Chris Pickens

In 1666, puritanical Christianity found a foothold in the New World. Known for the rejection of nearly everything as being sinful, life in a Puritan community could be pretty tough, especially for women. But Christianity wasn’t the first religion in America, not by a long shot.

Abitha, a young Englishwoman, marries into the Puritan society of Sutton, Connecticut, and finds herself relegated to the fringes of the community, an outsider due to her sharp tongue and headstrong manner. She also brought small charms and potions with her from England, remedies from her mother that would be considered witchcraft in Puritan circles. When her husband is killed in the woods behind her house, Abitha must decide how to live as a widow in a community that seems to be waiting for her to fail.

If only that were all she had to worry about. Deep in the dark of the forest, something ancient, primal and hungry has awoken. Can Abitha survive alone when old Slewfoot comes to her door?


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Slewfoot is creepy, crawly, bloody fun. There are some downright spine-tingling moments that are sure to stick with you long after the last page. From shadows in cornfields, to pits filled with bones, to entrails scattered across deserted roads, author and illustrator Brom wastes no opportunity to turn up the spook factor, whether in prose or in the deliciously creepy paintings that illustrate his tale. However, what’s especially commendable about this horror aesthetic is the wayt the reader’s reaction to it changes over time. As the story progresses, these passages don’t simply shock; they reveal more and more about the universe of the story. Without giving too much away, by the end of the book, you’ll be rooting for blood.

Indeed, Slewfoot’s most compelling theme is its fascination with change. We see it most with Abitha, who is an incredible character. As she grieves, finds confidence in herself and gets drawn into the ancient power of the spirits of the forest, the reader empathizes with that transformation. There’s also a continuing meditation on good and evil, dark and light, life and death. Do monsters think of themselves as monsters? Are there elements of dark and light in all of us?

If you’re looking for a witchy, thrilling ride that also has a philosophical soul, grab a copy of Slewfoot—and don’t put it down until you’ve finished it.

In 1666, puritanical Christianity found a foothold in the New World. But Christianity wasn’t the first religion in America, not by a long shot.

So you’ve successfully saved a fleet of soldiers from an intergalactic peril while simultaneously becoming the reluctant commander of a budding resistance movement. Now what? That's the dilemma facing Adequin Rake, captain of the spacecraft Argus. Unluckily for her—but luckily for readers—the excitement doesn’t ebb for even a moment in The Exiled Fleet.

As J.S. Dewe’s rousing follow-up to The Last Watch opens, Rake and her patchwork crew have survived the expanding calamity known as the Divide only to enter a new predicament. Without a warp core to travel to a safe part of the solar system, they’re dead in the water, and food and patience among the corps is growing scarce. Rake must rely on her team of trusted crewmembers to figure out how to retrofit the Argus and jump to safety. Along the way, they’ll encounter ancient civilizations, criminal enterprises and more than a few mechanical difficulties, all while trying to evade the evil Mercer Empire. Strap in—it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

But the bumpy ride is why we’re all here, right? One of the best parts about The Last Watch was how a cobbled-together, rag-tag assemblage of characters and technology still eked out a victory. I’m happy to report that the same white-knuckle, skin-of-their-teeth excitement is here from the very first page. So, too, are many of the characters that made the first installment great, as well as some welcome new arrivals.

Since The Exiled Fleet wastes very little time getting back into the action, it’s definitely recommended that readers tackle the first book before turning to this one. It’ll be completely worth it, because Fleet does a superlative job of expanding on everything that was interesting in Dewes’ debut—and this book is even more engaging and often, more personal. As Rake and her crew search for solutions, Dewes explores more of her complex universe and reveals more about the characters’ pasts. One character in particular has to come face-to-face with some ugly truths about his own family in a tense, painful, scary and oh-so-satisfying scene. Dewes has an aptitude both for excellent naval-inspired action sequences as well as for quieter interludes between characters. The amount of time she gives her characters to simply speak to one another makes the bonds they forge that much more believable.

In my review of The Last Watch, I mentioned that everyone should get ready to go back to the Divide in the next installment. But in The Exiled Fleet, Dewes goes far beyond the Divide to points of space as of yet unseen. Here’s hoping the next book in this excellent series keeps propelling us even further into the stars.

So you’ve successfully saved a fleet of soldiers from an intergalactic peril while simultaneously becoming the reluctant commander of a budding resistance movement. Now what?

These three tales are epic in every sense but never lose sight of the characters at their heart.

She Who Became the Sun

The best historical fantasies bring an all-new beauty and mystery to familiar things. Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun spins a tale based on the founding of China’s Ming dynasty that reads like Mulan crossed with The Once and Future King. In a poverty-stricken village, a girl fights to stay alive. Her brother is supposedly destined for greatness, but she has never been more than an afterthought. After bandits raid her family’s house and she is the only one left alive, she makes a desperate choice. Cloaking herself in her late brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, she conceals her gender and joins a nearby monastery. While there, Zhu learns how to survive, even as the Mongol hordes march on China. Parker-Chan’s gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. With every turn of the page, the book offers a new set piece, a new revelation, a new horror. Readers who loved the equally excellent Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang will be right at home here. If you’re a fan of epic fantasy, you can’t miss this one.

