Chris Pickens

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Space opera fans, rejoice! Megan E. O’Keefe’s The Blighted Stars delivers futuristic technology, a power-hungry ruling class, a bit of mystery, a sprinkle of the macabre and a compelling, complicated relationship between its two leads.

In the distant future, the Mercator family maintains a tight control over humanity’s life among the stars. The Mercators mine “cradle worlds,” planets that are lush and unspoiled, for resources, but the side effect is a fungal bloom that eventually kills the planet.

Idealistic, passionate Naira Sharp is a member of the Conservators, a resistance group that tries to save these cradle worlds through sabotage and guerilla warfare. Tarquin Mercator is the heir to his family’s empire, but he’s a scientist at heart, and he wonders where the planet-killing fungus comes from. Their worlds collide when Naira poses as Tarquin’s bodyguard in order to infiltrate and destroy the Mercators from within. But when their ship crashes onto the newest cradle world, Naira and Tarquin are faced with the supposedly impossible: The planet has already been devoured by the fungus. Together with the other survivors of the crash, they must work together to survive and uncover the truth.

O’Keefe is a master world builder, and The Blighted Stars has one of the most fascinating sci-fi concepts of the year. In her universe, people can load their consciousnesses into new bodies. Get killed out in the far reaches of space? No problem, your neural map can be beamed back to civilization and placed into a new 3D-printed body right away. (Though sometimes neural maps don’t load properly, resulting in grotesque and zombielike monsters.) Before beginning her mission, Naira uploads her consciousness into a printed body of Tarquin’s bodyguard without anyone on the doomed ship knowing. O’Keefe finds multiple ways to have fun with this plot device, and the payoffs of Naira’s secret identity are well earned.

The Blighted Stars would be a terrific starting point for anyone interested in dipping a toe into the space opera subgenre. O’Keefe largely restricts herself to Naira’s and Tarquin’s points of view, which brings an immediacy and focus to the story that is echoed by the relative simplicity of the plot. The complex and engrossing relationship between Tarquin and Naira holds everything together; the fresh world building and interstellar intrigue wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if not for the believable relationship at the book’s core.

If future entries in O’Keefe’s Devoured Worlds saga are as exciting as this book, sci-fi fans will be thanking their lucky stars for years to come.

Megan E. O’Keefe’s The Blighted Stars has one of the most fascinating sci-fi premises of the year: People upload their consciousnesses into 3D-printed bodies.
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Consider the stereotypical ending of a fantasy novel. The heroes have prevailed against a tide of darkness, the evil has been purged from the land and all rejoice as peace is restored. But what happens next? Who rules over the defeated kingdom? What will the mighty heroes do with no one left to fight? Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant suggests that, once the war is over, the heroes will fight one another. 

Years ago, Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, banding together to defeat Lord Bone and conquer his dread city of Necrad. Now the heroes are the rulers of Necrad, even though, truth be told, none of them really volunteered for the job. It’s just what was needed to keep the peace. In addition to this, Aelfric was tasked with carrying Spellbreaker, Lord Bone’s enchanted, sentient broadsword. Though the sword bestows incredible magical power to the wielder, it thinks for itself and constantly yearns for bloodshed. When Aelfric and Spellbreaker discover that Lord Bone’s tomb has been opened, Aelfric suspects that one of his eight remaining companions broke in and stole the body. But who? And why?

Hanrahan does a great job constructing Aelfric’s backstory and developing nostalgia for his once-simple life. Aelfric and his companions’ shared history is sprinkled throughout, and the cracks within the group slowly become apparent. Aelfric is a soldier, a monster-slayer with no desire to rule, and he loves his companions even as he suspects some of them of heinous acts. It creates a wonderful sense of tension that is also tinged with sadness; Aelfric is painfully aware that the group is both getting older and growing distant from one another.

However poignant, this story could still come apart if the world building wasn’t up to snuff, but I’m happy to report that it’s fantastic. Hanrahan creates fully realized environments with rich histories, rendering the murky city of Necrad, towns and inns along the road and an elvish kingdom with precise detail. He also employs a second perspective, that of Aelfric’s sister, Olva, to show the reader other parts of the kingdom. Her mission—finding her wayward son, Derwyn—is engaging, but sometimes less so than Aelfric’s gripping quest.

A creative writing professor I once had said, “When you figure out how it ends, stay there,” urging us to push past what seemed like the expected conclusion and instead see what would happen if we let things continue to play out. I have a feeling Hanrahan would excel at such an exercise.

