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.

Shadow Over Mars: The author is better than the book

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh Brackett

Shadow Over Mars (1944), also sometimes reprinted as The Nemesis from Terra, was the first full-length novel by space opera author Leigh Brackett. (“Full-length” is relative here, though, as Shadow Over Mars is quite short, only 145 pages in the edition I read.) It is currently in the running for a 2020 Retro Hugo for Best Novel.

The book begins with the hero, Rick, running through a Martian city, trying to evade the agents of the Terran Exploitations Company, who want to press him into slavery in their mines. He ducks into the home of an old woman, who prophesies that she has seen his “shadow over Mars,” and then promptly tries to kill him. The prophecy, which is interpreted to mean that Rick will become the planet’s... Read More

Conjure Women: Beautifully written, hard-hitting

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Conjure Women (2020) by Afia Atakora is a first novel that I can hardly believe is a first novel. It’s a beautifully written, hard-hitting story of an African American healer just before and just after the end of slavery in the US. It’s not a fantasy novel, but I’m reviewing it here at FanLit because it has a few magical realist elements, and because it’s in part about magic, and people’s belief in magic, even when none is actually taking place.

In 1867, Rue is respected as the healer, midwife, and conjure woman in the little town that grew up in the former slave quarters. She feels, though, that she’ll never be as good at it as her late mother, May Belle. Rue doesn’t actually have magical powers — instead, she has medical and herbal knowledge that she presents as magic because that’s what people expect. She keeps some other secrets... Read More

Mexican Gothic: A creepy gothic novel featuring fungus

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old flighty socialite living in Mexico City. She loves to dress up in beautiful gowns and high heels and go to parties with handsome young men. One evening she’s called home from a party early. Her wealthy father has received a strange letter from Catalina, Noemí’s recently married cousin. Catalina thinks she’s in danger from her new husband’s family and is begging for help. Is Catalina really imperiled, or is she suffering a mental breakdown?

Noemí’s father asks her to visit her cousin at High Place, her husband’s family’s mansion on top of a mountain in an isolated rural area of Mexico. When she arrives, Noemí is shocked to discover that, indeed, her cousin is not well. Though Catalina has moments of lucidity, at other times she rails about ghosts and other hallucinations.

The house and its inhabitants are undeniably frightening. T... Read More

SHORTS: Gailey, Huang, Solomon

SHORTS is our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. We've previously reviewed most of the novellas, novelettes and short stories that are currently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Awards. Here are our reviews for the remaining nominees. Reviews for the Retro Hugo short fiction nominees are coming this week!

Away with the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (2019, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2020 Hugo award nominee (novelette). Read More

Shadowshaper Legacy: Satisfying end to an excellent series

Shadowshaper Legacy by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper Legacy (2020) is the third and final novel in Daniel José Older’s excellent SHADOWSHAPER CYPHER series. While it was not my favorite book in the trilogy, it ends on a high note and concludes the main plot arcs in a satisfying way. This review will contain some spoilers for the first two books.

Shadowhouse Fall saw Sierra merge two magical Houses into the new House of Shadow and Light, and ended with a cliffhanger as the white supremacist Bloodhaüs emerged as a threat. The immediate Bloodhaüs situation is actually wrapped up pretty quickly — so quickly, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I missed an intervening novella, which I will have to... Read More

The Golden Fleece: I appreciated it as an accomplishment

The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece (1944), also sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate, was Robert Graves’s attempt to create a unified, mostly realistic version of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the titular fleece. He incorporated a variety of ancient sources, some of them contradictory, some of them fragmentary, keeping the elements he thought made the most sense and assembling them into a single narrative. The result is this novel, which has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2020.

Graves wrote The Golden Fleece in an intentionally old-fashioned style. He explains in his introduction that he couldn’t hope to write it in the style of the Argonauts’ own time, but disliked the idea of writing it from a wholly modern perspective, and so took up a position “not later than … 146 B.C.... Read More

Cinderella Is Dead: Heroines to cheer for

Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

It’s been two hundred years since Cinderella met her Prince Charming. Her dream come true has become a nightmare for the girls of Lille. Every year, all eligible young girls must attend the royal ball, where they vie to be selected as brides for Lille’s men. For the girls who are not chosen, there are dire but mysterious consequences.

