Over nearly a decade, Seanan McGuire has established at least seven different fictional worlds, from faeries in the San Francisco Bay Area to examinations of what happens after “happily ever after,” and how civilization might survive and even (gasp) thrive after the zombie apocalypse. She regularly writes for at least five of these universes—so many that she needs another name to write them all!
Part of what makes McGuire’s work so engaging is that she pulls from preexisting folklore and pop culture and remixes these elements into wholly original worlds: St. George vs. the dragon, superheroes, marketing agencies, medical scares and scandals, fairy tale narratives that decide what the characters do instead of the other way around. Her latest series, the Wayward Children novellas, opens multiple doors into a variety of portal fantasies. Similarly, you have seven doors in front of you—see which world(s) suits you best.
Rosemary and Rue | A Local Habitation | An Artificial Night | Late Eclipses | One Salt Sea | Ashes of Honor | Chimes at Midnight | The Winter Long | A Red-Rose Chain | Once Broken Faith | The Brightest Fell | Night and Silence | The Unkindest Tide
Part-human, part-fae, changeling October “Toby” Daye has always moved between worlds: She’s grown up in the Summerlands, come of age at the Home for homeless changelings, tried to make a life in San Francisco with a human husband while simultaneously working as a knight in the Faerie Kingdom of the Mists overlaying Northern California. But after a faerie curse steals fourteen years of her life—and cuts her off from her family—Toby is ready to embrace only the human side of her heritage. Too bad that a dying fae geases her via answering machine into solving her murder and therefore returning to the Kingdom of the Mists. But why are they so happy to have her back?
Spells via modern technology—these are the kinds of intersections you see in great urban fantasy. Grounding the story in a familiar city makes for fascinating explorations into Faerie; for instance, did you know that the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park is actually a Fae kingdom masquerading as tourist destination? Toby’s new life begins in 2009, when the series began, and has continued on for ten books full of Cat Kings, Banshee/Siren Queens, kidnappings, gaslighting, and human police who just don’t get it. McGuire has plans to write at least three more volumes, though she’s open to adding in adventures; as she explained in a recent Reddit AMA, “I know exactly where the ending is. We veer left or right sometimes, to spend a little while exploring interesting landmarks (see! The Biggest Ball of Twine in Urban Fantasy!), but I always have my eyes on the final book.” And yes, they’re all named after lines from Shakespeare plays.
Available from DAW Books.
Not content just to control multiple worlds through different book series, McGuire dreamed up a universe composed of countless worlds accessible through all manner of doors. (Here’s a handy guide to all of the ones we know about so far!) Her first Tor.com Publishing novella subverts the typical portal fantasy story—think Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia series—by asking what happens after the protagonist saves the fantasy world, and is no longer useful. “Imagine being pulled out of your normal world for a special task […] and then, when it’s over, being thrown back into your normal life, and told that you’re never going to be able to go back to the place where you were special, accepted, happy, and whole,” she explained in a 2016 interview. Dark stuff, but a necessary coming-of-age story for readers who wished they could cross through a magical wardrobe. In the case of Nancy, the latest portal fantasy castoff, she finds solace in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where she and her fellow misfits are allowed to share stories of the worlds they can no longer access as they grapple with transitioning back to the “real” world.
Subsequent novellas have followed the other Wayward Children into and out of their respective portal fantasies: Down Among the Sticks and Bones delves into the intertwined origin story of twins Jack and Jill in the ghastly Moors, while Beneath the Sugar Sky opens with a girl in a dress made of sugar tumbling out of Confection, a magical world reminiscent of Candyland. (Read an excerpt.)
Available from Tor.com Publishing.
1. Any creature whose existence has been suggested but not proven scientifically. Term officially coined by cryptozoologist John E. Wall in 1983.
2. That thing that’s getting ready to eat your head.
3. See also: “monster.”
The Covenant of St. George was tasked with eliminating cryptids, the “unnatural” creatures not allowed on the Ark when the world ended the first time. But when Alexander and Enid Healy suffer a crisis of conscience, they defect from the Covenant and turn their skills toward protecting the cryptids. Not that the cryptids are entirely innocent, either…
Cryptozoologist, noun: Any person who thinks hunting for cryptids is a good idea. See also “idiot.”
