Fighting Schools, Ancient Palaces, and a Killing Fog: The Grave Kingdom Trilogy by Jeff Wheeler

Sunday, March 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Killing Fog-small The Buried World-small The Immortal Words-small

Cover design by Shasti O’Leary Soudant

Jeff Wheeler was been toiling away in the fantasy word mines for nearly two decades, and in 2014 he took the leap and retired from Intel to write full-time. He’s written several popular series, including the Whispers from Mirrowen trilogy, two novels in the Landmoor series, and two trilogies in the Muirwood universe, the second of which was the Covenant of Muirwood, which we covered here back in 2015.

His latest, The Grave Kingdom trilogy, kicked off this month with The Killing Fog. At Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, Jeff Wheeler contributed a My Favorite Bit entry that piqued my interest — and not just for the Big Trouble in Little China and Kung Fu references (though they definitely didn’t hurt). Here’s what he said.

When I was young, I used to watch the TV show Kung Fu with David Carradine. I respected the loner monk wandering through America’s Wild West and taking out the bad guys. During high school, one of my favorite films was Big Trouble in Little China, just for the great martial art medley of different styles they demonstrated. What many don’t know about me is that I’ve been a practitioner of many forms of Kung Fu for almost thirty years, starting at Wing Lam Kung Fu school in Silicon Valley after my missionary service.

When I was inspired to write The Killing Fog after a month-long trip to China, I chose to set it in a world with the geography of Alaska and the culture of medieval China. Instead of palaces and royalty, I wanted to focus on the martial artists. The protagonist of the story, Bingmei (a name which means ‘ice rose’ in Chinese), is the granddaughter and daughter of a family who owns a fighting school… Bingmei’s world is a lot harsher than the one we live in. While ancient forms of fighting have been passed down within families, history has not. There is no written language, no knowledge of where the ancient buildings and palaces came from. No understanding of why the Death Wall was built and why no one is allowed to cross it. Most importantly, no one knows who left behind magical relics carved from meiwood and imbued with magical power. People collect these relics to hide them away because if their power is invoked, the presence of magic summons a deadly fog which kills any creature caught within it. And no one knows why.

It’s Bingmei’s destiny to find out.

The KIlling Fog will be followed by The Buried World in June of this year, and The Immortal Words arrives three months later, on September 22. Publishers Weekly calls the opening volume a “winding tale of valor and sacrifice… [an] excellent introduction to the prolific Wheeler’s work.”

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A Masterclass in Dystopian Science Fiction: The Worlds Trilogy by Joe Haldeman

Friday, March 20th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Worlds Joe Haldeman-small Worlds Apart Joe Haldeman-small Worlds Enough and Time-small

Joe Haldeman’s Worlds trilogy, paperback editions from Avon/ AvoNova. Covers by Vincent Di Fate

Are you working from home? Quarantined? Hanging out with a doomsday cult and wondering if the end times have actually arrived? You’re not alone. (Especially if you’re in a doomsday cult — those guys are surprisingly chummy.) But here at Black Gate, our work continues. Classic SF and fantasy isn’t going to promote itself to an increasingly chaotic world. That’s our job.

Today I’m looking at a forgotten trilogy from an author who is very definitely not forgotten. Joe Haldeman became an SFWA Grand Master in 2010, the highest honor one can attain in our field. In 2012 he was inducted as a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he’s won virtually every major science fiction award. His most famous novels include The Forever War (1974), The Hemingway Hoax (1991) and Forever Peace (1997).

In 1981 he wrote the opening novel in a trilogy about life in an orbital habitat, Worlds. It was followed by Worlds Apart (1983) and Worlds Enough and Time nearly a decade later (1992). All three were shortlisted for the Locus Award. The Portalist calls the trilogy “an epic sci-fi saga… a masterclass in dystopian science fiction,” and last July they published an excerpt from the first novel to help promote the release of digital versions of all three books from Open Road Media. Here’s an excerpt from Xavier Piedra’s helpful recap of the whole series.

