content by

Em Nordling

All Is Fair in Love & Go: Strategy Gaming in This Is How You Lose the Time War

Much can be written about Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s powerhouse novella, This Is How You Lose the Time War—about its razor-sharp prose, the stunning romance at its center, the way it privileges language and art as the tools that connect us across time and space. There’s a reason it recently won a Hugo award: this little novella packs a punch, and it hits hard. And it’s about a war, after all, so why not call in these violent metaphors to describe its success?

But Time War offers an alternative set of figurative language in its pages: not of violence and war, but of strategy games. Blue and Red aren’t just soldiers in battles, but players of games; they aren’t just executing war tactics, but “plays” and “hands.” Poker, tic-tac-toe, and chess are the tools in El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s arsenal, used to lay out the graceful and intricate machinations of a relationship born and nurtured out of rivalry and matched wits. One strategy game metaphor stands above the rest, though: Go (or: Igo, Baduk, Weiqi). A board game that dates back to the 4th century BC, Go stands apart even from its typical western counterpart of chess. Its strategy is collaborative and aesthetic, complex and changing over time. A perfect metaphor, in other words, for lovers meeting across a time-warped battlefield.

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The Masquerade of the Red Death: The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru Cormorant has witnessed death and she has orchestrated it, has lived with guilt and almost died by its hand. In the third of four novels in Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade series, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, Baru faces choices and deaths still unprecedented in her quest to destroy the Falcresti empire. With her mind still divided by trauma and grief, she must choose: unleash a weaponized plague to wipe out empire and innocents alike, or trust others to help her forge a new path to rebellion. But how can she ever hope to make a decision this dire when she no longer knows herself? Is she still fighting for her home in Taranoke or has she been manipulated by her imperial benefactor all along?

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How Not To Be Alone in the Universe: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Cora Sabino is already at her wit’s end when the second meteor hits. Freshly dropped out of college and with nothing but a broken-down car and a bad dye-job to her name, she’s living every twenty-something’s dream: moving back in with her mom and losing a battle with her own self-loathing. So when Nils Ortega—Cora’s estranged father and infamous whistleblower—publishes proof that the US government has been covering up contact with extraterrestrials, Cora’s like, this might as well happen. What she doesn’t expect is to get drawn into the fray. What she doesn’t expect is to make discoveries that her father could only dream of. 

Video essayist Lindsay Ellis’ first novel, Axiom’s End, is every bit as cinematic and action-packed as her viewers and fans might expect. Set in 2007, it follows Cora as she grapples with her own first contact—an alien she calls Ampersand—and with what it means to not be alone in the universe. As Ampersand’s only translator, Cora is poised to learn more about alien life and history than any other human before her. With her father’s conspiracies breathing down her neck, however, she has to face the question: who among humanity can she trust with this dangerous new knowledge? Certainly not the government—or her loved ones—that have been lying all along.

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Finding Love and Finding Trouble in Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Phyllis is good at her job—she’s got a knack for it, traceable to the day her powers, her “saints’ hands”, were revealed to her in a dream. That Phyllis’ job just happens to be killing people on behalf of Manhattan’s cruelest mob boss is beside the point. She kills for justice, after all, and only accepts hits on people that deserve it. Her righteousness and skill will only take her so far, however—they will not win back Dev, the man she loves, nor will they piece back together a world fractured by centuries of racism and hatred. What good then, are Phyllis’ bloodstained hands? What good can she possibly make of them?

Set in an alternate 1940s New York, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints interweaves history and unreality, the atmosphere of noir and the magic of fantasy, to form a moving, literary love story. It’s anything but a traditional love story, though. The love in its pages is romantic, familial, platonic, and generational—it is beautiful and it is painful in the way only beautiful things can be. And it is troubled at every turn by the consequences of racism: grief and trauma, fear and twisted desire, survival and community. The love in Trouble the Saints is bound up in a world and in a history that does everything it can to suppress it.

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The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal Races Into the Plot

It’s the most wonderful time of year—which is to say The Adventure Zone graphic novel release season! Clint (Merle), Justin (Taako), Travis (Magnus), and Griffin (God, DM, take your pick) McElroy are back this July with the Petals to the Metal arc, accompanied as always by the incomparable Carey Pietsch. Just like the preceding arcs, volume 3 of TAZ bundles silliness, action, and good old-fashioned RPG mechanics into one stunningly colorful package. As fans of the original podcast know, however, Petals is also the story’s first real hint of what’s to come for our intrepid heroes. Try as they might to maintain a veneer of all-goofs-all-the-time, Tres Horny Boys are on their way into a plot that’s not only epic, but also secretly poignant and life-affirming.

