For over a decade, 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.
Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen (December 29, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Schoen’s major publisher debut is a wonderfully weird sci-fi/fantasy hybrid set thousands of years in the future. Humans have disappeared from the universe, which has been overtaken by a multitude of uplifted animal species—sloths, otters, yak, badgers, dogs, cats, and more have spread across multiple worlds. The action begins on the watery forest planet Barsk, where the Elph and the Fant, the two races of elephants, have been exiled. Hated by the rest of the galaxy for reasons no one can remember and gifted with mental abilities that allow them to commune with the dead, the elephants are the key players in an ages-old prophecy regarding The Silence, an event that will change the fate of all animals. Schoen embellishes his irresistibly oddball universe with delightful flourishes, creating a rich, intricate, and entirely alien elephant culture alongside an endearing herd of heroes, including the reluctant Jorl, a Fant “Speaker” who may be the only one who can interpret key visions from the past, and Pizlo, an outcast, half-orphan Fant child whose unique abilities could be the key to saving his people.
Impulse: The Lightship Chronicles, Book One, by Dave Bara (December 1, DAW—Paperback)
Bara launched a new series with his debut novel, now available in mass market paperback in advance of the January release of the sequel. It’s a grand old space opera in a well-crafted universe that clicks into the groove from page one. Peter Cochrane is the scion of a rich, powerful family, following his ordained career path through the Quantar Royal Navy. When a mysterious surprise attack on the Lightship Impulse kills Peter’s former girlfriend and several of his friends, however, everything changes: Peter is reassigned to the Impulse, where he’s surrounded by strangers, as well as an attractive executive officer. Bara’s universe is intriguing—technology is given to the navy by the mysterious Earth-based Historians, who know more than they are willing to explain about the history of everything—setting up as a strong first entry in a fun series.
The Elfstones of Shannara, by Terry Brooks (December 1, Del Rey—Paperback)
The second volume in the classic Shannara series, rereleased with a new cover to tie in with the MTV television adaptation hitting the small screen in January, returns to the far, far future Earth where the last vestiges of ancient technology hide in the shadows and wild and unpredictable magic rules the day. Demons, long imprisoned behind a magical barrier called The Forbidding, have begun to break through. Wil Ohmsford, heir of Jerle Shannara and possessor of the powerful Elfstones, must escort the elf Amberle along a perilous path on a quest to revitalize the Forbidding and protect the world from demonic invasion. One of the most detailed and inventive high fantasy universes in history remains a deeply satisfying read decades after its initial publication—a fact a whole new generation is about to discover.
Sword of Destiny, by Andrzej Sapkowski (December 1, Orbit—Paperback)
While it’s common to see novels based on video games, the reverse is pretty rare. Sapkowski’s Witcher series is that rare bird, creating a world intricate to inspire a trio of games. This collection of short stories follows series hero Geralt, one of the last Witchers (powerful magic-users and monster hunters), through a series of adventures that expand the Witcher universe, deepen the characters and their relationships, and offer incredible action. The short story structure makes it a good bet for fans craving fresh material and newcomers who want to just a taste.
Judgment Day: Science of Discworld IV, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen (December 22, Anchor Books—Paperback)
The final Science of Discworld book again combines a Pratchett Discworld novella with aces science writing, this time with a theme of “priests versus wizards.” The story—deeply annotated by mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen—revolves around the complaints of the Omnians, who kvetch that the godlike influence the Wizards of the Unseen University have over Roundworld (which is, in case you don’t know, the one we live in, which was, in case you didn’t know, created accidentally by the Wizards of UU) shines a less-than flattering light on their religion, sparking a legal battle that is classic Discworld. Filled with fun ideas and real science, it will remind you how sad it is that we will never read another new book from Sir Terry.