The Healys’ choice, though it claims their lives, ripples down through the generations. InCryptid follows jill-of-all-trades Verity Price: ballroom dancer, former reality TV star, and journeyman cryptozoologist reluctantly spends her spare time protecting cryptids from the Covenant of St. George. Despite her knowledge of the cryptids world, Verity just wants to work on her dancing career… but Dominic De Luca, her on-again/off-again boyfriend and a member of the Covenant, keeps tipping her off to cryptids who need her protection. And she’s just one member of the cryptozoologist family; her brother Alexander Price and cousin Sarah Zellaby have their own agendas, as well.
Compared to the October Daye series, InCryptid is a more open-ended world—McGuire said on Reddit: “[T]he ending is a little more malleable, because every member of the family has their own natural end-point, in addition to the ending for the overall family story. So Verity may have an ending long before Antimony does, and everyone may finish before Elsie. That sort of thing. There, I make sure I know how each family member ends once their turn comes up, and otherwise let the metaplot go where it will.”
Available from DAW Books.
Velveteen vs. the Isley Crayfish Festival | vs. The Coffee Freaks | vs. The Flashback Sequence | vs. The Old Flame | vs. The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division | vs. The Eternal Halloween | vs. The Ordinary Day | vs. Patrol | vs. The Blind Date
What if superheroes didn’t work alone, but were united under one organization—not a league of justice, but an actual corporation? Velma “Velveteen” Martinez is one of many gifted youngsters “adopted” by The Super Patriots, Inc., which nurtured her powers and made her their sweetest, most marketable superpowered asset. But when Velma decides to graduate from superhero adolescence and spend her adulthood as a civilian, the Marketing Department doesn’t take kindly to losing its investment.
Not surprisingly, McGuire’s take on the superhero genre is wonderfully meta: Velma herself realizes that the stock tropes shaping her superhero life—including a big friend breakup in her teens—are all engineered by the Marketing Department. Rather than turn to The Super Patriots, Inc. for instructions on how to use her powers, she takes to fan forums for guidance. When her decision to leave SPI brands her a supervillain by the media, Velveteen bands together with other misfits who “washed out” or otherwise cut ties with SPI in order to defend against attacks on their lives… and their reputations.
Available online and in collected editions from ISFiC Press.
In McGuire’s world, you don’t tell fairy tales—fairy tales tell you. That is, the narrative of your favorite Brothers Grimm and Disney stories is a magical force that will stop at nothing to act out a particular story, no matter the collateral damage. That’s where the ATI Management Bureau comes in; with the help of the Aarne-Thompson Index, they identify and stop these memetic incursions before they rack up victims on their way to happily ever after. Because while HEA might mean a true love’s kiss or an evil queen defeated, the innocent bystanders make up a pretty high body count.
What makes the ATI agents so good at their jobs? They’re all touched by the narrative, frozen in different spots of their respective fairy tale stories as quasi-tropes. Henry (short for Henrietta) is a 709, Snow White in a holding pattern, with the otherworldly looks (white skin, red lips, black hair) and pesky birds slamming themselves into her window in some odd form of tribute. Her fellow agent Sloane missed becoming a Wicked Stepsister (315) by inches, but no one trusts her to make coffee or drive a car, lest it trigger her homicidal tendencies. Nevertheless, her averted incursion allows her to sense when the story is trying to cast someone in the central role. Sleeping Beauty (410) cases means everyone falls asleep and then dies; Goldilocks and the Three Bears (171) cases will probably end with someone getting mauled.
Indexing is a serial published by Amazon’s 47North imprint.
When McGuire wants to write science fiction, thrillers, and horror, she turns to her open pseudonym Mira Grant. “I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some ‘distance’ between it and my urban fantasy work,” she explains on her website. “Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.”
