Tor.com content by

Alex Brown

Sanctioned Sororicide: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Into every generation a slay— wait, let’s try that again. Into every generation triplet queens are born. Each sister specializes in one of three magics: Mirabelle is a fiery elemental with the ability to command earth, wind, fire, and water; Arsinoe a naturalist who communes with plants and animals; and Katharine a cunning poisoner able to consume toxins as if they were sugar pills. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Instead, Mirabelle is the one with all the power and her younger sisters more or less giftless.

For decades, the poisoner faction has defeated the naturalists and elementals and retained control of the throne, yet with the backing the Temple of the Goddess and her priestesses, this year the elemental is the favored champion. No one thinks Arsinoe, the plain country mouse of the trio, even stands a chance. Nevertheless, all three will square off at Beltane on their sixteenth birthday. Three queens enter, only one will survive. Years of training in their arts has brought them to this moment, yet none of them are prepared for the chaos that ensues. Hearts are broken, loyalties tested, schemes foiled, and friendships betrayed. The queens must decide if they want to play by the rules and murder the only family they have left or take matters into their own hands and defy the Goddess and their kingdom.

[“Two to devour, and one to be queen.”]

Pull List: Thrills and Chills with Afterlife with Archie

It may only be September, but the Halloween season has already begun for me. The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack has moved up in rotation and the stack of horror movies is piling up on my DVD player. Afterlife with Archie has been out since 2013—counting a few breaks—and yet for some inexplicable reason, especially given my vocal and undying love of the Archie and Jughead reboots, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until recently. Now I wish I’d been reading it all along, but at least I got in when I did. Pop culture is oversaturated with zombies as of late and where most new content comes preloaded with diminished returns, Afterlife with Archie soars with refreshing originality.

[“This is how the end of the world begins…”]

Where to Start with Delilah S. Dawson

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Delilah S. Dawson—aka Lila Bowen, aka Ava Lovelace—but it’s a damn shame if you haven’t. I first encountered her a little over two years ago when she did a guest blog for John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” series for her then new book Servants of the Storm. She wrote about how writing a character like Dovey, one strong enough to stand up for herself and refuse to accept violence, manipulation, and abuse, was a means of catharsis for the terrible things that happened to Dawson at a young woman. Not only did the book sound like exactly the kind of fantasy story I’d always wanted, but Dawson herself was the kind of author, kind of woman I knew I needed to get to know better. Within days I’d followed her on Twitter and consumed Servants of the Storm and added everything else she’d written to my To Read pile.

Outside producing some of the best underappreciated books of the last few years, she also teaches writing classes and workshops, blogs thoughtfully about the craft of writing, and speaks out on topics like grief, depression, and sexual assault. Her stories are all over the subgenre map in the best way possible while remaining solidly in the realm of SFF. Dawson writes with bite, passion, and all the intensity of a geek bubbling with excitement over some obscure piece of fandom. She inspires me to be a better writer and to tell my own stories without worrying about what publishers or booksellers might scoff at.

[“Don’t whine. Art harder”]

Fall 2016 TV: New Shows, Old Shows, and Plenty of Remakes

And we’re back with my semi-annual television schedule of what’s new, what’s old, and what’s best forgotten. The 2015-2016 season had quite a few new and returning geek and geek-adjacent shows on the docket, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) a lot of them didn’t make it through the summer. With Castle, Galavant, and Person of Interest KIA and The Muppets, Containment, Minority Report, and Limitless DOA, there’s plenty of room for the 2016-2017 freshman group.

So what looks good to you?

[Read more]

Pull List: The Vision

I absolutely adore this trend in comics of showing superheroes off duty and dealing with day-to-day issues, where it’s less about physical prowess and more about the ramifications of using their abilities. It’s more interesting to me to see the powerful confront their powers and the effect their powers have on the powerless. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye is hard to beat, but Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision comes close. This isn’t a story about Vision kicking ass and taking names but a smaller scale tale of ethics versus morality, family versus friends, interlopers versus denizens.

[“Vision thought he could make a family. A happy, normal family.”]

Ants. Why Did It Have To Be Ants? Chuck Wendig’s Invasive

Ok, so there’s this guy and he’s dead, killed by a horde of ants. And not just any ants, no, these ones have been Frankensteined together into a devilish hybrid, one that swarms its victim, stings it into paralysis, then cuts off pieces of skin while the victim is still alive. Agent Hollis Copper, last seen recovering from the events in Zer0es, is tasked with sorting out the who, when, where, and why. He brings in Hannah Stander, a futurist consultant for the FBI with a penchant for anxiety attacks and a doomsday mindset. Hannah was raised to fear the future by her apocalypse prepper parents, but now instead of preparing to weather the end of times she aims to defend against it.

