The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy – This is an amusing take on well-known fairy tales focuses on what happens after the stories, and that it isn’t always just living happily ever after. The princes from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Snow White not only have some problems with their fiancees, but also are kind of annoyed that they’re all simply called “Prince Charming” in the stories. Frederic is nice but boring and cowardly, Liam genuinely afraid of the spoiled princess to whom he’s betrothed, Gustav strong and bold but insecure due to his many older brothers and having messed up his rescue and been saved by the damsel in distress, and Duncan a strange fellow who thinks he has magical luck. They all meet up and find themselves in a quest to rescue the bards of the various kingdoms, whom the wicked witch Zaubera has captured; and the women have some adventures of their own. Along the way, they meet up with a child who leads a feared gang of bandits, a giant who works for the witch but is generally pretty nice, vegetarian trolls, and sarcastic dwarfs. It’s pretty fun, and I understand there are two other books in the series.
I like when a book comes with a map, and this one of the various fairy tale kingdoms is roughly based on Europe.
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire – I suppose you could say this is a mix of a coming of age tale with fantasy, conspiracy, and mad science. The story is told somewhat out of order, and starts with some confusing backstory before it gets into the characters. Two kids named Roger and Dodger, who live on opposite sides of the country, find that they have a psychic connection; and that one of them is an expert in language and the other in math. Over the course of their lives, they learn of their other strange powers, including the ability to rewind time to certain points. They avoid each other for some years, but then end up going to college together. As it turns out, they were created by a mad alchemist to be the living representation of the Doctrine of Ethos. This idea has something to do with Pythagoras and his philosophy that everything is made up of language and math. As other reviewers have noted, there isn’t a whole lot of characterization to the villainous alchemist beyond his being evil and desiring power, and it’s kind of messed up that Roger ends up dating a woman who killed someone he knew, even if he doesn’t know this and she does end up changing sides. There are references throughout to A. Deborah Baker, a nineteenth-century alchemist who wrote a children’s book called Over the Garden Wall that’s secretly a treatise on achieving the Doctrine. McGuire would later go on to write this book herself, but I haven’t read it yet. What’s even more interesting to me is that, in the world of this book, L. Frank Baum also put alchemical references into his fiction, with Oz being a counterpoint to the Up-and-Under. I don’t know that Baum was particularly into alchemy, although there is some connection between that and Theosophy. What I find somewhat interesting in that respect is that the manga and anime series Fullmetal Alchemist, which I know nothing about, has a map that looks so close to that of Oz as to likely be an intentional reference.
I have no idea if McGuire was aware of this. I’ve also seen that there’s a paper relating Oz to alchemy, but it was published AFTER Middlegame.
The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden – This is the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, which I don’t remember all that well at this point, but I do know it continues the story of Vasilisa Petrovna and her adventures in a version of medieval Russia that mixes actual history with fairy tales. She’s now traveling in disguise as a boy with her magical horse and the occasional assistance of the frost demon and personification of death Morozko. She runs afoul of Koschei the Deathless, going by the name Kasyan Lutovich, who is planning to overthrow the Grand Prince of Moscow. The title refers to something that features in the story, which in turn apparently derives from how highborn Russian girls of the time were kept isolated from the world until they married.