A free-wheeling, clever, and joyful debut that should be on every fantasy reader’s shelf.

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SORCEROUS RIVALRY

From the Mage-Born Chronicles series , Vol. 1

In this fantasy series starter, a mage makes unlikely friends and foes while discovering his lineage.

Reshi was the youngest of seven illegitimate children sired by the king with his sorceress mistress, Laurana. After the Great Mage Hunt, Laurana was imprisoned and her children scattered. Reshi, who’s now around 20, grew up in an orphanage but now lives in a nameless town where he makes use of his shape-changing abilities. There is, however, a bounty on Reshi’s head as well as on the heads of his magical siblings, whom he’s never met. In the Broken Wing tavern, he watches Miss Chesawick provide a room for a strapping, young ex-soldier named Kestrel. In cat form, Reshi sneaks into Kestrel’s room as he sleeps and siphons some life force from him, which fuels his own magic. The next day, the traveler is none the worse for wear, so Reshi is intrigued. A bet with Miss Chesawick—who’s secretly a fairy—over whether he can make Kestral laugh results in the mage showing the warrior around town. Then vicious pigoblins attack, and Reshi fears for Miss Chesawick’s life, as pigoblins pose a major threat to fairies like her. During the battle, in which Reshi performs capably, Kestral realizes that his new acquaintance is a son of Laurana—and Kestral, as it happens, is a bounty hunter. Soon afterward, Reshi answers the telepathic call of his sister Cera. From her, he learns more about Laurana’s other children, including the war-hardened Kila and her monastic twin, Laki. Reshi and Cera decide to stick together to fight against bounty hunters. Their lives are further complicated by the fact that any sibling’s death releases their magic to the rest of Laurana’s surviving brood.

Nicol’s fantasy novel is set in a streamlined medieval realm that requires no map to enjoy, and it runs on a fiendish series of cascading betrayals. She employs a strict show-don’t-tell policy which keeps the storytelling crisp throughout the novel. In the playful opening chapter, for example, Reshi, the narrator, climbs onto Kestrel’s bed and licks his mouth—and readers don’t immediately know that he’s a cat as he does so. From there, readers learn the major characters’ backstories in tantalizing slivers. Kestrel has the potential to be Reshi’s romantic companion or his killer, and to that end, Nicol teases readers mercilessly, as when one of the warrior’s former colleagues regards Reshi and says, “You really do like the pretty boys, don’t you, Captain?” The character development throughout is excellent, and it shines all the brighter because Nicol eschews wordy descriptions of traveling, eating, and humdrum aspects of medieval life. The lengthy but discrete chapters create a satisfying, immersive narrative flow. The introduction of each sibling is thrilling, and Nicol shows herself to be unafraid to kill off characters before readers know them too well. Indeed, she has creativity to spare; an appendix includes additional “Mage-Born Bounty Information.” The magical and romantic cliffhangers at the end of the tale make the next volume unmissable.

A free-wheeling, clever, and joyful debut that should be on every fantasy reader’s shelf. (appendix)

Pub Date: April 7, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73213-171-2

Page Count: 292

Publisher: Blue Feather Publishing

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

LAPVONA

A peasant boy gets an introduction to civilization, such as it is.

Moshfegh’s gloomy fifth novel is set in the medieval village of Lapvona, ruled by Villiam, who’s paranoid and cruel when he’s not inept. (For instance, he sends murderous bandits into town if he hears of dissent among the farmers.) Marek, a 13-year-old boy, is becoming increasingly curious about his brutish provenance. He questions whether his mother indeed died in childbirth, as his father, Jude, insists. (The truth is more complicated, of course.) He struggles to reconcile the disease and death he witnesses with the stories of a forgiving God he was raised with. His sole source of comfort is Ina, the village wet nurse. During the course of the year tracked by the novel, Marek finds his way to Villiam, who fills his time with farcical and occasionally grotesque behavior. Villiam’s right-hand man, the village priest, is comically ignorant about Scripture, and Villiam compels Marek and a woman assistant into some scatological antics. The fact that another assistant is named Clod gives a sense of the intellectual atmosphere. Which is to say that the novel is constructed from familiar Moshfegh-ian stuff: dissolute characters, a willful rejection of social norms, the occasional gross-out. At her best, she’s worked that material into stark, brilliant character studies (Eileen, 2015) or contemporary satires (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018). Here, though, the tone feels stiff and the story meanders. The Middle Ages provide a promising setting for her—she describes a social milieu that’s only clumsily established hierarchies, religion, and an economy, and she wants us to question whether we’ve evolved much beyond it. But the assortment of dim characters and perverse delusions does little more than repetitively expose the brutality of (as Villiam puts it) “this stupid life.”

A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-30026-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

THE SWALLOWED MAN

A retelling of Pinocchio from Geppetto's point of view.

The novel purports to be the memoirs of Geppetto, a carpenter from the town of Collodi, written in the belly of a vast fish that has swallowed him. Fortunately for Geppetto, the fish has also engulfed a ship, and its supplies—fresh water, candles, hardtack, captain’s logbook, ink—are what keep the Swallowed Man going. (Collodi is, of course, the name of the author of the original Pinocchio.) A misfit whose loneliness is equaled only by his drive to make art, Geppetto scours his surroundings for supplies, crafting sculptures out of pieces of the ship’s wood, softened hardtack, mussel shells, and his own hair, half hoping and half fearing to create a companion once again that will come to life. He befriends a crab that lives all too briefly in his beard, then mourns when “she” dies. Alone in the dark, he broods over his past, reflecting on his strained relationship with his father and his harsh treatment of his own “son”—Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that somehow came to life. In true Carey fashion, the author illustrates the novel with his own images of his protagonist’s art: sketches of Pinocchio, of woodworking tools, of the women Geppetto loved; photos of driftwood, of tintypes, of a sculpted self-portrait with seaweed hair. For all its humor, the novel is dark and claustrophobic, and its true subject is the responsibilities of creators. Remembering the first time he heard of the sea monster that was to swallow him, Geppetto wonders if the monster is somehow connected to Pinocchio: “The unnatural child had so thrown the world off-balance that it must be righted at any cost, and perhaps the only thing with the power to right it was a gigantic sea monster, born—I began to suppose this—just after I cracked the world by making a wooden person.” Later, contemplating his self-portrait bust, Geppetto asks, “Monster of the deep. Am I, then, the monster? Do I nightmare myself?”

A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18887-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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