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Little Girls

Ronald Malfi. Kensington, $15 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-61773-606-3

In this pallid horror novel set in present-day Maryland, trauma survivor Laurie and her spouse and daughter are drawn back to her estranged father’s house after his sudden death. Soon Laurie must deal with awful memories and hidden secrets in a horror story that never feels particularly terrifying. Malfi (December Park) methodically goes down the list of genre tropes (returning to a place of trauma, remaining in the house against all wisdom, a malevolent spirit, possible insanity, a cheating and money-grubbing spouse, etc.) without bringing anything new. By the time the secret is revealed (itself a clichéd moment), there’s no terror, just revulsion as readers learn how awful Laurie’s father was. The characters are stock figures, making it hard to care about the threat of Laurie’s cruel childhood friend, who has seemingly been resurrected in a new body. It’s a collection of familiar set pieces instead of a story, without enough freshness or development to engage the reader. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk

Edited by Sean Wallace. Running Press, $14.95 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-0-7624-5616-1

As demonstrated in this diverse collection of 21 alternate histories, dieselpunk updates the fashions of steampunk, replacing Victorian crinolines with the flapper’s short skirt, but maintaining all of the subversion of pulp fiction conventions (including airships). Thrilling battle stories are converted into more realistic and gritty accounts of the toll that war takes on its heroes, as in Laurie Tom’s depiction of the cyborg resurrection of the Red Baron in “The Wings the Lungs, the Engine the Heart,” or the political necessities that undercut genre staples such as having the cavalry come over the hill just in time in Carrie Vaughan’s Spanish Civil War tragedy, “Don Quixote.” Noir crimes are solved without fistfights, and by characters normally considered victims, in A.C. Wise’s “The Double Blind.” Genevieve Valentine’s “This Evening’s Performance” is a wonderful tribute to Walter M. Miller’s 1955 story “The Darfsteller.” The selections and the contributors span the globe, from China, where lovers float away during Sun Yat-sen’s revolution in Joseph Ng’s “Into the Sky,” to a Brazil that sends the last emperor’s clone into hiding to escape a military coup backed by an American robot soldier in Cirilo S. Lemos’s “Act of Extermination.” Readers unfamiliar with dieselpunk will find this an excellent introduction to a new but cohesive subgenre. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Q Island

Russell James. Samhain, $5.50 e-book (300p) ISBN 978-1-61922-748-4

Instead of desperately reaching for a new and different way to write a zombie novel, James relies on realistic settings and characters to carry the weight of horror in unnatural circumstances. When a specialist in rare objects supplies mammoth meat for a club of millionaires, he gives no thought at all to why the well-preserved animal died in the first place. A few days after the meal, the virus that killed the mammoth, which had been safely sealed away in ice for thousands of years, is free to ravage the millionaires and spread throughout Long Island. Despite early detection and quarantine, the virus spreads rapidly among the island’s population. James’s story includes various members of the population, from CDC officials combating the outbreak to lowlife criminals who gain unexpected power in the chaos. By narrowing the focus, James creates powerful intimacy and terror. When he introduces paranormal effects of the disease, his realistic description supports the symptoms’ disturbing progressions. More importantly, there are no heroes. The horrors are not created by the virus itself, but by what it allows people to do to one another. This is a seriously creepy page-turner that will keep readers up at night. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Devil’s Bag Man

Adam Mansbach. Harper Voyager, $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-219968-3

Mansbach’s bloody, terrifying sequel to The Dead Run brings a 500-year-old power struggle to a climax inside the body of Jess Galvan, which he shares with the soul of the evil, homicidal Aztec priest Cucuy. Mansbach skillfully keeps the characterization and language of ancient priests and gods distinct from the modern idiom, so when Mexican prisons, cross-border cartels, modern police investigations, and fatherly concern finally come together with magically beating hearts and armies of undead virgins, the effect of worlds colliding is devastatingly effective. Galvan embodies a fascinating mix of psychological struggle, bravado, and raw brutality, fighting against the demon’s voice inside him while using Cucuy’s superhuman strength to protect those he loves. He singlehandedly shakes up carefully balanced drug wars through pure killing power, and his human struggle and family context make the singlemindedness of his inhuman power all the more horrifying. Mansbach believably builds a scenario for the destruction of the world, showing the best and worst of humankind brought to their knees by the power of gods, and leaving the rest of us to tremble. Agent: Richard Abate, Endeavor Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Dinosaur Lords

Victor Milán. Tor, $26.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-7653-3296-7

Milán (War in Tethyr) takes the arresting idea of knights on dinosaurs and expands it into the beginning of a complex and sweeping epic. The story is set in the Empire of Nuevaropa, a land much like late medieval Europe. Rob Korrigan, a dinosaur master, turns the tide of battle against noble mercenary captain Karyl Bogomirskiy’s White River Legion of battle triceratops, and the forces of Count Jaume Llobregat and Duke Falk von Hornberg finish Karyl’s destruction. Karyl dies twice, is revived both times, and eventually joins up with Rob to defend the pacifists of nearby Providence. Falk and Jaume return to the empire’s summer capital, where Jaume’s love, the princess Melodía, awaits—as do murder, intrigue, and a new war. Meanwhile, the Creators’ Grey Angels, mysterious entities who occasionally dabble in human affairs, watch and wait. Milán skillfully crafts his characters, giving each one vivid individuality. He has also given significant thought to just how knights might use dinosaurs as mounts in combat, suggesting novel techniques such as hadrosaurs that make sonic attacks. Readers who pick this up for the gimmick will relish it for the able storytelling. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Cold Iron

