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Ravencaller

David Dalglish. Orbit, $16.99 trade paper (624p) ISBN 978-0-316-41669-6

Dalglish broadens the scope of his Keepers series with this impressive, no-holds-barred high fantasy. The city of Londheim is in turmoil following the events of Soulkeeper as the goddess-worshipping humans struggle to adjust to dragon-sired monsters, creatures they believed to be blasphemous myth, awakening from 800 years of sleep. Militant dragon-sired factions launch attacks to reclaim their former city, and fearful, ignorant humans respond with violence toward all monsters, leaving little hope for those who seek peaceful coexistence, among them good-hearted warrior priest Devin; fierce former sex slave Jacaranda; onyx fairy Tesmarie; and adorable firekin Puffy. When an especially violent dragon-sired sect retakes the city’s poorest district, aided by poisonous mushrooms and human cultists, Devin, Jacaranda, and friends work to protect their home. Meanwhile, Devin’s sister, Adria, a religious leader, has developed the power to perform miracles. But the more wonders she enacts, the more her faith in the church waivers. Through myriad perspectives, Dalglish weaves a complex political web, raising moral questions about war, religion, and land rights and eschewing easy answers. The philosophical strains are tempered with plentiful action sequences and sweet romance, keeping the pace up and the pages turning. This smart epic fantasy promises more good things from the series to come. Agent: Michael Carr, Veritas Literary. (Mar)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction

Dorothy Tse et al. Two Lines, $16.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-949641-00-4

This remarkable anthology of Chinese speculative fiction offers seven tales of societal responsibility and individual freedom. In “A Counterfeit Life” by Chen Si’an, translated by Canaan Morse, a man becomes the leader of a subtle labor revolution. Two stories by Enoch Tam, both translated by Jeremy Tiang, dive deep into evocative settings: in “The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M” a town plants giant mushrooms for shelter, while “Auntie Han’s Modern Life” revolves around a shopkeeper in a strange, changing district. Gender and self-determination lie at the core of both “Sour Meat” by Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce, and “Flourishing Beasts” by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang. In Zhu Hui’s “Lip Service,” translated by Michael Day, a charismatic aging news anchor plots to keep her job, and in “The Elephant,” by Chan Chi Wa, translated by Audrey Heijns, the mysterious disappearance of an elephant throws a town into chaos, leading to a thorough exploration of authority and trust. By turns cryptic and revealing, phantasmagorical and straightforward, these tales balance reality and fantasy on the edge of a knife. This provocative sampler of Chinese fiction is both challenging and rewarding. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Cast in Wisdom

Michelle Sagara. Mira, $16.99 trade paper (544p) ISBN 978-0-7783-0938-3

Forgotten history is rediscovered in Sagara’s well-crafted 15th Chronicles of Elantra fantasy (after Cast in Oblivion) which successfully advances the mythology of the long-running series. Kaylin Neya, who works in the land of Elantra’s version of law enforcement; the dragon Bellusdeo; and their friends suspect that a fieflord is corrupt. Their joint investigation into his crimes takes them to the area known as the border zones, a liminal space where reality has different rules. They happen upon a mysterious building and are spontaneously transported inside where they discover an endless loop of repeating hallways. Trapped by this maze-like interior, Kaylin uses the powers she’s still learning to control in an attempt to communicate with the building itself. Her magic summons a man named Killian who helps the team escape. When Kaylin and Bellusdeo report these strange occurrences to the dragon leader, he wants to see for himself. Returning, they find they aren’t the only ones hoping to access the building, and their search to understand its origins merges with their initial investigation into the evil fieflord. Series readers will appreciate the complex plot and many returning faces in the vast cast of characters. This magical thrill-ride is a treat. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Vulcan’s Forge

Robert Mitchell Evans. Flame Tree, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-78758-399-3

