A well-written, conceptually agile adventure with a memorable ending.

STILLED

THE STORY OF INKLEBRAWT WINKLEHANK

A secret clan of biologically enhanced humans battles their would-be destroyers in this SF adventure.

In Pawtucket, Massachusetts, Maggie Henderson leads a ragtime cover band. Her vibrant onstage persona is at odds with her day-to-day life as a postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s working on programming “nanorobots” to help fix damaged skin cells. The work will be, as she tells her boyfriend, Tim Gritmuff, like “the perfect skin-cream.” Maggie also harbors a strange secret. She’s a Huply; she has both human and Plythi’i ancestry. The Plythi’i are a race of humanoids created with nanomachines who possess a telepathic Sense. Our heroine’s life putters along until she meets a man flying a kite barefoot in a park. This is polymath Inklebrawt Winklehank, who briefly attended Maggie’s high school. She’s star-struck because of his brilliant work in the field of “Integrated Bio-circuits” and wonders if he’s attending their high school reunion that night. Meanwhile, a violent offshoot of Huply, known as the Shepherds, wants to stop humanity’s “artificial speciation” and destroy the Plythi’i. The last grand battle between the two secret groups happened in 13,330 B.C.E. in Bolivia. With an attack imminent, Maggie must figure out her connection to Inklebrawt, another Huply, and a strange coterie of individuals, including Navy Seal David Wessel and a woman named Zayla. The group’s only hope may rest in contacting the Tsr’ Yyd, an enigmatic force that, once unleashed, could change life on Earth. Can Inklebrawt access a revered Plythi’i text called the Convictions in time to act?

Estvander’s hard SF adventure is similar to Greg Egan’s and Vernor Vinge’s novels; all toss readers headlong into conceptually dense worlds that require skillful absorption of ideas along the way. The story opens on the realm built by the Plythi’i in ancient Bolivia; this segment is flush with futuristic elements, including “Enginteks” who shape and build with stone using devices called “Vecco’i Sean.” The name Sean crops up frequently in reference to the creator of the Plythi’i, but a full explanation doesn’t arrive until the story’s end. Estvander rewards patient readers with tightly interlocking plot segments, many of which shuffle the cast through time and location (to the planet Ply’, for example). Grounding readers in more mainstream SF motifs is the Sense, reminiscent of the Force in the Star Wars franchise. Another familiar element is the way Inklebrawt’s volatile human emotions often co-opt his cool Plythi’i, Spock-like logic. In one thrilling scene, the character Yumi uses her Sense to merge metal and stone, sealing a doorway against attacking Shepherds. And while there’s much innovation to love in the work’s first half, it often relies on traditional thriller components to goose the plot. The Shepherds, for example, appear on Earth as mobsters who resort to kidnapping and gunplay to achieve their goals. The clever, remarkable finale will give audiences much to think about as far as the workings of the universe and humanity’s place in it.

A well-written, conceptually agile adventure with a memorable ending.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2021

ISBN: 979-8-48829-706-7

Page Count: 337

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2022

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Suspenseful and snarky with surprising emotional depths.

GIDEON THE NINTH

From the Locked Tomb Trilogy series , Vol. 1

This debut novel, the first of a projected trilogy, blends science fiction, fantasy, gothic chiller, and classic house-party mystery.

Gideon Nav, a foundling of mysterious antecedents, was not so much adopted as indentured by the Ninth House, a nearly extinct noble necromantic house. Trained to fight, she wants nothing more than to leave the place where everyone despises her and join the Cohort, the imperial military. But after her most recent escape attempt fails, she finally gets the opportunity to depart the planet. The heir and secret ruler of the Ninth House, the ruthless and prodigiously talented bone adept Harrowhark Nonagesimus, chooses Gideon to serve her as cavalier primary, a sworn bodyguard and aide de camp, when the undying Emperor summons Harrow to compete for a position as a Lyctor, an elite, near-immortal adviser. The decaying Canaan House on the planet of the absent Emperor holds dark secrets and deadly puzzles as well as a cheerfully enigmatic priest who provides only scant details about the nature of the competition...and at least one person dedicated to brutally slaughtering the competitors. Unsure of how to mix with the necromancers and cavaliers from the other Houses, Gideon must decide whom among them she can trust—and her doubts include her own necromancer, Harrow, whom she’s loathed since childhood. This intriguing genre stew works surprisingly well. The limited locations and narrow focus mean that the author doesn’t really have to explain how people not directly attached to a necromantic House or the military actually conduct daily life in the Empire; hopefully future installments will open up the author’s creative universe a bit more. The most interesting aspect of the novel turns out to be the prickly but intimate relationship between Gideon and Harrow, bound together by what appears at first to be simple hatred. But the challenges of Canaan House expose other layers, beginning with a peculiar but compelling mutual loyalty and continuing on to other, more complex feelings, ties, and shared fraught experiences.

Suspenseful and snarky with surprising emotional depths.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31319-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

READY PLAYER ONE

Video-game players embrace the quest of a lifetime in a virtual world; screenwriter Cline’s first novel is old wine in new bottles. 

The real world, in 2045, is the usual dystopian horror story. So who can blame Wade, our narrator, if he spends most of his time in a virtual world? The 18-year-old, orphaned at 11, has no friends in his vertical trailer park in Oklahoma City, while the OASIS has captivating bells and whistles, and it’s free. Its creator, the legendary billionaire James Halliday, left a curious will. He had devised an elaborate online game, a hunt for a hidden Easter egg. The finder would inherit his estate. Old-fashioned riddles lead to three keys and three gates. Wade, or rather his avatar Parzival, is the first gunter (egg-hunter) to win the Copper Key, first of three. Halliday was obsessed with the pop culture of the 1980s, primarily the arcade games, so the novel is as much retro as futurist. Parzival’s great strength is that he has absorbed all Halliday’s obsessions; he knows by heart three essential movies, crossing the line from geek to freak. His most formidable competitors are the Sixers, contract gunters working for the evil conglomerate IOI, whose goal is to acquire the OASIS. Cline’s narrative is straightforward but loaded with exposition. It takes a while to reach a scene that crackles with excitement: the meeting between Parzival (now world famous as the lead contender) and Sorrento, the head of IOI. The latter tries to recruit Parzival; when he fails, he issues and executes a death threat. Wade’s trailer is demolished, his relatives killed; luckily Wade was not at home. Too bad this is the dramatic high point. Parzival threads his way between more ’80s games and movies to gain the other keys; it’s clever but not exciting. Even a romance with another avatar and the ultimate “epic throwdown” fail to stir the blood.

Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-88743-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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