Space Opera and Romance in Equal Measure: The Consortium Rebellion Trilogy by Jessie Mihalik

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Authors love to blend genres these days, and I’m heartily glad to see it. Thus you get the Horror Comedy, the Science Fiction Police Procedural, the Weird Western (my favorite!) and many other tasty fiction concoctions.

Of course, some are harder to craft than others. I think the trickiest may be the science fiction romance, just based on the fact that there are so few successful examples. So I was very intrigued to see Jessie Mihalik’s 2019 debut novel Polaris Rising hit a bullseye with critics. Here’s The New York Times.

Jessie Mihalik’s splendid Polaris Rising… [is] a thrill of a book. Ada von Hasenberg is the fifth child of one of the three royal houses of the universe’s ruling Consortium. She’s been on the run for the last two years, fleeing an arranged marriage with the son of a rival house. When she finds herself about to be captured by her intended, she manages to escape with a fellow prisoner: Marcus Loch, the Devil of Fornax Zero, and the most wanted man in the universe. Ada soon discovers that the small ship they’ve stolen for their escape holds secrets that could topple the universe’s delicate balance of power.

Mihalik’s universe is vividly imagined… The book is told entirely from Ada’s point of view, offering the reader no more insight past Loch’s cold exterior than Ada herself has. It’s a risk on Mihalik’s part — Loch starts out menacing and mysterious, and he always remains a bit opaque — but it pays off as the reader, right along with Ada, gets to treasure every small crack in his stoic facade. Besides, Ada’s a tremendous heroine, brilliant and capable but never infallible, and I wouldn’t want to give up a moment with her. The set pieces skew toward sci-fi, but the burgeoning attraction between Ada and Loch is just as important to the story. This is space-opera adventure and sweeping romance in equal parts, an enthralling and eminently satisfying book.

You can check out the full review here. Mihalik followed up the success of her first book with Aurora Blazing (“A standout, memorable book that oozes crossover appeal” — BookPage) late last year, and in May of 2020 the series concluded with Chaos Reigning. The Seattle Review of Book says “The third and final volume in this blaster-filled space adventure romance series lands with a bang…” (Is that a euphemism for sex? I’m pretty sure it is.)

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The Stakes Have Never Been More Reasonable: A Quiet Afternoon, edited by Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

A Quiet AfternoonI don’t think of science fiction as a predictable genre. It’s filled with widely varying ideas, settings, characters, and plots, and produced by a hugely diverse group of writers all over the planet. But in at least one way, SF does tend to be predictable: it’s a genre of high-stakes drama. It concerns itself with apocalypses, alien invasions, desperate battles against evil empires, dystopias, life-and-death court intrigue, world-altering time travel, thunderous space battles — a whole lot of sound and fury, really.

But it doesn’t have to be. Does a good tale require high stakes? That’s the question posed by the new anthology from Canadian small press Grave & Victory, run by Grace Seybold and Victoria Feistner. A Quiet Afternoon, edited by Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold, collects 14 original low-stakes tales that aim to simultaneously entertain and comfort. Here’s the description.

A peaceful break from a stressful world.

The stakes have never been milder or more reasonable.

A Quiet Afternoon brings readers thirteen Low-Fi tales of gentle speculative fiction, stories of wonder and the celebration of small successes. Ease into worlds of quiet triumph and gracious victories; of found families and unlikely friendships; magical constructs, pensive mermaids, fairies and dragons and a barbecue sauce that will literally change your life.

The stakes are low. The expectations are reasonable. The resolutions are satisfactory. Wrap yourself up in a cozy blanket, make a cup of tea, and enjoy A Quiet Afternoon.

Here’s a snippet from Laura DeHaan’s Foreword which explains the intriguing genesis behind the book.

In early 2019, Victoria Feistner and I just wanted to read speculative fiction that wasn’t high-stakes, where the fate of the world didn’t hinge on the actions of a single hero overcoming impossible odds … Manga and anime do a good job of incorporating the fantastic with the mundane (Fruits Basket, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, My Neighbour Totoro), but Western SF really likes its earth-shattering consequences and do-or-die protagonists … We started reading for A Quiet Anthology in late 2019. The world was in a weird place, but that made the selection process relatively easy. If the story left behind a feeling of comfort, or relief, or a little sigh of “Wasn’t that nice,” then it was pretty much a shoo-in for the anthology… We are all overcoming impossible odds in our everyday lives — and when that’s the case, where do we escape to? … So, check in with yourself. Take a nap. Have a juice box. Would you like to read stories with magical robots and talking animals and the beginnings of a wonderful friendship? It’s okay. They’re here for you. Take care, and enjoy A Quiet Afternoon.

