The elements, whether a personal power or a force of nature, have been mainstays of sf/fantasy writing from the genre’s beginning. How humanity has dealt with these components can be either a bane or boon, focused on creation or destruction. This month’s titles highlight the strengths of such elements in both natural and magical ways. For example, the daily dealings of New Yorkers are much different when the city is partially underwater in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. And in Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, a World War I veteran is haunted by a ghost who hungers for fire, while Cat Spark’s debut, Lotus Blue, is set in a barren desert wasteland.
Debut of the month
Honeywell, Antonia. The Ship. Orbit: Hachette. Apr. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780316469852. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316469890. SF
As the daughter of a man with important government connections, Lalla Paul has grown up fairly well off in a devastated Britain that subsides on increasingly scarce food rations and is overrun with undocumented refugees. As conditions worsen, 16-year-old Lalla and her parents are ready to escape in the Ship with 500 carefully chosen other people. Throughout her young life, Lalla knew her father was preparing for the day they must flee, even if her mother stubbornly believed that things could get better. With her father’s insistence that this is their one chance for survival, Lalla will finally see the culmination of these years of planning. But will the Ship be the answer to all their difficulties, or will Lalla discover that their problems exist in the people who surround her? Taking the old adage of “best laid plans,” this debut novel creates a new world that may not necessarily be better than the old. VERDICt Honeywell’s dystopian coming-of-age tale is challenging and intense, but the large amount of exposition and “daddy/daughter” dynamic slows the plot. Despite these flaws, this is a solid YA crossover.
Check These Out
de Bodard, Aliette. House of Binding Thorns. Ace: Berkley. (Dominion of the Fallen, Bk. 2). Apr. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780451477392. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698409934. FANTASY
Madeleine was forced to return to House Hawthorn, ruled by the fallen angel Asmodeus, after the destruction of House Silverspires (depicted in House of Shattered Wings). Given one last chance to pull herself out of her spiral of addiction to angel essence, she is sent on a diplomatic mission to the dragon kingdom under the river Seine. The dragons, once thought to be pure myth, are becoming a force to be reckoned with in Paris, even as the houses governed by the Fallen continue to fight among themselves. This ambitious fantasy series explores a Paris partly in ruins, dominated by fallen angels. While de Bodard touched on the dragon kingdom in the first book, here she further explores their efforts to challenge the houses above, and draws on her own Vietnamese background for the unique culture of dragons as well as immortals, such as returning character Phillippe. She also fills in corners of her Parisian landscape, showing the vulnerability of life for those living outside the houses. VERDICT The large cast of characters gives this series entry less emotional heft than the initial volume, but it is still a fascinating world with a welcome diversity of cultures and sexualities.
McClellan, Brian. Sins of Empire. Orbit: Hachette. (Gods of Blood & Powder, Bk. 1). Mar. 2017. 624p. ISBN 9780316407212. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316375122. FANTASY
Lady Vlora Flint leads her mercenary company as they attempt to put down Palo uprisings in rural Fatrasta. The ruler of the country summons them to the capital of Landfall where she gives Lady Flint a new assignment: find the elusive head of the Palo rebels. Her local contact is Michel Bravis, a member of the Blackhat secret police, whose real mission is to identify the culprits who have been distributing “Sins of Empire” pamphlets, which denounce the current government. Meanwhile, an aging legend of earlier wars is rotting in prison until a mysterious stranger offers him freedom if he will spy on Lady Flint. VERDICT This new opener is set in the same world as McClellan’s “Powder Mage War” series. While it features some recurring characters from the earlier books, new readers shouldn’t have any trouble jumping in here. Still, the author’s skillful worldbuilding and nuanced characters will undoubtedly tempt them to go back to his early work
Mari, Christopher. The Beachhead. 47North: Amazon. Mar. 2017. 332p. ISBN 9781503942622. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781503997622. SF
Earth has been destroyed, and the mysterious winged Orangemen have brought the last surviving humans to a strange beach. Left with basic tools and weapons, as well as a few thousand books containing many versions of the Bible, they are ordered to re-create society. Fifty years later and two generations on, questions remain about how the apocalypse happened. Threatening the delicate peace is the arrival of a new family of four, a group that should not exist. As the simmering inquiries begin to boil over, two soldiers, Kendra McQueen and John Giordano, head out to the wilderness to see if any answers can be found. But their discoveries only raise more uncertainty, which could possibly destroy them all. VERDICT Mari (Ocean of Storms) has written a smart and fascinating tale about a postapocalyptic society, built upon the juxtaposition of religious history and an advanced civilization. Readers will be guessing as much as her characters.
