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Armageddon
C.D. Muller
The climactic final installment of Muller’s high-flying Armageddon Trilogy finds Selena Liongod having come a long way in two short years. Now renowned for her martial prowess, skills as a prodigious spellcaster, and intimate connection and mastery of aerial combat with her dragon, Thor, Selena must steel herself for her greatest challenges yet after suffering betrayal and wounds, especially as romantic entanglements on the part of both young woman anddragon threaten discord between her and Thor. Her empire shattered, the Lich (“Dark Master”) now in control of the dragon eggs Selena and Thor once protected, and facing the possibility of an even greater betrayal, Selena must face new darkness and risk surprising new alliances–as Muller’s epic fantasy inspired by Norse myth, wings toward a suitably apocalyptic conclusion.

“Our Divine fire will reign,” Thor promises Selena early on, when the pair at last find a chance to take to the skies together. But for all the epic stakes, conflicts, and revelations of this climactic volume–including a storied weapon, exposed truths about the Lich’s past, plus pirates, vampire lords, shapeshifters, and a vivid host of undead creatures and dragons called Nidhoggr–the most powerful suspense Muller musters is character driven. Dragon and rider both are keeping secrets from each other, and as their bond grows fraught the danger faced by all grows ever more dire, as the Lich marshals his army and power–and seizes the chance to divide his most powerful adversaries.

Even as she enjoys a tender romance with Silver, a deep connection to the most mythic of beasts, and fame across the world, Selena remains a humble hero, demurring when she’s called “the queen of dragons” and always deeply concerned about those she loves. Like the fire in a dragon’s belly, Selena’s irresistible bond with Thor powers this book and series, bringing fresh urgency to epic fantasy storytelling that at times risks familiarity and a leisurely pace. The novel doesn’t stand alone, but new readers will get plenty from that relationship.

Takeaway: This fantasy finale makes the bond between a young woman and her dragon matter as much as the world’s end.

Great for fans of: Naomi Novik, Anne McCaffrey.

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

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Murder in the Tea Leaves: A Blake Sisters Travel Mystery
Carter Fielding
Fielding’s second mystery featuring the resourceful, well-heeled Blake sisters offers delicious escapism, focused as much on luxury travel and flourishing relationships than international crime. Finley Blake, high-powered attorney turned high-end travel writer, is eager to escape Manhattan for her latest assignment in eastern India, especially since it offers opportunity to continue her on-again romance with Max, who’s working on a rural healthcare project near Delhi. But her editor’s last-minute switch to Sri Lanka, Finley’s beloved “paradise on earth,” involves a longer stay, one she’ll use for quality time with her equally adventurous sister, S. Whittaker “Whitt” Blake, a development bank executive based in Manila.

Like the author, the Blake sisters are originally from South Carolina, and are the opposite of ugly Americans: these travelers are worldly, kind-hearted, and wear their wealth lightly. They’re habitués of boutique hotels, consuming carefully curated history along with upscale versions of local cuisine. Between wildlife safaris and walking tours, they shop for native gemstones and savor the tea grown on the Nuwara Eliya hillsides. During a plantation tour, the sisters are stunned by the mysterious death of a British woman, and begin to discern a connection between the odd behavior of their fellow tourists and the smuggling of multinational industrial secrets.

Other than David, the California-born Tbilisi wine dealer whose romance with Whitt progressed during their dangerous escapades in Morocco, Fielding brings back few characters from her debut, Murder in the Medina. But where the Blake sisters go, trouble follows, and no one less than Interpol inspectors should acknowledge their quick wits and logical deductions. This installment ends rather abruptly, and what seems like the set-up for an alluring criminal mastermind coming to naught. But a journey with the Blake sisters has its rewards. Confident and curious, these seasoned travelers epitomize a thoughtful kind of jet setter, never treating their surroundings like a selfie backdrop.

Takeaway: The second Blake sisters adventure will satisfy readers with its tasty blend of travel, romance and mystery.

Great for fans of: Jennifer S. Alderson’s Death on the Danube, Cynthia Baxter’s Murder Packs a Suitcase, and Marie Moore’s Shore Excursion.

