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Wishful Thinking

Helen Harper. Harperfire, $14.99 trade paper (270p) ISBN 978-1-913116-22-4

The humorous first urban fantasy in Harper’s How to Be the Best Damn Faery Godmother in the World (or Die Trying) series introduces an enchanting world where faeries work in a cutthroat corporate hierarchy. Spunky Saffron Sawyer is the best dope faery in England, using her talents to give clients magical “happy drug dreams,” but she’s always aspired to join the renowned ranks of the Faery Godmothers. After she’s invited to be a Godmother out of the blue (after applying and being rejected several times), bullies, brownnosers, and an authoritarian Director make her life in the stuffy office miserable. When Saffron learns that someone is kidnapping Godmothers and mailing their body parts to the office, she realizes she was only hired to be bait for the kidnappers. Drawing on her street smarts, drug-world connections, and tenacity, she rallies her reluctant office mates into action to rescue the missing Godmothers—but first she must grant a wish to her client, a teenage boy looking for his birth father. Harper (the Blood Destiny series) delights with a quick-thinking heroine, an alluring love interest in the form of the Devil’s Advocate (the most powerful faery in England), playful worldbuilding, and slapstick comedy. Readers are sure to be charmed. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Uranus

Ben Bova. Tor, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-29654-2

Bova continues his ambitious project of exploring a near-future human-colonized solar system (which began with 1992’s Mars) with this all-too-conventional space adventure, the first of the Outer Planets trilogy. Raven Marchesi flees a life of prostitution in Naples, Italy, for Haven, an artificial habitat circling Uranus, where idealistic Reverend Kyle Umber has set up a nondenominational refuge for Earth’s “poor, disenfranchised, [and] forgotten” with the backing of sinister financier Evan Waxman. Raven soon becomes involved with both Waxman, who’s running a secret drug trade, and astronomer Tómas Gomez, who’s come to Haven to investigate secrets lurking under Uranus’s ocean. Not much science animates this stale story, which is more concerned with Waxman’s drug deals, romantic encounters, and corruption, and the hints of alien forces bent on destroying humanity amount to too little too late. The characters’ relationships and biases are grounded in contemporary attitudes, making it clear that shockingly little social change has occurred in Bova’s vision of the future. Readers will be disappointed by this rote, unimaginative work of hard science fiction. (May)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Project Notebook

Jason J. McCuiston. Tell-Tale, $3.99 e-book (210p) ISBN 978-1-951716-09-7

McCuiston’s immersive debut imbues a first encounter tale with 1940s noir flavor as an elite team of WWII veterans looks into reports of strange lights in the skies over Washington State. Elzabad “El” Summers leads fellow members of the secret Air Force branch code-named “Project Notebook” to investigate and subsequently wakes up alone in a motel room with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. McCuiston’s succinct, evocative descriptions expertly conjure time and place as El follows dim memories of his mission to Tacoma, where he reunites with his teammates, Olivia and Red. As the trio detect a pattern of eyewitnesses committing suicide and uncover a cell of Soviet agents on U.S. soil, El’s gradually returning memories force him to confront personal issues affecting his relationships with Red and Olivia. McCuiston does not shy away from the trauma of WWII and uses the social complexities of America in the years leading up to the Cold War to inform the character dynamics. The high stakes and rich, atmospheric prose make for a thoroughly satisfying alternate history. (June)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Zen Cho. Tor.com, $19.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-250-26925-6

With this whimsical fantasy novella, Hugo Award–winner Cho (The True Queen) delivers a wuxia-tinged tale of banditry and brotherhood. After a group of bandits save Guet Imm, a young nun of the Pure Moon Order, from harassment, she joins them and tags along on their exploits. The bandits have recently come into possession of a sacred object of the Pure Moon Order, which they intend to sell, but their endeavors both to find a buyer and to steal more goods consistently go awry. When Guet Imm, whose true motivations come as a late reveal, discovers a fellow sister of the Pure Moon Order disguised as a man within the bandits’ ranks, both women must reckon with and reevaluate their faith. This quirky sketch of the Tang Dynasty offers more mischief than martial arts or magic, which will disappoint readers hoping for action, but fans of found family narratives will enjoy the band-of-brothers dynamic of the bandits. This cheeky take on old-school tropes is pleasant but slight. Agent: Caitlin Blasdell, Liza Dawson Assoc. (June)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Agatha H. and the Siege of Mechanicsburg

Phil and Kaja Foglio. Night Shade, $24.99 (442p) ISBN 978-1-949102-27-7

Husband-and-wife team Phil and Kaja Foglio continue the adventures of Agatha Heterodyne (following Agatha H. and the Voice of the Castle) with this gleefully manic steampunk tale of mad science, warfare, and love. In the bowels of the Castle Heterodyne, a confrontation rages between Agatha’s villainous mother, Lucrezia Mongfish—who is inhabiting Agatha’s body—and Lucrezia’s niece, Zola Malfeazium. Lucrezia jumps into Zola’s body and uses it to escape the castle. Once Agatha regains control of her own body, she sets to work repairing the castle’s artificial intelligence with the help of, among others, her two suitors, Gilgamesh “Gil” Wulfenbach, heir to the Wulfenbach Empire, and Prince Tarvek Sturmvoraus, claimant to the mantle of Storm King. The castle’s defenses are the best hope for Agatha to protect the folks of Mechanicsburg—consisting of “humans and clanks, constructs and monsters”—from the besieging forces of Gil’s father, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, who is also being influenced by Lucrezia. The authors do an admirable job of balancing the action sequences with Terry Pratchett–like humor and romance. New readers will struggle with the sprawling cast and lengthy backstory (only partly explained by comical footnotes), but series fans will rejoice in this return to Mechanicsburg. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Scarlet Odyssey

