Solita by Viven Rainn
Solita by Viven Rainn was my most anticipated read of the year, and it did not disappoint. Sadie lives in her parents’ Hacienda Espinosa, alone with herself, her suffering, and her grief-soaked past…or so she thinks. When she unearths a demon cursed to sleep beneath the house, she begins a journey of embracing what she has tried so hard to ignore. But can she see past her grief enough to find a future free of all that entangles her?
I’m a huge sucker for gothic tales. Set in the Philippines, Solita delivers on all the haunting, atmospheric qualities you’d hope for in such a novel, and the author’s gift for creating feelings of dread, curiosity, grief, longing and desire in each scene blew me away. There’s plenty of steam without it falling into ‘adult’ territory if that isn’t your thing. I’ve never read a book featuring a demon as a love interest before, and I’ll admit, have always been skeptical of that kind of thing. As a presence, a representative figure, and the love interest, Silas ticks all the boxes for a fully-fledged character. And watching Sadie grow throughout the story had me cheering for her, a character I was completely invested in.
Another thing I adore about gothic novels is how they can use the external to illustrate the internal. Both the Hacienda and the demon, Silas, serve as contrast and mirror to Sadie’s tortured soul. A story about what we embrace in grief and how we can only move forward when we’ve plumbed the depths of our despair, Solita is a masterpiece of its genre. And it’s the first of a series, which is especially good news if you hardcore stan Sadie and Silas.
Spinning Hair Into Gold by Caitlin Keely Gemmell
Spinning Hair Into Gold by Caitlin Gemmell is one of my favorite-of-the-favorite reads this year. A delightful blend of poetry and short stories, this collection offers us glimpses of Oriana, spinner of fate, who dwells in a world of selkies, fairies, and magic. Oriana is a character from another project of the author’s who wouldn’t stop pestering her until she wrote about her. I’m so glad she did.
I can only describe her writing as comforting, enchanting, familiar yet wondrously new. It’s for lovers of fairy tales and myths, and feels both deeply personal and universal. As someone who isn’t a huge fan of the hardcore, assassin girl trope set in a world she alone can save (although who can say no to a sword-yielding woman?), I adored this book that felt like an exploration of fairyland, a journey through someone’s vivid inner landscape. Each word drops like a pearl of delight–exquisite, meant to be savored. The other characters we meet in the story are somehow both ephemeral and distinct, all of them connected by the same threads that run throughout the whole book.
Spinning Hair Into Gold is a book I look forward to revisiting time and time again.
Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix
Full of Regency era hijinks, complete with magic, disguises, adventure galore, and a little romance, Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix was a very fun, lighthearted read.
Lady Truthful goes to London to search for her family’s stolen emerald, which has magical powers. She must disguise herself as a distant cousin–who happens to be male and French–in order to do her own reconnaissance. Put in a strong-willed older aunt, a light case of enemies-to-lovers, political implications, and all the Regency details you’d hope for (a ball, naturally, is among them), and you’ve got a story that surprised me with a take-charge heroine and a happily ever after.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo
After reading Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, I was eager to read the next installment in the author’s series of interconnected novellas featuring the Cleric Chih.
Chih’s role is to record stories on their journey throughout Ahn, an empire full of Vietnamese-inspired myths and magic, beauty and danger. Readers can follow Chih’s adventures in any order that they like, and I found this story to be my favorite so far.
In this case, Chih is escorted by guard Si-Yu and her mammoth, Piluk, to their next stop when they are surrounded by a group of unusual tigers. An exchange of stories may be the only thing keeping Chih and Si-Yu alive, but will it be enough for their escape?
Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle celebrates queer love and Vietnamese heritage and imagination. So clever I laughed at times, every word intentional, When the Tiger Came Down from the Mountain explores meaning making, different perspectives, and what happens when these two things meet. The results aren’t neat and tidy, but they are wondrous, and that is perhaps the point.
Jane in Love by Rachel Givney
(Contains small spoilers!)
After failing to secure a marriage proposal, no longer a young girl, Jane Austen unexpectedly finds herself in the 21st century in search of love. And not just the 21st century: on the film set of Northanger Abbey, a book she hasn’t even dreamed of yet.
Enter Sofia Wentworth, an actress in the film who fears her career is over now that she’s no longer a twenty-five-year-old sex symbol, cast as the matronly secondary character rather than the young, lead role. Enter Fred, Sofia’s brother, a reluctant extra who finds himself drawn to Jane the moment they stumble into each other on the dance floor of a scene. Sofia takes Jane under her wing, convinced she’s part of some elaborate scheme, and helps her get familiar with their strange new world. Meanwhile Fred, whose house they’re staying in, ‘has the audacity to be handsome, clever, and kindhearted’. Jane begins to fall in love with him, but there is a cost to remaining in the modern world. Is she willing to pay it?
This book was delightful and heartbreaking. I loved the similar themes in Jane and Sofia’s lives as ‘aging’ women in an unforgiving world, and how it’s as much a story about them supporting each other and their friendship as it is a love story between Jane and Fred. There were a few times the story fell a little flat for me, but they were such small incidents that honestly it hardly lessened my enjoyment of it. My biggest beef came from the fact that the story painted Jane as someone who felt a bit dismayed by her own sharp tongue and sharp insights into human folly, when in fact that’s one thing I love most about her. But, creative license. I’m not the one here who read Jane Austen’s letters, so there very well may be more truth to that than I know.
(Spoiler) The cost: Jane discovers that her books, which she has yet to write in her time, begin disappearing in the 21st century the longer she stays in it. She loves Fred, yet it isn’t enough. She reflects on her mother’s life: how much Mrs. Austen loved to read and write, yet never had time for such pursuits. Writing is something that fuels Jane like nothing else, but try as she might, she can’t write in the present day. And she knows that, like her mother, a family might love her and provide companionship, but it would keep her from the very thing that makes her feel most alive. It made me feel grateful that I, a woman in the 21st century, have the means to choose both. (End spoiler)
For anyone familiar with Jane’s works, this is an imaginative romp full of familiar themes, humor, characters we’ll recognize, and a love story to swoon for. (Oh, and an adorable librarian. Seriously.) It made me appreciate the fact that books don’t have to be perfect: they just have to capture our hearts. That’s no small feat, and this one certainly captured mine.
The Beastly Bride edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
This book is just what it looks like: an anthology of stories and poems around the theme of animal people by a variety of authors. I love anthologies. They’re a treasury of diverse stories, each one different in style and subject matter. I never love every single story, but I find some of my favorites in each one and discover a few new authors whose work I want to further explore.
For this collection edited by the inimitable Datlow and Windling, I’m simply going to share a few of my favorites.
PISHAACH by Shweta Naryan: a girl who doesn’t fit in with her family recalls the tales her beloved Grandmother taught her before disappearing. When she discovers she has an affinity for playing a certain flute, she discovers something more: her grandmother’s stories are true and full of more than she imagined. As her family makes life increasingly difficult for her failure to speak and her thriving musical abilities, can she find her place in another world?
Rosina by Nan Fry: a young woman betrothed to a prince is cursed and transforms into a snake. No wedding, then. After wandering the earth alone and in her strange new body, Rosina finally regains her human form. But does she want to reclaim the future stolen from her now that she’s experienced something different?
Coyote and Valorosa by Terra L. Gearhart-Serna: I was already halfway through this light-hearted, witty story when I realized it had 1)a father who makes a promise regarding his daughter 2)a creature who demands this promise 3) roses, and 4) a spirited girl at the center of it, who takes matters into her own hands. This is one of my favorite fairy tales retold, and I loved it.