Books have always been a refuge for me. Not a unique sentiment but a profoundly true one for me. Growing up largely in South-East Asia and moving between various countries in that region with the odd years back in the United States; I quickly learned that no matter where I ended up as long as I had a good book with me, I’d be alright. That carried over into my adult life where pretty much every job I’ve held has been with books. In the fall of 2017, I started as a bookseller at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, NC and count myself truly lucky to have ended up here.
Bookmarks was founded back in 2004 as a literary arts non-profit festival of books and authors held every September that has grown to the largest in the Carolinas. Over the years, Bookmarks added an Authors in School program connecting over 12,000 students a year with authors and in July of 2017 they opened a non-profit independent bookstore in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem. My favorite thing about my store is that all of the profits that we make at the store go back into funding programs like our Book Build project which over the course of three years is injecting a total of 25,000 new, diverse, and relevant titles into every public school library in our county. Beyond being able to hang out around books all day, I love working for a store that has a vision for the future of our community and is actively working every day to make sure as many people as possible in our community have access to new, diverse, and inclusive books.
Fantasy and science fiction has long been my favorite genre to read and I’m a firm believer that there is a sci-fi/fantasy reader in all of us and you just need to find the right book. My current favorite series to recommend to anyone with a remote interest in modern fantasy writing is J.Y. Yang’s epic “silkpunk” fantasy Tensorate series, starting with The Black Tides of Heaven. The books follow the fates of twins Mokoya and Akeha from birth to adulthood as they navigate the treacherous politics of their world. Dealing with themes of free will, technology, and family loyalty; Yang effortlessly weaves these threads together into a brisk, compelling fantasy saga full of flying nagas, magic, and quiet moments longing and introspection. As a nonbinary author themselves, Yang does some amazing and important world-building around the ideas of gender and language; using the fiction of the world they have crafted to interrogate and reflect our own.
With each subsequent entry the series continues to delight and surprise. The silkpunk world of the Protectorate is extremely rich and full of personality and Yang’s structures each novella quite differently both in tone and style. It constantly astounds me how rich and deep each of these slims books are; a true masterclass in world-building and what fantasy can do. And having Yuko Shimizu craft amazing covers doesn’t hurt either!
This year I’ve also been recommending Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame to whoever will listen to me. Nothing is better than diving into a book where from page one you feel that the author is in complete control of their narrative and all you as a reader need to do is pay attention and buckle in for one hell of a ride; Middlegame is just such a book. Seanan McGuire has long been one of the most hardworking and prolific writers in fantastical fiction today, Middlegame feels like the book she has been building towards. Telling the story of twins, Roger and Dodger, created by alchemists and separated at birth; the novel tells an incredibly nuanced tale of family, power, and free-will – all while including one of the most satisfying time-travel narratives I’ve ever read. I never felt its 528 pages as I burned through it in the course of a couple days. It really is one of the must read sci-fi/fantasy novels of the 2019.
Finally, Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga is rapidly becoming one of my favorite modern series. Told with the grand sweep of an epic fantasy but with the grit & moral grey areas of a hard-boiled crime drama, Jade City is a triumph. Taking place in an urban fantasy analog of an East Asian island nation (think Hong Kong), clan wars and family loyalties take center stage in this action-packed novel about the battle to control the jade trade. Jade is not only an insanely valuable commodity in this universe but gives the wearer superhuman abilities. The story is centered on the Kaul family, who are leaders of the No Peak Clan, and are in the midst of a decades long tussle for control of the island with the rival Mountain Clan. Triads, honor, duty, and magic; Lee takes elements that could have been an absolute mess and mixes them perfectly in a story that thrums with energy and emotion.
With such a high bar set by the first book I had my doubts about the follow up but Jade War does absolutely everything you want from a sequel: expanding the world, raising the stakes, and further developing characters I loved from Jade City. While large chunks of the book are still set on the fictional island of Kekon, it also takes some of our characters out into the wider world that Lee has created.
Just like the first book, Jade War’s glorious mash-up of The Godfather and classic Hong Kong crime films with a dash of magic is extremely engaging and satisfying. Kekon and the capital city of Janloon feel vibrantly gritty and it’s a credit to Lee’s writing and worldbuilding that the cast never feels overstuffed and I never got bogged down in the details of trying to remember who is with what clan or the mechanics of the jade “magic”. A suspenseful, barn-burner of a book; I cannot wait to see how Lee brings this to a thundering conclusion in book three.
So if you ever find yourself in Winston-Salem, stop by Bookmarks and come find me haunting our Science Fiction & Fantasy section. I love to hear what you are reading.
Caleb Masters is an Assistant Bookstore Manager at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, NC. He spent most of the first 18 years of his life in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia before moving back to the United States to study anthropology with a focus on cross-cultural interaction. A life-long fan of all things fantasy and science fiction, he would like to read all of the books all of the time, please.