This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: An Indian Epic, a Return to the Prequel Era, and an Unforgettable Book No One Remembers

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Upon a Burning Throne, by Ashok K. Banker
Ashok Banker is a huge bestseller in his native India, and is making his U.S. debut with this ambitious epic fantasy inspired by the Mahabharata itself. The Burnt Empire exists in a world where demigods and demons walk the earth alongside humans. After the emperor dies, the empire is thrown into chaos, as two heirs each seek to prove their worthiness by sitting on the Burning Throne, whose deep magic destroys the unworthy. Both princes—Adri and Shvate—pass the test, but yet more chaos is unleashed when a third claimant appears: the daughter of the demonlord Jarsun. When his offspring is denied her chance to prove her worthiness as well, Jarsun declares war, vowing to destroy the Burnt Empire in revenge. Adri and Shvate find themselves co-rulers of an empire roiled by sedition and stressed by invasion in this sprawling tale of conspiracies, battles, and demonic magic.

Fire Season, by Stephen Blackmoore 
Your friendly neighborhood necromancer Eric Carter returns in fine, dark form in the fourth installment of Blackmoore’s smart urban fantasy series. As the novel opens, Los Angeles is literally burning with impossible fires. During one of the hottest summers on record, someone is killing off mages with fires that never go out (and shouldn’t be able to burn in the first place. Carter is being framed for the serial killings, and he thinks he knows who’s behind it—not everyone has a vengeful Aztec god in his rear-view mirror, after all. But some parts of his theory don’t quite add up, giving Carter the sinking feeling there’s more going on than he suspects. Which is always a dangerous thing when your day-to-day dealings include magic, the undead, and angry gods.

Winds of Marque: Blackwood & Virtue, by Bennett R. Coles
Coles launches a new series with a story of swashbuckling officers in His Imperial Majesty’s navy chasing down a nest of pirates—in space. The Big Ship Energy is real: these deep space vessels are propelled by solar sails. Second in command Liam Blackwood is still smarting from being passed over for promotion when the HMSS Daring gets a new captain, Lady Sophia Riverton, and new orders to infiltrate and destroy the pirates threatening the empire’s supply lines, even as it gears up for war with an inhuman enemy. Assisted by his petty officer and possible love interest Amelia Virtue, Blackwood is forced to act when his new his captain begins making questionable decisions and laying the grounds for a mutiny. It should go without saying that fans of Aubrey Martin and Temeraire will enjoy sailing acros the stars with the crew of the Daring.

Amnesty, by Laura Elena Donnelly
In the wake of a successful revolution, the once-glittering city of Amberlough struggles to rebuild itself in the final volume of Lara Elena Donnelly’s Nebula Award-nominated decopunk trilogy. Now that the oppressive Ospies have been removed from power, the regime that replaced them is seeking retribution from all who may have betrayed the city. This includes Cyril DePaul, who self-interestedly worked both sides of the conflict in an effort to save his own skin. His only remaining allies are a bitter ex-lover and his distant sister—and even in the wake of drastic change, Amberlough remains a dangerous, decadent place, awash in crime, deception, and—hopefully—a chance at redemption.

No Country for Old Gnomes, by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
If the second book in Dawson and Hearne’s gleefully parodic Tales of Pell series is not the surprise that Kill the Farm Boy was, it is every bit as delightful. As the tidy, cheerful gnomes prepare for war against the well-armed, voracious Halflings, one gnome finds his life upended by a Halfling bomb. Offi Numminen stands apart from others of his kind, incrementally less cheerful, and favoring cardigans with a distinctly goth appeal, but he goes from outcast to last hope when he finds himself the leader of a band of misfits headed off on a journey to the Toot Towers to set the world right again. The quest won’t be easy, but it certainly won’t be harder than pulling his band of malcontents together and making them work as a team. Once again, Dawson and Hearne balance their whimsical, affectionate ribbing of fantasy conventions with a deep love for the genre and the tropes they’re subverting.

Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan
When twin black holes enter our solar system and knock Earth’s orbit out of whack, Matt Fleming reacts by creating the Mandjet, a floating, self-sustaining environment designed to withstand the climatic disaster that ensues. Struggling against government incompetence and his own family’s reluctance to admit what’s happening even as the summers turn brutally hot and crops fail worldwide, Fleming and the others on the Mandjet chronicle the collapse of civilization and the new reality of a world where all of the rules of nature and survival have been rewritten. With the scientific rigor that is Egan’s forte, this chilling what-if scenario serves as both a thrilling apocalyptic tale and a dire warning about the costs of inaction in the face of looming catastrophe.

Master & Apprentice (Barnes & Nobel Exclusive Edition), by Claudia Gray
Claudia Gray returns to the Star Wars galaxy with a real treat for fans who might feel forgotten in the era of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn: an all-new adventure featuring Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn. The story opens with the pair at a crossroads: Qui-Gon struggles with worry that he has failed his Padawan, as Obi-Wan frets at Qui-Gon’s consideration of an invitation to join the Jedi Council—thus ending their partnership. In the midst of this doubled-edged doubt, the Jedi are called to a distant planet to assist with a political dispute that quickly spirals into danger. As Qui-Gon experiences visions of disaster, Obi-Wan’s begins to suspect he can no longer trust his Master. The Barnes and Noble Exclusive edition includes a double-sided pull-out poster.

A Time of Blood, by John Gwynne
The sequel to A Time of Dread and the second book in John Gwynne’s Of Blood and Bone trilogy, A Time of Blood continues a richly detail and action-heavy epic saga. Drem and his allies saw terrible things at the battle that ended the last book: men transformed into monsters and a demon returned from the dead. They are now being hunted by the demon’s most loyal priestess, Fritha. Elsewhere, the half-breed Riy hides out in the forest, concealing her identity, and the threat she poses to the pure-blood warrior angels. The dark is rising, and the heroes have to save themselves before they can save the world.

