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TOWER OF MUD AND STRAW

This marvelous SF tale about dangerous technology offers sublime stretches that will warrant revisiting.

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A man reckons with his past while overseeing the construction of a tower in this debut SF novel.

Shea Ashcroft disobeyed Queen Daelyn. He refused to gas protesters who ran amok in Red Hill. As punishment, she banished Shea to the border shared with the rival nation of Duma. Now, the former minister of internal affairs and ex-counselor to the queen must see to the completion of the Owenbeg Tower, an “anti-airship stronghold.” But Shea receives a chilly welcome from the duke at Owenbeg castle. The paranoid duke intends to censor Shea’s reports to the queen regarding details of the tower’s construction. Shea soon learns that instances of sabotage at the tower involve dangerous Drakiri technology. The humanoid Drakiri have been allowed to settle in Owenbeg, and their egg-shaped “tulips” provide anti-gravity assistance for raising the nearly 1,000-foot structure. But if not properly handled, the tulips implode, sucking in whatever surrounds them. Shea thinks often of his sister, Lena, whose death resulted from mishandled tulips. Doubly strange is that the duke’s counselor of arts is a striking Drakiri woman named Lena. She shares with Shea her people’s record of the Mimic Tower, which sprang into being as they tried to build another tower. Ultimately, the Mimic Tower destroyed many of the Drakiri, which is why none of Lena’s tribe labor on the Owenbeg Tower. As Shea falls for Lena, he becomes determined to ban tulips from the construction process. Yet Chief Engineer Brielle has a secret that makes such a move impossible.

Barsukov’s slim novel will remind readers of Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass (1970) and China Mieville’s work, which frequently includes a Cold War flavor of decrepit bureaucracies. While the Owenbeg castle appears lavish, “moths had taken a good bite out of the couches’ velvet.” The Owenbeg Tower, even unfinished, feels mythic, as in the passage “Entering it was entering a city...a world painted by a lover of chiaroscuro...shadows lay in pools of ink, and there were blinding patches of daylight.” The Drakiri seem slightly vampirelike, with their enhanced speed, strength, and elegance—though no blood drinking is ever mentioned. Barsukov sketches in characters slyly, as Shea assumes Lena is the duke’s lover, half revealing to readers his own desire. Echoes of Shea’s sister haunt him in the way this new woman “holds her head, the pride. The eyes.” When he survives an assassination attempt, Shea intuits that Patrick, the duke’s military counselor, is the culprit because of how the duke embarrasses the man publicly. The tower as an arms race metaphor succeeds gracefully. Drakiri technology is useful, as is nuclear power, but the drive to overshadow one’s enemies can lead to self-destruction. The author depicts the fantastic sparingly so that the instances pop against the narrative’s overall gloom. One character’s augmented hand, for example, “branched off in metal and purple veins,” and its “knotted ‘fingers’ rolled in the air as though strumming a chord.” One scene that reveals some truth about the Drakiri, their origin, and the reality of the Mimic Tower is pure surrealism.

This marvelous SF tale about dangerous technology offers sublime stretches that will warrant revisiting.

Pub Date: Feb. 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-64076-190-2

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Vestige

Review Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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DEVOLUTION

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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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. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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FOURTH WING

From the Empyrean series , Vol. 1

Read this for the action-packed plot, not character development or worldbuilding.

On the orders of her mother, a woman goes to dragon-riding school.

Even though her mother is a general in Navarre’s army, 20-year-old Violet Sorrengail was raised by her father to follow his path as a scribe. After his death, though, Violet's mother shocks her by forcing her to enter the elite and deadly dragon rider academy at Basgiath War College. Most students die at the War College: during training sessions, at the hands of their classmates, or by the very dragons they hope to one day be paired with. From Day One, Violet is targeted by her classmates, some because they hate her mother, others because they think she’s too physically frail to succeed. She must survive a daily gauntlet of physical challenges and the deadly attacks of classmates, which she does with the help of secret knowledge handed down by her two older siblings, who'd been students there before her. Violet is at the mercy of the plot rather than being in charge of it, hurtling through one obstacle after another. As a result, the story is action-packed and fast-paced, but Violet is a strange mix of pure competence and total passivity, always managing to come out on the winning side. The book is categorized as romantasy, with Violet pulled between the comforting love she feels from her childhood best friend, Dain Aetos, and the incendiary attraction she feels for family enemy Xaden Riorson. However, the way Dain constantly undermines Violet's abilities and his lack of character development make this an unconvincing storyline. The plots and subplots aren’t well-integrated, with the first half purely focused on Violet’s training, followed by a brief detour for romance, and then a final focus on outside threats.

Read this for the action-packed plot, not character development or worldbuilding.

Pub Date: May 2, 2023

ISBN: 9781649374042

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Red Tower

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2024

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