Chris Pickens

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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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With its hundreds of spires and stone facades, Oxford University looks like a cathedral of knowledge, unassailable and ancient. What dangerous texts might its highest towers and deepest libraries contain? R.F. Kuang’s Babel perfectly employs Oxford as a backdrop for the story of a group of eager students in the middle of a magical war. A standalone fantasy that takes its cues from The Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Babel is a methodical, unforgiving examination of the cost of power and the pain of achieving it.

When the family of a young boy named Robin Swift dies of cholera, a stern English professor takes him away from China. He arrives in an alternate Oxford, England, in 1828 and is thrust into lessons in language so that he might one day join the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. Throughout his years of study, Robin hopes to eventually attain the highest knowledge Babel offers: the mysteries of silver-working, a magical process that has helped the British Empire maintain its worldwide dominance for decades. Sensitive to the injustices wrought by Babel and silver-working, Robin joins the Hermes Society, a secret organization that steals silver and sabotages the expansion of British power from within. Are Robin and his fellow members revolutionaries? Or are they doomed to be powerless witnesses to the march of empire?

Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy is one of the most acclaimed fantasy series of the last few years. A finalist for the Nebula and Locus awards, the series was vicious and engrossing, dark and thoughtful; I personally couldn’t put it down. Babel feels different from her first trilogy, but this is undoubtedly a Kuang novel. There’s a sense of inevitability in her work, each book moving toward a climactic breaking point. 

This carefully built momentum results in an addicting read. Kuang takes her time ramping things up, focusing for the first half of Babel on Robin’s assimilation into school and broader English culture, finding friends and growing up. Kuang nails the ups and downs of being young with precision. It’s nearly impossible not to compare Babel to Harry Potter, but Kuang’s magical teens feel more grown-up, more layered than J.K. Rowling’s well-known trio. Their banter, camaraderie and angst consistently satisfy as anger and loss harden them, and as they eventually realize the horrible truths they couldn’t grasp as young students.

Kuang, who is completing her Ph.D. in East Asian languages and literature, has gone to incredible lengths to wrap the history and evolution of language into silver-working, which is an impressively unique magic system. The Bablers, as students in the Institute of Translation are called, uncover meanings lost in translation and historical connections between words and then etch them into silver bars. If the words have a strong connection, magic happens. It’s a wonderful way for Kuang to incorporate a topic she clearly loves and deeply understands.

Ultimately, Babel asks a pointed question: What is the price of power? The novel’s full title is Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, which both gives the book a sense of realism and hints at Kuang’s ultimate answer. British colonialism perpetrated destruction on every civilization it encountered. Babel provides a long overdue reckoning, cast in silver and doused in blood.

Babel, R.F. Kuang's standalone follow-up to her acclaimed Poppy War trilogy, is an unforgiving examination of the cost of power.
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The Ringers, the aliens that descend to Earth at the beginning of Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden, are perhaps the best-case scenario as far as aliens go. They’re a multicultural community made up of different interstellar life-forms, they value parenthood to the point that they show up to negotiations with children in tow, and they’ve come to Earth for the express purpose of airlifting humans off of our doomed planet. The only problem? Communities like the one protagonist Judy Wallach-Stevens belongs to have made enormous progress in healing the Earth, and they may not want to abandon it after all.

What interested you in a first-contact story that takes a more peaceful route than the murderous invader angle we see so often?
First contact has been my favorite subgenre of science fiction since I was a teenager. “Exposure Therapy”—my first professional publication, in Analog many years ago—was a first-contact story. The challenges of communication and cooperation are so interesting, and aliens let me turn the questions that humans face with one another up to 11.  

I have trouble seeing how a propensity for murderous invasion is compatible with the level of internal cooperation needed for interstellar travel. I’m sure I could come up with reasons to justify it if I tried, but murderous invasion is banal and evil, and not a direction that I’m terribly excited to write about. There’s metal and water spread throughout the universe. Why come all this way to kill people when the only resources that differ across star systems are the ones produced by thriving, living sapients? Interstellar invasion to kidnap artists and bring them back to Alpha Centauri . . . that I could get into. I think Catherynne Valente wrote that one!

