Stories of families and family dysfunction seem like literary fiction territory. Yet despite trappings of spaceships and magical creatures, speculative fiction still strives to tell human stories, and family—the one you’re born into, the one you make, or the one you choose—drives many sf/fantasy novels.
Difficult family dynamics are at the heart of K.B. Wagers’s Behind the Throne, as heroine Hail resumes her responsibilities at home that she rejected years before. Cloudbound is a return to Fran Wilde’s hugely inventive world of bone towers and residents who strap on wings and take flight, but hero Nat’s dilemmas hinge on threats to his loved ones. When one must leave family behind in order to escape a dangerous cult, as Nell does in Faith Hunter’s Blood of the Earth, it does not mean they are forgotten.
If you have ever wished your relatives were a little less up in your business, you’ll laugh at protagonist Briddey Flannigan’s clan in Connie Willis’s Crosstalk. And finally, two sisters rely on their bond as they are ordered into service in a war against an alien threat in J. Patrick Black’s Ninth City Burning.
Debut of the Month
Wagers, K.B. Behind the Throne. Orbit: Hachette. (Indranan War, Bk. 1). Aug. 2016. 432p. ISBN 9780316308601. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316308571. SF
Hail Bristol’s career as a successful smuggler is abruptly halted when trackers from the Indranan Empire storm her ship and inform her that her empress mother is sick and her sisters have been murdered, leaving her the sole heir to the throne. But this is a life Hail fled, and even the need to obtain justice for her siblings will not make it easy for her to accept that she must rejoin the palace. Luckily, Hail picked up a few skills from her gun-running days that will serve her well as a princess in a hostile court. This debut ranks among the best political sf novels in years, largely because of the indomitable, prickly Hail. The secondary characters—from the trackers who are Hail’s only allies at first, to a conniving cousin—are fascinating as well. The matriarchal structure of the Indranan Empire leads to some interesting gender dynamics, and the cultural influences being largely from India make for a welcome change. VERDICT This fast-paced, twisty space opera borrows the political machinations from fantasies such as George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. [See Eric Norton’s “Genre Spotlight” feature, LJ 8/16.—Ed.]
Check These Out
Anderson, Gillian & Jeff Rovin. The Sound of Seas. Simon451: S. & S. (EarthEnd Saga, Bk. 3). Sept. 2016. 277p. ISBN 9781476776590. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781476776613. SF
The secret of the Gaalderkhani tiles has been uncovered: these ancient computers not only retain memories about the past, they also contain a destructive force. When Caitlin O’Hara, having inhabited the body of a Gaalderkhani woman, returns to her own body and time, she finds that her son had been accidently thrust back in time also. As she works on using the tiles’ power to retrieve her son, the modern descendants of the Gaalderkhani are still searching—and killing. Running from Antarctica to New York City to another planet, the race to save a child—and Earth—reaches its climactic conclusion. VERDICT The final volume in Anderson and Rovin’s dramatic trilogy about ghosts and alien technology (A Vision of Fire; A Dream of Ice) neatly ties the loose plot threads together in ways that will satisfy paranormal fantasy and sf readers alike. [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/16.]
Black, J. Patrick. Ninth City Burning. Ace: Berkley. Sept. 2016. 496p. ISBN 9781101991442. $27.; ebk. ISBN 9781101991459. SF
Generations after Earth has been attacked by an unknown alien force, the world is a different place. Most cities were instantly destroyed by the invaders using an element known as “thelemity,” and human survival depends on a few who can wield this power as well. In the intervening centuries, those who use thelemity are sought and put into military service. But while the surviving cities lead the ongoing war efforts, the rural settlements resent being employed as a supply source of resources and soldiers. Two young sisters from the unincorporated wild country are dragged into the conflict. This intriguing debut falters under the weight of too many first-person points of view, some with dialog that is awkward in its efforts to replicate teenspeak. VERDICT While the melding of sf aliens and a reality-altering magic are unusual, thelemity seems too much like plot device superglue. [See Eric Norton’s “Genre Spotlight” feature, LJ 8/16.—Ed.]
