See the Apocalypse Through the Eyes of A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

In the Talking Heads song “(Nothing but) Flowers” David Byrne playfully laments a world overtaken by nature: “This used to be real estate,” he sings. “Now it’s only fields and trees.” That is pretty much the world that C.A. Fletcher (a pen name of Charlie Fletcher, author of the children’s fantasy Stoneheart and the adult magical thriller The Oversight) shows us in A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, though there is little playful about the post-apocalyptic world he imagines. Nature has reclaimed our planet, yes, but only because, 100 years before the book begins, most of humanity died off.

The reason for humanity’s decline is chalked up to a “soft apocalypse”—a modern day global event of unknown origin that rendered the vast majority of the population unable to reproduce. This spontaneous outbreak of mass infertility was eventually dubbed “The Gelding.” The human race slowly aged into near-oblivion, leaving only small pockets of fertile survivors—less than .0001% of the world’s population now remains, struggling to build families and survive in a rustic new world in which most technology has become ancient history.

All is relatively right in the world for young narrator Griz, a child of this new epoch.  He and his family—mom, dad, a couple of sisters—live a somewhat self-contained lifestyle on a rocky island off the coast of Scotland, surviving thanks to a little farming, tending to sheep and horses, and the occasional forage off-island to “go a-Viking” for supplies. Their precarious but happy existence is through off kilter when a roguish traveler named Brand, full of stories and braggadocio about the outside world, makes landfall on their island. The visit does not end well, and by the time Brand sets sail again, he has claimed, among other things, possession of one of Griz’s two dogs.

But you just don’t separate a boy from his dog, apocalypse be damned.

That’s the setup for the main arc of this lightly fantastical tale. Griz heads out to parts unknown with his remaining dog Jip, hoping to track Brand (and his flamboyant red-sailed ship) across the sea to the lands beyond and reclaim his loyal pup. It’s a noble and headstrong act, but anyone who has ever experienced the immutable and undeniable human-dog bond will more than relate to the boy’s blind determination. It’s sweet, daring, and perhaps not completely thought out, as what’s left of the inhabited world—as sparsely populated as it is—can still be a dangerous place for a boy and his dog.

While the search for Jess the dog motivates Fletcher’s tale, there is much more going on in the story, and it is in these moments where the novel truly connects emotionally, above and beyond the universality of a master’s love for their dog. As our narrator, Griz recites/dictates/explains—often in bluntly honest terms—all he experiences in his post-Gelding world in a monologue spoken to a long-dead boy in an old photo he’d discovered on one of the family’s exploratory adventures long ago. The boy in the photo—taken well before things went south, apocalyptically speaking—provides a touching thematic bridge to a past Griz has never known. As the boy wanders the nature-reclaimed countryside, Fletcher shares, through the innocent eyes of his narrator, rich glimmers and glimpses of what once was, and what it has become.

Books, naturally, survived The Gelding, and Griz has devoured hundreds of classics. Those tales bleed into his perception of the real world, and the references to A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Hobbit serve as a sort of gently comforting breaking of the fourth wall, a sense that a piece of the beauty we’ve created will endure into the future, whatever sort of mess we make of it. One particularly monumental work of nonfiction figures seamlessly in and impacts massively the story’s final pages, delivering a resounding punch that moved me to near tears. It is a wonderful thing – it truly is.

Tales of the apocalypse are commonplace these days, a symptom of our national anxiety, but Fletcher has managed to infuse his with real heart; he had me at a boy searching for his pilfered pooch. Long before the I reached the final page, I knew the book was a likely contender for “year’s best” status, and I have found myself going back to  Griz’s world in my mind on more than one occasion since, usually as I walk my dog around my quiet, as-yet-unapocalyptic neighborhood. This is a story both achingly familiar at its most basic levels and daringly questioning at its deepest, and it’s all driven by (and for) the love of a dog.

If that doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps you need to get a dog.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is available now.

