A Tale as Old as Time: 8 Retellings of Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast is one of a strange species of tale whose retellings have eclipsed the original.

Published in 1740, the original La Belle et la Bête was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, a woman who presided over a salon in the reign of Louis XV, at the height of the Enlightenment. She had a fairly colorful history: after being widowed young by a spendthrift aristocrat, she moved to Paris and became involved with a famous and important playwright, whom she lived with until her death. Her version of the story is novel-length, and includes interlacing plots and long histories of Beauty, Beast, and other characters, including Beauty’s father and the fairy who originally cursed the Beast. This version of the story is decidedly for adults, with a fair amount of naturalistic detail, despite the fantasy elements.

Just a year after Villeneuve’s death in 1756, the first retelling was published, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Beaumont trimmed the story considerably, stripping out the backstories for Beauty, Beast, and their families, truncating the action, and slimming down the cast. Thus, Villeneuve’s novel for adults was transmuted into a fairy tale for children. The naturalistic elements were downplayed or excised, and the fantasy elements and folkloric motifs emphasized. Beaumont’s work is didactic, with a moral and a message for young girls. Beaumont never credited Villeneuve, and since then has often been mistakenly sourced as the original writer. Many of the earliest retellings, like the English language version of Beaumont’s retelling in folklorist Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, hew to Beaumont’s fairy tale style.

As time went on, writers began complicating the tale once again, building new backstories for the Beast and Beauty, rewriting their families, his curse, or the underlying motivations. Or they stripped the story down further: reordering the world, telling the story without the father’s theft, or without the beast’s curse, or with other characters peopling the beast character’s habitation. Though Beauty and the Beast isn’t a folk tale in the strictest sense—it is not a story that comes out of an oral tradition with no clear progenitor—its centuries retellings and reinventions are the closest thing we have to a literary equivalent.

Here are 8 notable retellings of Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, by Robin McKinley
Beauty is the first retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley; you’ll encounter another one down-list. This version centers on Beauty and her loving family. Both the Villeneuve and Beaumont’s takes present Beauty’s sisters as vain, mean-spirited girls, but McKinley builds her Beauty’s kindness out of ironclad familial relationships. Beauty is no Cinderella—who is just inanely good—but someone who understands the work of compassion. We don’t even meet the Beast until halfway through the book, and while the romance and transformation feel a little rushed, Beauty’s character is so well detailed that her love and understanding feel natural and right.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, includes two versions of Beauty and the Beast: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride.” The first is in the vein of Beaumont’s version, but stripped down further. Its ending is bright and Romantic, an act of happy wish-fulfillment. “The Tiger’s Bride” is a counterpoint to the traditional telling, one that inverts a central metaphor in a way that makes my hair stand on end. Carter was a master of the perverse twist, and “The Tiger’s Bride” showcases that gift. The call and response Carter sets up is expertly done, and in her indomitable prose.

The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey
The action of The Fire Rose occurs largely in California, on the eve of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Its Beauty is a woman named Rose Hawkins, who is both grieving from her beloved father’s death, and a medieval scholar. She’s hired to act as governess to robber baron Jason Cameron’s children. After traveling from Chicago to California, she learns that he has no children, and is instead inflicted by a spell gone wrong, one that has left him half transformed between wolf and man. Like Villeneuve’s tale, The Fire Rose is situated in a specific place and time. The naturalistic details of the biographies of both its Beauty and its Beast are in counterpoint to the magic of the story. The Fire Rose tells both a secret history for events at the turn of the 20th Century, and a tight interpersonal tale.

Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley
Twenty years after her first novel, explored the Beauty and the Beast story, Robin McKinley returned to the subject in Rose Daughter. Though their concerns are very different, McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter are almost like Angela Carter’s short stories in the ways they triangulate and bookend the themes invoked by the original tale. Both authors are walking around the original works, and pulling out this thread or that for closer examination. Both the Beast and Beauty make very different choices in the end, choices that engage with the implicit bestiality of the original tale, even in its most didactic setting.

Bryony and Roses, by T. Kingfisher
Bryony and Roses is very directly inspired by McKinley’s Rose Daughter. Like McKinley, Kingfisher lavishes a fair amount of detail on horticulture, specifically the growing of roses, which grounds the text (almost literally). Bryony stumbles into an enchanted manor during a snowstorm, and it’s not entirely clear that the beast that resides there is her captor. They may both be captives of the house.

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
In Sarah J. Maas’s take, the beast character was never human, even before the curse: Tamlin presided over a court of the fae. (Tam Lin is also the name of a Child Ballad which involves roses, shape changing, and abduction by the fairy court, and both Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin inform the novel.) The beauty character, here called Feyre, reads a bit like Katniss Everdeen: she has accepted responsibility for her impoverished family, provided for them by hunting, and is full of anger at the injustice of it all. She ends up on the other side of the wall that divides human from fae after killing a fae in wolf form. The fae are known for their capricious cruelty to humans, and so Feyre must overcome not just Tamlin’s occasionally beastly appearance, but deeply ingrained prejudices (some of which are well justified).

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
The setting of de Bodard’s strange and beautiful take, which draws from Vietnamese culture, is both post-apocalyptic and folkloric: alien colonizers have abandoned a used-up and polluted earth, and creatures of myth stalk the land. A young scholar is sacrificed to the dragon, who is our beast character, and fully expects to be murdered. Instead, the dragon wants the scholar to tutor her two children, a pair of irascible twins who are neither human nor dragon, but something else entirely. The dragon’s palace is a slippery, changeable place, like the dragon herself, and the transformations that occur are not literal. In the Vanishers’ Palace is the most profound reordering of the Beauty and the Beast story I’ve encountered; it is both subversive and traditional, an impressive feat.

The Beast’s Heart, by Leife Shallcross
The Beast’s Heart follows the Beaumont version quite closely in the beginning: a ruined merchant stumbles into the Beast’s domain; he steals a rose; Beauty is sent to the Beast’s for a year. The key difference is that this retelling is centered on the Beast, not Beauty. His transformation from ravening beast starts even before her arrival; his self-improvement is not entirely dependent on her intervention. The story also follows Beauty’s father and two sisters after Beauty leaves. The sisters were mired in depression over the family’s ruin. Without Beauty around to perform all the household chores, they are forced to step up and care for themselves. In time, they become both confident and competent, and find their own love interests. In many ways, the sisters’ transformations are the most profound in the story, as the Beast’s transgressions which resulted in the curse feel muted and indistinct, and their courtship isn’t as grounded in everyday life like the sisters’.

What’s your favorite take on Beauty and the Beast?

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7 Deeply Weird Sci-Fi & Fantasy Romances

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Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, a time for love, romance, and, for those of us not romantically inclined, weird traditions. SFF is full of great romances, from the courtship of Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan (whose banter in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga recalls the squabbling of classic screen couples), to The Lord of the Rings‘ star-cross’d lovers Aragorn and Arwen, to the lovers in countless romantic fairy tales. But because this is genre, there are also many love stories that take more… unconventional turns, often into the downright bizarre. Here are seven books that take love, sex, and romance to strange new horizons, each in their own special way.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
Carter turns her eye for the psychosexual and feminist to popular fairy tales in this collection in order to, in her words, “extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” From here, she rebuilds familiar tales in odd shapes: a love triangle involving a murderous Marquis, toxic relationships with wolves, a vampire-themed riff on Sleeping Beauty, two examinations of Beauty and the Beast that offer differing views on relationship and power dynamics. It also features some of the most unusual human-animal relationships ever committed to the page. Carter’s intense lyricism maintains the poetry of the original works while bringing hidden facets of their meanings to light. It’s a collection of retellings that can stand wholly on its own, both gorgeous and utterly terrifying.

