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American Demon

Kim Harrison. Ace, $28 (496p) ISBN 978-0-593-10141-4

The enjoyable 15th installment to Harrison’s the Hollows series picks up shortly after the events of 2014’s The Witch with No Name as witch-born demon Rachel Mariana Morgan again confronts supernatural threats to her beloved Cincinnati. An unknown and terrifying creature is stalking both Rachel and her former enemy, elven Trent Kalamack, in their dreams, while in the waking world, Hodin, a mysterious new demon in town, offers Rachel an opportunity to fine-tune her magical abilities. Afraid to sleep, Rachel places her trust in Hodin to help her find a way to defeat a nightmarish foe she can’t even touch. Harrison makes a skillful return to her urban fantasy world, recapturing her signature blend of magical mayhem and soap operatics, though the dwindling presence of Rachel’s vampire partner, Ivy, suggests a shift in focus as the series evolves. Narrative momentum is disrupted by several lengthy scenes of Rachel exploring her magic with Hodin through elaborately described rituals and slogging metaphysical discussion, but the expansion of magic’s possibilities in this universe could spell good things to come. Despite a detailed introductory preface, new readers will likely be lost in the sea of returning faces, but existing fans will be pleased by this promising continuation of the series. Agent: Jennifer Jackson, Donald Maass Literary Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Master’s Apprentice: A Retelling of the Faust Legend

Oliver Pötzsch, trans. from the German by Lisa Reinhardt. Amazon Crossing, $14.95 trade paper (568p) ISBN 978-1-5420-0998-0

This colorful historical pageant from Pötzsch (Sword of Power) purports to be the true story of the life of Dr. Faustus, the legendary scholar who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge and on whom Goethe and Marlowe based their plays. Johann Georg Faustus is born a bastard in Knittlingen, Germany, at the end of the 15th century. As children start going missing in his town, 16-year-old Johann is taken under the wing of Tonio del Moravia, an itinerant astrologer and magician whose interest in the natural sciences and other learning is strictly forbidden at the time. As the pair travels across Europe, Pötzsch paints a creepy, convincing portrait of an unenlightened age steeped in superstition, where science is feared as sorcery and humanism is persecuted as heresy. Though Tonio is clearly a Mephistophelean figure, this Faust retelling is notably devoid of anything explicitly supernatural, and Tonio’s relationship with Johann is both more and less sinister than the traditional relationship between Faustus and the devil. This engrossing riff on the legend will primarily appeal to those familiar with earlier versions. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Big Girl

Meg Elison. PM, $14 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-62963-783-9

Philip K. Dick Award–winner Elison (The Book of Flora) refracts fatphobia through a dystopian lens in this powerful but repetitive collection of stories and essays about body image. The unflinchingly brutal “Such People in It,” which offers a glimpse into a future poverty-ridden and fundamentalist America in which human bodies and relationships are under strictly regimented control, and the poignant “The Pill,” about the complicated relationship between a weight loss–obsessed mother and her daughter, are both original to this collection. The impact of “The Pill” is lessened slightly by the personal essay “Guts,” which comes later in the collection and retreads the same material from a nonfictional perspective. Weaker entries show notably less polish: the biting satire of the title story is delivered with far too heavy a hand, and though the magical realist “El Hugé” ends with a bang, it spends too little time getting there. Rounding out the collection is “Sprawling into the Unknown,” a whimsical and informative interview with Elison about her life and writing process. Elison’s devoted readers and anyone with a love of Atwoodian dystopias should take note. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Glorious

Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. Tor, $29.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7653-9240-4

The disappointing third space opera in the Bowl of Heaven series from hard sci-fi doyens Benford and Niven (after 2014’s Shipstar) returns to a galaxy in which extraterrestrial life-forms have created a “vast bowl built to capture and refocus a star’s own radiation” used for space-faring adventures. Instead of expanding on this imaginative premise, Benford and Niven focus on the thinly-drawn human crew of the spaceship SunSeeker, among them husband-and-wife biologist team Cliff Kammash and Beth Marble. SunSeeker’s exploration of the galaxy leads the crew to encounter a series of bizarre extraterrestrial beings, including carnivorous kangaroo-like creatures and a benevolent, many-armed alien given the distractingly cutesy nickname Twisty. Throughout, the authors introduce exciting but underdeveloped concepts—sentient plasma, miniature black holes—that casual readers will struggle to grasp. Benford and Niven also lean too heavily on genre convention: the expendable crew members used to establish the stakes will put readers in mind of the redshirts on Star Trek, and Twisty’s unconventional dialogue occasionally veers into Yoda territory (“You tired must be from journeys”). This does not live up to expectations. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mirror Man

Jane Gilmartin. Mira, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7783-0964-2

Gilmartin explores the nature of selfhood in this bracing sci-fi debut. Jeremiah Adams agrees to participate in a radical experiment conducted by his employer, ViGen pharmaceuticals, for a cool $10 million. He’ll take a “twelve-month sabbatical from his own life” and be replaced by a clone of himself. Through hidden cameras, Jeremiah will observe the clone interacting with his family, friends, and coworkers and report on whether the clone’s behavior differs from what his own would be in any given situation. Jeremiah dutifully reports his findings to data analyst Brent Higgins, whom he soon befriends, but hides his concerns that his dog and his ailing mother appear to suspect that the clone is not him. Then Jeremiah’s mother dies, and dark secrets about the true purpose of the experiment surface. As Jeremiah and his clone’s personalities diverge more and more, Jeremiah determines to save what’s left of his shattered life. Gilmartin raises the stakes with a mysterious subplot about ViGen’s miracle drug, Meld, but leaves several threads frustratingly unresolved. Though Jeremiah’s reports occasionally become repetitive, the philosophical and psychological issues are well-developed and the climactic finale is thrilling. Gilmartin’s thought-provoking tale is well worth a look. Agent: Will Roberts, The Gernert Company. (July)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Spells for the Dead

