The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of May 2019

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.

Westside, by W.M. Akers (May 7, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
In an alternate 1920s Manhattan in which a heavily fortified wall running along Broadway divides the island into Eastside, where the normal laws of reality still apply, and Westside, where things have gone down the magical drain, the latter has become a magical wasteland where only the dregs of society—criminals, artists, and drunks—remain. Gilda Carr calls Westide home, and works as a private investigator specializing in bite-sized mysteries like recovering lost gloves. Somehow, though, her latest case pushes her into a gangland war that connects to her own long-missing father and the reason for the Westside’s descent into unreal chaos. As much as she might like to, Carr can’t sidestep the responsibility she suddenly feels to get to the bottom of both mysteries, for her own sake and that of everyone living in the magic-ravaged city. Akers’ hugely enjoyable debut marries inventive alt-history with truly strange magic and a protagonist you won’t soon forget.

Storm Cursed, by Patricia Briggs (May 7, Ace—Hardcover)
Patricia Briggs delivers the 11th Mercy Thompson novel with the fierce energy of a promise kept—literally. When we last left her in Silence Fallen, Coyote shapeshifter Mercy pledged that she and her pack would protect the people living in their territory, thinking at the time that doing so would involve hunting the occasional zombie goat or running off some goblins. Instead she finds that her declaration has made her land a Neutral Zone where humans feel safe treating with the fae, leading to more complications than she can handle safely. As the humans and the Gray Lords of the fae jockey for position in the developing conflict, Mercy knows the safe thing to do would be to stay out of it—but she made a promise, and she and her pack are going to keep it.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (May 7, Knopf—Hardcover)
It’s difficult to undersell Ted Chiang’s standing in the science fiction field; long before his “Story of Your Life” was made into the Academy Award-winning blockbuster Arrival, he was lauded in genre circles for crafting stories an innovative with their science as they are heartfelt in their consideration of human emotion. Only his second collection, following 2002’s Story of Your Life and Others, Exhalation brings together seven previously published stories (several long enough to be classified as novelettes or novellas) and two new ones; each is a finely cut gem. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (a Hugo-winner for Best Novelette) is a standout, a complex mix of fantasy and time travel tropes that unfolds with mathematical precision, but the most powerful entry may be the title tale, which turns the fate of a strange race of mechanical beings into a powerful allegory for the crisis of climate change. Truly essential reading.

Octavia Gone, by Jack McDevitt (May 7, Saga Press—Hardcover)
The mystery at the center of the reliably entertaining eighth Alex Benedict novel centers around a space station, the Octavia, that disappeared while the scientists aboard it were studying a nearby black hole. An artifact of possibly alien origin might be the key to solving the mystery, if only far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his uncle Gabe can retrieve it for study. If that isn’t enough, Gabe, recently returned from space and a stint in a time warp, has been declared dead due to timey-wimey shenanigans, and Alex and his pilot Chase Kolpath have already made progress adjusting to life without him. They all soon learn that the question of the Octavia might hinge on a love affair gone bad—or an alien plot. The clues lead them out into space once more, and toward what might be the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire (May 7, Tor.com—Hardcover)
Seanan McGuire’s latest and longest work is also her best: a structurally complex, richly written, deeply imagined fantasy about the bonds that can unite two souls even across vast distances. One day, young Roger Middleton is struggling with his math homework when the voice of a girl named Dodger Cheswich pipes up in his head, giving him the answers. Roger and Dodger some discover that though they live on opposite coasts, they can communicate with one another, and develop a strange sort of friendship. What they don’t know is that they’re the end result of an experiment begun in the late 19th century by alchemist Asphodel Baker who dreamed of rewriting reality by embodies the forces of creation into living hosts, a plan she encoded in a series of children’s books. Her creation and eventual murderer, a man named James Reed, took up her work and engineered Roger and Dodger’s births as one half each of the Doctrine of Ethos, the force that holds existence together. As the twins mature, Reed seeks to control them and implement the final stage of Baker’s masterwork, but their connection has made them powerful, and difficult to control. With the rules of the game set, the children must awaken to their shared destiny and shape a reality that will ensure their survival, not to mention the continued existence of the universe.

