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Posts Tagged ‘Swedish Fantasy’

Well, I should get at least one blog post out this month–sorry this is coming so late. June tends to be a busy month for me, and this was more so, with a kidney stone procedure (blegh), job search drama (only in so far as I was waiting to see what would happen), and packing and prepping now that I’ve accepted a one year position at Gustavus Adolphus college (those of you who have been around will remember that I taught there for another one year position back in 2012-13). Whew. Lots going on. But after my Sweden trip in May (yes, I should probably post about that later…) I have been doing some more digging into the world of Nordic science fiction and fantasy, and this led me to one new source. Consider this a supplement to my previous post on the topic, except not limited to just Swedish (actually, just expanding to include Finnish here…), and now I’m focused on what you can find online for free, here and now. 🙂  (Incidentally, illustrations here are just random examples of my own sci-fi/fantasy sketches–go to the linked websites for their own art…)

Inktober 10 19 16 Vista by CallegoThe surprise discovery for me was the online magazine Brev från Cosmos (Letters from Cosmos), put out by Club Cosmos, a science fiction society out of Göteborg, Sweden. The issues are all available for free online. All in Swedish, I’m afraid–except the story “Sixty thousand and one” in issue 4, so you non-Swedish readers can check that one out if you want. To a degree it does feel like a club publication, a product of fandom, but I recognize at least a few of the authors as those who have been publishing short stories in the various Swedish collections out there, along with a few published novelists, so I think it is really just indicative of the fact that in smaller, non-Anglophone countries the fandom side of genre fiction and the professional side are much more closely intertwined and interdependent. How’s the quality? Well, I think I have to repeat my impression of the speculative short fiction collections I’ve reviewed in Swedish–a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes within the same story, though I’m waiting until a second read to make up my mind about some of them. Generally this magazine seems focused on science fiction, largely confined to the usual tropes, though at least one of the stories I read, Liv Vistisen-Rörby’s Nattramn (Night Raven, though using a dialectical or archaic Swedish word for Raven…) feels like it would fit in well with the creepier side of the Finnish Weird. Anyway, if you read Swedish, or are learning, and are, as they say, a geek (I am), you ought to check these out. But as noted in my previous post on this topic, if you are looking for more a more consistent quality and a higher one, better to check out the examples I give of more mainstream/”literary” authors who, for whatever reason, have decided to go “slumming” (sorry, that’s a bad metaphor to use…) in the speculative fiction ghetto–Vallgren, Gustafsson, etc. I personally feel like Swedish literature has an unusual number of great stories in this latter category, and this unfortunately makes it difficult (as I approach these stories, at least) for this new wave of more dedicated speculative fiction writers to shine in comparison. But I’ve seen some great stories out there, and I hope they will continue to rise to the challenge.

Two by Moonlight by CallegoI’ve mentioned the Finnish online magazine (also free) Finnish Weird before, but it fits our topic here, so I’ll mention it again. It is obvious from the start that a lot more money has been put into this publication, so it is a bit of an unfair comparison with the Swedish magazine above–like comparing a pro-magazine with a semi-pro mag or fanzine (I believe that is the terminology used by SFWA…). I have not read every story in each of the issues, but generally I think it’s comparable to the quality you would get in an Anglophone magazine at the pro-level (pro vs semi pro is determined by the amount paid to the authors, but I am thinking in terms of literary quality–according to my own opinion, of course…). The Finnish Weird is also, as the name suggests, more about that mingling of fantasy and horror that we find in the old Weird Tales and related magazines, more recently revived as a more sophisticated “New Weird”, a term then appropriated by Johanna Sinisalo to describe this particular literary movement growing out of Finnish speculative fiction/pop culture fandom.

