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Alyx Dellamonica

Deathless Mixes Myth and History, and May Very Well Break Your Heart

Marya Morevna from Saint Petersburg is six years old when she first sees a bird come courting for her eldest sister’s hand.

Marya is her parents’ fourth child, born in the waning era of the Tsars, and the birds keep coming during the first, hungry years of the Russian Revolution. Marya sees them all arrive—one, two, three!—and disguise themselves as dashing young lieutenants before carrying her sisters off. When she grows to womanhood, she watches for a bird of her own… and she resolves to understand the nature of the magic she knows is coming to claim her.

So begins Catherynne M. Valente’s lyrical novel Deathlessavailable for a limited time as a free ebook—which infuses Slavic folklore into the early days of the U.S.S.R., mixing myth and gritty historical fact with exceptional finesse.

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Where Literary Meets the Fabulist: Juan Martinez’s Best Worst American

A middle aged pet store employee takes his cat on a quest to Las Vegas, while a teenager cares for—or perhaps moons over—the abandoned plants of a neighbor he had a crush on. Peer into a world where a person’s future can be forecast via their partner’s kitten poster of choice. These are a few of the delicacies on offer in Best Worst American, by Juan Martinez. This collection of short pieces from Small Beer Press is a buffet of subtle literary constructions, a mix of sweet (and sometimes bittersweet) portraits about people getting by, mostly, in contemporary American settings.

Many of the stories in Best Worst American lie on the shadowy borders of the literary and fabulist genres. In “Roadblock,” for example, an aunt and nephew find themselves at odds when tragedy forces them to live together. The aunt keeps setting the nephew’s things on fire… somehow. Her targets are random and improbable: she ignites coffee at one point, and sets his coat afire in a airport. The mechanism for her pyrokinetics is never explained, as it might be in a more straight-up fantasy. The result is an eerie and unsettling story about loss, survivor guilt, and the arbitrary nature of family ties.

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Magical Banquet in a Minor Key: Angela Slatter’s A Feast of Sorrows

A quilter, a baker, a candlemaker: these are just a few of the young and vulnerable crafters in Angela Slatter’s first U.S. collection, A Feast of Sorrows, newly out this month from Prime books. This is a book where discarded wives, abandoned children, and princess assassins-in-training fight to make something of their lives, or struggle to restore them after their families and fortunes have been reduced to shambles. It has enchantments, ghosts, killers and many a terrible curse.

The dozen reprints and two new novellas from this World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award-winning author forms a gently interlinked circle of fairytales. Some are mash-ups of stories very familiar to readers: “Bluebeard’s Wife” is an inventive collision between “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White,” for example. Another, “Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope,” comes close to being a straight-up reimagining of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Dark, beautifully constructed, with heartbreakingly perfect prose, they are the stories of young women in trouble. Mostly, it’s the kind of trouble that comes of being female, young, poor, possessed of few options and—as a result—subject to the whims of indifferent, selfish or outright predatory men.

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Connection Fatigue and the Modern Girl: Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Briddey Flanagan does one thing really well. She lies. She lies to her Aunt Oona, to her co-workers, to her one sister who’s an extra-anxious helicopter mom, and to her other sister, the one with a penchant for dating truly wretched men. She lies because she’s bad with boundaries and thinks the Internet has made it impossible for her to avoid all of these people, each one of whom has some claim on her. Between their texts, posts, emails, phone calls, their unannounced visits, and their demands for gossip about her love life, she can barely focus properly on the fact that she is in a serious relationship and has agreed—along with her engaged to be engaged boyfriend Trent—to have a minor form of brain surgery, an EED. The EED will allow the two of them to experience each other’s feelings.

Sounds great, right?

Well… maybe not.

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A Magical Smorgasbord: Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher

Pierce Oliver lives in a world that fuses our high-tech present day with the top-down political structure of a high fantasy medieval kingdom. It’s the kind of place where limousine-riding kings preside over jousts, where the court magicians argue over the academic citations and feminist interpretations of their ancient texts, and where the bastard princes are doing well if they manage to stay out of the tabloids. The country’s biggest ongoing problem is keeping its surplus of troublesome knights from taking it into their heads to overthrow the government.

