Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Interview: Eeleen Lee, author of Liquid Crystal Nightingale

In Eeleen Lee's debut novel Liquid Crystal Nightingale, escape and justice are only for the rich. Pleo is a survivor, and she dreams of a better life. When she's framed for murder, will her dreams rescue her?  A far-future murder mystery wrapped up in colonization, classism, and intrigue, think Iain M. Banks meets Battle Angel Alita, with a dash of biopunk and a splash of impending alien invasions.

This may  be Lee's first full length novel, but she's been in the international publishing world for years.  She's edited fiction and anthologies, written comedy sketches, and her short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in the U.K, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia, such as Asian Monsters from Fox Spirit Books, and Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction.

If you're looking for some great space opera reading recommendations along with a dose of humor, check our Eeleen's twitter feed, she's at @EeleenLee.  She was nice enough to chat with me about Liquid Crystal Nightingale, how the novel got started as a writing exercise, her short story collection 13 Moons, and more!

While doing research for this interview, I learned that Eeleen is a fellow Dune fan!  I think we'll both cry if the if the Sandworms don't meet our expectations.

Liquid Crystal Nightingale is out now from Rebellion Publishing, available in paperback and e-book.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: The narrative structure of Liquid Crystal Nightingale offers multiple points of view, including Pleo's, Marsh's, and the Dumortier's. How did you develop their different views of the world? When at least two of them were in the same place at the same time, how did you know whose point of view to use for that scene?

Eeleen Lee: I approached it like staging and blocking a scene- and the scene is done on green screen, which is a useful metaphor for writing because you're inventing what's outside and inside the characters. Firstly, make full use of the setting in each chapter- if the reader feels immersed in the time and place they will be more inclined to believe what the writer is depicting. Secondly, the characters, like real people, move through and interact with their environment on many levels: physically, emotionally and socially. Hence, I selected which character POVs would best reflect and set off the physical, emotional and social/individual life of a scene.

NOAF: What scenes and/or characters were your favorite to write?

EL: I enjoyed writing the two investigators, Dumortier and Nadira. There's a tendency to depict law enforcement in science fiction as mostly corrupt, inept and overwhelmed. I wanted to move away from that- it's much more effective and powerful to show a force that's efficient, highly competent and yet, still overwhelmed and vulnerable.

NOAF: What inspired you to write Liquid Crystal Nightingale? How different is the finished product from your original concepts?

EL: The novel began as a simple exercise years ago: write about a few fictional cities, in the style of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. As soon as I started writing about a city that looked like a cat's eye from space I couldn't stop at a few paragraphs. The style and tone were initially very literary, reminiscent of Primo Levi's The Periodic Table and the layered stories of Jorges Luis Borges.

NOAF: You mentioned on your twitter feed that you are pretty sure the new Dune movie will become a favorite movie adaptation. I am a fellow Dune fan, and also very excited for this movie! Do you have a favorite character or scene from the original novel or series? What do you most hope they'll get right in the movie?

EL: I hope the filmmakers get the sandworms right, with today's VFX technology there's no excuse not to. And I always thought Princess Irulan is given short shrift but ultimately she's the historian so she has the last laugh, in a sense.

NOAF: Who are some of your favorite writers? Why is their work meaningful to you?

EL: Yoon Ha-Lee, William Gibson, Alastair Reynolds, Ann Leckie, China Mieville and James SA Corey. Everything about their milieus and worldbuilding leaps off the pages.

NOAF:Your short story collection 13 Moons offers up supernatural stories of the darkness that lies just beneath the every day. Your short fiction has been published in a number of anthologies. In your short fiction, are there themes and concepts you find yourself returning to?

EL: A very good question because no one has asked me this before! Now that I look back on my short stories I can see some recurring themes such as: karma, the concept of no good deed going unpunished and coming of age.

NOAF: You edited one of the volumes of KL: Noir. How did you did get involved with this series of crime fiction, and is editing anthologies something you'd like to do more of?

EL: I was asked to get involved by my publisher and it's something I enjoy doing because it's rather exciting to guide other writers' visions.

NOAF: What’s next for you?

EL: I'm working on a military science fiction novel now.

NOAF: Thanks so much Eeleen! Can't wait to chat with you after the Dune movie comes out!

Monday, March 30, 2020

New Books Spotlight

Welcome to another edition of the New Books Spotlight, where each month or so we curate a selection of 6 new and forthcoming books we find notable, interesting, and intriguing. It gives us the opportunity to shine a brief spotlight on some stuff we're itching to get our hands on.

What are you looking forward to? Anything you want to argue with us about? Is there something we should consider spotlighting in the future? Let us know in the comments!

Bennett, Robert Jackson. Shorefall [Del Rey]
Publisher's Description
As a magical revolution remakes a city, an ancient evil is awakened in a brilliant new novel from the Hugo-nominated author of Foundryside and the Divine Cities trilogy. 

A few years ago, Sancia Grado would’ve happily watched Tevanne burn. Now, she’s hoping to transform her city into something new. Something better. Together with allies Orso, Gregor, and Berenice, she’s about to strike a deadly blow against Tevanne’s cruel robber-baron rulers and wrest power from their hands for the first time in decades.

But then comes a terrifying warning: Crasedes Magnus himself, the first of the legendary hierophants, is about to be reborn. And if he returns, Tevanne will be just the first place to feel his wrath.

Thousands of years ago, Crasedes was an ordinary man who did the impossible: Using the magic of scriving—the art of imbuing objects with sentience—he convinced reality that he was something more than human. Wielding powers beyond comprehension, he strode the world like a god for centuries, meting out justice and razing empires single-handedly, cleansing the world through fire and destruction—and even defeating death itself.

Like it or not, it’s up to Sancia to stop him. But to have a chance in the battle to come, she’ll have to call upon a god of her own—and unlock the door to a scriving technology that could change what it means to be human. And no matter who wins, nothing will ever be the same. 
Why We Want It: With the follow up to 2018's excellent Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett is a favorite of the Nerds of a Feather flock. We'll read whatever he writes.

Jingfang, Hao. Vagabonds [Saga]
Publisher's Description
A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang. 

This genre-bending novel is set on Earth in the wake of a second civil war…not between two factions in one nation, but two factions in one solar system: Mars and Earth. In an attempt to repair increasing tensions, the colonies of Mars send a group of young people to live on Earth to help reconcile humanity. But the group finds itself with no real home, no friends, and fractured allegiances as they struggle to find a sense of community and identity, trapped between two worlds.

Fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Naomi Alderman’s The Power will fall in love with this novel about lost innocence, an uncertain future, and never feeling at home, no matter where you are in the universe. Translated by Ken Liu, bestselling author of The Paper Menagerie and translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Vagabonds is the first novel from Hao Jingfang, the first Chinese woman to ever win the esteemed Hugo Award. 
Why We Want It: We've been looking for Vagabonds for a few years now. After Jingfang's Hugo Award winning story "Folding Beijing", we've been looking to see what she would write next (only one of her subsequent stories have been translated into English). Vagabonds her Jingang's debut novel.

