Chris Pickens

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In S.A. Barnes’ slow-simmering creepfest Ghost Station, the stress of deep space travel can do things to a person. If longtime spacers develop the condition called ERS, they’ll start to see things that aren’t there, hear voices that no one else hears. They sometimes turn irritable, even violent. 

The story begins with Dr. Ophelia Bray, who is very out of her element. A psychologist by trade, she’s been assigned to a small exploration team investigating an ancient, lifeless planet. The crew is mourning the death of a teammate, and none of the surviving members have any interest in Ophelia’s therapy sessions or letting their guard down. They also don’t seem to care if their work increases their chances of ERS. But as the explorers investigate the planet, stranger and stranger things begin to happen. It seems they aren’t alone on this world after all. Ophelia and the crew are going to have to trust one another to figure out what’s happening to them if they hope to escape alive. 

Barnes is no stranger to sci-fi horror; her excellent Dead Silence stood out for its atmosphere and sheer scariness, and fans of that novel will be more than happy with this follow-up. Like any great horror story, Ghost Station takes its time, but is sure to ensnare anyone craving intergalactic horror. Barnes patiently increases the sense of unease, building suspense with small moments that are odd on their own and increasingly strange taken together: an empty spacesuit in an abandoned station, a shape running through a snowstorm seen through a window, a rash on the skin. Things pick up steam in the later acts, especially after a couple of shocking moments right after the halfway mark.

In this golden era of sci-fi horror, Barnes leads the charge with her thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and an ever-present sense of dread.

With its thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and ever-present sense of dread, Ghost Station is another sci-fi horror hit from S.A. Barnes.
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Anna Sinjari is a Kurdish woman dealing with both office drone existential dread and the lingering trauma of the violence she escaped when she immigrated to America. Ssrin is an alien on the run, who immediately bonds with Anna when they encounter each other in Central Park. As a cosmic crisis looms, the pair’s uncanny connection could be what saves Earth from destruction—or dooms it. 

When you were first forming the ideas that became Exordia, what concept crystallized first?
I was in study hall in high school in 2002 or 2003, and because it was 2002 or 2003 and I was about 14 years old, of course I was thinking about Lego Bionicle: an action figure line with a weirdly compelling (and somewhat uncomfortably appropriative) world based on Maori and Polynesian myth. And I was also thinking about space. And when you put those two together, you might think to yourself, what if Lego Bionicle was invaded by space aliens? So I wrote a story about that.

And it turned out in the course of this story—inspired by Garth Nix’s Sabriel—that, like many fantasy villains, the invading aliens were evil. Not just destructive, or behaviorally incompatible, or obeying an alien set of beliefs or incentives or values, but actually, in a real physical way, inhabited by capital-e Evil. After many years I got to thinking, huh, what would that mean for a galaxy of inhabited life?

You can’t do this story with human beings. I think the idea of a human culture that is intrinsically evil is itself unhuman, it’s an evil thought experiment. It’s too close to so many lies that have been used to justify suffering and genocide. And one of the duties, maybe the only duty of a writer, is “You will not spread lies.” But it is nonetheless an idea humans entertain anyway: What if my moral enemies were not just wrong, but actually, ontologically evil? I think that when we get into disagreements or fights or actual life-or-death conflicts with other humans, there is still a part of us which craves that certainty.

“What if, along the way, we had to work with people we’ve treated quite badly?”

Do you think Exordia depicts how Earth would respond to an alien invasion in real life?
To this specific subtype of alien invasion, where the aliens are hostile, where they are advanced but still roughly constrained by the need for a ship and a physical presence and so forth, where they need something from the planet and can’t just kill us all with impunity from on high?

Sure. I’ll say yes! Just cause I’m really interested to see what email I get as a result. Yes, it’s an accurate depiction of how we’d react to that scenario.

We have one advantage in this book that we probably wouldn’t get in real life, which is that the aliens need something specific from our planet, and we have a chance to get to it first. I suspect that if you narrowed this question to “Does this book accurately depict how Earth would respond to a bizarre radio signal from the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan?” then my answer is “Yes, to the best of my ability, with a few concessions for dramatic effect.” But I also bet that if you got the national security advisor or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or their counterparts from Iran or China or Russia or Turkey or Pakistan, etc. etc., to do an interview with me, they could give me some pointers on what I got wrong.

Book jacket image for Exordia by Seth Dickinson

I loved the choice to make Anna Kurdish. What drew you to the Kurds when building her character?
In 2019, a guy named Jon Schwarz wrote something which seems pretty correct: “Nothing in the world is certain except death, taxes, and America betraying the Kurds.”

