Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships June 2

Happy Friday, sky pirates and space invaders. Here be exoskeletons.

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Join your fellow book nerds at Book Riot Insiders and get a sweet store deal each month, exclusive content from the Book Riot staff, the magical New Releases Index to keep track of upcoming books for your TBR, and more! 

Eco-thrillers, graphic novels, and The Rabbit Back Literature Society (which I cannot stop hearing about) all made Rachel’s list of speculative fiction from Finland to watch for.

I absolutely do judge books by their covers — one of my favorite things to do in new bookstores is find their sf/f section, try to find an author I haven’t heard of, and buy it if the cover is good. And I definitely have read at least one of the books in this round-up thanks primarily to Richard Anderson’s excellent art. (It is also hard to resist dinosaurs and hippos, am I right?)

If you’ve read Lightless, or if you read that David Peterson piece on naming from last time and don’t mind some spoilers (seriously though, spoilers herein), C.A. Higgins talks about how she chose the names for her trilogy. Rather than making anything up, she went looking to history for inspiration, and her choices are interesting.

N.K. Jemisin has some thoughts about new releases in science fiction and fantasy in her New York Times column; you could do much worse than let her help you find your next read! Thanks to her I need Buffalo Soldier, like, yesterday.

We are one step closer to our best mecha selves, thanks to Lowes (of all people). They’ve developed exoskeletons for their workers to help with all the lifting and carrying.

This week, I’d like to recommend some space hijinks and some magical realism.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

cover image of The Collapsing Empire by John ScalziScalzi has a new series, and this is a doozy of a first book. Let me get a couple things out of the way first: You don’t have to have read the Old Man’s War series to get this (they’re completely separate storylines, if not universes). You don’t have to have read any Scalzi previously to get into it (and it might be a solid jumping on point, for reasons below).

The doomed empire in question is the Interdependency, a network of planetary systems linked by the Flow, a handy extra-dimensional field that allows people to travel relatively quickly from one planet to the next. (No FTL travel here, sorry folks.) Except that the Flow is having problems, potentially civilization-ending ones, and no one wants to talk about it because then they would make less money! No seriously, they need to make their money while the getting is good.

The Interdependency is ruled by merchant guilds, and this was both a strength of the plot and a weakness for me. Everyone’s motives are super clear and very believable, and the politicking is spot on. But when you’re looking at the oncoming apocalypse, a lot of it comes across as unbearably petty. Which is probably the point, but definitely had me contemplating chucking the book across the room in frustration a few times.

Anyway! The book is vintage Scalzi: the characters are well-drawn and quippy as all get-out, the plot moves along at a crisp pace, and the spaceships are named after 1920s songs. You could almost call it “good clean fun” except for all the sex scenes and f-bombs — about which I am certainly not complaining! Some bonus reading: 5 books Scalzi was thinking about when he wrote it, and an excellent fancast.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

cover image of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen OyeyemiHave you read Kelly Link? (Go read Kelly Link.) How about Borges, or Garcia Marquez? (Go read those too.) Murakami? Rushdie? A.S. Byatt? If you’ve read and loved any of the above, or even if you haven’t, you need to be reading Helen Oyeyemi.

This collection is jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly good. Whether she’s writing about an apartment with too many strange doors, or puppetry, or a drowned kingdom, or a hidden garden, or making Little Red Riding Hood far more horrifying than I thought possible, Oyeyemi is at her best. The sentences are beautiful, the worlds and characters are just the right mix of familiar and uncanny, and the flow from story to story seamless. She’s deftly and subtly bound the collection together through a single image — keys — and a few recurring characters, and I found myself scavenging the pages for when they might appear.

I’ve been a fan of Oyeyemi’s work since I first read Boy, Snow, Bird, but What Is Not Yours… blows everything I’ve read by her out of the water. It is short stories done right; it makes the fantastical real and the mundane strange; I couldn’t read it fast enough, and I couldn’t bear for it to be over.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships May 26

Happy Friday, fellow dreamers! Let’s get fictional.

We’re starting out with the adaptations corner today…
– … Because I want to talk about King Arthur! ranked a bunch of adaptations including the Guy Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword and I have some feelings about it! While Emily and Leah are correct that the film is intent on murdering a lot of women and that there is a distinctly fratty feel to the end of the movie, they haven’t mentioned that the film not only has characters of color (who have names and plot-points), but none of them die. I’d also point out that the one visible magic user in the movie is a woman, without whom the story couldn’t happen. These facts doesn’t erase the film’s problems with women, but it’s hugely refreshing to see this kind of inclusion in a historical action film about a very blonde king. It’s also a ton of fun to watch; if you’re willing to put up with its failings and its complete disregard for mythological accuracy (Vortigern is Uther’s brother? Mordred is older than Vortigern??), I do recommend it.
P.S. re: this article, I extremely cosign “Lance-not” in regards to Richard Gere.
P.P.S. are hardly the only ones to pan it; apparently I disagree with almost everyone on this.
– In VERY EXCITING WOULD WATCH news, Snowpiercer is getting a TV treatment with Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs as the star. I enjoyed but am not particularly attached to the film, and I’m curious to see how an episodic format changes the narrative.

For my fellow word-nerds: David Peterson dives into the do’s and don’t’s of fantasy naming conventions and creating your own, and I found it absolutely fascinating. It’s not a short piece, but if you’re contemplating your own world-building and/or have been wanting someone to think critically about the politics of naming, add this to your reading list immediately.

Pottermore is getting a book club! Kind of. I’ll be very curious to see if this isn’t just a free-for-all of competing theories and ships and minutiae debates on Twitter (which is where they’re encouraging people to post). But that’s also what the Harry Potter area of Twitter is like on a regular day, so who knows!

In this piece contemplating empire and space opera, Liz Bourke hits on why Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee’s books are some of my favorite in science fiction.

