A World of Pirates and Victorian Detectives: The Map of Unknown Things Trilogy by Rod Duncan

Wednesday, October 21st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Will Staehle, Amazing15, and Kieryn Tyler

Rod Duncan’s debut was the supernatural mystery trilogy The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, a series I found fascinating in part due to the main character, Elizabeth Barnabus, a woman who lives a double life as herself and as her brother, a private detective.

His next project, The Map of Unknown Things, is set in the same world. It opened with Queen of all Crows (2018), in which Elizabeth investigates the disappearance of an airship that went down in the Atlantic. Sydney Shields at The British Fantasy Society said “Duncan’s Gas-lit Empire reads and feels like the world of a Victorian detective adventure (think Sherlock Holmes, the Blake & Avery Mysteries, Charles Dickens) but the twist is that the year is actually 2012… Definitely recommend.” The Outlaw and the Upstart King was published last year, and the third volume, The Fugitive & the Vanishing Man, arrived in January of this year. Here’s an excerpt from the PW review:

Illusionist spy Elizabeth Barnabus has barely returned from her pirate voyage in The Outlaw and the Upstart King when she is forced to venture back to the fringes of the Gas-Lit Empire in the exhilarating third installment of Duncan’s The Map of Unknown Things series. Upon returning to London, Elizabeth must recount her adventures to the hostile Patent Office, a clever bit of exposition that will ease new readers into the steam punk world of this alternate history. When the Patent Office brands Elizabeth a traitor, she flees to America and the untamed wilds of the Oregon territory to track down her long-lost twin, Edwin, and prove her patriotism… But trouble’s brewing in Oregon, and Elizabeth is torn between loyalty to her twin or her beloved Empire. The charismatic duo at the heart of this adventure are sure to please.

The Fugitive & the Vanishing Man was published by Angry Robot on January 14, 2020. It is 401 pages, priced at $14.99 in trade paperback and $6.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Kieryn Tyler. Read the first three chapters at Issuu.com.

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


New Treasures: Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Friday, October 16th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Last Smile in Sunder City and Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold (Orbit, 2020). Covers by Emily Courdelle

Luke Arnold is an Australian actor and star of the pirate saga Black Sails. He played Silver John, a younger version of Long John Silver, the antagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and one of the greatest characters in English literature.

Arnold is also an author, and earlier this year his fantasy debut The Last Smile in Sunder City (Orbit, February 2020) was selected by io9 as one of the SF & fantasy titles You Need to Know AboutKirkus gave it a warm review, saying:

The debut novel from Australian actor Arnold is a fusion of paranormal fantasy and mystery set in a world where magic has been effectively destroyed by humans, forcing the supernatural population to live a radically diminished existence. Fetch Phillips is a “Man for Hire,” which is another way of saying the down-on-his-luck, hard-drinking former Soldier–turned-detective will do just about anything to pay the bills. When a principal from a cross-species school enlists him to find a missing professor — a 300-year-old Vampire named Edmund Rye — Phillips quickly agrees. Without magic, the Vampires — and all other supernatural beings — are slowly dying. So how difficult could it be to find a withered bloodsucker who is so weak he can hardly move around?… The first installment of an effortlessly readable series that could be the illegitimate love child of Terry Pratchett and Dashiell Hammett.

Orbit promised the second volume would arrive in the Fall, and low and behold Dead Man in a Ditch arrived right on time last month. Here’s an excerpt from Annie Deo’s enthusiastic review at Nerd Daily.

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Stellar Empires and Space Pirates: Blackwood & Virtue by Bennett R. Coles

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Winds of Marque 2019 first edition (left, cover by Damonza) and 2020 re-release (middle, artist uncredited),
and the sequel Dark Star Rising (2020, uncredited). Published by Harper Voyager

Winds of Marque, the first volume in Bennett R. Coles’ Blackwood & Virtue space fantasy series, got my attention last year. Maybe it was the dynamite cover by Damonza, with the gorgeous orbital imagery — the four-masted deep space schooner and crossed swords — but I don’t know. I think I just have a soft spot for space pirate tales.

The book got fine notices. Publishers Weekly called it a “mix of retro and future naval adventures… Science fiction fans of the Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin sailing sagas will likely thrill,” and Kirkus raved:

With solar sails hoisted and war with the Sectoids imminent, Imperial Navy Subcmdr. Liam Blackwood, enigmatic quartermaster Amelia Virtue, and the crew of the HMSS Daring must stop space pirates from disrupting human supply lines in the outer sectors in the first book in a new series…. the jaunty pace is unwavering and enjoyable… Traditional science fiction lovers may get distracted looking for more space tech, but lovers of classic high-seas adventures and those who enjoy genre-bending SF will find this swashbuckling space adventure a worthy read.

