Novel openings: seven recent-ish fantasy novels

 Okay, one more look at the TBR shelves before I move on.

Now, these are different from the previous set. They’re all fantasy novels – pretty sure about that much – but these have all been published pretty recently, mostly in the past five years or so. The majority, I think I picked up at a World Fantasy Convention. The others – three – I picked up deliberately for one reason or another. I’ll sort them out in, oh, alphabetically by author this time. So:

1. Breath of Earth by Beth Cato, 2016

Ingrid hated her shoes with the same unholy passion she hated corsets, chewing tobacco, and men who clipped their fingernails in public. It wasn’t that her shoes were ugly or didn’t fit; it was the fact that she had to wear them at all.

In the meeting chambers of the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, she was the only woman, and the only one in shoes.

The men seated at the table wore fine black suits, most tailored to precision, and a few downright natty. If she glanced beneath the table, though, she would see two rows of white-socked feet.

Cloth fibers conducted the earth’s currents best; thick leather or rubberized soles dampened the effect. The wood floor was an excellent conductor, though plain ground was the best of all. Nearby double doors opened to the back garden. In the event of an earthquake, it would take a mere fifteen seconds for the mob of middle-aged and elderly men to bound outside for direct contact with the soil. Ingrid knew. She had timed the exercise more than once. As personal secretary to Warden Sakaguchi, she performed many vital functions for all five wardens – four in attendance today. A dozen senior adepts occupied the rest of the table.

Intriguing! Lively! This is very nice. Also, the cover is lovely.

2. Mystic by Jason Denzel, 2015

On the island of Moth, under a swollen moon, Pomella AnDone stormed out of her house, slamming the door behind her. She hurried, expecting Fathir’s yell to sound behind her. It was like waiting for thunder after a flash of lightning.

“You’re not a jagged noble!” he finally screamed from behind the door. “Cut your hair and know your place!”

Pomella knocked aside a half-made barrel and strode away from the house, not looking back. She snatched up a wicker basket and carried it under one arm past her flourishing garden. The hateful man could choke on gunkroot for all she cared. She’d grow her hair whatever length she wanted.

All around her, the villagers of Oakspring prepared for tonight’s Springrise festival. A cluster of men fed a young bonfire to push back the darkening night. A swarm of children chased one another, leaving behind frazzled mhathirs trying to bundle them up. Pomella ignored everyone and headed toward the forest.

The bustle of village activity faded as she hiked to a nearby hill on the edge of the Mystwood. Comforting silence greeted her as she passed the tree line. The rushing flow of the Creekwaters sang to her from the far side of the hill, down in the thicket.

Not as good, in my opinion. Not as intriguing a setting, not as lively a voice – this is a good contrast between a lively voice in the first sample, versus lively action here. This woman is doing stuff – at least, striding along energetically rather than sitting at a table – but her individual voice doesn’t come through nearly as strongly. I’m not interested in her. There’s practically nothing of the world here either, whereas the worldbuilding was intriguing right from the start in the first selection. The sentences also aren’t as nicely put together in this one. Nothing’s incorrect, but it’s not a particularly appealing writing style.

3. Journey Across the Hidden Isles by Sarah Beth Durst, 2017

Don’t fall, don’t fall, oh no, I’m going to fall …

Crouching, Ji-Lin raised her sword over her head. She counted to thirty and then straightened to standing, without falling. Slowly, she lifted one foot to her knee. Her other foot was planted on the top of a pole, on the roof of the Temple of the Sun, at the top of a mountain.

Sweat tickled the back of her neck under her braid. She was supposed to be calm, like a bird on a breeze or a leaf in summer or some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. But she felt too jittery, as if all her muscles were vibrating.

If she passed this test, she’d be one step closer to being like the heroes of the tales she loved.

She’s also be one step closer to her sister.

Tomorrow was her and her twin’s twelfth birthday, and if she passed this test, then maybe, maybe she’d be allowed to spend the day with her. They could steal a lucky orange from the palace kitchen and climb the spires and watch the gondoliers steer through the canals

I have to be in the right mood for a MG story. This child reads very young. She’s going to fail the test, I just know it. Storms of tears, then she’ll do something, probably something stupid. Trouble will ensue, and the story will proceed from there. (This is all a guess; I haven’t flipped ahead.)

On the other hand, this is actually a quite good novel opening. Some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. That’s funny! Does that line read a little old for this girl? Even if it does, it’s a fun line. I love it. Plus I already know I like many of Durst’s books. Not all of them, and it’s hard for me to pin down why some of hers work for me and some don’t. But I’m usually willing to give anything of hers a try. Plus the flying lion on the cover looks wonderful. When I read this story, I’ll be waiting impatiently for the lion to show up.

