Review: The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid

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.

Photograph of me holding Ava Reid's The Wolf and the Woodsman in front of a snow covered Eastern Hemlock tree.
This lovely cover was illustrated by Russell Cobb at Debut Art.

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.


Introduction

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.


A photograph of the first page of the first chapter of The Wolf and The Woodsman. The page features vines as decorations.
The typesetting in this book is as beautiful as the cover. I love the decorations and the chapter heading font!

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.


A photograph of the map included inside The Wolf and The Woodsman.
I’m a sucker for fantasy books with maps!

Final Thoughts

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!

Three Speculative Novels by Queer Authors for Pride Month—Or Anytime!

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! 📚

8 books next to a light box that reads "Happy Pride" with a bouquet of flowers in the background.

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.

Also be sure to check out the sequel, Harrow the Ninth!

Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers

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.

Also be sure to check out the other two books in the trilogy, After the Crown and Beyond the Empire!


Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

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’s also a sequel, called A Taste of Honey.


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!

Who’s your favorite queer speculative author? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @bookwitchblog, or Instagram @bookwitchblog!

Review: Worlds of Light and Darkness Anthology

This week’s review covers Worlds of Light and Darkness: The Best of DreamForge and Space & Time, edited by Angela Yuriko Smith and Scot Noel. As usual, this post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores.

Worlds of Light and Darkness comes out on May 25, but you can preorder it now

An image of an eReader displaying the Worlds of Light and Darkness anthology cover.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

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.


Overview

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.

Another shot of the eReader with the cover of Worlds of Light and Darkness anthology.

“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.” 

A screen shot of an eReader with text that reads "No, it's not yet time to change. The heartbeat hunter is not mistaken. The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating inside the estrogen broth. Warm blood, tides."

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.



Who are some of your favorite speculative short story authors? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Review: Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dhavana Headley

This week’s review covers Maria Dhavana Headley’s new translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. My reviews do contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

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.

A photo of Beowulf: A New Translation with an old books-scented candle and some red flowers.
In addition to being a great translation, the cover is gorgeous. I’m obsessed.

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. 

An image of the first page of Beowulf: A New Translation showing the first line of the poem, "Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!"
Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of epic poems!

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. 

A photo of the back of Beowulf: A New Translation.
I don’t usually bother showcasing the back of books, but the excellent cover design on this one extends to the back and I couldn’t resist. It’s just so pretty!

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.



Who’s your favorite queer speculative author? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @bookwitchblog, or Instagram @bookwitchblog!

Comic Review: Inkblot by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

This week’s review covers the first collected volume of the comic Inkblot, by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd, published by Image Comics. This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

Inkblot Volume 1 collects the first six issues of this ongoing series about a librarian sorceress and the magical cat she accidentally conjures. 

The six issues of Inkblot that are collected into Inkblot vol. 1.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

A funny, whimsical fantasy that takes readers on a journey through space and time with a curious, magical black cat at the helm.


Inkblot by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

It all begins as the librarian sorceress, known only as The Seeker or Bookworm, is recording the exploits of her extremely powerful sorcerer siblings. She falls asleep while she’s working and knocks over a number of bottles of ink and other things. After the dust settles, as it were, a little black cat with big round green eyes appears.

A panel from Inkblot showing The Seeker conjuring the Cat.

The Seeker quickly learns that this cat can open inter-dimensional portals when she chases the cat into the Mountain Lands and they almost get eaten by giants. While the kitty in question has no official name or gender, I’m going to refer to them as Inkblot since it’s also the name of the comic.

Although the cat is magical, their only utterance is “mow,” issued with varying inflections and degrees of emphasis. As the story progresses, The Seeker chases Inkblot in several unsuccessful attempts to catch and study them.

The first few issues remain fairly lighthearted as the cat causes mischief by climbing dragons and riding the Loch Ness monster, and we meet a few of The Seeker’s siblings and the Realms they rule.

Toward the end, things take a turn for the serious as we learn more about The Seeker’s past and her youngest brother, Inos. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I am very much looking forward to seeing how the story progresses in future volumes.


The Art of Inkblot

Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd’s process for creating Inkblot is not the typical writer/artist dynamic. Rather, Kubert draws everything out, Gladd inks it, Kubert colors it, and then Gladd adds dialogue and captions. I like how their creative process echoes the back and forth between The Seeker and Inkblot the cat.

The Seeker attempts to catch Inkblot.

The art is whimsical, but also features bold lines. The color palette is somewhat restrained but not boring—it works well for the mystical fantasy setting. Kubert and Gladd excel at creating exaggerated facial expressions that work well for the comical tone without crossing over into the land of hyperbole or satire.

Inkblot’s only discernible facial features are their big green eyes, but they also use their ears to communicate how they’re feeling to great effect. 

The black cat was what drew me to this comic in the first place: I adopted a black cat in November 2019. And just like Inkblot, if she’s not in the exact right lighting, the only facial feature you can make out is her big yellow eyes.


Not Your Typical Black Cat

The black-cat-as-witch’s-familiar trope has been explored and then explored some more, and I love the concept of the black-cat-as-witch’s-foil that turns many of the original trope’s conventions on their head.

