Tor.com content by

Aidan Moher

Hippo Mayhem with More Emotional Complexity: Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey

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.

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Art of SFF: Galen Dara’s Daring Style

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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War Never Ends: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut, Ninefox Gambit, made history last year when it joined a small handful of novels to earn prestigious nominations for the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Ann Leckie’s tour-de-force, Ancillary Justice, did the same in 2014, winning all three awards, which puts Lee’s accomplishment into perspective. (And that’s not the only similarity between the trilogies, but we’ll get to that later.) Lee was already well known for his terrific short fiction, including his 2013 collection, Conservation of Shadows, but Ninefox Gambit put him on the map in a big way. Fitting nicely into the vacuum left by Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which concluded with Ancillary Mercy in 2015, Ninefox Gambit was a skilled mix of “military SF with blood, guts, math, and heart.”

Ninefox Gambit is a book everyone seems to love, yet it’s also dense at times, and difficult to get into. In my review, I complained about the novel’s early chapters, which I struggled to get through, let alone enjoy. “I found the world confusing, the action gruesome,” I said, “and the pace difficult to keep up with. I could recognize that novel’s quality, and the originality that Lee is known for, but other books beckoned, and there was an easy, lazy whisper at the back of my head.” But I did push on, and was rewarded by one of 2016’s richest novels. The complexity of Lee’s story, both from a worldbuilding and plotting perspective, rivals rocket science, but the intricacy of the relationship between the novel’s two central characters—Kel Cheris, a soldier and genius mathematician, and Shuos Jedao, a psychotic undead general—was masterful.

Its sequel, Raven Stratagem, arrives with a lot of hype, but that also brings baggage. After Ninefox Gambit, could Lee repeat his success? Thankfully, Raven Stratagem not only meets the expectations set by its prequel, but, in many ways, exceeds them, and is a more well-rounded novel.

[Click to water your green onion]

Vintage Shannara: The Black Elfstone by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks’ early Shannara novels had a tremendous impact on me as a young reader. (Say what you will about The Sword of Shannarait helped save epic fantasy.) While I was introduced to epic fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien, it was Brooks who cemented my lifelong love for the genre. Those books, from Sword all the way to the conclusion of The Heritage of Shannara, were expansive and entertaining, chock full of new, interesting ideas (which, in a stroke of genius on Brooks’ part, piggybacked off of familiar elements from earlier volumes.) They swept me away and ignited my imagination with each new volume. Unfortunately, Brooks was unable to maintain momentum, and, in an effort to move onto a once-yearly publishing schedule, his novels began to slim down and started to shed their most redeeming qualities.

I remember the first time I was disappointed by a Terry Brooks novel. It was 2002, and Brooks had just released the conclusion to The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, Morgawr. (The Shannara series is built of smaller sub-series, usually consisting of three volumes each.) While the first volume was fresh and welcome departure from the darkness and vast scope of the previous quartet, by the conclusion it was flat and ineffective. Up to that point, I had come to expect each of Brooks’ sub-series to conclude in a way that felt like the world had been saved from greater peril or changed in some monumental way. The Elfstones of Shannara saw the rebirth of the Ellcrys, The Wishsong of Shannara introduced one of the series most iconic forms of magic, and The Heritage of Shannara introduced the science-friendly Federation, who is still a staple in the series. The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara introduced one of the series most important and fascinating characters, Grianne Ohmsford, but Morgawr left too many hanging threads, and its conflicts proved more intimate and personal than world-changing. I met Brooks on book tour that year, and asked him a few questions that cautiously circled around my disappointment, but even speaking to the man himself couldn’t reconcile the way I felt. It just wasn’t the type of story I wanted or expected from Shannara. Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions here and there (The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy in particular), I’ve been let down by these slimmer and less satisfying novels ever since.

Until now.

