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The wonderful Trudie Skies, author of SPFBO8 finalist The Cruel Godscreated this wonderful TBR challenge based on the twelve domains in their series!

eBook and physical cover of Trudie Skies's The Cruel Gods. In front of both covers is a SPFBO finalist badge. The cover features a man and a woman standing and looking out at the read with their backs to each other. A large clock with Roman numerals hovers spookily in the background. The cover is toned blue and the woman wears a long, old-fashioned dress while the man has a long coat and round spectacles. It is suggestive of Steampunk.Because I don’t already have enough on my plate (this is, *ahem*, a lie), I decided it’d be fun to participate. Many of these books are already on my TBR, but I quite like the idea of pre-assigning them a month. If you don’t see your book here, that doesn’t mean it’s not on my TBR! I have a ton of review copies still in line to be read and reviewed, as well as the continuation of my SPFBO9 positivity reads (current read: The Exile of Zanzibar and next up are The Traitors We Are and Stars and Ravens. I’m also only able to choose books that I know feature the highlighted theme or element, so keep that in mind.


Without further ado, here are my picks!

A book reading challenge for the year with prompts based on the twelve domains of The Cruel Gods. The rules are read a book based on the domain prompts, share recommendations, and join the discord server linked in the post to win prizes. The prompts are: Memoria: A book set in or on the ocean Juniper: A book focused on animals Heartstone: A book set in a forest or on a mountain Solaris: A book featuring sun/magic powers Arcadia: A book featuring singing as magic or plot Witheryn: A horror or gothic fantasy book Tempest: A book featuring airships Obituary: A book set in the desert Rapture: A book featuring romance or sex Eventide: A book set during fall or Halloween Phantasy: A sci-fi book or set in space Kronos: A steampunk or clockpunk book

 

 

 

January – Memoria (A book set in or on the ocean): The Fisherman by John Langan

 

Cover for John Langan's The Fisherman. Storm-whipped waves crash against a beach while ominous clouds cover the sky.

 

In upstate New York, in the woods around Woodstock, Dutchman’s Creek flows out of the Ashokan Reservoir. Steep-banked, fast-moving, it offers the promise of fine fishing, and of something more, a possibility too fantastic to be true. When Abe and Dan, two widowers who have found solace in each other’s company and a shared passion for fishing, hear rumors of the Creek, and what might be found there, the remedy to both their losses, they dismiss it as just another fish story. Soon, though, the men find themselves drawn into a tale as deep and old as the Reservoir. It’s a tale of dark pacts, of long-buried secrets, and of a mysterious figure known as Der Fisher: the Fisherman. It will bring Abe and Dan face to face with all that they have lost, and with the price they must pay to regain it.

This one’s been on my TBR for AGES and is overdue a read. I’ve heard nothing but great things over the years and if oceanic horror is your jam this one might be a good pick for you as well!

 

 

 

 

 

February – Juniper (A book focused on Animals): The Deer Kings by Wendy Wagner

Cover for Wendy N. Wagner's The Deer Kings. A transluscent glowing stag dominates a blue-tinted forest background. Glowing butterflies surround the deer and the deer's eyes flare green.

In 1989, Gary Sheldon and his friends created their own saint.
In 2018, they discover it’s become a god.

Gary thought he’d escaped Kingston, Oregon, the town where his parents died and where, one tragic summer, he and a group of outcast teens turned to the supernatural to protect themselves from a deranged drug dealer. But when his wife lands her dream job as a high school principal, he is forced to return to his hometown.

As Gary reconnects with old friends and his son thrives on the football team, the past feels like a distant memory. But unsettling encounters and mutilated animals in the woods reveal that the Deer Saint is still at work. Now Gary must look into his past to find answers: Who is making sacrifices to the Deer Saint? And what do they want with his family?

This indie work of American horror has also been on my TBR for ages. Wendy Wagner is an amazing author and person, and I can’t wait to check this one out. It promises cults, deer, and smalltown scares.

 

 

 

March – Heartstone (A book set in a forest or on a mountain): Let the Mountains Be My Grave by Francesca Tacchi

Cover for Francesca Tacchi's Let the Mountains Be My Grave. A woman with long curly black hair dressed in ancient Mediterranean clothing lovingly holds a snake, while two more snakes twine around her. Mountains form the background and she's surrounded by plants. The cover is stylized in black, white, grey, and red.

Let the Mountains Be My Grave unfolds at breakneck pace in 1944 Italy, where partisan Veleno thinks of nothing but killing as many Nazis as he can before leaving this world. Beloved by the ancient Italic goddess Angitia, Veleno is the perfect person to recover a strange weapon the Nazis are planning to use against the Allies in the battle of Montecassino, but doing so may force him to confront his death differently than he expects.

