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Fantastic Reading, by Karina Sumner-Smith

From mythic to far-future, from modern settings to those seen only in dreams, fantasy casts a wide net.

Karina Sumner-Smith is a Canadian fantasy writer, and author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant, Defiant, and Towers Fall. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, translated into Spanish and Czech, and appeared in several Year’s Best anthologies. Make sure to check below Karina's post for an excerpt from Radiant and a chance to win the book!


What’s the last great fantasy novel you read?

For many readers that I’ve spoken to, fantasy was often a genre read and enjoyed in younger years, then left behind as one aged into adulthood. Some might admit to reading some of the Harry Potter books, or perhaps sneaking a look to see what Twilight was all about; others mention The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit—though many skipped the books in favour of the movie versions.

Others, even book-a-day reading addicts, have never tried a fantasy novel. “My son likes that stuff,” one woman told me, “but it’s all a little weird for me.”

Another seemed surprised that I’d asked about fantasy at all. “Isn’t fantasy just for kids?”

Instead of taking offense, I see such responses as a great opportunity. As a lifelong fantasy reader and new fantasy author, I’ve seen what more mainstream readers may not have noticed: the huge range of work that falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Yes, the genre has its adventure stories and quests, tales of magic and wizards and strange creatures—but such novels are not the whole of the genre. Despite what is often called to mind when the word “fantasy” is uttered, fantasy as a genre encompasses a wide literary landscape that ranges from poetry to historical fiction, mystery to romance, and far beyond. And like its more otherworldly cousin, science fiction, fantasy provides a truly unique perspective on a issues such as cultural change, political strife, racial disparity, religious transformation, and the meaning of self in the context of greater society.

For those interested in travelling this landscape—or, perhaps, taking a trip or two to see what all the fuss is about—I thought I’d share a few of my favourites.

For those who love historical novels—or gorgeous prose—I never hesitate to recommend the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay’s books read like lush, meticulously researched historical novels, only they’re set in a world not quite our own. Drawing from a range of world cultures and time periods, each book focuses on a time of historical and societal change.


Long-time favourite Tigana is perhaps the most recommended—and the most obviously fantastic work, in which the people of a suborned land are cursed so that no one not born there can hear the name of their home spoken aloud, or even remember that it existed. However, one of most recent books, Under Heaven (which was inspired by China’s Tang dynasty), also achieved something rare indeed: remembering one scene made me weep, heartbroken, a full week after I’d finished the novel. As someone who rarely cries at books at all, this is high praise indeed, and testament to the power of his words.


For those who enjoy complex style and a more modern setting, Leah Bobet’s debut novel, Above, is a rich, beautifully told fantasy set in Toronto. Above is the story of a secret community of outcasts who hide beneath the city, people shunned for their differences, both mundane and otherworldly, and what happens when the precious safety of their home is destroyed. Bobet’s confident voice carries this elegant tale about mental illness, trust, and belonging. While published as a young adult novel, Above perhaps resonates best with a mature audience.


Science fiction author Julie E. Czerneda recently ventured into the realms of the fantastic with her novel A Turn of Light. Despite the change from her tales of intergalactic civilizations and strange aliens, readers familiar with her work will find much that is familiar here: believable characters, a touch of romance, and some really interesting creatures clearly inspired by Czerneda’s background as a biologist.

Yet what makes this one stand out is the twist it puts on a seemingly familiar tale. Instead of a story of leaving home to find wild adventures, this is the story of what happens when adventure—or change—comes to you, and how it affects one’s home, desires, and personal choices. It is, at its heart, a story of not just one young woman but that of her whole community, and the ties of love in its many and varied forms.

From mythic to far-future, from modern settings to those seen only in dreams, fantasy casts a wide net. Look, too, to authors like Michelle Sagara, Caitlin Sweet, Charles de Lint, Tanya Huff, Erin Bow, and Sean Stewart. There are more, truly, than I can list!

So what are you interested in? No matter your taste in fiction, I bet there’s a fantasy novel that you’d love.



Karina Sumner-Smith is a Canadian fantasy writer, and author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant, Defiant, and Towers Fall. She lives in rural Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a small dog, and a large cat. Visit her online at



Of Radiant, Publishers Weekly wrote:

“Inequality, economics, and postapocalyptic necromancy combine persuasively in Sumner-Smith’s ingenious, insightful debut. … With a clean, evocative style, a clever transposition of corporate warfare into a feudal future, and a strong, complementary pair of protagonists, Sumner-Smith’s Towers Trilogy is off to a captivating start.”


