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Paul Weimer

Page-Turning Science Fantasy: Ash Kickers by Sean Grigsby

Following up on a gonzo high concept is hard. Spending a lot of genre capital on the first novel of a series can mean one of two basic paths to take to try and work in the same space. In the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie, for instance, she followed Ancillary Justice with the smaller scale, much more intimate story of Ancillary Sword, which had a much smaller scope and a much more philosophical bent than its already reflective predecessor. The other major path is to up the stakes, building on the first novel but on a wider scale. This is the path that Sean Grigsby’s Ash Kickers, sequel to Smoke Eaters, takes.

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A Draconic Musketeering Tale: Duncan M. Hamilton’s Dragonslayer

When I previously reviewed Howard Andrew Jones’ For the Killing of Kings, I invoked Dumas’ The Three Musketeers as a clear influence on the novel, with a society of users of blades and spells clearly inspired by the Musketeers as a central building block of plot and character development. Dumas’ powerful mix of legend and fact is hardly limited to one author, one novel, or one series, and I am pleased to see other SFF authors taking similar inspiration. So, then, comes Duncan M Hamilton’s Dragonslayer.

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The Deeper You Go, the Bigger the Worlds Get: Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds

Sura Neelin is on the run. In a near future where jobs are increasingly scarce, and making a living even more precarious if you aren’t a trillionaire, the news of the murder of her father, down in Peru, knocks her life completely off-kilter. Hunted by forces she doesn’t quite know or comprehend, she finds help and refuge, and starts to build a life and power for herself in an unanticipated way. For, you see, virtual reality overlay worlds—larpworlds—are slowly building in significance and power, and it is by joining and leading those communities that Sura has a chance not only to find out the truth about her father’s death, but perhaps help change society itself.

This is the setting and setup of Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds.

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An Altruistic Magical Heist: An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass

Heists. What are they good for? Quite a lot, actually which is why they are a plot structure that translates well into science fiction and fantasy works. Heists are great for showcasing team dynamics, action beats, unique character skills, and the sudden, difficult choices that arise when a carefully planned heist meets some unexpected threats. If anything, it’s only surprising that more authors do not attempt to use the form.

A heist revolving around the use of magic in a world where such magic is forbidden—hunted down and extirpated, in fact—is the set piece that is the tentpole of Cate Glass’ An Illusion of Thieves.

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The Consequences of Meddling: Suzanne Palmer’s Finder

From Ian Fleming’s James Bond to Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry, there is a pleasantly episodic feel to the sort of story that drops an adaptable agent into a situation where they’re charged with getting the goods/prize/bounty/whatever before riding out to the next mission. (See also: The Doctor.) But reality is often messier, especially when the agent in question starts to meddle in affairs and get involved, despite their training and better judgment. Especially if the agent is typically a loner, like con-artist/repo man Fergus Ferguson, star of Suzanne Palmer’s Finder.

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Managing Temporal Changes: Alastair Reynolds’ Permafrost

How do you change history to stop an apocalypse, but without changing recorded history and suffering the severe consequences and chaos from doing so?

Time travel manipulation on a fine scale is a tightrope of a problem and the stakes are for the fate of the world. The world is dying. Time is running out for humanity, living on stored food that is running out. To save humanity, the Permafrost project seeks to use time travel to make a small change, a change that can bring hope to the future. But changing recorded history has enormous risks and challenges, the paradox can be ferocious and the consequences not entirely clear. And when it is clear that there is more than one agenda is brewing, that there might be other agents seeking different changes to history, the perils of changing the time stream might prove personally deadly.

These are the central questions and story at the heart of Alastair Reynolds time travel novella, Permafrost.

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All Roads Lead to Darnassus: For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones

When a novel’s back cover invokes one of my touchstone books as being part of its DNA, that gets my attention, but it can be a lot to live up to. And when the novel is supposedly a cross between that touchstone book and to a beloved classic of literature, that is even more for a book to live up to. It draws my attention as a reader, but my critical eye is heightened as well.

The touchstone in this particular instance is Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, the classic in question is Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and the book that combines the two is historical fantasist Howard Andrew Jones’ turn into epic fantasy, For the Killing of Kings.

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From Urban Fantasy to High Epic Fantasy Hopepunk: Edward Lazellari’s Guardians of Aandor Trilogy

The Empire of Fantasy, unlike Gaul, can be divided, very roughly, into two parts, based on where it is set. On one side there is fantasy that focuses and is set on Earth. This is contemporary fantasy, with urban fantasy being the dominant form and flavor of that particular fantasy. From Seanan McGuire to Jim Butcher, it is a familiar and extremely popular half of fantasy, even if it is not quite as predominant as it once was.

