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Echo

Thomas Olde Heuvelt, trans. from the Dutch by Moshe Gilula. Nightfire, $29.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-75955-9

Heuvelt (Hex) loads this smart tale of a young man’s dehumanization with extravagant horror tropes while expertly avoiding cliché. By the time Swiss rescuers reach stranded mountaineer Nick Grevers, his face has been horrifically mutilated and his climbing partner, Augustin, has gone missing. Sam Avery, Nick’s lover, struggles to cope with the suggestion that whatever happened on the mountain was no accident, while Nick wonders whether he’s becoming a monster as he tries to understand why he and Augustin felt compelled to climb the innocent-looking little peak of Le Maudit in the first place. As Nick’s violent impulses slowly overtake him post-rescue, he worries that he may now embody Le Maudit’s “old and dangerous” soul. Sam, meanwhile, investigates what happened to Nick and to others who have strayed too close to Le Maudit—including the 32 people who died violently at the hospital where Nick recuperates and all those who’ve committed suicide since. Heuvelt expertly contrasts Nick’s somber desperation and Sam’s desperate optimism to create a moving narrative that stops just short of going over the top. Horror fans will be thrilled. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Spear

Nicola Griffith. Tordotcom, $19.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-250-81932-1

This fresh, emotionally immediate queer spin on the Medieval tale of Percival and the Holy Grail reaffirms Griffith (So Lucky) as a consummate storyteller. Peretur, raised in a cave by her mother, grows up desperate to see the outside world. As her strength and magical ability grow, so too does her ambition, and she soon makes her way to the court of King Artos disguised as a young man. There, in classic Arthurian style, Peretur faces a battery of tests and challenges—embarking on quests, stealing the hearts of maidens, and butting heads with various members of the court. Before long, her untrained magic makes her a target, and she must return home to face her greatest challenge yet. Steeped in period texture that brings remote history fully into the present, and lushly illustrated by Rovina Cai (The Seventh Raven), this tale of destiny, belonging, and home is a genuine pleasure. With a gender-swapped protagonist and purposeful representation of people of color and people with disabilities, this is an ideal pick for fans of retold legends, as well as those looking for diverse fantasy. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Susanna Lea Assoc. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/10/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing the Darkness

Cassie Sanchez. Morgan James, $17.95 trade paper (294p) ISBN 978-1-63195-609-6

Sanchez debuts with an entertaining but slightly stilted fantasy that finds magicless Naturals at war with magic-wielding Spectrals. Ever since King Valeri of Pandaren was allegedly assassinated by an Air Spectral, a group of human assassins called Hunters have been killing unregistered Spectrals with impunity. For Azrael, aka the Angel of Death, this mission is personal; he seeks to avenge his own dead family. But then an Amplifier serum intended to make him stronger leads to unexpected side effects: he feels the emotions of the Spectrals he was taught to loathe from childhood, experiencing their fear and pain. This doesn’t sit well with Commander Drexus Zoldac, the Hunters’ leader, who ousts Azrael from its ranks. Now Azrael’s vengeance has a new target: his former colleagues. There’s palpable tension and intrigue as Azrael plots his revenge and gains knowledge about both his world and his own identity. The writing, however, feels stiff and formal, and tends to dull the action scenes. Luckily, the colorful cast helps to counterbalance the flat prose. Fantasy readers willing to put in some work will find this worthwhile. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/10/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Sisters of the Forsaken Stars

Lina Rather. Tordotcom, $15.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-250-78214-4

