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by Peter Heck

by Moniquill Blackgoose
Del Rey, $18.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-593-49828-6

Blackgoose offers a new take on the popular “school for magic” fantasy subgenre, with a Native American young woman attending a dragon academy in an alternate-history nineteenth century. This books begins a series, “Nampesheweisit.”

Teenage Anequs lives with her family on the island of Masquapaug, or Nantucket, as we know it. One day she is gathering mussels on a nearby island when a dragon lands near her. There have been no dragons on the island for generations. It is clear the dragon is carrying an egg, so Anequs informs her family, and returns the next morning to find the egg waiting and the mother dragon gone. She takes the egg home and places it in the meetinghouse. When, surrounded by the whole tribe, the egg hatches, the baby dragon telepathically tells her its name, Kasaqua. That makes Anequs a Nampeshiweisit—her people’s term for someone partnered with a dragon.

But there are unexpected complications. The Anglish government requires all dragons to be registered and under control of a trained dragoneer—and unless Anequs can complete the training, Kasaqua will be killed. To save the dragon, she must go to a dragon academy on the mainland, away from her people and her family. Luckily for her, there are scholarships available. The school has even admitted one other native student, in a rare display of inclusiveness.

Reluctantly, she goes to the school, where she begins to receive a bewildering introduction to formal education on the Anglish model. Some of the teachers are helpful, but others assume from the start that she’s incapable of doing the work and treat her presence in class as an annoyance. At the same time, her roommate, Marta—the only other female student at the academy—tries to give her an introduction to upper-class Anglish social life, which Anequs finds both bewildering and appallingly rule-bound. And Theod, the only other native student, is unwilling to rock the boat.

The original twist in this novel is that the European colonizers are from a culture in which the Vikings were the dominant culture; no trace of Greek or Roman influence is apparent. So, while a sort of science has begun to develop, the terms in use are all of Norse or Germanic etymology. This gives the reader a more direct feeling of the alienness of colonial society as seen through the eyes of the indigenous people.

Anequs refuses to fit into the neat boxes everyone else at the school wants to put her in. She and Kasaqua make their own friends—an indentured servant, a nerdish introvert—and eventually find common ground with others. But people outside the academy aren’t happy that natives—Nankies, as they’re called in this world—are enjoying the privileges that should be reserved for the right kind of people.

Blackgoose, a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe, builds the society in convincing detail, and gives us a picture of the early years of American history that many readers have probably never thought much about. Highly recommended.

*   *   *

by Thomas D. Lee
Ballantine, $28.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-49902-3

The author, a Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester in the UK, spins his academic specialty—Arthurian legend—into a quirky fantasy novel. The book adopts the premise, common to Arthurian legend, that several knights of the Round Table were given a kind of immortality by Merlin—allowing them to rise from their graves to fight for the realm in times of peril.

Sir Kay—Arthur’s older brother—has re-emerged numerous times over the last thousand years since his first “death,” defending the realm at battles including Waterloo and World War I. As this story begins, he wakes up to find himself in the vicinity of a fracking plant somewhere in the Midlands, just as it’s blown up. Realizing that he’s supposed to help, he makes his way inside the heavily guarded enclosure around the plant, and discovers a young woman running away from the guards. Deciding that she’s the one in peril, he holds off the guards while she escapes—only to be shot dead. He emerges again from his grave a short while later, to find her standing nearby, and they both flee the scene.

Her name is Mariam, and she’s a member of a group of feminist activists fighting against runaway global warming—the reason for her sabotaging the fracking plant. But there’s another problem neither of them has anticipated: in the smoke from the burning plant, a dragon emerges. Kay says, “I think it’s the reason I’m back.”

Kay isn’t the only one who’s been called back, as we learn shortly after when Lancelot emerges from his grave, some distance away. Shortly afterward, he is met by Christopher Marlowe, who became immortal by selling his soul—and who’s been acting the way one would expect from that transaction, working for the corporate power brokers of the world. In the current context, that means the various oil barons and their ilk who’ve brought about the global climate change Mariam is fighting against.

