An outstanding science-fiction novel hobbled by its rushed story structure.

SEMIOSIS

Colonists land on a planet with unexpected sentient species in this sci-fi debut.

In the 2060s, a group leaves Earth to create a new, peaceful society. They arrive 158 years later on a planet they name Pax. The botanist, Octavio, knows that planting seeds from Earth, without symbiotic microorganisms in the soil, would be futile, but Pax is already teeming with plants. He tests a persimmonlike fruit growing on snow-white vines and finds it safe to eat—but later, three Pacifists die after eating the same fruit from a different vine that’s now, somehow, poisonous. The deadly crop, he discovers, comes from an identical snow vine that’s competing for space with the vines closer to the colonists. He knows the chemical alteration is too fast to be mere ecological adjustment, and when the deadly vine changes its chemistry again to destroy a field of grain the colonists planted, Octavio begins to understand that the poisonous vine sees them as a threat. The plants of Pax are able to think and plan ahead—and the colonists must learn to communicate with them in order to survive. Beginning with Octavio, the story is told from seven different points of view, spread out over more than a century, and each perspective change sends the story years ahead. Every chapter is like a short story within a shared universe—and it’s a phenomenal universe. The worldbuilding is astonishing: the human society is richly detailed, and it’s riveting to watch the colonists learn to communicate with a life-form so different from us. The flora and fauna of Pax are magnificently alien, calling to mind sci-fi classics such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld. But the story’s overwhelming scope is also its downfall: readers scarcely have time to register who the colonists are and what’s happened during the intervening years before being rushed forward again. Interesting storylines end abruptly, and action scenes, including a monumental battle, feel rushed. None of the genuinely engrossing characters or ideas are allowed enough space to develop. When the prevailing trend in science fiction is to turn even the flimsiest plots into bloated trilogies, cutting this extraordinary story short feels like a deplorable waste.

An outstanding science-fiction novel hobbled by its rushed story structure.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7653-9135-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Nov. 28, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 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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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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