The best recent science fiction and fantasy – reviews roundup – The Guardian

The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean; The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay; Extinction by Bradley Somer; The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings; and The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta
The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (Harper Voyager, £14.99)
In this intriguing twist on the vampire story, the eponymous beings consume books to survive, imbibing all the information within them. If this conjures images of kindly librarians, Dean is after something darker. Like many literary vampires, the book eaters are hidebound cod-aristocrats, ruled over by patriarchs who force younger men to squabble for position and resources. The latter include the dwindling supply of fertile women, who are traded as brood mares and separated from their children soon after birth. Devon is on the run with her young son, who suffers from a mutation that forces him to eat human minds, unless she can pit the various book eater factions against each other to secure both freedom and a cure. The result is less a bookish Vampire Diaries, more a vampire-themed Handmaid’s Tale, with effective thrills that are intensified by social commentary. Devon must unlearn a lifetime of ingrained passivity and subservience, and rise above the stories she’s been (literally) raised on, to assert her right to direct her own life.
The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay (Titan, £8.99)
Lonely teenager Art forms a club to attend the funerals of those who have no one to see them off. The sole other member is cool, mysterious Mercy Brown, who soon becomes his only friend and initiates Art into punk rock. But when Art’s health worsens, he becomes convinced that Mercy is to blame, and that she may not be human. The story is told as a memoir written by Art decades later, interspersed with annotations from an increasingly bemused Mercy. She insists that the narrative is pure fiction, and that Art’s recollections are slanted by his youthful self-absorption, erasing her ordinary humanity to turn her into a Manic Vampire Nightmare Girl. The ambiguity persists until the novel’s final pages, even as events grow creepier, and the portrait of lifelong friendship and middle-aged disappointment becomes more poignant.
Extinction by Bradley Somer (Harper Voyager, £16.99)
Ben is a ranger who watches over the last surviving grizzly bear, in a climate-ravaged future in which most of humanity has departed the Earth. When a trio of trophy hunters turns up, Ben must protect his charge, and very soon himself. What unfolds is a familiar tale of wilderness survival and pursuit, told in lean, propulsive prose, but with a twist. The wilderness Ben moves through is already despoiled, polluted and littered with the detritus of abandoned mines and logging camps. The bear itself is an endling, and like most animals in the region, not equipped to survive in this ruined world. What is the use of risking lives to save it? In the growing field of climate fiction, Somer raises disquieting questions about our relationship with nature, and the debt we owe to the beings with whom we share our planet – even, or perhaps especially, when there is no longer any chance of restitution.
The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings (Macmillan, £16.99)
Giddings sets her novel in a world much like our own, where the existence of witchcraft has been used to justify the oppression of women. Women are taught to conform, and those who don’t – who are unmarried, or queer, or overpoliced because of their race – can be accused of being witches, leading to a loss of rights, or even their lives. Jo’s mother disappeared years ago, placing her entire family under suspicion. When a condition of her mother’s will sends Jo to a remote island, she finds a hidden community of witches. Discovering the island raises new questions. Is it possible to be fully human in a world that makes no space for you? Is freedom really freedom if you’ve cut yourself off from the world to achieve it? In this thoughtful novel, written in a wry, magical realist tone reminiscent of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado, there are no easy answers – just Jo’s quietly heroic determination to make her own way.
The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta (Titan, £8.99)
Finnish author Itäranta returns with an epistolary novel set in the 22nd century. In a solar system teeming with human habitation, Lumi travels between planets, moons and space stations in search of her missing spouse Sol, a botanist who may have been abducted by an ecoterrorist group. This tour of the solar system – including an ecologically ravaged Earth, where an economic underclass maintains a few habitable regions as tourist destinations – is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson. But Itäranta weaves a distinctive thread into her tapestry: Lumi is a shamanic healer whose pursuit of Sol takes her to the spirit realm as well as to celestial bodies, along the way re-examining their marriage in all its strengths and faults. The resulting narrative brilliantly weaves together its two central questions: whether one marriage can survive, and whether humanity can find a way to thrive that does not ultimately rest on exploitation and inequality.


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