Vo's Debut of the Month, plus Muir, Chung, Cole, Gallagher, & More | Sf/Fantasy

Featuring both series and stand-alone titles from debut authors and established favorites alike, here's what we read this March in science fiction and fantasy.


Chung, Caitlin. Ship of Fates. Lanternfish. Apr. 2020. 144p. ISBN 9781941360316. pap. $12. FANTASY
DEBUT In this slim first novel, Chung crafts a dark, original fairy tale about fate, consequences, and the origins of California’s gold. An unnamed narrator in an unidentified time begins the story, visiting an abandoned lighthouse in San Francisco. The heavy door is answered by an age-defying Chinese woman, who serves tea and starts spinning stories. She begins in 1000 BCE China with teenage Mei, promised in marriage to a stranger. Instead, she steals his riches, flees to San Francisco, and flings the gold into area rivers. She changed her fate, but at great cost. Mei is now cursed to live until she reclaims all the gold. The Gold Rush arrives before she finishes, and her desperation grows. Spanning generations, focusing largely on Chinese women in and around San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, the story explores fate, the oppression women faced, and how Mei’s progressively riskier acts, including attempts to sacrifice other women to save herself, affect those around her.
VERDICT Speaking to the difficulties that faced women, particularly immigrants in the 1800s, this is a powerful if bleak look at the nature of California’s Barbary Coast. Recommended for fans of unique historical fiction.—Katie Lawrence, Grand Rapids, MI

Cole, Myke. Sixteenth Watch. Angry Robot. Mar. 2020. 432p. ISBN 9780857668059. pap. $14.99. SF
Coast Guard Commander Jane Oliver had a clear view of retirement ahead of her, after serving the moon assignment of 16th Watch. However, an overzealous response to a fight has left her husband dead, and now Jane is running on empty. When she is approached to go back to the moon, this time to train the next group for the famous Battalion Games, the Coast Guard’s elite SAR-1 lunar unit, she finds a crew still in mourning and stuck in the past. Finding a way to inspire her crew, when she feels just as lost, seems impossible. Yet Jane also finds that tension between the Coast Guard and Navy commands is spiraling into border issues, and she may be the only one who can keep it from exploding into all-out war.
VERDICT Cole’s (The Killing Light) military experience creates an immersive read. Smart prose and intense conflict will keep readers engaged to the very end.—Kristi Chadwick, Massachusetts Lib. Syst., Northampton

Flynn, Katie M. The Companions. Scout: Gallery. Mar. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781982122157. $27. SF
DEBUT In the near future, a viral outbreak has swept the country, leaving the populace living under quarantine. Meanwhile, the Metis corporation has developed technology that allows the consciousness of a person to be placed into an artificial host. The resulting entities, called companions, are either wards of their relatives or property, with no rights. Lilac is one such companion, but she cannot forget her life and escapes her assigned post to seek out someone from her past. Her search covers decades in which society’s stance on companions changes, while both regular humans and others like Lilac struggle with the question of what makes someone human. Lilac’s story weaves in and out of the narrative, and the author gives plenty of other points of view, including a human caregiver, a homeless teen, a movie star who becomes a companion, and one of the scientists involved in creating the technology that made companions possible.
VERDICT While the worldbuilding might not be robust enough for some sf fans, the strength of this first novel is in the writing and nuanced characters. Through the experiences of people who might no longer be considered fully human, the author thoughtfully explores the nature of humanity.—Megan M. McArdle, Lib. of Congress, National Lib. Svc. for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Gallagher, Matt. Empire City. Atria. Apr. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781501177798. $27. SF
Children across the nation know the Volunteers, superhuman soldiers who helped America win wars around the world. It has been 30 years since the Vietnam War was won, but the political front at home is heating up. An ex-military group is clashing with the police presence, and terrorists threats in the veteran rehabilitation colonies means the government may be exposed. Within the city-state of Empire City, the Volunteers are waiting to do what they are best at—fighting—but are being sidelined for publicity. The truth behind the Volunteers’ powers lies in the hands of a couple of civilians, friends who may end up on different sides as a retired general comes to the forefront of the presidential election, one that could bring military rule across the country.
VERDICT Super-powered soldiers, civilians, and government secrets tangle together in this alt-reality military science fiction tale. Gallagher’s (Kaboom) sharp prose, fine details, and emotional characters highlight the divisions between the nation’s leaders and residents.—Kristi Chadwick, ­Massachusetts Lib. Syst., Northampton