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

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The Auction
Susan L Sofayov
North’s stinging dystopia debut depicts a future America where women are subjugated by the government Office of Reproductive Oversight, which controls every aspect of a pregnant woman’s life, forbidding abortion, restricting women from working, and forcing them to marry the biological father of their babies. Women give up their babies to the Auction, where the wealthy bid on the healthiest babies and the poor take out predatory government loans to afford the sickest. “Every family gives a baby to The Auction and takes home one that is perfect for them,” is the government line.

Disobedient women in Pittsburgh are sent to the McKee Place, Home for Pregnant Women, a prison where North shows us four women bonding: computer programmer Jane was caught working, blind Millie is forbidden to live alone while her husband recuperates in the hospital, party girl Angelica’s gay father of her baby won’t marry her, and 15-year-old Wendy refuses to return to her sadistic rapist husband. North humanizes these protagonists in an inhuman society that infantilizes women, touts bogus “research” from unscrupulous universities, and bombards the population with propaganda lies, such as claims about women’s responsibility for being raped.

Eventually, the cast of this well-paced, engagingly horrific story learns the true purpose of the Auction—and that women in other countries are free to work and keep their own babies. After tragedy strikes, the four women use their skills, along with the help of sympathetic men, to hatch a plan to set things right. Readers will toggle between rage and hope as they immerse themselves in North’s meticulous worldbuilding that exposes the hypocrisy and illogic of brutal government policies, stifling bureaucracy, and government censorship. North crafts a memorable and emotional thrill ride through an unnerving society with intelligent and inspirational characters who strive to create their own destiny.

Takeaway: This unsettling yet encouraging story of a woman-subjugating dystopia will appeal to fans of resonant cautionary tales.

Great for fans of: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

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

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Dancing with David
Siegfried Johnson
Johnson’s ambitious Christian-themed novel opens with a grabber for the ages: In present-day Jerusalem, a pastor declares that the newly born Regina Malka Maris-Aaronson is the divine soul prophesied on the recently discovered “seventh tablet of David’s last psalm.” She’s nothing less than “the promised daughter of King David and his Star of the Sea,” a miracle child whom Tabash—and that last psalm—declare will “guide all nations” and “people of all races, colors, and creeds” to “the safe harbor of peace.” From there, the story reaches back decades, to courses taught by David Aaronson, the Hebrew University archaeologist who searched out the tablet, and his former student, Stella Maris, who suffered a crisis of faith and for decades has experienced a vision of herself dancing with David himself.

Dancing With David stands apart from other novels about lost holy texts and divine revelations through its deep, immersive treatment of theology, its consideration of the implications of its discoveries, and its robust attention to matters of faith rather than the action scenes and thriller twists. Johnson imagines extensive classroom discussions, focuses on biblical numerology and the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, while occasionally offering revelations from Stella’s visions of King David. (“There is one biblical statement with which I must contend, that Goliath was dead when he hit the ground,” Johnson writes, before offering a vivid account of that giant’s bloody end.)

Readers looking for an archaeological adventure page-turner may find this thoughtful story slow going, especially as Johnson offers lengthy and discursive excerpts of Aaronson’s lectures that, among rich considerations of the Psalms throw curveballs like his thoughts on “The Hula Hoop Song” and John Lennon’s relationship with the number nine. These engaging lectures will appeal to open-minded believers, as will the slow-blooming romance between Stella and her former professor (“This is not another ‘Me Too’ story,” she assures us) and the implications of the big question at the novel’s heart: What if God sent a second divine child to Earth, this time a girl?

Takeaway: This thoughtful biblical what-if adventure imagines King David’s lost Psalm, a new divine birth, and the theology of its heroes.

Great for fans of: James Vanderkam and Peter Flint’s The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord.

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

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The Lightning Rod
Ged Gillmore
Gillmore (Base Nature) delivers satisfying twists and turns in this engaging crime thriller. When secretary Anna Moore decides to spend a night out and be more daring than usual, she ends up finding herself in a cab with a dead man. Anna’s cab driver Bassam Beydoun, who takes care of his dead brother’s daughters, has enough problems of his own–and when he gets a questionable opportunity to make a better life for himself, he brushes away his scruples and jumps at it. Soon, he’s plunged into the world of hardened criminals and drug dealers, and before long he and Anna both are irrevocably changed.

