Fantasy? I'll start the list with the older of the two main genres.
- THE LEGIONS OF FIRE by Pittsboro's David Drake is the first book in a planned tetralogy (that's four books, you trilogy fans) of epic fantasy set against a re-imagining of an ancient Rome that was not: one where magic, and sphynxes, and Hyperborean sorcerors, were very much real. The sequel, OUT OF THE WATERS, comes out next year.
- SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY by (ex, sadly) Raleigh's Mary Robinette Kowal is a stand-alone novel of drawing room magic set in a roughly Regency mold. Billed as "the fantasy that Jane Austen might have written" it was formally launched in Raleigh in August at the North American Science Fiction Convention.
- THE DRAGON AGE TRILOGY by Hillsborough's James Maxey. Starting with BITTERWOOD and continuing with DRAGONFORGE and finishing with DRAGONSEED, the trilogy could be further classified as "Science Fantasy" as Maxey's dragons are firmly grounded in the laws of physics as we know them. It is the far future, and genetically-engineered dragons are now the dominant species and culture on the planet. Technology is all but lost, and humans are either slaves or, simply, food. However, a resistance begins to grow, as humanity seeks freedom.
- From the way-back machine (well, if 10 years is "way back..."): THE FOX WOMAN (also in hardcover) by (now, happily) Raleigh's Kij Johnson: "An achingly beautiful love story, a fable wrapped in smoke and magic set against the fabric of ancient Japan. Johnson brings the setting lovingly to life, describing a world of formalities and customs, where the exchange of poetry is a form of conversation and everything has meaning, from the color of the silks on wears to how one may address others."
- From further-afield: FINCH by Jeff VanderMeer; THE MAGICIANS (also in hardcover and large print)by Lev Grossman; and WHO FEARS DEATH by Nnedi Okorafor. Of the fantasy novels I've read in the past year, these have all blown me away. Also, recommended by Bull Spec associate editor Alex Granados, is Brandon Sanderson's THE WAY OF KINGS which begins a new planned 10-book epic fantasy series.
- CHILDREN NO MORE and JUMP GATE TWIST by Raleigh's Mark Van Name. The former is the latest book in Van Name's "Jon & Lobo" space adventure series, the latter is an omnibus double edition of the first two novels, ONE JUMP AHEAD and SLANTED JACK. From snatch-and-grabs to con-men, to a story of adventure set amidst a story of child soldiers, these books are a possible local triple-feature: local author, local publisher (Wake Forest's Baen Books), and if you find it in a local bookstore...
- From a few years back and (now) Chapel Hill's Rebecca Rowe, FORBIDDEN CARGO is a story of a far-future secretly genetically engineered race: "It's 2110 and Creid Xerkler, the creator of the Molecular Advantage Machine - a virtual system that facilitates instantaneous access to all of humanity's knowledge and experience - is unwillingly entangled in a government Council plot to prove the existence of an illegally engineered race called the Imagofas. Unfortunately Xerkler knows more than he should and fears what the Council might discover."
- From the way-back machine but in a great new "definitive edition" from Subterranean Press, FRONTERA by Raleigh's Lewis Shiner was first released in 1984, making it a temporal peer of books such as William Gibson's NEUROMANCER and its story of fallen governments and corporate control pre-date such books as Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH and Charles Stross's ACCELERANDO: "Ten years ago the world's governments collapsed, and now the corporations are in control. Houston's Pulsystems has sent an expedition to the lost Martian colony of Frontera to search for survivors. Reese, aging hero of the US space program, knows better. The colonists are not only alive, they have discovered a secret so devastating that the new rulers of Earth will stop at nothing to own it. Reese is equally desperate to use it for his own very personal agenda. But none of them have reckoned with Kane, tortured veteran of the corporate wars, whose hallucinatory voices are urging him to complete an ancient cycle of heroism and alter the destiny of the human race."