Nest of the Monarch, by Kay Kenyon
The final volume of Kenyon’s crafty alternate history trilogy featuring super-powered spies in World War II-era Europe. Psychic spy Kim Tavistock is in Germany, posing as the wife of a British diplomat, on her first offical assignment for British Intelligence. Kim’s handler—and father—Julian hopes she’ll be able to use her talent to make people “Spill” their secrets to her will reveal valuable intelligence about the weapons the Nazis are developing. But Kim, shocked by the racist and Semitic actions she witnesses in Berlin, winds up helping a Jewish resistance fighter named Hannah Linz. Together, the two become embroiled in a German plot involving vampiric psychics, as Kenyon builds the series to a rousing climax, never losing site of the strong-willed, stout-hearted woman at its center.

Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman
Emma Newman’s fourth book set in the Planetfall universe is another inventive and emotionally wrenching affair. As a passenger onboard the spacefaring vessel Atlas 2, Dee was one of the few who witnessed the nuclear strike that killed millions on Earth. Angry and deeply traumatized, Dee seeks both to uncover who was responsible and to escape her suffering within an immersive game that applies real world physicality to a virtual setting. Invited to test a new build of the game by a mysterious guide, Dee enters a play session unlike any she’s ever experienced. When she kills another player in-game and a man winds up dead in real life—a man with possible ties to the nuclear launch, no less—Dee becomes a suspect. As she doubles down on her investigation, she makes a chilling discovery that changes everything she thought she knew about her life—and the colony planet she’s headed toward. Made up of standalone novels that share a setting and a commitment to delving into their characters’ psyches, the Planetfall series stands with the best science fiction of the last decade.

The Master of Dreams, by Mike Resnick
Genre veteran Mike Resnick delivers the first book in a new trilogy that doubles as a romp through all your favorite stories. A man named Eddie Raven and his girlfriend Lisa wander into a fortune-teller’s shop in New York, and into a violent shooting that leaves Lisa injured. Eddie hears a mysterious voice that orders him to run. He does, and soon finds himself the owner of an all-too-familiar bar in Casablanca—except this one is populated not by Nazis and ne’er do wells, but by monsters. Sooner than he can figure out what’s going on, he’s following a yellow brick road and helping a young Kansan girl find a wizard; then he’s in Camelot with someone named Arthur. As Eddie reels and struggles to adapt to his shifting reality, he must figure out why the Master of Dreams is chasing him through twisted versions of famous stories, and find Lisa before it’s too late.

All My Colors, by David Quantick
This twisting puzzle of a book from Veep and The Thick of It screenwriter David Quantick stars Todd Milstead, a failed writer who could be generously described as a jerk. Todd’s got a great party trick, though; an eidetic memory that allows him to quote chapter and verse from texts he read decades earlier. The ability leads to a mysterious discovery when, at a dinner party, he recites extensive quotes from a bestselling book only he seems to remember—as far as everyone else (from his wife to his local bookseller), the titular All My Colors. was never published. With his marriage and finances in turmoil, desperate Todd hatches a plan, retypes the  the novel from memory, and sees it become a massive hit. Even after all his success, though, Todd is still the same man. He’s obsessed with his now ex-wife, and hires a private investigator stalk her and her new boyfriend—a guy who oddly doesn’t seem to appear in photographs. Things only get stranger from there, as Todd discovers there are consequences to his act of “victimless” forgery.

The Unicorn Anthology, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman 
Who better to edit an anthology of unicorn-themed stories and poems than SFF Grandmaster Peter S. Beagle, whose novel The Last Unicorn may be the definitive unicorn story? Following up their World Fantasy Award-winning collection The New Voices of Fantasy, Beagle and co-editor Jacob Weisman bring together 15 tales offering unique and unexpected twists on the unicorn myth. The contributors include heavy-hitters in the world of SFF fiction: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jane Yolen, Garth Nix, Carrier Vaughn, and Beagle himself, just to name a few. Their stories run the gamut from the gentle, to the horrific, to the surprisingly gritty and realistic.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Vol. 13, edited by Jonathan Strahan
The thirteenth volume of Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best series is also his last with Solaris; next year he launches Year’s Best Science Fiction with Saga Press. He goes out on a high note with a wonderful lineup of contributors, including Elizabeth Bear, Daryl Gregory, and two 2019 Hugo Award nominated novelettes: Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing and Zen Cho’s “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” originally published on this blog.

What are you reading this week?

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In the Darkly Humorous All My Colors, a Jerk Rewrites a Novel Only He Can Remember

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Todd Milstead is a jerk. His friends barely tolerate him (and only because he supplies them with free food and booze), he treats women terribly, and his ego far eclipses his nonexistent writing talent. Perhaps the only real skill he has is a perfect memory: at will, he is able to accurately quote entire passages from books, if not entire books.

During yet another obnoxious dinner party, Todd begins to quote from a bestseller called All My Colors and is shocked when no one else can remember it. At first he shrugs it off, assuming the others are just far less well-read, but when he tries to find a copy of the book and prove everyone wrong, he quickly realizes that he’s the only one who remembers it.

Facing a divorce and the realization that his life is about to take a turn for the worse, Todd decides to take advantage of his perfect recall to recreate the book that doesn’t exist. He knows it was a bestseller before, so why not “write” All My Colors himself and make some cash off of it?