Gillmore’s characters are all refreshingly real and believable, whether it’s the tough-as-nails policewoman Charlotte Hall, doggedly ambitious Bassam, or Anna and her struggles with moral ambiguity. The story is narrated from these three characters’ perspectives, allowing readers a chance to identify with their dreams, hopes, and sorrows. Filipino drug lord Edward Mendoza is fairly stereotypical, with a “crocodile smile,” boyish charm, and ruthless ways, and the seething antagonism between Charlotte and Anna simmers just beneath the surface, adding necessary tension to the novel. Gillmore steers clear of romanticizing Bassam’s foster parenting, portraying his challenges with his nieces authentically, and when Bassam finds himself sinking in the quicksands of a drug deal, his life understandably takes a turn for the worse

Gillmore sets his scenes up well and demonstrates a sure hand for depicting the world of crime and the police working to stop it. Between his even pacing and twisting plot, it’s obvious that Gillmore has done his homework to create plausible power dynamics between his main players—and as a bonus, he threads in convincing and dramatic procedural elements that bring the milieu to life. This story’s characters, particularly Anna, will stick with readers long after the last page.

Takeaway: Crime readers will be entertained by this fast-paced thriller with well-rounded and intriguing characters.

Great for fans of: Karina Halle’s Dirty Angels, Julie Hockley’s Scare Crow .

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

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The Lighthouse: Reflections of Inner Strength & Wisdom
Carmen Esposito
An inspirational journal, coloring book, and anthology of reflective quotations, Esposito’s appealingly designed The Lighthouse finds urgent metaphorical import in the image stirred by its title: Esposito has crafted the book to serve as a source of illumination guiding readers toward “safe harbor.” The volume offers many lined pages for journaling, each garlanded at the edges with heartening floral prints or a column of butterflies, plus “mood graph” charts that invite tracking of one’s disposition across all the hours of a day. It’s chief appeal, though, is its coloring pages—of Buddha and fairies, playing-card royalty, a bejeweled elephant, a woman whose cascading hair is celebrated by birds wearing crowns—and Esposito’s selections of inspirational quotes, each accompanied by a page of the author’s consideration of its import.

A page dedicated to “Success,” for example, shares words attributed to Walter Scott on the subject (“attitude is equally important as ability”) and then Espositio’s own musings about how “Being cognizant of negative self-talk is imperative so that we don’t sabotage ourselves” and a reminder that Thomas Edison didn’t let failure get in the way of his inventing the lightbulb. Her prose is light and conversational, and some of her musings offer a jolt of surprise—her consideration of a quote attributed to Goethe promises that you have “magick” within you before offering more familiar thoughts about how you are “a strong, intelligent, and amazing individual.”

Some of the quotations, familiar from online collections of inspirational insight, often have a whiff of the apocryphal. Even allowing for the vagaries of translation, it’s hard to pin down just where the author of glum epics like Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther purportedly wrote “Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” Still, the coloring book pages are inviting, and readers looking for encouraging words and dedicated journaling space will find plenty here.

Takeaway: These quotations and coloring pages offer inspiration for readers eager for reflective journaling.

Great for fans of: Emily M. Morgan’s Inspire: A Coloring Journal, Kara Cutruzzula’s Do It for Yourself.

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

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A Piece of Me: an arrangement of words to inspire reflection
Arif Ahmad
Ahmad, a Pakistani American cardiologist, debuts with a memorable blend of poetry and prose describing life as a Muslim immigrant in the United States. He writes of his own disillusionment—decrying needless killing racial persecution, and American polarization—and muses on the state of the nation: “Why wait for a catastrophe to unite us, I say.” Undercurrents of outrage and fear lurk throughout, and humanity’s tendency toward self-inflicted suffering is nimbly examined– “If killing would make the world safer somehow/ Wouldn’t this be a very safe planet by now?” Passionate feeling powers these incisive pieces.

In “American Shame,” Ahmad exhorts political leaders to denounce a proposed Muslim registry in the United States. He shares the searing pain of a proud immigrant American citizen now facing increased vetting upon his return home from international travels in “Welcome Home,” and he reveals outraged grief when a pregnant woman in Pakistan is stoned to death–“To all those who want to bring us, people, down/ Let it be known/ Just back off/ Leave us alone/ For we shall finish ourselves/ On our very own.” His focus is on illuminating the lasting effects of prejudice, but he also heralds empowerment and hope amid the heavy-heartedness, imploring readers “For at the end of the day, what really matters is not what comes your way but how you respond to it.”

