One thing I love so much about the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres is how they shine a light on the present day—personal, cultural, and global—and reflect it back to us like a mirror. And, despite what some people might think, these genres don’t just explore the potential perils found in dystopian stories, but also the potential greatness of what we might accomplish if we embrace it. I kept that in mind when choosing my most anticipated novels of Spring 2021. There’s a vision in each of them… whether it be personal or societal, horrifying or fantastical. I hope these speculative novels provide clarity and perspective in these unprecedented times.
I’m a sucker for weird Westerns. There, I said it. And who better to write one than the queen of Southern Gothic fantasy? A crossover alternate-history thriller, THE RUSSIAN CAGE is the next story in Harris’s Gunnie Rose series, and it gives readers of the previous novels more of what they loved: a little supernatural, a little romance, and a protagonist who embodies the term “badass heroine.” New readers won’t have any problem entering this fantastical world, though, as this is a stand-alone novel. Highly recommended for fans of V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic books
#1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Charlaine Harris is at her best in this alternate history of the United States where magic is an acknowledged but despised power in this third installment of the Gunnie Rose series.
Picking up right where A Longer Fall left off, this thrilling third installment follows Lizbeth Rose as she takes on one of her most dangerous missions yet: rescuing her estranged partner, Prince Eli, from the Holy Russian Empire. Once in San Diego, Lizbeth is going to have to rely upon her sister Felicia, and her growing Grigori powers to navigate her way through this strange new world of royalty and deception in order to get Eli freed from jail where he’s being held for murder.
Russian Cage continues to ramp up the momentum with more of everything Harris’ readers adore her for with romance, intrigue, and a deep dive into the mysterious Holy Russian Empire.
It’s so rare to find a novel that hits every single theme I love in speculative fiction, but this one manages it. I also love it when I find an author whose IRL accomplishments perfectly accompany their writing, and that’s S. B. Divya (an algorithm and data-science engineer). But back to the book: my gateway into spec fic was cyberpunk-y technothrillers like NEUROMANCER and DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, and MACHINEHOOD fits right in with those classics. It’s a story about a society very much like our own, in which a labor conflict is brewing between humans and AI. There are prescient critiques of the corruption of capitalism and Big Pharma and a debate about humanity and what rights we should afford to those who aren’t human. In the author’s own words, MACHINEHOOD “begins with a small act of terrorism that grows into a period of global upheaval, [creating] a new way of framing the conflict between human beings and intelligent machines.”
From the Hugo Award nominee S.B. Divya, Zero Dark Thirty meets The Social Network in this science fiction thriller about artificial intelligence, sentience, and labor rights in a near future dominated by the gig economy.
Welga Ramirez, executive bodyguard and ex-special forces, is about to retire early when her client is killed in front of her. It’s 2095 and people don’t usually die from violence. Humanity is entirely dependent on pills that not only help them stay alive, but allow them to compete with artificial intelligence in an increasingly competitive gig economy. Daily doses protect against designer diseases, flow enhances focus, zips and buffs enhance physical strength and speed, and juvers speed the healing process.
All that changes when Welga’s client is killed by The Machinehood, a new and mysterious terrorist group that has simultaneously attacked several major pill funders. The Machinehood operatives seem to be part human, part machine, something the world has never seen. They issue an ultimatum: stop all pill production in one week.
Global panic ensues as pill production slows and many become ill. Thousands destroy their bots in fear of a strong AI takeover. But the US government believes the Machinehood is a cover for an old enemy. One that Welga is uniquely qualified to fight.
Welga, determined to take down the Machinehood, is pulled back into intelligence work by the government that betrayed her. But who are the Machinehood and what do they really want?