[Summon the magic of the Black Elfstone]

Pearly White: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

If you’re a regular Tor.com reader, you’re already familiar with Sarah Gailey and her brilliant Women of Harry Potter series, which received a deserved Hugo nomination for Best Related Work. Gailey also earned her way onto the John W. Campbell Award shortlist, which recognizes the best new voices in science fiction and fantasy. Remarkably, Gailey did so without ever having published anything longer than a short story. One quick look at her resume, though—I recommend starting with “Of Blood and Bronze” (Devilfish Review, 2016) or “Homesick” (Fireside, 2016)—and it’s clear why she’s included alongside other terrific authors like Ada Palmer and Kelly Robson. Gailey’s stories maintain a razor-sharp balance between amusing and emotionally affecting; her characters are interesting and unpredictable; her prose is brisk, her dialogue sharp. Gailey’s debut novella, River of Teeth, has everything that makes these short stories great, with the added benefit of room to breathe.

As Gailey explains in the book’s foreword, “In the early twentieth century, the Congress of our great nation debated a glorious plan to resolve a meat shortage in America. The plan was this: import hippos and raise them in Louisiana’s bayous.” This, of course, never came to pass—however, that didn’t stop Gailey’s imagination from running wild. River of Teeth is set in speculative America where this harebrained plan played out, and now feral hippos prowl the Harriet (a dammed up portion of the Mississippi River). Hired by the federal government to attend to the feral hippo situation, Winslow Remington Houndstooth sets out, Seven Samurai-style, to gather a team of criminals specialists, each with a particular set of skills.

Some spoilers ahead.

[Take a bite]

Divine Grub: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw

Rupert Wong is an investigator by day and cannibal chef by night. A whipping boy for the gods, he will tantalize your tastebuds and set your mouth watering … as long as there’s human meat around. Things go sideways when Ao Qin, Dragon of the South, god of the seas, bursts into Rupert’s apartment and ropes him into investigating a grisly murder. Success means Rupert gets to live another day; failure means nothing more or less than a one-way ticket to Diyu, the Chinese hell. Grab your jockstrap, and strap on your kevlar, because Food of the Gods doesn’t fight fair.

Cassandra Khaw burst onto the scene last year with her gut-punching debut novella, Hammer of Bones—a modern Lovecraftian noir that’s not for the squeamish, but hits all the right notes. To say I was excited for her full length debut is an easy understatement. It’s not often that an emerging writer so effortlessly combines classic inspirations with such modern style and panache. Food of the Gods plays with a lot of familiar archetypes—Rupert is a down-on-your-luck investigator solving a murder. What’s so special about Khaw’s writing, though, is that even when she’s working with these tried-and-true archetypes, her prose is so delicious and her voice so hip that everything old feels new again. Khaw’s writing and world-building oozes style. It’s modern and approachable, inspired but not dogged down by its obvious forbears like Chandler and Lovecraft.

[Dig in]

Aboriginal Sci-Fi: Take Us To Your Chief by Drew Hayden Taylor

“First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together,” admits Drew Hayden Taylor in the introduction to his new short story collection, Take Us to Your Chief. A popular Ojibway author, essayist, and playwright, Taylor is best well known for his amusing and incisive non-fiction (Funny, You Don’t Look Like One), and as the editor of several non-fiction anthologies (Me Sexy and Me Funny) about Aboriginal culture and society. With Take Us to Your Chief, Taylor is taking on a new challenge by bringing together his experience as a leading writer on the First Nations people of Canada and his childhood love of science fiction. “In fact,” Taylor continues, “they could be considered rather unusual topics to mention in the same sentence, much like fish and bicycles. As genre fiction goes, they are practically strangers, except for maybe the occasional parallel universe story.”

Taylor grew up watching and reading science fiction. He’s an admitted fan of Golden Age SF (which shows through in each of the collection’s nine stories), and devoured H.G. Wells as a youth—but satisfying Aboriginal SF was not something that existed at that time, and even now is difficult to find. “Most people’s only contact with Native sci-fi is that famous episode from the original Star Trek series called ‘The Paradise Syndrome,'” Taylor says, referencing the long-regretful representation of Aboriginal people in genre fiction, “where Kirk loses his memory and ends up living with some transplanted Indigene on a faraway planet. These Aboriginal folks came complete with black wigs, standard 1960s headbands and fringed  miniskirts.”

