The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2019… So Far

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

image montage featuring vertical slivers of book covers showing a warrior, a future soldier, a dragon, a wolf, and other fantasy imageryIt seems like we were just here, telling you about the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2018… but no, another six months have indeed passed, and all we have to show for it is a towering stack of fantastic, fantastical new reads.

It has been argued that we’re in the middle of a new Golden Age of SFF, and this publishing year has done nothing to convince us otherwise—assembling this list of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2019 so far was difficult, not because we were stretching to fill it out, but because there are too many great books to fit in (which is why we’ve cheated and added another ten “bonus” books at the end—and even still, sacrifices were made).

TL,DR: This year has already delivered us enough boundary pushing, trope-exploding, mind-altering, purely entertaining books to keep you buried in quality for a long time—and we’ve still got six months to go (we have no idea how we’re going to narrow down our overall best of the year list to a reasonable size, but that’s a problem for the future…)

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders 
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. Read our review.

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden 
The concluding volume of Arden’s acclaimed Winternight trilogy picks up right where The Girl in the Tower left off, with Moscow in ashes from Vasya’s inexpert use of a Firebird. Russia and the people Vasya love are still in danger, however, as Arden continues her secret history of a nation’s turmoils in parallel with the story of Vasya’s becoming. She stumbles forward in her troubled relationship with the winter-king Morozko, while the Grand Prince Dmitrii makes decisions leading them all inevitably towards a battle that could unite Russia—though the chaos demon Medved would prefer events unfold otherwise. Vasya is no longer the frightened girl of the earlier books, but neither has she perfected her abilities. Even still, she must embark on several dangerous magical quests in order to protect the people and the land she loves. Along the way, she meets new and fascinating chyerti, and all the threads of the two previous books weave together in an epic, truly satisfying ending. Read our review.

The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft
The third book in Bancroft’s deeply compelling Books of Babel quartet more than delivers on the building promise of the first two. The Sphinx, having discovered the location of Senlin’s missing wife Marya, worries over a brewing revolution, and sends her new servant Senlin to the Ringdom of Pelphia to investigate. In Pelphia, Senlin is, per usual, caught up in local intrigue: specifically, the brutal, bloody arena where the enslaved hods fight as gladiators to amuse the crowds. Meanwhile, Voleta and Iren take on false identities in an attempt to get close to Marya, who has married Duke Wilhelm Horace Pell and become a celebrity isolated by fame. Edith, now captain of the Sphinx’s flagship, investigates happenings along the hod’s Black Trail, which stretches the height of the entire Tower, and hears whisperings of a figure known as the Hod King, whose identity drives this volume to its cliffhanger conclusion—as does the question of whether Senlin can stay focused on his mission, or if he’ll risk disobeying the Sphinx in order to finally reunite with Marya. Bancroft once again perfectly pairs beautiful prose with lively characters and an exploration of an utterly original fictional edifice. A classic in the making, it will set your expectations high for the concluding volume, expected to arrive in 2020. Read our review.

Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear
After a decade spent exploring worlds of fantasy and steampunk, Elizabeth Bear launches a new series with a seriously epic space opera flavor. Halmey Dz is an engineer on a slightly sketchy salvage ship, part of a crew that stays just clear of the law in their quest to eke out a living. While exploring a derelict ship, Halmey is infected by something alien, and finds she has a whole new lever of perception that grants her understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe—which makes her an incredibly valuable prize for those with the will to exploit her abilities. Halmey is pursued by the government and a group of ruthless pirates, all of whom want to control her and her new power. She and her crewmates make a run for it—but the pursuit leads them into an even bigger mystery involving an alien ship trapped in a black hole at the center of the galaxy. And that’s just the beginning. The first book in the White Space saga may be Bear’s best science fiction novel yet, and that’s certainly saying something. Read our review.

