The quest for good books is eternal, and with the hundreds of books published each year, it's easy to overlook a few. This month we feature three notable titles that didn't get the spotlight when they hit shelves this year — but shouldn't be missed.
The narrator of Robin Sloan's Sourdough (MCD) is Lois, a programmer at a San Francisco start-up. Her company's goal is to make robotic arms so good at tasks that they replace workers. One day, sick of her daily meal of slurry — a liquid dinner meant to energize you without all those pesky things like carbs — she orders spicy soup and sourdough from a takeout place. For a time, the food, and her relationship with the two brothers who run the business, are a small kernel of joy. When visa problems cause the brothers to return to Europe, Lois is devastated. Their parting gift to her is a culture of their special sourdough starter and instructions to keep it alive by feeding it and playing it music. With email guidance from her friends, Lois begins to bake and soon ends up in a secret world that merges food and technology. Sloan's prose is sharp, and his critiques of capitalism, Silicon Valley and foodie culture are finely cut.
Karin Tidbeck's Amatka (Vintage) starts as so much dystopian fiction does: bleak, gray, disaffected. Vanja, a government worker, travels from Essre to a sister colony called Amatka to do consumer research for hygiene products. Her introduction to her new city and roommates is slow and heavy with foreboding, and it is here that we learn what makes this world so. People must engage in a ritual where they label the objects around them; if not, the fabric of reality could come apart. Vanja, seemingly resigned to her dull life, finds her curiosity awakened in Amatka as she comes to love and care for the people around her. She soon learns about a threat to the colony, and her investigation and newfound individualism could destroy everything. Tidbeck excels in drawing small details that send a chill up the spine — and turn this dystopian novel into a fine piece of horror-weird fiction.
After the Flare , by Deji Bryce Olukotun (The Unnamed Press), starts as hard science fiction but develops into something more mythical. The novel follows Kwesi Bracket, one of the head engineers of the Nigerian space program. Kwesi has a lot to prove after a solar flare scrambled the world order, with South America and Africa the only places with any sort of sustained cyber prowess and thousands of satellites about to plummet to Earth. He lost his wife and his job at NASA, and his daughter is at Yale University, which has been relocated to the Caribbean. Bracket is responsible for making sure the space program can complete its mission: rescuing a group of astronauts trapped on an international space station plummeting to Earth. Beyond the technological difficulties, Bracket must navigate a political conspiracy, a rebranded Boko Haram and the emergence of a mysterious and dangerous creature. Though billed as a sequel to the 2014 novel "Nigerians in Space," the book stands on its own for new readers.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post.