by Sean C.W. Korsgaard
For both the speculative fiction industry and the world at large, these are interesting times.
As I write this column, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, sparking the biggest land war in Europe in a generation. Political turmoil continues to bubble over in a dozen countries, from truckers in Ontario to another wave of crackdowns on dissidents in China. Even as the shadow of the Covid-19 epidemic still looms overhead, gas prices, food shortages, and inflation have begun to wreak havoc.
For the medium itself it seems recent days are just as chaotic. The publishing schedules of multiple traditional publishing houses have been thrown into chaos by paper shortages and supply chain issues. On the indie side of things, the looming giant of Amazon has really begun to flex its might, and several authors and small publishers have begun to feel the pinch. Brandon Sanderson launched the biggest Kickstarter in the history of the crowdfunding platform, and pretty much everyone from publishers to writers to Sanderson himself are trying to decide what that means. Bookstores, many of whom barely weathered the Covid-19 lockdowns, are seeing sales take a hit as readers’ budgets begin to tighten.
It’s times like these that our genre needs to do what it does best for its readers: Offer an escape, visions of the future and how we might get there, the promise that better days—or at least stranger ones—lie ahead. Interesting times call for interesting books.
Here you’ll find eight books that I hope offer a little something for every kind of reader. We have the final instalment of a series that began before I was born, the latest book in a fan favorite series, and the first book in what may well become a new one. Books from authors coming from Africa, Ukraine, and the ranks of the United States military. Stories of aliens who searve with unrequited devotion to save our species, invade from the darker corners of our mind.
Whatever the months ahead may bring us all, I hope some of these books might make these strange days we face that much brighter.
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Kingdoms of Death
DAW, 531 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (ebook)
Series: Sun Eater 4
Genre: Space Opera, Epic Sci-Fi, Alien Beings, Military SF
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The first three books of Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eater series have proven to be one of the brightest debuts by a new author in recent years, with the series itself deservedly earning a fan following for his vivid writing style, an interesting galactic conflict, and a melancholy protagonist, Hadrian Marlowe, whose path will see him rise to be humanity’s greatest hero, before becoming its most infamous tyrant.
Earning favorable comparisons to Frank Herbert or Gene Wolfe, with the release of the Sun Eater’s fourth novel, Kingdoms of Death, the question remained if Ruocchio and the series could transition towards the coming climax, with its long-hinted triumph and ultimate fall of its hero.
For the past century, Hadrian Marlowe has been kept in a gilded cage serving the Emperor and is only given free reign again in an act of ultimate desperation. The dreaded Cielcin, once sent reeling by Hadrian, have begun to unite behind a war leader, Syriani Dorayaica, who may well be Hadrian’s strategic match, and is dedicated to proving it by beginning a lightning invasion of Imperial space.
Hadrian is given a desperate mission—travel across the galaxy to the Lothrian Commonwealth, a rival human civilization nearly as alien to the Sollan Empire as the invading Cielcin, and request they come to their aid. Much like the empire he serves, Hadrian is increasingly desperate and pressed on all sides by those seeking to destroy him. Which begs the question—just what is Hadrian willing to sacrifice to save mankind?
Easily the darkest chapter in the Sun Eater series yet, Kingdoms of Death is a likely turning point for the series, far more than the previous books, we now begin to see Hadrian’s first few stumbles into darkness even as he rises higher, as well as some daring plot beats and a final act that hits Hadrian—and readers—like a bombshell.
The book is hard SF, space opera, and cosmic horror in equal measure, and Ruocchio capably balances several elements, be it the galaxy spanning war, deep lore and mythos, or the personality of protagonist Hadrian. Despite the reader knowing his fate, Hadrian continues to make a fascinating viewpoint character, whose occasional insights and commentaries flavor the story, even as we see the events that set Marlowe on his ultimate downfall begin to unfold.
Oddly, the fourth book saw Hadrian face his greatest challenge yet off the page—ongoing paper shortages in the publishing industry made splitting Kingdoms of Death into a slightly smaller book, and Sun Eater from five books into seven—and despite some initial trepidation, reshuffling things hasn’t made Ruocchio or Sun Eater lose any of their power.
