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Perfunctory Affection

Kim Harrison. Subterranean, $40 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59606-896-4

This plodding psychological fantasy from Harrison (the Hollows series) tries and fails to juxtapose the psychosis Sylvia Plath describes in The Bell Jar with the body-snatcher horror of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Meg Seton is a contemporary art professor who, due to anxiety attacks, lacks a clear sense of her identity and relies upon a drug called Fitrecepon. Her dreary circumstances change immediately after she meets a new friend, Haley, “the popular girl grown up into success.” Meg abruptly casts aside her boyfriend and her apartment with the hope of receiving an invitation to the mythical place Haley calls Perfection. She obsesses over emulating Haley’s “perfect, red-painted toenails” and is ecstatic when Haley asks her to dine in a fancy restaurant or go on shopping sprees. Meg’s off-putting immaturity makes it impossible for the reader to stay focused on understanding the mystery of Perfection, leaving this story without a point. Agent: Jennifer Jackson, Donald Maass Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Amateurs

Liz Harmer. Vintage Canada, $15.50 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-345-81125-7

Harmer’s funny, heartrending debut spins a standard tale of life on a depopulated world into a brilliant examination of abandonment and hope. Marie Desroches is one of the last 42 people on Earth. Most humans have disappeared through tech giant PINA’s port, a slickly marketed, semiconscious door into another reality, and the hapless few left behind wonder whether their loved ones are being prevented from coming back. Marie’s obsession is Jason, the ex-husband she never got over. When disaffected PINA publicist Brandon Dreyer arrives in her life, fleeing the tech demagogue who created the port, both Marie and Brandon find a chance to unstick from their broken pasts. With a gently Gibsonian critique of consumer culture and a fiercely loving core, this wry novel ably satisfies both the literary reader’s desire for precise, beautiful prose and the genre reader’s eagerness for richly imagined futures. This is a sparkling, cohesive, and sharply insightful novel and a remarkable debut. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Winds of Marque

Bennett R. Coles. Harper Voyager, $16.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-282035-8

His Imperial Majesty’s solar sailors take on space pirates in this fizzy, unstable mix of retro and future naval adventures. Liam Blackwood is an experienced second-in-command frustrated at being passed over for a promotion to captain of an interstellar vessel powered by solar sails. He must mediate between a competent but distant new captain and a crew excited by the prospect of prize money for taking down pirates. Tasked with an unorthodox, undercover mission to root out a hidden pirate base that threatens to interfere with a possible war against the buglike Sectoids, Blackwood needs to please his commander, Lady Sophia Riverton, and keep her hastily assembled crew—including his former commander’s privileged protégé, Cadet James Highcastle—on task. His affection for sailor Amelia Virtue, whom he promoted to petty officer, also complicates his precarious position. Coles’s setting is a mishmash of sails on towering masts that are manipulated by hand, pistols in braces, and artificial gravity; in mixed-gender crews, lacy-sleeved officers receive forehead-knuckle salutes from the common swabbies. Science fiction fans of the Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin sailing sagas will likely thrill as the cannons are run out for battles in space. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Morhaim Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tiamat’s Wrath

James S.A. Corey. Orbit, $30 (608p) ISBN 978-0-316-33287-3

Part empire-building space opera, part alien contact thriller, and all epic blockbuster, the eighth chapter in the Expanse series delivers supernovae of action and intrigue. With the death of Chrisjen Avasarala, the hard-nosed former U.N. Secretary-General, back on Earth, human space is effectively under the control of the distant empire of Laconia and its ruler, Winston Duarte. Duarte is determined to force the next stage in human evolution using the mysteriously powerful alien “protomolecule,” key to the ring gates that give humans access to over a thousand worlds. While Duarte pursues the secrets of the long-lost protomolecule creators, the rebel underground—including the surviving members of the gunship Rocinante, around whom the series revolves—schemes to free humankind from his rule. The final wild card is Duarte’s 14-year-old daughter, whose sense of family duty doesn’t necessarily include bonding with the protomolecule. Corey delivers just enough backstory to bring new readers up to speed without slowing the overall pace. Brimming with vivid characters and intrigue, this tightly plotted space thriller gives readers an electrifying future carved by alien science and human ambition. Agent: Danny Baror, Baror International. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Tragedy of King Leere, Goatherd of the La Sals

Steven L. Peck. By Common Consent, $9.95 mass market (232p) ISBN 978-1-948218-01-6

Peck (Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats) retells King Lear in a post–climate catastrophe Utah in this impeccable, idiosyncratic novel. King Leere has devoted his life to buying up lands in the La Sal Mountains and raising transgenic goats in the arid landscape. He decides to retire and promises to divide the land between his sons, Neril and Regan, and daughter Delia based on essays they compose about loving the land. When Delia instead announces a plan to remove the goats and foster the return of aspens and formerly native species, Leere disinherits her and splits the inheritance between his sons, not knowing they plan to immediately sell it for strip-mining. Delia flees with her crush, Ellie (an openly lesbian Mormon), and later shows her how genetically engineered porcupines with monkey hands have already begun the reforesting in a plot of land she owns. In his anger and increasing dementia after learning of his sons’ plot, Leere sends his illegally acquired battle robot, KENT, on a brutal revenge spree, with massive collateral damage for them all. Peck builds a fascinating world of technological solutions to global warming alongside Leere’s free verse monologues, an omniscient daemon narrator, and KENT’s paeans to King James English. Readers will instantly be won over by this wildly creative blend of stunning speculation, terrifying warning, and fraught relationships. (May)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Unbound Empire: The Swords and Fire Trilogy, Book 3

