This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Half-Orc Anti-Heroes, AIs in Digital Paradise, and Magical Bicycle Chases

The Skaar Invasion, by Terry Brooks
The second installment in the Fall of Shannara quartet, which will end the Shannara saga, picks up with the Druid stronghold of Paranor sent into limbo, and their leader, Drisker Arc, trapped alongside it. Dar Leath, once in charge of protecting Paranor, searches desperately for a way to free Drisker, seeking to locate his apprentice, Tarsha Kaynin—but Leath isn’t the only one searching for Tarsha, and the Skaar aren’t standing idly by while all this happens; Ajin d’Amphere, the Skaar commander, plots to set her opponents against each other, intending to take advantage of the resulting chaos to conquer the Four Lands for herself. Brooks is clearly working hard to make sure the series ends with a bang. This is essential reading for Shannara fans.

The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French 
This deftly plotted and wildly original debut was a self-publishing sensation (winning author Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contest), and is now aiming for a wider audience with mainstream publication. The titular bastards are a rough-and-ready unit of half-orc warriors, capable fighters who ride wild boars into combat. The Lot Lands lie between the humans (known as frails) and the orcs (known as thicks). Both sides disdain the Grey Bastards as half-breeds. The half-orcs patrol the Lot Lands and protect humans from full-blood orc invasion. Grey Bastard Jackal thinks their leader, Claymaster, is losing his grip—especially when arrival of a wizard the Bastards call Crafty has only exacerbates Claymaster’s strange behavior. When Jackal’s attempted coup fails, he is sent into exile, where he begins to learn the truth about the half-orcs and the border they patrol.

The Synapse Sequence, by Daniel Godfrey
The author of the New Pompeii time travel duology returns with a science fiction set in a near-future London transformed by the existence of artificial intelligence. Humans live seemingly safer and more comfortable lives, their existences closely monitored by AIs and their needs seen to by robot servants. In practice, however, cold machine logic proves lacking in compassion, and people deemed insufficiently significant to serving the greater good can fall through the cracks. Anna Glover, a once prominent citizen now scorned for actions that lead to a war, tries to redeem herself by helping those left behind by the system, working for Synapse Initiatives to help develop mind sequencing tech that will make it easier to investigate crimes. When private investigator Adrian Fowler gets Anna involved in a case of abuse in the foster care system, the two unwittingly uncover a wide-ranging conspiracy that could disrupt this new world order. The smart worldbuilding and clever implementation of plausible tech gives this thriller a sharp, silicon edge.

The Mermaid, by Christina Henry
The author of revisionist takes on classic stories like Peter Pan (Lost Boy) and Alice in Wonderland (Alice) reimagines the circumstances of infamous true-life hoax of the Fiji Mermaid. The mermaid leaves the sea to live on land and discover the wonders of the human world—and what better way to do so than to become the star attraction in the Greatest Show on Earth? She strikes a bargain with P.T. Barnum, believing she can return to the water at any time, but the greedy flim-flam artist has no intention of giving up such a choice meal ticket. Aside from a richly rendered sense of time and place, Henry uses Amelia’s story as a vehicle to explore the racism and injustice of the era, turning what could’ve read like an extended Wikipedia entry into a modern fairytale with teeth.

The Thousand Year Beach, by Tobi Hirotaka
The first novel in translation from Japan’s Tobi Hirotaka, a three-time winner of the Seiun Award (often referred to as “the Japanese Hugo”). Costa del Número is a virtual resort, divided into several zones, including the Realm of Summer. Humanity used to find release and rest from a chaotic world among the artificial intelligences in the Realm, but no human has visited in a thousand years. The AIs there have continued to exist in their endless summer, however—until one day, an army of hungry spiders arrives and decimates the Realm in short order. As night falls, the few surviving AIs prepare for a final, hopeless battle against the invaders, uncertain of what’s happening in the real world beyond their virtual one.

