Your Favorite Fantasy Magic Systems, Rated

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

There was a time in the fantasy genre when magic was simply, er, magical, and didn’t require a whole lot of explanation.

But time has a habit of making everything more complex, and so it’s unsurprising that magic systems have followed suit. These days, there are basically two schools of thought when it comes to magic in books, as outlined in a widely circulated essay by author Brandon Sanderson concerning “hard” (rigorous adherence to rules) and “soft” (looser, more hand-wave-y) magic systems. It’s now possible to classify just about every fantasy book into one of those two categories, and many readers have some very strong opinions about which is preferable and why.

Of course, we’re advocates for an author choosing the type of magic system that best fits their narrative, but for purposes of classification, let’s imagine a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 indicates the least-rigorous kind of magic system (everything can be explained via the phrase “because magic”) and 10 is the most-rigorous (finishing a book or series in this category earns you an honorary doctorate in that magic system).

Here’s how we’d rank 16 fantasy books and series on our rigorous/non-rigorous scale—but before we dive in, let us note that we aren’t suggesting one type of magic system is better than another; storytellers should be allowed the latitude to cast their own spell over readers.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Magic System Rating: 1 (Because Magic)
It’s difficult to have a conversation about classifying fantasy books without at least mentioning Tolkien. The man was writing a modern myth, and myths don’t usually explain their magic in great detail, so it’s little surprise that Tolkien’s magic displays very little that’s systematic in the modern sense. In Tolkien’s universe, magic stems from wisdom and inherent power—the closer you are to Iluvatar, the creator, the more inherent power you have. As a result, the elves and Istari are always more magically capable than men, and the eldest and wisest among them are the most powerful. But Tolkien also presents all power as inherently corrupting, and magic the most corrupting of all. In the end, despite the reams of detailed backstory, history, and character biography the man created, his magic has almost no rigor at all, rather originating from the individual will and knowledge of its practitioners.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Magic System Rating: 1 (Because Magic)
Martin is writing a purposeful deconstruction of epic fantasy tropes—including magic systems—and has actually put some work into making his magic frustrating and inconsistent beyond a few broad-stroke rules (there’s definitely some like-for-like business, with equivalent sacrifices needed to produce an effect). Most of the people actively using magic in his world seem befuddled by the whole process; the general sense is that it’s unreliable and often ineffective—but when it works, boy howdy does it ever work (shadow assassins, am I right?). It’s a fascinating twist on the whole concept, as its lack of rigor is intentional, and serves the larger design of the narrative—a design we must note is not yet complete, so there may be more to come on this front.

The Belgariad, by David Eddings and The Books of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Magic System Rating: 2 (Simple, but Effective)
These two mainstays of post-Tolkien fantasy offer a slight refinement on the “obscured by the mists of time” approach J.R.R. took, offering extremely simple magic systems that apply a very, very small instructional set. In Eddings’ old-school classic, certain folks can employ the Will and the Word—want something hard enough, and speak a word, and it happens (within some extremely broad limitations set by the gods). In Earthsea, everything has a secret, true name in the ancient language of the dragons; if you learn it, you have power over that thing or person (and by the way: you can’t lie in the dragons’ language—unless you are, in fact, a dragon). These rules are so basic as to allow for just about anything to happen, magic-wise, but they do offer at least a sketch of a system on which to hang your pointed, star-and-moon-covered conical hat.

The Eternal Champion, by Michael Moorcock
Magic System Rating: 3 (Non-Rigorous, but With an Explanation)
The legendary Moorcock also follows the old-school habit of not explaining his magic too deeply, but he does at least provide an explanation of how it works, along with a dose of unreliability. Most magic in his universe is accomplished by contacting, bargaining with, or summoning and controlling demons and elemental beings—if you’re looking to smash an advancing army, you could summon an incredibly powerful, army-smashing demon. The problem being that all these immensely powerful beings have their own agendas, so it’s not uncommon for these sorts of spells to go awry—or for someone to lose control of them entirely, resulting in chaos. It’s a neat way to cover for the fact that your magic system isn’t so much a system as a loose set of guidelines.

Shades of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
Magic System Rating: 4 (Mystery Box)
V.E. Schwab’s magic system in the excellent Shades of Magic series is organized, but not terribly rule-laden. We understand the mechanics of the wizard-like Antari’s blood magic, but much of the ways and hows of magic’s function in the three magical Londons (Red, White, and Black—Grey London is our London, and thus has no magic) is left mysterious. Not that this hurts the story in any way—Schwab expertly gives readers exactly enough information to make the system workable without overloading them with detail that, frankly, isn’t necessary to appreciate her story, and might even ruin the spell of awe and wonder cast by the character-centric narrative.

The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
Magic System Rating: 5 (Faux-Rigor)
Rowling’s omnipresence makes her an automatic reference in this discussion. Though they take place at a magic school, the magic system she’s developed for the Harry Potter universe isn’t actually all that rigorous. Magical ability is genetic, so you’re just sort of born with it, and behind all the words and wands there’s precious little explanation of exactly how it all works (although, to be fair, there’s a bit more detail when it comes to potions). Despite how much Rowling has added to the universe via Pottermore reveals and controversial tweetbombs, we’re still not clear whether you can just add the word maxima to any spell in order to increase its power.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Magic System Rating: 5 (Faux-Rigor)
Clarke also does a fantastic job of hiding a pretty vague magic system beneath a lot of superficial detail, lending an appearance of a complex set of rules governing the use of magic without ever offering a rational set of rules. Clarke isn’t floundering, though—one of the great qualities of the novel is the fact that the actual magicians in it are often just as befuddled by the details of magic. It makes sense, since in-narrative, it’s presented as a lost art, only suddenly returned to the world in the early 19th century. The combination of oddly specific spells (for example, one involving a mirror, some flowers, and a specific set of patterns) and unanswered questions (which flower?) creates its own sort of magic: the illusion of a detailed system.

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Magic System Rating: 5 (Faux-Rigor)
The magic system in The Wheel of Time is often misunderstood, for two reasons: one, it’s purposefully obscured, in that many of the supposed rules are never explained and much of it is chalked up to innate skill and talent. Two, it starts off as a relatively rigorous system that then decays into something much softer as the plot points demanded it. The magic system is extremely consistent and pattern-based—once you know how to bend and twist a strand of the One Power to produce a certain effect, you can repeat the recipe over and over again with the same result—and the characters consistently work within those rules, and are often forced to be clever in using their knowledge in order to overcome obstacles (one of Sanderson’s own rules about hard magic). But an arms race of ever more powerful characters and plot twists that undermine the rules (Androl Genhald, your ears are burning) lowered the numerical ranking by a few points.

