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Alex Brown

Death, the Dead, and the Undead: New Young Adult SFF for July and August 2021

As I write this, the air conditioner is on full blast, I have an ice cold glass of water sweating all over a coaster, and my pets have melted into furry puddles. It’s a thousand degrees outside and all I want to do is sprawl out on the couch with a good book. With more than half of summer still to go, I’ll have plenty of time for that, especially with this list of upcoming new young adult speculative fiction, fantasy, and horror. Lots of good stuff coming in July and August, and these are some of the ones I’m looking forward to the most… [Read more]

Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction: June 2021

The days are longer and longer and the sun burns hotter and hotter. It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere, and where I live that means hiding in the shade as the heat bakes everything into oblivion. Good thing, then, that I have a plethora of excellent short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories to keep me company. Here are my ten favorite stories from June 2021, full of haunted mirrors, monstrous men, tricksy curses, and climate crises.

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More Than Just a Mean Girl: A Chorus Rises by Bethany C. Morrow

Naema Bradshaw is not an easy character to sit with. As one of the antagonists in A Song Below Water, Tavia saw her as a popular girl who taunted her and her best friend Effie. Bethany C. Morrow recontextualizes Naema’s behavior in A Chorus Rises, revealing that there’s more to the Eloko than just being a Mean Girl. Naema wants to be liked, but she isn’t interested in being likeable. She is unquestionably and unapologetically herself.

A year has passed since the events of the first book. Despite Tavia and Effie’s efforts, no one event could undo four centuries of systemic oppression. Sirens may be the hot new mythological being, but the powers that be are as determined as ever to silence them at all costs. While Effie is off learning how to deal with her gorgon powers, Tavia remains in Portland, trying to balance her newfound fame into something impactful and make the tragedy into something that can change the world for the better.

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A Greater Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

I, like many Americans, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school. Although I remember little of the specifics, I know I found it insufferable and deeply uninteresting. Even as a teenager I was already tired of reading about and discussing rich heterosexual white people and their petty, self-centered problems. I’m sure I saw the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, but all I’ve retained of it is the gif of him raising his champagne glass in a toast and that meme of grumpy Leo sitting on a couch. In short, I do not care about The Great Gatsby. I do, however, very much care about a fantasy retelling of it featuring a queer Vietnamese girl. That is extremely my jam.

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Epic Fantasy That Breaks the Rules: Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

In the city of Bassa, everything exists in a strict hierarchy. Fifteen districts spiral out from the center, each populated by people locked into a caste through complicated social, political, and cultural equations. Danso, a novitiate scholar, is one of those lower castes due to being Shanshi, or biracial. No matter how hard he tries to exceed their expectations, everyone expects him to fail due to his supposedly innate inadequacies. His bride-to-be is Esheme, another Bassai whose dubious parentage has placed her in a lower caste. She, however, is not content to fight for scraps when the whole table is up for grabs.

When an injured islander spellcaster named Lilong crashes into Danso’s life, she brings with her the promise of violent change in the form of ibor, a material that gives the person wielding it impossible powers. An iborworker can change the color of their skin, manipulate the elements, even raise the dead into zombie puppets. As each of the trio get their hands on this powerful weapon, the future of Bassa is called into question. One wants to reform the system, another wants to abandon it to the consequences of its own making, and a third wants to destroy it and rebuild it in their image. Nothing will ever be the same.

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Guided Through History With Thought and Care: Underground Railroad

Barry Jenkins’ new Amazon Prime miniseries, Underground Railroad, is a tour-de-force. At once gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring, I wrapped up the show convinced that we don’t even need television awards shows in 2022 because this cast and crew deserve all the accolades. This is one of those works of art that could be taught in film school for technical skills, acting school for craft, and high schools and colleges for history lessons. It is exquisite on every level.

[Some spoilers ahead]

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No Ordinary Murder Mystery: A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark has been one of my auto-buy authors for a few years now, so when I heard he was putting out a full-length novel (finally!), I jumped at the chance to review it. Of all his works, his Dead Djinn series is my favorite. I’m a sucker for urban fantasy mysteries, and especially drawn to those with locales, leads, and legends who aren’t white and Western/European/British. Happily for me, A Master of Djinn did not disappoint.

