Neal Stephenson has teamed up with novelist Nicole Galland to create “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. ” (Morrow), a sprawling mix of science fiction and fantasy. In this historical novel, linguist Melisande Stokes has a chance meeting with a handsome military intelligence officer named Tristan Lyons, who offers her a chance to escape a smug supervisor at Harvard for a research project on magic and its disappearance. Quickly the stakes rise, as Melisande and her friends stumble upon warring politics, ambitions and agendas. Clocking in at over 700 pages, the book is entirely composed of correspondence: letters, chat logs and redacted government documents. This unusual format allows the authors to create distinct voices for endearing characters, defining them without getting bogged down in backstory, and making more room to explore relationships and describe, in painstaking detail, the “science” of magic and time travel. Better yet, Melisande trades one bureaucracy for another to prescient and hilarious effect. There’s a lot going on here — stylistic flourishes, comedic pratfalls, romance and science — but it’s handled deftly. Those familiar with Stephenson will recognize his humor and ideas, while Galland (author of “Stepdog,” “Crossed,” “Revenge of the Rose” and others) brings a fresh and irresistible voice to this ambitious novel.
Nicky Drayden’s debut novel “The Prey of Gods” (Harper Voyager) is delightfully unlike most science fiction out there. Drayden mixes folklore, urban fantasy and science fiction in her futuristic South Africa to dazzling effect. In this entertaining tale, a new drug called Godspeed hits the street. It causes users to hallucinate, to see themselves as animal creatures; sometimes it draws out peculiar powers. Teenage Muzi, grappling with his sexuality and his heritage, finds that the drug lets him manipulate people. His path, and that of his personal AI bot, crosses that of a pop star at the pinnacle of her career, a young politician who dreams of stardom and a little girl from a poor village learning to control her awesome power. Together, they must stop a goddess hungry for world domination. The plot can get a bit (too) twisty and complex — memories! gods! AI revolutions! But it showcases characters not often seen in popular fiction and, amid the fast-paced action, touches on relevant race and class issues. Ultimately, it’s a book about coming to terms with your true self.
In “The Refrigerator Monologues” (Saga) Catherynne M. Valente explores the old trope of women in comics who are abused and/or killed in service of a male-driven plot. In this novella, the superhero girlfriend gets to tell her own version of events in the afterlife. Through six entertaining if sometimes heavy-handed narratives, the women’s voices are strong: bitter and full of pain, yet steel-tipped in sarcasm and humor. Valente’s universe is a thinly veiled play on some of the most famous love interests in comics. Even non-comic readers will be able to pinpoint faux-Jean Grey or not-quite Harley Quinn. The women here gather in “Deadtown” as part of the “Hell Hath Club” and tell their stories to each other Alcoholics Anonymous-style. It’s not clear whether doing so is a form of entertainment in an afterlife that’s only a duller version of reality or as a way of absolution.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post.