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Weird Fishes

Rae Mariz. Stelliform, $14.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-77768-234-7

Mariz (The Unidentified) takes readers deep beneath the ocean for a strange and beautiful cli-fi fantasy. When Ceph, a many-armed, many-brained scientist, has a run in with Iliokai, a deep-sea whale rider with her finger on the ocean’s pulse, Iliokai confirms her deepest fears: the above-water beings are responsible for the slowing of the ocean’s currents, which will mean certain death for the denizens of the ocean if the tides stop supplying oxygen. Despite mutual distrust and cultural disconnects, Ceph and Iliokai work together to enlist the aid of every being—from hive-minded coral reefs to bureaucratic underwater councils to, impossibly, surface-dwelling aliens—to avert ecological annihilation. Mariz combines dense, realistic science with lush, fantastic description and provides abundant space for the story’s more outlandish elements to stretch out and breathe. The relationships at the heart of this tale manage to be both completely human and utterly unbeholden to the above-water dynamics readers might take for granted. The resulting novella feels entirely fresh and inventive. Fans of Caitlin Starling and Maggie Tokuda-Hall will be especially wowed. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Spear Cuts Through Water

Simon Jimenez. Del Rey, $28.99 (544p) ISBN 978-0-593-15659-9

Jimenez (The Vanished Birds) crafts an elusive, layered epic that thoroughly rewards its demands. In an outpost of an unnamed country ruled by a ruthless emperor and his three sons, the Terrors, commander Uhi Araya convinces Keema of the Daware Tribe, a one-armed mercenary, to swear an oath to deliver a spear to someone near the capital. Shortly thereafter, the outpost is sacked and Keema flees with Jun, an elite guard, and the goddess Jun has freed from her prison. Together with a disabled, telepathic tortoise and the dying deity, they crisscross the country with a plot to find allies among the increasingly discontented people and end the cruel reign of the Terrors. Jimenez interweaves this sprawling journey with flash-forwards following an unnamed character whose family possesses the spear generations later as they watch their grandmother’s stories of these heroes unfold via the dream-accessed Inverted Theater. The rapidly shifting perspectives and slippery plot make for a steep barrier to entry, but the beautiful prose and inventive worldbuilding pay dividends. Though this won’t be for everyone, committed readers who enjoy piecing together stories will be blown away. Agent: Hannah Fergesen, KT Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Dark Country

Monique Snyman. Vesuvian, $21.95 (300p) ISBN 978-1-64548-096-9

South African author Snyman (the Night Weaver series) starts more strongly than she finishes with this series debut; the unusual lead will hook readers and the contemporary South Africa setting is enriched by the author’s personal experience, but the climax doesn’t pay off on the opening’s intensity. Occult crime expert Esmé Snyder regularly consults with the Pretoria police. She lands a complex inquiry when a killer dubbed the Pretoria Slasher by the press abducts and kills several people, leaving ravaged corpses for the police to find. Among the victims are newlywed Valentine Sikelo, who vanishes from a busy street in the middle of the day, and politician Abraham Amin, who’s kidnapped from an embassy before being strung up in a traffic tunnel. Snyman alternates perspectives between her capable lead and a sadistic killer (readers will need strong stomachs for the gory scenes) who, predictably, ends up targeting Esmé herself. Unfortunately, a subplot about Esmé’s love life saps some of the tension, even as scenes of an unknown demon at work make it clear that the mystery here is a supernatural one. It’s a somewhat rocky start, but readers will be excited to see where the series goes. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Warlady

Jo Graham. Candlemark & Gleam, $21.44 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-952456-10-7

