In fantasy, there is usually magic in the world, but authors take various approaches to establish how pervasive the wizardry is and who knows about it. In epic fantasy, paranormal power might be a regular part of the characters’ daily lives such as found in Lois McMaster Bujold’s world of the Five Gods, revisited this month in Penric and the Shaman. Other stories pivot on secret supernatural knowledge, including those influenced by the ever-popular mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft, two examples of which we get with Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland and Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide.
Urban fantasy is more likely to have the magic shared with only a few, like the Tufa of Alex Bledsoe’s Gather Her Round: A Novel of the Tufa, or the agents of the Arcadia Project in Mishell Baker’s Phantom Pains. And the moment when hidden powers are made public is the focus of Kim Harrison’s The Turn, the prequel to her “Hollows” series. Underground or out in the open, alchemy is part of what makes fantasy a wonderful winter escape.
Debut of the month
Donnelly, Lara Elena. Amberlough. Tor. Feb. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780765383815. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466893412. FANTASY
The Federated States of Gedda is a loosely connected group of four nation-states, but the tide is turning politically. The socially conservative One State Party, also known as the Ospies, is creeping its way into power. In a still-resistant Amberlough City (think Weimar Republic Berlin), Cyril DePaul works as a spy. But when he is outed during a mission against the Ospies, he either must collaborate with them or face execution. His decision to construct an elaborate deception endangers Aristide Makricossta, Cyril’s outspoken lover and the flamboyant emcee of the Bumble Bee Cabaret, who is also a successful smuggler. Thrown into the mix is Cordelia Lehane, a dancer at the Bumble Bee and Ari’s runner. The three risk being taken down by the corrupt police, the crooked government, or their own actions. VERDICT Donnelly’s striking debut brings a complex world of politics, espionage, and cabaret life to full vision. The emotional journeys of the characters as they struggle to survive in a society under siege by dark forces will strike a chord with readers as they race to the story’s conclusion.
Check These Out
Baker, Mishell. Phantom Pains. Saga: S. & S. (Arcadia Project, Bk. 2). Mar. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9781481480178. $29.99; pap. ISBN 9781481451925. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481451932. FANTASY
Four months ago, Millie Roper, a brain-damaged double amputee with borderline personality disorder, left the Arcadia Project, which oversees relations between Hollywood and the fairy world, after her partner Teo was killed by a fey countess. Now working for Valmont Studios, she is brought back to the scene of the crime by her former boss, Caryl, where she is confronted by Teo’s ghost. Even more shocking to Millie is Caryl’s insistence that ghosts don’t exist. Although reluctant to deal with the Project again, she agrees to recount her experience to agents at the national headquarters. But during her visit, an agent is murdered and Caryl is implicated in the crime. Millie knows that Caryl is innocent, but the Project expects swift—and severe—justice to be served. Millie must not only save Caryl from an awful fate but also discover the culprit behind a plot to destroy both worlds. VERDICT This follow-up to Borderline keeps the emotional punches from Baker’s resilient protagonist coming. Millie’s disabilities are not hindrances; they enhance her thoughts and actions. Readers invested in the first book won’t be disappointed.
Bledsoe, Alex. Gather Her Round: A Novel of the Tufa. Tor. Mar. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780765383341. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466891555. FANTASY
Kera Rogers, a young woman of the mysterious Tufa, disappears while hiking the woods of Cloud County. It appears she was attacked by an unusually large wild boar, but things are never simple when they involve the Tufa, descendants of otherworldly fae beings. Kera’s boyfriend Duncan mourns her death, but he is also consumed by jealousy when he discovers she had another lover. While local hunters look for the boar, Duncan seeks revenge. VERDICT The latest entry (after Chapel of Ease) in this marvelous series combines human drama with just a touch of otherworldly magic. The split nature of the Tufa community is further explored, but Bledsoe never reduces the two sides to basic good vs. evil, as he allows his characters to make their own choices.
Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric and the Shaman. Subterranean. Feb. 2017. 216p. ISBN 9781596068155. $25. ebk. available. FANTASY
Lord Penric has joined the Bastard’s Order, studying and marking time as a sorcerer in the court of the Princess-Archdivine. Locator Oswyl arrives, looking for a wizard to find the shaman Inglis, who is accused of killing his best friend. Released from his service to the princess and accompanied by his demon, Desdemona, Penric travels with Oswyl into the mountains where he is forced to use his still-burgeoning powers when they are confronted with unexpected magic and spirits in capturing Inglis. VERDICT Set in the world of “The Five Gods” (The Curse of Challion; Paladin of Souls; The Hallowed Hunt), Bujold’s novella takes series fans back to a well-known realm in an exciting new adventure. The varied voices, especially between Pen and Desdemona, add a fun slant to a serious tale.
