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.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (September 3, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Becky Chambers takes a break from her Best Series Hugo-winning Wayfarer series for a standalone novella exploring the immense personal cost of space exploration. After a technological breakthrough known as Somaforming enables the human body to adapt to any environment—enabling a person to consume radiation as food, for example—astronauts Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates toil in a system 15 long light years from Earth, exploring four potential colony planets. Slowly, Ariadne begins to truly contemplate the cost of both her own transformations and the unstoppable evolution of distant Earth, which may no longer be anything like the home she remembers—if it’s even still inhabited.
The Mythic Dream, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (September 3, Saga Press—Paperback)
Dominik Parisien and freshly minted Hugo-winner Navah Wolfe follow up their Shirley Jackson Award-winning Robots Vs. Fairies with one that explores the myths that form the bedrock of sci-fi and fantasy. These 18 stories seek to reinvigorate these ancient tales with a burst of modern energy. Writers including Seanan McGuire, Naomi Novik, Rebecca Roanhorse, Ann Leckie, Arkady Martine, and Amal El-Mohtar put their own stamp on myths from many different cultures, reimagining everything from the Norse pantheon to the heroes of ancient Greece in surprising ways, both celebrating them and reclaiming them for the modern age. for the modern age.
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2019 Edition, edited by Paula Guran (September 3, Prime Books—Paperback)
Paula Guran, former senior editor at Prime Books, returns with another huge collection of the best dark fiction from the previous year. This volume features over thirty stories from some of the best writers working in fantasy and horror, including Jeffrey Ford, Mary Robinette Kowal, Anya Ow, Tim Powers, and dozens more pulled from the ranks of Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And how’s this for value: P. Djèlí Clark’s Hugo-nominated novella The Black God’s Drums—which will run you $12 in paperback—is featured in full.
The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt (September 3, Tor Books—Paperback)
Deborah Hewitt’s debut takes its inspiration from Finnish myths. In its world, everyone has a nightjar, a bird that mirrors their soul—but only an aviarist can actually see them. Alice Wydnham discovers she is just such a person, and with careful practice, she finds her ability means she can even penetrate a person’s memories and emotions. When Alice and her friend Jen are attacked, Jen is greviously injured and winds up in a coma, her nightjar fleeing. The only way Alice can save her friend is to locate the nightjar and reunite them before it’s too late. The quest brings her to the Rookery, an alternate sister-city to London, where Alice is hunted by the Judicium, a group that wants to eliminate all aviarists. Readers of Genevieve Cogman and Rachel Caine will find much to love in this textured, character-focused fantasy.
The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, by Dave Hutchinson (September 3, Solaris—Paperback)
Dave Hutchinson, best known for his award-winning Fractured Europe series, drops a slow-burn story that opens with an ambitious journalist getting his dream job and ends with an orgy of bendy quantum physics, time travel, and, yes, an incredible exploding man. It all begins when a billionaire struggling to clean up some bad publicity around his supercollider project hires Alex Dolan to write a book about it—a job Dolan seizes as his last chance at career success. Arriving at the facility, Dolan immediately senses something is wrong, but he chalks it up to paranoia—until a terrible accident literally changes everything and suddenly makes him the one man who can save the entire universe.
Darkdawn: Book Three of the Nevernight Chronicle, by Jay Kristoff (September 3, St. Martin’s Press—Hardcover)
After a year’s delay, the much-anticipated conclusion of Jay Kristoff’s dark fantasy saga the Nevernight Chronicle finds holy assassin Mia Corvere on the run after her failed attempt to eliminate Consul Julius Scaeva. Chased by both Red Church assassins and Luminatii legionnaires, and with her mentor Mercurio a hostage of her enemies, Mia goes underground, where she learns she has one final journey to undertake, and it will be the most dangerous she has ever faced. In a world where the three suns in the sky never set, Truedark is finally upon the republic—and with the death of light may come the death of everything, unless Mia can solve the riddle of her very existence.
The Harp of Kings, by Juliet Marillier (September 3, Ace—Paperback)
Liobhan and her brother Brocc are talented musicians and singers training as warriors on Swan Island in the kingdom of Breifne. When the sacred Harp of Kings—vital to the successful coronation of a new king—goes missing just weeks before the Midsummer Day ceremony, they are drafted to pose as traveling musicians on a quest to retrieve the harp before disaster strikes. Soaked in gorgeous Celtic imagery and mythology, this standalone fantasy from the author of the Sevenwaters novels offers a perfect entry point for readers of Naomi Novik and Anne Bishop eager for a book that offers similar pleasures.
