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Child of Etherclaw
Matty Roberts
Roberts’s debut is an enthralling post-apocalyptic teen thriller. Spunky and quick-witted 16-year-old Fenlee will do anything for her family, though Fenlee and her adopted brother, Elliot, are mostly on their own: Fenlee’s mother died in an explosion when she was young, the same day they found Elliot, and their dad spends his days off-world asteroid mining for months at a time. All Fenlee has left of her mother is the opal necklace she always wore. But one day, when she and Elliot are scavenging for things to sell and run into a problem, she finds out there is much more to the opal than she ever imagined.

Readers of all ages will be immediately drawn in and feel connected to the trials Roberts’s characters face. In the beginning, Fenlee’s only focus is caring for her brother. She spends nights scavenging in order to buy food and days working hard in school to eventually get a job that will move her family to the higher tier. But when Fenlee and Elliott get in over their heads with brutal people chasing them and magical powers they don’t understand, they discover that new friends– and a cat that won’t leave their side–are more family than they’ve had in a long time.

Roberts’s world-building is immersive and natural. Readers will smell every smell, feel every touch, and experience the stresses of trying to survive the different tiers of New Cascadia, a world that exists only because of the assistance from aliens willing to clean up the damage done by humans. In their post-apocalyptic future, a new religion emerges and dangerously mixes with a formidable company willing to do anything for their secret science study. Readers who love found-family adventures will be thrilled as Fenlee tries to find her footing and protect her family at all costs.

Takeaway: An enthralling post-apocalyptic adventure where a tough teen heroine and her friends take a stand.

Great for fans of: Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, Veronica Rossi.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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The Shadows We Make
Jo Allen Ash
Blending SF, the fantastical, and the apocalyptic, Ash’s debut is jam packed with striking details that will delight fans of dystopian adventure. Living in the desert, just outside of a large city government named Citadel, sixteen-year-old Grace is trained as a warrior of the Irese tribe. She’s always on alert for trouble. It eventually finds her in the form of Stone Tiran, an arrogant upstart who demands a bonding–and whom she rejects. Soon Grace discovers that Stone wields more influence than she could have imagined, and for her disloyalty he sentences her to death by banishing her to their planet Talia’s mostly uninhabited moon, Emerald, which doubles as an inescapable penal colony.

Because of Grace’s age, she’s housed in the juvenile section of Emerald, along with several other inmates. Determined to get back to her family and save them from Stone’s wrath, Grace must make the decision to trust her fellow convicts–or die alone. Ash freshens up the Lord of the Flies vibe, and the steady, slow-building pace allows information and action to be doled out at a rate that will leave readers eagerly flipping to the next page. Grace’s budding relationships with the other prisoners add a layer of nuance that rapidly develops the characters into dynamic entities, particularly Duncan Oaks, adding just the right amount of sweetness to counterbalance the story’s darker themes of addiction, death, and hopelessness.

The intricate worldbuilding and deliciously complex characters shine, though at times some of the story’s horror aspects would benefit from greater clarity. Stone’s place in the larger cosmology also raises some questions that Ash leaves unanswered. Yet overall, this beautifully crafted novel’s enticing premise and creative blend of familiar elements with welcome surprises will appeal to readers of all ages–especially those interested in themes of isolation, belonging, and duty.

Takeaway: A beautifully crafted SF dystopia, boasting relatable characters and a skillful plot.

Great for fans of: Tara Brown’s Born, Bella Forrest’s The Girl Who Dared to Think.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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Karma Under Fire
Love Hudson-Maggio
Set in Atlanta and India, Hudson-Maggio’s debut is a story about finding love in spite of insurmountable obstacles. Harlow Kennedy, a Black American woman battling to keep her head above water, crosses paths in mid-air with celebrity Indian restaurateur Tej Mayur/Vikram Chatwal when the two are both traveling to India, she to attend best friend Lita’s big fat Indian wedding and he to meet his mother, who is planning a traditional marriage for him. It takes Harlow and Tej some time to acknowledge their mutual attraction, and even then they face many hurdles before any possible happily ever-after: tradition, culture, nationality, caste and color, plus their own individual quirks and past personal tragedies.

