science fiction & fantasy

When it came out last year, Beth Cato's The Clockwork Dagger was a fresh, welcome addition to the steampunk canon. Still, it left many questions unanswered: The novel's protagonist, Octavia Leander — a young healer with a tragic past — hadn't grasped the scope of her magical powers. And the political machinations that swirled around her had much left to play out.

Lev AC Rosen is a native New Yorker — and he'd have to be in order to write Depth. In Rosen's latest novel, the United States of the 22nd century is an unrecognizable place: Climate catastrophes have flooded the entire Eastern seaboard, leaving Chicago a coastal town and the surviving flyover states an oppressive stronghold of religious conservatism. The inundated city-state of New York stands alone, tentatively still part of the U.S., but existing as a cluster of half-submerged skyscrapers connected by boats and bridges.

'The Water Knife' Cuts Deep

May 28, 2015

In The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi's best-selling, Hugo- and Nebula-winning debut, the author imagines a 23rd century in which the forces of commerce have run amok over the basic, biological building blocks of life. In his equally powerful sophomore novel, The Water Knife, he takes a similar approach to an inorganic substance without which human life wouldn't exist: H2O. But where The Windup Girl takes place hundreds of years from now in Southeast Asia, The Water Knife hits closer to home for U.S. readers.

The Fireworks Of 'Illusionarium' Never Quite Feel Real

May 26, 2015

Reading Heather Dixon's Illusionarium feels like riding a particularly rough roller coaster, and the first few hills are doozies. Dixon barely establishes the book's fantasy world — a hastily sketched British-derived steampunk setting, with the requisite airships and an alternate version of London called Arthurise — before she upends it.

I've read a staggering number of excellent books recently, and it has done things to my head. I'm not sure the human brain was meant to read so many brilliant books in such short order — even less sure that swinging my reading-pendulum from Hannu Rajaniemi's collected science fiction stories to Naomi Novik's sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel is at all wise. By all rights I should have tumbled into Uprooted feeling disoriented and confused, dissonant and harsh in my criticism — but no. Uprooted has leapt forward to claim the title of Best Book I've Read Yet This Year.

"The moon blew up with no warning and with no apparent reason."

That's the beginning of Neal Stephenson's newest epic, Seveneves. And in terms of opening hooks, it's up there. I mean, he isn't destroying LA or merely reducing some single nation to slag. No, Stephenson goes old-school mad scientist — straight for the pulp main vein and buried Saturday morning memories of Thundarr the Barbarian still ticking along in the heads of his audience, and blows up the moon.

Fun, Fast-Moving 'Nimona' Is A Perpetual Surprise

May 19, 2015

Over the course of the collected Nimona, it's possible to watch artist Noelle Stevenson blossom from a student to a superstar. Nimona originated as a two-page art-school experiment that expanded into a webcomic, published biweekly on Stevenson's website over the course of two years. What began in a visually and narratively simple style in June 2012 rapidly became more elaborate and sophisticated, expanding into a showcase for Stevenson's rapidly evolving talents.

When I'm feeling low, there's a city I like to visit. This particular city is contained within a handful of shabby 1980s paperbacks around which I coil as protectively as a dragon around her hoard (though the city in question contains no actual dragons): The city of Liavek.

Some of the best (and worst) novels in speculative fiction stick to a basic, tried-and-true approach: Lay out the rules of your imaginary world, then throw your protagonist against those rules. Nicole Kornher-Stace does exactly this, winningly, in her latest novel, Archivist Wasp.

Before Brian Catling's debut novel, The Vorrh, was published in his native England in 2012, he'd already racked up an impressive list of credentials — just not as a fiction writer. His poetry, sculpture, paintings and performance-art pieces have been getting international acclaim for decades.

In An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir brings us a world at a crossroad of reminiscences: The Roman Empire on the one hand and A Thousand and One Nights on the other. Mixing magic and military intrigues in shifting proportions, the result is an appealing fantasy of crossing destinies and impossible choices.

'Vermilion' Finds New Magic In The Old West

Apr 22, 2015

History may be written by the victors, but alternate history is written by anyone with a lust for the past — both established and imagined. Molly Tanzer's imagination is keener than almost anyone's. Her new novel, Vermilion is a work of alt-history that finds a fresh kind of magic in the mingling of fact and fantasy. In the book's wild vision of 1870, the North won the Civil War with the help of a race of intelligent, talking bears. A similarly endowed species of sea lion keeps shop in the streets of San Francisco.

Early in A Crown for Cold Silver — the debut novel by Alex Marshall (a pseudonym for an established author striking off in an epic new direction) — an old woman's battle scars are mistaken for matronly wrinkles. It's a tiny detail, but it speaks volumes. In Marshall's fictional, vaguely medieval world, Cobalt Zosia is a legendary retired general who once led her fearsome Five Villains to victory in a land rife with injustice, mostly of the haves-and-have-nots variety.

A friend once told me the story of an enormous fish, Kun, that turns into an enormous bird, Peng, so huge that it must gain thousands of feet in elevation before it can fly — but once it does, it flies so far and so fast that it crosses oceans the way sparrows flit from branch to branch.

