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).

Winter’s Orbit

Two silhouettes contain stars and planetary scenes, one in cool tones and one in warm ones.

by Kristen B.

Sometimes, it’s fun to figure out why a book has its title. Often, there’s an a-ha moment while reading when I come across the phrase or the action where it all makes sense. Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell has a lot of selling points, but the title may not be one of them. Okay, okay: The main characters maybe come to understand their feelings for one another while stranded in the snowy wilderness. I’m still not a fan of the title – too cold and distant.

However, I am a huge fan of the book with all its space opera and romance fun. It was exactly the escapist fiction I needed during a recent high-stress period. Prince Kiem is the disaster of a gadfly royal who spends his life with his charities and in the tabloids, but perhaps he has hidden depths that are just too much trouble to plumb. He is instructed by The Emperor, His Grandmother, that he is to make a dynastic marriage with his recently deceased cousin’s widower, Count Jainan. While politically necessary to hold an interstellar treaty together, Kiem finds the entire idea beyond intrusive based on what he figured was a “perfect marriage” that ended in tragedy. Kiem is pretty much a good egg who gets in his own way much too frequently. Jainan is another story altogether, but we’ll get there.

Those interstellar politics are vitally important and drive the science-fictional side of the story. Kiem and Jainan’s marriage solidifies the alliance between the Iskat Empire and its planet Thea. The Iskat Empire has similar arrangements with each of the seven planets that it holds, and it must maintain those relations to have continued access to the galaxy-spanning Resolution’s technology. And, it’s time to renew the 20-year treaty with the Resolution, meaning Kiem and Jainan’s marriage isn’t just a convenience. If the Empire falls apart, the separate planets become targets for larger, toothier fish in their medium-sized galactic pond.

Jainan’s world, Thea, is not entirely convinced that being part of the Empire has any immediate benefits. While he is part of an alliance marriage, Count Jainan also has commitments to his immediate family, his larger clan, and the planet. Part of the story hinges on discovering why this immensely intelligent human (space engineer by education and avocation) has withdrawn so completely from his duties. The pattern of Jainan’s reactions and assumptions leads to some fairly ugly realizations, as his new spouse Kiem discovers that maybe the first marriage wasn’t entirely what it seemed.

As in most romances that rely on wrongly held assumptions and misunderstandings, a good conversation or two would have gone a long way to soothing some of the worst conundrums. However, personalities and various crises allow our two lovable nincompoops to stumble around each other for far too long. They eventually recognize that it’s not only their relationship that needs some sleuthing – Cousin Taam’s death looks more and more like murder, the arranged marriage isn’t being accepted by the Resolution, and something hinky is going on at a mining station in Thean orbit.

It’s a whirlwind of a book filled with handsome men, entirely competent women, and all sorts of mysterious goings-on. The secondary characters fill out the margins and spaces between Kiem and Jainan in wonderful ways. I would really enjoy a book featuring Kiem’s personal assistant, Bel, who seems to have quite a piratical background. I also appreciate this book for its rather matter-of-fact portrayal of all sorts of gender identities and love interests. Yes, the primary romance is male/male, but it’s delightful that, in some rather refreshing ways, varied gender expression is commonplace and accepted. I’m looking forward to continued adventures in Maxwell’s universe (hopefully with more appealing titles).

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).

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola

Two figures poised to kiss are color blocked in bold color of turquoise, red, and yellow.

by Sahana C.

Some really popular retellings of myths are going around now: The Song of Achilles, Circe, and The Women of Troy, to name a few. But all three have one thing in common: they center Greek and Roman mythology. The world of myth is much more vast than Greek and Roman mythology, and Bolu Babalola weaves her magic around folktales from West Africa, the Middle East, and even China, alongside Greek and Roman myths that she writes through a more diverse slant. She brings these often untold tales to the forefront with her compilation of short stories, Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold.  

More than just retellings of these myths, however, Babalola brings each story fully into the modern world. Instead of Scheherazade being a trapped princess, she’s a journalist managing some dangerous new sources. Psyche works for Eros’s mother in a fiercely corporate world that she wants to break free from. This, too, is a break from tradition among popular retellings today, and it adds to the timeless nature of the stories by showing just how universal each love story really is.  

The stories are not too long, with just enough context and world building in each to make readers fall firmly in love with the world, to build a new universe around these characters, and make them fall in love with each other. These stories don’t necessarily keep all the magic and mythic details consistent, but the essence of the myth, what it would mean in the modern context, remains the same. Instead of magic crocodile skins that cause them strife in their personal lives, for example, characters have vitiligo, a skin condition that they have to learn to love about themselves.  

