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.
Halo: Silent Storm: A Master Chief Story, by Troy Denning (September 4, Gallery Books—Hardcover)
The complexity of the universe spawned by the Halo video game franchise rivals any other in the speculative genres. Telling the story of a galaxy-spanning war between humanity and a coalition of aliens called The Covenant who worship an extinct race known as the Forerunners who were destroyed by a horrifying symbiotic parasite called The Flood. And that’s just the basics—over the course of several games, graphic novels, books, comics, and animated shorts the story and universe have become incredibly detailed and rich. This all-new standalone novel is by Halo-veteran Troy Denning, who’s also written book in the Star Wars universe; Denning got his start in video games so he’s got a natural touch for the Halo universe. Early in the war between humanity and the Covenant, mankind has pinned its hopes on the Spartans—super-soldiers trained to be the perfect warriors, and led by John-117, who will one day be the key hero in the Halo story. As the future Master Sergeant leads his team on a desperate mission to buy humanity some time, a group of traitors think making a deal with the Covenant to betray John-117 is the only way to survive.
The Hidden Sun, by Jaine Fenn (September 4, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Fenn is as known for her short fiction as she is for her Hidden Empire novel series—and for her tendency to take stories in unexpected directions, whether on the micro-scale in short stories or the macro-scale of novels. Hidden Sun Fenn kicks off an all new series set in a universe of shadowlands and bright alien skylands. Rhia Harlyn is a well-born woman in the shadowland Shen, struggling against old-fashioned sexism as she pursues scientific knowledge. She gets a tragic opportunity to use his skill for research and discovery after her brother vanishes. She sets off to the skylands to seek the truth behind his disappearance and finds herself caught between a rebel and a cult leader on an alluring, dangerous world.
Worlds Seen in Passing, edited by Irene Gallo (September 4, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Since 2008, sci-fi and fantasy fans have known Tor.com as one of the best sources for cutting-edge short fiction; publishing original stories weekly, to the tune of hundreds over the course of the decade, the site has featured acclaimed writers the likes of N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders, and Jeff VanderMeer. This anthology, painstakingly edited by Tor mainstay Irene Gallo (who, as art director for Tor, commissioned illustrations for every one of them—and thus has read everything the site has ever published), collects the best of the best. It’s a startling reminder of just how good their taste is, and how influential the site has become. Stories include new classics like Hugo-winner ‛The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (since expanded into a series of novels), Alyssa Wong’s “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” and the time-tripping, bittersweet romantic comedy of Charlie Jane Anders’ “Six Months, Three Days.” This is unquestionably one of the year’s essential anthologies, and a must for any reader interested in exploring sci-fi and fantasy’s universes in miniature.
Daughters of Forgotten Light, by Sean Grigsby (September 4, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Grigsby, who when he isn’t writing works as a firefighter in Arkansas, has already given us one action movie in book form this year in Smoke Eaters, set in a world where the sudden arrival of dragons transforms firefighters into humanity’s first line of defense. Showing his range, his followup is a sci-fi saga that marries the thrills of Escape from New York with the righteous anger of Bitch Planet. In a deep space penal colony populated by the worst of the worst, a delicate peace exists between the titular lightcycle-riding prison gang and its two rivals, until the balance is upset by the arrivals of a fresh batch of prisoners, supplies to fight over—and a baby. Meanwhile, forces on Earth are looking for any excuse to blast the prison out of space for once and for all.
Salvation, by Peter F. Hamilton (September 4, Del Rey—Hardcover)
That Hamilton remains under the radar of many sci-fi readers (particularly in the U.S.) is a crime; not only has he consistently offered up amazing science fictional concepts, he’s packed them into character-focused epics with the sprawl to rival Dickens. In his newest, which stands alone from his earlier series, is set in the 23rd century, by which time humanity has achieved a complacent sort of ascendancy, managing a far-flung interstellar empire via networked “jump gates” that allow for instantaneous travel to anywhere. The cargo on a crashed spacecraft found on a newly discovered planet, however, threatens to fatally undermine that hegemony. Paralleling that story is taking place in the 51st century, where an ancient enemy pursues the genocide of the human race and a team of genetically altered soldiers prepare to face it. Per usual for Hamilton, the ideas as invigorating as the plot, which earns the epic page count.
Solo: A Star Wars Story, by Mur Lafferty (September 4, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Fresh off the success of the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty takes a break from her original stories and award-winning podcasting to dive into the ever-expanding Star Wars universe with this “expanded” novelization of this year’s woefully underrated saga spinoff. Going back to a time before A New Hope, Lafferty introduces the young scoundrel Han Solo before he’s acquired the famed ship the Millennium Falcon, his stalwart co-pilot Chewbacca, or his charming frenemy Lando Calrissian to show us how he bumped up against all three on his way to becoming a legend. This is no by-the-numbers tie-in, expanding upon the story in sequences not featured in the finished film. The Barnes and Noble exclusive edition includes a cool double-sided poster you won’t find anywhere else in the galaxy.
