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Zachary Ying doesn’t want to stand out, a difficult task when he’s usually the only Asian kid in his school. He wants to finish summer classes and play Mythrealm, an augmented reality game that blends elements of Pokémon GO and trading card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! with classic mythology. Zack never learned a lot about Chinese myths and history from his mother, who had complicated feelings regarding their homeland. It comes as quite a shock when a Chinese transfer student, Simon Li, introduces himself and explains that Zack’s likely a direct descendent of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Before he knows what’s happening, the spirit of his ancestor has possessed him, or rather, his portal-lens, the AR headset he wears to play Mythrealm.

Qin Shi Huang is on a mission, and he needs Zack’s body to do it. The long-dead emperor has to seal a portal to the Chinese underworld to prevent all manner of demons and spirits from flooding out into the human world, and the clock is ticking. Zack needs to get to Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in China, and he needs to strengthen the bond between himself and the emperor’s spirit, or his mother’s soul may be devoured. Zack has to learn as much as he can about the Dragon Emperor and his exploits so that he can channel the magic necessary to close the gap between the realms.

Qin Shi Huang isn’t the only dead emperor setting out to save China. Simon is possessed by the spirit of his own ancestor, Tang Taizong, and he’s partnered with Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor, hosted by her own descendent, Melissa Wu. Together, the three kids and their spirit partners navigate an escalating series of heists and battles with mythological figures and monsters. If they fail, China—and the rest of the world—are doomed.

Xiran Jay Zhao has crafted a most excellent middle grade adventure here. They’ve taken some of the best bits of Yu-Gi-Oh! (which I’ve loved since seeing the first episodes land in English back in 2001) and wrapped it in an intense love of Chinese history and myth, with an end result that will satisfy readers of all ages and make the folks at Disney jealous that they didn’t pick this one up for a Rick Riordan Presents title. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is fun, fast-paced, and clever. It’s out tomorrow, May 10th.

My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an eARC in exchange for a fair review.

And my additional thanks to Xiran for their signature on a copy of Iron Widow and a selfie with them back in April!

Selfie of me, Philip (he/they), standing in front of Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them), the author of Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor as well as Iron Widow.

Gallant is the tale of a young orphan girl named Olivia Prior, and the ghouls that she can see. Olivia lives at Merilance School for Independent Girls in London, and she has no idea who her parents were, or why she was left there. Her only connection to her heritage is a journal that once belonged to her mother, filled with notes that seem to slowly veer into madness as they go on. “I’m so sorry I don’t know what else to do…you will be safe as long as you stay away from Gallant.”

Born without a voice, Olivia communicates via sign language (and occasionally writing, but she rightly refused to wear a chalkboard around her neck). Her inability to speak and the refusal of others to learn to sign has caused her more than a few conflicts with the other students and the matrons at school. Her only real companions at Merilance are the ghouls, partial shades of the dead who linger in our world. While she’s the only one at the school who seems to realize they’re there, they do not speak to her, and vanish from her view when told to go away.

Then one day, everything changes when a letter from an unknown uncle arrives for Olivia. “You are wanted. You are needed. You belong with us,” it reads. She is whisked away from Merilance by a driver who was sent to take her to the family home, Gallant, far from London. There, she meets her cousin, Matthew, and finds that her new home is also filled with ghouls. Ghouls that look like the family portraits hanging in the hallway. And there’s the issue of the mysterious, crumbling wall at the back of the garden, and the iron door that is set in the middle of it. There are many secrets held by Gallant, and Olivia’s mother’s journal ended with warning her to stay away.

The far side of the wall has more in store for her than she ever could have imagined, for there, Olivia finds a dark echo of the grand house. This shadow of Gallant is crumbling, and the master of the house is hungry for something only a Prior can provide. “Do you know what you are, Olivia Prior? You are amends. You are a tithe, a gift, and you belong to me.”

