Scotto Moore BATTLE OF THE LANGUAGE MAGI (Tordotcom, 441 pages, $28.99) is absolutely wild, a wacky dance battle from a book with a wry, grounded edge. Isobel Baillie has devoted the last eight years of her life to being the queen of the video game Sparkle Dungeon, a rave-themed virtual reality dungeon crawler and its three sequels, topping the charts at the expense of her work and her girlfriend. But his notoriety leads to an opportunity with the game’s advertising agency, Jenning & Reece. Under the guise of performing usability testing for Sparkle Dungeon 5, he is taught “power morphemes” – ways to condense layers of meaning into abstract sounds that can bend real-world physics, shatter glass, and bend space-time. Her teachers call it “combat linguistics,” but the titular linguist mages — including politicians, cult leaders, and game leaders — have competing goals in mind, and Isobel is instrumental in each of them. ‘them.
It’s a self-contained novel with enough material for six people, jumping from rung to rung of growing plot like – well, like a video game character weaving through a runner Automatique. Halfway through he had blown me away twice and racked up such a cavalcade of incidents that I couldn’t figure out where he had gone – but he found places and he went there. Hyperbole is Moore’s organizing principle, and piercing it with granular worldliness is his applied mathematics; the result is a bold and timeless tourbillon.
IN THE WAKE OF THE SERPENT (Random House, 512 pp., $18.99), Rachel Hartman’s latest fantasy epic is a direct sequel to ‘Tess of the Road’ and is set in the same world as ‘Seraphina’ and ‘Shadow Scale’. Publicly, Tess is on a quest: to sail through the Archipelagos to the South Pole and find the Polar Serpent, for science and for her friend Pathka, who suffers from an illness that only the Serpent can cure. Privately, Tess is on a mission for the Queen of Goredd: to spy on the activities of the neighboring nation of Ninys in the Archipelagos and report any aggression against its native peoples.
Hartman’s novels are notable for the compassion she brings to the construction of a layered world, developed through observation and discussion with our own. But this compassion is not comfortable; it requires disconcerting its protagonists, making them scratch their ideals and their assumptions as if at a moult. In Hartman’s first duology, Tess’ sister Seraphina had to learn to love and accept the parts of herself she had learned to keep hidden, while “Shadow Scale” forced her to learn uncomfortable truths about the world that had been kept from him. Tess follows a similar trajectory in her books, healing from family trauma in “Tess of the Road” only to find herself, in the sequel, taking a crash course in settler colonial theory (and practice).
In line with its predecessors, “In the Serpent’s Wake” is wondrous, instantly immersive and deeply touching. But whereas previous novels focused narrowly on their protagonists, this one has a wider cast, better serving its larger ambitions: to challenge settler assumptions about civilization and identity, stories and their storytellers. Where reality obscures, erases and elides the truth, it falls to fantasy to correct the record.
At Delilah S. Dawson’s THE VIOLENCE (Del Rey, 498 p., $28) is set in a post-Covid Florida, on the cusp of a very different pandemic. It’s the year 2025 and Chelsea Martin is living a seemingly idyllic life in a gated community with her wealthy husband, two daughters and fashionable little dog. In reality, Chelsea’s husband is physically and emotionally abusive and has systematically cut her off from any friend or support system aside from her cruel and self-centered mother. But as a new disease called violence spreads – causing brief individual bouts of amnesiac rage in which those infected beat the nearest living thing to death – Chelsea sees an opportunity to free herself and her daughters. .
Dawson’s prose is a kind of knife work: short, sharp jabs after agonies of tension to clench your teeth, whether in Chelsea’s marriage, her teenage daughter Ella’s relationship with her boyfriend, or the relationship of her mother with her own powerful husband. The virus intersects in shocking and transformative ways with the casually accumulated and painfully sublimated violence of their daily lives. What could have been a flimsy allegory is instead a carefully and surprisingly tilted mirror: some people are falsely accused of being infected; some falsely claim that infection is an excuse for their actions; some struggle to control the violence, while others try to induce it.
While painting a chilling portrait of domestic violence, “The Violence” also feels like the first real Covid novel I’ve read, and not just because it acknowledges a recent past of masks and lockdowns. It also makes two paired and opposing pandemic fears viciously explicit: the fear of killing people with your disease and the fear of being killed by the disease of others. There’s a dizzyingly effective passage in which a group of infected people unload themselves by naming the people they’ve murdered – their partners, their parents, their children. It’s impossible not to read, in there, a kind of awareness of the realities of our current pandemic and how we will think about it in the future.