Frontlist | 21 fantasy books to get excited about this winter
Explore worlds behind hidden doors, creep into dark fairy tale magic, and discover mythic creatures.
Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom; Jan. 12)
Although this is the sixth book in the Wayward Children novella series, new readers can still start here — it tells a standalone story featuring brand new characters. When Regan flees school after revealing she’s intersex to her best friend — who reacts by mocking her — Regan finds a door where no door has ever been before. She steps through it and discovers Hoofland, a world full of centaurs and unicorns and the perfect place for a horse girl such as Regan — but not all is safe in this new world, and despite the centaur friends she makes, Regan misses her parents. Humans can only visit Hoofland when it’s in danger, and Regan is a valuable commodity to the competing hooved creatures that live there. This lovely novella may be quieter than the previous books in the series, but it still packs an emotional punch.
The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly (Harper Voyager; Jan. 12)
Princess Askia is the heir to the Frozen Crown of Seravesh, but Seravesh is under attack by the emperor of the Roven Empire, who uses brutal methods as he conquers countries one by one. She and a small contingent of her military travel to the prosperous Southern country Vishir to beg for military aid in reclaiming her northern kingdom, but Askia is unpracticed in political maneuvering. The Vishir nobility views her as a savage. Moreover, Askia has a secret that puts her in danger at the Vishir court: She’s a death witch and can see ghosts. Her parents were put to death in Vishir when she was a child because they were witches, so her secret is deadly. This first book in a duology expertly combines classic fantasy tropes of political intrigue with dashes of romance, sword fights, and magic training, plus solid character development and feminist themes. It’s a fun and action-packed read.
Reconstruction: Stories by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Small Beer Press; Jan. 12)
The first story in this collection, the Nebula award-winning “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” opens in a prison where humans are contained for their vampire conquerors to feast upon. Key is a human caretaker doing what she can to survive in a world where hope and integrity are seemingly impossible. This theme of resilience in inhumane conditions continues throughout the collection. In the title story “Reconstruction” — one of two stories original to the collection — Sally uses her grandmother’s spells to help protect a Black Civil War regiment while meditating on anger. These ten immersive stories embrace multiple speculative genres and take place in worlds both real and unreal. They’re well worth reading.
Tales from the Hinterland by Melissa Albert (Flatiron; Jan. 12)
This collection of 12 deliciously dark fairy tales set in the Hinterland tell stories of mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters haunted by jealousy, revenge, curiosity, cruel loved ones, and the brutality of a medieval patriarchal society. While the collection is built around the fictional book referenced in the The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, it can be read as a standalone and would make an excellent introduction to the series. Readers of dark fairy tale writers like Angela Carter, Holly Black, and Tanith Lee will love these stories. The beautiful illustrations by Jim Tierney make it feel like a classic fairy tale collection to put on the shelf beside the Grimm brothers.
Wench by Maxine Kaplan (Amulet Books; Jan. 19)
Wench is a lively feminist epic fantasy that subverts fantasy stereotypes of the tavern wench. Tanya is proud of her work at the tavern she calls home — no one can break up a bar fight faster than she can — but when her adopted father and the tavern’s owner unexpectedly dies, a group of soldiers claim the tavern for themselves and take all of its provisions. To win it back, she decides to travel with the soldiers to the capital and petition the queen. A magical object the soldiers protect, and which every brigand in the forest is after, complicates her quest. With spot-on snarky dialogue, a kickass bisexual main character, and lots of adventures and hijinks, Wench is a blast to read from beginning to end.
Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore (Dial Books for Young Readers; Jan. 19)
Kristin Cashore returns to the immensely popular Graceling Realm series nine years after publishing the last installment, and it’s just as enthralling as the first three books. It takes place four years after the events of Bitterblue. The novel opens with Giddon secreting away a family with a Graceling daughter from Estill, where Gracelings are considered the government’s property, and heading to Monsea, where Queen Bitterblue has decreed that Gracelings are free. Queen Bitterblue has adjusted well to becoming queen. When two of her emissaries to Winterkeep die under mysterious circumstances, she decides to travel with Giddon and Hava to Winterkeep herself to see what the problem is. When she’s kidnapped, it’s up to Giddon and Hava to solve the mystery behind Winterkeep.
The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick (Orbit; Jan 19)
This immersive first book in a new epic fantasy series co-written by Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms has political intrigue, con artists, unsolved mysteries, and intricate world-building. Ren and her sister Tess are orphans whose past trauma has driven them to become con artists. They travel to the city of Nadezra, where Ren poses as the niece of the head of an aristocratic family. Little does she know that the family is not as well off as it seems. Meanwhile, Captain Grey Serrado is trying to investigate a series of kidnappings among Nadezra’s impoverished children when he’s ordered to keep a watch on Ren. And then there’s The Rook, a masked vigilante running loose in the city. With a large cast of characters and plots within plots within plots, The Mask of Mirrors is a feast to savor slowly.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (Tordotcom; Jan. 19)
This folkloric, Africanfuturist — a term coined by the author — novella takes place in a near-future Ghana. When Fatima finds a mysterious seed under her favorite tree, she collects it, as any curious 7-year-old would do. But the seed transforms her, and when she’s hit by a car some time later, she glows a bright green, accidentally kills her family and village, and forgets her name from the trauma. From then on, Fatima becomes Sankofa, who has the power to kill. She’d be all alone if it weren’t for her fox sidekick, who is unaffected by the green glow that emanates from Sankofa at will. Behind the inventive future Okorafor creates in this novella is an emotional gut-punch that sneaks up on you. I hope we get more stories set in this world.