Graham skillfully combines a murder mystery, political intrigue, and space combat in the intricate and thrilling second Calpurnian Wars space opera (after Sounding Dark). The planet Morrigan has not yet fallen to the conquering Calpurnian Navy. Warlady Dariah, Morrigan’s military leader, is found dead, having been electrocuted after interfacing with the deity known as the Presence, an artificial intelligence based on Morrigan’s legendary war hero, Khreesos. Assuming interference with the interface mechanism, Dariah’s bodyguard, Sandrine, and Sandrine’s lover, Jauffre, an electromancer, search for Dariah’s killer—and they must hurry. Morrigan’s government, the College, prepares to vote on Dariah’s replacement, and whoever is elected will have to enter the rigged interface for the Presence’s approval. Dariah made many enemies thanks to her intentions to free the dangerous electromancers from the College’s discriminatory rules of behavior and breeding, so the suspect list is long. As the election takes some unexpected turns, Sandrine and Jauffre must also outpace the Calpurnian Navy, which will surely strike as soon as they learn that Morrigan is without the leadership of a Warlady. Graham fashions an elaborate and fascinating world, complete with complex history, religion, and politics, without ever sacrificing the plot’s forward momentum. This polished page-turner should hook any sci-fi fan. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Someone in Time

Edited by Jonathan Strahan. Solaris, $18.99 trade paper (420p) ISBN 978-1-78618-509-9

The 16 stories in this star-studded anthology, all but two original to this volume, inventively explore the science fictional possibilities of the time-travel romance. Strahan (The Book of Dragons) assembles a stellar lineup of talents who work through the potential paradoxes and syncopations of temporal travel, even as they suggest that love conquers all. Kindred scientific spirits from centuries apart find one another in Nina Allan’s “The Lichens,” while the lovers in Seanan McGuire’s “First Aid” meet when a glitch accidentally deposits a 22nd-century time traveler at a 20th-century Renaissance fair rather than in her intended destination of the Elizabethan era. In some stories, including Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s “Bergamot and Vetiver,” the method of travel is scientifically sophisticated, while others take unconventionally low-tech approaches: a traipse through an individual’s previous lives in Zen Cho’s “The Past Life Reconstruction Service” and an intense memory relived in Jeffrey Ford’s “The Golden Hour.” Meanwhile, both Margo Lanagan in “The Place of All the Souls” and Sameem Siddiqui in “Timed Obsolescence” consider the complications that ensue when characters with partners and families in their own time encounter their soulmates in other eras. This does the subgenre proud. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Howard Morhaim Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Helpmeet

Naben Ruthnum. Undertow, $11.99 trade paper (94p) ISBN 978-1-988964-38-6

Ruthnum (A Hero of Our Time) mixes body horror, weird fiction, and romance into a viscerally upsetting but quietly moving novella set in 1900 New York. Hospital maid turned unofficial nurse Louise has always known that her husband, surgeon Edward Wilk, has a weakness for womanizing, but that’s never stopped her from loving him. Now Edward is dying of an apparent sexually transmitted disease that’s causing his body parts to fall off, sink into themselves, and otherwise disappear. Louise does her best to care for him: injecting him with morphine, protecting him from society gossips, and cleaning out his empty eye sockets with gauze. Now, at Edward’s request, the pair move from their townhouse to a country estate where Edward may die in peace. As Edward’s disease progresses—and he confesses the sordid details of its likely cause—that which might have torn the couple apart actually bonds them more deeply than they could have imagined thanks to an incursion of the supernatural. Ruthnum writes beautifully even in the story’s most grotesque moments, and brings wonderful specificity to the burdens of caregiving. (“Edward’s illness had caused Louise to split. Just now, the wife had seen the tongue, and the nurse had picked it up and plated it to calm the wife.”) Weird fiction fans won’t want to miss this. (June)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Bad Girls Drink Blood

S.L. Choi. City Owl, $15.99 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-64898-147-0

