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.
Beneath the Twisted Trees, by Bradley P. Beaulieu (July 2, DAW—Hardcover)
The fourth book in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of Shattered Sands series finds the evil kings in the city of Sharakhai clinging to power and using enslaved souls, plagues, and other dark arts to strike out against their enemies. Across the vast sands, Çeda and her Shieldwives and Blade Maiden sisters struggle to free the cursed king Sehid-Alaz while the kingdoms surrounding the city sense its weakness and gather their forces to take advantage. As everything comes to a boil inside and outside Sharakhai, the age of the Kings may finally be about to end—though probably not without complications, as two books remain in this engrossing series, with worldbuilding that has only grown more detailed.
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2018, edited by Neil Clarke (July 2, Night Shade Books—Hardcover)
If you’re going to trust one editor to pick the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year, Neil Clarke is a good bet—in addition to his shepherding of award-winning magazine Clarkesworld, he’d assembled a bookshelf’s worth of fantastic themed and annual anthologies.Here he has collected 29 standouts from 2018 into a must-have book for any serious fan of short SFF. Stories include “Byzantine Empathy” by Ken Liu, “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” by Alyssa Wong, “Okay, Glory” by Elizabeth Bear, “Different Seas” by Alastair Reynolds, and 25 more stories from the likes of Kelly Robson, Lavie Tidhar, Yoon Ha Lee, and Rich Larson. It’s an essential snapshot of what’s happening in sci-fi and fantasy fiction right now.
Dragonslayer, by Duncan M. Hamilton (July 2, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Here there be dragons: self-publishing success Duncan Hamilton kicks off a new trilogy with Tor Books focused on Guillot “Gill” dal Villerauvais, once a heroic dragonslayer in a French-flavored fantasy world, now a drunken nobleman in a kingdom that hasn’t seen a dragon in decades. When one of the giant beasts suddenly appears, Gill is the only man left with the skills to stand against it—but things aren’t as simple as they seem: a secret order of mages has recruited a new member for nefarious purposes, and even the dragon turns out to have more complex motivations than expected. This is a fun adventure buoyed by strong characters and a flavorful fantasy setting.
Priest of Lies, by Peter McLean (July 2, Ace—Paperback)
Book two of Peter McLean’s The Godfather-esque crime fantasy series War for the Rose Throne finds Tomas Piety, former gangster, royal spy, and priest, flush with new power—and new problems. After returning to find his gang, the Pious Men, displaced by foreign powers in the city of Elinburg, Piety paid a dear price in a power play that left him still standing, but beholden to the Queen’s Men and ensnared in a complex web of political maneuvering, facing down both rival gangs and more ostensibly legitimate powers. The price he’s paid in blood is already steep—and it only gets steeper as this compelling “low fantasy” saga continues.
Crowfall, by Ed McDonald (July 2, Ace—Paperback)
The third book in the Raven’s Mark series finds the Deep Kings close to a final victory, as the Range—the last line of defense between them and the republic—and the Nameless—the gods who have long protected it—are both broken. Without the strength of the Nameless, the Blackwing captains are toppling one after another as the Deep Kings ready one final, decisive blow. Ryhalt Galharrow has been in the wasteland known as the Misery for so long it has become a part of him, and the Blackwing captains line up behind him for one last mission that will decide the fate of the republic for once and for all. McDonald’s talent for creating characters you’ll love and then showing them no mercy has not abated as he brings his trilogy to a rousing close.
The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (July 2, Vintage—Paperback)
The Vandermeers bring to fantasy the same monumental efforts at curation and translation that brought about the massive, absolutely essential 2016 anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction. Fantasy being a much older genre than SF, they’ve been forced to limit the scope to stories written from the early 19th century through World War II, but that still leaves then with enough material to collect a whopping 90 classic tales. Selections range from the familiar (Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Laughead’s Paul Bunyan stories) to the obscure and newly translated, and everything in-between. Tolkien, Wharton, Cather, Nobokov, Du Bois, and many more names from the world over are featured in a collection that traces the development of an entire genre and places it into glorious context.
Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig (July 2, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Chuck Wendig’s newest is grander and more ambitious than anything else he’s written, a massive epic that evokes classic Stephen King in all the best ways. One evening a young girl named Nessie begins sleepwalking. Her sister, Shana, is increasingly alarmed as Nessie doesn’t respond and can’t be awakened, rising inexorably to walk in a specific direction. Shana soon discovers her sibling is but one of the victims of a pandemic sweeping the country. As more and more people begin sleepwalking, and more and more self-appointed “shepherds” like Shana seek to protect their loved ones as they wander, a mysterious government agency tries to discover the meaning behind this strange, shambling apocalypse. As society begins to fray and violent forces seek to put an end to the plague, the novel delves into questions of free will, zealotry, and faith.