Personally, Nefertiti’s story, Zhinu’s, and Thisbe’s have been at the forefront of my mind since reading, each taking the original myth and twisting it into something lovely and appropriate for a modern age, while retaining a timeless quality. The stories revolve around love; love and POC joy are centered with every character. In the ordinarily Eurocentric realm of mythology, Love in Color is the best of romance: poignant, beautiful, complex in plot but simple enough to convey its message. 

I would lean towards reading up about each myth before reading the stories, however. The myths that I had context for, I enjoyed more upon a first read than the others, but after doing some research on the other stories, I went back and enjoyed the less familiar stories just as much on a reread.  

The publisher review for the anthology notes the diversity of the source material, saying, “Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, and stories from long-erased places. With an eye towards decolonizing tropes inherent in our favorite tales of love, Babalola has created captivating stories that traverse across perspectives, continents, and genres.” 

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola is available in print

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.

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.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

The cover, in shades of pink and lavender, shows the two main characters looking at each other; Jane is on the subway, dressed in a black jacket, torn jeans, a white t-shirt and orange sneakers; August is walking alongside the subway station, wearing a white t-shirt and black jumper and boots, carrying a cup of takeaway coffee with a purse slung over her shoulder.
Book cover of One Last Stop.

by Ash B.

If you’re at all aware of contemporary LGBTQ romance fiction, then you’ve no doubt heard about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. I’ve honestly yet to read it, but I can confirm there is no sophomore slump for McQuiston with their second novel One Last Stop. 

One Last Stop follows August, a cynical 23-year-old college student, as she adjusts to life in New York – trying out yet another college in another city – complete with quirky roommates, a job at a pancake diner that she may or may not be qualified for, and a subway route that she happens to share with the most attractive girl she’s ever seen. The aforementioned “Subway Girl” goes by the name Jane, she is equal parts kind and fierce, and… well, her existence may defy reality as we know it. 

I leave this intentionally vague for a reason: I likely would have found the book even more enjoyable if I had no idea of the plot before I started reading, given that McQuiston spends quite some time building up the mystery of who – or what – Jane actually is. Therefore, I will refrain from going into detail about the book’s premise. Honestly, if this review piques your interest in the title, then I recommend that you simply dive into the book for yourself without reading the summary! 

However, I will divulge that, in my opinion, One Last Stop is an example of speculative fiction at its most accessible, and I absolutely loved it. In a recent interview, Casey McQuiston explains how they “have always loved that genre that’s sort of one step away from sci-fi, one step away from magic or fantasy. It’s a type of romcom that I think was really popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” referencing films such as 13 Going On 30 and Freaky Friday. These are not stories typically considered sci-fi or fantasy – at least, not in the same way as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – but they absolutely exist within the realm of speculative fiction, incorporating fantastical elements while allowing the author to set the story in an otherwise ‘normal’ contemporary world. The reader can take comfort in the familiarity of the overall setting but can be surprised, or at very least entertained, by the circumstances that arise from the speculative elements employed.  

Whereas these elements are often used for comedic potential in Hollywood movies, McQuiston is able to use them in a way that enriches One Last Stop with queer history and profound examinations about social differences between the past and present. And, of course, the situations created by the speculative elements are also well-suited for romantic tension and drama, which makes for a very engaging story.

I’ve found that a book is a particularly good read for me personally if it reminds me of other books I’ve loved, automatically encouraging my brain to go into “let’s compare these parallels!” mode while simultaneously being an enjoyable narrative on its own. One Last Stop is a perfect example of this! At the beginning, I found myself thinking of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, as both of these novels feature mystery-loving bisexual female protagonists in their early twenties, living in present-day NYC, that end up being caught in the middle of seemingly unreal circumstances. McQuiston’s lovable cast of characters, development of a queer found-family trope, and flirtation with the “star-crossed lovers” trope (but with a happy ending!) reminded me of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. And by the end, as hidden family histories and unexpected connections between characters are revealed, I excitedly reminisced about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Other than being some of my favorite reads in the past few years, I would not think to compare any of those three titles with each other… yet they fit perfectly in comparison to One Last Stop. 

In its best moments, One Last Stop is so tenderly written that it makes me yearn for a life in New York City – and that’s saying something, considering I’m a lifelong suburbanite who’s always been more drawn to the countryside than the city. McQuiston crafts likable characters who speak realistically about life in their city, honoring both the beauty and the struggles of the world which they inhabit. Not only that, but the city itself – and certain destinations within it, such as August’s apartment and the pancake diner where she works – feel like characters too. McQuiston writes them all with such care, I couldn’t help but feel connected to them, want to visit these places, want to be friends with these people and experience life alongside them. This makes for a wonderful book to escape into, and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good read about falling in love, finding one’s community, and growing into the best version of one’s self.

One Last Stop is available to request from HCLS in print as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.