This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Divine Politics, Mushroom Zombies, and Murderbots

City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Gods, geopolitics, colonialism, murder and mystery—Bennett combined all of these elements in the first two books of his excellent Divine Cities series, set in a world where gods once helped the city of Bulikov dominate The Continent and the country of Saypur, but saw the tables turned when technology-driven Saypur killed the gods and took power. The disorder of the world and the cynicism of Bennett’s characters combine alchemically to produce human-scale stories of revenge, espionage, and desperation that ground everything in a realism the fantasy setting shouldn’t support—but somehow does. In the final volume of the trilogy, Bennett tells the story of the cursed, powerful man pursuing justice for the murderers of former Prime Minister Shara Komayd—a justice whose cost might be beyond him, as it leads him into a secret war and in conflict with a young god.

Alien Education, by Gini Koch
Koch adds new levels of delicious chaos to her Alien universe in this 15th installment, which finds Kitty tapped to represent Earth in the Galactic Council. The dust is still settling on Earth after the events of Alien Nation, and Kitty’s foray into intergalactic diplomacy does not start off well. Now, she’s embroiled with Hollywood types who want to make a film based on her life, which promises to cause nothing but trouble. Meanwhile, the kids at Embassy Daycare are uneasy about the staff at the school they’re about to graduate into—and their fellow classmates and their families. Something’s going on, and only the kids can see it. And if that’s not enough balls to juggle, Stephanie Valentino—Kitty’s husband Jeff’s niece, and secret heir to the Mastermind, has returned, signaling plenty more trouble waiting in the wings. While Kitty and Jeff have to deal with the terrifying parent-teacher association at school and a terrifying attack from a new enemy—but the PTA is definitely the worst of the two.

Cold Reign, by Faith Hunter
The 11th Jane Yellowrock novel kicks off with an action sequence and speeds up from there. Jane and her partner Eli tackle a rogue vampire, then come across the decomposing bodies of another bloodsucker and a human, speculating they are connected to a territorial brawl between vampiric Master of the City Leo Pellisier and a troupe of European vamps. Before Jane can dig into this trouble, more arrives in the form of the restless, riotous population of New Orleans and a never-ending storm that’s carrying an enchantment. Hunter’s skill at crafting flashy fight scenes is matched by her main character’s complexity, as Yellowrock must once again make painful sacrifices in order to stick to her personal code and do what’s right.

Pawn, by Timothy Zahn
Zahn launches the Sibyl’s War series with Pawn, which opens with the dispiriting story of Nicole Lee. Nicole is miserable—she has no job or money, and is living with a thug named Bungie whose shady deals often go awry. Just when she’s convinced her life will never change, a mysterious moth-like creature seizes them both, transporting them to a ship called the Fyrantha. Onboard, Nicole is initially encouraged—all she has to do to earn her keep is work on a maintenance crew. Slowly, however, she begins to perceive a dark undercurrent to ship life, as she realizes she and her fellow crewmates are just pawns in a larger game—just as she’s been a pawn her whole life. Determined not to be one any longer, Nicole decides to fight back, a decision that threatens to upset the careful balance of life on the Fyrantha forever. Though a bit outside of Zahn’s space opera wheelhouse, this one bears all his hallmarks, including fast-paced plotting, and intriguing storyline, and engaging, relatable characters.

The Boy on the Bridge, by M.R. Carey
Carey returns to the universe of The Girl with All the Gifts from a new, refreshing angle. In the decimated ruins of Scotland, a huge armored vehicle—the Rosalind Franklin, a.k.a. Rosie—trundles along, carrying 12 people: five scientists, six soldiers, and Stephen Greaves. Stephen is 15 years old, and beyond brilliant—but also beyond damaged, almost crippled by social anxiety. Epidemiologist Dr. Samrina “Rina” Khan thinks Stephen might be brilliant enough to help find a cure for the Cordyceps pathogen that has nearly destroyed mankind. When Stephen stumbles upon a “hungry” girl who also appears to be intelligent, there’s hope for a breakthrough—but the simmering tensions inside the Rosie could boil over at any time ,as scientists and soldiers struggle to assert control when the team loses contact with their home base.

The Guns Above, by Robyn Bennis
Mix a Napoleonic-era war and a fleet of airships, and you’ve got a recipe for exciting steampunk action. Josette Dupre has just been made the first female commander in the Garnian Royal Aerial Signal Corps—but her superiors aren’t thrilled, so they assign her an experimental prototype airship that may never get off the ground. Dupre is determined and smart, however, and improves the design and gets her crew into the air—a crew that includes Lord Bernat, a useless aristocrat who’s there solely to spy on her and report back incriminating evidence of her unfitness. Circumstances conspire to put Dupre and crew at a pivotal moment in the war—and slowly, even Bernat is won over by her courage, intelligence, and dedication to her homeland. The only question remaining is whether or not Dupre and her people will be blown out of the sky before they can make their mark.

Tremontaine, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover, and Racheline Maltese
Set in the lush world of Kushner’s beloved swashbuckling romantic fantasy Swordspoint, Tremontaine was written and published serially by a team of writers under Kushner’s artistic direction and collected here in print for the first time. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is beautiful, intelligent, and facing ruin as a ship she invested in sinks at sea. At the university, Rafe Fenton thinks he has revolutionary ideas, but lacks the math skills to prove them. Micah, poor and brilliant, has the abilities Rafe needs, if only she had someplace to apply them. And Ixkabb Balam, whose family controls the profitable chocolate trade, has just arrived in the city seeking adventure. These ingredients add up to a compelling series of stories told in a way similar to prestige television, with a different writer and purpose to each “episode,” leading up to a satisfying conclusion.

