B&N Bookseller’s Picks: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of February 2017

For nearly two decades, Jim Killen has served as the science fiction and fantasy book buyer for Barnes & Noble. Every month on Tor.com and the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Jim shares his curated list of the month’s can’t-miss new SFF releases.

A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab (February 21, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Fans of Schwab’s Shades of Magic series have been enduring an agonizing for the final book ever since A Gathering of Shadows revealed who the real villain was, and what they wanted—and then, you know, ended. A Conjuring of Light will bring to a close this part of Schwab’s transporting tale of parallel Londons—non-magical Grey London, magical Red London, magic-challenged White London, and doomed, magic-poisoned Black London—and the gifted magicians (not all of them good) who can travel between them. Fans have been pining for resolution of the relationship between hardscrabble thief Delilah Bard and Kell, the last traveler of Red London. If the first two installments are any indication, Schwab will take the story in directions no one is anticipating.

The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley (February 7, Saga Press—Hardcover)
A woman named Zan wakes up in a sick bay minus most of her memories. She is greeted by a woman named Jayd, daughter to the lord of the Katazyrna, who says they are sisters, and that Zan is the only one who can help her people. From this intriguing beginning, Hurley throws us furiously into a universe where women fight and die for and aboard living worldships, organisms populated by maintained by their solely female populations, who give birth to everything needed to keep the ships healthy: children, monsters, even fleshy mechanical parts. But the Katazyrna is a dying world, and the coveted worldship Mokshi may hold the secret that will save it. Before Zan can get her bearings, Katazyrna is ambushed, and Zan and Jayd are thrust into dangerous new roles and a fight for their lives in a landscape that’s constantly shifting underneath them—and the reader. This is space opera like you’ve never seen it—angry, feminist, furiously inventive, and not a little frightening.

The Turn: The Hollows Begins with Death, by Kim Harrison (February 7, Gallery Books—Hardcover)
Harrison thrills long-time readers of The Hollows with a prequel set 40 years before the start of Rachel Morgan’s adventures to depict the Turn: the moment when a genetically-altered tomato unleashed a plague that killed a billion humans and forced the magical Inderlander races out into the open. Geneticist Trisk Cambri, an elf, takes a job as an industrial spy, helping to develop the new vegetable that might change the world. Her rival Trent “Kal” Kalamack sabotages the project—and inadvertently unleashes the plague. The magical creatures are suddenly threatened with exposure, the only beings notably unaffected by the plagues,. They’re left to try to save humanity without revealing their true nature. This page-turner is more than just backstory, though—it’s a compelling thriller and a welcome return to a beloved urban fantasy setting

In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle (February 14, Tachyon—Hardcover)
A master of fantasy returns with a new unicorn and a new story, set in the rural farmland of Calabria. Frozen by a past tragedy, Claudio lives a simple life with a few animals, writing poetry and barely surviving. He is astonished when into his life appears a unicorn, forcing him to remember the true freedom that all living things have lost in modern times. The unicorn attracts hordes of reporters and tourists, as well as animal rights activists and those who intend the creature harm. Claudio stoutly protects her, and when he helps her bear her foal, Claudio sees his own life returning to him, the birth of new possibilities. Anyone who loved The Last Unicorn knows the power of a Peter S. Beagle story.

Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames (February 21, Orbit—Paperback)
Eames slams The Wild Bunch into a fantasy universe that’s equal parts grit, broadswords, fast-paced action, and humor humor. Clay Cooper and his band of mercenaries, once the most feared and successful hired hands in the realm, have gone to seed. Old, drunk and growing soft around the middle, they’re a shadow of their former selves. But when an old friend begs Clay for helping saving his daughter, trapped in a besieged city about to be swarmed by a bloodthirsty enemy, Clay can’t say no. He’s getting the band back together, whether they’re ready or not.

