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Middlegame

Seanan McGuire. Tor, $29.99 (528p) ISBN 978-1-250-19552-4

McGuire (the Wayward Children series) puts a genuinely innovative spin on the magical child horror novel in this mesmerizing story of two gifted, telepathic children and the unsettling source of their powers. Massachusetts seven-year-old Roger Middleton is struggling with his multiplication worksheet when a girl’s voice pops into his head and gives him the answers. Dodger Cheswich, his mental correspondent, lives in California, and Roger is soon able to reciprocate her assistance when she shares that her academic struggles are with reading and spelling. Roger has an intuitive connection with words that’s as strong as Dodger’s with numbers. As their relationship develops, the two remain unaware that they are pawns in a larger game initiated by James Reed, the son of Victorian alchemist Asphodel Baker; Reed and Baker aspire to create human incarnations of Pythagoras’s Doctrine of Ethos, which concerns humanity’s ability to command nature. As Roger and Dodger grow up and explore their more terrifying abilities, their investigation into their origins puts them in danger. Heightening the tension is a prologue set “five minutes too late” and “thirty seconds from the end of the world,” in which Dodger is bleeding to death as Roger takes desperate measures to save her. Shifts and alterations in timelines demand close attention from readers, but McGuire’s rigorous plotting pulls everything together by the end. This is a fascinating novel by an author of consummate skill. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Air Logic

Laurie J. Marks. Small Beer, $17 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-61873-160-9

Marks brings her much-loved, long-unavailable Elemental Logic series (most recently 2007’s Water Logic, and all recently republished by Small Beer) to a superb finale in this fourth novel set in the world of Shaftal, where the four primary elements determine allegiances among the people, inspire magic, and create turmoil when thrown into imbalance. Karis, the G’deon leader, is striving to unite her kingdom in the wake of the cruel occupation of the Sainnites when the Death-in-Life, a rogue militia that takes exception to her rule, attempts to assassinate her. This precipitates a suspenseful pursuit across the kingdom when the assassins flee with Karis’s paladin, Emil, in their clutches. As in the previous books, Marks keeps the expression of the magic subtle, grounding her story in human drama. The vivid characters include Zanja, whose intimate relationship with Karis subjects her to visions that may be potentially ominous portents, and Chaen, a failed assassin whose punishment estranges her from her air witch son, Maxew. The fullness with which Marks has thought out the particulars of her world and its characters, and the logic by which her story’s events proceed, complete an extraordinary fantasy saga that’s well worth revisiting or exploring for the first time. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Fire Opal Mechanism

Fran Wilde. Tor.com, $14.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-250-19654-5

This standalone sequel to 2016’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary keenly explores a dark age when nearly all the magic gems in the former Six Kingdoms are gone. The kingdom-conquering Pressmen are seizing countless books to feed a Great Press that steals words. To save both books and themselves, librarian Ania and thief Jorit’s unlikely partnership sends them time traveling via the titular mechanism, piecing together the riddle of the Great Press’s existence so they can shut it down forever. Wilde’s lean storytelling never missteps throughout Ania and Jorit’s dangerous chronological jumps, with each era fleshed out despite the sections’ frenetic brevity. As in the first book, the traditional ideas of magic gems are skewed in ways that add their own entertainment and tension, to the point where the few surviving stones nearly become characters. Courageous Ania grows into great strength, and Jorit is the standout, transforming from refugee to guardian hero. Readers who loved Jewel will be delighted by this outing. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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They Called Me Wyatt

Natasha Tynes. Rare Bird, $16 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-947856-75-2

