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Natalie Zutter

Trusting in Return of The Thief and the Audacity of a Happy Ending

To read Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series is to have your trust tested over and over. Almost twenty-five years ago, Turner first played on ingrained fantasy tropes to trick readers with The Thief—subverting expectations so skillfully that it earned her a dedicated readership. Part of the pleasure of reading subsequent installments has been the act of granting that trust again and again, only to be caught off-guard anew. Each book is its own unique magic trick, the misdirection and narrative sleight of hand delightful rather than demeaning; readers can try to keep up, but Turner, and Eugenides the Thief, are always a step ahead.

But it’s not just about offering up oneself to be fooled. Readers must also understand that they will not always get everything they want. The Queen of Attolia quickly made that clear, with its devastating opening that changed the course of the series. Yet that was a sequel, tasked with expanding its world, while final book Return of The Thief has the far trickier job of wrapping it all up, with two decades’ worth of nostalgia and expectation to fulfill. To experience the ending of The Queen’s Thief is to accept that there is a reason why not everything we hope for comes to pass—starting with Eugenides not returning to narrate the end of his own story—and to trust in that most unlikely of outcomes: a happy ending.

[Major spoilers for Return of The Thief]

9 Complicated Female Narrators Who Will Surprise You

The debate around what it means to call a female character “unlikable” best crystallized in a 2013 interview in which novelist Claire Messud confronted the interviewer’s point about not wanting to be friends with her grim protagonist Nora: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus?”

The women in these nine books aren’t here to make friends. Their ethics are compartmentalized, their relationships transactional. They destroy towns and lives with a twitch of the finger. They grapple with trauma without sugarcoating it. And not only are they compelling, but their existence is a reassurance and a recognition—they are, in the words of the words of Attack Surface’s protagonist Masha Maximow, “the secret, seething, silent majority.”

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What You Need to Know About The Queen’s Thief Series Before Reading Megan Whalen Turner’s Return of The Thief

Megan Whalen Turner could have stopped at The Thief in 1996 and still had an indisputable classic. The novel, which ostensibly seems like a proto-Greek fantasy tale for young readers, is an exercise in sly misdirection: Eugenides the thief tricks both his captors and his readers by playing to various fantasy tropes, only to reveal himself as something else entirely and steal all our hearts. The Thief was a near-perfect standalone novel.

But then, four years later, Turner followed up The Thief with The Queen of Attolia, by laying low her beloved protagonist in the most devastating way.

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The 100 Series Finale Completely Misses the Point of the Show

After seven years (give or take a century) of deciding whether or not to pull the lever on various threats for the sake of protecting those they loved, humanity as represented by The 100 finally faced its own test. Yet for all that the series finale purported to grapple with the show’s themes, its outcome didn’t actually satisfy the moral arguments posed by Clarke Griffin and her fellow juvenile-delinquents-turned-survivors. Nor did it even fulfill season 7’s messy storytelling, opting instead for bringing back some fan favorite characters within the context of humanity’s “Last Test” in a way that rang hollow.

Ultimately, The 1oo’s series finale felt like another television casualty, a series that lost sight of its original, dynamic premise and scrambled to throw together something adequate. It wasn’t quite Game of Thrones-level fumbling, but the final product is just as narratively sloppy.

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Five Times Harrow the Ninth Uses the Language of Fanfiction to Process Grief, and One Time It Doesn’t

Harrow the Ninth is one of the most anticipated SFF sequels in recent memory, weighted as it is with the expectation of living up to the cheeky, bonetastic glory of Gideon the Ninth. After crafting an incredibly complex far-future with necromancy seeping out of its every pore, as seen through the aviator-covered gaze of one Gideon Nav, the second novel swaps protagonists and propels readers into the even gorier, more existential setting of Lyctorhood that not even Gideon and its trials could have prepared you for. How can Tamsyn Muir possibly follow up Gideon the Ninth?

By retelling the story, over and over and over.

