Despite its continued appeal and popularity, traditional fantasy has begun to feel somewhat exhausted, its material and approaches worn beyond overfamiliarity. So many quests, so many swords, so many destinies.
Thankfully, a number of writers are breaking new ground while maintaining a solid footing in the genre. In the U.S., N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series – the only trilogy to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel for each book – reads like a refutation of the standard tropes and stands as one of the finest long-form genre works in recent memory. North of the border, two Canadian writers are taking a similar tack with their new books.
The Stone of Sorrow, from YA writer Brooke Carter, who is based in Maple Ridge, B.C., draws on the author’s Icelandic roots to follow the story of Runa Unnursdóttir, an apprentice runecaster. The position of runecaster is essential to the life and prosperity of Runa’s community; unfortunately, Runa is something of a disappointment, struggling in the shadow of her iconic mother and elder sister, Syr. The latter is the keeper of the moonstone, a sacred object which serves as a source of power for the community. When her village is attacked and her sister abducted (with the moonstone), Runa must find her way to an ancient runecasting competition, where the fate of the moonstone, her people, and Runa herself will be decided.
This might seem like a traditional quest story, but Carter approaches the material with a bold, subversive, feminist slant. This is a novel focused on female empowerment and self-determination, less concerned with vengeance or triumph than it is with community and family. It’s a fresh, character-focused read with genuinely surprising twists; the fact that it is the first instalment of a series makes it all the more enticing.
The new work from Mississauga, Ontario, writer Tanaz Bhathena (whose novel A Girl Like That, a Q&Q book of the year in 2018, was shortlisted for the White Pine Award) is even more impressive.
Reminiscent of the fantasy-adjacent historical fiction of Guy Gavriel Kay, Hunted by the Sky focuses on Gul, who was born with a star-shaped birthmark on her arm. According to a prophecy, just such a girl will bring the downfall of the king – and as a result, “hundreds of magi girls with star-shaped birthmarks have been taken or killed over the years.”
The novel begins with the slaughter of Gul’s parents by the soldiers of King Lohar. The parents’ last act is to hide their daughter. Gul swears vengeance against the king and is taken in by the Sisters of the Golden Lotus, who train her in warrior magic.
Things become complicated when, years later, Gul meets a young man named Cavas in the capital city’s bazaar. Cavas has grown up in poverty and is about to enlist in the army to help pay for the care of his ailing father. Gul’s sudden appearance in his life changes everything.
Hunted by the Sky is a novel of palace intrigue, supplication and resistance, romance, and betrayal. Bhathena takes her time unfolding the story, allowing the reader full immersion not only in the richly drawn characters but the world itself – a world inspired by medieval India. The result is an intoxicating novel that is at once leisurely and keenly enthralling.