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All Speculative Fiction Coverage

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.

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.

Peter Heller takes readers on another thrilling wilderness adventure in The Guide, set at a luxurious fly-fishing compound near Crested Butte, Colorado. Protagonist Jack, first introduced in Heller’s Deliverance-like novel, The River, is still recovering from the tragedy that unfolded before his eyes during a canoe trip three years ago. He has also never recovered from witnessing his mother’s violent death when he was a boy, another tragedy for which he feels responsible. 

A virus known as Covid Redux threatens the world, but Jack hopes to lose himself in the rhythms of a pristine Rocky Mountain river as a fishing guide. “It’d be nice to have one summer of peace,” he muses. Fishing, in fact, is Jack’s therapy for his trauma and PTSD: “He had learned that it was much less a distraction than a form of connection: of connecting to the best part of himself, and to a discipline that demanded he stay open to every sense, to the nuances of the season and to the instrument of his own body, his own agility or fatigue.”

Jack is assigned to guide the perfect client, a fishing expert named Alison K who also happens to be kind, beautiful and a world-famous singer. Romance ensues, and things could hardly be better for Jack—except for strange events that build from a slow drip into a heavy cascade. There are security cameras on bridges and a nearby closely guarded fortress. Jack’s boss barks gruff, odd orders at him. Jack hears shots fired and strange screams, and finds a mysterious boot buried in the dirt that later disappears.

Heller is an expert at building suspense, and he’s a first-rate nature writer, lending authenticity to the wealth of wilderness details he provides. (He has traveled the world as an expedition kayaker.) He also uses a notable layout technique—adding space between each paragraph—that makes readers turn his thrilling pages even faster. One warning, however: Heller’s novels, especially The River, are not for the faint of heart. Still, The Guide is a glorious getaway in every sense, a wild wilderness trip as well as a suspenseful journey to solve a chilling mystery. 

The Guide is a glorious getaway in every sense—a wild wilderness trip as well as a suspenseful journey to solve a chilling mystery.

When Joe Tournier steps off a train from Glasgow in 1898 Londres, he can remember his name but very little else, and he barely recognizes his surroundings. He learns that the former British capital has been a colony of the French Republic ever since France won the Napoleonic Wars 90 years ago. So begins Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, a deliciously transgressive work of steampunk speculative fiction.

Joe is diagnosed with “silent epilepsy,” the official name given to the visions and amnesia that sometimes afflict people in this world. Otherwise in good health, Joe is returned to the French family to whom he is enslaved and to his wife, Alice, none of whom he recalls. After several years and the birth of his daughter, Joe receives a postcard of a lighthouse in the Scottish islands with a message signed by “M.” Most mysteriously, the note arrives almost a century after it was written.

Joe is determined to get answers about his identity as well as that of the card’s sender. He returns to Glasgow, now the site of a simmering British rebellion, and then travels farther north where he discovers a portal that acts as a pass-through from one era to another. Finally, at the lighthouse, he meets Missouri Kite, a Royal Navy officer from 1807, and is drawn into a complicated plan to use technology such as telegraphs and steam engines to aid in the British fight against the French.

Along with a cast of characters that includes the real-life Admiral Lord Nelson, Joe and Kite race from Scotland to Spain, trying to sway the forces that led to France’s victory. The butterfly theory, which posits that complex changes often originate from minuscule actions, plays out as Joe ricochets from century to century, trying to help his friends and ensure his own future existence and that of his family.

Pulley balances the topsy-turvy nature of time travel by grounding her story in tidbits of naval history and a gradually unfolding queer love story.

Natasha Pulley balances the topsy-turvy nature of time travel by grounding her story in naval history and a gradually unfolding queer love story.

No matter how hot it is outside, that first jump into the pool is always a shock. These five books are like that early summer plunge, each having transformed a well-loved genre into something totally surprising, gasp-worthy and deeply refreshing.


