Historical fiction is a popular genre. It has the ability to transport readers to another time and place, giving them a window to the past and the ways in which people lived, worked, fought, and loved. Combining historical settings with fantasy, horror, and even sf can bring a new dimension to a speculative fiction novel, adding an original setting and a whole new level of plot complications. Fantasy most often plays on variations of history for its make-believe settings, but both horror and the usually futuristic genre of sf can blend in historical elements successfully as well.
Several of this month’s selections employ a historical setting to good effect. On the horror front, Holly Messinger’s The Curse of Jacob Tracy employs an Old West setting for its tale of evil spirits, while Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country derives its chills from the interactions the African American characters have with the evils of Jim Crow prejudice in the 1950s (although there are monsters, too). Charles Lambert’s The Children’s Home spends most of the narrative in a timeless limbo that feels like the past, but as the story unfolds, reveals it might not be that simple.
Sf from Anna Charnock (Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind) takes place in the past, the present, and the future. Or, take Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again, which asks the classic question: “If you could change one thing in the past, what would it be?” Finally, The Rising by Ian Tregillis shows how a clever writer reimagines history. Setting a story in the past in these genres is a great way to attract readers who might otherwise never try a speculative novel, so think about cross-promoting them to your historical fiction fans.
Debut of the Month
Messinger, Holly. The Curse of Jacob Tracy. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Dec. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250038982. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466834316. HORROR
Jacob “Trace” Tracy and Boz, his African American partner, are looking for jobs to tide them over until they get hired for their usual work of guiding wagon trains West. Wealthy Miss Fairweather of St. Louis employs them for what looks like an easy task: retrieving a box from a nearby town. Miss Fair- weather didn’t choose the duo by chance. She wants Trace for his ability to see the spirit world, a talent he has possessed (and hidden) since he was injured on the battlefield at Antietam. This first trip entangles Trace and Boz with the interests of a man of unusual talents and evil intent named Mereck, and even as Trace continues to take jobs for Miss Fairweather, Mereck’s attentions grow more dangerous. VERDICT Combining well-wrought historical fiction with just the right amount of scenic details and horror with its tense atmosphere, Messinger’s debut hits on a winning formula. The novel is structured almost like a serial, with different adventures and monsters in each section, but tied together by the friendship of Trace and Boz, and the continuing threats that the spirits pose for the relatively untrained Trace.
Check These Out
Anders, Charlie Jane. All the Birds in the Sky. Tor. Jan. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780765379948. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466871120. FANTASY
They met as children, both awkward and otherwise friendless but otherwise as different from each other as they could be. Patricia always wanted to be in the woods, where she came to believe she could speak to animals. Laurence was obsessed with science, building a computer in his bedroom closet. Still, the two were allies until Laurence witnessed Patricia’s abilities and couldn’t accept them. Decades later, the two are in San Francisco, where climate change has left the planet on the tipping point of disaster. Patricia is a part of a community of witches, and Laurence has joined a think tank of sorts that is trying to find a scientific solution to the world’s ills. Nature vs. technology: the two old friends are on paths that will lead to unavoidable collision. VERDICT At turns darkly funny and deeply melancholy, this is a polished gem of a novel from the Hugo Award–winning (for the story “Six Months, Three Days”) editor in chief of the website io9.com. Her depiction of near-future San Francisco shows a native’s understanding (and love) of the city, while gently skewering it at the same time. Readers will follow Patricia and Laurence through their growing pains, bad decisions, and tentative love.
Bennett, Robert Jackson. City of Blades. Broadway: Crown. (Divine Cities, Bk. 2). Jan. 2016. 496p. ISBN 9780553419719. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780553419726. FANTASY
Turyin Mulaghesh had hoped for the quiet retirement Shara Komayd promised her after the events of City of Stairs, but it seems there’s one last task to accomplish. She must travel to Voortyashtan to investigate the disappearance of a ministry operative. Upon arrival, Turyin sees that the Saypuri government has hired a Dreyling company run by Signe, the daughter of Shara’s old partner in mayhem Sigrud (who also makes an appearance), to dredge the harbor of Voortyashtan and make it a viable port once again. Turyin fails to find the missing woman, but she does uncover evidence that the goddess of death and war who once protected Voortyashtan may be dead but not completely gone. VERDICT Building beautifully upon the richly detailed world introduced in the first book of the series, Bennett (The Troupe; American Elsewhere) serves a stew of fantasy and adventure with a healthy dose of humor and a ladle full of violence. Switching protagonists from sneaky Shara to the blunt soldier Turyin gives the sequel a fresh feel, and readers will be eager to read more books set in this fascinating universe.
Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Baen. (Vorkosigan Saga, Bk. 17). Feb. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781476781228. $27. SF
Three years after the death of her husband, Aral, Dowager Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan has finally moved beyond her fog of grief and is ready for a new life chapter. She will resign as Vicereine of the planet Sergyar and be a mother again (after raising the irrepressible Miles Vorkosigan), thawing out genetic material that she has banked away. In a generous impulse, she offers the extra eggs to Oliver Jole, Aral’s former aide and longtime lover, to have a child of the man he loved. As the two spend time together, bonded initially by their mutual love of Aral, they find they have more in common than shared grief. Things get complicated, however, when Miles comes to Sergyar to check on his mother. VERDICT Bujold has had great success in the past writing romance featuring mature adults (Paladin of Souls), and Oliver and Cordelia make a lovely couple, albeit one with more baggage than most. A welcome addition to a series that is always a delight.
Chadwick, Frank. Come the Revolution. Baen. Dec. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781476780955. pap. $15. SF
Two years ago, former gangster Sasha Naradnyo shook up human and Varoki culture with his cross-species adoption of Tweezaa e-Traak, the Varoki heiress to the largest fortune in the history of the Stellar Commonwealth. Now Sasha is caught in the middle of a brewing revolution and soon becomes a refugee in a human encampment under siege. Without Sasha’s skills in management and combat, no one will survive the immediate crisis. VERDICT This sequel to How Dark the World Becomes is a fast-paced, action-packed sf adventure. Readers new to Chadwick’s series will be able to start here without too much trouble; essential background information is given, and the author leaps straight into an original story set two years after the previous entry.
Charnock, Anne. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. 47North: Amazon. Dec. 2015. 268p. ISBN 9781503950436. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781503954205. SF
In 22nd-century London, art historian Toniah gets a job at the Academy of Restitution, whose goal is to correct the underrepresentation of women in history. What Toniah really wants to do is study the work of Renaissance painter Antonia Uccello. Present-day teen Toni travels to China with her father, a painter specializing in copying famous works of art. And in 15th-century Italy, successful painter Paolo Uccello worries about the future of his daughter Antonia, recognizing her artistic talent but unsure how to find a way for her to exercise that talent in spite of her gender. The three story lines are loosely tied together through a work of art that survives over the centuries. VERDICT Not particularly sf in feel despite having one narrative take place a century in the future, Philip K. Dick Award finalist Charnock’s (A Calculated Life) latest is instead an intriguing look at three women in different time periods. If taken as three well-drawn character studies, the book has charms, but those hoping for more explicit connections between the time periods might be disappointed.
DuBois, Brendan. Dark Victory: A Novel of the Alien Resistance. Baen. Jan. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781476780924. pap. $15. SF
Randy isn’t your average 16-year-old; for one, he’s a sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard with four years of combat experience. A decade ago, aliens landed on Earth, destroyed all the major coastal cities, disabled all modern technology, and set up impenetrable bases across the world. Humanity barely survived, and few adults remain, leaving the fight for the future in the hands of teenagers like Randy and their K-9 companions, who have learned to sniff out the Creepers. Dispatched on a courier mission to the Capital, Randy soon is deep into a complex web of secrets that may mean a true end to the alien threat. VERDICT DuBois (Resurrection Day) has written a great series opener for a range of readers. The adolescent characters make this an especially solid choice for teens with an interest in apocalyptic and disaster fiction.