Between gripping revelations and thought-provoking insight, Dr. Ahmad allows readers a glimpse of his personal trauma in “My Brother,” an agonizing account of his mother’s death from cancer and his brother’s tragic end. His work as a physician threads through this collection, in his championing of those “sick yet beautiful and appreciative patients” and his wondering “why saving life is so arduous and taking it not so.” This is a contemplative offering on the juxtaposition of intolerance and peace.

Takeaway: A powerful collection of poetry and prose that reflects on religious and racial discrimination.

Great for fans of: Amanda Gorman’s Call Us What We Carry, Yung Pueblo’s Inward.

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

The Satisfied Introvert: A Memoir About Finding Safety in an Extroverted World
BENJAMIN PLUMB
Calling this globe-trotting memoir a “wakeup call for all introverts,” Plumb, the only introvert in an extrovert family, shares his story of living a life according to a “winning recipe” of methodical, “stepwise processes” and “projecting more sociability” than he actually felt, never letting his “authentic self” out. But, after earning his Harvard MBA and returning from the Vietnam War, Plumb began to find this coping mechanism unnatural and limiting—"a major barrier to attaining a feeling of safety.” The Satisfied Introvert argues that “You cannot be a satisfied introvert until you feel secure as an introvert.

Drawing on his own experience and travels, and writing with welcome candor about feelings of doubt and disappointment, Plumb makes the case that introverts—which he defines as anyone “who prefers settings that are calm and have minimal external stimulation” can escape over-reliance on static recipes like the one that continually failed to bring him romantic success and proved little help in many military and business situations. An assured storyteller, Plumb recounts the incidents (including terrifying moments in Vietnam) that drove him to crucial insights about how our minds create our own interpretations about what’s we’re experiencing and the possibility of unifying what the mind focuses on with what’s actually happening.

These and other breakthroughs rise naturally from Plumb’s narrative, which builds to them organically rather than dole them out as self-help lessons. That adds to the value of The Satisfied Introvert: showing the work of arriving at realizations endows them with persuasive gravitas, though the book’s length and occasional repetitiveness—reflective of life itself—means that later realizations don’t hit with the same power. But, beyond their well-earned moments of clarity, later chapters continually demonstrate that escaping an entrenched formula of habit is a lifetime challenge—as is discovering (and re-discovering) how to be your truest self.

Takeaway: An illuminating memoir about an introvert’s journey toward living as his truest self, with strong practical advice.

Great for fans of: Holley Gerth’s The Powerful Purpose of Introverts, Jenn Granneman’s The Secret Lives of Introverts.

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

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The Orientation of Dylan Woodger: A Central New York Crime Story
Chiuba E Obele
Obele delivers an entertaining web of twists and turns in this New York-based organized crime thriller. After his mother drops him off in Utica, New York, to begin his freshman year at Hamilton College, Dylan Woodger wakes up alone in a cold wooded area with no idea where he is or how he got there. Bound, confused, and suffering from a suspected gunshot wound, Dylan has more questions than answers when he realizes years have passed since his last memory. Worse, he discovers he’s been implicated in stealing three million dollars from a dangerous Mafia boss, Big Max. Desperate to save his life and reconnect with his past, Dylan plunges into Utica’s criminal underworld in search of stolen money, the truth, and–most of all–revenge.

Mystery, intrigue, and confusion arise from the opening chapters as Dylan first questions his mother’s source of income before turning to the mystery of his own identity and how he became a wanted man. Readers are thrust into a rough Central New York as Obele provides a vivid description of Utica’s crumbling infrastructure and spiraling economy. The city’s seedy past and dismal present provides an appropriate backdrop for many dark themes, such as racism and organized crime. A chapter depicting torture and sexual assault in the first part of the story may give some readers pause, but Dylan’s resilience and plan for revenge quickly changes the tone, while propelling the story forward.

Obele has crafted an enticing tale that will keep readers guessing until the end. Dylan blurs the line between protagonist and antagonist as he lies, cheats, and kills in search of the truth. His involvement with white supremacist organizations and other criminal elements risk making his character unlikeable, but his redeeming qualities and the urgency of his story are enough to keep readers engaged in this high-stakes, unpredictable crime thriller.

Takeaway: Fans of gritty, organized crime thrillers will appreciate this story’s layers of mystery and intrigue.

