For two decades, Jim Killen has served as the science fiction and fantasy book buyer for Barnes & Noble. Every month on Tor.com and the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Jim shares his curated list of the month’s best science fiction & fantasy books.
Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town (B&N Exclusive Edition), by Adam Christopher (May 28, Del Rey—Hardcover)
The universe of Netflix’s hit series continues expands with a tense, engrossing novel focusing on the backstory of Police Chief Jim Hopper (originally slated for release in June, it was pushed up to May, but we still want to highlight it here). It’s Christmas 1984. Hopper hopes to spend a quiet holiday at home with his adopted daughter Eleven, but she’d rather Jim open up to her about his past—specifically, what happened to him in New York in 1977. Reluctantly, Hopper tells the tale, which begins with him as a recently returned Vietnam vet with a young daughter and a loving wife, working a beat as a detective in the NYPD. As he investigates a series of brutal murders, Hopper is stunned when federal agents seize all of his files and warn him off the case. Unable to obey, he goes undercover into a world of violent street gangs, searching for the truth—but when the great citywide blackout hits, plunging the city into chaos, he finds himself all alone, facing something worse than he ever imagined. Author Adam Christopher satisfies, whether he’s writing a tie-in novel or something original (his Ray Electromatic mystery series is pure fun).
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson (June 4, William Morrow—Hardcover)
Neal Stephenson gives the near-future world of his 2011 techno-thriller Reamde a science-fantasy twist in a largely standalone followup that revisits the character of Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the multi-billionaire founder of Corporation 9592 and creator of the MMORPG T’Rain. In his youth, Forthrast stipulated in his will that when he died his brain should be scanned and preserved by a company owned by the mysterious Elmo Shepherd. When a routine surgery goes wrong and he’s declared brain dead, that’s exactly what happens—if much earlier than he ever expected. Generations later, as the “Meatspace” world spirals into post-truth chaos, a technological breakthrough arrives that allows Forthrast’s brain to be “turned on” again in the virtual Bitworld. While existing as an immortal digital soul in a world without physical constraints sounds great, Forthrast soon finds himself in a desperate battle with Shepherd, also dead and uploaded. Forthrast explores this new phase of human existence and Stephenson ponders existential questions large and small as Dodge and the other denizens of Bitworld must determine how to live in a malleable reality limited only by their imaginations.
Magic for Liars: A Novel, by Sarah Gailey (June 4, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Ivy and Tabitha are sisters, estranged for years by the bitter divide between Tabitha’s magical abilities and Ivy’s complete lack of same. Tabitha went on to teach at the prestigious Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, while Ivy ekes out a living working as a private investigator. When a murder is committed at the Academy, Ivy’s desperate financial situation drives her to take the case despite her animosity toward her sister—and mages in general. At Osthorne, Ivy finds out that even magical academies have Mean Girls, Queen Bees, and popular kids—that is to say, no shortage of murder suspects. As she pretends to have magical powers in order to gain the trust and cooperation of the students and faculty, Ivy finds that to crack the case she’s going to have to face her own fears, her history with her sister, and pull off the most difficult trick of them all: forgiving herself. Regular B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog contributor Sarah Gailey delivers a gripping debut novel, equal parts hardboiled magical noir and gripping psychological drama.
Unraveling, by Karen Lord (June 4, DAW—Hardcover)
Award-winner Karen Lord’s new standalone fantasy (her first novel in four years) opens with forensic therapist Dr. Miranda Ecouvo triumphant; a killer responsible for seven murders is behind bars thanks to her work. But a harrowing near-death experience soon thrusts her into a whole other reality, where she meets the near-immortal Chance and Trickster, brothers who reveal the difficult truth—the entity truly responsible for the murders is seeking immortality, and it’s not done killing. The brothers guide her through the labyrinths of this hidden world, assuring her the killer can still be stopped, and it’s up to her to do it. As reality, memory, and dreams converge, Miranda and the brothers fight to bring true justice to two worlds.
