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A History of What Comes Next: A Take Them to the Stars Novel

Sylvain Neuvel. Tor.com, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-26206-6

Two women push the space race forward in this thrilling series opener from Neuvel (The Test). Sara represents the 98th identical generation of Kibsu women, powerfully intelligent beings whose sole goal is to “take [humanity] to the stars before Evil comes and kills them all.” In 1932, Sara flees Germany with her daughter, Mia, and, 13 years later, Mia returns to entice aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun to come to America and join Operation Paperclip, a secret U.S. government program to recruit Nazi scientists. She succeeds, but must abandon the project when Sara learns that the latest generation of malevolent Trackers, who have hunted the Kibsu for thousands of years, are closing in. Sara and Mia immigrate to Moscow, where they live into the 1960s, bribing government officials and carefully disclosing intelligence to get the Soviets focused on building rockets of their own. Meanwhile, Mia finds love with a human woman and Sara tries to convince her it’s time to create the next generation. As the Trackers close in and the Soviet Union and the U.S. scramble toward space, Sara and Mia navigate increasing dangers. The balance of wry narration, wired action, and delicate worldbuilding make for deeply gratifying reading. Fans of alternate history and intelligent sci-fi will love this. Agent: Seth Fishman, the Gernert Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Keeper of Tales

Jonathon Mast. Dark Owl, $16.99 trade paper (410p) ISBN 978-1-951716-15-8

Mast debuts with a clever but convoluted fantasy set in a land where stories can alter the course of history. The Storied Lands are controlled by the life stories of its inhabitants, which are kept at the library in the Fabled City of Chariis. When the monsters called Kaerun, or devourers of tales, threaten to destroy the Fabled City by stealing and altering the stories, Naeharum Adal, the Keeper of Tales, must find a way to stop them. Together with representatives of each of the five races of the Storied Lands, he confronts Garethen Talespinner, the King of Lies and the person responsible for creating the Kaerun. A fatal battle ensues, and Garethen is slain—but that is only the beginning, as Adal soon realizes that there’s more to the stories that rule his life than meets the eye. The magic system is unique and fascinating, but feels frustratingly underexplored. Though the cast is diverse and well-drawn, their adventures drag through a series of underwhelming twists and turns that add little to the thrust of the story. Fantasy readers will appreciate the setting and genuine sense of camaraderie among the characters, but will be disappointed by the bloated plot. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dealbreaker

L.X. Beckett. Tor, $27.99 (512p) ISBN 978-1-250-16529-9

Beckett’s smart, energetic Gamechanger gets a lively sequel in this outstanding work of science fiction. Earth is in negotiations with advanced alien Exemplar races who covet the solar system’s real estate but will at least pretend to allow humanity to remain independent from their intergalactic empire—if the Solakinder, as earthlings are now called, can prove their ability to advance technologically. But it’s not that simple; nothing is in this novel. The Solakinder are actually a confederation of humans and independent AIs, and humans themselves now inhabit artificial “Mayfly bodies” while their consciousness are safely stored away. This enables them to enjoy daily experience in perfect virtual simulations, and also means that everyone is constantly connected and able to vote in stakeholder polls to determine whether Earth pushes ahead or surrenders to the aliens. Frankie Barnes, stepdaughter of Gamechanger heroine Rubi Whiting, works for Project Bootstrap, struggling to develop #supertech that will impress the aliens. She must contend with murderous human saboteurs and the aliens’ suave representatives—and in her corner are a ragtag crowd of simulated humans and cartoon-animal AI characters, Earth’s best representatives. The plot leaps and swaggers on from there, driven by joyful confidence that the reader—like the characters—will accept huge helpings of razzle-dazzle strangeness. The result is as delightful as it is mind-bending. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Moonsteel Crown

Stephen Deas. Angry Robot, $14.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-85766-876-9

