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Overdrawn

N.J. Crosskey. Legend, $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-78955-022-1

Crosskey (Poster Boy) uses this powerful futuristic novel to explore the ethics of a health-care system built on capitalism. Following the collapse of a socialist utopia, the New Church holds that staying alive too long is selfish, and big companies promote euthanasia of the elderly and sick in order to financially benefit the younger generation. But elderly Henry Morris is determined not to let his wife, Chloe, who has dementia, go gently—even though he can no longer afford her medication. Kaitlyn Thomas is a waitress facing a similar financial dilemma to keep her brother, Jack, on life support. The two protagonists meet by chance at the hospital and devise an unusual plan to help each other make money: as “sterilization and termination [are now] considered responsible and sacred,” babies have become both rare and extremely valuable on the black market. So Henry donates his sperm and Chloe agrees to carry the child to term to sell to rich would-be parents. Meanwhile, Henry’s scheming son, David, works to secure his inheritance, and a tragic revelation about Henry and Chloe’s daughter is slowly teased out. Examining ageism, ableism, and misogyny, Crosskey succeeds in showcasing the value of human bonds while dealing with illness, trauma, and bureaucracy. Agent: Emily Sweet, Emily Sweet Assoc. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Queen of None

Natania Barron. Vernacular, $14.99 trade paper (326p) ISBN 978-1-952283-05-5

Starting with a clever explanation as to why King Arthur’s sister has been forgotten by history, Barron (Time & Temper) spins an entertaining new version of the Arthurian legend. Anna Pendragon was married off to the brutal King Lot when she was 12. Returning to Camelot as a widow 20 years later to bring Lot’s crown as a gift to Arthur, she hopes to rekindle her old love with Sir Bedevere and reconnect with her son, Sir Gawain. Instead, she discovers she is still a pawn of Arthur and the fearsome Merlin, who swiftly marry her off again in an effort to control both her and her new husband, Lancelot. With help from the women on the Avalon side of her family, Anna sets in motion a plan to seize her freedom—but the dark power required may destroy her. Anna, who loves and reviles Camelot in equal measure, offers a sympathetic new perspective on the familiar story. Though she only desires a life of love and peace, she’s forced to contend with her brother’s machinations and fight for her own autonomy. The result is a layered, engaging retelling sure to please fans of the Arthurian tales. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dungeon Party

John Webster Gastil. Cosmic Egg, $24.95 trade paper (464p) ISBN 978-1-78904-500-0

A tabletop role-playing group faces its greatest foe yet when a former member seeks revenge for his character’s death in this slow-paced, slice-of-life novel. Gastil (Gray Matters) explores the drama of a Dungeon Lords group led by the reclusive 30-something Alan Crandall, splicing the group’s interpersonal politics with their in-game adventures in the fictional Mythos. After Alan kills off the character played by narcissistic and unkempt Randall Keller, Randall quits the group and plots to ruin their chances at a Dungeon Lords tournament. Meanwhile, Alan recruits the group’s first female members, Maya Washington and Brianna Langdon, to replace Randall; the pair breathe fresh life into the world of Mythos and make the group a major contender in the tournament. But Randall’s plan jeopardizes both goodwill within the gaming community and the health of the players. While Gastil successfully captures the feeling of long gaming sessions and explores the diverse world of tabletop gaming, the lengthy in-game passages lack specificity and have little impact on the real-world plot or characters, dragging down the pace. Veteran Dungeons and Dragons players will enjoy the premise, but long for more excitement. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Frozen Crown

Greta Kelly. Harper Voyager, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-295695-8

Set in a land where magic is a rarity, Kelly’s riveting debut and duology launch follows a princess with a dangerous secret who must save her country from invaders. Princess Askia, rightful heir to the Frozen Crown of Seravesh, has spent months with her men in battle against the invading soldiers of the Rovan Empire. Unable to defend her realm from the advancing Rovans, Askia sails south to Vishir to seek aid from its leader, Emperor Armaan. But life among soldiers leaves Askia unprepared for the decorum and political games of the Vishiri court. With enemies both inside and outside the castle walls and her actions under constant scrutiny, Askia becomes enmeshed in court life. She fears that one wrong move will expose the unique magical ability she’s kept hidden her entire life—and which could spell danger for both her people and herself. Filled with magic, war, and intrigue, this thrilling high fantasy questions how much a ruler should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of duty. Vivid worldbuilding, high stakes, and just a hint of romance propel the twisty plot to a cliffhanger finale. Readers will be on the edges of their seats as they await the next installment. Agent: Jennifer Udden, New Leaf Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Con

J.D. DeLuzio. Brain Lag, $14.99 trade paper (242p) ISBN 978-1-928011-41-5

DeLuzio’s fun but convoluted debut thrusts readers into the colorful world of science fiction fan conventions through the intertwined experiences of a tangled web of characters. Telfryn Tyde attends the con alongside married couple Brian and Augusta Slesak while secretly pining for Augusta. There they meet up with regular con-goers Chelsea Ashe and Patti Washington, who have picked up a pair of aspiring suitors in brothers Mark and Thomas. The group crosses paths with the attendees of a smaller Jane Austen convention happening at the same hotel, and Telfryn befriends Janeites Mistie Matthews and Denise Moon. Finally, Kate, Chelsea’s maybe-girlfriend, arrives on the scene to surprise her. Threaded throughout the confusion of each character’s experiences at the convention are sightings of a small, alien creature and questions of Telfryn’s mental stability. DeLuzio offers a comedic whirlwind of panels, a robot fight, and encounters with pop culture figures, though the alternating perspectives and unreliability of Telfryn as narrator create a story that is occasionally difficult to follow. This absurdist effort will most appeal to readers immersed in fandom culture. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Take a Look at the Five and Ten

