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All the Right Places

Jenna Sutton. Berkley, $7.99 mass market (336p) ISBN 978-0-425-27995-3

Sutton’s contemporary erotic romance debut combines sweet romance, steamy sex, and emotional drama, and even though all the elements are individually well executed, they don’t quite cohere. Quinn O’Brien, head of a prominent jeans company, reluctantly hires up-and-coming designer Amelia Winger to create a new line of accessories for their floundering women’s division. Ambitious and resourceful Amelia quietly makes a deal with Quinn’s sister, Teagan, to rework the entire women’s division behind Quinn’s back. Amelia intends to keep her relationship with Quinn entirely professional, but their intense attraction, and Quinn’s determination to get his way, make that impossible. Persistent Quinn occasionally becomes manipulative, and while the conflicts are strongly rooted in character traits, the extent to which Amelia shoulders the blame for them is disconcerting, particularly given her unhappy past. Inviting settings and many appealing secondary characters—not including Teagan, who unfortunately mostly remains a cipher—are all pleasant enough, but the central struggle soon becomes off-putting. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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In the Distance

Nikka Michaels and Eileen Griffin. Carina, $3.99 e-book (182p) ISBN 978-1-4268-9971-3

Romance fans looking for heat will want to get into the kitchen of the fictional Seattle bistro where 20-year-old Tyler Mitchell works. Tyler’s parents kicked him out when they discovered he was gay. He roamed the streets until Bistro 30 co-owners James Lassiter and Ethan Martin took him in. Now Tyler is in culinary school, trying to focus on his career. But Ethan’s ex, wealthy Trevor Pratt, visits from New York City and immediately takes a liking to the young sous-chef. The plot evolves with a good balance of tension as Tyler and Trevor endeavor to build a relationship despite the distance between them. Tyler must overcome his street-kid defensiveness, and Trevor needs to tone down his extravagant and privileged lifestyle. James and Ethan also have to pull back from mother-henning their ward and trust Tyler to make his own decisions. There is just enough to savor in this sweet yet salty story. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Way into Darkness

Harry Connolly. Radar Avenue, $15.99 trade paper (366p) ISBN 978-0-9898284-6-8

Connolly’s epic fantasy comes to a resounding resolution (after The Way into Magic) in this gory, action-packed third episode. The once vibrant Peradaini Empire has become a scattered collection of tyrannical holdings struggling to feed and house the refugees fleeing an invasion of monsters. Tejohn Treygar, once fiercely loyal to the king above all else, now realizes the very survival of the human race depends on him, transcending any of his political concerns. He reunites with the young magic-user Cazia to hunt down a scholar reputed to have a powerful fighting spell, but when they finally reach their goal, they discover the scholar gone mad and his research destroyed. Armed primarily with their wits, Tejohn and Cazia must innovate, rally the survivors, and lead from the front through surprising twists and turns. This violent, tense installment successfully wraps up the deeply complex story, though some readers will wish the protagonists learned more through deduction and less from blazing revelation. There’s so much going on that the immersive prose sometimes feels expository, but the sweeping storytelling propels the reader right to the satisfying finale. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Phoenix

Nnedi Okorafor. DAW, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1019-3

This haphazard prequel to Okorafor’s postapocalyptic first novel for adults, Who Fears Death, explores the circumstances that led to that apocalypse. Phoenix is a three-year-old biological weapon who looks and acts like a 40-year-old woman. Escaping from the facility where she was created, Phoenix flees from a malevolent organization bent on recapturing her and bending her to their will. While this installment answers burning questions from Who Fears Death, it lacks much of the nuance and intrigue that make the author’s other work so beloved. Okorafor once again creatively melds European and African mythologies into a fresh hybrid, but the wonder and magic aren’t enough to distract from the flat characterization and bland narration. This tale of oppression is brimming with anger, but without a compelling reason to care about the characters, Okorafor’s vital larger messages are lost. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Points of Departure

Patricia C. Wrede and Pamela Dean. Diversion (diversionbooks.com), $17.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-62681-555-1

The witty, unusual first joint collection from Wrede (Thirteenth Child) and Dean (Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary) reprints nine stories from the series of shared-world anthologies set in the magical city of Liavek, as well as adding one previously unpublished story (“Of Fish and Fools”) and one written for this compendium (“Shards”). The stories fit together into a sprawling, self-contained narrative surrounding the Benedicti family, political émigrés who may have brought their home country’s mad god with them. The tangles of the various Benedicti siblings and connections take them throughout Liavek, a city filled with scatterbrained deities, a street of wizards that’s not always there, a beneficent church of people planning suicide, and the mixing of several different cultures after waves of conquest. Dean and Wrede admirably match styles, and their stories range from funny to tragic and back at the turn of a clever phrase. The city lives and breathes as many fantasy cities do not, and the repetition of basic information at the beginning of each story is easy to tolerate. This deeply enjoyable journey to Liavek will be of interest to longtime fans and newcomers alike. Agent: Ginger Clark, Curtis Brown Literary Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Ascendance