Hudson-Maggio’s crisp, engaging prose and quick-paced storytelling will please readers of lively, travel-minded international fiction, though the novel doesn’t dig too deeply beneath the surface of Indian life. Extreme poverty, enormous wealth, Ayurvedic spas, extravagant weddings, unyielding tradition, fantastic Indian cuisine, a snake charmer–all the boxes for depicting India as an exotic backdrop for romantic adventure get checked. At times, the depiction strains credulity in the interest of generating tension: even in the nation’s most traditional homes, the days of the bride and groom not knowing each other’s names before the ceremony are long past.

Still, the language is breezy and the dialogue captivating, as Hudson-Maggio demonstrates a strong sense of character revealed through conversation. Narrative perspective is split between different narrative voices–first Harlow, then Tej, and later Sophia, Harlow’s mother. The introduction of Sophia as narrator might at first seem jarring, though the choice to highlight her perspective deepens her characterization from cold mother to wronged woman aching for her child. Readers looking for a light, character-driven romance with empathy and wit will find much to enjoy here.

Takeaway: Readers will find this culture-crossing cheerful romance a breezy read with some captivating dialogue.

Great for fans of: Rebecca Ryman’s Olivia and Jai, Nicola Marsh’s Busted in Bollywood.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A

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KIDNAPPED - A Tugboater's Tale
Bob Ojala
Ojala offers a rare and deeply researched insight into the world of human trafficking in middle America. Lake Michigan tugboat captain Ashley Walter and her husband Adam disappear after disembarking to buy pizzas for their crew. Young crew member Steve Steiner raises alarm over the couple’s disappearance, and both he and his father, Curt, must plunge into the grim netherworld of sex trafficking, working closely with police to conduct covert operations to gather the evidence to bring down those involved in smuggling these women across state boundaries.

Much of the novel’s strength comes from its female protagonists. There is Ashley, the tugboat captain who gets kidnapped, only to escape quickly by outwitting her kidnappers. Moved by what she witnessed and concerned about the welfare of other young women who fell victim to these traffickers, Ashley volunteers to work with the police on a sting operation, along with Officer Elizabeth “Liz” Trent, an experienced undercover officer who has busted many trafficking rings. Under her hardened exterior, Liz is an exceptionally empathetic police official who treats each young woman she rescues with kindness, making sure they reach their respective homes safely.

Though fast paced and suspenseful, with a strong sense of milieu, especially the “tough, steel mill town” of East Chicago, Indiana, not a place commonly assumed to be a hotspot of traffickers. (One character notes “I thought those places only existed in Detroit or Chicago, not right here.”) Still, the book often reads like a series of various characters’ adventures rather than one cohesive story, with perspective shifts from chapter to chapter and some plot points, such as the fact that civilians volunteer their services to the police and participate in high stake operations, strain credulity. The budding romance between Steve and Liz, though, is engaging, which makes it easier for readers to invest in the plot and its characters and look forward to subsequent sequels of the novel.

Takeaway: This suspenseful dive into human trafficking in middle America is distinguished by strong female characters.

Great for fans of:Lisa Clonch Tschauner’s Reclamation, Helen C. Escott’s Operation Trafficked.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-

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Bag O' Goodies
Jolly Walker Bittick
This spirited miscellany from Bittick, author of the striking military-life hangout novel Cape Henry House, makes its intentions clear both from its title and its dedication page, which reads like an inviting toast: “To voluptuous variety: the spice of life.” Toastmaster Bittick follows it with a laddish poem linking loving a book to losing one’s virginity then a raucous tale of drinking, cornhole, potential hookups, and getting pulled over. (“I’m good” is the narrator’s answer to the question “do you consent to a field blood alcohol content test?”) The chatter of men, boys, and man-boys powers many of the tales that follow, which examine, with an empathetic lack of judgment, the behavior of seamen, neighborhood kids, young men just a little too old to go “cruising,” and other fundamentally innocent types who get in over their heads and live to tell about it.

As in Cape Henry House, Bittick demonstrates a rare ear and keen eye for all that’s comic, bittersweet, and occasionally alarming when groups of boys get to carrying on. His chatter, at bars and Naval bases, rings true, as his characters crack at each other and never quite say out loud the deeper things they’re feeling. Also as in the novel, the amusing conversations at times can drift toward aimlessness, which means they’re more accurate than most depictions of military life even when–especially when–they come at the expense of narrative momentum.

