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House of Earth and Blood

Sarah J. Maas. Bloomsbury, $28 (816p) ISBN 978-1-63557-404-3

YA author Maas (the Throne of Glass series) makes her adult debut with this electrifying series launch set on a planet plagued by conflict between oppressed humans and upper-class supernaturals. When a demon slaughters wolf-shifter Danika Fendir and her packmates, Danika’s best friend, the half-human, half-Fae Bryce Quinlan, turns from carefree party girl to traumatized loner. Bryce’s only comfort is knowing that Archangel Micah Domitus and the 33rd Imperial Legion have incarcerated the man who orchestrated the attack: a human with a vendetta against the wolves. But two years later a vampire with connections to Bryce dies the same way Danika did, suggesting the pack’s true murderer remains at large. Desperate to discover the truth, Micah conscripts Bryce to dig into Danika’s final days, and tasks Hunt Athalar, an indentured Malakim assassin doing penance for his part in a failed rebellion, with protecting her. Despite some murky worldbuilding that occasionally undercuts the intricate plot, Maas delivers a richly imagined tale spiced with snarky humor and smoldering romance between Bryce and Hunt. The villains tend to twirl their mustaches, but Bryce is a realistically flawed heroine with moxie and heart to spare. Maas’s adult readers and fans of Charlaine Harris will devour this ambitious, emotionally charged contemporary fantasy. Agent: Tamar Rydzinski, Context Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Nightshade Cabal

Chris Patrick Carolan. The Parliament House, $4.99 e-book (294p) ISBN 978-1-07-872310-7

The clever ways in which biology, technology, and the occult interface in Carolan’s steampunk mystery debut hint at a promising new universe, but the actual story leaves too much potential unfulfilled. In 1881 Nova Scotia, researcher and technomancer Isaac Barrow searches for the source of strange autotype cartridges, parts of an arcane but very intelligent machine used to make copies, that appear to have been made with human brain matter rather than typical porcine brain. Simultaneously, he is hired to look for Emily Skye, whose sister fears the girl may have fallen in with a shadowy guild of necromancers, the Nightshade Cabal. The cases inevitably collide, leading Barrow to meet Emily, who serves as an excellent foil to his magico-mechanical exposition. But other pieces of the world’s magic, like the living tattoos of the Cabal’s stereotyped Chinese muscle, get little explanation. Most glaringly, the politics and practices of the Cabal never really come into play, and the social implications of minority magical ability beg for a more thorough exploration. Readers will enjoy the flavor of Carolan’s alternate history, but will find it frustratingly light on connective tissue. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Untouchable

Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee. Shadow Dragon, $14.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-932926-85-9

There isn’t a lot of pizzazz in Habiger and Kissee’s serviceable second Saul Imbierowicz historical urban fantasy (following Unremarkable), despite the fun premise of Saul and his boss, Eliot Ness, attempting to apprehend vampire gangster Al Capone. Saul has recently become a vampire himself, making him stronger and faster than his human partner, Agent Christian Wright, who both loathes Saul and is the only member of the team other than Ness to know of his transformation. Despite the animosity between them, Saul turns to Christian for help when he learns that a vampire war may be brewing in Chicago between Capone and a mystery vampire. Throughout this tale, Saul constantly imagines his Jewish family commenting on his actions (“If you’d rather drink this gentile’s blood and disappoint your mother, then go ahead”) as a way of coping with the knowledge that they believe him to be dead. This conceit is often amusing but occasionally becomes distracting, as when Saul’s imagined parents and sister interrupt his fight scenes. The abrupt, cliff-hanger ending creates an unfinished feel that will frustrate new readers. Still, Saul’s arresting narrative voice and the inclusion of real historical events will please series fans. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel

Julian K. Jarboe. Lethe, $15 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-59021-692-7

Jarboe’s outstanding debut collection demonstrates a flair for queer surrealism and an ear for lyrical prose. In the powerful “Self Care,” a nihilistic youth, who identifies as a “gay transsexual witch,” is displaced by apocalyptic flooding and takes refuge in Our Lady of Good Voyage, a Catholic church. “I Am a Beautiful Bug!” turns Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” on its head with a tale of a person undergoing surgery to look like the giant bug they’ve always wanted to be (“Gimme the works, doctor! Just like Gregor Samsa!”). The pieces range from brief vignettes that read like prose poetry to much longer works like the title story, which tells of a young man deciding to join the masses of ”defunct service cyborgs, addicts, migrants, drop-outs, single parents, [and] estranged children” on the holy colony of the Moon. Throughout, Jarboe melds tenderness, humor, and righteous anger into insightful tales of characters navigating the margins of society. Readers are sure to be blown away. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Critical Point

S.L. Huang. Tor, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-18036-0

Huang’s exciting third novel to feature mercenary Cas Russell (after Null Set) finds Cas taking baby steps toward living a normal life—until she discovers her friend is missing. Cas’s investigation gets off to a dangerous start when a man with the magical power to make people instantly forget about him blows up her Los Angeles office. The action only escalates as clues lead Cas to both a freelance bomber and a recently deceased plastic surgeon. Huang allows plenty of opportunities for antihero Cas to showcase her supernatural mathematical skills by defusing bombs, examining evidence, and executing fantastic feats during the exhilarating action sequences. Less successful are the tale’s quieter beats: the dialogue tends to become incoherent when characters are flustered, and some introspection grows tedious as Cas struggles with ethical questions. The reveal of the true antagonist also falls flat, but Huang still manages to bring this complex, many layered plot to a mostly satisfying conclusion. Cas’s continuing development will please series fans, but new readers may find the backstory overwhelming. This fast-paced sci-fi thriller makes up for its flaws with clever plotting and thrilling action. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories

Oobmab, trans. from the Chinese by Arthur Meursault and Akira. Camphor, $14.99 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-78869-187-1

Oobmab breathes new life into the cosmic horror genre with this debut collection of four tales that transport the Cthulhu mythos to China. In the spine-tingling, if slightly overlong, title story, archaeological findings from a previously unknown ancient civilization nestled deep in a secluded region of Sichuan lead to the discovery of a race of monstrous snake people. The other standout tale, “Nadir,” follows the growing obsession of painter Nebuchadnezzar as he becomes fixated on a black tower he sees in his dreams and believes to have been built by vengeful gods. His fixation turns to madness as he seeks out and ascends the tower, only to witness the cosmos collapsing around him as he climbs. These unapologetically pulpy tales are as strange, hallucinatory, and chilling in the best way. Fans of cosmic horror will be thrilled by these wonderfully ghoulish offerings. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Shard & Shield

Laura VanArendonk Baugh. Aeclipse, $3.99 E-book (462p) ISBN 978-1-63165-010-9

Baugh (The Songweaver’s Vow) hits the ground running in the satisfying, high-stakes fantasy that opens the Shard of Elan series. The human city of Alham is under threat from the Ryuven, winged, magic-wielding creatures. Shianan Becknam, a commander in the King’s army; Lady Ariana Hazelrig, a mage; and her servant, Tam, are tasked with retrieving the Shard of Elan, a magical object that will form a shield around Alham, sealing it off from the Ryuven realm and preventing further attacks. The trio successfully secure the shard, but in the process Shianan unwittingly lets in an enemy who dismantles the shield. Ariana and Tam are almost crushed by the collapsing barrier and are forced to escape into the Ryuven world, where Tam reveals himself to be a high-ranking Ryuven in disguise. As Shianan works to free them, Ariana learns to survive the Ryuven realm. Baugh keeps the pages turning with tightly plotted action sequences and taut suspense. Her multidimensional characters make consistently believable choices, though the romantic subplots are a bit half-baked. Still, high fantasy fans will find plenty to enjoy in this fast-paced adventure. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Cries from the Lost Island

Kathleen O’Neal Gear. DAW, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1578-5

O’Neal Gear (Maze Master) delivers an entertaining central mystery, but plays fast and loose with the supernatural in this romantic coming-of-age fantasy. In a slightly confusing alternate present where teenage witches and Satanists practicing the occult are commonplace, but other occult entities are deemed fanciful, 16-year-old Hal Stevens, three-time Colorado state ancient history champ, falls in love with Cleo Mallawi, who believes herself to be a reincarnated Cleopatra. When Cleo is murdered, Hal and best friend Roberto (the “Biker Witch”) join an archaeological expedition to Egypt led by Cleo’s shady uncle, where they hope to track down the graves of Marc Antony and Cleopatra to recover a sacred dagger that they hope will free Cleo’s soul from being forced to reincarnate yet again. O’Neal Gear brings a historian’s flair for details to the dig site and manages to keep her present-day story from becoming overshadowed by ancient Egyptian myth with convincingly flawed young protagonists and numerous red herrings surrounding Cleo’s murder. This fun story will hold more appeal for YA readers than adult fantasy fans. Agent: Matt Bialer, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Nghi Vo. Tor.com, $11.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-2507-5030-3

Vo’s adventurous debut combines myth and fable with political intrigue to build a stunning feminist fantasy set in a land inspired by imperial China. Chih, a traveling cleric, and their bird, Almost Brilliant, meet Rabbit, an elderly woman who spent her life as a handmaiden, and collect her many stories. Rabbit was sold to the court when she was five years old because her parents could not pay their full taxes. Once installed there, Rabbit quickly rose in the ranks of servants. The exiled Empress In-Yo from the North arrived at court later intending to take part in a political marriage and produce an heir. Both outsiders, In-Yo and Rabbit form a fast bond that runs deep, defying simple categorization. As Rabbit, who has remained loyal to the empress, reveals a tale of conspiracies and rebellion, Chih must decide what they will do with these spilled imperial secrets. The subtlety and nuance of Vo’s evocative storytelling lend the novella an epic, timeless feel. Equal parts love and rage, this masterfully told story is sure to impress. Agent: Diana Fox, Fox Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of Witches

Louisa Morgan. Redhook, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-0-316-41951-2

Morgan (The Witch’s Kind) sets her robust tale of matriarchal magic in a lushly depicted Gilded Age New York. Frances Allington practices the dark magic of maleficia, driven by ambition and the desire to distance herself from her impoverished upbringing. After gaining wealth through her dark arts, she aspires to elevate herself further by arranging a match between her stepdaughter, Annis, and a poor but title-holding British aristocrat. Headstrong 17-year-old Annis largely reserves her passion for her stallion, Bit, a devotion her father, as Bit’s legal owner, uses to leverage Annis’s cooperation in Frances’s scheme. Meanwhile, Harriet Bishop, Annis’s spinster “aunt” and Frances’s cousin, works to intercede on Annis’s behalf using her lighter strain of magic. Harriet hopes both to keep Annis safe from Frances’s maleficia and to help direct Annis’s own budding powers. By alternating perspectives between the characters, Morgan manages to elicit sympathy for each member of her large cast despite their conflicting desires. Even Frances is humanized beyond the typical wicked stepmother archetype. Readers will root for these powerful women as they struggle to overcome the social limitations of their time, whether through magic or force of personality. Agent: Peter Rubie, FinePrint Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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