I studied military history in grad school, and in the years since, I’ve been keenly aware of how warfare is imagined in science fiction and fantasy. There are some books, like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, that have some pretty good portrayals that go beyond just arming characters with guns and pointing them toward the nearest hostile aliens.
As such, I’ve been reading R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War (which came out in May), with interest. The basic premise of the book can be described as a sort of Ender’s Game or Harry Potter meets Sun Tzu, at least to begin with. In it, a war orphan named Rin is sent off to a prestigious military academy, and later serves in a specialized unit as her country is invaded. Kuang — an International History graduate from Georgetown University, with a specialty in Chinese military strategy who’s bound for Cambridge to begin her PhD in Chinese Studies next year — has a keen grasp of history and puts it to work in this book, drawing on real-world inspiration from engagements and genocide that’s occurred throughout Asian history. It’s a good novel, and it sounds as though she’ll continue to reimagine military history through the lens of her fictional world in future installments.
But while we wait, there are a number of other books hitting bookstores in August. Here are 14 that caught our eyes.
Temper by Nicky Drayden
After her intriguing debut Prey of Gods, which blended science fiction and fantasy in a futuristic South Africa, Nicky Drayden is shifting genres again to something a bit more horror-oriented. Auben is spirited and popular, but he’s been branded with six different vices on his arms, while his twin brother Kasim only has one — which can make all the difference for a successful future. Their relationship is strained because of their diverging paths, and Auben soon begins hearing demonic voices, encouraging him to do horrible things. To save themselves and their society, the two must figure out how to defeat their own inner demons. Publishers Weekly gave the book a coveted star rating, calling the book “a harrowing and impressive tale of twisted prophecy, identity, and cataclysmic change.”
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California lays out a mock government study that imagines the aftermath of a 2020 nuclear attack by North Korea on the United States that has killed 1.4 million people. Lewis draws on the real-world technology and politics of the North Korean situation, telling Vice Motherboard that he stayed as close to reality as possible while writing the novel.
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah
In the future, Earth has been devastated by nuclear war and epidemics that have left the human population at low levels. Women have become a commodity to help repopulate society, forced to take multiple husbands and have as many children as possible. In Green City, the capital of the Sub-West Asia Region (formerly Pakistan and Iran), a group of women form their own rebelling collective — the Panah — where they avoid sex and offer up something different: comfort and nonsexual intimacy to the high-ranking men of society. But when one of the rebels winds up in a hospital, both the Panah and the elites of Green City will find themselves in peril. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred rating, and compared it favorably to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells
I’ve raved about Martha Wells’ Murderbot novella All Systems Red, and its sequel, Artificial Condition was quite good as well. That first installment has earned considerable accolades — including Hugo and Nebula Award nominations — and the series continues with a third installment, Rogue Protocol. In it, authorities are beginning to ask where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit — Murderbot — ended up, something that the anti-social robot really doesn’t want to deal with. A fourth novella, Exit Strategy, is due out in October, and Tor recently announced that Wells will write a Murderbot novel as well.
Read an excerpt.
Stars Uncharted by S.K. Dunstall
While on a mission, cargo runner Captain Hammond Roystan makes a life-changing discovery: a long-lost exploration ship named the Hassim, which contains records of the worlds that it discovered. With a rag-tag crew with questionable histories, Roystan sets off to locate one particular infamous world that could hold untold riches, all while they’re pursued by agents from a dominating corporation who are also trying to get their hands on the Hassim’s data.
Read an excerpt.
Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu and translated by Joel Martinsen
Cixin Liu, one of China’s premiere science fiction authors, came to international attention with his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End). His next novel, Ball Lightning, is being translated into English, and follows a boy named Chen who watched his parents die in a blast of ball lightning. As he explores mountains and secret military labs for answers about the phenomenon, he meets military personnel who are working to harness the lightning as a weapon, and soon has to contend with the consequences of his discoveries. Kirkus Reviews says that the book is “consistently surprising and absorbing.”
