Book Review: The Spirit Phone by Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe

Cover of the book The Spirit Phone by Arthur Shattuck O'Keefe
The Spirit Phone
by Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe
BHC, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2022.

Set in 1899 New York, The Spirit Phone is a cosmic-horror, murder-mystery detective yarn in which Nikola Tesla, famed inventor, and Aleister Crowley, famed occultist, team up to save the world. Along the way, they encounter a cult, people who appear to be clones, and spiritual beings bent on destroying Earth, all centered on a new invention from Thomas Edison which aims to let people speak to the dead. Teleportation, astral projection, Edgar Cayce, a zeppelin, and Devils Tower all make an appearance. O’Keefe’s debut novel certainly serves up a unique blend of elements. He takes some anachronistic liberties, but all in service of the story. The entertainment factor alone alleviates anything that strains credulity, and the action is well paced. Perhaps most rewarding is his evocation of this time and place: new innovations were radically altering the fabric of everyday life, with modern technology like cars and electric lights commingled with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. It was a world made magical and strange, an ideal setting for such a strange tale.

Book Review: If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe by Jason Pargin

Cover of the book If This Book Exists, You're in the Wrong Universe by Jason Pargin
If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe
by Jason Pargin
St. Martin’s, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2022.

This time, it starts with an alien bug eating a man’s brain. Then there’s a specter that manifests inside of John’s wall and gets sliced up. So begins an ouroboros of a tale involving cults, alternate time lines, the end of the world, and a possessed plastic toy. This fourth entry in Pargin’s John Dies at the End series is less frenetic than its predecessor, What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017, as David Wong). Within the snarky humor is an incisive commentary on social media and the state of our connected world, and a story about trauma and how people lash out when they’re hurt. It’s a story about love and how people can be better. It’s rewarding to witness how Pargin has grown as a writer. He’s less interested in the gimmick and more focused on his characters. His compassion runs deep. This isn’t just a funny tale of inept supernatural investigators; it’s a story of people struggling through pain to find a better path. Pargin offers us a welcome note of hope.

Book Review: Terminal Peace by Jim C. Hines

Cover of the book Terminal Peace by Jim C. Hines
Terminal Peace
by Jim C. Hines
DAW, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on July 29, 2022.

After Mop and crew’s discoveries on Earth, the Prodryans are massed to attack, and the Alliance is falling apart. Mop’s next mission: Tuxatl, the only planet in the galaxy the Prodryans fear, seeking a weapon that can win the war. As usual, what she finds isn’t what she expected: a legendary lost warrior and the Jynx, an intelligent race hiding dark secrets. There is a weapon—but what do you do if using it makes you just as bad as your enemy? While there’s plenty of humor in this installment of Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse (after Terminal Uprising, 2019), it’s not a funny book. Characters face deep personal threats and challenges to their status quo and struggle with significant ethical quandaries; the book achieves impressive emotional depth and moral weight. Hines has a talent for creating interesting aliens, and the Jynx are one of his best yet, with a fascinating culture and backstory. The newest members of Mop’s crew lend some fresh perspectives, and the ending—unexpected as it is—rings true. Hines serves up a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the series.

Book Review: Invisible Things by Mat Johnson

Cover of the book Invisible Things by Mat Johnson
Invisible Things
by Mat Johnson
One World, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2022.

A science mission to explore Jupiter discovers something unexpected on the moon Europa and disappears. A chauffeur in Arizona who believes his wife was abducted by aliens gets wrapped up in a covert rescue mission. This sounds like a setup for a standard alien-encounter story; instead, Johnson (Pym, 2011) uses the premise to examine many of the immediate problems facing our society today: intolerance, unearned privilege, religious fundamentalism, corrupt politics, and mass obliviousness. There’s nothing subtle about this work, and some might find it too on the nose, but there is power in addressing these issues so unflinchingly. His writing style is fairly cerebral, which mutes some of the emotional impact, and that’s the point: Johnson has an argument to make, and the story humanizes it enough for it to really hit home. His characters are vivid and compelling, and even the villains retain their full measure of humanity, with motivations that make sense. The ending veers unexpectedly into the fantastical while offering a welcome measure of hope.

Book Review: Mercury Rising by R. W. W. Greene

Cover of the book Mercury Rising by R. W. W. Greene
Mercury Rising
by R. W. W. Greene
Angry Robot, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on April 15, 2022.

Greene’s latest is set in an alternate time line where the U.S. and Soviet Union made it to space in the 1950s and fended off an alien attack in the 1960s. Brooklyn Lamontagne, a petty crook who just wants to take care of his mother, joins the Earth Orbital Forces to avoid a prison sentence. Soon he’s swept up in a series of events that uncover a deep secret which could save humankind. Mercury Rising is a rollicking, funny, picaresque adventure novel. It doesn’t follow any predictable path and requires a willingness to go along and see where it takes you. The hero isn’t a typical good guy, but he’s likable and compelling. The secondary characters are all people you want to spend more time with. Most of all, this is a stellar example of effective world building. Greene provides enough detail to make the alternate reality believable and immersive, but he’s not concerned with showing it off. Recommended for fans of old sf-adventure serials and Ernest Cline’s Armada (2015).

