Monday, November 12, 2007

Publishers Weekly genre review round-up
(November 12th issue)

Several starred reviews this week, most notably in the YA selections. Also, a fun new offering from Tim Powers. Enjoy!
The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick (Tor): * Starred Review * "In this triumphant return to the universe of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1994), Hugo-winner Swanwick introduces Will le Fey, an orphan of uncertain parentage. After defeating an evil mechanical war dragon who has enslaved him and his village, Will finds himself displaced by war, first imprisoned in an internment camp and then transported to the many-miles-high city of Babel. On the way, he falls in with Esme, an immortal child with no memory, and Nat Whilk, a donkey-eared confidence man of superhuman abilities. Fusing high technology seamlessly with magic, Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous conceits, fascinating digressions and sparkling characters. His language bounces effortlessly back and forth between the high diction of elfland and thieves’ argot to create a heady literary stew. This is modern fantasy at its finest and should hold great appeal for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys or China Miéville’s novels." (Jan.)

My Swordhand Is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick (Random Kids / Wendy Lamb): * Starred Review * "Sedgwick’s (The Foreshadowing) grim, atmospheric tale, set in 17th-century Europe, brings fresh blood to the vampire mythos without once using the word “vampire.” Peter and his father, Tomas, are woodcutters who travel from town to town, Tomas seemingly on the run from something. Tomas carries a wooden box, which Peter is forbidden to examine, but when word circulates through the village that sheep and cattle are being attacked and a dead man has come out of his grave, secrets from both the box and Tomas’s past are revealed. The father/son dynamic is particularly well-wrought, with Tomas a violent drunk who is nonetheless a decent man, and Peter an introspective and bold youth whose budding relationship with a gypsy tempers the doom encroaching upon the village. As with the best vampire/zombie fiction, there is a note of sympathy for the creatures who, after all, never chose this “life.” Several scenes have the visceral, visual impact of cinema, such as a “Wedding of the Dead,” in which a young girl weds a man who has been murdered, and the villagers’ painting tar on their windows to ward off evil (“Somewhere among the trees the path that led directly to God had gone astray. It had got lost among the folktales and superstitions and the hushed talk of the fireside”). Sedgwick knows his way around a gothic setting, and readers will likely devour this bone-chiller." Ages 12-up. (Oct.)

Airman by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion): * Starred Review * "An homage both to the 19th-century science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and to the superheroes of Marvel and DC comics, Colfer’s latest brims with boy appeal. The story starts with the hero’s portentous birth in a hot air balloon above the 1878 World’s Fair, in Paris. But Conor Broekhart’s home lies in the Saltee Islands, two (real) islets off the Irish coast, where he is raised as a favorite son, his best friend being Princess Isabella, King Nicholas’s only heir. His key association, however, is with Isabella’s tutor, a Frenchman who takes Conor under his wing, instructing him in fencing, fighting and the fledgling science of human flight—a consuming passion for many in the decade before the Wright Brothers’ 1905 breakthrough. While the king is a progressive pacifist, his economy hums on the strength of diamonds mined in Little Saltee by prisoners under the control of Hugo Bonvilain, a Machiavellian despot harboring a deep grudge against the king. When Conor inadvertently witnesses a coup d’état, Bonvilain twists facts to ensure the boy gets sentenced to mining gems in dank caves. The race to fly becomes more than a scientific pursuit; it turns into Conor’s only chance to escape. Artemis Fowl fans will flock to this novel, and the polished, sophisticated storytelling here deserves an even wider audience than that bestseller. Conor Broekhart’s superpower is his brain, and he uses his smarts to fight tyranny. A tour de force." Ages 10-up. (Jan.)

Pilot Light by William Ashbless (Subterranean): * web exclusive review * "SF vets Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock present a lost short story by their fictional poet, William Ashbless, with Powers providing a pseudo-scholarly introduction and Blaylock an afterword. Ashbless himself gets the last word in a postscript. Humorous annotations often occupy more of the page than the actual text of the fairly cryptic story, which alternates between narrator Sikorski’s recollections of childhood and a failed romance in the past and his current encounter with the enigmatic Colonel Wick. This slight, entertaining diversion is enhanced by Gahan Wilson’s illustrations, particularly one of a sturgeon." (Nov.)

Earthly Pleasures by Karen Neches (Simon & Schuster): "Neches presents in her appealingly unorthodox debut a heaven where angels lust, drink and follow terrestrial celebrity gossip. Skye Sebring is a greeter in the Hospitality Department of Heaven who finds herself drawn to the Earthly Pleasures TV channel (“reality TV for Heaven dwellers”) after she welcomes the handsome, reformed playboy Ryan “Bad Boy” Blaine to the pearly gates. The lawyer son of a former president, Ryan’s stay in heaven is cut short (his death is more of the brush-with-death variety), but he can’t forget Skye, who reminds him of someone he knew. The feeling is mutual for Skye, who follows Ryan back to Earth, where it’s pretty apparent there’s something strange going on with Ryan’s wife, Susan, who is planning a huge gala wedding follow-up to their earlier low-key impromptu nuptials. As Skye investigates her connection with Ryan and Ryan looks into what’s causing his wife’s strange behavior (he also forms a radio call-in show habit), a tangled story of cold ambition and true love unspools. Neches’s funny and sweet novel shows that to err is human and angelic as well." (Feb.)

