Blogging the Nebulas: C.L. Polk’s Witchmark Deftly Balances Character and Worldbuilding

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

From the very first page, Witchmark drops readers into the thick of it. Dr. Miles Singer is just finishing up a long shift at the veterans’ hospital, contemplating a directive that he discharge 16 patients by week’s end, whether they are healthy or not. Aeland’s war with Laneer is over. The victorious wounded are heading home to the imperfect care of their homeland, displacing other soldiers just as damaged. Miles was a soldier himself, which is the overt reason he’s so good at healing the mental injuries of war. The covert reason is that Miles is a magic user—a witch—who has a talent for healing that he must obfuscate and a dangerous past that requires him to live under an alias.

His rueful contemplation is interrupted by a dying man, Nick Elliot, brought into a hospital ill-equipped to provide emergency care. Nick asks for Miles specifically, though he uses Miles’ name from the life he escaped. The dying man also has the aura of a witch and tells Miles that he has been murdered—poisoned—and entreats him to find the killer. Watching their interaction is the man who brought the dying Nick Elliot to Miles, one Tristan Hunter. Miles’ conversation with Nick exposes his magical abilities and his past. After Elliot’s death, Miles fully expects to be blackmailed by Tristan, but that’s not precisely what happens. Hunter has his own inscrutable motivations, and he pushes Miles to uncover the motive for and methods of the man’s death.

The very next day, as bad luck would have it, Miles runs into his estranged sister, Grace. Miles was born into a life of both privilege and servitude: his sister is a Storm-Singer, able to control the weather to the benefit of all Aeland, and he is her Secondary. The Secondary may have skills of his or her own, but they are treated like batteries by the powerful Storm-Singers, used to strengthen their more dominant magical abilities. When assisted by Miles, Grace has the magic to affect the climate on a mass scale; alone she is not nearly as powerful.

Storm-Singing is a practice the secretive, aristocratic Hundred Families have been performing for Aeland for at least a century: turning the storms and mitigating all severe weather, even while Aeland at large persecutes anyone with magical abilities as a matter of policy. Miles didn’t want to live his life under magical duress, so he ran—first to med school and then to the front, faking his death and sequestering himself in the veteran’s hospital upon his return to Aeland. Grace wants Miles to return to fold; their father is sick and needs Miles’ medical attention.

Miles then pursues both matters independently—the murder mystery and the contact with his family—though the plotlines soon begin to collide and converge. His relationships with his sister and the mysterious Tristan Hunter draw Miles out of the penitential cell of a life he’s built for himself, forcing him to confront his past and maybe even start building a future.

The setting is something like Edwardian England just after the ravages of the Great War, but twisted with magic that encodes the colonial subjugations of the British Empire. Miles is both privileged and subjugated. In solving the murder of Nick Elliot, reacquainting himself with his sister, and doctoring to his fellow soldiers, he pulls strings that cause his hidden past and the needs of the empire to intersect in dangerous and volatile ways. The world of Witchmark is complicated and cool, but the story never falters in its attention to character.

Why it will win:

Witchmark is so deft in its balance between worldbuilding and character, it’s hard to believe it’s Polk’s first published novel. The information about the world unspools deftly, never leaving the audience behind nor handholding overmuch. Though I don’t have anything like statistics on whether it matters (see below), the book is told in a lovely first-person voice, the kind where the narrator’s tics and avoidances are as integral to the plot as his desires and needs. It’s not that the world bends to him, more that he bends to the world.  The magic system is complicated and the setting suggests a dense history, but Polk seemingly effortlessly makes what is important clear to the reader while maintaining a briskly plot (bicycle chases are a prominent feature). I can see other writers rewarding the tight craft of the novel; they are, after all, the Nebula voters.

This is more stray observation than anything else, but I went looking to see if there was any preference in past Nebula winners for first or third person voice, if only because Witchmark’s first person is so arresting. Prior winners suggest no particular pattern: Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is in third-person, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is in first-person, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice are both in first-person, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is in third-person. Last year’s winner,  N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Skywas partially in second person, though technically there is a first person narrator hiding behind the “you” narrative. There seems to be no evidence that point of view factors in who takes home the prize, which makes sense to me: different writers have different strengths in that regard, just like they do for tense or any other technical aspect of writing. That Witchmark is told in lovely first person doesn’t necessarily factor, but the skill at which Polk carries it off certainly does.

Why it won’t win:

Alas, I don’t think either historical science fiction or fantasy tend to be favored by Nebula voters, and historical fantasy is an especially hard sell. Which is to say: while I recognize that Witchmark isn’t exactly a historical novel—it’s not precisely about Edwardian England and WWI—it has enough signifiers of the literature of the time to make it historical-adjacent. There are a number of recent Nebula nominees in this half-historical place—Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, Tina Connolly’s Ironskinbut none of them took home the prize. Blackout/All Clear, which was largely set in WWII, picked up the Nebula in 2011, but that was more science fiction than fantasy—and also by a writer as beloved and accomplished as Connie Willis. Witchmark is on solidly magical terrain.

Witchmark is also Polk’s debut. All things being equal (and with notable exceptions), Nebula voters tend to lean toward established writers. It’s an industry award on some level, and though that industry is the arts, one’s connections within the industry do matter. Established writers also have had time to hone their craft; Witchmark is a very accomplished novel, but there are a couple dropped threads in the narrative. It’s entirely possible they’ll get picked up again in the sequel, Stormsong, but the award is for the novel, not the series.

That said, I can assure you I will be reading the hell out of the series. Polk is an author to watch, and I’m very much looking forward to what she writes next.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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The Raven Tower Is Fantasy from a Divine Perspective

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After four books set among the stars, Ann Leckie’s latest is set firmly in the realm of fantasy.

The Raven Tower is an epic fantasy told from the perspective a mysterious god overlooking the dramatic events unfolding in the country of Iraden and its port city of Vastai. Across the water lies Vastai’s sister-city Ard Vusktia; both are protected by the powerful god known as the Raven, whose will is enacted by the Raven’s Lease, a human who is granted power by the Raven in exchange for their life when the Raven’s Instrument—the bird the god speaks through—dies.

Mawat, a soldier of Iraden, has been groomed his whole life to take up the Raven’s Lease, endlessly preparing for the day his father takes his own life at the passing of the current Instrument. Yet when it finally happens, and Mawat hurries back to Vastai with his aid, Eolo, he encounters a betrayal. His uncle Hibal sits the throne as the new Raven’s Lease—an apparently impossible feat without the blessing of the Raven himself—and informs Mawat that his father fled when the Instrument died, forsaking his duty to take his own life. Hibal claims to have been chosen to take the bench in Mawat’s absence, despite the fact that he was only days away. As Mawat flies into a rage, it falls to the the faithful Eolo to figure out what lies behind this suspicious turn of events.