Steampunk/Vampire/Adventure/Romance? Not many books put this package together, so not surprisingly there's just one entry:
- THE GREYFRIAR by Raleigh's Clay and Susan Griffith. Book one of their Vampire Empire trilogy, The Greyfriar weaves all of the elements into a book which is getting a ton of great rave reviews. So go check them out, and, hey, you've still got a chance to get that person on your list a personalized dedication as the Griffiths are having an event on December 2 at Barnes & Noble of Brier Creek.
Superhero Fiction? It's almost hard to believe there's enough here for its own breakout section, but there is!
- PLAYING FOR KEEPS by Durham's Mur Lafferty: "The shining metropolis of Seventh City is the birthplace of super powers. The First Wave heroes are jerks, but they have the best gifts: flight, super strength, telepathy, genius, fire. The Third Wavers are stuck with the leftovers: the ability to instantly make someone sober, the power to smell the past, the grace to carry a tray and never drop its contents, the power to produce high-powered excrement blasts, absolute control. over elevators. Bar owner Keepsie Branson is a Third Waver with a power that prevents anything in her possession from being stolen. Keepsie and her friends just aren't powerful enough to make a difference. at least that's what they've always been told. But when the villain Doodad slips Keepsie a mysterious metal sphere, the Third Wavers become caught in the middle of a battle between the egotistical heroes and the manipulative villains. As Seventh City begins to melt down, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad, and even harder to tell who may become the true heroes."
- From a bit further back: NOBODY GETS THE GIRL by Hillsborough's James Maxey: "Presented by legendary comic book author Jim Shooter, this book is a fast-paced science fiction novel with all the flair and fun of a comic book."
- From further-afield: SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE (also in hardcover and audiobook) by Austin Grossman. A hat-tip to "Badger" for putting this one on my radar, a take on power and responsibility and (of course) good and evil, told through alternating perspectives from a super-villain and a new recruit to the top superhero team. This was actually my own Black Friday purchase for myself.
And if this is really the category for you or someone on your list, check out MASKED in the Anthology list a bit further down.
Horror, thriller, and such? None of my picks here are of the gruesome, gore-fest variety. Rather they either blend elements of the speculative, or they build their suspense and fear through creaking floorboards and (worse!) the silences between, or build their tension through touching on voodoo and racial violence.
- FIREFLY RAIN by Durham's Richard Dansky was originally published in hardcover in 2008 by Wizards of the Coast Discoveries, but the 2010 edition from Simon & Schuster is a tightened-up book with creaking floorboards and spookiness to spare. Set in rural North Carolina, a failed entrepreneur returns home to his deceased parents's farmhouse to find that some promises, such as his unfulfilled promise to visit home, are more easily broken than others.
- A GATHERING OF DOORWAYS by Wake Forest's Mike Jasper has a great tagline: Sometimes you eat the forest, sometimes the forest eats you. The book, praised by Lucius Shepherd and The Agony Column's Rich Kleffel is further described as: "Gil Anderson learns this for himself when his son Noah wanders off one hot summer day, on Gil’s watch. His wife will never forgive him for this latest transgression — not after what the family has lost already."
- BLACK & WHITE by Raleigh's Lewis Shiner is a critically-acclaimed thriller built around the building of the Durham Freeway and Research Triangle Park, and the economic and personal fallout of a present-day narrative.
Urban Fantasy? Yup, we've got great UF being written locally as well.
- Kelly Gay's THE DARKEST EDGE OF DAWN continues the story of Charlie Madigan which began in THE BETTER PART OF DARKNESS. Set in an Atlanta rife with otherworldly creatures, Charlie is a "kick-ass cop" and does just that.
Young Reader? Would you believe that we also have some great YR speculative fiction being written here as well? Well, we do, and there's plenty more to come.
- Hillsborough's John Claude Bemis's "The Clockwork Dark" trilogy began with THE NINE POUND HAMMER (also in hardcover and audiobook) and a question: What if John Henry had a son? Bring in the Pirate Queen, steam trains, and you've got a great story for all readers. This year saw the release of book two, THE WOLF TREE, and next year's THE WHITE CITY will bring the story to a close.
- WINDBLOWNE by Durham's Stephen Messer tells a great story of a boy and his (to this point, failed) kite-flying adventures. There's an awful lot to like in this one, and it's a great standalone book. A good thing, too, as Messer has not only next year's THE DEATH OF YORIK MORTWELL (illustrated by Gris Grimly) but has recently announced a series deal for COLLOSSUS.
- From further afield: While the CITY OF EMBER really caught my attention from this age category, Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN (also a great audiobook narrated by Alan Cumming) was a great romp through an alternate past, where World War I would be fought by armored walkers on one side and genetically engineered beasties on the other. Westerfeld brought his tour for the sequel, this year's BEHEMOTH, to Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books.
Collections? Single-author collections can be a great way of not just getting to know an author, but of exploring a variety of stories and storytelling modes.
- COLLECTED STORIES by Raleigh's Lewis Shiner is a beautiful book of beautiful stories. From Jason Erik Lundberg's review of the collection on Strange Horizons: "With Collected Stories, Lewis Shiner cements his position as one of the SF field's most accomplished practitioners. His humanism and his compassion are evident in even the more pessimistic explorations of power struggles, and reveal a thoughtful and erudite exploration of how and why human beings treat one another the way they do. Shiner's prose sparkles with humanity, with empathy, and with clarity. Taken as a whole, the collection is a gift of narrative, a multifaceted examination into what it means to be a human being in any universe."
- THE BAUM PLAN FOR FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE (also in hardcover with a wicked-cool reversible dust jacket)by Raleigh's John Kessel includes the titular Asheville-set retelling of The Wizard of Oz, as well as the Nebula-award winning novella "Pride and Prometheus", a parallel novel combining Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" -- but no "and Zombies!" mashup here.
- BALEFIRES (also in hardcover) by Pittsboro's David Drake "is the long-awaited collection of Drake's weird and fantastic fiction, featuring many stories set in the worlds of his fantasy novels (Ranks of Bronze, Lord of the Isles, etc.). More than just a collection of stories, Balefires features extensive story notes that chronicle the development of the writing career of one of science fiction's most popular writers, and provides detailed snapshots of the larger-than-life editors, publishers, and writers with whom Drake has worked with throughout his career."
- From a few years ago, GUNNING FOR THE BUDDHA (also in paperback) collects short speculative fiction from Wake Forest's Michael Jasper. I'll let James Patrick Kelly describe this one: "Don't be looking for bold starship captains or warrior maidens wielding magic swords in GUNNING FOR THE BUDDHA. Michael Jasper serves up something refreshingly different: a heady brew of ordinary folks making tough decisions at the far edges of reality. Spend some time with these stories and you're bound to bump into people you know who find themselves in places you've only dreamed about."
- From further afield: LOOK AT THE BIRDIE by Kurt Vonnegut. Simply put, the first posthumous volume of unpublished stories from Vonnegut is "a collection of fourteen previously unpublished short stories from one of the most original writers in all of American fiction." There's his signature line art, too, and this is another one recommended by Bull Spec associate editor Alex Granados.
- Also from further afield: THE THIRD BEAR by Jeff VanderMeer: "The award-winning short fictions in this collection highlight the voice of an inventive contemporary fantasist who has been compared by critics to Borges, Nabokov, and Kafka. In addition to highlights such as “The Situation,” in which a beleaguered office worker creates a child-swallowing manta ray to be used for educational purposes and “Errata,” which follows an oddly familiar writer who has marshaled a penguin, a shaman, and two pearl-handled pistols with which to plot the end of the world, this volume contains two never-before-published stories. Chimerical and hypnotic, this compilation leads readers through the postmodern into what is emerging into a new literature of the imagination."
- MASKED is an anthology of superhero fiction edited by Lou Anders, and it includes the story "Where their Worm Dieth Not" by Hillsborough's James Maxey. From IndieBound: "Superheroes have come a long way since the “Man of Steel” was introduced in 1938. This brilliant new collection features original stories and novellas from some of today’s most exciting voices in comics, science fiction, and fantasy. Each marvelously inventive tale shows us just how far our classic crusaders have evolved—and how the greatest of heroes are, much like ourselves, all too human."
