Rebecca Diem on The New Golden Age of the SFF Novella

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Lights Go Out in Lychford-small Riot Baby-small Prosper's Demon-small Upright Women Wanted-small

I complain frequently about modern publishing (where did mass market anthologies go, damn it!?) but  really, there’s a lot to like. One of the most positive recent trends has been the resurgence of the novella. We’ve spent a lot of time at Black Gate covering popular new novellas like Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War and Tor.com‘s exciting release schedule (in Intergalactic Wars, Ancient Gods, and Living Ships: New Novellas from Tor.com, among others), but we’re not the only ones who have noticed.

Over at Tor.com Rebecca Diem, author of the 4-volume Tales of the Captain Duke novella series, salutes the modern age of the novella. She touches on many truths in her article; here’s a small taste.

With a good novella, I’m able to dip my toes into an adventure, especially when a busy schedule prevents me from dedicating time to longer works. Short stories pair well with your morning coffee; novels are best for long stretches of uninterrupted time on evenings or weekends. Novellas fit nicely into a tote bag for your commute and all those spare moments collected over the course of the day, but can also be finished in a couple hours for a satisfying and immersive reading experience.

When I was researching market opportunities in 2014 after finishing my first novella, I stumbled on a lot of advice similar to this 2008 Writer’s Digest piece advising novella writers to “stick it in a drawer” or pad it out to a full-length work… But novellas are now being actively solicited by all major publishers, and early adopters of the trend toward shorter works (including Tor.com) are leading the field with awards and accolades.

The novella’s comeback can be attributed to the emergence and increasingly popularity of e-books, print-on-demand publishing, and alternative distribution models, making them a more attractive, lucrative option in the digital age. There are rich opportunities here for both writers and readers of concise, efficient storytelling.

Rebecca’s article is Long Live Short Fiction: The New Golden Age of the SFF Novella; it’s well worth the read. And while we’re on the topic, here’s a handful of Tor.com‘s upcoming releases that caught my eye, including Sarah Gailey’s “good old-fashioned horse opera for the 22nd century” (Charles Stross) Upright Women Wanted.

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The 2019 Locus Recommended Reading List

Sunday, February 9th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Twisted Ones-small The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction-small The Best of Greg Egan-small Roy G. Krenkel Father of Heroic Fantasy - A Centennial Celebration-small

The annual Locus Recommended Reading List is probably your best one-stop reference for all that’s new and exciting in book releases. It’s compiled by the staff and editors of Locus magazine, plus the contributing columnists, outside reviewers, and “other professionals and critics of genre fiction and non-fiction” — folks like Jonathan Strahan, Liz Bourke, Carolyn Cushman, Paul Di Filippo, Paula Guran, Rich Horton, Russell Letson, Gary K. Wolfe, Mark R. Kelly, Cheryl Morgan, John Joseph Adams, Ellen Datlow, John DeNardo, Charles Payseur, Sean Wallace, and many, many others.

The 2019 list appeared in the February issue of Locus magazine, on sale now, and was also published in its entirety last week at the Locus Online website.

Be prepared to take notes. The list includes several hundred titles in a dozen categories, including Science Fiction Novels, Fantasy Novels, Horror Novels, Young Adult Novels, Collections, Anthologies, Non Fiction, Illustrated and Art Books, Novellas, Short Fiction, and others.

I’m a Locus subscriber, and have been for nearly three decades. The magazine is a tremendous resource for anyone who’s serious about science fiction. Each issue is packed with in-depth reviews, interviews, news, photos, convention reports, entertaining features, and a lot more. Why not check it out? Digital subscriptions start at just $4.99 a month. Do yourself a favor and buy a sample issue here.


