“Once upon a time there was a piece of biotech that grew and grew until it had its own apartment”: an odd, atmospheric, and decidedly dark fable for our time.
VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (Acceptance, 2014, etc.) set high standards for dystopian fantasy, and the wizardry was as much in the writing as in the storyline. This latest is much the same: supremely literary, distinctly unusual, its title character a blob of something or another that earns its name, in part, because it’s carried from place to place—when we meet it, in fact, it's tangled up in the fur of a giant bear that just now is busily marauding through the ruins of a once-thriving city in what would seem to be the very near future. The Company, an unfeeling and monstrously inclined biotech giant, once held sway there, but now what’s left is a whole bunch of one-time experiments gone awry. Mord, the bear, is one, Borne another. Alternately dodging and caring for them is Rachel, an eminently resourceful young woman who doesn’t quite know what to make of the little creature at first: “I knew nothing about Borne and treated him like a plant at first. It seemed logical, from my initial observations.” Logical, yes, but Rachel is no Mr. Spock: she brims with feelings, some of them for her fellow survivor Wick. Just as Borne is able to morph into semblances of other beings, though, including an uncanny other-Rachel, so Wick would seem to have logged some hours in the lab himself. The reader is treated to the intriguing spectacle of Borne’s acquiring consciousness in the middle of all the mayhem: “I became entangled in Mord’s fur. (Who entangled me?) Where did I come from before that?” That the genetic basis for life is nothing to tinker with is plain throughout, especially in the moments where VanderMeer’s deep talent for worldbuilding takes him into realms more reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than of the Shire.
Superb: a protagonist and a tale sure to please fans of smart, literate fantasy and science fiction.
Jemisin concludes her Broken Earth trilogy (The Obelisk Gate, 2016, etc.), about a vengeful Earth whose tectonic instability can be controlled by the despised and feared orogenes.
Slowly turning to stone as a result of her contact with the Obelisk Gate, Essun nevertheless must repeat that contact to magically grab the long-lost Moon, assuaging the anger of the Earth and ending the devastating Seasons that rock the planet. Meanwhile, her estranged daughter, Nassun, has her own plan to take the Gate for herself and use it to destroy the humans who have responded viciously to the earth shaking and earth-quelling powers of her orogene brethren. Threaded throughout is the story of the stone eater Hoa, who explains his origins from several millennia earlier and how his own struggle to gain his freedom led to the Earth losing the Moon in the first place. Jemisin continues to break the heart with her sensitive, cleareyed depictions of a beyond-dysfunctional family and the extraordinarily destructive force that is prejudice. She wrestles with moral issues at an extreme level: obviously, the cruel discipline and mutilation that orogenes are subjected to violate all standards of decency, and not only is it evil, it’s simply the height of idiocy to exterminate the only people capable of calming a constantly tumultuous landscape. But how does one compassionately instill the appropriate discipline in a child who can also casually and inadvertently destroy a village? Can love survive such training? Jemisin deliberately refuses to provide easy answers: they’re simply not available, in this world or ours.
Hoping to build on the dazzling triumph of her Eternal Sky fantasy trilogy (Steles of the Sky, 2014, etc.), Bear embarks on a new trilogy set in the same universe.
The opening scene, in which a caravan heaves itself across the icy peaks of the Steles of the Sky, takes the narrative, literally and figuratively, out of familiar territory and into the Lotus Kingdoms, the contentious, broken shards of the once-mighty Alchemical Empire. Here, by night a black sun that gives heat but little light occupies the sky, while days are lit by a brilliant ribbon of stars. Against this spectacular backdrop Bear introduces an array of fine characters. With the caravan are the Gage, a heavy, immensely powerful brass automaton created by a now-dead wizard from the substance of a human being; his friend the Dead Man, a former bodyguard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate; and Nizhvashiti, a Godmade or priest with powerful magic. The Gage bears a message from the Eyeless One, the most powerful sorcerer of the world’s greatest city, to Mrithuri, rajni (princess) and priestess of Sarathai-tia. Mrithuri faces many threats to her realm, chief among them Himadra the Boneless, the bandit lord of a neighboring territory, and her cousin Anuraja, the malevolent old ruler of Sarathai-lae. Her only possible ally is another cousin, Sayeh, the widowed rajni of Ansh-Sahal, with her young son and heir, Drupada. This impending clash of armies, intrigue, and magic—in which, notably, most of the main characters are female—only later emerges as truly existential. It adds up to a panoramic drama that grabs and grips from Page 1 and, despite the more leisurely pacing, never lets go. It certainly is captivatingly different in style and substance than Bear's previous trilogy but no less vivid, absorbing, and thrilling.
