Happy Independent Bookstore Day! I’m celebrating by supporting two stores that focus on speculative fiction: Sistah SciFi and Mysterious Galaxy.
In recent years, my local stores have grown their SFF sections, but there’s nothing quite like the depth and breadth of a store that focuses only on spec fic. Unfortunately for me, both of these shops are located on the west coast (I’m on the east). But fortunately for all of us, both offer many virtual events and ways to be involved from both near and far.
Sistah SciFi is an online bookstore that promotes speculative fiction by Black and Indigenous women authors. I found their fantastic Instagram account while bopping around one day, and was impressed by their selection. Both their Instagram account and website are great resources for discovering new and classic books by Black and Indigenous women. Watch out, because your TBR pile might topple over with all the added books you’re going to stack on top!
The store also hosts a number of events and virtual book clubs, including one for comics and graphic novels! And did I mention they also have a book vending machine?! Located in the Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery in Oakland, California, the book vending machine carries a rotating selection of titles for children and adults.
Support Sistah SciFi on Indie Bookstore Day by making a purchase, following them on social media, and/or telling your friends about them!
While I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Mysterious Galaxy in person at their San Diego shop, I have been to their booth in at least one convention (Star Wars Celebration Anaheim 2022, to be precise). I’ve also attended a few of their virtual events and purchased signed books from them.
Each month, they offer a book subscription box for SFF and cozy mystery books that includes titles, bookmarks, and other goodies curated by or made by their booksellers! I think including art from their booksellers in the form of bookmarks is a really nice touch.
But if you, like me, have an ever-growing pile of books to read and the thought of a new mystery book each month triggers your existential dread over the fact that you will never be able to read all the books—and what if you miss a really, really good one?—be sure to peruse the store’s robust staff picks page. It might still contain more books than you can read in a year, but at least you can more purposefully prioritize your next read that way.
Support Mysterious Galaxy on Indie Bookstore Day by making a purchase, following them on social media, and/or telling your friends about them!
Do you have a favorite independent bookstore that focuses on speculative fiction? I’d love to hear about it! Send me a tweet (and tag the bookstore!) or Instagram comment or DM so I can feature your fave in a future post.
This week I have a review of Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman, a fantasy novel out from Harper Voyager (who was kind enough to provide me with a review copy). This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores, and if you buy from my links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review
The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid is a lovely debut with an Eastern European flavor, a rich world, vibrant characters, and a multi-faceted plot that explores religion, identity, friendship, family loyalty and disloyalty, tolerance, and bigotry.
The plot of The Wolf and The Woodsman is fairly simple: A young woman is forced to leave home against her will, and finds herself making what amounts to a deal with the devil to save not just herself, but her people.
Describing Reid’s debut in this way does it no justice, however. This book has layers of complexity that reveal themselves slowly as the two main characters—Évike and Gáspár—march northward through the snow-covered country in search of a mystical creature that has the power to save what they each hold dear—or so they think.
Drawing heavily on Hungarian and Jewish folklore, The Wolf and The Woodsman has a distinct Eastern European flavor with a universal message. Although it can be read as an allegory for the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, to the detriment of pagans, Jews, and Muslims, it’s much more than that.
The novel tackles issues of religion, identity, friendship, family loyalty and disloyalty, tolerance, and bigotry. It forces Évike to determine how far she’ll go to save her village and the people in it, who often treated her poorly and were willing to essentially throw her away to save someone else. It also forces Gáspár to question his own faith, family, loyalty, the nature of love, and even his humanity, in fundamental ways.
The setting felt both incredibly grounded and delightfully unfamiliar. One of my favorite details was the fearful trees the villagers had to tie down so they didn’t run away when the Woodsman came.
But before all of that, the beginning.
When the Woodsman Met the Wolf
Évike lives in an isolated forest town inhabited by pagans. Unlike her fellow female villagers who wield various types of magic, Évike’s “only” skill is hunting. Because she is a woman who lacks magic, she is treated poorly by the other young women and girls in her village.
The village is part of a kingdom that has become increasingly intolerant to the pagans living on its outskirts who don’t follow the Patrifath (a loose equivalent to Christianity). In exchange for leaving the village to its own devices most of the time, every now and then the King sends his Woodsmen out to collect a magic-wielding “Wolf Girl.”
