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EMPIRE GAMES

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

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. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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DEVOLUTION

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

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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. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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DARK MATTER

Suspenseful, frightening, and sometimes poignant—provided the reader has a generously willing suspension of disbelief.

A man walks out of a bar and his life becomes a kaleidoscope of altered states in this science-fiction thriller.

Crouch opens on a family in a warm, resonant domestic moment with three well-developed characters. At home in Chicago’s Logan Square, Jason Dessen dices an onion while his wife, Daniela, sips wine and chats on the phone. Their son, Charlie, an appealing 15-year-old, sketches on a pad. Still, an undertone of regret hovers over the couple, a preoccupation with roads not taken, a theme the book will literally explore, in multifarious ways. To start, both Jason and Daniela abandoned careers that might have soared, Jason as a physicist, Daniela as an artist. When Charlie was born, he suffered a major illness. Jason was forced to abandon promising research to teach undergraduates at a small college. Daniela turned from having gallery shows to teaching private art lessons to middle school students. On this bracing October evening, Jason visits a local bar to pay homage to Ryan Holder, a former college roommate who just received a major award for his work in neuroscience, an honor that rankles Jason, who, Ryan says, gave up on his career. Smarting from the comment, Jason suffers “a sucker punch” as he heads home that leaves him “standing on the precipice.” From behind Jason, a man with a “ghost white” face, “red, pursed lips," and "horrifying eyes” points a gun at Jason and forces him to drive an SUV, following preset navigational directions. At their destination, the abductor forces Jason to strip naked, beats him, then leads him into a vast, abandoned power plant. Here, Jason meets men and women who insist they want to help him. Attempting to escape, Jason opens a door that leads him into a series of dark, strange, yet eerily familiar encounters that sometimes strain credibility, especially in the tale's final moments.

Suspenseful, frightening, and sometimes poignant—provided the reader has a generously willing suspension of disbelief.

Pub Date: July 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-90422-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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