When Pierce is a young man this hardly matters, because he lives in a small town far removed from the capital, a backwater whose existence is known to but a few. His home is in fact concealed by magic, an enchantment wielded by Pierce’s somewhat clingy mother, Heloise, a retired witch living incognito as a slow foods restaurateur. One day three knights stumble through town by accident, and by the time they’ve moved on, Pierce has decided to strike out on his own, seeking information on the father he never knew and–perhaps as importantly–cutting the apron strings that have bound him so tightly to his mother’s chosen refuge.

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Wizards and Politics: Fantastic Thrillers

I read a lot of thrillers as a teenager, in part because I liked them, but also simply because they were conveniently littered around my childhood home, at a time when I was burning through three novels a week. Interspersed between things like Dune and Andre Norton’s Blake Walker Crosstime books were Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett, Peter Benchley’s Jaws and that Clive Cussler novel that ends with Britain selling Canada to the U.S.A. And the two countries merging into, I kid you not, “The United States of Canada.”

Ludicrous political turns aside, these books were full of tough guys and not very interesting women, and tended to be powered by communist plots to assassinate this, bomb that, and destabilize the hell out of the next thing. They had lot of gunfire and hijackings and the occasional serial killer or martial arts throwdown. I liked them because they were fast-moving, took me around the world, and occasionally they sprung a genuinely intricate plot twist on me. As a budding writer who also read fantasy, though, I think the conspiracy novel that might have made the biggest impact on me was actually a Janny Wurts book called Sorcerer’s Legacy.

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Pictures With a Thousand Words: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

It is tempting to take a page from Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, and try to write this entire review in, as Munroe puts it, the ten hundred most common words in the English language. It’s an intriguing challenge, because one of the charms of this new book is that it imbues everything between its covers with a childlike and unpretentious sense of delight in humanity’s intellectual achievements.

Still, somehow it makes me want to bust out a thesaurus and get all polysyllabic on you guys.

[Thing you use to go read more about Thing Explainer]

Glittering Heroism and Naked Truth: The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again by A.C. Wise

In a four color comic or on a movie screen, a superhero story can, if it wishes, go heavy on the combat sequences. It isn’t always the right choice, but the visual media lend themselves nicely to spaceship crashes, after all, to demonically force-grown Empire State buildings and Godzilla out for a mid-evening rampage. They’re made for the sight of multiple Santa, all fifty thousand of him, flowing like a river towards The City.

There is a moment in The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again when the team and its allies stare into a vast pit filled with invading hordes. This moment is informed by and usefully echoes many of the visuals we’ve all seen repeatedly, on screens big and small, since the age of the numberless CGI army truly came into its own. The creatures in this instance could have been orcs, or a whole Hellmouth full of Turok-Han vampires, or a million and one artificially intelligent but genuinely disaffected James Spaders.

Instead, they are giant ladybugs. Which is, I hope you’ll agree, pretty damned fabulous in and of itself.

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Catch a Rising Wind with Fran Wilde’s Updraft

Kirit and her best friend Nat are on the verge of an important rite of passage, their world’s equivalent of taking a run at the driving exam. If they pass the test, they will be allowed to fly alone, on wings made of bone and leather, between the bone towers of their city. Failure means having to be accompanied by a responsible adult. It is the gateway to an independent future. Kirit hopes to apprentice as a trader to her mother, Ezarit, whom she idolizes. She envisions a future of travelling from tower to tower, mother and daughter, doing deals together and delivering vital goods.

The world of Fran Wilde’s new novel Updraft is a complex aerialist’s paradise, albeit a paradise besieged by monsters called skymouths. It is a single city, one subject to arbitrary-seeming laws, and its towers are living bone structures that grow ever higher. The hollow chambers within these spires shelter the citizens, but over time they grow cramped, closing on the lower levels, forcing the population into a perpetual scramble for altitude. Who you are, what you do, and where you’re located within your home tower are matters rigidly controlled by the Laws everyone is taught to sing in school.

As for people who defy this established societal order, they are given citations—tickets, if you will—that literally weigh them down.  The heavier a person’s crimes, the more likely that they will drag them out of the air and below the clouds, where certain death awaits.

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Where to Start with the Works of Peter Straub

Imagine you’ve been travelling to a little seaside resort, year after year, for a regular vacation. You know its nooks and corners: its tea shops, wacky characters, hidden beaches, and all its foibles and glories. Then a friend tells you they’re going there… for the first time.

