A verbose, unwieldy, frustrating, nugget-strewn mess.

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EXISTENCE

Huge, ambitious concoction from the author of Kiln People (2002, etc.) that tackles the question of why we haven't yet been contacted by aliens.

In a future where everybody is connected via a worldwide virtual reality network, astronaut Gerald Livingstone collects and disposes of the vast amount of orbiting junk that has accumulated in a century of space flight. One object he scoops up is a shaped crystal, clearly manufactured. Gerald finds that, as the first to touch the crystal, it communicates preferentially with him. It turns out to be a repository containing dozens of different aliens, all of whom seem to be competing for his attention. But how did the crystal get here, and what do the aliens want? The answers they give are peculiarly evasive. Other plot threads include Hamish Brookeman, a wealthy author of doomsday yarns tied to the anti-technology Renunciation Movement, whose views—explored at tedious length—gradually change. Peng Xiang Bin, a scavenger along China's drowned coast, discovers a second crystal whose denizens insist that Gerald's aliens are liars. Investigative journalist Tor Povlov, her body destroyed in a terrorist incident, survives as a cyborg. Lacey Donaldson-Sander, one of the planet's super-rich de facto rulers, would have been better eliminated altogether. Lacey's thrill-seeking son, Hacker, crashes into the ocean after a sub-orbital joyride and falls in with a company of intelligent dolphins. Various prodigiously talented autistics and Neanderthals weave in and out. The problem with all this, other than the lack of a coherent narrative, is that the dullest threads (Hamish, Lacey) persist inordinately, while the most intriguing (Bin, Hacker) simply cease in mid-story. Most disappointing of all, Brin generates few truly innovative ideas, instead borrowing heavily from his own previous works and from such writers as Gregory Benford and Greg Egan.

A verbose, unwieldy, frustrating, nugget-strewn mess.

Pub Date: June 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-7653-0361-5

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

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THE STARLESS SEA

A withdrawn graduate student embarks on an epic quest to restore balance to the world in this long-anticipated follow-up to The Night Circus (2011).

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a typical millennial introvert; he likes video games, escapist reading, and drinking sidecars. But when he recognizes himself in the pages of a mysterious book from the university library, he's unnerved—and determined to uncover the truth. What begins as a journey for answers turns into something much bigger, and Zachary must decide whether to trust the handsome stranger he meets at a highflying literary fundraiser in New York or to retreat back to his thesis and forget the whole affair. In a high-wire feat of metatextual derring-do, Morgenstern weaves Zachary's adventure into a stunning array of linked fables, myths, and origin stories. There are pirates and weary travelers, painters who can see the future, lovers torn asunder, a menacing Owl King, and safe harbors for all the stories of the world, far below the Earth on the golden shores of a Starless Sea. Clocking in at more than 500 pages, the novel requires patience as Morgenstern puts all the pieces in place, but it is exquisitely pleasurable to watch the gears of this epic fantasy turn once they're set in motion. As in The Night Circus, Morgenstern is at her best when she imagines worlds and rooms and parties in vivid detail, right down to the ballroom stairs "festooned with lanterns and garlands of paper dipped in gold" or a cloak carved from ice with "ships and sailors and sea monsters...lost in the drifting snow." This novel is a love letter to readers as much as an invitation: Come and see how much magic is left in the world. Fans of Neil Gaiman and V.E. Schwab, Kelly Link and Susanna Clarke will want to heed the call.

An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54121-3

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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