- BLOOD AND DEVOTION is an anthology of epic fantasy from Fantasist Enterprises and it includes another story from Maxey, "Greatshadow". The story serves as a springboard for Maxey's next novel, and the anthology is described: "The clash of steel. The scent of blood. The heat of fire from heaven. The cries of the dying and of the dead. Brave warriors and devotees to the gods follow the paths their faiths have put before them, and when religious fervor meets skill of arms and magic, kings will fall, armies will collide, and men and women will perish for their beliefs. Blood & Devotion contains nine illustrated short stories and novellas of epic fantasy, including tales by Jay Lake, James Maxey, William Jones, and Gerard Houarner, with a foreword by David B. Coe."
- DARK FUTURES edited by Jason Sizemore includes the story "The Monastery of the Seven Hands" from Raleigh's Natania Barron. From Sizemore's mini-site for the book: "Let’s not kid ourselves. The first ten years of the 21st century haven’t been the best of times. Terrorism. War. Pandemics. Environmental disasters. Political fallacies. Human rights atrocities. I’ll stop there before I run the risk of sounding like a Billy Joel lyric, but I think you get my drift. Worldwide angst is at a high level. In turn, the world of speculative fiction has taken a darker turn the past few years. Much has been made about this by the genre community. Some go so far to treat this trend as bad. These people posit such desperate questions as “Why are writers so black and blue? Why can’t they write about the great things in life?” This shallow reactionary attitude points to many individuals missing one of the most important aspects that writers, editors, and publishers perform in society. We serve as the voice of the people. Consider Dark Futures: Tales of Dystopian SF another voice added to the cacophony of the cultural zeitgeist."
- STUPEFYING STORIES: It came from the Slushpile edited by Bruce Bethke includes stories from local writers M. David Blake and Henry Vogel. Funny, weird, unusual, these stories are billed as coming "... from the slushpile". In full: "For the first time ever, Philip K. Dick Award-winning editor Bruce Bethke presents eleven all-new stories by eleven hot new writers, as well as his own semi-legendary demiclassic, "It Came From The Slushpile." Join us now for twelve Amazin— er, Astoundi— ah, Fantasti— um, Incredibl—Twelve STUPEFYING STORIES!"
- SHINE is an anthology of optimistic science fiction from Jetse de Vries, including (now) Raleigh's Eric Gregory, along with authors such as Alastair Reynolds and Kay Kenyon.
- DARK FAITH brings together stories of spiritual horror from a wide spectrum of religions and worldviews, and it includes stories both from Durham's Richard Dansky as well as (ex) Raleigh's Mary Robinette Kowal.
- WARRIOR WISEWOMAN 3 from editor Roby James is the third installment of stories featuring, well, wise warrior women. This edition includes Durham's Gwendolyn Clare, whom Bull Spec readers should recognize from her story "The Other Lila". (It also has a story from Melissa Mead, another Bull Spec contributor.)
- RETRO SPEC: TALES OF FANTASY AND NOSTALGIA is an anthology which "uses the prisms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to examine the culture, society, and politics of our recent past, the 1920s to the 1980s, in the United States and Europe." In it, local writer C.D. Covington's "U8: Alexanderplatz (1989)" takes a fantastical look at the 1980s and the Berlin Wall.
- THE IMMERSION BOOK OF SF is editor Carmelo Rafala's attempt to bring together, well, immersive stories, "a luxury cruise for the mind". Ex-Raleigh-er Jason Erik Lundberg's story "The Time Traveler's Son" is a highlight which the World SF blog noted.
- RIGOR AMORTIS is, and I assure you this is serious, an anthology of zombie erotica. Edited by Charlotte's Jaym Gates (and Erika Holt), this anthology has been getting some good buzz.
- From further afield: There have been so many great anthologies this year and late last, that it's hard to pick only a couple. But: METAtropolis (edited by John Scalzi, with Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, and more) is a great novella collection, all taking place in a shared near-future post-oil-crash world of quasi-anarchist collectives and corporations still vying for some kind of control. And, while the second volume is out this year, I still can't recommend last year's PANVERSE ONE, an all-original novella anthology of wondrous science fiction & fantasy, enough.
