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All Speculative Fiction Coverage

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.


Severance

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.

When a story is set in an invented universe, the line its author must walk is a bit more treacherous than when a tale is set in a recognizable “real” world. In The Ladies of the Secret Circus, Constance Sayers proves she can walk that line with grace and power.

Sayers’ second novel (after 2020’s A Witch in Time) unfolds through two narratives, eight decades apart. In the 1920s, a woman named Cecile is part of a wondrous family circus with a magical secret. A love affair might set her free but could also cost her everything. In the 2000s, Lara, a descendant of that same family, prepares for her wedding day and is shaken to her core when her fiancé goes missing. As she searches for answers, Lara is drawn into a web of secrets and magic that leads her to Cecile’s journals and beyond, as she uncovers a dark curse stretching back generations.

The novel’s massive network of connections—tactile and ethereal, physical and mystical—makes for a luxurious reading experience, like a rich tapestry. The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a book to get lost in, not just because of the fantasy elements that layer it with intrigue but also because of the emotional connections that tie it all together. Through beautifully orchestrated prose and careful, confident pacing, Sayers constructs a story that feels like sitting down with an older relative and slowly, over hours, getting all the family secrets in one juicy, enchanted package.

Perfect for fans of Anne Rice’s Lives of the Mayfair Witches series or Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, The Ladies of the Secret Circus is just as much about the secrets we keep in the name of family as it is about the spells we cast in the name of love.

Constance Sayers’ second novel is just as much about the secrets we keep in the name of family as it is about the spells we cast in the name of love.

Readers of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest mind-teaser will know they’re in for an unusual experience when the novel’s narrator, a 38-year-old hypnotist, begins the story by describing a set of Czech days-of-the-week underwear, a gift from a former boyfriend. And that’s before the narrator boards a train for a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his current love and their pet mongoose. Such is the uncommonly inventive setup of Peaces.

Otto Shin is one half of “a starry-eyed young couple” and has happily adopted the surname of his partner, Xavier. As the novel begins, they and their mongoose have boarded a sleeper train called The Lucky Day at their local station “in deepest Kent.” The ride was a gift from Xavier’s aunt. But, in one of the novel’s many engagingly bizarre flourishes, Otto and Xavier don’t quite know where they’re going. Even more curious: When Xavier calls his aunt from the train to check in on her, she says she’s in the company of someone named Yuri. Yuri claims to be a friend of Xavier’s, but Xavier doesn’t know who he is.

That’s just the start of the book’s many complications. Soon Otto and Xavier meet the train’s owner, Ava Kapoor, a theremin player who lives full time on The Lucky Day and has her own pet mongoose. Ava is days away from collecting an inheritance, but a series of events threatens her bounty. Among the characters that deepen the plot are a composer named Karel, who wrote a piece Ava used to play; Karel’s mysterious son, Přem; and a doctor assigned to assess Ava’s state of mind.

The story’s second half is convoluted, and Oyeyemi tends to overwrite, as when she describes a photo of a “fainting couch upholstered in brocade the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing.” But fans of the British writer’s previous work, such as the PEN award-winning What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will enjoy this novel’s surreal twists and imaginative scenarios. Peaces is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.

Helen Oyeyemi’s latest is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.

In Creatures of Passage, 10-year-old Dash Kinwell is stuck, unsure how to proceed after witnessing the school’s merry janitor, Mercy, commit an act of molestation.

The novel’s setting of 1977 Anacostia, in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., is magical and liquid, and so is author Morowa Yejidé’s storytelling style. Sequences flow between past, present and future, between concrete and fantastical, in a stream of vignettes. States are “kingdoms,” the Suitland Parkway is “the imaginable forest,” cars drive themselves and giant vegetables grow at night. Subtle clues hint at how the plot fuses together, emerging amid enjoyable sketches of characters such as Find Out, a man who can locate anything in his junkyard (and beyond). 

The adults around Dash wander “with burdens that [keep] them frozen even as they [move] from one place to the next.” His great-aunt Nephthys ferries passengers around in her 1967 Plymouth, a ghost thumping around in the trunk. Osiris, Nephthys’ deceased twin brother, journeys through death only to arrive back at the banks of the river where his body was recovered, and where he now visits with Dash. Dash’s reclusive mom, Amber, sees future catastrophes in her dreams, and they’re recorded in a section of the newspaper called “the Lottery.” Meanwhile, Mercy calculates his next attack.

So mesmerizing are Yejidé’s unhurried, lyrical chapters that it’s easy to forget the real conflicts, such as financial crises, racial tensions and substance abuse, looming in the background. This contemporary fairy tale’s grandeur and psychedelic wonderment undergird a serious warning, urging readers to make sense of the story’s message of family, justice, trauma and healing and to find a way toward a saner future.

This contemporary fairy tale’s grandeur and psychedelic wonderment undergird a serious warning, urging readers to find a way toward a saner future.

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