The Kingkiller Chronicle, by Patrick Rothfuss
Magic System Rating: 6 (Both Rigorous and Non-Rigorous)
The magic systems Rothfuss invents for his beloved epic fantasy are a curious hybrid. On the one hand, Sympathy—the linking of two objects so they share the effects of a single force—is extremely detailed, as are alchemy and other magics, to the point where Rothfuss says he has equations in his notes to back up every use of magic in the books. You don’t get much more rigorous than Sympathy. On the other hand, he also has a system of “true name”-style magic that is completely unexplained and non-rigorous. Rothfuss has explained that he simply wanted the best of both worlds: to give readers the satisfaction of understanding a magic system and appreciating its cleverness, combined with the sense of awe and wonder that unexplained magic can offer.

Tales of the Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
Magic System Rating: 7 (Rigorous)
There aren’t many SFF writers who have a whole style of magic named after them, but if you Google “Vancian Magic,” you’ll find your way to Vance’s Dying Earth cycle. Vance has a simple system: magic spells must be memorized, but they are fantastically long, so people can only memorize a few at a time—and spells are forgotten the moment you cast them. This kind of resource-limiting magic system is straightforward but adds that spice of limitation and obstacle that Sanderson codified in his essay. Vance doesn’t make any effort to explain precisely why magic works or how the spells are structured, which dings a few points on the rigor scale, but it’s a powerful idea that’s been borrowed by plenty of writers since.

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
Magic System Rating: 7 (Rigorous)
No conversation about fantasy storytelling these days is complete without checking on what Jemisin’s doing—she’s hugely influential, highly successful, and what literary scientists classify as damn good. Her Broken Earth series creates a distinction between magic and what she terms orogeny; the latter is the ability by some in the seismically-unstable world of the Stillness to harness that seismic energy (and other forms of energy) and channelit as they will. Orogeny has plenty of defined rules that approach a scientific depth of complexity and rigor (the author worked with geologists to develop the science behind her magic), but Jemisin is famously disinterested in codifying her magic systems, and reacts humorously to any attempt to get her to offer a dissertation on the subject.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Magic System Rating: 8 (It Eats Rigor for Breakfast)
As a deconstruction of Harry Potter, Grossman’s series would tend towards the rigorous side of the spectrum, wouldn’t it? Instead of a vague wand-and-word system that is more fun than sensible, Grossman explores what it might actually be like to study magic as a complex and ancient discipline. The spells are complex and follow specific patterns, require a lot of basic memorization and learning of fundamentals before you can skate off into theory, and the whole things feels like work the same way higher math feels like work. Yet the feeling that you too could cast spells if you just studied hard enough more than makes up for it.

Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (translated by Julia Meitov Hersey)
Magic System Rating:
8 (It Eats Rigor for Breakfast)
Russian authors Marina and Sergey Dyachenko take a similar approach to Grossman’s The Magicians in sketching out the way magic works in their award-winning 2006 novel, which was finally released in the U.S. in 2018—though rather than mathematics, its rules veer closer to language theory and linguistics. When 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina enrolls at the Institute for Special Technologies, she is thrust into a magical education that couldn’t be any further removed from Hogwarts. In their first year, the students spend most of their time reading nigh-incomprehensible texts, training their brains to unlock the power inherent in language. Once they’ve mastered that (a process that literally transforms their brains), they develop more advanced abilities to manipulate the world through the definitional power of language. To say much more would steer us into spoiler territory; needless to say, you’ll finish the book feeling as if your own mind has been rewired.

Master of the Five Magics, by Lyndon Hardy
Magic System Rating: 8 (It Eats Rigor for Breakfast)
As the title suggests, there are five magical systems (at least initially) in Hardy’s 1980s classic, and they are all rigorously defined, with explicit rules and laws spelled out for you. The five magics are thaumaturgy, alchemy, magic, sorcery, and wizardry, and each discipline has its own set of rules. For example, the rules for wizardry, which is the magical discipline concerned with summoning demons, are The Law of Ubiquity (Flame permeates all) and The Law of Dichotomy (dominance or submission). In other words, you can summon demons through fire (fires built from different fuels will summon different or more powerful demons) and once a demon is summoned, the wizard must either dominate the demon’s will, or be dominated instead. Simple and elegant—and that’s most impressive is that Hardy developed these laws and rules for all five of his disciplines; he then goes on to illustrate additional meta-rules, applicable after his protagonist achieves the titular honor.

The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone
Magic System Rating: 9 (We Got Rules for Our Rules)
Gladstone true brilliance in this series is in his thinking about magic in terms of contracts and legalese, resulting in an extremely rigorous system that is also endlessly, infinitely flexible—just like real life contract law. Add in the realization that the gods of this world draw their power directly from belief—belief that can be engineered and manufactured like a commodity—and boom, you’ve got a transactional magic system that is unique, compelling, and quite rigorous. In Gladstone’s universe, the force of magic itself—the power of the gods—is actually pretty gormless and non-rigorous, but it is made rigorous by the application of Craft, and the manipulation of those rules in accepted ways. That is some deeply magical thinking.

The Cosmere novels, by Brandon Sanderson
Magic System Rating: 10 (You Got Science in My Magic)
Unsurprisingly, the man who wrote one of the most influential modern essays on the fantasy genre (and who’s also kind of successful as a writer of fantasy fiction) has produced one of the most rigorous magic systems in history. For extra points, the magic system he’s crafted, Investiture, is a stealth meta system that encompasses several other already-rigorous magic systems laid out in separate fantasy series that have slowly been revealed to be not so separate after all—to be, in fact, part of a larger, integrated universe. Sanderson’s achievement here can’t be understated: Investiture is only partially revealed at this time, but what’s clear is that the different magic systems found across Sanderson’s books—from Mistborn‘s Allomancy (the manipulation of ingested metals gives users superhuman abilities), to Warbreaker‘s BioChroma (magical power is drawn from colors present in the user’s environment), to Elantris‘ ritual-based Dor—all follow the same general guidelines, as they’re all part of the meta-system he’s crafting. It’s all quite detailed and consistent, yet tons of fun to think about.

Dungeons & Dragons
Magic System Rating: 11 (Ph.D.-Level Magic)
Okay, it’s not strictly a work of fiction, but by necessity, D&D remains the gold-standard for hard magic systems—because if it wasn’t, the game it powers wouldn’t work. Every single detail is mapped out, every aspect of magic is controlled and explained, and every outcome makes sense based on detailed rules of interaction. The real magic here is how the, um, magic of magic is maintained despite the rigor applied to it; in part this is due to the introduction of chance in the form of a roll of the die and the (typically) unknown stats of the object of your spell, but part of it also stems from the spirit of the endeavor: D&D isn’t trying to suppress your imagination or sense of awe, it’s just seeking to channel them in a coherent and replicable fashion.

