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Alex Brown

Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction for December 2021

December 2021 brought a plethora of great short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories to my inbox. Judging by the stories that ended up on my spotlight this month, I went on an environmental disasters kick. From fussy lake gods to exploitative space station dwellers, from technology-infused religious beliefs to robots repopulating the planet, with a few creepy houses to spice things up.

Plus! Four extra stories from a few publications whose summer and fall issues I missed when they were initially released.

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Best Young Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror of 2021

With more than 300 young adult speculative fiction novels and graphic novels traditionally published in 2021, putting together a Best Of list is a massive undertaking. After weeks of hemming and hawing, adding and subtracting, making decisions and changing my mind, here is a big batch of 35 titles. “Best” is, of course, a totally subjective concept, but these are the science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels that I think absolutely nailed how much young adult fiction can change, inspire, teach, and reflect its readers.

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Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction for November 2021

November is a weird month. The beautiful fall colors of October are gone, but the crisp bite of December has yet to arrive. Things are coming due and end of year lists are being made, as if there isn’t a whole other month left. November is an inhale, a hesitation, a glitch in the timestream. So here are my ten favorite speculative fiction stories from that strange eleventh hour pause.

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A Fresh Take on Old Tropes: Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier

Makiia Lucier’s latest young adult fantasy novel Year of the Reaper blends fantasy and mystery into one captivating tale. This story about two warring kingdoms hit hard by a plague is thoroughly engrossing and impossible to put down. I had planned to savor it over a weekend, and instead read it in a single afternoon. And as soon as I’d finished, all I wanted to do was go back and read it again.

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Moving Through Trauma in Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

In the lead-up to the 2021 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

More than a decade passed between Susanna Clarke’s last literary offering, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, and Piranesi, her second novel. Clarke rose to fame with her devastatingly fantastic doorstopper of a debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s hard to imagine anything living up to the heights that book set, but Piranesi does.

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Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction for October 2021

Normally I like my October to be full of dark and stormy stories. This year I went humorous yet thoughtful, with a splash of the apocalypse for good measure. Many of these authors were new to me, and I got a kick out of getting to know them and their work. Here are my ten—no, scratch that, eleven!—favorite short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories I read in October.

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A Wonderful Use of YA Tropes: Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray

In the Pan-African inspired fantasy land of Eshōza, a monster known as the Shetani hunts and kills anyone who strays into its jungle. For nearly a century, the citizens of the city of Lkossa have feared the beast, but now two teens from opposite ends of the social hierarchy are teaming up to take it down.

As an indentured servant to the Night Zoo, Koffi tends to and trains strange and dangerous creatures with her mother. The end of their contract is close enough to taste, but a tragic event pushes that deadline far into the future. Staring down a lifetime of being chained to the zoo, Koffi strikes a deal to pay off her and her loved ones’ debts in exchange for capturing the dreaded Shetani. Ekon, the son of one of the most powerful families in Lkossa, is on the verge of becoming a Son of the Six, elite warriors who protect the city and brutally enforce its rules. When his chance at a promotion is stripped away, he decides his best chance at gaining his position back is to do something spectacular: kill the Shetani. 

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Managing My Ever-Expanding TBR Stack

After reading Molly Templeton’s two recent pieces on the To Be Read conundrum, I got to thinking about how my own queue is structured. Like many of you, my TBR is in constant fluctuation. I add more to it than I remove. At this point I would have to turn reading into a full time job in order to get through them all, and it would still take me literal years.

To help me prioritize my list, I thought I’d pull together the ten books I’m most eager to read off my TBR. I don’t have any big reasons for not having read them yet, other than a lack of time and *gestures vaguely at the panini*. Will I actually get to them in the near future? I certainly hope so. Until then, they’ll keep glaring at me from my bookshelves.

What’s at the top of your To Be Read queue?

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An American Werewolf in Piedmont: Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle

After some family turmoil, Becca and her newly-single mom relocate to Piedmont, a wealthy enclave in the San Francisco Bay Area. Becca dreads having to make new friends in a school where she obviously doesn’t fit in. Luckily, after rescuing a bubbly girl named Marley from a period accident, she is pulled into a powerful high school clique. Once she proves her worth, Marley, brusque Amanda, and HBIC Arianna take Becca in and reshape her into their image. At first it’s a change of wardrobe and slang, and then it’s inducting her into their werewolf pack.

Once Becca’s fangs come in, the story kicks into high gear. High on life and the blood of misbehaving boys, Becca and her new friends run wild across the Bay. But with the feds chasing after the line of bodies they leave behind and a new romance blooming between Becca and one of her besties, Arianna’s dominance begins to fracture. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

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Breakup Brownies and Great Big Feelings Cookies: The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

After a rough breakup, Syd decides to bake away the pain. Unfortunately for the customers at the Proud Muffin, Austin, Texas’ favorite queer-owned bakery, Syd’s brownies cause everyone who eats them to spontaneously break up with their partners. Relationships fracture throughout the close-knit queer community, the worst one being the gay couple who own Syd’s bakery. Determined to undo the damage, Syd seeks help from the cute transmasc demi delivery person Harley. But mending broken hearts and saving the Proud Muffin from greedy hipster gentrifiers will take more than good luck and magic-infused pie. As Syd explores this whole identity thing, a new romance sparks, old friendships deepen, and questions long avoided finally become clear.

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Harley Quinn, Eat the Rich and the Joy of Returning to Comics

I was an avid comic book reader for years… and then I wasn’t. It felt like the same handful of “diverse” characters reenacting the same handful of storylines. Comics publishers were doubling down on keeping or rehiring bad actors. The Big Two were constantly rebooting their characters and jamming in special events that spanned across numerous series, all while delaying trades by months to force people into buying issues or digital.

To put it plainly: I was bored. I figured I’d take a break from comics for a few months and then dive back in. That break turned into two and a half years. What finally pulled me back in? Eat the Rich and Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour.

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Magical World Building: Cazadora by Romina Garber

For her whole life, Manu has lived as an undocumented person, first as an Argentinian immigrant in Miami and now as the “illegal” child of a human and a Septimus (a magical person). Her werewolf father wants to protect her from his people just as her human mother wants to protect Manu from hers. After the events of the first book, Manu goes on the lam with her Septimus friends, Tiago, a lobizón (a male werewolf) and Manu’s crush, Cata and Saysa, brujas (female witches) who are also secret girlfriends. They race to keep ahead of the Cazadores (basically, a cross between the cops and ICE, but with magic) who want to kill Manu for violating the laws of their portal world of Kerana.

Along the way, the teens meet non-compliant Septimus living on the fringe or hiding in plain sight who all have their own reasons for wanting to break down the walls of their oppressive society. But do they want to dismantle the system or simply reform it? The former would allow Manu to live freely and openly, while the latter would consign her to second class citizenship, with no rights and no say in her life. How much are her friends and new allies willing to risk for Manu? For the betterment of their people? All Manu wants is to finally have a home where she can be herself without fear. In Cazadora, that may be a dream beyond her grasp.

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