Ralph Harris

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Nick Harkaway fuses a broody noir mystery with a cyberpunk dystopia in Titanium Noir. Set in a fictional American city tucked away in the mountains, Titanium Noir follows Cal Sounder, a detective who helps the police with only the most unique of cases: those that involve Titans, people who have attained the closest thing to immortality that capitalism can provide. After taking a drug named T7, a human is “reset” to adolescence, then, rapidly and painfully, they sprint back through puberty, resulting in a rejuvenated body. Since they start their second puberty as a fully grown adult, they become much larger, their bones denser and their muscles thicker, hence the name Titan.

Titans are almost exclusively ultrarich or highly influential, their physical stature often merely a reflection of their broader social power. Stefan Tonfamecasca, the creator of T7 and controller of its distribution, is now impossibly huge as a four-dose Titan. Cal is Stefan’s liaison with law enforcement, sparing the police from dealing with the ruling rich of the city while also keeping Titan problems from escalating out of control. But Cal’s latest case is especially challenging: A Titan has, somehow, been murdered.

Harkaway colors each character and vignette with just enough detail to keep things interesting, while assembling the setting and unraveling the mystery in a steady stream of information. Cal’s sardonic and witty internal monologue helps keep the reader from losing track of important details, with Cal himself acting as a necessary anchor as Harkaway introduces new characters and reveals new plot points on nearly every page. 

Titanium Noir’s fast pace drives home just how much Cal is floundering, a very small fish in a very large pond, doing his absolute best. There are several well-choreographed, graphic but not gratuitously bloody fights and several tense negotiations with very powerful figures, each leaving Cal increasingly feeling like the odds are stacked against him. Yet, he relentlessly pursues the truth, flirts with rebellion and even performs some mild blackmail on the way. (What is a little extortion between friends, anyway?)

With its likable narrator, explosive action, noir-style rumination and just the right amount of twists, Titanium Noir is an entertaining sci-fi mystery that never overstays its welcome.

With its likable narrator and explosive action, Titanium Noir is an entertaining sci-fi mystery that blends a broody noir whodunit with a cyberpunk dystopia.
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People love an underdog story: A hero or scrappy gang of misfits prevailing against nearly insurmountable odds. But in Some Desperate Glory, author Emily Tesh takes this trope in a dark direction, illustrating how single-minded zealotry can spiral into overt fascism.

Some Desperate Glory follows Kyr, a girl born into an extremist human sect living on the fringes of known space. In Tesh’s universe, humanity accomplished interstellar travel and encountered the majoda, an alien confederacy ruled by an interdimensional, reality-warping artificial intelligence known as the Wisdom. Earth tore through the majoda’s military, and in response, the Wisdom had the majoda deploy a weapon that destroyed the planet. Completely broken and scattered, most of the remaining humans submitted to majoda rule.

But the people who live on Gaea Station, where Kyr was born, have dubbed themselves the saviors of humanity. Children and adults alike hone their bodies and minds in order to become the avenging angels of their destroyed planet. Joy and relaxation are luxuries, as the admirals ruling Gaea Station demand their people give everything to keep the cause alive. In their mid-teens, people are assigned to permanent roles, which can be anything from combat service, to maintenance to keep the station afloat, to bearing sons in the Nursery to keep the community supplied with soldiers. It’s as abhorrent as it is absolute, but Kyr thinks this system is righteous, a necessity of the ongoing war against the majoda.

Emily Tesh’s new protagonist is anything but likable—and that’s the point.

Tesh describes Gaea Station in impressively revolting detail without losing focus on Kyr’s growth as a character. A talented and devoted warrior, Kyr finds herself at odds with her cultural programming when she is assigned to the Nursery. And after her brother leaves the station under mysterious circumstances, she defies her orders and takes off after him, a quest that thrusts her into the wider universe. She meets an alien for the first time and starts a grueling journey to peel back years of programming. As she learns more about the rest of the universe, Kyr realizes she must confront the sinister underbelly of the shiny, nationalistic Gaea Station, which is beginning to look more and more like a cult.

While heavily invested in Kyr’s personal struggle to find meaning and purpose, Some Desperate Glory is also rife with rich settings and history. The majoda are fascinatingly inhuman, composed of refreshingly distinct alien species. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any “They’re basically humans but their skin is blue” races in this story.) Tesh takes readers on a wild tour through her universe, defying any expectations they may have based on the setting and characters in surprising and unique ways.

