Space Opera Autor Catherynne Valente on the Out-of-this-World Appeal of Eurovision

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

If you follow Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter, you’ve probably seen her Tweeting about something called “Eurovision.” Even if you haven’t, you might have heard a little something about her book Space Opera being “Eurovision in space.”

Today, she joins us to explain what Eurovision is, why she loves it—and why you might already too, even if this is the first time you’ve heard the word.

If you live in America, you may have had trouble watching the Eurovision Song Contest this year (tomorrow is the last day). For three years, it broadcast here, and Americans slowly started to wake up to the utterly amazing spectacle already in progress across the pond, but not so in 2019.

I hope you will find a way to catch the finale; it is not to be missed. I have spent many years now trying to enlighten my countrymen to the glories of this glam rock Super Bowl of the Soul.

I won’t make my pitch here, except to say: it’s The X-Factor meets Miss Universe meets WWI and it is, in all its highs and lows, camp and class, tawdriness and tears, a must for life on Planet Earth. You can find my many longer pleas and exhortations elsewhere, and most passionately, in my Eurovision-in-space novel Space Opera.

I will say that, even if you are just hearing the word for the first time, and even if you live in America, you probably already know more about Eurovision than you think.

Eurovision is an engine for a certain genre of European pop music, and thus it makes its way over the pond in trickles and drips. ABBA is the most famous example; they won the contest in 1974, launching them into global stardom. Celine Dion won in 1988.

These are names everyone knows—but I can usually blow minds with the fact that the song “Cottoneyed Joe,” an wedding music staple in America, was in fact written by a Swedish band called Rednex who were later thrown out of Eurovision (representing Romania) for performing a song not specifically written for the event.

Household names, even here among the purple mountains majesty, including Olivia Newton-John, Englebert Humperdinck, Katrina and the Waves, t.A.T.u, and Bonnie Tyler, have all sung for various nations in the contest—some starting their careers, some ending them, some reaching for a bit of former glory.

Recently, it’s less the music than the spectacle that has seeped into American culture. Stephen Colbert has poked fun at it on his show; Will Farrell is working on a feature length parody for Netflix as we speak. With the rise of drag as a mainstream art form (Eurovision has long been a welcoming space for LGBT art and artists), images of Conchita Wurst, in full beard and full gown, appeared everywhere for a brief moment, though often without context. Social media lights up with discussion of the fashion and staging, even if the songs don’t often chart in the U.S. American acts have begun to perform during the judging interval, notably Justin Timberlake in 2015 and Madonna this year.

Bit by bit, Eurovision slowly arrives on our shores. And as Australia and other countries not, strictly speaking, part of Europe begin to participate, and Eurovision Asia threatens to actually happen some year or another, the august song contest comes closer and closer to being a global phenomenon. I have never thought America should participate—the concept of not voting for your own country would rub many of us the wrong way, and despite someone trying to do a honky-tonk song nearly every year, I’m not sure our musical tastes would fit with the in-crowd. We have enough cultural hegemony. Not every event has to include us.

But damn, we should be watching it. It will fill you up with absurdity and glitter and weirdness, give you a little hope for humanity, and leave you humming songs no one at your office has ever heard of for weeks.

Eurovision is life, Eurovision is love. It was invented to unify a war-torn continent and allow everyone to put aside politics in favor of, if only for a moment, art both high and low. There’s nothing more human and divine than that, little more necessary right now than that, and however you can access it, I’d recommend gluing yourself to the screen for the finale this weekend.

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of Space Opera, a, er, space opera inspired by Eurovision. It’s just as wonderful as you might imagine (not to mention a 2019 Hugo Award nominee).

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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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Catherynne Valente Is Writing a Sequel to Space Opera. Yes, it Is Called Space Oddity

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Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

It was the book so preposterous, so frenetic, so wild and word-drunk, that only Catherynne M. Valente could’ve written it: Space Opera, the life-affirming, Eurovision-inspired ode to every broken soul ever soothed by the power of a heartfelt ballad, a kicking drum solo, a sweet guitar lick. The unlikely story of a washed-up glam rocker abducted by aliens and forced to sing for the Earth’s supper (not to mention its right to continue existing in an “unexploded by aliens” form) in an intergalactic battle of the bands, it is now a Hugo Award nominee—and, even more improbably, the first book in a series.

Yes, there will be a sequel to Space Opera. And yes, of course it is going to be called Space Oddity.

There’s no cover yet, and no back cover blurb. All we know for sure is the release date: Spring 2021.

Luckily, we were also able to wrangle a few minutes with the freshly Hugo-nominated author to find out a little bit more…

Space Opera (or should we say Hugo Award-nominee Space Opera?) is both a delightful and deeply odd work of sci-fi, rooted in your singular obsession with Eurovision, but it’s also deeply thoughtful, with a lot to say about how far humans are willing to go to push others away, and how profound is our need to connect. And, impossibly, readers fell for it in a big way. How did it feel to see people embrace such a deeply personal project?
It was such an amazing experience, seeing people respond to Space Opera. Reviews are reviews, and some will be positive and some will be negative, but the overwhelming love readers showed this book knocked me for a whole loop. It’s so very different than my other books, and of course I was worried about all the press comparing me to Douglas Adams backfiring in a big way. And to be quite frank, when you pour so much of your heart into a book, and your heart happens to be full of dumb puns and glitter and politics and more glitter, you just tend to worry about how people are going to handle your heart.