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What You Need to Know Before Reading Seth Dickinson’s The Tyrant Baru Cormorant

How do you defeat a seemingly insurmountable empire, that overtakes foreign nations through trade with hooks attached, that swallows up foreigners and remakes them in its own image? You destroy it from the inside out.

This has been the rallying cry for Baru Cormorant, since 2015’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, when a bright young child of an island nation watched the Empire of Masks take over her home of Taranoke (renamed Sousward) and kill one of her fathers. Baru threw herself into her Masquerade studies, internalizing the Incrastic hygienic and eugenic disciplines that would condemn her for her womanhood and her homosexuality, proving her brilliance, with the aim to ascend to the capital of Falcrest and make sure no foreign child ever had to suffer like she did again.

But to unmake the Masquerade, she must make herself into one of its agents, burrow deep as a cancer so as to be blameless. To ascend to Falcrest’s inner circle of cryptarchs, she must step upon hundreds of innocent and beloved bodies. Does Baru Cormorant wear the mask, or does the mask wear her? With the third installment of The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, the Empire of Masks’ greatest threat may well prove to be its greatest triumph—and before Baru’s play as Tyrant, we must remember how she became a Traitor and then a Monster.

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Cursed Is a Paint-by-Numbers Arthurian Prequel That Fails to Enchant

Netflix’s Cursed has a killer premise—what if the Lady of the Lake wielded Excalibur?—that it fails to live up to, not least because its teenage Fey sorceress-turned-warrior Nimue (Katherine Langford) is not actually the Lady of the Lake. Not yet—in fact, the opening title card on the television adaptation of Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler’s graphic novel teases that before the Sword of Power chose a King, it chose a Queen, telling viewers all they need to know: This is a prequel that will seek to set itself apart from the tradition of Arthurian legend (except for where it benefits it to namedrop your fantasy faves) to the point where it should just have been its own original fantasy series. Yet it will eventually give way to the familiar story, so that it won’t matter if a Queen wielded Excalibur first, because it will still end up with its King.

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12 SFF Stories Told From Second-Person Perspective

Writing in second person—forgoing I or she/he/they of other perspectives in favor of that intensely-close, under-your-skin you—can, ironically, be rather alienating. Often it feels too intimate for the reader, or it distracts them from the story unfolding with questions of who is actually telling it. But when a writer commits to telling a story to you, about you, through you, the result can often be masterful—an extra layer of magic surrounding a sci-fi/fantasy/speculative tale and embedding the reader in the protagonist’s journey more intensely than even the most self-reflective first or closest-third could achieve.

Enjoy these dozen SFF tales, ranging from cheeky epistolary novella to intricate manifestations of grief to choose-your-own-adventure Shakespeare, that take on the trickiest perspective and make you (that’s you, the reader) forget you were ever skeptical.

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Lunar Self-Sabotage: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series launched with a single novelette (“The Lady Astronaut of Mars“), and the eponymous Lady Astronaut Elma York has in turn inspired other women to go to space in this punch-card-punk alternate history.

While The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky both traced Elma’s paths from Earth to the Moon and then to Mars, Kowal has expanded the scope of her series by focusing on a new “astronette” for the third installment: ambitious, brilliant senator’s wife and WASP pilot Nicole Wargin, whose adventure on the lunar colony in The Relentless Moon runs parallel to the events of The Fated Sky. In doing so, Kowal reminds readers that humanity has a long way to go to settle the Moon, and that no two Lady Astronauts are alike.

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5 Marvel Fiction Podcasts and Audiobooks to Fill the MCU-Sized Hole in Your Life

While most of the spring and summer’s movie releases fell prey to covid-related rescheduling, the MCU’s reshuffling had an especially frustrating domino effect: Black Widow, the long-awaited Natasha Romanoff standalone film, got moved from May to November—taking over The Eternals’ spot, which displaced Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which pushed back Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which put several extra months between us and Thor: Love and Thunder.

But while the kickoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4 has been delayed by six months, that doesn’t mean there’s a complete dearth of Marvel-related entertainment. In fact, now is arguably the best time to catch up on the five Marvel fiction podcasts and audiobooks that exist via Stitcher and Serial Box.

