This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Cross-Country Horror, Fairy Tales in Verse, and All of Earthsea

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Mage Against the Machine, by Shaun Barger
You’d think alchemically combining science fiction and fantasy tropes would be too big a challenge for a debut author, but Shaun Barger asks you to politely hold his beer. This first novel is set in the 22nd century, a hundred years after an insane mage engineered a magical-nuclear holocaust, killing all humans. Mages have survived behind magical Veils that protect them from the ravaged world outside. Young Nikolai is tasked with helping maintain the Veils, but is obsessed with the vanished world that was, indulging in Ready Player One-esque hunts for 20th century pop culture. When he discovers on one of his jaunts that humanity not only survived, but remains locked in a bloody war with powerful AIs called Synths, his faith in his world crumbles. When he meets Jem, a technologically augmented former ballerina turned Runner for the fading human resistance, he knows he’ll have to choose a side—and accept the consequences. The publisher calls this one “Harry Potter meets the Terminator,” and we’re inclined to agree; there’s a lot going on here, but it’s all great fun to puzzle out.

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson
With The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Dickinson showed an impressive talent for executing an epic fantasy rich in worldbuilding, complex in character, and brutally exacting in its clockwork plotting. Baru Cormorant rose off the page as one of the most flawed, fascinating characters to come out of fantasy in a long time, her incandescent rage and patient desire for revenge but a few of her visceral qualities. In the first book, she survived the destruction of her culture and death of her loved ones at the hands of the Empire of Masks and feigned obedience in order to rise within its ranks and orchestrate its epic downfall from the inside. As The Monster Baru Cormorant opens, she finds herself, finally, a powerful member of the empire she’s vowed to destroy, yet psychically damaged by the effort it took to get there, to the point that she can no longer trust her own motivations. With this second of a planned four-volume epic, Dickinson has done something incredible by deepening our understanding of a fabulously complex, compelling character.

Alice Isn’t Dead, by Joseph Fink 
As he did with Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours!, in Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink transforms one of his popular podcasts into a novel. (The same-titled show, which completed its third and final season in 2018, is also being developed for television.) The story follows Keisha, a long-haul truck driver on a cross-country search for clues regarding her missing wife, who she refuses to believe is actually dead. The journey leads her into a complex web of dark conspiracies and stomach-churning terror. Fink was inspired by his experiences living in and out of his van while driving around the country performing live episodes of Welcome to Night Vale; taken as a travelogue of these weird United States, it’s by turns haunting, touching, and downright terrifying, with a particularly memorable villain—a slouching bag of distended flesh known as the Hungry Man—who will stalk your nightmares.

The Sea Dreams it Is the Sky, by John Hornor Jacobs
The author of Southern Gods delivers a Halloween treat in this chilling novella, currently available only as an ebook, It’s a tale of cosmic horror about a woman named Isabel, who has fled to Spain to escape the cruel regime that has seized her home country. She falls in with one of her fellow countrymen in self-imposed exile, a man known to her only as “The Eye.” When a strange message bids him to return home, Isabel is left to care for the things he has left behind—including two odd manuscripts, one a sort of diary of his life as a dissident, the other a translation of an impossibly old, darkly powerful book. Reading them leaves Isabel haunted, and compelled, too, to return home. But what will it cost her to go back? Jacobs is a writer who deserves a much wider audience (The Incorruptibles is a brilliant blend of weird western and epic fantasy); hopefully, this slim slice of madness will deliver it.

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, by Ursula K. Le Guin and Charles Vess
Weighing in at over five pounds and extending to nearly 1,000 pages, this is the definitive single-volume collection of all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, stories, and essays concerning the magical island nations of Earthsea. Working in close collaboration with the author, illustrator Charles Vess presents a slightly whimsical new vision of this fantasy realm—its people finally depicted dark skin, as in the text; his dragons, pure magic. The real treat for fans: a new short story, published in the Paris Review just months after Le Guin’s death, gives us the author’s true final words on Earthsea.

Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy, by Amy Ratcliffe
Star Wars is no latecomer to gender equality, slave Leia costume notwithstanding. From the very first film, the galaxy’s women (well, woman, anyway) have played key roles in the story, and it’s high time that legacy is celebrated. Seventy-five of the most important and consequential female characters of the galaxy far, far away are profiled in this volume, including Leia Organa, Rey, Ahsoka Tano, Jyn Erso, and many more. Rare backstory, relevant biographical details, and key moments in the saga’s ever-expanding story are featured alongside more than 100 illustrations that bring these women to vibrant life. Amy Ratcliffe, managing editor of Nerdist and a Star Wars superfan (she cohosts not one but two Star Wars podcasts, Full of Sith and Lattes with Leia) pens the character profiles, guaranteeing that this resource volume is both faithful to continuity, and fun to read.

