A strong group of sf, fantasy, and horror titles provide a welcome distraction this month from the doldrums of winter. Drawing on the history of Central Asia during the 12th and 13th centuries, Elizabeth Bear depicts a vivid, multicultural world in Range of Ghosts, while Melanie Rawn sets her high fantasy Touchstone in a Renaissance-inspired universe. Dragons make a dual appearance, as surprisingly fragile and endangered creatures in Robin Hobb’s City of Dragons and as enslaved mounts determined to shake the yoke of human domination in Stephen Deas’s The Order of the Scales. Political intrigue and cultural clashes dominate Paula Brandon’s The Ruined City, while the conflict between religion and magic sets the stage for the action in Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth, this month’s featured debut.
A trio of sf novels showcases three very different faces of the genre. Tobias S. Buckell’s Arctic Rising combines disaster fiction with speculation about the changing balance of power. Alex J. Cavanaugh’s CassaFire hearkens back to Robert A. Heinlein’s early books in its appeal to a younger adult audience as well as military sf fans. Finally, cyberpunk and speculative fiction veteran Walter Jon Williams takes on reality TV and the media-hungry generation in The Fourth Wall.
Horror in its infinite variety also makes an appearance. Incorporating both the debasing horror of the impersonal workplace and the unnamable terror from beyond, Tom Fletcher’s The Thing on the Shore represents a more subtle form of the genre, while John Shirley takes a more brutal approach in Everything Is Broken.
Two anthologies merit attention this month: Dream Castles brings together some of the early work of sf Grand Master Jack Vance, while Winter’s Dreams reveals the many sides of Glen Cook.
Mass-market paperbacks offer a pair of urban fantasies: Katharine Kerr’s Apocalypse to Go and Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon. Ian Douglas’s Singularity is space opera in the style of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, while Gail Z. Martin’s The Dread ends a two-book epic fantasy.
Finally, we pay tribute to USA Today‘s 2011 Author of the Year, fantasy’s own George R.R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire series can take the chill from those cold February nights.
DEBUT OF THE MONTH
Cooper, Elspeth. Songs of the Earth. Tor. (Wild Hunt, Bk. 1). Feb. 2012. c.480p. ISBN 9780765331656. $24.99. FANTASY
A former Knight of the Church now under sentence of death for heresy and witchcraft, Gair finds deliverance in the form of the mysterious Alderan, who spirits him away to the island location of the Chapterhouse of the Guardians of the Veil. There, he meets others like himself, who can hear the Songs of the Earth and use the songs’ power to change the world around them. Even as the Church continues its search for Gair and its opposition to the Guardians, word spreads that the Veil between worlds is breaking down, and soon dangerous monsters will cross over from the other side. Cooper’s first novel begins as a coming-of-age tale but develops into the saga of a world in peril and the few people who can serve as its protectors. VERDICT In scope, this series has the potential to rival George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and should enjoy a wide readership of young adult as well as adult fans of epic fantasy.
Rawn, Melanie. Touchstone. Tor. (Glass Thorns). Feb. 2012. c.368p. ISBN 9780765323620. $25.99. FANTASY
Cayden Silversun, a blend of Elven, Fae, and Wizard bloodlines, defies his noble family to pursue a life in the theater, forming the four-person troupe Touchstone with the goal of making it to the highest echelons of the performing circuit. Given the talents of troupe member Mieka Windthistle, a brilliant glisker whose job is to enhance with magic both the crowd’s emotions and the performances’ special effects, their goal seems reachable. Yet Cayden’s prophetic dreams indicate something sinister about Mieka’s presence and tempt him to try to change fate without incurring a larger doom. The author of the Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies as well as the urban fantasies Spell Binder and Fire Raiser returns to high fantasy with a captivating tale of magic, theater, politics, and love. She sets her story in a Renaissance-like world, a place recovering from a devastating war that resulted in the stringent regulation of potentially harmful magic. VERDICT Rawn’s storytelling mastery, ability to create unforgettable characters, and fresh approaches to world building and magic theory make this a must-read for an audience that extends well beyond her fans.
Williams, Walter Jon. The Fourth Wall. Orbit: Hachette. Feb. 2012. c.416p. ISBN 9780316133395. pap. $13.99. SF
Former child actor Sean Makin finds himself reduced to taking gigs on the lowest type of reality television shows to make ends meet‚ and support his agent. A chance meeting with producer Dagmar Shaw, who is suspected of having connections with unsavory international cults and activist groups, lands him a starring role in a revolutionary film that is part reality TV and part scripted story. However, Sean discovers to his dismay that death seems to follow Dagmar, striking those close to her‚ thus making Sean a prime target. One of the founders of cyberpunk along with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Williams (City on Fire; The Rift) has previously demonstrated his talent for speculative fiction as well as for hard-science sf. In his latest novel, he brings 21st-century technology to the fore but never loses sight of his characters’ humanity amid a steadily dehumanizing world of mad media and instant everything. VERDICT Fans of Williams, cyberpunk, and authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson should enjoy this savvy take on technology and entertainment.
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The following titles are reviewed in the February 15 print issue. Visit our Reviews Center (Beta) for the full reviews.
CHECK THESE OUT
Bear, Elizabeth. Range of Ghosts. Tor. Mar. 2012. c.336p. ISBN 9780765327543. $25.99. FANTASY
Brandon, Paula. The Ruined City. Spectra: Bantam. Mar. 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9780553583823. pap. $15. FANTASY
Buckell, Tobias S. Arctic Rising. Tor. Feb. 2012. c.304p. ISBN 9780765319210. $24.99. SF
Cavanaugh, Alex J. CassaFire. Dancing Lemur. Feb. 2012. c.240p. ISBN 9780982713945. pap. $15.95. SF
Deas, Stephen. The Order of the Scales. ROC: NAL. (The Memory of Flames, Bk. 3). Feb. 2012. c.368p. ISBN 9780451464378. $25.95. FANTASY
Fletcher, Tom. The Thing on the Shore. Quercus, dist. by Trafalgar Square. Feb. 2012. c.400p. ISBN 9781849161367. pap. $12.95. HORROR
Hobb, Robin. City of Dragons. Harper Voyager. (The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Vol. 3). Feb. 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9780061561634. $27.99. FANTASY
Jacka, Benedict. Fated: An Alex Verus Novel. Ace: Berkley. Mar. 2012. c.304p. ISBN 9781937007294. pap. $7.99. FANTASY
Shirley, John. Everything Is Broken. Prime. Feb. 2012. c.288p. ISBN 9781607012924. pap. $14.95. HORROR
COLLECTIONS & ANTHOLOGIES
Cook, Glen. Winter’s Dreams. Subterranean. Apr. 2012. c.288p. ISBN 9781596063600. $45. FANTASY
Vance, Jack. Dream Castles: The Early Jack Vance. Vol. 2. Subterranean. Feb. 2012. c.368p. ed. by Terry Dowling & Jonathan Strahan. ISBN 9781596064515. $45. FANTASY
ADDITIONAL SF & FANTASY
Murphy, C.E. Raven Calls. Luna: Harlequin. (Walker Papers, Bk. 7). Mar. 2012. c.368p. ISBN 9780373803439. pap. $14.95. FANTASY
Nevill, Adam. The Ritual. Griffin: St. Martin’s. Feb. 2012. c.432p. ISBN 9780312641849. pap. $15.99. HORROR