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A Slow Invasion Continues in The Rosewater Insurrection

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The alien invasion is well underway before we even notice it in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy, which continues in The Rosewater Insurrectionthe sequel to the British Science Fiction Award-nominated original. By the conclusion of that book, we’d received as clear a history as possible on the alien dome that had suddenly appeared in the middle of a near-future Nigeria, freely offering humanity unlimited energy and miraculous healing. Rather than the miracle seen by many, the Wormwood dome was ultimately revealed to be the latest stage in a very long game by a race of aliens hoping to gradually phase out humanity via assimilation—the slow replacement of our human cells with extraterrestrial microorganisms. Continuing from there, Insurrection sees national politics around the site heating up at the same moment  a new development signals a major forward step in the Homian aliens’ plans.

The focus in the sequel shifts away from Kaaro, the rogue government agent of the first book, to follow a broader ensemble. A housewife, Alyssa Sutcliffe, awakens one morning with no memory of her life or her family; government agent Aminat is charged with capturing Alyssa and/or keeping her safe. Jack Jacques, the city’s mayor, is provoked by Nigeria’s president into declaring independence for the small community. Rosewater happens to be a perfect example of the resource curse, a real-world paradox in which regions abundant in resources often are subject to more violence and more troubled development—typically due to instability brought about by outside forces who want what they don’t have. When Rosewater was just a small community on the borders of the Wormwood entity, no one gave much though to governance and control. Now that it is a thriving city, made rich by the free energy provided by the alien dome, the broader government of Nigeria is much more interested.

Complicating matters is the fact that, while the dome provides power and can heal certain ailments, it’s also the vanguard of a long-gestating alien invasion. Rosewater is preparing to go to war with Nigeria over resources provided by an alien structure that’s slowly working to assimilate humanity—an on-point if slightly convoluted metaphor for the complexity of real-world practical politics. Like many politicians, Jacques is a bit of a cypher: having risen out of a secretive development program for African leaders, his motivations seem neither heroic nor entirely self-interested, and he’s only sporadically troubled by the implications of his bold agenda.

With this impending civil war as a backdrop, Aminat seeks out Alyssa, the first person to have been so imbued with alien microorganisms that she’s no longer even half-human—a development that signals a potentially alarming new phase in the Homian’s plans for Earth. Dodging and engaging with assassins and psychics who can communicate with the alien xenosphere generated by the dome, the two are ultimately caught up in the developing military conflict between Nigeria and Rosewater. Each side hopes Wormwood can offer them an advantage, and believe Alyssa might be a key piece of the alien puzzle.

Thompson’s greatest innovation with this series is also its most challenging aspect: like the first book, Insurrection is presented in a non-linear style, and via multiple perspectives. It’s not just a gimmick—the jumps back and forth and between allow the characters connected to Rosewater to drive the story, rather than the alien invasion plot. Epic events are always recounted from a very human (or, at least, individual) perspective. That means that, also like the first book, a close reading is rewarded.

With its focus on a troubled government agent with a dark past and a deeply uncertain future, Rosewater seemed strongly influenced by noir. As The Rosewater Insurrection broadens the scope of the story, it takes on elements of political thriller. What hasn’t changed in the impressive worldbuilding: Thompson’s near future, which encompasses Nigeria as a broad political entity; Rosewater as a well-considered ad hoc community with its own rules, culture, and economy; and Homian biotech as a power influencing them both, is grounded in the entirely convincing stories of believable mix of people.

In the struggle over how to handle Wormwood’s short-term but unquestionably appealing rewards, Thompson also paints a vivid picture of a post-colonial Africa facing similar choices—in treating with foreign governments and multi-national corporations, there are big rewards and bigger risks for real world nations and individuals willing to play ball. We’re not meant to find any of these characters, aliens included, particularly evil—but self-preservation is everyone’s main goal, and a conflicting one.

The Rosewater Insurrection is that rarmid-series volume that expands upon the world and ideas of its predecessor, lays the groundwork for the conclusion, and still manages to tell a satisfying story along the way. Rosewater was one of our favorite books of 2018.The sequel more than follows suit.

