A Phoenix First Must Burn, edited by Patrice Caldwell, is a collection of #OwnVoices stories sprung forth from the minds of some of the best and brightest Black women and gender nonconforming authors. These sixteen science fiction and fantasy young adult tales run the gamut in terms of settings, creatures, style, and identities, but all are united in respecting and honoring self and culture.
February brought a treasure trove of awesome short speculative fiction, including ones about a golem, a robot nanny, a mermaid, a witch, a dead bride, and more. There are some big names on this list as well as some lesser known writers, and, as always, a wide range of identities represented. But best of all, these ten stories will make your heart sing and your body shiver.
Tala Warnock is stuck. She can’t wait to get out of the small, conservative, magic-immune town in Arizona where she grew up. Out beyond the city limits is a world just begging to be explored. It’s been over a decade since the kingdoms of Avalon and Beira nearly destroyed each other during a toxic war that erased Wonderland off the map. Beira sealed its borders and Avalon was encased in ice. Today, the Royal States of America pays top dollar for dangerous spelltech as authoritarianism ramps up. The only things that make life manageable for Tala are her many nearby relatives, her supportive parents, and her best friend Alex, a somewhat closeted gay boy who also happens to be the exiled heir to the throne of the lost kingdom of Avalon. Like him, Tala has a secret: She has the ability to neutralize other people’s magic.
Her parents, a Scottish immigrant and a pre-contact mythological being from the Philippines known as Maria Makiling, are teaching her how to control and use her powers for defense and offense. But before she can complete her training, her hometown is invaded, first by ICE agents looking to illegally imprison anyone with magic regardless of citizenship, and then by operatives of the wicked Snow Queen of Beira. Joined by a powerful magical creature and a gang of magically-inclined teenage warriors, Tala and Alex head out on a quest to save Avalon and defeat the Snow Queen once and for all.
Most people in Western society know the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The clavier child prodigy composed dozens of pieces that torment fledgling pianists and violinists to this very day, but in the 18th century his fame was less secure. Known for his eccentric and mercurial moods, Mozart often struggled to keep his finances—and ego—in check. His elder sister, Maria Anna, was nearly as musically accomplished as her brother but has largely been ignored by history. In her latest young adult historical fantasy novel, The Kingdom of Back, Marie Lu attempts to give Maria Anna her due. This is the story of Mozart…the other Mozart.
Carmen Santos is on the run. She is no longer the Segunda to one of the most powerful men in Medio, and she hasn’t been an active guerilla fighter for La Voz since she was embedded in the Medio School for Girls as a child. As she makes her way back to La Buitre and his freedom fighters, she hopes to reintegrate back into her crew. The rest of La Voz has other ideas. Distrusted and isolated, Carmen struggles to prove her worth to the only family she has left. Making matters worse is Ari, a hot tempered interloper who has weaseled his way into a second in command role. He’s up to something, but finding out what drives a wedge between her and her friends, her and El Buitre, her and La Voz.
Desperate to protect Daniela from Mateo Garcia’s soldiers and Ari’s wrath, Carmen embarks on a treacherous journey back to the capital. Everyone wants her dead and will do everything they can to stop her before she reached Dani. Torn between the woman she loves, the life she left behind, the family who saved her, and the cause she’s risked everything for, Carmen’s actions will either redefine the revolution or shatter it. And she may not be able to choose which.
Two young women stand on the brink. One faces a life of unfathomable wealth and absolute privilege, another a life of drudgery and desperation. Both want something else, something more, and when the opportunity arrives they jump at it. This is a story of two teenagers who gain everything they want only to risk it all to save the kingdom and stop an unstoppable king. They fight for the soul of their nation, the heart of their people, and their own burgeoning identities.
If you don’t already watch Legends of Tomorrow, whatever kind of show you think it is, it’s not that. It’s too kooky, too adorable, too raucous, too frenetic, too earnest, too inexplicable, too wonderful, too cheesy to be contained. I’m full of warm fuzzies just thinking about it. Legends of Tomorrow is the kind of show that knows television can be fun and fresh and diverse and inclusive all at once. As season 5 kicks into high gear, I want to take a moment to celebrate a show we don’t talk about nearly enough.
