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All Fantasy Coverage

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.

Xingyin has never met her father, a mortal archer who saved the human world from destruction. She is also the daughter of Chang’e, the infamous moon goddess who became immortal after drinking a potion that was given to her husband in recognition of his heroic deeds. Xingyin has lived a lonely life, hidden away in her mother’s sky-bound prison. That changes when she accidentally accesses her own magical powers and is forced to flee to avoid detection by the Celestial Emperor and his court. While on the run, Xingyin is thrust into the uncomfortable role of learning companion to the Celestial Prince, the son of the very man who imprisoned her mother. As she trains and learns alongside the prince, Xingyin is torn between loyalty to her new friend and the desperate desire to free her mother from her eternal prison.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess, Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel, is filled with intricate world building, heartbreaking romance and mind-bending intrigue. Tan’s story is mythic in its scope yet personal in its execution. At times, she steps into a writing cadence reminiscent of a storyteller recalling a well-trod tale, as when Xingyin describes her childhood in her mother’s otherworldly prison or when she faces down monsters as First Archer of the Celestial Army. At other times, Tan’s prose is close and personal, pulling readers deep into Xingyin’s fears, drives and desires. The result is an all-consuming work of literary fantasy that is breathtaking both for its beauty and its suspense.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess starts out slowly. Indeed, the first quarter of the narrative seems to exist in an entirely different time zone than the rest of the novel, which careens from one adventure to another as Xingyin fights for her mother’s freedom. However, don’t let the languid pacing of the early scenes of Xingyin’s life with her mother fool you into thinking that this is a book where nothing happens. On the contrary, so much happens in this first installment of the Celestial Kingdom duology that it’s hard to imagine where Tan’s imagination might take Xingyin and her friends next. Wherever that road leads, however, it is sure to be one of boundless invention. 

Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel is an all-consuming fantasy that is breathtaking both for its beauty and its suspense.

When I reviewed Fonda Lee’s excellent first installment in her Green Bone Saga, Jade City, I noted how family played such a vital part in the story of the island nation of Kekon. This remains a central pillar of the trilogy’s conclusion, but what surprised me most about Jade Legacy is how willing Lee is to subvert readers’ expectations of how the families at the heart of her world will act. When the world constricts around the Green Bone clans and their powerful jade magic, Hilo, Shae, Anden and the rest of the No Peak clan have to break their own rules in order to survive.

Those familiar with Kekon will feel right at home from page one of Jade Legacy. Pushed by ever-growing pressure from foreign powers interested in controlling the country and gaining access to its jade, which grants users superhuman abilities, the Green Bone clans must decide how to respond. In addition, anti-clan terrorist factions within the capital city of Janloon continue to sow violence and disrupt the peace. The No Peak clan and the Mountain clan, which have always opposed each other, must decide if they will put their long-lasting and bloody war on hold in order to preserve the Green Bone legacy, or if they’ll finish each other off when the opportunity arises.

The Green Bone books are densely populated, but Jade Legacy thankfully includes a list of characters, which readers will find supremely helpful to flip back to. By this point, there are so many characters who have come and gone, but Lee always knows when to let a personal moment stretch out between central characters and gives fan-favorites plenty of room to shine.

Anything seems possible in this last volume, and Lee ratchets up the pressure to 10. (For readers of the previous two books, could you have imagined getting to this point? Where Hilo and Ayt Mada have to work together?) Tragic deaths and triumphant action sequences are as present as they ever were, but there are also moments of humility, forgiveness and even redemption in places where readers might not expect to find them. 

Quite simply, Jade Legacy is the best book in Lee’s fantastic trilogy. It’s the most complex, offers the most surprises and confidently navigates an intricate story with a huge number of characters and factions. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you simply wanted validation that the last entry is worth your time. The answer is goodness gracious, yes. And if by some miracle you’ve read this far and haven’t yet jumped headfirst into one of the best fantasy worlds of the last five years, here’s your signal: Do it and don’t look back.

Jade Legacy is a spectacular end to the Green Bone Saga, with triumphant action sequences, tragic deaths and unexpected moments of redemption.

In the thrilling second installment of Chloe Neill’s fantasy spin on the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Kit Brightling, a magically gifted naval officer in direct service to Queen Charlotte of the Isles, has been plagued by dreams. Dreams of rising water and nearing danger, yes, but also dreams of the charming and maddening viscount of Queenscliffe, Colonel Rian Grant. But questions of romance must wait as Kit is asked to find whatever information she can about the machinations of Gerard Rousseau, the exiled former emperor of Gallia.

However, Kit’s quest leads instead to the war criminal La Boucher in a small town on the coast of Gallia. The magic La Boucher wields in Rousseau’s name is deadly and immense, capable of costing hundreds their lives. There is no stopping the oncoming war, but stopping La Boucher can help Kit put the Isles on the right side of it. And to do that, she’ll need all the magic she can muster—as well as the help of a certain handsome nobleman. 

If the first book in Neill’s Captain Kit Brightling series was a slowly rising tide, A Swift and Savage Tide is the flood. Gone is the fragile peace between the Isles and Gallia, replaced by a sense of inevitable conflict and kinetic explosions of all-out war on the high seas. Gone too is the slow-burn romance of the first book, abandoned in favor of an open acknowledgement of mutual desire between Kit and Grant. What remains, however, are the elements that have made the Kit Brightling series a success so far: a wicked sense of humor and the ability to turn tropes on their sides. In addition, Neill’s already-impeccable grasp of pacing has, if possible, improved. Like the waters upon which her captain sails, Neill’s prose ebbs and flows, pulling readers into the bone-crushing anxiety of a reconnaissance mission or a tender moment with Kit’s caring (if mildly insubordinate) crew before thrusting them headfirst into the throes of battle or the rising heat of Kit’s evolving relationship with Grant. A Swift and Savage Tide teases both mystery and adventure for the two in the road that lies ahead.

