Another Brown (Inferno, 2013, etc.) blockbuster, blending arcana, religion, and skulduggery—sound familiar?—with the latest headlines.
You just have to know that when the first character you meet in a Brown novel is a debonair tech mogul and the second a bony-fingered old bishop, you’ll end up with a clash of ideologies and worldviews. So it is. Edmond Kirsch, once a student of longtime Brown hero Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist–turned–action hero, has assembled a massive crowd, virtual and real, in Bilbao to announce he’s discovered something that’s destined to kill off religion and replace it with science. It would be ungallant to reveal just what the discovery is, but suffice it to say that the religious leaders of the world are in a tizzy about it, whereupon one shadowy Knights of Malta type takes it upon himself to put a bloody end to Kirsch’s nascent heresy. Ah, but what if Kirsch had concocted an AI agent so powerful that his own death was just an inconvenience? What if it was time for not just schism, but singularity? Digging into the mystery, Langdon finds a couple of new pals, one of them that computer avatar, and a whole pack of new enemies, who, not content just to keep Kirsch’s discovery under wraps, also frown on the thought that a great many people in the modern world, including some extremely prominent Spaniards, find fascism and Falangism passé and think the reigning liberal pope is a pretty good guy. Yes, Franco is still dead, as are Christopher Hitchens, Julian Jaynes, Jacques Derrida, William Blake, and other cultural figures Brown enlists along the way—and that’s just the beginning of the body count. The old ham-fisted Brown is here in full glory (“In that instant, Langdon realized that perhaps there was a macabre silver lining to Edmond’s horrific murder”; “The vivacious, strong-minded beauty had turned Julián’s world upside down”)—but, for all his defects as a stylist, it can’t be denied that he knows how to spin a yarn, and most satisfyingly.
The plot is absurd, of course, but the book is a definitive pleasure. Prepare to be absorbed—and in more ways than one.
What appears at first to be a double hate crime in a tiny Texas town turns out to be much more complicated—and more painful—than it seems.
With a degree from Princeton and two years of law school under his belt, Darren Mathews could have easily taken his place among the elite of African-American attorneys. Instead, he followed his uncle’s lead to become a Texas Ranger. “What is it about that damn badge?” his estranged wife, Lisa, asks. “It was never intended for you.” Darren often wonders if she’s right but nonetheless finds his badge useful “for working homicides with a racial element—murders with a particularly ugly taint.” The East Texas town of Lark is small enough to drive through “in the time it [takes] to sneeze,” but it’s big enough to have had not one, but two such murders. One of the victims is a black lawyer from Chicago, the kind of crusader-advocate Darren could have been if he’d stayed on his original path; the other is a young white woman, a local resident. Both battered bodies were found in a nearby bayou. His job already jeopardized by his role in a race-related murder case in another part of the state, Darren eases his way into Lark, where even his presence is enough to raise hackles among both the town’s white and black residents; some of the latter, especially, seem reluctant and evasive in their conversations with him. Besides their mysterious resistance, Darren also has to deal with a hostile sheriff, the white supremacist husband of the dead woman, and the dead lawyer’s moody widow, who flies into town with her own worst suspicions as to what her husband was doing down there. All the easily available facts imply some sordid business that could cause the whole town to explode. But the deeper Darren digs into the case, encountering lives steeped in his home state’s musical and social history, the more he begins to distrust his professional—and personal—instincts.
Locke, having stockpiled an acclaimed array of crime novels (Pleasantville, 2015, etc.), deserves a career breakthrough for this deftly plotted whodunit whose writing pulses throughout with a raw, blues-inflected lyricism.
Virgil Flowers, of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, works an altogether unremarkable murder and a surprisingly inventive case on the side.
The night before Gina Hemming is fished from a frozen river, someone bashes her in the head with a champagne bottle shortly after a meeting of the committee to organize her 25th high school reunion. Since Gina holds the power of the purse over virtually everyone in Trippton—she inherited the town’s bank on her father’s death—and the bruises on her body suggest habitual S&M play, there are lots of suspects, from Lucy and Elroy Cheever, whose business loan application she was about to deny, to heavy-equipment operator Corbel Cain, her sometime lover, to Fred Fitzgerald, who recently purchased a whip from Bernie’s Books, Candles 'n More. But none of them murdered Gina; the opening chapter shows lovelorn exterminator David Birkmann, who’s been carrying a torch for her since their school days, killing her when she indicates in the most direct way possible that she doesn’t return his interest. The investigation is every bit as routine as it sounds, and it’s nice for Virgil that Sandford has thrown in an unrelated complication: the arrival of LA gumshoe Margaret Griffin, who’s gotten the Minnesota governor’s support in serving a federal cease and desist order against Virgil’s classmate Jesse McGovern, who’s been doing a brisk mail-order business hawking her X-rated creations, Barbie O and Boner Ken. On second thought—since the Barbie knockoffs get Virgil beaten up by four oversized females and his truck burned to the ground—it may be less nice for Virgil than for his fan base.
