The evolution of storytelling has followed us through the ages from fairy and folk tales to the vast variety of mediums now available to us.
As storytelling expands in unusual and innovative ways to keep pace with global conversations, what are some books you’re most excited about?
Tristan Palmgren is the author of Quietus, a genre-bending blend of historical fiction and space opera set during the Black Death. The sequel, Terminus, is due out in November of this year. Find him at Twitter at @TristanPalmgren, and his website tristanpalmgren.com.
It is a truth of our nature that we cannot recall a memory without altering the memory. The same goes for history: the myths and legends that shape our canon become new things in new hands. One of my favorite reading pleasures is seeing new modes and methods of storytelling expand in every direction, including into the past. History and myth become alive when seen through new perspectives, or told through new voices. The retelling becomes a story by itself.
In Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin does for Lavinia, a minor character in Virgil’s Aeneid, what Virgil had done for Aeneas, himself originally a minor character in The Iliad. LeGuin not only reinterprets the myth, but dissects the act of myth-making and storytelling as only LeGuin herself is capable of doing. Lavinia herself is aware of her status as words on a page, and of the way that her story has changed and expanded over the millennia since the historical Lavinia–if there was one–lived.
Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She can be found on twitter: @jeannette_ng and her blog is https://medium.com/@nettlefish/
K Arsenault Rivera’s Tiger’s Daughter enchanted me with its epistolary structure. It reminded me achingly of all the love letters I have written over the years, answered and unanswered. I’ve always found epistolary novels awkward, in part because they have to balance that verisimilitude of the letter and being a digestable narrative to the reader. Many epistolary novels relax their conceit a chapter or so in and go into a more conventional “narrator voice”. But not this one. It keeps front and centre that intimacy between its two main characters and it is truly, achingly beautiful.
There is a certain self-mythologising that happens in such long love letters, where we tell the story ourselves to ourselves, where we try to explain our cultures to each other. I adored that in Tiger’s Daughter and don’t doubt that its sequel The Phoenix Empress will tear again at my heart in the same way. I look forward to returning to the story of divine empress O Shizuka and cursed warrior, Barsalyya Shefali.
We’ve come a long way, baby. That’s what I think of when I consider the explosion in new and exciting voices in speculative fiction today. Writers of color, queer writers, all explore established tropes and create new and exciting possibilities. Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is a great example, taking steampunk and tackling its colonial and empire building roots, taking aim at cultural assumptions in the bargain. Similarly, Nicky Drayden’s Prey of Gods, a gleefully manic take on Afrofuturism. And the upcoming debut of Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning, which is based on Navajo culture.
Fantasy has always been based on the rich heritage of human civilization. So the genre benefits when people explore that heritage from within, with respect, and with great skill. Instead of cultural appropriation and exoticism, we have cultural acknowledgement, cultural appreciation.
I have every confidence that the momentum will continue.
R. F. Kuang is a graduate of the 2016 Odyssey Writing Workshop. She studies Chinese history at Georgetown University, and has recently been awarded a Marshall Scholarship. Kuang will continue her studies of the legacy of warfare in China at Cambridge University in the fall. The Poppy War is her debut novel.
I’m really digging this trend of modern takes on mythological classics–particularly classics that aren’t well known to a Western audience. History moves in circles, so it’s fascinating to see old myths applied to new sociopolitical contexts. The Poppy War, for instance, draw on the lore of the Investiture of the Gods which is a wacky Chinese epic that I don’t think many non-Chinese people know about. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is a marvelous and massive retelling of the Romance of Three Kingdoms and I’m really excited for book three just like everyone else. Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time draws from the Mahabharata and just came out this week! Bryan Camp’s debut The City of Lost Fortunes is out in mid-April and is a gorgeous and intricate murder mystery set in New Orleans that draws from an encyclopedic knowledge of gods from cultures all over the world. (It reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, so you know it’s going to be good.) And finally, I know that Max Gladstone is going to announce a novel influenced by the Journey to the West soon (!!) and I’m going nuts about it.
Aliya Whiteley is the author of novels, most recently The Beauty, short stories, and non-fiction and has been published in The Guardian, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit’s European Monsters. Her writing is often violent, tender, terrifying and funny. Follow her on Twitter @AliyaWhiteley.
We are immersed in all sorts of stories every day. As readers have become adept at recognising types of narratives, and sometimes learning to distrust them, it’s become really exciting to see authors explore that relationship. Speculative fiction has been playing around with reader preconceptions recently; a great example is James Smythe’s The Machine, which takes our thoughts and feelings about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and updates them to tell the tale of a woman who is trying to rebuild the memories of her husband after he returns, traumatised, from war. The novel taps into a question science fiction has been asking for a long time: what makes us human? But then it goes further—what role does story play in the act of creation? Is our humanity formed by the narratives we create about ourselves, and others?
Portal fantasy has long been one of my favourite genres, and that too has been moving in interesting directions. Recently I enjoyed Verity Holloway’s Pseudotooth, which gives us some solidly old-fashioned starting points: an old house, a crabby aunt, and a young woman who would rather be anywhere else. When she finds a way into a different world we think we know what kind of adventure will follow, but the story grows wildly and fruitfully from Victorian literature to something new and challenging that addresses contemporary issues of disability, anxiety, and social pressure. I loved it.
I am very excited by the release of Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master & The Detective, a Sherlock Holmes style mystery in which Holmes is a female scholar and Watson a discharged military transport ship. This is part of her excellent Xuya series of short novels, set in a future where Chinese and Vietnamese cultures have expanded into space, developing their own mindships (artificial intelligences borne in human wombs and raised alongside human siblings). Told from a refreshingly non-western-centric viewpoint, Tea Master & The Detective shows how much we as readers have to gain by being open to the increasing diversity of voices and cultural perspectives now enriching and reinvigorating the genre.
Jasmine Gower is from Portland, Oregon, where she studied English literature at Portland State University. Since then, she has balanced writing with various office jobs which served as inspiration for Daisy’s story in Moonshine. Jasmine was drawn toward writing years before amidst a childhood of fantasy novels and 90s video games and has a passion for exploring themes of gender, sexuality, and disability through the conventions of speculative fiction and fantasy worldbuilding.
I’m still a sucker for fairy tales and legends, which is why I’ve always gravitated toward fantasy, but it’s still struggling to shake off the assumed universality of the white-, male-, straight-, cisgender-, and abled-centric viewpoints that have so long informed the genre. I’m glad to see recent significant strides being made to make room for stories outside of these parameters, which is why I’m looking forward to Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, which sounds like a good old-fashioned monster hunting mystery adventure told from a Navajo point of view. Speaking of monster hunting, I was a big fan of JY Yang’s The Red Threads of Fortune, which brought a Singaporean, queer, and gender non-binary perspective to a rich and epic fantasy world, so I can’t wait for their next book in the Tensorate series, The Descent of Monsters. Finally, I’ve been incredibly excited for Micah Yongo’s Lost Gods, which takes the familiar fantasy premise of assassin brotherhoods and brings it together with Nigerian and other West African legends. I hope that these books and other like them help the fantasy genre expand its imagination and recognize that there are still other fairy tales and legends beyond the European classics that deserve to be retold and shared.
What’s your favorite book that tells a new kind of story?