Recursion, by Blake Crouch
At the start of Blake Crouch’s latest mind-bending high-concept sci-fi thriller, New York City detective Barry Sutton begins to encounter people suffering from False Memory Syndrome—a condition where they “remember” lives they never lived, and suffer emotionally due to tragedies they never actually experienced. A year earlier, a brilliant neuroscientist named Helena Smith accepts funding from a mega-wealthy sponsor in order to create a device that can preserve memories to be re-experienced whenever desired—but it also allows people to literally enter those memories, changing everything. As the disorder spreads throughout the city, reality itself is threatened; who can say what is real when you can’t trust your own memories? As Harry connects with Helena and they realize her research is destabilizing the world, the two join forces to find a way to save the human race from this threat from within. Read our review.

Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey 
Ivy and Tabitha are sisters, estranged for years by the bitter divide between Tabitha’s magical abilities and Ivy’s complete lack of same. Tabitha went on to teach at the prestigious Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, while Ivy ekes out a living working as a private investigator. When a murder is committed at the Academy, Ivy’s desperate financial situation drives her to take the case despite her animosity toward her sister—and mages in general. At Osthorne, Ivy finds out that even magical academies have Mean Girls, Queen Bees, and popular kids—that is to say, no shortage of murder suspects. As she pretends to have magical powers in order to gain the trust and cooperation of the students and faculty, Ivy finds that to crack the case she’s going to have to face her own fears, her history with her sister, and pull off the most difficult trick of them all: forgiving herself. Regular B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog contributor Sarah Gailey delivers a gripping debut novel, equal parts hardboiled magical noir and gripping psychological drama. Read our review.

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone
The Hugo-nominated author of the Craft Sequence fantasy series makes a stunning shift to sci-fi with this splashy, wildly imaginative, utterly strange, and truly intergalactic standalone novel, the anti-hero’s journey of Vivian Lao, a brilliant, morally conflicted young tech billionaire on the verge of world domination—or total destruction at the hands of her many enemies. When she fakes her death and flees to a server farm at the center of the worldwide digital cloud, intending to hack in and make her checkmate move, she unwittingly trips an alarm, endangers a dear friend, and encounters a powerful glowing figure who transports her into an unknown realm that might be a distant galaxy, the far future of her own, or something else entirely. Viv finds herself in a time and place she doesn’t recognized, a universe ruled by the terrifying, emerald-skinned Empress, whose access to a far more advanced Cloud allows her monitor everything, and destroy any civilization that advances to a point that might attract the attention of the Bleed, a truly alien entity that devours reality itself. Viv wasn’t built for terror and passivity, though, and quickly assembles a rag-tag group of heretics, criminals, ex-warlords, and nanobot outcasts, and dedicates herself to breaking the Empress’ hold on the universe. Like Guardians of the Galaxy on mescaline, it’s space opera like you’ve never imagined it. Read our review.

The Gutter Prayer, by Gareth Hanrahan 
Hanrahan’s epic fantasy debut centers on the city of Guerdon, to where refugees flee from an epic ongoing war between insane gods and the sorcerers who once served them. This is where Carillon Thay, desperate thief and recent member of the Thieves’ Brotherhood, finds herself, alongside her friends Rat and Spar. Thay is dealing with the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, and must contend with Ravellers,the  shape-shifting servants of the ancient Black Iron Gods which haven’t been seen in decades. As an apocalypse approaches Guerdon, the last place of safety in this violent world, these three thieves can only count on themselves—but it seems their fates may be strangely intertwined with the warring guilds and other powers that be in the city, and the network of ancient tunnels deep below its streets. Hanrahan brings his city to life in lyrical prose, even as the plot leaps from action sequence to breathless chase and back again. Read our review.

The Outside, by Ada Hoffmann 
In a universe where incredibly advanced AI are worshiped as gods and cyborg angels serve as their avatars, humanity’s last hope to break free lies with the space station The Pride of Jai, built entirely without gods’ help and powered by brilliant scientist Yasira Shien’s innovative reactor design. But when the reactor is powered up, disaster strikes—a singularity destroys the station and kills almost everyone on board. Yasira is brought before the gods and told that the disaster is part of a plot to warp reality itself, allowing for an invasion of terrifying monsters from outside our reality. The all-powerful AI believe the plot was engineered by Yasira’s own long-missing mentor Evianna Talirr, but as Yasira is transported to the edge of the galaxy to confront her former teacher, she finds herself questioning the divinity of the gods and the ruthless angels she has always obeyed without question. Hoffman’s debut is starkly original, and tinged with hints of horror fantasy—truly operatic stuff—but it truly impresses in its compassionate treatment of its neuro-atypical characters, hero and villain alike. Read our review.

