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Jonathan Thornton

Finding Magic in the Unexpected: The Fictional Worlds of Emma Bull

Emma Bull is a writer who sees the mythic in startling and unexpected places. Her debut novel War for the Oaks (1987) is one of the pioneering works of urban fantasy, finds magic in modern-day Minneapolis. Since then she has become one of the key authors in the genre, creating the shared world fantasy setting Liavek with husband Will Shetterly and writing short stories and a novel set in Terri Windling’s Bordertown setting. She has also written, sung, and played music with folk-rock band Cats Laughing, alongside fellow urban fantasy pioneer Steven Brust, and goth-folk band The Flash Girls. These varied passions and interests inform and shape her adventurous approach to writing.

Bull’s stories rarely stay in one place, mixing together disparate elements in ways that create an exciting new whole. War for the Oaks is both a tale of battling Fairie courts and a vivid account of life in a working band. Bone Dance (1991) weaves together cyberpunk noir and post-apocalypse survival fiction with Voodoo magic and the tarot. Territory (2007) is a secret history of the Wild West in which Wyatt Earp is a sorcerer. Bull’s own magic lies in how she makes these surprising genre hybrids feel utterly natural. To get a better sense of how this works, let’s take a look at two of Bull’s most celebrated novels, War for the Oaks and Bone Dance.

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Kelly Link Bends the Rules of Fiction Like No One Else

“Ladies. Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren’t easy on the feet?”

—“Travels with the Snow Queen”

Kelly Link writes Kelly Link stories. Over five brilliant short story collections—Stranger Things Happen (2001), Magic for Beginners (2005), Pretty Monsters (2008), Get in Trouble (2015), and White Cat, Black Dog (2023)—Link has carved out a unique niche, somewhere where the strands of fantasy, weird fiction, and the speculative combine and become inextricably entangled. These are stories in which the fairy tale and the mundane world we live in overlap and mix together, rendering both of them freshly uncanny.

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Love, Art, and the Unexpected: The Novels and Short Stories of Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson’s Moomin books for children are beloved the world over by readers of all ages. Her stories about a family of trolls who live in Moominvalley and have adventures with their various friends are endlessly charming, and have spawned hugely successful cartoon adaptations, merchandise, and theme parks. The Moomin books have been translated from Jansson’s Finland Swedish into 45 languages, placing them amongst the most widely read work of Finnish literature outside of the national epic the Kalevala.

But Jansson was also a prolific and deeply original writer of stories for adults. The novels and short stories she wrote for a more mature readership tend to be overshadowed by the success of the Moomins, certainly amongst the Anglophone readership. This is a great shame, as her writing for adults displays the same warmth, charm, and deceptive simplicity hiding great wisdom that characterises the Moomin books, with a sharpness and originality that is all their own.

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Magic, Memory, and Power: The Storytelling Brilliance of Isabel Allende

 “To exorcise the demons of memory, it is sometimes necessary to tell them as a story.” —The Stories of Eva Luna (187)

Isabel Allende is a writer in love with the magic of storytelling. The Chilean author has written 26 books and has been translated into over 42 languages, making her arguably the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author. Her remarkable debut novel The House of the Spirits (1982, first translated into English by Magda Bogin in 1985) was an instant bestseller and immediately established her literary reputation as a key voice in magical realism. In Allende’s novels and short stories, the fantastical exists side by side with the cultural and historical milieu of the Chile she grew up in, to the point where they become inextricably linked.

These are stories where ghosts and spirits can be contacted telepathically, women can bring powerful dictators to their knees with magical words, and prehistoric beasts from the mythical city of El Dorado help save an Indigenous tribe of the Amazon rainforest.

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Where to Start With the Wondrously Strange Stories of Karin Tidbeck

“Such is the world in which we live, Teacher Jonas said. The words need guarding. A citizen who doesn’t guard their words could destroy their commune.” (Amatka, 137)

It’s relatively rare to read the first couple of pages of a book and know that you have immediately found a new favourite author, but that was my feeling on reading the opening chapter of Karin Tidbeck’s remarkable novel Amatka (2017). Here was a writer who clearly valued and prioritised everything that I find most compelling about speculative fiction: carefully crafted prose, evocative yet sparse. Characters who are ill at ease with their own world, who can’t help but poke holes round the edges of their reality. A sense of looking at the real world obliquely, using the Weird and the uncanny to more clearly discern profound truths about the world we live in.

I was immediately hooked, and knew I had to read everything Tidbeck wrote that I could get my hands on.

