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The Black Coast

Mike Brooks. Solaris, $14.99 trade paper (670p) ISBN 978-1-78108-824-1

With this marvelous series opener, sci-fi author Brooks (Dark Deeds) demonstrates that he’s as skillful at fantasy epics as he is at space capers. Saana Sattistutar, chief of the Brown Eagle clan, has sailed her people from their island nation of Tjakorsha to distant Narida, fleeing the draug, a beast akin to a demon that has conquered most of their archipelago. The Tjakorshi have only ever raided the Naridan shore but now hope to settle among its people. When Naridan Daimon Blackcreek, adopted son of the thane of Black Keep, sees the overwhelming numbers of the Brown Eagles, he helps to subdue and capture his vengeance-hungry father to prevent bloodshed. Meanwhile, Princess Tila departs Narida’s capital in the guise of her alter ego, criminal leader Livnya the Knife, travelling to Kiburu ce Alaba and seeing to it that the only other claimants to her brother’s throne are assassinated. Brooks richly imagines the cultures of Narida, Tjakorsha, and Kiburu ce Alaba, and peoples them with multifaceted characters—plus creatures suspiciously like dinosaurs. The many point of view characters create a tapestry of blood, honor, and survival. Any fan of epic fantasy will find something to love here, particularly readers of Raymond E. Feist or Victor Milán. Agent: Robert Dinsdale, Independent Literary (U.K.). (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Beyond Kidding

Lynda Clark. Fairlight, $15.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-912054-84-8

An exploration of the complex joys of parenting blends uneasily with sadsack bachelor hijinks in Clark’s underwhelming debut. At 29, science fiction–loving misanthrope Rob Buckland—Kidder to his friends—is a failure. After being fired from his childhood best friend’s sex shop, Rob manages to fake his way into a corporate job interview where he invents a son, Brodie, to explain away the gap in his résumé. He gets the job, but his lies pile up until Rob desperately claims that Brodie’s gone missing. Then the nonexistent Brodie is found alive and returned to Rob’s care by the police. But the stiff, eerily silent boy doesn’t act quite like a real child. As Rob unravels the mystery of who Brodie is and how he came to be, he slowly finds a better version of himself. Clark ably captures Rob’s shame and self-delusion, but slows to a crawl to skewer the tired targets of corporate politics, women’s looks, and lonely men. Rob’s struggles are straight out of a lad lit novel and will please fans of that genre, but the science-fictional elements are slight. The eerie mystery and unfocused theme aren’t enough to transfigure Rob’s limp resentment into either satire or epiphany. This misses the mark. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-pandemic Future

Edited by Gideon Lichfield. MIT, $19.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-262-54240-1

The sober but hopeful sixth installment of hard SF anthology series Twelve Tomorrows (after Entanglements) offers visions of “more resilient, more just” post-Covid futures. Editor Lichfield’s international lineup excels when focused on human impact, while weaker entries rely too heavily on stereotypes or invented technology. Madeline Ashby’s uneven “Patriotic Canadians Will Not Hoard Food!” devolves into defeating rhetorical straw men, and Ken Liu’s dry, allegorical “Jaunt” explains ideas rather than utilizing them. But a breathtaking portrayal of parental intimacy anchors Indrapramit Das’s Murakami-esque “A Necessary Being,” which traces Kolkata’s rewilding through the eyes of a lost girl and the mecha pilot who adopts her. The Sherlockian “The Price of Attention” by Karl Schroeder, about an autistic forensics consultant’s kidnapping case, is a soulful tribute to coping and growth. Adrian Hon delicately explores the nuances of self-governance movements, diaspora, and how art meets technology in the standout “Little Kowloon.” Also included is Wade Roush’s interview with Afrofuturist Ytasha L. Womack, which reframes short fiction as “a way of problem-solving futures.” At their best, these intelligent, emotional, and vibrant stories show a compassionate way forward through an ongoing crisis. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Becky Chambers. Tor.com, $20.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-250-23621-0

