Kelly Lasiter

KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

Frostfire: A good MG adventure with lots of derring-do

Frostfire by Jamie Smith

Frostfire (2019), by Jamie Smith, is a middle-grade fantasy set in the mountainous land of Adranna. Adranna lies in the shadow of the great peak of Aderast, and all of its magic comes from the shimmering glacier that flows from it. A handful of young people are chosen each year to climb to the glacier and claim a small piece of it, a frostsliver, which gives them special abilities and marks them as people of importance in Adranna’s society.

Sabira is a fourteen-year-old girl who has been chosen to receive a frostsliver. The novel opens as she is making her climb. The narrative then flashes back to the previous year, when Sabira’s brother Kyran was chosen. Tensions have been growing with the neighboring nation of Ignata, and after an Ignatian raiding party attacked Sabira’s family, everything started going wrong for Kyran. Now he is missing, and Sabira is det... Read More

Mapping Winter: A character and a world that will stick with me

Mapping Winter by Marta Randall

Mapping Winter (2019) is Marta Randall’s reworking of her 1983 novel, The Sword of Winter. (Randall talks more about the story behind the book here.) Its release as Mapping Winter was followed shortly by the all-new sequel The River South, with the two novels making up the RIDERS GUILD series. It’s a secondary-world fantasy, but without magic; I was about two-thirds of the way through the book when I realized, “Huh, I don’t think there’s been any magic!” What it does have is a nation poised between feudalism and industrialization.

The Riders are a venerable organization of messengers who travel around the country of Cherek. They bring the news, spread proclamations, and are responsible for... Read More

Dead Voices: I’m hooked on this series

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden

I loved Small Spaces, Katherine Arden’s first foray into children’s horror, and so I jumped right into its sequel, Dead Voices (2019). A few months have passed since Ollie, Coco, and Brian outsmarted the Smiling Man who wanted to turn them, and all their classmates, into scarecrows. The ordeal left them with recurring nightmares, but also made them best friends. It’s December now, and Ollie’s dad has won a stay at Mount Hemlock, the new ski lodge a few hours outside of town. He’s taking all three kids, along with Coco’s mom.

I didn’t fall in love as immediately this time, and I think I’ve distilled that down to two reasons. One is that, from an adult perspective, it seemed... Read More

Small Spaces: A delicious autumn read

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

I fell in love with Small Spaces (2018) from the first paragraph. Before I even realized this was the same Katherine Arden whose adult fiction I’ve been meaning to read for years, and before I got caught up in the richly drawn characters and the spooky plot, I was smitten by this:
October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples. Olivia Adler sat nearest the big window in Mr. Easton’s math class, trying, catlike, to fit her entire body into a patch of light. She wished she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine. Soon the old autumn sun would bed down in cloud blankets, and there would be weeks of gray rain before it finally decided to snow. But Mr. Easton was teaching fractions and had no sympathy for Ol... Read More

The Porcelain Dove: A gothic fairy tale

The Porcelain Dove by Delia Sherman

Years ago, I got into “fantasies of manners” at about the same time as I was going through a big Revolutionary France phase. When I heard about Delia Sherman’s The Porcelain Dove (1993) — a fantasy set in that time period, and which won the Mythopoeic Award for 1994 — it sounded like the perfect book for me. I could never find it in the used bookstores, though. (I did, before I successfully committed the title to memory, buy two different other books thinking they might be it.) The rise of e-books has fortunately made it possible for us to track down some of our elusive great white whales, or in this case, our porcelain doves.

I don’t know what gave me the idea The Porcelain Dove would be a light, frothy novel. It is not. It is also... Read More

Esbae: Where’s Hermione Granger when you need her?

Esbae by Linda Haldeman

I love fantasies set at colleges, so when I heard about Linda Haldeman’s Esbae: A Winter’s Tale (1981), I had to track it down and read it. The titular Esbae is a spirit who is found wanting by some greater power, and cast down to earth. It attaches itself to an awkward college student, Sophie, and is caught up in a magical battle between good and evil.

