Even in the best of circumstances, being a teenager can make you feel as if you’ve landed in a science-fiction novel, or several of them at once: Your high school is a post-apocalyptic dystopia, while your body has been taken over by some otherworldly organism. And your parents? Once you hit junior high, they show their true faces as alien overlords, dropped onto Earth to make your life miserable.
Indeed, sometimes it seems that the only thing worse than having parents is not having them, as three new works of fantasy and science fiction demonstrate. Throw in some inter-species warfare, magical adversaries or cross-dimensional abduction, and it’s enough to make any kid break out in zits.
1 George Carole is something of a prodigy. At 16, he’s making his way in the world as the respected house pianist for a vaudeville theater. And yet, in the first pages of Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe (Orbit; paperback, $13.99), George has abruptly quit to follow the traveling company of Heironomo Silenus: creepy puppets, an exotic chanteuse, an unlikely strongwoman and a musical act that no one in the audience can quite recall afterward, although its effect is profound: “It was as if the song had put a light in them, one that made their skin and clothing shine much brighter than before.” That song’s true significance doesn’t become clear until many pages — and nightmarish foes — later. Meanwhile, George is coming to understand his preternatural abilities. He’s also trying to establish whether the mysterious (and not particularly likable) Silenus is the father he never met. Although it invites comparisons to last year’s “The Night Circus,” “The Troupe” seems a lot more flesh-and-blood and, in the end, a good deal more satisfying.
2 Hannah Conquest, the heroine of Stephen Hunt’s Secrets of the Fire Sea (Tor, $27.99), never got to know her archaeologist parents. Instead, she was raised by Archbishop Alice Gray in a cathedral of atheism in Hermetica City on the island of Jago. Surrounded by an ocean of magma and fortified against predatory beasts on land, Hermetica is a city in decline, riddled with intrigue and unrest. After Gray falls victim to a gruesome killing, Hannah is consigned to work in the dangerous steam vaults that power the city, running punch cards through the “transaction engines” that serve as this world’s computers. Along with her ursine best friend, Chalph, the esteemed investigator Jethro Daunt and his steam-powered sidekick, Boxiron, Hannah is determined to learn who killed her guardian, what secret the guardian was hiding and what became of her mom and dad. Somewhat uneven in execution and pacing, this is the fourth novel in Hunt’s steampunkish Jackelian series, but it also stands alone as an intriguing story in its own right.
3 For London teen Everett Singh, life was already tricky, thanks to his parents’ breakup. But witnessing his dad’s kidnapping at the start of Planesrunner , by Ian McDonald (Pyr, $16.95), makes things even trickier. No one else, including his mom and the police, believes the kidnapping happened. Did Dr. Singh’s work as a theoretical physicist land him in serious trouble? If so, he’s lucky to have a son as smart as Everett. “Call it pattern recognition. Call it goalkeeper’s instinct. Call it weird quantum stuff,” but Everett has a knack for figuring out what the grown-ups are up to, plus the physics chops to puzzle out some major space-time mysteries. He is soon on the trail of his dad’s captors, which takes him to an alternate London where oil was never exploited, and where humans ventured not into space but into parallel universes. Falling in with the colorful crew of the airship Everness and its spunky young pilot, Everett hatches an ambitious plan to rescue his father. This snappy and clever novel — billed as Book One of the Everness series — is technically “young adult,” but it’s also great fun for the not-so-young.
Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer and editor.