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Best Indie Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2019

An absorbing, well-written blend of SF, surrealism, and Japanese magical-girl fantasy.

KUMORI AND THE LUCKY CAT

From the Lucky Cat series , Vol. 1

In this literary dystopian novel, a young woman’s life changes radically as she listens to the advice of her Japanese cat figurine.

After World War III in 2090, three super-states have gobbled up the globe. The Reorganization that followed reshuffled the masses and worked to erase all memory of their cultural pasts. It’s now 2138, and 30-year-old Kumori Ando of the super-state Eurasia lives in New Caledonia’s dreary southern sector, working a dull but reliable cubicle job. She has a rare memento from the old days, a cat figurine a few inches high with a beckoning paw, red-flecked fur, and gold highlights. Dubbed Lucky Cat, the figurine comes to life and talks to Kumori, often delivering advice. Kumori discovers Chen Wei, a young man sheltering in a dumpster, and brings him home. She learns he’s a member of the resistance movement, which aims to dismantle the Reorganization and give people freedom again. Kumori wants to join the movement as well, but she’s soon embroiled in the machinations of the secret police, whose ranks include her brother, Tsumori. He offers to get Kumori a good job and apartment in the cushy northern district, and she agrees, hoping to work undercover for the movement. Her exposure leads to a violent confrontation in which Lucky Cat shows her supernatural powers, growing to a gigantic size and destroying buildings. The adventure continues in further volumes. Much dystopian fiction can be heavy-handed, but Gray (Magic Hair, 2019, etc.) employs a spare, delicate style that’s effective, whether describing an interrogation, quiet scenes, or a huge cat’s rage: “Lucky Cat tore her way through the top few floors of that building, smashed the glass façade of the police station…with a kick of her hind leg and the whipping motion of her tail…shrieking as she went.” But the romance between Kumori and Chen is so understated as to seem anemic; what draws them together beyond happenstance? Chen’s comment, “Yeah, you’re cute enough,” is typical.

 An absorbing, well-written blend of SF, surrealism, and Japanese magical-girl fantasy.

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5335-8213-3

Page Count: 244

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

A daring book that will stay in readers’ minds long after the final page.

ATHENA'S CHOICE

In this sci-fi debut, men have gone extinct, and one woman must decide how society should continue.

It’s 2099, and 19-year-old Athena Vosh lives in the Algonquin Forest Zone of the North American Union. Her main source of income is her Citizen’s Benefit stipend, but she wants to become a landscape painter. She lives with her partner, Nomi James, who designs computer programs for “massage implants.” Both women routinely print clothing and food and interact with their Advanced Artificially-Intelligent Scheduler and Home Assistant. But the strangest thing about their world is that there are no men in it. The last one died in 2051 from Y-Fever, a disease created to kill terrorists that mutated and killed every man on Earth, including transgender men, as well as some women. A company called Helix has been trying to find a cure so that men might someday return. When someone steals an incomplete map of a fever-immune “Lazarus Genome” from Helix’s mainframe, Capt. Valerie Bell of Public Safety investigates. Oddly, the world’s most powerful artificial intelligence, the Third Core, enigmatically suggests to Bell’s supervisor that Athena is vital to solving the case. Meanwhile, Athena has been painting pictures of a ruined, vine-covered building that’s stuck in her head. She soon travels to Chicago, the North American Union’s capital, for an interview with Capt. Bell. As Athena dreams of the mysterious building and of the phrase “Original Sin is Real,” she grapples with being a “Lonely Heart”—a woman who yearns for men to return. Boostrom’s tale is fueled by sharp dialogue and challenging ideas, and it’s an invigorating read in an age of political and cultural division. His fictional world, with its population loss, nuclear terrorism, and risen oceans, is futuristic but familiar; rather than swiping right on a dating app, women swipe right in midair while using a contact lens–based web interface to schedule fertility consultations. This future is also apparently much safer without men: “Crime rates in the NAU were below 1%.” Boostrom frequently references famous paintings to emphasize Athena’s chosen field; his most poignant nod is to René Magritte’s Clairvoyance, which shows a man staring at an egg but painting a bird. According to Athena, this man does what she lacks the talent to do—“he’s viewing all of the egg’s future-promise and potential, fully brought to life.” The first two-thirds of the novel are a taut sci-fi mystery, but the last portion fearlessly interrogates the roots of maleness. The book presents 2099 as a near utopia, aside from a rising suicide rate, which could imply that most women are saints but for the evil to which men drive them; however, the author also has the Third Core say that "some women will be more dangerous than the average man."