Private Midnightby Kris Saknussemm
Dubbed “a psychosexual fairytale” and featuring some of the weirdest fantasy visuals ever committed to the page, Kris Saknussemm’s surrealist noir manages to use one of the genre’s most recognizable tropes (hard-boiled detective and mysterious femme fatale) to interrogate numerous power and relationship dynamics, and flings the results into one of the the darker corners of fantasy horror. A corrupt cop named Birch Ritter is put on the trail of an unusual therapist-cum-dominatrix named Genevieve Wyvern, both for her role in several unusual deaths and disappearances, and as someone who can help him manage with his own inner turmoil. As Ritter gets closer to finding answers, and closer to Genevieve, things spiral wildly out of control, and might leave both of them irrevocably changed. It’s unconventional, but the novel’s internal dialogue—about power, toxicity, toxic masculinity, and control—has never been more relevant, personal, or upsettingly intriguing.

The Smoke, by Simon Ings
Simon Ings’ novel walks a very odd, careful line between being an apocalyptic look at a post-cyberpunk future, and an examination of how love and obsession can turn someone toxic, as it charts the decline of human civilization in an alternate-history Great Britain through the numerous relationships of the Lanyon family. Through it all, Ings manages to put an impressively heartfelt spin on the strange proceedings, be it via the obsessive love the alien narrator exhibits by telepathically stalking protagonist Stuart Lanyon for a violent act he committed when he was younger, to the unusual lengths Stuart’s father and sister in law go in trying to keep Stuart’s mother alive after a terminal diagnosis, to the way the gap in ability between Stuart and his transhumanist girlfriend Fel eventually poisons and destroys his relationship. The personal and deeply human face The Smoke puts on the eventual obsolescence of the “regular” humans makes it all that more unsettling, even as the love stories at its core make it feel achingly real.

The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker
Clive Barker is almost as well known for his… unconventional takes on relationship dynamics (The Hellbound Heart and its adaptation Hellraiser are a Valentine’s Day tradition in my household) as he is for his bizarre visuals and body horror. The best example of this comes in his horrifying debut volume The Books of Blood. In its stories, a woman who learns to warp flesh uses the ability on toxic men (“Jacqueline Ess: Her Last Will and Testament”), the dynamics of a theatre troupe are heightened by a brush with the undead (“Sex, Death, and Starshine”), and, in “Pig Blood Blues,” a former policeman uncovers an unusual secret at a British reform school for boys. “Pig Blood” especially stands out for its blending of folk horror rituals, queer relationships, an atmosphere of slowly mounting dread, leading to one of the most disturbing final scenes in mainstream horror fiction. The story’s themes of devotion and obsession linger long after the lights go out.

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart
Arguably the least weird—and definitely the least disturbing—volume on this list, Hughart’s picaresque quest fantasy stands out for being about the concept of love than about one particular love story. Love finds its way into every part of the tale of debauched genius detective “Master” Li Kao and his hapless apprentice Number Ten Ox, be their run-in with a necromancer attempting to bring his beloved back to life, to a mysterious courtesan whose sheer presence seems to spark devotion and love in the men around her, to the tragic story of Miser Shen, who sheds all his wealth to please a woman, to the gods’ attempts to reunite two long-lost celestial lovers. The villains get in on the act too, showcasing darker, obsessive flavors of love—consider the Duke of Ch’in, who locks his love away to keep her in his control, and the rather fatal love triangle involving a spoiled noblewoman and a murderous ghost. If you’re looking for something that celebrates love in all its weird, wonderful and sometimes terrible forms, Hughart’s book is an absolute delight.

Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas
In future Santo Domingo, at the height of both an apocalyptic disaster and an immigration crisis, a young trans prostitute-turned-housekeeper is caught up in a complex scheme involving a sacred sea anemone, Yoruba prophecy, time travel, and psychic powers. Various characters fall in and out of love with one another across timelines as the book shifts between the past, present, and future of the Dominican Republic, some characters even controlling multiple bodies at once through a kind of remote viewing after being stung by a mysterious sea creature. It makes for a very odd, multi-tiered novel, showcasing relationships that are incredibly complex in all ways— psychological, spiritual, and sexual. Indiana uses these relationships as a focal point as her characters affect history in numerous ways, flipping between their various selves to shift the flow of events in their favor. It’s a brief, odd, propulsive, and hypnotic novel.

The Steel Breakfast Era, by Carlton Mellick III
Mellick (or CM3, as fans call him) has devoted a lot of time to writing about weird relationships (at least one of his book covers makes the rounds every Valentine’s as an image meme; sadly the title is unprintable here). While many of these books are odd in and of themselves, among the strangest is The Steel Breakfast Era, a mashup of Frankenstein, cult B-movies, cyberpunk horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction. From within a fortified apartment building slowly being taken over by “tik-worms” that turn people into biomechanoid monstrosities, the insane narrator has grown so obsessed with the idea of not dying alone that he takes it upon himself to piece together a woman out of his deceased former fellow tenants. This being a Carlton Mellick novel, of course, this manages to work, somehow. Unfortunately, it’s also an utter disaster: the narrator’s new girlfriend starts exhibiting odd behaviors, and an apartment full of deranged survivors slowly turning metal tends to be a terrible place at the best of times. Steel Breakfast is one of the weirdest works by one of the biggest names in bizarro. When it comes to weird love, you can’t get much weirder than that.

What’s the weirdest SFF love story you’ve ever encountered?

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The Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Citizenship Testing, Viral Dreams, and Coming of Age on a Planet of Ice and Fire

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The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders’ followup to the Nebula Award-winning All the Birds in the Sky seems, at first glance, a complete departure from that fitfully whimsical, apocalyptic bildungsroman, but both novels share a powerful emotional through line, examining the inner lives and grand destinies of outsiders in societies in which they are never sure they truly belong. It leaves Earth behind entirely, delivering us to the hostile planet January, a tidally locked world split between the frozen wastes on its dark side and the searing eternal day of its light side. In the small sliver between these two extremes, the city of Xiosphant barely supports a dwindling human population. Sophie, who comes from an unremarkable family, willingly takes the blame for a petty crime committed by her fellow student, best friend, shining star Bianca, and is condemned to death via exile into the frigid darkness as an example of the cost of even a small act of rebellion. Sophie is saved by one of the strange animal life forms native to the planet, and discovers that the so-called “crocodiles” are no simple beasts, but an advanced race of telepaths whose existence is threatened by the corrosive presence of human settlers in their midst. Sophie’s ultimate fate parallels not just that of Bianca and her fellow citizens of Xiosphant, but all life on January, and the very future of humanity. It’s a richly compassionate, thoughtful work, packing powerful messages of anti-violence, political theory, and environmentalism alongside a story of growing up and growing into yourself that never strikes a false note.

Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, by Tom Baker 
Fans of Doctor Who know Tom Baker best as the iconic Fourth Doctor, lover of Jelly Babies and very cool winter scarves. But did they know he also imagined himself an author of the Doctor’s exploits? In the 1970s, Baker and Ian Marter, who played Harry Sullivan, worked up a treatment for a Doctor Whofeature film—and at one point, it seemed like it might actually be made, with Vincent Price attached to star. But the script was lost in the shuffle, Baker regenerated into Peter Davison, and decades passed. Now, Baker has dusted off the idea and regenerated it into a novel, which sees The Doctor (along with Harry and Sarah Jane Smith) arriving at a remote Scottish island for a bit of a rest. Instead, they find the isolated village under attack by hideous scarecrows. The Doctor takes on the challenge of protecting the innocent, but it’s all an elaborate trap set by an otherworldly force known as the Scratchman—who might be the devil himself. For Who-vians, this is a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the Doctor became the next film franchise—or just another delightful Fourth Doctor romp.

