content by

Emily Nordling

A City of Towering Intrigue: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

Ang is seventeen and just doing her job—her very complicated, very dangerous job—when two things happen that will change her life. First, she sees that the Beacon, Bar-Selehm’s greatest and brightest icon, has been stolen from its place towering above the steam and chimneys of the city. Second, she finds her new apprentice, Berrit, dead. The work of a steeplejack is not for the faint of heart: climbing the tall and twisting buildings of Bar-Selehm is a constant matter of life and death. But Berrit didn’t fall from a building or a ladder; he was stabbed. And Ang’s steeplejack skills are about to come in handy for more than just repairing the crumbling facades of the city.

A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack is equal parts South African-inspired steampunk, detective fiction, coming-of-age saga, and political intrigue; it is as diverse in genre and theme as it is in its characters. Add to all of this Ang—courageous, kind, and out-of-place no matter where she goes—and you’ll find a reading experience both rich and impossible to turn away from. Ang’s quest to solve Berrit’s murder takes her from the toxic maneuvers of high society to the stifling conformity of village life, from surrogate motherhood to violent protests. It is a complex story that only a protagonist like Ang could carry; a story filled with danger and hope alike.

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Explore Good Art: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

In what would quickly become his most viral work to date—the 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts—author Neil Gaiman gave a piece of simple, if sprawling, advice: “Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.” And from an author as prolific, as adventurous, and (as I’ve learned) unabashedly optimistic as Gaiman, this suggestion is as sincere as it is solid. In his new nonfiction collection, The View From the Cheap Seats, readers will find over two decades of Gaiman’s rapt love and encouragement of good art. They’ll find speeches, essays, and introductions that overflow with nerdy fervor, and that use the same graceful, fantastical turns of phrase that define the author’s fiction. They’ll find good art, for sure, and they’ll also find Gaiman’s own explorations of good art.

I’m not sure that Gaiman would want to call his work here cultural criticism, but I’m going to go out on a limb and slap on the label, and I’m also going to say it’s some of the best of its kind. Debates about the role of criticism—who has the right to say what about whom and on what platform, and why it matters that they’ve said it—are almost as old as culture itself. And the line has always been blurry, too, between critic and creator, between fan and creator, and between fan and critic. The View From the Cheap Seats exists along these blurred lines, reveling in a world that is full of art and full of people talking about it, experiencing it, and creating it. We know Gaiman the author, but here is Gaiman the fanboy, Gaiman the journalist, Gaiman the boy that was raised by librarians. The View From the Cheap Seats is a book of conversations. It’s a book of kind words and big ideas, and yes, occasionally, it’s a book of recommended reading.

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To Write Your Own Deliverance: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

When Imogen was a little girl, she told her sister Marin fairy tales. Once upon a time, she’d tell her, there was a way out—a way out of their house, out of their lives, and out of the oppressive clutches of their abusive mother—on the backs of fairies. As an adult, of course, Imogen knows that half her way out had been in the telling of the tales; and so she continues to tell them, as a writer still grappling with the terrors of her childhood. Reunited with her sister at an exclusive artists’ retreat, though, Imogen is forced to confront her past head-on. Fairy tales may be the solution yet again, but this time, it’s not Imogen alone that will shape the story, and her happy ending may be just out of grasp.

Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot is as dark and engrossing as its title suggests, a contemporary fairy tale for artists, survivors, and anyone that has ever sought escape in a story. At Melete, mysterious and prestigious artists’ retreat, Imogen and Marin face a challenge that is familiar to many of us: creating a work of art that will prove to them that their struggles have been worth it. Despite the breathless beauty and small comforts at every corner of the sprawling, idyllic campus, Imogen struggles to live up to the expectations of Melete, feeling as though she’s watched at every moment by judging eyes. It is, as I said, a familiar scenario for the creative audience: imposter syndrome, fear, and pride war in Imogen and her cohort. The friendships they create, though, and the rekindled bond between Imogen and Marin, carry them through. Until, of course, they’re set against one another.

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The Power of Words: Joan Aiken’s The People in the Castle

“Night, now.”

So begins the first of twenty tales of enchantment and lonely fools in a new collection of Joan Aiken’s old stories, The People in the Castle. And what a fitting opening for this haunting and wondrous book—beckoning the reader into its pages with an allure that’s both simple and immediately unsettling. Despite her continued, almost cult following amongst fantasy and children’s literature enthusiasts, I had never picked up an Aiken story before Small Beer Press’ newest compilation. From those first words, though, I became as devoted as the readers that have grown up with her, as immersed in her easy language and glancing strangeness as a little girl enraptured by a fairy tale.

Aiken is perhaps best known for her series of children’s novels beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but she wrote extensively during her lifetime, including her first novel at the age of 16. Her interest in uncanny truths and somber moral lessons might make her works too dark for many of our 21st century standards of children’s lit, but she fits well among contemporaries like Shirley Jackson and harkens back, unsurprisingly, to a still more historic tradition. According to the Telegraph (as quoted in Kelly Link’s introduction to the collection), Aiken’s “prose style drew heavily on fairy tales and oral traditions in which plots are fast-moving and horror is matter-of-fact but never grotesque.” Still more fairy-tale-like than her prose, though, is her absolute reverence for words and language. Aiken wrote stories where words had real power, and her characters sought them like magicians hoping to harness a fairy’s magic.

