Paul Park's The Hidden World ends one of the best fantasy series of recent years. In A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline and The White Tyger, our world is a story used to explore political, philosophical, psychological and economic theories. Miranda Popescu and two guardians were magically transported into this theoretical experiment to protect her from a revolution in the "real" Roumania. Once returned to Roumania, Miranda and her guardians, Andromeda and Peter, struggle to integrate their Roumanian memories with those of being teenagers in Massachusetts. Miranda finds she is a princess in her mid-20s and is expected to free Roumania from German rule. Andromeda was a girl in Massachusetts and now feels like the male soldier she once was but physically she changes between being a woman and a dog. Peter, once the Chevalier de Graz, leaves Miranda in case he is recognized and puts her in danger. In the meantime Roumania is ruled by the Baroness Ceausescu who is balancing the country between the behemoths of Russia and Germany. The Baroness, a miner's daughter who holds the country in thrall with her acting skills, is a fascinating character with a burning intensity revealed by her selfish and chaotic actions. She covets the bracelet that marks Miranda as the legendary white tyger who will set Roumania free. Throughout this series, where death is a journey from one world to another, the Baroness is a worthy and sometimes terrifying opponent. Park's tremendously rich novel explores what happens when destiny comes up against free will. The Hidden World will resonate with readers long after it has been read.
IN SEARCH OF MONSTERS
The Last Wish is the basis of the videogame "The Witcher" and the first of Andrzej Sapkowski's hugely popular novels to be translated into English (by Danusia Stok) from Polish. Geralt de Rivia is a witcher, trained from birth to hunt down evil beasts and spirits. But The Last Wish is more than just a record of hunts and kills. Despite being removed from his family as a child, Geralt is a smart and empathic hunter who modifies his code of duty to suit the occasion. When he comes across a man who has fallen in love with a monster, for example, killing the monster is not necessarily his first act. The Last Wish is constructed as series of short stories that together make an old-fashioned and very enjoyable novel. The first episode is one of the best. Geralt is asked to kill a murderous striga, a monster so ugly one of the midwives "jumped from the tower window to her death" rather than face it. The striga is the daughter of the local king who has offered money (and, it's rumored, his daughter's hand) to whoever returns her to human form. Setting the tone for the rest of the book, Geralt carefully makes his way through this nest of difficulties without stepping on too many toes. The central European landscapes and politics will be happy hunting grounds to fans of Steven Erickson's Mazalan series and the novel openly and happily owes much to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser sword and sorcery stories.
THE DARKEST HOURS
Ellen Datlow has long been a force to be reckoned with in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Now, with The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Sixteen Original Works by Speculative Fiction's Finest Voices, she has published a book that will lure casual readers into finding out more about writers such as Margo Lanagan, Nathan Ballingrud and Laird Barron. Some of the contributors are well known (Jeffrey Ford, Maureen F. McHugh), some of them are newer (Christopher Rowe, Anna Tambour), but all enjoy exploring the weirder aspects of life. Datlow tends toward darker stories (she edits the horror half of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, of which, full disclosure, I co-edit the fantasy half), so there are stories here that will have readers checking that their doors and windows are locked. Lanagan's retelling of Hansel and Gretel, "Goosle," reminds readers that fairy tales are definitely not all for children, and Barron's "The Lagerstette," where a young widow is tempted to join her late husband, is a horrifying page-turner. The first story, Jason Stoddard's alternate historical "The Elephant Ironclads," is especially memorable. Traditional virtues clash with cold war politics when two Navajo boys are caught up in an attempt to acquire the nuclear bomb for their nation. This book will stand out among the year's extraordinarily rich field of anthologies.