A Swift and Savage Tide is perhaps even better than A Bright and Breaking Sea, but it cannot be fully enjoyed without having read that first book in the series. New readers should be informed, therefore, that the two books are best enjoyed when read back to back, all while drinking a cup of heavily sugared tea alongside a pile of Kit’s favorite pistachio nougats. The lack of sleep (and cavities) are well worth the effort for such engrossing reads. 

Chloe Neill’s second Captain Kit Brightling adventure improves upon the already stellar first book in the series.

To find the most structurally daring, format-breaking novels of 2021, turn to the far-flung worlds of science-fiction and fantasy. From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, these books perfectly match form and function in their creation of universes both big and small. 


10. The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

With a magic system that’s two parts enchantment and one part pseudoscience, The Helm of Midnight is one of the most well-executed and original fantasy novels in recent memory.

9. The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Genevieve Gornichec’s beautiful, delicately executed debut shifts the focus of Norse mythology to one of Loki’s lovers, the witch Angrboda, with stunning and heartbreaking results.

8. The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

This astonishing, haunting short story collection overflows with vivid characters and relatable themes as Marjorie Liu puts her own spin on traditional archetypes.

7. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

This novella is the perfect distillation of Becky Chambers’ ability to use science fiction to tell smaller, more personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.

6. Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Boasting immersive settings, delightful characters and all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny, lightening its sweeping supernatural and intergalactic symphony with notes that are all-too human.

5. A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Clever, elegant and ambitious, Arkady Martine’s second novel eclipses her acclaimed debut, A Memory Called Empire.

4. Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Beautiful and enthralling on every page, Nnedi Okorafor’s elegiac and powerful novella is an example of how freeing the form can be.

3. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister terrifyingly depicts the otherworldly and uncanny horrors of the spirit world, but it is also funny and poignant, full of the angst and irony of a recent graduate living with her parents.

2. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

An instant classic, Zoraida Córdova’s magical family saga is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.

1. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan’s gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. Fans of epic fantasy and historical fiction will thrill to this reimagining of the founding of China’s Ming dynasty. 

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, the 10 best science fiction & fantasy novels of 2021 perfectly match form and function. 

A Marvellous Light

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light takes us to Edwardian England, where manners are surface-level, magic is real and mysteries abound around every cobbled street corner. Robin Blyth takes a mysterious job in the government’s Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division. In his rather baffling first 15 minutes on the job, Robin meets the somewhat awkward and brisk Edwin Courcey, who informs Robin that magic is real and that his predecessor was murdered by magical means. Though Robin and Edwin would each prefer working with someone else, it’s up to the two of them to find out what happened to the man Robin replaced, revealing a conspiracy that threatens all magical people in England. Come for the incredibly rich setting, stay for the romance: Robin and Edwin’s relationship anchors the narrative, and the way that they challenge and then question and then accept each other is captivating. Marske deftly contrasts the couple’s affection with the stuffiness of the world that surrounds them, making their love all the more resonant.

Noor

If you haven’t yet had a chance to experience Nnedi Okorafor’s singular voice, take the plunge now. In her sci-fi thriller Noor, Okorafor’s unique perspective is on full display. Anwuli Okwudili is a Nigerian girl who was born with deformities in her legs and one of her arms, intestinal malrotation and only one lung. After a car accident further limits the use of her legs and gives her debilitating headaches and memory issues, Anwuli gets a whole raft of biomechanical body enhancements. Viewed as half human and half machine, she flees her village after killing several men who attacked her. While on the run, she meets a shepherd called DNA (short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu), who is also on the run from the law. In a world where cameras track your every move, Anwuli and DNA try to stay ahead of a reckoning they know is coming. A leading voice in the subgenre of African futurism, Okorafor’s power on the page is confident, vivid and uniquely her own. This story is tight, violent, uplifting, damning and thoughtful all at once. Okorafor’s examination of technology’s influence on health, nature, local communities and so many other parts of life is as precise as it is disturbing. Noor is a cautionary thriller, told with exuberance and conviction.

Sistersong

If British history (and the mythology that surrounds it) sets your heart ablaze, then Lucy Holland’s mystical Sistersong is the book for you. A story of family, magic, romance and betrayal, Sistersong lingers long after its final page. Britain in A.D. 535, recently relieved of Roman rule, is full of many independent kingdoms. One of these, Dumonia, is home to three sisters. Each sister yearns for something: Riva for a body healed from the fire that disfigured her, Keyne for a place at her father’s side in battle, and Sinne for her true love. But it’s a tumultuous time for Dumonia. A Christian priest seeks to rid the kingdom of the old gods, the Saxons begin their invasion of Britain and new, unfamiliar faces appear at court. The sisters have to choose whether to take matters (and magic) into their own hands or let their kingdom fade into the past as a new Britain rises. Holland nails an early Middle Ages aesthetic, using it as the backdrop for some intensely personal storytelling. Be prepared for triumph and tragedy, fantasy and folklore, might and magic.

Think “Downton Abbey” would have been better with magic? Then this month’s SFF column is for you!

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