Kay and Mariam work more or less together, as they learn what Marlowe and his masters are planning—a major project centered on an oil rig in the sea just off Cornwall, and aimed at reviving a mythical personage even more legendary than Kay and Lancelot. As the plot progresses, we learn how the fracking plant and the dragon are connected; we meet several other characters from ancient British legend; and in general enjoy a good-natured romp through a too-plausible future world into which magic is improbably—but delightfully and effectively—introduced.

Good stuff—it’ll be interesting to see what else Lee has to offer.

*   *   *

by Susan diRende
Aqueduct Press, $18.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-619760238-1

The protagonist of this one is a nameless kitchen girl from a seaside village invaded by pirates. When one of the pirates lunges at her, the boning knife she happens to be holding kills him instantly. The pirate captain, Volzh, decides that only a witch could have pulled off the killing, and decides to take her home with him—pirates get a bounty for bringing new witches to the temple, he explains.

Deciding this is her only chance to break away from a totally oppressive life, the girl embraces her new identity as a witch—pushing every little advantage. To her surprise, it turns out that she does have some kind of power, and that it’s centered in the knife she brought with her from the kitchen. She starts giving orders to the pirates and their captain, and they pay attention to her—she’s their witch, after all. Especially when she has an unexplained itch, which usually points her toward something she can handle with her magic.

On the way back to the pirates’ hometown, her powers keep increasing with each challenge she meets. These include an encounter with a kraken, and an attack by a group of witches intent on punishing Captain Volzh for his lack of interest in following the rules. She also manages to pick up one ally—a young woman named Marhai, who has the ability to detect magic in objects and people—and one not-quite ally, Moon, a former apprentice to one of the witches she defeated. And just to add one more weird distraction to her life as a pirate witch, the kraken “falls in love” with her and keeps turning up, all moony-eyed.

When the pirates reach their hometown, she learns that she is now one of the ruling council of nine witches—a post earned by her having defeated one of the members. And now a new series of challenges faces her, notably the discovery that her new home is in danger from a dormant volcano that the witches believe is about to erupt catastrophically. To solve this problem, she needs to find another home for the people she’s now joined to. And that, of course, leads to even greater challenges, and new powers.

The protagonist is smart-mouthed, unimpressed by rank or status, and thoroughly pragmatic in her approach to life. The author does a great job of coming up with new challenges for her, and finding unexpected ways for her to respond to them. A fun read with a character I found instantly likable. I’ll definitely add diRende to my list of authors to keep an eye out for. Her previous novel, Unpronounceable, won a special citation from the Philip K. Dick Awards in 2017.

*   *   *

by David R. Slayton
Blackstone, $25.99 (hc)
ISBN: 979-8-200-96676-9

Slayton posits a world where Phoebe, the moon goddess, has been killed by the knights of Hyperion, the sun god. The world is left without a moon, and Phoebe’s remaining followers are treated as heretics, while the ghosts of the dead are cast adrift.

Much of the action takes place in Versinae, a port city once a stronghold of Phoebe’s followers, now occupied by the sun god’s minions. Raef, a foundling brought up by Phoebe’s priests, is now a thief on Versinae’s streets. We meet him as he plans to steal the contents of a large box hidden in Hyperion’s temple. But he is discovered by one of the guards—a knight of Hyperion. Rafe stabs the guard, then retrieves the box. Inside, instead of the expected treasure, he finds a young man about his own age—Kinos. The two  escape the temple and hide in the city.

The other major character is Seth, another of the knights of Hyperion sent to guard the mysterious box. Seth is uncertain of his worthiness to serve the god, and the other knights have ostracized him because of his dubious origins. When Kinos’ disappearance is discovered, Seth and the other knights in his squad set off to try to recover him—and soon learn just how treacherous the streets of Versinae can be. They return to the temple empty-handed, though their superiors’ reaction suggests that the incident is more important that it appears to be on the surface.

Raef takes Kinos to his hideout in a boat anchored in the harbor—a disreputable area where the rule of authority is intermittent and tenuous at best. There, Kinos describes himself as having been brought up on a distant island, from which he was kidnapped on the orders of the Hierarch, the high priest of Apollo. His goal is somehow to return home to his family. Raef is intrigued, especially at the idea that Kinos is an object of interest to the powers that be. But he sees no way he can be of any help in getting Kinos back home.

