Happy Independent Bookstore Day! I’m celebrating by supporting two stores that focus on speculative fiction: Sistah SciFi and Mysterious Galaxy.
In recent years, my local stores have grown their SFF sections, but there’s nothing quite like the depth and breadth of a store that focuses only on spec fic. Unfortunately for me, both of these shops are located on the west coast (I’m on the east). But fortunately for all of us, both offer many virtual events and ways to be involved from both near and far.
Sistah SciFi is an online bookstore that promotes speculative fiction by Black and Indigenous women authors. I found their fantastic Instagram account while bopping around one day, and was impressed by their selection. Both their Instagram account and website are great resources for discovering new and classic books by Black and Indigenous women. Watch out, because your TBR pile might topple over with all the added books you’re going to stack on top!
The store also hosts a number of events and virtual book clubs, including one for comics and graphic novels! And did I mention they also have a book vending machine?! Located in the Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery in Oakland, California, the book vending machine carries a rotating selection of titles for children and adults.
Support Sistah SciFi on Indie Bookstore Day by making a purchase, following them on social media, and/or telling your friends about them!
While I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Mysterious Galaxy in person at their San Diego shop, I have been to their booth in at least one convention (Star Wars Celebration Anaheim 2022, to be precise). I’ve also attended a few of their virtual events and purchased signed books from them.
Each month, they offer a book subscription box for SFF and cozy mystery books that includes titles, bookmarks, and other goodies curated by or made by their booksellers! I think including art from their booksellers in the form of bookmarks is a really nice touch.
But if you, like me, have an ever-growing pile of books to read and the thought of a new mystery book each month triggers your existential dread over the fact that you will never be able to read all the books—and what if you miss a really, really good one?—be sure to peruse the store’s robust staff picks page. It might still contain more books than you can read in a year, but at least you can more purposefully prioritize your next read that way.
Support Mysterious Galaxy on Indie Bookstore Day by making a purchase, following them on social media, and/or telling your friends about them!
Do you have a favorite independent bookstore that focuses on speculative fiction? I’d love to hear about it! Send me a tweet (and tag the bookstore!) or Instagram comment or DM so I can feature your fave in a future post.
While Pride Month is a great time to dip your toes into the waters of queer speculative fiction, there are too many great options to limit yourself to just thirty-one days! (Plus, queer folks are queer 24/7, not just in June, so why not celebrate natural human diversity all year long?)
For this mini-list, I’ve selected three of my favorite novels by LGBTQIA+ authors. This post does contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you make a purchase using one of these links, you’re helping support both this blog and indie bookstores at no extra cost to you!
Be gay. 🏳️🌈 Read books! 📚
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth was pitched to me as “lesbian necromancers.” Although the main characters are indeed queer, and one of them is indeed a necromancer, “lesbian necromancers” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how utterly brilliant, funny, gripping, and goddamn heartbreaking this book is. In fact, it was so utterly brilliant, funny, gripping, and goddamn heartbreaking that as soon as I’d finished listening to the excellently narrated and produced audiobook, I hit play again and read it a second time.
But in case that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, let me tell you a little bit about the plot, too. The eponymous Gideon dreams of leaving her prison in the Ninth House to become a soldier, but Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the de facto leader of the Ninth House and a powerful necromancer, has other ideas. She recruits Gideon to be her cavalier—basically her personal swordswoman—as she goes on a quest to become a lictor for the undying emperor. Together, they have to compete against necromancers and cavaliers from other houses to solve magical puzzles and unlock the secrets to immortality. Only, of course, things do not go as planned.
My bookish love affair with K. B. Wagers began in the library, as all great love affairs do. It was 2016, and I was clerking at the main desk of my library when we got a new book for the science fiction section: Behind the Throne. The title didn’t catch my eye at first, but the tagline did: “…with a heroine as rebellious as Han Solo, as savvy as Leia, and as skilled as Rey.”