No one in the village knows what happens to the Wolf Girls who are taken, but they are never seen again. The novel opens on a tense day: The Woodsmen are on their way to collect a seer, which is a particularly rare gift among the pagan magic users. The village elder forces Évike to take the place of Katarina, the true seer.
After the Woodsmen take Évike, clothed in Katarina’s wolf cloak, a series of unfortunate (for the Woodsman) events leads to the revelation that the head Woodsman, Gáspár, is actually the king’s son, and that he desperately wants to prevent his zealously religious younger half-brother from ascending to the throne. This event, which would be bad for Gáspár because of his late mother’s status as an outsider, would also spell doom for the pagans and other minority groups living in the kingdom.
So, Gáspár and Évike forge an uneasy alliance and agree to search for a mythical creature that would give Gáspár the power to gain favor with his father and ascend the throne. They start off hating each other, but come to have grudging respect for each other as their journey goes on.
Although the novel is told from Évike’s perspective, we spend a lot of time with both characters. There’s lots of romantic and sexual tension between Évike and Gáspár, but the novel never turns him into Évike’s savior like many YA fantasy novels tend to do. She saves his life as much as he saves her (his inability to use a bow and arrow with any accuracy is also something Évike, an expert marksman, uses to her advantage).
I’ll stop my summary there to avoid any spoilers, but I will say this: At one point, there is a pet bear. He’s pretty cool.
With the long history of fantasy novels based on wildly inaccurate assumptions about medieval England, it’s always refreshing to see fantasy settings based on other areas and cultures. Books like this have become more plentiful in recent years, but it’s going to take quite awhile for me to get sick of them (I read a lot of medieval-England-fantasy in high school). There also seems to be a recent surge in speculative fiction inspired in part by Jewish history and folklore, written by Jewish authors, and I can only hope we see this trend continue as well.
The Wolf and The Woodsman does read like a debut novel at times—certain sections meander a bit, or we get overly lost in Évike’s thoughts, and the overall structure could have been streamlined a bit more. But these are all quibbles, and didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.
At the end of the day, Reid’s prose is as sharp as one of Évike’s arrows, and she knows how to hit a bullseye.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Wolf and The Woodsman, please consider buying from your local indie bookstore, or online from Bookshop.org, which supports indies! While you’re at it, you can preorder Ava Reid’s new book, Juniper and Thorn, out May 22!
Have you read The Wolf and The Woodsman? Want to add it to your TBR? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!
With 2021 behind us and the whole of 2022 ahead, it’s time to take stock of our TBR shelves and lists, think about new goals, discard what no longer serves us or brings us joy, and most importantly, READ!
To that end, I’m rounding up the best 2022 reading challenges for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction sub-genres!
Reading challenges can be a fun way to expand your reading horizons, explore genres or topics you might not have discovered on your own, and even to meet fellow readers. They can also be an added source of stress or guilt, so they aren’t for everyone. I like to use them as a guide or inspiration rather than something I must complete each year.
Despite the proliferation of challenges, I couldn’t help but notice how few challenges there are specifically for speculative fiction. If spec fic is your main genre, it may not make sense to do a challenge within that genre… Or it could be the perfect opportunity to discover new authors and sub-genres (and there are so many sub-genres and sub-sub genres in spec fic).
So without further pontificating, here are the six reading challenges (in no particular order) best suited for readers who want to focus on speculative fiction in 2022!
Challenges With Prompts
The more traditional reading challenges include specific prompts, like “read a book set in a bookstore”. You can choose any book that satisfies the prompt, and usually a single book can satisfy multiple prompts and be used in multiple challenges.
Diverse Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Challenge
This challenge isn’t limited to 2022, but I wanted to include it because it’s one of the few challenges focused specifically on speculative fiction. This challenge, which you can find at Storygraph, features sixteen prompts focused on finding books by own voices authors from a variety of backgrounds. Each prompt also includes a short list of suggested books, so this is also a great place to diversify your TBR in general!
