Natalie Zutter | content by

Natalie Zutter

Magic, Power, and Romance: Freya Marske’s A Power Unbound Sticks the Landing

It should come as no surprise that I read most of A Power Unbound at 2 a.m. That’s the time for romantic trysts in hidden places; for unexpected heart-to-hearts with estranged family; for epic showdowns. It also meant, as a reader, that I was silently sobbing my way through a ghostly reconciliation, or fist-pumping a big kiss, without waking up my husband or my dog snoring beside me. Freya Marske’s triumphant conclusion to her fantasy romance series The Last Binding is the kind of book that could certainly be experienced somewhere in public at a time where it’s more socially acceptable to be whooping with joy at how wonderfully all the series threads tie up. But there’s also something undeniably special about getting to read it in the most private and liminal of moments.

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Alix E. Harrow’s Multi-Genre Starling House Builds a Home Inside a Story

It’s an exciting point when a reader can begin to identify common themes and motifs in an author’s body of work. Though I first came to Alix E. Harrow’s writing through the fairy tale remix novella A Spindle Splintered, looking backwards and forwards across her books, patterns emerge. A woman locked away in an old house, escaping through literary portals in The Ten Thousand Doors of January. A coven offering their powers to the suffragette movement in The Once and Future Witches. Sleeping Beauties and Wicked Queens fragmented across retellings. Her latest novel Starling House collects variations on each of these devices, yet despite any familiar glimmers it’s still something wholly new, and undoubtedly her best work yet.

A modern Gothic thriller set in a downtrodden Kentucky coal town, Starling House is satisfyingly creepy while being animated by more than one love story—the one you might expect, between two compelling misfits, but also between a sentient house and its inhabitants. It’s a masterful meditation on the stories that make and unmake us.

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A Touch of Sexy Danger: Fall of Ruin and Wrath by Jennifer L. Armentrout

In the rebuilt wreckage of a world long ago destroyed by gods, the only chance of survival is to live in the moment. No one knows that better than Lis, a former street urchin who has found temporary protection within the estate of a semi-divine Baron of Archwood, but only if she uses her unusual intuition to give him intel on her fellow lowborn (read: mortal) allies and foes. Reluctant to return to picking pockets and scraping by, Lis and her foster-brother Grady are happy to keep their heads down and play their parts… until the appearance of the divine warriors known as Hyhborn threatens the peace of the only home they’ve known. They are led by the enigmatic Lord Thorne, Prince of Vyrtus, who frustrates and intoxicates Lis in equal measure with her inability to learn anything about him—and his desires—except what he’ll tell her. And what he does share with her breaks her entire sense of the world, and herself, challenging her and other lowborn to envision an entirely new future.

For her first romantasy with Bramble, the prolific Jennifer L. Armentrout maps a familiar tale of forbidden love onto a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting whose inspirations are unmistakable biblical. This makes for a diverting drama that grapples both with the meaning of true intimacy (contrasted with pleasures of the flesh) as well as loftier philosophical questions about human foibles and failings, and whether a higher power should be wielding their weapons (magical and carnal) over these puny mortals who are probably doomed to repeat their past sins.

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Kemi Ashing-Giwa’s The Splinter in the Sky Gets Under Your Skin in a Good Way

During covid lockdown, Kemi Ashing-Giwa discovered tea and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. And like her protagonist Enitan Ijebu, tea-specialist-turned-spy, this debut author has brought us a space opera thriller with notes of some of your favorite SFF while discovering inventive new ways to critique colonialism through a sci-fi lens, in a standalone novel that nonetheless has an eye toward a hopeful future.

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An Entire World Inside Your Head: The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei

There have been enough generation ship stories by now that readers are accustomed to humanity’s chance for the future falling into two categories: either the most intelligent, highly trained, mentally and emotionally resilient platonic ideal of an astronaut and future planet settler; or an every(wo)man who stumbles their way into the mission yet wins everyone over with their sheer relatability and unexpected insights. But what if you were among the cream of the crop… but fell just short of being the very best Earth had to offer?

On the Phoenix, a generation ship ten years into its mission carrying eighty crew members to Planet X, Asuka Hoshino-Silva is an Alt—the mission’s alternate, not hand-picked for any specific job but good enough that she can do in a pinch. Representing Japan despite feeling more connected to the United States based on her childhood spent in climate refugee camps, Asuka is an immediately compelling heroine because of the demanding standards to which she holds herself and her belief that she has already fallen short. When a bomb damages the Phoenix, killing three promising crew members but sparing Asuka, it makes her simultaneously the top suspect and the only one who can solve the mystery of who might be sabotaging EvenStar’s mission, in Yume Kitasei’s absorbing debut sci-fi thriller.

