Fantasy, Time Travel, and Cerebral Thrillers—Here are 6 Books To Dig Into Right Now
Find your next book to curl up with here with picks that include Mitchell’s ‘Utopia Avenue’ and ‘The City We Became’ by Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
If you’re in the mood for Sci-Fi Fantasy with a lot of humor and heart, you’d do well to savor this book; and how simple, yet pitch perfect the whole enterprise is. Linus Baker works as a low level functionary at DICOMY (the Department In Charge of Magical Youth). Among his regular duties is traveling to orphanages and homes where these ‘magical youth’ have been sent to, and making assessments about their welfare and the homes’ suitability in being kept operational. Living a tedious day-to-day routine, Linus has lost any spark or fire in his life, and dreams of the sea, of a life where he can complete himself—but he’s utterly resigned to his DICOMY existence.
What should have been a routine assignment to a far-flung, desolate island orphanage, becomes the glorious opportunity to redefine his life. Run by the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, the ‘kids’ are nothing short of fantastical. They include a gnome, a forest sprite, a wyvern, and a young boy called Lucy. Short for Lucifer, the child is the Antichrist. It’s X-Men: First Class meets Harry Potter, as written by Charles Dickens at the start, then becoming singularly and gloriously Klune when we reach the island. It definitely has a charm of its own, hilarious with the character portrayals, and yet throwing succinct lessons about tolerance, accepting those that are different, and how family doesn’t have to be defined by blood. Precious read.
The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North
North has, of late, been one of those much admired writers for the diversity of the subject matter of her novels. This one has a strange, malevolent premise, and works beautifully, like an extended Twilight Zone episode. William is a reluctant doctor in South Africa in 1884, when the fatal lynching incident of a young black child and him doing absolutely nothing, leads the child’s mother to lay a curse on William. The shadow of the now dead child will follow William anywhere he goes in the world, causing anyone he loves to die. And part of the curse has William becoming a truth-speaker. This means that as the shadow approaches, William has the uncanny ability of reading the innermost truths of the people he confronts.
This ‘gift’ makes William a person of interest to the Empire, and he’s recruited to be a spy. What follows is a chronicling of William’s odyssey all over the world, his powers being bent to be of service to the Crown by individuals who may have their own agendas in mind. In the course of his travels, William discovers that there are other truth-speakers such as himself. Margot is one of the more interesting encounters, and there’s something of a lingering love story attached to her; but it is doomed to be one that foreshadows tragedy. Throughout, there’s a running commentary about the political events of the period, and how knowledge is always a double-edged sword. North has the uncanny gift of talking about events of the past yet making it relevant to the mindsets of today.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
As a three-time Hugo Award winner, and one who also copped the Nebula and Locus prizes, Jesimin is one of the hottest Science Fiction writers of the day. This New York native is a proud African-American woman, and it’s a sure bet that she’ll even be more of a household name as her novels are optioned for film and tV adaptations. Her hardcore legion of readers is a surefire built-in audience for such a transition. The City We Became is the first novel of a projected Cities trilogy; and it’s no surprise to find that New York City is smack dab in the center of this fantasy adventure outing. It’s an ambitious piece of world-building, and takes aspects of what would have been given in comic books or graphic novels into the traditional novel format.
You imagine great cities as having ‘personalities’; and Jesimin takes this one step further by positing that there are living avatars of these cities. When the multidimensional universe intrudes in the form of a Woman in White, a formerly extinct city, now trying to take over the nascent New York City; it is up to the NYC avatar to protect his turf. And to accomplish this, he is aided by the five boroughs who come to lend their powers to protect the city. Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island; they’re called upon to rescue New York from a fate worse than Atlantis or Babylon. It’s adventure fantasy transposed to the present day, and it’s one crazy roller-coaster ride. Helps if you’ve visited and loved New York City.
Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson
This slight novel belies the depth of the story-telling that Robson manages to create within its paltry number of pages. There’s a droll oddness to all that transpires, and this matter-of-fact approach to the weirdness that abounds is one of the book’s peculiar charms. We are whisked to a kingdom that’s slippery in terms of temporal location; while all the wooden architecture resembles a medieval or Elizabethan city, certain passages allude to this being in the future. There’s a king whose most closest advisor is a talking cat named Clarence. And there’s Iona, one of the leading architects of the city, who every so often, has an episode resembling some slipped memory of a thing or word that doesn’t exist in the kingdom.
What’s beautifully rendered within the novel, is the constant pulling of the rug out from under us. Every so often, something unexpected happens and we’re reading, thinking, ‘Ah, so this is where he’s taking us,’ only to find out that Robson has still another surprise up his sleeve. If you recall TV anthology series such as Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, and more contemporary outings such as Black Mirror on Netflix, this reads like an extended episode. Without ever dipping into outright horror, there’s something unsettling and disturbing being offered for our enjoyment—and how it’s so masterfully laid out is part of the novel’s strange magic and power.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Mitchell is best known for novels such as Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Ghostwritten, where time slips, unconventional narrative structures, and elliptical plot lines are part of the sublime magic he weaves. This latest does play with time again, but it’s pretty much stuck to the years of 1967 and 1968. Utopia Avenue is the name of a rock band we never heard of, and the novel is an invocation to that era of popular music, the birth of outrageous musicians, and the rise and fall of a band destined for greater things that never quite materialized. It’s obvious that Mitchell has a deep love for the music of this time, the creativity that flowed, and the tragedies that ensued.
While keeping it rooted in the limited time period; Mitchell is more than expansive in providing cameos and references from legendary musicians associated with the era. Leonard Cohen, Brian Jones, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Jackson Browne—these are just some of the personages you’ll find in the pages of this novel. And interestingly enough, the band members of Utopia Avenue are full-fleshed characters who fascinate. There’s Elf, the female singer and keyboard player, the psychologically troubled lead guitarist Jasper, the charming rogue on bass, Dean, and Griff, the drummer with jazz roots. You’ll wish the band truly existed by the time you reach the last page.
Come Again by Robert Webb
Novels with a time travel premise often get bogged down by the technology, or the altering of major historical events. In the case of this latest from Webb, he ignores the ‘how’ aspect and just lets the 28-year jump happen. And to his credit, it’s a ‘small’ story that’s more about love, relationships, and regret, with the time travel element acting as an adjunct to what he really wants to say about the way we live—the humanity and compassion being the true talking points. Kate is a recent widow, with her husband Luke, having passed away from a long lingering, undetected tumor in his brain. Ever since they met at university, Luke was harboring the hope of being an acclaimed author, but that dream has eluded him.
Kate works for a common friend named Charles, who runs an online reputation management agency, basically whitewashing the online histories of people who can afford his hefty fee. As a result, there are numerous odious clients in the mix. Kate wakes up one day to find she’s in her 18-year old body, on the day she’s about to meet Luke. What to do, how she goes about it, whether Luke will even believe her, and what second chances at love are really all about make up the narrative of this entertaining story. Webb writes with a gifted, light touch, and I especially liked the passages with Kate’s father, Ben, who had passed away when Kate was in her late twenties.
Book covers from Amazon