Whether moving back in time to provide engaging historical fiction, or traveling at warp speed to an alternate near future or present, and throwing cautionary tales our way—these four novels know how to elucidate, teach us something new, and entertain.
‘The Plant Hunter’ by T.L. Mogford
When we first meet Harry Compton, he’s working in sales at one of the plant nurseries that literally lined King’s Road in 1867 Chelsea, London. With a background in Cultivation, he’s one of those rare prospects who was moved to sales on the strength of his looks, as a good majority of the moneyed clientele at Piggot’s are female collectors, looking to upgrade their gardens. It’s all part of the Victorian obsession with rare and exotic fauna, an obsession that has spawned the profession of plant hunters—those who go on expeditions to the other side of the world to bring back seeds and cuttings of these rare, and exorbitantly priced, plants and flowers. It’s this world that Mogford intends to introduce to us via this novel, and we are thankful for this.
A random act of charity extended by Harry to an addled plant hunter means he gets possession of a specimen of the fabled icicle tree, and a map of the Yangtze River in China showing where the tree grows. An unfortunate turn of events makes Harry a fugitive and he’s forced to sail to China in the hope of seeking fame and fortune, plus clearing his name. In Shanghai, he meets Clarissa, young widow of the established trader who was related to Harry’s mother. Together, they form a team and work to travel inland and find the tree. For Harry, it’s redemption, while for Clarissa, it’s a chance to save her late husband’s business. Historical fiction that’s also an adventure thriller, this novel should satisfy those with a botanical or horticultural bent.
‘Winchelsea’ by Alex Preston
A ripping adventure novel set in East Sussex in the 18th century, we’re transported to the world of Winchelsea and it’s community of smugglers, highwaymen, and local personages of stature trying to keep up semblances of class and officialdom, when they’re all beholden to the underground economy that keeps the seaside town afloat. Goody Brown is our guide to this yarn, and we first meet her at 16 years of age, an adopted daughter of the local doctor and his herbalist wife. And there’s “brother” Francis, who’s older than Goody and was himself adopted, after being saved from a slave ship bound for Antwerp. It’s when Goody’s father, who controls the underground cellars is murdered by the local “gang” that the story starts developing.
It’s fundamentally a story of revenge. But what marks this a novel of our times and one that bends gender, is the fact that Goody cross-dresses in order to live the life she aspires to live out. Along with brother Francis, they become members of a gang that serves as rivals to the ones who disposed of her father. Along the way, she gets infatuated with a local belle, who’s betrothed to the son of the local mayor. This son has more than a passing interest in Goody—as a girl. These complicated relationships propel the storyline in interesting directions, and to Preston’s credit, he knows how to tie these knots, then make them unravel in unexpected ways. It’s fast-paced as well, and so we’re constantly brought into a new facet of Goody’s life story.
‘The Kaiju Preservation Society’ by John Scalzi
Jamie works at a Manhattan tech start-up and thinks he’s the bee’s knees in making suggestions on improving the app, when his boss fires him and offers to relegate him to the delivery service section as a takeaway driver. When an opportunity to work for an animal rights NGO that “protects large animals” is placed on the table, he’s ready to make the jump. What he’s not told is that the large animals exist in an alternate dimension, and that they’re kaijus. It’s a human-free world (except for the KPS team) and the mythical creatures are for real—they’re walking nuclear reactors and there’s the distinct possibility of their shifting to our world via a connection between the dimensions. Great, fun sci-fi premise that’s set in our pandemic world.
What Scalzi excels in is creating this “Kaiju Earth” and making it strange enough, yet relatable, on account of the adventures of the KPS team. Jamie is the lone noon-scientist in the team, and he’s left to do the heavy lifting... literally. With a rich set of minor characters, John Scalzi knows how to inject constant surprises in the story development. If there are villains here, they come in the form of poetic justice. And if there’ll ever be a film adaptation, I can already see the audience eating this part up and whooping it up at the end of the film. There’s very much a Godzilla-meets-Jurassic-Park attitude to the novel, and the wonderful thing is how it works, while Scalzi also injects a strong human element to the proceedings, so we’re not just waiting for the next Kaiju appearance. Fun read!
‘Stringers’ by Chris Panatier
Author of the futuristic cautionary tale, “The Phlebotomist,” Chris Panatier is back with another glimpse into an alternate future but this one involves aliens. Some have described the book as a backhanded tribute to Douglas Adams and his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I completely get that, as there’s more than a passing interest in providing wry humor throughout the novel. But in fairness to Panatier, he conjures up his own brand of humor and I found it infectious. The main character, Ben, is something of an idiot savant, whose encyclopedic knowledge extends to the sexual activity of insects and strange animals, along with that of wristwatches. On everything else, he only has a middling grasp. And there’s his best friend, slacker Patton.
It’s when the two are abducted by an alien bounty hunter that the action proceeds at a clip pace, as we want to discover the Why’s of the abduction. What Panatier excels in is making the alien characters just as interesting as the humans. The bounty hunter is named Aptat, and when not in human form, we’re still not repulsed, as he displays motive and character that are not unlike those of humans who have a singular purpose of self-interest. Another of the captive “specimens” of Aptat is Naecia who in her planet would be considered something of an engineer/technician. We invest in her and how she’s been working in a faraway planet in order to support her family—much like how Filipinos overseas stake their lives to benefit those left at home. The sci-fi elements are also strong, making for an engrossing read.