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Space Renegades, Leviathan Ships, and Planet-Eating Monsters: The Honors Trilogy by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

Friday, March 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Jeff Huang

I think a lot of the classic SF I read in the 70s and 80s would be characterized as YA today. Certainly the novels of Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny and Anne McCaffrey still speak to a modern audience, and would probably do well in the YA section of the bookstore.

Or maybe not. Every new generation finds writers who speak its language, and sets aside the treasured writers of older generations. And that’s the way it should be. It’s good to pass along our love of Simak, Zelazny, McCaffrey and others to young readers… but it’s a good idea to take the time to see what the heck they’re reading as well.

What are they reading? Lots of stuff. The YA section of my local Barnes & Noble is crammed full of new releases every week, and a great many of them are science fiction. And more than a few look pretty interesting, too. The Honors trilogy by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre piqued my interest recently… probably because I saw the one-sentence summary for Honor Lost (“Quick-thinking Leviathan pilot Zara Cole must stop a planet-eating monster or lose everyone she loves in the finale of this acclaimed trilogy”), and let’s face it, planet-eating monsters are my weakness.

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Monsters, Pirates, and Ghosts: The Revenger Series by Alastair Reynolds

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover designs by Blacksheep and Lauren Panepinto

The Revenger series is one of the most successful SF series in recent memory. Opening novel Revenger (2017) was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, and won the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book; SFX called it “By far the most enjoyable book Reynolds has ever written.” Sequel Shadow Captain arrived last year, and quickly won over critics; the Guardian called it “A swashbuckling thriller — Pirates of the Caribbean meets Firefly.” What’s it all about? The Daily Telegraph summed up the first two volumes expertly:

Returning to the universe of Revenger, award-winning author Alastair Reynolds delivers another thrilling tale set among the stars. Two sisters ran away from home to join the crew of a spaceship. They took on pirates, faced down monsters and survived massacres… and now they’re in charge. Captaining a fearsome ship of their own, adventures are theirs for the taking — and there’s hoards to loot and treasures to find in the darkest reaches of space. But the rules are also more relaxed out on the fringes, as they’re about to discover… A rollicking adventure yarn with action, abduction, fights, properly scary hazards, very grisly torture and even ghosts of a sort.

Pirates, monsters, ghosts…. that’s a whole lot in one package. Everyone knows that all the best series come in threes, and sure enough the third volume in Alastair Reynolds’ series arrives next month. Here’s the details.

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A Gaslamp Fantasy with Political Intrigue and Witchcraft: The Kingston Cycle by C. L. Polk

Friday, February 28th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Will Staehle

C. L. Polk’s fantasy debut Witchmark made a huge splash in 2018. It came in fourth for the Locus Award for Best First Novel, was nominated for a Nebula, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It was also included in Best of the Year lists by NPR, Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Review, BookPage, and the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. It had lots of stellar coverage — including the Los Angeles Public Library, which called it “Brilliant… full of atmosphere and thrills” — but my favorite review was from Publishers Weekly. Here’s an excerpt.

Polk’s stellar debut, set in an alternate early 20th century in an England-like land recovering from a WWI-like war, blends taut mystery, exciting political intrigue, and inventive fantasy. Miles Singer’s influential family of mages wants to turn him into a living battery of magic for his sister to draw on. Fearing this fate, he runs away to join the army and make use of his magical healing abilities, although — like all magic-users — he must hide his powers or risk being labeled insane and sent to an asylum. When Tristan Hunter, a handsome, suave gentleman who’s actually an angel in disguise, brings a dying stranger to Miles’s clinic, the two pair up to uncover the reason for the man’s mysterious death… Polk unfolds her mythology naturally, sufficiently explaining the class-based magical system and political machinations without getting bogged down. The final revelations are impossible to see coming and prove that Polk is a writer to watch for fans of clever, surprising period fantasy.

The sequel, Stormsong, arrived in trade paperback earlier this month, and you know what that means. Time for me to track down a copy of the first book! Here’s the back covers for both.