Hannah leaves the study of the little formicidae monsters to her BFF, entomologist Dr. Ez Choi, who discovers a connection to Arca Labs, a company owned by billionaire Einar Geirsson. This sends Hannah off to Arca’s secret biotech lab off the coast of Hawai’i. Nothing is what it seems at the lab, and the more holes Hannah pokes in the scientists’ stories the more terrors crawl out. It’s up to Hannah to save the world, but first she has to survive the island.

[“The dead man on the floor has no skin.”]

Is Pete’s Dragon an Uninspired Remake or a Modern Children’s Classic?

I never would’ve expected a movie like Pete’s Dragon to be so divisive in reviews, but here we are with many critics lavishing it with praise and a few grumpy stalwarts like me far less impressed. While there was plenty of enticing adventure, beautiful cinematography, and winks to the original to keep even the most uninvested viewer interested, the combination of underdeveloped characters, fizzled out action sequences, and not enough story to span a nearly two hour running time left me unimpressed.

[“You don’t have to run anymore, Pete. You can stay with us.”]

“A Dragon! A Dragon! I Swear I Saw a Dragon!” The Magic of Love in Pete’s Dragon

In a few days time, Disney is releasing a remake of the 1977 movie Pete’s Dragon. While it’s a stretch to call the original film a classic, it’s definitely endearing in its own clunky, inoffensive, cheerful way. I’ll be reviewing the remake, but before I line up to have my childhood plundered I wanted one last look at one of my all-time favorite movies.

[“You sure changed my life. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy until I met you.”]

A Walk In The Woods: Drew Magary’s The Hike

One afternoon Ben wanders off to take a hike in the woods, a decision he quickly regrets. A spontaneous turn down the wrong trail draws him away from the seedy hotel his company put him up in on his business trip, away from the picturesque Pennsylvania countryside, away from everyone he’s ever known or loved. What was supposed to be a leisurely loop becomes a harrowing journey through the darkest recesses of his psyche. As he is pulled deeper into the nightmarish, two-mooned alternate dimension where physics are merely a suggestion, men with the skinned faces of Rottweilers stitched over their own hunt him down, a giant woman threatens to turn him into stew, and monsters enslave him until he’s little more than callouses and sinew.

In his new book The Hike, Drew Magary tells the story of how Ben is ripped from his suburban Maryland family and forced onto a path he cannot veer off of nor escape. The past, present, and future fold together until time has no meaning. It’s all Ben can do to keep his sanity intact as he recreates and rectifies his worst memories and personal demons. Along the way he befriends a snarky Crab who dispenses words of wisdom and a hopeful 15th century Spanish sailor with dreams of glory and honor. Sinister cohorts of the Producer, the man who set this whole play in motion, attack, derail, and imprison him while taunting him with all-too-brief moments of joy and respite. The Producer has grand plans for Ben and Ben better pray he survives long enough to confront the manipulative bastard.

[“They were all gone. Everything…everyone…was gone.”]

Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesse. Or, Deconstructing Preacher Season 1

If you looked up “uneven” in the dictionary, Preacher would be one of the first entries, right next to The Walking Dead. Developments that feel organic to one viewer come off as forced plot necessities to another. Where one character moment may seem powerful and heartbreaking, someone else only sees a sudden out of character shift lacking prior groundwork. Sure, there’s a lot of great work coming out of the writers’ room, but there’s also an increasing number of troublesome issues bogging down the story. No one seems to have figured out what sort of show Preacher is supposed to be, to the detriment of the characters, narrative, and series arc.

[“So, what do we do now? You fancy a shag?”]

Pull List: Kim & Kim

I think it’s fair to say that 2016 sucks. It is a year that is dark and full of terrors and getting worse by the day. There are a few bright spots scattered through the hellscape, however, and Mags Visaggio and Eva Cabrera’s Kim & Kim is one of them. Not only is it one of the best ass-kicking, patriarchy-smashing, queer-rocking comics since Midnighter, but it’s an indie comic to boot.

[“Score another for the Fighting Kims.”]

I Want To Believe: Flying by Carrie Jones

Mana is not having a good day. Her crush turns out to be an acid-spitting alien, her mom goes missing, her house gets trashed, the Men in Black are after her, oh, and she discovers she can fly. One day she’s a down-to-earth cheerleader with a helicopter mom and two over-achieving best friends and the next she’s being debriefed by an alien and teaming up with China, her mother’s secret government agent partner, on a massive alien hunt. Everything she thought she knew about her life and the world is wrong and about to get worse. Soon she’s caught in the crosshairs between benevolent aliens, malevolent monsters, G-men, and rogue agents, but with the help of her potential new beau, Lyle, and her BFF, Seppie, she just might manage to save the world.