Shards of Earth

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth is one of the most stunning space operas I’ve read this year. Fifty years ago, a man named Idris saved humanity from the Architects, enormous planet-size aliens capable of destroying anything in their path. Now, even as he navigates the galaxy’s backwaters on the junky salvage ship Vulture God, Idris can feel something in the depths of space. When he and his crew make a discovery that could upend the fragile peace among scattered human factions, they must choose who to trust before the Architects return to finish what they started. Tchaikovsky’s world building is on glorious display as he throws all manner of spaceships, creepy aliens and strange technology into a delicious sci-fi soup. It’s dense, it’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s touching and it’s perfect for someone looking for a space opera built on a grand scale.

The Godstone

I like to think I have my own preferences nailed down, and then a totally original book like Violette Malan’s The Godstone comes along and thoroughly delights and surprises me. Fenra Lowens is a Practitioner of magic who serves as healer for the residents of a small rural village. When Fenra’s longtime patient Arlyn Albainil receives a summons to the City to receive the valuable contents of a long-lost relative’s vault, Fenra volunteers to accompany Arlyn on his journey. But Arlyn is more than he seems, and he knows more than he tells. Inside the vault is an object of immense power, and he’s the only one who knows how to stop it from destroying the world. There’s a confident briskness to Malan’s pacing; nothing seems to drag over The Godstone’s 300 or so pages. The momentum is only aided by the superb dialogue throughout. Fenra and Arlyn’s banter is so pleasant, so assured, that it at times reads like classic English literature. Readers would be wise to pick up this exciting start to a new fantasy series.

These three tales are epic in every sense but never lose sight of the characters at their heart.

Has there ever been a better time to be both a reader of fantasy and a lover of history? With greater and greater frequency, real history is inspiring new yet familiar fantasy worlds. The best authors of such fantasies faithfully harness the richness of the past and make it their own, and in The Jasmine Throne, author Tasha Suri does just that.

Inspired by the lush and shimmering epics of India, The Jasmine Throne is the story of two women: Princess Malini, the sister to an emperor who has been imprisoned for heresy, and Priya, a maidservant with a hidden past. Malini and Priya would never have met if it weren't for the Hirana. The massive temple-turned-prison is, for Malini, a structure of ancient, magical power. Even as Priya ascends its steps to wait on Malini for the first time, she can feel the Hirana’s magic calling to her. After Priya defends the princess from an assassin and reveals to Malini Priya's own magical abilities, the two women find their lives intertwined. Together, they’ll either overthrow Malini’s zealot brother and save Priya’s family, or die trying.

I couldn’t help but think of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War while reading Suri’s work. I immediately sank into The Jasmine Throne just as I did with Kuang’s dark military fantasy inspired by 20th-century China. Both authors use real places as the foundations for their fictional worlds, which grants the reader a rich sense of place from the first page. The Jasmine Throne is sumptuous and heady, mystical and intricate, with Suri’s natural, precise prose deftly shifting as she alternates among multiple charcters' perspectives.

But Malini and Priya's connection is what will have fans raving about this book. Their relationship evolves slowly and carefully, and one never gets the sense that the rest of the story is being artificially slowed down or altered in order for them to interact. A recurring theme of the narrative is fire, both cleansing and destructive, and without spoiling anything, that theme is embodied perfectly by these two characters. There are some moments between them that are absolutely electric on the page.

Both protagonists have to make some tough choices as the story unfolds, and neither one’s hands are clean by the end. Their moments of righteous vengeance will satisfy fans of other great writers of political intrigue, such as George R.R. Martin and Pierce Brown, but Suri maintains her hold on the reader’s affections even as Malini and Priya find themselves morally compromised in their journey.

The Jasmine Throne more than lives up to the hype with its rich and expansive world, compelling characters, cool magic system and Suri’s excellent writing, which holds it all together. But wait, there’s more good news! This book is the first of a trilogy, so if you’re already hooked, there’s more of Priya and Malini coming soon. I can’t wait to see where they take each other next.

The Jasmine Throne more than lives up to the hype with its rich and expansive world, compelling characters, cool magic system and Suri’s excellent writing, which holds it all together.

A character awakens after dying in “That One Life,” one of the four stories in South Korean author Kim Bo-Young’s expansive, captivating collection, I’m Waiting for You. In the afterlife, he’s greeted by a god who tells him, “Every life changes the whole universe. Whether or not that life is yours.” Where does humanity end and the universe begin? What are the limits of love and hope? What is the difference between creation and destruction? These are big questions, but Bo-Young’s attempt to bring shape to them in these stories is stunning, humbling and utterly beautiful.

