In Traci Chee’s first work of fantasy since her wonderful The Reader trilogy, we meet the “unremarkable” personage of Miuko, an innkeeper’s daughter who tries her best to be everything she is not: meek, quiet, tidy, and acceptable. But when a sudden kiss from a shaoha sets Miuko on the path to becoming a demon herself, she must journey through Awara to restore her humanity before it’s too late. And with a monstrous possessed prince now on her tail, she’ll have to be much louder, more reckless, and more unacceptable than her comfort, and society’s, have ever allowed.
Recounted by a witty narrator who insists upon footnotes and flanked by a whimsical world filled with sprightly gods and vivid spirits, A Thousand Steps Into Night nails a balancing act I haven’t seen pulled off in YA in a long time. While it follows a teenage protagonist, I could easily see this book being adapted into a gorgeous animated film poised to become the future favorite of school-age kids, teenagers, and adults alike. It’s fun and lighthearted without being afraid of substance; ready and willing to challenge Miuko exactly where it hurts; and confident enough in its tone that extremes of all kinds––joyful, violent, ironic, wondrous––never feel out of place.
What Traci Chee nails most in this YA fantasy standalone, though, is a sense of scope. We may hop from place to stunning place a little quickly, but it’s with intention that a litany of striking magical palaces, temples, and forests parade through the pages of A Thousand Steps. Chee chooses scenes for her settings, and not the other way around; each setpiece with its sequence is as well-matched and memorable as any written for a film of fantastic proportions. I find myself recalling “the Kuludrava Palace scene,” or “the gambling parlor scene,” or “the library scene,” each filled with (hilarious!) antics that couldn’t have transpired anywhere else. As a quest fantasy, A Thousand Steps Into Night manages a broad and highlight-studded sweep of the world of Awara, and whatever it lacks in concentration, it more than makes up for in delightful variety.
A couple missteps emerge, though, in the form of characters. A lot of them, in particular, are introduced and then exit very quickly once their role is finished, which is worse for the less-cartoonish human characters than it is for the instantly lovable, over-the-top supernatural ones. Also, there’s a Villain With A Point™ lurking in this book that’s just a little too easy for Miuko to confidently refute: I would’ve loved for him to bring out more conflict in her!
All told, though, A Thousand Steps Into Night is an impressive show of range from the marvelous Traci Chee, and wherever her books go next, I’m following them there 💙
Happy April, everyone! I’m so happy to be sharing with you what will be my fifth wrap-up in a row! (🥳) March brought me some new favorite books, a great play or two, and myriad wonderful things to shout about in them all. Without further ado, here they are:
20. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
Boasting portals to other worlds, a fallen empire, and a few uncharacteristically funny scenes for the character who would eventually become the White Witch, this 1955 prequel to the Narnia series surprised me in a lot of good ways. In it, we follow the schoolkids Polly and Digory, who stumble into an experiment intended to rip passageways into other universes. Among these universes is the place that the rest of the series knows as Narnia, but there’s way more than that for the book to play in, and I’m now almost mad that the other Narnia books don’t return for more. Where The Magician’s Nephew isn’t surprising, though, it’s depressingly familiar. Lewis’ magical mentor figure, Aslan, again kills conflict wherever he goes, a few later chapters are almost fatally actionless and ceremonial, and for all the book’s potential, it has a hard time living up to its ideas.
21. Extasia by Claire Legrand
Extasia is a strange beast, but a very welcome one. Claire Legrand builds a riveting work of paranormal horror from both archaic and post-apocalyptic clay, yielding a rich story that reads sometimes like a theocratic dystopian à la The Handmaid’s Tale, sometimes like a taut, colonial-era suspense à la The Crucible, and often like something new altogether. The book begins when the solemn, pious Amity is about to be anointed one of her village’s four Saints––young girls who act as religious scapegoats for their neighbors’ anger, fear, and sorrow. But all is not well in Haven and its deadly surrounding forest, and in order to save it, Amity will have to defy her church and learn magic. From there, Extasia had me reading on with rapt attention and a white-knuckled grip: it’s excellently-paced, the characters and their terror freshly rendered, and Legrand’s observation of a fearful society searingly true. (Reviewed here.)
