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Space Opera

Catherynne M. Valente. Saga, $19.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-4814-9749-7

Valente (Radiance) imagines Eurovision in space, with high and deadly stakes, in this frenetic, imaginative intergalactic extravaganza set many years after the brutal Sentience Wars roiled the galaxy. The hero is “leggy psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambitious glamrock messiah” Danesh Jalo, aka Decibel Jones (“Dess”) of the glam-rock trio Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. The band was huge for a feverish minute, but is long defunct: Mira Wonderful Star was killed in a car crash, and Oort St. Ultraviolet is now a session musician with an ex-wife and two kids. Dess, awash in faded glitter and despair, pines for the double-platinum days, so when a “seven-foot-tall ultramarine half-flamingo, half-anglerfish thing” appears and explains that he must compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix for the future of his species, he jumps at the opportunity. They don’t have to win, but if they come in last, humankind is toast. Can Dess and Oort, with help from a fast-talking red panda named Öö, save the day? Valente’s effervescent prose is wildly creative and often funny, but frequent tangents can make for chaotic reading. Her many fans will be enthralled with this endearing, razzle-dazzle love song about destiny, finding one’s true voice, and rockin’ the house down. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Howard Morhaim Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Never King

James Abbott. Pan Macmillan, $14.95 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-1-5098-0311-8

Abbott (a pseudonym for longtime fantasy author Mark Charan Newton) introduces a world-weary warrior who tries but fails to be the new Conan. Xavir Argentum was set up by malicious General Havinir: thinking barbarians were invading the kingdom of Stravimon, Xavir massacred them, only to be thrown in jail following the revelation that his victims were civilians in disguise. He is freed to stop Havinir and his other betrayers from turning Stravimon over to foreign worshippers of a new god. With his estranged daughter, Elysia; her suspicious witch mentor, Birgitta; and spymaster Landril, Xavir sets out to build a rebel army and to achieve rough justice. The work relishes in the grimdark style of fantasy, with bloody sword fights and bizarre magical rituals in abundance (alongside modern-sounding terms such as regime change and magic-user). Alas, the sense of Xavir’s vengeance being inconsequential to the deeper plot, along with his alienation from any warmer emotions not related to warrior honor, sidelines the reader’s investment in him apart from his ability to hew down his opponents “like blades of grass.” Experienced fantasy readers will find nothing new here. Agent: John Jarrold (U.K.). (May)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Memory of Fire

Callie Bates. Del Rey, $27 (448p) ISBN 978-0-399-17741-5

Gripping in its own right, this second volume of the trilogy that began with The Waking Land races along with a new main character, Jahan Korakides, lover of previous protagonist Elanna Valtai. In the first volume, Elanna was slowly forced to become aware of her magical power over the land. In contrast, Jahan is familiar with his abilities but has been taught to distrust them by the sorceress Madiya, who has manipulated him and his brothers. Returning to the court of Emperor Alakaseus Saranon, Jahan must take decisive actions despite his constant, nagging sense of inadequacy. He needs to avoid brutal witchfinders, try to avert a war between Elanna’s country and his homeland, and survive magical attacks and deadly palace intrigue. His vivid first-person, present-tense narrative shows him strained to the limits of superhuman endurance but also discovering unexpected magical resources in the world around him and moral resources in himself, learning that he would rather use his developing powers to heal than kill. This is a remarkably mature, balanced addition to the story that avoids the most common flaws of middle books and will leave readers hungry for the conclusion. Agent: Hannah Bowman, Liza Dawson Assoc. (June)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Dancing for the General

Sue Star and Bill Beatty. D.M. Kreg, $15.99 trade paper (440p) ISBN 978-0-9893578-7-6

Set in 1957, this atmospheric spy story from Star (Organized Death) and Beatty (Hell Down Under) opens in Ankara, Turkey, where Anna Riddle, a young American teacher, has recently arrived to care for her niece, Priscilla, whose parents—Anna’s sister and brother-in-law, who works for the State Department—had to leave the country at short notice. One hot summer day, while Anna and Priscilla are visiting an ancient tomb, the sound of a gunshot leads them to the body of a man wearing a Western business suit. Clutched in his hand is a letter written years ago by Anna to her former fiancé, Lt. Rainer Akers, who was killed while on a mission to the Eastern Front in 1945. Anna soon becomes embroiled in a slowly unfolding mystery of political turmoil and dark family secrets. Readers may initially struggle to understand the link between Anna’s narrative and chapters devoted to Meryem Alekci, a Romani dancer whose life is in danger, but those who persevere will be rewarded. Historical fiction fans won’t want to miss this one. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Fiction Can Be Murder: A Mystery Writer’s Mystery

Becky Clark. Midnight Ink, $15.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-7387-5332-4

Set in Denver, this promising series launch from Clark (Banana Bamboozle with Ted Hardwick) introduces mystery writer Charlemagne “Charlee” Russo. When Melinda Walter, Charlee’s agent, dies an untimely death that bears a striking resemblance to a murder in her latest unpublished novel, suspicion falls on Charlee, given her growing dispute with Melinda over royalty payments, and she sets out to clear her name. Since only a handful of people have had access to the manuscript—including, most notably, the quirky members of Charlee’s writing group—she works through the suspects while fending off the police investigation. On the personal side, Charlee and her police officer brother, Lance, struggle with memories of their father, also a cop, who left the force in disgrace over a murky scandal. Clark does a good job of grounding the story in place and detail. Despite the overly large cast of characters and the too-neat finale, cozy fans should enjoy this funny and affecting view into a mystery writer’s life. Agent, Jill Marsal, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story

