A taut and mostly effective sci-fi thriller with two very good heroes and an engaging villain.

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CITY-STATE DARK

Rebels fight the state in a world changed by unnatural disaster in Carlos’ (Water on the Moon, 2010, etc.) sci-fi tale.

The setting of this thriller is a dystopian place called the City-State. Once upon a time, it was known as “Manhattan,” but then a disaster called “the Dry” struck the entire world. Now, the city’s most precious commodity isn’t something along the lines of oil or gold—instead, it’s water. The general populace is desperately dehydrated all the time, and water theft is a dangerous crime. The City-State is ruled over by the Doge, an absolute tyrant who’s also something of a messianic figure: he’s seemingly all-powerful and served by robed henchmen, a creepy elite, nicknamed “specters,” who undergo “covert training.” Fighting against the Doge’s oppressive rule is a ragtag group of rebels led by an irascible mercenary known as Cortez, “a man who commands and receives respect” but who isn’t what he initially seems to be. Cortez has assembled a core team of fellow mercenaries, and they’re worried about rumors of a clandestine program that the Doge is running—one that might be creating inhuman warriors known as “Clerics.” The narrative takes readers deep inside the workings of the City-State, into the Doge’s palace, even inside the all-too-real Cleric program, always with an evenhanded tone that makes it easy to sympathize with the characters. Over the course of the story, both the rebels and the City-State undergo surprise changes of leadership, and it all builds to a tense climax. That climax is well-served by the author’s smooth, confident command of pacing and dramatics. Overall, his scenes come at a rapid-fire pace that almost never seems forced. Although his characters often veer toward one-note action-thriller clichés, they’re written with such muscular energy and directness that most readers will keep reading, regardless—especially those who enjoy the Blade Runner–style dystopian sci-fi subgenre to which it belongs. One player, in particular, stands out: a young woman named Rita, who grows to play a key role in the plot and who’s far better developed as a character than anyone else in the book. The tale’s genesis as a teleplay, though, seems only thinly papered over; readers are told how old characters appear to be, for instance, instead of how old they are, and what they seem to be doing rather than what they are doing, and so on. There are very few detailed location descriptions, on the whole, and most of the book’s action is oddly narrated from a first-person-plural perspective (“The man in the cloak removes his hood and we see his face”). One or two such moments would be fine, but the constant filmic reminders quickly grow distracting. The propulsive drive of the story—and the tightly controlled tension between the rebellion and the forces of the totalitarian state—does counterbalance these quirks, but the book would have been stronger without them.

A taut and mostly effective sci-fi thriller with two very good heroes and an engaging villain.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-692-87868-2

Page Count: 408

Publisher: MACHIAVELLI PRODUCTIONS LLC

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2017

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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