Tor.com content by

Martin Cahill

The Great American Alternate Reality Road Trip: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

In the Fall of 2015 at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY, I saw Max Gladstone pick up a silver water pitcher and earnestly answer an audience member of his reading, “So, manifolds. Let’s talk about them.” He then went on to explain this physics term, using the water pitcher as straightforwardly as possible. And the entire room was rapt. You see, Max had just read from a new novel he was working on, a story of America and road trips and magic at the corner of your eye. It was also about friends so close they were family, and alternate realities, and fucking up so badly, your soul ached like a broken bone. At the time, he said he was still a little while off from finishing it, but he promised it would be out someday.

Fast forward to spring 2022 and that story I first heard at a convention center in upstate NY is now Last Exit, the brilliant new novel from Max Gladstone.

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700 Pages of Pure Narrative Magic: Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney

Miscellaneous “Lanie,” Stones is a necromancer, the first one born to the infamous Stones family in ages. But there’s a condition: Lanie has a severe allergy to violence. So terrible is her condition that even the touch or presence of one who’s performed recent harm will cause an allergic reaction. And so, Lanie must be kept from her assassin mother and executioner father. Raised by the revenant Goody Graves, Lanie finds comfort in books and ghosts. As the novel begins, Lanie’s mother, father, and their aunt are dead—possibly murdered—she can’t raise them to ask what happened, and the family’s enormous debt has been called in right away.

And so begins Saint Death’s Daughter, debut novel by the World Fantasy Award-Winning writer, C. S. E. Cooney, truly one of the best books I’ll read this year; a novel about death that has entered my personal Top 10 for, well, life.

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Of Doors and Shadows: Gallant by V.E. Schwab

You could say that V. E. Schwab has been writing about shadows for her entire career. London and its many shadows explored by Lila and Kell in her Shades of Magic series. Victor and Eli from the Villains series, each struggling to escape the shadow cast by the other. Kate and August from the Monsters of Verity series learning how to embrace the darkness of their lives and come to terms with their monstrous halves. Even Addie la Rue wanders through the long, long shadow that falls on her immortal life and those around, running from it even as it lengthens in the light.

Shadows have always fascinated V. E. Schwab and they have never been more present than in Gallant, her newest young adult novel.

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Contemplating Doors in Where I Can’t Follow by Ashley Blooms

Portal fantasies are a tried-and-true staple of the fantasy genre; nothing speaks to the fantastical like a golden doorknob in a tree, a wardrobe that leads to a snowy wood, a rusted key that takes you somewhere new and mysterious—to escape, to journey, to adventure in lands dangerous and beautiful, a space where you can finally see the world you left behind with clear eyes… You can say a lot about our world by leaving it behind.

Ashley Blooms’ brilliant new novel, Where I Can’t Follow, is less about what makes people go to these fantasy worlds, and more about what challenges them to stay in ours?

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Heartfelt Science Fiction: Light Years From Home by Mike Chen

Mike Chen’s refusal to stay in any one genre box has become one of his greatest strengths as a writer; his narratives are nimble and never overly reliant on gimmicks, but he still leans in to the familiar and enjoyable conventions of a given genre. His talent for genre-hopping would be reason enough to read Chen’s work, but that’s not what makes him unique. Whether writing about time travel, the apocalypse, superheroes, or alien invasions, Mike Chen’s work examines, reveals, and ultimately heals a beating human heart. And with Light Years From Home, he’s done it once again.

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Writing the Song of a City: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

In the lead-up to the 2021 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

“I sing the city.”

With one sentence, multiple award-winning writer N. K. Jemisin brought her readers into the fantastical and fractal world of New York City. Well known for her secondary world fantasy, with stories of bound gods, dream priests, and tectonic mothers, in The City We Became Jemisin brings all of her creative might to bear on one of the most magical cities in the world: NYC, baby. Springing forth from a sparkling short story, “The City Born Great,” Jemisin’s tale of Cities and their heroes, the midwives who help Cities reach maturation, and that terrible, cosmic horror that drifts beneath the skin of reality looking to consume newly birthed Cities comments on the joys, the battles, and the horrors of our very own world.

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The Internal Mysteries of Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth

In the lead-up to the 2021 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Gideon the Ninth waltzed up to the doors of reader expectation, planted plastic explosives around the frames while whistling a jaunty tune, and purposefully walked away in slow-motion, aviators glinting, and blew it all to hell. In a year of incredible genre fiction, Gideon the Ninth spread like wildfire, catching and sparking at every reader who picked it up and challenged them to a sword fight with one arm behind their back. Tamsyn Muir’s star ascended at a rocketing pace and the pressure of what Harrow the Ninth would be continued to grow and grow and grow. And upon release, much like Gideon, it wasn’t what anyone was expecting.

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The Thin Line Between Mystery and Horror: Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente’s writing has always kept her readers on their toes. Chimerically shifting mediums between novels and short stories and poetry, effortlessly transmuting and transforming the key ingredients of fables, folklore, myths, and more, gliding between the narrow spaces between genres such that moving from science fiction to modern fantasy to murder-mystery to space opera (literally) can happen between the start and end of a single sentence. Despite back cover copy and listings, despite covers that shine iridescent on shelves and screens, readers have learned that you just don’t know what sort of tale you’re going to get from Valente until you open the front cover. A gentle sense of mystery has been lovingly cultivated from project to project, and it’s part of the joy of being one of her readers.