Do you need a Wonder Woman tutu? Or bow-tie? Or hoodie? Or other swag, or all of the above? Jamie has the links you are looking for.

Today’s reviews are accidentally themed around: power(s) gone haywire! Good job, subconscious.

Lightless by C.A. Higgins

cover of Lightless by CA HigginsThere are differing opinions about this book amongst the fellow readers I’ve chatted with, but I’m here to tell you that I loved it and am hooked — just in time for the third book in the trilogy, Radiate (preceded by Supernova) to come out!

Before I picked it up I kept trying to figure out what it might be comparable to. Firefly? Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers? Wise voices told me “Definitely not,” and they were correct. While Lightless does feature a mechanic, takes place entirely on a spaceship, and is to a certain extent about outsiders and found families, it’s also a dark and twisted look at AI, the use and misuse of power, and the violent ends to which people will go to ensure their freedom.

The story opens with Althea, mechanic aboard the Ananke, a top-secret ship that is (purportedly) doing top-secret scientific experiments. She and her two crewmates — Domitian, the captain, and Gagnon, a scientist — are alone in the black and just fine with it. Until, of course, some space-thieves come out of nowhere, trick the ship into letting them on board, and get in a firefight with the crew. Turns out they’re just not any vagabonds but Leontios Ivanov and Matthew Gale, wanted criminals. Ivanov is taken into custody and Ida Stays, an investigator who has been hunting them for suspected terrorist associations, is dispatched to the ship to interrogate him. In the meantime, Gale did … something… to the computer during his escape attempt and now everything is going haywire all the time.

The novel alternates between the interrogation (which ain’t pretty, as you might suspect) and Althea’s fruitless attempts to find out what is wrong with her beloved Ananke. No matter which storyline, everything is tense and no one is behaving themselves. Add to that the terrorist attacks spreading across the interplanetary System, and you’ve got a recipe for certain disaster — which Higgins delivers on. I came for the characters and ultimately stayed for them, but the blood and guts involved in the plot (sometimes literally) are no joke. Is “space noir” a thing? Because Lightless is very space noir. So if you’re ready for a dark tale of troubled people behaving badly in space, this is your book.

Turbulence and Resistance by Samit Basu

cover of Turbulence by Samit BasuNot interested in noir-ish intrigue but still want some action and a little comedy? Samit Basu is here for you! Turbulence and Resistance are two of my favorite “What if you suddenly had powers?” books, and I’m delighted to introduce them to you.

Turbulence starts, as you might guess from the title, on a plane. Everyone on Flight 142 left London as perfectly normal humans and arrived in Delhi with superpowers. They didn’t know it at the time, and don’t know why or how it happened, but they sure as heck figured it out (some of them faster than others). And their powers aren’t the same — each received a power related to their deepest wish, which works out much better for some than for others. While they’re trying to figure out what to do about it, someone starts hunting them.

The book follows Aman Sen, a young man who becomes a communications technology demigod, who is trying to put together his own league of heroes, and those who join or oppose him. Basically imagine an X-Men movie but set internationally with a focus on India, and you’re on the right track.

Resistance by Samit BasuResistance picks up 11 years later, when someone is once again hunting down powered folks. The players from Turbulence have grown and changed, alliances have shifted, and there are new players added to the mix. Resistance includes giant lobsters, mecha warriors, and a whole lot of property damage (naturally), and satisfied both my itch to see where my favorites were at and my need for a whole new adventure to savor.

TL;DR: Surprise super powers! Some people use them for evil! Every villain is the hero of their own story! Hijinks ensue! Delightful!

This newsletter is sponsored by The Traitor’s Kiss by Erin Beaty.

Traitor's Kiss by Erin BeatyAn obstinate girl who will not be married.
A soldier desperate to prove himself.
A kingdom on the brink of war.

With a sharp tongue and an unruly temper, Sage Fowler is not what they’d call a proper lady—which is perfectly fine with her. Deemed unfit for a suitable marriage, Sage is apprenticed to a matchmaker and tasked with wrangling other young ladies to be married off for political alliances. She spies on the girls—and on the soldiers escorting them.

As the girls’ military escort senses a political uprising, Sage is recruited by a handsome soldier to infiltrate the enemy ranks. The more she discovers as a spy, the less certain she becomes about whom to trust—and Sage becomes caught in a dangerous balancing act that will determine the fate of her kingdom.

With secret identities and a tempestuous romance, Erin Beaty’s The Traitor’s Kiss is full of intrigue, espionage, and lies.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships May 19

Happy Friday, my fellow fans of skiffy and fanty! Let’s get to it.

The Locus Award finalists, like the Arthur C Clarke shortlist, include Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This is interesting because the Locus Awards are selected via an open poll to readers, rather than by a panel of judges based on publisher submissions (although there is a “recommended” list provided by editors and reviewers). It had not occurred to me before I saw the Clarke list that anyone would consider it science fiction of the same kind as, say, Death’s End. But perhaps I am in the minority? In the meantime, the First Novel category has much beloveds Ninefox Gambit, Everfair, and Roses and Rot, and I now need to read every other debut nominated as well.

Andy Weir’s next book will be about a heist on the Moon and everyone is really freaking excited about it. Which I get — the words “heist” and “Moon” are an excellent combination.

Some food for serious thought: who gets to be a geek? The essay Dragons Are For White Kids With Money looks at the inclusion issues that continue in geekdom on the fan side, and is well worth the read.

Back to the adaptations corner:
The Left Hand of Darkness is getting an adaptation and I have many concerns, which Margaret articulates very well! How will they cast it? Le Guin has said she used “he/his/him” pronouns at the time of the novel’s publishing because that was the accepted default, but my fear is that Hollywood will take this literally. Le Guin is a consulting producer, so I will be over here crossing my fingers and toes and hoping she doesn’t let them.
– I don’t know if Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire will ever get to the big screen but I want it so badly, thanks to this fancast. (His odds are probably very good, considering this newsletter has to have an adaptations corner!)
– You already know this if you clicked the Andy Weir link above but Artemis has also already been optioned.

