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Lord of Order

Brett Riley. Imbrifex, $27 (440p) ISBN 978-1-945501-41-8

Riley (Comanche) presents a convincingly bleak vision of the future in his latest. Set at a time when “even the word country sounded archaic” given the disarray the United States has fallen into, the story is framed by an unnamed man taking his two children to a cemetery to tell them the story of a generations-old struggle within the cult that has taken over the government. After fundamentalist Christian Jonas Strickland was elected president, he wiped out all of America’s electronic technology in an event called the Purge. Now Strickland’s successor, Matthew Rook, plans a second Purge, killing all those he considers opposed to his regime. But his plan to convert New Orleans into a prison runs into unexpected resistance from Gabriel Troy, that city’s Lord of Order, after Troy learns that the mass incarceration is a prelude to a scheme to annihilate the city. The ensuing violence will be too gory for some readers, but those who stick with it will find Riley has a facility for fast-paced action that keeps the pages turning. Though the worldbuilding is a bit murky, there’s plenty to keep readers’ attention and enough questions are left open to make a sequel welcome. Those who like their dystopias especially gritty will want to take a look. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Apocalypse Seven

Gene Doucette. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-358-41894-8

Seven people awake to the revelation that Boston and the surrounding area are abandoned, overgrown, and teeming with coywolves in this riveting postapocalyptic outing from Doucette (The Spaceship Next Door). Harvard students Robbie and Carol are the first to find each other in this strange, deserted world. They soon join up with computer programmer Touré, and the three discover juvenile delinquent Bethany while searching for food and answers. Doucette draws a contrast between this scrappy group’s struggle for survival in Boston and the confident know-how of two characters outside the city: nondenominational pastor Paul, who jury-rigs his truck and fills it with guns and supplies; and marketing executive Win, who adopts a blasé approach to facing down mountain lions. Closest to uncovering what happened is Ananda, an MIT astrophysicist whose discovery of a mysterious device suggests extraterrestrial interference. Subtly eerie occurrences propel the story past the midpoint, and the group’s daily efforts to survive provide more satisfaction than the abrupt revelations of the finale. Despite the underwhelming denouement, Doucette’s vibrant prose and unique premise make for an enticing adventure. (May)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Are Satellites

Sarah Pinsker. Berkley, $16 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-984802-60-6

Nebula Award winner Pinsker’s cold and cerebral latest (after A Song for a New Day) revolves around technological haves and have-nots who are divided by class, disability, and ideology. Teacher Val and political staffer Julie come from underprivileged backgrounds, and their marriage has immersed them in suburban life, with two kids and a money pit of a house. Enter the Pilot, a new technology for enhancing brain function via a stimulating implant. It quickly becomes a fad: first Val’s wealthy students and then Julie’s congressman boss sport the Pilot’s tell-tale blue lights at their temples, and soon David, the couple’s teenage son, has one. The family, though, shies away from the implications of his enhanced capabilities until he announces his decision to join the military’s new program for people with Pilots. Meanwhile, David’s sister Sophie, whose epilepsy makes her ineligible for implantation, must confront being a have-not in a neural-enhanced world. It’s a slow-developing narrative, marred by slight characterization and check-the-box inclusion of topical issues. Pinsker raises fascinating questions about technology that will appeal to fans of hard science fiction, but the story itself too often reads like dry reportage. Agent: Kim-Mei Kirtland, Morhaim Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Lagoonfire