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Sherlock, but Make Him Likable and Also an Angel: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

Dr. J.H. Doyle, late of Her Majesty’s Imperial Armed Forces Medical Corps, knows he’s not an easy person to live with. He’s sullen and pedantic at the best of times, and he’s still reeling physically and financially from an injury suffered at the hand (claw) of a fallen angel in Afghanistan. Add to this his increasingly worrisome transformations during the night and, well, finding a roommate that can put up with him is maybe more trouble than it’s worth. But then, Doyle meets Crow, an angel as artless as he is enigmatic, and finds himself drawn inexorably into his orbit. And he doesn’t just get a roommate out of the deal—Crow brings with him a host of London’s dark and uncanny creatures, not to mention a slew of mysteries that will bring them closer and closer to the doorstep of the infamous killer Jack the Ripper.

Yes, Katherine Addison’s new novel, The Angel of the Crows, is supernatural Sherlock fanfiction (wingfic, to be precise). She’s not hiding it either—it’s right there in the author’s note, and undeniably written into every other character name, easter egg, and case file. And the sooner you embrace this sincerely dorky premise, the sooner you can get to all the fun.

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Love, Magic, & Spooky Cults in the Deep South: The Fascinators by Andrew Eliopulos

Sam has magic, a plan for the future, and an enormous crush on his best friend. It’s his senior year of high school and he’s ready to go out with a bang—win the Georgia State Magic Convention with his friends, win the boy, and show everyone in his podunk little town that being gay and magic is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s pretty great. Between his club—the Fascinators—his embarrassing but loving parents, and the support of his community in the big city next door, Sam is happy with who he is and where he’s headed. When two thirds of his trio start to drift away, though, and when a dangerous cult moves in down the road, Sam has to confront: can he really be happy if he’s always defining himself against other people?

Andrew Eliopulos’ debut novel, The Fascinators, is a queer southern teen novel in the realest possible way (minus the magic, that is). Set in an “I-saw-Goody-Proctor-with-the-devil” town in Georgia, the novel deals with small-town love, big city aspirations, homophobia, and general religious angst. But more than anything it embodies that transitional senior year feeling of “things are falling apart but maybe they were never that together to begin with.”

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For the Love of a Murderbot: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Look: to know Murderbot is to love Murderbot (that goes for the character as well as their titular series). It’s not just that Murderbot is relatable (though they somehow are) or that I want to protect them like a murderous, sweet summer child (though god help me, I do). Loving Murderbot is just a natural outgrowth of witnessing them, page after page, do so much good and act—in spite of themselves—out of such depth of feeling. The series is a redemption narrative and a coming-of-age plot wrapped up in a space opera—a story about the stories we tell so often they grow into something new. Network Effect, the series’ first full-length novel, is no exception.

Between 2017 and 2018, Martha Wells gifted us almost 1.5 glorious years of social awkwardness, dry wit, and proficiency porn. Following up that quartet—All Systems Red (May 2017), Artificial Condition (May 2018), Rogue Protocol (August 2018), and Exit Strategy (October 2018)—Network Effect follows Murderbot on a whole new adventure with a familiar cast of characters. Murderbot is on a mission, this time, with a team—their team. And not just as a security detail, but as a friend. Figuring out what friendship is and means is tricky, though, especially when you throw hivemind alien tech and corrupt corporations into the mix.

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Finding Family & Breaking Rules in The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Talia is a gnome, complete with bountiful garden and a penchant for wacking you over the head with a shovel. Theodore is a wyvern that is as happy to add a button to his hoard as a coin. Phee, a forest sprite, might be distrustful, but she can create beauty in the blink of an eye. Sal is sometimes a large boy and sometimes a small dog, but always a poet and always braver than he seems. No one’s sure what Chauncey is, only that he’s a formless blob with aspirations to become a bellhop. And Lucy, well, Lucy is the antichrist.

At Marsyas Island Orphanage, all are welcome—regardless of how you look or if your dad is the literal devil. This is something that Linus Baker, caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), learns fast during his time there. He learns a few other things too: like what the ocean looks like and how to go on an adventure. Like how to fall in love with something (and someone) other than his job. TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea is a whimsical queer love story that pits bureaucracy against found family. It is a novel as funny and charming as the misfit kids that graces its pages, and as sweet as the beating heart at its center.

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The Banality of the Country of Money: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel is a ghost story, but not in the ways you might expect. Our protagonist Vincent has lived many lives: as a wounded young girl, a trophy wife, a woman lost at sea, a ghost. She lives them in fragments told in 5-minute video clips and in the observations of those around her, always one step removed. Her faux husband, the charismatic and wealthy Jonathan Alkaitis, has his share of lives as well—from the splendor of the country of money, to the counterlife he imagines for himself from the confines of prison after his decades-long ponzi scheme collapses. They flicker in and out of each other’s lives—out of Vincent’s brother Paul’s life, out of Jonathan’s friend Olivia’s, out of countless outraged investors’—utterly unknowable.