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Shimmering Prose, Painful Truths: Where to Start With the Stories of M. Rickert

“The thing to understand,” she said, “is that all life is about the stories we tell. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Remember, if they try, that is a story too. The story of doubt. Choose carefully the stories you believe.” (The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie, 38)

Above all else, M. Rickert is an author who understands the power of stories. M. Rickert, or Mary Rickert, as her name appears on her debut novel The Memory Garden (2014) and her most recent short story collection You Have Never Been Here (2015), writes modern fairy tales. But banish all thoughts of tweeness or preciousness. These are fairy tales very much unbowdlerised, full of blood and creepiness and nastiness. Characters frequently make terrible decisions and do terrible things and suffer the terrible results. Rickert uses fairy tale motifs to confront grief, loss, and human misery. All this might make reading her stories sound like a miserable experience, but nothing could be further from the truth…

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Strange Magic: Diana Wynne Jones’ Most Brilliant (and Often Overlooked) Books

“’You can’t alter the past,’ Cart said. ‘The only thing you can alter is the future. People write stories pretending you can alter the past, but it can’t be done. All you can do to the past is remember it wrong or interpret it differently, and that’s no good to us.’” –The Time of the Ghost, 107

Diana Wynne Jones has written many wonderful fantasy and SF novels for readers of all ages, all of which are remarkable for their depth and complexity. Jones’ fiction is frequently categorised as YA, but she never patronises her young audience, providing them with works that can be as challenging as they are rewarding. All her books work brilliantly on the level of a story well told, but they are full of resonances and allusions that one tends to pick up on when rereading, careful attention revealing the level of care and craft that has gone into constructing the story.

Although Jones is probably best known for her beloved series, including Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) and its sequels and the Chrestomanci books, my favourite examples of her work are two of her standalone fantasy novels from the 1980s, The Time of the Ghost (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985). Both of these novels, for me, best demonstrate Jones’ unique strengths as a writer. They are instantly engaging stories with an original approach to their fantastic elements that make them incredibly fun reads. But they are also complex meditations on memory and storytelling itself, works that repay rereading and playfully engage with a dizzying array of other texts. It is this that makes them such enduring works of 20th century fantasy fiction.

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Daphne du Maurier and the Borders of the Uncanny, Gothic, and Weird

Daphne du Maurier had a fascinating career that spanned various genres and defies easy categorization. Associated most strongly with thrillers and often classed as a “romantic novelist,” there is also an argument to be made for her as one of the 20th century’s key authors of gothic horror and the uncanny.

Over the course of 17 novels and many short stories, du Maurier produced a body of work rich with the strange, the atmospheric, and the dark. Because she was both a woman and a writer of popular fiction, she was (and still is) frequently overlooked in spite of her literary brilliance. Du Maurier wrote tightly plotted romance novels that were bestsellers, none of which should preclude them from being appreciated as works of depth with a keen interest in exploring humanity’s darker aspects, particularly with respect to gender and sexuality. It’s no wonder her work wound up being adapted by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg.

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Imagining and Understanding the Alien: Insects in Science Fiction

Insects have fascinated writers and readers of SF ever since the genre’s early days, when Earthlings battled bug-eyed monsters in pulp magazines and low-budget B-movies. Insects provide the perfect template for alien biology. Companion animals tend to be mammals like us—we generally find it quite easy to relate to our cat and dog, so whilst cats and dogs have frequently served as templates for alien creatures, as an audience we are more ready to humanise them, to find them cute.

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Radical, Wild, and Wise: Angela Carter’s Subversive Fantasy

 “The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful.”

—Angela Carter, from “Flesh and the Mirror” (collected in Burning Your Boats)

Angela Carter may be best known among fans of SF and fantasy for The Bloody Chamber (1979), her collection of feminist reimaginings of fairy tales, but her entire oeuvre is bursting with explorations of the SFnal, the gothic, and the fantastic. Though Carter is rightly regarded as one of the key literary authors of the 20th century, she should also be remembered as one of the era’s most adventurous and uncompromising fantasists. Even at her most realist, as in early works like The Magic Toyshop (1967), she is fascinated by the uncanniness of puppets and dolls, the spaces that the theatre opens up for the unreal to spill into our world, and the way that we can never truly know other people’s internal lives. Over the course of Carter’s more fantastical works, her flare for the gothic combines with surrealism and apocalyptic landscapes, folklore and fairy tales, the beautiful and the grotesque, to create a unique take on the fantastic that remains unmatched thirty years after her death.

