Hellbent for Books: A Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reading Playlist Inspired by Judas Priest

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Sometimes, the music I love makes me think of the book I love. Sometimes, reading a book will trigger a memory of a favorite song. Though entirely different, the experiences become intertwined.

One of my favorite bands is Judas Priest, legendary makers of heavy metal. My favorite genre, when reading, is speculative fiction. It tracks: if I had to describe the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres in music, I’d definitely go with heavy metal: Monsters, magic, devils, skeletons, aliens, zombies, necromancers—they’re everywhere in metal. Surely this is why the music I love and the books I adore so often flow together in my mind, each inspiring the other.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to put together a reading playlist inspired by 13 of my favorite Judas Priest songs. (I highly recommend putting together your own reading list for the band you love—why not share yours in the comments?)

The song: “Electric Eye” (from Screaming for Vengeance)
Sample lyrics:Up here in space / I’m looking down on you / My lasers trace / Everything you do / You think you’ve private lives / Think nothing of the kind / There is no true escape / I’m watching all the time
The book: The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
Why it fits: “Electric Eye” brings to mind books and stories that feature government surveillance, including George Orwell’s 1984. However, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series) takes the idea of a futuristic surveillance nightmare to another level. The story is mind-bending in scope, dealing with the consequences of humans finding evidence of hostile intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The vision of powerful aliens spying on every aspect of life on Earth via sophons (read to find out the details) makes for excellent, and chilling, science fiction.

The Song: “Traitor’s Gate” (from Firepower)
Sample lyrics: I only wanted what was right / To bring a purpose by rebellion / The storm is soon arriving / And rain will wash away my blood / This walk of death will bring survival
The book: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
Why it fits: The first time I listened to this song, it evoked Lee’s spectacular Machineries of Empire books so strongly for me, I immediately accepted it as my unofficial soundtrack for the trilogy. In the song, a traitor goes to his execution saying his death will bring about a better future. In Ninefox Gambit, there’s also a traitor, the undead general Shuos Jedao, whose mind has been artificially kept alive by the ruling interstellar regime (the hexarchate) because of his brilliance as a tactician. His consciousness downloaded into a new body, Jedao must work together with disgraced captain Kel Cheris to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles. In the end, the actions of Jedao and Cheris end up shaking the very foundations of the hexarchate.

The Song: “Night Comes Down” (from Defenders of the Faith)
Sample lyrics: You never understood / That I’ll wait forever / For a love that’s only good / As the light starts to dim / The fear closes in
The book: The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Why it fits: The Mere Wife is a modern retelling of Beowulf, pitting two mothers against one another in an epic showdown. It’s also a story about their sons: one boy grows up in hiding because his mother fears that the world will see him as a monster. The other grows up in the luxury of Herot Hall. Once these two boys meet, their world changes forever. There’s a lot of violence in The Mere Wife, but there is also love, and in one crucial scene, two lovers end up on a train inside a mountain. For me, this soul-shredding metal ballad is the perfect soundtrack for that moment, and for that love story, capturing its pain, longing, and heartbreak.

The song: “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” (from Screaming for Vengeance)
Sample lyrics: If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by / You’re thinkin’ like a fool cause it’s a case of do or die / Out there is a fortune waiting to be had / If you think I’ll let you go you’re mad
The book: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
Why it fits: This, to me, is undeniably the theme song of Lila Bard, the lost orphan pirate thief of V.E. Schwab’s magical trilogy, set in the linked parallel worlds of Red London, Gray London, White London, and Black London. Lila is cunning, bold, and occasionally violent. She originally hails from the rather mundane Gray London, but ends up traveling to the magically infused Red London with Kell Maresh, the last wizard able to use magic to travel between worlds. Just like the song implies, Lila is likely to try to grab whatever the heck she wants from the world and won’t make any excuses for it.

The Song: “Halls of Valhalla” (from Redeemer of Souls)
Sample lyrics:Fierce is the gale / On the North Sea / We drink and rejoice from the chalice / Holding the course / Through long nights and days / The ice and the hail bear no malice
The book: The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell
Why it fits: This song is pure viking heavy metal. Just like Cornwell’s book about Uhtred and his exploits in 9th century Britain, it captures all the imagined brawn and brashness of Norse-men heading out on adventure, sailing the waves in their dragon-prowed ships, brandishing swords and axes in battle. Cornwell’s book series might be more historical fiction than speculative, but there’s enough magic and mythology in it to satisfy my spec-fic heart.

