New science fiction and fantasy novels

By Sara Sklaroff
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A guide to new works of speculative fiction.

Readers of science fiction and fantasy are accustomed to the unexpected and improbable. But being asked to believe that a book about mer-people could actually be good? That's ridiculous.

And yet Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters (Del Rey; paperback, $15) is a thoughtful and wonderfully strange tale of, yes, mer-people, or "deepsmen." Don't expect Ariel from "The Little Mermaid"; there's nothing pretty about these water dwellers, with their muscular tails, sharp teeth and savage tribalism. "In Great Waters" offers an alternative history of the European ruling families. After the deepsmen attack medieval Venice, the "landsmen" royals are forced to intermarry with them. A few centuries later, inbreeding among this new line results in a shortage of able heirs. Non-royal landsmen are not allowed to mate with the sea dwellers; any children of these unions -- considered a threat to the crown -- are burned alive. But when one such child is cast out from the ocean by his mother, he is found by Englishmen who have their eyes on the throne. They give him a suitably kingly name -- Henry -- and raise him in seclusion. Meanwhile, Princess Anne is growing up with little thought to succession; she is a younger daughter of the queen of England and is believed to be simple-minded, a misperception she encourages to deflect scrutiny and sidestep court intrigue. Like Henry, she is isolated and just plain weird: Her face sometimes glows blue, a trait inherited from her sea-living forebears. Emotionally stunted, Anne and Henry nevertheless learn to navigate the sink-or-swim world they have inherited. Whitfield, who is also the author of a werewolf novel, "Benighted," grants them a melancholy nobility that is at once animalistic and terribly human.

In his first novel, The Kingdom of Ohio (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, $24.95), Matthew Flaming also recasts history, but his period is the dawn of the electric age, the early days of the 20th century. Peter Force has traveled from Idaho to New York City, where he finds work digging tunnels for the new subway system. He meets Cheri-Anne Toledo, a distressed damsel who claims to have been transported from another time and place, though not such remote ones: about six years earlier in the Kingdom of Ohio, a forgotten bit of American territory that had been ruled by her father. Intrigued and attracted, Force teams up with Toledo as she confronts Nikola Tesla -- allegedly the author of the experiment that sent her into the future -- and is threatened by J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison. Force isn't sure whether Toledo is mentally ill, up to something nefarious or the victim of a dangerous new technology. But he is convinced that something strange is going on and that she needs his help. Flaming tells his story with a dash of steampunk flair, hurtling along toward a clever, even shocking ending.

Makers (Tor, $24.99), a new novel from Cory Doctorow, is also concerned with technology's pleasures and terrors, this time in the nearish future. Suzanne Church, a Silicon Valley tech-biz journalist, travels to an abandoned Florida shopping mall to "embed" with Lester and Perry, one of many teams of inventors around the country bankrolled by Kodacell (a newly merged Kodak and Duracell). While previously they were "making cool stuff" from repurposed junk (including lots of unsold Boogie Woogie Elmos) and marketing it to collectors, Kodacell thinks the two can create something with mass appeal. Soon they're seeing a huge profit on their wildly popular Kitchen Gnome, a redesigned garden ornament that can recognize each member of a household and record and deliver messages among them. Church quits her newspaper job and starts a blog covering the "New Work" revolution, making a name for herself and becoming a part of the story, too. Doctorow, a co-editor of the blog Boing Boing and the author of the young adult novel "Little Brother," has an ear for geek-talk and corporate-speak ("We will brute-force the problem-space of capitalism in the twenty-first century," announces the Kodacell chief executive), plus a Carl Hiaasen-like sense of caper. The result is a novel heavily loaded with contemporary techland junk: swell geekery such as radio-frequency ID gadgets and rapid prototyping machines, weight-loss technology that leaves people svelte but in need of thousands of calories a day, Disney thugs, a couple of hot romances and a mechanical computing device that runs on Barbie and GI Joe heads. If the story itself runs a bit lean by the end of its 400-plus pages, well, there's still plenty of great detail to chew on.

Sklaroff is the editorial director of Diabetes Forecast.

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