“Ursula was everything you’d expect her to be: biting wit, wasn’t going to suffer fools at all,” artist Charles Vess told me over the phone from his studio in Abingdon, Virginia. Vess, a long-time Ursula K. Le Guin fan, was chosen by Saga Press to illustrate their collection of Le Guin’s famous epic fantasy, The Books of Earthsea, a massive tome comprised of five novels and various pieces of short fiction. When speaking with Vess about the project, his passion for Le Guin’s work and his intimate experience with Earthsea was obvious.
If someone asked me how I got into fantasy, I’d bring up the summer of ’96. I was 12 years old and had just graduated elementary school. Enjoying one of the longest summers of my life. One day stands out vividly above the rest. It was hot, sunny—brilliant and full of possibility, in the way that only summer vacation can be. I was with my dad, driving to southern Vancouver Island so that he could meet with someone who worked for his online scriptwriting workshop. The drive was about an hour, but it felt shorter. I wasn’t looking out the window, or chatting with my dad; instead, my nose was buried in my mom’s battered copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I was in the car with my dad, but I was also in Middle-earth alongside Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarfs. This might not seem like a remarkable introduction to fantasy, but it was for me. I grew up treating fantasy with disdain—dismissing it for being full of unicorns, princesses, rainbows, and the sort. (Who’d’ve thought that 20 years later I’d be looking for exactly those things in the books I read?) Instead, I was a remarkably loyal science fiction fan. However, Tolkien’s novel of loyalty and adventure, danger, magic, and friendship showed me the error of my thinking, and convinced me that, hey, fantasy is cool. I became a voracious fantasy reader after that—an obsession I still live with today.
However, my roots as a fantasy fan go back farther than that—which I’m only realizing as I write this article.
Picture this: It’s the 1960s. Earth was flattened by a meteor, and humanity’s time is ticking as temperatures rise and catastrophic climate change looms like a spectre. A young, world-famous astronaut, pilot, and mathematician bounds through the tunnels of Bradbury, a human-populated moonbase with Mars on her mind. It’s a gorgeous, electrifying concept executed flawlessly by Mary Robinette Kowal.
The Fated Sky is the second volume in a prequel duology to Kowal’s Hugo Award-winning novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The first volume, The Calculating Stars, which I enjoyed tremendously, introduced readers to a young Elma York, who readers met in the novelette as the titular “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and tells the story of her involvement in humanity’s reach for the stars after a catastrophic meteor strike wipes out most of the United State’s eastern seaboard. One of the reasons “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was notable was due to its fascinating alternate history which saw humanity colonize Mars in the mid-late 20th century. How they got there remained a bit of a mystery in the novelette, but the whole process is revealed, in calculated, well-researched and thrilling detail, in The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky.
It’s no secret that I’m an immense Mary Robinette Kowal fan. Just check out my review of Ghost Talkers. But it’s not just her fiction that impresses me, but also her kindliness, generosity, and willingness to share knowledge with the rest of the writing community through her blog, Twitter, and as part of the Writing Excuses crew.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Hugo Awards ceremony, Kowal was kind enough to take me and another fellow winner under her wing, guiding us through the craziness that followed. She was basking in her own victory that night, but also took the time to give her time and attention to others that needed it.
I’ve written at length about not only what Terry Brooks means to the epic fantasy genre, but to me personally as a reader. His books blew the doors off the world I first discovered via Tolkien, but it was his generosity and kindness towards a young writer at Surrey International Writer’s Conference that set me on the path I travel today. Brooks is one of fantasy’s most prolific novelists, having written over 30 novels. Since 1996, he’s produced a novel a year—the release of which has become something of an event for me. Despite some inconsistency in quality over the years, I eagerly look forward to his new books, especially the Shannara novels.
If you’ve paid any attention to the SFF Awards scene in recent years, you’ll recognize Yoon Ha Lee and his Machineries of Empire trilogy. Each of the first two volumes, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, picked up Hugo Award nominations for Best Novel, and Ninefox Gambit also landed on the Nebula ballot. Lee has long been respected for his short fiction, but his early career as a novelist has been even more dramatic and impressive. The first two volumes in the series blend impressively complex SFnal ideas with strong characterizations, an endless supply of imagination, seriously satisfying combat, and a labyrinthine military-political plot that develops at just the right speed.