The Ash-Tree Anthologies, edited by Barbara Roden and Christopher Roden

Sunday, February 2nd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Acquainted with the Night-smaller At Ease With the Dead-smaller Shades of Darkness-smaller

Covers by Jason Van Hollander

Ash-Tree Press was a highly respected small press publisher of ghostly fiction. It was founded in Ashcroft, British Columbia, in 1994 by Christopher and Barbara Roden, and over the next 20 years produced 160+ collections, anthologies and novels of supernatural fiction, mostly reprints. They published volumes by M. R. James, H. R. Wakefield, A. M. Burrage, David G. Rowlands, Richard Marsh, Robert W. Chambers, E. F. Benson, Margery Lawrence, Marjorie Bowen, Alice Askew and Claude Askew, Jonathan Aycliffe, Frederick Cowles, and many, many others. Their handsome books, produced in very small print runs (anywhere from 5-500 copies, but typically  200-300), were usually outside my price range, but I certainly coveted them. The last one appeared in 2013.

In addition to premium reprints aimed at the collectors market, the Rodens had a keen interest in modern ghost fiction, and they published a lot of it. They took over the reins of All Hallows, the Journal Of The Ghost Story Society, with issue #6 in June 1994, and turned it into a thick regular anthology (the last issue, #43, was a whopping 304 pages) published every four months. And they produced five original anthologies between 1997 – 2008, including three nicely affordable paperback editions: Acquainted with the Night, At Ease with the Dead, and Shades of Darkness. All three had delightful covers by Jason Van Hollander.

Van Hollander’s intricate cover paintings are both modern and traditional in the best sense. They’re strangely detailed portraits of overcrowded medieval towns, with houses that huddle together in fear (or maybe just to gossip). The townsfolk remind me of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas — garrulous small town characters with colorful personalities, hurrying through the streets on mundane tasks, and who for the most part are dead. Ghosts drift through eaves, long tendrils of mist coil out of the river, brightly adorned skeletons wave to neighbours, and inhuman watchmen shuffle through the night streets, clutching lanterns.

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Yes, Weird Tales is Back

Tuesday, January 21st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Weird Tales 363-small

Cover by Abigail Larson

A few months ago I started to hear rumors that Weird Tales, the most storied and collectible American fantasy magazine of all time, had returned. Whispers, really. But I’d been hearing whispers for the last six years, ever since the last issue appeared from Nth Dimension Media, and especially since I published the article “Is Weird Tales Dead… Again?” in 2016. So I didn’t pay much attention.

But then I heard more reliable reports, and started to see listings online…. and then I ordered a copy, and right now I’m holding it in my hot little hands. And I can report that, in fact, Weird Tales is back.

It returns with a new publisher, Weird Tales Inc., but the same editor, Marvin Kaye, who took over the editorial reins from Ann VanderMeer in 2011, and managed only three issues in the last nine years. But the magazine looks terrific, with glossy paper and full color interiors, and an impressive Table of Contents, including stories by Victor LaValle, Jonathan Maberry, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and others. Not to mention an eye-catching cover by Abigail Larson, a tribute to perhaps the most iconic Weird Tales image of all time, the famous bat woman cover by Margaret Brundage.

Is Weird Tales back for good? Too early to tell — though to be fair Weird Tales has never exactly been a stable publication. (There’s a reason it’s called “The Magazine That Never Dies,” it keeps having to be resurrected.) There are the usual troubling signs already, including the fact that the website they proudly promote on the back page (weirdtales.com) is down already. But this looks like a quality package, and I’m hopeful. Let’s have a closer look at the contents.

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A Classic Science Fiction Simulator: Howard Andrew Jones and Todd McAulty on Traveller

Sunday, January 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Classic Traveller box set (Games Designers Workshop, 1977)

Over at Tor.com, Howard Andrew Jones and I (under my pseudonym Todd McAulty, the name I use for fiction writing) have posted an article on Classic Traveller, a science fiction role playing game we both dearly love. Here’s a taste.

Todd: It’s fair to say that Classic Traveller was basically a ‘50s/’60s science fiction simulator. It was deeply inspired and influenced by the mid-century SF of E.C. Tubb, H. Beam Piper, Keith Laumer, Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and most especially Poul Anderson.

