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.
The Snail on the Slope, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (August 1, Chicago Review Press—Paperback)
This sci-fi classic by the Strugatsky brothers was written in the 1960s, finally published in Russia in the late 1980s, and only now translated into English. The Administration is a vast, confusing bureaucratic institution charged with studying the Forest, a likewise vast, confusing place filled with strange creatures and operating under different laws of physics and biology. In the Administration, newly-arrived Peretz wants nothing more than to study the Forest directly and seeks an appointment with the director to make his case—but can never seem to get through the Kafkaesque roadblocks to speak with him. In the Forest, pilot Candide crash-landed years ago and is desperate to return to the Administration, but must navigate the strange geography with his failing memory and unreliable senses. As they approach one another, Candide and Peretz’s worldviews each inform and alter the other’s in surprising, challenging ways.
The Point, by John Dixon (August 7, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Scarlett Winter is the rebellious daughter of a family of rich military tradition—a tradition she rejects, hard. Scarlett is also a posthuman with the paranormal ability to absorb energy and release it with devastating effect. After she acts instinctively to save the life of a senator, she’s recruited by a secret new program at West Point, Operation Signal Boost. But Scarlett’s uncomfortable in the gray of a West Point cadet, and clashes with everyone she meets. When a group of rogue post-humans known as the High Rollers, led by the powerful mind-controller Antonio Jagger, begins an ambitious plot to destroy West Point (and maybe the United States itself), it’s up to Scarlett and her fellow cadets to harness powers they barely understand and save the day. The X-Men meets Taps is this engaging mashup of sci-fi and paranormal thriller.
Temper, by Nicky Drayden (August 7, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Nicky Drayden’s followup to the her gonzo science fantasy debut The Prey of Gods is just as delightfully out there. In an alternate African country, your vices are more than just part of your private nature—they’re what determine your status in society. With only a single vice branded on his arm, Kasim Mutz is marked for a bright future. His twin brother Auben, however, has six vices on display, dooming him to a much darker fate. Auben is smart, mischievous, and charming—and jealous of his brother’s prospects. as Auben begins hearing a demonic voice instructing him to give in to his weaknesses and commit terrible crimes, he finds his self-control begin to erode, and both brothers find they will have to tame their inner demons if they’re going to save their world.
Serpentine, by Laurell K. Hamilton (August 7, Berkley—Hardcover)
The saga of Anita Blake, vampire hunter, continues. Anita’s peer on the Marshals, Edward, is finally getting married to Donna in Mexico—assuming Donna’s cold feet and bridesmaid Dixie’s acid tongue don’t derail everything. Meanwhile, another relationship—between Anita and partners Micah and Nathaniel—is on the rocks, just as wedding guests begin to disappear from the hotel, and the celebration transforms into an old-school vampire hunt. Anita and Edward, with an assist from Bernardo and Olaf, spring into action. They’ll have to move fast to stop a corrupt police officer trying to magically pin the blame on the vulnerable Nathaniel.
Alternate Routes, by Tim Powers (August 7, Baen—Hardcover)
Tim Powers, master of the secret history, returns with a story about strange occurrences along the highways of America. Former Secret Service agent Sebastian Vickery makes his living driving people around Los Angeles in special vehicles that protect them from the energies that flow along the freeways. After an attempt on his life in which he’s saved by Agent Ingrid Castine, he launches an investigation that leads to the discovery of an attempt to use those energies to open a rift between our world and the Labyrinth, a deadly alternate reality that is already bleeding into ours. Vickery and Castine team up to close the rift—even if it means being forced to travel into the horrifying Labyrinth themselves, and risk being trapped there.
The Tower of Living and Dying, by Anna Smith Spark (August 7, Orbit—Paperback)
The second book in the super grimdark Empires of Dust epic fantasy series finds Marith Altrersyr, former sellsword (and recent dead man), rampaging across the land of Irlast in his efforts to claim the throne of the White Isles. Increasingly deranged, Marith—known as King Ruin—sets his lover Thalia up as the new High Priestess of Tanis, the goddess of death (and life), as his army grows larger. Thalia is growing concerned with his epic mood swings and uncontrollable emotions, and alarmed at the brutality of his methods and the scale of his ambitions. She can sense her influence over him is fading, and worries about her own tenuous grip on sanity. There are few heroes here—only fascinating, prickly, well-drawn characters.
Herokiller, by Paul Tassi (August 7, Talos Press—Paperback)
In the near future, a new reality show called Prison Wars features inmates battling to the death. After it’s shut down by the authorities, its creator, the wealthy Cameron Crayton, launches a new show called The Crucible, in which fighters from around the world duel to the death with a billion-dollar prize on the line. Former CIA agent Mark Wei, destroyed when his final mission cost him his family, is reactivated by his former boss, Gideon Gellar, who believes Crayton has taken secret control of the US government on behalf of the Chinese. Wei poses as a contestant on The Crucible in order to infiltrate Crayton’s world—but to get anywhere, he’ll first have to survive the show, which means he kill or be killed. A smart suspense thriller that updates The Running Man for a bleak new era.