Gareth Hanrahan’s gritty and rousing fantasy novel The Sword Defiant explores what happens after the good guys win.
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Do you ever get a little creeped out when you visit your grandparents’ house? There’s something about the stillness of unused rooms and the sweet, dusty smell that can give you a slight sense of dread. But if you were to visit the Montgomery house in T. Kingfisher’s A House With Good Bones, you’d leave with more than an uneasy feeling. In fact, you might not leave at all! (Cue thunder and lightning.) 

Sam Montgomery has to move back in with her mom. The archaeoentomologist’s latest dig (she studies insects in archeological sites) has been put on an indefinite hold, but the good news is that Sam loves her mom, Edie, who lives in Sam’s grandmother’s old house in rural North Carolina. But Edie seems tired and nervous, very unlike her normal self. Sam has strange dreams about her dead grandmother, vultures circle outside all day, ladybugs spill out of the faucets and Sam swears that bony fingers touch her hair in the middle of the night. But Sam’s a scientist. Shouldn’t there be a reasonable explanation for all of this? Determined to find out the truth, Sam starts unearthing secrets about her family that were better left undisturbed. 

Kingfisher is in her element when the tension is at its highest. She keeps a narrow focus on Sam and the handful of other major characters, amplifying the sensation that threats are imminent. Danger in horror can sometimes feel arbitrary and nonspecific, but in this house, you know what’s haunting you. As things get stranger and stranger, the writing gets choppier, like Sam’s panting breath and racing heart. And Kingfisher isn’t afraid to embrace the weird: A House With Good Bones’ climax is strange, scary and unforgettable.

That being said, don’t write off this book if you’re not a horror enthusiast—A House With Good Bones is also laugh-out-loud funny. Sam’s inner monologue is full of hilarious observations about living with her mom, not having reliable internet and simply being 32. The aforementioned vultures? They have names and belong to a neighbor. The book is balanced with knife’s-edge precision between fright and humor in a way that brings Jordan Peele’s sensational Get Out to mind. You’ll be craving the next tense moment, because it means the next joke is right around the corner too. 

A House With Good Bones shares another key trait with Get Out: Both works derive their frightening power from placing reasonable people in unreasonable circumstances and forcing them to respond. It’s nerve-wracking for a character to ask “Is this real?” when faced with something strange; it’s downright terrifying when the answer is “Yes.”

Impressively weird, nerve-wracking but still laugh-out-loud funny, A House With Good Bones is another horror hit from T. Kingfisher.
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When you get home from a stressful day at work, do you kick back with a nice cold beer? Or do you prefer hemlock tea? In Hannah Whitten’s The Foxglove King, poisons are drugs that produce a potent magical high. Full of courtly intrigue, smart characters and will-they-won’t-they romance, The Foxglove King is a heady concoction that will satiate anyone looking for an absorbing new fantasy world.

Lore is a poison dealer in the city of Dellaire, and she has a huge secret: She was born into a cult of death-worshipping witches. After she escaped as an adolescent, she swore she’d never let the witches find her again. It’s easy to hide in Dellaire’s underground, but it’s a lot harder to hide when you’re arrested by the soldier-monks of the Presque Mort for dealing poison and forced to serve the Sainted King in his court. Trapped, Lore must use her street smarts to investigate a series of terrible attacks on border towns across the kingdom. To top it off, she’s right in the middle of a tense feud between the king’s son, Bastian, and her Presque Mort guardian, Gabriel. It’s going to take all of Lore’s cunning and skill to survive the court and uncover the mystery behind the attacks.

The Foxglove King is built on opposites: death magic versus life magic, wealth versus poverty, pain versus pleasure and truth versus fiction. But what makes this book so fascinating is Whitten’s willingness to subvert expectations. Sometimes, diametrically opposed forces work better together than against each other. Such is the case with Bastian and Gabriel. Former friends, these very different men become more complex characters over the course of the narrative, each one enriched and challenged by Lore. The love triangle among them adds texture but never distracts from the central storyline. 

Medieval-adjacent fantasy societies can feel stuffy and ancient, but Whitten cannily avoids this trap. Her characters speak with a modern sensibility, which makes the story accessible and often heightens the tension. Lore is a fun guide throughout, snarky and confident one moment, vulnerable and thoughtful the next. Her depth and complexity as a protagonist bode well for future entries in the Nightshade Crown series, with Whitten skillfully tying Lore’s background into the reveals about the broader universe and its unique, dangerous and more than a little creepy magic system. (A dead god buried deep under the city is leaking death magic that infects everything in Dellaire? Rad.) 

