The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix

The illustration shows a young man in blue holding a very small bell standing back-to-backwith a young wman in brown with knives drawn. A white cat sneaks along side them.

by Kristen B.

One of my favorite series debuted a long time ago with the publication of Sabriel in 1995, which introduced us to the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre – a magical world and a vaguely Victorian British country joined by mysterious means across a Wall. Author Garth Nix has written in this world off and on for almost 30 years. It’s not a huge series with a new book available annually, but it includes the first trilogy, a variety of short stories, a sequel, a side story about a secondary character, and now the newest installment of Terciel and Elinor.

Title character Sabriel is a young woman finishing her rather unusual education at Wyverly College, a boarding school in Ancelstierre close to the Wall. Her father is a powerful mage from the Old Kingdom, the Abhorsen – an inherited position responsible for making sure the dead remain dead. Death is presented as a river with many precincts that sweeps souls along to their final rest beyond the Ninth Gate. Unfortunately, in the Old Kingdom, the dead don’t always stay that way and necromancers try to increase their power by manipulating Death. It’s all wonderfully gothic and atmospheric (but not particularly scary) with appeal for teens and adults alike. Abhorsens battle the necromancers and Greater Dead with their magical bells and sword, with each bell sounding a specific command – like walking or sleeping.

Back in Ancelstierre, Sabriel receives a bandolier of bells and a sword and realizes that something has gone very wrong with her father. She travels into the Old Kingdom to discover that Bad Things are afoot. With the help of a lost prince and a talking cat who is much more than he seems, Sabriel must conquer an old nemesis and restore the Kingdom. The next two books move forward a generation, but they continue with fraught necessity the quest to defeat the ultimate evil and save the world. Honestly, what more could you ask for?!

Nix published Terciel and Elinor in 2021, and it tells the story of Sabriel’s parents, of how they met and fell in love. It explains so much of the background for the original series, while still giving us new characters to root for. Elinor is a delight as a neglected but independent daughter with a passion for stagecraft and a willingness to meet whatever comes her way with knives drawn. Terciel matches the orphan vibe with a sketchy background of his own, as he reluctantly accepts his future role as the Abhorsen. A competent ranger and taciturn current Abhorsen provide good counterpoints to the young (rather callow) and energetic main characters. I think this sort of immediate prequel is immensely difficult to do well precisely because we know the ending of the story, nonetheless this was an enjoyable read with high enough stakes to keep me turning pages well into the night.

You can start reading either with the newest book, or read in original publication order beginning with Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. For a real treat, listen to the audiobooks narrated by actor Tim Curry, whose dark voice perfectly suits a series that features the river of Death.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

Penric & Desdemona novellas

Painting of a fair blond man with a long braid and a white shirt in a narrow boat in a canal; the setting looks a lot like Venice.

by Kristen B.

One of the delights of reading fantasy stories is the wide range of “what ifs” that authors cook up for our enjoyment. What if a hobbit went on an adventure and discovered a long-lost ring of power? What if a pack of werewolves lived in the Pacific Northwest? What if demonic possession was not an entirely dangerous or horrible affliction? Hold onto that last thought…

Lois McMaster Bujold, a long-time favorite author, always inflicts situations on her characters that stretch them to their utmost and confound them utterly. In one of her created universes, folks worship a pantheon of Five Gods – Father and Mother, Son and Daughter, and Bastard. The Bastard is the god of all things out of season and out of “sorts,” if you will. Demons are creatures of chaos belonging to the Bastard, and they can only exist in the “real world” if they inhabit a creature, usually some sort of wild animal. As one host dies, the demon jumps to the next closest creature, always looking to increase complexity of animal – eventually, sometimes, making it to a human.

Meet Desdemona, one of the oldest and most powerful demons. When she becomes invested in Penric kin Jurald, rather unexpectedly for both of them, she has the better part of 200 years of experience and brings an absolute wealth of knowledge with her. When Desdemona’s previous “rider” dies of heart failure, a great partnership is born between the old lady demon and her handsome new host. While Penric operates as the protagonist throughout the stories, Desdemona is my favorite. She provides ongoing pithy commentary in the vein of an older sister/aunt about the younger Penric’s decisions and passions. Honestly, Bujold’s way with wry commentary on humanity’s frailty and foibles is what keeps me coming back to her books.