What books have your favorite magic systems, and how would you rate them?

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7 Darkly Funny Fantasy Novels

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If you’ve yet to meet Sal the Cacophony, you’re in for a treat. The anti-hero star of Seven Blades in Black, the doorstopping start to Sam Sykes’s The Grave of Empires series, is a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, good-hearted riot.

Sal is an outlaw magician. The Cacophony is the magic gun with a fiery temper she carries from town to town on her quest for vengeance against band of powerful mages who wronged her. Sal roams across the Scar—her wasteland realm of a home—racking up a body count and enlisting several (semi-)willing allies in a story that alternates between cracking jokes and unpacking a helluva lot of emotional trauma.

The vibe is bleak and boffo, fueled by flawless gallows humor and an immense amount of gore. And it made us want more. So we thought of some other dark, funny fantasy favorites to keep us occupied until Sal the Cacophony rides again.

Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
What do you get when you take the concept of aging, semi-retired rock bands and swap it out for aging, semi-retired bands of mercenaries? Eames’s glorious series-starting debut. Clay Cooper and his band Saga used to be feared and famous far and wide. Now, Saga’s members are old, mostly drunk, and doughy around the middle. But when one of their own comes knocking on Clay’s door with a cry for help, well, it’s time to get the band back together. A perfect read for fans of both humor and metal.

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
The first book in the A Chorus of Dragons series begins as a prison-cell conversation. It’s a dire situation from the start: imprisoned thief Khirin’s luck (what little he had of it) seems to have run out and he’s about to be put to death. But Lyon’s debut is also filled with gallows humor at its finest. Through alternating chapters, Khirin and Talon, his not-quite-human jailer, retell Khirin’s life story, mulling over the events that led him into a cell. What makes it so darkly funny? Talon knows so much about Khirin because she absorbs memories of those she knows intimately—including those she’s eaten. (Well, it’s amusing in context, anyway.)

A Crown for Cold Silver, by Alex Marshall
The first line of this opening novel in the Crimson Empire series explains it all: “It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre.” So much of what gives this epic saga its bloody, cheeky appeal is its central protagonist, a middle-aged, bisexual retired rebel general and one-time queen named Cobalt Zosia. Years after she laid down her weapons, disillusioned and longing for peace, Zosia is drawn back into the fray by the slaughter of her entire village—her thirst for vengeance means she and her gang of ne’er-do-wells, the Five Villains, must ride again.

The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden
Drayden’s gonzo debut has a foot in the worlds of both science fiction and fantasy, but with a first chapter that features hallucinatory crab-on-dolphin sex, it can’t very well be excluded from this list. This mile-a-minute head trip into a near-future South Africa is disorienting and stuffed to the gills with wild plot devices (sentient AI, aggrieved demigods, mass murder, a fearsome plague of dik-diks, and so on). It forecasts a dark future and deals with troubling issues of the present, with a bonkers, go-for-broke sensibility throughout that makes it a novel like no other.

Master Assassins, by Robert V.S. Redick
The title of this book is accurate, yes, and also deeply ironic. Kandri and Mektu Hinjuman are brothers, rivals, and soldiers in the service of a religious zealot, the Prophet. Assassins, however, they are not. Until someone the Prophet loves winds up inadvertently dead by Kandri’s hand. Mistaken for purposeful killers, the Brothers Hinjuman go on the run through a beautifully named desert—The Land That Eats Men—as accidental pawns in a grander scheme for control of the continent. The brothers’ relationship is complex and richly developed, and the hi-jinx they get into along the way are as memorable as they are amusing.

Food of the Gods, by Cassandra Khaw
Khaw knows how to pack a disturbing five-course meal into a book that reads like a tasty appetizer; for evidence, look to her Lovecraftian Persons Non Grata novellas. Here, though, with poor, unfortunate Rupert Wong, she finds the space to go big, bold, bloody, and absolutely bananas with a real feast of an absurdist dark fantasy. You could call Rupert Wong a career man; he has two. By day, he’s a cannibal chef for powerful ghouls. By night, he’s a bureaucrat in Diyu, the hell of Chinese mythology. His efforts to please an ever-growing cadre of gods and ghouls are gruesome and grin-inducing.

What’s your favorite not-too-serious fantasy novel?

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: An Indian Epic, a Return to the Prequel Era, and an Unforgettable Book No One Remembers

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Upon a Burning Throne, by Ashok K. Banker
Ashok Banker is a huge bestseller in his native India, and is making his U.S. debut with this ambitious epic fantasy inspired by the Mahabharata itself. The Burnt Empire exists in a world where demigods and demons walk the earth alongside humans. After the emperor dies, the empire is thrown into chaos, as two heirs each seek to prove their worthiness by sitting on the Burning Throne, whose deep magic destroys the unworthy. Both princes—Adri and Shvate—pass the test, but yet more chaos is unleashed when a third claimant appears: the daughter of the demonlord Jarsun. When his offspring is denied her chance to prove her worthiness as well, Jarsun declares war, vowing to destroy the Burnt Empire in revenge. Adri and Shvate find themselves co-rulers of an empire roiled by sedition and stressed by invasion in this sprawling tale of conspiracies, battles, and demonic magic.

Fire Season, by Stephen Blackmoore 
Your friendly neighborhood necromancer Eric Carter returns in fine, dark form in the fourth installment of Blackmoore’s smart urban fantasy series. As the novel opens, Los Angeles is literally burning with impossible fires. During one of the hottest summers on record, someone is killing off mages with fires that never go out (and shouldn’t be able to burn in the first place. Carter is being framed for the serial killings, and he thinks he knows who’s behind it—not everyone has a vengeful Aztec god in his rear-view mirror, after all. But some parts of his theory don’t quite add up, giving Carter the sinking feeling there’s more going on than he suspects. Which is always a dangerous thing when your day-to-day dealings include magic, the undead, and angry gods.

Winds of Marque: Blackwood & Virtue, by Bennett R. Coles
Coles launches a new series with a story of swashbuckling officers in His Imperial Majesty’s navy chasing down a nest of pirates—in space. The Big Ship Energy is real: these deep space vessels are propelled by solar sails. Second in command Liam Blackwood is still smarting from being passed over for promotion when the HMSS Daring gets a new captain, Lady Sophia Riverton, and new orders to infiltrate and destroy the pirates threatening the empire’s supply lines, even as it gears up for war with an inhuman enemy. Assisted by his petty officer and possible love interest Amelia Virtue, Blackwood is forced to act when his new his captain begins making questionable decisions and laying the grounds for a mutiny. It should go without saying that fans of Aubrey Martin and Temeraire will enjoy sailing acros the stars with the crew of the Daring.

