The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of October 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.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019, Edited by John Joseph Adams and Carmen Maria Machado (October 1, HMH Books—Paperback)
A compendium of the best SFF short stories published last year, as selected by series editor John Joseph Adams and guest editor (and World Fantasy Award finalist) Carmen Maria Machado. The word “American” in the title is to be understood to refer to North America; half of these stories are by Canadian authors, and all have a decidedly global and diverse feel. Included are works by Annalee Newitz, Seanan McGuire, LaShawn M. Wanak, Lesley Nneka Arimah, N.K. Jemisin, Sarah Gailey, P. Djèlí Clark (“The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” a 2019 Hugo Award winner), and more heavy-hitters, drawing from prestigious outlets the likes of McSweeney’s, Nightmare Magazine,, and Uncanny Magazine. The goal, per Machado’s introduction, was to select stories with a unifying theme of “ambitious weirdness,” and with entries about ill-fated dentures and a chef who specializes in serving up the flesh of gods, we say mission accomplished.

A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony (October 1, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Anthony’s first Xanth novel—which the British Fantasy Society handed a Best Novel award upon its initial publication in 1977—gets a reissue, which means a new generation of fantasy fans get a chance to discover the charming, pun-riddled land of Xanth. The novel that launched the series did so with a slightly more serious tone than would later develop, but there’s plenty of humor to be found in the plight of Bink, a man without a magical talent in a land where everyone is born with one singular ability (though the power and usefulness of these talents vary greatly). Bink’s lack of magic condemns him to exile to Mundania, where he is taken prisoner by the evil magician (and fellow exile) Trent, who is plotting to seize the throne and sees Bink’s lack of magic as an asset. There are more than 40 Xanth novels to date, and the first, if atypical, is one of the best.

Star Wars: Be More Lando: How to Get What You Want (and Look Good Doing It) and Star Wars Be More Leia: Find Your Rebel Voice And Fight The System, by Christian Blauvelt (October 1, DK—Hardcover)
The Star Wars galaxy is more than a fictional milieu, it’s a guide to your own nonfiction life. In these hilarious—and useful—books, Blauvelt demonstrates how you can learn to live your life better by following the examples laid down by your favorite franchise characters. Take Lando Calrissian, the man who started with nothing and wound up with Cloud City and a disputed ownership claim over the Millennium Falcon. With advice from other saga notables—including Master Yoda, Han Solo, and even Jabba the Hutt (whose business acumen, you must admit, has to be prodigious)—it is the perfect gift for the Star Wars superfan with big business plans for their future. Or maybe someone you know needs help finding their inner rebel? They can start by following the example of Princess Leia Organa, who broke every rule, smashed every icon, and became a hero not just to a rebellion, but to generations of women everywhere. Leia can show you how to succeed even when the system is rigged against you or a certain family member is bringing you down; her lived experiences and words of wisdom will lift you up on those days when it seems like it’s just one torture droid after another.

Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead: Typhoon, by Wesley Chu (October 1, Gallery Books—Hardcover)
This tense, fast-paced thriller set in the wider universe of The Walking Dead universe asks a simple, terrifying question: how did the zombie apocalypse turn out in the world’s most populated country? In China, the remnants of the government estimate a billion jiangshi, or walkers, are loose, and society has clustered into defended settlements for survival. One such enclave is the Beacon of Light, where several thousand people from all walks of life struggle to eke out a living, subsisting on dwindling supplies. But with a typhoon of walkers on their way, their survival seems impossible, even as they organize a final stand with every last ounce of strength. The comics may have ended, but this inventive tie-in proves there’s still plenty of life in this franchise (just don’t call it undead).

