Vengeful Goddesses, Panther Zorro, and Time Travel Valleys: February’s Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books


What really excites me about our first monthly SFF list of the year is how unique every premise sounds, starting with some dynamic characters. You’ve got a Holmes-and-Watson duo delving into fantasy court politics, an Indigenous homestead surviving a decade after a worldwide blackout, and a genderbent Zorro. The settings are equally compelling, from the New World to a post-technological Earth to a London powered by spectral dragons. Whether you’re looking for second-world or suburban fantasy, you should have plenty of options—and with the Leap Year, one whole extra day to enjoy them.

the tainted cup

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Tainted Cup
(Del Rey, February 6)

The first installment of Robert Jackson Bennett’s new Shadow of the Leviathan series is a Holmesian murder mystery set in an epic fantasy kingdom. The detective duo are Dinios Kol, who has altered himself to memorize every detail of the crime scene, which in this case involves a corpse with a tree growing out of it; and the even more eccentric investigator Ana Dolabra, who can solve cases blindfolded but rarely leaves her home. But this case, which involves the wealthy Haza clan, is enough to pique her infamous curiosity, even as the Khanum Empire must contend with the ever-present threat of leviathans slithering out of the ocean and into their mortal affairs.

a flame in the north

Lilith Saintcrow, A Flame in the North
(Orbit Books, February 13)

Lilith Saintcrow sets the Black Land’s Bane series alight with this Norse-inspired fantasy about a witch and her shieldmaiden who journey into a land thought only to exist in myth. Every year, Solveig’s village relights their bonfire to stave off the Great Enemy despite them being defeated generations ago; this year, it is Sol’s duty. But when her brother unintentionally kills a visitor from the north, they demand her life as payment—a weregild, part hostage yet part guest, for a year and a day. Her only companion is Arneoir, sworn shieldmaiden, as they journey to the Black Land, which is even colder and darker than the stories. During their strange quest, Arn and Sol will find themselves facing an evil that no flame may be able to ward off.

convergence problems

Wole Talabi, Convergence Problems
(DAW, February 13)

Wole Talabi’s (Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon) Africanfuturist collection (sixteen stories, three of which are brand-new) recontextualizes folklore within mostly sci-fi trappings. To wit, the new novella “Ganger” retells the Yoruba legend of the hunter and the boa constrictor via a city run by AI and a young woman who must consider implanting her consciousness into an artificial body. Other stories take place anywhere from Mars settlements to a village grappling with the end of fossil fuels to a message board thread. Shigidi himself even makes a cameo in the fantasy novelette “Saturday’s Song.” And with the lengths ranging from 30,000 words to flash fiction, there are plenty of offerings for a quick sit versus a long interlude.

9781915202826

Jeff Noon and Steve Beard, Gogmagog
(Angry Robot Books, February 13)

The First Chronicle of Ludwich, an urban fantasy duology from Jeff Noon (Vurt) and Steve Beard (Six Concepts for the End of the World), sounds both familiar and not: The eponymous Ludwich is an alternate London powered by the ghost of a dragon, navigable by steam boats steered by grizzled captains like Cady Meade. When two passengers—a mysteriously ill girl accompanied by an artificial being with a crystal skull—request that the Juniper take them along the river Nysis, Cady realizes that what they’re really asking for is for her to tap into her long-dormant powers of spectral navigation. The sequel, Ludluda, will be released in November.

the bad ones

Melissa Albert, The Bad Ones
(Flatiron Books, February 20)

The premise of Melissa Albert’s (Our Crooked Hearts) latest combines true crime and urban legend: Four people disappear from the same Illinois suburb on the same night, leaving behind confused loved ones like Nora, whose estranged best friend Becca texted her only I love you before vanishing. As Nora follows the breadcrumb trail of clues that Becca has left for her at their school, it conjures old memories of the minor goddesses they created as kids—and the dangerous game that demands the utmost devotion from its participants. As eerie as the goddess lore becomes, the most chilling aspect of Albert’s story is how innately it hits upon preteen girl bonds, especially when your best friend needs you to be her entire world.

sun of blood and ruin

Mariely Lares, Sun of Blood and Ruin
(Harper Voyager, February 20)

Genderbent Zorro retelling set in sixteenth-century Spain starring a shapeshifting panther warrior? Mariely Lares makes big swings with her debut—consider me ensnared by this premise. New Spain knows Leonora de las Casas Tlazohtzin as the delicate flower destined for no more than to marry the heir to the throne; beautiful, but will faint at the sight of blood. Yet Leonora is just a cover for Pantera, who uses her forbidden magic and her deadly blades to defend the Indigenous people from Spanish control… despite being destined to be cut down in battle in the prime of her life. Is that enough for her to fulfill her fate, or will Pantera—and Leonora—discover a way to combine her two clashing identities?

the other valley

Scott Alexander Howard, The Other Valley
(Atria Books, February 27)

Love me a time travel story that applies the device to a setting rather than a person, while also giving vibes of The Giver. Sixteen-year-old Odile lives in an isolated valley that both bars visitors and forbids its residents from leaving, because of what’s over the mountains on either side: Neighboring valleys containing the exact same town, only one exists 20 years in the past and the other is 20 years in the future. When Odile glimpses officially-sanctioned visitors from the future, she surmises that they are the parents of Edme, the boy she is beginning to love… who must be here to visit their son, who has died sometime in the intervening two decades. Odile’s discovery might earn her a much-coveted apprenticeship on the Conseil, but it’s less them granting her control over the valley’s decision-making and more that they want to keep her in check. But even though she knows the future, with all its grief and change, is right over the ridge, could Odile actually change the flow of time?

the butcher of the forest

Premee Mohammed, The Butcher of the Forest
(Tordotcom Publishing, February 27)

Premee Mohammed’s latest seems to match the tight space of a novella with the taut timeframe of a dark fairytale: Two children have gone missing in the forbidden forest known as the Elmever, and Veris Thorn is the only one who can safely retrieve them. Except that the children belong to the fearsome tyrant, who will kill her and her entire village if she returns empty-handed. And if she doesn’t make it out in a day, she’ll be trapped in the Elmever forever. Worst of all, the only thing that got Veris past the riddles and traps last time was more luck than skill.

moon of the turning leaves

Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Turning Leaves
(William Morrow, February 27)

In 2018’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubeshig Rice (speculative author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation) envisioned a post-technological world through the efforts of Evan Whitesky and his family as they struggle to survive on the Anishinaabe reserve in Ontario amid societal collapse. Set a decade later, Moon of the Turning Leaves explores the homestead’s dilemma when ten years of living off the land has nearly run through their resources. As a scouting party including Evan and his daughter Nangohns investigates whether they could return to their ancestral home on the shores of Lake Huron, they encounter both hostile settlers and the footprints of another group who attempted the same journey yet mysteriously disappeared.



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