The result is a middle novel that advances the series in every way, and despite measuring up as the shortest book in the series, its delivers plenty into each of its nearly 600 pages, both exciting and expansive, and undoubtedly the darkest chapter of Hadrian’s story yet.
With the release of Demon in White, and the fifth Sun Eater book, Ashes of Man, due out this December, there’s never been a better time to dive into one of the best new works of epic space opera today, just as it begins to reach its ultimate crescendo.
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The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021)
Edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki
Jembefola Press, 336 pages, free to download from the publisher
iBooks, Nook: $6.99
Genre: Reprint Anthology, Afrofuturism, World SF
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Even with the ongoing boom in African speculative fiction in general, and Nigerian speculative fiction more specifically, few authors from any continent can claim to have made a more stunning debut in the field than Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. Over the past few years, since winning his first Nommo Award for his short story “The Witching Hour,” Ekpeki has won a second Nommo Award, been nominated for two Nebula Awards, made the cover of Locus, helped organize the African programming track at Worldcon, and edited several anthologies, including this one.
A reprint anthology, The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021) offers 29 stories from 25 different authors, with American Sheree Renee Thomas contributing three and Nigerian writer Tobi Ogundiran contributing two. You’d be hard pressed to find many anthologies filled with as many stories, or stories with as much variety in style, tone and subject. While some stories may trend more toward fantasy or horror than hard science fiction, and others play fast and loose with the lines to all three, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to some of the finest talents in African spec fiction.
There may be some familiar names in the anthology to longtime readers—it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the strongest stories in the anthology comes from World Fantasy Award winner Tobias S. Buckell—but one of the most pleasant surprises is how many of the stories I would count among my favorites came from authors that were previously unknown to me. Russell Nichols’ “Giant Steps” follows a doctor journeying to one of Saturn’s moons, while “The ThoughtBox” by Tlotlo Tsamaase delivers a dark story about a device that allows people to hear each other’s thoughts.
My personal favorite though had to be “Egoli,” by Zimbabwean author T.L. Huchu, a touching story following a grandmother looking upon the stars and reflecting how much technological change she’s witnessed in her life. Finding new authors to watch is always one of the joys of a good anthology, and even avid readers of genre fiction should come away from this one with more than a few.
While not the first anthology he’s edited, The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021) is easily the strongest effort from Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, proving he’ll be as much of an editor to watch as an author.
Unfortunately, one of the most telling warnings of our future might not be one found in its pages, but in Ekpeki’s battle to keep the anthology available for sale on Amazon, with the book getting pulled from the marketplace several times. After several appeals, and intervention from multiple authors and publishers, eventually the choice was made to pull the anthology from Amazon and offer it for free on the publisher’s website.
A sad reminder that even as national and cultural barriers start to come down, new ones have started to rise in their place.
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The Last Shadow
Orson Scott Card
Tor Books, 317 pages, $27.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (ebook)
Series: Ender Series 6/Shadow Saga 6
Genre: Space Opera, Far Future/Clarke’s Law, Alien Beings, Space Travel, SF Mystery
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For readers and authors of a certain age, there is hardly anyone who can claim Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card didn’t play a central role in their discovery of genre fiction. What began with a short story originally published in this very magazine, turned into one of the best-selling and most influential SF novels of all time. It then grew into first one series following Ender’s journey through the stars seeking some redemption by aiding the survival of the alien Formics and Pequeninos, a second series following Bean, Petra, and those still on Earth establishing the Hegemony on Earth and spreading humanity to the stars, and a prequel series following the Formic Wars.
The Last Shadow is meant to be the ultimate chapter to them all, linking the two distinct series back together into a whole, answer lingering questions left by both, and serving as the final chapter in a series nearly half a century in the making. A daunting order for any series, especially one as storied as this one.
Following 2012’s Shadows in Flight, Bean’s grandchildren have arrived on Lusitania, and are roped in to help tackle the threat that has lingered throughout the Ender series, the descolada virus, which is moth a necessary part of the Pequeninos life cycle and threatens humanity for its ability to dismantle and attack our DNA. Then there is the mystery if the virus was created by another entity, and to what end, and the eventual fate of the final Formic queen Ender worked so hard to save and provide a second chance to the species that was nearly wiped out by his xenocide.
