I Must Be Writing for Both of Us: Wild Life by Molly Gloss


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Set in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the twentieth century, Wild Life takes the narrative frame of a journal, written across a period of weeks, by Charlotte Bridger Drummond—single mother of five boys, ardent public feminist, professional adventure-romance writer—wherein she has a wilderness experience of her own. Her housekeeper’s granddaughter has gone missing on a trip with her father to the logging camp where he works. Charlotte, repulsed by the company of men but functional within it, takes it upon herself to join the search, as the housekeeper is too old and the mother too frail. At once a work of historical fiction, a speculative romance in the traditional sense, and a broader feminist commentary on genre fiction, Gloss’s novel is a subtle and thorough piece of art.

Originally published in 2000, almost twenty years ago, Wild Life is nonetheless recent enough to have a digital trail of ...

“Raise the Wild Cry”: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields


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Mildred Groves leaves her home for the first time in her life in 1944. In her early twenties, she has lived an isolated life in her small hometown where her only companions were her sharp-tongued, hypochondriac mother, her cruel and indifferent sister, and her weak-willed brother-in-law. But with the economy booming with war production and jobs ripe for the picking, she walks away from everything she knows. Really, she has no choice. A vision told her she would take a secretarial job at the newly built Hanford research facility in eastern Washington state. And so she goes.

Mildred has had visions of the future all her life, but they get more lurid and extreme at the camp. No matter who she tells or what she says, no one ever believes her, not even when they experience the very thing she predicted. Her Hanford friends are troubled by her sleepwalking, while ...

Multiple Choices and No Good Answers: Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test


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Few things can disrupt a schedule more than a good book; my first encounter with Sylvain Neuvel’s fiction cost me a whole day. When I picked up his debut, Sleeping Giants, I had no intention of reading the entire book in a single sitting, and yet I did. Those three hundred pages, packed as they were with giant robots, ancient secrets, conspiracies benevolent or sinister, shocking deaths, and stunning revelations, kept me glued to my chair all through a sunny June afternoon. I immediately ordered the second book of The Themis Files; it too disappeared a day.

The nine hundred or so pages of Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods, and Only Human took their characters around the world, off the world, and through more than twenty eventful years. So it’s a surprise to see that Neuvel’s latest book is a novella largely set in a single room on ...

I Tell You True: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James


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Until recently, Jamaican born writer Marlon James was known best for wining the Man Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, but his latest novel, the sprawling epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is going to very much take place of what the writer is most associated with—there is no doubt.

“I wanted to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” James told The New Yorker last month, “I wanted black pageantry.” And that’s exactly what he’s achieved with this story of Tracker, an angry young protagonist who is known for his nose, and uses this power (alongside his ability to not be harmed by anything ‘born of metal’), to find what no one else can. Tracker, similar to the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, has a most powerful sense of smell—he can smell below the surface to detect emotion; he ...

Breaking In: The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft


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The thrilling third volume of Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel continues the incredible trajectory set by Senlin Ascends and sustained in its excellent successor. The first book in the series was tremendously inventive, and a bunch of fun, but for its iffy beginning; Arm of the Sphinx proved a superlative sequel in every sense, though it too suffered from a section that slowed progress; now, come The Hod King, there can be no denying Bancroft’s mastery of fantasy. It’s the biggest book in the saga so far, and the boldest, and, yes, the best.

So much has happened since Thomas Senlin was separated from his newlywed wife at the foot of the Tower of Babel, a superstructure so very vast that its inhabitants have their own laws and languages and the like. Maps and guidebooks are available, at a cost, but even if they were to be ...

