The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of May 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.

Alien Education, by Gini Koch (May 2, DAW—Paperback)
Koch adds new levels of delicious chaos to her Alien universe in this 15th installment, which finds Kitty tapped to represent Earth in the Galactic Council. The dust is still settling on Earth after the events of Alien Nation, and Kitty’s foray into intergalactic diplomacy does not start off well. Now, she’s embroiled with Hollywood types who want to make a film based on her life, which promises to cause nothing but trouble. Meanwhile, the kids at Embassy Daycare are uneasy about the staff at the school they’re about to graduate into—and their fellow classmates and their families. Something’s going on, and only the kids can see it. And if that’s not enough balls to juggle, Stephanie Valentino—Kitty’s husband Jeff’s niece, and secret heir to the Mastermind, has returned, signaling plenty more trouble waiting in the wings. While Kitty and Jeff have to deal with the terrifying parent-teacher association at school and a terrifying attack from a new enemy—but the PTA is definitely the worst of the two.

Cold Reign, by Faith Hunter (May 2, Ace—Paperback)
The 11th Jane Yellowrock novel kicks off with an action sequence and speeds up from there. Jane and her partner Eli tackle a rogue vampire, then come across the decomposing bodies of another bloodsucker and a human, speculating they are connected to a territorial brawl between vampiric Master of the City Leo Pellisier and a troupe of European vamps. Before Jane can dig into this trouble, more arrives in the form of the restless, riotous population of New Orleans and a never-ending storm that’s carrying an enchantment. Hunter’s skill at crafting flashy fight scenes is matched by her main character’s complexity, as Yellowrock must once again make painful sacrifices in order to stick to her personal code and do what’s right.

City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett (May 2, Crown/Archetype—Paperback))
Gods, geopolitics, colonialism, murder and mystery—Bennett combined all of these elements in the first two books of his excellent Divine Cities series, set in a world where gods once helped the city of Bulikov dominate The Continent and the country of Saypur, but saw the tables turned when technology-driven Saypur killed the gods and took power. The disorder of the world and the cynicism of Bennett’s characters combine alchemically to produce human-scale stories of revenge, espionage, and desperation that ground everything in a realism the fantasy setting shouldn’t support—but somehow does. In the final volume of the trilogy, Bennett tells the story of the cursed, powerful man pursuing justice for the murderers of former Prime Minister Shara Komayd—a justice whose cost might be beyond him, as it leads him into a secret war and in conflict with a young god.

D’Arc, by Robert Repino (May 9, Soho Press—Hardcover)
Repino’s third novel in the War with No Name series continues to deepen and expand the strange universe he’s created, one that still hasn’t settled after the upheaval of a war between ants, animals, and humans. The cat Mort(e) found his love, the dog Sheba, after the animals of the world gained sentience and attempted to eradicate humanity at the direction of the Colony, intelligent ants seeking to scrub man from the globe. Mort(e) and Sheba (now re-named D’Arc) are together, the Queen of the Colony is dead, and a fragile peace exists between the animals and the humans. But a series of strange, brutal events threatens that peace, as a race of creatures form deep below the ocean’s surface seek to fulfill the Colony’s goal of destroying humanity—and soon enough, war hero Mort(e) must once again head into battle.

Deadman Walking, by Sherrilyn Kenyon (May 9, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The first book in Kenyon’s new Deadman’s Cross series introduces Devyl Bane, an ancient warlord summoned back to the world of men. Bane is offered a job by Thorn, an immortal who stands guard over the enchanted gates that hold back the twisted creations of the old gods—gates now beginning to twist and weaken. Bane takes command of a company of Deadmen and a vessel, the Sea Witch, which is not truly a ship, but a woman named Marcelina with a dark history with Bane and his kind, and whose sister is spearheading the effort to destroy Thorn’s gates. Marcelina cannot trust Bane, who betrayed her and was betrayed in turn, but if she chooses to side with her sister and the last remnants of her fading race, it will mean the end of all humanity. But there’s more to her relationship with Bane than meets the eye, so there’s hope—if he can convince her of it.

Extinction Horizon, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith (May 30, Orbit—Paperback)
The first in Sansbury’s planned six-book Extinction Cycle introduces Master Sergeant Reed Beckham, the leader of the elite Delta Force Team codenamed Ghost. Beckham and Ghost are sent to deal with the worst problems in the world, so when a top-secret medical facility drops off the grid, they get the call. What they find at the site is terrifying: a mutant strain of Ebola that transforms people into monsters. Ghost and Beckham barely survive, and as the virus spreads, the world descends into chaos. Beckham is charged with keeping alive Dr. Kate Lovato—an elite virologist with the CDC—until she can develop a cure. What Lovato and Beckham uncover instead is bone-chilling, because the cure might actually be worse than saving humanity from complete extinction.