The three main human characters are all to be found in Dr. Leo Ernst’s history class. (We know that this is fantasy, because even after an ice storm, everybody goes t... Read More

Gods of Jade and Shadow: Romantic fantasy set in 1920s Mexico

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Casiopeia Tun is the poor relation of the Leyva family, put to work as a servant to her grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s established early, though, that she’s not one to take easily to subservience. Sure, she’ll probably do what she’s told — eventually — but it won’t be with a smile. She cherishes a few modest dreams of the things she’d see and do if she could only escape the family home and the dusty little town of Uukumil. When the family leaves her out of an outing as punishment, she sees her chance and opens the forbidden chest in her grandfather’s room. She’s hoping for a few coins to fund her escape to Mérida. Instead, she awakens Hun-Kamé, a Mayan death god.

It turns out that he was imprisoned there by his jealous brother, Vucub-Kamé, in order to usurp the throne of the underw... Read More

The White Road: (to Nowhere)

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

I’ll admit it — I’m pretty scared of Mount Everest before you populate it with ghosts. Ever since I read Jon Krakauer’s riveting nonfiction book Into Thin Air, I’ve felt a little shudder at the very thought of climbing it. So when I heard about The White Road (2017), a horror novel set on Everest, I figured it was guaranteed to freak me out in epic fashion.

Simon and his friend Thierry run a website dedicated to creepy things. The White Road begins with Simon teaming up with a sketchy older man, Ed, to explore a Welsh cave system. Some spelunkers died there years ago, and their bodies are still in the cave; Simon hopes to get footage of the corpses for the website. Simon and Ed get into trouble in the cave. Simon nearly dies, an... Read More

The Raven Boys: A challenging urban fantasy with a dash of everything

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue is the only non-psychic in a large extended family of psychics in Henrietta, Virginia. Her only unusual ability is that her presence amplifies the psychic powers of others around her, but she herself cannot use these abilities. So it’s a shock when, while sitting vigil in a graveyard with her aunt Neeve, Blue sees the spirit of a boy about her age who is destined to die in the next year. She learns that there are only two possible reasons she was able to see him: either he’s her true love, or she’s going to kill him.

The Raven Boys follows two groups of characters whose stories weave together: Blue and her eccentric family, and a clique of four boys from the posh Aglionby Academy, whose students are nicknamed “raven boys” for the emblem on their uniforms. The leader of this clique is Ganse... Read More

Ink: Unique, gruesome premise

Ink by Alice Broadway

Ink (2018), by Alice Broadway, is the first book in a YA dystopian trilogy with a unique, if gruesome, premise. Everyone in the city of Saintstone has the events of their lives tattooed on their bodies. When a person dies, their skin is removed and made into a book, which is then judged at a ceremony that recalls the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian mythology. If the person is determined to have lived a good life, the book (and by implication, the person’s soul) is returned to their family to be remembered forever among the ancestors. If the book is found unworthy, however, it is thrown in the fire and the person is officially “forgotten.” People without tattoos, called “blanks,” are hated and have been forced out of Saintstone.

Leora is a teenage girl whose father has just died. His skin book is created, and Leora and her mother look forward to the day they can bring it h... Read More

The Song of Rhiannon: Problems with the source material

The Song of Rhiannon by Evangeline Walton

The Song of Rhiannon (1972), the third volume in Evangeline Walton’s MABINOGION TETRALOGY, begins with Manawyddan, son of the sea god, haunted by grief and feeling directionless after the events of The Children of Llyr. (I haven’t read The Children of Llyr, but I have read “Branwen Daughter of Llyr,” the medieval Welsh tale on which it is based. It features a Red Wedding’s worth of deaths.) His friend Pryderi, prince of Dyfed, gives him new purpose in life by offering him a home at his palace and the chance to court Pryderi’s widowed mother, Rhiannon.

The Song of Rhiannon is based on the... Read More

Strange Toys: An odd, creepy novel

Strange Toys by Patricia Geary

Strange Toys is an odd, creepy novel. It won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1987, though apparently Patricia Geary hadn’t actually intended it as science fiction at all. I found it while exploring the labyrinthine basement of a local used bookstore, but it was reprinted in electronic form in 2018.

The heroine, nicknamed Pet, is the baby of her family. (We never learn her real name.) She is nine years old as the book begins, in the late 1950s. Her twelve-year-old sister, June, bullies her. Her sixteen-year-old sister, Deane, is worse. Deane is in some kind of unspecified trouble with the law (she’s into the occult, too), and the girls’ parents leave home abruptly with Pet and June because they fear retribution from Deane’s criminal friends.

