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All Speculative Fiction Coverage

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“Here at the beginning it must be said the End was on everyone’s mind,” opens Leif Enger’s fourth novel, I Cheerfully Refuse. In an unspecified near-future, as civilization slowly tips off a cliff’s edge, Rainy and his bookselling wife, Lark, eke out a cautious yet relatively tranquil life in a small community on the shore of Lake Superior. “Quixotes,” Lark calls the pair. “By which she meant not always sensible.”

When Lark brings home her favorite poet’s rare, unpublished manuscript, Kellan, the fugitive who gave her the book, comes with her and becomes their attic boarder. Though Lark and Rainy grow fond of Kellan, they’re uneasy about his past. Then Kellan disappears, heralding a violent sea change in their quiet lives. Kellan had warned of a ruthless pursuer, and when Lark becomes collateral damage in the chase, Rainy’s quixotic existence shatters.

Hounded by grief and the looming shadow of whoever was after Kellan, Rainy boards a tumbledown sailboat and takes to the lake. Soon, he is alone on Lake Superior with minimal sailing knowledge, and only Lark’s beloved manuscript and primal fear for company. He becomes a sort of Great Lakes Odysseus, sailing over a wine-dark sea toward the idea of his wife, and encountering no sea monsters, but instead finding fractious kingdoms and corpses rising from warming waters.

The novel’s ruined world, marked by book burnings, anti-intellectual sentiment, environmental disruption and casual brutality, will feel entirely too plausible for readers. Yet within its dystopian landscape, Enger’s story incorporates fabulism in the most traditional sense, featuring a serpentine quest, a rare and ancient tome, and even a bridge troll. As in the most memorable fables, I Cheerfully Refuse’s fantastical elements heighten the emotional impact of its depiction of violence and grief, elevating the entire narrative.

“I think the sea has no in-between: you get either rage and wayward lightning . . . or such freehanded beauty that time contracts,” Rainy observes early in his journey. Like the turbulent lake, I Cheerfully Refuse is filled with polarities that should contradict but somehow, instead, cohere: hopeless moments infused with light and shocking acts of cruelty depicted through beautiful, memorable prose. Although the struggle to survive leaves room for little else, Rainy still finds delight in simple, ordinary things: the post-storm sun or a ripe tomato. It’s in these moments of earnest wonder that I Cheerfully Refuse is most compelling, like the brief but glorious clearing of a tempestuous sky.

It’s in moments of earnest wonder that Leif Enger’s I Cheerfully Refuse is most compelling, like the brief but glorious clearing of a tempestuous sky.
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Téa Obreht’s satisfyingly unsettling new novel, The Morningside, takes place in the near future, in an East Coast city that resembles New York. Eleven-year-old Silvia and her mother have traveled to Island City after their home was destroyed by flooding. They move into a 100-year-old building called the Morningside, that, like Island City, has seen better days. Silvia and other refuge-seekers have been brought in by the federal Repopulation Program to help revitalize the place.

The building superintendent is Silvia’s Aunt Ena, a woman who is “short, loud, and incredibly ill-practiced at speaking to eleven-year-old nieces.” A marvelous character, Ena has an unfortunate tendency to share details about the farm the family once lived on, details that Silvia’s mother would prefer to keep secret. She also fills Silvia in on Bezi Duras, the mysterious resident of the 33rd floor penthouse. Silvia begins to suspect that Bezi is not just an eccentric painter with an elaborate orchard but also a Vila, a vindictive mountain spirit. Her suspicions grow when light bulbs spontaneously burst and water pipes begin “spurting sulfurously” after a curious Silvia tries to break into Bezi’s apartment.

That’s just the start of the strange dealings. With finely calibrated assurance, Obreht develops a sense of unease that is compounded by an underground radio transmission known as the Drowned City Dispatch, large animals rumored to be “men during the day and dogs at night,” a friend who lures Silvia into nighttime escapades, and the possibility that a killer may be in their midst.

The ending is too neat, but The Morningside soars in its depiction of an alternative world frighteningly similar to our own. Whether or not they ever face forcible displacement in their life, everyone at some point must confront their past. Obreht addresses this truism with startling freshness in this entertaining work.