Night and Silence, by Seanan McGuire (September 4, DAW—Hardcover)
The prolific McGuire offers up the 12th October Daye novel (following The Brightest Fell), which finds the half-fae, half-human private investigator (Toby to her friends) dealing with a fraying relationship with her fiancé after she learns her daughter Gillian has been kidnapped. The twisting chase that follows shows why this series has become a mainstay in urban fantasy genre—McGuire balances emotional depth and character development with inventive worldbuilding that rewards old fans with subtle callbacks.
Timeless: A Drizzt Novel, by R. A. Salvatore (September 4, HarperCollins—Hardcover)
The dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden was introduced three decades ago as a character in a media tie-in novel, and improbably grew to become one of the most popular characters in epic fantasy. Salvatore, author of more than forty novels, created Drizzt for TSR’s Forgotten Realms series, part of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing milieu, but the character has moved beyond his tabletop gaming roots, and this novel in particular offers a fresh start for both longtime fans and new readers. In dual storylines, Timeless goes into the past to explore the origins of Drizzt’s father, and then jumps to the present, after he is impossibly resurrected. Return to the world of Manzoberranzan with the Barnes & Noble exclusive edition, which includes a short story showing how Drizzt, Zaknafein, and Jarlaxle became legendary warriors.
The Dreaming Stars, by Tim Pratt (September 4, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Tim Pratt has won or been nominated for a long list of sci-fi and fantasy awards, including the Locus, Nebula, and Hugo. His own stories have been heavily anthologized, and he’s an accomplished editor for Locus Magazine. His latest project, the engaging, inclusive, and entertaining Axiom series, may be his best work yet. The second book in the witty, heartfelt sci-fi romp, The Dreaming Stars (following last year’s Philip K. Dick Award-nominated The Wrong Stars), returns to the misfit crew of the White Raven, who are called upon to deal with a swarm of nanoparticles transforming everything it encounters—including hapless colonists. The investigation leads the crew to a facility created and occupied by the long-slumbering alien race known as the Axiom, who will undoubtedly destroy humanity whenever they decide to awaken. Pratt’s loveably screwed-up characters face tough choices in this fun, fast-paced adventure.
Occupy Me, by Tricia Sullivan (September 4, Titan Books—Paperback)
Sullivan is one of those writers who remains under the radar despite winning critical acclaim (and an Arthur C. Clarke award—for 1999’s Dreaming in Smoke). Occupy Me, which comes to the U.S. after being published in the U.K. in 2016, shows her deserving of more attention. It’s one of those books that defies expectations and runs over with imagination. It’s the story of Pearl, a woman who works for the Resistance, a group that intends to make the world a better place simply by performing acts of kindness on a regular basis. But Pearl is more than just a do-gooder; found in a junkyard, her origins are mysterious—as are the angelic wings that she sprouts when under stress, and the incredible reality-bending powers she sometimes exhibits. When Pearl encounters a killer bearing a suitcase that’s really a hole in the universe, she gives chase, not knowing what she’ll encounter—or learn about herself—along the way.
The Accidental War, by Walter Jon Williams (September 4, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Williams’ kicks off a new story in the universe of his Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, in which the extinction of the galaxy-conquering alien race known as the Shaa set off a violent civil war as the client species fought for supremacy. The Accidental War picks up years after the defeat of the principle villains in that conflict, the Naxids, and finds Terran officers Captain Gareth Martinez and Captain the Lady Sula sidelined due to their contempt for the traditions of the military elites, forced to funnel their enthusiasm for battle toward more peaceful pursuits. But the commonwealth that emerged from the ashes of the Shaa Empire is fragile, and hatred of Terrans spurs a conspiracy to recall all the human fleet crews and frame them for mutiny—prompting Gareth and Sula to gather loyal officers and set out for the last Terran stronghold. Williams specializes in patient plotting, building slowly toward a satisfying, action-packed finale.
Port of Shadows: A Chronicle of the Black Company, by Glen Cook (September 11, Tor Books—Hardcover)
It’s been nearly two decades since the last Black Company novel, making Cook’s latest a long overdue treat for fans of grimdark fantasy. The Black Company, an elite mercenary unit and the last of the Free Companies, follows a principle of getting paid, and not asking questions. The series is focused on a brief period of their centuries-long history, as detailed by company historian Croaker. In Port of Shadows, the Company is in service to the sorceress known as the Lady, but their new posting seems a little too uneventful. When they’re tasked with capturing a rebel leader, they’re surprised to find she is a young woman—and then, everything changes: memories become unreliable, members of the company suffer strange hallucinations, and a traitor seems to be working in their midst. This is both a fine way to introduce yourself to the Black Company, and a treat for long time fans of the series.
