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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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: Skinner by Richard S. McEnroe

Friday, June 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Skinner by Richard S. McEnroe. Bantam Spectra, June 1985. Cover by Enric

One of the advantages of writing up at least one Vintage Treasure every week is that it gives me an excuse to read a lot of the forgotten and overlooked classics I missed out on over the decades. And occasionally, to indulge in a guilty pleasure.

Take Skinner for example. It’s the fifth (and last) science fiction novel by Richard S. McEnroe, a literary agent turned author who began his career writing Buck Rogers novels in 1981. Skinner didn’t make much of a splash when it first appeared; it had a single paperback printing in the US, a UK edition from Orbit a year later, and then went out of print forever. But I don’t care. It’s got a dinosaur on an alien planet right there on the cover, and I want to read it, damnit.

When I went looking for contemporary reviews, I was surprised to find a few. And they only sharpened my interest. Here’s the most popular review on Goodreads, by Scott Schmidt.

What an odd, unique and refreshing work of science fiction. Well worth the fifty cents I paid for it at Goodwill. While I initially picked it up for the content depicted on the cover, this is only a part of a bigger plot that essentially boils down to interstellar shipping economics. I really loved the ending, which came about just as I was beginning to wonder where the story was headed. Great to read a piece of science fiction that didn’t have to be an epic, seven-part space opera. If I happen upon more of McEnroe’s works, I won’t hesitate to pick them up.

It might not be part of a seven-part space opera, but Skinner is the third book in a trilogy (which I didn’t learn until about 30 minutes ago… thank you, ISFDB). Here’s the first two.

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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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Vintage Treasures: Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson

Saturday, June 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson. DAW paperback original, 1986. Cover by Kathy Wyatt

Jennifer Roberson was one of the 80s class of DAW women writers. Her first short short story, “The Lady and the Tiger,” the genesis for the Tiger and Del series, appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s groundbreaking Sword and Sorceress 2 in 1985. Like Mercedes Lackey, Mickey Zucker Reichert, Cheryl J. Franklin (whom I covered last week) and others, Roberson was a fixture on bookstores shelves and the DAW catalog all through the 80s and 90s. She launched several popular paperback series that ran for decades, and helped transform DAW into an industry powerhouse.

Her first novel was Shapechangers (1984), the opening book in the long-running, 8-volume Chronicles of the Cheysuli. In September 1986, with the first three novels in that series under her belt, she released Sword-Dancer, the first book in perhaps her most popular series, Tiger and Del, which follows the adventures of Tiger, a legendary warrior and sword-dancer, and Del, the sword-singer who hires him to rescue her brother, and who turns out to be as good with a blade as he is — something that vexes him greatly at first.

Tiger and Del ran to seven volumes (so far). The first six were collected in a handsome trio of omnibus trade paperbacks in 2006 with new covers by Todd Lockwood, making a nicely complete set on my bookshelf… until Roberson released a seventh book, Sword-Bound, in 2013. It’s tough being a collector sometimes.

As a series opener, Sword-Dancer is a little uneven, but still well worth reading. Here’s a snippet from one of my favorite Goodreads reviews by Dana.

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Epic Fantasy on a Reliable Schedule: A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Lars Grant-West

Bestselling fantasy dominates modern bookshelves in a way I could only dream about as a young reader. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle are the two biggest examples in recent memory. Of course, both are also unfinished, and the latest installments are both long overdue. Makes you wonder what they could have accomplished if the publishing magic that fueled them had also included a reliable schedule.

Tor is trying something impressive with their latest big-budget epic fantasy. If things unfold as scheduled, Jenn Lyons’ ambitious 5-volume series A Chorus of Dragons will be released in rapidfire sequence. Here’s what Lyons said on her website last year.

The series is on a nine month release schedule. That means that, should everything go to plan, Tor will be releasing a book in the series every nine months or so. Two this year, one next year, two the year after that (again, if all goes to plan.) Is this stunningly ambitious? Yes. Is this going to kill me? Quite possibly…

So far, Jenn (and Tor) have hit the deadlines. The Ruin of Kings was published in February 2019, The Name of All Things in October, and Book 3, The Memory of Souls, is now scheduled to arrive on August 25, 2020.

