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Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015

A thoroughly engrossing story with a fast-paced plot, memorable characters, and big ideas, this book is science fiction at...

DARK ORBIT

A gripping story in which travelers to a distant world grapple with new people, new ideas, and ancient obsessions.

Saraswati Callicot is a Waster—a scientist who spends her life traveling light-years from home to explore new worlds, leaping across decades in an instant, stepping in and out of the flow of ordinary human time. Her latest mission is her farthest, and strangest, trip yet: she’s traveled 58 light-years to explore a new planet surrounded by dark matter and secretly observe her crewmate Thora Lassiter, a member of the interplanetary elite who was embroiled in a religious uprising on the planet Orem. But when Sara, Thora, and their colleagues arrive in orbit around the planet known as Iris, nothing is as it seems—not the uninhabited, light-filled plane, not the bizarre, bewildering phenomenon they come to call a forest, not even the brutal murder of one of the crew. Like the best science fiction, this book raises cosmic questions about how the human mind grapples with something totally new and how we can be sure we know anything—even, or especially, ourselves. But those questions are woven into a tight, mystery-driven narrative whose pace never flags. Gilman (Ison of the Isles, 2012, etc.) has created a breathtakingly strange new world, and she’s populated it with vivid, compelling characters.

A thoroughly engrossing story with a fast-paced plot, memorable characters, and big ideas, this book is science fiction at its very best.

Pub Date: July 14, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7653-3629-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book. You’ve never read anything quite like this, and you won’t...

THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR

A spellbinding story of world-altering power and revenge from debut novelist Hawkins.

Carolyn’s life changed forever when she was 8. That was the year her ordinary suburban subdivision was destroyed and the man she now calls Father took her and 11 other children to study in his very unusual Library. Carolyn studied languages—and not only human ones. The other children studied the ways of beasts, learned healing and resurrection, and wandered in the lands of the dead or in possible futures. Now they’re all in their 30s, and Father is missing. Carolyn and the others are trying to find him—but Carolyn has her own agenda and her own feelings about the most dangerous of her adopted siblings, David, who has spent years perfecting the arts of murder and war. Carolyn is an engaging heroine with a wry sense of humor, and Steve, the ordinary American ally she recruits, helps keep the book grounded in reality despite the ever growing strangeness that swirls around them. Like the Library itself, the book is bigger, darker, and more dangerous than it seems. The plot never flags, and it’s never predictable. Hawkins has created a fascinating, unusual world in which ordinary people can learn to wield breathtaking power—and he’s also written a compelling story about love and revenge that never loses sight of the human emotions at its heart.

A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book. You’ve never read anything quite like this, and you won’t soon forget it.

Pub Date: June 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-41860-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

A suspenseful, emotional story that asks plenty of big questions about identity and freedom, this is a debut not to be...

LIGHTLESS

A tense psychodrama set on a malfunctioning spaceship.

There should only be three people on the Ananke: Domitian, the captain; Gagnon, the senior scientist; and Althea, the mechanic who monitors every inch of the ship and every line of code to make sure it's in good repair. So when two strangers show up out of the blackness of space, it’s bad news. But Althea, at least, is not as worried about these intruders’ possible terrorist connections as she is about how they tricked the Ananke into letting them board or what one of them might have done to damage her beautiful ship’s code. Even as one of the intruders slips out of the crew’s grasp and a coldhearted intelligence officer named Ida Stays arrives to interrogate the remaining prisoner, a handsome, manipulative charmer named Ivanov who may or may not know the identity of the wanted terrorist known as the Mallt-y-Nos, all Althea can think about is Ananke and what kind of virus might be worming its way toward the ship's heart. Meanwhile, always, everywhere, the all-powerful surveillance state that rules our solar system, and brooks no disobedience, is watching. The stakes in this story are high—life and death, rebellion and betrayal—and debut novelist Higgins continually ratchets up the tension as the handful of people on board the Ananke struggle to uncover one another’s secrets.

A suspenseful, emotional story that asks plenty of big questions about identity and freedom, this is a debut not to be missed.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-39442-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Wraps up the story arc with plenty of room to tell many more tales in this universe. Let’s hope Leckie does.

ANCILLARY MERCY

From the Imperial Radch series , Vol. 3

In the conclusion to Leckie's multiaward-winning trilogy (Ancillary Justice, 2013; Ancillary Sword, 2014), Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai directly confronts Anaander Mianaai, the interstellar ruler who blew up Justice of Toren, the ship that housed Breq’s consciousness.

