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Lady Hotspur

Tessa Gratton. Tor, $29.99 (592p) ISBN 978-0-7653-9249-7

Gratton returns to the expansive world of The Queens of Innis Lear with this intricately layered fantasy, a loose, gender-bent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. A prophecy predicts disaster for three closely entwined women in the kingdom of Aremoria. When Hal’s mother overthrows the king, Hal is expected to transition from hard-living Lady Knight to respectable heir to the throne. Hal’s best friend, Banna Mora, daughter of the conquered king, is exiled. Lady Hotspur, Aremoria’s fiercest warrior, is as devoted to her country as she is to her lover, Hal, and dear friend, Banna Mora, but knows that the demands of status will force her and Hal to part eventually. Hal is focused on avoiding responsibility, drinking, and finding ways to be with Hotspur, while jealous Banna Mora schemes to take Aremoria back. Hotspur is forced to choose between her reckless lover and the ruler she thinks would do right by her kingdom. Gratton’s lush world is full of magic, mischievous spirits, and otherworldly rituals. Readers won’t have to be familiar with either the previous book or the source material to appreciate this well-crafted, if over long, fantasy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Return

Rachel Harrison. Berkley, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-09866-0

The reunion of a missing, presumed dead woman and her three best friends leads to hair-raising horror and pure entertainment in Harrison’s compulsively readable debut. When Julie disappears, Elise is the only one among her friends who refuses to accept that she’s most likely dead. Elise is proved right when Julie returns two years later, claiming to have no memory of the time since she vanished. Overjoyed, their other two best friends, Mae and Molly, organize a trip to upstate New York to reconnect. When the friends arrive at an isolated, extravagant hotel, they’re disturbed to find Julie a changed woman. Previously a vehement vegetarian, she now craves meat, and her body seems to be deteriorating before their eyes, breaking teeth and losing eyelashes. Chalking up her erratic behavior to trauma, Elise and the others try to make the best of their weekend, but as past frictions flare up between the old friends, the eerily empty hotel grows more oppressive the longer they stay. Mounting dread builds to a blood-soaked climax as the truth of Julie’s disappearance is revealed. The tension and nuance of Harrison’s complicated female friendships add depth to an already delicious, chilling debut. Agent: Lucy Carson, the Friedrich Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Glass Magician

Caroline Stevermer. Tor, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7653-3504-3

In this unexceptional, low-stakes fantasy, Stevermer (best known for her YA historical novels the Cecelia and Kate series) invites readers into the gritty streets of an alternate early 1900s New York City, where wealth and power are a matter not only of birth but of magical ability. Stage magician Thalia Cutler is confident in her identity as a magicless Solitaire until a life-threatening accident during a magic trick forces her to shape-shift, a power she didn’t know she possessed and which signals her status as an animal-shifting Trader. As an untrained Trader, Thalia is vulnerable to attacks by magic-draining Manticores and is confined with a Trader family until she can learn to shift on her own. Thalia’s stage manager, meanwhile, is under investigation for the death of a rival magician. As secrets start to surface, the two story lines are kept isolated from each other, sapping the tension, and the plot is bogged down by actionless passages about Thalia’s opulent life with the Traders. Readers will be charmed by the well-rounded characters and bustling Gilded Age backdrop, but long for Stevermer to pick up the pace. Agent: Frances Collins, Frances Collins Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man

Rod Duncan. Angry Robot, $12.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-85766-844-8

Illusionist spy Elizabeth Barnabus has barely returned from her pirate voyage in The Outlaw and the Upstart King when she is forced to venture back to the fringes of the Gas-Lit Empire in the exhilarating third installment of Duncan’s The Map of Unknown Things series. Upon returning to London, Elizabeth must recount her adventures to the hostile Patent Office, a clever bit of exposition that will ease new readers into the steam punk world of this alternate history. When the Patent Office brands Elizabeth a traitor, she flees to America and the untamed wilds of the Oregon territory to track down her long-lost twin, Edwin, and prove her patriotism by finding evidence of the forces threatening the Empire. Despite years of separation and differing politics, Elizabeth and Edwin’s bond is intense and their reunion touching. Edwin comes out to Elizabeth as nonbinary, leading to a tender exploration of gender identity. But trouble’s brewing in Oregon, and Elizabeth is torn between loyalty to her twin or her beloved Empire. The charismatic duo at the heart of this adventure are sure to please. Agent: Ed Wilson, Johnson & Alcock. (Jan)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Poet King

Ilana C. Myer. Tor, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7834-7

Myer concludes the Harp and Ring Sequence (after Fire Dance) with this opulent, ambitious fantasy. Political upheaval in Kahishi leads to Elissan Diar declaring himself the land’s first Poet King, capable of weaving magic into his odes. Embittered Lady Rianna Gelvan plots to kill Elissan before he takes the throne. Lin Amaristoth, who was Rianna’s mentor before becoming the former King’s Court Poet and whisking Rianna’s husband into a political whirlwind that ended with his disappearance and presumed treason, also works toward Elissan’s downfall, believing that no king should be able to wield the magic power of poetry. Myer’s intricately braided plot strands culminate in a clash of supernatural Otherworld powers. Those new to the series will have no trouble connecting with the well-drawn protagonists but may struggle to untangle the history of this rich universe which draws from a welter of world mythologies. Still, readers will be blown away by the lush, lyrical prose and epic scale of this novel. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Mother Code

