bijou’s artifices – creatures made up of bits and pieces, metal and bone and gemstones, to serve some purpose and then kept around long after their original use. There’s definitely a steampunk aesthetic, but it’s an unusual one. This is an engrossing short novel that offers a tantalizing glimpse of a unique world. The prequel, Book of Iron, was published in September, and both novellas are also set in the same universe as her Eternal Sky trilogy, which begins with Range of Ghosts.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

johanes cBook – Johannes Cabal has a problem with his soul. Namely, he doesn’t have it – he sold it to Satan some time ago in exchange for the secrets of necromancy. He’s decided that it was a bad deal, and he wants his soul back. Satan, of course, isn’t letting any souls go that easily, so he proposes a challenge: if Cabal can acquire 100 souls within a year, he can have his soul back. The Devil will even throw in a diabolical carnival to help. It’s not a great deal, but it’s the only one on offer, so Cabal enlists the help of his estranged brother and sets out across the countryside, carnival in tow, to race against the clock. Er, hourglass.

For the first fifty pages or so I kept trying to figure out what time period and what country this book was set in; eventually I realized that it just doesn’t matter, and I settled back to enjoy the ride. Johannes Cabal is delightfully deadpan and almost entirely unconcerned with the fates of other people. It’s the almost that makes it great: he shows flashes of humanity at the most inopportune times. This is the first in a series; the latest, Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, was published in October.