The Privilege of Peace, by Tanya Huff
Huff’s third and final military science fiction story starring battle-hardened former space marine Torin Kerr, following An Ancient Peace and A Peace Divided, is another fast-moving, action-heavy story that doesn’t skimp of character development. Kerr has attempted to put her service behind her and live a quieter life, but the return of the strange aliens who caused the war of in the first place forces her out of retirement and back into action. The price of peace—both for humanity and for Kerr herself—is high, perhaps more than she can afford.

The Reign of the Departed, by Greg Keyes
The first book in the High and Faraway series tells the story of Errol Greyson, who wakes up after a suicide attempt trapped in a wooden body, while his flesh-and-blood one lies in a coma. His spirit has been captured by a woman named Aster Kostyena, who put it into the automaton in order to force Errol to travel to the Kingdoms, a place of magic and mystery, to retrieve a magical elixir that will cure her dying father. Errol’s no fan of this plan, but considering Aster can send his spirit into an eternal nothingness on a whim, he agrees. The pair travel to the Kingdoms, a land of strange beauty and dark terrors, encountering strange allies and dreadful enemies, as Errol begins to wonder if all of it is really happening, or if he’s just losing his grip on his sanity.

The Ninety-Ninth Bride, by Catherine F. King
The publishing imprint of the popular reading community The Book Smugglers offers up this subversive retelling of The Arabian Nights by Catherine Faris King. At 15, Dunya is given over by her father the Grand Vizier to the Sultan to be his bride—just like the 98 young women before her, all of whom died at dawn after spending their first night with the ruthless ruler. With help from a beautiful myrdery woman, Dunya hopes to survive via her storytelling skill. Rather than simply focus on Dunya’s survival, King’s novel considers the systems in power that allow a man like the Sultan to do such terrible things—and for people like Dunya’s father to aide in such atrocity. Those murdered brides are more than mere numbers—each was a person, and Dunya won’t let them be forgotten.

The Robots of Gotham, by Todd McAulty
When the robopocalypse comes, America tries to resist, outlawing artificial intelligence and going to war with machine-run fascist regimes. America loses. Badly. Suing for peace, The country is partitioned, with huge swaths of territory ruled by implacable machines. Canadian CEO Barry Simcoe is visiting Chicago when his hotel is attacked, plunging him into a war of survival. Stumbling onto a machine plot to unleash a virus that will eliminate problematic humans for once and for all, Simcoe finds himself connecting with the American Resistance, and discovering a secret that could tip the balance of power within this new world order. Debut author McAulty is an expert in machine learning, giving this look into humanity’s dark future a terrifying sense of verisimilitude.

Outcasts of Order, by L.E. Modesett, Jr.
One of fantasy’s most prolific authors returns with the 20th novel in the Saga of Recluce, and the sequel to The Mongrel Mage. Order Mage Beltur, who discovered he can wield the magical forces of both light and dark, a power unseen for centuries, has stopped a war and saved countless lives. But instead of being hailed as a hero, his fellow mages now view him as a threat, and endeavor to dispose of him, while everyone else would seek to use him as a tool to grab power for themselves. Beltur is forced to abandon the life and family he hoped to build for himself and go on the run and build a different sort of life for himself. As is expected for this series, Modesett excels at showing us the rhythms of life in his detailed secondary worlds even as he tackles complex questions of morality, and this middle installment of Beltur’s journey proves to be no exception.

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk
Polk’s debut is set in a universe resembling Edwardian England, except for the fact that in this reality, the elite families that sit atop government and the social order have magical powers as well as political ones. Miles Singer is from just such a family, but when he flees the lap of luxury to join the war effort, he grows disillusioned with the trappings of power, and takes the opportunity to fake his own death and assume a new identity. Posing as a doctor at a failing veterans’ hospital, he sees firsthand how war changes people, never for the good—soldiers are returning from the front plagued by terrible versions, and shortly thereafter, committing terrible acts of violence. When one of his patients is poisoned, Miles not only accidentally reveals his healing powers, he is thrust into a mystery that involves an aloof, beautiful man who is more than human—and who may hold the secret to stopping a brewing inter-dimensional war. This bewitching story of political maneuverings, dangerous magic, and bicycle chases is never less than addictive.

What new SFF are you grabbing this week?

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