The SFWA Nebula Conference, which runs May 12–15 in Chicago, features the presentation of the Nebula Awards, recognizing the best U.S. works of sf and fantasy as selected by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). One major honor is the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, which rewards individuals “who have consistently made a major positive difference within the speculative fiction field.” This year, Sir Terry Pratchett was tapped. Pratchett’s books (“Discworld” series) have shaped the writings of many in the genre. Renowned for his use of humor and satire, he is among the most popular British authors, and this posthumous award (Pratchett died in March 2015) is yet another gem in his literary crown.
This month’s titles show that humor comes in various forms. The young girl who takes a ride with hard-bitten mercenaries in the postapocalyptic world of K.S. Merbeth’s Bite uses comedy to maintain her innocence in a violent landscape. And Charlaine Harris’s Night Shift takes readers back to the intriguing town of Midnight, TX, whose storied characters always bring a smile—even when surrounded by witches, vampires, and werewolves (oh my!).
Debut of the Month
Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Harper Voyager. Jul. 2016. 464p. ISBN 9780062444134. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062444127. SF
The crew of the Wayfarer make a small living building wormholes to lessen the distances in interstellar travel. They are a diverse bunch, with one new addition: records clerk Rosemary, who signs on just as the ship prepares to go into deep space to construct a wormhole for an alien race long hostile to the rest of the Galactic Commons. What could go wrong? Like so many great space opera novels, this is really the story of the ship’s crew as they band together in the face of danger. From Ashby, the affable human captain, to the marvelous extraterrestrial known as Dr. Chef (his two roles on the ship), there are many personalities here to love, and they all get a chance to shine. Rosemary, our newbie team player, predictably has a dangerous secret of her own. VERDICT A huge hit in the UK where it was first self-published and now nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, this delightful debut space opera is less brisk in terms of action than is typical of the genre, but it is no less engaging.
Check These Out
Durbin, Frederic S. A Green and Ancient Light. Saga. Jun. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781481442220. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481442244. FANTASY
With his country caught in the midst of battle (a distorted version of World War II), a young boy is shipped off to his grandmother’s home in the countryside for safety. When an enemy plane is shot down near their village, the boy and his grandmother find the wounded survivor in the woods considered haunted by the villagers. Thus there is no one around to witness the pair help the pilot hide on the grounds of a long-abandoned estate. No one, that is, except Mr. Girondole, an old friend of the boy’s grandmother, who happens to be a faun. The three work together to nurse the man back to health, but when a tenacious army major comes looking for the downed pilot, they will all be in danger. Durbin (Dragonfly) gives his story an old-fashioned fairy-tale feel (with the exception of Mr. Girondole, the other characters are given initials) and imbues his settings with a languorous sense of being outside of time. VERDICT This is a magical book that will appeal to those who loved Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.
Godfrey, Daniel. New Pompeii. Titan. Jun. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781783298112. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781783298129. SF
A mysterious company called Novus Particles has developed a technology that can pull people out of the past and into the present. To avoid creating a paradox, they only draw forward those who are about to die. Historian Nick Houghton is brought on to a top-secret project run by the agency to re-create the city of Pompeii in Central Asia after its residents are rescued just as Mount Vesuvius erupts. But Novus seems to have little regard for the individuals they move about like puppets, and Nick is in over his head. Godfrey’s first novel offers an intriguing concept that never gathers enough steam. Nick is a boring character, and the villainy of the antagonists is heavy-handed and makes no particular sense. Moreover, a parallel plot about a ghost takes too long to gel. VERDICT For a better take on an attempt to reconstruct a classical setting, try Jo Walton’s The Just City.
Harris, Charlaine. Night Shift. Ace: Berkley. (Midnight, Texas, Bk. 3). May 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780425263228. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101598832. FANTASY
Populated by an unusual mix of residents, Midnight, TX, consists of just a few houses and businesses huddled around a single crossroads. That intersection is at the center of the third entry (after Day Shift) of Harris’s latest paranormal series. Something is stirring beneath the juncture, and local witch Fiji appears to be the only one who can take care of the problem. VERDICT Small towns have proved fertile imaginary ground for the author of the “Sookie Stackhouse” books. While psychic Manfred was more of the focus of the first two installments, this time we get a closer look at the town’s citizens, including Olivia, whose father seems to be seeking her out, bringing trouble to Midnight. [See Prepub Alert, 11/9/15.]
