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The Russian Cage

Charlaine Harris. Saga, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4814-9499-1

A hired gun accustomed to working dangerous but impersonal protection jobs puts it all on the line to save the man she loves in Harris’s eventful third Gunnie Rose fantasy (after A Longer Fall). When Gunnie Lizbeth Rose receives a coded letter from her preteen sister, Felicia, telling her that the wizard Eli Savarov, the man Lizbeth loves, has been imprisoned by the Holy Russian Empire, Lizbeth immediately sets out from Texoma to save him. Upon arriving in the HRE, she finds that Eli’s arrest is largely political, and to save him she’ll have to work together with Felicia, Eli’s friend Felix, and Eli’s family. The plan they land on requires Lizbeth to involve herself in the HRE’s politics, which means casting aside her comfortable boots and jeans in order to blend in with royal family. Though the ensuing prison break plot falls into place too easily and quickly, there is rarely a dull moment. Fans of Harris’s daring heroine will be pleased to accompany her on her latest adventure. Agent: Joshua Bilmes, JABberwocky (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Master of the Revels: A Return to Neal Stephenson’s D.O.D.O.

Nicole Galland. Morrow, $29.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-06-284487-3

Galland, who coauthored The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. with Neal Stephenson, continues the byzantine tale of the now divided interests of the Department of Diachronic Operations as its operatives manipulate time strands through the application of magic and science. Five years after the formation of D.O.D.O., the organization has fallen under the influence of Gráinne, a witch from 17th-century Ireland whose objective is to disrupt the historical events that led to a 21st century dominated by science rather than magic. To stop her, Diachronic Operative Tristan Lyons and his coworker and lover, Melisande Stokes, form an informal counter-agency, GRIMNIR. Both D.O.D.O. and GRIMNIR embark on multiple history-altering missions. After Gráinne changes a few critical lines of Macbeth, for example, Tristan and his sister, Robin, a new recruit, are dispatched to Shakespeare’s London to restore the original text. Gráinne’s mission and GRIMNIR’s countermeasures also take operatives to 14th-century Florence, fourth-century Sicily, and 15th-century Kyoto, with wide-ranging effects on the present. Galland’s careful attention to everyday life in various time periods creates verisimilitude, as does the assortment of found documents through which the tale is presented. Fans of time-travel science fiction are sure to be engaged. Agent: Liz Darhansoff, Darhansoff & Verrill. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Fiends of Nightmaria

Steven Erikson. Tor, $13.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-250-76814-8

Erikson’s fourth Malazan novella (after The Wurms of Blearmouth) makes its U.S. debut, delivering a wry, intricately constructed ensemble adventure. Infamous necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach have usurped the throne to become king and grand bishop of Farrog, respectively, instating a brutal rule. Their first moves in power are to arrest all of the kingdom’s artists and strengthen its borders. But when the imprisoned Indifferent God escapes his cell and runs amok, the duo must divert their energy into hunting him amid rising political tensions. Meanwhile, a disbanded team of thieves reunite to rescue their leader from imprisonment, an ambassador from Nightmaria seeks to declare war on Farrog, and several artists find a way to break free of their prison. Add in the scores of frustrated demons and hordes of undead summoned by Bauchelain, and the result is a fast-paced, morbidly humorous adventure. Series fans will find much to love in this jam-packed, tongue-in-cheek installment. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Wild Sun: Unbound

Ehsan Ahmad and Shakil Ahmad. Uproar, $16.95 trade paper (376p) ISBN 978-1-949671-13-1

The Ahmad brothers follow Wild Sun with this solid but predictable addition to speculative fiction’s freedom fighting subgenre. Following years of enslavement to the rapacious Vitaari aliens, Cerrin led more than 60 of her people out of a mining camp and into freedom. Now she and her comrades seek safe harbor where they can lick their wounds and make plans for revolution. But their escape was a humiliating personal failure for Vitaari Count Derzitt Kan Talazeer, and he seeks vengeance against Cerrin in the hopes of restoring his reputation among his powerful family. With Talazeer hot on their heels, Cerrin and her would-be rebels appear to be doomed, but with some newly gained weapons and enough determination they may just live long enough to reshape the world. There are some nice character moments among the rebels, but for the most part the novel sticks to a familiar escape narrative, including a timely intervention from outsiders offering desperately needed help. Despite the formulaic plot, fans of the first entry will be pleased with this competent continuation. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fireheart Tiger

Aliette de Bodard. Tor.com, $13.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-250-79326-3

De Bodard (Seven of Infinities) crafts a high-stakes lesbian love triangle in this tightly plotted fantasy novella. The land of Ephteria sends guns and silver to Bình Hải in exchange for a series of increasingly bold demands: first exclusive merchant rights, then a princess to be kept as a guest-captive in Ephteria, and now extraterritoriality and a military presence in Bình Hải’s capital. Princess Thanh of Bình Hải is not a warrior or a politician like her sisters, but she was the one chosen to live in Ephteria and has since become romantically involved with the Ephterian Princess Eldris. She also has literal firepower thanks to her relationship with Giang, a fire elemental whose home, a tiger-shaped pendant, was stolen by the Ephterians, and who burns down Ephteria’s palace in an attempt to gain her freedom. Now Thanh and Giang are back in Bình Hải navigating Thanh’s family’s court. But when a noble blackmails Thanh over her affair with Eldris, Thanh faces a bitter choice: give up everything she has for a life with Eldris in Ephteria, or remain with Giang in a home where she’s treated as a pawn? The answer convincingly combines sex, politics, and betrayal. This is an ideal pick for fantasy fans longing for non-European settings. Agent: John Berlyne, Zeno Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Best of Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand. Subterranean, $45 (560p) ISBN 978-1-64524-005-1

