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.
French’s adrenaline-fueled adventure fantasy, which features badass gangs of tattooed half-orcs on the backs of giant war hogs thundering across a lawless wasteland, is an unapologetically brutal thrill ride—like Mad Max set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The Lot Lands are sprawling badlands that separate the realm of humans (frails) from the orcs (thicks). Seen as abominations from both sides, the half-orcs exist in loose outlaw clans that patrol the Lot Lands, keeping the frails safe from orc attack, as has been their sole duty for generations. Jackal is a member of the Grey Bastards, and although he loves his home in the Kiln—a seemingly impenetrable fortress that can heat its outsides like a blast furnace when attacked—he believes the leader of the Bastards, an old half-orc twisted with disease called the Claymaster, should be overthrown. The arrival of a half-orc wizard has increased the Claymaster’s strange behavior. Jackal’s childhood friend Oats—a giant thrice-blood (the product of a half-orc breeding with an orc)—backs his decision to attempt to head the Bastards, but when the group puts it to a vote, a tough female half-orc who Jackal thought had his back chooses the Claymaster, effectively exiling him into the Lot Lands. With the future of the Bastards in jeopardy, Jackal embarks on an epic adventure that includes saving an elven girl imprisoned by a demon that lives in a massive swath of bogland saturated with dark magic, becoming a folk hero to a community of halflings after battling crazed centaurs, and, most important, discovering the true history of the Lot Lands and the reason for the half-orc patrols. Powered by unparalleled worldbuilding, polished storytelling, and relentless pacing, French’s novel is a cool fusion of classic adventure fantasy and 21st-century pop-culture sensibilities with nonstop action; a cast of unforgettable and brilliantly authentic characters; vulgar but witty dialogue; and strong female characters who overturn old sexist conventions. This is a dirty, blood-soaked gem of a novel.
An addictively readable—and undeniably cool—fantasy masterwork.
This finale—as in final, last, ultimate, never-to-be-another—wraps up two of Green’s popular and successful fantasy series, the Secret Histories (Moonbreaker, 2017, etc.) and the Nightside (The Bride Wore Black Leather, 2012, etc.).
Neither series needs much introduction. The Secret Histories are all about the Droods (less a family than a small nation), whose self-appointed mission is to keep reality safe from marauding supernatural creatures; the Nightside (where it’s always 3 a.m. and pretty much anything goes—the weirder and more violent the better) doesn’t want to control anything, especially itself. For centuries, solemn Pacts and Agreements have kept the Nightside unchanging and the Droods out. But now, impossibly, the Nightside’s boundaries have changed, and something very, very scary is approaching—so scary that even the gods have abandoned the place. Does the prospect of a showdown between hordes of control-freak Droods in impenetrable armor and the immovable, laissez-faire, monster-filled Nightside appeal? Of course it does, and luckily Green’s eager to tell us all about it. What’s really going on, and why? Nobody knows, least of all John Taylor, the man known as Walker (he runs the Nightside), or the Nightside’s mysterious Authorities. The Drood Matriarch, meanwhile, orders shamus Eddie Drood and his lover/sidekick, badass witch Molly Metcalf, to investigate while secretly preparing for war, if necessary to the death—of the Nightside, that is; the Droods always win. Before the grand face-off, though, Green showcases, often hilariously, most if not all of the weird beings and doings you might have missed in the previous books.
A splendid riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, conveyed with trademark wisecracking humor, and carried out with maximum bloodshed and mayhem. In a word, irresistible.
This collection of short stories by Jemisin, the first person to win the Hugo award for best novel three years in a row (most recently for The Stone Sky, 2017), eloquently develops a series of passionately felt themes.
Many of these science-fiction and fantasy tales explore the nature of resistance. Some do so on a personal scale: In “The Elevator Dancer,” an office worker and a security guard separately search for the tiniest drop of joy in a grim theocratic future, while in “Valedictorian,” a high school student fiercely challenges herself to excel while knowing that alien forces outside her community take a specific interest in the best and brightest. Other stories fight back with a wider scope. “Red Dirt Witch” begins with a mother’s struggle to protect her children but ends with a family’s commitment to the civil rights movement. “The Effluent Engine” takes place in an alternate 19th-century New Orleans where a Haitian spy seeks technological support for her island’s resistance to the French. In contrast, “The Trojan Girl” is set in a virtual future where rogue bits of code quest for freedom and enhanced capabilities. “Cloud Dragon Skies” is a cautionary tale about pollution and the dangers of ignoring local culture, while “L’Alchimista” and “Cuisine des Mémoires” celebrate the pleasures and profound power of food. Others are specific and defiant responses to classic sf stories. The collection also includes an early version of the Broken Earth universe and a lovely tragedy set in the lands of the Dreamblood duology.
These stories span Jemisin’s career; they demonstrate both the growth and active flourishing of one of speculative fiction’s most thoughtful and exciting writers.