Additionally, all these prompts can easily be used to find a spec fic book (yes, even November’s “Read a book set in WWI”). You can also browse their previous challenges for more ideas and inspiration.
Unabridged Podcast 2022 Reading Challenge
Most reading challenges focus heavily on adult fiction and nonfiction, which is why I like this challenge written by the three teachers that makeup the Unabridged Podcast! It has both a YA and middle-grade themed prompt, along with a few multimedia prompts (like reading a book and watching its tv or movie adaptation).
This challenge has ten prompts and a number of ways to get involved, including a Facebook group, a hashtag for Instagram, and an Instagram story template so you can share your progress!
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge is one of the most well-known challenges, and has one of the most lively and engaged communities. This year’s challenge features twenty-four prompts, which breaks down to two books per month. It’s much more doable than some of the other big challenges like PopSugar’s (fifty books)!
This is one of my favorite challenges, and the first one I ever participated in. While certain prompts (such as number six, “Read a nonfiction YA comic” and “Read a history about a period you know little about”) might be hard to twist to speculative fiction, a majority of the prompts lend themselves well to choosing a spec fic book. The active Goodreads community also makes it a great option if you’re looking for community as well as good books.
Challenges Without Prompts
Not all reading challenges are prompt-based! Some are based around numbers of books read, either within a theme or in general. For those who prefer not to be limited by prompts, here’s a couple challenges that are number-based.
SpaceTime Reading Challenge 2022
Writer and book reviewer Jemima Pett runs the annual SpaceTime Reading Challenge on her blog, jemimapett.com. This is a flexible challenge, and you can choose to aim for as few as five books or as many as forty!
This challenge focuses on science fiction and time travel books only, and the host requests that all participants post reviews somewhere online (Goodreads is fine). Any book within the prescribed genres that’s at least 100 pages or more can count.
Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2022
Bev of the My Reader’s Block blog hosts the annual Mount TBR Reading Challenge, which challenges participants to read books in their to-be-read piles. The fun twist here is that each “level” of the challenge is pegged to a famous mountain.
To conquer Pike’s Peak, you have to read twelve books from your TBR pile. To climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, you’ll need to knock off sixty books. And for Mt. Everest, you’ll need to read a whopping one hundred books from your TBR!
Library lovers, take note: Library books don’t count for this one; only books you owned prior to January 1, 2022.
Do you have any reading goals for 2022? Are you planning on doing any reading challenges? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @bookwitchblog, or Instagram @bookwitchblog!
Hello! I’ve been absent from this space for quite some time, primarily due to my health.
As many of you may know, back in June I had a laparoscopic excision surgery for endometriosis, and well… The recovery period was more difficult than I was expecting.
Even after I recovered from the surgery itself, I experienced quite an uptick in migraines. (Because having one chronic illness isn’t enough, I have several!) All of this made it difficult to do my day job, let alone keep up with a blog.
I’m happy to report I’m mostly feeling better, and I hope to return to regular blogging in 2022, if not sooner. The frequency will probably be less (two posts a month seems likely), but in the meantime I do have a new pin design that will drop on my Etsy store soon!
Keep an eye on Instagram and this space for updates on that, and other bookish goodies I have in the works. 🙂
While Pride Month is a great time to dip your toes into the waters of queer speculative fiction, there are too many great options to limit yourself to just thirty-one days! (Plus, queer folks are queer 24/7, not just in June, so why not celebrate natural human diversity all year long?)
For this mini-list, I’ve selected three of my favorite novels by LGBTQIA+ authors. This post does contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you make a purchase using one of these links, you’re helping support both this blog and indie bookstores at no extra cost to you!
Be gay. 🏳️🌈 Read books! 📚
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth was pitched to me as “lesbian necromancers.” Although the main characters are indeed queer, and one of them is indeed a necromancer, “lesbian necromancers” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how utterly brilliant, funny, gripping, and goddamn heartbreaking this book is. In fact, it was so utterly brilliant, funny, gripping, and goddamn heartbreaking that as soon as I’d finished listening to the excellently narrated and produced audiobook, I hit play again and read it a second time.
