Dazzling Fantasy Debuts

Check out these starred fantasy debuts about a Trans-Siberian luxury train, an underwater humanity, a department store that sells dreams, and a hotheaded hero with nothing to lose.

Brooks, Sarah. The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands. Flatiron. Jun. 2024. 336p. ISBN 9781250878618. $28.99. FANTASY

DEBUT If a luxury train raced through Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X, filled with the cast of Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, it would be something like the Trans-Siberian Express of this story. It’s a tense journey through a landscape so incomprehensible that even gazing at it through a window can incite madness. Braving the danger are a widow with a secret mission, a religious naturalist desperate to regain his renown, and an orphan tempted to betray her bond to the train. Each character’s schemes provide the reader with data about the Wastelands’ true nature as it tries to infiltrate their transport. Brooks skillfully doles out clues at a steady, satisfying pace—but always alongside new questions, ensuring that tension remains high. As the train approaches Moscow, readers will wonder if the travelers are going to reach their destination, and if they do, who they’ll be. Ultimately, this journey through the unknown provides ample opportunity for musings about the power of travel to change people, while examining humans’ relationships to the environment, to capitalism, and to each other. VERDICT A nerve-wracking but empathetic first-class read for lovers of the strange and uncanny.—Matthew Galloway

Cathrall, Sylvie. A Letter to the Luminous Deep. Orbit. (The Sunken Archive, Bk. 1). Apr. 2024. 400p. ISBN 9780316565530. pap. $18.99. FANTASY

DEBUT Cathrall debuts with a wonderfully charming epistolary novel, the first of a series, set just over a thousand years after an event known as “the Dive,” which plunged humanity’s sky dwellers into the depths of the ocean. The ancestors of those who survived now live in the ocean and on the one small remaining land mass. The introverted and anxious E. Cidnosin lives underwater inside the “Deep House,” a marvel of architecture that her mother designed. Spying a mysterious sea creature outside her window spurs her to begin a correspondence with scholar Henerey Clel to help her identify it, beginning an extensive exchange of letters that leads to them falling in love. Then E. and Henerey disappear after an explosion at Deep House. A waterproof box of E.’s papers survives, though, and as her scholar sister Sophy and Henerey’s brother Vyerin piece together their letters and journals, an even larger mystery is revealed. VERDICT Readers will want to savor the delightful letters that make up this cozy fantasy set in academia and an underwater world. Recommend to fans of Malka Older’s “Mossa and Pleiti” series.—Melissa DeWild

Lee, Miye. The Dallergut Dream Department Store. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Jul. 2024. 300p. tr. from Korean by Sandy Joosun Lee. ISBN 9781335081179. $21.99. FANTASY

DEBUT Lee’s debut novel, a Korean best seller, is a charming foray into the land of sleep. Here, talented creatives produce dreams for sleepers to purchase. The luckiest sleepers will find their way to Dallergut’s Dream Department Store, where the staff believe that dreams should matter, and do their best to match people with dreams that will improve their lives. Readers are guided through this world by the store’s newest hire, Penny, whose willingness to speak up and ask questions allows for natural exposition and worldbuilding. While there is very little action, the novel is comforting and sweet. Many readers will appreciate the central messages, that life is better when well-rested and that dreams matter, no matter how nonsensical, stressful, or easily forgotten they might be. In fact, as demonstrated through vignettes about people in the waking world, sometimes the most irritating dreams are the push one needs to change their life. For a novel about dreams, the level of surrealism remains low, despite fluffy anthropomorphic tigers with pajamas and mechanical eyelids to monitor customer sleepiness. VERDICT This is an excellent choice for a gentle book club read.—Matthew Galloway

Logan, James. The Silverblood Promise. Tor. (The Last Legacy, Bk. 1). May 2024. 528p. ISBN 9781250345806. pap. $19.99. FANTASY

DEBUT After a murder strikes a little close to home, the young rogue Lukan Gardova is compelled to solve it. He’s spent years barely scraping by after his downfall, but this goal fills him with a new sense of purpose. As a hotheaded hero with nothing to lose, he sets off for the city of Saphrona, where he teams up with the straight-talking street kid Flea. Money rules in Saphrona, and Lukan and Flea are swiftly swept up in a conspiracy involving the criminal underworld, corrupt merchant princes, and the mystical relics of a dead civilization. Everything about this swashbuckling adventure is sharp and secretive, and the pages fly by with every nail-biting gambit. It’s a murder mystery in an epic fantasy setting, and Lukan’s loose tongue and quick wits repeatedly get him into and out of trouble. The endearing characters, with their easy banter, dry humor, and defiant spirits, are the heart and soul of this novel. VERDICT There’s never a dull moment in this instantly absorbing debut that offers effortless escapism. Perfect for fans of the “Mistborn” series by Brandon Sanderson.—Andrea Dyba

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