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.
Contact, by Carl Sagan (February 26, Gallery—Paperback)
It’s always exciting when a bona-fide scientist writes a novel, and Sagan—who remains as beloved today as he was in 1985—sure wrote a doozy, and now it has been reissued in a handsome new trade paperback edition. Contact began as a screenplay Sagan co-wrote with his future wife; when plans for the film fell apart (though of course a film did eventually hit theaters), he reworked the script into a novel. The revision process resulted in a substantial story that has nonetheless been stripped of all the fat, left sharp and efficient. It’s a tale of alien first contact, math, the battle between faith and science, and mind-blowing interstellar experiences—a perfect balance of hard SF and thrilling adventure, all of it wrapped up in a book that netted the author a once record-setting $2 million advance.
Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear (March 5, Saga Press—Hardcover)
After a decade spent exploring worlds of fantasy and steampunk, Elizabeth Bear launches a new series with a seriously epic space opera flavor. Halmey Dz is an engineer on a slightly sketchy salvage ship, part of a crew that stays just clear of the law in their quest to eke out a living. While exploring a derelict ship, Halmey is infected by something alien, and finds she has a whole new lever of perception that grants her understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe—which makes her an incredibly valuable prize for those with the will to exploit her abilities. Halmey is pursued by the government and a group of ruthless pirates, all of whom want to control her and her new power. She and her crewmates make a run for it—but the pursuit leads them into an even bigger mystery involving an alien ship trapped in a black hole at the center of the galaxy. And that’s just the beginning. The first book in the White Space saga may be Bear’s best science fiction novel yet, and that’s certainly saying something.
Wild Country, by Anne Bishop (March 5, Ace—Hardcover)
Ann Bishop returns to the World of the Other with this standalone followup to Lake Silence. Jana Paniccia is hired on as deputy to a Wolfgard sheriff in Bennett, a ghost town in which all the humans were killed in retaliation for a strike against the terra indigene. Bennett is being resettled as a place where both humans and Others will co-exist. As stores are reopened and a functioning government is established, the activity attracts the attention of the Blackstone Clan, a group of outlaw humans who seek only profit for themselves. Unfortunately, that means the resolve and bonds of friendship in Bennett will be tested much sooner than anyone expected. Bishop’s Others marks a high point in the urban fantasy genre, and this sequence of self-contained followups is a brilliant way of allowing readers to spend more time in that world without diluting the ending of the original series.
Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K. Chess (March 5, Tin House Books—Hardcover)
Time travel, metafiction, and the post-apocalyptic collide in K. Chess’s debut novel, an exploration of racism and the plight of immigrant communities with a Philip K. Dickian twist. In the near future, a nuclear disaster ravages an alternate version of the United States, and 156,000 people are given the chance to flee the chaos through a dimensional gate that allows them to travel into a parallel universe—ours—carrying only the few scant possessions they were able to cram into a backpack. The refugees must attempt to adjust to a world that is almost, but crucially not exactly, like the one they left. One of them, Vikram, most treasures the only copy of a book that doesn’t exist in our world, which he brought with him across dimensions. When it is stolen, his friend (and fellow “universally displaced person”) Hel is willing to do whatever it takes to recover it, fearing its loss represents more than the erasure of a single book, but of the entire world she once knew. With excerpts of the fictional text, The Pyronauts, scattered throughout and a setting that viscerally recreates modern, gentrifying NYC, this is an intriguing debut from a new writer worth watching.
The Women’s War, by Jenna Glass (March 5, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Jenna Glass’s debut is the first in a planned series set in a world in which women are treated as inconvenient necessities. The “disgraced” women of the Kingdom of Aaltah are sent away to the Abbey of the Unwanted, led by Abbess Alysoon Rai-Brynna. The women of the Abbey survive by selling both magical potions and themselves. Their bitter existence swells into a resistance led by Rai-Brynna—a mother, a widow, and the shunned daughter of a king. Rai-Brynna leads a ritual that shifts the balance of power in the world, granting women the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies—and to protect themselves from rape with violent magic. As the male population of Aaltah boils over in angry retaliation, Alysoon explores the limits of this new magic, as the personal and political plots intertwine in subtle ways, and society reacts to the new world order. It’s a compelling fantasy epic for the #MeToo era.
Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan (March 5, FSG Originals—Paperback)
Maughan offers a biting vision of the future after in the wake of a techno-apocalypse, unfolding both sides of a story set before and after the fall. Before: hacker and activist Rushdi Manaan establishes the Croft, an island voluntarily cut off from the internet and the corporate surveillance culture. Populated by a group of artists and rebels, The Core is soon falling apart due to internal strife—but then a group of terrorists unleash an attack that destroys the internet and every device connected to it. After: the world economy has collapsed, and the Croft has morphed into the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, where a girl named Mary sees visions of ghosts and others trade the ancient remnants of analog pre-Internet tech to survive. When a newcomer named Anika arrives bearing secrets the crash, the puzzle of what happened to the world—and why—begins to come into focus. As he explores the contrast between the mad, cyberpunk decadence of Before and the desolate wasteland of After, Maughan will change the way you look at the modern world—and the future we’re rushing into.
Mahimata, by Rati Mehrotra (March 5, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
The followup to last year’s Markswoman returns to a post-apocalyptic Asia (known in-world as Asiana) whose history has been totally rewritten—as its population vastly reduced—by a terrible war. Justice in this world is brutal, with judicial executions carried out by an order of specially trained female assassins who have psychic powers that link them to their daggers (the explanation for these and other elements of the worldbuilding threaten to push the quasi-fantasy series into outright sci-fi). In the wake of the events of the first novel, Markswoman Kyra Veer is one of the surviving members of the Order of Kali, which suffered a brutal massacre carried out by the rebel Kai Tau and his army of followers wielding telepathically controlled firearms. Seeking revenge, Kyra forges alliances where she can, including with a man named Rustan, from a counterpart Order of male assassins, who is still recovering from his shame at having killed an innocent person. Together, the two will delve into the secrets of the ancient alien technology that has shaped their world as they try to defeat Kai Tau and chart a course toward a better future.
Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi (March 5, Riverhead Books—Hardcover)
Though Helen Oyeyemi’s lyrical works hew closer to the traditionally “literary” side of fantasy, she’s also the type of writer who proves that genre snobbery can cut both ways, and really shouldn’t matter; there is enough strange magic in them to satisfy fans of the fantastical, and enough grounded richnesses of character and emotion to please those who look to those elements first and foremost. Certainly any type of reader will be bewitched by her prose, which draws you with a comforting embrace in this story of a British schoolgirl name Perdita Lee, who is blessed with the family talent of baking an oddly alluring variety of gingerbread that supposedly has been passed down through generations from their ancestral home country of Druhástrana—which doesn’t seem to exist in the modern world. After her mother attempts suicide, Harriet is prompted to delve into her past and discover the tragic secrets baked into her DNA like so much cinnamon and cloves.
Today I Am Carey, by Martin L. Shoemaker (March 5, Baen—Paperback)
This expanded version of Shoemaker’s short story ‛Today I Am Paul” (a 2015 Nebula nominee) tells the story of an android named Carey, and its years of varying interactions with the Owens family. Brought in to care for the elderly Mildred, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, Carey unexpectedly attains sentience—the first android to do so. When Mildred dies, Carey stays on with the Owens’, caring for the young Millie. As Carey bonds with Millie, it struggles with the passage of time, and the way the Owens’ change, evolve, and die. Carey doesn’t age, but it also changes and evolves as its experiences alter the very core of its being. This is a moving, richly-detailed story of an intelligence coming into an understanding of itself.
The True Queen, by Zen Cho (March 12, Ace—Paperback)
Cho’s long-awaited sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown offers a delightful twist on the naif-studies-magic premise, as sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on a deserted beach on the island of Janda Baik without any memory. They know they are sisters, but everything else is gone, taken from them by an enchantment. Worse, Sakti begins to slowly fade away, disappearing bit by bit. Their only hope is for Muna to travel to Britain and somehow gain entrance to the Sorceress Royal’s academy of magic—a task that will require her to pretend to be a prodigy while navigating the dangerous tides of British society and politics. Muna begins to learn the secrets of their past as she works towards a solution and becomes embroiled in plots that threaten to unravel her carefully-woven illusion—and with them, all hope for Sakti.
