Future Treasures: Hollow Empire, Volume II of The Poison Wars by Sam Hawke

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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When I arrived at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore I was handed a heavy bag of complementary books, one of the perks of that fine convention. After a few horse trades I ended up going home with about two dozen brand new books, a very nice haul indeed.

I’ve been pulling them out one at a time, and when I reached deep into the bag last night the book that came out was City of Lies, the debut novel by Australian Sam Hawke, which looks like one of the most promising reads in the whole batch. In his Tor.com review Paul Weimer called it “an exemplar of the form” of city-state fantasy.

City of Lies tells its story from the perspective of Jov and Kalina, a pair of young siblings of noble rank who are coming of age in the city-state of Silastra. Jov is a poison expert in training, and the male equivalent of a maid-companion to Tain, nephew and heir to the Chancellor of Silatra. Kalina, on the other hand, whose path was to follow Jov’s, is physically disabled and has been trying to find her own path and her own role. The city-state is attacked from within and without: the Chancellor is assassinated, and it is up to Tain, Jov, and Kalina to face the beseiging army that has very coincidentally shown up as all this occurs, while the city-state’s own army is far away on a venture. City of Lies is the story of a city-state under siege, and of two siblings who must grow into their roles, inherited and self-selected, in order to try and save it…

This is a novel of discovery and unearthing of secrets, not only of the physical nature of the city, but also of its population. As Jov, Kalina and the rest of their peers learn the physical and topographical secrets of their city, they learn about their fellow inhabitants as well. As a reader, we learn about these factions and social strata, and get to see them change and evolve while under stress, changes that often surprise the protagonists themselves in the process…  City of Lies succeeds very well as a city-state fantasy, an exemplar of the form.

City of Lies is the opening novel in The Poison War, a new series from Tor. It will be followed by Hollow Empire, due in trade paperback next December. Here’s the back cover blurbs for both.

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Romance and Ancient Magic: The Earthsinger Chronicles by L. Penelope

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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One of the nasty little secrets of American fantasy is that for years virtually no major publisher would put non-white characters on a cover. The situation was so dire that even Ursula K. Le Guin, whose classic A Wizard of Earthsea featured a non-white cast, had to put up with having her hero Ged depicted as white on countless covers for decades. And as recently as this year, Nnedi Okorafor saw the skin tone of her heroine dramatically lightened for the US release of Akata Warrior (compare it to the UK version here.)

Fortunately the situation has been steadily — if slowly — improving, and it’s no longer quite so remarkable to see black characters on mainstream covers. Recent examples we’ve featured include Claire O’Dell’s A Study in Honor, and The High Ground by Melinda Snodgrass. But I can’t recall seeing a mainstream fantasy cover as black and as beautiful as Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope, which I think is one of the most gorgeous covers of the year. Publishers! More like this, please.

Song of Blood & Stone, Penelope’s debut novel, was self-published in 2015 through her Heartspell Media company (which designed the cover); it won the 2016 Self-Publishing eBook Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was soon picked up by St. Martin’s Press, which republished it in hardcover in May of this year (with the same cover). The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog listed it as part of the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of May.

According to Penelope’s website St. Martin’s will be republishing the entire Earthsinger Chronicles, including Whispers of Shadow and Flame (released by Heartspell in 2015 and now out of print), and the forthcoming Breath of Dust & Dawn (due Winter 2019). Song of Blood and Stone will also be reprinted in an expanded trade paperback next July with a brand new cover (above right).

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I, Severian: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Severian of the Guild-smallDespite being one of the densest sci-fi/fantasy works I’ve ever read, packed with Classical and Biblical allusions as well as being an homage to the dying Earth genre, Gene Wolfe’s four-volume The Book of the New Sun is magnificently compelling. While it can be read, just barely, as an adventure story, it’s so much more — and missing out on the “so much more” would be a crime. According to Wolfe, in the valuable series companion, The Castle of the Otter, he wanted to create a vast and believable fantastic setting with many distinct lands and cultures, and tell the story of “a young man approaching war.” He accomplished both these things and more. The story is not just of one young man’s salvation, but also of his emergence as his world’s savior. If these themes alone don’t spark your interest, let me add that they’re all conveyed in some of the flat out best writing I’ve ever read.

