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The Runes of Engagement

Tobias Buckell and Dave Klecha. Tachyon, $17.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-61696-416-0

Bestseller Buckell (A Stranger in the Citadel) and debut author Klecha, a former Marine, pair their talents and experiences in an impressive military fantasy adventure that combines Middle Earth lore with U.S. marine mystique. When an interworld portal allows elves, orcs, trolls, and other storybook monsters to wreak havoc on Earth’s cities, a squad of Marines under the command of Staff Sergeant Ray Cale is dispatched across the portal with human coalition forces allied to the wood elves. The task: to escort the elven Lady Wíela to safety from the Corrupted One (“a force of evil and mayhem, ancient and brooding, that had been spreading across the world like a virus”), so she can negotiate an alliance between their worlds. Buckell and Klecha provide thrills a minute as Cale, who faced painful choices in Afghanistan and has only a rudimentary knowledge of Middle Earth, overcomes unearthly challenges with street smart know-how. The authors convincingly develop the personalities of both Cale’s squad and the nonhuman characters while offering genre fans an up-close look at Marine training. It’s an unlikely mash-up, but it works. (June)

Reviewed on 04/19/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Feraltales

Couri Johnson. Aqueduct, $12 trade paper (114p) ISBN 978-1-61976-260-2

Johnson (The Girl Who) presents five thought-provoking stories that reimagine the framework of the European fairy tale with a focus on women’s perspectives and a sense of rewilding. The standout “Dancing Girls” styles itself as an urban legend version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” narrated by the sister of a boy who gets lured in by 12 energy-sucking club girls. “Run, Rabbit, Run” leans into gritty Americana as a hag in the woods exerts her control through magical moonshine. Other stories hew closer to traditional fairy tale framing: “The Foxes’ Child” sees a disrespectful king receive a gratifying comeuppance, and, in “Animal Heart,” a girl’s bravery and friendship give her the wings to free herself from her heartless captor. The closing tale, “A Witch Flew over the Moon,” playfully asserts that sometimes the magical mentor in other people’s tales needs a vacation of her own. Though Johnson’s takes feel more like overlays than full transformations, her prose evokes the timeless rhythms of folklore and the stories work even without familiarity with their referents. Balancing the timeless and the contemporary, Johnson’s latest is sure to win fans. (June)

Reviewed on 04/19/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Grim Root

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Dark Matter INK, $17.99 trade paper (332p) ISBN 978-1-958598-36-8

In this acidic meta-horror novel from Stufflebeam (Glorious Fiends), the inherent horror of reality TV mixes with more otherworldly terrors as a dating competition show descends into madness. The final four contestants competing for the hand of folksy Iowa bachelor Tristan on the The Groom are surprised to learn that their next filming location will be a secluded haunted house. Stuck together, they grapple with classic genre tropes like dramatic reveals, constant surveillance from a ruthless producer, and a house whose walls may or may not be teeming with evil. When bodies begin to pile up and the house’s menace can no longer be ignored, dynamics between the contestants shift and twist. Each must come to terms with the darkness of their own pasts if they hope to stay alive. Stufflebeam’s dialogue shines, and the tone is pitch-perfect as the story bounces gothic horror and reality TV conventions off one another, exploring the ways in which women’s bodies and minds are manipulated by agendas not their own. Occasional pacing issues mean Stufflebeam’s narrative ambitions sometimes hit a wall that prevents them from being fully explored, but the grand finale will satisfy horror fans who don’t like neat endings. This is gory fun. Agent: Kristopher O’Higgins, Scribe Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/19/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Lady Eve’s Last Con

Rebecca Fraimow. Solaris, $16.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-83786-159-0