I’m also an optimist who likes stories in which communication and cooperation are possible. During the process of writing the book, we brought an African grey parrot into our household, and next time I write a first contact, it will probably be influenced by the difficulties of communicating with an English-speaking nonhuman from Earth.

“I have trouble seeing how a propensity for murderous invasion is compatible with the level of internal cooperation needed for interstellar travel.”

Were there any ideas about the way the Ringers look that you discarded or modified over time? What was the initial spark for their appearance?
In my first two books, Winter Tide and Deep Roots, I used aliens originally invented by H.P. Lovecraft, who, for all his faults, was very good at nonhumanoid body plans. So I didn’t want bipeds with funny foreheads—but I did want forms that stemmed from recognizable ecological niches and that could, with some effort, be compatible with living in the same environments as humans. So, no visitors from gas giants. 

The plains-folk were sparked by M.C. Escher’s roly-polies, which have fascinated me from the time I was a little kid looking at my parents’ Escher coffee-table book. I made them bigger and more reasonably biological, but still something that curls up in a ball for defense with (some of their) eyes sticking out. I added the extra limbs and eyes and skinsong later, because complicated sensoria are fun.

I don’t recall the tree-folk origin as clearly, but playing with body plans that make humans nervous is always fun, and arboreal biology is also fun to play with. I wanted something that would look more aggressive than it is, so “sort of a giant spider if you don’t look too closely” seemed like a promising direction. I added the extra eyes and mouths and manipulators later, because complicated sensoria and radial symmetry are fun.

The gender and parenting aspects of both species came out of themes that I wanted to play with as sources of friction and connection between species—in particular, that for the plains-folk, being a mother is an indication of dominance and leadership, and the way that shapes the whole culture of the Ringers. 

“Why would you even make a Dyson sphere—and what would it take to make one and still be worth talking to?” was also a core question that shaped the Rings. Politically speaking, I think Dyson spheres are a bad idea; I wrote the Ringers to argue with me.

A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

The choice of whether to stay on Earth or to abandon the planet lies at the heart of this book. Do you foresee humanity having to make a similar choice at some point in the future?
I’m not actually convinced that it’s a feasible choice; that’s another place where I wrote the book to argue with myself, as well as with the assumption threaded through so much science fiction that life in space is our inevitable destiny. The Ringers have made several technological advances that make this assumption viable, but it’s not clear yet that those advances are feasible in the real world. 

I have some serious side-eye for triumphalist predictions about terraforming from a species that so far seems very skilled at taking a habitable planet and making it less habitable. When we’ve proven that we can keep the air breathable and the temperature under control on the easy setting, I think we’ll be ready to spread out!

Motherhood in all its forms is a key element of the story. Was it clear from the beginning that this story would circle around it, or did that element emerge in the drafting process? What about motherhood did you most want to convey or examine while writing?
Parenthood (not just motherhood) was one of my major starting points. In particular, I wanted to challenge the way that our current culture places parenting in conflict with accomplishing just about everything else, and with playing any other role. Modern American culture is worse about motherhood, but that’s because fathers are expected to prioritize those other roles. Every culture in A Half-Built Garden, even the corporate one, has some way of better integrating parenting into the rest of life. Some of them have all-new problems, but that’s where plot comes from!

What aspects of your version of Earth’s future do you think are most likely to become reality?
Sea level rise and unpleasant weather, unfortunately. But 80% of the technology for the dandelion networks is out there and already being used by citizen scientists, and that—along with the algorithms that deliberately build in biases that we want—is ready to become reality if we work at it!

This book is full of different communities. (I loved the strangeness of the social games on the corporate island of Asterion!) Was one of these groups more fun to construct than another?
They were all fun in their own ways. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network builds on things I love about my own communities and want to see grow. Judy’s neighborhood is, in fact, my neighborhood, with some additions that we’ve started (the food forest) or discussed putting in (the runoff mitigation garden with the frogs). The remnant U.S. government is a love letter to the nerdy wonks I’ve worked with inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C. 