Kozloff, Sarah. The Cerulean Queen [Tor]
Publisher's Description
Sarah Kozloff's breathtaking and cinematic epic fantasy series The Nine Realms, which began with A Queen in Hiding, comes to a thrilling conclusion in The Cerulean Queen. 

The true queen of Weirandale has returned.

Cerulia has done the impossible and regained the throne. However, she's inherited a council of traitors, a realm in chaos, and a war with Oromondo.

Now a master of her Gift, to return order to her kingdom she will use all she has learned—humility, leadership, compassion, selflessness, and the necessity of ruthlessness. 
Why We Want It: We've been following Kozloff's debut series with four novels in four months and we want to see how it all ends. The first book, A Queen in Hiding, wasn't quite the novel we expected it to be but it also hooked us on reading more.

Roth, Veronica. Chosen Ones [John Joseph Adams Books]
Publisher's Description

Fifteen years ago, five ordinary teenagers were singled out by a prophecy to take down an impossibly powerful entity wreaking havoc across North America. He was known as the Dark One, and his weapon of choice—catastrophic events known as Drains—leveled cities and claimed thousands of lives. Chosen Ones, as the teens were known, gave everything they had to defeat him.

After the Dark One fell, the world went back to normal . . . for everyone but them. After all, what do you do when you’re the most famous people on Earth, your only education was in magical destruction, and your purpose in life is now fulfilled?

Of the five, Sloane has had the hardest time adjusting. Everyone else blames the PTSD—and her huge attitude problem—but really, she’s hiding secrets from them . . . secrets that keep her tied to the past and alienate her from the only four people in the world who understand her.

On the tenth anniversary of the Dark One’s defeat, something unthinkable happens: one of the Chosen Ones dies. When the others gather for the funeral, they discover the Dark One’s ultimate goal was much bigger than they, the government, or even prophecy could have foretold—bigger than the world itself.
And this time, fighting back might take more than Sloane has to give. 
Why We Want It: Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy was compelling enough that we want to see what else she might have for us. The first novel in her Carve the Mark didn't quite, well, hit the mark - but it's time to give Roth another go with Chosen Ones. Prophecy and a Dark One in North America is different enough.

Scalzi, John. The Last Emperox [Tor]
Publisher's Description
The Last Emperox is the thrilling conclusion to the award-winning, New York Times and USA Today bestselling Interdependency series, an epic space opera adventure from Hugo Award-winning author John Scalzi. 

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction . . . and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people form impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization . . . or the last emperox to wear the crown? 
Why We Want It: The first two volumes of The Interdependency have been straight up excellent and we're excited to see how Scalzi closes out the trilogy. Interestingly enough, this is the first time Scalzi has committed trilogy. New Scalzi is always a cause for celebration.

Vo, Nghi. The Empress of Salt and Fortune [Tor.com Publishing]
Publisher's Description
With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.  
Why We Want It: We're always interested in the novellas from Tor.com Publishing, but in a year filled with highly anticipated novellas Empress of Salt and Fortune is right up near the top that list. We're here for everything about this novella.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Contributor Profile: Sean Dowie

Today we are welcoming a new member to our flock! Sean Dowie joins our roster of reviewers covering books, comics and all things nerd. You can find his reviews in FIYAH Literary Magazine. We're very excited to have Sean join the Nerds of a Feather team!

Art Credit: Renaud Lachery

NAME: Sean Dowie

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: The bottom of a river of Purell.

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Remembering book chapter names, being awkward in a kind of cute way.

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Characters with no personality and are just a repository for exposition, military sci-fi that turns machismo up to the max.

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Werewolves, because I, too, generally get freaky only one night a month.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Sooner or Later, Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, which has the kind of ludicrous plot twist that I read psychological thrillers for, and Sirens of Titan, which has the kind of keen observations and plot that I read Kurt Vonnegut for.

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: The House in the Cerulean Sky by TJ Klune, and The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott.
WHEN THE WEATHER SUCKS OUTSIDE I'M MOST LIKELY TO BE... Comparing the author pictures on my favourite books, and then realizing that appearances don’t matter and to stop being superficial.


IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: The ability to create a hotspot anywhere in the world, and my arch nemesis would be named Data.

THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, no contest.

THE WORST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: The bits of Fantastic Four (2015) that I’ve seen.

I JUST WATCHED XXXX AND IT WAS AWESOME: The final season of Bojack Horseman. What a way to stick the landing!

I JUST WATCHED XXXX AND IT WAS TERRIBLE. The Secret Life of Pets 2. A guy I dated made me watch it with him, and I’m 26 years old.

EVERYONE SHOULD SEE XXXX BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE, Synecdoche, New York. Don’t let the unwieldy title deter you—it’s a perfect movie.


NAME A BOOK  YOU *NEED* A MOVIE OF (OR VICE VERSA): We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Friday, March 27, 2020

6 Books with Ryan Van Loan

Ryan Van Loan served six years as a Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (PA National Guard) where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan. He has traveled around the world with his wife, wandering Caribbean island haunts, exploring the palaces and cathedrals of Europe, and hiking with elephants in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Ryan's forthcoming novel, The Sin in the Steel hits shelves on July 21, 2020. Today, Ryan lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two dogs where he’s hard at work on his next novel.

Today he shares his Six Books With Us.

1. What book are you currently reading? 

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. It’s about a newly minted thief who has to pay off their student loan debts to the guild (relatable), a witch-in training, and a kickass knight with a war raven who go on an adventure together. It’s dark, but delightful in a gritty way that hits some of my favorite adventure fantasy notes. Fans of Nicholas Eames, Douglas Hulick, and V.E. Schwab will enjoy this one...unfortunately Christopher’s fantasy debut doesn’t land on shelves until next year.

I hate when someone names a book that’s not out on shelves right now, so let me also plug the book I read before this one: The Steel Crow Saga by Paul Kreuger. It’s a tight, standalone fantasy--think Pokemon in the immediate aftermath of World War II with half a dozen richly imagined cultures that reminded me of southeast Asia and a cast who all have mysteries they hope none discover.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I have to pick one? My understanding is that we’re getting books from the aforementioned V.E. Schwab, Jim Butcher, and Scott Lynch to name a few! Heh. I am hearing really great things about Katherin Addison’s (The Goblin Emperor) The Angel of the Crows. The title alone had me, but the premise--1880’s London with vampires and werewolves and angels and Jack the Ripper--made click pre-order as fast as I could.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to read again?

So many! I grew up in a rural area so before I could drive, my only friends in the summertime were books and I loved reading so much that I was reading 5+ books/week from the age of 10 until right around the time I graduated college. I have a lot of old friends I want to see again. That said, I think I’m probably due for a Watership Down reread. That book taught me a lot about friendship and perseverance and in the year 2020, those are both important things to have in your life.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

This is a great question! By which I mean it’s a hard one… N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was a book I immediately appreciated, but I had reason to re-read it recently and I was just blown away by what a master class it is in voice as a device for the story and how point of view can dramatically influence a scene(s). Then there are the themes of the book itself and the layers upon layers of craft that she wields throughout that build to an emotional crescendo that I saw coming, but still was utterly unprepared for. So my answer is I’ve positively changed my mind more positively!

