Features

Worlds apart

2011 Books Issue | Six new novels offer a good start to a different kind of genre

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

Speculative Fiction, the voice of the Harry Potter generation, is difficult to define. It includes science fiction but can encompass vampires as well. SF includes the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the far future civilizations of Isaac Asimov, the apocalyptic fiction of Cormac McCarthy, the horror of Stephen King, and the fractured fairy tales of Gregory Maguire. As Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card puts it, the genre's "stories take place in worlds that have never existed or are not yet known."

An SF book can arise by adding zombies and ninjas to a Georgian romance (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) or by inventing a world and a vast cast of characters (George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.) SF can look back on the past with nostalgia, see science creating utopias or dystopias, spin tales of Conan the Barbarian or superheroes, or intrigue with mysteries wrapped in the cityscapes of urban fantasy.

Here are six volumes from the past year that are a good starting point for someone new to this vast category of fiction.

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Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is the story of poor plain Jane, the daughter of a country gentleman of Georgian England, a spinster-to-be who has little to recommend her to eligible men except high intelligence and talent at creating magical glamours (illusions used to add motion to paintings or visuals to music). Jane also has an unrequited love for her younger sister Melody's beau. But when Melody transfers her affections to a rake and scoundrel, Jane's tidy little country family is torn apart by jealousy. Professional puppeteer and award-winning short story writer Kowal's first novel is an homage to the work of Jane Austen with a subtle fantasy twist.

Echo by Jack McDevitt is set in the far future. While trolling the eBay analogue of that time, Alex Benedict discovers a mysteriously marked stone. Never one to let a mystery die, Alex and his female assistant Chase Kolpath must discover the stone's true source and its connection to the World's End touring company. The answer might just reveal whether mankind is truly alone in the universe. For all its galaxy-spanning locale, Echo is about decisions that have far-reaching consequences, and the dogged search for the truth no matter what that truth may reveal.

In The Black Prism by Brent Weeks, Kip is an overweight, snarky-mouthed village boy thrust into a world he doesn't understand. Gavin is the magic-using ruler of Chromeria. Liv is ostracized in the court for her nationality and appearance. In this literary descendent of Tolkien, all three carry secrets that could tip the balance of power in the Chromerian empire. This epic fantasy has not only clashing swords, magic, and armies on the battlefield-that means violence-but enthralling personal tales and a Cain and Abel metaphor.

The Ale Boy's Feast by Jeffrey Overstreet is a mythic allegory of depth and vivid imagery that celebrates art through prose impressionism. The world is dying. The Seers of Bel Amica are poisoning the world with their moon-worship, addictive potions, and the land-consuming Deathweed. A firewalking ale boy must lead the remnant of House Abascar upstream through dangers and dark to find a way to deliverance. Christian readers of this Christian author will note many allegorical elements in the tale-like the communion sacrament of the titular feast.

Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch contains superbly written highlights such as: alternate history in "Recovering Apollo 8" and "G-Men"; clever urban fantasy filled with wizards and magic in "The Strangeness of the Day" and "Substitutions"; a racially charged tale of lost aliens in "The End of the World"; space-faring archeologists and treasure hunters in "Diving into the Wreck." Other stories include the hauntingly sad "June Sixteenth at Anna's," the short but poignant "Taste of Miracles," and the technological warning tale of "Craters."

In The Skin Map, Christian author Stephen R. Lawhead writes a simple but adventurous tale about parallel universes. Kit is a modern-day Londoner, living a fruitless life. On a difficult public transit day, Kit makes the long slog to his girlfriend's flat on foot along Stane Way, an ancient track of old London. This choice leads Kit to meet his great-grandfather, lose his girlfriend in 17th-century Prague, and hop around history in a race to find the Skin Map, the key to traversing the universes and opening the Well of Souls. Wholesome themes of friendship, trust, calling, and faith pervade a novel that is an excellent introduction to alternate world stories.

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