Great for fans of: Dennis Lehane, Ashley & JaQuavis’s The Cartel Series

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

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YOU ARE THE KEY: 7 Powerful Ways To Unlock The Life You Desire
Meera Jhogasundram
Jhogasundram debuts with a compact, inviting treatise on purposeful living crafted to introduce readers to self-awareness, self-acceptance, the practice of gratitude, and other avenues toward fulfillment. “You are the magician who can make your wishes come true,” she writes, urging readers to stop making excuses–like being too old to start over–that might interfere with accomplishing their true desires. Emphasizing unconditional self-acceptance and the need for individuality, Jhogasundram offers some basic steps to overcome negative thoughts and boost intuition to successfully pursue your “heart’s calling.” Above all, she encourages readers to forgive themselves for past mistakes and learn how to believe in their own unlimited potential.

According to Jhogasundram, too many lives are spent trying to make others happy and conforming to unrealistic expectations. Instead, she teaches readers to reframe their anxieties and disappointments by understanding they can only control their own reactions to external events–and after they have done their best in any situation, the last recourse is to believe the Universe (her flexible term for a greater power) will bring their desires to fruition. Jhogasundram suggests that readers practice setting healthy boundaries to free up energy for pursuing their own interests, advising “you teach people how to treat you by the way you treat yourself.”

Much of this guide feels elemental, but readers new to the concept of conscious living will appreciate the straightforward counsel, particularly the sections on how to increase everyday gratitude and why to expect resistance when breaking with traditional ways of measuring success. Jhogasundram writes that making conscious decisions should start with small steps, such as paying attention to the sounds in our environment or relishing daily routines, reminding us throughout that no experience should ever be wasted. For those seeking a more meaningful existence, this preparatory guide will give them a good starting point.

Takeaway: This compact guide will give readers a base for making conscious decisions and pursuing their true desires.

Great for fans of: Drew Gerald’s Why You’re Still Stuck, Mallory Ervin’s Living Fully.

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

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Eudora Space Kid: The Lobster Tale
David Horn
Eudora Space Kid is back in the second of Horn’s comical interstellar adventure series, this time on a mission to rescue lobsters in danger of becoming dinner at the New Year’s Grand Dinner Buffet. Eudora Jenkins, a third grader who lives on the AstroLiner spaceship Athena, is enthusiastically reckless when it comes to creating fun, and her favorite activities involve anything that will get her to the ship’s bridge–where one day she hopes to have her own seat as the chief engineer. In the meantime, Eudora is focused on pranking the grown-ups on board, until she discovers that they plan to consume her beloved lobsters from her father’s laboratory.

To save the doomed crustaceans—some of whom she has aptly named Red, Bluey, and Mister Claw—Eudora drags along her best friend, Arnold, on a secret expedition. But in classic Eudora style, the two run into a serious snag along the way when enemy Qlaxons threaten to attack the Athena, and Eudora just happens to be in the vicinity when their ominous message comes through. While it might seem far fetched to build an intergalactic spectacle around lobsters, these amusing storylines come together in a satisfying manner, and Horn’s cheeky style pairs nicely with Eudora’s penchant for outlandish action to make this playful space yarn a winner. (The pun of the subtitle captures the book’s spirit.)

Hoover’s black and white illustrations lend extra comedy, especially her depiction of the wide-eyed and shell-shocked lobsters as they watch the drama unfolding around them from the safety of Eudora’s backpack. The feel-good ending will please readers who value tidy conclusions and animal life, and despite the comic mayhem Eudora, as always, exemplifies the message of aiming big and holding true to your beliefs. Younger readers will appreciate the antics and also the space-themed word search at the end.

Takeaway: Eudora returns to save animals aboard her family’s spaceship in this entertaining caper.

Great for fans of: R.L. Ullman’s Epic Zero series, Mike Nawrocki’s Squirreled Away.

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

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Great Work: Do What Matters Most Without Sacrificing Everything Else
Amanda Crowell, PhD
Targeted to anyone who finds themselves wondering “what do I do next,” Crowell’s inviting guide helps turn overcommitted, exhausted readers into productive and engaged dream-followers. Combining personal anecdotes, concrete examples, and step- instructions, this guide creates a clear and actionable strategy for those who wish to find deeper meaning in their lives and careers. The first step, of course, is identifying what each individual’s personal “great work” might be, from writing a novel to becoming a doctor to raising their children. Once a person’s great work is identified, they are instructed on how to reduce their daily burdens through things like setting boundaries, refusing or delegating non-critical tasks, and moving personal projects that don’t contribute to the overall objective at this time to “medium-term parking.”