Looking back over all four books, it’s far easier to discern what Wolfe was doing than when I was in the middle of them. Severian, while he has an eidetic memory, regularly withholds or presents information so as to make himself appear in the best possible light. The second book in particular, The Claw of the Conciliator, left me puzzled, to say the least. While the other three books, The Shadow of the Torturer, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch present as mostly linear accounts of Severian’s adventures, much of Claw is made up of mysterious visions, inscrutable dreams, and encounters seemingly untethered to the rest of Severian’s reality. Over the following two books, new and previously omitted details are provided by Severian and the series’ arc becomes more clear. Severian, no matter how kindly he is, was bred to violence. Gradually his growing empathy and eventual revulsion at the things he has been trained to do are transforming. The battles between the bandits and the Ascians in which he participates in Citadel serve the same purpose. From the perspective of the last pages much of the mystery of Claw makes sense. Severian is a man cut loose from literally everything and everyone he has known and is finding the world a duplicitous and unjust place. The weirdness reflects the massive spiritual and mental dislocation he is suffering.

In the dying Earth elements of The Book of the New Sun there are obvious summonings of the spirits of William Hope Hodgson and Clark Ashton Smith. The secret identity of the reigning Autarch and some of the Christian elements are more than reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton. The ancient rituals, dank chambers and dark tunnels of the torturers and the Matachin Tower echo much of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. It’s Cordwainer Smith and his Instrumentality of Mankind stories I am most reminded of after finishing all four of Wolfe’s books. Like Smith, Wolfe is concerned with human stagnation.

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A Galaxy in its Scope: The Noumenon Series by Marina J. Lostetter

Monday, November 19th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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If you’ve been reading Black Gate for any length of time at all, you know I’m a fan of space opera. But space opera takes many forms, as demonstrated by Marina J. Lostetter’s tale of a generation ship manned by clones, Noumenon, the opening novel in an epic saga of exploration and adventure in deep space. Publishers Weekly called it “An ambitious and stunning debut… the lingering sense of wonder and discovery thoroughly justifies its title,” and it was selected as one of the Best Books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. Here’s a snippet from the starred review at Kirkus.

In Lostetter’s ambitious debut, the year is 2088, and humankind is finally ready to explore deep space, preparing to send convoys of clones on eons-long missions to investigate the outskirts of the galaxy.

Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer is convinced that something funny is going on with a distant star; there seems to be something surrounding it and obstructing its light. When Straifer convinces the organization building interstellar convoys to send one of its 12 missions to the mysterious LQ Pyxidis, he and hundreds of other brilliant experts are chosen to have their genes replicated into generations of clones who will staff the ships… So far removed from their home planet, are the clones doomed to repeat the flaws written in their DNA, or will they prove that people really can change, even if it takes a few lifetimes to get there? This spectacular epic examines everything from the nature of civilizations and societies to the tension between nature and nurture. Lostetter expertly balances the thrill of discovery with the interpersonal consequences of an isolated community. The tools of speculative fiction are deployed with heart-rending attention to emotional reality in this enthralling odyssey… A striking adventure story that could hold a galaxy in its scope, this is an expedition that delves as deep into the human thirst for purpose as it does into the wonders of the universe.

Noumenon was published last year; the sequel Noumenon Infinity arrived from Harper Voyager in August, and the publisher discounted the digital version of the first to just $1.99. Now’s your chance to check out one of the best SF debuts of last year for under $2. Here’s a look at the back covers.

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New Treasures: There Before the Chaos by K.B. Wagers

Sunday, November 18th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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I first noticed K.B. Wagers in 2016, with Behind the Throne, the first novel in The Indranan War trilogy, which Publishers Weekly called “An excellent addition to any SF collection.” Last month Orbit released There Before the Chaos, the opening volume of a new space opera trilogy featuring gunrunner empress Hail Bristol, who this time must set aside her gunrunning ways to navigate alien politics and deadly plots and prevent an interspecies war. Over at Tor.com Liz Bourke give it an enthusiastic review… but beware that cliffhanger ending!

