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Secret Santa

Andrew Shaffer. Quirk, $15.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-68369-205-8

The latest black comedy from satirist Shaffer (Hope Never Dies) is a spirited holiday horror novel shot through with ’80s nostalgia. In 1986, horror fiction editor Lussi Meyer interviews for a position at the illustrious publishing house Blackwood-Patterson, a firm so highbrow that it’s about to shut down due to a lack of sales. Though the snobbish Mr. Blackwood scoffs at genre fiction, he hires Lussi and tasks her with finding a bestselling horror novel that will save Blackwood-Patterson from dissolution. As Lussi starts work, she becomes the victim of a series of office pranks, and at the company’s Christmas party she receives a mysterious Secret Santa present: a German doll that looks like the Devil. Soon thereafter, something begins picking off Lussi’s new coworkers, which Lussi suspects is connected to the doll. As the murders grow increasingly violent, Lussi tries to get rid of the doll once and for all—but it may take her and the company down with it. Writing with a biting, dry wit, Shaffer blends old school, B-movie gore and sharp send-ups of office politics and the publishing industry. Fans of classic slasher novels will revel in this blood-soaked romp. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories

Eugen Bacon. Meerkat, $16.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-946154-31-6

Bacon (Claiming T-Mo) delivers a commanding and visionary collection of speculative shorts, encompassing surrealism, fantasy, science fiction, and gorgeous, painterly literary fiction. It would be a disservice to call any of these 24 stories the standout, as each is impressive and beautifully rendered in Bacon’s distinct, poetic voice. The stunning title story follows a pair of lovers on a tense road trip that grows increasingly surreal, told in rhythmic, abstract prose (“Tumbling down the stretch, a confident glide, the 4WD is a beaut, over nineteen years old. The argument is brand-new”). In the moving “Swimming with Daddy,” a little girl reflects on how her father taught her to swim. The humorous “Beatitudes” tells of the first meeting of a young siren and a salesman who has been turned into a toad. Science fictional offerings include “Ace Zone,” about a young woman traveling from planet to planet to draft soldiers into her battalion, and “Playback, Jury of the Heart,” a tale of love that transcends time and space. Complex, earnest, and striking, Bacon’s impeccable work is sure to blow readers away. Agent: Bieke van Aggelen, Van Aggelen African Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Doors of Sleep

Tim Pratt. Angry Robot, $14.99 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-85766-874-5

Pratt (the Axiom series) takes readers on an exciting if repetitive chase through parallel universes in this standalone adventure. An encounter with a mysterious woman leaves Zax Delatree with the power to travel to different “branches in the tree of worlds” when he falls asleep. He has no control over what new universe he’ll land in upon waking, but he can take others with him by holding them close. Traveling with his new friend Minna, a skilled “senior grafter” from a “garden world,” Zax finds his life doubly dangerous when his former traveling companion, a scientist called the Lector, reappears hoping to violently steal the key to Zax’s ability. With the Lector on their trail, Minna and Zax hop from “non-Euclidean” mansions to “post-scarcity” pleasure domes and abandoned techno-utopias, struggling to learn how to control Zax’s ability. Part high adventure and part travelogue of alien locales, this sci-fi romp has plenty of YA crossover appeal and will prove just the thing for mature readers who appreciate a classic Golden Age vibe. Agent: Ginger Clark, Curtis Brown. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dead Lies Dreaming

Charles Stross. Tor.com, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-26702-3

The madcap 10th entry in Stross’s Laundry Files series (following The Labyrinth Index), set in an alternate England where magic is a branch of applied mathematics that coexists alongside technology, finds the country under New Management, as the Elder God who now inhabits 10 Downing Street is referred to. Against this backdrop, the Lost Boys, a gang of superpowered transhuman heisters comprising Imp, the Deliverator, Doc Depression, and Game Boy, use their ill-gotten gains to finance a twisted, outer space–set movie version of Peter Pan. First opposing, then assisting, them is Wendy Deere, transhuman rent-a-cop for HiveCo Security, who has just been promoted to “thief-taker.” When Imp’s sister, Evelyn Starkey, hires the Lost Boys to steal the Necronomicon, a concordance of spells, for her billionaire boss, the job takes the gang back in time to the mean streets of Whitechapel in 1888. This is like a gonzo riff on Robert A. Heinlein’s Magic, Inc., enhanced by imaginative set pieces and plentiful references to classic SFF. Bullets and jokes fly in equal measure, and even if they don’t all find their mark, Stross still hits the bull’s-eye with this fresh take on the caper genre. Agent: Caitlin Blasdell, Liza Dawson Assoc. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Dark Archive

Genevieve Cogman. Ace, $16 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-984804-78-5

In Cogman’s thrilling seventh Invisible Library fantasy (after The Secret Chapter), Irene Winters, a time-traveling and alternate world–jumping librarian, discovers the only thing worse than people trying to kill her is when the people trying to kill her should already be dead. Irene has grown accustomed to disaster striking while she’s in the process of buying (or more illicitly acquiring) rare books for the library, but she’s unprepared to face off against Lord Guantes, who she distinctly remembers killing, and Alberich, a traitor to the library who’s been presumed dead. Somehow they’re both back and gunning for Irene and her lover, Kai, a dragon, and her surly new fae apprentice, Catherine. Worse still—and certainly more insulting—is that they seem to be treating vengeance against her as merely a fringe benefit of a larger and more sinister plot. Without sacrificing the adventure that is a hallmark of the series, Cogman pulls Irene through a multilevel maze of doubts and paranoia that will have readers jumping at shadows, too. Fans will be delighted to find this series still going strong. Agent: Lucienne Diver, the Knight Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Hotel Chelsea