As one of the many kids who became fascinated by the science-trumps-magic movie The Flight of Dragons, you can imagine my delight when I realized it was based on a real book. Well, a composite of two books (as it turns, out the plot comes from somewhere else entirely), so I was startled to open Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons and find no human quest at all. What I did find, however, suited me just as much: a natural history that sparked my imagination — not only about mythical beasts, but about the nature of scientific inquiry.

Daryl Gregory has written about monsters. He's written about demons and drugs and Philip K. Dick. He's wrecked the world a couple times over, bounced from fantasy to science fiction and back again with an impish ease. He's the kind of storyteller who's always chasing after the weird — occasionally catching it, often trailing close enough to smell the brimstone and tacos on its breath.

One of science fiction's toughest challenges is making nonhuman characters feel human. Robots are particularly hard: SF authors have spent decades putting every conceivable spin on the concept of manmade automatons, and the results have just as often been laughable as profound. Ian Tregillis tackles this prickly puzzle — and many more — with great skill in The Mechanical.

I have been reading Genevieve Valentine's writing for a long time, and as much as her fiction delights me, I confess that the work of hers that brings me the most pleasure is her series of Red Carpet Rundowns.

I came late to Seraphina, Rachel Hartman's first book — only discovering that gorgeous story in preparation for reviewing its sequel. I fell deeply in love with it and have been pressing it into people's hands and climbing rooftops to shout about it since: half-human, half-dragon Seraphina and her wonderful voice, by turns wry and vulnerable; the rich, musical world of her country Goredd and its surrounding nations; the brilliantly original dragons and the tensions in their own society and philosophies.

There are some writers whose books you anticipate for months before they're published. For me, Kazuo Ishiguro is one of those writers. Whenever I hear he has a new novel coming out, I start to imagine what it will be about, knowing that, with Ishiguro, I can't possibly have any idea. His previous novels have been strange, beautiful, and, in some way ... stealthy. This was true of the devastating novel The Remains of the Day, narrated by a proper English butler, and it was also true of the very different but equally devastating Never Let Me Go.

One of the most compelling things about V.E. Schwab's second adult novel, A Darker Shade Of Magic, is how long it takes to develop a plot. Once the main arc finally slips fully out of the shadows, it turns out to be fairly standard for a fantasy novel: Evil scheming magicians, cursed and forbidden item, dark magic ready to consume everything it touches.

Creepy, Brilliant 'Touch' Will Possess You

Feb 19, 2015

There are at least two reasons why I should hate this book.

One: I have a horror of impersonation narratives. The idea of someone looking like me but running around being a jerk to my friends and family is so profoundly unsettling that I still haven't watched more than the pilot of Orphan Black.

Two: I hate stories about memory loss.

I love arguing about books. Tell me Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the best modern American novel ever written and I'll fight you. Tell me it wasn't and I'll fight you, too. I'm just scrappy that way.

Music Is Troublesome Magic In 'Signal To Noise'

Feb 12, 2015

"Magic will break your heart," warns Mama Dolores, the grandmother of Mercedes "Meche" Vega, the protagonist of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's debut novel, Signal to Noise. When it comes to magic, Mama Dolores is not speaking metaphorically: Meche, a 15-year-old girl living in Mexico City, has discovered how to practice magic, actual spells that can do actual good and actual harm.

Fantasy's turn toward the grim has not lessened lately, nor should it. The success of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire not only justifies all that brooding darkness, it's opened the doors for many other excellent and similarly grim books. Randy Henderson, however, has something else in mind entirely with his debut novel, Finn Fancy Necromancy. Strictly speaking, it's an urban fantasy, one that takes place in and around present-day Seattle.

Terry Pratchett's novels have been turning up in bookstores for nearly 45 years now, which is more than enough time for fans to have become familiar with his style: a little absurdism, a little wordplay, a lot of inventive fantasy, a lot of heart, and a deep-seated fascination with the way technologies change societies.

'Karen Memory' Builds Up A Good Head Of Steam

Feb 9, 2015

Steampunk, like any other kind of science fiction, can get top-heavy. Elizabeth Bear may or may not have had this in mind when writing Karen Memory, her new standalone steampunk novel, but she addresses it anyway. While a certain percentage of the genre dwells too much on anachronistic technology and tropes, sometimes at the cost of a winning story, Karen Memory — set in an imaginary city of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s — deploys its steam-driven marvels sparingly and with pinpoint precision.

"Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned."

That's Neil Gaiman, talking directly to his readers. Talking directly to you, in the introduction to a book named for the customary warning now plastered across all potentially disturbing materials. There is stuff in here that'll mess with you, he's saying. Stuff that'll hang with you long after the bare few pages describing it have been turned, torn out, dog-eared or forgotten.

The Bone Season, the first in Samantha Shannon's intoxicating urban-fantasy series set in 2059 in Scion (a dystopian version of England), ended with young Paige Mahoney escaping from a penal colony in the secret city of Oxford. Her Rephaim masters — immortals who feed upon the auras and blood of human clairvoyants like her — were in hot pursuit.

For A Taste Of Grimdark, Visit The 'Land Fit For Heroes'

Jan 26, 2015

"Well, irony really does better unelaborated, but if you insist."