Téa Obreht’s latest novel, The Morningside, soars in its depiction of an alternative world frighteningly similar to our own.
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Grief is a devastating stimulus. The manifestations of mental anguish form the subject of Bird Life, Anna Smaill’s elliptical, poetic follow-up to her Booker Prize-longlisted 2015 debut The Chimes.

The story centers on two very different women, Dinah and Yasuko. Dinah, a New Zealander, is in Tokyo on a work visa to teach English to engineering and science undergraduates. She’s mourning her twin brother, Michael, a promising classical pianist who died under circumstances Smaill leaves vague until late in the book. Shortly after her arrival, Dinah begins seeing Michael everywhere, first in reflections of darkened car windows, then in the apartment she lives in.

Yasuko, an older woman with a college-aged son, Jun, is one of Dinah’s colleagues at the university. Yasuko “came into her powers” at 13 when a cat spoke to her. Soon, trees spoke to her, too, and she could even hear people’s thoughts. Over the years, her abilities abandoned her, but they return when Jun moves out—“I need some space,” he explains in a message—and she hopes to use them to bring him back.

Much of the novel focuses on the friendship that develops between Dinah and Yasuko as they help one another deal with their respective traumas. Particularly memorable are scenes in which Yasuko reconnects with her powers, such as when carp break the surface of a pond and quote the I Ching to her, or when birds land in Yasuko’s cupped hands to offer helpful advice.

Some scenes contain extraneous dialogue and go on too long, but Bird Life is nevertheless an evocative and sensitive depiction of mental distress and the importance of perseverance. Yasuko’s father, a crystallographer, keeps a photo of the first X-ray image of DNA on his pin board because it reminds him “that there is more in the world than I can easily understand” and “that I always need to keep looking.” That’s the key message of this subtle book: Though it might be difficult to detect them during times of hardship, glimmers of hope are always visible if one knows where to look.

Bird Life is an evocative and sensitive depiction of mental distress that argues that, though it might be difficult to detect them during times of hardship, glimmers of hope are always visible if one knows where to look.
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Jennifer Neal’s debut novel is a haunting coming-of-age story, a melodic love letter to the language of music and a fierce, dark, rage-filled upbraiding of patriarchal violence. 

Gabrielle has the ability to change the color of her skin, a quality inherited from her mother, Tallulah. As a child, Gabrielle learns how to shift from her natural brown into vivid reds and blues and golds, as well as how to hide her skin tones from the world when needed. Chillingly, Gabrielle and Tallulah most often make their skin white to appease the family patriarch, a violent, abusive man who demands everything in the house, including his wife and daughter, be whitewashed.

When Gabrielle’s controlling father insists that she take a year off after high school to improve her piano playing and bulk up her resume for college applications, she finds an unexpected source of freedom and solace in her piano teacher, a queer woman named Dominique. Dominique and her mother, Niyala, fill their colorful home with love, music and food—so unlike the cold and fearful house where Gabrielle grew up. As Gabrielle spends more time with them, she slowly begins to face—and heal—her deep old wounds.

Notes on Her Color unfolds almost glacially at first, in a series of meandering scenes—some banal and domestic, others startling in their harsh depictions of violence. A series of events toward the end of the novel heightens the book’s emotional impact, and though the pacing may feel a bit dizzying to some readers, it also captures the often tumultuous whims of adolescence.

Neal’s prose is assured and evocative, and the magic of shifting skin tones enables a fascinating commentary on race, power, invisibility and desire. But where this novel truly shines is in its nuanced exploration of relationships between women. There’s a softness in the way Neal writes about Gabrielle and Dominique, and a hard-edged tenderness to how Dominique and Niyala bicker and tease. Gabrielle and Tallulah’s thorny, muddled relationship is described with prickly honesty: They are haunted by many of the same demons, and yet they struggle to see each other clearly. With small but devastating details, Neal paints a vivid picture of their close bond and, just as gracefully, depicts the ways the world frays it nearly to breaking. 