I’ve been flabbergasted. I never expected readers to embrace it like this. I’m not sure anyone did. I spent the first few weeks just slowly realizing that I’d done something okay. And when I started seeing handmade fan t-shirts and “Life is beautiful and life is stupid” signs waved by fans at Eurovision itself less than a month later (yeah, that happened), it finally started to sink in that Space Opera really meant something to a lot of people other than just dumb-pun-and-glitter me. Some of the things that have been said to me about this novel, by fans and by critics, have literally brought tears to my eyes. It was a hard book to write and I worked so hard on it, so to have it really grokked is breathtaking. It’s what you always hope for and rarely get.

But there’s something so terribly Space Opera about that. This underdog book that appeared out of nowhere with a cover like some lost ’80s concept album art became a hit against all odds. Decibel Jones would say of course that’s how it was, how could it have gone any other way?

The first book is loaded with Eurovision in-jokes, quirky cameos (Clippy!) and hidden references. Are there any Easter eggs readers have yet to discover? Which one is your favorite?
I’ve made no secret that the aliens, as well as their planet names and personal names, are all words taken from the languages of Eurovision-participating countries. Which is one of the best decisions I ever made—and I made it on a whim on day one. My office was covered in papers with lists of words I liked in forty different languages, and slowly, over the course of weeks, they went from being lists of random words to lists of my weird space-friends, familiar and beloved.

But I don’t think anyone has noticed the English one. Obviously, England is one of the big five Eurovision countries who contribute so much money to the thing that they’re guaranteed a final slot every year, so out of all the alien names, surely one is in bloody English.

It’s the Esca. An esca is the proper anatomical word for that little light-up probosicis thing that arcs over the head of an anglerfish. I thought that was rather neat.

So, we’re burying the lede here: You’re writing a sequel! When you wrote Space Opera, did you already know there could be a followup?
By the end, yes, absolutely. I wanted to write more in this universe. I love my alien species so much, and my bright broken rock stars, and I love writing in this style. The minute a time-traveling red panda wondered whether Decibel Jones would be interested in being a starship captain, the next book started waving cheekily from the corners of my mind. I’ve always loved the way Pratchett and Adams pulled off having many books in the same universe without having them be completely dependent on the other stories in the series. We’ll see how good I am at that, I suppose.

Besides, you always have to get the band back together for one more show.

What can readers expect from book two? Where do you go in the wake of an intergalactic singing competition?
These are the voyages of the Starship Glam. The further adventures of Dess and Mira and Oort, and introducing Marvin the half-human, half-Esca ingenue on drums. Earth is safe, for the moment, and taking its first steps into the greater galactic community—you know that won’t go well. Another Grand Prix is always right around the corner. And of course, other possibly-sentient species can emerge at any time…

It seems impossible for the book to be called anything other than Space Oddity. In fact, it’s so good, it practically justifies the book on its own. Were there ever any other contenders for the title?
Not a one.

Now, if there’s a third, I’m not sure where I’ll dig up another half as good as the first two, so I try not to think about that.

Does book two have a big hook akin to the singing competition?
Star Trek meets Live Aid! (Original Series, obviously.)

I can say that we’ll see the Metagalactic Grand Prix again, but from a very different perspective.

Can you sum up Space Oddity in a single Eurovision video? (Or song?)
How did no one ask me this for the first book???

If Space Opera was the literary equivalent of “Love Love Peace Peace,” the fantastic parody/tribute to all of Eurovision from the judging interval in 2015…

then Space Oddity is “Rise Like a Phoenix,” Austria 2014:

With a little bit of Dustin the Turkey thrown in.

Space Oddity will be published in 2021, but you can read Space Opera on repeat until then.

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The Strange and Familiar Nominees for the 2019 Hugo Awards

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The nominees for the 2019 Hugo Awards were announced this morning via streaming webcast straight from Dublin, Ireland, home of the 77th annual World Science Fiction Convention, and the lucky honorees represent the daring, strange—and familiar—flavors of sci-fi and fantasy that defined last year.

All six authors vying for Best Novel this year are prior Hugo nominees, and three of them—Mary Robinette Kowal (The Calculating Stars), Rebecca Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning), and Catherynne Valente (Space Opera)—even won, though none of those trophies was for a novel. The three others facing off in the category—Naomi Novik (Spinning Silver), Becky Chambers (Record of a Spaceborn Few), and Yoon Ha Lee (Revenant Gun)—are celebrating nominations for consecutive novels, though not all were published in consecutive years. (Also worth noting: Roanhorse, Novik, and Kowal’s novels are contenders at this year’s Nebulas.)

There are fresher faces elsewhere on the ballot, including P. Djèlí Clark, nominated two times this year, for Best Novella for The Black God’s Drums and Best Short Story for “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.” Alix E. Harrow also celebrates her first nomination for her short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” while the Best Novelette category features first-timers Simone Heller and Zen Cho—who, we’re pleased to say, picked up her nomination for “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” a lovely story of love, perseverance, and dragons that was published right here on The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.

As ever, an established career and a dedicated fan following have their perks: in its third year, the Best Series Hugo sees its first repeat nominee, for Seanan McGuire’s October Daye urban fantasy series, while Aliette de Bodard, Yoon Ha Lee, and Becky Chambers are nominated for series whose recent individual works are also recognized in other categories this year.

With additional nominations for familiar names like Jo Walton and Ursula K. Le Guin (who earned her second posthumous nomination), what is perhaps most notable about this year’s slate—aside from the uniform excellence of the works recognized—is the how very traditionally Hugo they are. After a number of years during which the most storied honor in genre became mired in political gamesmanship, controversy, and no small amount of anger, this year’s ballot seems to do nothing more than speak to the year in SFF that was 2018, as it was seen by the WorldCon fandom.

And that’s the way it should be.