Not an adaptation per se: we finally have a trailer for Star Trek: Discovery! And it is gooooooooood. I have been skeptical about this show for a variety of reasons, but I’m taking off my skeptic’s hat and starting to get excited.

Last but most certainly not least, a dinosaur got named after a Ghostbusters character and that is just the best news ever.

And now, let us discuss bioengineering and music magic.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne by Jeff VanderMeerYou’ve likely seen reviews all over the place for Borne, and for good reason. VanderMeer has been working in sci-fi for many years but broke through in a big way with the Southern Reach trilogy (which maybe we’ll talk about another time; you’ve all read them though, right? Right?!). So Borne couldn’t help but be a big deal. For me and I’m sure many others, the question was: could it measure up to Area X? The answer is a resounding yes.

The book follows Rachel, a young woman and former refugee making a life by scavenging in the ruins of a city (in my head, Los Angeles) ruled by a giant bioengineered flying bear named Mord. No, really. And the plot kicks off when she finds a creature of indeterminate origin — is it vegetable? animal? mineral?? — stuck to Mord’s fur, takes it home, and names it Borne, where it proceeds to grow into sentience. No, really! Rachel’s increasingly maternal relationship with Borne creates problems with her partner and lover Wick, while other forces in the city threaten their tenuous existence. Also featured: talking foxes, many skeletons, mutant children, the nefarious Company. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

If you’ve read VanderMeer, none of this will particularly surprise you; his imagination is decidedly weird, and his plots don’t always bother to make sense. This is part of their power — I cannot tell you how many text, DM, and in-person exchanges I’ve had debating what actually happened in one of his books. The internal logic is always sound, the characters are compelling and often feel deeply familiar, and his ability to twist and reshape reality is frequently jaw-dropping. And in Borne, it’s his characters — specifically Rachel and Borne — that resonated the most for me. Their relationship, which is also the engine for the plot, shifts all other relationships as well as the very structure of their world, and I would have happily read another hundred pages of it.

If you’re already a fan, you want this on your shelf. If you’ve never read him this is a great entry point (although by no means an “easy” read); Borne will introduce you to the pyrotechnics VanderMeer is capable of, and I guarantee you’ll never look at a bear the same way.


Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-GarciaIf you took The Craft and set it in 1980s Mexico City, you’d have something very like Signal to Noise. Half of you are already on your way to the Buy button; let me convince the rest of you!

Mercedes “Meche” Vega, a teenager in Mexico City in 1988, lives for her vinyl collection and the occasional mixtape. She’s not pretty, she’s not popular, she doesn’t like books, school is a drag, and her parents are always fighting. She’s sullen and judgmental, and I loved her. Then there are her friends Sebastian and Daniela. Sebastian is bookish and awkward; Daniela is a good-hearted pushover who suffers from lupus. They’re brought together more for their social status rather than any shared interests, but they also get each other. And when Meche discovers that she can make strange, magical things happen with the right song, they form a coven and set about making their lives better. Fast forward to 2009, and Meche has returned home to help bury her father. She hasn’t talked to Sebastian or Daniela since 1989, and the book alternates between the book’s past and present as we find out why.

Moreno-Garcia has nailed her characters here. Meche’s thorny edges and flashes of anger, Sebastian’s impatience with his situation, Daniela’s hesitant journey towards confidence, and the ways that they both hurt and heal each other are all perfectly captured. It’s also hard to fault the internal logic of the magic; who hasn’t had a full-body-and-brain experience with the right song at the right time? While they’re very different books on the surface, Signal to Noise reminded me of another favorite, Emma Bull’s War For the Oaks, in terms of my reaction. I needed those songs in my ears, and I needed to know what happens next.

This newsletter is sponsored by The Noble Servant by Melanie Dickerson.

Noble Servant by Melanie DickersonNew York Times bestselling author Melanie Dickerson returns with The Noble Servant, a retelling of the fairytale classic, The Goose Girl. In this medieval tale, Lady Magdalen is on her way to join the Duke of Wolfberg in marriage when her maidservant betrays her, takes her identity, and sends her down to the lowliest household position—tending the geese. But while out in the field, Magdalen encounters a mysterious shepherd who reveals that not all is as it seems in the castle, and it is up to them—the lowest of the low—to regain all that is lost.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships May 12

It’s time for a very speculative Friday, y’all! I am writing this from your past, and you are reading this in my future. Welcome back.

Who’s ready for a new Nick Harkaway novel??? (Answer: Me, I am, right here.) He answered 20 questions for the Times Literary Supplement and there’s a section in it about Gnomon, which is coming to the UK in October and the US in January (sob).

The adaptations roll on:
Wired feels some kind of way about The Dark Tower trailer and if that one’s on your list, this piece is worth a read.
– Game of Thrones is getting FOUR spin-offs (and here I just want one measly Jacqueline Carey adaptation).
– The Black Company series by Glen Cook has been optioned by Eliza Dushku’s production company (#TeamFaith). Guess I need to read these now!

“If we do not imagine the future, how can we invent (or prevent) it?” The healthcare industry in the UK wants your science-fictional ideas, and I love everything about this contest.

What do we think about the new design for the World Fantasy Awards? Does anyone else feel like that tree wants to talk to them, and not in a friendly way? Creepiness aside, this seems like a solid choice, both in terms of symbolism and in terms of picking something that is currently inclusive and can stay inclusive in meaning.

It’s Friday, we all deserve a beer! Alex has some pairings for you — speculative fiction and beer pairings, naturally.

