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.
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers (March 14, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Becky Chambers chose not to simply retread the pleasures of her debut, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, opting to tell a different kind of story. It’s set in the same rambling universe, but tells a more compact story about an artificial intelligence named Lovelace, who readers of the first book will recognize as the former brain of the ship Wayfarer. The novel opens in the wake of Planet’s explosive climax, as Lovelace slips into into a “body kit” and assumes a new identity. Accompanying engineers Pepper and Blue, she heads to Port Coriol to make a life—such as it is. Lovelace’s story alternates with that of a girl named Jane working in a harsh, violent factory—a girl who has unusually strong relationships with the AIs around her. The decision to shift the focus expands Chambers’ universe while offering a very different, very compelling sci-fi story.
Bane and Shadow, by Jon Skovron (February 28, Orbit—Paperback)
The second book in the Empire of Storms series dives back into a violent world of assassins, islands, intrigue, and betrayal. Bleak Hope, a girl orphaned by biomancer magic who became an instrument of revenge attack, uses her skills to good effect against an imperial frigate, venting her rage as she seeks to rescue her captured lover Red. Meanwhile, Red is in the grip of the biomancers, being trained as an assassin and becoming a favorite of the corrupt court of Prince Leston. Red is more a prisoner than he realizes, and Hope remains a flawed, fascinating character beset by doubt and rage—and when she uncovers a biomancer plot that dwarfs anything they’ve done before, the stakes change again.
Etched in Bone, by Anne Bishop (March 7, Roc—Hardcover)
The last book of the Others ends one of the most intriguing urban fantasy series ever written. It picks up in the wake of the events of Written in Flesh, in which the Humans First and Last movement rose up, forcing the Others to deal with them. The Others are understandably dubious about allowing humans into their realm after all that trouble, and are keeping a close eye on the folks living in the Courtyard—especially Meg Corbyn and her human friends. One final time (at least until the announced spin-off series), Bishop proves she is a master at carefully setting the scene before tearing it to shreds and throwing everything into delightful chaos: when a mysterious, powerful man arrives in the Courtyard, everyone knows the Others are watching to see how Meg and Simon Wolfgard deal with him. (We vote “teeth and claws,” but maybe cooler heads will prevail.)
Phantom Pains, by Mishell Baker (March 21, Saga Press—Paperback)
In her followup to the Nebula Award-nominated Borderline, Baker brings us up to date on what happened to Millie—a former film student-turned-member of the Arcadia Project, a secret organization that serves as a liaison between the human and fairy realms—following the disastrous climax of the last book. In the wake of tragedy, Millie has left Arcadia behind. But when she and her old boss, Cheryl, visit the site where Millie’s former partner lost his life, they meet what seems to be his ghost—something Caryl says should be impossible, because ghosts don’t exist. What follows is another intriguing, trope-twisting mystery exploring the hidden history of human-fae interaction. But more than that, it’s another opportunity to spend time with Millie, whose struggles with borderline personality disorder are just one part of what makes her one of the most complex, engaging, occasionally frustrating protagonists urban fantasy has to offer.
Luna: Wolf Moon, by Ian McDonald (March 28, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Luna: New Moon was one of the most assured sci-fi books of 2015, offering a realistic near-future in which the moon’s immense resources are controlled by five powerful, family-owned corporations. At the end of that book, the Cortas had fallen, and their company Corta Helios, was divided up among its enemies. Its heirs were scattered and seemingly powerless. But McDonald’s skill and crafting cunning, compelling characters is assurance enough that there are plenty more twists and turns in the offing. Because Lucas Corta is still in play, and even his triumphant enemies have to imagine he’s plotting away—or that the downfall of his house was part of his plan all along. Fans of McDonald’s intricate brand of wordbuilding and plotting have been waiting an agonizing two years to continue this story—and now, we’re finally going to find out what the moon looks like in the wake of seismic change.
Magic For Nothing, by Seanan McGuire (March 7, DAW—Paperback)
McGuire’s sixth funny, fast-talking InCryptid novel finds Antimony Price being sent on a dangerous mission that might just end with her being killed—or worse. After her sister Verity antagonizes St. George of the Covenant on live television, Annie is shipped to London to infiltrate the Covenant and ascertain whether they are taking Verity at her word—and planning retribution that would be disastrous for the Price family and the Cryptids they seek to protect. The tension skyrockets as Annie struggles to keep the secret of her identity—something made more difficult because she can’t control her newly-discovered ability to set the things she touches on fire. All in a day’s work for our favorite cryptozoologist.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (March 14, Orbit—Hardcover)
While many “cli-fi” novels have told us of the horrors of rising sea levels and unpredictable weather patters brought on by climate change, painting dim furutes of a post-apocalyptic society, Robinson offers up an alternative future in which life (and capitalism) have continued to march on, even after the oceans have swollen to drown the coasts of every landmass in the world. Sure, lower Manhattan is submerged, but it’s still New York real estate—and those who know how to play the real estate market know there’s always money to be made in NYC. Power centers shift, economies recalibrate, and political movements may rise, but the world continues to function, and half the fun is seeing how Robinson extrapolates a believable future in which the physical world is very different, but human nature remains the same, for good and ill. Weaving together the varied stories of the residents of one partially submerged New York skyscraper—a broker, an Internet star, a building manager, a pair of homeless children, and two coders with a taste for social revolution—this near-future fable gives us much to fear about our wet future, but also reminds us that humanity is, if nothing else, good at figuring out how to survive the worst.
