Tennal Halkana is a problem. He’s a problem for his family because he prefers drinking in gambling dens to fulfilling the demands of being part of one of the most prominent political families on the planet Orshan. He’s a problem when it comes to relationships, flitting from one affair to another in rapid succession. But most of all, he’s a problem for society: Tennal is a reader, a person with telepathic abilities that were genetically engineered by the Orshan Fedstate. When Tennal breaks one too many rules, his aunt conscripts him into the army and orders him to sync, or completely merge his mind, with an architect, a person who can mentally control other people.
Lieutenant Surit Yeni, the architect ordered to link his mind to Tennal, is everything Tennal is not. The child of a notorious traitor, Surit ensures that his every move is thoughtful, controlled and—above all else—principled. Thanks to that last quality, Surit refuses to sync with the unwilling Tennal. The two men fake the bond instead, all while looking for a way to get Tennal out of the army and to the safety of the wider galaxy.
Ocean’s Echo is a slow burn that eventually blazes into a supernova, a novel constrained in its location but massive in its ambition. Its opening scene in a gambling den is exciting, but that action-packed sequence is paltry compared to what’s to come. Set in the same universe as author Everina Maxwell’s debut, Winter’s Orbit, this standalone novel layers intrigue atop intrigue, ratcheting up the stakes one excruciating notch at a time. Maxwell uses her space station settings as pressure cookers, creating close-proximity environments that force her main couple to change and bond with each other. Tennal’s sharp edges bring Surit’s stoicism into relief, while Surit’s rule-abiding nature clashes with Tennal’s chaotic inability to tell the truth. All the while, the pair is wrapped in a world built with care by Maxwell, a writer with a keen eye for detail and nuanced social interactions. Rather than getting lost in the weeds of the mechanics of faster-than-light travel or how exactly readers and architects were made, Maxwell zeroes in on the small moments of soldiers’ daily lives, from tokens that communicate fellow officers’ genders or the politics of getting a second slice of cake from the mess hall vending machine.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a massive amount of world building to absorb: Between various branches of the military, syncing, readers and architects, the wealth of vocabulary and protocol to wade through can be overwhelming at first. The learning curve will be less steep for readers who loved Maxwell’s first foray into this universe, but rest assured that this is still a standalone novel that reads like one. Perfect for lovers of science fiction served medium-hard, Ocean’s Echo is the optimal blend of emotional maelstrom and suspenseful military drama.
Ocean’s Echo is the optimal blend of emotional love story and suspenseful military sci-fi.
Station Eternity, Mur Lafferty’s intergalactic whodunit, is a thrilling ride starring interesting characters from the farthest reaches of the universe.
There are many aliens on Space Station Eternity but only three humans. The sentient station granted sanctuary to social outcast (by choice and for good reason) Mallory Viridian and the insufferable Adrian Casserly-Berry, an ambassador from Earth. Mallory left Earth without a second glance because no matter where she goes, someone she knows dies. It’s like she’s the heroine of a cozy mystery series, except she has to deal with real-life consequences like always being a suspect and worrying that the people around her aren’t long for this world. The third human on the station is stowaway Xan Morgan, a handsome former soldier with a mysterious past, and Mallory is terrified he”ll fall prey to her curse. When it’s announced that a new shuttle full of humans will dock on Eternity, she knows they”ll soon be in danger as well. And sure enough, as soon as more humans arrive, both they and the station’s alien inhabitants start dying.
With its focus on the diverse races of aliens who call the space station home, Station Eternity is more creative than many stories with a similar setting, and its human characters are far more humble. They are hitching a most likely temporary ride on the station and therefore can never forget that they need to respect the aliens’ ways. Lafferty describes various alien beings with dry wit, gusto and imagination, from the rocklike Gneiss to a hivemind of sentient wasps who constantly ask inappropriate personal questions. Even though the story is told from Mallory’s perspective, Lafferty’s universe contains multitudes.
Beyond the book’s sci-fi trappings, Lafferty also crafts a solid mystery, with perfectly timed reveals and clues, and her quick banter and endearing characters shine all the way to the finale. Mallory, her comrades and her foes all have flaws, and many of them are survivors of violent or abusive situations. The near-future world of Station Eternity is not a rosy utopia, and there is much discourse among the characters on the difficulties of being femme, or queer, or trans, or a person of color. It makes Mallory’s quest to protect Eternity—an island of hope, coexistence and cooperation in a vast, alien-eat-alien universe—all the more imperative.
This space station-set mystery stands out thanks to its endearing characters, both human and alien.
Horror takes many forms: from the terror of losing control of one’s mind to another entity, to the fear of things that move around unseen in the night, to the inescapable certainty that one day we all must meet our ends. Each of these stories features a different kind of horror, making for a perfect sampler platter for anyone wanting to dip their toes in the murky depths of dread.
