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Em Nordling

An Uncanny Journey: The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall

Vasethe is a mysterious young man on a journey into the proverbial underworld, and like any other tourist, he needs a good guide: in this case, the destroyer of empires, mistress of the dead, and keeper of the border between Ahri and the 999 demonic realms of Mkalis. Vasethe just calls her Eris. And despite his obfuscation of his purposes in Mkalis, Eris agrees to help him. These journeys are always the same after all: to find a lost loved one, to bring them back to Ahri, to undo the grief and pain they feel at their passing. However, as they navigate the eerie creatures and antiquated rules and bureaucracy of Mkalis, the seams of Vasethe’s story start to come undone—just as Eris’ past rises up from the depths to seek justice upon her. In Kerstin Hall’s Border Keeper the characters are required by natural law to tell the truth, and yet no one is what they seem. Familiar mythology is turned on its head. And ruminations on grief and healing are whispered alongside a quest narrative that is at once traditional and anything but.

If this sounds like a lot for one little novella, it is. Hall’s economy of worldbuilding is nothing less than profound. The Border Keeper, even aside from its haunting prose and memorable characters, is a wonderful example of its form. It is short, sweet, and anything but shallow.

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The Boys are Back! The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited

The Adventure Zone returns this week with capers, magical items, and goofs galore. In the second volume of the series, we find Magnus, Taako, and Merle in a mystical world of exposition, followed up by an epic murder mystery slash train heist to retrieve a dangerous artifact. As always, though, it’s the comedic beats and the characters that drive the engine on this particular train. From the introduction of beloved podcast characters like Garfield the Deals Warlock and Boy Detective Angus McDonald, to the virtual demolishment of the fourth wall, Murder on the Rockport Limited delivers on every possible expectation. Fans of the original podcast will not be disappointed; in fact, if they’re like me, they will make embarrassing whoop-ing sounds while reading it in public.

All of this is to say that the McElroys still got it. But the real star here is artist Carey Pietsch.

[And Angus McDonald, obviously.]

What’s Wrong With Me? Finding the Cure in Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever

The search for immortality is not a thing of the past. From medieval alchemists to Big Pharma, from ancient Chinese medicine to modern nanotech, our quest has never really stopped. Sixteen-year-old Conrad Aybinder is just a part of this storied tradition. When his teacher and lover, Sammy Tampari, dies under mysterious circumstances, he leaves Conrad his legacy: twenty-two journals, a storage unit full of chemistry equipment, and a recipe for the elixir of life.

Jake Wolff’s debut novel, The History of Living Forever is an ambitious and emotionally raw thing, starting and ending with grief, with a twisting alchemical plot tying these human moments together. Its pages jump between Conrad’s youth and Sammy’s, histories of scientific discovery, and an older Conrad, reflecting on all of this and dealing with his beloved husband’s cancer diagnosis. Each point of view invariably asks the same questions: Will we find the elixir? Is it even possible? What sacrifices will we make to cure the very things that make us human?

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When Everyone’s a Monster, No One Is: The Ugly Everyday in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

In 2017, Emil Ferris and Fantagraphics published the first volume of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, and I have been waiting for the second volume ever since. It’s not often that you find a graphic novel quite this ambitious: not only does it cross genres and decades, it also explores the ugliness of love and grief and, well, monsters.

[My favorite thing is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.]

Out of Place, Out of Time: Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess

A lot can happen in a century. No one knows this more than the 156 thousand Universally Displaced Persons (UDPs) that stepped through a rift in space-time to arrive in our timeline. The UDPs may have entered the twenty-first century alongside us, but their history—diverging from our own in around 1910—is another matter entirely. No longer are the Beatles, but instead Baccarat; KomSos instead of Nazis; a different New York by the same name: an entire alternative repertoire of slang, pop culture, politics, and technology. But now, trapped in a timeline so alike and yet so different from their own, that history simply never happened.

In K. Chess’ new novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, Helen Nash attempts to open a museum dedicated to the history lost during her migration. In particular, she wants to pay homage to Ezra Sleight, the author of a science fiction novel called The Pyronauts, and a man whose fate she is convinced is tied to the divergence of the timelines. Unlike her partner Vikram, Hel has no interest in assimilating or in learning about this strange new world that seems equal-parts repulsed by and indifferent to them. So when the only known copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel will do whatever it takes to get it back.

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Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade and The Monster Nationalism

Baru Cormorant hasn’t always been a traitor, and she hasn’t always been a monster. In another life, she is an islander and a prodigy, a lover and a daughter. She is a subject and a citizen, or something in between. When the empire of the Masquerade invades and seduces her home, Baru is reduced to her heritage, even as her opportunities and worldview expand. She is torn between a multitude of selves, some faithful and some masked, but none of them untrue. This is the stuff of empire: not just to unmake a people, but to remake them.

Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade series doesn’t explain our political moment, nor is it a metaphor for 20th century fascism. It instead approaches a much earlier form of despotism, rooted mostly in 19th century imperialism and Enlightenment science. Dickinson deftly rearranges these historical elements into a thrilling second-world fantasy series, taking them away from the realm of allegory and allowing the story to weave new interpretations into old ideologies. The Masquerade has received accolades from reviewers for its world-building, diversity, brutal consequences, and compelling characters, and all of this is right and true. But I’d like to address the elephant in the room.

[The elephant is Foucault.]

We Could Have Had It All: Studio Ghibli’s Tales of Earthsea

The Studio Ghibli adaptation of the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is notoriously bad. I’d heard the same reviews from Le Guin and Ghibli fans alike, long before I ever watched the 2006 film, and even long before I read the Earthsea novels themselves. Whitewashed, plodding pace, and a bizarre mash-up of four novels, a graphic novel, and a host of short fiction, the film seemed to garner even more vitriol than the average book-to-film adaptation (which is, let’s be real, a high bar).

When I finally sat down to watch this dark horse of the Ghibli oeuvre, my inclination wasn’t to like or dislike the thing, but to understand why the meeting of these worlds could fail so spectacularly in the eyes of the creators’ fans. After all, so much of what makes Ghibli and Le Guin wonderful is shared, the absolute beauty of their artforms aside. I’ve loved Ghibli since before I could read, and loved Le Guin since the first sentence of The Left Hand of Darkness. So why, within the first five minutes of their meeting, was I filled with more dread than excitement?

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Starting Over with Le Guin’s The Beginning Place and The Eye of the Heron

The Beginning Place and The Eye of the Heron are among the first of Ursula K. Le Guin novels to be re-released since her death in January 2018. They’re also two of her lesser-known works; published in 1980 and 1978 respectively, and each clocking in at around 200 pages, it’s not surprising that they’d be so easily lost in an oeuvre of 22 novels and countless shorter pieces, including seminal pieces like The Dispossessed and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The novels are “lesser” in other ways as well, which is not a thing that pleases me to say, since this is also the first review of her work that I’ve written since January.

Jonathan Lethem once said of Le Guin that she “can lift fiction to the level of poetry and compress it to the density of allegory.” And this is true of all her works, regardless of their greater or lesser qualities. The closer they lean into their allegorical structures, though, the more didactic they become, the less pleasure their poetry elicits. The Beginning Place—about two lost modern souls finding love in a pre-modern alternate universe—and The Eye of the Heron—about a nonviolent revolt on a former prison colony—are firmly in the category of allegory. They wear their themes on their sleeves; their characters are mouthpieces for ideas. But in spite of all that, the novels are still Le Guin, still full to burst with hope and truth—not just socio-political, but emotional. It’s a testament as much to Le Guin’s character and ethic as it is to her writing that these morality tales are still, well, not bad.

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Blurring Reality: The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

When Clare arrives in Havana Cuba for the Festival of New Latin American Cinema—giving a different name to every other new acquaintance and becoming stranger to herself with every displaced experience—it’s nothing new to her, not really. As a sales rep for an elevator company, Clare is used to travel and to interstitial places. She loves the non-specificity of hotel rooms and thrives on random encounters. What she doesn’t expect to find in Cuba, though, is her husband Richard: five weeks dead, standing tall in a white suit outside the Museum of the Revolution.

What follows in Laura van den Berg’s novel The Third Hotel is a reality-blurring rumination on the power of grief and alienation. Interspersed with Richard’s scholarly writings on horror movie tropes, and with Clare’s reflections on her own past and identity, the novel inches further from an explanation of her haunting with every step it takes towards her confrontation with it. Lush in description and psychology alike, The Third Hotel is a literary horror novel that will haunt you long past its final page.

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A Collaboration Made in Faerun: The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins

The Adventure Zone started as a family endeavor: three grown-up brothers and their child-at-heart dad set out to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons, and to share it with the internet. Magnus the human fighter (Travis McElroy), Merle the dwarf cleric (Clint McElroy), and Taako the elf wizard (Justin McElroy)—and of course their brave and longsuffering DM, Griffin McElroy—took on gerblins, evil scientists, and fashionable ghouls, and in the course of it all became heroes and master storytellers. That (the podcast ; The Balance Arc) was chapter one. Then there were the follow-up campaigns, the fanart, the cosplay, the live shows and the Reddit theories, original music, bonus episodes, and crossover events—a lot for one tabletop-game-turned-podcast. This week, the McElroys, under the care and pen of still another player, artist Carey Pietsch, have added a podcast-turned-comic to the mix. And it does not disappoint.

If you’re here for the goofs, you’ll find plenty of ‘em. If you’re here for metacommentary on RPGs, you’ll find that too. Beautiful new art? Check. Fully-realized characters fighting against fate like it’s their baby brother or son? Check. And if you’re looking for adventure, well, needless to say, you’ll find it in The Adventure Zone .

