Tor.com content by

Emily Nordling

Letters to a Young Mutant: Because You’ll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas

YA protagonist Ollie would love to tackle some traditional teenage angst. No, really. Backstabbing friends, scheming bullies, and hours seemingly wasted in the fluorescent wasteland of a high school are but happy myths to the likes of him. Confined to a secluded house in the woods, Ollie’s fatal allergy to electricity prevents him from experiencing not only the wonders of internet cat videos and humidifiers, but also almost anything resembling a social life.

Moritz, on the other other side of the world, has teen angst aplenty. Born with his own physical difference, he is constantly bullied, as much by himself as by others. Not to mention, the pacemaker that keeps his heart beating is also preventing him from meeting his best friend and penpal—for if the electricity coursing through him doesn’t kill Ollie, Ollie’s magnet-like repulsion will almost certainly kill Moritz.

With their linked pasts and polarized personalities, Ollie and Mortiz’s perpetual distance is only the first of a slew of tests thrown at these star-crossed friends in Leah Thomas’ debut novel, Because You’ll Never Meet Me.

[and never the twain shall meet]

Making Art in a Tilting City: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

David Smith has two hundred days to live. More specifically, he has two hundred days to create a work of art that will embody his memories and his dreams, one that will stand in his place once he’s gone. In a city with hundreds of other David Smiths listed in the phone book, David’s desire to be remembered will be hard-won at best. Then he meets Meg, and his new-found superpower to bend any material to his will seems like the least of his worries.

Scott McCloud—best known for his seminal work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art—combines Faustian myth with brilliant visual storytelling in his new graphic novel The Sculptor. Using panel after panel of towering cityscapes and crowds of anonymous faces, McCloud sets a stage that will be familiar to many readers, especially those with creative ambitions.

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“Can’t Live with Magic, Can’t Destroy Humanity Without it”: A Hero at the End of the World, by Erin Claiborne

When Ewan Mao was a kid, a prophecy foretold that he would save the world from evil overlord Duff Slan. He reacted just like you’d expect any other kid in a YA fantasy would: he trained (occasionally), he slacked off in school, and he got into a lot of fights with powerful men three or four times his age. And then… and then he didn’t defeat Slan at all. Ewan’s best friend Oliver did.

Erin Claiborne’s YA fantasy novel A Hero at the End of the World opens five years later, with Oliver working his dream job, and Ewan living with his parents and slinging coffee as a barista in West London (he’s not bitter though, really). A chance encounter with a charismatic customer introduces Ewan to a new, radical form of magic, that just might help him show Oliver what it really means to thwart destiny. Charming, self-aware, and hilarious, Hero is the frontliner of the new Big Bang Press, and is everything we can ask for from a press dedicated to fan writers and culture.

[The universe exploded. It was the second-worst day of Ewan’s life.]

Visions of Mortality: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

I was recently lucky enough to get my hands on Margaret Atwood’s newest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. Atwood is one of those contemporary authors who is so revered and so prolific that my “to-read” list is never short of a few of her titles. Having never read any of her short fiction, I was excited to bump this particular book to the top.

Stone Mattress is expertly arranged, its first section containing a set of three, interconnected stories, with each subsequent work linked to the rest through a slow, thematic unfolding. Her meditations on the body—gendered, aging, and dying—represent Atwood at her best, and the consistency of her candor and humor carries across a wide variety of tones and generic conventions.

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The Kind You Save, The Kind You Stop: Death, Disability, and the Superhero by José Alaniz

The history of superhero comics is at least as strange and subversive as the stories themselves. Golden Age superheroes arrived on the scene in the 1930s-40s rife with all the problematic social underpinnings of their time. White, male, and beyond-able-bodied, heroes like Superman and Captain America (a verifiable human eugenics project) represented everything America aspired to be. Counterculture, social change, and the more nuanced Silver Age of comics brought with them a dramatic shift in many of these perspectives—suddenly, superpowers were tied to other, less traditionally “super” qualities. Characters like Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four even saw his power as a curse, a bodily deformity that marked him as abnormal and monstrous—a stark change from the paragons of virtue mentioned above.

José Alaniz’s recent book, Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond, tackles these themes head-on, drawing on examples from across The Big Two’s publishing history to highlight how changing perceptions of bodies, disability, and death have shaped the characters and franchises that continue to intrigue us today. Exploring issues from the infamous revolving door of death to secret identity plots as passing narratives, DD&S is a fascinating read for old comic fans and newbies (like myself) alike.

