B&N Bookseller’s Picks: The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of July 2016

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

Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (July 12, Tor Books—Hardcover)
One of the best things about sci-fi as a genre is the restless way it refuses to settle into predictability. Levine celebrates this fact with a book that pivots off of Victorian SF tropes to create something fresh: a thoroughly modern book that also feels like a classic adventure from Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Arabella is a teenage girl living on Mars in 1812. Her mother, fearing the planet’s “wild” influence on her child, moves her daughter to Earth, leaving Arabella’s father and brother on the colony. When Arabella’s father dies, she disguises herself as a boy and hires on with a ship heading back to the Red Planet in order to save her brother. Along the way, she encounters threats both within the ship and in the solar system at large. Arabella is a believably drawn young woman, determined and headstrong; readers will fall in love with her as they follow her on adventures across a steampunky alternate past.

Flameout, by Keri Arthur (July 5, Penguin—Paperback)
Arthur’s third Souls of Fire book returns to a complex world in which people infected by a plague derived from vampire’s blood have literally gone crazy, their minds altered by the sickness. Phoenix Emberly Pearson and Fire Fae Jackson Miller struggle to locate kidnapped witches, whose spells could mean the end for Emberly if they fall into the wrong hands, and biomedical research that could be the key to defeating the Red Plague. Meanwhile, Emberly contends with her conflicted feelings for ex-lover Sam, whose brother Luke has succumbed to the disease. Sam wants Emberly on his team of paranormal investigators, but as the virus spreads, time is running out for everybody. Fans will be excited for another installment filled with Arthur’s breakneck pacing and apocalyptic storytelling stakes.

Heroine Complex, by Sara Kuhn (July 5, DAW—Paperback)
Kuhn envisions a world in which the only thing more common than demons attacking your city are the superheroes who exist to fight them. In this chaotic setting, we meet Evie Tanaka, who runs public relations for Aveda Jupiter—superhero, diva, and a most demanding client. Evie is equal parts smart, funny, and great at her job—one that becomes infinitely more complicated when she attends an event for Aveda and is attacked by demons and is forced to reveal her deepest secret: she’s super-powered, too. Kuhn’s genius plot juggles Evie’s sudden need accomplish two jobs—as PR maven and superhero. The workload may literally kill her. Romance, adventure, kick-butt action sequences, and killer cupcakes combine to make this a great example of how weird and wonderful urban fantasy can be in the right hands.

Imprudence, by Gail Carriger (July 19, Orbit—Hardcover)
The second installment in Carriger’s Custard Protocol series jumps back into readers’ hearts and minds, picking up where last year’s Prudence left off. Rue and her dirigible, The Spotted Custard, return from their adventures in India to find strange happenings are afoot, Queen Victoria extremely displeased with them, and the whole of England on edge. The werewolves and vampires are behaving strangely—Rue’s lupine-leaning father and vampire mother certainly aren’t themselves. Even as Rue comes to realize the strangeness she’s detecting is fear of a greater threat, Carriger kicks up the banter and the lighter-than-air imagination, swirling it all together into a story best described with a technical term: romp.

Indomitable: The Chronicles of Promise Paen, by W.C. Bauers (July 26, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The second book in Bauers’ complex, character-driven story of interplanetary war finds Lieutenant Promise Paen, captain of Victor Company, recuperating on Earth and suffering serious PTSD after surviving the events of Unbreakable. When she returns to active duty, she has her hands full with a complement of green recruits she has to whip into shape before they’re deployed to the mining planet Sheol, where a deposit of incredibly valuable ore must be protected at any cost. Bauers doesn’t go easy on Promise, a complex character who balances the responsibility of leading a mechanized infantry, the constantly shifting fortunes of conflict, and incredible violence on a daily basis.

Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt, by Chuck Wendig (July 12, LucasBooks—Hardcover)
Wendig continues to fill in blanks in the Star Wars saga with the second book in his trilogy set between the events of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. With the Emperor dead and the New Republic hunting down the remnants of the defeated military order, Han Solo accompanies Chewbacca to the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk to liberate it from oppression—a story hardcore fans have been waiting 30 years to see fleshed out. Meanwhile, Norra Wexley hunts Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, who leads a the remnants of a once mighty fleet on a quest to salvage what remains of the Empire—until Chewbacca’s capture and Han Solo’s disappearance pulls her away from that mission, and she’s charged by Leia Organa to effect a rescue. To say she has a bad feeling about this is an understatement. Wendig brings modern flare and his signature staccato style to the Star Wars universe without losing sight of what made it the most popular sci-fi stories of all time.

Red Queen, by Christina Henry (July 12, Ace—Paperback)
Henry’s revisionary take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continues to disturb and delight in the follow-up to 2015’s Alice. Having escaped Old City, Alice and Hatcher expected to find peace—but the fields of lush greenery aren’t where they should be, and Hatcher still hasn’t found his daughter. Thus, the most unexpected besties ever push onward in their quest, one that quickly puts them at the mercy of the terrifying White Queen and the twisted Black King—and seeking to ally themselves with the vengeful, unpredictable Red Queen, perhaps the most dangerous of them all. Henry brings her brutal, violent vision of Lewis Carrol’s classic to life with vibrant writing and unexpected twists.

Red Right Hand, by Levi Black (July 26, Tor Books—Hardcover)
When Charlotte “Charlie” Moore is saved from attacking hellhounds by a mysterious man with the a crimson hand, she finds herself plunged into a Lovecraftian nightmare. Her savior turns out to be an elder god named Nyarlathotep, who seeks to make use of Charlie’s latent magical powers to stop other “Old Ones” from crossing over into our world. But Charlie soon discovers his true motivation: he enjoys tormenting humans, and doesn’t want to share his toys with the other gods. Charlie’s tortured struggle to save those she loves—and save the world entire from an unfathomable evil—drive this compelling dark fantasy debut.

Supernova, by C.A. Higgins (July 26, Del Rey—Hardcover)
The second book in Higgins’ science-minded space opera trilogy is as dense and thought-provoking as last year’s Lightless, which is truly saying something. Constance, the woman who led a rebellion that bombed Earth in order to destroy the totalitarian System, must now deal with the aftermath, from challenges to her leadership to the chaos of a power vacuum in the wake of a violent act. Meanwhile, brilliant scientist Althea is raising a newly-sentient spaceship like a temperamental child—one that quickly outstrips her authority as a pseudo-parent. Higgins blends hard sci-fi with a morally grey story about people dealing with the unexpected consequences of revolutionary acts, and a realistic portrayal of an entire solar system struggling to adapt to the new status quo. Any serious fan of the subgenre owes this series due consideration.

The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer (July 12, Knopf—Paperback)
Whether you’re a life-long fan of science fiction or layperson diving deep into a new genre, this incredible anthology offers a comprehensive genre education between two covers. In more than 1,000 pages and upwards of 100 stories, the VanderMeers have compiled a truly representative history of SF from its early beginnings to its myriad modern incarnations. They offer up examples of how the genre has dealt with issues from racism, to sexism, to every “ism” in-between. Almost a third of the stories are translated, offering a glimpse of the genre at a remove from the smothering effect of the English-language market. Even if you put aside any pretension of studying genre history, this is an unparalleled achievement, and undoubtedly one of the most important books you’ll buy this year.

