In a way I wasn’t surprised to realize that not one of the ten openings in this issue take place in the present day—meaning this current time of climate crises, a pandemic, and upheaval all over the globe. Disasters can be difficult to capture when you’re still in their midst. Instead, some of the novels featured here are near-contemporary, some are historical, and two are fantasies. In all of them, there are echoes and reflections of the challenges we’re struggling through today, but it’s a shortsighted reader who seeks out fiction set in another era solely to find elements of our own. These ten openings are well worth reading for themselves, and together they offer a tantalizing smorgasbord of times, places, characters, and styles.
Of the ten, the novel set furthest in the past is THE STARLING AND THE EMPRESS, by Eva Mays, which opens with the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD. His riveting final moments set the stage for the story of his cousin by marriage: noblewoman Dhuoda of Septimania, a real-life figure who becomes a spy for the wife of Charlemagne’s successor and must struggle to balance her ardent faith with the demands of political intrigue. In BRANCHES AND BONES, Shiela Pardee immerses the reader in a period closer to our own time than to Dhuoda’s, though it still feels like distant history to us: in seventeenth-century London, an eager young man with a knack for managing horses helps an animal surgeon to inspect some mares being shipped to the American colonies—only to be kidnapped and taken to sea himself, bound for the hard life, and the thrilling adventures, of an indentured servant in the New World.
The next opening, from a chronological perspective, returns to continental Europe and jumps forward more than two centuries. In GHOSTS OF VIENNA, which begins in 1905, Sylvia Karman introduces us to an impoverished young man so miserable that he tries to commit suicide. After his failed attempt, he renounces his old identity and enters the burgeoning field of psychology as Otto Rank, one of Freud’s most brilliant protégés and, in Karman’s hands, a compelling protagonist. Catherine Bator, in A GOOD, HARD SLAP, takes us several thousand miles further west and two decades closer to our own time: someone has killed one of Hollywood’s darlings in the 1920s, and the women in the stenographers’ pool at Kaplan Pictures know who did it. Skillfully recreating the atmosphere and suspense of a Golden Age noir, Bator also offers a nuanced portrayal of what today would be viewed as a #MeToo situation.
From here we come to openings that, while set in a pre-Covid world, are positioned close enough to our own time to seem contemporary, or nearly so. Gary Pedler, in TOWARD THE FLAME, memorably reminds readers of another pandemic that ravaged America only forty years ago: AIDS. The disease first came to grim prominence among gay men in 1980s San Francisco, where Pedler’s protagonist, desperate to join the fight, becomes a counselor at a non-profit organization for AIDS victims and in doing so transforms his own life. Swinging back across the continent and into the familiar world of (almost) today, we come to FOSTER ROAD, by Joseph Moldover. In this opening we meet seventeen-year-old Hannah Lynn, who discovers that she and her father must take in her troubled sister’s two young sons. Examining the tensions of class, money, and family in a small Maine town, Moldover offers an intimate, insightful portrait of a young woman striving to balance heavy responsibilities with a teenager’s dreams.
In INVENTED LIVES, M. F. Jones vividly presents a parental loss of another kind: when math teacher Regina Stallworth learns that her adoptive parents have died and that she has inherited their house in western Massachusetts, she feels overwhelmed by both grief and solitude. Her lonely life changes, however—far more than she realizes at first—when she adopts a rescue dog and encounters the intriguing British woman who runs the shelter. Thomas Nicholson explores an even more extreme example of loneliness in A PART OF THE FAMILY, the story of a British man bereft of all family and friends and so isolated that, when a stranger texts him private messages by mistake, he can’t resist forging a connection that will violently disrupt his solitary days. Both comic and chilling, Nicholson’s depiction of modern loneliness strikes a disturbing and all too relevant chord.
A deceased parent also plays a pivotal role in THE SEER, by Yuval Atias (translated from the original Hebrew by Yaron Regev): American teenager Therese Baker flies to Israel to attend her estranged father’s funeral—but once she arrives, Atias leads us out of our everyday world into something fascinatingly different. What begins as contemporary YA soon changes into urban fantasy, bringing to life a dangerous and magical Tel Aviv. Laurie Foos, in WE WHO TOUCHED THE STARS, plunges her readers into a fantastical realm from the first moment: a group of girls describe their lives as castaways in a land that will soon perish in flames, having fled a land destroyed by floods. While many elements of this novel are distressingly pertinent to our own news cycle, it also offers readers an escape into a strange and alluring dreamworld.
Whether you want to journey back hundreds of years in time, revisit the earlier decades of our era, or explore the mind-bending possibilities of fantasy, these ten openings will capture your attention. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
— Ursula DeYoung, Founding Editor
Table of Contents
THE SEER – Yuval Atias (translated by Yaron Regev)
A GOOD, HARD SLAP – Catherine Bator
WE WHO TOUCHED THE STARS – Laurie Foos
INVENTED LIVES – M. F. Jones
GHOSTS OF VIENNA – Sylvia Karman
THE STARLING AND THE EMPRESS – Eva Mays
FOSTER ROAD – Joseph Moldover
A PART OF THE FAMILY – Thomas Nicholson
BRANCHES AND BONES – Shiela Pardee
TOWARD THE FLAME – Gary Pedler