Finnish Weird is in English, so apologies to those who wanted to practice their Finnish. I’ve found a few stories (one Swedish, two Finnish) on Strange Horizons and its new extension Samovar (which publishes translations), so here are a few more stories in English for you:

Palimpsest by Anders Åslund is dystopian sci-fi, and while I haven’t nailed down what it is that makes Swedish sci-fi Swedish, I will note that this story feels similar to those I’ve read in the Swedish collections–one of the better quality ones, of course. And you know, dystopias are pretty big in Swedish lit… of course, they are everywhere, but for some reason I see the theme returning in the Swedish stories in a way that feels similar… Well, dystopia is prominent in Swedish literary history, with such heavy-hitters like Karin Boye’s Kallocain and Harry Martinson’s Aniara, plus there is a contemporary dystopian feel to all that crime fiction that Swedes love so much, so maybe there is a genealogy to trace here… I will have to work on it. 🙂

The Dying Embers by Inkeri Kontro is weird enough even for Finnish Weird, with a sauna as a narrator. A steamy story, in more ways than one. Fits well with the weirdness that Strange Horizons so often publishes (I mean that as a compliment, for the record), so I hope to see more Finnish Weird on their site. Though of course, now that will probably end up on Samovar, their translation site–which is where we find our next story.

Wither and Blossom, by Suvi Kauppila, a dark fairy tale with a lovely podcast version read beautifully by Anaea Lay. Be sure to read the interview with Suvi as well!

Angry Tomte by CallegoA little prelude to the differences between the Finnish vs the Swedish material–not so much riffing on identifiably Swedish culture in these stories, versus a more conspicuous interest in that sort of thing in (many but not all of) the Finnish stories. While I’ve posted my “Angry Tomte” picture here, I’ve been surprised to find so little Swedish fantasy riffing on traditional Swedish folklore/culture–possibly an aversion to anything that might look reactionary? I think the appropriation of traditional Germanic/Scandinavian culture by white supremacists has, along with just being shitty and evil, made it difficult for folks to bring, say, Swedish folk creatures into their stories without having to somehow mark that they are not trying to make a white supremacist argument by doing so (according to a paper I heard several years ago, this is also a problem faced by Swedish folk musicians). Personally I think there is a lot of potential for digging into the traditional material in a subversive and progressive way–but to be honest, I think the lack of this in the Swedish material is more a matter of Swedish fandom being more engaged with the tropes and styles of Anglophone spec fic–to get away from that, you have to go to the “mainstream” authors, as I’ve noted.

I do like that the Finnish Weird is more of a defined literary movement–not that you need to be a defined literary movement to be good and interesting, but I think that it is clear from the stories I’ve read that there is something local (specific to Finland), thoughtful, relatively coherent and unique, that is coming out of that milieu (well, could just be excellent branding, but hey…)–the ‘local flavor’ of my post title, and something that works very well in this particular case, whether it is simply the general “Finnish grimness/melancholy” that you get in many of these stories, or the use of local material within this international genre (for example, Sinisalo’s novel about a troll, or Kontro’s story about a sauna). The fantasy and science fiction I’ve read in Swedish (again, focusing on this current–90s-2010s–crop of genre authors) may be good, bad, or amazing depending on the story/novel, but for the most part seems simply to be a part of these international genres, rather than a more localized and unique contribution to that world scene–but I expect to find some more specifically Swedish tendencies as I go. And of course, the Swedish Steampunk I’ve read (so far primarily the collection I varje ångetag, though I’ve started a more recent collection now) has as a particular strength its focus on an alternate steam-power Sweden, versus the focus on reimagined Britains and Americas in Anglophone (and so more visible and internationally accessible) steampunk. That’s probably another blog post though…

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I was recently asked about Swedish science fiction, and since my response ended up approximately blog-post length, I figured I’d edit it and put it up here. Also, I’m heading to Sweden for three weeks starting tomorrow, and not sure whether I’ll be posting anything while there–we’ll see. Possibly some vacay photos on Instagram though, and maybe some art, if I can find the time.
As far as science fiction and fantasy goes (or speculative fiction more generally), I would divide the texts I’m aware of into three sets: 1) fantasy/sci-fi/horror in the “mainstream” of Swedish literary history, whether genre authors or “literary” authors “slumming” (I’ve included a couple non-Swedish texts here just to fill out the range a bit more), 2) children’s lit, and 3) the pulp fantasy/sci-fi/horror that is more clearly derivative of/participatory in international fandom–this latter has been growing (English language material has always been popular, but the vernacular element has been increasing a lot), though this outgrowth of fandom/geek culture has been more “pulpy” in Sweden, vs the more literary “Finnish Weird“, which, according to a conversation I had with Johanna Sinisalo, is otherwise very similar in it’s fandom origins.