Still, Bittick excels at capturing the way good (or good-ish) times can spin out of control. It’s a relief, then, when despite “AR-15’s, handguns, and a shotgun or two” the three-part, novella-length motorcycle epic “Blue Ridge Riders” ends on a note of hope rather than violence or despair. The poems, meanwhile, range from deadly earnest to wickedly playful, demonstrating that structure sharpens rather than dulls the wit that pulses in all those shaggy dialogue scenes.

Takeaway: These vivid stories and poems of military and motorcycle life pulse with convincing comic dialogue.

Great for fans of: T.C. Boyle’s Greasy Lake and Other Stories, David Abrams’s Fobbit.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B+

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Camera Ready
Adele Royce
This sexy second-chance contemporary romance–the first in the Truth, Lies, and Love in Advertising series–introduces Jane Mercer, 28 year-old ad executive, as she balances a budding career and complicated love life. Finally over a disastrous affair with debonair businessman and chronic womanizer Craig Keller, Jane has convinced herself that she’s content and happy planning a future with her live-in fiancé Derek Lowell, a concert violinist with the L.A. Philharmonic. However, after a few unexpected encounters with the always “camera ready” Craig, old feelings begin to resurface, leaving Jane confused about her current relationship and the man she hates but also loves “in a strange and awful way.”

Writing with crisp, engaging prose, Royce wastes no time introducing the romantic conflict, and within the opening chapters sexual tension between Jane and Craig percolates from the pages. Some romance aficionados may take pause at Jane’s acts of deception as she attempts to conceal the truth about her torrid past affair and subsequent run-ins with Craig to her fiancé. However, Jane’s redeeming qualities shine through as she gets over the harsh breakup with Derek, and is thrust into a toxic new work environment rampant with misogyny, envious coworkers, and sexual harassment.

Royce excels at weaving aspects of her personal career experience as a Las Vegas-based PR and advertising exec into the story. The workplace drama she creates beautifully balances out the romance, while intensifying the stakes as Jane attempts to make partner at her new firm. Although Jane is infatuated by Craig’s good looks and sexual prowess, there are many aspects of his personality that she absolutely despises, which takes this story into enemy-to-lovers territory. The relationship between Jane and Craig is cat-and-mouse up until the last chapters, which build to an unexpected ending that will leave fans of contemporary romance satisfied and rejoicing.

Takeaway: Romance readers will appreciate the well-crafted redemption arc and surprise happily ever after.

Great for fans of: Lillie Vale’s The Shaadi Set-Up, Penelope Ward’s The Day He Came Back.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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Breathing Into the Light: One Woman's Journey Embracing the Sacredness of All Life
Pamela Verner
​​In her debut memoir, Verner shares how spiritual experiences helped her survive abandonment, sexual abuse, family addiction, and multiple suicide attempts. She details how advisors, both in spirit form and living, guided her through difficult times: “helpers…held a candle guiding me through some of my darkest hours, lighting my path forward.” Verner also describes her own experiences in psychotherapy, both as a patient and a social worker beginning in the 1980s, sharing with readers the “considerable compassion” she gained for her patients. Weaving together spiritualism and mental health practices, Verner delivers an inspirational narrative that will resonate with readers seeking hope for healing and who are open to concepts like spirit guides.

Writing for an adult audience unfamiliar with the realities of mental healthcare, Verner digs into the foundations of psychology and reveals how these theories influenced her personal life and her practice as a licensed clinical social worker. She explains the differences between ethical and unsupportive clinician-patient relationships, as well as the importance of patients establishing “informed consent” with their therapist. Verner also considers therapy practices that are still being used and those that are out-of-date: “I began my long walk past several nurses…past the locked medical room used for shock therapy, past the empty ‘quiet’ room used for patients who are in restraints (full leathers that is).”

​​Verner’s memoir does not purport to be a self-help guide–she cautions readers that not every mental health and spiritual technique, such as hypnosis, is recommended by every clinician. Despite the dark subject matter, Verner’s conversational style makes this an easy, meditative read. She often uses repetitive fragments to highlight her points, and although this can make the text choppy, it does not detract from the tension and tone: “There were only three people on the road that night. Me. Benjamin. And a police officer.” Spiritualists and survivors looking for inspirational guidance will find much here to contemplate.

Takeaway: This thoughtful memoir details the importance of mental health treatment and spiritualism in healing.