The Hugo Award winners will be announced in August at Dublin 2019. The complete list of nominees follows.

Best Novel

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The first of a pair of prequel novels to Kowal’s award-winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of MarsThe Calculating Stars (also a Nebula nominee) delves into the alternate history that resulted in humanity establishing a colony on Mars in the middle of the 20th century. In the spring of 1952, a huge meteor hits Chesapeake Bay, taking out most of the Eastern United States. Mathematician and former military pilot Elma York and her scientist husband Nate are there to witness the destruction, and Elma knows immediately that this is an ELE—an extinction-level event—and that humanity must look to the stars if it has any hope of survival. Although her experience as a pilot and her math skills earn Elma a place in the International Aerospace Coalition as a calculator, she begins to wonder why women can’t be astronauts as well—and she’s more than willing to confront racism, sexism, and more personal enemies on her quest to become the first lady astronaut. This is one of those books that seems to have come along at just the right moment, bringing together fascinating, inspiring characters; compelling, plausible worldbuilding; and a message that resonates—especially today. Read our review.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)
This standalone followup to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit explores what happens to those passengers on the generation ships humanity used to escape Earth who don’t know how to leave their vessels behind. The Exodans are the largest concentration of humanity anywhere in the universe; they are the descendants of those who left a poisoned Earth two centuries before on a flotilla of hope. The novel explores what happens to them after the ship reaches its destination: both to those who venture forth into new lives, and those who stay behind. Chambers’ books are celebrated for their warmth and diverse characters, but her worldbuilding is also stellar; it’s a delight to spend more time in this universe. Read our interview with the author.

Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Lee brings the Hugo and Nebula award-nominated Machineries of Empire trilogy to its conclusion in mathematical style with a brainy, fast-paced final entry. Shuos Jedao wakes up in the body of a much older man rather than the 17-year old one his memories led him to expect. He’s shocked to discover he’s now a general, commanded by Hexarch Nirai Kujen—a tyrant hiding behind an easy smile—to conquer the haxarchate using an army compelled to obey his every command. Worse—he quickly discovers that the soldiers despise him for a massacre he doesn’t remember committing. Worst—someone is hunting him, seeking to bring him to justice for his crimes. The first two books in the series stretched imaginations and taxed brains, and this one is no different—and no less worth the effort it takes to puzzle it out. Read our review.

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga Press)
Valente spins a truly nutty disco ball of a sci-fi story that begins with the Sentience Wars that nearly eradicate all intelligent life in the universe; when they end, the scattered survivors regroup and begin a new tradition designed to avoid future apocalypses: the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a universe-wide competition of song and dance open only to recognized sentient species. When any new species emerges onto the universal stage to declare itself sentient—like, say, humanity—they must send contestants to the Grand Prix to prove their worth and quite literally sing for their lives (though alien singing doesn’t always sound like a Top 40 hit). Place anything but last and the upstart civilization is a part of the club. If they come in last, they’re quietly exterminated, in the name of preserving universal peace. (Tough choices, people…and not people.) When Earth is unexpectedly pulled into the next contest, the task of saving humanity falls to a has-been rock star named Decibel Jones, who must grapple with the demons of his past while venturing reluctantly onto the largest stage of all-time. It’s a a second chance to be a glitter-bombed rock star. or die trying—along with everyone else. Inspired by her dual love for Eurovision and Douglas Adams, this one is pure Catherynne Valente, from the first page to the last. Read our review.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
Drawing on Eastern European folklore and the classic fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, Novik tells the story of Miryem, daughter in a family of Jewish moneylenders led by her incompetent father. With their fortunes on the wane due to his poor business sense, Miryem must step in and turn the family business around. Inspired by a mixture of desperation and genius, she responds by spinning debts into gold—gold that attracts the attention of the Staryk, emotionless fairies who bring winter with them. The Staryk give Miryem Fairy Silver and demand she transform it, too. Miryem does so by turning the beautiful metal into jewelry that attracts the attention of the rich and powerful—but her success brings her more Staryk attention, and thus more problems. Novik’s first standalone novel to come along in the wake of the Nebula Award-winning Uprooted had a tough act to follow, but Spinning Silver—expanded from a short story included in anthology The Starlit Wood—is every bit as enchanting. Read our review.

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)
Roanhorse’s buzzy debut is set in a post-apocalyptic world comparable to Mad Max: Fury Road in intensity, with worldbuilding drawn from the author’s Indigenous American heritage. In an America devastated by rising sea levels, the Navajo Nation has been reborn as Dinétah—and with it have come the old gods and monsters of Native American legend. Maggie Hoskie is a monster-hunter, gifted with the power to fight and defeat these beasts. Hired by a small town to locate a missing girl, she teams up with a misfit medicine man named Kai Arviso, and the two dive into a mystery that takes them deeper into the dark side of Dinétah than they could have imagined—a world of tricksters, dark magic, and creatures more frightening than any story. Trail of Lightning is an audacious take on the conventions of both urban fantasy and the post-apocalyptic novel, binding them together in a way that could only and ever happen in Dinétah. Read our review.

