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Ghoul n’ the Cape

Josh Malerman. Earthling, $75 (732p) ISBN 978-1-73692-842-4

The human emotions that grounded bestseller Malerman’s Bird Box are absent in this offbeat fantasy epic. The Cape, a “silver-haired eccentric” described as a “vision of black cloth, a walking shadow,” enters a Manhattan bar and seeks out a patron who is known as Ghoul for his less-than-attractive facial features. The Cape persuades Ghoul to be his paid companion on a three-month cross-country trip to help him evade the Naught, a mysterious entity in the sky that the Cape fears will swallow the country. Ghoul agrees, hoping for adventure and a hefty payday, but remains skeptical that the menace is real or that what the Cape identifies as the Naught is anything but the moon. Their ensuing picaresque exploits involve a train robbery, nosebleeds spouting from the heads on Mount Rushmore, and a blood-drenched celestial man, an agent of the Naught “who had climbed out of a constellation.” Despite the existential threat of the Naught, Malerman doesn’t conjure fear here, instead dwelling in the realm of the purely weird. Rambling prose—one sentence is over 600 words long—only adds to the confusion. It’s a departure fans will struggle with in this 1,000-copy limited, signed edition. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Servant Mage

Kate Elliott. Tordotcom, $19.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-250-76905-3

Elliott (Unconquerable Sun) spins a spirited tale of elemental magic and conspiracies in this fast-paced, bite-sized fantasy. In a world ruled by the Liberationist Council, which deems all mages a lesser people fit only to serve, servant mage Fellian is forced into indentured servitude as a Lamplighter. One morning, a group of rebel mages in disguise offer Fellian a deal: she can continue in her current position or risk the council’s wrath and join them on a Monarchist mission to save a dragon-born child, a rare mage with the abilities of all the elements. Hoping to find her way back to her childhood home, Fellian goes with the rebels. Their quest is fast-paced, all-encompassing, and violent, with shocking moments—including a graphic infanticide—showing the brutality of this world and its inhabitants’ desperate fight for power. In limited space, Elliott builds a refreshingly complex world with a magic system not linked to familial lineage and with realistically thorny politics, as neither the Liberationists nor the Monarchists are depicted as infallibly good for the people. Fans of epic fantasy will enjoy this feast of magical characters navigating a gritty, morally gray world. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Glimmer

Marjorie B. Kellogg. DAW, $27 (496p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1750-5

A young woman pieces together her past in this tantalizing, immersive dystopian sci-fi novel from Kellogg (The Book of Air). The Melt, an event that led to fatal storms and rising sea levels, has left Earth in chaotic imbalance. On Manhattan island, stranded civilians band together to create dens, microcommunities dedicated to keeping their chosen families alive by equally allocating foraged food and supplies. Kellogg’s heroine survives Superstorm Abel but loses her memories in the traumatic experience, retaining only glimmers of whom she used to be. With no idea of her past life or former name, she calls herself Glimmer and joins one of the oldest dens, Unca Joe. While some of her denmates long for safety on the utopian mainland, Glimmer isn’t sure about abandoning her new life and hopes staying on the island will trigger her memories. But time is running out—the next deadly storm is brewing, and the dens are turning on each other in a brutal fight for resources. Kellogg expertly lays out her plot, unravelling information at a deliberate pace and keeping readers invested as Glimmer grapples with her identity. The cinematic worldbuilding and wonderfully nuanced characters set this well-rounded eco-thriller apart. This is a winner. Agent: Joshua Bilmes, JABberwocky Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World

Edited by Charlatan Bardot and Eric J. Guignard, illus. by Steve Lines and James Gabb. Dark Moon, $19.95 trade paper (452p) ISBN 978-1-949491-48-7

