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When the Sparrow Falls

Neil Sharpson. Tor, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-78421-6

Sharpson’s provocative debut, adapted from his play The Caspian Sea, takes readers to the early 23rd-century Caspian Republic, an authoritarian nation-state reminiscent of Cold War–era Eastern Europe, where the remnants of pure humanity hold out against an artificial intelligence-controlled world. When a popular Caspian journalist dies and is discovered to have been an AI in disguise, his estranged AI wife, Lily, is dispatched from the outside world to identify the body. Nikolai South, a long-serving, unambitious State Security agent for the Republic is assigned as Lily’s liaison, only to be rocked by her uncanny resemblance to his own late wife. During their time together, South must determine if Lily is involved in a plan to smuggle digitally converted human consciousnesses out of the Republic—and along the way, he becomes caught between warring intelligence agencies and learns dark truths about the Republic’s origins. Sharpson skillfully evokes an atmosphere of paranoia, duplicity, and secrecy, while using the conflict between humans and AIs to probe themes of self-awareness, identity, and memory. As Sharpson pushes the narrative beyond South’s present and into an increasingly messy future, he showcases the untenable nature of the Caspian Republic and its corrupt framework. The result is a thoughtful sci-fi thriller that skillfully blends a retro spy aesthetic with future technology. Agent: Jennie Goloboy, Donald Maass Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 03/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pevanese Mosaic

Mark Nelson. Hadley Rille, $16 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-73509-381-9

Nelson returns to the kingdom of Pevana in this uneven fourth installment of the Pevanese Cycle series (after The Poet King). Painter and tutor Jeril Tandori has been on the run from the Esdan Empire for 20 years, ever since his brother, Jorian, betrayed their family and took the throne for himself. Jorian is a cunning foe, and if Jeril pauses for even a moment, Esdan’s agents will track him down and slaughter anyone who dared to help him. After Esdan’s army burns the town of Piling—where Jeril sought refuge—Jeril is forced to flee to Pevana. Though Jeril is lulled into complacency as he makes himself at home in Pevana and gains the trust of its king, the reader knows early on that the kingdom will be the next target of Jorian’s forces. Nelson weaves in cryptic clues that portend a threat on Pevana, but the mystery feels obvious, leaving little room for surprise or suspense. The worldbuilding is dreamy and phantasmagoric as ever, but the predictable, unsatisfactory conclusion will disappoint. New readers will have no trouble jumping in, and series fans will be happy to revisit the world, but both will hope for some greater suspense in the next installment. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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My Heart Is a Chainsaw

Stephen Graham Jones. Saga, $26.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-982137-63-2

Jones (The Only Good Indians) expertly mixes the frightening and the funny in this no-holds-barred homage to classic horror tropes written under the heady influence of splatter films. Its outsider heroine is Jade Daniels, an affectionately cheeky 17-year-old high schooler of Blackfoot descent, who finds escape from her dead-end life in rural Proofrock, Idaho, by gorging on a steady diet of slasher flicks. When a spate of bizarre deaths targeting the wealthy residents of Proofrock’s newly developed Terra Nova community rocks the town, Jade recognizes all of the elements of her favorite films’ formulae at play. Certain that the deaths presage a bloody slaughter, she tries—with little credulity from authorities—to warn the town of what is coming. Jones weaves an astonishing amount of slasher film lore into his novel, punctuating the text with short term papers written by Jade on the history and functions of the genre. Meanwhile, the tension builds to a graphic finale perfectly appropriate for the novel’s cinematic scope. Horror fans won’t need to have seen all of the films referenced to be blown away by this audacious extravaganza. Agent: B.J. Robbins, B.J. Robbins Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Queen of the Cicadas