Best Novella

Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)

Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)

The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing)

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson ( Publishing)

The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Best Novelette

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog)

“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander ( Publishing)

“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine #25)

“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld #145, October 2018)

Best Short Story

“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)

“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine #25)

“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)

“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)

“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine #23)

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Best Series

The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older ( Publishing)

The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross ( Publishing)

Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)

The October Daye Series, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

The Universe of Xuya, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)

Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)

Best Related Work

Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)

The Hobbit Duology, written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan (YouTube)

An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton (Tor)

The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 (Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, John Picacio)

Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (Tin House Books)

Best Graphic Story

Abbott, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä, colours by Jason Wordie, letters by Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios)

Black Panther: Long Live the King, written by Nnedi Okorafor and Aaron Covington, art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino and Tana Ford (Marvel)

Monstress, Vol. 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)

On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden (First Second)

Paper Girls, Vol. 4, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher (Image Comics)

Saga, Vol. 9, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Annihilation, directed and written for the screen by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Paramount)

Avengers: Infinity War, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios)

Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler (Marvel Studios)

A Quiet Place, screenplay by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods, directed by John Krasinski (Platinum Dunes/Sunday Night)

Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley (Annapurna Pictures)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

The Expanse: “Abaddon’s Gate,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones

Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab,” written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs

Dirty Computer, written by Janelle Monáe, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning

The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett

The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy,” written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell

Doctor Who: “Rosa,” written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai

Best Professional Editor, Short Form

Neil Clarke

Gardner Dozois

Lee Harris

Julia Rios

Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas

Catherine Tobler 

Best Professional Editor, Long Form

Sheila E. Gilbert

Anne Lesley Groell

Beth Meacham

Diana Pho

Gillian Redfearn

Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist

Galen Dara

Jaime Jones

Victo Ngai

John Picacio

Yuko Shimizu

Charles Vess

Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editor-in-chief and publisher Scott H. Andrews

Fireside Magazine, edited by Julia Rios, managing editor Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, social coordinator Meg Frank, special features editor Tanya DePass, founding editor Brian White, publisher and art director Pablo Defendini

FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, executive editors Troy L. Wiggins and DaVaun Sanders, editors L.D. Lewis, Brandon O’Brien, Kaleb Russell, Danny Lore, and Brent Lambert

Shimmer, publisher Beth Wodzinski, senior editor E. Catherine Tobler

Strange Horizons, edited by Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Vanessa Rose Phin, Vajra Chandrasekera, Romie Stott, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons Staff

Uncanny Magazine, publishers/editors-in-chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, managing editor Michi Trota, podcast producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue editors-in-chief Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and Dominik Parisien

Best Fanzine

Galactic Journey, founder Gideon Marcus, editor Janice Marcus

Journey Planet, edited by Team Journey Planet

Lady Business, editors Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, & Susan

nerds of a feather, flock together, editors Joe Sherry, Vance Kotrla and The G

Quick Sip Reviews, editor Charles Payseur

Rocket Stack Rank, editors Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

Best Fancast

Be the Serpent, presented by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske and Jennifer Mace

The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe

Fangirl Happy Hour, hosted by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams

Galactic Suburbia, hosted by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch

Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders

The Skiffy and Fanty Show, produced by Jen Zink and Shaun Duke, hosted by the Skiffy and Fanty Crew 

Best Fan Writer

Foz Meadows

James Davis Nicoll

Charles Payseur

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Alasdair Stuart

Bogi Takács

Best Fan Artist

Sara Felix

Grace P. Fong

Meg Frank

Ariela Housman

Likhain (Mia Sereno)

Spring Schoenhuth

Best Art Book

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press)

Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon, by Julie Dillon (self-published)

Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)

Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, edited by John Fleskes (Flesk Publications)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed (Titan Books)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Katherine Arden (2nd year of eligibility)

S.A. Chakraborty (2nd year of eligibility)

R.F. Kuang (1st year of eligibility)

Jeannette Ng (2nd year of eligibility)

Vina Jie-Min Prasad (2nd year of eligibility)

Rivers Solomon (2nd year of eligibility)

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform)

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt)

The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown)

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)

The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (Scholastic)

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House)

Who are you pulling for at this year’s Hugo Awards? Let us know in the comments.

The post The Strange and Familiar Nominees for the 2019 Hugo Awards appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

As The Expanse Nears its End, Tiamat’s Wrath Only Raises the Stakes

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Across the eight previous books in James S.A. Corey’s space opera epic The Expanse, we’ve seen humanity evolve from contentious tribes fighting for our solar system’s scant resources into a galaxy-spanning empire. With a little help from mysterious alien technology, of course.

As the series nears its conclusion with the penultimate volume, Tiamat’s Wrath, it’s clear humans have still found plenty to fight about—and that there’s a cost that comes with reaching for distant stars by way of pilfered knowledge.

[Spoiler alert: This review includes details of plot revelations in prior books and presumes a general familiarity with the series’ worldbuilding and characters.]

Thanks to its mastery of 1,300 interstellar gates (and its absolute military and technological domination of the Sol system), the Laconian Empire—led by autocrat Winston Duarte—is undisputedly in control of humanity, to the extent that propaganda is able, successfully, to paint them as interchangeable: to be human is to be Laconian. This is the type of scenario that might be the beginning of (or the backstory to) a different science fiction series, but the broad scope (and high page count) of this one means that we’ve been able to watch the humans stumble their way from a plausible future into one a bit more…out there—without ever losing the thread of feasibility (at least within the context of epic space opera).

It helps that we’ve followed the same characters, more or less, for decades of story time, and that most of them are as shocked by these developments as we are. Rejoining them, we find Jim Holden an honored guest (read: prisoner) under Duarte’s direct control on Laconia; Holden’s experience with the alien protomolecule makes him too valuable to bury. Naomi and the rest of the old Rocinante crew are divided, and each has a key role to play in a separatist movement that has numbers on its side, but not much else. Considering the face that the Laconians were recently able to demand the complete and unconditional surrender of all of humanity with one ship, the scrappy resistance doesn’t offer much in the way of hope.