In an overcrowded field, another entry that stands head and shoulders above nearly everything else.
Final installment (The Paradox, 2015, etc.) of Fletcher’s rich and splendid Victorian gothic fantasy trilogy, and once again independently intelligible.
For centuries the Oversight of London has guarded the border between the natural and magical realms and kept hidden the deadly dangerous magical Wildfire. But now the black hats have learned of the Wildfire’s whereabouts. The ghastly Citizen has made a pact with the seemingly immortal Elizabethan magician, Dr. Dee, to seize the Wildfire and release it into the mirror-maze. Viscount Mountfellon, the malign scientist-wizard, needs the Wildfire to realize his megalomaniacal dreams. But will the Templebane clan, sworn enemies of the Oversight, try to take advantage? What of the ancient race known as the Sluagh, now almost allies? Elsewhere, freelancer Caitlin Sean ná Gaolaire arrives in America with her apprentice, Lucy Harker, but the local Oversight, who call themselves the Remnant, prove independent-minded and reluctant to cooperate. Worse, the Remnant’s being duped by a powerful somebody via the mirror-maze, as we readers but not the characters themselves immediately grasp. Wayland Smith journeys to the remotest corner of the Scottish Hebrides—but why, and who will he meet there? Will the mad Ghost of the Itch Ward fullfill her desire to kill Mountfellon, and will we learn why? Can poor abused innocent Amos Templebane learn how to control his gifts and find redemption? Yes, Fletcher keeps us intrigued by posing questions we want to know the answers to, and he drives this impressive array of plot strands along with panache and dexterity—again, it’s easy to forgive the occasional flaw, so rich is the characterization and surprising the narrative. And in terms of the trilogy’s sources and backdrop, it’s certainly the most persuasive fictional use of British folklore since Robert Holdstock’s remarkable Mythago Wood.
A thoroughly enjoyable conclusion, the trilogy satisfyingly complete yet perfectly set up for future extensions.
A collection of 17 new and three reprinted stories plus an essay, weaving among the prolific Modesitt’s impressive 18-book (and counting) fantasy Saga of Recluse (Heritage of Cyador, 2014, etc.).
Briefly, the series describes the fate of a spaceship from an advanced starfaring civilization suddenly hurled into another universe where science and engineering work only intermittently; instead, the structure of spacetime gives rise to highly specific types of magic, to the bewilderment of the humans who now must make new lives there. Helpfully, the stories present in the internal chronological order in which they occur in the world of Recluce. Since neither a timeline nor maps are included, however, familiarity with both is assumed. First, and most significant (although fiction purists may disagree), the essay describes how Modesitt developed the ideas and logic behind the opposing (black) order and (white) chaos magics that characterize the series, how the magics gave rise to the planet’s distinctive social systems, how the social systems conflict and combine, and why the series’ most powerful characters arise almost organically out of this complex and satisfying backdrop. Laconic introductions to each story inform us that Modesitt wrote them to fill gaps in the saga, in response to readers’ questions or pleas, to view landmark events from unfamiliar perspectives, or sometimes “just because.” A sampler: in “Heritage,” clairvoyant Empress Mairena must persuade skeptical soldiers and citizens to flee the coming destruction of Cyador; “Black Ordermage” details how the mage Cassius came to Recluce (and no, he wasn’t born there); in “The Forest Girl” we encounter the future emperor Alyiakal and his dealings with the Accursed Forest; and in “Worth,” Wrynn, a fearsome and multitalented warrior, seeks the serenity that eludes her.
