Fforde (The Eye of Zoltar, 2014, etc.) returns from his “creative hiatus” with a madcap adventure through the Welsh winter, which has grown so deadly most humans literally sleep through it.
Charlie Worthing has just volunteered to join the brave (or, perhaps more accurately, insane) members of the Winter Consul Service, the select group of people who don’t hibernate through winter in order to keep the sleepers safe until they wake up in the spring. The sleepers, at least the rich and well-connected ones, are aided by a drug called Morphenox, which sometimes has the unfortunate side effect of turning the sleeper into a nightwalker, which is more or less a zombie that can perform menial tasks (or, in one notable case, play Tom Jones songs on the bouzouki). Constantly warned of the high likelihood of his death by his fellow Winterers, Charlie must quickly learn to navigate the various dangers that come with his new job, such as the probably mythical Wintervolk, like the Gronk, which often leaves victims with strains of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes running through their heads; roaming groups of faded English aristocrats bent on villainy and kidnapping; strange co-workers he isn’t sure he can trust; and a “viral dream” about a blue Buick. Charlie’s journey through the especially isolated and dangerous area called Sector Twelve, where there's "always something weird going on," is so absorbing, and Fforde’s wit so sharp, the reveal that the narrative is also a commentary on capitalism comes across as a brilliant twist. Fforde writes in the acknowledgments that he hopes to return to a quicker publishing schedule, but this wonderful tale was well worth the wait.
Whip-smart, tremendous fun, and an utter delight from start to finish.
Wrought with blood, iron, and jolting images, this swords-and-sorcery epic set in a mythical Africa is also part detective story, part quest fable, and part inquiry into the nature of truth, belief, and destiny.
Man Booker Prize winner James (A Brief History of Seven Killings, 2014 etc.) brings his obsession with legend, history, and folklore into this first volume of a projected Dark Star Trilogy. Its title characters are mercenaries, one of whom is called Leopard for his shape-shifting ability to assume the identify of a predatory jungle cat and the other called Tracker for having a sense of smell keen enough to find anything (and anybody) lost in this Byzantine, often hallucinatory Dark Ages version of the African continent. “It has been said you have a nose,” Tracker is told by many, including a sybaritic slave trader who asks him and his partner to find a strange young boy who has been missing for three years. “Just as I wish him to be found,” he tells them, “surely there are those who wish him to stay hidden.” And this is only one of many riddles Tracker comes across, with and without Leopard, as the search takes him to many unusual and dangerous locales, including crowded metropolises, dense forests, treacherous waterways, and, at times, even the mercurial skies overhead. Leopard is besieged throughout his odyssey by vampires, witches, thieves, hyenas, trickster monkeys, and other fantastic beings. He also acquires a motley entourage of helpers, including Sadogo, a gentle giant who doesn’t like being called a giant, Mossi, a witty prefect who’s something of a wizard at wielding two swords at once, and even a wise buffalo, who understands and responds to human commands. The longer the search for this missing child continues, the broader its parameters. And the nature of this search is as fluid and unpredictable as the characters’ moods, alliances, identities, and even sexual preferences. You can sometimes feel as lost in the dizzying machinations and tangled backstories of this exotic universe as Tracker and company. But James’ sensual, beautifully rendered prose and sweeping, precisely detailed narrative cast their own transfixing spell upon the reader. He not only brings a fresh multicultural perspective to a grand fantasy subgenre, but also broadens the genre’s psychological and metaphysical possibilities.
If this first volume is any indication, James’ trilogy could become one of the most talked-about and influential adventure epics since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was transformed into Game of Thrones.
A timely novel set in the furthest reaches of Australia by the author of The Dry (2017) and Force of Nature (2018).
