Review | These four new sci-fi and fantasy beach reads have big ideas, too


It’s starting to be beach read season, which calls for addictively suspenseful, fast-paced books crammed with romance and action. But this spring, if you love science fiction and fantasy, four new books combine nonstop thrills with fascinating ideas that’ll keep you thinking long after you’ve devoured them.

Nick Harkaway made his mark with bizarre romps like “The Gone-Away World” and “Angelmaker.” Now he’s changing things up with the gritty “Titanium Noir,” a hard-boiled detective story in the vein of Raymond Chandler, where detective Cal Sounder crashes like a wrecking ball through a world of privilege and secrets.

In “Titanium Noir,” the ultrarich can stay young forever thanks to a miracle drug, but a side effect causes growth spurts that turns them into literal giants. Harkaway has a field day describing the enlarged bodies of the rich (though, alas, he occasionally spills over into fatphobia). Harkaway’s mastery of brutal fight scenes is in full evidence, especially in scenes where Cal Sounder fights dirty against a much stronger opponent, and the mysteries have a fascinating resolution. If “Titanium Noir” turns out to be the first book in a series of Sounder’s adventures in a land of great science and a terrible GINI coefficient, I’d welcome more.

Bina Shah’s 2018 novel “Before She Sleeps” won comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale” for its nuanced portrayal of a misogynistic dystopia — and praise from Margaret Atwood herself. Shah’s latest book, “The Monsoon War,” takes place in the same futuristic Middle Eastern country, where devastating wars and a plague have reduced the population of fertile women, and surviving girls are prized for their reproductive value.

“The Monsoon War” follows a feminist uprising that strikes back against the patriarchy, aided by a fascinating cast of characters including a housewife-turned-spy and a fighter-turned-assassin. Shah explores some of the ways people survive under unjust systems, including disguising their daughters as sons to save them from being stolen and sold into marriage. Betrayals, reversals, action and nail-biting suspense make for an addictive story — despite a somewhat tangential middle section about the politics of a neighboring country — and the characters and their incandescent fellowship will keep you obsessed. I found myself underlining passages, like when Shah writes that a powerful love between two women “makes death seem impossible, when love can burn this bright.”

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath” by Moniquill Blackgoose is an early contender for the best fantasy novel of 2023. It’s one of those books that you have to thrust into the hands of everyone you know, just so you’ll have people to talk about it with. An indigenous girl, Anequs, finds an egg, which hatches to produce a dragon that’s bonded to her — but according to the laws of the Anglish, who’ve colonized this alternate version of North America, Anequs must go to a special school to learn to control her baby dragon. If she fails her classes, her dragon, Kasaqua, will be slaughtered.

What follows is reminiscent of R.F. Kuang’s “Babel”: Anequs is one of two Indigenous people at an elite school full of colonizers, who expect her to assimilate to their more “civilized” mores — but Anequs resists any suggestion that her own people’s knowledge or culture are inferior. Blackgoose’s worldbuilding is rich and fascinating, from the Norse-inspired Anglish culture to the complex layers of Anequs’s own society on Naquipaug island, to the alchemical properties of dragons’ exhalations. But what makes “Dragon’s Breath” such an absorbing read is Anequs herself: clever, resourceful, generous and uncompromising in the face of colonial condescension. This novel has garden parties and classroom scenes that are more suspenseful than most books’ epic battles.

Looking back at the books above, you’ll notice they share a thread of individuals caught up in oppressive, unreasonable systems — and that theme absolutely animates “Some Desperate Glory” by Emily Tesh. In Tesh’s science fiction debut, Earth has been destroyed in a war against an alliance of alien civilizations called the majoda — but some humans still carry on the fight against the aliens, including a young woman named Valkyr.

At the start of “Some Desperate Glory,” Valkyr is a true believer in the battle against the majoda, but she’s in for the rudest of awakenings. Tesh writes compellingly about Valkyr’s slow realization that she’s mistaken an abusive patriarchy for a valiant cause, and the story blends thrilling action with a mind-bending course in cosmic metaphysics, which keep shifting your sense of what this book is about. If you’re looking for a page-turner with fascinating ideas, then “Some Desperate Glory” absolutely qualifies.

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