A thrilling and thought-provoking novel that asks: if we won’t see machines as human, will we instead see humans as machines?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recommended A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE, the first book in Arkady Martine’s outstanding space opera series, to casual or new speculative fiction readers. It’s a prime example of what hard(ish) sci-fi is capable of: the creation of a perfectly believable world in another solar system, a deep exploration of what I call “gray” characters—those neither good nor evil but somewhere in between—and a riveting look at one potential future for the biotech in our own reality. Martine somehow manages to plumb the depths of the personal, such as the definition of self and the flaws of memory, while nearly perfectly juxtaposing those issues with their societal counterparts, like city planning, fashion, and what a revolution really looks like. I cannot recommend this book enough, not just for sci-fi readers but for anyone who loves character-driven dramas.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I have an obsession (an unhealthy one, maybe) with horror and the bizarre, fun, and sometimes disturbing world of dating culture. So when I read the description of A HOUSE AT THE BOTTOM OF A LAKE, the next book from epic horror writer Josh Malerman (the author of BIRD BOX, the film of which became an instant cult classic), and it said “the date of a lifetime becomes a maddening exploration of the depths of the heart,” I knew it would land at the top of my list.
I have never related more strongly to a robot than I did to Murderbot, the socially awkward AI at the heart of Wells’s Murderbot Diaries novels. Murderbot is endearingly awkward and loyal, with a sense of humor that’s as dry as a bone and a totally relatable obsession with trash TV (yes, they still have trash TV in the far future). It kind of reminds me of Abed from Community, to give some perspective. The series is a deep-space drama with fast-paced action that’ll keep you engaged and, again, the most delightful AI to keep you laughing. FUGITIVE TELEMETRY is the next installment, but it stands alone, so new readers can easily enter Murderbot’s world.
Lovers of epic fantasy have long searched for their next breakout series now that the TV version of Game of Thrones has finished and the book series is on indefinite hiatus—so when the godfather of the genre, Brandon Sanderson, tells you that a new book is an “excellent fantasy debut,” you read it. That’s exactly what happened with THE KINGDOM OF LIARS, the first installment in Nick Martell’s Legend of the Mercenary King series. The second book is nothing short of a master class in immersive worldbuilding and multiperspective storytelling (à la A Song of Ice and Fire). Epic fantasy fans need to grab it ASAP.
The Hollows is gripped in unrest and on the brink of civil war as an insurgency of anarchists rise, and brother and sister vie for the throne in the second novel in the critically hailed Legacy of the Mercenary King series which Brandon Sanderson called “excellent.”
Michael Kingman thought he was going to die by the executioner’s axe, forever labeled as a traitor. Still alive, and under the protection of the Orbis Mercenary company, Michael and his family and friends are deeply involved in the seemingly rival conspiracies that are tearing The Hollows apart. With the death of the King, both the Corrupt Prince and his sister Serena are vying for the throne, while the Rebel Emperor is spreading lies amongst the people, and all of them want Michael dead. This is a story of betrayal, murder, and rebellion, and in this direct sequel to the debut novel The Kingdom of Liars, also some hope for justice.
For readers who love the intrigue and widening scope of epic fantasy like Sanderson’s Mistborn and Week’s The Black Prism, you will find your next must-read fantasy series.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a pioneer in genre-bending. From THE REMAINS OF THE DAY to NEVER LET ME GO, his complex and often melancholic characters drive his exceptional stories, regardless of setting and time. It’s been a while since he’s graced us with a new book, so KLARA AND THE SUN is at the top of my TBR list. From the book’s description, I have to wonder how much Ishiguro loves Toy Story. The narrator is an “Artificial Friend” who watches passersby and customers from her place in a toy store. In addition to what I suspect will be an incredible protagonist, the plot itself sounds like a deep and poignant exploration of being chosen, of finding love. Will I cry as much as I did during Wall-E? We’ll see.
For fans of genre-bending fiction, this one combines the classic extramarital affair trope with the weird world of clones and AI.
If you want a dose of speculative Gothic fiction mixed with religious cults, this is a must-read.
Space Westerns? Yes, please! Pick this one up if you’re already missing The Mandalorian.
Image credit: iStock / Grandfailure