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells
Veteran fantasist Wells proves her sure hand at sci-fi as she imagines a future dominated by corporations, in which the twin imperatives of bureaucratic adherence to policies and the need to award all contracts to the lowest bidder result in every planetary mission being required to be accompanied by a company-supplied SecUnit, an artificially intelligent android built from cheap parts, and as likely to malfunction as all of the other shoddy equipment the expeditions are counting on to, oh, keep them breathing. The SecUnit narrating the story has hacked its own Governor Module, attaining sentience and free will; it would despise the humans it protects if it didn’t find them so boring, but it nevertheless refers to itself as Murderbot. When its humans are attacked by something outside of the experience provided by its data banks, however, Murderbot must turn its prickly, near-omniscient mind towards not just the survival of its humans, but itself. This slim read is both surprisingly funny and pack with intriguing future worldbuilding, all the more reason to celebrate the sequel due later in the year.

Free Space, by Sean Danker
Fans of Danker’s Admiral know that you underestimate the titular character at your own peril. On his way to ending a horrific war, the Admiral has already impersonated royalty and escaped more assassination attempts than he can even remember. Enjoying his triumph on a date with Tessa Salmagard—a trained soldier of the Imperial Service—the Admiral finds himself kidnapped and pressed into slavery. He’s sanguine at first, confident in his abilities and the fact that his captors don’t realize how dangerous Salmagard is—but he soon comes to realizes he’s in much more trouble than initially thought, and suddenly, his date can’t rescue him fast enough.

Netherspace, by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster
Aliens arrive on Earth, but nothing goes as you might assume. Their anatomy is baffling, and all attempts at meaningful communication fail. The only force that unites the two species is transactional; trade of a sort is established between humans and the aliens, although it’s a rough trade—living human beings are handed over in exchange for advanced alien technology that allows us to colonize the stars. Forty years on, former army sniper Kara remains hostile to all things alien, bitter her sister was given over to them. When she’s drafted onto a team being sent to negotiate for the release of human colonists who have been kidnapped by aliens, she’s unwilling and confused as to why her teammates are people with no training or experience. Together, they have to figure out how you negotiate with a species you can’t understand, which can’t understand you.

The Gathering Edge, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The landmark 20th Liaden Universe novel finds Theo Waitley, bonded to the sentient starship Bechimo, seeking an escape from the hordes of people who wish to kill her, seize her vessel, and arrest more or less her entire crew. The Bechimo suggests a vacation of sorts in “safe space.” But that safety falls into immediate question when the walls between universes and times grow thin, and things start leaking through—including entire starships. One, a battle-scarred relic from an ancient, doomed war, is crewed by Theo’s own ancestors—and they could use some help in the survival department. The anomalous scenario gives Theo serious choices to make, transforming the “safe space” into something much more perilous—and much more adventurous.

A Tyranny of Queens, by Foz Meadows
The women of Kena (and our own world) return. An Accident of Stars was a masterwork of worldbuilding, a debut novel offering up a fantasy universe that felt huge, populated by characters who felt real. In the sequel, Australian teen Saffron is back in our world, where her experiences in the complex (and magical) politics of Kena threaten to see her committed to a psychiatric facility, unless she turns her back on the events and relationships that changed her forever. Meanwhile, things in Kena get even more complicated. Meadows debut was a delight, and the sequel goes beyond classic portal fantasy tropes to explore what happens after you come back through the looking-glass.

Borrowed Souls, by Chelsea Mueller
When Callie Delgado takes a gig as a “Soul Charmer,” she tells herself it will only be for two weeks, and only to pay off her brother’s debt to a dangerous man. She works for a collector who rents souls to those in desperate need of them—and sometimes, the desperate folks don’t want to give back what they’ve borrowed, and that’s where Callie comes in. By even as she starts to get the hang of the job with the help of a mysterious man named Derek, they two discover their boss has competition in town. Someone is trying to horn in on the soul market in the city, and saving her brother means Callie will need figure out who, and how to stop him. If you’re tired of the same-old, same-old in urban fantasy, this series-starter may just reinvigorate your love for the genre with its clever premise, seedy worldbuilding, and irresistible characters. 

The Song of the Dead, by Carrie Patel
The final book of Patel’s Regency fantasy series returns to the gaslit underground city of Ricoletta and the casework of Inspector for the Recoletta Liesl Malone for another delightful blend of magic and whodunnit-style mystery. With a powerful imbalance threatening to plunge the city into choas, Malone and her erstwhile partner Jane must journey across an ocean to investigate a civilization one much older than their own, which may hold the key to their survival—and unlock the secrets of the so-called Catastrophe that tilted the axis of their world centuries in the past, and drove their people below ground.

Damnation, by Peter MacLean
The third installment in MacLean’s gritty Burned Man series, which follows demon-plagued former hitman Don Drake, now living down and out in Edinburgh and trying to survive as a hedge wizard, doing simple spells for the locals. He’s ostensibly in Scotland to track down an old girlfriend, but the monster in his head is driving him mad., and an encounter with a wandering magician leaves him worse off than ever. This time, the biggest threat to Don’s life and sanity may be Don himself.

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