The Unkindest Tide, by Seanan McGuire (September 3, DAW—Hardcover)
Seanan McGuire’s thirteenth entry in the Hugo-nominated October Daye urban fantasy series finds Toby facing a request she literally can’t refuse. Centuries before, the Selkies made a deal with the sea witch: they would have the sea until she decided to call in their debts. The time has come, and the bill is now due—including Toby Daye’s. The debts must be honored, or the consequences will be terrible, so she has no choice but to travel to the Duchy of Ships and call a convocation of Selkies. When events quickly spiral out of Toby’s control and her daughter Gillian is threatened, she will have to find a way to ensure the sea witch is paid what she’s owed—or pay the ultimate price.
The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood (September 10, Knopf—Hardcover)
Margaret Atwood’s unexpected followup to her groundbreaking feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is sure to be the biggest science fiction novel of 2019—and we say that without having read a word of it yet. A lot has changed in the 35 years since the first book was published, but little that makes its dark vision of the future—in which an environmental disaster and an idealogical uprising have seen America toppled and replaced by the theocratic state of Gilead and increasingly rare fertile women are forced to bear children for the wealthy and powerful—seem any less prescient. There’s no telling how The Testaments will end the story of resilient Handmaid Offred, but we’re hopeful it will live up to the legacy of its forebear.
The Imaginary Corpse, by Tyler Hayes (September 10, Angry Robot—Paperback)
We all have cherished ideas that we eventually must let go. In his delightfully odd debut, Hayes asks a simple question: what happens to ideas that are too real to truly die? For an idea like imaginary friend Tippy the triceratops, who once helped a little girl make sense of her world, what awaits is the Stillreal, a place where once deeply held, now abandoned ideas continue to exist. Tippy makes a living in the Stillreal by solving crimes for his fellow ideas until one day he encounters the impossible—the Man in the Coat, who can somehow kill an idea permanently. It’s up to Tippy to confront his loss and save his fellow ideas from oblivion in the most unusual SFF-mystery mashup you’ll read this year.
An Orc on the Wild Side, by Tom Holt (September 10, Orbit—Paperback)
Tom Holt’s latest hilarious dive into fantasy finds the Dark Lord Mordak facing resistance from his goblin hordes, who don’t appreciate his efforts to be slightly less terrible than previous Dark Lords. With his efforts at comprehensive healthcare and peace in his time in tatters, Mordak turns his attentions to the humans who have recently entered his realm from another reality and quickly set about buying cheap housing and gentrifying the most terrifying place in the universe in hopes of retiring in magical style. Humanity’s plans run afoul of the rules-loving Elves and the greedy dwarves—but an ancient prophecy that spells doom for everyone might make the point moot.
At Death’s Door, by Sherrilyn Kenyon (September 10, Tor Books—Hardcover)
SherrilynKenyon returns to an alternate past where 18th century pirates share the seas with Deadmen, undead sailors charged with defending the world against demonic hordes. Valynda Moore has always believed herself to be cursed, so when a spell goes awry and she finds herself trapped in a voodoo doll, she’s not surprised. Then Thorn, leader of the Hellchasers, offers her a chance at a new life. Which means that when the Malachai—which these Deadmen have sworn to contain—rises from the deep, she must fight for her own salvation as well as the world’s.
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (September 10, Tor.com Publishing—Hardcover)
Tamsyn Muir’s absolutely gobsmacking science fantasy debut tells the tale of Gideon Nav, an orphan trained as a swordswoman who wants nothing more than to escape her indentured servitude with the Ninth House of necromancers. She finally gets her chance when the the Ninth House’s ruler, Harrowhark Nonagesimus—a skilled bone adept—is invited by the Undying Emperor to compete to become a near-immortal Lyctor, and Harrowhark selects Gideon to be her cavalier primary—and perhaps for reasons more intimate (though if you mention the L-word, Gideon will stab you in the eye). Gideon soon finds herself in the decaying Canaan House on the imperial planet, where the Lyctor competition turns out to be more fraught than she imagined—their competitors are prickly and standoffish, the food leaves something to be desired, and, oh, folks soon start showing up dead, the victims of secrets lurking within and beneath the ancient space fortress. Agatha Christie meets Mervyn Peake in a Reddit sub-forum in this gonzo grand guignol fantasy—truly one of the books of the year.