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley
The latest novel from Hugo-winner Kameron Hurley is both her most trope-y and traditional, and as fiery and in-your-face as her incendiary last, The Stars Are Legion, which was itself a brutal reimagining of ideas of an all-female society and the worldship into a barely controlled attack on the systems that have exploited women’s bodies and identities for thousands of years. Her targets this time are corporations, unbridled capitalism, and the military industrial complex that supports them, and her tools are the stuff of classic SF adventures: time travel, advanced weaponry, and battle-hardened boots-on-the-ground grunts. Young recruit Dietz was born a non-citizen, forced to grow up without access to not just the wonders of a future world, but without access to the essentials: enough food, adequate medical care, a sense of security. Her only chance to beat the system is to sign up to fight for the corporate cause—a battle against Mars in which soldiers are transformed into light waves and zapped across space and directly into the line of fire. But no sooner than she has completed training, Dietz’s missions begin to go sideways, as her trips with the so-called Light Brigade seem to be sending her pinging back and forth on the timeline of a war that seems to promise humanity’s end. This is military science fiction, Kameron Hurley style—a story about the life of an infantry grunt and the corporate future of warfare, with shades of Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman, and a touch of the bizarre that could only come from the author of God’s WarRead our review.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James 
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. Read our review.

The Grand Dark, by Richard Kadrey 
Richard Kadrey takes a detour from his bestselling Sandman Slim series for a dark, gritty novel with shades of dystopian sci-fi and bizarre fantasy. In the aftermath of the Great War, Lower Proszawa is a city finally free to sink into endless hedonism and decadence. Largo Moorden has already been swallowed by the city—an addict, he works for a shadowy crime lord, navigating a world covered in mysterious “city dust,” inhabited by genetically engineered monsters, plagued by a ruthless disease known as The Drops, and crawling with artificially intelligent automata that are relentlessly replacing humans. Largo has a plan to get out of the slums and rub shoulders with the elites, but his ambitions run him smack into those of other forces, which share a much darker collective vision for the future of Lower Proszawa—and the world beyond. Even readers who might miss the more overt gallows humor of Kadrey’s other work will goggle at the scope of the imaginative worldbuilding on display here. Read our review.

A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Fantasy master Guy Gavriel Kay returns to the fictional setting of the Sarantine Mosiac, drawn from the history of Renaissance Italy, as an elderly man named Danio tells his life story, one curiously stocked with royalty and high adventure, considering his low birth. Danio starts off his career as an assistant to a court official, and is in a position to take notice of a young woman brought in as a concubine for the city’s despotic ruler. He correctly deduces she’s an assassin in disguise, and he chooses not to expose her; she is Adria, the daughter of a duke who has chosen to serve her mercenary uncle Folco. Danio’s decision to let the assassination occur sets in motion forces that will propel him and Adria in unexpected directions and lead to world-changing events, with low-born Danio, unpredictably, ever at their center. Kay applies his skill at painting sweeping historical tapestries to the story of the lives of the sort normally lost to the ages, yet whose choices may nevertheless shape the destiny of nations. Read our review.

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
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. Read our review.