But in case that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, let me tell you a little bit about the plot, too. The eponymous Gideon dreams of leaving her prison in the Ninth House to become a soldier, but Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the de facto leader of the Ninth House and a powerful necromancer, has other ideas. She recruits Gideon to be her cavalier—basically her personal swordswoman—as she goes on a quest to become a lictor for the undying emperor. Together, they have to compete against necromancers and cavaliers from other houses to solve magical puzzles and unlock the secrets to immortality. Only, of course, things do not go as planned.
My bookish love affair with K. B. Wagers began in the library, as all great love affairs do. It was 2016, and I was clerking at the main desk of my library when we got a new book for the science fiction section: Behind the Throne. The title didn’t catch my eye at first, but the tagline did: “…with a heroine as rebellious as Han Solo, as savvy as Leia, and as skilled as Rey.”
While books or movies that compare themselves to Star Wars rarely live up to the hype in my fangirly estimation, I liked the cover art and the concept, so I checked the book out and took it home. I started it that evening, and, well, let’s just say the book—and its heroine—definitely lived up to, and then shot right past, my expectations.
Hail Bristol is a gun runner and a smuggler who’s been doing her utmost to leave her past behind her. But, of course, it catches up to her. Now, she has to face the fact that she’s the last surviving member of the royal family of the Indranan Empire, reconcile with her demons, and save her people. This is a fast-paced, high-stakes, tense but enjoyable read with relatable characters you can’t help but fall in love with.
A few months ago, I was working on a list of queer speculative fiction when I realized I had zero gay men on my list. I wracked my brain trying to come up with a few, scoured my Goodreads lists, and still came up empty handed. I went looking, and found Kai Ashante Wilson’s hauntingly beautiful and devastating novella, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.
Wilson combines nonlinear storytelling with lush prose to create a story that echoes the way many of us experience memory and grief: in pieces and fragments; wisps of conversations, moments from larger events, and the ebb and flow of emotion through it all. If you’re not a fan of nonlinear stories, you may find Sorcerer of the Wildeeps a challenging read, but either way, you’ll find it a rewarding experience.
The story follows two earth-bound demigods who must use their powers to keep a caravan of merchants and soldiers safe from the dangers of the road, and especially from a man-eating supernatural beast. Although the plot is straightforward, the beats of the story echo like drums long after you turn the last page.
There are so many more amazing and wonderful speculative books by queer authors. I’ve compiled some of them in this Bookshop list called “Read the Rainbow: Speculative Fiction by LGBTQIA+ Authors,” but my list is far from authoritative. I’d love to hear who some of your favorite queer spec fic authors are in the comments!
One of my favorite things about traveling to new places is visiting new-to-me independent bookstores! Two weekends ago I stopped at Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, PA while visiting my family in Coatesville.
Wellington Square Bookshop opened in 2005 as a primarily used and rare bookstore, but expanded in 2009 to new books and gift items. They occupy a beautiful, expansive space in Eagleview Town Center, a somewhat hidden development surrounded by apartments and condos.
The store’s simple facade makes it look much smaller than it actually is, and belies the fact that this hidden gem is bursting with personality (although the stone lions guarding the door are your first clue). The first thing you see upon entering the store is a large fountain with goldfish spouting water from their mouths. I’ve certainly never seen any other book shops with fountains!
To the left is a nook with baby books and items like stuffed animals and specialty blocks, and beyond that is a nook full of unique cards and more gift items. I am an adult woman in my thirties, but I very nearly purchased a set of constellation blocks. As I’m writing this, I’m regretting that I didn’t.
New fiction and nonfiction are spread out on tables to the right of the entrance, and a glass case displays rare and valuable books. The small cafe is front and center, with a nice selection of pastries and candies in addition to drinks.
One thing I loved about this store was how each section felt like a room, and each room felt like a new discovery. There are plentiful nooks and crannies with cozy vintage chairs, couches, and tables. The furniture is well-worn, clearly used, but not shabby; it’s all perfect for curling up with a good book.
The mix of new and carefully curated used books lends the store an air of mystery, and the models of hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling lend an air of whimsy. I am a sucker for tin ceilings, and this store has a beautiful one.
