In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.
In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.
Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.
Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.
Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.
In the more than 20 years that Hellboy has been engaged in supernatural pulp adventures, he’s been everywhere from Mexico to Romania and crossed paths with countless fantastic figures from history and myth. Though Hellboy made himself comfortable all over the globe throughout his life, there was only one logical place for him to end his journey: home. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola is a somber and surreal swan song that finally forces Hellboy to face the infernal heritage he spent his life rejecting.
Creator Mignola announced in 2015 that Hellboy in Hell would be his final art duty on a comic before an extended break to focus on traditional watercolor painting, and this series truly reads like a fond farewell to a beloved friend. Minimalist compositions present the majestic architecture and unholy denizens of the underworld in a way that invoke melancholy rather than horror. Fans of Mignola will recognize returning motifs throughout the glorious hellscapes he illustrates here, and new readers can look forward to being introduced to his unique style with a story that showcases him at the top of his game. Longtime collaborator Dave Stewart provides most of the book’s color, bathing each page in dismal limited palettes that perfectly compliment the gloomy tone of the story.
This is the sendoff Hellboy deserves. The unmistakable artwork and understated writing that readers have come to expect from Mike Mignola are here, presented in perhaps their most moving use since Hellboy’s origin. Whet your appetite with Hellboy: The First 20 Years and then settle in for a quiet evening navigating the depths with Hell’s lost son himself. Full disclosure: I cried a little.
Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black is the first installment of a new series that takes an exciting and refreshing approach to the aliens attacking Earth story. Set 500 years in the future, the people of Earth have been in a grinding war with a mysterious alien species. With them came the mysterious force of "thelemity", which they brought to use as a weapon. Luckily, humans found that they could use thelemity too.
Black introduces us to a variety of characters that, through their multiple viewpoints, build up this multifaceted and detail-rich story. Jax is a 12-year-old "fontani", someone who can use the mysterious element of thelemity and plays an important part in the defense of the Ninth City. Torro is a factory worker in a settlement of the Ninth City who is chosen in a sudden draft for the war. Naomi and Rae are sisters that travel and live outside of the city who end up becoming much more important to the Ninth City than they could have known. Though these are just a few of the characters who lend their viewpoints, we learn the truths of the war and their part in it as each of them train and prepare for battle.
Black’s future Earth is wonderfully imagined with sharp attention to detail. Many things aren’t what you think they are initially, and the twists in the story add an air of mystery that I was not expecting. Lovers of science fiction and fantasy will find Ninth City Burning intriguing and intense in the best possible way. Be sure to keep an eye out for the rest of the series.
Nick Mamatas manages the rare feat of making the reader feel utter disgust and laugh hysterically without having to turn a page in I Am Providence. Mamatas alternates between two narrators, an unsuccessful curmudgeon author and his platonic green-haired vegan roommate at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island — one of whom tells their tale from the beyond after they are murdered and their face is removed. This particular disfigurement happens after it is revealed that the victim had been hired to act as a go-between in the sale of a book bound in human skin.
If you are curious as to why unsuccessful authors, book dealers, green-haired vegans, a face-removing murderer and a variety of other characters are all staying in a Rhode Island hotel, the obvious answer is notorious racist and occasional horror author H.P. Lovecraft. The Summer Tentacle is an annual con of sorts for fans of the Rhode Island native and his short story "The Call of Cthulhu." To keep things interesting, wine and social anxiety fuel this crowd, best summed up when Mamatas quipped; “The crowd drank with an intensity that only comes with the combination of free alcohol, unsuccessful writers and high stress.”
To those out there that have never heard of Cthulhu or find Lovecraft’s work to not your taste, don’t fret about not being able to enjoy Mamatas’ tale of murderous social commentary.
Spies. Monsters. Super powers. And…bureaucratic humor? In Stiletto, Daniel O’Malley delivers a riveting novel that covers all of the above and more. A follow up to his smash hit The Rook, this novel delves deeper into the world of the Rookery, a covert agency in the English government that employs individuals with unusual abilities to protect their country from threats internal and external.
In this book, the Rookery is looking to make nice with an age old foe. But how do you join two groups, when both have been raised since time immemorial to despise the other? Old wounds are re-opened and loyalties are tested when these organizations are forced to confront very real threats to themselves, their colleagues and to England itself.
While modern fantasy/espionage/horror/office humor is a pretty niche sub-genre, Daniel O’Malley does a great job of making this book accessible to all audiences. Funny and insightful one moment, terrifying and tense the next, O’Malley seamlessly blends genres to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. He also does a great job of mining his premise for unexpected humor — at one point they discuss how a Gorgon was driven from England not by an armed assault, but by a series of increasingly withering tax audits.
A great read for fans of urban fantasy, this book has humor, heart and a few good scares in store for its readers. If you enjoy this book, you could also check out The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, another series about English spies defending crown and country from the supernatural while dealing with bureaucratic red tape. Urban fantasy fans might also enjoy Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files; the first book in that series is Storm Front. It follows a modern day private investigator who also happens to be a wizard, mixing dry humor with thrilling action and some terrifying moments.
