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(ID)entity

P.J. Manney. 47North, $14.95 trade paper (405p) ISBN 978-1-5039-4849-5

Manney continues her award-nominated Phoenix Horizon series of geopolitical cyberthrillers with a second volume that mixes action with questions of selfhood in the shadow of global catastrophe. In (R)evolution, the uploaded human consciousness called Major Tom exposed the worldwide machinations of the Phoenix Club, causing tumult and revolution across the planet that appeared to lead to the destruction of the club’s power. Now Tom’s erstwhile friend and current nemesis, Carter Potsdam, who had been uploaded and incarcerated within Tom’s virtual home, the Memory Palace, has escaped to lead a multipronged attack. The assault combines the trashing of cryptocurrencies, a “weaponized narrative” rewriting Tom as the villain, and the kidnapping of identity purveyor Dr. Who. Tom’s allies must find a way to download Tom back into a physical body to rescue Dr. Who and prepare for “Civil War 3.0.” Personal identity concepts are explored through uploaded or downloaded characters and a young hacker and Major Tom fangirl, Veronika Gascon, who’s trans. Manney’s intricate worldbuilding includes a resurgent Chinese empire and the Southern States of America, a nation reconstituted from fragments of the former U.S. This near-future science fiction thriller should have broad appeal. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Blade of Empire

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Tor, $27.99 (496p) ISBN 978-0-7653-2439-9

Vieliessar Farcarinon has made herself High King of the Elves in the enjoyable second of Lackey and Mallory’s epic fantasy trilogy (following Crown of Vengeance). Most of the Hundred Houses of the elven domains have acknowledged Vieliessar as ruler, but a few continue to contest her kingship. Hamphuliadiel, the villainous (and two-dimensionally portrayed) leader of the elven mages, attempts to become powerful enough to stand against her. Her major opposition, however, is the evil race of the Endarkened, whose appearance has been prophesied in terms vague enough that Vieliessar doesn’t know what to expect. Also, her soul-bonded, destined mate, Runacarendalur Caerthalien, runs off into the wilderness following his defeat in the war of her accession, and allies himself with several races of magical beasts (which the elves didn’t think of as sentient) to make inroads on Vieliessar’s territory. Lackey and Mallory provide tangled politics, large-scale battles, factional intrigue, and writing competent enough to make up for the cardboard characters and complete lack of original ideas. The book may not be, strictly speaking, good, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Fall of Dragons: The Traitor Son Cycle, Book 5

Miles Cameron. Orbit, $16.99 trade paper (736p) ISBN 978-0-316-30244-9

The fifth and final installment of Cameron’s Traitor Son cycle (after The Plague of Swords) is a thorough, dense, and occasionally off-putting ending to a complex secondary-world historical fantasy. Queen Desiderata has returned to the city of Harndon (which is introduced here with the incredibly unfortunate analogy of looking “like a woman beaten by a drunken spouse”) and, with her allies, is working to heal the city of the plague and war-related ravages. Gabriel, the Red Knight, is attempting to lead his allies against Ash, the otherworldly Satanic being who sees humans as pests. The majority of the book’s 600-plus pages are devoted to the final set of battles, and there’s a depth to the level of research that informs these scenes, making them engrossing and detailed enough to avoid much repetition. The greater themes—ties to Christian and Arthurian mythology, notions of story cycles repeating—generally work with the story instead of getting in the way of it. There are occasional hiccups, but Cameron mostly uses straightforward prose and chapters told from the points of view of dozens of characters to convey his tale. Series fans will be satisfied. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Magnetic Point: Selected Poems

Ryszard Krynicki, trans. from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh. New Directions, $18.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2500-7

Krynicki was born in 1943 in a Nazi labor camp in Austria, where his parents were deported from Eastern Poland to work as slave laborers in a tank factory. A “posthumous child,” as the author of this marvelous book of poems calls himself, Krynicki remembers being frightened by screams while growing up and being even more afraid of laughter, and his father teaching him every kind of physical labor and telling him that only by working with his hands would he be saved when the next war came. If his hands were rough, he’d be spared; if they turned out to be delicate, he’d be sent to a camp or put up against a wall to be shot.

“Can you describe this?” A woman once asked the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova as they waited outside a Leningrad prison for news of their sons arrested by Stalin’s secret police. Indeed, this has been the perennial question for poets and writers who, over the past century, have had firsthand knowledge of political oppression and war. “Yes,” Akhmatova told the woman, “I can describe it.” Krynicki is less sure; the poems about his childhood tend to be about the kind of emotions that words do not fully capture or that elude language completely.