The Lord of the Radch, divided as she is across thousands of bodies, is at war with herself. The more reactionary faction is preparing to invade Athoek Station, even while the Station is experiencing civil unrest; can Breq, her crew, and whatever allies she can gather overcome overwhelming odds and establish peace and a new social order? Leckie deliberately and deliciously flouts classic space-opera tropes. Rather than epic clashes between starships, there’s just one determined, embodied Artificial Intelligence with a very powerful gun, a stubborn space station, espionage, and some very persuasive talking. Leckie creates a grand backdrop to tell an intimate, cerebral story about identity and empowerment. She devotes as much attention to the characters’ personal relationships and their mental and emotional difficulties as she does to the wider conflict. What Leckie is saying is that individual people matter. Personhood matters, whether that personhood is expressed by an ordinary human, a sentient space station, a human raised by aliens, the remains of a spaceship AI inhabiting a human body that once belonged to someone else, or a 17-year-old whose previous personality was evicted by a ruling hive mind. Regardless of the situation in which one finds oneself, a person's right to be herself without interference is all that matters. And a small group of people can have a gigantic impact, with the right leverage. That message could so easily be hackneyed or too painfully obvious, but Leckie's delivery is deft and meaningful.

Wraps up the story arc with plenty of room to tell many more tales in this universe. Let’s hope Leckie does.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-24668-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

Once again, a highly impressive must-read.

THE DARK FOREST

Second part of an alien-contact trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, 2014) from China’s most celebrated science-fiction author.

In the previous book, the inhabitants of Trisolaris, a planet with three suns, discovered that their planet was doomed and that Earth offered a suitable refuge. So, determined to capture Earth and exterminate humanity, the Trisolarans embarked on a 400-year-long interstellar voyage and also sent sophons (enormously sophisticated computers constructed inside the curled-up dimensions of fundamental particles) to spy on humanity and impose an unbreakable block on scientific advance. On Earth, the Earth-Trisolaris Organization formed to help the invaders, despite knowing the inevitable outcome. Humanity’s lone advantage is that Trisolarans are incapable of lying or dissimulation and so cannot understand deceit or subterfuge. This time, with the Trisolarans a few years into their voyage, physicist Ye Wenjie (whose reminiscences drove much of the action in the last book) visits astronomer-turned-sociologist Luo Ji, urging him to develop her ideas on cosmic sociology. The Planetary Defense Council, meanwhile, in order to combat the powerful escapist movement (they want to build starships and flee so that at least some humans will survive), announces the Wallfacer Project. Four selected individuals will be accorded the power to command any resource in order to develop plans to defend Earth, while the details will remain hidden in the thoughts of each Wallfacer, where even the sophons can't reach. To combat this, the ETO creates Wallbreakers, dedicated to deducing and thwarting the plans of the Wallfacers. The chosen Wallfacers are soldier Frederick Tyler, diplomat Manuel Rey Diaz, neuroscientist Bill Hines, and—Luo Ji. Luo has no idea why he was chosen, but, nonetheless, the Trisolarans seem determined to kill him. The plot’s development centers on Liu’s dark and rather gloomy but highly persuasive philosophy, with dazzling ideas and an unsettling, nonlinear, almost nonnarrative structure that demands patience but offers huge rewards.

Once again, a highly impressive must-read.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7653-7708-1

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

Bradbury meets Borges, with Lovecraft gibbering tumultuously just out of hearing.

THREE MOMENTS OF AN EXPLOSION

STORIES

Horror, noir, fantasy, politics, and poetry swirl into combinations as satisfying intellectually as they are emotionally.

Miéville (Railsea, 2012, etc.) has a habit of building his narratives by taking a metaphor, often about a political or social issue, and asking what would happen if it were literally true. His masterful 2009 novel The City and the City (Locus, Hugo, and Arthur C. Clarke awards), for example, explored two metropolises with entirely separate populations, governments, infrastructures, and even clothing styles that shared a single geographical location. In less-capable hands, this method might result in mere gags or dead horses endlessly beaten. (Good thing this isn’t a Miéville story, or you’d be wiping off bits of rotten horseflesh.) In Miéville’s hands it ranges from clever to profound. In “Dreaded Outcome,” the narrator, a Brooklyn psychotherapist, practices “traumatic vector therapy,” a style that incorporates military and martial arts techniques. (Like that therapist, Miéville often mixes styles and genres, in this case academic discourse and noir.) “Most of the time what our patients need is a compassionate, rigorous, sympathetic interlocutor. Sometimes the externalized trauma-vectors in dysfunctional interpersonal codependent psychodynamics are powerful enough that more robust therapeutic interventions are necessary. I checked my ammunition.” That readers can guess what will happen after the narrator learns her own therapist is also a TVT practitioner makes the ending no less satisfying. In “Polynia,” the ghosts of vanished geologic and ecologic features haunt the warmed globe, with icebergs floating in the air over London, coral forming the “Great Brussels Reef,” and rain forest undergrowth shutting down factories in Japan. Other stories are more open-ended. In “The Dusty Hat,” members of a political organization have split off from “the Mothership” to form “the Left Faction.” The story opens with the narrator contemplating a crack in his (or her?) wall and ceiling; by the time it ends, he’s discovered a vast politics of the inanimate, with its own schisms. “I poured myself a glass of water. I didn’t like how it looked at me.” As a mysterious, not-entirely-animate figure tells him, the “loyalist” crack in his wall has been watching him: “The split was against you in the split.”

