Noah Fram

Review by

Siblings Rosemary and Aaron Harker rarely get mail, and when they do, it’s usually to alert them that some Uncanny creature has eaten its mundane human neighbor. As Huntsmen in 1913 New England, Rosemary and Aaron’s role is to hunt those dangerous supernatural beasts alongside their alarmingly large and faithful hound, Botheration, who can transform into a gargantuan hellhound when the situation calls for it. When they receive a letter from their cousin’s widow requesting they investigate his death, the two Huntsmen pack a trunk full of various deadly implements and, along with Botheration, board a train to the small milling town of Brunson in upstate New York. Once there, they find an unexpected morass of savaged bodies, unionization and the occult that will lead them past the typically abnormal to the stubbornly impossible.

The author of several fantasy series, Laura Anne Gilman is a practiced storyteller, and her expertise shows in Uncanny Times. She doles out answers to her plot’s puzzles with a miserly hand and tempered foreshadowing, spinning Rosemary and Aaron’s investigation into a parable of greed, vengeance and love gone horribly awry. The Harker siblings are more akin to proxies for the reader than protagonists: This story belongs to Brunson itself, and the Huntsmen’s role is to unravel the secrets of the town and its vibrant cast of inhabitants.

Gilman is clearly building an arc meant to span several books, so a number of key questions are left unanswered. The specific mystery plot of Uncanny Times is concluded cleanly, if not necessarily happily for all involved, but the book itself still ends on a cliffhanger. Important characters with extensive backstories relevant to the Harker family history flit in and out within single chapters, bringing tantalizing glimpses of a broader cataclysm unfolding just outside the atmospheric environs of Brunson. It feels like watching the first season of a slow-burn show and hoping it doesn’t get cancelled, both because the show is enjoyable and well crafted and because the remaining loose ends would forever weigh on your mind.

Uncanny Times may be a small story. But, like Botheration at the start of an Uncanny hunt, it is poised to explode into a much, much larger one. And Gilman is far too canny a writer to waste such a tempting start.

A tantalizing start to a new historical fantasy series, Uncanny Times follows siblings Rosemary and Aaron Harker as they hunt supernatural monsters in 1913 New York.
Review by

Siyon was only trying to save his friend, not destroy the city. Sure, Zagiri is more of an acquaintance, but she is more reliable than most foppish nobles who moonlight as streetwise soldiers for hire in the city of Bezim. A petty alchemist, Siyon spends his time in the shadows, harvesting materials from other planes of reality for richer and more powerful practitioners. But when Zagiri falls off a clock tower to what should have been her death, Siyon somehow manages to catch her in a feat of very illegal, should-be-impossible magic. It doesn’t matter that Siyon has no idea how he did it, because the most important rule about life in Bezim is that magic must never be done. Alchemy is science, but magic is instinctual and unexplainable, and it destroyed half the city centuries before. So when magic rears its incontrovertible head, it looks like Bezim itself could be in danger, and the authorities set their sights on Siyon. 

Notorious Sorcerer, Davinia Evans’ debut novel, deploys genre tropes with delirious glee: Scientifically codified magic, supernatural bargains and zealous inquisitors all make appearances. The story flits from dirty streets to alchemical salons to private opera boxes at a heedless pace, driven by existential stakes but infused with an unshakable confidence that humanity will prevail. There are tragedies, of course, and hard lessons about loss and resilience and the kinds of violence those with power unconsciously inflict on those without. But there is also a romance or two, and while this is not the sort of book where the heroes ride off into the sunset, following Siyon and Zagiri on their quest to save their comrades and, eventually, their world is still good escapist fun.

While its narrow focus makes Notorious Sorcerer a tight, cleanly crafted read, it occasionally deprives Evans’ rich, fascinating world of oxygen; many tantalizing details are left by the wayside in favor of maintaining tension in Siyon’s journey. There is certainly room for this saga to grow, for secondary characters to take center stage, for readers to learn why one rogue is called the Diviner Prince or how the prefect came to power or why the chief inquisitor is so zealous. You”ll finish Notorious Sorcerer ready and eager for the promised sequel.