Merritt, Tom. Pilot X. Inkshares. Mar. 2017. 200p. ISBN 9781942645313. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9781942645320. SF
When we first meet the titular protagonist, he is Pilot X, but over the course of the novel, he has other names—Ambassador X, Instructor X, Citizen X. His people, the Alendans, face two adversaries in a secret struggle known as the Dimensional War. These foes are meddling with the stability of the space-time continuum, and X is the key to stopping them. If some of this setup seems familiar to fans of the long-running TV show Doctor Who, that appears to be a calculated move on the part of Merritt (cohost of the podcast Sword and Laser, and author of Citadel 32: A Tale of the Aggregate). His Alendans are Time Guardians rather than Time Lords, but plenty of clues sprinkled throughout the narrative wink at his influences, such as a planet that is an anagram of “Gallifrey” and X’s self-aware spaceship Verity, which holds a singularity at her heart, allowing the ship to be significantly “bigger on the inside.” VERDICT Whovians may enjoy, forgiving the sometimes unpolished prose for the sake of the adventurous plot. Others could give this one a pass.
Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Vatta’s Peace, Bk. 1). Apr. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9781101887318. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101887325. SF
Coming home to a war hero’s welcome would please most people, but Adm. Kylara Vatta is returning to the planet where her parents and siblings were killed. However, plans are dashed when her shuttle is compromised and crashes into the ocean. Ky works on getting surviving passengers to land, not knowing if the attack was aimed at her or someone else, if they are being hunted, or if one of the group is the saboteur. As the crew finally makes land on a small arctic island, Ky discovers that their refuge holds some secrets of its own, secrets that a mysterious government faction will do anything to keep hidden. VERDICT Moon’s fresh series launch brings back the celebrated heroine of her “Vatta’s War” books, along with the Vatta family. Business and governmental exploits clash in an exciting tale of military sf that will delight fans of the genre and series alike. [See Prepub Alert, 10/31/16.]
Neill, Chloe. Blade Bound. Berkley. (Chicagoland Vampires, Bk. 13). Apr. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9780451472342. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698180734. FANTASY
Time after time as Sentinel of Chicago’s Cadogan Houses, vampire Merit has protected her city, her House, and her liege Ethan Sullivan from danger. Now Merit faces one of the greatest challenges of undead life: her wedding to Ethan. Then a seemingly deranged vampire gets into Cadogan and attacks Merit. It turns out dark magic is infiltrating the city. Even with powerful friends by their sides, Merit and Ethan must take on a force of immeasurable power, and that still may not be enough. For it will not just be Cadogan House that falls, but the city of Chicago and its people. VERDICT With loose ends neatly tied up, this final installment (after Midnight Marked) of Neill’s consistently strong urban fantasy series will happily satisfy its many followers. [See Prepub Alert, 10/31/16.]