Three unlikely characters land in the midst of political intrigue in this fun fantasy from Deas (The Silver Kings). Myla is a former sword-monk in training now just trying to keep her head down. Seth, a former novice driven out of the priesthood, and his close friend Fings—who took Seth in to help him survive the streets—only want warm food and to get through another horrific winter in the Empire of Aria unscathed. All three are approached by a man they call the Murderous Bastard about joining a heist with the promise of great riches, and they dubiously accept. The promised riches are real—but the heist throws the scrappy trio into the middle of a conspiracy involving the recent assassination of the emperor. It also drops the Moonsteel Crown into their hands. Each of the many contenders for the throne wants the crown, but in the wrong hands it could spark a devastating war. Deas punctuates the sometimes frustratingly slow-burning plot with great character moments, like Myla’s internal conflicts over using her training to kill and Seth learning sigils to make the dead speak. This will most appeal to fantasy readers who love seeing everyday characters caught up in sweeping events. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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One Man’s Trash

Ryan Vance. Lethe, $15 trade paper (170p) ISBN 978-1-59021-735-1

Magic lurks in gritty alleyways and monsters drive ice-cream trucks in Vance’s promising debut collection of 15 speculative shorts. Each story is populated with well-drawn LGBTQ characters whose queerness is often refreshingly incidental, as in the delightful “Mouthfeel” in which a man’s mouth is haunted by someone else’s taste buds. The powerful “The Ballygilbert Gasser,” in which a gay teenager longs for a different life as a mysterious alien stalks his town, speaks more deeply to the queer experience. Other standouts include “When All We’ve Lost Is Found Again,” about a man indexing satellite images while negotiating loss, and “Finch and Crow Do the Alleycat,” in which a courier races a route into the cosmic unknown. In these gems, Vance demonstrates he is best at intimate character portraits. Weaker stories, including “Other Landscapes Are Possible” and “Gold Star,” suffer for being too detached, focusing on ambitious concepts at the expense of character. But the strengths make up for the weaknesses, and Vance’s fantasy elements are all the more enchanting for being so close to reality. The mix of magic and the everyday will linger with readers long after the book is shut. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Unsafe Words

Loren Rhoads. Automatism, $9.99 trade paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-73518-760-0

Rhoads (Angelus Rose) offers a heady blend of otherworldly sex and sin in this collection of 15 speculative shorts. “Here There Be Monsters” follows two bike riders who stop to picnic, drop acid, and hook up near an abandoned mansion in the woods—and what’s lurking there is not particularly welcoming. A young woman comes of age on a dangerous planet where humans and alien species mingle freely in “The Arms Dealer’s Daughter,” a delightful homage to classic sci-fi. A human becomes the bride of a fairy embarking on the Wild Hunt in “The Magic of Fire and Dawn,” a succubus searches for pleasure in the 1970s in the steamy “Never Bargained for You,” and the erotic “Affamé” delves into intense BDSM. Rhoads’s prose is effervescent, rendering her imagined worlds with nuance and the occasional dose of black humor. Though the graphic sex and violence throughout will scare off some readers, Rhoads does provide a helpful key with content warnings for each of her stories. This carefully crafted collection makes an excellent showcase of Rhoads’s skill across a multitude of subgenres. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Into the Light

David Weber and Chris Kennedy. Tor, $28.99 (512p) ISBN 978-0-7653-3145-8

Weber and Kennedy (The Progenitors’ War series) offer an intelligent and unconventional variation on the familiar setup of humanity repelling an alien invasion in this well-crafted sequel to Weber’s Out of the Dark. Earth has been devastated by the assault of the Shongairi, whose kinetic weapons have wiped out many major cities and destroyed vital infrastructure. Now Lewis Freymark, who lost a son in an attack on his Minnesota community, struggles to keep the rest of his family alive without adequate shelter or the medical supplies needed to treat his daughter’s pneumonia. The authors effectively pull back from Lewis’s intimate tragedy to give a wider perspective, as enclaves around the U.S. try to reconstruct some form of effective government against regional opposition. Weber and Kennedy so effectively ground their science fiction in real-world political and logistical issues that the introduction of a plotline about humanity’s vampiric allies against the invaders goes down easy. Even readers unfamiliar with the prior book will be gripped by the combination of well-developed characters and unexpected plot twists. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Memory Collectors