Evoking the structure and sentiment of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases from Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts, this high-concept anthology was clearly put together with a lot of heart, but bites off more than it can chew. Purported to be a collaboration with paranormal investigator Charlatan Bardot, the book seeks to document haunted structures beyond the typical haunted house, but does a disservice to its many excellent stories with its messy packaging and convoluted conceit. It’s a who’s-who of supernatural fiction, with brilliant pieces from Eugen Bacon (“A Taste of Unguja”), Clara Madrigano (“Into the River”), Lisa Morton (“The Gulch”), H. Pueyo (“Juan Clemente’s Well”), Eugenia Triantafyllou (“Fish Tale”), Tlotlo Tsamaase (“The Biophilic-Designed Haunting”), and Kaaron Warren (“Warp and Weft”), among others. Tales are grouped by continent and divided into featured stories and tiny tales, the latter of which comprise one-page flash fiction pieces. Unfortunately, the maps between the stories disrupt the flow and the “travel guide notes” from Bardot that serve as introductions grow annoying. Still, there’s enough talent on display here to make this worth a look. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Can’t Find My Way Home

Gwynne Garfinkle. Aqueduct, $20 trade paper (342p) ISBN 978-1-61976-212-1

Garfinkle (People Change) delivers a fascinating, disorienting ghost story set in the 1970s. Actor Joanna Bergman has carried shame and remorse over her friend Cynthia Foster’s death since it happened four years ago. As protestors against the Vietnam War, the duo would have done anything to stop the bloodshed—but when Cynthia and Joanna plotted to blow up a New York City draft board, Joanna backed out at the last minute. Her hesitance spared her life, and Cynthia died in the explosion. Now, the war is over, and Joanna has her first stable acting gig on the daytime soap Hope Springs Eternal and is developing feelings for her costar, Martin Yates. She’s guiltily moving on with her life, until Cynthia’s angry ghost appears to her and forces Joanna to relive that fateful night, turning over alternate choices she could have made and how things might have gone differently. The tale moves swiftly between reality and the paranormal, successfully making the reader question if Cynthia’s ghost is just a projection of Jo’s psyche or something more concrete. Fans of counterculture narratives and ghost stories will want to take a look. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome to Redgunk

William R. Eakin. Lethe, $39 (610p) ISBN 978-1-59021-478-7

Eakin expertly weaves 38 stories set in the fictional town of Redgunk, Miss., written over the past 30 years, into a bizarre and captivating whole. The opening piece, “Lawnmower Moe,” about a man haunted by his ancestors and their powers, quickly sets the tone for the collection, which sees other residents encountering mermaids (“Bob and the Mermaid”) and abducted by aliens (“Encounter in Redgunk”). Some of the stories are darker, such as “The Lizard Queen,” in which Mary Contrary discovers the lengths she is willing to go for control after moving to Redgunk with her drug-addict husband. Others are oddly touching: “Still Man” finds Amy Turner torn between her job as a social worker and the chance to be truly free. Through it all comes the sense of Redgunk as a living, breathing town, and though there’s no ending to its story, the final piece, “Harriet,” about a young girl who disappeared years ago, leaves the reader with a feeling of closure. Eakin’s prose can be long-winded, making some of the characters’ internal monologues difficult to parse, but there’s no denying the appeal of his fascinating, dreamlike world. This will please readers of science fiction and fantasy alike. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Undiscovered Territories

Robert Freeman Wexler. PS, $25 (326p) ISBN 978-1-786365-89-7

Strange forces and the casual uncanny populate these 14 opaque surrealist shorts from Wexler (The Painting and the City), as everyday experiences take on the high-register, declarative stylings of Arthur Machen or M.R. James. The strongest entries allow Wexler’s accomplished prose ample elbow room: odd, beautiful metaphors and rich sensory detail characterize the Orwellian “Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance,” in which a lonely factory inspector’s affair opens his eyes to his paranoid, imperial city’s flaws. “The Baker” adapts Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” as a football player-turned-baker struggles with insecurity over professionalizing his hobby during trips to his mentor’s dream-city. Weaker pieces rely on repetitive motifs and uncanny concepts stretched too-thin: bread speaks in “Tales of the Golden Legend,” but has little to say, and the video game–style mechanics of “Travels Along an Unfurling Circular Path” ultimately sputter. These inaccessible narratives will frustrate the casual reader, but devoted fans of surrealism and the New Weird will savor Wexler’s prose. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Beholden