Stina Leicht. S&S/Saga, $27.99 (672p) ISBN 978-1-4814-4255-8

This hefty coming-of-age epic fantasy from Leicht (And Blue Skies from Pain), which launches the Malorum Gates series, features not one but two adolescent heroes: 16-year-old twins Nels and Suvi, children of King Henrik of Eledore and his queen from neighboring Ytlain. Eledore, home to the magic-gifted and nonhuman kainen, faces a mortal threat from the human Acrasians, who have no magic but possess a huge army, while the twins’ nefarious uncle, Sakari, plots to seize the throne. Nels is renounced by the kainen king as defective because he lacks magic powers; grappling loudly with self-doubt, he becomes a soldier and then unconvincingly takes over Eledore’s entire army. His sister, Suvi, happier in breeches than court dresses, gains command of the Eledorean fleet. Despite Leicht’s attempt to flavor the proceedings with Finnish-like names, the worldbuilding tends to get bogged down in adolescent dialogue and sentimentality. She relies too hard on having her characters constantly plunge into action, with hardly any pauses for inner reflection or growth. With the subterranean Old Ones also threatening, Nels and Suvi apparently have a long road ahead, and the book’s bloodthirsty violence may make it feel even longer. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Good, the Bad and the Smug

Tom Holt. Orbit, $15 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-36881-0

Holt (The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice) achieves near-perfection in his new comic fantasy. The complicated multiverse setting requires some nimble reading, but the three central narratives unfold and combine into a cerebral yet slapstick comedy. Mordak, king of the social media–loving goblins, undertakes a hero’s journey with a condescending elf at his side to learn how the human princes of a fantasy realm are getting so rich, and to find out whether an arms race is in the works. A peculiar little man from another universe is spinning straw into gold for the princes, while attempting to teach them strategic thinking and prevent the mess he made in his own dimension. The goblin Ozork transforms into a puny human named Archie when he aims for the Realms of Transcendent Bliss, misses, and lands on a film set in modern New Zealand. Holt keeps track of every thread from beginning to end and cleverly ties them all together in unexpected ways. This is a must-read for those who grew up in awe of The Phantom Tollbooth. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Project Nephili

T.L. Farmer. Story Merchant, $15.95 ISBN 978-0-990421-62-7

At the outset of Farmer’s fast-paced thriller, Angie McDowell’s boss at the Blytheville Express sends the dogged reporter to investigate Blytheville State, a Georgia psychiatric hospital, after the Department of Health and Human Services threatens to close the facility for mismanagement, a move that would put many locals out of work. Angie soon learns that the hospital zealously guards its secrets and that all copies of a history written by a former chaplain, who worked there for almost three decades, have disappeared. The rumors about what was going on at the hospital include claims that Martin Luther King’s assassination followed word that he was about to push for a federal probe into Blytheville State. Farmer consistently maintains the intrigue of the opening sections and doles out teasers at regular intervals, including references to the mysterious Watchers and Angie’s encounters with Sallie, a six-fingered ghost. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bloody Royal Prints

Reba White Williams. Tyrus (F + W Media, dist.), $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4405-8545-6

Williams’s middling fourth Coleman and Dinah Greene mystery (after 2014’s Fatal Impressions) takes Dinah from New York to London, where she has received a fellowship at the Art Museum of Great Britain. Dinah’s insufferable husband, Jonathan Hathaway, also travels to London, but business leaves him little time for her. The one bright spot is her friendship with art dealer Rachel Ransome, who introduces Dinah to Princess Stephanie, a distant relative of the royals. When someone robs Stephanie, Dinah and Rachel agree to investigate. Before they can do so, Stephanie finds a body in her flat, and the Palace Police, a sort of vigilante group, treat Rachel with hostility and seem to have official sanction to do so. Dinah asks her cousin and close friend, Coleman Greene, to come to London, but, in one of too many convenient occurrences, Coleman is already on the way. Dinah’s subservience to the awful Jonathan will dismay many readers. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad

Edited by Simon Clark. Running Press, $14.95 trade paper (484p) ISBN 978-0-7624-5617-8

Clark (The Night of the Triffids) has done a superior job in selecting the 15 original pastiches for this anthology, all of which remove Holmes from his Baker Street haunts to exercise his deduction skills in less familiar terrain. The standout, Paul Finch’s “The Monster of Hell’s Gate,” sends Holmes and Watson to East Africa, where the legendary Nandi bear, a creature familiar to cryptozoologists, has been decimating native workers on a new rail line. Finch blends suspense, atmosphere, and fair-play cluing so skillfully that many would welcome a longer Holmes story from his imagination. The always-reliable Denis O. Smith takes the duo to Russia in “The Adventure of the Colonel’s Daughter,” to clear a man caught literally red-handed at the scene of a murder. Clark’s own “The Climbing Man” confronts Holmes with an impossible crime in Mesopotamia. The consistent excellence makes this a better choice for Sherlockians than such similar volumes as Sherlock Holmes in America and Sherlock Holmes: The American Years. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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