Notes on Her Color is about familial violence and the complex legacies of generational trauma. It’s also about queer joy and the hard, slow work of liberation. Musicians and artists will likely find it especially compelling—the women in this novel use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should look out for this debut.

Musicians and artists will likely find Jennifer Neal’s novel especially compelling—the female characters use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should read this debut.

With the passing of Ward Just in 2019, the literary world lost a fine writer who was comfortable grappling with the moral dilemmas surrounding the exercise of power and the lives of those who wield it. Journalist and novelist Elliot Ackerman’s fifth novel, Halcyon, suggests that he may be one of the inheritors of Just’s preoccupations. Blending alternative history with science fiction, Ackerman artfully explores several provocative issues that have become flash points in contemporary America.

The year is 2004, and the novel’s narrator, Martin Neumann, is a college history professor whose specialty is the American Civil War. He’s fitfully engaged in work on a book about the role of compromise in American life amid a society whose “grim national mood” he describes as “rage-ennui.” He’s spending his sabbatical ensconced in a comfortable guest cottage on the premises of the titular house in rural Virginia, owned by retired attorney and Washington power player Robert Ableson and his wife, Mary. 

In Ackerman’s imagined America, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, following Bill Clinton’s resignation over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Although the country still sustained a terrorist attack on 9/11, there was no invasion of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden was killed in December 2001. But most startlingly, the public learned that the Gore administration quietly has been spearheading scientific research into the field of cryoregeneration—bringing humans back from the dead—and one of the participants in the experiment is none other than Martin’s host, Robert.

As he reemerges into the world five years after his death, following a year of social quarantine, Robert quickly becomes embroiled in current controversies, attempting to thwart a drive to remove a Confederate monument from the Gettysburg battlefield and defending a sexual harassment claim filed by one of his former subordinates. His revitalization also sparks a thorny legal dispute about the status of the inheritances received by the heirs of a person who was once dead but now is very much alive. Martin observes these events from the periphery, describing them with a detached but sympathetic curiosity.

Early in the novel, Martin asks what “were the minor events of today that would forever change the trajectory of the future?” Ackerman prefers challenging questions like these over convenient answers. With this choice, he leaves ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken. Anyone who accepts that invitation will come away from this ingenious story with fresh ideas of what past, present and future truly mean.

Elliot Ackerman prefers challenging questions over convenient answers, leaving ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken.
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Thirty-somethings Lewis and Wren fall in love in a promising meet cute as he endures a bad date with someone else and she watches and eavesdrops upon it all unfolding. Idealistic Lewis is an aspiring actor and playwright turned teacher, and careful Wren, born to a teenage single mother, works in finance for stability and security. In due course, Wren and Lewis get married, and like any couple, they share and grow together while keeping some thoughts to themselves. 

The “normal” trajectory of their relationship is interrupted by a startling diagnosis: A Carcharodon carcharias mutation has befallen Lewis, causing him to transform into a great white shark before their first anniversary. As her new husband morphs more and more rapidly, Wren buys scuba equipment and installs an aboveground pool. Lewis eats cans of tuna and boiled shrimp around the clock while still trying to teach and write for as long as he can.

The knowledge of their imminent separation forces decisions and conversations they didn’t plan to tackle so early in their marriage. As Shark Heart winds through both their pasts (Wren’s especially), poignant and meaningful moments abound as they search their memories and experiences to help them navigate an uncertain future. 

Debut novelist Emily Habeck has crafted a story that is surprisingly moving, oddly heartwarming and deeply contemplative beyond its tragicomic premise. Habeck, who has a background in theater and theology, has a real dramatic flair, capturing her characters’ conflicts and buried longings in the face of undesired transformation. The “ever illusory margin between human and animal” is a key element of the novel’s world, one where people can become pregnant with birds or turn into zebras or Komodo dragons.

The short chapters and stylistic changes (some sections are formatted with only dialogue, while others are just a few sentences) do occasionally distract, but the depth of visceral emotion helps offset any affectation. Interspersed with Wren and Lewis’ story is the history of Wren’s mother, Angela, revealing much about who Wren is and why this parting with Lewis is so hard for her. 