Kim Neville. Atria, $17 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-982157-58-6

Neville debuts with a tense meditation on trauma, family, and inheritance. Strangers Evelyn and Harriet both possess the ability to sense emotions and memories attached to certain objects. For Evelyn, it’s a terrifying burden: her father, who had the same power, became murderous after too much contact with objects that had hateful auras. For Harriet, “bright objects” are the only comforts in her reclusive, paranoid life, and she uses her vast wealth to hoard them. After a chance encounter, Harriet hires Evelyn to help her transform her collection into a museum of memory. Meanwhile, Evelyn works to provide a stable home for her chaotic younger sister, Noemi—even as Noemi pries deeper into the dark secrets of their family’s past. Harriet and Evelyn are elegant foils for one another, allowing Neville to unpack dysfunctional memory from different angles. Unfortunately, the pervasive undercurrent of anxiety quickly becomes oppressive and both the magic and the characters feel underbaked. Fans of introspective fabulism will love the concept, but others will find this thin. Agent: Taylor Haggerty and Melanie Castillo, Root Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Lie with Death

Devin Madson. Orbit, $17.99 trade paper (528p) ISBN 978-0-316-53638-7

The land of Kisia is in turmoil in Madson’s fast-paced second Reborn Empire fantasy (after We Ride the Storm). Former Kisian empress Miko Ts’ai—now on the run—finds an unexpected ally in Levanti Sword Rah e’Torin, who has escaped from imprisonment for opposing the new Levanti emperor, Gideon e’Torin. For his part, Gideon’s embroiled in conflict with the young Kisian Emperor Jie Ts’ai and at odds with a growing number of his people, leaving Captain Dishiva e’Jaroven caught in the middle of the widening gap between the Levanti and their leader. Meanwhile, Chiltean assassin Casandra is transported into the body of Miko’s mother, Hana, by the Witchdoctor and the pair set off on a mission of their own. And then there is the enigmatic Dom Leo Villius, Veld Reborn, who seems to have ties to every player in the heated political chess game unfolding across the war-torn country. The story moves at breakneck speed, with frequent point of view changes propelling the plot forward. Far from just an in-between book, this immersive, action-packed fantasy is sure to please. Agent: Julie Crisp, Julie Crisp Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/30/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Song with Teeth

T. Frohock. Harper Voyager, $17.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-282577-3

Frohock delivers her signature blend of magic, music, and WWII history in the vivid, complex finale to her Los Nefilim series (after Carved from Stone and Dream). Los Nefilim, a group of immortals who monitor demonic activity in the mortal plane, hope to aid the resistance in Vichy, France. To get a sense of what they’re up against, they send the half-angelic, half-demonic Diago Alvarez to infiltrate his demon father’s Scorpion Court. There, Diago quickly learns that the court’s quest to control the mortal realm may spell the end for humanity. Meanwhile, nefil Ysabel Ramirez searches for a magical psalm that will give the Allies a sure win at Normandy. But before she can find it, she’s captured by her conniving uncle. Frohock’s character work is on point: Ysabel is confident and clever, and Diago is delightfully conflicted between the two sides of his heritage. Though the horrors of war and the Holocaust are on display, Frohock’s usually adept mixture of fantasy and history occasionally feels trivializing here, as in the saccharine scene in which Diago conjures up the despair of concentration camp prisoners to feed his music. Still, Frohock’s urgent prose keeps the pages turning. Series fans will find plenty to enjoy. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/30/2020 | Details & Permalink

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