The second installment of Chakraborty’s stunningly rendered Middle Eastern fantasy trilogy (The City of Brass, 2017), which can absolutely be read independently of the first book.
The setting is Daevabad, a legendary Eastern city protected by impervious magical brass walls and ruled by King Ghassan, whose Geziri ancestors overthrew the Daevas and captured Suleiman’s seal, which tempers magic. To this bubbling pot of tensions, the powerful djinn warrior Dara conveyed young Daeva healer Nahri; in the process they developed feelings for one another. Five years later, Nahri has much to ponder. During the tumultuous events with which the previous book culminated, Ghassan’s younger son, Ali, whom Nahri considered a friend, killed Dara and defied his father, an act for which he was exiled—a euphemism for "condemned to death." Ghassan forced Nahri to marry Ali’s elder brother, Muntadhir; the union is childless thanks to potions Nahri secretly consumes, yet, oddly despite those five years of marriage, the couple seem to know very little about each other. She chafes under the restrictions imposed by the increasingly cruel and arbitrary Ghassan, who’s threatened to slaughter the city’s Daevas unless she cooperates. So she doesn’t know that Ali, with his djinn’s ability to survive in the desert and magic conferred by the fearsome water-spirits known as the marid, still lives, nor that Dara has been summoned back to life and now is embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the Geziri and reclaim the city for the Daeva. Against the city’s richly immersive backdrop of suppressed and often contentious racial, familial, magical, and religious alliances and divides—although Chakraborty tends to forget how bewildering these can be, even with the helpful glossary—the conflicts, ambitions, schemes, and treacheries build powerfully toward what’s rapidly becoming the author’s trademark: a truly shattering conclusion.
As good or better than its predecessor: promise impressively fulfilled.
Ten generations after Sleeping Beauty was woken by her prince, a new princess is born to the (now interplanetary) kingdom of Thorne.
That Rory Thorne is born a girl comes as a great surprise to her family, who haven’t seen a firstborn daughter since that princess of legend. According to old homeworld tradition, a firstborn princess must have a naming ceremony, and the 13 fairies must be invited to give the baby their magical gifts. The tradition is so old everyone assumes the fairy invitations are a symbol, a nod to the legend, but then the fairies actually show up. Eleven of the fairies give Rory gifts like a talent for harp playing and a pretty face: gifts that seem frivolous until you consider that women are primarily expected to please other people, and a princess who can’t be pleasing will have a rough go of it. In that light, the 13th fairy’s gift—that Rory will “find no comfort in illusion or platitude, and [will] know truth when [she hears] it, no matter how well concealed by flattery, custom, or mendacity”—truly is a curse. Luckily, the 12th fairy hadn’t yet bestowed her gift when the 13th made her dramatic appearance, and so she grants Rory courage. As Rory grows up among scheming politicians, princes who aren’t what they seem, and a plot to overthrow the monarchy, she finds herself needing her curse and her courage in equal measure. With this book billed as the first of a duology, readers will be clamoring for the second installment before Chapter 1 is over. Told with just enough editorializing from a Dickensian narrator, this story delights from cover to cover. The political intrigue never fails to surprise, each character is layered and compelling, and there’s a perfect balance between science-fiction action and fairy-tale fantasy.
Do not, under any circumstances, miss out on this.
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.
At the end of the world, what matters more than loyalty?
Teenage Griz is one of only a few thousand people left in the world after the “soft apocalypse” of the Gelding, a mysterious event that left the vast majority of the world’s population unable to have children. Scattered families and other small enclaves live on, but most days, out on their tiny island off the coast of Scotland, Griz’s family sees nobody but themselves—and their dogs. Griz’s dogs are Jip and Jess, and when a strange traveler with long red hair shows up and snatches Jess in the middle of the night, Griz doesn’t even stop to think before going after them with Jip. The hunt that begins that night will take Griz and Jip through the ruins of the old world and bring them face to face with the best and worst of humanity—what it was and what it still is even after civilization has ground to a halt. Fletcher’s debut novel paints an engrossing picture of our familiar world after it’s been left to crumble and populates this haunted landscape with thoroughly compelling characters. The hunt for Jess propels this story forward like a rocket, and Fletcher does a masterful job keeping the stakes high and the suspense crackling while still creating plenty of space for readers to get to know Griz and explore this fascinating not-quite-empty world.
This un-put-down-able story has everything—a well-imagined post-apocalyptic world, great characters, incredible suspense, and, of course, the fierce love of some very good dogs.
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 post-colonial fantasy draws on Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino cultures for a multinational tale of political intrigue.