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io9 on All the New SF & Fantasy You Need to Know About in February

Thursday, February 27th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Puzzler's War-small The Last Smile in Sunder City-small The Firmament of Flame-small

As the months go by I feel the loss of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog keenly. It shut down on December 16th of last year, firing all freelancers and halting production of new content. That included Jeff Somers’ monthly survey of the best genre books, which I’d grown to depend on to keep me reliably informed. Fortunately there are fine other resources for book junkies, like Cheryl Eddy’s monthly new book column at io9/Gizmodo. This month Cheryl looks at 43 new titles from Seanan McGuire, Alastair Reynolds, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Ken Liu, Ben Aaronovitch, Katharine Kerr, Gareth L. Powell, R.E. Stearns, C.L. Polk, Sarah Gailey, Melissa de la Cruz, Justina Ireland, Cate Glass, and many others.

Here’s a few of the highlights. First up is the sequel to The Lost Puzzler, Eyal Kless’ tale of a lowly scribe sent out in world full of puzzles, tattooed mutants, and warring guilds, which we covered last year.

The Puzzler’s War by Eyal Kless (Harper Voyager, 560 pages, $17.99 trade paperback/$11.99 digital, February 4, 2020)

This follow-up to sci-fi adventure The Lost Puzzler finds a variety of characters — including an assassin, a warlord, and a mercenary — tracking down a teenage boy who may the only person able to save the world by solving the ultimate puzzle.

My underground contacts tell me The Puzzler’s War is the second novel in what’s being called The Tarakan Chronicles.

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New Treasures: The Life Below by Alexandra Monir

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Jacket design by Erin Fitzsimmons and Molly Fehr; art by Getty Images and Shutterstock

I first noticed Alexandra Monir when Jessica Brody described her supernatural romance Suspicion as “If Alfred Hitchcock had directed Downton Abbey,” which is the kind of thing that gets my attention. Monir is an Iranian-American who’s published multiple novels for young adults, including The Girl in the Picture and Timeless. Her current series is near-future SF; it began with The Final Six, the story of teen astronauts o a dying Earth competing for a trip to Europa. The sequel The Life Below arrived this week; Kirkus calls it “Fast-paced and plot-driven, the novel decidedly veers into science fiction horror territory with plenty of scares.” Also the kind of thing that gets my attention. Here’s the publisher’s description.

It was hard enough for Naomi to leave Leo, a fellow Final Six contestant, behind on a dying Earth. Now she doesn’t know who to trust.

The International Space Training Camp continues to dodge every question about its past failed mission, and Naomi is suspicious that not everything is as it seems on her own mission to Europa. With just one shot at Jupiter’s moon, Naomi is determined to find out if there is dangerous alien life on Europa before she and her crew get there.

Leo, back on Earth, has been working with renegade scientist Dr. Greta Wagner, who promises to fly him to space where he can dock with Naomi’s ship. And if Wagner’s hypothesis is right, it isn’t a possibility of coming in contact with extraterrestrial life on Europa — it’s a definite, and it’s up to Leo to find and warn Naomi and the crew.

With questions piling up, everything gets more dangerous the closer that the mission gets to Europa. A storm threatens to interfere with Leo’s takeoff, a deadly entity makes itself known to the Final Six, and all questions the ISTC has been avoiding about the previous mission get answered in a terrifying way.

If the dream was to establish a new world for humans on Europa…the Final Six are about to enter a nightmare.

The Life Below was published by HarperTeen on February 18, 2020. It is 311 pages, priced at $18.99 in hardcover, $10.99 in digital formats. Read an excerpt from The FInal Six at, and see all our recent New Treasures here.

Captured at Capricon: The Lucky Devil Series by Megan Mackie

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Finder of the Lucky Devil-small The Saint of Liars-small

I spent last weekend at Capricon 40, a long-running and very friendly science fiction convention here in Chicago with interesting panels, delightful readings, and a great Dealers Room. One of the highlights of the Dealers Room (besides the jewelry vendors, where I spent a small fortune on gifts for Alice to make up for missing Valentine’s Day) was the Bad Grammar Theater booth manned by Chicago authors Brendan Detzner, K.M. Herkes, R.J. Howell, and Megan Mackie. Bad Grammar is a reading series featuring local authors, and the books they had on display looked darn enticing. I ended up buying a whopping 8 titles  at that booth alone.

