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Everything in All the Wrong Order: The Best of Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley. Subterranean, $45 (568p) ISBN 978-1-64524-011-2

These 32 superior stories from Lambda Award winner Brenchley (Bitter Waters) represent a tiny fraction of the gifted, prolific author’s output, but nevertheless showcase his ability to craft impactful shorts. Even the flash fiction pieces, among them “White Tea for the Tiller Man” and “Quinquereme of Nineveh,” pack considerable punch. Brenchley’s radiant prose is one reason: “Another Chart of the Silences” begins: “Some people think that a breathless hush is the natural state of the universe, as darkness is: that sound is like light, a rebellion of angels, a thin and fierce and ultimately doomed attempt to hold back the crushing weight of utter stillness.” The narrator of this standout entry pushes back against that belief, maintaining instead that white noise is a universal constant. What follows is a surprising encounter with a boy who’s drawn into the narrator’s efforts to chart the possibly haunted, shipwrecking rocks known as the Silences. The sea also figures in another of the more memorable tales, the fun “Keep the Aspidochelone Floating,” which features Brenchley’s recurring character Sailor Martin. Every entry enhances creative plots and plausible characterizations with outstanding writing. This sampler of Brenchley’s work makes clear his mastery. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Trashlands

Alison Stine. Mira, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1127-0

Philip K. Dick Award winner Stine (Road Out of Winter) sets this searing exploration of the lives of women who are mired in grinding poverty in a climate-ravaged near-future where plastic has become humanity’s only currency. The sordid strip club Trashlands in flood-prone “Scrappalachia” serves as the narrative hub as the novel shifts through multiple characters’ recollections and struggles. Among the expansive cast are the good-hearted sex-workers Foxglove and Summer; the vile Rattlesnake Master; single mother Coral, a scavenger of plastic who makes eerie art out of garbage; Coral’s lover, Trillium; the idealistic reporter, Miami; and the aging Mr. Fall, a teacher who agrees to help Coral find her stolen son. “You couldn’t be picky and live” in this rotting junkyard where women are treated as disposable and life comprises a heartbreaking miasma of hunger, yearning, ruthlessness, and compassion. Stine draws on her personal experience of today’s Appalachia to craft a harrowing vision of the future, and at its center is the tug-of-war between what is right and what is necessary to survive. This painful, thought-provoking apocalypse noir fires on all cylinders. Agent: Eric Smith, P.S. Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Echoed Realm

A.J. Vrana. The Parliament House, $6.49 e-book (412p) ASIN B08KYMZVJF

Vrana brings readers back to the blurry dimension between dream and reality in this heady, hazy sequel to The Hollow Gods. Three years after Miya Delathorne broke free of Black Hollow and entered the ethereal realm, old ties threaten to pull her back. Her companion, Kai Donovan, struggles with how tethered he has become to Miya and is tempted to trade their connection for another. Meanwhile, Miya’s parents are desperate to find their missing daughter and enlist Dr. Mason Evans to investigate her disappearance. What at first seems a familiar battle of good vs. evil is cleverly turned on its head as Vrana pulls readers down the rabbit hole into her strange, folkloric world. Readers will need to stretch their imaginations to make sense of the environs and decipher the metaphors that saturate this narrative. While Vrana’s imagery-heavy prose assists the worldbuilding, it hinders the plot, and readers will spend much time uncertain of the characters’ objectives or what the narrative is building to. This will be best enjoyed by fans of book one and readers of dark, ambiguous fantasy. Agent: Emmy Nordstrom Higdon, Westwood Creative Artists. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Cooties Shot Required

Edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski. Broken Eye, $19.99 trade paper (194p) ISBN 978-1-940372-60-0