Bujold has written more than ten novellas detailing the pair’s various adventures. They do seem to attract trouble as they sort out younger demons, practice spy-craft, fight pirates, court a wife for Penric, and solve plagues. In all the stories, the balance between performing useful magic and managing Desdemona’s chaotic outlets is variously hilarious and disturbing. The balance between politics and diplomacy and regular people’s daily lives provides depth and nuance.

So, have I tempted you? Here’s the bad news: the books were originally self-published electronically, but have since been produced in limited quantities and different formats. Here’s the good news: They are mostly stand-alone stories, so you don’t have to read them in any particular order. I do recommend starting with Penric’s Demon, where all the fun begins, but you don’t have to. After that, you can follow along with their adventures in Penric’s Fox, Masquerade in Lodi, The Physicians of Vilnoc, and all the many others.

If you get hooked like I am, other Maryland libraries carry the titles and collected anthologies (Penric’s Progress and Penric’s Travels) that we don’t and you can borrow them all via Interlibrary Loan/Marina. However you find them, I hope you find that a couple of the stories enchant and amuse you with such an interesting set of What Ifs.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

A young woman with long wavy dark hair, dressed in a denim jacket, looks backward over her shoulder. A bright yellow and orange phoenix is rising behind her against the night sky, and its tail wraps around her.

By Sahana C.

Consider this: every fairy tale you’ve ever heard is at least a little bit true. The Kingdom of Avalon is full of castles and magic, Alice really did travel all through Wonderland, and most of all – magic? Definitely real.  

But at the exact same time, Rin Chupeco manages to surprise readers with twists on each story. Avalon is frozen (literally and metaphorically!) outside of time, Alice was a warrior, and all that magic has rules and regulations in ways that seem to make sense when you look around at the modern world.  

The book opens in the Royal States, a monarchical version of the U.S., where everything is almost exactly the same as reality with the exceptions of a king and quite a bit more magic. The story even involves governmental agencies, with ICE taking on a prominent (and punny!) role throughout the course of the plot. 

The hero here is a young girl named Tala. She comes from an incredibly powerful legacy, with her family hailing from both the Philippines and Avalon. Her entire lineage is made up of magic, despite being convinced that she lives in the most boring town in the entire Royal States, and she’s been told that she’s fairly powerful, too. She’s hesitant to believe it, though, considering her powers are exclusively centered on disrupting magic.  

Her life changes in a big way when her family is called to protect the Crown Prince of Avalon, Alexei, who is the sole survivor of the royal family and has been in hiding for his whole life. Alexei’s dream is to revive his home country and take back his homeland by breaking the curse of the Ice Queen. In the meantime, though, he and Tala become fast friends, and he manages to enjoy a little bit of a normal high school, being sheltered by the Makiling clan, Tala’s super powerful family.  

When the Firebird, the symbol of Avalonian royalty, finally arrives, Tala and Alexei are thrown into a whirlwind adventure, accompanied by the children of Avalon’s best and brightest heroes. All of them have something to prove and they don’t always get along, but they do come together to save a country they’ve all loved and longed for from afar.  

You see, this whole book is a thinly veiled analogy for the immigrant experience and various facets therein. Tala’s whole family is Filipino, and she’s never been to the Philippines but longs to know more about her culture. Alexei had to leave Avalon as a child, forced out by war. The rest of the group that accompanies Tala and Alexei on their adventure also have varying levels of connection to Avalon: some have fond memories of childhood there, others have most of their family members stuck behind the border.  

Chupeco makes it clear, through Tala, that regardless of how connected to country she is, she can still fully claim her heritage. Tala is told by trusted adults time and time again that she belongs, and Chupeco makes it even more explicit when she writes, “Just because you’ve never been to the Philippines doesn’t mean that their rivers don’t course through your blood. It doesn’t mean you don’t have their mountains in your eyes. It’s not where we are, it’s who we are. You’ll always be both a Makiling and a Warnock, and always a Filipina. Never forget that.” 

I will say that some of the worldbuilding was a touch heavy-handed, and I had to go back and forth on the rules of magic and power in this universe Chupeco creates. Those moments could have benefited from a bit less, but they did not take away from the heart present in every chapter. First and foremost, this is a story about family, ones that are forged by blood and those that are found through friendship. For readers who are interested in YA fantasy, with an incredibly diverse and vibrant cast of characters who talk about the immigrant experience and recognize just how important food is as a bonding tool, this is the book for you.  

