Maybe it’s the presence of autumn on the horizon; maybe it’s the entirely understandable desire to sit down with a good book when the mood gets cozier. I’m not honestly sure what it is, but: the next two months seem to bring with them a lot more books on indie presses than I usually write about in this column. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you; looking over this list of books, I see an impressive range of work represented—and whether you’re looking to read a subdued novel of subtle horrors or an expansive tour through alternate worlds, you might just be able to find your next great read right here.
A little over two years ago, I interviewed Keith Rosson about his 2021 collection Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons. The subject of our conversation gradually shifted to encompass the apocalyptic, and Rosson said something that puts a lot of Fever House into perspective. “Maybe every generation feels like theirs is the End Times, but honestly, the scenario we’re currently in alarms me the most,” he said. “It’s a slow burn, but we’re right in the middle of it, you know? Hold tight while you can.”
[Content warning: gore, body horror]
As a lapsed Episcopalian-turned-agnostic who grew up on science fiction and superhero comics, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the divine. Spend enough time in the uncanny corners of fiction, though, and the definition of what constitutes the divine starts to look a little different. Some writers I’ve spent decades reading have spent the bulk of their career exploring nontraditional concepts of divinity and omnipotence—I feel reasonably sure that I could put together a list like this featuring only works by Neil Gaiman, to cite one example.
There’s also a way in which the fantastical can wrestle with big questions about divinity, immortality, and omnipotence in ways both unexpected and irreverent. Sometimes that comes as an outgrowth of exploring the rituals and dogma of an existing religion—consider the ways someone like James Morrow or James P. Blaylock takes aspects of Christianity and turns it into thought-provoking speculative fiction that’s unlikely to be taught in a Sunday School class. Sometimes it involves imagining a forgotten deity, or a long-dead one, or one capable of bringing eldritch horrors to bear upon the world.
So here’s a look at five books with strange gods and strange concepts of gods. Whatever your own personal cosmology might be, hopefully you’ll find something to spark inspiration in these words.
Series: Five Books About…
To read Paul Tremblay is to visit the place where three distinctive creative impulses converge. The first of these is an embrace of formal experimentation. Tremblay’s most recent novel The Pallbearers Club, for example, was told via a found document and by the commentary of another character on said document. The second is narrative ambiguity—it’s possible to read the aforementioned novel, as well as A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, as having no supernatural elements whatsoever, only flawed people struggling with events they can’t fully process.
The last component of Tremblay’s fiction, though, is an all-encompassing, pit-of-your-stomach dread. Whether or not you believe the horrors in his fiction to be supernatural in origin, they are unquestionably horrors—and Tremblay’s process of coaxing them out and revealing their full scope is equally suited for the short form and the long form.
As we get deeper into summer, the titles on offer from various indie presses take an interesting turn. Looking over the books on this list, one can see everything from surreal and phantasmagorical journeys into the weird to lost classics of the uncanny. Short story collections touch on everything from the inner lives of mecha to the world-altering powers of storytelling. Here are some notable works of speculative fiction due out on independent presses over the next two months; perhaps you’ll find your perfect summer read here.
I don’t normally recommend reading a novel while ill, but there’s something about Siddhartha Deb’s The Light at the End of the World that makes taking it in while in the midst of the slightly altered state that can come from a light sickness seem entirely fitting. Since we’re still early in the review, I should also stress that this is absolutely intended as a compliment.
There are plenty of interesting facets and elements to admire in Andrea Stewart’s The Drowning Empire trilogy, from a unique system of magic to a fantasy world—the Phoenix Empire, a series of islands on the Endless Sea—that doesn’t feel like a region of our world with a few names changed and some magical beasties thrown in for good measure. Add plenty of palace intrigue into the mix, and fortify it with a number of sympathetic characters with conflicting agenda and you have the makings of a memorable series.
What do indie presses have in store for readers this May and June? There don’t seem to be any overarching themes that dominate the next two months of the year, except for the fact that there are a whole lot of short story collections due out soon. Given who the writers of those collections are, though, that’s hardly a bad thing.