Early Riser, by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde takes a break from the metafictional nuttiness of his Thursday Next novels to travel to an alternate future in which the entire population of England hibernates during the frigid, harsh winter months. Getting through four months of suspended animation isn’t guaranteed—although the rich, able to afford special drugs, fare better than the poor, who often wind up Dead in Sleep—but the Winter Consuls work hard to ensure that everyone makes it. Charlie Worthing has just joined this group of slightly unhinged guardians, and has been tasked with investigating a viral dream that’s been killing people in their sleep. Initially dubious, Charlie begins to believe when he starts experiencing the dreams too—and they start coming true. Fforde’s track record at wacky, wonky worldbuilding is second to none, and this standalone is both a fast-moving romp and a thoughtful slice of social commentary.

Terminal Uprising, by Jim C. Hines
The second volume of Hines’ tongue-in-cheek sci-fi series the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, which follows a band of hapless humans who serve as the cleanup crew on an alien vessel in the wake of a plague that has destroyed nearly all of our civilization. Having stolen a starship, uncovered the secret that led to humanity’s downfall, and stopped a genocidal attack against the alien Krakau (see the events of Terminal Alliance), Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her team of fellow hygeine and sanitation specialists have been trying to help the Krakau tamp down an uprising by the isolationist species the Prodyans, a mission that will require her to return to an Earth gone to seed in search of a killer superweapon that could restore humanity’s place in the galaxy… or bring the whole thing crashing down. But, you know, not actually down, because there’s no gravity in space. But things could certainly get messy.

The Revenant Express, by George Mann
Steampunk virtuoso George Mann returns with another volume in the Newbury & Hobbes series, which stars a mystery-solving Victorian era special agent Si Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, who, as the novel opens, lies dying. Newbury and Veronica’s sister Amelia take a train cross country to secure a mechanical heart that can replace Veronica’s ailing one. But it can’t be so simple as that, and along the way they run into an old enemy who is onboard the train seeking revenge. Meanwhile, back in London, the other member of their team, Sir Charles Bainbridge, investigates a series of bizarre killings, as prominent citizens are kidnapped and expsed to a deadly plague. It’s up to Newbury and Co. to save both Veronica and London itself before time runs out.

The Test, by Sylvain Neuvel
Another dark satire of the future-present arrives from Tor.com Publishing just weeks after the release of Robert Jackson Benett’s Vigilance, which examines America’s gun obsession. Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test takes a different tack, moving through the questions on a mandatory British Citizenship Test as it is undertaken by an immigrant named Idir who just wants his family to be welcomed into their new home country. He has 25 questions—25 chances—to impress the test committee and prove his worth. But when the test goes wrong and circumstances are flipped on their head, Idir faces much harder choices.

The Beast’s Heart: A Novel of Beauty and the Beast, by Leife Shallcross
In the tradition of John Gardner’s Grendel, Shallcross retells the story of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of the titular monster—claws, horns, and all. Trapped under a curse for centuries, Julien Courseilles first glimpses the beautiful Isabeau de la Noue in a dream and realizes she might be able to free him from his lonely bondage. He lures her to his enchanted chateau, where she agrees to stay for a year in exchange for her father’s life. Julien spends those short months proposing marriage and spying on her and her family in an attempt to force a love affair to blossom, but as he comes to terms with the dark fairy tale that is his cursed life, he realizes that even if Isabeau agrees to marry him, that is only the first step on his unlikely journey to redemption. Shallcross’s debut reveals new facets of one of the most retold and best-loved stories of all time.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
Katherine Addison’s beloved standalone fantasy—a Best Novel Nebula finalist—returns in a new trade paperback edition. If you haven’t read it yet, you must: it is as much about real-world problems (like self-doubt and the intractable nature of politics) as it is about the fantasy elements. The main character is the half-goblin heir to the throne of an elven empire. Maia, who has spent his 18 years living in exile, returns home to not only the burden of ruling a land that does not respect him, but the disconcerting news that his father and brothers weren’t killed in an accident, but by intentional sabotage. What makes all of this more spellbinding is the fact that, at a time when many modern fantasy heroes  are, well, flawed—Maia is a genuinely good person. Watching him navigate the halls of power without sacrificing his ideals is deeply moving. Would that reality were so fantastical.

What new SFF are you reading this week?

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5 Fascinating Uses of Footnotes in Fantasy

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The first befootnoted page of The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons

Footnotes in fiction are a tricky business. Handled poorly, they can be the bane of a reader’s existence (1). But in the right hands and the right circumstances, footnotes open up entirely new narrative possibilities (2).

Footnotes can add context, build lore and history, introduce new characters, misdirect where desired, or even just make you snort out loud (3). Authors can wield them like scalpels or flaunt them like magic tricks.

There’s no shortage of clever ways to use them, essentially—as proven by the five books and series below (4).

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
Lyons’ buzzy debut plays with all manner of form, telling its story, primarily, in retrospect, with events of the narrative revealed primarily in a conversation between a thief, Kihrin, and his jailer, Talon. Both tell the story of Kihrin’s life (5) in alternating chapters. Framing this conversation are footnotes from a third source, whose attachment to the story becomes clearer toward the end of the novel. It’s through these outside footnotes that we learn the most about the history, the magic, and the world that have come to bear on poor, battered Kihrin.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
The grand dame of footnotes in modern fantasy (6), Clarke’s shelf-bending standalone serves up a number of pages that are as much or more footnotes and supplementary text as actual narrative. The result is a work altogether complete: a comprehensive alternate history of English magic, the Napoleonic Wars, and the titular Daedalus-and-Icarus pair at the center of both. It’s the closest novel to a magical textbook as you’re going to get outside of Brakebills.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
While notable for its intriguing use of footnotes, House of Leaves uses far more than just those bottom-of-the-page musings to subvert the typical fiction-reading experience. To call it experimental is an understatement (7). At its core is a story about a house that’s disturbingly larger on the inside than on the outside. But in unraveling that mystery, the reader is challenged to rethink the bare concept of the novel as a form. Everything is up for grabs: typography, page layout, and, of course, footnotes that cite sources. While technically more horror than fantasy, it’s a gobsmacking feat that can’t be ignored.

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud
This series-starter is about a boy magician named Nathaniel and a djinni named Bartemeaus, whom Nathaniel summons (8) in an attempt to make a name for himself in the highly structured class society of a highly magical alternate mid-20th century England. The novel switches between their dual POVs to unwind its story of magical mischief and political skullduggery. Even though Bartimaeus is a first person narrator, he also gets to shine in frequent footnotes that expand upon his personality in ways no typical narrative tool would allow. He riffs on just about everything—the people he meets, the stupid things they want—and offers insights into the unsavory position of his kind. Without them, it would be a very different book.

Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
Only the Thursday Next series would be so daring as to introduce the “footnoterphone.” In this second book of the series, Thursday Next, world-renowned literary detective, receives her first call via the device. You, the reader, get to watch the ensuing conversation happen between the page text and footnotes, which is probably as disorienting for Thursday as it is for you (9). Please be advised, however, if making a call: it’s best to know the title and page number at which your party can be reached.

1. I have to jog all the way down to the bottom of the page to read several sentences that don’t relate directly to the sentences I have just read, which I now must read again because I’ve forgotten what they said?

2. Like watching an argument between two characters who may never have met but have a lot to say to each other nonetheless.

3. Insert here basically anything written by Terry Pratchett ().

4. Yes, we know we’ve left out many, many, many other fantasy books that use footnotes well. Don’t yell at us—just share your favorites in the comments!