Don’t expect great significance everywhere—some of the pieces are no more than vignettes—but Modesitt is excellent company, and the more familiar you are with the series, the richer these stories will seem.
A warrior without a past and her treacherous lover fight to bring their literally decaying world a new future in this thought-provoking space opera.
The Legion is a collection of organic world-sized ships, each populated with an all-female clan that endlessly battles with the other ships' clans. The amnesiac Zan has been taken in by the brutal (and female, despite her title) Lord Katazyrna and repeatedly instructed to invade the world of the Mokshi, which apparently holds her memory. Who is Zan? What is her true relationship with Jayd, the attractive woman she somehow knows she can't trust and who is promised to Rasida, lord of the Bhavajas, bitter rivals of the Katazyrnas? When the Bhavajas reject peace and leave Zan for dead many levels below the surface of the Katazyrna world, Jayd is left alone to fulfill the plan that she and Zan developed to combat the rot infesting all the Legion world-ships. Meanwhile, Zan struggles her way back upward, discovering new civilizations and new information about herself, forcing her to wonder if she truly wants to return to the woman she used to be. Amnesia can be a handy plot device to learn about a new situation along with the protagonist. But Hurley (The Geek Feminist Revolution, 2016, etc.) really makes the reader work toward understanding. Some things she never explains: are these characters human, and if so, how did human civilization become a network of space-dwelling, womb-swapping women who periodically become pregnant via parthenogenesis, primarily giving birth not to children but to organic technology? It seems likely that Hurley wants the reader to think hard about this default: many readers might not question a science-fiction adventure story populated solely with white males. So why should we question an SF space adventure populated solely with dark-skinned women?
Perhaps not satisfying in a conventional way; but then, it’s clearly not meant to be.
In the second of a series, a group of people escaping the destruction of our world use their newly discovered superpowers to save both themselves and the parallel world where they’ve landed.
Enough time has passed since the publication of the previous doorstopper-sized volume, The Flight of the Silvers (2014), that Price has helpfully provided a stick figure–decorated recap section on his website (danielprice.info/recap). Our heroes were rescued from San Diego and marked with silver bracelets by a family of time travelers—Semerjean, Esis, and Azral Pelletier—as our world was crushed out of existence. The Silvers find themselves in an alternate America, a racist and isolationist country with terrible movies and awful pizza but with the technology to support flying restaurants and extend the lives of beloved pets for decades. True, now the Silvers all have a unique ability to bend time. But this world, too, is doomed to be destroyed in four years. In the short term, the Gothams, a group of New York–based families with similar powers, think that killing the Silvers will save their world, and a powerful and ruthless government agency is after them. More dangerous still are the Pelletiers; while they’ll often step in to (violently) defend the Silvers, they’re also willing to punish the Silvers for getting romantically involved with one another. Can the Silvers make peace with the Gothams and the government, find the other refugees from their world, discover the Pelletiers’ weak spot, and prevent their adopted world’s destruction? The action is unrelenting, the body count and the emotional toll are high, the revelations are twisty and brutal, and allegiances shift constantly; as in the previous installment, you may need a score card to keep up.
A worthy and thrilling follow-up to The Flight of the Silvers; the wait for Book 3 will be tough to bear.
This debut work by the co-founder of sci-fi website io9 explores issues of free will and property in a corporate-run future.