Secrets are revealed and a power structure is under threat in this near-future, almost-but-not-quite dystopian tale set in a floating Arctic Circle city.
Populated by the refugees and descendants of refugees from nations destroyed by social upheaval and environmental disasters, Qaanaaq is run by software while political and economic power rests in the hands of landlords, crime gangs, and the ultrawealthy, never-seen shareholders. But what was once a relatively stable system is headed for a shakeup as the gulf between the haves and have-nots widens. Someone is transmitting subversive broadcasts about life in Qaanaaq; a gang lord is planning her ascent to the ranks of shareholders; a woman seeks to help her mother, who's imprisoned, perhaps unjustly, in an ultrasecure mental hospital; a brain-damaged fighter is pressured into becoming an enforcer; an ambitious courier becomes a spy; and the grandson of a shareholder contracts a sexually transmitted disease that fatally afflicts its carriers with the memories of the previously infected. But true chaos only enters the city with Masaaraq, a tough warrior woman who travels with her psychically bonded orca and a chained polar bear. She has a very specific reason for coming to Qaanaaq, and she does not care whom she harms or what plans she disrupts in the course of fulfilling her purpose. Although it has its bleak and very violent moments, there’s also a certain amount of optimism in this story, which ultimately proves to be about family and the hard-won strength of those who survive against all odds. Author and professional activist Miller (The Art of Starving, 2017) allows his passion for advocacy—for people desperately clinging to their hope for a home, exploited minorities, and those outside the cishet dichotomy—to inform and structure his fiction but in such an integral and yet casual way that it never feels preachy.
Older wraps up her trilogy of near-future thrillers (Null States, 2017, etc.) that focus on the influence of news on politics.
Five years after the last election, micro-democracy—a global system in which every centenal, or area of 100,000 people, votes on a policy-based, not location-based, governing party—is once again under threat as a new election looms. Micro-democracy is operated by Information, an organization which both manages the communication infrastructure and disseminates all data, gathered through constant surveillance and analysis. Attacks on Information data transfer stations, the disappearance of many Information employees (probably to null states outside of the micro-democratic system), a newly discovered underground tunnel of unknown purpose, strangely targeted election ads, and a rising tide of locally sourced data suggest that one or more factions are plotting to overthrow or at least compete with the monolithic Information. Various characters affiliated with Information—Maryam, a “techie”; Mishima, an assassin and spy–turned–reluctant politician; Mishima’s inexperienced but game new assistant, Amran; and the heavily pregnant analyst Roz—seek the source of these incidents. In the process, they wonder: Can Information be saved? And more importantly, should Information be saved? As in the previous two entries, Older here grapples directly and clearly with contemporary issues while tying up the loose ends in a believable way. The novel asks the questions we need to ask today—how do we know a source of information (small-i) is telling us the truth? Is it safer to believe a larger, more established, but possibly hidebound and biased organization or a smaller, more nimble group that might be more sensitive to local context and concerns but almost certainly also has its own agenda?—but doesn’t pretend to answer them. At least Older’s world shows one significant advance: Many of the major players are women and are a fairly diverse group overall.
Satisfying as a novel, anxiety-inducing as a comment on our society.
This sequel to Empire Games (2017), set in the same world as Stross' Merchant Princes series, plunges us deep into a nightmarish clash of arms, politics, and wills between near-future governments in alternate timelines.
In timeline No. 2, which chillingly resembles our own, the United States has morphed into a full-blown police state in which surveillance is universal and inescapable and the paranoid powers that be are willing to use, and have used, nuclear weapons to achieve their aims. Timeline No. 3 presents a bizarre fun-house–mirror world in which the U.S. never existed; instead, a corrupt, despotic British empire persisted until its recent overthrow by the revolutionary, democratic New American Commonwealth. The U.S. desperately wants to learn what’s happening in this less technologically advanced but nuclear-armed timeline, so the Department of Homeland Security's Col. Smith coerces people, called world-walkers, who possess the ability to cross between timelines, into becoming spies. Critically, recruit Rita Douglas happens to be the estranged daughter of Commonwealth biggie Miriam Burgeson, herself a refugee from the radioactive wasteland of timeline No. 1 and now guiding the rapid development of the Commonwealth with technology purloined from the U.S. The Commonwealth faces challenges from counterrevolutionaries and the huge, powerful French empire, while the U.S., terrified of nuclear weapons in any hands but its own, probes yet another timeline where the hostile remnants of a still more advanced civilization lurk. Tension crackles from every page as readers grapple with the horrifying sociological and political implications, the looming threat of another intra-time nuclear war, and the fates of individual characters embroiled in disturbing intrigues. Even the fact that every scenario ends in a cliffhanger isn’t too annoying given the enormous care and skill Stross expends on getting the details right and rendering meticulous accounts of complex, intersecting events. Not to mention the real-world implications.
Sheer brilliance: when Stross is in this mood, nobody else comes close.