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The Best Fantasy Books for the Waning Days of Summer

Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, recommends Mexican Gothic and more
Graphic: Elena Scotti (Author Photo: Alix E. Harrow)
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It’s the waning days of a deeply weird summer; for weeks, the vibes have vacillated wildly between glee and dread. Today’s guest for Jezebel’s summer books recommendation series has read the room to perfection.

Alix E. Harrow’s debut fantasy novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, garnered a whole raft of award nominations—the Hugo, the Nebula, the World Fantasy Award. It was also weirdly well-timed—a book about doors and traveling and magic and possibility released in fall 2019, just a few months before simply leaving the house became a very different proposition entirely. (It was one of my favorite books I read during summer 2020, a real balm during a time of dread.) Her forthcoming book, A Spindle Splintered, due out in October, is being billed as a feminist retelling of Sleeping Beauty, one that turns the original fairy tale inside out and complicates the original with the science-fictional concept of multiple universes and multiple princesses.

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Image: Tor Books

Harrow’s recommendations for Jezebel readers range widely across fantasy settings—offering a whole host of destinations to everybody who’s still not keen to get on a plane—but lean heavily on “haunted,” which, let’s face it, is the prevailing mood.

Alix E. Harrow’s Summer Reading Recs

She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan

If you’re a longtime fantasy reader, you’re probably familiar with the plucky-girl-disguises-herself-as-a-boy-to-become-a-knight/wizard/whatever trope. I, a plucky young girl, ate them with a spoon as a kid, and only realized much later how determinedly straight and cis they were. She Who Became the Sun is a lot of things—a fictionalized version of the Red Turban Rebellions, an epic c-drama-style tragedy—but it’s also a trans, queer subversion of a trope that desperately needed it.

Summer Sons, Lee Mandelo

Okay, so this one isn’t technically out until September 28th, but I promise it’s worth the wait. It’s the answer to that ancient and universal desire, which all of us have surely experienced: watching The Fast and the Furious franchise and wishing it were a gay southern gothic. Hot, haunted boys with fast cars making bad choices. You can’t lose.

Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri

But hey, it’s summer! Maybe you want a book that doesn’t have the word “tragic” or “haunted” in the description! I love everything Tasha Suri has written, but Empire of Sand is really the perfect balance of fantasy nostalgia (a secret magical birthright! An arranged marriage that might—gasp!—become a romance! There’s something fishy at the heart of this empire!) and expanding the boundaries of the genre (worldbuilding based in Mughal India! The complexities of consent and agency!). If you loved The Blue Sword, but not the cringey pseudo-colonial worldbuilding, this book is your solution.

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Everyone has already told you to read this, and they were right. It’s Crimson Peak in 1950s Mexico, with a weirder, darker, ickier reveal. Moreno-Garcia said in an interview that her books were aimed at “the classy but trashy reader” and friends, I’ve never felt more seen.

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, H.G. Parry

Look. I grew up on Matilda and Inkheart and The Book of Lost Things. I was simply not built to resist a book about the magic of books! This one follows a professor of 19th-century literature with the uncanny knack of pulling characters out of books. I could tell you about the sophisticated understanding of reading as an act of interpretive ownership, or the series of clever reveals, but what I really want to emphasize is the presence of five competing Mr. Darcy’s, one of whom bears a startling resemblance to Colin Firth.

A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark

Clark has been absolutely killing it with his short fiction for years, and this is his debut novel: a classic hard-boiled detective story except the detective is a woman in great suits with a hot assassin for a girlfriend and they’re on the djinn-filled streets of Cairo solving magical murders. That sounds fast and fun, and it is, but it’s also so filled with historical research you can practically smell the footnotes.

The Wolf and the Woodsman, Ava Reid

Sometimes, when it’s so hot the soles of your sandals get gummy on the pavement, the only thing you can do is read about winter. The Wolf and the Woodsman is a dark romantic fantasy inspired by Jewish and Hungarian history. It has the unsettling but compelling gore of Henderson’s The Year of the Witching, the folkloric lilt of The Bear and the Nightingale, and the moral complexity of Seeing Like a State. It also has, and I can’t emphasize this enough, a hot scarred prince brought to his literal knees.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo

My blurb for this book says it’s “a subversive, sexy, atmospheric, sweltering, gin-soaked, Hell-haunted vision of Gatsby’s New York, with prose that will pull you under.” Shelley Parker-Chan’s blurb says it’s “as sharp and strange as the taste of a licked silver spoon,” which is infuriating because it’s half as long and twice as good. Either way: you want to read this book.

The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin

It will not surprise anyone that Jemisin—the only person to win three back-to-back Hugos—has written another absolute banger. But I was surprised by how joyful it is. There’s a lot of evil and horror in The City We Became, but there’s also so much love: for art and magic, for New York City, for the people who fight for it.

A Psalm for a Wild Built, Becky Chambers

Summer in the city has its charms, but the first line of Becky Chambers’ new novella makes a strong counterargument: “Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city.” Low on plot, high on hope, A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the story of an anxious monk talking through their identity crisis with a very chill robot. I cried [redacted] times.