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Martin Cahill

A Rollicking Tale of Revenge: Sam Sykes’ Seven Blades in Black

Over the course of his first six books, Sam Sykes has worked very hard to illustrate his vision of what fantasy fiction can be, focusing not just on epic battles between magic users, but also on the price they pay, and what the horrors they see can do to their heart, mind, and soul. He shows us not just the heroes of an age working together to vanquish a great evil, but also the horrendous friction that can result from a half-dozen very different people working together, and the sense that maybe that there’s more to the story behind that great evil than one might suspect. And there’s not just the sweat and steam of flirting between protagonists on display, but also the agonizing heart-pain of loving someone who you fear you’ll never understand, and who is just as scared that you’ll leave them before they have a chance to open up.

For Sam Sykes, fantasy is much more than what we’ve come to expect; it has to have some nuance, some damn heart, while also presenting the reader with massive, magical battles that are so intense that they make you feel as if you’re about to fly out of your seat.

If you agree with that thesis statement, then Seven Blades in Black, Sykes’s newest novel in his Grave of Empires series, is categorically for you.

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A Stunning Debut: Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire

In this stunning debut, Mahit Dzmare is the latest in a long line of free peoples who have had to live under the influence of the one of the largest imperial powers in the known galaxy: the Teixcalaanli Empire. The vast Empire is a source of culture, poetry, fashion, literature, oration, ethics, and more, whose influences spread across their many systems and beyond, like arrows of sunlight streaking into the dark of space. And while very few are able to stand up to and apart from the Empire, Mahit’s people on Lsel Station remain independent, though they exist next to and within the grasp of the Empire, aided by an ambassador on the surface of the Teixcalaanli capital—a planet simply called “The City,” heart and jewel of the Empire.

When a sudden call for a new ambassador comes to Lsel Station, Mahit is chosen and hurriedly given her imago, the tiny piece of technology that gives her access to an old memory-self of Yskander, the former ambassador. The imago integrates Yskander into her neurology, so that he’ll always be in her mind in order to help and advise her. The only problem: the imago hasn’t been updated in years, and both Mahit and Yskander are in the dark as to the current situation within the City, and what happened to current-day Yskander. Only upon landing does Mahit learn what’s happened: Yskander is dead…and with that revelation, her imago goes silent.

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Instruments of Our Own Destruction: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

Vigilance, a new novella by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a love story between America and its guns—and as with all toxic relationships, someone’s going to get hurt.

In a near-future America undergoing a fast, steep decline—a nation where the young have left for safer and brighter ports, while an older generation hangs on by its fingernails to the old vision of what America could be—a right-wing news organization has found the exact thing to prey on their fear. This America, much like our own, is both fascinated by and numb to the horrors of mass shootings: people are still willing to watch the coverage, and not yet sick of it enough to turn away from the brutality. So John McDean, one of the lead marketers for Our Nation’s Truth television network, has turned shootings into a reality TV show: Vigilance.

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Hidden Depths and Dangerous Waters: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Django Wexler is an accomplished fantasy writer, as evidenced by his epic fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns, as well as his middle grade series, The Forbidden Library. Between those two series, he’s shown that he can write complex, complicated characters of all ages while also tackling larger issues woven around weighty themes such as war, family, love, and more. With his newest novel, Ship of Smoke and Steel, Wexler flexes those powerful muscles once more, and ventures forth into the realm of Young Adult fantasy with a world that’s built around brutal magic, flexible morality, complicated feelings, and the difficulties of growing up when all you’ve ever been is a weapon.

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Community, Revolution, and Power: How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin

What started out as the topic of an essay written back in 2013 has now become the rallying cry behind multiple award-winning writer N. K. Jemisin’s first short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month? Following on the heels of her third Hugo win in three years for The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin’s new collection is an encapsulation of her artistic vision, from the start of her career to where she is today.

How Long ’til Black Future Month? illustrates time and again that Jemisin’s skill isn’t limited to novels, nor is it limited to worlds of epic fantasy; her short fiction shows that Jemisin just has talent, and it shines no matter the world.

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Over the Garden Wall is A Sweet, Strange Journey into The Unknown

If you’ve ever seen Over the Garden Wall, chances are you’ve seen it more than once—it’s a show that rewards repeat viewings. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a bit hard to explain—it’s an Emmy award-winning animated miniseries that first aired on the Cartoon Network in November, 2014. It’s weird, and beautiful, and not like anything else you’ve ever seen, and features the voice talents of Elijah Wood and Christopher Lloyd, along with John Cleese, Tim Curry, singer Chris Isaak, and opera singer Samuel Ramey, among others. I recently rewatched it, as I tend to do every November. Here’s why.

Everyone in my family dies in November.

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Old Enemies, Renewed: Barren by Peter V. Brett

The story of the Warded Man may be over, but there is still more narrative to be mined from the world of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series. His latest novella, Barren, finds everyone adjusting in the wake of the Warded Man’s deliverance of the ancient combat wards. Nowhere is that struggle seen more clearly than in Tibbet’s Brook, once home to Arlen Bales, the Warded Man, whose members have since begun to adjust to being able to fight back against the demons that appear at their doors every night.

Set during the final act of the last book of the Demon Cycle, The Core, Barren finds the demon princes organizing for one last push against humanity. With their new line of queens about to hatch and start looking for food, the Brook will be tested like they never have before. Leading us through that test is Selia, often called “Barren,” an elderly matriarch of the Brook who has recently rediscovered love, lust, and youth thanks to the infusion of magic she earns each night through fighting the demons. But with the reemergence of such vitality comes danger, as old enemies gain the same benefits and, seeing an opportunity, work to take Selia’s position as leader—and potentially take her life.

