The Secret Commonwealth begins twenty years after the events of La Belle Sauvage and eight years or so after Lyra’s grand adventures in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra is a student now, dedicated to her studies and happy among her friends. Her chief source of trouble is a falling-out with her daemon, Pantalaimon, who has never entirely forgiven her for separating from him at the edge of the world of the dead. And she is no longer able to lie with impunity; “now,” she thinks to herself at one point, “she just lacked inventiveness, or energy, or chutzpah.”
Fiction and Excerpts 
Shelley Jackson has long been one of gothic fabulism’s most delightful and ambitious Renaissance persons. Her 1995 hypertext Patchwork Girl is a reimagining of Frankenstein by way of L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a labyrinthine and nonlinear rabbit-hole collage of quotations, allusions, and anatomical diagrams. In 2003 she began the novella Skin, published entirely as one-word tattoos on the bodies of several thousand volunteers; her ongoing novella project is written in snow. She is a visual artist who’s illustrated the covers and interiors of Kelly Link’s short story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners as well as her own children’s books. And her most conventional (in form, anyway) novel to date, Half-Life, is the story of conjoined twins Nora and Blanche, one of whom is on a murderous quest to take back the first-person singular pronoun.
Riddance is Jackson’s first novel in twelve years, and it’s as noisy, category-defying, and fantastically weird a book as a longtime Jackson fan might hope for.
1. how does any story work
Wood, snow, blood: old stories. The witch in the forest, the breadcrumb trail, the grandmother-skinned wolf—everybody’s here, in this wild little book, breath steaming humid in the cold air. The taiga is the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of the high northern latitudes. A person has gone there with her lover to become lost. Or perhaps she has gone there to find something else.
Our narrator is a writer, a failure, and a detective. She is hired by a man whose Adam’s apple she cannot fail to notice to find a woman who loves someone other than him, or who has run away to the taiga with someone other than him, which, to him, is the same thing, but may not be the same thing to us. The circumstances of her own disappearance may not be of interest to the disappeared. She is the protagonist of a different story than the one the man seeking her has told.
“It is productive to think about utopia as flux, a temporal disorganization, as a moment when the here and the now is transcended by a then and a there that could be and indeed should be,” writes the late, much-missed queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz in his 2009 survival manual Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Queer time, Muñoz suggests, is a strategy for demanding queer possibilities from straight retellings of the past in order to bridge the gap between the material conditions of the present and the longing for a radically utopian future. And if ever a novel has succeeded in explicitly making flesh the possibilities of queer futurity, Confessions of the Fox is that book.
Julia Whicker’s debut novel, Wonderblood, is set 500 years from now in a barren, disease-ravaged United States that bears more resemblance to Europe of the Middle Ages than a far-flung future. A mad cow-like disease, Bent Head, has decimated the population; the survivors rove about in bloodthirsty traveling carnivals, beheading one another unrestrainedly and, in a delightful bit of invention, worshiping departed NASA space shuttles and awaiting their return. As the novel opens, mysterious comet-like lights burn across the sky and the sinister, charismatic Mr. Capulatio, whose carnival sets the bar high for decapitation and mayhem, gathers an army and steals himself a (second) bride.
In this world religion and magic have displaced science, astrology supersedes astronomy, and the feudal king—descended from astronauts—rules from a palace built over the wreckage of Cape Canaveral. The citizenry collects and preserves the heads of their enemies—and friends—for magical purposes; medicine is forbidden; human sacrifice is de rigueur (“Wonderblood” refers to a religious doctrine in which only human blood can contain the spread of disease); nobody takes baths.
“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories,” Jo Walton notes in the oddball introduction to her first full-length collection, Starlings. And indeed, while Starlings is a collection, calling it a short-story collection is something of a misnomer: the book is instead a jumble-sale assemblage of jokes, opening chapters to unwritten novels, poetry, point-of-view exercises, and speculative fictions interspersed with Walton’s commentaries on her own work—which are as likely to be complaints about permanently delayed payments as they are insights into her work.
Twenty-two years after the publication of his extraordinary novel The Golden Compass, a passport into an intoxicating universe of infinite marvels, Philip Pullman has returned to the parallel world he created with the first installment in a new trilogy.
La Belle Sauvage opens a decade or so prior to the events of The Golden Compass. Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of an innkeeper, is an inquisitive, intelligent, and resourceful boy who spends his time helping out his parents, picking fights with Alice Polstrow, a cranky teenage girl who works at the inn, and loitering about at the Priory of Godstow, where the tolerant and kindly nuns give him free rein. His quiet life is abruptly upended by a series of events, beginning with his discovery of a mysterious message from Oakley Street, a secret society working in opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Church, which is tightening its hold on the government.
Like most people who grow up to be writers, I was a pretty weird kid. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you to learn that I was not a popular child; I spent the majority of my elementary-school recesses looking for dragons in the woods alone. I dressed as Raistlin three Halloweens in a row. I was certain that magic slumbered within me—not sleight of hand, but the real weather-altering enemy-smiting fireball-hurling stuff—waiting patiently for me to find the key to unlocking it. Other children were not kind to me, so I kept reading. There’s not a single doorstop-sized fantasy epic published between The Sword of Shannara and Sunrunner’s Fire that I haven’t read at least once (when I realized, belatedly, that this predilection was not endearing me to my peers, I took to disguising the telltale sword-and-naked-lady covers of my preferred reading material with a reusable cloth book cover; this concession, however, did not make me popular).
