A great execution of modern magical realism and historical fiction, Wayétu Moore’s debut novel She Would Be King (Graywolf, $26) is a powerful story of oppression, resistance, and freedom. Moore reimagines Liberia’s early years with her three vibrant protagonists who each have supernatural abilities. Gbessa, a girl from a West African village named Lai, was born on a day her people considered a curse. She is labeled a witch, and is subsequently ostracized throughout her upbringing. However, it is when she is left for dead that she realizes that she is different: she cannot die. June Dey was born on a plantation in Virginia to parents that have lost everything trying to protect fellow slaves. He is gifted with superhuman strength which allows him to escape. Norman Aragon was born from a forced relationship between an enslaved Maroon woman and British colonizer studying in Jamaica. He is able to fade from sight, a power he inherited from his mother. The three find each other in Monrovia, a settlement in West Africa and must navigate the establishment of their new home as they search for the family and freedom they’ve always wanted but were denied for most of their lives.
Stephen Markley’s debut novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster, $27), set in a small Northeastern Ohio town, depicts a community deeply affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the great recession, and the opioid crisis that has gripped middle America. As four former high school classmates all come home with various motives, we learn what happened to all of them, propelling them to a violent resolution.
An unsettling debut novel from R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries (Riverhead, $26) taps into the motivations that drive extremism and obsession. Set in a secluded private school, it follows the relationship between Phoebe, a former piano prodigy with a tragic past, and Will, a lapsed evangelical who has abandoned his faith. Their romance gets complicated by the machinations of John Leal, a cult leader whose religious fervor stems from his supposed stint in a North Korean labor camp. Feeling increasingly isolated, Phoebe gets drawn into the web of Leal’s cult, while Will becomes fixated on her. Through her deft handling of perspective, Kwon chronicles the ebb and tide of their relationship. She develops an uneasy atmosphere through spare and evocative description, using ambiguity to deny any easy resolution. Instead, she probes the emotional limitations that keep people from truly understanding each other.