Davinia Evans' debut fantasy deploys genre tropes with delirious glee and builds a rich and fascinating world readers will be eager to return to.
Review by

The story is performed in the Inverted Theater, which exists outside of time and can only be visited while one is dreaming. An unnamed spectator sits in the audience and is told that this story is a love story.

It is summer, as it always is in the Old Country, and one fateful night, the omnipotent emperor goes to visit his imprisoned wife, the Moon god, for the first time in decades. She promptly plasters his viscera against the wall of her cell and flees, hunted by her eldest son, the First Terror. She is accompanied by Jun, a soldier she swayed to her cause; Keema of the Daware Tribe, a young, one-armed warrior tasked by his commander with delivering a spear to a woman on the coast; and a deformed tortoise telepathically linked to all its kin. While gods scheme, armies mass and the empire crumbles from its center, the fate of the world depends on two young men, an animal and a god whose power is waning.

The Spear Cuts Through Water is beautifully, lovingly crafted. Simon Jimenez’s writing is dense and poetic, suffused with a sun-bleached elegance that is wholly at odds with the nightmarish and gruesome world it depicts. The Spear Cuts Through Water is, to be clear, a very disturbing book. Turning each page is more likely to reveal an abattoir than anything else—albeit one painted in mythic prose. But scattered throughout are moments of peace and realization, brief tableaux in which the love story that was promised peeks out. Despite this being a tale of gods and demons, of psychic tortoises and a Moonless sky, Jimenez never forgets the pair of humans struggling along at its heart.

Jimenez veers unpredictably between worlds, interweaving Keema and Jun’s epic journey with vignettes from the unnamed spectator’s life in our own reality, one with absentee fathers and school bullies and bloody wars across an ocean. Against this backdrop, the story of the Moon god and the emperor seems allegorical, like there is a message somewhere within the sweltering, endless summer of the Old Country. But Jimenez does not show his hand right away. Rather, he pulls the reader along, coaxing them through a thicket of ghoulish horrors with the promise of a moral and a meaning to be delivered by the time the curtain falls. And in the end, he does not disappoint.

The Spear Cuts Through Water is a beautifully crafted and nightmarishly gruesome epic fantasy.
Review by

The Monsters We Defy is a book about demons—or as Clara Johnson calls them, Enigmas. Clara was born with the ability to see and interact with Enigmas, making her highly sought after as a sort of broker between these dangerous spirits and the people who seek their help, costs be damned. Clara is all too aware of the severity of those costs: The only reason she has continued to act as spiritual go-between is to satisfy a compulsion from her own deal with an Enigma, made years ago. But when young people in her orbit start becoming listless or disappearing, she is dragged into a sordid conspiracy that could wreak havoc in the mortal world and must fight for both the survival of her peers and her own freedom.

Author Leslye Penelope successfully blends a folkloric sense of the supernatural, derived from sources such as Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast, with a Gatsby-esque vision of the Roaring ’20s in Washington, D.C’s ‘s African American community. Replete with historical figures, including a youthfully insouciant Langston Hughes, the unflappably paternal Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Journal of Negro History, and even a cameo from W.E.B. Du Bois, The Monsters We Defy is a fascinating blend of the real and imagined. Even Clara is based on a real person: Clara Minor Johnson, a Black teenager who killed a white policeman in self-defense when she was a teenager. Penelope seamlessly weaves the historical figure into the character of Clara and her world of spirit magic. Throughout, she emphasizes the tenuous nature of Black high society in this era, existing within a white-dominated world it can never fully penetrate but cannot afford to ignore. In Penelope’s hands, the glamour of all-Black masquerade balls, where bootleggers mingle with politicians and opera stars, is an act of defiance, both of the racial power structure of the day and of stereotypical depictions of African American life during this era.

The most effective aspect of The Monsters We Defy is how Penelope portrays the Black experience on its own terms. Even the magic is derived from a combination of African mythology and traditions from the African diaspora, particularly hoodoo. The result is a novel that is both a well-crafted fantasy romp (with a healthy dose of happily-ever-after romance) and a work of revisionist fiction that elevates a vital, oft-overlooked slice of history.