The new novel from Veep and The Thick of It screenwriter David Quantick—which shares the name of the fictional, in-narrative tome—chronicles the fast-paced, darkly humorous tale of Todd Milstead’s sudden rise to fame and his equally sudden demise. Quantick shatters the notion that a character must be likable for a story to succeed: throughout, Todd remains an insufferable, irredeemable jerk. Even when he briefly seems to reform for the better, the reader can sense that there hasn’t been a real change in him, and, soon enough, he returns to his inconsiderate ways.

It is the strength of Todd’s awfulness that keeps us reading: he may be a caricature of every “Guy in Your MFA,” but that only makes us eager to see him get smacked down for his arrogance. Although we’re lured by tantalizing hints that he might get away with his scheme, we ultimately cheer for him not to. The journey toward Todd’s inevitable comeuppance is a real ride, and the reveals along the way more than satisfy the mystery that opens the novel—why is Todd the only one who can remember this particular book? —even if things might come together with an ease (and a villainous monologue) that belies the author’s roots in television.

Under a surface layer of pulp horror, All My Colors challenges ideas of ownership that feel relevant to our current creative climate. As publishing struggles to embrace diversity and welcome stories that are inclusive of underrepresented parts of our community, one question often arises: whose stories do we prioritize? Written by whom? How do stories about a multiracial cast of characters written by white authors, or stories about trans characters written by cis authors, fit into the framework of diversity that we now want to promote?

Neither I nor Quantick are here to give universal, straightforward answers to these questions. All My Colors asks us to soul-search—to ask ourselves why we want to tell certain stories and what drives us to create narratives; to question our own intentions and motivations, and the dissonance between our public and private selves. Rather than being a treatise on inspiration, Quantick’s story is about the consequences of theft and the entitlement we display when we treat a person’s real life narrative as an object to be possessed and sold.

Quantick spins the tired trope of a book about someone writing a book into a darkly humorous story about ego and comeuppance, one that, for a moment, lets the reader believe in a just world where jerks get their due punishment. The dark humor in All My Colors will leave you grinning, your teeth shining and so very, very sharp.

All My Colors is available now from Titan Books.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding Meets Chinatown in Titanshade

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Genre mashups are the lifeblood of sci-fi and fantasy, and one of the most enduring examples of the form is the combination of SFF trappings and old-school noir detective tropes. From Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business, to Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, to Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (not to mention just about everything Jim Butcher ever wrote), there are few genres that play so well together.

That doesn’t mean to suggest that mashing the two together is easy, but debut novelist Dan Stout certainly makes it seem so with Titanshade, the first book in a new science fantasy series with an assured noir tone and an incredibly detailed, lived-in world.

Titanshade is a city in the midst of an icy desert, where life is only possible because of the energy given off by the demigod imprisoned in the earth below. Its suffering heats the city, powered by the citizens’ muttered prayers. It’s a densely populated, gritty place, where magic once dominated, fueled by the mysterious substance known as manna, until the stores of the stuff started running dry. An industrial revolution stepped in, substituting magic with with good old-fashioned oil. But as the story opens on a gruesome murder scene—the victim is one of a frog-like species of people called Squibs, whose viscera has a powerful effect on many humans when they smell it, sometimes resulting in complete loss of impulse control and a strong increase in appetite—the oil is running dry, too, and all the big money players are scheming and maneuvering to keep their piece of Titanshade’s pie.

Carter is a cop with a reputation for being more trouble than he’s worth, but he’s good at what he does. If he isn’t as dirty as his colleagues assume, he isn’t a saint, either. But he’s been tasked with solving this killing, and he’s going to do his job.

It’s a classic noir set up, all right: a corrupt city, cops who are playing their own games, a murder that is a dangling thread that, once pulled, unspools a much larger mystery. Sure enough, the victim—a Squib named Garson Harberdine—turns out to be part of a diplomatic team that has journeyed to the city to negotiate a deal for wind farms to replace the drying oil wells. Carter is assigned an inhuman babysitter in the form of rookie cop named Ajax, a member of yet another inhuman species, the Mollenkampi (you can get a glimpse of one on the book’s amazing cover), and quickly finds himself snared in a web of political intrigue, prostitution, blackmail, religion, oil barons, and police corruption. No one’s telling the full truth, every clue leads to a dead end or near-death, and through it all, Stout steadily fills in details until the city feels like a real place.

Mixed in with the fantastical elements are a bunch of delightfully incongruent, decidedly non-science fictional elements.Carter types his reports on a typewriter and relies on pay phones to contact his cources. The cops drive normal cars, and in general, Titanshade is painted as a place offering an incredible mixture of the fantastic and the mundane—a vision of own world, had it been a little late to enter the computer age. The anachronistic effect works like gangbusters—if you can accept that a Divination Officer can arrives at a crime scene and use a bit of manna to communicate with the victim, why shouldn’t Carter hide in an an alley with a flask filled with cheap whiskey, just like any old Earthbound detective? The push-and-pull of influences results in moments of wonderful imagery:  giant beetles pulling carts through the city streets, favored by a religious sect somewhat like the American Amish.

Along with the worldbuilding, Stout nails the nuance of his characters. There are no paper villains or heroes here; the police are painted as people with individual motivations, prejudices, weaknesses, and strengths. They are depicted as dedicated, imperfect beings working as best they can in a corrupt system skewed by money, careerism, and simple moral exhaustion. It’s quite satisfying to watch them lurch towards something like justice—or as close they’re gonna get. Carter’s inexhaustible efforts to protect his friends and seek the truth pay off in pure noir style as he stumbles onto an ever larger and more twisted conspiracy, and Stout gets extra credit for making the increasingly convoluted plot both wholly unexpected and yet organic to the story and the world in which it is set.

Stout’s mix of magic and the bald realism of simple greed results in one of the year’s most entertaining debuts. It’s a book you’ll close, happy in the knowledge that it is but the first in a series.