The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross 
Over the course of eight novels and three novelettes, computer scientist and author Stross’s Laundry Files series has brought together many, many elements that just shouldn’t go—namely Lovecraftian horrors, bleak office humor, spy thrillers, and plain old sci-fi—to create one of the most amusing, intricate sci-fi horror series running. In this latest entry, he ups the ante by mixing Elder Gods, Nazgûl, vampires, and yet more frustrating bureaucracy into the mix as head of the Lords Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs, Mhairi Murphey, struggles to deal with her awful boss while searching for the missing American President—who no one in the U.S. seems to care about, or even remember. Once again, Stross manages to tell a fantastic story rife with dark humor, political satire, and plain, old-fashioned fun.

Finding Baba Yaga, by Jane Yolen 
Nebula-winning Yolen has written hundreds of books and long ago achieved legendary status, but instead of coasting, she continues to challenge herself and her readers. Finding Baba Yaga is not only written in delightful, modern verse, and not only takes inspiration from an old Russian fairy tale, it is also a subtle, powerful take on the #MeToo movement. Natasha flees her abusive, unhappy home and comes across a hut that moves under its own power, walking on chicken legs. She’s taken in by legendary witch Baba Yaga, and carves out a wholly unexpected life for herself that begins with her finding her own voice, and ends with her using her voice to make things happen.

What new SFF books are you picking up this week?

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Gorgeous, Definitive, Essential: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

For fans of Ursula K. Le Guin, the past few years have been bittersweet.

The bitter, of course, is that Le Guin died in January 2018, albeit at the respectable age of 88.

The sweetness, oh readers, is the recent wave of beautifully repackaged, definitive collections of her iconic works (which is most of them), starting with Saga Press’s publication of The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real, a broad cross-section of her short fiction, lovingly assembled in two hefty volumes.

Two Library of America editions followed, The Complete Orsinia and The Hainish Novels and Stories, the former of which collects all the works related to an imaginary central European country; the latter, those set within a loose confederation of space-faring humans.

And then there is Earthsea, the last great literary canvas of Le Guin’s to be collected.

Real books go “thunk.”

That lacuna is now filled by The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, which includes everything she ever wrote on the subject (they aren’t kidding about “complete), with a new introduction by Le Guin and more than 50 new illustrations by Charles Vess. It’s a beautiful thing: the kind of book you want to display, but also surprisingly readable, even at 992 pages and weighing in at more than five pounds.

Earthsea began with a couple of short stories set on the eponymous archipelago, written in 1964. Le Guin called these brief snippets “more like a sailor’s chance sighting of a couple of islands than the discovery of a new world.” In 1968, she published A Wizard of Earthsea, the first of a trilogy (continued in The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore) that eventually grew into a series of five novels and a short story collection, plus extraneous writings, addendums, and a lecture, all written over the long decades of Le Guin’s career. (One of the reasons Earthsea is so resonant is that she returned to the archipelago time and time again, her life experience changing the very landscape.)

Tehanu frontispiece

Earthsea is a place of word-magic, where to name a thing is to control that thing, but true names are as tricky as a dragon. Dragons, of course, also feature in the Earthsea stories: they speak a true language that they can lie in, but we cannot. They are wild majesty and bestial grandeur, and all other paradoxes of wind and calm.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a talented young wizard from meager beginnings who comes to terms with his own arrogance. In a slim volume, in a book for young adults, Le Guin shaped a perfect Western monomyth. The key detail elided by both the television miniseries and animated film adaptions and early book covers was that the young wizard is black. This was an important detail in the late ’60s, and it’s important now. Vess’s illustrations, which he shaped with the help of the author’s devoted attention, correct these earlier oversights.

Vess worked closely with Le Guin before her death to illustrate each novel and story found within The Books of Earthsea (there are painted endpapers and full-color frontispieces for each book, and scattered black and white drawings throughout).

A Wizard of Earthsea title page

About their collaboration, Le Guin said, “As a poet and story-writer I work strictly alone; but to find an artist that I can consult with, talk with, and watch as they make what I wrote into something new, yet still itself, something I couldn’t make, couldn’t even imagine—that is a privilege and a joy.” The plates range from landscapes to still life, the anatomy of dragons to more intimate portraiture. Vess’ drawings strike a balance between harsh realism and a more impressionistic cartooning, the way Le Guin’s stories of dragons and magic also speak to childhood abuse and adolescent failures. To misquote a line from Marianne Moore: it is an imaginary garden with real toads in it.

The Books of Earthsea also includes two important short stories: “The Daughter of Odren,” which has heretofore never been in print (it was published only digitally), and the last story of Tenar and Ged, “Firelight,” which was posthumously published with far too little fanfare in The Paris Review this past summer. “The Daughter of Odren” tells the stories of siblings, a brother and sister, and the gendered response to parental cruelty and abandonment. “Firelight”… Well, I’m not ashamed to say I bawled my eyes out reading it: “He would go on, this time, until he sailed into the other wind.”

Earthsea is about childhood, and childhood’s end; adulthood, and its rough choices; and, in the end, the end of the end—when “sea and shore were all the same at last, then the dragon spoke the truth, and there was nothing to fear.”

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition will be published October 30.

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