Some have called Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals (Ecco) prescient. The book’s plot indeed dovetails eerily with some recent events — Brexit, terrorism — but in this smartly written dystopian novel, things are even worse than the headlines. It’s 2052 and England is in political and economic upheaval; London is being threatened by suicide cults called Neuters, bent on destroying all animals and then killing themselves. Within this crazed culture, Cuthbert Handley emerges — an old homeless addict who believes that he possesses the Wonderments, a magical ability he inherited from his grandmother to communicate with animals. Tortured by an abusive past and the loss of his brother, Cuthbert believes that his redemption can be found by freeing the animals in the London Zoo, which will then lead him to his brother. But can he outwit his psychiatrist, the police and the suicide cults trying to get to the animals first? Broun’s debut will have readers cheering for Cuthbert even as they question the man’s sanity.
Alexandra Oliva’s apocalyptic thriller The Last One (Ballantine) poses another deeply relevant question: How is reality created and perpetuated by the media? A woman called Zoo is a contestant on “Into the Dark,” a reality survival show where 12 people are isolated in the woods and compete against each other in a series of challenges. The situations and props they encounter in their quests are extraordinarily grotesque, ranging from fake boulders to fake corpses. While on their solo challenges, a deadly virus has begun to wipe out the Earth’s population, thrusting Zoo into a deadly and surreal landscape that she assumes is part of the show. When she encounters survivors of the plague, she also assumes are they are actors until she realizes there is more than a grand prize at stake — it’s her own life. Oliva brilliantly scrutinizes the recorded (and heavily revised) narratives we believe, and the last 100 pages will have the reader constantly guessing just what Zoo is capable of doing to find her way back home.
The lives of shape-shifters and humans are bound in haunting, dangerous ways in Indra Das’s lush The Devourers (Del Rey). Cyrah is a strong, resourceful Muslim woman who is raped by Fenrir, a shape-shifter that wishes to create life the way humans do (instead of devouring humans, as is their custom). Cyrah, refusing to give Fenrir’s rhetoric any validation, forms an alliance with another shape-shifter as she relentlessly pursues Fenrir to confront him for his crime. The tale of these three broken souls is translated by professor Alok Mukherjee at the request of a beautiful stranger, whose life is bound to Cyrah and Fenrir’s. Das’s lyrical tale explores difficult subjects — rape and sexual identity among them — without descending to gratuitous violence or cliche.
Nancy Hightower is the author of “The Acolyte.”