To put it another way: Forget it, Jake. It’s Titanshade.

Titanshade is available now.

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Reality Is an Impossible Game: Emma Newman’s Atlas Alone

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Reviewing a novel four books deep into a series is always a little tricky—even if, as with Emma Newman’s Planetfall series—the novels are less a continuing storyline and more a sequence of standalone narratives in a shared world.

Planetfall, After Atlas, Before Mars, and now Atlas Alone all take place on different planets—or on no planet at all—and are told by four different first-person narrators. Up until Atlas Alone, the singularity of the voice and the triangulation of a certain event—the mission of a vessel known as the Pathfinder, which ferried a zealous scientist and her band of followers to an alien planet in search of God—have served as the connective tissue between one novel and the next.

That all changes with this fourth installment, which takes place in the wake of the events of Before Mars, and with a cast of characters we know from After Atlas. Even by the standards of previous Planetfall novels—which all conclude with brutal, perspective-wrenching revelations—the ending of Before Mars is a doozy, one that I don’t want to detail too closely, lest I blunt that final knife-twist. If you haven’t read the earlier books, I will attempt to tread lightly—but beware of spoilers (not that these are strictly the kids of books that can be spoiled, as preoccupied as they are with the twisting thoughts of their narrators).

The events of Atlas Alone are told to us by Dee—Deanna—who was sold alongside Carlos (from After Atlas) to the hot-housers of the post-democracy world they inhabit. To be hot-housed is to be brutally conditioned into a useful, indentured nonperson: Carl was trained to be a detective; Dee was trained in something like PR crossed with data analysis. It’s slavery in everything but name. The third of their small circle is Travis, once husband of the head of a powerful gov-corp. They’re six months into a 20-year voyage to the Pathfinder’s planet, all three of them reeling from calamitous events they witness upon liftoff. We first meet them in the midst of something of an intervention for the three of them: Carl is starving, refusing to eat 3D printed food; Dee won’t take up the immersive games that have always been her balm and succor; Travis is both inscrutable and twitchy. They are tearing themselves apart with what they know, and what they can’t tell anyone.

Dee is given a chance to find out more about the other people on their ship, the Atlas 2, when she’s invited to join an immersive game tournament by a member of another social group. For unknown reasons, social contact between groups, and even individuals, has been “deprioritized.” Carolina wants to hire Dee to crunch numbers and work out the most desirable game models. They have 20 years in space, after all; gaming will kill the time. But what Dee finds in the data is disturbing, hinting at intentional divisions between the passenger groups, from the older and wealthier gamers; to the members of the Circle, a cultish, low-tech group of people who rarely engage in immersives.

But before Dee can begin to explore Carolina’s social circle, she’s sucked into an immersive game by a mysterious agent. The content of the game is incredibly upsetting: Dee finds herself climbing stairs in the apartment building she lived in during a pivotal period of her childhood, stepping over the corpses of everyone she knew during that time. Nothing about the game runs according to the spoken or unspoken rules of game design. And horrible evidence suggests that violent actions that happen within the game have consequences in the real world—an impossible porousness between gaming and reality.

Heretofore, the Planetfall narrators have been prickly, damaged people, avoidant of their personal traumas by way of elaborate defense mechanisms. They are expert examples of the unreliable narrator, telling complex stories from complex perspectives, the kind where what they focus on is as important as what they avoid. Dee is no different, but she’s also our iciest narrator yet. Much of the overt plot is spent in immersive games—Dee’s true landscape and release—but she doesn’t treat them much differently from her real life. She’s always plotting the angles and reading the terrain. She says what she needs to say and projects what’s she’s supposed to feel to advance the plot (her life); otherwise her interior world is flinching and cold.

Atlas Alone ends with the same kind of gut punch that has become the series’ hallmark, but there’s something deeper and more difficult going on as well. The ethical test at the center of the narrative doesn’t have a name—it’s something like the prisoner’s dilemma crossed with a more terrible version of the Milgram experiment—but it’s a moral dilemma our protagonist fails utterly to solve. The hardest truth to swallow is that we know we might fail with right along with her, depending on how closely we align with her cold, rational way of approaching the game and rationalizing the traumas that made her who she is. Is it all just a game? Does that matter?

Atlas Alone is available April 16.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Evil Cell Phones, Assassin Nuns, and Game of Thrones Meets Home Alone

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Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, by Nathan Ballingrud
Nathan Ballingrud has made a name for himself as a writer of disturbing short fiction, and his second collection proves that reputation is well deserved. Six stories—including the brand new novella The Butcher’s Table and the story The Visible Filth, which has already been adapted into the forthcoming film Wounds—explore different ideas of what it means to be a monster across varied settings and time periods. A 19th-century ship carries a crew to the borders of hell, where a terrible sacrifice is planned; in a modern-day bar in New Orleans, a lost cell phone us a portal to horrors beyond imagining. In hauntingly beautiful language, these are modern horror stories explore the darkness that is always around us, whether we’re brave enough to face it or not.

The Scribbly Man: The Children of D’hara, Episode One, by Terry Goodkind
The creator of the seemingly endless Sword of Truth saga returns with a novella-length installment starring fan-favorite characters Richard and Kahlan. The story picks up in the wake of the “end” of their story in Warheart, and chronicles what happens next—to both Richard and Kahlan and their children. This is the first in a planned series of shorter works that will continue one of the most crucial storylines in The Sword of Truth.

Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence
The final book in Lawrence’s acclaimed Book of the Ancestor trilogy concludes the science fantasy story of Nona Grey, apprentice to a holy order of assassin nuns on the frozen planet of Albeth, where the ice is advancing and the empire is under siege. The emperor’s sister Sherzal knows Nona’s friend Zole holds the legendary shipheart—believed to be a core of one of the vessels that originally brought humanity to Albeth—and she’s determined to reclaim it. Traveling to the Convent of Sweet Mercy to complete her training, Nona is on the verge of taking the nun’s habit in her deadly order, provided an all-out war doesn’t disrupt her plans. But even fully-trained, and with the devious power of a shipheart at hand, Nona isn’t certain she’ll be able save her friends, or even herself, and turn the tide of a disastrous conflict. Struggling against the demons that seek to control her from within, Nona prepares for a final battle that will determine not just her own fate, but the fate of a world. Loaded with wild worldbuilding and dangerous women, this trilogy-ender is a satisfying treat for dark fantasy readers.

We Are Mayhem: A Black Star Renegades Novel, by Michael Moreci
The second book in Moreci’s Black Star Renegades series doesn’t give its heroes much time to bask in the victories that ended the first book. In the style of The Empire Strikes Back, destroying the Praxis ship the War Hammer, commanded by the ruthless Ga Halle, hasn’t done much to make the galaxy safer for Han Solo-esque rogue Cade Sura. He’s still in possession of the fearsome Rokura, the deadliest weapon ever designed… but he has no idea how to use it. As Kira Sen leads a small but determined rebel group into a Praxis city, hoping to strike a blow for freedom, Cade is brought by his former mentor Percival to a mythical world in a search of dangerous knowledge that could prove to be his undoing. Moreci’s second unashamed ode to his love for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away is even more fun than the first.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker
World Fantasy Award-winning pseudonym K.J. Parker’s (neé Tom Holt) latest is military epic fantasy writ small: an in-depth, sharp-tongued history of one city under siege by invaders, and the immense efforts undertaken by one of its citizens to save the day. With scant supplies and no forces to muster, the city must look to Orhan, an expert… engineer? to deliver them from death. When you’re facing impossible odds, impossible solutions are necessary, and Orhan is the man to deliver them. Via fiendish invention, he may just be able to build himself and his neighbors a bridge across this metaphorical chasm. It’s Game of Thrones meets Home Alone.

Seven Blades in Black, by Sam Sykes
Sykes new Grave of Empires trilogy is built around Sal the Cacophony, a former mage and gunslinger hellbent on revenge against the 33 mages who tore her magic out of her. Arrested and waiting for execution for her crimes, Sal is given a chance to save herself with a confession, but the story she tells is more than just a list of crimes: she served in the Scar, a blasted wasteland caught between two vast empires, but now exists only to locate and kill the mages who betrayed and brutalized her. Sal will cross any line to complete her quest, and Sykes seems to have a similar regard for the rules of epic fantasy in this go-for-broke blend of Kill Bill and Final Fantasy.

The Sundering: Dread Empire’s Fall, by Walter Jon Williams
Amind the current space opera resurgence (seriously, the slate of recent and new high-concept, spacefaring SF books, from the Starfire series, to A Memory Called Empire, to Ancestral Night, is stunning) it’s worth drawing attention to Harper Voyager’s ongoing rereleases of Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series—truly one of the best sci-fi trilogies of the 2000s, offering all the action, political complexity, and well-rounded characters of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch novels. As the series continues (a new installment, The Accidental War, arrived last year), it’s a great time to go back and see what you missed—or give them a reread in these slightly revamped, reedited “Author’s Definitive” editions.

What are you reading this week?

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The Municipalists Creates a Convincing Blueprint for the City of the Future

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The most impressive thing about Seth Fried’s genre-adjacent new novel The Municipalists is his careful avoidance of genre clichés. Dwelling as it does on the logistical problems that will be faced by the metropolis of the future, you can imagine the book as a sort of Blade Runner tribute, if Philip K. Dick had decided to focus on city planners instead of robot-killing cops. Instead, The Municipalists excels because it inverts your expectations—not only in what it is about, as a science fiction novel about the workings of a future city, but also how it goes about it.

It’s protagonist, Henry, is a public official and a municipal fanboy, believing in the inherent power and safety of the city as a structure to an almost fanatical degree. The first chapter provides specific insight into his credo, and explains why running efficient cities has become, for Henry, a moral imperative: “The closer trauma victims are to population centers and dense infrastructure, the more likely it is that their lives will be saved.”

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will recognize this sentiment from the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”; in that story, Holmes and Watson ride out into the countryside, and as Watson admires the beauty of being away from urban London, Holmes scoffs: “You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed here.”

This debate occupies a fair amount of Fried’s attention throughout The Municipalists. Just as most modern readers are inclined to side with Sherlock Holmes, they will likewise be encouraged to agree with Henry here; the power of cities makes them feel undeniably, sociologically safer. It might not be the most exciting topic for a science fiction novel to tackle, but Fried deftly speculates not only on the ways technology might enhance future cities, but more interestingly, how the organization of government interacts with city-planning technology. Holograms, drones, and artificial intelligence are no longer simply common provinces of science fiction; these days, they’re real-life tech. Fried knows this, and so does his best to avoid being too proud of his own subtle worldbuilding. Though the Rhode-Island sized city of Metropolis bears a passing resemblance to the multi-city “Sprawl” of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Fried’s vision of the future is decidedly not cyberpunk.

That’s an accomplishment in it of itself, if only because the plot finds Henry investigating the technological failure of Metropolis’s infrastructure, aided by a sentient AI program named OWEN. Henry wears a company-mandated fedora, which gives the book a retro-noir feel, but it doesn’t dwell in the grimey dystopia of cyberpunk. Instead, it takes place in a believable—and occasionally hilariously mundane—future world that has more in common with Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano than it does with hard sci-fi.