4.  Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, 2015

My history is hospitals.

This is what I tell people when I’m in a mood to be combination funny and stressful, which is a lot of the time.

It’s easier to have a line ready than to be forced into a conversation with someone whose face is showing “fake nice,” “fake worry,” or “fake interest.” My preferred method is as follows: make a joke, make a half-apologetic/half-freaky face, and be out of the discussion in five seconds flat.

Aza: “Nothing is really majorly wrong with me. Don’t worry. I just have a history of hospitals.”

Person in Question, “Er. Um. Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Or, wait, glad. You just said nothing’s really wrong with you! Glad!”

Aza (freaky face intensifying): “It’s incredibly nice of you to ask.”

Subtext: It isn’t. Leave it.

People don’t usually ask anything after that.

Very strong voice. This is the only first-person narrative in this selection of novels. It’s very engaging, though I’m not at all sure I like the protagonist. But maybe I will soon! She sounds very cynical, which is not necessarily a criticism, by the way. This is very easy to read. I’d definitely turn pages.

Also, that is a stunning cover. Just lovely.

5. The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera, 2017

Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.

When she stops to think on it – chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with this stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.

And now he’ll be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, The Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame – no, she is alone, let her wear her own name – O-Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?

I sort of like this and I sort of don’t. I like the first paragraph, but I have to say, I’m not immediately sympathetic to the poor, poor empress who is apparently also an amazing duelist and has such terrible troubles. I could find her more likeable depending on how this story develops, but my initial reaction is kind of: Get a grip. And also: Don’t be mean to that kid who challenged you.

Well, we’ll see. I feel like I saw comments about this title everywhere a few years ago when it came out. If any of you have read it, I’d be very interested in your reactions. That goes for all of these books, of course, but I think this one might have been higher profile than some of the others.

6. Dreamdark Blackbringer by Laini Taylor, 2007

The wolf tasted the babe’s face with the tip of his tongue and pronounced her sweet, and the fox licked the back of her head to see if it was so. For the rest of her life, when this child grew into a faerie with bright eyes and a laugh as loud and unladylike as a crow’s, that spot on her hair would never lie flat. And though she wouldn’t remember the night the creatures had gathered round to look at her and taste and smell her, she would call those unruly hairs her foxlick, without knowing why.

The branches overhead thrummed with birds. They would wait their turn but they wouldn’t be quiet about it. No matter. The creatures weren’t worried about being interrupted by faeries. The imp had smuggled the babe far from home, floating her down Misky Creek on a linden leaf so that this unusual starlight gathering would draw no unwanted notice. The creatures had her for the night, and by morning she would be back snug in her cradle with no one the wiser.

Oh, this is nice. Laini Taylor is an excellent writer. I really enjoyed her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, even though it’s loaded with angst. This looks good. This beginning is just as good as the one by Charles de Lint in the earlier selection of older titles, even though it’s quite different.

I haven’t yet read Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer either. I really want to read that someday.

7. Heartstone by Elle Katherine White, 2016

I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

If this one weren’t my friend, it might’ve been funny. Tobble was red in the face before I noticed him in the grass by the garden wall, and since hobgoblins have green skin, that in itself was quite a feat.

“Tobble, what’s wrong?” I asked in Low Gnomic, or what could’ve passed as Gnomic if I hadn’t butchered it with my Arlean accent. The earthy words used by hobgoblins and other garden creatures sounded heavy and awkward on my human tongue, and Tobble had often despaired of my pronunciation. Today, however, he was too distraught to notice.

“Lord Merybourne has hired Riders, Aliza. Five of them! Do you know what that means?” He said. His head, which was round and homely as a potato, came halfway up my shin and he clutched handfuls of his mossy hair as I knelt next to him. “We’re doomed! Doomed, I say!”

A bit tongue-in-cheek, don’t you think? That’s certainly my impression. If I remember correctly, I think this is supposed to be rather Jane-Austen-ish, but with dragons. And hobgoblins, apparently. I don’t get drawn in instantly, I’m not super interested in why everyone is doomed, doomed! But I’d turn the page, sure. This is nicely written, just not as immediately compelling as some of the others.

Out of this selection … hmm. I think I’m most likely to leave Magonia upstairs to hopefully read soon. That’s not exactly because of the beginning. I’ve just wanted to get to that book for quite a while.

I’ll probably read the first chapter of Mystic first, though, in order to move it to the give-away pile promptly if I decide I don’t really like it enough to read it.

