Noah Fram

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Trains are, for whatever reason, surprisingly common in contemporary genre fiction. Perhaps it is their predictability, with their reliance on firmly laid tracks and regular timetables representing an imposition of order on a chaotic world. But rarely is this made so explicit as in Sarah Brooks’ The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands, where a train is the last bastion of civilization in the region that was once Sibera, which has now become a chthonic cauldron of mutated flora and fauna, all of it hostile to humankind.

Brooks never explains why, exactly, Siberia transformed into the riotous Wasteland. She simply asserts that it has, that it is enclosed by a wall and that only one entity dares cross it: the Company, via its Trans-Siberian Express. On its last voyage, there was an accident that resulted in the deaths of three people. The Company, being a sinister avatar of faceless, capitalistic inhumanity, is dedicated to preserving the secrecy around these events, while Marya Petrovna, daughter of the glassmaker who was blamed for the accident, has dedicated herself to piercing that veil. However, none of the train’s crew or its most frequent passengers seem to remember what happened, from its captain and first engineer, Alexei, on down to a bookish professor and the enigmatic Zhang Weiwei, who has spent her entire life on the train.

Part of me felt like I had read this book before, or perhaps seen it on film. The obvious comparison is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but I found more commonalities with classic sci-fi like Asimov’s Foundation and Earth and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, mixed with Borges’ more animistic magic and a few dashes of Agatha Christie for good measure. The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands reads more like magical realism than fantasy, forcing the reader to inhabit the same inexplicable universe as the characters themselves. Brooks’ concise prose prioritizes clarity over decoration, and is suffused with casual slang and inside jokes. This steampunk fairy tale may be largely populated with archetypes and borrowed tropes, but Brooks has still made it compelling and novel. Her train through perdition is a worthy addition to the pantheon.

The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands is a compelling steampunk fairy tale that follows a train journey through the dangerous place that was once Siberia.
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The Mahabharata is among the most complex epic poems ever written. One of the most foundational and influential pieces of literature in history, this masterpiece of ancient India has been translated, analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed countless times. In the afterword to Vaishnavi Patel’s reimagining of the poem, Goddess of the River, the author states she has not attempted to complicate an already complicated narrative. Instead, Patel simplifies it by centering on one key relationship within the Mahabharata: that between the river goddess Ganga and her mortal son, Devavrata, who will become Bhishma, one of the poem’s iconic heroes. In doing so, Patel distills the mythic fall of the Kaurava family into a deeply personal and painfully human tragedy, one where the defiantly chaotic mother and her dogmatically lawful son are doomed to always struggle against their own natures.

Goddess of the River is beautifully crafted. Patel moves between Bhishma’s childhood and the end of his life with limpid fluidity, never losing her cohesive narrative structure. No shift in time is without purpose, no dramatic irony is unintentional. Aside from Ganga and Bhishma, virtually every other character is static, each emblematic of their own particular mythological trope. This narrow focus is not a detriment; rather, it only highlights Ganga and Bhishma’s complex relationship and how they come to resemble each other despite their seemingly opposite natures.

Read our starred review of ‘Kaikeyi’ by Vaishnavi Patel.

Goddess of the River has an intriguing moral ambiguity that readers familiar with the Mahabharata will recognize. None of Patel’s characters are truly good or evil. They all have clear goals, with some being motivated by principle and others by selfishness or caprice. Goddess of the River is a messy story about messy people and even messier gods, all just trying to make the best choices they can to make those they care for proud of them. Thus, Patel makes despite Ganga and Bhishma eminently relatable despite their larger-than-life natures: While neither can fix everything that’s broken within their world, they can at least do some things right along the way.

In Goddess of the River, Kaikeyi author Vaishnavi Patel reimagines the Mahabharata with an intriguing moral ambiguity.
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Ghost stories rely on a few basic tenets: ghosts exist, they can influence the corporeal world and they have an interest in doing so. In Johanna van Veen’s beautifully written and deeply depressing My Darling Dreadful Thing, a murder trial’s outcome hinges on whether the characters can accept these tenets. Roos Beckman, a young woman in post-World War II Netherlands, has been accused of killing Agnes Knoop. Her psychiatrist, Doctor Montague, is trying to establish an insanity defense for his young patient, whereas Roos is trying to prove that Ruth, her spectral companion, both exists and is the true culprit. But van Veen’s focus is on what happened before the murder, how Roos discovered who she was outside the constraints of the abusive home where she conducted fraudulent seances with her mother.

