This month’s selections feature characters not often found in the pages of fantasy or science fiction: morally uncertain kings and heroes of unusual religions and ethnicities.

How do you write an original fantasy novel about kings and orphans, knights and witches? If you are Liane Merciel, for starters you make the king a morally conflicted, fratricidal usurper and the orphan a sickly infant. The River Kings’ Road seamlessly weaves together a story of two kingdoms always on the brink of war, seen through the eyes and actions of Brys Tarnell, a dubious mercenary, and Odosse, a new mother. Odosse tries to save the heir to the kingdom after Leferic, the king’s brother, makes an unholy alliance with a monstrous witch to have his brother murdered. Leferic is a bookish, not bloodthirsty, monarch who believes that his actions, however immoral, are necessary to preserve the realm. When the witch reveals her true colors, it is only the blessed knight Sir Kellan who possesses the ability to defeat her. But Kellan’s might and magic depend on devoting himself wholly to his goddess—body and soul—and his faith is tested by his desires for his friend and companion Bitharn. While this is surely only the first in a series, it is a remarkable book that condenses well-defined characters, a complex world and lessons in ethics into so few pages.

Stories from a fantasy legend
Peter S. Beagle’s short fiction, collected in Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle, is a lesson in how to tell timeless stories with heart, wit and grace. It begins with a superb and superbly moving story of unrequited love, “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros,” and ends with the “The Rabbis’ Hobby,” in which an old rabbi and a boy on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah will discover that death cannot end a father’s love. In between are wonderful stories, including one featuring a dybbuk disguised as an angel and the painter it seeks, whose first words to it are, “I can’t see my model. If you wouldn’t mind moving just a bit?” Another brings together two soldiers on the opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, the ghost of a woman and her son, and explores the possibility of redemption. A third features two brothers whose unique abilities to unmake history explain the contradictions in the Bible. There are 13 more heart-rending stories of redemption, many featuring unashamedly Jewish heroes—a group that receives short shrift in too many fantasy novels. These are stories to soften the hearts of even the most jaded reader.

Fantasy pick of the month
Many books are good, some are great, but few are truly important. Add to this last category The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel. The first in a trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms features Yeine Darr, whose mother had abandoned her life of privilege to live in her lover’s barbarian tribe and raise their daughter. When her mother dies, Yeine is called to return to Sky, the royal palace and home of the world’s rulers, the Arameri, to compete with a brother and sister for the chance to rule her native kingdoms. She does not expect to win, but does expect to solve the mystery of her mother’s death before she gets herself killed. The Arameri have enslaved the two remaining gods, Bright Itempas and the Nightlord, two of the three world-creating deities, and their various children, and they use them to control the kingdoms. Wonderfully filled with family secrets, brutal betrayals, a remarkable romance and the mystery of a mother’s love, the book rises above others of its type not only by creating a complex world and mythology, but by populating the former with characters of many different skin colors. In this reviewer’s opinion, this is the must-read fantasy of the year.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

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