A daring book that will stay in readers’ minds long after the final page.

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-79420-555-0

Page Count: 276

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

The skilled, perpetually poised detective shines brightly in this series, be it a novel, comic book, or any other format.

DENVER MOON

METAMORPHOSIS

An ultracool Mars private eye works a case of robocide in this sci-fi prequel.

Destroying a robot, or botsie, on Mars is akin to murder and consequently a felony. When Jard Calder, a botstringer who runs botsies for prostitution, loses several of them to robocide, he hires Denver Moon. Someone has pulled only a part or two from each botsie and stolen its chip as well. With help from Smith, an artificial intelligence installed in Denver’s gun, the detective surmises the murder weapon is a mining tool. As Denver injected Smith with a copy of her grandfather’s memories, the AI often treats her like a beloved granddaughter and is protective of her. And she may need protection when her search for a murder suspect leads her to Blevin’s Mine, where someone from Denver’s past is invested in seeking revenge against her. Fighting to stay alive soon takes precedence over the case before she ultimately ends up in Mars City’s precarious lower levels. This is where Denver unravels the mystery, though the motive for robocide is not as straightforward as she may have anticipated. This graphic novel by the team of Hammond and Viola (Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars, 2018, etc.) is a collection of three comic-book issues. It’s an adaptation of the authors’ short story, which is included at the volume’s end, along with a gallery and concept art. Though the fast-paced narrative is brief, it proficiently displays Denver’s laudable qualities. She’s coolly apathetic, suggesting Jard find another investigator if he’s unhappy with her efforts, and composed even when certain she’s in danger. Smith is a stellar companion, convinced that, despite being an AI, it loves Denver. Furthermore, the classic Smith & Wesson revolver’s “cannon mode” transforms it into a more powerful weapon. The dialogue is often brief but witty. Denver, for example, promises to buy Smith a new battery if they survive men out for her blood. The short story’s descriptive prose is akin to the novel’s illustrations: A shot from Smith “sliced through” people, “scattering their lifeless bodies across the floor.” Lovett’s (Boomer and Friends!, 2017, etc.) exemplary artwork makes the white-haired Japanese heroine look both formidable and chic. Panels are likewise vibrant, from the shadowy, blue-tinged lower levels to Denver’s monochromatic perspective in sharp black and white.

The skilled, perpetually poised detective shines brightly in this series, be it a novel, comic book, or any other format.

Pub Date: Dec. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9997736-5-9

Page Count: 130

Publisher: Hex Publishers

Review Posted Online: Jan. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

A seriously fun concoction of tragedy and melodrama.

FIND ME THEIR BONES

In this second book of Wolf’s (Bring Me Their Hearts, 2018, etc.) fantasy/romance series, a spirited, undead teen suffers the consequences of earlier perfidy.