A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker (September 10, Ace—Paperback)
Sarah Pinsker’s debut novel is a lovely ode to the power of emotion and music, set in a near future where a desire for security and safety has led almost everyone to live isolated lives, and where connections to others are mostly virtual. Luce Cannon is a rock musician who defies the law against public gatherings to perform live for tiny audiences. Her music awakens something in Rosemary Laws, who has been raised in emotionless solitude and works for the StageHolo corporation recruiting musicians like Luce to be reality stars—a gig that requires her to actually go out into the world, and possibly connect with someone on a dangerously personal level. This is an unusual, heartfelt take on dystopian themes from a celebrated author of short fiction.
A Choir of Lies, by Alexandra Rowland (September 10, Saga Press—Hardcover)
Alexandra Rowland’s followup to the subtle and delightful A Conspiracy of Truths finds storyteller Ylfing wandering the world, broken by his experience with his master Chant. A Chant himself now, he finds a new life in the prosperous town of Heyrland, working with a wealthy merchant who asks him to use his storytelling prowess to market a flower called stars-in-the-marsh. When his success sets off a speculative frenzy that nearly destroys his new home, Ylfing must decide whether he is more like his disgraced master than he wants to believe.
Boundless (Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition), by R.A. Salvatore (September 10, Harper Voyager—Hardcover)
The second book in R.A. Salvatore’s new Drizzt Do’Urden trilogy (after Timeless) focuses on Drizzt’s father, Zaknafein, who finds himself not quite as dead as he expected and transported hundreds of years into the future. The world his son inhabits has changed a great deal since Zaknafein’s own time—for better and for worse—and he struggles to adapt. But there are certain aspects of the world that never change, including the need to fight demons and the subtle manipulations of drow matrons, both of which still require the same response from a warrior of Zacknafein’s stature: a fight. The B&N exclusive edition includes a bonus short story featuring Kane.
The Resurrectionist of Caligo, by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga (September 17, Angry Robot—Paperback)
In the land of Myrcnia, the ruling royal family gain their authority by divine right—and the magic that flows through their bloodline. But the world is changing; science is beginning to challenge magic in terms of power and effectiveness. Roger Weathersby is a man of science—as well as a former convicted criminal—and a “resurrectionist” who works with corpses. When he’s framed for a murder of one of the bodies he brought back to life, he has to rely on magic to save him in the form a ritual performed by old friend Princess Sibylla that binds him to her perpetually. Using his special knowledge and skills, Weathersby hunts a serial killer, a quest that leads him to no end of magical, political, and personal skulduggery.
A Little Hatred, by Joe Abercrombie (September 17, Orbit—Hardcover)
In Adua, science is beginning to rise even as violence remains the most reliable force in the world. Hillwoman Rikke tries to control the Long Eye, which gives her a glimpse of war to come, but doesn’t warn her of the arrival of Stour Nightfall and his armies—looking for her. She flees with a band of friends and her father, the Dogman. As they fight Nightfall’s forces, Prince Orso in the south marches to support them for his own ends—but a rebellion in the city of Valbeck draws him away, leaving Rikke and the others to fend for themselves as Abercrombie once again spins up a complex and multilayered epic fantasy in his First Law universe—a perfect jumping-on point for new readers.
Gamechanger, by L. X. Beckett (September 17, Tor Books—Hardcover)
In a 22nd century world devastated by an environmental disaster called the Setback, the restoration of the climate—the “Clawback”—is humanity’s most vital work. Cherub “Rubi” Whiting is a star of virtual reality games, but her true calling is the law. Her first client as a public defender is Luciano Pox, a terrorist inexplicably opposed to the restorative work of the Clawback. Pox might also be the most dangerous man in the world, the embodiment of the singularity, or an agent of an alien force—if not all of the above. As her father hunts the people responsible for the world’s near-collapse, Rubi must get to the bottom of the mystery in this potent vision of humanity’s future.
Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes (September 17, Harper Voyager—Paperback)
Valerie Valdes delivers a hilarious debut that honors the tropes and epic feel of space opera, tracking the misadventures of reformed criminal Eva Innocente and the crew of her cargo ship La Sirena Negra. Eva has left the risks and profits of crime behind for straight, low-paying work, but when her sister Mari is kidnapped by the crime syndicate known as the Fridge, she must break every rule, law, and promise to get her back—all while dealing with a hold full of psychic cats, an emperor who wants her punished for rejecting his advances, and a crew-slash-family that won’t be amused to discover she’s been lying to them. It all leads to a revelation that proves the kidnappers were in it for far more than just the ransom.