The Táin, translated from the Old Irish by Ciaran Carson (Viking): "Loosely translated as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Táin Bó Cúailnge is part of the 80-story, multiauthor Ulster Cycle, an Irish epic that dates to the eighth century. Rendered in laconic vernacular prose by veteran poet and translator Carson, The Táin (pronounced “toyne”) opens on the “pillow talk” of King Ailill of Connacht and his boastful wife, Queen Mebd. Reckoning that her husband has one greater asset than she, namely, the prize white-horned bull, Finnbennach, the queen enlists the entire army of Connacht to wage war against Cúailnge, a province of Ulster, in order to secure its fine brown bull. As the army moves into Ulster, it is led by Fergus, a former king of Ulster now in exile who remains sympathetic to the Ulster side and to his 17-year-old foster son, Cú Chulainn, whose youthful exploits Fergus recounts. Three-day hand-to-hand combat pits Cú Chulainn against his beloved foster-brother, Fer Diad Mac Damáin; at the climax, the white and brown bulls come face to face. The narrative revels in place names and their etymologies, telling story upon story. Carson’s version is a lively and vivid journey through a mythic landscape." (Feb.)

Mona Lisa Craving by Sunny (Berkley): "In Sunny’s third seductive tale of magic and romance (after 2007’s Mona Lisa Blossoming) among the shape-shifting alien race known as the Monère, young mixed blood Queen Mona Lisa embraces her sexuality as a means of healing. Unfortunately, she makes a serious mistake by sleeping with Dante Morell, a rogue Monère man struggling with madness, and accidentally becomes pregnant. Not only is Mona Lisa now demon-tainted but she’s also engaged to Lord Halcyon, the Demon Prince of Hell. Further conflicts ensue as she begins to remember killing Barrabus, Dante’s ancestral father, during her former life long ago in Sparta, and touching off a terrible curse. Suspenseful twists promise more heart-throbbing surprises in the next installment of this haunting erotic fantasy series." (Jan.)

Mortarville by Grant Bailie (IG, Consortium, dist.): "Bailie works his ripped-from-the-comic books premise and dystopian stylings to mostly muted effect in his second novel (after Cloud 8). Government agents rescue narrator John Smith from a fire in the mad scientists’ laboratory in which he was created, but when tests prove John to be devoid of special powers, he is shipped off to the subterranean Secret Government Home for the Products of Mad Science. Bailie peppers his account of John’s wardship there with wit and occasional grace, but the experience is mostly mundane: the boys study from discarded textbooks and old sit-coms, and are nourished on a steady diet of macaroni and cheese. In the second half of the novel, John is released to an adult life in the dreary city of Mortarville, where he works as the security director at the last remaining downtown mall and fills his days writing reports and presiding over a team of incompetent employees. John finds love (or at least sex), but he is dogged by the feeling that he is not quite human. John’s disaffection provides the through-line, and while the book has its share of intelligence, wit and snatches of imaginative writing, neither John, nor his narrative, comes fully to life." (Jan.)

Renegade’s Magic: Book Three of the Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb (Eos): "In the haunting conclusion of Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy (after 2006’s Forest Mage), Gernian soldier Nevare Burvelle escapes from prison with some help from his lover, Lisana, who divided his soul so that he could become a Speck mage called Soldier’s Boy. The two personalities now awkwardly time-share Nevare’s body. Using Soldier’s Boy’s powers, Nevare tries to destroy the Gernian road that threatens to ravage the Specks’ forest home, and almost dies from exhaustion. Nursed back to health by Olikea, the Speck woman whose sole duty is to feed him enough to power his magic, Nevare must find a way to keep Gernia from destroying the forest, prevent the Specks from further spreading the plague that has decimated the Gernians and reunite the severed halves of his soul. Hobb’s dreamy prose is sometimes weighed down by a confusing magical system and glacial pacing, but she provides a stunning resolution to this epic fantasy about the importance of environmental and social balance." (Feb.)

A Rush of Wings by Adrian Phoenix (Pocket): "Set in the brooding New Orleans area long established as the best location for all things vampiric, Phoenix’s lively debut has it all: “Rogue [FBI] agents, Bureau-ordered hits, mad-scientist experiments in psychopathology, vampires and fallen angels and a slicing-dicing serial killer.” Smart, sexy FBI Special Agent Heather Wallace has been trying to catch the Cross-Country Killer for three years when the trail leads to New Orleans and Club Hell, where Dante Prejean performs with the Inferno, an industrial/goth rock band. Dante is a Cajun and a born vampire whose memories of his terrible past have been erased, leaving him vulnerable to the psychopathic killer, E, who knows all that Dante has forgotten. As E begins targeting Dante’s loved ones, Heather must swallow her skepticism and work with Dante’s vampiric friends and family to save him. Phoenix alternates romantic homages to gothdom and steamy blood-drinking threesomes with enough terse, fast-paced thriller scenes to satisfy even the most jaded fan." (Jan.)