On the other side, there is secondary world fantasy, which comes in sizes, scales, and flavors from sword and sorcery, to low fantasy to city-state fantasy, and all the way to epic fantasy that spans kingdoms, continents, and worlds. Secondary world fantasy, whether in the Tolkien, Jordan, Jemisin, Martin, or Elliott tradition, comes in a multitude of settings and subtypes. Recent developments, from grimdark to the increased use of settings and cultural inspirations far beyond Medieval Europe have made secondary world fantasy a hotbed of experimentation.

Portal fantasies bridges these two sides of fantasy, and is where Edward Lazellari’s Guardians of Aandor, concluding with Blood of Ten Kings, sits.

[Step through the portal to Aandor]

War and Genre Fiction: War Cry by Brian McClellan

War: what is it good for, in genre fiction? War stories can provide a framework and reason for pulse-pounding action that compels readers to turn pages. They can be used to examine small unit dynamics, how a band of sisters and brothers forms, reacts to each other, and deals with external pressure. Sometimes war stories present higher strategic narratives, as when characters caught in a council of wars see the conflict as a gameboard, a battle of wits, determination and skill—a game played with human lives, but no less a game for that. There is also the more basic need for stories to have conflict to increase tension and keep the reader’s interest. There are many ways to ramp up that tension, but bombs falling, and the enemy army coming across the trenches at our heroes, is a straightforward way of doing so.

All of these elements are present in Brian McClellan’s novella War Cry. McClellan is no stranger to writing war stories, as in his Powder Mage flintlock fantasy novels, novellas, and stories. War Cry is set in an original fantasy universe, and one with a higher level of technological development than the Powder Mage universe, more of a WWII or Korean War level of technology.

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Expectations of Genre: The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The protocols and expectations of reading science fiction and fantasy can differ remarkably for me. In a fantasy novel, I am looking for certain things from the worldbuilding: how the world holds together; the magic system if there is one; the coherence of the world compared to the characters and the plot. Fantasy offers a world that could not be, or could never have been, and I know that going in by the very tag of the genre. Science fiction, on the other hand, presents different issues of worldbuilding: how the world holds together and its coherence, but also seeing how we get to there from here, or could have gotten there from here.

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City-State Fantasy: City of Lies by Sam Hawke

One of the debates I’ve had with myself and others over the years I’ve been reading and reviewing fantasy is the question of the definition of “urban fantasy.” This mainly gets into the idea of secondary world fantasies and whether or not a story is set in a secondary world city, where the city is as much a character and changing and evolving place as any of the sentient characters. Are the Ankh-Morpork novels of Terry Pratchett urban fantasy? Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, primarily set in the fascinating city of Lankhmar? The novels of Marshall Ryan Maresca, set in the Archduchy of Maradaine, and showing us an increasing number of facets of his city-state from different points of view and different social classes? Is there a good way to define novels that take this space and make it their own by calling them something better than epic fantasy or urban fantasy? And why do novels that operate in this space, let’s call it city-state fantasy, work? And how do they work when they work well?

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Space Opera Revenge: Corey J. White’s Void Black Shadow

In Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity, we were introduced to a living weapon, voidwitch Mariam Xi, better known as Mars. The shadowy interstellar government agency MEPHISTO raised her from childhood and turned her into a psychic living weapon that Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force would respect as an equal. Mars’ powers are ferocious and dangerous even under tabs, becoming fearsome when truly unleashed. Mars is untrusting of strangers, having been burned too many times. The events of Killing Gravity hit Mars where she is most vulnerable, in her inability to trust people. Thus a raucous and audacious space opera has as its core a very human story of Mars learning to trust other people, and taking steps for her to try and ensure her autonomy. 

(Spoilers for Killing Gravity below.)

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Two Improvised Fugues: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Against the Fall of Night

It begins with a roleplaying game, of all things, although it’s not called that precisely. It’s an immersive roleplaying environment, and our hero crashes it for him and his friends for wanting to go beyond its bounds and programmings, though not as a briefer. Rather, he is compelled by his innate drive and sense to seek and explore and burst the bounds that society and even this video game have placed upon him. And yet even this innocent exploration beyond boundaries causes change and crisis around him. It turns out to be a thematic strand in Alvin’s life.

The City and the Stars is Arthur C. Clarke’s reboot of one of his earlier works, Against the Fall of Night. Both tell Alvin’s story.

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