From the first page, The Raven Tower distinguishes itself through its narration. While the plot revolves around Mawat and the mystery of his father and legacy, and the protagonist is Eolo working to uncover the truth, the narrator is in fact, neither of them. The novel unfolds through the the ancient eyes of a god known simply as The Strength and Patience of the Hill, who unspools a tale of godhood and mortality, familial plots and political maneuvering.

Moreover, through the Hill, parts of the story unfold in second person narration, as  the god tries desperately to speak through the stones to make himself heard by Eolo. The effect is initially distancing, but as the Hill goes on to tell of his own experiences of existence, and of the eons in which he has observed the changing world around him, readers are brought into the immediacy of first person.

The book swings back and forth between these two modes of storytelling: from moments of quiet observation as the Hill watches Eolo doing his best to uncover what’s rotten in Iraden, to the telling of ancient lore, as the Hill walks the reader  through this long life story and his memories of a world transformed through the achievements of god and man. We are also present to hear the Hill’ private musings; he is given to pondering the nature of godhood, the powers of deities, and the symbiosis between gods and worshippers necessary to create change. While these two threads start out on opposite tracks, they ultimately converge in a truly epic conclusion—and a definitive one; this relatively slim novel is a wholly satisfying standalone.

Award-winner Leckie proves as adept at worldbuilding as ever—the setting and characters of The Raven Tower are as rich as any we encountered in Imperial Radch space—but it is the mode of narration that truly distinguishes her first novel-length foray into fantasy. Much like Hamlet, from which The Raven Tower draws clear inspiration, Leckie’s is a story filled with complicated, very human people, as well as the forces that move around them, guiding them ever so slightly toward choices both good and bad.

Interrogating the tenants of a whole new genre, Leckie brings to The Raven Tower the same energy, skewed perspective, and original worldbuilding that made her science fiction such a success. If the pacing seems a little slow at the start, don’t forget that this is a tale told by a patient and ancient god. It may take a little while for the stone to start rolling downhill, but once it does, there’s no stopping it.

The Raven Tower is available now in a signed edition from Barnes & Noble.

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Of Love and Robots: 12 Stories of Truly Science Fictional Romance

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silver

The Silver Metal Lover cover detail; art by Kinuko Y. Craft

The argument against Valentine’s Day is that it is an invented holiday designed to sell greeting cards, chocolate, and flowers. But who’s to say those tokens of affection don’t symbolize real love? What exactly is real love, anyway? A system of measured responses, right? Couldn’t we think of it as a subroutine hidden within our DNA, made manifest in the form of tiny paper hearts? And if so, could a machine feel love?

Romance between man and machine isn’t the rarest of sci-fi tropes, but it pops up less often than you’d think, and requires careful drawing of boundaries. There’s a whole spread of artificial or augmented humans in fiction: your classic robot (or maybe more correctly, android), an automaton with varying degrees of sentience or agency in human shape; the cyborg: an enhanced human, who can sport everything from simple physical augmentations to brain implants that potentially change the self into something other than human; then there’s the truly artificial intelligence, usually understood to be disembodied, but occasionally decanted into something approximating human form.

Love stories with straight up robots tend to have a sense of the pathetic around them. It’s like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “In Theory,” in which the emotionless android Data acquires a girlfriend. His statement that he’s “fully functional” has fired fanfiction furnaces, but it ultimately isn’t true: Data can’t give his lady friend real, reciprocated emotions, even if he can fake them. These stories often fall into an Uncanny Valley: this close to human, but somehow not right. Given the right treatment, the effect can be eerie; not so much “what makes us human” as “what doesn’t?”

Physically enhanced cyborgs probably shouldn’t be considered alongside robots or artificial humans. Characters who have had their brain chemistry altered in some way, a la Robocop, are a different story. These characters often question how much of their personality is their authentic self, and how much is a function of intrusive technology. And, of course, if there is any meaningful distinction between the two.

The question of programming dogs the AI romance as well. The movie Her deals quite beautifully with the alienating power of our technology, and its paradoxical intimacy. The AI with whom the main character is in love sends a human proxy for him to, ahem, “interact” with. He’s more than a little freaked out by this human automaton acting as outlet to his physical needs. It’s a fairly ravaging sequence, all these layered motivations and desires, acted out between two bodies and a theoretical third mind. Romantic love is a contested thing, and how much physical desire factors into our more courtly or Platonic notions of love is an open question. What kind of love is love that can’t kiss, or hold or touch?

The love story with a programmed being calls into question our own programming, be it cultural or biological. That first flush of new love is often dismissed as “mere lust,” but without it, what separates romantic love from the more familial kinds? The question of agency dogs these love stories: does anyone choose to love?

Forward the Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Forward the Foundation is the second of two prequels written decades after Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, and the last novel he wrote before his death. The duology follows the life of Hari Seldon, the father of psychohistory, the fictional sociological mathematics that seeks to divine the future, at least in broad strokes, which drives the plot of the entire series. Hari’s an old man in this novel, winding down before writing what will become his defining theorem, and it’s not hard to read him as Asimov’s alter ego. Hari’s wife is the enigmatic Dors, who is more or less openly acknowledged to be a robot. There’s some blatant wish fulfillment, in that this creaky old man continues to have a hot wife. But also, there’s something adorable about the Granddaddy of Robots envisioning this comfortable marriage with his formidable legacy. Robots were the love of his life.

A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is very much an ensemble cast, set aboard a wormhole-building ship as it threads its way to the galactic core. We are introduced to the relationship between the ship mechanic, Jenks, and the ship’s AI, Lovey, early on: they are in love, and contemplating decanting her personality into a physical body. Chambers dispenses with a lot of the typical handwringing about whether a human and an AI can truly love one another given their differences, etc., etc., and moves on to more complex questions. Lovely and Jenks recognize that they are in many ways alien to one another, but in a universe with literal aliens, their differences are just one among many. Their relationship affected me more than any other in the novel, and I honestly shed tears at the end.

Silver Metal Lover, by Tanith Lee
Jane is a pampered, pointless teenager in an almost post-apocalyptic Earth, the single daughter of a singer mother who treats her like a toy or a nuisance. She flits around, aimless, with her equally aimless friends, until she meets Silver. He is a new kind of robot, one who is creative and beautiful and almost human, not one of the sad talking heads that drive the taxis. Jane becomes obsessed, more than obsessed, with Silver. The question of Silver’s true agency is constant: whether he can truly love her back, or if it’s just a question of programming, Silver getting better and better at fulfilling Jane’s wishes. There’s a lot about Jane that is pitiable and pathetic, all that desperate need for love on display in a way that makes you wince. Maybe Silver feels what she needs him to feel. Maybe it’s too sad to consider the alternative.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is in many ways the most straightforward love story on this list, but that it not to say it is simplistic. The android Finn comes to live with Kat and her family when she is five. He acts as her tutor, then, as she ages, as her lover. She doesn’t believe him to have emotions, and questions her own motivations in enacting an affair with a being who can not reciprocate her feelings. This is the reverse of many robot love stories, where the authenticity of the android’s emotions are questioned endlessly and the human’s are understood to be authentic. This is an intensely personal novel, and achingly lovely.