The Rosewater Insurrection is available March 12.

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Designing the Cover for The Rage of Dragons, the Next Great Epic Fantasy of 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Evan Winter’s debut novel, The Rage of Dragons, is another success story of the likes of Josiah Bancroft and Jonathan French. A year and change after his self-published his debut novel, it is coming out in print from a major publisher.  Orbit will release the hardcover edition in July, while the reedited ebook is available now. This story of a reluctant young fighter growing up in a cultural built on endless war, it has been called Game of Thrones meets Gladiator, or, as acquiring editor Brit Hvide put it on Twitter, “it’s got dragons and warrior training and a matriarchal society and all the characters are black because why not?”

Needly to say, we’re pretty excited to read it—and our excited wasn’t exactly tempered by Orbit’s recent reveal of the cover (see the full version below!). Evan recently spoke with artist Karla Ortiz, the cover illustrator, about the process of creating the cover, representation in pop culture, and artistic inspiration, and we’re happy to share that conversation with you today. 

Evan Winters: I think book covers are immensely important. They’re a book’s calling card. They’re its most consistent and prevalent marketing tool and most importantly, they’re a promise to readers. I want to thank you for creating a wonderful piece and for giving my story its promise. I’m curious, what was the creative brief and how did we come to the cover that we have today?

Karla Ortiz: The creative brief is interesting because whenever I get one of these briefs it’s almost like I’m a detective and I’m getting the file cases. We got a short brief little story of who you are as the author and what the story feels like. Not any specific story points, although there were some specifics like here’s some of our characters, here’s some of the feelings, some of the things they visually want to bring into the whole story.

Orbit’s art director, Lauren [Panepinto], is the best. We’ve been wanting to work together for a really long time. She actually hit me up. She said specifically, “Karla. I have a book and I really want you to work on it. I’d think you’d be perfect for it and here’s why.” She gave me a little bit of that brief and what you as the author were trying to bring to the story. I was just like, “Yeah, I would love to be a part of it.” She challenged me actually, because most of my illustration work is very heavily character-centric. If left to my own devices, I would have painted all the characters and I would have spoiled the story for readers. We went through a series of sketches and she had pointed at a painting that I did a long time ago in which I had a relief of figures in the wall. That’s always a subject that I’m in love with. I love relief sculptures and just how dynamic and magnificent they can be.

Are there parts of the final cover that point to specific scenes or characters in the book?

Evan: I feel as if the way the cover is, it’s actually better than if it pointed to a specific scene in the book because what you did speaks to the tone of the book. It speaks to the direction that the story goes and the direction it will be going. I think that that’s probably more important than a specific scene. Even though, as a reader, it’s always fun when you get to a point in the book and you go, “Oh that’s the cover.” It totally is fun. But I think that a cover often ends up needing to do a bit more than that. Because too often, individual scenes can’t really speak to the story or the greater idea that you’re trying to tell. I really loved the cover because I think what it does is it captures the tone of the story and the kind of idea that I’m going for, which is that there’s something larger than individual moments that’s happening. Something that has weight and almost a sense of history to it. Because that is part of the goal, I want the story to have the feel of almost a history being told.

Karla: I worked on Black Panther. For the cover of The Rage of Dragons, I used a lot of the process that I used for creating stuff for Black Panther, where you look at a lot of things from an area, you research the history of it and why they used certain things. I had one version where it was a shield and bunch of swords and weaponry. There was another version where it was just the background relief and the statues. Then there was another version that had little statues but there were fire embers all over. When Lauren came back to me, she’s like, “Okay, we love all of them so let’s put them all together.”

Evan: One of the things I really like about the way it’s all come together and how you used the relief but still have the figures within the relief is… Very often people talk about Africa as if it doesn’t have its own history. What you’ve done is you’ve almost created a feeling of that. We hear all the time about Roman and Greek history, and we often see things in reliefs on the buildings that they made and what you’ve done here is you’ve said, “Look, let’s take that idea of history and look, Africa has it, too.”

