Here are five remarkable books about families—chosen, imposed, or alienated—and the astonishing array of skills needed to provide for them or survive.
Fonda Lee’s OPTIONAL HEAVEN (Tordotcom, 152 pp., $22.99) combines falconry and ancient Persian mythology into a short, self-contained fantasy. In Darth, man-eating monsters called manticores stalk the landscape, voracious and unstoppable—except by the horns of giant birds of prey. The people of Darth learned to defend themselves by capturing young stones and training them in the Royal Mews to reliably hunt manticores. Called ruhkers, these trainers live strange, haunted lives dedicated to raising their roos in a ferocious and mutually beneficial partnership.
“Untethered Ski” is the story of Ester, a ruhker, who recalls the training of her first roc, Zahra. Having lost her family to a manticore attack, Esther threw herself into her work, developing close, fiery relationships with her slave, her fellow ruhkers – and no one else. Not even a prince who takes an interest in ruhking and decides to market it to a wider audience.
Like a hunt, the book has a tense and stalking pace, circling a distant tragedy before closing in on murder. At the heart of the story is Esther’s realization that she has dedicated her life to a creature whose mind she cannot know and whose love she cannot earn, but whose power she nevertheless depends on to survive each day.
While Lee’s Green Bones Saga was a sprawling trilogy rooted in the intricacies of the modern city-state, here it produces gripping action set in vast spaces written as clean and spare as dry bone, and the result is huge.
Reversing that trajectory, Martha Wells continued her best-selling Murderbot novel series with a return to full-length epic fantasy. THE WITCH KING (Tordotcom, $28.99, 414 pp.)a deeply immersive throwback to the beloved (and, for me, seminal) genre of fantasy doors from the 1990s, it’s full of cataclysmic intrigue between mostly immortal families, complete with a map and dramatis personae.
The titular Witch King, Kaiisteron or Kai, wakes up from an enchanted dream to find that he and his best friend Zide have been betrayed and imprisoned by someone close to them. Kai is a demon, capable of wielding magic and possessing the bodies of the living; Ziede is a witch, able to speak with the elemental world. They use their powers to overpower and escape their would-be captor, but discover that Zied’s wife, Tahren, has gone missing.
Together – picking up useless and strays along the way – they set out on a quest to find her and root out the conspiracy that has torn them apart. As they search for answers, Kai remembers his early life fighting necromantic wizards called the Hierarchs and rebuilding the world they shattered.
Kai is very good at protecting those he chooses to care for, and part of the pleasure of The Witch King comes from seeing his remarkable competence at work, contrasted with moments of deep, confused vulnerability. Kai’s timelines play beautifully: Elements introduced in a dizzying rush of world-building become a welcome context for flashbacks, which in turn escalate the tension in the present. Welles is at the height of his powers here and it’s relaxing to take yourself along for the ride in the company of such a phenomenal storyteller.
Intrigue among the mostly immortals also abounds with Nick Harkaway TITANIUM NOIR (Knopf, 236 pp. $28), a funny, loud book full of fantastic sentences that, as young people say, are absolutely slapstick. It’s the kind of writing that reminds you that poetry and detective fiction have a lot in common.
Cal Sounder is a staple of the genre: a private detective who’s a bit of a loner, a victim of some female predicament, and an expert on a particular kind of case—only here that particular kind of case involves genetically enhanced superhumans called Titans. In a near-future world, a highly inaccessible drug called Titanium 7 allows patients to recover from disease, injury, and aging by resetting their body clocks to prepubescence and speeding them through adolescent development, leaving them much taller and stronger.
Cal dated the drug inventor’s daughter until a serious accident made an injection necessary to save her life. The experience gave Cal an insight into the rich circles of red carpet Titans, of which there are only a few thousand in the world. Now Cal works as a consultant to the police department for criminal investigations related to Titan. So when a man with a bullet in the head and all the features of a Titan is found in his apartment — he’s 7-foot-8 and 91 years old, though he looks “about 45 with no habits” — the cops ask Calla for the case.
An example of its genre, “Titanium Noir” veers between great fun and deep melancholy. While Cal fits the profile of a hard-nosed detective, he is sad and kind, and lacks the bitter alcoholic cynicism of the stereotype.
Kelly Link’s new collection of short stories, the first since Pulitzer Prize finalist Get in Trouble (2016), is always a cause for celebration and trepidation: there are few authors whose stories so smoothly poke you in the ribs. and expertly to admire the workmanship of the handle. They in WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG (Random House, 260 pp., $27) are no exception.
Although each of the seven stories in this collection is subtitled a classic fairy tale or ballad, they are not direct retellings or reworkings; rather, Link treats them as ingredients from which to build a delicate, menacing feast. These stories have the sticky, tensile strength of spider silk, building webs that draw attention to the twigs from which they are suspended as well as the dew that glistens on the threads and the creatures caught and quivering in them.
Standouts for me included fully half of the collection: “White Road” (Bremen Musicians); “The Girl Who Knew No Fear” (The Boy Who Knew No Fear); “The Lady and the Fox” (Tam Lin); and “Skinder’s Veil” (Snow White and Rose Red) delighted me. There’s a sense of chiaroscuro to the collection, an echo of the title, certainly — the book opens with the hospitality of a white cat and ends with the obstacle of a black dog — but the more I think about the stories, the more I sort them into light and dim, sharp and shadowy.
Emma Torzs INK BLOOD SISTER SCRIBE (William Morrow, 407 pp., $30) is stunning and pristine, a debut I love to be devastated by, yet so confident and sophisticated that it’s hard to imagine where the author can go from here.
In Torso’s world, books of magic, all written in human blood, can do amazing things when someone feeds them a drop of blood and reads them aloud. Abe Calotai collected these books to protect them from falling into the wrong hands, and he raised his daughters, Joanna and Esther, to be stewards of a beautiful and dangerous library that had to be hidden at all costs; in Esther’s childhood, her mother was killed by powerful men who wanted books.
But after Abe’s death—he was drained of blood by a book that wouldn’t let him read it—Joanna and Esther became estranged: Joanna lives in her father’s house, keeping the books, while Esther spends 10 years moving out every November 2nd at her parents’ insistence. parents, for reasons she doesn’t fully understand. Joanna can “hear” magical books and detect their presence; Esther is immune to magic.
An ocean away, an organization called the Library holds these special texts, and a young man named Nicholas is its well-kept secret: his blood, when mixed with ink, allows him to write magical books. Heir to a terrible legacy, he is drawn along with the Kalotai to uncover their families’ secrets.
Torzs’s precision—for example, her attention to the mundane physicality of bookbinding—makes a well-trodden magical system feel fascinating and original. “Ink Blood Sister Scribe” accelerates like a fugue, skilfully carried to a tender conclusion. It is simply a delight from start to finish.
Amal El-Mokhtar is a Hugo Award-winning author and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of How You Lose the Time War.