Implanted, by Lauren C. Teffeau (August 7, Angry Robot—Paperback)
The city of New Worth is enclosed in a dome, and society is literally stratified according to how high up you are—the wealthy sit at the top, the poor live in shadow and grime at the bottom. The rich enjoy constant connection to each other via implants that enable telepathic-style communication and other technological aids. Emergence from the dome is soon to be a possibility, but different factions fight over the idea of leaving its security behind. Emery Driscoll is a college student who finds herself blackmailed by a secretive organization called Aventine because of her rare condition that makes it possible to encode messages directly in her blood, making her an ideal secret courier. When a data drop goes sideways, Emery finds herself hunted by different factions, with the fate of the city hanging in the balance.
An Informal History of the Hugos, by Jo Walton (August 7, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Walton, herself a Hugo Award winner, looks back at the early history of one of sci-fi’s most prestigious awards in this non-fiction work drawn from her popular columns originally published on Tor.com. With lists of nominees and winners as well as deep-dive essays on the most important books from each year’s slate, it’s a very personal retrospective, colored with her personal opinions on the winners and losers of each year. Input from heavy-hitters in the field, including the late Gardner Dozois and editor David G. Hartwell, comes through via republished comments from the original posts. It’s a singular, essential critical appreciation for a subset of sci-fi literature that has been pre-selected as some of the best ever written—though Walton doesn’t always agree, and is more than ready to tell you why.
Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells (August 7, Tor.com Publishing—Hardcover)
The Murderbot returns, now with its memories intact but its armor stripped away. Calling itself Rin, the Murderbot is on the trail of the GrayCris Corporation as the case against the mega-corporation begins to fail and authorities start asking questions Rin would prefer they not find the answers to. Rin goes into action, inserting itself into a mission to reclaim an abandoned terraform facility somehow connected to GrayCris, an installation that may have been involved in processing alien artifacts. When things begin to go wrong with a capital “W,” Rin has few allies—unless you count the innocent Miki, a “pet robot” that might actually be more useful than it immediately appears. This is the second of three novellas in the series arriving in 2018, and there’s a novel on the way in 2019. All hail Murderbot!
Stars Uncharted, by S.K. Dunstall (August 14, Ace—Paperback)
The two sisters who make up the writing team “S.K. Dunstall” (the Linesman novels) offer up a standalone space opera in the high action vein. Captain Hammond Roystan is a cargo runner who stumbles onto the salvage claim of a lifetime: the Hassim, an exploration ship that contains invaluable data about unexplored worlds. Roystan knows if he can assemble a crew and get to the drifting ship before anyone else, he’ll have it made. Putting a team together requires him to overlook some obvious deceptions—his junior engineer is filled with bioware that put the lie to her claim of a humble existence on the rim. Seems Nika Rik Terri is a body modder on the run from angry clients, and her apprentice knows more about weapons and strategy than a fledgling modder should. As the group sets out for the Hassim, they’re pursued by dangerous forces who’d love nothing more than to beat them to the score.
Relic, by Alan Dean Foster (August 14, Del Rey Books—Hardcover)
Alan Dean Foster’s first standalone novel in more than a decade is an ambitious chronicle of the waning days of humanity. Across 10,000, humanity spread to the stars, colonized distant worlds, and then drove itself to near-extinction. Now, only one human remains, a tired old man named Ruslan, who is being looked over by a race of benevolent three-legged aliens who nonetheless view him as a scientific curiosity. The aliens wish to clone Ruslan to preserve the species, but he’s more interested in companionship from already extant humans, prompting his hosts to search the galaxy for more survivors, rumored to inhabit a long-lost world called Earth.
Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martensen (August 14, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The latest in translation from Hugo-winner Liu, author of The Three-Body Problem, the hard sci-fi novel that became a worldwide sensation, explores the tension between research and military applications as a brilliant Chinese man, Chen, sets out to understand and control ball lightning after it kills his parents during his birthday party. He teams up with Lin Yun, a major in the army who is interested in ball lightning for its potential as a weapon. Together they chase leads that take them to an abandoned Russian research base and face to face with an eccentric scientist. Chen and Lin Yun soon come to find themselves on opposite sides of the same quest: one seeking knowledge, the other seeking to apply that knowledge to create weapons to be used in a coming conflict with America.
