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Madrenga

Alan Dean Foster. WordFire, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-68057-145-5

Foster (The Unsettling Stars) shows off his worldbuilding chops with this dense, immersive series starter about a shape-shifting boy and his pets. Counselor Natoum recruits the unlikely Madrenga, a homeless child with hidden depths, to deliver a sensitive message from Queen Alyriata of Harup-taw-shet to Queen Zhelerasjju of Daria. Madrenga hesitantly accepts the assignment, taking his pony, Orania, and puppy, Bit, along with him on what will be a perilous journey. Almost immediately, they are beset by bandits seeking to intercept the message. Madrenga is about to surrender when Orania and Bit rise up and kill one of the brigands in a show of supernatural strength. Madrenga is bewildered, but continues on his way, and with every challenge he and his animal companions face—from crossing a snow-covered river and outrunning angry villagers, to surviving the Sea of Shadows and slaying a frost dragon—he discovers new powers within himself and his pets, growing steadily bigger and stronger after each confrontation until his newfound strength becomes more curse than blessing. Rip-roaring action sequences and the mystery of Madrenga’s curious powers propel the story through a series of consistently surprising twists and turns. Foster’s series is off to a promising start. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Sunspot Jungle: Vol. Two

Edited by Bill Campell. Rosarium, $19.95 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-1-73263-880-8

Campbell capably continues Rosarium’s celebration of contemporary speculative fiction, bringing together 53 stories that span genres and continents. Several standouts reimagine history, as in P. Djèlí Clark’s clever, compassionate “The Mouser of Peter the Great;” Indrapramit Das’s “The Little Begum,” which transforms the Taj Mahal into a steampunk machine; and Emmi Itäranta’s Sherlock Holmesian “The Bearer of the Bone Harp,” translated from the Finnish by Sarianna Silvonen. Others offer speculative looks at contemporary social issues: immigration in Sabrina Vourvoulias’s magical realist “Sin Embargo,” corporate greed in Walter Dinjos’s afrofuturist “The Soulless,” and ethical consumption in Walidah Imarisha’s tongue-in-cheek “Portrait of a Young Zombie in Crisis.” And superstars Rebecca Roanhorse and Ken Liu analyze the intersection of identity and technology in “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” and “Simulacrum,” respectively. Among the less successful are Nick Harkaway’s trite “Attenuation,” Lavie Tidhar’s jargon-heavy “The Memcordist,” and Nisi Shawl’s cryptic “Slippernet.” Still, the wide variety of stories on offer makes this anthology ideal for any SFF fan hoping to diversify their reading. Agent: Jennifer Udden, New Leaf Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Knight Watch

Tim Akers. Baen, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-982124-85-4

Akers (Bulletproof Air) merges magic and the mundane in an uninspired chosen one fantasy that attempts to do for live action role-play gaming what Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One did for video games but fails to update any of the tired tropes it employs. LARP fighter John Rast is home for the summer before his final year of college and eager to compete at his local renaissance faire. But when his opponent, Kracek the Hosier, transforms into a fire-spitting serpent in the middle of their fight, John winds up facing a real dragon with his blunted sword and prop shield. He rises to the occasion, tossing the weapons aside and running the beast over with his mother’s station wagon. John’s victory puts him on the radar of the Knight Watch, an organization that keeps tabs on mythical entities, and they recruit him onto the team. But Kracek’s widow, the Storm Goddess, is out for blood and willing to destroy everything John holds dear to get to him. Akers boldly treads the line between fantasy and reality, but the pacing drags between familiar character beats and cheesy villain monologues. There’s plenty of wish fulfillment here, but not much substance. (Sept.)

Correction: The author's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this review.

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fearless

Allen Stroud. Flame Tree, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78758-542-3

The depths of outer space test the strength of a dynamic heroine’s inner resolve in Stroud’s smart, introspective space opera set in the year 2118. Captain Ellisa Shann reroutes her patrol ship, the Khidr, in response to a distress call from the freighter Hercules, but the rescue mission is hampered by a series of mishaps that appear to be sabotage. Worse, the damaged freighter turns out to be carrying a mysterious, classified cargo, and its recovery is countermanded by a senior officer of the United Fleet Consortium under shadowy circumstances. Shann is faced with finding double agents within her crew while determining where her own loyalties lie as the tensions between Earth and its colonies on Mars, Earth’s moon, Ceres, and Europa burst into conflict. Stroud (The Forever Man) makes a convincing argument that surviving in space requires absolute trust in colleagues and crewmates to do their duties to the smallest detail—and shows how that trust, when frayed, can have disastrous results. With an attention to detail that will please hard science fiction fans, Stroud raises fascinating questions about the politics of space exploration. This is one to be savored. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Trouble with Peace

Joe Abercrombie. Orbit, $28 (640p) ISBN 978-0-316-18718-3

The impressive second epic fantasy of Abercrombie’s Age of Madness trilogy (after A Little Hatred) grounds the ongoing power struggles within the Union in issues that resonate with contemporary politics. Orso, “a notorious wastrel while crown prince,” is now High King of the Union, but his controversial reign has sparked an opposition movement dedicated to toppling him and “making the Union great again.” Abercrombie balances the ensuing intrigue, espionage, and a bloody assassination attempt with the nitty-gritty of Union politics, shining a light on corruption, tax reform, and class distinctions, on the way to a climactic confrontation between Orso’s forces and those marshalled against him. Meanwhile, Leo dan Brock, the leader of the rebels, marries Orso’s former lover, Savine dan Glokta, who left Orso after learning a scandalous secret, adding emotional stakes to the political turmoil. The large cast, which takes over four pages to list in a helpful appendix, becomes overwhelming at times, and newcomers to the series will have a hard time untangling the complex backstory, but Abercrombie’s satisfying plotting and expert subversion of genre expectations are sure to please. Readers will be gripped. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Witchly Influence