The domineering stage mother, unwilling child performer and floral names (roos is Dutch for “rose”) are all reminiscent of the musical Gypsy. However, unlike Gypsy’s Mama Rose, who is often interpreted as a tragic figure rather than a villain, Roos’ Mama is wholly unsympathetic. For all its ensanguined spectacle, My Darling Dreadful Thing’s most disturbing sequences may be Roos’ descriptions of her life with Mama, which are rivaled only by Agnes’ stories of her own past or the distressingly casual racism several of the antagonists display towards her for her Indonesian heritage. This is a ghost story, but its supernatural horrors are constrained compared to the concentrated hostility the real world directs at its most marginalized. And van Veen is not so naive as to expect her characters’ resilience to be infinite. They are strong but brittle; they break, despite everything spirit companions (real or hallucinated) do to help.

Roos’ trial is never more than a frame, and is dispensed with in a bewilderingly short sequence near the novel’s end. Van Veen’s focus never wavers from Roos, and the result is an unremittingly bleak but well-crafted story, where even joyful moments are limned with Roos’ desperation and our sense, as readers, that none of this will end well for anyone.

In Johanna van Veen’s beautifully written and deeply disturbing My Darling Dreadful Thing, a murder trial hinges on whether ghosts are real.
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The Napoleonic wars have been fertile ground for historical fantasy in recent years. From the draconic aerial combat of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s wry fairy tale of manners, that continent-spanning conflict provides an ideal canvas for fantastical retellings. It’s sweeping in scope, and is easier to romanticize than more recent wars. Hester Fox’s The Book of Thorns, however, is not about magicians single-handedly winning battles. Rather, it is about two women who can hear flowers. Englishwoman Cornelia and Belgian maid Lijsbeth escape their abusive homes and find themselves on opposite sides of the Waterloo battle lines. Neither woman can change the course of the war. All they can hope for is to somehow find safety and joy in a hostile world.

Fox insists on confronting Cornelia and Lijsbeth’s individual traumas head-on. They bear profound scars and are, in their own way, survivors, although both would balk at being called such. Like Katherine Arden’s The Warm Hands of Ghosts, The Book of Thorns is fundamentally a war novel dressed up in magical conceits—in this case, talking rosebushes. Its villains are selfish, not self-consciously evil; its heroes are genuinely decent people, but decency alone is not enough for them to prevail.

The Book of Thorns has a happy ending, in its own way: Both Cornelia and Lijsbeth find people they love, who love them back and who would never cause them pain. That is a kind of joy, if hard-won. Fox does not hide from the fact that for all the romance surrounding Bonaparte’s exploits, nobody who fought at Waterloo came out unscathed, whether they were breathing by battle’s end or not. But Fox also reminds us that, even in fields tilled by cavalry charges and fertilized with gunpowder, flowers can grow.

Hester Fox’s The Book of Thorns is a gentle, magical tale of hope and healing in the midst of war.
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Mackerel Sky hasn’t had a good fishing season in centuries. Not since its founder betrayed the mermaid who captured his heart, and she cursed the Maine fishing village in retaliation. That grand tragedy begat many others, but no curse is absolute, even one cast by the most vengeful scion of the relentless ocean. And as young Leo Beale’s alcohol-fueled rebellion against his opiate-dependent mother leads him to the shelter of town elder Myra Kelley; Manon Perle quilts her way out of the miasma of grief over her daughter, born with her legs fused together like a mermaid’s tail and dead far too young; and the local high school’s star pitcher, Derrick Stowe, falls clandestinely in love, the mermaid’s magic may finally be at an ebb.