For this week’s reviews, let’s have some astrophysics and some necromancy!

Astrophysics for People In a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

cover of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse TysonIf you are like me and often skim through the sciencier parts of science fiction, this book is for you! If you cannot get enough of NDT’s dad jokes, this book is also for you. If you are already an astrophysicist and/or a science-nerd, you probably know everything in it already.

Tyson is, as we know, great at breaking complex theory into digestible nuggets. And as the title suggests, that’s the goal here: to bring astrophysics to readers who otherwise don’t have time for it. (Hi Neil, it’s like you know me!) While I read this just to feel a little bit smarter — which I 100% did, upon finishing — I also found that it complimented the harder sci-fi reading I’ve done. Faster than light travel, dark matter, the origins of moons, exoplanets: these things all make sense now in ways they didn’t before, and I was deeply entertained by Tyson’s bons mots sprinkled throughout the actual explanations. In addition to being funny and informative it is less than 300 pages, and has an absolutely gorgeous cover.

So, to sum up: if you or someone you know has forgotten everything you learned in college physics (assuming you took it) and would like a powerhouse scientist and pop culture figure to explain it to you, look no further than Astrophysics For People In a Hurry.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch by Rin ChupecoBefore we talk about anything else, I have to warn you that this book is extremely Book 1 of a Series. The ending actually made me yell “WHAT!?!” to an empty room, and we’re going to have to wait till March of 2018 for the next installment. So if you’re not prepared to sequel-wait, put this towards the bottom of your TBR list — but definitely still put it there, if you’re a fan of necromancy, world-building, and/or female characters who refuse to play by the rules.

The Bone Witch follows Tea, who is born with the power to raise the dead and channel Dark magic. She doesn’t find this out until she accidentally resurrects her dead older brother at his funeral, of course. Awkward! In Tea’s world, “bone witches” or Dark asha are known and training is available, but they’re also looked on with suspicion and fear. The story alternates between the discovery of her powers in her early teens and subsequent training, and her at 17, on a beach and making some very dark choices indeed. This was my favorite part of the book — I love a complicated heroine, and when the heroine in question might burn down the world you have my full attention.

If I had to point to a flaw, it would be the lack of any plot resolution; no threads are tied up, and we’re left with far more questions than answers. But that’s part of what makes the story so urgent, and keeps the pages turning. It’s an origin story, an immersion into a beautifully-rendered and complex Asian-inspired new world, and a meditation on power: who can wield it, and what happens when it wields the user. For an excellent dive into that last in Bone Witch, see this piece on (especially all the Buffy fans in the audience).

Magic and ritual, darkness and light, politics and passion: The Bone Witch has these all in spades. Consider me very ready for whatever comes next.

This newsletter is sponsored by Carry On by Rainbow Rowell.

cover of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell A #1 New York Times bestseller.

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend dumped him, and there’s a monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz, his roommate and nemesis, would be having a field day with all this, if he were here—it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and he hasn’t shown up.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, and a mystery. It has as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story—but far more monsters.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords & Spaceships May 5

Happy Friday, y’all!

Let’s start off with a bang: The Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist has been announced! The big surprise on here is Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which is sweeping the awards circuit — and for good reason. It’s an incredibly powerful book, as well as an alternate history of the Civil War that posits underground steam locomotives. Once you think about it as alternate history, you can see how it made the list, but I’d bet most folks weren’t expecting to see it pop up here. I’m also a huge fan of A Closed and Common Orbit and Ninefox Gambit. If I had to vote, it would be for Ninefox — I haven’t read a space opera that intricately built and plotted in a very long time and I’m dying to see it get some critical recognition, but there are no bad picks here.

How many different retellings of The Beauty and the Beast can you think of? I maxed out at five, but Amanda put together a list of literally 100 (!!).

This guy is building a wearable puppet version of K-2SO for Halloween. Apparently you just need a 3D printer, a bunch of PVC and sculpt-able foam, oh, and some killer construction skillz. And I thought my collapsible lightsaber was cool… (I still think it’s cool.)

For those who like hearing their stories: Tor is launching a new imprint called Tor Labs “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Which basically means we’re getting new story podcasts, starting with Steal the Stars which includes UFO-related hijinks.

Tak is a boardgame you could actually play, even if you don’t live in Patrick Rothfuss’s books. (Which possibly everyone on this list would prefer, perhaps?) More astonishing to me is that the Kickstarter collected over $1 million before it closed. A million dollars! That is some serious Kingkiller Chronicles love.

And finally, because I am writing this on May 4th, I require you all to read some Star Wars puns.

For this issue’s reviews, I am delighted to present to you: Zombies, two ways.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

While there are blood and guts aplenty, Zone One is more about the bureaucracy of the apocalypse than its monsters. Think of it as the literary baby of The Office and The Walking Dead. The main character, nicknamed Mark Spitz in an extended running joke, is part of the clean-up crew sweeping through lower Manhattan, trying to clear out zombies one building at a time. In this horrible future there are two kinds of zombies: skels, which will tackle, bite, and turn you if given half a chance; and stragglers, which return to one location and just … stand there. Creepy, sure, but not so hard to dispose of — in theory.

Our narrator, nicknamed Mark Spitz in an impressively long-running joke arc, has survived both the normal world and the apocalypse by being perfectly mediocre. When you’re the ultimate average, gliding through life looks a lot easier apparently! We get his own backstory of flight and survival, along with those of his crew; we also get the marketing ploys of the new provincial government, the vagaries of logistics for body-bags and ammunition, the promotionally-driven allowances for looting, the daily annoyances of “sweeper” duty, and the daydreams of times gone by. Mark Spitz was, among other brief careers, a social media manager, and one of the most-quoted passages of the book (at least in my circle) comes from his anecdotes about that job.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time from one chapter — often one page — to the next, lending to the surreal tone of the narrative. Whitehead deploys that surrealism to both hilarious and devastating effect. And just when you think you know the story, that’s when things get really interesting.