Alternately lighthearted and dark, Gable and Dombrowski’s wide-ranging anthology collects 14 stories exploring the wonderfully weird era of childhood. A group of suburban kids become heroic monster hunters in Anya Martin’s gloriously fun “All the Things We Need to Kill SQUISSSHH,” while crueler children crush little animals in their tiny fists—and suffer the consequences—in Nemma Wollenfang’s “Matchbox Daemons.” Each story brings to life a different experience of childhood; Ada Hoffmann’s “Back Room” highlights the perspective of the neurodiverse while Brian Hugenbruch’s “An Elicitation of Thursdays” and Eliza Chan’s “The Makings of Broken Embers” both take on the struggles of foster children. Haralambi Markov’s “The Ancestry of Sin” offers a well-done portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, a dynamic also explored in Damien Angelica Walters’s less cohesive “A Perfect Hunger, A Certain Rage.” Though some stories feel bloated with overambitious worldbuilding, both “Eat the Rich” by DaVaun Sanders and “Everything as Part of Its Infinite Place” by Premee Mohamed fit impressive plotting feats into limited page counts. The standouts are Eden Royce’s adventurous “Room and Board Included, Demonology Extra” and Clinton J. Boomer’s tearjerker “Alone,” which give their child characters the fierceness they deserve. The whole is slightly uneven, but there are enough strong pieces to please speculative fiction fans. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Starlight Enclave

R.A. Salvatore. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-302977-4

Salvatore returns to the world of the Drizzt: Generations series with the enjoyable epic fantasy that launches his Way of the Drow series, set almost two years after the defeat of demon hordes left the northern Sword Coast at peace. This respite gives dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden the chance to deepen his connection with his daughter, Brienne, by taking her to the Monastery of the Yellow Rose, the spiritual community that transformed his life. There, Drizzt overcame the curse of reasoning beings, which is an “unconscious bent toward some determined level of tension.” His plan doesn’t sit well with Catti-brie, his wife, who has a different theological perspective, but she consents to the plan after he agrees to give her a similar opportunity to influence their child. This plotline alternates with a more action-oriented one as mercenary Jarlaxle searches for a way to remove the malignancy from a magical sword called Khazid’hea. Salvatore manages to wrangle the extensive backstory to make this an accessible entry point for first-timers, and the superior characterizations that marked Salvatore’s prior books are again in evidence. His many devoted fans have reason to anticipate the sequel. Agent: Lucas, Paul Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Booked for Murder

R.J. Blain. Pen & Page, $13.99 trade paper (522p) ISBN 978-1-64964-003-1

Blain (The Flame Game) launches the Vigilante Magical Librarians series with this fun but overloaded urban fantasy. Former bodyguard and exsanguinator Janette has been living in hiding as a librarian, faking a lower magical aptitude rating than she really has. It’s a quiet, humble life—until a senator is killed on the steps of the library where she works. The murder brings her old boss, Bradley Hampton, back into her life, reopening old wounds and spurring family and friends who thought Janette dead or missing to her doorstep. Now Janette must partner with Bradley to solve the murder before she becomes the prime suspect. It’s a promising premise and the caste-like, rating-based magic system is a fascinating concept, but the story is bogged down in dialogue-heavy scenes explaining the world and the characters’ backstories rather than showing them at play. Readers hoping for a fast-paced, action-packed adventure will be disappointed in the slow, exposition-laden buildup, but the endearing, wisecracking characters and witty dialogue will appeal to fans of Shelly Laurenston. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The All-Consuming World

Cassandra Khaw. Erewhon, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64566-020-0

