Destroying a Vast Empire From Within: The Masquerade Series by Seth Dickinson

Thursday, September 24th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Sam Weber

Whenever a fantasy trilogy wraps up, we bake at cake at the Black Gate rooftop headquarters. But what if it’s not clear if the series is complete?? In that case, a crack team of literary forensic analysts assesses whether the series is likely to continue, before we fire up the cake mixer. (I’m joking, of course. Like we’d let a tiny detail like that get in the way of cake!)

So we’re here today to celebrate the arrival of the third book in the Baru Cormorant series… pardon me, The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson. The Tyrant Baru Cormorant arrived from Tor last month, and it wraps up the trilogy (maybe? who knows!) with a bang. At NPR Amal El-Mohtar called the first book “literally breathtaking,” and at Locus Online Paul Di Filippo labeled it “a tasty blend of C.J. Cherryh’s early planetary romances and Samuel Delany’s revisionist Nevèrÿon fantasies.” provides a handy refresher on the first two volumes if you’re the kind of person who likes to dive right into the third book in a series (i.e. a weirdo). But my favorite coverage of this series is Publishers Weekly‘s starred review of the third volume; here’s an excerpt.

The dense but brilliant third volume of Dickinson’s The Masquerade series… sees Baru Cormorant, haunted by memories of the woman she loved and lost, pushed even further into her self-destructive, all-consuming quest to save her family. In Baru’s effort to destroy the Imperial Republic of Falcrest from within, she has risen to the position of cryptarch, part of the invisible cabal that controls the Throne from the shadows. But as Baru pretends to serve her master, Cairdine Farrier, in his attempts to conquer the empire of Oriati Mbo, she privately plots against him. Baru has discovered the secrets of the Cancrioth — a cult of cancer worshippers secretly ruling Oriati Mbo — and the plague they’ve weaponized to wipe out their enemies… This staggering installment pushes the series to new heights and expands the fascinating fantasy world.

We covered the first book here, and Unbound Worlds selected The Monster Baru Cormorant as one of the Best Releases of October 2018. The Tyrant Baru Cormorant was published by Tor Books on August 11, 2020. It is 656 pages, priced at $25.95 in hardcover, and $16.99 in digital formats. See all our recent coverage of the best new fantasy series here.

New Treasures: Entanglements edited by Sheila Williams

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Entantglements-small“Entanglement,” one of the more fascinating concepts underpinning quantum theory, tells us that particles may be inextricably linked — never truly behaving independently, no matter how far apart they are. It’s a powerful idea that, of course, has powerful parallels in the non-quantum world of human relationships, which makes it irresistible to science fiction writers.

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction, has assembled an enticing new anthology that invites ten of the best writers in the field to explore the idea: James Patrick Kelly, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nancy Kress, Rich Larson, Ken Liu, Sam J. Miller, Annalee Newitz, Suzanne Palmer, Cadwell Turnbull, Nick Wolven, and Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu). Entanglements also includes art by Tatiana Plakhova, and a number of non-fiction pieces. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says “Readers will be captivated.” Here’s a sample from the Science review by Esha Mathew.

The world-building in this compilation is frequently full and often insidiously terrifying, particularly in those stories that use the familiar as breadcrumbs to lure the reader in. The very first tale, “Invisible People” by Nancy Kress, begins with a mundane morning routine and carefully layers in a story about two parents reeling from an unsanctioned genetic experiment on their child. In “Don’t Mind Me,” Suzanne Palmer uses the shuffle between high school classes as a foundation on which to build a story about how one generation uses technology to enshrine its biases and inflict them on the next…. It is chilling how entirely possible many of the fictional futures seem….

This volume balances darker-themed stories with those in which technology and people collide in uplifting and charming ways. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s “A Little Wisdom,” for example, a museum curator, aided by her robotic therapy dog–cum–medical provider, finds the courage within herself to inspire courage in others and save the day. Meanwhile, in Cadwell Turnbull’s “Mediation,” a scientist reeling from a terrible loss finally accepts her personal AI’s assistance to start the healing process. And in arguably the cheekiest tale in this compilation, “The Monogamy Hormone,” Annalee Newitz tells of a woman who ingests synthetic vole hormones to choose between two lovers, delivering a classic tale of relationship woes with a bioengineered twist…

The 10 very different thought experiments presented in this volume make for a fun ride, revealing that human relationships will continue to be as complicated and affirming in the future as they are today. I would recommend the Netflix approach to this highly readable collection: Binge it in one go, preferably with a friend.

Here’s the complete table of contents.