In the far reaches of the North, in a chateau abutting a frozen forest and a forbidding mine, a doctor has died. For the powerful Interprovincial Medical Institute, the worrying thing is not the doctor’s death; the Institute’s bodies die all the time. An ancient parasitic life form, the Institute takes over promising young minds and guides them into the field of medicine; all of the unsuspecting human race’s doctors are being controlled by the Institute. What is worrying is that the Institute isn’t sure how the body stationed in the chateau died. To find out exactly what happened, the Institute sends a new body to investigate the chateau and its denizens. That doctor soon discovers another parasite that could upend life as they know it, threatening both the Institute’s supremacy and the humans it seeks to protect.
Hiron Ennes’ debut novel, Leech, is a chilling study in the the loss of bodily autonomy, the terrors of a frigid winter wood and the undeniable creepiness of ancient homes that have long since fallen into disrepair. Set thousands of years after an apocalypse, Leech is decidedly a gothic novel, complete with seemingly cursed family homes, the dark consequences of human progress and unknown dangers lurking in every crevice and icy forest. Tantalizing references to the monsters of humanity’s past, chiefly destructive airships and killer biological agents, feel almost mythic as they fill readers’ imaginations with possible explanations for what exactly went wrong. Full of trepidation and mystery, Leech is perfect for readers who wished that Wuthering Heights had been just a little more like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.
Young adult author Ainslie Hogarth’s first novel for adults, Motherthing, opens in the waiting room of an intensive care unit, and it doesn’t get less stressful from there. Ralph and Abby Lamb have moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, to help care for her. Plagued by her rocky relationship with her own mother, Abby had hoped to kindle a better relationship with her mother-in-law but was instead met with distrust and cold condescension for being the woman who ‘took” Laura’s son from her. After Laura dies by suicide at the beginning of Motherthing, Abby thinks that her and Ralph’s obligation is over; they will sell the house and move away, free to start the perfect family that they deserve. But when Laura’s spirit begins to haunt the couple, driving Ralph into a pit of depression and tormenting Abby night after night, it is clear that Abby will have to dig deep if she is going to wrest the life of her dreams from the nightmare that her home life has become.
Deeply dark and often funny, Motherthing explores the contours of what it means to be in a relationship with a mother (or mother-in-law) figure and the porous boundaries among grief, anger and the supernatural. Motherthing can be a difficult book to read on an emotional level, given Abby’s frustratingly optimistic “I can fix him/it/this” attitude, but its scares and surprises are well worth the discomfort it causes—as well as the sleepless nights it will engender.
The eponymous island of Lute by Jennifer Thorne stands apart from the modern world. Even as war lingers on their doorstep and climate change and water shortages ravage the lands around them, the islanders are sheltered and seemingly immune to the turmoil. In exchange for these blessings, the island extracts a tithe: Every seven midsummers, exactly seven of the people of Lute die on what is referred to as “The Day.” Nina Treadway, a transplant to Lute and lady of the island by virtue of her marriage to Lord Hugh Treadway, doesn’t believe in the fairy tale, chalking it up to the superstitions of a quaint and isolated island. But as The Day dawns and brings a series of waking nightmares, Nina must accept her duties as the Lady of Lute in order to preserve the stability of the island she has come to love.
Part idyllic fantasy and part Final Destination, Lute asks a question that harks back to works like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: What is the price of prosperity? While Lute’s citizens have willingly agreed to that price, it is steep and horrific. The novel’s pages are dotted with gore and loss, sure to pull on the heartstrings—and occasionally the stomachs—of even the most stoic of readers. However, despite the bloodshed and tension, Lute is a story of the creation of a haven away from the pressures of the modern world. More cynical readers might balk at the story’s hopeful tone and occasionally predictable plot turns. However, for those looking for a thriller replete with both terror and fantasy, Lute delivers in spades.
Led by Hiron Ennes' chilling debut novel, Leech, these thoughtful, well-crafted frights will scare you on multiple levels.
The Interprovincial Medical Institute is the sole provider of medicine in a post-apocalyptic world. But unbeknownst to anyone, the Institute is a hive mind, a parasite living within, controlling and training the world’s doctors. When one of the Institute’s bodies dies, it sends a new doctor to investigate—and discovers it isn’t the only parasite interested in the human race. We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
Parasites aren’t new to speculative fiction and horror, but your choice to tell this story from the perspective of the Institute, a hive mind that is both a medical professional and a parasite, is extremely original. What did writing from that point of view allow you to do as an author? Building a narrator out of a many-minded parasite was not easy, but it let me take advantage of a sort of pseudo-omniscience, which was such a boon for world building. Writing from the Institute’s point of view was also an opportunity to delve into the threat a microscopic antagonist might pose. We all get it, parasites are spooky. That isn’t saying much at all. Where the true intrigue lies, I think, is in the mechanism of infection and the cellular changes that take place in a host. A protagonist needs to be proficient in microscopy to see the terrifying devil in those details.