Francesca Forrest. Annorlunda, $9.99 trade paper (162p) ISBN 978-1-944354-55-8

Regret, perseverance, and love drive Forrest’s sparkling second Tales of the Polity fantasy (following The Inconvenient God). Plucky administrator Thirty-Seven works for the Ministry of Divinities in the tropical totalitarian state of Sweet Harbor. Her job is to find deities who have lost their worshippers and decommission them into mortal retirement—but she fails to fully decommission Laloran-morna, the god of warm ocean waves, who retains command over some ocean water even as a mortal. So when a luxury hotel construction site is flooded in an act of sabotage, Thirty-Seven is ordered to question the elderly god to see if he sought revenge on the project’s destruction of coastal land. Laloran-morna denies it, but uses the interrogation to entreat Thirty-Seven to make a dedication to his former lover, Goblet, goddess of estuaries. Meanwhile, the officers of the Civil Order arrest archeologist Ninin Ateni for the crime, as Ninin has been vocal in his belief that the site holds the key to learning about the region’s original inhabitants and long-forgotten gods. As Thirty-Seven navigates this tricky situation, careful not to reveal a dangerous family secret, Forrest skillfully blends the oppressive society and curmudgeonly gods with the airy tropical setting. This evocative and ultimately uplifting story is sure to please. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Machinehood

S.B. Divya. Saga, $27 (416p) ISBN 978-1-982148-06-5

This stunning near-future thriller from Divya (Runtime) tackles issues of economic inequality, workers’ rights, privacy, and the nature of intelligence. Bodyguard Welga Ramírez is a disillusioned former Special Forces soldier who makes her living protecting CEOs and celebrities, using mechanical implants and a course of high-tech drugs to enhance her combat skills. It’s much more exciting work than the other options available to humans: “babysitting” the bots that have taken over most skilled labor or scrounging for low-paying online gigs. Welga especially enjoys the opportunity to perform for the ubiquitous microdrone swarms that film and broadcast her every move. She even adds stylish action moves to her fights to improve her tips from her viewers. But when a job goes wrong, Welga faces a mysterious pro-AI terrorist group called The Machinehood. Determined to learn who they are and what they want, Welga heads into the very heart of The Machinehood’s operation, despite a worrying medical issue. Divya keeps the pace rapid, and her crack worldbuilding and vivid characters make for a memorable, page-turning adventure, while the thematic inquiries into human and AI labor rights offer plenty to chew on for fans of big idea sci-fi. Readers will be blown away. Agent: Cameron McClure, Donald Maas Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Unbroken

C.L. Clark. Orbit, $16.99 trade paper (464p) ISBN 978-0-316-54275-3

Clark conjures an elaborate fantasy world inspired by Northern Africa and delves into an international political conflict that draws on real histories of colonialism and conquest in their excellent debut, the first in the Magic of the Lost series. Touraine was kidnapped from Qazāl as a child and trained as a soldier for neighboring nation, Balladaire. Over the years, she rises through the ranks of the Balladairan army, eventually becoming lieutenant. But when her brigade is sent to quash a rising rebellion in Qazāl, now a colony of the Balladairan empire, Touraine must return to the homeland she only hazily remembers. Straddling the line between colonizer and colonized, she struggles with both her identity and her allegiance as she faces hard realities about who she is and the world she lives in. Clark’s precise, thorough worldbuilding allows this remarkable novel to dive deep into the intricate workings of colonialism, exposing how power structures are maintained through social conditioning and exploring the emotional toll of political conflict. The result is a captivating story that works both as high fantasy and skillful cultural commentary. Agent: Mary C. Moore, Kimberley Cameron and Assoc. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Galactic Hellcats

Marie Vibbert. Vernacular, $9.99 trade paper (378p) ISBN 978-1-952283-07-9

Even more fun than the title suggests, Vibbert’s debut is a rip-roaring space heist that details the origins of the Galactic Hellcats gang. Ki’s a street rat who steals, scavenges, and scams to survive, so when she inherits a solo-flyer, designed to carry a single passenger through interstellar space, from a friend, she’s not about to give it up just because a repo man says she has to. After escaping the repo man on the solo-flyer, Ki marks Margot Santiago-Nguyen, a Sol Navy veteran who’s been living with her wealthy parents while searching for a new job, as an easy target for a free dinner—a plan that goes awry when Earth authorities arrive and Ki is forced to flee the scene. Margot impulsively follows, and the pair end up on the planet Ratana, where Margot is promptly arrested by the fascist Ratana government. Ki teams up with Ratanian local Zuleikah Mangan to free her, and in return, Ki and a reluctant Margot agree to help Zuleikah save Ratanian Prince Thane from his abusive family. Tongue-in-cheek humor, delightfully absurd (if sometimes over the top) action, and heartening themes of found family keep the pages turning. With snark and hijinks to spare, this high-flying adventure is sure to entertain. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Of One Blood