1) Mainstream

Potuan Maiden by Callego[not Swedish, but–Niels Klim’s Underground Journey by the Norwegian Ludvig Holberg seems like a good book to mention just in terms of the genealogy of otherworldly literature generally. From about the same time as Gulliver’s Travels, and perhaps even more suitable as a sort of predecessor to what we think of as science fiction now–plus Holberg is pretty prominent in Scandinavian literary history. See my previous post on this book here.]

Kallocain, by Karin Boye–this is dystopian literature from the same (general) period as 1984, Brave New World, etc (Boye’s novel came out in 1940 I think? she committed suicide not long after). You should be able to find this in Sweden no prob (I think it is considered a somewhat peripheral classic), and I thought the English translation was fine (click the title for a link to the online version–I believe it is still available in print too though) and had a good introduction to the author and the work. Translations of her poetry are available online as well.

Aniara by Harry Martinson–so yeah, pretty sure this is the only epic poem about a doomed spaceflight written by a Nobel Prize winning author that exists out there. Hard to find an English copy, last I checked (saw some translations going for crazy amounts of money), but shouldn’t be a problem getting Swedish copies over in Sweden, as Martinson is quite central to the canon. There is also an opera version, but I can only find small clips on youtube. 😦  A pretty difficult read, if you are accustomed to more popular sci fi and less experienced with poetry, but I still recommend it.
While I don’t have specific titles in my memory at the moment, Swedish physicist Peter Nilsson is worth looking out for, though I’m not sure how much his titles are still in print (I believe he passed away quite some time ago), and I don’t believe there were ever any English translations made (but of course, if anyone wants to hire me for such a project, I have a free summer…). I have an omnibus of three of his books, and have read the first (a long time ago). For the most part it was like a Carl Sagan book, imaginative and poetic meditations on science, the vastness of the universe, etc (though keep in mind that the science involved is from the 80s, maybe 90s at latest), with a final chapter that turns to straight-up speculation of the hard sci-fi sort. I believe his other work is more of the usual sort of science fiction narrative art, but I will need to find out myself one of these days…
Urminnes Tecken by Kerstin Ekman–another major name in Sw literary history, though this book (I’ve read part but it got pushed out of the way by more urgent reading) is very different from the crime novels she got her start with–a very literary take on the idea of the “small folk”, fairies, underearthers, whatever you want to call them.
[not Swedish, but: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg is a crime novel that evolves into something with more of a science fictional premise. His novel The Quiet Man is a also interesting, more of a paranormal theme. Haven’t read anything else by him yet, alas.]
Books by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Sweden’s writer of “philosophical horror”. You’ve probably heard of Let the Right One In, either the book or the movie–I’ve only seen the movie (the book is pretty long I believe). I’ve taught his Handling the Undead, a sort of low-key zombie movie (this one probably edges more towards sci-fi, vs LTROI), and he’s got several other books out. I would think of him as a Steven King type, but that is not at all to suggest that he is derivative.
WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProThe Merman (Havsmannen) and The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot (Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia), by Carl-Johan Vallgren. I haven’t read anything else by him, and am on-pause with the latter book because the next plot point was apparently the rape of a young girl and I am not sure I have the nerve to read that atm (he seems to have pretty intense stuff in his books, so be warned), but as far as literary fiction with science fictional and horror elements, these two books seem to be the most obvious recommendations to me. I thought Havsmannen was really great, essentially sci-fi in that the Merman is the novum, but set in 80s small town Sweden–and involves enough trigger warnings that I’m hesitant to teach it…
And I’m currently reading Alkemistens Dotter (The Alchemist’s Daughter–not to be confused with an English-language novel of the same name) by one of the “Stockholm Surrealists” Carl-Michael Edenborg–really enjoying it. Nominated for the “August Prize” (named for famous Swedish author August Strindberg–and whoops, forgot to mention above that Vallgren won the Augustpriset in 2002 for Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia). Not sure to what degree it is period fiction, fantasy, sci-fi (or “steampunk” with the alchemy?), or horror, and given what else Edenborg has written it could turn into erotica. In any case, it seems very well done so far.
2) Children’s Literature
Astrid Lindgren is the obvious starting point here. Her Pippi books are great of course, but her The Brothers Lionheart, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, and Mio My Mio (and probably others) will fit well enough with the expectations of fantasy readers. The last I found hard to read because it was so clearly written for very young kids, but TBL is pretty intense, despite some similar “oh my darling brother” moments. TBL deals with topics like premature death, suicide, and war, so, you know, brace yourself…
IMG_2948Tove Jansson’s Moomin/Mumintroll books are great, in case those fit what you are looking for. I used them to help improve my Swedish and found them slightly more difficult than, say Pippi.
Back in the 90s Niklas Krog started writing historical fiction and fantasy for young adults–I think he was sort of a prelude to the stuff we will see in the next section. I’ve read half of his En Krigares Hjärta, generally enjoyed the premise, pretty standard worldbuilding, what I’ve seen of the YA romance part of it is not so much my thing, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I don’t read YA (well, that is changing…). Looks like he has been pretty prolific since I first came across his work–Niklas, if you need a translator, I’m happy to oblige! 🙂