Howard: Classic Traveller was very light on setting—

Todd: To put it mildly!

Howard: —but it sketched the scene in broad strokes. Players adventured in a human-dominated galaxy riven by conflict, thousands of years in the future. The star-spanning civilization of that future looked an awful lot like the galactic civilizations imagined by Asimov, Anderson, Jack Vance, Gene Roddenberry and others.

The two of us had a lot of fun, but I have to say the article got a lot more interesting once E. E. Knight showed up to share some of his experiences at the gaming table.

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The Best in Modern Sword & Sorcery: The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Volume 3

Sunday, January 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Zoltan

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly has been published, like clockwork, every quarter since June 2009. And every eight issues, like clockwork, the editors of HFQ assemble a Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly volume, as a way to celebrate another milestone and promote their worthy magazine.

These books are top-notch examples of modern sword & sorcery (and I’m not just saying that because I was invited to write the introduction for Volume I.) In his review of Volume I, Fletcher Vredenburgh wrote:

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is… the most consistent forum for the best in contemporary swords & sorcery. Some may think I’m laying it on a little thick, but The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: Volume 1, 2009-2011, a distillation of the mag’s first three years, should prove that I’m not.

Volume III has just arrived, with a dynamic cover by Zoltan and stories by Charles Gramlich, P. Djéli Clark, Adrian Simmons, David Farney, and many others — plus an introduction by Darrell Schweitzer, and original art for each story by Miguel Santos, Justin Pfiel, Garry McCluskey, Robert Zoltan, and others. It’s an all-around gorgeous package, and a fine reminder that Heroic Fantasy is still a vibrant genre in the 21st Century. Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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There Will Never Be an End to Wonder: James Davis Nicoll on Poul Anderson

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Brain Wave Poul Anderson

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson (Ballantine Books, 1954). Cover by Richard Powers.

Poul Anderson was one of my favorite science fiction writers when I first discovered the genre. That interest didn’t survive into adulthood. While I still read Vance, Zelazny, Delany, I probably haven’t picked up a Poul Anderson novel in 30 years. It’s mostly neglect, rather than any conscious choice. It’s simply been too long since a Poul Anderson book survived the cut in my to-be-read pile.

I finally read James Davis Nicoll’s Tor.com article Celebrating Five Favourite Works by Poul Anderson, published on the 93rd anniversary of his birth, November 25, and it was a fine reminder of why Anderson’s work used to appeal to me… and why much of it maybe still does. Here’s Nicoll on the the 1953 novel Brain Wave.

The Earth emerges from an intelligence-suppressing field. Every creature that can think suddenly finds itself five times smarter. All humans of normal intelligence wake to find themselves geniuses. Animals discover that they can now think around the barriers used to control them. Human institutions crumble because humans are too bright to believe in them, while the agricultural systems on which we depend are themselves threatened by animals no longer willing to be stock or prey.

This could very easily have been an apocalyptic tale (superhuman humans shrug and carry on eating creatures that now fully understand what’s going on) — but that’s not the direction in which a comparatively young Anderson took his novel. Instead, the various viewpoint characters do their best to find new, better ways to live.

That’s a strongly appealing review, especially for a 66-year old book. But in many ways that matter, Anderson still speaks to modern readers. As Nicoll writes in his review of The Enemy Stars, “Anderson delivered on the promise. He took worldbuilding very seriously. He understood the sheer immensity of the universe… There will never be an end to wonder.”

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The Joy of Starter Kits, Part Two

Saturday, January 4th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set Second Edition,
edited by Tom Moldvay (TSR, 1981). Cover by Erol Otis.

I often wonder how new players discover role playing these days.

I mean, I know how it happens in theory. You’re introduced to the concept through video games, or friends, or a gaming club, or maybe Stranger Things. The whole thing sounds pretty cool. Eventually you take the plunge and shell out for a set of hardcover rule books and dice, and become a genuine RPG gamer. Sure, it’s a commitment. But it’s no more expensive than other pastimes of the idle rich, like polo or yacht racing.