An examination of the dangers of unchecked nationalism, Some Desperate Glory will resonate with readers looking for messy morality and antihero redemption arcs.

Rife with rich settings and refreshingly distinct alien species, Some Desperate Glory will resonate with readers looking for messy morality and antihero redemption arcs.
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Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez is a dark, twisted tale of a cult in Argentina called the Order that sacrifices humans to an occult entity known as the Darkness. Mediums possess a natural ability to channel this figure into reality. Juan has served the Order as a medium for his entire life, but as the story begins, he attempts to sever ties with the cult to protect his son, Gaspar, from its clutches.

Our Share of Night follows Juan’s first-person viewpoint for several hundred pages, then jumps to Gaspar’s perspective, then goes 30 years into the past to tell the story of Juan’s wife, Rosario. Enriquez creates a sense of mystery with every aspect of her prose, even down to the way speech is written. Dialogue is sometimes in quotes, sometimes not; sometimes it necessitates the start of a new paragraph, sometimes it doesn’t. Enriquez uses these structural elements to reveal details when the reader least expects it. When Juan channels the Darkness for the first time, his hands lengthen and his nails turn into golden claws, but the explanation for why mediums are affected by channeling in this way is not revealed until another storyteller has taken over.

Even with such an unpredictable writing style, Enriquez perfectly paces solutions to the novel’s various mysteries, enticing readers through her chaotic dreamscape with answers that are as intriguing as they are frightening. Spooky and atmospheric, Our Share of Night is a constantly surprising and bloody ride.

Spooky and atmospheric, Our Share of Night is a constantly surprising and bloody ride.
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In her debut novel, Sign Here, author Claudia Lux presents a modern vision of hell as a capitalist bureaucracy of the most inane, obnoxious variety.

Souls arrive in Hell on different levels, depending on how badly they sinned in their former lives. The worst of the worst head to what is known as Downstairs. Some sent there become line workers, tasked with applying various methods of torture. In other cases, they’re the ones on the rack. Protagonist Peyote Trip, however, is a resident of the fifth floor of Hell, so his afterlife is a little less bleak: He lives in an apartment and works in an office as a caseworker. Peyote tracks the plights and problems of mortals, and when one of them has a dire need, to the point that they’re willing to do anything to achieve what they desire, he arrives to make a deal via infernal contract. The mortal gives up their soul, and Peyote uses his abilities to make all their earthly dreams come true.

Despite being an agent of Hell, Peyote tries to treat both his “clients” and his co-workers with dignity and honor, especially when it comes to helping his new co-worker, Calamity, adjust to the myriad annoyances of life on the fifth floor. Peyote and his peers bring five pens everywhere, because the first four will never work. If a soul hates country music, it will be the only station available on their radio and it cannot be turned off. No food is truly hot or cold, and neither is any living space. Lux’s Hell is the epitome of absolute discomfort, like an itchy wool sweater on a humid day.

How Claudia Lux found humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.

Calamity soon gets involved in Peyote’s ultimate career goal: securing his fifth and final contract from the wealthy Harrison family. Attaining five souls from the same family, also known as a Complete Set, will grant Peyote an important promotion. Lux tells much of this story from the perspectives of three members of the Harrison family: Silas; his wife, Lily; and Mickey, their daughter. Lux takes the reader deep into each Harrison’s point of view, highlighting their dark temptations, shame and awkwardness in equal measure and creating such a high level of empathy for her painfully realistic characters that it borders on uncomfortable. It all adds to the ever-growing, nearly palpable feeling of imminent disaster. With their desires on such clear display, it’s impossible to forget that any one of the Harrisons could be Peyote’s next victim.

Lux’s unique iteration of hell is consistently engaging, grounded in relatable discomforts yet spiked with surrealist imagery, but readers will also be enthralled with the sheer humanity displayed on each page. No character comes off as mostly good or evil; they’re all just products of their natures and upbringings. With surgical precision, Sign Here captures the difficulties of morality in a complicated modern world.

Sign Here is both a hilarious reimagining of hell as a corporate nightmare and a painfully realistic exploration of morality in the modern world.
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Peyote Trip is an office drone on the Fifth Floor of Hell, which resembles a particularly soul-crushing corporation. But a promotion is within Peyote’s grasp, and all he has to do is snag a fifth soul from the wealthy Harrison family. Peyote sets out with Calamity, his potential new workplace bestie, to snare his final Harrison and escape the doldrums of the Fifth Floor, but complications both logistic and ethical soon arise. We talked to author Claudia Lux about finding humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.

