This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Exploring the Digital Afterlife, Hogwarts Noir, and a Return to the Gemworld

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Spine of the Dragon, by Kevin J. Anderson
This new epic fantasy series-starter from bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson begins with the introduction of a young king and queen and a tour of their prosperous kingdom. None of it lasts: a sandstorm that soon engulfs the young royals’ city is only the first sign of the chaos descending upon this sprawling fantasy world. Two large empires, the Commonwealth and the Ishara, are at war, but the greater threat lies in the reappearance of the legendary wreths, believed to be the creators of the human race. They’ve come back to awaken a dragon that will lay waste to the world their creations have wrought. The warring kingdoms will have to put aside their differences to fight off this ancient enemy, but that’s easier said than done. Anderson has fun with the worldbuilding, imagining different varieties of the magical wreths with powers drawn from ice or fire (heh), and pits them against a cast of flawed and compelling heroes. Though grimdark elements abound—fierce battles, sexual violence—this is, at its heart, a classic epic fantasy: a story in which the good are tested in their quest to protect others and fanatics are driven to evil because of what they view as righteous.

The Soul of Power, by Callie Bates
The final volume of the Waking Land trilogy. In the first book, heroine Elanna reawakened the power of magic in the countries of Caeris and Eren, while the second traveled to Paladis, where Elanna’s beloved, Jahan, attempted to master his own nascent magical talents. The point of view shifts again for the concluding book, focusing on Elanna and Jahan’s friend Sophy, the new queen of the now-united Caeris and Eren. Her tenuous rule faces powerful opposition, which grows worse when her out-of-wedlock pregnancy is revealed. Meanwhile, people throughout the land begin experiencing strange dreams and developing inexplicable habits that seem to hint at an imbalance in magic itself. Once again, Bates has crafted a compelling fantasy that examines the effects of a reemergent magic less on a world or a kingdom, but on individuals—flawed, endearing, and real.

My Enemy’s Enemy, by Robert Buettner
This twisty, time-jumping contemporary thriller-meets-alternate history novel unfolds along two timelines. One travels back to a version of 1939 in which Germany’s Heinrich Himmler has forced a genius physicist, Peter Winter, to aid him in creating a dangerous superweapon—the A-bomb. With the help of his Jewish wife Rachel, Peter attempts to slow the project with subtle sabotage. The other takes place in modern Pakistan, where a terrorist sets off on a mission to destroy America from the inside out, and an American historian and a cowboy discover a secret from the past that may explain the terrorist’s endgame. As the past and future collide, Buettner crafts a compelling race-against-time adventure story, with millions of innocent lives on the line.

To Clear Away the Shadows, by David Drake
The latest volume of David Drake’s RCN military sci-fi series opens with the deep space exploration vessel Far Traveller doing just that, venturing unmolested into the far reaches of space, seeking new trade routes, thanks to the recent truce between the Alliance and the Cinnabar. Scientist, RCN officer, and Cinnabar aristocrat Harry Harper is onboard, as is Lt. Rick Grenville, more accustomed to serving on a warship than one built for research. But it seems the outskirts of space are perhaps even more dangerous that open warfare: with the Alliance no longer on the offensive, the outer territories are exploring independence—by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Doctor Veil, the Far Traveller’s science director, searches for information left behind by an ancient race of spacefarers that explored the stars long before humans—and whose secrets could change the future.

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

Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse: Dune, by Frank Herbert
Last year, publisher Ace reissued Frank Herbert’s legendary novel Dune with a snazzy new cover. Now, they’ve followed suit with matching mass market paperback editions of the other books in the series. There’s nothing different about the words inside, but if you are a collector or a completist—or if, gasp! you have never read the series before—the whole set of six books looks rather handsome on the shelf. We can’t think of a better way to prepare for director Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming bid screen (re)adaptation, arriving in November 2020.

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

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson gives the near-future world of his 2011 techno-thriller Reamde a science-fantasy twist in a largely standalone followup that revisits the character of Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the multi-billionaire founder of Corporation 9592 and creator of the MMORPG T’Rain. In his youth, Forthrast stipulated in his will that when he died his brain should be scanned and preserved by a company owned by the mysterious Elmo Shepherd. When a routine surgery goes wrong and he’s declared brain dead, that’s exactly what happens—if much earlier than he ever expected. Generations later, as the “Meatspace” world spirals into post-truth chaos, a technological breakthrough arrives that allows Forthrast’s brain to be “turned on” again in the virtual Bitworld. While existing as an immortal digital soul in a world without physical constraints sounds great, Forthrast soon finds himself in a desperate battle with Shepherd, also dead and uploaded. Forthrast explores this new phase of human existence and Stephenson ponders existential questions large and small as Dodge and the other denizens of Bitworld must determine how to live in a malleable reality limited only by their imaginations.

