Another year of reading begins! What better way to start it off than with books that will stretch your imagination? This month's selection of the best science fiction and fantasy reads offers sword and sorcery, eldritch horrors, a richly-imagined forest world, deals with the Devil in the Old West, espionage across parallel worlds, and a 25th Century whodunit in space. 

 

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In the snowy Russian wilderness, Vasilisa sits around the fire with her sisters, listening to stories that may or may not be fairy tales as told by her mother's nurse. Vasilisa and her sisters honor the forest spirits and that seems to keep evil away from their house. But then Vasilisa's mother dies, her father remarries, and her new step-mother forbids them to honor the benevolent spirits. Soon, evil begins encroaching on her family.

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1.4 SF_arden WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: This is the perfect story for reading on cold, wintery nights and Arden's magical tale evokes the best elements of fairy tales.

 

Department Zero by Paul Crilley

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Harry Priest is having a rough time: his ex-wife wants to take away his visitation rights and his job of cleaning up crime scenes is a dead end. That all changes when Harry accidentally stumbles onto a secret multiverse of alternate realities connected by universe-hopping gates. Havelock Graves of the Interstitial Crime Department is responsible for policing these alternate worlds, and Harry inadvertently messes up an ICD crime scene, thus getting Graves and his team demoted. To get their old jobs back, Graves enlists Harry to solve a crime involving a cult's attempts to resurrect the Great Old One Cthulhu from his endless sleep in the Dreamlands.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT:  In this engaging portal fantasy, everything that H.P. Lovecraft wrote is true. (Uh-oh!)

 

Lost Among the Stars by Paul Di Filippo

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: This is a collection of eleven satisfying and mind-expanding stories written by one of fiction's best-kept secrets.  Over the past forty years, he has been entertaining readers with stories that gloriously span the literary spectrum, from comedy to tragedy.  Among the stories contained in this page-turning collection are a steampunk fable and a depiction of an Orwellian future that's downright chilling.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: The brilliance of the lead story alone ("City of Beauty, City of Scars," in which social status is determined by a person's attractiveness) is worth the price of admission.

 

1.4 canopy Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In the well-imagined world of a giant forest, the topmost realm, Canopy, consists of thirteen kingdoms ruled by goddesses and gods. Underneath Canopy are Understorey and Floor, where the deprived citizens long to live in Canopy's magnificence. Unar may get that chance; she escapes her parent's plan to sell her into slavery when she is selected to serve in the Garden under the goddess Audblayin. When Audblayin dies, Unar descends into the dangerous Understorey to search for a new god. What she finds are new forms of magic and the beginning of a revolution against slavery.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: This is the first stateside publication for Dyer, a winner of Australia's esteemed Aurealis and Ditmar Awards. Read this and find out why her fiction is so appealing.

 

The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Isobel works as the assistant to the Devil, traveling the Territory – that's the land west of the Mississippi River where magic exists – to hold residents to their end of the deal they made with "The Boss". Meanwhile, something has brought trouble to the Territory: livestock are dying, souls are threatened, and magic is being drained away. Isobel and her mentor, Gabriel, try to find out what's happening before it unravels the land.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: This slam-bang Weird Western is the follow-up to the hugely enjoyable Silver on the Road.

 

Bookburners by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In a world where magic is real, evil, and trapped in ancient books, a black-ops anti-magic team is all that stands between humanity and the apocalypse. At the center is Detective Sal Brooks, who joins the Vatican-backed squad to help fight for humanity's survival.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: This fast-paced urban fantasy, born out of serial fiction, is being described as "Supernatural meets The Da Vinci Code"

 

A Conversation in Blood by Paul S. Kemp

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Egil is the hammer-wielding warrior-priest of a discredited god. Nix is a roguish thief with just enough knowledge of magic to conjure up trouble. Together their money-seeking adventurers are the stuff of legends told around pints of beer. In this latest escapade, Nix steals some mysterious golden plates from a tomb – a grave-robbing that brings them all sorts of dangerous trouble.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: Sword and sorcery stories are typically fun and very engrossing. This one is no different.

 

1.4 SF_sixwakes Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In this twenty-fifth century whodunit, six clones with dark pasts awaken on a spaceship controlled by an artificial intelligence only to find their own dead bodies. Together, they must solve the mystery of how it happened and the identity of their own murderer(s).

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: Lafferty blends science fiction, mystery, and horror into an enjoyable read.

 

Empire Games by Charles Stross

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: This story extends the world Stross created in the Merchant Prices series, in which a family genetically-predisposed to travel between two alternate realities creates an import/export empire. In Empire Games, a new generation of paratime travelers engage in subterfuge. On one world, Miriam Burgeson, head of the Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence paratime espionage unit, aims to foster in world democracy led by the newly-reconstituted North American Commonwealth. On the other timeline (a world close to ours) the U.S. has recruited Miriam's estranged daughter to spy across all the timelines in order to take down any remaining world-walkers who they see as a threat to national security.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: Did I mention parallel worlds? Additionally, if you like this, you have six other books in the series to keep you satisfied until the two planned sequels appear.

 

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Although her dream is to pilot a starship and travel around the galaxy, Polly Newton's mother – the director of the Mars colony where they live – has her plans. She sends Polly and her genius twin brother Charles to the Galileo Academy on Earth. When suspicious coincidences begin piling up, Polly and Charles begin to suspect something is amiss at the academy for the Martian elites.

WHY YOU MIGHT LIKE IT: This is a book you can hand to a teen reader to get them hooked on reading.

 

…AND FOR READERS OF SHORT FICTION…

Looking for a shorter read? Here are the anthologies and collections you want to watch for:

  • Galactic Empires edited by Neil Clarke
  • Gothic Tales by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latina Science Fiction and Fantasyedited by Matthew David Goodwin
  • The Mammoth Book of the Mummy edited by Paula Guran
  • Rise: A Newsflesh Collection: The Complete Newsflesh Collection by Mira Grant
  • Recluce Tales: Stories from the World of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
  • Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories by Kim Newman
  • The Witch's Vacuum Cleaner and Other Stories by Terry Pratchett

Happy reading!

John DeNardo is the founding editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning science fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal