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In a Suspect Universe

Albert Wendland. Dog Star, $15.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-947879-05-8

Inner and outer space collide in this emotionally driven prequel to 2014’s The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. Mykol Ranglen, unhappy with the artificial world Annulus, built with alien knowledge that he uncovered, runs away right into another discovery of the alien Airafane: a teleportation network between the stars. Falling onto a hidden human colony, Alchera, he is startled to find that its landscape, a crater called the Blight, reacts to his imagination, pulling out monsters from his id that threaten the people he has come to love. He must quest across universes to retrieve more Airafane technology to end the threats. But are the Alcherans real or only another of Mykol’s projections? Working with the psychological implications of identity, transformation, and perception, Wendland tangles up the characters and worlds in loops of time and space that make it unclear whether Mykol is a hero sacrificing himself or a villain out to destroy what he cannot control. The resolution of his emotional and intellectual dilemmas of dealing with Alchera and the Airafane gives a solid sense of closure that new and returning readers appreciate. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Misty Thule

Adolphe Retté, trans. from the French by Brian Stableford. Snuggly, $14 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-943813-70-4

“Adieu wingless life and gray reason” bids the author of this decadent fever dream, a key document of the 19th-century symbolist movement. In a series of chapter-length prose poems, Retté uses immediate and often fragmented sensory impressions to relate travel through a remote land of the imagination “in which the worlds of fable are elaborated” and the themes of death, decay, and damnation in which the narrative is grounded manifests as images of “poets, sick of a Psyche, who prowl black puddles and splash one another with dirty water and variegated rhymes” and a tree of life that bears “fruits of death.” Key among the characters who embody the tale’s tenets is a pauper whose efforts (in one episode) to derail the tragic love of Romeo for Juliet encapsulates the sense of doomed romance that infuses the story. Laced with references to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Théophile Gautier, and other classic fantasists, Rette’s work is a plunge into a surreal world of specialized aesthetic interest. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Moderan

David R. Bunch. New York Review of Books, $16.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-68137-254-9

Pain forms the common denominator of the late Bunch’s 58 wrenching short stories, most originally published in minor 1960s science fiction magazines and first collected in 1971. A cyborg dystopia’s polluted planet, now totally covered in gray plastic, houses doomed humans and relatively few “new-metal men” like the nameless narrator. The latter are transformed gruesomely over nine months into creatures of rage and hate, relentlessly blasting one another’s strongholds while thinking themselves secure in their metallic immortality. Bunch provides searing echoes of the Vietnam War and satiric jabs at “take-over” wives whom the narrator banishes to the “White Witch Valley,” all conveyed in overheated prose that suggests hippiedom’s worst excesses. In the most moving story, “The Miracle of the Flowers,” the narrator seems to experience pangs of conscience until a disturbing Nietzschean ending turns his yearning for softening human emotion into acrid bile. Jeff VanderMeer’s perceptive introduction, couched in Bunchian idiom, offers valuable insights. This is a steely view of a robot-dominated future. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Ravencry

Ed McDonald. Ace, $16 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-58782-5

McDonald returns to the haunted world of Blackwing in this gripping fantastical drama. Four years after the climactic siege of Valengrad, Ryhalt Galharrow is the captain of a reinvigorated Blackwing company, bound to serve Crowfoot, one of the entities known as the Nameless. Though his existence is materially comfortable, he remains haunted by the events of the siege and by the memory of his beloved Ezabeth. Meanwhile, a monumental building called the Grandspire is being erected to channel the magic-based power source known as phos and a revolutionary cult of a mysterious figure known as the Bright Lady increases in power and influence. When a powerful relic is stolen from Crowfoot, Ryhalt learns that an old enemy has returned to Valengrad with a plan that imperils the entire world. McDonald continues to build on the strengths that made Blackwing compelling: tense and violent action, genuinely disturbing settings and creatures, and bursts of morbid humor. Readers who can handle the stomach-turning gore and high body count will appreciate that they’re tempered with Galharrow’s genuine—if reluctant—heroic nature and warm heart. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Rogue Protocol: The Murderbot Diaries, Book 3

Martha Wells. Tor.com, $17.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-2501-9178-6

Three books into the far-future Murderbot Diaries, the shakier pillars of Wells’s worldbuilding are showing cracks. Equipped with knowledge of its past—but lacking armor—the sentient Murderbot, calling itself Rin, turns its focus on GrayCris, the corporate baddie that has loomed over the saga. GrayCris is manifest only in contract minions and solicitors but has left one concrete locus to investigate: a derelict terraform facility that may have been used to recover alien artifacts. The facility has been reclaimed by new owners who are sending a team to assess it, giving Rin opportunity to infiltrate that team. The group includes “pet robot” Miki, a naïf who nonetheless comes in handy when, inevitably, the expedition goes apocalyptically wrong. A central proposition of Rin’s character is that it’s never been treated as a person, but throughout the books, humans have interacted with it appreciatively and respectfully. Also, GrayCris’s motives are annoyingly vague. Still, where the core question of Rin’s personhood is concerned, Wells once again knits combat, investigation, and rumination into a thoughtful, irresistible story. Agent: Jennifer Jackson, Donald Maass Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Shadowblack: Spellslinger, Book 2

Sebastien De Castell. Orbit, $15.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-316-52581-7

