This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: A Magical Manhattan Murder Mystery, a Return to Osten Ard, and Mercy’s Promise Kept

Westside, by W.M. Akers
In an alternate 1920s Manhattan in which a heavily fortified wall running along Broadway divides the island into Eastside, where the normal laws of reality still apply, and Westside, where things have gone down the magical drain, the latter has become a magical wasteland where only the dregs of society—criminals, artists, and drunks—remain. Gilda Carr calls Westide home, and works as a private investigator specializing in bite-sized mysteries like recovering lost gloves. Somehow, though, her latest case pushes her into a gangland war that connects to her own long-missing father and the reason for the Westside’s descent into unreal chaos. As much as she might like to, Carr can’t sidestep the responsibility she suddenly feels to get to the bottom of both mysteries, for her own sake and that of everyone living in the magic-ravaged city. Akers’ hugely enjoyable debut marries inventive alt-history with truly strange magic and a protagonist you won’t soon forget.

The Warship, by Neal Asher
The sequel to The Soldier and the second book in the Rise of Jain series, set within the operatic expanse of Neal Asher’s Polity Universe. Orlandine has been tasked with protecting the Polity from the threat of the ancient technology of a civilization known as the Jain, currently housed in an accretion disc surrounding a dead star, and plans to use a weaponized black hole to destroy it. Her actions are met with suspicion, and the mobilization of fleets of warships by both the artificial intelligences that govern the Polity and a faction of the alien Prador Kingdom. As the black hole does its work, other secrets hidden within the disc begin to be revealed, suggesting that Orlandine;s actions may have been orchestrated by a far deadlier power. Asher writes big, bold space opera in the vein of Iain M. Banks; he’s well-known in his native U.K. and deserves a larger audience this side of the pond.

Storm Cursed, by Patricia Briggs
Patricia Briggs delivers the 11th Mercy Thompson novel with the fierce energy of a promise kept—literally. When we last left her in Silence Fallen, Coyote shapeshifter Mercy pledged that she and her pack would protect the people living in their territory, thinking at the time that doing so would involve hunting the occasional zombie goat or running off some goblins. Instead she finds that her declaration has made her land a Neutral Zone where humans feel safe treating with the fae, leading to more complications than she can handle safely. As the humans and the Gray Lords of the fae jockey for position in the developing conflict, Mercy knows the safe thing to do would be to stay out of it—but she made a promise, and she and her pack are going to keep it.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang
It’s difficult to undersell Ted Chiang’s standing in the science fiction field; long before his “Story of Your Life” was made into the Academy Award-winning blockbuster Arrival, he was lauded in genre circles for crafting stories an innovative with their science as they are heartfelt in their consideration of human emotion. Only his second collection, following 2002’s Story of Your Life and Others, Exhalation brings together seven previously published stories (several long enough to be classified as novelettes or novellas) and two new ones; each is a finely cut gem. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (a Hugo-winner for Best Novelette) is a standout, a complex mix of fantasy and time travel tropes that unfolds with mathematical precision, but the most powerful entry may be the title tale, which turns the fate of a strange race of mechanical beings into a powerful allegory for the crisis of climate change. Truly essential reading.

By Demons Possessed, by P.C. Hodgell
P.C. Hodgell has been writing books in the Kencyrath series for decades, slowly building an expansive imagined universe. In this ninth full-length novel, primary protagonist Jame Knorth approaches a final reckoning with Perimal Darkling, the force that has dogged her kind, the Kencyr, across centuries and vast distances. Just when it appears the Kencyr might be able to finally defeat their old foe, Jame learns of an upheaval within the city of Tai-tastigon, where she was shaped as a leader of her people. Gods and demi-gods, missing souls and disappearing shadows, and “demon-wrought madness”: it’s up to Jame to deal with it all.

Snakeskins, by Tim Major
Seventeen-year-old Caitlin Hext is a Charmer, one with the ability to rejuvenate by producing a clone every seven years. These clones usually soon disintegrate, but following her first “shedding ceremony,” Caitlin finds that hers inexplicably do not, forcing her to question her own identity and her family’s place in the genetic legacy of their kind. Soon, she begins to realize she is but one small piece of an ever-widening government conspiracy that involves all citizens of Britain, regular humans and Charmers alike. It’s an unusual setup for an intricate political thriller that coils in on itself, tightening the tension as it circles toward satisfyingly shocking answers.

Octavia Gone, by Jack McDevitt
The mystery at the center of the reliably entertaining eighth Alex Benedict novel centers around a space station, the Octavia, that disappeared while the scientists aboard it were studying a nearby black hole. An artifact of possibly alien origin might be the key to solving the mystery, if only far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his uncle Gabe can retrieve it for study. If that isn’t enough, Gabe, recently returned from space and a stint in a time warp, has been declared dead due to timey-wimey shenanigans, and Alex and his pilot Chase Kolpath have already made progress adjusting to life without him. They all soon learn that the question of the Octavia might hinge on a love affair gone bad—or an alien plot. The clues lead them out into space once more, and toward what might be the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire’s latest and longest work is also her best: a structurally complex, richly written, deeply imagined fantasy about the bonds that can unite two souls even across vast distances. One day, young Roger Middleton is struggling with his math homework when the voice of a girl named Dodger Cheswich pipes up in his head, giving him the answers. Roger and Dodger some discover that though they live on opposite coasts, they can communicate with one another, and develop a strange sort of friendship. What they don’t know is that they’re the end result of an experiment begun in the late 19th century by alchemist Asphodel Baker who dreamed of rewriting reality by embodies the forces of creation into living hosts, a plan she encoded in a series of children’s books. Her creation and eventual murderer, a man named James Reed, took up her work and engineered Roger and Dodger’s births as one half each of the Doctrine of Ethos, the force that holds existence together. As the twins mature, Reed seeks to control them and implement the final stage of Baker’s masterwork, but their connection has made them powerful, and difficult to control. With the rules of the game set, the children must awaken to their shared destiny and shape a reality that will ensure their survival, not to mention the continued existence of the universe.