Cassandra Rose Clarke. Erewhon, $18.95 trade paper (544p) ISBN 978-1-64566-025-5

Two sisters strike a deal with a river goddess in this lush but slow-moving fantasy from Clarke (Forget This Ever Happened). Orphaned sisters Celestia and Izara De Malena’s fortunes are dwindling, leaving them desperate to save their failing rainforest acreage. Izara summons the Lady of the Seraphine to make a bargain: a husband for Celestia with enough money to save the sisters’ land and pay for Izara to study magic in exchange for an unknown favor to be paid to the Lady at some point in the future. Five years later, with rumors of war on the horizon and a mysterious disease sweeping the land, the Lady calls in this favor, sending Celestia, now pregnant, and Izara on a perilous journey to seek a reclusive yet powerful mage while the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Clarke’s writing shines in rich descriptions of the jungle setting and the complex dynamic between the sisters, but the plot-driven adventure moves at a snail’s pace, weighed down with excessive expositional worldbuilding. Meanwhile, the nature-based magic system is fascinating, but feels underexplored. The lovely prose and transportive, atmospheric scene-setting may be enough to grab some readers, but others will struggle. Agent: Stacia Decker, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Cannyharme: A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror

Michael Shea. Hippocampus, $45 (298p) ISBN 978-1-61498-325-5

Though Shea (Endgame), who died in 2014, drafted this wild ride of a weird tale in 1981, it reads with a freshness that transcends its period setting. Its lead character, Jack Hale, works as night clerk at a residency hotel in San Francisco’s Mission District. A writer by avocation who spends the wee hours wired on crank and hacking out a pulp romance novel on his typewriter, Jack begins noticing bizarre behavior among the hotel’s down-and-out residents, much of it apparently influenced by leaflets of macabre verse handed out by Mr. Cunningham, the hotel’s incalculably old pensioner (and the Cannyharme of the title). Searching for explanations in the hotel’s archives, Jack uncovers a malignant legacy from the past still virulently active in the present. Shea serves up a colorfully seedy cast of characters, and he teases with Lovecraftian references that will appeal to the weird fiction cognoscenti—though even readers not in the know will be captivated by the tale’s surreal horrors, including out-of-body (and in-someone-else’s body) experiences and confrontations with cosmic terrors. This novel has lost none of its potential to horrify in the four decades it sat unpublished. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Under Twin Suns: Alternate Histories of the Yellow Sign

Edited by James Chambers. Hippocampus, $25 trade paper (338p) ISBN 978-1-61498-331-6

The 20 high-quality tales and three poems in this fine anthology from Chambers (The Engines of Sacrifice) draw on the weird short stories created by Robert W. Chambers (no relation) centered on The King in Yellow, a fictional forbidden play that drives those who read it mad. In Lisa Morton’s superb metafictional “Robert Chambers Reads The King in Yellow,” which explains how Chambers created his fictional universe, the less-than-successful writer is approached by an odd-looking fellow named Wilde. Wilde offers the struggling author a lucrative sum to continue the efforts of the writer Ambrose Bierce, who wrote about Carcosa, the home of the King in Yellow. Another high point, Kathleen Scheiner’s “Wasp Honey,” features the unsettling image of wasps tending a honeycomb, with markings on their bodies resembling “little yellow letters.” Trevor Firetog’s arresting “European Theater” reveals how the maddening play became of interest to German intelligence in 1944 Belgium. This is the perfect companion to similar prior volumes, In the Court of the Yellow King and The King in Yellow Tales, and is accessible even to those unfamiliar with the originals. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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