It’s that initial expense that gets me. The D&D Players Handbook, the most fundamental RPG book on the market, retails for $49.95 — and it’s only one of three you really need. And that doesn’t even include dice. God knows how pricey those are these days.

It used to be easier. You used to be able to try D&D the same way your tried Monopoly, with an impulse buy of a single reasonably-priced box. That’s how I got started in the fall of 1979, when I bought the D&D Basic Set after seeing a few magazine ads in Analog and picking up a copy at the local gaming store. The sheer financial (not to mention emotional) commitment required of modern RPGs is a serious barrier to entry, and many game publishers have gradually come to that realization.

In Part One of this article I looked at some of the games that have embraced the old idea of the Starter Kit, an inexpensive box set that includes everything new players need to learn the fundamentals of role playing and have a few adventures. This new generation includes Pathfinder, Starfinder, Battletech, Numenera, Shadowrun, and others. In Part Two we look at Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Trek Adventures, Warhammer, Star Wars, and the new breed of Dungeons and Dragons beginner boxes.

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From Buffalo Castle to Choose Your Own Adventure: The Evolution of Solitaire Board Games

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Buffalo Castle Rick Loomis-small Death Test The Fantasy Trip-small Wizards and Warriors Jeffrey Dillow-small

I’m old enough to remember when Choose Your Own Adventure books first appeared in bookstores and supermarkets in the late 70s and early 80s, and what a sensation they created.

I remember thinking how simplistic they were, especially compared to the more sophisticated solitaire fare already available in gaming stores at the time. Like Rick Loomis’ groundbreaking Buffalo Castle (Flying Buffalo, 1976), the first solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls (and considered by some to be the first published adventure gamebook, period); Steve Jackson’s bestselling Death Test for The Fantasy Trip (Metagaming, 1978); and especially Jeffrey C. Dillow’s brilliant collection of early solo adventures, Wizards and Warriors (Prentice Hall, 1982), which I played to death and passed around repeatedly to my gaming group.

But there was something powerfully appealing in the very simplicity of Choose Your Own Adventure titles, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert. I wasn’t the only one. Bantam published its first Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Cave of Time by creator Edward Packard, in 1979, and the series quickly surpassed role playing in popularity, selling more than 250 million copies. That’s more — far more — than virtually any RPG or fantasy or series in history. (For comparison, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies over the past 70 years, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels a scant 90 million. Only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, at 500 million, offer real competition). Bantam produced 184 titles in the series between 1979 and 1998.

Role Playing has evolved and expanded enormously since the 70s. You can’t say the same of Choose Your Own Adventure… but the franchise isn’t as dead as you might think. Most interesting to serious games is a pair of cooperative adventure board games released by Z-Man Games that capture the spirit of the CToA line, and take it in some intriguing new directions.

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John DeNardo on the Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Books for December

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Splintegrate Deborah Teramis Christian-small The Best of Uncanny edited by Lynne M. Thomas-small Invocations Warhammer Horror-small

The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, one of my favorite genre websites, essentially shut down on December 16th of this year, firing all freelancers and halting production of new content. They’ve left older content up, thankfully, so our many links to articles by Jeff Somers, Joel Cunningham, and others still work (for now). Like Penguin’s much-missed Unbound Worlds (formerly Suvudu), the B&N Sci-Fi Blog was an inventive and far-ranging publisher-funded genre site that never found a business model, or managed to consistently prove value to its owner in the rapidly-changing publishing industry. I’ll miss many things about the site, but most of all I’ll miss their monthly round-up of the best new SF and fantasy titles.

Fortunately we still have the tireless John DeNardo, who still does a top-notch round-up as part of his regular article series at Kirkus Reviews. This month John calls out new books by Deborah Teramis Christian, Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Jeff VanderMeer, Tomi Adeyemi, Rachel Atwood, Charles Soule, Joe R. Lansdale, and others. Here’s a few highlights.

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