What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.
Speculating about the possibilities and ethics of new technologies has long been the domain of science fiction. As we stand on the cusp of virtual realities and cloud computing, two new books revisit these contemplations with fresh voices and compelling tales.
Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal is Katya Gould’s vernacular recounting of a mysterious abduction that left her cut off from other people and, more direly, from Internet access for one week. An antiques dealer with a recently acquired typewriter, she was on her way to a client meeting when a chance encounter in a forest disrupts her plans, and the plans of her mysterious abductor. Through Katya’s recounting, Kowal contemplates the pros and cons that come with our gradual externalization of memory through technology. Her future society envisions a culture that values wabi-sabi (a Japanese aesthetic that values the imperfections that come with objects being handmade and well-used) above all else and prizes the authenticity of experiences when its members are unwilling (or unable) to seek them out for themselves. With the thrilling elements of Gillian Flynn and an engaging tone reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, this novella doesn’t lack in substance despite being a mere 85 pages long.
Sometime in the early 21st century, “the Cloud” burst and everyone’s online secrets rained down upon them, ruining relationships and destroying lives. So the Internet was abolished. The police force merged with the press corps, new inventions like dreamcoats and flatex were created so that anyone can look like anything (for the right price) and people’s identities are carefully guarded secrets. It is in this version of the year 2075 that Brian K. Vaughan (of Saga fame) and Marcos Martin stage The Private Eye, a classic noir mystery told first as a webcomic and now in print. A vigilante PI begins a double-blind background check when his client is killed and he is framed as the prime suspect. To prove his innocence, he begins to dig deeper with the assistance of his sassy sidekicks and uncovers a megalomaniac’s sinister plans. Reminiscent of Blade Runner, this graphic novel doesn’t just pose the obvious questions about identity but also critiques how much the Internet has actually helped the modern age.
If you were like me as a kid and read a lot of fantasy, you probably had no trouble believing that magic mirrors, wardrobes and tollbooths were everyday objects. That Narnia or Wonderland were one right-wrong turn away at any given moment. But the part of those stories I could never understand was the part where the kids go home at the end. If you really found a door to a world where magic was real why would you ever leave? Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway asks a darker question: What would you do to get back?
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school for children coping with realness. Children who returned from magical worlds and desperately want to go back again. But their reasons for wanting to go back are more compelling than just wanting to fight dragons or whatever. These worlds offered them acceptance that they couldn’t find at home, a safe place to express their gender, sexuality, their personality. Plus dragons. Who wouldn’t want to go back?
But now someone’s threatening the safety of everyone on campus. Someone who would do anything to return to their world, and everyone’s a suspect.
With this book, McGuire has crafted not just one world but multiple worlds of compelling characters and situations, all nested inside one slim novella. Fans of the novel and TV series The Magicians will appreciate this clever deconstruction and homage to the fantasy genre.
Pierce Brown is a prodigious young author who first hit the shelves in 2013 with Red Rising, book one in a trilogy that includes the titles Golden Son and now the newly released Morning Star. The Red Rising Trilogy is a science fiction epic set after human expansion has moved past an exhausted Earth and a tightly ruled government of Colors has been instated. Those in power have designated themselves the Golds, or the ruling class, and split the people remaining into Colors to match their station — Silvers handling money, Blues working in technology, Pinks in pleasure and the lowly Reds who work the ground itself.
Darrow is a Red who lives and works in the underground mining community on Mars. Although only 17, he’s already married and at the peak of his career as a Helldiver, a role requiring incredible speed and dexterity to control a hazardous drill to mine resources deep in the crust of the planet. His main concerns are his starving family and living his simple life to the fullest, but when a personal tragedy strikes him to his core he finds himself unwillingly hurtled into the world of Golds, a deadly Academy and a revolution the span of which he only barely understands. As his absorption into Gold society extends from months to years and his contact with the rebel leaders who put him there fades away, Darrow faces the difficult reality of encountering the Golds as the flawed but human individuals they are. Despite his losses, despite the suffering of his people, Darrow comes to understand the Golds and their society, to befriend them, even — to his mingled delight and horror — to fall in love.
