This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Druid Life, the Titanic in Space, and the Amish Against the Apocalypse

Besieged, by Kevin Hearne
Hearne collects short stories features the adventures of the Iron Druid, 2,000-year old Atticus O’Sullivan, spanning many different time periods and locations, from ancient Egypt, to modern-day Kansas, to the California Gold Rush, to Shakespearean England. O’Sullivan is pitted against old gods, flesh-eating ghouls, literal witches, and sentient elemental forces seeking to bleed the world dry. Vampires, wraiths, and other assorted bogeymen (and bogeywomen) round out the rogue’s gallery Atticus must face, making each story hilarious and exciting—and the perfect book for fans of The Iron Druid Chronicles as they wait for the last book in the series.

Sand, by Hugh Howey
In a desolate post-apocalyptic future, people struggle to make a life on the shifting, swirling sand that buried the old civilization. Palmer is a sand diver, skilled in going below the shifting desert to the city beneath to retrieve valuable objects to sell, and keep his family alive. But when Palmer is betrayed and lost below, his family must face the possibility that the toehold on survival they’ve maintained may be slipping away completely. They may soon fall victim to the brigands who threaten their hardscrabble shanty town—or much worse. It’s another brilliant vision of the post-apocalypse from the creator of Wool.

The Fifth Ward: First Watch, by Dale Lucas
Brilliantly blending epic fantasy tropes and stock characters with police procedurals, Lucas launches a new series set in the cramped, riotous city of Yenara, where shifty humans, wily mages, mind-controlling elves, drug-slinging orcs, and every other kind of creature lives and fights. Keeping order in this messy place is the City Guard, known as Watch Wardens. City newcomer Rem wakes up hungover and penniless in jail, and eagerly joins the Watch when he can’t pay his fines any other way. Partnered with a mace-wielding dwarf named Torval who is deeply unimpressed with his new human partner, Rem must investigate a murder with personal connections for Torval while dealing with the chaos and danger that is Yenara.

Scourge, by Gail Z. Martin
In the wealthy city-state of Ravenwood, Corran, Rigan, and Kell Valmonde are Guild Undertakers, using family magic to ensure the dead make their journey to the afterlife unmolested. Corran in particular is very skilled, and often hears the secrets of the dead as they pass through his family’s care. Ravenwood is a city of corruption, deception, and magic, ruled by a Lord Mayor who uses murder and magic in equal measure to maintain power. But the city is under siege by summoned monsters, and when Corran hears explosive secrets that hint at a dark conspiracy, the family is pinned between powerful forces—and fighting back could cost them everything.

Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn
Vaughn delivers a tightly-plotted sci-fi mystery set in a future after The Fall, a series of devastating plagues and ecological disasters that left civilization broken and most culture and technology lost. In California, people live in a loose confederation of towns where families produce only what they need, and where procreation must be approved by the local Town Council—symbolized by the awarding of a banner to the house. Investigator Enid travels to the town of Pasadan to look into the death of an unpopular handyman named Sero. She encounters such aggressive disinterest in Sero’s killer, she’s driven to dig deeper, even as memories from her own past bubble to the surface. What she and her partner discover in Pasadan might have the power to shake the foundations of this fragile world.

Ghost Line, by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison
Gray and Herbison’s debut novella gleefully ransacks the true history of the Titanic—not to mention every ghost ship legend ever told—to spin out their dark sci-fi tale. The Martian Queen is a luxury space cruise ship abandoned and set adrift between Mars and Earth—preserved, in case the company decides reclaiming her would be profitable. Saga and Michel take on a salvage contract: if they can hack into and steal the ship, the payday would be enough to set them up for life and save Saga’s sick mother. What they discover onboard, however, is more than an empty, drifting hulk. An intelligence has taken up residence, and their tale becomes one not of triumph, but of survival.

When the English Fall, by David Williams
Williams isn’t the first to imagine the end of society via technological failure—this time through a freak solar storm that renders all modern tech and machinery useless—but he is the first to ask what will forever after be an obvious question in all apocalyptic fiction: what about the Amish? Without any reliance on modern technology, living on working farms with food supplies and a strong community, Williams imagines them surviving quite nicely, actually, while the English—the word the Amish use to describe all outsiders—slide into terror and chaos. Written as the diary of a young Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, it depicts the idyllic survival of the Amish community under threat as the English beyond their borders become increasingly desperate—and begin to plunder Amish farms. The questions this raises, about whether the Amish should abandon their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves, are just one aspect of a fascinating fiction debut from Williams, a Presbyterian pastor who has written several books on religion.

The Delirium Brief, by Charles Stross
Stross’s eighth Laundry Files book finds both put-upon hero Bob Howard and The Laundry he’s served so tirelessly thrust into the public eye after an invasion by the Host of Air and Darkness. Howard must deal with television cameras following his every move as he’s tasked with being the public face of the newly-exposed secret unit. But that’s the least of his problems—like every other government-funded agency in the modern day, there’s a push to privatize The Laundry itself, a possibility that makes the paperwork-soaked frustrations of Bob’s past brushes with occult horrors pale in comparison.

Tropic of Kansas, by Christopher Brown
Brown extrapolates an alternate America from a single changed event: Ronald Regan does not survive the 1981 attempt on his life. From there, a horrifying new reality emerges: an America with walls on both borders, whose heartland—a vaguely-defined zone called the Tropic of Kansas—is in full-throated revolt. Technology is a mix of the analog and the drone, and the unsettled land roils with revolution, militias, and political skulduggery. Foster siblings Sig and Tanaia are at the center of it all: Sig as a dissident making his way through the Tropic towards the revolutionary seat of New Orleans, and his sister Tania as a disgraced government agent ordered to infiltrate the militias of the Tropic to track him down. It’s all horrifyingly familiar, and as Tania’s immersion in the underground slowly transforms her into a player in the revolution, the complex strands of history start to twist in yet more surprising ways.