The writing is clear and easy to follow, the tone expert and encouraging without being condescending, and the reasoning behind her methods sound and persuasive as Crowell guides readers through creating concrete goals, making an action plan, and how to identify and embrace their own personal work styles and habits. Though she emphasizes that “great works” do not have to be related to jobs or even what we might traditionally think of as “productive,” her examples tend to focus on those areas. Still, her coaching should be applicable to most enterprises, as she offers lessons about facing and conquering self-doubt, procrastination, and other forms of “defensive failure” in favor of taking action and learning from the inevitable “productive failures” that result.

Readers seeking motivation, direction in life, or even simply a starting point for their ambitions may find this clear, practical guide a helpful place to start. She frequently references the journals she has published to complement this guide, though Great Work itself is sufficient for those who are motivated and determined to put her plans into action in their own lives.

Takeaway: A clear, inviting self-help guide for finding and achieving your “great work.”

Great for fans of: Erica Wernick’s Meant for This, Bob Goff’s Dream Big.

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

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Children of the Dying Hearth
Martin R. Nelson
In this marathon first installment of his Annals of Tessian series, Nelson interweaves several threads in the realms of Tesseris, a once-united empire that has been shattered by ancient forces. According to legend, the Imperial Dynasty of Kai’loth once ruled Tesseris peacefully, until the empire fell and its rulers were all but destroyed. Now the scattered lands are controlled by five pentarchs in the capital city of Crux, a place renowned for its corruption–but rumors are spreading of an heir to the old dynasty, and the Order of Drake Knights is tasked with finding him and restoring him to power.

Nelson’s saga is a tangled web of deception, betrayal, and bravery that will keep readers guessing until the very end. He delivers a satisfyingly diverse cast that is sure to please fantasy fans: elf brothers Qel and Qerym know the secrets of the ancient stories, Pentarch Damien has just been reelected and is desperately trying to root out a traitor in the Crux, and a band of independent warriors has stumbled onto an heir with unknown powers. As they try to deliver him alive to one of the last known Ancients—who can train him to fulfill his destiny—their every move is threatened by a terrifying power that is consuming entire villages in its wake. Nelson keeps the tension high: a brutal pirate dead set on revenge inflicts horror at every turn, and his connection to the quest is a mystery until the cliffhanger ending.

Despite this epic fantasy’s sheer volume of names and pages, Nelson manages to keep readers engaged with a well-paced and easy-to-follow plot. He expertly sets the stage for future stories and reveals just enough about each character to pique the interest of readers who enjoy intricate narratives and immersive worldbuilding–and the heroic quest at the novel’s heart proves an inviting way to transport readers through an abundance of extraordinary settings. This elaborate meld of fable and fantasy entertains and surprises.

Takeaway: An immersive fantasy epic uniting magical creatures and humans in a quest to restore an ancient empire.

Great for fans of: Steven Erikson, Peter A. Flannery’s Battle Mage.

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

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A Thing or Two About the Game
Richard Paik
Paik's inspiring debut novel is an assured look at how and why it’s imperative to change traditional definitions of failure and success. The narrative centers on Brad, a former biotech researcher drifting after resigning from his job, where he refused to acquiesce to shady political maneuvers. His ex-wife Stephanie asks him to coach a softball team for 11 and 12-year-old girls as a favor, and despite initially being resistant, Brad eventually agrees. Bantering and battling with his frenemy Mike all while trying to prove something to himself, Brad adapts to his role quickly, teaching the team detailed drills and improving their performance.

As Brad deals with all sorts of outside interference, like intrusive parents and hypercompetitive opposing coaches, his team progresses and bonds with each other. When the season ends, every member takes something important from the experience—none more so than Brad and Mike. Without hammering it home too obviously, Paik makes restrained use of Brad's gardening hobby as a metaphor for how he's helping his players grow, and the politics he encounters as a coach tellingly resembles the nonsense he had to endure as a researcher. On the downside, Mike is slightly undercooked as a secondary protagonist: he's not in the book long enough to be fully developed, but he still takes up a lot of space.

