Tor.com content by

Mahvesh Murad

Of Skin and the Sea: The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris

Selkie stories are usually about an entrapped wife—the grey seal who can take off her skin and shift into human form, caught by a human male and kept subservient and loyal by force because her skin, her true nature, is locked away. She forgets who she is, and a spends a lifetime as wife and mother and caregiver to humans, generally living a life of mundane domesticity that is nothing like her previous wild, adventurous joyous sea life, and is always wondering why she feels like she’s missing a vital part of her, why the sea calls out to her, but unless she finds her sealskin, she is never able to go back to who she was, or where she belongs.

But in The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris’ latest retelling of Scottish folk tales (with illustrations by Bonnie Hawkins), it is a young woman who is the captor, an island girl who wants more than the boys she has grown up around, and so decides only a selkie prince will do for her.

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Hugo Spotlight: Unweaving Rumpelstiltskin in Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Miryem is the daughter of small town Jewish moneylender who isn’t very good at his job. Her father, while “terrible with money,” is “endlessly warm and gentle, and tried to make up for his failings: he spent nearly all of every day out in the cold woods hunting for food and firewood, and when he was indoors where was nothing he wouldn’t do to help.” But living as they do in a tiny town, “unwalled and half nameless,” where “the cold kept creeping out of the woods earlier and earlier,” where the townspeople look down upon them as pariahs, Miryem’s family is pushed to the edge of poverty, as her father eventually lends out all his wife’s dowry and is incapable of bringing any back. While Miryem’s family are on the verge of starvation, and her mother increasingly unwell, the rest of the town fares well on their borrowed coin.

But in Naomi Novik’s standalone novel Spinning Silver, “a moneylender’s daughter, even a bad moneylender’s daughter, learns her numbers,” and on seeing her mother take ill and weaken, Miryem steps up to lay claim to what is owed to her family.

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In Her Skin: Sealed by Naomi Booth

Climate change is no longer something that can be denied by anyone at all. In Naomi Booth’s sharp, savvy second novel Sealed, the world has become hotter, and there’s a strange new disease that seems to be making people grow new skin over different orifices, eventually killing them by sealing them up inside their own epidermis.

Cutis, it’s called, and while the authorities claim it’s just one more thing to add to the nonchalant list of worries that people already have, from polluted fruit to smog to wildfires, pregnant Alice fears the worst. She’s obsessed with Cutis, and starts collection information not just about it, but also about what she thinks may be it, or what may have started the outbreak. She’s certain her mother died of it, she’s certain numerous people have died of it, far more than the authorities are admitting to, particularly those housed in relocation camps set up by the government for those who have been chased out of their homes by the effects of climate change—massive heatwaves, forest fires and the like. Climate change refugees, if you will.

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Earnest Voices: New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl

Though New Suns is simply presented as an anthology of short fiction by people of colour, without any over arching theme, a great many of the stories in the collection focus on what it means to be the other—or become the other. But of course they do. This comes as no surprise, though some readers may be slightly disappointed when many of the stories don’t quite push at this enough, holding back just that little bit that stops from deeper exploration of their narrative.

For some, it is that the short story format isn’t quite long enough to explore what they’re thinking (and so some of the stories come across as excerpts, which isn’t necessarily a negative aspect). For some it’s just a matter of undeveloped skill at addressing heavier, more complicated themes in equally complicated settings. Regardless, New Suns is an earnest compilation of voices from many ethnicities and backgrounds, making it a nice little package for those looking to read the narratives of writers exploring their experiences as people of colour, and as marginalised people .

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I Tell You True: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Until recently, Jamaican born writer Marlon James was known best for wining the Man Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, but his latest novel, the sprawling epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is going to very much take place of what the writer is most associated with—there is no doubt.

“I wanted to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” James told The New Yorker last month, “I wanted black pageantry.” And that’s exactly what he’s achieved with this story of Tracker, an angry young protagonist who is known for his nose, and uses this power (alongside his ability to not be harmed by anything ‘born of metal’), to find what no one else can. Tracker, similar to the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, has a most powerful sense of smell—he can smell below the surface to detect emotion; he can smell into distance and even time, and so has developed quite a reputation as the man who can find anything or anyone at all, and one who is willing to go anywhere it takes to search.

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Strange Lands: The Kingdom of Copper By S.A. Chakraborty

We leap in to The Kingdom of Copper right where we left off with The City of Brass (if we can recall just where we left off), and then quickly jump to five years later, when Nahri and Muntadhir are married and living under his father King Ghassan’s rule: Muntadhir keeping up with his harems, following in his father’s methods, and Nahri working as the only Nahid, the healer for the djinn. Alizayd is in a village far away, helping irrigate the dessert with his new abilities of ‘finding’ springs, and Dara is with the original Nahid, training an army to take back Daevabad. Each character is caught up in their own plot, each plot is built up and interwoven with the others as the narrative progresses.

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Wishes as Curses: The Curses by Laure Eve

Picking up soon after the events of The Graces, The Curses follows the Grace siblings and their two closest “friends” as they try to recover from the strange events that have occurred (events that will remain vague for the purposes of avoiding spoilers for those who have not read the earlier novel). Laure Eve now changes perspective to that of Summer, the youngest of the Graces and the first to have befriended River, the unreliable narrator of the first novel. Summer’s understanding of previous events and her recollection of them sets her up right away as an honest, straightforward narrator—more so, as one who is determined to get to the truth of many matters, especially that behind the curse that plagues the magical family.