Noumenon Infinity, by Marina J. Lostetter (August 14, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Lostetter’s sequel to Noumenon is another slice satisfyingly meaty, big idea sci-fi. This volume jumps between two time periods: in the past, scientists Vanhi Kapoor experiments with interstellar technologies as Earth prepares to launch exploratory missions and an accident during an experiment leaves her changed, seemingly unmoored from the laws of physics. In the far future, where exploratory vessel Convoy Seven has arrived at the star designated LQ Pyx only to discover an incomplete structure—known as the Web—built around it by an unknown and absent alien race, the ship’s crew of clones make an attempt to finish the machine and start it up. As huge spans of time elapse, we follow the human experience through the course of generations, and the purpose of the Web slowly emerges.
Wild Hunger, by Chloe Neill (August 14, Berkley—Paperback)
Neill launches a spinoff to the Chicagoland Vampires books. As the series opens, the humans and supernaturals of Chicago are enjoying a peace that has lasted 20 years. A daughter of the vampire leaders, Elilsa Sullivan, is brought back to Chicago to help with peace talks between European leaders—but when a delegate is murdered and a shape-shifter blamed, she must conquer a literal monster inside her and spearhead a desperate investigation in order to salvage peace. Determining the chief suspect was framed, she teams up with old friends from her childhood, including former irritant and current crush Connor, to prevent more bloodshed.
The Moons of Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen (August 14, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The second book in the Barsk series is set years after the events of the first novel. Pizlo, physically challenged and outcast elephant-like Fant, is a teenager who believes the planet’s moons are speaking to him and telling him secrets. In order to determine the truth of these mysterious messages, Pizlo goes on a quest, one that ultimately takes him off-world for the second time, and reveals to him things that none of his kind are prepared to know. Meanwhile, Senator Jorl of Barsk, who can communicate with the dead, plays a high-tension game of galactic politics as he parallels Pizlo’s quest with his own investigation into the past, revealing his own cache of terrible secrets. With a cast of uplifted animals of all stripes and unparalleled worldbuilding, this series is a sorely under-appreciated, highly original delight.
Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett (August 21, Crown/Archetype—Hardcover)
The author of the Divine Cities trilogy (a nominee for Best Series at the 2018 Hugo Awards) begins a new trilogy that’s as fun to read as its world is well-imagined. The city state of Tevanne runs on magic and pillage, as the four dominant merchant houses exploit the lands around them (not to mention the poor denizens who crounch outside their walls in a precarious shantytown known as Foundryside), as their scrivers create incredible machines and accomplish feats that look a lot like magic by way of intricate sigils that bend and break the laws of reality. Sancia Grado is a Foundryside thief who comes into possession of Clef, a sentient golden key—and is pursued by police captain Gregor Dandolo, reluctant scion of one of the richest houses. The unwitting Sancia falls into a scheme to destroy the power of the scrivers; putting a stop to it will bring her and Dandolo together as unlikely allies in the greatest theft theft in history, with the lives of everyone in Tevanne on the line.
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (August 21, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
Clark packs an enormous amount of worldbuilding into this slim alt-history novella, set in a post-Civil War America in which the War Between the States ended in amnesty. In the Union, slavery remains illegal; it the Confederacy, it is the law of the land. In the South, only New Orleans is free. Creeper is a young orphan trying to survive on the streets of that city, and she’s drawn into world-changing events when she happens upon a Confederate plot to recover a terrible supernatural weapon of war that could destroy the Free States. Creeper falls in with an airship captain and a goddess, Creeper must make it out of New Orleans and stop an atrocity before it happens. While stories that upend the history of the Civil War are familiar, you’ve never read one like this before, filled with diverse characters navigating a world built from the bones of many different cultures.
The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal (August 21, Tor Books—Paperback)
This followup to The Calculating Stars completes a fascinating alt-history duology from the Hugo Award-winning author. In an alternate 1961, nearly a decade after a disastrous meteor strike disrupted all like on Earth, lady astronaut Elma York works as a pilot shuttling passengers between our world, roiling with terrorism and the civil rights movement, and a colony on the moon. Elma is taken hostage by terrorists who want to stop space travel, and later invited to replace one of her best friends on the first manned mission to Mars (where readers of Kowal’s related work know a colony will eventually be established). Her friend is angry, and the rest of the crew resents Elma, making the three-year journey to the Red Planet tense and unhappy—aspects only worsened when tragedy strikes en route, forcing the crew to figure out how to deal with disease and dead bodies while cut off from the rest of civilization.
The Stars Now Unclaimed, by Drew Williams (August 21, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Generations ago, the Justified Sect unleashed the pulse, a powerful device designed to disable and destroy all other weapons. Something went wrong, and many worlds saw all of their technology destroyed, knocking them back to the Stone Age—and giving a small percentage of their children special powers. Guilty over her role in this disaster, Jane Kamali leads a mission to locate these children to help her stopp the second pulse from sending even more planets hurtling backwards into primitive chaos. Opposing her is the Pax, a group of fanatics who retain their technological superiority. Jane must protect a powerful girl named Esa in hopes that she could be the deciding factor in this struggle in this capital SF science fiction debut.