The Monsters We Defy is a well-crafted fantasy romp set among the Black elite of 1920s Washington, D.C.
Review by

Set in the same Renaissance Mediterranean-inspired world as Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago, Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World follows Rafel ben Natan and Nadia bint Dhiyan, merchants and privateers on a mission to assassinate the khalif of Abeneven. On the way, they travel with feared warlords; consort with kings, emperors and popes; and inadvertently start a war of vengeance that some call holy. But because they are always a few steps removed from real power, Rafel and Nadia are never able to correct the injustices they encounter. Kay’s fictional worlds, while beautiful, are defined by this bleak inertia; his characters see their homes fade from the map and their own lives taken for the pettiest of causes. This perspective allows Kay to address serious topics within the framework of a fantasy adventure novel, but he never tips into the sort of grimdark cynicism that would cheapen his insights (and seriously depress some readers).

Nowhere in All the Seas of the World is this more apparent than in its treatment of religion. Kay’s other works set in this world have depicted internecine strife within the Jaddite faith (an analogue of Christianity) and the recurrent wars between the Jaddites and the Osmanlis (similar to the Islamic Ottoman Empire). All the Seas of the World turns to the Kindath, Kay’s fictionalized version of the Jewish people. Society will never accept the Kindath, no matter how successful they become or how much they conform. They achieve their victories through survival, finding ways to navigate a hostile, mistrustful world without endangering their community.

Throughout All the Seas of the World, the Kindath contend with this reality in myriad ways. They try to assimilate, only to learn that true assimilation is impossible. They seek security in success, only to find that such success makes them targets of vitriol and violence. When Kay enters Rafel’s perspective, he makes it painfully clear how every decision Rafel faces is weighted by the potential consequences not just for himself but for his family and the entire Kindath community, given that his and Nadia’s mission is one of great importance to the Jaddite world.

Nadia spends much of the book coping with the trauma of being taken by Osmanli slavers as a child, and Kay depicts her inner landscape with sensitivity and nuance. She nurses a visceral, bigoted hatred of all things Osmanli that thinly masquerades as Jaddite zealotry, but as the flames of her hatred sputter out, she wonders where she belongs in a world that views her as less valuable because of her abduction. In Kay’s world, both women and the Kindath are under extraordinary pressure to conform to ever-shifting ideals that are entirely determined by outsiders.

And yet, All the Seas of the World is a story of resilience winning out, of these two individuals finding a way to vanquish their demons in spite of all the powers arrayed against them. A master of telling small stories in a big world, Kay reveals spots of hope amid the cold cynicism of history.

Guy Gavriel Kay tells small stories of hope and resilience in an expansive fantasy world modeled on the Renaissance-era Mediterranean.
Review by

The stories in Sam J. Miller’s debut collection, Boys, Beasts & Men, are unified by two core sensibilities: a keen awareness of the power of narrative and a morality that is radical in its compassion.

From the tragicomic “Allosaurus Burgers,” to the visceral horrors of “Shucked” and “Things With Beards” and the contemplative “Sun in an Empty Room,” each of the stories deals with the boundaries of the expected. They tackle the impossibility of seeing inside another’s head or the sudden and thoroughly unexplained appearance of a large, extinct, carnivorous lizard. Sometimes they draw on the past, offering visions of 1930s New York City or the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Others paint dystopian portraits of humankind clinging to life on a drowned planet. And yet, for all the variety of its stories, Boys, Beasts & Men is still a cohesive whole.

In large part, this is due to Miller’s distinctive voice and how his narratives all revolve, in some way, around love. Whether that love is a parent’s effort to protect their children, the splintering love of a closeted gay man for his homophobic brother or the incautious romance between two beings (this is as specific a description as is possible to give) with nowhere else to go, it shines through every story with a relentless optimism. Even when affection manifests in anger, or even violence, Miller retains the hope that the anger will be ephemeral and the love will endure. Sometimes, as in life, that hope is insufficient—many of these stories end in shattering tragedy or chilling fear—but the hope is there, all the same.