The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a book to submerge yourself in. Debut novelist MZ’s storytelling does not flow in straight lines. Rather, it eddies, lingering in tiny moments in the present before transporting readers back to the story’s headwaters, hundreds of years ago. She explores the past in loving detail, filling every page with lushly crafted, often poetic prose. The backstory seems, at times, irrelevant to the modern-day plotline, inserted more for world building than narrative necessity. However, MZ does nothing without purpose. Every half-finished historical anecdote and ancillary encounter contributes to the larger story, like a school of fish following an insistent current.This nonlinear structure is unified by an underlying theme of foreignness. Humans are creatures of the land, whose trespasses on water are tolerated at the mermaids’ whim, while the mermaids themselves are antithetical to land. At its core, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is both a tragedy and a romance, a tale of humans and merfolk struggling to live and love in each other’s domains, and how they all end up moored to the liminal space of the shore.

A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.
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On December 6, 1917, a cargo ship exploded in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a minor collision with another ship started a fire on the deck. The blast was the largest ever human-made explosion at the time, flattening an entire district of the city. About a month earlier, one of the most horrific battles of World War I, the Battle of Passchendaele, had staggered to a close. These things really happened.

However, Laura Iven, a decorated Canadian army nurse who recently lost both of her parents, one in the Halifax explosion, was not a real person. Neither was her brother, Freddie, declared dead on the Western Front after Passchendaele; Hans Winter, the German soldier Freddie finds himself trapped with; or Penelope Shaw, a beautiful widow who lost her only son to the war. And while the First World War was certainly hellish, there were no actual devils wandering the wounded Flemish countryside.

In The Warm Hands of Ghosts, these carefully chosen fictions amplify the facts to render a gorgeously written, brutally honest portrait of the unremitting horror of trench warfare. Author Katherine Arden (The Winternight Trilogy) deliberately frames the story in apocalyptic terms, opening each chapter with a quote from the book of Revelations and portraying Laura’s resistance to her parents’ messianic belief in Christian prophecies of the End Times. Arden knows that her heroes cannot end the Great War. Their battles are smaller: Laura and Penelope travel to a Belgian field hospital seeking news of their lost loved ones, and Freddie and Winter seek to save each other. Arrayed against them are chateaux-dwelling generals playing Risk with real lives; the deliberate, protective myopia of countries coping with years of trauma; and the mysterious Faland. A Stygian violinist haunting the battlefields, Faland offers his victims a choice: Will they keep their memories, or hand them over to his safeguarding? Since humankind persists in creating an Armageddon, Faland argues that his deviltry is, in fact, merciful.

Not all the heroes succeed. The Warm Hands of Ghosts is not one of those war stories where a brave soldier snatches their comrades from the jaws of certain death before riding off into the sunset with a medal for their trouble. But each of Arden’s protagonists chooses their own fate. And as she argues in this exquisitely researched, heartbreaking book, that small revanchism is enough when the world ends.

Exquisitely researched, gorgeously written and utterly heartbreaking, Katherine Arden’s The Warm Hands of Ghosts is a triumph of historical fantasy.
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It’s impossible to read The Parliament without thinking of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” a 1952 short story that was famously adapted on film by Alfred Hitchcock. The Parliament is similar on its surface, if considerably more visceral in its avian brutality. But it is far from a simple retread of old territory.

Author Aimee Pokwatka concocts a cast of law students and nonbinary theater kids, regimented librarians and apple-juggling cosmetic chemists, all trapped in the historic Elmswood Public Library, where Madigan “Mad” Purdy is teaching a class on how to make bath bombs to a group of preteens. Unfortunately for all of them, a horde of tiny owls have inexplicably determined that everyone in or near the library is food.

However, The Parliament truly separates itself from its forerunner in the “horror with beak” tradition by two things: the depth, detail and intelligence of its characterization; and Pokwatka’s choice to wrap bloody, terrifying scenes (such as a woman being skeletonized by hundreds of thousands of owls like a wounded capybara in piranha-infested waters) around a fairy tale. A fictional book titled The Silent Queen lies at the heart of The Parliament, a story that brings to mind Patricia McKillip’s oeuvre or a Guillermo del Toro reimagining of a Disney fairy tale. In it, all 8-year-old girls are brought to the Mountain every year, where the Monster lives. The Monster takes something from each of them in payment for an Enrichment, anything from a beautiful singing voice to the ability to heal any wound. Queen Alala rules her domain from the top of a vast tower, her voice the price she paid the Monster for her own peculiar boon. Mad reads Alala’s journey to her students to hold them together, while each of them struggle with their own demons and wonder if any of them will survive the night.