Wicked As You Wish is available in print and as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

A Deadly Education

A black cover with gold text and a mysterious illustration of the phases of the moon, a mystical eyes, and spiral all centered above a book.

By Gabriela P.

Did you think your high school years were tough? Count yourself lucky that you could at least eat lunch without having monsters come at you. In Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education, Galadriel “El” Higgins goes to her classes, studies, and navigates her social sphere all while trying to stay alive. She attends the Scholomance, a school for magic, where there are no teachers, holidays, school events, or friendships. Attending students are suddenly thrown into this school located within a terrifying inter-dimensional void. With monsters, or “mals”, in every shadow and around every corner, the students have only one goal – to graduate, which means staying alive.

El is a junior at the Scholomance, and has a unique problem. While every other student has to figure out how to protect themselves from mals and students-gone-dark, she has to concentrate on not destroying everything she touches. A rather bothersome prophecy, something about her being the bringer of mass destruction, keeps her more preoccupied with making sure she doesn’t end up destroying the world than with making friends. Though in this school, friendships are usually strategic. When we are introduced to the snarky, anti-social El, she makes it clear that her only plan is to make it as close to graduation as she can without attracting unwanted attention to herself. Then, in her senior year, she plans to figure out how to impress students from well known magical enclaves to guarantee her and her mother’s safety during and after graduation. However, her not-so pleasant disposition means her chances are slim.

Orion Lake, a student from a major enclave with a major savior complex, is famous among the student body, mainly because he is pretty much responsible for the higher-than-normal survival rate of their junior class. When he saves El’s life once, then twice, the spotlight suddenly turns to her. Suddenly El has to figure out how to use the attention for her benefit, but ends up finding herself drawn into a much bigger problem. On top of all that, she finds herself stumbling upon the discovery that she might be…making friends.

A Deadly Education is a refreshing spin on well-known tropes; magic schools, I-hate-him-I-like-him, monsters with a taste for children – the usual. Naomi Novak skillfully builds a fantastical universe with dynamic characters that you can’t help but fall for. Darkly funny and terrifyingly captivating, this book is definitely one that you won’t put down until the end.

You can borrow A Deadly Education as a book, an eBook, and an eAudiobook.

A dark green cover with golden text and illustration of a keyhold with points and rays, and a dangling key.

The story continues (which you will want to do immediately) with The Last Graduate, and the third installment, The Golden Enclaves, is due this fall. The second book is also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

An orange sun against a yellow background sits above ink drawing of bannermen on horses sitting on a hill behind their commander. A black banner flies from the upper right corner across the sun.

by Kristen B.

Do you believe in destiny? Can you inhabit someone else’s?

The main character of She Who Became the Sun spends the length of the book reflecting on these questions. Zhu Chongba “steals” her brother’s foretold fate of greatness and wrestles with what it means to be great. Little sister (never gets her own name) is the only member of her family to survive famine and bandits, and, as an act of desperate will, decides that her brother’s fortune is still Heaven-mandated and waiting to be claimed. So, she becomes him. Throughout the rest of the book, Zhu Chongba is her name even though her pronouns remain female. Sometimes, it was jarring because of how thoroughly Zhu Chongba lives that persona.

The newly claimed identity takes her to a monastery, where she gains an education and makes a lifelong friend in the rascal Xu Da. Eventually, the monastery falls to the politics of rebellion between the native southern Chinese and the ruling Mongolian dynasty, the Great Yuan. Zhu Chongba seizes every opportunity that comes her way and ends up as a general in the rebel Red Turban army. There’s more to it than that, but it’s rather breathtaking how quickly the story moves.

The Red Turbans claim the right to rule because they possess the Mandate of Heaven, in the person of a child prince. In this book, the Mandate of Heaven manifests as actual physical (colored but not hot) flame. The politics within the rebel government is cut-throat, almost literally, and Zhu Chongba has to negotiate through fraught situations without choosing (or appearing to choose) sides. As part of this, she befriends another woman caught up in court politics. Ma Xiuying (Yingzi) has a kind but clear-eyed perspective that Zhu Chongba comes to value.

