Hello, winter reading! A cozy fire, a cup of cocoa, an ugly sweater, and a good book. Or, just a good book. December doesn’t get the powerhouse treatment that last month did, owing to holiday sales expectations, and I hope you’ve all ordered your copy of Leviathan Falls, the final Expanse novel, which would have been out this month if Orbit had held out one more day (check out my review), but it turns out that there are some good books this month anyway.
- Absynthe by Brendan P. Bellecourt | Dec 7, 2021 | DAW
- Cyber Mage by Saad Z. Hossain | Dec 7, 2021 | The Unnamed Press
- Discordia by Kristyn Merbeth | Dec 7, 2021 | Orbit Books
- Spidertouch by Alex Thomson | Dec 14, 2021 | Angry Robot
Anthologies and Short Fiction
- The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection ALLAN KASTER (ED) | Dec 17, 202 1 |Infinivox
If you can’t wait for these titles to be released, check out last month’s column.
Novels (in order of publication)
Absynthe by Brendan P. Bellecourt
Dec 7, 2021 | DAW
In our reality, WWI was fought with the “clash of 20th-century technology and 19th-century tactics.” Bradley Beaulieu, writing as Brendan Bellecourt in his first science fiction novel, ups the ante by adding powered armor, pharmaceutically-induced telepathy, and shared consciousness to his steampunk alt-history set just after the end of the war to end all wars. Set in 1920s Chicago, Liam Mulcahey is a veteran surfing serious PTSD, including considerable memory loss of his time in the war, where he was in an elite mech-suited unit on the front lines. When the speakeasy he’s in is attacked, he’s dragged back into action, this time against the President of the United States…the man who was once his unit commander. Absynthe is a fast-paced, high-energy romp through speakeasies and the jazz-infused culture of the 20s with unnerving parallels to modern times.
Cyber Mage by Saad Z. Hossain
Dec 7, 2021 | The Unnamed Press
If you liked Saad Z. Hossain’s science fiction/fantasy mashup novella The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday (08/2019) as much as I did, you’re going to enjoy his new novel Cyber Mage. Set in Dhaka, the Bangladesh of 2089, Murzak, a brilliant fifteen-year-old hacker who goes by the handle Cyber Mage, has everything he could ask for: emancipated from his parents, cutting deals with Russian mobsters, globally respected for his cyber exploits, and renowned for his dominance in the world’s most popular virtual gamespace, FF9000. He’s got it made, at least until he falls for the most perfect girl in the world and decides to do whatever it takes to win her affections. Even enrolling in high school and enduring the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that await all super-intelligent, socially-inept, physically-pathetic nerds have suffered since the beginning of time. Add to that a war between emergent AIs, magical beings hiding out in low earth orbit, and an economy based on nanomachines harvesting the masses, and you’ve got a brilliant bit of cyberpunk worthy of a Gibson or Stephanson, if only they had a sense of humor, or at least of the ironic. The book’s promo sells it as a “laugh-out-loud-funny and totally original new novel,” and while I agree with the latter, I think they’re overselling it as a comedy. In reality, it’s a solid piece of international cyberpunk with plenty of good ideas tossed around for the reader to mull over. Sure, there are Djinns in the mix, but even they are constrained by real limits and working through technological means. All in all, an enjoyable read from an author who makes my three wishes come true; that stories should be enjoyable, interesting, and full of memorable characters. Highly Recommended.
Discordia by Kristyn Merbeth
Dec 7, 2021 | Orbit Books
Kristyn Merbeth is back with the third book in her Nova Viata system trilogy, following last December’s Memoria, Scorpia, once the flighty and rebellious child in the Kaiser family of smugglers and ne’er-do-wells, is not the responsible captain and leader of the clan. With their adventures causing and saving the system from bio-virus destruction behind them, Scorpia is hoping to get the crew some rest and recreation before finding a safe haven on Pax, one of the few planets that doesn’t have a grudge against them, but when the three major planets form an alliance and issue a most-wanted list…guess who’s on it?
