A decade ago, the shelves of my local bookstores were groaning under the weight of countless paranormal romances. Urban fantasies featuring baddass women and the dangerous men they desired (including vampires, werewolves, sorcerers, aliens, zombies, buff mannequins, and all manner of sexy and not-so-sexy undead) thoroughly dominated the genre.
Today, the paranormal romance is dead. Not even undead — totally dead. That particular vein of fantasy has been thoroughly played out, and we are not likely to see it return in our lifetime. I can’t say I’m sorry to see it go; paranormal romance was never my favorite subgenre, and while it was at its peak it so thoroughly dominated the market that it seemed to choke out everything else.
Still, hidden in every genre and subgenre, there is always good, innovative work. Amongst the derivative pseudo-erotica about well-groomed vampire lords and werewolf bikers was a handful of real gems, produced by writers using the trappings of paranormal romance to craft truly fun urban serials, and those who had tweaked the formula to come up with something uniquely their own. Now that the roaring tide has finally receded on paranormal romance it’s time to do a little beachcombing, picking out treasures in the sand. My first pick is the Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane, set in a dark and ominous world where the dead have risen, the living are threatened every day, and the Church of Real Truth seized power when governments around the world collapsed.
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For readers with dark tastes and a deep-seated love for romance, I recommend Something Strange and Deadly, the first in a trilogy by Susan Dennard, author of Truthwitch.
Why, you might ask? Well, Dennard has a supreme understanding of how to enhance gothic themes with an addictive steampunk flourish, and captivate her readers with antagonists you come to enjoy more than the protagonists. (Okay, that’s a stretch. But she outdid herself with her villain). Do you know how to spend a blissful Saturday evening curled up under your favorite blanket drinking tea, while freezing rain crashes against your window in the coal black darkness of the night? Then you, my friend, know the right way to appreciate this diamond in the rough.
Eleanor Fitt, a ferociously intelligent sixteen year-old from a disgraced aristocratic family in Philadelphia, longs for the return of her older brother, Elijah. When she becomes entangled in a swarm of the walking dead at the famed exhibition, a harbinger of her brother’s possible doom delivers a telegram with a cryptic message that gives her a clue to his whereabouts.
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Under her secret identity of V.E. Schwab, Victoria Schwab is the bestselling author of the Shades of Magic trilogy and the superhero/dark fantasy tale Vicious (which Matthew David Surridge called “A fine story… it’s fascinating to see the gothic emerging from under the skin of the super-hero genre,” in his 2014 review). Under the name Victoria Schwab she’s published a number of YA fantasies, including The Near Witch and the two volumes in the Archived series.
Her Monsters of Verity series began with This Savage Song, set in a divided city overrun with monsters. It became a #1 New York Times bestseller and an Amazon Best Book of the Year. The concluding volume, Our Dark Duet, arrives this month from Greenwillow Books.
This Savage Song (464 pages, $17.99 hardcover/$9.99 paperback/$1.99 digital, July 5, 2016)
Our Dark Duet (528 pages, $17.99 hardcover/$9.99 digital, June 13, 2017)
Here’s the description for both books.
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Is there anything as delightful as a debut fantasy novel that comes out of nowhere and gets rave reviews? (Never mind, it’s a rhetorical question). The latest example to cross my desk is The Black Witch by Laurie Forest, a 600-page fat fantasy that Kirkus calls “A massive page-turner that leaves readers longing for more,” and that Publishers Weekly praises with “Exquisite character work, an elaborate mythology, and a spectacularly rendered universe make this a noteworthy debut.” It arrived in hardcover and digital formats on May 1st.
A new Black Witch will rise… her powers vast beyond imagining.
Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of the last prophesied Black Witch, Carnissa Gardner, who drove back the enemy forces and saved the Gardnerian people during the Realm War. But while she is the absolute spitting image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above all else.
When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren joins her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University to embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the university, which admits all manner of people — including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of all Gardnerians — is a treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.
As evil looms on the horizon and the pressure to live up to her heritage builds, everything Elloren thought she knew will be challenged and torn away. Her best hope of survival may be among the most unlikely band of misfits… if only she can find the courage to trust those she’s been taught to hate and fear.
The Black Witch was published by Harlequin Teen on May 1, 2017. It is 601 pages, priced at $19.99 in hardcover and $9.99 for the digital edition. The cover was designed by Mary Luna. Read an excerpt at Entertainment Weekly.
This looks like fun… a novel of curses, demons, pirates, and a sentient ship on the Spanish Main from the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Dark-Hunter novels. Of course, it had me at pirates and curses, but the rest of it sounds pretty good too. It arrives in hardcover from Tor tomorrow, and is the opening volume of a promised series.
Hell hath no fury as a demon caged…
To catch evil, takes evil.
Enter Devyl Bane — an ancient warlord who has absolutely no love of humanity. Yet to return to the human realm as one of the most notorious pirates in the Spanish Main for the sake of vengeance, he makes a bitter bargain with Thorn — an immortal Hellchaser charged with battling the worst monsters the ancient gods ever released into our world. Monsters and demons Bane himself once commanded against Thorn and the humans.
