Tor.com content by

Natalie Zutter

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4: Does June Want to Be Saved?

It’s been two years since the previous season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale aired, one of many ongoing television series that experienced a longer-than-usual hiatus due to covid. Thankfully, season three ended on such a key turning point in the struggle to explode Gilead from inside—with the delivery of nearly one hundred children to Canada—that the new season could pick things up immediately, without missing a beat. To do this, of course, it needed one of the series’ trademark ironic music cues: Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” as the band of rogue Handmaids carry June, going into shock from a gunshot, through the woods to temporary safety.

If you’re a millennial like me, your first exposure to this song might have been the saccharine opening to My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring an anonymous bride and her bridesmaids; June being ferried away has that same vibe, her struggles to stay lucid backed by Together, together, that’s how it must be / To live without you / Would only mean heartbreak for me. Except… she has chosen, again and again, to be apart from Luke and Moira and now baby Nichole in Canada. Is June doomed to a future of nothing but heartbreak? Will she ever choose her own freedom over Gilead’s end?

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Hugo-Nominated Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a Bardic Fantasy

The 2021 Hugo Award finalists list features a fascinating entry under Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Alongside comic book-inspired romps (Birds of Prey), some loopy time business (Palm SpringsTenet), and treatises on immortality and the afterlife (The Old Guard, Soul) is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Netflix’s Eurovision movie starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as two naïve Icelandic singers with dreams of campy stardom.

It might initially seem like a surprise that Eurovision made it onto the Hugos list, although this underrated comedy does establish itself as fantastical with nothing more than a knife and a door in one of 2020’s best movie moments. Yet even beyond that, The Story of Fire Saga is undeniably a fantasy narrative. After all, who is Fire Saga if not a pair of bards embarking on an epic adventure to discover foreign realms and downright magical new ways of singing?

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SFF Dream Girl Cristin Milioti Is Breaking Out of Her Archetypal Trap

In HBO Max’s Made for Love—in which Cristin Milioti plays a trophy wife escaping her tech husband’s fantasy world—the actress initially seems to be trapped in her own version of the Rachel McAdams time traveler’s girlfriend problem. Of course, typecasting is a common issue irrespective of genre, but its existence in SFF is further complicated by how specific these pigeonholes become: For a seven-year span starting in 2009, McAdams was stuck as the perennial girlfriend/wife of men who could travel through time, while she was rooted in place.

Similarly, since 2013, Milioti has embodied variations on the (usually SFF) dream girl trapped in some idealized box by a toxic man—beginning with her introduction as the Mother on How I Met Your Mother and continuing on into Black Mirror, Palm Springs, and now Made for Love.

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Can The Nevers Evolve Beyond a Whedonesque Bag of Tricks?

The Nevers was to be Joss Whedon’s triumphant return to television, his first original series since 2010’s Dollhouse. In the interim, of course, he made The Avengers and co-created Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, but HBO Max’s new drama about female Victorian superheroes seemed to be a return to form for Whedon after nearly a decade entrenched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But what’s ironic is that The Nevers, rather than being an original new act, feels like someone else playing around in Whedon’s IP: an Orphanage setting reminiscent of the Dollhouse, down to the same overseer in actress Olivia Williams; a grating antagonist spouting Drusilla’s rejected dialogue from Buffy; an unfortunate Firefly Easter egg that shows how little Whedon managed to learn from that series’ appropriative elements.

Despite all that, there may still be something to The Nevers, with its heavy-handed metaphor about superpowered women representing the age of modernity that so terrifies men, if only it has the chance to prove itself. Whedon’s departure during production (with Philippa Goslett replacing him as showrunner and Whedonverse alums Jane Espenson and Doug Petrie carrying on his vision from the pilot) has made this a case of art imitating life: Like its orphaned protagonists, The Nevers has become a real-time experiment in whether a series from a problematic creator can be more than the sum of its parts.

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Leia’s Bounty Hunter Disguise Brings My Favorite Fantasy Trope to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

When I was nine, on a weekly trip to the local Toys R Us, I glimpsed my hero in miniature: Leia Organa, in her Boushh disguise, hanging on the racks alongside the other Star Wars action figures. I hemmed and hawed over whether to ask my parents to buy her before deciding that it didn’t make sense because I already had Leia—that is, the classic Princess Leia action figure, complete with real fabric for her signature white dress. But by the time we were back at Toys R Us the next week, and I had decided I would add this figure to my collection, Boushh had disappeared. Someone else had taken them home. I was bereft; in the early-Internet era of 1998, I couldn’t easily order it online—even eBay was relatively new back then. It would be a decade or more before I would come across another Boushh figure; at the time, I was more and more convinced that I had dreamt that such a toy even existed.