Pokwatka manages to tell two remarkably compelling, detailed stories. Both are in completely different genres, and both could easily stand on their own, but Pokwatka renders them inseparable. Queen Alala might as well be in that library herself, or Mad could be out questing to find her voice. This master class of intelligent and beautiful writing transforms The Parliament from simply a tale of murderous animals into the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.
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Like Thunder, Nnedi Okorafor’s sequel to Shadow Speaker, returns to chaotic, post-apocalyptic West Africa and reunites readers with Dikéogu Obidimkpa, a mage currently leading a squad of special forces to liberate a camp of enslaved children producing chocolate.

To be more precise, it starts with Dikéogu introducing himself and the format of the book: transcriptions of voice recordings he made on a device called an e-legba. They vary in tone and precision, depending on Dikéogu’s state of mind when recording. It is a fascinating take on an epistolary novel, told by an often-unreliable narrator who frequently assumes that the reader knows more about past events than they actually do. He does explain where people like himself—called Changed Ones for their inhuman abilities, such as summoning thunderstorms, controlling the wind or reading people’s minds—come from and the prejudice they face. But the opening chapters focus on setting the tone for the rest of the story rather than exposition, trusting the reader to figure things out as they go.

A tale of mad mages and jealous lovers, of tyrants and demagogues, and of a catastrophe deferred, Like Thunder revolves around three people: Dikéogu, his old friend Ejii (protagonist of Shadow Speaker) and another Changed One named Arif. They are among the strongest Changed Ones, and reunite just as the peace treaty between Earth and its sister planet, Ginen—the peace treaty that saved both planets from destruction—is disintegrating. Dikéogu, Ejii and Arij are seeking a haven for Changed Ones, where they will be safe from the demonization of conservative internet pundits like Dikéogu’s own parents. And they are also caught up in a love triangle that may be crucial to saving the world.

Okorafor is an undeniable master of her craft, having won the Hugo and Nebula Best Novella awards for Binti and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel with Who Fears Death, and Like Thunder is a well-written adventure story with surprising depths. Instead of drawing on the typical dystopian tropes, Okorafor relies on her signature blend of Africanfuturism (speculative fiction specifically about and written by people from Africa, as opposed to Afrofuturism, which focuses on African Americans), utilizing her familiarity with cultures from the Western Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea, and spiritual movements from the African diaspora such as Santeria. These rich mythological and historical influences add complexity to Okorafor’s work, but the relatively straightforward story in Like Thunder makes them easier to parse without prior knowledge. For anybody wanting an approachable—if not exactly gentle—introduction to one of today’s most thought-provoking science fiction writers, or anybody who just wants a good story told well, Like Thunder will more than satisfy.

A well-written sci-fi adventure story with surprising depths, Like Thunder will please longtime fans of Nnedi Okorafor and beguile newcomers.
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Louise Joyner left home as soon as she could, fleeing the humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, for a career in industrial design in Silicon Valley. Her brother, Mark, stayed put, his meandering and dysfunctional lifestyle patronized to his face and savaged in his absence by his family, as is so often the case with mildly disappointing scions of good Southern families. But now, Louise and Mark must figure out what to do with the relics of their recently departed parents’ lives: their father’s idiosyncratic economics research, their mother’s vast collection of Christian puppets and their house. However, some revenants will not go quietly into that good night. There are burdens this family has politely buried for far too long, and the Joyners are about to discover that some hauntings are neither stagecraft nor hellspawn. Some hauntings are homemade.

Author Grady Hendrix is a Charleston native, and How to Sell a Haunted House completely nails its Lowcountry setting. This reviewer is also a South Carolinian and can confirm that neither the idea of a Christian puppet ministry nor the actual Fellowship of Christian Puppeteers are made up. The depiction of Carolina culture is also accurate, especially Hendrix’s portrayal of how someone who grew up in it, left and then came back would perceive it: familiar and peculiar, unsettling and comforting, prompting a reckoning with how deeply strange its version of normal truly is. Hendrix only departs from this reality in one way: In no gauzy South Carolina summer that I can recall did the knickknacks acquire a vengeful sentience and wreak havoc on the strained psyches of a family’s prodigal offspring.