What’s really striking about the Kurds to an American is that they are a huge challenge to American exceptionalism. We see ourselves as the birthplace of modern democracy. We like to believe that we bring democracy to places we invade. But of course we fuck it up constantly, we create this hideous cauldrons that spawn monsters. Yet the Kurds, living in exactly that kind of cauldron, have produced some social movements which are dramatically more egalitarian and democratic, in some respects, than anything you could campaign on in America. Try to get a law passed in the U.S. which says you must have as many women as men present at every level of government. Try to declare that women are the primary actors of history and that women’s liberation is the central task of human liberation. You’d never make it past the local selectboard. But not only have Kurds in places like Rojava made these declarations into central principles of their communities, they have done so in the kind of war-torn, chaotic environment that Americans, I think, implicitly believe can only spawn groups like ISIS.

I am not here to beatify the Kurds. Like any group of people they have evils and mistakes and dark history. It is always dangerous to just pick an ethnic or cultural group and treat them like your favorite Pokémon. But I am here to put the Kurds and their relationship with the United States at the center of a science fiction story. Very probably, even with the help of some Kurdish readers, I have fucked it up in some significant ways. But there are so many science fiction stories which treat America’s generous military and aerospace resources as a guarantee that we would be the protagonist of first contact. What if, along the way, we had to work with people we’ve treated quite badly? What if they had their own efforts at first contact, their own communication with the aliens, established before we even arrived?

What if, as has so often been the case, we ended up doing as much to harm as to help?

Exordia’s various female characters contemplate their place in the macho-man pressure cooker of the military. What choices do you have to make as a writer to examine such a topic while also letting the characters breathe and the story flow?
When it comes to the culture of the United States military in 2013, when Exordia is set, I’m pretty much just a reporter. It’s not hard to talk to vets or current service members on the internet and get their feedback. You never take it uncritically, but you can get a much stronger idea of how these characters would think and act than you would by just watching “Generation Kill” for the ninth time. And of course everyone has strong opinions about the place of women in the military. 

A big theme in talking to vets was the idea that in the military, a lot of people don’t really care who you are as long as you do your job and understand the culture—but you’ve got to withstand a degree of hazing and offensive irreverence to prove that you’re tough. Some women I spoke to took a lot of pride in giving as good as they got, in the idea that the military is an endless generator of both stupid bullshit and transgressive humor. Not every woman in the military has the same beliefs as me, an avowed feminist but definitely a civilian. I tried to respect that.

Ultimately, I just tried to give each character their own opinions and values. A joke one character would make offhand strikes another as grotesque and offensive. Black people in the military say things to each other that another Black character would never say in the Obama White House. There were some lines I didn’t want to cross, but other places where expert readers pushed me to just make the characters sound like real people they’d known (or been). My rule was that I wouldn’t write anything I wouldn’t be comfortable reading out loud to a good faith audience.

“If your characters care deeply about what’s happening, so will the readers.”

Daniel M. Lavery’s review of Exordia calls it “a comprehensive taxonomy of violence at every level.” Do you agree with him? Was that an intentional focus on your part?
Sure. I think the problem of violence is an intentional focus in all my work. There’s this override code for any disagreement in the universe, which is, you just go kill the other guy. You’re a little slimeball in the primordial ocean and you can’t get enough carbon? Well, you could evolve a novel strategy of carbon fixing, and chill out reproducing without hurting anybody else. Or you could just eat your neighbor and take its carbon. Which one’s more likely to evolve?

Everything in the universe faces this problem. They say never argue with an idiot, because they’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. But how do you make anything good and durable in the universe when you’re constantly being dragged down to the level of “Do what we want or we’ll kill you,” or, alternately, “Nice industrialization, but you fucked up your environment and now you can’t get any calories lol.” The need to defend your own existence from violence, whether intentional or natural, is the idiot. And it keeps on dragging you down.

Exordia in particular is about what we do when violence is used to coerce us. If someone holds a gun to your head and says “Shoot one of your relatives, or we will shoot them all,” is it morally better to do what they’re forcing you to do, because you cannot be held responsible for someone else coercing you into evil—the evil is ultimately theirs? Or better to refuse, because you will not enable evil by complying with it? Or better to make a grab for the gun, because you’re so hopping mad you’d rather die fighting? Or better to never get into this situation in the first place, to treat your lack of answering violence as the real moral wrong? 

When you think back on writing Exordia, what sequence or moment was the most memorable to put down on paper?
The finale, no question. Just the whole last act. The bit where things move fast, you’ll know it when you read it.