Seth and his fellow knights are again sent to search the city for the missing box, although they are given scant information as to what might make it important. Meanwhile, noteworthy Apollonian officials arrive in the city, and the pressure on the local government is ramped up. Both Raef and Seth find themselves getting involved more deeply than they expected—for Raef, more than he’s comfortable with. Eventually Raef and Kinos—and Seth, along with a strong force of the knights are sent overseas to the eastern island of Kinos’ origins. And that, rather than fulfilling the protagonists’ quests, kicks them into another, higher gear.

A strong fantasy adventure, set in an intriguing alternate world. A sequel is reportedly in the works; I’ll be looking for it.

*   *   *

by Robert Jackson Bennett
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9848-2070-9

Jackson offers up a fantasy/mystery, with a protagonist—investigator Anagosa Dolabra, “Ana” to her familiars—whose encyclopedic knowledge and abrasive inquisitiveness are reminiscent of Nero Wolfe. The story is told by her assistant Dinios Kol—an engraver—meaning he is magically altered to have absolutely perfect memory. Kol begins the story as an apprentice, assigned to Ana at least in part because he lacks the clout to request any other post.

The story begins with Kol questioning the staff of a household where a seemingly impossible death has occurred. A visiting officer, a guest of the absentee owners, has died with huge shoots of a plant rapidly growing from his body. This is bizarre enough in its own right, especially since nobody who was present in the house at the time appears to have any idea how it happened. But when Kol reports his findings to Ana, she quickly determines that the man has been murdered—by whom and for what purpose remain to be discovered.

Meanwhile, we learn that the country in which the story is set is periodically attacked by enormous sea monsters, which come ashore after seismic events—and one of the attacks is expected soon. Kol has never experienced such an attack, but all the officials with whom he interacts are heavily involved in dealing with the monsters once they come ashore. So, as far as they’re concerned, Ana’s murder investigation is definitely small potatoes.

But Ana’s got her teeth into the investigation, and already she’s wondering whether the victim’s death might be connected to his wealthy hosts—one of the most powerful families in the empire. She believes that the murder method—involving a plant characteristic of a distant part of the empire—indicates an assassination, with more far-reaching consequences than the local authorities recognize. Her suspicions are borne out when several engineers—those responsible for maintaining the sea walls that keep the monsters at bay—are killed in a fashion similar to the first victim, with plants growing from their bodies.

Following this new wave of deaths, Ana and Kol are transferred to Talagray, a city where the original victim spent most of his working time between visits to the estate where he died. Talagray is also where much of the province’s administration is located—and is more exposed to the monster incursions. There, the investigation becomes more complex, eventually leading Ana to a satisfying solution.

Bennett delivers a “fair-play” mystery, with adequate clues to give the reader a chance of seeing where the plot is headed; as you might imagine, this is particularly difficult in an alternate reality where readers can’t necessarily draw on their everyday real-world experience to piece together the solution. Bennett, who has been a finalist for several major SF/fantasy awards and has won an Edgar in the mystery field, has shown himself to be a highly original world-builder in previous fantasies such as the “Foundryside” trilogy. This one carries on the same level of inventiveness. It’s the first of a series, which if this one is any indication ought to be on everyone’s must-read list. I’ve certainly got it on mine.

*   *   *

by Gregory Frost
Baen, $34.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-9266-2

Frost’s first Baen novel begins a trilogy based on the life of a thirteenth-century Scottish poet, Thomas the Rhymer, who, in a traditional ballad later reworked by Sir Walter Scott, was abducted by the Queen of Elfland. He is also credited with the gift of prophecy, and a number of his rhymed predictions have survived in the folk tradition.

Frost’s Thomas begins as the half-witted younger son of an affluent family, given to occasional fits during which he utters prophetic rhymes. Waiting for his brother and a family friend, Baldie, who’ve gone fishing, he sees a beautiful woman ride by with a group of knights. Shortly thereafter, he finds Baldie drowned in the river, and realizes that his brother has gone off with the knights. Following them, he sees the Queen take his brother through a fiery circle somehow cut into the air. Trying to follow them, he partially gets through, then is thrown back.