It’s no surprise, then, that the final volume in the series, Revenant Gun, is another winner. What started in Ninefox Gambit reaches its stunning conclusion in one of 2018’s best science fiction novels, and cements Lee alongside Leckie as one of science fiction’s foremost authors.
Several years ago, I became a parent. The birth of my child was a transformative experience, and, since then, I’ve been drawn to stories about parents — their relationships with their children, the way parenthood affects their decisions, the endless possibilities for familial relationships. The day your first child is born, you wake up as Bilbo Baggins — naive, selfish — but then, suddenly, you are thrust into the role of Gandalf — teacher, protector.
Science Fiction and Fantasy is full of parents — loving parents (Lily Potter) and awful parents (King Robert Baratheon), incredible parents (Cordelia Vorkosigan) and mysterious parents (Tam al’Thor), and all around kickass parents (Zamira Drakasha). Parenthood affects them all differently, challenges their motivations, and changes the way they interact with the world around them. Without children, they would all be dramatically different people (even King Robert).
Welcome back to Art of SFF—a column covering the best and brightest science fiction and fantasy artists. From newcomers to legends, Art of SFF pulls back the curtain to introduce you to the people behind your favourite book covers, films, and video games, and SFF-influenced art of all kinds. This time around, Jenn Ravenna joins us.
“My mother and father were immigrants who were always working overtime to support our family,” said Ravenna, a Seattle-based concept artist and illustrator who has worked for Wizards of the Coast, HarperCollins, XBOX, and Fantasy Flight Games, among many others. Science fiction and fantasy provide people in need of escapism with an opportunity for adventure, Ravenna said. They’re like a teleportation device to other worlds through various mediums—in art, books, video games, and film. “I had no siblings, so I was often left to my own devices. When I discovered science fiction in books and video games, I was immediately drawn to the endless possibility. It might sound sad, but it helped pass the time and make my world more interesting.”
Ilana C. Myer’s debut novel, Last Song Before Night, was a dazzling epic fantasy that mixed the scope and world-building the genre is known for with beautiful prose and a slow-building plot that crescendos into something spectacular. Myer has cited the legendary Guy Gavriel Kay as a major influence in her writing, and his fingerprints were all over Last Song in the way it paid close attention the delicate, intricate relationships between its various characters, and how its personal conflicts were often more important than the overarching global conflicts. Myer’s debut was a confluence of many aspects that make epic fantasy a standout genre for me.
To say I was excited for its standalone sequel is a major understatement. Unfortunately, despite sharing many of its predecessor’s strengths, Fire Dance suffers from too many structural and pacing issues to live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. Like a dancer unable to find their rhythm after a misstep, Fire Dance is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes flawed novel.
Welcome back to Art of SFF—a column covering the best and brightest science fiction and fantasy artists. From newcomers to legends, Art of SFF pulls back the curtain to introduce you to the people behind your favourite book covers, films, and video games, and SFF-influenced art of all kinds. This time around, we chat with Djamila Knopf.
“The most amazing thing about art is that there are no limitations,” said the Leipzeig, Germany-based artist. “It allows us to travel through worlds that go far beyond our own. If I’m being honest, I see it mostly as a form of wish fulfilment. It gives me the chance to explore things that I otherwise couldn’t, and that’s especially true for science fiction and fantasy.”
The hoofbeats seemed to continue endlessly. The sound of the chains rose as they drew closer. Heloise could see the links playing out behind the horses, dragging in the dirt. A dead woman slid past Heloise, green and bloated, caked with road filth. She was wrapped in the long, gray ropes of her innards, tangled in the metal links until Heloise couldn’t tell her guts from the chains. The horses dragged another body beside her, wrapped in metal like a silkworm in molt.
Heloise’s gorge rose at the stink and she gagged, clapping a hand to her mouth. Another moment and they would be past. Please don’t notice us. Please ride on.