Not long after helping her brother Miles destroy the horrific magical enslavement system that formed the basis of their homeland’s success, Dame Grace Hensley stands at a crossroads. As Chancellor she is the top advisor to Queen Constantina of Aeland, as the Voice she leads the wealthiest and most powerful mages in the country, and as the sister of the man who is in a committed relationship with a high-ranking Amaranthine she understands exactly the damage the nobles and royals have caused. But the Queen refuses her counsel, the mages want to unseat her, her father is conspiring against her, the Amaranthines are ready to wield their harsh brand of justice, the citizens are clamoring for a revolution, and a meddling yet very attractive journalist is about to expose everything.
As all of these high-level issues swirl around her, two more pressing and tangible things take place: climate change and a murder. Before, the mages worked together to suppress Aeland’s weather to make it temperate and perfect for agriculture. Now the weather is back with a vengeance as it unleashes massive snow cyclone after massive snow cyclone. Only the help of the witches, most of whom are still locked up in asylums or in hiding, can save the nation. If the weather doesn’t take them out first, the Amaranthines might when they learn that a Laneeri diplomat under their protection has been killed under suspicious circumstances. To save Aeland, Grace may have to destroy it…but there are a lot of people who stand in her way.
From life-altering arithmetic to myths made real, from cannibal butchers to mechanical surgeons, from fading romance to self-discovery, January was a strong month for speculative short fiction. Here are ten of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories out of a very crowded field.
Why there haven’t been more speculative fiction set in the American west and southwest I’ll never know. It’s ideal for dystopian stories, particularly those starring marginalized characters. What with all the mythologizing of rugged individualism, wide open spaces, cowboys, and brutal colonialism, there is so much opportunity just waiting for authors to critique and criticize.
Sarah Gailey does just that with Upright Women Wanted. Through a clever conceit, sparky characters, and sheer force of will, their latest novella expertly tweaks the Western and dystopian genres.
It’s fitting that Tochi Onyebuchi’s first adult novella, Riot Baby, comes out the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The roots of activists like MLK run deep through the story, not the sugar-coated, hand-holding, civil rights Santa Claus version the majority likes to champion but the impassioned preacher who wrote fiery words decrying those who stood in the way of progress. Onyebuchi’s story is a clarion call for action and an indictment of pacifism. And it’s a damn good story, too.
Genie Lo is an overachieving, academically focused senior at a college prep school in San Francisco. She’s also the Shouhushen and Divine Guardian of the Protectorate of California on Earth. Yeah, a lot has happened since cute Quentin—aka the teenage version of the Monkey King Sun Wukong—pounced on her in The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. And things are about to go from chaotic to uncontrollable. A great evil threatens Earth and the Jade Emperor refuses to lift a finger. Soon, several gods challenge him for the throne, but the only way to win is to defeat the Big Bad.
All Genie wants to do is sort out her feelings for her charming but sometimes annoying boyfriend, learn more about her powers, and maintain the truce between the humans and the yaoguai. Oh, and graduate and get into a top college, of course. But all that will have to wait until she gets back from an epic quest. If she gets back, that is. She, Quetin, the bodhisattva Guanyin, and assorted other companions must do battle with seemingly unbeatable forces and take on the most powerful beings in the cosmos. Their very survival depends on it.
The examination of identity—especially race, gender, and sexuality—appears in all of Anna-Marie McLemore’s books. Lace becomes the thing she fears the most and must rewire her old perceptions. The Nomeolvides women live in a garden that is both a blessing and a curse because others fear their power and brown skin. Blanca and Roja reject the identities placed upon them by others and forge their own. Samir wants to be someone he isn’t while others try to force Miel to change who she is. All of these strands are braided together into something harder and stronger in Dark and Deepest Red.
It’s my favorite time of the year: my quarterly round up of new young adult speculative fiction releases! We’re starting the new decade off right with a killer list of books teeming with diversity. I don’t know about you, but I’m about to max out the holds list on my library card.
If Shadowshaper, the first book in Daniel José Older’s brilliant trilogy, is about a young woman discovering her power and the second, Shadowhouse Falls, about her struggling to keep it, then the third, Shadowshaper Legacy is about taking control. Ever since she first learned about shadowshaping and the Deck of Worlds, people have tried to keep her down, to keep her from knowing just how powerful she truly is.
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