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Books To Look For
Ballistic Kiss, by Richard Kadrey, Harper Voyager, 2020, $28.99, hc
I think of Richard Kadrey's books as palate cleansers—not thin slices of pickled ginger so much as a big dollop of wasabi that burns through all the senses.
But in a good way.
For some reason a new Kadrey novel usually arrives at a time when I've been starting (and setting aside) a lot of bad books or reading ones that aren't bad but are not particularly great either. You know the kind I mean. They're not bad enough to give up on but they don't make you want to steal whatever spare moment you have to read just a few more pages.
In some ways I find it a little odd how much Kadrey's books appeal to me. They're brash and violent and his character James Stark (Sandman Slim) is a snarky anti-hero who leaves a wake of destruction wherever he goes. It's not the sort of story to which I normally gravitate.
On the other hand, Stark has a strong moral code in terms of loyalty to his friends and a huge heart, while Kadrey writes with such freshness and vigor you wouldn't think he's been at this writing game as long as he has. His prose has the young writer's vibe of full-speed-ahead, damn-the-circumstances, and he can imbue the most outlandish ideas and scenes with such believability you don't question them for a moment.
Eleven books into the Sandman Slim series, there's too much backstory to try to bring you up to date. Let's just say that Stark is back in L.A., where he's been tasked with preventing a haunting in Little Cairo from enveloping the city. He's also trying to save his new girlfriend from throwing away her life as she takes part in events put on by the Zero Lodge Club—so named because "there's zero chance you'll get out alive." The very premise seems insane to Stark, but then, he's not an adrenaline junkie. Enough trouble finds him on a regular basis that he doesn't have to go looking for it.
The regular cast of friends, old lovers, and hangers-on is back—at least those who are still alive—and help out as they can with everything except for the biggest problem Stark has, which is the continuing war in Heaven. While I've no doubt that issue will be tackled in the next book, for now, the book in hand is a hugely entertaining and satisfying read.
The only really sad thing is that the jacket copy tells us this is the penultimate Sandman Slim novel. The good thing is that after the twelfth and final book, I'm sure Kadrey will bring his skills to other stories that will be as good as or better than those already under his belt.
Highly recommended—this title and every entry in the series, each of which, by the way, stands up pretty well on its own.
Born Magic: The Diary of Scarlett Bernard, by Melissa F. Olson, Diet Travis, 2020, $4.99, ebook
There are only so many stories, so many plots, but happily there seems to be an infinite number of variations on them, so even when we know the broad strokes, we can still be surprised and delighted and run across things that we've never seen before.
Which happened to me with Melissa F. Olson's latest book, Born Magic.
But first we need to backtrack just a little.
With the quarantine still in effect as I write this (early July), leaving most musicians scrambling for ways to make a living, I'm sure everyone has heard about Patreon by now. It's a site where folks pay a monthly rate on a sliding scale to support artists they like. In return they get demos, early releases, glimpses into the songwriting and recording process, and all sorts of good things. The benefit to the musicians is that they can be assured of making X amount of dollars every month—which is huge in a time when they can't go out and tour.
But Patreon isn't only for musicians. More and more writers have started to use the platform, giving their readers short stories, insights into their lives and the writing process, and even full length books doled out a chapter at a time, each segment often written the very week that they become available.
For over a year now, Olson has been giving her Patreon followers a glimpse into the diary of her popular character Scarlett Bernard. The unique thing I mentioned above? Scarlett and her partner Jesse have a newborn girl, but they still have to deal with all the trials and tribulations that are inherent with living with one foot in our world and one in the Old World that lies hidden from most peoples' eyes. A world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—and the real rarity, nulls such as Scarlett, whose ability is to negate all magic in her proximity. This is particularly useful since Scarlett's daughter, born from the union of two nulls, is a one in a million, particularly powerful witch.
Which isn't to say that Born Magic is some knock-off of The Omen or other stories featuring powerful and usually evil children. Annie is fairly normal most of the time. She poops, she burps, she sleeps, she eats and keeps her parents busy. But, being a powerful witch even at a couple of months old, she can also inadvertently bring down a house because she's teething.
Adding to the new parents' complications is having to do their jobs with a witchling under their care and making sure the child is kept safe from others in the Old World who would like nothing better than to get their hands on her.
It's the day-to-day elements of juggling all of this that I haven't seen before in an urban fantasy and found so entertaining. It's not plot heavy so much as slice-of-life, but everything I like about the character is present, starting with her narrative voice, and the fact that it's told as diary entries lends even more intimacy than the usual first person point-of-view might allow.
Born Magic isn't necessarily a great entry point for the Old World books—there are a lot of references to characters, situations, and relationships from the previous books without much backstory for a new reader. But it's a fine addition for the readers who have been along for the ride so far.
As I write this there is only a digital version available, but I'm sure there will be a paper edition down the road.