Bradbury meets Borges, with Lovecraft gibbering tumultuously just out of hearing.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-101-88472-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

Clever and engaging, this impressive first novel will reward both casual readers looking for a fun period adventure and...

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    Best Books Of 2015

THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET

Set mostly in 1880s London, Pulley’s debut novel twists typical steampunk elements—telegraphs, gaslight, clockwork automata—into a fresh and surprising philosophical adventure.

Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegraph clerk at the Home Office in London. Grace Carrow is studying physics at one of Oxford’s new women’s colleges. Her friend Akira Matsumoto is the emperor of Japan’s second cousin. What connects them, although they don’t yet know it, is the eponymous watchmaker, one Baron Mori, a brilliant and mysterious figure who appears able to predict the future. Mori made Grace’s watch, whose filigree rearranges itself into a swallow when the lid is lifted: “Clever tracks of clockwork let it fly and swoop along the inside of the lid, silver wings clinking.” He also made the pocket watch whose ear-piercing alarm startles Thaniel out of the path of a terrorist time bomb. But did Mori make the bomb’s clockwork control as well? As the characters’ stories mesh and spin, they rearrange themselves like that filigree into intricate and surprising patterns. But this is more than just a well-paced, atmospheric mystery with elements of fantasy. Pulley is concerned with deeper questions of fate, chance, and trust. How dangerous is a man who knows in advance the likelihood of every possible event? When does probability crystallize into inevitability, and how could the future affect the present? The story thwarts expectations; whenever an outcome looks as predetermined as clockwork, it might well go another way.

Clever and engaging, this impressive first novel will reward both casual readers looking for a fun period adventure and those fascinated by the tension between free will and fate.

Pub Date: July 14, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62040-833-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

A compelling (if depressing) argument against those who still dream of an interstellar manifest destiny.

AURORA

Robinson’s latest well-researched novel exposes the fundamental flaws in one of science fiction’s most beloved tropes: the multigenerational space ark traveling at sub–light speed to colonize a planet around a distant star.

In the 26th century, a ship departs our solar system, bound for the Tau Ceti system and carrying 2,000 humans who live within a series of miniecosystems. Nearly 200 years later, the descendants of the original crew are preparing to reach their destination—and it’s none too soon, because the detrimental aspects of living in a closed (but leaking) system without recourse to fresh chemical, biological, and material supplies have begun to multiply. The ship and the biomes within it (including the people living there) are breaking down. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the planets and satellites of Tau Ceti may not be suitable for colonization. Science fiction from previous decades has nearly always assumed that humanity’s spreading out among the stars was not only possible, it was probable or maybe even inevitable. Current scientific research, as well as prevailing social, political, and economic conditions, makes that seem less sure. Again, most SF imagines we’ll be able to overcome those challenges over the centuries; Robinson (Shaman, 2013, etc.) builds a fairly convincing case that we might not and vividly describes the biological and psychological damage that long-term space travel might cause. Allowing the ship’s artificial intelligence to serve as the novel’s primary omniscient narrator gives Robinson the excuse to deliver a multitude of mini science lectures (which do border on the pedantic at times, a frequent hazard of hard SF). It would have been nice if, among all the detailed explanation, the author had explained why the starship has no formal command structure (no captain, no navigator, no formally titled chief engineer).

A compelling (if depressing) argument against those who still dream of an interstellar manifest destiny.

Pub Date: July 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-09810-6

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

Swanwick’s approaching top form, and this one’s just too good to miss.

CHASING THE PHOENIX

A new entry in Swanwick’s picaresque post-apocalyptic series, following Dancing with Bears (2011) and various short stories.