This story of love and connection—between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and friends that are like family—vividly explores both the fragility and tenacity of humanity. Shark Heart’s questions are universal: How do we let go of the ones we love? How do we move on after loss? And how do we—can we—open ourselves up to joy again? Like Wren, we survive, exist and begin again in the “terrifying and sublime journey” that is life.

Debut novelist Emily Habeck has crafted a story that is surprisingly moving, oddly heartwarming and deeply contemplative beyond its tragicomic premise: a new husband’s transformation into a great white shark.
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Time travel narratives are so ubiquitous in our culture that we all must have, at some point, considered what it would be like to go back in time. Not just to remember, but to actually go back—to observe our parents when they were young, to take fresh note of textures and colors and shapes and situations and emotions we didn’t notice or understand when we were children. In Edan Lepucki’s novel Time’s Mouth, a grandmother and granddaughter share this ability, which is as much an affliction as it is a blessing.

Born in 1938, Sharon begins to “transport” when she’s a teenager, shortly after the death of her despised, abusive father. She leaves home, takes on the name Ursa and moves into a creaky mansion hidden away in a redwood forest. There she comes to govern a weird hippie commune populated by broken women, each given the honorific of “mama,” and their children.

The children’s lives swing between a sort of indentured servitude and a not-so-benign neglect. With the exception of Ursa’s son, Ray, none of the children are allowed to go to school or see a doctor, lest their existence be discovered. But Ray’s privilege is Ursa’s mistake. His knowledge of the outside world lets him see how twisted this village of mamas is. He and his secret girlfriend, Cherry, escape, but Cherry leaves him when their daughter, Opal, is just a baby. Inevitably, Opal, who inherits her grandmother’s fantastic gift, wants to know why.

This gift is tangled up with each woman’s experiences of motherhood and daughterhood, going back generations. Ursa leaves behind her own mother who refused to protect her, then later transports to reclaim Ray, and Opal uses her powers to learn more about her own absent mother. But even mothers who are present aren’t necessarily good enough, as is seen in the commune’s derelict mamas. 

Ursa is Latin for “bear,” and mama bears are famous for being fiercely protective of their cubs. But Lepucki’s Ursa is more fierce than protective. She is, to be blunt, a psychopath. She has no use for the nonservile; her love is conditional, if not transactional; and if she’s thwarted, she reacts with mind-bending violence.

The bestselling author of Woman No. 17 and California, Lepucki displays a real talent for giving readers a new perspective—whether on the passions of motherhood in particular, or on the nature of parenthood in general—and emphasizes the power of real love (and a bit of New Agey therapy) to heal.

In her third novel, Edan Lepucki displays a real talent for giving readers a new perspective—whether on the passions of motherhood in particular, or on the nature of parenthood in general—and emphasizes the power of real love (and a bit of New Agey therapy) to heal.
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There’s a peculiar art to writing a novel that’s as inwardly focused as Death Valley the latest book from author and poet Melissa Broder (Milk Fed). While the narrative thrust of the story is determined by its first-person narrator’s outward wanderings, it is what’s going on inside her heart and soul that delivers the real, satisfying emotional punch. To pull that punch off takes prose that’s both memorable and relatable, as well as a narrator with an inner life that is fulfilling both thematically and narratively. That Death Valley manages this is enough to make it a thoroughly engrossing literary achievement—even before factoring in Broder’s humor, gift for linguistic flourishes and command of character.

Broder’s narrator is an author who heads to a desert hotel to work on her next book, leaving multiple personal crises back home in Los Angeles. Her father is still clinging to life in a hospital bed months after suffering an accident, while her husband’s chronic illness keeps him largely housebound and seems to be strengthening. On a short hike through the desert, the narrator finds a giant cactus with a wound in its side that feels like a doorway worth stepping through. What happens after she steps into the cactus is, of course, an entirely new journey, but Broder keeps it just as relatable even as her narrator begins shaping conversations between inanimate objects and seeing visions of the past and future colliding in her mind.

Through the voice of our nameless narrator, Broder immediately and thrillingly carves out a personality that’s equal parts emotional and wry; wise and impulsive. Even when she’s simply walking the halls of a Best Western, we feel like we understand this woman and grasp how her mind is being pulled in multiple directions at once.

