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 best science fiction & fantasy books.
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by (November 3, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Hardcover)
Originally written in 1930, this early Tolkien story has nothing to do with Middle Earth, but it does offer a glimpse into the development of his writing process. Composed during a period of fascination with Celtic legend, the story is set in “Britain’s land beyond the seas.” A lord, Aotrou, and his wife Itroun are childless. Aotrou seeks out a Corrigan—an evil fairy—to obtain a magic potion of fertility. The potion works, and the couple welcome twins. The fairy promptly returns and demands payment for the miracle—payment that threatens to destroy Aotrou’s marriage and his life. Fans of The Lord of the Rings will find a familiar thread of darkness in this story, as well as the early signs of greatness to come. This edition also includes Tolkein’s “Corrigan” poems, other early works, and an introduction by his son Christopher.
Valiant Dust, by Richard Baker (November 7, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Taking cues from political and military history, Baker sets the first book in his Breaker of Empires series in a 32nd century in which technologically advanced superpowers dominate older, backwards empires, playing the traditional Great Game with starships and other sci-fi tech. Sikander North is a prince of Kashmir, vassal to the Commonwealth of Aquila, an interstellar power. He’s the gunnery officer on the CSS Hector, and the only Kashmiri on board, meaning he has to prove himself twice to his Aquilan crewmates. Sent into a system dissolving into insurgent chaos in order to evacuate Aquila’s citizens, Sikander has to juggle an investigation into who’s funneling weapons to the rebellion, the smart and willful daughter of a colonial power, and the suspicions of his own unit. If he survives, his career will have gotten off to a glorious start—but there’s no guarantee he will survive.
Steal the Stars, by Nat Cassidy (November 7, Tor Books—Paperback)
Adapted from the popular full-cast audio drama/podcast of the same name, this is the story of Dakota Prentiss, who works security at a top-secret facility where an alien spacecraft crash-landed more than a decade ago with one of the aliens inside (called “Moss”) still at the controls. Moss represent incredible danger and opportunity for the world, and so security around the ship is iron-clad, including a non-fraternization clause with some heavy consequences attached. Which becomes a problem when Matt Salem joins the security team, because he and Dakota fall instantly in love. Unable to be together and unable to leave their jobs, they do the only insane thing they can think of: plot to steal Moss and sell his secrets to the highest bidder. As you do. Addictive as an audio serial, the storyline works just as well in print. Why not enjoy it both ways?
Shadowborn, by David Dalglish (November 7, Orbit—Paperback)
The final book in Dalglish’s Seraphim series finds the four minor islands banding together at last, combining their fates in the struggle for true independence from the Archon and Center. But Kael Skyborn is plagued by doubt over the rebellion’s leaders, even if his fire-throwing sister Bree is the public face of the struggle. Everything changes when Kael is captured and taken to Center to be executed; Bree abandons the rebellion and focuses instead of rescuing her brother—and on ending the war for once and for all. Underneath the nonstop action are the mysteries of the elemental forces unleashed by the Seraphim, and those that keep the islands from crashing down into the world below.
The Spark, by David Drake (November 7, Baen—Hardcover)
In a future world where the detritus of a once-advanced civilization litters the planet, humanity is gathered into a few settlements protected from the chaos outside in the wastelands. Out there, creatures roam—things that were once human, things that were never human, things that want nothing more than to destroy all humans they encounter. In the city of Dun Add, a leader rises and unites humanity, imposing order on a new empire. His Champions are trained to go forth and expand the realm of men, to push back the wastes and the monsters that roam across it. Pal is a hayseed, an innocent gifted with the ability to sense and repair ancient technology. He arrives in Dun Add determined to train and become a Champion. It’s an addictive melding of the mythic hero’s journey and inventive sci-fi worldbuilding,
Strange Music, by Alan Dean Foster (November 7, Del Rey—Hardcover)
After nearly eight years, Foster delivers the fifteenth Pip and Flinx Adventure. Far future heroes Flinx and Pip are called out of retirement to investigate the smuggling of technology and weapons to Largess, a world of low technological development unprepared for the power such advanced gear offers. One problem immediately presents itself—mastering the Larian language, singspeak, in which every sentence is like a perfectly-crafted song lyric, and must be sung to be understood. Not only is this incredibly distracting, the singing blocks Flinx’s natural empathetic abilities, rendering him, in a sense, blind. When the smuggler kidnaps a lord in an effort to protect his operation, war looms and Flinx and Pip have to think—and act—fast. It’s another fast moving, rollicking adventure from an author whose given us plenty of them.