The poems in this volume can be divided into private and public. On one hand, the inner torments of a man with an extraordinary life story; on the other, poems about the age we live in. Citizens of “Planet Phantasmagoria” is what he calls us. Active in Poland’s Solidarity movement during the early 1980s, Krynicki describes fascists changing shirts in one poem and, in another, “the one-thousand-nine-hundred-seventy-three-year-old Christ” being killed and resurrected, killed and resurrected. His poems are full of memorable quips, in the manner of Greek epigrams. One such poem, “The Age,” is just three lines long:

The age of progress liberated demons
of which the Middle Ages
never dreamed....

What unifies Krynicki’s work is his alert eye and empathy for every kind of suffering. In a poem describing a visit to a museum in Paris on a snowy afternoon, he notices a gray lump bundled on the sidewalk’s edge, some refugee, he thinks, from a country caught in civil war. In “Leaving Assisi,” that birthplace of St. Francis and so much great art, he spots the helpless gaze of a calf taken to slaughter. On another occasion, he’s given a chance to offer a helping hand to another of God’s creatures: “Secretly, discreetly/ I lift my older brother,/ the snail/ from the path,/ so that no one will step on him.” Master of luminous detail and a well-turned phrase, Krynicki’s poems, even the exceedingly short, rarely fail to move us. (Nov.)

Charles Simic is a former poet laureate of the United States. His latest book, Scribbled in the Dark, is out now from Ecco.

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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In the Still of the Night

Dara Wier. Wave, $18 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-940696-57-7

With her typical subtle and eloquent emotionality, Wier (You Good Thing) offers up harmonious meditations on disquieting themes. The prevailing subjects here are grief and its effects—which, in the context of these poems, is simply one element of the condition of living. “How many conversations/ With who isn’t/ Able to talk back/ Is one human allotted?” Wier asks. Beneath this lies the question of what roles a poet and poetry perform in the function of grieving: “People like how a poem is one place (there are others) we believe talking to the dead might have the results we desire and intend.” Without pedantry or obfuscation, Wier’s lines cohere into a philosophical discourse about the poet’s relationship with the world. “If anyone wants a poet usually they want their poets to be saying something,/ if not for them, then at least apparently having them somehow or other in mind,” she writes. These lines hint at a strange comfort to be found in this collection, despite its heartbreaking material. “It’s true that people like to be surprised by what they find in a poem,” Wier writes; there is much to be surprised by here. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Some Beheadings

Aditi Machado. Nightboat, $15.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-937658-73-1

Machado’s steadfast and rigorous debut exists at the intersection of language and place, where thinking takes the shape of a tree or a thicket of “florid logic” that grows and branches in multiple directions at once. “I describe my day to myself as if I were perambulating through infinite foliage,” she writes. The images take readers across time and space: to fields dotted with grazing ruminants; deserts whose “labial dunes” double as runes; and, in an oblique reference to the film Last Year at Marienbad, a Marienbad where a “single baroque animal/ opens a pomegranate” and “ancient civilizations spill out as red beads.” Though the focus of the text meanders, the first-person perspective offers a sense of immediacy; in other words, however disembodied the thinking, and however omnidirectional the thought, the speaker grounds ideas with notions of physicality: “Can you wake up/ from a sentence like/ you wake up on the porch?” Machado’s luscious descriptions—themselves “a mild decadence, an explicit/ industry as that of bees”—exude a palpable strangeness, and the speaker welcomes constant change and movement without requiring a resolution. The result is a labyrinthine sensorium where thinking about thinking generates ever more pleasures. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Murder in an English Village

Jessica Ellicott. Kensington, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1050-5

Set in 1920, Ellicott’s spectacular series launch reunites two old schoolmates in the U.K. When forthright American Beryl Helliwell, who attributes her youthful appearance to a “love of quality gin and an adamant refusal to bear children to any of her ex-husbands,” spots the ad for a lodger placed by her friend Edwina Davenport, a proper Englishwoman who has run short of funds, she can’t believe her luck. Retiring to the quiet hamlet of Walmsley Parva is just the reprieve Beryl wants from her madcap life, as well as from Prohibition back in America. Beryl surprises Edwina by crashing her car into one of the stone pillars flanking the drive to Edwina’s house. Soon after Beryl settles in, someone attacks Edwina while she’s walking her dog in her garden. After the friends discover a young woman’s body in a field, they take it upon themselves to fill the gaps left by the local constable’s inadequate investigation. Reflections on the changes in post-WWI society lend substance to this light mystery. Ellicott is a pen name of Jessica Estevao, author of the Change of Fortune series (Whispers Beyond the Veil, etc.). Agent: John Talbot, Talbot Fortune Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Mrs. Osmond

