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The Nothing Within

Andy Giesler. Humble Quill, $13.99 trade paper (552p) ISBN 978-1-73356-764-0

This magical, terrifying, and whimsical debut is a genuinely original and immersive take on post-apocalyptic SF. Several generations after an illness called the Nothing turned people into chimeras and destroyed civilization, only Amish culture has survived. Root, the blind daughter of the village weaver, asks too many questions and is often suspected of being infected with the Nothing. She grudgingly accepts her otherness within her regimented life until a tragedy in the community causes her to hear a voice that no one else can. Pushed to her limits and forced to question everything she has been taught, Root finds herself solely responsible for the fate of the world. In a departure from tales of grim technological nightmares, this not-quite-dystopian novel focuses on folk storytelling—with Root at its center, now old and recounting her life story to future generations—and the personal nature of questioning what is normal. Every word is placed as carefully as a quilt square. This is a welcome breath of fresh air and calm after the apocalyptic storm. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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An Orc on the Wild Side

Tom Holt. Orbit, $15.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-27085-4

J.R.R. Tolkien gets what’s coming to him in this hilarious fifth YouSpace novel (after The Good, the Bad, and the Smug), a witty parody of high fantasy. A few contemporary humans travel to an alternate reality known as the Hidden Realms and immediately attempt to gentrify it, though it is one of the oldest and most feared places in the multiverse. Their plans clash with the bureaucratic obsession of the elves, the strangely progressive New Evil governance style of the goblin king, and the avarice of the dwarves, and may also bring about an ancient prophecy spelling out the end of the world. The broad cast includes a wraith who’d rather be a supermodel, a Dark Lord fixated on benevolent reform, a con artist hoping to make her fortune, and some snooty married couples who imagine they’re retiring in style to their very own magical towers. Holt’s dry silliness is the perfect vehicle for critiquing both current events and classic fantasy novels. Clever and entertaining all the way through, this should find a place in the hearts of anyone who likes their fantasy with a side of irreverent humor. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Imaginary Friend

Stephen Chbosky. Grand Central, $30 (720p) ISBN 978-1-5387-3133-8

Chbosky’s ambitious second novel (after 1999’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is a tale of good vs. evil that never gels. Seven-year-old Christopher and his mother, Kate, move to Mill Grove, Pa., after Kate leaves her abusive boyfriend. Kate gets a job at an old folks’ home, and Christopher, who has a learning disability, starts second grade and makes friends with a boy nicknamed Special Ed. One day, Christopher disappears into the Mission Street Woods; he emerges six days later, unscathed—but his learning disability has disappeared. Kate then wins the lottery and buys a new house bordering the woods, where a disembodied voice tells Christopher to build a tree house. Before long, Christopher gets debilitating headaches and strange revelations, a mysterious sickness spreads throughout the community, and a terrifying entity dubbed “the hissing lady” lurks around town. Chbosky brings deep humanity to his characters and creates genuinely unsettling tableaux, including a nightmarish otherworld that Christopher accesses via his treehouse, but considerable repetition extends the narrative while diminishing its impact. Christian overtones (some subtle, others less so) are pervasive, especially in the finale, and add little to the story. This doorstopper is long on words but short on execution. Agent: Eric Simonoff, William Morris Endeavor. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Infiltration (Mindspace #1)

A.K. DuBoff. BDL Press, $0.99 e-book (257p) ASIN B07L95N1ZD

DuBoff (Scions of Change) begins the Mindspace saga, set after her Cadicle series in the galaxy-spanning Taran Empire, with spunky characters, a conventional plot, and planetary politics. Tararian Guard Captain Kira Elsar and her specially trained team are sent to her home planet, Valta, to infiltrate the MTech laboratory, which is suspected of using alien nanotech to conduct experiments on unwilling subjects with telekinetic abilities. Valta’s unique properties have allowed natural telepaths to evolve. Kira, who’s able to read minds and compel people to do her bidding, tussles with Dr. Monica Waylon, the cartoonishly devilish director of MTech, who has powers of her own. Meanwhile, tension is building among neutral Valta, Empire-loving Elusia, and warlike and independent Mysar. Adding urgency to Kira’s mission is her knowledge that someone is planning to assassinate the Elusian president. Numerous overlapping plot threads clutter the story and make it hard for readers to immerse in the setting, but the battle mechs and political machinations will appeal to fans of epic space opera. This breezy but passable series launch holds some promise for future works. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline

Edited by Rhonda Parrish. World Weaver, $15.95 trade paper (308p) ISBN 978-1-73-225466-4

As anthologist Parrish explains in the introduction to this wonderful anthology, dieselpunk and decopunk are cousins of steampunk, fantastical stories set between the start of WWI and the end of WWII. These dieselpunk and decopunk retellings of fairy tales go far afield for an entertaining variety of interpretations. Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s claustrophobic thriller “To Go West” brings literal grit by way of a savage magical Dust Bowl wind that pursues a group on a mission from Heaven. A Japanese invasion of China carried out from a mechanical sky-island gets modern mythological twists in Brian Trent’s “Steel Dragons on a Luminous Sky.” Grit, glitz, and a sly celebrity appearance enliven a white-knuckle all-female infiltration mission in “As the Spindle Burns” by Nellie K. Neves. These unfailingly clever tales are impressive and page-turning, helping to correct the dearth of speculative fiction set in the interwar era. There is also a frequent and welcome spotlight on heroic women. Any reader who enjoys early-20th-century history or retold fairy tales will find these familiar but new, with well-played wonder in every story. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Homesick: Stories