Keeping it Real, by Justina Robson
Keeping it Real has a real oddball of a setup: in 2015, a CERN-like installation set off a quantum bomb, which reordered the nature of reality. Now, magic and tech co-exist, there are multiple Fairie-like realms in contact with Earth, and the past shifts as all the potential pasts interlace. As I said, it’s a doozy. Special Agent Lila Black is more machine than human at this point, with AIs in her head and weapons programs that can overtake her. She’s tasked with playing bodyguard for rockstar/hunk of burning love/elf Zal, and sparks fly. There is nothing straightforward about this relationship, a complex mediation between not just two different people, but also between magic and technology. Interesting stuff.

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
This Nebula-nominated debut novel covers a lot of ground, exploring the ethics of for-profit medicine and the morality of drug piracy in near-future North America altered by climate change, but it’s the secondary narrative, about the subtle awakening of an artificial mind to its own autonomy, that truly resonates. Paladin is an indentured robot partnered with Eliasz, a military agent tasked with tracking down a pharmaceutical pirate, and newly awakening to their own autonomy. Eliasz, who seems to be struggling with repressed homosexual urges, finds himself drawn to the power of the robot’s metallic musculature, an attraction that grows into something like lust when he learns that the scrap of human brain tissue powering Paladin’s facial recognition programming came from a female donor. Questions of consent and power dynamics power are at play in this truly unusual relationship.

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
In this retelling of Cinderella, Cinder Linh is a cyborg mechanic in a far-future pan-Asian empire. As a cyborg, Cinder has no rights, all of her income going to supporting her bitter step-mother and two step-sisters. She meets the emperor’s son, Kai, when he asks her to fix an old robot. It turns out that someone has tampered with the robot, which results in a sort of murder mystery plot. Cinder and Kai enact their forbidden romance in stolen moments, and she is always aware he may divine her cyborg nature and reject her. Often the robot or the cyborg stands in for other inequalities: racial prejudice, poverty, religious divisions. The cyborg is not quite human, just like [insert slur here], and Cinder highlights the trope.

Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’s 1995 novel is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, about an artist falling in love with a statue he created, and the statue coming to life due to his ardor. In Galatea 2.2, a writer suffering from writer’s block returns to his alma mater for a sabbatical year. There, he’s tasked with teaching an AI named Helen the Western Canon, in the hopes that she can pass a literary Turing test of sorts: can a computer produce literary analysis that is indistinguishable from a human’s? Interwoven with his teaching of Helen are memories of a love affair he had with a woman he calls C. While he and Helen are never quite in a love affair themselves, the depth and complexity of their emotions, and the ways they are contrasted with his volatile relationship with C, make Galatea 2.2 a fascinating study in art and love: how much do we mold and change our lovers, and ourselves, through the act of love?

Our Lady of the Ice, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Our Lady of the Ice is an interesting one, because the love relationship is between the android Sophia and a cyborg (who I will not specify due to spoilers). Usually, in relationships involving a human, the relative humanity of the robot is at issue: can they even love? But here, Sophia regularly throws the cyborg’s partial humanity back back in her face. The Antarctic dome city where these characters live is barely tolerant of androids, and cyborgs are to be killed upon discovery. Sophia cannot understand why the cyborg would cling to her humanity when humanity wants to end her. It’s interesting to see this conundrum from the other side, with human caprice and need at issue in a robot romance.

Idoru, by William Gibson
Much of Gibson’s catalog could be included here, from whatever the hell it is Bobby and Angie pull off at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive, to the various modded and enhanced humans who people the Sprawl. Iduro is probably the most explicit. The titular idoru (Japanese for idol) is a synthetic human—an AI who uses holograms to interact with people—named Rei Toei. Rock star Rez wants to marry the idoru, which worries his handlers and staff. Not only is marrying an AI illegal, but the lack of physicality keeps coming up: don’t you want to, um, make love to your wife? Where lovemaking with robots seems pathetic (or creepy), the lack of sex with AIs makes the romantic love seem incomplete.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
One could argue that there is neither romantic love nor robots in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, but bear with me: main character Breq is an ancillary, the last human body of the space ship Justice of Toren’s AI; she is a remnant of a larger AI, trapped in a single body. Looks like an android to me. All the other ancillaries, and the ship itself, were destroyed because the ship loved its captain, the way a ship is designed to do, and it was ordered to destroy that love. That question of love, both in terms of affection and allegiance, dogs the entire trilogy, but becomes very explicit in this final chapter.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Honestly, I struggled with whether to include this one. I figured I’d get a bunch of people yelling at me if I didn’t at least acknowledge it, even though there really isn’t a central love story. Dick’s works often grapple with what it means to be human, both how we can know ourselves and what the world around us is. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? follows the (sort of) bounty hunter Rick Deckard, tasked with “retiring” rogue androids. He ends up in a tangled relationship with the very nearly human android Rachael, and, you know, could be an android himself. One of the novel’s central questions is empathy, that ability to imagine and honor the interior states of others. Maybe it’s love, maybe it isn’t—maybe you’re human, or you aren’t—but if you can’t tell the difference, what’s the difference?

What’s your favorite robot love story?

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The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of February 2019

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf cover detail; art by Pablo Gerardo Camacho

For two decades, Jim Killen has served as the science fiction and fantasy book buyer for Barnes & Noble. Every month on Tor.com and the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Jim shares his curated list of the month’s best science fiction & fantasy books.

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams (February 5, One World—Paperback)
Twenty-five stories examining America’s many possible futures, written by some of the best and brightest in sci-fi and fantasy? Sign us up. Overseen by award-winning author Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom) and editor John Joseph Adams, and featuring contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Justina Ireland, A. Merc Rustad, Omar El Akkad, Charlie Jane Anders, Charles Yu, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and 18 others, this collection is packed with stories that extrapolate the realities our fraught present into fascinating, often dark visions of the future. From Americas where contraception is illegal, to ones in which the non-conforming are forcibly transformed to fit a biased “norm,” to more fantastical visions in which women learn to ride dragons. In one timely entry, a wall on the Mexican-American border results in a slew of unintentional consequences to Mexico’s benefit. These are tales that illustrate the power of speculative fiction—to combine imagination, storytelling, and social commentary in ways that tell us as much about where we’re going as where we are right now.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds (Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition), by Gwenda Bond (February 5, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Netflix’s Stranger Things is a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, and YA regular Gwenda Bond earned the enviable task of bringing the ever-growing, ever-darker universe of the TV series to print. This prequel delves into the mysterious history of the woman who gave birth to waffle-loving telekinetic tween Eleven. The story travels back to 1969, when Terry Ives is a quiet college student who signs up for a government program code-named MKULTRA. As her involvement with this sinister experiment at the Hawking National Laboratory grows ever stranger, Terry begins investigating what’s really going on, recruiting her fellow test subjects for assistance—including a mysterious young girl with even more mysterious powers. A girl who doesn’t have a name, just a number: 008. This is a must for die-hard fans eager to explore all the secrets that won’t be revealed onscreen. The exclusive Barnes & Noble edition includes a two-sided poster featuring original artwork.