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“Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them”: Heidi Heilig’s On This Unworthy Scaffold

At the end of the second book in Heidi Heilig’s Shadow Players trilogy, the Aquitans were stripped of control of their former colony of Chakrana. The people oppressed by colonial rule should be reveling in their sudden freedom, but with the murderous necromancer Le Trépas using blood magic to manipulate the living and the dead, things are about to get much worse. Le Roi Fou, the “mad king” of Aquitan, is not happy about losing a big source of his income and will take whatever exploited resources he can grab, even when those resources are people. Raik, the Boy King, would rather be a puppet than give up his throne, even to his brother. Camreon the Tiger has the stronger claim to the throne, but his time with the rebels puts him at odds with not just his brother but with many of his people as well. Le Trépas sits at the center of this growing hurricane, fueling the winds with his ego and obsession with power.

Jetta, her undead brother Akra, her lover Leo, Leo’s half-sister Theodora, and their friends are the only people who have a chance at stopping Le Trépas, dethroning Raik, and stabilizing Chakrana. But success seems to stretch farther and farther away from them. Leaving the rest of the crew to deal with the Boy King and the undead Aquitans Le Trépas is using to fan the flames of chaos, Jetta and Theodora head to the heart of Aquitan in search of answers and aid. They find both, but not in the ways they expect. Will Jetta trade her kingdom for a king’s stage or will she sacrifice everything she loves to stop a genocidal despot?

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The Best (and Worst) of the ’90s Teen Horror Craze

Hot take: Final Destination is a better film than just about any 21st century horror movie to date. Argue all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that late-1990s and early-2000s era horror movies are awesome. I’ll take Disturbing Behavior over The Human Centipede any day.

The late-1990s and early-2000s were a transitional period in horror movies and for a brief, shining moment, B-horror movies reigned. During this period the villain shifts from a deranged outsider (the height of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s) to one of the cast on the poster secretly hellbent on revenge. Even thrillers got in on the action, with Dead Man’s Curve, Gossip, and The Skulls. Then as J-horror influenced ghost stories rose in popularity and with torture porn on the horizon, the teen slasher fell by the wayside. The post-9/11 horror movie world wasn’t interested in watching a bunch of pretty people get picked off by dorks leaving disgruntled valentines. There was a last gasp in the mid-aughts as studios re-upped their obsession with 3D and blended gore gimmicks with teen slashers, but they never reached the same level of popularity.

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There Once Was a Ship That Was Put to Sea: In Deeper Waters by F.T. Lukens

Prince Taliesin of Harth has just turned sixteen and is leaving the palace for the first time in years. As a child he and his siblings ran wild through the seaside capital, but once his magic revealed itself, he was shuttered away. Years before, their ancestor used his magic to lay waste to his enemies and competitors. Now, the Kingdom of Harth is in the perilous position of needing to seem penitent for his crimes yet powerful enough to defend their borders. The prince’s magic threatens the stability of peace, so the people were told he was sickly and he was forced to keep the biggest part of himself locked away in shame and self-loathing.

Setting sail on his coming-of-age tour—under the watchful eyes of his naval commander elder brother and a diligent bodyguard—is equal parts thrilling and overwhelming. Those feelings intensify when they come across a derelict ship with a cute yet strange boy chained up inside.

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“Blood Follows Vein”: Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart

In alternating points of view, Witches Steeped in Gold centers on two antagonistic young women, Alumbrar witch Jazmyne Cariot and Obeah witch Iraya “Ira” Adair. As the only daughter and heir to Aiyca’s matriarchal throne, Jazmyne has been preparing to become doyenne her entire life. Her mother, a cold woman so obsessed with political strategy that she has no room left for relationships, sees Jazmyne not as her child but as a tool to continue her power even after she’s gone. Locked away in a dungeon for the last decade, Ira is the last living heir of the former Obeah rulers of Aiyca, the ones deposed and murdered by Doyenne Cariot. Sent to train as a guard, Ira is constantly foiled in her attempts at resistance.

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Them Relies on Brutality Over Nuanced Social Commentary

Them, Amazon Prime’s newest horror anthology series, has a lot of potential. The premise—escaping violence in the South, a Black family relocates to East Compton in the 1950s when it was still an all-white enclave and horror ensues—is intriguing. In the wake of other television shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country that also took Black history and twisted it with fantastical elements, there was a real opportunity to explore different aspects of racial violence: redlining, white flight, and blockbusting. Unfortunately, Little Marvin, who created Them and wrote four episodes, fails to live up to the potential of his own premise.

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