7 New Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels to Read This Summer – The New York Times
Rethinking old myths and accepted narratives comes with risks, but the results can be thrilling.
Against all odds it’s summer again, traditionally a time of blockbusters and big tents and the promise of holidays and travel, new vistas to shake up the everyday. But traditions have been in a state of flux for some time, and plans are still just stories we tell ourselves, subject to revisions and retellings as we align with the uncomfortable realities of our world.
In that spirit, here’s a mix of stories about stories, looking at old myths from new angles, exploding received ways of thinking, and exploring or inventing vast new terrains. Stories can be many things in these books: rigid shackles or malleable clay, weapons or armor, infection or cure.
Malcolm Devlin’s AND THEN I WOKE UP (Tordotcom, 165 pp., paper, $13.99) is a short, compassionate novel of post-plague reconstruction, in which narratives are a vector of disease. One day, people from all walks of life suddenly begin seeing those around them as horrifying flesh-eating monsters — “Others” — when in fact they’re looking at their children, parents, friends. The infected clump into groups and live out a violent fantasy apocalypse in which they’re the last remnants of humanity fighting off undead contagion — until something happens to break the narrative’s hold on them and allow them to see reality for what it is. That reality often involves their having murdered those closest to them in what they sincerely believed to be self-defense.
“There was the infection and then there was the narrative, the one holding the door open for the other,” says Spence, our narrator, two years into his recovery at Ironside, a facility for rehabilitating those who’ve “woken up” from their infection. “We had the narrative — constructed over the long haul by misunderstandings, groupthink, pop culture and paranoia. It fed our brains the wrong signals. The infection boosted them, it stripped out everything else. God help us, it showed us what we wanted to see.”
Spence is content at Ironside until he befriends Leila, a quiet woman who, despite being cured, wants to find her old group — ostensibly to bring them back to Ironside so that they can be cured, too. But the truth ultimately proves more complicated.
Reading this felt like falling down a dark, deep hole. Spence’s storytelling voice is riveting in its honesty and helplessness, its matter-of-fact relation of terrible things; at the same time, it’s impossible not to feel on edge when reading a story about how literally dangerous stories are. There’s a constant sense of a lurking threat, a reminder to always consider the narrator. Intelligent, compassionate and unsettling, “And Then I Woke Up” is both an invitation to and a caution against allegory.
Picking up the plague thread, HELL FOLLOWED WITH US (Peachtree Teen, 398 pp., $18.99) is Andrew Joseph White’s debut, a near-future young-adult novel about monstrosity, bodily autonomy and the end of the world. The Angelic Movement is a group of evangelical eco-terrorists who’ve unleashed a genetically engineered virus called the Flood, gruesomely killing most of the global population. The Flood sculpts people’s insides, liquefying organs and transforming bodies, but it also sometimes clumps the dead and dying into grotesque assemblages of teeth and eyes called Graces, lethal monsters just barely biddable to the Angels.
Benji Woodside, a transgender boy raised in the Movement, has been bioengineered by the Angels to become Seraph, a more stable, weaponized expression of the Flood virus that can direct and control the Graces to new violence. But Benji wants no part of this, and manages to escape his handlers with the help of a group of teenagers weathering the apocalypse in the city’s queer-youth community center. There, Benji makes fragile, tentative connections with the others — but there’s only so long he can hide the bioweapon inside him from his new companions.
“Hell Followed With Us” bristles with energy and intensity, written with a kind of gleeful ferocity that eschews plot logic and coherence in favor of atmosphere and feeling. It shines in crystalline moments when Benji considers himself and his body, the viciousness of the virus taking hold and the irony of its unexpected gifts: “It’s harder,” thinks Benji, “for someone to pin you down as a girl when they need a moment to pin you down as a human.”
But basic mechanical questions jar introspection: Why do the Angels need Seraph when they can already control the Graces? Why do they need the Graces when they’ve already destroyed most of humanity with a virus? Why do they need the Graces when they have guns? The book is less interested in those questions than in striking a fighting stance alongside other hurt and angry queer kids against those who would kill and control them. White’s novel doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny, but it does respond with a long, sustained scream to the various strains of anti-transgender legislation multiplying around the world like, well, a virus. It foregrounds the emotional truths of a nightmare reality, and if some of its complications seem as outlandish as, say, a state punishing parents for supporting their children’s right to self-determination, perhaps that’s by design.