On the other side of the equation, General Ouyang commands the Mongolian Prince of Henan’s forces. He is a rare eunuch and the only surviving member of his family, all of whom were killed for treachery. Instead of being killed, he was castrated and enslaved to the Prince of Henan’s oldest son, who ended up befriending Ouyang and promoting him through the army. However, Ouyang nurtures rage and revenge in his heart and has his own plans for destroying the family that executed his. The Henan province’s ruling family is beyond dysfunctional with an overbearing father, a people-pleasing heir, and an adopted son who spitefully refuses warrior ways to administer the family estates and fortune.

I don’t know how much of the Mongolian part of the story follows historical precedent, but it provides a fascinating counterweight to Zhu Chongba and her ambitions. Both Chongba and Ouyang grapple with their senses of self, internally and in relation to those around them. The continued nuanced exploration of gender identity and body perception only adds another layer of depth to the characters and the overall themes of the story. Destiny sometimes is very personal.

I ended up having to do a quick dive into Wikipedia to learn more about this historical era. This gender-bent, queer retelling adheres fairly closely to the basic outline of the founding of the Ming Dynasty, which spanned an almost 300 year timeline beginning in 1368. The Red Turban rebels fought successfully to bring down the Mongolian ruling class, which I suppose is not really a spoiler since it’s history. I love to think about this period of Chinese conquest and building corresponding to the beginning of European colonialism and the Renaissance. I wish we learned more about it in our schools.

Despite the galloping pace of this fantastical novel, I found myself putting the book down to make the experience last longer. Zhu Chongba’s sheer stubborn belief in a destiny of greatness does not allow for any other outcome, despite severe setbacks. It’s impossible to read the book and not share in that conviction.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and make soup in the winter.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne Brown

A regal young Black woman with long braids stands in front of a patterned wallwith swaths of green fabric swirling around her.

by Eliana, teen volunteer at HCLS Savage Branch

In true Eliana fashion, I started to blitz through this title as an audiobook. I had to ask my librarian friend, Sarah, “Is it just me or are these characters just the most emotionally stunted dolts I have ever not actually come across?” I love them so much, they make me want to tear my hair out.

Along with the engaging characters, Roseanne A. Brown does an excellent job incorporating African culture into this novel, described on the book jacket as, “The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction.” The setting has quiet elements of West African culture, the furnishings, the clothes, the streets, even the characters’ hair.

My favorite part was the hair routine Karina’s maid does with her. Shea butter and the other oils along with twisting are, in fact, accurate to curly hair. It’s part of why I haven’t been braiding my hair so often. My curls look much lovelier when out of their braids. My family is Puerto Rican, and although Puerto Rico takes a fair amount of influence from African cultures, there are also Taino and Spanish influences there as well.

Back to the book: Karina has all the qualities of a good queen, she just needs time to heal and properly grieve her mother (the previous queen). Outside of the eyes of the courtiers, Karina is surrounded by the love of her family and friends, but she’s closed herself off from them. With the way Karina’s trajectory is headed, Karina may completely alienate everyone around her before something happens to shatter her worldview and push her into regaining allies. There is a notable difference between the Karina who does whatever she can to avoid hosting the Solstacia Festival and the Karina who fights tooth and nail to fulfill her duties as a new queen.

Karina is something of a tempest. For much of the novel, she is insecure, grieving, and constantly worried about whether she’s a good enough ruler. She *worries* about her fitness to lead and actively tries to remove the person she deems to be an unfit ruler (herself) from succession. Heck! The whole reason she even gets into reviving her deceased mother is that she believes her kingdom would be better with her mother’s leadership!

Her opposite in the story is Malik, a child who has seen the absolute worst humanity has to offer. His own family and village were horrible to him. The world sees him and his people as awful. And yet he cares. He cares *so much.* He worries about both of his sisters. He pays attention to the servants and even worries for Karina, a person who he is actively trying to kill, when he overhears how the court lambasts her for needing a day to recover from an attempt on her life.

I’m still listening to the book, so I wonder if there is a reason Malik’s people are oppressed like they are. I know that in the real world, oppression often has no tangible reason. In most fantasy media I have interacted with, the oppression is typically caused by some ancient bad-blood event. I appreciate the author’s sensitive and visceral depiction of anxiety and panic attacks, which didn’t trigger one of my own. I like that she included coping strategies. Somewhere out there, a reader will see Malik thinking of his lemon tree and adopt a similar strategy.