Nineteen-year-old Zera has revealed her true form. She’s “Heartless”—an unkillable human puppet in thrall to a witch. Her task was to take Prince Lucien of Cavanos’ heart, but instead, she fell in love with him; saving him, yes, but only after deceiving and betraying him. Now that she’s failed in her mission, Zera is expecting death when her witch severs the connection between them. Instead, she finds herself beholden to a new mistress—Lucien’s sister, Princess Varia, who’s returned from the dead and is determined to enforce a peace between humans and witches. Varia seeks the Bone Tree, a peripatetic talisman through which she will command an army of valkerax (gargantuan wyrms). To find the Bone Tree, Zera—on Varia’s behalf—must find out its location from a half-crazed valkerax. Yet if she does, what further pain may befall Lucien? Zera resolves to keep the prince safe, so no matter the cost to herself, she holds him at a distance. Despite her duplicity, Lucien still has feelings for her. If she does Varia’s bidding, Zera will be made whole again—and is any love worth more than that? After the cliffhanger at the end of the last installment, Wolf resumes her story with aplomb in a continuation that’s both faithful to the first novel yet also a clear progression. The plot is twisty but not contrived, and the subject matter, though emotionally heavy, never feels as such, as it’s lightened by Zera’s confident humor and breezy, present-tense narration. She’s a strong protagonist who’s at once willful and selfless and buoyed by an irrepressible bent for badinage. Wolf introduces some new characters in this book, and they take delight in Zera’s sassy nature, just as readers will.

A seriously fun concoction of tragedy and melodrama.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64063-375-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Entangled: Teen

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

An imaginative, environmentally minded work of SF.

LISTEN TO THE BIRDS

From the Melt Trilogy series , Vol. 3

This last installment of an eco-fiction trilogy continues to explore the future history of an unfrozen Antarctica.

In the not-so-distant future, the melting of the polar ice caps has left Antarctica clear for human habitation. Many of the first-generation settlers, like President of Antarctica John Barrous, are hoping to build a fair, democratic, and environmentally conscious society free of the powerful corporations that helped ruin the rest of the world. With the help of the United Nations, hundreds of cold-climate animal species have been relocated to Antarctica’s Concordia Refuge, but they are now being threatened by poachers from a breakaway Christian cult led by the mysterious Ivan Zoric: “The sparse information on Zoric portrayed a man of humble beginnings morphing into an intelligent, charismatic fanatic. An exquisite manipulator to be sure, but was he the madman others rumored him to be?” John tussles with Zoric over a possible murder investigation, but the issue is brought to a head when a team of scientists working on the refuge, including John’s daughter, Ginnie, and his former girlfriend Lowry Walker, is kidnapped by the cult. The quest to get them back alive will take John out of the ordered streets of his capital, Amundsen, and into the still-wild backcountry of the land he supposedly governs. Lanning’s (The Sting of the Bee, 2018, etc.) prose perfectly summons her winter utopia—Currier & Ives filtered through Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke: “A late winter storm had dropped a blanket of fresh snow overnight. After lunch, the clouds broke, and the sunlight sparkled on the snow as she glided across an open snowfield on her hovershoes.” The attention paid to the technology, economy, and environmental science of John’s Antarctica is far more compelling than one might think and helps increase its verisimilitude. The plot unfurls slowly but deliberatively, and though it at times feels more like a Western than an SF novel, readers will always be along for the ride. Like the best eco-fiction, Lanning’s tale will get the audience thinking seriously about the effect every human endeavor has on the ecosystem without sacrificing characters and story.

An imaginative, environmentally minded work of SF.

Pub Date: April 4, 2019

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

A wrenching, complex novel that any fantasy fan would do well to pick up.

WILD HARE

Koerber (The Eclipse Dancer, 2018, etc.) offers readers an embittered narrator, a dystopic near future, and an intriguing, nuanced treatment of magic, nature, and justice in this urban-fantasy tale.

