Ralph Harris

Max Gladstone spins a story from the perspective of several unreliable narrators in Last Exit. That unreliability is the point in this standalone fantasy, which is intentionally cerebral and difficult to follow. The dynamics of alternate dimensions and conflicting viewpoints are not background to the plot: They are the plot.

Set in modern-day America, Last Exit revolves around alternate dimensions, nicknamed alts. Alts can only be visited with the help of spin: an individual’s understanding of possibility. If someone has a limited belief in what is possible, then they will only see what is currently in front of them. But if you can overcome skepticism and accept various possibilities, you can force possibilities to materialize. A door that should be locked just happens to be unlocked.

Zelda, Ish, Ramon, Sarah and Sal were once a dimension-hopping fellowship, fighting a mysterious rot that corroded worlds. The group imploded after the loss of Sal, and Last Exit begins as Zelda, convinced that Sal isn’t lost forever, tries to get everyone back together to save Sal and defeat the rot once and for all. The realistic rifts between characters, conveyed via broody monologuing from each unique perspective, allow readers to compare each person’s opinions, providing a rich depth of relationships for readers to explore despite the relatively limited core cast. Last Exit has a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere, with the rot barely giving Zelda and her companions room to recover, but the compelling protagonists keep things engaging.

Gladstone avoids in-depth detail, leaving the reader to conceptualize a scene by leaning on their imagination (their spin, you might say) to flesh out the details. For example, Gladstone uses the phrase “cracked the sky” with no description of the crack’s appearance or its effect on the rest of the skyline. He then reuses the phrase multiple times, challenging the reader to recall their own mental imagery. As a result, Last Exit is a book enriched through sharing; it’s easy to see a book club discussing their varied interpretations of this phrase.

The beginning of Last Exit feels like the start of an archeologist’s excavation: new clues are popping up in unexpected places and nothing makes sense. But that process of discovery and excavation is where Gladstone’s novel shines, as each chapter revises and adjusts the reader’s understanding. By the end of the book, their individual vision of Gladstone’s world reaches something like clarity, enough for the intrepid archeologist to piece together most of the picture. While not a light undertaking, Last Exit is a satisfying read for those with a lot of imagination—and a little spin.

While not a light undertaking, Last Exit is a satisfying fantasy read for those with a lot of imagination.

A motley crew, their skilled leader and a living ship walk into a bar—and the bar explodes.

You Sexy Thing kicks off with a literal bang (and ends with one), but the rest of the story is dialogue and flashback-driven as Cat Rambo shifts perspectives and timelines to color in their cast of characters. Captain Niko Larson, her first mate, Dabry, and a handful of their fellow soldiers escaped their former Hive Mind overlords by declaring that their true calling lay in the culinary arts, not warfare. But when the space station that their restaurant is located on is attacked, they end up seeking refuge on the titular sentient bioship. Shenanigans including space pirates and galactic politics ensue.

Set in a far-flung future teeming with diverse alien life, Rambo’s novel incorporates both magic and science in neat harmony. All denizens of this universe understand that magic and science both exist, and accept both in equal measure. You Sexy Thing’s setting is rife with intrigue, but was clearly designed to accommodate character and plot, rather than the other way around. Which isn’t to say that Rambo’s world building is flimsy or thin, rather that their focus is firmly on their characters and the relationships between them.

With this commitment to character development above all else, You Sexy Thing’s characters need to be engaging, and Rambo absolutely nails it. Captain Niko and Dabry are standouts, solid compatriots who are earnestly seeking both master chefdom and continued freedom from the Hive Mind. One of the greatest characters is the ship itself: You Sexy Thing is a living spacecraft that learns and adapts to its crew, and (not surprisingly) becomes a member of the crew itself.

Rambo does an impressive job of thrusting the reader into the middle of relationships with rich history. The dialogue always feels natural and avoids forced or excessive exposition. Instead, a new crewmate is introduced just after the first act, and her experience learning about the crew and their relationships serves to fill in the gaps for readers. Rambo describes and demonstrates all the unspoken communication between the crew, engendering a wholesome atmosphere suffused with the feeling of warm, deep trust among the closest of friends. There is very little conflict between the crew members and what conflict does spring up is resolved quickly.

