content by

Mahvesh Murad

Hook, Line & Genocide: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

1976, on a fictitious Caribbean island, a young local fisherman smokes a joint in his boat while waiting for the catch to come in. When he starts to strum his guitar, he attracts the attentions of a mermaid, a creature he first thinks he’s hallucinating. But he isn’t—there really is a mermaid, one who makes him tremble with ‘desire and fear and wonder because he knew what he’d seen. A woman. Right there, in the water. A red-skinned woman, not black, not African…Red. She was a red woman, like an Amerindian.’ And so starts Trinidadian born British writer Monique Roffey’s latest novel, the award winning The Mermaid of Black Conch.

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Of Gods and Queens: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

The ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana is the story of Lord Rama’s quest to rescue his wife Sita from the evil clutches of the invincible demon king Ravana. Along with the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is a vital text in Hinduism, which means millions of people all over the world know it well, and would probably hold to high standard any story based on it. 

Luckily for debut novelist, Vaishnavi Patel, many western readers would have absolutely no idea of the source material at all, and will probably enjoy what will be welcomed as a fresh new voice offering a diverse non euro-centric ‘fantasy’. Her new book Kaikeyi is touted as a feminist retelling of the story of a vilified queen from the Ramayana, the second wife of Dasharath of Ayodhya, a woman known for having forced Rama into exile for fourteen years, and so setting him on his personal hero’s journey. It’s been compared the Madeline Miller’s startling Circe, which is probably an unfair comparison, even for a novel less confused and untethered as Kaikeyi

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So Damn Electric: Janelle Monáe’s The Memory Librarian & Other Stories of Dirty Computer

Everything Janelle Monae has created, so far, been vibrant, authentic, electric. Whether it is her own special blend of pop, funk, hip hop music, or her roles in films, or television, or even production, she has always maintained a highly individual, unique and intelligent take on storytelling, and one that has consistently been inclusive of, and respectful of, other talents in her orbit. Now, with her first book, the short story collection The Memory Librarian & Other Stories of Dirty Computer, she proves that she can continue being just as electric with the written word, even when it’s not set to a beat. (Except it nearly always is.)

It’s unfair to talk about Monae’s stories without the context of the other forms of art she creates. All her Dirty Computer narratives from 2018, be they songs or music videos or shorts, stem from the same premise of a world controlled by a totalitarian state, New Dawn, where any one who does not conform to state’s idea of acceptable is considered a deviant, a ‘dirty computer’ that needs a hard reset.

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A Western Fairy Tale in Different Clothes: This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

In the world of Tahereh Mafi’s latest YA fantasy novel, This Woven Kingdom, a cautious peace has been achieved between humans and their predecessors, the Jinn. The Fire Accords, set up by the current Ardunian king make it so that the Jinn can live amongst humans, but must keep to themselves and not display any of their powers. Humans of course, currently run the world and can do as they please, so of course this is still a world with economic disparity, war and strife.

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A Book Full of Juju: Akata Woman by Nnedi Okorafor

The third in the award winning Nsibidi Script series by Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Woman brings us back to a teenage Sunny, now a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, both as a person and as a powerful juju-working warrior witch. Like the earlier books, this one too makes no bones about what it will be, starting with a straight up warning—

‘Beware. Shine your eye, If you fear juju. If you are uncomfortable around powers that zip, buzz, creep, swell on this planet and beyond., If you don’t want to know. If you don’t want to listen. If you are afraid to go. If you aren’t ready. If. If. If. You are reading this. Good. This book is full of juju.’

And full to the brim it is. With Akata Woman, Okorafor does what she does best, drawing on African mythology and folklore, being free with her rhythm and language, telling a classic hero’s journey set far from the Western canon of fantasy, while always staying readable, aware, intelligent and playful.

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Remember Our History: A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

In Darcie Little Badger’s second novel, the National Book Award longlisted A Snake Falls to Earth, Lipan Apache teen protagonist Nina lives in near future Texas and is smart, funny and adamant to translate her great grandmother Rosita’s ‘fanciful, ancient stories about the days when humans and spirits lived together’. Rosita was ‘the keeper of ten thousand stories, each stranger than the last’, and when she was almost impossibly old, Nina recorded her stories into an advanced translation app which is confused by the language Rosita spoken in, partly a Lipan dialect that no one can speak any longer. Nina, it seems, has to work a lot harder to understand the things her great grandmother was trying to tell her.

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A Familiar-Looking Future: Noor By Nnedi Okorafor

Noor is Nnedi Okorafor’s first adult novel in about six years, and fans of her work who have been anticipating this book will not be disappointed. Noor is set in a futuristic Nigeria, with the titular Noor not being a person, but a massive wind turbine set up in the desert to harvest clean energy ‘from one of the world’s worst environmental disasters’. The Nigeria of Noor is a place that has been exploited for its wind power, and over the years a megacoporation called Ultimate Corp has taken control of all of Nigeria’s resources, creating a country that is technologically advanced, but also state controlled and poor on a grassroots level. There are Noors set up across the desert, each a huge frightening storm as seen from the outside, locally referred to as the Red Eye.

