content by

Linda H. Codega

Historical Fantasy at Its Most Anime: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

There are few books out there that can compare itself to so many things that make my eyes go very big, but when someone tells me a new YA is like Pacific Rim, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Hunger Games, and every webtoon novel out there, I immediately figure out how to get my hands on that book. Iron Widow does all this and more, re-writing Chinese historical figures as leading men and women in a drama that reaches far past its historical scope.

This book is a very slight reimagining of Empress Wu; an oft-demonized figure in Chinese history who became the nation’s only legitimate female sovereign. And when I say slight, I mean it: there are markers of Chinese politics, landscapes, and even other characters from history, but if you’re hoping for a more direct retelling of Wu’s life, Iron Widow is not that book.

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The Hills are Haunted; the Mountains are Hungry: Digging Into Appalachian SFF

A few months ago Appalachia was trending on Twitter; someone was explaining what makes the mountain range unique, diving into some of the geographical data on the Appalachians, trying to conceptualize just how fucking old this spine is. It’s difficult to imagine, but this range contains some of the oldest mountains in the world. Even comparisons fail; for example, the Rocky Mountain range was formed about 80 million years ago. The Appalachians? 480 million years ago.

All this orogen history has to mean something. These mountains know a thing or two.

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An Elegy for the Rest of Us: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

When the inevitable labor dystopia comes crashing down around our ears, I can only hope that the future humanity builds out of the rubble resembles the world in A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

This cozy novella follows Sibling Dex, a nonbinary tea monk as they journey through Panga. They have a cart, a full selection of herbs and tea accoutrement, pillows, and a kind ear to lend. They’re not necessarily a therapist, but slightly adjacent. A friendly face who’s willing to listen to your troubles, offer you a nice cuppa, and give you a chance to rest.

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Time Loop Lovers and (Im)Possible Futures

Time loop romances—specifically fantasy romances where characters are caught within a repeating movement through time—are becoming their own kind of genre. Books like Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop and This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, as well as screen media like Misfits and Palm Springs, maintain a cycle of chronological struggle throughout the plot. Somewhere out there is an ideal timeline where you and your lover can be together, and the characters are forced to continue the cycle in an attempt to find it.

At their core, time loop romances are characterized by two main ideas. The first is the belief that there must be a better future out there, and the second is that the characters believe they have the power to make it so.

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Beyond Gears and Wires: Tabletop RPGs If You Love Books About Sentient A.I.s

There’s not a single sci-fi fan out there who hasn’t read a story about a robot that was too smart for its own good. Whether its an android advanced far beyond its initial code, a ghost in a shell, or a sentient all-seeing Cloud taking over our homes one Alexa at a time, Sentient AI has been a sore spot for futurists for decades. With a recent bout of books that contend with Murderbots, machine rights, expansive ship systems, and Artificial Friends, I’ve dug up a few games that are sure to get you in the mind of the machine.

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An Ending to the Grishaverse: Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

Rule of Wolves is a book that reads less like a pack of wolves growling at succession and more like a group of super zoomy dogs at a park after winter. The plot runs around, the characters rarely stay still, and you’re left unsure of whose lead to follow, but like, great for these dogs, honestly, they’re just like, really, happy to be here.

The seventh book in the Grishaverse series and the follow-up novel to King of Scars, Rule of Wolves trails after young King Nikolai in his pursuit of peace, General Zoya as she strives to protect the Grisha, and the spy Nina Zenik as she attempts to gather information from inside the belly of the beast. There are other characters that have their own manipulations and agencies, namely the Darkling, newly returned from the dead, and Mayu Kir-Kaat, the imposter Shu princess.

So, overall, there’s just a lot of really adorable puppies rolling around in the plot.

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Enter the Fold: Indie Tabletop RPGs to Play if You Love Shadow and Bone

The Shadow and Bone Netflix series is so close we can almost touch Ben Barnes’ scruffy 5 o’clock shadow he’s been effortlessly maintaining.

With a rich fantasy world that author Leigh Bardugo has styled ‘Tsarpunk’, the Shadow and Bone series is full of engaging characters, elemental magic, and, of course, a hell of a lot of darkness. As Netflix adapts the first five books of the Grishaverse into a show, we’ve only gotten hints about what the content’s going to be like, and where it will differ or align with the books. We know the (approximate) cast, the episode titles, and… that’s about it.

Now, while it is a shame that nobody has snatched up the IP rights to the Grishaverse series for its own Tabletop Role Playing Game, it’s not really a huge problem if you ask me. If you love the Grisha, Ravka, the crows of Ketterdam, Fjerdan’s druskelle, and, yes, even the Darkling, don’t worry. There are games out there, just waiting to be played, threads ready to pulled, tales of steampunk magic just waiting to be told. We, intrepid adventurers, do not wait to be told what will happen. We make our own stories.

