Forget the flippant summer beach read. Ring in the dog days with these 10 science fiction, fantasy, and speculative novels picked as July’s best by the Chicago Review of Books. From dark, masterfully constructed plots to stories that probe the human condition, the following books will keep you perplexed—and bewildered—until the leaves begin to change. In Underground Airlines, a former slave assumes the identity of a bounty hunter and exists in an America where post-racial society is not just a detrimental theory, but an unheard-of concept. In Neon Green, a suburban family from Chicago is confronted with alien visitors and grapples with an unknown future. And in Dark Matter, a college professor wakes up unable to decipher fact from fiction.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Mulholland Books, July 5
“It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred.”
“A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He’s got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called ‘the Hard Four.’ On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn’t right—with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.”
The Year 200 by Augustín de Rojas
(Translated by Nick Caistor)
Restless Books, July 12
“Centuries have passed since the Communist Federation defeated the capitalist Empire, but humanity is still divided. A vast artificial-intelligence network, a psychiatric bureaucracy, and a tiny egalitarian council oversee civil affairs and quash “abnormal” attitudes such as romantic love. Disillusioned civilians renounce the new society and either forego technology to live as “primitives” or enhance their brains with cybernetic implants to become “cybos.” When the Empire returns and takes over the minds of unsuspecting citizens in a scenario that terrifyingly recalls Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the world’s fate falls into the hands of two brave women.”
Necessity by Jo Walton
Tor Books, July 12
“More than sixty-five years ago, Pallas Athena founded the Just City on an island in the eastern Mediterranean, placing it centuries before the Trojan War, populating it with teachers and children from throughout human history, and committing it to building a society based on the principles of Plato’s Republic. Among the City’s children was Pytheas, secretly the god Apollo in human form.
Sixty years ago, the Just City schismed into five cities, each devoted to a different version of the original vision.
Forty years ago, the five cities managed to bring their squabbles to a close. But in consequence of their struggle, their existence finally came to the attention of Zeus, who can’t allow them to remain in deep antiquity, changing the course of human history. Convinced by Apollo to spare the Cities, Zeus instead moved everything on the island to the planet Plato, circling its own distant sun.
Now, more than a generation has passed. The Cities are flourishing on Plato, and even trading with multiple alien species. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Pytheas dies as a human, returning immediately as Apollo in his full glory. And there’s suddenly a human ship in orbit around Plato—a ship from Earth.”
The Devourers by Indra Das
Del Rey Books, July 12
“On a cool evening in Kolkata, India, beneath a full moon, as the whirling rhythms of traveling musicians fill the night, college professor Alok encounters a mysterious stranger with a bizarre confession and an extraordinary story. Tantalized by the man’s unfinished tale, Alok will do anything to hear its completion. So Alok agrees, at the stranger’s behest, to transcribe a collection of battered notebooks, weathered parchments, and once-living skins.
From these documents spills the chronicle of a race of people at once more than human yet kin to beasts, ruled by instincts and desires blood-deep and ages-old. The tale features a rough wanderer in seventeenth-century Mughal India who finds himself irrevocably drawn to a defiant woman—and destined to be torn asunder by two clashing worlds. With every passing chapter of beauty and brutality, Alok’s interest in the stranger grows and evolves into something darker and more urgent.
Shifting dreamlike between present and past with intoxicating language, visceral action, compelling characters, and stark emotion, The Devourers offers a reading experience quite unlike any other novel.”
Time Siege by Wesley Chu
Tor Books, July 12
“Having been haunted by the past and enslaved by the present, James Griffin-Mars is taking control of the future.
Earth is a toxic, sparsely inhabited wasteland–the perfect hiding place for a fugitive ex-chronman to hide from the authorities.
James has allies, scientists he rescued from previous centuries: Elise Kim, who believes she can renew Earth, given time; Grace Priestly, the venerated inventor of time travel herself; Levin, James’s mentor and former pursuer, now disgraced; and the Elfreth, a population of downtrodden humans who want desperately to believe that James and his friends will heal their ailing home world.
James also has enemies. They include the full military might of benighted solar system ruled by corporate greed and a desperate fear of what James will do next. At the forefront of their efforts to stop him is Kuo, the ruthless security head, who wants James’s head on a pike and will stop at nothing to obtain it.”
Editor’s note: Wesley Chu lives in Chicago.