The series has been a critical hit as well as a commercial one; the first novel scored a rare publishing quadruple crown, with starred reviews from Library Journal (“Stunning”), Booklist (“Dazzling”), Publishers Weekly (“intricate epic fantasy”) and Kirkus Reviews (“Un-put-down-able”). Tor has been leaking news about the third book since October. I’ll be very curious to see if the buzz built up after the release of the first two volumes continues once the third arrives.

Read the complete first chapter of The Ruin of Kings at Tor.com, and see all our recent New Treasures here.


Magical Odes and Mysterious Trilogies: The Poet King by Ilana C. Myer

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Stephan Martiniere

Every time a fantasy trilogy wraps up, we bake a cake in the Black Gate offices. (As you can imagine, our diet consists of a lot of cake. Man, we need a gym.)

Ilana C. Myer’s new novel The Poet King brings to a close the trilogy that began with Last Song Before Night. One of the reasons I love this series is all the mystery. Like, what’s the trilogy called, exactly? Amazon refers to it as the Tower of the Winds series. Unless you’re buying the Kindle version, in which case it’s called The Harp and Ring Sequence. The Internet Science Fiction database clears the issue right up by calling it, definitively, Last Song Before Night / The Harp and the Ring, and then listing all the books in the wrong order.

Well, no one said the life of a science fiction book blogger would be easy. Let’s move on the the Publishers Weekly review, because at least that’s straightforward. Hopefully. Here’s an excerpt; you can judge for yourself.

Myer concludes the Harp and Ring Sequence (after Fire Dance) with this opulent, ambitious fantasy. Political upheaval in Kahishi leads to Elissan Diar declaring himself the land’s first Poet King, capable of weaving magic into his odes. Embittered Lady Rianna Gelvan plots to kill Elissan before he takes the throne… Myer’s intricately braided plot strands culminate in a clash of supernatural Otherworld powers. Those new to the series will have no trouble connecting with the well-drawn protagonists but may struggle to untangle the history of this rich universe which draws from a welter of world mythologies. Still, readers will be blown away by the lush, lyrical prose and epic scale of this novel.

We covered the previous books in the series here and here. The Poet King was published by Tor Books on March 24, 2020. It is 320 pages, priced at $29.99 in hardcover and $14.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Stephan Martiniere. Read Howard Andrew Jones’ feature interview with Ilana here.

See all our coverage of the best new fantasy series here.


New Treasures: The Aleph Extraction, Book II of The Galactic Cold War by Dan Moren

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Galactic Cold War novels, from Angry Robot.
Cover for The Aleph Extraction by Georgina Hewitt.

I met Helene Wecker at the World Fantasy Convention two years ago, at a reading for her novel The Golem and the Jinni, and she impressed me with her knowledge of (and passion for) the genre. Someone like that you pay attention to. So when she called the opening novel in Dan Moren’s Galactic Cold War series “Ocean’s Eleven in zero gravity,” it stuck in my mind.

She wasn’t the only one to notice. Publishers Weekly called The Bayern Agenda “one of the most entertaining genre mashups within an astronomical unit.” I hate being left out, so I bought a copy and wrote about it here, just so I could sound hip too.  The second in the series arrived right on time from Angry Robot this month; here’s the description.

Aboard a notorious criminal syndicate’s luxurious starliner, Commonwealth operative Simon Kovalic and his crew race to steal a mysterious artifact that could shift the balance of war…

Still reeling from a former teammate’s betrayal, Commonwealth operative Simon Kovalic and his band of misfit spies have no time to catch their breath before being sent on another impossible mission: to pull off the daring heist of a quasi-mythical alien artifact, right out from under the nose of the galaxy’s most ruthless crime lord.

But their cold war rivals, the Illyrican Empire, want the artifact for themselves. And Kovalic’s newest recruit, Specialist Addy Sayers, is a volatile ex-con with a mean hair-trigger who might put the whole mission at risk. Can Kovalic hold it all together, or will the team tear themselves apart before they can finish the job?