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Future Treasures: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Friday, September 18th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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You know what we need in these dark, pandemic filled days? A good superhero tale. Natalie Zina Walschots’s debut novel Hench looks like it could fit the bill. Kirkus says it’s “A fiendishly clever novel that fizzes with moxie and malice,” and in a starred review Publishers Weekly calls it a “hilarious peek behind the scenes of supervillains’ lairs… [with] gripping action and gut-wrenching body horror.” It arrives in hardcover on Tuesday. Here’s the description.

The Boys meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation in this smart, imaginative, and evocative novel of love, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, told with razor-sharp wit and affection, in which a young woman discovers the greatest superpower — for good or ill — is a properly executed spreadsheet.

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?

As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured. And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

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New Treasures: Bone Harvest by James Brogden

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Titan Books, April 2020. Cover design by Julia Lloyd.

I tell myself that I showcase horror novels all year round, but it’s not really true. Sure, I do a little. But as the evenings grow colder, and leaves start to turn, and night comes sooner every day, and October creeps closer… we inch towards Halloween, the natural season for creepy books of all kinds. And I find myself writing about them more often (and with more gusto).

Here’s one that came out in April: Bone Harvest, the newest from James Brogden. We covered his previous novels, Hekla’s Children (2017) and The Hollow Tree (2018), both from Titan Books. His latest is the creepy tale of a woman who battles both a sinister cult, and steadily worsening dementia, which Publishers Weekly calls a “dark, transfixing supernatural thriller… Brogden breathes new life into a classic horror setup…. electric, masterfully weaving together dark humor and suspense.” Here’s an excerpt from the feature review at Horror Hothouse.

It’s our opinion that James Brogden is the greatest living writer of folk horror in the UK… we think his latest novel Bone Harvest is the best yet…. Dennie spends much of her time on her allotment. Only the allotment holds a dark secret because its the place where Dennie helped her neighbour Sarah to hide her abusive husband’s corpse. Now twelve years after Sarah died in prison three strangers take on Sarah’s plot… things start to get weird after they invite the other plot holders to a pig roast. Plants bloom early, shadowy figures prowl the allotment at night and the people who ate the ‘pork’ seem miraculously revived as old ailments and disabilities vanish… To make things even stranger the ghost of Sarah starts to visit Dennie bringing dire warnings of things to come. What’s Dennie to do and with the onset of dementia who is going to believe her….

Brogden injects an intricately evolved ancient mythology into what on the face of it seems to be a normal mundane Midlands town populated with well developed and mostly ordinary people, but many of them harbor dreadful secrets… as the plot unwinds Brogden maintains an utterly compelling sense of foreboding and menace as Dennie seeks to find allies who she can trust to help combat the ancient evil that her new neighbours are about to unleash on her world. Compellingly fascinating we give Bone Harvest a 666/666.

Bone Harvest was published on April 7, 2020. It is 496 pages, priced at $14.95 in paperback and $7.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Julia Lloyd. See all our recent new Treasures here.

A Dead Colony and a Deep Space Mystery: The Memory War by Karen Osborne

Sunday, September 6th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Here’s something interesting — an ambitious two-book space opera from debut novelist Karen Osborne. Opening novel Architects of Memory, which Publishers Weekly calls “a twisty, political space opera about corporate espionage and alien contact,” will be released in trade paperback on Tuesday. Book Two, Engines of Oblivion, arrives in February.

Here’s a snippet from the feature review of the first book at The Nerd Daily.

Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne is a stellar debut that explores the corruption in capitalism and what we will go through to protect the ones we love.

Salvage pilot, Ashland Jackson, just wants to finish her company indenture and get the citizenship she desperately needs to gain access to the treatment for the celestium sickness that is quickly killing her. When Ash and the crew of the Twenty-Five stumbled upon a mysterious weapon while on a salvage op, they are thrown into a world of corporate espionage and betrayals. As buried secrets and alliances become revealed, Ash and the crew must figure out who to trust and how to keep the weapon out of the wrong hands….

Architects of Memory is a good debut that leads me to believe Karen Osborne will definitely be taking up space on my favourites of science fiction bookcase. Her subtle way of building up characters brings them to life in ways that few authors can achieve. If you are looking for a science fiction story with authentic characters, twisty plots, a stuffed unicorn toy, and plenty of action and feels, then this is the one for you!

Here’s a peek at the back cover for Architects of Memory, and complete publishing deets both volumes.

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New Treasures: Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies by John Langan

Thursday, September 3rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Matthew Jaffe

Word Horde, Ross E. Lockhart’s small press, has produced some knockout titles over the past few years, including Vermilion by Molly Tanzer, the Bram Stoker Award-winning novel The Fisherman by John Langan, and The Children of Old Leech, edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele. Last month they released Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies, the big new collection by horror master John Langan. The Publishers Weekly review teased some of the stories within nicely.

