When you were growing up, did you play with your shadow? In her wondrous, sinister and engrossing adult debut, Book of Night, young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black presents a decidedly mature perspective on our relationships with our silhouettes. It’s a wildly entertaining, magic-filled mystery haunted by criminals with murky intentions.
Charlie Hall slings drinks at a seedy bar in the Berkshires, but it’s better (well, safer) than her previous profession as a small-time con artist and thief. She’s happy to have some stability after her long involvement in the underground world of gloamists, magicians who can manipulate shadows. In this world, shadows can be altered to look different for entertainment, but they can also be used for more nefarious purposes such as influencing someone’s thoughts or even committing murder. Charlie’s been smart about avoiding trouble, but when a bar patron is murdered and a mysterious millionaire from Charlie’s past returns, she’s forced to revisit her former life in order to find a book filled with unimaginable power.
A consistent atmosphere of dread and foreboding reinforces the core magic system, giving shadow magic a sharp, dangerous edge. Black unspools the mystery patiently and deliberately, interjecting short chapters titled “The Past” that reveal specific moments from Charlie’s memory into the present-day narrative. I couldn’t help but think of film noir while reading, not only because of the dark aesthetic and criminal elements but also because of the incredible weight of each character’s past.
Shadow magic has a multitude of metaphoric implications, and Black keeps a firm hand on the wheel as she explores them. The idea of shadows, indelibly attached to us in our world, being a means for division and deception is intriguing; Think Peter Pan and his ongoing struggle to rein in his own shadow. Though humorous, the idea of losing control of something that is part of us is also uncomfortable. That sense of discomfort and destabilization is even greater in Book of Night as shadows are used in various creative yet frightening ways. An ongoing theme of obfuscation, of truths being hidden or only half-revealed, also contributes to this feeling of unease.
Black’s plot is expertly crafted, her magic system simple yet interesting, her characters wounded and very human (well, most of them anyway). Mystery fans will find a lot to love here, but so will lovers of more traditional fantasy. Book of Night will have you looking over your shoulder, out of the corner of your eye, wondering if your shadow just moved.
Young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black’s adult debut is a sinister and wildly entertaining mystery.
David Dalglish’s beautiful, grandiose and expansive The Bladed Faith begins at the roots of a rebellion.
Cyrus Lythan, heir to Thanet’s throne, witnessed his parents’ capture and execution when their small island nation was invaded by the Everlorn Empire. Having been held as a political prisoner ever since, Cyrus was helpless as the empire worked to eradicate his kingdom’s culture and religion. But during a skirmish with Thanet resistance fighters, Cyrus is rescued by Thorda Ahlai, a wealthy aristocrat bent on overthrowing the empire. With his two highly trained daughters and vast wealth, Thorda seeks to avenge his homeland’s destruction. Cyrus is all too happy to join the effort, but the price of reclaiming the country may be steeper than he realized. Cyrus will need to become something new: a folk hero and vigilante who exacts bloody revenge from the shadows. Will his and Thorda’s need for vengeance cost them their souls?
It’s a tale as old as time: Country is overthrown by authoritarians; heir forms resistance band to win back the country; revolution ensues. Of course, it’s never quite that easy in practice, and Dalglish grounds The Bladed Faith in reality as he charts his hero’s rocky path forward. It is extremely hard to run a rebellion. It’s also extremely hard to change one’s body and mind so completely as to become someone else, so Cyrus’ training lasts a lot more than one page. There are plenty of bumps in the road to liberation. Things go wrong for our heroes, and The Bladed Faith is all the more interesting because of it.
The world around Cyrus and Thorda is vivid in every way, and the opening sequence depicting the fall of Thanet is particularly breathtaking. The nation’s two guardian spirits, who take physical form as a massive golden lion and a woman with shimmering wings, are cut down by goliath super soldiers from Everlorn. It’s sad, brutal and beautiful. But Dalglish takes equal care with smaller details, too, like Cyrus’ running route as he trains or the details on a character’s ax. At every turn, The Bladed Faith feels fully formed, without a single description haphazardly thrown in. Dalglish has an uncanny ability to predict his readers’ thoughts; more than once I found a character explaining answers to my own internal questions in real time.
