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All Science Fiction Coverage

Summarizing Scotto Moore’s debut novel, Battle of the Linguist Mages, is an exercise in futility. Reducing it to the skeleton of its plot—Isobel Bailie discovers a talent that is considered magical, goes on a quest to save the world and maybe falls in love—would be ludicrously simplistic. Treating it as a philosophical treatise or a searing critique of contemporary politics would discount the fact that it’s also a riveting romp of an adventure.

Isobel, an avid gamer who lives in Los Angeles, contends with villains in the form of cynical advertising executives, disinterested game designers, conniving politicians, idealistic anarchists and arrogant gods. Along the way, she has to figure out how to get the “good” ending and she must also confront the mother of all trolley problems. To make matters worse, it’s all happening in real life, not in the friendly confines of her favorite virtual reality game, Sparkle Dungeon. Her talents in that game’s vocal spellcasting mechanic make her an ideal fit to learn power morphemes, vocalizations that alter people’s perceptions of reality so thoroughly that they change reality itself. While becoming the embodiment of a weaponized Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the structure of language shapes a person’s perception of reality), Isobel learns that all of existence is under threat and must be saved.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement. It is hilarious and irreverent, and it relishes the intrinsic ridiculousness of real-life mages and superheroes training in a video game that’s a cross between Kingdom Hearts and Beat Saber. In blindingly inadequate words, Battle of the Linguist Mages is, conceptually, very dense.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy.”

Flashes of social commentary shoot through this lurid unreality like lasers through a nightclub haze, but the most fascinating element is the deftness with which Moore crafts a fantasy epic about characters who role-play fantasy epics. Lying beneath endless music puns, pointed re-creations of Angeleno excess and cynicism about the modern-day celebrity cult is an impressive narrative self-awareness, an acknowledgment of every trope that Moore uses to render the reasonably straightforward core plot (discovery of magical talent, training montage, quest to save the world) as subversive.

The most powerful aspect of Battle of the Linguist Mages is not the sly humor, unrepentant geekiness, slow-burn romance or the trenchant sociopolitical commentary. Rather, it is the story’s tacit argument that books (and video games) are power morphemes. They contain the toolsets to construct entire universes but require readers (or players) for that vision to be fully realized. And, to pursue this analogy to its heavily foreshadowed conclusion, every writer is a linguist mage.

Except writers don’t have to be able to vocalize multiple vowels at once. Thank goodness.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement.

To find the most structurally daring, format-breaking novels of 2021, turn to the far-flung worlds of science-fiction and fantasy. From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, these books perfectly match form and function in their creation of universes both big and small. 

10. The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

With a magic system that’s two parts enchantment and one part pseudoscience, The Helm of Midnight is one of the most well-executed and original fantasy novels in recent memory.

9. The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Genevieve Gornichec’s beautiful, delicately executed debut shifts the focus of Norse mythology to one of Loki’s lovers, the witch Angrboda, with stunning and heartbreaking results.

8. The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

This astonishing, haunting short story collection overflows with vivid characters and relatable themes as Marjorie Liu puts her own spin on traditional archetypes.

7. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

This novella is the perfect distillation of Becky Chambers’ ability to use science fiction to tell smaller, more personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.

6. Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Boasting immersive settings, delightful characters and all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny, lightening its sweeping supernatural and intergalactic symphony with notes that are all-too human.

5. A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Clever, elegant and ambitious, Arkady Martine’s second novel eclipses her acclaimed debut, A Memory Called Empire.

4. Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Beautiful and enthralling on every page, Nnedi Okorafor’s elegiac and powerful novella is an example of how freeing the form can be.

3. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister terrifyingly depicts the otherworldly and uncanny horrors of the spirit world, but it is also funny and poignant, full of the angst and irony of a recent graduate living with her parents.

2. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

An instant classic, Zoraida Córdova’s magical family saga is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.

1. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan’s gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. Fans of epic fantasy and historical fiction will thrill to this reimagining of the founding of China’s Ming dynasty. 

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, the 10 best science fiction & fantasy novels of 2021 perfectly match form and function. 

A motley crew, their skilled leader and a living ship walk into a bar—and the bar explodes.

You Sexy Thing kicks off with a literal bang (and ends with one), but the rest of the story is dialogue and flashback-driven as Cat Rambo shifts perspectives and timelines to color in their cast of characters. Captain Niko Larson, her first mate, Dabry, and a handful of their fellow soldiers escaped their former Hive Mind overlords by declaring that their true calling lay in the culinary arts, not warfare. But when the space station that their restaurant is located on is attacked, they end up seeking refuge on the titular sentient bioship. Shenanigans including space pirates and galactic politics ensue.

