This week, we highlight new books from Marcia Clark, Molly Tanzer, and Camilla Bruce.
Durst (the Queens of Renthia series) imbues a thrill-filled story about monster racing with impressive thematic depth and a refreshing spectrum of female characters. Whenever human evildoers die in the land of Becar, they reincarnate as vicious kehoks, hulking beasts that combine traits of different animals. Their only chance of being freed from this monstrous form is winning the popular desert races, ridden by risk-taking humans. Tamra Verlas, once an elite kehok rider, has fallen on financial ruin that puts her at risk of losing her daughter. When her wealthy patron, Lady Evara, challenges Tamra to train a new winner in exchange for a cut of the prize, Tamra takes on desperate rookie Raia, pairing her with an untested leonine kehok, unaware that this kehok may house a powerful soul that could play a vital role in Becar’s future. Durst consistently defies expectations in both plot and characterization while exploring sophisticated themes of found family, integrity, and morality. This excellent epic fantasy will appeal to adult fans of YA authors Tamora Pierce and Megan Whalen Turner. Agent: Andrea Somberg, Harvey Klinger Literary. (Mar.)
In Clark’s excellent fourth thriller featuring L.A. defense attorney Samantha “Sam” Brinkman (after 2017’s Snap Judgment), Sam has found her dream man in Niko Ferrell, a funny, smart hunk who’s achieved global fame and fortune with a business empire centered on his martial arts skills. Her cynical belief that her happiness is too good to last is validated when their vacation on Bora Bora is interrupted by news that Gold Strike Enterprises, a company Niko invested in, has gone under. While the significant financial loss is one Niko can afford, the same isn’t true for others to whom he recommended the investment, including his mother, who’s wiped out and suffers a debilitating stroke from the resultant stress. That tragedy gives Niko a powerful motive for murder. When Niko and Sam discover the dead body of one of the men who ran Gold Strike, Niko becomes the prime suspect in what turns into a homicide case. Sam’s need to believe her boyfriend’s innocence is tested when she learns secrets about his past he withheld from her. The plot twists are both plausible and shocking in this intelligent page-turner. Fans of whodunits featuring ethical dilemmas will be pleased. Agent: Dan Conaway, Writers House. (Apr.)
Born and raised on the Louisiana bayou, restaurateur Martin shares the history, traditions, and customs surrounding Cajun cuisine and offers a tantalizing slew of classic dishes as cooked at her eatery in New Orleans, from which the title of the book is taken. Writing in elegant prose, Martin is less concerned with the still-life plating of entrées than she is with painting the landscape of her upbringing. “Water is our lifeline and our dark shadow,” she writes, reflecting a community dependent upon the fishing trade yet scarred by flooding and hurricanes. It’s no surprise then that the emphasis here is on seafood. Bottom-dwellers inhabit the opening chapters, with shrimp, crab, oysters, and crawfish each getting separate sections, though they also come together in clever ways: ground shrimp acts as the binder in Louisiana lump crab cakes and, conversely, crab-stuffed shrimp are dredged in an egg mixture containing mustard before being breaded in cornmeal and cayenne and fried. Gumbo is thoroughly examined and seven varieties are offered, including Maxine’s shrimp okra gumbo, borrowed from the author’s mother. Redfish and trout star in the fish chapter, then Martin moves to dry land with various salt pork options, okra side dishes, and, for dessert, beignets and blackberry dumplings. A sprinkling of heat and a lot of heart make this a must-have for any Cajun connoisseur. (Apr.)
Two apprentice diabolists explore dangerous magic in WWII-era Britain in the enthralling final installment of Tanzer’s Diabolist’s Library trilogy (after Creatures of Want and Ruin). Miriam Cantor wants nothing more than to discover the fate of her parents, who were part of the diabolist resistance against the Nazis until they disappeared. Miriam’s foster sister, Jane Blackwood, is preoccupied with becoming a master diabolist, motivated by her fear of the painful fate of being “rendered for parts” that awaits apprentices who fail to meet expectations. As both girls delve deeper into the diabolic arts, Jane to ensure her safety and Miriam to find her parents, their friendship is tested and they must each answer the question of how much they’re willing to sacrifice. Tanzer captures both the atmosphere of the novel’s gritty, war-torn world and the adolescent voices of her struggling protagonists. Moral ambiguity abounds in this dark, captivating coming-of-age fantasy that expertly depicts the painful loneliness of growing up and apart. Series fans and new readers alike will be entranced. Agent: Cameron McClure, Donald Maass Literary. (Apr.)
Skovron (Empire of Storms) launches his Slavic-influenced Goddess War series with this intricate, well-told fantasy. Sixteen-year-old Sebastian Turgenev Portinari has a rare talent for elemental magic, but his skills are inhibited by his father’s efforts to keep them a secret from the ruthless Aureumian Imperial Army, who recently conquered their homeland of Izmoroz. Sebastian’s sister, 18-year-old Sonya, is hiding her own secrets from the empire: she’s the last of the renowned Rangers of Marzanna, the devoted disciples of the Goddess of Winter, who the empire believes it exterminated. Where Sebastian is immature, sensitive, and vulnerable to the influence of others, Sonya is devoted to her relationship with the goddess and determined to reclaim Izmoroz from the Aureumian invaders. After imperial soldiers kill their father, the siblings are transported to the capital city, where Sebastian is conscripted into the army and persuaded by volatile Cdr. Franko Vittorio to use his powers in service of the empire, setting him and Sonya on a collision course. Both perspectives are depicted with depth and nuance, making the inevitability of their confrontation all the more painful. Skovron does an admirable job balancing large-scale and interpersonal conflicts, and strong supporting characters and cultural specificity add texture. This is epic fantasy done right. Agent: Jill Grinberg, Jill Grinberg Literary. (Apr.)