5. You see,Talon is a shapeshifter and has absorbed some of Kihrin’s memories—and the memories of those around him, because she ate them ().

6. Though David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is arguably fantastical enough to fit on this list, it isn’t usually classified as fantasy. Dude sure loved his footnotes, though.

7. To call it a “mindf***” is not (♦).

8. Bartemeaus would prefer to say “enslaves against his will.”

9. Kind of like reading this blog post, probably.

 

† Or Terry Pratchett with Neil Gaiman.

Ate the people, we mean. Not the memories. You know how shapeshifting demons are.

♦ You know what the stars stand for. This is a family website.

What’s your favorite use of footnotes in a fantasy novel?

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7 Impossible Fantasy Cities Worth the Visit

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The Ingenious cover by John Coulthart

Modern cities are vast, wondrous, awe-inspiring things. The soaring heights, the play of light over the buildings, the constant energy in the streets—and each with its own unique ambience. But isn’t all good: cities contain secrets, and pain, and hidden pockets of rot and disrepair—whether through abandonment or willful neglect by the powerful, there are places that carry a much darker energy than the bright lights and bustling streets would have you think.

This dichotomy is what makes a city such a wonderful fantasy setting: introduce speculative elements to my mixture described above, and suddenly you can birth an impossible city, rife with shifting architecture, secret passages, and strange surprises. Here are seven of our favorite impossible cities in fantasy books—wonderful to visit, probably too strange to live in.

Athanor (The Ingenious, by Darius Hinks)
Floating outside of time and space and only coming to rest once a year for the annual Conjunction—during which it adds new districts to itself—Athanor is a massive living city controlled by a secretive group of alchemists known as the Curious Men. While the danger of the place is immediately obvious within two chapters of Darius Hinks’ new novel—its lower levels are ruled by a twisted gang of mutants, the cops know how to hide a body way too well (and also all wear cultist uniforms), and one of the Curious Men has been straight-up murdering people with a skin-shroud so he can take control of and literally bend reality. At the same time, the place feels vibrant and alive in a way few fictional metropolises do, literally pulsing and teeming with life as it travels through and around spacetime. Its constantly changing nature gives it the sense of a wild, beautiful, protean place, its danger as seductive as it is horrifying.

New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville)
Built in the ribs of an ancient, madness-inducing eldritch abomination and home to several gods, impossible monsters, and just all-around upsetting people, New Crobuzon is another city both terrifying and, at the same time, weirdly compelling. Miéville’s gods and monsters lend the city an epic air, a feeling that anything that can possibly happen does, and a great many impossible things too (but that’s what happens when you’re home to a trans-dimensional spider-god that crawls across the web of reality, cutting threads and making changes will-nilly). Even the most horrific of horrors are kind of morbidly compelling at a remove—wouldn’t you like to see the gigantic robot god that uses a corpse to talk to humans? To book a lunch meeting with the Ambassador of Hell? New Crobuzon is a terrifying place for those living in it, of course, given that the government is a fascist nightmare and the citizens are at the mercy of numerous, sometimes dream-consuming monsters. Visit its twisting streets, sure. But book your return ticket in advance, just in case.

The City (Doña Quixote and Other Citizens, by Leena Krohn)
Krohn’s unusual prose slowly builds a city out of encounters between Doña Quixote and the various other residents, and in her weird interactions with the city’s various locales, like the strange tower in the middle of the park and a carnival house of mirrors that reveal odd secrets about those who look into them. It’s one of the most livable cities on this list, given that it’s basically a magical-realist version of Krohn’s own Helsinki—with the addition of Doña Quixote, who seems to change the landscape and even the nature of the people she encounters. While a little disorienting, the city and its strange citizens aren’t actively hostile, and Dona Quixote seems like a pretty good person to know, even if the tenor of her interactions with others tend to vary wildly. On top of which, the glass sculptures scattered everywhere must make for some gorgeous evening ambiance.

Ambergris (City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer)
Not many cities can claim their own freshwater giant squid. It’s pretty much just Ambergris and Lake George, if we’re being honest. But while that alone would put it ahead of the pack, Ambergris also has numerous living saints, artists, cafes, religions, and bookstores (the most prominent being the Borges Bookstore, named for one of Ambergris’ major inspirations). But while there’s a weird dreamlike atmosphere and wonderful aesthetic to Ambergris, there’s also something supremely off about the place, whether it’s the riotous festivals that cause fatalities, the extra-dimensional refugee in the city sanitarium who claims he wrote the entire city, the invasions by the indigenous fungus-people the metropolis displaced, or the ongoing uprising against foreign occupation—an incident that features one of the more cheerful mass poisonings in literary history. These contradictions are part and parcel to enjoying Ambergris, a city weird and wonderful in equal measure—even if its more horrifying elements would be best experienced on the page.

Dayzone/Nocturna/Dusk (A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon)
The first novel featuring perpetually out-of-his-depth private investigator Nyquist, A Man of Shadows’ gigantic city is actually three cities layered on top of each other, each neighborhood experiencing a different hour of the day: the bright Dayzone, perpetually lit by artificial bulbs representing sunlight; the moody darkness of Nocturna; and the eerie Lynchian Dusk, wrapped in perpetual fog and filled with abandoned art-deco theaters and oddly empty streets. But, lest this be thought of as simply an aesthetic, the city isn’t just lit for different hours of the day but actually seems to be comprised of them, requiring special medication and constant watch-resetting to traverse, as it’s common to experience time-slippage. Despite this, the city(ies) seems like a friendly enough place if you can adjust, though watch out for falling lightbulbs.

The Tower of Babel (Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft)
While not the weirdest place on this list, the Tower (which feels more like its own world, with its various and diverse “ringdoms,” ecosystems, and bodies of water) is still definitely up there. A clockwork sphinx watches over the various demesnes, and the place has a decidedly wild aesthetic, reminiscent of all the best weird weird fiction yet still entirely its own thing. Through the eyes of flustered everyman Thomas Senlin, the tower seems even more bizarre, its byzantine culture often hindering him as much as it helps him ascend further up the tower in search of his missing wife. Bancroft adds a nice juxtaposition to Senlin’s tour in the form of the cheerfully unhelpful Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, a travel book that’s advice stands in stark contrast to the horrors and wonders of the impossibly high metropolis.

Eth (Viscera, by Gabriel Squailia)
Eth is built on the organs of dead gods. I feel like I should get that out of the way ahead of time. It’s home to a death cult that gets high off of gigantic poisonous bugs and is building an army of flesh-golems out of guts, and was once known for being stunningly progressive—before the riots and constant revolutions meant everyone competent ruler was strung up by their entrails so the revolutionaries could briefly put a dog on the throne… before getting overthrown themselves. That this only scratches the surface of the metric ton of violent weirdness that happens in Eth says something about the city, whose numerous weird happenings are outlined in Squailia’s twisted and highly enjoyable novel of identity, revenge, and wholesale evisceration. Viscera‘s setting never distracts from the complicated, messy, and very human heart underneath all those entrails.

What impossible city would you most like to explore?