Karla: Where I’m from, Puerto Rico, the stories most people grow up with are the Spaniard stories, but the ones that are really, really interesting are those of our Indian heritage, the Taino. The stories of the gods that they have. Because we get hurricanes all the time, they named a specific god that comes over and then you go and run and hide in the mountains. There are great stories and great legends and things that you’re just like, this is just as cool as any kind of Roman mythology or Viking mythology. Every place has that. It’s one of the things I’m so excited to start seeing, especially in fantasy. I’ve been seeing a trend of authors being like, “Hey, you know what? We’ve told these stories. The Vikings and Romans, typical fantasy so long, what about the gods we don’t talk about? What about the mythology we don’t talk about?” That’s what I’ve been so fascinated with lately.

Evan: I completely, completely, completely agree with you. Civilizations everywhere have these stories and we have to start telling them. It’s important that we hear them, I think, and see the places where we have the commonalities and we need to value the differences.

Karla: Seeing Black Panther nominated for all those [awards] is so cool. There’s definitely changes happening in Hollywood. You’re in the forefront of that, too, with your book, as well. What kind of stories are being told? It’s now expanded to reflect our reality more, of how varied and how diverse we are. I think that’s so exciting.

Evan:It’s an extremely exciting time to be trying to create, I think. Especially because not very long ago, there weren’t very many opportunities for people like you and me, I think, to be able to create as easily, and with as much support from the places that can help you make a living doing that creation. Black Panther obviously is a big Marvel Studio movie, but it’s like a lot of this is coming out of people making their own stuff in their own way, because they’re going, “You know what, I can’t wait for somebody to let me make something. I have to make it now.”

Karla: That also creates a ripple that’s unforeseen. Like, how many young people see that and say, “Oh, I can be a hero. I’m not the lackey.” Like, for example for me, “Oh, I’m not a housekeeper,” ’cause that’s what everything in Hollywood would always tell me. You’re Hispanic, you’re just going to clean a house. Like, “Oh, I can actually be a superhero. I can have defining roles that are exciting. I can be heroic, I can be strong, I can have flaws, I can be everything.” Especially within the fantasy realm you can allow yourself to dream to that extent. That’s life-changing for people.

Evan: It’s always wonderful to hear it. You’re completely right, and it makes a difference. I took my son to go see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was so amazing to watch. I went with my son and my wife. My wife is not particularly into comic book stuff. She was like, “Oh, we’re going for the little guy, so I’ll go.” She loved it. That’s not what she’s into, and she’s like, “That’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.”

Karla: Me and my boyfriend saw it three times. That’s how good it was. My favorite was going to a matinee or seeing little kids coming out and just being like, “I could have the mask, too.”

Evan: That’s the most important thing for me. I got to sit next to my son in that movie theater and he got to watch Miles Morales be Spider-Man. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about being able to see yourself in art, being represented, because helps us make sense of the real world, I think.

A lot of the time in the writing community you hear the idea of, “Oh, you have to really be in the mood or feeling it.” And then the other side says, “Well, it’s just butt in chair.” Personally, I outline, and try to put ‘butt in chair’ because then I know what I need to write and can’t get blocked. After that, if you put your butt in the chair and you know what you’re supposed to write, you just write. The other thing about simply doing the work without too much focus on ‘waiting for the muse’ is that, even on the days you’re not feeling it, if you just do the work, you’ll never let stuff happen on the page or the screen that’s below your level of craft. You just won’t. Just keep going and then, at the end, you can revise, revise, revise until it gets to at least the height of your craft. Maybe the height of your craft doesn’t end up being where you want it to be, but that’s what practice is for, right?

Karla: I teach a lot and I do a lot of workshops and that’s one of the things I often tell students. There’s also a lot of artists in my industry that are like, “Oh, I don’t paint unless I feel inspired.” But inspiration is so fleeting. And inspiration is just not reliable. I work in film right now. With film you can’t wait for it to inspire you. You’ve got to go. What I’ve found is that sometimes I don’t feel it at all but I tell myself I’m going to do just a couple little marks. That helps me inch myself into that mood and suddenly, before you know it, you are inspired.