How to Sell a Haunted House effectively marries tropes ripped straight from the pages of a midcentury pulp magazine to a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma. Families are warm and lovely but also stifling, just like the summers; rituals are banal but also sacred, their violation the gravest of transgressions; and there are always skeletons (or puppets) in the sewing closets. How to Sell a Haunted House may be a heightened tale of horror, but it is built on something true. And it’s a lot of fun, as well.

How to Sell a Haunted House blends pulp horror with a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma—plus haunted puppets.
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Biddy lives on the secret island of Hy-Brasil at the beginning of the 20th century, her only human contact being the kind but mercurial Irish magician Rowan (when he isn’t a raven) and his companion, Hutchincroft (when he isn’t a rabbit). Hy-Brasil has been particularly blessed by magic, which seeps into existence from some unspecified ether, suffusing the world with good fortune and happy circumstances. However, magic has been growing scarce, and mages have become misers. Rowan has been doing what he can, leaving the island to raid his fellow magicians’ storehouses and let a little luck back into the world. Until, one day, he doesn’t come back, and Biddy must leave the island for the first time and go to England in order to find him.

A pandemic project for author H.G. Parry, The Magician’s Daughter was clearly influenced by the enforced isolation of lockdown and the inescapable fear that the world might actually be a dismally unjust place. There are subtle allusions to the Victorian novels that are Biddy’s collective almanac to the world beyond Hy-Brasil, from workhouses and tubercular young women to subversions of traditional gender roles that somehow still end in marriage. But Parry has not crafted a dystopia. Rather, she infuses the book’s industrial-era grime with a literal manifestation of optimism: magic. 

The Magician’s Daughter is beautifully crafted, balancing a lushly detailed 1912 London with a narrative leanness. It’s reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—if Susanna Clarke were an optimist. It’s a story about an imperfect world that desperately wants to be better, where true evil is an aberration and even monsters may be redeemed. Biddy meets various mages on her journey to find Rowan, and most of their grievances are petty things, twisted beyond recognition by too many decades of coiled resentments and having to fight off one anothers’ magic. Even the villains are more greedy and corrupt than anything, motivated by human failings rather than inhuman desires. In these pages, idealism is a virtue and the world can be saved by the magic in an ordinary girl’s heart.

This is not the kind of fantasy that exposes society’s ills or probes some deep philosophical conundrum. Rather, it is representative of the escapist optimism that COVID-19 seemed to engender. In the face of an unrelentingly depressing reality, where every headline portends some creative new doom humankind must overcome, Parry writes of climbing out from the impending abyss. And she does it well enough that even devotees of fantasy’s darker halls will take solace in this little corner of storybook endings and happily ever afters.

Even devotees of fantasy’s darker corners will take solace in The Magician’s Daughter, a little paean to storybook endings and happily ever afters.
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Arcady Dalca is a mage who specializes in shape-shifting, a thief and also the scion of the most infamous family in the city of Vatra. Their grandfather, the Plaguebringer, was widely believed to have caused the Strikes, virulent and deadly diseases that swept the world. But Arcady does not believe their grandfather was capable of such destruction and has embarked on a quest to discover the truth. Part of that quest requires stealing the Plaguebringer’s seal, a dragonstone amulet that allows the wearer to wield magic, and using its power to shape-shift into a new identity. But the spell Arcady casts to claim the seal rips a hole in the Veil separating worlds and lets an invader through: Everen, the last male dragon, failed seer and prince of a dying world. Everen wants to tear the Veil wide open, letting his fellow dragons back into the world that banished them so that they can escape extinction and wreak vengeance on humankind for their betrayal. Everen is trapped in human form, but he can regain his full power if he wins Arcady’s complete trust—and then kills them.

In writing Dragonfall, author L.R. Lam was clearly inspired by fantasy authors like Anne McCaffrey and Robin Hobb, both of whom have written iconic tales starring dragons. But Lam also injects this classic high fantasy quest with a healthy dose of sexual tension. The romance between Arcady and Everen is central to the plot, since the fates of both humans and dragons hinge on their bond. And while all is not well in their relationship by the book’s end, it seems clear that by the planned trilogy’s conclusion, these Veil-crossed lovers will be united, saving the world in the process. 

