For 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 SF/F releases.
Arkwright, by Allen Steele (March 1, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Steele has a well-deserved reputation for combining the feasible with the awesome, and Arkwright delivers on both counts. Nathan Arkwright is a successful science fiction writer, an icon of the Golden Age with the massive global sales to prove it—but his true dream is to ensure the survival of the human race via interstellar colonization. Seeing government programs as inherently flawed due to funding squabbles and a lack of scientific understanding, he uses his fortune to launch the Arkwright Foundation, a private effort to reach the stars. What follows is as much the story of an epic family as it is a realistic imagining of how humanity might someday look up from the surface upon different stars, and is poised to be counted among the most enjoyable SF/F novels of the year.
Bitter Bite, by Jennifer Estep (February 23, Pocket Books—Paperback)
After 13 books, Estep’s Elemental Assassin series and its lead character (and now Queen of the Ashland underworld) Gin Blanco are still full of surprises, thanks in part to Estep’s knack for finding drama in the most unpredictable element in the universe: personal relationships. As Gin tries to get used to her new position, she uncovers clues that her foster brother Finn’s mother may not be quite as dead as everyone believes. Opting for caution, she investigates—and thus doesn’t have control of the situation when the woman, Deirdre, shows up. Balancing her wish to support Finn with her distrust of Dierdre (not to mention the fact that half of Ashland wants her dead), Gin has her hands full, and Estep once again deepens her universe while keeping readers glued to the page with nonstop action.
Borderline, by Mishell Baker (March 1, Saga Press—Paperback)
Urban fantasy series often live of die on the strength of their protagonist, and by that measure, Mishell Baker has written one of the greats. Borderline introduces Millicent Roper, a cynical, at times unlikable, yet downright captivating new voice, a once-promising filmmaker, a suicide survivor and double-amputee struggling to reenter the world and keep her mental illness—borderline personality disorder—under control. Perhaps you don’t think she sounds like the best candidate to serve as the go-between between the dangerous Fey realm and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but then, you have yet to encounter the Arcadia Project, the shoestring organization tasked with keeping our world safe from magical destruction, staffed with society’s cast-offs. Baker spins a fast-moving fantasy yarn while crafting fully formed characters, showing great compassion in her depiction of mental illness and alienation.
Chaos Choreography, by Seanan McGuire (March 1, DAW—Paperback)
McGuire once again somehow blends ballroom dancing and cryptozoology into a fun, fresh urban fantasy adventure starring Verity Price, who can’t resist one last stab at winning reality TV show Dance or Die. Once there, however, the bodies start dropping and the blood starts flowing, and Verity finds that she’s dancing for a lot more than a trophy. McGuire has created a rich, tongue-in-cheek, and wholly unique urban fantasy world, and this fifth entry in the InCryptid Series returns some familiar elements while introducing a new member of the Price family to supply additional humor and plot disruption. Backed up by her now-husband Dominic, Verity navigates her usual work saving the cryptids from monster-hunters while learning a few new steps in order to not just win the dance competition—but survive it.
Fire Touched, by Patricia Briggs (March 8, Ace Books—Hardcover)
Mercy Thompson returns in her ninth adventure, as tensions between the Fey, on their voluntary reservations, and the human world continue to rise. When a troll escapes the Walla Walla reservation, coyote shifter Mercy, her werewolf husband Adam, and the rest of the pack meet changeling Aiden in the fight. Aiden, imprisoned by the Fey for years, falls under the protection of the pack, putting Mercy at odds with, well, just about everyone. Along the way, several intriguing developments set up what will no doubt be major events in future books, making this that rare novel that satisfies in the moment while expertly whetting your appetite for future stories.
Javelin Rain, by Myke Cole (March 29, Ace Books—Paperback)
While this is technically the fifth book in Cole’s Shadow Ops series, it’s really a sequel to the prequel novel Gemini Cell. Set in a future in which magic’s reappearance in the world is just beginning to erode the old order, Jim Schweitzer is a U.S. Navy SEAL serving with the Gemini Cell—until he’s killed in action. And then brought back from the dead via occult means. His escape is coded “javelin rain,” indicating the worst possible security threat—one that must be stopped as quickly as possible, by any means necessary. As Schweitzer discovers his resurrection has made him immortal, his family certainly isn’t, and he has to use all of his skills—old and new—to protect all that is important to him. Combining military heroics, espionage intrigue, and magic-infused action, Cole adds new layers to one of the most unique SF/F universes on shelves today.
Marked In Flesh, by Anne Bishop (March 8, Roc—Hardcover)
Bishop’s fourth entry in the complex Others universe sees things getting increasingly tense between humanity and the Others, even as the latter’s alliance with the human blood prophets led by Meg Corbyn promises a brighter future for both. Treaties start to unravel when the radical group Humans First and Last steps up attacks on the Others—but their brutal efforts begin to wake forces more powerful and more ancient than the shape-shifters and vampires, putting both humanity and the Others in danger, one Meg’s power of prophecy may not be able to neutralize in time. Bishop brings a wealth of rich detail to her universe, taking cues from today’s headlines and using them to create a fictional setting that feels all too real.
Midnight Marked, by Chloe Neill (March 1, NAL—Paperback)
A welcome return to a Chicagoland populated by vampires, shifters, humans, and other supernatural beings begins with a seemingly innocuous trip to Wrigley Field for a night game, where Merit and Ethan, from the Vampire House Cadogan, hope to claim the free flashlights being given away. When Merit senses magic being used in the city, the story kicks into high gear, leading them to discover the body of a murdered shifter. Things quickly get sticky, as relations between Vampires and shifters sour, threatening the delicate balance of power. Ethan and Merit must match wits with a powerful enemy that wants to see House Cadogan burn just as much as he wants to own the Windy City. Twelve books in, Neill is still hitting them out of the park; this is a paranormal romance as exciting as any thriller.