The disappearance of 74-year-old British romance novelist Cassandra Tipp from her home propels Bruce’s exceptional debut. Despite no evidence of foul play, the police are convinced that Tipp is dead and that her death may be connected to older homicide cases. Tipp was suspected of killing her husband 38 years earlier, a circumstance that launched her writing career. And 11 years after that crime, Tipp’s father and brother died in what was labeled a murder-suicide. The suspense builds as the truth about Tipp’s past and present emerges slowly and incrementally. Her will specifies that her two intended beneficiaries, her niece and nephew, must read a manuscript left behind in Tipp’s home to find a password that must be presented to the executor of the estate in order for them to claim their inheritance. An unsettling section depicts Tipp imagining her potential heirs doing just that, even as they wonder whether Tipp “really killed them all.” Bruce is especially good at raising goosebumps. Fans of Sarah Pinborough will welcome this new talent. Agent: Brianne Johnson, Writers House. (Apr.
In this disturbing dystopian tale set in the near future from Dalcher (Vox), the U.S. government has adopted a ranking system for pre–college age students, dividing them into groups based on a constantly monitored quotient or Q score. The brightest attend elite schools, while those whose quotients are at the low end are taken away from their parents and bused to remote state boarding schools. The ranking system expands to adults, who are given preferential treatment in store checkout lines based on their Q scores. This nightmare is the priority for federal secretary of education Madeleine Sinclair, whose first deputy, Malcolm Fairchild, is married to a teacher, Elena Fairchild, whose offhand remark to him years before during high school led to the current system: “Wouldn’t it be great if all the people we hated could carry their crappy GPAs around for life?” When Elena’s nine-year-old daughter is taken away to a boarding school, Elena is forced to confront the monstrous system she’s been complicit in. Dalcher combines the pace and tension of a standout thriller with thought-provoking projections of the possible end result of ranking children based on test scores. Admirers of The Handmaid’s Tale will be appropriately unsettled. Agent: Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary. (Apr.)
Lewis’s excellent debut introduces a band of well-drawn outlaws who don’t care who wins the civil war that’s ravaging their land, just so long as it ends. Young healer Alessia abandons her monastic order when it bows to the bloodthirsty General Taurix, peasant Ulnoth is out for revenge after soldiers murder his family, and soldier Corren leaves his battalion to avoid killing innocents. Though their personalities initially clash, the deserters band together in a forest encampment, where they attract other refugees. But living peacefully proves impossible, and the three new leaders enact a cunning, deadly defense against the increasingly vicious armies. When they learn that the warring armies might themselves be pawns in a larger political game, it’s up to Alessia, Ulnoth, and Corren to stop the violence once and for all. The central trio are marvelously realized, and their developments amid the ongoing horrors are effortlessly convincing. Readers who love medieval-esque fantasy will delight in this rousing tale of rebellion. (Apr.)
The shadow war of lying—and truth-telling—between Russia and the U.S. is explored in this revealing study of covert propaganda. Rid (Rise of the Machines), a strategic studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, revisits attempts by Soviet/Russian and American intelligence agencies (plus a few by the East German Stasi and others) to influence foreign governments and public opinion by spreading false claims or leaking true information. He examines dozens of operations, including the Bolsheviks’ establishment of a fake Tsarist group to confuse their real Tsarist foes in the 1920s, CIA forgeries of East German magazines in the 1950s, Soviet-sponsored conspiracy theories that AIDS started as an American bioweapon, and the Russian hacking and publishing of Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 election. There are plenty of clever, clandestine capers in Rid’s well-researched, briskly paced narrative, as well as shrewd analysis of the subtleties of making disinformation both damaging and believable, and the difficulty of knowing whether it is effective. The excellent discussion of Russian pro-Trump social media propaganda concludes that “it is unlikely that [Russian] trolls convinced many, if any, American voters,” and that its main impact was the media hysteria it generated. Rid skillfully illuminates and demystifies this ballyhooed but much-misunderstood subject. (Apr.)
Leibovitz (A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen) brilliantly charts the life and legacy of the founder of Marvel Comics in this slim but affecting biography. Leibovitz calls Stan Lee (1922–2018) an “effervescent self-promoter” and notes that “by any measure of significance at our disposal, few artists have had so much of an impact on American popular culture.” He walks readers through Lee’s childhood (he was born in New York City to poor Jewish immigrant parents), his start in the business as an errand boy for what was then Timely Comics, and his channeling of his dissatisfaction with existing characters into the development of ones that had recognizable human emotions, and which paved the way for Marvel Comics with such heroes as Spider-man, Iron Man, and Black Panther. Leibovitz examines Lee’s ideas and the inspiration behind his characters, arguing that, in order to understand the characters, they must be regarded as having been “formed by the anxieties of first-generation American Jews who had fought in World War II, witnessed the Holocaust, and reflected—consciously or otherwise—on the moral obligations and complications of life after Auschwitz.” Fans of the legendary comic book writer and publisher will devour this expert mix of biography and literary analysis. (Apr.)