Rich with observations about the shape of stories and the ways in which we center ourselves even in the narratives of other people, Death Valley is an exhilarating meditation on death, life, survival and how we use stories to get us through it all. It’s a triumph for Broder and an intensely intimate ride for readers.

Death Valley is an exhilarating meditation on death, life, survival and how we use stories to get us through it all.

Isle McElroy’s second novel, People Collide, is a body-swapping, Kafkaesque story that explores gender, identity and how well we can know one another.

On a fall afternoon, Eli arrives at his wife Elizabeth’s classroom at the end of the school day and can’t understand why Elizabeth’s boss is suddenly calling him Elizabeth. Slowly, Eli comes to understand that he is somehow inhabiting Elizabeth’s body, even as his memories and thoughts remain his own. And, just as mysterious, he discovers that Elizabeth has disappeared.

Both Eli and Elizabeth are writers, though Elizabeth is the more ambitious, accomplished one—and she’s been awarded a teaching fellowship in Bulgaria. Eli has tagged along for a year of expat life, adjusting to their too-small studio apartment and the moody southern Bulgarian city, and trying to write. So even before “The Incident,” as he calls it, Eli and Elizabeth are unsettled, foreigners in a foreign place. As Eli copes with this strange new reality and struggles to credibly inhabit Elizabeth’s body, he searches for his lost wife. Misunderstandings abound; their handful of friends, along with Eli’s mother and Elizabeth’s parents, all think that Eli has abandoned Elizabeth, though it’s Elizabeth (in Eli’s body) who has left.

People Collide asks questions about gender, desire, marriage and family dynamics as it offers mysteries for Eli to solve. Where has Elizabeth gone? Is she still in Europe? And is she, in fact, in Eli’s body, as he is in hers? And if Eli-as-Elizabeth finds Elizabeth-as-Eli, what happens then? It’s not a spoiler to say that Eli does find Elizabeth, and McElroy’s language in describing the couple’s encounters is inventive and sometimes funny.

Later sections of the novel move into Elizabeth’s point of view, and then into the perspective of Johanna, Elizabeth’s mother, who sees 28-year-old Elizabeth and Eli as not-quite-adults. These late sections are quite moving, as Eli and Elizabeth slowly come to a changed understanding of themselves, one another and their parents. People Collide is a distinctive and atmospheric novel.

People Collide is an inventive and atmospheric body-swapping novel that raises questions about gender, desire, marriage and family dynamics.

In 1955, hundreds of thousands of women disappeared. They were oppressed mothers and wives. They were brides on their wedding days and switchboard operators harassed by their male managers. Later reports—at least, those that were publicly acknowledged—omitted a key detail about this mass disappearance. The women didn’t vanish; they became dragons.

As Kelly Barnhill writes in When Women Were Dragons, “people are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” Just look at our own world, in which willful silence around the injustices of the past affects how history is taught (or isn’t taught) in American schools. The mass dragoning meets a similar fate, but despite her best efforts, Alex Green can’t forget: “I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence—an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.”

Alex’s Aunt Marla was one of the disappeared women. She was also one of the most influential people in Alex’s life; after all, Marla gave birth to Alex’s cousin and best friend, Beatrice. After Marla’s dragoning, Alex’s parents raised the two girls as sisters, but questions about Marla’s disappearance lingered at the edges of Alex’s consciousness.

Barnhill writes from Alex’s point of view as an adult, looking back on a remarkable period in history that coincided with her formative years. Through teenage Alex’s perspective, readers witness dragons marching with civil rights protesters—because if we aren’t all free, none of us are free. Some dragons seem drawn to one another, rather than to the men they left behind, in a way that young Alex accepts intuitively. Meanwhile, Alex examines her relationship with Beatrice while reflecting on their mothers’ complicated sisterhood. And interspersed throughout these events, Barnhill includes research documents that Marla left in Alex’s care, offering thoughtful context for this eerily familiar world.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill, bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years. A close examination of the patriarchy and cultural inequalities, When Women Were Dragons is fantasy that is both political and personal.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years.
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In her second novel, Rachel Barenbaum (A Bend in the Stars) presents a 450-page epic spanning Philadelphia, Berlin, Moscow and the doomed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. At times, the novel is experimental, mixing imaginative science fiction with history, family drama, romance and political intrigue in a narrative structure as complex as the science in its backdrop. The story could’ve easily been told in graphic form (and indeed, comics play a large part in the story) and would make quite a film.

