For 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 best science fiction & fantasy books.
Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown (January 16, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Brown kicks off a whole new trilogy set in the Red Rising universe with this story set about 10 years after Darrow finished the job of destroying the social order of the entire system. He and Mustang lead the Solar Republic, but you can’t smash an empire into pieces without causing some collateral damage, and it turns out running a multi-planet civilization is much more difficult than disrupting it. In addition to the usual woes successful revolutionaries run into, there’s also Lysander au Lune, the heir to the throne, moving freely through space and waiting for a chance to act, and a mysterious new threat coming from outside the solar system itself. Fans of Brown’s first trilogy have come to expect complex, flawed characters, awesome technology, and fierce battles, so good thing the chaos of a ruined empire is fertile ground for all three.
Emergence, by C.J. Cherryh (January 2, DAW Books—Hardcover)
The 19th(!) book in Cherryh’s evergreen Foreigner series, which is grouped into linked trilogies that follow the story of reluctant diplomat Bren Cameron as he navigates the tenuous peace between the humans of Alpha station and the Atevi homeworld it orbits. The latest begins a new tryptich kicked off by the arrival of a group of human immigrants who nobody is particularly keen to take in.
HALO: Smoke and Shadow, by Kelly Gay (January 28, Gallery Books—Paperback)
Kelly Gay takes on the challenge of expanding the universe of Halo, one of the most iconic in video games. Rion Forge is a salvager, flitting around the universe in a speedy ship and laying claim to the detritus of war. When she and her crew stumble upon the wreckage of a UNSC cruiser, it should be the score of a —but while working the wreck, they discover something that has Rion suddenly haunted by memories of her father, and the mystery surrounding his ship Spirit of Fire. This intimate, small-scale adventure picks up where Gay’s short story in Halo: Fractures left off.
Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records, by Simon Guerrier (January 2, Harper Design—Paperback)
If you’re a fan of Doctor Who—and really, who isn’t?—this is the perfect book for you. Modeled on the Guinness Book of World Records, this illustrated book includes every fact you’ve ever wanted to know about the Doctor, his companions, and the fictional universe they occupy, from the first human being to time travel, to a listing of the biggest explosions ever. Not only is this hours of absorbing reading for the true Whovian, it’s also the ideal way to settle any and all Who-related bets—especially the kind that can be handled via the full-color illustrations that accompany most of the entries.
Markswoman, by Rati Mehrotra (January 23, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Set in a future where Asia—called Asiana—is a depopulated wasteland centuries after a Great War devastated the world, this is the story of Kyra, the lone survivor of an attack on her village by an outlaw gang. Kyra has risen to become a Markswoman, a psychic warrior charged with carrying out executions with her psychically-aware daggers, gifted to her by mysterious visitors from the stars. Kyra’s first act is to assassinate the leader of the gang that destroyed her home, a decision that forces her to run from her own. She sets out to train with the all-male Order of the Khur in preparation to battle the leader of her own Order of Kali—a legendary warrior. Working under the morally conflicted Rustan, leader of the Order of the Khur, Kyra quickly finds her life becoming only more complicated with each passing day.
Cast in Deception, by Michelle Sagara (January 23, MIRA—Paperback)
Sagara’s long-running series (this is book 13) feels like urban fantasy set in a traditional fantasy universe. This one finds protagonist Kaylin feeling a bit crowded in the sentient building named Helen she calls home—a situation exacerbated when Annarion decides the time is right to pursue the Barrani Test of Name. His friends decide to help him, and their combined power would be enough to destroy the entire city of Elantra if not for Helen’s own not-insignificant power. The real problem is the controversial nature of Annarion’s friends—recently freed from imprisonment, they threaten the very social order of the city. The resulting cracks in the long-held structure of the world means Kaylin finds herself working overtime to keep the shadows beneath the city in check—a job that gets harder every day.