Rather than waiting for that very specific moment when the new moon comes in and the stars align and you’re just like, “Oh, now I feel it.” And you better hope that you don’t get a phone call, ’cause then you’re screwed.

Evan: And then you’re done. And those moments happen where all the stars align and it’s beautiful.

Karla: Yeah, it’s gorgeous.

Evan: The funny thing is when I read my work back afterwards, I can’t tell when the stars align and I can’t tell when I was having an awful shitty day, the words are just there. You don’t even know the days you didn’t feel it because you just read the words and you’re like, “Okay, that works. That’s great.”

Karla: That’s perfect. After a while you look back at a painting and … I do remember some of my paintings where I remember not really enjoying it, but now that I look at with new eyes, it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. It’s not as big of a deal as I remember it to be.

Evan: It was an absolute pleasure to get the chance to speak to you. Thank you so much for an amazingly beautiful, beautiful cover and a cover that I’m very, very proud of. I’m extremely excited for the rest of the world to see it.

Karla: Me too. I’m excited for the book to hit. I’m excited for people to be just like, “Damn.” Thank you. It was just an honor. It was an honor to meet you, and thank you so much for your time and your vision.

More about The Rage of Dragons:

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.

Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.

Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

The Rage of Dragons launches a stunning and powerful debut epic fantasy series that readers are already calling “the best fantasy book in years.

The Rage of Dragons is available now as an ebook. The hardcover edition will be published on July 16, 2019. Preorder now.

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The Gods Are Awake and at War in The Gutter Prayer

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Cover art by Richard Anderson

The gods, man: you’re almost certain to die with them and you’re almost certain to die without them. At least, that’s usually the case if you’re a character in a fantasy novel in which deities have made their presence tangibly known. It’s certainly more or less the hard shape of things in Gareth Hanrahan’s fantasy debut The Gutter Prayer.

Tumult and chaos fuel the plot of this series starter, as the city of Guerdon braces for a magical war that no two of the parties involved understand in totality. Gods old and new vie for souls and power. Sorcerers and alchemists create their own fresh horrors to guard the city. Everyone else—including the members of the thieves’ guild—tries to figure out how to come out unscathed.

It is three thieves, in fact, who are at the heart of this story. Carillon Thay, Rat, and Spar: the orphan with a dark past, the ghoul, and the Stone Man, respectively. The opening chapter finds this unlikely trio reeling from a failed heist, though it’s not just a simple matter of a botched job—the three soon find themselves entangled in a complex conspiracy that threatens to quite literally destroy Guerdon.

The moving parts are many, but Hanrahan does a masterful job juggling them—shifting perspectives between characters in and out of the city and keeping the story moving ever forward and ever faster. The world and mythos he’s constructed is impressive, promising no shortage of back alleys to explore or sordid underbellies to expose.

And yet is on the strength of its characters that The Gutter Prayer excels as a debut, and threatens to take its place as one of the year’s most satisfying new dark fantasy novels. Perhaps that seems a bold statement to make in January, but this one is definitely a cut above: within the central trio, you have a diverse set of full and lifelike personalities. Carillon, suddenly plagued by dark and dreadful visions, can be impulsive and self-interested, his natural flaws exacerbated by a childhood filled with trauma and a life spent largely on the run. By accident, she falls in with Guerdon’s ring of theives and meets Spar, son of the Brotherhood’s revered fallen leader, who suffers from both a disease slowly turning his flesh to stone and an inflated sense of duty that may sooner lead to his downfall. Rounding out the group is Rat, an ever-suspicious ghoul torn between life on the surface and his inevitable descent to the feral underground realm of his kind.

In turns, these distinct voices narrate a race to an armageddon none of them saw coming. In probing the reasons that led to their own their own ill-fated failed heist, they uncover the shared secrets and competing machinations of the most powerful factions in Guerdon.