The turns the story takes in answering these mysteries prove worth the wait, as is the way that the themes of both the Ender series and Shadow saga are little by little bound together. All the interesting characters and lingering questions very pointedly posed by both Children of the Mind and Shadows in Flight are, if not answered, given satisfying conclusions.The main strength, as it has always been with the Ender novels and Card’s work though, is the ensemble cast and the ways they clash and come together. The characters we last saw over 20 years ago in Children of the Mind is like revisiting old friends, and Bean’s grandchildren Thulium and Sprout quickly charm despite their newness.
It’s also worth noting the dread and fear about the potential damage that the Descolada virus would do to all of mankind hits a little differently in a post-Covid-19 world. While I dare not spoil the eventual ending, the last few paragraphs make a touching coda to the series that have lingered with me even weeks after I first read those final pages.
The book treads very familiar ground, but it’s that familiarity that will make The Last Shadow so very dear to anybody who has been following this series since they first joined Ender Wiggin on his trip to battle school.
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Sunrise Over Shippo
Chris Kennedy Publishing, 430 pages, $16.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99
Series: Asur Trilogy 1
Genre: Military SF, Exploration & Discovery, Adventure SF, Alien Beings, Shared Universe
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One of the few boons to be had from nearly two decades of constant warfare is we’re seeing the largest number of military veterans entering the science fiction field as authors since the end of World War II, among them perhaps the largest contingent of female veterans in the history of the genre. While women veterans are not new to the genre—and some like Elizabeth Moon and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough have been genre stalwarts for decades—rising stars like Kacey Ezell and Joelle Presby are certainly leading the charge of a talented new class. If her debut novel is any indication, Melissa Olthoff makes a brilliant addition to their ranks.
Kailey Jackson has wanted to solve the mystery of the lost Asur civilization on her adopted homeworld of Shippo, and she now finally has her chance leading an archeological expedition on the planet. Unfortunately, her would-be expedition was financed as a cover for the Badar Syndicate to invade the planet, and she barely escapes with her life, leaving the foxlike Kitsoonay that raised her beneath the boots of an alien oppressor.
With her adopted sister Jinx and the Lancers mercenary unit at her side, Kailey is now given a choice. The Lancers are more than willing to fight to liberate Shippo, as are Jinx and the Kitsoonay, but they need intelligence on the ground from advance scouts. Despite lacking any combat experience and wrestling with as much self-doubt as she is guilt, Kailey volunteers to lead the scouting mission.
Kailey isn’t a fighter, and she’s terrified of going behind enemy lines and facing the Syndicate. Luckily, Kailey is an archeologist—and the Asur might just have a few surprises that might help Shippo throw back the invaders.
Expanded from a short story, Sunrise Over Shippo is everything great about adventurous military science fiction. It has roguish mercenaries in power armor, alien invaders, and a reluctant hero who slowly comes into their own, these are genre standbys as old as Heinlein’s first batch of dropship marines. Yet what makes it feel so fresh and unique is in the execution, and that Olthoff manages to make the story completely immersive. Rare is the author who makes you feel the weight of combat armor, the sound of gunfire, or the feel in the bottom of your gut, especially a debut author.
The strongest point of Shippo though is the rich, motley crew of characters, chief among them Kailey Jackson, whose pathway to liberate her adopted people requires her to likewise free herself from nagging self-doubt. Her character growth is palpable every step of the way and watching her come into her own is immensely satisfying.
The archeological background also adds some nice flavor to the setting, the mystery behind what made the Asur build massive bunkers and then simply vanish is intriguing, and it certainly adds some potential for follow up in the sequels. Plus, as a concept, the Asur being the equivalent of extraterrestrial survival preppers is brilliant.
Though set in CKP’s Salvage Universe, no prior knowledge of the setting is required to enjoy Sunrise Over Shippo, in what is to be the first book in what I expect to be a very enjoyable trilogy. For fans of military science fiction, gripping action, and loveable crews of misfits, the Asur Trilogy and Melissa Olthoff both should be on your radar.