In these memorable pieces, Miller wields his efficient, unpretentious prose to create indelible impressions of moments, characters and twists. None of these characters or settings ever feel stale; none of the plot points hang around longer than they’re welcome. Miller deliberately leaves narrative gaps, inviting readers to imagine for themselves what fills those spaces while also encouraging them to find beauty even in the most harrowing times. Through every timeline, every cinematic reference (of which there are many) and speculative monstrosity, Boys, Beasts & Men is a reminder that stories matter, especially the ones we tell ourselves.

The pieces in Sam J. Miller’s Boys, Beasts & Men are a reminder that stories matter, especially the ones we tell ourselves.
Review by

Every 10 years, the secretive Alexandrian Society, inheritors of the lost knowledge from its namesake library, recruits six of the most powerful young magic users, or medeians, to join their ranks. The half-dozen potential initiates are brought to the Society’s headquarters, where they study and learn from the greatest compendium of magical knowledge that has ever existed. This year, Caretaker Atlas Blakely has selected a sextet of particularly ambitious young medeians: three physical mediums, who specialize in manipulating external forces and energies for purposes as varied as deflecting bullets and obtaining midnight snacks; and three nascent masters of the mental, emotional and perceptual magics of reading minds and concealing acne. But these newest residents are confronted with even darker secrets than the arcane knowledge they all covet, for they are the linchpins in a conspiracy that could either save the world or utterly destroy it.

For a book with such a melodramatic premise (think “Big Brother,” but half the cast can read their companions’ minds and the other half can conjure actual black holes), Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six is curiously matter-of-fact, dispensing with on-page relationship drama and coasting through tense fight scenes with brevity. Likewise, instead of providing flowing backstory, Blake communicates personalities through lighthearted conversations and depicts the world outside the Library’s magically warded walls entirely through the scars it left on her protagonists. The Atlas Six is stingy with its exposition, with the lengthiest passages being debates between characters on topics such as the nature of time and the conservation of magical energy. But in Blake’s hands, these tracts are engaging and often very, very funny. This duality—an extremely pulpy plot married with smart and nimble writing—is the core of The Atlas Six’s appeal.

This macabre romp of a magical reality show nevertheless revolves around one weighty question: Is there knowledge that should not be shared? Blake draws heavily on the structures and practices of academia, which in our world is in the midst of a push for greater transparency and democratization of knowledge. Analyzing the costs and benefits of advanced technology or abilities has been central to speculative fiction since its inception. That Blake is using academia as a vehicle for it, adding her agile and cutting voice to the likes of Neal Stephenson and Cixin Liu, feels particularly relevant to the present moment. And if she happens to suggest some legitimately wholesome uses for small wormholes along the way, all the better.

Olivie Blake marries an extremely pulpy plot with smart and nimble writing in her debut fantasy, The Atlas Six.
Interview by

Battle of the Linguist Mages, playwright Scotto Moore’s debut novel, more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title. It follows die-hard gamer Isobel Bailie, who unlocks magical abilities due to her mastery of the virtual reality game Sparkle Dungeon, down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and capitalist enterprise. The reigning champion of the game, Isobel has mastered its vocal spellcasting mechanics. But then she’s let in on a paradigm-shifting secret: The same techniques can be used in the real world. By uttering phrases called power morphemes, Isobel can literally change reality. In this Q&A, Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind what he deems his “science fantasy,” from Burning Man and EDM to the very real reality-altering dangers of technology.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is reminiscent of some other speculative fiction I’ve read or seen, like Ready Player One, Snow Crash and Contact, if these were all reflected off a few dozen disco balls and seen through a haze of real-life events. What were your inspirations for this project?
Back in 2010, I had a conversation with a linguist friend of mine who described her work in the field of speech recognition and speech-to-text and scaling that technology out to new languages. And I remember thinking it sounded completely like science fiction to me, a theater artist with no training in linguistics or any other science. Every word you say narrows down the potential words that might happen next, and I sort of cheekily thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be evil if you were capable of surreptitiously planting that first word in the sequence without a subject knowing it?” This ultimately led to me writing a play called Duel of the Linguist Mages, which we produced in Seattle in early 2011.

