A twinkling deep in the desert brought me to a choice. One that appeared as one light from a distance, but separated into three as I drew near. Beneath the star-splashed night sky, a lone figure stood. Cloaked in black. A bird’s face for a mask. Bone, etched with secrets and mystery.
A trio of candles sputtered upon an iron candelabra. The figure held the candles out toward me.
From beneath the mask, a deep voice reverberated with the tones of the desert. “You may choose, Wanderer.”
“What are the choices?” I asked.
“Blow out the candle that burns with your name, your path, or your past.”
All things I wanted. I considered the candles before me, but none of them showed their secrets. Closing my eyes, I hovered my palms over them, feeling for cold spots. Listening with my other senses. Nothing came to me.
The barest whisper. Replace me, replace me, replace me… Coming from inside the mask or… from the mask itself. Along with the scent of decay.
When I glanced back up at the figure’s face, the eye sockets of the mask wept tears of blood down the beak. One or two sizzled where they dripped onto hot wax.
In one huge breath, I blew out all three.
The desert grinned sideways at me.
From the darkness, the figure’s deep voice came. Distraught. Reproving. “That’s cheating.”
A bright flash of orange sparks and blue smoke illuminated the figure for a second. The mask had morphed into the rotting skull of a long-dead bird. The beak clacked once at me and then the figure vanished.
These desert haunts were canny foes. Annoyed at myself for falling for the usual tricks, I scuffed my toe in the sand. “Well, I think I won in the end.”
From my angle, arms wrapped around several tree trunks as if holding on for dear life. Just arms, it seemed. Their bodies
I stood in the middle of a forest wrapped in arms, hyperventilating. Because I could feel a pull, a tug, a call to join. And when I walked around to the other side of the first tree, I found a person… hugging it.
Only. Tree bark overlapped the man’s outline. He had his face pressed so deep into the tree that the bark had conformed to him. Or he to the bark. His hands held on tight, with a white-knuckled desperation.
The other hugged trees had more people pressed against them. As if they had all wandered in from the same direction and just pushed themselves into the side of a tree. Every one of them breathed, but I could not guess at how.
Tugging the shoulder of one woman, I managed to pry her grip from her tree. She pulled away with a sucking pop, her whole front peeling out of an impression the shape of her body.
When she turned to me, she had no face. Just the pattern of wood grain dug into her skin. I stumbled back, but she made no moves to attack or leave. Just stood there. Lost.
I had pulled several others from their trees before I noticed the first few had quietly pressed themselves back into place in their indentations. I watched, helpless, as the rest followed suit, one by one.
I could not save them.
All this time I had avoided looking at one particular tree. This one empty of a hugger. I longed to wrap my arms around its trunk and remain here forever. So instead of rescuing everyone, I saved myself and walked away.
On the outskirts of a forgotten town, I found a person with a white sheet draped over them.
The sheet covered their entire body. They stood in front of a burnt out building on the side of a gravel drive. Just stood there. All day. No one else came or went. And I sat on a stone wall on the other side of the drive, watching. Waiting to see what they would do.
But in the end, as twilight began to creep up from the horizon, I gave in first.
Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, echoing loud off the nearby building. I approached the seeming specter at an angle, going slow, as if to avoid startling a wild creature. The enshrouded person did not move away.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing out here? Are you okay?”
As if to face me, the head turned, tracking me. They made no reply.
I crouched down in front of the person. Even this close, they smelled like nothing more than laundry detergent. “I won’t hurt you,” I said. “I’m just going to check.” Hand shaking, I took the rough hem of the sheet and lifted, peering beneath to see the person’s face.
No one was inside.
Within the human-shaped space underneath, reddish evening sunlight filtered through the cloth on the other side of where the head should have been.
I dropped the hem and backed away, breathing hard.
A muffled voice said, “No one sees me without this on. You were watching, so I stayed.”
Then the sheet made all the motions of someone opening it up. Invisible arms pushed the cloth off and it fell into a heap at my feet.
“Where…” I turned all the way around, but I was alone with the pile of cloth, “…did you go?”
A sense of familiarity closed around my shoulders as I crept through the crumbling ruins of a massive apartment complex. By the several levels towering above me high enough to almost block out the sun and the many rotted out doorways peering down at me, this place had once housed hundreds of people. Now moss clustered on walls and balconies. Debris littered the courtyard floor. Empty storefronts gaped from recesses in the ground level walls like mouths open in surprise that an intruder would set foot in this forgotten place.