Asterion was definitely a lot of fun to write, and I wasn’t planning them at the start of the story. At some point I got stuck figuring out the corporate reps, and I decided that what this book needed was really sexy villains. And people who, like me, are actually a lot more into gender presentation than gender per se. I wouldn’t want to live on their island, but I would enjoy a vacation there a lot more than Judy does! As long as they’ve labeled the food. 

The Ringer multiculture was also a lot of fun, both in figuring out how to build infrastructure for the two species’ symbiosis and dropping hints of what things are like in other habitats. My secret favorites are the tech-obsessed group with the food pills, though, like Cytosine. I wouldn’t be terribly excited about their potluck contributions.

Read our review of ‘A Half-Built Garden’ by Ruthanna Emrys.

When you think back to writing this book, do any sections stand out to you?
A Half-Built Garden is in many ways a novel of manners, and my favorite novel-of-manners trope is the fraught dinner party. So I knew early on that each group would get to host a fraught dinner party and that the Chesapeake party would be a Passover Seder. Since most novels-of-manners are British or pseudo-British, I really feel that literature doesn’t contain enough fraught Seders. I loved writing a science fictional version of my family’s weird progressive interfaith Seder and how well suited it was for forcing people to talk to one another at a time when some of them would rather have hidden from the consequences of previous events.

If aliens landed on Earth today, what do you think would happen? Could we exist peacefully, or perhaps even join their civilization?
It depends on where they land! Come to suburban Maryland, and like Dinar, my family will be eager to host the world’s most high-stakes potluck on no notice and to invite friends at NASA to join us before anyone less friendly can get there. On the other hand, I can imagine landing sites where people would be a lot less welcoming. And plenty of companies, like Asterion, would push to build franchises on the nearest Dyson sphere. I hope that the aliens would be enough like us to accept us despite shared imperfections—and enough unlike us to accept us despite those imperfections!

I did cheat a bit by having the Ringers learn human languages from our broadcasts; I didn’t want the whole plot to be about language learning, even if Judy’s linguistics-nerd co-parent is annoyed about it. In practice, I think we’d have a long process of finding common communication methods, and if parrots are any indication, there would probably be a lot of reasonable-to-one-side biting along the way.

Photo of Ruthanna Emrys credit Jamie Anfenson-Comeau.

We talked to the author about writing a book to argue with herself and why literature needs more fraught Seders.
Review by

If the climate crisis continues its horrifying course, will what’s left of the land and ocean be salvageable? Or will we need to make the jump to an intergalactic existence? In Ruthanna Emrys’ philosophical, warmhearted and intriguing novel A Half-Built Garden, humanity has a chance to chart a new course.

On a warm night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens and her wife, Carol, take a stroll in their neighborhood. A collaborative community tasked with monitoring and preserving a local watershed, their town represents a triumph. The old corporations and nation-states that destroyed the Earth’s environment have been banished from power, and communities like Judy’s are slowly, painstakingly resurrecting our planet. Hope is starting to return—that is, until the aliens arrive. A massive, sleek spacecraft lands in front of Judy, and out step the Ringers. These strange beings have been searching the universe for signs of life and hope they can convince humanity to join their symbiotic civilization before Earth becomes unlivable. Because Judy is the first person they see, she instantly becomes their ambassador. Will humanity decide to leave Earth? Or is the progress they’ve made too precious to let go?

Emrys roots her story in Judy’s reflective, empathetic perspective, and readers will waffle between courses of action right along with her. Humanity gets to know the Ringers, eventually coming to trust and collaborate with them, but Judy is fiercely loyal to the good work her community and similar groups are doing. Emrys takes her time building up arguments for both choices, letting her characters expound on the ethics involved in such decisions in thoughtful, somewhat sad passages.

Ruthanna Emrys wants more fraught Seders in literature.

