There is something to be said for the feeling of stepping into a fictional world so vivid you blissfully lose your own reality. Well, there are a lot of things to be said for it- but I want to lead with the least eloquent one I can think of: Wow.

For most of my life, I did this incessantly. My genre of choice has always been fantasy: give me something rich and unimaginable. Don’t get me wrong, I’d read anything. I’d devour a romance, a mystery, or even a well-paced thriller. But force me out of my comfort zone and challenge the bounds of make believe, and I couldn’t resist. I would read as much as a book a day, getting lost in worlds and lives that are barely conceivable. Then, life happened – kids, marriage, house, and bills. I forgot how to see the magic I once found in the pages of my favorite book worlds and, after a time, I stopped caring about what I’d lost. But what’s lost is often found, and as I emerged from the haze that had consumed me, I ached to find this book-driven part of me.

Determined to get my groove back, I fell into a literary fantasy world in the pages of a multi-realm fantasy universe called Steel & Stone. The appeal of a series showcasing strong female lead – a whole lot of otherworldly adventure – as well as an additional series set in the same universe was more temptation than I could take. I told myself that, to break my draught, five books in three weeks while parenting two kids was exactly the kind of intensity I needed.  The books were penned by Annette Marie, an author I had enjoyed a more recent series from just a few months prior. I challenged myself to read all of Steel & Stone in the short break between semesters.

I did it. I read all five books and expanded on my original goal to include the prequel trilogy and the companion short story collection. My three-week break became the foundation for falling in love. In the span of these nine novels, I found the space inside me that has been missing from my life for too long: a space now occupied by otherworldly daemons and strong women. Magic, adventure and love – not just romantic love but enduring and multifaceted love of friends, self and partners alike – all awaited me when I stepped into Annette Marie’s Steel & Stone universe. It was a study in morality, emotion and adrenaline. I immersed myself the world she created, and when I reached the very last page of the very last book, I left a little of myself tucked inside the cover.

From the first chapter of Chase the Dark, the strength of heroine Piper is engaging and relatable. Though the story in the primary five novels of Steel & Stone are told from Piper’s perspective, we are also plunged into the lives of her traveling companions. Lyre and Ash, a yin and yang pair of warriors with big hearts and bigger weapons, accompany her through three realms, countless adventures, and all manner of emotional turmoil with a ferocity and loyalty that is not unmarred by betrayal and hurt.

Descriptions of two-sunned skies, blue tinged plants and dusty, acrid air painted the insides of my mind so vividly that it was easy to forget they didn’t exist. A post-apocalyptic Earth with decimated cities and no cars echoed the familiar reality of the Earth that lay just beyond my door, a tangible connection. Within these worlds, intricate castes of daemons, people with magical abilities, and political power plays build as seamlessly as a flowing river, moving into and against one another with compelling depth. The beautifully spun imagery that comes alive, and despite the exposition, the book never feels like an information dump. Literary escapism is unique in that the framework is given, but the imagination can take liberties in the way it stitches all the elements together.

On every page and with each experience and unexpected emotional twist, Annette Marie cultivates a careful balance of exhilarating adventure and emotional tension. The consistent drive for balance between what is felt and what is experienced offers an accessible understanding of not only the struggles Piper faces, but how she processes them and ultimately makes decisions. At every turn, we are right there with her to explore her inner and outer worlds, and it’s hard not to fall in love with a character as richly quantified as each primary character in this series is.

When I reached the end of Piper’s journey, I was far from ready to be done. I moved right into the prequel series. The Spell Weaver trilogy, written after the Steel & Stone series, takes place five years prior and offers a different narrative with an in-depth view into the same universe. The narrative comes alive as it is told in dual perspective. We see the world through Lyre’s eyes and also from the viewpoint of a new character, Clio, who introduces a new kind of strong female heroine I didn’t know I was missing. Clio’s vulnerability exists in harmony with her ruthless loyalty. The contrasting narratives of Piper and Clio as powerful female characters is striking.

I returned to reading for the love of fantasy and the hope of escapism in my ongoing effort to reclaim my own space in this world. This universe has given me the gift of a renewed relationship with my imagination and rekindled an intense love of reading. It’s the kind of exploration born only from fantasy that forces you out of your comfort zone and into a whole new perspective.

Even after several thousand pages, I’m not ready to leave the world whose foundation is now intricately rooted in my heart. Fortunately, I don’t have to forever. A third series in this universe is planned, with an anticipated release in the next couple of years. I’ll be waiting at the edge of my reality to fall back into theirs for as long as they’ll have me.


Danielle Shull is a mom by day, student by night, and occasionally also a human being. She’s an avid lover of coffee, festive socks, fountain pens, Netflix binges, and really great books. Writing is both a source of and release for the anxiety that colors her life in unexpected ways. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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