A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition, by Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood (September 17, St. Martin’s Press—Hardcover)
Under the pen name Jin Yong, Louis Cha Leung-yung was perhaps the greatest wuxia writer in China’s history, and this, his most famous work, is only now finally available in English in the U.S. Set during China’s Song Dynasty, the story begins when Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang meet a Taoist monk named Qiu Chuji who gives them weapons and a promise of kung fu training for their unborn sons. When Guo is killed and Yang presumed dead, Qiu Chuji makes a bet with the Seven Freaks of the South: they will each train one of the sons, and 18 years later a duel between them will determine who was the better teacher. The intrigues and adventures play out against the power struggle for control of China, as vast and sprawling as anything you’ve ever encountered in Western fantasy.
A Trick of Light: Stan Lee’s Alliances, by Stan Lee and Kat Rosenfield (September 17, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Hardcover)
We still haven’t gotten used to a world without Stan Lee—but thanks to the publication of his first ever adult novel (co-written by YA author Kat Rosenfield), we don’t have to just yet. Working within the Alliances universe Lee co-created with Ryan Silbert and Luke Lieberman, Lee tells the origin story of a superhero duo: Cameron, who emerges from a freak accident with the power to manipulate technology, and Nia, born with a brain capable of superhuman feats of hacking and programming. When the human race is threatened with extinction from a mysterious force, these reluctant heroes have to combine their powers and fight for the rest of us—which sounds like the ideal story to serve as Stan Lee’s swan song. The book has earned high prize from writers within the comic book world and and without—including card-carrying geek literary novelist Gary Shteyngart, who compared it to “a bracing espresso first thing in the morning.”
System Failure, by Joe Zieja (September 24, Saga Press—Paperback)
Zieja returns with the final installment of his Epic Failure series, a droll military sci-fi trilogy that is anything but. The galaxy in chaos as the Two Hundred Years peace is under assault. The fleets of Thelicosa and Merida are massed at the border, but have managed to step back from the final plunge into all-out war, but events keep pushing them closer and closer to the brink—events driven by the corporate power that made most of the technology both militaries run on, Snaggardirs. The corporation is scheming to own everything; a disastrous war is just what they need to make their market dreams come true. Luckily ex-smuggler-turned-accidental military genius R. Wilson Rogers is back—along with his crew of allies and disgruntled robots—to save humanity again? (That question mark is not a typo.)
The Bone Ships, by R.J. Barker (September 24, Orbit—Paperback)
In this first book of a new trilogy, R.J. Barker (Age of Assassins) paints a world where island kingdoms wage a war via ships built from dragon bones, the only material strong enough to withstand the ocean’s fury. But dragons have been extinct for a long time, and as the old ships wear out, an end to the war is in sight. But then, a living dragon is sighted, prompting a scramble to capture it in order to build new ships—or destroy it before someone else can. Meas Gilbryn—once a powerful noble, now a pacifist—takes control of the ship Tide Child, crewed by the condemned, and sets off to find the dragon before anyone else, and maybe stop a war in the process.
The Monster of Elendhaven, by Jennifer Giesbrecht (September 24, Tor.com Publishing—Hardcover)
Jennifer Giesbrecht’s grimdark debut is set in Elendhaven, a sooty, grimy place still reeling from a devastating plague. Florian Leickenbloom’s family lost everything, and so the sorcerer summons a supernatural being, Johann, to assist him in a horrifying plan to bring on another plague in a twisted attempt at revenge against those who profited from the original disaster. Unluckily for Johann and Florian, the Mage Hunter has been charged with stopping Florian by any means necessary, even as Johann is twisted into a monstrous form and sent forth to strangle and terrify. This dark fantasy novella brings horror to the fore, and signals the appearance of a fearsome new talent.
Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger (September 24, Del Rey—Hardcover)
In this Southeast Asian-flavored fantasy—a rich pop culture stew inspired by everything from Pokémon to Avatar: The Last Airbender—several nations grapple with the fallout from a fearsome rebellion that freed them from the yoke of an imperial oppressor, but opened the door to new abuses of power. The Iron Prince of Tomoda, Jimuro, who has the power to manipulate metal, is being led back to his defeated kingdom to negotiate a lasting peace with the now-triumphant kingdoms of Shang and Sanbu. The haughty Prince Jimuro’s reluctant protector is a bitter Sanbunas soldier—the bitter Tala, who lost everything she loved to the power the prince represents. When the two are ambushed en route to the former seat of the prince’s power by an attacker with unfathomable powers, Tala is forced to reveal the dark secret of her survival to the man she hates most in the world—a secret linked to her people’s magical ability to graft their souls to animals that can then be called forth to fight for them. Meanwhile, in the vassal state of Shang, where heirs to the crown jockey for control, a police woman and a small-time criminal turned deputy set off together to capture the Iron Prince, hoping to use him as leverage in a contest of succession. The plots, battles, and magic overlap and converge by the time this twisty, culturally-rich, standalone saga (a 2019 Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection) reaches its end.