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A Beautiful, Bloody Fantasy Vision: Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Marlon James fourth novel, and the first in a planned trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf seems an unusual next act for an author whose last book, the deeply literary A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the prestigious Booker prize (the first time the honor went to a Jamaican author). But if this marks his first voyage into full-on (if not entirely traditional) fantasy, he did flirt with genre elements in his debut, 2005’s John Crow’s Devil. But if the new novel’s logline—early press billed it as “an African Game of Thrones”—suggests James’ lane shift was motivated by a desire to write a bestseller, the final product allays those fears. This is unapologetically a fantasy, yes, and it’s full of monsters and magic and thrilling action—in short, it is great fun to read. But it is also every bit as complex and poetic as its prize-winning predecessor.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf introduces Tracker (his only name), a pragmatically ruthless, but not entirely amoral, hunter for hire. “He has a nose,” it if often said. Certainly he is possessed of a hunting ability that dances between the mere skill and the supernatural. At the novel’s outset, he returns an abused spouse to her husband as per the terms of the job he accepted, but not without providing her with a solid suggestion for permanently dealing with her tormentor. It’s seems the least he can do, but the act is reflective of not only Tracker’s own complex morality, but also the ambiguous ethics of the world he inhabits.

Tracker’s next job involves finding a boy who has been missing for three years. The hunt sends Tracker, who has partnered with a band of mercenaries, on a tour through James’ lush vision of fantasy land inspired by pan-African, pre-colonial history, myth, and trauma. They traipse though ancient cities and forbidding forests, pursuing and pursued by any number of horrific (and occasionally helpful) creatures. Each of the hunters (including one known as Leopard) hides secrets, and some know more than they’re willing to let on about the fate of the mysterious boy. Tracker’s doubts about his task grow as he’s forced to confront not only a dangerous quest but the realization that critical information is being withheld from him. Who is the boy, really, and why are so many people so invested in his recovery—or in ensuring he stays gone?

Yes, it’s tempting to compare every dark fantasy vision to A Game of Thrones, and there are elements reminiscent of George R. R. Martin’s unforgiving world and cast of unreliable, irredeemable characters. But the influences on display are many and varied: what Tolkien was able to do with the beats of western European folklore, James is does for sub-Saharan Africa, and then some. There’s also a flavor of Robert Howard in the way he luxuriates in the grit and grime of an earlier world that’s far more brutal, but also far freer than ours. And far from dodging the tropes of fantasy literature and folklore, James luxuriates in them—at least for a bit, before twisting them into entirely new shapes. The hunt for the boy is the point, but it’s also a framework for an exploration of an incredibly rich, instantly indelible world.

That’s all wonderful, but even more than for what the story is about, this book impresses for how it is about it. Marlon James lays out his prose like a king’s feast: it’s dense, layered, and incredibly rich. There are writers who can tell a great story, and there are writers who can cast a spell with words—either skillset can lead to a good book, but not every author is a master of both. James may just be. Certainly he tells an ripping story, all the while inviting (sometimes demanding) that you savor every sentence. It’s a fitting quality, given that the ability to tell a good story is so prized a skill in Tracker’s world.

This forbidding vision of an ancient Africa is beautiful and bloody, and as true as any real or imagined world described in literature. You might wish to visit, if the place wasn’t so likely to kill you. As Tracker and company wend their way through this phantasmagorical land at a deliberate, if not leisurely, pace, James’ attention to detail is nearly hypnotic. If it’s true that this is a long and dense book, and that it is easy to lose your way in the winding narrative, it is also true that not a sentence feels wasted. The prose is enchanting, which is not the same as calling it pretty: this is a world of blood, dirt, and stink—you can practically smell the musk and sweat pouring off of the unrepentantly filthy Leopard. The violence is visceral (among others, a moment involving a lost eye will stick with you for a long time). So is the sex, occurring most often between men (or male-identified were-creatures), which James describes with that same keen sense for tastes, sounds, and smells. For all the African influences, there’s a bit of Greek myth in the relationship between the book’s two lead characters, and the exhilaratingly free but unsentimental couplings, part and parcel of the novel’s exploration of notions of masculinity.

The story follows Tracker on a long and twisting journey, and the narrative momentum builds throughout. Along the way, the characters pass through extraordinary kingdoms and evocative landscapes—a wealth of pan-African history, myth, traditional religion, and legend sampled, re-mixed, and filtered through a prodigious imagination, and filled with tricksters, griots, witches, were-creatures, and giant men. Some of these elements are traceable to their inspirations, many others seem to have been reimagined so thoroughly as to be almost wholly the author’s.

In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James has crafted a world as beautiful as it is forbidding, full of slippery, fascinating, fully realized characters. It’s early days, but it surely seems likely to be judged one of 2019’s best and most revelatory works of fantasy.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is available now.

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Building a Cover (with a Goat): Saad Z. Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Hosting cover reveals is always a treat—but especially when we’re talking about books from Tor.com Publishing. As a primarily digital-first imprint, they are a nimble, fast-moving young buck among the slow and stately elk of the publishing world. That is to say, they aren’t afraid to try new things with their covers, and we are here for it.

Today, we’re thrilled to give you a peek into the cover development process for one of their most eagerly awaited 2019 releases, Saad Z. Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday. This novella-length work from the author of the acclaimed novel Djinn City is part futuristic sci-fi, part mythological adventure, and part buddy comedy, and it sounds entirely awesome.

The book’s editor, Jonathan Strahan, certainly makes us eager to read it: “Unlimited sex, booze, and world-altering power! You’d think life would be great, but when the great djinn Melek Ahmar wakes after an uninterrupted nap of a few thousand years he finds things are far more difficult than he’d expected. A not-too-far future story of a climate-changed world set in a city where everyone seems to get exactly what they deserve, but told as a rollicking buddy adventure with an increasingly worried djinn and a flint-eyed and possibly crazy Gurkha? I was floored by it and I think you will be too. It’s funny, engaging, and filled with action and adventure. Above all though, it’s a team up for the ages.”

Assembling a cover that would encompass all this madness would prove to be a challenge. Tor.com Publishing’s Associate Art Director (and hands-on designer) Christine Foltzer knew just who to turn to: artist Eric Nyquist, who created the iconic covers and endpapers for Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.

When I was reading the manuscript for The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday I knew we needed to hire someone who could capture not only this incredible, unique world of this futuristic, hi-tech Kathmandu, but also the fun and playful tone of the story and its characters,” Foltzer said. 

Nyquist brought his talent for intricate line drawings to his proposed cover sketches for The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, which offered a range of less and more complex and detailed designs—though as sketches, they only hint at what you’ll see in the final cover…

The team concluded that the second layout—the one with a goat in the bottom right corner—was the winner. With the basics of the layout locked down, Nyquist created the final version, filling in the details hinted at in the text annotations above, and handed them off to Christine Foltzer. We think you’ll agree that together, they created something truly special:

Dang. Right?

“Eric’s art, with its bright colors, intricate line drawing, and the way it interacts with the typography is perfect,” Foltzer said. “I feel like every time I look at it I find another detail I didn’t see before. He gave us so many sketches and options, we could only share a few of them here, and it was so hard to choose between them all.

The author was pleased, to say the least. “The cover is just brilliant,” Hossain said. “I pictured Kathmandu as a magical gem in the future, and that’s exactly what we got—a wonderland of towers and pagodas and gardens hanging in spheres, a portrait of endless detail. And of course, there’s the goat.”

“Ultimately we wanted a cover that is as fun to look at as the book is to read,” said Irene Gallo, publisher and art director of the imprint. “Eric and Christine nailed it. Saad’s story takes the ancient tradition of djinn stories and slams it head-on into a science fiction world, [and the cover reflects that]. Also, who doesn’t love a cover with a goat on it!? ”

Here’s a bit more about the book, in the form of the official summary:

When the djinn king Melek Ahmar wakes up after millennia of imprisoned slumber, he finds a world vastly different from what he remembers. Arrogant and bombastic, he comes down the mountain expecting an easy conquest: the wealthy, spectacular city state of Kathmandu, ruled by the all-knowing, all-seeing tyrant AI Karma. To his surprise, he finds that Kathmandu is a cut-price paradise, where citizens want for nothing and even the dregs of society are distinctly unwilling to revolt.