Bob Fallon is half-human and “half-forest spirit from the wild hare clan,” and he owns one of the last remaining bits of forested land in northern Wisconsin. It would be easy for him to dismiss humankind entirely—and on some days, that’s exactly what he wants to do. His clan’s mantra of “feed, fuck, fight” has governed a lot of his life, and he can’t help but feel a smoldering rage about the destruction of the forests and other injustices in his surroundings. Koerber’s characterization of Bob is perhaps the book’s strongest element; the protagonist’s jaded, acidic attitude will put readers perfectly into a noirish mindset. At the same time, Bob does a great job of providing context, both for the decaying world he inhabits and for his own limited abilities: “since I’m a fairy, why can’t I fix things?” When Arne, one of his few friends, is jailed for failing to pay speeding tickets, Bob starts raising money for his release, but this is easier said than done, as Bob has spent years avoiding townspeople, doing begrudging odd jobs for them, or outright stealing from them—and the state adds Arne’s room and board to the fine every day. Bob works inside and outside the law as he runs afoul of local militia, a congressman with shady ties, and a host of other fairies, spirits, and tricksters. Overall, the story manages to weave together a complex tapestry of themes, from climate change to poverty to what qualifies as morality in a world that’s facing catastrophe. The prose is clear and concise throughout, giving readers a sense of each scene and character through the protagonist’s eyes.

A wrenching, complex novel that any fantasy fan would do well to pick up.

Pub Date: June 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-946044-51-8

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Who Chains You Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

A joyously coarse and self-aware epic fantasy.

THE SCREAMING SKULL

From the Chronicles of Elberon series , Vol. 1

In this debut novel, a so-called royal hero reflects on his life as upheaval awaits on the horizon.

King Elberon, lord of the Tradewind Isles, is about to turn 65 years old. He’s led an illustrious life of adventure and just learned from his friend Wilberd, who glanced through the Astral Telescope at the monarch’s future, that he’ll live to be 130. Yet Elberon thinks mainly of the companions who’ll attend his birthday party in nine days, including the warrior Amabored and his former love Melinda the Blade. “When I finally get them all together,” he thinks, “I’m going to kill every last one of them.” He then begins detailing his youth among the Free Kingdoms of the Woerth and even the Multiverse after he told his father, King Olderon, that he wanted to visit Redhauke, a cosmopolitan city ripe with crime and opportunity. There, he met Amabored, the elf Lithaine, and the mage Redulfo. Given additional strength by the Girdle of Gargantua, Elberon joined the trio, and they became guards for Saggon, Over-Boss of the Thieves Guild. But Saggon’s shipments of pipeweed contained a secret over which Melinda battled the group. During this time, Elberon first encountered the Screaming Skull (when Melinda attacked him with it) and became embroiled in closing the Hellmouth beneath the Blue Falcon Inn. Later, he drank a concoction called the Flaming Telepath, which brought him to the First Universe and a meeting with Jo Ki-Rin, a chimerical creature who warned that Elberon must accept a quest to save all of creation. The “monomyth” at the core of Ferguson’s series opener is the same one that fuels innumerable fantasies, from Tolkien’s work to the Star Wars series. The winning difference here is the author’s tone, which would make the foulmouthed, fourth wall–smashing Marvel character Deadpool proud. Elberon calls Woerth a “chamber pot of competing cultures and religions from dozens of different universes.” This gives the author the widest possible canvas on which to scribble his own multicolored brand of mayhem—and the narrative leeway to quote Pulp Fiction. He discusses not only the Multiverse, wherein, most likely, “some pimply teenaged loser sits in his parents’ basement drawing” dungeons “on graph paper and randomly inserting monsters, traps, and treasure,” but also author Michael Moorcock, who deals vibrantly with alternate realities in his Elric series. Even Ferguson’s key villain, Koscheis, has echoes in “Sauron, Voldemort, Lord Foul...or Vladimir Putin.” This isn’t to say that the story is complete silliness. The prose frequently lets rip some epic imagery, as when “a house-sized mushroom cloud of napalm condensed out of the atmosphere, balled itself up into a miniature sun, and surged forth with a massive sonic boom.” And while the main characters riff humorously on archetypes—and the minor ones mock everything else (Father Frito of Lay, for example)—they experience events deeply. Elberon’s regret over cheating on average Melinda with gorgeous Cassiopeia brings humanity to a cavalcade of gonzo exploits. Readers will likely return for the sequel, perhaps more for the king’s unpredictable narration than the plot itself.

A joyously coarse and self-aware epic fantasy.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73256-621-7

Page Count: 492

Publisher: Phabulousity Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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