Hickman, Tracy & Richard Garriott. The Sword of Midras: A Shroud of the Avatar Novel. Tor. Jun. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780765382306. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466886803. FANTASY
Abandoned by the Avatars during the Fall, the world was thrown into chaos. For the survivors, order was needed, and when the Obsidians appeared, they brought that structure through dark magic, monstrous creatures, and military conquest. Capt. Aren Bennis of the Obsidian Army knows that this war will bring the peace that his people proclaim. Falling into a crypt during battle, Aren finds a sword that his trusted scout claims was used by these legendary Avatars. When the blade is proven to be magical and can only be wielded by him, Aren embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about his path as an Obsidian Guard. Verdict Written by the author of the “Dragonlance Chronicles” and an award-winning game designer, this prequel to the not-yet-released Shroud of the Avatar online role-playing game (RPG) features Hickman’s classic epic fantasy style and opens the pages of this world’s history to RPG and fantasy enthusiasts alike.
Humphrey, Claire. Spells of Blood and Kin. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jun. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781250076342. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466887725. FANTASY
After the death of her grandmother, Lissa Nevsky takes over her duties as a local witch. This mostly involves making small charms for sleep or fertility for her Russian neighbors in Toronto. Her grandmother had made a special amulet for Maksim Volkov, a man with a dark animalistic side, and its power is broken at her death. Now Maksim needs Lissa’s help to leash his animal nature, especially as he has infected another man who now stalks Toronto’s streets. VERDICT This serviceable debut urban fantasy is slower paced than typical of the genre. Maksim’s nature is more subtly described but seems to be that of a shapeshifter. Too many diversions into his past interrupt the story’s flow, and Lissa’s character fails to leap off the page. However, a subplot involving her reconciliation with her stepsister adds a humanizing touch.
Jones, Stephen Graham. Mongrels. Morrow. May 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780062412690. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062412713. HORROR
Having been raised by werewolves after his grandfather’s death, the boy knows he’s different. Taken on the road by his Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren, he and his adoptive parents never settled in one place for long, staying on the outskirts of towns and society. After traveling across the South for ten years, Darren and Libby sense the time is approaching when they’ll be able to determine whether their nephew shares their “mongrel” nature. Weaving werewolf lore, a coming-of-age tale, and wrong-side-of-the-tracks tropes, Jones (After the People Lights Have Gone Off) has written a riveting story about fierce family ties amid the monstrosity of a bloody lineage. Verdict Horror fans will dive deep into this strong literary work, with its dark humor that is sure to attract readers of all speculative genres.
Merbeth, K.S. Bite. Orbit: Hachette. Jul. 2016. 279p. ISBN 9780316308700. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316308687. SF
“Never take a ride from strangers” is something children learn at a young age, but 16-year-old Kid is alone and has been walking in a desert for days. She’ll take her chances in a jeep carrying the armed likes of Wolf, Dolly, Tank, and Pretty Boy, a rough crew with big trouble on their tail. Kid soon is swept up in a heated race across the nuclear wasteland that is now the world. In an environment that turns people into monsters, where the line between good and bad is thinner than a knife edge, survival is the least of Kid’s problems. VERDICT This postapocalyptic debut may seem to take its scenery straight from the film Mad Max, but Merbeth has created her own universe filled with destruction and not a small amount of grim, acerbic wit. Fans of Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” series will be pleased by the smart writing.
Moraine, Sunny. Sword and Star. Anglerfish. (Root Code, Bk. 3). May 2016. 350p. ISBN 9781626493032. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781626493025. SF
The Protectorate and the Bideshi have been at odds. Still recovering from the vicious battle at Peris three months earlier, Adam Yuga, his lover Lochlan D’Bideshi, and their ragtag rebel fleet clash again with the Protectorate. Yet exhaustion on many levels beleaguers the crews, and two horrible blows will send the ships on the run, with more problems on the way from within. Yet even Protectorate loyalists can see that they are having trouble, although Issac Sinder is determined to destroy the rebels and rebuild the Protectorate—by any means necessary. Adam realizes that his issues are rooted in an alien force within him. In fighting to turn the tide for these forces, he may lose more than his humanity. He may lose his beloved, too. VERDICT The final book of this trilogy (after Line and Orbit; Fall and Rising) epitomizes the genre of space opera with its sweeping battle details and complicated personal relationships. While Moraine’s tightly crafted saga could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, newcomers will find greater satisfaction if they read the other titles.
Novik, Naomi. League of Dragons. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Temeraire, Bk. 9). May 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780345522924. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780345522948. $13.99. FANTASY
Although Napoleon’s invasion of Russia has been checked, low supplies and roaming feral dragons mean a bitter victory for Captain Laurence, dragon Temeraire, and their allies. Chasing the French armies west, Laurence and Temeraire fail to capture Napoleon as he returns to Paris. Worse news arrives: the French have stolen Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg from China. Still dealing with the aftermath of Laurence’s treasonous actions (giving the cure for a draconic illness to the French), it is an uphill battle as Laurence and Temeraire fight for their country, their lives, and finally to stop Napoleon. Verdict This series finale would not be complete without visits from familiar figures from previous books (Her Majesty’s Dragon; Blood of Tyrants) and plenty of battle scenes. Novik’s fans won’t be disappointed.