Jeremy Bates. Ghillinnein, $17.95 (372p) ISBN 978-1-988091-49-5

The creepy but predictable sixth horror novel in Bates’s World’s Scariest Places series (after Mountain of the Dead) explores a haunting at New York City’s Hotel Chelsea. Journalist Malcolm Clock is assigned to cover the story of how Hotel Chelsea—the once-great playground of artists and outsiders—has fallen into disrepair. Though skeptical Malcolm doesn’t believe in ghosts, he begins to doubt his senses when an apparition of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious appears to him. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s new girlfriend, Jolene, is haunted by the specter of Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. As Malcolm interviews the hotel’s guests and uncovers more about the nature of the phantoms, he and Jolene are pulled ever deeper into a web of lies and half-truths. Though perhaps excessively detailed, the story is suspenseful and the ghosts themselves are genuinely frightening. Bates brings the atmosphere, but a late reveal will prove deeply underwhelming to seasoned horror readers. The unique premise will draw readers in, but the half-baked plotting disappoints. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Lies of Ardor Benn

Tyler Whitesides. Orbit, $17.99 trade paper (784p) ISBN 978-0-316-52032-4

Whitesides sticks the landing in his conclusion to the Kingdom of Grit trilogy (following The Shattered Realm of Ardor Benn), which sprang from the unusual premise of a magic system fueled by dragon dung. Legendary ruse artist Ardor Benn has ostensibly turned over a new leaf now that Queen Abeth Agaul has pardoned his crimes on the condition that he go straight and apologize to those he wronged. But soon he’s up to his old tricks: infiltrating a religious community, the Islehood, and duping people into consulting him for spiritual guidance as part of a scheme to steal the Islehood’s collection of dragon egg fragments. That scheme is soon superseded by an even more daunting task at the request of Hedge Marsool, a notorious criminal, whose ability to see the future and apparently control Ard’s actions make Ard incapable of ignoring his demand that Ard kidnap a mature dragon. The quest takes numerous unexpected turns as it builds to a thoroughly satisfying climax. Whitesides excels at balancing detailed worldbuilding and page-turning plot, sprinkling in plenty of humor along the way. This is a worthy finale to the series, and Whitesides’s fans will be eager to see what he does next. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Brass Queen

Elizabeth Chatsworth. CamCat, $26.99 (450p) ISBN 978-0-7443-0009-3

Chatsworth debuts with a fun, frothy blend of fantasy and romance in which the steampunk set dressing often outshines the story. In an alternate Victorian England, Miss Constance Haltwhistle—who is secretly the boutique arms designer known as the Brass Queen—must marry or lose her estate. So she throws herself a debutante ball, complete with enormous robotic champagne dispensers—and an uninvited guest: the annoying, handsome American cowboy J.F. Truesdale. When her champagne dispensers go haywire and kidnap three scientists, including Dr. Maya Chauhan, one of Constance’s closest friends, J.F. saves Constance from being killed in the mayhem, and the pair sets off on a rescue mission, bickering furiously all the while. Along the way, Constance and J.F. battle invisible assassins, uncover a conspiracy to kill Queen Victoria, commune with alternate dimensions, and take detours into parade planning and semi-lethal games of polo. The plot is held together with spit and banter, and there’s little urgency to the rescue mission, but Chatsworth packs her world full of hilarious details and enjoyably cartoonish side characters. Fans of humorous fantasy and headstrong heroines will be delighted. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fairest Flesh

K.P. Kulski. Strangehouse, $14.95 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-1-946335-35-7

Kulski debuts with a grim and alluring, if at times off-puttin, Snow White twist on the historical horrors of the Hungarian Countess Erszébet of Bathory (1560–1614), a prolific murderer who is said to have bathed in virgin’s blood to retain her youth and beauty. After young teen Erszébet murders a playmate, she and her nurse, Susanna, are sent away to live in her betrothed’s household. On the way, they pick up Dorottya, a hideously ugly woman raised by her abusive mother to be an herbalist and witch, who gains Erszébet’s trust by treating her epilepsy. Swatting away Susanna’s maternal affection, Erszébet allies herself with Dorottya to murder her mother-in-law-to-be, consolidate power, and embark on a decades-long torture spree, while Dorottya, who’s deliriously obsessed with her own ugliness, begins to kill and mutilate pretty servants from the castle. Kulski shows a sensitive touch when dealing with rape and incest, and the torture and murder scenes themselves are well executed, but the heavy-handed themes of beauty and ugliness quickly become tedious, especially when Dorottya’s monstrous actions are linked to her physical ugliness. A poorly handled climactic twist will especially alienate trans and intersex readers. This dreamlike horror novel will appeal to fans of dark fairy tales, but for many readers the one-note plot will fall flat. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dead of Winter

Edited by Lindy Ryan. Black Spot, $16.95 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-1-64548-059-4

Ryan (editor, A Midnight Clear) brings together eight winter-themed tales of terror in this uneven anthology. The saving graces are Alcy Leyva’s “Sad Little Lump of Flesh,” a captivating tale about a young boy who finds an unidentifiable dead creature in his backyard, and Cassondra Windwalker’s “The Tinker’s Son,” a multifaceted dark fantasy about a witch named Margritte and her husband, a dragon lord, whose family faces tragedy. With the mildly amusing “The Face Inside the Christmas Ball,” Daniel Buella adds welcome tonal variety to the mix in the form of a family legend about evil spirits trapped in Christmas ornaments. Wooden dialogue, thin plots, and excessive exposition plague the remaining stories, including Sam Hooker’s “The Watchful Crow,” about an ex-con named Orville who employs crows to commit robberies on his behalf, and Dalena Storm’s “Frostbite,” which dives deep into the narrator’s self-hatred. Readers looking for a wintry fright will appreciate the few gems, but will be disappointed by the whole. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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