Sep 202023

Locus:  Stepping into The Salt Grows Heavy is like stepping into someone else’s fever dream. This strange, dark, violent, lyrical novella contains some of Khaw’s most brilliant, elegant, haunt­ing writing: ‘‘For all that humanity professes to delighting in its own sophistication, it longs for simplicity, for when the world can be deboned into binaries: darkness and light, death and life, hunter and hunted.’’ The use of language is im­maculate, but that doesn’t detract from the great pacing. The prose is lyrical and flows like water from a broken vase, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the gore, murders, and scenes of surgery and self-mutilation. The taiga’s cold is brutal, and the small village is a bare-bones place where life seems to barely hold on, but the wealth of details Khaw injected into the narrative rivals that of any 400-page novel. In short, this is a novella that feels much larger than its word count and shows a very talented storyteller at the height of their powers.

Sep 182023

Kirkus: A novella set in the Cinder Spires fantasy universe sees its protagonist caught up in a potentially deadly mission.

Humanity survives in the Spire-cities that tower well above the deadly surface of a steampunk world. Newly minted lieutenant of the Spirearch of Albion’s Guard and warriorborn (denoting a catlike species of humanoids with “enhanced senses and speed”) Sir Benedict Sorellin-Lancaster is called upon by the ruling Spirearch, Lord Albion himself, to go on a secret, undercover mission. He is to take the airship Predator to Colony Dependence, a backwater Spire, on an assignment to retrieve a bag that may or may not contain important intelligence information regarding a looming war with their enemies. Joining him on his mission are three notoriously uncooperative warriorborn, convicted felons who had been captured and put in jail by Benedict and have now been promised their freedom on the condition Benedict survives and successfully returns home. As the ragtag team’s journey proceeds, they investigate the mystery of the inexplicably abandoned Dependence while facing danger and death. While readers familiar with the series will have a better understanding of the ins and outs of the Cinder Spires world, this is mostly a stand-alone story that, despite its brevity, packs a lot of punch in an engaging, fast-paced read with well-defined characters, including Benedict, a reluctant yet fierce hero. But the real standout is one of the secondary characters who follow Benedict into the fray: the warriorborn vigilante serial killer Lady Herringford, who becomes his de-facto second-in-command: “She’d identified his biggest problem and was now attacking it as effectively as an excellent subordinate officer. Evidently, when Matilda Herringford gave her word, she meant it.” Add Steampunk vibes, terrifying monsters, charming talking cats, and an open ending that tantalizes readers into reading the series—this is a recipe for success.

A delectable slice of SF adventure.

Sep 132023

Publishers Weekly: Grimshaw Griswold Grimsby returns as the newest—and least magically skilled—Auditor for the Department of Unorthodox Affairs in Butcher’s dynamic urban fantasy sequel to Dead Man’s Hand. Grimsby’s partner, Leslie Mayflower, aka “the Hunstman,” has been AWOL for weeks, limiting Grimsby to routine drudge work—until he swaps out his latest assignment for a RUIN case assigned to his newly distant colleague Auditor Rayne Bathory. Grimsby isn’t ready to investigate the “ritual of unknown intent and nature” alone, so he tracks down Mayflower, who, recognizing something from his past in the ritual’s details, reluctantly agrees to help investigate. Meanwhile, Bathory, who is still searching for her ex-partner, Hives, receives unexpected help from the New York office’s Agent Defaux, who offers to provide some ritual assistance. Complicating things further, the creature Wudge, whom Grimsby rescued in the previous volume, now needs his help to recover an item from the Elsewhere. Functional magic or no, “half-witch” Grimsby stubbornly forges ahead in his mission to save others, making up in heart what he lacks in talent. The message that determination trumps ability will please fantasy readers who love to cheer for the little guy. Butcher proves that this series has legs.

Sep 072023

Kirkus: An ambitious scientist loses herself in her work—literally.

The government and citizens of San Siroco, California, believe Myrica Dynamics privatized the city’s crumbling subway system for the public good. In truth, Myrica did so to conceal Dr. Tamsin Rivers’ quest to develop a new communications protocol involving technological mirrors mounted in subterranean geodesic domes. Success means Tamsin will “revolutionize the world” and be recognized as a genius, but while early results look promising, there’s a problem. Since testing commenced, the city has been sinking three millimeters each week. More perplexingly, Tamsin’s basement has been sinking three centimeters each week—but unlike the rest of San Siroco, “not in a way that impacts the structural integrity of her home.” Tamsin hasn’t yet told anyone about her basement; nobody can definitively link the city’s subsidence with her research, and she doesn’t want Myrica to draw premature conclusions and shut things down. Tamsin begins working from home, hoping the cellar can provide answers; instead, a door appears from which a Tamsin doppelgänger emerges. At first Tamsin’s double, “Prime,” seems sweet and accommodating, but as Tamsin starts losing both time and memories and Prime becomes more assertive, Tamsin regrets her secretive tendencies. Part existential horror, part speculative fiction, and part paranoia tale, Starling’s latest thrills and chills while exploring the contextual nature of identity and the concept of personhood. Diabolical plotting, relentless pacing, and ascetic worldbuilding function in tandem with Starling’s staccato present-tense narration to maximize tension and drive.

