Ralph Harris

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Arthur is dead and the Round Table lies shattered in The Bright Sword by Lev Grossman, author of the bestselling Magicians trilogy. The story begins with Collum of the Isle of Mull, a character who does not appear in Arthurian legend, embroiled in a duel with an unnamed knight. The knight spits uncouth insults about Collum’s mother, and at the end of their brawl, Collum makes his first (extremely messy) kill of the book. This resolution to a duel outlines how most plot points are resolved in The Bright Sword: Someone inevitably dies, and no one is happy.

Once Collum gets to Camelot, none of the remaining knights are particularly happy either. After a few chapters about Collum, a new knight of the Round Table is introduced, and, as if remembering the reader may not know anything about this person, Grossman suspends the main story to relate how the knight arrived at Camelot. These consistently shifting perspectives, combined with an extremely loose approach to time and distance, creates a dreamlike vibe, suggestive of a story told around a campfire by a narrator who keeps getting distracted. Those with little patience will likely find The Bright Sword frustrating, but readers willing to savor the book over many nights will find each chapter a neatly arranged, miniature adventure of its own.

Traditionally minimal side characters in the story of Arthur—like Sir Bedivere, Sir Palomides and even Dagonet the Fool—receive intricate, deep backstories that erase the mythological buildup around each figure, viewing them instead in a far more human and often more modern light. In many older tales, Palomides is a Middle Eastern stereotype, used entirely as a foil to elevate Sir Tristan’s status as an honorable and just knight. But in Grossman’s story, Palomides is a prince and explorer who is wildly misunderstood by his knightly peers, with his own journey of self-discovery and growth.

At once full of desperate hope and grievous loss, The Bright Sword is a moody reflection on Arthur’s tale. This saga is not marked by optimism, but instead a dignified cynicism. Collum and his endearing band of Round Table Rejects (album out soon) simply live and persevere, knowing that if they do not try to bring peace to the now-fractured Britain, no one else will.

At once full of desperate hope and grievous loss, Lev Grossman’s The Bright Sword is a moody reflection on the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table.

Running Close to the Wind

Avra Helvaçi is lucky, perhaps supernaturally so, but he refuses to believe that. Luck can’t be proven, after all. Did he test the limits of his luck by drunkenly traipsing into a highly protected vault of the Arasti government and stealing the most powerful secret of the empire without getting caught? Well, yes, but that could just be coincidence.

With copies of Arasti intelligence hidden on him, Avra flees to the high seas and back into the arms of his on-again, off-again partner, the intimidating pirate captain Teveri az-Haffar. Tev wants nothing more to do with the spy-turned-poet-turned-traitor, but selling Avra’s secret could solve his ship’s financial problems. Can they get to the Isles of Lost Souls to fence what Avra stole before the Arasti government finds them, the hot monk on the ship drives them mad or before the isles’ infamous cake competition concludes?

A standalone novel set in the world of author Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron, Running Close to the Wind and its self-proclaimed “silly little slut” of a narrator will have readers laughing on every page. Despite the book’s zany, breezy to a fault tone, the Isle of Souls and the many political machinations of background characters are refreshingly complex, and Avra’s “Is it blessed?” luck is a fascinating story element. Yet it is the characters that make this story shine. Though some readers are sure to find Avra’s gremlin-esque behavior aggravating, as Tev often does, the rest of the cast makes up for it. Standouts include the flustered yet noble Tev, knowledge-driven and rebellious monk Julian, secretly softhearted fence Black Garda and friendly sex worker Cat.

Though Avra thinks—and speaks—constantly of sex and how hot Julian and Tev both are, there are few actual romantic moments, and Rowland cuts away from any on-page love scenes. Fantasy romance aficionados will find themselves as blue-balled as Avra often claims to feel. However, “Our Flag Means Death” devotees looking for a lighthearted solace after the show’s unfortunate cancellation and fans of whimsical main characters a la Alexis Hall’s Mortal Follies will enjoy Running Close to the Wind.

—Nicole Brinkley

Dreadful

Dread Lord Gavrax has somehow lost his memory, and is unable to recall why he decided to become a Dread Lord in the first place. Gav, as he now calls himself, decides to change his life for the better by vanquishing his rage and toxic masculinity. Complicating matters is the presence of Princess Eliasha, whom Gavrax kidnapped before his hard cognitive reset. Eliasha is determined not to trust her captor’s sudden change of heart, and understandably so: Dread Lord Gavrax has committed a great many crimes. The princess is also a key ingredient in a mysterious ritual of great power. Dread Lord Gavrax is one of four Dark Wizards that are collaborating to do something very important . . . if only Gav could remember what that something is.

