Yes, that’s right, I am not really a big fan (or much of a fan at all) of Harry Potter. This is not to say that it’s poorly written, and not perfectly capable of being beloved by millions, it’s just not my thing. So this is an attempt at a list of magical schools, or worlds, or people, etc, that are great alternatives to Harry Potter and the general magical Rowling world.
Disclaimer, these books are written for adults, with possible ya crossover interest, so adjust expectations accordingly.
Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard
Probably I’ve put this in a Tuesday List before, but whatever. It’s magical, it’s a school, it’s got really interesting characters with a whole bunch of motivations, and just as much creepiness as you want to read into it. Also Kat Howard is a really excellent writer with a new novel out (An Unkindness of Magicians), and some very compelling short fiction including “Translatio Corporis” and “The Green Knight’s Wife.”
2. The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This is a fantasy of manners novel in which magical abilities are something that can help and hinder, and that really play off gender and class structures in a way that is just as interesting as the unfolding drama of the story itself. A young woman grows up with both an interest in science and telekinetic abilities, neither of which conform to the expectations of her family, which is for her to go to the city, come out, meet an eligible man, and marry. But when the demons of the past, in the form of a telekinetic magician and former lover of her imperious aunt come to town, everything changes and Antonina must learn to trust herself.
3. Los Nefilim (trilogy), by T. Frohock
Comprising three novellas (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, The Second Death), Los Nefilim has one of the most interesting magic systems I’ve ever encountered. The two magical races who inhabit the world are the Nefilim–angels– and Daimons, who have been at odds since the beginning of existence. Music and light are how they make magic, and Diago Alvarez is a gifted musician who wants none of the war between the two races. The only problem is, in 1930s Spain, war is brewing in both the human and magical worlds, and Diago may be the only one who can do anything about it.
4. Finishing School, (4-book series), by Gail Carriger
What’s better than a school set in a magical world? A school set in a magical world with steampunk. This series also takes itself (and the fate of the world) a lot less seriously, while really spinning the alternate victorian thing. And it’s still got its basic dose of colonizer, majority white except in cases where it’s really “warranted” logic down, so you won’t miss that if you read this instead of Harry Potter.
I jest. But not really. I loved the jokes about clothing and food and manners, but holy god you’ve really got to have a good gag reflex to set anything in Victorian England (and the empire) these days.
5. Spiritwalker (trilogy), by Kate Elliott
Hey, I had to get my Kate Elliott endorsement in there somewhere, didn’t I? So this a series in which a young woman discovers a birthright that she never could have expected, and also has to deal with the usual societal expectations, and also a war, and also it’s an alt-history in which the countries and empires we expect to see by the Victorian period never exist, because the Roman Empire didn’t fall out quite the way we remember it, and also there are elemental magics and magical families and it’s a pre-industrial revolution gaslamp fantasy setting somewhere along the lines of His Dark Materials and yet completely unique at the same time. A lot of fun, with a great narrative voice and a really good jumping off point for someone who wants to get into fantasy but doesn’t know what they like yet.
But seriously, how did we get a Power Rangers remake before any of these brilliant series got make into films?
Russell’s Attic, by SL Huang. The story of math genius Cass Russell, who takes jobs and doesn’t ask too many questions, except when things start to get personal. This series takes place mostly in Los Angeles, features a hard drinking, tough, loner, math whiz protagonist, and keeps the action going on every page.
Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott. Empire, class, and privilege are the backdrop for this series about a young woman trying to do what she loves while following the stifling rules of her family society. The Fives is a competition of strength, stamina, and skill, with competitors trying for a chance at fame, fortune, and the ruler’s favor.
3. The Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde. People living in bone towers in the sky, who get around by flying on beautiful and intricate wing sets. Intrigued yet? Oh, and they have a fascinating history, society, and then everything goes wrong and the two main characters, Kirit and Nat, must infiltrate basically everywhere and figure it out, and possibly save the whole world.
4. Bel Dame Apocrypha, by Kameron Hurley. On an alien world, probably far in the future, a centuries-long war between two nations ruled by the same religion, but with radically different interpretations of it, featuring bug science, magic, and lots of assassination.
5. Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds. The only novel that’s not part of a series (yet, as far as I know, though GoodReads seems to want to believe otherwise), this novel is part steampunk, part Victorian values, all space adventure. Featuring two sisters who run away from home to escape their father’s oppressive household and head straight into danger and adventure on a ship that makes its way by cracking open Baubles–long lost planets full of treasure–and selling them back in civilization.
Wah, I finally got out to my indie bookstore (where I will only ever order my paper books, as long as I live close enough to the area to drive there) to pick up two books I had on order, one a new release, another the second in a trilogy I started eons ago and will finally get to finish.
So, with the books I picked up earlier this fall, I present The Haul:
Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear
The Poisoned Blade, by Kate Elliott
Buried Heart, by Kate Elliott
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
Binti and Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor
And I also put in an order for a book I had meant to pre-order, but somehow forgot:
This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader. Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion. It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better. They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.