When it came to the humorous bits of your novel, did those moments arise naturally or did you find yourself intentionally deploying it in certain parts?
I never once thought “I should go back and script doctor this to add some humor.” Sometimes the situation just lenses through the characters in such a way that the resulting ray of focus points to something funny. It’s absolute death to a story, in my opinion, when the characters get too arch and self-reflexive about it. “So THAT just happened” is the quip that gets bagged on the most, but the real problem, I think, is nonspecificity. Self-reflexive humor is humor about recognizing a trend across stories, and if you’re recognizing a trend across stories, maybe you should instead be making your story different! If there’s gonna be a funny bit, it should be a joke that’s specific to those characters in that situation. 

I am glad you thought there were funny bits, though. That’s a good sign.

Read our review of ‘Exordia’ by Seth Dickinson.

When writing, how did you know when a scene or idea was working? How did you know when something wasn’t working, either tonally or logically?
If something is just going on and on, building up complications—whether it’s dialogue or an explanation of some alien phenomenon—it needs to be tossed. Now you might say, “this whole book goes on and on, building complications!” That is true. To tell you the truth, in a few months I will work up the courage to reread this thing, and then I will have to decide if it’s worked or if I should’ve tried again.

The real trick with this is that if a scene is not working it may be because of a mistake you made 10,000 words earlier. You got to this scene but didn’t find the right ingredients waiting, because 10,000 words ago, you didn’t get those ingredients ready.

And the realest trick of all is just that you’ve got to constantly be finding more important reasons for your characters to care about what happens. People ultimately care about people. If your characters care deeply about what’s happening, so will the readers. If it’s all confusing and opaque and alienating to your characters, then odds are it will be to the reader too. Now you might say, “This whole book is about a confusing, opaque, alienating artifact!” Yes. But it is hopefully an artifact that heightens what the characters care about, rather than concealing it.

What other works inspired you the most when writing this book?
Startide Rising by David Brin, just for the giddy maximalism of its alien galaxy—I read it very young. The Andromeda Strain and (more importantly) Sphere by Michael Crichton, for their absolutely terrifying scenarios of alien contact. A whole bunch of technothrillers, particularly by David Mace, an obscure British writer I adore. Eon by the late Greg Bear, the tributes there are pretty obvious.

Diane Duane’s Young Wizard books were a huge influence in their willingness to reckon directly with death and evil on a cosmic scale. C.J. Cherryh is a touchstone whenever I try to write anything tense or military-adjacent; I do not think I have grasped much of her style but it’s an ongoing project. Vonda N. McIntyre’s brutally under-read Starfarers books have one of my favorite aliens ever, Nemo the squidmoth; her “Star Trek” novels were also a huge early influence on me (same for Margaret Wander Bonanno’s and for Diane Duane’s “Star Trek” books). Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest steered me into the multiple protagonist structure.

Do you think that serendure, the connection between two souls, is a real sensation?
No, I don’t. Not in the same way as compassion or camaraderie or love or hate. Those passions are the result of shared experiences with other people, and the attitudes that form in our minds. Even when we’re compatible with someone as a friend or a partner, we have to come to realize that inside ourselves. 

Serendure isn’t just “you really vibe with someone.” It’s “Like it or not, you are stuck to each other.” Stuck so hard that if a bullet comes at you, then serendure will make sure it kills both of you, or neither. That doesn’t exist in reality, unfortunately. I can’t love someone enough to protect them from bullets, or hate them enough to share wounds. But it’s a pretty common idea in storytelling, whether it’s soulmates in romance or vendetta in tragedy. So serendure is like the cosmic generalization of that human story, like realizing that the sun in the sky is the same as all the stars.

In his action-packed sci-fi debut, the author wades into the murky morality of evil, imperialism and violence.
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When you imagine humanity’s first contact with an alien, what do you picture? For me, it’s the optimism of classic sci-fi: ethereal beings slowly stretching out long-fingered hands from a glowing ship, a sign of peace and acceptance. Seth Dickinson doesn’t share my vision. In Exordia, his energetic, suspenseful melange of alien invasion and military action, Earth sits squarely in the middle of an intergalactic power struggle. If the aliens don’t get us, our own nuclear fallout might.

Anna Sinjari, a Kurd living in New York City, sees an alien in Central Park, basking on a rock in broad daylight. And Ssrin—the alien—needs her help, having been shot by another faction of beings. For some reason, Anna feels drawn to Ssrin, which is something the alien calls surendure: two souls existing as one. Anna begins to think of Ssrin as a friend, but their new partnership is barely formed when disaster strikes. Will Anna and Ssrin be able to fend off other alien agents and help save the world?

How Seth Dickinson wrote one of the wildest first-contact novels you’ll ever read.