A Simple, Measured Fantasy: Dark of the West by Joanna Hathaway


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Joanna Hathaway’s debut novel, Dark of the West, can classify itself as fantasy by virtue of its setting: a secondary world whose technology seems to fit an equivalent of our 1930s. With its radios and tanks and machine guns, it perhaps bears comparison with Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, another magicless fantasy novel with a 1920s/1930s feel. But Amberlough and its sequels foreground the complexities of politics, understanding that while the personal is political, social movements can be bigger (more complicated, more long-lasting) than any single person. For Dark of the West, there appears to be no such thing as competing political interests. Everything, it seems, comes down to personal animus or personal loyalty.

Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom, raised in privilege and sheltered from real responsibility while her brother is groomed for the throne. She’s kind to small animals, hates hunting, and has ...

An Unquiet Revolution: A People’s Future of the United States of America


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There are a couple of ways to judge an anthology.

The simplest way to appraise one is to reduce the book down to its constituent parts. An anthology is, after all, a collection of stories. And A People’s Future of the United States of America—edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams—is, indeed, a collection of stories. 25 original stories, from a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary American speculative writers.

And, as a collection of stories, A People’s Future does, indeed, collect some very good stories. Reviewed through this entirely arbitrary lens, A People’s Future is, in fact, a stonking success. N.K. Jemisin’s glorious “Give Me Cornbread, or Give Me Death”, Malka Older’s inventive “Disruption and Continuity” and Omar El Akkad’s heart-breaking “Riverbed” are all utterly exceptional works. These three alone are worth the price of a copy. If that’s all an anthology is—a collection of stories—well then, ...

Recasting Fairy Tales: Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss


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Theodora Goss was an award-winning writer of short stories (and poems) before she took to novels (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) but her novels were the first of Goss’s work I’d ever read. I admire them deeply: they’re engaging, solid, well-crafted examples of the form. But Goss’s shorter work, collected here in a new volume, aren’t just good: they’re a revelation.

Snow White Learns Witchcraft—published by Mythic Delirium Books, an outfit perhaps best currently known for its Clockwork Phoenix anthology series and Mythic Delirium Magazine— collects poems and short stories on fairytale themes. There are eight short stories and twenty-three poems, with each short story bracketed by several poems that bear it some thematic or topical similarity.

I’m not particularly enamoured of Goss’s poetic style. It’s a little too plain and unadorned for me—I’m fond of blank ...

Jenn Lyon’s The Ruin of Kings is Darkly Beautiful and Deliciously Complex (Non-Spoiler Review)


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Any fan of the type of complex epic fantasy world-building found in works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series will understand the excitement I felt when I was handed The Ruin of Kings, the debut novel in Jenn Lyons’s new five-volume series, A Chorus of Dragons. My advanced proof clocked in at 740 pages (not counting the additional addendum of the glossary and pronunciation guides) and is exactly the kind of unwieldy, doesn’t-fit-well-in-my-normal-bookbag novel I want to be reading. None of these 200-odd page stories, finished in a day or two! The Ruin of Kings demanded my time, my determination, and my most interrogative reading skills.

And my friends, I am here for it.

The novel’s main character, a fifteen-year-old boy named Kihrin, grew up in the slums of the city of Quur and makes his living as a thief. ...

Strange Lands: The Kingdom of Copper By S.A. Chakraborty


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We leap in to The Kingdom of Copper right where we left off with The City of Brass (if we can recall just where we left off), and then quickly jump to five years later, when Nahri and Muntadhir are married and living under his father King Ghassan’s rule: Muntadhir keeping up with his harems, following in his father’s methods, and Nahri working as the only Nahid, the healer for the djinn. Alizayd is in a village far away, helping irrigate the dessert with his new abilities of ‘finding’ springs, and Dara is with the original Nahid, training an army to take back Daevabad. Each character is caught up in their own plot, each plot is built up and interwoven with the others as the narrative progresses.

Chakraborty seems to be continuing her exploration of the ideas of colonisation, genocide, and the racial and ethnic biases that fueled The City ...