Whitten’s already gained a following with her Wilderwood duology, and the perfectly balanced Foxglove King proves that her success was not a fluke.

Hannah Whitten gained a following with her Wilderwood duology, and the perfectly balanced Foxglove King proves that her success was not a fluke.
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Warm, imaginative and often funny, Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers thoughtfully examines the price and cost of corporate colonialism and humanity’s ever-present need to expand.

In the distant future, Destry, a ranger who works for the Environmental Rescue Team on planet Sask-E, discovers a hidden city. Destry and the rest of her team are tasked with ensuring ecological stability on Sask-E, which is owned by the terraforming corporation Verdance, before Verdance sells plots of the planet’s land to the highest bidders. The ERT thought they were the only inhabitants of Sask-E. But the city Destry discovers is populated by an entire previous generation of terraformers, and she and the ERT consider whether to stand against Verdance and their murky motives. Centuries later, while a planetwide conspiracy threatens everything the ERT has done to turn Sask-E into a hospitable planet, the fallout from Destry’s conflict with Verdance resurfaces.

The Terraformers is an expansive, entertaining book, full of comprehensive world building and exacting detail. Every living thing in the terraformed areas of Sask-E provides data that flows back to the ERT: Messages can be sent through blades of grass or through water. Robotic drones converse with people, and genetically enhanced animals can communicate via text message. Newitz giddily explores the convergence of digital and ecological systems, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The Terraformers is full of parallels to contemporary issues (corporate greed versus environmental sustainability, the intersection of machines and humans), and while Newitz intensely examines these topics, the reader will never feel lectured, bored or disconnected from the characters.

But once The Terraformers concludes, the questions it poses remain. In our race to remake the universe for ourselves, what kinds of stewards will we be?

Entertaining and full of thorny questions about the fate of humanity, Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers explores a distant, corporation-controlled future.
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A line from Jessica Johns’ haunting, atmospheric and beautiful debut novel, Bad Cree, has been tumbling around in my head since I set the book down. “That’s the thing about the [prairie]. . . . It’ll tell you exactly what it’s doing and when, you just have to listen.” Johns’ protagonist, a young Cree woman named Mackenzie, tries to hear things she’s been ignoring: grief, her family, the lands she grew up on. But there’s something else lurking just outside her perception, something more dire. Strap in for a dread-filled novel that examines the impact of grief on a small community. 

Mackenzie hasn’t been sleeping well. To be more specific, she hasn’t been dreaming well. Every night, her subconscious shows her terrifying things, painful memories and, always, a murder of crows. Soon she notices crows outside her apartment window, following her to work and watching from power lines. Something is wrong, and she fears it has to do with the years-ago death of her sister. Mackenzie’s auntie pleads with her to come home, to be among her people, the Indigenous Cree of western Canada. There, with her mother, cousins and aunties, Mackenzie searches for what haunts her mind. Hopefully she can find it before it finds her. 

Jessica Johns on the lingering nature of loss—and what makes a great dive bar.

Bad Cree began as a short story, and it’s still tightly written, brisk and efficient as a novel. Johns does, however, slow down when it comes to themes she clearly cares about, such as female relationships. A bar scene midway through the narrative does a particularly lovely job at enriching the portrayal of the community of women who surround Mackenzie. Their camaraderie shows just how important these relationships can be to people feeling lost or alone.

This web of powerful, positive connections stands out all the more in the face of Bad Cree’s truly frightening moments. The dream sequences are both spectacle and puzzle, a mix of memory and fiction, but it’s clear that something beyond just bad dreams is happening to Mackenzie. The unanswered question of what exactly that is provokes a consistent feeling of dread, and the climax is tense, horrific and exciting.

Bad Cree examines how grief can warp someone, how it can terrorize a person by slowly turning reality into nightmare. But there is also a beautiful hope at the center of Johns’ vision: Grief can be tempered by embracing your community. Alone, Mackenzie is just one person, but by returning home, she becomes a thread in a human fabric, woven together to make something stronger.

Jessica Johns’ Bad Cree examines the impact of grief on a small community, mixing truly frightening moments with warm camaraderie.
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Rejoice, Bardugo fans and dark academia lovers: You’ll get much more of the spooky stuff you crave in the extraordinary Hell Bent.

