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The Necessity of Stars

E. Catherine Tobler. Neon Hemlock, $12.99 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-952086-18-2

In prose just as slippery, glimmering, and strange as the arboreal aliens it describes, Tobler (The Grand Tour) probes the nature of memory and humanity’s impact on planet Earth. In 2148, Bréone Hemmerli, the 63-year-old Secretary General of the now largely obsolete United Nations, lives alone on Normandy’s Irislands estate, a garden oasis on a rapidly dying Earth. Once a brilliant diplomat, Bréone’s body and mind are failing, but she and her beloved neighbor, environmental scientist Delphine, still care deeply about the state of the planet and track the news of terrorist attacks plaguing the isolationist United Kingdom. Because of her faulty memory, Bréone doesn’t know whether to trust her own mind when she notices something odd in her garden—the shadows behave strangely and the trees seem to move. Then she meets Tura, an alien creature described as “part insect, part tree,” who tells her the story of how their species came to Earth—and offers her a surprising path forward into a terrifying, but possibly brighter, future. Tobler does a fantastic job creating an alien race that feels truly other and conjuring Bréone’s confused mental state as she struggles to make sense of Tura’s offer. Lyrical and utterly transfixing, Tobler’s gorgeous novella packs a punch. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Toni’s Tale

Dan Foley. Crossroad, $13.99 trade paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-63789-971-7

Foley (Witches) explores familial bonds in a world haunted by the past in this engrossing tale of the paranormal. As a child, Antoinette “Toni” Lobo sees nothing unusual in her demon friend, Little Wolf, and is similarly unfazed by her father’s ability to see and speak with ghosts—she only wonders whether she’ll ever be able to do the same. Then she hits puberty, and the ghosts appear to her, turning her world upside down. New Orleans’s French Quarter is swarming with spirits and they all want a piece of Toni, hoping to steal her power and use it to feel alive again. She has Little Wolf and her parents for protection, but they may not be enough when she becomes the target of the vengeful spirit of Renee LaPierre, once “the witch queen of the bayou,” who’s determined to use Toni to settle an old score against her father. Foley delivers palpable intrigue at a swift pace while capturing New Orleans in all its color and creating a plucky heroine in Toni. Fans of supernatural fiction are sure to enjoy this atmospheric work. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Paper & Blood

Kevin Hearne. Del Rey, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-984821-28-7

With this sequel to 2020’s Ink & Sigil—which also acts as a continuation of the Iron Druid Chronicles series—Hearne continues to explore the intersection of the mundane and the divine with his typical mix of humor and adventure. Scottish sigil agent Al MacBharrais receives word that his counterparts in Australia and Taipei have vanished during an investigation in Australia’s Dandenong Ranges. MacBharrais and his hobgoblin assistant, Buck Foi, head to Melbourne, joining apprentice sigil agent Chen Ya-Ping and the immortal Iron Druid, who currently goes by Connor Molloy, on a hike to the missing agents’ last known location. Along the way, they encounter a series of monstrous chimera and magical booby traps that take all their skill to survive—but they still find time to share campfire stories at night. Meanwhile, MacBharrais seeks to dispel the twin curses placed upon him, which all but guarantee that Buck will die within a year. Though the foul-mouthed Buck steals the show, the rest of the cast hold their own—even if Hearne’s fans will recognize some eerily familiar patterns in the relationship dynamics. By throwing well-loved characters into a deadly mystery and moving each one’s story along, this entertaining installment is sure to please fans. Agent: Evan Goldfried, Jill Grinberg Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Sightless City

Noah Lemelson. Tiny Fox, $16.95 trade paper (454p) ISBN 978-1-946501-33-2

Clarke’s Law—that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic—meets dieselpunk in Lemelson’s enjoyable debut, an inventive mash-up of science fiction and hardboiled mystery. Marcel Talwar fought for liberty—and sangleum, the aether-oil powering his postapocalyptic society’s weird science—in a war that left him maimed in body and spirit. Now he’s a private investigator working regular jobs for war acquaintance Lazarus Roache, who runs Lazacorp, a megacompany dealing in sangleum. After a set of indecipherable mechanical diagrams captioned “show to an engineer” appears in Marcel’s office, Marcel uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of Lazacorp that encompasses genocide, religious zealotry, and a brewing revolution. Meanwhile, Sylvaine Pelletier, a brilliant, animalian engineer who gave up everything in her quest to restore some of the world’s pre-apocalyptic splendor, discovers that Roache can supply her with the power she needs to manipulate sangleum, but at a high cost. The book ends in a somewhat predictable setup for the sequel, but getting there is good fun, with stellar worldbuilding and quick pacing. This is sure to entertain any fan of gritty speculative fiction. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Empire’s Ruin

Brian Staveley. Tor, $29.99 (752p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8990-9

Three intertwined tales reveal the cracks of a dying empire in this grim, disappointing epic fantasy, which returns to the world of Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series to launch the Ashes of the Unhewn Throne series. Gwenna Sharpe, a disgraced former commander of the empire’s elite warriors, is sent on a mission to a treacherous continent to retrieve the eggs of a rare species of gargantuan birds used as military transports. Meanwhile, Ruc Lakatur Lan Lac and Bien Qui Nai, priests of an unpopular religion, are forced into arena combat as sacrifices to gods they don’t believe in. And monk-turned-thief Akiil plans to con Emperor Adare herself with the promise that he can teach her the secrets of powerful portals called kenta. Despite complex politics and conflicting cultures, the characters are simplistic and unmotivated, and their relationships to one another feel uninspired. Few surprises and little suspense along the way does nothing to make it easier to root for the protagonists. Fans of Staveley’s other works will enjoy revisiting the world and appreciate the appearance of familiar characters, but this ambitious trio of adventures falls flat and lacks heart. Agent: Hannah Bowman, Liza Dawson Assoc. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Governor