But a funny thing happened before the arrival of the second volume. Harper Voyager jettisoned the original cover for the June mass market reissue of Winds of Marque, replacing it with a much more staid portrait of second-in-command Liam Blackwood, looking pensive and square-jawed on deck. Dark Star Rising, when it arrived in September, featured a matching rendition of plucky quartermaster Amelia Virtue (the second half of “Blackwood & Virtue”) in an action pose. Now the books look a lot more like seafaring romances, and not space opera adventures.

Well, perhaps that’s the intention. I’m still deciding if I’ll pick up the second volume. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Palace Intrigue, Ruins, and Ancient Libraries: The Sun Eater Series by Christopher Ruocchio

Thursday, October 8th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Sam Weber (Empire of Silence) and Kieran Yanner (Howling Dark and Demon in White)

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel Empire of Silence (DAW 2018) was the opening volume in the epic Sun Eater space opera. Library Journal called it a “wow book… stretched across a vast array of planets,” and my buddy Eric Flint labeled it “epic-scale space opera in the tradition of Iain M. Banks and Frank Herbert’s Dune.” Howling Dark, the second in the series, was published last July, and won Ruocchio an even wider audience.

The third novel, Demon in White, was easily one of the most anticipated novels of the summer. It was published in July and, with some 300 reviews at Goodreads, boasts an amazing 4.70 ranking — a rare accomplishment. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite Amazon review, from Dave Wilde.

The third novel in this science fiction series begins with palace intrigue so deadly and dangerous that even Hadrian the Half-Mortal thinks he might just be safer in the heat of battle.

Much of the story has Hadrian and Valka and the rest of Red Company digging through ruins or ensconced in study in an ancient library. Nevertheless, for those looking for breathtaking ferocious battle, it’s all here, nastier, dirtier, bloodier, and more terrifying. On the way, the legend of Hadrian grows as the royals fear he is on his way to becoming so powerful that even the throne will fall to him.

Balanced against fierce battles against mankind’s greatest enemies — the kind that views humans as cattle to be slaughtered for dinner — are mystical questions about fate and coincidence and free will and what forces are out there beyond history. Whose tool is Hadrian and who does he serve? And whose tools are the enemies? The fate of the universe just may hang in balance.

Demon in White was published by DAW Books on July 28, 2020. It is 784 pages, priced at $27 in hardcover and $14.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Kieran Yanner. See all our recent coverage of the best in new SF & Fantasy series here.


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.” Tor.com 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.


The Art of Author Branding: The Pocket Marta Randall

Saturday, September 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Islands (Pocket Books, May 1980). Cover uncredited

Marta Randall is a science fiction pioneer. She was the first woman president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and took over the groundbreaking New Dimensions anthology series from Robert Silverberg in the early 80s. She also taught SF writing at Clarion (East and West) and other places.

Of course, before all that was a successful writing career. Her first novel A City in the North was published in 1976 by Warner Books. More followed in rapid succession, including Nebula nominee Islands that same year, The Sword of Winter (1983, we talked about that one here), Those Who Favor Fire (1984), and a pair on novels in the Kennerin Saga: Journey (1978) and Dangerous Games (1980).

Islands and Journey are the ones I want to look at today. Here’s John Clute from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, putting the first one in context.

Randalls’s first and perhaps most successful novel, Islands (1976; rev 1980), movingly depicts the life of a mortal woman in an age when Immortality is medically achievable for all but a few, including the protagonist. To cope with her world she plunges into the study of archaeology, and makes a discovery which enables her to transcend her corporeal life.

Sharp-eyed readers will note Clute’s reference to a 1980 revision; that edition of Islands was released four years after original publication by Pocket Books in a reworked version that added an additional 21 pages (see above). And not incidentally, it was also packaged with one of the cleaner examples of author branding from the era.

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James Nicoll on Amazons! edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Saturday, September 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Amazons! (DAW, 1979). Cover by Michael Whelan

Every once in a while I get asked to recommend other sites out there for readers who enjoy Black Gate. There are some top-notch book blogs, of course — like Rich Horton’s excellent Strange at Ecbatan, and Mark R. Kelly’s overlooked Views from Crestmont Drive — and the usual publisher sites, like Tor.com and Locus Online. But recently I’ve been spending a lot of time at James Nicoll Reviews, partly because of the wide range of content. In just the last week he’s reviewed Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, a collection by Han Song, a superhero RPG from Green Ronin, and (a man after my own heart!) the July 1979 issues of Charles C. Ryan’s Galileo magazine — which of course lured Rich Horton out of his secluded library to comment enthusiastically.