Elysium Fire, by Alastair Reynolds (January 23, Orbit—Paperback)
If you’d given up on seeing a sequel to Reynolds’ 2007 The Prefect, you can celebrate this return to the Glitter Band, that collection of utopian habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone. Each habitat is a different utopia specific to its residents; what makes it all work is the vote every citizen has, an instantaneous decision regarding every issue facing society, made in real time via neural implant. After the disruptive events of The Prefect, faith in the Panoply—the police force charged with maintaining the sanctity of the vote—is on the wane. When citizens’ neural implants begin malfunctioning, killing them horribly, the Panoply’s Prefect Dreyfus faces his greatest challenge as the Glimmer Band begins descending into chaos. Because without the vote, the Glimmer Band will fly apart.
Dark State, by Charles Stross (January 9, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Last year’s Empire Games—an excellent introduction to Stross’ long-running Merchant Princes series—introduced a triple-layered alternate universe: one blasted by devastating nuclear war, one in which the United States is thriving as a police state, and one in which the U.S. never existed and the United Kingdom has sunk into a rotting world power. World-walkers can move from one timeline to the other, and this knowledge breeds paranoia, as the U.S. in one timeline fears a first-strike from another. As the U.K. in the third timeline steals technology from the U.S. in the second, the cold war increasingly threatens to very hot indeed. In timeline three, Rita Douglas, world-walker and daughter of U.K. leader Miriam Burgeson (herself a refugee from timeline one), spies on timeline two, but every move seems to lead all three universes closer to destruction. Is your head spinning yet? Stross shows remarkable skill keeping the madness.
Shroud of Eternity, by Terry Goodkind (January 9, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Goodkind continues to story of the sorceress Nicci and her companions as they set off on a quest to restore Nathan’s powers after he was stripped of them in Death’s Mistress. They drove the Norukai slavers our of Renda Bay, but the price was high, and now they are guided by a prophecy offered by Red, a mysterious witch. They search for the Shroud of Eternity, behind which can be found the city of Ildakar, where Nathan might be made whole. But every step of the journey finds them facing ominous and deadly omens and enemies that make Nicci wonder: if this is the prelude, what’s waiting for them inside the shroud?
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (January 9, Tor.com—Hardcover)
McGuire’s portal-fantastic, metafictional Wayward Children Series returns with a largely standalone effort that reintroduces the reader to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where kids who have experienced adventures in magical realms via magic portals—think the Wardrobe that leads to Narnia—attempt to accept they are no trapped in their native, non-magical world. When Rini, the child of a Nonsense kingdom where the stars are stung with candy floss, finds herself at Eleanor West’s, she’s surprised to discover her mother died on Earth long before Rini was born, a paradox she’s going to have to fix, lest she fade away. Luckily, the ho,e is full of talented children who are very familiar with magical quests.
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (January 16, Tor.com—Paperback)
The conclusion of Okorafor’s award-winning trilogy finds young Binti pulled in several directions at once. She has always seen herself as part of her mother’s tribe, the Himba, but the technology she inherited from her father’s Enyi Zinariya tribe has opened up a whole new side of the universe to her. She can communicate over long distances and see historical events as if they were happening right in front of her, and her psychic bond with the Meduse—the jellyfish-like aliens she met in Binti—complicates a tense political situation threatening the very survival of the Himba. Binti is the sole hope of this messy universe, the one person blessed and cursed with the power and perception that could set everything right—if she can find the courage and the skill.
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (January 23, Tor.com—Paperback)
In one of the most audacious alternate histories ever conceived, Bolander imagines a “Radium Girl”—one of the very real victims of early workplace dangers who suffers radiation poisoning from her job painting wristwatches with radioactive paint—meeting the sentient elephant that will replace her at the factory. Yes, Bolander is conflating the story of the Radium Girls with the story of Topsy, the legendary elephant cruelly electrocuted before spectators at Coney Island to promote electricity. The two women, different species, both boiling with rage against the injustice of their mistreatments, bond in a way that is wholly unexpected, leading a terrible act of justice and revenge that transcends time and history.
