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North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud.

North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud

Small Beer Press, 300 pages, $17.50

Pain has a rich and varied language, both mundane and transcendent, with infinite variations and many subtle flavours. Pain is one of the most private experiences people face, and yet a universal experience. North American Lake Monsters uses this palette to create most of its narrative hues and textures, to sharpen and heighten the characteristics of its profoundly human, deeply flawed characters. What sets this collection of short stories apart is the way the supernatural, magical and horrific are utilized like a light source, illuminating dark places while casting even deeper shadows. Ballingrud's writing is piercing and merciless, holding the lens steady through fear, rage and disgust, showing a weird kind of love to his subjects, in refusing to turn away, as well as an uncompromising pitilessness. Angels and vampires are placed next to lost white supremacist boys and burnt-out waitresses. All are equally, horribly ugly and real.

The Human Division, by John Scalzi

Tor Books, 432 pages, $29.95

The third instalment in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series is more than a novel, occupying a nebulous mixed-media space that gestures towards the television scripts, radio plays and serialized novels of sci-fi's infancy. The Human Division is composed of standalone episodes linking together to form an overarching narrative. Guts-and-bolts military sci-fi examining the ugly and wondrous consequences of encountering hundreds of sentient races, The Human Division deals with the aftermath of an intergalactic ultimatum. The Conclave (a collective of alien races) arrives and invites Earth to join, on stern terms; Earth has been aggressively colonizing the galaxy as the Colonial Union and has run afoul of several species. The Human Division primarily follows the crew of the Clarke, with other stories and characters folded in. Each episode has its resolution, but the gradual narrative layering builds to something greater. It's an extremely successful experiment, told with keen vision and wry intelligence.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, by Catherynne M. Valente

VIZ Media, 304 pages, $16.99

Everything about The Melancholy of Mechagirl occupies a nebulous, liminal space. The text rests somewhere between poetry and prose, . The narratives are concerned with being indefinite and in-between, and the power and vulnerability that come along with this . Deeply informed by Valente's time in Japan, there is loneliness and wonderment in every line. Characters include a sentient house, a clot of dream stuff that's somewhere between a thought and human being and a lonely calligrapher who transforms into a cherrywood writing brush when visiting the spirit world. The collection also concerns itself deeply with love in unlikely and magical places: between a kanji character and self-erasing scroll; an A.I. and multiple generations of a family; a dream-eater and folding screen; and a complex love triangle between a scroll, lantern and light-eating spirit. Full of dream logic and vivid, brain-blistering imagery, The Melancholy of Mechagirl unites dystopian futures with the spirit world.

Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 448 pages, $29.95

While the universe the Temeraire series takes place is a setting of immense imaginative possibilities – straddling the line between alternate history and fantasy, set during the Napoleonic wars, in a world where dragons exist and are used in combat – the narrative of the eighth novel feels stale. The dragon Temeraire and handler Will Laurence are separated by a horrific storm that sees Laurence rescued/captured by Japanese authorities, with no memory of the last eight years. The amnesia plot device and slow memory reconstruction are tedious and largely unnecessary. However, the parts of the novels that involve other cultures' relationships with dragons are fantastic (especially the Russians), while the complex issues surrounding dragon social justice are well thought out and brightly illuminated. The final battle is also vast, epic and wildly exciting. While the amnesia plot causes a slow start and some cliché plot points, Blood of Tyrants eventually find its footing, and the prospect of Napoleonic battles, Russian winters and dragon liberation effectively piques interest in future volumes.

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