Alphabet Squadron (B&N Exclusive Edition), by Alexander Freed (June 11, LucasBooks—Hardcover)
Star Wars: Battlefront author Alexander Freed returns to the galaxy far, far away for a new story set in the wake of the Rebel Alliance’s triumph in The Return of the Jedi. The Empire is in disarray and the New Republic is struggling to establish itself and finish the galactic civil war for once and for all. Yrica Quell is a defector from the Empire, recruited to be a pilot for the elite Alphabet Squadron (so named because it includes each of the Rebel’s iconic alphabetical ship designs, from A-Wing to X-). The squadron has been charged with locating and destroying Shadow Wing, an elite force of TIE fighters gone rogue, which has been inflicting lethal damage to New Republic forces. The Alphabet Squadron is like the burgeoning government itself—rough and ragged and internal and external threats that are always on the verge of destroying them without a single shot fired. But they’re also resourceful and dedicated—not to mention some of the greatest pilots in the galaxy.Freed recreates the balance of memorable characters and high-stakes action that typified the best of the now-Legends X-Wing novels, but that’s not the only reason to read:in an interesting publishing experiment, he flip side of the story is told in Marvel’s TIE Fighter comic, which views things from the perspective of the Imperial pilots of the Shadow Wing who are seeking to destroy the New Republic before it can even begin.
The Faded Sun Trilogy Omnibus, by C. J. Cherryh (June 11, DAW—Hardcover)
This classic trilogy from C.J. Cherryh, set in her larger Alliance-Union universe, takes place in the aftermath of a 40-year war between the alien Regul and the humans—who have proven to be the fiercest and most bafflingly violent enemy the Regul or their honor-bound mercenaries the Mri have ever faced. In fact, after thousands of years of service the Mri have been nearly wiped out by humanity’s ruthless warring, and as the story begins, their homeworld of Kesrith has been ceded to the humans as part of a peace settlement. When the extent of the Regul’s betrayal of the Mri becomes clear, one of their last warriors, Niun; his sister Melein, last priestess of the Sen; and a human traitor named Sten Duncan become determined to locate a relic that holds the key to the Mri’s survival. The trilogy—now available in one volume after years out of print—explores themes on genocide, cultural assimilation, and the brutal consequences of war, while expanding the worlds of one of the most complex and satisfying fictional universes ever created.
The Grand Dark, by Richard Kadrey (June 11, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
Richard Kadrey takes a detour from his bestselling Sandman Slim series for a dark, gritty novel with shades of dystopian sci-fi and bizarre fantasy. In the aftermath of the Great War, Lower Proszawa is a city finally free to sink into endless hedonism and decadence. Largo Moorden has already been swallowed by the city—an addict, he works for a shadowy crime lord, navigating a world covered in mysterious “city dust,” inhabited by genetically engineered monsters, plagued by a ruthless disease known as The Drops, and crawling with artificially intelligent automata that are relentlessly replacing humans. Largo has a plan to get out of the slums and rub shoulders with the elites, but his ambitions run him smack into those of other forces, which share a much darker collective vision for the future of Lower Proszawa—and the world beyond. Even readers who might miss the more overt gallows humor of Kadrey’s other work will goggle at the scope of the imaginative worldbuilding on display here.
Green Valley, by Louis Greenberg (June 11, Titan—Paperback)
Louis Greenberg sets this Black Mirror-esque novel in Stanton, a city that has thoroughly rejected the surveillance state, banning all forms of intrusive digital tracking and data collection. Across from Stanton is the last holdout—Green Valley, a bunker where the inhabitants live in a permanent virtual-reality, offering up all the data they can generate. When dead kids with VR implants start turning up in Stanton, police consultant Lucie Sterling—whose niece Kira lives in Green Valley—is called in to take the case, which takes a desperate turn when Kira is abducted. Lucie will have to dive into the virtual world in order to save her and solve the mystery—but she quickly discovers the surface image of a perfect digital paradise Green Valley presents hides a much darker reality.
