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An Unintended Voyage

Marshall Ryan Maresca. DAW, $18 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1675-1

With this atmospheric fantasy adventure, Maresca returns to the universe of his Maradaine novels (after People of the City) and masterfully expands the world beyond the reaches of the title city. Things begin with the abduction of Sgt. Corrianna “Corrie” Welling, a law enforcement officer at the Maradaine Constabulary of Druthal. When Corrie and her fellow kidnap victims aboard her abductors’ ship learn of their impending fate as slaves, she attempts to free them all. But a storm sinks the ship, and lone survivors Corrie and Eana get swept out to sea. Another ship comes to their rescue, but the pair are unable to speak the crew’s language and the sailors take advantage of this language gap to dupe them into agreeing to pay an exorbitant amount for their accommodations. Debt-bound, Corrie and Eana arrive in the city-state of Mocassa, where they’re taken to the debt market and sold—and soon both become deeply entangled in Mocassa’s political conflicts. Maresca thoughtfully explores race, power, and privilege as Corrie undergoes a cultural and political awakening. The well-developed social aspects and the realistic portrayal of the characters’ struggles in a foreign land propel the story forward, while the high-stakes action builds to a satisfying climax. This is a solid addition to Maresca’s tightly constructed Maradaine universe. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Magicland

Charles Bastille. Morgan James Fiction, $16.95 trade paper (282p) ISBN 978-1-63195-564-8

Bastille’s debut artfully combines magic, technology, and romance when a witch and a bioengineered actor fall in love despite a centuries-long conflict between their homelands. Actor Belex is a Gath, a DNA-altered humanoid controlled by a collective network referred to as stoven.net. When he crashes just outside of Moira, the country Gaths call Magicland, his biosystem goes offline, leaving him temporarily blind. He’s rescued by Wiccan priestess-in-training Aurilena, but receives a cold welcome from the other Wiccans, who see him as a threat, as Gaths have been responsible for many Wiccan deaths over the years. With the help of High Priest Hilkiah, Aurilena attempts to acclimate Belex to their society. But as Belex’s biosystem comes back online, they discover a sinister Gath plot to destroy Moria and must race to save the land: when Belex’s systems are fully working, the town will be exposed and its people destroyed. Along the way, Aurilena and Belex fall for each other and fight the opposition to their relationship. Bastille handles the multilayered plot well, creating a fascinating world populated with empathetic characters. The result should win Bastille some fans. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Mickey7

Edward Ashton. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-27503-5

Ashton (The End of Ordinary) crafts a unique hero in amateur historian Mickey Barnes, the breezy narrator of this far-flung, far-future adventure. Fleeing his gambling debts, Mickey literally signs his life away for passage on the colony ship Drakkar. As an “Expendable,” he’s assigned to the ship’s most “dangerous-to-suicidal” jobs. Whenever one of these gigs kills him, he’s regenerated as a new version of himself. When Mickey7, the seventh of these regenerations, falls into a crevasse on icy Niflheim, his aviator friend Berto leaves him to die, prompting the regeneration process to begin. But Mickey7 survives, and now he and Mickey8 coexist, breaking a societal taboo. If the hungry crew discovers there’s two of them, one or both may become food, since the agricultural system is failing and can’t feed extra mouths. Mickey7’s present day attempts to avoid the wrath of the mission commander and defuse an alien threat on Niflheim are interspersed with his memories of previous, mostly failed attempts at colonization. These flashbacks occasionally feel like interruptions to the probing exploration of what happens when one meets oneself, but they successfully broaden Ashton’s imaginative perspective with multiple worlds. Sci-fi readers will be drawn in by the inventive premise and stick around for the plucky narrator. Agent: Paul Lucas, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Violence

