New Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

An evergreen question for our times: How do we fix the world?

In Blake Crouch’s UPGRADE (Ballantine, 341 pp., $28), Logan Ramsay has seen firsthand what happens when you try to improve on nature. While attempting to genetically modify rice, Ramsay’s mother, Miriam, provoked the Great Starvation: devastating the planet’s staple crops, killing millions of people and leading to the criminalization of gene editing. Logan’s been trying to atone ever since — by helping the government hunt down rogue geneticists. But while raiding a secret lab, he’s exposed to a designer virus that rewrites his DNA, making him stronger, faster and smarter, and embroiling him in a war for humanity’s future.

“Upgrade” is sleek and propulsive, a page-turner with unexpectedly beautiful passages that give you pause amid the thrills. “I had extraordinary dreams and an ordinary mind,” says Logan, whose thoughtful, anguished perspective provides the book with much of its depth. Logan as a son, a father, a brother, is much more interesting than Logan as an augmented warrior, and I appreciated how much that was part of the book’s design.

But while the novel raises several ethical and philosophical questions, it isn’t always interested in exploring them. This would be fine if Crouch weren’t foregrounding the emergent brilliance of his protagonist; it’s a little frustrating to see so-called geniuses siloed off to work against each other, blind to the difference between a conversation and an irreconcilable ideological split. It’s not “Flowers for Algernon,” but if Michael Crichton had written a superhero novel, it would look a lot like “Upgrade.”

Robert Jackson Bennett’s LOCKLANDS (Del Rey, 546 pp., $28.99) His Founders trilogy, an epic fantasy that blends Renaissance Italy aesthetics with the ingenuity of the industrial and computing revolutions concludes to ask hard questions about late capitalism and the technology entwined with it. “Foundryside“ introduced “scriving,” proprietary magic writing that persuades objects to be denser or lighter or faster than they are; “Shorefall“Exploded what happens when powerful people have different ideas about how to use magic to fix the world. This final volume delves into scriving’s origins, and takes the resilience of its core characters to their limits.

It has been eight years since Shorefall Night, when a powerful, malicious intelligence came into being, named itself Tevanne (after the city of its birth) and set out to conquer and reshape the world. During that time, a former thief named Sancia Grado and her technologically brilliant wife, Berenice, have built a secret seafaring community on great mechanical ships hidden from Tevanne’s continent-consuming gaze. Tevanne uses scriving to turn people into unwilling hosts for its consciousness and fodder for its projects. Sancia and Berenice wage guerrilla warfare against it, having developed their own scriving-powered enhancements. But while Berenice is certain that winning requires ever more clever technology, Sancia isn’t so sure.

It’s so rare to love every single book in a trilogy, to admire the aim, precision and storytelling stamina of an author this much. The fatal flaws of trilogies are plentiful: an explosive but overpromising beginning, a sagging middle, an insufficient end; characters whose arcs aren’t sustained; dropped threads, rushed acts. There’s none of that here — just the sense of a careful, experienced hand at the rudder, navigating the story home.

Alex Jennings’s THE BALLAD OF PERILOUS GRAVES (Redhook, 456 pp., $28) is a wild and wonderful debut, teeming with music, magic, family and art. Perilous Graves; his little sister, Brendy; and their best friend, Peaches, live in the marvelous city of Nola, where graffiti can walk, swamp rats can talk and the right kind of music can even pick locks. But the city’s magical existence depends on nine foundational songs that live inside Doctor Professor’s piano, and those songs have escaped — or they’ve been released by someone who means Nola harm. Doctor Professor recruits the kids to retrieve the songs, even though Perry’s pretty sure he isn’t anything but ordinary, and shouldn’t aspire to be.

This book is gorgeously written, with prose I wanted to eat off the page: Music sounds “like giant rose petals unfurling in the air, smooth and fragrant”; boats are “docked on the Mississippi, their varicolored sails furled against the wind like birds sleeping with their heads under their wings.” The effervescent invention of Jennings’s work is dazzling; it was absolute pleasure to have no idea where the book would go from one page to the next.

It’s perhaps odd to love the middle of a book more than the end, but that was the case here. The book is at its best when it keeps pulling colorful silk rabbits out of its sly and stylish hats, but wrapping up the whole proved less satisfying. There were so many beautiful, evocative elements introduced, only to be abandoned or given short shrift when I expected them to weave together into something surpassing its parts. When I think back on reading it, though, I feel as if I’m seeing sound and hearing colors, overwhelmed by the beating heart and joy of it all.

Amal El-Mohtar is a Hugo Award-winning writer and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”

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