content by

Mahvesh Murad

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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Of Bees & Books: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Teenage Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a door painted in a wall that looks like it may be a portal into another land. He doesn’t open it. Many years later, he finds a book in his university library that tells a strange story about a boy who doesn’t open a door, a secret world of stories protected by guardians and acolytes, and of star crossed lovers. The book was clearly written much before Zachary’s birth, so how does it know what it does? How is it telling his story, the story of the path he didn’t take, the call he refused? He wonders ‘how, exactly, he is supposed to continue a story he didn’t know he was in’, when he finds the book, but later realises ‘he was never at the beginning of this story. This story is much, much older than he is, and so begins his quest.

In Erin Morgenstern’s much awaited second novel, The Starless Sea, we are inundated with mystery and magic.

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More Than Human: Frankissstein: A Love Story By Jeanette Winterson

There are two starting points in the new Booker longlisted novel from Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein—one, the day in 1816 when Mary Shelley went for a walk along the wet shores of Lake Geneva and saw something that lead her to write the seminal novel Frankenstein, and two, a robotics expo in present day Memphis, where a trans doctor named Ry Shelley is interviewing the king of a potential sexbot empire, Ron Lord. Winterson jumps back and forth between the two times, in a staccato parallel narrative that explores duality and creation, and is as jarring as it is entertaining—jarring because we never know where the next chapter will take us, and entertaining because the voices of both sets of characters are just very alive, as varied as they are.

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A Hook Into an Eye: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Almost 35 years after Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published and nominated for a slew of awards including the Booker Prize and the Arthur C Clarke award (which it won in 1987), its follow up novel The Testaments has made it to the Booker shortlist even before its actual release day. Heavily anticipated, heavily embargoed, even more heavily promoted, The Testaments takes us back to Gilead not to tell us what has happened to just Offred, but to Gilead itself.

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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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