The Institute harks back to classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Were there any particular stories that informed your creation of the doctor? At the moment I can’t think of any fiction that influenced me as much as the stories science can tell us about our own cells. I was particularly taken by the theory of endosymbiosis: Deep in our mitochondria lives a strand of DNA separate from our nuclear chromosomes, an essential piece of our cellular network without which we would die. This strand is circular, like a bacterium’s, leading scientists to propose it is the genome of a foreign organism that hitched a ride inside us back when we were single-celled. It’s been sitting there ever since, perpetuating itself through the maternal line and providing the basis of a fun mind game I like to call “Am I even me?” Is that DNA truly mine? Am I being parasitized by my own genome? Does it care about me, or does it only care about my reproductive success? Is everything I do and think at the behest of a little self-interested string of nucleotides living inside me? You stay awake so many nights thinking about stuff like that, and eventually you write Leech.
Bodily autonomy is always going to be a ripe subject for horror, but it is something particularly terrifying for many people right now. What drew you to writing a book that delved so deeply into body horror and questions of bodily and mental autonomy? I knew autonomy would end up being one of several themes, as a consequence of writing about parasitism, but the narrative quickly shoved autonomy to the forefront seemingly of its own volition. Leech was a demanding animal. It wouldn’t let me stop at the microscopic ecosystems parasites use to commandeer behavior but demanded I touch on the equally parasitic structures of hierarchy, power, abuse and some of the ways these structures rob us of our own bodies.
Despite the fact that Leech epitomizes a gothic novel, it’s also set in a post-apocalyptic world. What led you to marry these two genres? To put it simply, I think they work well together. Gothic literature is usually predicated on the exploration of some sordid past, whether of an individual, a family, an old house or an isolated township—often all of the above. If a single dead child can make for a terrifying poltergeist, what hauntings might manifest from the cruel impulses of a dead society? In what ways will human cycles of exploitation, bigotry and imperialism haunt the future? What monstrous forms might their resurrections take?
There’s a definite shift in the language the doctor uses to talk about humans throughout the book, moving from a clinical analysis, to becoming more familiar, to a sort of horror. Can you talk about this shift in language? Was this a conscious decision, or did it develop organically? The shift in language was a conscious development, and an excruciating one. I can’t count the hours I spent going back and forth, micromanaging colloquialisms, contractions, turns of phrase and intrusive thoughts. At the extreme ends of the story, the narration styles are pretty distinct, but it gets muddy enough in the middle that I’m fairly sure I underwent some sort of ego death while writing it.
There are hints as to what happened to society that caused everything to go wrong. Can you tell us what plunged your world into this dark age and how humanity survived? I don’t think there is any one thing that plunged this world into ruin. The collapse of a society is a slow, mundane and brutal process (a process we are currently witnessing in real time). I don’t know how the world ended, or how many times it ended, but I do know humanity survived by virtue of resilience, ingenuity, mutual aid and cooperation. And trains. I suspect the resurgence of the locomotive was vital to the resurgence of human society. I don’t know why. I just feel it in my heart.
How did your background in medicine inform the writing of Leech? Is there anything that you’ve learned in your studies that you wish you could have included that didn’t quite fit? To be honest, my background when I started Leech was in physics. My background when I finished it was in medicine, which definitely informed some of the details but not the core of the story. There are a few aspects of doctoring I might’ve incorporated if I’d had a more solid grasp of the realities of clinical practice—namely, a deeper exploration of the unique and sometimes mystifying relationships people have to their own bodies. I think I touched on this with Hélene’s (perceived) hypochondria, but I have seen some truly fascinating disconnects between internal and external experiences of disease: Munchausen’s syndrome, functional disorders and one case of a lovely, cheerful patient whose stated history painted a picture of health and who, almost as an afterthought, lifted her sweater to show me a massive open wound she had been nursing for nearly a year.
In gothic literature, deformity and physical differences are often cast as physical manifestations of sin, which is a theme now understood to be ableist at best. You manage to incorporate these bodily differences without that baggage. What drew you to including these elements of the gothic, and how did you navigate including them while avoiding the negative connotations that they usually hold? I won’t claim that Leech is free of ableist baggage; after all, ableism is one of the many flavors in that soup of oppression in which we all grow up swimming. That said, I did consciously set out to subvert traditional, moralistic depictions of deformity. I wanted pretty much every “normal” patient to have some unconventional physical attribute. In a world where everyone has a mechanical limb or a migratory birthmark or a literal doppelganger, it’s hard to view these things as anything but variations of the norm. This allowed the narrative to focus more on the unique roles these attributes play in the characters’ lives and how they might be admired, celebrated, exploited or fetishized on an interpersonal, rather than societal, level.