Bledsoe, Alex. Chapel of Ease. Tor. (Tufa, Bk. 4). Sept. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780765376565. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466851429. FANTASY
Dancer and actor Matt Johanssen is thrilled when he gets the lead in an exciting, new off-Broadway show called Chapel of Ease. Playwright Ray Parrish based the musical on stories from his insular Tennessee community. The play involves information that Ray always refused to divulge, about something buried in the chapel. Sadly, Ray dies on opening night, and Matt agrees to return his ashes to his family. He wants a chance to see where Ray grew up and maybe uncover the chapel’s secret. Bledsoe’s latest series outing (after Long Black Curl) cleverly uses outsider Matt to explore the community of the Tufa, people who have lived in their valley long before even the Native Americans. The novel reads like two very different (although complementary) stories, with the first third giving an intimate look at the theater scene before the action moves to Tennessee. VERDICT A same-sex romance between Matt and Ray’s childhood friend C.C. adds emotional weight to another great entry in this series, which is always effectively subtle in how it employs the supernatural, with music central to the magic of the Tufa.
Brailler, Max. Highway to Hell: Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? Gallery. Aug. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781476765679. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781476770376. HORROR
Your name is Jimmy El Camino. After several military tours and a lot of drunken spats, you have been sitting in a prison cell for over five years. When released, you are told that the world has gone to hell—the zombie apocalypse has arrived. Forced into a mission—survival or suicide, you’re not sure—you must travel from New York to San Francisco in a 1967 El Camino to try to save the world from extinction. Facing zombies, mad scientists, and cannibals may seem crazy, but choices need to be made. And you will make these decisions in this action-packed, choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) story. Can you survive the zombie apocalypse? VERDICT Those who remember CYOA from childhood will find a new level of fun and fright with this apocalyptic tale of zombies and cross-country attacks.
Estep, Jennifer. Unraveled. Pocket: Gallery (Elemental Assassins, Bk. 15). Aug. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781501142215. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501142260. FANTASY
Gin Blanco, a talented cook, owner of a barbecue joint, and an assassin extraordinaire known as the Spider, also serves as the queen of the city of Ashland’s underworld. Discovering that a secret society called the Circle may be actually running the show from behind the scenes, and that her mother may have been involved, Gin searches for answers that are not forthcoming. When her foster brother Finnegan Lane inherits an Old West theme park and hotel resort called Bullet Pointe, the siblings decide to get away for a few days and check out Finn’s new property. Cowboy shoot-outs and saloons may seem silly at first, but then the mystery of missing jewels and the appearance of Circle assassins turn their vacation into a wild and deadly confrontation. VERDICT Estep’s most recent series outing (after Bitter Bite) brings fresh revelations and fierce action. Gin’s continued search for the truth about her mother’s past and her own struggle to survive enemies make each book a distinct journey.
Hunter, Faith. Blood of the Earth. Roc: NAL. (Soulwood, Bk. 1). Aug. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780451473301. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698184480. FANTASY
When Nell Nicholson Ingram met skinwalker Jane Yellowrock, she had been exiled by the cult she was raised in, God’s Cloud of Glory. Nell has power, and her connection to the forest that surrounds her Soulwood Farm protects her. After Jane refers her to PsyLED, a federal agency that polices paranormals, Nell gets drawn into the investigation of an antiparanormal terrorist group called Human Speakers of Truth. Joining this PsyLED team will bring Nell back into the world—one full of strangers and possible friends, and the Blood Master of Nashville. When the Master’s vassal is kidnapped, Nell and her team are forced to go deep into the heart of the very cult Nell fears. VERDICT Hunter introduces a new heroine with ties to her “Skinwalker” series that will please fans of those books. Plenty of action, magic, and fascinating characters, both familiar and new, create another terrific urban fantasy from an established author.
Jordan, JD. Calamity. Heliosphere. Sept. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781937868475. pap. $16.99. FANTASY
Long before the legendary Calamity Jane rode with Wild Bill Hickok, she was 15-year-old Martha Jane Canary, whose life was turned upside down when her boss and friends were murdered, and she was nearly raped but saved by an otherworldly gunslinger, the Green Man, who is looking for a way home. Accompanying him in his quest for another spaceship, Jane learns more about the Wild West and the machinations of villainous men, the Grays—creatures who work against the Greens. As Jane’s desire for revenge is tested by her growing bond with the Green Man, she must face her own personal demons. VERDICT This first novel adds a fresh sf twist to a coming-of-age tale of a Wild West legend. Told from Calamity Jane’s point of view, this gritty story blends the right amount of hard trials and humor, giving readers a revitalized perspective on a familiar folklore heroine.
