As someone who virtually grew up in the publishing industry — and someone whose mentors include Andre Norton and Jane Yolen — it's difficult to admit that I read almost no books for pleasure in the last decade. Instead, I escaped an abusive relationship and spent those years rebuilding my life.
Wow. Amazing to see it so concisely summed up like that. Living that single sentence was far more complicated than you can possibly imagine.
But a few titles did manage to slip through the cracks, fantasies that I was hesitant to pick up at first — but that pulled me in so quickly I could not put them down. You may not have heard of these books, or it's been so long you've forgotten their names, but I assure you they are still well worth the reading.
Friends had to twist my arm to read the first two. To her credit, I wrote the friend who sent me C.E. Murphy's Roses in Amber about seven thank-you emails during the course of reading the book.
Roses in Amber, by C.E. Murphy
Simply, Roses in Amber is a standalone retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." If BatB happens to be one of your favorite fairy tales, chances are good that Robin McKinley's Beauty is one of your favorite books. Murphy's book is Beauty for a more mature reader, set in a fantasy kingdom run by a warrior queen with a jealous female lover and a handsome son who gets cursed in their crossfire.
Roses in Amber opens with a wealthy family's estate and all their belongings burning to the ground. The first third of the book follows our heroine (Amber, only 17) and her large family (father, stepmother, two old sisters, three younger brothers, a manservant, and a horse named Beauty) as they realize just how far they've fallen and then move 200 miles away to start their lives over again. McKinley's Beauty meant the world to me as a teen, and I did also happen to be rebuilding a life of my own at the time, but I suspect it was more the gorgeous, lyrical prose and fascinating characters that made this mundane plot device the very opposite of boring.
Amber was a young woman with her own power, but she had the complete support of her family behind her, even when she went off to solve a curse on her own. So few novels stress the importance of family to a hero's journey. And we are all the hero of our own stories, aren't we? By the time the Beast was introduced, I was so enraptured with this family that I had to find out what happened! Even though I already knew. Sort of. I finished the book satisfied, inspired, and exhausted. I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd gobbled up a book like that. I may have been 17 years old myself.
Which, coincidentally, is exactly how old warrior-princess Kateri is in Annie Sullivan's The Tiger Queen (2019), but technically The Tiger Queen is categorized as a young adult novel. (Ah, the machinations of fantasy novel marketing.)
Tiger Queen, by Annie Sullivan
This title piqued my interest because it was another standalone tale, but one I've never seen retold before: Frank R. Stockton's infamous 1882 short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" I'm pretty sure I was introduced to that story in middle school; for those unfamiliar, the conceit of Stockton's tale is that the story ends without telling the reader if the princess's lover chose the door revealing the woman he would be forced to marry, or a tiger. Before the Age of Streaming Television, this was many a child's first introduction to the "cliffhanger" storytelling device.
As in Stockton's story, Sullivan's main character Kateri is a princess whose father rules over a kingdom surrounded by desert. But here, Kateri also happens to be the warrior destined to fight in the arena and ultimately choose between the two doors, one of which leads to Death by Tiger. Kateri quickly realizes that she does not have the skills for this challenge, so she disappears into the hard desert to learn how to fight. My affinity for this story wasn't hard to understand: I had been the warrior. I had saved myself. And now I had to pick up the pieces and do it all over again.
While this book had its flaws, it was a fast and fun read that took me by surprise. I was cheering by the end, and that was certainly not a reaction I expected.
Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen
And then there's Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen.
Sarah Addison Allen is one of those authors whose books I will happily purchase and read without having any clue what they're about. I'm also a big enough fan to appreciate how difficult it was for Allen to get back into writing after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2011. What none of us could have known was that, only a few years after Lost Lake's publication, Allen's mother and sister would both die within days of each other. Lost Lake ended up being the last book Allen published. (Though there are reports she's just finished writing something new.)
But back then, on the cusp of making my own escape, it was the dedication that struck me like an arrow to the heart. Four simple words centered on a blank page: "For the lost ones". I knew this book wasn't just for me; it was for all of us who have ever had a dream bigger than ourselves.
When we meet the main character, Kate Pheris, she has just woken up. Not just physically but mentally, roughly a year after her young husband's tragic death. She and her impish daughter Devin have sold their house and are moving in with her mother-in-law because it is the easiest next step. But Devin comes across a years-old postcard in a trunk in the attic, addressed to Kate from her estranged grandmother Eby in Lost Lake, and they jump in the car and head south for one last summer trip. Their arrival is fortuitous, as Eby has finally decided to sell Lost Lake and all its adjoining property. But should she? The arrival of her long-lost family has shaken loose some stories ... and some magic.
Allen's light fantasy tales might be called contemporary grandchildren of the Southern Gothic. Lost Lake is rich with Spanish moss, cypress knees and colorful characters, a place where old ghosts haunt people instead of locations, and little boys can turn into alligators if they wish hard enough. The stories woven through the history of this family and this land remind us that measuring life in things that almost happen won't get you anywhere, and that waking up is the most important part of grieving. And that the middle of the lake is the best place to fall in love. It is a book for those of us tired of curses and ready for a happily ever after.
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.