V. Castro. Flame Tree, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-78758-603-1

Writing in breathtaking, atmospheric prose, Castro (Hairspray and Switchblades) merges brutal realism and supernatural terror to create a fierce, memorable tale of Mexican folklore and horror. In 2018, Belinda Montoya, a divorced mother in her 40s who sees herself as a monster and a failure, attends her childhood best friend’s wedding at an imposing Victorian farmhouse in Alice, Tex. There, she meets Hector, the property’s owner, who recalls the tale of La Reina de Las Chicharras, an urban legend about a hate crime that occurred on the farm decades before. The narrative alternates between the present-day wedding and the truth of what happened all those years ago. In 1952, Milagros Santos, an undocumented immigrant worker from Mexico, is subjected to racist harassment from the white women on the farm that escalates until Milagros is lynched. The farm then “falls into the clutches of a curse” as one by one those responsible for the murder meet their end at the hands of Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec Queen of the Dead, who appears as a woman without skin. Castro uses this well-constructed narrative of supernatural retribution to tell an urgent story of the plight of migrant workers. Visceral and disturbing in the best of ways, this is sure to impress. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shadowed Steel

Chloe Neill. Berkley, $17 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-10262-6

Neill’s enthralling third Heirs of Chicagoland urban fantasy pits vampire against vampire with a violent stalker on the loose. Following the events of Wicked Hour, in which Elisa Sullivan was forced to turn her first vampire—without the proper authorization—in order to save a woman’s life, she and her boyfriend, Connor Keene, prince of the North American Central Pack of shape-shifters, return to Chicago. Soon after, Elisa is visited by the Compliance Bureau, who inform her she broke vampire law and must stand trial. Elisa knows she made the right choice, but soon discovers that there are more sinister reasons why the Bureau is targeting her. With the help of Connor, their friends, and their families, she searches for a way to dodge the punishment the Bureau has in store for her. At the same time, a stalker sets his sights on Elisa—and takes it upon himself to “help” her by murdering all those who cross her. Neill ratchets up the intensity from the previous volumes, threading together multiple exciting mysteries and making space for Connor and Elisa’s relationship to heat up. Readers will be thrilled to return to Elisa’s adventures. Agent: Lucienne Diver, the Knight Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Wendy, Darling

A.C. Wise. Titan, $15.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-78909-681-1

Wise (Catfish Lullaby) explores the dark side of Neverland in this impressive fantasy. Ever since returning to the real world, Wendy Darling has clung to the memory of her time in Neverland while her brothers, John and Michael, chose to forget. Her refusal to let go caused her brothers to commit her to St. Bernadette’s asylum, where she met and befriended Mary White Dog. Only through her friendship with Mary and the comfort of the very same memories that landed her there in the first place did she survive the asylum. But when her school-age daughter, Jane, is whisked away by Peter Pan just as Wendy was 27 years earlier, Wendy follows, determined to bring Jane home. With Neverland on the horizon once again, Wendy must confront the dissonance between her memories and reality. Meanwhile, Jane struggles to cling to her identity as Peter tries to mold her into “the Wendy,” forcing her to be a mother for himself and the other lost boys. Seen through Wendy’s adult eyes and Jane’s childlike but scientific perspective, this second visit to Neverland is more nightmare than dream, and Wise expertly captures the shift in perspective that comes with growing up. This rich tale of memory and magic is sure to resonate with fans of reimagined children’s stories. (June)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Rich Man’s Sky

Wil McCarthy. Baen, $25 (320p) ISBN 978-1-982125-29-5

McCarthy (The Queendom of Sol series) delivers a thought-provoking sci-fi novel set against a near-future space race led by a group of trillionaires. When the ESL1 solar shade, owned and operated by wealthy, notorious drug addict and pervert, Igbal Renz, grows large enough to influence weather conditions on Earth, nervous governments decide to act. As former air force pararescueman Alice Kyeong is recruited by the U.S. president to represent her government’s interests in a joint initiative to infiltrate ESL1 and assume command of the station, McCarthy raises questions on the male-dominated nature of space exploration and wealth accumulation. Though Alice borders on incompetent when compared to her fellow operatives from France and New Zealand, her determination to get the job done at any cost, capacity to improvise, and critical thinking makes for a character readers will root for. On reaching ESL1, Alice discovers that Renz’s plans are far more dangerous than controlling the climate—and that her fellow operatives are not as firmly on her side as she believed. McCarthy blends a convincing view of space exploration with thoughtful, nuanced ruminations on the merits of government vs. privately controlled enterprises. Fans of slow-burning sci-fi should check this out. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Within Without