The Song: “Spectre” (from Firepower)
Sample lyrics: “A villain with no morals / Above the law and reckless / Mutating day by day / Invisible in silence / Conspiring to get power / This man will stop at nothing / To always get his way
The book: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler
Why it fits: “Spectre” is a song about an immoral, corrupt, power-hungry leader who preys on others. First time I heard it, it brought to mind Octavia Butler’s Parable duology, especially the first book, Parable of the Talents. In today’s world, the book feels chillingly prescient—it plays out in a dystopian future in which climate change is a reality, strife tears at the fabric of society and democracy, and a religious zealot employs the familiar slogan “make America great again” to whip his flock into a xenophobic frenzy.

The song: “Hell Patrol” (from Painkiller)
Sample lyrics:They’re glory bound / The Hell Patrol / Brutalize you / Neutralize you / Gonna go for your throat as you choke / Then they’ll vaporize you
The story: The Lamentation of Their Women, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Why it fits: In Wilson’s story a young black couple from the Bronx, find two diabolical (literally diabolical) weapons—a shotgun and a machète—that, with the Devil’s help, make them unstoppable in combat. Once they realize the power they wield, they head out on a blood-soaked killing spree that is so phantasmagorically and graphically over-the-top it’ll make your head spin. But while their exploits are supercharged by the Devil, they’re also fueled by their anger at the oppression and injustice black people face every day. The story has a razor-sharp edge that cuts deep. “Hell Patrol” has a similarly gleeful, hyper-violent vibe, reveling in destruction and carnage.

The song: “Starbreaker” (from Sin After Sin)
Sample lyrics:Look out, here’s Starbreaker / Cruisin’ into town / Set his mind to stealin’ / Every little heart around
The book: Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones
Why it fits: This one is blatantly obvious, if you’re a fan of the book or the movie (even better if you’re a fan of both). An irresistible character who comes to town, stealing hearts? That’s pretty much a spot-on description of Wizard Howl—at least in his heart-stealing days, before he runs into Sophie Hatter. And while there is no actual star in the book (Calcifer is a fire demon in Wynne’s story), if you’re like me, you probably have space in your heart for both Calcifer the fire demon and Calcifer the fallen star from Hayao Miyazaki’s anime adaptation.

The song: “Before the Dawn” (from Killing Machine)
Sample lyrics: “It’s been a lifetime since I found someone / Since I found someone who would stay / I’ve waited too long and now you’re leaving / Oh please don’t take it all away”
The book: Icefall, by Stephanie Gunn
Why it fits: In this science fiction novella, a woman called Maggie sets off to climb an impossibly high mountain, known simply as The Mountain, on the planet Icefall. Many climbers have tried reaching the summit, but no one has ever returned. While Maggie climbs, her wife Aisha waits in their spaceship, desperately hoping she’ll be the one to buck the odds. The Mountain is an entity in its own right, a place of horrors and miracles that no one can quite explain, and the mood of the story is perfectly matched by this heart-rending love song by Judas Priest—its aching sense of loss, love, and longing.

The song: “Screaming for Vengeance” (from Screaming for Vengeance)
Sample lyrics: “Table’s turned now there’s a revenge in sight / If it takes forever babe I tell ya I can wait / Send them screaming back through their hell’s own gate
The book: Mort(e), by Robert Repino
Why it fits: Mort(e) is an audacious and gritty science fiction fable that carries some of the DNA of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, animals all over the world evolve quickly into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters, and there are many creatures in this book who are screaming for vengeance. Mort(e), a house cat, is one of them. He becomes a warrior in the brutal War With No Name against the humans. But in the background lurks the another seeker of vengeance: the ant queen, leader of the Colony, a community of ants who have a vested interest in bringing down humanity. The two pronged revenge plot is a natural fit for “Screaming for Vengeance,” a song about anger and the righteous pleasure of a long-sought reckoning.

The Song: “All Guns Blazing” (from Painkiller)
Sample lyrics: “Forced into overdrive / Drawn out of anger / All talons poison dipped / Impaling spike / Heart pounding fever pitch / Blood pumping fury / Two fisted dynamo / Eager to strike
The book: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Why it fits: Rebecca Roanhorse’s book is set in a post-apocalyptic future ravaged by the “Big Water” that has drowned most of the United Staes and seen Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) reborn. Gods and legendary heroes walk the land, but so do monsters—and Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter. She has a supernatural knack for fighting with blades, guns, or any other weapons at hand, leading to some jaw-dropping fight scenes that feel tailor-made for a heavy metal soundtrack. I can’t think of a better tune for Maggie to crank up in her pickup truck than fist-pumping ode to violence “All Guns Blazing.”

