Four strange new science fiction and fantasy novels from February


Raise a many-feathered tentacle if you love stories in which people are transformed into bizarre new shapes. If so, you’re in luck: This February, four new science fiction and fantasy books feature some truly unreal transmogrifications.

Sterling Karat Gold” by Isabel Waidner is a quick read, written in simple, clean prose — but once you’re finished with it, you might spend quite a bit of time wondering what, exactly, you just read.

On its face, “Sterling Karat Gold” is the story of Sterling, a nonbinary performance artist who is assaulted by matadors on the streets of London and then accosted by a time traveler from the future. But Waidner’s novel is actually a strange collage, which performs much the same function as the performance art series that Sterling organizes: It destabilizes the notion of reality and conjures a “counternarrative” to our oppressive sense of normality. Sterling’s performance art slowly becomes indistinguishable from the Kafkaesque legal system that entraps the performers. As disorienting as Waidner’s writing can become, it’s also a rollicking good time.

The science fiction novel “Meru” by S.B. Divya also features a protagonist who feels trapped: In Divya’s world, humans are forbidden from doing science and exploring the stars, until one named Jayanthi hatches a clever scheme to travel to a planet where her sickle-cell disease would provide a unique advantage. On the long journey to the planet Meru, Jayanthi forms a bond with her self-aware ship, Vaha, that turns into a taboo-breaking love affair.

Divya delves into one of the core questions of science fiction: What does it mean to be human? In the process, it also asks if we can live in harmony with our environment or if must we wreck every place we visit, as Jayanthi’s post-human jailers believe. But Divya’s story takes a handful of digressive turns — some of which pay off better than others — and the big questions it asks get even bigger, encompassing the nature of community and what it means to belong to each other. “Meru” proves a worthy addition to the canon of post-human space epics.

Perhaps the most surreal book of the bunch is “Sing, Nightingale” by Marie Hélène Poitras (translated by Rhonda Mullins), in which the patriarch of an aristocratic French family develops strange wounds that bleed words, spelling out a long-suppressed story of violence against women. For generations, the family has disposed of young women (known as “desideratas”) and their illegitimate offspring in the nearby forest, but a young woman named Aliénor has arrived to uncover this shameful history and liberate all the people who’ve been trapped by the past.

“Sing, Nightingale” is, by design, a disconcerting book: At times it seems to take place in the distant past, but mentions of modern technology crop up throughout. The text is peppered with quotations from playfully cruel French nursery rhymes. And Poitras constantly describes food in a way that is both sumptuous and unsettling. (Prepare to read a lot about “head cheese.”) The overall effect is one of decadence laced with a creeping sense of horror.

Speaking of decadence laced with horror, Roshani Chokshi’s “The Last Tale of the Flower Bride” is a delightfully meta fairy tale in which a scholar of folk tales and mythology marries a woman who is hiding a monstrous secret. From the start, Indigo Maxwell-Casteñada appears to be a creature of faerie, or a mythic beast: a captivating beauty, just so long as you don’t look too closely at the wrong moment.

“The Last Tale of the Flower Bride” is a fine addition to the shelf of novels about ordinary people being seduced by wealth and glamour — but its real strength is the way magic emanates from every exquisitely crafted sentence. Chokshi’s characters are obsessed with fables and legends, and they see magic everywhere. Even if the story’s events can be explained by mundane logic, you can’t help believing that the House of Dreams where Indigo grew up has a mind of its own and that its locked garden, the Otherworld, hides a portal to another realm. When we finally learn the dark secret of Indigo and her childhood friend, Azure, it feels like the best conjuring trick ever.

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