When you think about aliens coming to Earth, you may picture a secret, paranoia-inducing invasion or open warfare a la Independence Day. But what Emrys does in A Half-Built Garden is far more interesting, creating a scenario in which aliens and humans delicately peel back each other’s layers. How the two groups greet each other, raise children and celebrate, how they view themselves and what they believe in—all become key moments of understanding. The Ringers are offering humanity a spot in their collective community, and Emrys circles this theme again and again with questions on the nature of family: what it is, what it isn’t, its boundaries, its rules, its flexibilities. 

Emrys ticks off all of the expected future-Earth details one would expect: wild technology, vast glittering cityscapes and cool spaceships. But such trappings are never the story’s main concern. Emrys cares far more about the conversations that occur between “us” and “them” and about examining the distance between those two entities. Deciding to leave our planet behind would be an incredibly painful thing to do. But if we do have to leave Earth one day, I hope it would look something like the chance offered here: together, hand in hand, rising into the stars.

In Ruthanna Emrys' philosophical and warmhearted novel, humanity must decide between whether to heal a ravaged Earth or abandon it for life among the stars.
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If aliens descended from a higher plane of existence to bestow upon us lowly human life-forms the answers to every cosmic mystery, how would we communicate with them? Sounds, shapes, colors, mathematics? Eddie Robson’s Drunk on All Your Strange New Words posits that telepathy will connect our two species—with a catch, of course. Converting a Logi’s telepathic thought to speech renders a human translator drunk. Such is the humor and charm you’ll find at the heart of Robson’s cheeky, breezy sci-fi mystery. 

Lydia, the telepathic translator for Fitz, the Logi cultural attache, is getting fed up with her work. She likes her boss, but she’s tired of feeling rip-roaring drunk on the daily. The problem is she isn’t particularly good at anything else. But when a terrible event throws her into the center of an international and intergalactic crisis, Lydia takes it upon herself to unravel the truth that the police seem incapable of finding.

The simple fact that intoxication is a central component of Lydia’s work leads to a lot of funny moments, which pop against the rather bleak setting. In Robson’s future Earth, people are even more obsessed with social media, polar ice caps have flooded parts of New York City and people are no longer impressed with the fact that aliens exist. It’s a place where humans bungle everything while the Logi watch serenely, and a little pityingly. 

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words moves at a fast pace, and the proceedings are never complex just for the sake of it. The mystery’s twists and turns are satisfying throughout, and Robson keeps a tight grip on the reins as Lydia discovers more and more pieces to the puzzle. There are many truly surprising moments both funny and strange (one of which totally floored this reviewer). Like Cassie Bowden on HBO’s “The Flight Attendant,” another woman trying to hold herself together long enough to solve a crime, Lydia oscillates between self-doubt and conviction in the face of the unknown. She’s not always an easy person to root for, but watching her resolutely commit to her cause will win readers over. 

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words combines the sci-fi and mystery genres in a way that does justice to both of them, and that’s no small feat. Perfect for anyone looking for a fun, thought-provoking and unintimidating foray into sci-fi, this book will have readers smiling on every page, drunk on Robson’s clever words.

In Eddie Robson's sci-fi mystery, aliens and humans can communicate—but translating telepathic thought into speech makes a human translator rip-roaring drunk.
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Paraic O’Donnell’s strange, tense and utterly beautiful novel The Maker of Swans will haunt you. It dances along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy, but you’ll hardly notice. You’ll be too busy sinking deeper into its inescapable grasp.

On an estate in the English countryside live two men and a girl. One man is Eustace the butler, the guardian of the house and its daily rhythms. The other man is Mr. Crowe, a preternaturally gifted, magnanimous artist who is long past his glory days of creating wonder and beauty for aristocrats across the world. The girl is Clara, Mr. Crowe’s ward. Mute, inquisitive and able to recall any passage from any book in the library, Clara knows the house and the grounds better than anyone. This odd trio is on track to live out their lives uneventfully until one fateful night when a gunshot breaks the peace of the house: Mr. Crowe has killed a man in the driveway. Eustace, Mr. Crowe and Clara each rush to save what is important to them before the fallout from this act changes their lives forever.