Throughout Caitlin Rozakis’ Dreadful, Gav faces several simple yet charming challenges, such as finding a way to save a starving village and undoing years of fear he instilled in his goblin staff. While Gav grows and learns from his and his former self’s mistakes, a series of sitcom-esque events nudge him onto the path of righteousness. His goblin cook, Orla, is thrilled to don an apron and cook truly good food—but she only knows how to cook steaks, bake bread and shove whole (occasionally alive) animals into pie crust. The village decides to throw a garlic festival to make up for the fact that all of their other crops failed. Heroes run in by the hundreds, tripping over each other in an effort to rescue the princess. Dreadful never takes itself too seriously, so moments that could induce secondhand cringe become hilarious escapades instead.

However, Rozakis’ story is not all jokes and gags. Gavrax had serious issues with his own masculinity alongside his relationship with women, and Gav is not immune to his former self’s impulses. Violence is still a reflex, and he must resist incinerating anyone who annoys him. He also must learn to choose other people and his dawning sense of morality over his own self-preservation. Rozakis unobtrusively guides the reader through Gav’s evolution via his inner monologue, never allowing the lessons to get preachy.

With its charming cast and unique mixture of slapstick and sincerity, Dreadful is a heartwarmingly earnest story about how to grow into a better person.

—Ralph Harris

Two tales of swords and sorcery from Alexandra Rowland and Caitlin Rozakis look on the brighter side of life.
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Found family is a special weakness of mine: From Lord of the Rings to “Stargate SG-1,” I often find myself tearing up as brothers- and sisters-in-arms share their lives and hurts with one another. Cascade Failure by L.M. Sagas and Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis are both about struggling, scrappy people making their way through a sci-fi world—and both have enough emotional heft to move even less susceptible readers. Cascade Failure makes a deep, rich investment in five characters and their adventure to save the galaxy. Floating Hotel, on the other hand, drifts from one perspective to another, almost never repeating the same viewpoint, to paint a beautiful portrait of a community.

In Cascade Failure, debut author Sagas kicks off a new sci-fi series with aplomb. A disgraced himbo of a soldier named Jal finds himself captured by the crew of the Ambit, which consists of his old lieutenant, an AI ship captain and a foulmouthed engineer. They try to take Jal in to be court-martialed, but are distracted by a distress signal that leads to a chattery, terrified programmer and a conspiracy that threatens millions across the galaxy. From there, the crew of the Ambit go on a rollicking journey, but the real draw is how the relationships between the characters unfold. Each person has a long history rife with post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse and abandonment. Sagas avoids making the party’s communication difficulties frustrating for the reader, using their inner monologues to illustrate the complicated emotions and memories that stand in the way of healing. At first, the five people aboard the Ambit are tense and uncomfortable around one another. By the end, they are inseparable.

A beautiful luxury ship that travels the galaxy, the Grand Abeona Hotel is slowly falling into disrepair. Its manager, Carl, has a penchant for taking in strays and finding them jobs. The staff is thus a group of people who happened upon one another, rather than actively chose one another. As a result, their familial relationships encompass both long-suffering irritations and radical, immediate support when needed. More than anything else, they each have a special affection for the Grand Abeona Hotel and the safety, unity and new start it provided each of them. A political mystery provides a spine of sorts—a rebellious writer has been criticizing the emperor, and various figures are hunting for the satirist—but Curtis focuses on small redemptions and triumphs. The musician finds her song, the stuttering aide finds her confidence and the bonds between a group of broken people shift from necessary tolerance into something like love (which should be familiar to anyone who has worked in the service industry for any amount of time). Melancholic and nostalgic, Floating Hotel is an ode to circumstantial companions that left this reviewer pondering old friends who now live miles away, off in their own stories.

The crews of a galactic hotel and a shambly spaceship bond in spite of themselves in these emotional sci-fi novels.
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In Three Kinds of Lucky by Kim Harrison, author of the bestselling Hollows series, magic has its own specialized sanitation service: Sweepers, who pick up a byproduct of magic called dross. If left unattended, dross can attract shadow, a dangerous, somewhat intelligent life-form that can easily kill mages, sweepers and normal humans alike.

Harrison wastes little time getting down to business; the story kicks off in St. Unoc, a fictional city set east of Tucson, Arizona, where mages congregate to learn, research and test their skills at St. Unoc University. While tackling a messy dross cleanup, our narrator and protagonist, sweeper Petra Grady, discovers she has the rare ability to manipulate shadow itself. Petra is soon drafted into a research project on dross that could upend everything she thought she knew about St. Unoc. 