But the real reason I hang out so much at James’ blog is that he regularly covers classic SF and fantasy — insightfully and thoroughly. Here’s his thoughts on Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s World Fantasy Award winning anthology Amazons!, from 1979.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s 1979 Amazons! is an anthology of fantasy stories. Special ones. Each story features a woman protagonist who is not support staff or arm candy for the hero. Almost but not all of the stories are by women….

For the most part these are sword and sorcery stories. Their scope is limited. individual fates may depend on the outcome; sometimes the fates of small kingdoms do; but none of these stories are of the ​“we must win or the world will be destroyed” variety. There are some fairly slight stories — every reader will see the twist in Lee’s story coming for miles, and there is not much to ​“The Rape Patrol.” These are more than balanced by stories like ​“Agbewe’s Sword,” ​“The Sorrows of Witches,” and [CJ] Cherryh’s ​“The Dreamstone” (which reminds me that I’ve never read the novel length expansion, or the sequel, although I think I own both). ​“Sorrows of Witches” is a little odd because that it seems to accept the premise that witches are by definition bad people who deserve what they get. Or in this case, do not get.

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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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Gorgeous Celtic Imagery in a Haunting Fairy Tale: The Warrior Bards Novels by Juliet Marillier

Friday, August 21st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Harp of Kings and A Dance With Fate. Ace Books,
September 2019 and September 2020. Covers by Mélanie Delon and unknown.

I discovered Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn & Grim Celtic fantasy trilogy last year. How I missed the whole series for years I dunno, but was very glad to find them when I did. So I was excited to see a sequel series featuring a new generation arrive in 2020, opening with The Harp of Kings, which Andrew Liptak at Polygon selected as one of the Best Fantasy Releases of September 2019, saying it was “Soaked in gorgeous Celtic imagery and mythology.” Carolyn Cushman reviewed it warmly at Locus Online, saying:

Sibling bards determined to become warriors end up on a special mission to recover a magic harp in this Celtic fantasy novel, the first in the War­rior Bards series, a next-generation sequel to the Blackthorn & Grim series. Liobhan sings and plays the whistle, while her brother Brocc is a harpist with the voice of an angel, skills that turn out to be useful when the warrior group they’re training with needs to infiltrate a court where the legendary harp used at coronations has gone missing. Dealing with princes turns out to be the least of their problems, though, when druids and otherworldly influences are revealed to be involved. The trainees – includ­ing Liobhan’s biggest rival – have a tricky time staying in their assigned roles, and staying out of problems at court, but ultimately it’s Liobhan and Brocc’s knowledge of old stories and their mother’s wisewoman skills that save the day in a tale that draws on some haunting fairy tale elements while telling an exciting adventure all its own.

The next book in the series arrives in two weeks. A Dance With Fate will be published by Ace Books on September 1, 2020. It is 512 pages, priced at $17 in trade paperback and $11.99 in digital formats. I don’t know who did the cover. Read an excerpt from The Harp of Kings here, and see all our recent coverage of the best new fantasy series here.


The Art of Author Branding: The Berkley Poul Anderson

Sunday, August 16th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The first six of what would eventually be fourteen Berkley Poul Anderson paperbacks with this design, including the first three books of
the Polesotechnic League. Covers by Rick Sternbach (Satan’s World) and Richard Powers (all others). July 1976 – December 1977

Back in May, inspired by Mark R. Kelly’s review of one of the very first science fiction novels I ever read, the 1977 Ace paperback edition of Robert Silverberg’s Collision Course, I took an extended look at Silverberg’s mid-70s career at Ace, and how the marketing department gave his books a distinct visual identity — one very different from the way his novels were later packaged at Berkley, Bantam, Tor and others.

In many ways this kind of author branding reached its zenith in the late 70s, and in the Comments section of that article there were plenty of suggestions for examples I should look at next. Joseph Hoopman suggested Avon’s black-bordered Roger Zelazny (great choice!) and their vintage A. Merritt, Charles Martel mentioned the distinctive Laser Books cover series by Kelly Freas, Thomas Parker expressed fondness for Frank Frazetta’s Ace paperback covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Bob Byrne suggested Tim Hildebrandt’s gorgeous covers for the first half-dozen Garrett, PI books by Glen Cook, among other ideas.

All good choices, and if fortune holds I’ll look at many of them. But today I want to highlight a set of paperbacks more contemporary to the Ace Robert Silverberg — the 14 Poul Anderson volumes published by Berkley and Berkley Medallion between 1976 – ’79.

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