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The Nirvana Effect

Brian Pinkerton. Flame Tree, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78758-487-7

Millions tune into a virtual reality program while society collapses around them in this thoughtful cyberpunk novel from Pinkerton (The Gemini Experiment). Tech company Dynamica has created an implant that allows users to channel hyperrealistic VR programs directly into the brain. Marc is an early employee of Dynamica and helped to make its product famous, but he’s horrified when the company announces a partnership with the government that will make implantation mandatory. He goes on the run with a secret weapon, a device that allows him to hack into other people’s virtual realities. Newly met friends Aaron and Clarissa, who refuse implantation, likewise go into hiding upon hearing the news. Pinkerton chronicles the increasing despotism of the next two years in a series of episodes that are at times too loosely knit and show a predictable path of societal deterioration. Still, he does a good job drawing readers into the characters’ anguish and fear, and builds to a clever, desperate climax. Fans of stories centered on the conflict between the virtual and the real will find plenty to enjoy. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Voices in the Darkness

Edited by David Niall Wilson. Crossroad, $29.99 (250p) ISBN 978-1-952979-48-4

Wilson (A Midnight Dreary) brings together six strong speculative shorts that impress with imaginative concepts and powerful writing, but don’t achieve thematic cohesion, as the surreal and the real uncomfortably bump against each other. Nadia Bulkin’s “Vide Cor Meum (See My Heart),” which describes the murder of a farm family through the perspectives of various neighboring townsfolk, is an intelligent examination of the ethics of true crime accounts. Kathe Koja positions the reader as someone trying to ascertain the existence of an unreal island in her lush, fable-like “Pursuivant Island.” A man is sucked into a cult by a false messiah in 19th-century New York City in Elizabeth Massie’s timely and transportive “Baggie.” Cassandra Khaw uses the decadent fantasy piece “I’d Rather Wear Black” to explore abusive relationship dynamics, and the depth and complexity of the result demands to be savored. Nick Mamatas draws inspiration from “Mack the Knife” in “Ba boo Dop doo Dop boo ree,” about a man named MacHeath who’s employed to kill the queen. Brian A. Hopkins’s novella “La Belle Époque,” an expansive tale about a murdered girl who is resurrected by historical alchemist Nicolas Flamel, is atmospheric and bold, though it would have been better served as a stand-alone with more room to breathe. The whole is not as strong as its component parts. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Sorrowland

Rivers Solomon. MCD, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-26677-6

Solomon’s outstanding third novel (after The Deep) revisits the themes of memory and responsibility through two new lenses: horror and contemporary thriller. Vern, an albino, intersex, Black child raised in a cult known as the Blessed Acres of Cain, flees to the woods as a seven-months-pregnant 15-year-old, giving birth to twins she names Howling and Feral. The new family is pursued by “the fiend,” who appears to the nearly blind Vern as “a white blur.” The fiend scatters animal carcasses throughout the woods (often pointedly targeting animal families to send a message to Vern and her children) and sets dangerous fires. For four years Vern raises her twins without other human contact, until a cataclysmic encounter with the fiend, fearsome changes in her own body, and relentless hauntings drive her to seek answers in the world outside the woods. This plot is the most accessible of Solomon’s work to date, but they use the deceptively simple story to delve deep into Vern’s struggle to forge her own identity without buckling under the weight of history. As in their debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Solomon often packs so much into each image that the result can be overwhelming. They display a maturing control of their craft, employing a breathtaking range of reference that will enable any reader, from horror geek to Derridean academic, to engage with this thrilling tale. This is a tour de force. Agent: Seth Fishman, the Gernert Co. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Rose

