An absorbing but ultimately underwhelming yarn that patiently builds on existing foundations without venturing a conclusion...

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EMPIRE GAMES

Espionage and Cold War paranoia prevail as near-future governments in alternate timelines test one another’s defenses and capabilities in this opening installment of a science-fiction trilogy and sequel to the six-volume Merchant Princes series (The Trade of Queens, 2010, etc.)

The previous series focused on trade, smuggling, and the power politics of godfather-style families across alternate timelines. Here the USA (not ours, but close) of timeline No. 2 has become a hypertrophied military-police/surveillance/espionage state (“President Rumsfeld” tells you all you need to know). In the less technologically advanced timeline No. 3, the revolutionary North American Commonwealth is locked in a nuclear standoff with the vast French empire. Because of a nuclear attack that destroyed Washington (and for other, even more alarming, reasons), the USA desperately wants to learn what’s happening there. A committee headed by generic cold warrior Col. Smith recruits people, called world-walkers, who possess the ability to cross between timelines in latent form, intending to awaken their abilities and send them into timeline No. 3 as spies. The guinea pig is Rita Douglas, estranged daughter (though it’s hugely more involved than that) of Miriam Beckstein, the prime mover of the prior series who, fearing the USA’s power, now guides the rapid technological development of the Commonwealth. This novel and its prequels are, for Stross, almost defiantly orthodox in structure (see the narrative pyrotechnics of Rule 34, for instance) and stately in development. Still, his writing is as complex and subtle as ever, so series newcomers may well need to absorb the first 200 pages before the sociological and political implications fully emerge. Which viewpoint readers identify with, and there’s plenty of scope for ambiguity, will depend mostly on what they themselves bring along.

An absorbing but ultimately underwhelming yarn that patiently builds on existing foundations without venturing a conclusion or even a cliffhanger.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7653-3756-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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