While books or movies that compare themselves to Star Wars rarely live up to the hype in my fangirly estimation, I liked the cover art and the concept, so I checked the book out and took it home. I started it that evening, and, well, let’s just say the book—and its heroine—definitely lived up to, and then shot right past, my expectations.
Hail Bristol is a gun runner and a smuggler who’s been doing her utmost to leave her past behind her. But, of course, it catches up to her. Now, she has to face the fact that she’s the last surviving member of the royal family of the Indranan Empire, reconcile with her demons, and save her people. This is a fast-paced, high-stakes, tense but enjoyable read with relatable characters you can’t help but fall in love with.
A few months ago, I was working on a list of queer speculative fiction when I realized I had zero gay men on my list. I wracked my brain trying to come up with a few, scoured my Goodreads lists, and still came up empty handed. I went looking, and found Kai Ashante Wilson’s hauntingly beautiful and devastating novella, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.
Wilson combines nonlinear storytelling with lush prose to create a story that echoes the way many of us experience memory and grief: in pieces and fragments; wisps of conversations, moments from larger events, and the ebb and flow of emotion through it all. If you’re not a fan of nonlinear stories, you may find Sorcerer of the Wildeeps a challenging read, but either way, you’ll find it a rewarding experience.
The story follows two earth-bound demigods who must use their powers to keep a caravan of merchants and soldiers safe from the dangers of the road, and especially from a man-eating supernatural beast. Although the plot is straightforward, the beats of the story echo like drums long after you turn the last page.
There are so many more amazing and wonderful speculative books by queer authors. I’ve compiled some of them in this Bookshop list called “Read the Rainbow: Speculative Fiction by LGBTQIA+ Authors,” but my list is far from authoritative. I’d love to hear who some of your favorite queer spec fic authors are in the comments!
Worlds of Light and Darkness is a wide-ranging collection of insightful speculative fiction from two respected magazines that will introduce readers to a number of lesser-known, but worth knowing, writers across many sub-genres.
I learned of this collection because I used to read submissions for DreamForge, a speculative fiction magazine with a bent toward the hopeful based in Pittsburgh. An advance review copy was available through NetGalley, so I jumped at the chance to be an early reader.
I was also pleased to see that one of the stories I helped select, “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni, made it into this collection. I might be biased, but it was easily one of my favorite stories in the collection.
While I was familiar with DreamForge, this was my first introduction to fiction from Space & Time. The collection is arranged with ten stories from DreamForge (worlds of light) at the beginning, and ten stories from Space & Time (worlds of darkness) at the end.
Although the selections from DreamForge were noticeably more upbeat overall than those from Space & Time, it would be false to say the Space & Time stories were universally dark or depressing. On the contrary, stories across the collection showed a range of themes, tackled the full depth of human emotions, dealt with difficult topics, and ended on mostly positive notes.
“Mostly” being the key word, as there were a few stories that ended on darker notes, including “Humani” by John Palisano, “Joy of Life” by Alessandro Manzetti, and the collection’s final story, “A Glass Darkly” by Ian Rogers.
Overall, I think the editors did a good job of balancing the uplifting with grim possibilities, and I appreciate that stories ranged from Mars exploration (“A Sip of Pombé”) to high-tech heist (“Artifact” by Jonathan Maberry) to modern speculative western (“The Spiral Ranch” by Sarena Ulibarri).
Stand Out Stories
My favorite two stories in the collection were “The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” by Jennifer Shelby and the aforementioned “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni.
“The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” follows a witch as she rides her bike through space in search of her missing familiar—a cat who is mad at her because they didn’t take a vacation. Although this story appeared in Space & Time, it was actually quite lighthearted. I enjoyed the world building and the implied tension between magic and science. Plus, the image of a witch riding her magical bike through the cosmos just tickled me.
“A Sip of Pombé” takes place in a near-ish future where various countries have begun setting up settlements on Mars. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Uganda develops its own space program and launches its own Mars mission in secret. The story addresses nationalism and, more importantly, various factions’ ability to rise above nationalism in the name of scientific progress and humanity at large.