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Take That Chance: Tabletop Games for Your Favorite Horror Book

Trapped in a forest, the party walks in a single-file line, carefully stepping over giant roots and branches. Ahead, the ruins of an old castle, or a mansion, or a spaceship, long abandoned, but strangely alive and vibrant. You know you shouldn’t go in (the Game Master has been very clear—do not enter the low place, look at the dark spot, nor search for the lair of the Gravenbest) but at the same time, you know that the only way through is ahead, and death stalks not far behind.

[There are so many fantastic horror games out there!]

Getting Lost: Sarah Tolmie’s The Fourth Island

Often books are like tides. The plot comes in waves, leaving characters half-buried in the sand. In order to find the seashells, skulls, strangely twisted driftwood amid the seaweed and salt, you must have a keen eye. It might take a few passes across a small, strange stretch of beach or stone or mud but these liminal places are the only place a sea, or a story, willingly lets go of its dead.

The Fourth Island is like a dark tide. It flows in and out of time, history, and myth, creating a picture of the Aran Islands that is deeply enmeshed in Irish culture.

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Game the System: Tabletop Games for Your Favorite Science Fiction Book

The ragtag crew of space junkers glance at each other, psionic weapons hefted and pointed at the door that the Game Master previously described as “impenetrable”, only to see the metal start to glow a bright red. They read the room, and the dice, and quickly realize that the smugglers hinted at two sessions ago have finally caught up to their spaceship, Starskipper.

Roleplaying games ventured outside of the fantasy realm almost as soon as they began. The original publishers of Dungeons and Dragons knew that it was only a matter of time before people would want to start playing out their own space-age story, and in 1976, published the first SciFi RPG, Metamorphosis Alpha. You could say that they were a little ahead of the curve, considering A New Hope was released in ‘77.

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Play the Plot: Tabletop Games for Your Favorite Fantasy Book

A group of friends lean in; it’s the final battle, the end of an epic campaign, years in the making. The only thing that stands between them and the ultimate triumph of good over evil is the roll of a single die…

Well, that’s how Dungeons and Dragons does it, anyway. But genre games are as varied as genre fiction, and most don’t require the time or monetary investment that a thick, rules-heavy D&D campaign often asks for. The stories told around the table (or over Zoom!) with your adventuring party can rival the great works of fiction, and have been oft-cited as sources of inspiration. But with the advent of experimental lyric games, journaling prompts, and new systems for mechanics—including using tarot cards, betting structures, or even a Jenga tower—genre tabletop games have never been more diverse or more exciting.

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Entering the Police State: Toph Beifong, Power, and Authority in Republic City

Toph invented cops.

I have to reiterate that, because it’s a fact. Toph Beifong invented the first and only police system in the Avatar universe, and it’s deeply insidious and bizarre.

We have to examine, first of all, how the police force in Republic City came about, and why Toph was the worst and only person who could have created it; and secondly, why writers of speculative media choose to create endings for characters with great power that continually place them in systemic positions of power over other people.

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Hugo Spotlight: A Love Letter to This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Letters are romantic. They’re personal promises, sent out on hope, and when they land in an inbox, a mailbox, a cubby, they’re proof of consideration, and time, and love. Even if it’s not a letter to a lover, but just to a friend, a neighbor, or your family, the art of letter writing has never lost its charm, despite what junk mail has done to our sense of a mailbox.

This is How You Lose the Time War is one extended, synthetic, fantastic love letter to genre.

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The Monsters They Married Are Men: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Patricia Campbell has done everything right. She was a working woman, and then she got married. She got pregnant—twice!—and delivered two amazing children. The perfect housewife, she moved to a small town to support her husband’s new business… and she’s bored. Terribly so. When her book club splinters and Patricia’s friend picks The Manson Trials over Cry, the Beloved Country Patricia’s boredom abates, at least for a little while.

When Patricia is brutally attacked, leaving her scarred and a dead body twitching in her front lawn, she can’t get over the sense of wrongness. Maybe it’s the true crime novels, maybe it’s women’s intuition, maybe it’s just being unwilling to believe the easiest explanation simply because it’s convenient. But it’s this moment, when Patricia’s ear gets bitten off behind the trashcans, when we realize that this book—done up in Southern propriety and hidden behind vacuumed curtains—is a bloody horror story.

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Peering Into The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

In her first two books, Natasha Pulley created a magical, soft-steampunk world inspired by folklore, history, and clairvoyant futurists. Both her debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and sophomore release, The Bedlam Stacks, share space in the same universe, but are distantly related by small threads. Her newest book, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, is a direct sequel Filigree Street, taking place five years later.

The story once again follows Nathaniel Steepleton as he makes his way through the world twisted around the machinations of Baron Keita Mori, the Japanese samurai/soothsayer who seems to be pulling the strings of fate in every movement and breath. In this novel, Thaniel and Mori, along with their adopted daughter Six, travel to Japan, where Thaniel takes up a post at the Foreign Affairs office in Tokyo. In the Meiji era, the politics of Tokyo are strung in between Western modernization and traditionalist values. Nearby, strange storms are brewing on Mount Fuji, and people are seeing ghosts.

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