Have you ever worked in a corporate environment? If so, are there any specific memories that inspired the idiosyncrasies of Hell’s office spaces? What were some of your other inspirations for Hell-as-bureaucracy?
I’ve worked in the social work version of a corporate environment, which is like a normal corporate environment with less money and loftier aspirations. But the initial scene in the Fifth Floor’s kitchen before the morning meeting was based largely on the kitchen in that office, in which the coffee machine never worked and people hoarded plastic silverware like we were preparing (poorly) for the apocalypse. 

The first kernel of the idea started when I was streaming TV shows on a work trip and the same insurance commercial started for the millionth time. Without thinking, I yelled, “THIS IS HELL.” Of course, it was not. It was a nice hotel room. But I started noticing it more: How quick we are to compare our momentary discomfort to eternal damnation; how low the colloquial bar has gone for suffering. I began asking people for their most recent “Hell” moments, and, unsurprisingly, a lot of them took place at work. The conversations were so fun and unifying, and soon I had a world to explore and a character to explore it.

Sign Here is told from several different perspectives. How did you decide how much time each character would spend narrating the story? Did any of them take over the plot more than you initially expected?
I wish that I had an answer to this that made me sound like a put-together writing mastermind, but honestly, I didn’t really decide, I wrote it as it came, switching perspectives when it felt like the previous section was complete. Besides the broad strokes, I was in the dark about what would happen until I got there. That being said, the character who took over the plot more than I could’ve possibly anticipated was Calamity. 

One night, after a long bout of writing, I got this kind of cheeky, mischievous feeling, like right before you challenge someone to eat a pepper you know is super hot, and I typed: “Calamity Gannon, human name redacted, got her taste for blood the first time one of her brothers beat another to death in front of her.” Before that moment, I didn’t have any plans to go into Cal’s background. And I certainly had no idea how I would explain that sentence the next day. But I found myself really excited to get back to it, to rise to the challenge. Now Cal and her background are some of my favorite content. 

“Realistically uncomfortable is my whole jam.”

Your characters have such realistic (and realistically uncomfortable) tendencies and thoughts. Were any of them based on real people?
Thank you! Realistically uncomfortable is my whole jam. As far as the characters being based on real people, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I mine my daily life for character traits. For example, Silas Harrison’s childhood bedroom in New Hampshire is verbatim my high school friend’s bedroom, down to the Playboy poster and the hidden pot. (Sorry, Mom!) But that’s all. The rest of Silas, and everyone else—as scary as it is to admit—is just me and my wacky, disturbingly curious imagination. 

What excites you about digging into a character’s psyche?
Part of my work as a therapist, my profession before transitioning to writing full time, was designing and facilitating group therapy programs. At first, I was super intimidated by the concept. One-on-one therapy was already intense; why add in nine more people? But I wound up completely won over by its therapeutic power: the realization that we’re not alone in our thoughts or feelings, especially the darkest ones; that there is nothing we’ve experienced that no one else could understand, even if no one else lived it exactly. If a writer makes a character real enough, reading can provide the same realization. So that’s what excites me the most about developing a character’s psyche—the catalyst for empathy. The possibility that someone who didn’t yet know that feeling seen was possible might feel seen by a character I write. 

Book jacket image for Sign Here by Claudia Lux

What’s your favorite way to work? Do you have any drafting or editing rituals?
Up until recently, I have always worked full time while writing, whether as a social worker or in the gig economy, cobbling five wages into something livable. So out of necessity, I developed the ritual of only writing at night, which has continued even though it’s no longer required. I write for long chunks, five hours at least at a time, and I love the stolen quiet of the night. I also have a specific candle from Paddywax Candles that I used the whole time I was writing/editing Sign Here. Not cheap, but whether placebo or genuine sensory memory tool, it really helped get me in the zone. I need a new one for the next book (it’s a one-scent-per-book kind of deal), so I’m currently on the hunt for that, if anyone has any suggestions!

I also love setting up a specific writing space wherever I live, and I always include a framed copy of “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin on my desk. It is a brilliant take on the writing process that never fails to give me goosebumps and makes me feel so insanely lucky that I get to do this. 