Anne Meredith. Poisoned Pen, $12.95 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-4642-0904-8

“Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931.” So opens this exceptional entry in the British Library Crime Classics series from Meredith (1899–1973), an undeservedly obscure author better known for the books she wrote as Anthony Gilbert. Since the fatal bludgeoning in the victim’s home in King’s Poplars was both “instantaneous and unpremeditated,” the usual suspicions of financial and other obvious motives on the part of Gray’s six children—Richard, Amy, Olivia, Isobel, Brand, and Ruth—and their families may not be relevant. Psychological depth enables Meredith to maintain engagement even after the killer’s identity is disclosed, and she effectively shifts points of view, incorporating that of the murderer in the crime’s aftermath and that of a character who may hold the key to achieving justice. Simple prose conveys personality in just a few words (“He was a bachelor, cared for by a housekeeper whom he did not recognize when they met in the streets”). Golden age fans will be enthralled. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Damnation

Peter Beck, trans. from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Point Blank, $24.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-78607-327-3

Tom Winter, the head of security for a private Swiss bank, investigates a helicopter crash in the Swiss Alps in German author Beck’s disappointing first novel and series launch. Among the dead is Muhammed Al-Bader, an important bank client and relative of the Saudi Arabian king. Tom determines that the crash was no accident when he detects explosive residue on material recovered from the helicopter. Al-Bader, who handled his wealthy family’s investments, had many enemies, including those wanting to delay his project to build a nuclear power station in Cairo, American interests unhappy with Middle East countries turning to nuclear technology, and a troublesome relative. To unravel the conspiracy, Tom travels with Fatima Hakim, an attractive executive working for a client company of the bank, to Cairo, Norway, Boston, and Switzerland. At each destination, the two discover that someone knows their whereabouts and threatens their safety. Lengthy, unnecessary digressions and scenes that contribute nothing to the narrative mitigate the suspense. Agent: Tanja Howarth, Tonja Howarth Literary Agency (U.K.). (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Ghost in Roomette Four: A California Zephyr Mystery

Janet Dawson. Perseverance, $15.95 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-1-56474-598-9

A ghost helps solve his own murder in Dawson’s uneven third California Zephyr mystery (after 2016’s Death Deals a Hand). In May 1953, Jill McLeod, a customer service employee known as a Zephyrette, finds a passenger, Mr. Randall, dead in his roomette aboard a train headed for San Francisco. Two months later, she sees a mysterious light and hears unexplained noises in the same car. Despite her skepticism about ghosts, she agrees to attend a séance suggested by her flamboyant friend, Grace Tidsdale. The results prompt her to launch an investigation into Randall’s death. Railway aficionados will appreciate information about train routes and daily operations, and depictions of upper-middle-class women’s lives—such as the pressure Jill faces to marry and quit a job she loves—may resonate with some readers. On the other hand, the action slows when Dawson starts listing library books and detailing the streets that Jill and her friends navigate in their San Francisco neighborhood. Likable characters compensate only in part for the insubstantial plot. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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England Expects: A Mirabelle Bevan Mystery

Sara Sheridan. Kensington, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4967-0126-8

London journalist Joey Gillingham says he’s in Brighton to cover a boxing match, but he’s actually heading for a meeting on a career-changing scoop, in Sheridan’s strained third mystery set in 1950s England (after 2017’s London Calling). When Gillingham ends up with his throat slashed, debt collector Mirabelle Bevan is intrigued by the unusually bold crime. Slipshod treatment of the body by the police, many of whom are Freemasons, convinces her that the secretive brotherhood is covering something up—and after Gillingham’s coded journal goes missing, Det. Supt. Alan McGregor, Mirabelle’s secret admirer, is inclined to agree. When Mirabelle and her business partner, Vesta Churchill, talk their way into the Masonic lodge, they witness its charlady die of poisoning. A visit to the derelict Brighton Pavilion, where the dead woman also worked, produces new puzzles. The Masons remain generic villains beneath their exotic trappings, and the investigation relies too much on unfounded surmise, coincidence, and confession. Hopefully, Sheridan, who has a gift for evoking the era’s class, racial, and social tensions, will return to form next time. Agent: Jenny Brown, Jenny Brown Assoc. (U.K.). (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Third Brother: An Andy Hayes Mystery

Andrew Welsh-Huggins. Swallow, $26.95 (264p) ISBN 978-0-8040-1194-5

An anti-immigrant attack propels Welsh-Huggins’s timely fifth mystery featuring Columbus, Ohio, PI Andy Hayes (after 2017’s The Hunt). Andy has just finished shopping when he spots two white guys hassling a Somali woman in a grocery parking lot. One of the thugs is pulling on her head scarf; she’s fighting back with one hand and trying to shield her crying kids with the other. Andy intervenes and rescues the woman, a good deed that impresses the local Somali community, in particular the parents of 19-year-old Abdi Hirsi, a model student who disappeared three days after the family learned that his self-radicalized older brother, Hassan, had been killed fighting in Syria. Terrorist social media messages allegedly posted by Abdi shortly before he vanished have brought in the FBI. After reluctantly agreeing to try to find Abdi, Andy soon realizes that everyone he interviews is hiding something, including Abukar Abdulkadir, the community liaison helping the Hirsis. Welsh-Huggins educates and entertains as he explores immigrant issues through his empathetic hero’s investigation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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