Sci Fi

4 new sci-fi and fantasy novels about girls who survive the worst


Science fiction and fantasy are awash with heroines who have amazing powers, but it’s slightly rarer to find a female protagonist with real emotional depth, one who can face up to the darkness and hold onto her humanity. Luckily, four recent novels feature women who go through hell — literally, in one case — but still manage to build rich, beautiful relationships. Along the way, each also helps to build a better world.

The Light Pirate” by Lily Brooks-Dalton feels like a small miracle: a book about a world wrecked by climate change that manages to be full of warmth and compassion. Wanda is born in near-future Florida during a catastrophic storm that decimates her family, and we follow her into old age as the world slowly transforms.

Brooks-Dalton unstintingly portrays the devastation and suffering that come with floods and temperatures too high to go outside during the day. But the real genius of “The Light Pirate” lies in the gentleness with which Brooks-Dalton treats her characters, who could easily have been one-note stereotypes in the hands of a less-skilled author. When you first meet a survivalist “prepper” who’s stockpiling goods, for example, you think you know who this person is, but Brooks-Dalton peels back layer after layer until a more complex, lovable portrayal emerges.

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Wanda has ill-defined psychic powers (involving glowing bacteria), which feel a bit unnecessary in an otherwise grounded novel. But, overall, “The Light Pirate” is proof that climate fiction is maturing, producing works that are both nuanced and nourishing.

The Daughters of Izdihar” by Hadeer Elsbai also features characters who defy expectations. Nehal’s parents force her to marry Nico, a scion of a rich family — but Nico turns out not to be the jerk you were expecting. Instead, he’s a feminist, who’s 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 still become uneasy allies.

Elsbai’s Egyptian-inspired fantasy world is compelling and fascinating, and Elsbai shows how patriarchy weighs these two women down, 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 that 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 flourish.

A top-notch science-fiction romance comes along once in a blue quasar, so “The Red Scholar’s Wake” by Aliette de Bodard is worth celebrating. When data analyst Xích Si marries the human avatar of a sentient pirate ship, Rice Fish, it’s just supposed to be a business arrangement — but then the two of them begin to develop feelings for each other. The pirate ship and her new wife have plenty of disagreements about the morality of piracy but also about what makes for a good marriage, lending some sparks to their post-marital courtship.

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“The Red Scholar’s Wake” spins a thrilling yarn about pirate rivalries and epic battles, while proving 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 this one twice: First to hold your breath as these two wives discover each other. And second to soak up all the clever ideas and lovely moments that feel totally human, even in this star-spanning context.

Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House” — a novel about magical shenanigans among Yale University’s secret societies — was an utter 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 striving to rescue her mentor from hell, which requires her to gather a bigger team around her. Watching this damaged loner bring together a squad of ride-and-die friends is endlessly fun, and Bardugo finds new depths to most of her supporting cast.

“Hell Bent” feels like a worthy continuation of the story begun in “Ninth House,” though the activities of those secret societies take a bit of a back seat this time around. Alex remains a great urban fantasy hero, stomping along the edge of the abyss while her past threatens to catch up to her. In a season of books about women who survive the unthinkable and still keep open hearts, Alex is both the ultimate survivor and the best at making friends.

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