House of Assassins, by Larry Correia (February 5, Baen—Hardcover)
The second entry in Correia’s Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series returns to the story of Ashok Vadal, a former soldier in a fiercely secular, fiercely divided magical world. In a society stratified into castes, the lowest of the low are the casteless—the untouchables. After infiltrating a rebel group that sought to free the casteless—a mission that led him to the prophet Thera Vane—former Protector Ashok Vadal now wields his magical blade Angruvadal and leads the Sons of the Black Sword on a mission to free Thera from the wizard Sikasso. All the while, he is hunted by the vengeful Lord Protector Devedas. As Ashok deals with the revelation that he is casteless himself—and apparently a pawn in a game he doesn’t yet fully grasp—he finds himself forced to fight without Angruvadal for the first time, and questioning whether his fate really has fallen to the gods. With this series, Correia brings all of the grit and narrative propulsion of his popular Monster Hunter urban fantasy series into the realm of the epic.

Wild Life, by Molly Gloss (February 5, Saga Press—Paperback)
Saga Press continues its campaign to bring Molly Gloss back into prominence with the SFF crowd, reissuing her fourth novel, the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award (presented to a work that explores or expands notions of gender). It is presented as the unedited journal of Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a woman living in Washington State in the early 20th century, doing her best to get by with her five children after her husband abandoned her. Drummond supports herself by writing novels about fierce and attractive girls who go on adventures. When her housekeeper Melba’s daughter goes missing in the wilds, Charlotte decides to follow her characters’ lead and heads out to find her. Soon lost herself, Charlotte uses her journal to keep a record of her increasingly strange journey into an American wilderness far odder than she ever dreamed. In a metafictional touch, this narrative is interspersed with snippets of her fiction and her musings on the constrictions her gender places upon her. Because this is ostensibly a fantasy novel, we should also note that Charlotte’s journal purports that she survived her ordeal in part by joining up with a group of giants living in the mountains. Though the fantastical elements are presented with a shade of ambiguity, Charlotte inarguably proves herself more than able to fill a role that in 1905 (and, perhaps, 2019) would normally fall to a strapping male protagonist.

The Ingenious, by Darius Hinks (February 5, Angry Robot—Paperback)
The city of Athanor was set adrift long ago by alchemists called the Curious Men, moving through space and time and taking with it bits and pieces of every place it passes through along the way. Isten and her followers were one of among those bits and pieces, pulled into Athanor unwittingly. They are now stranded in the incredibly varied but dismally impoverished magical city. Isten’s people believe she is prophesied to set their homeland free, but Isten has succumbed to a terrible addiction, and she and her followers barely survive in the mean alleys of Athanor—until Isten meets Alzen, a member of the Elect. Alzen dreams of becoming the Ingenious, a master magic-user, and Alzen and Isten forge an unusual alliance, each determined to help the other fulfill their disparate disparate dreams in this impossible city. Darius Hinks is an award-winning writer of novels set in the Warhammer universe; The Ingenious is his first wholly original work, in every sense.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (February 5, Riverhead—Hardcover)
The first book in an epic fantasy trilogy from Booker Prize-winner Marlon James is as impressive as the author’s pedigree would suggest. The Dark Star trilogy has been likened to an “African Game of Thrones,” and the comparison is both apt and overly simplistic—James is doing far more than gluing familiar tropes onto African folklore. This is a deeply literary work, bordering at times on the poetic in its imagery, but it is also enormously fun, with imaginative worldbuilding and a plot that is both measured and propulsive. The Black Leopard is a mercenary able to shape-shift into a jungle cat, and the Red Wolf, also called Tracker, is a hunter of lost folk, with an incredible sense of smell that enables him to hone in on his quarry from vast distances. Sometimes with Leopard and sometimes alone, Tracker works his way across Africa in search of a kidnapped boy, moving through a beautiful, densely detailed world of violence, storytelling, dark magic, giants, and inhuman entities. Tracker’s mission is complicated by the complex and ever-shifting politics of the many tribes he encounters, and furthered along by a growing entourage of followers and allies, from a giant, to a sword-wielding academic, to  a buffalo that understands (and sometimes obeys) human speech. It already feels like a classic, and it will be interesting to see how the fantasy connects with James’s literary audience, and vice versa.

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons (February 5, Tor—Hardcover)
Jenn Lyons opens her planned five-book series with novel that defies traditional narrative structure. It begins as a conversation between the imprisoned Kihrin, awaiting what will certainly be a sentence of death, and his jailor Talon, a beautiful, demonic, shape-shifting assassin. As Kihrin tells a sad tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and earning the enmity of a cabal of sorcerers (raising more than a few questions about his real identity, and the true nature of a consequential necklace he claims was given to him by his mother)—Talon shares her own side of the story. The twin narratives slowly curl around each other (enriched by asides and often cheeky footnotes), illuminating different aspects of a world populated by incredible magic and a whole host of fantastic monsters and all manner of gods, demons, and men, all seemingly arrayed against Kihrin’s twisting journey to claim his legacy. The buzz for this series-starter has been building for months, and while the comparisons to APatrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin are apt, Jenn Lyons has also proven to have her own fascinating perspective on epic fantasy. A must-read.

Polaris Rising, by Jessie Mihalik (February 5, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Jessie Mihalik’s first novel is a space opera with a healthy helping of sex and romance, telling the story of Ada von Hasenberg, fifth daughter of the influential House von Hasenberg. Two years ago, Ada fled an arranged marriage to Richard Rockhurst and has been racing to stay one step ahead of her father’s minions ever since. Luckily, she’s been the beneficiary of the standard von Hasenberg education, which ran the gamut from computer hacking to social engineering. When Ada is captured by bounty hunters, she makes an alliance with another prisoner, the notorious criminal and murderer Marcus Loch, possibly the most dangerous man in the universe. Together, the pair must break free from their captors and launch a desperate campaign to earn their freedom once and for all. Along the way, they’ll also need to learn to trust each other, and resist the undeniable attraction that has arisen between them. Fast, fun, and sexy, this debut offers a delightful escape into adventure.

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, by Scotto Moore (February 5, Tor.cm Publishing—Paperback)
Scotto Moore—the mind behind the darkly, strangely hilarious Lovecraftian Things That Cannot Save You Tumblr and the music blog Much Preferred Customers—writes a short, sharp debut novella that brings together both of his obsessions. It’s the story of a blogger who stumbles across most beautiful music he’s ever heard in his life—a song that mesmerizes him for hours, as if possessed of an arcane power. The band responsible, Beautiful Remorse, plans to release a new track every day for 10 days, and every subsequent tune proves to effect listeners and the world in increasingly powerful and devastating ways. As the blogger joins the band on tour and meets mysterious lead singer Airee Macpherson, he discovers the secret purpose behind the music. This quirky horror story is just as fun as the premise suggests.