David Weber and Richard Fox. Baen, $27 (496p) ISBN 978-1-982125-40-0

Ending the 56-year space war between the Terran Federation and the Terran League proves less than rewarding for the stalwart protagonist of this fervent adventure from veteran military SF authors Weber (the Honor Harrington series) and Fox (the Ember War Saga). Terrence Murphy, grandson of the Federation Navy founder and son of a disgraced commander, tries to balance his sense of honor with the demands of corrupt Federation politics, a struggle complicated further by his father-in-law’s business ambitions. When he’s sent to govern the restive frontier colony of New Dublin, Murphy immediately detours his task force to rescue the victims of an earlier enemy assault. Following up on intelligence that the League has received aid from the alien Rishathan, Murphy deduces the League is planning a massive counterstrike aimed at New Dublin. Only his swift decision to go outside his orders, along with the grudging aid of the distrustful New Dubliners, will give the outgunned Federation force a chance to survive. The authors pack the story with both the specs of far-future fighting machines—descriptions which occasionally devolve into technobabble—and the hypercompetent, duty-driven warriors who crew them. Fans of old-school military sci-fi should check this out. (June)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Dark Across the Bay

Ania Ahlborn. Earthling, $45 (248p) ISBN 978-0-9962118-9-5

Ahlborn (If You See Her) crafts a terrifying story of family dysfunction in this taut thriller. Diedre and Silas Allan often rent out their second home on a small Maine island, but this time they stumble on a shocking surprise when they return: the blood-covered bodies of the four members of the Parrish family, their most recent guests. The tale then flashes back to the events leading up to their deaths, introducing Poppy and Ezra Parrish, whose marriage is strained, and their two teenage children, Leo and Lark, who are each dealing with personal traumas. Poppy hopes the time away will enable healing and family bonding before recent high school graduate Leo leaves for Thailand. Knowing their eventual fate heightens rather than lessens suspense as, gradually, the island’s isolation becomes ominous rather than relaxing and the Parrishes come to suspect that their space is being surreptitiously invaded at night. By alternating perspectives between each Parrish family member, Ahlborn brings them to life as characters whose welfare readers can easily become invested in. The result is a darkly captivating tale that will appeal to Riley Sager fans. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Savage Bounty

Matt Wallace. Saga, $16.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-5344-3923-8

The lively second volume of the sword and super science Savage Rebellion trilogy Wallace began with Savage Legion continues to surprise both the reader and its own protagonists, as many characters are forced into roles they never dreamed of. Pampered Lexi, a member of the ruling class in the brutal city of Crache, discovers how far she’s willing to go to escape being a tool of either the scheming Ignobles, who plot to seize power, or the Protectorate Ministry, who ruthlessly enjoy power now. Meanwhile, warrior Evie has become the reluctant general to the ragtag rebellion threatening to undermine Crache’s government. Brilliant, paraplegic Dyeawan works to make good on Crache’s unfulfilled promises to its citizens as she competes for control of its Planning Cadre. And then there’s Taru, one of the Undeclared, who’s distrusted by society for their nonbinary gender but still struggles to help change the city. The nuanced worldbuilding and abundance of female and LGBTQ protagonists give the goings-on some extra zip, and the vigor and inventiveness in Wallace’s storytelling keep the pages turning. This solid installment is sure to please series fans. Agent: DongWon Song, Howard Morhaim Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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August’s Eyes

Glenn Rolfe. Flame Tree, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78758-578-2

Suppressed memories, a rampaging serial killer, a Native American curse, and a malignant spirit realm are just a few of the plot points jammed into this overstuffed supernatural horror novel from Rolfe (Blood and Rain). As a young boy in Spears Corner, Maine, John Colby witnessed the abduction of a friend who was later found murdered. Years later, John, who has no memory of the incident, has nightmares that transport him to Graveyard Land, a weird realm where he mingles with ghostly denizens who treat him as one of their own. Graveyard Land proves the nexus between a historical curse placed on Spears Corner by the Passamaquoddy tribe, who were displaced by the town’s founding fathers, and the contemporary murder spree of Llewellyn Caswell, a John Wayne Gacy–type serial killer, but Rolfe has to torque his plot through a slew of underdeveloped incidents to connect these dots. Rolfe’s fans will want to check this out, but others can safely skip it. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Requiem of Silence

L. Penelope. Griffin, $19.99 trade paper (576p) ISBN 978-1-250-14813-1

The deeply satisfying finale to Penelope’s Earthsinger Chronicles (following Cry of Metal & Bone) sees the previously vanquished True Father return in pursuit of Songs, or magic power, with which to wrest back control of Elsira, the kingdom once ruled by his twin sister, the revered goddess Oola. While young Queen Jasminda ul-Sarifor Alliaseen’s husband is away, it falls to Jasminda to guide a divided Elsira through a period of political unrest: there’s been an influx of refugees from neighboring Lagrimar and a spike in violence from Elsiran terrorists who violently oppose them. Meanwhile, Kyara, better known as the Poison Flame, a former forced assassin for the True Father, must come to grips with her destructive power as a Nethersinger in order to defeat the True Father. Chock full of magic, politics, and well-shaded female characters who take no prisoners, this inventive saga is as firmly anchored in the real as it is in the fantastic. The slow start pays dividends in an exciting, page-turning climax full of surprising twists. Ably weaving together the series’ myriad story lines, Penelope crafts well-earned conclusions for each of her complex characters. The result is a worthy finale, sure to gratify the many fans this enchanting world has earned along the way. Agent: Sara Megibow, KT Literary (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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