This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: A Gender-Flipped Heinlein Juvenile, Jane Austen Meets Dragons, and Killing Time at the Edge of the Galaxy

Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn
Vaughn jumps from the Kitty Norville urban fantasy series to a smart, fun story centered on smart, fun Polly, a resident of Mars. Polly has her life planned out: she just knows she’s going to be a starship captain someday. When her mother thwarts her dreams of attending the astrodome in favor of sending her and her twin brother “dirtside” (that is, to old Earth) to attend the prestigious Galileo Academy, she’s angry and unhappy. When she doesn’t fit in or get along with the elitist students she meets,sensing something “off” about the place, her unhappiness worsens, even as her more level-headed brother settles in. As Polly comes to terms with her new friends and her new life, the sinister goings-on at the school come dangerously close to the surface, challenging Polly’s deep reserves of intelligence, bravery, and luck. In Polly, Vaughn has crafted a pitch-perfect young adult voice and a top-notch sci-fi action story, every bit the feminist answer to the so-called Robert Heinlein “juveniles” that inspired it.

Empire Games, by Charles Stross
Launching a new series within the Merchant Prince universe, Empire Games is nonetheless a standalone work that readers unfamiliar with the previous books will find perfectly accessible—and entertaining. Different timelines in alternate universes develop the ability to time travel and shift between dimensions—setting them up for a mind-bending interdimensional cold war that could go hot if cards aren’t played just right. In one, the Department of Homeland Security drafts Rita to follow in the footsteps of her mother Miriam, a woman who was able to walk between dimensions. In an alternate world, Miriam heads up the Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence—and knows the alternate-world Americans are coming, and prepares for wars both cold and hot as a result. With mother and daughter caught in the middle, great powers cross dimensional lines to bump up against each other in a complex story that spins on capital-B “Big Ideas.”

The Fortress at the End of Time, by Joe M. McDermott
Call it existential science fiction: our narrator, Captain Ronaldo Aldo, is a cloned military officer cooling his heels in the galaxy’s worst assignment: manning the titular space station, perched at the furthest reaches of humanity’s colonization of the stars, ostensibly scanning the deeper cosmos for signs of a returning alien menace (though no one is sure if the galactic war ever really took place). Sent to the station by ansible, into a newly created body, Aldo dreams of ascending to a better post—never mind that the clone body he inhabits will be stuck there for the duration, with only a copy of his consciousness forwarded to a more interesting job. Aldo’s malaise at his lot in life extends to the rest of the station’s crew, some of whom play meaningless power games, while others slide into despotism or drink themselves to death. It all sounds very depressing, but there is an undercurrent of absurdity and razor’s edge humor running through the narrative. It’s not quite like any science fiction novel (and it is a novel, despite coming from novella-purveyors Publishing) you’ll read this year, and you should definitely read it.

The Poison Eater, by Shanna Germain
The first novel set in the universe of the Numenera tabletop role playing game holds appeal even for readers who’ve never ventured into that setting—a fantasy world (which is actually our own, one billion years hence,so let’s just wait and see) in which civilization has risen and fallen eight times, leaving the landscape littered with derelict magical and technological wonders of earlier ages. In the Ninth Age, Talia, once one of the 12 martyrs of the forgotten compass, was kept prisoner for years by a host of cruel monsters. Now free, she is a poison eater in the city of Enthait. Ingesting these foul substances, 10 in all, gives her glimpses of the future, allowing her to safeguard the city against threats. If she lives to consume them all, she will be named ruler. And indeed, she’s already survived seven of them. But the greatest threat to her life may not be the poisons at all, but a secret: she’s not really the poison eater at all.

Heartstone, by Elle Katharine White
Imagine Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with all of the wit and none of the gonzo irony, and you have White’s fascinating new book. Set in a Jane Austen-like Merybourne Manor, the story begins when deadly gryphons attack the grounds, leading Lord Merybourne to hire dragon-mounted Riders to hunt down the beasts. The Bentaine family, whose patriarch works as Merybourne’s clerk, have four daughters they would like to marry to a high-status Rider, and so the plot kicks into Austen-mode, spiced with magic, dragons, and a mysterious visitor who offers a cryptic warning of things to come. Using Austen as a starting point instead of the point, White’s inventive debut inhabits a world both charming and fantastical in equal measure.

Feversong, by Karen Marie Moning
Things go from bad (world-destroying black holes looming in the skies over Dublin) to worse (MacKayla Lane, possessed by an ancient, supremely evil magical tome) in the latest volume of Moning’s mega-addictive Fever series. Mac, Barrons, and their allies struggle to patch a rapidly fraying world, but fans of this author know she’s not afraid to let things get really bad before they get better (or not). Do you have the fever yet?

Galactic Empires, edited by Neil Clarke
Venerable editor Neil Clarke (of Clarkesworld, natch) assembles a collection of short stories from some of the biggest names in SFF today (and a few up-and-comers), all built around a theme of galaxy-spanning government. Through the lens of empire, Neal Asher, Yoon Ha Lee, Aliette de Bodard, Brandon Sanderson, Naomi Novik, Ken Scholes, Robert Silverberg, and many others consider where we are and where we are going by imagining the myriad ways we’ll organize our future society—like it or not.

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, by Octavia E. Butler, John Jennings, and Damian Duffy
Finally, it’s not prose, but worth noting for SFF readers: the late Octavia Butler wasn’t just an incredibly talented and entertaining writer, she was also an important one. Her science fiction masterpieces addressed issues of race and gender straight-on at a time when others were coming at those topics obliquely, if at all. Kindred, in which a young black woman is transported through time to the pre-Civil War American South, is one of her earliest and best, and there’s never been a better time for this graphic adaption to share her message with a wider audience.

What new books are you reading now?

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