Superb: a protagonist and a tale sure to please fans of smart, literate fantasy and science fiction.

BORNE

“Once upon a time there was a piece of biotech that grew and grew until it had its own apartment”: an odd, atmospheric, and decidedly dark fable for our time.

VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (Acceptance, 2014, etc.) set high standards for dystopian fantasy, and the wizardry was as much in the writing as in the storyline. This latest is much the same: supremely literary, distinctly unusual, its title character a blob of something or another that earns its name, in part, because it’s carried from place to place—when we meet it, in fact, it's tangled up in the fur of a giant bear that just now is busily marauding through the ruins of a once-thriving city in what would seem to be the very near future. The Company, an unfeeling and monstrously inclined biotech giant, once held sway there, but now what’s left is a whole bunch of one-time experiments gone awry. Mord, the bear, is one, Borne another. Alternately dodging and caring for them is Rachel, an eminently resourceful young woman who doesn’t quite know what to make of the little creature at first: “I knew nothing about Borne and treated him like a plant at first. It seemed logical, from my initial observations.” Logical, yes, but Rachel is no Mr. Spock: she brims with feelings, some of them for her fellow survivor Wick. Just as Borne is able to morph into semblances of other beings, though, including an uncanny other-Rachel, so Wick would seem to have logged some hours in the lab himself. The reader is treated to the intriguing spectacle of Borne’s acquiring consciousness in the middle of all the mayhem: “I became entangled in Mord’s fur. (Who entangled me?) Where did I come from before that?” That the genetic basis for life is nothing to tinker with is plain throughout, especially in the moments where VanderMeer’s deep talent for worldbuilding takes him into realms more reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than of the Shire.

Superb: a protagonist and a tale sure to please fans of smart, literate fantasy and science fiction.

Pub Date: May 2, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-11524-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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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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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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