Exordia’s first act is its most successful. Anna and Ssrin’s initial interactions are personal, hilarious and thought-provoking. Once the broader storyline kicks in, however, it can be a struggle to keep up, so impenetrable are some of Dickinson’s ideas. If you are someone who loves a monumental level of specificity when it comes to military command structures or the complex metaphysical value systems of aliens, this is the book for you. Dickinson’s obsession with detail greatly enriches the atmosphere of Exordia, which rockets across many points of view and locations as various team members look for clues to unravel the mystery. But at times, the numerous technical terms and jargon practically wash over the reader.

However, Dickinson has crafted a number of very human stories in a book ostensibly about aliens. Trauma, morality in the face of disaster, forgiveness, guilt, lost love and the bond between parents and children all find their way to the page. Yes, these people are witnessing and trying to survive the craziest moment in the history of Earth, but their connections to one another ring true.

While some may wish it spent as much time with its characters as it does exploring its many fascinating ideas, Exordia is undoubtedly impressive. But there’s no question that it will be many sci-fi fans’ favorite book of the year, especially those willing to surrender to it, and be consumed.

Seth Dickinson’s Exordia is an energetic, suspenseful melange of alien invasion and military action.
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Danger, intrigue and a hell of a lot of blood are splashed across the pages of Carissa Broadbent’s gripping fantasy romance, The Serpent & the Wings of the Night.

The first entry in Broadbent’s Crowns of Nyaxia duology, The Serpent & the Wings of the Night grants more nuance than usual to vampires, casting them as something closer to the elves of high fantasy than the monstrous figures of horror novels. Rescued by the Nightborn King, Victor, as a baby, Oraya has lived every moment of her life as a sheep among wolves, the only human in a court of vampires. She’s trained herself to be deadly and to trust no one except Victor, and she yearns for the day she can shed her humanity. Luckily, a chance to do just that arrives in the form of the Kejari, an ancient tournament with an incredible prize: a chance to request anything from the goddess Nyaxia. Raihn, a new vampire to the court, offers her an alliance, which Oraya cautiously accepts. But can Raihn be trusted as he and Oraya try to survive the trials of the Kejari?

Oraya’s first-person perspective fills the pages with her suspicion, ruthlessness and loneliness. That sense of dread is balanced by the fact that Oraya is somewhat of a badass: There are fight scenes galore in this book, and it’s easy to root for Oraya as she swirls her swords against foe after foe. It’s no wonder that Victor nicknamed her “little serpent.”

Broadbent wisely allows Oraya’s walls to come down one brick at a time, especially when it comes to her interactions with Raihn. A yin-and-yang relationship slowly develops between the two as trust heals old wounds and their odds of winning the Kejari becomes more real. Broadbent uses the looming threat of a war between the vampire kingdoms to add heft, a decision which elevates the stakes of the tournament and grounds the story in a real crisis.

Fans of The Hunger Games or Red Rising will enjoy this bloody twist on the tournament trope, and just about any reader will love Oraya and Raihn’s relationship.

Fans of The Hunger Games and Red Rising will enjoy The Serpent & the Wings of the Night, Carissa Broadbent’s action-packed vampire romance.
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The epigraph of Louisa Morgan’s The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird comes from Emily Dickinson: “One need not be a chamber—to be haunted— / One need not be a House— / The Brain—has Corridors surpassing / Material Place—”. This brief passage beautifully encompasses the novel’s core idea, that plumbing the depths of one’s past trauma can reveal, and hopefully abolish, the shades that haunt us all. 

Dr. Beatrice Bird is quite happy being alone. Self-isolated on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest in 1977, she takes care of simple things in her small cottage. She milks the cows the previous owner left behind. She watches the shoreline. She picks up groceries when they come over on the ferry. She misses her partner, Mitch, whom she left behind in San Francisco.

But Beatrice’s solitude keeps the ghosts at bay. 

She sees them whenever she encounters another person: Their fears, pains and shames orbit grimly around them where only Beatrice can see. When a young woman named Anne Iredale arrives on the island to escape her own past, Beatrice senses a kindred spirit and offers to take her in. A psychologist by trade, Beatrice slowly uncovers Anne’s story. But the ghosts that haunt Anne are some of the foulest Beatrice has ever seen. Can she and Anne heal enough to banish the ghosts once and for all?