Melissa Caruso. Orbit, $15.99 trade paper (560p) ISBN 978-0-316-46693-6

Lady Amalia Cornaro, accidentally bound to a fire warlock in 2017’s The Tethered Mage, frees mages from their captive service and her faux-Venetian Serene City of Raverra from its greatest threat in this rattling mix of politics and magecraft. Countering the infiltrations of the Vaskandar Witch-Lord Ruven, Amalia takes the war back to his domain, trading deep secrets with his rival, the Lady of Spiders, to learn how to lay a trap that can kill the immortal sorcerer. Caruso astutely plays off the political and the personal, making Amalia regularly aware of the implications of her friendships and romantic interests, while at the same time placing the real demands of love next to (and above) the thrills of infatuation. The suspenseful elements mingle with the horrors of unleashing magical fire on enemy conscripts. Amalia’s readiness to accept the responsibility for her decisions brings a welcome sense of growing into authority rather than merely inheriting it, and fans of the first two books will find this a fitting capstone to the trilogy. Agent: Naomi Davis, BookEnds Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Merging: An Ian Dex Supernatural Thriller

John P. Logsdon and Christopher P. Young. Crimson Myth, $2.99 e-book (206p) ASIN B075FTMXYH

The breathless first Paranormal Police novel pits a playboy police officer against a troubling threat. A routine call to contain a vampire goes sideways for the chief of Las Vegas Paranormal Police, Ian Dex, when a massive werewolf shows up. Soon, Dex’s squad of mages, were-creatures, and other supernatural beings is barely escaping from a series of shockingly powerful enemies. The department’s resources are strained as they scramble to figure out who is behind these confounding new attacks and attempt to keep nonsupernatural humans from learning about the existence of magic and mythical creatures. Dex’s boundless libido stands in for a personality and sows frustration among his female colleagues, including the department’s flirty artificial intelligence, but these conflicts and all character developments take a back seat to breakneck skirmish scenes. Light worldbuilding, however, does lay groundwork for sequels, including explanations of Dex’s nature as a type of genetically modified supernatural creature known as an amalgamite. Readers looking for breezy action who don’t mind frequently puerile jokes will enjoy this uncomplicated romp. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Creation Machine

Andrew Bannister. Tor, $16.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-17913-5

Bannister debuts with the ambitious if somewhat muddled first Spin novel, set in a solar system created by machines. Fleare Haas, 22, is the estranged daughter of ruthless megacapitalist Viklun Haas. She continues her years-long rebellion against her notorious family name by joining the fringe anti-capitalist militia group known as Society Otherwise. There she befriends a ragtag band of scoundrels, including Muz, her onetime lover turned personal guardian. During an enemy attack, he loses his physical body but retains his personality and consciousness in the form of a shape-shifting cloud. After staging a prison break, Fleare and Muz discover someone who could lead them to the Creation Machine, a piece of ancient technology used in the creation of the Spin and all the planets and suns therein, setting the stage for tremendous loss and devastating conflict. Bannister’s storytelling displays some growing pains as the characters attempt to develop beyond one-dimensional archetypes of principled and scrappy protagonist and mustache-twirling, life-devaluing antagonist, and the plot loses steam near the end. Nevertheless, the worldbuilding is unusual and inspired, lending readers some hope that future entries in the series will be something to look forward to. Agent: John Jarrold, John Jarrold Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ruin’s Wake

Patrick Edwards. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-78565-879-2

A handful of strangers trudge through their individual, tedious quests before finally coming together in this pompous attempt at a novel of the dystopian future. Though several characters narrate, the one with the most page time is Cale, a former freedom fighter who has spent nine years in self-imposed exile after the death of his wife. He emerges when he receives news that his son has been gravely injured. Anyone who has ever seen an action film will recognize the strong, silent hero who has withdrawn to nurse his emotional scars and disillusionment, but despite the cliché, Cale is the most fully realized in a flat cast of stereotypes; these include an abused woman who takes risks for love and exists to be a sacrificial lamb, the frigid caricature of an autistic woman who is thawed by sex with the right guy, and the rebellion leader who becomes what he hates. The story is likewise predictable and crammed with unsurprising twists and coincidences that defy credibility. Readers of the dystopian subgenre will find this clumsy rendition both familiar and forgettable. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Blackest Heart

Brian Lee Durfee. Saga, $19.99 trade paper (960p) ISBN 978-1-4814-6526-7

Durfee’s voluminous and highly imaginative second Five Warrior Angels dark fantasy recounts a complex and violent religion-based conflict in the medieval-flavored world of the Five Isles. Even readers of the previous book, The Forgetting Moon, will rely on this installment’s helpful list of characters, which is vital to untangling Durfee’s huge-scale narrative. The Angel Prince Aeros Raijael of Sor Sevier is attempting to dominate the Five Isles, and has begun to attack the kingdom of Gul Kana, which is led by vicious King Jovan. Nothing and no one can be definitively assumed in the narrative beyond that basic premise. Deadly betrayals and hideous tortures abound in gruesome detail, and while the elvish Valle and scheming dwarves play important roles, the tragedies of human war among three factions of religion—loosely based on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—hold center stage amid arcane prophecies and pervasive fanaticism. Squeamish readers may find Durfee’s assassins and their murderous ceremonies especially distasteful, but his cinematic shifts of perspective and his artist’s eye for shades of atmosphere propel this enormous tapestry of human frailties and will keep fans of dark fantasy turning the many, many pages. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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