By Jennifer Harlan
YEAR OF THE REAPER
By Makiia Lucier
BEASTS OF PREY
By Ayana Gray
SKIN OF THE SEA
By Natasha Bowen
By Marissa Meyer
“What gets remembered depends on who is in the room doing the remembering.” The park ranger Betty Reid Soskin shared this wisdom when discussing her responsibility as a public historian, but it is also true of stories: They depend on their tellers. This fall, a crop of fantasy novels — some inviting us into unseen worlds, others revisiting familiar tales — give new voices the storytelling reins.
A world recovering from a deadly plague. A country grappling with the aftershocks of a long war. A young man struggling to reintegrate into society after being isolated from his friends and family. It may not have been written as a novel about our pandemic, but Makiia Lucier’s “Year of the Reaper” does ring a few bells.
Cas, an 18-year-old nobleman from the city of Palmerin, has just emerged from prison, captured at the tail end of a century-long war between his homeland and a neighboring kingdom. He is subjected to torture, and a case of the plague, before being released to make his way home — haunted by nightmares and struggling to reconcile the horrors of his past with the new reality of his present. Oh, and he can now talk to ghosts (a skill whose origins are, frustratingly, never fully explained).
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He arrives to find a city fractured by tragedy, in a nation struggling to maintain a fragile peace. When an assassin makes an attempt on the life of the crown prince, who is only an infant, Cas swoops in to save the day. But soon other members of the court start turning up dead, marked by strange gold coins and trailing whispers of a white-haired killer. Concerned, Cas teams up with Lena, a headstrong historian and erstwhile horse thief, to figure out who is killing off members of the royal household — and, more important, why.
“Year of the Reaper” is a refreshing stand-alone novel in a sea of fantasy series, and Lucier does a good job pacing its central whodunit, up until the frantic conclusion. Full of complex characters and unexpected twists, this moving book explores what it means to rebuild and how much history depends on who is left to tell it.
In Ayana Gray’s debut novel, “Beasts of Prey,” history has been dictated by the survivors. One hundred years before the book begins, the city of Lkossa hummed with magic. But its peace was shattered by the Rupture — a tragic event that severed the connection between the splendor (as the magic was called) and the darajas (the people who wielded it). The calamity also birthed the Shetani, a monstrous creature that has terrorized the city ever since.
But Koffi and Ekon know little of this history. Koffi is an indentured servant at the Night Zoo, a rundown menagerie where she and her mother are enslaved. Ekon is an orphan, raised in the city’s temple, who has spent his life training to become a member of the elite militia the Sons of the Six, just like his father and older brother. When an accident at the zoo upends their worlds, Koffi and Ekon find themselves bound in a mutual quest — she to win her freedom, he to reclaim his place among the Six — that hinges upon finding the Shetani.
Their journey takes them deep into the forbidden wilderness surrounding the city, where they encounter gods, goddesses and a host of fearsome flora and fauna — all part of the rich Pan-African mythology that grounds the world of Lkossa. Gray pivots expertly between Koffi’s and Ekon’s points of view, while also sprinkling in pieces of an older tale that may hold the key to their quest. A propulsive mystery mixed with a moving coming-of-age tale and a touch of romance, “Beasts of Prey” asks: When we go into the jungle, who will we be when we come out?
When Natasha Bowen was a child, her favorite book was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” But while she loved the tale, she never saw herself in it. Now in her debut novel, “Skin of the Sea,” she blends elements of Andersen’s original story with West African history and Yoruban mythology to create a new fairy tale.
Bowen’s mermaid, named Simidele, is a Mami Wata — a water spirit created by the goddess Yemoja. The novel takes place in the mid-1400s, during the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, and Simi and her sisters are charged with collecting the souls of those lost to the horrors of the Middle Passage and shepherding them home.
But when Simi saves the life of a drowning boy instead of waiting for his soul, she puts the Mami Watas’ existence in jeopardy. Her only hope is to team up with Kola, the boy she rescued, for an Odyssean quest — to return him to his home, to rescue his family and to save her sisters.
Bowen has built an impressive mythology to buttress her fairy tale, and it’s a pleasure to discover this world through Simi’s eyes, even if the plot does at times get bogged down in description. This historical reimagining doesn’t erase the grotesque realities of the period or the devastation it wrought in West Africa and beyond, but it does honor the bravery, ingenuity and heart of the many bright young women whose stories haven’t been told.
When it comes to reimagined fairy tales, the reigning queen of the genre is Marissa Meyer, who puts her spin on the German classic “Rumpelstiltskin” in her latest novel, “Gilded.”
In the original Brothers Grimm tale, a trickster imp spins straw into gold for a young woman held captive by a tyrannical king after her father boasts about his daughter’s (nonexistent) powers. A series of quid pro quos culminates in her promising the creature her firstborn child, but she ultimately escapes the bargain by correctly guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name.
In Meyer’s telling, the girl known in the original as “the miller’s daughter” finally gets her own name, and the power that comes with it. Serilda is a storyteller, marked by the god of fate, whose magic lies in the tales she weaves. And in this story, the gold-spinning lie is her own — a tale spun to save two magical maidens from the Erlking. Imprisoned in the undead king’s dungeon, Serilda meets Gild, the castle’s resident poltergeist — a charming, earnest young man with the power to help her, and a void of a past that she must work to fill in before time runs out.
This dark, enchanting book is Meyer at the height of her powers — crafting a new tale with an old-school feel where nobody is guaranteed a happily-ever-after. Meyer’s world has lost none of the brutality of the Grimm original, and its violence can be jarring. But Serilda’s tale is also a story about how love can blossom even amid carnage and grief. It is fresh and utterly engrossing while also familiar — just what Meyer does best. One hopes we won’t have to wait too long for her to return to Serilda and Gild and spin their next chapter.
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