Fraimow (The Iron Children) paints the far future with a Gilded Age aesthetic in this breakneck adventure that hits every beat it should and still manages to surprise. When Evelyn Ojukwu, a debutante from the distant Kepler colony, lands on the old-money satellite New Monte, she immediately catches the eye of Esteban Mendez-Yuki, heir to a corporate fortune. Demure, proper Evelyn is everything Jules, the last girl Esteban courted, was not—a fact she’s well aware of, since her real name is Ruth and she’s actually Jules’s sister. Ruth and Jules spent years running scams on the rich passengers of interstellar liners. Now Jules is pregnant with Esteban’s baby and heartbroken over his abandonment and Ruth’s ready for her biggest score ever and the sweet vindication of making clueless Esteban pay. Then she meets Esteban’s charming and far-too-smart stepsister, Sol, and feels herself start to fall in love. Sol knows something’s fishy about “Evelyn,” and as Ruth tries to charm Sol off the scent, her growing feelings land her in deep trouble—both with her heart and with the criminal syndicate determined to collect on Sol’s debts. The aristocratic milieu that Fraimow explores will put readers in mind of Bridgerton in space—and it’s exactly as fun as that sounds. Spiced with clever sci-fi touches that make the romance feel fresh and exciting, this is compulsively readable and totally delightful. Agent: Bridget Smith, JABberwocky. (June)

Reviewed on 04/19/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Eyes Are the Best Part

Monika Kim. Erewhon, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64566-123-8

In Kim’s provocative debut horror novel, Ji-won, a Korean American college student, wrestles with her psychological turmoil and the gruesome appetites it arouses. The title comes from a comment Ji-won’s mother makes that eating the eye of a fish is supposed to bring good luck. When Ji-won overcomes her revulsion and finally eats one, she develops an obsessive interest in the eyes of others—especially the blue eyes of George, her mother’s boorish new white boyfriend whom she and her younger sister loathe. Ji-won’s disturbed state of mind is understandable, given that she’s also grappling with her father’s abandonment of the family and with unwanted romantic advances from a college classmate—providing all the catalysts needed to transform her eye obsession into a grisly hunger. Kim’s antagonistic male characters all hail from jerk central casting and are easy targets for reader dislike. By contrast, her depiction of Ji-won’s fond but exasperated relationship with her mother and her sister, Ji-hyun, conveys authentic familial intimacy. Though the finale relies on some credibility-stretching contrivances, Kim’s talent buoys her tale through its rough spots and distinguishes her as a writer to watch. Agent: Nicola Barr, Bent Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/19/2024 | Details & Permalink

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In the Hour of Crows

Dana Elmendorf. Mira, $28.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1049-5

Elmendorf’s haunting Southern gothic debut weaves a spellbinding tale of family secrets, dark magic, and murder in a small Appalachian town. Weatherly, gifted since childhood with the supernatural ability to absorb death from the dying, investigates her cousin Adaire’s suspicious death, unearthing a web of corruption and hidden agendas that threaten to tear her world apart. Elmendorf’s richly atmospheric prose immerses readers in the eerie, claustrophobic setting of Black Fern, Ga., where folk magic and religious fervor intertwine. The complex heroine, who is both stubborn and deeply vulnerable, drives the narrative forward as she wrestles with grief, family obligations, and her own burgeoning powers. While some secondary storylines and characters feel a bit thin by comparison, Elmendorf’s dexterous handling of heavy themes like child abuse and societal inequity adds depth to this moody, suspenseful novel. With its blend of supernatural elements and gritty realism, this will appeal to fans of Wiley Cash’s When Ghosts Come Home and Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls. Agent: Jill Marr, Sandra Dijkstra Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Pecan Children

Quinn Connor. Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-72826-390-8

This sultry Southern gothic from Connor, the pseudonym of Robyn Barrow and Alexandra Cronin (who previously collaborated on Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves), delivers heat and chills in equal measure. Lil Clearwater labors endlessly on the pecan orchard left to her by her mother. Her equilibrium is shattered when Jason, the high school sweetheart who left her behind to go to law school, returns to their depressed hometown. Meanwhile Sasha, Lil’s “lesbian-outsider twin sister,” reluctantly returns from New York City and finds Autumn, her unrequited childhood crush, back as well. As Lil, Jason, Sasha, and Autumn weave a tangled web of desire and distrust, supernatural forces stalk the community: feral children run through the woods, house fires flare up and extinguish themselves, and a shadowy, monstrous presence stalks the edges of town. With lyrical prose and a rich seam of folklore, Connor artfully braids satisfying mystery and romance subplots, creating an abiding sense of unease. This story of crumbling grandeur and family secrets will leave readers hungry for more. Agent: Kate Burke, Blake Friedmann Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Navigational Entanglements