After her first brush with the dark underworld of Yale University—in this world, the school’s infamous secret societies are called houses, and their members are practitioners of magic—Alex Stern deserves a sabbatical. But as firmly established in author Leigh Bardugo’s excellent Ninth House, Alex isn’t built for rest, especially when there’s still work to do. Alex is a member of Lethe, the ninth house, which monitors the other houses to make sure they don’t go too far. She’s capable and cantankerous, but in Hell Bent she’s also desperate. Darlington, the wunderkind of Lethe, Alex’s mentor and maybe something more, is gone, presumed dead after the events of Ninth House. Alex vows to bring him back to the world of the living, but things are never that simple in New Haven, Connecticut.

Without Darlington to guide her and back her up, Alex is overwhelmed and vulnerable, which makes each new challenge she faces even more riveting for the reader. She’s already investigating a series of strange murders of faculty members, and to make matters worse, Alex and her friend Dawes make a horrific discovery in Darlington’s family home: a demonic presence, restrained by magic—for now. Together, they must find a way to bring Darlington back while keeping whatever’s in his house from being unleashed on the world. Can Alex survive all that Hell and Yale throw at her?

Once again, Bardugo shows she’s one of the best world builders in the business. Her version of Yale and its people is so richly rendered, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s imagined. Not a page goes by without a line from Yeats or a fact about the architectural history of New Haven or a bit of biblical allusion. And yet, the book whizzes along, marvelously balancing these details with The Da Vinci Code-esque clue-hunting, demonic rituals and lectures from a particularly uptight school administrator.

Gut-wrenching and deeply human, this book will tug at your heartstrings even as it chills you to the bone. In spite of all of its magic, world building and shenanigans, Hell Bent stays true to its characters, never compromising them for the sake of genre thrills or expectations. Standing head and shoulders above the already impressive Ninth House, Hell Bent is one of the best fantasy novels of the year.

Gut-wrenching and deeply human, Leigh Bardugo’s sequel to Ninth House will tug at your heartstrings even as it chills you to the bone.
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Mackenzie, a young Cree woman in Vancouver, British Columbia, is being haunted by her dreams. She returns night after night to the lakefront campsite where her sister, Sabrina, died, and parts of her nightmares are beginning to reach through into reality. Desperate for answers and relief, she returns to her hometown of High Prairie, Alberta, to ask her family for help—but once there, her dreams only grow stronger. We talked to Nehiyaw author Jessica Johns, a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, about the lingering nature of loss, Bad Cree’s journey from dream to short story to novel, and what makes a great dive bar.

You mention in the acknowledgements that this story began as a dream that worked its way out onto paper. Before you wrote the first sentence of what would become Bad Cree, what ideas were you certain you would include?
From the outset, I knew everything was going to center on this dream phenomenon, that this Cree woman could bring things back and forth from the waking world to the dream world. I didn’t know any of the details around this, like why it was happening or even the character’s name, but I knew that this was going to propel the novel.

I also knew the novel was always going to start with Mackenzie waking up with a crow’s head in her hands, one she was holding moments earlier in her dream. Maybe it’s because I’m an Aries, but there was something about starting in the middle of confusion and chaos that felt absolutely right for this novel.

Bad Cree first took form as a short story. Why did you choose to turn it into a novel?
In an interview about their poetry collection, Everything Is a Deathly Flower, the brilliant writer Maneo Mohale said, “I wrote this book because I wanted to sleep. Because there were dogs at my door, and they were awful,” and nothing has ever resonated with me more. 

I wrote the short story version of Bad Cree, and that story haunted me. The dogs at my door were the characters, barking. They had more life to live, more places to go, than the short story allowed. So I knew I had to keep writing and expand the story. Like Mohale, I just wanted to sleep again.

“I think losing people we love is one of the most horrific things someone can experience . . .”

One of the themes you explore in Bad Cree is the impact of separation from place, people, traditions, what’s “right” and so on. What drew you to this topic?
I think about the generational trauma and effects of the intentional separation of Indigenous peoples from their communities, languages, traditions and families by the Canadian state all the time. I think about it because I don’t have a choice not to. 

I also think about the ways in which I, along with many Indigenous peoples separated from the teachings and knowledges that are our inherent rights to know, have tried to connect to that again. I think about the “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” ways I’ve tried to learn, the mistakes I’ve made, the shame I’ve felt in not knowing, when that shame doesn’t belong to me but to the people and powers who forced this separation in the first place. So I wanted to write characters who go through those same things. Characters who don’t always “do the right thing”—whatever that means—who stumble and struggle and are still loved.