Juno Dawson’s HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN (Penguin Books, 432 pp., paper, $17) opens with two epigraphs: one from the 1486 treatise “Malleus Maleficarum” about “silly young girls” and their predisposition to witchcraft, and the other from the Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke in 1997, calling the Spice Girls the Antichrist. “Her Majesty’s Royal Coven” flourishes in the incredible imaginative space in between.
Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle are modern-day British witches, inducted into the titular coven (a pun on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs — Britain’s equivalent of the I.R.S.) when they were schoolchildren; in the 25 years since, they’ve survived a secret civil war, and still carry the scars of it. They’ve also grown apart: Helena has become the high priestess of H.M.R.C.; Niamh has drifted away from it; Leonie has left decisively to start her own coven, Diaspora; and Elle has buried herself in mundane domesticity, hiding her witchy nature from her husband and children. But when a terrible prophecy rattles the witching community, the friends draw together again — only to find just how different they’ve become.
There’s so much humor and sadness here, so much tenderness and compassion and a deep love of women. The book draws a gentle thread through the visions we have for ourselves, the memories from which we build our relationships and the ways in which we comprehend the present, and then it pulls that thread taut. Superb and almost unbearably charming, “Her Majesty’s Royal Coven” is a beautiful exploration of how foundational friendships age, and it expertly launches an exciting new trilogy.
Also set in Britain, Nicola Griffith’s SPEAR (Tordotcom, 184 pp., $19.99) is a short novel that engages with Arthurian myth, remaking the story of Percival by grounding it in Welsh soil — only, in Griffith’s telling, Percival is a girl.
Having escaped the attention of capricious gods, a woman named Elen raises her daughter in a secret cave, their only treasure a beautiful enameled hanging bowl. Elen has good days and bad, and her daughter learns early on to fend for herself, to hunt and provide for them both. But as the girl grows, watching the world of farmers and soldiers beyond the bounds of her mother’s enchantments, she longs to leave, to journey to King Artos’s court and be made a knight. She begins asking her mother for a name, and receives it at their parting: Peretur, or spear.
As with Griffith’s magnificent novel “Hild,” this is a world built from the ground up with meticulous research, a world where magic and gods are real, but not at the expense of material culture. Griffith’s attention to the care and keeping of weapons and armor, the labor and lives of early medieval common folk, is always precise and never pedantic, the story emerging out of that painstaking work. Reading it feels like seeing the contours of a landscape rise out of mist: Everything up close is clear, while the surroundings are softened, dimmed, but undeniably present.
Peretur’s journey is a pleasure to follow, a lovely flexing of Griffith’s strengths in short form. An author’s note detailing Griffith’s research, aims and sources is also fascinating. It explains, for instance, that the book came about in response to an invitation to contribute to “Sword Stone Table,” Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington’s anthology of Arthurian retellings, and it offers a welcome glimpse into the scholarship Griffith brings to her projects.
Vaishnavi Patel’s KAIKEYI (Redhook, 478 pp., $28) opens with an author’s note of its own, tracing the project’s origins to an argument between her mother and grandmother about the role of Kaikeyi in the “Ramayana,” the ancient Hindu epic. Kaikeyi is the queen who sends Rama into a long exile in the wilderness: Is she a cruel and jealous stepmother manipulated by a wicked servant, or a necessary, helpful catalyst to Rama’s story? Patel describes seeing, in that disagreement, the possibility “to give Kaikeyi a chance to explain her actions and explore what might have caused a celebrated warrior and beloved queen to tear her family apart.” Patel joins the vast tradition of engaging with different versions of the “Ramayana”; in her vision, the queen is a powerful and self-possessed woman making the difficult decisions no one else can.
Kaikeyi, the eldest of eight children and the sole daughter, is the princess of Kekaya, the kingdom for which she’s named. But when her mother is banished — for mysterious reasons that Kaikeyi is forbidden to interrogate — she must quickly learn the work of becoming queen in her mother’s stead. Shunned by the gods, she turns to magic for support, learning to manipulate the invisible connections between people.