Three Kinds of Lucky revolves around its distinct class system: The magical equivalent of janitors, sweepers cannot use magic, and most mages ignore or sneer at them. However, unlike mages, the sweepers can directly handle dross with no ill effects. Harrison uses Grady to personify this complicated interplay. Her struggle to balance her pride in her work with the fact that some people would rather spit on her than acknowledge her is a key pillar of the story. What’s more, jealousy over the mages’ ability to craft and manipulate magic has always burned in Grady’s heart, despite her sense of duty as a sweeper. As her role in St. Unoc evolves, she learns more about the origin of the two separate classes, discovering sins so old that the mages don’t remember their existence.

Three Kinds of Lucky will immediately pull readers in with its fast pace and efficient storytelling; the entirety of its nearly city-shattering events all happen within a few days. Sometimes, however, the character development fails to keep time with the speed of the plot, resulting in frustrating moments where one wishes that Grady and her companions would adapt more quickly to what’s happening around them. However, the mechanically intricate magic system and complex world Harrison has created makes this series opener well worth the read.

Kim Harrison’s Three Kinds of Lucky is an immediately compelling urban fantasy with an intricate magic system and complex world.
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The leader of a family of thieves, Balthazar Valdaren is about to attempt the most challenging heist of his career: pilfering a jade idol right out from under the nose of its owner, on the day of its consecration. From that description, a reader might expect this story to be about a crew of con men in the early 21st century. Instead, Greta Kelly’s The Queen of Days takes readers to the island of Cothis, in a fantasy realm resembling the 17th century. The swagger and the cons are still here, but instead of casinos and 21st-century technology, Balthazar and his crew are tangling with gods and demigods.

Kelly begins by introducing the book’s other primary protagonist: the Queen of Days, Tassiel. Tassiel, who will be joining Bal on the job, is one of the Septiniri: half-human, half-Ankaari, a god that can manipulate time. Bal and his crew—his bastard brother, Kai; his cousin Zee and her husband, Edik; and Bal’s young sister, Mira—quickly discover just how powerful a Septinri can be. Tass, as the Queen of Days prefers to be called, charges each crew member a month of their life to help them with the heist.

After that less-than-happy revelation, the action begins and does not let up. Balthazar, Tass and their scrappy crew run from planning to fighting to hiding to heisting with a ferocity that makes the book difficult to put down. Kelly efficiently relays the crew’s history and relationships through their interactions: Kai makes an off-color comment, Edik admonishes him, Zee rolls her eyes, then Bal keeps the plan moving. These quick moments of characterization allow Kelly to focus on the beat-to-beat action without pausing for exposition. As the outcast in more ways than one, Tass is the only exception. The chapters from her point of view are far more introspective as she learns new things about herself and the humans she is helping.

By the end of the book, some amount of heisting has completed, Tass has grown and evolved as a result of her time with the crew, and the stage is set for this motley team’s next adventure. The Queen of Days is a fantastic piece of escapist fantasy for readers looking to leave planet Earth for a few hundred pages.

A fantasy following a crew of thieves and con men on an increasingly dangerous heist, The Queen of Days is a fantastic piece of escapism.
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Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez is a dark, twisted tale of a cult in Argentina called the Order that sacrifices humans to an occult entity known as the Darkness. Mediums possess a natural ability to channel this figure into reality. Juan has served the Order as a medium for his entire life, but as the story begins, he attempts to sever ties with the cult to protect his son, Gaspar, from its clutches.

Our Share of Night follows Juan’s first-person viewpoint for several hundred pages, then jumps to Gaspar’s perspective, then goes 30 years into the past to tell the story of Juan’s wife, Rosario. Enriquez creates a sense of mystery with every aspect of her prose, even down to the way speech is written. Dialogue is sometimes in quotes, sometimes not; sometimes it necessitates the start of a new paragraph, sometimes it doesn’t. Enriquez uses these structural elements to reveal details when the reader least expects it. When Juan channels the Darkness for the first time, his hands lengthen and his nails turn into golden claws, but the explanation for why mediums are affected by channeling in this way is not revealed until another storyteller has taken over.

Even with such an unpredictable writing style, Enriquez perfectly paces solutions to the novel’s various mysteries, enticing readers through her chaotic dreamscape with answers that are as intriguing as they are frightening. Spooky and atmospheric, Our Share of Night is a constantly surprising and bloody ride.

