content by

Em Nordling

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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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 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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