Connie Willis. Subterranean, $40 (120p) ISBN 978-1-64524-019-8

Hugo and Nebula Award–winner Willis (Blackout/All Clear) tests the boundaries of the science fiction genre with a grounded, realistic story that’s sure to impress. Every year, Ori must weather exhausting holiday dinners with a strange amalgamation of not-quite family members, including her former stepfather’s new stepdaughter, Sloan; Sloan’s “boyfriend of the moment”; and the kind but dotty Grandma Elving, who loves reminiscing at length about the winters she spent working at Woolworth’s as a young woman in the 1950s. Sloan’s plus-one to this year’s meal is a medical student named Lassiter who finds more than meets the eye in Grandma Elving’s detailed memories: he believes the specificity of the elderly woman’s recollections is indicative of a traumatic flash bulb memory, the topic of his current lab work. TFBMs are caused by events so traumatic that they force the mind to relive the surrounding moments in extreme detail. As Ori and Lassiter team up to uncover what singular moment might be causing this in Grandma Elving, their relationship blossoms into something more than teamwork—and they discover that Grandma Elving’s flash bulb memory is more unusual than they ever imagined. This brisk holiday novella is quirky, heartwarming, and impossible to put down. Agent: Chris Lotts, the Lotts Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Poison Prince

S.C. Emmett. Orbit, $15.99 trade paper (560p) ISBN 978-0-316-45342-4

The intricate, slow-moving second fantasy in Emmett’s Asian-influenced Hostage of Empire series (following The Throne of the Five Winds) opens shortly after the murder of Crown Princess Mahara in Zhaon, leaving Komor Yala, Mahara’s lady-in-waiting, stranded in the foreign kingdom. Grieving and duty-bound, Yala is determined to discover the culprit, even if it means entangling herself in perilous court politics and allying with Zhaon’s conniving royals. Yala enlists honorable Gen. Zakkar Kai and unpredictable Third Prince Takshin to assist her in the investigation—and both men fall deeply in love with her and seek her hand in marriage. Meanwhile, the ailing Emperor’s condition grows suspiciously worse, and sly Second Prince Kurin schemes for the throne. As the battle for power corrupts the royal family and Yala continues her unyielding quest, the plot is weighed down by an overabundance of detail and a large ensemble of complex characters. Still, Emmett’s worldbuilding is sophisticated and captivating, hinting at a larger culture even as the novel remains narrowly focused on the petty intrigues of the court. New readers may have trouble catching up, but returning fans will find plenty to enjoy. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Legacy of Steel

Matthew Ward. Orbit, $17.99 trade paper (704p) ISBN 978-0-316-45790-3

The outstanding second fantasy in Ward’s Legacy trilogy (after Legacy of Ash) keeps the drama rushing along at an exciting clip through a fiendishly complicated plot. First and foremost, there’s the war between the Tressian Republic, championed by Josiri Trelan and Viktor Akadra, and the Hadari Empire, led by Prince Kai and his ambitious daughter, Melanna Saranal. Simultaneously, supernaturally powerful kernclaw assassins threaten both realms. But there are over 50 characters on the novel’s list of dramatis personae, and 10 of them are “divinities” who enjoy meddling in human affairs. Ward’s experience as a game designer serves him well as he shifts focus frequently, mixing massive battles with intimate personal moments, as in the moving scene in which Josiri’s sister realizes she is not the person she had imagined herself to be. The human struggles mingle with conflict between semimortal gods as the threat of the Third Dawn, or the end of the world, looms. Ward presses all the right, well-worn buttons with enough vigor to make them feel fresh. The result is a ripping yarn that more than earns its length. Agent: John Jarrold, John Jarrold Literary. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A House at the Bottom of a Lake

Josh Malerman. Del Rey, $20 (208p) ISBN 978-0-593-23777-9

Bird Box author Malerman leaves readers with more questions than answers with this eerie, atmospheric horror novel. Teenagers James and Amelia spend their first date getting acquainted while winding their way through two idyllic lakes in a canoe. They discover a secret passage through a rocky tunnel to an uncharted third lake that seems to be untouched by humanity—save for the fully intact house they spot at the bottom of its depths. Intrigued, they make plans to return with scuba gear to explore. Diving deep into the building’s depths, James and Amelia learn more about both the house and themselves while embarking on a whirlwind romance. Malerman masterfully builds tension, balancing the exuberance of first love with the foreboding mystery of the house. The uncanny elements and strange, evocative setting will keep readers flipping pages, but the atmosphere never gives way to more visceral scares and the underwhelming resolution leaves the mystery dangling. Readers shouldn’t expect any concrete thrills, but fans of Malerman’s precise prose will be pleased to explore this new and unsettling world. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Blood of the Sun

Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray. Raw Dog Screaming, $15.95 trade paper (236p) ISBN 978-1-947879-26-3

The suspenseful third supernatural thriller in Rabarts and Murray’s Path of Ra series (after Teeth of the Wolf) sees Penny Yee, a scientific consultant to the Auckland, New Zealand, police, and her ne’er-do-well brother, Matiu, face off against gang violence, cults, and a mystical family reunion. After a massacre on Freyberg wharf, the police call in Penny to help piece together evidence from a slew of hacked-up bodies. Meanwhile, Matiu can sense that the Māori gods are growing restless, urging him to realize his inheritance as a demigod. But between meeting with his parole officer and becoming embroiled in a sun-worshipping cult, Matiu has too many mortal worries to join his long-lost family in their supernatural battle. The threads of the siblings’ disparate plots weave together much more tightly than it first appears. Rabarts and Murray write with characteristic verve, injecting the noir atmosphere with dark humor. Series readers will find much to enjoy. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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