Pawn, by Timothy Zahn (May 2, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Zahn launches the Sibyl’s War series with Pawn, which opens with the dispiriting story of Nicole Lee. Nicole is miserable—she has no job or money, and is living with a thug named Bungie whose shady deals often go awry. Just when she’s convinced her life will never change, a mysterious moth-like creature seizes them both, transporting them to a ship called the Fyrantha. Onboard, Nicole is initially encouraged—all she has to do to earn her keep is work on a maintenance crew. Slowly, however, she begins to perceive a dark undercurrent to ship life, as she realizes she and her fellow crewmates are just pawns in a larger game—just as she’s been a pawn her whole life. Determined not to be one any longer, Nicole decides to fight back, a decision that threatens to upset the careful balance of life on the Fyrantha forever. Though a bit outside of Zahn’s space opera wheelhouse, this one bears all his hallmarks, including fast-paced plotting, and intriguing storyline, and engaging, relatable characters.

Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb (May 9, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Knotting together plot threads from 15 books written over decades, Hobb brings closure to the Fitz and the Fool series in spectacular style. Believing his daughter Bee to be dead, Fitz heads for Clerres, the island of the White Prophets, to seek his unlikely revenge, bringing along his usual rogue’s gallery: the Fool, Lant, Perseverance, and Spark. Fitz’s doomed revenge plans are unknowingly complicated by the fact that Bee is, in fact, alive—and being horribly mistreated by her captors, who are also heading for Clerres. Bee’s torture is transforming her into something dangerous, and as all threads converge on one spot, loyal readers will be greatly rewarded as Hobb’s deeply-drawn universe and complex characters all come into play in ways both inevitable and unexpected.

The Boy on the Bridge, by M.R. Carey (May 2, Orbit—Hardcover)
Carey returns to the universe of The Girl with All the Gifts from a new, refreshing angle. In the decimated ruins of Scotland, a huge armored vehicle—the Rosalind Franklin, a.k.a. Rosie—trundles along, carrying 12 people: five scientists, six soldiers, and Stephen Greaves. Stephen is 15 years old, and beyond brilliant—but also beyond damaged, almost crippled by social anxiety. Epidemiologist Dr. Samrina “Rina” Khan thinks Stephen might be brilliant enough to help find a cure for the Cordyceps pathogen that has nearly destroyed mankind. When Stephen stumbles upon a “hungry” girl who also appears to be intelligent, there’s hope for a breakthrough—but the simmering tensions inside the Rosie could boil over at any time ,as scientists and soldiers struggle to assert control when the team loses contact with their home base.

The Empire’s Ghost, by Isabelle Steiger (May 16, Thomas Dunne Books—Hardcover)
An ancient empire’s rise resulted in the loss of magic in the world—and the empire’s dissolution into smaller states as chaos swept the world. Steiger’s debut picks up the threads of this fictional history as a dictator, the Imperator Elgar, seizes power in the old capital, intending to rebuild the lost greatness of the Empire of Elesthene. The other countries that rose from its ashes are weak and isolated—the Kingdom of Reglay is torn by internal strife, Esthrades is well-run but militarily weak, causing its Marquess to seek more arcane strength, and Issamira is powerful but enduring a fraught succession crisis. Elgar presses a tavern kitchen boy and his back-alley friends into a secret mission—one that accidentally leads the children to discover a way of changing the whole balance of power. The world gears up for a monumental struggle, and the worldbuilding hums along, unleashing one fascinating reveal after another.

The Guns Above, by Robyn Bennis (May 2, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Mix a Napoleonic-era war and a fleet of airships, and you’ve got a recipe for exciting steampunk action. Josette Dupre has just been made the first female commander in the Garnian Royal Aerial Signal Corps—but her superiors aren’t thrilled, so they assign her an experimental prototype airship that may never get off the ground. Dupre is determined and smart, however, and improves the design and gets her crew into the air—a crew that includes Lord Bernat, a useless aristocrat who’s there solely to spy on her and report back incriminating evidence of her unfitness. Circumstances conspire to put Dupre and crew at a pivotal moment in the war—and slowly, even Bernat is won over by her courage, intelligence, and dedication to her homeland. The only question remaining is whether or not Dupre and her people will be blown out of the sky before they can make their mark.