Mamatas, Nick. I Am Providence. Night Shade. Aug. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781597808354. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781597805834. HORROR
Novelist Panos Panossian is attending the annual Summer Tentacular horror convention in Providence, RI, when he is murdered and his face sliced off. That doesn’t keep him, however, from being one of the narrators of this satirical salute to horror master H.P. Lovecraft. The other is first-time attendee Colleen Danzig, who had been rooming with Panossian to save money; after his death, she begins investigating her fellow attendees. Could one of these barely socialized, zine-publishing, Cthulhu-obsessed fans be a killer? While a knowledge of Lovecraft and his work might heighten enjoyment of this novel, any familiarity with rabid fandom will do. The men (and a few women) who show up for the small convention may be easy to mock, but horror writer Mamatas (The Last Weekend) does so with an insider’s understanding. Having Panossian’s disintegrating consciousness tell half the tale draws out the suspense of the murder mystery, but it’s Colleen’s chapters that more effectively move the story along. VERDICT The reveal of the killer takes a while, but anyone who has ever skirted the world of obsessive devotees will find a lot to enjoy in this funny homage to horror and its leading practitioner.
Neill, Chloe. The Sight. NAL. (Devil’s Isle, Bk. 2). Aug. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780451473356. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698184534. FANTASY
Claire Connolly didn’t plan on becoming a bounty hunter in training, but working with Liam Quinn was a better option than being condemned as a paranormal Sensitive to Devil’s Isle. Liam kept her secret, however, and together they saved New Orleans. Now, Claire struggles daily with the fear that she could be outed, or worse, be overcome by the magic and transform into a wraith. Seven years after the Paranormal War, New Orleans residents are still dealing with the aftermath, and the rise of a new cult that believes that all Paras should be destroyed. With danger looming from this new group, and secrets being exposed, Claire attempts to fight the organization’s rise and combat her own inner power. VERDICT Neill’s sequel to The Veil continues to prove her adept at worldbuilding and nonstop action. Claire’s honesty and straightforward attitude make her a great character for a harrowing time.
Newman, Emma. A Little Knowledge. Diversion. (Split Worlds, Bk. 4). Aug. 2016. 360p. ISBN 9781682302910. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781682302903. FANTASY
Within the Nether, the mirror world that lies between the human Mundanus and the Fae Exilium, is the city of Londinium. Within a 19th-century English social structure, Will and Cathy, now the Duke and Duchess of Londinium, struggle to rule. However, their views on how they implement their authority diverge. Will is still bound to old values by his overbearing family and patron, Lord Iris. Cathy, on the other hand, continues to draw from her time in Mundanus and wants to vault over 200 years of court tradition and give women equal footing. But with Fae patrons still holding power, family dynasties can’t be taken down quickly. While Will and Cathy work together despite their differences, the pressure becomes too overwhelming, and one will make a decision that will change their future. VERDICT Newman’s return to the “Split Worlds” series (after All Is Fair) is a triumphant merger of Victorian values with modern magic; her fantastical romp through another world takes on class and gender dynamics.
Roberson, Chris. Firewalk. Night Shade. Oct. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781597808798. $24.99. HORROR
Five years ago, FBI agent Isabel Lefevre helped close the serial murder case involving a sword-wielding maniac named Nicholas Fuller in the West Coast city of Recondito. Patrick Tevake, her colleague from that task force who is now working vice, tells her it isn’t over, after finding a link between Nicholas’s victims and a new street drug known as “ink.” Before his death, Nicholas had raved about a supernatural threat he was trying to stop, which Izzy and Patrick dismissed as the symptoms of mental illness, but as they investigate, it becomes clear to them that the killer was right. Izzy’s heritage as the granddaughter of a New Orleans voodoo practitioner and Patrick’s Polynesian background both come into play in this gripping supernatural thriller from the cocreator of the comic iZombie, leaving them more open to seeing the occult roots of the crime. VERDICT While this series launch would appeal to any thriller fan, the terrific pacing and detailed police work mixed with supernatural elements means that Roberson’s novel will serve well horror and urban fantasy fans alike. [See Eric Norton’s “Genre Spotlight” feature, LJ 8/16.—Ed.]
Shawl, Nisi. Everfair. Tor. Sept. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780765338051. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466837843. FANTASY
In the late 19th century, the African colony of the Congo was Belgium’s stronghold on the continent—one ruled with a cruel grip as native peoples were tortured and enslaved to produce the rubber valued in Europe. This first novel reimagines a refuge carved out of the Belgian Congo through the efforts of a group of Fabian Society reformers. The Fabians, alongside missionaries and local tribal leaders, build the community Everfair and invent steam-powered tools and airships that help them remain independent. As the world marches on and Europe’s African colonies get drawn into World War I, Everfair will find it harder than ever to survive. VERDICT Fitting loosely under the banner of steampunk, this captivating look at a lesser-known corner of history includes a large cast of characters, which might make it harder for readers to form an emotional bond with any one protagonist in particular, but this is an important addition to the alternate history canon from the James A. Tiptree Award–winning Shawl, best known for her short stories. [See Eric Norton’s “Genre Spotlight” feature, LJ 8/16.—Ed.]