Gear, Kathleen O’Neal. Cries from the Lost Island. DAW. Mar. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9780756415785. $26. FANTASY
At 16, Colorado schoolkid Hal is obsessed with ancient Roman and Egyptian history and mythology. Cleo Mallawi, his best friend, is from Egypt and believes she is Cleopatra reborn. She also believes she is being stalked by an ancient demon, Ammut. She calls him in danger; he and his friend Roberto rush to help but are too late. Cleo dies in Hal’s arms. Not knowing who murdered Cleo and having a difficult time with grief, Cleo’s uncle suggests that Hal and Roberto go to Egypt to work on his archaeological dig. The boys set out on an expedition with no idea of whom to trust or what might happen, enthusiastically embracing the challenges.
VERDICT This stand-alone from Gear (coauthor with husband W. Michael Gear, People of the Canyons; Star Path) is a great adventure with lots of suspense and danger, well researched and bringing history to life with vivid descriptions.—Cynde Suite, Bartow Cty. Lib. Syst., ­Adairsville, GA

Henry, Christina. Looking Glass. Ace: Berkley. (Chronicles of Alice, Bk. 3). Apr. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781984805638. pap. $16. FANTASY
Henry returns to her popular "Chronicles of Alice" series (Alice) with four novellas. The first is about Elizabeth, born to replace Alice, who had been sent to an asylum after her encounter with the Magician Rabbit. Elizabeth has powers of her own, but hasn’t been told of them or of her sister. Can Cheshire teach her about the Jabberwock in time for Elizabeth to save herself? In the second tale, Alice encounters a house. Looking for shelter from a blizzard and separated from her man Hatcher, she finds it was a snare to trap magicians. Fortunately, Alice is perfectly capable of saving herself. The third story focuses on Hatcher, before he became mad, when he was the boxer Nicholas, fighting in the Old City. Will he beat the Rabbit-owned fighter, Grinder? The final story is about Alice and Hatcher finding their dreamed-of house by the lake to settle down.
VERDICT Fans of the previous books will adore seeing the characters again and having loose ends tied up. Readers new to the series, however, will be as lost as Alice.—Jennifer Mills, Shorewood-Troy Lib., IL

Huang, S.L. Critical Point. Tor. (Cas Russell, Bk. 3). Apr. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781250180360. $27.99. SF
Cas Russell is a mathematical genius, and uses those skills as a mercenary. Unfortunately, after saving the world from a shadowy organization that planned to brainwash most of the population, she discovers that her skills were a result of their machinations—and her past identity was erased. Or so everyone thought. Now dealing with memories and flashes of the past, Cas finds that she has gained the unwanted attention of someone who likes blow things up. When that attention moves onto one of her closest friends, Cas races to discover answers that could result in killing everyone she cares about.
VERDICT High-stakes action and emotional velocity are hallmarks of Huang’s writing, creating an engaging and flawed protagonist that many will identify with, even when her internal conflict overwhelms some of the quieter plot threads. The third entry in the "Cas Russell" series (after Null Set) is a sf thriller that fans will truly enjoy.—Kristi Chadwick, Massachusetts Lib. Syst., Northampton

Irvine, Alex. Anthropocene Rag. Tor.com. Mar. 2020. 256p. ISBN 9781250269270. pap. $14.99. SF
This fascinating sf Western is set in a future that brings together American myths, nanotechnology, and a ruined United States with some intense climate change outcomes. The Boom, an ever-changing sentient nanotech power that changes people’s everyday reality, has taken control: one woman’s foster parents were killed when the Boom instantly and without warning made a greenhouse they frequented into a baseball stadium. An AI unit who goes by Prospector Ed, complete with the push-broom mustache and gold mining outfit, is on a mission to understand where he comes from, and collects a handful of young adults from across America to give out Willy Wonka–style golden tickets to the legendary Monument City. The tickets help the varied group escape from the Boom and other AI units who want to turn them into part of the myths they are playing out. They must fight terrain and monsters created by the Boom in an ever-changing landscape.
VERDICT ­Irvine (A Scattering of Jades) has created an interesting yet horrifying world where nanotechnology meets a destroyed Earth. Though tagged as a sf Western, it will also please fans of future apocalyptic novels.—Brooke Bolton, Boonville-Warrick Cty. P.L., IN