What is your favorite piece of media (book, movie, TV show, anything) from the last year, and why?
Oh man, what a big question! Off the top of my head:

I just finished Before Everything by Victoria Redel, and it completely rocked my world. I studied with Victoria at Sarah Lawrence when I was in college, and I have always been in awe of her and her work, but Before Everything had me full on ugly-crying in the middle seat of a transatlantic flight and also cackle-laughing like a maniac. (The people next to me were thrilled!) She writes about grief and friendship with equal parts humor and raw sadness, and that makes every single character feel so real that I keep finding myself missing them. She’s got that writing-as-empathy-catalyst thing down pat. 

I’ve also been totally captivated by “Reservation Dogs” on FX. The writing and the acting are incredible, and it’s one of those rare shows that provides both escape and nourishment. It’s hilarious and completely captivating, and at the same time, watching it makes me feel like I am being fed only the best ingredients. Like its quality is improving my own. 

Finally, anything Phoebe Robinson does blows me away. I just read her third book of essays, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, and I am devouring her new show, “Everything’s Trash.” She’s my Bono. 

If you could pick one author from the past or present to have tea with, who would it be?
Honestly, my dad, Thomas Lux. I would give anything to have tea (well, not tea. Coffee? Screwdrivers?) with him again. 

Read our starred review of ‘Sign Here’ by Claudia Lux.

What was the biggest thing you learned from this experience? What’s next for you? 
I’m just so amazed and grateful; I still can’t quite believe it. I first started writing novels in 2014. Sign Here is my third but the first to get picked up. So it’s been a long process, and I’ve definitely learned a lot. Most profoundly, I’ve learned to listen to myself. Not to the trolls who live in my head and tell me how terrible I am but to the me underneath their noise. The consistent beacon in the chaos, that steady blink. My whole life, no matter where I took my career or how much I loved social work, which was a lot, that beacon was there, telling me to write. But it terrified and intimidated and exhausted the hell out of me. Following it would require complete faith, against all odds, with little to no external validation, likely ever. So I tried to ignore it. I set the trolls loose to berate and mock and admonish it. Until eventually, I started to follow it. Nearly a decade later, I am grateful every single day that I did. Not only because of the publication, which is an absolute dream come true, but because now that I know I can hold the faith through the hard parts, listening to myself—in any area of my life—doesn’t scare me anymore. Now, it excites me. 

I am currently working on my second book with Berkley, which will be out in a couple of years. It’s not a sequel, but it will have the same combination of humor, sincerity, darkness and nutty thought experiment! 

Photo of Claudia Lux © Sarah Moore.

The debut author explains how she found humanity in an infernal bureaucracy.
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The season is upon us: Wrap a scarf around your neck—tightly—and crack open a book of undead intrigue.

A Dowry of Blood

A queer, feminist reimagining of Dracula, S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood starts with its narrator, Constanta, reclaiming a small bit of power. She refuses to grant her abuser a name, instead referring to him as “you” throughout the book. Her abuser is a prototypical vampire, vulnerable to sunlight and silver, who sires new vampires by giving them his blood. He finds Constanta near death, grants her immortal life and, despite calling her his bride, sees her as a possession. Over the years, Constanta is joined by two other consorts—Magdalena, a politically savvy philosopher, and Alexi, a sprightly socialite and actor—who become her friends, lovers and allies. 

A Dowry of Blood focuses on Constanta, her abuser and his other spouses; no other character is present for more than a handful of pages.This narrow focus, along with several time jumps and Constanta’s stream-of-consciousness narration, creates a dreamlike haze. As each new consort enters the narrative, the house’s atmosphere transitions from cloistered and dank to frenetic with need and simmering rebellion. The story’s specificity ebbs and flows according to Constanta’s memory: Events she struggles to recall are blurry, but she hyperfixates on what she remembers in rich detail. 

In the tradition of the best vampire stories, Gibson uses her characters to explore how centuries of time would affect a once-mortal mind. A Dowry of Blood whisks readers through human history, arriving at the dawn of the 20th century, drenched in blood.

House of Hunger

In the fantasy world of House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson (The Year of the Witching), an industrial revolution is in full swing, condemning the ancient houses of nobility to a slow decay into irrelevance. The House of Hunger is one of these dying houses, but it’s still influential enough to continue indenturing bloodmaids like Marion Shaw, who is eager to accept the position when it is offered to her.

