What’s new in science fiction and fantasy lately? So many things. Too many things to keep up with! (Can you tell I constantly feel just a little bit overwhelmed?)
I was very impressed with Alex Wells’ first novel, Hunger Makes the Wolf. I’m looking forward to the second book in the series, but meanwhile, this month sees Wells with a vivid and engaging science fiction novelette here on Tor.com, “The Angel of the Blockade.” In “The Angel of the Blockade,” the best smuggler in the empire takes on a job without examining it too closely. When her cargo tries to hijack her ship, she has to decide whether or not she’s going to condemn a group of desperate refugees to death—or whether she’s going to help people who were willing to kill her until they realised they needed her to fly her ship.
Wells writes a tight, sharp story, its emotional significance carried as much in what isn’t said as what is. Nata, the protagonist, is blind, and the world is textured in smells and sounds and tastes in a way that feels very effective. She has her ship set up the way she wants it—which means it’s unintelligible to sighted people—and she doesn’t want to be “fixed,” thank you very much. She’s extremely competent and legitimately cranky at having her business disrupted without so much as a by-your-leave. All in all, this is an excellent story.
Sarah Gailey’s Taste of Marrow, sequel to River of Teeth, is a tighter, sharper novella than its predecessor. Though I confess to a certain grumpy bewilderment over the choice to produce this story as two novellas rather than one whole novel. It would perhaps have worked a little better—but the elements that made River of Teeth an overall pleasing read remain. Alternate history with American riding hippos! A diverse cast of misfits and compelling criminals—with a love story and a baby. Thanks to events at the end of River of Teeth, Winslow Houndstooth has been separated from his lover Hero. Houndstooth is reluctant to admit that Hero might be dead, and his obsession with finding Hero is starting to worry his friend, conwoman Archie.
Hero, meanwhile, thinks Houndstooth is dead. They’ve been travelling with Adelia, the woman who stabbed them very carefully so that they looked dead but weren’t, and her newborn infant Ysabel while recovering from their wound. When Ysabel is kidnapped in order to force Adelia back to work as an assassin, things come together—or fall apart—in a conclusion rife with feral hippos, startling reunions, and the telling-off of federal marshals.
Taste of Marrow is fun, but it’s unevenly paced, and as a whole, the duology feels slight. But hippos are very entertaining.
Also entertaining is the subgenre of fiction that I can’t help but mentally refer to as Sad Boys in Love, of which K.J. Charles’ Spectred Isle is the latest fantasy example that I’ve read. Set in 1920s England, it stars Saul Lazenby, whose war was bad by virtue of him spending half of it in a military prison, a trained archaeologist whom no one will employ because of his disgrace and who, in consequence, is now working for a wealthy eccentric who has odd notions about mystical confluences. Saul doesn’t know that magic is actually real, and when he learns that it is… well, he’s not a happy man.
Randolph Glyde, on the other hand, knows that magic is painfully real and dangerous. And thanks to the actions of magicians during WWI, there aren’t really enough trained people left to deal with all the consequences of some Really Bad Decisions that were taken during the war. In England, it’s pretty much just Randolph, and a couple of friends. When he keeps running into Saul at sites of magical interest, he’s both suspicious of and intrigued by the other man.
Their relationship unfolds along traditional romance lines, with the added complication of Magical Shit Going Down. Well-paced, well-characterised, and with some interesting worldbuilding, Spectred Isle is really fun. It also opens a series, so I’m definitely looking forward to what’s next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.