Ralph Harris

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s mega-rich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness.

Khaw roots the novella in the perspective of Cat, who along with Phillip and the group’s resident pot-stirrer, Lin, is one of the wedding’s three guests. Cat has recently emerged from six months of self-imposed isolation to treat her depression, the exact details of which are left purposefully vague. Cat thinks this retreat has done her some good, but Khaw does not shy from portraying Cat’s ongoing experience with depression in the form of long, spiraling trains of thought. These mental soliloquies color the entire story with Cat’s internal angst. Her barely controlled depressive energy bleeds through every page, punctured by curt dialogue among the small fellowship of supposed friends. Supposed is the key adjective, as each member of the five-person crew has some sort of sordid history with another member—or two. Their friendships, especially as seen through Cat’s eyes, are flimsy at best. Despite flying across the world to participate in this marriage ceremony, the bonds between them disintegrate as the haunting begins.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Cat’s relative familiarity with Japanese culture (she is Chinese and grew up in Malaysia) means that she is quick to identify certain beings but doesn’t spend unrealistic amounts of time explaining significant details for the audience, a careful balance of clarity and obscurity that will appeal to Japanese horror aficionados and newcomers alike.

Khaw builds horror slowly and evenly. Rather than sporadically appearing to frighten and terrorize the young squad of not-quite-friends, the spirits of the house appear with steadily increasing frequency until they are simply present in every scene. By the novella’s climax, the tension has increased to such an unbearable degree that the final burst of violence is more expected than surprising.

Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale of foolish young adults, all of whom are poorly prepared for the effects their decisions will have on their psyches (and lives).

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

A lonely quasi-immortal, Amahle is a light chaser, a spaceship captain who travels the stars and takes advantage of enhanced genetics and lightspeed time-dilation to cross through millenia. Her mission is the dispersion and eventual retrieval of memory collars, fancy futuristic necklaces that record the memories of entire lifetimes: Imagine the 94-part Instagram stories of your most social media addicted-friends, but stretching across a century with fewer grainy, impossible-to-hear concerts. Between planets, Amahle uses these memory collars to experience the lives of those she met on her visits, with only the ship’s AI as her companion. That is, until she realizes that someone is trying to reach out to her through the memory collars, someone capable of communicating across centuries and galaxies.

Despite its short length, Light Chaser plunges into both soul-bound, possibly fated love and universe-spanning conspiracies. Readers who love unique science fiction settings will enjoy how Hamilton and Powell reveal new worlds with each new chapter. Both world building and suspense increase in tandem, complexity and depth building throughout the story while each new reveal amps up the tension.

An ideal read for a flight or a cozy afternoon at home, Light Chaser will make an afternoon seem like minutes.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

Brian Staveley’s previous trilogy, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, followed intricately intertwined political machinations in a vast world with an extensive history. The Empire’s Ruin begins a new arc set in the same universe and tells the stories of three characters: Gwenna, a member of an elite group of soldiers who serve the Annurian Empire; Akiil, a monk turned con artist; and Ruc, a priest trying to survive in the dangerous swamp town of Dombang. Even readers unfamiliar with Staveley's earlier books will enjoy this lengthy, immersive fantasy.

Staveley frequently narrates from triads of point-of-view characters, and while the three protagonists of The Empire’s Ruin start in dramatically different places, they all serve to tell the same story: the slow, inevitable decline of the Annurian Empire, which is still reeling from the events of the previous trilogy. Ruc experiences the consequences of the empire’s weakened grip firsthand, as a victim of the violent streets of Dombang, which has seceded from the empire. Gwenna carries out the Empress’s orders to explore and scavenge undiscovered territory across a vast ocean as Akiil attempts to work a con on the Empress herself.

The world of The Empire’s Ruin is unremittingly bleak, and while Staveley embraces the physical violence that’s all too common in this world, he focuses far more on the psychological impact of living in a crumbling society. Each character here, even beyond the three main characters, battles external corruption and violence while simultaneously battling their own fears of inadequacy, internal corruption and severe depression (except for Akiil, who is a dirtbag who deserves the comeuppance he will eventually receive).

Gwenna, Akiil and Ruc are all prone to monologuing and soliloquies, to the point that it sometimes feels as if Staveley has written three separate fantasy versions of Hamlet. At times, this focus on introspection can make certain sections feel interminable. And while this feels like an intentional choice on Staveley’s part, to demonstrate each character’s narrow focus on their own struggles, it does hurt the book’s overall pacing.

But by the end of The Empire’s Ruin, most readers will still be itching for more. Those looking for a thoughtful, dark fantasy with action and well-earned twists would do well to pick this one up.