Queen of All Crows, by Rod Duncan (January 2, Angry Robot—Paperback)
In an alternate world where the Luddite Revolution resulted in an all-powerful patent office in control of technological advancement—and thus, the world—peace and stability come at the price of a fierce suppression of “unseemly science.” When airships begin to disappear due to the activities of a floating pirate nation beyond the borders of civilization, the Patent Office sends a spy to find out what’s going on. Elizabeth Barnabus despises the Patent Office and its controlling, suffocating culture, but she accepts her mission, disguises herself as a man, and heads off on a grand and dangerous.
Sinless, by Sara Takoff (January 9, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
The Revelation changed everything: when the Great Spirit took over the world and transformed. Now, a person’s moral compass is reflected in their physical appearance; good people are beautiful, and bad people are ugly. Grace Luther is a teenager whose purity is apparent in her beauty, and as the daughter of a Cleric of the Great Spirit, she is secure in her faith in the world—until she is assaulted by a man who shows absolutely no outward signs of sin. When she later discovers a childhood friend who was taken away by the clerics for a supposed terrible deed is still alive and well, she begins to doubt everything she’s ever been told. Her doubt sends her on a dark journey towards the truth of the world she’s been born into.
Robots Vs. Fairies, by Navah Wolfe and Dominic Parisian (January 9, Saga—Paperback)
The key to a great anthology is twofold: author selection, and theme. Wolfe and Parisian (the team behind the award-winning fairy tale anthology The Starlit Wood) nail both in this new project, gathering insanely great writers (including Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, Ken Liu, Sarah Gailey, Annalee Newitz, and Lila Bowen, to name just a few) and asking them to choose sides. The result is an essential collection of stories exploring the eternal conflict between magic and technology—specifically in the form of robots and fairies. The question of whether mechanical or magical means would triumph in a battle royale is explored at locations both intimate (a man’s home, invaded by tiny fairies) and otherwise (an amusement park where fairies struggle to carve out a safe place among the talking automatons). Themes both humorous and serious, delivered by the best in the business. Robots and fairies battle on, and the only winners are SFF readers.
The Lost Plot, by Genevieve Cogman (January 9, Ace—Paperback)
The fourth book of the irresistible Invisible Library series returns the reader to Cogman’s delightful world of dimension-hopping librarians. After a minister of the dragon queen is assassinated, a series of challenges is set up for the two candidates for his replacement. When one reaches out to librarian Irene for assistance, she feels compelled to alert the other candidate, and just like that, she’s involved—and only gets in deeper when it’s discovered the assassination involved a neophyte librarian, and Irene is assigned to investigate to ensure the Invisible Library’s survival. Traveling to a version of New York in the 1920s, Irene has to deal with gangsters and police factions (as well as two dragons in human form) as she searches desperately for a rare book that is the key to everything. After the Library’s Internal Affairs gets involved, it becomes clear that if Irene fails, it won’t just be the Library that suffers. She might not survive.
Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft (January 16, Orbit—Paperback)
An early contender for 2018 best-of-the-year lists, Bancroft’s buzzy debut became a self-published sensation in ebook and is now arriving in paperback from Orbit (with the sequels forthcoming in short order). It’s set in a steampunk universe whose main feature is the Tower of Babel, a legendary tourist attraction that soars endlessly into the sky, shrouded in clouds. No one knows how high the tower goes, and it seems to contain an infinite number of rooms, all of them unique. Thomas, a small town schoolteacher, and his beloved wife Marya take their honeymoon at the Tower, but Thomas loses his new bride in the immense crowd milling about the base. Desperate to find her, he begins to climb the Tower in hopes of finding her. Every room he enters is a world unto itself, as detailed and deeply imagined as any described in entire novels. Thomas finds himself in a mental and physical battle with various factions and personalities as he slowly ascends the tower and learns its secrets—well, some of them, at least.
The Sky Is Yours, by Chandler Klang Smith (January 23, Hogarth—Paperback)
Every once in a while, along comes a debut novel that convey a sense of no-holds bared imagination. The post-apocalyptic city of Empire Island is a rotting jewel of a metropolis where two dragons, green and yellow, circle overhead endlessly, menacing the population and setting constant fires. This doesn’t stop people from going about their daily lives: reality-TV star Duncan Humphrey Ripple V is heading toward an arranged marriage with Swanny when he meets a “wild girl” named Abby outside the city limits. He brings her home and quickly decides to run away with her—just as a his mansion is assaulted by an army from the independent prison colony of Torchtown, forcing Duncan, Abby, and his fiancée to flee into the center of the city. And that’s just the setup—the story unfurls into breathtaking complexity as Duncan becomes a firefighter, Swanny winds up in Torchtown, and Abby befriends, naturally enough, a giant talking rat.