The Dazzle of Day, by Molly Gloss (March 12, Saga Press—Hardcover)
A generation ship filled with Quakers flees a collapsing Earth in this reissue of Molly Gloss’s acclaimed 1997 sci-fi novel, a Locus Award nominee and a New York Times Notable Book upon its initial release. As the novel opens, the ship’s crew of Friends, drawn from all over the world, is finally arriving at a potential new home planet after a 140-year journey by solar sail. The years have taken a toll, and suicide has become a near-epidemic, and their destination, dubbed New World, is hardly inspiring: it’s cold and treacherous, and immediately claims two lives and leaves a third changed in disturbing ways. The crew is divided between making a go of it on a harsh planet and pushing on in hopes of finding someplace better, but the matter becomes academic as they find themselves in the grip of a new disease, possibly brought back from New World in the wake of that disastrous first mission. Gloss delves into the physical and psychological toll of diaspora and finds a deep humanity in a story of a journey into the unknown.This is the third of Gloss’s long-neglected works now back in print thanks to Saga Press; later this year there follows Unforeseen, her first collection of short fiction.
A Gathering of Shadows (B&N Exclusive Book), by V. E. Schwab (March 12, Tor—Hardcover)
This collector’s edition of the second novel in V.E. Schwab’s smashing Shades of Magic series sits nicely beside last year’s spiffy reissue of A Darker Shade of Magic. Featuring a new short story, a gorgeous metallic cover, fan art, and an updated glossary, it’s a must for the Schwab superfan. This sequel goes deeper into the parallel universe of multiple Londons—shying away from Georgian Grey London, and more firmly into Red London, home of the Arnesian Empire, Prince Rhy Maresh, and Kell, the last of the Travelers, whose blood magic allows for journeys between the the parallel cities. Four months after the downfall of White London, the brothers are still reeling their losses, and trying to plan a cross-empire magical tournament to prove the might of the Maresh Throne in the face of turmoil. Meanwhile, ex-Grey London thief Lilah Bard has taken to the high seas and the pirate’s life she always dreamed of—only to discover her particular set of skills might best be put to use in a more magical arena.
The Near Witch (B&N Exclusive Edition), by V. E. Schwab (March 12, Titan—Hardcover)
When V.E. Schwab published The Near Witch in 2011, the YA world wasn’t yet ready for her particular blend of dark fantasy and richly passionate characters, and the book slipped quietly out of print. Now, we’re ready for it to come roaring back. It’s set in the town of Near, a severe place guided by a few simple rules: the legendary Near Witch is just a nearly forgotten fairy tale, children must never listen to the wind at night when it begs for company, and there are no strangers in Near. One night, a strong-minded girl named Lexi sees a strange boy outside her house—a boy who fades away like mist— just as children begin disappearing from their beds. The strange boy, who Lexi dubs Cole, is the obvious suspect, but she finds herself listening not to the town’s stern leaders. but to the wind, which seems to be telling her to trust him—and to fear instead the dark legacy of the Near Witch, who might not be so forgotten after all. The B&N exclusive edition includes a variant cover, a unique map of Near, and a prequel short story, “The Ash-Born Boy,” which dives into the tragic backstory of Near’s mysterious visitor.
Titanshade, by Dan Stout (March 12, DAW—Hardcover)
Stout’s debut combines the cynical tone and twisting mystery of noir detective fiction with a vivid, fantastical setting—the titular Titanshade, a city built over an imprisoned demigod whose endless suffering provides heat in the midst of a frozen wasteland. With the magical substance called manna growing scarce, Titanshade has enjoyed a sudden industrial revolution fueled by oil—but as the oil wells are now also drying up, corrupt forces scramble to protect their investments, by any means necessary. Enter detective Carter and his less-than-stellar reputation. He’s assigned to investigate the messy murder of a diplomat from the frog-like race known as the Squibs, as greed, politics, and prejudice collide in an inventive Chinatown-meets-urban fantasy mashup.
The Rosewater Insurrection, by Tade Thompson (March 12, Orbit—Paperback)
The second book in the Wormwood trilogy opens with deceptive calm as the city of Rosewater continues to apparently thrive alongside the alien entity known as Wormwood. The Homians plan to replace humanity by bioengineering the world around them, but those who know the nature of their plan keep it secret, triggering a quiet cold war between humanity and the aliens’ soft invasion. Yet as Rosewater’s mayor struggles to assert his city’s new independence, a much more heated conflict seems inevitable. As both sides maneuver for position, Aminat, an agent for the government, is ordered to find a woman who holds the key to the survival of the entire human race. Non-linear, challenging, and beautifully told, this novel represents the chilling, gorgeous future of 21st-century sci-fi.