As he excels in every test he’s given and accomplishes every seemingly impossible challenge the Golds set him, his conundrum comes to a head. Will he be able to take the reins of the revolution against people he’s starting to consider his friends? Will he be able to survive their ruthlessness, even if he does fight? Morning Star brings the conclusion of the delectable tension Red Rising and Golden Son have built up, an intense drama to truly be swept away by.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
In his engrossing new novel The Great Forgetting, James Renner takes us on a part sci-fi, part-conspiracy, part-thriller journey with Jack Felter, a 30-something-year-old history teacher who tries to have as little to do with his family and hometown as possible. Jack doesn’t want to see his father, who is suffering from severe dementia. He feels guilty for not helping his older sister, who has become their father’s primary caretaker. Most of all, he doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend Sam, who just dumped him for his childhood best friend Tony.
However, when Jack gets a phone call from his sister saying that their father’s dementia is getting even worse, Jack feels that he has no choice but to return home and help out. Once there, Jack finds some surprising news: not only are Sam and Tony no longer together, but Tony has gone missing and is presumably dead. Sam refuses to believe the police’s claims that Tony committed suicide and pleads for Jack’s help in solving the mystery. Sam claims that Tony was behaving oddly just before he went missing, and through looking at Tony’s journals and notes as a psychologist, Sam realizes that Tony may have been more than just a little influenced by one of his last patients. Jack investigates further and decides to meet with this patient, a 15-year-old teenage boy who believes the government has been brainwashing citizens and altering their memories to forget certain historical events they would rather keep secret.
Through Tony’s journal entries, his meetings with Tony’s last patient and flashbacks to his childhood, Jack slowly starts learning about the conspiracies Tony believed and starts wondering if the impossible is actually possible. If the government was brainwashing us in an elaborate conspiracy to make us forget what would have otherwise been a major historical event, who would be able to confirm or deny it? How much can we even trust our own memories, when our brains can be so selective about what to remember and what to forget? Renner’s book is fast-paced and intriguing as it answers these questions, seamlessly blending history, psychology and science fiction into one compelling read.
Robin Hobb has spent two decades building up to the events of Fool’s Quest, beginning in 1996 with the introduction of the bastard FitzChivalry Farseer in Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer trilogy. All of Hobb’s intricate world building and delicate web spinning has led to this dark-tinged tale, the second in her Fitz and the Fool series.
Long after Fitz has gone from unacknowledged pseudo-heir to the throne to unacknowledged and invisible hero of the realm many times over, he retires to live out a happy life with his new family. He has a wife he can love out in public, he has a daughter he can finally claim as his own...and he has a royal family continuing to spy on him long after he thought his spying days were over. His ignorant bliss is shattered when he receives a message from a friend he had thought lost forever: The Fool’s child is in danger, and he needs Fitz to save the child. But first, he has to find out who the child is.
Fool’s Quest is a novel of love, loss and longing — and what constitutes family. One man will do almost anything to protect those he loves. But with everyone in danger, how many can Fitz save?
Readers who enjoyed Raymond Feist’s early novels or who enjoy Trudi Canavan will enjoy the Fitz and the Fool series.
There’s a new sheriff in town. The town just happens to be a rundown mining hub on a fringe planet populated by all manner of ill-tempered aliens, and the sheriff just happens to be Clara Bronson, a single mother looking for a fresh start. Copperhead: Vol. 1 is a genre-bending classic in the making, and the recent release of its first collected volume makes this the perfect time to jump onboard.
As if Sherriff Bronson didn’t have enough on her plate helping her son adjust to their new home and earning the respect of her grumpy deputy, Budroxifinicus, things get particularly tough for her when she gets called to investigate the brutal massacre of a local family on her very first day on the job. The investigation that follows leads Sherriff Bronson from neighborly squabbles to the seedy criminal underbelly of the local mining industry. Look no further for a tense mystery that’ll keep you guessing to the very end.