This indie novella from Neon Hemlock is one I’ve owned for a while but hadn’t picked up to read yet. Neon Hemlock is one of my favourite presses for their willingness to take risks on unusual books and new authors. I don’t always enjoy everything I read from them, but what I can say is that everything I’ve read so far has been bold, experimental, and brings something new to the genre. In terms of Mountains, I’ve been excited to read after following Tacchi on Twitter for a while. Tacchi’s strong grasp on Italian history and culture is exceptional and its a treat learning from Xem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

April – Solaris (A book featuring sun magic/powers): Klara and the Sunby Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover for Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun. An illustration of a hand with a stylized sun on its palm sits on a plain, poppy-red background.

 

From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

I have a feeling this one will be the “biggest” book on my list. It’s a travesty that I’ve never read any Ishiguro before so this is a great opportunity to change that. I can’t wait to dive in. The sci-fi premise of this one also promises something different than the rest of the books on my list so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May – Arcadia (A book with singing as magic or plot): Where Oblivion Lives by T. Frohock

Cover for T. Frohock's Where Oblivion Lives. A grey-skinned tattooed man stands back to the reader, his arms shrouded in darkness. A pair of open angel wings stand before him.

Born of daimon and angel, Diago Alvarez is a being unlike all others. The embodiment of dark and light, he has witnessed the good and the horror of this world and those beyond. In the supernatural war between angels and daimons that will determine humankind’s future, Diago has chosen Los Nefilim, the sons and daughters of angels who possess the power to harness music and light.

As the forces of evil gather, Diago must locate the Key, the special chord that will unite the nefilim’s voices, giving them the power to avert the coming civil war between the Republicans and Franco’s Nationalists. Finding the Key will save Spain from plunging into darkness.

And for Diago, it will resurrect the anguish caused by a tragedy he experienced in a past life.

A perhaps little-known fact about me is that I’m an expert on angels and that I often lecture and guest lecture on 1 Enoch (the pseudepigraphal text most known for its inclusion of the story of the Watcher angels and their fall). This book’s been on my TBR for ages just for that fact alone. I’m excited to finally read some of Frohock’s work!

 

 

 

 

 

June – Witheryn  (A horror or Gothic fantasy book): The White Forest by Adam McOmber

 

Cover for Adam McOmber's The White Forest. White, ghostly, overexposed leafless trees dominate the cover. There's a ghostly blue glow to the trees, which are mirrored halfway down the page.
Young Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret—an unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects—and this talent isolates her from the outside world. Her greatest joy is wandering the wild heath with her neighbors, Madeline and Nathan.

But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. Day encourages his followers to explore dream manipulation with the goal of discovering a strange hidden world, a place he calls the Empyrean.

A year later, Nathan has vanished, and the famed Inspector Vidocq arrives in London to untangle the events that led up to Nathan’s disappearance. As a sinister truth emerges, Jane realizes she must discover the origins of her talent, and use it to find Nathan herself, before it’s too late.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time it’s probably no surprise to find McOmber on my list. One of my favourite writers, McOmber’s works are always fresh and different (even from one another). If you haven’t checked out his work, consider this your call to do so!

 

 

 

July – Tempest (A book featuring airships): Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Cover for Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft. The cover is stylized to resemble Soviet propaganda posters. A giant, red-tinted man is shown enclosed within a building made up of lots of smaller structures. His crouched, grasping post gives the impression he's climbing. There are mountains to either side of the central image and the illustration has a parchment background.

The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.

Soon after arriving for his honeymoon at the Tower, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, Thomas Senlin, gets separated from his wife, Marya, in the overwhelming swarm of tourists, residents, and miscreants.

Senlin is determined to find Marya, but to do so he’ll have to navigate madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassins, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just endure.

This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.

I think I’m going to love this one and it’s bizarre that I haven’t read it yet. Looking forward to jumping in and letting it whisk me off.

 

 

 

August – Obituary (A book set in the desert): Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

 

Cover for Lost Gods by Micah Yongo. The cover is dominated by a beautiful face of ambiguous gender. The figure is Black and wears an assassin's hood. The hilt of a blade reaches to their lips.

 

In this extraordinary fantasy debut, a young assassin finds himself hunted by the brothers and sisters he has trained alongside since birth.

Neythan is one of five young warriors trained and raised together by a mysterious brotherhood of assassins known as the Shedaím. When Neythan is framed for the murder of his closest friend, he pursues his betrayer – and in so doing learns there’s far more to the Brotherhood, and the machinations of the rulers of the warring kingdoms, than he’d ever thought possible. His journey will lead him across the five realms, from the Forest of Silences to the Ash Plains of Calapaar, and reveal the breaches that lie beneath the world, and the hidden truths of his oath.