Neogenesis, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (January 2, Baen—Hardcover)
In a universe in which advanced artificial intelligences are outlawed after an ancient war waged by AI proxies nearly destroyed everything, sentient ships and other AIs must be very careful. Human mentors work with newly-formed minds in order to socialize them and teach them how to stay under the radar and survive a hostile universe. Theo Waitley and his sentient ship Bechimo become involved with a mission to reach an orphan AI on a ruined space station. The mind must either be rescued or destroyed, as it’s rumored to be powerful enough to destroy the universe…again. The race is on to see who will reach this mysterious new intelligence first, and what they will decide to do with it.
Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway (January 9, Knopf—Hardcover)
In a future London where intrusive technology has created a truly transparent democracy, every citizen’s thoughts and actions are known. This has created the safest society in history, but at tremendous cost to our shared humanity. When suspected dissident Diana Hunter becomes the first person to die while being interrogated, inspector Mielikki Neith is summoned to investigate what went wrong in a system that does not make mistakes. Neith is a true believer in the system, but when she accesses Hunter’s memories, she finds not a person, but a collection of characters and narratives. These false memories form a code Neith must navigate, sifting through red herrings and clues in order to piece together the truth of Hunter’s life and death—a code that offers up beautifully detailed stories-within-the-story that come together to form a riddle. Solving it is a mind-bending delight.
The Infernal Batallion, by Django Wexler (January 9, Ace—Hardcover)
Wexler’s final novel of the Shadow Campaign drops us right back into a complex, violent world. The fortress city of Elysium has kept the demon known only as The Beast imprisoned far belowground for a thousand years—but the demon has escaped, and has formed an army of mind-controlled victims led by the legendary general Janus bet Vhalnich. As the army marches inexorably towards Queen Raesinia Orboan, Marcus D’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass prepare as best they can to fight the greatest general the land has ever known. When Janus declares himself emperor, Raesinia must somehow find a way to hold onto her throne in the face of a seemingly unstoppable force, and Winter begins to realize the demon she carries within herself is perhaps the only hope they have against The Beast.
The Raptor and the Wren, by Chuck Wendig (January 23, Saga Press—Paperback)
Miriam Black returns in the penultimate novel in Chuck Wendig’s razor-edged, adrenaline-fueled contemporary fantasy series about a woman with the power to see how anyone will die with a simple touch. By now, Miriam’s powers have given her a hard life and made her a harder person as she continues to search for a way to change her own fate and atone for her past sins. That mission becomes literal as she seeks to rescue a girl named Wren, who Miriam inadvertently set off on a dark path, pursued by the same sinister agents trailing Miriam, and forced to kill. If Miriam can help Wren, she may, in some small way, begin her own path of redemption, but that road ain’t going to be easy either…
The Beauty, by Aliya Whiteley (January 16, Titan—Paperback)
The two stories in this remarkable collection reflect each other in subtle ways. The title tale paints a picture of an apocalyptic world in which all women suddenly die in an epidemic. Strange mushroom-like things sprout from their graves, growing into beguiling, feminine shapes. Nathan, a man living in an isolated (by choice) community of men, tells the story and offers various possible explanations for the growths—food, medicine, the next stage of evolution—which the all-male community rejects, with increasingly dire consequences. The second story, “Peace, Pipe,” is told by Alex, a former interstellar diplomat now in quarantine, who hallucinates that a pipe in his cell is speaking with him. Pipe becomes a complex character in and of itself, as Alex ruminates on the disaster he caused on the planet Demeter and the possible rescue of his friend Thumbs—a mission with a steep price for all involved, even Pipe.
What’s on your preorder list for January?