Older, Malka. Infomocracy. Tor.com. Jun. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780765385154. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765385147. SF
There’s an election coming up, and campaign operatives such as Ken are traveling the globe to drum up support for their party. Government isn’t local in the near future. The world is divided into centenals of 100,000 people, and parties vie for their votes, hoping to win the Supermajority. Many of the parties are wholly owned corporate entities, but some, like Ken’s idealistic Policy1st party, campaign on issues. Ken crosses paths with Mishima, an agent working for Information (this future realm’s version of the Internet that also watches over the elections), and Domaine, a man aiming to bring down the election process. As the vote gets closer, it’s clear that many will do anything in their power to get the outcome they desire. VERDICT First-time author Older’s universe is fascinating, with its believable if cynical view of how politics might evolve in the information age. The pace is brisk with enough action for fans of political thrillers, but with plenty of futuristic touches for sf lovers.
O’Neill, Anthony. The Dark Side. S. & S. Jun. 2016. 420p. ISBN 9781501119569. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781501110658. SF
When you’ve run afoul of the law on planet Earth, there is one final stop in the criminal justice system: the dark side of the moon, where lawbreakers walk free in a colony called Sin. Founder Fletcher Brass operates the city as his own private fiefdom, but he is in a power struggle with his daughter QT. Police Lt. Damien Justus (pronounced differently but still a pretty hokey name to give a lawman) is new to the moon, and his first case is the murder of a prominent criminal associate of Brass. Meanwhile, an android is slowly making its way toward Sin, killing everyone standing in its way. The idea of a no-holds-barred den of thieves and murderers on the moon is a great premise, but the story line here is thinly developed. VERDICT Despite a nice noir touch with Justus as the lone honest man in a corrupt landscape, O’Neill’s debut is a near miss, marred by the android’s actions, which should be menacing but are instead simply appallingly brutal.
Strydom, Fred. The Raft. Talos. May 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781940456607. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781940456614. SF
In one moment on Day Zero, the memories of every person on Earth were wiped away; since no one recalled how the world worked, civilization collapsed on itself. Yet, a movement rises from the rubble, one that gathers people into distant collectives, in which they are monitored by mysterious groups. On a remote beach Kayle Jenner survives, but his sleeping and waking moments are haunted by flashes of his son. Kayle finally escapes from his collective, frantically searching for the one piece of his past he believes still exists. Traveling devastated lands that are being put back together like ill-fitting puzzle pieces, Kayle learns more about what happened on Day Zero and afterward. Verdict This eerie debut about one man’s search for truth, even though what he finds may hurt more than it heals, features a protagonist with raw emotions and a strong voice, carrying what could be a convoluted plot to an unforgettable ending.
Taylor, Jodi. Just One Damned Thing After Another. Night Shade. (Chronicles of St. Mary’s, Bk. 1). Jun. 2016. 348p. ISBN 9781597808682. pap. $12.99; ebk. ISBN 9781681468822. FANTASY
A job interview arranged by a former teachers leads Madeline “Max” Maxwell to a new career as a time-traveling historian with St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The researchers are under strict orders to observe only—no interaction with the locals is allowed. But from her first mission rescuing artifacts from the Great Library of Alexandria, Max soon realizes that time travel is a dangerous activity and that history will go to elaborate lengths to protect itself. VERDICT Taylor does a great job of setting up an appealing cast of characters in this new series opener, most especially the intrepid Max. There is plenty of humor, lots of action, and even a touch of romance. Six more entries are out in the UK and due to be published here in the next year.
Vyleta, Dan. Smoke. Doubleday. May 2016. 448p. ISBN 9780385540162. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385540179. FANTASY
London is under a cloud of smoke—not the usual fog described in Charles Dickens novels. In this alternate history set in Victorian Britain, people exude smoke when they sin, leading to a huge pall over heavily populated areas such as London. Thomas and Charlie are students at an elite boarding school for aristocratic scions, where they are disciplined for any display of smoke or sooty residue. But the duo, on a visit to Thomas’s aunt in the country, uncover a terrible truth about this phenomenon and must race to stop a conspiracy. This books succeeds on many levels. The author observes life in the school with a keen eye, depicting the casual cruelty of an older student that portends the true villainy to come. And the camaraderie of Thomas and Charlie, tested by violence and a romantic rivalry, keeps readers rooting for them through thick and thin. Livia, the object of their joint admiration, is another wonderfully realized character, shaken out of her sheltered and rigid life of self-discipline. VERDICT As a meditation on the nature of evil, Vyleta’s fourth novel (after The Crooked Maid) has a depth that will be appreciated even as the action keeps the pages turning. [200,000-copy first printing; a LibraryReads May pick.]
