Let's start with "Railsea" by China Miéville (Ballantine, $18, 424 pages). Miéville is the most important writer in the 21st century science fiction and fantasy, and "Railsea: is just the latest in a steady line of superior books, ones that not only entertain but also dig deep into character, motivations and the emotional shadings of violent, yet somehow endearing, demon-hunters.
That said, it took me a while to muster enthusiasm for "Railsea," because its promised connection with "Moby Dick" wasn't that inviting. I didn't enjoy reading "Moby Dick," and I confess I'm still not sure what all the fuss is about. When I realized that the "Railsea" captain's name is an anagram for Captain Ahab, I was even less thrilled.
Then there was the transposition of Herman Melville's ships to trains, on a world where dry land is covered with tracks, and the quarry has shifted from whales to huge moles and voles. But Miéville soon pushes past "Moby Dick," imagining a world full of Ahabs, each of whom chases after certain animals (called "philosophies" for reasons that eventually become clear), if you dig for them and harpoon them when they burst through the surface of the railsea.
While playing with this element throughout the book, Miéville also builds a solid, action-filled narrative. And as always with this author, there's a purpose behind the metaphors, but to reveal it here would give away too much.
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"Hunter and Fox" by Philippa Ballantine (Pyr, $17.95, 275 pages). Ballantine isn't playing for the same high stakes as Miéville, but still she has more to offer than the usual fantasy author. A very complex back story is partly revealed in this book, the first in a multi-volume series, and the characters have more nuance than in most stories set in pre-industrial worlds with plenty of magic. As the series evolves, it's possible Ballantine will continue to take her characters, and readers, in unexpected directions, which isn't nearly as easy as it sounds, given the huge number of books written in almost every fantasy sub-genre.
"The Twelfth Enchantment" by David Liss (Ballantine, $15, 399 pages). As noted above, I don't really like "Moby Dick" that much, nor did I ever quite catch Jane Austen fever, as everyone else seems to have done. Liss is such a big Austen fan that "The Twelfth Enchantment" is pretty much an homage to the English writer.
Or it would be if Austen had included magic in her books, magic with enough power to summon demons and raise the dead (in a manner of speaking). Still, Liss maintains a distinctly English style and tone, and the adventures of his heroine, Lucy Derrick, involve handsome men, love gone wrong, reputations in peril and yes, damsels in distress.
And on top of that, "The Twelfth Enchantment" is a whole lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Miss Derrick and her companions, as she seeks to restore her rightful inheritance, find true love and save the world from over-industrialization (no joke). It's possible Liss may rustle up a sequel, or he might just return to straight historical fiction. But even if "Enchantment" remains his only foray into magic and fantasy, it's worth celebrating.
"Further: Beyond the Threshold" by Chris Roberson (47North, $14.95, 345 pages). It's a far cry from Austen to comic book heroes, but that's the jump we take with "Further: Beyond the Threshold." In it, Roberson, draws on his extensive background in comics and sets his version of Captain America 12,000 years in the future. There, Captain RJ Stone must first come to grips with a very strange world, and then, not surprisingly, battle villains who want to end individual freedom in that universe.
The chapters are short and the plot a little thin, but the pages turn. "Further: Beyond the Threshold" doesn't break any new ground, but for a lightweight appetizer before tackling the next China Miéville, it's perfect.
Contact Clay Kallam at firstname.lastname@example.org.