Binti: The Complete Trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor (February 5, DAW—Hardcover)
Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning trilogy is collected in one volume alongside a brand-new short story. Though originally published as three separate works, Binti’s story gains new resonance when read as a whole: it’s a moving coming-of-age tale, following a young girl’s journey from a rigid home life, out into the black of space and back. The lush worldbuilding takes us from Binti’s origins with the Namibian Himba tribe, to the intergalactic Oomza University, and on an interstellar journey during which she meets and forms a most unusual bond with the truly alien Medusae. Over the course of these stories, Binti grows and changes, taking on the burden of her people’s legacy and, perhaps, the fate of the whole universe. Filled with unusual technology, breathless adventure, and unexpected twists and turns, Okorafor’s latest works of adult science fiction (she is also the author of the YA novels Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, as well as the World Fantasy Award-winner Who Fears Death) is a true delight.

Sisters of the Fire, by Kim Wilkins (February 5, Del Rey—Hardcover)
The sequel to Daughters of the Storm continues the story of five sisters who set off to find a magical cure for their comatose father. the king. Five years later, Bluebell, the warrior among them, remains at home, the new heir to the throne. Ivy rules a prosperous port in a lonely marriage she’s taking terrible steps to end prematurely, Ash studies magic in the far-away wastelands; Rose lives in misery with her aunt, separated from her husband and child; and Willow hides a terrible secret that could destroy everything she and her sisters fought for—she holds the enchanted sword Grithbani, forged to kill her, and she is eager to use it. Bluebell is set upon by enemies both within and outside of her future kingdom even as her sisters pursue their individual and often tragic destinies.

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (February 12, Tor—Hardcover)
Charlie Jane Anders’ followup to the Nebula Award-winning All the Birds in the Sky seems, at first glance, a complete departure from that fitfully whimsical, apocalyptic bildungsroman, but both novels share a powerful emotional through line, examining the inner lives and grand destinies of outsiders in societies in which they are never sure they truly belong. It leaves Earth behind entirely, delivering us to the hostile planet January, a tidally locked world split between the frozen wastes on its dark side and the searing eternal day of its light side. In the small sliver between these two extremes, the city of Xiosphant barely supports a dwindling human population. Sophie, who comes from an unremarkable family, willingly takes the blame for a petty crime committed by her fellow student, best friend, shining star Bianca, and is condemned to death via exile into the frigid darkness as an example of the cost of even a small act of rebellion. Sophie is saved by one of the strange animal life forms native to the planet, and discovers that the so-called “crocodiles” are no simple beasts, but an advanced race of telepaths whose existence is threatened by the corrosive presence of human settlers in their midst. Sophie’s ultimate fate parallels not just that of Bianca and her fellow citizens of Xiosphant, but all life on January, and the very future of humanity. It’s a richly compassionate, thoughtful work, packing powerful messages of anti-violence, political theory, and environmentalism alongside a story of growing up and growing into yourself that never strikes a false note.

Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, by Tom Baker (February 12, Penguin—Paperback)
Fans of Doctor Who know Tom Baker best as the iconic Fourth Doctor, lover of Jelly Babies and very cool winter scarves. But did they know he also imagined himself an author of the Doctor’s exploits? In the 1970s, Baker and Ian Marter, who played Harry Sullivan, worked up a treatment for a Doctor Whofeature film—and at one point, it seemed like it might actually be made, with Vincent Price attached to star. But the script was lost in the shuffle, Baker regenerated into Peter Davison, and decades passed. Now, Baker has dusted off the idea and regenerated it into a novel, which sees The Doctor (along with Harry and Sarah Jane Smith) arriving at a remote Scottish island for a bit of a rest. Instead, they find the isolated village under attack by hideous scarecrows. The Doctor takes on the challenge of protecting the innocent, but it’s all an elaborate trap set by an otherworldly force known as the Scratchman—who might be the devil himself. For Who-vians, this is a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the Doctor became the next film franchise—or just another delightful Fourth Doctor romp.

Early Riser, by Jasper Fforde (February 12, Viking—Hardcover)
Jasper Fforde takes a break from the metafictional nuttiness of his Thursday Next novels to travel to an alternate future in which the entire population of England hibernates during the frigid, harsh winter months. Getting through four months of suspended animation isn’t guaranteed—although the rich, able to afford special drugs, fare better than the poor, who often wind up Dead in Sleep—but the Winter Consuls work hard to ensure that everyone makes it. Charlie Worthing has just joined this group of slightly unhinged guardians, and has been tasked with investigating a viral dream that’s been killing people in their sleep. Initially dubious, Charlie begins to believe when he starts experiencing the dreams too—and they start coming true. Fforde’s track record at wacky, wonky worldbuilding is second to none, and this standalone is both a fast-moving romp and a thoughtful slice of social commentary.

The Beast’s Heart: A Novel of Beauty and the Beast, by Leife Shallcross (February 12, Ace—Paperback)
In the tradition of John Gardner’s Grendel, Shallcross retells the story of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of the titular monster—claws, horns, and all. Trapped under a curse for centuries, Julien Courseilles first glimpses the beautiful Isabeau de la Noue in a dream and realizes she might be able to free him from his lonely bondage. He lures her to his enchanted chateau, where she agrees to stay for a year in exchange for her father’s life. Julien spends those short months proposing marriage and spying on her and her family in an attempt to force a love affair to blossom, but as he comes to terms with the dark fairy tale that is his cursed life, he realizes that even if Isabeau agrees to marry him, that is only the first step on his unlikely journey to redemption. Shallcross’s debut reveals new facets of one of the most retold and best-loved stories of all time.

Where Oblivion Lives, by T. Frohock (February 19, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Fans of Frohock’s Los Nefilim novellas will be thrilled with this full-length novel, which a deep dive into a historical fantasy world. In 1932, in an alt-history version of Spain and Germany, vying forces of angels and daimons are gearing up for a civil war that threatens humanity’s existence. Los Nefilim are the respective offspring of the warring species, able to either sing like the angles or hear like the daimons; they monitor the conflict and seek to avert disaster. Diago is special even among the Nefilim, born of both angel and daimon and thus able to both sing and hear. Tormented by the sound of his lost Stradivarius, Diago slips over the Rhine and searches for the source of the music that torments his demonic hearing. Along the way, he and his allies uncover evidence of terrible betrayals and a plot that would mean the end of Los Nefilim—and the world.