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

A lot of the books I read as a child and young adult have had lasting influences on me, but as far as my writing goes I think it would have to be The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. It’s a story about a royal outcast who sets out to prove her worth along with a put-out-to-pasture, lame, war stallion by fighting dragons. But it’s also a story about living with depression and finding ways to continue to make a difference even when you’re not sure that you matter at all, let alone your actions. It’s about finding your way through that fog in your soul. I am not a believer in AP English capital ‘T’ theme, but I am a believer in writing stories that matter. The Hero and the Crown does what I strive to do with every book: entertain with heart.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome? 

Why is my latest book awesome? In a word? Buc.

The Sin in the Steel is the story of Sambuciña ‘Buc’ Alhurra, the compellingly chaotic heroine who is part Sherlock Holmes, part young Indiana Jones and ALL herself. Buc shares a sisterhood with Arya Stark and Lila Bard of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic. The first private investigator in her world, Buc’s too smart for her own good with a razor-sharp blade hidden up her sleeve and an even sharper tongue. She’s finally landed the case that will set her and her partner-in-crime solving, Eld, up for life...if they survive. With her wit and Eld’s sword they’ll have to best pirate queens, mages, and uncharted seas to solve a mystery empires have failed to uncover.

Unfortunately for Buc, the gods have other plans.

Unfortunately for the gods, so does Buc.

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Questing in Shorts: March 2020

I have a somewhat truncated edition of Questing in Shorts today, owing to March being, to put it mildly, a Month. From next month I'll be focusing back on magazines and some of the small press collections I already have on my shelves, but for this month, let's see what I did manage to get through in the circumstances. Luckily, it's all rather good:

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by A.J. Fitzwater (Queen of Swords Press)

This collection, featuring a capybara pirate captain in a world full of anthropomorphic animals and magical creatures, is definitely more of a short fiction collection than a novel, but it's also a bit of an odd duck when trying to review as short stories, as there's a strong through narrative between each tale (or "tail") that makes it hard to speak about them individually. After an opening story (the aptly titled "Young Cinrak") that sees Cinrak take her first steps into piracy (in this world, apparently respectable career for those seeking freedom and a good community around them), the rest of the collection deals with her time as an established captain, taking on an increasingly mythological set of exploits, all while maintaining the affections of both opera prima donna Loquolchi, and the Rat Queen Orvillia, and looking after her diverse and entertaining crew of rodents and affiliated creatures.

Aside from the obvious parallels to its characters, there's something very soft and cuddly about these stories, in which krakens can become allies, stars can be freed from their royal captivity and sent back to the heavens, and pirates make for the most successful diplomats to all the various creatures of the earth (even the felines!) While it doesn't go particularly heavily into characterisation, its core cast all have enjoyable personalities and quirks to watch, and Cinrak herself is a delight at the heart of it all. The highlights for me came towards the middle, with the star-wrangling and celestial racing of "The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars" signalling a shift into more magical adventure territory, and "Search for the Heart of the Ocean" following it up with an epic voyage which cements the compassion with which Cinrak, and the narrative around her, treats all the creatures in its orbit. I may have read this collection before "adventurous fluff in which everything is fundamentally OK" became one of the most important commodities on the planet, but my appreciation for it has only grown since then, and this is definitely a diversion I'd recommend to anyone who needs one at the moment.

The Nine Lands by Marie Brennan (Book View Cafe)

The Nine Lands is a collection of early stories from Brennan, all set in a shared world, although there's little overlap in the places and cultures covered. Despite being early work, the seven tales here are all highly enjoyable and, although its hard to get a full picture of the world as a whole, the individual pieces of worldbuilding and concepts are as accomplished and interesting as I'd expect from Brennan.

The stories themselves are relatively simple and self-contained in their narratives. Some are pretty bleak: "Execution Morning", the story of a Lieutenant dealing with a group of captured people from another culture who are due to be brutally executed in order to scapegoat them for their people's crimes, has very little in the way of hope or good choices for its characters, although it also offers a surprisingly sympathetic take for all involved. "The Legend of Anahata" tells the story of a King struggling to accept the impossible odds standing against his kingdom, and the sacrifices required from the Goddess. And "Sing for Me" is the story of a woman taken from her home in order to become the protege of a noble, and forced to develop painful talents she has no interest in making a name for herself over. In contrast, some of the stories do deal with forms of justice and belonging, from "Calling into Silence" and its story of a young woman cast out of her home and made to feel like a spiritual failure for her inability to complete a possession ritual, only to find the solution to her worries is rather closer to home, to "White Shadow"'s similarly spiritual tale of self-discovery among the shape-shifting Kagi people.

"Lost Soul"'s handling of a bard who has left bard college and is now struggling to find her passion within the magic of traditional music is a story that rivals some of the best musical stories of Sarah Pinsker, ending in a jam of epic proportions whose transitions and modulations you can almost hear through the invented song titles and descriptions. My favourite of the lot, however, is "Kingspeaker", in which a woman who has been raised to become the "voice" of a King, communicating his words to others as no others are able to bear the sound of him speaking, must find ways to reconcile her role with her broader duties to her Kingdom during wartime and the need to protect her young charge. Its a novel concept that dances between magical and cultural (though the author notes confirm that there is indeed something magical going on which makes the protagonist's role vital) and though the story is pretty light even for this collection, its a decent vehicle to showcase the concept and characters. Though it's hard, from an outside perspective, to automatically see that these stories belong to the same world, there's a common thread of highly accomplished worldbuilding which makes this early collection a worthy escape, especially for those who enjoy snippets of high fantasy in short fiction form.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow (Tor Books)

This is, I think, my first time reading Doctorow, and it's a promising start. The four novellas in this collection deal in some way with near future scenarios which tackle aspects of US culture, and some of the more dystopian elements of late capitalism. There's "Model Minority", a story in which Not!Superman tries to take on a case of police brutality against a Black man, only to find his motives, his effectiveness and his own "whiteness" called into question as an alien. "Radicalized" deals with a man who finds comfort in an online community for men whose family members are suffering from cancer and whose insurance won't pay for the treatment which would save them. In "The Masque of Red Death", a man who has created what he considers the perfect post-apocalyptic survival community has his assumptions severely tested. Having sent away the family of one of his carefully selected co-survivalists, and learned a hard lesson in going up against an equally well defended other outpost and discovering what rampant post-apocalyptic gun violence actually looks like, it's illness (cholera, in this case) which really brings the realities of crisis survival home, and there's an interesting progression between the carefully curated image the protagonist puts forward at the beginning of the crisis, and the raw unpleasantness of the experiment's end.