All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, by James Alan Gardner (November 7, Tor Books—Paperback)
Superhero tropes are given an epic fantasy twist in the latest novel from Hugo and Nebula award nominee Gardner. In an alternate world, the creatures of our nightmares walk the Earth. They are called Darklings, but we’d recognize them as vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Standing against them are the Sparks, transformed into quasi-superheroes by strange science. Four college kids get caught in a freak accident become Sparks, dedicated to fighting evil, but they soon begin to suspect their “accident” was anything but, uncovering a conspiracy that will reveal the rise of an a whole new kind of threat. What begins as a clever superhero spoof becomes a compelling mystery in its own right, with a healthy dose of humor throughout (the Sparks’ take on superhero costumes is a particular highlight).
Terminal Alliance, by Jim C. Hines (November 7, DAW—Hardcover)
A plague strikes humanity, turning men and women into vicious, feral creatures. Only a few thousand humans remain by the time an alien race known as the Krakau arrive and reverse the process. Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is one of those lucky humans, and she’s grateful to be herself again. But her luck doesn’t last long: assigned to a sanitation and hygiene crew on the ship Pufferfish, Mops and her team are the only humans wearing protective suits when a weapon is deployed onboard that sends all the humans back to a feral state. Trapped on the ship with people-turned-monsters, Mops uses her intimate knowledge of the vessel’s plumbing and cleaning supplies to fight the ferals and find out who’s responsible for the attack. Hines got his start with books skewering epic fantasy tropes, and he brings the same tongue-in-cheek humor to this space opera romp, the first in a new series.
Jade City, by Fonda Lee (November 7, Orbit—Hardcover)
The island nation of Kekon relies on the magical properties of jade—and the families of Green Bone warriors able to manipulate it to gain magical fighting abilities—for protection. These warriors have safeguarded the island for centuries, but when a long period of unrest gives way to peace, the new generation forgets about tradition, and powerful families jockey for control of the country. As the family drama spills out into brutal street fighting and cunning political intrigue, a new drug emerges that allows anyone, even foreigners, to use jade. Back-room scheming erupts into full-on warfare, and a conflict that ties together complex threads of family and history will determine the fate of Kekon’s future. This immensely readable epic might be fantasy’s answer to The Godfather.
The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt (November 7, Angry Robot—Paperback)
The White Raven crew and its captain, Kalea “Callie” Machedo, make a living running freight and claiming salvage on the edges of the solar system. When they run across a centuries-old exploration ship, it seems like a stroke of luck—until they discover a single female crew member in cryosleep onboard. Callie makes the decision to wake the woman, Elena, from suspension, and she tells them a desperate tale of first contact with an alien race. It’s up to the White Raven crew to inform her that humanity made contact a long time ago—but Elena reveals she encountered a different alien race, and they left her with gifts—gifts that could determine the future of the human race, or it lack thereof. With a diverse cast of engaging characters, an intriguing mystery plot, and a healthy dose of humor, this is the perfect readalike for fans of Firefly or Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and the best space opera surprise of 2017.
Down and Out in Purgatory, by Tim Powers (November 7, Baen—Hardcover)
Whether writing novels or short stories, Powers has a unique speculative voice; his tales veer in unexpected directions and wind up in unexpected places. This collection of his short work is headlined by the title story, wherein a man seeks to avenge his lover’s murder, only to discover the murderer is already dead—prompting him to seek out a sorcerer to pursue the killer’s ghost and destroy him in the afterworld. Other stories also dabble in the spirit realm: one invites us to a Thanksgiving feast attended by a family and their ghostly ancestors; in another, a “bible repairman” who magically removes passages from the good book for a fee is tasked with tracking down a ghost, and finds himself dealing with his own fractured soul in the process. Powers’ stories never fail to surprise, and this collection won’t fail to satisfy either longtime readers or new fans.
Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: A Decade of Hugo & Nebula Award-Winning Stories, 1995-2015, edited by Sheila Williams (November 7, Prime Books—Paperback)
When it comes to short speculative fiction, it doesn’t get much better than the stories found in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, or the taste of editor (and two-time Hugo Award-winner) Sheila Williams. Here, Williams selects the best Asimov’s stories that went on to win Hugo or Nebula awards between the years 1995 and 2015. The fact that there’s enough of them to fill a sizable anthology says all you need to know about the magazine’s quality—and Williams’ eye for great science fiction.
