Tor.com content by

Aidan Moher

Spirited: Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers

Ghost Talkers treads familiar ground. In fact, the ground is so well-trodden by the boots of hundreds of novels, films, documentaries, and video games that it’s nothing but a once lush field of grass turned to mud and boot prints. You’d be forgiven for avoiding yet another narrative set to the backdrop of the Great War—but, like all good narratives, Ghost Talkers rises above the over-familiarity of its setting to offering something unique.

Meet the Spirit Corps—the titular “ghosts talkers”—a group of men and women who use their occult magic to communicate with the spirits of dead soldiers, giving the British forces a leg-up against their enemies during World War I. From Helen to Edna, Mr. Haden to Mrs. Richardson, each member of the Spirit Corps feels real and motivated. Relationships linger between them, not always tied to Ginger Stuyvesant, Ghost Talkers’ hero. You get the sense that much happens behind the scenes for these characters, which enriches the story, and makes the narrative punches hit harder. I was reminded most, oddly, of BBC’s Call the Midwife, a television series which features similar depths within the relationships between various characters. Just imagine that Jenny, Trixie, and the rest were gun-wielding, ghost-corralling psychic mediums fighting from just behind the front lines at Amiens, rather than life-saving and community-binding healthcare providers.

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SFF Against Cancer: Shawn Speakman on Unfettered II

Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered (Grim Oak Press, 2013) was released to well deserved fanfare and celebration. Not only did it have a star-studded line-up featuring fan favorite authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, Jacqueline Carey, Tad Williams, and Naomi Novik, it was also a near-and-dear project for Speakman’s friends and family. In 2011, Speakman was diagnosed with cancer—he was successfully treated, but accrued massive medical debts as a result. Unfettered was born from his desire to pay off that debt and avoid declaring medical bankruptcy. Many prominent authors donated stories to the project, and the book was a huge success for Speakman personally and for science fiction and fantasy readers everywhere.

“These stories remind readers that modern fantasy fiction rests firmly on Beowulf,” said John Ruch of Paste Magazine in his review of Unfettered. “In that ancient monster-slaying tale, generosity and fellowship prove the hallmarks of a king, and braving indescribable horrors and pains defines a hero. Speakman’s book, in style and substance, in community and bravery, stands as a worthy heir to the Beowulf tradition.”

Unfettered has continued to find new readers, even three years after its first publication, and Grim Oak Press recently revealed a new edition of the anthology with an additional story and a brand new cover from Todd Lockwood. Hot on the heels of this announcement, Grim Oak Press has unveiled the sequel to the critically-acclaimed anthology, suitably titled Unfettered II. Once again, all the proceeds from the project are going to the fight against cancer, and to Speakman’s newly launched not-for-profit, Grim Oak Shield.

I caught up with Speakman to discuss the anthology series, his efforts to rally science fiction and fantasy against cancer, his wonderful mother, and when readers can expect to dive into Unfettered II.

[Unlock your fetters]

Stealing the Future: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I have a confession to make. When I finished the first chapter of Ninefox Gambit, the debut novel from noted short fiction author Yoon Ha Lee, I thought that was all I would read. It wasn’t clicking with me. I found the world confusing, the action gruesome, and the pace difficult to keep up with. I could recognize that novel’s quality, and the originality that Lee is known for, but other books beckoned, and there was an easy, lazy whisper at the back of my head. “It’s just not for you,” it said. I listened, and moved onto another book.

Yet, here I am reviewing it.

Funny thing happened. That whisper was replaced by another voice—one that kept speculating about Ninefox Gambit‘s opening salvo. Then a couple of readers I respect began to rave about the book, and that voice in my head grew louder and louder, until it was impossible to ignore. The last time something like this happened was with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I found tough going for the first act, but then adored by the time I hit the final page. So, I listened, and, boy, am I glad I did. Ninefox Gambit asks a lot of readers when they pick it up, but damn if it doesn’t repay in double by the end.

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Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a Rough-edged Gem

Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary opens in the wake of pure chaos. The king is dead, and his greatest lapidary, a sort of sorcerer who can control the kingdom’s great magic gems, has betrayed everyone he knows and loves. The Western Mountain forces, led by their ferocious Commander, Nal, are arriving en masse, an invasion so large that the remaining people of the Jewel Valley have no choice but to surrender. The Star Cabochon, the last gem remaining to the Jewel Kingdom, and the only thing with the power to save (or doom) the people of the valley, is missing. Lin, heir to the throne, and Sima, her lapidary, are imprisoned, threatened by death, or worse, if they do not turn the Star Cabochon over to Nal.

If that sounds like a lot to take in all at once: it is. There’s a tremendous sense of tension and frenetic anxiety as the Jewel Valley is invaded and Lin and Sima recognize the betrayal that has occurred—but rather than being pulled into the story, I felt pulled under, drowning in details and struggling to keep up with the various politics, social complexities, and personal conflicts. A story must start with conflict, always, but conflict also requires empathy from the reader if they’re to invest in the story. Because Wilde throws us right in the deep end without water wings, I found myself focusing more on my inability to stay afloat—to understand the political and magical implications of the Western Mountains’ invasion of the Jewel Valley—than the personal journeys of Lin and Sima.