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre

hadrianaIf Gabriel Garcia Marquez were to write a zombie novel, it wouldn’t be this but you’d be in roughly the same ballpark. René Depestre’s amazing Hadriana in All My Dreams, originally published in 1988 and now reissued by Akashic Books, is a riotous, magical, raucous look at Vodou culture as well as an ode to Jacmel, Haiti.

Set in his own hometown, Jacmel, it follows the wedding-day zombification of a beautiful young French-Creole girl named Hadriana. About to wed her Haitian fiancé, she collapses immediately after giving her vows. But Hadriana is not dead — instead, she’s been drugged and transformed into a zombie by a man with nefarious purposes. The first half of the book is told by Patrick, her childhood friend and unrequited lover, and gives us a local’s view of the folklore, religion, spirituality, and racial politics that blend and clash in Jacmel.

This novel is both sensual and sexual; from succubus butterflies to Hadriana’s Carnival-influenced funeral to the enslavement of women via zombification, bodies are central to both the narrative and plot. Depestre is unabashed in his celebration of sexuality and unflinching in chronicling the ways it is abused. Refreshingly — and importantly to this reader — he also chronicles women’s agency in ways I was not expecting to see. This is a fever-dream of a book, a look into the origins and folklore of zombies, and a local’s-eye view of Haiti in the early 1900s, and it will change the way you think about zombies.

This newsletter is sponsored by 5 Worlds Book 1: The Sand Warrior.

The 5 Worlds are on the brink of extinction unless five ancient and mysterious beacons are lit. When war erupts, three unlikely heroes will discover there’s more to themselves than meets the eye. The clumsiest student at the Sand Dancer Academy, Oona Lee is a fighter with a big destiny. A boy from the poorest slums, An Tzu has a surprising gift and a knack for getting out of sticky situations. Star athlete Jax Amboy is beloved by an entire galaxy, but has no real friends. Can these three kids discover their talents in time to save the 5 Worlds?

Swords and Spaceships

Swords & Spaceships Apr 28

Happy Friday, Padawans and paladins!

A bunch of exciting announcements have come out of Star Wars Celebration, but the one that produced actuals screams of glee from me is that Ken Liu is writing a Skywalker novel [insert confetti space-canon here]! If you haven’t been keeping track, he’s the author of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Dandelion Dynasty series, and I cannot wait to see what directions he takes our favorite space-cinnamon-roll Luke in. I should add that the only Star Wars novel I’ve read in the past decade was Bloodline (which was great, for the record); I am now officially cherry-picking their new offerings.

Does your TBR need some exploding? Liberty wrote a list of 100 must-read SFF debuts that should keep you busy for at least the next decade or so. Like she notes, it is so hard to believe that some of these were an author’s very first published book!

Do redshirts actually die more often on Star Trek? Well, it depends on how you do the math apparently. I do love it when people crunch fictional data — see also, this piece on braid-tugging and skirt-smoothing in the Wheel of Time.

This is a monster year for adaptations, what with The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods both coming to screens, The Wheel of Time finally moving forward, and a bunch of others I’ve already lost track of. And we can add to the pile: China Mieville’s The City & The City is coming to TV.

Friday whimsy: Harry Potter books with cocktail pairings. Both for the drink recipes and the pairing notes (lolsob).

And now, for some recommendations!

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline KoyanagiI wish I could remember who recommended this book to me; I’m sure I didn’t find it on my own. It’s been a long-term favorite of mine ever since I picked it up, and a Swiss army knife of a recommendation because it hits so many notes so well. It’s also one of my favorite books because it illustrates beautifully how one can write a “political” book — in that the main character is queer woman of color who has a chronic illness, and those identities are heavily politicized — that is 100% space opera adventure, for all those folks who “just want a good story.”

Alana Quick is a sky surgeon, meaning she fixes spaceship engines and is damn good at it. But she and her aunt, who run their own business, are barely keeping their business afloat. So when a cargo vessel swings by looking for her sister Nova, it’s the opportunity she’s been waiting for. She stows away on the ship, hoping to find herself a permanent spot as ship’s mechanic, and then finds out that she’s put herself in the middle of a tangles web of shifting alliances and dangerous missions, all surrounding her sister’s special abilities.

Action! Adventure! Romance! People who are not as they seem! Strange beings! Strange powers! Explosions! Space! Truly, this book is a delight. Here’s me crossing my fingers that we eventually get another book of Alana’s adventures, because I need more! Side note: Koyanagi contributed a task to this year’s Read Harder Challenge.


Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

Kalpa Imperial by Angelica GorodischerIf you’re looking for speculative fiction in translation, classic fantasy, and/or South American authors, Angélica Gorodischer is the answer to all of the above. The book is translated by Le Guin (!!) and follows the rise and fall of an empire over many narrators, each with their own distinct style and story to tell.

Gorodischer manages a few amazing feats in this book. In a series of vignettes with incredibly disparate narrators, often with no clear connections between them, she manages to give shape and depth to a nameless empire. Her timeline is enormously long, but the chapters each feel personal and compelling. And while it lies firmly in the realms of fable, folklore, and fantasy, Kalpa Imperial nonetheless feels contemporary and familiar.

I had the happy experience of reading this in close proximity to both Sofia Samatar and NK Jemisin, both of whom have written beautifully about the ebb and flow of empire. Pair those three with the stories in Galactic Empire, and you’ve got a beautifully multi-faceted look at genre fiction’s obsession with the various manifestations of political structures. Of course, you might just also want a story beautifully told — and this is that, above all else.

This newsletter is sponsored by Elves, written by Jean-Luc Istin and illustrated by Kyko Duarte.