Amnesty, by Laura Elena Donnelly
In the wake of a successful revolution, the once-glittering city of Amberlough struggles to rebuild itself in the final volume of Lara Elena Donnelly’s Nebula Award-nominated decopunk trilogy. Now that the oppressive Ospies have been removed from power, the regime that replaced them is seeking retribution from all who may have betrayed the city. This includes Cyril DePaul, who self-interestedly worked both sides of the conflict in an effort to save his own skin. His only remaining allies are a bitter ex-lover and his distant sister—and even in the wake of drastic change, Amberlough remains a dangerous, decadent place, awash in crime, deception, and—hopefully—a chance at redemption.

No Country for Old Gnomes, by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
If the second book in Dawson and Hearne’s gleefully parodic Tales of Pell series is not the surprise that Kill the Farm Boy was, it is every bit as delightful. As the tidy, cheerful gnomes prepare for war against the well-armed, voracious Halflings, one gnome finds his life upended by a Halfling bomb. Offi Numminen stands apart from others of his kind, incrementally less cheerful, and favoring cardigans with a distinctly goth appeal, but he goes from outcast to last hope when he finds himself the leader of a band of misfits headed off on a journey to the Toot Towers to set the world right again. The quest won’t be easy, but it certainly won’t be harder than pulling his band of malcontents together and making them work as a team. Once again, Dawson and Hearne balance their whimsical, affectionate ribbing of fantasy conventions with a deep love for the genre and the tropes they’re subverting.

Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
When twin black holes enter our solar system and knock Earth’s orbit out of whack, Matt Fleming reacts by creating the Mandjet, a floating, self-sustaining environment designed to withstand the climatic disaster that ensues. Struggling against government incompetence and his own family’s reluctance to admit what’s happening even as the summers turn brutally hot and crops fail worldwide, Fleming and the others on the Mandjet chronicle the collapse of civilization and the new reality of a world where all of the rules of nature and survival have been rewritten. With the scientific rigor that is Egan’s forte, this chilling what-if scenario serves as both a thrilling apocalyptic tale and a dire warning about the costs of inaction in the face of looming catastrophe.

Master & Apprentice (Barnes & Nobel Exclusive Edition), by Claudia Gray
Claudia Gray returns to the Star Wars galaxy with a real treat for fans who might feel forgotten in the era of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn: an all-new adventure featuring Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn. The story opens with the pair at a crossroads: Qui-Gon struggles with worry that he has failed his Padawan, as Obi-Wan frets at Qui-Gon’s consideration of an invitation to join the Jedi Council—thus ending their partnership. In the midst of this doubled-edged doubt, the Jedi are called to a distant planet to assist with a political dispute that quickly spirals into danger. As Qui-Gon experiences visions of disaster, Obi-Wan’s begins to suspect he can no longer trust his Master. The Barnes and Noble Exclusive edition includes a double-sided pull-out poster.

A Time of Blood, by John Gwynne
The sequel to A Time of Dread and the second book in John Gwynne’s Of Blood and Bone trilogy, A Time of Blood continues a richly detail and action-heavy epic saga. Drem and his allies saw terrible things at the battle that ended the last book: men transformed into monsters and a demon returned from the dead. They are now being hunted by the demon’s most loyal priestess, Fritha. Elsewhere, the half-breed Riy hides out in the forest, concealing her identity, and the threat she poses to the pure-blood warrior angels. The dark is rising, and the heroes have to save themselves before they can save the world.

Nest of the Monarch, by Kay Kenyon
The final volume of Kenyon’s crafty alternate history trilogy featuring super-powered spies in World War II-era Europe. Psychic spy Kim Tavistock is in Germany, posing as the wife of a British diplomat, on her first offical assignment for British Intelligence. Kim’s handler—and father—Julian hopes she’ll be able to use her talent to make people “Spill” their secrets to her will reveal valuable intelligence about the weapons the Nazis are developing. But Kim, shocked by the racist and Semitic actions she witnesses in Berlin, winds up helping a Jewish resistance fighter named Hannah Linz. Together, the two become embroiled in a German plot involving vampiric psychics, as Kenyon builds the series to a rousing climax, never losing site of the strong-willed, stout-hearted woman at its center.

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.

The Master of Dreams, by Mike Resnick
Genre veteran Mike Resnick delivers the first book in a new trilogy that doubles as a romp through all your favorite stories. A man named Eddie Raven and his girlfriend Lisa wander into a fortune-teller’s shop in New York, and into a violent shooting that leaves Lisa injured. Eddie hears a mysterious voice that orders him to run. He does, and soon finds himself the owner of an all-too-familiar bar in Casablanca—except this one is populated not by Nazis and ne’er do wells, but by monsters. Sooner than he can figure out what’s going on, he’s following a yellow brick road and helping a young Kansan girl find a wizard; then he’s in Camelot with someone named Arthur. As Eddie reels and struggles to adapt to his shifting reality, he must figure out why the Master of Dreams is chasing him through twisted versions of famous stories, and find Lisa before it’s too late.

All My Colors, by David Quantick
This twisting puzzle of a book from Veep and The Thick of It screenwriter David Quantick stars Todd Milstead, a failed writer who could be generously described as a jerk. Todd’s got a great party trick, though; an eidetic memory that allows him to quote chapter and verse from texts he read decades earlier. The ability leads to a mysterious discovery when, at a dinner party, he recites extensive quotes from a bestselling book only he seems to remember—as far as everyone else (from his wife to his local bookseller), the titular All My Colors. was never published. With his marriage and finances in turmoil, desperate Todd hatches a plan, retypes the  the novel from memory, and sees it become a massive hit. Even after all his success, though, Todd is still the same man. He’s obsessed with his now ex-wife, and hires a private investigator stalk her and her new boyfriend—a guy who oddly doesn’t seem to appear in photographs. Things only get stranger from there, as Todd discovers there are consequences to his act of “victimless” forgery.

The Unicorn Anthology, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman 
Who better to edit an anthology of unicorn-themed stories and poems than SFF Grandmaster Peter S. Beagle, whose novel The Last Unicorn may be the definitive unicorn story? Following up their World Fantasy Award-winning collection The New Voices of Fantasy, Beagle and co-editor Jacob Weisman bring together 15 tales offering unique and unexpected twists on the unicorn myth. The contributors include heavy-hitters in the world of SFF fiction: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jane Yolen, Garth Nix, Carrier Vaughn, and Beagle himself, just to name a few. Their stories run the gamut from the gentle, to the horrific, to the surprisingly gritty and realistic.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Vol. 13, edited by Jonathan Strahan
The thirteenth volume of Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best series is also his last with Solaris; next year he launches Year’s Best Science Fiction with Saga Press. He goes out on a high note with a wonderful lineup of contributors, including Elizabeth Bear, Daryl Gregory, and two 2019 Hugo Award nominated novelettes: Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing and Zen Cho’s “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” originally published on this blog.