The Fire Opal Mechanism, by Fran Wilde
Nebula-winner Fran Wilde returns to the setting of her interlinked Gemworld stories with a tale set far after the conclusion of The Jewel and Her Lapidary. The magical gems that once powered the Six Kingdoms are lost. Conquerors known as the Pressman have invaded and are stealing books to power the Great Press, a magical printing press that consumes words, prompting a librarian, Ania, and a thief named Jorit to ally on an adventure across time using the power of the mysterious Fire Opal Mechanism as they seek the secret to destroying the Great Press forever. The journey across time allows Wilde to build out the history of her intriguing magical world, as Ania and Jorit prepare to embrace their grander destinies.

What new books are you reading this week?

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Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: February 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Cover art from Lightspeed issue 105; art by Grandfailure/Fotolia

This month brought us stories about a strange and powerful necklace, unexpected extraterrestrial life, a haunted town, a haunting spaceship, a superhero struggling with homework, new lives, and old sins.

The Lights Go out, One by One“, by Kofi Nyameye in Asimov’s March/April 2019
A crew awakes from cryo-sleep in a spaceship far away from our solar system, on a mission to save Earth from certain destruction. Kofi Nyameye’s story begins in a way that brings to mind many a classic sci-fi tale, then blindsides you in the best way. The facts of the mission, the scope of the danger humanity is facing, and what ultimately happens to the crew: all put an almighty twist on familiar “heroes save the Earth” tropes. Nyameye infuses the narrative with a terse sense of humor while simultaneously trying her best to break your heart. It’s one of several excellent stories in Asimov’s special tribute issue to its former editor, the late Gardner Dozois.

The Crying Bride“, by Carrie Laben in The Dark
Carrie Laben has a knack for crafting quietly unsettling stories, often set in worlds that seem familiar, until you glimpse the eerie darkness moving just beneath the surface. The narrator of “The Crying Bride” is an old woman being interviewed by a young relative who wants to find out more about their family’s past. As the narrator tells the story of her childhood—about a necklace found under a strange apple tree, about what happened once she started wearing it, about her abusive uncle, and a family that seemed unable to understand or accept her—we realize that more than one deep, dark secret has shaped the lives of both the narrator and her visitor in profound ways. It’s a haunting story about the power of finding your purpose in life and defying those who would hold you back. Fans of Laben’s work should also keep an eye out for her debut novel A Hawk in the Woods, coming later this year.

Due By the End of the Week“, by Brandon O’Brien in Fireside Fiction
Kelly and Derek go to the same school and are both facing some serious life-challenges: a) they have to complete an important school assignment with someone they’d rather not work with, and b) they live in a city that is under attack by aliens. Well, the aliens are mainly a problem for Kelly, who is stretched to the max, what with being a superhero and trying to maintain her grades. I love the action and humor of this story, and how O’Brien lets Derek and Kelly take turns as narrators, giving us two very different perspectives on both the crisis facing the city and their no less fraught attempts to work together on that assignment. It’s a rollicking, riveting tale, and makes some good points giving others a chance to show us who they really are before we judge them.

A Catalog of Storms“, by Fran Wilde in Uncanny Magazine
In this fantasy story by Fran Wilde, weathermen don’t forecast the weather on TV. Instead, they wield magic and name storms as they battle the weather itself, which has become far more perilous than it used to be. (To whit: “The storms got smarter than us….after we broke the weather.”) Only some have the inherent ability o become weathermen, but it’s a magic that comes with a price: you must leave your family, and you are ever at risk of turning into clouds, rain, or lightning. Wilde writes with empathy and insight about the relationships within families, especially between siblings; her characters feel utterly real, no matter how fantastical the setting. Here, she crafts a powerful story about children who are willing and able to fight, even when their mother would rather keep them out of harm’s way. For more of Wilde’s work, check out her middle-grade novel Riverland, arriving in April of this year.

Ghosts of Bari“, by Wren Wallis in Shimmer
In a strange part of space, a salvage vessel with a rugged and motley crew encounters a ship so ancient it should not even exist. It does not respond to their hails, but in spite of its age, its systems appear to be functional, if sleeping. It’s pretty much an irresistible opening for a science fiction story, and Wren Wallis fulfills and exceeds expectations for what might follow with a taut, suspenseful, and beautifully wrought tale about the ghosts of the past, the stories we share, and the things we’ll do, even under the most extreme circumstances, to keep our humanity intact. “Ghosts of Bari” is the final story in the final issue of Shimmer, and it’s a gripping, profoundly moving tale that marks a fitting end for one of the best zines in speculative fiction.

Debtor’s Door“, by Sarah Cavar in Vulture Bones
“Debtor’s Door” takes the form of letters from a dedicated student who has just entered a new “expedited undergrad program.” With each missive grows ever stronger the feeling that something is not quite right at the school; it seems the students are somehow (literally) being consumed, their body parts slowly disappearing. Cavar skillfully uses the medium of the increasingly erratic correspondence to convey a growing sense of unease and wrongness, with prose suffused with an air of encroaching existential horror. It’s a remarkably potent illustration of the damage stress and unreasonable expectations can inflict, distorting and disfiguring our thoughts, our sense of self, our very bodies.