Magic of Blood and Sea: The Assassin’s Curse; The Pirate’s Wish, by Cassandra Rose Clarke (February 7, Saga Press—Paperback)
This bind-up of two previously publish novels provides another chance to explore the early work of one of the most interesting cross-genre writers to hit the scene in the last five years. In this duology, she throws creative caution to the wind, spinning out a story that is exuberant in its love for just about every fantastical idea possible—and somehow pulls it all together into a charming, surprising coming-of-age story. Ananna is a young pirate. Naji is the young assassin sent to kill her. When Ananna saves him instead, a curse is invoked that compels him to protect Ananna, and to feel pain when she is in danger. The two set off through a world populated by pirates, blood magic, and talking sharks to find out how to break the spell. Naturally, it involves completing three impossible tasks and experiencing true love’s first kiss. This is a charming all-ages story, and a herald of great things to come from their talented author.

Miranda and Caliban, by Jacqueline Carey (February 14, Tom Doherty Associates—Hardcover)
The writer behind the florid fantasy saga Kushiel’s Dart seems a natural fit for a richly reimagined interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult works. Carey’s skillful deconstruction of The Tempest offers up backstory for the events of the Bard’s tale, one that upends common interpretations of the text while still playing by the rules, and never contradicting the source material. We find Miranda living on a secluded island with her father, Prospero, and the island’s only native inhabitant, Caliban, the offspring of a spiteful witch. As Miranda and Caliban grow up, they fall in love—something her father cannot tolerate, especially since his daughter factors into his magical plans. If you’ve read the play, the way Carey weaves this expanded narrative into the story you know is transporting. If you haven’t, well, there’s no better time—but you’ll enjoy the intricate plot and well-drawn characters anyway.

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds (February 28, Orbit—Paperback)
Reynolds asks a question not often answered in sci-fi: what comes after the empire? Set in a distant future that has seen great galactic civilizations rise—and fall—Revenger tells the story of Captain Rackamore and his crew of grave-robbers-cum-salvage artists. They locate forgotten planets, ancient dead worlds sealed within layers of security, crack them open, and search for lost technology and resources others will pay handsomely for. Rackamore and crew try to do the job with a dash of ethics, a novel notion in this wild universe. His two newest crew members—sisters who have turned stowaway in a quest for more exciting livesand to save their family from bankruptcy—are caught up in an adventure far more dangerous than they could have expected. Ancient weapons, dead civilizations, and revenge fuel this sci-fi twist on a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure, delivering Reynolds’ most accessible book yet.

The Wrong Dead Guy, by Richard Kadrey (February 28, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
Kadrey’s followup to The Everything Box reunites us with master thief Coop, a somewhat involuntary member of the Department of Peculiar Science (DOPS). A straightforward heist—DOPS and Coop are tasked with stealing a mummy from a local museum because “we’d like to have it instead of them”—is complicated when the team accidentally revives the ancient slumbering creature, Harkhuf, and his dark magic. The mummy immediately sets off to revive his queen (and, incidentally, an entire army), and Coop and the rest of DOPS can avert the apocalypse. Again. It’s a darkly comic adventure in the grand tradition of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Winter of the Gods, by Jordanna Max Brodsky (February 14, Orbit—Hardcover)
Brodsky returns to the world of last year’s The Immortals, where gods of legend continue to exist in the modern day, but can claim little of their former power of influence. The goddess Artemis lives under the guise of Selene DiSilva, a weary vigilante fighting to protect the women of Manhattan. She is drawn into an investigation that’s very personal: members of her own family—gods themselves, in other words—are being hunted by killers capable of wielding holy weapons against them. She must reach out to her estranged siblings in order to save them from this mysterious cult and its doomsday goals. Selene’s powers as a legit goddess make her the perfect investigator—but this case might be too much even for an immortal to handle.

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai (February 7, Dutton—Hardcover)
Mastai’s debut hinges on a brilliant twist to time travel formula: a visitor to the past mucks about with history and trigers a dystopian future—which turns out to be the world we’re all living in today (or, more accurately, the slightly less dystopian world we left behind in 2016). Tom Barren grew up in a world modeled on the 1950s utopian vision of the future—jetpacks, flying cars, endless clean energy. He time travels back to 1965 to witness the invention of that boundless energy source—and his presence causes the experiment to fail. Leaping forward, he finds himself in our present, and is suitably horrified at our backwards ways and feeble technology. He sets about trying to prove his story to a woman he promptly falls in love with, causing him to question whether he really wants to set things right. Mastai, a debut novelist but an accomplished screenwriter, crafts a cinematic narrative that lives up to that brilliant setup.

Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly (February 7, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Combining CasablancaCabaret, and John le Carré, Donnelly’s intoxicating debut whisks us away to Amberlough, a seductive, permissive enclave in a setting not exactly unlike 1920s Europe. The city is targeted by a conservative, nationalist One-State Party, which seeks to unite all nations into an orderly empire. Cyril DePaul is a shattered intelligence agent forced reluctantly back into the field—where his spectacular failure puts him at the mercy of blackmail by the OSP. But everyone in this story is a double-agent of sorts; no one is precisely who they seem, and their complex relationships and cover stories weave together into an complex web of intrigue. As the OSP tightens its grip, every character is forced to make hard choices, even as their freedoms wither around them. It’s dark, powerful, and affecting stuff, destined to be a book remembered—truly a book for our times.

A Perfect Machine, by Brett Savory (February 7, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Henry Kyllo is a Runner. Every night, he is chased by Hunters with guns, the chase part of a secret tradition, a hidden world of ritual and myth. When Henry is hit, he goes to the hospital, but he doesn’t let go of his bullets—because he believes that when he achieves full-body lead content, he will “ascend.” Rumor is that no Runner has successfully ascended—but this isn’t exactly true. And Henry isn’t as prepared to get what he wants as he thinks he is. With a breathless pace that mimics the hunts the story hinges upon, and a compelling character in Henry, single-minded in pursuit of mysterious goals, this grim thriller crackles with tension and intrigue from the first page to the last.

Gilded Cage, by Vic James (February 14, Del Rey—Hardcover)
James’ debut begins with an irresistible premise: in an alternate England, those with magical powers (known ironically as “Equals”) dominate as the aristocracy; those without magic must by law spend a 10 years as slaves to the Equals—the catch being that they get to choose when they will serve. Serve when you are young and enjoy years afterward without worry; serve when you are old, and risk dying a slave. The story focuses on non-magical Luke Hadley and family, who choose to go into their slave period together. Luke winds up in the slave settlement Millmoor, where he becomes involved in a secret group working to make the lives of the downtrodden better, while the rest of his family must serve on the estate of the most powerful family in England, becoming involved in the personal and political dramas of firsts among Equals. James’ world-building will absorb you in no time, as will the clever hints at a wider world waiting to be explored.

Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show, by Eric Scott Fischl (February 7, Angry Robot—Paperback)
In the post-Civil War 19th century, a group of performers, con artists, and criminals travel as part of the Medicine Show led by disgraced surgeon Dr. Alexander Potter. They entertain, whore, and steal, but their main grift is selling Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic, a patent medicine supposedly guaranteed to cure whatever ails you—in other words, snake oil. But true alchemy is involved, practiced by a desperate man who is quickly running out of time, and Sagwa Tonic sometimes affects people in unusual, horrifying ways—leading to the revenge plans of Josiah McDaniel, a drunk for whom Sagwa has been a fate worse than death. You’ll feel slightly dirty after spending time with some of these characters, but you’ll never forget them—or this gritty, down-and-dirty debut.

Thunderbird, by Chuck Wendig (February 28, Saga Press—Hardcover)
We’d follow Miriam Black and her expletive-laden attitude just about anywhere. Wendig’s long-awaited fourth book in the series comes just in time to thaw us out after winter, and finds Miriam trying to see the bright side of her ability to touch someone and know without question how they’ll die. She goes looking for a psychic who can help her deal with the curse—and instead finds a group of “domestic terrorists” and her biggest vision of death yet. But is Miriam is starting to like her visions?

With Blood Upon the Sand, by Brad Beaulieu (February 7, DAW—Hardcover)
Beaulieu’s second novel in the Song of Shattered Sands finds heroine Çeda serving as a Blade Maiden for the hated kings of Sharakhai. Bonded to the asirim, she feels their pain and hunger for freedom after centuries of enslavement, and they hope she is the one who will be their savior. The Kings, however, are regrouping after their defeat by the Moonless Host, and their revenge upon the city is bloody and cruel. As Çeda is pulled deeper into the rebel’s cause, she learns a secret that could be the key to defeating the Kings—but only if she can survive long enough to understand it. In the shifting web of relationships and power in Sharakhai, nothing is certain for long—including her control over the asirim she is bonded to.