Consider also the canny, PR-friendly nature of Duarte’s leadership: he offers peace, order, and a degree of freedom to those colony worlds and individuals willing to toe the line, while the underground is largely populated by old belters who have defied Earth and Mars for generations. Naomi isn’t the only one worried coming generations will surrender to inevitability and give in to velvet-gloved domination. Military conquest weakened the Roman Republic, but it died because the Emperor Augustus played a canny game that allowed citizens to pretend that nothing had really changed. In Tiamat’s Wrath, humanity is beginning to adapt to circumstances that would have once seemed abhorrent, and Naomi understands that the underground needs a win, and soon. A captured ship and a bit of pilfered tech are enough to keep hope alive, but not by much.

Fortunately for the resistance, even the most clever autocrats are prone to overreach. Unwilling to leave well enough alone, Laconia launches an audacious plan to make contact with the mysterious, heretofore utterly silent alien engineers of the protomolecule. “Contact,” to the militarily minded Duarte, involves, essentially, dropping a bomb into whatever space lies beyond the gates in order to awe the aliens with our offensive capabilities and force them to show up at the negotiating table.

It’s not giving anything away to posit that such all-powerful beings might not be so impressed with that course of action. Laconia’s easy success at bringing human civilization to heel bred an arrogance that unleashes hell. Bad news for the powers that be, slightly better news for the separatist movement. Laconia’s struggles create an opportunity that they might never have gotten otherwise. But in the universe of The Expanse, there’s no victory without great loss.

As this definitive modern space opera moves toward its conclusion, it’s clearer than ever that the series is more than anything an exploration of control, and the limits thereof; of how the human urge to dominate can lead to outsized consequences, causing problems far greater than if we’d just let things be. Over the course of eight books (and the smattering of shorter works), the erstwhile crew of the Rocinante has represented a variety viewpoints on the value of order as a primary driver of human expansion. By this near-endgame point, they’re each willing to fight to the death against authoritarianism, even when cloaked in the enlightened benevolence of Laconia.

If you’ve followed The Expanse this far, there’s absolutely no reason to stop. The duo that make up the writing team known as James S.A. Corey has never been shy about surprising us with dramatic twists, even as they’ve remained true to the characters who have guided us from the decks of an insignificant ice hauler to the front lines of a human civil war on a galactic scale. Tiamat’s Wrath shows that this series hasn’t lost a single step, and paves the way to a conclusion that we’re dreading as much as anticipating.

Signed copies of Tiamat’s Wrath are available now in limited quantities from Barnes & Noble.

The post As The Expanse Nears its End, Tiamat’s Wrath Only Raises the Stakes appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

A Memory Called Empire Is a Compelling Political Whodunnit Wrapped in Intriguing Sci-Fi Worldbuilding

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

An aspect of history that often goes unconsidered is the fact that the “barbarian cultures” conquered by the Roman Empire—and, later, the Byzantine Empire—certainly wouldn’t have described themselves as such—labels of barbarism, like history, being writ by the conquerers. As a historian of the Byzantines, Dr. AnnaLinden Weller—who writes science fiction under the pseudonym Arkady Martine—certainly knows this better than most, and her understanding lends depth and breadth to the compelling political mystery that drives her excellent debut novel A Memory Called Empire.

The story centers on Mahit Dzmare, a young diplomat of Lsel Station, an independent, planet-less civilization thriving on the edges of the massive, dominant, ever-expanding Teixcalaanli Empire. When a Teixcalaanli warship arrives at the station demanding a new ambassador be sent to the empire’s capital planet, Mahit is selected and somewhat hastily outfitted with an imago machine containing the stored memories and personality of her ambassadorial predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn.

The imago is an implanted device that merges the recorded personality and memories of its former host with those of its new one; the effect, in text at least, is not wholly unlike having someone in your head to converse with, and decades of experiences not your own to draw from. Imagos are the system Lsel has developed to conserve the essential knowledge and experience of its ancestors and keep their civilization alive in the hostile environment of space. Understandably, they are something of a state secret. It takes many months for a host to fully bond with a new imago, but unfortunately, the rushed demands of the Teixcalaanli don’t allow Mahit that luxury. Worse, Yskander hadn’t been back to Lsel Station in 15 years, so the imago Mahit is given is woefully out of date.

These competing factors mean that the young ambassador would be ill-prepared to face the political pressure cooker of the capital city even if she didn’t arrive there to discover that Yskander—the one that exists outside of her head—has been murdered, and a crisis of imperial succession is underway. The shock of learning of “his” death sends the Yaskander imago into malfunction, leaving Mahit yet more woefully unprepared to serve as the last line of diplomatic defense against Lsel’s forced annexation. To safeguard her people, Mahit must solve a dual mystery: who killed Yskander, and what was he doing on Teixcalaan that made him the target of a political assassination? All she has on her side is her quick mind, her expertise in Teixcalaanli culture, and the aide of a diplomatic liaison named Three Seagrass (Teixcalaanli naming conventions, which combine lucky numbers with evocative, symbolically significant nouns, are one of the novel’s many delights).

Mahit is faced with many immediate challenges that don’t sound quite like the stuff of space opera—a stack of unanswered mail being a chief example—but Arkady achieves the feat of making quiet conversations of procedure with palace officials as tense and thrilling as an action sequence. Mahit’s inquiries put her at the mercy of powerful, competing factions in the Imperial court, and she must be diligent if she wishes to avoid Yskander’s fate as she probes possible acts of sedition and betrayal that hold immense implications for both Lsel and the empire itself.

