Library Journal: In her first novel, Hall surprises and perplexes with spellbinding yet simple dialogs that raise more questions than they give answers. The mysterious, dark, and often violent worlds envelop readers in a cacophony of mystery and fantasy. Even the identity of the female lead is foggy as her form shifts over time, taking possession of new bodies. As the title reveals, someone protects the border, and from the first few chapters we glimpse demons reminiscent of Haitian worshippers possessed by Gede, the spirit of the dead. Shapeshifting and underworld realms take center stage. The characters eventually grow, becoming stronger as plots progress, expressing extreme power and weakness. Life and death feel mutable in the imaginary arena of Mkalis. Points of contact are elaborately visualized, boundaries normally fixed dissolve within the pages, terrifying and wild apparitions manifest and recede just as quickly as they appear, resulting in wonder. VERDICT For fans of occult-tinged speculative fiction.
Washington Post: Popular girl Cameron prioritizes honesty over kindness, which earns her a certain reputation. To win back the approval of her crush, she embarks on an apology tour to repair the havoc she has carelessly wreaked. The authors use “The Taming of the Shrew” as an effective framing device to examine modern ideas of feminism, which leads to a profound character arc and the essential message of how to claim your mistakes and do better.
Library Journal: The Unwritten Wing in Hell is home to all stories unfinished by their authors. Claire is the head librarian. Sometimes she must chase down and return characters who have escaped from their pages. When one such hero heads to Earth to find his author, Claire, her current assistant and former muse Brevity, and the demon Leto try to capture him. The trio are attacked by the angel Ramiel, who thinks they are looking for the same tome he is: the Devil’s Bible. Deliberately lost on Earth for centuries, the Devil’s Bible could put the power of either heaven or hell in control. Claire and her companions must find it before the two realms decide to declare war over the missing book, which could destroy Earth in the process. The group journeys through realms of the dead and discovers the secrets and truths of all involved as they work to save everyone’s stories.
VERDICT Elaborate worldbuilding, poignant and smart characters, and a layered plot make this first in a fantasy series from Hackwith (also writing as sf romance author Ada Harper) is an ode to books, writing, and found families.
The Guardian: There are no everyday elements to Kerstin Hall’s debut novella The Border Keeper. It begins on the outskirts of the spirit world, before moving to the weird realm of the underworld, Mkalis, where demon beasts and macabre gods are in constant battle. The grieving Vasethe has come to petition the eponymous border keeper: he wants her to guide him through Mkalis in search of his dead lover’s soul. What follows is a phantasmagorical picaresque through a lushly realised underworld, populated by a grotesque bestiary of fantastical creatures, with danger dogging our protagonists’ every step. This twisty example of the new weird genre examines love, loss and loyalty, packing skilful world-building and a powerful emotional punch into a little over 200 pages.
Library Journal: Gideon Nav wants to escape servitude in the Ninth House. Armed with only her sword, her wit, and a bunch of dirty magazines, she is ready to leave behind the catacombs, the nuns, the dead, and especially necromancer Lady Harrowhawk, bane of her existence. However, Harrow calls on Gideon for a quest she cannot get out of: the emperor demands that the houses bring their firstborn necromancers, along with their cavaliers, to ascend to the position of Lyctor and serve him. Harrow does not have a cavalier; she has Gideon. Forced to the First House where the other House heirs and cavaliers arrive, Gideon and Harrow are thrust into a battle of politics, House secrets, and murder, while dealing with their own relationship, which is as sharp as a rapier blade.
VERDICT At once sarcastic, sincere, heart-wrenching, and honest pulpy enjoyment, filled with dark magic, swordplay, and lesbian necromancers, Muir’s debut is a fantastic sf/fantasy blend. Readers will discuss this journey for a long time and be clamoring for the next installment.
Tor.com: As noted in discussion of the first book in the series, the Lotus Kingdoms trilogy is one large arc spread over three separate novels, which I particularly appreciate in a second-world setting as grand in scope as that of the Eternal Sky. Released from the constraint of wedging in a stand-alone plot for each novel, Bear devotes all of her considerable craft to weaving one dense, affectively powerful story. The result is well worth the gamble. In fact, I’d argue that the tension ratcheting up toward the conclusion of the overarching plot makes this one of the most gripping middle novels I’ve read in a long time.
Truly, as a whole, The Red-Stained Wings is exactly the sort of fare I expect from Bear at top form: a tight, engaging, richly-described novel that maneuvers with precision through a broad cast of characters spread over an even broader field of action, rife with mythos and intrigue. And it’s got a bit of humor to it, too. While it’s impossible to sketch out the twists and complexities of the developing plot in this space, suffice to say that it’s executed with skill from first page to last.
As with the first book, the part-two-of-three structure of The Red-Stained Wings leaves me grasping for more story at the last page. Bear’s pacing and plotting are superb; the characters are engaging, witty, flawed. It’s impossible not to feel drawn along with the tight flow of the narrative from one person to the next or one immense vista to another, such as the dragon’s dead city or the volcano-and-sorcery ravaged Ansh-Sahal. Grandiose second-world fantasies in this vein are rarely done so well and so accessibly. I’d recommend reading The Stone in the Skull and The Red-Stained Wings one after another for the greatest possible effect—and I’ll probably reread them again before the last book, too, to gulp it down as one big, breathtaking tale.
Shelf Awareness: Hutchinson’s gift for language makes this uncomfortable story beautiful and forceful. Courageous and commanding, Brave Face is a bold, banner announcement that there is a future for everyone.
Thirteen-year-old Min has a powerful secret: she’s a gumiho, a fox spirit disguised as a human, who can shape-shift and alter others’ perceptions. She enthusiastically wields these powers when she ditches her “dismal life” on the barren planet Jinju to track down her brother Jun, who’s gone AWOL. Lee’s richly detailed, cohesive, original vision is a lively mash-up of outer-space sci-fi and Korean culture and folklore.
Bookpage: Hutchinson pours his soul onto the pages.
B&N SFF: The sequel to The Stone in the Skull, set in Bear’s Eternal Sky universe, continues the story of the Lotus Kingdoms, remnants of the Alchemical Empire on a world where the nighttime sun offers heat but no light, and the daytime is lit up by millions of stars. As the kingdoms descend into bloody conflict, the Gage, an enormous brass automaton, travels into a blasted desert in pursuit of the mystery of the Stone in the Skull, while Anuraja, having captured princess Sayeh of Ansh-Sahal, marches on the city of Sarathai-tia, held by Sayeh’s cousin Mrithuri. Mrithuri counts on the rain-swollen river to protect the city—but when the rains inexplicably fail, Mrithuri finds herself hunting a traitor in her own ranks. Elizabeth Bear writes epic fantasy like no one else; her stories are as emotionally textured as their worldbuilding is ornate, and her prose borders on the poetic. Between this book and her mind-expanding space opera Ancestral Night, she’s having a hell of a 2019.