3) The Fantasy/Sci-Fi ghetto–this maybe mostly covers fantasy, which seems more connected to the gamer culture that, from what I’ve seen, drove a lot of the publication of Swedish language speculative fiction in the 2000s–I didn’t start seeing these till mid 2000s, but I think they were building momentum throughout that decade.
http://www.neogames.se/ (NOT .com) is the company I saw behind most of these books–Andreas Roman is a name on a lot of the books I picked up from that time, but… I actually haven’t read them yet (hard to prioritize fantasy reading when it doesn’t have to do with your PhD or teaching…). 😦  I did find an audio short story of his somewhere once–maybe even on amazon. The one book I did read of these (Korset och Tronen) was a fine enough read for a franchise novel–and I think that’s what you have to expect quality-wise for most of these (though it does look like Roman has transcended that pigeonhole a bit). Here are their novels: http://www.neogames.se/se/shopwindow.php?id=45876&shopwindow=8093605   I read “Korset och Tronen” quite a few years ago–I believe the “Cross” bit had a weird backstory in order to be able to bring this Christian symbol into a world that had no Christianity–I think it represented a faction that filled the “Christian” role… So you can kinda see how the worldbuilding is fairly “gaming-centric”, building with categories that will feel familiar to a broad range of folks.
WP_20150909_10_58_10_ProMore recently I picked up a huge tome, first in a series, called Svavelvinter. Seems to be very Game of Thrones/Malazan Book of the Fallen style fantasy. From what I understand it is related to another gaming system (don’t have links at the moment, sorry), and I think the first book originally came out in 2004–anyway, I’ve gotten a good way in and as far as I can tell it’s on par with the usual epic multi-volume fantasies on the market here. Story set-up is taking a while, but I believe that is standard enough for multi-volume fantasy…
So I think the gaming angle is still going strong, but two years ago when I was there I saw that different groups have been putting out collections of short stories. The collection Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep is in English, but I’ve been slow to get into it–two or three of the first stories I tried just did not sit well with me quality-wise, but I don’t want to write the whole thing off.
The collection Maskinblod has some sequels, so it seems there is a market for short sci-fi in Sweden. I did feel like there were still some weak stories, and many I’m a bit undecided about quality-wise, but others feel like they would be at home in some of the usual journals I read. Several are prize-winners as well, so worth a look even if you don’t end up liking all the stories…
WP_20150909_10_57_15_ProSimilar mixed feelings for I Varje Ångetag, Swedish “Oscarian” (sim. to Victorian) Steampunk–this one really feels like a franchise publication again, quality wise, and I think it is supposed to feel that way. Not sure to what extent it is a shared world, but it looks as though there are efforts in that direction. It’s fun, but most of the stories feel like a quick dip into an interesting “gee whiz!” world without the stories feeling as developed in their own right as I would like. But I think I may appreciate the stories better now that I know what to expect.
I also picked up a collection by the author KG Johansson, “translator, rock music professor, and prize winning author”, called Fyra Kvinnor Fyra Flickor (I think referencing the main characters in the stories). Seems promising from the little bit I’ve read so far, and Johansson does have an impressive list of awards. Hoping to get through more of Johansson’s work soon.

