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Stefan Raets

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: Rereading Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn, the fourth novel in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, is my favorite installment to date. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that, for me at least, this book is the point where the entire series comes into its own. James S.A. Corey takes all the threads from the previous books and pulls them together. On one level, Cibola Burn is a classic space colonization stranded-on-an-alien-planet tale, but all the socio-political and personal angles that have been built up in the previous three novels hover over the action on Ilus/New Terra and turn it into so much more. I found it impossible to put down even during a second reading.

But first a quick summary to refresh your memory. Obviously, expect spoilers for all the Expanse books up to and including this one. You have been warned.
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Apocalypse Squad: The Trials by Linda Nagata

Novels like The Trials by Linda Nagata give me—or at least restore some of my—faith in the publishing industry.

Sure, there’s the story of how the book came to be in the first place: Linda Nagata, who wrote several critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful science fiction novels in the 1990s, self-published The Red: First Light in 2013 after a long break. Lo and behold, the indie-published title garnered critical acclaim, not to mention nominations for both the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Awards.

Soon after, the novel and its sequels were acquired by new SFF imprint Saga Press. A slightly revised edition of The Red was published in June, closely followed by The Trials, with series closer Going Dark due in early November.

While I enjoy a good Cinderella publishing story as much as the next tired, jaded reviewer, I really love these books most of all for what they are: some of the most action-packed and intelligent military science fiction to be released in years.

(Spoiler warning: The Trials is the direct sequel to The Red, and it’s pretty much impossible to discuss the new book without including plot details from the first one. So, if you haven’t read The Red yet, stop here and go check out my review of the novel instead.)

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Who Hacks the Hackers? Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

So an Arab Spring hacktivist, an online troll, a wannabe Anonymous-style hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and a credit card scammer walk into a bar… Well, okay, the bar part isn’t necessarily part of Chuck Wendig’s new novel Zer0es, but wouldn’t that make for a great joke-writing contest?

Instead, Zer0es begins with the five aforementioned digital malcontents getting caught in various acts of online criminality, then being strong-armed by the U.S. government into working for them. The hackers can either do ten years hard time in a federal prison or spend one year working for Uncle Sam in what appears to be a secretive cyber-espionage project. Faced with a textbook example of “an offer they can’t refuse,” they soon find themselves at a remote location known only as “the Lodge.”

[“We’re all just ones and zeroes,” Wade says. “Trick is figuring out which of us are ones and which of us are zeroes.”]

Fake It Till You Make It: Savages by K.J. Parker

K.J. Parker appears to be in a very prolific period in his career right now. In addition to the ongoing serial novel The Two of Swords, which just had its sixth monthly installment published in July, and last year’s short fiction/essay collection Academic Exercises, we are now treated to Savages, a brand new full length novel. (Plus, come October, a new novella right here on!) Maybe it’s the recent unveiling of his true identity that spurred all this activity? Whatever’s the cause, you’ll never hear me complain about more K.J. Parker on the shelves.

The setting for Savages, as for most of Parker’s output to date, is once again a vaguely recognizable (but really different) parallel of Europe during and after the breakup of the Roman Empire: there are Western and Eastern Empires, one with vaguely Roman-sounding names and one with kinda-Greek-sounding names, as well as some other parallels to countries and regions in historical central Europe. Fans of the author will catch references to, among others, Permia and Scheria, two countries that have frequently been featured in Parker’s fiction.

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Nixon’s The One: Crooked by Austin Grossman

Austin Grossman’s new novel, Crooked, features a very different Richard Nixon from the one you may remember from history class. To illustrate, allow me to start this review with a brief quote from the book’s opening chapter, showing Nixon in the Oval Office:

I closed the blinds, knelt down, and rolled back the carpeting to reveal the great seal of the office, set just beneath the public one. I rolled up my left sleeve and cut twice with the dagger as prescribed, to release the blood of the Democratically Elected, the Duly Sworn and Consecrated. I began to chant in stilted, precise seventeenth-century English prose from the the Twelfth and Thirteenth Secret Articles of the United States Constitution. These were not the duties of the U.S. presidency as I had once conceived of them, nor as most of the citizens of this country still do. But really. Ask yourself if everything in your life is the way they told you it would be.

