Say “World Fantasy Awards,” and the uninitiated may imagine fans dressed in homemade chain mail and fake pointy ears. In fact, there’s not an elf, dwarf or fairy to be seen in this year’s nominees for best novel. (Past winners include Susanna Clarke for “ Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell ” and China Mieville for “ The City and the City .”) Instead, the judges are considering a hard-boiled crime novel, a retelling of a Senegalese folk tale, and stories set in an alternate Sudan and a Tang dynasty that never was. The winner, who will receive an H.P. Lovecraft bust, will be announced at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego on Sunday. American author Peter S. Beagle and Argentine author Angelica Gorodischer will receive lifetime achievement awards. Here’s a rundown of the six finalists for best novel:
●Usually, finding out that you’re heir to a kingdom is good news. For Yeine Darre, it’s a death sentence, handed down by the grandfather she believes murdered her mother, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit; paperback, $13.99), N.K. Jemisin’s first book in a planned trilogy. When not concealing her revulsion at the court’s excesses, which make Caligula look like Mr. Rogers, the erstwhile country bumpkin tries to find clues to her exiled mother’s past and avoid the other heirs, who carry on political debate the way the Borgias did. If the politics don’t kill you in the court of Sky, the religion certainly will. Atheism isn’t an option: The gods live in the palace, trapped in human form as punishment by the sun god. And the god of night is showing a dangerous interest in Yeine.
●Another young woman, Paama, has attracted otherworldly attention in Barbados writer Karen Lord’s delightful first novel, Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer; paperback, $16), which was inspired by a Senegalese folk tale. An accomplished cook with a glutton for a husband, Paama deals with him so cleverly that she attracts the attention of immortal spirits. They give her the Chaos Stick, which allows her to influence the fates of those around her. Unfortunately, the previous owner of the stick — an indigo-skinned immortal — wants it back. Filled with witty asides, trickster spiders, poets and one very wise woman, “Redemption in Indigo” is a rare find that you could hand to your child, your mother or your best friend.
●A young married couple trapped in an Alpine village must come to terms with unsettling events and their own past in British writer Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land (Doubleday, $23.95). “In its melding of the bizarre and the personal, this tour de force invites comparison to the work of Haruki Murakami and Ian McEwan,” Jeff VanderMeer wrote in his April review. After Jake and Zoe dig their way out of an avalanche, they return to find their hotel deserted, and all their attempts to leave fail. There are also inexplicable occurrences, like candles that never burn down. “The novel’s conclusion is both beautiful and devastating,” VanderMeer wrote, “with its insight into the lives of two decent, honest people.”
●Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc; paperback, $16) “isn’t quite historical fiction, nor is it quite fantasy,” Michael Dirda wrote in his 2010 review. “Most important of all, it is the novel you’ll want” for pleasure reading. The book, which The Post named one of the best of the year, is set in a reimagined Tang dynasty. A young man named Shen Tai is rewarded for his piety with 250 rare Heavenly Horses. Attempts on his life start later that day.
●The child of rape, Onyesonwu is an outcast in a post-apocalyptic Sudan where magic is an everyday occurrence. Nigerian American Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? (DAW, $24.95) was also a Nebula finalist. As Onyesonwu grows, she discovers that she can change shape, but her career as a sorceress is cut short as she takes on a mission to help her enslaved people. “In treating subjects such as the abuse of women, gender politics and racial genocide, Okorafor comes dangerously close to polemic,” Sara Sklaroff wrote in her Post review last year. “But she never crosses that line, opting instead for a story that is both wondrously magical and terribly realistic.”
●South African author Lauren Beukes has already won Britain’s Arthur C. Clarke Award for Zoo City (Angry Robot; paperback, $15). It’s a hard-boiled detective novel set in an alternate South Africa, where murderers, called “zoos,” are accompanied by spirit animals, embodiments of their guilt that give them magic powers. One of them, a woman named Zinzi, gets sucked into investigating the disappearance of a pop star and winds up unearthing a more sinister plot. “Beukes . . . is an enchanting writer,” Fiona Zublin wrote in her April review. But “one gets the sense that the author wasn’t sure how to end her story, so she brought in the machetes.”
Zipp regularly reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.