Final notes–the “big names” in the first set are your best bet if you are primarily interested in literary quality or literary history (though most of these are peripheral to the canon). The children’s books are fun (esp. the Moomin ones)–I don’t know whether you speak Swedish, are a learner, or are a native speaker, but the Moomins are great for an intermediate learner. Krog’s books and the ones in the third section are what you want if you want pulpy, geek-culture fantasy in Swedish (this is not to say you can’t get “literary” quality from this set, but it may be more hit or miss) and are able to get the books from Sweden (both the “Science Fiction Bokhandeln” and “NeoGames” have an online store, but I don’t know whether it is possible to order from outside Sweden).

I am really looking forward to visiting the Science Fiction Bokhandeln in Gamla Stan again in a couple weeks–as usual I can’t just buy out the store (as much as I would like to), but I may try ordering by mail some time (not certain whether this would work–ordering books from Sweden is not always an available option).

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Since I cover a bit of both Scandinavian Studies and book reviews in this blog, I thought I’d post my purchases from my August trip with some commentary (though I don’t have much to say about all of these…). All in Scandinavian languages, I’m afraid, but some of the classics listed here ought to be available in English as well.

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En dåres försvarstal, an important but not-so-happy pseudo-autobiographical novel by “woman hater” August Strindberg. Written in French, originally, since this scandalous book is Strindberg’s paranoid justification of his divorce from his first wife, and caused a bit of a kerfuffle back home in Sweden as it was. That said, I’m only about 1/8 of the way through the book, and am going primarily from the general knowledge of the book that I’ve picked up…

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And here, apparently, some short material by Strindberg that I hadn’t heard of before–since my specialty within Scandinavian Studies is more on the Old Norse side of things, I mostly just know of AS’s (hm…) more central canon.

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And where we have Strindberg, we must also have Ibsen, his Norwegian nemesis. Three of HI’s (hm…) big plays here in nice cheap editions. I just barely caught the last tour of Ibsen’s Oslo apartment on the last day I was in Oslo, so that was nice. Was surprised to find out he had a painting of Strindberg in his office, to glare at him while he wrote (I think I’d heard that before, but it hadn’t stuck with me apparently…).

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Jonas Hassen Khemiri (author of Ett öga rött) is a major figure in contemporary Swedish literature, in particular as a representative of the Swedish population with roots abroad–Swedes of color, I guess we would say. Jag ringer mina bröder (which I finished soon after I got home–short but good) brings us into the internal nightmare of someone who, after hearing that there has been a terror attack in Sweden, struggles with the feeling that everyone must be looking at him, judging him, suspecting him, because his skin and hair are darker than that of the stereotypical Swede. Included in the paperback edition that I got is Khemiri’s open letter to Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask on the subject of racial/ethnic profiling–you can read this letter, and the backstory, here at Asymptote as well. Looks like the book is already out in English, so I guess I can’t take it on as a translation project…

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Have not had a chance to read this yet, but Theodor Kallifatides is another less-than-stereotypical-Swede, in this case an immigrant from Greece (he came in 1964), who already has a long literary career behind him in Sweden. I’ve been looking forward to reading something by him–I’ve gotten a glimpse of his work in a reader for an advanced Swedish course I took almost a decade ago, and he shows up in a reality show about a group of immigrants learning Swedish as part of an episode where they write part of the story (pretty terrifying stories some of them–one man had seen his parents killed and fled for his life). Don’t know anything else about this book yet, but look forward to reading it!