Intriguing mystery aside, the novel truly impresses in its worldbuilding, and most especially in the way Martine studies the interplay between Teixcalaanli and Lsel culture, the colonizer and the prospective colonized. Mahit, who grew up steeped in Teixcalaanli poetry and romantic epics, is proud to be a citizen of Lsel Station, but she’s also a huge Teixcalaanli fangirl. It’s easy to imagine a Bulgarian emissary traveling to Constantinople in the 11th century with a similar attitude—a combination of resentment, pride, and awe. Mahit’s love of Teixcalaanli culture is one reason she’s so good at an incredibly difficult job. But the spoils of empire also come with costs, and the novel also considers how Teixcalaanli culture consumes and subsumes, how it views all that is not of itself as barbaric. Other civilizations are so influenced by the ubiquity of anything Teixcalaanli they take on the ways of Teixcalaan long before they’re absorbed by it. Mahit’s love for her potential conquerers is a powerful illustration of the insidious  weight of empire, making domination by the Teixcalaanli seem not only inevitable—but perhaps welcomed. It’s brilliant worldbuilding.

As a stranger in a strange land, Mahit provides a compelling view of the colonizing culture. She’s painfully conscious of her youth and inexperience, but also fiercely intelligent and determined. She’s no fool, and knows the cost of misplaced trust. She’s also brave; she represents a tiny station that every Teixcalaanli assumes will be subsumed into the empire eventually, yet she never gives an inch. The other characters are just as well drawn. Mahit’s liaison Three Seagrass is an educated patrician who glides effortlessly through the politics and social orders of the empire with humor and warmth—you understand how these two become instant, if tentative, friends. As Mahit discovers that the aged, heirless emperor Six Direction has appointed no fewer than three co-emperors to succeed him, the other members of the high court come into equally clear focus, as the author’s  historical expertise pays off; she captures the mixture of awe and savagery inherent in powerful imperial systems. (The Teixcalaanli Empire is a place where poetry ciphers hide encoded messages and poisonous flowers are delicate tools of symbolic assassination.)

From Dune to Red Rising, science fiction loves to look to real history as a template for invented futures. In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine climbs inside of history to bring it to animate, immediate life. Amid a wave of resurgent space operas, it stands apart, as pointed and dangerous as the spokes jutting from the sun-spear throne of the Teixcalaanli emperor.

A Memory Called Empire is available March 26.

The post A Memory Called Empire Is a Compelling Political Whodunnit Wrapped in Intriguing Sci-Fi Worldbuilding appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

A Fantastic New Space Opera Saga Dawns in Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Elizabeth Bear is a master of disguise. If you’ve spent any time with her enormous back catalog, you know that the only thing you can expect from her is to be surprised and delighted by how different each new book is from the one that preceded it. Since winning the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, she has published dozens of novels and even more short stories, jumping between genres and styles with apparent ease. Certainly not just any writer can publish one of the best epic fantasy series of the past decade (The Eternal Sky trilogy and its ongoing pseudo-sequel series, which began with The Stone in the Skull), take a pitstop in steampunk for a book or two, and then follow up with a big, bold science fiction saga poised to fill the void left by the James S.A. Corey’s soon-to-conclude series The Expanse.

Bear’s latest, the chunky space opera Ancestral Night, does just that. It travels familiar trade routes, but does so with aplomb, effortlessly separating itself from the crowd of new books in a resurgent subgenre.

Haimey Dz is a salvager. Alongside her sentient ship’s AI, Singer, and her long-time business partner Connla, she travels the edges of the Milky Way recovering lost and derelict vessels. It makes for a scrappy living, but it also keeps her far ahead of her past. When the crew explores a promising find—an ancient alien ship floating in a dark corner of the galaxy—Haimey investigates, and is infected with a mysterious, and strangely useful, parasite that grants her the ability to see the underlying structure of the universe. Unfortunately, it also makes the crew a target. Suddenly, they find themselves on the run, fleeing an aggressive band of space pirates able to track their ship through white space (a clever take on FTL), and the Synarche government itself.

Told from Haimey’s first-person point of view, Ancestral Night is bursting with character. Haimey is at once hilarious and principled by her own ethics, and makes for a richly complex narrator. She’s easy to root for, but more than that, her past experiences—her prejudices, dreams, and history—lend color to the narrative as it explodes around her. She can be reserved and aloof, too comfortable with her small crew and in the confines of her tiny salvaging ship, but she also connects deeply with the people she cares for, turning a light toward facets of their personalities that might otherwise remain hidden.

Ancestral Night is chock full of great worldbuilding, supported by thematic explorations of politics, humanity, society, and individualism. Readers familiar with space opera will recognize the far-future web of intermingling galactic species, and the concept of an overall governing body connecting them—here, the Synarche—all is certainly not new, but Bear weaves together these disparate elements (Haimey’s antipathy to drugs and body mods, the Synarche’s underpinnings and their affects on the individualism of AIs, the logistical implications of species from planets with different atmospheres and gravities cohabiting) in ways that make them feel fresh. Rather than seeming like a jumble of SFnal ideas, the universe builds upon itself in believable ways.

As it does in all of her work, Bear’s prose does double-duty, using exposition to worldbuild, inject humor, shape the characters, and establish the monumental stakes. One of my favorite early passages manages to be informative, interesting, and funny all at once:

I looked down along the distorted Sagittarius Arm of the great barred spiral that sprawled across the entirety of our southern horizon.