Great for fans of: Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Kathryn Foster’s Sessions: Memoirs of a Psychotherapist.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

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Skyrmion: Book One of The Sweetland Quartet
Duane Poncy
In this immersive, intricately plotted mystery set in a near-future dystopia, Poncy (Bartlett House) challenges the concept of reality versus simulation. In 2035 the American government is owned by a corporate oligarchy that has privatized all services, leaving devastating poverty in its wake. Citizens spend their time on the internet-like Grid inside the New Life virtual reality world. But when Seattle private investigator Bridge Whitedeer—known as Claire Deluna in New Life—follows the trail of several bodies, she stumbles on a string of computer code called Skyrmion, which is designed to shut down the Grid and destroy the American economy.

With confident prose and a diverse cast of characters with fully realized back stories, Poncy’s well-plotted, complex thriller–the first book of The Sweetland Quartet–amps up the clash between virtual existence and reality. The planet is flooding, food is scarce, and the world is on the verge of a war over water. Joe Larivee, an overwhelmed social worker unable to help the drug-addicted masses, learns that his 14-year-old daughter Jessie is trying to get to an environmental community called Sweetland, a utopia that promises a new beginning for humanity. But Bridge gets conflicting information: is Sweetland a habitable pristine planet, a way to upload human consciousness to a giant database, or just a guerrilla marketing campaign to improve the New Life brand?

Poncy excels with evocative world-building and connections between characters that keep readers immersed and guessing until the end. The morality facing the characters who want to flee to the promise of Sweetland rather than try to fix the problems in front of them, offers a stark reminder to readers: “We always build a level of abstraction, a simulated bubble of denial around ourselves to protect us from the consequences of our decisions.” This is a treat for cyberpunk and science fiction fans who like smart characters maneuvering through introspective epics.

Takeaway: An intricate, cyberpunk dystopian thriller that will keep readers engrossed.

Great for fans of: Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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Boston Proper
Joseph Caro
Caro’s fleet, assured debut centers on class and love in the late 19th century in what was then America’s most prim city, Boston. In the sprawling—and splendidly described—Bon Vive estate, where the patriarch and his wife live essentially separate lives, young Victoria Bon Vive comes of age with one dear friend, Xander, the son of the Bon Vive’s gardener, despite her mother’s admonitions to avoid that “filthy” child. At age sixteen, Victoria and Xander share a kiss, not long before she’s spirited away to New York’s Bennett School for Girls, and he finds his own ambitions--such as a pioneering irrigation system for the estate’s crops and greenhouse—thwarted by the disinterest of rich swells who consider themselves his better.

“I can’t go back to being a porcelain doll,” Victoria tells Xander. As this unlikely pair ages, they feel around for fresh life possibilities—Victoria dreams of becoming a teacher, much to her mother’s disgust. Secrets come to light, fortunes are threatened, and American society and geography works against them, as new commitments and relationships pull Victoria and Xander further apart, especially when Xander finds opportunity in San Francisco, a bold city on the make.

Caro dishes this story in crisp, swift chapters that have an inviting whiff of high-end gossip about them, especially as the story checks in, in brief and to-the-point passages, on the sprawling cast and each individual’s secret desires, schemes, and disappointments. The expectations of what it means to be “Boston proper” loom over the characters’ choices, and Caro proves adept at plotting and pacing a story that never allows the repressive forces that dominate it to slow down the narrative or limit its emotional resonance. At times, the prose could benefit from more polish, but the novel pulses with feeling, revelations, and the great concern of historical novelists—the question of what it felt like to be human in a particular time and place.

Takeaway: A bold, brisk historical novel of class, romance, and 19th century Boston mores.

Great for fans of: Renée Rosen’s The Social Graces, Nancy Zaroulis’s Call the Darkness Light.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: N/A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A

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What the Pet Food Industry is Not Telling You: Developing Good Practices for a Healthier Dog
Dr. Stephanie Krol
Krol debuts with an impassioned treatise on using holistic nutrition to ensure the longevity of our pets. Focusing mainly on dogs, although she offers insight for cat owners as well, Krol argues that no commercial pet food is healthy, instead suggesting owners follow what she calls “Single Category Rotational Feeding,” a diet plan that includes only one category of food per day, drawing from raw meat, cooked vegetables, and fruits in their natural state. Urging readers to take control of their pets’ wellbeing, Krol argues that the bulk of the commercial pet food “comes from nutritionally empty and worthless byproducts sourced from ground-up body parts.” She likewise takes aim at veterinary science.

