Tales Retold | SFF

SFF takes on well-known tales, including “Aladdin,” “Hansel and Gretel,” The Nutcracker, and Slavic folklore.

Basu, Samit. The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport. Tor.com. Oct. 2023. 416p. ISBN 9781250827517. $28.99. SF

In the far-future, on a planet that might be dying, is the sinking city of Shantiport, currently ruled by Tiger Clan and full of surveillance drones, bots, and plenty of corruption. There, human Lina and her robot-monkey brother Bador scavenge for treasure, hoping to find a ring that could change their future. Bador’s recent scavenging efforts have produced a story-bot named Moku, who documents his users’ lives but also has impressive abilities to deactivate surveillance bots, which the siblings quickly put to use. Their family is under more surveillance than usual because their father, before his disappearance, was suspected of joining the resistance and smuggling alien tech. Soon, their lives become even more challenging when oligarch Shakun Antim believes that Lina is the key to unlocking her father’s hiding place for a great alien treasure—the jinn-bot, which will grant its user three wishes. VERDICT Between Moku’s endearing charm and Bador’s expressive eyemojis and heroic ambitions, including winning a bot martial arts tournament, the bots steal the show in Basu’s (The City Inside) fantastic, futuristic take on the “Aladdin” story.—Melissa DeWild

Houston, Gabriela. The Bone Roots. Angry Robot. Oct. 2023. 376p. ISBN 9781915202581. pap. $17.99. FANTASY

Witch Kada aids the people of her village with the power of the goddess Zemya’s bone roots—her own daughter Secha came from the goddess’s tree. Secha’s unnatural origin, however, leaves her vulnerable to the child-stealing fox that stalks her, and Kada will do anything to keep her safe. That gets harder when noblewoman Sladyana re-enters her life. Kada helped Sladyana pluck her own daughter from Zemya’s tree, but the fox stole her child. Sladyana wants Kada’s help to get her daughter back, and she won’t take no for an answer. Houston’s novel draws inspiration from Slavic folklore to create a world rich with gods and spirits. Middle-aged women like Kada and Sladyana don’t always star in fantasy, but this novel places them center-stage as complex characters who are sympathetic despite being at odds with each other. Similarly, the story prioritizes domestic stakes—familial love and community approval—that become epic through Kada and Sladyana’s emotional journeys. VERDICT This Slavic-inspired fantasy from Houston (The Second Bell) will appeal to readers who enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver but want to see older women characters experience love and magic too.—Erin Niederberger

Johansen, Erika. The Kingdom of Sweets: A Novel of the Nutcracker. Dutton. Nov. 2023. 368p. ISBN 9781524742751. $28. FANTASY

Natasha and her twin sister, Clara, are given a double-edged blessing at their christening by their godfather Drosselmeyer. Clara receives all the beauty and popularity with her golden curls and charm, but Natasha is studious and short with straight black hair. Natasha has mostly been content to live in the shadow of her sister—until Clara becomes engaged to the boy Natasha loves. On that fateful Christmas Eve when the girls are about to turn 17, Drosselmeyer gives Natasha a terrifying clown and Clara the gift of an enchanted nutcracker that transports the girls to the Kingdom of Sweets, a snowy place full of lollipop trees, sugar-crystal reindeer, and marzipan grass, all ruled by the illusory Sugar Plum Fairy. Though this world seems designed for Clara, it is here Natasha gains powers that give her the chance to enact revenge on her sister and change her fate once and for all. VERDICT In this stand-alone novel, Johansen (“Queen of the Tearling” series) writes a beautifully twisted version of The Nutcracker, exploring the nature of revenge and its costs in horror-tinged fantasy. Recommend to fans of V.E. Schwab and Hannah Whitten.—Leigh Verburg

Woods, Kell. After the Forest. Tor. Oct. 2023. 384p. ISBN 9781250852489. $28.99. FANTASY

DEBUT Once upon a time, in the German village of Lindenfeld, deep in the Black Forest, lived a pair of notorious, debt-ridden siblings, Greta and Hans Rosenthal. As children, Hans and Greta were abandoned in the forest and found a gingerbread house and a witch—a familiar tale. But what happens after the witch? This is where debut Australian author Woods picks up the tale, adding layers and feminist messages throughout. As Greta comes into her own as a witch and a woman, she must work together with new allies to save herself and her home, finding romance and secrets and battling her own nature along the way. While at times the novel’s many characters and multiple fairy tales can make the narrative challenging to follow, this is a triumphant look at a woman in the 1650s taking charge of her own story, with magic woven throughout. Elements of “Hansel and Gretel,” “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” real historical German witch trials, and wolf-based fairy tales combine to form Greta’s story. VERDICT Recommended for fans of fantasy romance or fairy tale retellings with historical fiction woven in.—Katie Lawrence

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