The three Bright brothers are the overseers of 3,500 square kilometers of land in Queensland, with hours between each of their homes. It’s a vast, unforgiving environment, and no one ever goes far without a full complement of supplies. When 40-year-old Cameron sets out on his own, ostensibly to fix a repeater mast, he never comes home. His body is eventually spotted, via helicopter, curled up by the stockman’s grave, the source of plentiful, and persistent, local ghost stories. Cam’s older brother, Nathan, and their baby brother, Bub, are as perplexed as the cop who’s come all the way from Brisbane to investigate. What was Cam doing by the grave, and what was his Land Cruiser doing nine kilometers away, still fully stocked with supplies, with the keys left neatly on the front seat? The Brights' mother, Liz, is devastated, and Cam has also left behind his wife, Ilse, and two young daughters, Sophie and Lo. They’re pragmatic folks, though, and there’s a funeral to be planned, plus Christmas is just around the corner. Everyone seems to assume that Cam took his own life, but Nathan isn’t so sure, and there’s a strange dynamic in Cam's home that he can’t put his finger on. Cam had been acting strangely in the weeks before his death, too. But Nathan’s got his own problems. He’s eager to reconnect with his teenage son, Xander, who's visiting from Brisbane, and he has a complicated history with Ilse. In the days leading up to the funeral, family secrets begin to surface, and Nathan realizes he never really knew his brother at all. Harper’s masterful narrative places readers right in the middle of a desolate landscape that’s almost as alien as the moon’s surface, where the effects of long-term isolation are always a concern. The mystery of Cam’s death is at the dark heart of an unfolding family drama that will leave readers reeling, and the final reveal is a heartbreaker.
A twisty slow burner by an author at the top of her game.
Marriage is murder in Chaney’s creepy new tale of deadly domestic woe.
In 1995, Janice Evans is married to Matt, working long hours at an old folks’ home while Matt attends school, and although Janice loves her husband, Matt is trying her patience because he's cheating. Flash-forward to 2018, and Matt has been married to the lovely Marie for more than 20 years. Matt has tried to put his past behind him. After all, it’s not his fault Janice was killed by an intruder who attacked them both while they slept. Matt and Marie have two daughters in college and, like most couples, have had a few rough patches. A romantic hiking weekend is just the thing to put the spark back in their marriage…until Marie plummets off the edge of a cliff into Three Forks River at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Matt, of course, is immediately a murder suspect despite his protestations. He insists Marie fell, but something doesn’t add up to Denver Homicide Detective Marion Spengler. Even her much older partner, the very rough around the edges Ralphie Loren, smells something rotten in paradise. When a body is finally pulled from the raging river, all hell breaks loose. Chaney (What You Don’t Know, 2017) alternates past and present, creating an unbearably urgent narrative, and she has a shockingly firm grasp on the barbs and ennui of long-term marriage. Readers will be convinced they know what happened, but as the nature of Marie and Matt’s relationship is revealed, watch out: This duo is one of a kind. There are no one-dimensional characters here. Matt is the least developed, but even he, in all his boorishness, has hidden depths. Loren is a fascinating, crass, undeniably sharp cop hiding a painful secret; he's haunted by past cases, and Chaney doesn’t skimp on the harrowing details. But it's the women who are the stars. The nuanced Spengler, a very competent detective as well as a wife and mother, is still feeling her way in a man’s world, and Marie is a force of nature, destructive and altogether relatable in equal measure.
A perfectly paced, shock-studded chiller from an author to watch.
A young white woman named Alice James flees Prohibition-era Harlem by rail with an oozing bullet wound and a satchel containing $50,000 in cash.
She makes it cross-country to Portland, Oregon, where Max, a kindly, strapping black Pullman porter and World War I veteran, whisks her away to the novel’s eponymous hotel, populated mostly with African-Americans besieged by threats from the local Ku Klux Klan. You needn’t be an aficionado of crime melodrama or period romance for those two sentences to have you at “Hello,” and Faye (Jane Steele, 2016, etc.) more than delivers on this auspicious premise with a ravishing novel that rings with nervy elegance and simmers with gnawing tension. The myriad elements of Faye’s saga are carried along by the jaunty, attentive voice of Alice, who came by her nickname “Nobody” as a young girl growing up on the crime-infested Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she acquired the ability to hide in plain sight among the neighborhood’s mobsters, leg-breakers, and bootleggers. She calls upon this chameleonlike talent as she embeds herself among her newfound protectors, some of whom are wary of her presence. But Alice has at least one Paragon resident solidly in her corner: the stunning Blossom Fontaine, a dauntingly sophisticated cabaret singer whose own past is as enigmatic and checkered as Alice’s. Blossom, Max, and the rest of the hotel’s residents dote on a precocious, inquisitive mixed-race child named Davy Lee who vanishes from their sight one afternoon at an amusement park. As the Klan begins to show signs of renewed aggression toward Portland’s black citizenry and corrupt cops start throwing their weight around the hotel, Alice is compelled to deploy her street-wise skills with greater urgency to help find Davy Lee. In doing so, she also unravels secrets within secrets that carry deadly and transformative implications for her and for everybody around her. This historical novel, which carries strong reverberations of present-day social and cultural upheavals, contains a message from a century ago that’s useful to our own time: “We need to do better at solving things.”