Faith Hunter. Ace, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-58796-2

The middling fifth urban fantasy of Hunter’s Soulwood series (after Circle of the Moon) offers a serviceable paranormal procedural plot overburdened with unnecessary exposition. When country music megastar Stella Mae Ragel is murdered by means of a “death and decay” spell, Special Agent Nell Ingram of the Psychometric Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security investigates. The case grows complicated when Nell discovers that Stella spent five years living in a sex commune and one of her many lovers might be the murderer, triggering Nell’s PTSD from her own childhood in a polygamous cult, and causing her to question her relationship with her boyfriend, Occam, a wereleopard. To solve the case, Nell must contend with her trauma and come to an understanding of her own mysterious powers. Hunter’s world is well-developed but over-explained, and extremely graphic descriptions of the effects of death and decay magic will make this difficult for the weak of stomach. But the solid mystery and well-drawn cast are enough to keep devoted readers turning pages. This is for die-hard series fans only. Agent: Lucienne Diver, the Knight Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Light Between Stars

Edited by Catherine Fitzsimmons. Brain Lag, $14.99 trade paper (210p) ISBN 978-1-928011-35-4

Fitzsimmons (the Sisters of Chaos trilogy) brings together 10 rewarding, original science fiction tales from authors who have all been previously published by Brain Lag in a celebration of the press’s 10-year anniversary. The tales vary widely in tone and theme, but all are well-crafted and attention-grabbing. Stephen B. Pearl’s breathless, post-apocalyptic “Tinker’s Toxin” follows a science-minded “tinker” contending with a vicious 21st-century curse: chemical waste. Pain and pathos reign in Simon A.G. Spencer’s “Awakening,” about family members on a generation ship who awaken from cryogenic sleep years apart. Erynn Q. delivers a lighthearted romp with the whimsical “Other London: Ella’s Birthday,” about a magic-wielding repairman trying to solve the knotty quandary of securing a teenager’s birthday presents. In Gary Girod’s fun “The Coward and the Thief in Paradise,” a young woman living in an authoritarian hell must rely on supernatural powers she’s not sure she believes in to escape. Anyone with an interest in independent speculative fiction will find this anthology an excellent place to start. (July)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Or What You Will

Jo Walton. Tor, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-30899-3

Hugo and Nebula Award–winner Walton (Among Others) brilliantly braids somber realism, fanciful metafiction, and Shakespearean-influenced fantasy into a moving paean to the power of storytelling. The unnamed narrator inhabits the mind of Sylvia Harrison, a successful 73-year-old Canadian author. He has appeared, in various guises, as a character in all 30 of her books­­—including a fantasy trilogy set in Illyria, a rough analogue to Renaissance Italy—but he also exists independently of her fiction, if only as a figment of her imagination. Now Sylvia travels to Florence, to draft a sequel both to her Illyria books and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Though Sylvia is loath to admit it to the narrator or even to herself, the narrator knows that she is dying. Unsure of what will happen to him if Sylvia no longer exists, he devises a plan to save them both by immortalizing them in fiction. Walton shifts effortlessly between Sylvia’s life, Florentine history, and the plot unfolding in Illyria, giving equal weight to the mundane and the fantastic. The narrator’s voice is spellbinding (“What am I? Figment, fakement, fragment, furious fancy-free form. I have been the spark that ignites in a cold winter”), drawing readers into a nuanced meditation on reality and fiction. This gorgeous, deeply philosophical work is a knockout. Agent: Jack Byrne, Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Cry of Metal and Bone

L. Penelope. St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99 trade paper (496p) ISBN 978-1-25-014811-7

Penelope’s jam-packed, uneven third Earthsinger Chronicles fantasy picks up six weeks after the events of Whispers of Shadow and Flame as the formerly warring nations of Elisara and Lagrimar forge a thorny path to unification. Legendary Earthsinger Darvyn ol-Tahlyro is still grieving Kyara ul-Lagrimar, his missing lover, when he’s tasked with apprehending a group of separatists responsible for a deadly attack on a local temple. Meanwhile, the imprisoned Kyara battles her captors’ sinister plot to rob her of her powers. Overly detailed reintroductions to the characters slow the plot to a near-crawl until the halfway mark, when the intrigue and investigation into the attack hit high gear. Penelope’s plotting is intricate as ever and series readers will be pleased to return to her fully realized world, but an excess of political subplots and shifts in perspective too often make this a slog. Fans will hope for a return to form in the next installment. Agent: Sara Megibow, KT Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Westside Saints

W.M. Akers. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-285404-9

A missing finger sparks a sprawling investigation in Akers’s dark, gritty second supernatural mystery set in an alternate 1920s (after Westside). Manhattan is cut in half by a wall, separating the hellish Westside from the idyllic East. Westside private investigator Gilda Carr only solves “tiny mysteries,” such as locating small objects that have gone missing. The eclectic Byrd family—the leaders of the Electric Church who believe that the door between death and life will open and their patriarch, Bully Byrd, will be resurrected—hire Gilda to locate a holy relic, the finger of Róisin of Lismore, after it disappears. But when the church’s prophecy comes true, Bully’s not the only dead to return; so does Gilda’s late mother, Mary. She claims amnesia and hires Gilda to help her find a lost ring, hoping for a clue to her identity. As Gilda’s dual investigations lead her to delve deeper into the Byrd family, she untangles a web of secrets, lies, and time travel. The harsh realities of Westside Manhattan is richly imagined and the diverse cast is expertly shaded. New readers won’t want to start with this one, but series fans will be gratified by this excellent outing. Agent: Sharon Pelletier, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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