By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 25, 2020 at 07:30 AM EST
Margaret K. McElderry Books; Bloomsbury Publishing

The battle between good and evil — it’s a clash that’s set the stage for the most spectacular, sprawling of stories, from the days of Beowulf and Arthurian legend to modern phenomena like Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That age-old conflict finds new life in two of the biggest fantasy novels of the year, waged in both books between angels and demons, with an all-powerful core of love at their centers.

Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass), whose YA books have sold more than 9 million copies worldwide, makes her adult-fiction debut with House of Earth and Blood, the first in her epic new Crescent City series. Full of complex sociopolitical commentary and steamy romance, it earns the more mature label, with depictions of toe-curling sex, explicit violence, and liberal swearing (don’t worry, we won’t tell your parents).

Half-human, half-Fae Bryce Quinlan presents as a party girl, keeping everyone at arm’s length after a demon brutally murders her closest friends. Desperate for vengeance, Bryce plunges into an investigation when the murders pile up, putting her in the company of Fallen angel Hunt Athalar, the city’s top assassin. Enslaved by the archangels he once attempted to overthrow, Hunt hides a deep tenderness within his Shadow of Death exterior. He and Bryce connect instantly, which destabilizes them, their lives intersecting in a dizzying, suspenseful whirl that surprises at every turn.

With burgundy hair, killer heels, and a carefully honed preservation instinct, Bryce emerges as an ideal heroine for our age, a woman both sharply guarded and vitally vulnerable. She sports a leather jacket that belonged to her late best friend, Danika, that’s embroidered with the words “Through love, all is possible,” a phrase essential to Maas’ storytelling in more ways than one.

The author’s world-building skills have long been considered among the finest of her peers. And they’re newly thrilling in Earth and Blood, intricately rendering Crescent City as a place that feels both familiar and wildly imagined. But it’s Maas’ sweeping feel for love stories, and particularly her essential take on female fellowship, that cast the real spell.

Cassandra Clare’s got a romantic soul (and a lot of fans, with more than 50 million books in print) too, but hits a few bumps kicking off the fourth set of novels in her Shadowhunter Chronicles with Chain of Gold. A tale of teen Shadowhunters facing off against a mysterious demon threat in Edwardian London, it follows Cordelia Carstairs as she travels there and reunites with childhood friends Lucie and James Herondale, the latter of whom she secretly pines for. They and others Cordelia meet along the way must unite to dismantle the dark legacy at the heart of a new spate of evil attacks, putting their platonic and romantic relationships to the test.

Clare’s earlier Shadowhunter works, which inspired the film The Mortal Instruments and a Freeform TV series, possess more verve than Chain of Gold. The drama feels rote, the beats repetitive; she retreads themes she’s already perfected. But Clare still gets at something fundamental about storytelling. “The point of stories is not that they are objectively true, but that the soul of the story is truer than reality,” goes one potent line, a pure distillation of fantasy’s enchanting mirror held up to our own truths.

Both Maas and Clare traffic in the romantic — its heartbreaks, its bursts of desire, its ecstasy — but the purity of friendship is their enduring creative lifeblood. These authors revel in the power of family — those we inherit as well as those we choose. As Maas reminds us, through love, all is possible.

These are also supernatural stories, of course, and those elements unfurl in mundane and majestic fashion alike. But Maas and Clare ultimately make magic where they always do: in the bravery, triumphs, and sacrifices of vivid characters who aren’t bonded by humanity, exactly, but something very close.

House of Earth and Blood: A
Chain of Gold: B

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