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, by Theodora Goss (October 1, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Theodora Goss’ third and final entry in the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club (after European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) opens with the exhausted members of the Club returning from London with several of their number missing, including housemaid Alice, Dr. Watson, and Mr. Holmes. It soon becomes clear they’ve been kidnapped, and the weary Monstrous Gentlewomen (who have all suffered at the hands of men like Dr. Jekyll, Victor Frankenstein, and Dr. Moreau) must launch a rescue that pits them against the most powerful people in the world—most of them men, embodying the patriarchy that has been a thorn in the members’ sides their whole lives. As they plumb the depths of the conspiracy, they find themselves racing to save another woman—the Queen herself. We’re sad to say goodbye to this delightful (and Nebula-nominated) series… but what a trip it has been.

The Library of the Unwritten, by A.J. Hackwith (October 1, Ace—Paperback)
A.J. Hackwith’s debut introduces Claire Hadley, librarian for the Unwritten Wing, the place in hell where unfinished stories reside. When a character escapes from one of these unfinished books, she’s sent to retrieve him—and stumbles into the search for a missing book, the Codex Gigas, that contains the key to Lucifer’s power. As Heaven and Hell gear up for a devastating war, Claire must assemble a team of allies to help her locate the book, including the very character she sought to retrieve—known only as Hero—and a Duke of Hell who is her peer from the Arcane Wing. Together they must track down the Codex before it’s too late and a literal apocalypse erupts. An intriguing premise sets the stage for a series we’ll follow with glee (we do love a good magical library, after all).

Dune: Deluxe Edition, by Frank Herbert (October 1, Ace—Hardcover)
Dune, that foundational space opera, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, oft-adapted but never equalled, remains a defining work of science fiction more than 50 years after it was first published. Importantly, the story of the epic battle for the control of the galaxy’s most essential resource, coupled with the spiritual ascendance of a revolutionary figure, it is also a sci-fi novel that is aggressively disinterested in explaining its science, blurring the genre lines in a way that arguably encouraged a merging of genres that’s still ongoing, and incorporates ecological and environmental concepts into its worldbuilding in ways that make it feel newly relevant in 2019. All good reasons his deluxe hardcover reissue, which includes a striking new cover, fully illustrated endpapers, a poster, and a redesigned map of Arrakis.

Full Throttle, by Joe Hill (October 1, William Morrow—Hardcover)
In his third volume of shorter works (following Strange Weather), horror wunderkind Joe Hill delivers 13 terrifying, wide-ranging new tales exploring everything from a fairytale land stalked by vicious hunters, to a librarian with a clientele of the dead, to a tense face-off between a trucker and a tribe of outlaws on motorcycles. That latter story, “Throttle,” is one of two in the collection Hill co-wrote with his father, a popular author you may have heard of: Stephen King. (The other is the chilling “In the Tall Grass,” which serves as the basis for a new film releasing this month on Netflix.) Just as fascinating as any of these slender slices of dread is the author’s introduction, in which he writes candidly about growing up as the scion of a writer fast becoming a legend.

Whispers of Shadow & Flame: Earthsinger Chronicles, Book Two, by L. Penelope (October 1, St. Martin’s Griffin—Paperback)
L. Penelope’s followup to Song of Blood & Stone returns to the warring kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar, where the practitioners of Earthsong magic are feared and persecuted, for another character-centric story filled with wonderful worldbuilding and unexpected twists. Kyara ul-Lagrimar is the Poison Flame, a cursed assassin who wields Nethersong, the power of death. Magically charged by her king to hunt down the rebel leader Shadowfox and kill him, she goes undercover with a group of Earthsingers, meeting and falling for the handsome, charming Darvyn ul-Tahlyro along the way. Darvyn, of course, is Shadowfox, and Kyara must bring his head to her king—or die herself.