Evans’s ambitious but unfocused debut novel (after his collection Horseshoes & Hand Grenades: Tales of Terror and Technology) is a sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian, puritanical society built by the only known survivors on a postapocalyptic Earth. Jason Kessler is a quietly frustrated citizen of Nocturnia who works as a screener for salvaged 20th-century American movies to ensure their morals are fit for public viewing. He becomes obsessed with Pamela Guest, a theatergoer with ties to the criminal underworld, and the pair begin an illicit affair, but the longer they continue, the more Jason feels trapped by Nocturnia’s restrictions and his and Pamela’s lies. Their only way out seems to be the mysterious Forge, an artificial intelligence with deep reach through all areas of Nocturnia society. Jason is positioned as an underdog simmering with rebellious impulses, but readers’ goodwill toward him is undermined as his increasing desperation to break free of Nocturnia leads him to make rash and illogical choices. Similarly, the promising beginning introduces many intriguing ideas, but the novel’s frenetic pacing wings from one concept to the next, taking away from the power of each. This adventure is too jam-packed for its own good. (Mar)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Stonefish

Scott R. Jones. Word Horde, $16.99 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-939905-56-7

Jones’s debut novel (after the story collection Shout Kill Revel Repeat) treads well-worn paths, invoking cosmic horror and the time-honored science fiction concept of reality-as-computer-simulation, but does a credible job in updating them to reflect the climate crisis. Journalist Den Secord’s investigation into proliferating pockets of unreality puts him on the trail of missing tech titan Gregor Makarios as he follows enigmatic clues in Sasquatch sightings. Navigating a near-future British Columbia scorched by global warming, Den encounters both Gregor and Bigfoot, neither of whom are what he expected. Gregor guards the last remnants of a team of 17 artificial intelligences that pushed beyond their supposed computational limits into the next level of reality, the occupants of which have now come to visit. Den’s character arc as he reels from these revelations is overshadowed by the novel’s all-too-topical setting, and many readers will grow frustrated with the focus on one man’s existential angst as the greater horror of a human-destroyed environment looms in the background. With this deeply philosophical novel, Jones rails against the structural unfairness of the universe, offering no comforts, only ugly choices. Readers will find plenty to hold their attention, but long for a glimmer of hope in the darkness. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Forced Perspectives

Tim Powers. Baen, $25 (384p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2440-3

Federal agents Sebastian Vickery and Ingrid Castine return in Powers’s frenetic urban fantasy that playfully blends Egyptian mythology, alternate Los Angeles history, and modern technology. After sealing off the rift between the world and a labyrinthine underworld in Alternate Routes, Vickery and Castine have both developed the ability to see echoes of the past. Tech genius Simon Harlowe is obsessed with creating an egregore, an all-encompassing entity of minds working as one, and sees Vickery and Castine’s new power as a necessary ingredient. As Harlowe and his team hound the agents, hoping to use them as “interface message processors” in his group mind, Vickery and Castine see ghosts of the city’s past, allowing Powers to weave in film history, long-forgotten Egyptian myth that was buried with the set of The Ten Commandments, a 1960s cult, and other eccentricities. A cast of unusual side characters—among them Harlowe’s adopted twin daughters, Lexi and Amber, who are by turns humorous and disturbing—add color and complexity. This labyrinthine tale of the bizarre and fantastic will grip urban fantasy enthusiasts until the end. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Deep

Alma Katsu. Putnam, $27 (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-53790-8

Painstakingly researched and meticulously plotted, Katsu’s latest (after 2018’s The Hunger) infuses a pair of significant shipwrecks with the supernatural. In 1912, docile and dutiful Annie Hebbley, suddenly eager to escape her confined life in a small Northern Ireland town, finds work as a stewardess on the Titanic, where she becomes entwined with a wealthy couple and their new baby and develops strange compulsions as mysterious occurrences, including disappearances and an attempted suicide, plague the ship. In 1916, having survived the Titanic’s sinking only to spend the last four years in an asylum, Annie again finds relief through work, this time as a nurse on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, which has been refitted as a wartime hospital ship. Though readers will be aware of the inevitable tragedies awaiting, Katsu successfully injects suspense into both time lines, spinning a darkly captivating tale of hauntings, possessions, secrets, and class through a multitude of perspectives, as readers slowly come to understand the truth of Annie’s often odd behavior. The historically predetermined ending may keep readers from connecting emotionally to the narrative, but Katsu’s artful writing and calculated pacing keep the pages turning. This is an impressive, horror-tinged trip back in time. Agent: Stephen Barbara, Inkwell Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Switchboard