The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, by Jon Hollins (July 19, Orbit—Paperback)
Described as Guardians of the Galaxy meets The Hobbit, this is not your ordinary fantasy story. Dragons rule the world—and, surprise surprise, they’re not the gentlest of landlords, demanding oppressive taxes and making life miserable for everyone. What more justification is needed for a band of misfit thieves to decide the time has come to take back what is theirs—or, if not strictly theirs, then at least what is certainly there for the taking. Hollins ladles on the humor while hardly skimping on the action, the unexpected plot swerves, or the glorious feels.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, by A. Lee Martinez (July 5, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Martinez has more fun than should be strictly legal telling the story of Constance, who as a child made the mistake of asking her fairy godmother to grant her a life of impossible adventure. She’s spent the decades since doing just that: fighting evil monsters, uncovering ancient artifacts, and becoming one of the most infamous people in the universe. Now pushing 30, Constance is experiencing a serious case of the be-careful-what-you-wish-fors, as constant the excitement has grown irritating. All she wants is a normal life and a quiet date with her unexciting, blessedly dull boyfriend. So Constance sets out to track down said fairy godmother and undo the curse—resulting in possibly her most insane adventure yet. Martinez attacks a fantastic premise with gusto, as Constance navigates a deliriously nutty universe filled with fae, monsters, and magical challenges to overcome.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (July 5, HarperVoyager—Paperback)
Chambers’ debut was a Kickstarter success story, then a hit in the U.K., then a word-of-mouth ebook sensation in the U.S. (you might recall spotting it on our list of 2015’s very best SFF). Finally, it now exists as a glorious physical object for stateside readers. The crew of the Wayfarer make their living tunneling out wormholes that make spaceflight truly feasible. Just as it sets off on an extended mission to bring the gift of expedient interstellar travel to an alien race that has suddenly, suspiciously ceased its hostile stance toward all other forms of life, the aging ship welcomes its newest crew member. Rosemary signs on in order to escape her mysterious past, but finds that her secrets may be the most mundane among the ragtag group of flawed and endearing personalities. Naturally, everything that can go wrong does goes wrong—and more than once. Chambers’ episodic storytelling recreates the feeling of bingeing a whole season of your new favorite TV show, focusing on character development and messy interpersonal relationships action and battle sequences (but don’t worry—there are plenty of those in store as well).

The Waking Fire, by Anthony Ryan (July 5, Ace—Hardcover)
The word “swashbuckling” might have been invented for Ryan’s (Blood Song) new fantasy epic. The world is dominated by the Ironship Trading Company (think the British Raj and the East India Company) and the hostile Corvantine Empire. The Trading Company controls the dragonlands, hunting the beasts for their blood, which can be made into elixirs that grant extraordinary powers to the Blood-Blessed who can survive their consumption. What most don’t know is that the population of drakes is failing—and if they disappear altogether, the Trading Company will have no defense against the Corvantines. An unregistered Blood Blessed, a spy and assassin, and an Ironship naval officer all have their roles to play in a desperate search for a legendary White Drake in this rollicking, refreshing series-starter.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois (July 5, St. Martin’s Press—Paperback)
This incredible annual arrives just in time to remind readers that short stories offer up some of the best writing in science fiction today. Living legend Gardner Dozois once again assembles an anthology of incredible talent, including the likes of Ann Leckie, Paolo Bacigalupi, and James S.A. Corey (among many others). A lengthy introduction offers Dozois’ considered commentary on the state of the genre, as well as a comprehensive reading guide for those looking for advice on what they might have missed over the last year. With more than 300,000 words of fiction, this is the equivalent of several novels’ worth of material, guaranteeing something is here for every kind of reader.

Time Siege, by Wesley Chu (July 12, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The sequel to Chu’s compulsively readable Time Salvager expertly expanding the paradox-filled universe established in the first book. Disgraced ex-chronman James Griffin-Mars is literally haunted by his past and actively fleeing a future in which powerful mega-corporation Valta controls everything and the Earth is a poisoned wasteland. Poisoned wastelands happen to be ideal places to hide, however, and Griffin-Mars, the cabal of scientists he’s rescued from the past, and other allies make the ruined planet their temporary home. Chu’s depiction of a future New York and Chicago are haunting, and the plot walks a perfect tightrope between brain-tingling time travel antics and straight-ahead action.

This list was published simultaneously on Tor.com.

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