Communication Failure, by Joe Zieja (November 7, Saga Press—Hardcover)
The second installment of Zieja’s Epic Failure trilogy, a hilarious military sci-fi spoof, is as lively and irreverent as the first. Reluctant leader (and Peter Principle poster boy) R. Wilson Rogers has been promoted to Admiral of the 331st Meridan fleet just as humanity’s Two Hundred Years’ (and Counting) peace with the alien Thelicosans is crumbling. But it’s been so long since the end of the original conflict, no one on either side has the slightest idea of how to actually fight a war, even as a mysterious force seems determined to manipulate both sides into waging one. The enemy admiral has romantic designs on Rogers, too, and his advisors and support staff are entertaining weirdos in their own right. As before, the harder Rogers tries to avoid success, the faster he seems to fail upwards—with unfortunate-yet-hilarious results. We loved the first book because it was both a fantastic parody and a compelling story in its own right, and this one’s no different. Epic
The Overneath, by Peter S. Beagle (November 14, Tachyon Publications—Paperback)
This collection of short stories from the legendary author of The Last Unicorn spans the world, reminding readers that magic, and magical creatures, are not always mere objects of wonder—they can be dangerous. In these stories, a traveler discovers a way to enter the shadow universe of the Overneath, an inventor hears mysterious voices on his first-ever wireless sound transmitter, and a team of government agents conduct a raid on a drug operation deep in the woods and discover the criminals are using dragons as security. These 13 stories explore universal themes of love and adventure, with the trademark wry humor and heartfelt emotion that Beagle is known for.
Dark Deeds, by Mike Brooks (November 14, Saga Press—Paperback)
In the third book in Brooks’ SF crime capering series, Captain Ichabod Drift and crew of the Kieko are suffering a hangover from their previous adventure in the form of Sergei Orlov, an angry crime lord who is none to pleased with their antics in Dark Sky. Orlov believes he’s owed a considerable debt, and kidnaps Drift’s partner Tamara Rourke and demands a ransom in order to make things right. Drift and company spring several concurrent blackmail schemes and yet more elaborate plans to raise the necessary cash, including convincing the hulking Apirana to take part in a prize fight with a big purse. Meanwhile, Rourke, no delicate flower herself, isn’t passively waiting around to be rescued, and launches her own bid to attain freedom, by hook or by crook. This series is pure gonzo fun, and watching the Kieko crew pull off one improbable job after another never gets old.
City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty (November 14, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
In 18th century Cairo, Nahri, a young Egyptian con artist, unwittingly captures the attention of a djinn warrior with her powerful supernatural healing capabilities. Swept off to the legendary City of Brass, she becomes embroiled in the complex and violent politics of its magical residents, who are edging ever-closer toward a religious war. Nahri doesn’t know who to trust, or how to navigate a world where loyalty is a magical bond and grudges are measured in millennia. There are more ideas in this thumbnail plot summary than in most complete novels, and we’re only scratching the surface of this richly textured debut. With a briskly moving plot and inventive worldbuilding that pulls from Middle Eastern traditions, it’s one of the year’s standout debuts, and should attract loyal fans among fans of both adult and YA fantasy.
Seventh Decimate, by Stephen R. Donaldson (November 14, Berkley—Paperback)
In Donaldson’s new series, his first after completing the long Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the countries of Belleger and Amika have been at war for so long, no one really remembers why. Both nations wield equal force in terms of manpower and magic, as sorcerers on both sides inflict terrible damage using the six Decimates available to them. When Belleger develops gunpowder, however, the balance of power seems to shift—until the nation’s sorcerers to suddenly lose their ability to wield magic. In a desperate bid to save his country, Prince Bifalt of Belleger goes questing for the legendary Seventh Decimate, a spell that would mean the complete destruction of Amika. He quickly discovers the world outside the eternal battlefield is both larger and more dangerous than he imagined.
Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant (November 14, Orbit—Hardcover)
Expanding upon the 2015 novella Rolling in the Deep, Grant spins a terrifying tale of mermaids who definitely don’t want to be a part of our world (though they’d have no problem consuming it). Seven years ago, a shady television production company in the SyFy vein sent a ship to the Mariana Trench loaded with a camera crew and actors, planning to film the schlockumentary Lovely Ladies of the Sea: The True Story of the Mariana Mermaids. Instead, the ship disappeared, and legend has it the mermaids turned out to be slightly realer than expected. Now, the company has assembled a new team—including some actual scientists this time—to head back to the trench to investigate. Its crew members have many reasons for joining up—a search for knowledge, revenge for a lost sister—but share one thing in common: they have no idea how real, and how vicious, mermaids will turn out to be. To say Grant reinvents mermaids like she did the zombies of Feed would be an understatement—these aren’t Disney’s little mermaids.
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson (November 14, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The third book of Sanderson’s epic Stormlight Archive returns to the violent, complex world of Roshar. Dalinar Kohlin’s victory is very much a pyrrhic one, resulting in the Everstorm being summoned. The storm’s physical destruction is bad enough, but as it rakes the world, in awakens the subservient parshmen to the reality of their slavery. As Kaladin Stormblessed rushes to warn his family, he wrestles with the realization the parshmen have every right to seek vengeance. Meanwhile, a mission to Urithiru—the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant set high above the storms—unearths dangerous secrets, and Dalinar begins to understand that his mission to unite Alethkar was just the beginning. If Roshar is going to survive the Voidbringers, every nation must stand together against the threat.