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Along with the Strindberg short stories, this was a random but interesting-looking find at a beautiful used bookstore in Helsinki (finished my trip in Finland visiting some friends there). PO Enquist is certainly a name that shows up when you are involved in Swedish lit, and this had been nominated for the August prize (named, of course, after Strindberg), so I thought I would give it a try! But given how many books I’ve picked up, it may be a while…

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Have enjoyed the variety of things I’ve read by Lars Gustafsson so far, so I picked this one up as well as the used bookstore. Haven’t cracked it open yet, but sounds like an interesting frame story (voluble American barber clipping a professor’s hair) with even more interesting stories (talking to the dead and such). We will see how it goes!

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Having now taught Smilla’s Sense of Snow twice, I thought I should probably have a version in the original Danish lying around as well. Great book, and of course available in English as well (since 1993, I believe). A nice example of the Scandinavian detective novel, but also very unique, and fascinating for folks like me who like fantasy or sci-fi–definitely a whiff of the otherworldly in this book.

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I’ve been a fan of John Ajvide Lindqvist since watching the original Swedish film version of his “Let the right one in”, and more so after reading (in English) his Handling the Undead (which I taught while at Gustavus Adolphus college), so I wanted to pick up a couple of his books. The new one here is Himmelstrand, in which a group of people in campers finds themselves in the middle of an unending plain. I don’t know anything beyond that, but to me Lindqvist feels more and more like a Scandinavian Steven King. I am not a fan of horror myself, but his work feels very original to me, and I always appreciate genre fiction that both interrogates its origins as well as transcends those origins.

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I mentioned this briefly in my post about a recent English-language short story about the “Havsmannen” (the merman), so I was excited to be able to find a copy for myself! I don’t know whether there is any actual “fantastic” element to this story, as in, a real sea-man of some sort, (have just flipped through the first few pages), but it wouldn’t be too unexpected to find something of that sort, since another book by Vallgren features a telepath. Also available in English, looks like.

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Can’t remember which shop I picked this up at, but of course I have to buy another of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books while in Sweden. I think I have this one in English, but haven’t read it yet. Great children’s books, but odd enough that cool adults can enjoy them as well. If you don’t, you are not cool, sorry.

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Science Fiction Bokhandeln, Gamla Stan: The following books are more of the genre-sort–science fiction and fantasy, my favorites. I’ve been interested in learning more about the way these genres have been growing as an independent literary stream (as opposed to a collection of tropes to be used by mainstream authors), so it was exciting to realize there was a dedicated Science Ficiton bookstore in Old Town Stockholm. Will hopefully write more about all this one day! Meanwhile, here’s what I could afford to pick up while I was there.

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Oscarian steampunk! Cool! Or “kul”? Anyway… the title is a bit clever, playing off off “i varje andetag”, which would be equivalent to “with every breath” or such in English, replacing the “ande” with the Swedish word for steam. Lulz. Anyway–it is a collection of short stories set in an alternate, steampunk Scandinavia with an Oscarian (think Victorian in the Anglophone world) theme. Have read a few stories, and my impressions are mixed. Hopefully a more thorough review to come later. I’m enjoying the novelty though, and some of the stories are nice “slice of steampunk life” bits.

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I’m a lot more excited about the quality of this collection of short stories, and apparently others were as well as there were at least two sequels. The title Maskinblod (“Machine Blood”) is a slight play on “människoblod” (“human blood”), and the theme of some (all?) of the stories is what it is to be human. Haven’t gotten very far yet, but generally I’m enjoying this–turns out this publishing house has also put together a collection of translated Swedish short sci-fi for Anglophone audiences, so I’ll be posting more about this later.

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“Four women, four girls” the title says. Male author, but all female protagonists. I haven’t gotten a chance to do more than flip through this, but we’ll see how it is in the end!

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Can’t remember whether I found this one (“Evil Winter”) in the YA section or not… but looks neat anyway! Honestly, I have no idea about some of these except that they seemed likely choices as I flipped and scanned and browsed in the shop…

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The Alchemist’s Daughter–I remember this one looking really interesting to me as I browsed. Don’t have it with me at the moment, but I may try prioritizing getting to this one…

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Brimstone Winter–catchy title. The cover blurb says “A Borges for the epic format”, so I guess it has a lot to live up to… Anyway, seems like potentially a nice example of Epic Fantasy in Sweden, so we’ll see what I think.

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