Vanguard, by Jack Campbell (May 16, Ace—Hardcover)
Opening a new chapter in Campbell’s Lost Fleet universe, Vanguard is set on the new colony of Glenlyon, where former junior fleet officer Robert Geary and former marine Mele Darcy have come with other pioneers seeking a fresh start. The vulnerable colony soon discovers it’s too far away from Old Earth to enjoy true protection, and that makes it a target for an aggressive, extortionist star system nearby. Geary and Darcy are the only colonists with military experience, so it falls to them to organize a defense, using improvised weapons and a fierce will to survive. Against long odds, a ray of hope comes in the proposal for a mutual defense alliance…if it can come together in time.

The Berlin Project, by Gregory Benford (May 9, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Master of SF Greg Benford delivers a taut thriller that pivots off of a spectacular twist of history: scientist Karl Cohen, working on the Manhattan Project during World War II, has a brilliant idea that speeds up development—and the first atomic bomb is ready a year earlier, in summer of 1944, when it could strike a decisive early blow against the Nazis. Laced with real science delivered in easily-absorbed, creative ways, the plot combines espionage, politics, and the “what if” thrill of imagining a world where Hitler was stopped in his tracks nearly a year earlier, as Cohen is forced out of his comfort zone and into the field.

Tremontaine, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover, and Racheline Maltese (May 2, Saga Press—Paperback)
Set in the lush world of Kushner’s beloved swashbuckling romantic fantasy Swordspoint, Tremontaine was written and published serially by a team of writers under Kushner’s artistic direction and collected here in print for the first time. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is beautiful, intelligent, and facing ruin as a ship she invested in sinks at sea. At the university, Rafe Fenton thinks he has revolutionary ideas, but lacks the math skills to prove them. Micah, poor and brilliant, has the abilities Rafe needs, if only she had someplace to apply them. And Ixkabb Balam, whose family controls the profitable chocolate trade, has just arrived in the city seeking adventure. These ingredients add up to a compelling series of stories told in a way similar to prestige television, with a different writer and purpose to each “episode,” leading up to a satisfying conclusion.

The Caledonian Gambit, by Dan Moren (May 23, Talos—Paperback)
Combining space opera with espionage thriller, Moren sets his story in a universe divided between superpowers: the Illyrican Empire and the Commonwealth. Simon Kovalic is the Commonwealth’s greatest spy, the sort of man who engineers planet-wide events in order to shift the balance of power. He identifies an opportunity on the planet of Caledonia—but even a spy of his skill can’t gain access to the people and places he needs in order to leverage the situation. For that he needs Eli Brody, a broken man working a lowly job on a remote planet to which he fled from Caledonia years ago. Forced to return home by Kovalic, the two form an uneasy alliance as events spin outside of their control in ways that could change the balance of power in the universe forever. We’ve loved listening to Moren natter away on various fandom podcasts over the years; his debut may be the SF spy thriller we’ve been searching for.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (May 23, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
Sarah Gailey’s debut imagines an alternate past in which the U.S. plan to kickstart a massive hippo farming operation in the southeast (which really almost happened!) goes terribly, terribly wrong. Yes, you read that right: a bit more than a century ago, the U.S. was facing a meat crisis—the population was booming, and the beleaguered meat industry was having trouble keeping pace. Thus begat a ludicrous, ingenious solution: the government would import hippos to the marshlands of Louisiana with plans to raise them en masse as an alternative to beef. Obviously, our track of history turned a different way, but this book imagines a past in which that really happened. Of course, introducing new megafauna is always going to come with risks, and when the risks involve violent hippos rampaging across the land with only a group of elite wildlife wranglers to stop them, you’ll be happy you live in the timeline where you only read about this sort of thing in fantastically entertaining, imaginative novellas.

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells (May 2, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
Veteran fantasist Wells proves her sure hand at sci-fi as she imagines a future dominated by corporations, in which the twin imperatives of bureaucratic adherence to policies and the need to award all contracts to the lowest bidder result in every planetary mission being required to be accompanied by a company-supplied SecUnit, an artificially intelligent android built from cheap parts, and as likely to malfunction as all of the other shoddy equipment the expeditions are counting on to, oh, keep them breathing. The SecUnit narrating the story has hacked its own Governor Module, attaining sentience and free will; it would despise the humans it protects if it didn’t find them so boring, but it nevertheless refers to itself as Murderbot. When its humans are attacked by something outside of the experience provided by its data banks, however, Murderbot must turn its prickly, near-omniscient mind towards not just the survival of its humans, but itself. This slim read is both surprisingly funny and pack with intriguing future worldbuilding, all the more reason to celebrate the sequel due later in the year.

Free Space, by Sean Danker (May 2, Ace—Paperback)
Fans of Danker’s Admiral know that you underestimate the titular character at your own peril. On his way to ending a horrific war, the Admiral has already impersonated royalty and escaped more assassination attempts than he can even remember. Enjoying his triumph on a date with Tessa Salmagard—a trained soldier of the Imperial Service—the Admiral finds himself kidnapped and pressed into slavery. He’s sanguine at first, confident in his abilities and the fact that his captors don’t realize how dangerous Salmagard is—but he soon comes to realizes he’s in much more trouble than initially thought, and suddenly, his date can’t rescue him fast enough.

