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Return from the Stars

Stanislaw Lem, trans. from the Polish by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson. MIT, $17.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-262-53848-0

Lem’s thought-provoking, reissued 1961 classic explores the questionable utopia that has emerged on a vivid future Earth through the eyes of an astronaut recently returned from the Fomalhaut star system, 23 light years away. Due to time dilation, 127 years have passed on Earth when Hal Bregg returns from what he experienced as a 10-year mission. Through a series of intense vignettes, Bregg learns about the changes that have arisen in his absence: wall-size televisions, spray-on clothes, new slang, and, to Bregg’s horror, government-imposed “betrization,” a biological process that suppresses violent impulses. The unintended consequence is a nearly emotionless populace averse to risk-taking, exploration, and even sports. Though Bregg rejects his superiors’ suggestion that he attend a reorientation program, he struggles to reintegrate into society, becoming increasingly disturbed. Bregg is especially shocked by the behavior of women, who innocently invite him home with them. Aggression unchecked, he abducts a married woman, Eri, who is too passive to fight back. The racial and sexual politics have not aged well, and Lem’s language is often misogynous, but the moral dilemmas and exploration of complacency and violence still resonate. This will appeal to readers who like heady science fiction laced with social commentary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Starborn and Godsons

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes. Baen, $25 (416p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2448-9

Fans of the hard sci-fi Heorot series from Niven, Barnes, and the late Pournelle (1933–2017) are likely to feel that the 25-year wait for this final installment (after Beowolf’s Children) was worth it. Mostly complete by the time of Pournelle’s death, this work thoughtfully builds on the vision of the future painted by prior volumes. The human colony on the extrasolar planet Avalon has achieved stability despite threats posed by the planet’s voracious reptilian monsters, who have decimated their numbers and destroyed essential tech. As the colony’s leaders work to repair and maintain their machinery, including shuttlecraft that enable them to leave the planet’s surface, they face two new challenges: the discovery of another intelligent life form, called cthulhus, whose intentions are unclear, and the arrival of a spaceship captained by Godsons, humans belonging to a group who had been excluded from the expedition that led to the creation of the Avalon colony. Unlike the expedition members and their descendants, whose goal was to create a peaceful society free from want and crime, the Godsons believed that humanity’s destiny was to conquer the universe. The ideological differences inevitably lead to clashes as tension between the humans mounts en route to the thrilling climax. This excellent series finale sticks the landing. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Queen’s Bargain

Anne Bishop. Ace, $27 (432p) ISBN 978-1-9848-0662-8

Bishop revisits her Black Jewels romantic fantasy series almost a decade after Twilight’s Dawn with this erotically charged but unremarkable 10th installment, which reads primarily as setup for future works. Lord Dillon falls victim to a love spell cast by a woman named Blyte, who uses the enchantment to manipulate Dillon into sexual favors and tarnish his reputation. Blyte’s father pays Dillon to leave town, but gossip travels with him, and aristocratic girls see him as easy prey: “That one can’t keep his trousers zipped. He’ll give anyone a ride.” Desperate to salvage his good name, Dillon uses the same love spell on the witch Jillian, intending to marry her—but he doesn’t know she’s protected by powerful connections, among them her uncle, Warlord Prince Daemon. For his part, Daemon has lost control of his ability to rein in the supernaturally enhanced sexual heat he gives off, putting both his wife and the entire realm of Kaeleer in danger. The actual stakes don’t emerge until late in the plot, but the slow-burn buildup pays off with a stirring conclusion that paves the way for a dramatic sequel. Returning readers will be excited to learn what’s next for the people of Kaeleer. Agent: Jennifer Jackson, Donald Maass Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Ranger of Marzanna

Jon Skovron. Orbit, $15.99 trade paper (528p) ISBN 978-0-316-45462-9

Skovron (Empire of Storms) launches his Slavic-influenced Goddess War series with this intricate, well-told fantasy. Sixteen-year-old Sebastian Turgenev Portinari has a rare talent for elemental magic, but his skills are inhibited by his father’s efforts to keep them a secret from the ruthless Aureumian Imperial Army, who recently conquered their homeland of Izmoroz. Sebastian’s sister, 18-year-old Sonya, is hiding her own secrets from the empire: she’s the last of the renowned Rangers of Marzanna, the devoted disciples of the Goddess of Winter, who the empire believes it exterminated. Where Sebastian is immature, sensitive, and vulnerable to the influence of others, Sonya is devoted to her relationship with the goddess and determined to reclaim Izmoroz from the Aureumian invaders. After imperial soldiers kill their father, the siblings are transported to the capital city, where Sebastian is conscripted into the army and persuaded by volatile Cdr. Franko Vittorio to use his powers in service of the empire, setting him and Sonya on a collision course. Both perspectives are depicted with depth and nuance, making the inevitability of their confrontation all the more painful. Skovron does an admirable job balancing large-scale and interpersonal conflicts, and strong supporting characters and cultural specificity add texture. This is epic fantasy done right. Agent: Jill Grinberg, Jill Grinberg Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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False Value: A Rivers of London Novel

Ben Aaronovitch. DAW, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1646-1

Aaronovitch showcases a superlative blend of whimsy and grit in the eighth Rivers of London urban fantasy (after Lies Sleeping). Magic practitioner Peter Grant leaves his position in the Metropolitan Police and lands a job with the Serious Cybernetics Corporation, whose head of security suspects a rat within the organization and wants Grant to root out who it is. Grant soon stumbles on a promising lead when he spots Jacob Astor, a fellow magic user who Grant recognizes from a previous investigation, trying to break into a restricted area of Serious Cybernetics. The plot thickens when Grant learns that the company is working for the Russian government to develop algorithms meant to influence public opinion and an attempt is made on the life of the company founder. The suspenseful mystery at the novel’s core is laced with humor and charm. Jim Butcher meets Douglas Adams in this winning series installment. Agent: John Berlyne, Zeno Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Koli