As so often in Sandford’s small-town adventures (Escape Clause, 2016, etc.), the greatest pleasures here are incidental: clipped conversations, quietly loopy humor, locals mouthing off to and about each other. Pull up a seat, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy.
Another horror blockbuster, Mercedes and all, from maestro King (End of Watch, 2016, etc.) and his heir apparent (Double Feature, 2013, etc.).
A radio crackles in the cold Appalachian air. “We got a couple of dead meth cookers out here past the lumberyard,” says the dispatcher. A big deal, you might think, in so sparsely populated a place, but there are bigger issues to contend with: namely, half-naked women appearing out of the mist, as if to taunt the yokels. But that’s nothing: the womenfolk of the holler are drifting off to sleep one after another, and they become maenads on being disturbed, ready to wreak vengeance on any dude stupid enough to demand that they make him a sandwich. In a kind of untold Greek tragedy meets Deliverance meets—well, bits of Mr. Mercedes and The Shawshank Redemption, perhaps—King and King, father and son, take their time putting all the pieces into play: brutish men, resourceful women who’ve had quite enough, alcohol, and always a subtle sociological subtext, in this case of rural poverty and dreams sure to be dashed. But forget the fancy stuff. The meat of the story is a whirlwind of patented King-ian mayhem: “It wasn’t every day,” observes our narrator, “that you were taking a whiz in your drug dealer’s trailer and World War III broke out on the other side of the flimsy shithouse door,” delivered courtesy of a woman—half-naked, yes—who’s pounding the tar out of a miscreant, smacking his face into the nearest wall. Is this what gender relations have come to? In the Kings’ near future, so it would seem. The boys get their licks in, too, even if a woman scorned—or awakened too soon—can do an awful lot of damage to an unwary bike gang.
A blood-splattered pleasure. It’s hard to say what the deeper message of the book is save that life goes on despite the intercession of supernatural weirdnesses—or, as one woman says, “I guess I really must not be dead, because I’m starving.”
This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.
It’s not for nothing that Ng (Everything I Never Told You, 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.
With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.
Horrormeister Hill (The Fireman, 2016) offers a four-pack of mayhem in this sparkling collection of short novels.
Think climate change is bad now? Just wait until those obsidian-sharp blades of rain cut you to pieces come the next storm. Hill, son of Stephen King, has his father’s eye for those climacteric moments when the ordinary turns into the extraordinary—and the sinister to boot. In Rain, a warm Colorado day turns nasty when silver and gold needles begin to pour down. Hill’s narrator, ever the helpful neighbor, watches as they rip a woman to shreds: “Her crinkly silver gown was jerked this way and that on her body, as if invisible dogs were fighting over it.” Memorable but icky, that. In such circumstances, you can bet that the ordinary norms don’t hold; give humans an emergency dire enough, and civil society collapses, presto! So it is in Loaded when a Florida shopping mall becomes the playground of a shooter unusual in more ways than one; what gives the story, which is altogether too probable, creepy luster is the dancing cyclonic firestorm that’s heading toward the mall, which may have been what prompted the security-guard protagonist of the tale to add to the death count without the intercession of any apparent conscience. Hill squeezes in some nice pop-culture references along the way, including one to a namesake: “Finally the kid who looked like Jonah Hill had entered the shop, and the shooter, with her dying breath, had put a bullet in his fat, foolish face.” Icky again—as it should be for a horror honcho. In homage to "The Illustrated Man," perhaps, in Snapshot Hill imagines an ancient mariner sort of psychopath whose Phoenician-script tats invite onlookers to run away but instead lure them in, the easier for him to tinker with their memories, while Aloft is a pitch-perfect fable that blends Ted Chiang and Aristophanes into an eerie delight.
Worth waiting in line for, if you’re a Hill fan. If you’re not, this is the book to turn you into one.
Three sisters intensify their deadly struggle for the crown in the second of a horror-tinged fantasy series.
