In The Unfinished World (Liveright; paperback, $15.95), Amber Sparks uses the surreal and fantastic in stunning, surprising ways. Like Carola Dibbell’s “The Only Ones” and Emily Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” the book is a masterful work of speculative fiction. One particularly powerful tale, “The Janitor in Space,” is a lyrical exploration of a woman’s choice to live on a space station as penance for past sins. Sparks experiments with form in “The Logic of the Loaded Heart,” a story presented as word problems. Familial relationships are strained in “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” when one twin plans to start dating, the other to start murdering. The titular — and longest — story focuses on a young boy named Set growing up during World War I with an eccentric, dysfunctional family who wonders if the boy has a soul. Ranging from flash fiction to longer pieces, Sparks’s stories beautifully explore how there are “never enough endings” for anyone — or that perhaps, in fact, one’s life is always unfinished.
Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky (TOR, $25.99) gives us a boy-meets-girl story, except that the girl (Patricia) is a witch and the boy (Laurence) is a computer genius. Their lives are complicated: They have to escape not only sadistic school bullies but also a determined assassin. Patricia and Laurence possess the knowledge and power to destroy the world through science and magic (hence the assassin’s determination to get them). The pair must get help from old allies of their youth — a long-lost computer and a great tree — to stem the tide of destruction brought on by an apocalyptic event known as The Unraveling. A fairy tale and an adventure rolled into one, “All the Birds in the Sky” is a captivating novel that shows how science and magic can be two sides of the same coin.
A family saga tinged with magical realism, Jason Gurley’s Eleanor (Crown, $26) tells the story of three women and the men who love them. The novel begins in 1962, when pregnant Eleanor walks into the sea and doesn’t return. Her daughter Agnes grows up to become a mother to twins, Esmerelda and Eleanor, but the family is fractured by a terrible accident. Agnes falls deep into alcoholism, while Eleanor finds herself chaotically pulled through a magical door that sends her into a pastoral world governed by The Keeper. But even that world is quickly being dismantled as Eleanor pieces together her family’s tragic legacy. This violent rift between past and present affords each woman the chance to offer her own kind of repentance and forgiveness and redemption. In the end, “Eleanor” shows that one never knows what can happen when the reset button is pushed.
Nancy Hightower, who reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post, is the author of “The Acolyte.”
At 1 p.m. on Jan. 30, Amber Sparks will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.