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The Outlander Mid-Season Finale Needed More Exciting “Turning Points”

For the opening scene of its mid-season finale “Turning Points,” Outlander leaned into its rare good humor after the previous episode had ended on the cliffhanger-esque moment of Jamie, lying unconscious in the battlefield after the First Battle of Saratoga. Once Claire rescues him from some female graverobbers and it’s clear that his worst injury is catching a sword hilt in his hand, the scene is played surprisingly lighthearted for the series, with them bickering like the middle-aged married couple they are about his inability to stay out of trouble.

Despite Claire’s rant about Jamie as a “vainglorious, pigheaded, grandstanding Scot” and her trotting after him “sticking pieces back on,” the episode favored smaller, more subtle emotional moments between unlikely kinsmen. Nonetheless, the finale’s eponymous turning points were more foregone conclusions that rather neatly ended the Frasers’ chapter in America; we could have used a wee bit more excitement before the next Droughtlander.

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A Romantic Hero Rendered in Radiant Shades of Grey: Cassiel’s Servant by Jacqueline Carey

Imagine you’re at a party, and you come across an ethereally gorgeous couple: She dark-haired and radiant, he an austere blond. When you ask how they met, she launches into a stunningly romantic tale involving bodyguards and captivity and voyages and sacrifices. But by the time she’s done, though you’re nodding along at their happily-ever-after, you realize that you’ve also missed some details, or taken some of her explanations as gospel without entirely understanding. When your storyteller is inevitably pulled across the room to something shiny, her partner lingers. You ask a clarifying question, and he’s all too happy to offer his own take on the narrative you just heard—the same corroborating points, yet with a different perspective, and filling in some of the questions you didn’t even know you wanted to ask.

That’s what it feels like reading Cassiel’s Servant, the Perfect Companion of novels to Jacqueline Carey’s epic fantasy Kushiel’s Dart, about courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delaunay. While there are no world-redefining twists to be found, Joscelin Verreuil’s retelling does reward with several key personal revelations, as it renders the Cassiline warrior less inscrutable and more flesh-and-blood. First-time readers may find themselves missing some of the nuance of this duo’s incredible quest, but longtime fans will come away feeling as if they’ve gotten to know Joscelin even better than before.

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6 Hilarious, Harrowing, and Heartbreaking Moments I Can’t Wait to Read in Cassiel’s Servant

Over twenty years after we met courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delaunay in Kushiel’s Dart, author Jacqueline Carey is revealing a new dimension of Terre d’Ange by retelling the epic fantasy through the eyes of warrior-monk Joscelin Verreuil. Ever the storyteller, Phèdre’s expansive narration details such a lush, thrilling upbringing and recounts everything from her assignations in the City of Elua to her battlefield negotiations… but hers is still only one perspective. We’ve been waiting a long time to find out what events shaped Joscelin before he was assigned to become Phèdre’s bodyguard, and to delve into the incredible circumstances that challenged his vows to Cassiel and allowed him to reconsider what it means to love as thou wilt.

With Cassiel’s Servant publishing in a matter of days, it’s high time to put in our final bets about the moments we can’t wait to read and relive from Joscelin’s point of view.

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Everything to Know About Kushiel’s Dart Before Reading Cassiel’s Servant

Jacqueline Carey’s epic fantasy trilogy Kushiel’s Legacy is lush in every way, unfolding over a dreamy country populated by the descendants of angels possessed of otherworldly beauty, where all forms of love are considered sacred. Through the eyes of gods-marked courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delaunay, readers experience every corner of the fantasy land Terre d’Ange, from the bedchambers of nobles to the sumptuous brothels of the Night Court, and the courtly intrigues taking place therein.

The best way to enjoy this story is to simply sink into it and let the narrative play out. But Kushiel’s Dart, the first volume detailing Phèdre’s coming of age, is over 900 pages. And between the intricate worldbuilding, complicated game of thrones, and blush-inducing sex scenes, there is a lot to take in. So, we’ve assembled a who’s-who and what’s-what of Terre d’Ange: how it was founded, its central tenets, and the major players on both sides of the proverbial chessboard.