At once visceral and introspective.

Aug 172023

Library Journal: Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby has achieved his dream of becoming an auditor for the Department of Unorthodox Affairs, which enforces laws about magic, yet the job is not filled with exciting, magical investigations as expected, but instead with mundane check-ins and mounds of reports. Grimsby takes matters into his own hands by lifting a case file meant for his friend and soon finds himself in the middle of a mysteriously unfinished ritual that mirrors one seen by his reclusive partner, the Huntsman Leslie Mayflower. Except that foe was vanquished by the Huntsman 20 years ago. Grimsby knows he must ensure that this ritual is not completed, for if it is, the cost could be too high—and one of his friends may have to pay. Butcher’s deft dialogue continues with tongue-in-cheek humor, wry commentary, and snark, while this magical Boston setting is both familiar and fantastical.

VERDICT Grimsby continues his awkward hero’s journey, complete with reluctant partners and magical mysteries in the second installment of “The Unorthodox Chronicles,” after Dead Man’s Hand. This well-paced urban fantasy is a delightful addition to the subgenre.
Aug 162023

Booklist: In her debut, the first of a duology, Okosun creates a world based on Nigerian mythology that touches class, race, power, and colonialism. In Oyo, a world with four countries, magic users, Oluso, are not allowed to hurt anyone, and as nations started to fight one other, a division grew between those with magic and those without. The nation to the north, Eingard, went to an extreme and killed all its magic users and stole the throne from Dèmi’s family. Dèmi’s life is further complicated when Jonas reenters it. When they first met as children, they formed an instant bond. When they meet again as young adults, that connection is just as strong, but Dèmi kidnaps Jonas and wants to use him in a scheme against the Eingardian government. Dèmi is willing to do just about anything to change the fate of the Oluso. Dèmi is powerful, strong, and smart, with a kind heart—just the kind of main character readers will celebrate. While fighting the cruel Eingardians, she is also trying to figure out love and life. Add to that the spoton world building and political complications and fantasy readers will find something to enjoy in this powerful work.

Aug 142023

Locus: Labyrinth’s Heart is the third and final book in the Rook and Rose trilogy, after The Liar’s Knot and The Mask of Mir­rors. The writing duo Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, under their joint M.A. Carrick pseudonym, have given the trilogy a revolution­ary, explosive climax – in both political and emotional terms. It’s a fantastic conclusion, but anyone coming to it without the previous books as background is rapidly going to find themself very lost. I have to salute Carrick for their in­clusion of a brief ‘‘The Story So Far’’ summary, though: a year is a long time, and my memory isn’t what it used to be.

The city of Nadežra is a divided one. Set on a river delta, home to the holiest site in Vraszan – the Wellspring of Ažerais – for generations, it has been ruled by Liganti noble houses and wealthy gentry, descendants of conquerors, who set themselves above the Vraszenians whose city it once was. Ren and her sworn sister Tess came back to it with a plan: Ren would con her way into the heart of House Traementis and set them up for life. Swept up in Nadežran politics and magical disasters, Ren – as ‘‘Renata Viraudax’’ – found wholehearted welcome with, and adop­tion into, House Traementis, but her successful con began to weigh on her conscience as her affection for her new family grew. Meanwhile, she grew close with Grey Serrado, one of the few Vraszenian officers in the city police, a man who by night took up the mantle of the Rook, a legendary vigilante. She also found an ally in Vargo, slum-crimelord-turned-nobleman. In her Vraszenian persona as ‘‘Arenza Lenskaya,’’ Ren found herself drawn into the orbit of Vraszenian revolutionaries. And as the Black Rose – a disguise that’s a mystical gift from the Wellspring of Ažerais – Ren found herself in the centre of even more events.

In the course of which both Grey and Vargo became aware of all of her identities, and in which all three of them learned that a set of ancient artefacts – medallions drawing on the corrupting power of the Primordials, which de­stroyed at least one city – circulate in Nadežra. This corrupting power will do nothing good. Unfortunately, Ren, Grey, and Vargo now all have medallions of their very own, which lends a certain urgency to their need to find some way to destroy these dangerous but powerful artefacts.

This is where Labyrinth’s Heart begins. In less accomplished hands, the magical threat would be the novel’s largest focus. But while the mystical threat to Nadežra and its people is never entirely out of sight, Carrick’s just as interested in the non-mystical tensions of a city bubbling with revolutionary ferment, the sort of generational injustice that leads to explosions if you have gunpowder, and to factionalism between the bloody and the less bloody revo­lutionaries on how many things they should blow up. And Carrick’s just as interested, too, in the strains and consequences of Ren’s multiple identities and compounding lies, and what that means for her and her relationships. When her deceptions are revealed to House Traementis, there are a lot of consequences to reckon with, and not just for her.