The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (March 14, G.P. Putnam’s Sons—Hardcover)
Howrey injects a startling shot of originality into this story of a manned mission to Mars, following the prospective crew-members as they endure a 17-month simulation to prove they’re mentally, emotionally, and physically equipped for humanity’s first trip to the Red Planet. Constantly observed, Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka seem like the ideal candidates—proven explorers and brilliant engineers. But Howrey doesn’t focus solely on their increasingly claustrophobic isolation in the Utah desert, also detailing the experiences of their families on the outside and the employees of the company funding the mission. Mixed together, these ingredients make for a surprising, challenging story that attempts to confront the human realities of a mission into the unknown.
Relics, by Tim Lebbon (March 21, Titan Books—Paperback)
Lebbon’s slow-boil horror novel introduces us to Vince and Angela, a young couple in London struggling with what appears to be normal everyday malaise: their sex life is complicated, he has a wandering eye, and she’s uncertain what he actually does for a living. When Vince goes missing, Angela—a student of criminology—uses her skills to investigate, and discovers she didn’t know her fiancé very well. As Vince struggles against mysterious captors, Angela delves ever-deeper into an underground society built on the trade of otherworldly relics stripped from the remains of magical creatures—relics that may be much less ancient than they originally appear.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (March 21, Tor Books—Hardcover)
After humanity discovers The Flow, an extra-dimensional field that allows us to travel around faster-than-light, but only along specific pathways, a huge empire of colonized planets is formed. But The Flow can shift course like a river, and when its discovered that many of the colony worlds will soon be cut off from FTL travel, the empire begins to fragment, and people begin to panic. With signature Scalzi style, we follow these big movements through the eyes of characters who feel instantly real and relatable, even as they are unexpectedly thrust into positions of power and influence. This book launches a brand new series from one of the genre’s most cinematic writers; we’re grabbing an extra large bucket of popcorn and settling in for several books worth of beautiful chaos.
Silence Fallen, by Patricia Briggs (March 7, Ace—Hardcover)
In the 10th Mercy Thompson novel, Briggs adds a a bit of international espionage flavor to the soup as Mercy is kidnapped to Italy by the ancient and powerful vampire Iacopo Bonarata—who also severs her connection to Adam and the werewolf pack. Alone in the truest sense of the word, Mercy must use all of her wits to escape and reestablish contact with Adam, who meanwhile assembles a tactical assault team of supernatural figures to hunt for her across Europe. Vampire witches, golems, and tense action sequences make this page-turner speed by, as we race to learn why, exactly, Mercy was taken in the first place.
Hunger Makes the Wolf, by Alex Wells (March 7, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Tanegawa’s World is an entire planet owned by a corporation called TransRifts, Inc., but its residents aren’t terribly aware they are part of a civilization run by the company with a monopoly on interstellar travel; they’re more concerned with eking out a meager existence in the mines and the farms. Hob is an orphan who was abandoned on the planet years ago, adopted by the leader of the Ghost Wolves, a biker gang living outside the law. Hob’s had some trouble proving herself to her surrogate family—a feat made even more complicated when she comes across the murdered body of her adoptive uncle in the sand. This discovery reverberates throughout every facet of society on this harsh world, including among the mysterious beings known as the Weathermen, leading Hob to discover surprising truths about herself and the planet she’s calls home. Mystery, magic, and space bikers mix unexpectedly well in this hard-charging sci-fantasy debut.
The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel (April 4, Saga—Hardcover)
John Kessel, a writer with an impressive raft of genre awards to his name, returns with his first novel in two decades, imagining a future in which underground city-states are scattered across the moon, each operating by various and very specific political models. The Society of Cousins is a pure matriarchy where men are free to pursue their careers but have no political voice—but it is one of many. Kessel sketches out a complicated matrix of relationships between people from several colonies, including revolutionaries seeking change and an “uplifted” canine reporter named Sirius. When the Organization of Lunar States investigates allegations of male mistreatment in the Society of Cousins, these relationships set off a chain reaction that threatens to completely destabilize Moon society. This is a meaty work of literary science fiction that will engage readers of Ursula K. LeGuin.
