Fall has come at last, which means it's time to gather around the fire and tell tall tales about girls who survive, girls who fight, and girls who, if given the chance, may prove to be heroes.
For a Muse of Fire
Jetta and her family are the best shadow puppet troupe in Chakrana. They've spent years traveling from town to town, and now they're trying to prove themselves worthy of touring Aquitan — the wealthy land that colonized Chakrana before Jetta was born. But Jetta has a dangerous secret: Her shadow forms are animated not with puppeteering skill but with the souls of the dead. The secret that makes her performances so riveting could also prove to be her undoing — especially once she finds herself caught between the Aquitan army and the rebels who seek to free Chakrana from colonization.
Following on the heels of Hellig's delightful debut series (The Girl from Everywhere and the Ship Beyond Time), For a Muse of Fire has big shoes to fill. It succeeds in full, while aiming for even greater heights in characterization, worldbuilding, and narrative. It turns a painful and honest gaze on complex issues like mental illness and the horrors of war and colonization, while simultaneously reveling in some of the most charming necromancy ever committed to the page. There's even a kitten. Be prepared to stay up late with this one.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
If you read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and thought the ladies in that were getting a bad deal, then this is the book you've been waiting for. The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein tells the familiar Gothic story from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein's adopted sister/bride. We see Elizabeth trying to temper Victor's morbid and violent impulses as they grow up together, then follow her as she chases after him to university, desperate to protect him from himself as he delves deeper and deeper into mad science. Ultimately, she is unable to stop him from creating a monster that may destroy everything she's fought so hard to protect.
Elizabeth is a deeply sympathetic character, so accustomed to twisting herself to fit whatever shape will ensure her survival that she has no idea who she really is. Frankenstein asks us to consider the nature of man and God, but The Dark Descent turns instead toward a question that is sadly familiar to many young women: What must a woman be in order to live and thrive in a world that denies her humanity? White is unafraid to dig in the graveyard and piece together a creature of her own design out of old parts, and the resulting tale is dark and chilling.
A Blade So Black
It's Alice in Wonderland, but Alice is a black teen living in modern day Atlanta and Wonderland is a strange dreamscape that spits out Nightmares — terrible creatures that must be killed before they spread their darkness. Alice's mentor, Addison Hatta, is teaching her how to be a Nightmare-killing badass, but it's all she can do to juggle school, her friends, and her anxious mom on top of saving the world every night. When the Black Knight turns up and poisons Hatta, Alice has to put everything on the line to venture deep into the heart of Wonderland in search for a cure.
This really is Lewis Carroll by way of Buffy, and it makes for a fun, gritty urban fantasy/portal fantasy mashup. Alice is a classic hero who never wanted to be a hero, and she gamely plunges from one adventure to the next, all while trying to keep up some semblance of a normal life for the sake of her friends and family. Many writers have plundered Wonderland for inspiration, but L.L. McKinney's take feels fresh and will set the new standard for teen readers.
The Boneless Mercies
Frey is a Mercy, a bringer of death to those who long for it. She roves across Vorseland with her band of fellow Mercies, and while they are good at their work, it is a hard, thankless life. When they hear tell of a giant laying waste to a jarldom in the far north, they begin to wonder — what might it be like to be heroes instead of Mercies, and know that their names would be passed down in song instead of whispered fearfully in the dark?
It's easy to call this a gender-swapped retelling of the epic Beowulf, but that fails to convey its true charm. Frey and her band inhabit a world that will be familiar to Beowulf enthusiasts, but Tucholke brings new life to snowy forests and foreboding marshlands. Perhaps most intriguing is an ongoing conflict between the rival groups of witches encountered by our would-be heroes — swamp and sea witches caught up in an ancient struggle for power. There is room in this world for more than one epic, and we can hope that Tucholke will return to it to tell us more about this ongoing feud. The true strength of Boneless Mercies lies in the places where Tucholke diverts from the story we already know and populates her fantasy Viking world with rich and imaginative digressions.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.