R.F. Kuang’s debut novel, The Poppy War (Harper Voyager), is a study in every kind of violence. The humor is a bitter laugh, the lessons bruising. The first in a planned trilogy, it spans several years in the life of Rin, a dark-skinned orphan studying in secret so she can test into the most elite military academy in the empire and thereby escape an unwanted marriage. Against all odds, Rin aces the test but soon realizes that her poverty, gender and skin color mark her as a target to her privileged classmates. She learns she has an incredible power that she can harness, but only if she gets high. The book starts as an epic bildungsroman, and just when you think it can’t get any darker, it does. Its Chinese influences and female character will garner comparisons to Mulan, but that’s a cheap thread. Kuang pulls from East Asian history, including the brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese war, to weave a wholly unique experience.
What Should Be Wild (Harper), by Julia Fine, is a modern fairy tale from the perspective of a damsel in distress who doesn’t always realize she’s in distress. Maisie was born with the power to kill or resurrect any living thing she touches. After she is born — at the cost of her mother’s life — her scientist-father squires her away to a faraway house. There, she grows up in the company of an old woman and a dog, as her father studies her and the curse that has afflicted all the women in her family. Maisie’s friendly relationship with death and her isolation gives her a dreamy, optimistic personality, but her lack of agency begins to wear on her. One day, Maisie’s father disappears, and in search of him, she ventures from home for the first time. The men around Maisie flit around her in a vain effort to protect her from herself and others, but ultimately, Maisie must grapple with the implications of her powers on her own. Like Maisie, Fine’s story is a barely restrained, careful musing on female desire, loneliness and hereditary inheritances.
Bethany C. Morrow’s Mem (The Unnamed Press) is about a world where it’s possible to extract a memory from a person and use it to create a living, breathing human copy. Most of these copies can act out only the memory from which they were born, but not Dolores Extract No. 1. This Mem, who calls herself Elsie, is the only Mem in history to become sentient. Elsie, forever a 19-year-old Dolores, has lived on her own for years. But one day, she is suddenly recalled back to the Vault where she was produced. There, Elsie studies herself and memory — and their human sources. Under the threat of being reprinted, Elsie and the people who love her grapple with whether she is human, or something more. Mem is a short, satisfying work made poignant by Elsie’s voice. The story unfolds as Elsie learns more about herself and the original Dolores. More important, Elsie holds up a mirror to her human counterparts, and the reader as well.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post.