A few characters speculate about where they think the monstrous, mysterious ventigeaux that stalk the woods near Verdira came from.Do you have an answer, or are they mysterious to you as well? The ventigeaux are a mystery even to me. In the future, if there is an opportunity to dissect them, I might uncover their origins. For now, I share the Institute’s suspicions that they are orphans of biotechnology, but I can’t guess what sort of misguided endeavors led to their creation.
One of your characters tries to make sure that humans don’t regain the ability to make flying machines, believing that they are what caused the apocalypse in the first place. If the denizens of this world recovered lost technologies, do you think they would be doomed to the same self-destruction as their forebears? I’m a utopian at heart, so I genuinely hope not. But I believe that without significantly, consciously dismantling institutions of power, people will end up re-creating the oppressive structures that haunt our past. Not as any function of “human nature” or some such evolutionary psychology nonsense, but by dint of centuries of vicious cultural selection. People tend to emulate their forebears, and the world of Leech is no exception. Fortunately, in that world, as in ours, there are those working to demolish monopolies of power, technology and capital. And in that world, as in ours, there will be monumental successes and devastating failures. Let us hope the former is more frequent than the latter.
Picture of Hiron Ennes courtesy of the author.
We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with post-apocalyptic sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
Given our culture’s widespread embrace of all things nerdy and the ever-increasing popularity of romance novels, it’s no surprise that readers are flocking to stories of true love in magical realms and soulmates bantering their way through intergalactic intrigue.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
Mika Moon has a large following online, dazzling her audience with potions and her sparkling personality. The difference between Mika and other young women posing as witches with vlogs is that Mika is actually a witch. Taught to keep her abilities under wraps by her overbearing guardian, Mika knows that the biggest rule of witchcraft is that you never talk about witchcraft. Still, she believes her online activities are innocuous enough: After all, who would truly believe that witches exist? When a mysterious estate called Nowhere House entreats her to come and train a group of three young witches who don’t have control over their powers, Mika is immediately intrigued—and worried. After all, generations of witches have stayed safe by not congregating or doing anything suspicious. But she goes anyway, armed with nothing but her trusty dog, Circe, and a winning smile. At Nowhere House, Mika quickly runs into problems, not just from her young charges but also from Jamie, a testy librarian with trust issues who can’t decide if Mika is the answer to their problems or an even bigger problem herself. But as Mika settles into her role, she begins to understand that Jamie’s thorny exterior guards a man who may not be nice but is kind. And his steadfast presence might just be enough for Mika to lower the walls around her own heart.
In The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, author Sangu Mandanna tells a story of found family, taking chances and, of course, romance. Mandanna combines two classic rom-com tropes—forced proximity and a grumpy-sunshine pairing—with the charm of the English countryside, evoking restrained yet fluffy tales of governesses and duty but in a modern setting. Like a good cup of tea, Mandanna’s novel warms you from the inside out. It’s got just enough sugar and cream to bring a smile to your face but not so much that it seems saccharine.
Eclipse the Moon
Jessie Mihalik returns to her Starlight’s Shadow series with Eclipse the Moon, an action-packed, sci-fi romance with a central couple that readers will adore.
A hacker and bounty hunter aboard the spaceship Starlight’s Shadow, Kee Ildez needs a break from the ship’s close quarters and the presence of one of her alien crewmates, steely Valovian weapons expert Varro Runkow. She thinks a few weeks of solo investigation on the space station Bastion, where someone seems to be trying to start a war between the humans and the Valovians, will help her shake off her frustrating attraction to Varro. But her plan is upended when she realizes that he has followed her onto the space station. As tensions rise between human and Valovian designers during a fashion exhibit, Kee tries to stay professional and keep her mind on her mission. The peace between the two races has been tentative at best, and even something seemingly innocuous could plunge the galaxy into war.
Mihalik moves the plot along quickly, mixing deadly intrigue, fast-paced action and political diplomacy. Kee and Varro are incontrovertible heroes, and Mihalik embraces the idea of good triumphing over evil, giving Eclipse the Moon a vaguely old-fashioned, space Western-esque feel. Their romance unfolds slowly, as their mutual attraction comes to a head amid the danger on Bastion. The mystery plot often takes center stage, which will please more drama- and action-oriented readers. But Mihalik knows her audience and makes sure to include some very steamy moments amid all the dangerous tension and close combat.
