For nearly two decades, Jim Killen has served as the science fiction and fantasy book buyer for Barnes & Noble. Every month on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog and Tor.com, Jim shares his curated list of the month’s can’t-miss new SF/F releases.
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab (January 19, Tor Books—Paperback)
One of last year’s best books is out in paperback, just in time for you to catch up before the release of the sequel. V.E. Schwab creates a tri-layered Neapolitan fantasy world that smooshes three alternate versions of London side-by-side: Red London, where magic’s waters run deep; White London, where there is both power and terrible darkness; and Dull Grey London, where spells lose their luster (guess which one we inhabit). Only unique individuals known as Travelers can pass between the city, but they are a dying breed—probably because someone is trying to kill them all. Kell, the Traveler from Red London, wears a coat with infinite sides which he uses to smuggle magical objects from one London to another, until during one fateful trip, he brings back the wrong thing, setting up a crisis that might wipe London off the map—all of them.
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders (January 26, Tor Books—Hardcover)
io9.com editor Charlie Jane Ander’s debut speculative novel is a story of love and friendship, hope and despair, science and magic, and the end of the world. A girl who can do magic falls for a boy who only believes in science, and together, they must figure out how to save our dying planet—assuming, of course, the planet even wants our help. Childhood friends Patricia and Laurance lose touch with one another as they grow up, their differing paths sending one of them to a secret school for magicians and the other to the best engineering programs on offer. Years later, they meet again, with the fate of the world at stake, and the forces of science and magic edging toward all-out war.
Ancestral Machines, by Michael Cobley (January 12, Orbit—Hardcover)
Although set in the same universe as Cobley’s fantastic Humanity’s Fire trilogy, this is a standalone with one heck of a hook: an enormous structure once known as the Great Harbour of Benevolent Harmony—a monument to peace between alien races—has been overtaken by a grotesque species known as the Gun-Lords and transformed into the War Cage, where the populations of planets towed into orbit around an artificial star are compelled to battle endlessly. A series of events—a criminal deal gone sideways, the mysterious manipulations of an artificial intelligence, a military leader following the instructions of dead ancestors, and the kidnapping of a lush and peaceful agricultural planet for transport to the War Cage—brings together a motley group of characters led by smuggler captain Brannan Pyke to oppose the Gun-Lords in their own arena.
City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett (January 26, Broadway Books—Paperback)
The sequel to Bennett’s City of Stairs is a bit more grounded, but no less beautifully conceived. The oppressive Continental Gods have been destroyed, and Saypur occupies their broken cities—including Voortyashtan, once the home of the goddess of war and death, now a shattered place of violence and chaos under Saypur military rule. General Turyin Mulaghesh, a rumored war criminal and a deeply conflicted soul who loathes violence but is exceptionally good at it, is sent undercover to investigate the disappearance of a spy—and find herself chasing after a discovery with the power to alter the world forever, or end it entirely. Bennett balances a somber tone with enough humor and humanity to create a compelling, fascinating universe and a story that benefits from a close reading.
City of Light, by Keri Arthur (January 5, Signet—Paperback)
This series-starter imagines a rich science fantasy world where an epic war between humans and “shifters” who can transition into animal forms escalated to the point where doomsday weapons (including the “déchet,” genetically engineered hybrid soldiers) opened rifts in reality that allowed “Others” to enter the world—wraiths, demons, and worse. In the present, humans and shifters live by an uneasy truce in cities of artificial light that keep the Others at bay,. When a déchet-in-hiding named Tiger rescues a little girl from a wraith in broad daylight, the rules change and things get complicated fast. The world-building is brisk, the mix of sci-fi and urban fantasy is seamless, and the story moves along at a pulse-pounding pace.