The Outside, by Ada Hoffmann (June 11, Angry Robot—Paperback)
In a universe where incredibly advanced AI are worshiped as gods and cyborg angels serve as their avatars, humanity’s last hope to break free lies with the space station The Pride of Jai, built entirely without gods’ help and powered by brilliant scientist Yasira Shien’s innovative reactor design. But when the reactor is powered up, disaster strikes—a singularity destroys the station and kills almost everyone on board. Yasira is brought before the gods and told that the disaster is part of a plot to warp reality itself, allowing for an invasion of terrifying monsters from outside our reality. The all-powerful AI believe the plot was engineered by Yasira’s own long-missing mentor Evianna Talirr, but as Yasira is transported to the edge of the galaxy to confront her former teacher, she finds herself questioning the divinity of the gods and the ruthless angels she has always obeyed without question. Hoffman’s debut is starkly original, and tinged with hints of horror fantasy—truly operatic stuff.
Recursion, by Blake Crouch (June 11, Crown—Hardcover)
At the start of Blake Crouch’s latest mind-bending high-concept sci-fi thriller, New York City detective Barry Sutton begins to encounter people suffering from False Memory Syndrome—a condition where they “remember” lives they never lived, and suffer emotionally due to tragedies they never actually experienced. A year earlier, a brilliant neuroscientist named Helena Smith accepts funding from a mega-wealthy sponsor in order to create a device that can preserve memories to be re-experienced whenever desired—but it also allows people to literally enter those memories, changing everything. As the disorder spreads throughout the city, reality itself is threatened; who can say what is real when you can’t trust your own memories? As Harry connects with Helena and they realize her research is destabilizing the world, the two join forces to find a way to save the human race from this threat from within.
The Sol Majestic, by Ferrett Steinmetz (June 11, Tor Books—Paperback)
This unusual SF romp from the author of the decidedly wacky Flex urban fantasy series centers on Kenna, a teenage member of a religious group called the Inevitable Philosophers. Followers like his parents once wielded great influence in the galaxy, but the religion has waned. One night, doubting Kenna arrives at the famous restaurant the Sol Majestic, where the rich and powerful wait years for a reservation and a nightly free meal is offered to the person who offers the best answer to the question “why do you love food?’” and wins the prize, endearing himself to the head chef, Paulius, who finds his religion intriguing. Kenna is brought into the restaurant’s inner circle, and ersatz found family, and is introduced to the galaxy of great food. But as his Wisdom Ceremony approaches—even as his faith in the Inevitable Philosophies shrinks—Kenna must find his own truth, even as a villain emerges who threatens everything he’s come to suddenly find most dear.
Velocity Weapon, by Megan E. O’Keefe (June 11, Orbit—Paperback)
Megan O’Keefe (airship heist fantasy Steal the Sky) launches a new space opera series with the story of Sanda and Biran Greeve, a skilled pilot and politician respectively. Together they seek to defend their homeworld and deter an all-out war with its enemies. But when Sanda’s ship is attacked, she goes down—and wakes up more than two centuries later, missing a leg and marooned on an abandoned enemy warship. Her only company is the ship’s AI, the Light of Berossus, aka Bero, who informs her that both warring planets were destroyed long ago, and she might be the only human left in the universe. In the past, Biran struggles with the impact of war and a young thief named Jules plots a heist; in the present, another survivor arrives on Bero’s ship—an enemy combatant named Tomas. As the two timelines slowly converge, the twists come fast and furious, as Sanda must decide what it means to be human, and whether there is even room for humanity in a time of war. In a fantastic year for space opera (see below), this one shouldn’t be overlooked.
Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone (June 18, Tor Books—Paperback)
The Hugo-nominated author of the Craft Sequence fantasy series makes a stunning shift to sci-fi with this splashy, wildly imaginative, utterly strange, and truly intergalactic standalone novel, the anti-hero’s journey of Vivian Lao, a brilliant, morally conflicted young tech billionaire on the verge of world domination—or total destruction at the hands of her many enemies. When she fakes her death and flees to a server farm at the center of the worldwide digital cloud, intending to hack in and make her checkmate move, she unwittingly trips an alarm, endangers a dear friend, and encounters a powerful glowing figure who transports her into an unknown realm that might be a distant galaxy, the far future of her own, or something else entirely. Viv finds herself in a time and place she doesn’t recognized, a universe ruled by the terrifying, emerald-skinned Empress, whose access to a far more advanced Cloud allows her monitor everything, and destroy any civilization that advances to a point that might attract the attention of the Bleed, a truly alien entity that devours reality itself. Viv wasn’t built for terror and passivity, though, and quickly assembles a rag-tag group of heretics, criminals, ex-warlords, and nanobot outcasts, and dedicates herself to breaking the Empress’ hold on the universe. Like Guardians of the Galaxy on mescaline, it’s space opera like you’ve never imagined it.