Fried displays some of Vonnegut’s humor, too. The idea that Henry seems super-unqualified to investigate a massive drone accident in Metropolis is just part of the book’s offbeat charm. We learn to like Henry as he recalls cracking a mystery that involved beaver deaths, or when he makes reference to the drawings his co-workers have made that depict him joyfully sniffing his boss’s farts. Henry is the kind of character that feels like he has no place being the main character in a science fiction mystery, and yet here he is, and the book is infinitely richer for the choice. Even if you can’t relate to Henry, he’s likable for being so set in his fuddy-duddy ways.

By necessity, the plot seriously interrogates Henry’s dogmatic belief in cities. For readers who are wondering about their own futures—perhaps debating about where to live next—this book will invite interest and provoke moments of reflection; if all the trains ran on time in the greatest cities in the world, would what we give up to live in them—communion with nature, freedom from distraction, the peace of silence— still be worth it? Just how afraid should we be of drones falling from the sky? The Municipalists doesn’t answer these questions definitively, but it does ask them with wit and charm.

The Municipalists is available now.

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Sam Sykes’ Seven Blades in Black: Magical, Memorable, and Soaked in Blood

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I was left with several distinct impressions upon turning the final page of Sam Sykes’s latest series starter, the 700-page Seven Blades in Black.

The first was sheer delight at Sykes’s ability to come up with good character names. This story is filled with them: names that dance on your tongue and light the fire of your imagination, which only burns brighter as you begin to explore the world they inhabit (which actually also happens to be on fire for most of the novel).

There’s Cavric Proud, a soldier with the tender heart; and Stark’s Mutter, a town destroyed. There are villains of the highest order: Galta the Thorn, Riccu the Knock, Jindu the Blade, Vraki the Gate. There is Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Porcelain Vase, a nom de guerre to rule them all; and Congeniality, the bird of war.

And then, of course, there’s Sal the Cacophony.

Sal, you see, is the the other element of the book you won’t be able to forget upon closing it, even after you move on to other books, other characters, and other worlds. Because Sal is one of the most full-bodied and delicious fantasy anti-heroes in recent memory.

A battle-scarred outlaw magician, Sal is one-half of the reputation that precedes her in every town she haunts, ceaselessly hunting the names on her own personal hit list. The other half is the Cacophony, the fiery-tempered magical gun forever ready and willing to unleash mayhem upon the world.

Sal is foul-mouthed and constantly running afoul of both the imperial empire and its revolutionary foes. She is troubled by her own violent past. She is also troubling; she can’t leave a place without leaving a massive pile of bodies behind. She is flawed and flawlessly rendered. And she is funny, favoring a gallows humor you’ll get to know up close and personally through her point-of-view narration.

Sal’s presence is magnetic, which explains why she’s able to draw so many fascinating characters into her orbit as she trails a bloody path for vengeance. When we first meet her, she’s being interrogated by the hard-nosed general Tretta, to whom she recounts her life story. (Between this and Jenn Lyons’ buzzy debut, The Ruin of Kings, it’s been a good year for jailers with a lot of time on their hands.)

Tretta’s mission is to extract information and execute the prisoner. But even as Sal takes the long way around in delivering the information Tretta seeks, he finds it hard to cut off the conversation.

Who can blame her? It’s a helluva life story.

For that matter, who could blame Cavric Proud, a revolutionary soldier first abducted by Sal, then pulled into her intoxicating web of revenge? When it concerns our roguish magician with a cause, who could blame Liette, expert alchemist, for silencing her logical mind and lapping at the rage spilling over from her lover’s heart?

Sal’s orbit is littered with characters who are simultaneously repulsed and spellbound by her, a tension that may mimic your own feelings as the death toll mounts and Seven Blades in Black races toward a satisfying conclusion (though it is but the first novel in The Grave of Empires series).

Of course, you may be wondering: what exactly happens in this book? Fair question, but it’s fitting that we’ve gone this far without divulging any of the plot’s secrets—because secrets are mostly incidental to Sal, who cares only for her bloody-minded. That’s kind of the point.

Sal’s focus is on her own vengeance for past wrongs and horrific trauma. That her prey also intend to inflict unimaginable suffering on the Scar (Scar being the name of the wild and well-imagined wasteland Sal calls home) is of interest to her, but mostly as justification—a shield of righteousness for her singular pursuit.

All told, the seeds of Sykes’s previous series (Aeon’s Gate, Bring Down Heaven) are in full flower here: militarized magic, smart-mouth sorcery, complex worldbuilding, and lots and lots of gore. They are all entwined around the shoulders of a woman well-equipped to carry an entire world.

While many in the Scar regret wandering along the paths trod by Sal the Cacophony, you most certainly won’t.

Seven Blades in Black is available April 9.

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Hugo-Winner Suzanne Palmer’s Finder Is a Ridiculously Fun Science Fiction Adventure

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Finder, the debut novel from Suzanne Palmer (winner of a 2018 Hugo Award for the novelette “The Secret Lives of Bots”), is a fast-paced, hugely enjoyable sci-fi adventure—a rollicking ride from a hardscrabble space colony at the outer edge of the galaxy to the conflict-ridden settlements of colonized Mars and back again, with stops on the way at an alien spaceship and a holiday planet laden with glorious beaches.

The resourceful and likable protagonist, Fergus Ferguson (he’s Scottish, and no, his mom wasn’t trying to be funny) is a “finder,” a sort of intergalactic repo-man, abd he’s been tasked with tracking down, hacking into, and returning a stolen sentient spaceship called Venetia’s Sword. The job takes him to the space colony Cernekan (Cernee to the locals), which is located in “a half devoured solar system on the edge of the galactic spiral arm.” There, he must figure out how to recover the prized vessel from one Arum Gilger: power-hungry, violence-prone ex-nobleman-turned-arms merchant.