Set in a far-flung future teeming with diverse alien life, Rambo’s novel incorporates both magic and science in neat harmony. All denizens of this universe understand that magic and science both exist, and accept both in equal measure. You Sexy Thing’s setting is rife with intrigue, but was clearly designed to accommodate character and plot, rather than the other way around. Which isn’t to say that Rambo’s world building is flimsy or thin, rather that their focus is firmly on their characters and the relationships between them.

With this commitment to character development above all else, You Sexy Thing’s characters need to be engaging, and Rambo absolutely nails it. Captain Niko and Dabry are standouts, solid compatriots who are earnestly seeking both master chefdom and continued freedom from the Hive Mind. One of the greatest characters is the ship itself: You Sexy Thing is a living spacecraft that learns and adapts to its crew, and (not surprisingly) becomes a member of the crew itself.

Rambo does an impressive job of thrusting the reader into the middle of relationships with rich history. The dialogue always feels natural and avoids forced or excessive exposition. Instead, a new crewmate is introduced just after the first act, and her experience learning about the crew and their relationships serves to fill in the gaps for readers. Rambo describes and demonstrates all the unspoken communication between the crew, engendering a wholesome atmosphere suffused with the feeling of warm, deep trust among the closest of friends. There is very little conflict between the crew members and what conflict does spring up is resolved quickly.

You Sexy Thing is a fun start to a hopefully long-running series about the lives of a close-knit fellowship of soliders-turned-chefs-turned-adventurers. Readers will be immediately sucked into Rambo’s light-hearted, camaraderie-filled space adventure and fall in love with their earnest characters.

Cat Rambo’s warmhearted space adventure is light on plot but overflowing with earnest and engaging characters.

What is it with the devil and violinists? Seems like his thirst for their souls is never slaked. In the 1700s, he made a deal with Paganini; in the 1970s, he went down to Georgia; and now the unlikely California city of El Monte offers up the latest additions to his infernal collection.

In Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, violin teacher Shizuka Satomi finds herself on the horns of a dilemma: As the clock ticks down, she needs to deliver one more soul to the Bad Guy Down Below or else prepare to take the hot seat for all eternity. She’s already turned over six violin students, each of whom traded their immortal essence for earthly success beyond their wildest ambitions. 

Number seven, though, is a problem. Katrina Nguyen, a transgender teen runaway with a broken instrument and a broken psyche, isn’t motivated by the typical incentives (recording contract, concert tour, international renown) that made Shizuka’s previous students such easy marks.

Katrina isn’t the only refugee with a troubled past on Shizuka’s date card. Local donut shop owner—and starship captain—Lan Tran is on the intergalactic lam from a civilization-destroying phenomenon known as Endplague. After a meet cute, Shizuka and Lan embark on a friendship in which confidences are shared and mutual assistance is provided.

In a sense, virtually all of the book’s protagonists are literary examples of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which damaged pottery is repaired with gold, becoming stronger because of its imperfections. In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny. When Lan’s son is harassed by a hot-rodding local, the interstellar traveler derides the Earthling as “another primitive . . . who thought going 0 to 0.00000089469 times the speed of light in 6.6 seconds was something to brag about.” In another scene, when Lan marvels at a seemingly unending parade of breadsticks at an Olive Garden, Shizuka rejoins, somewhat incredulously, “But you traveled across the galaxy. The galaxy.”

Without straining the metaphor too much, Aoki gets every element of mise-en-scène note-perfect, and her prose is as exacting and precise as the techniques Shizuka is trying to impart to her young charge. Readers can feel the steam emanating from the kitchens of Aoki’s San Gabriel Valley noodle joints, hear the scrape of a freshly rosined bow across recalcitrant strings and experience the acute anguish of having one foot anchored in one world while the other is desperately trying to move forward. 

It almost makes you wonder if Aoki made a deal with—naaaah. She knows better.

In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny.

Robert Repino’s War With No Name science fiction series began with an immediately compelling premise: What if animals gained sentience and rose up against humans? But the heart of the series lies in an interspecies friendship between Mort(e), a former housecat, and Sheba, the dog who was his best friend before the world changed forever.

With the release of Malefactor, the final novel, Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of the War With No Name series.

