The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of August 2019

For two decades, Jim Killen has served as the science fiction and fantasy book buyer for Barnes & Noble. Every month on and the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Jim shares his curated list of the month’s best science fiction & fantasy books.

Sweet Dreams, by Tricia Sullivan (July 23, Titan Books—Paperback)
Arthur C. Clarke-winner Tricia Sullivan roars back into sci-fi with a story set in near-future London, where Charlotte “Charlie” Aaron volunteers for a drug experiment and emerges able to dream lucidly—and manipulate both her own dreams and anyone else’s. Charlie establishes herself as a “dreamhacker” and is paid to enter dreams and guide them to where the dreamers want them to go. Her services quickly become very in-demand, and when a celebrity hires her to help with recurring dreams of being stalked by a masked figure, Charlie figures she’s got it made. Her client’s subsequent bizarre death wakes her up to the fact that she isn’t the only dreamhacker out there; there’s another, and whoever it is, they are definitely not using their powers for good.

Brave the Tempest, by Karen Chance (August 30, Berkley—Paperback)
In Karen Chance’s ninth Cassie Palmer book, war rages and the Faerie seem poised to invade, inspiring the various factions of vampires, mages, and weres to band together in desperation. Cassie finds herself in charge of a group of young women she must protect, so she assembles a dream team of allies, including her lover John Pritkin, Mircea the vampire, and old friend Rhea Silvanus. Cassie finds that holding her coalition together is going to be just as difficult as defeating the forces arrayed against them in this complex and surprising entry in the enduring series.

Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton (August 6, Grand Central Publishing—Hardcover)
Kira Jane Buxton’s debut puts a deliriously original spin on the viral zombie apocalypse as human civilization’s collapse is witnessed—and challenged—by S.T., a pet crow. S.T. may be a bird, but he loves many aspects of human culture, and he’s alarmed when his owner, Big Jim, begins to behave strangely and undergo physical changes. Realizing that something is terribly wrong, S.T. teams up with bloodhound Dennis and is soon tasked with saving as many pets as possible, even as humanity descends into chaos. It’s a darkly hilarious twist on the formula, proving again why the zombie novel subgenre is nigh-unkillable.

The Gossamer Mage, by Julie E. Czerneda (August 6, DAW—Hardcover)
In the world of Tananen, mages can harness the forces of magic—but doing so costs them a bit of their life force, given up in sacrifice to the Deathless Goddess. Worse, sometimes they pay that price and still the spell goes awry, creating a strange creature known as a gossamer. Mal is a master mage who wants to end the goddess’ tyranny and allow mages to cast spells without killing themselves by degrees. He meets Kait, one of the goddesses’ disciples; she and her sisters have stopped hearing the deity’s  voice, so Kait has set out to find out why. Their quests turn out to be intrinsically linked, as together they discover that the goddess’s toll may be a necessary price to keep their world safe from yet darker forces. This dense, lyrical novel is a rare thing: an epic fantasy standalone.

Cry Pilot, by Joel Dane (August 6, Ace—Paperback)
Joel Dane, a pseudonym for a mysterious “full-time writer” who has published 20 novels and written for television, delivers the first installment in a new series set centuries in the future. With the environment ruined, humanity lives inside corporate-run compounds, waiting for the world outside to be slowly terraformed back to viability. Unfortunately, fallout from the process allows for the creation of rogue bioweapons. Maseo Kaytu is a man with secrets, but he hides them in order to volunteer as a “cry pilot”—a sort of human key needed to operate futuristic weapons—and join the infantry. Training is brutal, but Kaytu forms a true bond with his fellow troops—one that is quickly tested when they’re deployed against a new biological terror that has destroyed every other unit thrown against it.