What follo... Read More

A Green and Ancient Light: Beautifully written, gently melancholy

A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin

A war is raging, and a young boy is sent to spend the summer with his grandmother in her small country village. His life changes forever when she decides to rescue a downed enemy pilot and nurse him back to health. While helping her tend to the injured man, the boy also meets Mr. Girandole, a faun, who was once his grandmother’s love and is still her dear friend.

She knows just the place to conceal the pilot while he convalesces: a crooked little tower in an overgrown sculpture garden in the woods. Throughout the summer, the boy explores the garden, which was built long ago by an eccentric Duke who lost his beloved wife. The garden is reputed to contain a riddle that, if answered, will open a door to Faery.

A Green and Ancient Light (2016) is a beautifully written, gently melancholy tale. The pace is perhaps too slow at the start, with a lot... Read More

Shadowhouse Fall: Still magical, still powerful, still wonderful

Reposting to include Kelly's new review.

Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older

Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper was one of the best books of 2015 — not “best YA books” but best books of all categories. It featured an engaging, authentic female hero, an original magical system, mundane issues as well as magical ones, and a distinctive voice and sensibility. 2017’s sequel, Shadowhouse Fall, shows no second-book slump in this series.

Sierra Santiago is mastering her skill as a shadowshaper, an ability that melds spirit contact with art, and adjusting to her new role as the Lucera, but things are not calm or quiet in her neighborhood. A powerful rival group called the Sorrows still purs... Read More

SHORTS: Miller, Leiber, Clement, Brackett

SHORTS: In this week's column we review several short fiction works that we've read recently, including three more of the current Retro Hugo nominees from 1943.

“Galatea” by Madeline Miller (2013, $3.99 on Kindle; anthologized in xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer)

In the Roman myth of Read More

Yarrow: Very early de Lint

Yarrow by Charles de Lint

I’d been meaning to read Yarrow (1986) for years. I loved Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream, in which he tells the story of a painter touched by the Otherworld. And I’m a writer (or at least a wannabe one), not a visual artist, so I figured, “if I liked his artist book so much, how much more am I going to love his writer book?” Unfortunately, the answer is “not as much.” Yarrow is very early de Lint, and not my favorite book of his that I’ve read.

Yarrow is set in Ottawa and loosely follows Moonheart; the plots are standalone, but T... Read More

Akata Witch: An exciting, imaginative, and heart-warming story

Reposting to include Kelly's new review.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny Nwazue, an albino who needs to stay out of the sun, has always been different from the other kids in her school. When her family returned to Nigeria after living in the United States for most of Sunny’s childhood, she never quite found her place. Her strangeness becomes even more obvious when she sees a vision showing what appears to be scenes from the end of the world.

When Sunny finally makes a few friends, she begins to realize there's a reason for her strangeness, and that she's not the only weird kid in town. She finds out that she belongs to the Leopard People, an ancient bloodline that endows its descendants with various magical abilities. As Sunny is initiated into this new family, she learns that she and her friends are part of a prophecy related to her frightening apocalyptic vision. Without much knowledge or skills, Su... Read More

Shadowshaper: Five-star characters with five-star prose

Reposting to include Kelly's new review.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

I’ve commented before that I give very few five-star reviews. Usually, I expect a book to somehow change my thinking, or how I see the world, in order to rate it a five-star book. As I sat down to write this review I was going to say something like, “While that didn’t happen with Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older, I still…” and then I thought more about it, and decided that Shadowshaper (2015) has changed how I think about the world, mostly because of the time I spent with the main character, Sierra Santiago, who is a hero, an artist and a genuine girl.

As far at the plot goes (and it’s a fast-paced one) in many ways Sierra is a classic Chosen One, a trope that som... Read More

Crescent Moon: Did Not Finish

Crescent Moon by Lori Handeland

Crescent Moon (2006) is a werewolf romance, fourth in Lori Handeland’s NIGHTCREATURE series. Diana is a cryptozoologist who is desperate to discover an unknown species, to fulfill a promise she made to her late husband. Her quest brings her to the Big Easy in search of the loup-garou werewolves that are reputed to lurk in the swamps. It also brings her to the attention of the brusque and secretive, yet sexy, Adam Ruelle.

I was interested in Crescent Moon mainly because it was set in New Orleans, a city that I love. Unfortunately, it never grabbed me and I ended up setting it aside. My problems with the novel can be boiled down to three main issues: a lack of sense of place, a distracting error about wolf behavior, and too little cohesiveness between scenes.