Since this is a blog about speculative fiction, I’d be remiss not to mention the science fiction and fantasy section. While small, there was a surprisingly good variety and I found several authors I’d never heard of before. If discovering new authors isn’t the best thing about visiting an indie bookstore, I don’t know what is.
Wellington Square also has a small but mighty children’s section and a fairly robust young adult section, along with an impressive array of signed first editions for sale.
Although the best part of any indie bookstore is its unique selection of books, I also love seeing what gift items indie stores carry. If I didn’t have a large dog (and therefore a very dusty house), I would have absolutely brought home the book-shaped light I found. In short, I could have spent a lot more money than I did.
As it stands, I’m quite thrilled with my purchase of a new book and a handsome little etched glass globe, and I’m excited to stop in the next time I visit my family!
Wellington Square Bookshop also has an online store, so if you’re interested in checking them out virtually, you can do so here! Also be sure to follow them on Twitter and Instagram!
Worlds of Light and Darkness is a wide-ranging collection of insightful speculative fiction from two respected magazines that will introduce readers to a number of lesser-known, but worth knowing, writers across many sub-genres.
I learned of this collection because I used to read submissions for DreamForge, a speculative fiction magazine with a bent toward the hopeful based in Pittsburgh. An advance review copy was available through NetGalley, so I jumped at the chance to be an early reader.
I was also pleased to see that one of the stories I helped select, “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni, made it into this collection. I might be biased, but it was easily one of my favorite stories in the collection.
While I was familiar with DreamForge, this was my first introduction to fiction from Space & Time. The collection is arranged with ten stories from DreamForge (worlds of light) at the beginning, and ten stories from Space & Time (worlds of darkness) at the end.
Although the selections from DreamForge were noticeably more upbeat overall than those from Space & Time, it would be false to say the Space & Time stories were universally dark or depressing. On the contrary, stories across the collection showed a range of themes, tackled the full depth of human emotions, dealt with difficult topics, and ended on mostly positive notes.
“Mostly” being the key word, as there were a few stories that ended on darker notes, including “Humani” by John Palisano, “Joy of Life” by Alessandro Manzetti, and the collection’s final story, “A Glass Darkly” by Ian Rogers.
Overall, I think the editors did a good job of balancing the uplifting with grim possibilities, and I appreciate that stories ranged from Mars exploration (“A Sip of Pombé”) to high-tech heist (“Artifact” by Jonathan Maberry) to modern speculative western (“The Spiral Ranch” by Sarena Ulibarri).
Stand Out Stories
My favorite two stories in the collection were “The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” by Jennifer Shelby and the aforementioned “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni.
“The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” follows a witch as she rides her bike through space in search of her missing familiar—a cat who is mad at her because they didn’t take a vacation. Although this story appeared in Space & Time, it was actually quite lighthearted. I enjoyed the world building and the implied tension between magic and science. Plus, the image of a witch riding her magical bike through the cosmos just tickled me.
“A Sip of Pombé” takes place in a near-ish future where various countries have begun setting up settlements on Mars. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Uganda develops its own space program and launches its own Mars mission in secret. The story addresses nationalism and, more importantly, various factions’ ability to rise above nationalism in the name of scientific progress and humanity at large.
Another stand out story for me was Austin Gragg’s “Collecting Violet:” a cautionary tale about ecological destruction disguised as a touching account of the tenderness of Death. It was beautifully written, and featured a talking corvid, something I can’t resist.
I also really enjoyed the concept of a vertical, indoor ranch in Sarena Ulibarri’s “The Spiral Ranch,” and the whimsical magical bookshop in the opening story, “Answered Prayers” by Scott Edelman.
An Unfortunate Turn of Phrase
Of course, the wide range of sub-genres and stories included in this collection meant a few didn’t connect with me—and that’s okay. I can’t say I disliked any of the stories, although the way Alessandro Manzetti describes a woman in “Joy of Life” did have me cringing.
The line in question was “The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating in the estrogen broth.”
I know this is written from the perspective of a sentient lizard that may or may not fully understand human anatomy, if your ovary is rotated, it’s a medical emergency. The author could have opted for any number of verbs, like “hummed” or “vibrated”, but he went with the anatomically inaccurate and impossible “rotating.”