Newman, Emma. Brother’s Ruin. Tor.com. (Industrial Magic, Bk. 1). Mar. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780765393968. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765393951. FANTASY
Those with magical abilities are required to turn themselves over to the Royal Society for the Esoteric Arts, but Charlotte Gunn just wants to live a normal life and get married. In debt to dangerous people, her father tells the society that his son is a Latent, believing Charlotte’s brother was responsible for some of the abilities that Charlotte is trying to hide. Now she must decide whether her own personal freedom is worth risking her family’s safety and security. Some of the narrative could have benefited from a longer format, as the development of the supernatural elements and the minor characters of Charlotte’s seemingly dull betrothed and the handsome Magus Hopkins need some fleshing out. VERDICT Newman (After Atlas; Between Two Thorns) uses the trope of a young woman rebelling against society’s expectations, with the enjoyable switch that this time she wants to get married. Could there be a love triangle in the future? This gaslamp novella looks to be the start of a series, so perhaps readers will find out soon enough.
North, Claire. The End of the Day. Redhook: Orbit. Apr. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9780316316743. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316316774. FANTASY
We meet Charlie as he takes on a new job as a Harbinger of Death, which—he is quick to remind the people he visits—just means that he is the one who comes before the end. Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He likes the job, but he journeys to some dangerous places, and his targets are not always happy to see him. Around the narrative of Charlie and his attempts to perform his duty, North (The Sudden Appearance of Hope) inserts random snatches of conversation and emotion that are sometimes disturbing, brutally mundane, and detail the activities of the Harbingers of War, Pestilence, and Famine. At first, it’s not easy to see the purpose of these snippets, but the thread that pulls readers through is Charlie, who is remarkably willing to go with the flow. He visits brutal despots and blameless children, and tries to be what they need, whether it be confessor or witness. VERDICT This is a beautiful, if occasionally uncomfortable, read that resists being labeled with any particular genre. [See Prepub Alert, 10/31/16.]
Priest, Cherie. Brimstone. Ace: Berkley. Apr. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781101990735. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101990742. FANTASY
Clairvoyant Alice Dartle travels to the small Florida town of Cassadaga, having heard that it is a haven for spiritualists. There she hopes to learn how to better control her gifts. Meanwhile, Cuban-born tailor Tomás Cordero is haunted by terrible memories of his days as a soldier during World War I. Having lost his wife, Evelyn, to the flu, Tomás first believes the fires that spontaneously combust around him are random accidents, until he sees his dead wife’s face in the ashes. He heads to Cassadaga, seeking help from Alice. But the fires seem to be the work of a spectral presence that Tomás brought back from the battlefields of Europe. Although Alice is presumably meant to be spunky and unconventional, she instead comes off as self-indulgent and lacking good sense. Tomás is a much more sympathetic character, deeply grieving and desperate to make a connection to the wife he lost. VERDICT Regardless of the flaws in one of its lead protagonists, this dark historical fantasy from Priest (Maplecroft; Boneshaker) features an intriguing setting and fascinating details about the Prohibition era that will draw in readers. [See Prepub Alert, 10/21/16.]
Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit: Hachette. Mar. 2017. 624p. ISBN 9780316262347. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780316262330. SF
In the 22nd century a series of climate disasters and ocean level risings have left New York City partially underwater. In Manhattan, the old Met Life building is one of the skyscrapers-turned-islands that houses residents determined to stay in the city. Robinson focuses on those residents to tell a story of real estate, finance, climate change, treasure hunting, and kidnapping. Two missing computer programmers bring an unusual mix of the Met residents together, including a financial trader, the building super, a tenants’ rights advocate, a police inspector, and two intrepid orphans. Robinson (Aurora; “Mars” trilogy) writes dense sf that often has an ecological bent. His large cast of characters provide appealing windows into his near-future world, but the cityscape itself is the most interesting protagonist, with New York ringed by skyscrapers housing the rich as well as the lower regions of canals, collapsing buildings, and encroaching tides. The only frustration in this ambitious and impressive work is that the author relies too heavily on information dumps to fill in the details of climate change, explain the financial world, and liberally sprinkle fascinating nuggets of New York history. VERDICT Robinson’s many admirers and sf readers who enjoy ecofiction will want this. [See Prepub Alert, 10/6/16.]
Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire. Tor. Mar. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780765388889. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765388896. SF
Humanity has left Earth behind and headed across the universe, with spaceships riding the Flow, an extradimensional field that allows vessels to travel immense distances in weeks or months. The Holy Empire of Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, or the Interdependency for short, allows far-flung outposts to trade and exist successfully in this almost inexplicable time-space web. But now the entire Flow is changing, separating worlds from one another and threatening to destroy the Interdependency. Three people unite to try to save the Empire as they know it. But others see an opportunity for transferring the power to themselves. VERDICT Scalzi (Lock In) mixes science, history, and politics with sharp action and intriguing characters. Readers will be thrilled to take another wild ride across the universe with the author of the “Old Man’s War” series. [See Prepub Alert, 10/3/16.]
Skovron, Jon. Bane and Shadow. Orbit: Hachette. (Empire of Storms, Bk. 2). Feb. 2017. 544p. ISBN 9780316268141. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316268172. FANTASY
After trading his freedom to save his friend Hope, Red is now being trained by the biomancers to become an assassin. A skilled thief and con man, he believes his own talents at subterfuge will keep him alive, but he soon learns that palace politics is deadlier than he expected. As the pirate Dire Bane, Hope uses her secret Venchen teachings to attack ships that support the Council of Biomancers. When Hope and Red are finally reunited, they discover that surviving may be the least of their problems. Not only do they have to deal with a vicious murderer who strikes by night, but they must stop a plot that is more horrible than the one that destroyed Hope’s home village. VERDICT Skovron’s sequel to Red and Hope brings readers back to his intricate world of military action, magic, and piracy. The adrenaline-fueled conclusion to an emotionally engrossing tale leaves one eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.
Sparks, Cat. Lotus Blue. Talos. Mar. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9781940456706. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781940456737. SF
On an Earth that has been ravaged by war and technology, traders travel by caravan across the Sand Road. Partially sentient machines and other monsters live in the desert, and humans struggle to survive. One particular caravan carries two orphaned sisters, Star and Nene. Nene has always tried to protect her younger sibling, and of course, 17-year-old Star loves and hates her for it. But Nene’s protectiveness involves secrets that Star will soon discover, when a satellite crashes to Earth, separating her from Nene and forcing her on an unexpected journey that will bring her face to face with Lotus Blue. This ancient war machine is powerful, deadly, and now awake, ready to destroy the rest of humanity. VERDICT In the spirit of the Mad Max films, Australian author Spark’s debut takes reader on a journey of the intersection of human and machine. Strong characters and a vivid desert landscape bring this postapocalyptic story to life.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Borne. MCD. May 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780374115241. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374714925. SF
In the blighted landscape of a nameless city, Rachel is a scavenger who roams the land looking for useful biotech scraps, remnants of experiments done by the Company. She brings back her finds to her lover Wick, who was once an employee of the Company, before everything fell apart. On one excursion, Rachel discovers a lump that she cannot at first identify as plant, animal, or machine. She brings it home, names it Borne, and quickly grows attached. As Borne evolves into a seemingly sentient creature, he becomes a bone of contention between Rachel and Wick, who have differing opinions on Borne’s nature and possible threat. VERDICT VanderMeer (“Southern Reach” trilogy; Finch) delivers a work of dystopian ecofiction that will appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam” trilogy, albeit with a weirder sensibility. The language is lush and playful, with surreal touches, such as the building-sized bear that wanders a ruined landscape, attacking the sparse human population.