Langan (The Fisherman) draws inspiration from Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, David Lynch and other masters of the strange and horrific to create an impressive collection of 21 tales as terrifying as they are mysterious. The exceptional title story finds two siblings investigating family secrets hidden away in their grandfather’s basement and stumbling on a horrific realization. “With Max Berry in the Nearer Precincts” offers a disturbing vision of the afterlife, while “Ymir” ventures into a Canadian mine with an eccentric billionaire and his female bodyguard. True Detective meets Stephen King’s It in “The Communion of Saints,” about a detective whose faith is tested when the Catholic saints are revealed to be other than they appear… This well-crafted collection will delight fans of dark, literary horror.

On his website Langan notes, “This is a big book, modeled after collections like King’s Skeleton Crew and Barker’s Books of Blood.” Here’s the complete table of contents.

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Andrew Liptak on 20 Sci-fi and Fantasy Books to Check Out in August

Sunday, August 30th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover art: uncredited, Dan dos Santos, and Anthony Ramondo (click to embiggen)

I’ve grown to rely on Andrew Liptak’s newsletter to keep me up-to-date on the latest releases, especially during the era of the pandemic. He’s got a keen eye, and roves far and wide to compile a list of the best new books every month. His list of August’s most noteworthy titles does not disappoint, with new releases from Carrie Vaughn, Tamsyn Muir, Seth Dickinson, L. Penelope, Lavie Tidhar, Lisbeth Campbell, Marina J. Lostetter, Emily Tesh, Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick, Karen Osborne, Carole Stivers, and Ashley Blooms. Here’s a few of the highlights.

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar (Tor Books, 416 pages, $27.99/$14.99 digital, August 11, 2020)

Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed Lavie Tidhar’s work — particularly The Violent Century and Unholy Land. (I still need to read Central Station). He likes to play with tropes, upending conventional characters and stories, and his next is an intriguing-sounding take on the King Arthur mythos.

Tidhar puts a gritty edge to the Arthurian legend, portraying Arthur and his companions as gangsters and criminals running drugs and weapons through a London that’s been abandoned by Rome. Writing for Locus, Ian Mond writes that “For all its foul language and radical deconstruc­tion, of which I’ve provided only a taste (you should see what Tidhar does with the Holy Grail), By Force Alone isn’t a desecration of the Arthurian romances. Instead, he pays homage to the writers and poets who took their turn in adapting and refining Monmouth’s text.”

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New Treasures: grotesquerie by Richard Gavin

Saturday, August 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Mike Davis (click to embiggen)

Undertow Publications commands my attention these days. Editor Michael Kelly has a truly keen eye for fiction, and he’s published some of the most acclaimed short story collections of Weird Horror in the last decade, including Simon Strantzas’s Nothing is Everything, V. H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone, and Kay Chronister’s Thin Places. On Tuesday he adds another to that impressive list, grotesquerie by Richard Gavin.

Gavin is the author of five previous collections, including Omens (Mythos Books, 2007), At Fear’s Altar (Hippocampus Press, 2012), and Sylvan Dread: Tales of Pastoral Darkness (Three Hands Press, 2016). Ramsey Campbell said, “Richard Gavin’s tales are genuinely evocative of the strange and alien,” and Publishers Weekly reviewed grotesquerie warmly last month, saying:

The 16 dark tales in this collection from Gavin (Sylvan Dread) are distinctive and macabre… The strongest — including “Neithernor,” in which a man stumbles upon his cousin’s uncanny art show at a strange gallery; “Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty,” about a mask used as a torture device; and “Three Knocks on a Buried Door,” about a man who discovers an elaborate residence occupied by a mysterious being just beneath his apartment building — are richly articulated nightmares that will delight horror fans… the heady, transportive atmosphere of many of these stories… will put readers in mind of both classic weird fiction and the supernatural mysteries of the 1970s. Dedicated weird fiction readers will find this worth a look.

grotesquerie will be published by Undertow Publications on September 1, 2020. It is 292 pages, priced at $17.99 in paperback and $5.99 in digital formats. The hypnotic cover is by Mike Davis. Order copies directly from Undertow.

See all our recent New Treasures here.

New Treasures: Hope Island by Tim Major

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover design by Julia Lloyd

Thank God for review copies. I purchase a lot of books, but truth be told, I tend to buy in a pretty predictable band. Space opera, weird westerns, short story collections, some epic fantasy… when I crack open my wallet, that’s usually not the time I step out of my comfort zone. But I don’t control the flow of review copies into the Black Gate offices, and frequently I get one I might not have given a second glance on a bookstore shelf — but which is well worth a closer look all the same.