The nations of Sanbu, Shang, and Dahal have thrown off the colonial rule of the Tomodanese Empire. A Sanbuna troop is delegated to escort the captured Iron Prince Jimuro to the vacant throne of Tomoda so he can establish a new, peaceful, and presumably conciliatory relationship with the other nations. The plan falls apart when a splintersoul, a Sanbuna man with the frightening (and believed impossible) power to shadepact (i.e., bond) with multiple animal spirits and to steal others’ pacts from them, attacks the ship carrying the prince. Only the prince and one of his escort survives: Sgt. Tala, who has hidden her own ability to forge shadepacts both to a crow and to her brother Dimangan—a bond considered taboo. Jimuro and Tala struggle toward the Tomodanese capital of Hagane, trailed by a group of Tomodanese noble rebels; the eccentric Shang princess and law enforcement officer Xiulan, who models herself after a fictional Holmes-ian detective and hopes that capturing the prince will lead to her own throne; Xiulan’s new partner and potential crush, the clever but emotionally bruised Jeongsonese thief Lee Yeon-Ji; and the splintersoul Mayon, who has some strange and deadly motives of his own. Like some other contemporary authors, Krueger (Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, 2016), who's Filipino American, eschews the tropes of high fantasy established in late-20th-century novels inspired by European cultures, set during conflict, and expressing a fairly dichotomous morality. In contrast, this Asian-influenced sociopolitical drama explores the complications that ensue after the war, when no one’s hands are clean. Characters face the consequences of the choices they made during the conflict and consider whether it’s possible to rise above deeply ingrained prejudices and forge alliances with former enemies. Such grave matters are leavened by amusing banter, solid action, and two charming nascent romances of opposites.
As tasty as the mushroom adobo that appears in the book both as food and metaphor.
Lyons' shelf-bending fantasy debut novel is an epic, breakneck-paced adventure structured largely as a dialogue between a jailer and her prisoner, a thief and musician who is much more than he appears to be.
The story begins in a jail cell with a young man named Kihrin being guarded by Talon, a beautiful and monstrous shape-shifting assassin. Kihrin, awaiting what will surely be his death, begins telling her his life story. Talon complements Kihrin’s tale with her own memories of the past few years, and, together, they weave a jaw-dropping, action-packed story of betrayal, greed, and grand-scale conspiracy. It all begins when Kihrin—a thief who has been raised in the slums by a compassionate blind musician—witnesses a horrific murder while robbing a house. The sudden target of a group of morally bankrupt, and terrifyingly powerful sorcerers, Kihrin finds himself on the run. During his flight, he discovers that he may be the son of a depraved prince—and that the necklace he wears around his neck may be much more than a sentimental object from his long-dead mother. While the comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle will be unavoidable—in terms of story structure and general narrative content—the potential of this projected five-book saga may be even greater. Although a cast of well-developed characters and an impressively intricate storyline power this novel, it’s Lyons’ audacious worldbuilding that makes for such an unforgettable read. In a sprawling, magic-filled world populated by gods, dragons, krakens, witches, demons, ghosts, shape-shifters, zombies, and so much more, Lyons ties it all together seamlessly to create literary magic.
Epic fantasy fans looking for a virtually un-put-down-able read should look no further.
The product of a long-running alchemical experiment, twins Roger and Dodger struggle to understand their unique circumstances and gain control over them.
In the late 19th century, ambitious young alchemist Asphodel Baker tried to rewrite reality to create a better world. She set in motion a long-range plan to incarnate the alchemical Doctrine of Ethos, encoding her scheme in a series of children’s books destined to become classics. In the present day, the considerably more ruthless James Reed, who is her creation and her killer, breeds twins designed to each incarnate half of the Doctrine; once they have fully matured, united, and manifested as “the living force that holds the universe together,” he will seize their power to control everything. Failed experiments are terminated. Roger Middleton, brilliant with languages, develops a strange telepathic connection with Dodger Cheswich, a math genius living across the country from him. Despite all of Reed’s brutal and covert efforts to keep the pair apart so their abilities will flower fully, they cannot help re-encountering each other and then separating in the wake of tragedy. Their attempts to avoid becoming one of Reed’s failures force them to draw upon their more arcane powers: Roger can persuade people—and reality itself—to bend to his wishes, while Dodger can actually reverse time back to a certain fixed point. With the help of Erin, the living incarnation of Order, they must craft the timeline that allows them to survive long enough to realize their potential. Books that include magic range across a spectrum that puts rules-based, logical magic on one end and serendipitous magic with no obvious cause or structure on the other. This book falls intriguingly far on the logic end; with its experiments and protocols, it redefines what is typically meant by science fantasy. If there’s a flaw in McGuire's (That Ain’t Witchcraft, 2019, etc.) gripping story, it’s that it isn't clear how Reed could really gain complete control over the Doctrine long term, nor why Reed’s followers actually believe that he would cede any of the Doctrine’s power were he to gain it.