To give any more details would ruin the particular spell of this book. Pasts and presents intermingle, bringing to the surface each character’s unique pain. Motivations are murky at best. Visions of swans on a lake are a surreal promise of what’s to come. This book is far more expansive than its 368 pages might suggest, and all credit goes to O’Donnell for cramming it full with as many ideas as he did. Alongside the magical elements are questions on the nature of the universe, on art and beauty, on instinct and knowledge. O’Donnell’s complex and agile prose jumps between dreamlike mysticism and terse, suspenseful action almost without warning. He knows when to expand language and when to contract it, when to throw in the kitchen sink and when to hold back.

Two key elements hold everything together. The first is how O’Donnell drives the story forward like a thriller, giving the more abstract elements a solid foundation. Even as things get stranger and stranger, the core plot is straightforward: A man was murdered, and people are coming to deliver the consequences. The relationships among the three inhabitants of the house provide the second grounding force, particularly the bond between Eustace and Clara. Their relationship is tender, reciprocal and, importantly in a book such as this, human and real in a sea of the strange and mystical.

Let The Maker of Swans invade you. Be challenged by it. Let it wash over you. If you like beautiful things, read this book.

Paraic O'Donnell's The Maker of Swans is an enthralling dance along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy. If you like beautiful things, read this book.
Review by

When you were growing up, did you play with your shadow? In her wondrous, sinister and engrossing adult debut, Book of Night, young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black presents a decidedly mature perspective on our relationships with our silhouettes. It’s a wildly entertaining, magic-filled mystery haunted by criminals with murky intentions.

Charlie Hall slings drinks at a seedy bar in the Berkshires, but it’s better (well, safer) than her previous profession as a small-time con artist and thief. She’s happy to have some stability after her long involvement in the underground world of gloamists, magicians who can manipulate shadows. In this world, shadows can be altered to look different for entertainment, but they can also be used for more nefarious purposes such as influencing someone’s thoughts or even committing murder. Charlie’s been smart about avoiding trouble, but when a bar patron is murdered and a mysterious millionaire from Charlie’s past returns, she’s forced to revisit her former life in order to find a book filled with unimaginable power.

A consistent atmosphere of dread and foreboding reinforces the core magic system, giving shadow magic a sharp, dangerous edge. Black unspools the mystery patiently and deliberately, interjecting short chapters titled “The Past” that reveal specific moments from Charlie’s memory into the present-day narrative. I couldn’t help but think of film noir while reading, not only because of the dark aesthetic and criminal elements but also because of the incredible weight of each character’s past.

Shadow magic has a multitude of metaphoric implications, and Black keeps a firm hand on the wheel as she explores them. The idea of shadows, indelibly attached to us in our world, being a means for division and deception is intriguing; Think Peter Pan and his ongoing struggle to rein in his own shadow. Though humorous, the idea of losing control of something that is part of us is also uncomfortable. That sense of discomfort and destabilization is even greater in Book of Night as shadows are used in various creative yet frightening ways. An ongoing theme of obfuscation, of truths being hidden or only half-revealed, also contributes to this feeling of unease.

Black’s plot is expertly crafted, her magic system simple yet interesting, her characters wounded and very human (well, most of them anyway). Mystery fans will find a lot to love here, but so will lovers of more traditional fantasy. Book of Night will have you looking over your shoulder, out of the corner of your eye, wondering if your shadow just moved.

Young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black’s adult debut is a sinister and wildly entertaining mystery.
Interview by

After wrapping up the Interdependency trilogy, sci-fi author John Scalzi planned to write a weighty and serious novel. Instead, he had a monster of a good time. The Kaiju Preservation Society is an adventurous romp that follows one-time delivery driver Jamie, who lucks into the job of a lifetime working for the titular organization, studying and protecting enormous monsters who live in an alternate dimension. We talked to Scalzi about the book he calls “as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel.”