Choi loads her debut and Blood Fae Druid urban fantasy series launch with snark, action, and characters who will steal readers’ hearts. Lane Callaghan is a hybrid blood fae, which makes her an outcast in the fae world. She’s spent her life fighting both other people and her own insecurities. Now she and her sisters, Mae and Y’sindra, operate a struggling private investigation firm on the edge of Las Vegas and the mystical Interlands. After a case goes awry, a job for the queen of all Fae drags Lane back to the site of a childhood trauma that left her with emotional and physical scars. Thankfully, her sisters and “resident eyecandy” Teddy have her back. As the gang tracks down stolen sun stones (items sacred to the sun fae), Lane slowly learns to accept who she is and how others perceive her. Choi delivers plenty of fast-paced action, but it’s the individual characters who steal the show. This promising series premier will leave readers wanting more. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Megadeath

Tory Quinn, with Marie Vibbert. Level 4, $18.95 trade paper (310p) ISBN 978-1-64630-066-2

With this middling cyberpunk tale of technology gone haywire, Quinn (Twilight of the Gods) and Vibbert (Galactic Hellcats) send bereaved mother and obsessive athlete Megan Mori to compete in a dangerous game, pitting her against both other players and herself. It’s 2112, and Megan’s only child was euthanized due to overpopulation, leaving Megan embittered and bent on competing in MegaDeath, the international, virtual-reality gladiatorial game that has replaced all-out wars in the face of rising waters and dwindling food supplies. Losers at lower levels of these games merely suffer intense pain, but the highest level losers die by the poisoned collars that they fasten to themselves before entering the competition. Megan quickly becomes the star of Team North America as it rises through the world tournament ranks en route to a protracted finale full of vicious violence, revelations of Big Brother–style governmental abuses, and even an unconvincing love triangle. The premise and character motivations strain credulity, and the profusion of video game–style fight sequences leaves little room for character development. For an audience that appreciates purely fast-and-furious action, this might work, but those looking for depth can take a pass. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Old Country

Matt Query and Harrison Query. Grand Central, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5387-2120-9

The Query brothers debut with a propulsive horror novel based on Matt Query’s viral short story, “My Wife & I Bought a Ranch,” which sees a family encountering ghosts from within and without after they drop their urban lives to move into an Idaho ranch. War-traumatized Harry, his wife, Sasha, and their faithful golden retriever, Dash, move to the Teton Valley to fulfill their long-held homesteading ambitions—but they quickly realize there’s something off with their new home: with the changing of each season comes a fresh set of horrors that emerge from the valley. The couple must defend against these threats or risk losing themselves to the ghosts of the Teton Valley. The Querys nicely work the worldbuilding into the action, and though the genre conventions are trod to the point of cliché, when the horror elements hit, they hit hard. There’s a late twist that won’t work for everyone, but the Querys stick the landing with an ending that feels earned and satisfying. Fans of Joe Hill and Paul Tremblay will want to check this out. Agent: Liz Parker, Verve Talent & Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Monsters We Defy

Leslye Penelope. Redhook, $17.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-316-37791-1

African American folk magic weaves through the alternate 1925 Washington, D.C., setting of this gorgeous fantasy from Penelope (the Earthsinger Chronicles series), in which magic-practicing humans choose to become indebted to powerful spirits—one of whom schemes to rule the human realm. Clara Johnson, herself indebted to a mysterious figure called the Empress, works as a typist while helping other Black folks with magic-related dilemmas on the side. A significant number of D.C.’s poor are coming down with a strange affliction and disappearing, but before Clara can investigate, the Empress cashes in a favor, tasking her with stealing an ancient ring from a wealthy opera singer. Clara reluctantly accepts, assembling a colorful crew to help pull off the heist: Zelda, her albino ex-circus performer roommate; Aristotle, a shape-shifting vaudeville actor; Israel, one of the hottest jazz musicians on Black Broadway; and Jesse Lee, Israel’s memory-altering, war veteran cousin. As threats grow from all sides, the group finds strength and answers in stories of their ancestors while coming to terms with how their pasts shape the future. Penelope’s blend of fantasy and history is pitch perfect, with wit, romance, and a lovable found family thrown in for good measure. Readers will be wowed. Agent: Sara Megibow, KT Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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