FKA USA, by Reed King (June 18, Flatiron Books—Hardcover)
Reed King (a pseudonym for a “New York Times bestselling author and screenwriter”) crafts a delirious vision of a terrible future. In 2085, Truckee Wallace lives in a part of the former United States called Crunch, United, working in a food processing plant. He has no particular enthusiasm for his life, but his humdrum days start looking better to him after the president of the company charges Truckee with transporting a talking goat named Barnaby across the country as part of an effort to stymie the nefarious plans of the inventor of a technology that links human brains with electronic devices. As Truckee travels with Barnaby across an environmentally blasted hellscape that was once these United States, he’s joined by a sentient android longing to be human and a lobotomized former prisoner, and struggles with his own ambivalence about whether or not the world he’s trying to save is worth saving at all.
Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh (June 18, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
This lush, gorgeously written novella from Emily Tesh puts a queer twist on the ancient story of the Green Man. Tobias Finch has spent centuries watching over Greenhollow Wood with only his cats and the dryads for company. One day a handsome young man named Henry shows up at Tobias’ door, dripping wet from misadventure. Tobias recognizes Henry as the new owner of the woods, and feels an instant attraction that Tobias initially resists. Fate soon brings the two back together, however, and Tobias discovers Henry has hidden depths—including an interest in collecting and preserving the local myths and legends. Henry begins to pursue the truth behind one of them, involving a wild man who roams the woods and abducts young men, putting himself in danger and pushing Tobias to a crisis point.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall (June 18, Ace—Paperback)
Alexis Hall delivers what can best be described as a raucous, passionate, remarkable mashup of H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert W. Chambers. After fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham returns to his home city of Khelathra-Ven, a place where time and geography are fluid. He’s forced by circumstances to share rooms with Shaharazad Haas, a sorceress of legendary deductive abilities with a reputation for drug binges and darkness. When Haas is hired by socialite Lady Eirene Viola Delhali to investigate who is attempting to blackmail her out of following through on her marriage, Shaharazad quickly narrows the possible suspects—and enlists a reluctant Wyndham to travel through various trippy areas of the city in search clues. Along the way, he faces insane old gods and a prison cell in Carcosa, much to his dismay. The further they dig into the case, the more impossible it seems—even for a place like Khelathra-Ven.
The Brink: An Awakened Novel, by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth (June 18, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
The sequel to Awakened, in which a newly developed deep subway line championed by NYC mayor Tom Cafferty brought a wave of bloodthirsty monsters bubbling up from below, picks up in the stunned aftermath of what Cafferty and his allies learned was no accident, but a planned attack. The creatures have now spread across the globe, a massive cover-up is in effect, and a shadowy organization is using the secret of how to kill the creatures to blackmail desperate nations. Cafferty, ex-police officer Sarah Bowcut, and technical genius Diego Munoz realize that they may be the only people with the knowledge necessary to stave off the apocalypse—if they can make their move before it’s too late. “Ridiculously fun” isn’t often a phrase used to describe a horror novel, but we’re just going to call a C.H.U.D. and C.H.U.D. here.
The Girl in Red, by Christina Henry (June 18, Berkley—Paperback)
Retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in a post-apocalyptic setting, revisionist bestseller Christina Henry (Alice, Red Queen, Lost Boy)introduces Red, aka Cordelia, a young woman with a prosthetic leg trying to survive in a world gone mad. Three months before, the Crisis began—a terrifying plague that has killed most of the global population and led to the creation of horrifying monsters. Most of the survivors are huddled in quarantine camps, which have become a breeding ground for desperate acts of violence and terror. Red is determined to travel through the woods to her grandmother’s rural home to make sure she’s okay, but knows that even armed with an axe it’s going to be a dangerous journey—and not only because of the men she might encounter, who might view her gender and her missing limb as weaknesses that make her an easy target. But Red is determined, and no matter how grim her journey becomes, she refuses to give up, relying on her survival skills to guide her through a journey she has no guarantee of completing.