Despite Taylor’s concerns about the crossover between traditional First Nations history, culture, and storytelling and science fiction, Take Us to Your Chief proves that even the least likely companions can become bosom buddies.

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Kindling Hope: Brimstone by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest is perhaps best known for her Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Clockwork Century series—a bombastic steampunk explosion of alternate history America, air pirates, and zombie epidemics. It’s fun with a capital F. It’s also a far cry from her latest novel, Brimstone, which trades airships for clairvoyants and chihuahuas, and the threat of toxic gas for more personal demons. It’s not a departure for Priest, as it piggybacks off of Priest’s unrelated 2016 novel, The Family Plot—a similarly haunting portrait of Americana—but it is another feather in her cap, as she continues to prove herself one of the most versatile writers of American speculative fiction.

Alice Dartle is a young clairvoyant, newly arrived to Cassadaga, Florida (an honest-to-goodness town of clairvoyants in Florida), where she is seeking training and hoping to find a welcoming community in a world that is still reeling from war. Tomás Cordero, a skilled and passionate tailor, has returned from the front lines of World War I to a home that he no longer recognizes—his wife is dead, and mysterious fires follow him wherever he goes. Alice and Tomás are linked by dreams of fire, a masked man, and a shadow who calls himself “the hammer.”

[Click for a bourbon night cap]

Far from Timid: Shy Knives by Sam Sykes

Over the past year or two, I’ve become a big fan of Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales—a series of tie-in novels set in the world of Golarion, home to the popular tabletop RPG, Pathfinder. When I first discovered them, with Wendy N. Wagner’s Skinwalkers, I was searching for great contemporary sword & sorcery novels; something in the style of Howard and Lieber, but written with a more modern approach to world-building, gender, race, etc. Pathfinder Tales offered all of that and more.

Each entry is unique and standalone, offering a new experience wrapped up in a familiar setting. The creators of Pathfinder, including James L. Sutter, have done a wonderful job of creating the perfect fantasy playground, and then hiring great writers to tear it apart and build it back up again.

[Including Sam Sykes with Shy Knives]

Spirited: Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers

Ghost Talkers treads familiar ground. In fact, the ground is so well-trodden by the boots of hundreds of novels, films, documentaries, and video games that it’s nothing but a once lush field of grass turned to mud and boot prints. You’d be forgiven for avoiding yet another narrative set to the backdrop of the Great War—but, like all good narratives, Ghost Talkers rises above the over-familiarity of its setting to offering something unique.

Meet the Spirit Corps—the titular “ghosts talkers”—a group of men and women who use their occult magic to communicate with the spirits of dead soldiers, giving the British forces a leg-up against their enemies during World War I. From Helen to Edna, Mr. Haden to Mrs. Richardson, each member of the Spirit Corps feels real and motivated. Relationships linger between them, not always tied to Ginger Stuyvesant, Ghost Talkers’ hero. You get the sense that much happens behind the scenes for these characters, which enriches the story, and makes the narrative punches hit harder. I was reminded most, oddly, of BBC’s Call the Midwife, a television series which features similar depths within the relationships between various characters. Just imagine that Jenny, Trixie, and the rest were gun-wielding, ghost-corralling psychic mediums fighting from just behind the front lines at Amiens, rather than life-saving and community-binding healthcare providers.

[Read more]

SFF Against Cancer: Shawn Speakman on Unfettered II

Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered (Grim Oak Press, 2013) was released to well deserved fanfare and celebration. Not only did it have a star-studded line-up featuring fan favorite authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, Jacqueline Carey, Tad Williams, and Naomi Novik, it was also a near-and-dear project for Speakman’s friends and family. In 2011, Speakman was diagnosed with cancer—he was successfully treated, but accrued massive medical debts as a result. Unfettered was born from his desire to pay off that debt and avoid declaring medical bankruptcy. Many prominent authors donated stories to the project, and the book was a huge success for Speakman personally and for science fiction and fantasy readers everywhere.