Tad Williams’ first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, was published in 1985. It follows the adventures of Fritti Tailchaser, a young feral cat whose love interest, Hushpad, disappears suddenly and mysteriously. Fritti’s search for his beloved takes him through multiple cats’ societies, a magnificently creepy underground city ruled by a diabolically Rabelaisian cat-god whose throne is a mountain of dying animals, legendary cat heroes in disguise, a kingdom of squirrels, and a complex and extensive cats’ mythology complete with creation stories and a family of cat deities. I read it so many times as a kid that my copy’s covers literally fell off. I can still quote parts of it from memory. When Williams’ next book came out in 1989, I was more than ready. I was obsessed.
The Dragonbone Chair isn’t about cats, but it’s so marvelously complex and vivid that my ten-year-old self was willing to overlook this flaw.
The first thing you should know about Nicky Drayden’s wildly imagined debut is that it’s really, really fun. You’ll bounce from tormented more-than-besties Muzi and Elkin’s first sexual experience (under the influence of a hallucinogen that unlocks their inner dolphin and crab selves, obvs) to a demigoddess moonlighting as a nail tech who plans to destroy the human race to a robot uprising to a young lady who is More Than She Seems to a global superstar and impossible diva whose friendly neighborhood drug dealer is the only person who knows her Dark Secret to an aspiring government official with a very overbearing mother and a secret life as a charismatic transgender pop star. And that’s just the first few chapters.
Spinning between the perspectives of multiple main characters, the seemingly divergent storylines of The Prey of Gods soon begin to intersect in—spoiler alert—unexpected and often delightful ways.
“Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” is about a lonely young woman, recently moved to the big city, who is looking for love. What she finds is a friend and confidante who is much older and wiser than she.
I’ve long been a fan of speculative fiction writer Kat Howard’s lyrical fairytale mashups, whether it’s her stunning collaborative work (as in The End of the Sentence with Maria Dahvana Headley, a gleeful and gory Western by way of Old Norse myth) or her beautiful short fiction (Howard’s numerous accolades include multiple year’s best and best-of anthologies and a World Fantasy Award nomination). (I’m such a fan, in fact, that I published one of Howard’s stories myself.)
Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, releases this month, and it has all of her distinctive hallmarks: gorgeous prose, riveting storytelling, sources that range from Scottish ballads to Shakespeare, a hellish dilemma, and, at its heart, a heroine who’s learning hard lessons about art, sacrifice, and love. When I finished it I turned back to the first page and read it again. Howard was gracious enough to sit down for a conversation on myth, magic, and monsters.
Eighteen-year-old Tally is absolutely sure of everything: her genius, the love of her adoptive family, the loyalty of her best friend, Shane, and her future career as a Nobel prize-winning astronomer. There’s no room in her tidy world for heartbreak or uncertainty—or the charismatic, troubled mother who abandoned her soon after she was born.
But when a sudden discovery upends her fiercely ordered world, Tally sets out on an unexpected quest to seek out the reclusive musician who may hold the key to her past—and instead finds Maddy, an enigmatic and beautiful girl who will unlock the door to her future. The deeper she falls in love with Maddy, the more Tally begins to realize that the universe is bigger—and more complicated—than she ever imagined. Can Tally face the truth about her family—and find her way home in time to save herself from its consequences?
About a Girl—available July 14th from St. Martin’s Press—is the powerful and entrancing conclusion to Sarah McCarry’s Metamorphoses trilogy.
Critical darling Nova Ren Suma is already well-known for her gorgeous, genre-hopping, and distinctly sinister body of work. We talked about memory, ghosts, and unreliable and monstrous girls in advance of the March 23rd publication of her newest novel, The Walls Around Us, which is already garnering rave reviews.
I have long maintained that there are only two kinds of readers: those who are obsessed with Kelly Link’s work, and those who have yet to discover it. If you number among that pathetically bereft latter category, you can console yourself with the thought that the delights that lie in store for you are, quite literally, unimaginable, because there is no possible way any ordinary person can imagine something as rare and strange as a Kelly Link story.
Beloved by her peers and treasured by her readers, Link’s stories serve as portals into worlds both familiar and dazzlingly bizarre, and her latest collection—her first in six years, and her first for adults in nearly a decade—is, if anything, even more assured and wise and fantastically weird than her previous books. Her characters here are, many of them, older and sadder and a little more cynical than in her previous books, but they have lost none of the wicked charm and sleight-of-hand that mark them distinctly as hers.
Not much is known about Apollonios Rhodios (Apollonios of Rhodes); a poet and scholar who lived in Alexandria in the third century BCE, he likely served as the royally appointed head of the Alexandrian Library. Though he produced at least one other significant piece, only one of his poetical works, the Argonautika, has survived more or less intact as a manuscript copied and recopied for hundreds of years by hand. While clearly influenced by Homer, Apollonios also retains his own distinctive voice, and the Argonautika is a vivid, gorgeous tapestry of bad deeds, bad dudes, and one very special teenage girl.
Poet Aaron Poochigian’s recent verse translation (titled Jason and the Argonauts) for Penguin is an accessible, nimble, and often beautiful edition of Apollonios Rhodios’s epic; his footnotes are thorough but useful and concise, and his approach is respectful to the text but not reverent (he describes Rhodios’s voice as “endearing” as well as elastic, which it often is).
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