Everyone seems happy, except for the old Gurkha soldier Bhan Gurung. Knife saint, recidivist, and mass murderer, he is an exile from Kathmandu, pursuing a forty-year-old vendetta that leads to the very heart of Karma. Pushed and prodded by Gurung, Melek Ahmer finds himself in ever deeper conflicts, until they finally face off against Karma and her forces. In the upheaval that follows, old crimes will come to light and the city itself will be forced to change.

Preorder The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, available August 13, 2019.

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10 Novels Inspired by China and Southeast Asian Culture

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

According to the traditional Chinese calendar, today marks the start of the Year of the Pig and the celebration of Lunar New Year in China and other countries in Southeast Asia (including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand)—and, indeed, around the world. To celebrate the new year, here are 10 new and recent sci-fi and fantasy books that draw from or are set in the cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (aka The Three-Body trilogy), by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
The 2015 release of the English version of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem became a publishing sensation. A huge hit in Liu’s native China, where it has inspired everything from cosplay to theme parks, it became the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award and the flashpoint that ignited a small boom in Chinese sci-fi in the West. It couldn’t have happened to a better book: though it incorporates the tropes of the so-called Golden Age English-language sci-fi novels Liu grew up loving, The Three-Body Problem and its sequels approach the genre from a distinctly Chinese angle, centering the action in Chinese characters; the opening of the first novel is even set during the Cultural Revolution, a time when academics like the protagonists were persecuted for promoting science. As a whole, the trilogy explores a first contact scenario between humans and aliens on a vast scale, but the lens through which it is viewed is distinctly Chinese. The Redemption of Time, a continuation of the series penned by a fan and later sanction by the author will be released in the U.S. later this year.

The Dandelion Dynasty, by Ken Liu
Ken Liu is a prolific short story writer, and many of his speculative tales—including those in his marvelous collection The Paper Menagerie— draw from his Chinese heritage, but with his series the Dandelion Dynasty, he’s doing something truly different within the confines of epic fantasy. Though unabashedly epic in scope—an account of the rise and fall of empires in a world filled with magic, monsters, and inventive technology—The Grace of Kings and its sequel The Wall of Storms don’t fit the Western fantasy mold. The novels incorporate a fair amount of both history and folklore about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han way, way back in Chinese history, and enhance them with a silkpunk aesthetic, but the way the narrative unfurls, favoring the sweep of history over the intimate and the personal, sets them apart from so many A Game of Thrones readalikes. Chinese history—with its sweep of millennia and dynastic machinations—is perfectly suited to epic fantasy, a genre which has heretofore largely cribbed from medieval and renaissance Europe (with notable and important exceptions, of course). Liu tells something like a national origin story, with all of the attendant tall tales, mythologizing, and invocation of the gods such an enterprise incurs.

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang 
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile and is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman, able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history (particularly the horrific Rape of Nanking), but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The story continues later this year in The Dragon Republic.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
King’s scarily good debut does what sci-fi does best, extrapolating a plausible future from real-world reality. In a future China where the one-child policy has led to a population with 40 million more men than women, middle aged Wei-guo struggles through a life in which he is considered unnecessary. He maintains his optimism and conviction that as long as he continues to improve he will be rewarded with love, and finally saves a dowry that enables him to join an “advanced family” as a third husband—the lowest rank—to the lovely May-ling. The family is imperfect, harboring an “illegal spouse,” but Wei-guo finds kinship and friendship in this unusual arrangement. But the rulers of the nation know they are sitting on a powder keg, and have become more intrusive and authoritarian than ever. Someone is always listening, and Wei-guo knows no matter how happy he is, he will always be an “excess male,” and thus disposable. If this sounds like grim dystopia to you, never fear: though the circumstances Wei-guo faces are often harsh, the novel is ultimately affirming—heartwarming, romantic, and even sweet.

The Tensorate series, by JY Yang
Billed by Tor.com Publishing as a silkpunk fantasy saga, the linked novellas of JY Yang’s Tensorate series take place in a secondary world incorporating a myriad of Asian cultural traditions (while the author is Singaporean, the books cannot be so narrowly classified). They are a masterclass in worldbuilding. The pan-Asian fantasy setting pieces together the familiar (mosques, congee, and guns are all touchstones of our reality, and yet…) with elements that are truly strange: nagas, velociraptors, megafauna, and much else dwelling alongside humanity; prophecy as a talent used to guide nations; a culture where children control nothing of their own destiny, yet can choose their own genders. Each novella follows a different protagonist and explores different aspects of the world; they stand largely along, but we’d recommend starting with The Black Tides of Heaven. The next entry in the series, The Ascent to Godhood, arrives in July.

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Marjorie Liu’s acclaimed graphic novel series is a phantasmagorical horror story-cum-bildungsroman following Maika Halfwolf, a teenage girl who shares a bond with a mythical monster in a world inspired by the cultures and history of Asia in the early 20th century. While this is distinctly a secondary world—blood magic, wolf children, and talking cats abound—it deals with issues intrinsic to the grimmest history of the region: racism, slavery, and cultural warfare inspired by Liu’s grandmother’s experiences during World War II (the writer is half-Chinese, and her grandmother escaped the Japanese occupation of China as a teenager). Thanks to Sana Takeda’s darkly gorgeous, stunningly detailed artwork and endearing (and fearsome) character designs, the series is easy to pick up (which is probably why it has won multiple Eisner Awards for young adult comics), but the themes the narrative grapples with are weighty indeed.

In the Vanisher’s Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard is of French and Vietnamese descent, and she weaves elements of her cultural heritage into pretty much everything she writes, including her epic space opera series set in the Xuya Universe, the future of an alternate history in which the Chinese came to the Americas before the Europeans, which resulted in Asian powers dominating the globe and, thus, the future of intergalactic space travel. de Bodard’s most recent work is in an entirely different vein—a queer retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story that draws heavily upon Vietnamese culture in which the beast is a dragon and the world is still reeling from the fallout of colonialism after friendly visitors from an alien race brought disease and destruction with them on their starships. As a reframing of a classic fairy tale, In the Vanisher’s Palace is subversive and bold; as a romance, it is tentative, touching, and sweet.

The True Queen, by Zen Cho
The long-awaited sequel to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown explores new angles of her Regency-Era-with-magic world. It’s set on the enchanted island of Janda Baik in the Malay Archipelago (including the modern-day Brunei, Singapore, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor), a place that has long been home to witches in Cho’s alternate history. Sisters Muna and Sakti wash up on the shores of the island with no recollection of how they got there—and indeed, they seem to be suffering under a curse that has stolen most of their memories. They hope to find help from the great magicians of England, but they are waylaid on their journey west, which takes them through the fae lands, where Sakti vanishes.  To save her sister, Muna must convince the British magicians that she is a gifted magic user herself, running up against cultural prejudices in the process—no doubt informed by the author’s own background as a Malaysian woman living in the U.K. If you enjoy the way Zen Cho weaves Asian cultural traditions into her fiction, her story collection Spirits Abroad is an absolute must—and we’ll also tout the lovely novelette she published here on this blog, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”

Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The elevator pitch for YA author Fonda Lee’s first novel for adults is pretty catchy: it’s The Godfather meets Hong Kong martial arts films in a world inspired by the cultural traditions of China and other Asian communities. The titular Jade City is the capital of an island nation a generation or so past occupation by a foreign power. This occupation was repulsed by the Green Bone warriors, an ethnic minority who have the cultural lore and genetic predisposition to wield jade, a mineral resource that can confer superhuman powers on its wearers. Without adequate training or natural disposition, jade can drive a person to suicide. Two generations ago, Green Bone warriors were hungry freedom fighters with bonds forged in blood; now they are warring clans presided over by both cautious old men and hungry young upstarts. The Green Bone warriors are at war with themselves. Jade City is a sprawling story of crime families in conflict, set in a cosmopolitan city with a nevertheless deeply traditional culture. Sequel Jade War arrives later this year.

