Everybody loves a mystery, even those who write fantasy and sf. Although genre blending is more popular than ever, it’s not a new thing. When literary forms first began to gel into recognizable categories, writers wanted to mix those elements in their stories. Readers are seeing more blends these days as authors no longer have as much pressure to write novels that fit neatly into a certain category so their books are easy to place in a particular section of the bookstore or library.
One of the genres that gets borrowed from the most is mystery. The lure of the structured plot (crime-investigation-discovery-resolution) can give authors a convenient narrative arc on which to hang many other genre components. For instance, adding a law enforcement character to an sf or fantasy tale is a quick way to bring in the mystery aspect, but plopping an unexpected corpse into the story will also do the trick, helping to keep the pages turning as readers want to find out who killed whom and why.
Almost every title this month factors in suspense or has a puzzle to solve. Although Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin builds a rich fantasy, it opens with a murdered messenger. In Premonitions, Jamie Schultz takes a sister category, the caper novel, and uses it to excellent effect with her band of magic-wielding thieves. Urban fantasy has long had mystery plots intertwined with its magical worlds, as seen here in Kelley Armstrong’s Visions and Jaye Wells’s Cursed Moon.
But fantasy isn’t the only genre that can benefit from a mystery scenario. Thomas Sweterlitsch’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow shows us how new immersive technologies can be used to discover and solve a crime. John Scalzi branches out in new directions with Lock In, in which an FBI agent suffers from a disease that forces him to interact with the rest of the world through an android body. When done well, blends of speculative fiction with mystery highlight the best of both genres, solving perplexities in compelling new worlds and startling new ways.
Debut of the month
Sweterlitsch, Thomas. Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Putnam. Jul. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780399167492. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698142701. SF
After Pittsburgh was destroyed in a nuclear blast, a virtual archive of the city was created for survivors to visit. John Dominic Blaxton was out of town when the bomb exploded, but he lost his wife in the tragedy. Now he works for an insurance company researching claims to confirm that people did in fact die in the blast. The job also gives him unlimited access to the archive, where he can spend more time with his “virtual” wife and imagine she is still with him. A man comes to John and asks for help finding his daughter in the alternative reality, as he believes that all traces of her are being deleted from the database. VERDICT The premise of this debut novel is fascinating in its possibilities, as the adware implants the characters wear and the archive serve as an extension of the virtual worlds, pervasive surveillance, and targeted advertising that people live with already. John’s grief is a palpable, living thing, preventing him from participating in his own life. Fans of William Gibson and classic noir will love how the styles intersect here. [Sony has optioned the film rights.—Ed.]
Hobb, Robin. Fool’s Assassin. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Fitz & the Fool, Bk. 1). Aug. 2014. 688p. ISBN 9780553392425. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780553392432. FANTASY
Fitz Chivalry Farseer has been living a happy and anonymously quiet life in Withywoods; a reward for his many years of service to the royal family tree, of which he is a bastard branch. Having finally married Molly, the love of his life, he has every expectation of living out his days as plain Tom Badgerlock. But as the manor celebrates Winterfest, danger arrives in the guise of a pale murdered messenger, with the killers vanishing into the snow. Fitz will do anything to protect his new life, but he can never completely turn his back on the old one. Although this is a long book, the first volume in a new trilogy, and spends much of its time in quiet domesticity, the characterization is so fantastic and the setting so compelling that readers will not begrudge the lack of high action. Hobb broke new ground with Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in her Farseer trilogy 20 years ago, and here she effortlessly picks up the character of Fitz, rewarding those who have enjoyed his earlier adventures but easily building him anew for readers just joining in. VERDICT The emotionally rich storytelling is sure to win Hobb new fans who will be anxious to read the next installment as the author leaves us dangling in anticipation. [See Prepub Alert, 2/24/14.]
Lake, Jay. Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection. Tor. Sept. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780765377982. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466858473. SF
Lake (1964–2014) was a well-known author of sf and fantasy novels (Green; Mainspring), but he was also a prolific short story writer. This final collection shows the range of styles that Lake was comfortable with and showcases his clever way with words. There are pieces from the worlds he created in his novels, including “From the Countries of Her Dreams” about a priestess from the Copper Downs and “Promises,” a haunting tale of the City Imperishable about a young woman on a difficult path. Subtly steampunk is “The Woman Who Shattered the Moon,” centered on an old woman who was once a supervillain. “West to East” describes a landing crew trapped on a wind-scoured planet and their ingenious efforts to get one last message back to their ship. There are also two Lovecraftian stories that are perfect little gems in their own ways. VERDICT Perhaps inevitably this collection has a sense of yearning to it: a desire for escape, a wish for broken things to be fixed, a longing for more time. Here both literal and metaphoric narratives deal with Lake’s struggles with terminal cancer, but readers will enjoy plenty of adventure and pure flights of fancy as well.
Last month writer Jay Lake lost his long battle with cancer at 49. Lake is best known for his genre-twisting epic/steampunk fantasy “Clockwork Earth” trilogy that started with Mainspring, and the trilogy of feminist fantasy that kicked off with Green and was completed in 2013 with Kalimpura. He won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best new author in 2004 and had been nominated for many honors including the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards for his short fiction. The greatest way to recognize authors who have left us is to read their work. We are lucky to have a new collection of Lake’s short fiction coming out in September, The Last Plane to Heaven, reviewed above.
Nelson, J.C. Free Agent. Ace. (Grimm Agency, Bk. 1). Aug. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9780425272671. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698146396. FANTASY
Even fairy godmothers need help to get things done. Marissa is working off the debt incurred by her family when fairy godfather Grimm hired her in exchange for a cure for her sick younger sister. She runs errands and occasionally kills things for Grimm, but when one of her usual jobs acting as matchmaker for a royal prince and princess backfires, Marissa has to make it right. VERDICT Combining urban fantasy and fairy tales is such a clever premise for a new urban fantasy series that it’s actually painful this one is not better executed. The worldbuilding is sketched in, and author Nelson is reaching too hard for jokes that never quite land.
Patel, Carrie. The Buried Life. Angry Robot. Aug. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780857665218. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780857665225. FANTASY
Many centuries after the Catastrophe drove humanity underground, the inhabitants of Recoletta have grown accustomed to subterranean living and travel. The knowledge of earlier ages is strictly controlled, with books heavily censored and the reading or teaching of history forbidden. When several prominent citizens associated with the directorate of preservation are killed, police inspectors Malone and Sundar take the case, only to be thrown off it when the politics grow too hot. This debut features high-concept worldbuilding, although the author should have spent a little more time on description to make the future cityscape more real. While the police inspectors could have used more fleshing out to make them compelling characters, others such as laundress Jane Lin and slippery political operative Roman Arnault leap off the page. VERDICT This is apparently the first of a new series, and it will be interesting to watch this talented new author develop.
Schultz, Jamie. Premonitions. Roc: NAL. Jul. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9780451467447. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698140691. FANTASY
Karen Ames runs a small crew of crooks who work the fringes of the magical underworld. The score of a lifetime comes along when they are offered a million-dollar payday to steal an occult artifact from a religious sect. They all have reasons for needing the money, but Karen’s is especially pressing as she has run through her supply of the drug that keeps her precognitive gifts under control. Perhaps it was inevitable that the job isn’t as straightforward as it seems, and in the aftermath Karen’s crew find themselves up against powerful and determined forces—human and demonic. VERDICT This is a sterling urban fantasy debut with a great cast of characters, especially Karen and her likable crooks. The action is nonstop and extremely well plotted. Like a cross between the TV show Leverage and Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” books, this series is off to a terrific start.
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