But before Fergus even makes it to Cernee proper, the space cable car he’s riding in is attacked, and he is saved from certain death by the only other passenger onboard, a gnarly old lichen farmer known as Mother Vahn.

The fate of Mother Vahn after the attack, and Fergus’s own dramatic arrival in Cernee, upset the precarious balance within the colony, igniting a civil war. That complicate Fergus’s retrieval mission, to say the least, and threatens the livelihoods (and lives) of the local populace. Fergus’ job grows ever-more complicated as he makes friends and enemies in the various factions of Cernee and eventually attracts the attention of the Asiig, a mysterious aliens that occasionally abducts people, and occasionally also returns them, seemingly unharmed.

Palmer keeps the story moving along at clip, peppering Fergus’ misadventures with plenty of political intrigue, alien interference, religious fanaticism, and mysterious motivations as her grows ever-more tangled in the snarl of small-colony politics. And that’s only the half of it—midway through the book, all the plot threads—Fergus’s troubled past on Mars, the looming presence of the alien Asiig in their black ships, the increasingly desperate fighting on Cernee—come together in a way that propels the narrative in an entirely new direction, setting up the riveting latter half and laying the groundwork for a satisfying payoff.

In her first novel-length work, Palmer builds a compelling, realistically gritty, and plausibly vast universe inhabited by humans and aliens, riven with conflicts and alliances, and full of fascinating nooks and crannies that seem to persist beyond the edges of the story. She’s quite good at the sort of everyday details that makes a world feel lived-in—the nitty gritty of lichen farming, the delights and horrors of sampling the foods of a new world—with fun and often funny sci-fi concepts—the intricacies of hacking into a sentient spaceship; what happens when you try to be stealthy but end up riding a flystick that shoots purple holo-glitter. In one rather unforgettable scene, Fergus and his friends attempt to create a diversion using vibrating sex toys.

Fergus is a wonderful protagonist: resourceful, persistent, and hiding a streak of reckless heroism beneath a wise-cracking, self-deprecating exterior. He has a knack for MacGyver-ing together unlikely but (somewhat) functional solutions from whatever scraps are available to him and crafting brazen plans that often don’t work out quite as expected. In his own words: “All of you know that my plans tend to be ridiculous and go wildly wrong and weird in unanticipated ways, right?” Right.

For fans of adventure sci-fi, Finder will engage and entertain. The dialogue snaps and crackles, the blend of real-world science and sci-fi tech is inventive, and the motley cast of characters both helping and trying to thwart Fergus in his mission are truly memorable. The deft worldbuilding and complex character motivations only make it more satisfying—there’s really no reason a novel this funny needs to be this well thought-out, but it’s all the better for that.

The ending satisfies, but leaves a clear opening for sequels; Palmer’s website indicates there is indeed a second Finder novel in the works. I’m glad to hear it: after reading the first one, I’m ready to follow Fergus Fergusson on whatever weird space adventure he falls into next.

In the meantime (and especially if, like me, you’re a fan of SFF short stories), you’ll also be interested to know that most of Palmer’s science fiction stories (published in venues like Asimov’s, Analog, and Clarkesworld, and reprinted in various Best of… anthologies) are set in the same universe as Finder, though not necessarily featuring the same characters.

You can find some of them in these anthologies:

Finder is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Dangerous Knowledge, Sci-Fi Horror, and Nanotech Invention

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The War Within, by Stephen R. Donaldson 
The much longer sequel to The Seventh Decimate greatly expands this new series from the author of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. It picks up the story of former enemy nations Amike and Belleger two decades after the events of the first book, which ended with the revelation that a terrible doom was on the way, and only through unity could either nation survive. Prince Bifalt dutifully married Princess Estie of Amika, but the peace—and their marriage—has been rocky. For one thing, it remains unconsummated, as Bifalt’s conception of duty leaves no room for affection. For another, the Last Repository, the archive of lost magical knowledge that Bifalt discovered 20 years before, has been found by a terrifying enemy. With the prince isolated and indecisive, Estie has acted as the glue holding two old enemies together—but with a crisis upon them, only a true union can offer survival.

Kellanved’s Reach, by Ian C. Esslemont
Ian C. Esslemont concludes the Path to Ascendency series, a three-part prequel to the sprawling Malazan Book of the Fallen, with a rousing novel that will satisfy fans and resist even the most determined newcomers. The wide-ranging storyline and sprawling cast of characters is too much to easily summarize here, needless to say, the chronicle of determined noblewoman Surly, fighting to reclaim her homeland; the magical quest of a mage, Kellanved, and an assassin, Dancer, to find the seat of the Army of Bone; the efforts of a young mason and an apprentice magician to join the Crimson Guard; and more storylines reach suitably epic stopping points, setting the stage for what’s to come.

Perfunctory Affection, by Kim Harrison
Bestselling urban fantasy author Kim Harrison (the Hallows series) has been experimenting with sci-fi of late in novels like The Drafter and The Operator; her latest is more difficult to classify, but filled with the danger, romance, and readability that has attracted her a legion of devoted readers. Artist Meg is on the brink of breakout success, but held back by the anxiety triggered by her boyfriend’s recent serious car accident. At her therapist’s urging, she connects with a woman named Haley, a guest professor at her university who is living a life Meg dreams of. But when Haley’s influence seems to be changing Meg too much, and too fast, her boyfriend Austin attempts to intervene, she attempts to cut him out of her life—but he resists. This thriller is set in a world not quite our own, and asks compelling questions about the effects of trauma on our perception of reality.

