Science fiction and fantasy are awash with heroines endowed with incredible powers, but it’s slightly rarer to find a female protagonist with real emotional depth, one who can face the darkness and keep her humanity. Luckily, four recent novels feature women who go through hell—literally, in one case—but still manage to build rich and beautiful relationships. Along the way, everyone also contributes to building a better world.
Lily Brooks-Dalton’s “The Light Pirate” feels like a minor miracle: a book about a world ravaged by climate change that manages to be filled with warmth and compassion. Wanda is born in near-future Florida during a cataclysmic storm that decimates her family, and we follow her into old age as the world slowly transforms.
Brooks-Dalton unreservedly portrays the devastation and suffering that results from flooding and temperatures too high to go outside during the day. But the true genius of “The Light Pirate” lies in the kindness with which Brooks-Dalton treats his characters, who could easily have been one-note stereotypes in the hands of a less skilled author. When you first meet a surviving “prepper” hoarding goods, for example, you think you know who this person is, but Brooks-Dalton peels away layer by layer until a more complex and lovable portrait emerges.
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Wanda has ill-defined psychic powers (involving glowing bacteria), which seem a bit pointless in an otherwise grounded novel. But, overall, “The Light Pirate” is proof that climate fiction is maturing, producing nuanced and nourishing work.
Hadeer Elsbai’s “The Daughters of Izdihar” also features characters that defy expectations. Nehal’s parents force her to marry Nico, scion of a rich family, but Nico turns out not to be the jerk of her you expected. Instead he is a feminist, secretly in love with Giorgina, a bookseller and activist who fights for women’s rights. Giorgina is heartbroken that the man she loves has married someone else, but the two women become uneasy allies nonetheless.
Elsbai’s Egyptian-inspired fantasy world is both compelling and fascinating, and Elsbai shows how patriarchy weighs heavily on these two women, despite Nehal’s high social status and Nico’s best intentions. Both Giorgina and Nehal possess magical abilities, which serve as a metaphor for the ways in which women’s power is suppressed. ‘The Daughters of Izdihar’ takes its characters to some scary places, but also shows how their alliances can help them thrive.
A sci-fi love story of the first order comes once in a blue quasar, so Aliette de Bodard’s “The Red Scholar’s Wake” is worth celebrating. When data analyst Xích marries the human avatar of a sentient pirate ship, Rice Fish, it should only be a business deal, but then the two begin to develop feelings for each other. The pirate ship and his new wife have many disagreements about the morality of piracy but also about what makes a good marriage, giving some spark to their post-nuptial courtship.
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“The Red Scholar’s Wake” tells a thrilling story of pirate rivalries and epic battles, proving to be a more than worthy addition to the canon of post-human space opera. And the romance is really, really hot. You’ll want to read it twice: first to hold your breath as these two wives make out. And secondly, to absorb all the clever ideas and good times that feel totally human, even in this stellar context.
Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House” – a novel about magical shenanigans among the secret societies of Yale University – was an unmitigated triumph, so the return of protagonist Alex Stern and her mystical version of the Ivy League is very welcome. In the sequel, “Hell Bent,” Alex is solving the usual assortment of magical murders and ancient mysteries, but she’s also trying to save her mentor from Hell, which requires her to assemble a bigger team around her. Watching this damaged loner assemble a ride-and-die crew of friends is endlessly entertaining, and Bardugo finds new depths for most of her supporting cast.
“Hell Bent” seems like a worthy continuation of the story that began in “Ninth House”, even if this time the activities of those secret societies take a bit of a back seat. Alex remains a great hero of urban fantasy, treading the edge of the abyss as his past threatens to catch up with her. In a season of books about women surviving the unthinkable and still keeping their hearts open, Alex is both the last survivor and the best at making friends.
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