This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Unforgettable Short Stories, Raven Gods, and a Dragon Apocalypse

Phoenix Falling, by Laura Bickle
Things get off to a reliably strange start in the third volume of Laura Bickle’s weird western Wildlands series (the fifth to feature the supernatural Wyoming town of Temperance). Temperence’s resident monster hunter, geologist Petra Dee Manget, is already busy enough battling the wildfires threatening Yellowstone National Park, which she suspects are supernatural in origin (note the word “phoenix” in the title). But then she and her no-longer-human husband Gabe begin to suspect an old foe is still lurking out in the Wildlands, causing mischief as he seeks immortality. As Western-flavored contemporary fantasy goes, Bickle’s novels are tops—the blend of folklore, alchemy, and endearing animal companions (Petra’s coyote Sig will make you long for one of your very own) will keep readers coming back again and again.

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois
Every serious sci-fi and fantasy fan knows the name of the late, great Gardner Dozois, who for 35 years edited one of the genres’ standout anthology series. His work assembling nearly three dozen volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction (from 1984 through 2018, the year of his death) was of course just one aspect of his amazing career in SFF, but a defining one. This remarkable volume—the last he completed in his lifetime—sees Dozois going back through a selection of those past volumes (the name is something of a misnomer; this volume follows two earlier Best of the Bests, and covers the years 2002 through 2017) to highlight 38 stories he thinks represent the cream of the crop from the last decade-and-a-half. The result is more than just a collection of remarkable stories; it’s also a snapshot of the genre’s recent history, highlighting the rise of new voices and diverse new ideas. Contributors include familiar names like Charles Stross, Pat Cadigan, Allen M. Steele, Elizabeth Bear and so, so many others. It’s a book built to satisfy SF readers of all sorts.

The Blackest Heart, by Bryan Lee Dufree
This sequel to 2016’s The Forgetting Moon (first in The Five Warrior Angels series) is every bit as overpowered, action-packed, and relentless as its forebear. Princess Jondralyn of Gul Kana has seen her people devastated and her faith in prophecy misplaced. As the Angel Prince Aeros Raijael gathers his forces against her, Jondralyn’s devout sister Tala defies those who would try to manipulate her. Faith plays a big role in the series—whose conflict driven by the schism between three monotheistic religions that bear a passing resemblance to real-world counterparts—as does the doubt and inner turmoil of its expansive cast of characters. With nearly 1,000 pages to film, Dufree indulges in all the genre has to offer—fantastical creatures, immersive worldbuilding, brutal action, and massive adventure. Fans of gloriously over-the-top epics will find this one earns that substantial page count.

Circle of the Moon, by Faith Hunter
The fourth in Hunter’s Soulwood series, which takes place in the same universe as her Jane Yellowrock books, Circle of the Moon finds Nell receiving a distress call from Rick LaFleur, head agent at the Psy-Law Enforcement Division, a group charged with investigating paranormal crimes. LeFleur, who can shift into the form of a panther when the moon calls to him, has awoken by a river, naked, with no memory of how he got there. Next to him is a black cat that’s been sacrificed in a rite of black magic. It soon becomes clear that a blood-witch is on the rampage, but with their leader implicated in the growing list of crimes, Nell might not be able to hold her team of fellow PsyLED agents together.

Miss Violet and the Great War, by Leanna Renne Hieber
Hieber makes a return visit to the gaslamp fantasy world of the Strangely Beautiful series for a fourth installment. Haunted by visions of bloodshed since childhood, ghost whisperer Violet—daughter to a former member of the Guard, an organization that once protected London from supernatural threats—travels to the front lines of the Great War. Pretending to be a nurse, she hopes to peacefully guide the souls of slain soldiers into the afterlife, while back home, her mother attempts to reassemble the Guard while her best friend Will battles with a dark force haunting him. It’s lovely to revisit the heightened Victorian atmosphere of this reliably entertaining series.

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie 
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is one of the most daring, most-awarded science fiction novels ever written. Now, she throws herself into the fantasy side of the genre fray with equal ambition. Her first epic fantasy delivers the same experimentation with form and her sharp ideas that made her a space opera game-changer. The story is told in varying first- and second-person by a god called the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who is speaking to Eolo, a transgender warrior in service to a prince named Mawat, recently cheated out of his throne. The Strength and the Hill mingles its own complex, ancient history with the account of Eolo’s attempts to defend and protect the prince, and reveals the waning power of Eolo and Mawat’s patron god, the Raven, and the rising incursions of foreign gods who seek to take advantage of that weakness. This is dense, challenging, affecting fantasy storytelling at its finest.

No Way, by Simon Morden
The followup to last year’s prisoners-on-Mars thriller One Way (The Martian meets Escape from New York) is every bit as satisfying. Former architect-turned-convicted murderer Frank Kitteridge has been stranded and abandoned on Mars by the corporate overlords who brought him and a handful of other criminals there to help build a human colony, only to betray them once the job was done. But Frank finds he isn’t the only one left alive—there’s a second out-of-control colony site, and those who control it are desperate to take advantage of Frank’s skills. Getting off Mars just got that much harder.

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon
The Bone Season author Samantha Shannon’s latest eschews the series format, packing an entire trilogy’s worth of story into a standalone epic following three remarkable women whose fate is bound to the survival of an entire world. Sabran IX is Queen of Inys, last of an ancient magical bloodline whose very existence binds the Nameless One, a terrible dragon that could end the world, at the bottom of the ocean. Ead Duryan is one of Sabran’s ladies-in-waiting—but she is actually a secret agent, serving a hidden cabal of mages protecting the queen with magic. And across the ocean, Tané is a dragonrider about to break a societal taboo, with unforeseen consequences that will reverberate all the back to Inys. As Sabran discovers she isn’t who she thinks she is, she must reckon with the fact that her family’s bloodline may not be what’s keeping the Nameless One slumbering after all.

Praxis: Dread Empire’s Fall—Author’s Definitive Edition, by Walter Jon Williams
This one is just a head’s-up to readers who may have only encountered Walter Jon William’s satisfying military/political sci-fi Praxis novels via last year’s The Accidental War, which marked the author’s return to the universe after more than a decade. This trade paperback reissue of the first novel in the series should be your next stop if you enjoyed what you encountered there—and even if you’ve already read the trilogy, this edition is Williams’ “definitive” version, featuring slightly revised text. Though they were published years after the Praxis trilogy, fans of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books will find much to admire here.

What new sci-fi and fantasy books are on your to-read list right now?

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