Great characters, a novel concept, and scary set pieces, but it never gels into something memorably terrifying.

THE GOD GAME

A band of teenage outcasts must overcome demons both personal and virtual when they stumble into an augmented-reality game.

Like Tobey's debut (The Faculty Club, 2010), this thriller pulls influences and styles from both other books and other mediums, in this case borrowing liberally from Stephen King, Stranger Things, and what academics dub “social problems novels,” this one echoing Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters (1981). The high schoolers here are Charlie, who lost his mom to cancer; Harvard-bound Indian American prodigy Vanhi; Kenny, a bit of a cipher; Alex, who's under way too much pressure; and Peter, who’s rich, privileged, and high. They’re a losers’ club who retreat to their high school’s tech lab, where they can code, game, and tinker under Charlie’s invented moniker, the Vindicators. Things get weird when they stumble onto an old-school text game run by an omnipotent, omniscient artificial intelligence who thinks it’s God with a big G. It’s an evil bargain, too, and the AI seems to have the power to make its deals happen: If you win, all your dreams come true, and if you lose, you die. Actions the game likes earn players “Goldz," currency they use to buy privileges and powers, while other behaviors earn “Blaxx,” demerits that might get you killed. Over time, the kids are awarded “Aziteks,” glasses that augment reality so they can see what God has in mind for the world. There are other banal things going on—bullies who are complete dicks, as happens, as well as crushes and the novel’s central theme: the complicated relationships between parents and children. There’s a great thriller in here, but you have to carve off the excess to get to it. The mythology of The God Game, originating with a 1990s-era squad something like the Vindicators, gets too complicated, and the rules of this universe are never really clear. By the end it’s all a bit dizzying and not entirely satisfying.

Great characters, a novel concept, and scary set pieces, but it never gels into something memorably terrifying.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-30614-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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

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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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A breezy and fun contemporary fantasy.

THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA

A tightly wound caseworker is pushed out of his comfort zone when he’s sent to observe a remote orphanage for magical children.

Linus Baker loves rules, which makes him perfectly suited for his job as a midlevel bureaucrat working for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, where he investigates orphanages for children who can do things like make objects float, who have tails or feathers, and even those who are young witches. Linus clings to the notion that his job is about saving children from cruel or dangerous homes, but really he’s a cog in a government machine that treats magical children as second-class citizens. When Extremely Upper Management sends for Linus, he learns that his next assignment is a mission to an island orphanage for especially dangerous kids. He is to stay on the island for a month and write reports for Extremely Upper Management, which warns him to be especially meticulous in his observations. When he reaches the island, he meets extraordinary kids like Talia the gnome, Theodore the wyvern, and Chauncey, an amorphous blob whose parentage is unknown. The proprietor of the orphanage is a strange but charming man named Arthur, who makes it clear to Linus that he will do anything in his power to give his charges a loving home on the island. As Linus spends more time with Arthur and the kids, he starts to question a world that would shun them for being different, and he even develops romantic feelings for Arthur. Lambda Literary Award–winning author Klune (The Art of Breathing, 2019, etc.) has a knack for creating endearing characters, and readers will grow to love Arthur and the orphans alongside Linus. Linus himself is a lovable protagonist despite his prickliness, and Klune aptly handles his evolving feelings and morals. The prose is a touch wooden in places, but fans of quirky fantasy will eat it up.

A breezy and fun contemporary fantasy.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21728-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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