Patel writes with a graceful, measured elegance; reading the book feels like a stroll through high halls and fragrant gardens, the ancient world conjured in broad, sweeping gestures as Kaikeyi tells her own story in counterpoint to the epic. At the heart of it is the Binding Plane, an in-between world in which Kaikeyi can see relationships as physical ropes of light and color stretching between herself and others; the work of her life is, in part, learning to create, tend and strengthen those bonds, rather than using them to control and influence those around her. The degree to which she succeeds or fails is the central tension of the novel.
I found Rory Power’s IN A GARDEN BURNING GOLD (Del Rey, 410 pp., $27) tremendously surprising, having read only her successful young-adult debut, “Wilder Girls.” That novel was a fever dream of postapocalyptic horror: girls loving each other monstrously and parasitically, written in green and whipping prose. Her first novel for adults is, instead, a stately and polished secondary-world fantasy, built with an interest in order, mechanics and the political chicanery of powerful families.
The Argyros family runs the state of Thyzakos: Vasilis, the patriarch, holds the dictatorial title of Stratagiozi, but he and his children, Alexandros, Rhea, Nitsos and Chrysanthi, also possess godlike powers and unnaturally long life, and have run the state for the past hundred years. Alexandros stitches stars into the sky every night and controls the tides, Rhea murders her spouses and in return guarantees their home regions generous growing seasons, Nitsos builds mechanical devices that can mimic real life and Chrysanthi paints colors and light directly onto the land. Other Stratagiozis and their children control different aspects of the world; there is no overlap between them.
Alexandros and Rhea are twins. The former is being groomed to succeed their father at a time of increasing unrest in the nation, while the latter’s marriages are often decided by their father in accordance with his political machinations. But fewer and fewer suitors have been presenting themselves to Rhea, unwilling to trade their lives for good harvests, and Alexandros’s vision of the Stratagiozi chessboard increasingly differs from his father’s. Reluctantly, the twins begin to plot together against their father for the good of the nation — but the moves they make begin to drive them further apart from each other as well.
“In a Garden Burning Gold” offers a window to an intriguing world, provoking more questions than it answers in this first installment of a series. Some character developments are stilted or sudden, which, in a book very focused on its core players, occasionally jarred me out of the experience, before beautiful language and developing mysteries folded me back in. But, overall, it’s a very smooth and enjoyable read, paving the way for the next phase.
Chelsea Abdullah also begins a trilogy with her debut, THE STARDUST THIEF (Orbit, 467 pp., $28), a gorgeous fantasy adventure interspersed with fables and brimming with the contested, overlapping histories of jinn, gods and humans.
The world of the jinn, powerful spirits in Arabic myths, sank long ago into the desert, leaving exiles and relics behind. Humans hunt the exiles for their magical blood — which can heal human wounds and make greenery bloom from the sandy wastes — at the behest of the sultan, who has long hated them for a personal injury. His heir, High Prince Omar, leads a group of jinn hunters called the Forty Thieves, while his younger son, Mazen, frequently sneaks out of the palace in disguise to hear storytellers perform in the night markets.
Loulie al-Nazari, meanwhile, hunts treasure instead of jinn; with the help of her bodyguard, Qadir, and an enchanted compass, she makes an illicit living finding lost jinn relics and selling them in her guise as the Midnight Merchant. But when word of her proficiency reaches the sultan, he commands her to go on a quest into the desert to find him a marvelous oil lamp with a powerful jinn king trapped inside.
Drawing liberal inspiration from Arab folklore, particularly “The Thousand and One Nights,” Abdullah builds a rich world that departs from her source material in surprising and delightful ways. I was especially impressed by her dexterous weaving of contemporary Arabic’s cadences and vocabulary into her narration and dialogue; there’s a thin line between flavor and fetishism, and Abdullah always remains on the correct side of it. It’s not unlike hearing the difference between native speakers’ dialogue in film and television versus language that’s been taught phonetically — a nuance unlikely to register for anyone who doesn’t speak the language, but a pleasant surprise for those who do.
There are some late pacing issues typical of first novels, especially those that set up sequels: After some drawn-out pauses in the action, multiple revelations tumble over one another during a climactic battle that ends up feeling both rushed and too slow. Despite this, “The Stardust Thief” remains a wonderful tumult of tale-telling and treasure-seeking that revels in the dangers of both.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Hugo Award-winning writer and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”