Million Mile Road Trip, by Rudy Rucker (May 7, Night Shade Books—Harcover)
The legendary weird sci-fi auteur Rudy Rucker returns with his first book in five years, a suitably mind-bending, transreal novel that takes mutates a classic road-trip structure into a wacky sci-fi adventure for the ages. About to graduate high school and facing the drudgery of adult life, Zoe Snapp sets off on a roadtrip with her crush, surfer Villy Antwerpen, in his somewhat trusty ride (nicknamed the purple whale) and along the way inadvertently opens a portal to another dimension, through which aliens promptly arrive. The aliens deliver the duo to a parallel universe where Zoe and Villy discover that sentient flying saucers intend to invade their own in order to absorb humanity’s consciousness, which is their sustenance. It’s up to Zoe, who hasn’t even graduated yet, and Villy (who’s failing math) to venture across a million miles of new dimensions into order to defeat them before it’s too late. Packed with heady math and physics, written in the style of Kerouac, with plot twists aplenty and symbolism right out of Pynchon, it’s a head trip that’s even weirder than it sounds.

Theater of Spies, by S.M. Stirling (May 7, Penguin—Paperback)
The second book in Stirling’s Alternate War series finds scientist Ciara Whelan and Luz O’Malley—a leading agent of President Teddy Roosevelt’s elite spy network Black Chamber—resting after their recent efforts to foil a German terrorist plot. As World War I looms, intelligence comes in about a devastating new weapon the Germans are developing—and the Black Chamber requires they cut their recuperation short to once again serve their country. They go undercover as the world erupts into conflict, heading to Berlin and pursued by a legendary German agent called Imperial Sword, who leads a pack of stormtroopers commanded by Ernst Röhm.

The Gordian Protocol, by David Weber and Jacob Holo (May 7, Baen—Hardcover)
Weber and Holo serve up a time-twisty standalone adventure that crackles with a thriller’s energy. Professor Ben Schröder has suffered a psychotic episode that left him with a whole second set of memories of a world where the Holocaust occurred and nuclear weapons threaten mankind’s survival. He’s learned to compensate for these nightmarish visions until a man named Raibert Kaminski shows up at his door and announces himself a time traveler from an alternate reality. Kaminski drops a bombshell: a chronological disaster is threatening the existence of 15 separate realities and has given rise to a tyrant who uses time travel technology to solidify his power. As Schröder struggles with his sense of reality and sanity, Kaminski hits him with the real body blow: he, Ben Schröder, is the key to it all—and he faces a choice that puts the fate of entire realities in his hands.

Empire of Grass, by Tad Williams (May 7, DAW—Hardcover)
The solution to the mystery of the Witchwood Crown continues to elude King Simon and his queen, Miriamele in this second book of Williams’ Last King of Osten Ard series trilogy. As the kingdoms of Osten Ard descend separately into war, division, and strife, the Crown might be the key to it all—if Simon and Miriamele can solve the puzzle. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Norns has made a deal to bring her immortal armies into the mortal lands, the nomads on the grasslands are unifying with cult-like fervor, and everything begins to fall apart in ways large and small as a disparate group of people fighting for their own survival in the chaos come to represent the only hope for the survival of all living things. We’re happy to say once again that thus far, the followup to Williams’ landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is more than living up to the reputation of its forebear.

The Buying of Lot 37 & Who’s a Good Boy?, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (May 14, Harper Perennial—Paperback)
The newest entries in the Welcome to Night Vale series collect the scripts for episodes from seasons three and four of the megahit podcast, offering a fantastic deep dive into the creepy, funny, and super smart world of creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. In addition to a ton of behind-the-scenes tidbits from the writers and the cast, introductions to each story offer insight into their inspiration and production, and gorgeous illustrations from Jessica Hayworth bring each to visual life. The end result is a pair of books fans of the podcast will devour.

Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends, edited by Paula Guran (May 14, Night Shade Books—Paperback)
Award-winning editor Paula Guran’s latest anthology collects incredible adaptations and reinterpretations of myths and legends from the world over, penned by some of the best writers working in SFF today, including Neil Gaiman, Ann Lecki, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, and dozens more. These are stories that have existed for centuries—or longer—recast by modern-day masters, covering subjects like the Furies of old hunting down a serial killer for revenge, Odysseus’ nymph and her power to change lives, and a humorous look at chivalric myths and their absurdities. Spanning history and geography, culture and religion, these stories are uniquely inventive, making this a standout anthology.

A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay (May 14, Berkley—Hardcover)
Fantasy master Guy Gavriel Kay returns to the fictional setting of the Sarantine Mosiac, drawn from the history of Renaissance Italy, as an elderly man named Danio tells his life story, one curiously stocked with royalty and high adventure, considering his low birth. Danio starts off his career as an assistant to a court official, and is in a position to take notice of a young woman brought in as a concubine for the city’s despotic ruler. He correctly deduces she’s an assassin in disguise, and he chooses not to expose her; she is Adria, the daughter of a duke who has chosen to serve her mercenary uncle Folco. Danio’s decision to let the assassination occur sets in motion forces that will propel him and Adria in unexpected directions and lead to world-changing events, with low-born Danio, unpredictably, ever at their center. Kay applies his skill at painting sweeping historical tapestries to the story of the lives of the sort normally lost to the ages, yet whose choices may nevertheless shape the destiny of nations.

Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (May 14, Orbit—Paperback)
The sequel to the British Science Fiction Award-winning Children of Time returns to the unlikely new cradle of humanity, a colony planet whereupon a disastrous terraforming attempt resulted in the creation of a new society of uplifted ants and spiders whose civilization evolved at breakneck speed before the desperate remnants of the a ravaged Earth could arrive. Now unlikely allies, the humans and the insects catch fragmentary signals broadcast from light years away, suggesting there might be other survivors from their shared homeworld. A mixed expedition sets out to solve the mystery, but what’s waiting for them out in space is another calamity set in motion by long-dead Earth scientists’ arrogant and desperate efforts to ensure the survival of their species. Children of Ruin managed to completely deliver on a truly absurd premise, and the sequel offers similar pleasures.

Gather the Fortunes, by Bryan Camp (May 21, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Hardcover)
Bryan Camp’s sequel to his lauded debut The City of Lost Fortunes focuses on Renaissance “Renai” Raines, a young woman who died in 2011 and woke up in a New Orleans both alike and different from the one she knew. In this new reality, she’s a “psychopomp,’”helping dead souls to break their mortal chains and guiding them to an afterlife populated by whimsy and demons. When a young boy is killed in a drive-by shooting, his body and soul both vanish before Renai can do her thing, and she sets off to investigate with the help of her familiar, talking raven Salvatore. Renai’s search takes her—and the reader—on a tour of a eerie alternate world, as she slowly comes to realizes that if the missing spirit should escape its fate, the consequences will be dire for the entire population of New Orleans, both the living and the dead.

Triumphant, by Jack Campbell (May 21, Penguin—Hardcover)
The third entry in Campbell’s Genesis Fleet series—a prequel to the Lost Fleet saga—finds the colony of Glenlyon in desperate straits. After coming to the aid of their sister colony, Kosatka, and helping to repel an invasion, Glenlyon is unable to resist when the invasion comes to them. They have only one ship left, the Saber, commanded by Rob Geary, but all he can do is make trouble for the invaders, even as Mele Darcy and her marines fight desperate close-quarter battles and negotiator Lochan Nakamura fights a lonely diplomatic battle to convince other colonies to risk a measure of their independence to come to Glenlyon’s aid.