The Galactic Cold War series is definitely getting interesting quickly. The Aleph Extraction was published by Angry Robot on May 12. It is 418 pages, priced at $15.99 in trade paperback and $8.99 in digital formats. The cover art is uncredited.

See all our recent New Treasures here.


Visit a Post-Magical-Apocalypse Paris in the Dominion of the Fallen Trilogy by Aliette de Bodard

Saturday, May 16th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover art by Nekro

I missed the final volume of Aliette de Bodard’s epic of a ruined future Paris, The House of Sundering Flames, when it was released last September. But I suppose that’s one of the advantages of a nationwide lockdown… I can catch up on big reading projects.

I think part of the reason I missed it was because de Bodard switched publishers. The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns were both published in hardcover in the US by Ace… but Ace elected not to release the second volume in paperback, and for the third book de Bodard switched to the JABberwocky Literary Agency. JABberwocky kept the same cover artist, which I appreciate, but they don’t have the marketing reach in the US that Ace does.

Nonetheless, the final volume of the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy got a lot of great press. Here’s a snippet from Liz Bourke’s enthusiastic review at Locus.

On the list of books I can’t recommend highly enough: Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Sundering Flames, the latest – and for now final – novel-length instalment in the series… The powerful, magical Houses of de Bodard’s decayed, post-apocalyptic Paris are at peace, at least for now. House Silverspires, once in the first rank of the powerful, is much diminished; House Hawthorn is still strong, but its internal dynamics have changed since the dragon prince Thuan staked his claim on a true partnership… But the peace of Paris is blown apart when an explosion levels House Harrier, one of the more powerful – and more bigoted – Houses. Emmanu­elle, partner and lover of House Silverspires’ head, Selene, is caught in Harrier’s territory, forced to navigate the disaster and a civil war playing out in the ruins…

De Bodard’s prose is precise and elegant, and her characters are compelling and fascinating, even – especially – when they’re making terrible compromises and impossible choices. They’re very human – even the immortal and the dragon prince. Events mount with increasing tension, histories hinted at with terrible implication, until the revela­tions and resolutions of the climax. This is a clever book, and a nuanced one, and to me it feels like a tour-de-force of storytelling. I deeply enjoyed it, and I recommend it highly.

Aliette’s Dominion of the Fallen is the setting for some of her most acclaimed short fiction, including stories collected in In Morningstar’s Shadow and Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship (both published 2015).

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Future Treasures: Ballistic, Book 2 of The Palladium Wars by Marko Kloos

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Aftershocks and Ballistic, the first books in The Palladium Wars (47North). Cover design by Shasti O’Leary Soudant.

Marko Kloos is the author of six books in the Frontlines military SF series, starting with Terms of Enlistment (2013) and Lines of Departure (2014). His newest series is The Palladium Wars, a space opera trilogy which kicked off with Aftershocks last summer. In a far-ranging interview at The Verge, Kloos laid out the intriguing backdrop.

Aftershocks is set in the aftermath of that massive, system-wide conflict over resources — namely palladium — that saw its instigator, the planet Gretia, endure a major defeat and occupation by its enemies. One of the story’s central characters, Aden Robertson, was on the losing side, and he’s just been released from a POW camp where he’s had to contend with the atrocities that he witnessed during the war. Kloos explains that he wanted to deal with a character who had to come to terms with the collapse of a system he supported for two decades, and “how you find your identity after that.”

Kloos’s own German roots figure into the larger geopolitics of the series. “I totally cribbed from history,” he says. “The aggressors here are basically space Germany. It’s kind of like this cross between the end of World War I and the end of World War II. I kind of mashed it up a bit so that there’s a set of circumstances where it was a war of aggression, and they definitely are the bad guys, but also make the war logically understandable and consistent — a war for resources.”

Booklist called Aftershocks a “fast-moving combination of corporate machinations, police procedural, and interstellar naval combat.” The second volume Ballistic arrives from 47North on May 26, 2020, priced at $24.95 in hardcover, $14.95 in trade paperback, and $4.99 in digital formats. It is 318 pages. The cover was designed by Shasti O’Leary Soudant.

See all our recent Future Treasures here.


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