The girls are sometimes presented as a bit of a mystery that Brad has to crack, though Paik wisely focuses on how they relate to their coach and each other in the context of competitive gameplay and their developing chemistry during practices. The emotional payoff in the climax is well-earned, and Paik successfully makes readers feel invested in every character. The theme of taking a chance and getting out of one's comfort zone is reinforced throughout the story, culminating in plot changes that come across as smooth and natural. This is a fascinating exercise in exploring camaraderie and hard work without a particular reward in mind.

Takeaway: This rich character study of a man dealing with a mid-life crisis through coaching is full of small, resonant details.

Great for fans of: Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance.

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

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Z is for Zapatazo
Ruben Rivera
This incisive and accomplished debut collection offers compelling testimony of the poet’s experience of a tumultuous 1960s barrio childhood and a life spent “in the spaces between what America says it is and what it is.” Ruben’s vivid memory poems celebrate family and culture as often as edge into laments—“Gone the laughter, I’m talking Puerto Rican laughter, the world series of laughter, now only faint bells in the distant steeple of my memory,” he writes in the vital title piece, an alphabet-primer that contemplates the gulf that separates “idyllic” depictions of mid-20th century American treatment of children with the more brutal reality, where “teachers in schools who looked just like Robert Young and Barbara Billingsley blistered our tender behinds with every device imaginable.”

The centerpiece “Vatos,” meanwhile, considers Ruben’s own youthful inclination toward the toughness it takes to survive in such a punishing culture, toward being “vatos locos,” or glue-sniffing “kids who couldn’t hurt the man, but we could hurt our own.” Touchingly, it’s a friend’s deep engagement with film and books that introduces to young Ruben the possibility of living for more than “mercurial omerta” and “ineffectual violence”—an epiphany he holds to even after the duo suffer lifelong injuries in an assault by police officers. Ruben writes with exquisite tenderness of what it takes to transcend the options a racist society offers. In the standout “Miss Rice,” a poem about a teacher who just stopped showing up one day, he presents the roles everyone played as elemental: “You were perfect as spring rain. We/the hard ground that sewered you to sea.”

Ruben finds refuge in art and imagination, from Middle Earth and Marvel comics to the contested figures he memorably celebrates in “Pulp Fiction Women,” queens and pirates who “composed your own justice like poets, and lured men/to your dens, your chambers and altars and all-women empires.” That spirit of claiming one’s place in a world where power’s inequitably distributed pulses throughout these arresting pieces.

Takeaway: An incisive collection exploring the gulf between American promise and its reality.

Great for fans of: Jimmy Baca, ¡Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets.

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

Click here for more about Z is for Zapatazo
Of Dreams and Angels
Jared Morrison
In Morrison’s heartfelt debut romance, successful Canadian wealth manager Joe Riley dreams every night that he inhabits the mind of a woman he’s never met: Claire, a beautiful British newsmagazine editor. In his sleep, he witnesses what she sees, experiences her memories, and senses her emotions, but he cannot access a secret that haunts her every move. Increasingly bothered by these prescient but limited visions, he travels to London to find Claire, and a precious love story quickly unfurls. Neither her complicated family situation nor living on different continents can slow the connection, until Claire reveals the secret that will test their mutual devotion.

From the first page of this sweet, sensitive romance, Morrison poses a profound question: Can finding true love be more important than one’s carefully plotted career goals? As Joe develops a new understanding of love’s significance, readers are given an inside view of his warring thoughts, which infuses the text with a philosophical, albeit at times meandering tone. Although Joe’s character is a stock career-driven cynic (who disavowed love after a youthful heartbreak) and the plot centers on a familiar conceit — taking a leap of faith to pursue a magical connection to the ideal woman — his loyalty to Claire renders him lovable.

Despite its length, this novel flies by, and Morrison’s writing is intelligent without pretension, graced by regular witticisms. Readers are immersed in dreamy romance as the couple sightsee in London, hike amid the Canadian Rockies, and stay in a luxurious hotel, alongside picturesque phrasing that illuminates their journey: “They walked the corridors of the fabled building, ate late brunches in its various dining rooms, danced in the ballroom to music only they could hear.” Of Dreams and Angels is an enjoyable, easy-to-read romance that probes the weight and meaning of our relationships.

Takeaway: A heartfelt, philosophical romance about a predestined love affair.

Great for fans of: Josie Silver’s The Two Lives of Lydia Bird, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken.

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

Click here for more about Of Dreams and Angels

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