It’s time for Sophia to debut at the ball, and it’s the last thing she wants to do. For one thing, she’s gay and doesn’t want to marry a man at all. She’s also noticed that many of the marriages that result from the ball are anything but happy. But refusing to attend would ruin her family, so Sophia goes. Disaster strikes, and soon Sophia is on the run with another girl. Constance, and they become a fierce two-woman resistance against the king. Along the way, Sophia discovers that the official version of the Cinderella story is a lie.

I... Read More

Scarlet Odyssey: Promising new series by a promising new author

Scarlet Odyssey by C.T. Rwizi

Scarlet Odyssey (2020) is the debut novel by C.T. Rwizi and the beginning of a new series, RED PLAINS. It’s an epic fantasy set in a world based on sub-Saharan Africa, featuring a group of young people who might have the chance to stop an evil plan — or might unwittingly put it in motion instead.

The central point-of-view characters are Musalodi (“Salo”), a young man who wants to learn magic even though his people forbid that study to men; Ilapara, a young woman who rebelled in the inverse way, by becoming a female warrior, and starts the novel working as a mercenary; Kelafelo, a woman whose village is destroyed by a brutal warlord, and who apprentices in sorcery in the hopes of taking vengeance on him; and Isa, a spoiled princess who will have responsibility thrust upon her unexpectedly. Also among the POVs are several shadowy charac... Read More

Silver in the Wood: A hopeful tale about renewal

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Silver in the Wood (2019) is an enchanting novella by Emily Tesh, who is a finalist for the 2020 Astounding Award. It is the first in Tesh’s GREENHOLLOW DUOLOGY; the sequel, Drowned Country, will be released in August.

Tobias has lived alone for a long time. He’s a sort of guardian of the forest, keeping its assorted supernatural creatures from getting out of hand. (He’s also a couple of other things, which you’ll find out about later.) Tobias is shaken out of his routine when he has a meet-cute with Henry Silver, the new owner of the manor house at the edge of the wood.

I don’t think the word “England” is ever technically mentioned, but this feels like the folkloric English forest. Reading Silver in the Wood, the reader feels like one wrong turn might lead th... Read More

Watermark: Mythic fiction with lush prose

Watermark by E. Catherine Tobler

Watermark (2014), by E. Catherine Tobler, is the story of Pip, a kelpie who is cast out of the Otherworld of the fae and into the human realm. Before that, she was being held in a tower in iron chains. She remembers very little before that; she doesn’t know what she was being punished for, or why she now finds herself in the town of Peak, Colorado, or why there was a dead girl lying next to her when she got there.

I first tried to read Watermark a few years ago and had trouble getting into it. I recently decided to give it another shot and … yet again had trouble getting into it. The early chapters of the book are confusing and sometimes frustrating, as Pip doesn’t know what’s going on and no one else will tell her either. The story moves quick... Read More

Prisoner of Midnight: Vampire mystery at sea

Prisoner of Midnight by Barbara Hambly

Prisoner of Midnight (2019) is the eighth novel in Barbara Hambly’s JAMES ASHER series, which began in 1988 with Those Who Hunt the Night. It has been nominated for the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. I had never tried this series before, but having enjoyed her (non-paranormal) BENJAMIN JANUARY mystery series, I decided to give Prisoner of Midnight a shot.

(And now that I’ve read it, I can say that there are some common themes. Both series feature a fiercely intelligent male/female pair solving crimes, and explore prejudice as both a cause of violence and an impediment to the investigation.)

Hambly weaves enough backstory into the narrative that a new reader can catch up, and it’s smoothly integrated, so longtime fans of the series won’t ha... Read More

War Girls: War is hell

War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi

Onyii is a battle-hardened soldier, weary of war.

She’s 15.