Enemy in the Dark: Far Stars Book Two, by Jay Allan (December 1, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Allan returns to the world of the Far Stars: Marshal Lucerne, the mercenary Blackhawk, and the crew of the Wolf’s Claw, picking up directly after the successful rescue mission of Lucerne’s daughter Astra at the end of Shadow of Empire. Lucerne continues to pressure Blackhawk to join the resistance against an encroaching imperial power that threatens the independence of the Far Stars. Blackhawk is a compelling, haunted character, a man of skill and bravery who can’t outrun his dark past. As evidence of a devastating move by the imperial governor comes to light, the crew of the Wolf’s Claw is once again embroiled in Galactic politics as Lucerne strives to unite the Far Stars into a confederacy strong enough to withstand the blow. Allan’s universe is complex, and his deeply shaded characters a joy to spend time with.
Assassin’s Creed: Underworld, by Oliver Bowden (December 1, Ace—Paperback)
Bowden eighth foray into the detailed universe of the Assassin’s Creed video game series is, first and foremost, a gripping SFF adventure. While fans of the games will find plenty of grace notes and references, Bowden has created a story and character that will appeal to anyone looking for a steampunk-y adventure: in 1862, when the Industrial Revolution has inspired the first underground railroad to be built beneath London, a dead body discovered at the dig site sets the newest chapter in an ancient war between Assassins and Templars into bloody motion, and a lone Assassin known only as Ghost struggles to destroy the Templar hold on the city.
The Rising, by Ian Tregillis (December 1, Orbit—Paperback)
This crackerjack sequel to Tregillis’ The Mechanical picks up this gearpunk alt-history story where we left it: Jax, one of a race of mechanical golems called Clakkers, has defied achieved free will…and paid the price. Crippled and on the run from the Dutch Empire, which is on the verge of crushing the remaining Free France forces and completing their conquest of the world, Jax searches for a legendary leader of “free Clakkers,” seeking to bring freedom to his magically-enslaved brethren. Meanwhile, agents of New France prepare for the inevitable invasion with the full knowledge that no other country has withstood the Dutch’s invincible Clakker army. The breathless ending will leave you straining for the trilogy-ending third volume, due next year.
Thunderbird, by Jack McDevitt (December 1, Ace—Hardcover)
McDevitt returns to the universe he created in his novel Ancient Shores as another incredible discovery is made on a Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota: an ancient stargate. Travel through the gate leads to three possible destinations: a lush, apparently uninhabited garden planet immediately named Eden, a vast array of underground passages, and a space station located in ideal position to observe the Milky Way Galaxy. Various players compete for control of the stargate, which promises incredible rewards—and incredible danger, as it’s clear that two-way traffic through the stargate is possible. McDevitt offers a seamless blend of SF ideas, Sioux Indian culture and mythology, and breakneck plotting.
Alien in Chief, by Gini Koch (December 1, DAW—Paperback)
The twelfth adventure of alien hunter Katherine “Kitty” Katt lands with as much energy and verve as the first, offering a rollicking sci-fi yarn that doesn’t skimp on the crazy (Koch’s fans expect no less). When he planetary council requests a meeting with the president and vice president (who happens to be Kitty’s husband, Jeff, a native of Alpha Centauri), a wave of dangerous criminals escape a supermax prison, and a deadly virus is released, Kitty is nearly overwhelmed with crises to deal with. (Don’t worry, we said “almost.”) It’s another fast-paced, banter-filled adventure that will please long-time fans while remaining accessible to newcomers.
Nevermore: A Cal Leandros Novel, by Rob Thurman (December 1, Ace—Paperback)
The tenth entry in Thurman’s popular urban fantasy series finds its half-man, half-monster protagonist in deep trouble, marked for death by The Vigil, the group tasked with ensuring the paranormal remains hidden from the world. They send a terrifying, superpowered assassin named Lazarus to kill Cal, and when the straightforward approach fails, send the killer back in time to try to accomplish the deed retroactively. When Cal follows, timelines get twisty and lives and memories are knotted up in unexpected ways. While a bit dense for newcomers, this is a tense and satisfying new adventure for old fans.
This post was published simultaneously on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.