Spooky and atmospheric, Our Share of Night is a constantly surprising and bloody ride.
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People love an underdog story: A hero or scrappy gang of misfits prevailing against nearly insurmountable odds. But in Some Desperate Glory, author Emily Tesh takes this trope in a dark direction, illustrating how single-minded zealotry can spiral into overt fascism.

Some Desperate Glory follows Kyr, a girl born into an extremist human sect living on the fringes of known space. In Tesh’s universe, humanity accomplished interstellar travel and encountered the majoda, an alien confederacy ruled by an interdimensional, reality-warping artificial intelligence known as the Wisdom. Earth tore through the majoda’s military, and in response, the Wisdom had the majoda deploy a weapon that destroyed the planet. Completely broken and scattered, most of the remaining humans submitted to majoda rule.

But the people who live on Gaea Station, where Kyr was born, have dubbed themselves the saviors of humanity. Children and adults alike hone their bodies and minds in order to become the avenging angels of their destroyed planet. Joy and relaxation are luxuries, as the admirals ruling Gaea Station demand their people give everything to keep the cause alive. In their mid-teens, people are assigned to permanent roles, which can be anything from combat service, to maintenance to keep the station afloat, to bearing sons in the Nursery to keep the community supplied with soldiers. It’s as abhorrent as it is absolute, but Kyr thinks this system is righteous, a necessity of the ongoing war against the majoda.

Emily Tesh’s new protagonist is anything but likable—and that’s the point.

Tesh describes Gaea Station in impressively revolting detail without losing focus on Kyr’s growth as a character. A talented and devoted warrior, Kyr finds herself at odds with her cultural programming when she is assigned to the Nursery. And after her brother leaves the station under mysterious circumstances, she defies her orders and takes off after him, a quest that thrusts her into the wider universe. She meets an alien for the first time and starts a grueling journey to peel back years of programming. As she learns more about the rest of the universe, Kyr realizes she must confront the sinister underbelly of the shiny, nationalistic Gaea Station, which is beginning to look more and more like a cult.

While heavily invested in Kyr’s personal struggle to find meaning and purpose, Some Desperate Glory is also rife with rich settings and history. The majoda are fascinatingly inhuman, composed of refreshingly distinct alien species. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any “They’re basically humans but their skin is blue” races in this story.) Tesh takes readers on a wild tour through her universe, defying any expectations they may have based on the setting and characters in surprising and unique ways.

An examination of the dangers of unchecked nationalism, Some Desperate Glory will resonate with readers looking for messy morality and antihero redemption arcs.

Rife with rich settings and refreshingly distinct alien species, Some Desperate Glory will resonate with readers looking for messy morality and antihero redemption arcs.
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Nick Harkaway fuses a broody noir mystery with a cyberpunk dystopia in Titanium Noir. Set in a fictional American city tucked away in the mountains, Titanium Noir follows Cal Sounder, a detective who helps the police with only the most unique of cases: those that involve Titans, people who have attained the closest thing to immortality that capitalism can provide. After taking a drug named T7, a human is “reset” to adolescence, then, rapidly and painfully, they sprint back through puberty, resulting in a rejuvenated body. Since they start their second puberty as a fully grown adult, they become much larger, their bones denser and their muscles thicker, hence the name Titan.

Titans are almost exclusively ultrarich or highly influential, their physical stature often merely a reflection of their broader social power. Stefan Tonfamecasca, the creator of T7 and controller of its distribution, is now impossibly huge as a four-dose Titan. Cal is Stefan’s liaison with law enforcement, sparing the police from dealing with the ruling rich of the city while also keeping Titan problems from escalating out of control. But Cal’s latest case is especially challenging: A Titan has, somehow, been murdered.

Harkaway colors each character and vignette with just enough detail to keep things interesting, while assembling the setting and unraveling the mystery in a steady stream of information. Cal’s sardonic and witty internal monologue helps keep the reader from losing track of important details, with Cal himself acting as a necessary anchor as Harkaway introduces new characters and reveals new plot points on nearly every page. 

Titanium Noir’s fast pace drives home just how much Cal is floundering, a very small fish in a very large pond, doing his absolute best. There are several well-choreographed, graphic but not gratuitously bloody fights and several tense negotiations with very powerful figures, each leaving Cal increasingly feeling like the odds are stacked against him. Yet, he relentlessly pursues the truth, flirts with rebellion and even performs some mild blackmail on the way. (What is a little extortion between friends, anyway?)

With its likable narrator, explosive action, noir-style rumination and just the right amount of twists, Titanium Noir is an entertaining sci-fi mystery that never overstays its welcome.

