This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2020.
Zoey Ashe, still unsure how to manage her father’s massive criminal empire after the events of Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (2015), receives a disemboweled corpse in the mail. Online trolls accuse her of being a cannibal and threaten to attack her home. A rival is growing a private security empire, which may or may not be involved in murder. When her beloved cat, Stench Machine, goes missing, Zoey is ready to tear the city apart to get it back. This may be Wong’s most timely and topical work to date, featuring incels, trolls, and the rise of private security. Wong’s trademark imagination and humor remain but it’s his grounded sense of humanity that elevates this work. Zoey is a good person in bizarre circumstances, doing her best to make the world a better place. Wong knows what makes people tick and his vision of humanity isn’t rose-colored. But he’s also fundamentally an optimist: there are solutions to the problems humanity faces. Not always neat or tidy, not always clean, but readers will feel that they—like Zoey—can stumble through.
YA/General Interest:Futuristic Violence in Fancy Suits won an Alex Award, so teen fans may come looking for its sequel.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2020.
**STARRED REVIEW** Paolini’s first foray into adult science fiction doesn’t do anything by halves. This is a massive work of space opera with a deep history and complex mythology, epic in scope and packed with action. Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist exploring a new planet, stumbles upon a piece of alien technology that upends human-settled space and sends her on a quest across the galaxy in the company of a scrappy group of traders and a possibly insane superintelligence, all in the middle of an interstellar war. Humanity’s first contact with aliens could spell extinction: the stakes don’t get any higher than this. The concepts in this book aren’t all that original, but the book is not derivative: this is Paolini’s love letter to the genre. The skills honed in his YA fantasy series, Inheritance (Eragon, 2003), are on full display here in his vibrant world building, especially in the mythology of the alien tech. Paolini populates this universe with a large cast of interesting and relatable characters, and mostly avoids reductive good guy/bad guy dynamics, lending the story a sincere emotional depth. Highly recommended for fans of James A. Corey’s The Expanse series and for fantasy fans willing to try space opera.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Paolini’s first novel since 2011 is a major departure, and those who grew up on his Inheritance series will be eager to see what he does in a novel sans dragons.
This review was first published by Booklist on April 1, 2020.
**STARRED REVIEW** Everyone’s favorite Murderbot is now working as a security consultant for Preservation Station. While accompanying several members of Dr. Mensah’s family on a research outing, they’re attacked by a ship that looks a lot like their old friend, the transport ship ART. Murderbot and Amena, Mensah’s daughter, are kidnapped and taken aboard, where they uncover a plot that leads back to a strange planet, corporate machinations, and a possible alien contagion. The Murderbot novellas were perfectly paced to fit a ton of action into a short form. Network Effect is just as action-packed, but the pace is now calibrated to fill a full novel, which gives it more breathing room and opportunities to explore the characters and the setting in greater depth. Relationships between all the characters are richer and more nuanced. Wells reveals more about Dr. Mensah’s family and some surprises about ART and establishes more details about how the Corporations function, the contrasts between the Corporate Rim and Preservation Station, the politics at play, and some of the history of pre-Corporate planetary colonization attempts. It’s a welcome expansion of this universe and lays the groundwork for more stories to come in a series that continues to grow and impress.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 6, 2020.
After striking manna in the oil fields, the citizens of Titanshade thought things were looking up. But federal troops have taken command, and people from all over the planet are flocking to the city in hopes of cashing in. Tensions are high leading up to a political showdown on Titan’s Day, the most important holiday of the year. When Carter and Jax are tasked to solve the murder of a Jane Doe in an alley, it unravels a complicated web of gang warfare, political machinations, and magic. And there’s something wrong with Carter . . . . Titanshade (2019) introduced readers to a compelling new world. The second book in the Carter Archives takes readers on a deep dive into its culture: politics and crime, social conflicts, fear and intolerance, local versus national interests, and especially the workings of manna and magic. It broadens readers’ understanding of how the characters relate to each other and maintains a wonderful sense of discovery. Stout proves once again to be a master of retro sf noir.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2020.
This previously unpublished manuscript by Grand Master Heinlein will be in demand by his many fans and readers interested in the history of the genre. It’s based on the same premise and features the same characters as his The Number of the Beast (1980). Indeed, the first third of the book is identical. But the novel then veers into an entirely different story, appropriately, since the books are based on travel through alternate worlds. As in Beast, our intrepid explorers travel to various fictional universes: Burroughs’ Barsoom, Baum’s Land of Oz, Smith’s Lensman universe, confronting the idea that all fictional universes exist somewhere in the multiverse. Beast is recognized as the first work of Heinlein’s late style, but The Pursuit of the Pankera is mostly in his middle style and occasionally hearkens back to his earliest pulp action writings. Together, the two novels offer fascinating insight into an inflection point in the evolution of one of science fiction’s greatest writers. Pankera can also be read on its own, though it will be of greatest interest to Heinlein fans.