The Late Great Wizard, by Sara Hanover (September 11, DAW—Paperback)
Hanover puts a contemporary spin on beloved portal fantasy tropes, telling the story of Tessa Andrews, a bitter young woman still reeling from the disappearance of her gambler father. When her neighbor Professor Brandard’s house burns down, though, he is reborn into a younger body, and soon reveals to Tessa that he’s a phoenix wizard, and he needs her help to regain his powers before a terrible evil descends—a malevolent entity that might have something to do with her father’s disappearance.
State Tectonics, by Malka Older (September 11, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Older brings real-world experience to her fiction; she’s served as a humanitarian worker and her academic work is focused on how governments respond to disasters. The Centenal Cycle is set in a future where the entire world’s population has been divided into groups of 100,000, known as centenals. Each centenal votes for the government it wants to belong to, ranging from the corporate-minded to the idealistic—but the system isn’t as democratic nor fair as it’s promised to be. In the final book in the trilogy, the monolithic surveillance state Information finds itself and the elections it oversees under a myriad of new attacks as another election approaches, leading the major players to wonder the same thing—can Information be defended, and more importantly, does it deserve to be?
The Queen of Crows, by Myke Cole (September 18, Tor Books—Hardcover)
It’s hard to believe Cole has the time to write books; after a career in the military and intelligence services, he worked on the reality show Hunted on CBS and consults for the NYPD. His experience shows in his writing; his depictions of military life and tactics have the gritty ring of truth. The Queen of Crows, which follows last year’s The Armored Saint, is set in a world where the knights of The Order, religious zealots, hunt down wizards in hiding, often massacring anyone who gets in their way in the meantime. Heloise was a poor village girl who dared to stand up to the Order, and acquired magical armor that transformed her into a ferocious warrior. The Queen of Crows finds her transformed into a leader—but her revolution has a long way to go.
Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary—New Edition, by Pablo Hidalgo and David Reynolds (September 18, DK—Hardcover)
Fully updated to include the most recent films, this compendium of all things from a galaxy far, far away is unparalleled in its detail. Exploring everything from ship schematics, to the subtle meanings hidden in Queen Amidala’s costumes, to the inner-workings of Darth Vader’s armor, it also goes beyond the hardware to explore the backstories of both major and minor characters. The authors have serious cred; Hildalgo’s been serving as a story consultant for the franchise since 1995, and Reynolds, who holds a doctorate in archeology, has written five other deep-dive Star Wars books.
How to Invent Everything, by Ryan North (September 18, Riverhead Books—Hardcover)
North, a regular comics’ writer and the author of a pair of pick-your-path novels based on Shakespeare, knows a lot of stuff, and in this ingenious book, styled as a user’s manual for time travelers, he puts all of it to good use. Exploring everything from numbers, to language, to the importance of domesticating animals in punchy, bite-sized entries, it is styled as the only book you’ll ever need, should you be transported hundreds of thousands of years into the past and tasked with recreating civilization. Imagine an enormously entertaining science textbook disguised as a roguish sci-fi guidebook. It will appeal equally to creative types looking to see the world in a different light and to those who just like learning about why things work the way they do.
Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, by Brandon Sanderson (September 18, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Sanderson is famous for lengthy, meticulously detailed fantasy series like Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive, but over the years he’s also been quietly publishing sci-fi novellas featuring the character of Stephen Leeds, a man who can learn anything and master any skill in a matter of hours by creating a separate personality in his head. Leeds calls these personalities ‛Aspects,’ and he’s gotten to the point where there are almost too many of them fighting for space in his brain. This book collects the previously published Leeds novellas—Legion and Legion: Skin Deep—as well as a new, concluding novella, Lies of the Beholder, which offers a glimpse into Stephen’s origins as he’s hired to recover a stolen camera that reportedly takes photos of the past. Signed copies are available from Barnes & Noble, while they last.
Rosewater, by Tade Thompson (September 18, Orbit—Paperback)
Thompson’s novel-length debut, published last year in ebook but now out in print from Orbit, is set in the near future, in the wake of Earth’s settlement by alien visitors, who have constructed a huge biodome in Nigeria. The newcomers are rumored to have healing powers, and the sick and suffering gather around the biodome, forming the city of Rose Water around it. Thompson, whose sci-fi/horror novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne was released last year to significant acclaim, was born in London to Yoruba parents, and brings a unique worldview to a story that runs the disparate threads of those disparate cultures through a sci-fi idea machine. The result combines a sprawling timeline, engaging speculative concepts, and aspects of old-school detective fiction to craft one of the most unique books of the year.