The best story here, however, is "Unauthorized Bread", a story which creates an entire community of refugees living on the "poor floors" of a new build luxury apartment block, whose lives are dictated by the smart appliances installed in their flats which force them to use particular marked-up products to be compatible with them, or go without. When Salima's toaster company goes bankrupt, she finds a way to jailbreak it and toast all the bread she wants, but sharing this knowledge among her community sends them up against the system in a way she's not entirely sure she's prepared for. By turns chilling and heartwarming, and with a great supporting cast, Salima's story offers a terrifyingly plausible vision of a future where autonomy must be paid for, while also showcasing the hope and ingenuity that people can deploy against such systems.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Westworld Wednesday: Prisoners of Today

Welcome back to Westworld Wednesday, a series of essays/ramblings about the themes & philosophies of Westworld. NOTE: while we deal more with themes here, rather than plot, the emphasis is not on what happened this week; HOWEVER, if you are reading this and wish to avoid spoilers, you should be current on the show (Seriously, there are spoilers in this).

In Season Three, we have completely abandoned robot-cowboy murder and traded it for real-life--fatcat murder and I am HERE FOR IT. At least, right out the gate we have. Episode two opens with some good old Nazi murder, which is also awesome.

But enough about the plot. The best thing about Westword is its sheer depth, not the dizzying plot. The first episode introduces a slew of new characters, some of which are, uh, written out swiftly, while others will stick around.

In many ways, it is a concave mirror of the first episode of the series, which established the 'loops' of the hosts. The difference is that most of the people are, well, people - flesh and blood humans. They don't have loops in the sense of repeated days, but they are absolutely trapped by them.

We caught glimpses of this world, the real world, before, but not much. So far, we really haven't seen much more, just the 1% and a glimpse into a bit of the underworld via Aaron Paul's Caleb. But the paths of greed, of fathers and sons, set loops in motion that are very, very difficult to break away from.

Delores brings revolution to the human world, and it will be interesting to see if any of the humans choose a path apart from the one programmed for them. The Delos family didn't, William changed his to greed and selfishness. Lots of new humans have new opportunities, a do the remaining hosts.

As do we all.


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

The Great Escape: Books to Escape Into

Need some escapism?

Need some comfort reads?

Need them to be available as e-book, for a variety of reasons?

I gotcha covered.

The following series are all available as e-book, they'll all suck you right in, and we've all earned some escapism. Because I'm the person who made this list, the science fiction books on this list are "soft scifi" - relationships, feelings, found families. Lots of science, yes, but lots of other things too. These are my comfort reads.

Kage Baker's Company series offers time travel, immortal cyborgs, the long game, romance, world travel, humor, and ten books to keep you busy. The first book in the series, In the Garden of Iden, follows young Mendoza as she survives the Spanish Inquisition and the surgeries that will make her into an immortal cyborg. Surviving being in love, well, that’s another matter entirely. Enjoy the teen angst, and grab some tissues. The second book, Sky Coyote, is much lighter and much much funnier, I promise. Oh, you’ve already read this series?  Read In the Garden of Iden again, there are so many hints there that I missed last time!

Like a good heist? Give Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora a whirl. Young con artist Locke Lamora pulls stunts, cons, and long games that even the gods wouldn't dream of. But one of these days, his past is going to catch up with him and his crew. How long can he out run it? And how much can he steal along the way? This series is chock full of heartwarming friendships, intrigue, swear words, wry humor, and unrequited love. Characters are brave, loyal, and have friends in all the right places, except when they don't. Highly recommended for fans of The Witcher.

You want a heist, but in the future? You're sure to enjoy Derek Kunsken's The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden. Genetic engineered new races of humanity, a religion gone horribly wrong, galaxy spanning governments, and a con artist who can see quantum physics at the molecular level. Pick these books up for the science, get hooked on them from the excellent characters, the incandescent plot, and the rapid fire pace.

How does a space opera series that’s heavy on politics, melodrama, humor, and romance sound? If that got your attention, you’ll be pleased to know that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga now has 20-some novels. Even better, if you read these out of order, you'll be ok. Download the first two or three, see what you think, and then bounce around to whichever ones look interesting. It's been a few years since I read a Vorkosigan novel, and no, I haven't read anywhere close to all of them, and yes, I read them in random order. And yes, there's a reason McMaster Bujold has six Hugo awards.

Short stories more your thing? The Clockwork Phoenix anthology series, edited by Mike Allen, is criminally underrated and under-known.  The tagline "Tales of Beauty and Strangeness" enfolds genre-defying fiction from Tanith Lee, Catherynne M. Valente, Laird Barron , Rich Larson, Barbara Krasnoff, Marie Brennan, Saladin Ahmed, C.S.E. Cooney, Carlos Hernandez,  Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Gemma Files, and about a million more. Within these pages you'll find surrealism,  fantasy, ghost stories, horror, magical realism, endings and beginnings. Bedtime stories don't get any better than this!

Your school age kids need something too, and what better than something you can read with them? If they haven't discovered this heartwarming coming of age story yet, the whole family has just enough time to read Carlos Hernadez's Sal and Gabi Break the Universe before the second book comes out in May.  When a pre-teen uses his skills as a magician to hide his ability to manipulate space time, who better to help him out than his cheeriest (and nosy-est!) classmate? Also: middle school hijinks, unusual families, the best Cuban food you've ever had, and characters who'll make you feel like you're walking through sunshine.  If you don't have any children in the house, read this for yourself. You can thank me later.

When you’re done with these, let me know, I’ll give you some more. In the meantime, what are your comfort reads?

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Interview: Corry L Lee, author of Weave the Lightning

Corry L Lee's debut novel, Weave the Lightning, will be available in early April,  and depending on where you live, this is just in time for thunderstorm season!  Elemental magic, revolutions, fascism and secret police, romance, and  treason hiding in plain sight.  Political intrigue, propaganda,  passionate characters, and people realizing how far they'll go for what they believe in. And did I mention, magical storms that are returning decades ahead of time? Talk about climate change!

You'll hear more about it in the interview, but Weave the Lightning's unique magic system really has my attention!  It's not the specifics of the magic system I'm obsessing over, but how and when magical items can be made . . . and how the society begins to depend more on technology when magical items can't be made. What if you'd been born at the beginning of a Storm period, and known magic your whole life?  What if you'd been born a hundred years into a non-Storm period, and witnessing a magical item being made sounded like a legend? I'm intrigued by this society, that can change so drastically over time.  Add in a fascist regime, and you've got a  recipe for a wild ride!

Corry L Lee has a PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard,  where she studied antimatter and what happened in the first microseconds of the universe.   Her short story "Shutdown", won the Writers of the Future award. She currently lives in Seattle, but can often be found at science fiction conventions around the country while she completes The Storm's Betrayal,  the sequel to Weave the Lightning.  You can learn more about Corry at her website, Corrylee.com and by following her on twitter at @CorryLLee.   If you catch up with her at a convention, she might even let you join the Lightning Gang!

Read on for my conversation with Corry about where her ideas for Weave the Lightning came from, how she developed the magic system,  her favorite scenes to write,  science fiction conventions, physics, and more!

NOAF: Weave the Lightning takes place in a Russian-inspired world. What made that such a fun and interesting world to play in?

Corry L. Lee: I met a man who'd recently moved to the U.S. from a former Soviet state, and I asked him what he thought. "It’s great," he said on this sunny afternoon in L.A.. "Here, the secret police can’t break into your home in the middle of the night and arrest your family."