Another stand out story for me was Austin Gragg’s “Collecting Violet:” a cautionary tale about ecological destruction disguised as a touching account of the tenderness of Death. It was beautifully written, and featured a talking corvid, something I can’t resist.
I also really enjoyed the concept of a vertical, indoor ranch in Sarena Ulibarri’s “The Spiral Ranch,” and the whimsical magical bookshop in the opening story, “Answered Prayers” by Scott Edelman.
An Unfortunate Turn of Phrase
Of course, the wide range of sub-genres and stories included in this collection meant a few didn’t connect with me—and that’s okay. I can’t say I disliked any of the stories, although the way Alessandro Manzetti describes a woman in “Joy of Life” did have me cringing.
The line in question was “The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating in the estrogen broth.”
I know this is written from the perspective of a sentient lizard that may or may not fully understand human anatomy, if your ovary is rotated, it’s a medical emergency. The author could have opted for any number of verbs, like “hummed” or “vibrated”, but he went with the anatomically inaccurate and impossible “rotating.”
Despite that unfortunate line, Worlds of Light and Darkness is a strong collection that highlights the diversity of genres and ideas percolating in the galaxy of speculative fiction, and is worth picking up.
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like the worst time to write a booklist featuring novels and comics about plagues and viral outbreaks.
For most of us, it’s been over a year since the world shut down and our lives changed dramatically. We’ve been facing constant upheaval, uncertainty, fear, and a barrage of information and misinformation.
Many of us are dealing with pandemic fatigue: We’re tired of isolation, restrictions, and ongoing disruptions and uncertainty. Our energy reserves are long depleted.
Which is why, now, more than ever, I find myself turning to stories about pandemics and plagues.
In March 2020, I wondered if COVID would wipe out global infrastructure the way it did in Station Eleven. I wondered if the pandemic would cause civil unrest on the scale it did in Y: The Last Man. I even let myself wonder if humanity would die out like it does in Oryx and Crake.
Of course, while this global outbreak has caused major disruptions in basic infrastructure, civil unrest, and millions of deaths, we’ve seen nothing so terminal as what’s depicted in those stories. In a way, that’s comforting to me. These characters have survived, and so have I.
Most of the books I recommend here have hopeful—if not happy—endings, which can also help when things feel chaotic and difficult, especially now at the one-year mark as we’re starting to see some hope with vaccine rollouts.
If you feel like reading about fictional pandemics hits too close to home, I also created a booklist of fun speculative novels to read on the beach—or anywhere!
Six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
A mysterious virus kills every mammal with a Y chromosome. Human, animal, they’re all dead. Except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. As the last man alive in a world left devastated by the loss of half its population, Yorick is pursued by scientists who want to study him and bands of “Amazons” who think the world is better off without men.
Like many post-apocalyptic stories, Y: The Last Manexplores a “what if” future while commenting on the present in significant ways. Far from being a story about how women can’t survive without men, Y is a story of how women can and do thrive without men. It’s also a story about one man—now a metaphor for all men—being forced to confront his fragile masculinity and, pardon my french, grow the fuck up, all while chaos swirls around him.
The Dreamers by Katherine Thompson Walker
In a sleepy California college town, students go to class and maybe fall in love, a single dad does his best to take care of his daughters, and a couple struggling with new parenthood attempt to navigate their fraught relationship when a mysterious illness descends. The infected fall asleep, and nothing can wake them. They become dehydrated and malnourished without hospital care.
The disease—and panic—spreads, and much like we’re seeing with this current pandemic, characters react in different ways. The Dreamersisn’t a pandemic novel, as the virus is contained to this one small town. But Katharine Thompson Walker is a master at eliminating the distance between character and reader. It feels just as if we’re experiencing the illness along with the town.
Woven throughout the viral outbreak is Walker’s exploration of the mysteries of sleep and dreams, which adds another few layers to this book. (I also loved her debut novel, The Age of Miracles, which is a post-apocalyptic climate disaster novel told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl.)
The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
The three books in the MaddAdam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, chronicle the rise of genetic engineering and the downfall of humanity because of a mysterious plague. Spoiler alert: It all goes back to the hubris of one man and his cult leader status.