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Internet Activism and Global Economics: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

The arbitrary line drawn between the internet and “real life” is a long-standing pet peeve of mine. When I was a kid, it came in the form of well-intentioned family and friends telling me that my online relationships weren’t real. As an adult, it has been any number of folks from across the political spectrum belittling “Twitter activism” and other online forms of dissent—whether because it doesn’t work, or because, in their strangely drawn rulebooks, it doesn’t count as real action.

Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s graphic novel, In Real Life, hits both of these notes with grace while staying true to the playfulness and fun that draw so many of us to online spaces in the first place.

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Support Your New Faves with the Awkward Robots’ The Red Volume Anthology

Earlier this week, Clarion class of 2012 (the self-proclaimed Awkward Robots) released a pay what you can anthology to support the work of the Clarion Foundation, the non-profit parent group to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.

Clarion has a long career of turning out the newest generations of vibrant and talented SFF writers, including the likes of Octavia Butler and Cory Doctorow. The Awkward Robots are no exception. If Clarion’s illustrious alumni and educational MO haven’t convinced you to throw a few dollars (or more) at The Red Volume, the stories from these up-and-coming writers should certainly do the trick.

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Weird Kids in a Weird World: Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs

Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was a runaway success when it was released in 2011. Combining vintage photographs, time traveling adventures, and “Edward Gorey-like Victorian weirdness,” Miss Peregrine introduced a world where the past is never past and even ex-sideshow freaks can find a home.

The book’s success has inspired a film adaptation—written by Jane Goldman of X-Men: First Class fame, directed by Tim Burton, and slotted for release in Summer 2015—and two sequel novels, including this January’s Hollow City. Like its predecessor, Hollow City revels in the weird. Despite drawing its readers into an already familiar world, this sequel has plenty of new nooks, crannies, and photographs to explore.

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Genre Wars: SFF at AWP Conference

Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss were two of the keynote speakers at last week’s conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I’d never been to the conference before, but I couldn’t help but be surprised; there is a fairly common—and justified—defensiveness among SFF readers and writers when it comes to the mainstream literary world, whether due to its cooption of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Angela Carter, or to its perpetuation of the high art/low art divide. Or, if you’re like my friends and me, you’ve been in college or even MFA classes that bar genre fiction entirely, that compare your work to Twilight, and that generally conflate genre with formula, heavy-handedness, and as Brook Wonders phrased it, a lack of “aesthetic ambition.”

The program for AWP, though, was pretty great. In addition to Le Guin and Gloss, there were numerous panels and readings dedicated to—or at least in the realm of—speculative fiction. More vital than that, though, was the ongoing conversation about genre that I encountered there. Not every dialogue was successful, and still more tended towards semantic nuance, but they were happening and they were easy and pleasing to find. MFA culture, if not the literary landscape at large, seems to slowly and surely be easing into a more diverse range of concepts and content.

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A Romp in Vienna: City of Lost Dreams by Magnus Flyte

Writing duo Magnus Flyte (composed of authors Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch) didn’t wait long to send their protagonist on another life-altering quest. Where 2012’s City of Dark Magic took Sarah to the historical underbelly of Prague, City of Lost Dreams places her among the gossiping crowds of Vienna, where modern science turns out to be just as wacky as all those Renaissance alchemists she’d encountered last time.

Sarah returns to the Old World with just one thing in mind: to find a cure for her friend, the young piano prodigy, Pollina. She’s not seeking immortality, per se, but altering the course of death is never a narrow path. In a haze of science, magic, history, and art, Sarah must muddle her way through the desires of centuries of others like her, who cannot accept that time will someday stop moving.

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Adventure and Mayhem with Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

Tony Cliff’s new graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, is as rich and satisfying as a hot cup of tea. In combination with a cast of engaging characters and stunning landscapes, the straightforward story carries a certain level of comfort and nostalgia for past adventures—whether real or fictional. In the tradition of Tintin, Treasure Island, and Indiana Jones, Delilah Dirk provides enough adventure to last a lifetime.