Eye Spy, by Mercedes Lackey (July 9, DAW—Hardcover)
In the sequel to The Hills Have Spies, a spycrafty extension of Mercedes Lackey’s beloved Valdemar series, the daughter of Heralds Mags and Amily of Valdemar wants nothing more than to follow in her parents’ footsteps. But Abidela doesn’t have a Gift—until she senses a disaster moments before it strikes and saves many lives, including her bestie Princess Katiana. Abi is claimed as an apprentice by both the Artificers and the Healers, and her training reveals heretofore unknown aspects of her power that might make her the most powerful and effective spy the realm has ever known. But with no secret hidden enough to elude her—a fact that carries great consequences both for her and for the entire kingdom of Valdemar.
David Mogo, Godhunter, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (July 9, Abaddon—Paperback)
The gods, called orisha, have fallen to earth, and the city of Lagos is under threat. Demigod David Mogo has long buried his origins, but in order to defend his family and friends from this deific threat, he steps forward to fight and make alliances with both humans and gods, seeking to capture two of the most powerful celestials and deliver them to the wizard Lukmon Ajala. But even a demigod has his work cut out for him when going up against thousands of fallen gods. For David, saving his beloved city and those closest to him will be anything but easy in this unusual urban fantasy debut.
Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace (July 9, Berkley—Hardcover)
The immense exploration ship House of Wisdom was abandoned by Earth years ago in the wake of the devastation wrought by a deadly virus that killed all but one of the crew on board. The ship sits dark and empty—but Zahra and her people intend to claim it and use it to go home, to their salvation. In order to access the ship, they’ll have to kidnap the lone survivor of the incident in order to use their DNA for access—but that’s the least of their problems. Because House of Wisdom contains something much worse than a virus—something that Zahra and the other are about to awaken. This sci-fi horror thriller looks do outdo the scares of Alien, and comes damn close.
The Redemption of Time, by Baoshu, translated by Ken Liu (July 16, Tor Books—Hardcover)
What began as a work of quasi-fanfiction is now canon, as Baoshu imagines a new, officially sanctioned story in the universe of Cixin Liu’s sci-fi epic The Remembrance of Earth’s Past (which began with the Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem). Baoshu’s novel (translated from Chinese into English by the author Ken Liu, a true champion of Chinese SF in translation) considers into the consequences of humanity’s fight against the Trisolarans. Yun Tianming planned to kill himself after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, but instead found himself frozen and captured by the Trisolarans, who tortured him beyond endurance for decades. He eventually helped the aliens conquer humanity in order to save Earth from destruction, and is given a healthy clone body. He lives as a traitor to his own race until his new body also begins to fail. Then, once again, Yun is regenerated, and once again recruited by an alien force to save the universe—except this time, Yun is determined to reclaim control of his destiny.
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (July 16, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Two of the finest prose stylists in modern fantasy combine their efforts in this poetic, wrenching story of love, war, and time travel. Red and Blue represent rival factions battling for control of the future—Red part of a technologically-advanced, artificially intelligent faction, Blue part of a hyper-evolved biological hive mind. As they fight their war across time and space, they can’t resist disobeying orders in order to taunt and challenge each other via fiendishly hidden letters, encoded into bones and blood and earth. Slowly, their relationship evolves from adversarial into one of grudging respect, then regard—and then love, a love expressed across centuries, one careful message at a time. If their affair is discovered, they both face execution as traitors—but they’re changing each other, and the future is never written in stone.
The Border Keeper, by Kerstin Hall (July 16, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
Kerstin Hall’s makes her debut with a short novel that grows ornately from a seemingly straightforward premise: a man named Vasethe arrives at the border between the worlds of the living and the dead and implores the border keeper—who he calls Eris, a name the keeper hoped no one remembered—to guide him to the soul of his departed love. As the guardian leads him through the spirit world, called Mkalis, things shift and shapes change, and the pair travels through a series of disorienting and disturbing realms. As the true nature of Vasethe’s quest is slowly revealed, the ever-shifting border keeper realizes the traveler’s true purpose threatens the very realms she is charged with protecting.