In her latest publication, Comfort Me With Apples, Valente truly embraces mysteries—not just that of the story she’s telling, but also in the genre she’s playing in and what puzzle box she’s giving to her readers. While this may seem like a domestic mystery from the outside, once you start turning pages, more and more trappings fall away as the true shape of this tale is revealed.

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The Precious Art of Yoon Ha Lee’s The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales

The work of Yoon Ha Lee has always felt incredibly singular. Between his stunning prose, methodical exploration of intricate worlds he’s handing to us bit by bit, concepts that can range from the mind-blowing to the heart-rending, and beautifully sketched, complex characters—any new work I read by Lee always makes me feel incredibly lucky. From novels to short stories, Yoon Ha Lee’s work is a gift. In this latest collection, Lee shapes a beautiful pocket-sized collection of flash fiction fables and folktales, and in artful strokes of prose, conjures worlds of wonder.

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales is slim, only around 100 pages all told, and some of those pages are dedicated to gorgeous illustrations. Black and white, these pieces of art break up the twenty-five stories within, almost like natural pauses for breath and contemplation, a necessity in a volume one could theoretically finish in an afternoon’s span. Because trust me, you don’t want to rush through this collection. Every story within is to be treasured, and if you rush through it, believe me, it won’t be long until you find yourself going back to savor them once more.

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What Makes a Monster? The Complexities of No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Cadwell Turnbull’s second novel No Gods, No Monsters is absolutely worth your time. If you’re at all a fan of science fiction and fantasy, if you’re at all interested in deep characterization and interiority playing out against the fantastical, if you’re into the interplay of how genre can operate in conversation with the real world, if any of that is your bread and butter, then you’re good; you can stop reading this review and go pick up the book. You’re welcome. If you’re still here, let’s do this thing.

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The Cycle of Violence in Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents

Horror has always been a genre that Chuck Wendig can’t ignore. It’s baked into his work, from the gruesome, play-by-play death visions of a one miss Miriam Black (often end-capped with visits from the otherworldly and eldritch Passenger) to the denizens of Hell beneath New York City in The Blue Blazes; the steady, horrifying march into the future of the White Mask plague in Wanderers; the genetically mutated corn of his YA Heartland trilogy… Wendig has always stirred horror thick into the cauldron of his narratives, whether alongside hero’s journeys or family dramas, science fiction or the fantastic.

In his newest doorstopper novel, The Book of Accidents, Wendig finally lets loose, crafting an exquisite, complex, chilling, and gripping horror story with equal amounts of heart and humor. Not that there aren’t flashes of other elements here, some massive in scope, others more domestic, but Wendig has channeled his horror impulses into a rich vein that strikes at the reader as a swift as a pickaxe to the heart.

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Finding Hope in Garbagetown: The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Ah, the Fuckwit world! So modern, so dead. Gone too soon, and all that’s left is blue. Which is just fine by Tetley Abednego, thank you very much. See, the world she lives in, the one left behind after the Fuckwits fucked off and died, it’s absolutely beautiful. Garbage as far as the eye can see and all of it wonderful. Garbagetown is a massive patch of floating garbage in the sea, going from place to place, while beneath it the old world sleeps, lost in rising waters and a whole lot of complaining. The people in Garbagetown complain too, but Tetley doesn’t know why. Everything is perfect, even when it isn’t.

In Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past Is Red, Tetley is our bubbly guide to the world left over from the apocalypse, our cheery, goodhearted narrator who can only see the silver linings of the grey skies of Garbagetown and never met a lily she couldn’t gild. In her unique, engaging voice, Valente brings us into a future that is blue, describes the red world that came before it, and ultimately, tries to give us a little bittersweet satisfaction, since hope might be a little scarce.

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Life at the End of the World: The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

If you had evidence the world was ending and no one else believed you, what would you do? And even when evidence rears its terrible head, when everyone else catches up to you, what do you do with the time that’s left to you? Such are the big questions looming through Levien’s incredible debut novel, The World Gives Way, in which a generation ship that is the world that is a ship has begun to die.

It is very clearly stated early on that this is not something that can be fixed. There is a breach in the hull. The people onboard will not make it to their new home. Everyone will die. And as we begin, only Myrra, a contract worker embittered by the horrible life she inherited from her ancestors, is the only person that knows it’s coming. Across the city, an investigator named Tobias, himself toiling under a shadow from his past, searches for her. As the two of them spiral ever closer, the world around them crumbles, and indeed, begins to give way. To what, lies at the heart of the novel.

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Gifts From the Gods in The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

If you took the godly and human affairs of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, paired them like a fine wine with the intricate and complex magical mechanics of Brandon Sanderson, and made the main course a Hannibal-esque murder mystery in a well-realized, complex city on the edge of a China Miéville-esque disaster, you would get The Helm of Midnight. The newest novel from author Marina Lotstetter is the first in her new Five Penalties series. Rich with lore and worldbuilding, Lotstetter lets her epic fantasy flag fly in this engrossing, engaging, and dark story of sisters, trauma, magic, and murder.

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