What are you reading this week?

The post This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: An Indian Epic, a Return to the Prequel Era, and an Unforgettable Book No One Remembers appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

In the Darkly Humorous All My Colors, a Jerk Rewrites a Novel Only He Can Remember

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Todd Milstead is a jerk. His friends barely tolerate him (and only because he supplies them with free food and booze), he treats women terribly, and his ego far eclipses his nonexistent writing talent. Perhaps the only real skill he has is a perfect memory: at will, he is able to accurately quote entire passages from books, if not entire books.

During yet another obnoxious dinner party, Todd begins to quote from a bestseller called All My Colors and is shocked when no one else can remember it. At first he shrugs it off, assuming the others are just far less well-read, but when he tries to find a copy of the book and prove everyone wrong, he quickly realizes that he’s the only one who remembers it.

Facing a divorce and the realization that his life is about to take a turn for the worse, Todd decides to take advantage of his perfect recall to recreate the book that doesn’t exist. He knows it was a bestseller before, so why not “write” All My Colors himself and make some cash off of it?

The new novel from Veep and The Thick of It screenwriter David Quantick—which shares the name of the fictional, in-narrative tome—chronicles the fast-paced, darkly humorous tale of Todd Milstead’s sudden rise to fame and his equally sudden demise. Quantick shatters the notion that a character must be likable for a story to succeed: throughout, Todd remains an insufferable, irredeemable jerk. Even when he briefly seems to reform for the better, the reader can sense that there hasn’t been a real change in him, and, soon enough, he returns to his inconsiderate ways.

It is the strength of Todd’s awfulness that keeps us reading: he may be a caricature of every “Guy in Your MFA,” but that only makes us eager to see him get smacked down for his arrogance. Although we’re lured by tantalizing hints that he might get away with his scheme, we ultimately cheer for him not to. The journey toward Todd’s inevitable comeuppance is a real ride, and the reveals along the way more than satisfy the mystery that opens the novel—why is Todd the only one who can remember this particular book? —even if things might come together with an ease (and a villainous monologue) that belies the author’s roots in television.

Under a surface layer of pulp horror, All My Colors challenges ideas of ownership that feel relevant to our current creative climate. As publishing struggles to embrace diversity and welcome stories that are inclusive of underrepresented parts of our community, one question often arises: whose stories do we prioritize? Written by whom? How do stories about a multiracial cast of characters written by white authors, or stories about trans characters written by cis authors, fit into the framework of diversity that we now want to promote?

Neither I nor Quantick are here to give universal, straightforward answers to these questions. All My Colors asks us to soul-search—to ask ourselves why we want to tell certain stories and what drives us to create narratives; to question our own intentions and motivations, and the dissonance between our public and private selves. Rather than being a treatise on inspiration, Quantick’s story is about the consequences of theft and the entitlement we display when we treat a person’s real life narrative as an object to be possessed and sold.

Quantick spins the tired trope of a book about someone writing a book into a darkly humorous story about ego and comeuppance, one that, for a moment, lets the reader believe in a just world where jerks get their due punishment. The dark humor in All My Colors will leave you grinning, your teeth shining and so very, very sharp.

All My Colors is available now from Titan Books.

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Game of Thrones Returns With No Time to Spare (Literally)


It’s taken nearly two years, but the game is finally entering its final round. Last night’s long-awaited eighth season premiere was full of moments fans have been dying to see since the series began, and it advanced the story with ruthless efficiency towards its epic conclusion, too. So why did it feel so…

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Fantasy Worldbuilding Meets Chinatown in Titanshade

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Genre mashups are the lifeblood of sci-fi and fantasy, and one of the most enduring examples of the form is the combination of SFF trappings and old-school noir detective tropes. From Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business, to Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, to Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (not to mention just about everything Jim Butcher ever wrote), there are few genres that play so well together.

That doesn’t mean to suggest that mashing the two together is easy, but debut novelist Dan Stout certainly makes it seem so with Titanshade, the first book in a new science fantasy series with an assured noir tone and an incredibly detailed, lived-in world.

Titanshade is a city in the midst of an icy desert, where life is only possible because of the energy given off by the demigod imprisoned in the earth below. Its suffering heats the city, powered by the citizens’ muttered prayers. It’s a densely populated, gritty place, where magic once dominated, fueled by the mysterious substance known as manna, until the stores of the stuff started running dry. An industrial revolution stepped in, substituting magic with with good old-fashioned oil. But as the story opens on a gruesome murder scene—the victim is one of a frog-like species of people called Squibs, whose viscera has a powerful effect on many humans when they smell it, sometimes resulting in complete loss of impulse control and a strong increase in appetite—the oil is running dry, too, and all the big money players are scheming and maneuvering to keep their piece of Titanshade’s pie.

Carter is a cop with a reputation for being more trouble than he’s worth, but he’s good at what he does. If he isn’t as dirty as his colleagues assume, he isn’t a saint, either. But he’s been tasked with solving this killing, and he’s going to do his job.

It’s a classic noir set up, all right: a corrupt city, cops who are playing their own games, a murder that is a dangling thread that, once pulled, unspools a much larger mystery. Sure enough, the victim—a Squib named Garson Harberdine—turns out to be part of a diplomatic team that has journeyed to the city to negotiate a deal for wind farms to replace the drying oil wells. Carter is assigned an inhuman babysitter in the form of rookie cop named Ajax, a member of yet another inhuman species, the Mollenkampi (you can get a glimpse of one on the book’s amazing cover), and quickly finds himself snared in a web of political intrigue, prostitution, blackmail, religion, oil barons, and police corruption. No one’s telling the full truth, every clue leads to a dead end or near-death, and through it all, Stout steadily fills in details until the city feels like a real place.

Mixed in with the fantastical elements are a bunch of delightfully incongruent, decidedly non-science fictional elements.Carter types his reports on a typewriter and relies on pay phones to contact his cources. The cops drive normal cars, and in general, Titanshade is painted as a place offering an incredible mixture of the fantastic and the mundane—a vision of own world, had it been a little late to enter the computer age. The anachronistic effect works like gangbusters—if you can accept that a Divination Officer can arrives at a crime scene and use a bit of manna to communicate with the victim, why shouldn’t Carter hide in an an alley with a flask filled with cheap whiskey, just like any old Earthbound detective? The push-and-pull of influences results in moments of wonderful imagery:  giant beetles pulling carts through the city streets, favored by a religious sect somewhat like the American Amish.