Journeyman, by Emma Melville, Emma Melville, 2020, $11.69, tpb
Here's what I like most about British urban fantasy: It hasn't forsaken a sense of wonder the way most North American urban fantasy has. In fact, it's just fantasy—or at least the way I remember fantasy before Tolkien clones, vampires, and werewolves took over the genre. Besides that sense of wonder—the feeling that mythological figures and magic inspires a mix of awe, dread, and delight—British UF books are each different from the other. Instead of the kickass girl hero or the brooding male we get…well, happily, it differs from book to book, and we never quite know what we're getting.
There's room for both kinds of urban fantasy, of course, though the British version probably needs a different designation since it often takes place in villages or in a rural setting, such as happens in the book in hand.
Journeyman opens on a dark and stormy night (though those exact words aren't used), with the police investigating a body in a ditch outside of Fenwick in the middle of a gale. There's no apparent cause of death. The body lies peacefully, with its arms folded across its chest. Later queries reveal that the dead man was last seen in a local pub talking about a naked white-haired woman he'd seen dancing in the forested hills. He left the pub to see if he could find her again.
On a nearby farm a giant oak has fallen, another dead man is found lying amongst its roots, and the farmer's daughter has gone missing. Between the two scenes is a traveler's encampment. (For non-Brits, travelers are itinerants who roam the roads of Britain in caravans, camping where they can until the local authorities move them on.)
In the middle of it all is Inspector John Marshall, and the more he and his team dig into the deaths and missing women, the more confusing everything becomes. Which is where the book steps away from being a straightforward police procedural and drifts into a hybrid fantasy.
Journeyman features a large cast of point-of-view characters. We get the Inspector's viewpoint, of course, but also POVs from various townsfolk, other police, travelers, and the like, to the point where it became just a little confusing for this reader. It would have been better if the author had spent perhaps a little more time in each POV so that we could get to know them better. But because we see so many of them for such a brief amount of time, I often had to stop and think about who the character was and where they fit into the story.
This didn't actually spoil the book for me because Melville's a terrific writer, and even given the occasional need to stop and get my bearings, I loved everything else about the book. The mythological/folkloric/ghostly bits were particularly wonderful and I'm not going to spoil them for you, except to say that if you're as much of a lover of libraries as I am, you'll be delighted by The Smith Foundation in Fenwick.
Melville also manages to provide the tidy ending one expects from a British police procedural while still letting the otherworldly elements retain their mystery as they wander off into deep forests and hollowed hills. I also liked how the author provided both sides of various issues, letting readers make up their own minds as to where they stand.
Since Journeyman has a subtitle of "An Inspector Marshall Mystery" I'm assuming there will be more books about him, Fenwick, and The Smith Foundation, and I'm certainly looking forward to them when they become available.
Girls Save the World in This One, by Ash Parsons, Philomel Books, 2020, $18, hc
Girls Save the World in This One has a bunch of things I like: feisty girls, friendships that test the bonds of loyalty, and invented media that, by the time you finish the book, you feel is so real that you've maybe experienced it yourself at some point.
Once upon a time, authors made up books that were talked about and/or pivotal to the lives of the characters in their own books. In pre-internet times, it would send folks scurrying about in libraries and used book stores trying to find these nonexistent books, but alas to no avail.
These days we're so much more jaded. But while an internet search quickly lets us know that the books don't actually exist, we still enjoy the world building that goes into making them seem real. And now it's not only books. It can just as often be comics, movies or, in this case, a TV series, a zombie apocalypse show called Human Wasteland.
June Blue and her friends Imani and Siggy are huge fans of the show and beyond excited that its annual con ZombieCon! The Ultimate in Undead Entertainment is coming to their hometown. They see it as their last big adventure before they split up to go to their various colleges, and they plan to take in every panel and photo shoot they can.
When they get there, it's as wonderful as they hoped…until real zombies show up and start attacking the attendees.
Long time readers will have expected that, and not been as shocked as the characters, so if I had any critique, it would be that it took a long time to get to that point. I realize we needed to become familiar with the characters, their background, and the TV show, but the long set-up created a big difference between the first and second halves of the book.
The first half could have been any YA novel. Its strengths are June Blue's engaging voice and the easy camaraderie between the friends, which heightens the betrayal by Blair who had been a member of their tight-knit little group until she stole June Blue's sort-of boyfriend. There's nothing wrong with any of it, but because we know what's coming we just want to get on with it.
Once the zombies arrive, everything goes up a notch. I liked how the girls were competent, smart, and brave without being turned into superheroes. I liked how loyalties—old and new—were tested and how the girls had much stronger moral compasses than many of the adults caught up in the situation with them. I liked how—as one would expect from the title Girls Save the World in This One—there's a strong mix of action, humor, and drama.
So even though the book had a slowish start (at least for this reader, and maybe I'm the wrong demographic), the payoff was worth the wait. If I was ever stuck in a zombie apocalypse, I'd definitely want June Blue and her friends at my side.