The 14 stories of this superior collection showcase the versatility of World Fantasy and Nebula Award–winner Hand (the Cass Neary series) while demonstrating an ear for prose that elevates genre tropes to transcendent levels. In “Last Summer at Mars Hill,” for example, a character describes grief as “a country, a place you entered hesitantly, or were thrown into without warning. But once you were there, amidst the roiling formless blackness and stench of despair, you could not leave.” Set in a Maine artists’ colony, the tale offers a moving exploration of what it means to confront mortality, as people facing terminal illness are impacted by mysterious spirits called the Light Children. Hand is equally skilled at evoking all-out horror, as in “The Owl Count,” which follows two people who discover something monstrous while gathering data for a population study. And in the unsettling “Cleopatra Brimstone,” Hand gracefully handles trauma, telling the story of a female entomology student who undergoes an unusual transformation in the aftermath of being raped. Readers will be blown away. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Never Have I Ever

Isabel Yap. Small Beer, $17 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-61873-182-1

Yap’s impressive debut collection of 13 fabulist, sci-fi, and horror shorts explores themes ranging from monstrousness, shared trauma, and systemic violence to friendship and the ambiguity of love. Yap is at home with whatever topic she puts her hand to, easily immersing readers in the perspectives of high schoolers, ancient goddesses, androids, and witches. Standouts include “A Cup of Salt Tears,” about a grieving woman who encounters a demon in a bathhouse; “Only Unclench Your Hand,” in which the governor’s niece plays witness to dangerous folk magic; “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing),” which speculates on the inner lives of magical girls; and “A Canticle for Lost Girls,” in which a group of Catholic schoolgirls call down dark powers on one of their teachers. Yap’s work is emphatically engaged with Filipino culture, with most of these stories either set in the Philippines or following immigrant and diaspora characters, and drawing upon Filipino folklore and mythology to beautiful and frightening effect. Yap’s penchant for ambiguous endings undermines the impact of one or two pieces, but at their best these tales call to mind the works of Rich Larson, Carmen Maria Machado, and Neon Yang. Yap is a powerful new voice in speculative fiction. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Domesticating Dragons

Dan Koboldt. Baen, $16 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2511-0

With this mash-up of science fiction and fantasy, Koboldt (The World Awakening) delivers a funny and immersive look at the world of genetic engineering. Recent PhD Noah Parker is hired as a designer by Reptilian Corp., purveyor of dragons. The dragons engineered by Reptilian Corp. have been used by industrial farmers for years, and now the company is eager to break into the retail market with a domesticated model, as a canine epidemic recently wiped out dogs from North America. Noah’s job is to pull the best aspects from different animals together to create a dragon that could be sold as a household pet—but Noah has a secret agenda of his own and intends to alter the dragons’ DNA to his own ends. As he works, he’s swept up into the sinister underbelly of Reptilian Corp., learning the company’s dark secrets. With characteristic verve, Koboldt contrasts the playful adventure plot with the eerily dystopian setting and a searing examination of corporate greed and ambition. Fans of inventive speculative fiction are sure to be pleased. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Transgressions of Power

Juliette Wade. DAW, $27 (480p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1576-1

Wade disappoints with the predictable and needlessly complicated second installment to the Broken Trust series (after Mazes of Power), set in a world that combines an elaborate caste system, a medieval atmosphere, and modern elements including therapists and anti-vaxxers. With a cast that takes over five pages to list, newcomers will likely be at sea, as Wade jumps directly into the action, opening with some staple epic fantasy tropes—an assassination attempt and the ensuing power struggle—before tossing in subplots about incest and a surprise paternity reveal that feel more clichéd than shocking. The central thread features Adon of the First Family, who is almost killed by a hired gun on the eve of his 13th birthday for reasons that are not immediately obvious but may connect to the heir selection process. While suspicion points to a rival clan, unsurprisingly, evidence surfaces that Adon’s foe is closer to home. The plot feels familiar and the pace drags. Fans of the first volume will enjoy revisiting the city of Pelismara, but will hope for a return to form in the next outing. Agent: Kristopher O’Higgins, Scribe Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Whisper Down the Lane

Clay McLeod Chapman. Quirk, $19.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-68369-215-7

Chapman (The Remaking) evokes the “satanic panic” that convulsed schools and day care centers in the 1980s, destroying reputations and lives, in this spellbinding psychological thriller. In 1983, five-year-old Sean Crenshaw is goaded by seemingly concerned adults into fabricating accounts of ritual abuse of students by teachers at his school. Thirty years later, with the resulting witch hunts behind him, Sean has renamed himself Richard Bellamy and works as an art teacher at the upscale Danvers School in Virginia. But a series of disturbing incidents pulls him back into the nightmare of his past: a school pet is found ritually slaughtered, and kids in his class begin blaming bruises on their bodies on a fellow student named “Sean”—even though Richard has no student of that name. Chapman skillfully toggles between 1983 and 2013, tantalizing readers with the possibility that Richard’s suppressed past self might somehow be expressing itself in the present, and he laces the text with interviews between young Sean and manipulative authorities who are horrifying in their own right. The result is a suspenseful tale of paranoia that will keep readers riveted until the last surprise is sprung. Agent: Emily Dayton, Gotham Group. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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