Using wolves as a natural comparison due to their shared DNA with dogs, Krol breaks down the genetics behind her recommendations: namely, dogs have a one chambered stomach, and combining different food types elevates levels of toxicity in their systems. She also delves into the science behind feeding dogs raw meat (their stomach acid is ten times more powerful than humans’, so bacteria does not pose the same risks) and why organic food guarantees the best health outcomes. On the medical side, Krol advises owners to be cautious with repeat vaccinations, arguing that titer testing—antibody tests to determine immunity—should be utilized instead.

Readers will appreciate the depth of insight in this guide, particularly how to differentiate digestive warning signs from common animal reactions to dietary detox. Most useful are the hands-on resources, including recipe samples, structured feeding plans based on animal preferences, and hints on finding (or making) safe treats–in addition to tailored food lists for cat lovers. Krol’s appreciation for pets is evident throughout, and her reminder that “there’s no greater gift you can give your dog or cat than the priceless gift of true health” is spot on.

Takeaway: A call to action about the dangers of commercialized pet food and animal medical treatment.

Great for fans of: The Woof Brothers’s Dog Nutrition & Cookbook, Shawn Buckley and Dr. Oscar Chavez’s Big Kibble.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-

We Planned a Murder: One Murder. Five Suspects. And One of Them is Next.
Derek D. Wheeless
Wheeless’s thrilling whodunit debut offers a vintage edge to a contemporary YA mystery. Ignacio “Nacho” Blanco is a teenage sleuth and self-appointed Problem Solver Investigator (PSI) with dreams of ditching his small town for the glamor of the big city. Enter Zadie Abernathy, a schoolmate accused of murdering a local psychiatrist. Nacho decides to take on the case–“Everyone is capable of murder in the right circumstance, but Zadie didn’t fit the bill,” he notes in his role as narrator–and prove Zadie’s innocence, but nothing is as straightforward as it seems. With cunning detective work and a little help from his friends, Nacho must track down the truth before he becomes the next target.

Wheeless masterfully weaves mature themes and an old-fashioned noir atmosphere into this playful premise, complete with a smooth-talking detective who has a soft spot for the damsel in distress. Nacho’s dialogue mirrors hard boiled mysteries and classic Dick Tracy comics, and the crime-solving teenager even has a signature cocktail of choice—an 1885, which is Dr. Pepper with a splash of chocolate syrup. His character shines, but Zadie also proves to be more than a blonde in need: she’s a complex character with a poignant backstory who matches Nacho’s gusto and enthusiasm for finding the truth. Along with a friend who provides him with the latest tech gadgets, a retired FBI agent, and a few of his fellow classmates, Nacho faces life-threatening obstacles and confirms that bravery is ageless.

The action, characters, and mystery quickly prove gripping and don’t let go until the harrowing conclusion. Stakes are continuously raised as Nacho dives into the disturbing underbelly of the murder victim’s personal life, and Wheeless doesn’t shy away from mature content such as self-harm and sexual assault. With a fast-moving plot and plenty of twists, Wheeless's polished story will leave readers craving more adventures with his dynamic teenage sleuth.

Takeaway: Perfect for mystery lovers craving a YA thriller with mature themes and a noir vibe.

Great for fans of: Maureen Johnson’s The Box in the Woods, Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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The Sacrificial Deal
Teri Harmon
In her literary debut, financial planner Harmon delivers a fast-paced, character-driven thriller centered on a pediatrician who witnesses a mob hit and then must descend into the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. As Dr. Sarah Stevens works late at night in her Santa Barbara-based office, she witnesses three hitmen slaying a pharmaceutical rep across the hall. Forced into hiding after her high-profile testimony, Sarah is forced to fake her own death and leave her family—including her beloved architect husband, Nicholas, and children Sophie, Susan, and Jackson—behind to save all of their lives. Living in exile in Boise, Idaho, for several years, Sarah becomes Sandra and covertly observes her family from a distance—until someone catches on that the beloved pediatrician might not be dead after all.