One last note to my friend Sarah: I feel like am a parent now. I want to wrap Malik and Karina up in my arms, tell them that everything is okay. I wanna whack them upside the head and ask them, “What were you thinking?!” (affectionately) Are you happy, Sarah? You have ruined me. Everyone should read this book.

Meet the author Roseanne Brown at HCLS Savage Branch (or attend online) on Tuesday, January 25 at 6 pm. Register here. Thirty attendees will be randomly selected to receive a free copy of A Song of Wraiths and Ruins. 

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

The cover shows a young Black woman looking to the left, dressed for the trail in a leather coat and a strap for a bag across her chest. She has a floral tattoo on the side of her neck.

by Kristen B.

The Good Luck Girls is a flat-out running adventure of escape and escapade, complete with undead monsters, bank robberies, and a secret rebel base. In the country of Arketta, good luck girls are sold to “welcome houses” as children, basically into indentured servitude where they start as housemaids until they graduate to serving customers more personally. The male patrons of welcome houses are called “brags” by the women who work there. This book is filled with so many smart details that make it real.

Favors are the magical tattoos that mark the girls’ throats and match their names, which cannot be removed or covered without dire consequences. The girls in this story will do almost anything to remove those favors and be free of the welcome house. Meet the girls:

Aster, the protector, is the big sister and the one who has gumption to say, “time to go, girls.”

Violet, the favorite and the survivor who may have regrets, also has the secret information to get everyone to safety.

Tansy, the herbalist and medic, is the heart of the bunch who keeps everyone pointed in the same direction.

Mallow, the fighter, meets life with fists up but learns the hard way how to pick which fights are worth having.

Clementine, the catalyst and Aster’s younger sister, has a catastrophic Lucky Night and becomes the reason this group of girls flees into the wilderness. She wants so much more from life than a Welcome House can offer.

After Clementine’s debut ends with a very important brag dead in her bed, the girls figure out how make an escape, heading North to freedom. The girls follow clues from the story of Lady Ghost passed from good luck girl to good luck girl, but no one knows the truth – although Violet claims to have special knowledge. They discover a male guide to take them through rough country, who brings all the usual complications. He is also looking for redemption and a new life, and makes the difference for surviving in the deep wilderness. The group learns to rely on and (maybe even a little bit) love each other like family.

There are some solid themes underlying all the fun, including gender and race issues. These young women demonstrate their abilities to do what’s necessary to achieve their goals, despite physical and emotional trauma. As they reclaim their identities and their independence, questions arise about who the law protects and serves and when a little rebellion is a good thing. Honestly, I rooted for the girls during their first bank heist … even if it’s a crime.

I gulped this book down over one weekend. I can’t wait to see what these girls do next as I am pretty sure that each one of them is entirely capable of making her own good luck.

The Good Luck Girls is available in traditional print, book on CD, and as an eBook.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Two Tales of Two Sisters

An ornate curved dagger with a jeweled hilt appears against a swirling red background, with "Magic is in her blood" at the top and Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand across it along the bottom.
Book cover of Empire of Sand

by Kristen B.

Empire of Sand opens with a young woman painting a window sill with her blood, looking to ward against the daiva spirits of the wild sands. In some ways, the rest of Tasha Suri’s duology revolves around these older spirits that have been subjugated by the Ambhan Empire – and by those who consider them monsters and those who count them as family. Suri’s books are set in a lush, vibrant world based on the Mughal Empire – complete with vast deserts and verdant oases. Here, the Emperor governs but the Maha rules. Here, the upper class consists solely of Ambhan people and the Amrithi are outcast because of their magic.

Mehr is the privileged child of the regional governor, acknowledged but nonetheless the daughter of an Amrithi courtesan. She possesses the full inheritance of her mother’s people, but is protected by her father’s influence. Mehr lives in an uneasy truce with her step-mother, who has adopted Mehr’s younger sister as her own daughter to be raised as an Ambhan noblewoman. Mehr has no ambition for a noble marriage, but when she is discovered practicing Amrithi magic, she is given little choice.