Elton, Ben. Time and Time Again. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Dec. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781250077066. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466888906. SF
Hugh Stanton, visiting his old Cambridge professor at Christmastime in 2024, gets pulled into one of their old “what if?” games. Professor McCluskey liked to challenge students to think of the one thing in history they would change. It turns out not to be an idle question this time, and Hugh learns that the professor was the inheritor of a box of papers left by Isaac Newton to be opened that very Christmas. The 17th-century scientist had predicted a loop in time, when 2024 would overlap with 1914, allowing a traveler to go back in time. Hugh is tasked with going back to that fateful year to stop one of the turning points in world history: the start of World War I. VERDICT Elton’s (Two Brothers; High Society) thoroughly entertaining entry in the time-travel genre gives readers a dashing leading man trotting the globe on his secret mission to a historical moment fraught with danger, in which every choice can have unintended consequences.
Lambert, Charles. The Children’s Home. Scribner. Jan. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9781501117398. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781501117411. HORROR
In a lonely house cut off from the world around it, a horribly disfigured man named Morgan Fletcher lives alone with Engel, his housekeeper. One day, a baby arrives on his doorstep, followed soon after by a young boy. These are the first two, but dozens of children mysteriously appear on the estate, and all are taken in by Morgan. The children also lead him to his only real friendship, with a local doctor who comes to treat one of the youth for a fever. The children seem to pop up in rooms with no warning, and eventually show signs of an eerie foreknowledge. VERDICT This novel by the author of Little Monsters feels like a fairy tale in which events don’t always make sense but still somehow carry you sleepily along. The period setting of the lonely house is ambiguous, feeling like the distant past but later hinting it might be a dangerous future. Those expecting a tidy fairy-tale ending should look elsewhere, as this story aims to leave readers unsettled from start to finish. [See Prepub Alert, 7/13/15.]
Resnick, Mike. The Prison in Antares. Pyr: Prometheus. (Dead Enders, Bk. 2). Dec. 2015. 300p. ISBN 9781633881020. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781633881037. SF
Set in the author’s trademark Birthright Universe, during the years of the Democracy, when humanity has spread so far into the galaxy Earth has become a backwater, Resnick’s second adventure (after The Fortress in Orion) about a crack team of black ops specialists sends the Dead Enders on a mission to break into the most secure prison in the universe and rescue a scientist before his mind can be broken and vital security secrets revealed. VERDICT With the tone of Ocean’s Eleven in space, and the devil-may-care attitude of Firefly, this story will have a wide-ranging appeal, from sf enthusiasts to those who enjoy a good caper story with an attractive gang of misfit characters who don’t stick to the usual rules.
Ruff, Matt. Lovecraft Country. Harper. Jan. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780062292063. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062292087. HORROR
African American Korean War veteran Atticus Turner’s car breaks down at the start of this novel set in the 1950s, leading to a series of degrading encounters with local bigots. It won’t be the last time a character narrowly avoids a lynching in Ruff’s novel of linked stories, which follows Atticus, his family, and friends as they tangle with a secret society. The title story involves Atticus, his Uncle George, and his friend Leticia as they travel to the New England town of Ardham (a tip of the hat to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham). When they arrive, they find that they were lured there by members of the Order of the Ancient Dawn who need Atticus for a bizarre summoning ritual. VERDICT These stories are at times genuinely spooky, with cursed dolls, portals to other worlds, and tentacled monsters that reach out of the dark. But the real horror is the reality of life for African Americans in the Jim Crow era of prejudice and injustice. Ruff (Bad Monkeys; The Mirage) has written a horror novel that sparks the imagination while also igniting the reader’s empathy.
Tregillis, Ian. The Rising. Orbit: Hachette. (Alchemy Wars, Bk. 2). Dec. 2015. 480p. ISBN 9780316248013. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316387309. SF
The last redoubt of old France in North America is in danger of falling to the forces of the Dutch and their mechanical men known as Clakkers. In The Mechanical, Clakker servitor Jax won his freedom from the alchemical binding that the Dutch use to control the metal men. He heads to the far north, where there is a rumored colony of free Clakkers. Meanwhile, former French spymaster Berenice has been exiled from New France, but she can’t stop seeking a way to stop the Clakkers and Captain Longchamps is left to defend the king against the approaching Dutch armies. VERDICT Tregillis (“The Milkweed Triptych” series; Something More Than Night) continues to thrill with his daring alt-history story of robots in the New World. While splitting off from Jax’s story might have slowed the book’s momentum, instead the author keeps up the tension by shifting the perspective among Jax, Berenice, and Longchamps as they all struggle to find a way to stop the Clakker army despite differing ultimate goals. Thrilling action scenes and breakneck pacing will leave readers desperate for the next volume.