This book has a healer’s heart, revolving around Morgan’s inquisitive, sensitive and measured look at trauma. Yes, ghosts are present and yes, they do inject tension, but they’re used more as conduits for the real work of psychological examination. As Morgan jumps between both women’s perspectives, including some flashbacks to key moments before the island, the reader feels as if they’re putting together the pieces alongside Beatrice as she helps Anne start her healing journey. Morgan knows how to let a conversation develop slowly, and Beatrice and Anne’s friendship blooms at the same natural pace. Trust is earned, truths are confessed and time passes. No one can rush someone like Anne into a breakthrough. It has to happen naturally. 

The importance of women healing other women appears in many of Morgan’s other novels (The Great Witch of Brittany, The Age of Witches), and The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird is an especially kind and empathetic expression of the same theme. Though Beatrice sets out to help Anne, Anne inevitably helps Beatrice. Pain is wiped clean by understanding, like a gust of air off the ocean. Find a comfy seat and settle in. You’ll be glad you did.

In this inquisitive, sensitive novel from Louisa Morgan, ghosts become a vehicle for psychological examination—and a healing friendship.
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In a distant star system known as the Kindom, a group of noble families rule with an unbreakable grip. But a single secret, in the right person’s hands, can change everything. A multilayered saga full of courtly intrigue and indelible characters, Bethany Jacobs’ These Burning Stars warps readers across the galaxy on a devilishly fun thrill ride.

Jun Ironway has just nabbed the biggest score of her thieving career: a data drive containing explosive evidence that one of the ruling families was involved in planetary genocide. It could bring in quite the payday. Or, it could get her killed. Hunting her are two of the Kindom’s finest clerics, members of a religious order that serve as law enforcement. Esek, heir to the Nightfoot family fortune, leads enigmatically and punishes ruthlessly while her counterpart, Chono, is impassive, devout and efficient. Haunting the steps of this trio’s deadly dance is a wanderer known only as Six, who seems to have a stake in the data drive as well. But who is Six and whose side are they on? And can Jun find a way to expose the truth before Esek and Chono catch her?

These Burning Stars is plotted like a chess match, confident and surprising as Jacobs moves each piece thoughtfully across her board. There’s a sense of delicate control as the pace and tension ebb and flow, and the characters approach and retreat from each other. Enriching flashbacks fill in relevant information, but only when the narrative calls for it. Jacobs has an applause-worthy restraint, holding her cards until they can be played for maximum effect.

All four main characters are extremely fun to follow, and this reviewer will be thinking about them long after filing this piece. Esek in particular stands out: a brilliant, haughty, rule-bending and gregarious sociopath who is as unpredictable as she is determined. Her scenes feel electric, like anything could happen, with Chono, her shadow and opposite, playing foil time and time again.

I’m happy to report that These Burning Stars opens a trilogy set in the Kindom. If Jacobs’ second entry is anything like the first, we’ll have so much more to discover across her universe in the years to come.

Bethany Jacobs’ These Burning Stars is a confident and surprising start to a sci-fi trilogy that boasts memorable characters and excellent plotting.
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Warm, imaginative and often funny, Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers thoughtfully examines the price and cost of corporate colonialism and humanity’s ever-present need to expand.

In the distant future, Destry, a ranger who works for the Environmental Rescue Team on planet Sask-E, discovers a hidden city. Destry and the rest of her team are tasked with ensuring ecological stability on Sask-E, which is owned by the terraforming corporation Verdance, before Verdance sells plots of the planet’s land to the highest bidders. The ERT thought they were the only inhabitants of Sask-E. But the city Destry discovers is populated by an entire previous generation of terraformers, and she and the ERT consider whether to stand against Verdance and their murky motives. Centuries later, while a planetwide conspiracy threatens everything the ERT has done to turn Sask-E into a hospitable planet, the fallout from Destry’s conflict with Verdance resurfaces.

The Terraformers is an expansive, entertaining book, full of comprehensive world building and exacting detail. Every living thing in the terraformed areas of Sask-E provides data that flows back to the ERT: Messages can be sent through blades of grass or through water. Robotic drones converse with people, and genetically enhanced animals can communicate via text message. Newitz giddily explores the convergence of digital and ecological systems, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The Terraformers is full of parallels to contemporary issues (corporate greed versus environmental sustainability, the intersection of machines and humans), and while Newitz intensely examines these topics, the reader will never feel lectured, bored or disconnected from the characters.

But once The Terraformers concludes, the questions it poses remain. In our race to remake the universe for ourselves, what kinds of stewards will we be?

Entertaining and full of thorny questions about the fate of humanity, Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers explores a distant, corporation-controlled future.
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When you get home from a stressful day at work, do you kick back with a nice cold beer? Or do you prefer hemlock tea? In Hannah Whitten’s The Foxglove King, poisons are drugs that produce a potent magical high. Full of courtly intrigue, smart characters and will-they-won’t-they romance, The Foxglove King is a heady concoction that will satiate anyone looking for an absorbing new fantasy world.