Wilde, Fran. Cloudbound. Tor. (Bone Universe, Bk. 2). Sept. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9780765377852. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466858213. FANTASY
After the City’s ruling Singers were thrown out of power at the end of Wilde’s award-winning debut, Updraft, the Towers are still reeling from the sudden power vacuum. Kirit is one of the few Singers not captured or dead, thanks to her efforts to expose the secrets of the Spire. Her best friend Nat is now a junior councilor for the Densira Tower, owing to powerful councilor Doran Grigrit’s mentorship. The two are flying around the broken Spire looking for remnants of the codex that the Singers had guarded when they uncover a dark conspiracy that threatens the entire City. Having the narrative weight carried by Nat rather than Kirit in this outing is a risk, as Nat’s character is not as intrinsically exciting. Still, Wilde illustrates his struggles between doing what’s right and the path to power that he seeks to travel. VERDICT What makes this a must-read are the further explorations of Wilde’s City of Towers and the residents who soar the skies between them. Those who have always wondered what was beneath the clouds will finally get their answer.
Willis, Connie. Crosstalk. Del Rey: Ballantine. Oct. 2016. 512p. ISBN 9780345540676. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780345540683. SF
Would you undergo brain surgery if it meant a deeper emotional connection with your lover? When Trent, Briddey Flannigan’s boyfriend, asks her to get an EED—a procedure to open emotional pathways between two people—she agrees, despite her family’s disapproval. While Briddey is used to her Irish American relatives meddling in all aspects of her life, she is surprised when coworker C.B. Schwartz tries to stop her from getting the EED as well. The operation does not go as planned, leaving Briddey telepathically joined to C.B. instead of emotionally bonded to Trent. Willis, SFWA Grand Master and Hugo Award winner for her time-travel duology, Blackout and All Clear, returns to the lighter romantic comedy she did so well in To Say Nothing of the Dog. Still, that is not to say that there isn’t some scalpel-sharp skewering of cell-phone addiction and our obsession with being connected. While Briddey’s family initially comes across as over the top, Willis makes it work as the story builds steam. VERDICT A fun, romantic near-future romp from a sf master. [See Eric Norton’s “Genre Spotlight” feature, LJ 8/16.—Ed.]
Collections & Anthologies
Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts. Laksa. (Anthology: Speculative Fiction). Aug. 2016. 368p. ed. by Susan Forest & Lucas K. Law. ISBN 9780993969645. $28; pap. ISBN 9780993969607. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780993969614. SF
Much of speculative fiction explores how we deal with forms of an “other.” Sometimes the outsider is a monster or an alien. The 19 stories collected here tackle the idea of people who are other, even to themselves, as a result of mental health issues. The authors, all Canadians, take different approaches, some addressing the concept straight on, some exploring it slantwise, with characters whose differences created challenges or granted fresh insights. The excellent opener, Kelley Armstrong’s “The Culling,” concocts a dark, resource-starved future in which those who are deemed too unusual are culled from society. In Tyler Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness,” a man in the grip of extreme paranoia believes malevolent gardeners are stalking his neighbors. And “The Dog and the Sleepwalker” by James Alan Gardner has a hero named “Dog” whose difference might save an entire spaceship’s crew. VERDICT Mental illness is an exciting theme for an anthology, leaving plenty of room for variety. The volume also includes an appendix of mental health resources. [A portion of this anthology’s net revenue will go to the Canadian Mental Health Association.—Ed.]
Bradley, Marion Zimmer & Deborah J. Ross. Thunderlord. DAW. (Darkover). Aug. 2016. 416p. ISBN 9780756410544. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698190702. FANTASY
Those who fondly remember the “Darkover” books (Stormqueen!; Hawkmistress!) set during the Ages of Chaos will welcome this new entry, which chronicles the aftermath of a conflict between two houses that can control the weather telepathically. Ross collaborated with Bradley on several other Darkover titles before Bradley’s death in 1999, and has written most recently The Children of Kings
Fine, Sarah. Splinter. 47North: Amazon. (Reliquary, Bk. 2). Aug. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781503936423. pap. $14.95. FANTASY
In the wake of the events of series opener Reliquary, Mattie Carver has given up magic and plans to marry Ben. Yet her talents as a reliquary are too valuable to some, and she will be forced to seek the help of Ben’s brother, Asa.