The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman (October 3, Knopf—Hardcover)
As HBO gears up for the premiere of a new TV series adapting Philip Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman drops the second volume of The Book of Dust, a two-decades-in-the-making followup that serves as both prequel and sequel to the adventures of Lyra Silvertongue, one-time wielder of the golden compass, and her dæmon Pantalaimon. While Lyra was but a babe in 2017’s La Belle Sauvage—in which she was sought after by various forces seeking to either expose or contain the secrets of the magical substance called dust, and protected by a resolute young boy named Malcolm Polestead—she is an active participant in The Secret Commonwealth, which opens some two decades later. Now a student at St. Sophia’s College, Lyra has grown up but still feels the effects of her youthful adventures, who took her into the world of the undead and fractured her bond with Pantalaimon, an outward manifestation of her soul in the form of a talkative pine marten. Destiny comes calling once again when Pan witnesses a murder and entrusted by the dying victim with a secret that is connected to Lyra’s tumultuous past. As ever, Lyra can’t resist a mystery, and this one sets her off on another whirlwind of an adventure—and brings her into the orbit of a man named Malcolm. The world of His Dark Materials grows ever more intriguing with each chapter, and the conclusion will leave readers desperate for the final volume.

Ultimate Star Wars, New Edition: The Definitive Guide to the Star Wars Universe, by Adam Bray, Cole Horton, Tricia Barr, and Ryder Windham (October 4, DK—Hardcover)
And yet more Star Wars. Across 10 films, multiple TV series, and countless books and comics, the saga’s setting has evolved into one of the richest, most detailed fictional universe of them all—one so vast and complex, you need a serious reference book to guide your way through it. Enter Ultimate Star Wars. Updated with the most recent information, this comprehensive encyclopedia covers every character, creature, piece of technology, and setting in the canon. It’s the ideal resource for any fan preparing themselves for The Rise of Skywalker, containing all the information you could possibly need about every character, locale, and light saber in that galaxy far, far away.

The Forbidden Stars: Book III of the Axiom, by Tim Pratt (October 8, Angry Robot—Paperback)
Tim Pratt returns one last time to a fast-paced, tightly-plotted trilogy of second contact as Callie Mechado and her rag-tag crew find themselves thrust into the thick of a brewing disaster. When humanity made first contact with the aliens calling themselves the Liars, they gained access to 29 wormholes—but the Liars didn’t tell them that another alien race, the Axiom, were slumbering in distant systems—and that the Liars were hiding from them. When one of the wormholes goes dark, humanity assumes it’s the work of rebels—but Callie and the crew of the White Raven, working with a secret faction of the Liars, soon find out the Axiom are waking up, fast—and bringing doom with them.

A Conjuring of Light Collector’s Edition (B&N Exclusive Edition), by V. E. Schwab (October 8, Tor Books—Hardcover)
A Conjuring of Light brought to a close Schwab’s transporting tale of parallel Londons—non-magical Grey London, magical Red London, magic-challenged White London, and doomed, magic-poisoned Black London—and the gifted magicians (not all of them good) who can travel between them. So to does this exclusive edition complete our trio of deluxe reissues of the beloved saga. It’s a book packed with extras worthy of the magical original text, featuring endpapers laden with gorgeous fan art, an updated glossary, and a never-before published short story set in the Shades universe. For the Schwab fan who also admired books as physical objects, it is a must-have.

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse: Book One of the Thorne Chronicles, by K. Eason (October 8, DAW—Hardcover)
Eason combines elements of fantasy and sci-fi in the first book in a duology focusing on Rory Thorne, a princess of the interplanetary Thorne Consortium. At birth Rory received the traditional fairy blessings, including one that might be considered a curse: the ability to see through flattery and other lies. The first girl born to her family in generations, she expects to inherit her father’s realm—until he’s assassinated, and her mother gives birth to a son. Suddenly Rory is betrothed to a prince of the Free Worlds of Tadesh, enemy of the Thorne Consortium, as part of a complex peace negotiation. Thrust into an unfamiliar world of politics and intrigue, she must use every one of her blessings to avoid becoming a mere pawn in a plot against her new husband. The fusion of fairy tale and space opera tropes feels entirely fresh, and the delightful humor amid the high stakes politicking keeps the pages moving.