In lieu of the collapsed elevators, a massive stairwell at the end of the courtyard circled up and up. But it also led downward. This I followed into a cool underground level, where sunlight never touched. Water dripped somewhere in the distance; moss fuzzed the walls, soft and deep beneath my fingertips as I trailed my hand along the sides. I could see nothing at all.
Yet around a bend, a faint electric buzz started with the sight of a blue-green glow. I stepped through a pair of double doors. Or rather, over them, as both had fallen off their hinges long ago. The sign above the doorway read: Information Technology.
The glow now permeated the room, coming from a moss-covered terminal at the far end. Hologram ports lined the walls, in various stages of takeover by moss and deterioration. But above the active terminal, a shimmering ball of blue quicksilver rippled in on itself, as if lost in contemplation.
When I stopped in front of the holograph, eyes squinted against the brightness, the quicksilver resolved itself into the idea of a face.
“Ah, Wanderer.” Though the AI spoke in a sophisticated accent, the tones kept glitching out, like a bad connection. “You have changed so much, I did not recognize you at first. Less fiery, more subdued.” A plonk issued from beneath the terminal, followed by a hiss as a small cover slid open. “I assume you are here for this.”
From the little cavity behind the cover, I drew forth a slim glass tube, capped at both ends. A little pile of stardust glowed within. Just like all the other caches of stardust I had found, this one’s glow seemed to lead off in a certain direction, pointing more upward than any way else.
I rolled the slender tube between my fingers, watching the way the dust slithered over itself. “Every time I find one of these…” I started. But I couldn’t quite finish the thought out loud. A nagging suspicion. That tug of familiarity with every place where I discovered more stardust. I could not help but wonder… “Who… who gave this to you?”
The AI remained silent. For several moments, I felt studied. “You did,” it said at last. “Centuries ago.”
Thank you for reading the 100th Hopeful Wanderer tale.
Blood, slick and swift, dribbled like drops of rain from the needle tips of a tall, old pine. Red gathered around the base of the trunk, staining scrub, dirt, and stones alike. Lessening along the height of the pine, but climbing ever upward, spreading down limb and bough. A bloodred pool glistened at the tree’s roots, the stink of copper choking the air. I tasted pennies on the back of my tongue.
My boots squelched as I approached the bloody pine, liquid red filling the indents of my tracks. As I drew near, my skin stretched across my bones, losing moisture at once. Beads of sweat dripping from my brow took on a pink hue, mingling with the red at my feet as they fell.
Joints aching, I knelt among the tree’s roots. Clusters of low twigs reached toward me, grasping, ready to hold me here forever.
I withdrew a pocket knife. The blade gleamed, reflecting bloody silver. “You cannot have me,” I whispered through cracking lips.
Upon each exposed root, I carved a different sigil, all for loosening, for shaking, for falling. Blood welled up from each cut, flowing over my fingertips. Sticky. The pine above groaned and shivered with every slice biting into bark.
At last, I stood back, breathing hard, vision blurry. “May the earth rise against,” I gasped.
A rumble started beneath my feet, sending ripples dancing over the bloody pool. Rocks clattered. I stumbled and fell. A crack split the air, followed by a crash as the pine toppled over, its longest branches just brushing my sleeve. Like the fingertips of a betrayed lover.
When I looked, a network of roots lay exposed to the air, dripping blood slowing. Dirt and rocks clogged the pool of blood, clotted like a scab over an old wound.
Craggy rocks nipped at the soles of my feet as I clambered from a sparkling sea. Close to shore, blue light limned the water around every stone, brightening and dimming with the ebb and flow of the waves. Blue clung to my skin, outlining my toes, creeping up my legs. Growing heavier and heavier. Should the blue weight drag me down, I would drown in water no deeper than my waist. I pushed forward, avoiding the sandy bottom lest my heavy steps pushed so deep that I could not escape.
As I pulled myself out of the water onto a stony outcrop, a large shape moved in the dark. Just visible in the bioluminescent glow. A humanoid creature crouched in the shallows between me and safety. Blue light played across smooth, sharklike skin, revealing a long muzzle and a golden eye staring at me. The mouth parted to reveal rows of razor teeth.
The creature came nosing toward me. I froze, unable to step off the stone, heavy enough now that the blue would pull me under. My knees buckled under the added weight and I sank into a sit.