In 2144, genetics engineer–turned–drug pirate Judith “Jack” Chen has reverse-engineered and distributed her own version of Zacuity, the latest drug from the Zaxy corporation. Zacuity is supposed to get people feeling good about working; unfortunately, what it actually does is addict people to their jobs to the point of insanity. With agents from the International Property Coalition on her tail, Jack does her best to manufacture an antidote and find a way to alert the public about Zacuity’s effects. She also tries to find a future for Threezed, a young man previously indentured to an addict she killed. Meanwhile, those IPC agents, the human Eliasz and his new partner, the indentured military bot Paladin, grow physically and emotionally closer together as they ruthlessly track down Jack. Paladin’s feelings for Eliasz, partially programmed, partially personally generated, seem believable, because the bot is new, naïve, and hasn’t experienced a great deal of kind human contact, but Eliasz’s feelings for Paladin, which begin so quickly, seem more like sexual kink than true love; one almost gets the sense that any bot of Paladin’s type would’ve sparked his interest. And Eliasz’s insistence that the obviously genderless Paladin is female seems deluded. Newitz does an excellent job of drawing out the disturbing aspects of this power-imbalanced relationship. There’s also something very real about the shaky foundation of this unorthodox union and the uncertain future facing all the characters. In life, sometimes all we get is an ending we can accept, in which not all loose ends are tied up and villains never get their comeuppance. Ultimately, the novel is a vehicle for some very interesting questions: is there a difference between owning a human being or a mechanical being if both possess sentience and feelings and both desire agency? What are our rights in a world where the guiding principle is protection for the owner?
A strong and cerebral start if perhaps a little too open-ended.
The action-packed conclusion to a rich and absorbing fantasy trilogy.
Kell has been taken prisoner in White London, trapped in a collar that dampens his magic. His magical connection to his brother, Prince Rhy—the connection that keeps the prince alive—is weakening. Alucard Emery is helplessly watching Rhy, his former lover, fade as that connection begins to break. The White London magician Holland is being slowly taken over by the dangerous, powerful, Black London “shadow king” known as Osaron. And Osaron has his sights set on devouring the magic-rich prize of Red London. But Lila Bard is ready to do the impossible to save Kell and the world—starting by crossing the barrier between worlds by herself, using her own newfound power, for the first time ever. This third and final book in the Shades of Magic series begins where A Gathering of Shadows (2016) left off and keeps up a breakneck pace as our heroes struggle to find a way to stop a magical demon/god who can possess almost any human host. Schwab has created an apocalyptically powerful villain, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Desperate gambits, magical battles, and meaningful sacrifice make this a thrilling read—and there’s even a little time to further complicate and deepen some of the series’ compelling characters.
Fans will gobble up this final battle, in which the characters they love fight desperately to save everything they hold dear. Schwab has fully delivered on the promise of this inventive and captivating series.
In Lostetter's ambitious debut, the year is 2088, and humankind is finally ready to explore deep space, preparing to send convoys of clones on eons-long missions to investigate the outskirts of the galaxy.
Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer is convinced that something funny is going on with a distant star; there seems to be something surrounding it and obstructing its light. When Straifer convinces the organization building interstellar convoys to send one of its 12 missions to the mysterious LQ Pyxidis, he and hundreds of other brilliant experts are chosen to have their genes replicated into generations of clones who will staff the ships. The clones of idealistic dreamer Straifer, emotional and empathetic computer programmer Jamal Kaeden, kindly resource specialist Diego Santibar, insightful engineer Nakamura Akane, and the other humans with genes deemed optimal for deep space travel live out their lives working jobs assigned to them based on what their DNA says their talents are. They form new bonds and relationships with each other with every passing generation, even raising the next clones instead of muddying up DNA lines with natural reproduction; two versions of the same clone are alive onboard at the same time, the younger training to take over for the older. Every aspect of life in space, including sustainable materials, cultural development, personality quirks, and life and death among the crew members has been painstakingly accounted for to ensure mission success, all with an omnipresent AI assistant to keep the gears running. But algorithms can only predict so much, and the farther the convoy gets from Earth, the higher the stakes; after all, time is passing exponentially faster for the planet than for the ships, and the Earth the first clones knew is changing. So far removed from their home planet, are the clones doomed to repeat the flaws written in their DNA, or will they prove that people really can change, even if it takes a few lifetimes to get there? This spectacular epic examines everything from the nature of civilizations and societies to the tension between nature and nurture. Lostetter expertly balances the thrill of discovery with the interpersonal consequences of an isolated community. The tools of speculative fiction are deployed with heart-rending attention to emotional reality in this enthralling odyssey.