A riveting multilevel thriller of race, sex, and mob violence that throbs with menace as it hums with wit.
After environmental sci-fi/fantasy (the award-winning All the Birds in the Sky, 2016) and pop-culture dystopia (Rock Manning Goes for Broke, 2018), Anders shifts gears for this sweeping work of anthropological/social sf.
In the distant future, the descendants of a colony spaceship have settled precariously on the hostile planet of January, swarming with vicious predators and dangerous weather patterns. One side of the planet continually faces the sun, while the other faces the frozen dark of space. Humans have built two main cities on the light side: the rigidly rules- and caste-bound Xiosphant, where guards wait to seize you for the slightest infraction, and the more licentious Argelo, run by various warring gangs. In Xiosphant, shy, working-class student Sophie idolizes her upper-crust roommate, Bianca, who loves parties and seeking power. But Bianca’s flirtation with revolution drives Sophie first into the brutal hands of the police, and then into the saving pincers and tentacles of January’s nightside-living, sentient native species, dismissed by the colonists as brute beasts. But these creatures, whom Sophie dubs the “Gelet,” develop a psychic bond with her, and their willingness to share understanding and friendship changes her forever. One person the new Sophie slowly manages to influence is Mouth, a smuggler and survivor of an otherwise extinct nomadic band, who’s desperately seeking both a connection to her lost past and a reason to forge a future. But ultimately, Sophie can't exert a similar influence over Bianca; despite Bianca’s claims of caring for her, she chooses to exploit Sophie’s vulnerabilities instead of granting her the understanding and acceptance Sophie craves. In our world, Bianca would represent the worst kind of faux “woke" liberal. She’s an angry woman who thinks she’s making a difference, but she doesn’t really want to help people or even listen to them; she just wants to be the one in charge and profit from it. Watching Sophie come into her own and gradually (and almost too late) realize that the Bianca she loves doesn’t exist is inevitable, sad, and, eventually, empowering.
Anders contains multitudes; it’s always a fascinating and worthwhile surprise to see what she comes up with next.
A young houseboy and a dressmaker’s apprentice get drawn into a mystery in 1930s Malaya.
It is May 1931, and 11-year-old Ren’s master, Dr. MacFarlane, is dying. Before he takes his last breath, MacFarlane gives Ren a mission: Find the doctor’s missing finger, amputated years ago and now in the possession of a friend, and bury it in his grave before the 49 days of the soul have elapsed. In another town, Ji Lin has given up dreams of university study to sew dresses during the day and work a second job in a dance hall; one evening, she is approached by a salesman who presses something into her hand during a dance: a severed finger in a glass specimen tube. By the next day, the salesman is dead—and his won’t be the last mysterious death to plague the area. Ji Lin’s search for the finger’s owner and Ren’s search for the digit itself eventually draw the two together and in the process ensnare everyone from Ji Lin’s taciturn stepbrother to Ren’s new master and his other household servants. Choo (The Ghost Bride, 2013) continues her exploration of Malayan folklore here with questions that point to the borders where the magical and the real overlap: Is someone murdering citizens of the Kinta Valley, or is it a were-tiger, a beast who wears human skin? Can spirits communicate with the living? Should superstitions—lucky numbers, rituals—govern a life? Choo weaves her research in with a feather-light touch, and readers will be so caught up in the natural and supernatural intrigue that the serious themes here about colonialism and power dynamics, about gender and class, are absorbed with equal delicacy.
Choo has written a sumptuous garden maze of a novel that immerses readers in a complex, vanished world.
A family treks south to the U.S.–Mexico border, bearing tales of broken migrant families all the way down.
