Here are a few of my favorite fantasy novels from the past couple of years. They are all quite different, but each offers a unique voice and story.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
This is a fairy tale retelling of sorts, set in an atmospheric Eastern European-ish land, that falls somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and Game of Thrones.
It is the story of three young women: Myriem the daughter of a failed money lender, Irina the daughter of a duke, who’s newly married to a demonic Tsar, and Wanda, who is determined to rid herself of her abusive family relationships. When Myriem promises to metaphorically turn silver into gold, strange and mysterious things begin to happen. In the dark forest, beings that were once thought to be mythical begin to haunt Myriam and her family. As the lives of the three young women become intertwined, survival, and their loyalty to the ones they love become paramount.
It was the high degree of craft and fully conceived characters that really made me love this book. The author gives these seemingly weak members of society an incredible deal of agency and respect, highlighting their virtues without ignoring their human fallibility.
This Hamlet inspired fantasy novel bucks the typical fantasy format, with too many characters and elaborate worldbuilding, to tell a concise story with memorable characters. No problem here keeping track of who’s who.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is how it is sometime told from the perspective of gods, both large and small. One of the main characters is a stone that is worshiped, another is a swarm of flies. Yet another is the Raven, who protects the Kingdom of Iraden from atop his tower in the city of Vastai. His will is carried out by The Raven’s Lease, a human charged with managing his wishes. The Raven’s power is waning and when the Lease is usurped it sets off a struggle for the future of Iraden. Mawat, the true Lease, and his warrior aide Eolo, seek to discover the truth, and attempt to find out what is being hidden deep beneath the Raven’s tower.
I really loved how this book read like an intimate play. I could almost see the stage production with spare stage dressing and Shakespearean actors playing the rolls of Eolo and Mawat, and booming voice-overs for the gods.
For those of you who don’t want to commit to a ten-volume series with no end in sight, try The Raven Tower. It beautifully written, original, and deeply satisfying.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
At one point during his promotion for his book Black Leopard, Red Wolf Marlon James jokingly said that this was going to be an African Game of Thrones. It isn’t. He didn’t really mean it. It is nothing like Game of Thrones. I’ve never read a fantasy novel like this. It’s intense, complex, confusing at times, funny, touching, violent. There’s a lot of sex. There’s a lot of profanity. It is not for the faint of heart. And unlike The Raven Tower, oh my goodness will you need to use the character reference list.
It is set in an African like fantasy world, much in the way many high fantasy novels take place in a fictitious medieval Europe. It all begins with a storyteller informing you that “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know”. That storyteller then goes on to recount the search for the child and the band of people who came with him on his journey. But this storyteller is unreliable, and everything he says the reader treats with question. In this way Black Leopard, Red Wolf is more like a combination of The Lord of the Rings and African folktales.
If you are used to reading medieval-Europe-based fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf might be difficult, because every single element is new. So, when a fantasy novel mentions dragons, one doesn’t have to understand what that is. It is likely that you already know what a dragon is. But what about Asanbosam (a “monstrous eater of human flesh”)? What is that? What does it look like? There are Ansambosams times a hundred in Marlon James’s novel.
Give this book a try. If it’s not for you, I get it. But it’s one of a kind.