The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind, by Jackson Ford (June 18, Orbit—Paperback)
Teagan Frost is special and not sure how she feels about it. As far as she knows, she’s the only telekinetic in the world. She’s struck a deal with a shadowy spook named Tanner: she completes impossible missions for him, and he ensures she doesn’t end up in a government lab being dissected by overeager scientists. Teagan would much rather be vegging out in front of Netflix, but does as she’s told. But when a dead body turns up at the site of her last mission, murdered in a way only a telekinetic could have accomplished, Teagan must prove her innocence within a day or lose Tanner’s protection. Meanwhile, a drifter named Jake is given three tasks to accomplish in order to gain information about his mysterious past, which might also hold answers for Teagan—and have implications for the fates of millions. Ford’s debut holds nothing back, delivering a sense of absurd fun and high-speed thrills that more than lives up to that amazing title.
The Lesson, by Cadwell Turnbull (June 18, Blackstone—Hardcover)
Five years ago, an alien spaceship appeared over the Virgin Islands, and the Ynaa arrived, claiming to be conducting a peaceful—but highly secret—research mission. The Ynaa offer benefits to their human hosts/hostages like incredible healing powers, but punish any form of aggression toward them with brutal violence. As a result, the relationship between the species is fraught, meaning Ynaa ambassador Mera and her human assistant Derrick have they work cut out for them: as the anniversary of the death of a child killed by the Ynaa comes around, tensions threaten to boil over into open conflict as a cycle of violent retribution is set in motion. Mera and Derrick are forced to choose sides in a war that has been five years in the making. Turnbull’s debut—which the publisher bills as one of the first speculative novels set in the Virgin Islands—explores themes of colonialism and prejudice with literary style, pairing nicely with similarly themed (and much praised) works like Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 Edition, edited by Rich Horton (June 18, Prime Books—Paperback)
The latest volume of editor Rich Horton’s legendary anthology series offers up a murderer’s row of SFF talent. Stories include gems from Yoon Ha Lee (“The Starship and the Temple Cat”), Cadwell Turnbull (“Jump”), Ursula K. Le Guin (“Firelight”), Lavie Tidhar (“The Buried Giant”), and Nebula nominee Alix E. Harrow (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”) as well as many others pulled from premier markets like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. Horton pulls stories from a wide net both geographically and in terms of sources, offering a wide view of speculative fiction as it stands today.
War, by Michelle West (June 18, DAW—Hardcover)
An outgrowth of Michelle West’s Sun Sword series focusing on the character of Jewel Markess A’Terafin, the final book of the House War series (which was split into two when it metastasized in the writing; penultimate book Firstborn arrived in February) manages to pull everything together more or less perfectly. The Sleepers, long imprisoned by the gods, are beginning to wake—and the gods are no longer around to keep them in check—and they will only obey the Winter Queen. Jewel has one of the last saplings that could bring on a new Summer Age. She has no idea how to get to the Court of the Winter Queen, but she does have her powers of prophecy and a fierce determination to save her city and her people, no matter the personal cost. This is an outstanding final chapter of an expansive epic that stretches across 14 books.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick (June 25, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Michael Swanwick surprises with a direct sequel to his 1993 science fantasy classic The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. The followup tells the story of Caitlin of House Sans Merci, a half-human pilot of mechanical dragons. After completing her first mission, she finds she has a hitchhiker in her head named Helen—but before she can puzzle that out, she finds herself framed for a series of terrible crimes, including the murder of her brother. Believing he must still be alive, Caitlin flees into the lands of the industrialized faerie, and discovers a twisted society where changeling women are used as breeding stock and pilots are punished if they do not remain virgins. As she pursues the truth to prove her innocence, Caitlin finds herself working toward a greater goal than her own freedom, assembling a heroic group of friends to help her liberate those suffering under an oppressive society.