Smart, sensitive, socially awkward and trapped in the suburbs, Helen Connor finds purpose and excitement by fighting dragons in a mythical land.
Rodriguez Pratt’s debut novel, the first in an anticipated trilogy, tells how Helen’s love for the Glorious Dragonfighter book series leads to her entry into the warrior training program in Erwingdon, an apparently not-so-fictional land where devious, malevolent dragons are attempting to take over and rule. Helen’s advancement through her training is well-paced and entertaining. The primary strength of the book, however, lies in the intersections between Erwingdon and Helen’s “real world” home of Hollingsworth, Texas, a typical American town struggling with the loss of industry, encroachment of sprawl and sharp divisions of wealth. Like Helen, several of her schoolmates also have parallel lives in Erwingdon, a plot device that initially seems like an eye-rolling coincidence. This conceit, however, allows the author to examine the teens’ more familiar concerns—navigating the social atmosphere of high school, grappling with authority, dealing with parental expectations, worrying about the future—through the lens of life, death and saving the world. The novel divides its time evenly between Hollingsworth and Erwingdon, and in both places, the teenagers seem real and three-dimensional. While there’s no drug use or sex, there’s plenty of swearing and fighting and some alcohol, although Helen herself abstains. Rodriguez Pratt’s skilled writing ranges from snappy, believable dialogue to evocative descriptions of an abandoned oil refinery and a terrifying dragon cave. Several plot arcs end satisfyingly in this first book of the trilogy—Helen finishes her training and wins some battles in both worlds—but a few loose ends remain. What will become of the new sorcerer’s apprentice? How will Helen’s love interests resolve, both in Erwingdon and Hollingsworth? Who is behind the dragons’ evil plot? After getting to know Helen, her friends and her worlds, readers will want to find out.
A well-written, intelligent, exciting choice for readers looking to get hooked on a new fantasy series.
Hiestand’s debut sci-finovel is a disturbingly plausible vision of a future America in economic and political upheaval—and a satirical gem reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick.
In a near-future Los Angeles plagued by a worsening recession, Everyman Zeno Jacobs is the newly appointed personnel director at HRW International, a bizarrely bureaucratic corporation that, due to a tax-credit loophole, essentially hires and fires employees for profit. The skyrocketing cost of living makes it increasingly difficult for many people to live, so it comes as no surprise when the Hundred Days Riots begin. Unruly mobs loot grocery stores, burn down banks and raze entire neighborhoods. Jacobs and his love interest, Shasta MacCalistaire, watch the proceedings from the relative safety of the HRW building as Los Angeles plunges into bloody chaos. Even after the Army establishes martial law, no one in the city is safe. Adept readers will find thematic depths in the novel’s more striking imagery; for example, the HRW building’s deadly labyrinth, where a deliveryman got lost and died, effectively symbolizes the unfathomable complexity of corporatocracy, as well as the difficulties that normal people have navigating a normal workday. (The paintings on the labyrinth’s walls offer up additional profundities.) At the same time, the cleverly constructed narrative is briskly paced and utterly readable. Like the best Philip K. Dick tales, the story works on multiple levels simultaneously—as a breathtakingly bleak vision of the future, a cautionary tale replete with social commentary, and, above all, an unlikely and unforgettable love story.
Mundane reality mixes with the magical and the macabre in this scintillating collection of speculative fiction.