Dichronauts, by Greg Egan
On a strange planet that exists in only two dimensions of space—but also two of time—the sun has a bizarre, wobbling orbit that creates a constantly shifting habitable zone. That means the city of Baharabad must be constantly dismantled on one end and rebuilt on the other. Seth and Theo are symbiant lifeforms (Seth is a Walker who can only orient himself and move along the East-West axis; Theo is a Sider who can use infrasound waves projected North-South to gather information) who work as surveyors for the city’s reconstruction. One day they encounter a chasm in the path of the city that appears to have no bottom. Exploring it will change their world. Per usual for Egan, conceptualizing the math and physics that form the foundation of this bizarre sci-fi tale takes some doing, but the results are well worth the effort.

At the Table of Wolves, by Kay Kenyon
In an alternate 1936 where the collective trauma of World War I has caused the Bloom, a sudden appearance of psychic abilities in a small portion of the population, American-born Kim Tavistock has a very useful ability: Spill, which causes people to tell her their secrets. Working as a journalist in Britain, where she was raised, Kim is drawn into a psychic arms race—the Nazis are light years ahead in weaponizing psychics. With Britain roiling with the instability caused by King Edward’s approaching abdication, things are looking very grim— the Nazis are planning a full-scale invasion on the backs of their psychics, and Kim will have to risk everything, including her life, to go undercover and ally with the enemy in order to prevent complete disaster.

Tomorrow’s Kin, by Nancy Kress
The first book in Kress’ Yesterday’s Kin series (expanded from the award-winning novella) kicks off with the arrival of aliens in a spaceship that lands gracefully in New York harbor. The visitors announce they are unable to leave their ship due to the atmospheric and gravitational differences between their home and Earth, and that they will only deal with the United Nations. When Dr. Marianne Jenner, an unknown scientist working on the human genome, is invited to the alien embassy (along with the Secretary General of the U.N. and a handful of ambassadors), she can’t say why. But what she learns there changes everything—because if the aliens are to be believed, the world is heading towards a disaster in ten short months, unless the best and brightest minds of humanity can prevent it. But for not everyone seems to want to.

Uncle Brucker the Rat-Killer, by Leslie Peter Wulff
After the death of his mother, 16-year-old Walt leaves his deadbeat father and runs away to live with his eccentric Uncle Brucker. It’s a simple life for the most part— all Walt has to do is drive his uncle to and from his job as an exterminator, attend school, and be neighborly to the numerous quirky residents of his rural town. But his uncle’s rat-killing job is a serious business: rats, it turns out, used to rule the Earth, until a meteor forced them into an alternate dimension. Since then, they’ve tried two separate times to reconquer the planet, each time being driven back. When Brucker, a decorated veteran of the previous uprisings, vanishes on a secret government mission to fight against a third, Walt must venture through the portal and bring his uncle back—hopefully before Brucker dies, or worse, goes full rat. Yes, this book is as weird and wonderful as it sounds.

Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero
The Blyton Hills Summer Detective Club was once the talk of their hometown—a group of preteen sleuths who spent every summer vacation busting sheep smuggling rings and pirate jewelry thieves. But in the summer of 1977, they take on the case that will haunt them the rest of their lives: the Sleepy Lake Monster. While they catch the culprit (another man in a costume looking for hidden treasure and scaring away his competitors), they’re unable to forget the horrifying things they saw in the dilapidated mansion at the center of Sleepy Lake. Thirteen years later, Andy, the group tomboy, still struggles with unanswered questions and regrets from that night, and breaks out of jail to reopen the case. To finally solve it for good, she’ll need the help of former child genius Kerri, who spends her nights tending bar, drinking the nightmares away, and taking care of Tim, the grandson of the club’s original dog sidekick. She’ll also need Nate, the occult nerd who checked himself into an asylum, and Peter, the group’s former leader, who died in Hollywood only to end up haunting Nate. Cantero’s second novel in English is a metafictional delight, a strong character piece, and a chilling horror novel, all at once.

Gork, the Teenage Dragon, by Gabe Hudson
A humorous fantasy that reads like a Generation Z teen was set loose on the works of Terry Pratchett. Young dragon Gork is an outcast at the WarWings Military Academy, where his scaly classmates toughen their hides for battle, but Gork mostly just tries to find love. Hatched on Earth, his parents killed when their spaceship crashed, stranding him there, Gork is far too sensitive to be a proper fire-breather, and his miniscule horns don’t help matters. Yet despite his lowly status (his class rank is “Snackilicious”), he hopes to woo a female dragon to be his queen so they can make their way back to Earth. You’ll be surprised how well the human teenage experience maps to the struggle of an adolescent dragons clawing his way up the social ladder.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection, by Gardner Dozois
Dozois once again compiles a fantastic overview of the best short-form sci-fi from the last year. This thorough, satisfyingly huge volume includes gems from Stephen Baxter, Ken Liu, Carrie Vaughn, James Patrick Kelly, Alastair Reynolds, and others.  As always, the collection includes Dozois’ lengthy introduction, which considers the directions genre headed in during the prior year, as well as a detailed recommended reading list that will ensure your TBR pile is bulging.

What are you reading this week?

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