I think this is a great idea for an anthology, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. It was released today; here’s the complete Table of Contents for A Quiet Afternoon.

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New Treasures: Corporate Gunslinger by Doug Engstrom

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Corporate Gunslinger by Doug Engstrom (Harper Voyager, June 2020). Cover design by Yeon Kim

Doug Engstrom definitely has one of the more original debuts of the month with Corporate Gunslinger, a new-future adventure tale in which…. well, maybe it’s best if we jump right to the Publishers Weekly review.

Engstrom’s promising debut offers a stark, dystopian vision of a near-future American Midwest in which debt slavery is commonplace and livestreamed gunfights are a popular form of entertainment. Former actor Kira Clark accepts a sponsorship from TKC Insurance Company to duel civilians on live TV to avoid defaulting on her student loans and resigning herself to a life of debt slavery. Kira adopts a cold, composed persona in her gunfights, but outside the arena she’s kind-hearted and loyal, if gradually becoming more unstable. At her side are her best friend, Chloe Rossi, and her mentor, Diana Reynolds, who support Kira through all of her highs and lows… [a] grim, intelligent examination of the American debt crisis… fans of insightful dystopias will find plenty to enjoy.

Read the whole thing here. You know, I’m not even sure what category this is. Weird Western? Future Western? Western Dystopia? File it next to Westworld; that should be close enough.

Corporate Gunslinger was published by Harper Voyager on June 16, 2020. It is 320 pages, priced at $15.99 in hardcover and $10.99 in digital formats. The cover was designed by Yeon Kim. Read the first three chapters here, and listen to an audio excerpt here. See all our recent New Treasures here.


Vintage Treasures: Crossroads in Time edited by Groff Conklin

Monday, June 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Crossroads in Time (Permabooks, 1953). Cover by Richard Powers

Modern science fiction is top notch, and I’d hold today’s best writers — John Scalzi, N.K. Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Martha Wells, Nnedi Okorafor — up against the greats of yesterday without hesitation. If I were to be stranded on a desert island (or, more likely, locked in my basement during a pandemic) and could only bring a dozen books, my choices would be heavily weighted toward SF published in the last ten years.

Except for anthologies. For whatever reason — nostalgia, maybe? — during those times when I have only a few minutes to read before bedtime, my hand still wanders towards Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas’s monumental Adventures in Time and Space (1946), or The Hugo Winners, Volumes I and II (1972) edited by Isaac Asimov, A Treasury of Science Fiction (1948), edited by Groff Conklin, or The Good Old Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition (1998), edited by Gardner Dozois.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of great modern anthologies. I spent much of last weekend reading Neil Clarke’s terrific The Final Frontier, and I really enjoyed it. But the sight of newer anthologies doesn’t make my heart jump like the old ones do.

Partly I think it’s the contributors. There’s just something about opening a yellowing paperback and seeing a table of contents packed with names like Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Jerome Bixby, Fritz Leiber, Margaret St. Clair and other favorites. And also, of course, it’s the cover art. Take Crossroads in Time, the eleventh SF book by the great SF anthologist Groff Conklin. It was released as a paperback original in 1953 by Permabooks with a gorgeously colorful cover by Richard Powers which — even today, nearly seven long decades later — speaks of wonder and adventure on faraway worlds.

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Who is Daemon Grim? Hell Gate by Andrew P. Weston

Sunday, June 28th, 2020 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

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Cover by Roy Mauritsen

Back in the Underworld with Andrew P. Weston’s Hell Gate. Published by Perseid Press. Copyright © 2019 by Janet Morris and Andrew P. Weston. 523 pages. Cover art and design by Roy Mauritsen

Hell Gate is Weston’s third novel set in Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell ™ universe, the first two being Hell Bound (2015) and Hell Hounds (2017) — both of which I previously reviewed for Black Gate. The trilogy is all about the exploits of Daemon Grim. So, who is Daemon Grim? He’s Satan’s Enforcer. The Devil’s Hitman. The Prince of Darkness’ Henchman. He’s like the James Bond of Perdition, armed with a nasty array of infernal weapons and gadgets. Add to the mix his Satanic-gifted powers, and he’s either Hell’s superhero or supervillain, depending on your point of view.

In short, Daemon Grim is one bad-ass, damned soul.