I’ve been spoiled by a lot of ... Read More

Ghost Wall: These are not the good old days

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Silvie’s summer vacation is a nightmare. She, her abusive father, and her browbeaten mother have joined a college professor and his three-person Experimental Archaeology class in the northern woods of England, where they are trying to live like the ancients. For the class, it’s a learning experience and something of a lark, at least at first. For Silvie’s father, it’s deadly serious; he’d love to live like that all the time, as he imagines Iron Age Britain to be the world of his racist and sexist dreams.

Things get worse when Silvie’s father and some of the others become obsessed with the grislier aspects of the olden days: the titular ghost wall — a fence topped with skulls that was meant to magically repel invaders — and the human sacrifices preserved in the peat bogs. Meanwhile, Silvie is both drawn to and terrified by Molly, one of the students, who refuses to allow Silvie to keep seein... Read More

Magic for Liars: A fresh spin on the “magical school” trope

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

I recently enjoyed Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET,” on Tadiana’s recommendation, and decided I needed to check out more of Gailey’s work. When I saw their latest novel, Magic for Liars (2019), gleaming bright red at me from the library shelf, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Magic school meets detective thriller? Right up my alley, as I like both of those things. It was like asking me if I wanted vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

Ivy and Tabitha Gamble are twins, but Tabitha has magic and Ivy doesn’t. When the two were teens, Tabitha got to go away to magic school, while Ivy stayed home and dealt with regular high school and her mother’s terminal cancer. Now in their th... Read More

Night and Silence: Emotional and twisty

Night and Silence by Seanan McGuire

Night and Silence begins with Toby and her friends still recovering from the events of The Brightest Fell. Tybalt is suffering from PTSD and pushing Toby away. Jazz isn’t doing much better. Sylvester is mad at Toby because of what happened with Simon. Toby doesn’t need a new problem, but that’s exactly what she gets when her human ex, Cliff, and his wife, Miranda, turn up on her doorstep. Toby’s daughter Gillian, now a student at UC-Berkeley, has been kidnapped again. And Cliff and Miranda think Toby had something to do with it.

Roughly the first half of this installment feels like familiar ground. Gillian has been kidnapped before, and the plot structure of Toby traveling all over the metro area chasing down clues and red herrings is one that Seanan McGu... Read More

The Brightest Fell: “Magic can be reversed. Trauma isn’t that simple.”

The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire

After two “monster of the week” episodes, The Brightest Fell (2017) brings us back to the secrets that were revealed in The Winter Long, surrounding Amandine, Simon, Eira Rosynhwyr — and Toby’s long-lost sister, August. But first, Seanan McGuire draws us in, as she did in Once Broken Faith, with a heartwarming scene of comic relief. This time, it’s Toby’s bachelorette party. The. Luideag. Sings. Karaoke. You don’t want to miss this.

The cozy mood is not to last, though, because Toby’s estranged mother Amandine shows up afterward. She wants Toby to find August. No... Read More

Once Broken Faith: A solid entry

Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire

Once Broken Faith (2016) begins with a hilarious scene in which Toby & co. host a slumber party for a horde of fae teenagers, during which the kids devour unholy amounts of junk food and discover the joys of Disney movies. The festivities are then interrupted by Queen Arden Windermere, who wants Toby as a witness as she uses Walther’s elf-shot cure to wake Madden and Nolan. The High King decreed that no further use of the cure should take place until after a conclave of fae royalty can meet and discuss it, so Arden is exploiting a loophole. Madden wakes, but before Nolan can be roused, the High King shows up early.

The conclave will bring together all of the royal courts of the western United States, and Toby is also chosen to attend. Seanan McGuire introduces us to an in... Read More

A Red-Rose Chain: Some pacing issues

A Red-Rose Chain by Seanan McGuire

This is one of my favorite of Chris McGrath’s covers for the OCTOBER DAYE series, and it’s one of my favorite titles too, so it pains me to say that this isn’t one of my favorite books in the series. A Red-Rose Chain (2015) suffers from some pacing issues and didn’t quite knock my socks off like The Winter Long did.

The kingdom of Silences, analogous to mortal Portland, declares war on the Mists. By faerie law, the Mists has three days to try to make peace instead. Toby annoys Queen Windermere at exactly the wrong moment, and her punishment is to travel to Silences as an ambassador.

There’s a good deal of setup for this, followed by several chapters of Toby and her chosen family discussing who should go along on the trip and... Read More

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