I first read Oryx and Crake over a decade ago. I’m still shocked at how often I see an article about “groundbreaking science” that echoes Atwood’s predictions. Take lab-grown meat for example. Written with ruthless precision and prescient imagination, the MaddAddam trilogy will have you rethinking the wisdom of genetic engineering and whether or not humanity even deserves to continue on as a species.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Unlike the other novels on this list, Wanderers tackles an epidemic from two sides: those affected and those working to stem the tide and contain the disease. The novel is told through multiple perspectives, including a disgraced CDC epidemiologist and the sister of this new plague’s first victim.
Of course, it’s not as simple as one unknown disease; there are two new diseases causing havoc across the United States. Wanderers weaves disparate threads together. It reveals how interconnected systems—including political systems—can fail at any point and lead to an uncontrolled outbreak. That makes it incredibly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you read Amazon or Goodreads reviews for this book, you may see a lot of one- and two-star reviews that label the book overly “political.” But as we are seeing, politics are inseparable from how we react to and deal with epidemics and pandemics. Once again, Chuck Wendig exposes the flaws in the system and reveals how politics ignores science, putting citizens in peril.
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
Released on February 4, Clare Beams’s debut novel hit shelves just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illness Lessonis more akin to The Dreamers in tone and scope: it deals with a localized, mysterious illness in a progressive 19th century school for girls. When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the school, the students begin exhibiting strange symptoms.
Beams explores the oft-overlooked topic of women’s illnesses and how the medical establishment and society ignore women’s symptoms and pain. Beams’s writing is vivid and haunting, and comparisons to Kelly Link and Karen Russell are apt.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant debut novel can be read as a terrifyingly possible blueprint for the future after COVID-19. In Station Eleven, a flu pandemic wipes out huge swathes of humanity and causes societal collapse. No more power, no more running vehicles, no more industry, no more government, no more medicine.
Those who survive are forced into a pre-industrial way of life where resources are scarce. But I’m not recommending this novel because I think things are hopeless for us. On the contrary, Station Eleven shows us how people can thrive even in dire circumstances and find ways to rebuild. This book ends on a hopeful note, and also shows how important art is, especially in times of crisis.
I’ve collected these six novels, along with a few others, into a handy list over at Bookshop.org.
This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing books through Bookshop.org directly supports independent bookstores, and using my affiliate links supports my writing and this website.
This week’s book review covers Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline, the follow up to his 2011 bestseller Ready Player One. This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.
The Book Witch’s One-Sentence Review
Ready Player Two is a fast-paced and fun—though imperfect—nostalgia-fueled romp that explores deeper themes of toxic masculinity and the repercussions of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
A Brief Recap of Ready Player One
In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie (or it’s just been awhile), there are a couple things you need to know. James Halliday, who grew up in the ‘80s, created the virtual reality world the OASIS. After his death, his OASIS avatar Anorak—now a program that runs autonomously—revealed that whoever could solve the puzzle he designed would inherit Halliday’s real world wealth and an owning stake in his company. Because the stakes are so high, pretty much everyone is trying to solve the puzzle, including Wade Watts, aka Parzival, our main character, and his merry gang of friends, Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto.
People seem to either hate or love Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s nerdy love letter to the ‘80s and early video games.
The book’s detractors say it’s just nostalgia porn with no real purpose, while those who connect with it see a bit more nuance in the storytelling and a deeper message than just “the ‘80s were cool.”
I loved Ready Player One—it has some flaws, but it’s a hoot to read—and particularly liked how Ernest Cline addresses toxic masculinity and gatekeeping in nerd culture.
At the beginning of the book, Wade/Parzival is an awkward nerd boy with a chip on his shoulder who spends all his time playing video games and trying to solve Halliday’s quest. By the book’s end, Wade has had to confront his own toxic tendencies, and the imperfect legacy of his idol, James Halliday. He’s also had to learn how to be a better friend.