The Song: “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” (from Defenders of the Faith)
Sample lyrics: “The power-mad freaks who are / Ruling the earth / Will show how little they think you’re worth / With animal lust they’ll / Devour your life / And slice your words to bits like a knife
The book: The Master & Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Why it fits: Heads begin to roll right from the start in Bulgakov’s classic novel, and the death toll doesn’t stop there. The story takes place in Moscow in the 1930s, as the Devil comes to town accompanied by an entourage that includes naked women, a vampire, and a large talking black cat who drinks vodka (which all sounds very metal to me). In Moscow, we also encounter the Master, a writer who has been persecuted for writing a book about Christ; and Margarita who is in love with the Master. Margarita gets tangled up in the Devil’s plans, and when she is invited to the Devil’s ball, she takes violent revenge on the ruling bureaucrats who tormented the Master. “So,me Heads Are Gonna Roll” indeed.

The Song: “Necromancer” (from Firepower)
Sample lyrics: “Raising the dead up from the ground / Needs must be fed, sorcerers abound / Necromancer / Death’s his guiding lights / Necromancer / Stealing afterlife
The book: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
Why it fits: Granted, this book is not out yet, but after reading the first few chapters over at Tor.com, I am confident that Gideon the Ninth will be a perfect match for Judas Priest’s gleefully visceral tune about raising the dead and dancing on their cracked bones. [Editor’s note: I’ve read the whole thing and yes, can confirm.] The attitude of the official blurb alone is metal: “Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.” It’s also a book where someone tells Gideon: “One day your obedient bones will dust all places you disdain, and make the stones there shine with your fat.” That’s the kind of insult a heavy-metal necromancer would definitely cherish.

Share your own music-inspired reading lists in the comments!

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10 Novels Inspired by China and Southeast Asian Culture

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

According to the traditional Chinese calendar, today marks the start of the Year of the Pig and the celebration of Lunar New Year in China and other countries in Southeast Asia (including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand)—and, indeed, around the world. To celebrate the new year, here are 10 new and recent sci-fi and fantasy books that draw from or are set in the cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (aka The Three-Body trilogy), by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
The 2015 release of the English version of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem became a publishing sensation. A huge hit in Liu’s native China, where it has inspired everything from cosplay to theme parks, it became the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award and the flashpoint that ignited a small boom in Chinese sci-fi in the West. It couldn’t have happened to a better book: though it incorporates the tropes of the so-called Golden Age English-language sci-fi novels Liu grew up loving, The Three-Body Problem and its sequels approach the genre from a distinctly Chinese angle, centering the action in Chinese characters; the opening of the first novel is even set during the Cultural Revolution, a time when academics like the protagonists were persecuted for promoting science. As a whole, the trilogy explores a first contact scenario between humans and aliens on a vast scale, but the lens through which it is viewed is distinctly Chinese. The Redemption of Time, a continuation of the series penned by a fan and later sanction by the author will be released in the U.S. later this year.

The Dandelion Dynasty, by Ken Liu
Ken Liu is a prolific short story writer, and many of his speculative tales—including those in his marvelous collection The Paper Menagerie— draw from his Chinese heritage, but with his series the Dandelion Dynasty, he’s doing something truly different within the confines of epic fantasy. Though unabashedly epic in scope—an account of the rise and fall of empires in a world filled with magic, monsters, and inventive technology—The Grace of Kings and its sequel The Wall of Storms don’t fit the Western fantasy mold. The novels incorporate a fair amount of both history and folklore about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han way, way back in Chinese history, and enhance them with a silkpunk aesthetic, but the way the narrative unfurls, favoring the sweep of history over the intimate and the personal, sets them apart from so many A Game of Thrones readalikes. Chinese history—with its sweep of millennia and dynastic machinations—is perfectly suited to epic fantasy, a genre which has heretofore largely cribbed from medieval and renaissance Europe (with notable and important exceptions, of course). Liu tells something like a national origin story, with all of the attendant tall tales, mythologizing, and invocation of the gods such an enterprise incurs.

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang 
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile and is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman, able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history (particularly the horrific Rape of Nanking), but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The story continues later this year in The Dragon Republic.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
King’s scarily good debut does what sci-fi does best, extrapolating a plausible future from real-world reality. In a future China where the one-child policy has led to a population with 40 million more men than women, middle aged Wei-guo struggles through a life in which he is considered unnecessary. He maintains his optimism and conviction that as long as he continues to improve he will be rewarded with love, and finally saves a dowry that enables him to join an “advanced family” as a third husband—the lowest rank—to the lovely May-ling. The family is imperfect, harboring an “illegal spouse,” but Wei-guo finds kinship and friendship in this unusual arrangement. But the rulers of the nation know they are sitting on a powder keg, and have become more intrusive and authoritarian than ever. Someone is always listening, and Wei-guo knows no matter how happy he is, he will always be an “excess male,” and thus disposable. If this sounds like grim dystopia to you, never fear: though the circumstances Wei-guo faces are often harsh, the novel is ultimately affirming—heartwarming, romantic, and even sweet.