Tim Major’s new novel is a perfect example. A small-town supernatural thriller in the vein of The Wicker Man and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Hope Island “is a deliciously creepy mystery. Tim Major knows how to wield the weird” (D. K. Fields). Here’s an excerpt from Elloise Hopkins’ feature review at The British Fantasy Society.

Nina Scaife, TV producer, English-woman, recently abandoned wife and mother of one, has arrived in Maine and is trying to work out how to break the news to her daughter and her husband’s parents that he has not only left them but has another family, another wife and other children, elsewhere. It never seems the right time to break the news to Laurie. Each time she tries, it seems someone is intent on interrupting her.

Breaking the news and visiting Cat’s Ear Cottage would mark a new start in Nina’s life, now she knows the truth. But on the way to Hope Island the strange occurrences begin. Nina swerves to avoid a child in the road, follows her, but finds nothing. As the week goes on, and as she encounters more of the island’s few residents, the unspoken hangs over Nina and the tension swells. There is a threat in the air and much as Nina tries to avoid it, she is slowly drawn into the island’s terrible secrets.

From the moment it starts, Hope Island carries in its narrative a continuous sense that something awful is about to happen… Major cleverly explores the impact of aural disturbance on body and mind through a sinister thriller that unveils deliciously slowly through to its climax… What we have here is supernatural speculative fiction set against the backdrop of an island with a secretive and segregated community. We have the local pub and an artists’ colony, a summer school and little else, but it is enough to cleverly convey Nina’s loneliness and struggles as an outsider upon arrival and her slow but sure realisation that something on the island is very wrong and the danger to she and her daughter may be very real.

Tim Major is the author of Snakeskins (Titan 2019) and the collection And The House Lights Dim (Luna Press, July 2019). Hope Island was published by Titan Books on March 31, 2020. It is 381 pages, priced at $14.95 in paperback and $7.99 in digital formats. The cover was designed by Julia Lloyd. Read an excerpt at the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.

See all our recent New Treasures here.

New Treasures: Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Thursday, August 20th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Unconquerable Sun-smallKate Elliott is the pseudonym of writer Alis A. Rasmussen. As Rasmussen she published The Labyrinth Gate (1988) and The Highroad Trilogy science fiction novels (1990).

Those books didn’t meet with a lot of commercial success however, and in 1992 Rasmussen rebooted her career, switching genres, changing publishers, and launching an epic fantasy series under the name Kate Elliot.

It worked. Kate Elliot’s first novel Jaren (DAW, 1992) was a success, spawning three sequels, and the follow-up series Crown of Stars (DAW, 7 volumes, 1997-2006) proved even more popular. Kate Elliott has had a long and fruitful career as a fantasy writer over the past 28 years, with a number of top-selling series, including Crossroads, the Spiritwalker Trilogy, and the Court of Fives novels.

Her latest book, Unconquerable Sun, is a departure from epic fantasy and a return to her science fiction roots. It’s been widely acclaimed, with a trifecta of starred reviews from Booklist (“A candidate for instant re-reading”), Publishers Weekly (“highly entertaining… will have readers clamoring for more”), and Kirkus Reviews (“A maelstrom of palace intrigue, interstellar back-stabbing, devious plots, treachery, blistering action, ferocious confrontations ― and a heroine for the ages.”) Here’s an excerpt from that rave review at Kirkus.

Clash of empires: an action-packed yarn loosely based on historical precedent, the sort of flawlessly plotted, high-tension science fiction Elliott’s been threatening to write for some time.

The story precipitates us into a kind of modernized Chinese-flavored Alexandrian Macedonia, with a partially collapsed “beacon” network allowing instantaneous interstellar travel, commerce, and war…. Under queen-marshal Eirene, the matriarchal Republic of Chaonia has expelled the Yele and Phene occupiers. Eirene, unaccountably, grudges her daughter and heir, Princess Sun, a word of praise, no matter how stellar Sun’s achievements. Sun’s Companions are aides drawn from her relatives and the scions of powerful nobles… Sun must survive constant threats to her life and freedom while conducting battles, making plans, exposing traitors, controlling her wayward impulses, and asking the questions everybody else shrinks from… The upshot is a maelstrom of palace intrigue, interstellar back-stabbing, devious plots, treachery, blistering action, ferocious confrontations — and a heroine for the ages, tough, resourceful, loyal, intelligent, honorable, courageous, and utterly indomitable.

Enthralling, edge-of-your-seat stuff hurtling along at warp speed. Grab!

Read the complete review here.

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