Tor.com content by

Natalie Zutter

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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Serial Box Releases Pandemic-Inspired Collection of SFF Stories: How We Live Now

One of the debates currently taking place over various creative spheres of social media is when it’s appropriate to write stories about coronavirus—now, in the middle of it, or once we’re through it? While both sides—allowing writers and readers the necessary space to either process the pandemic or compartmentalize for their emotional well-being—are valid, Serial Box’s new short fiction collection proves that it is possible to craft engrossing fiction in this time of crisis. How We Live Now invites ten authors—Madeline Ashby, Steven Barnes, L.X. Beckett, Tananarive Due, Brian Keene, Usman T. Malik, Sunny Moraine, Malka Older, Kelly Robson, and Catherynne M. Valente—to document their feelings from the first few weeks of the coronavirus crisis through the lens of sci-fi and speculative fiction. That means quarantine and self-isolation, yes, but also zombie rats and government-mandated Blooms and sex robots.

What’s most compelling about this collection is that each story is, as Valente put it, “a snapshot of a moment.” They are individualized, highly personal responses that nonetheless manage to fulfill the aim of all great SF and spec-fic: to look ahead to possible futures (many surprisingly hopeful, all things considered) while still commenting on the present.

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Station Eleven, Mr. Burns, and (Re)telling Stories to Survive

There seem to be two types of people, a friend observed to me this week: Those who have absolutely no interest in pandemic narratives at this particular point in history, and those who are strangely soothed by reading about how fictional characters respond to a world paused, and then halted, by a hypothetical disease that suddenly seems very familiar. Despite being in the latter camp, it’s not as if I take any grim satisfaction in how the early days of the Georgia Flu in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven eerily mirror some of our current supermarket-sweeping, social-distancing status quo. Nor do I long to inhabit the post-electric world of Anne Washburn’s incredible play Mr. Burns.

Even Mandel herself has joked that people might want to wait a few months before actually reading Station Eleven, emphasizing the book’s hopeful future over our bleak present. But I would argue that now is the exact right time to get to know both the novel’s Traveling Symphony—who bring Shakespeare and classical music through post-apocalyptic towns—and Mr. Burns’ nameless theater troupe, who filter The Simpsons through oral tradition and eventually transform it into choral mythology. It’s not the pandemic that is central to either work, but rather how both tackle the aftermath. That is, the stories that the survivors tell one another in worlds that need to be lit by something other than electricity. So, what can these works tell us, as we struggle to adapt to our current crisis, about the importance of connection, memory, art, and storytelling?

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6 Comfort-Listen Podcasts to Transport You Beyond Your Living Room

Your relationship to podcasts is probably changing right now. Maybe you’re used to commuting via subway with earbuds crammed in your ears, or with your favorite voices spilling through the car radio, and now you have nowhere to be. Perhaps podcasts were a treat for household chores that now feel paralyzing. But although right now you might feel stuck in place, podcasts are still there to transport you.

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Bad Birthdays and Tragic Hugs: Checking in With Outlander

Can we all agree that this was the worst birthday ever for James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser? You can’t help but wonder if the universe has something against him for reaching 50, as Outlander season 5’s midseason episode is all about the constant bargaining of life in times of war. In the space of an hour, “The Ballad of Roger Mac” delivered the loss of a beloved character, an old favorite figuratively coming back from the dead, and one man’s fate hanging in the balance.

We were going to wait to tackle the midseason review until after “Famous Last Words” resolves that hell of a cliffhanger, but seeing as Outlander is taking a brief break before then, we thought it appropriate to give this episode the proper discussion it deserves.

[Read more]

Twelve 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.

[Read more]

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