The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz (September 24, Tor Books—Hardcover)
Annalee Newitz’s followup to her Hugo- and Nebula-nominated debut Autonomous is a brain-twisting time travel story quite unlike any you’ve read before—a temporal answer to the #MeToo movement in which the lives of two women intersect in the most unexpected of ways. In this unsettling present-day America, time travel is a matter of geological fact—since the beginning of human history, people have been able to travel back and forth in time using ancient geological structures that function by a combination of science and guesswork. Natural temporal law seems to work against changes to the timeline, but that hasn’t stopped a time-traveler named Tess from joining a secretive group of women using the rock formations to journey into the past to attempt to combat the similar efforts of an equally shadowy group of men who want to edit history to restrict the rights of women and ensure male dominance. Meanwhile, back in 1992, Beth is a young high school student who escapes from her abusive father by sneaking out to feminist punk rock shows with her best friend Lizzie. But when Tess shows up in the past to warn Beth to stay away from Lizzie, it’s not immediately apparent to Beth how her friendships factor into a war for the future.
Grave Importance, by Vivian Shaw (September 24, Orbit—Paperback)
Vivian Shaw’s third Dr. Greta Helsing novel finds the celebrated physician-to-the-supernatural landing a dream job at a magical spa in France where mummies go for rest and treatment for their fragile undead bodies. Greta loves her work and the advanced technology it gives her access to, but when a plague of fainting fits begins to afflict her delicate patients, she has a meaty mystery on her hands. Her efforts to unravel it (ahem) are complicated by romantic entanglements between Greta and the vampire Sir Francis Varney, Edmund and Grisaille (also vampires), and two earthbound angels. This tongue-in-cheek fantasy series milks a spectacular premise for all its worth.
Wayward Son (Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition), by Rainbow Rowell (September 24, St. Martin’s Press—Hardcover)
Rowell’s deliciously meta-on-meta Simon Snow series—which began life in the margins of her modern YA novel Fangirl as the fictional universe the protagonist of that book obsesses over and then bloomed into a standalone story in Carry On—returns to explore what happens to a Harry Potter-esque hero when the villain is defeated and the “happily ever after” is supposed to begin. Simon, hero of the moment, finds himself depressed and unmotivated, so his friend Penny and maybe-boyfriend Baz suggest a road trip. Before long, they’re pretty convincingly, life-changingly lost, and forced to deal with a host of dragons, vampires, and assorted monsters as they figure out how one manages to live in an “ever after.” The B&N edition includes exclusive endpapers and a bonus chapter annotated by the author.
Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow, edited by Future Tense (October 2, The Unnamed Press—Hardcover)
This vibrant collection of stories focused firmly on the future, compiled in a partnership between Slate’s Future Tense editors, New America, and the Arizona State University, offers fourteen stories by some of the best writers and biggest names in modern sci-fi. Authors include Charlie Jane Anders, Nnedi Okorafor, Paolo Bacigalupi, Hannu Rajaniemi, Annalee Newitz, and Lee Konstantinou serve up stories that tackle the fragility of the human body, the power of AI, the possibility that alien contact won’t be violent (but might still be devastating), and the universality of murder. A must-read for SF fans curious about the future of the genre.
Ivory Apples, by Lisa Goldstein (October 15, Tachyon Publications—Paperback)
The true name of Adela Martin, the pseudonymous author of the classic fantasy novel Ivory Apples, is a mystery even to her most devoted fans, who work tirelessly to try and identify her. But it’s no mystery to Ivy and her sisters Beatriz, Amaranth, and Semiramis, who know that Adela Martin is their Great Aunt Maeve. When a woman named Kate Burden turns up on their doorstep and charms her way into the family, the sisters are suspicious, especially since Ivy shares another secret with her Great Aunt—magic. Ivy must protect her power at all costs —but doing so becomes dangerously difficult when the girls’ father passes away… and they are left in Kate’s care.