At the House of Hunger, she will be treated well, fully fed and paid enough to keep herself and her brother afloat before receiving an enormous pension once her service ends. But during her time as a bloodmaid, Marian’s blood will be harvested to grant health and beauty to the houses’ aristocratic members. In Henderson’s world, blood has magical properties and is also used in medicine, steam engines and other scientific endeavors.

Countess Lisavet, head of the House of Hunger, already has four other bloodmaids, and Henderson uses them to illustrate the dangers of Marion’s choice. Cecilia, the countess’ oldest bloodmaid, is also her favorite lover and primary blood donor. She is consumed with desire for Countess Lisavet and is extremely jealous when the countess’ eye turns toward Marion. Lisavet manipulatively distributes her favors, whether they be sexual, emotional or verbal. She makes her bloodmaids’ lives revolve around her until they find themselves defined by her attention.

House of Hunger begins with dark secrets and ends with secrets darker still. Readers will be on the edges of their seats as Henderson slowly unveils the grotesque horrors at the heart of her inventive, gothic society.

Sink your fangs into these two novels, both of which offer a unique spin on bloodsuckers.
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Relentlessly cynical and sarcastic, Mat Johnson’s Invisible Things offers sociopolitical commentary wrapped in the trappings of a classic space adventure.

An unknown force has been plucking humans from Earth and bringing them to New Roanoke, an American city that has been constructed miraculously and mysteriously on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and sheltered from the elements by an enormous dome. These humans, as humans do, have simply re-created everything that America represents today—all the same class struggles, hardships and, of course, consumption. (The word McMansion is used several times.) When the first manned mission to Jupiter discovers New Roanoke, the SS Delany‘s crew soon find themselves trapped along with the colonists.

Johnson uses the astronauts of the Delany and their reactions to the world of New Roanoke to represent strains of modern politics: Sociologist Nalini Jackson is a left-leaning moderate who provides dry, dissociative commentary; Dwyane Causwell, a highly accredited astrogeologist, is a liberal eager to spark revolution; and born-to-money engineer Bob Seaford, who is eager for any semblance of control and power over his fellow humans, represents the capitalist hard-right.

As you might imagine from these descriptions, Johnson’s political stance is clear. However, Invisible Things avoids soapbox territory as Johnson focuses instead on engaging, often funny conflicts between his well-drawn characters while the plot circles around two key questions: Will New Roanoke’s inhabitants and the crew of the Delany band together to escape the colony? And who put them there in the first place? The intriguing mystery combined with Johnson’s irreverent sense of humor make it easy for the reader to engage with the satirical elements—a refreshing trait given that social commentary in modern sci-fi is often either watered down, thrown in by default or both. 

Invisible Things is a wonderful sci-fi ride full of lovable characters that dissects modern American capitalism with a barbed, sardonic wit.

Invisible Things is a wonderful sci-fi ride full of lovable characters that dissects modern American capitalism with a barbed, sardonic wit.
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With dashes of inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, Chelsea Abdullah’s debut fantasy kicks off in a world of sand and magic. The Stardust Thief follows Loulie al-Nazari, aka the Night Merchant, a trader of illegal magic who is ordered by the sultan to find a powerful relic—a lamp that will heal the land but destroy all jinn in the process. With the help of her jinn bodyguard, Qadir; the sultan’s son, Prince Mazen; and Aisha bint Louas, a relentless jinn hunter, Loulie must cross through treacherous territory and endure brutal trials to recover the lamp.

Rather than overwhelming the reader with multiple plotlines and a sprawling cast of characters, The Stardust Thief focuses on its central trio and the locales they visit. The various settings never feel empty or underpainted, especially in the sections told from Prince Mazen’s perspective: Forced to live cooped up in the palace for most of his life, his eager delight at finally experiencing the broader world is infectious. As the party draws closer to the lamp, Abdullah slowly unveils new truths about this world, resulting in a narrative that grows richer as it intensifies in pace. With each revelation, from the nature of relics to the existence of ifrit (hyperpowerful jinn), Abdullah propels the reader forward, heightening anticipation for what the next few pages will bring.

Loulie, Aisha and Mazen are drawn in exacting detail, with all their strengths, faults and feelings on full display, and The Stardust Thief is full of captivating intrapersonal conflict. Abdullah does a fine job creating realistic protagonists with clear differences and opposing philosophies: Loulie despises the task she has been given, Aisha despises the work Loulie does and Mazen just wants everyone to stop fighting.