This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series. The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.
The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book. She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds. Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.
2. Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear
Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful. In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever. It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.
I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.
3. Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde
This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City. In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.
Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization. This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.
4. Inheritance, by N.K. Jemisin
This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book. It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief. The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.
The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book. Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her. And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long. Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.
5. Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author. This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys. The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression. Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again. I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.
I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series. I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.
Tonor was born fighting, into a world where the way one looks determines
everything they will ever be able to achieve or aspire to. But all Jessamy wants to do is run the
Fives, the national competition of strength, agility, and endurance that can
turn even a lowly Commoner into a hero.
Except her Patron—noble—father has forbidden it. Suddenly, though, Jessamy has an
opportunity to do the very thing she’s always dreamed, but the cost is the
comfortable and safe family life her father and mother have created almost out
of nothing for her and her sisters.
Court of Fives begins a new young adult
fantasy series full of vibrant and varied young people willing to risk
everything to get what they want out of life. Jessamy and her sisters have to make hard choices, and
really challenge their understanding of the world in order to survive the
dangerous waters they find themselves in.
In twist after plot twist, Jessamy battles the avarice of one Lord out to use her family for
everything advantage they can give him while learning the history of a colonized nation—her mother’s people—trying to pry itself out form under the heel of its oppressors. The situations Jessamy and her sisters
find themselves in, while they are part of a fantasy world, will be
recognizable and relatable to teen readers, and Elliott never stops taking her
world-building and characterization show a deft touch in this new series. The history of Efea, where the story
takes place, is deeper than at first meets the eye, leaving plenty for the
reader to ponder and look forward to learning more about in the next
installment. There is no shortage
of personalities and types in this novel, making the reader feel as though
these characters were about to spring off the page and into living, breathing
action. Speaking of action, it’s a
story about a young woman who is not just capable, but amazingly athletically
skilled, who makes no apologies for her ability, right up to the end, and has
earned it every step of the way.
looking for second-world Hunger Games
that features more dynamic and diverse characters need look no further than Court of Fives and its eventual
sequels. Those who enjoy stories
that put characters in challenging positions where they must take difficult
decisions will like the suspense and action in this novel. Anyone tired of fantasy that makes
assumptions and doesn’t think about social mores like gender roles and class
structure will enjoy the way Elliott questions everything, creating societies
that are believable and unique, with characters who are self-aware and actually
talk to each other about what matters to them.
So last week I posted about books being published in 2016 that I’m excited about.
Now I’m going to talk about the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2016. This is a slightly different list, since I don’t have the money or the time to buy everything I’m excited about right when it comes out, and actually read it. My to-read stack isn’t as big as many, but it’s big enough. So here are a few that I’ve been working towards, and plan to get to this year.
Of course, more will be added to this stack, and I will, of course, post review of the ones that qualify for this blog. You can also find all my review at goodreads here
Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott
It’s Kate Elliott! It’s YA, which I don’t read a ton of, but it’s Kate Elliott! Here’s a synopsis from her website, kateelliott.com
“In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.
Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”
Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor
Another YA, another author I’ve come to really enjoy, so of course I need to read more than just her adult novels.
Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com
“Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.Then she learns why.Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agents,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.Orlu and Chichi have been working with their teacher for years. Sunny needs a crash course in magical history, spells, juju, shape-shifting and dimensional travel. Her new world is a secret from her family, but it’s well worth all of the silence, exhaustion and sneaking around.Still, there is a dark side. After she’s found her footing, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and their American friend Sasha are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a criminal. Not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. A real-life hardcore serial killer-with abilities far stronger than theirs.Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones are Nnedi Okorafor fans. As soon as you start reading Akata Witch, you will be, too.”
Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko
I picked this one up mostly by chance at my local indie books story, Burlingham Books, in Perry, New York. They have a small-ish collection, but it’s always varied, always thought-provoking. I’ve only read one or two novels by Native writers in the past, and decided to fix that, so this will be my starting point.
Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website
“Almanac of the Dead takes place against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America. It follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot.
The novel’s numerous characters are often separated by both time and space, and many seemingly have little to do with one another at first. A majority of these characters are involved in criminal or revolutionary organizations – the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.
Driving many of these individual storylines is a general theme of total reclamation of Native American lands.”
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
This one has been a long time coming. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Butler, but the lack will soon be remedied. Here’s a synopsis from octaviabutler.org
“When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.”
Bronze Gods, by A.A. Aguirre
I read a YA by Ann Aguirre a year or so ago, and enjoyed it, and now she’s working on a steampunk series with her husband, Andres. I’ve found that steampunk is a subgenre I really enjoy, so I bought this book (quite) a while ago, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. 2016 is the year it gets moved to the permanent shelves!