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Wergen: The Alien Love War
Mercurio D. Rivera
NewCon Press, 278 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99
Genre: Alien Invasion, Alien Beings, First Contact, Psychological/Sociological SF
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Rivera should be a familiar name to any longtime Analog or Asimov’s readers, with his most recent story, “The Four Spider-Societies of Proxima Centauri 33G” appearing in the March/April 2022 issue of Analog. Many of Rivera’s stories show he has a real knack for creating interesting aliens and finding ways they make us ask interesting questions about humanity.
Few pose more interesting questions than Wergen: The Alien Love War, A novel that fleshes out and links together several of Rivera’s existing stories about the alien Wergen into a cohesive whole. Of those questions, perhaps the biggest being its central concept: What if alien invaders came to make love not war—and if that proved no less dangerous to mankind or the aliens?
An alien species who enters the Solar System broadcasting a single message, “Can we help?” These aliens are the Wergen, beings that are both technologically advanced, and due to a quirk of their biology, they are utterly and completely devoted to humanity. Their unquestioning adoration quickly wears thin with much of humanity, while many nations use that devotion to obtain access to Wergen technology. Humanity and Wergen like begin to change dramatically following the encounter, technologically, socially, and even physically, until ultimately this unequal partnership inevitably comes to blows.
Wergen raises a ton of interesting questions about human and alien psychology, power dynamics, the nature of love and relationships, all through the lens of a first contact story that turns into a breakup that sparks an interstellar war that leaves both sides poorer for it. The biggest is that it flips so many of the usual human-alien power dynamics completely on their head. What would happen if an advanced alien species sought to cater to our every desire, craved to even be around us? Does the very worst of human nature begin to win out, and do we turn it into a horribly toxic partnership, and then seek ways to apply that same abuse to our fellow man? Could even our best of intentions inevitably sour on us?
On the alien side of things, the Wergen are a fascinating creation in their own right, and while I dare not spoil the big twists concerning just why they’re so enraptured by humanity, one of Wergen’s best touches is that the aliens, for all they’ve potentially suffered for their encounters with humanity, may yet be poorer for our absence.
Rivera’s short fiction both in this magazine and elsewhere has more than proven he’s one of the best in spec fiction when it comes to interesting aliens and interesting questions, and his first novel in almost a decade had him in prime form on both fronts. He takes an unusual premise to some strange and creative extremes, and the result is a tale of first encounter with alien life whose tragedies end up being all too human.
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Bloodshot Books, 390 pages, $16.99
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $3.99
Genre: SF Horror, World SF, Psychological/Sociological SF, Body Horror, Dark SF
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Given the war in Ukraine, I wanted to showcase a novel by a Ukrainian speculative fiction author, especially given some of the brightest names in the genre, including Stanislaw Lem (Solaris) and Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), hail from the country. While modern Ukrainian speculative fiction leans much more heavily toward fantasy, there are a few terrific science fiction authors whose work is available in English, among them Alex Shvartsman, Oleh Shynkarenko, and Elana Gomel.
Gomel is a Ukranian-Israeli author who on top of having had short fiction appear in Apex and Mythic magazines, has written six nonfiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism and science fiction as an academic. Given that background, it shouldn’t be a surprise that her most recent novel The Cryptids has found a way to tap into both areas of her expertise.
Dr. Sharon Manley is haunted by dark dreams, a failed marriage, and a floundering academic career. A biologist with a focus on cryptozoology, she gets called in for her expertise when the founder of a tech startup claims his wife was carried off by an impossibly large predatory bird. Long extinct animals begin popping in and out of existence in Northern California, as others pulled straight out of mythology begin attacking people, and worse yet, many of the wildlife and humans that encounter them come out warped and deformed.
There is a rift between worlds, and Manley may be the only person who can help solve the mystery behind just what’s gone wrong before it spirals completely out of control. Was this a case of a tech company experimenting with quantum mechanics gone terribly wrong? Is there some malevolent alien intelligence manipulating events to their own events, or are these creatures merely a reflection of evolution and some of the darkest corners of the human mind? Whatever is causing it, the fates of multiple dimensions depend on her ability to find out how to put an end to this.