Atomic Anna moves among three generations of Soviet and American women, beginning at the moment when the Chernobyl reactor misfires on April 26, 1986. Scientist Anna Berkova, who seems to be asleep at the scene of the disaster, is caught in a time-travel ripple that sends her hurtling into the future. Anna’s genius-level scientific knowledge allows her to recognize the future world’s capabilities for devising a way of reversing time and remedying the man-made disaster in Chernobyl, but she is also given a horrifying look into the future.

In a parallel storyline—and there are many—Anna’s daughter, Molly, is on an odyssey through time, sent by Anna to 1950s Philadelphia as part of the exodus of Russian Jews fleeing the repressive Soviet system. Molly has no scientific abilities but is a born artist, and in a graphic series titled “Atomic Anna,” she tells a story based on the experiences of her mother and other researchers working on the nuclear program. Molly becomes a “wasted child” of the ’60s, falling prey to alcohol and drug abuse. She eventually gives birth to a gifted daughter, Raisa, who inherits her grandmother’s enormous scientific genius. 

Anna is a constant presence throughout the book. She constructs an actual time machine that enables her to journey between lives and decades in a frantic race to stop destruction and hold the generations of her family together. As her female descendants careen through time and space and across continents, deep and abiding love for family connections sustains them all.

Atomic Anna ultimately offers a utopian vision of salvation, but it does require slow and careful reading to get there. Big chunks of the novel fit together and then split apart. Hold on tight, as the space-time ride is challenging.

In light of recent events, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear site, there will be some evaluation of Atomic Anna for its “timeliness.” But readers should keep in mind the words of 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne that, long ago, provided a template for reading Barenbaum’s innovative book. Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables (1851) famously set up the distinction between “novels,” which depict probable true events from the “ordinary” human experience, and “romances,” which “present the truth under circumstances . . . of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” Romances were Hawthorne’s aim, as his stories intended to reveal universal truths through crafted circumstances and an intensified atmosphere—often symbolic, and always beyond the ordinary.

Just as the romance of epic literature is timeless, Atomic Anna’s demonstration of what may be learned about the human heart is also outside of time, and certainly beyond the ordinary.

Hold on tight, as the space-time ride in Rachel Barenbaum’s second novel is far beyond the ordinary.

It’s incredible that a work of speculative fiction first outlined over a decade ago would require a content warning in its review. But it must be said that the subject matter of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ambitious debut, an elegiac collection of interconnected stories centering on a global plague that decimates humanity, is particularly challenging in our current climate.

Beginning with a group of explorers who unwittingly unleash a mysterious virus that had long lain dormant beneath Siberian ice, How High We Go in the Dark chronicles humanity’s battle against the “Arctic plague” in the following decades and the ways in which society adapts and changes. Each chapter moves forward in time and features a different protagonist, giving readers the chance to inhabit multiple lives, realities and perspectives over the course of the narrative.

Among the varied cast of characters are a worker at a euthanasia theme park for terminally ill children; a scientist who, while cultivating organs for human transplant, unintentionally creates a talking pig; a physicist who gives humanity a second chance at life by opening a stable wormhole in his head, which will allow for interstellar space travel; and the eventual crew that leaves Earth to search for a new planet to colonize.

Early chapters feel self-contained, but as the novel progresses, it is satisfying to observe the ways the sections interconnect with and amplify one another. When the full scale of Nagamatsu’s vision comes into focus in the final chapter, the narrative resonance on display is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.

Still, despite the fantastical elements woven throughout, there is no real way of escaping or softening the novel’s inherently bleak and brutal reality, in which death, loss, trauma and grief are at the forefront. And while Nagamatsu explores resilience, love and our primal need for connection, there’s no denying that the process is a sad one. Any glimpses of hope are generally fleeting and bittersweet.