Elves Vol 1 coverVolume One of the critically-acclaimed and original dark fantasy saga Elves comes to US audiences for the first time this May.

The Blue Elves in a small port town have all been massacred. Lanawyn, a Blue Elf, and Turin, her human ally, set out to discover who is responsible. The trail they uncover together leads back to a warlike clan of humans who hate Elves.

Meanwhile, the Sylvan Elves have hidden themselves away from the world, jealously preserving their independence. Eysine, the City-State of the East, has always observed respect for the ancient pact between Elf and Man. But when a powerful army of Orks besiege the kingdom, Eysine must remind the Elves of the treaty that linked their two peoples.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships Apr 21

Happy Friday, from the other end of a long series of tubes!

Before we dive into all the genre-specific goodness, I am delighted to announce that we’ve got a new subscription program called Book Riot Insiders! You can track new releases, listen to our dedicated Read Harder podcast, get a look at behind-the-scenes ops, and more, starting at $3/month. Check out the Insiders site for full details and to sign up!

Calling all Expanse fans: if you’re craving books with female characters like Naomi, Chrisjen, and Bobbie, we’ve got a reading list for you.

I’ve had this bookmarked forever and only finally just got to it: what is a utopia and how do we write about it? Ada Palmer, Malka Older, and Robert Charles Wilson had a very interesting conversation about this on Tor. It dovetails nicely with my musings post-Feminist Utopia Project, in case anyone is looking for another book (not strictly speculative) to add to their stack.

Soylent Green is (hopefully not) people! This piece on foods of the future is better than cannibalism, but I’m not sure how much better in certain cases. I hear you on the protein content of bugs, for example, but getting over the squick factor is gonna take some doing. (My theory is that Fear Factor ruined bugs for Americans of a certain age, even if you add ice cream.) However, sign me up for 3D printed food STAT!

More short stories for those pressed for time! This list of magical short story collections has two personal favorites on it — Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, bestill my reader heart. These will certainly liven up your commute (and possibly make you miss a stop or two, fair warning).

Your Friday whimsy: I laughed so hard at Bad Lip Reading: Star Wars that I cried.

Readers, I fell hard for the below books, and I think you will too.

Spare & Found Parts, Sarah Maria Griffin

cover of Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria GriffinI didn’t know I wanted a YA revamp of Frankenstein until I read this book, which is fantastic. Nell Crane is young, awkward, and bad at people — not excluding her more bouyant best friend, Ruby, or the boy she cannot shake, Oliver. What she’s good at? Machines. She’s learned at the side of her father, an acclaimed inventor, and she’s plotting a project that will take her out of his shadow and earn her a reputation in her own right: a robot companion.

The problem with this plan is that Nell lives in a future in which machines are suspect, and computer technology has been outlawed. A plague in the past has decimated the population, society is still rebuilding, and coding is strictly taboo. In her search to realize her vision and build herself a friend who might just understand her, Nell finds herself in places in her community she had no idea existed.

Nell’s loneliness and personal struggles are heartbreaking, and there’s a reveal about her family history that actually made me gasp out loud. Griffin feeds in just enough whimsy, humor, and world-building to keep the story moving while still allowing for the story’s solid emotional weight. I devoured this book in a day, and cannot recommend enough that you take it to the park with you on the next sunny day.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

cover of Mama Day by Gloria NaylorI have been meaning to pick up Mama Day since Nisi Shawl recommended it in her Book Riot Live interview. The day I got it from the library was a good day; the day I finished it was even better. If you like magical realism; if you like generational stories; if you like Southern fiction; if you like stories in which the setting is a major character; if you like amazing writing — then grab a copy and buckle up.

Narrated in three distinct voices — two second-person, one third person, and somehow this works beautifully?! —  the novel follows Ophelia “Cocoa” Day, who has moved away from her hometown of Willow Springs to make it in New York City. She’s on the look-out for a job and a date, and meets engineer George Andrews during an interview. She doesn’t ultimately end up working for him; instead, she marries him and brings him home to Willow Springs to meet her great-aunt Miranda (the titular Mama Day) and grandmother Abigail. And then, everything goes off the rails. And no, I won’t be more specific, because spoilers.

It’s a simple plot on the surface, but to this girl-meets-boy set-up Gloria Naylor adds the history of the South and Emancipation, folk remedies and old powers, family secrets, touches of The Tempest, and a deep understanding of the twisted places love can take us. The second to last chapter of this book wrecked me — it’s a five-Kleenex read for sure. On top of all that Naylor has a gorgeously vivid writing style and is a master of structure. This book has earned a spot on my favorites shelf.

This newsletter is sponsored by Elves, written by Jean-Luc Istin and illustrated by Kyko Duarte.

Elves Vol 1 coverVolume One of the critically-acclaimed and original dark fantasy saga Elves comes to US audiences for the first time this May.

The Blue Elves in a small port town have all been massacred. Lanawyn, a Blue Elf, and Turin, her human ally, set out to discover who is responsible. The trail they uncover together leads back to a warlike clan of humans who hate Elves.

Meanwhile, the Sylvan Elves have hidden themselves away from the world, jealously preserving their independence. Eysine, the City-State of the East, has always observed respect for the ancient pact between Elf and Man. But when a powerful army of Orks besiege the kingdom, Eysine must remind the Elves of the treaty that linked their two peoples.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships Apr 14

Greetings, Earthlings and galactic visitors! There is absolutely no space-related gossip in today’s newsletter; this time, we’ve got our feet on the ground.

I have a burning question for you all: Do you follow authors across genres? This is on my mind because China Mieville has written a political history of Russia and it comes out next month. He’s already a bit of a genre-hopper, with fantasy, hard sci-fi, and more wibbly-wobbly-genre-bendey works like The City and the City under his belt, but nonfiction is much farther afield. It’s not particularly surprising if you know his political leanings and background, but it’s also not quite the same as grabbing, say, an Atwood essay collection. What do you think? Is your interest piqued?

