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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Poul Anderson The Trouble Twisters 2nd-small Poul Anderson Satan's World-small Poul Anderson Mirkheim-small

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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Your Standard Consume-all-life-in-the-galaxy Deal: Aurora Burning, Book 2 of The Aurora Cycle by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Saturday, August 8th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Charlie Bowater

Aurora Rising, the first volume of The Aurora Cycle by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, had Black Gate reviewer Elizabeth Galewski drawing comparisons to Firefly, Anne McCaffrey’s The Rowan, The Fifth Element and Star Wars.

Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff [are] the New York Times bestselling authors of The Illuminae Files… While this novel features all new characters and a different universe from their previous books, it offers the same nonstop action, messy romantic relationships, sarcastic voice, and space operatics that will please longtime fans and win new ones… The perspective shifts between many different characters, and fun schematics interrupt the flow of text at intervals. The Hadfield’s survivor, Aurora, has a similar plot function to the weird psychic girl in the Firefly movie Serenity and looks like Anne McCaffrey’s famous female telepaths in The Rowan and Damia. There appears to be a cameo by the opera diva from The Fifth Element, as well as a scene set in the famous Star Wars bar.

Kaufman and Kristoff both live in Melbourne, Australia. The second volume in The Aurora Cycle, Aurora Burning, features “an ancient evil — you know, your standard consume-all-life-in-the-galaxy deal… [but] Squad 312 is standing by to save the day.” It was published by Knopf Books on May 5, 2020. It is 512 pages, priced at $18.99 in hardcover and $10.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Charlie Bowater (who also produced the stellar cover for Shveta Thakrar’s upcoming Star Daughter.) Get all the details on the first volume here.

See all our coverage of the best new SF and Fantasy series here.


Future Treasures: Harrow the Ninth, Book 2 of The Locked Tomb Trilogy by Tamsyn Muir

Wednesday, July 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Tommy Arnold

Gideon the Ninth was… well, just about the most acclaimed SF novel released last year. Acclaimed by whom? Everyone who read it in the Black Gate offices, for one thing. People who vote for awards, for another — it’s been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards for Best Novel, and it won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. It was voted one of the Best Books of 2019 by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, BookPage, Shelf Awareness, BookRiot, and Bustle.

Book 2 arrives next week, and as you can imagine, anticipation is high. Here’s a taste of the feature review over at Nerd Daily.

When I read Gideon the Ninth last year, I didn’t know that I would be a wreck by the end of the book. I didn’t know it would create such an impact in my emotional well-being. I didn’t know that it would be one of the best books I read in 2019. Reading its sequel, Harrow the Ninth, now is like enjoying a nice, eventful walk… and then getting hit by a bus. This brilliant, confounding, and heartstopping sequel will quench the thirst of the fans, but not without leaving a new set of mysteries to keep us hooked.

Harrow the Ninth focuses on Harrow training in the Emperor’s haunted space station to fight an impossible war. Fresh off of lyctorhood, everything should be going easy for Harrow. But the truth is that both her body and her mind are failing her. And on top of that, someone just keeps trying to kill her…. Harrow the Ninth is mind-boggling from start to finish, and it’s an electrifying sequel you do not want to miss.

The third book in the series, Alecto the Ninth, is scheduled to be released next year.

Harrow the Ninth will be published by Tor.com on August 4, 2020. It is 512 pages, priced at $26.99 in hardcover and $13.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Tommy Arnold. Download the complete first act (all 139 pages!) in multiple digital formats at Tor.com.

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


Future Treasures: Chaos Vector by Megan E. O’Keefe

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Sparth

Megan E. O’Keefe’s 2019 space opera Velocity Weapon was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, and earned a bucket full of great press. The Guardian called it “A brilliantly plotted yarn of survival and far-future political intrigue,” and Booklist described it as “Full of twists, feints, and deception… [in] a visionary world rife with political intrigue and space adventure.” But my favorite review was from Kirkus:

The last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is her ship being attacked by rebel forces. She’s resuscitated from her evacuation pod missing half a leg — and two centuries — as explained to her by the AI of the rebel ship that rescued her. As The Light of Berossus — aka Bero — tells her, she may be the only living human for light-years around, as the war wiped both sides out long ago. Sanda struggles to process her injuries and her grief but finds friendship with the lonely spaceship itself. Sanda’s story is interspersed with flashbacks to the war’s effects on her brother, Biran, as well as scenes from a heist gone terribly wrong for small-time criminal Jules. The three narratives, separated by a vast gulf of time, are more intertwined than is immediately apparent. When Sanda rescues Tomas, another unlikely survivor, from his own evacuation pod, she learns that even time doesn’t end all wars….

Meticulously plotted, edge-of-your-seat space opera with a soul; a highly promising science-fiction debut.

We previously covered Velocity Weapon, and O’Keefe’s Scorched Continent fantasy trilogy.

The sequel to Velocity Weapon is one of the more hotly anticipated books of the year. Chaos Vector arrives from Orbit on July 28. It is 592 pages, priced at $16.99 in trade paperback, and $9.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Sparth. See all our recent coverage of the best upcoming SF and fantasy here.


Future Treasures: Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Thursday, July 9th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Peace Talks Jim Butcher-smallIt’s been six long years since we’ve seen Harry Dresden.

The Dresden Files was one of the first big breakout fantasy hits of the 21st Century; beginning with Storm Front in 2000, and continuing at roughly a book a year until Skin Game, the 15th novel in the series, was published in 2014. Author Jim Butcher took a long pause after that — but now Harry Dresden returns in his long-awaited sixteenth novel, Peace Talks, which arrives in hardcover from Ace Books next week.

Tor.com broke the news last December with an announcement that included a handy summary of the series to-date:

A contemporary urban noir series that has been described as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Philip Marlowe” (Entertainment Weekly), the Dresden Files follows Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, as he takes on supernatural cases throughout the city and an alternate magical realm. Peace Talks follows wisecracking private investigator Harry Dresden as he joins the White Council’s security team to ensure negotiations between the Supernatural nations of the world remain civil. Harry’s task is challenging, because dark political manipulations threaten the very existence of Chicago — and everything he holds dear.

A book as hotly anticipated as this doesn’t need early reviews to heighten the anticipation… but there’s no reason they shouldn’t try. Here’s a snippet from Publishers Weekly’s review.

Butcher ramps up the tension for wizard Harry Dresden in this open-ended 16th installment… When Thomas Raith, Harry’s half-brother, attempts to assassinate the leader of the Svartalves, one of the groups in attendance, Harry comes under suspicion for his role in the crime. With the aid of vampire Lara Raith and human detective Karrin Murphy, Harry frees Thomas from prison and certain death. Along the way, he discovers a new threat that could upend both the mundane and supernatural worlds… When Butcher finally pushes the story forward, readers are rewarded for their patience with gritty magical worldbuilding and bursts of dark humor.

Peace Talks will be published by Ace Books on July 14, 2020. It is 352 pages, priced at $28 in hardcover and $14.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Chris McGrath. Read the first six chapters for free at Jim Butcher’s website.

See all our recent coverage of the best forthcoming releases in SF, fantasy and horror here.


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