Tynes’s limp debut begins on Apr. 1, 2001, the 25th birthday of Siwar Sihaila, a Jordan-born writing student at the University of Maryland. She is pushed off a roof and dies from the fall. Three years later, Siwar becomes aware of herself as a consciousness in the body of a three-year-old child born the day that she died. That child, Wyatt, grows up white in American suburbia and eventually develops an interest in the Middle East, a romance with a Jordanian woman, and a compulsion to dig into Siwar’s cold case. As he turns 25, he becomes aware of his connection to Siwar, meets her friends and family, and seeks justice for her murder. Tynes does little to explore privilege, politics, or prejudice, and instead follows the steps of an amateur detective procedural as Wyatt attempts to find out who killed the woman whose consciousness he carries. The two halves of the story sit uneasily next to each other, and the prose is flat. The 2026 setting of Wyatt’s adult life is merely sketched in with mentions of self-driving cars and digital personal assistants. Readers hoping for nuanced explorations of Wyatt and Siwar’s similarities and differences, or even for a solid murder mystery with supernatural and futuristic elements, will be disappointed. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Wanderers

Chuck Wendig. Del Rey, $28.99 (800p) ISBN 978-0-399-18210-5

Wendig (the Miriam Black series) pulls no punches in this blockbuster apocalyptic novel, which confronts some of the darkest and most divisive aspects of present-day America with urgency, humanity, and hope. The day after a comet blazes over the west coast of North America, Benji Ray, a disgraced former CDC epidemiologist, is summoned to meet Black Swan, a superintelligent computer designed to predict and prevent disasters, which has determined that Benji must treat an upcoming pandemic. That same morning, Shana wakes up to find her little sister, Nessie, sleepwalking down the driveway and off toward an unknown goal, one of a growing number of similar travelers who are unable to stop or to wake. Shana in turn becomes one of many shepherds, protecting the travelers from a crumbling American society that’s ravaged by fear, dogma, disease, and the effects of climate change, while Benji grapples with his daunting assignment and questions about Black Swan’s nature and agenda. Wendig challenges readers with twists and revelations that probe issues of faith and free will while crafting a fast-paced narrative with deeply real characters. His politics are unabashed—characters include a populist president brought to power by neo-Nazis, as well as murderous religious zealots—but not simplistic, and he tackles many moral questions while eschewing easy answers. This career-defining epic deserves its inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand, easily rising above the many recent novels of pandemic and societal collapse. Agent: Stacia Decker, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Failure to Communicate

Kaia Sønderby. Going to Mars, $2.99 e-book (395p) ASIN B01N81A1XO

This far-future tale of interspecies diplomacy hinges on an uneven depiction of autism in a society that has genetically engineered away most neurodivergence. When the StarSystems Alliance needs a diplomat to send to the xenophobic and divided Anmerilli, autistic xeno-liaison Xandri Corelel is the best option, as she has specialized in understanding nonverbal communication across species. The prejudices she faces both personally and politically make her job difficult, and the stakes are high. Individual characterizations lack depth, particularly for the antagonists, but the diversity across the Alliance and among the Anmerilli gives the story a welcome complexity. Xandri’s personal and professional efforts to interpret body language provide insights that a neurotypical narrator would not, although her unreliable narration is not always successful, and her experience is described dryly in ways that make it hard for readers to feel her panic in crowds or fall into her hyperfocus. The conflation of autism acceptance with other social issues distracts the reader from focusing on Xandri’s significant skills. Despite these inconsistencies, the book mostly satisfies as a tale of space adventure. Sønderby (Testing Pandora) shows promise, especially with worldbuilding, that will encourage readers to pick up her future books. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Masters of Deception (Dragonstones Chronicles #1)