Readers will easily empathize with Sarah’s moral dilemma: do the right thing and testify against members of the Russian Mafia, who immediately put a million dollar bounty on her head, or let the killers (one of whom is still at large) get away with murder. As Sarah’s lawyer observes, she might be marked for death no matter which option she chooses. Harmon deftly conveys the disorientation inherent with losing one’s lifelong identity and being forced to take on a stranger’s. The title refers to an elaborate coverup scheme and new life plan Sarah negotiates with the FBI.

Sarah’s emotional angst at not being able to celebrate major milestones with her family–including a grandchild’s birth, a child’s high school graduation, and another’s engagement–comes across with clarity. Sometimes, Harmon summarizes rather than fully dramatizes key moments, and some scenes of Sarah observing her family, even in heavy disguise, without being detected strain credulity. Still, Sarah’s strong desire to be with her family at all costs rings true. Readers fond of hair-raising plots and strong heroines will find promise in Harmon’s debut.

Takeaway: An inventive plot, a conflicted heroine, and high emotional stakes stand out in this thriller debut.

Great for fans of: Kate White’s The Wrong Man; Nicci French’s The Other Side of the Door.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: B-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A

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The Light after the Orange
Beverley Hall
The first installment in Hall’s Tundra Stone series blends near-future dystopia, elements of magic, and alternate worlds for a story that fully merges science fiction with fantasy. Alex Chegasa has led a sheltered childhood after the Orange destroyed the world. Outside her school, survivors scavenge abandoned homes while fending each other off for a small corner of existence. When tragedy strikes for Alex, she’s forced to join a group of people in search of a new home. Running on a parallel timeline is Billey, who doesn’t quite fit in with her community either. Soon the two find their destiny—and the fate of the world as they know it—inextricably joined.

Friendship, danger, deception, and the power of communing with nature power the narrative. Hall’s characters are engaging, and the story diverges from typical dystopia, imbuing several main players with supernatural skills that give them an advantage in the wasteland. Iggy, one of Alex’s fellow travelers, has magical abilities similar to her own, and he takes on the task of convincing Alex to hide her magic from people who may exploit it–notably the charismatic Jericho, founder of a utopian-like island. When Billey begins to question her identity, and experiences a brutal attack on her foster parents, she discovers her hidden life and returns home to assume responsibilities, including ensuring Alex’s survival.

Hall strikes a believable, chillingly familiar chord with the Orange event that poisons the land, kills many people, and forces those who survive to fight for dwindling resources. The plotting can get tricky, especially as Hall incorporates a variety of elements from multiple genres, and the complex, worlds-crossing mysteries of Billey’s past and Alex’s future at times diminish the narrative momentum. For those fans seeking a fresh interpretation of a dystopian future, with a touch of magic and a sense of the power of nature, this story hits the spot.

Takeaway: This kickoff to a genre-mixing post-apocalyptic saga emphasizes friendship, danger, and the power of nature.

Great for fans of: Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga, Mike Carey’s Book of Koli.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

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No Such Thing as Goodbye
Karmen Spiljak
Špiljak’s striking crime thriller, which was shortlisted for the Black Spring Crime Fiction Prize 2020, follows Antonia Morretti, the daughter of a Dutch mobster, as she attempts to escape her past (and probable death) to start a new life across the Atlantic in Mexico City. However, it’s not long before Moretti finds herself face to face with the very world she has been trying to escape: a world spilling over with spies, criminals, and worst of all, violence–the lethal kind.

From the arresting first line (“Tomorrow, I’ll be dead”), Špiljak, author of the “culinary noir” collection Add Cyanide to Taste, explores the futility of trying to escape who you are and where you come from, suggesting that the past will always come back to haunt you, making the novel’s title fittingly appropriate. Špiljak writes with persuasive power about the ins and outs of both the criminal world and those who police it, and the narrative is interspersed with piquant details of how things are done, details readers might expect only an insider could divulge, while Antonia training in disguise, tailing, and other tricks of the trade in the novel’s middle makes clear how much work it takes to develop the skills this milieu demands. As striking as the verisimilitude is Špiljak’s prose, which is as poetic as it is fast-paced; plot points are punctuated with philosophical musings that lend the narrative welcome depth and resonance.