The inside front cover of Inkblot features a silhouette of the cat behind the credits. The back cover of each issue features an inkblot with eyes.

Rather than working together for a common goal, Inkblot and The Seeker are always at odds. Inkblot is a quintessential cat: They go where they want, when they want, and they do what they want regardless of what’s going on around them. Inkblot’s antics had me laughing out loud in delight more than once.

The Seeker tries to catch Inkblot, but Inkblot always eludes her grasp. This game of cat-and-sorceress also provides an excellent overview of the world of the comic, as Inkblot travels to different realms and time periods in history.

Inkblot Volume 1 serves as an excellent introduction to the series. It has humor, heart, solid world-building, interesting characters, and beautiful, eye-catching art. The story takes a few issues/chapters to take shape, but with a cat leading the way, who can complain? The meandering pace works well for the characters and story, and invites the reader to sit and stay for a while.


For more great comics featuring felines, check out my “Comics and Graphic Novels Featuring Cats” booklist over at Bookshop.org! Have you read Inkblot? What did you think? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like the worst time to write a booklist featuring novels and comics about plagues and viral outbreaks.

For most of us, it’s been over a year since the world shut down and our lives changed dramatically. We’ve been facing constant upheaval, uncertainty, fear, and a barrage of information and misinformation.

Many of us are dealing with pandemic fatigue: We’re tired of isolation, restrictions, and ongoing disruptions and uncertainty. Our energy reserves are long depleted.

Which is why, now, more than ever, I find myself turning to stories about pandemics and plagues.

In March 2020, I wondered if COVID would wipe out global infrastructure the way it did in Station Eleven. I wondered if the pandemic would cause civil unrest on the scale it did in Y: The Last Man. I even let myself wonder if humanity would die out like it does in Oryx and Crake.

Of course, while this global outbreak has caused major disruptions in basic infrastructure, civil unrest, and millions of deaths, we’ve seen nothing so terminal as what’s depicted in those stories. In a way, that’s comforting to me. These characters have survived, and so have I.

Most of the books I recommend here have hopeful—if not happy—endings, which can also help when things feel chaotic and difficult, especially now at the one-year mark as we’re starting to see some hope with vaccine rollouts.

If you feel like reading about fictional pandemics hits too close to home, I also created a booklist of fun speculative novels to read on the beach—or anywhere!

Six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

A mysterious virus kills every mammal with a Y chromosome. Human, animal, they’re all dead. Except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. As the last man alive in a world left devastated by the loss of half its population, Yorick is pursued by scientists who want to study him and bands of “Amazons” who think the world is better off without men.

Like many post-apocalyptic stories, Y: The Last Man explores a “what if” future while commenting on the present in significant ways. Far from being a story about how women can’t survive without men, Y is a story of how women can and do thrive without men. It’s also a story about one man—now a metaphor for all men—being forced to confront his fragile masculinity and, pardon my french, grow the fuck up, all while chaos swirls around him.

The Dreamers by Katherine Thompson Walker

In a sleepy California college town, students go to class and maybe fall in love, a single dad does his best to take care of his daughters, and a couple struggling with new parenthood attempt to navigate their fraught relationship when a mysterious illness descends. The infected fall asleep, and nothing can wake them. They become dehydrated and malnourished without hospital care.

The disease—and panic—spreads, and much like we’re seeing with this current pandemic, characters react in different ways. The Dreamers isn’t a pandemic novel, as the virus is contained to this one small town. But Katharine Thompson Walker is a master at eliminating the  distance between character and reader. It feels just as if we’re experiencing the illness along with the town.

Woven throughout the viral outbreak is Walker’s exploration of the mysteries of sleep and dreams, which adds another few layers to this book. (I also loved her debut novel, The Age of Miracles, which is a post-apocalyptic climate disaster novel told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl.)

The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

The three books in the MaddAdam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, chronicle the rise of genetic engineering and the downfall of humanity because of a mysterious plague. Spoiler alert: It all goes back to the hubris of one man and his cult leader status.

I first read Oryx and Crake over a decade ago. I’m still shocked at how often I see an article about “groundbreaking science” that echoes Atwood’s predictions. Take lab-grown meat for example. Written with ruthless precision and prescient imagination, the MaddAddam trilogy will have you rethinking the wisdom of genetic engineering and whether or not humanity even deserves to continue on as a species.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Unlike the other novels on this list, Wanderers tackles an epidemic from two sides: those affected and those working to stem the tide and contain the disease. The novel is told through multiple perspectives, including a disgraced CDC epidemiologist and the sister of this new plague’s first victim.

Of course, it’s not as simple as one unknown disease; there are two new diseases causing havoc across the United States. Wanderers weaves disparate threads together. It reveals how interconnected systems—including political systems—can fail at any point and lead to an uncontrolled outbreak. That makes it incredibly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you read Amazon or Goodreads reviews for this book, you may see a lot of one- and two-star reviews that label the book overly “political.” But as we are seeing, politics are inseparable from how we react to and deal with epidemics and pandemics. Once again, Chuck Wendig exposes the flaws in the system and reveals how politics ignores science, putting citizens in peril.