Lore is a poison dealer in the city of Dellaire, and she has a huge secret: She was born into a cult of death-worshipping witches. After she escaped as an adolescent, she swore she’d never let the witches find her again. It’s easy to hide in Dellaire’s underground, but it’s a lot harder to hide when you’re arrested by the soldier-monks of the Presque Mort for dealing poison and forced to serve the Sainted King in his court. Trapped, Lore must use her street smarts to investigate a series of terrible attacks on border towns across the kingdom. To top it off, she’s right in the middle of a tense feud between the king’s son, Bastian, and her Presque Mort guardian, Gabriel. It’s going to take all of Lore’s cunning and skill to survive the court and uncover the mystery behind the attacks.

The Foxglove King is built on opposites: death magic versus life magic, wealth versus poverty, pain versus pleasure and truth versus fiction. But what makes this book so fascinating is Whitten’s willingness to subvert expectations. Sometimes, diametrically opposed forces work better together than against each other. Such is the case with Bastian and Gabriel. Former friends, these very different men become more complex characters over the course of the narrative, each one enriched and challenged by Lore. The love triangle among them adds texture but never distracts from the central storyline. 

Medieval-adjacent fantasy societies can feel stuffy and ancient, but Whitten cannily avoids this trap. Her characters speak with a modern sensibility, which makes the story accessible and often heightens the tension. Lore is a fun guide throughout, snarky and confident one moment, vulnerable and thoughtful the next. Her depth and complexity as a protagonist bode well for future entries in the Nightshade Crown series, with Whitten skillfully tying Lore’s background into the reveals about the broader universe and its unique, dangerous and more than a little creepy magic system. (A dead god buried deep under the city is leaking death magic that infects everything in Dellaire? Rad.) 

Whitten’s already gained a following with her Wilderwood duology, and the perfectly balanced Foxglove King proves that her success was not a fluke.

Hannah Whitten gained a following with her Wilderwood duology, and the perfectly balanced Foxglove King proves that her success was not a fluke.
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Do you ever get a little creeped out when you visit your grandparents’ house? There’s something about the stillness of unused rooms and the sweet, dusty smell that can give you a slight sense of dread. But if you were to visit the Montgomery house in T. Kingfisher’s A House With Good Bones, you’d leave with more than an uneasy feeling. In fact, you might not leave at all! (Cue thunder and lightning.) 

Sam Montgomery has to move back in with her mom. The archaeoentomologist’s latest dig (she studies insects in archeological sites) has been put on an indefinite hold, but the good news is that Sam loves her mom, Edie, who lives in Sam’s grandmother’s old house in rural North Carolina. But Edie seems tired and nervous, very unlike her normal self. Sam has strange dreams about her dead grandmother, vultures circle outside all day, ladybugs spill out of the faucets and Sam swears that bony fingers touch her hair in the middle of the night. But Sam’s a scientist. Shouldn’t there be a reasonable explanation for all of this? Determined to find out the truth, Sam starts unearthing secrets about her family that were better left undisturbed. 

Kingfisher is in her element when the tension is at its highest. She keeps a narrow focus on Sam and the handful of other major characters, amplifying the sensation that threats are imminent. Danger in horror can sometimes feel arbitrary and nonspecific, but in this house, you know what’s haunting you. As things get stranger and stranger, the writing gets choppier, like Sam’s panting breath and racing heart. And Kingfisher isn’t afraid to embrace the weird: A House With Good Bones’ climax is strange, scary and unforgettable.

That being said, don’t write off this book if you’re not a horror enthusiast—A House With Good Bones is also laugh-out-loud funny. Sam’s inner monologue is full of hilarious observations about living with her mom, not having reliable internet and simply being 32. The aforementioned vultures? They have names and belong to a neighbor. The book is balanced with knife’s-edge precision between fright and humor in a way that brings Jordan Peele’s sensational Get Out to mind. You’ll be craving the next tense moment, because it means the next joke is right around the corner too. 

A House With Good Bones shares another key trait with Get Out: Both works derive their frightening power from placing reasonable people in unreasonable circumstances and forcing them to respond. It’s nerve-wracking for a character to ask “Is this real?” when faced with something strange; it’s downright terrifying when the answer is “Yes.”

Impressively weird, nerve-wracking but still laugh-out-loud funny, A House With Good Bones is another horror hit from T. Kingfisher.
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Consider the stereotypical ending of a fantasy novel. The heroes have prevailed against a tide of darkness, the evil has been purged from the land and all rejoice as peace is restored. But what happens next? Who rules over the defeated kingdom? What will the mighty heroes do with no one left to fight? Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant suggests that, once the war is over, the heroes will fight one another. 