Grief and all the ways the past can haunt the present are major elements of Mackenzie’s arc. Did you find yourself tapping into your own experiences with loss and grief when writing? Did working on this novel lead you to see these experiences or emotions in new ways?
I think losing people we love is one of the most horrific things someone can experience, so it makes sense that it’s often an element of horror. I’ve lost many friends and family members, including most recently my papa, Don Smith (my dad’s dad), who passed away as I was writing Bad Cree. I think I’ve been in a perpetual state of grief for many years. And I think, in many ways, I have been grappling with the same things Mackenzie is: trying to make sense of losses that feel impossible to make sense of; trying to continue a life that feels absolutely empty when someone you love leaves it.

I learned a lot more about death from a Cree worldview as I was working on the novel, thanks to teachings from Jo-Ann Saddleback and Jerry Saddleback, such as where our ancestors go once they leave this earth and how we can still honor and connect with them while we’re here. That helped me see my own losses in a new way, and those teachings helped inform the comfort Mackenzie eventually feels with her losses as well.

But there are other layers to the grief in this novel that go unreconciled: ecological grief as the land continues to undergo extraction and abandonment, for example. I think this is also fertile ground for horror because it’s a reflection of real life. It’s a horror we’re currently living.

Read our review of ‘Bad Cree’ by Jessica Johns.

Horror protagonists are often isolated, but Mackenzie is surrounded by a female support system. Why was it important to you to create this network of women? What did this element of the story open up for you?
It was important for me to show how Indigenous women and queer Indigenous people always show up for one another. I’ve never seen a fiercer kind of love and protection than when an aunty goes to bat for someone she loves. It’s terrifying and beautiful.

Mackenzie is surrounded by women and femmes who love her deeply, but it’s a love she’s not willing to accept because she doesn’t think she deserves it. In addition to grief, she feels a lot of guilt for some past choices she’s made. So a big aspect of this novel is seeing if Mackenzie will be accountable to those mistakes and let herself be loved again by people who never stopped.

What section of the novel was your favorite to write? Was there a particularly difficult aspect to get right?
I loved writing the gruesome, gory scenes that delve into body horror. They were technically challenging to write, and my Google search bar saw some shit. 

I also based Mackenzie’s kokum in the novel off my own kokum, the late Eileen Smith (my mom’s mom). In one scene, Mackenzie’s kokum takes her, her sisters and her cousin on a walk through the woods. Kokum tells stories, points out plants and flowers and names them in Cree. It’s a pretty simple scene about these kids spending time with their kokum, but I loved writing it because I felt like I got to envision another world with my own kokum in it.

I could almost smell the stale beer when I was reading the scenes set at the Duster, the local dive bar. What do you think are the essential elements of a good dive, and did you base it on a real-life spot?
Yes! The Stardust (the Duster) is a real-life dive bar my mom used to go to when she lived in High Level, Alberta, before she married my dad. I visited High Level a few years ago, when I was around the same age my mom would have been when she lived there. I went out to the Stardust one night, and I loved thinking about the fact that I was walking around a bar that she had spent time in 20 years earlier, that we’d have different memories of the same place. It’s its own kind of ghost story.

The truth is, I LOVE a good dive bar. I always write them into my stories as places of significance. I think that bars, with the people who frequent them and the stories that live in the walls, are incredibly interesting spaces. As for what makes a good dive: comfy booths, karaoke and at least one working pool table.

Picture of Jessica Johns © Madison Kerr.

We talked to the debut author about the lingering nature of loss and what makes a great dive bar.
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Despite being a book about augurs and warlocks, angels and demons, C.L. Polk’s stylish magical noir Even Though I Knew the End is distinctly and heartbreakingly human.

It’s the late 1930s in grimy Chicago. Helen Brandt, a brilliant wizard who was exiled by her order and now works as a detective, has a terrible secret: She offered her soul to a demon to save her family from a car crash. Her part of the bargain is due on Jan. 13, 1941—Helen’s last day on Earth.

After taking photographs of the crime scene of a horrific murder that she’s investigating, Helen brings her evidence to Marlowe, an underworld crime boss and bona fide femme fatale. Marlowe confirmes what Helen already suspects: The murder is the work of the White City Vampire, the most dangerous villian in the city. Marlowe wants Helen to find the vampire and is willing to pay handsomely. The prize? “A thousand dollars cash . . . and your soul.” As it turns out, Marlowe is a demon, and this job can give Helen the thing she thought she’d never have: salvation and a chance to live a full life with her lover, Edith.