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Andrew Liptak on 22 New Science Fiction and Fantasy Books in June

Sunday, June 28th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Larry Rostant

Polygon has discontinued Andrew Liptak’s excellent monthly new SF book column, which is a shame. John DeNardo’s column seems to have vanished from Kirkus as well, and since the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog folded up shop at the end of last year, that leave us with no regular new columns at any of the major sites.

Fortunately, Andrew hasn’t given up. At least according to this notice in his bi-weekly newsletter:

My regular column with Polygon has been put on hiatus for a while, presumably because of the strain that the COVID-19 pandemic puts on editorial resources and budgets. I enjoy putting these together, so I’ll be publishing it here in the meantime.

That’s great news. And true to his word, Andrew has continued to issue his monthly new books column in his Newsletter. The latest one includes “Space westerns, fantastic kingdoms, and more,” with new books by Max Brooks, David Gerrold, Kim Harrison, Carrie Vaughn, Katherine Addison, Zen Cho, S.A. Chakraborty, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, and the last new book from Gene Wolfe. Here’s a few of the highlights.

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Future Treasures: Where the Veil Is Thin edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy and Alana Joli Abbott

Saturday, June 27th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Where the Veil Is Thin-smallAlana Joli Abbott is the co-editor of the Blackguards anthology Knaves (with Melanie Meadors) and Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters (with N.X. Sharps). She was a reviewer at Black Gate for over a decade, dating all the way back to our early print days; these days she is Editor in Chief at Outland Entertainment. Her latest project is the anthology Where the Veil Is Thin, co-edited with Cerece Rennie Murphy, author of the popular Wolf Queen series. Where the Veil Is Thin arrives in trade paperback on July 7 and has a stellar list of contributors, including Seanan McGuire, Minsoo Kang, Carlos Hernandez, and Black Gate‘s own C.S.E. Cooney. Here’s the description.

These are not your daughters faerie stories…

Around the world, there are tales of creatures that live in mist or shadow, hidden from humans by only the slightest veil. In Where the Veil Is Thin, these creatures step into the light. Some are small and harmless. Some are bizarre mirrors of this world. Some have hidden motives, while others seek justice against humans who have wronged them.

In these pages, you will meet blood-sucking tooth fairies and gentle boo hags, souls who find new shapes after death and changelings seeking a way to fit into either world. You will cross the veil — but be careful that you remember the way back.

Here’s the impressive Table of Contents.

Introduction by Jim Hines
“The Tooth Fairies” by Glenn Parris
“Glamour” by Grey Yuen
“See a Fine Lady” by Seanan McGuire
“Or Perhaps Up” by C.S.E. Cooney
“Don’t Let Go” by Alana Joli Abbott
“The Loophole” by L. Penelope
“The Last Home of Master Tranquil Cloud” by Minsoo Kang
“Your Two Better Halves: A Dream, with Fairies, in Spanglish” by Carlos Hernandez
“Take Only Photos” by Shanna Swendson
“Old Twelvey Night” by Gwen Nix
“The Seal Woman’s Tale” by Alethea Kontis
“The Storyteller” by David Bowles
“Poisoned Hearts” by Zin E. Rocklyn
“Colt’s Tooth” by Linda Robertson

Where the Veil Is Thin was funded by a successful Kickstarter in March of this year, and will be published by Outland Entertainment on July 7, 2020. It is 210 pages, priced at $16.95 in trade paperback and $7.99 in digital formats. The beautiful cover is by Anna Dittmann. Order copies directly at Outland Entertainment. See all our recent coverage of the best upcoming SF and Fantasy releases here.


Goth Chick News: Anne Rice’s Vampires and Witches Get a Final Resting Place on AMC

Thursday, June 25th, 2020 | Posted by Sue Granquist

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To say I was a fan of Anne Rice’s stories is to under-report the nature of my obsession. Not only do I have all of her work in multiple formats (at least all of it up to 2005), I have hardcover first editions of many, signed by the lady herself. These were the results of multiple pilgrimages to New Orleans to attend her book releases at the Garden District Book Shop as well as her annual Vampire Ball which used to be held every October. These trips lead to my own love affair of NOLA which remains to this day, all thanks to the incredible mystery, terror and romance Rice conveyed in her works, most of which were anchored in the city time forgot.

So, what happened in 2005 that changed everything?

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans that year. Rice had decamped in 2002 when her husband passed away, selling all her properties and moving to California to join her son Christopher, a successful author in his own right. However, her leaving the city had not stopped the tourism generated by Rice’s stories. Following Katrina, city leaders appealed to Rice to come back to New Orleans to host an event or two and help get the city back on its feet. Unfortunately, Rice declined, which was understandable if it had been too hard to return to the place where her husband’s memory was everywhere. But Rice’s stance went much deeper.