Danker, Sean. Free Space. Ace: Berkley. (Admiral, Bk. 2). May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780451475800. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780698197268. SF
Having impersonated a prince, fended off numerous assassination attempts, and prevented a war, the Admiral is ready for a weekend away with Tessa Salmagard, an Evagardian lady. Although dinner goes off without a hitch, pirates boarding their shuttle and kidnapping him as slave labor to be traded as another commodity was not part of the plan. But the Admiral has been underestimated before, and his date is an Imperial Service–trained soldier. Yet he soon realizes that the situation may be much more complicated. While Salmagard races to catch up with him, time is running out for the Admiral. VERDICT The sequel to Admiral brings back Danker’s intriguing characters in a deep dive into intergalactic politics and power. Another strong entry in military sf.
Emrys, Ruthanna. Winter Tide. Tor.com. (Innsmouth Legacy, Bk. 1). Apr. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780765390905. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765390912. FANTASY
The raid that destroyed the community of Innsmouth in the late 1920s leaves Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb the last of their people on dry land; the rest had died after being forced into desert internment camps during World War II. The Marshes are descendents of the Deep Ones, a branch of humanity who left land to dwell in the oceans. They had also worshipped the Elders, such as Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath, and Aphra is trying to keep up her magical and spiritual studies despite having no ancestors to help her. In 1949, she leaves the home she has made in San Francisco to go to Miskatonic University at the request of an FBI agent who believes the Russians have learned some of the secrets of her people and will use them in the looming Cold War. VERDICT While this debut is sure to be of interest to fans of H.P. Lovecraft, even those unfamiliar with the mythos should enjoy the combination of Cold War paranoia and horror. The pacing is slow, but the characters are winning, especially Aphra as she battles alienation from her own culture.
Harrison, Kim. The Turn: The Hollows Begins with Death. Gallery. (Hollows). Feb. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9781501108716. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501108846. FANTASY
Those familiar with Harrison’s “Hollows” series know that the supernatural community came out of the proverbial closet owing to a worldwide pandemic that killed millions of humans. The story of how that crisis kicked off in the 1960s is told here. Ambitious elf geneticist Trisk, who is trying to get respect from her male counterparts, takes a position in a human-run lab, hiding her true nature as she develops a virus that she hopes will one day save her people. Her plans go awry when longtime rival Trent “Kal” Kalamack shows up at her lab, intending to discredit her work. Fans will clamor for this prequel and will enjoy the cameos from some series regulars, including demon Aliagarept. They should be prepared for some sluggish pacing, however, and a heroine who makes some frustratingly bad choices. VERDICT Even with these drawbacks, it will leave longtime readers with an immediate desire to reread the main series.
Kiernan, Caitlín R. Agents of Dreamland. Tor.com. Mar. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9780765394323. pap. $11.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765394316. HORROR
Two rival intelligence agents meet in a diner in Winslow, AZ, to exchange information. One of the agents, known only as the Signalman, is haunted by horrors witnessed at the compound of a cult that was awaiting the arrival of elder gods from a Lovecraftian realm. Gathering acolytes by the shores of the Salton Sea, the cult leader targeted those like young Chloe from Los Angeles, promising them a new world. VERDICT There is no writer more skilled at conveying horrifying images in gorgeous language than Kiernan (The Drowning Girl). Here she combines remote locations, mysterious secret agents (one of whom seems unbounded by the laws of time), zombie fungus, tarot card prophecies, and satellites at the edges of our solar system into one compact novella.
Lawrence, Mark. Red Sister. Ace: Berkley. (Book of the Ancestor, Bk. 1). Apr. 2017. 480p. ISBN 9781101988855. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101988862. FANTASY
Nine-year-old Nona Grey, accused of murder, is headed for the gallows when she is purchased by the abbess of Sweet Mercy and taken into a convent that raises young women to become trained killers. For ten years, girls are taught the ways of sword and shadow, and for many, the old blood of the ancestors eventually rises to the surface in the form of magical gifts that enhance their fighting skills. When Nona arrives, she finds a new future, a new family, and some new enemies. But her brief previous history in the world attracts the attention of powerful families, dangerous foes, and even the emperor himself. As external politics and internal conflicts within the church seep into the convent’s isolated world, Nona will be forced to confront and embrace the darkness inside her, and no one will ever be the same. VERDICT In this stunning, action-filled series launch, Lawrence (“Broken Empire” trilogy) establishes a fantastic world in which religion and politics are dark and sharp as swords, with magic and might held in the hands of wonderful and dangerous women. Impatient George R.R. Martin’s fans will find this a pleasing alternative until the next installment in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga arrives.
