My Formative SFF: Forgotten Classics of the ’70s and ’80s

I’m a nerd from a family of nerds, and I grew up reading a lot of science fiction. Specifically, I grew up reading a lot of my mother’s science fiction collection, which included a lot of brilliant writers, some of whose works are not as well-known today as they once were.

Since this is a pity, I’d like to introduce you to some of the books that affected me strongly growing up, and influenced me as a reader—and probably also as a writer.

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Revealing Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder.

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Black Lightning Is A Superpowered Example of How Systems Dominate the Bodies of Black Americans

The CW’s latest DC Comics series, Black Lightning, has been doing a lot of things really well from the very beginning. With only eight episodes aired to date, it has shown itself to be a very considered character study focused on the additional effort required and the heightened stakes of being a black person with any influence in an urban community. In the process, it has also become not only another media touchstone for black superhero representation but black lesbian superhero representation. It’s also a lot of fun to watch Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), and his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams) being smart, critical, hilarious, and badass in as many scenes as possible.

Moreover, the show is doing an interesting job not being preachy about a reality that tends to take up a bafflingly large amount of real estate in the visual/dramatic imagination of black lives. Even if you love the character, love superhero fiction in general, or just want a fun drama to watch on a Tuesday night, there’s no denying that film and television has already spent a lot of time (for some, perhaps even too much time) retelling the stories of black people in urban American communities struggling in the middle ground between the rock that is hostile law enforcement and the hard place that is gang warfare. It’s familiar territory—regardless, especially in the revealing light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, if Black Lightning wanted to be preachy, it’d be hard to argue that the sermon would be terribly unwelcome or ill-timed.

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Darkness Meets Light in the Newest Cloak and Dagger Trailer

“The universe keeps pushing us together.”
“The universe keeps pulling us apart.”

The latest trailer for Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger is all about dualities: Tyrone’s (a.k.a. Cloak) need to be perfect, to constantly prove himself at his prep school, contrasted with Tandy’s (a.k.a. Dagger) tendency to skip town when things get tough but also her ability to get away with living on the fringes. But what unites these teenagers are formative childhood tragedies and the fact that, with their complementary powers, they seem fated to meet—as a “divine pairing” meant to team up. But what’s that about one of them living while the other dies?

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Gaming and Virtual Reality Novels Featuring Fierce Female Characters

I love Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. I love it so much, it’s among the handful of titles that I re-read annually. I love the popular culture references, the throwbacks, the easter eggs, and I especially love the audiobook version narrated by Wil Wheaton.

What I don’t love is the way the character of Art3mis is treated like a side quest, some challenge to be conquered by our torch-bearing hero. It happens in actual video games, too: my game of choice is The Legend of Zelda. I mean, her name is literally in the title and yet the character of Zelda (in all her reiterations) is hardly seen; instead, players run around the land of Hyrule as Link. In some versions of the game, Zelda doesn’t appear at all. Before I started playing, I even thought Link’s name was Zelda because, well, why wouldn’t the eponymous character appear as a major player in the game that features her name?

[Luckily, there are plenty of novels that put women gamers front and center.]

Fairy Tale Horror: The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

Mallory Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster, is more a chimera than a collection of straightforward retellings. Fairy tales, children’s stories, ballads, and prayers weave throughout these short stories, sometimes in form and sometimes in reference, and always like a shared and sinister mythology. If, like the subtitle of the book proclaims, these are “Tales of Everyday Horror,” it is because they’re horrible in their proximity to our everyday lives, and to the strange cultural miasma that informs it.

The fantasy genre is saturated with fairy tale makeovers, usually in some combination of “the original but darker,” or “the original but with better politics.” There’s nothing wrong with these retellings—I might even argue there’s more than one thing right about them—but Ortberg’s playful foray into the western canon feels like a different project altogether. It is dark, certainly, and it doesn’t lack for things to say about gender, violence, love, and a host of other politicized things. It is also—in keeping with Ortberg’s reputation on The Toast (RIP), The Shatner Chatner, and other reputable publications—funny. What makes Ortberg’s everyday horrors truly different, though, is that they map questions onto these old stories instead of answers. Instead of saying “The daughters in these stories should have more agency,” or “The daughters in these stories had agency all along,” they ask: “What is a daughter?” and, “With agency like this, who needs enemies?”

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Sleeps With Monsters: Feeling and Faith in The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

I’ve only ever read a handful of books that treat the question of religion in fantasy with any serious weight. The presence or absence of gods and their powers, the (un)knowability of divine things, the question of whether or not one can get, or understand, an answer from a god—the question of whether, if you’ve given your fealty to a god, it matters if you understand the use said god makes of you—is not a question that fantasy in general deals with in great detail, even—or perhaps especially—in those works that take the existence of gods for granted.