My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, edited by P.N. Elrod (St. Martin’s Griffin): "As with 2006’s My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, several of the contributors to this lighthearted anthology of honeymoon-themed supernatural romance stories struggle with the short form. Marjorie M. Liu proves to be especially adept, providing the evocative and folkloric “Where the Heart Lives.” Fans of Chicago’s supernatural detectives will be pleased by Jim Butcher’s “Heorot,” where Harry Dresden tracks down a missing bride, and P.N. Elrod’s “Her Mother’s Daughter,” where Jack Fleming hunts for a vanished bridegroom. Things get more romantic with Kelley Armstrong’s amusing “Stalked,” in which a stalk, chase and fight spice up a werewolf honeymoon, and Rachel Caine’s charming “Roman Holiday or Spq-arrrrr,” featuring an undead pirate captain and his new bride who must face down a mutiny and an ancient Roman pirate. Some readers may be a little disappointed to find that despite the romance billing, most stories have far more hex than sex, but fans of the featured authors will be quite satisfied." (Jan.)

Child of a Dead God: A Novel of the Noble Dead by Barb and J.C. Hendee (Roc): "In the Hendees’ complex and bloody third Noble Dead novel (after 2006’s Traitor to the Blood), powerful and ambitious Noble Dead vampire Welstiel is in a desperate race with his dhampir half-sister Magiere to find a mysterious orb. As he builds a force of vampire minions to assist in his journey, Magiere travels though elven lands, where she is hated and feared for her semivampiric nature, determined to find and protect the artifact. The elven patriarch called Most Ancient Father offers resources to aid her on the quest while planning to steal the orb from her later. Magiere’s friends and allies have a long and dangerous journey ahead of them. Interspecies distrust, grand ambitions and the lure of dangerous secrets protected by the undead drive the action in this neat mix of horror with more traditional fantasy elements." (Jan.)

Crimson Orgy by Austin Williams (Borderlands): "An authentically seedy, almost charming tale of zero-budget horror moviemaking morphs cleverly into a genuine splatterfest in Williams’s unnervingly enjoyable debut. With just one week and almost no money, director Sheldon Meyer and producer Gene Hoffman hope to make the ultimate underground horror film on location in south Florida, but star Vance Cogburn is drinking, local lawman Sonny Platt is making trouble, and Meyer hasn’t told novice ingenue Barbara Cheston his real plans. Readers familiar with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films or Bruce Campbell’s memoir If Chins Could Kill will find Williams’s descriptions of less-than-a-shoestring movie production wholly convincing, escalating crises and all. The gratuitous gore—filmed and real—delivers solidly on the horror end, and a sly framing device adds a slightly ambiguous layer of additional authenticity. Those looking for a pure bloodbath may find the book too literate, but horror film buffs should be delighted and chilled in equal measure." (Jan.)

Enchanting the Lady by Kathryne Kennedy (Dorchester): "Little-noticed Felicity Seymour is a woman with a problem: she can’t take control of her parents’ lands until she can prove her magical abilities, of which she’s never had the slightest hint. When she meets a handsome were-lion baronet, Terence Blackwell, she’s surprised at his interest; what she doesn’t know is that Terence smells the taint of relic-magic on her, the same magic that killed his brother. Resolving to learn her secrets, Terence courts the worried wallflower and is as surprised as anyone when he falls head over heels. Soon after they marry in secret, Felicity discovers that people she’s trusted all her life are conspiring to steal her magic, her title and her land. Now she’s got to stop them with the help of her new husband—but how much does she really know about her mysterious mate? The latest from Kennedy (Beneath the Thirteen Moons) is simply delightful, set in a fantasy-touched Victorian England that’s imaginative, historically vigorous and ripe for further adventures. Felicity is a pleasantly unassuming heroine and is well matched in Terence, while the identity of the villain will keep readers guessing until the very end." (Jan.)

The Outcasts by L.S. Matthews (Delacorte): "A school field trip turns into a surreal, life-altering adventure for five teenagers in this foray into science fiction from British author Matthews (Fish). The five are among a group chosen by their school to spend a week doing “field work” at a manor in the English countryside, famous for an ancient skull found on the property that purportedly screams from time to time and is said to cause disaster if removed from the site. The students display a mixed bag of personal challenges—abusive or absent parents, unspecified emotional or behavioral needs. On the day they arrive, however, the skull is missing. As the five gather in a room known as “the professor’s study,” something akin to an earthquake occurs and the students find themselves in another “dimension,” where they are forced to rethink what they know about the nature of time and space. The bulk of the narrative involves a series of narrow escapes from death—poisonous jellyfish, a menacing black panther, a man-eating crocodile—that will propel many readers to the finish. However, the hand of the author can be felt at every turn, with thinly veiled messages about the importance of teamwork and not prejudging others. The hokey conclusion shows each student their “possible” future, rosy lives that provide (most of) them with the material comforts and social connections they currently lack." Ages 12-up. (Nov.)

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