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Best Indie Debut Novels of 2019

A gripping fantasy full of magic and heart.

FIRE DANCER

MASTERS OF THE ELEMENTS

From the Masters of the Elements series , Vol. 1

In this debut novel, a talented but anguished master of fire must overcome her past failures and rally the inhabitants of a beleaguered village.

Jetta is a Firedancer, the youngest ever Third Rank master. She can tame and vanquish fire with the power of dance—from infant flames to cunning hysths and even raging outbreaks of The Ancient itself. But Jetta’s reputation is tarnished. A year ago, fire claimed the village she was assigned to protect. Her life mate was killed and Jetta herself, injured. Although recovered physically, she has lost the unshakable confidence necessary to keep The Ancient at bay. Why then has the Circle of the Fire Clans sent her and her childhood friend Setti (a mere Second Rank journeyman) to investigate outbreaks of fire in Annam Vale? Annam is home not only to Stone Delvers—a clan of giants who mine the mountains for fire-dousing containment stone—but also now to Windriders, whose presence could easily fan the flames of The Ancient. Tensions run high. Many of the Delvers welcome Jetta, but others distrust her, believing her to be incompetent or even the cause of the conflagrations that she and Setti subdue. What’s worse, The Ancient grows shrewd. Fire has evolved and no longer bows to the traditional forms of the dance. If Jetta is to save Annam, she must unite its inhabitants and overturn an entire worldview. Bolich’s impressive novel captures the best elements of fantasy writing while avoiding most of the pitfalls. This series opener, though promising further development, is self-contained, its worldbuilding unobtrusive yet substantial. The characters are complex: Jetta with her impetuous, strong will; faithful, lovelorn Setti; the ethereal Windrider Sheshan (Jetta’s romantic interest); and down through the minor players. Their conversations, though stylized to an extent, are not stilted, and the conflicts and dangers at Annam arise naturally from the scenario, not from authorial trickery or incongruous decision-making. Readers will feel Jetta’s frustrations and uncertainty (“Those tunnels full of fire haunted her. The Delvers knew nothing of fire, had no concept of the danger in leaving The Ancient fretting behind a makeshift barrier of dirt. She pictured the Old Man patting at his prison with hands of fire…searching restlessly for a way out”) and her resolve. As the dance against The Ancient grows ever more perilous, the audience will gladly journey with her.

A gripping fantasy full of magic and heart.

Pub Date: March 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-9989634-7-1

Page Count: 383

Publisher: B Cubed Press

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

With sophisticated prose, this gritty coming-of-age story blends the familiar and the unthinkable as the lead learns to use...

DEAR JANE

In DelVecchio’s debut, an adopted teenage girl haunted by her past finds solace in the pages of a classic novel.

Elektra Koutros was renamed Kathryn and nicknamed Kit Kat when she was adopted from Greece and sent to live with her new mother in Queens, New York. She has been looking for her true identity ever since. Her adoptive mother, Evangelia “Ann,” is a single Greek-American woman with no children of her own and a cold disposition. Her birth mother, Athanasia, was a prostitute. With the contrasting archetypes of the virgin and the whore for guardians, what Kit Kat longs for is a true mother figure. Instead, she finds Jane Eyre, the classic work of literature whose heroine becomes her confidante and role model. Via diary entries recounting her childhood through her college years, Kit Kat tells her story in an earnest—and very strong—narrative voice as she confesses her darkest secrets. Although Ann is a vast improvement over Athanasia, who used to beat Kit Kat, her denial of her adoptive daughter’s past creates a palpable distance between them. In one scene, Kit Kat sits at the dinner table so quietly she can hear Ann’s stomach digesting her food: “The silences between us are now immeasurable, but the sounds of her fill every crack, every possible place unoccupied by words.” Told from the teenager’s perspective, the story leaves Ann’s innermost thoughts unsaid, and the effect is haunting. Did she truly believe Kit Kat was lying about her past, or did she feel in over her head because the social worker had told her the situation was better than it was? Some of Kit Kat’s siblings—Maria, Nicholas, and Stavros—spent time in orphanages, the homes of relatives, and with Athanasia and her boyfriend, Kristos, but none of them followed her to America. She’s alone, angry, and, at one point, locked in the bathroom with a pair of scissors pointed at her own body. If her mother can’t break the silence, she’ll have to do it for herself.

With sophisticated prose, this gritty coming-of-age story blends the familiar and the unthinkable as the lead learns to use her voice.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68433-172-7

Page Count: 172

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

An excellent book about desperate people carefully depicted in minute detail.

WALTZ AGAINST THE SKY

Larum’s West Texas–based debut novel offers interconnected tales of murder and mayhem.