The Dragon Republic, by R.F. Kuang (August 6, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
R.F. Kuang’s followup to the bestselling, award-nominated debut The Poppy War opens on a world in tatters. The Third Poppy War has left Nikan shredded, and gifted magic-user Rin in hiding, addicted to opium and unable to silence the whispers of the Phoenix, whose power changed the course of the war. Betrayed by Empress Su Daji and burning for revenge, Rin and the Cike accept an alliance with the Dragon Warlord Yin Vaisra, who tells them to destroy the Empress. But Rin, wracked with guilt and already broken by all that she has seen and suffered, begins to see new possibilities that might lead to a wholly unexpected destiny.

Blood of an Exile, by Brian Naslund (August 6, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Brian Naslund’s lushly written and compellingly plotted debut introduces Silas Bershad, called the Flawless Bershad. Once a powerful lord, he was accused of war crimes by the king and exiled. He was doomed to hunt dragons, a fate tantamount to a death sentence. But the Flawless Bershad has strange healing powers that allowed him to instead grow into a legendary dragon hunter—and to live long enough for a chance at redemption. The king’s daughter Kira has been kidnapped, and if Bershad can rescue her and defeat a mad emperor intent on slaughtering all the precious dragons in the world, he can return to his life and lands. (You know that’s going to take more than one book to accomplish; this is but the first in the Dragons of Terra series.)

First Cosmic Velocity, by Zach Powers (August 6, G.P. Putnam’s Sons—Hardcover)
Zach Powers spins a story firmly rooted in the plausible in this darkly satirical Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick, imagining that the 1960s-era Soviet space program was only half successful—while they’ve sent five capsules into space, none have actually returned successfully. In order to hide this fact, the U.S.S.R. has been recruiting twins into its program, allowing them to stage triumphant return trips. The story follows the last of the twin sets, both named Leonid: while one is in orbit, the other is on tour and under tight control—but as the latter’s doubts about his role in the sham grow, the complications for the engineers threaten to spiral out of control when Premier Krushchev decides his own dog should be the first canine in space.

Rule of Capture, by Christopher Brown (August 13, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Christopher Brown’s newest—a prequel to the harrowing, ripped-from-tomorrow’s headlines dystopia Tropic of Kansas—finds a shattered America licking its wounds after losing a war with China that cost it control of the islands of Hawaii. A new regime, thrust into power by a dubious election, is intent on subduing the growing resistance movement, and with the courtroom as his battlefield, attorney Donny Kimoe is determined to do everything he can to stop the slide into dictatorship. As his latest case puts not only his client’s life but his own in danger, Donny has to find a way to twist the system to his needs—until he stumbles on a secret that might force him to choose between the good of the many and the good of the one.

Shrouded Loyalties, by Reese Hogan (August 13, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Mila Blackwood is an officer on a Belzene submarine, fighting for her country against their Dhavnak enemies. Belzene’s greatest military secret is Shrouding—the ability to traverse an alternate dimension, which in turn lets them travel vast distances in their own in a matter of seconds. But Mila’s sub has been infiltrated by a Dhavnak spy named Klara, and her brother has been seduced by an enemy soldier, putting the secret at risk. And when both Mila and Klara discover they can travel through the alternate dimension without assistance, they’re placed in the power of a group of ruthless scientists and must work together to discover why they have this strange ability—and the devastating consequences it might bring. Packed with inventive worldbuilding, this one offers a decidedly different take on military SF.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, by Saad Z. Hossain (August 13, Tor Books—Paperback)
Saad Z. Hossain’s zippy new novella begins with Melek Ahmar—the Lord of Mars, the Red King, the Lord of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn—returning to Earth to discover, to his horror, that the humans that once worshiped him with reverential terror have pretty much forgotten all about him, embracing technological gods in his absence. In an ecologically ruined world, the humans have all installed implants that allow them to live inside microclimates while an AI called Karma monitors and judges their every move. Melek tries to spin up some chaos and revolution to inspire a bit of that old wrath-of-god belief, but finds the modern world a hard slog. He also catches the attention of Karma, putting him and his one human ally, the soldier Bhan Gurung, on a collision course with a grim future.