Despite that unfortunate line, Worlds of Light and Darkness is a strong collection that highlights the diversity of genres and ideas percolating in the galaxy of speculative fiction, and is worth picking up.
The cover depicts a shirtless man in raggedy pants with exaggerated masculine features (seriously, his feet are huge, and so is his beard). I paged through and saw that this was, yes indeed, a comic about a man who fights bears while decidedly not wearing any clothes (his junk is pixelated, though, so no need to worry about your puny senses being overwhelmed by his manliness). What an odd delight!
I’ve been feeling kinda down lately and wanted a pick-me-up, so: Enter, once again, Shirtless Bear-Fighter!. This book is a little difficult to review because it’s, well… You’ll see what I mean. My reviews do contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.
The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review
Shirtless Bear-Fighteris an absolutely hilarious, utterly delightful comic that skewers masculine tropes by rocketing them past the point of no return and stripping them of all power through the healing nature of comedy.
The Story of Shirtless
Shirtless Bear-Fighter tells the story of a man named Shirtless, who was raised by bears in a lush mountain forest. The bears betrayed him when they killed his lover, and after that he vowed to fight every bear.
Now, enraged bears are attacking major cities across the US, and the FBI calls in Shirtless to handle the problem. In the process he discovers that past events weren’t what they seemed and uncovers a plot by a greedy toilet-paper-company logger to turn the whole forest into TP.
Along the way Shirtless has to deal with multiple betrayals, bears high on magic bacon, and the fact that he probably definitely has a thing for Silva, the female FBI agent.
The issue of Shirtless’s dead lover reveals the cavalier way men treat women and highlights exactly why that is terrible and we should maybe stop doing that right now. Silva is not hyper-sexualized and proves herself to be smart and resourceful. Without her, Shirtless would fail his mission to save the forest.
So, here’s a comic that takes the most exaggerated masculine tropes and handles them in a subtle, brilliant, hilarious way. And even better, it will make you laugh out loud over and over again.
Key Shirtless Bear-Fighter Takeaways
WHAT IS THIS COMIC I DON’T EVEN KNOW
BUT IT’S REALLY FUCKING FUNNY
“Bear” is not limited to the large omnivorous mammal
There are a lot of toilet paper and poop jokes (WHICH ARE HILARIOUS)
The whole thing can be read as a fable about environmentalism and toxic masculinity
Why it’s essential: In the same way Dooku: Jedi Lost gives us the background of one of the Prequel Trilogy’s main villains, Claudia Gray’s Master and Apprentice draws back the curtain on the pre-Phantom Menace relationship between Qui-Gon Jinn and his padawan learner, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Although we see them as a unified, harmonious pair in the Phantom Menace, their relationship wasn’t always so solid, and Master and Apprentice dives into that. Read this book, and then watch Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s duel with Darth Maul and try not to cry.
Dooku: Jedi Lost by Cavan Scott
Why it’s essential: Count Dooku, the leader of the Separatists, was Qui-Gon Jinn’s first Jedi Master before he fell to the dark side and became Darth Tyrannus. Set around the time of Attack of the Clones as Dooku searches for an apprentice, it flashes back into the past to show his gradual fall to the dark. Dooku: Jedi Lost provides rich background for Christopher Lee’s haughty Sith Lord and makes his duels with Obi-Wan and Anakin in the films even more impactful.
Note: This book was produced as a full-cast audio drama, though it is also available in script form (linked here).
Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston
Why it’s essential:Queen’s Shadow takes place between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and details Padme’s transition from queen of Naboo to senator. For those of us who were fascinated with Padme’s handmaidens in Phantom Menace, Queen’s Shadow gives us our first opportunity to really get to know them. This book helps smooth the transition between the two films as far as Padme is concerned, and adds significant depth to her character.
The Original Trilogy Era
The Rise of the Empire
Why it’s essential: This book actually contains two novels: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller and Tarkin by James Luceno. It also features three previously unavailable short stories not published anywhere else. Both novels take place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and both deal with, as the title suggests, the Empire’s rise to power. A New Dawn takes the perspective of the rising Rebellion, while Tarkin covers the period from the bad guy’s perspective.
