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Jala’s Mask

Mike Grinti and Rachel Grinti. Pyr, $18 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-61614-978-9

Sentimental romance makes friends with lost-race fantasy in a terse, psychologically robust fable of star-crossed lovers. After Jula of the Bardo tribe and Azi, Kayet King of the wealthy Five-and-One Islands, marry against their families’ wishes, political upheavals, encouraged by Azi’s uncle Lord Inas, ensue. Inas’s machinations are interrupted by invading sorcerous ships, which are filled with corpses. Jala receives a grim portent from a sorcerer of Fire Mountain and struggles to avert destiny by merging her two fractured families as Azi battles his fears and becomes a true king. Supernatural horror, court intrigue, and intricate social allegiances breathe life into a familiar coming-of-age story that also includes plenty of forbidden sorcery and pulpy adventure. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Willful Child

Steve Erikson. Tor, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7489-9

Bestselling fantasy writer Erikson (the Malazan Book of the Fallen series) takes a break from gritty epic fantasy to deliver this heavy-handed Star Trek parody. Capt. Hadrian Alan Sawback, commander of the Terran Space Fleet starship Willful Child, is pugnacious and perpetually one half-step away from a sexual harassment suit. His ship’s ongoing mission is “hairy, fraught, and on occasion insanely dangerous,” a good match for a captain who can’t abide the “hell of routine.” When a rogue AI named Tammy commandeers the Willful Child’s computers, Sawback and crew dive headlong into adventures beyond the Known Rim, encountering officially designated “Strange New Worlds” replete with vaguely Greek looking ruins, mysterious portals, Muppet-like aliens, and even a super-chicken soldier in a mechanized battle suit. After decades of humorous commentary on Star Trek, most recently John Scalzi’s award-winning Redshirts, Sawback and his crew come very late to the party. That tardiness, coupled with heavy-handed plotting and thinly sketched characters, make this feel more like a parody of parodies (particularly Futurama’s egomaniacal Captain “Zap” Brannigan) than a satire of the show itself. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Halloween Children

Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss. Earthling, $40 (200p) ISBN 978-0-9838071-6-2

Prentiss and Freeman try hard but miss the mark in this tale of what happens when Halloween is canceled. Harris Naylor is the handyman of a Maryland apartment complex, living on-site with his neurotic wife, Lynn, and their two children, Amber and Mattie. After Harris posts fliers announcing that the complex’s Halloween party will be replaced by trick-or-treating, the background irritations of living in close proximity to others—an invalid being spied on by her insurance company, a frail man with an impressive stomp, a family with an obnoxious pet—take a turn for the gruesome, leading up to the horror of a Halloween with no sanctioned outlet for the spirits. The use of an apartment complex for a haunted house story is interesting, but the characters are so unlikable, particularly the lamentably foolish Harris, that readers never engage with the horror. After an enjoyable build-up, the story’s ending feels melodramatic and draws attention to its significant plot holes. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lowball

Edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass. Tor, $25.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7653-3195-3

Meaty themes of prejudice and genocide resonate beneath furiously paced noir fantasies in the latest Wild Cards shared universe anthology. Eight standalone stories collectively explore the continuing struggle of superpowered Aces and Jokers to live harmoniously with ordinary humans. When Jokers are abducted from what used to be a safe haven, Francis Xavier Black and bitter senior partner Michael Stevens search a amorphous urban nightmare setting for possible perps. Joker Jamal Norwood is on a new security detail that involves him in a series of brutal deaths. He collaborates with the voyeuristic but charismatic Eddie Carmichael, a cartoonist whose creations live and breathe. The pulpy adventures combine science and superstition against a brutal and cynical backdrop. The squalid, unfriendly streets and cold morgues are themselves characters, evoking a sense of grim vitality. This feast of mystery and metamorphosis is best suited to readers already familiar with the series. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Bitter Waters

Chaz Brenchley. Lethe, $18 trade paper (252p) ISBN 978-1-59021-577-7

Derleth Award–winner Brenchley (House of Bells) charts the treacheries of the sea and the human heart in this haunting collection of new fiction and reprints, all of which emphasize queer male desire. Deceptively light, allusive titles (“Junk Male,” “ ’Tis Pity He’s Ashore,” “Villainelle”) give away little of their stories’ knotty emotional depth. The discursive, sharply detailed style permits a remarkable control of tone, from the Gothic reinventions of “Hothouse Flowers: or The Discreet Boys of Dr. Barnabus” to the aching epigrams of “Septicaemia,” the densest and most breathtaking of several stories concerned with the deaths of lovers. Recurring figures anchor the collection across its range of genres, from crime fiction to high fantasy; for example, a sailor contends with pirates and fabulous sea beasts in “Keep the Aspidochelone Afloat,” and with a broken GPS and a Bible full of ghosts in “The Boat of Not Belonging.” This clever and subtle collection, Brenchley’s first since 1996’s Blood Waters, visits 17 unforgettable ports of call. Introduction by Geoff Ryman. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Wicker

Maria Alexander. Raw Dog Screaming, $14.95 trade paper (236p) ISBN 978-1-935738-66-4

