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Oakwood Island: The Awakening

Pierre C. Arseneault and Angella Cormier. Artemesia, $15.95 trade paper (238p) ISBN 978-1-951122-03-4

The overcomplicated and sometimes gruesome sequel to 2016’s Oakwood Island raises fascinating questions but answers few of them. Five relatively quiet years after the events of the previous book, supernatural danger returns to Oakwood Island in two apparently unconnected forms: a mysterious fungus infects local wildlife, causing them to attack humans, and a curse from 1898 is reborn in four-year-old twins Patrick and Lily. Detective Burke, frustrated by a string of unsolved deaths from five years ago, detailed in book one, teams up with scientist Jin Hong to investigate a possible connection between the fungus and the fatalities, while offensively stereotyped Mi’kmaw elder Jack Whitefeather, who has the power to see through the eyes of a crow, works to counteract the twins’ curse. Unfortunately, the story is cluttered with thinly sketched secondary characters, and the connection between the muddled central mysteries never becomes clear. This is strictly for series completists. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Shadows of Annihilation

S.M. Stirling. Ace, $17 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-58627-9

Stirling continues his stirring alternate WWI series (after Theater of Spies) with an explosive what-if that draws from H.G. Wells’s predictions of advanced chemical warfare. In 1917, President Theodore Roosevelt reluctantly orders U.S. forces to retreat from a Europe devastated by horrifying German annihilation gas. Roosevelt is now determined to fight Germany through stealth using Black Chamber operatives, among them Luz O’Malley. O’Malley and her tech-genius partner, Ciara Whelan, travel in disguise to Mexico to protect the U.S. Dakota Project, which is secretly at work developing its own gas weapon. Prussian aristocrat Horst von Dückler, meanwhile, leads a secret mission to destroy the Dakota Project, motivated by his old vendetta against O’Malley. Stirling fleshes out the ensuing game of cat and mouse with a staggering wealth of cultural, military, and linguistic detail that’s sure to please historically minded readers but overwhelm more casual fans, and smart political commentary about how both Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and America’s history affect its present. This fast-paced spy thriller has impressive depth. Agent: Russ Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Witch’s Oath

Terry Goodkind. Head of Zeus, $13.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-78954-131-1

The battle-heavy fourth novella in Goodkind’s Children of D’Hara series (after Wasteland) brings the story to a crisis point but follows a formulaic plot. Goodkind opens in the middle of the action—with wizard Lord Richard Rahl; his pregnant lover, Kahlan; Vika, an elite female warrior; and their allies imprisoned and tortured by the malevolent witch Moravaska Michec. Vika provokes Moravaska with pointed barbs, opening a window for Rahl to get the upper hand and the heroes to make their daring escape. The subsequent series of bloody action sequences as Rahl and company fight their way to freedom takes up the majority of the book. As the heroes fight Moravaska and the legion of creatures known as the Glee, Goodkind delivers the action fans expect, but neither the universe nor the characters develop. This relentless fantasy will have limited appeal for new readers. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Crowman

David Rae. Brain Lag, $14.99 trade paper (234p) ISBN 978-1-928011-29-3

Rae (Midnight in the Garden of Naughty and Nice) misfires on a promising premise with this sloppy dark fantasy series opener. The evil spirit Vatu keeps the sun locked in a box, causing darkness to fall across the land. Vatu’s former acolyte, Utas, flees from Vatu’s control with his daughter, Alaba, whose body has the power to create light. They encounter Zintoa, a wounded soldier, and stop to help him using Alaba’s magic. Zintoa repays them by taking them captive, determined to return them to Vatu. Their path back to “the city of the sun” is perilous and bloody, as strangers they meet along the road prove to be dangerous. One of the travelers they encounter, Erroi, appears to be more than human, giving Utas hope that he and Alaba may be able to use Erroi’s powers to save themselves from Vatu. But while the world is fully conceived, the characters are underdeveloped (other than Utas’s desire to protect his daughter, readers will struggle to understand motivations), and the short, staccato sentences tend to flatten emotional moments. Dark fantasy fans will find this one a slog. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home

Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Harper Perennial, $21.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-288900-3

The eerie, enchanting third Welcome to Night Vale novel (after It Devours!) offers up a Shakespearian revenge drama that doubles as the origin story of one of Night Vale’s most mysterious residents. Born in 1792, the nameless protagonist grows up with her father on their Mediterranean estate until a tragic encounter with the enigmatic Order of the Labyrinth leaves her an orphan. She dedicates her life to a long-con revenge plot, infiltrating the Order’s ranks to bring them down from within. As years pass, she grows impatient, leading her to accidentally stumble upon a vast conspiracy with herself at its center. Scenes set in present-day Night Vale, where the protagonist haunts residents’ homes, are interspersed throughout this swashbuckling adventure. With this tightly plotted adventure, Fink and Cranor successfully expand their universe beyond Night Vale’s desert setting. The protagonist’s matter-of-fact descriptions of the strange and horrible, meanwhile, will draw in readers. Newcomers need not be familiar with the Night Vale podcast to enjoy this standout tale. Agent: Jodi Reamer, Writers House. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Re-Coil

