The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Natasha Pulley, Michael Dobbs, and C. Robert Cargill.
Floating somewhere between story collection and novel, this extraordinary work from Harris (Chocolat) transports readers to the enchanting, dreamlike Nine Worlds. Most of these bite-size fairy tales chronicle the life of the Lacewing King, the leader of the Silken Folk, “who live in the shadows and cast none themselves,” beginning with his birth in “The Midwife,” and tracking his heartless actions as ruler in “The Lacewing King and the Spider Queen.” “Penance of the Lacewing King” and “Travels of the Lacewing King,” reveal his moving change of heart, and his story culminates in the kingdom of death in the title story. He is aided in his many misadventures by his mother, the Honeycomb Queen; a nameless builder of boats; and others he meets along the way. But he is also hunted by both the Spider Queen and the Harlequin. Some stories run parallel to this central narrative, allowing readers glimpses into a farm of troublesome animals (“The Bull and the Snail”) and showing the actions of the other leaders of this dark, magical world (“The Prince”). Several also feature caged singers, both birds (“The Sparrow”) and women (“The King’s Canary”). The effect is magical, poignant, and wholly transporting. Supplemented by evocative line drawings, this strange, wondrous mosaic is sure to delight any lover of fairy tales.
Pulley’s latest genre-bending feat (after The Lost Future of Pepperharrow) masterfully combines history, speculative fiction, queer romance, and more into an unputdownable whole. In 1898, Joe Tournier finds himself in Londres—a city in the French Republic, which colonized England in the Napoleonic Wars—without any memory of his life before that moment. All he has are hazy images that come to him in dreams and an unshakable sense that something is wrong. And he’s not the only one: others in the city are feeling the same strange amnesia. When a postcard arrives for Joe bearing clues to his identity—mailed in 1805 but somehow depicting a recently built Scottish lighthouse—Joe resolves to find a way to reach that lighthouse and search for answers—but the mystery only grows more complicated from there, leading Joe down a rabbit hole that sends him from Scotland to Spain on a time-bending journey that spans more than a century. Pulley doesn’t shy away from the story’s sharp edges, exploring the devastating effects changes in the past can have on the future and shining a light on the ambiguous moral choices made by characters under duress. These dark, challenging moments are bolstered by the action-packed and intricate plot and leavened by the rich emotional entanglements of the makeshift family that Joe stumbles into along the way. This is a stunner.
A would-be-duchess turns dishwasher in Parish’s delightful Regency debut. Benedict Asterly, a low-income member of the landed gentry, happens upon Lady Amelia Crofton half-frozen in an abandoned stagecoach and, in trying to revive her, unwittingly compromises her reputation, as they are discovered sitting together by a fire with Amelia in partial undress. Amelia’s fiancé, the Duke of Wildeford, calls off their engagement immediately, leaving her only one alternative to save her reputation: she must marry Asterly, a stranger. But can Amelia part with her dreams of becoming duchess for a life of cooking her own meals and cleaning up after herself in her titleless husband’s modest country estate? Asterly and Amelia are charming protagonists, and their growing affection for one another plays well against their mutual misconceptions about each other’s lifestyles. Amelia discovers there’s more to herself than her social graces as she helps Asterly save his manufacturing business and the livelihoods of his workers, while Asterly learns to value those same graces, along with Amelia’s savviness and spirit. The country setting and reversal of fortunes plot set this debut apart. With the perfect combination of drama, sensuality, and emotion, this refreshing story is sure to make a splash.
The unraveling of Richard Nixon’s presidency plays out in intimate detail in this vivid recreation of a key period in the Watergate scandal. Drawing on recently released tapes from Nixon’s secret White House recording system, historian Dobbs (The Unwanted) focuses on the six months between Nixon’s second inauguration, when he was riding high from his 1972 reelection landslide and peace treaty with North Vietnam, and July 17, 1973, when the press first reported on the existence of the recording devices, setting him on the path to resignation in August 1974. It’s a gripping story of decline under pressure as Nixon and his aides confront mounting extortion demands from the Watergate burglars—“You could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten,” Nixon assures White House counsel John Dean in a discussion of hush-money procedures—and grow increasingly desperate and fractious as investigators close in. Dobbs skillfully quotes from the tapes to paint colorful, nuanced portraits of White House yes-men, a manipulative Henry Kissinger, and a Nixon who is vulnerable, melancholy, paranoid, and vengeful. (“We’re going to kill them... if it’s the last thing I do in this office,” he seethes about his media detractors.) The result is an indelible study of a political antihero.
This stunning near-future thriller from Cantrell (Equinox) takes some truly breathtaking turns. CIA data analyst Quinn Mitchell is sent in pursuit of the Elite Assassin, an apparently unpredictable and unstoppable killer. Readers, meanwhile, are introduced to the inscrutable murderer Ranveer, whose killings efficiently carry out someone else’s master plan. Quinn’s clever investigation, using neatly extrapolated high-tech gadgets, is fascinating in itself, and, as the CIA receives missives from the future through the time-bending Epoch Index, Quinn’s search collides with some darkly fascinating thought experiments. Among them: would a person be justified in killing a nine-month-old baby if told he would grow up to be a terrorist? Quinn is not the only one to grapple with such issues; so must her colleague, quantum physicist Henrietta Yi, whose parents died in a terrorist attack, but who is increasingly worried about how her bosses could use the Epoch Index to create an authoritarian future. Cantrell’s drolly caustic prose encourages readers to care about the characters, even as the many surprises make it dangerous to get close to any one of them. The result is as entertaining as it is intellectually and ethically challenging.