Rise Up: Reckoning of Fallen Gods by R.A. Salvatore


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Last year’s Child of a Mad God was a glorious return to the world of Corona. I love the world from R.A. Salvatore’s tremendously underrated DemonWars Saga, and appreciated the way he handled the transition to a new series in an old world. It had echoes of the past, but also felt like its own thing. Its sequel, Reckoning of Fallen Gods, returns to the cold, bloodless peak of Fireach Speur, and thrusts readers into a tale of revenge and comeuppance, epic magic, and personal journeys that will have world-changing implications.

The demon fossa is dead at the hand of a young, powerful witch named Aoleyn—but what should be a time of celebration is anything but as Aoleyn is prosecuted and sentenced to death by the very people she saved. If that wasn’t enough, little do they know that the fossa was a safeguard against invasion from beyond the ...

Instruments of Our Own Destruction: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett


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Vigilance, a new novella by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a love story between America and its guns—and as with all toxic relationships, someone’s going to get hurt.

In a near-future America undergoing a fast, steep decline—a nation where the young have left for safer and brighter ports, while an older generation hangs on by its fingernails to the old vision of what America could be—a right-wing news organization has found the exact thing to prey on their fear. This America, much like our own, is both fascinated by and numb to the horrors of mass shootings: people are still willing to watch the coverage, and not yet sick of it enough to turn away from the brutality. So John McDean, one of the lead marketers for Our Nation’s Truth television network, has turned shootings into a reality TV show: Vigilance.

Bennett spares no detail in painting a picture of ...

Absurdist Allegory Unclay is Back in Print at Last


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T.F. Powys’s novel Unclay holds the unwelcome distinction of being triply obscure. The first level of obscurity: you’re vanishingly unlikely to meet anyone who knows of an author named Powys—I’ve met three, and two were publishers of authors named Powys. The second level: those who know the name are most likely thinking of John Cowper Powys, elder brother to Theodore Francis. The final level: most everyone who has heard tell of, or even read, Powys, knows only his 1927 allegorical fantasy Mr. Weston’s Good Wine. Unclay, the final novel Powys published in his lifetime, last received an American issue in 1932, four years before Harvard underclassman and steel heir James Laughlin published the first title under the New Directions banner. Eighty-six years on from its last appearance in the US, New Directions has revived Unclay.

I’m not sure how where they found it, but I’m glad they did: ...

Hidden Depths and Dangerous Waters: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler


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Django Wexler is an accomplished fantasy writer, as evidenced by his epic fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns, as well as his middle grade series, The Forbidden Library. Between those two series, he’s shown that he can write complex, complicated characters of all ages while also tackling larger issues woven around weighty themes such as war, family, love, and more. With his newest novel, Ship of Smoke and Steel, Wexler flexes those powerful muscles once more, and ventures forth into the realm of Young Adult fantasy with a world that’s built around brutal magic, flexible morality, complicated feelings, and the difficulties of growing up when all you’ve ever been is a weapon.

Eighteen-year-old Isoka is an enforcer in the Sixteenth Ward of Kahnzoka, toiling for the larger bosses to keep order, and making enough money to keep her younger sister away from the brutality of it all, safe and secreted ...

Layers of Strangeness: Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds


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We all know how revenge stories start. As the protagonist of such enterprises—complete, in all probability, with a shadowy past—you’re busy living your happy little life when, what do you know, along comes a kidnapper or a killer who takes something precious from you. Be it the love of your life, some particularly precious prize, or indeed a dog, you can’t pretend this awful thing hasn’t happened, much as you mean to, and so, as sure as the sun will set, you return to your formerly wicked ways, or find hidden depths inside yourself dark enough to put you on the path to payback.

We all know how revenge stories start, and we know how they end as well. Although you are very likely changed by the journey to hell and back you’ve survived by the skin of your teeth, you’ve managed, against all odds, to make the bad people ...