This review was first published by Booklist on February 1, 2020.
After almost driving themselves to extinction, human beings have colonized the local solar system and the nearby Trappist system, using an anti-aging drug to extend their lifespans. Every year, the military branches, which protect civilization, compete in the Boarding Games. This year, the Near-Earth Orbital Guard hopes to finally win against the Navy—if their newest recruit can be whipped into shape in time. Max Carmichael, a child of the most influential family on Earth, has broken with tradition and enlisted in the NeoG. But there’s a vast conspiracy afoot that threatens genocide on a massive scale. The big mystery establishes high stakes and the exciting competition sequences of the Games make this book a surprisingly fun read, but this is a character-driven story above all else. Every character is someone readers will enjoy spending time with, and exploring the characters’ relationships is the heart of the tale. Aside from a few stereotypical villains, no one is a bad guy. Wagers’ first book in the NeoG series is an unexpected and refreshing twist on military science fiction.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2020.
**STARRED REVIEW** After the fall of Earth, humans colonize other planets, some of which are at war while host to increasing numbers of refugees, with the destitute living in urban squalor while the rich flee to their mansions. Flying between worlds on relativistic space ships are Trader families, who experience months as years pass for the planet-bound. Hisako Sasaki, an unauthorized child on the planet Gaul, is contracted to marry the Trader Adem Sadiq before she’s even born. Hisako grows up knowing her future is out of her control, while the Sadiq’s discover an ancient lost ship with technology that could change everything. There are elements of a thriller story here, but this isn’t about plot. Instead, it’s a social and family drama with a focus on character study and world building. The novel is conceived around a set of questions: How would the time dilation of relativistic travel affect civilization? How would space travelers relate to the planet-bound? How would it alter our perceptions of history and our responsibilities to one another? Greene builds his immersive and socially complex world on these deeply human questions. The Light Years is a story of resistance and acceptance, anger and forgiveness, and the costs of our actions.
This review was first published by Booklist on November 15, 2019.
Mainstream histories of sf and fantasy cover the main eras, the big names, the important publications and events. But there’s more to any history than just the mainstream. There are obscure authors, forgotten works, and a plethora of what might have beens, plus the myriad ways sf and fantasy have influenced and been influenced by art, design, architecture, fashion, music, and fandom. Lost Transmissions explores some of these often-overlooked pieces of the history of sf and fantasy. How would the genre be different if Jules Verne had successfully published the first novel he submitted? If William Gibson’s screenplay for Alien III had been made, or if E.T. had been a creepy goblin movie? From the sf fashion of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, to the Afrofuturism of Janelle Monáe’s music, to Soleri’s architecture of arcology (best recognized as Luke Skywalker’s dome house on Tatooine,) to contributed essays by a roster of luminaries reflecting on their favorite obscurities, this is a fascinating enrichment of the history of sf and fantasy.
This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2019.
**STARRED REVIEW** Multi-award-winning Uncanny Magazine has been the preeminent publisher of speculative short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction since 2014, and is renowned for offering its contributors tremendous creative freedom. Authors published by Uncanny are a roster of the greatest sf writers of the present era: Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders, Seanan McGuire, Naomi Novik, and many, many more. The works in this anthology are the best of the best in the genre, from science fiction to fantasy to weird tales to poetry, representing a stunning diversity of styles and perspectives, from the Hugo award-winning “Folding Beijing,” by Hao Jingfang to a female empowerment parable, “Monster Girls Don’t Cry,” by A. Merc Rustad. Language and family tie into technology and posterity in “Restore the Heart to Love,” by John Chu; “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde visits a nightmarish circus freak show; “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker is what happens when Being John Malkovich meets Agatha Christie. This anthology contains a gluttonous surfeit of narrative riches. The works in this collection are inventive, gorgeous, occasionally difficult, and immensely rewarding. Truly, the best of Uncanny.
I had been talking about the Two Spirit and queer authors and characters, the Indigenous settings and perspectives, the prefatory material which lay out the history and politics and which argue the need for stories like these—the important context surrounding these stories—and my friend noticed I wasn’t talking much about the stories themselves. Thus, his question.
I fumbled a bit to answer. Yes, some are good, a few excellent, some just OK. I voiced my belief that there’s benefit to reading stories like these even if they’re not good: I appreciate these works because of what they can teach me, how they challenge my assumptions and show me very different experiences and understandings of the world.
But the truth is also this: I don’t always know whether the stories I read are any good. I’m not always qualified to assess the quality of these works.