Fantastic Futures and Fairy Tales | SFF Audio Stars

Speculative worlds come alive in intriguing, playful, and tense audiobooks.

Arden, Katherine. The Warm Hands of Ghosts. Books on Tape. Feb. 2024. 11:39 hrs. ISBN 9780593790854. $95. FANTASY

Arden’s (The Winter of the Witch) latest follows heroic army nurse Laura Iven, who is honorably discharged from her position in Belgium and sent home to Halifax. There, she receives her brother Freddie’s soldier trunk; the mysterious contents lead her to believe that he may not have died in battle as she had presumed. Hoping to find answers, Laura volunteers to return to the front. Alternating chapters relay Freddie’s story months prior, wherein he and a German soldier named Hans form a bond after being trapped in a German bunker. The three characters independently meet an ominous figure named Falond, a fiddler of local lore said to steal men’s souls. Is he just a man, or perhaps the devil himself? As Laura’s search deepens, the characters’ stories intertwine until the shocking conclusion. January LaVoy is masterful in her portrayal of Laura, who is desperate to find her brother amid the horrors of World War I. Michael Crouch skillfully portrays the lost Freddie, who is transfixed by the supernatural world and may be too far gone to save. The audio production is superb. VERDICT The combination of a riveting story and excellent audio narration make this a must-have for most libraries.—B. Allison Gray

Chung, Bora. Your Utopia: Stories. Hachette Audio. Jan. 2024. tr. from Korean by Anton Hur. 6:54 hrs. ISBN 9781643756226. $24.99. SF

Chung’s (Cursed Bunny) new collection is as speculative as the last but firmly haunts the science fiction end of the spectrum. Chung also writes with a directness that highlights the human aspects of each story. Similarly, narrator Greta Jung’s performance guides listeners through each possible future with a down-to-earth tone that naturalizes every strange event. Jung confidently underscores Chung’s emotional beats for a variety of characters, including an author-obsessed survivor of an explosion, a community that fights corporate invaders with pollen, and a robot whose desire for survival and friendship may be thwarted by a directive to aid all humans. The opening story serves well as an introduction to speculative fiction, and the stories that follow are even more intriguing. Almost the entirety of “The Center For Immortality Research” seems to be corporate drama before the science fictional element arrives most satisfyingly. VERDICT A genius collection of enticing tales, sure to create more fans for both the author and the narrator.—Matthew Galloway

Dunato, Jelena. Dark Woods, Deep Water. Spotify Audiobooks. Mar. 2024. 9:14 hrs. ISBN 9798368961613. $56.99. FANTASY

Once upon a time, three people were leading normal lives. Ida, a traveling healer turned con artist, used her wits to stay ahead of starvation. Elisya, a haughty rural noble, went to a tournament where she engaged in a disastrous affair. Telani was an assassin-turned-secretary to an aging prince champion. None of the three wanted to take the tiny forest path to a crumbling castle, but all were forced to. Now, all are trapped within the cursed grounds. Before they can even think of escape, they must first survive the night. Dunato’s grim fairy-tale debut is ruthlessly paced, pulling listeners through her cohesively anachronistic world and the characters’ backstories. Switching viewpoint characters and timelines between chapters keeps readers off-balance and invested. Narrators Charlie Sanderson and Barnaby Edwards perform masterfully with consistent Eastern European accents. Sanderson changes accent and pitch to communicate differences between Ida and Elisya’s chapters, and her choice of inhaled gasps for Morana, the death goddess, is both creepy and technically impressive. VERDICT A must-listen for fans of folklore and fantasy with an Eastern European bent. Tense and captivating.—Katherine Sleyko

Guild, Scott. Plastic. Books on Tape. Feb. 2024. 10:05 hrs. ISBN 9780593795910. $85.50. SF

