content by

Cole Rush

Five Fictional Texts With Dark or Mysterious Implications

I love when story drives story. Fictional books within books (or movies, or TV shows) are deliciously meta, giving us an opportunity to reflect on and admire the power of the written word and acknowledging how text can impact us.

The trope pops up in any number of great stories and in every medium…and often, fictional texts within larger stories have dark implications, or hold hidden dangers, or reveal disturbing truths about the worlds in which they exist.

I’ve compiled, for your reading and viewing pleasure, a list of five fictional texts that appear within other stories—books that can bestow formidable powers, grim truths, or valuable knowledge, and which may exact a grim cost. Some are helpful and dangerous in equal measure, and some are potential weapons, laden with nefarious purpose…

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Please Adapt: Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe

So far in my “Please Adapt” column, I’ve covered a beloved bestseller and a fan-favorite epic fantasy series, both of which are some of SFF’s top contenders for film or TV adaptation. Today, I want to feature a book that might be less familiar to a potential mainstream audience: Darcie Little Badger’s debut novel, Elatsoe.

To call the novel a “lesser-known” book would likely be a misnomer; Elatsoe certainly garnered its fair share of praise. It earned a slot on TIME Magazine’s “100 Best Fantasy Books” list and a spot on Publishers Weekly’s Best of 2020. I hopped aboard the hype train too, giving Elatsoe a 9/10 in my original review.

In spite of this success, Elatsoe is still finding its way into the hands and hearts of many SFF readers, and if you haven’t read it, you should add it to your list! It’s a novel that tells a unique, compelling story brimming with legends and magic—a story that’s ready-made for the onscreen treatment.

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Five Small Books Packed With Big Ideas

I read a lot of epic fantasy. The bigger the better. When it comes to reading enjoyment, it’s hard to beat a sweeping, 800-plus page story—especially if it’s part of a massive series.

Lately, though, I’ve started slotting smaller books into my reading schedule. It helps me explore a more diverse array of voices and approach my always-too-high annual reading goal… but mostly, these comparatively tiny tomes have shown me how big ideas can fill up a small space and still feel impactful, and deeply meaningful.

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Death Note Is the Perfect Beginner’s Guide to Hard Magic Systems

There’s a lot to be said about the intersection of fantasy and the insanely large pantheon of anime content, to put it mildly. Today, I’d like to focus on Death Note and its smart, if a bit on-the-nose, use of a hard magic system to tell its story. 

My anime sample size is relatively small, but thus far I’ve encountered a wealth of soft magic systems—powers with ill-defined rules or none at all. They’re a blast to watch; Saitama’s overpowered nonchalance in One Punch Man always makes me chuckle. Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood ventured further into hard magic territory with Equivalent Exchange, making it a fitting destination or entry point for eager magic-savvy viewers. 

And then we have Death Note, a cat-and-mouse tale fueled by a magic system so thoroughly plotted, it lists rules on title cards before and after commercial breaks. Now, when I encounter a fantasy-curious friend who struggles with the intricacies of a magic system governed by strict rules, I’ll encourage them to give Death Note a try. The anime lays its rules bare, guiding the viewer as much or as little as needed… 

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Five Fantasy Games That Teach Valuable Lessons About Failure

Video games are master classes in dealing with failure. The medium welcomes and rewards failure in ways other forms of media can’t. When the player is in control, success pushes the narrative forward while failure brings it to a standstill…but not completely.

Many games shape their mechanics around failure, weaving the player’s inevitable deaths into the core story. Losing a life or dying in a video game is seldom the end of the line. Doing the wrong thing can lead to a successful outcome, or it can provide crucial information that informs a more successful attempt down the line.

