Alternative time lines and historical themes make up a significant element in both sf and fantasy, and this month’s selection offers several answers to the what if? question. The possibility of King Solomon’s seal turning up in the United States is explored in James A. Burton’s urban fantasy/detective story Powers. The first alien invasion comes to vivid life in Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston’s Earth Unaware, a distant prequel to the Ender series. Mary Gentle’s alternate history The Black Opera examines the relationship between music and magic. In K.M. Ruiz’s Terminal Point, the question what if humanity were divided into those with and those without psychic powers? receives careful scrutiny, while Ian Tregillis’s The Coldest War imagines the role magic might have played in 20th-century politics of war and détente.
Traditional epic fantasy makes a good showing in Daniel Abraham’s The King’s Blood, while sf adventure is represented by Jaine Fenn’s Guardians of Paradise. Two unusual novels pushing the boundaries of fantasy, Christopher Priest’s The Islanders and Lyle Blake Smythers’s Feasting with Panthers, serve up brain teasers for readers who enjoy challenging stories.
Four significant collections pay tribute to short-form sf and fantasy. Nebula Awards Showcase 2012 offers some of the best short fiction of 2011, all either nominated for or winners of Nebula Awards. The fourth volume of The Best Horror of the Year proves that horror writers have not lost their touch. Finally, a pair of themed collections, Robots: The Recent A.I. and Witches: Wicked, Wild & Wonderful, appeal to more limited but devout followings.
This month’s featured debut, Stephen Wallenfels’s Pod, first published as an ebook, dramatizes the human will to survive in the face of an incomprehensible alien attack.
The world of mass market publishing contributes five titles, most of which are part of continuing series. Tony Ballantyne’s Twisted Metal launches a sf series about a world inhabited by sentient robots, while urban fantasy is well represented by Jes Battis’s Bleeding Out, Katie MacAlister’s Sparks Fly, Irene Radford’s Chicory Up, and Lisa Shearin’s All Spell Breaks Loose.
Finishing out this month’s column are a pair of related Best Of lists to appeal to the secret list compiler who lives inside many of us.
DEBUT OF THE MONTH
Wallenfels, Stephen. Pod. Ace: Berkley. 2012. c.304p. ISBN 9781937007430. pap. $7.99. FANTASY
When the swarm of black spheres appears without warning in the sky, all the people caught out in the open beneath the pods disappear in a flash of light. While animals are able to move around freely, humans are trapped indoors without Internet or telephone and with only the supplies they have on hand. Teenager Josh must deal with a father whose survivalist reaction to the pods grows stranger as days pass without relief. Megs, a young girl abandoned in a hotel parking garage, forages for supplies while evading a gang of brutal thugs who bully and steal from everyone they encounter. VERDICT Wallenfels’s fast-paced debut, first published as an ebook to critical acclaim, examines modern society’s dependence on technology and tendency to avoid planning for the future. While the main characters are young and, in their own ways, appealingly sympathetic, this is primarily a book for adult (and mature YA) readers, as it contains disturbing events appropriate to the plot. Reminiscent of Stephen King’s early novels, this sf horror tale could adapt easily to film.
Card, Orson Scott & Aaron Johnston. Earth Unaware: The First Formic War. Tor. Jul. 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9780765329042. $24.99. SF
Those aboard the family-run mining ship El Cavador, stationed in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, depend on ore-rich asteroids for their livelihood. When a young girl operating the ship’s powerful telescopes spots a distant unidentified object moving at an extremely high speed, she alerts family elders. However, the elders find more immediate concerns, including the theft of their current mining site by claim-jumping corporate miners, until a sudden attack by the object convinces them that they are witnessing the beginning of an alien invasion. VERDICT Card’s gift for strong, memorable characters combined with screenwriter Johnston’s (Invasive Procedures, with Card) flair for vivid scene-building results in a standout tale of sf adventure that gives Ender series fans fascinating backstory to the classic Ender’s Game. It should also please readers of military sf.
