Tor.com content by

Emily Nordling

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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A Definitive Collection that Defies Definition: Le Guin’s Hainish Novels & Stories

A year after their release of Ursula K. Le Guin’s complete Orsinia works, the Library of America has released a stunning two-volume set collecting the author’s most famous sci-fi works. The Hainish novels and stories do not unravel like a traditional series—the author even chafes at their common designation as a “cycle”—but they are, at least, connected by a shared universe, pieces and fragments of a shared history, and an ethos of exploration and compassion that is arguably the touchstone of Le Guin’s entire oeuvre. The Hainish worlds (including our own Earth, or Terra) were propagated millennia ago by the people of the planet Hain, and are now gradually reuniting under the interplanetary alliance of the Ekumen. From anarchist revolution to myth-inspired hero tales, the stories of the Hainish planets are as wide and variable as their inhabitants. And yet it was only a matter of time that they be collected in one place.

The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both included in Volume I of the collection, are two of Le Guin’s most widely read, studied, and praised works of fiction. Placed alongside some of her earliest novels and lesser-known stories, the novels are cast in new and stunning light. They become pieces of a story bigger than themselves. Doubt is thrown on their truths and authoritative readings. Where other compendiums and collections might serve to build a more solid and definitive world-building project, Le Guin’s stories become weirder and more complex when placed side-by-side. This strangeness—in a collection whose theme is often uniting under strangeness—is as fitting and thrilling as it is messy.

[More thoughts on authority, plus the Table of Contents]

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller: A Strategy Guide for the War of Mind vs. Matter

Matt is anorexic, but that’s not what he’d tell you. People with eating disorders have a problem, after all, and what Matt has are powers. High school was hell until he discovered them, realizing that the less he ate, the greater his senses became. But bullying is easier to avoid when you can hear the bully coming from a mile away, and easier to overcome with when you can read the bully’s mind. Before he discovered his powers, Matt’s sister Maya disappeared without a trace and his mom was on the verge of losing her job; but now he can do for them what they’ve always done for him—he can save them.

Sam J. Miller’s debut YA novel, The Art of Starving, is exactly as wounding as its synopsis implies, but twice as profound. Framed as a rule book for aspiring superhumans like Matt, the novel is too tongue-in-cheek and bizarre to veer into the realm of the Morality Tale where so many other YA novels of its ilk reside. Matt is a poor, gay, Jewish teen boy with an eating disorder; the possibilities for tragedy porn and adult sermonizing are basically endless. Instead, Miller has written a bruising and incisive story about a boy at war with himself—with his hunger, with his lust, with the things that tie him to the world. Instead, Miller has made that war only a means to an end, with Matt’s quest to find his sister and to enact vengeance on his bullies front and center. The Art of Starving is a rule book where its rules self-destruct, slowly but surely, in tandem with its narrator.

[Rule #1: Understand this: your body wants the worst for you.]

Haunting the Body: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

It begins, like so many hauntings do, with a house.

Junior’s house, though, is not your typical haunted home: it’s not old, has no secret compartments or hidden historical artifacts, and no one has died there. Junior lives with his mom and his little brother Dino in a modular house, cheap and small and different from a trailer only in that it stays put. “You can leave the reservation,” he overhears his mom say, “but your income level will still land you in a reservation house.” And just like that, they’ve brought their ghost from the reservation as well. When Junior sees him one night, dressed in full fancy dance regalia, he knows immediately that the ghost is his dad. He also knows that he’ll do whatever it takes to make him come back.

Stephen Graham Jones’ new Tor.com novella, Mapping the Interior, is a ghost story and a coming-of-age story; it’s a horror story with race and class breathing down the reader’s neck every bit as much as the dead. It’s also not quite like any version of those things you’ve read before. If most hauntings are metaphysical, Jones’ is physical: the legacy of Junior’s father is written on his body as well as his memory.

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Fighting Fire with Espionage: Firebrand by A.J. Hartley

Anglet Sutonga’s work as a steeplejack atop the towering roofs of Bar-Selehm may have primed her resume for her new job as a spy, but it certainly didn’t prepare her for it. Last year’s South African-inspired Steeplejack saw Ang flying from rooftops with enough poise and grace that she could (and did) keep a baby strapped to her back all the while. This summer, A.J. Hartley has released a sequel that pushes Ang far from her comfort zone of smoking precipices and constant danger. In Firebrand, our protagonist enters the world of the political elite—a world that is wealthier and more perilous than she could have imagined.

Bar-Selehm’s political turmoil isn’t new. Colonized by the white Feldish, its native Mahweni population is forced into constant poverty and displacement. Ang’s own people, the Lani—brought from afar to work and mine the land—don’t fair much better. Add to this the threat of the outside Grappoli army, and it is unsurprising (and dreadfully familiar) that Bar-Selehm’s powerful can’t agree on how best to protect its people—or even exactly who its people are. When designs for a terrifying new weapon are stolen by an unknown force, Ang’s employer, Josiah Willinghouse, sees an opportunity to topple his racist, warmongering parliamentary opponents. All Ang can see, as she confronts harrowing fights and drawing room gossip, are the faces of the people she’s trying to save.

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The Rise of the House of Tremontaine, by Ellen Kushner & co.

Diane, Duchess of Tremontaine, is a force to be reckoned with. Beautiful, beguiling, and clever, she dictates the fashions and scandals of the nobility on the Hill with a single word or glance. She is, simply put, far too powerful a woman for anyone to suspect her of politics. Amid parties and dinners, however, Diane moves trade and policy in deft secrecy, trusting that others—her oblivious husband, most of all—will not see past her beauty and station.