“These stories remind readers that modern fantasy fiction rests firmly on Beowulf,” said John Ruch of Paste Magazine in his review of Unfettered. “In that ancient monster-slaying tale, generosity and fellowship prove the hallmarks of a king, and braving indescribable horrors and pains defines a hero. Speakman’s book, in style and substance, in community and bravery, stands as a worthy heir to the Beowulf tradition.”

Unfettered has continued to find new readers, even three years after its first publication, and Grim Oak Press recently revealed a new edition of the anthology with an additional story and a brand new cover from Todd Lockwood. Hot on the heels of this announcement, Grim Oak Press has unveiled the sequel to the critically-acclaimed anthology, suitably titled Unfettered II. Once again, all the proceeds from the project are going to the fight against cancer, and to Speakman’s newly launched not-for-profit, Grim Oak Shield.

I caught up with Speakman to discuss the anthology series, his efforts to rally science fiction and fantasy against cancer, his wonderful mother, and when readers can expect to dive into Unfettered II.

[Unlock your fetters]

Stealing the Future: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I have a confession to make. When I finished the first chapter of Ninefox Gambit, the debut novel from noted short fiction author Yoon Ha Lee, I thought that was all I would read. It wasn’t clicking with me. I found the world confusing, the action gruesome, and the pace difficult to keep up with. I could recognize that novel’s quality, and the originality that Lee is known for, but other books beckoned, and there was an easy, lazy whisper at the back of my head. “It’s just not for you,” it said. I listened, and moved onto another book.

Yet, here I am reviewing it.

Funny thing happened. That whisper was replaced by another voice—one that kept speculating about Ninefox Gambit‘s opening salvo. Then a couple of readers I respect began to rave about the book, and that voice in my head grew louder and louder, until it was impossible to ignore. The last time something like this happened was with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I found tough going for the first act, but then adored by the time I hit the final page. So, I listened, and, boy, am I glad I did. Ninefox Gambit asks a lot of readers when they pick it up, but damn if it doesn’t repay in double by the end.

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Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a Rough-edged Gem

Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary opens in the wake of pure chaos. The king is dead, and his greatest lapidary, a sort of sorcerer who can control the kingdom’s great magic gems, has betrayed everyone he knows and loves. The Western Mountain forces, led by their ferocious Commander, Nal, are arriving en masse, an invasion so large that the remaining people of the Jewel Valley have no choice but to surrender. The Star Cabochon, the last gem remaining to the Jewel Kingdom, and the only thing with the power to save (or doom) the people of the valley, is missing. Lin, heir to the throne, and Sima, her lapidary, are imprisoned, threatened by death, or worse, if they do not turn the Star Cabochon over to Nal.

If that sounds like a lot to take in all at once: it is. There’s a tremendous sense of tension and frenetic anxiety as the Jewel Valley is invaded and Lin and Sima recognize the betrayal that has occurred—but rather than being pulled into the story, I felt pulled under, drowning in details and struggling to keep up with the various politics, social complexities, and personal conflicts. A story must start with conflict, always, but conflict also requires empathy from the reader if they’re to invest in the story. Because Wilde throws us right in the deep end without water wings, I found myself focusing more on my inability to stay afloat—to understand the political and magical implications of the Western Mountains’ invasion of the Jewel Valley—than the personal journeys of Lin and Sima.

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Rereading The Elfstones of Shannara, Chapters 53 and 54

Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to the final installment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.

Last week, the the Dagda Mor was defeated in an epic final confrontation between the Elves and Demons, and the Ellcrys was reborn at great cost!

This week, the Elves begin to rebuild, Eventine passes away and Ander becomes King, Allanon disappears into the darkness, Wil mourns the loss of a friend, and Eretria finally gets what she’s been after.

[Click to become King of the Elves]

Series: Rereading Shannara