Any ordinary day: what happens after the worst day of your life? by Leigh Sales. This was a requested Christmas present. I love Sales as an interviewer, and I’d been keenly looking forward to this. The first two thirds of this book I felt were sort of repetitive and lacked depth, maybe. Or at least, I was expecting more depth, although I don’t actually know *how* she could have achieved it. The last third of the book was much more interesting to me – exploring a little bit the people who don’t cope, and touching on why; also talking to those who work in tragedies and work with those who are grieving. It’s been about two months since I finished this, and I can’t say I came away with it with much deep resonating ideas, although I don’t regret reading it, which is also something.
Beauty: a retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinnley. I am so torn on this book. I want to give one part of it – the story of her family and the immensely comforting prose (minus a handful of sentences that an editor should have tweaked) five stars. The sequence where Beauty’s family falls on hard times and has to relocate to a small village in the forest, and the descriptions of them cleaning and tending to the house and making it a home, were exactly what I’d been hoping Mandy would be. The atmosphere of the village, and then of the castle, were fantastically top-notch. The actual Beast fairytale… given the previous riches, the beast himself and her “romance” with him were achingly disappointing. It turns out that this book was originally written decades before the Disney movie, so it’s unfair of me to ask a book to interrogate something that didn’t exist yet, but I still wanted a retelling to examine the power imbalance of prisoner/jailer. There was so much that could have been done there – the beast being just as imprisoned as Beauty, and how he felt about ‘having’ to imprison someone in turn as the price of his potential freedom; her developing attraction to him, and how she felt about it; her shift from seeing herself as ‘ugly’ to ‘beauty’; his story of being imprisoned for 200 years… I just… McKinnley/Beauty says she came to trust and love the beast, but I didn’t feel like we saw a damn bit of that developing. I feel like McKinnley didn’t actually want to write the “romance” of the original, so she dodged *everything* to do with that part of the fairy tale, and the story suffered for it so badly. I’m glad I read it for everything else, but she could have made all of it amazing, and I am sad.
Are you my mother? A comic drama by Alison Bechdel. This has been in my physical to-read pile for literal years. It’s my first actual book of Bechdel’s, and I love the art style, but coming in ‘late’ – not having read Fun Home, for example, the first few chapters of her writing about her mother grated as navel-gazing in a way that it might not have if I’d come to this already in love with her work. But the navel gazing is growing on me, and gets interlaced (beautifully, in the art style) with some legit interesting psychoanalysis, and that addition plus the comic style makes it easy to inhale a chapter before bed, and I’m continuing accordingly.
Wonder woman by Leigh Bardugo. I rather liked the inventiveness and richness of Bardugo's original work Six of crows, so I was excited to see this Wonder Woman tie-in. I’m 30-ish pages in, and it’s slow going, but also slowly hooking me in. It has both the denseness of Six of crows with the slight distancing that often comes with writing characters that aren't your own etc. I’m persisting, moderately interestedly. Also, I had no idea that the Amazons had been mortal women from around the world who had cried out their Goddess’s name while dying in battle, and were therefore granted immortality. That’s the COOLEST CONCEPT, and the movie utterly failed to mention it and I feel robbed. I’m persisting with the book, at least for a while longer.
That feels like a very ambitious concept right now...
A tenderness of wolves: Picked up because the title had a “is this a classic?” ring to it, and the first page was fantastic, as was the setting and the premise (Woman goes out into Canadian winter wilderness to try and clear her son’s name, or at least find out wtf he did, from memory). But I found myself getting frustrated with it very early on – it’s told in aggressively present tense, even the flashbacks when it ‘should’ have been past tense or past perfect. Artistic licence and all that, but this was a first novel and while it was probably a good first novel, it…should have varied its tenses, dammit. *has judgey feelings*
Bone witch: gorgeous cover, interesting premise, and witches! But then we started getting to “people get a heart jewel necklace that fills with colour to show their True Selves/Destinies” and I’m so Done with rigid predestination McGuffin stories. I don’t even care enough to see if this gets subverted in the end. Returned to library.
Seraphina by Rachel Hart. A book that’s been on my radar for years, and finally picked up. It’s a legit lovely fantasy story of humans and dragons forging an uneasy truce, but it’s also somewhat dense and just enough second-world that I didn't quite have the brain for it so put it aside.
My own devices by Dessa. Read sometime back, but I forgot to record. I love her rap music, and pre-ordered her memoir. It's more of a collection of loosely connected essays than an autobiography, and once I realised that I liked it a lot more. She's unsurprisingly really good at putting several disparate concepts in proximity, seemingly rambling about them and then pulling them into an impressive gut-punch at the end of many of the essays/chapters. Do rec.