Yes, space doesn’t have directions, exactly, but let’s be honest here: prepositions and directions are so much easier to use than made-up words, and it’s not like the first object somebody called a phone involved a cochlear nanoplant and a nanoskin graft with a touch screen on it, either. So those of us who work here just pretend we’re nice and know better, and commend the nitpickers to the same hell as people who hold strong and condescending opinions about the plural of the word octopus. (Ch. 2)

This is an example of Bear’s no-apologies take on space opera: as the author, she doesn’t apologize for choosing when to stick to strict science, and when to hand-wave in favor of a better story. The balance between the expected scientific density of space opera and the approachable, easy-to-read voice means Ancestral Night will connect with all sorts of readers.

The novel presents a far-future vision of humanity that is diverse and unshackled by modern prejudices and social limitations. Haimey lives at a time when humans (and most sentient species, of which there are many in the the Synarche) are able to tune their emotions and physiology with drugs, controlling their behavior and proclivities at will. There’s obvious room for abuse, but Bear also explores the challenges and benefits of allowing people to feel or be anything they want. As a child, Haimey lived within an all-woman clade whose citizens were tuned to an almost hive-mind like dependance on one another. The present-day conflicts—both internal and external—that arise throughout the novel due to her pushback against her upbringing are both riveting and compelling. Nestled deep in the narrative’s core—permeating all of its worldbuilding, conflicts, and themes—is an exploration of free will and sentience.

Ancestral Night‘s tropes are the basic building blocks of genre—galaxy-spanning mysteries, pirates and rogues, long-lost alien tech, hyperspace travel, harrowing space combat—but Bear deploys them with expert precision. Imagine James S.A. Corey at his snarkiest, plus the bold sci-fi invention of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, topped off with the rich characterization of Lois McMaster Bujold. The result is both familiar and wholly unique, managing a precarious balance between huge SFnal ideas—just wait until you find out about the Ativahika, an alien species whose abilities and appearance will boggle your mind—and an imminently approachable style, thanks to Haimey’s roguish narrative voice.

Bear’s first sci-fi novel in more than a decade has everything going for it: big space battles, thrilling action, a scrappy crew, and huge mysteries with galaxy-wide implications. Ancestral Night is space opera at its best and boldest, making you think hard even as it gets your blood pumping and your imagination flowing.

Ancestral Night is available now.

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A Mismatched Couple Saves the Galaxy in Polaris Rising

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Ada von Hasenberg is kinda having a bad day. She’s been captured by mercenaries who’d be happy to inspect the merchandise, her intended husband wants to kidnap her, and she’s sharing a cell with the galaxy’s most wanted criminal.

But Ada, whose relentless forward momentum drives Jessie Mihalik’s debut novel Polaris Rising, is a woman of seemingly infinite resources, including the uncanny ability to discern what others want while keeping what she wants under wraps—skills learned from growing up among the galaxy’s most powerful families.

That leaves her with a few options in her potential captivity:

Albrecht Von Hasenberg was nothing if not thorough. When his security team couldn’t find me and drag me back for my engagement party, he went above and beyond by posting an enormous bounty for my safe return. Of course, he told the news, he was devastated that I was “missing.” He failed to mention that I had left of my own volition. Or that I’d been gone for two years.

“Can I get you some wine? Or perhaps brandy?” the captain asked.

“Wine would be lovely, thank you,” I said. I knew where this road led. I’d been playing this game since I could talk. The captain wanted something and he thought—rightly—that House von Hasenberg could help him get it. As patriarch of one of the three high houses, very few people in the universe welded more power than my father.

As for that most-wanted criminal? Marcus, the enemy of her enemy, is a potential ally—a far more useful one than a befuddled captain mixed up in matters way above his pay grade. And, this being a space opera, the “criminal” Marcus is more than the “evil, traitorous former soldier” he’s been painted as.

As Ada seeks to outrun and outsmart her enemies who include, at one point, her father, her intended, and anyone out for her ransom, the story unfolds at a blistering pace. It’s told entirely through her point of view, but filled with great supporting characters, including Marcus; Veronica the fence, who becomes key to Marcus and Ada’s escape; Rhys, an arms dealer who turns out to an old ally of Marcus’s; and Ada’s sister, who has aided and abetted her sibling’s escape, agreeing that Ada’s intended is not to be trusted.

There are some finely drawn settings, including the smuggler’s world where Marcus and Ada land after their joint escape, a place where everyone is happy to stab one another in the back—sometimes literally. Another world is divided by levels, with the uppermost populated by the literal higher-ups, the only ones who have access to the sun. Of course, a space opera wouldn’t be complete without a space battle and a chase, and there’s at least two of each.

But, and here’s where Polaris Rising takes a turn: it is also a satisfying romance.

I know, I know. Some sci-fi readers run from the word “romance,” but the genre is full of them, under one label or another, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful A Civil Campaign to the Liadan Universe novels of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. And there’s one famous ultra-famous SF couple that bears a striking resemblance to Ada and Marcus: Leia Organa and Han Solo.

Like Leia, Ada is from a powerful galactic family. Like Leia, she has a driving need to see justice done and protect people. Like Han, Marcus is a rogue living at the edges of society. Like Han, he’s not always willing on the surface to help, but he makes the right choices when the chips are down.

The archetypes are there, though Polaris Rising is far from a Star Wars clone.

The romance helps hold the story together, lending emotional depth to the whiz-bang adventure. Neither Ada nor Marcus is certain they can trust the other, especially due to class differences. It’s only by the choices they each make throughout that trust is established. At the same time, Ada realizes how few people in her former life she can truly rely on, up to and including her intended husband, who’s hiding a secret that could gain his family ultimate domination of the galaxy.

Polaris Rising is a self-contained story, but a sequel is already arriving before the end of the year. There’s plenty of galaxy left to explore.

Polaris Rising is available now. You can read an excerpt here.