The Tensorate series, by JY Yang
Billed by Tor.com Publishing as a silkpunk fantasy saga, the linked novellas of JY Yang’s Tensorate series take place in a secondary world incorporating a myriad of Asian cultural traditions (while the author is Singaporean, the books cannot be so narrowly classified). They are a masterclass in worldbuilding. The pan-Asian fantasy setting pieces together the familiar (mosques, congee, and guns are all touchstones of our reality, and yet…) with elements that are truly strange: nagas, velociraptors, megafauna, and much else dwelling alongside humanity; prophecy as a talent used to guide nations; a culture where children control nothing of their own destiny, yet can choose their own genders. Each novella follows a different protagonist and explores different aspects of the world; they stand largely along, but we’d recommend starting with The Black Tides of Heaven. The next entry in the series, The Ascent to Godhood, arrives in July.

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Marjorie Liu’s acclaimed graphic novel series is a phantasmagorical horror story-cum-bildungsroman following Maika Halfwolf, a teenage girl who shares a bond with a mythical monster in a world inspired by the cultures and history of Asia in the early 20th century. While this is distinctly a secondary world—blood magic, wolf children, and talking cats abound—it deals with issues intrinsic to the grimmest history of the region: racism, slavery, and cultural warfare inspired by Liu’s grandmother’s experiences during World War II (the writer is half-Chinese, and her grandmother escaped the Japanese occupation of China as a teenager). Thanks to Sana Takeda’s darkly gorgeous, stunningly detailed artwork and endearing (and fearsome) character designs, the series is easy to pick up (which is probably why it has won multiple Eisner Awards for young adult comics), but the themes the narrative grapples with are weighty indeed.

In the Vanisher’s Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard is of French and Vietnamese descent, and she weaves elements of her cultural heritage into pretty much everything she writes, including her epic space opera series set in the Xuya Universe, the future of an alternate history in which the Chinese came to the Americas before the Europeans, which resulted in Asian powers dominating the globe and, thus, the future of intergalactic space travel. de Bodard’s most recent work is in an entirely different vein—a queer retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story that draws heavily upon Vietnamese culture in which the beast is a dragon and the world is still reeling from the fallout of colonialism after friendly visitors from an alien race brought disease and destruction with them on their starships. As a reframing of a classic fairy tale, In the Vanisher’s Palace is subversive and bold; as a romance, it is tentative, touching, and sweet.

The True Queen, by Zen Cho
The long-awaited sequel to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown explores new angles of her Regency-Era-with-magic world. It’s set on the enchanted island of Janda Baik in the Malay Archipelago (including the modern-day Brunei, Singapore, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor), a place that has long been home to witches in Cho’s alternate history. Sisters Muna and Sakti wash up on the shores of the island with no recollection of how they got there—and indeed, they seem to be suffering under a curse that has stolen most of their memories. They hope to find help from the great magicians of England, but they are waylaid on their journey west, which takes them through the fae lands, where Sakti vanishes.  To save her sister, Muna must convince the British magicians that she is a gifted magic user herself, running up against cultural prejudices in the process—no doubt informed by the author’s own background as a Malaysian woman living in the U.K. If you enjoy the way Zen Cho weaves Asian cultural traditions into her fiction, her story collection Spirits Abroad is an absolute must—and we’ll also tout the lovely novelette she published here on this blog, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”

Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The elevator pitch for YA author Fonda Lee’s first novel for adults is pretty catchy: it’s The Godfather meets Hong Kong martial arts films in a world inspired by the cultural traditions of China and other Asian communities. The titular Jade City is the capital of an island nation a generation or so past occupation by a foreign power. This occupation was repulsed by the Green Bone warriors, an ethnic minority who have the cultural lore and genetic predisposition to wield jade, a mineral resource that can confer superhuman powers on its wearers. Without adequate training or natural disposition, jade can drive a person to suicide. Two generations ago, Green Bone warriors were hungry freedom fighters with bonds forged in blood; now they are warring clans presided over by both cautious old men and hungry young upstarts. The Green Bone warriors are at war with themselves. Jade City is a sprawling story of crime families in conflict, set in a cosmopolitan city with a nevertheless deeply traditional culture. Sequel Jade War arrives later this year.

Gates of Stone, by Angus Macallan
The final entry on our recommended reading list is the only one that wouldn’t be considered an “own voices” work—though author Angus Macallan was born in China and lived, worked, and studied in Asia for much of his life, including a stint as a journalist in Hong Kong, he is not of Asian descent himself. His epic fantasy Gates of Stone draws from Indonesian culture as well as other Asian cultural traditions to tell the story of a princess who is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Princess Katerina’s journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of a prince whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. To this Western reader’s eye, this series-starter seems to engage with its Asian inspirations beyond using them as mere exotic window-dressing. Hopefully readers of all different cultural backgrounds will agree.

What Asian-inspired fantasy novels do you recommend for Lunar New Year reading?

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