Let me introduce you to Amina al-Sirafi, Muslim woman pirate, captain of her own ship and crew, feared across the region for her ruthlessness and cunning…retired. And then the mother of a past crewmate shows up at the doorstep of Amina’s home with a proposition: rescue her granddaughter who’s been kidnapped by a dastardly Frankish sorcerer…or her own daughter will be in danger. Captain al-Sirafi and her aging crew pulled from their own retirements embark on yet another–and perhaps their last–adventure. Before the Barbarossa brothers in the Mediterranean, before Blackbeard in the Caribbean, Chakraborty gives us rip-roaring action that rivals swashbuckler novels of old, a witty chaos-loving demon Amina can’t seem get rid of, and a heist for the ages, all in the underutilized setting of the Indian Ocean during the Islamic Golden Age. Their rescue mission becomes a heist, and the characters you meet along the way are charming, entertaining, and ripe with dimensions. Amina al-Sirafi’s narration is laugh-out-loud funny, brash, and brimming with heart as she tells the tale of poisoners, assassins, demons, and thieves. This is a pirate adventure of the highest order at a time when we really need some good pirate stories.
It’s hard to find words to describe how much of a masterpiece this is. But I’ll try. Kingsolver based this book off of the Dickens classic David Copperfield, but instead of Victorian England, she sticks you in the thick of the opioid epidemic in Virginia’s Appalachian mountains. We follow the unwanted and oft abused Damon from harsh trailer park life into even harsher foster homes as he bounces around, mistreated, used, ignored, doing his best to be invisible so no one notices he’s hungry and dirty. Through it all his gritty resilience and laugh out loud wit makes you love this young boy harder than you ever thought you could love a fictional character, so much you’ll want to protect him and all his preciousness–his passion for drawing comics, his ability to love despite everything, and his fight. Finally, someone has given this part of the country the respect its beautiful lands and people deserve. Kingsolver tells the story of their long exploitation, and she tells it not with condescension or derision, but with much-needed care. This is the best novel of 2022, and no other books even come close.
Gothic horror, vengeful ghosts, history, folkloric occult themes, forbidden romance, and a super hot priest? Already on board. But then The Hacienda also delivers on superb atmospheric writing, a bevy of multi-layered and powerful characters, and a house that becomes more than merely a setting. After her insurgent father is killed in the war, Beatriz takes control of her own fate by agreeing to marry the rich royalist Don Rodolfo Solórzano, ignoring whisperings of his late wife’s mysterious demise. But as she settles into her new life as matron of the hacienda San Isidro, it becomes frighteningly apparent that the hacienda doesn’t want her there, and it’s willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of her. Cañas suspends her readers in a crucial time in Mexico’s history, right after the Mexican War of Independence, and she uses this remote very haunted house and the people moving through it–both alive and dead–to symbolize the war and the terror it wreaked, even as it masterfully presents for us the most horrific and long-lasting of ghosts: colonialism. Powerful, arresting, and seriously scary, it’s a feast perfect for fans of Daphne du Maurier and Guillermo del Toro. Buen Provecho.
Age of Vice focuses its narrative on three characters from very different walks of life, but all three are swept up in the inescapable force that is the Wadia crime family, their ill-gotten wealth, vast influence, and endless corruption. It is an epic crime saga in every sense of the word, with the cinematic scope of Once Upon a Time in America, but traversing the harsh modern landscapes of the city of Delhi and poverty-stricken Uttar Pradesh instead of 1930s New York. The story is propelled by India’s disparate caste system, greed, kidnapping and trafficking, exploitation, and violence at its most base. As the narrative unfolds, it also corrodes the characters, society, and everything else it touches, making this the most unadulterated piece of modern noir I’ve read in a long time, with characters whose actions and circumstances make you feel like you’re watching a car headed for a deadly crash–you’re horrified and yet you can’t look away. Don’t look away. This is a titan in storytelling.
The Night Ship is based on an actual historical event, infused with the menace of a slithering creature that wields curses as its weapon and with the menace of humans when we’re pushed to the brink of survival. Kidd plays with two timelines; 9 year old Mayken on the Batavia in 1629, a real-life ship bound for the Dutch East Indies where she meets with adventure and mythological horrors belowdecks, and 9 year old Gil who’s been transplanted onto a small treacherous island off the Western Coast of Australia in 1989, alone after the death of his mother, adrift amongst a fishing community that doesn’t know what to do with him and his expressive tortoise…and then he hears of a Dutch ship that was wrecked off the coast of his island 300 years earlier… You will fall deeply in love with both Mayken and Gil as they discover human nature–the best and unfortunately the worst of it–as only children can. Haunting, mesmerizing, captivating, the writing is magnificent, overflowing with wit and then heartbreak. It will effortlessly transport you from the isolation of the accursed high seas to a seemingly sleepy island that is festering with ghosts and the evil of men. And it will hold onto you long after you put it down.