An absorbing first installment that presages an intriguing new fantasy series.

GILDED CAGE

In a debut novel, James introduces readers to an alternate modern-day England where enticing drama and social unrest mix with aristocratic scandal and glamorous magic.

Luke and Abigail Hadley are teenagers living in an England ruled by aristocratic families who wield magical power. All commoners without magical “Skill” are obligated to serve for a decade as slaves, either in the industrial horrors of a slave town, the lowest and most dangerous ranks of the military, or on the grand estates of their masters. When Luke and Abigail’s parents decide that their whole family should serve their decades together, Abigail manages to get them assigned to the lavish and powerful estate of the Jardine family, but a last-minute reassignment sends Luke to the miserable slave town of Millmoor. Separated from his family, Luke finds friendship among a plucky group of abolitionists playing a dangerous “game,” and the threads of his story begin to tangle with the political intrigue and powerful magic that Abigail stumbles into at the Jardine estate. The plot proceeds at a satisfying pace, switching between storylines at just the right intervals to gratify both suspense and impatience, and while the architecture of the story is not particularly original (conjuring up the specters of Les Misérables and Downton Abbey), its execution elicits the pleasurable urge to find out what happens next. The characters are similarly engaging, a cast of likable and occasionally unusual individuals who slip easily into the reader’s imagination, and while the jarring elements of their world—a society that contains video games and earbuds nestled alongside both magic and systematic, socially accepted slavery—might disorient at first, their selfish motivations and competing desires for maintenance or righteous change pull believability in their wake.

An absorbing first installment that presages an intriguing new fantasy series.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28415-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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A celebration of fantasy that melds modern ideology with classic tropes. More of these dragons, please.

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THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE

After 1,000 years of peace, whispers that “the Nameless One will return” ignite the spark that sets the world order aflame.

No, the Nameless One is not a new nickname for Voldemort. Here, evil takes the shape of fire-breathing dragons—beasts that feed off chaos and imbalance—set on destroying humankind. The leader of these creatures, the Nameless One, has been trapped in the Abyss for ages after having been severely wounded by the sword Ascalon wielded by Galian Berethnet. These events brought about the current order: Virtudom, the kingdom set up by Berethnet, is a pious society that considers all dragons evil. In the East, dragons are worshiped as gods—but not the fire-breathing type. These dragons channel the power of water and are said to be born of stars. They forge a connection with humans by taking riders. In the South, an entirely different way of thinking exists. There, a society of female mages called the Priory worships the Mother. They don’t believe that the Berethnet line, continued by generations of queens, is the sacred key to keeping the Nameless One at bay. This means he could return—and soon. “Do you not see? It is a cycle.” The one thing uniting all corners of the world is fear. Representatives of each belief system—Queen Sabran the Ninth of Virtudom, hopeful dragon rider Tané of the East, and Ead Duryan, mage of the Priory from the South—are linked by the common goal of keeping the Nameless One trapped at any cost. This world of female warriors and leaders feels natural, and while there is a “chosen one” aspect to the tale, it’s far from the main point. Shannon’s depth of imagination and worldbuilding are impressive, as this 800-pager is filled not only with legend, but also with satisfying twists that turn legend on its head. Shannon isn’t new to this game of complex storytelling. Her Bone Season novels (The Song Rising, 2017, etc.) navigate a multilayered society of clairvoyants. Here, Shannon chooses a more traditional view of magic, where light fights against dark, earth against sky, and fire against water. Through these classic pairings, an entirely fresh and addicting tale is born. Shannon may favor detailed explication over keeping a steady pace, but the epic converging of plotlines at the end is enough to forgive.

A celebration of fantasy that melds modern ideology with classic tropes. More of these dragons, please.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-029-8

Page Count: 848

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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A breezy and fun contemporary fantasy.

THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA

A tightly wound caseworker is pushed out of his comfort zone when he’s sent to observe a remote orphanage for magical children.

Linus Baker loves rules, which makes him perfectly suited for his job as a midlevel bureaucrat working for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, where he investigates orphanages for children who can do things like make objects float, who have tails or feathers, and even those who are young witches. Linus clings to the notion that his job is about saving children from cruel or dangerous homes, but really he’s a cog in a government machine that treats magical children as second-class citizens. When Extremely Upper Management sends for Linus, he learns that his next assignment is a mission to an island orphanage for especially dangerous kids. He is to stay on the island for a month and write reports for Extremely Upper Management, which warns him to be especially meticulous in his observations. When he reaches the island, he meets extraordinary kids like Talia the gnome, Theodore the wyvern, and Chauncey, an amorphous blob whose parentage is unknown. The proprietor of the orphanage is a strange but charming man named Arthur, who makes it clear to Linus that he will do anything in his power to give his charges a loving home on the island. As Linus spends more time with Arthur and the kids, he starts to question a world that would shun them for being different, and he even develops romantic feelings for Arthur. Lambda Literary Award–winning author Klune (The Art of Breathing, 2019, etc.) has a knack for creating endearing characters, and readers will grow to love Arthur and the orphans alongside Linus. Linus himself is a lovable protagonist despite his prickliness, and Klune aptly handles his evolving feelings and morals. The prose is a touch wooden in places, but fans of quirky fantasy will eat it up.

A breezy and fun contemporary fantasy.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21728-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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