In 19th century Turkey, Erdemoglu Selim, the Turkish lieutenant of the title and the reluctant protagonist of our tale, is so resigned to his less-than-ordinary lot, that he is even willing to die for the arbitrary set of rules surrounding him. He works middle management to the Agha of Constantinople and makes at least enough money to survive and indulge in artisan tea every now and then. His is a simple life, and if he’s not happy, he is at least content. Until, of course Delilah Dirk comes along.

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Another One of Dad’s Stories: Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk

Neil Gaiman told a cautionary tale at his reading in Lexington, KY this summer. The moral was this: just because one’s young daughter enjoys R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series does not mean one’s same young daughter will also enjoy Stephen King’s Carrie. Sometimes, though, we literary sorts get carried away with our stories, with sharing and spinning imagination into words and tales, and just have to hope that the people around us are willing to jog a bit to catch up (or, at the very least, not turn tail and run).

In a culture where fathers are often presented as bumbling idiots a la Berenstein Bears (a “fatherist” problem Gaiman has even faulted himself for), Gaiman’s new children’s book, Fortunately, the Milk has turned the trope on its head while remaining charmingly self-aware. Fortunately’s protagonist is a dad on a mission—a very zany mission—but it’s in the telling of the tale that he proves himself to his kids. The publisher describes the book as “an ode to the pleasure and wonders of storytelling itself,” and Gaiman called it the “silliest book [he] has ever written.” It’s a bit of both, and therein lays its magic.

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Finding Your Real Life OTP: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell’s new YA novel, Fangirl, will paint a distressingly close-to-home picture for many Harry Potter-era geeks. Complete with novel-length fanfiction, navigating first-times with only erotic slash as a guidebook, and social anxieties aplenty, Fangirl is as funny as it is embarrassing, and as charming as it is true-to-geek-life.

Fangirl follows the typical plot arch set by young adult romcoms everywhere—girl meets boy, girl and boy have a series of misunderstandings, girl’s family just doesn’t understand, and finally the girl comes of age (and hopefully gets some on the side). Enter, however, Simon Snow: a fictional YA book series a-la-Harry Potter, wherein magician and orphan Simon Snow battles his way through evil magic and a dark and frustrating roommate to boot. Cath, Fangirl’s protagonist, is a Simon Snow fanatic. When she isn’t writing fanfiction, she’s thinking about it, and she is perfectly happy that way; until, of course, her world starts changing around her.

[Read more—some light spoilers for the book, below…]

Series: YA on Tor.com

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl compiles Valente’s poetry and short fiction tied to Japan and Japanese culture. As Teruyuki Hashimoto points out in the collection’s introduction, however, many of these connections to Japan are subtle, even tenuous; instead (or perhaps in addition), we find the pieces united by recurring images and themes. Houses and families, as Hashimoto points out, weave their way through the text, and so too do the subjects of birth, isolation, and creeping uncanniness.

Melancholy could have easily fallen into appropriative narrative or become what Valente herself describes as culturally “fraught.” However, Valente continues to write with grace and cognizance. Her afterword on the matter (echoed to some degree on her blog, here) explains her interest in Japan as a matter beyond scholastics or fan culture; she lived alone there for some time, and the experience affected her to the point that, as she says, “Japan is everywhere in my work.” The collection’s thematic elements build upon one another as the reader progresses, but they’re brought into stark focus with the addition of her autobiographical note. The book itself is full and rich in the author’s characteristic style, but this time, it feels personal—in the best possible way.

[Read more.]

Brain Knowledge & Heart Knowledge: Genius, by Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen

First Second’s upcoming graphic novel Genius tackles a world of tropes with finesse. Eisner Award-winning duo Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen have worked together before, and this particular project presents the ease with which they marry form and function. Combining Kristiansen’s nebulous, emotive artwork with Seagle’s fresh dialogue and nuanced narration, Genius hits home in 125 pages what Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp did in 300. It is a testimony to short form stories.

[Read more.]

Tales From the Tower: Vol. 1: The Wilful Eye, eds. Isobelle Carmody & Nan McNab

The first volume of Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab’s Tales From the Tower duet sets out to accomplish a feat undertaken by many contemporary fantasy authors: to understand and to harness the fairy tale genre. May it be in tone, moral, or a harkening to the deceptive simplicity of childhood, the qualities of the fairy tale are today as alluring as they were in the centuries of their conception. This begs the question why—what can these stories do for us as adults, in our current age? Carmody explores the concept in an introduction to the volume that I found perhaps more engaging than the stories themselves. She and her co-editor set out, not to modernize these tales, or to imbibe them with modern morality, but to capture their aesthetic in retelling, to exploit their “mystery and dangerous sensuality.”