That conversation formed one of the first seeds of Weave the Lightning, and got me thinking both along Russian lines as well as considering the effects of totalitarian regimes. Making the regime fascist let me explore what made people - who would consider themselves good people, who might even be kind and helpful in the right circumstances - enthusiastically back a system that did awful things.

I love characters who believe strongly. Fascism let me have principled, "good" people on both sides of the State's definition of "right." Then I forced those people to need each other, to have to work together, and to examine what they'd believed without question all their lives
NOAF:  What were some of your inspirations behind writing this novel?

CLL: I love when secondary worlds make deliberate choices about the lines people create to divide "us" and "them" rather than just carrying over our society’s cultural baggage. I wanted equality around gender and sexuality, so I built that in from the ground up through the magic system and its influence on society.

NOAF:   State controlled mages, storm magic, I don't know much yet about this magic system, but I already love it! What can you tell us about the magic system, and how it works for the mages and the populace?

CLL:  When developing Weave the Lightning's magic, I had in mind "crunchy," well-understood magic systems like you see from Brandon Sanderson. But having just finished my Ph.D. in physics, I wanted to avoid too much scientific rigor because it felt like "real work." Bridging those desires meant creating well-defined rules with space inside them for the magic to be mysterious and unpredictable.

I also wanted technology to develop alongside magic.

I chose to have specialized imbuement mages create magical objects—objects which can persist and be used by anyone with a little bit of magic and the right training. This opens magic up to more people and lets it be used more like a technology.

Imbuing a new object, on the other hand, requires being struck by magical lightning, which happens only during a bozhskyeh storm—and there's the catch. Bozhskyeh storms occur on a cycle: for 50 years, magical lightning makes new imbuements possible; for 150 years, storms carry only electricity.
So there's a push and pull between magic and technology, and a difference in how you train mages depending on where in that cycle they live.

As for the crunchy details of how to create or use magical objects... that's a subject for another post.

NOAF:   What was your favorite scene to write?

CLL: I love writing scenes where strong characters with conflicting goals and ideas have to somehow get on the same page (or close enough to it) to work together.

Avoiding spoilers, writing Celka and Gerrit first hashing this out was great fun.

NOAF:  And YES, there is a sequel in the works! What's been your experience so far, writing The Storm's Betrayal? How is writing book two different from writing the first one?

CLL:  Writing The Storm's Betrayal has been a delight. We get to know the characters better, expand the world, and deepen the moral complexity. Plus, I've added a new point of view, someone who I think you'll love.

It has also been a challenge in revision. Some of what I thought would work fantastically just... didn't. But that's the great thing about revision. My readers will just get to see the good stuff!

NOAF: You've attended and spoken at a number of science fiction conventions. What are your favorite types of panels to be on?

CLL:  I really enjoy heckling the... erm, let's call them old guard. Respectfully heckling. If I disagree with someone, I won't nod meekly and let it slide simply because they have seniority. Progress comes from challenging ideas, from engaging in open dialogue, and being willing to change one's mind. I love conversations like that—whether in small groups or on a panel.

Since I'm a physicist, this often comes up regarding how correct one's science "must" be in speculative fiction, but I've gotten into disagreements about a lot of things that other panelists hardline on. Fundamentally, there are very few "rules" that I believe must be adhered to 100% of the time; and, frequently, techniques that work amazingly for one person fail for another.

People are quick to expound upon what others must (or must not) do. Whether that advice centers on what a "serious" writer looks like, how science "must" be used, or what a person "should" (or should not) write, you an count on me to challenge those absolutes. There are as many ways to be a great writer/reader/fan as there are ways to be human.

NOAF:  The Particle Physics section of your website gives an excellent overview of the research you've been involved with. What got you into physics? How has your career in physics effected your fiction writing, if at all?

CLL:  I always liked math and science, so when people (loudly and repeatedly) told me that I could never make a career out of writing, I shrugged, kept writing, and studied physics. I smashed electrons and anti-electrons together to create conditions that haven't existed in nature since the birth of the universe. I discovered new decays of a particle that only lives for miniscule fractions of a second. In the process, I learned how to think like a scientist, how to question assumptions and listen to feedback, and how to rapidly assimilate new information—all of which have been immensely helpful in writing.

Specifically, my science background gives me a unique perspective on building magic systems. Magic in Weave the Lightning is complex, but it feels organic and grounded—like it would if it were a real science.

NOAF:   What in the hell is CP Violation??

CLL: Haha. The big picture? It's a key component in a subtle difference between matter and anti-matter.

You've probably seen Einstein’s famous E = m c-squared equation. What that equation means is that energy (E) can be converted into mass (m). (Ignore "c", it’s the speed of light, and physicists ignore it all the time. It’s there to make the units work out.)

What this equation means for the universe is that, when the Big Bang happened, energy got converted into matter and anti-matter equally (there's deeper physics at work that makes it so that whenever you create an electron you have to also create an anti-electron, and so on)... which should mean that the matter and anti-matter can eventually meet each other, smash, and annihilate back into energy. (That’s how you power the starship Enterprise, after all.)

But there's this teeeensy difference between matter and anti-matter such that when they annihilate, there’s a tiiiiiny bit of matter left over. That matter is what forms our universe, our planet, and us. (Like I said, it’s really tiny :))

So our whole existence? It's thanks to CP violation.

That’s why I studied it.

NOAF:   Thanks so much Corry!  Good thing there was that extra bit of matter left over,  would have been an awful waste of energy otherwise. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Mind Meld: The 101 and the 201 of SFF

Welcome back to the Mind Meld, the feature where we ask a bunch of genre people a single genre related question and compile their responses. Formerly at SF Signal, and at Barnes and Noble, the Mind Meld’s home is now here at Nerds of a Feather.

The question I asked this time:

Some readers are looking for entry points into fantasy and pointing them at a book rich in the conversation and assumed tropes can throw them right out of it again. Other readers want more than a basic experience but are frustrated with novels that retread the same basics over and over.

So I'd like for you to recommend me *two* books:

1. A 101 SFF book that someone who may have seen Lord of the Rings but never cracked open an SFF book might fruitfully read. 
2. A 201 SFF book for someone looking for a deeper, richer experience, rewarding their previous reading in genre. 

Here are our participants and their answers!

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen writes an alarming number of science fiction and fantasy stories, and now poetry and nonfiction too. You can find her in real life wherever it's cold enough, on twitter @MarissaLingen or on her website at www.marissalingen.com.

Fonda Lee's Jade City is exactly the kind of smart, fun read I want to use to invite people into fantasy. It's doing its own thing so much that you don't have to know other fantasy tropes to get it--there's nothing else quite like this. The island of Kekon is the world's source of magical jade--and the home of jade-wielding gangster families. Jade City delves into the heart of both.

A.K. Larkwood's The Unspoken Name is a great 201 book for people who have encountered their first orc and their first world-spanning fantasy already and want to take it to the next level. Orc priestess Csorwe begins the book fully expecting to die in the service of her death cult. When a sorcerer rescues her instead, her life takes a turn--and another--until she's twisting through a labyrinth of worlds that even the most jaded reader will find delightful.