An Illusion of Thieves, by Cate Glass (May 21, Tor Books—Paperback)
In the land of Costa Drago, magic is forbidden, and its is use punishable by death. Understandably, the magically gifted Romy has hidden her abilities and reinvented herself as Cataline, a courtesan to the Shadow Lord. In her role as Cataline, Romy can be intelligent, witty, and skilled with a sword, and she loves her engineered life. But when her brother Neri uses magic, putting his life in danger, Romy chooses to give it all up in order to save him. Returned to the slum of their youth, known as Lizard’s Alley, Romy and Neri must fight for survival without daring to use magic again—until Romy is informed of a nefarious plot to overthrow the lord she has come to love. To save him, she must learn to control the powers she has always feared; her resulting journey makes for a grand, romantic, fantastical adventure.

Starship Repo, by Patrick S. Tomlinson (May 21, Tor Books—Paperback)
Patrick S. Tomlinson’s new novel, following the highly amusing Gate Crashers, combines the awe and discovery of a first-contact story with a bit of swashbuckling and a lot of hilarious absurdity. Despite receiving the ignominious name Firstname Lastname via clerical error, becoming one of the first humans to establish herself in the wider galaxy following humanity’s debut into galactic society should be a great honor. But living as one of the only humans on an alien space station isn’t quite the grand adventure Firstname expected, at least until she sneaks aboard a ship and finds herself joining a team of privateers that goes about “recovering” ships from the wealthiest of deadbeats all over the galaxy—in other words, a crew of interstellar repomen. Or, as some would call them, pirates. Tomlinson has crafted a space adventure with tongue planted firmly in cheek, filled with corny gags, absurd action sequences, and delightfully weird flourishes, including a living brain in a jar, a transgender member of race of crablike aliens, sentient tentacles, and an ’80s hair metal band. It’s utterly ludicrous, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

The Red-Stained Wings, by Elizabeth Bear (May 28, Tor—Hardcover)
The sequel to The Stone in the Skullset in Bear’s Eternal Sky universe, continues the story of the Lotus Kingdoms, remnants of the Alchemical Empire on a world where the nighttime sun offers heat but no light, and the daytime is lit up by millions of stars. As the kingdoms descend into bloody conflict, the Gage, an enormous brass automaton, travels into a blasted desert in pursuit of the mystery of the Stone in the Skull, while Anuraja, having captured princess Sayeh of Ansh-Sahal, marches on the city of Sarathai-tia, held by Sayeh’s cousin Mrithuri. Mrithuri counts on the rain-swollen river to protect the city—but when the rains inexplicably fail, Mrithuri finds herself hunting a traitor in her own ranks. Elizabeth Bear writes epic fantasy like no one else; her stories are as emotionally textured as their worldbuilding is ornate, and her prose borders on the poetic. Between this book and her mind-expanding space opera Ancestral Night, she’s having a hell of a 2019..

Five Unicorn Flush, by T.J. Berry (May 28, Angry Robot—Paperback)
The sequel to Space Unicorn Blues returns us to a universe in which magical creatures are exploited to power faster-than-light travel. As the book opens, all magical species have vanished from Reasonspace, leaving chaos in their wake, as interstellar travel and most forms of communications have collapsed as a result. Cowboy Jim and his band of soldiers, in possession of the last functioning FTL drive, and set off to locate the relocated, magical Bala in order to kickstart human civilization again. The Bala, in the meantime, aren’t keen on being enslaved again, but can’t seem to figure out how to settle their own internal conflicts either. As the unicorns quickly head towards a civil war over the question of whether they should seek revenge against the humans that oppressed them, it’s up to Captain Jenny to save her people, with a little help from the parasite in her brain. Filled with delightfully weird flourishes that temper the blow of dark emotional undercurrents, this is a worthy sequel to one of last year’s quirkiest, most rewarding space operas.