Here’s a synopsis from Ann’s website
“Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID. Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…”
The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson! Another author I discovered because of Burlingham Books. I’m tempted to say her fiction is a little on the outside of my taste range, but that’s not really true. I love her work; it’s mainstream SFF that says she should be on the outside of my tastes. She says a lot that needs to be said, which is, I think, more important than conforming.
Here’s a synopsis, in her own words, from her website nalohopkinson.com
“my novel The New Moon’s Arms was a February 2007 release from Warner/Hachette Books. It’s my fourth novel. I was thinking about Nandor Fodor’s theory that poltergeist phenomena are “caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension.” Some say that this may be why poltergeists so often manifest around young adults just going into puberty (primarily women, I think). The idea is that reaching sexual maturity in societies as sexually repressed as many of ours can be disturbing enough to some people that they begin to generate psychic phenomena. I’m not in the business of theorizing whether that’s true or not. I was more interested in the idea. If the beginning of menstruation can be magic, I began to think about what it might be like if there were out-of-control psychic phenomena similarly associated with the ending of menstruation. Magical menopause! Enter my protagonist, who’s 53 years old and going through the Change of life, but with some changes peculiarly her own:
I was boiling. When the sun got so warm?
“…most primitive living pinnipeds,” said Hector.
God, the heat was getting worse.
“…derelict fishing nets…danger…”
Hector didn’t even seem to notice it. Me, my whole body was burning. I could feel the tips of my ears getting red, my cheeks flushing.
“…Brucella…Calamity? You all right?”
“I don’t know. Too much sun.” I wiped some perspiration from my brow. My hand came away wet.
“You sweating like you just run a marathon.”
“A lady doesn’t sweat.” But the dried salt from it was irritating my hand. I rubbed the hand against the fabric of my pants. “Jesus, it so hot!”
Hector looked worried. “That tree over there will give you some shade. Come.”
But before we could take a step, something soft and light grazed my head from above, then landed at Hector’s feet. “The hell is that?” he cried out. He bent to pick it up.
“It didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.” Much better, in fact. The heat was passing off rapidly. I was even chilly.
Hector straightened up. “Where this came from?” He looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Nothing but blue. Not even the cloud that must have just covered the sun and made me shiver.
Hector showed me the thing he was holding. I blinked the sun’s glare out of my eyes.
I grabbed her out of Hector’s hand. Bare Bear. Chastity’s Bare Bear. Held so tightly and loved so hard that her little stuffed rump was threadbare, her little gingham dress long gone. “Where this came from?”
“Look like it just fell out of the sky.”
“No, man; don’t joke. It must have washed up with the tide.”
“And landed on your head?”
“I don’t know; maybe this was on the sand already, and something else fell on my head.” Bare Bear winked her one glass eye at me. So long I hadn’t seen her. “A leaf from out a sea grape tree, something like that. Right, Bare Bear?” I hugged Lucky Bare Bear to my chest. I grinned at Hector. “She get small over the years, or I get big.” She still fit in her old place, up against my breastbone.
“You feeling sick?” He asked. “You didn’t look too good just now.”
“I feel wonderful,” I answered.
And because I sometimes like a little science with my fiction, I also resurrected the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Sort of.”
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor
Because it just looks so gorgeous. No. Well, yes, but also because I’m a completist and she’s a great writer.
Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com
“When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.”
authors take the idea of alternative history quite as seriously as Kate
Elliott. Cat Barahal, the story’s
protagonist and narrator, hails from a Phoenician family who live in a city in
the southern part of what most people would recognize as England. An England with no English Channel to
separate it from the rest of Europe, and one which never became an empire. It’s the nineteenth century and Rome as
we know it never happened. Dragons
walk the earth, spirit creatures cross over into the physical realm, and
powerful mages wield cold magic in a spiraling war against those who would push
forward into a more technology-heavy age.
Oh, and what story would be complete without a revolution?
While the Spiritwalker
books require a willingness to commit to an unfamiliar story that more casual
readers might lack, the wit and life that Elliott breathes into it are well
worth the effort. Cat and her
cousin Bee are the drivers of their respective stories, and Elliott reveals
their personalities and motivations in a way that really allows the reader to
know them, and that makes the novels in this series progress naturally. Cat’s position as narrator is
well-written, as Elliott allows her to be both a character within the story she
weaves, as well as a story-teller character in the greater whole.
If fantasy is defined as a
way of looking back to history and using it to reflect on who we are today, The
Spiritwalker trilogy certainly fits that definition. Elliott has chosen to write a story of Europe that
encompasses all the myriad ways it is diverse and dynamic, rather than writing
the typically whitewashed version of pseudo-European medieval or Victorian
Anyone looking for
adventure in an alt-history fantasy setting should definitely pick this series
up. Readers who like an
understanding of religion and spirituality to go beyond mere tradition and
doctrine will enjoy how the story moves through both the physical and spirit
worlds. And of course, for those
looking for a story that features young women having their own adventures, this
series is a definite must-read.