The Rising, by Mira Grant (February 19, Orbit—Paperback)
Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, delivered a pitch-perfect postmodern zombie story with her Newsflesh trilogy, combining a hard look at the dirty truth of politics with the shambling dread of the undead apocalypse. The Rising collects all three Hugo-nominated volumes of the trilogy, set decades after separate cures for cancer and the common cold mutated into a virus that turned carriers into zombies and changed the balance of power the world over. Though the contagion has been contained and the zombie threat is under control, the healthy must live in secured areas and stay ever-vigilant. Blogging journalists following the presidential campaign of a Republican senator slowly stumble (no pun intended) upon a grim conspiracy using the hordes of undead to manipulate public opinion and the upcoming election. It’s smart, fast-paced sci-fi horror, and now you can rip through the whole thing without stopping.

The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (February 19, Tachyon—Paperback)
Polymath Caitlin R. Kiernan is well established as one of SFF’s best short story writers, but until now, much of her work has only been available in print in limited-edition publications. Finally, here is a freely available collection of her best work: 20 incredible stories that will remind fans (and prove to new readers) just how unnaturally good she is at this. Her stories dive headlong into dark emotional currents, as when a daughter must close a gate to the past opened by her father; treat in doom and despair, as when a cult leader leads his followers into the ocean; and explore the uncanny, as when a film scholar reviews a disturbing movie about the most prolific female serial killer in history. Any one of them would alone be worth the cover price. It’s hard to imagine this collection won’t rank with the very best speculative books of 2019.

Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu (February 19, Tor—Hardcover)
Anyone paying attention to science fiction trends in recent years knows that Chinese literature is becoming an increasingly vital part of the landscape in the English-speaking world, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Liu, who translated Cixin Liu’s Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem, and edited the excellent anthology Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. Now, he returns with a second anthology, another amazing collection of first-rate stories, featuring authors both familiar to attentive Western readers (including Hugo-winners Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang) and newly imported but no less wonderful. With stories that treat in classic sci-fi tropes as filtered through the lenses of Chinese culture and history, and other that explore ideas that are entirely new, this is another essential exploration of an entire universe of speculative fiction heretofore inaccessible to many Western readers.

Gates of Stone, by Angus Macallan (February 19, Ace—Paperback)
The first book in Macallan’s Lord of the Islands series introduces the gritty, richly detailed world of the Laut Besar, where three lives are set on a collision course that might save—or destroy—a civilization. A princess is denied the throne solely because she’s a woman, and embarks on a violent quest to raise the money and power she’ll need to seize power by force. An arrogant prince is shocked into action when his kingdom is invaded by a sorcerer seeking one of seven powerful talismans that keep the Seven Hells at bay. If the sorcerer locates and possess all seven, all manner of chaos will be unleashed upon the world. Inspired by the overlapping cultures of China and India, this is a story filled with magic, epic battles, and complex characters.

The Outcast Hours, by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (February 19, Solaris—Paperback)
A great anthology is more than the sum of its parts, and Murad and Shurin proved their ability to curate something truly special with their first effort, the delightful The Dijinn Falls in Love and Other Stories. Here they bring together more than two dozen stories centered on the portion of society that lives by night, bathed in neon and shrinking from the morning. In other words: the outcasts. It’s a rich vein from which to mine incredible and incredibly strange stories, and the stellar cast of contributing writers certainly delivers. The anthology features works by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Marina Warner, Sami Shah, and Jeffrey Alan Love, among many others (including China Miéville, who hasn’t been writing nearly enough fiction as of late, delivers a smattering of deeply weird page-long micro-fictions). For fans of surprising speculative fiction, it is sure to be a treat.

Fleet of Knives, by Gareth L. Powell (February 19, Titan—Paperback)
Powell continues the Embers of War series in fine space opera style, finding the crew of the sentient ex-warship Trouble Dog responding to a distress call in the midst of the fallout of the Archipelago War. Trouble Dog tracks down the abandoned ship Lucy’s Ghost only to find that its human crew took refuge on a centuries-old generation ship launched by an alien species. Their efforts to save the humans pits them against beings that appear to them as dangerous monsters. Meanwhile, war criminal Ona Sudak leads the ships of the Marble Armada in an effort to enforce the peace at all costs—and believing that the Trouble Dog is a danger to that peace, she quickly takes steps to eliminate them, trapping the vessel and its crew between two violent enemies. Embers of War was one of our favorite reads of 2018—a space opera foregrounding the emotional journeys of its protagonists (both human and machine) without sacrificing the action or suspense—and the sequel lives up to its predecessor, and then some.

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois (February 26, St. Martin’s Press—Paperback)
Every serious sci-fi and fantasy fan knows the name of the late, great Gardner Dozois, who for 35 years edited one of the genres’ standout anthology series. His work assembling nearly three dozen volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction (from 1984 through 2018, the year of his death) was of course just one aspect of his amazing career in SFF, but a defining one. This remarkable volume—the last he completed in his lifetime—sees Dozois going back through a selection of those past volumes (the name is something of a misnomer; this volume follows two earlier Best of the Bests, and covers the years 2002 through 2017) to highlight 38 stories he thinks represent the cream of the crop from the last decade-and-a-half. The result is more than just a collection of remarkable stories; it’s also a snapshot of the genre’s recent history, highlighting the rise of new voices and diverse new ideas. Contributors include familiar names like Charles Stross, Pat Cadigan, Allen M. Steele, Elizabeth Bear and so, so many others. It’s a book built to satisfy SF readers of all sorts.

Circle of the Moon, by Faith Hunter (February 26, Ace—Paperback)
The fourth in Hunter’s Soulwood series, which takes place in the same universe as her Jane Yellowrock books, Circle of the Moon finds Nell receiving a distress call from Rick LaFleur, head agent at the Psy-Law Enforcement Division, a group charged with investigating paranormal crimes. LeFleur, who can shift into the form of a panther when the moon calls to him, has awoken by a river, naked, with no memory of how he got there. Next to him is a black cat that’s been sacrificed in a rite of black magic. It soon becomes clear that a blood-witch is on the rampage, but with their leader implicated in the growing list of crimes, Nell might not be able to hold her team of fellow PsyLED agents together.

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie (February 26, Orbit—Hardcover)
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is one of the most daring, most-awarded science fiction novels ever written. Now, she throws herself into the fantasy side of the genre fray with equal ambition. Her first epic fantasy delivers the same experimentation with form and her sharp ideas that made her a space opera game-changer. The story is told in varying first- and second-person by a god called the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who is speaking to Eolo, a transgender warrior in service to a prince named Mawat, recently cheated out of his throne. The Strength and the Hill mingles its own complex, ancient history with the account of Eolo’s attempts to defend and protect the prince, and reveals the waning power of Eolo and Mawat’s patron god, the Raven, and the rising incursions of foreign gods who seek to take advantage of that weakness. This is dense, challenging, affecting fantasy storytelling at its finest.

