6 (or more) great SFF books from the last few years
For this week's book review Tuesday, I'm sharing five SFF books I read in the last few years that I still think about a lot, and that I keep telling people to read, whenever I get the chance.
Back in 2019, I reviewed Chilling Effect for B&N's Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, calling it "fast-paced, hugely entertaining, and occasionally off-the-wall zany, stuffed with psychic cats, inter-species romance, outrageous space battles, more planets and aliens than you can shake a grav-boot at, and a delightfully motley crew of misfits to hang out with". It's the kind of book that makes you crave pastelitos de queso, and wish you might end up far off in space, performing ill-advised and courageous acts of derring-do. Valdes originally pitched her story as “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet meets Mass Effect“ and that is a pitch-perfect (ha!) description.
The sequel, Prime Deceptions, came out in 2020 and you might as well add it to your TBR pile right now because you will want to read it once you've careened through Chilling Effect. In Prime Deceptions, we get to tag along with the crew of La Sirena Negra and their psychic cats as they "confront past failures and face new threats in the far reaches of space". If you're looking for sci-fi adventure, rollicking fun, and a terrific found family in space, these books are perfect.
The Great Faerie Strike by Spencer Ellsworth
I bring this book up a lot when people ask me about fantasy novels I've read and loved in recent years. It's a fantastical, raucous, and proletarian (yes!) ride through the (partly, at least) real world of Victorian London and the strange, beautiful, and rather dangerous world of the fey that exists alongside it. From the first page, Ellsworth drops you head first into a tale populated by a brawny, boisterous, and sometimes belligerent cast of gnomes, vampires, and werewolves.
We follow Jane, an investigative reporter (who is both human and vampire) who witnesses a murder. We also follow the gnome Charles who becomes a political agitator and workers' organizer after reading The Communist Manifesto. The blend of fantasy, steampunk, and politics makes this a sharp, fast-paced, and often hilarious ride, as Ellsworth explores themes like the importance of unions, workers' rights, and the complexities of political power -- both in the real and the fey world. There is murder and mayhem, romance and alchemy, making it a steampunk/fey-punk page-turner.
Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias
The first fiction I ever read by Sabrina Vourvoulias was her awesome short story "El Cantar of Rising Sun" in Uncanny Magazine. Reading that story was what made me read her novel Ink a few years ago, and what a fantastic book it is. It was originally published in 2012, but it remains bitingly relevant today. Vourvoulias blends fantasy, mythology, love and social strife, politics, and history into a complex, multi-layered story. The book twines together the stories and voices of several characters, and each story and each character grabbed a piece of my heart.
Ink deals with so many things that feel ripped from today's headlines: immigration, xenophobia, the harassment and persecution of people who move into other countries to find a better life (or to save their lives); the use of technology to control and monitor people; the problem of truthful news reporting in an age when everything can be manipulated, government interference, social media; and many other political and social issues. All of that is woven skillfully into the story without ever weighing it down. The scariest part? None of it feels far-fetched. Rather, it sounds eerily like it could happen any day now, or worse: might already be happening.
I love how Vourvoulias puts magic right into this story, too. There are other worlds, other powers (both good and evil) that influence the characters and are bound to them, and all this is presented as though it is part of the natural order of things. It creates another unique and interesting layer to the story, and is a big part of what makes this books special.
Aletheia by J.S. Breukelaar
I love this supernatural thriller and even years after I first read it, I still think about it a lot. It's mesmerizing, beautifully written, and terrifying. Like a steam-train, it gathers momentum in the telling, and while the first chapters draw you into the world of the story, everything soon takes a turn I absolutely did NOT see coming. Horror and landscape mix with memory and desire, and towards the end, the story is just edge-of-your-seat gripping. In order to avoid spoilers, I don't want to say too much about the way the plot unfolds, but suffice it to say that I have rarely been so invested in the fate of a reptile as I was at the end of this book.
To quote the publisher's blurb:
"The remote lake town of Little Ridge has a memory problem. There is an island out on the lake somewhere, but no one can remember exactly where it is--and what it has to do with the disappearance of the eccentric Frankie Harpur or the seven-year-old son of a local artist, Lee Montour. When Thettie Harpur brings her family home to find Frankie, she faces opposition from all sides--including from the clan leader himself, the psychotic Doc Murphy."
I love this book, love Thettie and her boys, and I love the way Breukelaar tells a tale that is unpredictable and surprising as it moves between past, present, and future, darkness and light. The ending was one I did not see coming, but it was immensely satisfying.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
OK, this novella brings together so many awesome things: time-travel, a visit to an ancient human civilization, a future Calgary, and cast of characters that just pop off the page (sometimes using all six legs!).
I mean, just read the official blurb:
In 2267, Earth has just begun to recover from worldwide ecological disasters. Minh is part of the generation that first moved back up to the surface of the Earth from the underground hells, to reclaim humanity's ancestral habitat. She's spent her entire life restoring river ecosystems, but lately the kind of long-term restoration projects Minh works on have been stalled due to the invention of time travel.
When she gets the opportunity take a team to 2000 BC to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover the secrets of the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology.