Sylvain Neuvel’s 2021 novel A History of What Comes Next began the Take Them to the Stars series—which told the story of the Kibsu, a series of mothers and daughters working behind the scenes to jump-start humanity’s exploration of space. There’s also the Tracker, a series of adversaries that follow them over the years; book two, Until the Last of Me, provided more nuance to the Trackers while also revealing more about the extraterrestrial origins of both, centuries earlier.
What’s in a name? For the characters in Michelle Min Sterling’s novel Camp Zero, the answer to that could be the difference between life and death. Much of the novel follows two characters whose lives have taken them to a remote camp in northern Canada. One is Grant, a teacher who has made his way there after a schism with his wealthy family. The other is Rose, a sex worker (or “Bloom”) at the camp’s bordello who has a secret agenda.
Rose isn’t her real name—all of the women in her profession there use aliases. But in this novel, she’s far from alone in her use of an assumed name—and before too long, it’s clear that Grant, rather than Rose, is the exception to the rule. That’s one of several ways in which Sterling uses a subtle variety of worldbuilding to illustrate some of Camp Zero’s thematic arguments.
I don’t usually do this, but: let’s start this off with a short excerpt from Jesse Kohn’s the book of webs. It might be the best way to open discussion of this impossible-to-describe book:
“Good sport,” said the doctor. “You’re quite a trooper.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I was one once actually.”
“One what?” said the eye surgeon, and Paul said, “A trooper. I was in the army. During the uprising.”
“You don’t say,” said the doctor. “What side?”
“Good question,” said Paul.
Looking at that short excerpt, you might be inclined to believe that the book of webs—the lowercase spelling is important, for reasons I’ll get into shortly—is set in the aftermath of a military conflict, possibly a civil war, where issues of trust and community are paramount.
It opens, like so many science fiction stories do, with a mission to Mars. Han Song’s novel Hospital (translated by Michael Berry) begins in familiar territory, with a crewed ship traveling to explore the surface of Mars even as its crew engages in philosophical conversations. Soon enough, things take a turn for the bizarre, with the crew seeing things on the surface of Mars that have no business being there: a bird that looks an awful lot like a peacock, for instance, and then the ruins of a hospital. That’s when the vessel comes under attack from these impossible birds and is destroyed.
It’s a good time to be a reader. We’re now into the third month of 2023, which feels less and less like a new year by the day and is slowly morphing into simply being a year, full stop. As for what the coming months have in store from indie presses, well, much like the weather in March, they’re all over the place. That’s not a bad thing. From a vision of a bizarre futuristic society to a fantasy epic that’s also an epic poem, there’s a host of innovative work due out in March and April on indie presses. Here are some notable titles, grouped thematically.
Given the context, the comparison I’m about to make might seem like a strange one. Bear with me. As the saying goes, patience is a virtue, and patience is most definitely a virtue when discussing Owen King’s The Curator.
LCD Soundsystem’s third album, This Is Happening, begins with one of the best Side 1/Track 1 combinations ever, a song called “Dance Yrself Clean.” For just over the first three minutes, the song exists in a very narrow scope, with a handful of elements: vocals, a minimal drumbeat, and a tinny melody. And then, just over three minutes in, another beat comes in out of nowhere, suggesting an entirely new sonic palette and dramatically expanding the scope of what’s possible in the scope. It’s Dorothy seeing Oz in color; it’s Jeremy Irons stepping through a door into a hidden world in Steven Soderbergh’s film Kafka.
Owen King’s The Curator has a moment like that, when a bunch of seemingly disparate elements all line up and the true nature of the story being told comes into focus. It’s not quite halfway through the book, and it suddenly makes the novel’s true nature—and, to an extent, the magic trick being played by its author—that much clearer.
It opens with a departure. From the opening pages of her novel Our Share of Night, Mariana Enriquez brings the reader into the visceral lives of her characters, zeroing in initially on a man named Juan who’s pondering the heat outside and taking preventative steps for “the headache he wasn’t feeling yet.” He wakes his young son Gaspar and they set out on a long journey—one that Juan is convinced that they must make. That journey begins in Buenos Aires. The year is 1981.
Depending on your knowledge of Argentine history, that combination of time and place might set off a few alarms.
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