Following the success of “NOS4A2” (2013) and “Heart-Shaped Box” (2007) Joe Hill returns with The Fireman (Morrow, $28.99), a splendid, fast-paced apocalyptic tale — already optioned for film. In the near future, people become infected with Dragonscale, a strange, contagious spore that creates arabesque designs on the body before the victim bursts into flames. After treating hundreds of the afflicted, school nurse Harper Grayson makes two discoveries: not everyone self-incinerates, and some people find an almost spiritual, liminal state called the Bright, where the flames are controlled by singing and joy. Grayson, who is pregnant, then comes down with the ailment, and is determined to live long enough to deliver her child. Her husband abandons her to become part of the Cremation Crew, a group out to destroy carriers. From this seemingly impossible bind, Grayson finds help in a mysterious man called the Fireman, who, as his name suggests, has figured out a way to contain the flames. Hill’s witty sense of fun permeates the novel’s larger themes of prejudice and redemption, making the book’s 700-plus pages a surprisingly quick read.
Joan Aiken (1924-2004) wrote more than 100 books, from gothic fantasy to literary fairy tales. A new collection of Aiken’s work, The People in the Castle (Small Beer, $24) is a lovely introduction to those who don’t know her work and a beautiful tribute for those who are already fans. Whimsical stories with a slightly dark undertone such as “A Room Full of Leaves” or “Humblepuppy” remind readers of adventures in Narnia or “James and the Giant Peach.” Ghosts abound in many of the stories, but they are neither bitter nor seeking revenge, and in an age of dark fairy tales and fantasy, it is lovely to encounter the strange without the gut-wrenching punch that often follows. The title story, for example, plays off an old fairy tale: A young doctor is warned to be kind to his new wife, a princess. One day he forgets this command and speaks harshly to her. She vanishes, and the doctor withdraws, refusing to see patients face to face, but curing them nonetheless. Twenty years pass. Then a woman knocks on his door, and this time the doctor steps out into the world. Through a cry of thank-yous from people he has healed, he finds himself in a cinema, where he is reunited with his love again: “A feeling of inexpressible happiness came over him.” But is this reunion real? As with many Aiken tales, this one ends with uncertainty, in a limbo where magic and reality mingle.
Hystopia (FSG, $26) by David Means is a fascinating novel within a novel. In an alternate universe, John F. Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts, and the Vietnam War has dragged on for years, leaving thousands of traumatized veterans. Detroit and parts of Flint have been destroyed by riot fires. A special Grid, or safe zone, is established for soldiers whose traumatic memories have been erased by a government organization called the Psych Corps. This twisted version of American history is the vision of Eugene Allen, who has returned from Vietnam to write a fictional tale at the center of “Hystopia.” In Allen’s interpretation, another vet named Rake goes on a killing spree and ends up kidnapping Meg (the real name of Allen’s sister). The narrative is told from many points of view — from that of the Psych Corp agents who are pursuing Rake and Meg, the other vets who help them, and then the editors, friends and family of Allen himself. Complex without being confusing, the novel weaves Eugene’s own battle with mental illness and his sister’s disappearance into a beautiful, haunting tale of loss.
Nancy Hightower, who reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post, is the author of “The Acolyte.”