They also encounter a colorful cast of side characters—including a delightfully foul-mouthed saint and a jaded thief-taker—and villains, among them the nightmarish shape-shifters threatening to overrun the city and the alchemical candle-wax security guards standing in their way. (If you’re looking for an imaginative creature feature, you’re in luck!)

The basic architecture of the novel will feel familiar to fantasy fans, but Hanrahan embellishes his creation with his own stylistic flourishes. For starters, without revealing too much of the plot, the story employs an intriguing network of gods and mages that should appeal to fans of Max Gladstone’s intricate Craft Sequence novels, even if the series’ respective brands of fantasy are far removed. The well-wielded magic system mixes and enlivens an imaginative world; that, not to mention the breathless action and a cast of characters worth rooting for, make The Gutter Prayer the nearly irresistible start to a new series.

The Gutter Prayer is available now.

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In The Hod King, a Revolution Brews Within the Tower of Babel

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Imagine, for a moment, a world in which ancient universities are closed and remade as Colosseums. Halls of learning are transformed into quarters for fighting slaves.

Consider a world in which lords and ladies cosplay as prison inmates for want of something—anything—better to do.

Finally, if you can, picture a world with a population full of people seeking pleasure wherever they can find it, their hedonism inadvertently and absent-mindedly fulfilling a roles in a greater, more terrible plan.

This and more you’ll find in The Hod King, the third entry in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series, which takes us further into the mysterious Tower of Babel at its center. (Some spoilers for earlier volumes follow.)

The best fantasy novels mirror our own reality. They play out our anxieties on a mythical, mystical, or otherwise fantastical plane. Bancroft’s series has accomplished that from page one of Senlin Ascends, when when erstwhile headmaster Thomas Senlin set out on a search for his wife, gone missing on their honeymoon, through the Tower’s various Ringdoms (themselves fully conceived worlds characterized by the author’s greatest fears).

Those anxieties have never been on fuller display than they are in The Hod King, the longest and most focused of Senlin’s adventures to date. By all accounts, this third book should feel claustrophobic and incomplete: in both Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx, we traversed up and down the Tower, discovering new Ringdoms and new secrets at a quickening pace. The Hod King largely stays put, settling the action taking within the opulent and bloated confines of the Ringdom known as Pelphia.

The gang’s all here, and briefly together, dispatched by the enigmatic Sphinx (the Tower’s clockwork master behind the curtain) on a mission to explore a “blind spot” in Pelphia, but soon enough, the crew of the Stone Cloud is split up.

Tom, who has accumulated aliases and enemies as if it is a contest, is destined to infiltrate the Ringdom undercover, posing as a dullard tourist (not unlike the one we met in the opening pages of the first book). Edith, captains the Sphinx’s flagship, the State of the Art, with Iren, Voleta, Byron, and the newly revived (and possibly rehabilitated) Red Hand in tow; they are to be the Sphinx’s envoys to Pelphia and beyond.

But let us not forget the reason this ragtag band has come together: Tom’s search for his wife Marya, misplaced two books ago at the foot of the Tower. Pelphia may be a strategic concern for the Sphinx, but for Tom, it’s the end of a quest. Marya lives in Pelphia, the new wife of a powerful duke and the object of fascination to the local gossip mongers.

Tom is under strict instructions to lie low: to cause no scenes, to avoid run-ins with his wife and her high-powered circle, to bide his time, and to wait for the right moment. So, of course, he does the opposite of all of that. As do Edith and the rest.

The resulting calamities do much to reveal not only the dirty little secrets of Pelphia, but greater conspiracies lurking within the Tower. A revolutionary phrase, “Come the Hod King,” reverberates throughout the Ringdoms and along the dreaded Black Trail, where they enslaved hods march unseen. Whispers of war reverberate, though no one is sure with whom war will be waged, and why. The Sphinx warns of an impending catastrophe for the Tower’s delicate ecosystem.