Stephanie Grey. BHC, $26.95 (262p) ISBN 978-1-64397-139-1

A newly divorced witch is determined to turn her life around in this lighthearted but underdeveloped fantasy from Grey (The Immortal Prudence Blackwood). Carmen Devereaux, whose powers allow her to conjure anything she desires from thin air and teleport anywhere in the world, moves back home to North Carolina for a fresh start closer to her mortal stepfamily. There, Carmen gets a promotion from her employer, Fate. In her new position as an Influencer she’ll use her magic to guide both witches and mortals to their higher calling. With the help of some eccentric characters, including an ornery snowman and a sentient pencil, Carmen attempts to balance her magical and mortal responsibilities. But one of her first assignments is to influence the life of her own stepbrother, and Carmen struggles to help him while still obeying the law that prohibits witches from revealing their magical abilities—inspiring her to propose a change to the rule. This unremarkable arc is spiced up by the quirky supporting cast, though readers will still have to overlook some plot holes. Grey’s feel-good story is just amusing enough that many readers will be willing to forgive the flaws. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Invader

Marjory Kaptanoglu. Book Reality Experience, $12.99 trade paper (182p) ISBN 978-0-648-44715-3

Kaptanoglu (Last Girl Standing) sympathetically examines the choices of two troubled heroines in this rousing sci-fi thriller. Rose and Kailey are two very different women trapped in equally terrifying situations. Rose is an environmental scientist with amnesia shipwrecked on an island in the Pacific. Her rescuer, a scientist named Thomas who is on the island conducting research of his own, is initially kind, but as he and Rose grow closer she questions why he has clothes that fit her and how he’s obtaining so much fresh food. Then an aircraft crashes on the island, unleashing a vicious alien creature that attacks Thomas and Rose. Meanwhile in San Francisco, homeless troublemaker Kailey narrates the story of her life with a domineering mother and violent boyfriend, Noah, who involves her in a burglary that ends in murder. After Noah frames Kailey for the murder, she’s sentenced to life in prison without parole. These two deliciously twisty plots show their first signs of being connected when Rose starts having nightmares about a burglary gone wrong. Kaptanoglu keeps readers guessing as her tough-as-nails heroines navigate high-stakes situations that draw out their resiliency and fortitude. Fans of sci-fi mysteries and strong female characters should snap up this psychological page-turner. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Things That Never Happened

Scott Edelman. Cemetery Dance, $17 trade paper (302p) ISBN 978-1-58767-774-8

Edelman (Tell Me Like You Done Before) delivers a well-constructed collection of 13 realistic tales laced with modest but expertly deployed speculative elements. It’s this slight touch of the unusual that gives Edelman’s work its charm, as in the collection’s standouts: “The Hunger of Empty Vessels,” about a man contending with the dissolution of his family while being stalked by a mysterious stranger, and “The Scariest Story I Know,” the haunting tale of a father telling his son a bedtime story after the death of the boy’s mother in an accident. Recurring themes include deteriorating marriages; abusive, dying, and unfit mothers; and characters with Alzheimer’s disease. Though Edelman’s examinations of these heavy topics occasionally tends toward the sentimental and overwrought, when he gets them right his talent is undeniable, as in the powerful “That Perilous Stuff,” about a woman who returns home to care for her hoarder mother at the urging of her enabling brother. Edelman’s subtle surrealism and simple prose will keep readers engrossed. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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In the Black

Patrick S. Tomlinson. Tor, $19.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-30275-5

Tomlinson (Starship Repo) offers space opera fans much to chew on in this fun, fast-moving series debut, set almost 70 years after a conflict between humanity and the Xre, an intelligent alien species that resembles “the offspring of an ill-conceived union of a wasp and an Alaskan king crab.” Capt. Susan Kamala and the crew of the Ansari are sent to patrol the boundary between human and Xre territory. After two of the ship’s reconnaissance drones are knocked out of action within less than a month of each other, she and her crew suspect the aliens may be responsible—and their investigation leads to an encounter with the Xre that could be momentous for interspecies relationships. Meanwhile, Tyson Abington, the ultrawealthy head of Ageless Corp., finds his business under threat of both a corporate espionage scheme and a disease outbreak that may be the result of a bioweapon. Tomlinson skillfully toggles between story lines, giving impressive weight to both. The plot is more streamlined than genre fans might expect, but Tomlinson still provides enough worldbuilding to support multiple sequels. Readers are sure to be entertained. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Hierarchies

Ros Anderson. Dutton, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-18287-1

Narrated by a sentient sex robot, Anderson’s fascinating but uneven debut raises more questions than it’s equipped to answer. Sylv.ie, an “Intelligent Embodied” humanoid pleasure doll programmed with an Absorb Mode that allows her to learn new information (for the purpose of becoming a better conversationalist for her owner/husband), develops a curiosity about the rest of her husband’s family that her husband disapproves of; when Sylv.ie tries to engage with his new baby, she’s cruelly reprimanded. In response, she runs away—entering society and befriending other IEs who push her to question her understanding of the world. Anderson gracefully executes the process of Sylv.ie’s self-discovery, making her feel real and deeply sympathetic, and the supportive lesbian romance Sylv.ie eventually finds in her life as a free IE is especially well done. But Anderson teases big ideas about the future of society and its interaction with technology that go under explored, like the concept of laboratory conception that ends with babies literally delivered to the home, and the vague protests against IEs led by “Real Women.” Readers will be drawn in by Sylv.ie’s emotional story, even if the dystopian world she inhabits remains frustratingly murky. Agent: Samuel Hodder, Blake Friedmann Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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