While zombie stories endlessly crop up like the pesky living dead they depict, Grant’s Newsflesh series is one of the rare zombie narratives that sets the undead in the context of wholly unique worldbuilding. For one, everyone is infected—with Kellis-Amberlee, the hybrid virus made up of the cure for cancer and the cure for the common cold. KA lays dormant in all mammals… until they die, and amplify into zombies. While the Rising (beginning in 2014) is contained within a few years, it is by no means eradicated: By the time Feed opens in 2040, an entire generation has grown up knowing about zombies—accustomed to regular blood tests, willing and able to shoot at anything amplified, and, in many cases, named after major figures in zombie lore. Take the two main characters, bloggers Shaun (for Shaun of the Dead) and Georgia (for George Romero) Mason. Unlike most stories within this genre, in the Newflesh universe, zombies are a part of pop culture even before the Rising.
But how do people in this world learn about KA in the first place? That’s all thanks to bloggers. While the mainstream media initially shrugged off the first zombie sightings as erratic flu behavior or zombie cosplay, it was bloggers who delivered on-the-ground, no-holds-barred reports about what was really happening. By 2040, people trust bloggers—now split into groups of Newsies, Irwins, Stewarts, Aunties, and Fictionals based on their specialties and writing styles—to tell the truth. If the commentary on virology, zombies, and journalism weren’t enough, Grant also throws in politics: After the End Times, Shaun and Georgia’s blog, follows Republican senator Peter Ryman on the campaign trail, which might more accurately be described as a minefield.
And that’s just the first book! Newsflesh takes some gutsy risks including (highlight text for spoilers) Georgia amplifying, with Shaun having to execute her, the introduction of equally-plausible cloning technology to “resurrect” the dead in an entirely new way, and a taboo love story. It’s an incredibly smart, well-researched series that deserves to join Romero’s oeuvre, Max Brooks’ World War Z, and other entries in the zombie pantheon. Good news for old and new fans: 2016 will see the release of two Newsflesh books: Rise, collecting all of the short fiction in the Newsflesh universe; and Feedback, a retelling of Feed from the perspective of the Democratic party.
Available from Orbit Books.
For her second trilogy, Grant went back to the same question that inspired Newsflesh: How much would you trust a medicine with regulating your body from disease? In this case, it’s SymboGen’s Intestinal Bodyguard: a genetically engineered tapeworm that gives you the proper doses of insulin, estrogen, endorphins—whatever chemical or hormone your body needs to function. For all the ick factor of willingly putting a tapeworm egg in your body, there are the countless tradeoffs: better, more affordable healthcare; not having to remember daily pills or injections; defense against the germs pressing in from outside. Consider Sally, SymboGen’s poster child for incredible success: After a car accident left her in a coma with no chance of waking up, her Intestinal Bodyguard virtually brought her back from the dead.
But not everyone else is so fortunate: Six years after Sally’s miraculous recovery, people start coming down with a strange “sleeping sickness” that looks less like sleepwalking and more like the walking dead. At the same time, Sally and her boyfriend Nathan uncover a vast conspiracy involving SymboGen, Nathan’s supposedly dead scientist mother, and—most terrifyingly—the notion that the tapeworms are sentient beings. Just like in Feed, Grant employs a fascinating narrative device in the first installment, Parasite (highlight for spoilers): Partway through the book, after meeting several hosts completely controlled by their tapeworms, Sally realizes that she is a tapeworm, too. But she suffers a mental break that makes her forget this information until the end of the book.
For all of their zombie allusions, Grant’s stories are based in real science and—even more frighteningly—in the societal shifts that already exist, like our willingness to take whatever pill is needed without questioning what’s in the pill. Putting the thrill in medical thrillers, that’s Mira Grant.
Available from Orbit Books.
It may be hard to pick just one, but which of Seanan McGuire’s worlds is your favorite?
This article was originally published in March 2016, and has been updated with new titles.
Natalie Zutter was so vindicated to read Newsflesh when she was embarking on a blogging career in 2010. Talk zombie journalism and portal fantasy with her on Twitter!