In her last nonfiction book, Tell Me How It Ends (2017), Luiselli wrote about her work as a translator for Latin American families attempting to enter the U.S. This remarkable, inventive fictional take on the theme captures the anguish of those families through a deliberate piling-up of stories; reading it, you feel yourself slowly coming face to face with a world where masses of children are separated, missing, or dead of exposure in the desert. Luiselli eases into the tale by introducing an unnamed New York couple, both audio documentarians, driving their children, ages 10 and 5, to the Arizona-Mexico border. The father wants to explore the remnants of Apache culture there; the mother, who narrates much of the book, is recording an audio essay on the border crisis and has promised a woman to look into the fates of her two daughters who’ve been detained. As they drive, they alternate listening to news reports about the border and an audiobook of Lord of the Flies, and the opening sections are thick with literary references and social critique; imagine On the Road rewritten by Maggie Nelson. But the story darkens as they witness the plight firsthand and, later, as the couple's children stumble into their own crisis. There’s a slightly bloodless, formal aspect to the novel in the early going: It's structured around “archive boxes” that each character carries in the car’s trunk, and a book of elegies the mother reads to the children is made up of variations on works by Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Juan Rulfo, and more. In the current political moment, one might want a less abstruse approach. But as the novel rises to a ferocious climax in a 20-page-long single sentence, Luiselli thunderously, persuasively insists that reckoning with the border will make deep demands of both our intellectual and emotional reserves.
A powerful border story, at once intellectual and heartfelt.
Punishingly intense academic pressure transforms a university student into a transcendent being in this harrowing fantasy novel by a married Ukrainian couple, the first in a trilogy.
Vacationing at the beach with her mom, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina reacts with terror when a mysterious man in dark sunglasses starts following her around and staring at her. She’s right to be scared. He’s a supernatural recruiter using coercion—everything from threatening her family to trapping her in time loops—until she agrees to enroll in a provincial university nobody’s ever heard of. There, Sasha and her fellow students must memorize long passages of gibberish, solve koanlike math problems, and listen to deadening recordings of silence, all without a single error or misstep, or the people they love will die. Over and over the students are told they’re not ready to know the meaning of this work or what their future holds, but their studies change them, eventually uncoupling their existence from the physical plane. In Hersey’s sensitive translation, the Dyachenkos (The Scar, 2012, etc.) make vivid the tormenting preoccupations of adolescence and early adulthood: the social anxieties; the baffling dawn of sexuality; the new, uncontrolled powers that come with physical changes; and that simultaneous sense of one’s vital importance and one’s utter insignificance. It's no surprise that Sasha is at the age when serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder typically first make themselves apparent; the Dyachenkos turn the delusions of mental illness into dangerous magic.
Although it fits squarely in the popular school-for-magicians genre, this dark, ambitious, and intellectually strenuous novel will feel like a fresh revelation to fantasy readers glutted with Western wish-fulfillment narratives.
Life under Robert Mugabe’s brutal government takes center stage in this harrowing novel of Zimbabwe.
Seventeen-year-old Bukhosi Mlambo has been missing for more than a week, since his disappearance during a political rally. His parents, Abednego and Mama Agnes, desperate to find him, have accepted the emotional support and help of their tenant, Zamani, the unreliable narrator through whom the story is told. Zamani, an orphan, feeling a “prick of opportunity,” takes advantage of their desperation and endeavors to replace Bukhosi and go from “surrogate son” to “son” through a variety of manipulative acts. As Zamani, who seems to live by the philosophy "that it’s not what's true that matters, but what you can make true,” unscrupulously attempts to cultivate an intimacy with the Mlambos, what results is a novel of confessions—some given freely, others pried through alcohol, drugs, and other means—family secrets, and an unflinching portrait of life in Zimbabwe before, during, and immediately after the Rhodesian Bush War. The wrath of the military commander dubbed Black Jesus, the Gukurahundi massacres—Tshuma’s (Shadows, 2012) sprawling debut novel delves into these atrocities and others, and that history at times overwhelms the motivations and interiority of the central characters. Nonetheless, Tshuma delineates a rich and complicated tale about the importance of history (“Always, you must be looking back over your shoulder, to see what history is busy plotting for your future”), the price of revolution, the pursuit of freedom, and the remaking of one’s self.
A multilayered, twisting, and surprising whirlwind of a novel that is as impressive as it is heartbreaking.