Due to their unique playable nature, video games teach important lessons about failure. The five games below each taught me something about failing, what it means, and how to cope with it. And as a bonus, they’re all incredibly fun to play…

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Laugh-Out-Loud Fantasy Mayhem: Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

We’ve come a long way from the stiff dialogue and matter-of-fact storytelling pervading the early days of fantasy and science fiction. Gone are the days of “Ho there, what business!” and hundred-plus page stretches of travel described in excruciatingly minute detail. Today, it’s not difficult to find quests and adventures of all types told with unparalleled speed and wit, and the genre resounds with talented voices that aren’t afraid to test the limits of sci-fi and fantasy storytelling. Look to The Lies of Locke Lamora or Murderbot, both of which reshaped the borders of their respective genres to inject new life into existing tropes. We exist in a world intent on shattering conventions and expanding the scope of the stories we love. The result? Truly unique fantasy and science fiction, in many different formats and media.

One such story comes in the form of a recently released video game: Gearbox’s Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. It’d be easy to write the game off as a cash grab, spinning off the wildly popular Borderlands franchise. But to do so would be a massive disservice because Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands makes a thrilling playground of its fantasy world, completely lets loose, and isn’t afraid to have fun.

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Five Unlikely SFF Friendships

The SFF genre has no shortage of stock friendships and familiar pairings. They can be magical and memorable: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Frodo and Sam. Locke and Jean. There’s a certain wonder that comes with fantastic friendships in fiction, where like-minded companions support each other through good times and bad.

But there are also plenty of deep, intriguing friendships that stem from unlikely meetings and unexpected bonds, when authors explore the kind of connections that can sometimes take us by surprise. These groupings result in some of the genre’s most unique and touching stories, showing us how genuine camaraderie can spring up between unexpected allies in completely unforeseen circumstances.

Tee up Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and enjoy these five unlikely SFF friendships…

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Please Adapt: TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea

Last month, I launched my “Please Adapt” column with an open plea for the TV- and movie-making powers that be to bring The Lies of Locke Lamora and its wonderful sequels to the screen. This month, I turn the lens to a much less violent and vulgar (but no less interesting) cadre of spunky youth.

TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea made an immediate splash in the bookish zeitgeist upon its March 2020 debut. The charming contemporary fantasy crossed genre thresholds to capture the hearts of readers of all stripes, earning a place on the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists.

Based on its popularity alone, it’s easy to assume Hollywood already has its eyes on The House in the Cerulean Sea. Looking beyond the book’s impressive and obvious success, though, we find a radiant cast of characters, living out a heartwarming and compelling story that’s fully deserving of an all-star on-screen adaptation.

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Starting a Home Lending Library Has Made Me a Better Friend

I’ve always been a voracious reader. During my Midwestern childhood summers, my sister and I would even compete to see who could finish the most pages between the end of one school year and the start of the next (I won twice, then she beat me once I got a summer job at a local fast food joint). Point being, books have shaped who I am, and they continue to do so. Reading is my passion and a core tenet of my identity. But I’ve always had trouble understanding those who have a different relationship to reading—friends who rarely read for pleasure, acquaintances who prefer to read a few nonfiction books each year, or people who don’t experience the same joyful wonder that I get from immersing myself in a fantasy world.

I struggled to relate with folks because of my own misconceptions and presumptions about their relationship to reading. Only by reforming my own relationship to the hobby and by making it a more open, welcoming passion, did I start to notice changes in my behavior and in the way people reacted to my recommendations.

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Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself: A Profound Meditation on the Power of Stories

Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself quietly appeared on Hulu in early 2021. DelGaudio originally performed the one-man show more than 500 times in New York for in-person audiences. The filmed version of In & Of Itself streaming on Hulu stitches together those live performances, culminating in a profound exploration of identity, storytelling, and self-perception.

Spoiler warning: I am going to do my best, in the short paragraph that follows, to describe In & Of Itself to you. But before you read on, consider whether you want to know what little, spoiler-free information I have to offer. Derek DelGaudio’s show is best consumed with zero preconceptions. The broad strokes won’t ruin it for you, but I want you to have the chance to go in completely fresh (it really is worth experiencing that way, if you can!). Beyond the very next paragraph, major spoilers follow.

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The Case For Korra: Why Avatar’s Follow-Up Is A Worthy Successor

When Avatar: The Last Airbender enjoyed a bit of a resurgence on Netflix a few years ago, many friends approached me asking the age-old question: Should I watch The Legend of Korra, too?  My simple answer was always a resounding “yes,” but I soon found I had to do more legwork to convince people to take the leap. 