Pirate queen by Morgan Llywelyn. Short telling of the life of (Grace O’Malley) and the conflicts between England and Ireland in the 1500s. Loved it, despite the weird writing, and the lack of any further glossary/bibliography/maps/useful details. I’m desperate for more information about her, but all the biographies I’ve looked up seem to be typo-ridden messes according to reviews, much to my surprise.
Woman world a webcomic(?) in book form. Men die out, right down to the Y-chromosome-sperm in the sperm banks, leaving a world of women. An interconntected series of comics strips with the lightest of narratives strung together with jokes rather than a ‘actual’ story, which wasn’t what I’d expected and threw me for the first half. But I also found myself chuckling out loud quite a lot, so I’m not sure what to make of it. Charming, and A+ for diversity of ages, races, and disabilities.
The thing with Finn by Tom Kelly. Younger YA. Picked up because of the title, the charming art of the cover and the first few pages of excellent first person narrator voice that I wanted to curl up with and learn more about. 20 pages in and I’m delighted by 10-year-old Danny, and wanting to see him process whatever (tragic, I’m assuming) thing happened to his twin brother, Finn. (Finished many months ago, and I can remember that there were some devastatingly good lines about feelings and grief as processed through a child’s eye and/or at a child’s level, but I foolishly didn’t write them down). Do rec.
Mandy by Julie Andrews. A darling, sweet story of a girl who lives in an orphanage, and who comes across a cottage in the woods and fixes up the garden and tends to her little patch of the world. I expected this to hit my emotional buttons much more than it actually ended up doing, and I can't quite put my finger on how and why it missed me. Possibly because she doesn't actually ever live in the cottage? It was well written, it just never hooked me, and I'm legit not sure why.
As someone who not only represents adult and YA/MG SF/F, but also grew-up reading it and continues to read it regularly, I’ve gotten to a place where my standards for these genres are higher than for any other. And, to be clear, science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres. (There are some exceptions.)
In all commercial genres, writers can fall into relying too heavily on tropes. Certainly there are tropes in mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, science fiction, and fantasy and tropes aren’t bad. But relying on them as the only way to tell a certain type of story inhibits a writer’s ability to infuse their story with their own spin on a genre. I want to see stories from writers who aren’t simply bucking trends and tropes, but who are taking a nuanced approach toward them. Nuance is the key for me in so many things.
Relying on some of the more common tropes can make your work feel dated. Below, I look at some of these common tropes and explain what I look for in SFF—namely, innovative, clever, and forward-thinking approaches.
The Chosen One
We are all familiar with this trope. The hero is destined by prophesy, blood, or something else pre-ordained to save us all. It’s very Highlander—there can be only one. The problem is that this often takes agency away from the hero. No matter what they want, they either have to do the right thing and save the world or do nothing and let the world go to shit. That’s a lot of weight to put on someone’s shoulders, and the narrative often rests on the internal and external journeys our hero takes.
But what if there isn’t only one? What if there are multiple possibilities, and a story explores the type of person who would decide to act versus the type who would decide not to? What if the prophecy is BS? Or the Chosen One discovers that they aren’t really the chosen one and that things were interpreted wrong? I’m eager to see someone play around with this trope and really go all in subverting it.
This idea and term are so deeply rooted in white supremacy and racism that every time I read it I cringe. It’s a derogatory term that has long been used to diminish BIPOC, and I am not alone in being tired of seeing it in SFF. Part of the issue is real-world historical context. I can speak as a black woman on this although I know other IPOC have their own history with this term. In US history alone, black people were property and seen as not human. The amount of corruption of someone’s blood with blackness was measured in terms. To see this same concept being used in a fantasy story is disturbing, often because it’s used with such laziness—it’s an instant way to throw obstacles in front of a character and establish personal stakes. But they are imposed and not organic to the story.
Not to mention that real-life mixed-race/mixed-heritage people exist, and the idea of “half breeds” so overly simplifies what their individual issues might be.
This is where nuance is key. If you are going to create a character who is part of two races, don’t make that their central struggle. Plenty of people of mixed race/heritage live happy lives with supportive, loving parents and extended family. Don’t make your story about the “good” races—elves, humans, angels—getting mixed with te “bad races—orcs, trolls, demons. Don’t make the world so simplistic and narrow minded. If you want to explore othering, start by thinking through the many different ways the people around you, in this world, are ostracized and how that affects them.
This one is a bit personal. I love the idea of blood magic as a type of magic. But it’s often seen as evil. Why does it have to be bad? Why does any magic system have to be inherently bad? There tends to be a lot of black-and-white, good-and-evil in fantasy. Let’s see what shades of gray look like. Let’s see what blood magic can look like when it’s used for good, evil, and in-between.