Inspired by the pop-enigma TV anthology hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Ludwigsen’s droll yet haunting title piece sets the tone, answering the puzzling questions with a blend of mythology and cynical common sense—“[t]he creature in Loch Ness was a plesiosaur, but it died in 1976 and locals concealed the carcass”—that eventually homes in on a homicide detective’s buried secrets. In other stories, characters confront the supernatural—or actively recruit it: A realtor specializing in haunted houses and murder scenes seeks out those special buyers who might like “stigmatized properties”; a 13-year-old girl tries to quantify her dog’s dream world for a science-fair project; a cantankerous hillbilly family resists government agents who want to upload their consciousnesses into a paradise simulation; a sentient house tears lose from its foundations and embarks on an epic journey to salve its guilty conscience; and the imaginary kingdom of Thuria intrudes into several narratives, cropping up in an off-kilter scouting expedition, a mother’s psychotic break and a post-modern literary scholar’s research on an ancient coded text. Ludwigsen’s well-wrought, entertaining tales feel like a mashup of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, and his evocative, whip-smart prose steeps readers in a realism that’s mordantly funny and matter-of-fact but glimmering with whimsy and horror that leaks around the edges. The stories also work as subtle explorations of character and psychology, especially in the superb story “The Ghost Factory,” in which the spectral inhabitants of a defunct mental hospital enact the spiritual dysfunctions of modern life by fading from the world. Ludwigsen’s creepy, comic world reveals plenty about our own.
Crackerjack genre yarns with real literary depth and polish.
In the second installment of his Kingdom of Graves fantasy trilogy, Myrick (The Ten, 2012, etc.) delivers high adventure, back-alley espionage and a little bit of romance.
Jorophe Horne and his companions have two purposes in life: Serve the king and preserve the peace he established. As a member of the elite fighting squad called the Ten, Jorophe previously killed demons and defeated the Dar Kharji people in epic battles of good and evil. But his work is far from over when the kingdom’s true enemy, the Blooded, arises in the north, led by the mysterious, power-hungry Prince Leoben. The warlord dispatches his army into the kingdom and meets little resistance. Few know how to defeat his legions of woelfin beasts and shidh slave warriors, and few realize Leoben’s true goals. The Blooded are aided by superhuman assassins called the Mortuus, who infiltrate the capital and deliver a crippling blow to the kingdom. Jorophe and company set out in search of a secret weapon that might bring down the invading forces, while the kingdom’s Lord Prosper commands his army of “shadows” to seek a new alliance with an ancient people. Meanwhile, Leoben’s minions terrorize the countryside, slaughtering children and enslaving women as the Kingdom of Graves teeters on the brink of defeat and complete annihilation. The novel continues where the first book left off and maintains its predecessor’s high-quality storytelling. Chapters are well-planned and -executed, providing glimpses of back story that creatively move the action forward and heighten the tension—not an easy task in an adventure tale. Myrick expands the landscape of the first book, adding an underground city ruled by a mournful monarch, a lone cottage guarded by a blind old man and snow-covered plains that frame the novel’s climactically bloody conclusion. Overall, the novel successfully presents a complex world through artfully visual scenes and multiple perspectives, with enough twists and turns to dazzle fantasy fanatics.
Highly recommended for genre buffs and newbies alike, this adventure carries readers through a land of magic, laughter and tears.
A debut sci-fi technothriller in which U.S. troops find themselves the subjects of a bizarre government experiment.
In 1991, U.S. Air Force Maj. Frank Craymer’s F-16 crash-lands in remote Iraq—just another tragedy in the first Gulf War. When Iraqi forces reach the crash site and find the dead pilot, they also discover an uncovered, underground chamber containing a centuries-old Latin manuscript and a group of eerily preserved human bodies. The manuscript, a diary, tells the story of a group of superstrong men and women living through the centuries, experiencing firsthand the 1066 Battle of Hastings and the coming of the Black Death. This secret race survived by drinking human blood, and the bodies of the last members have been interred in the Iraqi desert for hundreds of years. News of the discovery reaches Saddam Hussein, who wonders if fate has delivered him an unbeatable weapon in his fight against the West. He dreams of creating a supernatural army and sets his scientists to the task of using fluids from the site’s dead bodies to transform humans into unstoppable vampires who don’t fear garlic or sunlight. In Rich’s extremely clever, infectiously readable narrative, readers follow both the progress of Saddam’s program and, as the war on terror continues the U.S. presence in Iraq, the enlistment of Maj. Craymer’s nephew, Aaron. Thanks to a devious CIA operative, Aaron finds himself part of a group of servicemen who have been transformed into vampires and sent on covert missions. When the U.S. government changes its mind and tries to terminate them all, Aaron and his teammates use their newfound abilities to survive. The author’s big, complex plot sprawls over 10 years and two continents, but he manages it all with a confident hand. His dialogue is immediately believable, his tensely controlled action scenes build in intensity as the plot advances, and his pitch-perfect blending of sci-fi and military action will appeal equally to fans of Tom Clancy and True Blood.
