content by

Natalie Zutter

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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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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