QUOTABLE “Laurence was a small kid for his age, with hair the color of late-autumn leaves, a long chin, and arms like snail necks. His parent bought him clothes one and a half sizes too big, because they kept thinking he would hit his growth spurt any day, and they were trying to save money. So he was forever tripping over his too-long, too-baggy jeans, his hands vanishing inside his jersey sleeves. Even if Laurence had wanted to present an intimidating figure, his lack of visible hands and feet would have made it difficult.” All the Birds in the Sky
Allan, Jay. Enemy in the Dark. Harper Voyager. (Far Stars, Bk. 2). Dec. 2015. 448p. ISBN 9780062388926. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062388940. SF
The sequel to Shadow of Empire follows the swashbuckling crew of the Wolf’s Claw as they are drawn into the political and military intrigues of the Far Stars. With a steady fan base from the author’s self-published “Crimson Worlds” series, this space opera is likely to be in demand.
Berg, Carol. Ash and Silver. Roc: NAL. (Sanctuary, Bk. 2). Dec. 2015. 496p. ISBN 9780451417268. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101603116. FANTASY
The duology that began with Dust and Light concludes. Lucian de Remeni’s memory was erased by the Order, but when it returns, he finds himself in the middle of a deadly conspiracy that threatens the whole of Navronne.
Flint, Eric & Andrew Dennis. 1635: A Parcel of Rogues. Baen. (Ring of Fire, Bk. 20). Jan. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781476781099. $26. SF
The 20th volume in this popular, fast-paced alternative history series follows close on the heels of the events in The Baltic War, picking up with the protagonists in London, including sharpshooter Julie Sims. This time the 20th-century transplants are determined to prevent the rise of Oliver Cromwell and even have the support of King Charles.
Koch, Gini. Alien in Chief. DAW. (Alien Novels, Bk. 12). Dec. 2015. 560p. ISBN 9780756410070. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698161719. SF
Following the events of Universal Alien, the U.S. president has resigned owing to a mysterious illness, which leaves Vice President (and extraterrestrial) Jeff Martini in charge. He and wife Kitty are planning the inaugural party when the same illness that afflicted the president spreads to other world leaders.
Older, Daniel José. Midnight Taxi Tango. Roc: NAL. (Bone Street Rumba, Bk. 2). Jan. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780425275993. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698166813. FANTASY
Carlos Delacruz, last seen in Half-Resurrection Blues, straddles the line between life and death, which makes him the perfect agent for the Council of the Dead to tackle ghostly complications. In this outing, Carlos investigates a series of weird deaths in a Brooklyn park.
Collections & Anthologies
Zahn, Timothy. Pawn’s Gambit. Open Road. Jan. 2016. 342p. ISBN 9781504016223. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781504016209. SF
Zahn, most famous for his books set in the expanded Star Wars universe (Heir to the Empire), has also written a fine body of short fiction, some of the best of which are collected here. The 15 stories range from hard sf to fantasy to horror and include his Hugo Award–winning novella “Cascade Point,” about a psychological experiment on a starship. Other standouts include the opener (and earliest story) “The Price of Survival,” about an alien ship headed straight for our sun. Another fascinating sf winner is the title story, in which a man is abducted by aliens and forced to play board games with other species, although he is unaware that the aliens are judging humanity by his performance. Two fun Earth-bound tales are “Old-Boy Network,” a riveting story of psychics forced to work for trillionaires and “Hitmen—See Murderers,” about an unusual phone book. VERDICT For readers who only know Zahn from his Star Wars novels, this collection gives some nice examples of the author’s range.