I have no idea why zombie movies and novels were such a thing in the 2010s, but it felt like everyone had an opinion about fast versus slow zombies, and nearly any stranger could tell you when and why they stopped watching “The Walking Dead.” Ling Ma’s spectacular 2018 debut novel, Severance, took the familiar zombie thriller and fused it with the fledgling millennial office novel to create something wholly original, using an apocalyptic framework to explore our daily routines and nostalgic obsessions. The story of a young woman who survives the plague and now finds herself homesick in civilization’s afterlife, Severance is a mashup, a sendup, a takedown. And the book continues to feel fresh in new ways nearly three years later: It’s about a global virus, but it’s also about continuing to work at your semifulfilling job while the unfathomable draws ever closer.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Anna K

I remember gasping aloud and then laughing with delight at the opening paragraph of Jenny Lee’s relentlessly effervescent re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which, confession, I have never read). It begins with a magnificent revision of Tolstoy’s famous epigraph, contains an unrepeatable expletive, name-drops Hermès, Apple, Madison Avenue and SoulCycle, and then ends with a parenthetical explanation that its subject’s “new gluten-free diet” prevents her from attending a “double sesh” workout. The whole thing serves to signal: Reader, you’re not in 19th-century St. Petersburg anymore. You’re in contemporary Manhattan amid a group of uber-wealthy Korean American teens whose social and romantic entanglements Lee chronicles with wit and style aplenty, not to mention a blunt frankness that would make even Gossip Girl blush. I can’t imagine anything more delicious than setting up poolside or stretching out on a park blanket under a tree and letting Lee’s sparkling prose and Anna and Vronsky’s life-changing love take me away. XOXO, indeed.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Mona in the Promised Land

Coming-of-age novels are far from rare, but acclaimed writer Gish Jen crafted one that rises above its genre in her beloved 1997 novel, Mona in the Promised Land. In the late 1960s, Chinese American teenager Mona Chang is growing up in the suburbs of Scarshill, New York, and struggling to find peace in her identity and to settle into her place in the world. Throughout Mona’s engaging exploration of Chinese, American and Jewish traditions, she finds love in a tepee, employment in a pancake restaurant and adherence to a new religion. It’s astoundingly refreshing to see a book effortlessly balance complex topics like race and identity with lighthearted moments and adolescent rites of passage. Through it all, Mona’s sharp wit and penchant for drama are her constant companions, making this lively book as entertaining as it is pensive. Jen takes a dynamic look at how important identity is for all of us while keeping the laughs coming. I loved every page of it.

—Caroline, Editorial Intern 

Red, White & Royal Blue

Even if you’re not a romance reader, you’ve probably heard of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel. (If you’ve been living under a rock, our interview with the author will catch you up.) But this love story between Alex Claremont-Diaz, first son of the United States, and Prince Henry of the U.K. deserves recognition for more than its stunning crossover success. When the novel achieved bestseller status, McQuiston proved that leaving LGBTQ representation in romance to the online-only and/or independent publishing realm meant leaving dollars on the table. She also gave the oft-gloomy, oft-toxic subcategory of New Adult (which features college-age protagonists), a much needed zap of positive, giddy energy. There are plenty of serious issues at stake—only a trusted few know that Henry is gay, and Alex must explore his bisexuality under a media microscope made even more intense by his Latinx heritage—but there are also karaoke extravaganzas, one of the rowdiest New Year’s Eve parties in fiction and a fan-favorite scene involving Thanksgiving turkeys.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me

I love family memoirs—the messier, the better. If the author has been disowned, neglected or mistreated, I’m there with bells on and bookmarks in hand. However, even someone whose literary appetite for drama is as bottomless as mine can appreciate the refreshing sweetness of Bess Kalb’s memoir about her late grandmother, Bobby. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me digs into generations of difficult family history—fleeing the pogroms in Belarus, immigrating to New York City, building a business and a home one scheme at a time—but the twist is that Kalb writes from a place of deep love and appreciation for her grandmother, in defiance of those trauma-informed books that tease apart years of hurt. As an added bonus, comedy and TV writer Kalb narrates this story in Bobby’s frank, anxious, singularly funny voice, like an adoring impression. This bold, fresh approach is a welcome deviation from the first-person introspection common to the genre. Kalb’s buoyant memoir floats splendidly alone on a sea of fraught familial tales.

—Christy, Associate Editor

These five books are like an early summer plunge, each having transformed a well-loved genre into something totally surprising, gasp-worthy and deeply refreshing.

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