The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson (March 12, Grove/Atlantic—Hardcover)
This literary fantasy from comics writer and novelist G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, Alif the Unseen) is a fast-paced adventure set in Granad, the last emirate of Muslim Spain. Fatima is the sultan’s favorite concubine, but her only true friend is Hassan, the royal mapmaker, who possesses the ability to open portals to other rooms, and even other worlds, at will. When Fatima accidentally reveals Hassan’s power to Luz, a lay sister working for the Inquisition, they flee, accompanied by a rogue’s gallery of companions and allies, including a vampire-jinn in the form of a dog and his sister, who takes the form of a cat. Inspired by a bit of verse they’ve known since childhood, Fatima and Hassan seek the island of Qaf, where the legendary Bird King resides, and where they believe they might be safe from the intolerant Inquisition. Wilson’s imagination overflows from each page as she crafts a fantasy quite unlike any other you’ll encounter this year.
Soulkeeper, by David Dalglish (March 19, Orbit—Paperback)
Dalglish launches a new series set in a world where religion has declared monsters—zombies, spider-wolves, and worse—to be nothing but myth. Devin Eveson is a Soulkeeper, traveling from village to village to preach the scripture and heal the afflicted. But then the black water comes, washing over the world and bringing with it death, destruction—and the return of those mythic monsters, giving the lie to the scripture Devin has devoted his life to spreading. These reemergent creatures are furious that humankind has forgotten them and their creators, known as the five dragons, and the whole world soon erupts into madness and terror. When Soulkeepers start turning up dead, transformed into horrifying sculptures, Devin realizes he must stray from his peaceful path and learn to how to be a monster slayer.
The Perfect Assassin, by K. A. Doore (March 19, Tor—Paperback)
This rich epic fantasy debut is inspired by the mythologies of Egypt and the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. Nineteen-year old Amastan Basbowen has spent most of his life training in the family business of assassination in order to help defend his home city of Ghadid. When his vocation is outlawed, however, he must contemplate a return to the more staid career of historian. His family is targeted by the corrupt Drum Chiefs who run the city, framed for a series of assassinations where the bodies were hidden away, leaving the tortured souls of the murdered to remain as jaani, unquiet spirits who risk eventually devolving into violent, demonic shades. Amastan must work to clear his family’s name and save the city before an army of restless spirits destroys everything.
The Deepest Blue: Tales of Renthia, by Sarah Beth Durst (March 19, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
Durst latest novel to take place in the world of Renthia, the setting for The Queen of Blood and its sequels, is a standalone spinoff that tells the story of the people of the islands of Belene, who face a difficult and uncertain existence thanks to the evil water spirits makes that threaten their homeland. On the eve of her wedding, oyster-diver Mayara averts disaster when, after the spirits send a storm against the islanders, she reveals she has the power to control them. She is arrested as a witch and sent to an island filled with other outcast women—and a horde of hungry spirits. The women must compete against one another using only their magic and their wits, with the last ones standing designated heirs to the queen—but mere survival may cost them everything.
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (March 19, Saga Press—Hardcover)
The latest novel from Hugo-winner Kameron Hurley is both her most trope-y and traditional, and as fiery and in-your-face as her incendiary last, The Stars Are Legion, which was itself a brutal reimagining of ideas of an all-female society and the worldship into a barely controlled attack on the systems that have exploited women’s bodies and identities for thousands of years. Her targets this time are corporations, unbridled capitalism, and the military industrial complex that supports them, and her tools are the stuff of classic SF adventures: time travel, advanced weaponry, and battle-hardened boots-on-the-ground grunts. Young recruit Dietz was born a non-citizen, forced to grow up without access to not just the wonders of a future world, but without access to the essentials: enough food, adequate medical care, a sense of security. Her only chance to beat the system is to sign up to fight for the corporate cause—a battle against Mars in which soldiers are transformed into light waves and zapped across space and directly into the line of fire. But no sooner than she has completed training, Dietz’s missions begin to go sideways, as her trips with the so-called Light Brigade seem to be sending her pinging back and forth on the timeline of a war that seems to promise humanity’s end. This is military science fiction, Kameron Hurley style—a story about the life of an infantry grunt and the corporate future of warfare, with shades of Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman, and a touch of the bizarre that could only come from the author of God’s War.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea: Stories, by Sarah Pinsker (March 19, Small Beer—Paperback)
Anyone who pays attentions to the ballots for various high-profile science fiction and fantasy awards will recognize the name Sarah Pinsker; her stories have recently been nominated for (or won) the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and Hugo awards, among others. Naturally, then, the publication of her first collection is something of an event, particularly coming as it does from Small Beer Press, which has provided a home for some of the best emerging authors to hit the genre scene in recent years (among them Andy Duncan, Abbey Mei Otis, and Sofia Samatar). The 13 stories collected here vary in length, from the almost-micro-fiction of “The Sewell Home for the Temporarily Displaced,” to the novella-length And Then There Were (n-1), a nominee for both the Hugo and Nebula last year that posits what might happen if an author (Sarah Pinsker) attended a convention for her alternate selves from alternate dimensions, and then one of them started murdering the others. The collection is worth the cover price for that story alone, to be honest; that there are a dozen others, including the moving “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” which deals with a woman’s grief at the loss she feels after her husband’s stroke leaves him unable to talk (also a Nebula finalist), is frankly more than we deserve.
Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds (March 19, Tor—Paperback)
Reynolds combines cli-fi and time-travel with a brilliantly twisty story that begins at the tail end of the 21st century. A group of desperate scientists gather at the Arctic Circle to implement a dangerous experiment they believe is the final chance to avert climate disaster. They intend to reach back in time and make a small change—something so tiny that recorded history will remain intact, but so vital, it will change the fate of the planet. They require one person to make it work: a schoolteacher whose mother was the greatest mind in the field of paradox. Five decades earlier, a woman undergoes brain surgery and wakes up with not just a voice but a sentient will in her head—a will that seems to serve a purpose all its own.
Unfettered III: New Tales by Masters of Fantasy, edited by Shawn Speakman (March 19, Grim Oak Press—Hardcover)
When Shawn Speakman was facing a cancer and without medical insurance a few years ago, he asked writers to donate stories to the first volume of Unfettered to help him pay his medical bills. Subsequent entries in what has become an impressive anthology series pay it forward, with proceeds donated to allay the medical debts of other writers. Considering the lineup of talent, this may be the easiest donation you make this month. It includes stories by Delilah S. Dawson, Lev Grossman, Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, and Tad Williams, but the biggest draw for many will be the new stories in the Dune milieu, from Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, and in the world of The Wheel of Time, co-written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S.A. Corey (March 26, Orbit—Hardcover)
The eighth book in The Expanse book arrives just as excitement over the continuing television adaptation of the series reaches a fever pitch. As this penultimate entry opens, human space is controlled by the Laconian empire and Winston Duarte, who seeks to make evolution happen on his timeline using the same alien technology that operates in the ring gates humans use to travel between thousands of livable worlds. The survivors of the gunship Rocinante work with the growing rebellion to throw off Duarte’s control. Their best hope might just be Duarte’s own daughter, who doesn’t relish the idea of being part of her father’s ultimate science experiments. Fast-paced, smartly plotted, and nuanced—this is one of the best SF series of the decade.
Miranda in Milan, by Katharine Duckett (March 26, Tor—Paperback)
Reinterpreting the Bard through a queer prism, Katharine Duckett’s rich debut novella provides a more complete journey for Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Arriving in a Milan falling under the control of her father, Miranda is more or less imprisoned in his castle. The servants hate her, and when she is allowed outside—accompanied always by her Agata—she is veiled. A miserable life is lightened when she meets Dorothea, a maid of the castle, who shows Miranda a series of secret tunnels—and much more. The two forge close relationship as Miranda discovers the existence of magic both occult and physical.
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (March 26, Tor—Hardcover)
Martine’s ornate debut space opera constructs a fully realized world. The new ambassador from a small mining Station, Mahit Dzmare, arrives at the court of the ever-expanding Teixcalaanli Empire to find that the previous ambassador is dead. Very likely, she was murdered—though no one will admit that, or the fact that Dzmare is the next most likely victim. Aided by her expertise in the Teixcalaani language and an outdated—and possibly untrustworthy—memory implant from the prior ambassador, Dzmare must negotiate both her own survival and that of the Station in the face of an implacable empire. Meanwhile, the aging emperor seeks to become immortal by any means science can grant him, even as his army plots a coup. In the tradition of Ann Leckie and Iain M. Banks, this is bold, complex space opera with a political bent.
What new sci-fi and fantasy books are on your must list in March?