A Taste of Gold and Iron
A Taste of Gold and Iron is a slow-burn romance wrapped in a fantasy novel full of court intrigue. Alexandra Rowland’s latest novel opens as Prince Kadou of Arasht has made a grievous political misstep, one that leaves two of his own bodyguards dead and angers both his sister, who happens to be the sultan, and the father of her child. In an attempt to save face for the royal family, Kadou is temporarily banned from court and assigned a new bodyguard, Evemer. Evemer’s disdain for Kadou is matched only by his dedication to formality and protocol, but what he lacks in congeniality he makes up for in skill and dedication. As Kadou and his household are pulled into a conspiracy of break-ins and money forgery, Kadou will have to trust Evemer if he is to pull the royal family out of harm’s way.
Political intrigue dominates much of A Taste of Gold and Iron, so those looking for a book that primarily centers a love story would do well to look to other avenues. However, for readers who enjoy forced proximity and bodyguard romances, A Taste of Gold and Iron offers both, wrapped in a delightful package of espionage and royal duty. In addition to their deft handling of multiple conspiracies and political disputes, Rowland also impresses in their nuanced depiction of anxiety. Kadou has panic attacks that leave him vulnerable to manipulation from both political opponents and his own staff. The story’s acceptance of Kadou’s anxiety expands A Taste of Gold and Iron‘s focus from romantic love to trust and vulnerability as well.
These reads from writers Sangu Mandanna, Jessie Mihalik and Alexandra Rowland have a couple to root for and a world to get totally lost in.
The Ringers, the aliens that descend to Earth at the beginning of Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden, are perhaps the best-case scenario as far as aliens go. They’re a multicultural community made up of different interstellar life-forms, they value parenthood to the point that they show up to negotiations with children in tow, and they’ve come to Earth for the express purpose of airlifting humans off of our doomed planet. The only problem? Communities like the one protagonist Judy Wallach-Stevens belongs to have made enormous progress in healing the Earth, and they may not want to abandon it after all.
What interested you in a first-contact story that takes a more peaceful route than the murderous invader angle we see so often? First contact has been my favorite subgenre of science fiction since I was a teenager. “Exposure Therapy”—my first professional publication, in Analog many years ago—was a first-contact story. The challenges of communication and cooperation are so interesting, and aliens let me turn the questions that humans face with one another up to 11.
I have trouble seeing how a propensity for murderous invasion is compatible with the level of internal cooperation needed for interstellar travel. I’m sure I could come up with reasons to justify it if I tried, but murderous invasion is banal and evil, and not a direction that I’m terribly excited to write about. There’s metal and water spread throughout the universe. Why come all this way to kill people when the only resources that differ across star systems are the ones produced by thriving, living sapients? Interstellar invasion to kidnap artists and bring them back to Alpha Centauri . . . that I could get into. I think Catherynne Valente wrote that one!
I’m also an optimist who likes stories in which communication and cooperation are possible. During the process of writing the book, we brought an African grey parrot into our household, and next time I write a first contact, it will probably be influenced by the difficulties of communicating with an English-speaking nonhuman from Earth.
Were there any ideas about the way the Ringers look that you discarded or modified over time? What was the initial spark for their appearance? In my first two books, Winter Tide and Deep Roots, I used aliens originally invented by H.P. Lovecraft, who, for all his faults, was very good at nonhumanoid body plans. So I didn’t want bipeds with funny foreheads—but I did want forms that stemmed from recognizable ecological niches and that could, with some effort, be compatible with living in the same environments as humans. So, no visitors from gas giants.
The plains-folk were sparked by M.C. Escher’s roly-polies, which have fascinated me from the time I was a little kid looking at my parents’ Escher coffee-table book. I made them bigger and more reasonably biological, but still something that curls up in a ball for defense with (some of their) eyes sticking out. I added the extra limbs and eyes and skinsong later, because complicated sensoria are fun.
I don’t recall the tree-folk origin as clearly, but playing with body plans that make humans nervous is always fun, and arboreal biology is also fun to play with. I wanted something that would look more aggressive than it is, so “sort of a giant spider if you don’t look too closely” seemed like a promising direction. I added the extra eyes and mouths and manipulators later, because complicated sensoria and radial symmetry are fun.
The gender and parenting aspects of both species came out of themes that I wanted to play with as sources of friction and connection between species—in particular, that for the plains-folk, being a mother is an indication of dominance and leadership, and the way that shapes the whole culture of the Ringers.
“Why would you even make a Dyson sphere—and what would it take to make one and still be worth talking to?” was also a core question that shaped the Rings. Politically speaking, I think Dyson spheres are a bad idea; I wrote the Ringers to argue with me.