Satisfying on all levels of the reading experience: thrilling, emotionally resonant, and cerebral. Escape to Witch Mountain for grown-ups.
Naslund’s stellar debut novel—and first installment in his Dragons of Terra saga—revolves around an exciting new fantasy hero who, exiled and essentially sentenced to death as a dragonslayer, is finding it increasingly difficult to die.
Silas Bershad, aka the Flawless Bershad, is a legend throughout the kingdoms of Terra. Accused by the king of Almira of committing horrific crimes and ritualistically tattooed as an outcast thereafter, Bershad has wandered the countryside with his sidekick, Rowan, and his trusty donkey hunting dragons for the last 14 years. While most sentenced to dragonslaying die battling their first beast, Bershad has killed 66 dragons and has become an unkillable folk hero of sorts. His miserable nomadic existence changes, however, when he agrees—at the behest of Ashlyn, the king’s daughter and his former lover,—to embark on a perilous mission: to sail across the sea to the enemy nation of Balaria to rescue the king’s other daughter, Kira, who has been kidnapped, and assassinate the emperor. But although the journey is filled with constant peril, Bershad begins to finally understand himself and his place in the world. Discoveries abound, particularly concerning his body’s strange penchant for healing seemingly deadly wounds. Featuring a multiple point-of-view narrative that includes a rich diversity of characters—Bershad, Princess Ashlyn, an assassin named Garret, an apprentice alchemist named Jolan, among others—many aspects of this story are noteworthy. The worldbuilding, for example, is simply extraordinary. The dichotomy between the primitive realm of Almira and the technologically advanced kingdom of Balaria is striking, and the author’s focus on dragons and their deep, almost mystical connection to the world’s balance and well-being give the story a profound undertone. The characters are well developed and original, and the bombshell revelations at novel’s end are immensely satisfying. A few predictable subplots notwithstanding, Naslund succeeds in creating a page-turning, edge-of-your-seat read that breathes new (fiery) life into dragon mythology.
When Richard "Dodge" Forthrast dies under anesthesia for a routine medical procedure, his story is just beginning.
As the founder and chairman of a video game company, Dodge has a pretty sweet life. He has money to burn and a loving relationship with his niece, Zula, and grandniece, Sophia. So when he dies unexpectedly, there are a lot of people to mourn him, including his friend Corvallis Kawasaki, who is also the executor of his will. To make matters worse (or, to say the least, more complicated), there's something unexpected in Dodge's last wishes. It turns out that in his youth he put it in writing that he wanted his brain to be preserved until such technology existed that his consciousness could be uploaded into a computer. And much to everyone's surprise, that technology isn't so far off after all. Years later, Sophia grows up to follow in her clever grand-uncle's footsteps and figures out a way to turn on Dodge's brain. It is at this point that the novel splits into two narratives: "Meatspace," or what we would call the real world, and "Bitworld," inhabited by Dodge (now called "Egdod") and increasing numbers of downloaded minds. Stephenson (co-author: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, 2017; Seveneves, 2015, etc.) is known for ambitious books, and this doorstop of a novel is certainly no exception. Life in Bitworld is more reminiscent of high fantasy than science fiction as the ever evolving narrative plays with the daily reality of living in a digital space. Would you have special abilities like a mythical god? Join your aura together with other souls and live as a hive mind? Create hills and rivers from nothing? Destroy your enemies with tech-given powers that seem magical? Readers looking for a post-human thought experiment might be disappointed with the references to ancient mythology, but those ready for an endlessly inventive and absorbing story are in for an adventure they won't soon forget.
An audacious epic with more than enough heart to fill its many, many pages.
Swanwick's third fantasy (The Dragons of Babel, 2008, etc.) set in an industrialized Faerie bristling with weird entities.