McDonald, Ian. Luna: Wolf Moon. Tor. (Luna, Bk. 2). Apr. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780765375537. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466847644. SF
After the downfall of the Corta family at the end of Luna: New Moon, the balance of power on the moon is in flux. While the Mackenzies engineered the defeat of their rivals in order to take over the lucrative helium trade, internal rivalries keep them in chaos. The other powerful families will seek to take advantage of the power vacuum, but don’t count the Cortas out just yet. Lucas Corta attempts a return to Earth to recruit allies there, while the younger generation, including Robson and Lucasinho, struggle to survive without being used as pawns. VERDICT This novel should probably not be attempted without reading the first book, as McDonald has established a complex political climate. The power blocks—the Aussie Mackenzies, Brazilian Cortas, or Chinese Suns—have kept certain aspects of their Earth roots, and readers will encounter a variety of foreign language slang, which is aided by the included glossary.
McGuire, Seanan. Magic for Nothing: An Incryptid Novel. DAW. (InCryptid, Bk. 6). Mar. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780756410391. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698183544. FANTASY
Antimony Price, the youngest of her family of cryptozoologists, is still figuring out her life as she tries to contain her new, secret incendiary power. After her older sister, Verity, basically declares war against their enemy, St. George of the Covenant, on live television, Annie is asked by the family to travel to London and infiltrate the Covenant. She must find out if the organization is taking Verity’s declaration seriously and planning to respond in kind. This is a life-or-death mission; if the Covenant discovers who Annie is, if they realize that she wants to protect most of the Cryptids, if they uncover her secret, they will certainly kill her—or worse. Because there is always a “worse.” VERDICT The sixth series outing (after Chaos Choreography) returns fans to the supernatural world of monsters, monster hunters, and Price family issues. McGuire continues to keep the high energy and excitement in her frenetic action-filled stories, with loads of humor and intriguing characters.
Neuvel, Sylvain. Waking Gods. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Themis Files, Bk. 2). Apr. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781101886724. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101886731. SF
The team that assembled the giant alien robot known as Themis in 2015’s Sleeping Giants never really got answers about who left the machine behind and why. They face a terrifying escalation of the mystery in this sequel as a new robot lands in London. The new machine, even bigger than the colossal Themis, unleashes a violent attack on the city. Worse, there are more robots landing at every major population center on the globe. The Themis team might be the only hope for humanity’s survival. Rose, the original discoverer of the first piece of Themis, has an especially intriguing arc, questioning her very existence. VERDICT Darker than the first book, this entry maintains the effective format of a compiled history of interviews, news items, and official journal entries. This series’ thoughtful yet action-packed nature would make for a great film, and in fact, the rights were sold to Sony Pictures before the first volume came out. [See Prepub Alert, 10/31/16.]
Reynolds, Alastair. Revenger. Orbit: Hachette. Mar. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9780316555562. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316555630. SF
Sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness run away from a safe life, hoping to earn money to help their father. They’ve been tested and found to have the rare ability to pick up the ghostly signals put out by alien skulls, so they are hired as bone readers for the ship Monetta’s Mourn. A good reader can not only pick up what is being sent to their ship but also eavesdrop on other ships’ messages. Captains like Rackamore of the Monetta use that hijacked information to help them plan heists on the treasures locked away around the galaxy. But when their ship tangles with Bosa Sennan, the notorious pirate, Adrana and Arafura are separated and Fura vows revenge. VERDICT Reynolds (Slow Bullets) has sketched in a galaxy littered with the relics of former civilizations (human and alien), with plenty left to the reader’s imagination, and room for a sequel. The space slang (air is “lungstuff”) sometimes seems hokey, but the author marries pirate adventures with a coming-of-age story in a way that should give it great crossover appeal for teens.
Wolf, Deborah A. The Dragon’s Legacy. Titan. (Dragon’s Legacy, Bk. 1). Apr. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781785651076. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781785651090. FANTASY
The people of the Zeera, surrounded by fierce predators, with sparse resources and the few children born to them, are proud of their resilience; they train young women like Sulema to be Ja’Akari—warrior protectors of their desert home. Sulema’s celebration of her elevation to Ja’Akari is interrupted by visitors from the Dragon King in Atualon. The king’s men have been looking for her and her mother for years, as Sulema is the king’s daughter and she is needed. This debut packs a lot of worldbuilding into a series opener, introducing Sulema and the people of the Zeera as well as the court of the Dragon King, a rival empire in neighboring Sindan. VERDICT Many elements typical of epic fantasy appear—hidden heirs, sleeping dragons, spider cults—but Wolf does a good job of laying out her game board of rival powers and setting the tone for what is sure to be an interesting new series.