The choice of whether to stay on Earth or to abandon the planet lies at the heart of this book. Do you foresee humanity having to make a similar choice at some point in the future? I’m not actually convinced that it’s a feasible choice; that’s another place where I wrote the book to argue with myself, as well as with the assumption threaded through so much science fiction that life in space is our inevitable destiny. The Ringers have made several technological advances that make this assumption viable, but it’s not clear yet that those advances are feasible in the real world.
I have some serious side-eye for triumphalist predictions about terraforming from a species that so far seems very skilled at taking a habitable planet and making it less habitable. When we’ve proven that we can keep the air breathable and the temperature under control on the easy setting, I think we’ll be ready to spread out!
Motherhood in all its forms is a key element of the story. Was it clear from the beginning that this story would circle around it, or did that element emerge in the drafting process? What about motherhood did you most want to convey or examine while writing? Parenthood (not just motherhood) was one of my major starting points. In particular, I wanted to challenge the way that our current culture places parenting in conflict with accomplishing just about everything else, and with playing any other role. Modern American culture is worse about motherhood, but that’s because fathers are expected to prioritize those other roles. Every culture in A Half-Built Garden, even the corporate one, has some way of better integrating parenting into the rest of life. Some of them have all-new problems, but that’s where plot comes from!
What aspects of your version of Earth’s future do you think are most likely to become reality? Sea level rise and unpleasant weather, unfortunately. But 80% of the technology for the dandelion networks is out there and already being used by citizen scientists, and that—along with the algorithms that deliberately build in biases that we want—is ready to become reality if we work at it!
This book is full of different communities. (I loved the strangeness of the social games on the corporate island of Asterion!) Was one of these groups more fun to construct than another? They were all fun in their own ways. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network builds on things I love about my own communities and want to see grow. Judy’s neighborhood is, in fact, my neighborhood, with some additions that we’ve started (the food forest) or discussed putting in (the runoff mitigation garden with the frogs). The remnant U.S. government is a love letter to the nerdy wonks I’ve worked with inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C.
Asterion was definitely a lot of fun to write, and I wasn’t planning them at the start of the story. At some point I got stuck figuring out the corporate reps, and I decided that what this book needed was really sexy villains. And people who, like me, are actually a lot more into gender presentation than gender per se. I wouldn’t want to live on their island, but I would enjoy a vacation there a lot more than Judy does! As long as they’ve labeled the food.
The Ringer multiculture was also a lot of fun, both in figuring out how to build infrastructure for the two species’ symbiosis and dropping hints of what things are like in other habitats. My secret favorites are the tech-obsessed group with the food pills, though, like Cytosine. I wouldn’t be terribly excited about their potluck contributions.
When you think back to writing this book, do any sections stand out to you? A Half-Built Garden is in many ways a novel of manners, and my favorite novel-of-manners trope is the fraught dinner party. So I knew early on that each group would get to host a fraught dinner party and that the Chesapeake party would be a Passover Seder. Since most novels-of-manners are British or pseudo-British, I really feel that literature doesn’t contain enough fraught Seders. I loved writing a science fictional version of my family’s weird progressive interfaith Seder and how well suited it was for forcing people to talk to one another at a time when some of them would rather have hidden from the consequences of previous events.
If aliens landed on Earth today, what do you think would happen? Could we exist peacefully, or perhaps even join their civilization? It depends on where they land! Come to suburban Maryland, and like Dinar, my family will be eager to host the world’s most high-stakes potluck on no notice and to invite friends at NASA to join us before anyone less friendly can get there. On the other hand, I can imagine landing sites where people would be a lot less welcoming. And plenty of companies, like Asterion, would push to build franchises on the nearest Dyson sphere. I hope that the aliens would be enough like us to accept us despite shared imperfections—and enough unlike us to accept us despite those imperfections!
I did cheat a bit by having the Ringers learn human languages from our broadcasts; I didn’t want the whole plot to be about language learning, even if Judy’s linguistics-nerd co-parent is annoyed about it. In practice, I think we’d have a long process of finding common communication methods, and if parrots are any indication, there would probably be a lot of reasonable-to-one-side biting along the way.
Photo of Ruthanna Emrys credit Jamie Anfenson-Comeau.
We talked to the author about writing a book to argue with herself and why literature needs more fraught Seders.
These superbly crafted retellings present an opportunity to revel in tales we might think we know well but that still have the ability to surprise.