The Maha rules the Empire through the prayers of his mystics. When Mehr accidentally divulges her abilities, she is forcibly married to the powerful mystic Amun and taken away to live a sequestered life in a distant oasis. At the Maha’s Temple, Mehr learns that she and her husband are expected to perform the Rite of the Bound. This magical rite, a choreographed dance with particular poses and gestures, allows the magic of the desert daiva and older gods to flow through the Maha and into the Empire, extending its territory and influence. Through their practice and discipline, Mehr and Amun learn about each other and the tragedies that brought each to the Maha’s temple.

It is this romance of desperation and rebellion that powers the second half of the book. I read this novel in large gulps, needing to know what happened next. As much as I enjoyed the world building, I truly came to love both Mehr and Amun, rooting for them to find a way to be together and free of the Empire. The underlying themes of colonization and prejudice give Empire of Sand an unexpected sense of gravity. There is no doubt but that individual lives were used and abused for the supposed greater good. The consequences of generations of such cruelty cannot easily be constrained or controlled.

A spear points downward against a patterned blue background, with "A curse is upon the throne" in gold script above "Realm of Ash" overlaying the spear, and "Tasha Suri" at the bottom.
Book cover of Realm of Ash

The second book, Realm of Ash, deals with the unfolding repercussions from Mehr and Amun’s story, but from another perspective entirely. We encounter Mehr’s younger sister, Arwa, again as she makes her way to a distant convent for widowed noblewomen. Arwa was, indeed, raised as an Ambhan noblewoman and married a military officer with a bright future. When the garrison is massacred by daiva, Arwa is one of the few survivors and chooses to absent herself from high society. Not entirely surprisingly, the convent is a hotbed of Imperial politics and Arwa soon finds herself on the way to the capital city to serve in the retinue of a princess.

Where her sister has the magic of the Amrithi rites, Arwa discovers that she has a different ability that allows her to access the memories in her blood, remembrances of her ancestors, in the Realm of Ash. The princess’ illegitimate brother lives in nocturnal solitude, researching and experimenting for a way to restore the Ambhan Empire to its former safety and prestige. Arwa must learn to embrace her Amrithi heritage to help the prince and to accept her own worth. Again, a forbidden romance (Ambhan noblewomen may not remarry) lies at the heart of a rebellion against a court built on deception and corruption. And again, I found myself rooting for these two against all odds.

In some ways I preferred Realm of Ash because it shows more of the interconnected elements of the Ambhan Empire, the military and the regular people of Jah Ambha (the capital city), servants and spies. As Arwa and her prince flee into the desert and join a pilgrimage, the wide variety of life outside of palaces and temples make for a wonderful sense of place and history. The bigger picture at play in the second book is, perhaps, only made possible by the laser focus of the first novel.

The fantasy genre is chock-full of strong heroines, women who can outfight anyone and snark about it after … the term kick-ass is usually employed. Mehr and Arwa gave me a much more grounded reality, finding their courage in the face of terrifying odds. Neither young woman wants to be an agent of change or is a rebel at heart. Both have learned to keep their heads down and mouths shut so as not to attract attention or draw criticism. They do have, however, an unerring sense of fairness and a desire to be allowed to live their own lives, loving whom they choose. These sisters indelibly alter their entire world by being brave enough to take the chances presented to them, sometimes fearlessly and sometimes with only a hope and a prayer.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Orange and yellow waves of color suggest sand dunes. Title appears in bright white type vertically in the center, with a silhouetted figure within the "U". A black space sky is across the top, with stars.

By Eric L.

There has been quite a lot of buzz concerning the new Dune film, especially since with the new trailers being released. Frankly I’m a bit excited, too, although the theatre release has been delayed repeatedly (now scheduled for Oct 22, 2021). However, I can’t say that I’m a Dune fan from way back, since I had never read any of the 18 books in the series until recently.  

I host the HCLS book discussion group Read. Think. Talk. on the first Monday of the month. More often than not, we read and discuss classic, social, and philosophical sci-fi. Several members of the group wanted to read Dune (the original). Although I had a desire to read it, and with the new movie and an HBO series on the way, it seemed like a great time to familiarize myself with the source material. However, I was a bit reluctant, as it’s not a great idea to suggest a 600-plus page book, with three appendices and a glossary of terms, for a book discussion group. Moreover, I’ll concede I’m still a bit intimidated by long books!  

