Still, Alexander creates an agreeably spooky atmosphere of impenetrable forests and blood lust, with no obvious howlers in...

THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH

Despite its portentous title, this debut novel is neither a lost work by Tolstoy nor an ironic hipster comedy, but an occult thriller aimed at readers not yet sick to undeath of vampires. In case there aren’t any of those left, Alexander mixes in three or four other popular genres: historical fiction, serial-killer mystery, hints of zombies and touches of romance.

The vampires in question don’t swirl capes or turn into bats, but they do trace their origins to a remote castle in the Carpathians. As the novel opens, Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite alchemist, Doctor John Dee, and his assistant, Edward Kelley, flee from a pack of wolves on their way to visit the court of King Istvan Báthory, Voivode of Transylvania. The king’s niece Erzsébet—a historical figure infamous for murdering young girls—appears to be dying, and the king asks the alchemists to cure her. Meanwhile, in present-day England, a pair of witches is working to revive a young girl from her predestined death, since the blood of “revenants,” or “borrowed timers,” makes an effective cure for cancer. Can they keep her hidden from her pursuers: the police, a professor, an Inquisition priest and a mysterious woman who may herself be undead? The brief chapters flip back and forth between the two storylines in a way that may have been meant to emphasize parallels in the plots or themes, but it mostly just makes the book feel choppy; no particularly profound secrets of life and death emerge.

Still, Alexander creates an agreeably spooky atmosphere of impenetrable forests and blood lust, with no obvious howlers in the historical sections (unless you count those wolves).

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-4068-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

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

A BLIGHT OF BLACKWINGS

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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Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

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THE CITY WE BECAME

This extremely urban fantasy, a love/hate song to and rallying cry for the author’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great” (from How Long ’Til Black Future Month, 2018).

When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star–turned–lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some White people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only White avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, White people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.

Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-50984-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Orbit

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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