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The Internet of Brains: Join, by Steve Toutonghi

Steve Toutonghi’s Join is the story of a person named Chance who, on the day they find out they have cancer, meets a man that has discovered the secret to immortality. The catch is this: Chance—and this immortal named Rope, and much of the rest of humanity—is not just one person, but multiple persons combined into a singular self. Forty years ago, Vitalcorp released the revolutionary technology Join, which allows individuals to link to one another and live multiple lives simultaneously. A single consciousness—a union of personalities and memories and skills—can pilot as many bodies (or “drives”) as have linked to the join. Already, Rope tells Chance, they are immortal; just because one body dies, doesn’t mean that their memories or their essential selves will perish too. But when Rope begins to join more and more bodies to experiment with killing them off, Chance is taken beyond mere pondering of moral philosophy; their embroilment with Rope will take them all the way to the inventors of the join technology to the fringes of society, where individuals still wander the ravaged, weather-torn earth.

Join is a conceptual powerhouse, tapping into the core of our contemporary debates about technology. As Chance and their best friend Leap journey, first to cure themselves, and then for answers, Join explores the ways that our obsession with tech reflects a certain kind of self-obsession, one that bypasses social inequality and environmental concerns. It questions the progressively-more-pressing question of connected consciousness, the erasure of the individual, and ultimately what it means to have a “self” at all.

[Warning: Unapologetic Sense8 comparisons ahead]

Don’t Trust the Interns (or the Narrator): The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

The Regional Office is your standard mysterious superhuman organization with no governmental oversight. It uses its powers for good—good that typically includes fantastical and oddly specific vacation destinations, as well as amassing an army of superpowered female assassins. Like I said, standard stuff. But now, despite its gifts to humanity and doubtless excellent benefits package, the Regional Office is under attack. The higher-ups knew it was coming—having a team of oracles on hand has its perks—and they knew that the attack would come from the inside. But no one told middle management, and anyone that’s ever had an entry-level position knows how that particular story plays out.

Manuel Gonzales does not pull any punches in his debut novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack!. Innocent office workers will be killed, revenge will be enacted, and teenagers will learn that they should never pick career paths at such an early age, especially when that career is assassin-hood. With cutting wit and non-stop action, The Regional Office is the funnest book I’ve read in ages, and is one of the most concise portrayals of office bureaucracy I’ve encountered outside of television series like The Office and Parks & Rec.

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Perceived Authenticity: Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

Katya makes a living off of memories. To put it plainly, she sells antiques—items from a bygone era when life accumulated in the form of stains and dust and imperfections. Her own memory is as spotless and certifiable as they come—with her AI to track her every move, she can replay her life as often as she’d like, and know exactly what she said and how she said it. So when a mysterious stranger kidnaps her and forces her off the grid, Katya’s physical well-being is only half of her concern. How can she know what’s real, after all, if she can’t trust her own mind?

Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novella, Forest of Memory, is as much a whispered question as it is a sci-fi adventure story, as subtle as it is fast-paced. If you’re drawn to Victo Ngai’s ethereal, dynamic cover art, the story it represents won’t disappoint you. Told in the form of a typo-ridden, written report, Katya’s story is every bit as fallible and mysterious as human memory.

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Magic in the City of Broken Dreams: Borderline by Mishell Baker

When Millie Roper is recruited to the Arcadia Project, she is finding her way back from rock-bottom. After losing her legs in an attempted suicide, she has spent the past year picking up whatever pieces of herself she finds worth preserving and making peace with her new reality. And now, her recruiter Caryl tells her, that reality will include fairies. Millie accepts the existence of the Seelie and Unseelie courts as graciously as you’d expect of someone whose life has already been upended a dozen times. After all, in Hollywood, it makes perfect sense that writers and actors would do anything to find a mystical muse, a bit of magic that they can use to make themselves immortal on screen. When a noble fey goes missing, though, sparking talks of war between the human and fairy worlds, Millie finds that she might just be in over her head.

Mishell Baker’s new Arcadia Project series is off to a thrilling and glamorous start with Borderline. That’s only fitting of its Hollywood setting, of course; cinematic in its scope and its style, the novel is every bit as engaging and sharp as a top-tier film (and considerably more diverse).

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To Spit a Storm: The Drowning Eyes, by Emily Foster

It is -2 degrees Fahrenheit as I sit down to write this review, but with the Chicago windchill, the “RealFeel” temperature clocks in at -25. There has never been a better time—wrapped in triple layers and glaring warily in the direction of Lake Michigan—to read a story about controlling the weather. Emily Foster’s debut novella delivered on its promise to bundle me up and away from my freezing reality; from stormy waters to balmy island coasts, The Drowning Eyes transported me to fantastic settings with an even more fantastic cast of characters.

Captain Tazir of the fishing boat, the Giggling Goat, has an (arguably) even better reason than me to want the wind blowing in her favor. Making a living as a sailor is difficult enough without pirates pillaging entire port cities and destroying the storm temples that keep the weather working in her favor. Strapped for cash, the captain and her crew take on a passenger, a skittish young girl that claims to be running from an arranged marriage. But Shina is hardly new to the world of sailing. She may not live and work on a boat, but she’s seen wind and storms the likes of which Tazir can’t imagine. She’s seen them, shaped them, and breathed them.

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“Just Because You’re Immortal, Doesn’t Mean You’re Going to Live Forever” — A Wicked + Divine Mixtape

Pop Stars are gods. We all know this is true in some way or another—whether in the ecstasy of a song that just “gets” you, or in the frenzied almost-worship of fandom—but The Wicked + The Divine takes that premise a two-step further. In Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s comic series, gods from all manner of pantheons are reborn every ninety years as mortal, teenage popsters. They exist to be worshipped, but only for two years. After that, they die, and the phoenix-cycle of creation and destruction begins again.

Like Phonogram before it, WicDiv is a story about music told exclusively through words and images—and the way that the creators make up for the lack of awe-inspiring audio through color and character and pop culture reference is impressive, to say the least. Still, if anything is going to convince you to pick up this phenomenal series, it should be music.

[The Music of the Gods]

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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