M. R. Carey. Orbit, $16.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-316-47753-6

Carey (The Girl With All the Gifts) allows the promising premise of the first installment to his sci-fi Rampart Trilogy —a postapocalyptic U.K. (stylized in this far-future as “Yewkay”) in which human civilization has fallen to murderous, genetically modified plants—to languish as he focuses on a shallow, self-centered protagonist. Teenage Koli Woodsmith wants nothing more than to become a protector of his village. Though Koli sees himself as a hero, he is more swayed by his own desires than by challenging the systems put in place by the power-hungry village elders, and he acts primarily for his own gains, whether the motivation be a girl or a piece of technology. After Koli is accused of stealing from the town’s technological storeroom, he is exiled from the village and must learn to survive the hostile wilderness. The slogging plot is slowed even further by the narrator’s awkwardly rendered dialect (“I opened my mouth but no word come out. Of course I knowed it.”) . From the barely explored setting to the strained ventriloquism of the narrative voice, Carey offers little to inspire confidence in future series entries. Sci-fi readers will be disappointed. Agent: Meg Davis, Ki Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Creatures of Charm and Hunger

Molly Tanzer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-358-06521-0

Two apprentice diabolists explore dangerous magic in WWII-era Britain in the enthralling final installment of Tanzer’s Diabolist’s Library trilogy (after Creatures of Want and Ruin). Miriam Cantor wants nothing more than to discover the fate of her parents, who were part of the diabolist resistance against the Nazis until they disappeared. Miriam’s foster sister, Jane Blackwood, is preoccupied with becoming a master diabolist, motivated by her fear of the painful fate of being “rendered for parts” that awaits apprentices who fail to meet expectations. As both girls delve deeper into the diabolic arts, Jane to ensure her safety and Miriam to find her parents, their friendship is tested and they must each answer the question of how much they’re willing to sacrifice. Tanzer captures both the atmosphere of the novel’s gritty, war-torn world and the adolescent voices of her struggling protagonists. Moral ambiguity abounds in this dark, captivating coming-of-age fantasy that expertly depicts the painful loneliness of growing up and apart. Series fans and new readers alike will be entranced. Agent: Cameron McClure, Donald Maass Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Boy In The Box

Marc E. Fitch. Flame Tree, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-78758-384-9

Desolate landscapes and guilt-laden consciences pervade this fraught horror novel from Fitch (Dirty Water). Ten years ago, Jonathan Hollis traveled with three friends to the Adirondack Mountains for a bachelor party weekend of drinking and hunting. The inebriated men mistook a young boy wandering the wilderness for a deer and killed him. Realizing their mistake, they locked the body in a storage trunk and buried him in the woods, but the weight of their shame caused deep rifts and led to the suicide of the man who pulled the trigger. Now developers are razing the burial spot and the threat of exposure sends Jonathan and his surviving friends, Michael and Conner, back to the woods to move the body before their secret can be unearthed. Returning to the bleak, remote terrain brings to light the truth of the boy’s identity and his nightmarish reason for being in the woods in the first place. Though the characters suffer from a lack of nuance, the deeply unnerving imagery (“The skin seemed to fall away from the bone like a carcass left in water”) will keep horror lovers hooked. Fitch spins isolation and paranoia into a successfully frightening yarn. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Speakers of the Earth Book One: The Fireweed Entrance

Richard Jones. Chatwin, $17 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-63398-089-1

A young man with the power to converse with trees searches for identity, community, and meaning in Jones’s dense, ponderous debut. Orphaned early in life, Ray Holdman has always been at the mercy of his uncontrollable ability. Liable to be pulled into a tree’s mind without warning, he frequently loses chunks of time and has difficulty readjusting to human conversation when he emerges, making it difficult for him to hold down a job or form relationships. When a mysterious stranger sends Ray hiking deep into the wilderness surrounding Mt. Rainier to find a place called the House of Windy Gap, he discovers that there are other people who share his power and that there is a dark side to his abilities that puts his life in danger. Jones overloads his lyrical tale with exhausting details of forests and ecology at the expense of plot and pacing, though the narrative does pick up toward the end. Ray’s characterization as an everyman who stumbles into extraordinary skills is bland and detracts from the profound themes of humanity’s impact on the natural world. This slogging tale offers occasional glimmers of insight but otherwise disappoints. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Emperox

John Scalzi. Tor, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8916-9

Hugo Award–winner Scalzi knocks it out of the park with the tightly plotted, deeply satisfying conclusion to his Interdependency Sequence space opera trilogy (after The Consuming Fire). The Flow streams, trade routes that connect the planets governed under the Interdependency, face an imminent collapse that will leave every world but the small planet End isolated and cause countless deaths. Emperox Grayland II works to thwart coup attempts long enough for her lover, physicist Marce Claremont, to work out how to save the population from this impending disaster. Meanwhile, Grayland’s enemy Nadashe Nohamapetan consolidates her control of End while promising disgruntled, powerful noble families exclusive access to the planet in exchange for their political support. Scalzi allows the flaws, foibles, and core personalities of the returning characters—careful Grayson, ruthless Nadashe, and especially foul-mouthed mercenary Kiva Lagos—to steer the story, and his careful, long-game planning allows for pitch-perfect pacing that will keep readers energized from start to finish. Balancing existing character dynamics and surprising—but well-earned—reveals with interstellar politics and pressing ethical questions of sustainability and power, Scalzi sends his series out with a bang. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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