Aliette de Bodard. Tordotcom, $20.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-250-32488-7

This magnificent space opera from Nebula Award winner de Bodard (A Fire Born of Exile) is simultaneously electric and heartwarming, full of breathless queer romance, shifting clan politics, and many cups of tea. Young misfits from each of the four navigator clans are sent on a near-impossible mission: find and “deal with” a Tangler. Hard to detect and harder to kill, these long, spindly beasts live in the Hollows, a void where ships travel faster than light. Following an accident, however, one Tangler has escaped this zone and is on the loose in occupied space. With their clans’ reputations on the line, the four envoys—Nhi from the Rooster clan, Hạc Cúc from the Snakes, Lành from the Oxes, and Bảo Duy from the Rats­­—must overcome their dislike for one another and find the courage and means to do the right thing. Nhi is a shy “book nerd” obsessed with secrets and prone to sensory overload, while Hạc Cúc is prickly and quick to violence, convinced that she will never live up to her mentor. The two have an instant connection, but both struggle to create lasting relationships. De Bodard loads the narrative with unexpected twists and intricate interpersonal relationships. Fans and new readers alike will devour this. (July)

Reviewed on 04/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Key Lime Sky

Al Hess. Angry Robot, $18.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-915998-12-5

The cozy latest from Hess (World Running Down) is a turducken of a novel—a love story within an alien invasion plot within a narrative of self-love and self-discovery. Things are looking bad for Denver Bryant, an autistic, nonbinary food blogger who uses xe/xem pronouns and specializes in pies. Xir blog revenue is minimal and xe feels increasingly isolated in the small town of Muddy Gap, Wyo., whose other residents jokingly refer to xem as “Professor Pie.” When Denver witnesses an alien invasion, however, xir relation of it on xir blog goes viral. As events—such as meeting the sexy and kind Ezra Miramontes, and discovering the relationship between a hail of minuscule shells and bright orange sandstorms—unfurl, Denver continues to document them meticulously for xir blog readers. Denver and Ezra’s relationship progresses—with some expected, if somewhat contrived, misunderstandings and miscommunications—at the same time as an alien force consumes more and more of their town. Denver is forced into heroics xe never knew xe was capable of, and the result is a feel-good if somewhat scattered, sci-fi romp. Readers will be pleased. Agent: Ren Balcombe, Janklow and Nesbit U.K. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Book That Broke the World

Mark Lawrence. Ace, $29 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-43794-0

After the shocking ending to The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, Lawrence has a lot to answer for—and he doesn’t disappoint; there’s no trace of sophomore slump in this fast-paced sequel. The kaleidoscopic story of the vast and perilous athenaeum library continues, again jumping between different perspectives and points in time. Celcha and her brother Hellet, a pair of small, silky-furred ganars enslaved by the library, act on the instructions of the angels that Hellet sees. Meanwhile, siblings Evar, Clovis, and Kerrol, now free from the library chamber that trapped them since birth, are pursued by an insectoid race known as the skeer and a large mechanical monster that seems intent on killing Evar. Arpix and the other escaped librarians are now trapped in the wasteland called the Dust but protected from the skeer by a mysterious weapon. Meanwhile ghosts Livira and Malar search for a way to find solid form again. As these different perspectives weave together, the characters come closer to answers about who built the library, what future awaits it, who determines that future—and how the book Livira wrote affects them all. Lawrence makes the intertwining stories fascinating and propulsive, with enough scattered clues and shocking twists to keep the pages flying. This will keep readers up long past their bedtime. Agent: Ian Drury, Sheil Land Assoc. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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