The Heart of the Circle, by Keren Landsman (August 13, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Israeli author Keren Landsman’s first novel in translation is set in Tel Aviv, where Reed Katz works as a waiter and struggles with his abilities as an empath (they’re called “Moodies”); he’s part of an oppressed community of sorcerers who are frequently subjected to brutal attacks. Reed’s ex-lover Blaze returns with an American girlfriend and her brother Lee in tow; Lee turns out to be empathic too, and Reed is soon in love again. When the anti-sorcerer faction targets Reed, his friends and family must take an enormous chance in order to save him. You don’t have to dig too deeply to uncover the real world parallels to xenophobia and intolerance in this unusual and compelling English-language debut.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, by Temi Oh (August 13, Saga Press—Paperback)
Temi Oh’s debut imagines a future in which a team of six teenagers begin training for the 23-year trip to Terra-Two as young children so they will be young and able enough to survive when they reach their destination. Their decades-long trip (alongside two trained astronauts) seems likely to be a deadly dull affair—six people growing up trapped in a tiny space with only each other for company and sanity—but when everything goes sideways while they’re in the middle of empty space and have zero hope of rescue, it becomes a deadly adventure of survival. But the real drama here comes from Oh’s willingness to simply throw together a cast of wildly competitive, highly disparate young personalities together in a pressure cooker environment to see how they come together—or tear apart.

Pale Kings, by Micah Yongo (August 13, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Micah Yongo’s sequel to Lost Gods returns us to a richly imagined adventure inspired by African folklore and mythology, and finds former assassin Neythan on a quest that risks everything, including his own soul. The Five Realms are at peace, but there is a terrible threat lurking at the edges of the world. An ancient scroll in Neythan’s possession may hold the only key to repelling it. Neythan gathers allies and travels beyond the realms to find answers—a quest that requires delving into his own dark, magical origins—on a path involving epic destruction, old gods, and plenty of twists and turns.

The Cruel Stars, by John Birmingham (August 20, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Centuries ago, a group of human genetic purists known as the Sturm waged a war to destroy any humans guilty of genetic manipulation or cybernetic augmentation. They came very close to destroying any human civilization that wasn’t “pure,” but were eventually defeated and driven into the distant reaches of the universe. Now they’re back, launching a devastating surprise attack that leaves humanity teetering on the brink. The only thing standing in their way is a rag-tag group: an untested military ship with a new captain, a bunch of low-down pirates, a princess, a criminal without a body, and a hero of the first war against the Sturm, as determined as ever to defeat his ancient foe. The gritty story of their survival is ideally pitched to fans of the character-focused realism of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series.

Turning Darkness into Light, by Marie Brennan (August 20, Tor Books—Hardcover)
This standalone novel set within the fantastically beastly world of Marie Brennan’s much-admired Memoir’s of Lady Trent series focuses on Audrey Camherst, Lady Trent’s granddaughter. Like her grandmother, Audrey is equally determined to push past the societal limits imposed on her gender, and is excited to translate several ancient Draconean tablets found by the shallow, ambitious Lord Gleinheigh. With the help of her childhood friend Kudhsayn, and under the watchful eye of Gleinheim’s niece Cora, Audrey’s work is told in a series of letters and journal entries, and via the translations themselves—work that will have a stunning effect on the world, as Audrey, Kudshayn, and Cora uncover evidence of a terrible conspiracy. It’s a welcome return to a world we thought we’d left behind.

Lies of Descent, by Troy Carrol Bucher (August 20, DAW—Hardcover)
Troy Carrol Bucher’s debut epic fantasy focuses on the experience of two children, Riam and Nola. A thousand years ago, the Fallen Gods’ war brought an army across the ocean, leaving the continent of Draegora empty and abandoned. Since then, the occupying force has ruled their new world uncontested. When Riam and Nola are found to have Draegoran blood flowing through their veins, they are torn violently from their homes to be trained as warriors. Riam, whose home life was abusive and awful, welcomes this chance at seizing a measure of power, hoping to use it to protect others. Nola resents being taken from her happy life. But both will soon find their paths taking unexpected turns.

Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories, edited by Ellen Datlow (August 20, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Legendary editor Ellen Datlow collects a Murderer’s Row of authors for this collection of terrifying, haunting, unsettling, and wildly differing takes on the tradition of ghost stories. With twenty-nine tales on offer, there’s something for every ghost story fan. Contributors include Seanan McGuire (the spooky carnival tale “Must Be This Tall To Ride”), A.C. Wise (“The Ghost Sequences” is a walk though an art installation that only gets stranger the deeper in your proceed), and Pat Cadigan (“About the O’Dells” concerns a girl who is haunted by forgotten memories of a murder, and perhaps something more), alongside Richard Kadrey, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alice Hoffman, among many others. With Datlow at the helm, there’s little doubt about the quality of the fiction herein.

Our War, by Craig DiLouie (August 20, Orbit—Hardcover)
In an alternate United States (one that less “alternate” with every passing day), the president sets off a brutal civil war by refusing to step down when his term ends. In Indianapolis, 10-year old Hannah is all alone, believing her brother Alex is dead. As the war rages, she takes up the Free Women militia seeking refuge and purpose; her experience with these brave women inspires her to want to join the fight directly. Unbeknownst to Hannah, Alex is alive and being forced to fight for the rebels, who will kill him if he refuses. Meanwhile, a coalition seeks to rescue the child soldiers from a war they had no part in starting, but which they suffer from disproportionately. DiLouie brings depth to his dark vision of America with a stories that draws parallels to the sad reality of conscripted children fighting in real wars around the world today.

Meet Me in the Future, by Kameron Hurley (August 20, Tachyon Publications—Paperback)
Kameron Hurley has emerged as one of the best and brightest writers in modern SFF, winning a Hugo for her non-fiction and being shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, and plenty of other awards for her fiction. This new collection brings together 16 short stories that are as much about breaking rules and subverting tropes as entertaining the reader. Hurley tackles your assumptions about military SF (‛The Red Secretary’), monster hunting (‛The War of Heroes’), and identity (‛The Fisherman and the Pig’) among many other things, all rendered with the author’s evident skill and grim imagination. (One of the stories, “Garda,” is a novelette that was first published on this blog.)

Spaceside, by Michael Mammay (August 27, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Last year, Michael Mammay’s Planetside delivered a near-perfect blend of detective story and military sci-fi. The sequel finds Colonel Carl Butler returning from his assignment in that book with a split reputation—part hero, part outcast. He’s once again forced into retirement, but this time he at least gets a cushy corporate job that capitalizes on his military reputation. When he’s asked by his bosses to investigate a devastating hack of a competitor’s computer systems—a hack no one will take responsibility for—Butler finds himself caught in a dangerous web that has him doubting his own mind even as he suspects he’s onto something much bigger than simple corporate espionage.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge—Black Spire (B&N Exclusive Edition), by Delilah S. Dawson (August 27, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Star Wars Expanded Universe veteran Delilah S. Dawson (Phasma) returns to the galaxy far, far away for a novel with a most unusual m.o.: as the title suggests, Black Spire not only tells a story within the wider universe of the franchise—featuring Vi Moradi, one of General Leia Organa’s top spies against the villainous First Order—it also crafts the narrative that millions of vacationers will become a part of should they be lucky enough to visit Disney’s new Galaxy’s Edge theme parks. Vi finds herself on the run, hiding out on the remote forest planet of Batuu, home to the Black Spire outpost, where people go when they don’t want to be found. Desperate to shore up the strength of the Resistance, she begins to recruit an unlikely team of allies in the hopes of turning the planet against the First Order—no easy feat when most everyone there would rather hide out until the war blows over. The B&N edition includes an exclusive pull-out poster.

What new sci-fi & fantasy books are on your TBR this month?

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