The plot centers around young Paul Atreides whose world is upturned when his family/house must relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially called Dune. A rival house, Harkonnen, was governing Dune and wants to wrest back control because of the planet’s valuable natural resource melange (also called spice). House Atreides is the more admirable of the two rival houses for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Harkonnen leader is a despicable person.

Melange enables interplanetary travel both via the pilot and as a fuel. It possesses a psychedelic effect, and people also ingest it as a mind-altering substance. Melange is only found in the sands of Dune, and harvesting it is a very dangerous endeavor because of the giant sandworms (the worms were really all I knew about Dune). The indigenous Fremen are the only folks who are able to survive in the desert with its extreme climate and dearth of water. 

Paul has an interest in the Fremen from the outset, even before a series of events place him in contact with them. I don’t want give away too many details concerning the drama and intrigue that lead to House Atreides losing control of the planet, but they make for a good read. The Fremen believe Paul to be their chosen leader and they have a common interest in defeating the Harkonnens.

This sort of story should all seem familiar, with revenge, an oppressive greedy regime, and the oft-repeated white male savior trope. However, Dune has some interesting differences. Paul is accompanied on his journey by his mother, Jessica, the unmarried concubine of his father and a member of the “Bene Gesserit.” One of the shadowy organization’s key tenets is controlling one’s thoughts to control how the body reacts. The members are taught to hone their intellect and possess the ability to persuade people using their words. They are not popular in the largely patriarchal society and are often and pejoratively referred to as “witches.” Jessica, against the rules of the Bene Gesserit, taught young Paul their ways. This skill set is the reason that some of the Fremen think he may fulfill their prophecy. 

There are interesting power dynamics between Jessica and Paul, their feelings about each other, and how individual goals change throughout the story. Other strong female characters exist as well, including Paul’s love interest. Author Frank Herbert was apparently also interested in Zen and peyote, and the book is very much a product of the late 1960s. It is undeniably long but moves quickly. The action scenes are not drawn out, in fact I found their brevity interesting. I liked that the political buildup was described more, which seems closer to reality to me. 

Dune has drama, intriguing characters, some philosophical issues, and an interesting environmental message. I half-read the appendices but found them rather dry without getting a feel for the characters first. That’s just me; perhaps you may like to have a complete understanding of the “world” before getting into the story. 

On the continuum of science fiction and fantasy (if there is one), I lean to the former. I’d argue this is more fantasy, although it’s debatable. At any rate, the book contains new words, lots of new names, worlds, and families, all of which are difficult to pronounce. This is a book that’s worth your time and great source material for a film. The new film will tell the story in two parts, unlike the 1984 David Lynch film, which is an interesting story in and of itself (I’d recommend it). 

In sum, one can get lost in another world and time in this book, and perhaps it’s nice to take a respite from current affairs for a bit. 

While you have to reserve the book right now because others are enjoying all of our copies, it is worth the wait to read. Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Cooking up some comics, with a side of fantasy

The cover of Oishinbo: Fish, Sushi, and Sashimi is a collage of black and white art depicting a group of patrons seated at a sushi bar watching the chef hold up a large fish for their approval; several plates of sushi and sashimi; a hungry patron; and a logo depicting the subtitle with a fish above it.

By Khaleel G.

One of the great things about manga is the wide range of topics authors can focus on. Sure, there are still those popular power fantasy series, with heroes rising from lowly origins to take on a supreme evil. Dragon Ball Z or Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer play a similar tune to Superman and Batman. Still, over the last few decades, comics in the West have stretched outside superheroes into new genres, like autobiography, travelogues, and other strange and unique styles of story. There’s no shortage of variety for a graphic novels reader in 2021.

But there’s one genre that the west hasn’t really explored, while manga has done so quite thoroughly: food. Yes, manga about baking, frying, cooking, and eating – they exist, and they’re quite popular, too!

More interestingly, as a genre, food manga isn’t strict about its features. In “shonen” manga, like Bleach or Naruto, there’s a specific path the hero follows, training to becoming better and overcoming new challenges to fulfill their dream. In romance manga, like Skip-Beat or Nana, our protagonist stumbles into young love, leaving us to wonder if those two crazy kids will or won’t finally kiss (until they finally do (at the very end)).