Seriously, we live on a whole giant planet with multiple continents of which only two seem to get featured, geographically and culturally speaking, in most SFF. But on all continents, there are many, many cultural POVs. For instance, telling me you’ve written a story with an African setting doesn’t evoke much; a story set in a fantastical version of Morocco will not present the same geography or culture as a story set in a fantastical version of Nigeria. And there is more than Ancient Egypt to take influence from. It is easy to do a pseudo-European setting. Try harder.
In this area I’m particularly looking for #ownvoices. This is a term mostly used on the children’s side, but I think adult publishing is starting to understand what it means as well. Simply put, it means a marginalized author writing about their own marginalization.
This is why I was so excited to see THE POPPY WAR. I read this book on submission as an editor, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but I remember being wowed by the setting, the characters, and the world building.
I will say, I’m eager to find marginalized SFF authors regardless of whether you write about your marginalization or not. This is, again, where nuance matters. A medieval/European/Western setting from a BIPOC author will likely have a POV different from what we’ve already seen so much of in SFF—namely, BIPOC existing in those settings.
POC in the Future
On that note, one SF and post-apocalyptic trope that really bothers me is the lack of POC in the future. There are so many nuanced ideas waiting to be explored just by placing POC in an enhanced future. Give me more nuanced stories that don’t erase POC from history or the future.
I’d love to see more adult SFF in my inbox. Tastes are subjective, but know that I’m on the lookout for nuanced approaches. Below you’ll find some books that I’m currently reading or that are on my to-be-read list:
TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse. I am currently reading. This has Indigenous cultural influences and is written by a Indigenous author. I can count on one hand the number of SFF novels I can say that about. Not only do I want to support this writer so that I can get more SFF stories from her, but I also want to see doors opened for other Indigenous SFF writers. This one feels dark, just like I like it, and seems to have a very flawed but fairly kickass heroine—which is something else I’m finding I’m leaning toward. This is a classic role that you tend to see a male protagonist in, so it’s great to see writers focusing on a variety of three-dimensional female perspectives.
THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton. To be read. So, three female protagonists, all in the standard roles that are typically filled by male protags. They are sisters. They are fighting for the crown. It sounds like we’ll get three very different strategic approaches to accomplishing this goal. I can’t wait!
THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER by K. Arsenault Rivera. To be read. What intrigues me is that it is an epic fantasy based on Asian mythology and has ladies falling in love.
THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson. I am currently reading. It is an interesting take from the perspective of the colonized who want to take down the imperialist from within. Love how assimilation and indoctrination are handled.
THE IMMORTALS by Jordanna Max Brodsky. I’ve read the first book in this trilogy. It is a modern approach to greek mythology. Love the way it centers around a morally ambiguous and pretty brutal female protagonist.
UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER by Naomi Novik. I’ve read UPROOTED and absolutely loved it!!! Dragons, romance, magic, and a lyrical fairytale/folktale quality. I want to see something like this in my inbox, but from a non-European or non-Western culture. And I’m equally excited to dive into SPINNING SILVER and enjoy more spellbinding storytelling from this author.
An internal/external discipline, widely respected as the most dangerous Fist Art in the multiverse. It’s core technique is a breathing method that allows internal force to be cultivated extremely rapidly and focused on a point smaller than a pin-prick, giving blows absolutely phenomenal power. Blows using this technique are named by the number of points they contain – one point blows are strong enough to crack stone with a touch. Two point blows can decapitate a man with the air pressure created by flicking a finger. Legends about of old masters of Ki Rata using ten point blows to level cities but I find the claim highly dubious.
I have found nobody willing to train me in this art and none who will grant me observation. Improper use of a Ki Rata technique will literally tear a man’s own body into pieces, so I have not attempted to study it myself. The only living masters live in the (remarkably pretty) land of Rayuba and are staunch pacifists, having, according to legend, culled their order to a single community. Reportedly the only time they ever use their considerable talents is to kill someone who somehow manages to learn a Ki Rata technique without being trained by them first. They only take apprentices to replace an old master when he dies, so that someone will always be around to make sure Ki Rata does not exist in the wider world. Many supplicants flock to Rayuba in the hopes of being trained by the masters, who sometimes are forced into self defense when they are challenged to unwanted duels.
When I arrived there hoping for some insight, I witnessed such a duel between a low-ranking monk of the style and a well-known master of Pilgrim fist. Within three moves, the monk, a rather short fellow, use a two finger one-point technique to completely vaporize the bones in both the master’s arms.