Gates of Stone, by Angus Macallan
The final entry on our recommended reading list is the only one that wouldn’t be considered an “own voices” work—though author Angus Macallan was born in China and lived, worked, and studied in Asia for much of his life, including a stint as a journalist in Hong Kong, he is not of Asian descent himself. His epic fantasy Gates of Stone draws from Indonesian culture as well as other Asian cultural traditions to tell the story of a princess who is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Princess Katerina’s journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of a prince whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. To this Western reader’s eye, this series-starter seems to engage with its Asian inspirations beyond using them as mere exotic window-dressing. Hopefully readers of all different cultural backgrounds will agree.

What Asian-inspired fantasy novels do you recommend for Lunar New Year reading?

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Epic Beginnings, Stranger Secrets, and America’s Alternate Futures

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams
Twenty-five stories examining America’s many possible futures, written by some of the best and brightest in sci-fi and fantasy? Sign us up. Overseen by award-winning author Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom) and editor John Joseph Adams, and featuring contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Justina Ireland, A. Merc Rustad, Omar El Akkad, Charlie Jane Anders, Charles Yu, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and 18 others, this collection is packed with stories that extrapolate the realities our fraught present into fascinating, often dark visions of the future. From Americas where contraception is illegal, to ones in which the non-conforming are forcibly transformed to fit a biased “norm,” to more fantastical visions in which women learn to ride dragons. In one timely entry, a wall on the Mexican-American border results in a slew of unintentional consequences to Mexico’s benefit. These are tales that illustrate the power of speculative fiction—to combine imagination, storytelling, and social commentary in ways that tell us as much about where we’re going as where we are right now.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds (Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition), by Gwenda Bond
Netflix’s Stranger Things is a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, and YA regular Gwenda Bond earned the enviable task of bringing the ever-growing, ever-darker universe of the TV series to print. This prequel delves into the mysterious history of the woman who gave birth to waffle-loving telekinetic tween Eleven. The story travels back to 1969, when Terry Ives is a quiet college student who signs up for a government program code-named MKULTRA. As her involvement with this sinister experiment at the Hawking National Laboratory grows ever stranger, Terry begins investigating what’s really going on, recruiting her fellow test subjects for assistance—including a mysterious young girl with even more mysterious powers. A girl who doesn’t have a name, just a number: 008. This is a must for die-hard fans eager to explore all the secrets that won’t be revealed onscreen. The exclusive Barnes & Noble edition includes a two-sided poster featuring original artwork.

House of Assassins, by Larry Correia
The second entry in Correia’s Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series returns to the story of Ashok Vadal, a former soldier in a fiercely secular, fiercely divided magical world. In a society stratified into castes, the lowest of the low are the casteless—the untouchables. After infiltrating a rebel group that sought to free the casteless—a mission that led him to the prophet Thera Vane—former Protector Ashok Vadal now wields his magical blade Angruvadal and leads the Sons of the Black Sword on a mission to free Thera from the wizard Sikasso. All the while, he is hunted by the vengeful Lord Protector Devedas. As Ashok deals with the revelation that he is casteless himself—and apparently a pawn in a game he doesn’t yet fully grasp—he finds himself forced to fight without Angruvadal for the first time, and questioning whether his fate really has fallen to the gods. With this series, Correia brings all of the grit and narrative propulsion of his popular Monster Hunter urban fantasy series into the realm of the epic.

Wild Life, by Molly Gloss
Saga Press continues its campaign to bring Molly Gloss back into prominence with the SFF crowd, reissuing her fourth novel, the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award (presented to a work that explores or expands notions of gender). It is presented as the unedited journal of Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a woman living in Washington State in the early 20th century, doing her best to get by with her five children after her husband abandoned her. Drummond supports herself by writing novels about fierce and attractive girls who go on adventures. When her housekeeper Melba’s daughter goes missing in the wilds, Charlotte decides to follow her characters’ lead and heads out to find her. Soon lost herself, Charlotte uses her journal to keep a record of her increasingly strange journey into an American wilderness far odder than she ever dreamed. In a metafictional touch, this narrative is interspersed with snippets of her fiction and her musings on the constrictions her gender places upon her. Because this is ostensibly a fantasy novel, we should also note that Charlotte’s journal purports that she survived her ordeal in part by joining up with a group of giants living in the mountains. Though the fantastical elements are presented with a shade of ambiguity, Charlotte inarguably proves herself more than able to fill a role that in 1905 (and, perhaps, 2019) would normally fall to a strapping male protagonist.

Snow White Learns Witchcraft, by Theodora Goss
A collection of short fiction and poetry from the World Fantasy Award-winning, Nebula Award-nominated author of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Show White Learns Witchcraft is one to savor. As the name suggests, it collects fairy tale inspired works from across the dreadth of Goss’s career, among them “Red as Blood and White as Bone,” in which a poor serving girl decides to test the theory that all beggar women who come calling are secretly princess in disguise, seeking noble hearts, but learns that truth is more complicated than stories. “The Gold Spinner” reimagines Rumpelstiltskin as a desperate girl lying to save her own life, and “Conversations with the Sea Witch” revisits the now-human Little Mermaid in her old age. Revisionist fairy tales are as common as apples, but by virtue of their clever twisting of legends and their artful prose, Goss’s additions to the bushel are revealed as bright and glistening as rubies.

The Ingenious, by Darius Hinks
The city of Athanor was set adrift long ago by alchemists called the Curious Men, moving through space and time and taking with it bits and pieces of every place it passes through along the way. Isten and her followers were one of among those bits and pieces, pulled into Athanor unwittingly. They are now stranded in the incredibly varied but dismally impoverished magical city. Isten’s people believe she is prophesied to set their homeland free, but Isten has succumbed to a terrible addiction, and she and her followers barely survive in the mean alleys of Athanor—until Isten meets Alzen, a member of the Elect. Alzen dreams of becoming the Ingenious, a master magic-user, and Alzen and Isten forge an unusual alliance, each determined to help the other fulfill their disparate disparate dreams in this impossible city. Darius Hinks is an award-winning writer of novels set in the Warhammer universe; The Ingenious is his first wholly original work, in every sense.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
The first book in an epic fantasy trilogy from Booker Prize-winner Marlon James is as impressive as the author’s pedigree would suggest. The Dark Star trilogy has been likened to an “African Game of Thrones,” and the comparison is both apt and overly simplistic—James is doing far more than gluing familiar tropes onto African folklore. This is a deeply literary work, bordering at times on the poetic in its imagery, but it is also enormously fun, with imaginative worldbuilding and a plot that is both measured and propulsive. The Black Leopard is a mercenary able to shape-shift into a jungle cat, and the Red Wolf, also called Tracker, is a hunter of lost folk, with an incredible sense of smell that enables him to hone in on his quarry from vast distances. Sometimes with Leopard and sometimes alone, Tracker works his way across Africa in search of a kidnapped boy, moving through a beautiful, densely detailed world of violence, storytelling, dark magic, giants, and inhuman entities. Tracker’s mission is complicated by the complex and ever-shifting politics of the many tribes he encounters, and furthered along by a growing entourage of followers and allies, from a giant, to a sword-wielding academic, to  a buffalo that understands (and sometimes obeys) human speech. It already feels like a classic, and it will be interesting to see how the fantasy connects with James’s literary audience, and vice versa.