There are times when this action-packed novel can seem too frantic, straining reader credulity about how many things can go wrong at any given time. But Špiljak exercises impressive narrative command, carrying readers along the entire way, delivering skillful setpieces of suspense and action that despite their headlong momentum never sacrifice surprise or impact. Lovers of swift-moving crime thrillers will enjoy this book, which packs a punch while delving deep into the human psyche.

Takeaway: Packed with action and thematically rich, this globe-crossing crime thriller stands out.

Great for fans of: Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger, Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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Psyker: A Hiveworlds Novel
Rory Surtain
Surtain (Storm Sister: Demon in Exile) adds alien psychic powers to a rigid society in an underground city in this twisting tale of freedoms lost and found. In the distant future, the Imperium of Mankind has spread throughout the galaxy. Societies live under inflexible laws in vast, densely populated hiveworld cities that extend for miles into the earth, while a few noble Houses oversee the functioning and protection of the cities. When sixteen-year-old Paric, son of General Kilhaven and cadet with the Planetary Defense Force, suffers a life-threatening injury during a training session, he begins a dangerous journey that pits him against the worst of his world.

This novel practically buzzes with rich sci-fi elements and elaborate worldbuilding. Paric is put in suspended animation for a year to heal, and while he remains fully conscious, he deals with the curse of being a psyker–a person who can tap into the psychic powers of alien parasites living in the Warp trails of space. Trouble is, the aliens tormenting his mind are at odds with each other and with Paric. After he’s revived, Paric uses his ethereal as well as his physical form to hide from the religious leaders of the Ecclesiarchy who have outlawed psykers, and from the underhive gangs that want to recruit him to exploit his power.

Surtain has a gift for describing the dank, dark underhive world and its stratified life—the rich and powerful at the top, and the desperate and criminal living in the hundreds of layers in the depths. Paric uses these dark corners to his advantage, declaring “In my ethereal form, I could travel the usual alleys and avenues, checking the watchers, guards, and enforcers...” The nuances of this complex world would be clearer with more descriptive anchoring, and a map and glossary would help orient readers in a story that's at times a challenge to keep up with, but Surtain’s creative worldbuilding will dazzle fans of the genre.

Takeaway: An ambitious far-future adventure with elaborate worldbuilding and a labyrinthine plot.

Great for fans of: Jim Meeks-Johnson’s Enemy Immortal, Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

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The Petrus Prophecy
Gary McAvoy with Ronald L. Moore
The swift, suspenseful third entry in McAvoy’s Vatican Secret Archives series again digs into sinister secrets, conspiracies, and prophecies—and the powerful men who will kill to protect them. At the heart of the mystery is “The Third Secret of Fatima,” the last in a string of proven prophecies, “a sacred mystery, tucked away in that most secure of papal vaults.” If phrasing like that, from the opening pages, seizes your imagination, then The Petrus Prophecy (like McAvoy’s Magdalene Chronicles series) will prove irresistible, especially as popes faint when reading the secret—and, in the novel’s present, a Jesuit scholar in Chicago dies as he’s writing a book that would disclose the Third Secret. The manuscript goes missing, and the investigation that follows will find Chicago police detective Rebecca Lancaster and co. crossing the globe, visiting abbeys and corpses, encountering zealots, riddles, and terrorist plots—and possibly facing a world-ending cataclysm from the heavens themselves.

McAvoy, working with Ronald L. Moore, hits the ground running in this propulsive thriller, which adeptly blends ancient mysteries and secret societies with contemporary procedural storytelling. The clues and surprises come quickly as Lancaster and her counterpart in Rome, the Carabinieri’s captain Sabrina Felici, race about in an old Ferrari that, as Felici puts it, “handles Rome’s chaotic traffic like a dominatrix.” Such character touches and a sense of playful fun keep the material from getting bleak or self-serious, even as the stakes prove biblical in scale.

Devotees of religious-secrets thrillers will find much here that’s engaging, if not exactly novel, as the heroes and their allies attempt not just to solve a murder but to learn the truth of the Third Secret—and eventually face the schemes of the Knights of the Apocalypse, a secret society of immense power who stirs a public frenzy with its revelations. The authors have revelations of their own, the welcome jolts and secrets that distinguish this series.

Takeaway: This superior Vatican conspiracy thriller puts a Chicago cop on the trail of an apocalyptic prophecy.

Great for fans of: Ray Keating, Peter Hogankamp.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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