It’s unfair to penalize a book for being too relevant and ringing too true, but for readers who turn to fiction as a means of escaping the stress and worries of real life, How High We Go in the Dark might be best saved for a later date. However, those courageous enough to sit with the novel’s exquisite sorrows will be rewarded with gorgeous prose, memorable characters and, ultimately, catharsis.

The narrative resonance on display in Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.
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With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.

Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is, on the surface, a lyrical modern-day fairy tale. In the opening chapters, Apollo Kagwa meets, marries and has a baby with librarian Emma Valentine. Apollo, who is haunted by his absentee father, throws himself into raising baby Brian with gusto. But Emma becomes more and more withdrawn, and what initially looks like post-partum depression turns out to be a growing suspicion that Brian is not a real baby. When Emma goes to terrible lengths to prove herself right and then disappears, Apollo decides to hunt her down and take revenge on behalf of their son.

For most of the novel, LaValle sits at a distance, intruding into Apollo’s mind only in moments of great feeling or to take stock, and otherwise letting the tale play out. His remove prevents the whimsy inherent to such a tale from overshadowing the darkness at its heart, and stylistically ties his novel to the Grimms’ fairy tales that inspired it. Like those stories, The Changeling can be read as literal, symbolic or both, with moments that function better the more one accepts the dream logic of the novel.

Just when the novel begins to look like a disappointingly shallow update—a modern setting with retrograde themes bubbling beneath it—LaValle uses the reader’s assumptions against them, laying the foundation for a more complex take on the changeling myth. As Apollo travels further into the underworld of New York and the novel moves ever deeper into outright fantasy, LaValle’s true concerns slowly unfurl.

At its core, The Changeling is a story about colonization and oppression, with a clear awareness of racial and gender dynamics that reveals the ugliness of assuming Western European superiority over immigrants like Apollo’s Ugandan mother, or male superiority over women. And it does it all in a gritty, chilly New York City where monsters and warrior women lurk in dark corners—an alternate city that for all its fairy-tale wonder feels startlingly immediate.

Careful and deliberate in its setup, LaValle’s novel is a magic trick that earns every bit of wonder. It’s so compelling that you won’t be able to look away, even at its darkest moments.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
, a 700-page collaboration between master of sci-fi Neal Stephenson and historical fiction writer Nicole Galland, is about a secret government organization that sets out to use magic and time travel against America’s enemies. It’s a setup that absolutely should not work. And yet somehow, D.O.D.O. is entertaining and sprightly, gleefully skipping through its fast-paced plot, scattering character grace notes and barbed critiques of government overreach with aplomb.

Historian Melisande Stokes is approached by military intelligence operative Tristan Lyons to help the U.S. government in a seemingly insane quest—to bring back magic. Galland and Stephenson ground the premise of the novel in realistic science, which leads to a few fairly dry passages but may be necessary given how very silly the concept could have been in lesser hands. In the world of D.O.D.O., magic was real until the 19th century, when witches’ power rapidly decreased until it completely sputtered out. In the present day, the United States government wants to build a machine that allows witches to practice magic—specifically time travel so that operatives can make changes in the past that affect the future.

Stephenson and Galland construct a web of fascinating personalities, all with divergent motivations and moralities. Due to a framing device in the beginning of the novel, it is clear that at some point one or multiple characters will betray Mel and Tristan, stranding them in different eras. However, the reader may be so distracted by the sheer fun of D.O.D.O.’s time-traveling exploits—which include jaunts to Elizabethan England, Constantinople on the eve of the Fourth Crusade and, in one instance, a spectacular joke that’s quite literally hundreds of pages in the making—that they could forget that it’s coming.

Stephenson and Galland seed character development and lay the groundwork for the novel’s many twists within these trips through time, using their immersive renderings and deepening character development to direct their readers’ attention away from the growing danger that Tristan and Mel invite into their own organization. And when the villain is eventually revealed, it’s a character so deliciously entertaining and engaging that readers may very well find themselves sympathetic to their cause.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson for The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.

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