HALO: New Blood, by Matt Forbeck (March 15, Gallery Books—Paperback)
If you’re familiar with the Halo universe, you already know that Gunnery Sergeant Edward Buck (voiced in the video games by none other than Nathan Fillion) and his team of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs) are some of the most popular characters. Forbeck takes taps that vein of rich material to create something surprising—a Halo novel that’s almost a standalone—that can be read and enjoyed purely as a science fiction story, more concerned with the humanity under all the combat armor than complex continuity. Buck, a hero of the Covenant War, is offered the chance to become part of a new generation of Spartans, the super soldiers who are even tougher than the ODSTs. His story, laced with human frailty and humor, is surprising and (naturally) full of action, and vaults this one into the video game novel pantheon.
Snakewood, by Adrian Selby (March 15, Orbit—Hardcover)
One of the year’s most anticipated debuts is an epic fantasy 20 years in the making. Selby introduces us to a world in which plant life is imbued with magic, and brews made from leaves and roots can grant those who imbibe them great power—at a terrible cost. Ladled over this fascinating setting is an anti-hero’s quest with a corker of a setup—a band of once-powerful mercenaries is being hunted down and slaughtered one-by-one by a mysterious former victim. It’s a propulsive, richly imagined tale that blends the grime and grit of Joe Abercrombie with the inventive world-building and intricate magic systems of Brandon Sanderson.
The Courier, by Gerald Brandt (March 1, DAW—Hardcover)
Brandt’s fuel-injected debut is set in San Angeles, a futuristic megacity encompassing everything from San Francisco to San Diego and built up to seven levels—with the lower levels plagued by poverty and crime, and the upper reaches (and little things like sunlight) reserved for the 1 percent. In this world dominated by corporations that maintain their own militaries, Kris is a teenage courier moving data too sensitive for the easily-hacked internet between corporate offices—until she is given package so sensitive, people are willing to kill for it, plunging her into a fast-paced race for survival. Brandt has created a fully-fleshed universe, filled with high tension, memorable villains, and plot twists by the dozen.
The Last Mortal Bond, by Brian Staveley (March 15, Tor Books—Hardcover)
This concluding volume of Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy is one of the best examples of the modern epic fantasy trend toward mixing realistic politics and personal motivations with the magic, sword fights, and mythical beasts. As the world hurtles towards a confrontation between the invading armies of the Urghul and the forces of the Annurian Empire, treachery and power combine to force unexpected conflagrations. The gods of pain and pleasure are in the mix, the treacherous general Ran il Tornja plays at defending the empire while pursuing his own plots, and the imperial family—abdicated emperor Kaden, claimant to the throne Adare, and their thought-dead brother Valyn—struggle with an empire on the verge of complete collapse. Staveley offers no easy answers as the story heads towards an epic climax that promises to usher in a new era.
The Machine Awakes, by Adam Christopher (March 15, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The sequel to Christopher’s deep space horror mystery The Burning Dark is now in paperback; the trilogy-capping conclusion, The Dead Stars, is due next year. This one picks up the story a few decades after humanity’s disastrous first contact with the Spiders, a destructive machine race bent on galactic domination (aren’t they all?). The war is going rather poorly for us meatbags, especially after a political assassination leaves our military minus one Fleet Admiral. And then another. Special Agent Von Kodiak must sniff out the rat (mechanical or otherwise) responsible for offing humanity’s leaders before our defenses fall apart entirely, leaving us easy targets for the invading ‘bots.
The Spider’s War, by Daniel Abraham (March 8, Orbit—Paperback)
Daniel Abraham, who has been quite busy of late as one-half of pseudonymous smash sci-fi author James S.A. Corey, still managed to find time to cap off his second epic fantasy series, following the critically adored Long Price Quartet. Book five of The Dagger and the Coin brings to a close the tale of Geder Palliako, a horrible despot only more fearsome for his mundanity, and those aligned against him: weathered sellsword Marcus Wester, banking prodigy Cithrin bel Sarcour, resolute widow Clara, and the apostate Master Kit. As dangerous as he is, Geder is but an agent of the ultimate evil: the Spider God, awakened, and seeking to tighten its web around the world.
Transgalactic, by James Gunn (March 22, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The sequel to 2013’s Transcendental picks up the stories of Riley and Asha, humans who thought they were on a mission to stop alien citizens of a messy, bureaucratic galactic civilization from achieving transcendence, only to discover the machine they were to utilize in this mission actually “translates” beings, removing flaws and reconstructing them as superior versions of themselves. With the two translated onto separate planets with no way of communicating, the story splits as they struggle to find each other and make sense of what they’ve experienced. With a final volume in offing, SF Grand Master Gunn’s newest masterpiece continues to fascinate, while leaving most of the big answers to come.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik (March 1, Del Rey—Paperback)
One of 2015’s best books, now in paperback. The author of the beloved Temeraire series takes a break from Napoleonic Era dragon combat for an inventive standalone fantasy with the tectonic pull of a classic fairy tale and a bold, contemporary sensibility all her own. Plain young Agnieszka lives in a small kingdom on the border of a malevolent wood. Only the protection of a secretive wizard known as the Dragon keeps the darkness contained within. In return for his services, the Dragon demands a terrible price: a decade of servitude from one of the girls of the village. As the time of his choosing nears, Agnieszka despairs, fearing she will lose her best friend, the beautiful Kasia. Her fears turn out to be…misplaced.