Until now, my short list has generally included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods works (The Curse of Chalion, Penric’s Demon) and not much else. But now I find—in the middle of a grimly humorous story that reminds me of nothing so much as a really fucked up Forbidden Realms adventuring party—that T. Kingfisher (otherwise known as Ursula Vernon) has a revelatory scene in her The Wonder Engine, second and final book in the Clocktaur War duology.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Reading The Wheel of Time: Mistrust Fractures the Fellowship in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World (Part 5)

Robert Jordan has talked about how he intended for The Eye of the World to include some reference and homage to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and since these resemblances have often been remarked upon (sometimes positively, sometimes less so) by readers, it seems fitting at this moment to circle back around to the themes I addressed in the first week of this read. Then, we talked about questing stories and the formation of a fellowship. Now, it is time to talk about what happens when that fellowship is inevitably broken.

[Let’s get to the recappin’.]

Series: Reading The Wheel of Time

Visting Hours Are Over, Jessica Jones

It’s easy to forget at times that Jessica Jones is a show about superpowers, because of the heavy genre focus on crime investigation/noir, not to mention the lack of spandex. But one of the big questions that runs through various superhero narratives (and Marvel comics/cinematic works in particular) is that of superhero law and order.

How do you police people with powers? What new laws do you need to deal with them? How do you incarcerate them without removing their human rights?

Do they even get human rights?

We see this play out practice in these episodes where it’s previously been theoretical: Alisa is incarcerated, and she’s a prison fatality waiting to happen. But is she going to be the killer or victim?

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Wonderblood Sweepstakes!

We want to send you a galley copy of Julia Whicker’s Wonderblood, available April 3rd from St. Martin’s Press! Read the first chapter here.

Wonderblood is set in a barren United States, an apocalyptic wasteland where warring factions compete for control of the land in strange and dangerous carnivals. A mad cow-like disease called “Bent Head” has killed off millions. Those who remain worship the ruins of NASA’s space shuttles, and Cape Canaveral is their Mecca. Medicine and science have been rejected in favor of magic, prophecy, and blood sacrifice.

When traveling marauders led by the bloodthirsty Mr. Capulatio invade her camp, a young girl named Aurora is taken captive as his bride and forced to join his band on their journey to Cape Canaveral. As war nears, she must decide if she is willing to become her captor’s queen. But then other queens emerge, some grotesque and others aggrieved, and not all are pleased with the girl’s ascent.

Comment in the post to enter!

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Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: A Civil Campaign, Chapter 2

On Barrayar, you come home, you get flowers, and you make plans. This week, it’s Kareen Koudelka’s turn. Kareen is returning from a school year on Beta Colony. This situation is somewhat more complicated than she had anticipated when she left. Beta Colony is very open about sexual matters. Barrayar, by contrast, is a place where it is very difficult to say things like, “I spent a large part of the year knocking boots with your old friends’ recently discovered clone son.”

I would love for Kareen’s family not to care who she knocked boots with, as long as everyone involved was having a good time, but they DO care. It’s not initially clear whether they care because of Barrayaran cultural mores, or if they just want the hot gossip.

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Series: Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

All of Us Are in Search of An Author: Lacking Character by Curtis White

Lacking Character is author Curtis White’s first work of fiction in fifteen years. The veteran surrealist has written books including Metaphysics in the Midwest, Memories of My Father Watching TV, and The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers—ranging from short fiction to novels to essays. His new outing is a novel-adjacent philosophical exercise. What counts as character? How do we delineate one individual from another? What divides man from beast, guinea pig from feral infant? Lacking Character dresses these questions up in thought experiments, humor, sex, and some really hilarious literary parodies, and like the best of these types of books, never comes to any conclusions about the state of the human mind—instead White lets readers draw their own conclusions.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

It’s a Boy’s Universe After All: Andre Norton’s Plague Ship

The second installment in the Solar Queen series reads as straightforward young-male-adult adventure, vintage 1956. It’s got all the elements: Rocket ships with fins and shiny hulls. Weird alien planets with equally weird alien life. Desperate crisis that only the kids can solve. Plenty of action and derring-do.

Plague Ship is one of the most tightly plotted Norton novels I’ve reread so far. It canters along at a good clip, each action and reversal following in logical fashion. It’s clear how it will end, but it’s great fun along the way.

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