We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen (Mira Books; Jan. 26)
Jamie and Zoe wake up with no memory in an apartment that holds no clues about who they could be, and with strange powers. Jamie can read minds and erase memories. He uses his powers to rob banks with the hopes of one day retiring to another country. Zoe has super speed and strength, and as she zooms food deliveries around the city, she also fights crime. While these two might seem like archenemies in the making, they have much in common, as they discover in a memory-loss support group. The two decide to team up to find out what happened to them and why they have no memories beyond the last two years — and in their search for the truth, they uncover a plot that puts the entire city at risk. We Could Be Heroes is an incredibly fun and thoughtful take on superhero lore, with flawed but immensely relatable main characters.
On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu (Erewhon; Feb. 2)
Firuzeh and her family are Afghani war refugees fleeing to Australia. The family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru in horrifying conditions in the hopes of finding a safe home in Australia. During a harrowing boat journey, a storm sweeps away Firuzeh’s best friend, and afterward, her ghost haunts her. Firuzeh escapes the horrors around her through Afghani folklore, but even her stories cannot shield her from the brutally inhumane conditions of the Australian refugee detainment camp. By the time the Australian government finally accepts her family, they’ve been forced to live through traumas they’ll never be rid of, and their uncertain status in Australia only exacerbates this trauma. This searing and emotional lyrical novel straddles the line between fantasy and literary fiction. Have some tissues handy.
Everything That Burns by Gita Trelease (Flatiron; Feb. 2)
The second and final book in the Enchantée duology opens with Camille helping a flower girl escape a mob after a nobleman falsely accuses her of trying to steal his coin. While Camille and Sophie now have a safe home and financial security, many women and girls in the aftermath of the French Revolution do not, and their stories aren’t being told. Camille decides she will be the one to tell their stories and makes her dream of reopening her father’s print shop come true. Meanwhile, royalty and revolutionaries alike are calling for the death of magicians like her, so she’s still forced to keep her magic a secret. The conclusion of this historical fantasy series is just as sweeping and enchanting as the first book, All That Glitters.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom; Feb. 9)
This lush and beautiful sapphic novella explores themes of colonization in a Vietnamese-inspired fantasy setting. Thanh is the youngest princess of Bìanh Hả. When she was a child, her mother, the queen, sent her as a hostage to Ephteria, a powerful country that seeks to colonize Bìanh Hả and all other countries. There, she survives a traumatic fire and falls in love with the Ephteria heir, Eldris. She’s returned to Bìanh Hả when she comes of age, and her mother expects her to take over negotiations with Ephteria. When Eldris and a council member come to Bìanh Hả to renegotiate the treaty’s terms, Thanh finds herself sliding back into her romance with Eldris. But she’s wiser than she once was and is now repulsed by Eldris’s internalized colonizer attitudes of privilege. While Thanh struggles with her feelings for Eldris, her mother’s expectations, and her inadequacy at sparing Bìanh Hả from what seems inevitable, she also keeps secret a blazing magic born in that fire she survived as a child.
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Viking; Feb. 9)
First published in New Zealand to critical acclaim, The Absolute Book makes its US debut in February. Since Taryn’s sister was murdered years ago, she has tried to move on: She’s married, divorced, and has written a popular book about the history of libraries. Her sister’s murderer mysteriously died after his release, and she’s tried to put the past behind her. But when she’s hospitalized for seizures and blackouts, she realizes an entity is possessing her body, and the entity is searching for something lost in a library fire from her childhood. Meanwhile, the detective who investigated her sister’s murderer’s death has begun following her. Full of intrigue, mystery, magic, and history, this is a fascinating read that, despite its length, is hard to put down.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna (Delacorte Press; Feb. 9)
Sixteen-year-old Deka is approaching coming of age ceremony, where girls are cut to ensure their blood runs red, signifying their purity. When her time comes, Deka’s blood runs gold. Because of her so-called impurity, she’s cast out of her village and from everything she’s ever known. A woman warrior finds Deka and asks her to join her and a group of other similar girls with rare powers to train for the emperor’s army and fight the monstrous deathshrieks. This action-packed West African-inspired epic fantasy with feminist themes is both brutal and hopeful.
Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap (Small Beer Press; Feb. 9)
These 13 captivating short stories entwine fantasy, horror, and science fiction to explore monsters, Filipino folklore, immigration, and queerness. In the dark fairy tale “A Cup of Salt Tears,” Makino’s mother warns her of the dangers of making deals with kappas, even though Makino was saved by kappa as a child. When Makino’s husband falls ill, she seeks out that same kappa. In “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing),” a group of five girls befriend one another at a summer camp when a goddess charges them with protecting the world from darkness. Ten years later, the the girls are still fighting. These ambiguous, vivid, and dark tales manage deep characterizations despite their short formats.