For eons, those demons have been locked behind enchanted gates… which are starting to buckle. Now, Bane, with a vicious crew of Deadmen at his command, is humanity’s last hope to restore the gates and return the damned to their eternal prisons.
But things are never so simple. And one of his biggest vexations, aside from keeping his crew from killing each other before they have a chance to save humanity, is the very ship he sails upon. For Mara, the Sea Witch isn’t just a vessel, she’s also a woman born of an ancient race Bane helped to destroy. And sister to the possessed creature who is one of the worst of those trying to break through to claim his soul, and retake the world.
Mara’s innate hatred of him makes the very fires of hell look like a sauna — not that he blames her. Centuries of war and betrayal divide them. But if Mara can’t find the humanity inside the Devyl and the Devyl can’t teach Mara to embrace her darker side for the good of their crew and the world, the two of them will go down in flames and take us all with them.
Deadmen Walking will be published by Tor Books on May 9, 2017. It is 384 pages, priced at $27.99 in hardcover and $14.99 for the digital version. The cover is by Stephen Youll.
One of the nice things about review copies is that they force you to consider books that might normally slide under your radar.
Dream Forever is a tidy example. It’s got a pretty but fairly generic young adult cover — a teen girl sprawling on an abstract purple landscape — and it’s exactly the kind of thing my eyes would have surfed right past on the New Arrivals table. When a review copy arrived from St. Martin’s Press, I honestly forget about it for nearly a month.
But I picked it out of the stack this morning, and figured I should at least make an effort to learn what it’s about. And I discovered it’s the closing novel in a new trilogy from debut author Kit Alloway, featuring a talented dream walker trained by a secret society to battle horrific nightmares — not at all what I might have guessed from the cover design. Publishers Weekly called the opening novel “A suspenseful riddle full of intrigue,” and Kirkus Reviews said “The nightmare vignettes are rivetingly chilling. A dark and exciting paranormal adventure.”
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I’m not much of a fan of typographical covers — covers which feature the title, and not much else. I expect to be able to learn a lot about a book from the cover art and design, and typographical covers seem designed chiefly to keep a book mysterious. And they just don’t draw my eye the way a good piece of art does.
Mind you, that flaw didn’t seem to hurt A Discovery of Witches, the debut fantasy novel from Deborah Harkness which hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. She followed it with Shadow of Night and The Book of Life, which together comprise the All Souls Trilogy. The books are modern urban fantasies which feature reluctant witch Diana Bishop and vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and their search for the legendary lost manuscript Ashmole 782. The actions roams across Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a fantastical underworld, Elizabethan London, and Matthew’s ancestral home of Sept-Tours, France.
I was curious enough to purchase all three books in trade paperback. They’re also available in mass market paperback and digital formats from Penguin. Here’s a look at the back covers for A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night.
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A few weeks ago I bought God Save the Queen, the first book in Kate Locke’s Immortal Empire series, heartily intrigued by the back cover text.
Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist.
The undead matriarch presides over a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark.
Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believes in and will uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the entire empire.
The first in a fantasy series where vampires, werewolves, and goblins rule London.
God Save the Queen was published in mass market paperback by Orbit on January 31, 2017. I was surprised to find that the next two in the series, The Queen is Dead and Long Live the Queen, were released in rapid succession on February 28 and March 28. A little digging, however, and it all makes sense. The books were originally released in hardcover in 2012/2013; this is a re-release with a fresh design and new covers.
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Catriona Ward’s debut The Girl From Rawblood won the 2016 August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel — an impressive accomplishment for a first novel. Critics have raved over both its unabashed gothic horror sensibilities, and its originality… no easy feat!
Comic artist/writer Mike Mignola calls it “Brilliant… the old-school gothic novel I have been waiting for… I have never read anything like it and that’s saying something.” Kelly Link says it’s “A story to satisfy the most gothic of hearts… Sentence by sentence, Catriona Ward made herself one of my very favorite writers.” And Sarah Pinborough calls it “Terrifying… a dazzlingly brilliant Gothic masterpiece.” With praise like that, I might just have to clear an entire weekend for this one.
The Girl from Rawblood will be published by Sourcebooks Landmark on March 7, 2017. It is 368 pages, priced at $15.99 in paperback and $9.99 for the digital edition.
Stick around long enough in this genre, and you start to see fresh ideas repeat. Like fairy-tale retellings, for example. Do we really need another version of Cinderella?
Well, if it’s as fresh and funky as Betsy Cornwell’s New York Times bestseller Mechanica then, yeah. Maybe we do. In this version, Nicolette is a young inventor mocked by her cruel step-sisters, who finds a secret workshop on her sixteenth birthday. And when she learns of the upcoming technological exposition… well, you know there’s only one way that can play out. And I want to be onboard to see it happen. Kirkus says “A spunky mechanic stars as a steampunk Cinderella who doesn’t need rescuing… A smart, refreshing alternative to stale genre tropes,” and Amazon.com listed it among the Best Young Adult Books of 2015,
Mechanica was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books on August 2, 2016. It is 320 pages, priced at $8.99 in paperback and for the digital edition. The cover is by Manuel Sumberac; click the images above for bigger versions. Read an excerpt here, and learn more about the book here.
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