Unraveling, by Karen Lord 
Award-winner Karen Lord’s new standalone fantasy (her first novel in four years) opens with forensic therapist Dr. Miranda Ecouvo triumphant; a killer responsible for seven murders is behind bars thanks to her work. But a harrowing near-death experience soon thrusts her into a whole other reality, where she meets the near-immortal Chance and Trickster, brothers who reveal the difficult truth—the entity truly responsible for the murders is seeking immortality, and it’s not done killing. The brothers guide her through the labyrinths of this hidden world, assuring her the killer can still be stopped, and it’s up to her to do it. As reality, memory, and dreams converge, Miranda and the brothers fight to bring true justice to two worlds. Read our review.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine 
Martine’s ornate debut space opera constructs a fully realized world. The new ambassador from a small mining Station, Mahit Dzmare, arrives at the court of the ever-expanding Teixcalaanli Empire to find that the previous ambassador is dead. Very likely, she was murdered—though no one will admit that, or the fact that Dzmare is the next most likely victim. Aided by her expertise in the Teixcalaani language and an outdated—and possibly untrustworthy—memory implant from the prior ambassador, Dzmare must negotiate both her own survival and that of the Station in the face of an implacable empire. Meanwhile, the aging emperor seeks to become immortal by any means science can grant him, even as his army plots a coup. In the tradition of Ann Leckie and Iain M. Banks, this is bold, complex space opera with a political bent. Read our review.

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire 
Seanan McGuire’s latest and longest work is also her best: a structurally complex, richly written, deeply imagined fantasy about the bonds that can unite two souls even across vast distances. One day, young Roger Middleton is struggling with his math homework when the voice of a girl named Dodger Cheswich pipes up in his head, giving him the answers. Roger and Dodger some discover that though they live on opposite coasts, they can communicate with one another, and develop a strange sort of friendship. What they don’t know is that they’re the end result of an experiment begun in the late 19th century by alchemist Asphodel Baker who dreamed of rewriting reality by embodies the forces of creation into living hosts, a plan she encoded in a series of children’s books. Her creation and eventual murderer, a man named James Reed, took up her work and engineered Roger and Dodger’s births as one half each of the Doctrine of Ethos, the force that holds existence together. As the twins mature, Reed seeks to control them and implement the final stage of Baker’s masterwork, but their connection has made them powerful, and difficult to control. With the rules of the game set, the children must awaken to their shared destiny and shape a reality that will ensure their survival, not to mention the continued existence of the universe. Read our review.

Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman 
Emma Newman’s fourth book set in the Planetfall universe is another inventive and emotionally wrenching affair. As a passenger onboard the spacefaring vessel Atlas 2, Dee was one of the few who witnessed the nuclear strike that killed millions on Earth. Angry and deeply traumatized, Dee seeks both to uncover who was responsible and to escape her suffering within an immersive game that applies real world physicality to a virtual setting. Invited to test a new build of the game by a mysterious guide, Dee enters a play session unlike any she’s ever experienced. When she kills another player in-game and a man winds up dead in real life—a man with possible ties to the nuclear launch, no less—Dee becomes a suspect. As she doubles down on her investigation, she makes a chilling discovery that changes everything she thought she knew about her life—and the colony planet she’s headed toward. Made up of standalone novels that share a setting and a commitment to delving into their characters’ psyches, the Planetfall series stands with the best science fiction of the last decade. Read our review.

Finder, by Suzanne Palmer 
Suzanne Palmer’s zippy space caper stars Fergus Ferguson, a sort of spacefaring repo man with a reputation for chasing down even the most dangerous cargo anywhere in space. His latest target is a heavily armed warship called Venetia’s Sword, currently in the possession of a vicious gangster named Gilger. Fergus isn’t intimidated, even if Gilger is on the brink of war with a dangerous arms dealer. Fergus traces Gilger’s ship to a small colony planet, where he promptly finds himself caught in the middle of a violent civil war. Forced to ally with the enemies of his enemy, Fergus struggles to negotiate a peace, keep tabs on his quarry—and figure out why supposedly legendary aliens—who have turned out to be disturbingly real—are following him around. This debut is a fun, fast-moving jaunt into the zippier, zanier side of space opera. Read our review.

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon 
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. Read our review.