Curious readers will learn that this is just one of many worlds (Aerth, or Earth, is another) that are "different energy states of the same place...the surfaces of an n-dimensional tesseract." Now you know. Caitlin Sans Merci serves in Her Absent Majesty's Dragon Corps as the pilot of a malevolent iron dragon, 7708. The Corps' purpose is to steal children's souls from Aerth so they can be embedded in soulless high elf bodies; Cat herself is one such. As her story opens, she returns from a raid discovering that somehow she's acquired a secret stowaway in her cranium, the mysterious Helen V. from Aerth. Soon, Cat's half brother, Fingolfinrhod, a full-blooded elf, will inherit House Sans Merci from their dying father. Fingolfinrhod, appalled at the prospect, instead vanishes (after warning Cat of a conspiracy against her) into what Cat will later learn is the city Ys, drowned long ago beneath the waves. Cat, framed by her superiors and betrayed by 7708, flees, determined to clear her name and reclaim her position. The scintillating narrative, sprinkled with black humor, bulges with symbols and allusions to topics in science, alchemy, magic, folklore, mythology, fantasy/science fiction, and literature. Remarkably, all the major and most of the minor characters are female, not to mention an alluringly innocent protagonist. A few signs warn that Swanwick's extraordinary inventiveness may be running down, with recycled characters and scenarios and too-frequent passages where descriptions lapse into itemized recitations, like laundry lists. Still, these are minor blemishes in what is primarily another bravura performance, with a surprise ending that, after a moment's reflection, isn't so surprising after all.
Discworld meets Faust. They do not like each other. Philip Pullman picks up the pieces.
Sometimes the aliens don’t land in New York or London.
In fact, the alien Ynaa ship that catalyzes the emotional landscape and drives the action of this debut novel lands in the harbor of Water Island , one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Ynaa are decidedly a mixed bag, as aliens go: They don’t intend to conquer, just to stay for a while to do some unspecified research. In return, they give humans advances in medicine and other technology. The downside is that the Ynaa, who nearly appear to be human but are far stronger, live by a code of survival above all things and return any violence or even perceived violence done to them with more excessive violence, which the governments of the world decline to pursue legally. Five years after the landing, many islanders are unhappy about the occasional dog ripped in half and young man’s neck snapped. Moreover, the Ynaa are being less than forthcoming: The Ynaa ambassador, Mera, has been here far longer than most humans know. But that time has done more to damage her relationship with the Ynaa than with humanity; her intimate contacts with humans and the brutality she witnessed centuries ago when she posed as a slave have caused her to question both her people’s way of life and their mysterious mission. Her struggle to reconcile her origins with her experiences and present circumstances is mirrored by several humans on the island—including Shawn, the angry brother of a boy killed by the Ynaa; Patrice, a young woman who went to the mainland U.S. for college but has returned pregnant; her ex-boyfriend Derrick, dubbed a traitor for his job working for Mera; and Derrick’s grandmother Henrietta who refuses a Ynaa treatment for her cancer. All of them must come to their own conclusions, for good or for ill, as all of Water Island moves toward a final, explosive confrontation.
A persuasively—almost musically—worded meditation on colonialism and whether it’s really possible to return home again.
What if the only way to save humanity was to lose almost everyone?
This was kind of inevitable: Wendig (Vultures, 2019, etc.) wrestles with a magnum opus that grapples with culture, science, faith, and our collective anxiety while delivering an epic equal to Steven King’s The Stand (1978). While it’s not advertised as an entry in Wendig’s horrifying Future Proof universe that includes Zer0es (2015) and Invasive (2016), it’s the spiritual next step in the author’s deconstruction of not only our culture, but the awful things that we—humanity—are capable of delivering with our current technology and terrible will. The setup is vividly cinematic: After a comet passes near Earth, a sleeping sickness takes hold, causing victims to start wandering in the same direction, barring those who spontaneously, um, explode. Simultaneously, a government-built, wickedly terrifying AI called Black Swan tells its minders that a disgraced scientist named Benji Ray might be the key to solving the mystery illness. Wendig breaks out a huge cast that includes Benji’s boss, Sadie Emeka; a rock star who’s a nod to King’s Springsteen-esque Larry Underwood; a pair of sisters—one of whom is part of the “herd” of sleepwalkers and one who identifies as a “shepherd” tending to the sick; and Matthew Bird, who leads the faithful at God’s Light Church and who struggles with a world in which technology itself can become either God or the devil incarnate. Anyone who’s touched on Wendig’s oeuvre, let alone his lively social media presence, knows he’s a full-voiced political creature who’s less concerned with left and right than the chasm between right and wrong, and that impulse is fully on display here. Parsing the plot isn’t really critical—Wendig has stretched his considerable talents beyond the hyperkinetic horror that is his wheelhouse to deliver a story about survival that’s not just about you and me, but all of us, together.
Wendig is clearly wrestling with some of the demons of our time, resulting in a story that is ambitious, bold, and worthy of attention.