John Banville. Knopf, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-451-49342-2

Banville’s sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is a delightful tour de force that channels James with ease. The rich and measured prose style is quintessentially Jamesian: the long interior monologues perfectly capture the hum of human consciousness, and the characters are alive with psychological nuance. Readers join James’s heroine where his classic left her; Banville’s Isabel Archer Osmond is now a sedate, proper matron, who bitterly rues her marriage to deceitful Gilbert Osmond. She retains her high-minded principles, however, and has determined to live with her guilt at having ignored the advice she had received against marrying him. Gilbert is a cruel, arrogant man who condescends to Isabel in cutting language, lives off her fortune, and demands her complete loyalty. Having defied Gilbert when he forbade her to leave their home in Rome to hurry to her dying cousin’s bedside in England, Isabel feels the first stirrings of freedom. Almost capriciously, she withdraws a large amount of money from the bank in the hopes of having it free to spend as she sees fit without the interference of her husband and his malign mistress, Madame Merle. After Isabel’s redoubtable lady’s maid, Staines, discloses some astonishing news, the narrative takes a suspenseful turn. Some of the other characters from The Portrait of a Lady—including Isabel’s aunt, Mrs. Touchett; Pansy Osmond, Gilbert’s daughter; and American journalist Henrietta Stackpole—appear again. It is clear the freedom and social clout that money bestows in the 19th-century settings of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, all described in lush detail. As in James’s novel, Banville incorporates a wonderful sense of irony; the result is a novel that succeeds both as an unofficial sequel and as a bold, thoroughly satisfying standalone. 50,000-copy announced first printing. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Debriefing

Susan Sontag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-10075-9

The first complete collection of the late Sontag’s stories affirms both the range and depth of her literary gifts. The volume adds three previously uncollected works, all first published in the New Yorker, to the eight collected as I, Etcetera in 1978. Among the new stories, “Pilgrimage” is a straightforward semiautobiographical narrative—a rarity for Sontag—that chronicles a California teenager’s awkward visit to iconic author Thomas Mann. Less conventionally shaped, “The Letter Scene” fuses instances of letter-writing from the arts, the news, and the narrator’s memory into a haunting meditation on love, time, and distance both physical and psychic. “The Way We Live Now” follows an unnamed man with an unnamed disease (that is clearly AIDS) through a sequence of discussions between his friends. First published in 1986, the story pays compelling witness to both its historical moment and the timeless mystery of suffering. Among previously collected works, “Debriefing,” “Project for a Trip to China,” and “Unguided Tour” in particular stand out for their fierce imaginative and intellectual power. Sontag’s best short fiction is sometimes overlooked because her essays and novels are so strong; this new collection is testament to the fact that, though she did not write short stories often, she wrote them well. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Rakehell’s Seduction: The Seduction Series, Book 2

Lauren Smith. Lauren Smith, $14.99 trade paper (290p) ISBN 978-0-9962079-5-9

Smith (A Gentleman Never Surrenders) transforms the ultimate rake into the ultimate Prince Charming in this strong Regency tale. After a broken engagement, Lady Alexandra Westfall decides never to marry and instead seeks independence. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a bet on to see who can seduce and ruin her first; the man who can prove he’s done it will receive 5,000 pounds. Although Ambrose Worthing has earned his rakish reputation and has no intention of changing his ways, his family’s connection to Alex prompts him to protect her from the competition—by entering it. Upon meeting Alex, however, Ambrose finds her genuinely attractive; as they become friends, his charms prove to be too much for her. When an opponent in the wager shows up, Ambrose must walk a fine line between protecting Alex and keeping the nature of the wager a secret from her for fear of alienating her. Smith does an outstanding job of showing the passion and sensuality between the characters, while delivering a number of surprising plot twists. Fans of Regency romances will enjoy this. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/15/2017 | Details & Permalink

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