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9 thoughts on “Novel openings: seven recent-ish fantasy novels”

  1. I’ve been reading a lot of Kelly McCullough lately. As I’d mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed his short story in Zelazny’s Madwand world, and that encouraged me to pick up some of his stuff. I started with his Fallen Blade six-book series. Quite liked it. I told my dad it felt like fantasy noir filtered through Nathan Lowell’s optimistic filter. I’m now on book four of his Cybermage series. I was pretty skeptical about the premise on this one, but it’s really grown on me. In fact, two things that were bugging me about the first book–that I had taken for annoying genre elements–turned out to be setups for plot twists that paid off in the back half of the first book. Overall, very reminiscent of Zelazny, who I expect has been a major inspiration for McCullough. Low stress reads with pleasant characters.

  2. Breath of Earth and Jane Austen with dragons sounds good to me. I loved the Kelly McCullough Fallen Blades Series but could not get into the Cybermage series. The Fallen Blade series also reminds me of a series that is unfinished by Douglas Hulick (Sworn in Steel) which I also really liked but no ones probably heard of it. :(

  3. Allan, I like the description of “fantasy noir filtered through Nathan Lowell’s optimistic filter.” I’ll have to try one of McCullough’s books! In fact, I like everything about how you describe these series, so … I guess I’ll pick up samples of both right now.

  4. Kristi Thompson

    Magonia’s worth reading, I’d say. It’s an odd sort of portal fantasy; I liked the our-world parts better than the fantastic, and while I vaguely think that might have been part of the point I’m not sure.

  5. I’ll put in a plug for Blackbringer, and the sequel, Silksinger, by Taylor. I have read almost everything she’s written–except for the graphic novel–and have loved everything to a greater or lesser degree. A warning though that the Dreamdark series is not finished, and there is no info on when/if it is likely to be finished. (From what I remember it sounded like Taylor would like to finish the series but it’s not what publishers are asking for….) But there is a complete arc in each book so they are still worth reading even if the series is never finished.

    Also loved Strange the Dreamer and the sequel, Muse of Nightmares. Talk about gut-wrenching….

    The comparison to de Lint was surprising to me at first — because they seem very different — but then seem apt. I think it’s because both of their works feel really magical to me, in a good way.

  6. Loved, loved, loved the Dreamdark books and really wish she’d complete the series! Such likeable characters, such inventive world-building, such fun plays with language and with fantasy tropes. And yes, Strange the Dreamer was gut-wrenchingly amazing. I think you’ll like them more than the Smoke and Bone trilogy because the main character is so nice.

    Sarah Beth Durst is hit and miss for me as well, but the ones I like I really really like! Haven’t read this one yet. I think my favourite of her middle-grade novels is The Girl Who Could Not Dream. Has a really awesome (entirely loveable) monster in it.

  7. I was pretty meh on Magonia, but looks like I forgot to write a goodreads review, so fuzzy on details. As I recall, main character trusted wrong people who didn’t appear at all trustworthy, and plot was frustrating, but there were some interesting ideas. Not enough of them to keep me reading, though.

  8. Ok, here we go!

    Breath of Earth Lively voice, information mostly gracefully inserted although that fourth paragraph goes on it is saved by Ingrid’s voice. I picked up the sample. Oh, April 1906, I know what’s’ coming. (for non-Californians: the Great SF Earthquake.) the narrator seems rather more modern in impulses than a true 1906 woman, (based on memoirs I’ve read) but the writer has changed the world enough it’s not too much of a dissonance.

    Mystic Meh. Something is missing.

    Journey across the hidden islands This writer usually doesn’t work for me so let’s just way the trend continues.
    I do like the line Our Hostess called out. It’s so common to have nature images to meditate on for calm, I’m amused by the way the author worked the reference in.

    Magonia Strong voice, reasonable impression of setting just from this bit. Got the sample, read on and quickly lost interest. Whether it was finding out what the health issue was and going ANOTHER ONE? or what I’m not sure. And since reading as far as I did my back brain has been picking nits with what I did read. So subtle stuff wasn’t working.

    Tiger’s Daughter Why should I bother spending time with this person? Checks amazon. Oh gad, a prophecy. No.

    Dreamdark Blackbringer oooh, very well done. Like. Lots of info gracefully worked in, like the Kipling in an earlier set. Didn’t get anywhere with her other work, too wallowy, but I’ll give this one a chance.

    Heartstone recognize it, DNF.

  9. I have read significantly better Novik/Temeraire fanfic than Heartstone. And a number of the fics involve Dragon!Lizzy. (Also Dragon!Crawford, Dragon!Wentworth, … and even Dragon!Georgina.)

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