Convincing in its haunting whimsy, Alexander’s emotionally complex faerie tale comments on grim reality with chilling metaphors. A suicide attempt leads failed horror novelist Alicia Baum to the Library of Lost Childhood Memories and Mr. Wicker, a sinister man who arouses both her passion and her disgust, before she returns to life. She ends up in the care of Dr. Farron, a gentle psychologist researching the concept of bogeymen. Alicia strives to recover missing childhood memories as increasingly violent accidents befall her friends and family, and she grows more and more convinced that Mr. Wicker is not only real but intimately connected to her past. Alexander (By the Pricking) makes the impossible feel probable, anchoring fantasy in everyday struggles. Alicia’s spitfire defiance and charming vulnerability, and the eventual romance between her and Dr. Farron, inject warmth into chilling encounters between a world that shouldn’t exist and undependable reality. Illness, loss, and heartache color this splendid, bittersweet ode to the ghosts of childhood. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Mammoth Book of Warriors and Wizardry

Edited by Sean Wallace. Running, $14.95 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-0-762454-66-2

The 25 contributors to this superior anthology have all mastered the considerable challenge of fantasy worldbuilding in the confines of the short-story. Aliette de Bodard’s “A Warrior’s Death” is a whodunit set in the Aztec-like empire of her Obsidian & Blood series, where a failed warrior is assigned to identify the perpetrator behind an unauthorized human sacrifice. The late Jay Lake evokes George R.R. Martin in “Small Magic,” in which a neglected frontier outpost clings to its mission of defending its realm against the Ice Tribes. The hidden price of traditional heroics is movingly portrayed in Carrie Vaughn’s “Strife Lingers in Memory,” in which the military successes achieved by the Heir to the Fortress, Evrad, are followed by profound night terrors that make true rest impossible. Evrad bears the memories of the lives lost under his command, and his wife’s response to his suffering is especially moving. Naomi Novik’s “Vici,” set in the world of her Temeraire novels, is a tongue-in-cheek tale of a Roman wastrel who’s given a chance to redeem himself through combat with a dragon. Fantasy fans will savor these stories and then eagerly hunt down their authors’ longer works. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Secrets of the Dead

Simon Clark. Severn, $28.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8417-6

Nightwalking mummies and sadistic drug lords make awkward bedfellows in this slow-going supernatural mystery from British Fantasy Award-winner Clark (Her Vampyrrhic Heart). Archaeological photographer John Tolworth is a happily married father of three. He comes home to Devon to assist in identifying the enigmatic “Gold Tomb” mummies of Baverstock Castle, apparently untroubled by the weird events at Baverstock that left his childhood friend Philip Kemmis physically and psychologically shattered. Confronted with impossible data, osteo­archaeologist Samantha Oldfield becomes convinced of some uncanny impending “convergence” between the ancient mummies and John’s own family. When violent thug Micky Dunt comes seeking one of John’s children to pay off a debt, the distant past and the immediate future are set for a fatal collision. Clark’s plain prose adequately evokes the bodily horror of mummification and the unquiet dead, but laborious recaps and info dumps slacken the pace until even a late-breaking illumination of this “lethal loop of events” arrives as one more flat expository statement. Agent: Lesley Pollinger, Pollinger Limited. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Path of Needles

Alison Littlewood. Quercus/Jo Fletcher, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62365-855-7

Trails of corpses, not bread crumbs, lead to terror in this captivating, psychologically complex hybrid of magical realism and police procedural from Littlewood (A Cold Season). When the body of 15-year-old Chrissie Farrell is found in the woods outside Ryhill, England, a crown placed on the dead girl’s head and other odd details remind Police Constable Cate Corbin of the Snow White fairy tale. Cate enlists the dubious aid of folklore lecturer Alice Hyland to discover the killer’s motives. Subsequent murders mirror other folkloric motifs, and Cate and Alice struggle to decipher the moral and behavioral factors linking victims to their mythic archetypes. Can Cate stop an inventive murderer in a world suddenly turned irrational by the possible existence of supernatural forces? Is the bluebird mysteriously communicating with Alice a herald of inspiration or a harbinger of death? Crisp pacing and assured prose lend authenticity to a self-referential thriller that questions our values and the stories that define us. Agent: Oli Munson, A.M. Heath (U.K.). (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Cold Earth Wanderers

Peter Wortsman. Pelekinesis, $20 trade paper (218p) ISBN 978-1-938349-17-1

The mingled joy and strife of liberation propel Wortsman’s harshly elegant dystopian fable, which falters only during a disappointingly convoluted climax. After his father is terminated via an “occupant disposal chute,” adolescent Elgin’s wayward “horizontal thinking” brands him as a possible troublemaker in a tyrannical society that requires literal and metaphorical “vertical thinking” from its inhabitants. The chance discovery of a forbidden tunnel sends him fleeing, pursued by his mother and an egotistical doctor, into the arms of Outsiders who have been digging below the vertical city. Elgin befriends the scavenger Park and new romantic interest Meadow, but he soon comes to realize that his liberators may be as treacherous as the society they rally against. In Elgin, Wortsman (Ghost Dance in Berlin) has created a sympathetic individualist whose search for freedom rings true. Inevitable betrayal in a world of paranoia and mass complacency suggests that optimism may be the worst deceit of all. Although marred by a rushed, overly obtuse ending, this intellectually provocative novel is worth a read. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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