Korra gets a bad rap, if you ask me. It’s a thoughtful and creative follow-up to Avatar, and many of its perceived faults can be attributed to external forces sticking their grubby fingers into the show’s business. The show suffered from wavering network support, which led to a mid-season move to online delivery and a last-minute budget slash. Korra’s messages, deep and philosophical, often seemed wasted in the hands of a network intent on funding a kid-friendly show. 

As a series, Korra had to vault over numerous obstacles over the course of its run, but it did cross the finish line. The final product, though it might not have the reputation as the crowning storytelling achievement its predecessor possesses, is still absolutely worthy of your time. 

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Please Adapt: Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Series

There are countless reasons fan-favorite books may not make the leap to either big or small screens—or at least, not as quickly as we’d like. Some tried-and-true, hugely popular favorites resonate within the SFF community and fandom, but never cross over into the larger cultural zeitgeist with a movie or TV interpretation. Some series are overlooked for one reason or another while others endure production issues, or get stuck in development purgatory, or fizzle out due to creative differences between those involved. And some (many, even) just haven’t gotten their chance yet, but still might…

But we’re readers, and the innate desire to see some of our favorite stories adapted successfully into a visual medium is strong. Maybe every book isn’t fit for the screen, and that’s fair. But I can think of myriad stories I’d love to see in theaters or on streaming services.

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Coffee, Tea, and Camaraderie: Five Fantasy Cafes I’d Love To Visit

Sometimes, our favorite fantasy characters need a break—an escape from the woes of brutal, unforgiving worlds and a safe space to ruminate on life, or simply exist in peaceful solitude. Or perhaps characters just need a warm and welcoming atmosphere to encourage a few hours of friendship and laughter, insulated against the stress and harsh realities of life by four walls and the rich aroma of roasting coffee beans and steaming pots of tea.

Thankfully, fantasy writers and creators give us these spaces in droves. The genre brims with comforting, often whimsical cafes, and many of them make me long for a real-world equivalent. I’d love to nestle into a corner booth at all five of these fantasy cafes with a good book, basking in the ambiance and sipping on whatever delightful brews the owners have on offer…
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Five Tearjerker TV Episodes That Never Fail to Make Me Cry

Art has a way of weaving its way into our hearts and tugging on the strings, urging us to experience real, deeply human emotions while we consume fictional stories. Readers, of course, are no strangers to this, and recent years have also seen an influx of intensely personal stories on big and small screens alike. Joy, fear, confusion, excitement, and pain all resound through our favorite narratives, and we tend to seek out stories with impactful emotional messages.

Among those emotions, sadness is often the hardest to get right. There’s a fine line between pandering to an audience and offering a genuine moment that allows us to feel sadness and connect it to our own lives, hopefully without whisking us away to another story beat before we get a chance to reconcile what has happened.

Below, I discuss five TV episodes that strike that balance, giving viewers an outlet to experience sadness and empathy for the characters involved and connect with stories on a personal level. It’s okay to cry, of course, and these narratives will ensure that you do…

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What I Learned From Breaking Up With D&D

It began, fittingly, with a 5E Starter Set. A friend bought me the D&D beginner’s box, and we agreed to form a group to try the world’s most ubiquitous role-playing game.

I became the de facto DM, and I shouldered the responsibility with gusto and a sprinkle of worry—at the time, my wide-eyed pining for fantasy-themed adventure overrode the sense of anxiety I felt at taking on the responsibility. I didn’t realize then that Dungeons & Dragons would become my most toxic relationship.

Not because of my players, necessarily, but because I never stopped to ask myself what I wanted from the game. My relationship with D&D—more specifically, with being a Dungeon Master—turned into a tumultuous on-again, off-again fling. It took a toll on my sense of self-worth, my confidence, and my mental wellbeing. By the time I decided to let go of any designs on being a Dungeon Master, I’d spent two years trying to make an unworkable infatuation into a meaningful relationship. In other words, I was the immovable object, and D&D was the unstoppable force.

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