Mecha Samurai Empire, by Peter Tieryas (September 18, Ace—Paperback)
Tieryas follows up and expands on his 2016 novel United States of Japan, an alternate history story set in a world where the Axis Powers won World War II and Japan has occupied the U.S. The first book—in which an underground video game featuring giant battling mecha, distributed by a rebel group called the George Washingtons, urged Americans to question the official history of Japan’s noble victory—moved much like a detective novel. The sequel spins a different sort of story set in the same universe, focusing on young Makoto “Mac” Fujimoto, a war orphan who wants to be a mecha pilot—but just as he sits for the exams that will determine his future, a terrorist attack by the National Revolutionaries of America kills his best friend, setting Mac on a darker path. Even more so than its excellent predecessor, Mecha Samurai Empire fulfills the promise of a book with a giant robot on the cover.
Barren, by Peter V. Brett (September 25, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Brett’s Demon Cycle epic fantasy series, in which humanity is reduced from an advanced technological civilization to a primitive shadow of its former glory due to the nightly attacks by demons that can only be defended against through the use of fragile painted runes—was a phenomenon, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages around the globe. Sadly, it also ended last year after five novels and a host of related shorter stories. Or did it? This new novella, set in the wake of the climactic events of The Core, centers on Tibbet’s Brook’s Town Speaker, Selia, nicknamed Barren, who has used the newly-rediscovered combat wards to protect her people. But Barren’s relationship with a younger woman makes her a target of a hatred that would put the whole town at risk in order to destroy her happiness. Yet Barren is a woman used to fighting demons, and she’s not going to go down easily.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green (September 25, Dutton—Hardcover)
Green and his company, Complexly, have become a force in the realm of science education through content like Crash Course and Sci Show, which help people understand difficult concepts and topics. His debut novel—the next Barnes & Noble Book Club selection—surprises in its willingness to delve into the unknown and the unknowable, exploring how modern internet fame twists and chops reality and peoples’ lives via the story of twenty-something April May. When she comes across a bizarre sculpture resembling a transformer wearing samurai armor, her friend Andy records her climbing onto it and posts it to the internet. By morning, April is famous as the first to discover the statues, which have mysteriously appeared all over the world (they are eventually dubbed “Carls”). April’s life changes rapidly as she’s swept into the whirlpool of viral fame—and into the quest to discover where the Carls came from, and what they might mean.
The Sisters of Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner (September 25, Orbit—Hardcover)
Rossner, whose great-parents emigrated to the United States in order to escape violent anti-semitism, today lives in Israel, and she weaves a deep appreciation for Jewish folklore into her lyrical debut fantasy. Told from the alternating points-of-view of sisters Liba and Laya Leib (Liba narrates in prose, Laya in poetry), it begins when the girls’ parents must leave the sisters alone in the woods, just outside the town of Dubossary. Before they go, they reveal to the children the family secret: their father can transform into a bear, and their mother into a swan, and Liba and Laya will inherit these powers respectively. The story Rossner spins from there draws from a myriad of traditions as it explores the costs of growing up and taking on the burdens of adulthood. For readers who loved Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Katharine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale.
Vengeful, by V. E. Schwab (September 25, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Schwab’s Vicious, her adult debut, predating her breakthrough A Darker Shade of Magic, introduced Victor Vale and Eli Ever, two frenemies who figured out how to give themselves superpowers and both used them to become different sorts of villains. Victor was arrested for his crimes, but Eli was the true monster, identifying others with powers to rival his own and killing them one by one. When Eli went after young Sydney, a girl with the ability to raise the dead, he took on more than he bargained for. In the sequel, Victor is in hiding underground, recovering from his own resurrection, leaving Sydney to fend for herself alongside her dog Dol, who she’s raised from the dead three times already. Meanwhile, Eli remains at large, unpunished—and still very dangerous. The signed Barnes and Noble exclusive edition contains a short story set in Merit City and a special message from Victor Vale himself.
Rock Manning Goes for Broke, by Charlie Jane Anders (September 30, Subterranean Press—Hardcover)
Nebula Award-winner Charlie Jane Anders next novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, doesn’t land until early 2019. In the meantime, she’s releasing this strange, slender story in a deluxe limited edition via small press publisher Subterranean (don’t worry if you don’t snag a print copy—it is also available as an ebook). It’s a bizarre near-future story set in the same sort of mid-apocalyptic world as All the Birds in the Sky, but the specifics of life in a climate-sick, resource-impoverished society are just part of growing up for Rock Manning and Sally Hamster, misfit teens who stumble into improbable internet stardom creating movies that highlight the former’s willingness to do violence to himself in the name of a good sight gag, a la the old slapstick comedies he adores. The worse things get for America, the more the pair are propelled to fame—and become the targets of those who want to use them to win a propaganda war for the soul of what’s left of the country.
What’s your top new SFF book in September?