But in food manga, you can really mix any other genre – like documentary or fantasy or combat or history – with the presentation and description of some aspect of food and cooking. The results can be intensely different!

The cover of Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza depicts a collage of black and white drawings: a cook handing a bowl to one of two seated patrons, one of whom is already eating; a pair of hands holding a single gyoza; a cook preparing a dish as someone looks on behind him; and two dishes of food, one ramen with chopsticks resting on the rim of the bowl. The subtitle is depicted with a ramen bowl in silhouette, with chopsticks above holding some ramen aloft.


Oishinbo is a more direct sort of food manga. In each of its six volumes, its author, Tetsu Kariya, focuses on a different aspect of Japanese cuisine and food culture (helpfully described in each title). In one volume, we can learn about ramen and gyoza (fried dumplings), those two staples of Japanese street food, and in another, a deep dive into sushi and sashimi, two varieties of raw fish with rice. Of course, there are gorgeous drawings of the dishes, feeding the reader’s eyes in the same way Studio Ghibli films do. But along the way, we’re told more about the history and culture surrounding the food, in addition to the step-by-step process of making each. 

But this isn’t a printed Instagram feed of cool food art – no, there is a plot! Or, at least, there are characters. Shiro Yamaoka is a journalist who has a troubled family history with cooking, but he still tries to develop the “Ultimate Menu” as a project, visiting restaurants and chefs across Japan. He is joined by Yuko Karita, his assistant, as they sample foods and consider the history of the dishes alongside their own experiences. Keep in mind: Oishinbo ran for over 30 years and 111 volumes, and these few volumes we have are an “A La Carte” compilation. As such, the overarching story has been compressed and mostly removed, resulting in these translated volumes feeling like episodes of documentary travelogue. And that’s alright by me!

Reflecting the time in which the manga started, the characters have a very 1980s aesthetic to their designs. For long-time readers of comics, the style can be nostalgic, but even for new readers, I think the clearer and less-cute style helps the manga’s focus come through much clearer. And that focus? Food is good. It’s a perfect mini-series for amateur chefs, readers new to manga, or for anyone who wants to know more about Japanese cuisine.

The cover of Delicious in Dungeon Vol. 1 shows a young man in armor with brown boots and a bedroll on his back, holding a spatula and frying pan. He appears to be in a castle dungeon, with other characters deeper in the hallway behind him, as well as a red dragon approaching that none of them see because their backs are turned.



On the far end from the realism of Oishinbo is Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryoko Kui. Yes, that’s a silly title, but this is a very silly series – about fantasy food!  One of the recent trends in anime/manga are stories featuring western-style fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying, and console roleplaying video games. Delicious in Dungeon is about a party of adventurers in such a fantasy world. You have Laios, the dimwitted human knight, Marcille, the squeamish elf mage, and Chilchuck, the halfling lockpick. They’re trying to get to the bottom of the dungeon to save Laios’ sister, but man, it’s a long way down…

During one of their hungrier moments, they meet Senshi, a dwarf, who shows them the craft of cooking beasts they find (and fight) in the dungeon. Which is, as you might imagine, a strange prospect for our adventurers, who aren’t sure if they want to eat boiled mandrakes or a wyvern egg scramble. But Senshi shows them the benefits and necessity of “eating off the land,” as they can delve deeper by cooking along the way. 

So we have action and fighting, as the party battles various mythical monsters. But then we get Senshi cooking their conquest over a fire, using his shield as a wok. Kui draws the process of cooking and the final dish with the same care as Kariya did in Oishinbo, but instead of buckwheat noodles, it’s tentacles. Recipes are included with each fantastical dish, making the whole thing seem both real and absolutely ridiculous. Yet, you know, that roast dragon flank does look pretty good…

These are just two examples of food manga we have at HCLS! We have other series too:If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan. 

  • If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
  • If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan. 
  • And if you’d rather have some competition with your food, Food Wars! is a fun shonen series, wherein chefs compete in cooking duels to see who’s the best. 

Whether you’re new to comics or if you’re just hungry for something new (ha), food manga is a genre worth sampling. 

Oishinbo and Delicious in Dungeon, and the above-listed series, are available in print from HCLS.

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.