Hugo Award winner Chambers (the Wayfarers series) launches the Monk and Robot series with this contemplative, bite-size novel. Hundreds of years ago, when the robots of Panga first gained sentience, they chose to retreat from human society rather than live in it as free citizens—and they haven’t been seen since. When Sibling Dex, a tea monk, leaves The City, Panga’s only metropolis, to travel the countryside offering tea and a listening ear to anyone who needs it, they are forced to acknowledge a deep sense of dissatisfaction with their life. Seeking solitude, they venture into the protected wilderness zone, where no human has set foot in centuries. Their plans quickly go awry when they are approached by Mosscap, an inquisitive robot elected by its fellows to make first contact with humanity and find the answer to the question: what do humans need? Written with all of Chambers’ characteristic nuance and careful thought, this is a cozy, wholesome meditation on the nature of consciousness and its place in the natural world. Fans of gentle, smart, and hopeful science fiction will delight in this promising series starter. (Jul.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Nirvana Effect

Brian Pinkerton. Flame Tree, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78758-487-7

Millions tune into a virtual reality program while society collapses around them in this thoughtful cyberpunk novel from Pinkerton (The Gemini Experiment). Tech company Dynamica has created an implant that allows users to channel hyperrealistic VR programs directly into the brain. Marc is an early employee of Dynamica and helped to make its product famous, but he’s horrified when the company announces a partnership with the government that will make implantation mandatory. He goes on the run with a secret weapon, a device that allows him to hack into other people’s virtual realities. Newly met friends Aaron and Clarissa, who refuse implantation, likewise go into hiding upon hearing the news. Pinkerton chronicles the increasing despotism of the next two years in a series of episodes that are at times too loosely knit and show a predictable path of societal deterioration. Still, he does a good job drawing readers into the characters’ anguish and fear, and builds to a clever, desperate climax. Fans of stories centered on the conflict between the virtual and the real will find plenty to enjoy. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Voices in the Darkness

Edited by David Niall Wilson. Crossroad, $29.99 (250p) ISBN 978-1-952979-48-4

Wilson (A Midnight Dreary) brings together six strong speculative shorts that impress with imaginative concepts and powerful writing, but don’t achieve thematic cohesion, as the surreal and the real uncomfortably bump against each other. Nadia Bulkin’s “Vide Cor Meum (See My Heart),” which describes the murder of a farm family through the perspectives of various neighboring townsfolk, is an intelligent examination of the ethics of true crime accounts. Kathe Koja positions the reader as someone trying to ascertain the existence of an unreal island in her lush, fable-like “Pursuivant Island.” A man is sucked into a cult by a false messiah in 19th-century New York City in Elizabeth Massie’s timely and transportive “Baggie.” Cassandra Khaw uses the decadent fantasy piece “I’d Rather Wear Black” to explore abusive relationship dynamics, and the depth and complexity of the result demands to be savored. Nick Mamatas draws inspiration from “Mack the Knife” in “Ba boo Dop doo Dop boo ree,” about a man named MacHeath who’s employed to kill the queen. Brian A. Hopkins’s novella “La Belle Époque,” an expansive tale about a murdered girl who is resurrected by historical alchemist Nicolas Flamel, is atmospheric and bold, though it would have been better served as a stand-alone with more room to breathe. The whole is not as strong as its component parts. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Sorrowland

Rivers Solomon. MCD, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-26677-6

Solomon’s outstanding third novel (after The Deep) revisits the themes of memory and responsibility through two new lenses: horror and contemporary thriller. Vern, an albino, intersex, Black child raised in a cult known as the Blessed Acres of Cain, flees to the woods as a seven-months-pregnant 15-year-old, giving birth to twins she names Howling and Feral. The new family is pursued by “the fiend,” who appears to the nearly blind Vern as “a white blur.” The fiend scatters animal carcasses throughout the woods (often pointedly targeting animal families to send a message to Vern and her children) and sets dangerous fires. For four years Vern raises her twins without other human contact, until a cataclysmic encounter with the fiend, fearsome changes in her own body, and relentless hauntings drive her to seek answers in the world outside the woods. This plot is the most accessible of Solomon’s work to date, but they use the deceptively simple story to delve deep into Vern’s struggle to forge her own identity without buckling under the weight of history. As in their debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Solomon often packs so much into each image that the result can be overwhelming. They display a maturing control of their craft, employing a breathtaking range of reference that will enable any reader, from horror geek to Derridean academic, to engage with this thrilling tale. This is a tour de force. Agent: Seth Fishman, the Gernert Co. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Rose

