RaveThe Wall Street JournalNight of the Animals is by turns visionary, ironic, satirical and deeply remorseful. The felled woodlands, the erased species, a new Great Extinction—all happen within one long lifetime. It’s a rich addition to the literature of lament, viewed with sympathy and longing.
Tropic of KansasChristopher Brown
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThat vision will resonate with a lot of voters in the big square states, who might agree that politics offers only a choice between 'regular and decaf oligarchs,' in Mr. Brown’s phrase. As for the idea that the Constitution keeps executive power in check, that’s fine except that the law now serves power like 'the devil’s butler' ... Tropic of Kansas is good at projecting pain and bitterness. Finding a cure isn’t so easy, even for sci-fi. But the first step is recognizing that something’s wrong.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Doctorow’s philosophy is passionately argued, like his earlier anthems to communal action in Homeland and Little Brother. Provocative ideas keep popping up, such as his explanation of World War I: It was caused by primogeniture. Once the second sons of aristocratic Europe ran out of places in Asia and Africa and Oceania to take over and be governors of, they turned on one another. So the thinking is lively, but the characters? What they are is basically trustafarians, faux-hemians, kids in designer jeans. The trouble with those people, some would say, is, sure, they walk away. But they know they can always walk back. Is that a good basis for a stable new world?
All Our Wrong TodaysElan Mastai
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Mastai’s story is a long riff on the time paradoxes lovingly explored in previous sci-fi. It’s also underpinned by love triangles, one of them converted by time paradoxes into a quadrangle, or perhaps (they’re complicated) a double triangle ... Bafflement is kept at bay by the fact that Mr. Mastai’s model, openly acknowledged, is Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, with its short chapters and snappy punchlines. He has caught the tone very well: a narrative voice at once wise and naïve, indignant and resigned, flip and deeply sad.
Norse MythologyNeil Gaiman
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Gaiman milks such situations for all their humor and incongruity, very much in the spirit of the originals. For a modern audience, though, he has to spell things out ... Mr. Gaiman has produced what the modern world likes: a clear, continuous narrative, with big scenes the same as they always were but with emotional pointers added. Yet he can feel the undercurrents as well: the jealousies and betrayals, the sense that Odin is always playing a long game revealed to no one.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalNo summary can catch the air of confusion, uncertainty and loss that pervades Mr. Levi’s narrative. As one of the characters says, 'No one sees Septimania for what it is.' It makes other conspiracy theories seem under-plotted ... Septimania has the format of a novel, but it has roots in the folk-tales of The Arabian Nights. It reaches out to epic, in the form of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and to Wordsworth’s Newton, 'voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.' It takes in the sad modern world of refugees and terrorism, plots and code-breakers. And it’s a love story, too. More than one reading will be needed to digest Mr. Levi’s comprehensive, many-branching vision. It adds new dimensions to the idea of the novel.
Dark MatterBlake Crouch
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal'Alternate worlds' and 'the corridors of time' are established sci-fi motifs, but Mr. Crouch has invested them with scientific plausibility, and more unusually, with emotional depth. His book is a meditation on personality and identity. It draws on questions and anxieties we all wrestle with in the dark hours.
The Half-Drowned KingLinnea Hartsuyker
RaveThe Wall Street Journal…[a] world brilliantly re-created by Ms. Hartsuyker … Ms. Hartsuyker captures the sense of saga times and saga heroes: violent but litigious, treacherous but honorable, impetuous but crafty. Ragnvald, Harald and Hakon all play off one another, as do the striking Svanhild, her stepmother Vigdis and—only just coming into the picture—Gyda, whose proud refusal of Harald created Norway.
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the PresentRonald Hutton
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Hutton’s study has little to say about the immediate present. J.K. Rowling and Pratchett do not appear in his index, nor does Salem, and even Shakespeare gets very little space. What he has done very valuably, though, is to put what most of us know already into a far wider context, both geographically and historically. It’s up to us then to examine our own notions of witches and witchcraft—no longer threatening, but still perfectly familiar.
PanThe Wall Street JournalEmbassytown creates yet another memorable city, this time in a more recognizably science-fiction setting: a distant planet recently reached by human colonizers. Embassytown is their tenuous toe-hold in this new world … Embassytown is, in its way, the story of a Fall. The winged Hosts are like angels exposed to a new original sin brought to them from outside by mysterious strangers with names like EzRa and CalVin. To some readers, this may seem philosophically very deep. But Mr. Mieville never really integrates the intellectual complexities with a compelling narrative. One problem is that the ideas that preoccupy the author here have to do with language itself. Language about language must always be in some sense secondhand, and the Host language is presented as essentially untranslatable. This makes the
goings-on in Embassytown—and the characters—hard to relate to.
The City of BrassS. A. Chakraborty
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAnyone who has read The Arabian Nights will remember, at least dimly, that Suleiman the Wise—the King Solomon of the Bible—had power over spirits, and imprisoned many of the most recalcitrant in bottles, or lamps like Aladdin’s. In the West they are simply called 'genies,' but S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass makes the mythological situation clearer, if much more complex ... This is a great debut novel, with strikingly different setting and cast—nary an elf or an orc in sight. Not only does it open up an imaginative space we had all but lost, it raises important issues of inclusion and diversity with engaging flair.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...just as Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, breathed new life into the old Robinson-Crusoe-on-Mars plot, now his second, Artemis, has revitalized the Lunar-colony scenario, with the author’s characteristic blend of engineering know-how and survival suspense ... You finish the novel thinking, as you do with the very best sci-fi: Well, maybe this is the way things are going to happen. Because the scenario, and the plot, is constrained by the kind of hard facts, financial and technological, most of us aren’t even aware of. It all seems just about possible, which is a comforting thought after decades of disappointment following the old Clarke-and-Heinlein era of imagined space travel. Finally, Jazz is a great heroine, tough with a soft core, crooked with inner honesty. A big improvement on Heinlein’s Podkayne, sci-fi sacrilege though it is to say so.