The best science fiction and fantasy books to read this month

Washington Post
Friday, February 23, 2018

Robots vs. Fairies (Saga) is the creature feature you didn’t know you wanted. The anthology, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, alternates between stories about robots and stories about fairies, but often the tales fall somewhere in between. Which being will become Earth’s future overlords: fairies or robots? That is the question contributors – including Ken Liu, John Scalzi and Delilah S. Dawson – are trying to resolve in this literary throwdown. Standouts include Alyssa Wong’s gorgeous “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend,” which explores a former Japanese pop star visiting her band mates’ likenesses in a seedy hotel, and Jim Hines’s irresistible take on the relationship between Peter Pan and Tinkerbell in “Second to the Left, and Straight On.” The true star is Sarah Gailey’s “Bread and Milk and Salt.” It captures the amorality and beauty of the fairy, drums up an all too recognizable beat in male-female relationships – and gives it an exquisite horror twist.

Frankenstein in Baghdad (Penguin), by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, is finally available in English. The novel, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, gives an intimate, tragicomic look at the Iraq War through the lens of a small neighborhood in U.S.-occupied Baghdad. The story follows the lives of its colorful denizens as they judge each other and squabble, even as cars blow up around them, taking lives and livelihoods. The titular Frankenstein is a manifestation of grief. Hadi, an untrustworthy junk-seller loses his best friend to a bomb, and seeks to put together a whole body out of scraps of human victims of the war. Instead, he accidentally creates a monster driven by the needs of the victims that make it. First, the monster preys on the guilty, but soon Hadi and his monster get mixed up with corrupt government officials, ambitious journalists and an old woman pining for her lost son. Come for the fascinating plot; stay for the dark humor and devastating view of humanity.

Senlin Ascends (Orbit) was self-published in 2013, but through word of mouth, gained enough popularity to be picked up by a major publisher. It’s a shame it languished as long as it did. Josiah Bancroft’s debut follows a square schoolmaster named Thomas Senlin on his honeymoon trip to the Tower of Babel, an engineering marvel. Senlin almost immediately loses his young wife, Marya, in the crowd. After days of disbelief, he comes to believe that his enterprising and energetic wife must have ascended the tower, so he goes to rescue her, with the help of a guide. At once it’s clear his helper is full of lies, and Senlin must transform himself to survive the maniacal and dangerous tower. Although the story features paradoxical world rules and raving characters, fundamentally this is a classic heroes quest. What elevates it is its creative world-building and memorable characters – from courageous farmer-turned-actors, pirates, steam-punk armored assassins, whoremongers and painters. Senlin is a man worth rooting for, and his strengthening resolve and character is as marvelous and sprawling as the tower he climbs. Luckily, book two will be released in just about a month.