A Grim, Anti-Science Future: Julia Whicker’s Wonderblood

Julia Whicker’s debut novel, Wonderblood, is set 500 years from now in a barren, disease-ravaged United States that bears more resemblance to Europe of the Middle Ages than a far-flung future. A mad cow-like disease, Bent Head, has decimated the population; the survivors rove about in bloodthirsty traveling carnivals, beheading one another unrestrainedly and, in a delightful bit of invention, worshiping departed NASA space shuttles and awaiting their return. As the novel opens, mysterious comet-like lights burn across the sky and the sinister, charismatic Mr. Capulatio, whose carnival sets the bar high for decapitation and mayhem, gathers an army and steals himself a (second) bride.

In this world religion and magic have displaced science, astrology supersedes astronomy, and the feudal king—descended from astronauts—rules from a palace built over the wreckage of Cape Canaveral. The citizenry collects and preserves the heads of their enemies—and friends—for magical purposes; medicine is forbidden; ...

The Whole Kitchen: Jo Walton’s Starlings

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories,” Jo Walton notes in the oddball introduction to her first full-length collection, Starlings. And indeed, while Starlings is a collection, calling it a short-story collection is something of a misnomer: the book is instead a jumble-sale assemblage of jokes, opening chapters to unwritten novels, poetry, point-of-view exercises, and speculative fictions interspersed with Walton’s commentaries on her own work—which are as likely to be complaints about permanently delayed payments as they are insights into her work.

As a result, Starlings is an inconsistent, eccentric little book, where luminous windows into other, startlingly beautiful alien worlds mingle with half-baked ideas and LiveJournal posts, punctuated by Walton’s charmingly crabby and acerbic assessments of each piece. (“You’ll notice that [this story is] very very short, contains one idea, and no plot,” she observes of a rather nasty anecdote that is very very ...

A Muted Prequel: Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust

Twenty-two years after the publication of his extraordinary novel The Golden Compass, a passport into an intoxicating universe of infinite marvels, Philip Pullman has returned to the parallel world he created with the first installment in a new trilogy.

La Belle Sauvage opens a decade or so prior to the events of The Golden Compass. Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of an innkeeper, is an inquisitive, intelligent, and resourceful boy who spends his time helping out his parents, picking fights with Alice Polstrow, a cranky teenage girl who works at the inn, and loitering about at the Priory of Godstow, where the tolerant and kindly nuns give him free rein. His quiet life is abruptly upended by a series of events, beginning with his discovery of a mysterious message from Oakley Street, a secret society working in opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Church, which is tightening its hold on ...

A High Fantasy with All Your Old Friends: The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams Like most people who grow up to be writers, I was a pretty weird kid. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you to learn that I was not a popular child; I spent the majority of my elementary-school recesses looking for dragons in the woods alone. I dressed as Raistlin three Halloweens in a row. I was certain that magic slumbered within me—not sleight of hand, but the real weather-altering enemy-smiting fireball-hurling stuff—waiting patiently for me to find the key to unlocking it. Other children were not kind to me, so I kept reading. There’s not a single doorstop-sized fantasy epic published between The Sword of Shannara and Sunrunner’s Fire that I haven’t read at least once (when I realized, belatedly, that this predilection was not endearing me to my peers, I took to disguising the telltale sword-and-naked-lady covers of my preferred reading material with a reusable cloth book cover; ...

A Madcap Debut: The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

The first thing you should know about Nicky Drayden’s wildly imagined debut is that it’s really, really fun. You’ll bounce from tormented more-than-besties Muzi and Elkin’s first sexual experience (under the influence of a hallucinogen that unlocks their inner dolphin and crab selves, obvs) to a demigoddess moonlighting as a nail tech who plans to destroy the human race to a robot uprising to a young lady who is More Than She Seems to a global superstar and impossible diva whose friendly neighborhood drug dealer is the only person who knows her Dark Secret to an aspiring government official with a very overbearing mother and a secret life as a charismatic transgender pop star. And that’s just the first few chapters. Spinning between the perspectives of multiple main characters, the seemingly divergent storylines of The Prey of Gods soon begin to intersect in—spoiler alert—unexpected and often delightful ways. Set in ...

Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light

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< p class="frontmatter">“Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” is about a lonely young woman, recently moved to the big city, who is looking for love. What she finds is a friend and confidante who is much older and wiser than she.   Marcus arrived on the third day of school. Of course, Rosamunde didn’t know then his name was Marcus. All she knew was that the new guy was hot. Like, really hot. Shampoo-commercial hair hot. Tawny skin like a lion’s golden coat just like when the sun hits a lion’s golden coat on a plain somewhere in Africa hot. He walked into homeroom just like a lion, totally confident and cool. His confident gaze raked the classroom. Like he could eat them all alive if he wanted to. And then he looked right at her with gorgeous, glowing violet eyes. As if there was no one else in the world. ...