Medusa’s Web, by Tim Powers (January 19, William Morrow—Hardcover)
After their aunt commits suicide, siblings Madeline and Scott pay a visit to Caveat, her isolated Hollywood mansion that was also their childhood home. There, they meet their estranged cousins, Ariel and Claimayne, who aren’t happy to see them. Scott and Madeline’s memories of the house aren’t pleasant, and border on the supernatural, with a shared experience involving a drawing of an eight-legged monstrosity. When they discover paintings of the spider-like image amongst the collection of movie props and old furnishings littering the house, they also uncover a dark power their family has kept secret for generations—one to which their cousins have become addicted in ways that have warped their lives. Genre-spinner Powers has created a creepy, compelling fantasy universe where magic has real consequences, and where secret knowledge is hiding behind every door.
Midnight Taxi Tango, by Daniel José Older (January 5, Roc—Paperback)
The sequel to last year’s breakout urban fantasy hit Half-Resurrection Blues returns to a twisted version of Brooklyn haunted by things far worse than hipsters and skyrocketing rents. Half-dead ghost-hunter Carlos Delacruz is once again on the case for the Council of the Dead, and this time he’s tracking the source of a series of grisly supernatural accidents that have claimed the lives of not a few locals living around Von King Park. Meanwhile, Carlos’ friend Kia is being pulled ever-further into his weird orbit, whether she likes it or not.
Otherworld Secrets, by Kelley Armstrong (January 26, Plume—Paperback)
The second anthology set in Armstrong’s Otherworld universe has a “mystery” theme, and features fan-favorite characters Adam, Cassandra, and Savannah. The stories, including a novella, have never before been published, and offer real surprises, not to mention new insights into the rest of the series—and a deeper dive for fans of the TV show on Syfy. Consider this anthology proof that even as the show ends its run, Armstrong has plenty of gas in the tank for future Otherworld adventures.
Roadside Magic, by Lilith Saintcrow (January 26, Orbit—Paperback)
Saintcrow’s sequel to Trailer Park Fae offers more first-class world-building, picking up the story of human-Sidhe hybrids Robin Ragged and her former brother-in-law Jeremiah Gallow as they flee the forces of the Summer Queen and the Lord of Unwinter after the events of the first book. The Summer Queen has dispatched the cunning Trickster and the implacable Huntsman Alaistair Creen to hunt down Robin, who knows the secret behind the plague that is killing the Fae. Combining lyrical prose with a wonderfully realized hidden worlds, this series offers a deep and deeply affecting reading experience, with the emotional bonds between the characters that make their peril—both shared and solo—palpable.
Staked, by Kevin Hearne (January 26, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Hearne returns to the Iron Druid universe with the sequel to Shattered, reuniting readers with the titular modern-day druid Atticus O’Sullivan, his apprentice Granuaile, and Archdruid Owen Kennedy. O’Sullivan squares off against the vampire Theophilus and his legion of followers; Granuaile is desperate to remove Loki’s Mark and regain her freedom; and, aside from adjusting to the 21st century after being frozen in time for 2,000 years, Kennedy has to deal with an aggrieved troll and a swarm of neophyte druid apprentices. These disparate threads come together in a final set piece in Rome that once again proves Hearne a master at this sort of fast-moving, humor-infused urban fantasy.
Starbound, by Dave Bara (January 5, DAW Books—Hardcover)
Bara’s second Lightship Chronicles book returns to the politically and militarily complicated universe of the Union, the First Empire, and naval officer (and heir apparent to the directorship of the planet Quantar) Peter Cochrane. Cochrane is initially satisfied, serving on the Starbound with his lover Dobrina Kierkopf and assigned to investigate an old imperial space station and make contact with a rediscovered planetary civilization. When the mission goes haywire, he is plunged into a morass of political intrigue, treason, and an epic military operation that will test his nerve, courage, and political acumen in ways he never imagined. Bara surprises at every turn, continuing to deepen his characters and universe, slowly revealing unexpected depth to the history of shattered human empires and the Union that seeks to succeed it.