In the fall of 2009, I awoke from a strange dream and immediately began scribbling everything I could recall in my notebook. Groggy and working by the light of a Manhattan streetlight, I remembered an image of my old neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. An enormous spaceship hovered directly above my parents’ backyard, with a metal gangplank extending from the hull to the grass. A strange energy pulsed from inside the ship. And all the pets and stray animals in the neighborhood suddenly, as if on cue, rose onto their hind legs in a comical but hideous impersonation of humans. At that moment, all hell broke loose. The animals attacked, dragging the humans from their homes, cornering them against cyclone fences and manicured shrubs. It was grotesque and liberating at the same time because, in my mind, I was among the animals, yearning for some kind of revenge, unable to ignore my instincts to kill and to protect my territory. By the time I was done, I asked myself what an uplifted animal would choose as a name. And without thinking, I wrote what felt like a nonsense word: Mort(e). I fell back asleep.

The dream could not have come at a better time. I was between my second and third failed novels. Book number three—a somewhat autobiographical work set in the Caribbean—was about to go out to agents, a miserable process that had already left me in despair the previous two times I tried it. I had come from the MFA world and had produced mainly literary work up until then, with a few short stories published here and there. And now, with this dream still rattling in my head, I had to ask: Could I change course and write a completely bonkers novel about a war between humans and sentient animals?

All my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

So, while novel number three began its journey through the meat grinder, novel number four—Mort(e)—came to life a few months later. By then, I had replaced the aliens with a hyperintelligent ant colony. Insects that are treated like pests would have a more coherent motivation to wage war with humanity, and would hark back to some of the weird B-movie entertainment that helped to raise me like Them! and Phase IV. That first draft opened with the aftermath of my dream, with the humans tied up and carted away by their new animal overlords. And from there, I let it rip, creating a war story with characters who find themselves permanently damaged by their pyrrhic victory over their sworn enemy.

But believe it or not, all of this was meant to be a love story. When I asked myself who the protagonists would be, the answer was simple. Before I was born, my parents adopted an orange and white cat named Sebastian when they moved into their first apartment. In the unit below lived another married couple, who owned a big dog named Sheba. My parents became such good friends with the couple below that they named them as my godparents when I came along a few years later. Sebastian and Sheba, meanwhile, had an adorable friendship, often falling asleep together on the landing of the steps that connected the two apartments. That experience may have convinced Sebastian that he was a dog. There is a scene in the novel in which the cat protagonist fiercely “protects” the house from a babysitter, which is word-for-word reenactment of an incident from my youth. My mom still loves to tell that story. And so, Sebastian and Sheba were the perfect couple to place at the center of the chaos of war.

While Mort(e) continued to grow, my previous novel crashed and burned. Though I found someone to represent it, the book languished for over a year on submission. Eventually, I had no choice but to part ways with the agent I had spent nearly a decade trying to find. Over five years had passed since completing my MFA, and everything felt like it was going backward. By then, all my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

As I tried to focus on the positive, I found the book changing as well. In later drafts, I deemphasized the spectacle of the premise in favor of the simple, platonic, interspecies love story. That’s been the backbone of the entire series, which I think made it attractive to a new agent and, eventually, to a publisher. The series now includes three novels and a spinoff novella. Somehow, as I moved on from a demoralizing period in my career, I was able to conclude the War With No Name on a relatively positive note with Malefactor, focusing more on redemption rather than revenge, and forgiveness rather than judgment. Frustration and despair may have given birth to the project, and even sustained it for a while, but what’s the use in that if it doesn’t lead to something better?


Author photo by Nicholas Repino

Robert Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of his War with No Name series, which follows an interspecies war between animals and humans.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

A lonely quasi-immortal, Amahle is a light chaser, a spaceship captain who travels the stars and takes advantage of enhanced genetics and lightspeed time-dilation to cross through millenia. Her mission is the dispersion and eventual retrieval of memory collars, fancy futuristic necklaces that record the memories of entire lifetimes: Imagine the 94-part Instagram stories of your most social media addicted-friends, but stretching across a century with fewer grainy, impossible-to-hear concerts. Between planets, Amahle uses these memory collars to experience the lives of those she met on her visits, with only the ship’s AI as her companion. That is, until she realizes that someone is trying to reach out to her through the memory collars, someone capable of communicating across centuries and galaxies.

Despite its short length, Light Chaser plunges into both soul-bound, possibly fated love and universe-spanning conspiracies. Readers who love unique science fiction settings will enjoy how Hamilton and Powell reveal new worlds with each new chapter. Both world building and suspense increase in tandem, complexity and depth building throughout the story while each new reveal amps up the tension.

An ideal read for a flight or a cozy afternoon at home, Light Chaser will make an afternoon seem like minutes.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

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