Rather tenderly explores the nuances of moral obligation and faith against a backdrop of government conspiracy in her second Our Lady of Endless Worlds space opera (after Sisters of the Vast Black). The Catholic nuns of the Order of Saint Rita are on the run from Central Governance after witnessing its attempt to wipe out the inhabitants of a newly colonized moon in the Phoyongsa system using the highly contagious ringeye plague. One of the most captivating worldbuilding elements here is the Order’s living spaceship, and Rather skillfully folds in biological details of this massive life-form while developing the emotional bond between the sisters and their ship as they struggle to survive their exile. During a supply stop, the sisters learn that rumors about the ringeye outbreak on Phoyongsa III have become a rallying cry for a group of religious radicals, who’ve weaponized the disaster to foment revolution. Despite the overt religious aspects, Rather focuses on faith instead of dogma and the sisters’ personality quirks and lightly explored backstories build empathy as they head for the University of St. Ofra to find out who’s behind the cult. The quirky premise will draw readers in while the depth of the characters and mounting stakes will keep them hooked. This is a worthy sequel. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/10/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Avenging Angela and Other Uncanny Encounters

Jonathan Thomas. Hippocampus, $20 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-61498-341-5

The 14 tales in Thomas’s fine sixth collection of weird fiction (after 2017’s Midnight Call and Other Stories), eight of them original to this volume, demonstrate that well-crafted prose goes a long way toward enabling the suspension of disbelief. He’s especially good at creating instant engagement with a tantalizing opening, as shown in “The Shaman’s Smile,” which begins: “In the cozy Neolithic village known millennia later as Skara Brae, on the largest of the Orkney islands off Scotland, every house but one locked from the inside.” The answers to why the village operated that way, and why the occupants of the outlier dwelling aren’t free to leave it, are both chilling and satisfying. Can something different still be done with a character’s obsessive interest in H.P. Lovecraft? Thomas answers in the affirmative in the subtly creepy “A Box from Blackstone.” The unnamed narrator, who lives near the author’s childhood home in Providence, R.I., learns of a receptacle purportedly left in a stone wall by Lovecraft and comes to believe it may contain a wax cylinder of the writer singing, which would be the only recording of Lovecraft’s voice. John Langan fans will want to check out Thomas. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/10/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Azura Ghost

Essa Hansen. Orbit, $17.99 trade paper (528p) ISBN 978-0-316-43068-5

The second time proves less of a charm in Hansen’s splintered second Graven space opera (after Nophek Gloss), which continues the machinations of supercharged beings across multiple pocket universes. After 10 years as a freelance problem solver, Caiden Winn discovers that his childhood friend, Leta, was not killed in a massacre as he thought, but survived to become a special operative for Dynast Prime Abriss, the most powerful person in the largest universe, Unity. Caiden attempts to free Leta from Abriss’s employ—and keep Abriss from freeing her own brother, Threi, Caiden’s onetime mentor and current prisoner—but soon realizes he’ll need the help of his former crew mates to succeed. Worse, he discovers that saving Leta from Abriss’s service may require dipping into the coercive mental powers granted to him by his link to the ancient Graven technology he despises, but which both Abriss and Threi seek. Hansen brings in a lot of backstory in this volume, with Leta assuming an important voice, but the additional viewpoints and the extension of the characters’ abilities to shift through space and time complicate the story without adding to the human element. There’s far more emotional impact when Leta and Caiden are allowed to simply sit and reminisce. This is strictly for series fans. Agent: Naomi Davis, Bookends Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/10/2021 | Details & Permalink

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God of Neverland: A Defenders of Lore Novel

Gama Ray Martinez. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-301463-3

Martinez (the Goblin Star series) underwhelms in this 1925-set Peter Pan sequel and series launch starring an adult Michael Darling. The opening links J.M. Barrie’s eponymous hero with Celtic mythology, but this fascinating element goes underexplored. Instead, the arc is familiar: a reluctant return to a hidden magical world by a protagonist who has settled for a safe, prosaic life. Michael followed his adventures in Neverland with service to the Knights of the Round, supposedly “founded by Merlin himself to protect humanity against supernatural threats.” Tired of that stressful, secret life, Michael is now a London train conductor. That return to the ordinary is disrupted when he’s summoned to the Knights’ headquarters and told that Pan, in reality Maponos, the Celtic god of youth, has disappeared. Pan’s failure to venture into the human world from Neverland for over a year threatens a permanent rift between the two realms. Of course, Michael returns to the fray, encountering the expected old friends and foes. While charming enough, nothing feels particularly original. Fans of retellings will be pleased, but not wowed. Agent: Rhea Lyons, HG Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/10/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Redwood and Wildfire