- THE ORDER OF DAGONET by Carrboro writer and illustrator team Jeremy Whitley and Jason Strutz of Firetower Studios. The elevator pitch is: "The magical faerie forces of England return and the only people who can stop them are the Knights of England. Unfortunately, these are our current knights, who are actors, authors, and rock stars. In short, our world is in the hands of the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Neil Gaiman, and Ian McKellan." 4 issues are out so far, a nice 4-pack stocking stuffer.
- Raleigh's Dale Mettam has written a ton of stuff for Viper Comics this year: Some not for young readers (ORPHEUS) and others very, very much for all ages (ODD RODS, BATTLE SMASH vs. THE SAUCERMEN FROM VENUS).
- TURF illustrated by local illustrator Tommy Lee Edwards. Set in 1920s prohibition-era New York, so gangsters, sure, but also vampires, aliens, action, setting, and, well, you don't give things away. Anyway, TURF is a 5-issue mini-series from Image Comics.
- MERCURY by (ex) Asheville's Hope Larson. Hope was awesome enough to let me pester her with interview questions for Bull Spec #2, but totally not awesome enough to stay in NC. But when Hollywood calls... Anyway, this book tells two stories, one set "today", another set in 1859, on a farm in rural (is there any other kind?) Novia Scotia: "August 31, 5:15 PM, French Hill, Nova Scotia: A girl named Tara is running. She runs through her nice neighborhood and up a road to the burned ruins of what was once a beautiful house – her family’s house. August 31, 1859, French Hill, Nova Scotia: A girl named Josey is picking blackberries with her friend Connie. As the girls gossip, a handsome stranger knocks on the door of Josey’s house. His name is Asa, and with his coming, Josey’s life–and later in time, Tara’s as well–is about to change forever. Because there is treasure in the woods that belong to Josey’s family. Gold–an untold fortune. Asa has a secret way of finding it, and his partnership with Josey’s father could make them all rich. But there is darkness in the woods, and in Asa. And in the present day, Tara, Josey’s descendant, is about to discover the truth about what really happened in the family’s past. Eisner award winner Hope Larson weaves together history, romance, and a touch of her trademark magical realism in this remarkable graphic novel of how the past haunts a teenage girl’s present."
- Not for younger audiences: THE FOUNTAIN adapted and illustrated from Darren Aronofsky's story by (then) Chapel Hill's Kent Williams. Each page is a work of art, and this story goes beyond what eventually made it into the film -- a case where writer and artist can imagine and portray an idea that would cost millions to attempt to film. "The Fountain crisscrosses through three distinct time periods: 1535, during an ancient Mayan war; the present day, following one doctor's desperate search for the cure for cancer; and the far future through the vast exotic reaches of space. Interweaving these three periods, THE FOUNTAIN follows Tomas — warrior, doctor, explorer — as he feverishly tries to beat death and prolong the life of the woman he loves."
Roleplaying and board games?
- FIASCO from Chapel Hill's Bully Pulpit Games: "Fiasco is inspired by cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong – inspired by films like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Way of the Gun, Burn After Reading, and A Simple Plan. You’ll play ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control. There will be big dreams and flawed execution. It won’t go well for them, to put it mildly, and in the end it will probably all go south in a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination. Lives and reputations will be lost, painful wisdom will be gained, and if you are really lucky, your guy just might end up back where he started. Fiasco is a GM-less game for 3-5 players, designed to be played in a few hours with six-sided dice and no preparation. During a game you will engineer and play out stupid, disastrous situations, usually at the intersection of greed, fear, and lust. It’s like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one." It was a BoardGameGeek.com finalist for RPG of the year, and about it was said: “Fiasco was one of the greatest storytelling RPGs I’ve ever played. I highly recommend it.” (Who said it? Wil Wheaton. Check the Bully Pulpit website for pictures.) Bonus? Each month this year they've posted downloadable play sets, everything from a rock band on tour, to a Titanic send-up, to a 1593 London, 1913 New York, ...