Netherspace, by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster (May 2, Titan—Paperback)
Aliens arrive on Earth, but nothing goes as you might assume. Their anatomy is baffling, and all attempts at meaningful communication fail. The only force that unites the two species is transactional; trade of a sort is established between humans and the aliens, although it’s a rough trade—living human beings are handed over in exchange for advanced alien technology that allows us to colonize the stars. Forty years on, former army sniper Kara remains hostile to all things alien, bitter her sister was given over to them. When she’s drafted onto a team being sent to negotiate for the release of human colonists who have been kidnapped by aliens, she’s unwilling and confused as to why her teammates are people with no training or experience. Together, they have to figure out how you negotiate with a species you can’t understand, which can’t understand you.

The Gathering Edge, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (May 2, Baen—Hardcover)
The landmark 20th Liaden Universe novel finds Theo Waitley, bonded to the sentient starship Bechimo, seeking an escape from the hordes of people who wish to kill her, seize her vessel, and arrest more or less her entire crew. The Bechimo suggests a vacation of sorts in “safe space.” But that safety falls into immediate question when the walls between universes and times grow thin, and things start leaking through—including entire starships. One, a battle-scarred relic from an ancient, doomed war, is crewed by Theo’s own ancestors—and they could use some help in the survival department. The anomalous scenario gives Theo serious choices to make, transforming the “safe space” into something much more perilous—and much more adventurous.

The Last Iota, by Robert Kroese (May 9, Thomas Dunne—Hardcover)
Kroese’s second novel set in 2039 Los Angeles again spins together noir detective tropes and sci-fi big ideas. After the economic disaster referred to as The Collapse, a swath of L.A. remains the Disincorporated Zone, beyond the reach of authority. Private investigator Blake Fowler’s ex-girlfriend Gwen Thorson fled there after all of her colleagues were disappeared, and she returns from exile just as Fowler and Erasmus Keane take on a new case—from none other than Selah Fiore, the actress who tried to have them killed in The Big Sheep. Fiore wants them to find an iota coin, the physical representation of a virtual currency. The balance of noir and science fiction is perfect as these two plot threads twist together into a complex mystery that builds to a satisfying, surprising ending in the best traditions of both genres.

Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages (May 23, Tachyon—Paperback)
Klages offers up a collection of short fiction that wanders across the spectrum of sci-fi and fantasy—and beyond, dipping a toe or two into non-genre tales. Along the way, her vibrant imagination finds deep pleasures in unusual premises, including an astronaut on Mars who discovers her pregnancy has determined her fate, ladies who lunch ever-so-politely delving into a dark side of quantum mechanics, and a player trapped inside a series of board games, and at the mercy of a fairy queen. Klages surprises in each story, but maintains a sense of humanity and warmth throughout that transforms her tales from narrative experiments into powerful observations of the human (and non-human) condition.

Radiate, by C.A. Higgins (May 23, Del Rey—Hardcover)
This trilogy-closer opens in the aftermath of the attack launched on the System by terrorist Constance Harper—with an assist from criminals Mattie and Ivan—the solar system is in chaos. System forces still battle rebels, and the rebels fall out among each other—no one can be trusted. Mattie and Ivan escape from the sentient ship Ananke, but Ivan is seriously wounded, and Constance doesn’t want to help him. Against a backdrop of the violent death throes of the System, Mattie and Ivan must stay one step ahead of the Ananke, woken to consciousness by Mattie and now desperate to have him back—and seeking other ships to awaken as well. In this climactic volume, Higgins delves into the characters’ pasts, slowly expanding our understanding of their motivations while setting up a fantastic payoff waiting at the end. And of course, her science remains as hard—and intellectually satisfying—as ever.

A Tyranny of Queens, by Foz Meadows (May 2, Angry Robot—Paperback)
The women of Kena (and our own world) return. An Accident of Stars was a masterwork of worldbuilding, a debut novel offering up a fantasy universe that felt huge, populated by characters who felt real. In the sequel, Australian teen Saffron is back in our world, where her experiences in the complex (and magical) politics of Kena threaten to see her committed to a psychiatric facility, unless she turns her back on the events and relationships that changed her forever. Meanwhile, things in Kena get even more complicated. Meadows debut was a delight, and the sequel goes beyond classic portal fantasy tropes to explore what happens after you come back through the looking-glass.

This post was published simultaneously on Tor.com

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