Wright, Suzanne. Blaze. Piatkus. (Dark in You, Bk. 2). Apr. 2017. 354p. ISBN 9780349413174. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9780349413181. FANTASY
Harper Wallis should be happy: she has the man of her dreams, a business she loves, and close friends. Of course, her friends are hellcats and imps, her man Knox is a possessive demon—just like her—and she is now co-Prime of a powerful demon lair in Las Vegas. But when one of Knox’s fellow demons goes rogue, kidnapping Harper’s mom and threatening Knox’s life, Harper must save him, although Knox is determined to protect her. Adding to their troubles is an upcoming celebration with a not-so-fun party planner and the realization that their partnership means the balance of power has shifted. Harper has her hands full just trying to get along—and stay alive. VERDICT Wright’s follow-up to Burn is another action-filled romp of an urban fantasy with no shortage of humor or sex.
Collections & Anthologies
Balaskovits, A.A. Magic for Unlucky Girls. Santa Fe Writer’s Project. Apr. 2017. 226p. ISBN 9781939650665. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781939650689. FANTASY
A new bride is faced with her husband’s mysterious locked door. Twin infants finally wake their mother from a century of sleep. One woman finds that her prince adores her perfect hair, but abhors any other flaws. These 14 stories spins new twists on familiar fairy-tale tropes with heroines who take control of their situations. The darkness that could destroy them is vanquished through brains, beauty, and the light of their own souls. VERDICT Winner of the 2015 Santa Fe Literary Awards Program, Balaskovits’s anthology breathes fresh life into classic fairy tales. Readers who enjoy short fiction with a fantastical bent should pick up this award-winning book.
Beaulieu, Bradley P. With Blood upon the Sand. DAW. (Song of Shattered Sands, Bk. 2). Feb. 2017. 672p. ISBN 9780756409746. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780698152397. FANTASY
In this follow-up to Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, Blood Maiden Çeda serves the Kings, training to be a warrior while dealing with the truth she has learned about the enslaved asirim.
Schwab, V.E. A Conjuring of Light. Tor. (Shades of Magic, Bk. 3). Feb. 2017. 624p. ISBN 9780765387462. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765387486. FANTASY
Fans of the series that began with A Darker Shade of Magic and continued with A Gathering of Shadows will be eager to read this concluding volume. Still unknown are details on how this excellent story of four magical Londons will wrap up, but count this columnist in!
Wallace, Matt. Idle Ingredients. Tor.com. (Sin du Jour, Bk. 4). Feb. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780765390035. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765390028. FANTASY
The team at Sin du Jour, a catering service that works with the supernatural community, is back after Pride’s Spell. This time out, the men are taken down by a threat from within.
Wendig, Chuck. Empire’s End. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Star Wars: Aftermath, Bk. 3). Feb. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9781101966969. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101966976. SF
Wendig kicked off a new era in Star Wars novels with Aftermath, followed by Aftermath: Life Debt. Now he concludes this trilogy, set after the events of the film Revenge of the Jedi.
QUOTABLE “For a moment, it seems to him like something is trailing behind her, as if the coming night has tangled itself about her shoulders, has snagged in her short black hair and won’t let go.”
Probert, John Llewellyn. The Lovecraft Squad: All Hallows Horror. Pegasus. Mar. 2017. 384p. ed. by Stephen Jones. ISBN 9781681773339. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681773872. HORROR
Created by acclaimed horror editor Jones, this first entry in a new trilogy takes H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, most notably Cthulhu, and makes them prominent figures in Dante Alighieri’s poetic depiction of Hell and Purgatory from The Divine Comedy. The story follows parapsychologists Bob Chambers and Karen Shepworth as they unravel the mystery surrounding bones and scrolls uncovered outside the ancient All Hallows Church in Blackheath, London. Locked in the church as part of an investigative team, they soon find themselves immersed in a world of unspeakable horror and eldritch entities who wish to throw the world into darkness and create hell on Earth. VERDICT Smartly combining Lovecraftian and classical mythologies, Probert (The House That Death Built) does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful and often horrific atmosphere without indulging in gratuitous gore or violence. Still, some more explicit depictions of hellish scenes make this title best suited for older teens and adults. Fans of Lovecraft and horror should enjoy.