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When Jackals Storm the Walls

Bradley Beaulieu. DAW, $28 (528p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1462-7

The grand fifth volume in Beaulieu’s sweeping The Song of Shattered Sands series (Beneath the Twisted Trees) sees foreign armies, desert tribes, blood mages, fallen kings, and young gods fighting to control the fate of the desert city of Sharakhai. Çeda and her small band of women warriors seek to restore the newly awakened goddess Nalamae to her full divine power. Elsewhere in the Great Shangazi Desert, the deposed king Ihsan reunites with three other erstwhile monarchs, hoping to return to power by following the prophecies of the dead king Yusam. Meanwhile, the forces of Mirea and Malasan regroup to threaten Sharakhai once more. And within the city, Queen Meryam and her blood mage allies perform an extended sacrifice as part of a bargain with the goddess Tulathan. Beaulieu’s tapestry of vengeance, power, love, and hope is complex, but, by including a summary of previous volumes and a glossary of terms and characters at the start of the book, he succeeds in making this fifth volume accessible, even to new readers. Beaulieu’s excellent epic fantasy includes enough magic, battles, and heroes to satisfy any genre fan. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Uncharted Sky: Book 3 of the Risen Kingdoms

Curtis Craddock. Tor, $29.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8965-7

The triumphant finale to Craddock’s swashbuckling Risen Kingdoms trilogy (after A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery) takes the series to new heights. Musketeer Jean-Claude and sorcerer Isabelle, a newly minted airship captain serving l’Empire Celeste, launch a perilous expedition to the highest point of their world, into the Twilight Latitudes and through the Bittergale. The explorers hope to find a wrecked flagship rumored to contain “the treasure of a century in coin and plunder,” but they also have a less mercenary objective: the foundation of a new colony built on the principles of observation and experiment. Their journey is made more perilous by the results of an experiment done on Isabelle’s brain in a previous book, which left her with “a gibbering mob of other people’s memories” that cause her to hallucinate. The sophisticated, action-packed plot is rendered in vivid prose and enhanced by philosophical and spiritual questions as the richly imagined world wrestles with the concept of a religious savior. Craddock’s superior worldbuilding sweats the small stuff, including juicy details that make this world feel lived-in. This is a spectacular series ender. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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An Unnatural Life

Erin K. Wagner. Tor.com, $12.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-250-75209-3

Wagner (The Green and Growing) retreads a popular sci-fi theme in this strikingly written but predictable story. Young lawyer Aiya Ritsehrer moves to the human colony of Europa for a new life. She finds work in criminal rehabilitation, helping prisoners on the Jovian moon find fresh starts. But she’s faced with a challenge when she’s assigned to work with 812-3, an artificial intelligence serving a life sentence for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. When 812-3 says he wants to appeal, Aiya takes the case despite the pervasive, often violent prejudice against artificial life that threatens her own life and relationships. Stories about the rights of artificial life, especially those convicted of crimes, have a long history in speculative fiction, and while Wagner raises fascinating questions about what it means to be human, they’re questions that have been asked before. Though Aiya is a rich and thoughtfully crafted character, 812-3 never comes across as a full presence in his own right, undermining the story’s themes. Fans of AI-centric sci-fi will make quick work of this, but wish for a fresher angle on a familiar idea. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Flights of Marigold

Susan Forest. Laksa, $28 (392p) ISBN 978-1-988140-21-6

The solid second book in Forest’s Addicted to Heaven series (after Bursts of Fire) returns to the world of the Seven Kingdoms, where a rebellion brews and magic users called magiels are persecuted. Magiel sisters Janat and Meg Falconer work with the Uprising, led by the King-in-Exile Dwyn Gramaret, until Janat’s worsening magic addiction drives them to leave. Meg brings Janat to Pagoras, a country that is mostly safe for magiels, to recover. But when a rumor reaches them about the Amber Prayer Stone, a powerful magical artifact thought to be lost, they set off to Highglen, a land in transition between two rulers, in search of it. Highglen is also home to Meg and Janat’s estranged sister, Rennika Falconer, a powerful magiel who’s able to pass as a worldling. With help from Rennika, Meg balances caring for Janat, hunting for the Amber before it can fall into the wrong hands, and evading both the soldiers from the castle and the uprisers who want to bring her back into their fold. Forest skillfully uses her fantasy setting to spin a tale of addiction and familial loyalty. Though the plot lacks resolution, marking this as setup for future installments, this is sure to satisfy readers who are invested in the Falconer sisters’ story lines. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Memory of Souls

Jenn Lyons. Tor, $27.99 (640p) ISBN 978-1-250-17557-1

All hell (literally) breaks loose in the challenging saga of crisscrossing quests that makes up Lyons’s third Chorus of Dragons epic fantasy (after The Name of All Things). The wards entrapping Vol Karoth, “the king of demons,” have weakened. Kihrin D’Mon hopes to keep the demon from escaping while Relos Var, the demon’s creator and Kihrin’s reincarnated brother from a previous life, campaigns to unleash Vol Karoth and use him to seal the wound that is slowly ripping the world apart. Both the ritual to repair the wards and the one to break them require enormous amounts of power. To complete either, the powerful vané, the last race to possess immortality, would have to relinquish their longevity. As the brothers race to convince the vané to sacrifice their immortality, Kihrin confronts his feelings for his companions, Janel and Teraeth; comes face to face with the dragon Baelosh; and duels with the Goddess of Death. Lyons raises stakes to a fever pitch while providing an overabundance of character backstory and worldbuilding history. The view of the climactic battle is eye-catching, but the casual reader might get lost on the way there as the byzantine plot is filled with switchbacks and turnarounds. Series fans will enjoy revisiting Lyons’s complex world. Agent: Sam Morgan, Foundry Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Cthulhu Stories of Robert E. Howard