L.R. Lam knows what fantasy romance needs: dragon shifters.

Lam employs many common tropes of both romance and high fantasy, but their world building is still delightfully imaginative and richly detailed. Despite banishing dragons centuries ago, humans still worship them as gods, with different dragon deities being associated with different kinds of spells. All of the magic in Dragonfall involves asking the world to reshape itself in a specific way, which means that all humans who possess seals have the capacity to manipulate themselves or their environments to fit their needs or desires. Lam delves headlong into the philosophical implications of this, constructing a society built almost entirely around fluidity. This extends from architecture built on a premise of ephemerality, because it can be magically adjusted at any moment, to a concept of gender wholly based on personal preferences, as many people can change their appearances at will. Everen, whose world is one of rigid roles and clearly demarcated boundaries, finds this embrace of inconstancy confounding. But for the genderfluid Arcady, such liberation is the bedrock of existence. Lam’s deep exploration of this fascinating society beautifully balances the somewhat pulpy genre elements.

Grimdark aficionados should steer clear, but Dragonfall will delight fans of well-designed worlds, heroes’ journeys and slow-burning romance. Here there be (sexy) dragons.

Here there be (sexy) dragons: Dragonfall will delight fans of well-designed worlds, heroes’ journeys and slow-burning romance.
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Centuries ago, the humans of Lumet banished dragons. But in a ritual gone wrong, shape-shifting thief Arcady accidentally lets the last male dragon back into the world. Trapped in human form while on this side of the Veil, Everen is intent on ripping apart the Veil between worlds so that his people can return, but the dragon finds himself forging a surprising bond with Arcady.

There is such a great balance between romance and fantasy in Dragonfall. How do you envision this evolving as you continue the trilogy?
From the beginning, it was always meant to be a pretty equal balance. I absolutely love “romantasy,” as it’s been coined. I decided to try my hand at it because I thought it would be really fun to essentially smuggle a paranormal shifter romance into a fantasy setting with a lot of history and lore and see if I could get away with it. I really love playing with romance tropes, too, so I sprinkled in enemies-to-lovers and made it so the characters are in forced proximity but can’t really physically touch, which resulted in a lot of slow burn. I’m not opposed to it shifting more one direction or the other as I go on; it’ll end up being whatever best serves the story, I expect.

“I’m not good with binaries in general—shades of gray are far more interesting.”

When talking about this book, you’ve mentioned writers like Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey, both of whom have created iconic dragons. Were there any fictional dragons that were particularly inspirational to you?
I have been wanting to write my own take on dragons for ages, but it took awhile to find my angle (which was apparently making them turn into quite hot not-quite-humanoids, giving them feathers like dinosaurs, and having them reproduce via parthenogenesis and be mostly female due to rising temperatures in a dying world). Dragons are, after all, the ultimate fantasy creature, but I always wanted to know more. In many stories and myths, dragons are the monsters to be slain, or creatures that were in some way fundamentally unknowable. I knew early on that I wanted to tell this story partly from a dragon’s point of view. What would a dragon society be like?

When I was younger, I was very into Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. As you mentioned, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey have some of my favorite dragons. There are also, of course, the dragons in “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon.” Other big inspirations were Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale, which have dragons that turn into humans as well. More recently, I adored The Priory of the Orange Tree by the incredibly talented Samantha Shannon. I enjoyed Julie Kagawa’s Talon series as well. I’m also inspired by film, and one of my comfort movies is the Russian film I Am Dragon, which has gorgeous fairy-tale aesthetics and a dragon learning how to be human who seemingly never learns to wear a shirt.

Dragonfall by L.R. Lam jacket

What were you reading while you were writing Dragonfall, and in general, how do you approach reading while writing?
I see reading and writing as intrinsically linked and believe that part of my job is to read both the classics that came before and the work that’s coming out now. I feel like we’re in a new golden age of fantasy. While drafting Dragonfall, I reread some old favorites such as The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, some Mercedes Lackey and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (a big influence on me merrily using first-person direct address for Everen’s point of view). And I read new titles such as Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, The Unbroken by C.L. Clark, The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart and more. I also read history, science fiction and nonfiction and listened to audiobooks and podcasts about all sorts of things—writers should always just be magpies and pick up anything shiny, in my opinion.