Indian Springs is a place of cattle ranches and oil rigs. It’s the current home of this novel’s large cast of characters, including Evan Blaine, a talented reporter whom guilt and regret follow like a weather front; brothers Dink and Del Downs, the former an innocent and the latter a career criminal; Omero Valdez, a psychopath whom one character calls “a sly one, like a coyote”; and naïve, young Tony Angione, who’s just passing through while hitchhiking from New Jersey to California. The law is represented by Sheriff Leo Blunt and, the next county over, Sheriff Brent Fulton and their underlings; some of them are truly bad to the bone, such as Chief Deputy Matt Ridgeway. The fates of all these luckless people eventually converge: Valdez kills a motel clerk in a $460 robbery, poor Tony gets picked up by the wrong people, and fugitive Del is caught while on the run. A later jailbreak and a hunt across multiple counties for the escapees will keep readers riveted to the end. Larum had a career as a newspaper editor in the West, and it shows; it’s clear that he knows what the particular emptiness of the region feels like—and he makes readers feel it, too. Each chapter focuses on a particular character; most are short but some not, as when Blaine’s past is explored or when Ridgeway and Deputy Jess Bruce track down the hapless Joe Dornick through mesquite on horseback or when Tony and Dink try to extricate themselves from untenable situations. The denouement is very cleverly handled, and it’s no spoiler to say that at least one major character winds up truly happy.

An excellent book about desperate people carefully depicted in minute detail.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-0-9966865-0-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Walking Three Bar T Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

A whimsical, funny, and poignant historical novel.

THE GIRL PRETENDING TO READ RILKE

Riddle debuts with a pleasantly offbeat coming-of-age novel that looks back at the changing roles of women in the 1960s.

In 1963, 19-year-old Bronwen Olwen has just completed her junior year in a prestigious Portland, Oregon, college and is heading to Boston for a prime summer internship in a biochemistry lab—and, not incidentally, a couple of months of living with her boyfriend, Eric Breuner. He’s four years older, ensconced in Harvard, and working toward a junior fellowship in the biology department, where he’s a superstar. Indeed, Bronwen is daunted by what she accepts as his intellectual superiority. But this summer, she’s decided to become an expert in the literary works of early 20th-century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke as her nonscientific area of proficiency, because “All the scientists in Eric’s crowd had a little niche, a subarea of nontechnical knowledge on which they could hold forth.” Her boss, Felix, is a strange whirlwind of frenetic energy, always “rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.” Bronwen helps him with some problem experiments, enabling him to complete his long-overdue doctoral thesis. Her grueling hours at the lab prove more gratifying than her time spent with the obnoxiously arrogant Eric and his cohort of pseudo-intellectual male scientists. However, it takes a series of crises to force her to reexamine her life. Although Riddle’s narrative is often humorous and frequently quirky, it also offers a stark reminder of the scientific community’s treatment of women joining its ranks in the ’60s. For example, Felix can’t fathom why Bronwen would choose to study science given her other options: “Girls don’t just whimsically decide to give up a social life and nice clothes to hang around in smelly hellholes with slavedrivers like me ordering them around.” Throughout, Riddle mixes solid, straightforward storytelling with long, stream-of-consciousness sections in which the omniscient narrator jumps into Bronwen’s chaotic mental meanderings. The run-on sentences in the latter can be confusing at times, but they effectively reflect the protagonist’s inner struggle as familiar young adult angst meets bubbling social change.

A whimsical, funny, and poignant historical novel.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-615-90432-0

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Pilgrim's Lane Press

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A novel that effectively intertwines ruminations on race, music, romance, and history.

THERE YOU ARE

Two St. Louis residents, united by music and a local record store, fall in love in Morais’ nostalgic debut novel.

Although it opens in 2014, most of this story unfolds during the 1980s and ’90s as it follows Octavian Munroe and Mina Rose during their childhood and teenage years. Octavian, the African American son of a professor and a poet, comes from a more stable household, although the death of his mother from cancer and his brother Francis’ issues with drug dependency cause complications. Mina, the daughter of an attorney who’s as eccentric as she is formidable, has a less stable home life, but she has the unquestionable advantage of being white in a city that’s rife with race-related issues. Octavian and Mina’s first meeting is in the fifth grade; later, they bond with friends at Rahsaan’s Records, where they later work, and they form a friendship that not even the tidal forces of their lives can tear apart. Morais conjures a very specific milieu—urban St. Louis in the 1980s and ’90s—in a way that makes it feel lived-in, and she populates the setting with a panoply of rich characters who express themselves with varying degrees of forthrightness. Although readers of the main characters’ generation may relate to the novel more than others due to its many specific cultural references, Morais gives it universality as well as specificity—particularly in her depiction of Octavian and Mina’s believable, multidimensional relationship. They talk, argue, reconcile, and razz friends in language that’s heightened but never strained or unrealistic. Readers who have a low tolerance for nostalgia may want to look elsewhere, but for readers who enjoy a story of the robustness and fragility of love, Morais’ work is a must-read.

A novel that effectively intertwines ruminations on race, music, romance, and history.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-948705-58-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Amberjack Publishing

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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