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Vanessa Armstrong

A Whimsical Fable About the End of Humanity: The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell

Nick McDonell’s The Council of Animals starts—like many SFF books do—after an apocalypse. Unlike many SFF books, however, the struggle of what to do after a civilization-killing event doesn’t center around humans; it’s the animals who are the main characters of this after the end of the world fable.

In McDonell’s 208-page tale, all animals except humans can speak a universal language called grak. The animals also hold Councils from time to time to vote on major decisions that impact the Animal Kingdom. The story—told by an unknown narrator (until the very end)—starts at one of those Councils. After a human-caused disaster called The Calamity, representatives from a handful of species congregate to decide whether or not they should kill off the few dozen humans who are still alive.

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Love, War, and Time Travel: The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

Any high-level categorization of a book inevitably fails to fully capture the complete essence of a story. And then there are books like The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley, where even assigning several labels to the tale still doesn’t do the story justice.

The Kingdoms contains multitudes: it is a love story, a seafaring war novel, a time-travel mystery, an alternative history tale, and more. And while each description in the previous sentence is accurate, each description fails to capture all that the book encompasses.

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Grimdark Fantasy With Heart: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

There are books that have voice and then there is Kinch Na Shannack, the narrator in Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief. Kinch has a lot of voice—you can easily picture him in a tavern somewhere relaying his tale to a group of pleasantly soused patrons.

What does his tale entail? Kinch, a blacktongued thief indebted to the Taker’s Guild, starts his story when he and a group of fellow thieves try to rob the wrong Ispanthian warrior. The story moves on from there, with the Guild strongly encouraging Kinch to travel with the same warrior as she goes off to Oustrim, a good eight-week journey away by land.

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Changing While Standing Still: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Contemporary life is a busy thing, full of demands and schedules and deadlines and destinations. The same holds true in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer universe, where a cadre of sapient species are part of an intergalactic civilization called the Galactic Commons (GC, for short) with its own rules, expectations, and inequities.

It’s natural for those in the GC—just like it’s natural for us humans on Earth—to get lost in the day-to-day of one’s own life and the immediate stressors and concerns that go with it. And it’s equally jarring—as the year that was 2020 has shown all of us—when the routine and freedoms we took for granted get upended.

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The Shape of War in R.F. Kuang’s The Burning God

We start The Burning God, the last book in R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, at the beginning of a battle. It’s an appropriate start for a trilogy rife with war. And though the sides have changed—Rin is now the head of the Southern Coalition after she was imprisoned by the Republic she once fought for—the brutal nature of warfare remains the same.

This unrelenting toll of battle, like in the two books before it, remains an overarching theme in The Burning God. In war, those with power commit horrific acts, justifying it as a necessary evil to achieve their ultimate aims. Both sides are often corrupted in this way, and Kuang makes sure to remind us that our protagonist, Rin, is no exception.

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Stories Within Stories: Exploring The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo

Sometimes there are books within books. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical sense—the worldbuilding in some novels includes the creation of a physical tome that plays a part in the overall story. This Russian doll of the publishing world usually remains only on the page of the original book. Sometimes, however, the book within a book gets its own real-life publication.

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Superheroes and Spreadsheets in Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Pop culture and superheroes go hand-in-hand. There’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course, and so many reboots and reincarnations of Batman over the years that I’m daunted by the task of counting them all. Hench’s main character, Anna, however, would likely know the number–she’s a spreadsheet aficionado who lives in a world much like ours except that superheroes and supervillains are real, an almost mundane addition to everyday life.

Superheroes and supervillains, however, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be in Anna’s world. And in this vein, Natalie Zina Walschots’ Hench is similar to the comic book series and recent television adaptation of The Boys, where a corporate conglomeration uses superpowered people as (among other things) a product to sell to the masses.

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Five SFF Books With Dogs (and Dog-Adjacent Beings) as Key Characters

People love pups, so it’s not surprising when humankind’s best friend shows up in the stories we write, even if those stories take place in some fantastical realm or on an alien planet thousands of years in the future.

