A diverting, heartfelt adventure that provides laughs in between earnest moments and spells.


The Dark Lord

In this fantasy, a mage tries to save the same world he’d tormented as an evil wizard—part of his university studies—with help from the heroes who’d fought him.

With his reign as Dark Lord in subworld Trelari finally over, innerworlder Avery Stewart heads back to Mysterium University. The mage’s dissertation focuses on stabilizing an unbalanced subworld, maybe indefinitely to prevent its eventual destruction. Avery’s role as the bad guy was to create an imbalance, with his spell consequently guiding a select group of people who opposed him to “defuse the imbalance.” It was a grueling three months Mysterium-time, but Avery finishes 17 days early and plans to enjoy a relaxing night—neither logging his return nor checking in Trelari’s reality key at the storeroom. The evening begins well when he meets fellow student Vivian, who seems quite taken by his experiment. The next morning, however, Vivian’s gone, as is the key. With assistance from elfin roommate Eldrin Leightner, Avery once again enters Trelari, where Vivian’s become the Dark Queen. Slowly reassembling the Heroes of the Ages (who don’t recognize him without his Dark Lord makeup), Avery hopes his spell will lead them to vanquish Dark Queen Vivian. But if the shifting Trelari becomes a threat to Mysterium, the latter may feel it necessary to destroy the subworld. Heckel’s (The Pitchfork of Destiny, 2016, etc.) offbeat novel, like his previous work, is told with tongue firmly in cheek. Some of the humor is parody (Avery, et al., form the Tolkienian “Company of the Fellowship”), while parts are gleefully silly, like a town’s distinct but similarly named inns: Red Dragon, Dead Dragon, etc. Nonetheless, there’s unmistakable sincerity, especially once Avery starts seeing the Heroes as real people, rather than mere pawns to confirm his spell’s validity. The story likewise excels as fantasy, featuring battles with trolls and orcs and a smashing final act that revels in chaos. Heckel aptly subverts overexplanation of complicated notions (i.e., Mysterium and Trelari’s divergent passages of time) with narrator Avery’s inability to understand most of it himself. His response to someone telling him his magic makes no sense is: “Exactly.”

A diverting, heartfelt adventure that provides laughs in between earnest moments and spells.

Pub Date: Dec. 27, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-235934-6

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse

Review Posted Online: Nov. 22, 2016

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

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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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A charming and persuasive entry that will leave readers impatiently awaiting the concluding volume.


Book 2 of Hearne's latest fantasy trilogy, The Seven Kennings (A Plague of Giants, 2017), set in a multiracial world thrust into turmoil by an invasion of peculiar giants.

In this world, most races have their own particular magical endowment, or “kenning,” though there are downsides to trying to gain the magic (an excellent chance of being killed instead) and using it (rapid aging and death). Most recently discovered is the sixth kenning, whose beneficiaries can talk to and command animals. The story canters along, although with multiple first-person narrators, it's confusing at times. Some characters are familiar, others are new, most of them with their own problems to solve, all somehow caught up in the grand design. To escape her overbearing father and the unreasoning violence his kind represents, fire-giant Olet Kanek leads her followers into the far north, hoping to found a new city where the races and kennings can peacefully coexist. Joining Olet are young Abhinava Khose, discoverer of the sixth kenning, and, later, Koesha Gansu (kenning: air), captain of an all-female crew shipwrecked by deep-sea monsters. Elsewhere, Hanima, who commands hive insects, struggles to free her city from the iron grip of wealthy, callous merchant monarchists. Other threads focus on the Bone Giants, relentless invaders seeking the still-unknown seventh kenning, whose confidence that this can defeat the other six is deeply disturbing. Under Hearne's light touch, these elements mesh perfectly, presenting an inventive, eye-filling panorama; satisfying (and, where appropriate, well-resolved) plotlines; and tensions between the races and their kennings to supply much of the drama.

A charming and persuasive entry that will leave readers impatiently awaiting the concluding volume.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-345-54857-3

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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