The True Bastards, by Jonathan French (October 8, Crown—Hardcover)
We rejoin the crew of foul-mouthed, uncultured, but fiercely loyal half-orcs—now led by the unlikely Fetch, who is half-elf—who we first met as they took control of their “hoof” in Jonathan French’s critically lauded, originally self-published grimdark epic The Grey Bastards. In the followup, Fetch finds herself leading her fellow “mongrels” through hunger, disease, and the threats posed by an enormous orc leading an army of equally monstrous hyenas and other creatures determined to wipe them off the map. Worse, the other hoofs don’t think Fetch has what it takes to lead, and treat her accordingly. Fetch and her people are nothing if not a band of brothers and sisters, however, and in own their crude, violent way, they stick together and protect one another through a fierce, fast-paced story packed with bloody action.

The Princess Beard, by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne (October 8, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Delilah S. Dawson and Hearne return to their goofy fantasy saga, delivering another hearty dose of jokes, puns, and smart fantasy satire set in the magical land of Pell—the sort of place with all the familiar fairytale elements are turned on their sides: where a princess wakes from her enchanted slumber to find she’s grown a long beard and horrifying fingernails in the interim. Keeping the beard, the princess escapes her prison and soon finds herself aboard the Puffy Peach, amid a misfit crew of pirates—led by a one-eyed parrot—in the midst of assailing the Myn Sea and the tampooners that live there. If a story that skewers tropes in smart, silly, and extremely funny ways is your jam, the Tales of Pell series was written just for you.

Warrior of the Altaii (Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition), by Robert Jordan (October 8, Tor Books—Hardcover)
The late Robert Jordan (neé James Oliver Rigney Jr.) is justifiably famous for his epic fantasy saga The Wheel of Time, but across the years, he wrote in several genres under different names—including his debut, the non-fantasy historical epic The Fallon Blood, released under the name Reagan O’Neal. But Jordan’s first published novel was very nearly this one, Warrior of the Altaii; he actually sold it to DAW books, but had the offer revoked when he requested changes to the contract. He once claimed he had left instructions for the manuscript to be burned when he died, but luckily that didn’t turn out to be true (or his instructions weren’t followed), either way, fans of the much-missed fantasy master now have one more of the author’s books to cherish. It’s the epic story of Wulfgar, leader of the Altaii, as he struggles to save his people from threats both natural and magical. When he encounters a woman from a different world named Elspeth, Wulfgar has to figure out if she might be the salvation of the Altaii people—or their doom. This is a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the evolution of a fantasy master. The Barnes & Noble edition features an exclusive color map and bonus illustration.

The Throne of the Five Winds, by S. C. Emmett (October 15, Orbit—Paperback)
The epic “debut” of S.C. Emmett (a pseudonym for the prolific Lilith Saintcrow) takes inspiration from several East Asian cultures, telling the story of princess Ashan Mahara of Khir and her lady-in-waiting Komor Yala as they travel to Khir’s enemy Zhaon, where Mahara is to marry a prince to seal a new peace accord. In Zhaon, Mahara and Yala—who mourns her brother, killed in the war—find a nest of vipers and a web of plots, and a few overt assassination attempts. The women identify allies—and when Yala is mistaken for Mahara and kidnapped, they spring into action and launch a desperate search for both the imperiled woman and the villains behind the conspiracy. All of this action and intrigue takes place within a layered and beautifully realized fantasy world that will appeal to readers of Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons and K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter.

The Quantum Garden, by Derek Künsken (October 15, Solaris—Paperback)
Derek Künsken’s follow up to The Quantum Magician (one of our favorite science fiction books of 2018) is just as tightly-plotted and fast-paced—and just as packed with wild worldbuilding, intense action, and complex mathematics. It picks up the story of genetically engineered quantum man, con artist, and expert thief Belisarius just days after he and Cassandra successfully made off with the Time Gates—possibly the most valuable things in the universe. And all he had to do to nab them was work his quantum magic and double-cross some very powerful people. Before his extraordinary, restless brain can start itching for action again, his world and his people are threatened with utter destruction—and the only way to save them is make a deal with his latest victim, do a bit of time travel, and somehow do it all without being noticed. Again. A heist novel crossed with brain-tingling high-concept sci-fi? Definitely our bag, baby.

Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma (October 15, Tor Books—Paperback)
In England’s distant past, the Belman family are forced to leave their prosperous lives in Bath and return to the family farm, Ormeshadow—a tract of land that lies right up against the Orme, an enormous slumbering dragon that has slept for so long it has becomes overgrown with dirt and grass. Long ago, Gideon Belman’s ancestor promised a long-dead dragon king that the Belmans would care for the Orme, which is rumored to have an immense treasure tucked into its belly. A map to that treasure is carved onto the only chair in the Belmans’ home, and when Gideon’s father dies and his hated uncle asserts himself as head of the household, Gideon makes a decision to find out if his family’s legacy is real. Told in lyrical prose and mosaic chapters that read like short stories but come together to reveal a larger narrative, this is a truly captivating novella from an acclaimed short fiction author.

The Rosewater Redemption, by Tade Thompson (October 15, Orbit—Paperback)
The concluding volume of Tade Thompson enormously inventive trilogy of humanity’s first contact with aliens goes for broke as the city of Rosewater, now independent from Nigeria, sees its dead citizens rising as “reanimates.” Their bodies are physically healed but exist without human memory or consciousness; rather, they are inhabited by the spirits of the Homians. The aliens intend to replace humanity one by one as they die, but a faction of Homians seeks to speed up the process in the most practical way possible—mass murder. Legal definitions are challenged, time is traveled, and reality is warped and transcended, and a small band of heroes holding out hope that the overwritten human minds can be restored scramble to find a weak spot in the invaders’ plan—lest they see humanity slowly erased from the Earth.

Ghoster, by Jason Arnopp (October 22, Orbit—Paperback)
Jason Arnopp’s follow-up to the meta-horror romp The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a blistering satire of our digital lives disguised as a creepy thriller. The story begins with EMT Kate Collins packing up her life and moving to Brighton to be with her new boyfriend. When she arrives, however, he’s nowhere to be found; she’s been ghosted. Breaking into the apartment that was to be hers, she finds it empty except for his smartphone. Kate, a recovering social media addict, can’t resist hacking into the device—and what she finds is initially confusing, then terrifying. From there, the story slowly morphs into something wholly unexpected—a twisty tale that just might qualify as the first true 21st-century horror story.

Interference, by Sue Burke (October 22, Tor Books—Hardcover)
In the followup to Sue Burke’s Semiosis—that acclaimed biological sci-fi novel in which a ship full of human colonists makes first contact with a planet filled with sentient plants—opens centuries after the humans that fled our dying Earth for greener pastures have negotiated a sort of peace with the native life. Their measured existence is threatened with a new group of explorers arrive from Earth, claiming to be engaged in a temporary scientific meeting. The newcomers don’t understand the true balance of power on Pax, and Stevland—the sentient plant that took on a leadership role with the original settlers—seeks to protect the humans it thinks of as tools from a threat that the newcomers cannot even conceive of. A literary translator by day, Burke shows an aptitude for imagining conversations across a vast biological divide, bringing thought-provoking new wrinkles to an engaging SF narrative.

Supernova Era, by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen (October 22, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Chinese science fiction superstar Cixin Liu blew minds with The Three-Body Problem and its sequels, but his fifth novel to be translated into English—after 2018’s Ball Lightning—offers up a more sedate sci-fi thought experiment. In the near future, a star far too close to Earth goes supernova, drenching our planet in radiation that dooms anyone over the age of 13 to death within the year. The planet’s adults scramble to pass on knowledge and identify children who have the skills and talent to carry on civilization. But as the adults die off, the children realize they don’t have to obey orders any more, leading to the fateful question: what sort of future will they build? Will humanity enter a new and brighter era? Or will it descend back into darkness?