Pauline Hopkins. Poisoned Pen, $14.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-4642-1506-3

Mysticism, horror, and racial identity merge fluidly in this thrilling tale of love, obsession, and power, first serialized in Colored American Magazine from 1902 to 1903. Hopkins (1859–1930) takes readers on a journey from turn of the century Boston to an ancient, long-hidden Ethiopian civilization that will put readers in mind of Wakanda or El Dorado. Reuel Briggs, a white-passing, mixed-race Harvard medical student, falls in love with the enchanting, mixed-race singer, Dianthe Lusk, and in order to offer her a good life once they are married, he takes a job as a researcher on an archeological expedition to Ethiopia. With an ocean between them, Dianthe and Reuel’s relationship faces seemingly insurmountable odds as they encounter dangers both at home and abroad. As Reuel’s journey takes him into the heart of a lost kingdom, he learns a secret about his own identity that changes everything he thought he knew—and puts his future with Dianthe in further jeopardy. The suspense is tangible and the final reveal will leave readers reeling. This easily transcends the Victorian lost world genre to be relevant, thought-provoking, and entertaining today. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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How to Dispatch a Human: Stories and Suggestions

Stephanie Andrea Allen. BLF, $16.95 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-7359065-0-8

Allen (A Failure to Communicate) crafts a venturesome but uneven collection of speculative shorts centered on the lives of Black lesbian and queer women and the unexpected danger lurking in the seemingly mundane. Each of these 11 stories presents a strange alternate world and explores subtly disquieting events, though the initial premises are frequently stronger than the execution. “Moji,” one of the standouts, follows a white woman choosing Black features for her new digital avatar, with unexpected consequences. A writer lies to her girlfriend to go get coffee with a beautiful fan who turns out to be an alien predator in “Coffee Date.” In “Coral D. Cat, or How to Dispatch a Human” a spoiled cat plots the murder of its owner’s best friend. The concepts are original and exciting, but Allen doesn’t always stick the landing, with pacing issues and inconsistent, ambiguous endings undermining the stories’ intensity. The ideas are strong enough, however, that readers will be musing on them long after the final page is turned. This is a worthwhile pick for anyone interested in idea-driven speculative fiction. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Reincarnationist Papers

D. Eric Maikranz. Blackstone, $15.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-09-415495-4

Maikranz’s spellbinding dark fantasy debut offers a fresh take on the concept of reincarnation. Professional arsonist Evan Michaels has vivid, unexplained visions from his two previous lives as WWI soldier Vasili and six-year-old Bobby. When a death-defying arson job in a Los Angeles warehouse leaves Evan incapacitated and very nearly apprehended by the authorities, he is rescued by Poppy, a Reincarnationist from a Switzerland-based secret society called Cognomina, whose members are similarly capable of remembering past lives. Evan longs for the answers that Cognomina can provide, but to join their ranks he’ll have to pass a trial called the Ascension. And, once he’s in, the lure of wealth and power proves impossible to resist. Presented as a true account of the Cognomina society unearthed from an antique store in Rome, this nail-biting mystery builds slowly, with Evan’s search to understand his identity propelling the plot forward before the action kicks into high gear in the final act. The high stakes and clever premise of Maikranz’s thrilling debut successfully evoke a sense of wide-eyed awe. Agent: Scott Miller, Trident Media. (May)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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