Waaaaay back in our very first ever Swords and Spaceships, I noted that Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming King Arthur movie looks like a glorious mess. The latest trailer just confirms it; I can’t decide if it’s weirder that the elephants from Lord of the Rings movies have shown up, or that the sword apparently gives Arthur powers!? Did Vortigern summon the elephants from Middle Earth with his ill-gotten powers? Did someone enchant the sword? I have questions that can only be answered by seeing it in the theater, because I am a hopeless Arthurian junkie.

We talked about the Hugos, now let’s talk about the Nommo Awards! These are newly on my radar, and I am preetttty excited about them for two reasons: one is that these are mostly authors I’m not already hip to and I cannot wait to start reading them, and the second is that A. Igoni Barrett is on there and I adored his short story collection Love Is Power, Or Something Like That (which is not speculative in nature, but excellent regardless).

What do we talk about when we talk about dragons? Jessica has some thoughts. I have narrowed down my own first dragons to Smaug and/or Eustace (spoiler) from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which made Kazul from Dealing With Dragons an absolute delight.

And, for your regularly scheduled whimsy: Sci-fi mugs! I cannot decide which I need the most, which just means I need all of them. Right?

Let’s talk about your TBR pile; if it doesn’t have these two books on it, please reconsider immediately.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales coverHappy paperback publication week to The Regional Office; what better way to celebrate than to remind you that if you haven’t read this book yet, it is now cheaper to acquire!

I love this book a lot, not least because it meshes robotics and magic and there is just not enough of that in my life. On the one hand we have Rose, a teenage assassin with powers who has been recruited by a conspiracy within the Regional Office. She is a one-woman army and she is coming for the Director. Except that Sarah, a dedicated employee who may also be a cyborg, is standing in her way.

If you were to mash up an episode of Buffy with Die Hard (there are a lot of crawl-spaces in this book, y’all), you’d get something close to the plot. What you wouldn’t get is Gonzales’ delightfully wry and episodic style — in between stellar action sequences, he doles out background story bit by tantalizing bit. It’s an ass-kicking, action-packed novel, with a punch in the feels for good measure.


cover of Tender by Sofia SamatarTender by Sofia Samatar

Welcome to the Sofia Samatar Fan Club! I am your local chapter president Jenn Northington and I am delighted to tell you that her new short story collection is SO GREAT!

I am unsurprised; her novels A Stranger in Olondria and Winged Histories are two of my favorite fantasies of the past few years. And this collection is full of gems. Some have a scholarly feel, like “An Account of the Land of Witches” or “Ogres of East Africa”, in which Samatar is cataloguing wonders previously unseen. Some are funny and heartbreaking, like “Walkdog.” All of them are bursting at the seams with magic, and with Samatar’s deliberate and precise use of language. Her style is a moving target — sometimes ornate and sometimes spare, some times casual and sometimes formal — but it’s always deployed with purpose, and the results are spell-binding.

Like I said: president of the fan club, over here. Get this collection on your shelf and into your brain.

Note: The pub date is technically Monday, April 17, but physical copies are available now!

This newsletter is sponsored by Defy The Stars by Claudia Gray.

She’s a soldier.
He’s a machine.
Enemies in an interstellar war, they are forced to work together as they embark on a daring journey through the stars. Their efforts would end the fighting for good, but they’re not without sacrifice. The stakes are even higher than either of them first realized, and the more time they spend together, the more they’re forced to question everything they’d been taught was true.

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships Apr 7

Happy Friday, geek friends and nerd pals! I have been scouring the interwebs for interesting tidbits, and boy did I find some.

First and foremost: The Hugo Finalists are heeeeeeere! You will notice some repeats from the Nebulas, which is neither unusual nor unexpected in these cases (Obelisk Gate and All the Birds in the Sky, what what!). If you want a look at how the rules changes from last year may have affected this year’s nominations, our own Alex is happy to oblige.

There are always trend pieces making the rounds, but I happened to see three in a row. Things what are Hot Right Now: dystopiasspace opera, and killer flus. (Not mutually exclusive, let us note.) Dystopias always seem to be on-trend to me, but I welcome additions to the ranks. Space opera, on the other hand, does seem to be having its day in the Sun (heh); Wired and I have a lot of the same favorites, which means you should definitely read them. And killer flus are like little black dresses — perennial and inescapable. If that’s all a little heavy for you, have some talking cats too.

Speaking of space opera! There’s a gorgeous new cover for Ann Leckie’s forthcoming Provenance, which we will not get until October, argh. If you haven’t read the Ancillary trilogy, never fear: this is a new story, so you can jump right in. But you have several months between now and October, so you definitely could read them, I am just saying.

And last but not least, here is a sci-fi short film that I found delightful and eery as all get-out, plus it is only five minutes long: Strange Beasts.


Now for recommendations! Here’s something brand new and something old (because in publishing, 2015 was like a decade ago).

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey coverAmbiguous near-future astronaut stories are also hot right now! We just talked about Spaceman of Bohemia, which I read back to back with The Wanderers. Whereas Spaceman goes unabashedly surreal, Wanderers sticks hard to the science-possible. Three astronauts from around the world are hired by a private space-exploration company called Prime Space (it’s all very Elon Musk) and sent into a seventeen-month-long simulation to prove that not only is a landed mission to Mars possible, but they’re the right crew. As the story — told skillfully from multiple points of view — develops, astronauts Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi each develop a different view of what is actually going on.

