Smart and sardonic, with wry echoes from classic tales (a little “Telltale Heart,” anyone?) mixed up in an inventive,...

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CITY OF STAIRS

Another dark fantasy by master of the genre Bennett (American Elsewhere, 2013, etc.), a literate swirl of religion, politics, finance and other sources of misery.

“You know you are my foremost Continental operative.” Thus a suit to our protagonist, a divinologist who just happens to know her way around a conspiracy theory. Is Bennett’s latest merely an elaborate excuse to make a pun on Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op? Probably not, but Shara Thivani, mutatis mutandis, wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an old issue of Black Mask—if, that is, that century-old mystery mag had a soft spot for vaguely Central Asian locales in some not-quite-defined version of the future, along with a little genre-crossing into the horror realm. Shara, an agent of the island state of Saypur, is posted to the vast mainland city of Bulikov after having been abroad for 16 years. Continental Bulikov—a city of ups and downs indeed—once ruled Saypur, but the tables were turned thanks to a conspiracy that involves some considerable theological twists and turns; suffice it to say that Black Mask founder H.L. Mencken would have enjoyed the iconoclasm attendant in Bennett’s account of that tumultuous history. Will the tables be turned once again? That’s what Shara and her sidekick, the monkish but menacing Sigrud, “a hammer in a world of nails,” are there to forestall. The story is winding, the cast of characters sizable but not so sprawling as in many a fantasy; it’s all well and neatly told. Bennett’s invented geography isn’t quite as beguiling as, say, Borges’ library, but he does a thoroughly credible job of worldbuilding; readers will find themselves huffing and puffing their ways across the city and its namesake stairs, which “do not end: they stretch on and on, soft and moist, formed of dark, black clay and loam” and lead to all kinds of odd places.

Smart and sardonic, with wry echoes from classic tales (a little “Telltale Heart,” anyone?) mixed up in an inventive, winning narrative.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3717-1

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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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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An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

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THE STARLESS SEA

A withdrawn graduate student embarks on an epic quest to restore balance to the world in this long-anticipated follow-up to The Night Circus (2011).

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a typical millennial introvert; he likes video games, escapist reading, and drinking sidecars. But when he recognizes himself in the pages of a mysterious book from the university library, he's unnerved—and determined to uncover the truth. What begins as a journey for answers turns into something much bigger, and Zachary must decide whether to trust the handsome stranger he meets at a highflying literary fundraiser in New York or to retreat back to his thesis and forget the whole affair. In a high-wire feat of metatextual derring-do, Morgenstern weaves Zachary's adventure into a stunning array of linked fables, myths, and origin stories. There are pirates and weary travelers, painters who can see the future, lovers torn asunder, a menacing Owl King, and safe harbors for all the stories of the world, far below the Earth on the golden shores of a Starless Sea. Clocking in at more than 500 pages, the novel requires patience as Morgenstern puts all the pieces in place, but it is exquisitely pleasurable to watch the gears of this epic fantasy turn once they're set in motion. As in The Night Circus, Morgenstern is at her best when she imagines worlds and rooms and parties in vivid detail, right down to the ballroom stairs "festooned with lanterns and garlands of paper dipped in gold" or a cloak carved from ice with "ships and sailors and sea monsters...lost in the drifting snow." This novel is a love letter to readers as much as an invitation: Come and see how much magic is left in the world. Fans of Neil Gaiman and V.E. Schwab, Kelly Link and Susanna Clarke will want to heed the call.

An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54121-3

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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