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon (February 26, Bloomsbury—Hardcover)
The Bone Season author Samantha Shannon’s latest eschews the series format, packing an entire trilogy’s worth of story into a standalone epic following three remarkable women whose fate is bound to the survival of an entire world. Sabran IX is Queen of Inys, last of an ancient magical bloodline whose very existence binds the Nameless One, a terrible dragon that could end the world, at the bottom of the ocean. Ead Duryan is one of Sabran’s ladies-in-waiting—but she is actually a secret agent, serving a hidden cabal of mages protecting the queen with magic. And across the ocean, Tané is a dragonrider about to break a societal taboo, with unforeseen consequences that will reverberate all the back to Inys. As Sabran discovers she isn’t who she thinks she is, she must reckon with the fact that her family’s bloodline may not be what’s keeping the Nameless One slumbering after all.

What new SFF is on your must-read list in February?

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Myths Made Modern: Announcing The Mythic Dream, a New Anthology from the Creators of The Starlit Wood

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe are the genius editing minds behind two of the most acclaimed anthologies of recent years. The Starlit Wood, a collection of new and reimagined fairy tales, was winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, a finalist for numerous other honors, and the place of first publication for Amal El-Mohtar’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning story “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” as well as “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, later expanded into the bestselling novel of the same name.  Six of the entries in last year’s Robots vs. Fairies (which is… pretty much what it sounds like: a volume of stories in which authors were asked to pick a side between the magical and the mechanical) are on the 2018 Locus recommended reading list (as is the anthology as a whole).

Naturally, we’ve been excited to see what the partnership of Wolfe & Parisien has in store for us next… and now we know.

Today we are pleased to announce the immanent arrival of The Mythic Dream, which, like The Starlit Wood, makes old stories new again. It is billed as an anthology of reimagined myths: 18 stories that are “bold reimaginings of the stories we tell about gods and kings, heroes who shaped nations.”

Below, we’ve provided a first look at the cover, with art by Serena Malyon and design by Michael McCartney, as well the complete lineup of contributing authors. But first, here’s the official summary…

These are dreams of classic myths, bold reimaginings of the stories we tell about gods and kings, heroes who shaped nations, the why and how of the world.

Journey with us to the fields of Elysium and the Midwest, through labyrinths and the space between stars. Witness the birth of computerized deities and beasts that own the night. Experience eternal life through curses and biochemistry.

Bringing together stories from the world over, eighteen critically acclaimed and award-winning authors reimagine myths of the past for the world of today, and tomorrow.

The collection will feature stories by the following all-star authors:

John Chu
Leah Cypess
Indrapramit Das
Amal El-Mohtar
Jeffrey Ford
Sarah Gailey
Carlos Hernandez
Kat Howard
Stephen Graham Jones
T. Kingfisher
Ann Leckie
Carmen Maria Machado
Arkady Martine
Seanan McGuire
Naomi Novik
Rebecca Roanhorse
JY Yang
Alyssa Wong

The Mythic Dream will be published August 27, 2019.

The post Myths Made Modern: Announcing The Mythic Dream, a New Anthology from the Creators of The Starlit Wood appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books with a Powerful Message of Social Justice

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

From The Time Machine to Kirk and Uhura‘s unprecedented kiss, speculative fiction has long concerned itself with breaking barriers and exploring issues of race, inequality, and injustice. The fantastical elements of genre, from alien beings to magical ones, allow writers to confront controversial issues in metaphor, granting them a subversive power that often goes unheralded.

On this, the day we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us consider novels that incorporate themes of social justice into stories that still deliver the goods—compelling plots, characters you’ll fall in love with, ideas that will expand your mind.

The Patternist series, by Octavia Butler (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, The Patternmaster)
Most of Octavia Butler’s books could probably find a place on this list. Arguably the most prominent, most widely-read African-American sci-fi writer, themes of race and power recur throughout her novels, including her breakout work, 1979’s Kindred, which saw a young black girl travel back in time to the darkest days of American slavery, a witness to how much had changed, and how much hadn’t. We’d also highlight the four-book Patternist series, published between 1977 and 1984, which sketches out an alternate history stretching back to ancient Egypt, exploring efforts by an immortal alien being to create a new race of humanity through selective breeding. Wild Seed in particular uses abduction as a metaphor for slavery, as the telepathic, undying mutant coerces a West-African woman (herself an immortal gifted with seemingly supernatural abilities) and brings her to the U.S. in the 1700s.

Iron Council, by China Miéville
Miéville is a member of the International Socialist Organization and wrote his doctoral thesis on Marxism, so it’s no surprise that his sci-fi and fantasy novels, in addition to being deeply weird and incredibly imaginative, tackle questions of  economic and social inequality and speaking truth to power. This is most evident is his celebrated Bas Lag trilogy, particularly Iron Council, about a group of revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the corrupt powers that control and oppress the citizens of the twisted city of New Crobuzon. Though his work has been lambasted by some for being too overtly political, its narrative drive and potent imagery make it as unforgettable as literature as it is provoking as argument.

Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
This coming-of-age novel by Jamaican-Canadian writer Hopkinson was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Written entirely in Caribbean patois, it tells the story of a Tan-Tan, a young girl living on a colony planet where there is a great economic divide, the lower class is under constant surveillance, and crimes are met with banishment to an alien world called New Half Way Tree. After her father commits an unforgivable offense, he flees with Tan-Tan to New Half Way Tree, where she must eventually learn to forge her own identity among the indigenous alien population while struggling to come to terms with sexual abuse. The core of the novel considers the ways marginalized individuals must act out to escape from cultural oppression.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy)
A common way science fiction addresses contemporary social issues is, of course, to shift the lens to focus on a speculative subject that has both nothing and everything to do with today. Ann Leckie’s celebrated space opera/military SF trilogy, beginning with the Hugo Award-winning Ancillary Justice, picks a few good ones. Most obviously, the rights of artificially intelligent spaceships to self-determination, but also, the efforts, both deliberate and accidental, of dominant societies to erase the cultural values of those people it has dominated, whether economically or with military might, and the rights of those people to choose to exist with autonomy within those colonizing societies, or to be forced to conform and serve it (quite literally, in this case, in the form of zombified, mind-wiped soldier bodies). Yes, yes, there are lots of awesome chase sequences and space battles as well (and tea…so much tea), but, well, sometimes a sentient starship is more than just a sentient starship.