I’ve been thinking about how to review There Before The Chaos for weeks. K.B. Wagers’ fourth novel, the opening volume of a second trilogy about gunrunner-turned-empress Hail Bristol (star of Behind the Throne, After the Crown, and Beyond the Empire), it turned out to be the kind of character-driven, deftly-wrought, emotive space opera that I adore. And that I find difficult to discuss with any kind of measured distance or attempt at assessment. Does it live up to its predecessors? Does it succeed at what it sets out to do?

I’m not entirely sure I can tell, because it succeeds so well at being exactly the kind of book I wanted it to be. (Though I shake my fist at the cliffhanger ending! What a hook.)…

Wagers writes compelling space opera action, full of character and incident. She has a very deft touch with action — which is good, because There Before The Chaos has a bunch of it — and a brutal sense for where to leave her start-of-trilogy cliffhanger. That ending! I want to know what happens next this instant. Waiting a whole year will be torment.

The book includes a teaser chapter from the forthcoming sequel, Down Among the Dead, the second installment in The Farian War trilogy.

There Before the Chaos was published by Orbit on October 9, 2018. It is 465 pages, priced at $15.99 in trade paperback and $9.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Lauren Panepinto.

Future Treasures: The Salvager Series by Alex White

Friday, November 16th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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Alex White’s Salvager series began with A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, a book which has one of the most promising titles of the year at the very least. I snapped it up shortly after reading Corrina Lawson’s enthusiastic review over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog:

To call this book fast-paced or action-packed is underselling it… It begins with Nilah, the best driver in the galactic version of the Grand Prix. These “cars” are a mix of galactic tech and magic, as is Nilah herself…. Soon, Nilah is being attacked on the track — something that should be impossible — and witnesses another racer being murdered before she accidentally teleports to an unknown location… the viewpoint shifts to Elizabeth “Boots” Ellsworth, who has her own problems… she’s a veteran of a war from the losing side, [and] she’s a failed media personality whose one big triumph exploring the legends of lost ships is long in the past.

Everything goes promptly sideways as Nilah, Boots, Cordell and the crew of the Capricious wander recklessly into a greater conspiracy that points them to yet another legendary lost ship — a very big ship, way out in the far reaches of space (at the edge of the universe, even)…

The crew of the Capricious are terrific, original creations, from the captain determined to protect the crew that is all he has left from the war, to the intense first officer, to the ship’s chef. (Orna, the cynical force of nature that is the ship’s quartermaster, steals every scene she’s in, alongside her robot battle suit, Ranger.)… It’s this crew up against the most powerful beings in the universe, and our rag-tag heroes will take those odds. This is fantastic stuff, in every sense of the word.

Corrina mentioned at the end of her review that more titles were forthcoming, and it looks like her sources were true. A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy arrives in trade paperback from Orbit next month, and the third title in the series, The Worst of All Possible Worlds, is promised for Summer 2019.

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New Treasures: Keepers by Brenda Cooper, Book Two of Project Earth

Thursday, November 15th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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We reported here on Tuesday the surprising news that Pyr has been sold to Start Publishing, a development that’s produced a lot of speculation in the industry. While there’s been plenty of dark conjecture, I think I can sum up the general mood as “cautious optimism” that the sale won’t hurt one of the most dynamic and exciting genre publishers of the last few decades.

It has caused me to look more closely at Pyr’s latest releases, and that’s not a bad thing. The one that has most interested me recently is Keepers, the second novel in Brenda Cooper’s Project Earth, set in a near-future Earth where “rewilding crews” work to remove all traces of civilization from vast tracks of terrain, returning the planet to its natural state. Gray Scott says the first novel Wilders was “A fantastic voyage into a beautifully intricate solarpunk future,” and Karl Schroeder called it “one of the best near-future adventures in years.”

We covered Wilders here; and Steven Silver’s Birthday Review of Cooper’s short story “Second Shift” appeared here in August. Here’s the description for Keepers.

