THE SAINT OF BRIGHT DOORS (Tordotcom, 356 pp., $27.99), by Vajra Chandrasekera, is the best book I’ve read all year. Protean, singular, original, it forces me to come up with the most baffling comparisons, like: What if “Disco Elysium” were written by Sofia Samatar? At the same time, all you need to know about it is contained in its opening:
“The moment Fetter is born, Mother-of-Glory pins his shadow to the earth with a large brass nail and tears it from him. This is his first memory, the seed of many hours of therapy to come.”
Fetter is one of several almost-chosen-ones (they have a support group) who are raised in the expectation of a spectacular and violent destiny, but shirk or sidestep it in favor of a haunted and marginal life in the city of Luriat. All is mundane in Luriat except its “bright doors,” which “give the city its historic identity without intruding on its daily life.” These doors seem to open onto nothing, but from their keyholes emerge whispers, a cold breeze and a sense of the otherworldly. Fetter’s fascination with these doors draws him into a web of Luriati intrigue that involves his estranged and godlike father, The Perfect and Kind — whom Fetter has been trained since childhood to kill.
I can’t remember the last time a book made me so excited about its existence, its casual challenge to what a fantasy novel could be. In its slipperiness, its combination of antique registers (“megrims” for migraines, “haecceity strings” for bar codes) with contemporary digital life, it manages to pinpoint the peculiar insanity of our modernity. Atrocity is both all-obliterating and seasonal here, able to be mapped onto a calendar; childhood is a site of trauma and self-fashioning, to be both escaped and fulfilled. This novel is so intelligent and compassionate, so furious and so calm.
As a critic I often attempt to turn myself into a book’s ideal reader in order to do it justice. It’s bewildering to encounter a book for which I am, in fact, already the ideal reader, a book that gives me everything I didn’t know I needed, that makes me feel both the pinwheeling fall from climbing a step that isn’t there, and the relief of being caught before I hit the ground.
PLURALITIES (Atthis Arts, 128 pp., paperback, $14.95), by Avi Silver, is a gleaming, quicksilver flash of a book, tiny and containing multitudes. An unnamed protagonist in a world much like ours, but skewed slightly further toward capitalist dystopia, struggles with gender identity, hostile family members and degrading retail jobs. Somewhere else, far in space, a purple-skinned prince-turned-rogue struggles with his own identity issues, putting him at odds with the sentient ship in which he travels, and which he loves. Silver’s writing is funny and tender, and that self-aware humor manages to keep the book’s earnestness from turning twee, while the prose is often shockingly beautiful.
WE ARE THE CRISIS (Blackstone, 331 pp., $26.99), by Cadwell Turnbull, follows his excellent “No Gods, No Monsters,” and it’s every bit as good as its predecessor, but will be very confusing to read out of sequence. “No Gods, No Monsters” builds up to the revelation that monsters exist and live hidden within human society; “We Are the Crisis” explores the social fallout in politics, families and the secret societies at war with one another. While this premise tends to be explored in pulpier genres — superhero comics and paranormal romances in particular — Turnbull’s mode leans more toward realist portraiture. Marshaling many characters, factions and realities into his narrative, he gives almost every scene the intimate gravity of a tête-à-tête.
Turnbull particularly excels at writing realistic dialogue. So often conversations in fiction are staging grounds for escalating conflict and little else; Turnbull gives speech between people who care about and respect each other the power it deserves.
While the title of Michael Mammay’s GENERATION SHIP (Harper Voyager, 608 pp., paperback, $19.99) may read like a statement of its concept — a “generation ship” is a spaceship meant to sustain generations of human life while on an interstellar journey — I like reading it as an analogue to “Generation X,” a name for a specific cohort. More than 200 years into its journey, the colony ship Voyager is finally approaching a planet that holds the strong possibility of supporting human life. On board are people of different ages and ambitions finding themselves at odds now that their journey approaches its end.
Spanning several points of view — including a hacker, a farmer, a scientist, a security officer and the ship’s governor — the narrative skips like a stone toward its ultimate destination. It’s an impressively well-balanced page-turner of a book in terms of both craft and character: Mammay is less interested in describing events than exploring people’s decision-making processes and their consequences. So if one chapter ends on the choice to stage a heist, the next chapter begins well after the heist has been accomplished. It’s a very effective way to keep the reader’s focus from one problem to the next, propulsive and satisfying.
THORNHEDGE (Tor Books, 116 pp., $19.99), by T. Kingfisher, is a slim and lovely retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” full of melancholy charm. Toadling is part girl, part water spirit, and keeps a tense watch at a tower that houses a sleeping maiden, waiting for her to be forgotten by the world. But when, after 200 years, a young knight named Halim approaches it, drawn by a book’s account of a beautiful lady trapped in an enchanted tower, it falls to Toadling to set the record straight.
T. Kingfisher is the pen name of Ursula Vernon, a prolific author with a body of work that runs the gamut from horror to romance by way of comics, short fiction, novels and children’s books. “Thornhedge” has a particularly fine flexibility of tone that bends from sweet and shy to tragic and frightening. If I sometimes felt that the book was overlooking one potent source of horror in favor of a lesser one, I didn’t hold that against it; it’s such a pleasure to read, and Toadling and Halim are such delightful characters, that I simply let the story wash over me like Toadling’s water magic and enjoyed the ride.