Speculative fiction is rife with depictions of combat—inventive takes on historical wars, clashes on battlefields suffused with magic, and military strikes executed by futuristic AI. What makes science fiction, fantasy, and horror such fertile ground for contemplating war?

For one, genre fiction offers an opportunity to “literalize things that are otherwise invisible or impossible to reckon with,” says fantasy novelist Katherine Arden. She and other authors PW spoke with confront visceral realities through flights of imagination.

History lessons

When Arden, whose Winternight trilogy is set in a magical medieval Russia, was considering her next project, she came across a WWI-era photograph of “a German cavalry officer on horseback, holding a lance and wearing a gas mask.” It sparked the idea for The Warm Hands of Ghosts (Del Rey, Feb.), which PW’s starred review called “a breathtaking historical fantasy [that] blends a meticulously researched WWI epic, an eloquent family saga, and a touch of the supernatural.” The story follows honorably discharged Canadian field nurse Laura Iven, who returns to Europe to search for her brother Freddie, missing in action in Belgium.

As Arden conducted research for the book, she says, it seemed to her that “the 20th century ushered in these earthly hellscapes.” She wondered, “If humans make the hellscapes, what does the devil do?”

Lucy Holland’s Song of the Huntress (Redhook, Mar.) draws on earlier European history—the eighth-century CE reign of warrior queen Æthelburg of Wessex—and the Northern European legend of the Wild Hunt. Holland, who lives near the part of England where the book is set, is fascinated by the time and place that inspired her story. “It was a war-torn landscape,” she says. “Obviously, the formation of Britain was very bloody.”

Daughters of Chaos (Overlook, July) is set during the American Civil War, but author Jen Fawkes says its central conflict is “the struggle to be a woman in the world.” In the novel, Sylvie Smith comes to Nashville to search for a missing sibling. She begins to spy for the Union Army and is also drawn into a sisterhood of women with secret, potent powers—the Cult of Chaos, whose members have been militating against men’s violence since ancient times. Fawkes says she had an epiphany while rereading the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex until the men agree to make peace. She realized there are so many untold stories of “women and the way warfare has impacted them,” she says. “In the book, the women are their own army. They become a force standing in for all women who are struggling for personhood.”

Rules of engagement

Other books use historical events as a launchpad to second-world settings. Nebula Award winner Premee Mohamed says she’d grown interested in WWII-era German pacifists and wanted to “remove some of the baggage of real-world history” while also writing about the wartime lives of civilians. In The Siege of Burning Grass (Solaris, Mar.), which PW’s review called a “haunting and insightful examination of the human capacity for violence and mercy,” the Varkal and Med’ariz empires are locked in perpetual battle. Varkal pacifist leader Alefret, tortured by his own government, is offered a chance at freedom, one that could end the fighting but would also mean moral compromise.

For the fantasy House of Open Wounds (Head of Zeus, Mar.), Adrian Tchaikovsky looked to the European revolutions of 1848, which he calls “the greatest historical upheaval that never was” because the uprisings were “brutally put down” by imperial power. The book, second in the Hugo Award winner’s Tyrant Philosophers series, focuses on a group of healers in an occupying army’s field hospital. PW’s starred review, which likened the story to “M*A*S*H written by an uncharacteristically somber Terry Pratchett,” said this depiction of “the corroding conflict between medicine and war” is “not to be missed.”

Samantha Mills, who has won numerous awards for her short fiction, makes her full-length debut with The Wings upon Her Back (Tachyon, Apr.), a “cathartic adventure,” according to PW’s starred review. In the aftermath of a civil war, the city of Radezhda is split into five sects, each worshiping a different sleeping god. Winged Zemolai, banished from the mecha sect after an act of mercy toward a spy, is rescued by a rival faction and must choose between betraying her people or begging the forgiveness of her former leader.

In Radezhda, Mills says, to rebel is to demand the right to “be heretical, to question the gods and the government.” Zemolai’s struggle to distance herself from her increasingly authoritarian sect dramatizes a behavior pattern called the irrational escalation of commitment, she explains. “It’s similar to the sunk cost fallacy, where a person or group gets increasingly negative consequences from their actions but instead of pulling back, they double down. It appears irrational, but it’s consistent. It’s the only way to justify prior things you’ve done.”

Once and future conflict

The Korean War, which led to the separation of North and South Korea, is technically still ongoing, and the fear and dread of living in a war zone suffuse the atmosphere of Yeji Y. Ham’s debut, The Invisible Hotel (Zando, Mar.). Ham, who was born in South Korea and moved to Canada at age 11, says, “I have vivid memories of, for example, having to draw posters for my elementary school—report the reds, report North Koreans. Being so young, I didn’t know what those meant, but looking back, the war had always lived with us and it still lives with us.”

In The Invisible Hotel, that presence is literal: protagonist Yewon watches her mother wash the bones of ancestors who suffered the fallout of the conflict. As Yewon begins to spend time with Ms. Han, an elderly refugee from North Korea, the younger woman’s haunting dreams of an inescapable hotel with infinite rooms grow more intense and harder to distinguish from reality.

Like many authors of military science fiction, U.S. Army veteran Zac Topping is intimately familiar with the moral complexities of war. He follows his PW-starred debut, Wake of War, with the near-future thriller Rogue Sequence (Tor, June), in which a genetically engineered super-soldier suddenly finds his very existence to be illegal. Topping says the book considers how technological innovations such as gene editing might be “implemented in for-profit militaries, and how we’re going to address that—with a knee-jerk reaction, a stopgap measure that’s not fully thought out?” He also wanted to explore a character reckoning with his past, “recognizing the fact that you didn’t always do the right thing. And if you have the ability to do that, then you have the ability to change. Your future doesn’t have to be defined by your past.”

Edward Ashton covers similar philosophical ground in Mal Goes to War (St. Martin’s, Apr.). Mal, a free AI, becomes trapped in the body of a child’s cyborg bodyguard while a civil war rages between factions who support human augmentation and those who oppose it. “Ashton’s vision of the future feels all too plausible and his blend of action and humor keeps the pages flying,” according to PW’s review.

Ashton’s time as a research engineer for the U.S. Navy brought him as close to an AI’s point of view as is currently possible. “A lot of the combat in the book is mediated through electronics and drones,” Ashton says, and the violence “seems like a game” until you recognize that the missiles are flying at real people. Mal has a similar realization. At first, “he considers himself not just at a remove from humans but superior to them.” As the conflict continues, Mal begins to see the violence as both futile and costly, Ashton explains. “He makes a decision that he is not going to do this anymore.” Mal and other novels discussed in this feature could likewise prompt readers to examine their own attitudes toward war.

Vera Kean is a writer living in New York City.

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For Queen and Country: PW Talks with Lucy Holland
In the historical fantasy ‘Song of the Huntress,’ Lucy Holland leads readers on a gender-swapped Wild Hunt.