The Stiehl Assassin, by Terry Brooks (May 28, Del Rey—Hardcover)
The third book of four planned volumes that will close out Terry Brooks’ enduring Shannara series sees multiple simmering conflicts approaching to an epic boil in the wake of the Skaar invasion of the previous book. Fleeing their dying homeworld, the Skaar seek to conquer all of the Four Lands for themselves, and the foothold established by Princess Ajin is all their main forces need to begin their bloody business. But the Druid Drisker Arc has managed to free Paranor from its exile, and his protege Tarsha Kaynin is learning to control the Wishsong. But Tarsha’s brother Tavo now controls the magical Stiehl, one of the most devastating weapons known to the Four Lands. Everything comes down to locating a man with a name familiar to fans of the books—Shea Ohmsford, who we first met way back in The Sword of Shannara.

Longer, by Michael Blumlein (May 28, Tor—Paperback)
Cav and Gunjita are scientists ensconced deep in their research on the space station Gleem One, testing the effects of zero-gravity on a new drug. They’ve been married for more than 50 years, and could be married for 50 more; Gunjita recently underwent her second “juving” procedure, reverting her aged body to the prime of youth and health. The procedure can only be performed twice, giving everyone the opportunity to potentially live three lives. Cav, however, hesitates to begin his third go-round, disturbed by the implications of extending the human lifespan beyond its natural limits. When a probe returns to the station with a lump of something that could be alien life, matters both practical and existential threaten to tear the couple apart in this cerebral and deeply imagined science fiction story.

Time’s Demon, by D.B. Jackson (May 28, Angry Robot—Paperback)
The sequel to Time’s Children rejoins Tobias, a 15-year-old boy who sacrificed years of his life to go back in time to prevent a devastating war, only to find himself temporally displaced into an adult body, with his king murdered and an infant princess to protect. Joined by Mara, a fellow “Walker” from the terrible future created by his efforts to change the past, Tobias works to undo the damage and save the future. But the two are opposed in their mission by other time travelers. Meanwhile, the Tirribin demon who helped Mara journey to the past pursues a separate, tragic agenda with yet more unforeseen consequences for the battered timeline. With this duology, Jackson has accomplished something rather difficult: putting a new spin on timeworn time travel tropes.

The Gameshouse, by Claire North (May 28, Orbit—Paperback)
Claire North’s latest ingeniously conceived novel, after 84K, blends three previously published novellas into a startling original whole about the Gameshouse, a place where visitors can be a piece, a player, or even the Gamesmaster, and where any game can be played—from the simple challenges of chess to higher league games that involve real people, real empires, and real places, changing history and affecting millions. Three players come to the Gameshouse—an abused Jewish heiress from the 16th century, seeking to escape her brutish husband; a veteran player who enters into a game of world-spanning hide-and-seek with a newcomer who covets his memories and experience; and a veteran player named Silver who challenges the Gameshouse itself to a winner-take-all contest.

Lent, by Jo Walton (May 28, Tor—Hardcover)
Hugo-winner Jo Walton’s deliriously inventive new historical fantasy tells the story of Brother Girolamo, who hopes to protect the city of Florence from numerous threats in the wake of the death of its ruler, Lorenzo de’Medici. They come in forms both physical—the invading armies of France—and supernatural—a horde of demons only Girolamo can perceive. But when his efforts to save his city result in his execution for heresy, Girolamo discovers the truth: he is the demon—a Duke of Hell—and is fated to repeat the same mortal life endlessly, with no hope of changing his fate. But when he is sent back to repeat his existence again, a chance magical encounter restores his memories and true identity—giving him hope that he’ll be able to changes things this time around. The beauty of Walton’s work is that it’s compulsively readable and entertaining even if you aren’t familiar with the real history she’s pulling from.

What new sci-fi and fantasy books are on your must-read list this May?

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