Megan O'Keefe

Megan E. O'Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She lives in the Bay Area of California, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on. Her fantasy debut, Steal the Sky, won the Gemmell Morningstar Award and her space opera debut, Velocity Weapon is nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. She is represented by Sam Morgan at The Lotts Agency.

Giving someone an entry point to fantasy is something I feel should be tailored to the reader's personal preferences. Do you like mafia stories? Then Fonda Lee's Jade War will absolutely hook you with its intense action and family drama. Already a sucker for beautiful prose? Patricia A. McKillip is the author for you, and you can start anywhere, but one of my personal favorites is Alphabet of Thorn. Like Supernatural and Buffy? Then jump feet-first into Seanan McGuire's October Daye series. History fan? Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe. Like westerns? Give Joe Abercrombie's Red Country a spin.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is my immediate recommendation for those who are steeped in the fantasy genre but are looking for a different experience. It's a difficult book to categorize, and those are my favorite kinds of books. I'd also put forth Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee for its intense, strange beauty, Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers for an unusual look at the post-apocalyptic, Cloud Roads by Martha Wells for its unique characters and, if I can sneak some science fiction in here, Starfish by Peter Watts for those who feel their grimdark is still too shiny.

Alix Harrow

A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral toddlers. She is the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Hugo award-winning short fiction. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.

1. A 101 SFF book that someone who may have seen Lord of the Rings but never cracked open an SFF book might fruitfully read.

You know what everybody loves? Dueling magicians who slowly fall in love within a whimsical and aesthetically pleasing circus! The Night Circus has been a very successful SFF 101 book recommendation for me. The magic is familiar and the world is very nearly our own, and the spirit of yearning and wonder is one that almost every reader knows well. I've also had good luck with Stardust, because all of us have fairy tales baked into our bones.

2. A 201 SFF book for someone looking for a deeper, richer experience, rewarding their previous reading in genre.

...But not everybody is prepared to read about a geologically-fractured planet and the hyper-evolved earth-benders who manipulate its surface in service to a totalitarian empire. The Fifth Season is brilliant, already-classic, excruciating, and wonderful--but it doesn't hold your hand as it takes you through a continent's-worth of secondary world history and a heady mix of technology and magic. I also try to reserve all 800 pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for 201 readers, because not everybody is up for footnotes about fairy history.

Adri Joy

Adri is co-editor here at Nerds of a Feather.

I love how this question is formulated, because it makes one thing clear from the start: very few people coming into SFF books for the first time are entering in a vacuum of previous media. While the literary genre may not have taken over the world, big movie and TV franchises with fantasy trappings are now a major part of the landscape, and any 101 conversation needs to take that into account.

Of course, recommending a book for someone who has seen Lord of the Rings requires understanding if they liked Lord of the Rings or not. I considered breaking the rules of the question to give myself a recommendation for those who do, and a recommendation for those who don't", but I should probably set a good example and do things properly! My 101 book is therefore a pick that I hope will have something for both crowds: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Fans of the fellowship get another close-knit crew, all figuring out their own problems and on a (slightly less epic) quest; those who need to know that it's not all battles and melodrama and highly gender-biased casts get a very different narrative and and aesthetic to the big individualistic epics of film. Plus, in the UK edition at least, it's got a very "crossover"-friendly cover: there's a serif font and everything!

Once somebody's hooked, I feel like there are two ways the "deepening" can go (oh no, I'm about to ruin the premise again, aren't I). One great source of new material is in short fiction, and recent anthologies from Tor.com and Uncanny Magazine provide amazing showcases of the current talent in that area. Short fiction anthologies and magazines can be a tasting menu, allowing readers to discover new authors and then dive more deeply into the ones they gel with. Now that I've cheated and sneaked in some more books, I'll put in my second recommendation, which is Jade City by Fonda Lee: a book which takes a plot of epic fantasy scale and puts it in a world that's far from the orcs-and-elves trappings of the post-Tolkien "standards". Characters are complex, magic is innovative, and the action is cinematic and compelling. Definitely a book for anyone struggling to break out of an early rut and discover exactly how much fantasy is capable of.

Marina Berlin

Marina Berlin is a critic, author and poet and who grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. Her opinions have been published in IGN, VICE, Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons and other venues. You can find her work at her website: marinaberlin.org or follow her on Twitter @berlin_marina

For a 101 book my pick is Zen Cho's "Sorcerer to the Crown". Set in 19th century England, the book is influenced by the wolrdbuilding in Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell", so magic is a codified, well known aspect of English life, and access to it is stratified along lines of gender, race and class, like every other resource.
Cho's protagonists are Prunella Gentleman, an orphan whose father was a British officer and whose mother was an Indian sorceress, and Zacharias Whyte, a boy born to an African couple who were enslaved by the British, and adopted by the English noble who took him from his parents as an infant. Both Prunella and Zacharias are outsiders in British society, despite growing up steeped in its mores and traditions, and both of them have access to magic, in different ways.
I love the book because of its humor, its global outlook on the 19th century, despite being focused on England, and the gentle, intricate relationships it weaves between its protagonists and their friends, enemies and relatives. On the one hand it's a very easy book for readers new to the genre - it's set in our world, albeit in a different century, the protagonists are humans, and the magical creatures are mostly faeries and dragons, things people with no interest in fantasy are likely vaguely familiar with. On the other hand, it's great for introducing people to genre, it opens so many doors and uses so many tropes, it's a great stepping stone to start from and then move on to other books.

For a 201 book my pick is Yoon Ha Lee's "Ninefox Gambit". I grew up loving science fiction, and the book felt like it was written for someone like me, who knew and loved the tropes, who understood the language of scifi without everything being spelled out. The first fifty pages, especially, are very dense and heavy with made up technical terms, and I felt like someone new the genre would have trouble getting through them.
The book is also rewarding because it blends military science fiction with elements of fantasy, including religious worship in a very high-tech environment. It portrays a form of warfare that's based on a calendar that does everything from dictating auspicious dates to determining what defense formation can be used. If you've read a lot of military scifi in English, the book will likely feel fresh and inventive with its tropes, including the protagonist, a high ranking military officer, spending her free time watching TV shows with robots shaped like mythical animals, who gossip about her when she's not looking.

Lisa McCurrach

Lisa (she/her) is a thirtysomething lifelong book nerd from Scotland who lives surrounded by SFF books and fueled by tea. She is a co-host of SciFi Month and Wyrd and Wonder, both online celebrations of SF and fantasy respectively. She can be found online at Dear Geek Place, or on Twitter and Instagram as @deargeekplace.

The 101: The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

I picked Jen’s debut novel on the basis that someone who has seen The Lord of the Rings and liked it enough to want to find more stories like it, should absolutely try something fresher in the same epic adventure vein. For me, the Copper Cat trilogy absolutely fits that bill. It’s everything an aspiring fantasy nerd could want. It’s entrenched in the tropes comfortably enough to represent the genre well, but unlike Tolkien’s written work, it’s as far from dry as you can get (sorry, Fellowship fans!). And it was among the very first SFF books I read when I was starting out as a blogger, so not only is my personal soft spot for it undeniable, but it leaped immediately to mind when I was considering how to answer this question. I go with my gut a lot of the time, and so here is my 101 offering.