Jones, S.A. The Fortress. Erewhon. Mar. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781645660026. pap. $16.95. SF
When Jonathon’s pregnant wife Adalia learns of his dalliances with the plethora of young interns at his company, she gives him an ultimatum—serve as a supplicant at The Fortress for a year, or divorce. The Fortress is a territory controlled by the Vaik, warrior women who live largely agrarian lives and use male labor (in the form of volunteers and criminals from the rest of the world) to work and procreate. Entering The Fortress requires that Jonathon submit to the will of the Vaik in all matters, and the struggle he endures there breaks him and reforms him.
VERDICT Jones (Isabelle of the Moon and Stars) creates a world that, while perhaps lacking in worldbuilding elements, deeply explores the meanings of consent and power. There are moments of graphic violence and sex. Fans of Joanne Ramos’s The Farm and Margaret ­Atwood’s The Testaments may enjoy this role-reversal story.—Ahliah Bratzler, Indianapolis P.L.

redstarMuir, Tamsyn. Harrow the Ninth. Tor.com. (Locked Tomb Trilogy, Bk. 2). Jun. 2020. 512p. ISBN 9781250313225. $26.99. FANTASY
The Reverend Daughter Harrowhawk Nonagesimus was the last necromancer of the Ninth House. Now she is Harrowhawk the First, a Lyctor in service to the Emperor, the Undying King. But those in service hold both sword and power, and Harrow seems to be able to do neither. Her sword makes her physically ill, her body is failing, and her mind seems not far behind. Trapped in space with three seasoned Lyctors who seem to hate Harrow, training alongside a woman she detests, Harrow comes to realize that the war she drills for is as undying as her God—and cannot be won. Amidst the chaos, Harrow discovers that someone wants her dead, and worse, she is unsure if that may not be the best thing that can happen to her. Multiple jaunts into memories and a few familiar faces bring forth delightful, bloody action and character building.
VERDICT An incredible journey into the chaos of the mind, Muir’s latest (after Gideon the Ninth) doubles down on all the wonderfully queer and pulpy moments, body horror, and macabre humor of her debut—and exceeds it.—Kristi Chadwick, Massachusetts Lib. Syst., Northampton

Steinmetz, Ferrett. Automatic Reload. Tor: Starscape. May 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781250168214. pap. $16.99. SF
When Mat mustered out of the military due to an injury, he began body-hacking. At first he simply replaced the limb he lost with cybernetic hardware, but when he realized his cybernetics were faster and more accurate as weapons, he replaced them all and became one of the top body-hackers in the world. He used his military knowledge and cybernetics to carve out a career as a mercenary. When he’s offered $3 million for two hours’ work, he jumps at it, because cybernetics repair and replacement is expensive. All he has to do is help a bloodthirsty body-hacker and crew protect a shipment. Despite his careful planning, they’re attacked and he discovers the cargo is Silvia, a woman who’s undergone some involuntary biological enhancements. Mat can’t leave an innocent civilian behind even if she’s stronger, faster and more bulletproof than he is, and he just might be falling for her, even as a bloodthirsty organization hunts them relentlessly.
VERDICT Steinmetz (The Sol Majestic) delivers a "rom-com with explosions" featuring a hero with PTSD and control issues, and a killer heroine with a panic disorder. The action is nonstop, with issues of mental illness, identity, and humanity woven subtly throughout. Mat breaks the fourth wall in his random musings, rather like a cyborg Deadpool. Recommended for libraries looking for a deliciously over-the-top adventure. —Melanie C. Duncan, Washington Memorial Lib., Macon, GA

White, Corey J. Repo Virtual. Tor.com. Apr. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781250218728. $26.99. SF
Julius Dax, in-the-meat thief and online repo man, is tasked to steal an unknown object from the residence of tech billionaire Zero Lee. It turns out to be virtually magical, at once enthralling and disturbing. White’s (Static Ruin) economy of language pulls readers through heists, shoot-outs, and car chases—the smart-city of Neo Songdo’s skies haunted nightly by VOIDWAR, a game with millions of players. Aside from its augmented reality (only low-wage residents see the underlying grime and ruin), the world drawn here feels depressingly like now, its youths’ craving for speed and authenticity rendered moot by predatory capitalism’s eternal present moment. Akin to Philip K. Dick’s iconic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this title’s philosophical base addresses the status of nonbiological presences and what that says about humanity.
VERDICT White, known mostly for his "VoidWitch Saga," here twists the volume up, both dramatizing and warning against unchecked AI. What lingers is an important observation: no culture can retain its power and sanity when there are no noncynical eyes to see it. Cyberpunk and general sf readers will enjoy and even learn from this one.—William Grabowski, McMechen, WV

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