Turn a new leaf this 2021 with these four fantastic novels

Adventures with a capital A, and fantasies with a capital F

If you’re looking for reading material come Christmas holidays and are in the mood for riveting literary fiction, here are four weighty recommendations. From adventure on the high seas, to a zany comic-book world, to a current Drama/Mystery bestseller and the latest from Susanna Clarke after 16 years of silence—something for everyone with a yen for quality fiction.

The Devil & the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

After the success of his first novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which was a Costa Best First Novel award winning, genre-bending modern-day murder mystery, you have to doff your hat to Turton for gifting us with the unexpected for his second novel. It may be a mystery once again but, this time, it’s coupled with adventure on the high seas and is set aboard a merchant vessel sailing from Batavia to Amsterdam in 1634. It’s historical fiction, with an extremely strong set of characters, and plays with genres again. There’s the occult, superstition, and maritime lore, all thrown in for good measure.

It opens on the docks of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) where a leper with a maimed tongue and clubbed foot surprisingly climbs on top of several boxes and proceeds to curse the voyage our protagonists are set to embark on. There’s renowned detective Samuel Pipps, his bodyguard Arent Hayes, Sara Wessel, who’s married to the villainous Governor-General, their precocious daughter Lia, and the Governor’s mistress Cressjie. Along with the officers, military escort, and crew of the ship, we’re thrust into a world where the Devil, in the form of Old Tom, may or may not be pulling the strings of this disaster waiting to happen. Pretty soon, you’ll be spending sleepless nights, as you can’t put this book down. 

Available on Amazon.com

Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick by David Wong

Welcome to the wild & crazy world of David Wong. A sequel to his first Zoey Ashe adventure, Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits, where trailer trash met high-tech scifi, social media, and ultra-violence, and was satirized to the point where it was unrecognizable, but felt like home. And as the second installment, this novel with Zoey firmly ensconced as head of the crime world her late father bequeathed to her. She rules the city of Tabula Ra$a, and if you recall; her father Arthur never really acknowledged Zoey or her Mom. So you have Zoey ruling the roost while other Ra$a crime bosses, plutocrats, and even her own confederates, are second-guessing her and plotting to take over.

Wong has always been about zany scenarios and out of this world characters, and this book isn’t any different. Zoey’s real best friend is her obstinate cat, Stench Machine, and her closest allies are all vivid creations in their own rights. As the humor writer, Jason Pargin is notorious for his social commentary, and using his nom de plume David Wong, he sneaks in some of this in this fantasy adventure book. The social media frenzy, how fake news becomes gospel truth, and how immersive the world of gamers has become—these are just some of the themes floating around in this story, and they all hit home as mirrors held up to ourselves and these times we live in.

Available on Amazon.com

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Here’s a novel that perfectly captures the mood of the year. There are echoes of Get Out, mixed with a dystopian, end-of-days theme. At its center is a very human drama that’s playing out between the four adults and two children that form the central cast of characters of the book. There’s a white professional couple from Brooklyn (she’s an advertising executive and he reviews books for The New York Times), and their two children who have rented an isolated, luxury home on Long Island. In the middle of the night, an elderly African-American couple comes knocking, explaining that they are the owners of the house, and something very strange is happening in the city.

Optioned by Netflix, with Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts slated to head the cast, there’s a strong sense of tension and suspense in this novel, mixed with the very practical side of what to do when things are collapsing and you don’t really know what is going on. There’s depending on the mundane and routine to try and keep things making sense, even if this going through the motions may seem futile. I believe critics raving about this book have to do with how literary and measured the revelations are. There’s always a scene crafted or emotion described that elevates the writing in a wonderful way. You just sometimes wish there was more action, but I’ll be interested to watch it transition into a film. 

Available on Amazon.com

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke 

As the author of the 2004 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, there was a time when Clarke was heralded as one of the brightest purveyors of the genre referred to as fantasy/historical fiction. Silent for 16 years, it’s only now that Clarke has published her second novel, and while completely different from Jonathan, it’s still a nimble feat of world-building. This time, she creates a vast labyrinth of a world where numerous Halls exist in some decayed and strangely haunting underworld. It seems at first to be populated by only two individuals, Piranesi, and a second, older person, only referred to as The Other. It would seem this is the world that has survived, and Piranesi is essentially a chronicler, as both seek the Great and Secret Knowledge.

Slowly but surely, Clarke removes the veils one by one, and we’re asked to suspend credulity and see what this “world” represents and amounts to. It’s a staggering reveal that most would say reminds them of something they’d see on Twilight Zone, or of more recent origin, Black Mirror. What’s great is how matter-of-fact the exposition is done—it’s almost like Clarke is purposely suppressing the suspense or horror another author would have mined. The introduction of a shadowy third character possibly inhabiting this world is what sets this off. A study of isolation, of accepting the world one lives in are parallel themes running through this novel. So many have reviewed it in terms of being a perfect pandemic fantasy-novel. But it really is much more than that. 

Available at Fully Booked