De Castell’s second fantasy novel featuring Kellen, a 16-year-old mage “who combines whatever paltry magic he can muster with every trick he can learn to stay alive,” offers more of the same: a fast-paced story most likely to appeal to a teen audience. In the wake of the events of Spellslinger, Kellen, who has a price on his head, has been living as an outlaw for months, travelling with a “gambler who never gave [him] a straight answer” and the Rocket Raccoon–like Reichis, “a homicidal squirrel cat whose favorite food was human eyeballs.” The bounty on Kellen results in attempts on his life, and he meets someone who claims to have a cure for Kellen’s shadowblack, the so-called demon plague that gives him painful visions and manifests in black markings encircling Kellen’s left eye. The quest for survival and a cure, and the political machinations back in Kellen’s hometown, are familiar genre tropes, and De Castell’s variations on them aren’t novel enough to stand out. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Black God’s Drums

P. Djèlí Clark. Tor.com, $3.99 e-book (112p) ISBN 978-1-25029-470-8

Clark masterfully rewrites history in this spellbinding post–Civil War fantasy. America is 15 years past an armistice between the Union, where slavery is illegal, and the Confederacy, where it still reigns, and New Orleans remains the only free and neutral port in all the land. Thirteen-year-old Creeper is an orphan surviving on the margins of New Orleans whose fortunes change when she uncovers a Confederate plot to recreate the titular otherworldly weapon, which ensured devastating victory for Haitian revolutionaries, and use it against the Union. With help from Ann-Marie St. Augustine, an airship captain who could be Creeper’s ticket out of New Orleans, and the goddess Oya, Creeper must prevent Confederate soldiers from unleashing the wrath of a furious god upon a city and a nation that will not see it coming. Clark employs fervent, emotive prose to construct an elaborate world populated by diverse, complex people. The story is thrillingly original and will enthrall fans of alternate histories. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Seas of Distant Stars

Francesca G. Varela. Owl House, $17.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-947003-92-7

Varela’s uneven third novel (after 2016’s Listen) spans two planets and 26 years in the life of Agapanthus Caracynth, who is abducted from Earth as a toddler and taken to Deeyae, where she is raised by foster parents as an “exchanger.” Deeyae orbits a red dwarf; its inhabitants were brought from Earth millennia ago by the same alien gods who kidnapped Agapanthus. The Deeyans evolved red skin and compact, muscular bodies, physical differences that make young Agapanthus feel like an outsider. Her Deeyan family forbids her from attempting their rite of passage—a dangerous swim to the neighboring island—but she secretly trains with Aster, an exchanger who’s completed the rite. Varela’s portrayal of a fictional society is imaginative, and it raises troubling questions about the Deeyans, their guests, and their enigmatic gods. Unfortunately, the novel abandons these questions along with its fascinating setting when the gods forcibly return Agapanthus to her birth family on Earth. This heartfelt exploration of what it means to grow up as an outsider never quite comes together. Agent: Leslie M. Browning, Homebound Publications. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Million

Karl Schroeder. Tor.com, $3.99 e-book (160p) ISBN 978-1-250-18541-9

In the far-flung future, Earth is primarily inhabited by one million people who dwell in luxury, entertaining themselves with fantastic technology and boundless resources, while keeping the planet ready for the 10 billion who sleep the centuries away in suspended animation, only emerging every 30 years for a monthlong party. One of the waking inhabitants, 16-year-old Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee, is secretly a “visitor,” not one of the recorded million, hiding in plain sight as one of the elite. When his adoptive father is killed and his brother blamed, Gavin has to steal a new identity, subsequently finding refuge in the School of Auditors, where he must train to hunt down illegal residents like himself. However, in protecting his secrets while investigating his father’s murder, he and his new friends seem poised to discover a terrible, centuries-old mystery relating to the very nature of their society. The premise for this thriller, loosely related to 2014’s Lockstep, sounds complicated, but Schroeder makes the mixture of elements work. Intriguing world building, fast pacing, and hints of much more to come will keep the reader’s attention, but the novella’s relative brevity and inconclusive ending give the impression this is merely the start of a longer, more substantial story. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Snail on the Slope

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, trans. from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko. Chicago Review, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-914091-87-5

The Strugatsky brothers (Monday Starts on Saturday) wrote this intensely surreal science fiction picaresque in the 1960s, but its complete text was not published in Russia until 1988; since the Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze that takes up half the book can easily be read as a parody of Soviet Russia, its censoring is unsurprising, but there’s much more to this novel than satire. The Administration, a massive and convoluted agency, exists for the purpose of studying the Forest, an unearthly no-man’s-land where strange creatures live and biology seems to work very differently. Peretz, a visiting consultant, roams the Administration trying to find a way to either leave or meet with the Director, only to be stymied at every turn. Meanwhile, in the Forest, the crashed aviator Candide attempts to find his way back to the Administration, confounded by the Forest’s odd effects on memory, dangerous creatures, and villages filled with people behaving strangely. The journey is intentionally confusing and disorienting, throwing standard narrative techniques and conventions out the window in favor of wild experimentation. This is both one of the book’s greatest strengths and an amazing source of frustration. Eventually, each man’s struggle sheds light on the other’s society, and the plot comes together. Approached as a meditation on the human inability to comprehend more than a very small part of the universe, this is a surprisingly satisfying, if often perplexing, work. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/22/2018 | Details & Permalink

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