Then in 2014, I wrote a play called Balconies, which evolved out of a desire to write a giant farce with a romantic comedy wedged into it. I needed two sets of contrasting characters to play on two neighboring balconies, so on one you had a political fundraiser, and next door you had a video game-themed costume party. I’m sure my many Burning Man experiences must’ve inspired Sparkle Dungeon, the video game in that play. By the time I started writing the book, I’d acquired a hobbyist-level interest in DJ culture, so that got added to the mix. Balconies is one of my favorite plays, and the humor in the book is directly inspired by the comedic style of the play. I entertained some wishful thinking about writing a sequel, [but] instead I became motivated to use those characters in a book. That general atmosphere of menace from Duel provided a contrast to the lighthearted nature of the Balconies source material as I started to plot out the book, cherry-picking characters and concepts to use.

“Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion . . .”

Battle of the Linguist Mages (and Sparkle Dungeon itself) sits right between science fiction and fantasy. Do you see your creations as bridging that genre gap or simply filling a niche that neither genre really describes effectively?
I’ve called it science fantasy from the start, although my publisher called it contemporary fantasy at one point, and that seems fair too. There’s so much spellcasting in the book that fantasy probably outweighs the science fiction elements. When I was a playwright, I did often write actual science fiction, but since then, I’ve also come to a better appreciation of fantasy. It feels natural right now to explore the wilder and weirder aspects of my imagination within the context of fantasy or science fantasy.

If someone were to release a real version of Sparkle Dungeon, would you play it?
Well, I don’t actually play video games. So if a Sparkle Dungeon game came out and I wasn’t connected to it in any way, it would miss me altogether. I wouldn’t even notice its release unless it became a monster hit that affected culture at the top level.

I didn’t call this out in the book, but in my imagination, there’s a mode in Sparkle Dungeon that’s like Rock Band, except it’s the DJ equivalent. Whenever Isobel boasts about her DJ skills, she’s actually referring to her mastery of this mode in the game. I might find that mode entertaining, but not “acquire a VR headset” entertaining.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is the exact sort of story that I can see somebody wanting to adapt to the screen, but that might not translate particularly well, given how many things would be challenging to visualize (or auralize). Since you have experience writing for the stage as well, do you think this book is capable of being adapted to another medium?
Oh, you could definitely adapt this book into a film or a streaming series. I mean, I learned working in fringe theater, where the production budgets are ridiculously low, that you can almost always find a way to express a strong creative vision. Resource constraints and limitations become creative opportunities by necessity. Maybe your finished product is rough around the edges, but you can still tell a powerful story. Our version of power morphemes in Duel of the Linguist Mages was a series of intricate sound cues, which the actors lip synced. It was super weird and effective.

In the midst of all that spectacle and action, a very character-driven story engine drives the book. Isobel, Maddy and the Dauphine of the Shimmer Lands feel to me like a charismatic trio of leads you really want to follow through this adventure. They’re like a mini superhero team, but instead of secret identities, they really wear their hearts on their sleeves with each other.

Read our starred review of Battle of the Linguist Mages.

A lot of the characters and organizations in Battle of the Linguist Mages are very, shall we say, recognizable from our real world. How much were those references intended to situate the reader in a familiar world, and how much were they intended to make a point?
I always wanted to situate the reader in our world, in the present day, because I think part of the fun is how our world is a springboard for these elaborate flights of fancy, so to speak. You get mileage out of that contrast, and the real world looks different to them when they return home. And the cabal’s actions have a more visceral impact because the story takes place in California instead of an invented land. It could be you or your own family that gets swept up in their schemes.

Meanwhile, as I developed the characters, it was apparent that Isobel and Maddy (like many of us) were deeply skeptical of modern capitalism, and some of my own rage bled through as they interacted with rich and powerful people in the story or observed how the world was being shaped by such unscrupulous forces.

But Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion, and that’s what makes them so compelling to me.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is also very meta with all its references to literary and video game tropes. Do you think the characters in your book use tropes to describe their lived experiences, or did those tropes causally shape those experiences?
Isobel spends a huge amount of time in Sparkle Dungeon, immersed in the narrative tropes of the game, and she uses her instinctive understanding of those tropes to succeed at the game. That way of thinking does bleed into her daily life. So for instance, when she needs to study new spells with Maddy for several weeks, she flat-out thinks of it as a “training montage.” But this is the era of TV tropes and the culture having a really deep knowledge now of the typical tactics that narratives deploy, so she’s probably not the only character who’s immersed on some level in those tropes. Still, I think Isobel revels a lot more in fulfilling a literal role in a narrative than anyone else in the book.

“Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively . . .”

I’m a composer and psychomusicologist (it’s a real thing, I promise) by training, so I’m fascinated by your choice of EDM and house music as the vehicle for magic, both in Sparkle Dungeon and outside the game. What attracted you to using that genre in particular?
I think it’s just familiarity more than anything. I’ve been listening to electronic music since the mid-1990s, which is actually late to the game. A friend handed me an Orb CD and an Orbital CD and insisted that I would enjoy them, and she was totally right. And to the extent that my Burning Man experiences influenced Sparkle Dungeon, I mean, electronic music is seemingly everywhere you turn at Burning Man, or it was back when I was regularly attending the festival. Electronic music has been the soundtrack for a big chunk of my life.

The singing scenes are also particularly interesting to me, because they point to power morphemes’ implicit therapeutic potential. Where do you think they lie on the spectrum from therapy to enhancement?
Well, it’s tricky. The way Bradford pacifies the participants in a large brawl by singing sequences of power morphemes is almost akin to a guided MDMA session, so therapeutic potential is certainly there. At the same time, Isobel notes more than once that some of the euphoric healing sequences she uses have addictive potential. Spellcasting in that fashion seems slippery, although if you scaled it up, maybe you’d cure diseases.

But I think it’s telling that instead of curing anything, everyone is a lot more focused on “combat linguistics” and other subversive techniques. It’s like these power morpheme sequences provide steroidal power boosts to the spellcaster, which are a lot more immediately compelling to these people than anything altruistic.

Although power morphemes are speculation, the core premise—the invention or discovery of something that alters people’s perception of reality regardless of their agency—hits a little close to home. Things like power morphemes can cause immense harm but also achieve incredible good. How worried are you about the possibility that real life may come to imitate your art?
It’s happened already. Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively that otherwise rational people now believe wholesale in bizarre and outright harmful conspiracies. When these users first created their Facebook accounts, hoping to connect with friends and share photo albums or whatever, they never suspected they’d be hammered with insidious lie after lie after lie, propagated by an algorithm that operates with no mercy. I mean, maybe when you agreed to the terms of service, you willingly gave up your agency, but I doubt most people think of it that way.

At one point in the book, Olivia describes her work in advertising as “planting meaning in the culture and guaranteeing its effects.” Facebook mastered this approach, and they used their technological wizardry to torpedo the stability of American democracy and prop up despots around the globe. I’m not seeing the incredible good anywhere in sight. Maybe that’s part of why I like writing fantasy.

Author photo by Ian Johnston.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy,” Battle of the Linguist Mages, which more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title.
Review by

Summarizing Scotto Moore’s debut novel, Battle of the Linguist Mages, is an exercise in futility. Reducing it to the skeleton of its plot—Isobel Bailie discovers a talent that is considered magical, goes on a quest to save the world and maybe falls in love—would be ludicrously simplistic. Treating it as a philosophical treatise or a searing critique of contemporary politics would discount the fact that it’s also a riveting romp of an adventure.