Blue glowed from within the creature’s gullet as it opened its mouth wide. Webbed hands groped at my safe rock and I scrabbled back as far as I could go. A long tongue slithered out and scooped up the blue sparkles clinging to the hem of my pants.
At once my leg felt lighter.
The glow outlining me dimmed as the creature cleared away every last glimmer. When I could stand, I did so slowly. Eyeing my retreat to the shore, the creature backed away to crouch in the shallows. With a snap, it resumed its meal of the blue glow, spreading darkness ever outward around it once more.
Twilight lit up with colorful sparkles carpeting the ground around the silhouette of a nearby tree. Colors clustered together like starbursts, clumps of sapphire and aqua scattered around those of tangerine and ruby, alongside honey and violet drops. Where I stood at the limit of their glow, these small orbs twinkled up at me from the ground at my feet, illuminating dead and dying grass all around. I had not noticed in the dark.
Not too far away, the shadow of a person stood up from a crouch, holding an electric cord that led away into the lights. This they dropped on the ground with a faint thump. Rainbow light touched their legs but not their face, making them impossible to make out. I wondered if I looked the same to them.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Turning to me, the person’s bearing shifted to something like a smile. “A garden,” they said, looking over to view their work.
“Don’t you think flowers would be more useful?” I said. “Lights don’t make oxygen or cleanse carbon monoxide from the air.”
“True,” they said. Their voice dropped a key to sadness. “But it’s too late for conservation efforts in this place. Flowers no longer grow here.”
That sadness crept down my spine and lodged at the base. Remembering the deadened grass, I surveyed the area. By the fading sunlight, I noted lots of dwellings, plentiful sidewalks, few trees. Almost no patches of earth where grass could grow. I wondered what had poisoned this ground so that flowers could not bloom here anymore.
“Besides,” the stranger added, “you can’t see flowers at night. Not like this.” A hitch crept into their voice, as if they fought back tears. “So this is alright. Yeah, it’ll have to do.”
The white glow of a small ornate lantern pushed back the darkness surrounding us like a tiny star. My guide crouched on a rock beside a still pool, holding a common stick with the ring of the lantern hooked on the end. Below, the reflection of the light glowed just as bright, a twin star. But neither my guide’s nor my reflection appeared in the water.
Covering the bottom of the pool, thousands of copper coins of all shapes and sizes glinted like dull eyes staring back at us. Waiting on our move.
Before we could cross the river, my guide had insisted we visit this place to gain passage. I eyed the slow, lazy river passing us by, wondering what danger could lurk within such a quiet channel.
“Can I take one?” I asked him.
“You can try.”
I slid my hand beneath the cool water, cooler than I expected. My fingertips brushed against flat coins, sensing their round edges, bumping along embossed words and images. Coins from all over the world. Meaningless currencies, some no longer even in existence.
At random, I selected an old coin, one enduring a slow takeover of blue-green malachite. This one, I figured, would see me across to safety.
The moment I drew the coin from the water, my mouth flooded with the taste of copper. Surprised, I dropped the coin back into the still water with a minute plunk. Working my mouth, I spat out a glob of blood. It, too, hit the water. I watched as the glob sank.
By the time it came to rest among the piles of treasures, my blood had itself changed into a copper coin. Shiny, new, winking at me in the lantern light.
My guide nodded once. “The river accepts you. Now you may cross.”
You know readers. We can never pick just one favorite book. For my part, I can’t even pick my favorite series. So many amazing books await out in the world, more than I could ever read before I die. To keep this post short, I had to narrow down the parameters to my top ten favorite books written by or about women.
While I spend my life trying to read the most moving, the most truthful, and the most meaningful novels out there, a few have drawn me back into their welcoming pages over and over. I have reread every one of the books below and keep most of them on my (limited) bookshelves. (Only Sabriel still lives at my local library, but I will own a copy someday.)
Nothing makes me happy quite like when I meet someone who has read one of these, or who decides to read them at my suggestion. Please check them out. They’re arranged in no particular order. If you’ve read any of these, I would love to hear what you thought!
Though I loved The Raven Boys, the first installment in the Raven Cycle, I fell deeply into Stiefvater’s writing in The Dream Thieves, which released just after I finished the first book. Imagine characters you know so well as to be your friends. Imagine they stumbled upon magic, the dangerous kind, and upon each other, dangerous people. Want so big and impossible as to swallow up existence. All set against the backdrop of Virginia’s mysterious Shenandoah Valley.