Even readers unfamiliar with Brian Staveley’s first trilogy in this world will enjoy this lengthy, immersive fantasy.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world and let all manner of magic into our own. Decades later, someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz returns from the dead goes on a murderous rampage through Cairo, threatening both the delicate balance between the world powers and the uneasy accord between humans and the supernatural. We talked to Clark about the inspirations behind his alternate history.

I love the world you've created! How do you start world building at the very beginning of a project? Was there any specific moment or image that kickstarted your vision of an alternate Cairo?
Thank you! I think for this world—what I think is now called the Dead Djinn universe—the idea began with an image in my head of the main character, Fatma, in the suit and a dead djinn hovering over her. Who knows what made me dream that up? But once it was there, I needed to figure it out. Who was this person? Was this a detective story? Maybe she’s a detective. No, maybe she’s an agent. OK, what’s with the dead djinn? What’s even the larger mystery here? And it went on and on like that, until I had a story.

Egyptian mythology (among other African and Middle Eastern cultures) has a strong influence in this book. Was there any specific work that inspired you? What draws you to the stories of that corner of the world?
My earliest years growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Caribbean folklore, Hindu cosmology and Muslim festivals (like Hosay)—part of my environment. So the non-“Occidental” has always been part of my lived experience. And I think I’ve always found myself searching for it, no matter where I’ve ended up.

"I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo.' It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more."

Fatma, Siti and Hadia are such fun characters to see interact. How do you approach writing dynamic conversations?
With all characters, I try to imagine how they would approach a situation or react to others. I think of them the way I would real people, with certain personality traits, habits, quirks, etc. So when Siti says something, I ask myself how Fatma would respond, or Hadia. And I just try to stay true to who they are.

Dr. Hoda is my favorite side character so far, so I have to ask—will she get her assistant?
LOL. Great question. I like side characters like Dr. Hoda precisely because they leave the door open to revisit them later. In the meantime, if I can get readers to identify with them (despite their limited presence) and see them as characters with depth, I’m happy.

Is there anything from your personal life you drew on to write this book? Or do you prefer not to think consciously about what parts of your life go into your work?
There are parts that are based heavily on my memories of visiting Cairo. And certainly, I pulled from themes and issues in my head at the time I was writing. The Dead Djinn world as a nod to anti-colonialism reflects much of my own personal bias. But overall, the characters and whatnot have their own experiences and lives that are quite separate from my own. Also, I haven’t yet actually seen a djinn.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Master of Djinn.


Do you want to continue writing stories in this world? If so, do you have a plan for how many more books you would like to write, or will you just see where the story takes you?
Plan? No plans here. I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more. Fortunately, because I enjoy world building, I always leave myself different doors and paths to explore. So, I don’t have anything yet in mind. But who knows?

What have you read and loved recently?
I am reading Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. The prose and imagination are magnificent!

What else are you working on?
A project I’m not yet supposed to talk about. But let’s just say, I may be writing for a decidedly younger audience. Though the rest of you are welcome to come along, too.

What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading A Master of Djinn?
A satisfied smile. And a hunger for Egyptian street food.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world.

P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn is the literary equivalent of a cup of lovely mint tea: a refreshing, delightful and magical mystery to enjoy while absorbing vitamin D on a crisp spring day. The fourth installment and first full-length novel of Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe series, the smooth and welcoming A Master of Djinn provides the perfect amount of fan service to engage returning fans without alienating new readers.

In this fantastical version of our world, a man named Al-Jahiz tore a hole in reality in 1872, unleashing Djinn and magic across the earth. In the 50 years since, international governments have taken a variety of approaches to the new existence of the supernatural. In Egypt, magic has not only been allowed, but embraced. This decision put Egypt on the map as a world power, driving other countries (seemingly on the precipice of this world’s version of World War I) to meet for a peace summit in Cairo. The summit is only a few weeks away when a man claiming to be Al-Jahiz returned from the dead commits a series of grisly murders. Fatma, a famous agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is assigned to the case. She is one of the Ministry's few female operatives, and her success has made her one of the Ministry’s favorite agents for difficult cases.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How P. Djèlí Clark came up with the idea for his magical vision of Cairo.


Clark’s characters have wholesome, wonderful interactions with each other, never waiting long to address their interpersonal conflicts and always resolving on friendly terms. “Friendly” is an apt description of the book as a whole. While there is certainly conflict, tension and danger in A Master of Djinn, the reader will find themselves propelled along through the book by the likeability and relatability of Fatma. Even if you guess the plot's various twists and turns, Fatma’s endearing style, gruffness and no-nonsense approach make A Master of Djinn worth reading.

While A Master of Djinn admittedly breaks little new ground, Clark has created an engaging mystery and a vivid world with intrigue, arcane secrets and an epic climax.

P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn is the literary equivalent of a cup of lovely mint tea.

Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen. We talked to Lostetter about how she developed her alchemy-inspired magic system, why The Helm of Midnight needed to be told from three different perspectives and more.

Your past work has been in the realm of hard science fiction. What led you to write your first fantasy novel? Was there anything that surprised you about writing in this genre?
I've always dabbled in both sci-fi and fantasy in my short fiction, and the first draft of The Helm of Midnight was about halfway done when Noumenon went out on submission, so in some of ways I think of it as my second novel, rather than my fourth.

I think secondary-world fantasy's greatest strength is also its biggest challenge. The author is responsible for every aspect of the world. So, when I'm writing it, I get to break free from reality, but there's also no real leaning on reality. For example, if a government functions a certain way, it's because I chose for it to function that way, not because it just does. And I can use a lot more short-hand in sci-fi, because there are real-world touchstones I can reference directly. In fantasy, if I want to use cultural touchstones, I have to establish them first.

Is there another subgenre of SFF that you haven't explored yet that you would like to? And are there any that you have no interest in?
I'm a very never-say-never kind of writer when it comes to dabbling in different genres. I like to keep my options open and play around. I have an alternate-history novel with giant monsters and dieselpunk aspects that's been sitting half done on my hard drive for a while, and I would love to be able to get it out into the world one day.

"To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with."

The setting of The Helm of Midnight is elaborately detailed. What is your approach to world building? Where and how does a world begin to take shape for you?
My world building is a tad haphazard in early drafting. I usually only have a tentative grasp on the rules I'm trying to put in place, and end up just throwing in fun things that I later either change to conform to the rules or reform the rules around. The Helm of Midnight was especially challenging world building-wise, because I knew from early on that I wanted hidden history to be a big part of it. Which, essentially, meant I had to world build in layers.

In your magic system, people can bottle and harness emotions, thoughts and time. Do you remember how you first came up with this idea?
The Helm of Midnight incorporates one of my previously published short stories, which features the knowledge-based and time-based magic. When I expanded the world and integrated that short story into a new plot, I wanted to expand the magic system as well. Since the system already focused on enchantments, I decided the magic itself should be mined and harvested from different materials: knowledge magic is in wood, time magic is in sand/glass, nature magic—which is characterized by evolution and transference—is in metals and emotion-based magic is in gemstones.

If you had the chance, would you like to have such powers yourself?
I think any of these enchantments would be great to have—save for the fact that I know how they're made. Let's just say Arkensyre's enchantments are not responsibly sourced.

What was your inspiration for the five-pointed, multi-gendered pantheon?
I hadn't yet built a religion for the Valley of Arkensyre when I expanded the magic system into five magics, and it felt natural to assign each kind of magic to a god. You'll notice above that I only mention four kinds of magic, and that's because when we're first introduced to the world in The Helm of Midnight, one god and their magic-type is unknown. I chose to have a five-gendered pantheon because I wanted to highlight that many genderized aspects of culture are constructions. Five gods with five genders means it's natural for the people of Helm's world to treat gender more like a spectrum, and to reflect their pantheon by using any of the five gods' pronouns for themselves.

The Helm of Midnight is written from three perspectives, all of which take place in different timelines. What was challenging about such a complicated structure? Why was this approach the best way to tell this story?
Each character has their own journey, and the three perspectives end up converging with all the force of planets colliding—which was very exciting for me to write, and I hope is equally exciting to read!

To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with. The novel kicks off when his death mask—imbued with his knowledge and an echo of his personality—is stolen. Knowing how and why he began killing prior to his death is essential to grasping what's really going on in Arkensyre Valley. Krona is a Regulator, tasked with re-containing his mask. Hers is the present-day perspective and really gives us a baseline understanding of how society is "supposed" to work. It's Melanie who feels like the odd one out at first. Her storyline might initially seem divorced from the other two, but the entire narrative hinges on her and her bizarre encounters with magic.

Essentially, it took three perspectives across three timelines because there are aspects of the story that are outside each character's purview. The audience is getting the full story, not the individual characters.

Melanie's point of view was the only one that gave me any problems structure-wise, which I think stems from the fact that her perspective is the one that incorporates the original short story. It was also a bit of a challenge to make sure all three perspectives wove together in a way that made each chapter in a new point of view naturally flow from the last.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Helm of Midnight.


What's one thing you would suggest a reader keep in mind as they read this book?
Each character is moving through the narrative acting on what they believe to be true, rather than what is true.

What's next for you?
I have another book coming out this year! Activation Degradation will be released on September 28, 2021. It's a thriller-esque sci-fi novel set in Jovian space, featuring soft robots, queer space pirates, action-adventure and unreliable narration.

 

Author photo © Jeff Nelson.

Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen.

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