Carol Stivers. Berkley, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-9848-0692-5

Biochemist Stivers’s sweeping, cinematic debut raises probing questions about the nature of family and human connection. In 2049, a DNA-based biological weapon unleashes a lethal worldwide pandemic that threatens to end humanity. The only viable cure appears to lie in fetal genetic manipulation, leading the U.S. government to secretly create incubators in the form of flying robots programmed with a “mother code” that gives each a unique personality intended to allow each bot to successfully raise a baby until it’s safe to reintegrate the child into human society. Stivers splits focus between the scientists creating the program, in thrilling passages replete with government secrets and impossibly high stakes, and the uncanny bond between mother robot Rho-Z and her genetically engineered human child, Kai, as they navigate their isolated life in the desert in 2060. Each story line is emotionally resonant, leading to a devastating gut punch when they eventually collide. Stivers’s mythic vision and sound science will strike a chord with readers who fear for humanity’s future. This dystopia is painful, provocative, and ultimately infused with hope. Agent: Elisabeth Weed, The Book Group. (May)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Finna

Nino Cipri. Tor.com, $14.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-250-24573-1

In this whimsical but underwhelming interdimensional adventure through an endless furniture store, two retail workers face myriad otherworldly obstacles as well as the specter of their own recently ended relationship. Cipri (Homesick: Stories), a Publishers Weekly reviewer, employs this delightfully unusual setting to explore the soul-crushing nature of retail work and the pain of recent breakups. When Ava is unexpectedly called in for a shift at the big-box furniture store Litenvärld, she and her former partner Jules are tasked with delving into an endless series of wormholes into display rooms in alternate versions of the store to find a customer who was sucked through a wormhole. Each alternate dimension contains its own unpredictable monsters and amazements, in an episodic structure that will leave some readers longing for more connective tissue. While confronting the mysteries each world offers, Jules and Ava negotiate their relationship dynamic, rehashing their breakup and lingering feelings. Their emotional arcs resonate but are frequently overpowered by the introduction of new, seemingly random sets of problems to face. Cipri delivers on a fun premise, but readers will wish for greater depths of feeling. Agent: DongWon Song, Howard Morhaim Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Gravity of a Distant Sun

R.E. Stearns. Saga, $16.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-4814-7693-5

Stearns concludes her Shieldrunner Pirates trilogy with this action-packed but emotionally vacant space opera. Space pirates Adda Karpe and her nonbinary lover and coconspirator Iridian Nassir are on the run from artificial intelligence and the government following the betrayal of their leader, Captain Sloane, in Mutiny at Vesta. After an artificial intelligence tricks Adda into trying to hurt Iridian, she wakes in a government-controlled hospital with brain damage. Meanwhile, Iridian is arrested for the crimes they committed with Adda and meets a few familiar faces in prison. Communicating via a psychic link, Iridian and Adda plot to reunite by jumping solar systems using an interstellar bridge, but they’ll have to fight mind control and escape government facilities to get there. Stearns’s writing is cinematic and packed with plenty of drama, but the characters take a backseat to the plot, and it’s difficult to invest in their love story when they spend so much of the book apart. Readers will enjoy the propulsive storytelling and many daring escapes but yearn for a stronger connection to the heroines. Agent: Hannah Bowman, Liza Dawson Assoc. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Now, Then, and Everywhen

Rysa Walker. 47North, $14.95 trade paper (548p) ISBN 978-1-61218-919-2

Walker (the CHRONOS Files series) opens the CHRONOS Origins series with this ambitious time-travel adventure. In 2136 Maryland, graduate student Madison Grace digs up a bronze disk in her grandmother’s garden and accidentally pops into 1906 Florida. She’s discovered a time-travel device that only she can use, but after jumping around in time, she returns to her own era to discover millions of lives erased. In 2304 Washington D.C., Tyson Reyes is a historian with the CHRONOS agency who studies the civil rights movement by travelling back in time, which poses risks for him as a mixed-race black Latino man. When Tyson witnesses the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 Ohio, not 1968 Tennessee, he realizes something has gone wrong. Somehow, either Tyson or Madison has altered the past and it’s up to the time travelers to fix it. A slow start establishing Walker’s complex world eventually gives way to a twisty narrative that expertly blends the past and the future. Fans of intelligent time-travel stories will be rewarded. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Beetle

Richard Marsh. Poisoned Pen, $14.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-4926-9971-2

Ripe with melodrama and purple prose, this ripping horror classic from Marsh, first published in 1897, epitomizes the style of the Victorian penny dreadful. Four sections, each narrated by a different character, interlock to relate the tale of an ancient Egyptian entity known as the child of Isis, who has traveled to London to torment Paul Lessingham, a member of Parliament, and his fiancée, Marjorie Lindon, as revenge for an indiscretion Paul committed during his travels in Egypt two decades earlier. Marsh creates an eerie atmosphere by keeping his story’s supernaturalism tantalizingly ambiguous; it’s never clear whether the occasional transformations of the child of Isis into the insect of the title are genuine or illusory. An overly chatty cast slows the tale’s pace to a crawl and their penchant for conveniently fainting or falling into gibbering incoherence during dramatic moments reduces the novel to a clump of sensational set pieces. Though some readers will enjoy this novel’s maximalist gothic flourishes, others will find the tale a bit over the top. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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