[Read more.]

Time and Relative Dimension in Sexuality: Queers Dig Time Lords

I expected Mad Norwegian Press’ new addition to their “Digs” series to present a compilation of LGBT analyses and episodic interpretations of Doctor Who, but Queers Dig Time Lords went beyond that. Editors Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas have collected a great combination of short essays and memoirs with topics ranging from geek “coming out” stories to everyone’s favorite slutty bisexual, Captain Jack Harkness. Capt. Jack himself—actor John Barrowman—along with his sister—writer and Whovian Carole Barrowman—introduce the anthology with all the genuine exuberance one might expect from such a duo. With their blessings in the cards, and with the addition of numerous other DW creators and contributors (Gary Russell, Nigel Fairs, and Paul Magrs just to name a few) alongside fans and other writers from throughout the SFF community, the anthology’s editors demonstrate just how diverse and far-reaching DW fandom has become.

I was lucky enough to have attended QDTL’s release party and contributors panel at last week’s WisCon37, where I received a great preview of what was in store. Julia Rios, contributor to both the anthology and to Outer Alliance (a group dedicated to QUILTBAG specific SFF), recorded this fabulous panel for an upcoming episode of the OA podcast. Be sure to check it out in the next couple of weeks to get an insider’s perspective on how and why the anthology came about.

[Let’s Get Wibbly Wobbly]

“Each Village Seems the Haunt of Holy Feet:” Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox

Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire is the kind of book where, no matter how many times you read its initial disclaimer, you are constantly stopping to verify its historical accuracy on Wikipedia. Everything about it feels unsettlingly real. In fact, about halfway through, I realized that the protagonist’s nickname, Canny, may well have to do with this uncomfortable straddling between the real and the fantastical—and, heavy-handed as Knox can be, I was a little in love with this weirdness. So, before I say more about the novel, let me confirm that the Southland islands do not, in fact, exist beyond Knox’s novels, nor do its cities or coal mines. Iron lungs, for all they sound like depraved inventions of a crazed mind, are real. So, unfortunately, was the Second World War.

Set in 1959, Mortal Fire opens to typical YA-fanfare. Protagonist Canny (short for Agnes, short again for Akanesi) is an outsider, and is very obviously prone to the supernatural. Knox’s twist on these tropes, however, is more engaging than usual; Canny is a brown, native girl amongst her white peers and step-family, she is a mathematical genius and, it is implied, somewhere on the autistic spectrum. She sees and describes magic in logical terms, as natural “extra” rather than as something inexplicable and spiritual. Right away, Canny is made an other in our own world as well as Southland’s, but what’s more, she is a character to whom we can relate without ever fully understanding.

[Into the mines]

Series: YA on Tor.com

Music to Die For: Ghoulish Song, by William Alexander

Settings are sometimes the best and most memorable characters of a story, and of returning to YA literature in particular; revisiting Narnia is like seeing an old friend, and I won’t pretend not to have chosen a grad school based on its resemblance to Hogwarts. Ghoulish Song is William Alexander’s second book set in the city of Zombay, and though I’ve not read its sister novel, the National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets, this fantastical port city—noisy and wafting with the smell of fresh bread—has secured its place on my map of fantastical places. Alexander paints a picture so vivid, readers can’t help but cheer on his protagonist as she fights for her home.

Kaile’s first quest, however, is to save her mother.

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The Worst Cool Kid Ever: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

Faith Erin Hicks (of Tor.com fame) and Prudence Shen’s new graphic novel, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, has a bit of everything: nerds, jocks, robots, friendship, drama, and, of course, wanton destruction. It is essentially everything you could want out of a high school story, and perhaps a little bit that you didn’t realize you wanted.

The story begins with a scenario we have, at this point, all encountered in some way or another: a text message break-up. Charlie—the protagonist and gentle, well-meaning basketball star—is in shock. After all, by the natural order of things, he is supposed to be dating the head of the cheerleading squad, but instead, he is being whisked away by his next-door neighbor and childhood best friend, Nate, and harangued for something he has no control over. In fact, Charlie doesn’t have control over much in his life; his parents are divorced and emotionally distant, his closest friend is a lunatic, and now—well, now he’s single.

[Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong… right?]