Million Mile Road Trip, by Rudy Rucker
The legendary weird sci-fi auteur Rudy Rucker returns with his first book in five years, a suitably mind-bending, transreal novel that takes mutates a classic road-trip structure into a wacky sci-fi adventure for the ages. About to graduate high school and facing the drudgery of adult life, Zoe Snapp sets off on a roadtrip with her crush, surfer Villy Antwerpen, in his somewhat trusty ride (nicknamed the purple whale) and along the way inadvertently opens a portal to another dimension, through which aliens promptly arrive. The aliens deliver the duo to a parallel universe where Zoe and Villy discover that sentient flying saucers intend to invade their own in order to absorb humanity’s consciousness, which is their sustenance. It’s up to Zoe, who hasn’t even graduated yet, and Villy (who’s failing math) to venture across a million miles of new dimensions into order to defeat them before it’s too late. Packed with heady math and physics, written in the style of Kerouac, with plot twists aplenty and symbolism right out of Pynchon, it’s a head trip that’s even weirder than it sounds.

Theater of Spies, by S.M. Stirling
The second book in Stirling’s Alternate War series finds scientist Ciara Whelan and Luz O’Malley—a leading agent of President Teddy Roosevelt’s elite spy network Black Chamber—resting after their recent efforts to foil a German terrorist plot. As World War I looms, intelligence comes in about a devastating new weapon the Germans are developing—and the Black Chamber requires they cut their recuperation short to once again serve their country. They go undercover as the world erupts into conflict, heading to Berlin and pursued by a legendary German agent called Imperial Sword, who leads a pack of stormtroopers commanded by Ernst Röhm.

The Gordian Protocol, by David Weber and Jacob Holo
Weber and Holo serve up a time-twisty standalone adventure that crackles with a thriller’s energy. Professor Ben Schröder has suffered a psychotic episode that left him with a whole second set of memories of a world where the Holocaust occurred and nuclear weapons threaten mankind’s survival. He’s learned to compensate for these nightmarish visions until a man named Raibert Kaminski shows up at his door and announces himself a time traveler from an alternate reality. Kaminski drops a bombshell: a chronological disaster is threatening the existence of 15 separate realities and has given rise to a tyrant who uses time travel technology to solidify his power. As Schröder struggles with his sense of reality and sanity, Kaminski hits him with the real body blow: he, Ben Schröder, is the key to it all—and he faces a choice that puts the fate of entire realities in his hands.

A Chain Across the Dawn, by Drew Williams
The second book in Drew Williams’ Universe After space opera series, following 2018’s The Stars Now Unclaimed, delivers another fast-flying, wildly imagined, cheekily humorous adventure. Three years ago, Esa left her ho-hum planet to join the Justified, a group that gathers together children with mystical abilities in the hopes of uniting them against the Pulse, a force with the power to destroy technology across the inhabited galaxy. Esa and her colleague Jane are on the hunt for others of her kind, and on their latest retrieval mission, they learn they aren’t the only ones. Someone—or something—else is seeking these special children for unknown purposes, and it’s up to Esa and Jane (and their new recruit, a young boy named Sho) to find answers before the galaxy loses its one reliable defense against the Pulse.

Empire of Grass, by Tad Williams
The solution to the mystery of the Witchwood Crown continues to elude King Simon and his queen, Miriamele in this second book of Williams’ Last King of Osten Ard series trilogy. As the kingdoms of Osten Ard descend separately into war, division, and strife, the Crown might be the key to it all—if Simon and Miriamele can solve the puzzle. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Norns has made a deal to bring her immortal armies into the mortal lands, the nomads on the grasslands are unifying with cult-like fervor, and everything begins to fall apart in ways large and small as a disparate group of people fighting for their own survival in the chaos come to represent the only hope for the survival of all living things. We’re happy to say once again that thus far, the followup to Williams’ landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is more than living up to the reputation of its forebear.

Noir Fatale, edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell
As countless stories of space investigators and half-fae detectives have proven, noir tropes fit in unusually well with the general milieu of sci-fi and fantasy. That fact is certainly in evidence in this new anthology edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, which collects 13 noir-ish SFF from veteran and up-and-coming authors, including Correia himself, Laurell K. Hamilton (writing in her Anita Blake urban fantasy series), David Weber, Sarah A. Hoyt, and more, each of whom puts their own spin on the familiar notion of the femme fatal.

What new sci-fi & fantasy books are on your list this week?

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