J.T. Nicholas. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-78909-313-1

Nicholas (SINdicate) introduces a far future in which humans stave off death by transferring their consciousness into new bodies in this briskly paced, noir-infused space opera. Three-hundred-year-old Carter Langston and his salvage crew explore a derelict spaceship full of coils, lab-grown human bodies without working brains. When one of the coils attacks, Langston dies, but his brain had been backed up and can easily be installed into a new coil, a procedure he’s gone through often. This time, a strange glitch causes the re‑coiled Langston to lack key memories that could help him understand the attack, and the majority of his crewmates haven’t been able to re-coil at all. To investigate, Langston teams up with hacker Chan. Their search leads from the habitats orbiting Venus to the domed cities of Mars, the base of Genetechnic Corporation, whose well-intentioned nanobots have created cyber zombies. Nicholas leavens his cynical noir ethos with a genuine connection between Langston and Chan; a sensitive, albeit rudimentary, exploration of the identity politics that would arise from humans frequently swapping bodies; and unexpected, if somewhat naive, optimism about corporate integrity. Readers will be drawn in by the compassionate characters and captivating premise. Agent: Laurie McLean, Fuse Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Grady Hendrix. Quirk, $21.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-68369-143-3

When Patricia Campbell, a bored, housewife in 1990s Charleston, S.C., sighs, “Don’t you wish that something exciting would happen around here?” she all but invites the chilling horrors that soon enmesh her and her friends in this clever, addictive vampire thriller from Hendrix (We Sold Our Souls). Patricia is one of a clutch of local women who assuage their ennui by forming a book club to discuss pulpy true crime chronicles. Their lives are upended by the arrival of James Harris, an outsider who easily ingratiates himself into their community, bringing an influx of money and good fortune to the town. Patricia alone finds Harris’s lack of traditional identification and sensitivity to daylight peculiar. When people begin to disappear, she struggles to convince her friends that Harris is more sinister than he appears. Hendrix draws shrewd parallels between the serial killers documented in the book club’s picks and Harris’s apparent vampire persona, loading his gruesome story with perfectly-pitched allusions to classic horror novels and true crime accounts. This powerful, eclectic novel both pays homage to the literary vampire canon and stands singularly within it. Agent: Joshua Bilmes, JABberwocky Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Alexis Vs. The Afterlife

Marcus Alexander Hart. Canaby, $12.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-0748-6240-4

Hart (One Must Kill Another) pokes fun at typical chosen one fantasies with this rollicking tale of a less-than-ideal hero tasked with saving the fate of humanity. Former child actor and wannabe rock star Alexis McRiott, of the teen occult sitcom That’s My Boo, dies right after landing her dream gig of playing a stadium rock show. In the afterlife, it turns out that the magic catchphrases from her sitcom work real wonders, and Alexis accidentally sets off a disastrous chain of events that could spell the end of the world. She teams up with deceased medieval tween Wycock and his Asian cowgirl sidekick, Sheng Yin, to stop the apocalyptic chaos that Alexis’s untimely arrival on the other side has wrought and get her back in time to play her concert, but first Alexis will have to face her embarrassing past as a child star. Though the vulgar humor can verge on juvenile in a way that some readers will find off-putting, Hart harnesses rebellious teen spirit and adolescent angst into a breezy, amusing story featuring satisfying character growth and impressive descriptions of place. This subversive fantasy will appeal to fans of cringe comedy. (Self-published.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Repo Virtual

Corey J. White. Tor.com, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-21872-8

White’s gritty but unexceptional debut takes a deep dive into a cyberpunk world. Life in the “smart city” of Neo Songdo isn’t easy: augmented reality mixes with actual reality, and corporations hold all the power. JD, a thief and digital repo man, hustles and schemes his way through life. But when a powerful woman named Kali hires him to steal a computer virus from reclusive billionaire Zero Lee, JD doesn’t realize that it’s really the world’s first sentient artificial intelligence, Mirae. As Mirae develops a sense of self, JD and his team are thrown into peril and they’ll have to pull off their most difficult hacking job ever to save their skins. Though White drives the narrative forward at a thrilling pace, genre readers will recognize familiar plot beats and tropes. White’s casual, slangy use of language distinguishes the story somewhat, but it also detracts from the severity of intense moments as characters punctuate their dialogue with the word bro. This quick, solidly constructed tale should satisfy cyberpunk fans who don’t mind revisiting genre staples. Agent: Nell Pierce, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Servant of the Crown

Duncan M. Hamilton. Tor, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-30684-5

Hamilton brings the Dragonslayer trilogy to a dramatic close (following Knight of the Silver Circle) as the battle for control over magical and political power comes to a head. Master swordsman Guillot and mage Soléne, now joined by Pharadon, the last of the ancient dragons, who wears a human form, try and fail to stop a magical cup from falling into the hands of their enemy, Prince Bishop Amaury of Mirabay. When he drinks from it, Amaury gains enormous power, and Gill and his friends are robbed of their only hope of saving the last young dragon, which would have required the cup’s magic. While Pharadon goes in search of another way to save the dragon, Soléne revives Mirabay’s brain-damaged king, and together he and Gill fight to wrest the kingdom back from Amaury’s control. Hamilton masterfully ties up loose ends while packing this final adventure with intrigue and action, but a sense of emotional connection is occasionally lacking as moments that ought to be wrenching pass in a rush and fall flat. Still, series readers will be satisfied by this suspenseful grand finale. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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