Gentle, Mary. The Black Opera. Night Shade. May 2012. c.528p.ISBN 9781597802192. pap. $15.95. FANTASY
In 19th-century Naples, where holy music can cause miracles, librettist Conrad Scalese runs into trouble from the Holy Office of the Inquisition for writing an opera that calls down lightning. Instead of branding him a heretic, however, it remands him into the custody of Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies. Ferdinand needs Conrad to write an opera with enough magic to avert a secret society’s staging of a black opera to summon the Devil. With only six weeks to create an opera that can stop the eruption of a volcano and an invasion by Hell, Conrad is forced to work with a composer now married to a woman he once loved and lost. VERDICT Gentle (Ash; Golden Witchbreed) infuses her alternate history with magic and populates it with convincing, fully fleshed characters. Fans of alternate history as well as opera buffs should enjoy this beautifully written tale of the power of music and undying love.
Priest, Christopher. The Islanders. Gollancz, dist. by Trafalgar Square. Jun. 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9780575070042. $24.95; pap. Sept. 2012. ISBN 9780575088641. $14.95. FANTASY
What presents itself as a gazetteer for the Dream Archipelago, a vast array of islands situated between two warring continents to the north and south, becomes, instead, a study of some of the islands’ most interesting inhabitants. As the stories of a reclusive novelist, a simple young man accused of murder, a social theorist and author, a celebrated mime, and other significant individuals unfold, another tale‚ of a very public murder and the arrest and trial of a potential innocent‚ evolves from the hints doled out to the reader. VERDICT Priest demonstrates once more his ability to surprise and dazzle with this twisty novel in which nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears. The islands themselves serve as a Greek chorus to a tale of ambitions gone wrong, love circumvented, and lives fragmented into a living archipelago, constantly shifting with the winds and tides. Reminiscent of the works of Gilbert Sorrentino, Italo Calvino, and other writers of metafiction, this work of literary prestidigitation by the author of the award-winning The Prestige may appeal to readers of literary fiction as well as fans of speculative fiction.
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The following titles are reviewed in the May 15 print issue. Visit our Reviews Center (Beta) for the full reviews.
Abraham, Daniel. The King’s Blood. Orbit: Hachette. (The Dagger and the Coin, Bk. 2). May 2012. c.528p. ISBN 9780316080774. pap. $15.99. FANTASY
Burton, James A. Powers. Prime. May 2012. c.312p. ISBN 9781607013365. pap. $14.95. FANTASY
Fenn, Jaine. Guardians of Paradise. Gollancz, dist. by Trafalgar Square. (Hidden Empire, Bk. 3). Jun. 2012. c.368p. ISBN 9780575083257. $34.95; pap. ISBN 9780575083271. $14.95. SF
Ruiz, K.M. Terminal Point: A Strykers Syndicate Novel. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jun. 2012. c.336p. ISBN 9780312681555. $25.99. SF
Smythers, Lyle Blake. Feasting with Panthers. Pink Narcissus. May 2012. c.328p. ISBN 9780982991374. pap. $16.95. FANTASY
Tregillis, Ian. The Coldest War. Tor. (Milkweed Triptych, Vol. 2). Jul. 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9780765321510. $25.99. FANTASY
Collections & Anthologies
The Best Horror of the Year. Vol. 4. Night Shade. May 2012. c.448p. ed. by Ellen Datlow. ISBN 9781597803991. pap. $15.99. HORROR
Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. Pyr: Prometheus. May 2012. c.336p. ed. by James Patrick Kelley & John Kessel. ISBN 9781616146191. pap. $17.95. FANTASY
Robots: The Recent A.I. Prime. 2012. c.408p. ed. by Rich Horton & Sean Wallace. ISBN 9781607013181. pap. $14.95. sf
Witches: Wicked, Wild & Wonderful. Prime. 2012. c.384p. ed. by Paula Guran. ISBN 9781607012948. pap. $15.95. FANTASY
ADDITIONAL SF & fANTASY
Scalzi, John. Redshirts. Tor. Jun. 2012. c.304p. ISBN 9780765316998. $24.99. SF