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (FSG Originals; Feb. 9)
Originally published in Australia, this lovely literary fantasy is now being published in the United States. It centers on a mythic rain heron that turns out to be quite real. In Part 1, bad luck follows a farmer until the rain heron saves her from a flood. Part 2 is told from the perspective of a hermit named Ren, who lives on a mountain where her grandmother showed her the rain heron long ago. In the next section, a girl learns from her aunt how to extract magical squid ink using her blood. This girl grows up to be a soldier charged with capturing the rain heron by using whatever means necessary. The rain heron becomes a symbol of hope and magic in this war-torn country. Each narrator’s story builds upon the one that came before, depicting a dark world where the mythic natural world and humanity collide with sometimes violent consequences. It’s a gorgeous and spellbinding eco-fantasy.
The Memory Theater by Karin Tidbeck (Pantheon; Feb. 16)
The Memory Theater is as inventive and eerie as Swedish author Karin Tidbeck’s previous works, though more fantastical and fairytale-like. Time doesn’t exist in the Gardens and no one ages. The Masters who live there — reminiscent of the fae — hold endless revelries and have forgotten their origins. The Masters force children who wander into the Gardens to be their servants. They abuse them, and before a servant reaches adulthood, the Masters hold a hunt and eat them. Thistle is one such servant, and Dora is his best friend and sister. Dora is the daughter of a mountain and one of the Masters, but the Master refuses to acknowledge her. When it comes time for Thistle’s hunt, he and Dora manage to escape the Gardens, and it’s up to a witch and a theater troop to find Thistle’s true name so that he can be free from the Garden’s clutches. Meanwhile, one of the Masters has discovered time and has been banished from the Gardens. She’s the one that holds Thistle’s true name, but she’s unlikely to give it to him.
Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes (Tordotcom; March 2)
The 13 consuming stories collected in Burning Girls and Other Stories show the darkness and danger in fairy tales. My favorite story from the collection, “Among the Thorns,” retells the most disturbing fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, “The Jew in the Thorns,” where the torture and eventual murder of a Jewish man is used as comic relief. Schanoes humanizes the tale by telling it from the man’s daughter’s perspective and the vengeance she seeks. The heartbreaking title story, “Burning Girls,” won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novella and combines elements from Jewish mysticism and “Rumplestiltskin” with historical events like the anti-Jewish pogroms in 19th century Poland and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Not all the stories in this collection are historical fantasy, though. The punk rock “Ballroom Blitz” occurs in a rock club/bar where 12 brothers have been cursed to stay in a bar forever unless the same 12 girls dance with them for 101 nights. These fun, heartrending, and imaginative short stories reveal new truths about classic fairy tales.
All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter (Titan Books; March 9)
In this gorgeous, atmospheric gothic fantasy, grisly fairy tales and creatures from myth come to life, haunting a family legacy while also allowing its prosperity. The O’Malleys have always lived in Hobs Hallow, a tower at the edge of the sea, reaping the sea’s rewards through unnatural means, or at least that’s what the rumors claim. Once upon a time, their wealth was legendary, but now Mirin and her grandparents are the last true O’Malleys. When her grandparents die, she finds clues that indicate her mother is still alive. With a distant O’Malley cousin trying to force her into marriage, Mirin flees Hobs Hallow in search of her parents, but her search only leads her to another house with its own dark secrets tucked away within stories and fairy tales.
The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel & Friends; March 16)
In this beautiful and affecting YA contemporary fantasy novel loosely inspired by the fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” two teens heal and learn how to find joy after a sexual assault. Ciela and Lock flirted at the beginning of a party, but by its end, they’ve both been sexually assaulted, and Ciela has dropped Lock off at a hospital, still unconscious from the drug that had been mixed into his Dr. Pepper. As a brown, queer teen, Ciela knows that no one will listen to her story, especially since the classmates who assaulted her and Lock are white and from wealthy families. Ciela is also a pastelería witch — she can sense exactly which dessert a customer wants, a magic she’s inherited from her grandmother — but after the assault, her magic leaves her. When school starts back, she and Lock find themselves attracted to one another once more, but while he knows he was sexually assaulted that night, he doesn’t remember the details. While The Mirror Season focuses on a traumatic event and will undoubtedly make many readers (like myself) cry, it’s also a magical, hopeful, and empowering novel.
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark (Orbit; March 23)
As a child, Touraine was one of many taken by the empire to be trained as an indentured soldier. Now an adult, she wants to rise in the empire’s ranks. She has the perfect opportunity to get noticed when the empire returns to her home country, Qazāl, and there’s an assassination attempt on the queen. She spots the attempt before the other soldiers and successfully saves the queen’s life. However, one of her countrymen arrested for the assassination attempt recognizes her and calls her by a name she’s long forgotten. This makes Touraine begin to question her identity and her role in the empire. This complex and emotional North African–inspired epic fantasy has both LGBTQ+ representation and a main character with disabilities.