A striking adventure story that could hold a galaxy in its scope, this is an expedition that delves as deep into the human thirst for purpose as it does into the wonders of the universe.
Doctorow (Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, 2014, etc.) offers a counterintuitive alternate (possible?) future in this gritty yet hopeful sci-fi epic.
Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), Doctorow offers meticulous worldbuilding and philosophizing about how the world just around the corner might be. In an age of makers, 3-D printers, mobile fabricators, and endless food sources, the book asks what life would be like—or should be like—in a post-scarcity, post-employment world. The short answer is the rich have gotten insanely richer and everyone else has chucked it—walking away from society to live communally in environmentally gutted rural areas and dead cities. Our entry into this new societal framework is multinamed Hubert, known as Hubert, Etc., his pal Seth, and their new friend Natalie Redwater, the daughter of a member of the 1 percent. In the wilds of Canada, they fall in with a tech-savvy barkeep, Limpopo, who explains the precarious, money-less walkaway culture to the newbies: “In theory, it’s bullshit. This stuff only works in practice.” It’s a world where identity, sexuality, and perception are all fluid, enlivened by fiercely intellectual debates and the eternal human collisions that draw people together. Visually and culturally, it’s also a phantasmagorical scene with beer made from ditch water, tactical drone fleets, and the occasional zeppelin or mech—all technology that exists today. The tense situation escalates when the walkaways discover a way to scan and preserve consciousness online—if the body is gone, does perception remain? What threat might a tribe of immortal iconoclasts present to their capitalist overlords? Much of the novel focuses on Natalie (now “Iceweasel”), who is kidnapped by her father’s mercenaries. Doctorow sticks the landing with a multigenerational saga that extends this tale of the “first days of a better nation” to a thrilling and unexpected finale.
A truly visionary techno-thriller that not only depicts how we might live tomorrow, but asks why we don’t already.
A feisty young anthropologist discovers a secret civilization of mechanical souls.
Wilson (Robogenesis, 2014, etc.) continues his obsession with intelligent machines in this ambitious fantasy, melding the real-life past with a secret history of seemingly immortal mechanical beings who call themselves avtomat: “Maybe the closest analogue in English is the word robot.” The book opens as young June Stefanov listens to her grandfather’s memory of a mechanical soldier he encountered at Stalingrad. “There are strange things in the world, June,” he says. “Things older than we know. Walking with the faces of men...there are angels among us.” From here, the book pivots between grown-up June, who seeks out mechanical antiquities on behalf of the shadowy Kunlun Foundation, and Peter Alexeyvich and Elena Petrova, two mechanical beings resurrected in Moscow circa 1709 by Giacomo Favorini, the last mechanician of Czar Peter the Great. Both tales are thrilling and very different. Peter’s form is that of a young man, while his “sister” Elena looks like a 12-year-old girl. After the czar dies, the two are forced to flee to London, where Peter takes up arms as a soldier of fortune and Elena finds a way to live her long life in the body of a child. Back in the present day, June is hunted by Talus Silferström, enforcer for an ancient avtomat called Leizu, before being rescued by Peter, who is a pivotal character in a war between warring steampunk leviathans. This bold adventure is a stew of cult-classic concepts—the avtomat reflect the Immortals in the Highlander franchise, while the ancient and deadly Elena is reminiscent of child vampire Claudia in Interview with the Vampire (1976). It may wear its influences on its sleeve but it’s also a welcome treat for steampunk and fantasy fans.
A thrilling mix of influences, much like Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants (2016) and HBO’s Westworld, that creates a captivating scenario begging for many sequels.