Revisit the Fabled City of Brass: S. A. Chakraborty Wraps The Daevabad Trilogy with The Empire of Gold

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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It’s always a delight to watch a talented writer successfully wrap up a fantasy series.

And that’s especially true of S. A. Chakraborty’s The Daevabad Trilogy, which opened with one of the most popular debuts of the last few years. The City of Brass. Here’s what Brandon Crilly’s said in his enthusiastic review right here at Black Gate in 2018.

Chakraborty creates a world that’s nuanced and detailed. It has exactly the vivid freshness we continue to need in the fantasy genre, as a balance for the variations on the same Eurocentric worldviews that are still widely common…. But the novel is much more than its world – at the end of the day, my interest is always characters. Our two main protagonists, Cairo street urchin Nahri and immortal warrior Dara, are great counterparts; they’re equally passionate and protective, but in different ways, and both are seeking to find their place in the world… The City of Brass is excellent. It’s rare that I find a fantasy novel that’s so vividly detailed.

The Kingdom of Copper arrived last year; Kirkus Reviews called it “As good or better than its predecessor.” And now the concluding volume, the massive 784-page The Empire of Gold, arrives in hardcover; here’s the description.

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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 Grace & 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.


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

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

Stormblood-small We Ride the Storm-small Devolution A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre-small

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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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.


New Treasures: Hella by David Gerrold

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Hella by David Gerrold-smallDavid Gerrold is the author of some three dozen novels and collections, including When Harlie Was One (1972), the Star Wolf novels, Jumping Off the Planet (2000), and the as-yet unfinished War Against the Chtorr series. Not to mention his acclaimed non-fiction books on Star Trek, including the classic The World of Star Trek (1973).

I first heard about his new SF novel Hella at Tammy Sparks review blog Books, Bones, & Buffy, where she wrote,

I loved the idea of a group of colonists living on a planet where everything is huge… Gerrold does a great job of setting the stage and presenting a cool idea.

I wasn’t even aware that there was a new book by Gerrold, but I’m excited to see it. And like Tammy, I’m very intrigued by the premise. (Are there alien dinosaurs?? Please let there be alien dinosaurs.) It received a starred review at Publishers Weekly, and you know what that means — it must contain dinosaurs. Here’s a peek at the review.

Hugo and Nebula Award–winner Gerrold (The Martian Child) showcases his powerful storytelling skills with this outstanding tale of interstellar intrigue. Hella is a planet of extremes, so named because its oxygen-rich atmosphere causes everything from the trees to the leviathans that inhabit it to grow “hella big.” The barely self-sufficient human colonists who call Hella home flee its blistering summers and harsh arctic winters in a biannual migration. Among these colonists is Kyle, a neuroatypical 13-year-old with a chip implant meant to regulate his emotions…

The worldbuilding is masterful, with hard scientific explanations for Hella’s many abnormalities and rich descriptions sure to keep the attention of even the most casual reader. The effortlessly diverse cast, complex political machinations, and heartfelt coming-of-age themes combine to create a fleshed-out vision of the future that is intense, emotional, and immersive while still maintaining a sense of rollicking fun. Sci-fi readers should snap this up.

Hella was published by DAW on June 16, 2020. It is 448 pages, priced at $26 in hardcover and $13.99 in digital formats. The jacket is designed by Leo Nickolls. Read a lengthy excerpt here.

See all our recent New Treasures here.


New Treasures: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. Harper Voy­ager, October 2019. Cover by Courtney ‘Seage’ Howlett

I missed Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus when it was published late last year. Seems I wasn’t the only one — the book has only 19 reviews on Amazon, far fewer than her debut The Prey of Gods, which won the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel, and has over 100 Amazon reviews.

It’s a pity it hasn’t connected with more readers yet, as Escaping Exodus is generating good critical buzz. Kirkus praised its “top-notch worldbuilding and sharp characterization,” and Tom Whitmore at Locus Online was even more enthusiastic, saying “it’s got a breakneck pace: I wanted to take just a little longer to be with these people as they grow.” Here’s an excerpt from his review.

On a generation ship, two young people from different classes meet and fall in love. One rises, one falls, and their complex and forbidden rela­tionship causes a major rupture in the society. This is a classic SF trope: Drayden takes it to new places.