I’m Waiting for You’s four stories form two pairs with interwoven thematic elements. In the titular story and in “On My Way,” an engaged couple, one on Earth and one on Alpha Centauri, exchange letters about their plans to meet to get married. (Each story contains one person’s letters.) Due to the problems posed by the theory of relativity and by light-speed travel, they must carefully coordinate their departures so they can arrive together at their destination at the same time, yet each lover encounters increasingly difficult complications to their original plan. Weeks, then months, then years are added to the journey’s overall time. Can the lovers hold out hope of finally being in the same place, at the same time?

In “The Prophet of Corruption” and “That One Life,” godlike beings, the progenitors of human existence, contemplate their impact on Earth and everything in it. From the smallest rock to the largest ocean, all of creation is an extension of them. When a young god created by Naban questions whether controlling the human world is right, Naban wonders if he and his fellow divine beings have had it backward all along. What if they exist because humanity exists, rather than the other way around?

The collection’s translators, Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, should be commended on shepherding these stories so gracefully into English. They introduce complex and ambitious ideas about space travel, philosophical and metaphysical riddles playing out in worlds inhabited by gods . . . you get the idea. But even when it’s challenging, Bo-Young’s prose is always oh-so-gorgeous.

This is some of the most beautiful science fiction writing that I’ve read recently. Not every element between the pairs of stories is analogous, but sometimes, just there, right under the surface, Bo-Young has hidden common threads. The bookended stories of lovers traveling through space in time and the feelings of longing and trust in the face of astronomically impossible circumstances are particularly lovely. Even in the huge expanse of space, the second-person voices in their letters are intimate and genuine, and the emotional power of each story’s closing moments is hefty. Grab your tissues, because you may be thoroughly moved.

I’m Waiting for You isn’t just a statement of action. It’s a promise: I’m waiting on your behalf, to be with you, to experience the universe’s purpose for me through you. If only we can live up to such a promise.

A character awakens after dying in “That One Life,” one of the four stories in South Korean author Kim Bo-Young’s expansive, captivating collection, I’m Waiting for You

A surprisingly funny horror novel and two thrilling adventures among the stars are ready to sweep you away in this month’s sci-fi & fantasy column.

 Project Hail Mary 

No author is better than Andy Weir at taking a concept that could be boring on paper (molecular biology) and turning it into a hilarious, thrilling, engrossing piece of accessible hard sci-fi. Thankfully, Project Hail Mary is another intense space puzzle for science nerds and mainstream thrill-seekers alike. Ryland Grace wakes up on a small spaceship with amnesia, unsure of why he’s there, what he’s meant to do or even what his name is. He begins to recall a mission sparked by alien life near the sun, a mission that may have had existential importance for the human race. Ryland must survive long enough to find a way to save the world using only his mind and the resources aboard the spaceship. Weir’s inquisitive and hilarious, optimistic yet deadpan voice carries this book from the very first page. Ryland is the perfect vessel for a cosmic mystery that plays out with the same joyous attention to detail—and poignant philosophical questions about the nature of self-discovery and human ingenuity—found in Weir’s beloved debut, The Martian. It’s just so gosh-darn hopeful; one can’t help but smile the whole way through.

The Whispering Dead

Need a horror tale sure to raise a few goosebumps? Darcy Coates will have you gripping the covers with the immediately entertaining The Whispering Dead. Keira awakens in a dreary forest without her memory, hunted by unknown men and desperate for answers. After taking refuge in a house near a cemetery, she discovers that she can hear the whispers of the dead coming from among the gravestones. Now she’s on a mission to find out who she is, why she’s being followed and how she can bring peace to the ghosts that haunt the town of Blighty. In one of the strongest starts to any book I’ve read this year, The Whispering Dead instantly pulls the reader into the horrors Keira encounters. That said, Coates also includes many lighter moments and hilarious quips, so there’s plenty to enjoy here beyond the spooks and scares. Some questions about Keira’s past are left unanswered as this is the first book in a planned series, and I suspect anyone who reads it will be itching for the sequel. 

★ The Last Watch

J.S. Dewes’ The Last Watch is a high-energy thrill ride at the edge of space featuring a crew of miscreants racing against time aboard an ancient spaceship. A great concept with an even better execution, this is a sci-fi space opera for readers looking to dial up the excitement. The Argus, an ancient spacecraft parked at the rim of a vast, empty space anomaly known only as the Divide, serves as the last protection for humanity against the great unknown. The crew, made up of bottom-of-the-barrel military has-beens, would be content to serve out their time in relative peace. But when the Divide starts expanding, swallowing up the known galaxy, the crew of the Argus must find a way to stop it before the universe is completely engulfed. A strong, straightforward concept anchors a fun cast of characters that always seems to have a quip or a retort ready to go. I had a great time from cover to cover, and here's some good news for anyone else who enjoys it: This is the first in a planned series, so get ready to return to the Divide in the near future. With its “Battlestar Galactica” meets “Game of Thrones” tone, The Last Watch is a delight.

A surprisingly funny horror novel and two thrilling adventures among the stars are ready to sweep you away in this month’s sci-fi & fantasy column.

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