Her adopted sister, Ify, is even younger and a budding tech genius. The two live in a rebel compound of Biafran girls, hidden by a signal dampener from the Nigerian government. Tochi Onyebuchi gives the reader a little quiet time in the camp, to meet the characters and learn about the technologies they use — and then the camp is discovered, and a riveting battle scene begins. Onyii and Ify are separated, swept apart into two very different lives on opposite sides of the war, each believing the other dead. They will meet again four years later, as enemies.

War Girls (2019) is based on the real-life Nigerian Civil War, but moved forward into the 22nd century. There are cybernetic body enhancements, maglev ca... Read More

SHORTS: Roanhorse, Liu, Lee, Goss, Kingfisher, Bear

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week's post reviews several more of the current crop of Locus Award nominees in the short fiction categories.

“A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy” by Rebecca Roanhorse (2019, anthologized in The Mythic Dream, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe). 2020 Locus award finalist (short story).

In the future, people’s memories can be stored and preserved even after they’ve died, and other people can inject them like drugs. Dez Hunter is an actor who has spiraled into depression after the death of his beloved girlfrien... Read More

Destroy All Monsters: Aims high but doesn’t quite hit

Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

It’s interesting reading Sam J. Miller’s Destroy All Monsters (2019) with Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet still fresh in my mind. Both novels deal with child abuse and the question of what a “monster” is. Clearly, these themes are out there in the zeitgeist, and they’re resonating with readers; both books have been named Locus finalists in the Young Adult category.

Destroy All Monsters alternates between two points of view: high school best friends Ash and Solomon. Ash is an aspiring photographer on the trail of a group that’s been committing hateful acts of vandalism around town. Solomon is struggling with a mental illness and sees the world through ... Read More

Blackwater: A unique horror saga

Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell originally published the BLACKWATER horror series in six volumes (The Flood, The Levee, The House, The War, The Fortune, and Rain) in 1983. Some of the installments go for a pretty penny on the Internet these days, so it’s great that Valancourt Press released an omnibus edition, Blackwater: The Complete Saga (2017). This edition is the most cost-effective way to get your hands on this sprawling tale.

Blackwater is set in the town of Perdido, Alabama and tells the story of a lumber dynasty, the Caskeys, between 1919 and 1970. It begins when the scion of the family, Oscar, finds a young woman, Elinor, stranded in the town’s h... Read More

The Luminous Dead: A gripping thriller

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Some time ago, I read a novel that promised to combine a man-vs.-nature survival narrative with a ghost story. It disappointed me, not delivering enough of either. When reading Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was what I wanted that one to be. The Luminous Dead succeeds at both the (wo)man-vs.-nature stuff and the eerie goings-on — not to mention a character study of two complicated, damaged people — and it all adds up to a truly gripping thriller.

Gyre is a caver, setting out on what might be the job of a lifetime. The pay is good enough to get her off her backwater planet so she can find her long-lost mother — but only if she survives. See, Gyre … embellished … her credentials a bit to get the job. OK, maybe more than a bit.

Gyre’s... Read More

SHORTS: McGuire, Link, Chiang, Leckie, Lee

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week's post reviews several of the current crop of Locus Award nominees. 


Phantoms of the Midway by Seanan McGuire (2019, anthologized in The Mythic Dream, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe). 2020 Locus award finalist (novelette).

Most kids dream of running away to join the carnival. Seventeen-year-old Aracely dreams of running away from the carnival. Her mother, Daisy, is the boss and the tattoo artist of the traveling fair, and she’s overprotective, forbidding Aracely to step out... Read More

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All: Overcomes a slow start

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

I loved Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap so much that I was almost afraid to read Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All (2019). How could it possibly live up to my expectations of it? After having read it, I can report that I do still think I liked Bone Gap better, but that Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is also a good read. I’m not alone in thinking that, either; it was a finalist for the National Book Award and was chosen for the 2019 Locus Recommended Reading list.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is set in Chicago in the years leading up to, and then during, World War II. Its... Read More

Solstice: Didn’t work for me

Solstice by Lorence Alison

Solstice (2020), by Lorence Alison, is subtitled “A Tropical Horror Comedy” and is a thinly fictionalized take on the disastrous Fyre Festival, with the addition of an eldritch sea monster lurking beneath the waves. I wasn’t expecting high literature from it, just the proverbial “beach read” to distract myself from the fact that there is no beach anywhere near me (and if there were, it would probably be closed anyway). But the more I think about it, the more it just doesn’t work for me.