Isobel, an avid gamer who lives in Los Angeles, contends with villains in the form of cynical advertising executives, disinterested game designers, conniving politicians, idealistic anarchists and arrogant gods. Along the way, she has to figure out how to get the “good” ending and she must also confront the mother of all trolley problems. To make matters worse, it’s all happening in real life, not in the friendly confines of her favorite virtual reality game, Sparkle Dungeon. Her talents in that game’s vocal spellcasting mechanic make her an ideal fit to learn power morphemes, vocalizations that alter people’s perceptions of reality so thoroughly that they change reality itself. While becoming the embodiment of a weaponized Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the structure of language shapes a person’s perception of reality), Isobel learns that all of existence is under threat and must be saved.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement. It is hilarious and irreverent, and it relishes the intrinsic ridiculousness of real-life mages and superheroes training in a video game that’s a cross between Kingdom Hearts and Beat Saber. In blindingly inadequate words, Battle of the Linguist Mages is, conceptually, very dense.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy.”

Flashes of social commentary shoot through this lurid unreality like lasers through a nightclub haze, but the most fascinating element is the deftness with which Moore crafts a fantasy epic about characters who role-play fantasy epics. Lying beneath endless music puns, pointed re-creations of Angeleno excess and cynicism about the modern-day celebrity cult is an impressive narrative self-awareness, an acknowledgment of every trope that Moore uses to render the reasonably straightforward core plot (discovery of magical talent, training montage, quest to save the world) as subversive.

The most powerful aspect of Battle of the Linguist Mages is not the sly humor, unrepentant geekiness, slow-burn romance or the trenchant sociopolitical commentary. Rather, it is the story’s tacit argument that books (and video games) are power morphemes. They contain the toolsets to construct entire universes but require readers (or players) for that vision to be fully realized. And, to pursue this analogy to its heavily foreshadowed conclusion, every writer is a linguist mage.

Except writers don’t have to be able to vocalize multiple vowels at once. Thank goodness.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement.
Review by

Greta Kelly’s The Frozen Crown introduced Askia, the exiled Queen of Seravesh, as a confident leader struggling to survive amid the schemes and machinations of the Vishir court. But during what should have been her triumph, a political marriage to the Emperor of Vishir, she was kidnapped, and the emperor and his senior wife, Ozura, were murdered—but not before Ozura pledged her soul to Askia’s service. For Askia is not just royalty: She is also a death witch, a rare magical talent who can both commune with and command the dead. Emperor Radovan of Roven, Askia’s kidnapper, intends her to be his seventh queen, to kill her and take her power for his own, as he has done six times before. But Askia has no intention of going quietly.

In Kelly’s follow-up, The Seventh Queen, Askia has morphed into a ruthless manipulator, willing to use any hint of leverage to save her own life and to prevent her world from falling under the dominion of the power-hungry Radovan. While this characterization is something of a leap, it suits Askia’s nature as a doggedly competent survivor. Kelly’s incisive prose, along with a plot that continues to defy fantasy tropes by focusing almost entirely on court intrigue rather than displays of magical or martial prowess, renders such narrative discontinuities forgivable.

One of the highlights of The Seventh Queen may be Radovan himself. In the prior book, he was a sinister yet distant threat, easily dismissed as the inevitable emperor motivated only by a bottomless quest for power. Here, Radovan is revealed as an odd sort of failure, a capricious dictator who began by genuinely trying to right the world’s wrongs. Kelly’s world is one dominated by magical elites, and Radovan is one of the only characters who questions this status quo. 

Radovan is much more compelling than when he was a remote evil, but the treatment of his character is also indicative of the loss of the moral complexity that made The Frozen Crown such an interesting take on fantasy. The Seventh Queen categorizes Radovan’s actions as those of a simple madman whose policies are only twisted parodies of true reform, refusing to admit that there was any merit in his initial crusade and uncomplicatedly championing its aristocratic, magically gifted protagonist. While there is plenty of dramatic tension, the most surprising part of how Kelly concludes her duology is how closely it hews to the standards of high fantasy and abandons the thematic ambition of The Frozen Crown.

While not truly groundbreaking, The Seventh Queen has a compelling villain and an unusual focus on courtly maneuvering for a fantasy novel. It is a wholly satisfying conclusion whose only real shortcoming is its inability to fully realize the ambition of Kelly’s debut.

