New science fiction and fantasy books
Here are five extraordinary books about families – chosen, imposed or separated – and the amazing range of skills needed to secure or survive them.
UNTETHERED SKY by Fonda Lee (Tordotcom, 152 pp., $22.99) combines falconry and ancient Persian mythology in a short standalone fantasy. In Dartha, man-eating monsters called manticores roam the countryside, insatiable and unstoppable – except by rocks, gigantic birds of prey. The people of Dartha have learned to defend themselves by capturing fledgling rocs and training them in the Royal Mews to reliably hunt manticores. Called ruhkers, these trainers live strange, obsessed lives devoted to raising their rocks in a fierce, mutually beneficial partnership.
“Untethered Sky” is the story of Ester, a ruhker, recalling the formation of her first rock, Zahra. Having lost her family to a manticore attack, Ester throws herself into her work, developing close and fervent relationships with her rock, her fellow ruhkers – and no one else. Not even the prince who takes an interest in ruhking and decides to market it to a wider audience.
Like a hunt, the book has a tense, stalking pace, circling a distant tragedy before closing in on the kill. At the heart of the story is Ester’s knowledge that she has dedicated her life to a creature whose spirit she cannot know and whose love she cannot win, but whose power she nevertheless depends on. to survive every day.
While Lee’s Green Bone Saga was a sprawling trilogy rooted in the intricacies of a contemporary city-state, here it produces engrossing action set in vast written spaces as clean and spare as a dry bone, and the result is tremendous.
Reversing that trajectory, Martha Wells followed her best-selling Murderbot series of novels with a return to full epic fantasy. WITCH KING (Tordotcom, $28.99, 414 pp.), a deeply immersive throwback to a beloved (and to me, fundamental) species of 1990s fantasy doorstop, is packed with cataclysmic storylines between families for mostly immortal, with card and dramatis personae.
The titular Wizard King, Kaiisteron or Kai, awakens from an enchanted slumber to find that he and his best friend, Ziede, have been betrayed and imprisoned by a loved one. Kai is a demon, able to wield magic and possess the bodies of the living; Ziede is a witch, able to converse with the elemental world. They use their powers to overpower and escape their would-be captor, but discover that Ziede’s wife, Tahren, is missing.
Together – collecting wreckage and the lost along the way – they embark on a quest to find her and root out the conspiracy that has kept them apart. As they search for answers, Kai recalls his youth fighting necromantic wizards called Hierarchs and rebuilding the world they shattered.
Kai is very good at protecting those he chooses to care for, and part of the fun of “Witch King” comes from seeing his sharp skill at work, contrasted with moments of deep, bewildered vulnerability. Kai’s timelines complement each other beautifully: elements introduced in a dizzying rush of world-building become a welcome backdrop for flashbacks, which in turn heighten the tension in the present. Wells works at the peak of his powers here, and it’s relaxing to be taken for a spin in the company of such a phenomenal storyteller.
Intrigue among most immortals also abounds in Nick Harkaway’s TITANIUM BLACK (Knopf, 236 pp. $28), a funny, vocal book full of fantastic phrases that, as the youngsters say, absolutely slap. It’s the kind of writing that reminds you that poetry and detective stories have a lot in common.
Cal Sounder is a staple of the genre: a somewhat lonely private detective, victim of women’s issues, and expert in a certain type of case – only here, the certain type of case involves genetically enhanced superhumans called Titans. In a near world, a highly inaccessible drug called Titanium 7 enables patients to recover from illness, injury, and aging by resetting their biological clock to prepubescence and rapidly moving them through adolescent development. , leaving them much bigger and stronger.
Cal used to date the daughter of the drug’s inventor until a serious accident made the injection necessary to save her life. The experience gave Cal insight into the rich, red-carpeted Titans circles, of which only a few thousand exist in the world. Now Cal works as a consultant for the police department on criminal investigations related to Titan. So when a man is found in his apartment with a bullet to his head and all the features of a Titan – he’s 7ft 8in and 91 years old, despite looking “about 45 without habits” – the cops go after Cal for the case.
Exemplary of the genre, “Titanium Noir” oscillates between excellent fun and deep melancholy. While Cal fits the profile of the badass detective, he is sad and kind, and lacks the bitter alcoholic cynicism of the stereotype.
A new collection of short stories from Kelly Link, the first since Pulitzer Prize finalist “Get in Trouble” (2016), is always cause for celebration and anxiety: few are the authors whose stories stab you so easily in the ribs. and expertly as you admire the finish of the handle. Those of WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG (Random House, 260 pp., $27) are no exception.
Although each of the seven stories in this collection is captioned with a classic fairy tale or ballad, they are not mere tales or retellings; Link instead treats them as ingredients from which to build a delicate and menacing feast. These stories have the sticky and tensile strength of spider silk, building webs that draw attention as much to the twigs they hang from as the shimmering dew on the threads and the creatures captured and quivering within them. .
Highlights for me included half of the collection: “The White Road” (The Town Musicians of Bremen); “The Girl Who Knew No Fear” (The Boy Who Knew No Fear); “The Lady and the Fox” (Tam Lin); and “Sinder’s Veil” (Snow White and Rose Red) all got me excited. There is a sense of chiaroscuro in the collection, an echo of the title, to be sure – the book opens with the hospitality of a white cat and ends with the obstruction of a black dog – but the more i ponder the stories, the more I find myself sorting them all into clear and murky, sharp and shadowy.
INK BLOOD SISTER SCRIBE by Emma Törzs (William Morrow, 407 pp., $30) is stunning and immaculate, the kind of debut I love to be devastated by, already so confident and sophisticated it’s hard to imagine where the author can go from here.
In Törzs world, magic books, all written with human blood, can do amazing things when someone gives them a drop of blood and reads them aloud. Abe Kalotay collected these books to keep them from falling into the wrong hands and raised his daughters, Joanna and Esther, as stewards of a beautiful and dangerous library that had to be kept hidden at all costs; in Esther’s childhood, her mother was murdered by powerful people who wanted the books.
But after Abe’s death – his blood drained by a book that wouldn’t allow him to read it – Joanna and Esther part ways: Joanna lives in her father’s house, looking after the books, while Esther spent 10 years old to move every November 2 at the insistence of her parents, for reasons she does not fully understand. Joanna can “hear” magical books and detect their presence; Esther is immune to magic.
An ocean away, an organization called the Library accumulates these special texts, and a young man named Nicholas is his well-kept secret: his blood, when mixed with ink, allows him to write magical books. Heir to a terrible heritage, he is drawn to the Kalotays to unlock the secrets of their respective families.
Törzs’ precision – his attention to the mundane physics of bookbinding, for example – makes a well-honed magickal system fascinating and original. “Ink Blood Sister Scribe” accelerates like a fugue, skilfully led to a tender conclusion. It is simply a delight from start to finish.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Hugo Award-winning writer and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War”.