Khaw (The Last Supper Before Ragnarok) delivers a gore-drenched, sci-fi take on Ocean’s Eleven set in a Gibsonesque cyberverse. Puppet master Rita rounds up her infinitely reanimated clone/cyborg minions for one last caper: a hit on the planet Dimmuborgir, “a chunk of rock” shrouded in rumors that make it the obsession of wetware and circuitry entities alike. Rita’s crew call themselves the Dirty Dozen, though at the outset it’s just Rita and right-hand Maya, coaxing former colleague Ayane to listen to their pitch with a combination of four-letter epithets and a crushed larynx. Their opponents are the Minds, assorted AIs of nautilus-chambered complexity targeting Dimmuborgir for their own purpose—though what this may be is slow to coalesce. This isn’t a precision-built world: limits and definitions don’t meaningfully exist, and connections are often fragmentary. Khaw employs densely poetic prose to capture betrayal, rage, injury, and death, but is less invested in conjuring an image of the future, with abundant anachronisms and inconsistencies. For readers who don’t mind the fast-and-loose worldbuilding—and who can stomach a fair amount of body horror—the fury and lyricism make for an adventure that doubles as a cathartic scream. Agent: Michael Curry, Donald Maass Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Scavenger Door

Suzanne Palmer. DAW, $27 (464p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1515-0

Intergalactically renowned finder Fergus Ferguson is on a mission to save the solar system in Palmer’s lighthearted but meandering third Finder Chronicles adventure (after Driving the Deep). While spending some time in 25th-century Scotland with his newfound little sister, Isla, Fergus’s alien bioware leads him to find several fragments of a mysterious device. The discovery prompts a visit from an Asiig alien, and Fergus learns that the fragments are parts of a key that could open a portal to a dimension filled with predatory creatures called Vraet. Several factions seek to control this key, and Fergus must ensure that the fragments don’t fall into the wrong hands. With old friends at his side, he travels across Earth collecting the remaining pieces, occasionally bringing Isla with him on heists that, while dangerous, don’t do much in the way of building momentum. Still, Fergus is as charming and witty as ever, and his relationship with Isla adds depth to an otherwise repetitive outing. This Earthbound entry in the Finder series may underwhelm new readers, but has plenty to please series fans. Agent: Joshua Bilmes, JABberwocky Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Desert Torn Asunder

Bradley P. Beaulieu. Daw, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1465-8

Beaulieu’s The Song of the Shattered Sands series comes to a thunderous conclusion (after When Jackals Storm the Walls) in which the fate of the Great Shangazi Desert hinges on a select few who seek to stop a mad former queen’s quest to raise an elder god. Çeda, one of the lost 13th tribe of the desert, must use visions granted by the sacred acacia tree to convince the shaikhs of the other twelve tribes to come to the city of Sharakhai’s rescue. Elsewhere in the sands, Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, searches for the resting place of the god Ashael, hoping to use his power to regain her own, while Ramahd of Qaimir and the Sharakhani King Ihsan follow arcane clues in hopes of thwarting her. Queen Alansal of Mirea, meanwhile, controls the city, where she uses her water dancers to foresee the movements of enemy armies. And the blood mage Davud seeks a way to close the mystical gateway to the lands beyond that the younger gods hope to force open. Beaulieu packs in enough magic and battle for multiple books while satisfyingly wrapping up the stories of the multifaceted cast. Epic fantasy fans won’t want to miss it. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season

Edited by Tanya Kirk. British Library, $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-7123-5323-6

The 13 tales in this exemplary anthology all sustain the time-honored, predominantly British, tradition of the Christmas ghost story. Spanning the years from 1868 to 1955, the contents range in tone from the sentimental (Frank R. Stockton’s “Old Applejoy’s Ghost”) to the shocking (L.P. Hartley’s “Someone in the Lift”), in renown from the well-known (Marjorie Bowen’s “The Crown Derby Plate”) to the overlooked (Rosemary Timperley’s “A Christmas Meeting”), and in origin outside of the British Isles from America (H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival”) to Australia (Hume Nisbet’s “The Old Portrait”). Kirk (Spirits of the Season) has expertly culled the British Library’s holdings for a rewarding balance of works by male and female writers, though all are white. Her selections end with humorist Jerome K. Jerome’s “Told After Supper,” which genially and inadvertently spoofs the plots of several stories that precede it, but which nonetheless perfectly captures the spirits of the season. This is sure to get horror readers into the Christmas spirit. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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