The jangling ceased as the riders halted. (Ch. 1)
From its opening pages, it’s clear that The Armored Saint isn’t messing around. The first volume in Myke Cole’s new epic fantasy series, it’s the gut-punching story of Heloise Factor and the village that raised her. It’s about rebellion, first love, and faith. The Armored Saint has all the hallmarks of epic fantasy—a secondary world overseen by a brutal religious order, magic, wizards, and devils—but it’s unusually slim, clocking in at around 200 pages. Cole makes good use of that space, however, and delivers a book that’s sleek, yet packed full of effective world building, intricate characters, and some truly satisfying SFnal elements. [Read more]
My path into fantasy literature was a typical one. I started with J.R.R. Tolkien, moved on to Terry Brooks, and then jumped over to R.A. Salvatore. It wasn’t Salvatore’s legendary Drizzt Do’Urden books that captured my attention, however, but rather his under-appreciated DemonWars Saga. Where the Drizzt novels were sword & sorcery standalones, the DemonWars Saga was a sprawling, multi-volume epic fantasy that told the story of Corona. It was a familiar fantasy world full of goblins and elves, kings, rangers, and a church that held a vast horde of magic gemstones, which granted their bearers the ability to send forth bolts of lightning, fly, heal the wounded, and travel vast distances by separating their spirit from their corporeal body. The DemonWars Saga was perfect for 17-year-old me, and still holds a special place in my heart. (So much so that I’ve never reread the series, for fear of my changing tastes conflicting with my loving nostalgia.)
One of my many roles in life is being the dad to a bright and creative three year old who loves story time. So, I read a lot (a looooooooot) of kids’ books each day. So, cracking open Greg Manchess’s Above the Timberline felt familiar, despite being unlike anything I’d ever read before. Like a kids’ book, you’re greeted with bold, engaging illustrations, and splashes of text that accentuate the visual storytelling.
Reading Above the Timberline feels at once like something unique—a vivid and whole rendition of a storyteller’s vision—while also bringing back waves of nostalgia as I remembered reading the same books my daughter now enjoys, and the way I would sink into the visual and literary creations of their authors.
Sarah Gailey’s a rising star. Earlier this year (in addition to a Hugo Nomination for “Best Related Work”) she found herself on the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer shortlist alongside other impressive newcomers like Malka Older, Kelly Robson, and winner Ada Palmer. She landed herself on the ballot thanks to her short fiction, which is honed to such a sharp edge that you’d think she’s been writing for years. Gailey gained widespread acclaim with the release of her debut novelette, River of Teeth.
“River of Teeth is Gailey’s coming out party, and, without a doubt, will firmly cement her among today’s best young SFF writers,” I said of River of Teeth in my review. And it’s true—Sarah Gailey is among today’s best young SFF writers. Heck, she can tango with the experienced SFF writers, too. “With its bombastic set pieces, rich, layered characters, smooth prose, and delicious dialogue, River of Teeth, like everything Gailey has written, is a delight to read from start to finish. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll scream like an adolescent watching his first horror movie. But, most of all, by the end you’ll be clamouring for River of Teeth’s sequel.”
That sequel, available now, is Taste of Marrow, and, oh boy, does it deliver.
Welcome back to Art of SFF—a column covering the best and brightest science fiction and fantasy artists. From newcomers to legends, Art of SFF pulls back the curtain to introduce you to the people behind your favourite book covers, films, and video games, and SFF-influenced art of all kinds. This month, we chat with Hugo Award-winner Galen Dara.
“As a kid I cut my drawing teeth on fabulous winged beasts, magical weaponry and figures in outlandish costumes,” said Dara, whose clients include 47 North, Fantasy Flight Games, and Fireside Magazine. “The fantastical was always my wheelhouse. As a reader I value speculative fiction’s ability to be both delightful escapism and searing social commentary.”
Watching Dara’s career blossom has been one of the most delightful benefits of being a part of the SFF fan community over the past several years. She first gained popularity as a fan artist, producing vivid SFF art unlike anything else. In 2013, Dara won the Hugo Award for “Best Fan Artist.” Since then, she’s been nominated for several other high profile awards, including a couple more Hugos, the Chesleys, and the World Fantasy Award (which she won in 2016). Except now she’s competing among professionals instead of fans. It’s safe to say that Dara’s arrived.
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