The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling 
Gyre Price is desperate. Abandoned and alone on a poverty-stricken mining planet, she wants nothing more than to learn of her mother’s fate. Seeking a big paycheck that will allow her to do just that, she fakes her credentials as a caver, assuming that the work, while dangerous, will be organized and supported by the usual safety measures. Her handler on the expedition, Em, turns out to be unpredictable, cruel, and filled with her own secrets—and Em knows that Gyre lied to get the job, and isn’t afraid to use that knowledge to force her into a dangerous, terrifying journey into the darkness. Underground, Gyre must face not only her own inner demons, but plenty of Em’s as well. By the time she begins to understand that the danger may not all be on the inside, however, it may already be too late. This is nail-biting, cinematic sci-fi survival horror. Read our review.

Seven Blades in Black, by Sam Sykes 
Sykes new Grave of Empires trilogy is built around Sal the Cacophony, a former mage and gunslinger hellbent on revenge against the 33 mages who tore her magic out of her. Arrested and waiting for execution for her crimes, Sal is given a chance to save herself with a confession, but the story she tells is more than just a list of crimes: she served in the Scar, a blasted wasteland caught between two vast empires, but now exists only to locate and kill the mages who betrayed and brutalized her. Sal will cross any line to complete her quest, and Sykes seems to have a similar regard for the rules of epic fantasy in this go-for-broke blend of Kill Bill and Final FantasyRead our review.

The Lesson, by Cadwell Turnbull 
Five years ago, an alien spaceship appeared over the Virgin Islands, and the Ynaa arrived, claiming to be conducting a peaceful—but highly secret—research mission. The Ynaa offer benefits to their human hosts/hostages like incredible healing powers, but punish any form of aggression toward them with brutal violence. As a result, the relationship between the species is fraught, meaning Ynaa ambassador Mera and her human assistant Derrick have they work cut out for them: as the anniversary of the death of a child killed by the Ynaa comes around, tensions threaten to boil over into open conflict as a cycle of violent retribution is set in motion. Mera and Derrick are forced to choose sides in a war that has been five years in the making. Turnbull’s debut—which the publisher bills as one of the first speculative novels set in the Virgin Islands—explores themes of colonialism and prejudice with literary style, pairing nicely with similarly themed (and much praised) works like Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Nnedi Okorafor’s LagoonRead our review.

Empire of Grass, by Tad Williams 
The solution to the mystery of the Witchwood Crown continues to elude King Simon and his queen, Miriamele in this second book of Williams’ Last King of Osten Ard series trilogy. As the kingdoms of Osten Ard descend separately into war, division, and strife, the Crown might be the key to it all—if Simon and Miriamele can solve the puzzle. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Norns has made a deal to bring her immortal armies into the mortal lands, the nomads on the grasslands are unifying with cult-like fervor, and everything begins to fall apart in ways large and small as a disparate group of people fighting for their own survival in the chaos come to represent the only hope for the survival of all living things. We’re happy to say once again that thus far, the followup to Williams’ landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is more than living up to the reputation of its forebear. Read our review.

The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson 
This literary fantasy from comics writer and novelist G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, Alif the Unseen) is a fast-paced adventure set in Granad, the last emirate of Muslim Spain. Fatima is the sultan’s favorite concubine, but her only true friend is Hassan, the royal mapmaker, who possesses the ability to open portals to other rooms, and even other worlds, at will. When Fatima accidentally reveals Hassan’s power to Luz, a lay sister working for the Inquisition, they flee, accompanied by a rogue’s gallery of companions and allies, including a vampire-jinn in the form of a dog and his sister, who takes the form of a cat. Inspired by a bit of verse they’ve known since childhood, Fatima and Hassan seek the island of Qaf, where the legendary Bird King resides, and where they believe they might be safe from the intolerant Inquisition. Wilson’s imagination overflows from each page as she crafts a fantasy quite unlike any other you’ll encounter this year. Read our review.

10 More Books We Loved

Because 2019 really has been that good a year for new science fiction and fantasy, we’re extending the list with ten more books that can’t be missed. (Straight talk: It’s here we stashed many of our favorite sequels of the year—many of them written by authors you might recognize from our Best SFF of 2018 list.)

Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S.A. Corey
Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck—the brains behind the James S.A. Corey pseudonym—have a lot going on, not the least of which is serving as producers of the fantastic streaming series based on their space opera/political soap opera saga The Expanse (of which Tiamat’s Wrath is a part), so you’d be forgiven for thinking they might have let something slip with the penultimate volume of their nine-book magnum opus. But no: It might be the best one yet. Read our review.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C.A. Fletcher
The title kind of says it all, doesn’t it? We live in anxious times, and apocalyptic visions are a dime a dozen. C.A. Fletcher’s stands apart for its singular focus on the title characters: a young boy journeying a blasted landscape with his canine friend, in desperate pursuit of the man who stole away with his other pup. You just don’t separate a boy from his dog, apocalypse be damned. Read our review.

The Record Keeper, by Agnes Gomillion
The worldbuilding in this apocalyptic afrofuturist debut is fascinating and stark: In a ruined future America, the dark-skinned Kongoese are kept in servitude to the ruling white class, forced to take a pill that causes them to forget their own pasts. Arika is a Kongoese Record Keeper, living more comfortably but trained to pen false histories to replace those erased ones—which is some kind of metaphor for America’s long (and ongoing) struggles with racism, injustice, and inequality.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall
When an an idea doesn’t know when to stop, you call it putting a hat on a hat. Alexis Hall’s bonkers debut—a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that is also a queer romance set in a wild, war-torn multiverse teeming with magic, monsters, mind-eating gods, and a pissed-off shark—is a hat on top of a hat, but the hats are worn by a many-tentacled Lovecraftian monster sipping a mug of tea. It is, as the kids say, extra—in the very best way. Read our review.

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
Jenn Lyons debut entered 2019 as one of the year’s buzziest books, and it mostly lived up to the hype—a fantasy bildungsroman telling of the strange trip that brought a very particular prisoner to his cell, and of the jailer listening to the story play out, it has worldbuilding to spare (a good thing, considering the first of four planned sequels arrives before the end of the year). Plus, there are footnotesRead our review.

Fleet of Knives, by Gareth L. Powell
The sequel to Gareth L. Powell’s British Science Fiction Award-winning Embers of War does everything right, crafting an adventure for its crew of ragtag, haunted heroes that is bigger and more mysterious than that which came before. But most of all, it gives us more of the sentient ships at the center of the story, including the Trouble Dog, an ex-warship with something to atone for. Read our review.

Waste Tide, by Chen Quifan, translated by Ken Liu
In telling the story of a young woman eking out a meager living—and then leading a rebellion—on an island choked with toxic electronic trash, the latest work of Chinese science fiction to come to America by virtue of the work of translator Ken Liu delivers on a premise with an immediacy that makes it a difficult read—or would, if it weren’t so darkly compelling.

Storm of Locusts, by Rebecca Roanhorse
Trail of Lightning, the first Hugo- and Nebula-nominated book in the Sixth World series, shocked urban fantasy back to life with a story set in a post-apocalyptic America consumed by rising waters and haunted by the monsters of Indigenous American legend, with a fiery, flawed, deeply angry, and totally badass protagonist at its center. The sequel proves Maggie Hoskie’s first adventure was no fluke, and solidifies Roanhorse’s status as the next genre superstar. Read our review.

Today I Am Carey, by Martin L. Shoemaker
Martin L. Shoemaker’s debut novel expands on an award-winning short story that revisits familiar tropes of an artificial mind’s awakening to the world and gives them an entirely fresh, emotional, and utterly human dimension. This is science fiction at its most achingly sad and genuinely heartfelt. Read our review.

Titanshade, by Dan Stout
This fantasy twist on Chinatown subs in for Los Angeles’s waning water stores the similarly in-short-supply essence of an imprisoned god, and the Chinese-American tensions with a brewing unrest between humans and a race of aliens. A noir pastiche this pastiche-y has no right to work so well, or be so godsdamned entertaining. Read our review.

What’s the best new science fiction or fantasy book you’ve read in 2019?

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Reality Is an Impossible Game: Emma Newman’s Atlas Alone

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Reviewing a novel four books deep into a series is always a little tricky—even if, as with Emma Newman’s Planetfall series—the novels are less a continuing storyline and more a sequence of standalone narratives in a shared world.