Artemis, by Andy Weir (November 14, Crown—Hardcover)
Weir’s first novel in the wake of The Martian‘s became a bestselling phenomenon (and a major box office hit) is a completely different kind of story, even as it shares its predecessor’s commitment to smart, plausible science. In Artemis, city on the Moon. Jazz Bashara works as a porter, scraping by and supplementing her income with a little light smuggling on the side. Her moonlighting brings her into contact with wealthy and powerful figures like Trond Landvik, a businessman with designs on a lunar aluminum monopoly. Landvik asks Jazz to come up with a way to sabotage his competition, and Jazz seizes the opportunity to grab a big score with a bold plan spiced. The resulting caper moves at a mile a minute, delivered with the same witty dialogue and ribald humor that made us fall in love with Mark Watney. If you ask us, Weir has another winner on his hands—and likely another blockbuster film adaptation in his future.
The Emerald Circus, by Jayne Yolen (November 14, Tachyon Publications—Paperback)
The ideal introduction to Yolen’s adult fiction, this collection of stories features classic figures from fairy tales, literature, and history engaging in unexpected, subversive, or fanciful adventures. A new Wendy in Neverland rises up and fights for labor rights against the oppressive Lost Boys. Dorothy returns from Oz a changed woman, wise and sophisticated in the ways of more than one world. Emily Dickinson meets an alien, the Arthurian legends are chopped and screwed into something unexpected, and the relationship between a real world queen and her prime minister is given a spark of magic. Fans of Yolen will be thrilled, and newcomers will be amazed.
Mandelbrot the Magnificent, by Liz Ziemska (November 14, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
Shirley Jackson Award nominee Ziemska melds biography and fantasy in this story of the early life of famed mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. Born in Warsaw, he fled with his parents to France as Hitler began to consolidate his power. But with the start of World War II and the German occupation, that wasn’t enough to save them. Living inconspicuously and fearful that they will be persecuted for their Jewish heritage, the family seems caught in a web, doomed. But young Benoit find solace and escape in math, taught first by his genius uncle, and later by a teacher who sees a spark of something within him. And just perhaps: if Benoit can unlock the hidden, infinite worlds within geometric shapes, he can find a place to hide his family—a place they’ll be safe forever. This unusual story has the air of a fairytale, weighted down by the darkness of real history.
New York Fantastic: Fantasy Stories from the City That Never Sleeps, Edited by Paula Guran (November 21, Night Shade Books—Paperback)
This collection of 20 fantastical short stories set in New York City manages to capture the restless, ever-shifting spirit of the metropolis in a wide variety of surprising and creative ways. Veteran editor Paula Guran has put together an impressive roster of talent, including heavy-hitters like Peter S. Beagle, Elizabeth Bear, Peter Straub, and N.K. Jemison (plus many more). These stories explore the insanity of New York City real estate through the eyes of a vampire, the source of a jazz musician’s dark appeal, and the secrets unearthed when during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and not a one of them could have been set anywhere else. Whether you’re a denizen of the city that never sleeps, or just a tourist, this tales will dazzle you with that special kind of New York magic.
Darkness Falling, by Ian Douglas (November 28, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
After being sent four billion years into the future in Altered Starscape, Lord Commander Grayson St. Clair finds himself trying to keep control of a ship with a population of more than a million scientists, AIs, military, and diplomats. In a universe much changed from the one they remember, the crew and population of the Tellus Ad Astra find themselves facing an alien force that seems unstoppable, and seems to exist only to destroy every civilization it encounters, without explanation or apparent motive. Struggling to return the people in his care to the Milky Way galaxy, St. Clair finds his biggest challenge may be maintaining order among a population unprepared for the discipline survival will require.
Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren (November 28, Tor Books—Paperback)
Freddy Duchamp is just trying to survive high school, as one does. This task is made more difficult by her siblings: her geeky, deaf stepbrother Roland and supersmart little sister Mel. Things take a turn for the strange when new neighbors move into the house next door, and the house suddenly refuses to obey the laws of physics. Cuerva and Josiah prove to be as strange as the house they inhabit—and before she knows it, Freddy finds pulled along in their wake (quite literally, though to reveal exactly how would be a big spoiler). As Freddy begins to learn that Cuerva and Josiah are something much more than human, she must confront the fact that either she or one of her siblings is a major player in a conflict as old as time itself, and that one of them may have the power to tip the balance between order and chaos. With all the charm and imagination of Madeline L’Engle and Diana Wynne Jones, Maaren’s debut feels like an instant classic, perfect for precocious young readers or older ones looking for the kind of book that made them fall for sci-fi and fantasy in the first place.
What new books are you looking forward to this month?