Mike Bryant. Brain Lag, $14.99 trade paper (236p) ISBN 978-1-928011-48-4

Bryant debuts with a comic zombie tale that doubles as an entertaining whodunit, blending suspenseful twists and turns with the heartfelt story of a woman finding her place in the world. Katya, a housewife recovering from a traumatic accident that ended her pregnancy and necessitated an emergency heart transplant, is shocked when an undead woman knocks on her door, claiming to be the source of her new heart. After some initial confusion, both women discover that they mean each other no harm, and the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. When it becomes clear that the undead woman has no memory of her life (though she does remember Jason Momoa and Mythbusters), Katya recruits her husband, Vijay, to help the zombie rediscover who she is and solve the mystery of her death. Bryant writes with panache, immediately drawing the reader in with his vibrant cast and gripping mystery. The horror elements, meanwhile, lead to some good jump scares. This captivating tale of redemption and revenge will win over even the most jaded genre fan. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Shadow of the Gods

John Gwynne. Orbit, $16.99 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-0-316-53988-3

Three hundred years after the fall of the gods, humans navigate the fjords and tundra of a broken world in the jam-packed Norse-flavored epic of blood oaths and vengeance that launches the Bloodsworn Saga series from Gwynne (A Time of Courage). To protect themselves from the monsters that now roam freely, humans scavenge divine bones and relics and chase rumors of the legendary last battlefield of the gods, where the world-tree guards their divine prison. Some go so far as to plot to use the blood of children to raise the gods. Orka, a newly widowed shieldmaid, pursues the trafficker who stole her son for this very purpose, as do the crew of the dragon-ship Wave-Jarl, whose child prisoner was taken in an attack. Also faring northward are the Bloodsworn, a mercenary company sent by Queen Helka to stop the monsters from killing her people. Blood-soaked battles against trolls and frost-spiders build to a fierce rendezvous at the foot of the shattered world-tree. Gwynne, a Viking reenactor, puts in the work, with fine historical details—especially in descriptions of weaponry—that make the story come to life. The plethora of Viking gangs and Norse kennings require some work to keep straight, but fans of the era will be delighted with the accuracy. This is a duly exciting start to the series. Agent: Julia Crisp, Julia Crisp Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Wolf and the Woodsman

Ava Reid. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-297312-2

Reid’s fast-paced debut examines religious freedom through the lens of myth and magic. Every few years, the Holy Order of Woodsmen travel to the pagan village of Keszi to take one of their magic-wielding wolf-girls on the orders of the king. This year, when the woodsmen demand a seer, Keszi’s matriarch instead hands over Évike, the only wolf-girl without magic. Reid’s atmospheric prose evokes fairy tale enchantment as Évike and the woodsmen traverse a forest filled with monsters. When one attacks, forcing Évike and the sullen Woodsman captain, Gáspár, to fight together to survive, Évike’s lack of magic and Gáspár’s true identity as the shunned heir of the kingdom are revealed. To save her village from being massacred for their deception, Évike agrees to help Gáspár prevent his zealot brother, Nándor, from usurping the throne. Fantasy romance fans will enjoy watching tortured Gáspár and fiery Évike warm to each other over legends, monster battles, and their shared outcast status as their quest takes them into the frozen north. But their arrival at the capital places Évike in danger as she faces off against the power-hungry king and Nándor’s fanatical followers. The convincing enemies-to-lovers romance, fascinating religion-based magic system, and thoughtful examination of zealotry make this a notable debut. Agent: Alexandra Machinist, ICM Partners. (Jun.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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