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A Jittery, Near-future Thriller: Femlandia by Christina Dalcher

Near future America is easily a frightening place in any imagination, and in Christina Dalcher’s third novel Femlandia, America in 2022 is a completely broken, lawless society. After a massive economic breakdown, things rapidly fall apart, supply chains run dry, violence is the only thing that works, there is little food to be found, and everyone is left scavenging as best they can, both for food and safety. 40-something Miranda and her 16 year old daughter Emma have been trying to eke out a survival in their home, but Miranda knows that they won’t be able to stay there much longer. There aren’t many options for them, other than to go to the one place Miranda had sworn off from years ago—Femlandia, the women only commune her mother Win had established before the world broke, a community that is ‘Women Oriented. Self sufficient. Cooperative. Safe. Accepting. Natural. Free’.

Or is it.

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A Grown-Up Neverland: Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

You fall out of a window, fly into the night and find yourself in a different world, where the rules of your reality don’t exist. You come back because you miss your real family; you hit puberty, you grow up, you move on. That’s how portal fantasies work. It’s isn’t often than an adult will go back to their childhood fantasy; it is rarer still that they will find it to be just as charming as it used to be. That’s what A.C. Wise explores, in her first full length novel Wendy, Darling.

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Mean Girls and Monsters: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

El was born with an affinity for death and destruction. Though she may spend a great deal of time trying very hard not to suck up other people’s life source, she can’t even create a housekeeping or floor cleaning spell without ending up with something that can take out an army in one fell swoop.

She makes people feel like “it’s about to rain”, and so has never formed any friendships in or out of school. The best she an hope for is to show some of her power in a nonthreatening way and form an alliance strong enough to get her to graduation—and in Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education, graduating from the Scholomance simply means making it out alive.

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“TL;DR We’re F*cked”: Afterland by Lauren Beukes

The Human Culgoa Virus starts off as a highly contagious flu, but soon causes aggressive prostate cancer and  kills off 99% of people with prostate glands around the world. The remaining seem to be genetically immune, though no one knows how or why. But generally, it’s game over for the majority of the people with a Y chromosome in Lauren’s Beukes’ latest novel, Afterland.

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Unfavourable Odds: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Its lead antagonist, the fascist sociopathic President Snow was a formidable opponent for the beloved hero Katniss, and a great personification of everything the Capitol represented. But sixty-odd years before Katniss enters the Games, Snow was an ambitious eighteen year old with a lot to hide, a lot to prove and a whole lot more to win. Suzanne Collins’ latest book is awkwardly titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and while it was well known that this would be a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy and that it would be about Snow, it was unclear as to whether it was really something that was needed to flesh out the world of the earlier three novels.

[May the odds be ever in our favor…]

Witches and Whales: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

On Christmas Eve 1617, in the tiny fishing village of Vardo, Finnmark, a sudden storm wipes out almost the entire male population. Forty of the grown men who had set out in their boats, much as they often did, are killed by a freak storm that defies logic, and the women of Vardo are left to fend for themselves, even as they grieve for the loss of their loved ones.

In Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, the “storm comes like a finger snap […] then the sea rises up and the sky swings down and greenish lightning slings itself across everything, flashing the black into an instantaneous, terrible brightness,” as the women are perhaps “screaming but here is no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone.”

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A Familiar Fantasy: Sisters of Shadow and Light by Sara B Larson

Inara and Zuhra have been raised by their cold, unfeeling mother, trapped inside the Citadel of the Paladin’s, surrounded by a sentient hedge that won’t let them out—or anyone in. They don’t know much about who they are or why they’re there, though Zuhra has figured out that their father was a magical Paladin who abandoned his family the night Inara—with her obviously Paladin power filled bright blue glowing eyes—was born. The history of the Paladins, or why the local villagers fear and hate them, is not fully understood by the girls, though they live in what was once an active Paladin fortress, filled with remnants of a reign that has mysteriously vanished into what was once a connected world. Things plod along with the sisters, but when a stranger comes to town and the hedge lets him in, Zuhra can’t help but wonder if this young man is there to save them—with information and knowledge, if nothing else.

Sara B Larson’s new novel Sisters of Shadow and Light wants to be so much more than it ultimately—unfortunately—manages to be. It wants to be a story about the bond between sisters, about their loyalty and fierce defence of each other, about their shared traumas and anxieties, and about how they help each other heal and move forward. But the story itself is fairly formulaic, as is the setting, which seems quite standard for a medieval Eurocentric fantasy—there are inns, a village with a midwife, very Aryan magical beings of various powers, that citadel surrounded by a wall-like hedge (keeping people out or keeping residents of the citadel in?); the female characters dress in skirts and blouses or lace edged dresses, and everyone appears to be fair skinned and blue or green eyed, if not blonde. It’s all just rather…familiar.

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