Mandel’s last award-winning novel Station Eleven is making the rounds again due to its striking relevance to our current epidemic. It might not be the right moment to revisit a novel about viral apocalypse, but Mandel’s piercing eye for precarity and possibility is still a welcome one. The Glass Hotel is just as timely as its predecessor, with its flickering images of financial collapse, the opioid epidemic, and the genuinely different spheres of existence that different classes inhabit. A novel of disaster, guilt, and ephemeral human connection, it is a ghost story for a post-2008 world.

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Sex, Empire, and the Gothic in The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

It’s 1939 and London is preparing itself for an inevitable attack from the continent. Hetty Cartwright, once relegated to an assistant at a natural history museum, is tasked with overseeing the evacuation of countless specimens to a safe haven in the countryside. This is her chance to prove herself as a worker and as an expert—and Hetty is prepared to guard these taxidermied animals with her life. Their new home at Lockwood Manor, though, might not be so safe after all. Major Lockwood stalks through his home like a tyrant and a bully. His daughter Lucy, eerie and ethereal, walks the halls in search of ghosts and disappearing rooms. As animals begin to move and disappear in the night, and the air is cleaved apart by sirens and planes, Hetty becomes convinced of the manor’s danger. No amount of scientific reasoning can assuage her dread—or save Lucy from the very place she calls home.

Jane Healey’s debut novel, The Animals at Lockwood Manor, is a gothic queer love story with the backdrop of the Blitz rather than the moors and manners of the 18th or 19th century. But where your classic gothics more often than not portray the creeping horror and decay of the aristocracy, Lockwood Manor reveals the trauma still reverberating in its wake.

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Local Queer Witch Learns a Thing or Two: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

It’s prom night of senior year, and Alexis has made a huge mistake. She left the afterparty with a boy she knew she didn’t like just to make her friend jealous. If only that were where her mistake ended—unfortunately for Alexis, her magic powers go a little haywire in the process, and the boy, well, let’s just say he doesn’t survive the experience. With blood in her mouth and a glittery dress she’ll never be able to look at again, Alexis does the only thing she knows to do: she calls her friends for help.

Secret powers and secret murder cover-ups are in good supply in Sarah Gailey’s new YA novel When We Were Magic, but love and friendship are the real stars of the show. As Alexis, Roya, Iris, Paulie, Maryam, and Marcelina attempt to dispose of the pieces of what-once-was-Josh, it becomes clear that the reverb of Alexis’ actions won’t be felt by her alone. She’s got to learn to share the burden if she wants any chance at all of returning to her normal life—unrequited crushes and all. But Alexis isn’t sure if she deserves to have a normal life. She isn’t even sure if she deserves the unconditional love of her friends.

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Finding Hope in King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender’s middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies is a stunning follow-up to their 2019 Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award-winning novel Hurricane Child. It deals with pain and with love and all the ways that they meet, and it makes something soaring and beautiful out of them. It’s the kind of book that I wish I’d read twenty years ago and I am so grateful that it exists today.

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Solitary Struggles in a World on Fire: The End of the Ocean, by Maja Lunde

It is 2017. A woman named Signe sails her beloved boat across the treacherous waters of the North Sea from her hometown in Norway to the idyllic city in France where her ex-lover lives. She has something to show him. Something about the life with her—and the survival of the world—that he has thrown away.

It is 2041. David and his young daughter Lou arrive at a refugee camp in Bordeaux. Their home in Southern France is in flames, besieged by years of drought that even the desalination factories can’t redress. David is sure his wife and baby son will find them there, is sure it will rain any day now. He just has to keep Lou distracted in the meantime.

It is 2020. The English translation of Norwegian author Maja Lunde’s sophomore novel, The End of the Ocean, is released as massive fires sweep Australia, destroying communities and ecosystems in their wake, and pumping 400 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Temperatures rise, precipitation patterns shift. Sea levels rise as ice sheets melt. Somehow, we are still calling this science fiction. Lunde’s novel attempts to provide a new way of seeing these horrors, one that recognizes the duality of a humanity that both forged and seeks to remedy their own destruction, sometimes simultaneously.

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In the Shadow of Our Kin: Ormeshadow by Priya Sharma

A legend in the village of Ormeshadow tells of an orme (Norse for dragon) that fought in a battle against her own kind and fell fast asleep to heal herself. Over centuries, grass grew and homes were built, her body was hidden and her story all but forgotten. Gideon Belman arrives in Ormeshadow at seven years old, carried to his father’s childhood home for reasons he doesn’t yet understand. Slowly, his father reveals to him the story of the orme, and Gideon’s own ancestral ties to her. Faced with the banal cruelty of his new life on the farm, Gideon relies on the orme and confides in her, waiting for the day she’ll finally awake.

Priya Sharma’s new novella Ormeshadow is brooding and subtle, its stark realism set against the lure and power of legend. What might be too heavy in a longer novel is the perfect length here, a window into a life and a sketch of a possibility. It is the perfect autumnal read—moody, atmospheric, and readily paired with a cup of tea and a warm sweater.

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