The Soul Standard by Nik Korpon, Caleb J. Ros, Axel Taiari, and Richard Thomas
Dzanc Books, July 5
“Across four different districts of a city that has torn itself to shreds, four different interweaving tales (each written by a different author) play out. In “Four Corners,” a morally dubious banker must keep his employer happy at any cost. The next story, “Punhos Sagrados,” concerns a boxer who finds himself torn between honor and the woman he loves. “Golden Geese”follows a hardened criminal with a terrifying condition who must come to terms with the life he’s led. Finally, “Jamais Vu” provides a stunning denouement as a man searches endless for his missing daughter, a task which is complicated by a peculiar condition: his inability to recognize faces. Told in rugged, bare-knuckled prose, The Soul Standard is a nonstop thrill-ride down the darkened avenues and through the shadowed alleys of a nightmare town.”
Editor’s note: Richard Thomas lives in Chicago.
The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
(Translated by Andrew Bromfield)
Chicago Review Press, July 1
“The Doomed City is set in an experimental city whose sun gets switched on in the morning and switched off at night, bordered by an abyss on one side and an impossibly high wall on the other. Its inhabitants are people who were plucked from twentieth-century history at various times and places and left to govern themselves, advised by Mentors whose purpose seems inscrutable. Andrei Voronin, a young astronomer plucked from Leningrad in the 1950s, is a die-hard believer in the Experiment, even though his first job in the city is as a garbage collector. And as increasinbly nightmarish scenarios begin to affect the city, he rises through the political hierarchy, with devastating effect. Boris Strugatsky wrote that the task of writing The Doomed City “was genuinely delightful and fascinating work.” Readers will doubtless say the same of the experience of reading it.”
Neon Green by Margaret Wappler
Unnamed Press, July 12
“It’s the summer of 1994 in suburban Chicago: Forrest Gump is still in theaters, teens are reeling from the recent death of Kurt Cobain, and you can enter a sweepstakes for a spaceship from Jupiter to land in your backyard. Welcome to Margaret Wappler’s slightly altered 90s. Everything’s pretty much the way you remember it, except for the aliens.
When a flying saucer lands in the Allens’ backyard, family patriarch and environmental activist Ernest is up in arms. According to the company facilitating the visits, the spaceship is 100 percent non-toxic, and the green sludge it occasionally dumps in their backyard is totally biodegradable.
As Ernest’s panic increases, so do his questions: What are the effects of longterm exposure to the saucer? Why is it really here, flashing and beeping uselessly in the backyard? And why, above all else, is Ernest the only one worrying about it?”
Editor’s note: Wappler’s novel is set in Chicago, and we’ll have a review on July 12.
The Stars Askew by Rjurik Davidson
Tor Books, July 12
“The Stars Askew is the highly anticipated sequel to the New Weird adventure begun by talented young author Rjurik Davidson. With the seditionists in power, Caeli-Amur has begun a new age. Or has it? The escaped House officials no longer send food, and the city is starving.
When the moderate leader Aceline is murdered, the trail leads Kata to a mysterious book that explains how to control the fabled Prism of Alerion. But when the last person to possess the book is found dead, it becomes clear that a conspiracy is afoot. At its center is former House Officiate Armand, who has hidden the Prism. Armand is vying for control of the Directorate, the highest political position in the city, until Armand is betrayed and sent to a prison camp to mine deadly bloodstone.
Meanwhile, Maximilian is sharing his mind with another being: the joker-god Aya. Aya leads Max to the realm of the Elo-Talern to seek a power source to remove Aya from Max’s brain. But when Max and Aya return, they find the vigilants destroying the last remnants of House power.
It seems the seditionists’ hopes for a new age of peace and prosperity in Caeli-Amur have come to naught, and every attempt to improve the situation makes it worse. The question now is not just whether Kata, Max, and Armand can do anything to stop the bloody battle in the city, but if they can escape with their lives.”
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Crown, July 26
“Are you happy with your life?’
Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.
Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.
Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, ‘Welcome back, my friend.’
In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.
Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.
Dark Matter is a brilliantly plotted tale that is at once sweeping and intimate, mind-bendingly strange and profoundly human—a relentlessly surprising science-fiction thriller about choices, paths not taken, and how far we’ll go to claim the lives we dream of.”
Editor’s note: Crouch’s novel is set in Chicago, and we’ll run an interview with him on July 26.