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Dark Evil and Atlantean Gods: Stygian: A Dark-Hunter Novel by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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When I received a review copy of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s new novel Stygian, I noticed the subtitle A Dark Hunter Novel. I know Kenyon is the author of multiple ongoing series (including the Deadman’s Cross historical fantasies featuring curses, pirates, and a sentient ship on the Spanish Main), but I wasn’t prepared for the scale of this one.

Depending on how you count, this is the 22nd novel in the Dark Hunter series, a saga of dark evil and the Atlantean gods that began way back in 2002 with Fantasy Lover.

Kenyon has made a name for herself as a paranormal romance writer with a string of #1 New York Times bestsellers under her belt, but Stygian isn’t just the latest in a long running series. It picks up the tale of the Dark-Hunter leader Acheron and his twin brother Styxx, told in the #1 bestselling Acheron and Styxx, to tell the story of Urian, Styxx’s son. Here’s the description.

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A Tale of Alchemy and Magic in Gilded Age New York: The Last Magician Series by Lisa Maxwell

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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I received a review copy of The Devil’s Thief a few months ago. It’s the second volume in Last Magician series by Lisa Maxwell, and I didn’t have a copy of the first one, last year’s The Last Magician.

But The Devil’s Thief still managed to capture my attention. Man, I hate that.

We covered Lisa Maxwell’s previous book, the Peter Pan homage Unhooked, back in 2016. But it was The Last Magician that really put her on the map, becoming an instant New York Times bestseller. The tale of a girl who travels back in time to find a mysterious book that could save her future, The Last Magician was called a “twisty tale of alchemy and magic in Gilded Age New York” by Cinda Williams Chima.

How do I know all this? Because I shelled out for a copy, because I’m a sucker. Here’s the description.

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Ouroboros: The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

I have no way of knowing whether you, who eventually will read this record, like stories or not. If you do not, no doubt you have turned these pages without attention. I confess that I love them. Indeed, it often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones humanity can claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and hot food (as the Ascian would have said) are all the work of the Increate. Thus, stories are small things indeed in the scheme of the universe, but it is hard not to love best what is our own—hard for me, at least.

— Severian

oie_1342155N3OR5AdvWith The Citadel of the Autarch (1983) the story ends where it began: Nessus, the great city of the Commonwealth. Severian is no longer a young torturer exiled for an act of mercy, but a figure of incredible power and importance. Realistic depictions of peace and war are interwoven with excursions into phantasmagoria. Severian encounters old friends as well as enemies, experiences mass combat, and meets the strange soldiers of the Commonwealth’s Orwellian enemy, Ascia. Told in Wolfe’s often elliptical style, there are the familiar hints of Clark Ashton Smith, the stench of Wolfe’s time during the Korean War, and a solid whiff of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

At the end of the previous book, The Sword of the Lictor, Severian’s great sword, Terminus Est, was broken. So too, seemingly, the life-restoring Claw of the Conciliator he means to return to the religious order, the Pelerines. Searching for the blue gem’s pieces, he discovered that at its shattered heart was a simple thorn. The gem itself was mere glass.

Citadel begins with Severian continuing northward in search of the Pelerines and the front between the Commonwealth’s and Ascia’s armies. He soon meets the trailing edge of the Autarch’s armies: supply trains, cavalry patrols, and the scattered remains of the killed. As he pilfers supplies from one dead soldier he is struck by the callousness of his actions and by the contents of a letter written by the dead man to his beloved. He restores the corpse to life with the thorn from the Claw. Whether unable or unwilling to speak, the resurrected soldier travels with Severian until they finally come to a great field hospital run by the Pelerines.

Severian, it turns out, is suffering from a fever and is taken in by the ministering sisters. He strikes up a friendship with several fellow patients, a woman and three men who wish to marry her. And here, Citadel takes a storytelling detour. To choose a husband from among her suitors, Foila decides that whomever can tell the best story will win her hand. She asks Severian to act as judge. Each story has its own strengths, but it’s that of the Ascian prisoner I found the most interesting.

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