There are the rulers, a resistance, and a greater power behind the proverbial throne, and the only ones who see the whole picture are Tom and his friends. Accordingly, we follow the action from each of their perspectives in turn. In Arm of the Sphinx, Tom’s ensemble cast stretched their legs as the story shifted from his emotional journey to the group’s collective internal and external struggles. Here, that transition continues, with a story told in alternating chunks from the perspectives of Tom, Edith, and the dynamic duo of Iren and Voleta.

The narration zigzags through time, bringing us forward and backward, and allowing each of the main characters space to reveal their innermost selves—their shifting hopes and fears—and to find different pieces of the same puzzle. The result is a taut, tense, and suspenseful continuation of the story, a somehow still impossibly charming penultimate installment that marches toward a climax with increasing intensity, as if the narrative is trying to solve a Rubik’s cube against an egg timer.

The Hod King devotes as much space to propelling the plot toward the as-yet-untitled concluding volume (due out in 2020) as it does addressing the lingering questions the Tower invites. Sure, the mysteries abound: the Sphinx, the identity of the titular Hod King, the lingering influence of the Tower’s builder, the true nature and purpose of its various Ringdoms. But the questions of chief concern center stage are more personal. Tom is plagued by matters of identity; he is a master of disguise who has done things his textbooks never described. Edith is a fierce captain, but worries about her reliance on and melding with the mechanical arm crafted for her by the Sphinx, who obligates certain things in return. Voleta, the willful acrobat, chafes at being forced to don the ill-fitting gowns of a high-society debutante. Meanwhile, through a new friendship, Iren confronts the missed opportunities and self-denial that marked her pre-Senlin life.

The Tower has changed each of those people, as it changes all those who enter it. Warped personalities abound in Pelphia, and clash when it comes to addressing the bigger questions: how radical must a revolution be? Who is more wretched: those trapped in slavery or those kept complacent in their gilded cages? Who gets to define the greater good? How do you attack the source of rot without bringing the whole house down?

There are no easy answers, a reality the Books of Babel have thus far done a fine job illustrating. The Hod King is another smart and dizzying medley of storytelling and worldbuilding, building momentum for an explosive (perhaps literally) finale.

The Hod King is available January 22.

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A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy Is a Great Deal For Space Opera Fans

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At one point in Alex White’s A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy, the ne’er-do-well crew of the Capricious is simultaneously engaged in a heist (from the most secure facility in the known universe) and a plan to insert one of their own into a a fanatical terrorist group to act as a double agent.

Those plots only take up about half the book, which might give you some idea of how quickly this thing moves. Just when you think you can take a breath and and hang with the characters for a chapter or two, something else arrives to endanger them.

A Bad Deal… is the second book in White’s space-based SF series featuring the crew of the Capricious, following with A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. Going in, I was worried I might be lost trying to remember everything that happened last time around, but White allays those fears with an opening action sequence that quickly catches us up on the latest of the crew’s adventures, then takes a break for a quick reunion with Elizabeth  “Boots” Elsworth, one of our narrators, who, at the end of the first book, thought she might retire to run a distillery. Invariably, unfinished business, that nemesis of lowlifes everywhere, soon makes itself known.

This reunion scene is an elegant reintroduction to this wacky space opera universe.

“Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight.” 

Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth looked over her old companions, nursing her glass of unclear, unaged whiskey. The crew of the Capricious had landed in her backyard on Hopper’s Hope, uninvited. Now, Cordell, Armin, Nilah, Orna, Aisha, Malik and the strange pair of gingers were gathered in the uncomfortably large kitchen of Boots’s obnoxiously huge house; for the first time since Boots had moved into her mansion by the distillery, the place felt full. 

She raised her tumbler to the crew, pointing at them with her metal index finger. She’d worked with doctors to upgrade it in the months since they’d seen her, converting it to full regraded steel. It looked a little more human—but not enough. It was nothing like a magical prosthesis. “Two weeks ago, your big plan was to extract this Forscythe character and…force him to talk? From Morrison Station, no less.” She took a long pull of her white dog whiskey and coughed. It was well and truly awful stuff.