You’d think saving the system would be enough for the governments to cut them some slack, but knowing where the bodies are buried makes the crew of the Memoria too dangerous to have running around.
If you took the ragtag ruffians from Firefly and added the chaotic romanticism of the Expanse’s James Holden, you might come close to Scorpia and her crew. In the end, they’ll be weighed as either villains or heroes, or maybe a little of both.
Spidertouch by Alex Thomson
Dec 14, 2021 | Angry Robot
Like his 2018 novel, Death of a Clone, Spidertouch has its overseers and mistreated miners, but while the first is set in the asteroid belt, his new novel takes place in a medieval period on a world where the Deda, a race of mute non-humans, have taken over the city of Val Kedic. The humans are kept in line in part by their children being taken as hostages to work for seven years in the mines under cruel conditions. Razvan is an interpreter, able to communicate with the Keda through fingerspeak, an aptitude that spared him from his term in the mines. Now an adult and widower, his son, Rico, was not so lucky and Ravan hasn’t seen or heard from him since he was taken. What little he knows is that his son has shown toughness and courage that has cost him under the harsh treatment of the Kedan, and though his term is coming to an end, he may not live to see it. When a human army shows up demanding tribute from the Keda held city, and the Keda chooses to fight rather than pay, Ravan finds himself in a position to turn the tables on the Keda, and hopefully win his son’s freedom.
Central to the story are the difficulties in interspecies communication, and the author has done a nice job exploring the medieval technology for both warfare and city management. The epilogue serves as a prologue for the next book, and though Spidertouch is billed as epic fantasy, it has all the elements of science fiction and no magic as far as I can tell, so there’s nothing to stop you from reading with science-fictional glasses on.
Anthologies and Short Fiction
The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories:
Second Annual Collection
Allan Kaster (ED) | Dec 17, 2021 | Infinivox
Allan Kaster has done half a dozen best-of collections, focusing on Hard SF, Space Opera and more. This is his second annual Robot and AI collection, with the best of 2020, and he’s done a great job of surveying the field. Naturally, I looked for titles I’d already read and loved and was pleased to see them well represented. I’m especially fond of A “Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, but I was delighted to be introduced to a host of ones I’d missed, including Ken Liu’s “50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know,” and Will McIntosh’s “Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Courtship” where a city-running AI just wants people to be happy, and maybe keep its job too. I didn’t find a single clunker in the entire collection of thirteen tales selected by the editor based on their impact on him as a reader, and which “deliver(ed) an epiphany, a memorable character, strong world-building, and excellent craftsmanship.”
My only beef with the collection, which is available on Kindle Unlimited for those of you with an account, as well as a trade paperback, is that Kaster didn’t include a forward or story introductions. Collections like this offer a survey of what’s out there, but I want the editor to add some context as well. Regardless, this is a fine baker’s dozen of tales and strongly recommended.
The Usual Suspects
Here you’ll find some links to some reliable lists for new releases and other reviewer’s lists for the month, which I may update as they come in. You might check them out at:
- Amazon.com: Editor’s Picks – Best Books of the Month: Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Goodreads: Science Fiction New Releases
- Kobo: New & Hot in Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
- Den of Geek: Top New Science Fiction Books in December 2021
- Gizmodo: Finish Out 2021 With 14 New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books for December
- Tor.com: All the New Science Fiction Books Arriving in December!
- Transfer Orbit: All the sci-fi and fantasy books to check out this December
About the Reviewer’s Pics:
For the most part, this list sticks to what appeals to me as science fiction, about which I’m willing to be fairly flexible, but if here there be dragons, you can expect to find some tweaked DNA to explain it. I make up this list based on what I’ve read, heard, and am looking forward to. Please note that these are my selections, and do not represent the opinions of the editor or publication.
About Other Recommendations: this is stuff I’ve seen or heard about, but haven’t read yet.