The 201: Hunger Makes The Wolf by Alex Wells

This one also represents a modern genre offering that clearly stands on the shoulders of the classic giants that came before it, but rather than simply leaping off of that foundation, this strange, richly-imagined science-fantasy digs down, getting to know its own soil and coming up with weird and wonderful story gems that make the whole thing feel like an undiscovered country (or planet, if we’re staying properly on-theme here).

It’s Frank Herbert’s Dune for every uppity nerd who ever asked really critical questions about it, who loved its ideas and/or its trappings but wanted more (yes, that’s me, hi how are you). So depending on how deep in love you already are with SFF, it can definitely satisfy that craving for clearer, better storytelling

Melissa Caruso

Melissa Caruso is the author of fantasy novels of intrigue and explosions from Orbit Books, including The Tethered Mage and its sequels; her latest, The Obsidian Tower, launches a new trilogy this June. Find Melissa on Twitter as @melisscaru for tweets about the four classic elements: writing, swordfighting, tea, and pets.

I always like to get a feel for a person’s tastes before recommending a book, but if I had no other information to go on, for a 101 book I might recommend the excellent EMPIRE OF SAND by Tasha Suri. It hits the perfect balance of offering up the delights that make fantasy so compelling (gorgeous worldbuilding, wonder-inducing magic, epic stakes) without leaning on assumed prior knowledge or familiar SFF tropes. The conflict plays out on a very personal, human level, with a compelling main character trapped in an impossible situation and a central relationship that sweeps you away. Plus it stands alone, with a highly satisfying ending, so it doesn’t require the reader to commit to a trilogy—but there’s a companion book if they do come out wanting more!

For my 201 book, I’d recommend Genevieve Cogman’s THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY and its sequels. This series is an absolute romp: fun and clever with plenty of action and mystery, engaging characters, and delicious worldbuilding. Because the series actively plays with tropes, you’ll get more out if it if you’re already familiar enough with SFF to know the familiar story elements and archetypes she’s using as imaginative springboards. Since it hops around between alternate worlds with varying levels of magic and science, having that context also allows for a sort of shorthand that lets you understand more than is outright explained. Plus, they’re the kind of books that make you really want to play (or run) a tabletop game in that world, and it’s a long series so there’s plenty to read!

Andrew Hiller

Andrew Hiller stumbled off the road least chosen into the whitewater best avoided. Astride his capsized raft, you can find his books, A Halo of Mushrooms and A Climbing Stock, his radio work, and a couple of Muppet documentaries.

The letter arrives not by email, but by scroll, carried on the mist of a dragon’s harrumph. I break the seal to find my proposal has been granted. Upon the next semester, I will be teaching SFF 101 at Secular U. Immediately, I think of the syllabus. Should I introduce fantasy through its greats: through Bradbury, Pratchett, Le Guin? The books that made me love the genre? Someone modern that speaks to the issues of the day?

In the end, I realize there is no one right choice, but I discard the Belgariad, Harry Potter, and even Amber.

The first book my students will dig into will be Brian McClellan’s 2017 Epic Fantasy, Sins of Empire. Why? It has echoes of Tolkien with its military strategy, battles, and magical artifacts, but layers in a tale of spies, propaganda, and politics. Even better for my students, Empire features a split narrative.

Why is this important?

If my reader likes adventure tales or superheroes, they have a Hercules of a character in Mad Ben Styke. If they prefer, tales of wiles and wit or to wrestle with racial subjugation and an underground fight for civil rights, then Michel Brevis’ narrative will captivate them. On the other hand, if military strategy is their thing, Lady Flint should more than satisfy. In other words, McClellan’s Gods of Blood and Powder provides a rich buffet. Plus, it’s just a ton of fun.

To follow it up? For SFF 201, I’m picking a book that shows that fantasy is larger than rewashed Tolkienesque quests and battle. I still want a book that’s a ride, fun, and has rich characters. How about a book that marries The Godfather with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ? That’s right, book two is an action intrigue. It’s Fonda Lee’s Jade City.

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan's three month break from computer programming has now lasted seventeen years and counting. He's written more gaming books than he can readily recall, by virtue of the alchemical transformation of tea and guilt into words. He lives in Ireland with his wife, twin sons and a marauding toddler. Find him online at garhanrahan.com or on twitter @mytholder

101: Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld is fun. The core conceit of the book – Dungeons & Dragons adventuring parties have the same dynamic as rock bands – instantly orientates the reader. Don’t worry about having to wade through prophecies, dark lords, or ten thousand page epic backstories, because we’re getting the band back together. Couple that with compelling characters, a great supporting cast (especially the two-headed giant) and more music in-jokes than you can shake a drumstick at, and you’ve a great intro to fantasy.

201: Not a novel, but a comic book. Kieron Gillen’s Die mixes portal fantasy and mid-life crisis in a tale of six friends from our world who were dragged into an otherworldly realm twenty years ago. Now, they’re back in the game.
What makes Die especially interesting is that they’re not in some generic fantasy-land. Much like Ellis’ Planetary uncovered the secret history of comics, Die's realms trace the development of SFF, from the Bronte’s imagined worlds to Tolkien (and, intriguingly, William Gibson), and the characters as are knowingly genre-aware as the canniest reader. Highly recommended.

Keena Roberts

Keena Roberts wrote a memoir about growing up being chased by lions and now writes queer SFF. She can be found at @roberts_keena on Twitter, tweeting about being chased by lions and queer SFF.

A 101 SFF book that I think is a great "entry" to SFF is Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames (a book I love). It's the sequel to Kings of the Wyld, so you can start there if you want, but I skipped it in favor of the absolutely breathtakingly badass Bloody Rose, a choice I regret not at all. There's a lot in there that can appeal to a casual fantasy fan: there are monsters, and heroes and heroines who fight them with swords and magic, lots of tavern brawls and a lot of clever, engaging dialogue with some swearing thrown in. The epic is beautifully written and totally immersive, with enough familiar material to appeal to someone who like swords and monsters but with detailed and rich world building that will make them wonder why they haven't been reading SFF all this time? It's so damn good.

BUT! If you’re looking for a deeper and more complex 201-level read in SFF, I’d highly, highly recommend Gideon the Ninth. There’s some familiarity here in terms of “hey, look a sword” and “hey, a spaceship” but THAT IS WHERE THE FAMILIAR ENDS. Nothing about this book is like anything I’ve ever read before: the heroines suck but are completely awesome at the same time, death seems to be more of a general concept than an inevitability for anyone, and the back story that develops around the main characters is complicated and confusing and draws you in like a beckoning metacarpal. You won’t know what’s happening to you but you won’t care because whatever it is, don’t want it to stop. 

J Kathleen Cheney

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former math teacher who gave up the glory of public school teaching for the chance to write her stories. The Golden City (2013) was the first of her published novels, and if you look real hard on the internet you'll discover she's still writing despite the insanity of our world.