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Black Mirror Season 6 Finds New and Devastating (and Joyful) Ways to Talk About Our Digital Doubles

After a four-year hiatus, the return of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror both is and isn’t exactly what you would expect. The original thesis statement (technology will ruin our lives) still rings true, but Brooker has found new and inventive ways to express it, notably by going into the past. Two of the five episodes actually veer into the supernatural, a first for these usually tech-centric tragedies. And while Black Mirror seemingly retreads old ground regarding virtual doppelgängers, this season’s two standout episodes are both the darkest and, astonishingly, the most joyous that Black Mirror has ever been.

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Outlander Rescues Itself From the Doldrums With “A Life Well Lost”

Outlander season 7 continues to be plagued by the series’ issue of a slow-moving premiere, but at least by the end of “A Life Well Lost,” when Jamie Fraser appears in a rowboat to rescue his ladylove Claire, there are flickers of the early series’ dynamic, adventurous tone. Both this visual of the core time traveling couple together, as well as key individual moments in the episode, show that the series is reemphasizing what has made viewers fall in love with each of them and with their partnership: how each of them brings goodness out in the other, but only to balance the necessary violence that ensures their continued survival. It’s not a perfect start to the penultimate season, but it’s enough to get fans feeling breathless with anticipation for more Outlander.

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The Penultimate Outlander Theme Song Makes the Familiar Sound New Again

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?

The first time I saw the opening lyrics to Outlander’s theme song posted on a friend’s Facebook post, I thought it sounded ridiculous, way too on-the-nose to start every episode by acknowledging the series’ premise. YES WE GET IT CLAIRE YOU DISAPPEARED.

That was before I actually listened to it, and watched the title sequence—and then, like Claire at Craigh na Dun, I fell hard. Now, I forbid my husband from fast-forwarding through the credits every time we watch… and considering that we binged a season at a time to get caught up in a matter of weeks, that means I’ve got it well memorized. But why do I find this particular TV opening so compelling?

The answer, I think, is that it presses all of my nerd buttons: It’s a remix of a mashup, with an excellent invocation of Rule 63. It is the platonic ideal of a TV theme song, reinventing itself each season so that it is always familiar but never predictable.

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What I’m Dying to See in Yellowjackets Season 2

Buzz! Buzz! Buzz! After Yellowjackets came out of nowhere like the best kind of jump scare in late 2021, the wait for season 2 is almost over: On March 24, we’ll get some more answers about what really happened to the girls’ soccer team stranded in the woods for 19 months in 1996, and how that has affected the adult survivors 25 years later in 2021. (But not all the answers, since the Showtime series has already been renewed for a third season, with showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson operating on a five-year plan.) And it all comes back to the Wilderness

Spoilers ahead for season 1!

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Engaging in Fiction: Megan Whalen Turner Explores New Corners of Her World in Moira’s Pen

Hey, remember that time that Megan Whalen Turner concluded her Queen’s Thief series with Return of the Thief’s audaciously happy ending and I wrote a whole piece about challenging my biases about how epic fantasy series are supposed to end? It was a fitting close to an era, of both reading this series for twenty-five years and of my own writing about it. And then two years later, what does Turner do but release a completely unexpected, seemingly unnecessary, poignantly perfect coda in her new short story collection Moira’s Pen.

She got us again.

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Parenting an Idea in Saga

While preparing this piece, I came across a page of notes on Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ long-running space fantasy comic, for a Space Opera Week that for some reason I was convinced never came to fruition. Imagine my surprise when I realized that not only did definitely explore the corners of space opera back in 2017… but I wrote about chasing hope across the universe in none other than Saga.

Blame it on baby brain. But here’s the thing: It’s been almost six years since then, with three more Saga trade paperbacks published in the interim (around a hiatus from 2018-2022), and I might as well be reading this series for the first time as a longtime BKV fan and newish parent—through a route much more convoluted than Marko and Alana’s, yet with a surprising number of parallels. That’s what makes Saga endure so well: Like Hazel, it grows into something new with every break and return, and its place within our comics universe—and its readers’ own personal universes—shifts. Having celebrated its ten-year anniversary a year ago, it hasn’t abandoned its opening line (This is how an idea becomes real), but rather has embraced how it’s not as simple as releasing an idea into the ether; you have to nurture it, even when you feel that you can’t possibly do so, to ensure its survival. And, most crucially, you have to let go of your expectations for what ideas your idea wants to create.

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