The story is just as amazing as the description promises (you'll have to read it to find out what exactly "the lucky peach" is). Robson keeps things interesting by weaving together past and future, bio-engineering, workplace politics, climate fiction, historical fantasy, and the future of Canada (!) in a radically changed world, in a way that kept me hooked and entertained from start to finish. One of the best things about this story are the characters: Minh, and the people around her, add to the depth and nuance of the story.
If you want to read more by Kelly Robson, you're very much in luck. Her short story collection Alias Space just came out earlier in May, and it was an automatic insta-buy for me.
From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan
Wellington, 1931. Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Symons’ body is discovered in the Mt Victoria tunnel construction site.
Eighty years later, Aroha Brooke is determined to save her life.
This compelling and (literally) haunting novella, is set in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, and it's historical fiction (it's mostly set in New Zealand in and around the 1930s) entwined with a queer ghost story. And while the story is about a murdered woman, the murder itself is not the point or the focus of the book. Rather, Buchanan explores multiple possible futures, delving into the life Phyllis Symons might have had, the life she should have had, had she lived.
The novella is divided into four parts as it delves into the real, and imagined, history of Phyllis who lived and died in Wellington in the early 20th century. Buchanan gives us an unflinching and harrowing account of her life, her death, and...her afterlife. It's a story that grabbed me and did not let me go. I love how the grit and grime of everyday life exists side by side with the supernatural, magic, time travel, and science fiction in this story. Buchanan conveys a strong and compelling sense of time and place, and I really felt transported to another place and time while reading this book. It is a strange and luminous story with a vibe of tenderness amidst the harsh realities of life, that really spoke to me.
5 new books coming in 2021:
There are a lot of books coming out this year that I'm looking forward to, and for this roundup, I've picked 5 titles you can pre-order.
No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull (release date: September 7, 2021)
Turnbull's novel The Lesson blew my mind when I read it a few years ago (read my review at B&N), and I've already read an advance reading copy of No Gods, No Monsters, so I can tell you that this is one heck of a book: audacious and a must-read if you love monster stories and cosmic horror.
The publisher's blurb:
One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother was shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it.
As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters.
At the center is a mystery no one thinks to ask: Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark?
The world will soon find out.
The Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer (release date: August 17, 2021)
I recently reviewed Driving the Deep, the second book in Palmer's Finder series, here at Maria's Reading, and I really cannot wait to get the third book in my grubby little hands.
The publisher's blurb:
Fergus is back on Earth at last, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. However, it seems the universe has other plans for him. When his cousin sends him off to help out a friend, Fergus accidently stumbles across a piece of an ancient alien artifact that some very powerful people seem to think means the entire solar system is in danger. And since he found it, they’re certain it’s also his problem to deal with.
With the help of his newfound sister, friends both old and new, and some enemies, too, Fergus needs to find the rest of the artifact and destroy the pieces before anyone can reassemble the original and open a multi-dimensional door between Earth and a vast, implacable, alien swarm of devourers. Problem is, the pieces could be anywhere on Earth, and he’s not the only one out searching.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (release date: August 31, 2021)
After recently reading Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians, I am very much looking forward to this horror novel. (Also, if you haven't yet read his werewolf novel Mongrels, you should get on that!)
The publisher's blurb:
Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.
Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.
The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse (release date: August 5, 2021)
I am currently reading an advance reading copy of this novel, and it's threaded through with magic and immersive, nuanced worldbuilding. Definitely a book to look for if you're into high fantasy that is also a coming-of-age story that explores the nature of magic, and how to use it.
The publisher's blurb:
My name is Wen Alder. My name is Foolish Cur.
All my life, I have been torn between two legacies: that of my father, whose roots trace back to the right hand of the Emperor. That of my mother’s family, who reject the oppressive Empire and embrace the resistance.
I can choose between them – between protecting my family, or protecting my people – or I can search out a better path . . . a magical path, filled with secrets, unbound by empire or resistance, which could shake my world to its very foundation.
But my search for freedom will entangle me in a war between the gods themselves . . .
The first book in the Pact and Pattern series. Fans of Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War will love the magic running through every page.
I first encountered Greathouse's writing through his short fiction, and you can read one of his recent short stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies: "The Gwyddien and the Raven Fiend".
Tempest Blades: The Cursed Titans by Ricardo Victoria (release date: July 20, 2021)
I reviewed the first book in this series, The Withered King, in 2019, calling it "...an action-packed blend of magic and mayhem, sword and sorcery, science fiction and fantasy. The book is full of entertaining characters, has a sense of humor and adventure, and there’s a crackling video-game vibe added for good measure." Now, book two is here to take us back to Victoria's world.
The publisher's blurb:
The triennial Chivalry Games have returned!
After helping to destroy the Withered King, Alex and the rest of the group find out that saving the world has consequences. While he is secretly battling with depression and with the Alliance on the verge of collapse, a diplomatic summit and the Chivalry Games - to be held in the far off Kuni Empire - may give everyone the opportunity to turn things around. Alex builds a team to represent the Foundation in the Games, facing off against the best fighters in the world.
When an ancient being tries to raise legendary nightmares known as Titans using the peace talks as a trap, Alex has to find a way to save everyone before it is too late. Alex must learn that he is not truly alone to save the world from the chaos of the Titans.
In a world where magic and science intermingle, anything is possible.