The Bartimeaus Sequence (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, The Ring of Solomon), by Jonathan Stroud
Though ostensibly a middle grade series for readers looking for their next magical fin after finishing Harry Potter, Stroud’s Bartimeaus series (a trilogy and a prequel) hides powerful, deeply progressive messages about colonialism, civil rights, and inequality within a thrilling, cheekily humorous adventure story. As the first book opens, the title character, a 5,000-year-old immortal djinni, is bound by magic to serve the whims of 12-year-old Nathaniel, the generally good-hearted apprentice to a middling magician. With the unwilling help of the supernatural being, who will suffer terrible pain if he refuses the boy’s commands, Nathaniel uncovers a plot to overthrow London’s ruling sorcerer class. But by the second book, Nathaniel has become a part of the machine himself, and the focus shifts to a group of young people fighting against the entrenched powers that be. As a whole, the series is as much about prejudice, injustice, and the fight for equality—sorcerers aren’t inherently powerful; they just have the money required to purchase magical equipment, artifacts, and education—as it inventive battle sequences between supernatural beings.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
This slender novelette crams in an enormous amount of real and alternate history worldbuilding in telling the story of downtrodden creatures—laborwomen, a circus elephant—fighting back against the capitalist systems that view them as less valuable than the fruits of their labor. Marrying the real injustices heaped upon both the “Radium Girls” who developed horrific cancers after being knowingly exposed to dangerous radiation in their jobs painting glowing watch dials, and the “troublesome” elephant named Topsy, publicly executed as a spectacle, the story explores an unlikely cross-species sisterhood that arises to combat an unjust system.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
The remarkable debut novel by Rivers Solomon, extrapolates our history of prejudice and division into a future context, as the last remnants of humanity flee a ruined Earth onboard the generation ship Matilda. Three hundred years out, society on the ship has come to resemble a pre-Civil Rights era America (and, more than a little, the America of 2017) as a white supremecist ruling class controls the ship on the back of slave labor by its darker-skinned passengers. Aster is a motherless child aboard the ship Matilda, on which lowdeckers like her work on vast rotating plantations under the weak light of Baby, their engineered nuclear sun, living lives of trauma and subject to the cruel vagaries of upper deck guards. We meet Aster as she fights to save a child’s life. omeone—probably the Sovereign, their god-benighted ruler—has cut the heat to the lower decks, and the child has something like trench foot, the limb frozen and rotting. Aster is apprentice to the Surgeon General Theo Smith, despite her low status, and is learned in the skills of medicine. When she is called by the Surgeon Theo for help to save the poisoned Sovereign, Aster is righteously defiant.She hates the Sovereign, as all the lowdeckers do—he is the exultant face of their oppression. As one ruler falls and the next is enshrined, the equilibrium of Aster and Theo’s lives, and the lives of all Matilda’s lower decks, are are violently upset, as the spectre of civil war appears on the artificial horizon.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
Like the Bartimeaus series, Zen Cho’s debut novel (which receives a sequel, The True Queen, in a few months) uses comforting tropes of magic and romance to hide the bitter pill of her narrative, which is really all about racism, gender politics, and the fear of the other. In a version of Regency Britain ruled by a council of sorcerers, Zacharias Wythe has been named the next Sorcerer Royal—but not without controversy. Though he is the greatest magician of his generation, he is also dark-skinned and a former slave, and more than a few bigoted magicians have blamed the recent troubles on his rise to power. Facing internal opposition at every turn, Zacharias attempts to solve the mystery of why England’s stores of magic are drying up, enlisting the help of half-black girl who cleans the rooms at a magic school for young noblewomen (this being the Regency era, the school teaches women to suppress their magical talents rather than hone them), yet may be more magically gifted than any of them. In addition to being a delightful romance and an intriguing mystery, Cho’s novel explores the fight for racial and gender equality in a class-conscious society that is both at a few centuries remove, and not all that different from our current reality.

The Binti Trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s recent, Hugo-winning Binti Trilogy fits nicely here; the protagonist is a woman from a marginalized human tribe who is the first of her people to be offered a chance to study at a the galaxy’s most elite university, but doing so will require her to give up her identity—but it is ultimately that uniqueness that will help her to save her own life and form new bonds of understanding across a vast cultural divide. But if you can stomach something unremittingly darker, the World Fantasy Award-winner Who Fears Death also applies. Set in a post-apocalyptic future Sudan where a light-skinned race oppresses a darker-skinned one, a girl of both societies, born out of violence and gifted with magical abilities, sets off to murder her father. Incorporating scenes of barbaric female genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of control, it is a harrowing, angry novel about a woman who refuses to be a victim.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The fight for social justice is one that is as much about economic inequality as it is about racial inequality. LeGuin’s landmark dual Hugo and Nebula winner slots into the former category, considering the relationship between two disparate, symbiotic planets, one that embodies logical ends of extreme capitalism, and one that operates by spare, socialist ideals. The novel’s subtitle is “An Ambiguous Utopia,” and it is tough to figure out where that perfect society exists within it, or if it is possible for one to truly exist anywhere (even in fiction).

The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick
This is the refugee immigrant narrative writ large: after one of their own commits a crime of passion, a family is banished from their homeworld through a mysterious interdimensional gate and finds itself in the contemporary U.S., where they must learn to shed their cultural identities or risk ostracization, imprisonment, or even death. Haunted by the past (literally), they must learn to forge a new future without losing all of themselves. Palwick’s commentary on the U.S. immigration debate (still relevant even a decade after it was first published) is not exactly subtle, but it never overwhelms what is, in the end, a heartbreaking, human story.

Return to Nevèrÿon series, by Samuel R. Delany (Tales of Nevèrÿon, Neveryóna, Flight from Nevèrÿon, Return to Nevèrÿon)
Openly gay, African-American Delany has long been counted among sci-fi and fantasy’s most progressive, provocative writers. Though best known for the dense, difficult Dhalgren, this fantasy series, published between 1979 and 1987, deserves equal consideration for the way it works to undermine deeply entrenched cultural narratives. Ostensibly a series of barbarian stories in the sword-and-sorcery tradition, it flips around the narrative to place power in the hands of a dark-skinned civilization that enslaves a pale-skinned one. Within this environment, Delany explores such then-controversial issues as homosexuality and the AIDS crisis.

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)
Jemisin’s three-time Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a ragged scream of rage at the injustice that racism and inequality brings. In the opening chapter, a man uses magic to break the world because the world has shown him it has no cause to treat him like a human. A woman cradles the broken body of her son, murdered because of what he is, and what he represents, rather than anything he did. A government treats immensely powerful but subjugated magic users, who have the innate power to move the earth, as animals, little better than tools, breaking their will and their bones in order to keep them compliant and ensure the continuity of the society that oppresses them. That some of these people, so-abused, choose to destroy everything in their anger, perhaps we can forgive them for lashing out. That some of them still see beauty in the broken earth speaks to their humanity more than anything else. Across three novels, Jemisin makes you understand what might drive someone to shatter the world rather than continue to live within an unjust system (“No voting on who gets to be people.”), and keeps the hope alive that something better might rise of the rubble.

Octavia’s Brood, edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown
This powerful collection of “visionary fiction” (a term meant to represent sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and horror) was inspired by the work of Octavia Butler, and seeks to explore the connection between fantastical writing and real-world movements for social change. In these stories, unnatural occurrences reflect social ills and injustice, as in “The River,” by the collection’s co-editor Adrienne Marie Brown, in which the Detroit River comes to embody the violence of gentrification and displacement that has been visited upon the residents of the city. Including essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a roster of exciting new writers, and a few familiar names (including LeVar Burton and Terry Bisson), this is a vital, visceral, and essential collection.

What work of science fiction or fantasy changed the way you view the world? 

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