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Likes and Dislikes in a Spoiler Review for Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Stephen Leeds is a man of many personalities. Or it may be more accurate to say persons. See, his mind has a certain ability, borne of mental illness, though not one anyone can quite put their finger on: in order to help him learn, cope with the world, or deal with new an unexpected events, Stephen can create new people in his brain, which he dubs aspects. These aspects help Stephen learn and store new information, but more than that, they’re created to help him get through the world. There’s his psychiatrist, his security expert, his historian and guide, and so many more, designed for different jobs: his survivalist, his photography expert, his forensic analyst, and more.

In Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds there was a lot to enjoy, and there were some things that let me down. Let’s discuss.

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Trauma and Triumph: Myke Cole’s The Queen of Crows

Myke Cole surprised readers last year when the author of primarily military fantasy fiction told the grim but complex story of a young woman named Heloise, living in a world where wizardry would summon devils into the world, and only the tyrannical Order could keep the people of the world safe.

In The Armored Saint, Heloise lives in Lutet with her mother and father, and does her best to obey them, help the town where she can, and spend time with her friend Basina, for whom she harbors a love beyond friendship. But throughout the book, we see time and again the brutality of this world: how the Order cuts down any who oppose them, no matter how small the infraction, and how they force other civilians to aid them in “the knitting,” a fancy name for utter destruction of a town and its citizens who they fear have been touched by wizardry.

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Outside the Lines: Unique Narrative Devices in Fantasy

There’s something appealing about a book that does things a little differently. Maybe it doesn’t break the rules, but bends them? Tries something new? Experiments with narrative? That’s absolutely my jam. I love when writers find new ways, new formats, and new styles to help elevate narration. Tricks of the trade that deliver information, or tell the reader something new, or force them to look at a story in a new way.

Inspired by a bevy of these tricks in Ruin of Kings, coming soon from Jenn Lyons, I thought I’d highlight a few other stories that utilize different devices to burst free from the housing of conventional narrative, and try to teach the reader something in the process.

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A Non-Spoiler Look at Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Brandon Sanderson is well known for his high fantasy work, but he’s also known to stretch his wings and explore other worlds beyond the universe of the Cosmere. He’s got a science fiction epic in Skyward, and a trilogy about rampaging dystopian superheroes in The Reckoners Trilogy. And here, in the brand new novella collection, Legion: the Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, he has the sci-fi-infused noir adventures of Stephen Leeds, also known as Legion, an expert in just about everything. Well, sorry, not him, but the people in his head.

See, Stephen Leeds has a condition, but it’s unlike anything anyone has ever seen. His mind manifests what he calls aspects, complete personalities and people conjured from his brain, each an expert in something he is trying to learn about. Stephen has churned out dozens of these aspects in the last ten years or so—Ivy, his psychiatrist that walks with him and aids him in understanding human behavior; Tobias, the historian who helps him make sense of his surroundings and their impact—thanks to the tutelage of a mysterious woman named Sandra, since fled from his life. And when you have a person who can suddenly be an expert in photography, forensic science, engineering, quantum physics, Hebrew, and more, people want to either study him, or hire him.

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Everyday Magic: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Robert Jackson Bennett, it’s that when you think you know what he’s going to do at any given moment, you’re most likely going to be wrong. You think he’ll go right; he goes left. You think he’s going to climb a fence, and instead he barrels right through. Most often, when he hits a dead end and you suspect this is where you catch him, he grins, steps onto the empty air and begins to walk into the sky.

And in his latest novel, Foundryside, Bennett is firing on all cylinders, taking what at first seems to be something a little standard, a little rote, and infusing exhilarating new life into it through expert writing, complicated and distinct characters, and an intriguing, deadly, wonderful new city called Tevanne, where reality can be shuffled like a deck of cards, provided you can justify it.

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Explore the Other Worlds of Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson may be known for his works of epic fantasy, but they’re certainly not all that he writes. With the release of his Legion omnibus forthcoming, as well as his new science fiction young adult novel, Skyward, due out later this fall, I wanted to highlight those works that exist outside the Cosmere (the name for Sanderson’s inter-connected universe of epic fantasy stories). If you enjoy science fiction, superheroes, strange magic, libraries full of secrets, and multiple personalities, then it’s time to learn about the other side of Sanderson!

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You’ve Won The Battle, Now What? Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A staple of epic fantasy is the interrogation of good versus evil. A “Dark Lord” pursuing their own destructive ends, the civilizations caught in the middle of the war, and the forces of good and light doing their damnedest to push back against the shadow: It’s a tale as old as time, and the constant struggles between good and evil can begin to feel a bit stale and rote as the genre evolves. But with Redemption’s Blade, Adrian Tchaikovsky focuses the narrative not on the battle between good and evil, or on the far flung effects of its occurrence; rather, he starts it about five minutes after the war is over.

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It’s Time to Get Chosening: Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Kill the Farm Boy, the new comedy fantasy from accomplished novelists Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne, is not for the faint of heart—that is, if you find all manner of puns terrifying. For every moment in which other writers would stray from the joke in front of their nose, for every bit of back and forth, for every tantalizing smidgen of wordplay that some writers wouldn’t dive into, Dawson and Hearne plow straight ahead. They don’t so much lean into the crucial comedy of this novel as they do invite it out to dinner, feed it tacos and tequila, and record every bit of banter that results.

Kill the Farm Boy is a smart comedy, not only because it skewers modern tropes with a deft but direct hand, provides twists and turns to what should be a classic quest, or has representation in sorely needed ways, but because Dawson and Hearne know exactly when to dole out the humor amidst all this deconstruction of narrative.

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