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8 Questions I Have About a Potential Animorphs Movie

Incredible news: K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series is getting another chance at page-to-screen adaptation. Worrisome caveat: It won’t be a television series, but a movie instead. This may seem like a baffling choice of medium, as the source material is very much set up to be a TV series: fifty-plus books, a few special-edition adventures, and a handful of prequels all released monthly from 1996-2001 spanned five years both in book time and in readers’ lives. Then again, the first try at a TV series fell flat, and there’s clearly a reason why Scholastic and Picturestart decided on a standalone rather than serialized narrative.

It also makes for a challenging thought experiment: How do you condense six Animorphs, a handful of big bads, 60 adventures, and a dozen different arcs into a singular war narrative? What do you have to lose, and where do you find opportunities to tell new stories? How do you keep the spirit of the original so that it’s not just Animorphs in name alone?

Like the Animorphs, you start by being open to change.

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Ashes to Anomalies: Where We’re at After the The 100’s Final Season Premiere

Compared to The 100’s last two season premieres, which jumped forward (respectively) six years and 125 years in time, it’s a little jarring that the premiere of the seventh and final season picks up just one beat after the end of last year’s finale: Sanctum in figurative ruins, its gods either dead or dethroned; Octavia pulled into the anomaly, replaced by an impossibly-aged Hope Diyoza; Clarke still mourning Abby while trying to take care of a Flame-less Madi. As a result, “From the Ashes” feels more like an epilogue than a standalone episode—which makes sense, since we’ve now entered our final 16 episodes, and time is of the essence. But it also means that the action ranges between smaller moments of tying up loose ends and big narrative leaps that hint at where the season is going, even if there’s no way that we can possibly predict the end of The 100.

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The 100 Is a Master Class in Bonkers-But-Epic Worldbuilding

In 2149, on the future-Earth of The 100, mutated gorillas and two-faced deer give Annihilation a run for its money. Middle-aged adults defer to teenagers/twentysomethings in typical dystopian fashion, treating them as prophets or healers or Chosen One leaders. Leather corsets are casual fashion choices. One of the series’ most dramatic deaths was filmed in such an over-the-top fashion, with some overlay/split-screen effect, that I can’t help but laugh every time they reference it in the “previously on” section. Everything about this show is extra AF.

But it’s this commitment to making the biggest possible choices that lets you know that you’re in good hands when it comes to The 100’s worldbuilding. The people who decided it makes perfect sense for the show’s doctor to perform impromptu surgery in a leather harness are the same ones who drop Easter eggs into the opening credits, who hired the best conlanger to create an entire language from scratch that you can actually reasonably learn, who continue to build on the narrative ruins of their own layered storytelling so that every new twist actually makes sense. The 100’s future is ridiculous, but it’s also weirdly familiar, the kind of future that still has recognizable and relatable ties to its past. And that’s all in the worldbuilding.

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The Outlander Season 5 Finale Weighs the Price for Meddling in the Past

All season I’ve been poised, waiting for the consequences for Dr. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser meddling with history to become clear—for some universal punishment visited upon her for trying to impose any modern hindsight upon the past. But the brutal attack that takes place in the Outlander season 5 finale feels much more personal than any laws of timeline continuity: Claire doesn’t suffer because she’s a time traveler, but rather because she’s a woman.

[Spoilers for Outlander 5×12 “Never My Love.” Content warning for discussions of sexual assault.]

10 Long-Running SFF/Horror Fiction Podcasts

So you want to explore the podcast world beyond short-form comfort listens—really immerse yourself in an hours-long fictional narrative that will transport you in the fashion of a doorstopper fantasy or binge-watch thriller. Lucky for you, fiction podcasting is years ahead of your needs, with independent creators crafting science fiction, fantasy, and horror universes in which to set their heartening, action-packed, funny, disturbing, thought-provoking series. In fact, there are so many that it was difficult to narrow down; but we’ve curated a list of 10 audio dramas and actual play D&D podcasts to get you started.

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