There’s nothing like a good monster book to shake things up. What drew you to writing a story about Kaiju?
Well, I was actually writing another novel entirely—a dark and brooding political novel set in space—and it turns out that 2020 wasn’t a great year to be writing a dark and moody political novel, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who lived through 2020. That novel crashed and burned, and when it did, my brain went, screw it, I’m gonna write a novel with BIG DAMN MONSTERS in it. It was much better for my brain, as it turns out.

When creating the world that the Kaiju live in, what details were important to you? Were there certain inspirations you drew from?
I think the most obvious inspirations were the classic Japanese Kaiju movies, starting with the original Godzilla. From there, I worked backward: If you want to have Kaiju, how do you build a world where they could not only exist, but in fact, it makes sense that they exist? I wanted the world to have at least a sheen of plausibility. So the end result is a much warmer, much more oxygenated Earth, to start . . . and when you have those two things, a lot of other aspects of the world present themselves.

“Self-honesty is important, especially when some creature wants to eat you.”

You mention in your author’s note that The Kaiju Preservation Society is “a pop song . . . meant to be light and catchy.” Did it feel like that to you, easy and fun, while writing? Or were there elements that proved to be surprisingly challenging?
Not going to lie, writing Kaiju was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel. Some of that was in contrast to the unfinished novel before it; anything would have been easier than that one, given the subject and year I attempted it in. But most of it was just giving myself permission to feel the joy of writing, and of creating something expressly to be enjoyed. I wrote it as quickly and as easily as I’ve written anything. 

There are many homages to sci-fi and monster movie tropes in this book. What preexisting audience expectations served you best?
All of the preexisting expectations served me! One of the important things about world building is that the characters are in on the joke—they’ve seen all the Godzilla movies, they’ve watched Pacific Rim and Jurassic Park, and so all the tropes are on the table for them and the book to lean into, to refute and to play with, depending on the circumstances of the plot. No one, not the characters nor the readers, has to pretend that the characters have no concept of Big Damn Monsters, and that opens up a lot of narrative opportunities. 

The dialogue in The Kaiju Preservation Society positively crackles with life. How do you approach writing dialogue?
Dialogue is one of the things I “got for free”—which is to say, something that was already in my toolbox when I got serious about writing. That’s great, but that also means it can be a crutch, something I fall back on too easily, or get sloppy with because I know I can do it more easily than other things. So, paradoxically, it’s something I have to pay attention to, so that it serves the story. 

Read our review: ‘The Kaiju Preservation Society’ by John Scalzi

Do you see yourself as a Jamie? Ready to believe, optimistic, quick with a joke? (Maybe we all wish we were like Jamie, at least a little bit.)
You’ve hit on something, which is that Jamie is meant to be someone whom the readers can see themselves in, or at least could see themselves relating to. There’s a little of me in Jamie, sure. There’s also some of me in Jaime’s friends. They each have qualities that help them work together, which becomes important in the book. 

OK, real talk: What weapon would you reach for first if you were face to face with a Kaiju?
If I’m being real, I’m going to remember what the weaponmaster in the book asks the characters, which is, basically, “Are you competent enough for that weapon?” Self-honesty is important, especially when some creature wants to eat you. In which case, I’m going for the shotgun: widespread, low level of difficulty to use. Perfect. And then, of course, I’ll run like hell. 

Did working on this book make the insanity of 2020 and 2021 any easier to bear? What did you feel like when you finished writing?
When I finished writing, honestly, I was all like, “Fuck yeah, I nailed this one.” Which absolutely made the previous year easier to bear, considering how badly I flubbed the previous novel I had been trying to write, and how awful the year had been generally. I should note I wasn’t having a crisis of confidence in my skills; I’ve written more than 30 books, I know I can do it. But I was disheartened at how that one novel was a mess, and how it all-too-closely mirrored my mental state for 2020. Kaiju got me back in my stride, and I’m grateful for that.

Headshot of John Scalzi courtesy of the author.

Why The Kaiju Preservation Society was the most fun John Scalzi has ever had as a writer.

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