Tor.com content by

Paul Weimer

Very Alien Human Societies: Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power

Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power is a thought provoking and immersive work of sociological science fiction in the footsteps of genre luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin, Doris Lessig, Jack Vance, and Eleanor Arnason that has coincidental relevance in our world with the news surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak.

The story of  centers on an alternate human world with no connection to our own. It is a world of faded glory, descending from its high peak—similar in spirit to the world of Charlie Jane Anders’ The City In the Middle of the Night. Humans now live almost entirely underground and the surface world is regarded with dread and fear in an almost Asimovian Caves of Steel sort of mode. Society is stratified, split by class and social status. Conflicts that may be present in our own world are reflected here in a much more violent manner, especially when it comes to politics. The Varin, the high caste of this world, are on a precipice of power, and it is the actions of one of their families and its scions that will decide the fate of an entire city and world.

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Invitation to a Heist: Genevieve Cogman’s The Secret Chapter

When you have a fantasy series built around a multiverse of dragons, fae, and interdimensional Librarians who acquire books and texts to stabilize worlds, you can play in a lot of subgenres. From political intrigue to interdimensional rescue to murder mystery, the possibilities are diverse, also given the varieties of worlds and settings. So a straight up heist story is, in the end, delightfully and axiomatically inevitable as one of the forms a writer with such a canvas might want to try out. So it is with the latest Genevieve Cogman’s novel, The Secret Chapter, sixth in the Invisible Library series.

Briefly, the series centers around Irene Winters, an up-and-coming Librarian and her apprentice Kai, who just so happens to be a dragon. Their time- and world-hopping adventures see them face off against traitorous Librarians, duplicitous fae, overbearing and very dangerous dragons—and more—with Cogman dialing up the fun, wordplay, and humor. They tend toward similar basic structures that work—a first chapter where Irene gets herself caught into an adventure going wrong, extracts herself from it, and then moves on to the real story. It works for James Bond movies, it works for Genevieve Cogman.

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An Expanding, Entertaining Fantasy: Howard Andrew Jones’ Upon the Flight of the Queen

Earlier this year, Howard Andrew Jones started a new fantasy series with For the Killing of Kings, with characters, setting and especially tone reminiscent of the heroic fantasy of writers like Dumas, Lamb and  Zelazny. Telling the story of Elenai and Rylin, up and coming squires in the kingdom of Darnassus, I found this to be a fresh fantasy in my review.  My major complaint was that For the Killing of Kings was clearly the first of a trilogy, leaving many elements of the story hanging: a fleeing Queen, a broken siege, and the enemy Naor on the march, seemingly unstoppable. Even with the return of assumed-dead N’Lahr, greatest general this side of Prince Benedict of Amber, things look bleak for the Altenerai corps and the Five Realms they are sworn to protect.

Upon the Flight of the Queen, the second book in the series, finally continues that story.

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Portals and Expansive Future Technology in Salvation Lost by Peter F. Hamilton

Peter F. Hamilton’s Salvation, first in the sequence, created a new universe that resembles his Commonwealth universe; in both, Gate technology proves to be the method of interstellar transport. In many ways, though, the Salvation universe takes the idea and extends it into other facets of life, using gates in a way more reminiscent of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion verse or Larry Niven’s teleportation booths. Salvation’s narrative takes place in two times: in the 23rd century, first contact with the Olyix is not seen immediately as a threat, except by a paranoid few; but in the far future, the danger is all too clear, and the descendants of humanity ruthlessly train themselves and their society to combat the alien threat.

Salvation Lost continues both of those stories in parallel. We know the 23rd century Olyix are going to devestate to humanity—but just how will that play out? And how will the far future conflict resolve?
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Court Intrigue Beyond Europe: S.C. Emmett’s The Throne of the Five Winds

For all of the tendency in fantasy lately to look at perspectives outside of the aristocratic, the powerful, and the noble, there is a satisfaction in that mode of epic fantasy. Sometimes you want the people at the center of power, the classic rock of epic fantasy where the movers and shakers, and those adjacent to them scheme, jockey and manipulate each other. Multiple viewpoints and perspectives, but generally from that social class help make it seem like a pressure cooker of intrigue and drama. So it is with S.C. Emmett’s The Throne of the Five Winds.

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Science Fantasy in SPAAAACE: K Eason’s How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse

In How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, K. Eason takes a classic fantasy script—of a royal daughter being given gifts by Faeries and the consequences thereof–and upends it right from the get go. For, you see, this Royal Family rules not a typical Secondary World fantasy kingdom, but a Space Kingdom (actually technically a Consortium).

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse leans heavily and often on its boundary position between science fiction, fantasy, and folklore, continually defying expectations by clever genre switching. Our protagonist is the titular heroine, Rory Thorne. Born to a line that has had only sons for generations, her parents set up the fairy ceremony thinking that faeries are not real, and that the proceedings are a pro forma fantasia. When thirteen (including the antagonistic last of their number) faeries show up to give baby Rory Thorne their blessings, the novel becomes delightfully unclear about which genre bucket it falls into. The fairies exit the narrative quickly and permanently, but the mixture of science-fiction and fairy tales continues on throughout the book. 

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The Deconstruction of Falling Action: Alexandra Rowland’s A Choir of Lies

In A Choir of Lies, Alexandra Rowland brings us back the world of Chants, but in the process completely calls into question what we learned about them in A Conspiracy of Truths

I think it is futile for me to discuss what A Choir of Lies does without discussing in depth what A Conspiracy of Truths does, and so readers who do not want to be spoiled for the first book probably should go read it first.

Ready? Good!

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Defying Genre Expectations: Troy Carrol Bucher’s Lies of Descent

You’ve heard this narrative before. Young people chosen because of a special bloodline, a special talent, a rare ability or heritage that they themselves don’t know about. Gather these special people, bring them to an isolated space, be it in the mountains, the world next door, a remote island. Possibly one or two of the chosen have an even more special talent than the usual. Train them in their heritage, preparing them to face against a threat to themselves, and possibly the entire world. It’s a well worn path for a SFF novel to take. Or Star Wars, for that matter.

In Troy Carrol Bucher’s epic fantasy novel Lies of Descent, first in The Fallen Gods War series flips that script and its expectations, early and often.

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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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