Years ago, Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, banding together to defeat Lord Bone and conquer his dread city of Necrad. Now the heroes are the rulers of Necrad, even though, truth be told, none of them really volunteered for the job. It’s just what was needed to keep the peace. In addition to this, Aelfric was tasked with carrying Spellbreaker, Lord Bone’s enchanted, sentient broadsword. Though the sword bestows incredible magical power to the wielder, it thinks for itself and constantly yearns for bloodshed. When Aelfric and Spellbreaker discover that Lord Bone’s tomb has been opened, Aelfric suspects that one of his eight remaining companions broke in and stole the body. But who? And why?

Hanrahan does a great job constructing Aelfric’s backstory and developing nostalgia for his once-simple life. Aelfric and his companions’ shared history is sprinkled throughout, and the cracks within the group slowly become apparent. Aelfric is a soldier, a monster-slayer with no desire to rule, and he loves his companions even as he suspects some of them of heinous acts. It creates a wonderful sense of tension that is also tinged with sadness; Aelfric is painfully aware that the group is both getting older and growing distant from one another.

However poignant, this story could still come apart if the world building wasn’t up to snuff, but I’m happy to report that it’s fantastic. Hanrahan creates fully realized environments with rich histories, rendering the murky city of Necrad, towns and inns along the road and an elvish kingdom with precise detail. He also employs a second perspective, that of Aelfric’s sister, Olva, to show the reader other parts of the kingdom. Her mission—finding her wayward son, Derwyn—is engaging, but sometimes less so than Aelfric’s gripping quest.

A creative writing professor I once had said, “When you figure out how it ends, stay there,” urging us to push past what seemed like the expected conclusion and instead see what would happen if we let things continue to play out. I have a feeling Hanrahan would excel at such an exercise.

Gareth Hanrahan’s gritty and rousing fantasy novel The Sword Defiant explores what happens after the good guys win.
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Space opera fans, rejoice! Megan E. O’Keefe’s The Blighted Stars delivers futuristic technology, a power-hungry ruling class, a bit of mystery, a sprinkle of the macabre and a compelling, complicated relationship between its two leads.

In the distant future, the Mercator family maintains a tight control over humanity’s life among the stars. The Mercators mine “cradle worlds,” planets that are lush and unspoiled, for resources, but the side effect is a fungal bloom that eventually kills the planet.

Idealistic, passionate Naira Sharp is a member of the Conservators, a resistance group that tries to save these cradle worlds through sabotage and guerrilla warfare. Tarquin Mercator is the heir to his family’s empire, but he’s a scientist at heart, and he wonders where the planet-killing fungus comes from. Their worlds collide when Naira poses as Tarquin’s bodyguard in order to infiltrate and destroy the Mercators from within. But when their ship crashes onto the newest cradle world, Naira and Tarquin are faced with the supposedly impossible: The planet has already been devoured by the fungus. Together with the other survivors of the crash, they must work together to survive and uncover the truth.

O’Keefe is a master world builder, and The Blighted Stars has one of the most fascinating sci-fi concepts of the year. In her universe, people can load their consciousnesses into new bodies. Get killed out in the far reaches of space? No problem, your neural map can be beamed back to civilization and placed into a new 3D-printed body right away. (Though sometimes neural maps don’t load properly, resulting in grotesque and zombielike monsters.) Before beginning her mission, Naira uploads her consciousness into a printed body of Tarquin’s bodyguard without anyone on the doomed ship knowing. O’Keefe finds multiple ways to have fun with this plot device, and the payoffs of Naira’s secret identity are well earned.

The Blighted Stars would be a terrific starting point for anyone interested in dipping a toe into the space opera subgenre. O’Keefe largely restricts herself to Naira’s and Tarquin’s points of view, which brings an immediacy and focus to the story that is echoed by the relative simplicity of the plot. The complex and engrossing relationship between Tarquin and Naira holds everything together; the fresh world building and interstellar intrigue wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if not for the believable relationship at the book’s core.

If future entries in O’Keefe’s Devoured Worlds saga are as exciting as this book, sci-fi fans will be thanking their lucky stars for years to come.

Megan E. O’Keefe’s The Blighted Stars has one of the most fascinating sci-fi premises of the year: People upload their consciousnesses into 3D-printed bodies.
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If you want to know what kind of book Liz Kerin’s Night’s Edge is, look no further than the first paragraph: “It’s two in the morning. The fridge is empty. And Mom is dead on the couch.” How much terror would that provoke in a 10-year-old girl? Especially when she subsequently sees her mom’s eyes shoot open? Vampire tales often center on passed-down trauma, and Liz Kerin’s gruesome, tense and heartfelt novel takes this concept to its very limit.