Andrea Hairston. Tordotcom, $27.99 (448p) ISBN 978-1-250-80870-7

Hairston (Master of Poisons) conjures a powerful coming-of-age saga highlighting hoodoo magic and the power of storytelling and set in an alternate 1890s American South. Black teen Redwood Phipps’s magic might be even more potent than her mama’s, and her confidence, fiery spirit, and hoodooing habits may be too much for the folks of Peach Grove, Ga., Black or white. Irish Indigenous Aidan Wildfire Cooper honors his promise to keep an eye on her after her mother is killed by a racist mob. The pair strike up a fast friendship—Redwood can pull the pain out of Wildfire, bringing him back from his frequent alcoholic rages, and Wildfire understands her complex relationship to her heritage, as he must hide his own Seminole roots. They’re kindred spirits and together they can work powerful magic. But backwoods Georgia isn’t safe for them, and they set out in search of a place where they can “be,” taking a winding route to Chicago and performing as storytellers and conjurers to pay their way. Hairston captures an impressive depth of tenderness between her leads and makes a moving argument for the power of stories and songs in the face of bigotry. The novel unfurls slowly, allowing each character the space to come into their own fully. It’s a spectacular feat. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Bone Orchard

Sara A. Mueller. Tor, $26.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-250-77694-5

Political intrigue, necromancy, and identity struggles collide in Mueller’s lush but overlong debut. A prisoner on an elegant leash, Charm runs the Orchard House, a brothel where the men of Boren mingle and talk politics, and where the workers are various facets of Charm’s own personality, split apart from her and given new bodies. Charm herself is reserved for the Emperor’s weekly visits—until the day she’s rushed to his bedside as he lays suddenly dying. He charges her with discovering which of his terrible sons has murdered him, and keeping his kingdom safe by ensuring that the crown goes to someone just. The responsibility is immense and impossible, but the reward will be Charm’s freedom and the freedom of her other selves. The mystery unravels like an interlocking puzzle, with a satisfying ending even the most well-read of the genre will struggle to guess. It’s a masterfully woven plot with refreshing narrators in Charm and her other selves, a literally fractured mind, but the middle pages struggle to find their purpose, introducing myriad superfluous details. Readers will be a bit exhausted by the time they reach the cathartic conclusion. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Saint Death’s Daughter

C.S.E. Cooney. Solaris, $27.99 (624p) ISBN 978-1-78618-470-2

World Fantasy Award winner Cooney (Bone Swans) underwhelms with this lugubrious tale of political assassinations between necromancers and bird-wizards, which sees a potentially breathless sword-and-sorcery fantasy bogged down by a torrent of exposition. Miscellaneous “Lanie” Immiscible Stones is a necromancer with an unusual allergy to physical harm, showing symptoms at even the mention of violence, while her sister, Amanita “Nita” Muscaria, is an assassin with the power to compel others to do her will. Queen Erralierra of Brackenwilds commands Nita to assassinate the Parliament of Rooks, Queen Bran Fiakhna of Rook’s harem of 24 wizards. But after Nita kills 22 of the wizards, Queen Bran takes her revenge, and it’s up to Lanie to save Nita’s annoying, sociopathic daughter, Datu, and keep Queen Bran from taking over Brackenwilds. Though Lanie’s bittersweet romance with nonbinary fire priest Canon Lir adds some charm and the magic system is meticulously worked out, it isn’t enough to balance the constant overexplaining of the novel’s worldbuilding and character relationships, with info dumps and backstory often interrupting moments that are crucial to the plot. It makes for a slog only suited for Cooney’s most devoted fans. Agent: Markus Hoffmann, Regal Hoffman & Assoc. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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