I am strongly dissuaded to continue pressing my study of this art and will write no further on it.”
-MANUAL OF HANDS AND FEET
It's been the most difficult and painful decision I've ever had to make in my life. There wasn't any cheating, nor any abuse. There were hardly even a lot of arguments. What it came down to, in the end, was that the person I was when I fell in love with a long-haired musician at 17 years old isn't the person I am now. The things I looked for in my first crush are not the things I want in the person with whom I'm going to be raising a child and growing old.
I still love him, and he still loves me. And yet sometimes love just isn't enough. Realizing that has been a long, hard, awful struggle. I've cried more in the last three months than I have in my entire life before that. I've never felt more guilty than I did in the moment I walked out the door, knowing how badly he wanted me to stay.
Sometimes it still doesn't feel real. I thought I was going to grow old with this man. I'm 32 years old. I've only ever kissed one other person in my life, and I was 16 back then. I've never dated as an adult. I've never even kissed a woman. I'm pretty sure I'm done dating men, though, so at 32 years I find myself in the awkward position of feeling like a virgin again. I had a plan for my life, and suddenly all of it is gone. We renovated a house together, so the financial fall-out of that is going to be a nightmare. I love his nieces like they're my own, and I want to stay in their lives. His sister has become a sister to me.
It's a financial mess. It's an emotional mess. I know it was the right decision to make, and yet it's hard to believe that anything that hurts this badly can ever be the right thing to do.
And yet, for the first time in months, I can look into the future without feeling like there's an awful weight on my shoulders dragging me down.
who can’t endure their desires.
There’s a world
as ambiguous as a moan,
a pleasure moan
our earnest neighbors
might think a crime.
It’s where we could live.
I’ll say I love you,
Which will lead, of course,
but those words unsaid
poison every next moment.
I will try to disappoint you
better than anyone else has.
Michelle Obama, Becoming:( She was a first lady, take her for all and all )
Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin: ( Shakespeare's sister )
Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream”: ( one of these things is ok )
Kamala Harris, The Truths We Hold: ( I'm listening )
Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland: ( it's a dirty job and they did it )
Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World: ( we probably learned nothing )
Maria Francesca Piazzoni, The Real Fake: Authenticity and the Production of Space: ( An English Chinese town )
1. Fairy Tale/Mythology AU
1. Vampires/Werewolves AU
1. Supernatural Creature/Human Romance
1. Magical Connection (Telepathy, etc)
6. Enemies to Friends to Lovers
6. Hogwarts AU
6. Friends to Lovers
6. Selfcest (possibly due to time travel)
11. Snowed-In Cabin/Isolated Together For Extended Period of Time
11. Found Families
15. 'Falling For A Coworker/Teammate Is A Bad Idea' Except This Is Fiction So It Works Out
15. Body Swapping
15. Accidentally Fell In Love With The Mission Target
15. Pride and Prejudice AU
15. Loyalty Kink
20. Characters Swap Roles AU (I don't mean in the bedroom)
20. And They Were Roommates!
20. Reincarnation/'25 Lives' AU
23. Royals/Political Marriage Turns Into Feelings
23. Fake Dating/Fake Marriage Accidentally Turns Into Feelings
23. Seemingly Unrequited Pining
23. 'Groundhog Day'/Karmic Time Loop
27. Unusually Specific Occupation AU, Like, The Author Clearly Has The Same Job
27. Soulmate Identifying Marks (Tattoo, Red Thread of Fate, etc)
27. Actually Unrequited Pining
27. Amnesia Fic
27. Hot Single Parent(s)
32. Adopting/Raising a Baby
32. 'Everyone is Evil'/Mirrorverse AU
32. They All Work In An Office' AU
32. They Break Up (but then They Get Back Together)
36. Coffee House AU/Food Service AU
36. High School/University AU
The top results certainly make sense - even in non-magical/non-SFF canons, I still remain an SF/F writer/reader at heart, and there's never enough polyamory fic to make me happy so I always feel I need to Be the Change and write some.
But REALLY - why is there no entry for "characters swap roles (and YES I DO mean in the bedroom)?" Because that would certainly have been in my top 5. And why no Enemies to Lovers without the obligatory friend stage in the middle?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Certain Dark Things:( vampire intrigue )
Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient: ( sex work as meet cute )
Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time: ( Spiders inherit the stars )
N.J. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?: ( good question )
Corinne Duyvis, On the Edge of Gone: ( apocafic )
Ben Aaronovitch, Lies Sleeping: ( Faceless no more? )
Richard K. Morgan, Thin Air: ( Noir Mars )