Finder, by Suzanne Palmer 
Suzanne Palmer’s zippy space caper stars Fergus Ferguson, a sort of spacefaring repo man with a reputation for chasing down even the most dangerous cargo anywhere in space. His latest target is a heavily armed warship called Venetia’s Sword, currently in the possession of a vicious gangster named Gilger. Fergus isn’t intimidated, even if Gilger is on the brink of war with a dangerous arms dealer. Fergus traces Gilger’s ship to a small colony planet, where he promptly finds himself caught in the middle of a violent civil war. Forced to ally with the enemies of his enemy, Fergus struggles to negotiate a peace, keep tabs on his quarry—and figure out why supposedly legendary aliens—who have turned out to be disturbingly real—are following him around. This debut is a fun, fast-moving jaunt into the zippier, zanier side of space opera.

A Witch in Time, by Wm. Mark Simmons
The fifth and final entry in Simmons’ HalfLife Chronicles brings together elements of weird fiction, gothic atmosphere, and mythical monsters. Half-vampire P.I. Christopher Cséjthe is living with depression brought on by a life spent in the shadows, but after a near-fatal attack, he wakes up in a different world and given a chance at a fresh start. He finds a gig as a bodyguard to a coven of witches seeking to heal the fallout from the atomic attacks of World War II. If Christopher making the right choices, fleeing the problems in one reality to save another? Only time will tell.

The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
Gyre Price is desperate. Abandoned and alone on a poverty-stricken mining planet, she wants nothing more than to learn of her mother’s fate. Seeking a big paycheck that will allow her to do just that, she fakes her credentials as a caver, assuming that the work, while dangerous, will be organized and supported by the usual safety measures. Her handler on the expedition, Em, turns out to be unpredictable, cruel, and filled with her own secrets—and Em knows that Gyre lied to get the job, and isn’t afraid to use that knowledge to force her into a dangerous, terrifying journey into the darkness. Underground, Gyre must face not only her own inner demons, but plenty of Em’s as well. By the time she begins to understand that the danger may not all be on the inside, however, it may already be too late. This is nail-biting, cinematic sci-fi survival horror.

Edges, by Linda Nagata
Nebula-winner Linda Nagata returns to the universe of the Nanotech Succession (The Bohr Maker, Vast) after 20 years with Edges, the first volume in a new, standalone trilogy. The humans living in the Deception Well system believe they are the last of their species, as humanity has been all but wiped out by the robotic warships of the Chenzeme and the settled systems nearer to Earth have all seem to have been destroyed. Then a man named Urban reappears, centuries after he first left the system, now in command of a captured Chenzeme warship called Dragon. He’s seeking recruits for a dangerous mission to Earth with the intent of discovering what really happened. Reversing and retracing humanity’s path to the stars will be dangerous enough, but when Dragon is invaded by an unknown force, and the humans must fight for control of the ship if they’re going to survive long enough to plumb the mystery of humanity’s downfall. Nagata is immensely skilled at crafting smartly constructed, extremely plausible far-future worlds and technology, and it’s a treat to see her exploring the frontiers of hard SF once again.

What are you reading this week?

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A Vein of Sci-Fi Horror Runs Deep in The Luminous Dead

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Gyre Price is a young, desperate, reckless, and a liar—and talented enough that those qualities don’t matter. Not on this job.

On an alien world where the chances of leaving are slim to none, opportunity is found not in the stars, but beneath the stone: Gyre is one of a group of cave climbers hired by corporations to delve for minerals, water, and other mineable resources. She isn’t the least bit qualified for the job, but she’s good enough to fake it, and the money it pays will deliver her only chance at leaving the planet to search for the mother who abandoned her.

Outfitted in a state of the art suit monitors and feeds her—and shields her presence from the mysterious, monstrous Tunnelers that dwell within the plane—Gyre’s life depends on the reliability of the tech and the skill of her team of handlers, who are ostensibly steering her toward the safest paths from the surface… Except there is no team, there’s just Em. Brilliant, cold, and tactical, Em has no qualms with using drugs on Gyre without her consent, manipulating her, and keeping her in the dark (both literally and metaphorically) as she works toward her own ends.

Together, Gyre and Em delve into one of the most dangerous cave systems on the planet, for a purpose that Gyre doesn’t know and Em won’t reveal. And though she’s certainly isolated on her journey, Gyre may not be alone in the dark.

That’s just a hint of the horrors lurking within The Luminous Dead, the fantastic horror sci-fi debut from Caitlin Starling. It’s a novel as claustrophobic as the premise suggests, yet despite the fact that much of the action unfolds in conversations between just two characters, it never feels constricted. Even as Starling increases the narrative pressure with every page, she dives just as deeply into the psyches of her main characters, giving us room to root for both Gyre and Em in different ways, playing with expectations and inviting readers to shift their alliances from one woman to the other through carefully controlled character reveals. As danger closes in on all sides, we’re never quite sure who love, who to hate, or who to trust.

And oh what dangers there are: treacherous drops, vicious riptides flowing through underground pools, an alien fungus that infects everything it touches, and the Tunnelers, ravenous creatures drawn to disturbances in the rock, Gyre’s suit batteries running low, missing supply checkpoints, and more. There is much to fear down in the dark.

The novel also crawls deep into Gyre’s own mind: the further down she goes, the more she allows herself to be fueled by paranoia, grief, and anger, the less reliable a narrator she becomes. Starling balances this distorting reality with careful skill; by the climax, you, like Gyre, may no longer be sure of which way is up.

The Luminous Dead is a survival story in the vein of The Martian, with a psychological horror twist—the journey of two women climbing knowingly into the jaws of darkness, but not without a hope of seeing the light of day again.

The Luminous Dead is available April 2.

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