An ingenious, thoroughly absorbing twist on the military-fiction genre.
Set in near-future London and revolving around a naïve young scientist’s meteoric rise to fame in the lucrative viral-design industry, this pseudonymous debut (the author is Scottish poet Angela Cleland) is a sci-fi masterwork.
Part futuristic corporate thriller, part powerful cautionary tale, this provocative, disturbingly plausible novel provides a glimpse into humankind’s ugly future. When Dr. Kester Lowe, one of the leading minds in viral design, accepts a job at the London-based technomedical giant V, his life irrevocably changes. In a society where sexually transmitted designer diseases are a fashion statement—the streets of London are described as “a midsummer party in the plague ward”—Lowe’s talents, with the help of his seductive and highly manipulative boss, Alexis Farrell, quickly make him a superstar in the fashion world. He’s suddenly rich, famous and—in a business climate where sex is power—coerced into having sex with a bevy of VIPs for the good of the company. But as his viral creations (the desirable symptoms of which include gold-rimmed eyes, luminescent lymph nodes, etc.) are taking the fashion industry by storm, a group of religious fanatics plot to destroy Lowe’s career and reputation and put a stop to the morally unacceptable fashion trend. The worldbuilding here is remarkable; Smith’s London of the late 21st century is meticulously described and vividly imagined. The narrative tone, while understated and stylish, has a decided edginess to it, and the cast of well-developed, three-dimensional characters is remarkably relatable. The pacing is brisk and the storyline complex without being convoluted. The ultimate result is an utterly readable novel, not only impossible to put down, but conceptually mind-blowing.
After her father’s murder, a princess fights to save herself and her kingdom in O’Connor’s (The Lost Heir, 2013) engaging fantasy tale.
Princess Irewen Donríel of the human kingdom of Dargon spent the first 20 years of her life within the walls of her castle home, shunned by her extended family due to her late mother’s secret elven descent. After her cousin kills her father and makes an attempt on her life, Irewen is rescued by Prince Laegon of the Wood Elf kingdom of Silverden, who is accompanied by his Guardian, a lion named Brégen, and Dame Silevethiel, the Guardians’ leader. When the princess reveals her secret heritage and begins to discover that she has powers unique to two different elven races, Laegon recalls an ancient elven prophecy that says that a woman will reunite the four feuding elven races—Wood Elves, Light Elves, Sea Elves and Green Elves. Irewen accepts the prophecy and decides to further investigate her heritage, learn to fight and stop being the damsel in distress she was raised to be. Along the way, she and Silevethiel develop an emotional telepathic bond of mutual protection. With her friends and the Wood Elven community on her side, Irewen prepares for the long fight ahead. In this first book of the planned Vaelinel Trilogy, O’Connor creates a complex heroine who not only defies common tropes of female fantasy characters, but willfully overcomes them. The bonds between Guardians and Protectors offer a refreshing break from the romances (and bromances) which typically populate fantasy novels. Overall, this exotic story is sure to entice adult aficionados of such animated series as Avatar: The Last Airbender.
A fresh adventure novel sure to enchant a wide range of fantasy fans.
In the second installment of McGarry and Ravipinto’s (Duchess of the Shallows, 2012) fantasy series, a young woman seeks to find balance between her past life as a scholar’s daughter and her new life as a rising star among criminals.