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Under Neon and Starlight: Revealing the Table of Contents for The Outcast Hours

The Outcast Hours is only our second anthology, but it is fair to say we already have a bit of a shtick: we like diverse thinking on universal themes.

With The Djinn Falls in Love, it was, well—djinn. One of the few truly global ‘creatures’ of lore. With The Outcast Hours, we wanted something that was equally relevant: something that every culture experiences. Rather than raid the bestiary again, we went higher concept—not to a particular myth, but to the source of myths. Something that everyone, everywhere, shares: the night. We all experience it; it affects everyone, everywhere, in every culture.

So that’s half the shtick: the universal theme.

The other half is where the real work comes in. To us, there’s no point in reading the same story two dozen times. The joy of something universal is that everyone approaches it from a different angle. To capture the breadth, the depth, the vastness that is the ‘night’, we needed wildly different perspectives. The Table of Contents represents our best efforts to capture this range.

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The Voices in Our Heads: Someone Like Me by M.R. Carey

In M.R. Carey’s latest thriller, Someone Like Me, we first meet sweet, docile single mother Liz, as she tries to assert herself yet again to her aggressive ex-husband. After years of enduring an abusive marriage, Liz was finally able to divorce her husband and keep her children safe from what she feared would be potential danger to them, too. But the shared custody of the two children still causes much friction, with Liz’s ex Marc often pushing boundaries.

(Warning: the novel [and review] include scenes of domestic violence.)

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Of Epic Girl Gangs: The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

Set in an alternate Scandinavia, The Boneless Mercies has been touted as a gender-swapped quest fantasy loosely based on Beowulf. But given it’s a loose reinterpretation and the original may not be familiar to many YA readers, let’s leave that aside, because The Boneless Mercies exists very much as its own unique narrative, set in its own unique world and with its own intriguing cast of female characters. Beowulf was very much a man’s story—its female characters were either monsters or trophies. But here, Tucholke ensures that her female characters are everything: heroes, killers, witches, leaders, lovers, warriors. And yes, even beasts. 

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Rewrite the Book: Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sixteen- year-old Marion arrives at Sawkill Island with her mother and her elder sister, all three of them still in shock and traumatised after the death of Marion’s father. Marion became the de facto rock of their little family, tethering their mother and Charlotte together. But Sawkill, which was meant to be a sanctum for them, turns out to be everything but. Sawkill Island is “like this thing, perched out there on the water. A beetle. A monster. Some magical lost place.” The magic, however, isn’t the fun kind.

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The War on Women: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

Briseis of Lyrnessus is the teenage queen taken as Achilles’ trophy when his army destroys her town on their way to Troy, after he murders every male in her family—her husband, her father, her brothers, all brutally murdered in front of her. Every women is taken by the army and later distributed amongst the soldiers as spoils of war, with Briseis being given to Achilles, to whom she is expected to submit in every way. Later, there is an argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, which ends with Briseis being taken by Agamemnon as part of his winnings. Women, Pat Barker makes it clear in her new novel The Silence of the Girls, are nothing more than things men use to wield their power.

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Hunting a Legend: And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

In an upside down, topsy turvy yet familiar world in the depths of the ocean, a war has been raging for generations between two species who have always, it seems, hunted one another.  Bathsheba the whale is part of the formidable Captain Alexandra’s pod, part of this endless hunt. But the Captain bears a violent obsession against one particular enemy: the mighty Toby Wick, a man, a monster, a myth and quite possibly the devil himself. Wick has killed countless pods, and has never been found, but Captain Alexandra is certain that she is the one who will end him.

Patrick Ness’ new illustrated novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a gorgeous, richly imaginative take on Moby-Dick, with the narrative focus shifting to the perspective of whales hunting humans. “Call me Bathsheba,” begins the story, immediately echoing one of the best known opening lines in literature. But even to those unfamiliar with Moby-Dick, And the Ocean Was Our Sky will  be a haunting and powerful story. 

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Unweaving a Fairy Tale: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Miryem is the daughter of small town Jewish moneylender who isn’t very good at his job. Her father, while “terrible with money,” is “endlessly warm and gentle, and tried to make up for his failings: he spent nearly all of every day out in the cold woods hunting for food and firewood, and when he was indoors where was nothing he wouldn’t do to help.” But living as they do in a tiny town, “unwalled and half nameless,” where “the cold kept creeping out of the woods earlier and earlier,” where the townspeople look down upon them as pariahs, Miryem’s family is pushed to the edge of poverty, as her father eventually lends out all his wife’s dowry and is incapable of bringing any back. While Miryem’s family are on the verge of starvation, and her mother increasingly unwell, the rest of the town fares well on their borrowed coin.

But in Naomi Novik’s standalone novel Spinning Silver, “a moneylender’s daughter, even a bad moneylender’s daughter, learns her numbers,” and on seeing her mother take ill and weaken, Miryem steps up to lay claim to what is owed to her family.

[Read more]

Of Djinns & Things: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

A young hustler on the streets of 18th Century Cairo, Nahri lives by her wits and has always done so alone, using certain special abilities that help her get by. She can, most of the time, tell if someone is sick, or what ails them. She has “yet to come upon a language she didn’t immediately understand,” can sometimes help those who are unwell, and seems to be able to heal quickly herself. Nahri uses her strange abilities to take what she can from whom she can, trying to build up a little store of cash so she may one day train to be a real healer.

But one ordinary day, what should be a run of the mill fake exorcism ends up going horribly wrong when the young girl Nahri is pretending to help turns out to be actually possessed by a djinn—an ifrit who recognises something special in Nahri.

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