Em Nordling | Tor.com
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Em Nordling

Marrying the Sea: Maddalena and the Dark by Julia Fine

It is the time of Vivaldi. No longer at its apex of power, Venice seems more than ever to be sinking into the sea. Torn between the modern world and the medieval, religious order and secular desire, old money and new, the inhabitants of the floating city live their lives vying for whatever power the water might afford them.

Maddalena is no exception. A young girl from an aristocratic family embroiled in scandal, she faces marriage or extinction. And so, at the Feast of the Ascension, as the Doge marries the city to the sea, she looks to the sea as a source of control. She wishes on the mysterious force she sees in its dark and murky waves, for the thing she desires most—not sweeping social change, not even sovereignty over her own body, but to be seen and recognized by someone, anyone. When she enters the prestigious Ospedale della Pietà conservatory and meets the young violin prodigy Louisa, she knows immediately that she’s been granted her wish.

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Being & Loving The Monster in The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw’s new novella, The Salt Grows Heavy, begins with death and consummation. On its very first page, a mermaid’s daughters clean gore from their fingertips after devouring the face, eyes, and brain of a thing that used to be human. They are, their mother muses as she watches them, “the best of their parents.” We as readers are thrown into the deep-end, as unmoored and unsteady as a sea creature on land.

In its brief and horrible 100 pages, The Salt Grows Heavy continues its assault: murder and dismemberment are commonplace, children are awash in blood, and, most importantly, love (familial, romantic, and otherwise) is present in abundance. With gorgeous prose and tender, meaty detail, Khaw guides us through an unreal fable of love and body horror. They introduce us to a mermaid and her plague doctor companion as they traverse a bleak landscape to find humanity and monstrosity irrevocably intertwined. And never once does Khaw explain the abominations we’re witnessing—our unknowing, after all, is part of its allure.

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The Gang Does Groundhog Day in The Adventure Zone: The Eleventh Hour

Despite releasing (almost) annually since 2018, the fifth installment of The Adventure Zone graphic novel series still manages to surprise and delight. The plot hit our protagonists in full force with 2021’s Crystal Kingdom, and in this month’s Eleventh Hour, things only continue to get rougher and rowdier—this time with cowboy hats, time travel, and all the lovable NPCs a great DM could possibly muster.

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Sexuality and Southern Dark Academia in Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons

Since it came out last fall, Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons has been hailed as an adherent of the “dark academia” aesthetic. And with good reason: the novel is set in the land surrounding a prestigious southern university, overflowing with menacing history, occult knowledge, and the attractive trappings of prestige. It follows Andrew, an outsider to the academy, as he investigates his best friend’s mysterious death, falling in with crowds both intellectual and rowdy, and struggling with literal and figurative ghosts in the process. It’s also, as with so many iterations of dark academia, undeniably queer. Horny, closeted, and haunted, Andrew is basically the king of dark academia protagonists (or the jester, depending on how you look at it).

But Summer Sons is also doing something unique with these generic elements, asking new questions and revealing fissures and cracks along their seams. The academy housing Andrew’s mystery isn’t an ivory tower covered in creeping ivy and fanboys of classic literature. Instead it is something at once more specific to its setting and truer to academia as it actually exists: a plantation house on stolen land, milling with an uneven mix of well-meaning white, middle class voyeurs and marginalized people, navigating disconnection (and often newfound) privilege. And Andrew isn’t just queer: he wants, specifically, to have sex with men.

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Kazuo Ishiguro Returns to Sci-Fi With Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel released this past February, has all the trappings one would expect from an Ishiguro story: dramatic irony, a mounting sense of dread, and careful ruminations on power, memory, love, and the unknowability of both self and other. It follows AF (Artificial Friend) Klara as she is purchased from a department store to act as companion to a young girl named Josie. Her simple happiness with her new home is short-lived, however: Josie is deteriorating from an unnamed illness and Klara becomes convinced that she’ll be the one to save her. She simply needs to convince the Sun—the being that powers Klara and the other AFs, and yes, that sun—to lend his nourishment to Josie.

Ishiguro’s oeuvre is one of those rare literary sets that is immediately identifiable by both style and theme but rarely by genre, as he more often than not examines similar questions under different generic constraints (his last novel, The Buried Giant, is based on Arthurian legend; his most lauded novel, The Remains of the Day, recalls post-war England). Klara and the Sun stands out in its return to the science fiction genre that Ishiguro explored with his 2005 Never Let Me Go. In fact, it’s all but impossible not to compare them. Even aside from genre, they share a concern with children specifically as a pressure point for asking what it means to be human. But Klara’s story is uniquely moving, its questions more expansive. Though perhaps not as gracefully rendered as Never Let Me Go, Klara is a stunning book in its own right and a vital addition to today’s proliferating sub-genre of climate change novels. 