Writer Jay Faerber and artist Scott Godlewski have crafted a truly unique world here. The dusty mining town at the heart of the story is populated by a colorful cast of humans and aliens alike. Crooked industry tycoons, artificial humanoid soldiers leftover from a war long concluded and the wild creatures lurking in the wastes just outside of town are just a few of the fascinating inhabitants that come into play. Colorist Ron Riley ties the package together with a unique mix of vibrant colors and gritty textures that grant a distinct Old West style to the science fiction world. The final result of this fantastic collaboration is a world that fits in somewhere between Fargo and Blade Runner. The quirky cast, unforgettable setting and intricate plot make for a truly exceptional take on the classic murder mystery that’s sure to entertain.
Ever wished life was more like a video game, where you could save the world with your friends and triumph over evil alien invaders? Ever wanted to be the hero, making all the right choices and saving the day?
Ever thought that maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the story than the player gets to know?
Ernest Cline brings his pop culture-referencing, video game-playing and '80s nostalgia-inducing strengths to his second novel Armada. Following the success of his first novel Ready Player One, Cline’s newest hero is Zack Lightman, a senior in high school who holds the ranking of sixth best player in the video game Armada. Armada’s gameplay consists of defending the Earth from attacking alien forces; during missions players control drones instead of flying a manned flight suit. Outside of playing Armada, Zack has no direction in life and little interest in the outside world. He does enjoy listening to music and reading the journals his father left behind when he died. The journals detail his father’s conspiracy theory – all of the popular science fiction movies and video games over the past couple of decades are preparing humanity for an inevitable confrontation with an alien race. The video games in particular are being used to train gamers for future combat.
Zack thinks this all sounds rather far-fetched until the day he spots a spaceship hovering over his school. A spaceship that looks like one of the enemy alien ships in Armada. Suddenly everything Zack knew about reality has changed, and he’s whisked off to a secret government base to take part in defending Earth from the Europans, an alien species set on the destruction of humanity. And he’s thrilled, in a sense, because it’s exciting to be called upon to defend Earth. Except for the niggling voice in the back of Zack’s head that thinks the Europans are acting a little too much like a scripted video game villain. That maybe things aren’t as they seem, or as Zack’s commanding officers think they seem. But what can one video gamer do?
Armada blends the classic coming-of-age story with an alien invasion packed with action and thrills. While not as strong of a storyline as Ready Player One, Cline’s use of pop culture still provides plenty of chuckles. His action scenes make this a good book for any science fiction or video game fan.
Andrew MacLean, a rising powerhouse in the world of comics, gives a fresh, intimate take on the ever popular post-apocalyptic genre in ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times. Written and illustrated by MacLean, ApocalyptiGirl is an in-depth character study of sorts, following Aria, a loner with a mysterious mission, and her cat, Jelly Beans, as they navigate the crumbling remains of civilizations past.
MacLean weaves fresh concepts together with some of the more familiar tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre. Sure, there are wandering bands of marauders and gunfights aplenty, but Aria isn’t your typical gruff drifter. She is an enthusiastic and often cheerful character with loads of pep and an unending well of affection set aside for her trusty feline sidekick. To categorize Aria only by her zest for life is to discredit the depth that MacLean has built into this character. Readers will follow her through scenes that range from serene to violent and heartbreaking to joyous, each revealing complex new facets of Aria’s personality.
You won’t find any barren badlands in this post-apocalyptic landscape. Aria’s world is one of cozy subway hideouts and sprawling ruins long reclaimed by nature, all vividly depicted in MacLean’s unmistakable style. Quiet moments of solitude and bloody action sequences alike are made equally impressive by the precise line work and expressive muted color palette.
ApocalyptiGirl is a masterfully crafted science fiction slice-of-life story that will have readers rooting for Aria from start to finish. For maximum post-apocalyptic fun, pair with Mad Max: Fury Road!