Genre fiction is full of killing machines and supernatural warriors, characters whose very bodies are weapons and whose whole existence is mayhem. In many stories, these fighters may find themselves rubbing elbows with civilian noncombatants, who offer logistical support – or need protection. But what happens when a hardened warrior lives in the midst of a peace-loving community of artists or scientists?
Three extremely popular authors of science fiction and fantasy have new books out that explore a question that inevitably results from this idea: What happens when an elite fighter becomes the boon companion to a group of peaceful oddballs and begins to develop skills that have nothing to do with combat? Along the way to finding an answer, the hardened warriors in these stories find purpose, connection and even love.
1. ‘Bookshops & Bonedust,’ by Travis Baldree
The Spokane resident’s debut, “Legends & Lattes,” made a huge splash with its story of Viv, who decides to leave her successful mercenary career and open a coffee shop despite being a hulking, Tolkeinesque orc. In this prequel novel, a younger Viv is just starting out as a sword for hire when an injury forces her to rest up in a small town, where she befriends a local bookseller whose store is struggling to survive.
Like the first book, “Bookshops & Bonedust” also puts a low-stakes, cozy story about a small business into the type of fantasy setting that usually features epic battles. This time around, Viv isn’t trying to set down roots – as soon as she’s healed up, she intends to rejoin her crew. That dynamic lends a bittersweet cast to the friendships she forms in the small town of Murk, as everyone gets attached despite themselves. This tone is accentuated by Viv’s relationship with Maylee, a baker who turns out to be an ex-mercenary herself.
Prequels sometimes feel unnecessary and can even cheapen the original stories. But Baldree manages to add to Viv’s story in a way that feels both organic and vital, and this second book is even better than the first.
2. ‘A River of Golden Bones,’ by A.K. Mulford
A.K. Mulford is a TikTok sensation and best-selling author whose work features queer characters prominently. “A River of Golden Bones” is the start of a new trilogy set in a fantasy world where four kingdoms are ruled by people who turn into wolves at will. When Princess Calla’s sister is put into an endless sleep by an evil sorceress, Calla goes on a perilous journey to save her and the kingdom. Along the way, Calla comes to identify as nonbinary.
“A River of Golden Bones” could easily have been yet another epic quest novel, except that early on, Calla joins a troupe of traveling musicians. At first, the musical group seems like nothing more than a convenient hiding place while Calla flees from an evil king, but its members become Calla’s chosen family, bringing out an artistic side in the knife-wielding action princess. The relationship between Calla and these performers becomes the most compelling part of the book, giving rise to questions about gender and the difference between a protector and a tyrant.
Defeating evil is important, sure – but the real thrill is finding people who make you want to be your fullest self. It’s lovely, life-affirming stuff.
3. ‘System Collapse’ by Martha Wells
Murderbot, first introduced in Wells’ “All Systems Red,” is a cyborg security guard who just wants to watch soap operas but keeps getting sucked into dealing with human nonsense. With every passing book, more humans rely on Murderbot, and it can’t stop itself from caring about the fragile scientists under its protection.
The latest book, “System Collapse,” has many of the mainstays of the series: humans in trouble, mysterious, spooky old facilities and an evil corporation. But Wells comes up with a fascinating new twist that redefines Murderbot’s relationship with its human friends: This time, Murderbot is suffering from a mysterious malfunction that keeps it from being its usual highly efficient self. And the latest corporate skulduggery requires Murderbot to access its creativity in a whole new way.
As long as Wells keeps finding new things to say about a creature who loves human stories but feels uncomfortable around humans, we’ll keep following Murderbot into dark, scary places.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “Promises Stronger Than Darkness,” the final book in a young adult trilogy that began with “Victories Greater Than Death.” Her other books include “The City in the Middle of the Night” and “All the Birds in the Sky.” She’s won the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Lambda Literary, Crawford and Locus awards.