Along with the worldbuilding, Stout nails the nuance of his characters. There are no paper villains or heroes here; the police are painted as people with individual motivations, prejudices, weaknesses, and strengths. They are depicted as dedicated, imperfect beings working as best they can in a corrupt system skewed by money, careerism, and simple moral exhaustion. It’s quite satisfying to watch them lurch towards something like justice—or as close they’re gonna get. Carter’s inexhaustible efforts to protect his friends and seek the truth pay off in pure noir style as he stumbles onto an ever larger and more twisted conspiracy, and Stout gets extra credit for making the increasingly convoluted plot both wholly unexpected and yet organic to the story and the world in which it is set.

Stout’s mix of magic and the bald realism of simple greed results in one of the year’s most entertaining debuts. It’s a book you’ll close, happy in the knowledge that it is but the first in a series.

To put it another way: Forget it, Jake. It’s Titanshade.

Titanshade is available now.

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9 Modern SFF Rock Mythologies to Read at Max Volume

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Rock music has its own mythology. Whether it’s the true-crime theatrics of the European black metal scene, the wild lives and untimely deaths of generations’ worth of rock legends, or even the way an innovative artist can launch a whole new genre scene, rock is full of stories that start out strange and only get stranger. It only makes sense that fantasy and horror books that treat in the mythology of rock mythologies get stranger, too. There’s a eclectic mix of weird fiction about music out there, and this setlist of 9 books will get you started.

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, by Scotto Moore
It begins with an odd Bandcamp page that sends the narrator spiraling out of control, compulsively listening and relistening to a song called “Overture” by an unheralded band known as Beautiful Remorse. Contacted by the band, the blogger is chosen to be their “herald,” helping them to release one new track every day for 10 days. In a compact 100 pages, Moore charts the blogger’s attempts to figure out just who is behind the mysterious musical project, research that quickly ramps up from “curiousity” to “fanaticism” as each track seems to elicit stronger and stronger reactions from listeners—trancelike states, violent outbursts, self-harm, the opening of portals to a hell dimension, the usual. It’s been said that writing about sound in a soundless medium is difficult (one famous comedian likened it to “dancing about architecture”), but by focusing on the effects—both psychological and physical—of Beautiful Remorse’s strange music, Moore reproduces it almost clearly enough to hear. Everyone knows the joy of discovering a new favorite song and feeling the entire world open up just a little bit across those three to five glorious minutes. Just substitute joy with “dawning horror” and that’s this novella in a liner note.

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
Hendrix’s (HorrorstorMy Best Friend’s Exorcism) third horror novel begins with its main character, Kris, pushing herself as she works out the chords to “Iron Man,”  then lurches forward in time to the aftermath of her dreams of rock and roll stardom, post the breakup of her Dürt Wurk, which ended with her friend Terry’s betrayal by way of a literal deal with the devil. Hendrix intercuts each chapter with quotes from interviews and radio broadcasts that weave the history of the fictional band into the greater cultural framework of music history. Hendrix’s story of revenge, dark powers, and heavy metal is grounded in the music, from the way the former Dürt Würk members communicate using song lyrics, to Kris’s reawakening as she pushes herself to play a Slayer song before embarking on her quest, to even the importance the plot places on a concept album Kris and her friends recorded. We Sold Our Souls is a twisted, compulsively readable horror novel about the transcendent powers of rock—both light and dark.

Welcome To The Showcompiled by Matt Hayward
The Shantyman is a historic venue in San Francisco, a place that’s played host to the best and worst of humanity as well as some of the best and worst moments in rock history. In the hands of Matt Hayward and his talented collaborators, these includes a revenge curse from press-ganged victims of cannibalism, a psychedelic rock show that results in occult experiences, cursed soundtracks, literally satanic rock ‘n’ roll, human sacrifices, and all the other dangers of rock music those parental groups warned you about. Together, these stories use the music and the culture that grows up around it to create the soul of the Shantyman, a dark, twisted thing that shines through every tale; the place might change from act to act, but remains ever itself, inviting fans to enter and find ruin within, even as it tantalizes them with bright lights and awesome tunes. Standout Stories: “A Tongue Like Fire” by Rachel Autumn Deering, “In the Winter of No Love” by John Skipp

The Unnoticeables, by Robert Brockway
While Brockway’s novel splits its time between the gritty streets of 1977 New York and the parties and mansions of modern-day Los Angeles, a lot of the flavor and energy comes from ’70s-era clashes between Carey and his punk friends and a variety of terrifying monsters straight out of cosmic horror. Brockway works the era, music, and gritty feel into the book’s narrative—the heroes at first attribute the weird disappearances of their friends to the tune-in, drop-out culture of the time. Later, horrors unfold in a crowded rock club, and Carey beats up monsters with a mic stand. While the LA sections have their own distinct feel, it’s equally interesting to see Carey decades later, as a faded relic of that gritty era, a broke and broken remnant of a hard-rock past unsuccessfully trying to exist in the present, fighting the same evil alongside a new generation. Altogether, it amounts to a novel as propulsive, edgy, and hard-rocking as the music and culture at its heart.

The Fiveby Robert McCammon
On what appears to be their last tour, a rock band named The Five are slowly making their way through the Southwest with their manager when a deranged military veteran begins picking them off one by one, seemingly due to a comment the band made about the Iraq War. Once the killing begins, the FBI takes an interest, using the gigs as an excuse to draw the sniper out while possibly putting the band at risk. The media swoops in after the sniper takes out one of The Five, complicating matters further—but lurking beneath everything is a thread of the supernatural, suggesting that The Five share a grand destiny, and that there are powerful forces out there willing to corrupt and murder too keep them from fulfilling it. While McCammon builds tension from the word “go,” what’s just as interesting as the cat-and-mouse theatrics of the plot is the way he packs in so much odd detail about the life of a road musician—from the way the characters live out of their tour bus to the inspiration for new songs they find along the way.

Little Heroes, by Norman Spinrad
Glorianna O’Toole, a burnt-out former hippie known as “The Crazy Old Lady of Rock’n’Roll” is hired (okay, more like blackmailed) by Muzik Inc. to make them a new rock star with more of the old spirit and edge. With the aid of two young computer programmers and a weird hallucinogenic technology, Glorianna creates the perfect rock star to boost the fortunes of Muzik, Inc.—but as their new singer is adopted by an underground movement and personal tensions flare between the programmers, a war breaks out between artificial rockstars and corporations over the fate of reality itself. It’s a cyberpunk epic about the power and anti-authoritarian nature of rock, with Spinrad’s chaotic sense of humor and occasional insane flourishes (hallucinogenic software, an underground movement called the “Reality Liberation Front”) elevating it from being just another fable about the power of music.