Yes, rebellion against an evil empire is a familiar plot in fantasy. But this is a rebellion with soul, and one that promises to reach even greater heights as the series continues. Given Dalglish’s track record, don’t be surprised if he somehow manages to top the triumphant standard he sets with The Bladed Faith.
David Dalglish’s beautiful, grandiose and expansive fantasy The Bladed Faith tells a familiar story of rebellion with uncommon soul.
After wrapping up the Interdependency trilogy, sci-fi author John Scalzi planned to write a weighty and serious novel. Instead, he had a monster of a good time. The Kaiju Preservation Society is an adventurous romp that follows one-time delivery driver Jamie, who lucks into the job of a lifetime working for the titular organization, studying and protecting enormous monsters who live in an alternate dimension. We talked to Scalzi about the book he calls “as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel.”
There’s nothing like a good monster book to shake things up. What drew you to writing a story about Kaiju? Well, I was actually writing another novel entirely—a dark and brooding political novel set in space—and it turns out that 2020 wasn’t a great year to be writing a dark and moody political novel, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who lived through 2020. That novel crashed and burned, and when it did, my brain went, screw it, I’m gonna write a novel with BIG DAMN MONSTERS in it. It was much better for my brain, as it turns out.
When creating the world that the Kaiju live in, what details were important to you? Were there certain inspirations you drew from? I think the most obvious inspirations were the classic Japanese Kaiju movies, starting with the original Godzilla. From there, I worked backward: If you want to have Kaiju, how do you build a world where they could not only exist, but in fact, it makes sense that they exist? I wanted the world to have at least a sheen of plausibility. So the end result is a much warmer, much more oxygenated Earth, to start . . . and when you have those two things, a lot of other aspects of the world present themselves.
You mention in your author’s note that The Kaiju Preservation Society is “a pop song . . . meant to be light and catchy.” Did it feel like that to you, easy and fun, while writing? Or were there elements that proved to be surprisingly challenging? Not going to lie, writing Kaiju was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel. Some of that was in contrast to the unfinished novel before it; anything would have been easier than that one, given the subject and year I attempted it in. But most of it was just giving myself permission to feel the joy of writing, and of creating something expressly to be enjoyed. I wrote it as quickly and as easily as I’ve written anything.
There are many homages to sci-fi and monster movie tropes in this book. What preexisting audience expectations served you best? All of the preexisting expectations served me! One of the important things about world building is that the characters are in on the joke—they’ve seen all the Godzilla movies, they’ve watched Pacific Rim and Jurassic Park, and so all the tropes are on the table for them and the book to lean into, to refute and to play with, depending on the circumstances of the plot. No one, not the characters nor the readers, has to pretend that the characters have no concept of Big Damn Monsters, and that opens up a lot of narrative opportunities.
The dialogue in The Kaiju Preservation Society positively crackles with life. How do you approach writing dialogue? Dialogue is one of the things I “got for free”—which is to say, something that was already in my toolbox when I got serious about writing. That’s great, but that also means it can be a crutch, something I fall back on too easily, or get sloppy with because I know I can do it more easily than other things. So, paradoxically, it’s something I have to pay attention to, so that it serves the story.
Do you see yourself as a Jamie? Ready to believe, optimistic, quick with a joke? (Maybe we all wish we were like Jamie, at least a little bit.) You’ve hit on something, which is that Jamie is meant to be someone whom the readers can see themselves in, or at least could see themselves relating to. There’s a little of me in Jamie, sure. There’s also some of me in Jaime’s friends. They each have qualities that help them work together, which becomes important in the book.
OK, real talk: What weapon would you reach for first if you were face to face with a Kaiju? If I’m being real, I’m going to remember what the weaponmaster in the book asks the characters, which is, basically, “Are you competent enough for that weapon?” Self-honesty is important, especially when some creature wants to eat you. In which case, I’m going for the shotgun: widespread, low level of difficulty to use. Perfect. And then, of course, I’ll run like hell.
