A thoughtful and beautiful balance between the real and the fantastic.

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THE BIRD KING

After several years writing comic books, the author of World Fantasy Award–winning novel Alif the Unseen (2012) returns to long-form fiction with a lovely fable sent during the final days of the Reconquista.

Restless, angry 17-year-old Fatima has had a relatively cosseted existence as a slave in the Alhambra palace harem, serving the sultan of Granada as his favorite concubine and his mother as her close companion. But as the sultan prepares to surrender his lands to Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of the recently united Spain, all that is thrown into upheaval when Fatima inadvertently betrays her beloved friend Hassan to the Inquisition, which believes him to be a sorcerer. In fact, Hassan is a gay cartographer with a narrow but powerful magic: He can create new shortcuts between places with his maps as well as draw locations he has never seen, including some which don’t become real until he draws them. Fatima and Hassan make a desperate escape, aided by capricious jinn, but the Inquisition seems always to be just behind them. Their only possible refuge might lie in the fragment of an old poem the two companions have pored over since childhood, about the mysterious island of Qaf, hidden refuge of the king of birds. The worldbuilding is well-constructed but is primarily a support for Wilson’s chief focus on character, specifically on Fatima’s growing understanding of the nature of freedom and responsibility. Wilson also delicately explores the nature of a love outside the physical through the complex and very genuine relationship shared by Fatima and Hassan. And she has some interesting things to imply about the nature of evil, particularly how it’s personified through Luz, the Dominican lay sister who serves as an Inquisitor for the Holy Office. Partway through the story, Luz becomes possessed by a dark creature personified as a mote in her eye; it might be simpler to believe that it’s the mote that goads her toward torment and murder, but she joined the Inquisition and carried with her the implements of torture long before the possession. She has the potential to become a better person, but future deeds can’t really blot out her past ones.

A thoughtful and beautiful balance between the real and the fantastic.

Pub Date: March 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2903-1

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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.

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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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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