By Sara Sklaroff
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; C04
Even if you prefer your reading to be of the escapist variety, you probably aren't dreaming about escaping to a world on the verge of (or recovering from) an apocalypse. And yet the most interesting things seem to happen in these sorts of places -- at least in science fiction.
1 The London of China Miéville's new novel, Kraken (Del Rey, $26), is no town for tourists. Or bystanders. When a giant squid specimen mysteriously disappears, Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre, is forced to jump into the thick of a potentially world-shattering battle. At about 28 feet long and preserved in gallons of formaldehyde, the architeuthis dux could hardly have been carried out the museum's front door. Billy spends most of the book trying to figure out what really happened: Who stole the massive mollusk, how did they do it, and for what purpose? Teamed up with an excommunicated member of the Congregation of God Kraken (one of many alternative sects predicting that the end is nigh), he meets magical underworlders who ply their knacks in a London he'd no idea existed. While Miéville is a bit prone to cephalopodan silliness (does he really have to call it a "squidnapping"?), it's great fun to watch the pleasure he takes in wordsmithing. At more than 500 pages, "Kraken" is not a particularly disciplined work, but it's still an entertaining twist on this venerable tentacled sci-fi trope (think Jules Verne, Lovecraft, even "Pirates of the Caribbean").
2 In the post-apocalyptic Africa of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death (DAW, $24.95), magic is nearly a normal occurrence -- minor juju and major mojo alike. Weaponized rape and the mutilation of girls are almost as commonplace. Onyesonwu (the translation of her name forms the title of the book) is herself the product of rape, made evident by her distinctive complexion and hair, a mix of the region's dominant race (the Nuru) and the enslaved one (the Okeke) that automatically classes her an outcast. As she matures, Onyesonwu learns that she is able to shape-shift into animal forms and even draw back the spirits of the recently dead. She begins formal training in sorcery but cuts it short in favor of a mission that will ultimately rewrite the future of the Okeke people. In treating subjects such as the abuse of women, gender politics and racial genocide, Okorafor comes dangerously close to polemic. But she never crosses that line, opting instead for a story that is both wondrously magical and terribly realistic.
3 Istanbul is a city encrusted with history, where cultures have mingled and tangled for centuries. In The Dervish House (Pyr, $26), Ian McDonald adds a few more ingredients to this urban stew: jinn, animal robots and nanotech-wielding religious terrorists. It's 2027, and Turkey has finally made its way into the European Union. Rogue commodities traders are planning a daring financial coup. Young inventor-entrepreneurs pursue seed money for a game-changing bit of technology. An antiquarian pursues what may be her greatest find ever: a corpse mummified in honey and said to have magical powers. Meanwhile, a local man begins having bizarre religious visions that seem to have come from nowhere. McDonald traces these interlocking story lines through the course of a week that is bookended by a tram bombing and a crucial soccer match. Written with care and intelligence, "The Dervish House" whirls along at a heady pace but still manages to give a deep sense of another place that would be great to visit -- so long as you didn't have to live there.
Sklaroff is the editorial director of Diabetes Forecast.