When he comes to his senses, Thomas finds himself with an older man, a stonecutter named Waldroup, whom he tells what he saw. Waldroup, who has seen the Elves at work with his own eyes, takes Thomas under his wing, teaching him stonework and archery. Later, the two of them discover how some of the local notables are actually “skinwalkers”—Elves inhabiting the bodies of humans in order to push their own agenda, which includes abducting human children.

As time passes, Thomas grows beyond the apparently simple-minded boy he was when he first met the Elves. Armed with his new knowledge and experience, he becomes a fighter against the alien invasion of the skinwalkers.

Frost goes on to incorporate several characters and plot elements drawn from British folklore material, including (after Thomas is abducted by the Elf Queen) “Tam Lin” and the bard Taliesin, whom he meets in the underworld. The novel ties them together seamlessly, along with others that fans of traditional folk music à la Fairport Convention will recognize.

The conclusion effectively resolves the immediate conflicts set up in this novel, but leaves plenty of room for development in the coming volumes of the Rhymer trilogy. I’ll be very interested to see where Frost goes with this story—and hoping that I won’t have long to wait!

*   *   *

by Charles Stross
Tordotcom, $28.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-250-83939-8

Third in the “New Management” branch of Stross’s “Laundry Files” universe, this novel mixes the author’s quirky revision of Lovecraftian horror with Regency romance.

The protagonist, Eve Starkey, has apparently inherited the business and enormous fortune of her villainous and presumably deceased employer, Rupert Bigge. But there are complications. For one, she was—without her knowledge—married by proxy to Rupert, under an obscure law of his island dominion, Skaro. Worse yet, she’s come to the attention of the new Prime Minister, the Elder God N’yar Lat Hotep, who asks her to bring him Rupert’s skull. As it turns out, she has a skull—apparently dating from 1816—but the PM tells her it’s the wrong one, and not just because of the date.

The bigger complication shows up when she returns to the company headquarters and finds Rupert there—alive. He makes it clear that he has plans to change things to his own satisfaction—and if a lot of little people have to die for him to get there, so be it. But those plans involve him disappearing for a little while longer—and meanwhile, he orders her, with a strong magical compulsion to back it up, to take care of things in his absence.

But Eve realizes Rupert’s left a loophole, one that allows her to follow him—which involves time travel into the past. Or perhaps not the actual past, but a version of the past as reflected in Regency fiction. Leaving a message for her brother, Imp, and his group of magical comrades, she takes off after Rupert. And thus begins an adventure full of the archetypes of romantic fiction, full of the perils of the era just after the Napoleonic wars.

Stross has a lot of fun with this setting, combining a rich and very familiar historical period with a fantasy universe that has grown well beyond the series’ initial premise of “bureaucrats vs. monsters.” Though this book appears to bring this particular sequence to a conclusion, there’s obviously room for more if he wants to return to it. I know the author has a number of other projects in the works, but I’d definitely like to see more in this world.

*   *   *

by Karen Lord
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-59843-6

Third in a series that began with the author’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, this novel initially focuses on Owen, an international pop star whose career is enhanced by intense charisma—and by some undefined power beyond that. But as the details of setting up his European concert tour are laid out, it is evident that something more important than a musical career is at stake. Powerful forces are working to destroy Owen’s tour, and his manager, Noriko Fournier, doesn’t understand everything that’s going on.

Owen has assembled a team that has both military and diplomatic elements to ensure that all goes ahead as planned. It slowly becomes evident that several of those in the top positions are actually aliens—or at least, humans from other solar systems. At the same time, Owen has recruited several young people to undergo training in diplomacy—training that focuses on the possibility of alien societies getting in touch with Earth. The main focus is on Kanoa, a young man of Polynesian ancestry, who like the other trainees comes from a part of the world that has experienced colonial exploitation.

Soon the diplomats-in-training learn that the scenarios they’ve been studying are in fact the real state of affairs. Earth has actually been run by alien powers for their own benefit, far longer than most people realize, and their job is going to be figuring out how to restore power to the locals. And Owen is one of those working to support the locals.

