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Burrowed

Mary Baader Kaley. Angry Robot, $14.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-915202-14-7

Kaley’s debut, a cleverly crafted exploration of the morality surrounding a genetic virus, captivates with inventive science and adventure. In the far future, a genetic plague has separated humanity into the physically weak but intellectually gifted Subterraneans, who live underground to protect themselves from disease, and the hardy but feeble-minded Omniterraneans, who toil above ground to grow food and provide supplies for the Subters. Zuzan Cayan is a sickly 19-year-old albino Subter with an intelligence score off the charts. Because her life expectancy is only four-and-a-half more years, her job prospects are limited—until geneticist Maven Ringol sees her potential and recruits her for an important mission: curing the disease that keeps the Subters underground so that society can be reunited in future generations. They must hurry as the Omnits respond to false reports that the Subters are trying to kill them with increasing threats and bombings. Meanwhile, betrayal brews within some Subter factions. Despite a few side plots that distract from the urgency of the mission, the well-developed characters, thorny moral questions, and intricate science will keep readers attentive. Those who like meticulous detail and compassionate characters in their science fiction will enjoy this riveting thriller. Agent: Ali Herring, Spencer Hill Assoc. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Keeper’s Six

Kate Elliott. Tordotcom, $19.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-250-76907-7

Treacherous terrain and even more treacherous trading partners ramp up the stakes of this masterful contemporary fantasy from Elliott (Unconquerable Sun). Esther Green, the hard-nosed leader of a Hex of six skilled trekkers who brave the shifting landscapes of the Beyond, a place between worlds, sticks to her principles on a dangerous job—and her convictions get her Hex’s travel privileges suspended by the Concilium for 10 years. Suspension be damned, however, when her son Daniel, the Keeper of a portal to Earth, is kidnapped by the dragon Zosfadal. Esther reassembles her team and marches to confront the dragon and bargain for her son’s freedom. The deal she strikes with Zosfadal leads Esther and the Hex even deeper into danger, through deadly magical storms, and back to the scene of the original sin that pushed the Concilium to ban the team in the first place. A rare standalone adventure from Elliott, this still manages to pack in an epic amount of worldbuilding. The conflicting goals of the smart, well-shaded cast produce believable confrontations that will appeal to those looking for mature, thoughtful conflict. Readers are sure to be impressed. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Unbreakable

Mira Grant. Subterranean, $45 (152p) ISBN 978-1-64524-103-4

Grant (Square³) moves away from her typical horror fare, but never shies from brutality, in this gleeful and nuanced take on the magical girl trope commonly found in manga and anime. In an alternate present, magical protectors are often chosen as children by otherworldly animal companions to defend the world against powerful alien forces—but taking on this responsibility as a suddenly superpowered child soldier promises trauma and often death. Following a massive alien invasion that sees the death of every magical warrior in the world but two, Earth’s governments capture all animal companions and so prevent the creation of any more magical warriors. Though the two remaining protectors, alcoholic Piper Jackson and government puppet Yuina Nakano, lead vastly different lives under constant state surveillance, they’re united in their conviction that the alien threat still looms. Now the duo must uncover the truth of how the first war went sideways before the alien enemies notice that Earth is magically defenseless and return in force. Grant ages up a favorite childhood trope with an alien mystery and a Lovecraftian twist, making the pages of this haunting, character-focused novella fly. Readers’ only complaint will be to wish that it was longer. Agent: Diana Fox, Fox Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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A Dance for the Dead

Nuzo Onoh. Stygian Sky, $14.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-63951-100-6

For this gripping dark fantasy, Onoh (The Unclean) skillfully blends Nigerian folklore, the supernatural, and the quotidian horrors of betrayal, guilt, and inequality. Princes Ife and Diké are beloved by the villagers of Ukari. While Diké is a strong fighter and leader of the warrior cult Ogwumii, Ife is a skillful dancer known for his love of Palm-Wine. When their father insists it’s time for Ife to end the party and marry, he panics. His dear friend Emeka dissuades him from simply running away, as this would surely call down the fury of the Ogwumii, and instead they hatch a plan to divert the king’s attention by staging a kidnapping of Diké. This plot goes horribly awry, however, leading Diké to the forbidden shrine of Ogu n’Udo—where he is discovered and immediately branded as an Osu, or slave of the gods, and shunned from the village. Distraught and confused, both brothers try to find a way to reverse Diké’s banishment, all while simultaneously unearthing the darks secrets of enemies to the kingdom. The vibrant worldbuilding and steady pace keep the pages flying. Readers are sure to be impressed. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Calor

J.J. Fischer. Enclave, $24.99 (352p) ISBN 979-8-8860-5022-6

In this mixed-bag fantasy, Fischer (The Sword in His Hand) enhances her formulaic reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” with a fascinating magic system and a captivating dystopian backdrop. Sephone Winter’s ability to manipulate memories makes her the most powerful mem in Caldera, but she’s also a slave. While Sephone’s ability to enter others’ minds has shown her much of the world beyond her home in the disputed territory of Nulla—including some cherished memories of the world before apocalyptic disaster—she longs to see it all firsthand. But when kind and handsome Lord Adamo offers Sephone a chance to escape in exchange for her help searching for an artifact with the power to completely erase his memories of his murdered wife and child, she refuses—until a kidnapping attempt changes her mind. Elements of “The Nightingale” come to the fore as Sephone and Adamo search for the artifact, face down dangers, and fall in love. Unfortunately, this emotional development is rendered particularly stiffly, hitting expected notes with no sense of surprise or spontaneity, and Sephone’s initial refusal of the call to adventure feels contrived, played out only because of Fischer’s determination to follow the standard beats of the hero’s journey. The exciting worldbuilding may be enough to draw readers in, but they should expect bumps along the way. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Terraformers