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
Jenn Lyons opens her planned five-book series with novel that defies traditional narrative structure. It begins as a conversation between the imprisoned Kihrin, awaiting what will certainly be a sentence of death, and his jailor Talon, a beautiful, demonic, shape-shifting assassin. As Kihrin tells a sad tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and earning the enmity of a cabal of sorcerers (raising more than a few questions about his real identity, and the true nature of a consequential necklace he claims was given to him by his mother)—Talon shares her own side of the story. The twin narratives slowly curl around each other (enriched by asides and often cheeky footnotes), illuminating different aspects of a world populated by incredible magic and a whole host of fantastic monsters and all manner of gods, demons, and men, all seemingly arrayed against Kihrin’s twisting journey to claim his legacy. The buzz for this series-starter has been building for months, and while the comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin are apt, Jenn Lyons has also proven to have her own fascinating perspective on epic fantasy. A must-read.

Polaris Rising, by Jessie Mihalik
Jessie Mihalik’s first novel is a space opera with a healthy helping of sex and romance, telling the story of Ada von Hasenberg, fifth daughter of the influential House von Hasenberg. Two years ago, Ada fled an arranged marriage to Richard Rockhurst and has been racing to stay one step ahead of her father’s minions ever since. Luckily, she’s been the beneficiary of the standard von Hasenberg education, which ran the gamut from computer hacking to social engineering. When Ada is captured by bounty hunters, she makes an alliance with another prisoner, the notorious criminal and murderer Marcus Loch, possibly the most dangerous man in the universe. Together, the pair must break free from their captors and launch a desperate campaign to earn their freedom once and for all. Along the way, they’ll also need to learn to trust each other, and resist the undeniable attraction that has arisen between them. Fast, fun, and sexy, this debut offers a delightful escape into adventure.

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, by Scotto Moore
Scotto Moore—the mind behind the darkly, strangely hilarious Lovecraftian Things That Cannot Save You Tumblr and the music blog Much Preferred Customers—writes a short, sharp debut novella that brings together both of his obsessions. It’s the story of a blogger who stumbles across most beautiful music he’s ever heard in his life—a song that mesmerizes him for hours, as if possessed of an arcane power. The band responsible, Beautiful Remorse, plans to release a new track every day for 10 days, and every subsequent tune proves to effect listeners and the world in increasingly powerful and devastating ways. As the blogger joins the band on tour and meets mysterious lead singer Airee Macpherson, he discovers the secret purpose behind the music. This quirky horror story is just as fun as the premise suggests.

Binti: The Complete Trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning trilogy is collected in one volume alongside a brand-new short story. Though originally published as three separate works, Binti’s story gains new resonance when read as a whole: it’s a moving coming-of-age tale, following a young girl’s journey from a rigid home life, out into the black of space and back. The lush worldbuilding takes us from Binti’s origins with the Namibian Himba tribe, to the intergalactic Oomza University, and on an interstellar journey during which she meets and forms a most unusual bond with the truly alien Medusae. Over the course of these stories, Binti grows and changes, taking on the burden of her people’s legacy and, perhaps, the fate of the whole universe. Filled with unusual technology, breathless adventure, and unexpected twists and turns, Okorafor’s latest works of adult science fiction (she is also the author of the YA novels Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, as well as the World Fantasy Award-winner Who Fears Death) is a true delight.

10,000 Bones, by Joe Ollinger
This debut novel is build upon a harrowing premise that lends grim context to the title: life is brutal on the planet known as Brink, where calcium is in such short supply that is has become the local currency. As the government struggles to import enough of the mineral to keep the people alive (and are given no help by other colony worlds that wish to use Brink’s desperate need for it as leverage in trade agreements). a black market has arisen to deal in the stuff—and keep it out of general circulation, where it is desperately needed. Taryn Dare is a collections agent aiming to put a stop to the illegal calcium trade (and hopefully earn enough to make her way off-planet), but she soon uncovers a dark conspiracy that leads her to believe that things on Brink are more broken than she ever imagined. An unusual world well-explored, a compellingly flawed protagonist, and one breathless action sequence after another mark Ollinger’s first novel as a winner, no bones about it.

Fog Season, by Patrice Sarath
The sequel to The Sisters Mederos returns to the city of Port Saint Frey, where once wealthy siblings Tesara and Yvienne Mederos saw their family trimmed from the upper crust of society and were forced to determine the reasons why through schemes and cunning. With those intrigues out of the way, the sisters Mederos hope to settle back into their lives, but their successful efforts to deflect an investigation into the events of the first book become more difficult when a corpse shows up in the most expected place, and pulls them back into a fog of conspiracy. The Victorian trappings and feisty protagonists—Tesara’s sharp mind, and hidden magic, Yvinne’s sharper tongue—propel this mystery story merrily, murderously along.

Sisters of the Fire, by Kim Wilkins
The sequel to Daughters of the Storm continues the story of five sisters who set off to find a magical cure for their comatose father. the king. Five years later, Bluebell, the warrior among them, remains at home, the new heir to the throne. Ivy rules a prosperous port in a lonely marriage she’s taking terrible steps to end prematurely, Ash studies magic in the far-away wastelands; Rose lives in misery with her aunt, separated from her husband and child; and Willow hides a terrible secret that could destroy everything she and her sisters fought for—she holds the enchanted sword Grithbani, forged to kill her, and she is eager to use it. Bluebell is set upon by enemies both within and outside of her future kingdom even as her sisters pursue their individual and often tragic destinies.

What are you reading this week?

The post This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Epic Beginnings, Stranger Secrets, and America’s Alternate Futures appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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After the Conspiracy: Alexandra Rowland’s A Choir of Lies Revealed

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Last year, Alexandra Rowland’s debut novel A Conspiracy of Truths wowed us with an intricate story of political subterfuge and made us giggle with (and gasp at the sheer audacity of) its foul-mouthed, story-spinning protagonist Chant, who, from a prison cell, threatened to bring down a kingdom using only the power of his words. A fantasy for the era of fake news, the novel explores how much power we place in stories—the ones we tell each other, and the ones we’d like to believe about ourselves.

This fall, Rowland returns to this word-spun world in A Choir of Lies, picking up the tale three years later to examine the repercussions of Chant’s deeds through the eyes of his young apprentice.

Today, we’re pleased to reveal the cover for the sequel, every bit as gorgeous (and hiding just as many secrets) as that of the first volume. The center artwork is by Ryan Begley, with design by Nicholas Sciacca. Check it out below the official summary.

Three years ago, Ylfing watched his master-Chant tear a nation apart with nothing but the words on his tongue. Now he’s all alone somewhere new, broken-hearted and grieving but a Chant in his own right, employed as a translator to Sterre de Waeyer, a wealthy merchant of luxury goods, while he struggles to come to terms with what his master did, with the audiences he’s been alienated from, and with the stories he can no longer trust himself to tell.

That is, until Ylfing’s employer finds out what he is, what he does, and what he knows. At Sterre’s command, he begins telling stories once more, fanning the city into a mania for a few shipments of an exotic flower. The prices skyrocket, but when disaster looms – a disaster that only the two of them recognize – Ylfing has to face what he has done and decide who he wants to be: A man who walks away and lets the city shatter, as his master did? Or… something else?

A story can be powerful enough to bring a nation to its knees, certainly. But in the right hands, a story can rebuild a broken dam, keep the floodwaters back, and save a life – or ten thousand lives.

Art by Ryan Begley, design by Nicholas Sciacca

A Choir of Lies will be released in September 2019. A Conspiracy of Truths is available now.

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