Even Though I Knew the End rockets along from the very first page, and Polk’s ability to enrich the story while upping the pace is impressive. Their alternate Chicago reveals itself efficiently, each detail woven into the narrative exactly when it’s required. A sense of mystery and discovery is ever present, which is quite fitting for a detective story.

Fans of John Constantine, the occult PI of DC comic books and film fame, will find a lot to like in Polk’s fantastically rendered depiction of a celestial war. With corrupt motivations on both sides, it’s often unclear which is more dangerous. Mortals aren’t defenseless, especially if they can wield magic (enchanted bullets make more than one appearance), but there’s still a constant sense of danger, and humans often end up as collateral damage.

Despite the aforementioned fantastical elements, Even Though I Knew the End is, at its heart, a love story. Helen and Edith’s tender relationship is immediately compelling, and, as befits a noir, Edith’s importance to the story grows as Helen’s investigation deepens. Helen’s past choices weigh heavily upon her, and we see how tightly she clings to Edith, especially in the gripping final chapters. To be without her would be hell on Earth, Helen thinks. But Even Though I Knew the End ultimately poses a torturous question: Is the price ever too high to be with the one you love?

Even Though I Knew the End is a stylish magical noir with a heartbreakingly human love story at the center.
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Sure, Thistlefoot is about a house with chicken legs, but it’s also about so much more. A vibrant, shape-shifting collage of family saga, Jewish folklore and magical adventure, GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, is, like its namesake, weird and wonderful.

The Yaga siblings haven’t seen each other in a long time. Bellatine has thrown herself into woodworking as she searches for meaning in her life. Her brother, Isaac, on the other hand, has thrown himself into street performance, transience and petty crime. They’re reunited when a lawyer tells them that one of their long-lost Russian relatives has left them something. Bellatine and Isaac open an enormous shipping container—and a sentient house named Thistlefoot, complete with chicken legs, squats before them.

Isaac promises to let Bellatine keep the house for herself after they use it to tour the country for a series of marionette performances. But a sinister specter known only as the Longshadow Man gives chase to the Yagas, bringing ghostly destruction along with him. It’s a race to see if Isaac and Bellatine can stay one step ahead of the Longshadow Man and unlock the mysteries of Thistlefoot before it’s too late.

How GennaRose Nethercott made herself at home with Slavic folklore.

Thistlefoot is inspired by the tales of Baba Yaga, a powerful witch from Eastern European folklore who lives in the woods in a house that stands on chicken legs. The fables of Baba Yaga and her children hold special significance for the descendants of Russian Jews the world over, but Nethercott will quickly bring those who don’t know the stories up to speed with chapters told from Thistlefoot’s point of view interspersed with ones from Isaac’s and Bellatine’s perspectives. In the chapters narrated by the house, Thistlefoot tells stories of Baba Yaga, her daughters and her at-times frightful sense of justice. These interludes, vividly voiced and perfectly paced, are some of the book’s best moments. Nethercott’s warm embrace of her source material makes these fairy tale-esque stories welcome interludes amid Isaac and Bellatine’s more modern woes.

Nethercott’s gorgeous writing continually surprises and delights, and she pulls off some amazing turns of phrase with confidence. The first few pages give a brief history of an invasive plant that everyone thinks of as uniquely American but is actually from another country entirely—and they’re so engagingly written that I was immediately hooked. Even if a few passages feel overwrought, something marvelous comes along in short order to make up for it, such as a queer love story in which Nethercott patiently brings to life the tender joy of a new romance.

Thistlefoot is a triumph. Strange and heart-wrenching, perplexing and beautiful, it’s an open door and a warm hearth, inviting you to stay awhile and listen.

Inspired by traditional tales of Baba Yaga, GennaRose Nethercott's Thistlefoot is a weird and wonderful triumph.
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Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac Yaga couldn’t be more different, both in their personalities and in their mysterious abilities. The restless Isaac embraces his gift for mimicry, while Bellatine lives a quiet life, fiercely resisting the urge to give life to inanimate objects. But when they reunite to collect a family inheritance, they get the shock of their lives: Their great-great-grandmother has left them Thistlefoot, a sentient cottage with chicken legs.

