Tor.com content by

Martin Cahill

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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Arkady Martine Examines the Costs of Empire in A Desolation Called Peace

In Arkady Martine’s Hugo Award-winning debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, ambassador Mahit Dzmare investigated the mystery of her missing predecessor, becoming embroiled in several national conflicts within the Teixcalaan empire.

As the sequel A Desolation Called Peace begins, Mahit doesn’t know if she’s made the right choices…

[Spoilers follow for A Memory Called Empire]

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Heroics and Heart in We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen

In San Delgado, the public eye has focused on two super-powered individuals, each making a name for themselves with feats of daring-dos and don’ts. The Mind Robber, infamous for his ability to erase memories, has been on a spree of bank robberies. Throwing Star, with her super speed, strength, infrared vision, and durability, has been on his trail.

But out of the spotlight, Mind Robber and Throwing Star are both amnesiacs who woke up one day two years ago with powers and no idea of who they are. Jamie Sorenson is only robbing banks so he can take his cat, Normal, and find an island to get away to for good. Zoe Wong is hunting him in between day drinking and fast-food delivery, her sense of purpose and self-worth eroding day by day. When these two powered people run across each other in a help group for people with memory and cognitive issues, Mike Chen’s excellent third novel, We Could Be Heroes, really kicks into gear.

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Necromancy, Revenge, and a Little Bit of Love in The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C. M. Waggoner

Dellaria Wells has a problem. Well, a few problems. Okay, a lot of problems. Living in the bad end of Leiscourt, she’s a down on her luck fire witch with little schooling under her belt, and a lot of money problems. When she catches wind that one of the noble houses is looking for witches to protect a young lady before her marriage, Delly is all in. Unfortunately, that’s when the real problems start. A simple protection mission soon evolves into an adventure with necromancy, murder, revenge, becoming involved in and then dismantling the local drug trade, a little bit of love, a whole lot of swearing, and an undead mouse named Buttons.

It was a joy to return to the world of C. M. Waggoner, whose first novel Unnatural Magic, I absolutely loved. And though we’ve left behind the characters of the first novel for the most part, there are some delicious details here and there for astute readers. Where Waggoner’s first novel was a little more standard in terms of epic trappings (mythical beings, a robust magic system and those within it, imperial and royal characters), The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is very much concerned with those who live in the shadow of the powerful.

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High Stakes and Tough Choices in Siege of Rage and Ruin by Django Wexler

In the final installment of the Wells of Sorcery series, author Django Wexler has brought both of his characters together for a climactic story of injustice, oppression, power, and leadership.

From page one of Siege of Rage and Ruin, Wexler sets us up for an explosive reunion as sisters Isoka and Tori, separated by miles of ocean for two books, but united in blood and righteousness, must reckon with each other and figure out a way forward before Naga takes them and everything they love to the grave.

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Surviving a Hell of a Year With Hades

Hades was going to be a beloved game no matter when it was released. The game has rich, complex, and deep characters with a charming, queer hero at the center of the story, where building relationships with those around him is just as important as knowing what weapons to use. There is gorgeous artwork and voicework of gods, monsters, and men, quenching those thirsty legions of the internet and pulling players deeper into the story, and lore that encourages replay again and again, revealing more as you make your way up through the layers of Hell. All of this and more would make Hades a fan-favorite, and already, it sits with the top games I’ve ever played.

But the more I think about it, the more I’ve realized: Hades has become such a wild success because in so many ways, it has functioned as a template about not just how to survive 2020, but how to thrive in what many would consider a truly hellish year.

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Art and Automata in Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

All Jebi wants to do is keep their head down and paint. That’s it. But navigating under the oppressive thumb of the Razanei who occupied the country of Hwaguk when they were a child, who took their sister’s wife from her in the ensuing war, who make it nearly impossible for a native Hwagukan to make a living… it takes a toll on a person. Even after buying a Razanei name to try to get a better job, Jebi is running out of options. Life doesn’t get any easier when they’re blackmailed into working for the Ministry of Armor, Razanei’s research division for the military. See, they need artists to create new automata, those faceless forces of policing set up wherever the Razanei conquer. And their latest project is so dangerous that Jebi realizes they’ll have to step up or let their country burn.

Phoenix Extravagant, the latest novel from the visionary Yoon Ha Lee, is a standalone novel with worlds of detail, depth, and heart, as one non-binary artist must do their best to use the skills they have to save what they can.

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To Create Is To Live Forever: Jo Walton’s Or What You Will

Sylvia is a writer nearing the end of her life. Widowed with two daughters whom she loves but is distant with, with over thirty novels written to her name, and with one last book in her, she is making peace with her death, the end of it all. Only there’s someone in her life who won’t let her go; a character in her mind, who has been in nearly every story she’s written, a nameless man who has been with her almost every step of the way. And if she dies without putting him in a book for real, then he will die along with her, trapped in her skull. Thus begins Jo Walton’s Or What You Will, a book about books, about art, about writing and creation, and how in the act of creating, we work towards immortality.

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Of Makers, Magic, and Monsters: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Last we left the crew of Foundryside, in the titular first book of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders Trilogy, they had just succeeded in pulling off the impossible, saving Tevanne from a brutal plot of attempted godhood, even as they lost a friend along the way. Now, three years later, their own scriving house exists as an open source for any scriver who would seek to grow, learn, and compete in the marketplace against the looming Merchant Houses, provided they leave anything new they make with the crew at Foundryside to disperse to others.

But as scriv-sighted Sancia, brilliant engineer Berenice, irascible but talented leader Orso, and the powerhouse Gregor, still struggling with memory and violence, find their feet under them for the first time since book one, the mysterious Valeria reaches out once more: her Maker, the hierophant Crasedes Magnus, long thought dead, is close to convincing reality he is alive once more. And he seeks to do more than come back to life: he has plans for all of humanity, and it starts in Tevanne, just shy of Shorefall, the holiday of true night everlasting.

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