There are comps to be made with The Martian; Howrey gives us technical action, company politics, and pencil-pushers as well as problem-solving and astronaut body-humor. But she also delves deeply into the emotional fault-lines of her characters, which gives us some of the funniest and most moving moments (occasionally at the same time!). Helen’s grown daughter Meeps, a struggling actress, absolutely steals every scene she is in, as does Yoshi’s wife Madoka. And Sergei’s sons, oof! My heart breaks. So, to wrap this up, my short recommendation is: come for the Hijinks Involving Space, stay for the incredible characters.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro coverIshiguro excels at writing books that are not at all about what they seem to be about, as you know if you’ve read Let Me Go. That one appears to be about boarding school and is actually about, ahem, medical ethics (I am resisting the urge to spoil it for you, you’re welcome). The Buried Giant does not actually have a giant in it — ogres yes, pixies yes, knights yes, dragons yes!, but not a giant to be found. For a while you’re pretty sure it’s just about two olde time British people who can’t remember anything, then it’s about King Arthur, and then you get to the ending and it’s about — Well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it wasn’t what I thought.

And yet despite all of this confusion and ambiguity (which ultimately does have a point), I couldn’t put it down. The Buried Giant is a dreamy walk through an ancient England that barely knows itself from one day to the next, and that contains surprises both wondrous and horrible around every turn. From the troubled relationship between the Saxons and the Britons, the role of the early Catholic church, the long-deferred quest of Sir Gawain (who I could not help picturing as a Monty Python-era John Cleese), to the perils facing an aging couple in a harsh world, Ishiguro balances a ton of depth with a deceptively simple style. A slow burn of a novel, this one is for Ishiguro fans, readers who enjoy open-ended plots, and my fellow Arthurian completists.

This newsletter is sponsored by Macmillan Teen.

We have a YA Science Fiction & Fantasy prize pack to give away! Click here to enter for a chance to win, or just click the image below:

Swords and Spaceships

Swords and Spaceships March 24

Salutations and felicitations, my fellow SF/F fans!

If short stories are your bag (as I suspect they are, given how many of you clicked that flash fiction link last time), I have excellent news for you: Lightspeed magazine is offering a free three-month trial subscription to new folks, or a free three-month extension to existing subscribers. I’m a fan — their monthly issues regularly feature some of my favorite authors both established and newly minted, and they published the Queers Destroy Science Fiction and Women Destroy Science Fiction special issues. Nota bene: they are a digital-only publication.

We’ve been talking about fairytales on the regular here, so perhaps you will be as delighted with this round-up as I am: fairy- and folk-tale collections other than the Brothers Grimm! I need that “Beauty and the Beast” one ASAP.

I don’t usually have time for convincing people that genre fiction is worth their time (because obviously!?), but this piece of recs for those who think they only like genre-bending lit-fic is excellent. For anyone in your life who has ever wanted “genre but, you know, GOOD.” Assuming you have not already killed them with your brain.

Do you have a minute for outer space? Because scientists would like your help discovering exoplanets! (Side-note: the current administration would like to shut down the DSCOVER program, which could help us identify the climate of exoplanets; how is Elon Musk supposed to save humanity without that info, I would like to know?) (I jest.) (Kind of.)

Moving right along … You may recognize this week’s sci-fi pick as having popped up around the site before; I have fallen hard for this book. And if you have already read my second pick, could you please email back so we can gush about it? K thx.

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

cover of Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav KalfarIn the Czech Republic, a scientist named Jakub Procházka boards a spaceship on a mission to collect and analyze cosmic dust from a mysterious intergalactic phenomenon. The eight-month mission, funded by corporate sponsors and made possible by political wheeling and dealing, is the pride and joy of the country and Procházka is a national hero. So far it sounds 100% plausible, right? Vast chunks of this book are in fact extremely possible, up to and including Jakub’s response to meeting a giant alien spider-thing that may or may not be a figment of his imagination.

Kalfař uses the lens of speculative fiction (magical scientific realism? Could that be a thing?) to dig deep into post-Soviet Union life in the Czech Republic, as well as the mysteries of Life, The Universe, and Everything. (My phrasing, not his, although I suspect Douglas Adams would approve.) Jakub has spent his life trying to atone for his father’s crimes under the Communist regime, and is struggling to understand his relationship with his wife Lenka — and also not die in outer space. He is not an extraordinary person, but rather a person in extraordinary circumstances. Whether he’s fighting for sanity, for survival, or for his marriage, he is deeply compelling. Like all good sci-fi, Spaceman of Bohemia asks big questions and gives us a great story in the process. This one is for lovers of near-future, thoughtful, and/or deeply weird novels.

The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast AsiaWhile the cover is not my favorite (I’m a photo-realism junkie, what can I say), the contents of this anthology are absolutely must-read, especially if you’re a fan of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair. The writers in this collection look not only at steam technology, strange beasties, and the occasional bustle, but at colonialism, empire, and often-overlooked countries.

This is a gorgeous example of what can happen when editors go in search of voices — particularly since, as they say in the introduction, “[O]ur anthology presents a range of authors and characters that is predominantly women, and hella queer.” And what a range of stories these writers produced! All of these pieces stand successfully on their own. I still find myself referencing “The Last Aswang”; “The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso” and “On the Consequence of Sound” both deserve to be read right next to World Fantasy Award-winner The Chimes for their evocation of the power of music. Others are more “hijinks ensue” in style, but none are slight — each of these stories has a strongly-beating heart. Combined, they create a gorgeously textured alternative vision of our world. This collection is one of my favorites from the past year — there’s a story in here for any reader, and quite likely more than one.

This newsletter is sponsored by Unbound Worlds Cage Match 2017.

Enter for a chance to win a library of sci-fi and fantasy reads! Cage Match is back! Unbound Worlds is pitting science fiction characters against fantasy characters in a battle-to-the-death tournament, and you can win a collection of all 32 books featured in the competition. Enter now for your chance to win this library of sci-fi and fantasy titles!