Did working on this book make the insanity of 2020 and 2021 any easier to bear? What did you feel like when you finished writing? When I finished writing, honestly, I was all like, “Fuck yeah, I nailed this one.” Which absolutely made the previous year easier to bear, considering how badly I flubbed the previous novel I had been trying to write, and how awful the year had been generally. I should note I wasn’t having a crisis of confidence in my skills; I’ve written more than 30 books, I know I can do it. But I was disheartened at how that one novel was a mess, and how it all-too-closely mirrored my mental state for 2020. Kaiju got me back in my stride, and I’m grateful for that.
Headshot of John Scalzi courtesy of the author.
Why The Kaiju Preservation Society was the most fun John Scalzi has ever had as a writer.
John Scalzi had lofty goals for his next book, but like many of us, he found that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted even the best-laid plans. He found himself looking for a release, something to keep his mind off the unmitigated disaster that was 2020. Writing the funny and endearing Kaiju Preservation Society turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.
Food app delivery driver Jamie Gray has just about had it—with work, New York City and the pandemic. But a chance encounter leads Jamie to Tom, an old friend who offers Jamie a job working for a mysterious animal rights organization called the KPS. Eager to do anything to get out of town, Jamie jumps at the chance. But this job is unlike anything anyone could have imagined. On another Earth, one warmer and devoid of humankind, gargantuan creatures called Kaiju roam. It’s up to the Kaiju Preservation Society to make sure the incredible, powerful monsters don’t hurt anyone—and that no one tries to hurt the Kaiju.
It’s impossible to read this book without sensing how much fun Scalzi was having while writing it. The Kaiju Preservation Society revels in its own nerdiness, joyfully calling out the absurdities that Jamie and the other new KPS employees experience in their journey to the other Earth. The dialogue practically skips along, with jokes and minor insults pinging off each character at a near-constant pace. And the richness of the alternate Earth, with all its odd flora and fauna, is clearly the result of a creative mind let loose.
The camaraderie formed among the hodgepodge group of scientists and explorers entertains throughout. Jamie’s optimism and enthusiasm for the mission provide the focal and entry points, from which readers can track how tightknit the group becomes. No one character is too unlikable or outright obtuse all of the time, and everyone gets a good line, a heroic moment or a chance to shine.
What better way to escape the feeling of being trapped inside, from pandemic-related reasons or anything else, than to go somewhere vibrant and unique, where you can feel loved by your friends, valued by your job and morally unassailable as you fight to preserve vulnerable wildlife? It certainly works for Jamie, and it will work for anyone lucky enough to pick up a copy of The Kaiju Preservation Society.
Feeling trapped? Go to another Earth and take care of some monsters in John Scalzi’s totally endearing new sci-fi novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society.
A small, underequipped crew discovering a long-lost ship sounds like an interesting enough premise for a novel. But what if that long-lost ship holds a gruesome and unexplainable secret? Now you’ve got my attention. S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence mixes horror, mystery and sci-fi into a thrill ride sure to shock you out of your reading rut. The crew of a small repair ship at the edge of space picks up an unexpected signal. It leads them to the hulking, dark shape of the Aurora, a luxury space cruiser lost 20 years ago. Team leader Claire Kovalik decides they should salvage the wreck and bring in the lost ship. Once aboard, however, the crew discovers that something went very, very wrong on the Aurora. What follows is a claustrophobic race against time as the ship’s horrors begin to affect the crew one by one. Dread slowly builds as small, frightening moments inside the Aurora multiply, showcasing Barnes’ patient plotting and steady pacing. This is one of those time-warp books—the ones where you look away from the clock, then look back and it’s suddenly way past your bedtime.