Planetfall, After Atlas, Before Mars, and now Atlas Alone all take place on different planets—or on no planet at all—and are told by four different first-person narrators. Up until Atlas Alone, the singularity of the voice and the triangulation of a certain event—the mission of a vessel known as the Pathfinder, which ferried a zealous scientist and her band of followers to an alien planet in search of God—have served as the connective tissue between one novel and the next.

That all changes with this fourth installment, which takes place in the wake of the events of Before Mars, and with a cast of characters we know from After Atlas. Even by the standards of previous Planetfall novels—which all conclude with brutal, perspective-wrenching revelations—the ending of Before Mars is a doozy, one that I don’t want to detail too closely, lest I blunt that final knife-twist. If you haven’t read the earlier books, I will attempt to tread lightly—but beware of spoilers (not that these are strictly the kids of books that can be spoiled, as preoccupied as they are with the twisting thoughts of their narrators).

The events of Atlas Alone are told to us by Dee—Deanna—who was sold alongside Carlos (from After Atlas) to the hot-housers of the post-democracy world they inhabit. To be hot-housed is to be brutally conditioned into a useful, indentured nonperson: Carl was trained to be a detective; Dee was trained in something like PR crossed with data analysis. It’s slavery in everything but name. The third of their small circle is Travis, once husband of the head of a powerful gov-corp. They’re six months into a 20-year voyage to the Pathfinder’s planet, all three of them reeling from calamitous events they witness upon liftoff. We first meet them in the midst of something of an intervention for the three of them: Carl is starving, refusing to eat 3D printed food; Dee won’t take up the immersive games that have always been her balm and succor; Travis is both inscrutable and twitchy. They are tearing themselves apart with what they know, and what they can’t tell anyone.

Dee is given a chance to find out more about the other people on their ship, the Atlas 2, when she’s invited to join an immersive game tournament by a member of another social group. For unknown reasons, social contact between groups, and even individuals, has been “deprioritized.” Carolina wants to hire Dee to crunch numbers and work out the most desirable game models. They have 20 years in space, after all; gaming will kill the time. But what Dee finds in the data is disturbing, hinting at intentional divisions between the passenger groups, from the older and wealthier gamers; to the members of the Circle, a cultish, low-tech group of people who rarely engage in immersives.

But before Dee can begin to explore Carolina’s social circle, she’s sucked into an immersive game by a mysterious agent. The content of the game is incredibly upsetting: Dee finds herself climbing stairs in the apartment building she lived in during a pivotal period of her childhood, stepping over the corpses of everyone she knew during that time. Nothing about the game runs according to the spoken or unspoken rules of game design. And horrible evidence suggests that violent actions that happen within the game have consequences in the real world—an impossible porousness between gaming and reality.

Heretofore, the Planetfall narrators have been prickly, damaged people, avoidant of their personal traumas by way of elaborate defense mechanisms. They are expert examples of the unreliable narrator, telling complex stories from complex perspectives, the kind where what they focus on is as important as what they avoid. Dee is no different, but she’s also our iciest narrator yet. Much of the overt plot is spent in immersive games—Dee’s true landscape and release—but she doesn’t treat them much differently from her real life. She’s always plotting the angles and reading the terrain. She says what she needs to say and projects what’s she’s supposed to feel to advance the plot (her life); otherwise her interior world is flinching and cold.

Atlas Alone ends with the same kind of gut punch that has become the series’ hallmark, but there’s something deeper and more difficult going on as well. The ethical test at the center of the narrative doesn’t have a name—it’s something like the prisoner’s dilemma crossed with a more terrible version of the Milgram experiment—but it’s a moral dilemma our protagonist fails utterly to solve. The hardest truth to swallow is that we know we might fail with right along with her, depending on how closely we align with her cold, rational way of approaching the game and rationalizing the traumas that made her who she is. Is it all just a game? Does that matter?

Atlas Alone is available April 16.

The post Reality Is an Impossible Game: Emma Newman’s Atlas Alone appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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