Carrie Jones’ Flying was a light, easy, and pleasant read. Personally I tend to prefer my YA with more meat on the bones, but there’s nothing wrong with a little candy. Think season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with the soapy teenage romance of Roswell. And, again, those aren’t cons. I loved the fun, flirty tone of early Buffy and was recently pining over Roswell so much that I started a Netflix rewatch binge. Actually, those retro comparisons are more apt than I initially thought. After spending a good half hour trying to think of contemporary shows, I realized that most teen series now are spicier, darker, and sexier. Even the upcoming Archie show on the CW has gotten on the grimdark wagon. Flying’s tone and style fit perfectly with late 90s/early aughts teen dramas, and that’s a very good thing.

[“My whole life is a lie, a story.”]

Chains and Darkness: Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines

In an alternate history where the Civil War never happened and the Crittenden Compromise was passed, there exists a divided United States. The North abolished slavery but African Americans are still redlined into ghettos and slums. They are free by law but oppressed by social convention, with white people satisfied with the bare minimum of compassion and Black people shamed for being unable to break out of a system designed to subjugate. Sound familiar yet? The South held onto slavery, although its reach became smaller and more consolidated. By the time Victor sets out on his mission in Underground Airlines, there are only four states left holding onto slavery, but they’re making the most of it.

Victor escaped slavery as a child but was captured by the US Marshals. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Marshals were tasked with capturing runaways, and in this fictional world that’s become their main duty. Victor is pressed into service with the Marshals and ends up being eerily good at his job. The toll it takes on his psyche is extreme, and by the time he’s sent to recover a young man named Jackdaw being hidden by a manipulative priest and his cop lackies the lockbox where he hides his anguish is beginning to crumble.

[“I was black. I wasn’t there.”]

The Cure to End All Cures: Panacea by F. Paul Wilson

When three dead bodies in perfect health turn up in Dr. Laura Fanning’s morgue, she’s more than a little confused. Not only were the victims in pristine physical condition at time of death, two of them died of no discernible causes at all while the other died in a tragic accident shortly after a miraculous recovery from a terrible disease. Something weird is going on in Suffolk County, and Dr. Fanning finds herself suddenly and inextricably involved, whether she likes it or not.

Elsewhere, a fundamentalist G-man named Nelson Fife and his murderous associate Bradsher are on the hunt for members of a pagan cult brewing up what they call a panacea and what he calls a blasphemous act of Satan. For fifteen centuries the panaceans have doled out their cure all in secret to those chosen by the All-Mother while the Brotherhood acts as inquisitioners, executing panaceans in horrific Old Testament ways for using witchcraft in defiance of God.

A dying billionaire sends Dr. Fanning and her bodyguard, Rick Hayden, off on a wild goose chase around the world to find the source of the panacea, if it even exists. As Fife and Dr. Fanning circle in on their mutual goal, the fatalities mount up and illness strikes the innocent and guilty alike. Through his connections in the CIA (aka the Company), Fife begins isolating Dr. Fanning and Hayden from the outside world and formulates a sinister plan to kill them and steal the panacea for himself. Whoever controls the panacea determines the course of the future, but the cost of securing the concoction may be a price Dr. Fanning is unwilling to pay.

[“Got a crispy critter for you, Doc.”]

[Insert Sheep Pun Here]: Robert Kroese’s The Big Sheep

It all starts with a missing sheep and a paranoid celebrity. Blake Fowler works for Erasmus Keane, a private dick who insists on being called a “phenomenological inquisitor.” The two men live and work in Los Angeles in 2039, several years after a devastating economic collapse that resulted in the city being divided into LA proper and the Disincorporated Zone. During the Collapse, crime ran wild and more than a few businesses and labs took advantage of the weak enforcement to conduct morally bankrupt and ethically dubious projects. During this period of chaos, Fowler’s girlfriend Gwen disappeared and was never seen again.

When one of their experimental Lincoln Longwool sheep disappears, Esper Corporation hires Keane and Fowler to track it down. In a seemingly unrelated case, young celebutante Priya Mistry believes someone is trying to kill her and hires the investigators to figure out who is sending her cryptic messages. Priya is freaking out over seeing herself in commercials she doesn’t remember making, but when Fowler and Keane run into her later on and she claims to have no memory of ever meeting them, the detectives realize something big is amiss. Things get complicated when the Case of the Lost Sheep and the Case of the Concerned Teddy Bear turn out to be less unconnected than previously thought. There is a conspiracy afoot and victims piling up and Fowler and Keane must root it out before it gets them, too.

[“Stop spooking the sheep, Keane.”]