This character growth elevates the book above nostalgia-fueled-romp to something with more meat and consequence, at least in my opinion. Wade wins Halliday’s contest with more than a little help from his friends, but splits his winnings with them evenly. He also, of course, wins Art3mis/Samantha over and they begin a relationship in the real world at the end of the book.
Press Start to Read This Review of Ready Player Two
At the beginning of Ready Player Two, we find Wade once again bitter and broken. Samantha has broken up with him, and he’s grown distant from Aech and Shoto. He is, to put it mildly, a hot mess who’s once again become addicted to the OASIS—only now, with the OASIS Neural Interface (ONI) headset, he can plug his brain directly into the machine, making the addiction even stronger.
A number of reviewers, particularly on Goodreads, decried this as an “erasure” of Wade’s character development from the first book. I disagree. By the end of the first book, Wade had only just learned how to be a better person. Suddenly, he’s been given the keys to the kingdom, more money than he knows what to do with, and a level of fame that proves to be uncomfortable for him.
He does what many celebrities in this position have done before him: He backslides. He falls into old habits. His wealth and fame allow him to get away with behaviors he couldn’t before. He knows it’s wrong, and he knows these behaviors are why Samantha broke up with him. But he can’t seem to help himself, so we find him wallowing in shame, pity, and loneliness.
In gaining wealth, fame, and power, Wade has lost everything that was actually important to him, and Ready Player Two is the story of him fighting to get those things back.
Far from “erasing” his character development, Cline reminds us that growth isn’t a linear process. Change is hard. It’s work. And it’s easy to fall back on old habits when things get difficult—or too easy.
Is RP2 a Rehash of RP1?
Another common complaint I’ve seen about this sequel is that it’s just a repeat of the first book, but worse. I’ll get to that momentarily.
The book’s main plot kicks off when Anorak, James Halliday’s avatar, returns suddenly and informs Wade, Samantha, Aech, and Shoto that he’s made it impossible for anyone using an ONI headset to log off of the OASIS, which will cause irreparable brain damage after twelve hours of constant use. Anorak will only release his hostages if the gang is able to solve Halliday’s second puzzle: a quest for the seven shards of the Siren’s Soul.
(The siren refers to Kira Morrow, the woman James Halliday was in love with, but who instead loved and married Halliday’s partner, Ogden Morrow.)
Samantha has refused to use the ONI headsets, but Wade, Aech, and Shoto have embraced the technology. Being unable to log off and facing probable death makes them particularly motivated to find the seven shards. Despite the strain Wade’s behavior has put on their relationships, they all set out together to complete this new quest.
And this is where, yes, Ready Player Two echoes Ready Player One. But Two also takes the questions raised about the consequences of virtual reality in One and takes them to their next logical step: the question of AI. Anorak is a rogue AI, and while it seems like just another “robots bad” plot, it actually becomes much, much more complex.
That complexity, and the nuance with which Cline explores the problem, process, and repercussions of digitizing human consciousness, means I disagree with the assessment that Two is just a rehash of One. One asks “What if,” and Two follows it up with, “Okay, and then what if?”
The Glitch in the Code
None of this is to say Ready Player Two is a perfect book. The way each of the seven quests lined up perfectly with one of the party members’ expertise felt a little too perfect. And while I enjoyed the shard quest that took place on an OASIS world dedicated to Prince, it should have been at least twenty-five percent shorter.
Cline also introduces a transgender character in Ready Player Two, but the way in which he reveals L0hengrin is trans felt forced and awkward. Instead of simply letting us infer Lo was trans, and by extension just letting her be trans, he has Wade use his admin powers to look up her real-world identity and history. Wade doesn’t do this with any other character, and it felt a little bit too much like Cline wanted to make extra sure we knew that Lo is trans, instead of trusting the reader to figure it out.
Despite these issues, Ready Player Two delivers in the most important way: It’s a fun, nostalgia fueled romp that continues the first book’s exploration of toxic masculinity, jealousy, friendship, and what it means to be human.
If you’ve read Ready Player Two, what did you think? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @bookwitchblog!