After her mother’s resurrection, Mia’s life takes a very dramatic turn. Izzy has been infected with Saratov’s syndrome, which makes her stronger than a normal human, sensitive to light and reliant on human blood. The world has only recently discovered the existence of Saras, as they’re known, and it isn’t friendly to people like Izzy. She and Mia eventually settle in Tucson, Arizona, where Izzy runs a bar (she only goes in at night) and drinks only the now 20-something Mia’s blood. But Mia worries that Izzy has gotten back in touch with Devon, the underground activist for Sara rights who turned Izzy. When Mia meets a girl she really likes, she finds herself at a crossroads. Can she leave Izzy behind? Would Izzy let her leave? And if she wouldn’t . . . what would she do to keep Mia at home?

Kerin’s skill cannot be overemphasized: The physical and psychological pain that Mia and Izzy experience would be nearly unreadable in lesser hands, but Night’s Edge is engrossing throughout. Of course, there is physical pain; blood flows through the pages of this book, as expected of a vampire novel. But the psychological pain hits even harder. Mia’s mental health has been significantly impacted by the things she’s seen her mother do in the name of keeping their family safe. As Izzy and Mia’s relationship fractures, they constantly find new ways to hurt each other—when they aren’t ripping open old wounds. It’s heartbreaking but believable.

A playwright and screenwriter, Kerin knows exactly when to start a chapter, when to pick up the pace and when to give the reader a break. Her precise pacing switches from slow and intimate to tense and frenetic without being jarring. Kerin is a master at building memorable moments, and whenever she gets a chance, she cranks up the excitement: Several sequences in which Izzy shows off her Sara powers are downright thrilling, and a particularly tense scene in a hospital is a showstopper. The perpetual dread and clear-eyed insight of Night’s Edge will be haunting readers for years to come.

Liz Kerin’s engrossing and haunting Night’s Edge is a masterful new take on vampire mythology.
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The Earth is about to die. A single ship will travel to a hospitable planet far beyond our solar system where the 80 original crew members and their children will begin a new chapter for the human race. But in Yume Kitasei’s The Deep Sky, those plans go horribly wrong. The passengers aboard the Phoenix might not be having a good time, but readers certainly will be as the pages in this exhilarating, smart sci-fi mystery rocket past.

Asuka doesn’t feel like she belongs on the Phoenix. The last member to join the ship, she’s merely an alternate to the other 79 crew members, even though she graduated from the same highly competitive school. Perhaps it’s because she’s an afterthought that she’s asked to investigate a strange object on the surface of the ship. Just as she and a teammate reach the object, a massive explosion tears through the ship, killing several crew members and blowing the Phoenix dangerously off course. Now, in a race against time to correct the Phoenix’s flight path, Asuka must uncover the truth about the explosion . . . even if it implicates someone on board.

It’s a pitch-perfect setup for a space thriller, and the stakes could not be any higher: The fate of the human species relies on the Phoenix’s ability to make it to the new Earth. Alliances change and suspicions shift as Asuka’s investigation proceeds and propulsive chapters often end in cliffhangers. Flashback scenes set at the school that selected the Phoenix’s crew counterbalance the mystery, revealing just the right amount of information about characters’ history and corresponding with important story beats in the present. In both timelines, Asuka wrestles with her parental relationships, childhood grief and complex feelings about her Japanese-American identity. While these sections deepen the character, they occasionally feel like an interruption of the more suspenseful moments aboard the Phoenix.

The Deep Sky feels very close to our own reality: The Phoenix has landing modules and solar shields, rather than laser cannons. That said, Kitasei’s Digitally Augmented Reality (DAR), which allows crew members to adjust what they see around them through their visors, is a brilliant device. Rather than seeing the stark white hallways of the Phoenix, they could choose a lush rainforest or the deck of a pirate ship. Kitasei gets a lot of mileage out of DAR, especially in some key moments in the later parts of the book.

As interested in where we came from as where we’re going, The Deep Sky is a study in belonging and how Asuka’s intersecting identities (Japanese-American, crew member, classmate, friend, daughter and woman) buttress her during the most important moments in her life. Pick up The Deep Sky to discover how Asuka, and the Phoenix, rise from the ashes.

A Hail Mary effort to save humanity goes awry in Yume Kitasei’s smart and exhilarating sci-fi mystery, The Deep Sky.

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