The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter (July 16, Orbit—Hardcover)
Evan Winter’s debut epic fantasy, which became a self-publishing success story before being picked up by Orbit, explores the power of rage in a land defined by war. The Omehi have been fighting for centuries—their whole society is built around it, led by the rare women who can call forth dragons and the rare men who can transform themselves into super soldiers. Tau is neither, which makes him meat for the endless war’s grinder—unless he simply opts out, seeking a convenient injury so he can retire to a farm and a peaceful life. But betrayal decimates his world and kills everyone he loves—and his rage leads him to seek to become the greatest swordsman of his age—the better to help him as he cuts and slashes his way to vengeance. Drawing from African traditions, this is an epic fantasy that does something different while giving you everything you love about the genre.
Unforeseen, by Molly Gloss (July 16, Gallery/Saga Press—Hardcover)
Molly Gloss is rightly lauded for her novels (both mainstream and fantastical), but she’s also made a name for herself with her deft shorter work: stories that combine a literary sensibility with SFF tropes and a deep understanding of what makes us human. Collected here is a career-spanning set of stories, including three appearing in print for the first time—a real treasure for both longtime fans as well as readers discovering the author for the first time (perhaps via Saga Press’s mission to ensure her legacy among genre readers?). Included here are the stories Interlocking Pieces,” which was included in The Norton Book of Science Fiction; “The Grinnell Method,” winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award; and “Lambing Season,” which was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Howling Dark, by Christopher Ruocchio (July 16, DAW—Hardcover)
The sequel to Christopher Ruocchio’s grandly epic space saga Empire of Silence continues the confession of Hadrian Marlowe, once heir to an empire, later an amnesiac living on the streets of an alien city, and, eventually, the Sun Eater, destroyer of worlds. Hadrian has been seeking the lost planet of Vorgossos and the legendary alien Cielcin, but after decades, the search has gone cold, and he begins to lead a group of mercenaries among the farther suns and the barbarians. When Hadrian seeks peace with the aliens humanity has been battling, he must leave the Sollan Empire’s borders and deal with treachery in order to secure it. If he fails, it could trigger the burning of the universe. With the scope of Dune and a confessional, first-person voice that puts us into the mind of a possible madman, this is space opera at its most riveting and grandiose.
Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (July 23, Del Rey—Hardcover)
Infused with and inspired by Mexican folk stories, the latest novel from the author of Certain Dark Things is a Mexican folklore-inspired epic that tells the story of young Casiopea Tun, who slaves away keeping her wealthy grandfather’s house until she stumbles on a mysterious wooden box. When she opens it, she releases the Mayan god of death—a curiously charming entity who asks Casiopea to help him regain his throne from his treacherous brother. Casiopea knows the risk—failure means her death—but the rewards are too tempting to pass up. Accompanying the charismatic god to the Mayan underworld and beyond, Casiopea is determined to have a life that goes far beyond the small Mexican town she was born in, even if it costs her everything.
Desdemona and the Deep, by C.S.E. Cooney (July 23, Tor.com Publishing—Paperback)
This novella from World Fantasy Award-winning author C.S.E. Cooney focuses on Desdemona Mannering, the wealthy and well-intentioned daughter of the mining baron of the town of Seafall. Desdemona lives a happy life and is proud of her ongoing work to bring true social reform to the town, in part to make up for the economic disparity afflicting its residents—but then she discovers the horrifying truth behind her father’s wealth, and the horrific tithes he offers to the Goblin King in return. Desdemona sets off with her best friend Chaz to rescue the men her father has endangered—and contemplates striking her own bargain with the Goblin King, one that may doom her for her good intentions. Cooney is an award-winning poet in addition to writing stories, and her prose positively sings.
Jade War, by Fonda Lee (July 23, Orbit—Hardcover)
The second book in Lee’s Nebula-nominated, World Fantasy Award-winning Green Bone Saga (following Jade City) continues the story of the Kaul family’s struggle for dominance over the island of Kekon and its capital city in an alternate world that draws from a myriad of Asian history, legends, and traditions but mixes in plenty of fantastic invention. The clan has its work cut out for them as they struggle against the rival No Peak clan and an array of other external and internal threats from the many forces that covet the invaluable jade the island produces, and which imbues the Green Bone warriors with supernatural abilities. In the face of their enemies, the Kaul family will trade away everything, including their honor, to ensure their survival. Lee’s epic twist on the mob drama is addictive.
Becoming Superman, by J. Michael Straczynski (July 23, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
J. Michael Straczynski is a legend among geeks—and one of the most successful genre writers of modern times, working in film, comics, and television. Until now, his life has been a mystery, but this incredible memoir details the dark truths behind his embrace of sci-fi, fantasy, and comics. Raised by a Nazi-loving alcoholic father, a clinically depressed mother, and a savage pair of grandparents, he faced a harrowing, abusive childhood that he might never have escaped were it not for the escape he found in comics—especially Superman. Inspired by heroes and those who brought then to life, Straczynski grabbed onto writing like a drowning man and made a future of it. His true life story turns out to be as gripping and inspiring as any of his fiction.