I'm not as big of a fan of the 'medieval' fantasy, so you'll find my recommendations aren't Tolkien-esque. Given that, for an entry point into SFF fiction, my personal choice would be The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. With two distinctly different cultures set against each other--unfortunately not on equal footing--our heroine finds herself plucked out of her comfortable life and tossed into a situation where she's expected to rescue not only herself but her new people. Marketed mostly as a YA novel, this book introduces a lot of the basic elements we see over and over in fantasy, told in a lovely, flowing style that will appeal to readers who might not be ready to bite into the chewy density of Tolkien's work.

When asked about a choice for a more experienced reader, I always recommend my favorite series: The Fall of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells. This amazing trilogy is a complex fantasy that juxtaposes three different cultures--with their wildly different magic and levels of technology-- on three different worlds. At its heart, this is a portal fantasy, where we get to follow characters into worlds they find confusing and terrifying, but it takes that trope up to another level and leads us to what I consider a very satisfying conclusion.

Elizabeth Fitz

Elizabeth Fitzgerald is a freelance editor and owner of Earl Grey Editing. She lives in Canberra, Australia. An unabashed roleplayer and reader of romance, her weaknesses are books, loose-leaf tea and silly dogs. She tweets @elizabeth_fitz

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve heard of Harry Potter. Now, imagine if the story was set at an Australian university. There’s no Voldemort, just a share house full of students struggling to find their place in the world, untangle their love lives, manage their magic, keep up with their favourite TV show and make it big with their quirky rock band. Voila! You have Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Belladonna University series. It begins with Fake Geek Girl (also the title of the aforementioned rock band) or you can wait for the first three stories to be released as the collection Unreal Alchemy in April.

For those with a bit more genre experience, I’d recommended Stephanie Gunn’s criminally underrated novella, Icefall. It could be pitched as lesbian space mountaineers, but that wouldn’t do it justice. The novella tackles some significant issues in the genre, such as colonialism, the blending of science and spirituality, and the uneasy relationship between disability and technology.

Camestros Felapton

Camestros Felapton is a blogger and a 2018 Hugo finalist Fanwriter. He and his cat can be found at https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/

There are a wealth of choices for a good 101 SFF book. For a younger reader or indeed an older reader who won’t be put off by books aimed at children, I can’t imagine anything better than Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. The books have so many familiar tropes (magic, dragons, wizard schools) but have a depth of originality to them that showcases how expansive fantasy can be as a genre. Likewise Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a strong introduction to science fiction. It has familiar concepts and sci-fi tropes (a human visitor to a strange alien planet) but it remains a refreshingly original story.

A 201 book? Solaris by Stanislav Lem. Yes, it is another case of a human visits an alien planet but Lem turns core plot that into a psychological horror story and an examination of the nature of identity, memory and intelligence. It’s also a great example of a fully realised truely alien intelligence: a mind so unlike our own that it is barely possible to see that it is a mind.

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, AKA The Publisher, at Queen of Swords Press (www.queenofswordspress.com). She also writes and edits in genres ranging from fantasy to historical fiction and mysteries to horror in her copious free time. The rest of her life is dedicated to doing arcane things with computers and worshipping her cats as they are accustomed to being adored. www.catherinelundoff.net 

I first read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin when I was about 12 or so. It was one of the first sfnal novels that I read by a woman author and it served as my gateway drug to the genre. Why Earthsea, out of Le Guin’s many worlds? Well, dragons, for one. What fantasy fan doesn’t love dragons? But also the way that she deals with the idea of words having power and magic: to know something by its true name is a magical gift and potential curse, all rolled up in  one. Plus, it’s a lovely bit of writing and if you like it, there’s a bunch more books to read after it. From a writerly standpoint, her ability to create beautifully three-dimensional worlds and highly memorable characters that don’t overwhelm her stories is an endless marvel. Le Guin’s work appeals to a wide-ranging and large audience so I think she’s one of the best “starter” authors for introducing readers to fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter).

I could easily make a case for her work as my 201 pick too, but instead, I’m going to pick an author who doesn’t get as much love for her work as I think it deserves. Barbara Hambly has had a long and distinguished career spanning multiple genres and I’ve enjoyed a number of her books, but one of my favorites continues to be her novel Dragonsbane. It’s an unusual novel, even by today’s standards: the protagonists are an older established couple with children. Jenny Waynest is a sorceress who thinks her powers have already reached their limit, John has had his moment of glory and thinks he’s done. They are complicated and interesting, as is the dragon, and the story pulls them into questioning what it means to be human and to have powers in a way that I don’t think a lot of fantasy does.

Thanks for asking me to play along!

Sophia McDougall

Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, set in a modern world where the Roman Empire never fell – newly out in the US and Canada. Her two novels for children, Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages, are about girls, boys and fish-shaped robots in outer space.

Most of us SFF longtimers encountered our literary gateway drug in our teens, and if you’re curious about the genre or have always wondered exactly how the geek in your life got that way, you could do worse than retrace those early steps. However, some of the giant tomes that made us feel so grown-up don’t always stand up that well when first encountered as an adult -- or are so vast that you kind of need a 14-year-old’s energy levels going in. SFF actually written for teenagers is often an exception, and virtually all of Diana Wynne Jones’s books remain beloved combines dazzling, imaginative fantasy, endearing characters and a lightness of touch that you might not encounter in some of the saga-length adult classics.  Howl’s Moving Castle is a great place to start – starting from tropes you’ll recognise from fairytales and launching off from them in exuberant new directions. Shy Sophie, a hatmaker’s apprentice, finds herself under a deadly yet oddly liberating curse … after which she’s not about to be intimidated by Wizard Howl, even if he supposedly does eat girls’ hearts. If you like it, Wynne Jones has a great canon to explore further, but while many books are series, they’re nearly always stand-alone stories, so you’re not signing up for anything too relentless.

If after reading Howl’s Moving Castle you decide you enjoy flawed but charismatic wizards, you could move on to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – a richly textured Regency England where magic is both a primal, chthonic force and a genteel subject of academic study. It’s about friendship and rivalry, madness and sanity, and it’s an excellent illustration of how compelling the results can be when the lines between genres blur.

Julie Czerneda

Julie’s been reading and loving fantasy (and SF) as long as she can remember. Unable to get enough, she started writing her own in 1997, and now has 20 books in print from DAW. Introducing this genre to new readers? One of her greatest joys.

SFF 101. Like the movies, not sure what to read in the genre? I suggest Green Rider by Kristen Britain (DAW Books). It’s the first of an epic series, but stands on its own. What I particularly like is the high magic feel and vibrant landscapes reminiscent of LoTR. It’s also very readable, so if you’ve never tried anything like this before, prepare to plunge in and enjoy. (I should also mention among the best and most believable treatment of horses in fantasy.) If you like this? The rest of the ongoing series is even better!

SFF 201. Read quite a bit, looking for more? Well then. Grab J.M. Frey’s The Untold Tale, Reuts Publications. A wonderfully deep, subversive, entertaining book and series. You’ll think you know where it’s taking you, but trust me, you don’t. I find myself thinking about this one often. Great fun and thought-provoking, this is a story that will reward experienced readers—and gamers. Oh, and writers, because Frey is writing to us as well. How circular is that? You’ll see.

Thank you all!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.