One of the central plot points in Dragonfall is the Strikes, a disease that gives people black markings on their skin and interferes with their ability to use magic. What were your inspirations for this disease and for how your society responded to it?
I was inspired by the Black Death, which had several resurgences, and by how the radical reduction in population shifted medieval society. The peasant class changed, feudalism’s days were numbered and you had more people moving from the country to the cities, particularly London. I also really liked the idea of there being such a heavy cost to using too much magic. However, I wrote most of the book during the U.K.’s various COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, so that inevitably had an impact, intentionally or otherwise.

As a reader, rather than a writer, do you gravitate toward stories where who the “good guys” are depends on where you’re standing, or ones with a consistent villain? Why?
As a reader, I’ve always found unambiguously good or evil characters a little boring, I have to say. I’m not good with binaries in general—shades of gray are far more interesting. I love antagonists who believe they are the hero or who are doing things that aren’t necessarily evil. I also love a good corruption or redemption arc. Antagonists in stories can exist to remind you that, under the right circumstances, you could very well turn into a villain yourself. Or other people might make you a villain in their minds, even if it’s not necessarily rooted in your actions, because it’s an easier narrative to tell themselves. In the right light, a hero could make a terrible decision in the name of “the greater good.” The greater good doesn’t mean much to the people who suffer the actual negative consequences of that decision. It’s rarely as simple as the Chosen One versus the Dark Lord or good always triumphing over evil.

 “All art is political, even if it chooses to uphold the status quo.”

What appealed to you about creating a signed lingua franca like Trade?
I always wondered why sign language isn’t taught by default in schools. It would make society a lot more accessible for deaf people, and it would have so many other useful applications. In a world where there was a more standardized sign language dialect, you could at least communicate basic things across language divides. Inevitably, things would be lost in translation or nuance would be lost, but you’d have an easier starting point. So I imagined that Trade arose as a result of needing to haggle at markets, though it can also be used for things as innocuous as telling your friend what drink to order from the other side of a crowded tavern or as important as clarifying your gender.

Your magic system is one where language can directly alter the world, and that idea harmonizes beautifully with the nuanced ways you handled gender and status. Is that a connection you see as well? What was important or meaningful to you about exploring the power of language?
I had a reader message me asking if I was a linguist because of the choices I made in Dragonfall, which delighted me. I’m not, but I made a lot of deliberate decisions about how language functions in Lochian society, so this is a nice excuse to geek out about it a little. Humans recite spells, which are really mangled words of the dragons’ language, Celenian. (This greatly offends Everen the dragon.) I worked with a linguist, my friend Seumas MacDonald, who created Celenian as a working language, and we’ll keep developing it over the series. Language can be such a tool of power, as Babel by R.F. Kuang demonstrates so beautifully. Humans already stole dragons’ magic and their world. Stealing their language to wield that magic without even remembering what their ancestors did is salt in the wound.

In Loc, it’s considered rude to assume a stranger’s gender, no matter how they present. A percentage of society can shape-shift, and healing magic can change a fair amount about the body, so biology isn’t seen as something immutable and unchanging, and gender roles are likewise fluid. You therefore default to “they” until that person quickly flashes their gender in Trade, often not even breaking the conversation. It’s a sign of trust and familiarity, like when you switch from the formal to informal “you” in languages like French and Spanish.

Status is also important. If you really respect someone or they’re higher class than you, you capitalize They and there’s a certain inflection to spoken speech. So nobility, clergy, rich merchants or guilders, or those who teach at the university might all be referred to with that honorific. You see it playing out in characters’ attitudes as well: One of the characters, priest assassin Sorin, uses They for most people she meets because she sees everyone as higher status than her, whereas Arcady, a genderfluid thief who despises a lot of the nobility and rages against society’s unfairness, largely refuses to use that honorific for the rich.

Read our review of ‘Dragonfall’ by L.R. Lam.

If you had a choice of dropping into this world, would you choose to be a human or a dragon?
Oh, dead easy. No contest. Why be human when you could be a dragon? And fly?