Well, the man has a point.

[Spiro, we’re not in Washington anymore.]

Tribes For The Twenty-First Century: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

In Robert Charles Wilson’s new novel The Affinities, as in many of his other novels, the world as we know it is about to be remade. The difference with many of Wilson’s previous works is that, this time, the change seems relatively mild—or at least, at first it does. There are no aliens. There are no disappearing continents or mysterious artifacts from the future or impermeable spheres surrounding the entire planet.

Instead, the big change arrives gradually, brought on by very human advances in social teleodynamics. New technologies, algorithms and testing methods allow a company known as InterAlia (“Finding Yourself Among Others”) to sort people who pay a modest testing fee into twenty-two Affinities. The members of each affinity are supposed to be hyper-compatible: they are more likely to cooperate with each other in all areas of life, from the personal to the professional.

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Half of a War God: Gemini Cell by Myke Cole

“For the dead, war never ends.” That’s the somewhat ominous tagline on the cover of Myke Cole’s newest military fantasy novel Gemini Cell. Set in the early years of the Great Awakening, the novel shows how humanity first reacted to the sudden appearance of magical powers in random people—a process that would eventually lead to the militarization of magic as portrayed in Cole’s first three Shadow Ops novels: Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone.

Gemini Cell is in a sense a prequel to that trilogy. It doesn’t share any characters with the first three books, but it’s set in the same world during an earlier age, more or less setting the stage for what’s coming down in Control Point. A prequel in the L.E. Modesitt Jr. sense, maybe.

There’s two bits of good news here. First of all, if you’ve always been curious about the action-packed military fantasy Myke Cole excels at, this book is an excellent entry point to the series, as it basically requires zero knowledge of the other books. The second bit of good news: it’s also the best novel he’s written so far.

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The Mithras-Man Cometh: Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

I resolved to read everything Robert Jackson Bennett has written after reading American Elsewhere. Because I am somewhat obsessive about these things, I decided to read his books in order of publication, so last year I started out with Mr. Shivers, a book I’d maybe not have picked up elsewise because it’s billed more as horror than fantasy.

But then, what do I discover? It’s set during the Great Depression. Dear reader: I’ll read almost anything set during the Great Depression, particularly if it also touches on the Prohibition—an endlessly fascinating period in US history.

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Roommates From Hell: Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez

Diana’s had a tough time of it lately, but finally a stroke of luck comes along: after a long search, she finds the perfect apartment. It’s affordable. It’s furnished exactly the way she likes. There’s even a jukebox with all her favorite songs.

Maybe she should have been more suspicious about how perfect it was, because once she’s moved in, she discovers that the apartment has an extra inhabitant: a monster who goes by the name Vom the Hungering and who tries to eat everything in his path. Before Diana knows it, she has acquired a small menagerie of eldritch horrors from the beyond, and she learns that the universe is infinitely more complex—and dangerous—than she ever imagined.

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Deliciously Weird: American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

Mona Bright used to be a cop. She was married. They were expecting a baby. Then, abruptly, everything fell apart and her life collapsed. Since then, she’s been drifting from town to town, taking short term jobs, drinking heavily, looking for oblivion… until she learns that she’s inherited her mother’s house, somewhere in a small New Mexico town called Wink.

When Mona starts trying to find Wink, it turns out that the place is incredibly hard to track down. Resolved to grasp the chance at stability that this house represents, she digs in and finally manages to reach the isolated little town. Wink turns out to be picturesque and quiet, a quintessential American Small Town complete with lovely houses, healthy lawns and white picket fences, but it soon becomes clear that there’s something very odd about the people who live there….