Another (surprise!) book I’ve owned and had on my TBR for quite some time. Everything about the story and characters appeals to me and based on the blurb I’m expecting a fantasy world I can really sink into, along with complex, well-drawn characters that will leap off the page. I have a feeling this one will be a favourite.

 

 

 

 

September – Rapture (A book featuring romance or sex): The Sorcerer the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

 

The cover of Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. A Black man in ancient-inspired clothing stands before a Romanesque mural depicting warriors fighting. The man holds a spear and has his back to the reader.

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors’ artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.

The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.

The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

From what I remember, this one was quite divisive when it came out. It seems like people love it or hate it, and I tend in such situations to be on the “love” side. TorDotCom is pretty hit or miss for me (as are novellas in general), but this one really sounds like it brings something new to the table and like there’s a depth to the story and especially character that I’ll really like.

October – Eventide (A book set during fall or Halloween): The Hallowe’en Tree by Ray Bradbury

 

 

 

Cover for Ray Bradbury's The Hallowe'en Tree. The cover features an illustrated collage of different Hallowe'en-themed images including a skull, a mummy, a skeleton, pumpkings, a witch, and a gorilla.

A fast-moving, eerie tale set on Halloween night…

Eight costumed boys running to meet their friend Pipkin at the haunted house outside town encounter instead the huge and cadaverous Mr. Moundshroud. As Pipkin scrambles to join them, he is swept away by a dark Something, and Moundshroud leads the boys on the tail of a kite through time and space to search the past for their friend and the meaning of Halloween.

Another classic it’s shocking that I haven’t read! As my list so far probably shows, I love horror, and it’s going to be fun finally reading one of Bradbury’s major contributions to the genre.

 

 

 

 

 

November – Phantasy (A Sci-fi book or set in Space): An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Cover for Rivers Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts. An illustration of a perturbed Black figure looks out at the reader. The figure is transluscent with stars shining through their face and covering the rest of the background. The figure is bald.

 

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

Solomon’s Sorrowland was one of my favourite books of 2023, so I’m eager to finally read An Unkindness of Ghosts. Their work tends to be on the dark side, which suits me fine!

December – Kronos (A Steampunk or Clockpunk book): Everfair by Nisi Shawl

 

The cover for Everfair by Nisi Shawl. Two hands--one human, one robotic--are poised to grasp onto a mysterious glowing device resembling and astrolabe. Butterflies surround the device. The background is a warm orange.Everfair, the brilliant Neo-Victorian alternate-history novel from acclaimed short-story writer Nisi Shawl, potently explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had adopted steam technology as their own.

In Shawl’s eloquently explored vision, told by a multiplicity of voices that have historically been silenced—Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another—Fabian socialists from Great Britian join forces with African American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as former slaves returning from America and other places where African natives and their descendants were being mistreated. The work of keeping this land their own is near impossible, and tragedy is unavoidable. Yet the citizens of Everfair are determined, and even try their hand at the rewarding tasks of governance, invention…and romance.

I’m not very well-read in steam-punk, but this is one I’ve had my eye on since it was published (and after a long wait, its sequel, Kinning, releases in January). It feels like a perfect time to read!

Bonus: The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies

Cover for Trudie Skies's The Thirteenth Hour (part of The Cruel Gods series). A White elven man and woman stand with their backs to one another, staring out at the reader. The woman wears a long, old-fashioned dress and the man is bespectacled in a long coat. The figures stand in front of a large glowing clock with Roman numerals. The image is tinted blue.

When the saints fail, the sinners step up.

Cruel gods rule the steam-powered city of Chime, demanding worship and tribute from their mortal subjects. Kayl lost her faith in them long ago, and now seeks to protect vulnerable and downtrodden mortals from their gods’ whims. But when Kayl discovers powers that she didn’t know she had—and destroys a mortal’s soul by accident—she becomes Chime’s most wanted.

Quen’s job was to pursue sinners, until the visions started. Haunted by foreboding images of his beloved city’s destruction, Quen hunts soul-sucking creatures made of aether who prey on its citizens—and Kayl is his number one target.

To ensure Chime’s future, Kayl and Quen must discover the truth of Kayl’s divine abilities before the gods take matters into their own hands.

For a city that bows to cruel gods, it’ll take godless heathens to save it.

I didn’t want to assign this one to a specific month as I’ve been going through self-pubbed indies like wildfire and I knew if I assigned this to December it’d be a long wait! So I’m going to slip this exciting steampunk SPFBO finalist in earlier in the year.

Are you planning to join the Domain Challenge? If you are, share your own picks (or feel to join me on any of these reads)!

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it). He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. As a reader, Steve’s tastes are eclectic. He enjoys anything that could be called speculative, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but has been known to enjoy a good mystery as well as literary fiction. He’s always excited to try something new or that pushes boundaries, particularly from marginalized authors. Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.

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