In “Saturn Run” (Putnam, $28), best-selling author John Sandford has teamed with photographer and writer Ctein to create a thoroughly engaging novel about first contact. The year is 2066, and an alien ship is detected slowly approaching one of Saturn’s rings. The Americans notice the ship, but it will be a race with the Chinese to see who reaches Saturn — and the errant vessel — first. The president handpicks her core team — a power-plant engineer, a news reporter, a Navy captain and a millionaire playboy who is quite a bit more than he pretends to be. En route, the mission must face down some alarming and suspense-filled technical troubles before making a surprising discovery. Sandford and Ctein conjure up some delightful chemistry among these characters, making their journey as harrowing as it is entertaining. Here is a prime example of the principle that in a sci-fi novel about space travel, half the fun is in getting to the destination.
Zen Cho’s first novel, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (Ace, $26.95), is a winning combination of magic and thrill set in an alternative version of Regency England. The country is guarded, in part, by magicians of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, who maintain magic throughout the kingdom. The society’s newest “Sorcerer Royal” is a freed slave named Zacharias Wythe. He must take on the country’s mounting problem: the slow disappearance of magic. To figure out why and how to stop it, Wythe teams with Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of extraordinary but mysterious magical ability. Together, they begin to uncover a terrible secret while also tackling larger demons of race and class that threaten to tear their country apart.
Narrated by a young woman seeking revenge, Seth Dickinson’s first novel, “The Traitor Baru Cormorant ” (Tor, $25.99), is a fascinating tale of political intrigue and national unrest. Baru Cormorant is just a girl when the Empire of Masks conquers her island. The new rulers create roads and better sanitation, but their strong-fisted policies erode the country’s economy and punish the people cruelly if they don’t adhere to a rigid code of sexual conduct. Baru decides that the only way to fight such oppression is to infiltrate the government. But just how brutal will she have to become to undermine an empire? Dickinson moves the plot steadily along as he explores issues of sexual oppression and colonial power.
Nancy Hightower, who reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post, is the author of “The Acolyte.”