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Diplomacy, Politics and Military Action: The Breaker of Empires Trilogy by Richard Baker

Thursday, June 25th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Larry Rostant

Every time an author completes a trilogy, we bake a cake at the Black Gate offices. We’re gotten pretty pudgy over the years, but hey. You don’t mess with tradition.

I missed the arrival of Scornful Stars, the final book in Richard Baker’s Breaker of Empire trilogy, last December — which means I missed an excuse for another cake. Sounds like I missed a good story too, if the Tzer Island review is anything to go by. Here’s an excerpt.

North’s ship is patrolling four systems in the Zerzura Sector. Piracy has been a problem that North hopes to do something about. He is, in fact, entreated to do so by a lovely woman whose shipping company is plagued by pirates… The pirates seem to know when the military will arrive. North develops a theory as to why that might be, putting him in a position to shoot it out with pirate ships. Later, he seizes an opportunity to thwart Bleindal’s nefarious plans, which leads to more shootouts, both between vessels and between North’s boarding parties and provocateurs.

The emphasis in the second novel was on diplomacy, while this one explores how corruption results in a breakdown of diplomacy. All three novels feature strong action scenes and interesting discussions about military strategy in the context of space, where warships are separated by thousands of kilometers. A fair amount of military science fiction is ghastly, but the Breaker of Empires series combines a thoughtful balance of diplomacy and politics with military action…

Scornful Stars continues Baker’s strong characterization and carefully conceived universe building. The story balances moments of excitement with convincing descriptions of what it might be like to serve in a space-based military organization. Baker’s attention to detail adds credibility to the story, while his focus on the impact of war on his characters adds an important dimension that most military action novels address only in generic terms. RECOMMENDED.

Baker began his career as a game designer at TSR, where he co-designed the highly-regarded Birthright campaign setting. He wrote nine Forgotten Realms novels for TSR over the next decade, but Breaker of Empires is his first non-licensed project. We covered Valiant Dust here, and Restless Lightning here.

Scornful Stars was published by Tor Books on December 3, 2019. It is 462 pages, priced at $23.99 in trade paperback, $8.99 in mass market, and $9.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Larry Rostant. See all our recent coverage of the best in SF and Fantasy series here.


Vintage Treasures: Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman. Berkley Books, June 1979. Cover by Wayne Barlowe

Robert Aickman was not part of my early genre education, and even today I’ve read only a handful of his stories. But he had a fine reputation; one that hasn’t faded at all since he died in 1981. Today he’s highly collectible, and his collections are tough to find, especially in the original paperback editions. I recently came across a copy of the 1979 Berkley edition of Cold Hand in Mine on eBay — tucked away in a lot of 11 SF paperbacks offered for $8 — and snapped it immediately.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a copy before.

Aickman has plenty of fans even today, and it’s not hard to find modern commentary on his 40-year old paperbacks. That’s fairly unusual (trust me on that). Will Errickson at Too Much Horror Fiction has one of my favorite recent reviews; here’s an excerpt.

Another word I’d use to describe his stories is “uncanny,” since they rarely adhere to generic conventions but instead move subtly around them, hinting at unconscious drives, highlighting how the real world and the real people in it may be illusions obscuring darker forces at work. Odd occurrences do not add up; the killer does not remove a mask and identify himself, because we aren’t sure there’s a killer at all, but only time and chance and that what might be called fate. You might not be surprised when I suggest Aickman is a bit of an acquired taste.

Aickman has long been a favorite of adventurous readers who search high and low for the forgotten or the overlooked, the challenging and the obscure; in recent years his reputation has grown and grown, and his books have been brought back into print by several publishers. After years of fruitless search myself, I recently bought, for a few dollars more than I generally like to pay for old paperbacks, a copy of Cold Hand in Mine (Berkley Books reprint 1979…) these are quiet, literate tales of creepiness; the front and back ad copy oversell it and I wonder of buyers’ remorse back in the day…

These stories generate little heat; no melodrama, no generic twist, no jump scares, no slow dawning of horrible realization. When the “horror” occurs, rarely does it overly alarm or unduly concern anyone. The polite thing seems to be to ignore it… for that whisper of other worlds, or even an intimation that our perception of this world is flawed and incomplete, not up to the task, is simply intolerable. Characters view these things askance, never head-on.

Cold Hand in Mine contains eight long stories, all but one of them novelettes, including the World Fantasy Award-winning “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal.” Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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