Edited by M. Scott Lee. WordFire, $29.99 (420p) ISBN 978-1-68057-098-4

Lee brings together a lackluster collection of 13 stories from Howard (1906–1936), best-known for creating Conan the Barbarian, aiming to highlight Howard’s contributions to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Unfortunately, Lee’s selections fail to make his case. In some, the connection to Cthulhu is tangential at best, as in “The Shadow Kingdom,” in which Kull, King of Valusia, battles serpent creatures who’ve infiltrated his court disguised as men. Beyond a passing reference to a battle “with the grisly beings of the Elder Universe,” this is more a typical sword and sorcery yarn than a work of cosmic horror. And though the master villain in “Skull-Face” is named Kathulos, Lee himself concedes that’s only a coincidence. There are other tales with a stronger connection to Lovecraft—three reference the Necronomicon (“Children of the Night,” “The Thing on the Roof,” and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”)—but only “The Black Stone” is a real classic of the cosmic horror genre. While Howard is a masterful storyteller in his own right, the presentation here does his stories a disservice. This is strictly for Howard completists. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena

Edited by Joshua Viola. Hex, $18.99 trade paper (308p) ISBN 978-1-7339177-7-3

The 13 inventive tales in this original anthology crisscross between science fiction and horror to comprise a multifaceted dossier on psychic warfare. Gabino Iglesias’s outstanding “Awake” takes the form of a confidential memo from a scientist overseeing a military experiment in sleep deprivation and warning of the terrifying capabilities it’s awakened in its subjects. Stephen Graham Jones presents his ambitious “To Jump Is to Fall” as the thoughts of a telepathic spy mid-skydive during a mission to breach a secret federal facility. In Matthew Kressel’s “Very Surely Do I Not Dream,” an artificial intelligence run amok threatens the fate of humanity with an algorithm through which it accesses “an ancient pathway into mental darkness.” With settings ranging from ancient Atlantis (“Protectors of Atlantis” by Mario Acevedo) to the battlefields of WWII (“The Calabrian” by Warren Hammond), into the present (“And When You Tear Us Apart, We Stitch Ourselves Back Together” by Betty Rocksteady) and beyond, the breadth of these stories is impressive. Readers will be taken in by the paranoid appeal of this offbeat anthology. (May)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The House of Styx

Derek Künsken. Solaris, $27.99 (500p) ISBN 978-1-78108-805-0

The intricacies of family dynamics, politics, and coming of age play out against the stunning, deadly backdrop of Venus in this standout work by Künsken (The Quantum Magician). The D’Aquillon family is scraping by in the depths of Venus’s atmosphere—harvesting water and oxygen and gathering metals from volcanic ash in the lowest clouds—when they discover an anomalous storm with startling origins brewing on the planet’s surface. In the more luxurious habitats of La Colonie, drifting just above the upper clouds of Venus, political agendas clash and the first generation of Venus-born humans seek a connection with their inhospitable home through aciding—body art created by applying sulfuric acid to skin. The D’Aquillons must decide whether to share their discovery with the colonial government or use it to their political advantage. To fully exploit their situation, they’ll have to open ranks to new allies and set aside old grudges. Künsken’s vivid worldbuilding is a knockout; the shifting relationships, intriguing politics, well-drawn counterculture, and the haunting atmosphere of Venus combine into a mesmerizing whole. This is a must-read for fans of character-driven sci-fi. Agent: Kim-Mei Kirtland, Howard Morhaim Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror

Edited by Nadxieli Nieto and Lincoln Michel. Black Balloon, $16.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-948226-62-2

In this masterful anthology, Nieto and Michel bring together 42 chilling works of flash fiction that capture terrors both supernatural and mundane. In Samantha Hunt’s “Rearview,” a single mother attempts to distance herself from her former drug abuse, even as her past self comes back to haunt her. Hilary Leichter’s “Doggy-Dog World” offers an unsettling portrait of a witch working a spell on an unassuming yuppie couple. “Lone” by Jac Jemc is a realistic and hair-raising exploration of a woman’s anxieties while camping alone. The choose-your-own-adventure-style “Marriage Variations” by Monique Laban spins scares from marital discontents. Helen McClory’s “Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter c. 1664–66” follows an eerie encounter between an art gallery docent and the “presence” within a 17th-century painting. “Downpour” by Joseph Salvatore is a truly terrifying tale about a rat on the New York City Subway, made all the more disturbing for its very real possibility. In fewer than 1,500 words, each of these vivid, visceral tales engages with horrors with striking immediacy. This carefully crafted and genuinely scary collection is sure to impress. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Residence

Andrew Pyper. Skybound, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-9821-4905-5

Pyper (The Homecoming) spins a fascinating horror novel centered on Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. President and one of the least effectual, proposing supernatural causes behind the man’s failure. Right after Franklin’s 1852 election, the death of his 11-year-old son, Bennie, in a train wreck sends Franklin’s wife, Jane, into a frenzy of mourning. Since her youth, Jane has been under the influence of “Sir,” a malignant, supernatural entity she accidentally summoned. Now she lives in the White House as a bitter recluse and establishes a private “Grief Room” where Bennie’s toys and clothing can be kept inviolate—and where a shadowy creature that looks like Bennie can gain substance as it feeds on her grief and love. Franklin, meanwhile, knows he should be working to hold the Union together but can’t find the gumption to stand firm. Pyper does a good job of haunting the White House but is less successful at incorporating the real historical horrors of slavery and the looming Civil War. History buffs might take issue with some of the minutiae, but this eerie ghost story is sure to please horror fans. Agent: Kirby Kim, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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