Her writing hooks itself like thorny vines into my veins. The narrative driven by these characters makes me breathless for flashed smiles, daring choices, and the strength of unbreakable friendship.
Oh, look. Another book by Maggie Stiefvater. (Spoiler alert: there is not a single one of her stories I have not enjoyed.)
I first bought The Scorpio Races for my mom’s birthday, even though I had never read it. While sitting within the massive shadow of a Gander Mountain sign, hoping to sell a litter of puppies to passersby, I read the first several chapters aloud to my mom.
I may or may not have later asked several times if she was done with the book yet so I could read it.
Every year in October or November, I reread The Scorpio Races. Nothing else I have read evokes the magic of fall and deadly horses the way this book does.
I’m not even sure how I wound up reading Six of Crows. My friend had convinced me to read Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, the Grisha Trilogy. I recall standing in a Barnes & Noble with her as she gushed over the book’s beautiful, black-edged pages. Maybe she handed it to me one day in that Read this! way some readers will do.
I had never loved heist stories before reading Six of Crows. As a fantasy heist, The Lies of Lock Lamora could not begin to compare to Six of Crows and its sequel for sheer brilliance of maneuvering, tactics, risk, and stakes. And beyond that, each and every character breathes with life, cleverness, and desperation for a better life.
In Tamora Pierce’s lengthy, multi-installment series about the country of Tortall, the Trickster’s Choice duology comes at the very last. I own every one of her books, but for me, none compare to this one.
Two words: fantasy spies. The daughter of a rogue and a knight who becomes embroiled in the espionage of a foreign country as she works to prove herself a capable spymaster. She’s fun-loving and sly, surrounded by clever and brave characters who grow dangerous enough to stage a coup.
I have ever loved the rogue and spy tropes. Perhaps this book is why.
You want a fantasy, underground (literally) reimagining of World War II and the Holocaust, mixed with giant flying bats, kickass princesses, and prophecies? The Underland Chronicles have exactly that and more. I love this entire series, more even than Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. But the fifth and last grips me the most.
Lines have been drawn, alliances made and severed. The main character has experienced loss, betrayal, and growth as a young man and warrior into a deadly fighting machine. Gregor and the Code of Claw puts Gregor through the wringer of all-out war. I love tracing his journey to this point, from kid to adventurer to soldier, training to become deadly enough to protect the mysterious world he loves.
Anxious? Just want to be left alone to do your thing? Have only a specialized skill set at which you are very, very good? Don’t know what you want out of life? Sarcastic and cynical?
If so, you will love Murderbot. I identify so hard with the protagonist of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a SecUnit designed for security and nothing else, that hacked its own governor module in order to… keep pretending to work just so it could watch media serials. Where ‘pretend’ means do a top notch job while worrying about the quality of the work performed. Y’know, like we all do.
Eight chapters of thrilling action, touching moments, wonderful characters, and seething intrapersonal conflict makes up this first installment in a quartet of novellas, all set within a seamless science fiction interstellar society.
Whenever I talk about good books about necromancy, I always laud Sabrielby Garth Nix as the best. Beyond a wonderful story about a strong and thoughtful young woman adventuring in a land full of monsters and finding a boy to love and protect along the way, the narrative covers all the delectable little necromancy things I love. From a representation of the River Styx to the death knell of a bandolier of small bells to a lineage of necromancers who, instead of raising the dead, send them back down the river where they belong.
This story brought me in to the presentation of trained wizards living in a modern age (that being a World War I era fantasy world), mixing ancient magic and rune-inscribed swords with modern inventions like firearms and flying machines. I practically vibrated with happiness through the whole read and couldn’t get enough of some of the beautiful and haunting diction. In my opinion, Sabrielis the best necromancy story.
I have spent many a moment admiring the cover art of Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman. In this sequel to Eon, in which Eona pretended to be a boy in a desperate bid for power and status, Eona must now face her identity as a woman. I loved following her struggle to grasp for power in a man’s world by attempting to erase herself, only to discover that doing so lost her the most important aspect of her life, her connection to the queen of the dragons that controlled the land.
This story inspired me so much when Eona discovered she could find strength in her truth instead of viewing womanhood as weakness. The journey across two books to find her way is filled with splendid characters, a variety of perspectives, and incredible power plays and counter plays, all set against the beautiful backdrop of fantasy China.
