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

TOWER OF MUD AND STRAW

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: tomorrow

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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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A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.

KLARA AND THE SUN

Nobelist Ishiguro returns to familiar dystopian ground with this provocative look at a disturbing near future.

Klara is an AF, or “Artificial Friend,” of a slightly older model than the current production run; she can’t do the perfect acrobatics of the newer B3 line, and she is in constant need of recharging owing to “solar absorption problems,” so much so that “after four continuous days of Pollution,” she recounts, “I could feel myself weakening.” She’s uncommonly intelligent, and even as she goes unsold in the store where she’s on display, she takes in the details of every human visitor. When a teenager named Josie picks her out, to the dismay of her mother, whose stern gaze “never softened or wavered,” Klara has the opportunity to learn a new grammar of portentous meaning: Josie is gravely ill, the Mother deeply depressed by the earlier death of her other daughter. Klara has never been outside, and when the Mother takes her to see a waterfall, Josie being too ill to go along, she asks the Mother about that death, only to be told, “It’s not your business to be curious.” It becomes clear that Klara is not just an AF; she’s being groomed to be a surrogate daughter in the event that Josie, too, dies. Much of Ishiguro’s tale is veiled: We’re never quite sure why Josie is so ill, the consequence, it seems, of genetic editing, or why the world has become such a grim place. It’s clear, though, that it’s a future where the rich, as ever, enjoy every privilege and where children are marshaled into forced social interactions where the entertainment is to abuse androids. Working territory familiar to readers of Brian Aldiss—and Carlo Collodi, for that matter—Ishiguro delivers a story, very much of a piece with his Never Let Me Go, that is told in hushed tones, one in which Klara’s heart, if she had one, is destined to be broken and artificial humans are revealed to be far better than the real thing.

A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.

Pub Date: March 2, 2021

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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