C.T. Rwizi. 47North, $24.95 (622p) ISBN 978-1-542023-82-5

Dazzling technomagical worldbuilding buoys Rwizi’s debut fantasy which otherwise flounders as a predictable quest narrative. The Dark Sun, an Umadi warlord, gathers power and expands his territory across the tribal regions of the Redlands. When bookish outcast Salo, a boy from the Yerezi tribe, reveals that he is skilled in technosorcery, a craft only women are supposed to be able to access, the Yerezi queen sends him on a diplomatic mission to the city of Yonte Saire in hopes of defeating the Dark Sun. Salo’s trek follows a traditional hero’s journey beat for beat as the Dark Sun’s forces try to stop him and his companions from reaching the city. Rwizi continuously introduces new characters from other tribes, slowing the pace as the narrative jumps from one subplot to another. Readers excited by the high concept magic system, which functions like a programming language; vivid descriptions of the Redlands; and nuanced exploration of gender roles will be disappointed that they’re used to bolster an overly familiar plot. Though Rwizi’s writing shows promise, this first offering falls flat. Agent: Julie Crisp, Julie Crisp Literary. (Jul.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Eden

Tim Lebbon. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-78909-293-6

Lebbon (The Silence) pits human ambition against a conscious and remorseless environment in this atmospheric eco-horror adventure set in the near future. Desperate to avert a climate disaster, the world’s governments declared 13 “Virgin Zones” closed to human access, hoping they would revert to their pristine condition. Instead the flora and fauna have evolved in terrifying ways. Despite the armed patrols protecting the Virgin Zones’ borders, teams of adventurers enter the Zones illegally to race across their reaches for sport and glory. Dylan and his daughter, Jenn, are part of an elite team planning to cross Eden, the oldest of the Zones, when Jenn learns that her estranged mother, Kat, has entered Eden ahead of them. Desperate to locate Kat, Dylan’s team plunges into Eden. Once inside, they realize the Zone hides a valuable resource, but the land will protect itself from their intrusion at all costs. Lebbon excels at building a world that is both wondrous and deeply unsettling, but shallow characterization—especially of the women, whose worlds seem to revolve around the men—prevents the human characters from being as effective as the ever-shifting landscape. Lebbon stumbles a bit in the execution of this powerful premise. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Radioactive Bride

Alessandro Manzetti. Necro, $14.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-944703-85-1

Stoker Award–winner Manzetti (Naraka) overwhelms the senses in this gory, disgusting carnival of vignettes set across continents in a postapocalyptic future. Forty years after the meteorite Uxor 77 led to a pandemic of genetic mutations that swept the Earth, the Parisian elite have monetized the bodies of the unlucky masses in exclusive brothels, freak shows, and fine dining establishments where the wealthy feast on human meat. Meanwhile in Berlin, the population is re-divided by an electrified sewer-wall into Western Puritans and lawless Eastern cannibals, and Germany’s gluttonous president keeps a menagerie of butchered, but still living, body parts. And, in what once was India, cults have formed in worship of the meteorite fragments. Gruesome, often misogynistic scenes pass in a whirlwind of depravity, cannibalism, and stomach-churning body horror, without relief or a larger message. Manzetti’s characterization of the pandemic as having “the creativity and sadism of a drunk motherfucker god” aptly describes his novel as a whole. Readers will need strong stomachs to weather this relentless, gleefully violent, and pointless work of hardcore horror. (May.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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I Come With Knives

S.A. Hunt. Tor, $18.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-30646-3

Hunt’s Malus Domestica series loses steam in this convoluted sequel to Burn the Dark. The tale gets off to an exciting, action-packed start as witch hunter Robin Martine—still reeling from discovering a demon guarding her late mother’s house in Blackfield, Ga.—formulates a plan to eradicate the Lazenbury coven and reunites with her mentor, Heinrich Hammer, but the numerous narrative threads soon become difficult to track. Unbeknownst to Robin, the demon prowling the house is an incubus who had an arrangement with her mother, the fallout from which threatens her relationship with Heinrich and draws an order of magicians to her aid. Meanwhile, the Lazenbury coven commits numerous atrocities using a pair of crooked cops and a serial killer known as the Serpent as instruments of their bidding. Though the conceit of this fantasy universe remains inventive and inviting, the color and detail of the characters have diminished as the worldbuilding expands, taking on new, sometimes contradictory, rules. Series fans will be pleased to return to Blackfield but will have trouble untangling this one’s plot. (May)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Queens of Noise

Leigh Harlen. Neon Hemlock, $12.99 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-952086-01-4

Harlen’s rollicking if unpolished debut novella follows a punk band turned werecoyote pack as they race to save a local music venue from demolition. The Mangy Rats, led by vocalist Mixi, team up with a rival band to discover the identity of the club’s mysterious buyer, and their investigation leads them down a rabbit hole of witchcraft and conspiracy. As they face off against the buyers, the occult, and cursed attack chickens, the rival band leaders find unexpected romance. The descriptions of the werecoyote’s shape-shifting are well-conceived, and the richly detailed world reveals Harlen’s familiarity with the punk scene, but the discussions of gentrification are often too on the nose. There are some truly beautiful passages, but they alternate with stretches of exposition, and the setup to the final conflict is rushed. However, readers will appreciate the sensitive, nuanced treatment of the LGBTQ pack members and the moments of humor. Anarchic, bighearted, and fun, this scruffy tale will appeal to fans of urban fantasy and queer paranormal romance willing to look past some rough edges. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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