Joe M. McDermott’s “ The Fortress at the End of Time ” (Tor) tells the story of an isolated man at the end of the galaxy. The novel — a work of military hard science fiction — is set in a future when humanity has spread across space using ansible and clone technology. In this new world, a clone can achieve a better post and command based on the accomplishments of its human counterpart. Our narrator is Ronaldo Aldo, a clone who has been shipped to the Citadel, a backwater station, where he’s on the lookout for a mysterious enemy’s return to human space. Aldo has memories of luxuries and joys he has never actually experienced, making his job all the more tragic. He desperately wants to improve his station. At first he tries to work within the military system to improve his lot, but as he sees others give in to corruption and complacency and his own efforts squandered, he forms a desperate plan for escape. McDermott manages to paint a vivid world in a few pages, but the real star is his unreliable narrator, a man who is well-intentioned but whose judgment is easily clouded.
As Aldo works to manipulate the system he’s in, the protagonist in Katherine Arden’s “ The Bear and the Nightingale ” (Del Rey) is the system, in an odd, magical sort of way. The setting is medieval Russia, and Vasya is one of the few who can see the spirits and creatures who protect her town and its people. But magic is easily misunderstood, and Vasya — a wild child whose mother died in childbirth — finds herself at odds with her stepmother and a handsome, ambitious priest who seek to rid the village of demons just as Vasya tries to keep the old magical protections in place. Arden’s debut novel has the cadence of a beautiful fairy tale but is darker and more lyrical. The novel is deceptively simple, but its characters and plot are sophisticated and complex. Arden explores what happens when fear and ignorance whip people into a furor, and how society can be persuaded to act against its own interests so easily. It’s a rather apt tale for our times.
Ellen Klages deftly weaves science, magic and religion in “ Passing Strange ” (Tor), a historical fantasy with a strong vein of pulp. Here the characters use their special skills to explore and escape a quickly modernizing world. Set in 1940s San Francisco, the book focuses on a group of queer women trying to thrive in the vibrant city without being caught for their illegal predilections. The women are artists, scientists and lawyers, yet must resort to unsavory means to get by: marrying a man for cover; performing at bars for tourists who gawk at lesbians and cross-dressers; using art to portray helpless and tantalizing women on magazine covers. There are few occasions of magic and science, and fewer explanations, but Klages makes up for that with her descriptions of a city she clearly loves, and for a moving and genuine love story between two talented women.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post. You can see all the books she’s reading, for this column or otherwise, on Goodreads.