For readers that aren’t familiar with her, can you give a brief synopsis of Baba Yaga and her importance in Slavic folklore?
Baba Yaga is a magical crone, hidden deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. Lost in the woods? Maybe Baba Yaga will help you find your way home. Or . . . maybe she’ll devour you and display your glowing skull on pike. Depends on her mood, which is, to put it politely, finicky. She lives in a hut on chicken legs that never stands still, and she flies through the air in a mortar and pestle. Like any good monster, she is built of opposites: She’s ferocious and motherly, supernatural and one with nature, feminine and beastly, helper and harmer. And I think it’s the fact that she embodies all these elements, all this unpredictability, that makes her one of the most famous figures in Slavic folklore. Who is Baba Yaga? She’s whoever the story needs her to be—just before she kills the story and eats it for supper.

“Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining.”

What was it like working with preexisting characters like Baba Yaga and her chicken-footed house? Did it ever become confining, or was it easy to spin your own tale with the parts you had?
Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining. Instead of wrestling with a blank page and trying to conjure something from nothing, these archetypal figures serve as inspiration and guidance. Companions, of sorts.

A folk tale, a real folk tale, is designed to shape-shift, to adapt to new eras and new contexts. That’s how they survive over centuries, by mutating again and again to remain ever relevant to each new culture that adopts them. Thistlefoot leans into that transformative ability: What if Baba Yaga is no longer a crone in the woods but a young Russian Jewish woman during World War I? Or what if Baba Yaga’s hut weren’t in Russia at all but modern-day America? It becomes a game of experimentation, with endless variants. These tales have already been re-imagined a thousand times, so what’s one more?

Thistlefoot jacket

What does the folklore in Thistlefoot tell us about the people and places from which it originated?
This is what I adore about folklore: how it functions as a mirror. Specifically, a mirror reflecting a community’s taboos and fears. People would rather do anything than look at the prickly, ugly, awkward parts of life head-on. So rather than the embarrassment of, say, telling your young Scottish daughter not to sleep with hot, mysterious men on the beach, mothers would instead caution them to fear the handsome . . . kelpies . . . yes, that’s right, those sexy . . . horses . . . who would offer maidens a “ride”—before ripping out their organs. It’s supernatural metaphor at its best. Fantastical and exaggerated, while also serving as a metaphorical parallel for real-life issues.

In Thistlefoot, I use the folklore as a window into a violent period of European history—specifically pogroms in the Russian empire, which were systematic, military-sanctioned massacres against the Jewish people. In the center of the novel is the story of a pogrom my own ancestors lived through in 1919. Told plainly, the facts are horrific. Unbearable, really. But filtering it through folklore allowed me to explore this history with softened edges. Folklore lets us look at jagged truths through a sheer curtain, and then, once we’ve grown acclimated, that curtain can be yanked away. This is one of the themes throughout the book, in fact: Memory can be reformed into folk tales to make it not only more bearable, but more permanent. More easily honored and held.

How did you go about creating the magic that each of the Yaga siblings has?
The siblings both have these abilities that are intrinsically linked to who they are and to this generational history they’re discovering. It was important to me that each power held tension in it, and that the powers reflected who the characters are at their cores. Bellatine, who sees her power as a curse, is constantly battling with her ability. It turns her into a control freak, at war with her own body and the world around her. For Isaac, who has this incredible ability to mimic other people, his power is part of his restless nature, his self-hatred and his desperation to be anyone but himself. 

It’s funny, even I was conned a little by Isaac—because it wasn’t until a late-stage draft that I even realized Isaac’s abilities were magic. I think it was actually my editor or my agent who was like, “Uh, this isn’t like . . . a normal thing people can do.” Until then, I sort of listened to Isaac when he insisted that he was simply a skillful actor. But of course there was an element of the paranormal to it.

“In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.”

I mean this as a compliment: This book is stuffed full of weird. Was there ever a moment when you were writing that you thought, “OK, I may lose the reader on this bit”?
Ha. No. I mean, of course I feared losing the reader sometimes—drafting is full of insecure moments—but never because of weirdness. Honestly, I sometimes worried it wasn’t weird enough. The images in the book are fantastical, but the structure of the novel is fairly conventional. I love weird fiction. I’m most inspired by surrealism. Slipstream. I’m obsessed with Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, Karen Russell, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter. Writers who don’t shy away from operating on emotional logic and dream logic rather than worldly logic. So no, I did not worry it was too weird. In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.