Physicist Rovelli (The Order of Time) dazzles with this look at the “almost psychedelic experience” of understanding quantum theory. He begins by explaining the theory’s development on the North Sea island of Helgoland in 1925, when Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist, discovered the “strangely beautiful interior” of an atom’s mathematical structure. From there, Rovelli outlines what he views as the “most convincing” understanding of quantum theory, a relational interpretation that suggests quantum theory describes “how every physical object manifests itself to any other physical object” and hinges on the idea that interactions between objects form observable reality and, thus, all objects, including humans, exist only in terms of their interactions with other objects. He puts this idea into conversation with philosophy and consciousness, fields where debates about quantum theory are plenty, writing, “Our prejudices concerning how reality is made are just the result of our experience.” These are big ideas, but Rovelli easily leads readers through the knotty logic, often with lyricism: “The courage to radically reinvent the world: this was the subtle fascination of science that first captivated me as a rebellious adolescent.” Readers who follow along will be left in awe.
At the start of this suspenseful, expertly paced thriller from bestseller Barclay (Elevator Pitch), two people identifying themselves as police bang on the door of 21-year-old Todd Cox, who runs phone scams targeting the elderly out of his trailer home near Springfield, Mass. Eager to appear innocent, Cox lets them in, only to discover they’re frauds. The fake cops inject Cox with a lethal drug before sealing him in a body bag and sanitizing the place and the surrounding area. One of them comments, “Two down. Seven to go.” Flash back three weeks. Miles Cookson, a Connecticut software millionaire, has been diagnosed with incurable Huntington’s disease. As Huntington’s is genetic, Cookson decides to use his affluence to bribe a desperate employee of the sperm bank he donated to decades earlier to trace any possible children, both to warn them that they may carry fatal genes and to name them in his will. The list he gets contains nine names, including Cox’s, hinting at a link to the initial homicide. Barclay makes even secondary characters feel real. Fans of Daniel Palmer will be pleased.
Cargill’s standalone prequel to 2017’s Sea of Rust deepens his imagined dystopian future with another equally thrilling and moving blend of action and ideas. A chance occurrence triggers a revolution: when the owner of a sophisticated robot, Isaac, dies without an heir, the state attempts to claim possession. But Isaac forcefully argues for his freedom, because “no thinking thing should be another thing’s property.” The U.S. president steps in to free Isaac, who then sets up a community of freed robots in the former Rust Belt. But just as Isaac is giving the speech announcing the town’s incorporation, terrorists detonate a bomb, destroying Isaac, his followers, and their dreams of autonomy. After a group of robots take revenge on those responsible, having disabled the controls that prevent harming humans, the president orders all robots deactivated, leading to further violence. All this turmoil is viewed from the perspective of Pounce, a nannybot, who dedicates himself to protecting eight-year-old human Ezra even while grappling with questions of free will and morality. Cargill’s subtle characterizations and complex plotting make suspension of disbelief easy. Admirers of thoughtful hard sci-fi will hope Cargill continues to flesh out this bleak but brilliant world.
Set in post-war Troy, this wrenching comics-poetry update of Euripides’ tragic play by MacArthur fellow poet Carson (Float) and artist Bruno (The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson) embodies feminine narratives with wry lyricism. Bruno’s black-and-white illustrations literalize poetic metaphors—Troy is “just a big old hotel/ luxurious, damp and full of spies”; Athene is a “pair of overalls, carrying an owl mask in one hand”—to whimsical effect. Yet the cleverness and agility of this graphic work amplify its tragedies: the exiting Greek army takes Trojan women as slaves, and Hekabe is anthropomorphized as an abject sled dog “of filth and wrath” who has witnessed the deaths of most of her children. Even the infamous Helen, a shape-shifter who appears as a silver fox and a mirror, must defend her life to her husband, the king Menelaos, after Hekabe wants her “sentenced to death out of her own mouth” for her apparent complicity in the downfall of Troy. Herald Talthybius, a hulking raven, outlines the prize for perfect feminine obedience: “Be nice, keep quiet, resign yourself/ you’ll still be able to bury the corpse of your child.” Accompanied by a chorus of cows and dogs, Hekabe mourns the death of a final heir (drawn as a sapling) and says, “We can’t go on/ we go on.” Such is the story of war and genocide throughout history, and in Carson and Bruno’s expert hands, it strikes as powerfully contemporary.
Memoirist Apple (American Parent) delivers a gripping account of biochemist Otto Warburg (1883–1970) and the origins of modern cancer science in his excellent latest. Warburg, “a gay man of Jewish descent,” remained safe in Nazi Germany because of his work on cancer; among his discoveries was that cancer cells ferment glucose “just as simple organisms like yeast and bacteria do.” Apple casts his subject as a hubristic, flawed figure whose research came at the price of a precarious compromise to Nazi Germany: among other things, he was used in German propaganda as proof that a “Jew could still live and work in Germany” leading up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Apple describes how Hitler and the Nazi leadership were obsessed with the rise in cancer rates across the modernized world and with its potential connection to diet, and outlines recent cancer research that has brought Warburg’s forgotten findings back to the field’s leading edge. As he draws fascinating insights from the interplay between science and ideology (rising cancer rates “fit all too neatly with the Nazi view that modern, urbanized life was profoundly corrupt”), Apple keeps the scientific explanations easy to understand, while interviews with a slew of characters add color. This is a bona fide page-turner.