The satisfying conclusion to the story launched in The Frozen Crown features incisive prose, along with a plot that continues to defy fantasy tropes by focusing almost entirely on court intrigue rather than displays of magical or martial prowess.
Feature by

Science fiction, more than perhaps any other genre, has an established tradition of social and political critique. Such iconic works as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune all used future human civilizations as stages to play out contemporary struggles such as Golden Age hedonism, class-based societies, modern imperialism and plutocracy. This pattern, dating back to the genre’s inception in the 19th century, has created an expectation that new science fiction must also contend with some contemporary crisis of the human condition, preferably in some novel fashion.

Both Peter Watts and Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) have established themselves as unique literary voices. Watts is known for his exhaustively researched fiction and tight narrative structure, while North is a linguistic gymnast in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and Thomas Pynchon. Their most recent offerings, The Freeze-Frame Revolution and 84K, do not disappoint, and although each of their plots is strongly reminiscent of other novels, the delivery sets them apart from their compatriots.

In Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Sunday Ahzmundin is a biological engineer on the spaceship Eriophora, whose unusually close relationship with the AI autopilot, Chimp, is tested when she learns of a rebellion being conducted by certain members of the crew in their brief gaps between decades-long periods of stasis. Although this is, by Watts’ admission, more scientifically speculative than his other work, purists will be pleased by his handling of machine learning, evolutionary time scale and even names—Eriophora is a genus of orb-weaving spider that creates spiral webs, and the Eriophora is building a spiral web of faster-than-light travel routes. The Freeze-Frame Revolution is closer in length to a novella than a novel, which enables the cover-to-cover tautness of the plot and makes the character development, especially of the relationship between Sunday and Chimp, all the more remarkable.

84K, by contrast, is both large and dense. Theo Miller is a man of uncertain provenance, living in a near-future United Kingdom that is dominated by a single massive monopoly called the Company. Theo determines the price in pounds sterling that convicted criminals must pay for their offenses, but when a woman from his past reappears, he must face the blight at the heart of his society. North constructs a linear plot out of disjointed slices of time, resulting in a book that never shows its hand and only snaps into focus at the very end. This unusual plot structure makes 84K a challenge for the reader, but it feels necessary. After all, North is painting a portrait of a society that hides its true form behind a facade of advertising and euphemism. Her heroes miss crucial details, and it is unclear whether “heroes” is really the right thing to call them.

Although The Freeze-Frame Revolution is strongly reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 84K contends with a similar autocracy to George Orwell’s 1984, each book distinguishes itself both by its author’s technique and by its treatment of moral ambiguity. In each case, the protagonist possesses imperfect and likely biased information and is embroiled in a revolt that, for all its humane intentions, is anything but benevolent in practice. Watts leaves the essential conflict tantalizingly unresolved and writes from the perspective of Sunday retelling the events. This casts doubt on the veracity of Sunday as narrator, transforming what could otherwise have been a relatively cliché story of man versus machine into an engaging tale that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. And North consistently justifies her writerly contortions by using them to convey her protagonist’s state of mind. Her carefully chosen run-on sentences, unusual phrasing and jarring jumps (frequently mid-sentence) from thought to thought, character to narrator, or present to past convey Theo’s progress from being a deliberately boring, utterly confused bureaucrat to a man who has finally attained a sense of purpose.

Perhaps modern science fiction is somewhat hamstrung by its need to reflect our current society in its speculative funhouse mirror. There are only so many great debates to be had, after all. But these latest contributions, from such eminently skilled writers as Watts and North, are worthy voices in their respective conversations, and thoroughly engrossing stories in their own right.

Both Peter Watts and Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) have established themselves as unique literary voices. Watts is known for his exhaustively researched fiction and tight narrative structure, while North is a linguistic gymnast in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and Thomas Pynchon. Their most recent offerings, The Freeze-Frame Revolution and 84K, do not disappoint, and although each of their plots is strongly reminiscent of other novels, the delivery sets them apart from their compatriots.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!