With its likable narrator and explosive action, Titanium Noir is an entertaining sci-fi mystery that blends a broody noir whodunit with a cyberpunk dystopia.
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Fantasy author P. Djèlí Clark’s first middle grade novel tells the story of a girl named Abeni in three clear acts: a discovery, a journey and a confrontation. It all begins on the day of the Harvest Festival, when Abeni’s village is attacked. A mysterious army razes the village and captures all of the villagers, while a strange man wearing a mask with goat horns plays a flute melody that enchants the children into following him. These terrifying forces serve the Witch Priest, who has started a war so that he may rule over all the lands.

Abeni alone is saved by a very old witch named Asha, who has watched over the village for many generations, although no one heeded her warnings of danger. Asha takes Abeni to live in her magical hut that’s larger on the inside than the outside, and Asha begins to discover new truths about the world and herself. She even learns little bits of magic and how to wield a staff.

Between facing the loss of her family and discovering a world of magic and mystery previously unknown to her, Abeni also takes on new responsibilities when Asha is struck down by a shadow being—another one of the Witch Priest’s servants—and reborn as a young girl. It turns out that Asha is not a witch but an ancient spirit who serves as a protector of the land and its people. Now she must grow into her power again.

Asha’s transformation reverses the two characters’ roles. Overwhelmed by both the duty of protecting Asha and a desire to find her people, Abeni sets off to find Asha’s sister. Abeni hopes to pawn off Asha once the sister is found and then chase down her family and rescue them from the forces of the Witch Priest. She soon discovers that fate has a different plan in store.

There are few surprises in the plot, but readers might find themselves sniffling—or outright turning on the waterworks—at several moments when these adolescent characters team up and grow to truly care for each other. Rooting for Abeni and Asha comes naturally, and Abeni is particularly charming. She cannot help her curiosity and speaks rashly, but she is also open to learning about herself and the reality in which she lives. With the help of spirits and friends she meets along the way, Abeni builds the skills, courage and wisdom to face her evil adversary: the part-goat, part-man kidnapper of children.

As with most of the books Clark has written, Abeni’s Song does a fantastic job building a world full of deep lore. Readers are clearly being set up for a series, so not all mysteries are solved nor everyone saved, but the nature of spirits and magic, and the secrets of allies and enemies all plant a firm vision for a future installment.

Fantasy author P. Djèlí Clark’s first middle grade novel follows Abeni as she builds the skills, courage and wisdom to face her evil adversary: a part-goat, part-man kidnapper of children.
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Lauren Beukes’ Bridge begins with Jo, a young mother on a desperate cross-country trip to acquire something she refers to as the “dreamworm.” When combined with other visual and auditory stimulation, the dreamworm allows a person to swap consciousnesses with another version of themselves from an alternate reality. A brilliant neuroscientist, Jo thinks she can use the dreamworm to find a way to defeat her cancer diagnosis. As a child, Jo’s daughter, Bridget aka “Bridge,” fully believed in her mother’s quest; as an adult, she understands it to have been a combination of her mother’s epilepsy, her cancer and the delusional imaginations of a desperate woman and her child.

In modern-day Portland, Oregon, Bridge is trying to organize her mother’s belongings after Jo’s death. While going through the house, Bridge finds the dreamworm and realizes her mom may have been telling the truth. Bridge quickly dives into the drugs-and-rock-and-roll version of astral projection her mom was studying, with her friend Dom along for the ride as an ever-faithful ally.

Lauren Beukes embraces the multiverse.

Bridge is a mystery and a family drama wrapped in the trappings of science fiction, with Beukes spending most of the book examining the difficult and complicated relationships between her characters. Beukes impressively paints each individual with a highly realistic level of detail and a clear-eyed perspective on their faults; there are no overblown types or caricatures to be found. The cast provides a full spectrum of human foibles, ranging from “Well, this character’s probably being the best friend they can reasonably be,” to “Wow, this character is somehow worse than a serial killer.” 

Beukes drops clues about the dreamworm and the mysterious forces trying to claim it for their own throughout, and while readers will be able to piece some or all of these mysteries together, the twists are still surprising and the payoffs still satisfying. Searching for the answers will gnaw at the reader; it’s impossible to stop reading until they find out if their theories are right or wrong, even if that discovery comes at 2 a.m. and they will certainly regret it at work later that day. Ahem. Some readers may experience this, anyway.