High Stakes. Tor. (Wild Cards, Bk. 23). Aug. 2016. 560p. ed. by George R.R. Martin. ISBN 9780765335623. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466824355. FANTASY
This latest collaborative novel in the “Wild Cards” series starts in Kyrgyzstan with cop Francis Black, joker Marcus Morgan, and thief Mollie “Tesseract” Steunenberg going up against Baba Yaga. Contributors this time out are David Anthony Durham, Stephen Leigh, John Joseph Miller, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Caroline Spector, and Ian Tregillis.
Marmell, Ari. Dead to Rites. Titan. (Mick Oberon Job, Bk. 3). Aug. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781785650970. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781785650987. FANTASY
The third entry (after Hallow Point) in the inventive series about a 1930s private eye who also happens to be one of the Fae mixes supernatural investigations and Al Capone’s Chicago for an irresistible combo.
Leo, Forrest. The Gentleman. Penguin Pr. Aug. 2016. 304p. illus. ISBN 9780399562631. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399562648. FANTASY
Popular poet Lionel Savage has a problem. His poetry has run dry, his sister Lizzie has been kicked out of boarding school, and he has inadvertently sold his new bride, Vivien, to the Devil (the gentleman of the title). Lionel has also discovered that, contrary to his expectation, he both dearly loves his wife and wants her back. When his brother-in-law, the famous adventurer Ashley Lancaster, comes to town, the two form a plan to steal back Vivien. With the help of the unconventional Lizzie, their mysterious butler, the adventurous Ashley, and an inventor of a steam-powered flying machine, Lionel needs only to find the entrance to Hell and save his beloved. What could go wrong? Narrating his tale as an edited autobiography, Lionel offers shallow introspection as he talks of his exploits. The hilarious footnotes offered by his “editor” add depth and insight to his musings. VERDICT With lively illustrations by Mahendra Singh (The Hunting of the Snark), this debut Victorian steampunk novel is a fun romp with witty wordplay, a diverse array of quirky characters, and a surprisingly lovely ending. [See Prepub Alert, 2/8/16.]
Shaw, Ali. The Trees. Bloomsbury USA. Aug. 2016. 496p. ISBN 9781632862839. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781632862846. FANTASY
On the night Nature decides it’s had enough, Adrien Thomas is nearly skewered in his bed by trees sprouting up through his house. All over the world, trees are killing millions and destroying everything standing in their way. Survivors like Hannah have the skills to navigate the new world. She plans to take her son, Sebastian, and hike out to her forester brother’s home to start new lives. They invite Adrien along after he mentions that his wife, Michelle, is in Ireland, assuming he will attempt to locate her and will be traveling in the same direction. Now he must find the courage, heart, and fortitude for this quest. Nature isn’t finished with humanity either. It’s searching for something or someone, and Adrien is one who will be tested. VERDICT Shaw (The Girl with Glass Feet) has written an exciting apocalyptic novel that blends in elements of magic realism. Gripping and occasionally brutal, this survival story highlights both the best and worst in humanity.
The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. Saga: S. & S. Oct. 2016. 400p. ed. by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe. illus. ISBN 9781481456128. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481456142. FANTASY
In this anthology of 18 unconventional fairy-tale retellings, Little Red Riding Hood journeys on horseback across a desert (Seanan McGuire’s “In the Desert Like a Bone”), and Hansel and Gretel are modern teens tripping on hallucinogenic wallpaper (Daryl Gregory’s “Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”). The editors challenged contributors to look at classic stories from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, A Thousand and One Nights, and other traditional sources, and strip and rework them into something new and different. Hence, established sf/fantasy authors such as Garth Nix, Catherynne M. Valente, and Marjorie M. Liu weave feminist ideas into their tales and explore psychological and political frameworks to ignite meaningful texts. An author’s note at the end of each entry offers insights into the writer’s process. VERDICT A great pick for readers looking for a fresh, diverse spin on standard fairy tales. Students of creative writing will be also be pleased.
QUOTABLE “The Main Ballroom was only about half full, with most attendees gathering in clumps. To Colleen it looked like what she imagined a large AA meeting would be, except instead of alcoholism the attendees had all sorts of other, subtler, problems.”