The Book of Gothel
Framed as a medieval text found in a German woman’s attic, The Book of Gothel centers on the woman who became the witch who imprisoned Rapunzel in her tower. As a young girl, however, Haelewise is neither powerful nor a witch. She is merely an outsider, marked by both her intermittent fainting spells and her deep, black eyes. Her mother, Hedda, is the respected local midwife, but most in their village believe that Haelewise’s fainting spells are of demonic origin. After her mother dies and her father remarries, Haelewise takes refuge in a secluded tower called Gothel, where she becomes an apprentice to a wise woman. But despite her existence on the margins of her world, Haelewise is soon pulled into intrigue, from princesses fleeing cruel fiancés to princes with wicked spells cast upon them. With secrets behind every whisper, Haelewise must tread carefully if she is to survive.
Mary McMyne’s debut novel is dark and moody, full of distrust, doubt and more than a little bit of drama. Far from being a simple villain origin story, it explores Haelewise’s family, her epilepsy and the stark world of 12th-century Germania. Despite the bleak nature of the era, McMyne’s prose is full of vivid color, whether it’s the mysterious golden fruit that Haelewise finds growing in Hedda’s garden or the madder-red gown given to Haelewise by a childhood friend turned would-be lover. It’s a world where Christianity and older religions and traditions coexist but where even a hint of witchcraft could put herbalists and midwives in danger of being stoned. This atmosphere, combined with the deep longings and confusion of a girl just entering womanhood and the fact that readers have a good idea of the fate that awaits her, shadows The Book of Gothel with an overwhelming sense of dread—but will also compel readers to keep going to the very end.
★ The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, starts in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the 19th century, as the titular doctor is looking for an assistant. He finds one in Montgomery Laughton, an Englishman with alcoholism and a mountain of debt. Montgomery helps the aging doctor create human-animal hybrids, which are destined to work the plantations of Dr. Moreau’s wealthy benefactor. Carlota Moreau, the doctor’s daughter, leads a relatively carefree life on the estate, with plenty of hybrid companions and her studies to keep her company. The only thing marring her life is a lingering childhood illness that requires her to have weekly injections of one of her father’s mysterious serums. When the handsome son of Dr. Moreau’s benefactor, Eduardo Lizalde, unexpectedly visits, the sheltered estate is thrown first into discord and then into total disarray as the Moreaus’ secrets are pulled slowly into the light.
Moreno-Garcia (Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow) is a master of dramatic tension. Her decision to reimagine H.G. Wells’ visionary 1896 novel on an isolated estate instead of an island creates a sense of furtiveness, a constant fear of discovery. The insertion of Carlota, who is not a character from the original book, gives a human face to an inhuman (or, at the very least, inhumane) story, adding something precious that could be lost if the delicate equilibrium of Moreau’s estate is unbalanced.
Moreno-Garcia revels in her setting’s tropical color palette, which is reflected in the rich green of Eduardo’s eyes and the bold colors of Carlota’s dresses. Moreno-Garcia also includes small, down-to-earth details of pastoral life on the estate, resulting in a world that feels immediate enough to slip into. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau will pull readers in even as a pit grows in their stomachs, given all the things they know can—and likely will—go wrong.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia takes on The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the witch from "Rapunzel" gets a haunting origin story.
If the climate crisis continues its horrifying course, will what’s left of the land and ocean be salvageable? Or will we need to make the jump to an intergalactic existence? In Ruthanna Emrys’ philosophical, warmhearted and intriguing novel A Half-Built Garden, humanity has a chance to chart a new course.
On a warm night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens and her wife, Carol, take a stroll in their neighborhood. A collaborative community tasked with monitoring and preserving a local watershed, their town represents a triumph. The old corporations and nation-states that destroyed the Earth’s environment have been banished from power, and communities like Judy’s are slowly, painstakingly resurrecting our planet. Hope is starting to return—that is, until the aliens arrive. A massive, sleek spacecraft lands in front of Judy, and out step the Ringers. These strange beings have been searching the universe for signs of life and hope they can convince humanity to join their symbiotic civilization before Earth becomes unlivable. Because Judy is the first person they see, she instantly becomes their ambassador. Will humanity decide to leave Earth? Or is the progress they’ve made too precious to let go?
Emrys roots her story in Judy’s reflective, empathetic perspective, and readers will waffle between courses of action right along with her. Humanity gets to know the Ringers, eventually coming to trust and collaborate with them, but Judy is fiercely loyal to the good work her community and similar groups are doing. Emrys takes her time building up arguments for both choices, letting her characters expound on the ethics involved in such decisions in thoughtful, somewhat sad passages.
When you think about aliens coming to Earth, you may picture a secret, paranoia-inducing invasion or open warfare a la Independence Day. But what Emrys does in A Half-Built Garden is far more interesting, creating a scenario in which aliens and humans delicately peel back each other’s layers. How the two groups greet each other, raise children and celebrate, how they view themselves and what they believe in—all become key moments of understanding. The Ringers are offering humanity a spot in their collective community, and Emrys circles this theme again and again with questions on the nature of family: what it is, what it isn’t, its boundaries, its rules, its flexibilities.