After the spectacular catastrophe of the Quickening (Three Dark Crowns, 2016), the balance of power among the queens has shifted. With the rampage by Arsinoe’s bear, the naturalist candidate has demonstrated unexpected strength, and now elemental Mirabella is no longer treated as the foreordained victor. Meanwhile, poisoner Katharine has returned from her rumored death with a vengeance…and a mission. Alliances shift as the various factions play Temple against Council, and potential suitors become both rivals and pawns—but not even the Goddess can prevent the queens from deciding to take their fates into their own hands. Blake’s already pitch-black tale shades even darker, as the queens’ cruel contest piles up an escalating (and grisly) body count. Yet more excruciating is the curse upon their experience of love, whether with siblings, parents, or friends; in romance, passion, even religious devotion—all relationships are twisted, broken, abandoned, and betrayed. With numerous alternating viewpoints, the exquisitely restrained prose limns a nuanced, subtly realized matriarchal society: all-white, normatively heterosexual (but with exceptions), in which even the most complex male characters function only in relationship to women. The deliberate pacing at the outset serves to re-establish the labyrinthine web of characterization and plot, paying off in a tumultuous climax that piles one shocking twist upon another.
Achingly gorgeous and gruesomely fascinating.
“First you find out the truth. Then you take revenge.” Thus the ninjalike guiding ethos of Lagercrantz’s (The Girl in the Spider's Web, 2015, etc.) latest installment in the Lisbeth Salander series.
One thing that anyone who’s crossed paths with Lisbeth, the lethal heroine who bowed into the world of mystery with the late Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), should have learned by now is that it’s best not to cross paths with her at all. That’s a lesson Benito learns the hard way: the gang leader in Flodberga Prison, where Lisbeth finds herself after yet another brush with the law, interrupts Lisbeth’s studies of mathematics and quantum mechanics one too many times, picking on Faria, a young Bangladeshi inmate, and ends up just this side of death. She had it coming, of course, but the whole encounter opens up a whole 'nother can of worms, from shadowy immigrants to Russian hackers and crusading journalists and—well, suffice it to say that, in a turn reminiscent of Jean-Christophe Grangé’s Crimson Rivers, there’s some genetic tinkering with twins involved, too. Whether Lisbeth’s doppelgänger is dragon-adorned awaits the reader’s investigation, but most of the action, always satisfying if sometimes a little far-fetched, centers on Lisbeth and her various and often violent encounters with corrupt prison officials and guards, corrupt CEOs, corrupt mental health professionals, corrupt government workers, and—the list of not-so-nice people goes on, and Lisbeth, as always, serves as an avenging angel who herself isn’t the nicest of people. Lagercrantz, Larsson’s appointed heir, does serviceable work in all this, and if his version lacks some of Larsson’s ironic touch and politically charged contempt for the nasty undercurrents flowing beneath Sweden’s clear waters, he doesn’t falter in the mayhem department.
Tattoo artists will be interested in the as-if-born-in-fire origins of Lisbeth’s body art, while fans of Larsson, while perhaps not thrilled, certainly won’t be disappointed.
Six reimagined fairy tales set in the Grishaverse.
Bardugo returns to the setting of Shadow and Bone (2012) with both original tales and familiar ones retold. Three are set in the Russia-like Ravka, including “The Witch of Duva.” This “Hansel and Gretel” variant plays on stereotypes about villainy held by protagonist Nadya. (It also replaces candy with mouthwatering meals: “crispy roast goose,” “butter-soaked blini,” “black bread spread with soft cheese,” “hot tea laced with sugar,” “sweet rolls with prune jam.”) From the island nation of Kerch, there’s “The Soldier Prince,” a retelling of The Nutcracker that raises questions about the selfhood of magical creatures. The Fjerdan “When Water Sang Fire” provides a villain origin story for “The Little Mermaid” that owes far more to Disney than to Hans Christian Andersen; it’s nevertheless gorgeously otherworldly. Only the Ravkan stories offer substantial local flavor, though Zemeni Ayama is brown-skinned while the Fjerdan mermaids are fair. Kipin’s two-color illustrated borders build cumulatively and fascinatingly, culminating in a double-page spread for each story. The more stylized illustrations, such as the thorns and labyrinth building slowly around the “Beauty and the Beast” variant “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” are the most successful; depictions of people are a little cutesy for the eerie prose.
Any lover of retellings or original fairy tales will enjoy these offerings, whether they’re new to Bardugo’s worlds or are established fans
. (Fantasy. 12-16)