Andrew Post. JournalStone, $16.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-95030-516-2

Post (Chop Shop) folds this hallucinatory, viscera-soaked horror novel into a puzzle box of a haunted house story. Erie, Pa., police lieutenant Dwayne Spare goes undercover at the dilapidated Dunsany Arms apartments to catch one of its residents, chemist Gerald Metzger, the manufacturer of the street drug Krokodil, which has the unfortunate side effect of rotting off users’ limbs. But when Dwayne is found out, Metzger injects him with Krok, using the drug to turn Dwayne into a human telephone line channeling messages from a grotesque, otherworldly being. As reality and dream blur and time grows oddly circular, Dwayne joins with Metzger’s other victims, paraplegic surgeon Connie Wieczne and body-modified drug courier Jack Cotard, in their struggle to escape the building. Post creates moments of beauty, repulsion, and menace with equal flair, from childish crayon birds in flight on a tenement wall to papier-mâché homunculi. What at first appear to be plot contradictions later connect elegantly as the intricate mechanics of this dreamscape are made clear. Impatient readers may grow frustrated by how long it takes for the tale’s internal logic to be revealed, but those who stick with this dark story will be gratified. Agent: Lane Heymont, Tobias Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Stitch in Crime

Justin Robinson. Candlemark & Gleam, $20.45 trade paper (292p) ISBN 978-1-936460-93-9

The fun, pulpy fourth installment in Robinson’s postapocalyptic City of Devils series (after Wolfman Confidential) continues exploring an Earth crawling with monsters following the Night War that wiped out most of humanity. Center stage this time is the skin doll Jane Stitch, who is sewn together from the corpses of six different women and haunted by memories that she isn’t sure are hers. After Jane’s explosive temper destroys her relationship with human private eye Nick Moss, she embarks on a soul-searching mission to understand her true nature. Her quest for answers takes her to the backwaters of Arizona to speak with her creator, who pulls her into his dirty business of corpse resurrection as the price for answers about her existence. Soon, Jane runs afoul of the ferocious Dullahan clan, a quartet of headless horsemen who control the town’s law enforcement and wreak havoc on those who question their authority. Robinson’s tale is a treasure trove of monstrous delights and, despite Jane’s gruesome origins, she proves an endearing lead. With its heady blend of noir and campy horror, this rollicking adventure doesn’t disappoint. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Straight Outta Dodge City

Edited by David Boop. Baen, $16 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2436-6

This dark, diverting anthology of 14 original tales, the third in a series edited by Boop (after Straight Outta Deadwood), continues to explore “the weird Wild West.” By tossing weird fiction concepts into western settings, these tales give rise to unusual what-ifs. What if the unquiet ghost of Doc Holiday haunted his six shooter, as in “The Dead Can’t Die Twice” by Sam Stone? What would happen if, as in “The Adventures of Rabbi Shlomo Jones and the Half-Baked Kid” by Eytan Kollin, Jewish magic created a golem to confront a mob of anti-Semitic bad guys? Unfortunately, the mashing together of genre tropes is frequently more intriguing than the underdeveloped stories that result. On the bright side, the ever-enjoyable Joe R. Lansdale is on hand with “The Hoodoo Man and the Midnight Train,” an energetic tale of a mystical gunfighter, and Harry Turtledove presents the delightful “Junior & Me,” set in an alternate world in which evolution favored reptiles rather than mammals, and the ornery galoot narrating the yarn is actually a highly evolved dinosaur. The result is an amusing but uneven bunch of stories. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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