Radiant: Towers Trilogy Book 1

By Karina Sumner-Smith


Curled in a concrete alcove that had once been a doorway, Xhea watched the City man make his awkward way through the market tents, dragging a ghost behind him. Magic sparkled above his head like an upturned tulip, deflecting the heavy rain and letting it pour to the ground to trace a circle in the puddles at his feet. He was, of course, watching her.

It was not his attention that had caught Xhea’s notice, nor his poor attempt to blend into the crowd, but the ghost tethered to him with a line of energy more felt than seen. The dead girl couldn’t have been much older than Xhea herself—sixteen, Xhea supposed, perhaps seventeen—and she floated an arm’s span above the man’s head like a girl-shaped helium balloon.

For fifteen minutes the man had circled, pretending to shop. As if a City man had any use for reclaimed nails, half rusted and pounded straight; for prayer flags, or charms of electrical wire and bone. What was it, Xhea wondered, that made the ghost-afflicted wait for the darkest, rainiest days to seek her out? She snorted softly, a sound without care or pity. They didn’t want to be seen with her, that was the truth of it, as if her very presence left a shadow that wouldn’t burn away.

As she waited, Xhea tied a coin to the end of a braid of her hair with a bit of tattered ribbon. The coin was an old and dirty thing she’d found in the abandoned shopping corridors that wound beneath the Lower City. Once it would have bought her bread, cigarettes, a warm place to sleep. Now it was nothing but a bit of shiny metal that watched with the pressed eyes of a dead Queen, its only magic a sense of the past that hung about it like the faint scent of something sweet.

She had started braiding another length of dark hair before the man made the decision to approach. He walked toward her with his head down, as if a slumped posture might make him any less conspicuous, as if half the market didn’t watch him go. He came to stand before her narrow shelter and stared without speaking, the heavy rain falling between them like a beaded curtain.

Xhea eyed him in silence: his polished shoes, dotted with water; the neat line of his jacket; the monogrammed cuffs that peeked from his jacket sleeves. Only the clean cut of his tailored pants was marred, and that by the slow curl of his fists within the pockets. He straightened, pulling himself upright as if to get every intimidating inch from his average-sized frame.

She held his gaze as she pulled a cigarette from one of her oversized jacket’s many pockets and placed it against her lips. From another pocket she drew forth a single match, thankfully dry, which she struck with a practiced flick. Cigarette lit, Xhea leaned back against the concrete.

“Well?” the City man said.

She exhaled. “Well what?”

“Aren’t you going to help me? I have a ghost.”

“I can see that,” Xhea said, and returned the cigarette to her lips. She smoked in contented silence.

“Hey,” he said at last, shifting his weight. “I’m talking to you.”

“I can see that too.”

“I was told,” he said, as if she were far younger than her apparent years and dreadfully slow, “that you could help people with ghosts.”

Xhea snorted and flicked away a bit of ash. “Try asking nicely. Try saying ‘please.’ You’re the one who needs help here, not me.”

The man looked from her braid-tangled hair to her dirt-crusted nails and all the mismatched layers of clothing in between, disbelief plain. “Look, I came here—” he started, then shook himself. “What am I doing?” he muttered. He turned away, running his hand through his thinning hair as he walked. Yet his ghost remained, her tether stretching: a clear indication that the man would return.

Xhea smoked slowly, watching the ghost. She floated, serene, eyes closed and legs folded beneath her, lost in dreams. The ghost’s hair was pale, her skin paler still, each appearing in Xhea’s black-and-white vision as a faintly luminescent gray. The ghost girl’s dress was more vivid, hanging in loose folds that appeared almost to shimmer, the fabric untouched by rain.

Red, Xhea guessed, from the energy it exuded. She rather appreciated the contrast.

What was their story, she wondered. Too young to be his wife, unless his tastes ran to the illegal; too calm to be the victim of a hit and run or the unlucky bystander in a spell gone awry. His daughter, maybe. How touching.

Had illness taken her? But no, these were City folk, through and through. Illness was rare in the City, true disease rarer still, health and long life all but guaranteed by their magic. Suicide, then? Perhaps her father had killed her.

Xhea exhaled a long breath of smoke as the man again approached. Come to my temple, she thought to him mockingly. Three walls of concrete and one of rain; a cloud of tobacco for incense. Come pray for your ghost.

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