But there are other players on the stage: Kaab, a swaggering spy that arrives in Riverside on a ship filled to the brim with chocolate, the city’s most precious import; Micah, a math genius casually masquerading as a boy so she can study stars at the University; and Rafe, scholar, trader’s son, and above all the lover of William, Duke of Tremontaine. Between squalid pubs and lavish balls, aristocratic mansions and blood-washed streets, these characters will navigate Diane’s web of secrecy. They do so for love, to change the world, or to find their places in it. Only in their dark, inscrutable cups of chocolate will they see the cunning hand of the Duchess that connects them all.

Originally published by Serial Box, Tremontaine is a story in parts. Saga now presents Season 1 of the series, collected for the first time in one volume. What’s more, Ellen Kushner has returned to Riverside this time with an army: Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover have joined Kushner to create a prequel to Swordspoint more dazzling and provocative than you can imagine.

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Passing for Human: Nowhere Near You by Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas’ blunderkinder are back, and they are as impossible and miraculous as ever. Ollie and Moritz forged an unbreakable bond in Because You’ll Never Meet Me, exchanging letters from across the globe. Ollie’s allergy to electricity means he’ll never see Moritz—equipped with a pacemaker and a love of EDM to boot—in person. Or, at least, not yet. Nowhere Near You, the second installment of Thomas’ as-yet-unnamed-Blunderkinder series, begins with Ollie’s greatest adventure so far: leaving his little house in the woods and venturing into the electric horizon of the open road.

Ollie doesn’t just leave home in a rubber suit for kicks, though. He wants to find other weirdos like him and Moritz, to hear their stories, and to make connections the likes of which a power line could never dream. Moritz, on the other hand, has enough to contend with in his own story. As if a new school and a new romance weren’t tricky enough, his memories of the human experimentation that produced him and Ollie are heavy and harrowing. At odds, as always, in both tone and timing, Moritz and Ollie write one another into their lives. Propelled by their love for one another and for the terrifying new worlds that they’re exploring, the two friends are drawn closer together even as they’re kept inexorably apart.

If Because You’ll Never Meet Me broke your heart and put it back together again, get ready for Nowhere Near You to put it through a blender.

[Read more]

Tips for Resistance in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough

The One State Party is on the rise. Corruption and lawlessness have become too much for each of the Federated States of Gedda to handle on their own, and they’re looking for a great unifier in the midst of chaos. The seat of this chaos is Amberlough: a city awash in vice and beauty, where love is free and gender is questionable at best. To Amberlinians like Cordelia Lehane and Aristride Makricosta—performers at the Bumble Bee Cabaret—their world is untouchable by the likes of the One State Party (Ospies, for short). But when Ari’s lover, Cyril DePaul, gets in over his head while spying on the Ospies, they’re forced into a performance that may well cost their lives—or worse, their freedom.

I won’t be the last (and I’m certainly not the first) to call Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough timely. Set amidst the lavish nightlife of a republic decaying into fascism, Amberlough is a piquant fruit of a book, ripening just in time for a year of protest and civil unrest. The novel is rich enough, luckily, for us to read its parallels and twists in a multitude of ways: it’s as much about sex as it is about art as it is about rebellion. It’s as much about our current age as it is the Weimar Republic as it is another world entirely. So you can read Amberlough as a queer Le Carré novel, or as a fantastical Cabaret—both descriptions are readily embraced by the publisher and the author—or you can read it as I read almost every book, regardless of intent: as a handbook for resistance. And Amberlough, with its lush prose and charmingly flawed characters, makes for an assortment of delightful tips.

[Keynotes from Amberlough’s handbook on resisting a Totally Fictional Fascist Regime]

A Matter of Perspective: The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Unreal and the Real is both the companion anthology to this October’s The Found and the Lost, and a re-release of the Small Beer Press 2-part short story anthology originally published in 2012. With an elegant, updated cover, and one new story (“Jar of Water,” 2014), this massive hardback edition would be a stunning addition to any collection, despite some potential repetition. The novelty of the volume is in its placement alongside Le Guin’s novella compendium, and the heaviness (both literal and metaphysical) of a 700-page collection of almost 40 stories, spanning a career of over 50 years.

Some of Le Guin’s most anthologized stories (such as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) are present in the collection, as are some of her more experimental, obscure ones (such as “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”). All are written and presented with the characteristic deftness and beauty that has come to define Le Guin’s career; each word of her prose is economical, and each portrayal of intimacy and power is newly striking. The short story form is the real star of the volume, as so many of the collected works stretch the possibilities of the form, utilizing their short formats and compact themes to the utmost affect. And yet among the collection’s many charms, it is Le Guin’s attempt to embody and categorize her work that I am inevitably drawn to.

[Never-ending ruminations on genre, plus the Table of Contents]

Poor Strangers: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and White is for Witching

December 14, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s birth. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of her most memorable novels and short fiction.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle always bears rereading. Its strange, creeping prose, its charming protagonists, and its evocation of outsiderdom stand up to every memory or expectation you might have. Jackson didn’t pull any cheap shots with her horror. Even if the reveal at the end of the novel was a surprise to you, the richness of the mystery isn’t lost in hindsight. If anything, it highlights the cleverness of Jackson’s plotting, and makes the characters that much more pitiful, that much more horrifying.

One thing changed, though, between my first reading of Always Lived and my most recent one. In between, I read Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. I won’t be the first or the last to compare the two novels. They both feature old families in old houses, mysterious deaths and fear of outsiders, and both crawl under your skin with every new scene. But White is for Witching isn’t a straightforward retelling or inspired-work: it’s about racism, it’s about nationalism, and it’s about the genuine horror of social change. And it’s impossible, after reading it, to look at We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the same way again.

[“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”]

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