John Birmingham. Del Rey, $9.99 mass market (400p) ISBN 978-0-345-53991-5

In the third installment of Birmingham’s Dave vs. the Monsters series (after Resistance), Dave Hooper, an American oil rig worker and reluctant superhero, continues to battle the inhuman hordes that are attempting to conquer and devour all humans. With his superspeed, ability to stop time, and enchanted splitting maul (which he names Lucille), he’s a one-man army, but he’s still learning how to handle the pressure. He’s joined by sexy Russian double agent Karen Varatchevsky, who uses her own empathic powers ruthlessly as she goads him on to further success. But the monsters have numbers and cunning on their side, as well as the knowledge and talents of traitorous human geniuses. Birmingham injects a tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top sensibility into this action-packed adventure. Dave is a perennial screwup, while the ultracompetent Karen is repeatedly compared to the Marvel Comics superheroine Black Widow; they’re the oddest of odd couples. On the side of the monsters, the strangely endearing Threshy mixes urban slang with a scientist’s brilliance, to rather surreal results. New readers will have an easier time starting with book one. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Evening’s Empires

Paul McAuley. Gollancz (Trafalgar Sq., dist.), $16.95 trade paper (376p) ISBN 978-0-575-10081-7

The fourth in McCauley’s Quiet War space opera series (after In the Mouth of the Whale) is a typically imaginative and complex vision of the far future. Nineteen-year-old Gajananvihari “Hari” Pilot is a member of a family of junk peddlers, who salvage what machinery they can from derelict settlements. Hari, a clone of his deceased brother, is introduced in desperate circumstances; he’s been living on a remote asteroid for over a month, following the hijacking of his family’s spaceship. Hari was the only person to escape; he managed to take with him a human head that contains valuable research files. His dull, challenging, solitary existence is interrupted when his asteroid comes under attack; after surviving the assault, he escapes to seek the truth about his family’s fate and the files’ source and contents. The book’s greatest strength is the detailed high-tech worldbuilding, which includes creations such as a cult whose members “infect themselves with mites that construct molecular archives in the bones of their skulls.” The focus on only one character makes this installment easier to follow than its predecessors. Agent: Mic Cheetham Literary Agency (U.K.). (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Broken House

Tom La Farge. Spuyten Duyvil (spuytenduyvil.net), $18 trade paper (374p) ISBN 978-1-941550-25-0

Ambition, revenge, and legacy drive the unlikable characters in La Farge’s meandering and overly crowded trilogy opener. In a decaying Despotate resembling early 20th-century Morocco, the Despot declares war on neighboring city-state Rhem because their lighthouse spoils his view of the stars. Incompetent Gen. Shandimus repeatedly retreats, poet Drytung and playwright Root chronicle the war to advance their literary careers, and teenage ’Nna flees her sadistic mother to become an army cook and prostitute. After Shandimus dismisses her, ’Nna is desperate to improve her social standing. When she gains notoriety as a saucier, she uses hallucinogenic herbs to influence her diners and plan her revenge. The story’s priorities are peculiar: four pages are spent describing all the plants in a garden, while the war with Rhem is skipped entirely. However, the relegation of women to menial roles (sex workers, slaves, trophy wives) is drearily familiar. La Farge (Zuntig) simply throws in too many ingredients—cooking, gardening, herbal magic, theater, Machiavellian politics, warfare—until the stew becomes a muddle. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mama and the Hungry Hole

ohanna DeBiase. Wordcraft of Oregon, $12 trade paper (154p) ISBN 978-1-877655-85-2

DeBiase’s exquisitely crafted debut novella straddles a line between magical realism and metaphorical truth in a story that explores ties among three generations of women, the persistence of innocence even in the most desperate of childhoods, and the transformative power of stories and dreams. Mama Elise, hoping to escape her feelings of profound sadness, brings her young daughter, Julia, to a sparse rural environment. Julia, feeling isolated, befriends a tree who has watched the changes on the land as generations of humans come and go. Julia also accepts other connections that her mother refuses: a friendship with Juanita, a neighbor who cooks calabacitas and talks to Julia about Jesus despite Elise’s angry protestations, and the love of Nana, Elise’s mother, who’s come to recover her lost daughter and normalize her granddaughter’s life despite her own griefs. DeBiase’s storytelling, both in the overall narrative and in the actual tales her characters tell, deftly excavates the beauty in brokenness and the strange sweetness in sorrow. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Masterminds

Kristine Kathryn Rusch. WMG, $18.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-56146-625-2

Rusch wraps up the near-future Anniversary Day Saga, set in her Retrieval Artist universe, with this deeply satisfying eighth entry (after Starbase Human). For decades, conspirators have worked toward the destruction of colonies on the Moon, part of a plan to destabilize the Earth Alliance. Two attacks, caused by clones trained as suicide bombers, have created a crisis atmosphere; the third attack is designed to be the worst one yet. Familiar characters Miles Flint, Noelle DeRicci, and Det. Nyquist have small pieces of the big picture, but as their respective investigations bear fruit, they realize the true scope of the emergency. Now it’s a race against time to find the masterminds behind the bombings, identify the traitors in their midst, and defuse the crisis. Rusch juggles the ensemble cast and numerous plots skillfully, offering up a cerebral thriller that’s part mystery and part action-drama with a ticking countdown. The human element plays well against the tense atmosphere, and frequent scene shifts help provide a sense of momentum and foreboding. While it’s almost essential to have read the previous installments, this is a very strong payoff for the series. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2015 | Details & Permalink

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