[Queue intro music]

Steeplejack’s Final Stand: Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Ang has always been on the outside looking in. At home, she is the arrogant girl that betrayed her family by moving to the city. In Bar-Selehm, she is a Lani streetrat, barely worth a second glance. Even with her benefactor and his family, she can’t be sure of her place: did the progressive politician Josiah Willinghouse hire her as a spy in order to advance his political career, or because he truly cares for the poor and the oppressed?

When Willinghouse is accused of killing the prime minister, throwing the city to the brink of a racial civil war, Ang is forced to take a stand. Belonging can be a complicated thing. But when it comes to resisting violent oppression, knowing who your allies are becomes a matter of life and death.

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Fairy Tale Horror: The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

Mallory Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster, is more a chimera than a collection of straightforward retellings. Fairy tales, children’s stories, ballads, and prayers weave throughout these short stories, sometimes in form and sometimes in reference, and always like a shared and sinister mythology. If, like the subtitle of the book proclaims, these are “Tales of Everyday Horror,” it is because they’re horrible in their proximity to our everyday lives, and to the strange cultural miasma that informs it.

The fantasy genre is saturated with fairy tale makeovers, usually in some combination of “the original but darker,” or “the original but with better politics.” There’s nothing wrong with these retellings—I might even argue there’s more than one thing right about them—but Ortberg’s playful foray into the western canon feels like a different project altogether. It is dark, certainly, and it doesn’t lack for things to say about gender, violence, love, and a host of other politicized things. It is also—in keeping with Ortberg’s reputation on The Toast (RIP), The Shatner Chatner, and other reputable publications—funny. What makes Ortberg’s everyday horrors truly different, though, is that they map questions onto these old stories instead of answers. Instead of saying “The daughters in these stories should have more agency,” or “The daughters in these stories had agency all along,” they ask: “What is a daughter?” and, “With agency like this, who needs enemies?”

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In the Aftermath of the Unknown: When Light Left Us by Leah Thomas

We know (or can guess) how we’d react to an alien encounter—sci-fi has begged the question from War of the Worlds to Lilo and Stitch. But how would any of us deal with an alien leaving us behind?

Leah Thomas’ When Light Left Us picks up where family-friendly alien stories like E.T. and Close Encounters leave off: after the alien visitor has left the Vasquez family, after the hazmat tent has been cleared away, and after all the action—the great romance, the betrayal, the delight and wonder of a strange new world—has ended. Hank, Ana, Milo, and their mother Maggie don’t fade to black once their guest, a strange consciousness they call Luz, suddenly disappears. Sometimes, they wish they could. Instead, they do their best to figure out how to make lives in the holes that Luz left in his wake. For the Vasquez kids, this means relearning how to use the parts of themselves that Luz had (literally) possessed. And for Maggie, this means forgiving all those Luz-shaped holes, her own most of all.

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Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View is the Mashup You’ve Been Looking For

The new trailer for The Last Jedi was not the only exciting Star Wars news this past week. In celebration of A New Hope’s 40th anniversary, Del Rey has published an anthology of 40 stories that weave in and out of the original film. Whether it’s Greedo, Antilles or the red droid (you know the one), A New Hope is bursting at the seams with weird and fantastic side characters. Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View hands those characters over to 43 weird and fantastic authors. The set-list alone is amazing: scifi heavyweights (Nnedi Okorafor, Ken Liu), seasoned SW veterans (Jason Fry, Jeffrey Brown), comic book writers (Kelly Sue DeConnick, Kieron Gillen), and media luminaries (Griffin McElroy, Mallory Ortberg) offer up a diverse range of tone, form, and lore.

There’s nothing new under two suns in a sprawling franchise that’s celebrating its 40th year. What the Expanded Universe hasn’t covered, fanfiction has laid its messy, beautiful little hands on. But the EU has already been reshuffled by the reboot, and the playground feels fresh and new. Where there’s still love for a story, there’s still room to explore it—and there is still a whole lot of love in the galaxy for scrappy, fresh-faced rebels destroying evil galactic empires.

[In a galaxy far away…]

The Unseen World of An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

New York City has all manner of secrets. Least of which, in Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians, is the magic. Brimming over the iconic landscape of Central Park, and binding together the oldest, richest houses on its borders, magic is both integral and hidden, a part and apart from the city. The old families that use it, though, are starting to crumble.

A great tournament to determine the head of the Unseen World has begun, pitting magicians against one another in epic feats of skill and dominance. However, this tournament isn’t what signifies the crumbling of the great families— every generation, after all, holds a Turning to determine the leader of their great society. Instead, it is the sudden stopping and starting of magic. It is the mysterious murders of girls with magic in their blood. It is the appearance of a stranger, Sydney of the House of Shadows, that has struck fear into the hearts of the Unseen World’s nobility.

Like Howard’s 2016 novel, Roses and Rot, An Unkindness of Magicians is filled with mystery and darkness, trauma and community. In place of a fairy tale plot, however, is a greater evil than even the fae could cook up: human beings clinging to power.

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