Wells, Alex. Hunger Makes the Wolf. Angry Robot. Mar. 2017. 464p. ISBN 9780857666444. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780857666451. SF
TranRifts Inc. controls all interstellar travel, and its businesses stretch far and wide. On the planet called Tanegawa’s World, the company is in charge, but not everyone who lives there is a company man, or woman. Hob arrived ten years ago, an orphan left behind by a rift ship. Taken in by Nick Ravani, she grows up as part of his gang of mercenaries known as the Ghost Wolves. When Hob and the crew discover a dead man in the desert, they are angered to find it is Nick’s brother, Phil. Even worse, they learn that his daughter, Mags, has been taken by the company elite and their mysterious Weathermen, who hunt down “witches,” people who exhibit strange powers. Hob possesses some of those abilities but has kept them hidden. Yet in the wake of continued company-sponsored hunts, she must learn to take control of her power and help her crew and the towns under control of the company. VERDICT Obvious parallels to Frank Herbert’s Dune will draw readers into this action-packed tale of tyranny and rebellion, but Wells’s character developments take the plot in new directions, leaving the possibility of a sequel.
QUOTABLE “Four months after Charlie started as Harbinger of Death, his girlfriend dumped him.”
Estep, Jennifer. Snared. Pocket. (Elemental Assassins, Bk. 16). Apr. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9781501142277. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501142284. FANTASY
Still hunting for clues about the mysterious underworld group called the Circle, Gin Blanco must also track a missing girl in her city. The 16th outing (after Unraveled) finds this elemental assassin as strong and deadly as ever.
Fortune, Margaret. Archangel. DAW. (Spectre War, Bk. 2). Mar. 2017. 464p. ISBN 9780756412937. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780698197817. SF
While 2015’s Nova focused on the story of a teen being used as a bomb to blow up a space station, this second book explores the new threats just hinted at in the first entry. Soldier Michael Sorenson is recruited into a research division developing weapons to stop the Spectres when he discovers there’s a saboteur among them.
Malerman, Josh. Black Mad Wheel. Ecco: HarperCollins. May 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780062259684. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780062677136. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062259707. HORROR
Members of the fading 1950s rock band The Danes are approached by an agent of army intelligence to help trace an uncanny, apparently malign (causing vomiting and extreme emotional upset), sound recorded in North Africa. Later, lead singer Philip Tonka wakes from a coma in an anonymous clinic, with nearly every bone in his body broken, cared for by Ellen—a nurse who is more forthcoming than the secretive doctors and military types. As Philip’s healing mysteriously speeds up, he struggles to untangle his confusing memories of what happened in the desert. The prevailing icy paranoia beneath the fractured time line builds tension and creates a very real feel of fear and falling into suffocating existential traps (here a genuine danger). Malerman (Bird Box) explores—and tests—the limits of psychological horror. In a genre not known for restraint, his uncluttered prose evokes awe and terror rather than horror and revulsion, and resonates with the chilling strangeness encountered in the fiction of 20th-century writers Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson. VERDICT Readers of weird, atmospheric fiction with a conspiratorial bent will enjoy Malerman’s latest offering. [See Prepub Alert, 11/27/16.]
Writers of the Future. Galaxy. (L. Ron Hubbard Presents, Vol. 33). Apr. 2017. 400p. ed. by David Farland. illus. ISBN 9781619865297. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781619865266. SF
This collection of 17 stories is the latest volume to come out of the Writers of the Future contest, which aims to showcase the work of previously unpublished sf/fantasy authors. The pieces range in subgenres, from the solidly sf (“Envoy in the Ice”) to clear fantasy (“The Dragon Killer’s Daughter”), from the futuristic mystery “Moonlight One” to the folkloric tale, “Tears for Shülna.” Some of the tales lean toward horror or even the surreal. The settings also vary widely, from a modern backyard to an African-inspired landscape to an Arabian Nights–type city. The contrasts contribute to this anthology’s success in presenting the creativity of different writers asking unique “what ifs.” This title also incorporates 14 winners of the Illustrators of the Future contest, whose visual art is paired with the literary art of the stories. Finally, there are four nonfiction essays included on research, storytelling, careers in illustration, and art direction. VERDICT Readers who are interested in discovering promising writers and who want to sample an inventive mix of speculative fiction will be likely to find something that resonates here.