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A Gallery of Rogues: “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch

Rogues! What would fantasy be without them? You have to love the snarky, high-dexterity tricksters who add an element of surprise (and fun!) to the traditional swords-and-sorcery mix.

Ask some random readers for modern fantasy recommendations involving rogues, and you’re sure to hear more than a few people mention the names Scott Lynch and Locke Lamora—the former being the author of the wonderful Gentleman Bastard series, and the latter the main character of that series and, for my money, the best rogue character to appear in the genre in ages.

So. With that being said, I’ll go ahead and break the bad news: Scott Lynch’s contribution to the new Rogues anthology is not a Locke Lamora story. As far as I know, it’s not even set in the world of the Gentleman Bastard series. Of course, it could be: I didn’t recognize any proper names from the series, but the story might well be set on an entirely different continent or possibly in an entirely different era. Who knows, maybe Lynch is even trying to pull a Brandon Sanderson “Cosmere” trick here.

Still, for all intents and purposes, I think we can consider the story unconnected to the adventures of Locke, Jean, Sabetha et al. Not that this in any way spoils the fun, because “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is a blast from start to finish.

[We did it and lived.]

Oliver’s Army Is Here To Stay: Defenders by Will McIntosh

It’s 2029, and things aren’t looking good for the human race. Ever since the alien race known as the Luyten invaded Earth a few years ago, humanity has been fighting a losing war. Billions of people have died. The scattered survivors try to fight back, but their efforts are doomed from the start because the Luyten are telepathic: they always know when, where and how the next attack will happen. They use their electrocution and heating weapons with ruthless, impassive efficiency. The giant, starfish-shaped mind-readers appear to be an unstoppable foe.

It will take a miracle for the human race to survive and recapture their own planet. A miracle—or the Defenders….

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Bear Witness: My Real Children by Jo Walton

A wise person once told me that 50% of your life’s happiness derives from one decision: who will be your significant other? Or possibly I just heard it on Dr. Phil—I don’t know. In either case, Jo Walton’s lovely new novel My Real Children is an illustration of that idea.

Patricia Cowan, suffering from dementia, struggles to remember her daily life. She writes endless lists in her retirement home, trying to remind herself of all the little facts and tasks that are slipping away. The nurses track her mental state on her chart: “Confused Today,” it says one day, or “Very Confused,” or sometimes just “VC.” Patricia can only agree, and try to hold on as her grasp on reality inexorably fades.

[Splintered in her head]

Far Eastern Steampunk: Shanghai Sparrow by Gaie Sebold

When we first meet Eveline “Evvie” Duchen, she is scraping together a living as a pickpocket and con artist on the streets of London. Things used to be very different for her: she lived in the country, in touch with the mysterious Other Folk and fascinated by the Etheric machines her mother built. As Gaie Sebold’s new novel Shanghai Sparrow continues, we slowly find out how exactly Evvie went from her earlier comfortable life to being a street urchin in London.

Then, her life changes again when Holmforth, an ambitious government agent of the British Empire, catches her trying to pull a con and makes her choose: get shipped off to the colonies, or join a secret boarding school for girls who might become useful to the Empire as spies…

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An Abundance of Plots: The Enceladus Crisis by Michael J. Martinez

Once upon a time, there was an author who wrote a novel. That’s not that strange in the Age of NaNoWriMo, but what’s much more rare is that he actually sold the book. Then, the tale became even stranger, because the author had the great misfortune of seeing his publisher go under just months before his debut novel would be released.

That author is Michael J. Martinez, and the novel, entitled The Daedalus Incident, did eventually see publication when Night Shade Books was acquired by Skyhorse/Start Media. (You can read a longer version of the book’s very odd history, plus my review.) Now, just about a year later, Michael J. Martinez returns with The Enceladus Crisis, the direct sequel to The Daedalus Incident.

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