Wylding Hallby Elizabeth Hand
In a house in the English countryside named Wylding Hall, a psychedelic folk outfit named Windhollow Faire records what will become their magnum opus, the titular album Wylding Hall.  In the process, their lead singer mysteriously disappears and is never heard from again. Decades later, a documentary attempts to piece together just what happened during those fateful recording sessions, revealing the twisted story behind a landmark album. The book tells its story in a manner similar to musical oral histories, with the different band members’ interviews woven together into a narrative of gothic horror and musical history. Hand has a clear love of music, and seems well-versed in both rock history and a certain, very English strain of horror; the result is a chilling reimagining of an acid-soaked musical era and an excellent riff on the mythologies behind classic albums.

War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull
One of the first modern-era works of dark urban fantasy, Bull’s novel follows Eddi, a struggling rock musician in Minneapolis, after she quits her band and breaks up with her boyfriend following a disastrous final set. Approached by an odd stranger who reveals himself as a shapeshifting phouka, Eddi finds herself swept up into a war between light and dark faerie, neither side exactly sociable to humans—even the ones they need to use as tools. As Eddi tries to juggle her mortal life (getting a new band together, dealing with her breakup, nosy landladies) and her duties as a kind of balance of power between immortal factions, things heat up, and she soon finds herself hunted by the Unseelie Queen of Air and Darkness. The disparate plotlines merge in an explosive rock duel with the fae queen. Bull, a real-life musician (she once belonged to a folk group made up of fantasy authors that called themselves Cats Laughing) blends the mythology of rock music, a deep love for her home city of Minneapolis, and elements of mythic fantasy into a dark but humorous, highly suspenseful read.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Taking its cues from the glamour of Eurovision and the truly transformative power of pop music, Valente (no stranger to weird and wonderful premises) ramps up the conflict to intergalactic levels. After a brutal series of first contacts-gone-wrong known as the Sentience Wars rip the universe asunder, the various sapient species get together for a pop music contest called the Megagalactic Grand Prix. Rather than risk more interstellar strife, they agree to establish the rules of galactic governance as follows: all newly spacefaring (or just about) species are forced to choose a musical champion to compete in the Grand Prix, and if they come in last, their entire species is atomized. The book manages to match pop music’s air of the bubbly and absurd while keeping the subject matter deadly serious, presenting a story of getting the band back together and fighting for your art and your species, but overloading it with 11-foot-tall lobster creatures, flaming disco balls of armageddon, and a surprising number of Enrico Fermi jokes. It all holds together surprisingly well, and has certainly won Valente a new legion of fans (not to mention a Hugo Award nomination).

What SFF books get your toes tapping and your head banging?

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Paul Cornell Returns to a Strange Supernatural English Suburb as The Lights Go Out in Lychford

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This November, Paul Cornell returns to the “suburban fantasy” of the Lychford series, one of the most delightful and delightfully dark locales in fantasy. The novellas are set in the small English town of Lychford, a spot where the barriers between the human world and the supernatural realm are thin, and a group of local witches (don’t call them a coven)—including Lizzie Blackmore, also incongruously the reverence of St. Martin’s Church, as well as an old woman and the propreitor of the local magic shop—work to keep the peace.

Below, we’re sharing the cover and official summary for The Lights Go Out in Lychfordthe fourth story in the series, which began with 2015’s The Witches of Lychford—as well as some thoughts from the author.

The book is available for preorder now, and will be released November 19, 2019.

Be careful what you wish for…

The continuing tale in the award-nominated Witches of Lychford series, described by Seanan McGuire as “Beautifully written, perfectly cruel and ultimately kind”.

The borders of Lychford are crumbling. Other realities threaten to seep into the otherwise quiet village, and the resident wise woman is struggling to remain wise. The local magic shop owner and the local priest are having troubles of their own.

And a mysterious stranger is on hand to offer a solution to everyone’s problems. No cost, no strings (she says).

But as everyone knows, free wishes from strangers rarely come without a price…

Cover design by FORT

From the author:

When last we left Lychford, that pleasant Cotswolds market town had been left defenseless,the occult barriers that secretly protect it from mystical other dimensions having been torn down. Besides that, Judith, the hedge witch who leads the amateur ‘coven’ of three very different women who stand guard over the town, is suffering from dementia, and can’t be sure of her own powers any more.

The Lights Go Out in Lychford is very much about my own Mum’s experience of dementia, of how frightening that was for her and those around her, as someone very practical found their thoughts becoming as fantastical as magic. (Our amazing cover, which I think is the best in the series, sums up exactly what the book is about.) But, as ever, there’s sadness and comedy and everyday life in the Lychford books, so this one is also about the joy and eccentricity of working on a local festival, as I myself do. Once again it’s the hugeness of magical battles combined with popping out to the Post Office.

As well as telling a complete story, as all the Lychford books do, The Lights Go Out brings the series to a point of high drama, and sets things up for the forthcoming final book, Last Stand in Lychford.

The Lights Go Out in Lychford will be released November 19.

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Holy Sister Ends a Science Fantasy Trilogy That Finds Hope in Dark World

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The titles of the three books in Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series emphasize the emotional and physical journeys that the main character, Nona Grey, will make after becoming a novice within an order of assassin nuns. The first, Red Sister, is all about Nona as a warrior, growing into her physical power. Grey Sister, the second, is about Nona as a magician, growing into her mystical abilities.

The final volume, Holy Sister, explores powers of the spirit and of faith—a fitting end for a trilogy built on religious imagery. But if that makes the conclusion to the series sound pew-bound and cerebral, never fear: it’s anything but. The pacing is fast, the intrigue is ever-present, and as the climax spools out in the final third, I counted at least five different action sequences, one after another, with little chance for readers (or Nona) to catch their breath.

This is an ambitious and fascinating series, and it demands that you pay attention on every page.

For those not familiar with the series—though certainly, starting at the beginning is the way to go—the trappings are fantasy but the premise is science fiction, following the waning days of a civilization on a planet whose star is slowly dying. The “moon” (probably an artificial space station) warms a strip of the equator each night, staving off a complete freeze, but with the sun fading out, the volume of ice is growing, leading the peoples who populate the planet to go to war over its limited resources.

As to the fantasy elements: the civilization contains at least four different types of humanoids, and some of those have magical powers. The ultimate power source on the planet is a blend of science fiction and magic: the shiphearts that can control the Ark (one of the ancient vessels that brought civilization to the planet in the first place) can perhaps also control the moon’s rays and enhance mystical abilities. But the shiphearts can corrupt the user.  (Think of them as crystal versions of the One Ring.)

Nona is a novice at an abbey that trains girls with magical gifts to serve their empire as fighters and assassins. (Aside: I love that assassin nuns seem to be a thing in SFF right now, from Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books to Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight trilogy.)

Nona is a rare three-blood who can access three different magical powers—hence, her journey through “Red” and “Gray” sister training. Zola, her fellow novice, is an even-rarer four-blood from the remote and dangerous ice tribes, and she supposedly can save everyone—though it’s never clear if that prophecy is made-up or has, over time, been garbled beyond measure. The characters in these books tend to be skeptical of prophecies and cynical about people, none more so than Nona—even if (or especially if) the same prophecy says she’s supposed to serve as Zola’s “shield.”