In Escaping Exodus, people use a pod of space whales as generation ships to escape an (unnamed) catastrophe on Earth. The people “ter­raform” the interior of the beasts, exploiting both the beasts’ internal systems and the biota that have adapted to live inside them; as those systems are exhausted, the society has to move from one beast to another. There are ten different groups, each with a different social system… Nicky Drayden’s new novel builds on the amaz­ing strengths she’s shown before. If you can imag­ine a feminist, Afro-centric, queer Heinlein juve­nile, with a strong discussion of class politics, then you might get close to what she’s doing here. I don’t think I could have imagined such a book be­fore reading this one. This is something I’ve been missing.

The sequel, Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis, is scheduled to be released next January. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover.

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New Treasures: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Friday, June 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Obsidian Tower-smallMelissa Caruso is the author of Swords and Fire, a 4-book fantasy trilogy (there’s more of those than you think). I don’t know much about it, so that doesn’t tell me anything — although I note that the first book, The Tethered Mage, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017, and that’s definitely an asset in my book.

Her latest is The Obsidian Tower, the opening volume in a new series, and it’s been warmly received. Publisher Weekly calls it “no-holds-barred epic fantasy,” and James Tivendale at GrimDark magazine raves, saying:

Like Caruso’s previous trilogy, The Obsidian Tower is set in the world of Eruvia. The action takes place at least 150 years after the events of Swords and Fire… Ryx is a vivomancer but her magic is flawed and so twisted that it is dangerous. Anyone she touches dies, which, to her dismay, has happened a few times. At twenty-one years old, her role is to look after the castle in Gloamingard and at the beginning of the narrative, she is hosting a conference with neighbouring Alevar and the Serene Empire. Her castle is full of nooks, crannies, and secret passages, many of which seem only known to Ryx, as well as being host to a mysterious tower with a magical door which must not be unsealed….

Caruso is a terrific writer who weaves fascinating and intricate fantasy tales that are heavily focused on magic and politics. In The Obsidian Tower Caruso also introduces mystery elements to the mix which fit perfectly with her style…. [it’s] is brimming with many well-crafted and colourful characters… My personal favourites were the formidable ruler of Morgrain The Lady of Owls, the mysterious Severin, the envoy from the neighbouring Alevar, the talking fox-like Chimera and castle guardian Whisper, and the loveable oddballs that make up the Rookery….

The Obsidian Tower is an entertaining, well-written, and expertly-paced novel with incredible magic schemes and a great cast of characters.

The Obsidian Tower was published by Orbit on June 2, 2020. It is 528 pages, priced at $16.99 in paperback and $9.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Peter Bollinger. Read a lengthy excerpt here.

See all our recent coverage of the best new SF and fantasy here.


A Superior Confection: Robert A. Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020 | Posted by Damien Broderick

The Pursuit of the Pankera-smallThe Pursuit of the Pankera
By Robert A. Heinlein
Caezik (503 pages, $29.99 hardcover, $9.99 digital, March 2020)
Cover by Scott Grimando

It’s almost impossible to discuss Robert A. Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel about Parallel Universes without revealing and thus spoiling the plot devices of it and its 1980 prequel/sequel, The Number of the Beast—. Heinlein, first Grand Master of the SFWA, for decades acclaimed as the Dean of sf, no longer pleases everyone. Some readers, especially academic critics, have denounced both books as grossly self-indulgent and even worthless. Others, like the brilliant Marxist professor H. Bruce Franklin (in his important 1980 study Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction) catch the feel of Beast: “a cotton-candy apocalypse — frothy, sweet, airy, mellow, light, festive, whimsical, insubstantial” (199).

That final word is unjust, since many pages are devoted to an investigation of lifeboat rules, and what Algis Budrys termed “protocol,” capable of mutual acceptance by four genius-level libertarians, two of them women, one the daughter of crusty and irritable Professor Jake Burroughs used to having his own way. Oh, plus an increasingly intelligent and willful computer in the younger man’s flying car, uplifted to true personhood during a visit to… The Land of Oz. This jolly and quite necessary absurdity is a side effect of their discovery that the world is built of myth, of fictons, yielding a kind of “pantheistic multiperson solipsism” occasioned by the dreams, terrors and wishes (as it were) of writers and readers. (Regrettably, Heinlein’s term ficton is “corrected” to fiction in Pankera.)

Robert Heinlein, it follows, is the god (or demon) of the universes the four learn how to visit in Jake’s continua craft. Some of these worlds he had written himself (especially the history of near-immortal Lazarus Long and his incestuous mother and clone daughters, or would write later. Others are the creations of other major writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars), L. Frank Baum (Oz), Heinlein’s older friend E.E. “Doc” Smith, whose inaugural space opera sequence tracks the psionic Lenses gained by eugenic human warrior-saints, chess pawns in a cosmic war between aliens billions of years older than humankind.

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