Abdullah has put together a strong start to a series, setting up characters readers can root for even when those characters are opposed to one another, building a world that promises new twists every few pages, and crafting an ending that clearly leads into the next two books in the series. With its healthy balance of intrigue, character growth and action, The Stardust Thief is an enjoyable read that slowly enchants its readers.

Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief will enchant fantasy readers with its captivating balance of intrigue, action and character growth.
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Max Gladstone spins a story from the perspective of several unreliable narrators in Last Exit. That unreliability is the point in this standalone fantasy, which is intentionally cerebral and difficult to follow. The dynamics of alternate dimensions and conflicting viewpoints are not background to the plot: They are the plot.

Set in modern-day America, Last Exit revolves around alternate dimensions, nicknamed alts. Alts can only be visited with the help of spin: an individual’s understanding of possibility. If someone has a limited belief in what is possible, then they will only see what is currently in front of them. But if you can overcome skepticism and accept various possibilities, you can force possibilities to materialize. A door that should be locked just happens to be unlocked.

Zelda, Ish, Ramon, Sarah and Sal were once a dimension-hopping fellowship, fighting a mysterious rot that corroded worlds. The group imploded after the loss of Sal, and Last Exit begins as Zelda, convinced that Sal isn’t lost forever, tries to get everyone back together to save Sal and defeat the rot once and for all. The realistic rifts between characters, conveyed via broody monologuing from each unique perspective, allow readers to compare each person’s opinions, providing a rich depth of relationships for readers to explore despite the relatively limited core cast. Last Exit has a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere, with the rot barely giving Zelda and her companions room to recover, but the compelling protagonists keep things engaging.

Gladstone avoids in-depth detail, leaving the reader to conceptualize a scene by leaning on their imagination (their spin, you might say) to flesh out the details. For example, Gladstone uses the phrase “cracked the sky” with no description of the crack’s appearance or its effect on the rest of the skyline. He then reuses the phrase multiple times, challenging the reader to recall their own mental imagery. As a result, Last Exit is a book enriched through sharing; it’s easy to see a book club discussing their varied interpretations of this phrase.

The beginning of Last Exit feels like the start of an archeologist’s excavation: new clues are popping up in unexpected places and nothing makes sense. But that process of discovery and excavation is where Gladstone’s novel shines, as each chapter revises and adjusts the reader’s understanding. By the end of the book, their individual vision of Gladstone’s world reaches something like clarity, enough for the intrepid archeologist to piece together most of the picture. While not a light undertaking, Last Exit is a satisfying read for those with a lot of imagination—and a little spin.

While not a light undertaking, Last Exit is a satisfying fantasy read for those with a lot of imagination.
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A motley crew, their skilled leader and a living ship walk into a bar—and the bar explodes.

You Sexy Thing kicks off with a literal bang (and ends with one), but the rest of the story is dialogue and flashback-driven as Cat Rambo shifts perspectives and timelines to color in their cast of characters. Captain Niko Larson, her first mate, Dabry, and a handful of their fellow soldiers escaped their former Hive Mind overlords by declaring that their true calling lay in the culinary arts, not warfare. But when the space station that their restaurant is located on is attacked, they end up seeking refuge on the titular sentient bioship. Shenanigans including space pirates and galactic politics ensue.

Set in a far-flung future teeming with diverse alien life, Rambo’s novel incorporates both magic and science in neat harmony. All denizens of this universe understand that magic and science both exist, and accept both in equal measure. You Sexy Thing’s setting is rife with intrigue, but was clearly designed to accommodate character and plot, rather than the other way around. Which isn’t to say that Rambo’s world building is flimsy or thin, rather that their focus is firmly on their characters and the relationships between them.

With this commitment to character development above all else, You Sexy Thing’s characters need to be engaging, and Rambo absolutely nails it. Captain Niko and Dabry are standouts, solid compatriots who are earnestly seeking both master chefdom and continued freedom from the Hive Mind. One of the greatest characters is the ship itself: You Sexy Thing is a living spacecraft that learns and adapts to its crew, and (not surprisingly) becomes a member of the crew itself.

Rambo does an impressive job of thrusting the reader into the middle of relationships with rich history. The dialogue always feels natural and avoids forced or excessive exposition. Instead, a new crewmate is introduced just after the first act, and her experience learning about the crew and their relationships serves to fill in the gaps for readers. Rambo describes and demonstrates all the unspoken communication between the crew, engendering a wholesome atmosphere suffused with the feeling of warm, deep trust among the closest of friends. There is very little conflict between the crew members and what conflict does spring up is resolved quickly.

