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SFF novels often do double duty. Whether they transport the reader to epic fantasy lands or outer space or simply a magical New York, they are methods of escapism. They're also mirrors of our worlds, whether intentional or not.
Sometimes a zombie romp is a zombie romp. Other times it's more. Ravenous, murderous, contagious, hideous living dead can be a metaphor for everything, from racist masses to vacant corporate hordes. A magical circus can be the place where a girl discovers her own power. Teens awakening latent magical powers can free more than just the ability to control water and kill monsters. The beauty of SFF is the ability to explore human reality through the lens of the impossible.
This month's recs are the perfect example of SFF with vibrant worlds and extraordinary voices.
The Nightmare-Verse Series - L.L. McKinney (available now)
Curiouser and curiouser! If you haven’t started L.L. McKinney’s series, go and get A Blade So Black. Book One introduces us to Alice, a monster slayer from Atlanta. The premise is bonkers in the best way: what if Buffy had fallen down the rabbit hole to Wonderland instead? This iteration of Alice is Black, powerful, and somehow grounded until she graduated high school. Like any teen slayer, balancing the real world and the supernatural is dead difficult.
Alice's adventures slaying Nightmares continues in Book Two, A Dream So Dark, with a new Big Bad: a poet who can use the monstrous Nightmares to raise the dead and forces Alice to confront her biggest fears.
Dark and Deepest Red - Anna-Marie McLemore (available now)
Anna-Marie McLemore is known for their lyrical prose and adding a fairytale twist to the real world. McLemore also deftly explores gender and identity. The first time I heard the pitch for McLemore's latest I knew Dark and Deepest Red would be as strange as it is beautiful. Dancing shoes, forbidden magic, and a story told five centuries apart.
During the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg women danced until they died. Naturally, witches were suspected. This brought the townspeople to Lavinia who only tried to save the people she loved. Fast forward into the future, Rosella and Emil's lives become intertwined by the same pair of 500-year-old shoes. When those mysterious red shoes seal themselves to Rosella's feet, they lead her to Emil. His ancestors were the very witches accused of being responsible for the dancing fever. The two must figure out the truth of events past in order to secure their future, and so that Rosella doesn't dance herself to death.
Deathless Divide - Justina Ireland (available now)
There are some supernatural creatures that will always find new life, and the zombie is one of them. Justina Ireland’s duology kicked off in 2018 with Dread Nation. It poses the question: what if America's Civil War had been derailed by a zombie breakout? Years later, the nation has created combat schools for Black and Native girls. They're trained to kill "shamblers" but who protects them?
After the events of Book One, Jane McKeene is on the road with her uneasy ally, Katherine Deveraux. Jane and Katherine's friendship gets stronger (not romantic) as their journey progresses. This world is ruthless, and Jane spends so much of her time reevaluating everything she knew about surviving in 1880s America. But as she's surrounded by the dead, Jane needs someone to trust. This sequel is 2 Zombie 2 Furious and a must-read.
Queen of Coin and Whispers - Helen Corcoran (now available)
Inheriting a castle and the kingdom that goes with it sounds like a great deal. For new queen Lia, it's a lesson in survival. Her uncle's kingdom (which is now hers) is bankrupt. Neighboring rulers want to make a move and take the little power she has. Not to mention the ruthless court that she can't seem to navigate as a queen should. Lia knows that in order for her to stay ahead of the proverbial game, she needs to know secrets.
Enter Xania, who has two options: execution or become the idealistic queen's spymaster. With her new position, she'd be able to investigate her father's murder and avenge him.
Get ready for some F/F fantasy romance! In-between the royal suitors and covert intelligence meetings, Lia and Xania fall for each other. Lia can't afford to fall in love with her tenuous grip on the throne, but sometimes love is worth risking it all.
You Brought Me the Ocean - Alex Sanchez (now available)
Alex Sanchez has been writing about queer kids since his debut novel Rainbow Boys in 2001. When I saw he was writing a graphic novel for DC Comics, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. In You Brought Me the Ocean, Jake Hyde is a gay teen boy living in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (It's a real place. I checked.) Ever since his father drowned, Jake doesn't swim and generally avoids bodies of water. Living in the desert makes that easy — except he longs for the ocean and for his crush Kenny Liu. Kenny is the captain of the swim team, proudly out, and a splash of color in Jake's safe, ordinary life.
But Jake has never been ordinary. Jake discovers that the blue "birthmarks" on his body glow and allow him to control water. As Jake explores his crush and his new abilities, his life is about to become extraordinary.
The Circus Rose - Betsy Cornwell (June 16)
The Circus Rose by Betsy Cornwell is perfect for fans of Anna-Marie McLemore. A queer retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, this novel is about twin sisters who grow up in a traveling circus. Their mother is the ringmaster and they have a loyal bear who becomes their guardian. Despite being twins, Rosie and Ivory are polar opposites. They have two biological dads. Rosie has red hair and pale skin. Ivory has white curls and dark brown skin. Rosie is an acrobat who loves the limelight, while Ivory is a stagehand who observes the world.
After returning from a grand tour, Ivory has changed. Falling in love with the Circus Rose's fae magician makes her question everything she thought she knew about family, gender constructs, and who she is supposed to be. But Ivory isn't the only thing different in Port's End. Religious extremists threaten the circus and their very lives. On opening night, disaster befalls the circus and it's up to Ivory to save everyone she loves.