You Sexy Thing is a fun start to a hopefully long-running series about the lives of a close-knit fellowship of soliders-turned-chefs-turned-adventurers. Readers will be immediately sucked into Rambo’s light-hearted, camaraderie-filled space adventure and fall in love with their earnest characters.

Cat Rambo’s warmhearted space adventure is light on plot but overflowing with earnest and engaging characters.

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s mega-rich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness.

Khaw roots the novella in the perspective of Cat, who along with Phillip and the group’s resident pot-stirrer, Lin, is one of the wedding’s three guests. Cat has recently emerged from six months of self-imposed isolation to treat her depression, the exact details of which are left purposefully vague. Cat thinks this retreat has done her some good, but Khaw does not shy from portraying Cat’s ongoing experience with depression in the form of long, spiraling trains of thought. These mental soliloquies color the entire story with Cat’s internal angst. Her barely controlled depressive energy bleeds through every page, punctured by curt dialogue among the small fellowship of supposed friends. Supposed is the key adjective, as each member of the five-person crew has some sort of sordid history with another member—or two. Their friendships, especially as seen through Cat’s eyes, are flimsy at best. Despite flying across the world to participate in this marriage ceremony, the bonds between them disintegrate as the haunting begins.

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

Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Cat’s relative familiarity with Japanese culture (she is Chinese and grew up in Malaysia) means that she is quick to identify certain beings but doesn’t spend unrealistic amounts of time explaining significant details for the audience, a careful balance of clarity and obscurity that will appeal to Japanese horror aficionados and newcomers alike.

Khaw builds horror slowly and evenly. Rather than sporadically appearing to frighten and terrorize the young squad of not-quite-friends, the spirits of the house appear with steadily increasing frequency until they are simply present in every scene. By the novella’s climax, the tension has increased to such an unbearable degree that the final burst of violence is more expected than surprising.

Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale of foolish young adults, all of whom are poorly prepared for the effects their decisions will have on their psyches (and lives).

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

A lonely quasi-immortal, Amahle is a light chaser, a spaceship captain who travels the stars and takes advantage of enhanced genetics and lightspeed time-dilation to cross through millenia. Her mission is the dispersion and eventual retrieval of memory collars, fancy futuristic necklaces that record the memories of entire lifetimes: Imagine the 94-part Instagram stories of your most social media addicted-friends, but stretching across a century with fewer grainy, impossible-to-hear concerts. Between planets, Amahle uses these memory collars to experience the lives of those she met on her visits, with only the ship’s AI as her companion. That is, until she realizes that someone is trying to reach out to her through the memory collars, someone capable of communicating across centuries and galaxies.

Despite its short length, Light Chaser plunges into both soul-bound, possibly fated love and universe-spanning conspiracies. Readers who love unique science fiction settings will enjoy how Hamilton and Powell reveal new worlds with each new chapter. Both world building and suspense increase in tandem, complexity and depth building throughout the story while each new reveal amps up the tension.

An ideal read for a flight or a cozy afternoon at home, Light Chaser will make an afternoon seem like minutes.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

Brian Staveley’s previous trilogy, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, followed intricately intertwined political machinations in a vast world with an extensive history. The Empire’s Ruin begins a new arc set in the same universe and tells the stories of three characters: Gwenna, a member of an elite group of soldiers who serve the Annurian Empire; Akiil, a monk turned con artist; and Ruc, a priest trying to survive in the dangerous swamp town of Dombang. Even readers unfamiliar with Staveley's earlier books will enjoy this lengthy, immersive fantasy.

Staveley frequently narrates from triads of point-of-view characters, and while the three protagonists of The Empire’s Ruin start in dramatically different places, they all serve to tell the same story: the slow, inevitable decline of the Annurian Empire, which is still reeling from the events of the previous trilogy. Ruc experiences the consequences of the empire’s weakened grip firsthand, as a victim of the violent streets of Dombang, which has seceded from the empire. Gwenna carries out the Empress’s orders to explore and scavenge undiscovered territory across a vast ocean as Akiil attempts to work a con on the Empress herself.