Adri Sanchez is a smart, inquisitive teen who’s working as a waitress in her parents’ diner. They have lofty aspirations for her and have lined up a summer internship for her at a law office, but what Adri really wants to be is a journalist. Her wealthy best friend, Elena, is given two tickets to the much-hyped Solstice Festival on Myla Island, and invites Adri to... Read More

Pet: The human meets the divine, and both are changed

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

“There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.” The city of Lucille is a utopia. A generation ago, a resistance toppled all the monsters — monsters in this case meaning people: unjust politicians, bigots, predators. The leaders of the revolution are now called “angels” and are revered as elders. Jam is a teenage girl growing up in Lucille, and she appreciates the better world the angels built; as a black trans girl, she knows the world that came before would not have been as welcoming to her. But she still has questions that her teachers are hesitant to answer.

Jam’s life changes when she accidentally brings to life a strange, feathered creature from one of her mother’s paintings. The creature tells Jam to call it Pet, and that it is here to hunt a monster. The monster, Pet says, lives in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Jam’s parents insist that Pet must be mistaken, because t... Read More

A Song Below Water: A timely, engaging tale

A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

Tavia is a siren. This fact is enough trouble to her that she’s trying to contact the spirit of her grandmother (who was also a siren) to learn whether there’s any way to rid herself of the power.

Her best friend/adopted sister Effie isn’t really a mermaid; she just plays one at the Renaissance Faire. She’s a totally normal human — or so she thinks.

A Song Below Water (2020), by Bethany C. Morrow, is set in what is essentially our world in the present day, except that several types of magical beings are known to exist. Elokos are prestigious, admired. Sprites are annoying, invisible tricksters who play pranks on children. Sirens are feared and despised. Every known siren in recent years has been a black woman, which has led to a stigma being attach... Read More

To Be Taught, If Fortunate: The wonder, and the ethical dilemmas, of space

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’s novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019) takes the form of a letter from a space traveler, Ariadne O’Neill, to the people of Earth. Why Ariadne is writing it, we will learn later.

Ariadne is part of a small but diverse crew that has been sent to explore a moon and three planets that it is believed might harbor life. They will sleep in hibernation during the journey to this star system, explore each world, then go into hibernation again for the journey back. All told, they will be gone for eighty years, which means their goodbyes to their loved ones are permanent (which is explored in a poignant scene early in the novella). On each planet, they use a process called somaforming which adapts their bodies to survive in that planet’s particular condi... Read More

Legends of the Sky: Strong emotions, interesting politics, weird pacing

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan, first published in the UK in 2018 as Dragon Daughter and reprinted in the US in 2019, is set on the island nation of Arcosi. Dragons have long been extinct on Arcosi, but still play a powerful symbolic role in the culture. (For what it’s worth, I like the UK title better! I think it more effectively conveys both the importance of dragons and the revelations about long-lost family that the heroine, Milla, will experience.)

Milla is a young servant girl who witnesses a murder. The killer doesn’t find the prize they were looking for, but Milla does—a bag containing four dragon eggs. In time these eggs come to the attention of the Duke, who wants control of them to increase his power, but it turns out that dragon hatchlings bond strongly to one person and cannot thrive without that person. O... Read More

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

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

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... Read More

Briar Rose: Fairy tales and trauma

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

In the 1980s, Terri Windling created the FAIRY TALE SERIES, a collection of stand-alone retellings for adults, featuring some of the best writers in the field. The series continued into the early 2000s and spans a wide variety of styles, tones, and interpretations of the tales. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (1992) was the sixth in the series and combines its fairy tale with an all-too-real historical horror. It won the Mythopoeic Award in 1992, and was nominated for the Nebula.

Becca, the heroine, is a young Jewish woman who grew up being told fairy tales by her grandmother, Gemma. Becca’s favorite was Sleeping Beauty, though Gemma didn’t tell it in the standard way. Now Gemma is dying, and on her de... Read More

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