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
Why it’s essential: If you’re not a fan of the Star Wars Legends novels from the ‘90s or the animated show Rebels, you may not know who Grand Admiral Thrawn is. But while he may not have appeared in any of the Skywalker films, he is a fan favorite character and one of the most interesting in the Expanded Universe. This book is the first in a trilogy that shows Thrawn’s quick ascent through the Empire’s military ranks. The reason I’ve included it on this list is because it shows us the inner workings of the Imperial Academy and the political underpinnings and tensions of the military
Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray
Why it’s essential: This book’s inclusion on the list should be self explanatory, but let me explain how much I love it anyway! Leia, Princess of Alderaan takes place before A New Hope and gives a glimpse into Leia’s life before the mission where she rescues the Death Star plans that results in Alderaan’s destruction. We also get to meet a younger Amilyn Holdo. This book really shows us what Leia is made of, and is a beautiful addition to her story arc.
Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston
Why it’s essential: You may be familiar with Ahsoka Tano from the second season of The Mandalorian or The Clone Wars animated series. This book delves into the time between the end of the Rebels animated series and A New Hope. Similarly to A New Dawn, Ahsoka deals with the beginnings of the Rebellion and the Inquisitors (Dark Side users who hunt down Jedi and other Force users). It also gives us insight into how the few Jedi who weren’t killed after Order 66 survived—or didn’t.
From A Certain Point of View
Why it’s essential: This collection of forty short stories by various authors covers the events of Star Wars: A New Hope from the perspectives of the characters we only see briefly, or who are only implied (like the citizens of Alderaan). From the dianoga in the trash compactor to one of the Jawas on the Sandcrawler to the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina to Imperial officers aboard the Death Star, this book gives us a much bigger glimpse into the world around our heroes. One caveat though: If stories ever make you emotional, get ready to cry a couple times at least. Some of these tales are real heartbreakers!
From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
Why it’s essential:From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back gives us the same 40-story treatment as the first From a Certain Point of View collection, only this time we dive into The Empire Strikes Back! And also like its predecessor, have tissues on hand, because of few these would make even a Sith Lord cry.
Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
Why it’s essential: Perhaps the most controversial Star Wars book to have ever been released, I’m including Aftermath because it shines a light on the period immediately following the death of the Emperor on the second Death Star. The book sparked protest when it was released for its inclusion of LGBTQ characters, but many fans have also found Chuck Wendig’s writing style difficult to get into. The people who were opposed to the inclusion of gay people can find another fandom, but the concerns over the writing style are valid. I enjoyed this book, and think listening to the audio version mitigates some of the choppiness of the prose.
The Sequel Era
Last Shot by Daniel Jose Older
Why it’s essential: Han. Lando. Chewbacca. Really, what more do I need to say? Last Shot is a fun action adventure novel featuring our three favorite scoundrels. The main storyline of the book takes place after Return of the Jedi, but it includes flashbacks to earlier. This is also one of the few novels where we get to see Han be a father, although that’s not the focus of the novel. If you’re looking for a fun read, look no further than Last Shot!
Bloodline by Claudia Gray
Why it’s essential:Bloodline features Leia as the main character and lets us get to know the New Republic while it hints at the rise of the First Order. This is one of my favorite Star Wars novels, not only because it’s just so well-written and engaging, but because it gives us a rare opportunity to see Leia’s flaws. But rather than making me like her any less, the way she reacts to her mistakes and learns from them makes me love her even more. Especially for those who don’t understand how the New Republic could have failed so spectacularly, this book provides ample insight.
Phasma by Delilah Dawson
Why it’s essential: If, like me, you love mysterious villains, you’ll love Phasma! I also love a novel with a frame narrative, and this one is excellent. Resistance spy Vi Moradi was captured by the First Order after a long mission researching Captain Phasma, and uses her captor’s rivalry with Phasma against him. As a prisoner, she tells Phasma’s origin story. This book also sets up Black Spire, which is essential reading if you ever plan to visit Galaxy’s Edge.
Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse
Why it’s essential:Resistance Reborn bridges the gap between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. We see the Resistance rebuilding itself and gathering supplies and allies. I read this book before seeing The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, and it definitely made the experience richer. Fans of Wedge Antilles (me me me!) will also appreciate how much screen time he gets. And our boy Poe Dameron, who messes up big time in TLJ, has time to do a lot of soul-searching and growing in this novel.
As a final note, I’ll say it was really difficult to choose only 15 books. I tried to make the list shorter, but I just couldn’t do it! I had to leave off some of my favorites, but I do believe there’s a Star Wars novel perfect for every fan, and I hope this list helps you find yours!
I hesitated to review this book, as it’s been covered by folks much more knowledgeable about Beowulf than I in all sorts of prestigious publications (the New Yorker, NPR, Vox, just to name a few), but April is National Poetry Month, and I decided to forge ahead.
Reading Beowulf for the First Time
I first read Beowulf when I was in ninth grade, but not because it was an assigned reading. As a bookish, nerdy fourteen year old, I had taken it upon myself to read all the classics in science fiction and fantasy.
I can’t remember how or why I decided to start with Beowulf—perhaps because it was the oldest, perhaps because my father had mentioned that it had a dragon—but I picked up a copy from my local library and commenced reading.
It was 2001, and although I didn’t know anything about translations, I happened to select Seamus Heaney’s then-still-new version because it featured the Old English alongside the translation. The cover struck me even then: The silver chainmail against a stark black background.
I do remember that I finished reading Beowulf for the first time on the bus ride to school. It was early in the year still, summer hot and weeks away from September 11. It was my first year in public school after spending most of elementary and all of middle school in two separate Christian schools, and I didn’t yet have any friends, except of course, books.
I was confused, when I finished reading, because I had thought reading Beowulf was supposed to be awful. Boring. A slog. Impenetrable. But I loved it. Not just the story of triumph over Grendel and his mother, not just the fighting and the blood and guts and glory, but the language, the cadence of the sentences, the rhythm.
I carried the book around until I had to return it to the library, pouring over the Old English, comparing it to the new, reading the footnotes, reliving the action. When my English teachers failed to assign it in any of my classes throughout high school, I was actually disappointed.
Reading Beowulf: A New Translation
Twenty years out from my first reading of Beowulf, Maria Dhavana Headley graced the world with her version of the epic poem. Being a woman in the world of literature and acutely aware of the gender bias that persists even still, I was excited to have a woman translating one of my favorite classics.
And my word, she does not disappoint. This book is worth buying for her introduction alone, where she challenges the long-standing assumption that Grendel’s mother must be a literal monster because of her sword fighting prowess, ponders the various dilemmas that crop up for any translator, and ultimately reveals the sheer weight of her love and enthusiasm for this story.
Headley’s translation brings the language of Beowulf into the twenty-first century while maintaining the old world feel of the story. I’ve seen some commenters dismiss her translation because it makes ample use of slang such as “bro,” but this, I think, misses the point.
This translation of Beowulf will endure for the same reason ‘90s film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, like Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You, have endured: They touch on the universal by using the specifics of the moment, and use the specifics of the moment to add nuance and more layers of meaning to the original stories.
But to me, the real value of Headley’s translation is the way she uses it to challenge assumptions and reframe elements of the narrative. If Grendel was half-man, half-monster, why assume his mother was the monster and not his absent father? This is a question Headley explored at length in her novel about Grendel’s mother, The Mere Wife, but seeing the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s human mother was a balm I didn’t know my soul needed.
Headley gives Grendel’s mother the space to be her complex self: a grieving mother, a capable swordswoman, and a villain in her own right.
Even setting this fresh interpretation of the only significant female character in the epic poem aside, Headley’s use of language, rhythm, and tone is nothing short of transcendent. Reading her verse is a joy; reading it aloud even more so. It’s fun, and it feels good on the tongue and lips.
Fans of Beowulf will enjoy this new translation, and even better, it will provide a new access point for readers who may never have discovered it or been interested in otherwise.
The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review
Maria Dhavana Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation is fresh, fun, and challenges the reader to reassess long standing assumptions about the story and characters while remaining true to the epic spirit of the narrative.