Oftentimes these dogs (or wolves, or other dog-adjacent species) play the sidekick or the supportive friend to a human character, such as the direwolves in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Other times, however, a canine character can be the antagonist of the story, such as in Stephen King’s Cujo. And still other times, most often in middle grade books but not always, there’s a dog who speaks like a human and has adventures of their own.

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A Post-Apocalyptic Story With Thrills of All Kinds: Kit Rocha’s Deal With the Devil

Like some hot n’ sexy times thrown into your fast-paced sci-fi dystopian thriller? If so, Deal With the Devil was made just for you. The book—the first in a series by Kit Rocha, the pseudonym for the New York Times best-selling erotic romance writing duo Donna Herren and Bree Bridges—not only paints a dark, corporate-controlled future, but also gives you hot, smoking characters that you come to care about.

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Hugo Spotlight: The Brutal Beauty of Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series is no stranger to the Hugos—the first three novellas have all been finalists in previous years, with the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, winning the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella.

The books are Hugo finalists for a simple reason—they’re very, very good. And the fourth installment, In an Absent Dream, is no exception. The series, which focuses on kids who have found magical doors to their perfect, fantastical worlds but then find themselves thrust back into our mundane reality, has rightfully captured the hearts of many an SFF reader.

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History and Magic Combine in A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is an epic historical fantasy, a magic-imbued retelling of the political and social turmoil that took place in late 18th-century Europe as well as the French colony Saint Domingue (currently the sovereign state of Haiti). Those who know their history will recognize that this is the time of the French Revolution (AKA the Reign of Terror) as well as the Haitian Revolution, a slave uprising that created an independent Haiti, a state free of slavery and led by the land’s former captives.

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What Kind of Knights Radiant Would You Be? A Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere

In times such as these, it can be helpful to look forward to things, such as the November release of Rhythm of War, the fourth book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. November is still many months away, however, and many of us need a distraction NOW.

But just because we can’t read Rhythm of War yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t revisit the world of Roshar in other ways. For starters, you can reread the previous books. That’s probably the best thing to do, if I’m being honest. But if you’re looking for something a bit shorter and sillier to do, read on to figure out what Order of Knights Radiant you’d be if you found yourself making a spren friend on Roshar.

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The End of Everything Brings New Beginnings in John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox

Things are stressful right now! Very uncertain and stressful! One thing that’s neither uncertain nor stressful, however, (or at least not in a bad way) is John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. The first two books—The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire—have been out for awhile, and one thing to look forward to during this global pandemic is the release of the third and final book of the series, The Last Emperox.

Before we get into the review of The Last Emperox, however, let’s have a quick refresher on where we left things in The Consuming Fire (you can also read a more detailed, spoiler-full review of that book here).

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Getting Ready for John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox: A Refresher on the Mercantile Houses of the Interdependency

With The Last Emperox arriving next week, it’s time to jump back into the universe of the Interdependency. John Scalzi’s space opera is a series where an ancient, little-understood space-time highway called the Flow has begun to deteriorate, leaving the different settlements of the Interdependency cut off from one another and, for the most part, unable to survive on their own.

Scalzi has created a rich cast of characters for us to follow during this tumultuous time. Most of them are part of the 1%—rich and powerful members of the mercantile families who oversee all trade and commerce in the system. As we gear up for The Last Emerpox release, let’s revisit those Houses and the characters who are members of them.

[Warning! Spoilers galore for the series so far.]

Stage Magic and Shapeshifting in the Gilded Age: The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer

Muggle magic is a big part of my life—my husband is a professional magician, after all. So whenever I see a book out there that has a character skilled in sleight-of-hand, my eyebrows perk up. And when I come across a book that combines the wonders of prestidigitation with historical fantasy, my eyebrows just about fly off my face. Caroline Stevermer’s The Glass Magician is just such a book; in it, we follow Thalia Cutler, a stage magician (based on the real-life stage performer Dell O’Dell) who performs across the United States during the turn of the 19th century.

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