Fast, Fun Fantasy: Song of the Dead by Sarah Glenn Marsh


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Song of the Dead is the sequel to Sarah Glenn Marsh’s debut Reign of the Fallen. I reviewed Reign of the Fallen here last year and enjoyed its voice and approach, though I found its pacing uneven, and its treatment of relationships not quite up to the highest mark, but it had voice in spades, and engaging characterisation.

Song of the Dead shares some of Reign of the Fallen’s flaws, but also its virtues. Adolescent master necromancer Odessa, having participated in a revolution that upended the rule of the Dead over her island home country of Karthia and helped to install a friend on the throne, has set off to see the world in the ship of another friend—the smuggler Kasmira, who’s been defying Karthia’s ban on intercourse with the rest of the world for quite some time, and is happy now that the ban’s been lifted. Odessa meant ...

A Politics of Synthesis: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders


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Ecological disaster and social collapse loom on the horizon for the inhabitants of January, human descendants of a generation ship whose advanced technologies have long since failed. Political and economic tensions ride high in both of the planet’s most populous cities, separated by a deadly tract of wilderness and segregated by past conflicts, while trouble also brews outside human habitation in the massive section of the planet that exists in total darkness.

Sophie, a Xiosphanti student from the impoverished end of town attending an upper class school, is drawn into a young activist circle by her outgoing wealthy roommate with drastic consequences leading to a brutal near-death experience. However, Sophie’s chance rescue by one of the alien inhabitants of the Night is the catalyst for a series of conflicts both grand and intimate in scale that offer the start of an answer to the crises facing her world.

Some spoilers.

...

Vultures by Chuck Wendig is the Perfect End to Miriam’s Story


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Everything has been building up to this. Miriam is pregnant and isn’t particularly excited about it. The man she loved is dead, murdered by someone she cared for. The woman she loves has a rapidly approaching expiration date. The feds are onto her. And the Trespasser is circling like a vulture over its prey. Miriam is beaten but not broken, but for the Trespasser it’s only a matter of time until she snaps. The Trespasser can wait; it has all the time in the world. Miriam doesn’t. Her time is quickly running out and when it finally does…

After the events of The Raptor and the Wren, Miriam discovers three things: the Trespasser can inhabit people and convince them to do terrible things, she’s knocked up, and the baby will die before taking its first breath. Needing some stability after the decimation of the only good period of her ...

Swashbuckling Fantasy with Political Intrigue: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock


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An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2018), the first volume in Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms series, was an extremely accomplished fantasy novel. It combined intrigue, adventure, and swashbuckling in a setting filled with airships and floating kingdoms, ancient religion, lost knowledge, and powerful magic. Its politics bore the influence of Renaissance Europe while its narrative approach held something of the flair of Alexandre Dumas. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors set a strikingly high bar for any sequel to follow.

Fortunately, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery more than meets that bar. It’s just as good as its predecessor—if not better.

Isabelle des Zephyrs finished the events of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors in a position of strength and triumph. Her king, le Grand Leon (a figure based at least partially on Louis XIV, the Sun King), had appointed her ambassador to the Great Peace—and she had newly ...

You Don’t Need to Understand Magic: The Gathering to Fully Enjoy Brandon Sanderson’s Children of the Nameless


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Brandon Sanderson Magic: The Gathering novella Children of the Nameless excerpt

Magic: The Gathering is the most successful and enduring trading card game of all time. It started life in 1993 when brilliant designer Richard Garfield and a plucky young company called Wizards of the Coast decided to expand on the growing market for fantasy games, and, well, since then it’s only become more and more popular. From 2008 to 2016, 20 billion (billion!) Magic cards were produced and sold. Most recently, Wizards of the Coast launched Magic: The Gathering Arena, a digital client that will provide new avenues for growth and introduce many more players to the game. While Magic is a card game, and many of its most intense stories are those that play out between opponents in tournament halls, around kitchen tables, or online, it’s also home to one of the longest running and deepest fantasy universes ever designed.

While the game’s core story is told through ...