The Art of Magic: the Gathering, by James Wyatt (January 5, Perfect Square—Hardcover)
Initiates of Magic: the Gathering know that part of the pleasure of playing is in the incredible artwork that brings its mystical realms to life. This gorgeous hardcover book brings that art to vibrant life, collecting eye-catching, award-winning paintings of the people, places, and things (read: monsters) of this epic game universe. The book offers secrets and information that only true players will appreciate, while giving anyone new to the game a very good reason to build their first deck: the sheer beauty and imagination on display in these incredible works of art.
The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson (January 26, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Sanderson’s sixth Mistborn novel brings back Waxillium Ladrian and his faithful companion Wayne for a story that begins with a chaotic wedding and quickly expands into a quest for the mythical Bands of Mourning, a magical artifact said to have been prized by the Lord Ruler. Sanderson brings together seeds of story sown in past novels, paying off old mysteries and introducing new ones, and once again achieving something special: managing to craft a tale that stands alone while building up an already fascinating universe—not to mention delivering his signature snappy dialog and twisting plot. Even better, what may be the coolest magic system in modern fantasy only grows more complex, setting the stage for the as-yet-unannounced final volume of the Wax and Wayne trilogy.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Alan Dean Foster (January 5, LucasBooks—Hardcover)
Doubtless you’ve already seen The Force Awakens (heck, judging by the box office, you’ve seen it two or three times), and you have lots of complex thoughts about it, not to mention burning questions. A few of them will be answered in the novelization, which expands upon the screenplay with a few deleted scenes and bits of extra detail. Foster, who was the first person save George Lucas to put pen to paper in the Star War universe, ghostwrote the novelization for the first film nearly 40 years ago.
The Last Dream Keeper, by Amber Benson (January 5, Ace—Paperback)
Benson’s second Echo Park Coven novel hits the ground running as the magical war hinted at in The Witches of Echo Park becomes very real. Lyse MacAllister has to learn magic quickly when she inherits her grandmother’s coven, while also gaining the trust of her coven sisters—including the last Dream Keeper—because they are the only ones who realize the danger posed by the rise of the mysterious Flood. The Greater Council doesn’t take the threat seriously, so it’s up to Lyse and the Echo Park Coven to defend the world against the Flood’s strange power, forcing them to split up just as they’re learning to work together.
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (January 12, Tor Books—Paperback)
Originally published in China in 2008, Cixin Liu’s bestselling novel, translated by rising genre star Ken Liu, became the first translated work to win the coveted Hugo Award for Best Novel. A Chinese military project establishes contact with an alien race, while back at home, people attempt to figure out if they’re going to welcome the visitors, or resist. This trilogy-starter offers a bold new vision of science fiction, loaded with wild ideas and environments that have become cult sensations in its home country. The final book of the series, Death’s End, is out this summer.
The V’Dan, by Jean Johnson (December 29, Ace—Paperback)
The second novel in Johnson’s First Salik War sequence—an offshoot of the Theirs Not to Reason Why series set 200 years earlier—returns us to a universe in which humanity has encountered the cold, vicious Salik empire. Johnson brilliantly shifts perspective to the V’Dan, aliens who believe they are the Chosen People, but who have been content to coexist peacefully with other sentient races for centuries. They are shocked to encounter the Salik, a civilization dedicated to the ruthless destruction of all other races. The V’Dan’s survival comes down to two companions—a prince in trouble and his rescuer, a mysterious ambassador from the Motherworld who carries technological secrets that might be the only hope against the Salik onslaught.
This Census-Taker, by China Miéville (January 12, Del Rey—Hardcover)
In the wake of last year’s landmark short fiction collection Three Moments of an Explosion, China Miéville returns with a beguiling novella that specializes in building an atmosphere of lingering dread and refusing to comfort you with easy answers. A young boys runs into town in a panic. He’s just seen his mother kill his father… or has he? His uncertainty is the question mark at the center of this slim, shifting tale, which slips from first-, to second-, to third-person as it slowly lays out what passes for the facts in a mystery that involves a murder, multiple disappearances, the shadows of strange creatures overhead, a bottomless hole hidden in a cave in the mountains, and a stranger who wanders into town asking the wrong sorts of questions.
This post was published simultaneously on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.