Star Wars: The Ultimate Pop-Up Galaxy, by Matthew Reinhart, illustrated by Kevin Wilson (October 22, Insight Editions—Hardcover)
In this gift-worthy new book, paper engineer Matthew Reinhart and illustrator Kevin Wilson has turned the Star Wars saga into breathtaking pop-up art, depicting characters and scene from all 11 films—including glimpsed of The Rise of Skywalker. These near-magical scenes rise up in three dimensions from the page, bringing all your favorite characters and iconic moments to life—Luke training under Yoda, Padmé fighting alongside clone troopers, Rey and Kylo Ren fighting back-to-back against Snoke’s Praetorians. Even more mind-blowing, the five of the detail-laden, intricate spreads fold out to form a single map of the entire saga.

The Burning White, by Brent Weeks (October 22, Orbit—Hardcover)
After ashort delay for additional fine-tuning, Brent Week’s massively popular fantasy saga finally drops its fifth and concluding volume. We haven’t read it yet, of course—we should be so lucky—but here’s what we know: as the White King stands ready to deliver his death blow to the Chromeria, Kip Guile prepares to use his polychromatic drafting abilities to defend his people. The Prism, Gavin Guile, has lost all his power, and languishes in a prison of his own creation, penned in and with no hope of escape—though he may be the ruined key to the empire’s salvation. As armies clash and old gods are reborn, one remaining question needs to be answered: will the Lightbringer come—and who will it be? We’re just as desperate to find out as you are.

Salvation Lost, by Peter F. Hamilton (October 29, Del Rey—Hardcover)
The second book in Hamilton’s sprawling Salvation Sequence finds the technological paradise of the 23rd century—where food is 3D printed and money backed by generated kilowatt hours—growing increasingly disturbed by the revelation that the friendly aliens sharing their biotech with us, the Olyix, are using the electrical energy we’ve been trading with them to power humanity’s end. The Olyix, it turns out, are religious fanatics who want to bring humanity’s souls to their god—literally. But humanity isn’t a quiet or well-behaved race, and intends to fight their technologically superior foes with every trick they have at their disposal. Like the first volume, this sequel is packed with Hamilton’s signature elements—weird technology, a sprawling cast, and intricate politics—along with a handful of new surprises. The author’s fans will be pleased; newcomers will want to start with Salvation (another one of out Best SFF of 2018 picks).

The Name of All Things, by Jenn Lyons (October 29, Tor Books—Hardcover)
If you were expecting a straightforward sequel to Jenn Lyons’ buzzed-about debut The Ruin of Kings, think again—the author isn’t afraid to sidestep into a whole new narrative thread as she patiently builds out her universe in the second of a planned five-volume sequence. Part two of A Chorus of Dragons doubles down on the story-based narrative, but this time it is the demigod Kihrin D’Mon, who told us his life story from the confines of a jail cell in the last book, is the one doing the listening after he encounters a woman named Janel Theranon, who claims to know him. She spins a story about her quest alongside another man to killed a dragon held under the sway of the magician Relos Var, and old enemy of Kihrin’s. Janel tells Kihrin that Var possesses the Cornerstone called the Name of All Things. If true, it means Relos Var can have anything he wants—and what he wants more than anything else is Kihrin D’Mon. If Janel’s story isn’t as wide-ranging as the one recounted in the first novel, its more intimate scope allows just as ample opportunity for the author to flex her impressive worldbuilding muscles.

Sisters of the Vast Black, by Lina Rather (October 29, Tor Books—Paperback)
Nuns in space! After a brutal conflict known as the Great War, the Earth Central Governance (ECG) ceased contact with the human colonies dotting space. The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita travel on their living ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, continuing the ancient effort to offer spiritual guidance, succor, and assistance to humanity. They are led by Sister Faustina, who took her vows despite a lack of faith and who is still haunted by her experiences during the Great War. When the ship responds to a distress signal just as the ECG restores contact to issue radical new orders, however, the cloister discovers a terrible threat to all of humanity—a threat coming from within the ECG itself.

What’s on your SFF must-read list this month?

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