Ah, May: when a person’s fancy turns to science fiction and fantasy recommendations! (Or at least this person’s does.) It’s already been a stellar year for epic fantasy, space opera, and genre-bending surrealism, but this might actually be the most stacked month so far. We’ve got the glorious returns of three contemporary titans: Ted Chiang is back with a long-awaited follow-up to his 2002 instant-classic collection; Tad Williams, one of the masters of epic fantasy, continues his newest series; and Karen Russell, who has been merrily skipping between “literary” and “genre” fiction for a over a decade now, gives us some of her most intriguing stories yet. As if all that wasn’t enough, Max Porter has written a delicate follow-up to his acclaimed debut, and Seanan McGuire has produced a standalone novel that is as different from her portal fantasy series as that series is from her zombie thrillers!
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
(Tor Publishing, May 5)
The author of The Wayward Children series and (under the pen name Mira Grant) the zombie thriller series, Newsflesh, hops from the gaslit 19th Century to the modern day for a tale of alchemy and family entanglement. Asphodel Baker wants her alchemical knowledge to usher in a new era, and comes up with a long game: she turns the alchemical law the Doctrine of Ethos and weaves it into a series of children’s books—a literary timebomb. A century later, modern alchemist/nefarious killer James Reed has come up with his own scheme: bioengineer a pair of twins who each embody one half of the Doctrine, and then make them his pawns so he can have absolute power. But the twins, Roger Middleton, a language junky, and Dodger Cheswich, a math nerd, begin to concoct their own plan after discovering their telepathic connection and deciding to team up….
Empire of Grass by Tad Williams
(DAW, May 7)
Tad Williams follows up his 2017 epic fantasy The Witchwood Crown with Empire of Grass, the second book in his Last King of Osten Ard saga. Orsten Ard is an epic fantasy realm of the purest sort, a giant world teeming with diverse races and cultures. By the time of this installment the land has settled into a tenuous peace, but it goes from “tenuous” to “a thing of the past” when King Simon’s grandson, Prince Morgan, is kidnapped by the people known as “grasslanders.” Then the court receives word that Queen Miriamele is in peril—a dangerous coup has exploded in the land of Nabban, where she was attending a wedding. Simon now has to contend with chaos as the grasslanders begin gathering their clans together and an ancient race called the Norns begin a pilgrimage that leads them into the Simon’s land.
As the cultures clash and the tension grows, Simon will need to figure out who he can trust to try to maintain his kingdom, save his Queen, and find his grandson—all while lasting peace looks more impossible by the day.
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
(Knopf, May 7)
Ted Chiang’s 2002 collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, gave us a haunting, mournful quasi-time travel tale, “Story of Your Life” that became the basis for the Oscar-winning film Arrival. Now he’s returned with a wide-ranging new collection, Exhalation. The book opens with “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a story of time travel and alchemy which won both the Nebula and the Hugo for Best Novelette in 2008. The delicate “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” questions the idea of sentience, while “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” explores the relationship between digital nannies and their organic charges, and the title story, winner of the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, which contains a message for humanity from an advanced race whose technological acumen ultimately couldn’t prevent their extinction.
As in his earlier collection, Chiang has written stories that on one hand are thought experiments, examining Big Questions from a variety of angles—but which remember to focus not just on their characters’ minds, but on their hearts.
Lanny by Max Porter
(Graywolf Press, May 14)
Lanny is set in a lovely English village—sleepy in all outward appearances. But as you spend more time in the town you’ll see that it is riotously alive with people, tiny dramas, deep histories, and petty squabbles. And if you spend enough time with the children of the village you’ll hear all about the local myth, Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient being one-part Rip Van Winkle and one-part Green Man, slumbering peacefully as shoots and leaves grow around him…and even through him.
But here’s the thing the kids don’t realize: Dead Papa Toothwort isn’t dead at all, merely napping, and listening to all of their tall tales as he keeps a sleepy watch over his home. And he’s keeping a particular watch over one dreamy, inexplicable boy named Lanny, who’s as apt to talk to trees as to his parents…and might have a bit of a destiny in front of him. As in his debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter seamlessly combines the mundane with uncanny to create a modern folklore.
Orange World by Karen Russell
Penguin Random House, May 14)
Karen Russell scoffs at genre. She has followed her muse down whichever weird twisty path it takes for over fifteen years, and her latest, Orange World, is no exception. This collection of stories features a woman who makes a literal deal with the devil in order to be a good mom; a pair of society gals trapped in a haunted ski lodge during an avalanche; a farmer who raises and trains tornadoes on the Nebraska prairie, a near-future Florida that has been taken back by the rising ocean; and—AND—a man who falls in love with a corpse recently exhumed from an ancient peat bog. Russell skips across era and gender, inhabiting each character on their own terms and grounding her reader instantly in settings each more outlandish than the last.
And on top of all that they’re riotously funny, and sweet, and pure fun to read.