Remember from before when I mentioned I love rogues? And tough women? Foundrysideby Robert Jackson Bennett has both, as well as playful, fun banter, deadly peril, clandestine operations, and underdog struggles to save everyone in the awful city of Tevanne from several individuals, each with ambitions to be become a god.
I love how the unfolding of the narrative brings the four main characters together: a rogue, a paladin, and two artificers, to use some tropey language. Oh, and a talking key. Though the characters all begin at odds with each other, they soon find that their goals align as they uncover secrets about the magical method of scriving, secrets that upend everything they know about their world.
Also, there’s a fabulous LGBTQIA+ element, but I won’t spoil. Wink.
In The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, Myfanwy wakes up in a park with amnesia, surrounded by dead bodies. The rest of the story follows her discovery that she, pre-amnesia, knew this would happen and left clues and helpful notes to herself to be able to resume her life and find out who would do this to her.
As an office worker firmly planted in the corporate world myself, I appreciate the descriptions of Myfanwy’s experience starting over with a blank slate to discover the person she always could have been as she navigates her high stakes job and office politics. The office life interwoven with supernatural bureaucracy cracks me up. The intricate mystery of finding herself and uncovering her attempted murderer keeps me turning the pages on every read.
If you’ve read any of these novels, I would love to hear what you thought!If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?!
In Shorefallby Robert Jackson Bennett, three years have passed since the events of Foundryside, the first installment in the Founders series. Long enough for Sancia Grado and the allies she made in Foundrysideto plan and begin to execute a magical-industrial revolution, one that will make scriving, the sacred and secret art of bending reality to one’s will, accessible to all. But on the cusp of the realization of this dream, Sancia and company learn of a deadly enemy being brought back to life. So they set out to defeat him before he has a chance to manifest back into their reality. Sancia, alongside Berenice, Orso, and Gregor, must struggle against this new threat that dwarfs all of them apart, but they may stand a chance together. If only they could rise above their personal traumas still not settled from their last adventures in Tevanne.
Much as in Foundryside, the narrative of Shorefallbroadens the characters’ and readers’ understanding of scriving, the medium for magic in this world. In addition, building on the resourcefulness of the main characters evidenced in the previous book, our heroes find themselves thrown against a force of evil both convincing and powerful, forced to pit their shared skills and love for one another against more of an enemy than they can handle as they are attacked both in body and in conviction as to what makes right and wrong. The villain, having lived for thousands of years, has concluded that no matter the effort put into freeing humans from slavery, they always choose to use their resources to enslave others in an endless, vicious cycle. The more he talks about this idea, the more he shakes the altruistic conviction of the Foundryside bunch, because does not history already prove his claims true? The villain’s effect on beloved, despicable Tevanne turns the characters’ world upside down as he grabs for power through human sacrifices. By the end, nothing they knew is the same.
Yet an idea introduced in Foundryside, known as twinning, reaches new heights through the dubious help of a diminished golden god, the villain’s former helper. As the Foundrysiders begin twinning themselves to each other to share experiences, they find this powerful form of walking in each others’ shoes allows them to forgive, understand, and know each other the way they forgive, understand, and know themselves. Though they already loved each other before, their love deepens with every new addition to their twinned experience. Sancia and the rest hope that such an experience could break the cycle of human enslavement if only everyone could experience through the application of this technique the lows and highs of everyone else.
The narrative seeks to interrogate the fruitlessness of altruism. Only a handful of days pass over the course of the entire story, with a majority of the plot zooming in on small moments to keep the revelations coming as the villain goes about his dirty work. While Foundrysidefunctioned the same way, I found in Shorefalla lack of the action and discovery prevalent in its predecessor. As well, this book went to some darker places, making the villain someone truly horrifying as bodies began piling up in gruesome detail. But I think those who tend to grapple with this kind of thinking may benefit from this stark look at such difficult questions, as well as the answer.
While Shorefallwas not the rip-roaring ride of the first installment, I enjoyed the deeper examination of the relationships cultivated between the main characters in the previous events. As well, I had not expected to confront such difficult questions as, how will humanity ever end its barbaric cruelty to other people? and how could the removal of free will or the deepening of empathy potentially be the solutions? I found myself facing my own conclusions about these thoughts and re-examining them as the story progressed. I would recommend this book to readers who like to read about the deep questions and who appreciate clever and fantastical representations of the answers to those questions.