Lawrence’s storytelling is complex and fascinating, blending the character-driven narrative of Nona and her fellow novices training with an overarching story with the highest stakes imaginable. The worldbuilding maintains a mystical bent, and yet the story is reliant on the science as well.

While Grey Sister ended on a cliffhanger (almost literally), Holy Sister begins with a jump three years into the future with the appearance of Nona once again a lowly fighter in the Caltess—a sort of analogue to a fight club where unfortunates are forced to draw blood for the entertainment of spectators. But all is not as it seems, as Nona is still a novice in good standing, and is on a mission from her mentor, Abbess Glass. It’s this mission that drives the trilogy toward its end.

The narrative is split into two parts. The first concerns what happened immediately after events of that cliffhanger climax, three years previously, as Nona and Zola escape across the ice, and event teased throughout the first two books of the trilogy. It’s a perilous journey as chilling and dangerous as expected, but it also includes moments of remarkable beauty. Not that the pair can stop to take them in, pursued as they are by the mystical assassins after the shipheart they’re carrying.

The other narrative is the present day, as Nona faces invasion and the schemes of an old foe and seems to stumble into one fight after another.  It’s this narrative that features the familiar cast of Nona’s fellow novices, including her best friend Ara and the lovers, Kettle the assassin and Apple the poisoner.

The two narratives are not presented in linear fashion, but intertwine until they come full circle in the final confrontation. If I have one complaint, it’s that Lawrence has packed almost too much incident into this volume, which could easily have been split into two separate books.

None of the plotting or superb worldbuilding would matter half as much if they didn’t accompany complex characterization for Nona, the supporting characters, and even the villains, but that is in ample supply as well. After all, the leader of the invading Empire only wants for her people to survive. If others have to die for her to achieve that, so be it.

But Nona is the character to root for, having evolved over the course of the series into someone who truly values loyalty and love. Some readers have placed this series in the “grimdark” genre. Certainly it is filled with terrible things happening to people who are both good and bad. It’s built on the black bones of a premise that seems to doom everyone before the first page is turned—no one will ever be able to relight a dead star. There are heart-wrenching deaths, and beloved characters undergo torture.

But if grimdark is defined as fantasy without hope, then the label doesn’t apply. In the end, Nona finally discovers what she truly believes in, becoming not Nona Grey but Nona the White, the true Holy Sister.

Holy Sister is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Evil Cell Phones, Assassin Nuns, and Game of Thrones Meets Home Alone

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Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, by Nathan Ballingrud
Nathan Ballingrud has made a name for himself as a writer of disturbing short fiction, and his second collection proves that reputation is well deserved. Six stories—including the brand new novella The Butcher’s Table and the story The Visible Filth, which has already been adapted into the forthcoming film Wounds—explore different ideas of what it means to be a monster across varied settings and time periods. A 19th-century ship carries a crew to the borders of hell, where a terrible sacrifice is planned; in a modern-day bar in New Orleans, a lost cell phone us a portal to horrors beyond imagining. In hauntingly beautiful language, these are modern horror stories explore the darkness that is always around us, whether we’re brave enough to face it or not.

The Scribbly Man: The Children of D’hara, Episode One, by Terry Goodkind
The creator of the seemingly endless Sword of Truth saga returns with a novella-length installment starring fan-favorite characters Richard and Kahlan. The story picks up in the wake of the “end” of their story in Warheart, and chronicles what happens next—to both Richard and Kahlan and their children. This is the first in a planned series of shorter works that will continue one of the most crucial storylines in The Sword of Truth.

Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence
The final book in Lawrence’s acclaimed Book of the Ancestor trilogy concludes the science fantasy story of Nona Grey, apprentice to a holy order of assassin nuns on the frozen planet of Albeth, where the ice is advancing and the empire is under siege. The emperor’s sister Sherzal knows Nona’s friend Zole holds the legendary shipheart—believed to be a core of one of the vessels that originally brought humanity to Albeth—and she’s determined to reclaim it. Traveling to the Convent of Sweet Mercy to complete her training, Nona is on the verge of taking the nun’s habit in her deadly order, provided an all-out war doesn’t disrupt her plans. But even fully-trained, and with the devious power of a shipheart at hand, Nona isn’t certain she’ll be able save her friends, or even herself, and turn the tide of a disastrous conflict. Struggling against the demons that seek to control her from within, Nona prepares for a final battle that will determine not just her own fate, but the fate of a world. Loaded with wild worldbuilding and dangerous women, this trilogy-ender is a satisfying treat for dark fantasy readers.

We Are Mayhem: A Black Star Renegades Novel, by Michael Moreci
The second book in Moreci’s Black Star Renegades series doesn’t give its heroes much time to bask in the victories that ended the first book. In the style of The Empire Strikes Back, destroying the Praxis ship the War Hammer, commanded by the ruthless Ga Halle, hasn’t done much to make the galaxy safer for Han Solo-esque rogue Cade Sura. He’s still in possession of the fearsome Rokura, the deadliest weapon ever designed… but he has no idea how to use it. As Kira Sen leads a small but determined rebel group into a Praxis city, hoping to strike a blow for freedom, Cade is brought by his former mentor Percival to a mythical world in a search of dangerous knowledge that could prove to be his undoing. Moreci’s second unashamed ode to his love for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away is even more fun than the first.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker
World Fantasy Award-winning pseudonym K.J. Parker’s (neé Tom Holt) latest is military epic fantasy writ small: an in-depth, sharp-tongued history of one city under siege by invaders, and the immense efforts undertaken by one of its citizens to save the day. With scant supplies and no forces to muster, the city must look to Orhan, an expert… engineer? to deliver them from death. When you’re facing impossible odds, impossible solutions are necessary, and Orhan is the man to deliver them. Via fiendish invention, he may just be able to build himself and his neighbors a bridge across this metaphorical chasm. It’s Game of Thrones meets Home Alone.

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 Fantasy.

The Sundering: Dread Empire’s Fall, by Walter Jon Williams
Amind the current space opera resurgence (seriously, the slate of recent and new high-concept, spacefaring SF books, from the Starfire series, to A Memory Called Empire, to Ancestral Night, is stunning) it’s worth drawing attention to Harper Voyager’s ongoing rereleases of Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series—truly one of the best sci-fi trilogies of the 2000s, offering all the action, political complexity, and well-rounded characters of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch novels. As the series continues (a new installment, The Accidental War, arrived last year), it’s a great time to go back and see what you missed—or give them a reread in these slightly revamped, reedited “Author’s Definitive” editions.

What are you reading this week?

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