The Last Astronaut, by David Wellington (July 23, Orbit—Paperback)
In 2034, a manned mission to Mars ends in a disaster so complete, NASA itself shuts down, and the lone survivor, Commander Sally Jansen, goes into retired exile. Two decades later, an object detected in the depths of space changes course and heads directly for Earth orbit, ignoring all attempts to make contact. The remnants of NASA are called back into service—including a reluctant, still-haunted Jansen, who agrees to take charge solely because she’s literally the only person qualified to do so. What Jansen and the crew she assembles discover when they head out to rendezvous with the object is terrifying—and changes the mission goal to simple survival. This is sci-fi horror at its most terrifying—if only because the science behind it is grounded and all-too-possible.
Magic: The Gathering—Rise of the Gatewatch, A Visual History, by Wizards of the Coast (July 23, Abrams—Hardcover)
Magic: The Gathering is an interesting fantasy franchise: both a complex game and an epic set of stories set in a multiverse of detailed, richly-imagined worlds. The planeswalkers are powerful beings who have sworn to defend the multiverse, and the history of the first of these is celebrated in this gorgeous book. Collecting art from the cards—including original versions extending beyond the frame—packaging, and from exclusive convention displays, the history of the planeswalkers is explored in intricate detail. From their origins in the mists of time, to their fabled confrontation with the elder dragon and planeswalker Nicol Bolas, it’s a story that rivals any epic fantasy in any format.
Thrawn: Treason (Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition), by Timothy Zahn (July 23, Del Rey—Paperback)
Timothy Zahn continues the story of one of the wider Star Wars saga’s most popular characters—one he created nearly 30 years ago—with the third volume of a trilogy that began with 2017’s Thrawn. For years, Thrawn has served as one of the Emperor’s most deadly weapons, but as Palpatine’s attention shifts to the Death Star project and destruction on a far grander scale, the Grand Admiral finds himself defending his place in the Imperial pecking order—but an envoy from his past suddenly appears with a warning of a threat against Thrawn’s homeworld, information that will force him to choose between his people and the powerful Empire he has sworn his allegiance to. It’s a delight to see Zahn playing around again with the character who made us believe in Star Wars again, all those years ago. The Barnes & Noble edition includes an exclusive pull-out poster.
The Toynbee Convector, by Ray Bradbury (July 30, Simon and Schuster—Hardcover)
Ray Bradbury is one of our most celebrated writers of the fantastic, but most of the attention seems to focus on his early, and groundbreaking, additions to literary history. It’s about time his later stories got some attention, and this reissue should place 22 of them back at the top of TBR lists everywhere. Originally published in 1988 and long unavailable, this collection brings together the best of latter-era Bradbury, including the title story, in which an inventor of a time machine counts down the days to when his past and future will collide. In “On the Orient, North,” a ghost fights off the final end by spinning stories that sustain it, while “West of October” is the story of a woman with the power to send the souls of her family into different bodies, with extremely unlikely consequences. Masterful stuff from a master who remained one up until the end.
Dark Age, by Pierce Brown (July 30, Del Rey—Hardcover)
The fifth entry in Pierce Brown’s bestselling epic space opera Red Rising series is as complex and violent as the previous four. Darrow—once a lowly Red in a galaxy stratified by color, and then the breaker of chains and hero of the revolution that destroyed an empire—is again an enemy of the republic, but continues his lonely war with the forces he has left. The heir to the lost throne returns to the core of the system to try and rally the untrustworthy Golds to the cause of restoration, and the leader of the Republic, Mustang, struggles against an array of enemies both hidden and overt. Brown’s universe has all the gravitas and blood-soaked politics of Ancient Rome—and the far-future solar system could be heading toward a similar fall.
The Hound of Justice, by Claire O’Dell (July 30, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Claire O’Dell ‛s queer reinvention of the Holmes/Watson dynamic continues as surgeon Watson, who lost an arm treating wounded soldiers in a conflict that occurred before the start of A Study in Honor, struggles to work with a prosthetic arm in a future United States split by a second Civil War. When a terrorist attack sees Watson treating the wounded while FBI agent Sara Holmes investigates how the attack was pulled off, the pair once again find themselves working together—and then going undercover, directly into the racist heart of the secessionist-held territories. Grim yet hopeful, this is much more than a homage—though its gripping mystery is certainly worthy of Doyle, it’s a story that gets to the heart of what America is, and what it could be.