Lord deftly manages a large cast of interesting characters scattered across several worlds and representing a variety of cultural backgrounds. While readers familiar with the earlier books in the series will undoubtedly be aware of a lot of things that new readers might miss, it wasn’t at all difficult to get into—and enjoy—the overall story. Still, if you have the option, you might want to seek out the earlier volumes before taking this one on. Then definitely read this one.

*   *   *

by Joe Pitkin
Blackstone, $25.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-8-212-02645-1

This hard-edged thriller takes place on a space station, once an orbiting laboratory, whose corporate owners are re-designing it as a high-end tourist hotel. Chloe Bonilla, the resident biophysicist, is among the staff members drafted into baby-sitting the billionaire tourists during the hotel’s grand opening. It’s no surprise that she’s less than enthusiastic about spending time away from her experiments with plants growing in microgravity.

The guests arrive—a mixed group including some famous married couples; a former astronaut, Sir Alexander Dunne; and a young influencer, Kassie Ng. After being shown to their cabins, they are treated to a space walk, which almost becomes a disaster when the station loses power after they’re suited up and out the airlock. Chloe and the other crew members have to herd the guests back aboard before anyone gets hurt. Luckily, everyone survives, and the power is restored. That evening there’s a gala reception and low-grav dance for all, during which Chloe is reminded how little she has in common with the billionaire guests.

In the middle of the night, Chloe awakens with an awareness that something’s wrong. At first she thinks it’s another mechanical glitch, but she realizes that someone is trying to take over the station. A terrorist group, the Reckoners—including several crew members, with inside knowledge of how things work aboard the station—has taken the guests hostage, seeking several billion dollars in ransom to fund their radical Earthside political agenda. And it’s clear from the beginning that they don’t mind killing a few people to prove they’re serious.

Chloe goes into hiding, trying to figure out how to survive the coup—and eventually becomes the only effective opposition to the kidnappers. The body count rises, while both Chloe and the terrorists must deal with the fact that they’re one miscalculation away from killing everyone aboard the station. And, of course, any possible rescuers are hindered by the complications of orbital mechanics and launch windows.

Pitkin makes effective use of the space station as a setting for a thriller plot, shifting viewpoint characters and using flashbacks to keep the tension on the front burner. Action/adventure fans take note.

*   *   *

A Rabbits Novel
by Terry Miles
Del Rey, $28.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-49640-4

Miles’s second novel, based on his popular “Rabbits” podcast, continues the story of a world-spanning game that opens doors to alternate realities.

The book opens with Emily Connors, one of the central figures of the first novel, undergoing an interrogation after being kidnapped. The interrogator asks her about various everyday things, then throws in “Are you playing ‘Rabbits’?” Emily denies any knowledge of the game.

The focus then shifts to Rowan Chess, a successful architect, who wakes up from a nightmare about finding a dead body on the sidewalk. We then follow him on a date with a woman met on a dating app, who invites him to an escape room party. He wins the challenge—with next to no help from his date—and winds up talking to Helena Worricker, whose father heads one of the world’s leading virtual gaming companies. She asks if he’d be interested in working for them on a new project, based on his success at the escape room. He’s definitely interested—but as he leaves the party, he realizes she knows things about him that she couldn’t have picked up in their brief conversation.

The novel then alternates between the two characters, with frequent flashbacks into their earlier lives. Emily wakes up after her interrogation, realizes that she’s in a new alternate reality, and decides to disappear before her captors—the “‘Rabbits’ police”?—try to extract any more information from her. Chess begins exploring hints of a secret space—the “quiet room” of the title—that lead eventually into a confrontation with the hidden masters behind mundane reality. And of course, the two end up on the same trail, although their paths to the final goal are divergent.

The plot follows a complicated route through both main characters’ past and present lives, with looks at societies that have a certain amount in common with the mundane reality all of us think we know, but that end up differing in various major or minor ways. Nobody can be taken quite at face value—characters who appear to be old friends or lovers often turn out to have led very different lives in the reality the protagonists find themselves in. And the Rabbits police are working to make sure nobody gets too close to the hidden reality behind the complicated game.

Miles is also an award-winning filmmaker and popular podcast creator. This is a solid follow-up to his debut novel Rabbits—recommended, especially for gamers.