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How Meta Sitcoms and The Truman Show Shape WandaVision’s Stages of Grief

Once WandaVision’s sitcom conceit was established, it seemed likely that Wanda Maximoff’s decade-by-decade tour through the medium would culminate in a meta homage to Modern Family and other modern series in which the studio audience has been replaced by a documentary camera crew. After all, what more obvious format than the self-aware sitcom to show Wanda reaching the realization that all of this was her doing?

Yet WandaVision made sure that this inevitable confrontation was still surprising… because when Wanda started talking to the cameras, they talked back. That is, it was Agatha (all along) behind the lens, weaponizing the meta sitcom format in order to interrogate the younger witch about how Westview came to be. But Agatha’s breaking of the fourth wall isn’t what popped Wanda’s sitcom bubble—the Avenger-turned-TV-archetype undermined herself when she first created this world of reruns in which to grieve the loss of Vision.

Because Wanda never accounted for the presence of an audience.

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7 More Swoon-Worthy Fantasy Romances

The last time I wrote about the swooniest fantasy romances, I said that fantasy romance is like a box of chocolates. And at the risk of sounding like Forrest Gump, it just gets truer with time: While all of these titles are collected in the same place, each has its own flavor and core. You’ve got your historical fantasy bound by slow-burn contracts; your paranormal romance pitting heart against mind and uniting them with desire; your Regency romance and Shakespearean sequels amplified by magic. You can devour a standalone novella whole or nibble at a long-running epic series.

Best of all, this is yet another sampling of a subgenre that grows every month. May you find your heart’s desire in these pages.

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7 SFF Stories That Grew Beyond Their Original Worldbuilding

Authors build elaborate worlds through everything from carefully-chosen foods to amateur map-making to breathtakingly detailed wikis, their attention to detail a signal that these are worlds worthy of getting lost in. Often these are specific moments in the text, or a helpful hand-drawn atlas bookending the epic adventure, or a bonus feature that’s just a click away. But some storytellers go the extra mile, embedding worldbuilding details into their texts as a sort of “found footage”—fictional childhood stories, comic books, or newspaper clippings that appear as excerpts throughout the larger work.

Sometimes, these fictions-within-fictions take on a life of their own and emerge into the real world as self-contained stories in their own right. Crack a book, cross a bridge, hop a spaceship, and check out these eight stories that are wonderfully extra when it comes to worldbuilding, creating children’s stories that can hold up to the classics, spinning off into picture books drawn from your nightmares, or even spawning entirely new book franchises. You know, like you do.

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7 Questions for Disney+’s Adaptation of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief

Before the holidays, fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series got an early present: News that Disney would be developing her 1996 novel The Thief for its Disney+ streaming service. It’s unclear whether it will be a movie or (hopefully) a TV series, only that screenwriter Brian Duffield (Love and MonstersThe Divergent Series: Insurgent) will adapt the novel, and that producer Jim Whitaker (A Wrinkle in TimePete’s Dragon) is attached.

But, as with gifts from the gods in Turner’s beloved fantasy series, this news inspires some critical thought regarding how to handle the first book’s incredible feat of narration-as-withholding, and the series’ increasingly darker tone and content. We’re not refusing this gift from the entertainment powers that be, but we do have some follow-up questions.

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Tenet Feels Like Christopher Nolan at His Most Meta

Early on in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a character known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington) faces the end of his life on a set of train tracks. While his “resurrection” will be brought about by a pair of Russian thugs and a cyanide capsule, Nolan fans can’t help but hear Cobb and Mal from Inception whispering their dark lullaby: You’re waiting for a train. A train that’ll take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you. But you can’t know for sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?

For the Protagonist, a CIA operative, it’s because he’s proven his loyalty enough to be erased from this life and ushered into a secretive cabal known only as Tenet, to prevent a war that hasn’t happened yet. But Nolan’s ambitious yet clunky palindromic spy thriller spends equal amounts of time looking forward as it does retracing steps backwards—including for the writer-director himself, who seems to have turned in his most self-referential film yet.

Minor spoilers for Tenet below.

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6 Comforting SFF Podcasts

Your relationship to podcasts may be different now than it was a year ago. As 2020 draws to a close, you might feel stuck in place—but podcasts are still there to transport you.

If you’re struggling with what to listen to, here’s a short list to get you started: a mix of fiction and nonfiction podcasts, some unmistakably SFF and others a degree separated from the genre yet still connected by your favorite writers and poets lending their voices as well as their words. One was created for this particular moment, while others take on new meaning in our current context. Plug in, close your eyes, and let these SFF creators speak, read, and/or sing to you. We’re in this together.

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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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