The setting is richly detailed, with a deep sense of place. Carrick evokes atmosphere deftly, and Nadežra draws from the same well as Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Melissa Scott and the late Lisa A. Barnett’s Astreiant series, where duellists and brawlers, con artists and revolutionaries and fortune-tellers (false and truthful) rub up against aristocrats and schol­ars, and slums and sewers provide counterpoint to lavish fetes and the upholstered parlours of the wealthy: the kind of sensibility that’s always struck me as a working in a very Renaissance vein, even when it doesn’t draw directly on the aesthetics of late medieval Italy.

The characters, too, are drawn with skill and compassion. We see them reckoning with their own changes in who they are and how they’re seen by the world. Ren’s unmasking to House Traementis, teased all throughout the trilogy, is an excellent piece of narrative payoff: I honestly thought she’d get away with it, but if she had, she’d never have been spurred to reckon with who she is without her (metaphorical and real) masks.

Family and heritage, of blood or otherwise, is a theme that comes to the fore, as Ren discovers truths about hers, Grey is forced to confront his birth family and a more mystical inheritance, Giuna and Donaia of House Traementis reckon with their heritage and Ren’s position in their lives, and even Vargo has to come to terms with the connections he’s made: microcosms of the same reckoning that Nadežra as a whole has to make with its past and its unjust present, in political and in magical terms.

Labyrinth’s Heart ends on a very satisfying, if unlikely, note of revolution and reconcilia­tion: change and hope for a better future, both for the city and for all our protagonists. This is a novel full of tension and incident, colour and verve. It has style and a sense of humour, and as the capstone to the trilogy it more than lives up to its predecessors. I really enjoyed it, and I recommend the entire trilogy wholeheartedly.

Jul 202023

Publishers Weekly: Transporting readers to a blood-soaked Ireland, Sharpson (When the Sparrow Falls) delivers modern horror at its best. One stormy night in 1979, Etain comes across a faceless corpse on the road; days later, she’s found half dead near a burnt-out farmhouse, her shattered mind a blank. Then, one of her twin daughters disappears in 1989, and soon after, her husband is found dead in a suspected suicide. By 2003, the only person still looking for an explanation to this mysterious series of events is Etain’s surviving daughter, Ashling, a university drama student who’s just entering into a passionate love affair with a woman. Ashling’s convinced, however, that what she remembers of her sister’s disappearance can’t possibly be true: it involved a popular children’s TV show about a goat puppet that would only come out of his box if someone had been very bad. According to everyone else who watched the show, the box never actually opened—but Ashling remembers it differently, and the more she investigates, the more she comes to fear that what’s inside is no cuddly puppet, but something old, crafty, and hungry. Sharpson does a masterful job of weaving together the three timelines, handling each story with tremendous sensitivity and skill while supplying genuine scares. By turns tender and terrifying, sexy and stomach-turning, heartwarming and heartrending, this folklore-steeped exploration of generational trauma is a high-water mark for the Irish horror novel.

Jul 172023

Locus: Cassandra Khaw has cemented their status as horror royalty, once and for all, with their latest novella, The Salt Grows Heavy. All hail and long live! Here’s the thing, though: I’m not even sure how or where to start telling you about The Salt Grows Heavy. Nothing I say can quite capture the creeping body horror, the marvelous disorientation, or the toothy, sumptuous, and marvelously off-putting prose of the thing. Fans of Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth will be happy to see that Khaw’s vision and aesthetic remain as dark as ever, and relish that—in my opinion—they have managed to push further into the weird and the unsettling….for those of us who find darkness irresistible, especially when beautifully presented, The Salt Grows Heavy is a grotesquely perfect feast.

Jul 062023

Publishers Weekly: Heartfield (The Chatelaine) injects some magic into European history with this lush and enchanting outing. In 1768, close-knit sisters Charlotte and Antoine, daughters of the Habsburg emperor, are sent their separate ways to marry powerful husbands: Charlotte to Naples and the brutish King Ferdinand, and Antoine to France, where she is renamed Marie Antoinette and weds the future King Louis XVI. Isolated and alone, the two rely on lessons from a book of spells they discovered as children to reclaim power over their lives while trying to do right for their respective nations. As tension mounts both politically and in the magical world, the sisters find themselves on opposing sides, turning from close confidants to bitter rivals. Heartfield’s accounts of both queens are detailed and insightful, with a fresh take on Marie Antoinette and a fascinating look at her less famous sister. The magic system, which demands a sacrifice for each spell cast, is a cool concept, but in execution it’s a bit murky and occasionally feels like an afterthought to the story at hand. Still, fans of historical novels looking for just a touch of the fantastic are sure to be sucked in.