22. The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur
The Forest of Stolen Girls, set in Joseon-Era Korea, is a murder-mystery helmed by the daughter of a missing detective, as she re-traces his footsteps and investigates the disappearances of thirteen girls from an island fishing town. June Hur, in juggling the tasks of historical consideration and an emotionally honest story of family, seldom lets any pins fall, but when they do, they take a toll on her main character, Hwani, and her journey towards reckoning with her father’s flaws. The prose, for instance, often defaults to explaining rather than describing what she’s feeling, which gives some of her most important emotional moments a distancing effect. But in atmosphere and motives for possible suspects and accomplices, Hur consistently shines. She also makes a point of using the context of time and place to the mystery’s advantage, rather than just setting the story against it––a deep, structural choice that, in the end, sticks Forest’s landing.
23. The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo
Though it doesn’t quite reach the emotional power of the rest of the Grishaverse, The Lives of Saints still has something to offer people (me) who can’t get enough of it. This volume collects the (often disappointingly) short tales of saints from the world of Bardugo’s fantasy books––some of them managing to be haunting despite their length (Anastasia), some of them actually wickedly funny (Lutkin!!), and some sadly forgettable (Petyr). It’s a worthy experiment that I’m glad exists, for the simple fact that series lore is my lifeblood, but almost all the stories lose something in brevity. The Language of Thorns, another anthology from the Grishaverse, does so well with its task precisely because it lets the stories get a little longer, and I can’t help but feel that The Lives of Saints would’ve been better equipped to follow it up had it done the same.
24. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #1)
I’m utterly in awe of this book’s vision. Set in a world like our own (but not quite!) it charts the power plays of conniving liturgical institutions and officials, the discovery of a mysterious new elementary particle, and the adventures of a fiercely loyal and dangerously important girl by the name of Lyra. I could talk about the system of science-magic, the construction of alternate history cultures, or the almost cinematic use of perspective intercutting at work in The Golden Compass for hours, but what I was most impressed by was Philip Pullman’s willingness to not expound on his world before giving us a chance to walk in it. He lets the reader put the pieces together with the characters, in a way that made me just as eager to learn more about where we were as I was to find out what would happen next. And I, being the nerd that I am, was totally mesmerized from start to finish.
25. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
As much as I love the vibes, The Winter’s Tale might be Shakespeare’s most self-defeating play. On paper, it’s a story about redemption: the wrath of a jealous king, Leontes, kills his wife with grief, and loses him a daughter, but through the intervention of a miracle or two, they’re all reunited with Leontes a changed man. But, really, it’s hard to read or watch, without the nagging thought that Leontes didn’t need to act like he did, and none of this needed to happen––especially if we’re going to end the play mostly in the same place we began. A fog of pointlessness lies over The Winter’s Tale that, try as it might, the play just can’t shake. The fourth act, too, a pastoral starring characters only tangentially related to the earlier action, is dangerously close to insufferable. (But judging by my opinion of As You Like It, I might just hate pastorals altogether 😬)
26. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
This work of historical fiction is based on a very real hoax. It’s 1885 and a sea serpent is rumored to haunt the marshes of Aldwinter, as a warning from an angry higher power, or a remnant from a Mesozoic ocean long gone, or both. We follow a widow, Cora Seaborne, as she investigates the rumor and strikes up a tumultuous, intimate friendship with Aldwinter’s devoted vicar. If you’re into science of any kind, The Essex Serpent has to its advantage an erudite bent that draws on the history of paleontology and medicine, and puts them to fascinating use. Also mostly to its benefit is the central friendship, which takes on refreshing narrative importance, even if its trajectory can be frustrating. Overall, this title proved a way more compatible read for me than I expected, which has me wondering if I should pick up more historicals. (I also love Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Recommend away!)
27. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #2)
As the sequel to The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife takes the trilogy in several fascinating new directions at once, only some of which worried me. The expansion of the series into new universes, one of them being ours, gives the book plenty of awesome concepts to work with, from the correlation of book one’s science with our contemporary understanding of physics, to a power struggle that careens the story’s scope into literally unfathomable territory––for better or worse. In this volume, we also meet Will, a boy whose troubled family history ties him to the fate of Lyra’s world. As deuteragonists, their shrewdness functions well against the pretense and status of those in power, and even if connecting with them is a little harder this time around, Pullman’s reliance on the ensemble approach gives us myriad eyes to look through in the meantime. (And a vast, constantly-changing landscape to look at, too, which is always a plus.)
28. I and You by Lauren Gunderson
Lauren Gunderson is one of my favorite playwrights, and what I and You achieves in a little under 70 pages pretty much explains why. It’s set in chronically-ill 17-year-old Caroline’s bedroom, where Anthony, a classmate from the school she can no longer attend, enlists her help for a project on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Over the course of a few hours, the two connect over the poem, get to know each other in a miraculous, theatrical totality, and, if you’re anything like me, will have you sobbing three times or more before curtain call. Gunderson gets something about humanity and experience and why we need each other so much that’s otherwise inarticulable, and hearing it said––shouted!––in I and You was a catharsis unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
29. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee
A witty, hopeful, spirit-studded riot of a fantasy adventure from The Reader author Traci Chee, A Thousand Steps Into Night holds delight after delight. Its heroine, Miuko, must embark on a quest to reverse the curse that’s about to turn her into a demon, and along the way, she’ll fall in with a clever, complaining magpie, contend with a vengeful demon prince for the fate of the kingdom of Awara, and fight to keep her humanity all the while. A Thousand Steps manages a great deal in its comparatively limited page time as a standalone, from directly challenging Miuko’s weaknesses in a satisfying way to offering a broad sweep of Chee’s ultra-vivid world in a number of one-of-a-kind scenes I’d love to see put to animation. Characters appear and exit rather quickly, with a couple scenes of action bypassed or skimped on to the book’s detriment, but it’s largely an unbroken joy.
30. Richard II by William Shakespeare
This history play is tragedy, political theory, and character study all at once. While it flounders with its supporting cast (a point I controversially think its prequel, King John, excels at!), Richard II has such a keen eye on where power comes from, and what it does to those who hold or seek it. Shakespeare’s Richard is as compelling as he is infuriating; a devastating indictment of inherited privilege and a bittersweet elegy for those it eats away. Shakespeare also establishes with precision the weight of his transgressions, and why they set his countrymen against him, something he struggles with in King John. I also definitely cried while watching and reading this, not least because the language in it is so hauntingly beautiful and even––dare I say it?––a cut above the Bard’s rest.
Thank you so much for reading! May the next month bring you small joys and many good stories ☕️ 📚
The first printing of this book––a retelling of the Korean legend The Tale of Shim Cheong––vanished before I could get my hands on a copy from my local indie. Following a girl who goes in search of the mysterious Sea God in order to save her village from his wrath, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea earned rave reviews from my favorite blogs, and promises a magical, fairy-tale feel of the kind I’m always hungry for. As soon as my (second-run) copy arrives, I’m diving right in.
2. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee
Traci Chee, author of the Reader trilogy (which I adore!) is out with a new Japanese-influenced fantasy that I’ve been anticipating since it was announced. When the book’s main character, Miuko, is cursed by a demon, she must leave her sleepy village and embark on a quest that puts her in the path of tricksters, gods, and spirits, with Chee’s trademark meticulousness shining through in footnotes throughout. (I was thrilled to hear about said footnotes in her newsletter, which I’m subscribed to because of course I am.)