★ Redwood and Wildfire
Sometimes reading a book is like paddling a rushing river: You just have to jump in and see where it takes you. Such is the case with Andrea Hairston’s richly layered Redwood and Wildfire. In early 1900s America, magic is as old as the swamps, the woods and the bayous. Some people, descended from those who have lived for generations under canopies of cypress trees and Spanish moss, can harness that magic. In Peach Grove, Georgia, Redwood, a Black woman, and Aidan, a Seminole Irish man, both have this talent. The two kindred spirits set out on a grand adventure in search of a place of their own, with Chicago, the City of Lights, as their final destination. Hairston describes a country at the tipping point between an ancient past and an electrified, dazzling future. The reader will feel this tension within the prose, as well as these two misfits’ yearning to create a life in which they can be their fullest selves. It’s immediate, it’s unflinching and it’s wonderful.
Hunt the Stars
Jessie Mihalik’s thrilling first entry in her Starlight’s Shadow series, Hunt the Stars, is a perfect example of why bounty hunters are such classic sci-fi characters. It’s hard to find a more compelling conflict between getting paid and doing the right thing. War veteran-turned-ship’s captain Octavia “Tavi” Zarola gets a job offer that could make her and her crew rich for years. The problem is that the one paying is Torran Fletcher, a ruthless alien general that Tavi once fought against. Despite her misgivings, Tavi brings Torran and his crew of fellow telepathic Valoffs on board. During the job, Tavi and her crew discover a plot that threatens peace in the galaxy, forcing her to choose a side even as she grows closer to Torran. Amid all the action and adventure, Mihalik also shows how a group of people in close quarters can become a family. Those developing relationships form the emotional center of the story, especially the connection between Tavi and Torran, which evolves and deepens in unexpected ways. Fans of “The Mandalorian” or “Firefly” will love this sci-fi romance.
A terrifying thriller set on a spaceship and a wonderfully unique historical fantasy will shock you out of your reading rut.
When I reviewed Fonda Lee’s excellent first installment in her Green Bone Saga, Jade City, I noted how family played such a vital part in the story of the island nation of Kekon. This remains a central pillar of the trilogy’s conclusion, but what surprised me most about Jade Legacy is how willing Lee is to subvert readers’ expectations of how the families at the heart of her world will act. When the world constricts around the Green Bone clans and their powerful jade magic, Hilo, Shae, Anden and the rest of the No Peak clan have to break their own rules in order to survive.
Those familiar with Kekon will feel right at home from page one of Jade Legacy. Pushed by ever-growing pressure from foreign powers interested in controlling the country and gaining access to its jade, which grants users superhuman abilities, the Green Bone clans must decide how to respond. In addition, anti-clan terrorist factions within the capital city of Janloon continue to sow violence and disrupt the peace. The No Peak clan and the Mountain clan, which have always opposed each other, must decide if they will put their long-lasting and bloody war on hold in order to preserve the Green Bone legacy, or if they’ll finish each other off when the opportunity arises.
The Green Bone books are densely populated, but Jade Legacy thankfully includes a list of characters, which readers will find supremely helpful to flip back to. By this point, there are so many characters who have come and gone, but Lee always knows when to let a personal moment stretch out between central characters and gives fan-favorites plenty of room to shine.
Anything seems possible in this last volume, and Lee ratchets up the pressure to 10. (For readers of the previous two books, could you have imagined getting to this point? Where Hilo and Ayt Mada have to work together?) Tragic deaths and triumphant action sequences are as present as they ever were, but there are also moments of humility, forgiveness and even redemption in places where readers might not expect to find them.
Quite simply, Jade Legacy is the best book in Lee’s fantastic trilogy. It’s the most complex, offers the most surprises and confidently navigates an intricate story with a huge number of characters and factions. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you simply wanted validation that the last entry is worth your time. The answer is goodness gracious, yes. And if by some miracle you’ve read this far and haven’t yet jumped headfirst into one of the best fantasy worlds of the last five years, here’s your signal: Do it and don’t look back.
Jade Legacy is a spectacular end to the Green Bone Saga, with triumphant action sequences, tragic deaths and unexpected moments of redemption.
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