Terra Incognita: Three Novellas, by Connie Willis (August 21, Del Rey—Paperback)
In these three previously-published novellas, now collected into one volume, Willis demonstrates her sharp wit and storytelling genius. In Uncharted Territory, a trio of human surveyors and their indigenous scout on an alien planet have their adventures and romances turned into theater back on the home planet. In Remake, a future Hollywood no longer employs living actors, but endlessly pastes digital avatars of past stars into pastiches and remakes of old classics. And in D.A., Willis playfully tweaks Heinlein with the story about a girl forced into the International Space Academy who thinks she detects morbid clues of a conspiracy against her.
Magic Triumphs, by Ilona Andrews (August 28, Ace—Hardcover)
The tenth and final (!) Kate Daniels book opens with Kate in a precarious holding pattern, raising her family with former Beast Lord Curran and maintaining a delicate truce with her father Roland. When Roland begins pushing against her magical defenses, the Witch Oracle experiences bloody visions, and a mysterious box appears on her doorstep, Kate knows that peace can’t last. Soon she’s contemplating a desperate alliance as an ancient enemy, one that almost destroyed her family in the past, threatens not just Kate and her family, but all of post-Shift Atlanta.
Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames (August 28, Orbit—Paperback)
Eames jumps back into the Band series, picking up the story six years after the events of Kings of the Wyld and shifting the focus to the daughter of one of that book’s team of grizzled adventurers. Teenage bard Tam Hashford is thrilled to be invited to join Bloody Rose, the most famous adventuring band of all, but quickly discovers the worst thing you can do is meet your idols. Bloody Rose is content to play arenas in the south rather than head north to fight more monsters, and are working towards one final show that will earn them enough money to retire in peace. When that final gig goes completely off the rails, the band must once again put aside differences and overcome their own limitations to gear up and save the world. Eames brilliant “mercenary bands as rock stars” concept is only more delightful the second time around.
Hollywood Dead, by Richard Kadrey (August 28, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
Sandman Slim is back from the dead—almost. Having achieved a partial return to life, the half-human son of the angel Uriel and former ruler of Hell (for about 100 days) finds his life once again ebbing away. So when Eva Sandoval, leader of the dark Illuminati-style Wormwood—offers him a full resurrection in exchange for this particular set of skills, he has little choice but to agree. Charged with scuttling a faction of Wormwood from enacting a dangerous ritual that could blow the whole city sky-high, Sandman Slim must enlist the help of friends old and new just to survive his journey back to the land of the living.
Nightflyers: Illustrated, by George R.R. Martin (August 28, Random House—Paperback)
This tie-in edition celebrating Syfy’s upcoming adaptation of Martin’s horror in space novella includes fifteen custom illustrations that augment the tale’s chilling terror. A team of nine academics are recruited for a mission to study a mysterious alien race and put on board the only ship available: the Nightflyer, an autonomous craft that requires just a single crew member. The mysterious captain shuts himself off from the scientists, communicating exclusively through holograms and voice messages. Then someone—or something—begins murdering the passengers, and the mission devolves into a gruesome fight for survival in the darkness of space. Martin is about more than just epic fantasy—this is a supremely satisfying blend of sci-fi and horror.
Hidden Universe Travel Guides: Firefly, by Marc Sumerak (August 28, Insight Editions—Paperback)
Ideal for superfans of the cult TV show, this travel guide offers information on various locations from the show’s mythology, from the Core planets to the Rim. There is an overview of areas you’re likely to meet Reavers, and tips on where an outlaw band might hide out from the Alliance. It’s all augmented with notes and annotations from the crew of Serenity, and illustrations, concept art, and photos from the series and movie.
The Fall of Gondolin, by J.R.R. Tolkien (August 30, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Hardcover)
The complex history Tolkien constructed to shore up The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was incomplete and sprawling, and it’s taken his son Christopher decades to put it all together. This rejiggered volume details the story of Gondolin, the hidden city the Noldorin Elves built after they fled Valinor, the land of the gods, in rebellion. Secretly supported by Ulmo, one of the most powerful of the Valar, their king Turgon is hated above all by Morgoth, the source of all evil in Middle Earth, to whom Sauron was merely a lieutenant. Ulmo sets in motion events that will echo through the rest of Tolkien’s works, leading up to the siege of Gondolin by Morgoth’s forces and the birth of a child named Eärendel, a name familiar to Tolkien’s careful readers.
What new sci-fi or fantasy book are you most looking forward to in August?