Emrys ticks off all of the expected future-Earth details one would expect: wild technology, vast glittering cityscapes and cool spaceships. But such trappings are never the story’s main concern. Emrys cares far more about the conversations that occur between “us” and “them” and about examining the distance between those two entities. Deciding to leave our planet behind would be an incredibly painful thing to do. But if we do have to leave Earth one day, I hope it would look something like the chance offered here: together, hand in hand, rising into the stars.
In Ruthanna Emrys' philosophical and warmhearted novel, humanity must decide between whether to heal a ravaged Earth or abandon it for life among the stars.
Relentlessly cynical and sarcastic, Mat Johnson’s Invisible Things offers sociopolitical commentary wrapped in the trappings of a classic space adventure.
An unknown force has been plucking humans from Earth and bringing them to New Roanoke, an American city that has been constructed miraculously and mysteriously on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and sheltered from the elements by an enormous dome. These humans, as humans do, have simply re-created everything that America represents today—all the same class struggles, hardships and, of course, consumption. (The word McMansion is used several times.) When the first manned mission to Jupiter discovers New Roanoke, the SS Delany‘s crew soon find themselves trapped along with the colonists.
Johnson uses the astronauts of the Delany and their reactions to the world of New Roanoke to represent strains of modern politics: Sociologist Nalini Jackson is a left-leaning moderate who provides dry, dissociative commentary; Dwyane Causwell, a highly accredited astrogeologist, is a liberal eager to spark revolution; and born-to-money engineer Bob Seaford, who is eager for any semblance of control and power over his fellow humans, represents the capitalist hard-right.
As you might imagine from these descriptions, Johnson’s political stance is clear. However, Invisible Things avoids soapbox territory as Johnson focuses instead on engaging, often funny conflicts between his well-drawn characters while the plot circles around two key questions: Will New Roanoke’s inhabitants and the crew of the Delany band together to escape the colony? And who put them there in the first place? The intriguing mystery combined with Johnson’s irreverent sense of humor make it easy for the reader to engage with the satirical elements—a refreshing trait given that social commentary in modern sci-fi is often either watered down, thrown in by default or both.
Invisible Things is a wonderful sci-fi ride full of lovable characters that dissects modern American capitalism with a barbed, sardonic wit.
Invisible Things is a wonderful sci-fi ride full of lovable characters that dissects modern American capitalism with a barbed, sardonic wit.
If aliens descended from a higher plane of existence to bestow upon us lowly human life-forms the answers to every cosmic mystery, how would we communicate with them? Sounds, shapes, colors, mathematics? Eddie Robson’s Drunk on All Your Strange New Words posits that telepathy will connect our two species—with a catch, of course. Converting a Logi’s telepathic thought to speech renders a human translator drunk. Such is the humor and charm you’ll find at the heart of Robson’s cheeky, breezy sci-fi mystery.
Lydia, the telepathic translator for Fitz, the Logi cultural attache, is getting fed up with her work. She likes her boss, but she’s tired of feeling rip-roaring drunk on the daily. The problem is she isn’t particularly good at anything else. But when a terrible event throws her into the center of an international and intergalactic crisis, Lydia takes it upon herself to unravel the truth that the police seem incapable of finding.
The simple fact that intoxication is a central component of Lydia’s work leads to a lot of funny moments, which pop against the rather bleak setting. In Robson’s future Earth, people are even more obsessed with social media, polar ice caps have flooded parts of New York City and people are no longer impressed with the fact that aliens exist. It’s a place where humans bungle everything while the Logi watch serenely, and a little pityingly.
Drunk on All Your Strange New Words moves at a fast pace, and the proceedings are never complex just for the sake of it. The mystery’s twists and turns are satisfying throughout, and Robson keeps a tight grip on the reins as Lydia discovers more and more pieces to the puzzle. There are many truly surprising moments both funny and strange (one of which totally floored this reviewer). Like Cassie Bowden on HBO’s “The Flight Attendant,” another woman trying to hold herself together long enough to solve a crime, Lydia oscillates between self-doubt and conviction in the face of the unknown. She’s not always an easy person to root for, but watching her resolutely commit to her cause will win readers over.
Drunk on All Your Strange New Words combines the sci-fi and mystery genres in a way that does justice to both of them, and that’s no small feat. Perfect for anyone looking for a fun, thought-provoking and unintimidating foray into sci-fi, this book will have readers smiling on every page, drunk on Robson’s clever words.
In Eddie Robson's sci-fi mystery, aliens and humans can communicate—but translating telepathic thought into speech makes a human translator rip-roaring drunk.
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Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.