*   *   *

by Emily Skrutskie
Del Rey, $18.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-593-49976-4

Skrutskie’s novel is set on the Justice, a giant sentient space battleship that has decided its mission is to redeem sinners. To that end, it travels to various planets and space habitats threatening bombardment unless they turn over a certain number of criminals, whom it takes aboard to convert to its mission.

The narrator, Murdock, is one of four women who were working a complicated scam to relieve billionaire investors of their funds. But before they could spring their latest trap, they were captured by the locals—just in time for the arrival of the Justice. We meet Murdock as she and her team are about to be handed over to the battleship. Her first instinct is to hunt for a way out, but when that fails, she’s forced to adapt to the complicated internal society of her new home. She’s offered a chance—shortly after her arrival onboard the ship—to join the cult that serves Justice’s greater mission, but her instinct is to avoid it at all costs.

And it doesn’t help that she’s separated from the rest of her team as she tries to figure out what’s going on. She’s always taken her clues from Hark, the mastermind of the various scams they’ve run over the years. But after an initial plan to meet up with Hark and steal some sort of lifeboat to escape the battleship falls through, she’s forced to work with various locals. Given that everyone aboard is in some way a “sinner”—that is to say, some sort of criminal in their previous life—that complicates Murdock’s ability to find reliable allies. And as several of her team’s successful exploits had focused on hijacking the ill-gotten fruits of other “sinners”—though nominally more respectable citizens—she unfortunately meets a few victims of her scams, who unsurprisingly hold grudges.

Gradually, she works her way upward through the ship’s hierarchy, meeting more and more powerful members of the crew and learning more and more about the ship’s mission—and its workings. At a certain point, she realizes that rescuing the team and escaping the ship may not be her ultimate goal. How she responds to that realization drives the conclusion of the book.

A solid thriller plot in an entertainingly challenging setting.

*   *   *

by Pim Wangtechawat
Blackstone, $25.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-8-212-34003-8

Wangtechawat’s debut novel follows four members of a family of Chinese ancestry living in England, all of whom can travel in time.

The ability is slightly different for the different family members; each of them is limited to certain places and eras, mostly within the twentieth century—and their eras don’t entirely overlap. So the father, Joshua, is able to travel primarily to Hong Kong, where he grew up, while his son, Tommy, is limited to the London area, in a roughly three-decade period beginning in the 1920s. Lily, the mother, can travel to specific dates, but only in England. And Eva, the daughter, can travel to a variety of places, but only to where another family member is.

In 2004, when the children—who are fraternal twins—are twelve years old, their parents take off on a time trip to an experimental destination—perhaps some time before 1900, which has been the previous limit of their ability to travel. It takes a while before the twins realize that the adults aren’t going to come back. From that point, they’re raised by relatives who, if they’re aware of their ability to time travel, strongly discourage it. Not that it stops them—especially Tommy, who becomes infatuated with Peggy, a young girl he first meets in the 1920s.

The parents aren’t forgotten—the author follows their earlier lives through flashbacks, especially Joshua’s growing up in Hong Kong before coming to England for university and meeting his future wife. And we meet earlier members of both Joshua and Lily’s families through their interactions with the parents and through Tommy and Eva—especially after Eva moves to Hong Kong and meets her relatives both in the present and in the past.

Wangtechawat adopts a verse-like style for many sections of her narrative, breaking sentences into shorter lines with a rhythmic feeling that implies a heightened emotional level. This technique is applied to scenes with all the characters, but it seems to occur most frequently with Eva—perhaps appropriately, since she is in a way the most artistic of the four protagonists. This poetic approach is a nice touch.

While readers looking for slam-bang action are probably not the ideal audience for this one, I found its evocations of the details of daily life in a culture quite unlike my own to be as fascinating as any portrayals of alien society in SF. If you’re open to something that uses one of the key tropes of SF to explore some unfamiliar corners of our own world, this book has a lot to offer. Wangtechawat has published numerous short stories, articles, and poems. This is her first novel

Looking forward to seeing more from this author—especially in seeing how this story is presented in an upcoming Netflix series based on the novel.


Copyright © 2024 Peter Heck

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