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Race and the Archive in Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book

Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book begins with a description of the novel in Beatrice Cornick’s bag on the day she was murdered: a conspiracy thriller of the Da Vinci Code variety, treasured because Beatrice loved to read stories set in museums and libraries. The presence of such a book is a talisman—it describes the genre and action of The Absolute Book itself and, more vitally, gestures to the role of libraries in our cultural imagination. Places of wonder and hidden treasures that can change the world, libraries, museums, and archives are fraught, politicized, and dangerous things. Taryn Cornick, Beatrice’s sister and the novel’s protagonist, knows this better than anyone.

The Absolute Book has been heralded for its genre-defying depths, its twists and turns and satisfying lack of explanations. But what about the other books it contains? What about the volumes upon volumes of history and knowledge that lie hidden between its lines? When it’s not describing battles between demons and fae, or hired assassins, the police, and MI5, this 600-page tome has quite a lot to say about the archive. Whether it says quite enough in those 600 pages is another question.

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Suddenly Sci-Fi With The Adventure Zone: The Crystal Kingdom

Between a half dozen podcasts, the Graduation and Ethersea arcs of The Adventure Zone, and who knows how many other sundry projects, the McElroy family has managed to keep busy even with their live tours on hold this year. And so has their collaborator, artist Carey Pietsch. Volume 4 of The Adventure Zone comic dropped this week, and her art is delightful as always, complementing a story that grows bigger and more universe-breaking with each passing volume.

There are still jokes, don’t get me wrong! Taako, Magnus, and Merle still make ridiculous decisions under ridiculous circumstances set by their DM/narrator/god. But things are getting real in The Crystal Kingdom: romance is blossoming, multiverses are being revealed, and ghosts from our characters’ pasts have returned to haunt them in more ways than one. 

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Elementary, My Dear Murderbot: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

It’s been almost one long year since Network Effect dropped, and let’s face it: the world is ready for more Murderbot. Dry wit, misanthropy, and space adventures are promises delivered in full in this month’s 6th installment of Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, ambiguously titled Fugitive Telemetry. Though the series’ last entry was a novel, Telemetry brings us back to the novella form, and makes for a perfect, bite-sized afternoon read (or, if you’re like Murderbot itself, you can binge reread the entire series in one go).

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Queer Romance and Political Intrigue in Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Prince Kiem and Count Jainan have been tasked with a vital political project by the Emperor: to marry one another. Cementing the union between the Iskat Empire and its vassal planet Thea has become more pressing by the day. Not only is the Resolution judging the worthiness of their coalition, but the former imperial representative to Thea—Taam, Jainan’s late partner—appears to have been murdered. With protests breaking out on his home planet and a spouse to mourn, the last thing Jainan needs is to become a murder suspect. He knows his role as a political pawn well. And marrying the charming and handsome Kiem is sure to fix the emerging cracks in his—and the empire’s—foundation.

Queer romance, space opera, and political intrigue combine in Everina Maxwell’s 2021 novel, Winter’s Orbit for an immersive and sparkling adventure. Whether you’re here for the Star Trek fanfic vibes or the clever worldbuilding, Maxwell is sure to deliver—but it’s the combination of the two that makes Winter’s Orbit such a delight.

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A Specter Is Haunting Massachusetts: The Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. Malerich

The factory girls of Merrimack Mill are finished—finished breaking their backs to fill a rich man’s pockets, finished lining their lungs with sickness, finished playing their roles as good religious girls. And now, they’ve begun something new. In the dead of night, they have gathered in the mill to cast a spell, bidding none of them return to their machines until their demands are met. Safety, decent pay, better hours—it’s not too much to ask. But from cruel bosses and witless middle management to starving families and scabs, the binds of their spell—and their community—will be tested on all sides.

C.S. Malerich’s new novella, The Factory Witches of Lowell, is a charming, hopeful little treat for the queer anti-capitalist witches among us. There’s many a reason to be cynical these days, but Malerich weaves together forgotten histories of labor victories and fantastical possibilities alike with the skill and passion of an awakened proletariat. It has its faults—as all struggles for justice do—but is full of heart, full of promise, and full of girls fighting for each other and, well, for each other.

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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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