In Bridge, Lauren Beukes wraps a mystery and a family drama in the trappings of science fiction, specifically a drugs-and-rock-and-roll version of astral projection.
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When 24-year-old Bridge arrives in Portland, Oregon, to sort through her mother’s belongings after her untimely death, she discovers a magical artifact in the back of the freezer. The “dreamworm,” as her mother, Jo, referred to it, is the key to traveling between alternate realities, and Jo’s seemingly delusional quest to find it defined Bridge’s chaotic childhood. After eating the dreamworm, Bridge embarks on a universe-hopping journey to understand what really happened to her mother. We talked to author Lauren Beukes about the allure of the multiverse and what she’s learned about herself since publishing The Shining Girls.

I love the idea of the dreamworm. How did you come up with the idea? 
Oh god, it’s the last decade(s) of turmoil in the world, the realization that we all live in completely separate and conflicting realities that feel true to us. I’ve been horrified by the tip towards fascism and far right politics of hate, anti-vaxxers and anti-trans legislation, the reversal of abortion rights, shareholders’ profits-over-all, climate-change deniers. So, we already live in different dimensions to each other. 

Also, psychedelic experiences like Dreamachine in London, which was hallucinatory without any additives except light and music, my lifelong love of Narnia and that simplest and most profound act of reading, which transports you into other worlds and other lives.  

What about it appealed to you as a writer?
It’s the appeal of the road not taken, all the might have beens in your life and the choices you didn’t make. How useful would that be, to be able to audition other versions of you, correct your mistakes, learn from your successes? 

This is a (mostly) plausible alternate reality story in that all the universes are compatible with ours, similar enough that it’s easy to slip between the other lives and other versions of you. There are no Spider-Hams or sausage fingers, for example, to shout out those other two perfect multiverse stories of late. 

“We already live in different dimensions to each other.”

This book required a fair amount of neuroscience knowledge. What was that research process like?
The research is the best part of writing for me! Any excuse to hang out with interesting people and pick their brains and have them geek out about their specialties, including Cape Town, South Africa, neurosurgeon Dr. Sally Rothemeyer who talked me through epilepsy and tumors and my friend Dr. Hayley Tomes, who lent her name to the fictional disease Tomesians. The chapter set in the neuroscience lab is based on my visit to Hayley’s lab, and I couldn’t resist including all the good science and weird trivia. I did pick up excellent facts, but my favorite thing to come out of this was a physical memento. 

After spending half a day with Hayley looking at slices of rat brain and mushed-up tapeworm larva under the confocal microscope, she asked me if I wanted a piece of rat brain to take home. I said, “Obviously!” I keep it in my 1930s medical cabinet with other writing mementos like the vintage My Little Pony from The Shining Girls, the Zoo City-inspired sloth scarf I wore to the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the cheap “satanic” jewelry I was gifted by Detective “Auntie Ghostbuster” from South Africa’s Occult Crimes Unit. My rat brain slice looks like a tiny piece of dried snot on a glass slide in a plastic case. Naturally, I named it Pinky. 

The characters in Bridge have an impressively realistic balance of admirable qualities and concerning flaws. Did you have any core inspirations for Bridge and Jo? Did one come into focus earlier than the other?
Bridge is a departure from most of my protagonists, because she’s so uncertain, so adrift in her life. Part of that is in reaction to growing up with Jo and Jo’s obsession with a reality-switching artifact, partly it’s being young in the 2020s in a world that feels very chaotic and scary right now. She’s trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, that the weirdness of her childhood was maybe real, not one of Jo’s delusions, and who the hell she’s supposed to be. She’s always been paralyzed by choice, but the situation she’s catapulted into is going to force her to make some really big ones. 

Jo was easier to write because she’s dead set on what she wants, but that single-mindedness exploring other realities has cost her a lot in this one, including her relationship with her daughter.

Bridge by Lauren Beukes jacket

It’s been 10 years since you wrote The Shining Girls. What have you learned about your writing along the way?
This is a big one. In the last year, I got my adult ADHD diagnosis! Which explains why I’m probably never going to write a sequel (because it’s not shiny and new), the magpie nature of my novels, the weird places my research takes me and how it all comes together—and also why there were five years between Broken Monsters and Afterland

Post-divorce in 2014, I was, like Bridge, lost, thrashing around, unable to settle on one thing, paralyzed by choices: wheel-spinning in the parking lot on the motorcycle of doubt. To be fair, I was also rebuilding my life from scratch, and I wrote two graphic novels and put together a short story collection in that time. But it turns out big life changes like divorce can throw people who have coped with their ADHD all their lives. 