You Sexy Thing is a fun start to a hopefully long-running series about the lives of a close-knit fellowship of soliders-turned-chefs-turned-adventurers. Readers will be immediately sucked into Rambo’s light-hearted, camaraderie-filled space adventure and fall in love with their earnest characters.

Cat Rambo’s warmhearted space adventure is light on plot but overflowing with earnest and engaging characters.
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Conventional fantasy settings (often Tolkien-inspired landscapes) can be useful for establishing easy-to-understand lines between good and evil, or to skip the onboarding process of learning new systems and races. However, some authors choose to step away from the industry standard, creating a separate, distinct experience.

In Elle Katharine White’s Dragonshadow, the landscape of her Austenesque fantasy world drives each conflict. Sequel to Heartstone, which was a magical retelling of Pride and Prejudice, White’s latest book finds Alistair and Aliza Daired (her Darcy and Elizabeth avatars) happily married and called upon to defeat a mysterious monster threatening the castle of a powerful lord. The core conflict in White’s world is a direct result of an ancient pact between humans, wyverns and dragons, who fight together against the other dangerous magical creatures that opposed the pact.

Upon arriving at Castle Selwyn, the Daireds find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery, complicated by ancient grudges and secret avengers. White builds out her fantasy world naturally, setting pieces into categories: bad guys, good guys, neutral guys. This seemingly simplistic scheme plays into the novel’s central mystery—without spoiling anything, the story’s twists go to interesting and surprising places.

As a whole, dragon and human (and valkyrie!) relationships keep the beat-to-beat energy going, but they are ultimately in support of White’s primary story: the relationship between the newly married Alistair and Aliza. Their relationship’s growth and conflict mirror the entire arc of the murder mystery. White carves a metaphor into the setting and plot, and allows her fictional married couple to grow naturally within the space that the story creates. Similar to Heartstone, the epic setting and heroic events in Dragonshadow play second fiddle to the romantic struggles of Aliza and Alistair.

With the dynamic setting firmly in place, chock full of independent factions with ulterior motives and rich history, White paints her power-couple romance with a vibrant brush, splashing sorrow, joy and solidarity generously across the canvas.

On the other side of the spectrum, the setting of Mirah Bolender’s City of Broken Magic is the primary engine of her story and characters. The first in a series, Bolender’s debut thrusts the reader into a world where magic can take form as a hungry hive mind, consuming everything. This infestation’s only weakness? Locked and loaded sun-bullets (and other sun-things, but the sun-bullets were my favorite).

The city of Amicae claims to have eliminated such infestations entirely, and newbie exterminator Laura is a member of the Sweepers, a team responsible for keeping that farce alive. Each facet of Bolender’s magical steampunk island is fully fleshed out, with motivations and schemes mapped onto each faction and character. This incredible attention to detail is vital to City of Broken Magic, as Laura is generally responsible for trying to micromanage, overcome or save every single character she encounters. If that sounds exhausting, being a Sweeper most certainly is, and the city’s Renaissance Italy-level intrigue makes Laura and her boss Clae’s plight entirely believable. The pair’s banter and genuinely enjoyable relationship serve as an accessible lens to view the intricate complexities of Bolender’s land (which is like if Rome invaded Japan and ruined it really badly). Laura and Clae are set up as underdogs from the start, and rooting for them to succeed comes naturally as they wage a war against the setting itself, cannily crafted by Bolender to fight them at every turn.

Both of these novels use the setting as powerful third party, both guiding the stories to their natural conclusions and acting as an instigator of adversity and hardship for the protagonists. White’s setting is a gorgeous caravan, carrying characters carefully to their conclusion, while Bolender uses her setting as a bludgeon, beating her proud, struggling characters into the ground with its oppressive constraints. Neither novel would be nearly as engaging and fun to read without the energy of its colorful, fantastic world pushing the story along.


P.S. I strongly advise not reading the back of the book summary for City of Broken Magic. It quite literally spoils a major plot point.

Conventional fantasy settings (often Tolkien-inspired landscapes) can be useful for establishing easy-to-understand lines between good and evil, or to skip the onboarding process of learning new systems and races. However, some authors choose to step away from the industry standard, creating a separate, distinct experience.

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