- Honorable Mention: For the player who has everything, how about something that won't be released until December 8? THE RESISTANCE from Indie Boards and Cards: "The Resistance is a social deduction game for 5-10 players that has several unique features not often found in the genre. While game play may share some similarities with Werewolf or Mafia, The Resistance offers innovations such as no player elimination, no need for a moderator, and a much faster play time. With the introduction of the "Plot" cards in the advanced game, The Resistance offers deep game play with significant opportunities for strategic play - and creates tense games that you'll be talking aobut days later." (It's available as a print-and-play now, but soon, a nice package for wrapping, unwrapping, etc.)
- Honorable Mention: Lee Hammock said (in Bull Spec #1): "If you like speculative fiction, get ECLIPSE PHASE." From the website: "Eclipse Phase is a pen & paper roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror. An "eclipse phase" is the period between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus appears within the cell and transforms it. During this period, the cell does not appear to be infected, but it is. Players take part in a cross-faction secret network dubbed Firewall that is dedicated to counteracting "existential risks" — threats to the existence of transhumanity, whether they be biowar plagues, self-replicating nanoswarms, nuclear proliferation, terrorists with WMDs, net-breaking computer attacks, rogue AIs, alien encounters, or anything else that could drive an already decimated transhumanity to extinction."
Unclassifiable? From time to time works that are part fiction, part art, part... something else. They defy categorization:
- HER SIDE by Durham's Mur Lafferty is a multimedia fiction collaboration with photographer J.R. Blackwell: "Lafferty’s narrative leads the reader through a story of violence, love and self discovery as J.R. Blackwell’s photography illuminates the unspoken elements of the story. Together, they combine two different storytelling methods to tell one story." Not for younger readers.
- A FIELD GUIDE TO SURREAL BOTANY edited by (ex) Raleigh's Janet Chui and Jason Erik Lundberg. Janet and Jason's Two Cranes Press put out this lovely "anthology of fictional plant species that exist beyond the realm of the real, with contributions from Jay Lake, Eric Schaller, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, Ben Peek, Victoria Elisabeth Garcia, Mark Teppo, Vera Nazarian, and many, many others. Fully illustrated in gorgeous full-color by Janet Chui, the specimen entries are by turns witty, hilarious, and very strange."
- From further-afield: THE HONEY MONTH by Amal El-Mohtar. Bull Spec poetry editor Dan Campbell absolute loves this book of poetry and prose built around a month of honey tastings, but since I don't have a quote from him on it, here's Mythic Delirium editor Mike Allen's: "Amal El-Mohtar’s fascinating experiment in literary synesthesia takes the scents, tastes and textures from a gift of assorted honeys and transmutes them through artistic inspiration into a wordsmith’s cycle of fey mischief. These bewitching poems and stories, always sensuous, sometimes sad, unwind a fevered world of magic and longing and young women who chance the uncanny and gain wisdom beyond their years."
- From further-afield: THE KOSHER GUIDE TO IMAGINARY ANIMALS (IndieBound link) edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: "Whimsically illustrated, this bite-sized bestiary is the deciding vote on which fantastical creatures are kosher. Embarking on an undomesticated romp from A to Z, the ritual cleanliness of E.T., hobbits, Mongolian Death Worms, and the elusive chupacabra are discussed. This hilarious kashrut is the offspring of a debate that began on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog, between his alter-ego, Evil Monkey, and his editor/wife. Addressing questions such as Is a vegetable-lamb a vegetable or a lamb? Does licking the Pope make you trayf? What exactly is a Pollo Maligno? and Is Sasquatch roast stringy? this irreverent abecedary is a perfect gift for anyone seeking to broaden their imaginary culinary experiences guilt-free. The guide also features Duff Goldman of the popular series Ace of Cakes."
More? How about locally-built video games: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon from Red Storm; Ratchet & Clank and Resistance from Insomniac Games; Fallen Earth from Icarus Studios; Age of Conan from Funcom; Gears of War 3 from Epic Games; ...
And if you're out and about locally this week, make sure to head for Sustain-A-Bull local stores!