Life Sentence“, by Matthew Baker in Lightspeed
A man returns home after being convicted of a serious crime. His punishment is a life sentence, but it will not be served in prison. Instead, he has undergone a procedure that removes all memory of the crime and of his life and thoughts from the time he committed the crime. To facilitate his reintegration into society, he’s not supposed to try to find out what he did, and his family and those around him have been told not to talk about it. As strange as the situation is, he tries to fit his new self into his old life, but keeps wondering if it wouldn’t be better to at least know what he did. Wouldn’t it be better to remember, no matter how painful the truth is? Matthew Baker has crafted a thoughtful, wrenching story that provides no easy answers.

Do Not Look Back, My Lion“, by Alix E. Harrow in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Eefa is running from the city of Xot, from the Emperor and her ceaseless war-making, from her own sacred duties as a healer and a husband, from her near-daughters and near-son. From her wife. It is a terrible, cowardly thing to do, but not as terrible or cowardly as staying where she was.” It’s a quite a feat to fit an epic tale of love and war and betrayal into the parameters of a short story, but Alix E. Harrow does just that in this lush and harrowing fantasy tale. Eefa lives in a world at war, and she’s married to the realm’s foremost fighter. Like every citizen, she is expected to sacrifice whatever is needed, including her children, to keep the war-machine going. When she decides to rebel, she risks losing everything. It’s a memorable and satisfying story of romance, tragedy, and action, set in a uniquely imagined world.

The Message“, by Vanessa Fogg in The Future Fire
Vanessa Fogg writes subtle and intricate speculative fiction that packs a big emotional punch, and this story is an excellent introduction to her work. “The Message” blends a hard science fiction story of a mysterious extraterrestrial message with a poignant tale about long-distance friendship, a family drifting apart, and the joys of fan-fiction. The result is a luminous and compelling, a story about our longing for contact and connection across vast distances, and about how relationship can alter our lives. If you enjoy it, look for Fogg’s “Traces of Us” in Neil Clarke’s upcoming The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4 (available in July).

Quiet the Dead“, by Micah Dean Hicks in Nightmare
“Quiet the Dead” is set in a run-down, working-class town where life revolves around the local pork processing plant and people are haunted by the ghosts of the dead. These ghosts are not pale apparitions; they cling to the living, invading their bodies and tainting their minds. Kay tries to keep herself and her family afloat, and every day she struggles not to give in to the urges of her ghost. “The ghost that haunted Kay moved through her blood like gasoline. It craved to fight, its need to blacken the eye of the world the only thing that kept it from slipping into death.” This is one of the most visceral and disturbing horror stories I’ve encountered recently, and it made me think deeply about the ways in which despair and violence can poison every facet of society, and how difficult it can be to break free from the past.

What’s the best SFF short story you read in February?

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Return to the Gemworld in The Fire Opal Mechanism

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

In The Jewel and Her Lapidarya Hugo, Nebula, and Locus best novelette nominee, and a 2016 LA Public Library best book—Fran Wilde introduced readers to a world of hidden histories, warring kingdoms, magical gemstones, and the powerful Lapidaries who bind them.

This summer, Wilde returns to the Gemworld in The Fire Opal Mechanism. As the book opens, the last remaining gems have been bound—perhaps unwisely—into new settings, and the control of knowledge, and the binding of it, has fallen to a time-traveling librarian, a thief, and a printing press operator.

The Gemworld is a story cycle that begins with the scattering of the powerful gemstones of the Jeweled Valley across the six kingdoms of the world. From Lin and Sima’s rebellion in The Jewel and Her Lapidary, to the exploration of the dangerous powers of the “Topaz Marquise” in the same-titled short story (available as an ebook or on Tor.com), to the mysteries of “Ruby, Singing” (another short story published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, it is a world emerging in facets, and The Fire Opal Mechanism reveals yet more of them.

Today, we reveal the cover for the book, with art by Tommy Arnold (who also provided illustrations for Wilde’s Bone Universe trilogy and The Jewel and Her Lapidary). Find it below the official summary—followed by some thoughts from the author.

Jewels and their lapidaries and have all but passed into myth.

Jorit, broke and branded a thief, just wants to escape the Far Reaches for something better. Ania, a rumpled librarian, is trying to protect her books from the Pressmen, who value knowledge but none of the humanity that generates it.

When they stumble upon a mysterious clock powered by an ancient jewel, they may discover secrets in the past that will change the future forever.


“With the Gemworld, I want to tell stories about the human condition—about objectification and lost voices, about memory and hope for the future—that I think gemstones sometimes embody… at least these particular gemstones,” Wilde said. “Someday soon (very soon, I promise!) there will be a catalog of the gems, but until then, readers can collect their stories, and see their impact on their world, in these stories.”

As to her thoughts on the cover of the new book:

“I love in particular how Tommy Arnold has conveyed the connections with the cover of this novella,” she said. “The scene from the cover of The Jewel and Her Lapidary, where Lin and Sima are trapped by soldiers, seems to have evolved and escalated for these two new characters in a distant future—and that’s exactly what’s happened [to the Gemworld]. Tommy is a master of drawing the thematic threads from my stories and weaving them into the covers. ”

Preorder The Fire Opal Mechanism, available June 4, 2019.

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