Guild’s sparkling debut, narrated with panache by Jorjeana Marie and Will Damron, introduces listeners to a near-future world wracked by climate change and ecoterrorism and populated by plastic figurines. Erin is one such individual, living a seemingly ordered life, with a diet consisting of bland chicken and a job where she sells Smartbodies, wearable technology that allows users to escape into a virtual world free of government monitoring and violence. Having lost several people close to her, Erin is familiar with death. An attack on her workplace leads her to connect with one of her customers—Jacob, who is a blind figurine. Together, they navigate the dangers of both the virtual and the real world. Marie and Damron communicate the characters’ heartbreaking yet humorous journey, enlivened by jaunty tech-speak and episodes from a television show that reveal the cracks beneath this complex world’s shiny exterior. Musical numbers written specifically for the book enhance the novel’s sense of unreality and playfulness. VERDICT The perfect listen for fans of tragicomedy, the movie Barbie, and those seeking their next techno-dystopian universe. A must-listen.—Elyssa Everling

Johnson, Micaiah. Those Beyond the Wall. Books on Tape. (The Space Between Worlds, Bk. 2). Mar. 2024. 15:18 hrs. ISBN 9780593823842. $95. SF

Johnson’s sequel to The Space Between Worlds begins with a gruesome mystery that readers of the first book will immediately understand. Still, Scales, keeper of the peace in Ashtown, and her people don’t have that information. Scales is a character full of compassion and rage, which grew from her traumatic past and her relationship to a brutal emperor. As she works to solve the mystery, she must also contend with the inequities of life on either side of the wall, the precarious balance of power, and the family bonds. Her powerful voice is performed by Angel Pean, whose narration distinguishes ignited wrath and calculated violence just as clearly as it does weary tenderness. Through Scales’s voice, Pean guides listeners through her difficult journey. She keeps the tension high as new revelations upturn Scales’s understanding of the world, and she learns who of the large cast can truly be trusted. Several characters hold opposing beliefs about how to enact societal change, and Pean’s delivery communicates this tension. However, whether they represent fury or compromise, the importance of mental health care is a strong undercurrent throughout. VERDICT This thrilling sequel exploring justice and change would enhance any audio sci-fi collection.—Matthew Galloway

Nayler, Ray. The Tusks of Extinction. Spotify Audiobooks. Jan. 2024. 4 hrs. ISBN 9798368965208. $45.99. SF

This science fiction thriller captivates with its quick pace and its ecological message. Once, Dr. Damira Khismatullina was the world’s foremost expert on elephants—until she was brutally murdered by poachers. Later, her digitized consciousness is downloaded into the body of a woolly mammoth recreated in a Russian lab. Now, Damira is the matriarch of a recreated mammoth herd that has learned how to survive this new world. There are still hunters looking for mammoth trophies, however, and she is more than willing to protect her herd. Nayler (The Mountain in the Sea) moves this fast-paced story quickly and efficiently between the viewpoints of humans like Vladimir, who accompanies his lover Alexander on a mammoth hunting trip, and Damira, now residing in a massive mammoth and slowly unlearning her human life. The stellar voicework of both Gabrielle de Cuir and Stefan Rudnicki emphasizes the contrast between Damira fighting back in a way she couldn’t when she was alive and humans like Vladimir who are slowly, and with some dawning horror, awakening to humanity’s arrogance. VERDICT This book is made for fans of character-driven ecofiction like Lee Mandelo’s Feed Them Silence and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.—James Gardner

Talabi, Wole. Convergence Problems. Recorded Books. Feb. 2024. 10:28 hrs. ISBN 9798891787506. $24.99. SF

Whether exploring artificial intelligences that create true art, following people who cross the uncanny valley to inhabit nearly human-looking robots, or inviting Shigidi from his own fantasy novel into a story, this collection of Talabi’s (Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon) short fiction melds technology with folklore, spirituality, and politics. Sometimes, all three at once. His speculative fiction often experiments with structure, presenting, for instance, a story passed through days of the week, a blog post where much of the story progresses between the comments or even a patent form. This creates no trouble for the narrator, Ben Arogundade, who even narrates the conversational tones of the author notes. As several stories take place in Nigeria—though there are journeys through space, dreams, and an alternate version of the world—Arogundade performs the dialogue accordingly. His narration smoothly transitions between exposition and worldbuilding, character moments, and legends, creating a cohesive, incredibly pleasing auditory experience. His outstanding performance may cause issues if listeners need to make a choice between punctuality or finishing Ganger, the addictive novella within. VERDICT A collection of entertaining, thought-provoking speculative fiction that will send listeners searching for Talabi’s other works.—Matthew Galloway

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