Collections & Anthologies
Black Tide Rising. Baen. Jun. 2016. 258p. ed. by John Ringo & Gary Poole. ISBN 9781476781518. $26. HORROR
Set in Ringo’s “Black Tide Rising” zombie apocalypse universe, these 12 stories by Eric Flint, John Scalzi and Dave Klecha, Sarah A. Hoyt, Jody Lynn Nye, Michael Z. Williamson, and other authors ponder events that might arise when humans discover that zombies are real. Emotions outweigh common sense, as one woman searches for the zombie who killed her family. When the infected reach a tipping point in a Denver hospital in Hoyt’s story, a group of medical workers and patients must decide if “Do No Harm” actually applies. Williamson’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Grandpa?” shows what happens when a family’s eccentric doomsayer patriarch is correct. In Mike Massa’s “Battle of the BERTs,” competing Biological Emergency Response Teams in New York ascend as the new mafia—with the infected as their trade. And finally, Ringo’s “The Meaning of Freedom” has experts around the world determining that a large percentage of the infected are no longer carriers but survivors. Verdict This anthology broadens Ringo’s Black Tide world, serving up doses of humanity amid the ravenous afflicted. Comedy has a place in this harsh reality, and these stories stir adventure and emotion at a frantic clip throughout. Zombie fiction fans will be thrilled.
Esslemont, Ian C. Dancer’s Lament. Tor. (Path to Ascendancy, Bk. 1). May 2016. 416p. ISBN 9780765379443. $29.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466868588. FANTASY
This first volume in a prequel trilogy returns readers to the world of the Malazan Empire for a singular origin story that reveals the modest beginnings of the empire’s founders, the assassin Dancer and mage Kellanved.
Koch, Gini. Camp Alien. DAW. (Katherine “Kitty” Katt, Bk. 13). May 2016. 608p. ISBN 9780756410087. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698161726. SF
After the resolution of their conflict with the Mastermind in 2015’s Alien-in-Chief, Kitty and Jeff are hoping for some downtime, but an old enemy returns, robots attack, and the usual blend of whimsy and exploit are on tap.
Marshall, Alex. A Blade of Black Steel. Orbit: Hachette. (Crimson Empire, Bk. 2). May 2016. 544p. ISBN 9780316340663. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316340670. FANTASY
In a sequel to 2015’s marvelous A Crown for Cold Silver, members of General Zosia’s Cobalt Company must decide whether they will pursue an old vengeance or fight a new inhuman enemy.
Geen, Emma. The Many Selves of Katherine North. Bloomsbury USA. Jun. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9781632860217. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781632860231. SF
In the near future, Kit works as a “phenomenaut” for the Shen Corporation, projecting human consciousness into lab-grown animals (such as a fox, a spider, and a seal). The beast, embedded with Kit’s human intelligence, then lives in a natural environment. Shen Corp. has used Kit’s research, and those of others like her, to study these creatures and their habitats. Now 19, Kit has been doing this for seven years, longer than thought possible. Then the company announces that it will be expanding into “tourism,” placing human consciousness into artificially developed beings. The new phenomenauts won’t have experience in jumping but will only be doing it as a kind of vacation. This raises ethical issues for Kit, who then digs deeper into Shen’s business model and makes an unsettling discovery. VERDICT Kit is a fascinating protagonist, and the descriptions of the animal lives she “lives” are wonderfully detailed. However, the multiple time lines are difficult to untangle at times. Despite its ambitions, Geen’s first novel stumbles a bit in its execution.
Haig, Francesca. The Map of Bones. Gallery. (Fire Sermon, Bk. 2). Jun. 2016. 416p. ISBN 9781476767192. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476767260. SF
In Haig’s The Fire Sermon, 400 years after a nuclear blast decimated the world, the surviving population developed into two factions—the downtrodden Omegas and the privileged Alphas. In this sequel Cass, an Omega and a Seer, is on the run with former Resistance leader Piper and his twin, Zoe. The three must try to fix the broken sections of the Resistance and stop the progression of the horror machines known as “the tanks.” Cass thinks there could be new hope in stolen papers from “the before” that mention a life-saving vessel, the Ark, but she will have to betray her people and partner with an Alpha council member if she wants to find it. Magnifying the bleak conditions and desperation that Cass and her companions have to grapple with, Haig’s prose is both heartbreaking and beautifully rendered. VERDICT Readers who relish dystopian literature such as Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy or Ryan Winfield’s “The Park Service” books will appreciate the original aspects of Haig’s series.
QUOTABLE “Joy is not a sin. But it is always better to act from duty. What one does from inclination one may do thoughtlessly. Inclination is fickle. More than that: it may lead you astray. One day, you might find yourself smoking, thinking you are doing good.”