Noumenon Infinity by Marina J. Lostetter
Last year, Marina J. Lostetter released a sweeping space opera, Noumenon, which used a series of connected vignettes to tell the story of a flotilla of generation ships sent out to investigate LQ Pyx, a star with some strange properties. She’s back with Noumenon Infinity, which recounts the fleet’s efforts to investigate the megastructure that they discovered at the star, and to uncover the purpose for which it was built. Kirkus Reviews gave the book a star rating, saying that it’s a breathtaking sequel to Noumenon, and genre at its very best.”
Severance by Ling Ma
Candace Chen is an office drone at a publishing house in Manhattan that produces specialty bibles, content just to punch the clock and cash her paychecks. With her parents recently dead and her boyfriend leaving the city to escape his own mindless job, she barely notices when a plague begins to sweeps the world. Shen Fever turns its victims into zombie-like beings, who simply repeat actions over and over until they disintegrate. Soon alone in the city, Chen is tasked with closing out her company’s operations. She wanders the city, documenting its decay as an anonymous blogger, and hooks up with a group of survivors who are on their way to safety. Kirkus Reviews gave the book a starred review and says that it’s a “biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after,” and that it’s “smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written.”
Read an excerpt.
The Million by Karl Schroeder
In the distant future, Earth is populated by only a million of the super-rich, who act as inheritors and custodians of the planet’s wealth, and every 30 years, they allow the rest of humanity to visit for a month. In this society, Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee is an illegal child, hiding among the Million, and when his adoptive father is killed, he takes on the identity of a dead boy, only to realize that he’s been summoned to join the infamous secret police tasked with rooting out illegals such as himself.
Read an excerpt.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
P. Djèlí Clark’s debut novella is set in an alternate New Orleans during the American Civil War, and follows a girl named Creeper who tries to escape her bleak life on the city streets by joining the crew of an airship named the Midnight Robber. To earn her place, she’s acquired information about a Haitian scientist and a weapon that he’s been designing called The Black God’s Drums. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and says that it’s “thrillingly original and will enthrall fans of alternate histories.”
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
This is the second book in as many months from Mary Robinette Kowal — last month, she released The Calculating Stars, which is set in an alternate world in which humanity is prompted to colonize the solar system after a meteor destroys Washington, DC. In this next installment of the duology, Lady Astronaut Elma York contends with the possibility of a Mars mission, which would mean leaving her husband behind, and concerns over the growing Civil Rights movement, and how future citizens will be treated on Mars.
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
In recent years, Robert Jackson Bennett has earned widespread acclaim for his fantasy novels, especially his Divine Cities trilogy. With Foundryside, he’s kicking off a new trilogy set in a fantastical city called Tevanne, which is dominated by four merchant houses that strip nearby lands of their resources and create magical technologies. The book follows Sancia Grado, a thief attempting to steal a powerful device that holds unimaginable power to rewrite the laws of reality. Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly both gave the book starred reviews, with the latter saying that it’s a “crackling, wonderfully weird blend of science fiction, fantasy, heist adventure, and a pointed commentary on what it means to be human in a culture obsessed with technology, money, and power.”
War Cry by Brian McClellan
Brian McClellan has made a name for himself with his The Power Mage and Gods of Blood and Powder flintlock fantasy trilogies. His next release is quite a bit slimmer: a novella called War Cry. It follows an shape-shifting ranger Teado, who’s been stranded with his platoon for years. They take a desperate resupply mission, and the outcome could change the war. McClellan describes the world as a “WWII-type technology in which army rangers fight an endless war against shapeshifters and illusionists on the high plains.”
The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien
A long-unfinished tale from J.R.R. Tolkien is hitting bookstores as a standalone novel: The Fall of Gondolin. The book is one of the first that Tolkien began writing as he recovered from his injuries during World War I, and follows the founding and fall of an Elvish city called Gondolin. According to Tolkien scholar John Garth, the story helps to establish “parameters of Tolkien’s world, enshrining aspects of good and evil in faery races and demiurgic beings who are locked in perpetual conflict.”