For suburbanite Ben, what starts out as a dull business trip to the Poconos rapidly becomes a horrifying ordeal of epic proportions when he decides to go for The Hike through the local woods. Pursued by a menagerie of monsters through locations found nowhere on Earth, Ben struggles to survive. As he stumbles from one nightmare into the next, he longs for a way to escape the path and return to his family. But to leave the path is to die, and Ben will have to find his way if he ever wants to make it home again.
The Hike is a bloody mash-up of genres, as if author Drew Magary threw The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland and the top 10 B horror movies of all time into a blender to see what would happen. The book is a wild ride from start to finish; once the action starts, it never really lets up. Some of the images are gory, yes, and some of the monsters are really grotesque, but Magary never lets Ben’s experiences on the path descend into the literary equivalent of torture porn. There is a purpose to what Ben is enduring and a destination he has to reach, and the quest-like feel of the narration keeps the plot from being bogged down by too much horror. The violence and heartbreak Ben endures is balanced by Ben’s deadpan humor and determination to see this journey through to the end. The inclusion of some seriously fun characters, including a talking crab, is an added bonus, and there are plenty of surprise twists awaiting Ben and the reader.
These twists make The Hike the engaging and fun read that it is, culminating in a shocking revelation right up to the last page. The Hike is a quick read, with enough bizarre world-building and action to make it perfect for any fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, video games like Limbo or podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale.
Can a person con their way out of a "lawyer-tight" contract that promises his or her soul to the Devil upon death? K. J. Parker, a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, will elegantly feed you this delicious information in his science fiction and fantasy novella The Devil You Know.
“...Why exactly do you want to sell your soul to us?” This is a question that a demon case officer, who is in the soul buying business, asks his new client, Saloninus, the world’s greatest philosopher, liar, cheat and trickster. Time flew by rather quickly for Saloninus, a 77-year-old man who believes he wasted his talent on scheming others. Unhappy with the fact that he has no self-respecting achievements, he decides to sign a contract to sell his soul to the Devil in order to acquire 20 more years of life on Earth and a youthful transformation to age 25 for the opportunity to make a mark on history. Once Saloninus signs the contract, the demon case officer becomes his servant, who uses his own supernatural abilities to grant Saloninus outlandish requests. When the demon questions Saloninus about what he plans to do with his additional years on Earth, the philosopher behaves suspiciously. This behavior gives the demon a reason to believe that the old trickster is up to his old tricks again and that his target is… the Devil. Saloninus is supposed to be the cleverest man on Earth. Will Saloninus successfully swindle the Devil? The demon case officer is supposed to be the best in the business. Will he halt Saloninus’ plan? To swindle or not to swindle, that is the question.
Readers who relish stories that involve the supernatural, mortality and good and evil, will find K. J. Parker’s novella The Devil You Know delightful and possibly frightful. Add this entertaining treat to your summer reading list — if you dare.
Have you ever wanted to be in your favorite book? Make sure the bad guys lose? Maybe change the entire course of the story? Of course you have; you’re reading this blog. In Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution, Leah Tang can be your stand-in. Leah is a stand-up comedian trying to make a name for herself in Baltimore and enduring all the frustrating nonsense that being an Asian female comic in a dive bar can provide: drunken hecklers, rude come-ons, people who completely misunderstand a really good joke. But Leah presses on, despite the bar owner’s lack of support for anyone other than drunken louts. By the end of her set, she has attracted attention of both the wanted and unwanted kinds.
The wanted kind: He was the only one who got her jokes. Why not go along for the ride? Being a smart person, Leah texts her friend to let her know she is heading down I-97 with a strange man who had promised her a job.
At the Genrenauts Foundation building, however, Leah begins to rethink her life choices. What’s with 19th century period attire? Why is a woman being wheeled down the hall in a gurney? What’s with the thing that looks suspiciously like a spaceship? Leah almost walks away. When they step off the spaceship into the wild, wild West, she wishes she had run when she had the chance. How can she help save the so-called real world if she cannot figure out the tropes and devices of even one Genre World?
If you like the TV show Leverage or the books of Jasper Fforde, Genrenauts is absolutely the series for you. Exploring genre tropes while saving the world has never been more fun. And be sure to check out the second in the series, Genrenauts: The Absconded Ambassador!
If you were like me as a kid and read a lot of fantasy, you probably had no trouble believing that magic mirrors, wardrobes and tollbooths were everyday objects. That Narnia or Wonderland were one right-wrong turn away at any given moment. But the part of those stories I could never understand was the part where the kids go home at the end. If you really found a door to a world where magic was real why would you ever leave? Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway asks a darker question: What would you do to get back?
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school for children coping with realness. Children who returned from magical worlds and desperately want to go back again. But their reasons for wanting to go back are more compelling than just wanting to fight dragons or whatever. These worlds offered them acceptance that they couldn’t find at home, a safe place to express their gender, sexuality, their personality. Plus dragons. Who wouldn’t want to go back?
But now someone’s threatening the safety of everyone on campus. Someone who would do anything to return to their world, and everyone’s a suspect.
With this book, McGuire has crafted not just one world but multiple worlds of compelling characters and situations, all nested inside one slim novella. Fans of the novel and TV series The Magicians will appreciate this clever deconstruction and homage to the fantasy genre.
Immigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.
Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes — the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.
This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.