Newly accepted into the Grey, a secret society of thieves, Duchess strikes up a business partnership with Jana, a singularly gifted weaver. Jana has been forced to work on the outskirts of town after being denied entry into the weavers’ guild due to her race, class and outsider status. Duchess is certain that with Jana’s skills and her own connections and unorthodox business savvy, they can build a profitable partnership—but only if Duchess’ calculated scheme to secure Jana’s admittance into the guild is successful. Meanwhile, she also wants to employ the bodyguard servicesof Pollux, the empress’s former servant and lover, who’s incarcerated for acknowledging his parentage of the empress’ son. As part of an elaborate and hazardous scheme, Duchess plans to break Pollux out of jail by faking his death. As she pursues her plans, Duchess makes a few new enemies along the way. She’s also confronted with the past she left behind as the daughter of the late hero and scholar Marcus Kell, as she forms a reluctant acquaintance with Darley, a long-forgotten childhood rival and the daughter of her father’s best friend. As she uncovers secrets of days gone by, she feels torn between her well-established life as a cunning thief and clever businesswoman and the very different life she might have had. Readers unfamiliar with the series’ first book may find some details of the world’s social structure to be unclear, but the intricately plotted schemes stand alone in most other respects, and newcomers will likely find them easy to follow. The authors, through their powerful portrayals of strong-willed characters, skillfully examine and confront issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation in a way that’s rarely, if ever, done in medieval fantasy. In a manner that’s both modern and timeless, they examine the ways that strong women forego niceties to fight for the respect so easily granted to men. Overall, the novel is an engaging account of a young woman’s quest to succeed because of her outsider status, rather than in spite of it.
In this stellar time-travel novel, a modern-American nuclear-powered cruiser sails through a time portal and goes back 152 years to the days just before the beginning of the Civil War.
The USS California, under the command of Capt. Ashley Patterson, an African-American woman, is headed toward Charleston, S.C., to participate in a ceremony commemorating the first battle of the Civil War: the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. But before her ship reaches its destination, the massive cruiser—and its 630 crew members—travels through some sort of temporal wormhole and ends up near the Charleston Harbor in 1861, just hours before the Confederate assault is about to begin. After eventually wrapping her head around the fact that her entire crew has traveled back in time, Patterson realizes that she has some difficult decisions to make: Does she let history repeat itself and focus on trying to find a way back home, or does she use the military superiority of the California—“outfitted with enough fire power to unleash Biblical hell on an enemy”—to help end the war quickly and thus save the approximately 620,000 soldiers who would otherwise die in the next four years? Powered by a cast of well-developed characters—Lincoln and Lee are among the prominently featured historical figures—consistently brisk pacing and a pulse-pounding (albeit slightly predictable) conclusion, the humanist themesof this novel are momentous and just as timely today as they were back in the 1860s. This provocative, intensely powerful novel is a must-read for sci-fi fans and Civil War aficionados, though mainstream fiction readers will find it heart-rending and inspiring as well.
A rare read that’s not only wildly entertaining, but also profoundly moving.
Energetic, edgy sci-fi with a Game of Thrones bent.
Connell (Total Secession, 2012, etc.) returns to the stars after two earthbound sci-fi thrillers, but like his debut novel, Counterfeit Kings (2004), this one mines a rich vein of darker, grittier genre fiction. This novel moves at a breakneck pace with short chapters primed for quick reading. The central conflict is between Lansing—the current (and only) Grand Marksman of a union of professional big-game hunters known as the Orion Guild—and a disgraced former Grand Marksman named Bledsoe, who has been expelled from the same group for hunting human beings. When Lansing returns to Wildernesse, his home planet, to carry out an important mission, he’s teamed with volatile up-and-coming hunters who possess hazardous ambitions. His situation becomes even more dangerous when an unscrupulous rival organization arises, recruiting the fallen Bledsoe as a weapon against Lansing. The Orion Guild—which, due to its mission to control dangerous wildlife, is important to the expansion of human colonization of planets—holds to a strict code of behavior, but Bledsoe and his sponsors will stop at nothing to beat Lansing and the guild at their own game. Sex, violence and swearing are graphic and intrinsic to the story but not gratuitous. Nonetheless, squeamish readers may be turned off; others will enjoy the charged narrative. There are occasional bits of awkward dialogue—a character named Frog says, “Didn’t know your eyes were cockazoot, you cur. You only see in shades of gray, like your furry friends?”—but not enough to kill the engines on this fast-moving sci-fi adventure.