There are so many details about Thistlefoot that I was drawn to: how it walks, what it looks like, what it sounds like. What was important to you to include when describing and creating a living house?
It was a unique challenge to create a being that is part setting, part character, part animal, part vehicle, etc. First off, I wanted it to have real personality, a sort of arrogance, but also be hospitable. It’s a fiercely protective being because it exists to be a haven for this family. Writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote such wry, winking shtetl stories, inspired the house’s voice in its first-person chapters. And of course, I had a lot of fun with the visuals. Covering it in velvet curtains and paper lanterns when it becomes a mobile theater. Cultivating a garden of yams and alfalfa in its sod roof.

When you’re working in magical realism, that delicious sense of the uncanny is created by holding unfamiliar magic up against familiar, real-world details. In this case, the magic in Thistlefoot‘s world is that trauma can literally, physically alter a space—like causing a house to sprout legs. But to balance that, and to highlight the significance of that strangeness, it was essential that everything else in the world remained rooted in our own logic system. So I did a lot of research into what actual houses from Russian and Ukrainian shtetls would have looked like, including the materials and carpentry practices that would have been used. Yes, the house is wild and whimsical and cartoony, kicking around on these big chicken legs and laying giant eggs and telling tall tales—but it’s also historically accurate, down to the smallest detail. For example, I originally had Bellatine pulling old nails out of the walls while she refurbished it, but then a carpenter friend told me that back in early 1900s Russia, where the house was built, they wouldn’t have used nails because metal was too expensive. They would have fixed boards together with wooden joinery instead. So I went back in and cut the nails. Wooden joinery only! 

As a puppeteer yourself, what’s one misconception of the art form a layperson might have? What do you love most about performing?
Ah, so I actually can’t claim the esteemed title of puppeteer—yet! I did travel with a scrolling panoramic shadow puppetry show to promote my narrative poem The Lumberjack’s Dove, but that was designed by my collaborator, Wooly Mar. I just turned the crank. And I’m only starting to work with hand-held, figurative puppets now for the first time as I prepare for a very elaborate and kooky Thistlefoot book tour. So I’m going to defer to a conversation I had with my friend Shoshana Bass, who is a professional puppeteer.

While I was writing Thistlefoot, Shoshana was adamant that I refer to the puppets in the Yaga siblings” puppet show as being “animated” rather than “manipulated.” She told me that the most common misunderstanding about puppetry is that it’s about controlling something else. We even use “puppet master” as a means of saying someone is manipulative or Machiavellian. In reality, Shoshana explained, the art of puppetry is the opposite. It’s about stepping back to be a support system for this being in your care and allowing it to live. A puppeteer follows the puppet’s lead, not the other way around.

As for performing, I love the opportunity to collaborate with amazing artists and to connect with a live audience. Writing can be isolating as hell, so to switch from Hermit to Traveling Bard, where the book becomes a carriage I ride out into the world . . . that’s what makes all the isolation worth it. I was also raised as a professional child clown (as in, I was a child who was a clown, not a clown for children), so I guess it’s in my blood.

Read our starred review of ‘Thistlefoot’ by GennaRose Nethercott.

When you think back to writing this book, what sections stand out most in your mind?
First, the folk tale chapters in Thistlefoot’s voice. They were just such a joy to write. I loved existing in the house’s playful, unreliable, teasing voice and getting to tell these compact stories within the greater narrative. They’re my favorite parts of the book, both to read and to have written, and are the excerpts I’m currently working on with Wooly Mar and Shoshana Bass to translate into live puppet shows for my book tour.

And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, something that stands out is . . . my mortal enemy. A chapter I bitterly named “This Fucking Chapter.” A spiteful bastard of a chapter I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote at least 12 times, and it got worse each time. I won’t even bother mentioning which one, because it’s honestly a nothing of a chapter. You wouldn’t even notice anything odd about it at this point; it’s sort of a neutral, expositional moment. But oh god. It shaved years off my life. This chapter . . . it laid one eye on me and said, “That one. Let’s kill her. It’ll be fun.”

Anyway, it ultimately turned out just fine.

Would you rather be able to animate the inert or perfectly mimic anyone you met?
Ooh, that’s a good one! Hm. Probably animating the inert, just because it’s the more dramatic of the two. One of my prized possessions is a handmade cotton and silk doll I sewed a few years ago. Her name is My Beautiful Daughters, and she has two heads. My friends all think she’s cursed, but she’s my gal. Might be nice to wake her up for tea and a chat.

Photo of GennaRose Nethercott by Kirk Murphy.

GennaRose Nethercott makes herself at home with Slavic folklore in her debut novel, Thistlefoot.

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