Truthfully, I bought a lot of books at the convention — including an overflowing box from Greg Ketter of Dreamhaven Books — and I hope to cover the most interesting titles here over the next few weeks. But the one that leaped into my hands when I finally settled in my big green chair was The Finder of the Lucky Devil, the self-published novel by Megan Mackie, and the opening novel in her Lucky Devil series. It’s got an intriguing premise, and that beautiful cover doesn’t hurt any.

The Finder of the Lucky Devil is an urban fantasy… of sorts. Yes, it’s a fantasy. But it’s also set in a dystopian future Chicago ruled by corporations. I did my homework before digging in, and found it’s been well reviewed at Windy City Reviews and Good Reads, where it enjoys a rating of 4.08 and comments like “a fun read with some heart stopping moments… a fresh urban detective-style fantasy with wizards, fairies, corporate spies, shapeshifters, and even a mermaid dog stylist” (from Rebekah). Here’s a look at the back cover of Lucky Devil and its sequel The Saint of Liars, plus a snippet from one of my favorite reviews.

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Space Pirates, a Murderous AI, and a Haunted House in Space: The Shieldrunner Pirates Trilogy by R. E. Stearns

Thursday, February 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Martin Deschambeault (left, middle) and Jon McCoy Art (right)

R. E. Stearns’s science fiction debut Barbary Station, the opening novel in the Shieldrunner Pirates trilogy, featured two engineers who hijack a spaceship to join a band of space pirates, only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Kirkus called it “Super cool… It mixes unpredictable mysteries, a murderous AI, space battles, [and] an awesome and fashionable Pirate Leader… a blend of Die Hard and The Illuminae Files.” We covered it enthusiastically in 2017Mutiny at Vesta arrived in 2018, and in her review, Liz Bourke wrote:

If Barbary Station was a variant on the gothic novel in space (complete with a haunted house in the form of a space station), Mutiny at Vesta is a nested, layered series of capers in which Adda and Iridian work with limited resources and the pressure of time and other people’s competing priorities to pull off the damn-near impossible… Stearns writes measured, tense, and intense space opera, filled with a diverse selection of believable characters. I really enjoyed this book.

The Shieldrunner Pirates trilogy is the kind adventurous space opera I really enjoy. Unfortunately, if Amazon reviews are anything to go by, it doesn’t seem to have found an audience. Barbary Station had a healthy 32 reviews when it was released in 2017; Mutiny at Vesta had only two, a disaster in publishing terms. The third, Gravity of a Distant Sun, will not have a hardcover release; it arrives in trade paperback on February 18.

If you’ve read and enjoyed this series, do me a favor and write an online review. And if you haven’t, here’s a peek at the back covers for all three books, with just a sample of the praise they’ve received. Have a look — this just may turn into your favorite new series.

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Future Treasures: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover design by David Mann 

Natasha Pulley reunites the heroes from her breakout fantasy The Watchmaker of Filigree Street in a brand new novel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, on sale next week. In his review of the first book for us, Damien Moore was enchanted by Pulley’s narrative gifts.

Pulley’s descriptions of High Society London burst from the pages. The exquisite portrait she paints of the interior of a quiet tea shop will linger in your mind long after you’ve read about it. So, too will Pulley’s descriptions of the watchmaker’s wondrous creations. If they don’t enchant you, well, then I guess you’re not into the whole gorgeous automaton craze. Hopefully, Pulley succeeds in getting you to fall in love with Mori’s creations.

The sequel switches up the setting, moving the action to 19th-Century Japan. It’s being enthusiastically received; Kirkus Reviews says “Pulley’s witty writing and enthusiastically deployed steampunk motifs — clockwork, owls, a mechanical pet, Tesla-inspired electrical drama — enliven [the] plot.” Here’s a look at the back covers for both books, and an excerpt from the starred review at Publisher’s Weekly.

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