Mike Bryant. Brain Lag, $14.99 trade paper (236p) ISBN 978-1-928011-48-4

Bryant debuts with a comic zombie tale that doubles as an entertaining whodunit, blending suspenseful twists and turns with the heartfelt story of a woman finding her place in the world. Katya, a housewife recovering from a traumatic accident that ended her pregnancy and necessitated an emergency heart transplant, is shocked when an undead woman knocks on her door, claiming to be the source of her new heart. After some initial confusion, both women discover that they mean each other no harm, and the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. When it becomes clear that the undead woman has no memory of her life (though she does remember Jason Momoa and Mythbusters), Katya recruits her husband, Vijay, to help the zombie rediscover who she is and solve the mystery of her death. Bryant writes with panache, immediately drawing the reader in with his vibrant cast and gripping mystery. The horror elements, meanwhile, lead to some good jump scares. This captivating tale of redemption and revenge will win over even the most jaded genre fan. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Shadow of the Gods

John Gwynne. Orbit, $16.99 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-0-316-53988-3

Three hundred years after the fall of the gods, humans navigate the fjords and tundra of a broken world in the jam-packed Norse-flavored epic of blood oaths and vengeance that launches the Bloodsworn Saga series from Gwynne (A Time of Courage). To protect themselves from the monsters that now roam freely, humans scavenge divine bones and relics and chase rumors of the legendary last battlefield of the gods, where the world-tree guards their divine prison. Some go so far as to plot to use the blood of children to raise the gods. Orka, a newly widowed shieldmaid, pursues the trafficker who stole her son for this very purpose, as do the crew of the dragon-ship Wave-Jarl, whose child prisoner was taken in an attack. Also faring northward are the Bloodsworn, a mercenary company sent by Queen Helka to stop the monsters from killing her people. Blood-soaked battles against trolls and frost-spiders build to a fierce rendezvous at the foot of the shattered world-tree. Gwynne, a Viking reenactor, puts in the work, with fine historical details—especially in descriptions of weaponry—that make the story come to life. The plethora of Viking gangs and Norse kennings require some work to keep straight, but fans of the era will be delighted with the accuracy. This is a duly exciting start to the series. Agent: Julia Crisp, Julia Crisp Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Wolf and the Woodsman

Ava Reid. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-297312-2

Reid’s fast-paced debut examines religious freedom through the lens of myth and magic. Every few years, the Holy Order of Woodsmen travel to the pagan village of Keszi to take one of their magic-wielding wolf-girls on the orders of the king. This year, when the woodsmen demand a seer, Keszi’s matriarch instead hands over Évike, the only wolf-girl without magic. Reid’s atmospheric prose evokes fairy tale enchantment as Évike and the woodsmen traverse a forest filled with monsters. When one attacks, forcing Évike and the sullen Woodsman captain, Gáspár, to fight together to survive, Évike’s lack of magic and Gáspár’s true identity as the shunned heir of the kingdom are revealed. To save her village from being massacred for their deception, Évike agrees to help Gáspár prevent his zealot brother, Nándor, from usurping the throne. Fantasy romance fans will enjoy watching tortured Gáspár and fiery Évike warm to each other over legends, monster battles, and their shared outcast status as their quest takes them into the frozen north. But their arrival at the capital places Évike in danger as she faces off against the power-hungry king and Nándor’s fanatical followers. The convincing enemies-to-lovers romance, fascinating religion-based magic system, and thoughtful examination of zealotry make this a notable debut. Agent: Alexandra Machinist, ICM Partners. (Jun.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Immunity Index

Sue Burke. Tor, $25.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-31787-2

Burke (Semiosis) uses a futuristic world to comment on the present in this politically charged dystopian novel. In a near-future America where human clones are stigmatized as second-class citizens and an authoritarian “Prez” titillates his patriot cult with sloganeering straight out of the Big Brother playbook, a nationwide mutiny is brewing. When the government releases a vaccine against the rampaging Sino cold—purportedly to induce herd immunity nationally, but secretly to sicken the mutineers—the narrative refracts the ensuing chaos through the experiences of four characters: Avril, Irene, and Berenike, young Wisconsin women from various walks of life who discover they are clones of one another; and Peng, the scientist who cloned them and who has a hand in the virus’s release. Burke endows her characters with distinct personalities and conjures a frighteningly real sense of national destabilization as events spiral out of their control. Though the ending is somewhat anticlimactic, references to coronaviruses and a nation wracked by social unrest are sure to resonate. This hits close to home. (May.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Expert System’s Champion

Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tor.com, $15.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-250-76639-7

Tchaikovsky’s deliciously creepy sequel to The Expert System’s Brother showcases just how alien other worlds can be. In the decade since Handry was Severed from his village and assumed leadership of the Order of Cain, a society of fellow outcasts, he’s managed to create a loose network between the roving Order and the stationery villages of their unnamed planet. His sister, Melory, is host to an “expert system,” the ghost of a physician that serves as a source of ancestral knowledge. At Orovo, a regular stop on their travels, they are confronted by a new type of expert system, a Champion, hosted by a woman named Amorket and sent to fight the Order. As Handry and Melory negotiate with Amorket, another of the Order arrives to request aid in a war at the village of Tsuno, which is under siege by beasts called brackers. But the Order soon realize that the behavior of the brackers is beyond their ken—and even stranger threats lurk nearby. Woven throughout are flashbacks to the planet’s original colonization, as transplants from Earth struggle to adapt to their inhospitable new home. Tchaikovsky’s vision is bizarre, frightening, and wildly imaginative. Readers will be wowed. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Blacktongue Thief

Christopher Buehlman. Tor, $25.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-62119-1

Horror author Buehlman (Between Two Fires) impresses in his tongue-in-cheek fantasy debut. Kinch Na Shannack is indebted to the Takers Guild for his tutelage as a thief, and now needs to put his knowledge into action to pay his debts. He and his companions take to the Forest of Orphans, aiming to rob passing travelers. But instead of the easy targets they were hoping for, they get Galva, a female warrior from Ispanthia who easily trounces them. The only one to survive the skirmish, Kinch brings news of the attack to the Takers Guild and is tasked with a vague mission to follow and befriend Galva. Though the Guild refuses to reveal its motives, Kinch agrees and joins Galva on her journey to the giant-ravaged city of Hrava in Oustrim. Along the way, Kinch learns of Galva’s quest to rescue Ispanthia’s abducted queen, Mireya, and discovers the atrocious secrets of the Guild. With his freedom at stake, Kinch must decide where his loyalties lie. Packed full of magic, mayhem, and mischief, Buehlman’s world and characters are artfully rendered, though the trust between Galva and Kinch develops unbelievably quickly given their first meeting. Still, this dense series launch is sure to win the author new fans. (May)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The World Gives Way

Marissa Levien. Redhook, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-59241-3

How to respond to the knowledge that the world is ending is the central question of Levien’s middling sci-fi debut. Scrappy, intelligent Myrra Dal is a contract laborer on “the world,” a generation ship destined for the planet Telos. Her latest contract is as a maid to the rich and powerful Carlyles and a nanny to their baby, Charlotte. But after both Imogene and Marcus Carlyle kill themselves, Myrra is wrongly suspected of foul play and forced to run from the law, carrying Charlotte and burdened with a terrible secret—there’s a crack in the ship’s hull. Born to criminals but raised by a security officer, Tobias Bendel is desperate to prove himself by catching Myrra, and as he tracks her across cities full of technological marvels, he comes to realize that he’s embroiled in something larger than finding a runaway worker. Told from two engaging if underdeveloped perspectives and full of present-day analogs, this sci-fi adventure is an extended, often oddly meandering chase scene through familiar far-future landscapes. Combining detective work and slow-burn romance, Levien offers plenty for lovers of cross-genre sci-fi to engage with, but seasoned readers will long for more innovation in the worldbuilding. This is solid, but not groundbreaking. Agent: Sarah Bedingfield, Levine Greenberg Rostan. (Jun.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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