Book Review: Afterglow by Tim Jordan

Cover of the book Afterglow by Tim Jordan
by Tim Jordan
Angry Robot, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 25, 2022.

Rex hoped he was safe. But of course, the Sisters have other plans, and Del’s consciousness is still inside his mind, seeking a way out. Elsewhere, a Burn seeks atonement for past crimes, a cyborg woman and her engineer boyfriend are caught up in a conflict they don’t understand, Hmech’s Alliance continues its conquest of Earth, the Convolver Sect machinates for the salvation of mankind, and we haven’t seen the last of Ursurper Gale. There are a lot of moving pieces in Jordan’s sequel to Glow (2021). The story zips along at a frenetic pace, keeping the reader just a little off balance along with the characters, bouncing between different plot threads before he brings it all together for an explosive climax. Jordan expands this world in more dimensions, revealing intricacies of the political landscape and some surprises about certain characters and diving deeper into the workings of the Glow network. At times, the world building threatens to spin out of control, but overall Jordan manages to wrangle his many story threads into a satisfying whole.

Book Review: Memory’s Legion by James S. A. Corey

Cover of the book Memory's Legion by James S. A. Corey
Memory’s Legion
by James S. A. Corey
Orbit, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 15, 2022.

**STARRED REVIEW** From the invention of the Epstein drive, to Amos’ backstory, to the fate of Naomi’s son, these eight stories and novellas fill in details of the world of the Expanse (beginning with Leviathan Wakes, 2011), telling tales that didn’t fit into the main novels but which deepen readers’ relationship to this world and its characters. Much like the longer books, each story has its own tone, atmosphere, and pace, and Corey uses the freedom of the short form to experiment with different narrative styles. The stories are creative and inventive, packing the same character-driven emotional power of the novels. It’s remarkable how well Corey adapts their writing style to craft short-form tales that are the equal of the lauded long-form works. Each story is accompanied by an author’s note explaining how it came to be, along with nuggets of trivia about the writing and publishing process. These pieces were written over the course of the series and originally published in a variety of sources, so they weren’t always easy for fans to track down. This collection is a welcome capstone to mark the conclusion of arguably the best space-opera series written in the past few decades.

Book Review: The Observer Effect by Nick Jones

Cover of the book The Observer Effect by Nick Jones
The Observer Effect
by Nick Jones
Blackstone, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on February 25, 2022.

After the events in London, Joseph Bridgeman is beginning to feel more comfortable in his new life, but there are still unanswered questions: What is the Continuum? Who is Scarlett? And how does his sister fit into all this? When Bridgeman is contacted by the Continuum, it sends him to Paris in 1873, alongside a partner who’s not happy to be saddled with him, to save the life of a missing agent. This entry is the series’ most exciting and well-paced yet, pulling the reader along at just the right speed without making them feel jumbled. Jones formalizes the time travel mechanics he created in The Shadows of London (2021) while introducing more complexity and unknowns. He reveals more about the Continuum and Scarlett while leaving enough unanswered questions for subsequent novels. Jones has found his stride: his writing style is more assured now and he renders his characters more fully and naturally. He’s gotten better at integrating exposition without slowing down the plot. This third entry sets up a strong premise to sustain the series long term.

Book Review: Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

Cover of the book Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather
Sisters of the Forsaken Stars
by Lina Rather, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2022.

The Sisters of the Order of St. Rita are on the run in a new ship, hiding from the Earth Central Governance after the tragic events at Phoyongsa III. Their new Mother Superior is wilting under her new responsibilities, everyone is on edge, and no one knows what to do next. Then a new postulant requests to join the order, a sister’s past catches up to her, and the seed of anti-Earth revolution begins to blossom as rumors of the sisters’ actions spread through the outer systems. The sisters must decide their next move or have it forced on them. At the core of this story lies the struggle to maintain faith in the face of betrayal and disillusionment. People hide secrets, which change who they seem to be. The call to welcome strangers with open arms can present grave dangers. The desire for safety opposes the responsibility to act. Finding a path through the morass, a way to do the right thing, is complicated and messy. Rather’s follow-up to Sisters of the Vast Black (2019) is a deeply honest and empathic parable for our times.

Book Review: The Shattered Skies by John Birmingham

Cover of the book The Shattered Skies by John Birmingham
The Shattered Skies
by John Birmingham
Del Rey, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2022.

Commander Hardy, Admiral McClennan, Seph, Princess Alessia, and their crews struck a decisive blow against the Sturm, but the war is just beginning. Humanity in the Greater Volume has been decimated, and the group is left searching for survivors to build an army to stand against an overwhelming enemy. But the Sturm may not be the most dangerous foe they face, as human greed and shortsightedness threaten to scuttle alliances before they can even start. The second entry in Birmingham’s Cruel Stars series (after The Cruel Stars, 2019) boasts all the best elements of its predecessor: absorbing conflicts with high stakes and believable antagonists, complex characters with rich relationships and effective emotional depth, and Birmingham’s magnificent world building. Whereas the first book was slightly marred by its overreliance on coincidence to set up the climax, that’s not the case this time, which makes it the stronger tale—and readers will be left craving the next one. This is a delightful military space adventure that runs at full tilt.