3. The Merciless Ones by Namina Forna
Releasing in May, this title is the sequel to 2021’s The Gilded Ones, an epic work of West-African-inspired fantasy that nails everything from worldbuilding to combat, and had me chomping at the bit for more the moment I finished it. I can’t wait to see what Forna does with the revelations from the end of book one, but more than that, I can’t wait to see more of her excellent staging and dynamic set pieces! Forna is a screenwriter by trade, and every part of The Gilded Ones shows it.
4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Nonfiction and I make only a few rendezvous over the course of a year, but I’m quite looking forward to picking up Braiding Sweetgrass this spring in an effort to explore more titles on science. Written by Potawatomi botanist and professor Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the book combines philosophy, science, and an Indigenous perspective on both to dive deep into society’s relationship with the natural world. It’s incredibly beloved and has been recommended to me a number of times, so my hopes are rather high.
5. Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf
Murder mystery and competitive Scrabble…it’s a match that’s just meant to be. Queen of the Tiles stars teen Scrabble-r (?) Najwa Bakri, who must put together the pieces of her friend’s seemingly-straightforward death after her once-inactive Instagram mysteriously starts posting again. Pacy, clever, and purportedly filled with wordplay, this book and its premise locked me in immediately. I haven’t even met Najwa yet, but I already know that if she beat me at Scrabble, I’d thank her.
6. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
A friend of mine has been on me about reading The Raven Boys for going on a year now…and lo and behold, she was right. I had a marvelous time! The Dream Thieves, its 2013 sequel, promises another 400 pages with characters I latched onto like a leech, more strange adventures in the town of Henrietta, and a touch of dream magic, all incentives for me to continue this quartet with all requisite swiftness. The Raven Boys didn’t immediately strike me as a book in need of a sequel…but I’m eager to be proven wrong.
7. The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo
Reader, it’s been sitting on my fantasy shelf for months––a collection of stories from the world of the Grishaverse, ranging in tone from wry to tragic, and gorgeously illustrated…or so I’m told, because I, an avowed fan of Bardugo’s, totally fumbled this release. The Language of Thorns, another collection of Grishaverse lore, is my favorite of the books, and I’m hopeful that this volume will join or unseat it at the top of my personal ranking. (On second thought, though, a rabid Shadow and Bone fan who can tell you not only what her Grisha order would be, but her patron Sankt as well? I’m not certain that’s something I should allow released into the wild. It’ll put me one step closer to owning a goddamn kefta.)
8. Control by Lydia Kang
This 2013 dystopian thriller follows Zelia, a budding scientist who has to rescue her sister from kidnappers convinced her DNA holds a powerful secret. YA sci-fi (especially its Hunger Games-era backlist!) is something I often find myself returning to. I love the way ethics find their way into vivid medical and technological thrills, set against worlds that train their eyes on contemporary teenage life and its restrictions. With vibes echoing Lissa Price’s Starters and Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful in the very best way, something about Control tells me I’m in for a treat.
9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Earthsea Cycle is next up on my yearlong survey of classic fantasy, and I’ve heard wonderful things. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a world I’ve heard was quite unique at the time (being published alongside European medieval fantasy after European medieval fantasy), and featuring dragons and magic school, both of which I’m always down for. Anyway, Le Guin is a legendary writer, and I’m delighted to finally be getting my first taste of her work.
10. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ate my life a few months back, and I was thrilled to discover some work of showrunner Noelle Stevenson’s floating around in the world of comics. Nimona is a sprightly, irreverent fantasy adventure, drawn in Stevenson’s charming art style and based off of his earlier webcomic. It was published in 2015 to a fair bit of acclaim and even had an adaptation in the works before BlueSky shuttered a few years back (😢), so fingers crossed I’ll find a new favorite in this one…or at least a few quips to quote every now and then.
Thank you so much for reading! What does your Spring 2022 in reading look like? As always, I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below 💕