An impressive collection of stories unafraid to explore bleak topics like death and despondency.



Thirteen dark fantasy stories feature tortured characters whose lives are drastically changing—or will soon end—in Koja’s (Under the Poppy, 2010, etc.) collection.

These tales have an estimable provenance: “Fireflies” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (2002), “Road Trip” in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 16 (2002), and other stories in similarly respected books. In “Velocity,” an artist creates his art by running bicycles into trees. This act may be his unorthodox way of understanding his famous architect father’s suicide, which likewise entailed driving into a tree. Some of the characters in these generally grim stories come to terms with a tragedy they don’t want to face: The man in “Road Trip” has intermittent flashes of a car accident (or moments before), and he not only mourns losing a loved one, but his responsibility for the fatality. Other characters, like Anne in “Coyote Pass,” have trouble simply moving on. Anne had cared for her ailing art-collector mother, Susan, for years. Now that Susan has died, Anne wants to adopt a dog, which her mother had never allowed—but getting a puppy from the kennel takes a bizarre, unsettling turn. Koja tackles a handful of genres, including SF, somber drama, and sublimely understated horror. Nevertheless, the highlight of this impressive collection is the Poe-esque “The Marble Lily,” one of two stories herein that hasn’t been previously published. In it, a morgue janitor in Paris closely observes a female cadaver that he believes holds some sort of mystery. Koja’s prose throughout the book provides a bevy of indelible passages: “He pressed her leg, the bare skin below the edge of her cutoffs; his hand was warm, with long strong workman’s fingers, small hard spots like rivets on the palm, his skin a topographic map of his days: cut wood, carry water, name and number and know all the plants in the world.”

An impressive collection of stories unafraid to explore bleak topics like death and despondency.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-946154-23-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Meerkat Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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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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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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