Star’s End, by Cassandra Rose Clarke (March 21, Saga—Hardcover)
In the far future, Phillip Coramina runs a powerful “corpocracy” that owns a planetary system consisting of a gas giant and four engineered moons, where bioengineered weapons are manufactured. Esme, Phillip’s oldest daughter, is being groomed to take over the family business—and when Phillip reveals he is dying of a terminal illness, she’s tasked with bringing her three stepsisters home to handle the transfer of power. But as Esme takes on control of her father’s corporation, she begins to find evidence of a disturbing secret at the center of its profits—a secret involving alien DNA and, quite possibly, her own sisters. Esme must grow up quickly as she learns more and more of the truth—and decide whether the time has come to stop following her father’s orders.
Chalk, by Paul Cornell (March 21, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
A man named Andrew Waggoner looks back on his experiences as a tortured 14-year old boy living in 1982, at the height of Thatcher’s England. A boy also named Waggoner, a boy with the same face and same friends, who prays every day the bullies will pass him by. They don’t always. One day they force him into the woods and do something terrible—something that kills off some part of Andrew. The Cherhill White Horse is carved out of chalk in the mountainside, and legend has it that magic stirs there—legends Andrews discovers are true. Meanwhile, his classmate Angie is discovering her own magic—a power that tells her something terrible is coming, just as Andrew gains a magical friend only he can see, and his enemies begin to suffer terrible fates. This is a book for everyone who knows that the hardest thing in life is to grow up being the wrong sort of person.
Flames of Rebellion, by Jay Allan (March 21, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
The planet Haven is ruled by Federal America, which has installed planetary governor Everett Wells as its representative. When confronted by a growing rebellion, Wells attempts to find a reasonable, peaceful solution. When that approach fails, he finds his authority subverted by the arrival of Asha Stanton, a federal agent known for her ruthless effectiveness, and two battalions of security troops under the command of the insane Colonel Robert Semmes. As Wells realizes Stanton and Semmes will commit any atrocity to put down the revolt, the people of Haven prove to be more independent and capable than the subjugated masses back on Earth, setting the stage for an epic battle for freedom in the latest military sci-fi saga from the author behind the Far Stars trilogy.
The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (March 14, Solaris—Paperback)
Some of the biggest names in SFF come together to tell tales of the djinn—the genies of multiple cultural legends, born of fire and possessed of free will. In various myths, they are threatening, or they are kind, or they offer salvation—they can friends, enemies, or even lovers. Some form of the djinn can be found hiding in the shadows of just about every cultural tradition, making them ideal grist for the imagination. In short stories crafted by the likes of Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, K.J. Parker, Saad Hossein, and many more, every aspect of djinn legend and lore (not to mention every spelling of the word) is explored, often in surprising settings and with unexpected twists.
Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer (March 7, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The first book in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, Too Like the Lightning, was a triumph, mixing a cutting-edge approach to worldbuilding, gender, sexuality, and spirituality with an intentionally archaic prose style and storytelling sensibility. The second volume of this four-book cycle continues the story andgets even stranger in the bargain, following a colorful cast of characters through a fascinating baroque-future world. Mycroft Canner is a convict sentenced to serve all he meets; Carlyle Foster can see possible futures; Bridger is a young boy with the incredible power to bring inanimate objects to life. In a world where technology rules, wars are forgotten, and the conspiratorial leaders of the Hives—mobile nations not moored to geography—judiciously apply murder and other crimes besides according to a mathematical formula that will ensure stability, Palmer has created a world unlike any other in science fiction. Such order can’t hold forever, of course, not with Mycroft and Bridger running around, nor with a storyteller like Palmer pulling the strings.
The Malice, by Peter Newman (March 7, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
In this followup to Newman’s impressive post-apocalyptic epic fantasy The Vagrant, we rejoin Vesper—now grown into a young lady and living a peaceful life with the Vagrant and Harm. When the Malice, the sentient sword, begins to stir with the need to battle the demonic hoards it was created to oppose, The Vagrant hides it, hoping it will go silent—so The Malice chooses a new bearer, Vesper herself. A breach has opened that is allowing demons to invade, and Vesper sets off to close it, accompanied by a goat named The Kid and a couple sharing the name Duet who seek to protect Vesper on her quest. If you can’t tell, this is risk-taking fantasy that rewards your attention, building a strange landscape and populating it with characters who subvert the archetypes their deceptively simple titles describe.
Brother’s Ruin, by Emma Newman (March 14, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
This novella marks Emma Newman’s return to fantasy in the wake of two consecutive best-of-the-year level works of science fiction (though in a sense, she never really left). Brother’s Ruin is set in an alternate 1850 in which the British Empire is ascendant partly due to the efforts of the Royal Society for the Esoteric Arts. In this gaslamp universe, young men who demonstrate strong magical talents are “bought” from their families for huge sums. It’s 1850, so naturally they don’t consider women as acolytes—but in the Gunn family, son Benjamin is a minor talent, while his sister Charlotte is extremely powerful. And so, to secure her family’s fortunes, she conspires to make Ben seem powerful. Charlotte is more than willing to break the rules of the time—which comes in handy when she stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens not just her own family, but all of London.