The Cryptids is a slow burn, taking the time to set things up and let the dread sink in before the real horror begins. It has some of the most viscerally terrifying body horror and disturbing imagery I’ve seen in a book in some time—one beat early on where a young boy morphs into a Cronenbergian monstrosity, and seeing his family’s horrified reactions, twisted my guts into knots.
Throughout it all, Sharon Manley makes an interesting protagonist, from burned out academic to dimensional explorer to unlikely savior, and she offers some wit and levity to the proceedings even in some of the book’s bleakest moments. The Crytids has horror and disturbing moments aplenty, but it’s the human spirit at the heart of it all that makes the journey ultimately worth it.
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A Half-Built Garden
Tor Books, 336 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $1399
Genre: First Contact, Ecological/Environmental SF, Visitors from Space, Climate Change SF
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Ever since her interesting spin on the Lovecraftian mythos with the Innsmouth Legacy series, which tackles the aftermath of the U.S. government responding with force to the Deep One’s presence in New England, Ruthanna Emrys has been a writer I was very eager to see what work she’d produce next. With the release of the upcoming A Half-Built Garden, we have our answer in one of the more interesting takes on ecological science fiction I’ve yet read.
Judy Wallach-Stevens receives a strange alert while monitoring pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Instead of a false alarm or somebody dumping a large amount of waste, she discovers an alien spacecraft. These are emissaries of the Ringers, aliens who announce they are eager for humanity to join them among the stars and leave the polluted wreck of Earth once and for all. Humanity, be it the ecological watershed networks, corporations or weak national governments aren’t so eager, especially given some titanic efforts made to keep the world livable and repair some of the damage we’ve done. At an impasse, and neither side willing to give an inch of ground, Judy finds herself an unlikely mediator desperately trying to create an understanding whose results may impact the futures of multiple worlds.
The conflict between humanity and aliens at the heart of A Half-Built Garden is an interesting one, one more philosophical and based on vastly different (and alien) worldviews. On one hand, you have the Ringers, a federation of benevolent aliens seeking to aid humanity in taking its place among the stars, if only we’re willing to leave our home planet behind. On the other, we have humanity, eager to work with the aliens in any fashion that we can but are understandably unwilling to abandon Earth, especially one they feel they might have saved from the brink of total collapse.
Emrys has a knack for memorable imagery and moments, especially when it comes to our would-be extraterrestrial saviors—the two species making up the alien Ringers are described as looking like pangolins with a dozen legs, and colorful arachnid aliens who are deeply self-conscious about their resemblance to Earth’s spiders and much of humanity’s instinctive reaction to them. One of the best moments early in A Half-Built Garden is the is that they make initial contact by a medley of music pulled from a half dozen first contact movies, both real and fictional. The emphasis both species place upon parenthood makes for some very interesting interactions throughout the novel, the most important being that the early presence of Judy’s wife and child during first contact play a role in the Ringers negotiating through her.
The other standout for the book is that for all the resistance our characters have at being ordered to leave Earth, it paints a uniquely bleak picture of the planet’s future. Earth is ecologically hanging on by a thread, with environmental damage and climate change having pushed humanity to extreme measures to walk things back from the brink. Society has been divided into networks organized by watersheds and corporate statelets that have both largely supplanted nation states. It’s often the little details that say the most about the world—long distance travel is heavily restricted over potential carbon emission, food is grown during winter growing seasons or in greenhouses—and other bits of world building are simply intriguing, my personal favorite being the networks being governed by a digital direct democracy of sorts.
As a longtime fan of aquatic science fiction and student of oceanography, I also must commend Emrys for delivering a book that touches on and integrates so many facets of them both into the narrative—and as a Virginian, commend her for her grasp of the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.
Ultimately though, the core message of A Half-Built Garden is a deceptively simple one, given how much effort it takes to try and get the Ringers to understand: Earth might be a horrible, messy place sometimes, but it’s our home.
Copyright © 2022 Sean C.W. Korsgaard