Technological civilization collapsed long ago, the reasons for which only gradually emerge, yet Swanwick’s seductive future swarms with gene-modified creatures, ancient weapons, vengeful artificial intelligences, and other contrivances that would not seem out of place in a steampunk yarn. Surplus, a genetically modified dog with the stance and intellect of a human, arrives in the Abundant Kingdom with the corpse of his friend (and fellow confidence trickster) Aubrey Darger in search of the Infallible Physician, the only agency by which Darger might be revived. They soon learn that the land’s paranoid and quite possibly insane Hidden King is both ambitious to reunite the sundered kingdoms of old China and obsessed with locating his Phoenix Bride. Seeing a likely source of great wealth, our heroes attach themselves to the king’s entourage, braving the skepticism of Chief Archaeological Officer White Squall (whose mission is to recover and repair ancient war machines) and Ceo Powerful Locomotive. Surplus becomes Noble Dog Warrior, while Darger declares himself to be Perfect Strategist. In turn, various persons attach themselves to the heroes, among them Capable Servant and a band of feisty horse warriors. Somehow, Surplus and Darger’s intrigues and stratagems really begin to work. Or so it seems. One drawback to this otherwise witty, supple, artfully humorous, and vastly engaging yarn is the plot’s broad similarity with the previous novel. Still, along with a splendid supporting cast, Swanwick offers a pair of delightful rogues whose chief flaw (like Jack Vance’s celebrated Cugel the Clever, a likely inspiration) is that they’re a little too crafty for their own good.

Swanwick’s approaching top form, and this one’s just too good to miss.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7653-8090-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

A necessary, well-curated anthology that shows the singular political power of speculative fiction.

SISTERS OF THE REVOLUTION

A FEMINIST SPECULATIVE FICTION ANTHOLOGY

The feminist superstars of science fiction, fantasy, and horror dismantle and reassemble gender’s many implications and iterations in the newest anthology edited by the VanderMeers (The Time Traveler’s Almanac, 2014, etc.).

There is probably no better time for this anthology to emerge, as the SF/F world is rocked by a clash over the value of diverse voices. While the original dates of publication of these stories range from the 1970s to the current decade, and include both stalwarts of their respective genres and relative newcomers, they all feel fresh as ever. Touching on issues from surveillance, misogyny, and marriage to queerness, family dynamics, and gender fluidity, it’s hard to say if this anthology’s aggressive relevance is encouraging or depressing—that feminism remains at the cutting edge of contemporary problems or that the same ideas turned over by writers as long as four decades ago continue to haunt society unaltered. Either way, these stories, coming from a variety of genres, subgenres, and nonrealist traditions, are timeless and breathtaking in scope and power. L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.,” about a woman whose words are so dangerous her free speech has been rescinded in the Constitution, will crackle and spark given the current discussion about government overreach. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a gorgeous retelling of Bluebeard and an exploration of domestic violence. Susan Palwick’s “Gestella,” about a werewolf who marries a human man, is a chilling reminder of the banality of evil; and there is probably no way to top the enduring horror of James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Screwfly Solution.” In the introduction, the editors mention that anthologies of this type can never be truly complete—the canon is always expanding through time, discovery, and translation—but this book will undeniably become part of the ongoing conversation.

A necessary, well-curated anthology that shows the singular political power of speculative fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62963-035-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: PM Press

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

An intriguing and seriously innovative attempt to grapple with some of the issues raised by the 21st century’s obsession...

THE AFFINITIES

Social science fiction from the author of Burning Paradise (2013, etc.).

Genius researcher Meir Klein of InterAlia develops reliable methods for sorting clients into social affinity groups. The members of such Affinities enjoy an intuitive, almost telepathic rapport, enabling them to cooperate to better themselves and their Affinities. (Think Facebook “friends” but genuine and extended to all phases of life, with a dab of Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory.) The drawback is that many people qualify for none of the groups, putting them at a huge disadvantage. Graphic design student Adam Fisk’s life is falling apart until he tests into Tau, the largest Affinity. To his astonished gratification he finds that his problems—job, money, family, accommodation—rapidly disappear. In turn he is able to contribute to the needs and desires of his fellow Taus. However, Adam does note a distinct antipathy toward those not of the Affinity, even family members. Then Klein, who has disassociated himself from monopolistic InterAlia, requests Tau’s help in releasing the codes underpinning the testing system. Adam, with Tau bigwig Damian Levay and girlfriend Amanda Mehta, meets secretly with Klein, who’s dying. Klein's further research predicts that current geopolitical instabilities (most notably, dangerous disputes between China and India) will worsen—because of the Affinities’ very existence. Not only that, but the groups will soon come to view each other as rivals. Soon, sure enough, Klein is murdered. But who’s responsible? InterAlia? Or Het, Tau’s powerful, hierarchical rival Affinity? And what did Klein mean when he hinted at the possibility of still other and perhaps vastly superior methods of social engagement and cooperation? All this unfolds as a series of slow epiphanies as Adam understands via his experiences the implications of his journey from bewildered disconnection to unequivocal engagement and back.

An intriguing and seriously innovative attempt to grapple with some of the issues raised by the 21st century’s obsession with social media.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7653-3262-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Feb. 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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