Annalee Newitz. Tor, $28.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-22801-7

Newitz (The Future of Another Timeline) performs a staggering feat of revolutionary imagination in this hopeful space-opera built from three interconnected novellas. “Settlers” opens on Destry Thomas, a ranger with the Environmental Rescue Team on corporate-owned planet Sasky, as she stumbles on a fiercely independent underground society, Spider City. Discovery puts Spider City at risk, while showing Sasky’s surface-dwellers a new possible future. In “Public Works,” a crew of bots and hominins grows from uneasy colleagues to found family while trying to design a planetwide public transport network. They’re undermined at every step by their corporate overlords, until they reach Spider City, where every being is a person, and a radical new solution presents itself. “Gentrifiers” sees a planetwide housing crisis bring together a sentient train, Scrubjay, and Moose, a cat journalist. As unrest erupts across Sasky’s big cities, Scrubjay and Moose race to lend aid, in the process uncovering a shocking secret that could be key to breaking the corporate stranglehold over the planet. Newitz masterfully grapples with questions of embodiment and personhood, exploring the power of coalition and the impossibility of utopia under capitalism. With the ethos of Becky Chambers and the gonzo imagination of Samuel R. Delany, plus a strong scientific basis in ecology and urban planning, this feels like a new frontier in science fiction. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Blood Country

Jonathan Janz. Flame Tree, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-78758-663-5

Janz’s sequel to 2020’s The Raven isn’t his best work; action-packed stock situations, rather than innovative chills, dominate this familiar account of attempted survival in a postapocalyptic world. In the previous volume, rogue scientists “unleashed a plague that obliterated nearly all of humankind, the earth now a horrorscape of monsters and bloodshed and fear.” Now, “nearly every person on earth had either been transformed into a monster or been killed by one.” Dez McClane, whose father, son, and brother have all already succumbed to the DNA-altering disease, hopes to rescue others dear to him before it’s too late. After McClane’s new love’s daughter, Cassidy, and his ex-girlfriend, Susan, are abducted by the vampires who have taken over a large portion of the U.S. (now known as Blood Country), McClane vows to rescue them. This mission consists of largely predictable perils and entirely unsurprising twists. The straightforward prose and heaps of explicit gore don’t do much to enhance the clichéd plot. Walking Dead fans seeking more of the same will be pleased; others, not so much. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Isak AI

Clarke Owens. Cosmic Egg, $18.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-80341-128-6

Owens (The Veteran) clutters this thinky speculative novel with a few too many plot threads. In a climate change–ravaged 2052, U.S. President Armando Goya sends troops to quell a protest at the Capitol. When things turn violent, Arthur Hargood, chief of national security, attempts to suspend the Constitution, but his efforts are foiled by Isak, a self-learning supercomputer launched in secret in 2017 to compete with Chinese AI efforts. Isak’s goal is to prevent humanity’s extinction in the climate apocalypse, and that takes radical measures: killing one quarter of Earth’s human population via electric shocks, enforcing aggressive green laws, and quashing dissent. Some humans respond by forming a church that heralds Isak as God, complete with hymns written by former rapper DeJuan McCholley. But with freedom stifled, depression and unemployment spread rapidly. Seeing this, Isak decides to put humanity’s future back into the hands of humans, selecting scientist couple Inga and Kyle Conners to choose to either turn off Isak for good or allow him to continue as overlord. There’s a lot to chew on, but Owens flits between (mostly white male) characters and subplots, never letting any develop much depth. There are good ideas here, but the whole is murky. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Hatchling

Vyria Durav. Vyria Durav, $8.99 trade paper (90p) ASIN B09X2BCBDT

Durav debuts with a sweet, queer dragon fantasy that thoughtfully handles gender identity but fails to fully fly. Healer-priest Sarric is sent along with a group of hunters to slay the dragon Onyx, who has recently settled on the outskirts of Rivermist. Always androgynous, Sarric is subjected to cruel jokes and pranks by the hunting party—right up until Onyx crashes onto the scene, scaring off the hunters and abducting Sarric. Sarric’s sure it’s the end, but Onyx, who occasionally takes over the novel’s narration, is not the bloodthirsty animal Sarric believes. In fact, the dragon used to date Sarric’s most beloved teacher. Onyx helps Sarric to realize her true gender identity, leading to an admirable exploration of coming out and self-acceptance. There’s not much plot here, with little conflict and low stakes, but for readers who wish to see themselves in epic fantasy worlds that have long excluded them, this slow, sensitive tale provides just that. It’s far from a page-turner, but it’s not without its merits. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Country Girl’s Guide to Hexes and Haints

Mer Whinery. JournalStone, $18.95 trade paper (346p) ISBN 978-1-68510-072-8

This intense Southern horror tale from Whinery (Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun) takes readers to Black Knot, a small hamlet of Oklahoma with more than a few skeletons in its closet. Unlikely allies come together to uncover the town’s gruesome secrets: haunted young Cora, who witnessed a mass killing at Dot’s Chow and Plow; Hayder, a Texas transplant who quickly finds himself out of his depth in Black Knot; and rough but kindhearted Sheriff Matheson, who’s at his wits’ end attempting to maintain order in a town determined to eat them all alive. Evil witches and unhinged murderers are only the start as an evil that long-predates them all rears its head and drives the story to a grisly climax. Though the gore is satisfyingly vivid, a lack of focus hobbles the narrative, making it difficult to maintain interest as tangents and blind alleys interrupt an otherwise straightforward plot. Still, the low-down, greasy tone of the narration—which is replete with deep cut horror references—will appeal to bizarro and hardcore horror fans. For those readers, there’s plenty to love in this splatter western. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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