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

Released on February 4, Clare Beams’s debut novel hit shelves just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illness Lesson is more akin to The Dreamers in tone and scope: it deals with a localized, mysterious illness in a progressive 19th century school for girls. When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the school, the students begin exhibiting strange symptoms.

Beams explores the oft-overlooked topic of women’s illnesses and how the medical establishment and society ignore women’s symptoms and pain. Beams’s writing is vivid and haunting, and comparisons to Kelly Link and Karen Russell are apt.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant debut novel can be read as a terrifyingly possible blueprint for the future after COVID-19. In Station Eleven, a flu pandemic wipes out huge swathes of humanity and causes societal collapse. No more power, no more running vehicles, no more industry, no more government, no more medicine.

Those who survive are forced into a pre-industrial way of life where resources are scarce. But I’m not recommending this novel because I think things are hopeless for us. On the contrary, Station Eleven shows us how people can thrive even in dire circumstances and find ways to rebuild. This book ends on a hopeful note, and also shows how important art is, especially in times of crisis.

I’ve collected these six novels, along with a few others, into a handy list over at Bookshop.org.

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Review: The Sandman Audio Adaptation

This week’s review tackles the audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman! This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

The Absolute Sandman volume 1 on a starry background, with an eReader playing the Sandman audio book on top of it.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Audible’s audio adaption of The Sandman by Neil Gaiman is a brilliantly acted immersive take on the classic comic series that will please longtime fans and help bring this amazing story to a whole new audience.


The Sandman Audio Adaptation Review

How do you create an audio drama from a graphic novel?

Dirk Maggs makes it look pitifully easy in his full-cast audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman that more than does justice to the original comic.

As a long-time fan of Gaiman’s groundbreaking series, I was a tad apprehensive about how good an audiobook adaptation would be. Not because I’m a format purist or don’t like audio, but because I’ve been burned too many times by bad, cash-grabby comic book adaptations. 

Sandman is important to me, and I was afraid the audiobook would be bad.

I needn’t have worried. While the audiobook version of Sandman is, of course, different in a number of ways from the comic, it stays true to the story while adding something new at the same time. The brilliant voice acting adds tone and depth to each character, and the added narration (performed by Neil Gaiman himself), fills in most of the gaps caused by the lack of visual material. 

A page from the Doll's House on a starry background with paper stars.

It’s the same story, same impact, just in a different format. I, for one, am thrilled that one of my all-time favorite books is now available to more folks.

Those who’ve read and enjoyed the comic will appreciate the nuance this new telling adds to the story, while those who’ve never read the comic are in for an auditory and narrative treat.


This Adaptation Has Beautiful Voice Acting and Excellent Production

James McAvoy’s Morpheus is brooding and dark against Kat Denning’s chipper Death, while Justin Vivian Bond’s Desire is perfectly petulant and petty. I didn’t love Andy Serkis as Matthew the raven at first, but he grew on me and I’m curious to see how he’ll handle certain pivotal scenes in later books.

In short, the voice cast is spot on, and everyone nails their characters. It was insanely easy to close my eyes and feel like I was in the Dreaming.

This first volume of the audio drama (parts 2 and 3 have already been greenlit by Audible) covers the first three trade collections of the comic: Preludes & Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country. It maintains the original “chapter” breaks of the individual issues, and these are announced verbally, echoing the print reading experience.

An interior shot of the last page of Sandman issue 8, on a starry background with paper origami stars.

I was particularly curious how they would handle A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a storyline at the end of Dream Country in which Morpheus brings the fae to England to watch a play he commissioned from a young William Shakespeare. It’s one of the most visually complex issues of the comic, and relies heavily on paneling and framing to tell a story-within-the-story. It also has a rather large cast of characters: Shakespeare, his son, his players, Titania, Oberon, Puck, and a whole menagerie of fae who serve as the peanut gallery throughout the issue.

For the audio, they use sound layering and background/foreground speaking to give the same impression and experience, and it worked really well. Again, Gaiman’s narration also helps here, but I thought Maggs did an excellent job recreating the complex visual effects in this format. 


Itty Bitty Nitpicks

The only places I thought the audio drama failed to live up to the comic were a few scenes with The Corinthian. I loved Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of this eye-eating nightmare, but the narration on a few of his scenes left me with less than a full picture of what was happening with his victims. I also don’t think the horror of seeing mouths for eyes the first time Corninthian takes off his glasses translates quite as well to audio, but again, this is a minor complaint.

Unfortunately, The Sandman audio drama is an Audible exclusive, but you can purchase an MP3 CD through Bookshop. Generally speaking, I don’t like purchasing books through Amazon, and the same goes for audio. 

Amazon isn’t going away anytime soon, though, so I’ve had to make a sort of peace with it, especially in cases like this where there’s no other option. Still, I encourage audiobook readers to check out Libro.fm, an alternative that directly supports independent bookstores!

And if you’d like to purchase any of The Sandman graphic novels, you can always do so through your favorite indie bookstore or Bookshop.org! I’ve compiled a handy list of the series and its main offshoots over at my Bookshop storefront.