Since I’ve started medication and all the good lifestyle things around sleep and exercise and eating well, my depression and anxiety are basically gone and writing is a joy again. Still tricky, still sometimes like wading knee-deep through taffy swamplands, but doable. I think a lot of that experience is reflected in who Bridge is as a character, just as the creators of Everything Everywhere All at Once have talked about it as an ADHD allegory. 

I don’t know if I’ve learned anything new about writing. Rather, I’ve come back to something I always knew: the most important thing is to finish the work and allow yourself to be messy and rough in the first draft. Stop wheel-spinning, stop doubling back, stop wondering if you should have taken the other exit. There’s a profane South Africanism that works here. Vokvoert. Literally fuck-forward, but really, fuck it, do it, go.

“Stop wheel-spinning, stop doubling back, stop wondering if you should have taken the other exit.”

You’ve written several serial killer mysteries and, without spoiling too much, there are some measured and practical, yet still quite violent scenes in Bridge. What attracts you to these scenes and/or characters? Why is violence such a compelling artistic subject?
I grew up in apartheid South Africa, an incredibly violent society, and I’ve seen the repercussions of that kind of ruthless repression: the deep, historical, systemic issues that can’t be magically undone with a democratic election, even almost 30 years later, even with one of the best constitutions in the world. It’s the air we breathe, filled with knives. South Africa has the highest wealth inequality in the world and one of the highest rates of gender-based violence, especially against women of color and even more so if they’re queer or trans. That goes back centuries, to colonialism, to the slave trade and capitalism and the channels of power. Violence—personal, systemic—has shaped the world. It always will. 

The people who perpetrate violence will always find ways to justify it to themselves, as the antagonist does in Bridge. I’m interested in those moral contortions, in what violence is and what it does to us, the choices we make. 

What are some of your favorite pieces of media you experience this last year?
There has been so much incredible TV, from season two of “The White Lotus” to the gleeful genre-mashup mystery of “The Afterparty.” “Better Call Saul,” “Barry,” and “Succession” were perfect and I may be slightly biased here, but I thought “Shining Girls” was such a smart, beautiful, thoughtful adaptation by showrunner Silka Luisa that was true to the bloody heart of my book. But the best thing I saw this year was “Search Party.” It’s such a weird wonderful show that gets progressively more batshit but absolutely consistent with the characters. (Of course, of course, that is where they would end up.) 

Movies: Everything Everywhere All at Once (natch), Triangle of Sadness, Men

Books: Nick Harkaway’s plutocrat mutant murder, Titanium Noir; Catriona Ward’s meta mystery puzzle box, Looking Glass Sound; Lisa Taddeo’s remarkable Three Women; two books by dear friends (again, slightly biased)—Sam Beckbessinger and Dale Halvorsen’s ’90s riot-grrrl small-town horror, Girls of Little Hope which wears its bloody heart safety-pinned to its teen punk T-shirt and Sam Wilson’s The First Murder on Mars, a fast and sharp sci-fi thriller. Oh, and Louie Stowell’s third middle grade Loki book, which she wrote and illustrated, is my favorite take on that excellent trickster (just like Lego Batman is the definitive Batman in my universe).

Read our review of ‘Bridge’ by Lauren Beukes.

What’s your favorite way to work?
I rent a studio space with a bunch of illustrators, animators, designers, filmmakers and writers in the hip East London neighborhood of Dalston. Writing is such lonely, in-your-head work it’s really important to me to have other people around and specifically other artists. It’s really social, but also focused and it means I can separate work and home, keep normal hours and get lots of freewheeling thinking time as I cycle in. 

If you could pick one author from the past or present to have tea with, who would it be?
I’m lucky to have a lot of author friends and I’d jump at any chance to spend more time with them. But among people I don’t know personally: Atwood, for her words, her insight, her curious mischief. 

What’s next for you?
I have an original TV show in development with two of my closest friends, Sam Beckbessinger and Dale Halvorsen (I did say I was slightly biased above) and I’ve just started germinating a new novel, but what I’d really love to do is write an immersive theater project. I was blown away by Swamp Motel’s Saint Jude where you’re assigned to help guide a coma patient through their memories, and Phantom Peak, which is Punch Drunk-meets-“Westworld” with less sex and murder and more cosmic platypuses.

Photo of Lauren Beukes by Peter Kindersley.

The author of The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters returns with Bridge, a thriller that’s trippy in more ways than one.
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Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas is 90% love story and 10% mild-to-severe supernatural interruptions of said love story.