The Space Between the Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson, Del Rey, 2020, $27, hc
Sometimes it's hard to discuss a book without going into a lot of explanation regarding its setting and background, and that can take up a lot of column space. This is one of those cases, so I'm just going to have to bite the bullet and lay out a bit of background before we talk about anything else.
In Micaiah Johnson's The Space Between the Worlds, the multiverse exists, and travel between worlds is possible with the caveat that no one can travel to a world where a version of themselves is still alive. The travelers who go to a world that contains another one of themselves are literally turned inside out upon arrival.
At the moment, some three hundred and eighty alternate Earths have been discovered, so Cara on Earth 0 is a prime candidate for multiple trips to collect data from other worlds, since she's died on pretty much all of them. But Cara is a fraud. She's from the wastelands—far from the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City—and the only reason she has this job and a nice apartment on the lower levels of the city is because another version of herself came to Cara's world and died.
Cara discovered her body, saw that the woman who died was identical to her. When she heard the voice coming from the body's com unit, she exchanged gear with the dead woman and assumed her identity. She managed to pull this off because something went wrong on the dead woman's trip and her handlers back on Earth 0 put Cara's confusion with the protocols of her job down to the accident and send her for retraining.
So now Cara has gotten herself out of the wastelands. She's still on probation, but if she can stay out of trouble, she can look forward to both a full Wiley City citizenship and security, as well as being able to continue to flirt with her standoffish handler Dell.
But trouble tends to follow Cara. It was like that back in the wastelands when half her time was spent being a punching bag for a psychotic warlord named Nik Nik, and it looks like it's going to be the same for her in the more refined Wiley City. It starts when one of the eight remaining versions of herself dies under mysterious circumstances. That leads to a re-evaluation of what the company she works for is actually doing, and brings her to an understanding of the part she's expected to play in a plot that not only puts at risk her own world but the entire multiverse.
And all the while something appears to be sentient in the titular space between the worlds. The handlers think it's just a hallucination, brought on by the travails of the journey, but the travelers themselves are sure that there's an entity in the darkness, watching, deciding who gets to survive and who doesn't.
There's so much to like about The Space Between the Worlds—from the world-buildling to the complex elements and paradoxes of traveling between the various Earths. But the best thing is Cara, a damaged character struggling between her own survival and the greater good. I also loved the huge misunderstanding between Cara and her handler Dell. If only Cara didn't have to save the world, otherwise she might have been able to deal with it.
Severed Wings, by Steven-Elliot Altman, WordFire Press, 2020, $24.99/14.99, hc/tpb
Severed Wings had a couple of things working against it for this reader. The first is that I didn't really like the lead character, Brandon Jones. The second is that the book's title steals the big reveal. The latter doesn't occur until at least a third of the way into the book, by which point I was thinking to Jones, oh come on. How unobservant are you?
Jones is an up-and-coming actor until he's left paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. He pushes away his friends and family and retreats to a small, dingy apartment on Sunset Boulevard with booze as his constant companion. His only other relationships are with a couple of fellow tenants, a drag queen and an escort.
(An aside here: My favorite scene in the book is a riotous description of a night when the three go out to a drag queen bingo. It's so much fun, especially compared to the grim tone of the rest of the book.)
Jones is just killing time in his apartment until a young couple moves in across the hall. He's drawn to the woman, and gets caught up in the mystery of the damaged strangers who visit the couple at all hours. Eventually he learns too much, putting not only himself but others in the building in danger.
As I said above, the title steals the reveal, but Altman's made-up mythology makes for a fascinating story, especially in how it skirts the edges of what The Bible tells us about fallen angels.
Altman's prose is good and once we get past the reveal, the plot really cranks up and it becomes impossible to know for sure what's going to happen next—which is a good part of the reason why we read this kind of a story, and I certainly had no regrets in doing so.
Unreal Alchemy, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2020, $15, tpb
I reviewed the digital version of this (under the title Belladonna University Box Set) a while back, but just wanted to let you know that it's now available as a trade paperback. I know a lot of you reading this column prefer paper to digital, so you would have passed on my previous recommendation.
Here's a quick recap in case you missed the earlier review:
It's set on the campus of an Australian university with magical and non-magical tracks and centers on twins Hebe and Holly (who are exact opposites) and their friends. Back then, I said it's "a collection of connected novellas that rather seamlessly blend into one another. There are no world-threatening perils, no feisty urban fantasy girls running around fighting monsters. Instead the stories are character-driven. Which is not a bad thing since it's so easy to fall under the spell of these characters, to revel in the drama of their relationships, their madcap fun, how they can drive each other mad but also take such good care of each other."
Still highly recommended.
Oh, and if you don't mind digital books, Roberts has just released The Creature Court Trilogy: A Deliciously Dark Fantasy Box Set at a bargain price of $6.99. I'm only partway into the first book, but so far I'm really enjoying this imaginative take on an urban high fantasy.
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