JC Kang. Dragonstone, $2.99 e-book (541p) ASIN B07HC3M7J6

Political intrigue and subterfuge rule the day in Kang’s layered fantasy, which opens a new arc in his established Dragon Songs Saga universe and unites four unlikely heroes against mafiosi and a looming orc invasion. Cassius is a diviner in the city of Tokahia, and is also the sworn protector of the pyramid that keeps the orc gods from reclaiming the lands. Brehane is a mystic who is trying to restore her clan’s honor; she accepts an order to find a missing illusionist in hopes that fulfilling this task will help her reclaim her family’s rightful place. Sameer is a paladin searching for his lost love in the brothels of Tokahia. Jie, a half-elf ninja and spy, arrives in Tokahia’s port on a mission to root out a clan traitor. Kang quickly draws the four together and links their missions amid betrayal, political machinations, and outright deceit. Though elves and orcs will be familiar to readers of Western fantasy novels, the worldbuilding is effectively infused with Asian elements. The book’s ending feels even more inconclusive than one might expect from a series launch book; impatient readers should wait for the series to be completed before digging in. This conflict-driven tale of politics and underhandedness will appeal to a wide range of fantasy fans. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Place Outside the Wild

Daniel Humphreys. Daniel Humphreys, $16.99 trade paper (626p) ISBN 978-1-5369-7917-6

Humphreys’s debut and series launch is a competent addition to the zombie apocalypse genre. It’s 2026, eight years after Z-day, when hordes of zombies arose after a flu-like pandemic. Computer geek Miles Matthews lives, along with his family, in a protected enclave with other survivors. As the zombie population gradually deteriorates due to natural decomposition, a murder in the enclave reveals that humanity itself is still a potential threat to survival. Before Miles can investigate, a military convoy arrives, surprising the survivors, who haven’t seen other people in years. As it turns out, the military is searching for Miles, who has access to a biotech facility from his job before Z-day, and materials at the facility might be able to help find a cure. While Miles leaves to help the military, the rest of the enclave searches for the murderer in their midst. Humphreys has a morbid wit, but the work stays inside typical zombie story standards: the undead are ravenous and determined, the killings are bloody (although not gratuitously so), and the battles are glorious. Those who enjoy zombie stories will want to give Humphreys’s offering a look. (BookLife)

This review has been updated to correct a production error.

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Sorrow’s Son (Crossroads of Worlds #2)

Rene Sears. Rene Sears, $11.99 trade paper (222p) ISBN 978-1-976096-21-1

The second installment to Sears’s Crossroads of Worlds contemporary fantasy series (after Strangehold) is just as enjoyable as the first. After the events of Strangehold, in which the Savannah Flu devastated the human spellcaster population, Javier, an orphaned 16-year-old spellcaster, searches for fellow human magicians, but he’s afraid of encountering the faeries his dead father loathed. Javier’s loneliness is intensified by the loss of most of the other spellcasters in the world, but he’s befriended by spellcasters Morgan Tenpenny and her teenage twin nieces Igraine and Iliesa. The twins’ father is missing and Javier decides to help them look for him in the faery world, despite his father’s warnings about the unpredictability of faeries. Sears’s prose can capture the imagination (one creature has “a great silver eye whirling gently, faintly chased with blue”), and the unusual settings, such as the ethereal Strangehold, add to an already rich world. Readers will look forward to the next book in the series. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Cracked Amulet

RB Watkinson. Claret, $12.99 trade paper (334p) ISBN 978-1-910461-07-5

Watkinson kicks off a promising series with this winning first installment to the Wefan Weaves trilogy. Powers are shifting in Dumnon, a world where a pervasive energy called “wefan” is contained within the “weave,” which is found throughout nature and the air itself. Only Wealdan-bearers, those who have the ability to tap into the weave, can see the wefan and use it. Young Coryn aef Arlean and Katleya aef Laeft leave their homes for different reasons: Coryn is determined to find his sister, Lera, who was taken as a toddler eight years ago by a mysterious woman who promised to protect the girl and gave Coryn a special cracked amulet for protection. Wealdan-bearer Katleya is trying to reach a haven where her talents can be nurtured and honed. However, bloodhunter-priests ravage the land and pursue Katleya, whose Wealdan blood is a potent elixir for them, forcing her to take refuge with a group of Wealdan healers. Coming across the group while searching for his sister, Coryn meets Katleya, and his amulet proves invaluable as bloodhunter-priests close in on them. Captivating characters, mythical creatures, and exciting battles make this a treat for fantasy readers. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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