In China Miéville’s This Census-Taker (Del Rey, $24), a young boy claims his father has killed his mother. The father says he and his wife had an argument, and then his wife ran away. How does a young boy exist in a Kafka-like existence where both versions of reality might be true? Living alone with his father in a remote hilltop house, the boy tries to flee to the village below where, it seems, a surreal magic governs the land. The villagers, while not trusting the father, can’t help him. Some can’t even physically leave the village. Soon the boy realizes he can’t leave his hill to flee to the town. However, one day a census taker arrives, and he is very interested in the boy’s story. More importantly, he can offer the boy a way to escape, but at what cost? Told in retrospect by the boy, who is now a census taker, this sparse, surreal novel brilliantly shows the gradual unfolding of piecemeal memories following a trauma.
Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk (TOR, $25.99) is set 62,000 years into a human-less future, where anthropomorphic animals rule the galaxy. There is no record of human existence, and while the different species get along relatively well, the Fant, an elephant-like hybrid, are completely shunned and exiled to live on a rainy planet called Barsk. While labeled less intelligent and “dirty,” the Fant nonetheless are the only species to produce a drug that allows clairvoyants known as Speakers to commune with the dead. When the planet is threatened with invasion and annihilation by the galaxy Senate, Jorl, a Fant Speaker, must race to save it by communing with ancient beings who hold even darker truths. Suspenseful and emotionally engaging, “Barsk” brings readers into a fascinating speculative world.
The Core of the Sun (Grove/Black Cat; paperback, $16) by Johanna Sinisalo presents a chilling tale reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In an alternative history set in Finland, drugs and alcohol are banned; instead chili peppers are eaten to produce trancelike highs. Women are divided into two classes: the eloi, who are bred for sex and childbearing; and morlocks, who are deemed unfit for such service are sterilized and branded as second-class citizens. Vanna and her sister are trained as eloi, but when Manna disappears, Vanna must piece together what happened to her. Because she has few rights of her own, Vanna must enlist the help of Jare, a childhood friend who now belongs to a hippie cult known for growing the hottest of peppers, the Core of the Sun. Told through letters, diary entries, dictionary definitions and historical documents, the novel builds a fascinating story centered on gender politics.
Nancy Hightower, who reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post, is the author of “The Acolyte.”