Magdalena “Nena” Narváez and Néstor Duarte are star-crossed sweethearts. Nena is the daughter of a powerful ranchero, Don Feliciano, while Néstor is the poor son of a vaquero, destined to forever work for people like Nena’s family. The story opens with a tragedy when Nena is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious creature and Néstor, believing her to have actually died, flees the rancho. But the pair is reunited in 1846, when Nena is a healer, Néstor is a soldier and the United States is about to begin its invasion of Mexico.

Nena and Néstor wrestle with their need for each other, the societal strictures keeping them apart and their years of separation, resentment and grief—all while dealing with ongoing attacks from either vampires or United States soldiers. Nena and Néstor suffer from a classic case of poor communication; they step on each others’ feet with bitter retorts and clumsy attempts at small talk. Cañas writes from each character’s perspective, illustrating Nena and Néstor’s warped views of each other in brooding vignettes. As the war rolls on, Cañas inserts quiet moments where Nena and Néstor explore their disaffection with each other, draw out their pain and knead their emotional scars into renewed bonds. It’s a painful process, but thanks to Cañas’ skill, there are moments of joy and tear-inducing sweetness.

While the romance is an unquestionable centerpiece, Cañas does a fantastic job bringing the setting to life. She sketches out the life of a vaquero in small details, such as how Néstor loosens saddle cinches at the end of the day and checks boots for scorpions, and takes time to note the styling of characters’ clothes and hair, immersing the story in the beauty of mid-19th century Mexico.

Now a reader might, at this point, be wondering about the elephant in the room, the one with fangs and a taste for blood. And the reviewer will answer: Vampires are definitely in the book. They are moderately frightening. They are primarily a plot device to move the story forward. Readers looking for a scary horror novel will not find it in Vampires of El Norte, but they will find a dramatic and well-rendered setting, a drizzle of animalistic vampires and an engaging story about two young lovers who want nothing more than the freedom and strength to be together in a world determined to rip them apart (sometimes literally).

Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas is a well-rendered and moving love story—punctuated with occasional attacks by the titular creatures.
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In addition to being Crown Prince Conor of Castellane’s lifelong, loyal friend, Kellian “Kel” Saren is his Sword Catcher, a bodyguard and body double. He trained to intercept, protect and, ultimately, die for Conor’s safety. Lin Caster is a young physician and a member of the Ashkar people, a minority group that possesses a rare magical ability called gematry. The practice of embedding spells in talismans or objects, gematry is considered the weakest of the elder magics, but it is the only one still in existence.

Bestselling YA author Cassandra Clare spends a large amount of Sword Catcher, the first book in a fantasy trilogy and her first work for adults, building out the city-state of Castellane while Kel and Lin shed their naivete and expand their worldviews. Kel begins to see that Castellane has secrets which even he is not privy to. And Lin, having fought to be the only female physician among the Ashkari, discovers a stone of secret, magical history that could be the key to curing her terminally ill friend. Throughout the story, Kel and Lin’s paths rarely cross; their stories run parallel but for a few chance twists of fate.

How a bookseller helped inspire Cassandra Clare’s adult debut.

Kel is the himbo best friend everyone wants in their life and can’t hope to deserve. He is irrefutably loyal to Conor and always wants to do what is right. While a well-trained fighter, Kel is not quite bright enough to consider the consequences of every action he or Conor makes. This lack of awareness could have made Kel obnoxious, but instead he’s endearing, like a friend who still needs to learn how to change a tire.

Lin on the other hand, is brash and bullheaded, burning bridges faster than she can build them. Orphaned as a child and abandoned by her grandfather, Lin has had to fight for everything, learning medicine with significantly less resources than her male peers within the Ashkari or the malbushim (the Ashkari word for “outsider”) doctors in Castellane. Like Kel, Lin has an understandable but extremely narrow perspective: She does not immediately recognize imminent danger to one of her clients, and accepts invitations from curious people in terrifying carriages. (Kel does this as well; apparently “stranger danger” is not a commonly taught concept in Castellane.) However, also like Kel, Lin’s adolescent perspective is amusing rather than grating.

Sword Catcher is a fun, light story for fantasy fans looking to dip into a new world. Clare fills the pages with fascinating details about Castellane’s magic, politics and dangerous secrets, and pulls off several excellent twists. However, few of these setups lead to satisfying payoffs: Sword Catcher is very much the first part of a larger story, and contains almost no complete arcs within its pages. Readers looking for closed narrative loops should look elsewhere, but all others will enjoy the entertaining characters and setting of Clare’s series starter.

In her first novel for adults, Cassandra Clare introduces readers to a city-state filled with magic and secrets.

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