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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    These action-packed books will keep you guessing until the end

    This month’s science fiction and fantasy books feature a flying cyborg who loses her wings, a spaceship on the run and a shape-shifting creature who falls in love. Those concepts prove just as irresistible as they sound — but you never know what surprises these books will spring on you.

    1. ‘Ocean’s Godori’ by Elaine U. Cho

    Ocean Yoon, a hotshot space pilot, risks everything to help her best friend, Teo, the scion of a wealthy family, after Teo is framed for murder by a killer who can look like anyone. Soon Teo and Ocean run for their lives, tangling with the notorious outlaw Phoenix, who has every reason to hate Teo.

    “Ocean’s Godori” is published by Hillman Grad Books, a new venture by actress and screenwriter Lena Waithe and others. Cho’s novel explores a future where Korea dominates space travel. Despite its action-adventure plot, “Ocean’s Godori” focuses heavily on developing the relationships among its lovable characters, which soon prove irresistible — though, alas, Cho takes awhile to bring her characters together.

    A theme slowly emerges of coming to terms with death, thanks to one character whose culture is based around handling the dead and a host of others who have either taken lives or lost loved ones. “Ocean’s Godori” navigates the space lane blazed by Becky Chambers and James S.A. Corey, but it manages to arrive at some exciting new destinations. The cooking scenes, in particular, are worth savoring.

    2. ‘Someone You Can Build a Nest In,’ by John Wiswell

    The plot of “Someone You Can Build a Nest In” — a monster falls in love with a monster-hunter — sounds like a recipe for drama, as hatred wars with affection. But nothing could prepare you for the gentle silliness of Wiswell’s wonderful science fiction debut (one draped in the aesthetics of fantasy), in which the shape-shifting Shesheshen finds herself in a romance with Homily, whose family has sworn to destroy her. Masquerading as a human, Shesheshen slowly discovers how much of Homily’s lovable good nature is a result of a lifetime of trauma.

    Finding “chosen family” is a huge theme in queer speculative fiction — but Wiswell makes a strong case that our stories should also delve into the sometimes inhumane structures at the heart of traditional families like Homily’s. Shesheshen’s quizzical observations about the illogic of civilization are endlessly funny, if macabre. And through it all, she wrestles with a biological urge to implant her eggs in Homily (which would kill Homily) before discovering another way to reproduce. Despite its title, “Someone You Can Build a Nest In” is about the search for a form of family that doesn’t involve colonizing someone else’s body and mind.

    3. ‘The Wings Upon Her Back,’ by Samantha Mills

    Zemolai belongs to a quasi-cult of cyborg warriors who worship a deity called the mecha god, striking terror into unbelievers on their cybernetic wings. But when Zemolai takes pity on a heretic, she’s disgraced and loses her wings. Soon she falls into the hands of revolutionaries who are determined to overthrow the fascist regime of the mecha god’s followers.

    Like Wiswell, Mills has garnered acclaim for her short fiction, and her debut novel doesn’t disappoint. “The Wings Upon Her Back” keeps up a brisk pace but makes time for beautiful character moments and genuinely provocative ideas about the nature of cities and the role of religion in society. (Mills also breathes new life into the trope of gods who might actually be alien visitors.) Zemolai’s internal monologue is studded with parenthetical asides, a technique that beautifully captures her tormented internal state. As Zemolai was manipulated and gaslit, so in turn does she try to manipulate the revolutionaries who have captured her — but she slowly comes to recognize the cycle of abuse she’s trapped in. Her journey makes for a near-perfect novel that we’ll be hearing about for a long time.

    4. ‘The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain,’ by Sofia Samatar

    A young boy lives in the bowels of an asteroid-mining ship in deep space, until he is chosen to rise to the upper levels and attend school, thanks to the intervention of a professor whose father once lived in the lower levels. But in place of an inspirational tale about education transforming someone’s life, Samatar delivers something stranger and sharper-edged.

    Samatar writes in a style that pivots effortlessly between the poetic and the clinically matter-of-fact, and her commas hit like musical beats, forming a litany that can easily sweep you away. Her world slowly comes into focus, instead of being explained or unveiled all at once, and there’s a startling, upsetting moment halfway through that recalls Allison Williams’s dangling car keys in the final act of “Get Out.” “The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain” brilliantly explores how the mechanisms of shared oppression can furnish shared liberation — because a chain can bind, but it can also connect people.

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