Delilah Dawson. Del Rey, $28 (512p) ISBN 978-0-593-15662-9

A very different pandemic sweeps the world in this un-put-downable near-future thriller from Dawson (the Blud series). Coming just on the heels of Covid-19, the Violence is aptly named for its main symptom: sudden acts of astonishing aggression called “storms” that always leave someone dead. Those infected have no memory of their outbursts, and the attacks have no clear trigger. The world navigates this horrible plague with quarantine protocols and hotlines, as the wealthy flock to colder environments, where the Violence hasn’t yet reached, and shell out for the $30,000 vaccine. Meanwhile, Chelsea Martin sees in the Violence a way out from under the thumb of her abusive husband, David, for both herself and her two daughters. She reports David to a hotline for suspected Violence sufferers, but even after he’s locked away, Chelsea’s hounded by his horrible friends. Then Chelsea is separated from her girls under suspicion of being infected herself. Now, she’ll do anything to reunite with her family. Dawson doesn’t hold back in her graphic depictions of domestic abuse, but the violence never feels gratuitous, clarifying the high stakes of this smart, fast-paced thrill ride. Fans of dystopian sci-fi stories will devour this. Agent: Stacia Decker, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Where the Drowned Girls Go

Seanan McGuire. Tordotcom, $19.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-250-21362-4

McGuire’s outstanding seventh Wayward Children fantasy (following Across the Green Grass Fields) comes in darker than the previous novellas, tackling identity, body image, and trauma. Cora Miller has walked through magical doors, turned from modern girl to mermaid, been possessed by eldritch gods, and been spat out of her newfound home back to Earth all before the story begins. Exhausted and wanting nothing more than to forget her adventures, she eschews the comfort of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, which caters to children who’ve gone on magical quests, for its rival, the Whitethorn Institute, which houses similar students, but encourages them to “believe that everything that happened on the other side of the door was just a dream, or a delusion.” As Cora’s sense of self crumbles under Whitethorn’s rules, the institute turns from school to prison, and Cora and her peers risk losing their identities—and their doorways home—forever. Throughout Cora’s harrowing adventures, McGuire’s sense of whimsy never falters. She delivers a plot dense enough for a full-length novel in her signature lyrical prose, exploring the effect of cruel, oppressive systems on children’s psyches, while keeping the series’ fairy tale tone intact. The result will captivate both longtime Wayward Children fans and new readers. Agent: Diana Fox, Fox Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Rain Music

Patrick Swenson. Fairwood, $28 (348p) ISBN 978-1-933846-14-9

Swenson (Slightly Ruby) unites the magic of music and the power of emotion in this unique, slow-building fantasy thriller. Composer Truman Starkey is starting over after a messy divorce by visiting his friend’s resort in a beautiful Washington State rain forest to focus solely on writing the new symphony that has been eluding him. Within minutes of his arrival, he hears a voice in the rain that becomes his muse—and calls him to a magical destiny. An evil mage with ties to the forest has become hooked on a synthetic magical drug called moss, and he’ll do anything to get more. As Truman develops a connection with bar singer Kat Gregory, the pair discover that her singing, his symphony, and their attraction hold the key to stopping the mage and saving lives. The story’s slow to start, and readers unfamiliar with music composition will struggle with some of Swenson’s worldbuilding, but the many tangled threads of the plot come together in a satisfying conclusion. It’s a rewarding tale for those who stick with it. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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String Follow

Simon Jacobs. MCD X FSG Originals, $18 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-60385-4

Jacobs (Palaces) tackles the traumas of adolescence and the desperation of suburban life with this grimy, layered tale. A shadowy, sinister collective entity watches and guides the actions of a group of teens in Adena, Ohio, using the cracks in their relationships to gain purchase within their psyches: tenderhearted Sarah struggles to maintain her sense of self as she deals with manipulation and abuse; Greg grapples with psychosis that drives him toward self-destruction; David becomes obsessed with an online cornucopia of fascist propaganda and bizarre porn, and alienates himself from everybody he knows. The result might be best described as “hangout horror”—there’s no traditional plot to speak of as Jacobs dips in and out of the characters’ lives through the eyes of an invisible watcher. Instead, the narrative wallows in the small-scale routines of its characters as their lives spiral out of control and toxic cycles repeat themselves. Despite some near-Faulknerian passages zeroing in on the characters’ twisty inner lives, the meandering prose struggles to maintain momentum. Still, readers looking for a horrific take on coming of age may want to give this a try. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness

Edited by dave ring. Neon Hemlock, $24.99 trade paper (442p) ISBN 978-1-952086-30-4

With this witchy anthology, ring (editor, Glitter and Ashes) showcases 28 brilliant queer speculative shorts paired with gorgeous illustrations. Chelsea Obodoechina’s realistic “Blood for Blood” sees an ostracized Guyanese witch reluctantly agree to train a teenager looking for revenge. In the lyrical “Where the Light Had Been” by Priya Chand, a witch-queen’s consort seeks a cloak that will heal her beloved. Particularly enjoyable is Sharang Biswas’s unique “Sutekh: A Breath of Spring,” which puts readers into the mind of the god Osiris as he is resurrected once again only to realize that the person who brought him back is not the woman he is used to, but a man; readers slowly come to realize the story exists in the world of a video game, and the man is a fan-built modification available to give queer players a chance at representation within the game. With such a breadth of style, tone, and types of magic on offer, any speculative fiction reader will find something to enjoy, though queer fans will be especially moved by the inclusivity, heart, and nuance here. This deserves to be savored. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Devilish & Divine

Edited by John L. French and Danielle Ackley-McPhail. eSpec, $14.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-949691-47-4

These 15 inventive but uneven stories of angels and demons challenge the stereotypical tropes of good vs. evil. Though many lack polish, the selections are universally imaginative: angels and demons play a game of pool with souls for stakes in “Irradia’s Gauntlet” by Russ Colchamiro, and the Archangel Chamuel helps King Oberon of the Faeries locate his missing daughter in Michelle D. Sonnier’s “As Ye Seek So Shall Ye Find.” Patrick Thomas’s “Fear to Tread” sees a down-on-his-luck guardian angel make a last-ditch effort to save his charge. “Duality” by John G. Hartness has angels and demons working on the same team and the afterlife decided instead by each individual human. For a more clear-cut good-wins-out message, Jenifer Purcell Rosenberg’s “World-Wide Wings” sees an angel living as a human CEO and working to balance out the evil on the internet. “Bringer of Doom” by Christopher J. Burke, in which a little girl accidentally summons a demon for a playmate and wins him over to the light with her purity of soul, is similarly hopeful. The execution can be lacking, but these unconventional urban fantasies offer plenty of intriguing ideas. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Deep Dive

Ron Walters. Angry Robot, $14.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-85766-926-1

Until a rushed conclusion, this nightmarish sci-fi thriller, Walters’s debut, is powered successfully by a father’s fear of losing his family. Video game developer Peter Banuk spends far too much time away from his wife and children as he obsessively finalizes his new game, Starflung, following the failure of an earlier one, Scorchfell. With help from his tech mogul best friend, Bradley Moss, Banuk plans to add VR to the game, promising “full sensory immersion.” But a trial of the Deep Dive VR headset leaves Banuk disoriented and distressed, awakening to find that Scorchfell was a great success and Bradley’s been dead for over a year. More horrifying, his two school-age daughters, Evie and Cassie, are missing, and his wife, Alana, doesn’t remember them existing, explaining that they were just two characters in Scorchfell. Banuk’s anguish is palpable as he searches for any proof that his children were real, despite nagging fears that he could be suffering from false memory syndrome. The ultimate explanation, depending on clichéd villains and some high-tech gizmos, is rather perfunctory, but the bulk of the story is convincing due to Banuk’s panicky love for his wife and daughters. Walters doesn’t stick the landing, but he pulls off some emotional entertainment on the way there. Agent: David Dunton, Harvey Klinger Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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