Lotus Blue, by Cat Sparks (March 7, Talos Press—Paperback)
If you’re someone who watched Mad Max: Fury Road and wondered what the rest of the world might be like after the fall, Sparks’ debut offers up a desert future where the landscape is littered with ancient war machines and the detritus of a long-gone age. Orphan teens Star and Nene, who hide a terrible secret, travel with a caravan along the Sand Road until they witness a satellite crashing to Earth, setting off a chain of events that sees the sisters kidnapped by an ancient supersoldier—just as one of the deadliest and most intelligent of the old war machines awakens in the dry, mapless desert. It is Lotus Blue—a machine that sees no future for humanity at all. Filled with effortless worldbuilding that will have you shaking the sand out of your shoes after each chapter, this post-apocalyptic thrill ride is not to be missed.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (February 7, W. W. Norton & Company—Hardcover)
Working from the original Norse legends, Gaiman applies his novelist talents to craft the old myths into a cohesive narrative in which the gods emerge as characters with motivations and flaws, telling us the story of Odin, father of the gods, and his sons Thor and Loki from the beginning, but not quite like we’ve experienced it before, from how Asgard was built to how Thor came into possession of his famous hammer. Gaiman is true to the apocalyptic tone of the old myths, stories that cast the world as a place of struggle and violence, where dying in battle was probably your best option. If you’ve read American Gods, you know Gaiman has a gift for making old stories not just new, but unmistakably his own.

Star Wars Aftermath: Empire’s End, by Chuck Wendig (February 21, LucasBooks—Hardcover)
Bridging the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Wendig closes out his own trilogy of books set in the galaxy far, far away. An entity as huge and powerful as the Empire can’t be destroyed simply by blowing up a single superweapon and assassinating its Sith leaders. The remnants of the Empire still control fleets and worlds, and Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, working with the treacherous Gallius Rax, engineer a devastating counterstrike against the fledgling Republic. Veteran rebel pilot Norra Wexley is drafted by Leia Organa to pursue the war criminals, and she is more than glad to do so because of a personal connection to the Empire’s bloody attack. It all comes down to the barren planet of Jakku, where a final confrontation between the Republic and the old Empire looms—and where Wexley hopes to have her revenge.

Firebrand, by Kristen Britain (February 28, DAW—Hardcover)
The sixth book in Britain’s beloved epic fantasy series finds Green Rider Karigan forced back into service, despite not having recovered from her previous travails. She is tasked with making contact with the legendary p’ehdrosian to renew an ancient alliance against the forces of the Second Empire, led by the necromancer Grandmother. Karigan once again heads out on a perilous journey, while back home in Sacoridia, King Zachary is abducted by an ice elemental working with Grandmother and the Second Empire, raising the stakes of her mission to heart-pounding levels. Each step northward brings new dangers as Britain continues to build upon a complex world where class and birthright are often as important as talent and power.

Portal of a Thousand Worlds, by Dave Duncan (February 14, Open Road—Paperback)
Set in an alternate 19th century China during the Boxer Rebellion era, Duncan’s latest describes a world where the titular Portal opens once every thousand years or so, bringing chaos and transformation to our world. It is set to open again, and the one man who might know what’s coming is the Firstborn, a soul reincarnated through the centuries, retaining his memories. But the Firstborn has been imprisoned by a repressive government, and as society becomes unstable, the political maneuvers of the wealthy and powerful—including the formidable Dowager Empress—combined with a vast, brainwashed army, give the story a complexity rooted in the real events and legends of the Boxers (who were, incidentally, rumored at the time to have magical powers).

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (February 28, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
Kiernan seeks to unsettle in this Lovecraftian novella thataks questions you might not want to be answered. A mysterious government agent known as the Signalman debarks from a train in Winslow, Arizona on a blazing hot day. Still reeling from a recent disastrous raid on an doomsday cult operating on the shores of the Salton Sea, he arrives at a prearranged meeting with a mysterious woman who seems to have a different relationship with time than your average Joe. This woman has some very bad news foe the Signalman: something is awakening in the depths of space, beyond Pluto. The strange cult was only the beginning. Something incomprehensible that is coming. Kiernan is a master of unsettling short-form fiction, and her latest is a diamond-tipped needle of existential dread.

This post was published simultaneously on Tor.com.

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