Nilah is a former race car driver with a love of adrenaline, Orna is the ship’s quartermaster. Nilah and Orna are involved, though their relationship is tested by the demands of their missions, which never go as planned.  Captain Cordell is the stoic but caring leader. First Officer Armin is a datamancer who will, yes, tell you the odds. Malik is the doctor; Aisha the pilot and magical sharpshooter. The crew is rounded out by a pair of twins who possess the magical mark for reading minds. (Yes, this is a universe where science and magic co-exist quite… well, not peacefully…)

The story is told through the eyes of Boots and Nilah. Boots’ perspective is that of an older veteran, scarred by war and the destruction of her planet, while Nilah is an optimistic new recruit of sorts. Boots is one of the rare people in her universe who has zero connection to magic, while Nilah is an incredibly gifted mage, her power set contained in tattoo marks under her arms.

White does a terrific juggling act between action plots and excellently portrays the varied personalities of the diverse crew of the Capricious, but it’s the seamless interweaving of sci-fi and magic that truly sets the book apart (considering the influence of Star Wars, magical sc-fi is still rather rare). For instance, Orna controls her artificially intelligent battle armor, called Charger, with a tech bracelet that basically runs on her magic. Nilah can hack into any data system using the marks tattoed on her arms. Perhaps the most clever use of magic is the “curse” put on Boots: uning a magical cup that grants wishes (sure), a killer made Boots sign a binding contract not to reveal his whereabouts, ever; it also prevents her from speaking to or about him, or going after him. The contract was sealed with a magical, unbreakable barrister’s mark. (What lawyer wouldn’t kill for the ability to make people sign an unbreakable contract?)

When Boots simply tries to talk about the man who cursed her, it goes… not well:

“He’s the guy who shot your partner. More importantly, he’s the guy with the—”

Blinding pain pushed in through her eyelids, eliminating all thoughts of finishing that sentence. It was the old curse, as familiar as an abscessed tooth, coming to shut down the conversation. How many times had she felt it during the press junkets after her show went belly-up? When she’d talked of Stetson before, it’d been idle speculation. Now, she intended to implicate him, to help her friends catch him, and the contract she’d signed wouldn’t abide that.

Breaking the curse will require the crew of the Capricious to use tech in a particularly ingenious way that I’m loathe to reveal. That isn’t to say this is a book that lives or dies by its shocking twists; they’re just too fun to spoil.

The villains are the head of an Ayn Randian-style cult in which only the strong survive and where screwing over your fellows is a matter of course. Gods shouldn’t deal with lesser mortals—or so the cult members believe—and they have nigh-omnipotent power to back them up.

The crew’s current quarry is a sorcerer who can project his murderous power through light, even from thousands of miles away.

The shadows lunged, and Nilash whipped her arms about in a frenzy, punching anything she could. The viscous darkness closed around her forearms, but couldn’t secure a proper grip through the pulsing lights. Nilah ripped her arms free and spun to flee but found a rising tidal wave of singing black sludge. 

It gets worse for Nilah once the shadows start manifesting multiple mouths with sharp teeth and razor-sharp shadow claws.

Over the course of the story, Nilah and the telepathic twins must infiltrate the cult to gain information about their leader, while Boots and Orna commit the aforementioned heist on a planet that is basically the Cayman Islands of the wider universe. These subplots eventually lead the crew to a secret space station where the ultra-rich and powerful of the universe can do whatever they want—as long as they do it to the 99-percenters whose lives they treat like matches to be spent carelessly (the rich are served by human slaves whose free will has been stripped of them by techno-magical imprints).

Omnipotent beings screwing over humanity doesn’t sit well with our crew. And, if there’s one thing that’s predictable about this story, it’s that things that piss off the crew of the Capricious tend to go boom in spectacular fashion.

Can’t wait until the next book.

A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy is available December 11.

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