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A Readers’ Guide to the Finnish Weird in Translation

In her 2011 essay “Weird and Proud of It” (published in the journal Books From Finland), Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo coined the term “suomikumma,” or Finnish Weird, to refer to a new strain of speculative fiction being produced by herself and her Finnish peers. In stark contrast to the realist strain of mainstream Finnish literature, these writers were producing work that Sinisalo describes as having a “diagonal” approach to “genres… hybrids of these genres, and genres that don’t have any other name.” She identities common features of the Finnish Weird as including “the blurring of genre boundaries, the bringing together of different genres and the unbridled flight of imagination.”

Since then, the term has enthusiastically been adopted by editors like Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and by writers and fans of Finnish speculative fiction as a useful way to talk about the unique, inventive, and distinctively Finnish work produced by these writers. In the interim, the genre has only grown in stature, with Finnish writers like Sinisalo, Emmi Itäranta, and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen winning awards and accolades in English, and the Helsinki Science Fiction Society producing a magazine in the lead-up to Finncon to introduce English-speaking SFF fans to suomikumma and its practitioners.

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Poetry, Myth, Darkness, and Humour: The Worlds of Roz Kaveney

Roz Kaveney is a wonderfully talented writer, poet, and critic, and a tireless activist. She has written insightful critical works on a wide range of popular culture, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Nip/Tuck. She has written reviews and criticism for The Guardian and The Independent newspapers. Her debut poetry collection Dialectic of the Flesh (2012) was shortlisted for the Lambda Award. She has a new poetry collection, The Great Good Time. She has published her translations of Catullus’ poetry, which boldly capture the originals’ romanticism, wit, and sexual explicitness. Along with Neil Gaiman, Alex Stewart, and Mary Gentle, she was a core member of the Midnight Rose Collective, which released a series of shared world anthologies published by Penguin.

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Pirates, Punks, and Quests: The Transgressive, Transformative Slipstream Novels of Kathy Acker

“How can I do this? Begin.
Begin what?
The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning: the end of the world.”

(Pussy, King of the Pirates, 27)

Punk feminist author Kathy Acker (1947-1997) was one of the most influential and daring writers of postmodern experimental fiction of the 20th century. Although her work isn’t usually thought of as science fiction or fantasy, throughout her career her work engages with SF, fantastical, and speculative fiction tropes in bizarre and unexpected ways. Like fellow experimental writers William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, Acker is a writer whose work sits in dialogue with, and is frequently influential on, the field of SF without necessarily being SF itself. In an influential 1989 essay, Bruce Sterling called this kind of writing “slipstream,” which he defines as “a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality… a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel.”

More than three decades on from Sterling’s original essay, the boundaries between traditional SF modes of writing and postmodern and other so-called “literary” forms of writing have become ever more porous and uncertain. As such, it’s worth looking at Acker as one of the original pioneering writers who helped to demolish the boundaries between genre and postmodern fiction. While Acker’s books may frustrate readers expecting hard SF logic and rigor, likeable characters, or even coherent linear plots, the adventurous SFF reader will find much to enjoy in her riotous transgressive punk prose, her wild DIY juxtaposition of appropriated texts across genres and tones, and her inventive and unique take on dystopian and cyberpunk motifs and themes.

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John Crowley’s Little, Big: A Fantasy Masterpiece Turns Forty

“The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”

 This August marked the 40th anniversary of the release of John Crowley’s fantasy masterpiece Little, Big (1981). Upon its release, no less an authority than Ursula Le Guin called it “a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.” Little, Big was widely recognised as a significant work at the time—it won the World Fantasy Award, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and BSFA Awards. Crowley had already published three remarkable novels—The Deep (1975), Beast (1976) and Engine Summer (1979)—which established him as an exciting author unafraid to bring both beautifully crafted prose and highly original ideas to his own peculiar mix of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. However Little, Big would eclipse them all.

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Art, Myth, and Magic Come Alive in Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife

Terri Windling’s influence over modern Fantasy is incalculable. Her work as editor for Ace and Tor Books’ Fantasy lines in the 1980s and as a tireless anthologist has done so much to shape the direction of fantastic fiction, always for the better. She was behind the iconic Fairy Tales series of novels, which brought contemporary reimaginings of fairy tales by authors such as Charles de Lint, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, and more. Windling’s art, inspired by the folklore, mythology and fairy tales she so clearly loves, has been exhibited across the US, UK, and Europe. She is the founder of Endicott Studio—another practical way in which she has shown her support of folklore- and mythic-inspired art—and her blog, Myth & Moor, is a vibrant centre for discussion about such work, bringing together insightful essays from herself and other creatives.

With such a wealth of contributions to the genre to consider, it’s possible that one might overlook Windling’s 1996 fantasy novel The Wood Wife amongst her other accomplishments. This would be a grave mistake.

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