Awesome, right? In this hypothetical case, you’re not going to advise that newcomer to go to the drafty little pub with the perfectly workmanlike fish and chips and the tinny jukebox of hits from the fifties. Even if there was nothing wrong with the place, even you had a pretty good time there—even if time and circumstance made it unforgettable, that once, when you were fifteen—you’re still going to send new arrivals to the place up the road, the one you found a year later. The one with the perfect crispy fries and the tartar sauce that makes you hear competing choirs of angels, all singing Bohemian Rhapsody.

[It’s the same as introducing a new reader to a favorite author.]

Where to Start with the Works of Connie Willis

Discovering an author’s body of work can be intimidating, especially for some one as prolific as Connie Willis. Willis, a multiple Nebula and Hugo Award winning author and a SFWA Grand Master, has written over 15 novels and dozens of short stories since the 1980s, with no signs of slowing down. If you’re brand new to Connie Willis, fear not! A.M. Dellamonica is here to guide you through.

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The Yellow Wood Wields an Intimate and Disturbing Wizardry

Sandi Kove left home as a young woman and has all but cut ties with her family of origin. She has a husband, two beautiful adopted teenagers, and a stable job writing marketing reports for a company that seems to appreciate her. When she hears from her sister that their elderly father is all but begging she return for a visit—and that he might not live much longer– she breaks a decades-long father-daughter silence and returns to a peculiar patch of scrub forest, a yellow wood where all of her other siblings have settled down within walking distance of Dad’s cabin.

It is clear that Sandi’s departure, years earlier, was an escape from something. Though she refers to her father as a wizard, it is clear that even she is not certain what she means, or exactly what it was that she was getting away from. Certainly Alexander Kove was a domineering parent, and as the two of them take the first tentative steps into their reunion we see that he is stubborn, racist, emotionally withholding, and afraid to show any of his considerable vulnerabilities.

[A review.]

Tim Powers Unlocks Another Gate in Nobody’s Home

The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, had been out a good dozen years when I first read it in 1995 or so. Published in 1983 and winner of the Philip K. Dick award, this landmark steampunk novel is the story of Brendan Doyle, an English professor who finds himself trapped in a 19th century alternate London where ghosts lurk in the shadows, magicians vie for power over old gods and time travel gates, and guilds of penniless beggars and confidence tricksters scramble to pick up any crumbs dropped by the wealthier and more magically privileged classes of their intensely stratified society.

In The Anubis Gates, Doyle runs afoul of a magician, Amenophis Fikee, more widely known as Dog-Face Joe. As a side-effect of a magical rituals gone wrong, Joe has become a grotesquely intimate form of serial killer. Every so often he must switch bodies, taking possession of a new victim. His new host immediately begins to grow a dense pelt of all-over body hair.

[Expanding The Anubis Gates universe]

The Lesser Dead is Christopher Buehlman’s Greatest Yet

Joey Peacock looks fourteen… at least, most of the time he does. He’s actually pushing fifty. He was turned by a vampire who used to be his housekeeper, a fearsome Irishwoman named Margaret. The two of them carve out a comfortable existence in 1970s Manhattan, where Margaret is the undisputed alpha of a tight, clean-living vampire crew who inhabit the New York subways, mesmerizing people on the rare occasions when they run into trouble, leaving most of their victims alive.

Sustainable hunting practices aside, these vampires are settled into a comfortable routine with each other. They share a laundry; they’re practically family. Each maintains a set of regular human victims, whom they visit and drink.

Then one day Joey sees a bunch of little undead kids on the subway, using their charm to lure a hapless dad type into the tunnels. Somehow these new arrivals don’t look like they’re playing catch-and-release.

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Angels and Ending: Jay Lake’s Last Plane to Heaven

The title story in Jay Lake’s Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection is about a girl who falls from the sky… and into the hands of those who see her, first and foremost, as a possible military asset. To that end, a team of mercenaries in the South Gobi desert is tasked with (really, blackmailed into) assessing her combat-readiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, this doesn’t end well for Team Free World.

“Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story” is something of a tough love opener: it’s not without flashes of sweetness, but the mercenary at its core is rough-edged, unpleasant and at the end of his proverbial rope. The bleak backdrop of Outer Mongolia, vividly evoked in Lake’s always-precise prose, adds to the sense of menace in this piece. As an entry point into the book, it makes a definitive statement: these tales wind a path through places of shadow and fire.

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