How do you balance aspiration and escapism with social critique in your work?
When I’m teaching, I ask new writers to consider this, too. I sigh a bit when people complain about “politics in their fantasy” as if it’s something new. All art is political, even if it chooses to uphold the status quo. In epic fantasy, there’s often a strong pro-monarchy angle, for example, and gender roles can be regressive in the name of “historical accuracy” despite these medieval-inspired worlds having things like potatoes and, you know, magical creatures. Those are political decisions, technically. That said, you don’t want to have a diatribe, either. It can be a difficult balance, and no writer will get it right for every reader. Fantasy can defamiliarize elements of our world or society, but it does it at more of a distance than contemporary fiction. The mirror is distorted.

For Dragonfall, I tried to focus on story and character first. As I mentioned, in Loc there’s no judgment in regard to sexuality or gender, whereas another country, Jask, is patriarchal. I suppose it is still subversive to imagine a world that tolerant, even in fantasy. I wrote Dragonfall as an escape when I was stuck inside most of the time. We’re seeing rising threats to transgender and reproductive rights, and the rhetoric and vitriol is honestly quite frightening, both in my original home of the U.S. and my current home in the U.K. This book is launching when queer books are increasingly getting banned. Even saying this in this interview makes me a little anxious. Are people going to say I’m banging on about politics instead of just focusing on the book? But I can’t exactly separate them out.

I obviously hope readers enjoy meeting these characters and falling into the world of the Lumet, but perhaps the book will make them think, too.

The start of a new series, Dragonfall is an enemies-to-lovers romance between a sexy dragon and a clever thief.
Review by

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series is suffused with the kind of philosophical explorations typical of high-concept speculative fiction, including the nature of conflict, the desire for community and what it means to be human. But these books have also posed another question, one left tantalizingly unanswered: What are the Presger? The terrifying, technologically advanced but rarely seen aliens hover on the edges of the series, their former habit of ripping into spaceships and people alike held at bay by a long-standing treaty with humanity.

In Translation State, Leckie’s latest standalone installment in the Radch universe, three characters approach the question of the Presger from different angles. Enae is a human diplomat tasked with finding out what happened to a missing Presger emissary. Reet is an engineer who discovers he may be the scion of the long-lost leaders of an oppressed people. And Qven is a juvenile Presger Translator, one of the strange creatures that the Presger bioengineered to communicate with species they consider to be Significant, or worthy of a diplomatic relationship. Looming over it all is the approaching renegotiation of the treaty that keeps humanity safe from the Presger.

In some ways, Translation State reads like a witty, action-packed retelling of “The Measure of a Man,” a classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode that debates whether the android Data is legally a person or a machine. The question here is not whether the characters think of themselves as Significant, but whether the Presger will think they are. Although the explicit stakes are legal, the terms of the debate are closer to theology than anything else. The Presger are essentially gods, with their treaty of nonviolence toward Significant species a particularly abstruse gospel. It brings to mind the Tarthenal from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, who prayed to gods only to ask them to stay far away. Every party must make decisions regarding the Significance of other species based on not only what serves their own interests but also what will prevent the Presger from tearing everything apart. 

Despite the existential nature of its conflict, Translation State still has an essential optimism. Every character’s motivations are understandable, even if they are not sympathetic, as each person is genuinely trying their best under challenging and potentially lethal circumstances.

Translation State also has an absolute whirlwind of a plot. An aristocratic family’s fortune vanishes at a funeral in the first chapter, and later, Qven vivisects and devours multitudes of their fellow juveniles in what is, apparently, a normal part of Presger Translator development. (This book is not for the squeamish.) As ever, under all the excitement and plot machinations, Leckie uses contact among different species and cultures to discuss complicated constructs such as gender. For example, Qven’s initial confusion over how gender works mirrors the Radchaai inability to distinguish between genders in Leckie’s original Radch trilogy. 

However, if you are the kind of reader who wants all their questions answered, beware: I still don’t really know what the Presger are.

Translation State, Ann Leckie’s latest Imperial Radch novel, is an ever-fascinating whirlwind with tantalizing clues about some of the series’ biggest mysteries.

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