Jeff Noon. Angry Robot, $14.99 trade paper (376p) ISBN 978-0-85766-898-1

Noon’s fourth supernatural mystery featuring private investigator John Nyquist (after Creeping Jenny) is less successful than his others, with a mind-bending plot that’s both nonlinear and confusing. In 1960, Nyquist and his assistant, Teddy Fairclough, take a case in the appropriately-named city of Delirium, a place where many people have reportedly been trapped forever, “walking the streets at night aimlessly, seeking a doorway, an entrance, a port or gate, a border to cross, just any goddamn way to escape.” Despite some rational reservations about the locale, Nyquist accepts movie star Vince Craven as a client and—after he and Fairclough maneuver their way into Delirium, which proves no easy feat—he learns that Craven is missing his “image,” Oberon, the version of himself that he uses for public appearance. Somehow, Oberon’s spirit was involuntarily removed from Craven’s body. The quest to retrieve him sends Nyquist into a labyrinthine world and leads to encounters with various literary figures, including Gregor Samsa and Miss Havisham. Noon’s world is weird as ever, but here the off-kilter environment overwhelms the plot and the further Nyquist wanders into Delirium, the harder it is to follow his adventures. Fans will hope for a return to form in the next book. Agent: Michelle Kass, Michelle Kass Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Angel of the Overpass

Seanan McGuire. Daw, $17 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1689-8

The impeccable third Ghost Roads urban fantasy (after The Girl in the Green Silk Gown) explores and expands on McGuire’s modern-day mythology, brilliantly marrying old traditions and more recent urban legends to create an enthralling tapestry of highway hauntings and hard-traveling horrors. Following the destruction of the malevolent crossroads, teenage ghost and accomplished hitchhiker Rose Marshall, aka the Phantom Prom Date, finally has an opportunity to permanently eliminate her immortal murderer, former film star Bobby Cross. But even bearing Persephone’s favor and operating at the behest of the road goddess known as the Ocean Lady, Rose has a hard path ahead of her. Her quest sends her hitchhiking across America and through the ever-shifting, increasingly hazardous layers of the afterlife. As Rose runs a gauntlet of threats, she must accept that her mission may change her forever. Rose’s resilience and resourcefulness pairs well with McGuire’s signature blend of pop culture references, humor, and mythological deep dives. As the finale to this particular story arc, this love letter to the open road is not an ideal starting point for series newbies, but existing fans will be thrilled with the end of Rose’s current road trip—and excited for her next adventure. Agent: Diana Fox, Fox Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Witness for the Dead

Katherine Addison. Tor, $25.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8742-4

Addison returns to the land of Ethuveraz in this vivid stand-alone sequel to The Goblin Emperor. Thara Celehar, a Witness for the Dead who is capable of speaking to the deceased, leaves the Royal Court behind when he is appointed to serve the provincial city of Amalo. Though unable to escape politics entirely, Celehar enjoys that his position allows him to help the Amaleise people. But his quiet life is disrupted when he is summoned to witness for an elven opera singer, Arveneӓn Shelsin, after she is found dead in a canal in a dodgy part of the city. Thrust into a murder investigation, Celehar’s search for answers leads him from the glamorous halls of the Vermilion Opera to the bustling streets of Cemchelarna, all while he tries to balance the increasing requests of other townspeople who seek his aid. Addison’s steampunk-infused scene-setting and assemblage of characters from all walks of life combine to create a vibrant fantasy world. The story is driven more by character than plot, with Celehar’s personal and professional relationships, and unwavering duty to his calling as a Witness, taking center stage. This is more spin-off than sequel, and returning fans and new readers alike will find it easy to be swept up in Celehar’s story. (June.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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