The world of The Empire’s Ruin is unremittingly bleak, and while Staveley embraces the physical violence that’s all too common in this world, he focuses far more on the psychological impact of living in a crumbling society. Each character here, even beyond the three main characters, battles external corruption and violence while simultaneously battling their own fears of inadequacy, internal corruption and severe depression (except for Akiil, who is a dirtbag who deserves the comeuppance he will eventually receive).

Gwenna, Akiil and Ruc are all prone to monologuing and soliloquies, to the point that it sometimes feels as if Staveley has written three separate fantasy versions of Hamlet. At times, this focus on introspection can make certain sections feel interminable. And while this feels like an intentional choice on Staveley’s part, to demonstrate each character’s narrow focus on their own struggles, it does hurt the book’s overall pacing.

But by the end of The Empire’s Ruin, most readers will still be itching for more. Those looking for a thoughtful, dark fantasy with action and well-earned twists would do well to pick this one up.

Even readers unfamiliar with Brian Staveley’s first trilogy in this world will enjoy this lengthy, immersive fantasy.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world and let all manner of magic into our own. Decades later, someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz returns from the dead goes on a murderous rampage through Cairo, threatening both the delicate balance between the world powers and the uneasy accord between humans and the supernatural. We talked to Clark about the inspirations behind his alternate history.

I love the world you've created! How do you start world building at the very beginning of a project? Was there any specific moment or image that kickstarted your vision of an alternate Cairo?
Thank you! I think for this world—what I think is now called the Dead Djinn universe—the idea began with an image in my head of the main character, Fatma, in the suit and a dead djinn hovering over her. Who knows what made me dream that up? But once it was there, I needed to figure it out. Who was this person? Was this a detective story? Maybe she’s a detective. No, maybe she’s an agent. OK, what’s with the dead djinn? What’s even the larger mystery here? And it went on and on like that, until I had a story.

Egyptian mythology (among other African and Middle Eastern cultures) has a strong influence in this book. Was there any specific work that inspired you? What draws you to the stories of that corner of the world?
My earliest years growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Caribbean folklore, Hindu cosmology and Muslim festivals (like Hosay)—part of my environment. So the non-“Occidental” has always been part of my lived experience. And I think I’ve always found myself searching for it, no matter where I’ve ended up.

"I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo.' It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more."

Fatma, Siti and Hadia are such fun characters to see interact. How do you approach writing dynamic conversations?
With all characters, I try to imagine how they would approach a situation or react to others. I think of them the way I would real people, with certain personality traits, habits, quirks, etc. So when Siti says something, I ask myself how Fatma would respond, or Hadia. And I just try to stay true to who they are.

Dr. Hoda is my favorite side character so far, so I have to ask—will she get her assistant?
LOL. Great question. I like side characters like Dr. Hoda precisely because they leave the door open to revisit them later. In the meantime, if I can get readers to identify with them (despite their limited presence) and see them as characters with depth, I’m happy.

Is there anything from your personal life you drew on to write this book? Or do you prefer not to think consciously about what parts of your life go into your work?
There are parts that are based heavily on my memories of visiting Cairo. And certainly, I pulled from themes and issues in my head at the time I was writing. The Dead Djinn world as a nod to anti-colonialism reflects much of my own personal bias. But overall, the characters and whatnot have their own experiences and lives that are quite separate from my own. Also, I haven’t yet actually seen a djinn.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Master of Djinn.

Do you want to continue writing stories in this world? If so, do you have a plan for how many more books you would like to write, or will you just see where the story takes you?
Plan? No plans here. I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more. Fortunately, because I enjoy world building, I always leave myself different doors and paths to explore. So, I don’t have anything yet in mind. But who knows?

What have you read and loved recently?
I am reading Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. The prose and imagination are magnificent!

What else are you working on?
A project I’m not yet supposed to talk about. But let’s just say, I may be writing for a decidedly younger audience. Though the rest of you are welcome to come along, too.

What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading A Master of Djinn?
A satisfied smile. And a hunger for Egyptian street food.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!