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A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy Is a Great Deal For Space Opera Fans

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

At one point in Alex White’s A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy, the ne’er-do-well crew of the Capricious is simultaneously engaged in a heist (from the most secure facility in the known universe) and a plan to insert one of their own into a a fanatical terrorist group to act as a double agent.

Those plots only take up about half the book, which might give you some idea of how quickly this thing moves. Just when you think you can take a breath and and hang with the characters for a chapter or two, something else arrives to endanger them.

A Bad Deal… is the second book in White’s space-based SF series featuring the crew of the Capricious, following with A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. Going in, I was worried I might be lost trying to remember everything that happened last time around, but White allays those fears with an opening action sequence that quickly catches us up on the latest of the crew’s adventures, then takes a break for a quick reunion with Elizabeth  “Boots” Elsworth, one of our narrators, who, at the end of the first book, thought she might retire to run a distillery. Invariably, unfinished business, that nemesis of lowlifes everywhere, soon makes itself known.

This reunion scene is an elegant reintroduction to this wacky space opera universe.

“Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight.” 

Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth looked over her old companions, nursing her glass of unclear, unaged whiskey. The crew of the Capricious had landed in her backyard on Hopper’s Hope, uninvited. Now, Cordell, Armin, Nilah, Orna, Aisha, Malik and the strange pair of gingers were gathered in the uncomfortably large kitchen of Boots’s obnoxiously huge house; for the first time since Boots had moved into her mansion by the distillery, the place felt full. 

She raised her tumbler to the crew, pointing at them with her metal index finger. She’d worked with doctors to upgrade it in the months since they’d seen her, converting it to full regraded steel. It looked a little more human—but not enough. It was nothing like a magical prosthesis. “Two weeks ago, your big plan was to extract this Forscythe character and…force him to talk? From Morrison Station, no less.” She took a long pull of her white dog whiskey and coughed. It was well and truly awful stuff.

Nilah is a former race car driver with a love of adrenaline, Orna is the ship’s quartermaster. Nilah and Orna are involved, though their relationship is tested by the demands of their missions, which never go as planned.  Captain Cordell is the stoic but caring leader. First Officer Armin is a datamancer who will, yes, tell you the odds. Malik is the doctor; Aisha the pilot and magical sharpshooter. The crew is rounded out by a pair of twins who possess the magical mark for reading minds. (Yes, this is a universe where science and magic co-exist quite… well, not peacefully…)

The story is told through the eyes of Boots and Nilah. Boots’ perspective is that of an older veteran, scarred by war and the destruction of her planet, while Nilah is an optimistic new recruit of sorts. Boots is one of the rare people in her universe who has zero connection to magic, while Nilah is an incredibly gifted mage, her power set contained in tattoo marks under her arms.

White does a terrific juggling act between action plots and excellently portrays the varied personalities of the diverse crew of the Capricious, but it’s the seamless interweaving of sci-fi and magic that truly sets the book apart (considering the influence of Star Wars, magical sc-fi is still rather rare). For instance, Orna controls her artificially intelligent battle armor, called Charger, with a tech bracelet that basically runs on her magic. Nilah can hack into any data system using the marks tattoed on her arms. Perhaps the most clever use of magic is the “curse” put on Boots: uning a magical cup that grants wishes (sure), a killer made Boots sign a binding contract not to reveal his whereabouts, ever; it also prevents her from speaking to or about him, or going after him. The contract was sealed with a magical, unbreakable barrister’s mark. (What lawyer wouldn’t kill for the ability to make people sign an unbreakable contract?)

When Boots simply tries to talk about the man who cursed her, it goes… not well:

“He’s the guy who shot your partner. More importantly, he’s the guy with the—”

Blinding pain pushed in through her eyelids, eliminating all thoughts of finishing that sentence. It was the old curse, as familiar as an abscessed tooth, coming to shut down the conversation. How many times had she felt it during the press junkets after her show went belly-up? When she’d talked of Stetson before, it’d been idle speculation. Now, she intended to implicate him, to help her friends catch him, and the contract she’d signed wouldn’t abide that.

Breaking the curse will require the crew of the Capricious to use tech in a particularly ingenious way that I’m loathe to reveal. That isn’t to say this is a book that lives or dies by its shocking twists; they’re just too fun to spoil.

The villains are the head of an Ayn Randian-style cult in which only the strong survive and where screwing over your fellows is a matter of course. Gods shouldn’t deal with lesser mortals—or so the cult members believe—and they have nigh-omnipotent power to back them up.

The crew’s current quarry is a sorcerer who can project his murderous power through light, even from thousands of miles away.

The shadows lunged, and Nilash whipped her arms about in a frenzy, punching anything she could. The viscous darkness closed around her forearms, but couldn’t secure a proper grip through the pulsing lights. Nilah ripped her arms free and spun to flee but found a rising tidal wave of singing black sludge. 

It gets worse for Nilah once the shadows start manifesting multiple mouths with sharp teeth and razor-sharp shadow claws.

Over the course of the story, Nilah and the telepathic twins must infiltrate the cult to gain information about their leader, while Boots and Orna commit the aforementioned heist on a planet that is basically the Cayman Islands of the wider universe. These subplots eventually lead the crew to a secret space station where the ultra-rich and powerful of the universe can do whatever they want—as long as they do it to the 99-percenters whose lives they treat like matches to be spent carelessly (the rich are served by human slaves whose free will has been stripped of them by techno-magical imprints).

Omnipotent beings screwing over humanity doesn’t sit well with our crew. And, if there’s one thing that’s predictable about this story, it’s that things that piss off the crew of the Capricious tend to go boom in spectacular fashion.

Can’t wait until the next book.

A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy is available December 11.

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