Nino Cipri. Dzanc, $16.95 trade paper (216p) ISBN 978-1-945814-95-2

PW reviewer Cipri’s patchwork debut SF collection brings together nine stories about people, most of whom fall somewhere under the LGBTQ umbrella, struggling to connect with one another in bizarre circumstances. Other than that theme, the works have little in common. Some play with form: “Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You?” is a creepy Buzzfeed-style quiz that snarkily reveals the details of four girls’ gruesome murders, and “Dead Air” is a terrifying found-footage thriller about a lesbian who audiotapes her relationships. Two character-driven epistolary stories, “Let Down, Set Free” and “The Shape of My Name,” respectively feature a divorcee riding a flying tree and a transmasculine time traveler who’s trying to better understand his estranged mother’s choices. In “Not an Ocean but the Sea,” a disgruntled housekeeper finds an ocean hidden under furniture. “Presque Vu” chronicles a lonely gay ride-share driver living through an apocalypse. Vibrant characters ground the well-written stories. The collection’s diversity is both a strength and a weakness; there’s something for everyone, but few people are likely to love it in its entirety. Agent: DongWon Song, Morhaim Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Supernova Era

Cixin Liu, trans. from the Chinese by Joel Martinsen. Tor, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-30603-6

Liu, author of the intellectually challenging Three-Body Problem trilogy, provides a more accessible look at humanity’s future in this political thriller founded on a thought experiment reminiscent of classic SF. A supernova near Earth bathes the planet in radiation that has minimal effect on people 13 or younger, but will kill anyone older within a year. That provides time for the governments of the world to prepare the oldest children to assume the leadership of their respective countries. Liu focuses on a group of students in China who are assigned some territory to govern; they must plan to have adequate resources while dealing with their neighbors’ territorial ambitions. The complicated role-playing game is used to identify potential leaders. After the inevitable deaths of all the adults, which is chillingly described, the adolescent leaders are left to grapple with an overwhelming set of responsibilities—and a population of even younger children who have their own ideas of how a post-adult world should look. There’s more talk than action, and the global scale of the disaster leaves little room for individual character development. Plausible but surprising twists make this a memorable what-if tale. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Name of All Things (A Chorus of Dragons #2)

Jenn Lyons. Tor, $26.99 (592p) ISBN 978-1-250-17553-3

In this tepid sequel to The Ruin of Kings, Lyons once again experiments with narrative as demon-cursed Janel Theranon tells her tale to the demigod Kihrin D’mon in a storm shelter, recounting battles with demons, encounters with ancient gods, and a rebellion. There are a handful of familiar characters and a few events that intersect with the first novel, but this is an otherwise parallel adventure that explores a smaller part of the Empire of Quur. Janel and her close friend Brother Qown provide alternating perspectives of their attempt to slay a dragon that was under the control of the wizard Relos Var, and how they led a revolution in the province of Jorat. While previous protagonist Kihrin plays a small part, the focus is on Janel and her close encounters with gods and dragons. Though the complexity of plot and worldbuilding are still present, this second installment tackles smaller problems with far lower stakes, and the climax is less gratifying and coherent. Readers who enjoyed the sweeping epic feel of the first book will find this one disappointing. Agent: Sam Morgan, Foundry Literary + Media. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Dragula

Ma’am Stoker. Trapeze, $12.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-4091-8110-1

Sassy Count Dragula seeks to unseat the scheming Babebraham Van High Heelsing, who stole her VAMPageant crown, in a sadly unfunny mix of drag ball culture and classic horror. The saucy yet unreliable narrator of this campy novella interjects modern anachronisms, such as Jurassic Park and YouTube, into a story set in 19th-century Romania. Jonathan Harker leaves England and his fiancée, Mina, to visit the centuries-old Count Dragula, planning to restore her crumbling castle. Hopelessly naive, he is confused when the three Daughters of the House of Dragula—Fangela, Edwina Sullen, and Lilith Paltrow—try to give him a makeover. Dragula, intrigued by Mina’s cousin Lukie Westenra and his high cheekbones, hypnotizes him with a cape fetish and transforms him into Lucy Wonderbra. This is all part of Mother Dragula’s plan to annihilate Van High Heelsing at the upcoming pageant. While outrageousness, puns, wigs, and padded arses abound, the anachronisms are poorly integrated into the setting, and the jokes feel strained. This slender book may offer a few chuckles to fans of drag and Dracula, but most will sashay away. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Institute

Stephen King. Scribner, $30 (576p) ISBN 978-1-982110-56-7

King wows with the most gut-wrenching tale of kids triumphing over evil since It. In a quiet Minnesota neighborhood, intruders kidnap 12-year-old prodigy Luke Ellis and murder his parents. When Luke wakes up, he finds himself in a room identical to his own bedroom, except that he is now a resident of the Institute—a facility that tests telekinetic and telepathic abilities of children. Luke finds comfort in the company of the children in the Front Half: Kalisha, Nick, George, and Avery. Others have graduated to the Back Half, where “kids check in, but they don’t check out.” The Front Half are promised that they’ll be returned to their parents after testing and a visit to Back Half, but Luke becomes suspicious and desperate to get out and get help for the others. However, no child has ever escaped the Institute. Tapping into the minds of the young characters, King creates a sense of menace and intimacy that will have readers spellbound. The mystery of the Institute’s purpose is drawn out naturally until it becomes far scarier than the physical abuse visited upon the children. Not a word is wasted in this meticulously crafted novel, which once again proves why King is the king of horror. Agent: Chuck Verrill, Darhansoff & Verrill. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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