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Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 53 and 54

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to the final installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, the the Dagda Mor was defeated in an epic final confrontation between the Elves and Demons, and the Ellcrys was reborn at great cost!

This week, the Elves begin to rebuild, Eventine passes away and Ander becomes King, Allanon disappears into the darkness, Wil mourns the loss of a friend, and Eretria finally gets what she’s been after.

[Click to become King of the Elves]

Series: Rereading Shannara

MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles is a Modern Take on an Old Classic

It might have taken decades for Shannara fans to finally get their hands on a screen adaptation of Terry Brooks’ classic fantasy series, but it took only a few hours for them to devour the first four episodes (available now on the official website) and begin debating its merits online and around the water cooler. The Shannara Chronicles, which debuted on MTV on January 5th, is an adaptation of Brooks’ second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara, regarded by many readers as his finest work. It might seem odd to begin with an author’s second novel, but, as I discuss in Rereading Shannara, it’s actually the perfect introductory point for new fans to the series.

As a tried-and-true Shannara fan, with a close personal history with Elfstones, I was particularly keen—and concerned—for this adaptation. There’s a lot to be excited about, of course (Brooks’ character-driven narratives are perfect for television, and Elfstones is a terrific story), but also some areas of concern (MTV? Really?) So, as I’ve learned to do over the years, I approached The Shannara Chronicles cautiously but optimistically.

[Click to summon the magic of the Elfstones]

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 50-52

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, Amberle woke the Bloodfire, and Perk came to the rescue as night fell over the Wilderun.

This week, the Elves prepare for their final showdown with the Demon army, the Dagda Mor is defeated, and the Ellcrys is reborn!

[Click to become the Ellcrys]

Series: Rereading Shannara

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 48 and 49

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, the Witch sisters met their fiery end, Amberle woke the Bloodfire, and Wil defeated the Reaper with the help of his friends!

This week, Amberle wakens the Ellcrys seed, and Perk comes to the rescue!

[Click to bathe the Ellcrys seed in the Bloodfire]

Series: Rereading Shannara

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 45–47

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last Week, the Eventine was attacked by a close friend, Ander stepped into the spotlight, Mallenroh stole the Elfstones, and Amberle was reunited with Wil and Eretria.

This week, the Witch sisters set the world aflame, Hebel lives, Amberle wakens the Bloodfire, and Wil faces the Reaper!

[Click to throttle Wisp]

Series: Rereading Shannara

Waking the Giant: Rereading Leviathan Wakes

It’s been just four-and-a-half years since James S.A. Corey — a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham, author of The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin (both fantasy series), and Ty Franck, who was George R.R. Martin’s personal assistant at the time the series debuted — released his ‘debut’ novel, Leviathan Wakes, to both popular and critical acclaim.

Leviathan Wakes was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus Awards, and, with each subsequent volume of The Expanse, the series’ fan-base has grown larger, cementing it as one of Orbit Books’ best selling series. Corey immediately won over fans clamouring for accessible and hip science fiction. While it owes much inspiration to the golden age of Science Fiction — from Poul Anderson and Judith Merril, to Arthur C. Clarke and Alfred Bester — it’s also undeniably modern, featuring a rich, diverse cast of characters, relevant politics, and a snappy prose style that’s perfect for tugging readers from one chapter to the next even in this age of distractions.

[Click to poke the Protomolecule]

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 42–44

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last Week, Cephelo stole the Elfstones, Wil got them back, the siege of Arborlon began, and we had our first glimpse of Mallenroh.

This week, the King is attacked, Ander comes into his own, Mallenroh desires the Elfstones, and our trio of heroes are reunited.

[Click to whittle a man and his dog]

Series: Rereading Shannara

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 38-41

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, the Elven army limped into Arborlon, the King awoke, and Amberle and Wil met an old foe and a new friend.

This week, the Elfstones are stolen and regained, the siege of Arborlon begins, and Mallenroh makes a dramatic entrance.

[Click to pry open Cephelo’s hands]

Series: Rereading Shannara

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 35–37

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s instalment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, Amberle and Wil discovered that Grimpen Ward is just as dangerous as they were led to believe.

This week, the Elven army limps into Arborlon, the King awakens, and Amberle and Wil meet an old foe, and learn about the location of Safehold.

[Click to wake up Eventine]

Series: Rereading Shannara

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 33 and 34

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s instalment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last Week, the Forbidding collapsed, the Crown Prince fell, Stee Jans saved the day, and the true Demon army revealed itself.

This week, Amberle and Wil discover that Grimpen Ward is just as dangerous as they were led to believe.

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Series: Rereading Shannara

Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 30-32

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s instalment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, the Free Corps arrived, the Elves marched from Arborlon, we learned of Stee Jans’ heroic past, and the Forbidding threatened full collapse.

This week, the Forbidding collapses, the Crown Prince falls, Stee Jans saves the day, and a new threat shows its face.

[Click to lift the Ellcrys staff]

Series: Rereading Shannara