Gallant is an absolutely phenomenal Gothic fantasy, showcasing Schwab’s talents at writing for younger audiences. I loved every minute of it, and I’m very grateful to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the eARC in exchange for an honest review. It’s out in the world as of March 1st, so go grab a copy!

Wow.

I mean.

Where do you start a review for a book like Manhunt? I’m going to have to say it starts like this, because I’ve literally never read a book like Manhunt before.

The world has ended, at least for cis men. A virulent plague has torn through humanity, attacking people with higher levels of testosterone and turning them into violent, feral monsters. The survivors do what they can to get by, rebuilding where they can. Beth and Fran navigate through the New England wilderness, tracking and killing the men and harvesting their testicles and kidneys to bring back to their friend Indi. She processes hormones for the two trans women so that they can prevent the disease from transforming them into mindless beasts as well. Together, they might be able to hold on.

However, the wild men aren’t the only threat to Beth and Fran in this remade world. Militant TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are sweeping the eastern seaboard, killing anyone who isn’t a cis woman. Their leader, Teach, is out to leave her own mark, and she’ll destroy anything or anyone who might even consider helping trans folks.

Gretchen Felker-Martin has crafted a horrifying, violent apocalypse that skillfully wraps its way around gender and sexuality. She blends beautifully erotic scenes with the grotesque, and leaves you terrified, but somehow still wanting more. Manhunt showcases the power of found family, even in the face of utter destruction. “Community is when you never let go of each other. Not even after you’re gone.”

This book is definitely not for the faint of heart or the delicate of stomach, but it was an absolute blast. It’s out now. My thanks to Tor Nightfire and NetGalley for an eARC of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The world is burning, one person at a time. A new sort of plague, a spore known colloquially as Dragonscale, is infecting hundreds of thousands around the globe. It begins with something small. It gets into your head. It grows. You feel fine until you see it on your skin-a small stripe, like a gold-flecked stain. You might even mistake it for a bruise at first. But then you know you have it. You know that you’re going to burn, and it’s only a question of when. No one knows exactly how it spreads, and there’s no sign of a cure short of being killed before you ignite. You’ll smoke a bit first, and then you’ll combust, unless someone decides to end your life before then.

In the midst of the chaos is Harper Willowes, a Portsmouth nurse who sincerely wishes for nothing more than to be able to help others through the crisis. She volunteers her services caring for the infected while her husband Jakob works for the Public Works Department, helping to clean up the devastation left behind by the burning infected. It’s at work that Harper first meets the Fireman. He brings a child in for treatment, not for the Dragonscale covering him, but for a ruptured appendix. After the boy, Nick, is taken in for surgery, the Fireman vanishes. A few days later, Nick is gone as well, leaving only questions in his wake. Then, disaster strikes and the Portsmouth Hospital burns to the ground. Harper escapes, but soon makes two discoveries. She’s pregnant and she has the ‘scale. Believing himself to be infected as well, Jakob snaps and Harper is forced to flee for her life and that of her unborn child.

When all seems lost, the Fireman intervenes. He rescues Harper from Jakob’s pursuit and secrets her away to a small camp where over a hundred and fifty infected are living in hiding, including Nick. Living and thriving, to Harper’s great surprise. While there’s no cure for the spore, the people of the camp have found a way to live in harmony with the Dragonscale, under the leadership of Nick’s grandfather. Harper’s medical skills quickly make her indispensable. The camp, however, is no paradise. As panic grips the nation, marauders seek to eliminate any infected. Harper only wants to survive long enough to deliver her baby, but internal power struggles in the camp threaten to expose them all to the roving Cremation Crews. The Fireman may be the only one who can save them all, but he hides a dark secret of his own.

Joe Hill takes on an apocalypse of his own, one that rivals The Stand in scope and violence (not to mention pop culture references). As the world around them burns, his characters must face the fact that other humans may be a greater threat to them than the Dragonscale ever was. The Fireman is a hell of a ride from beginning to end, and is every bit as intense as the flames it evokes.

The Fireman, hits store shelves on 5/17. Go check it out.

[My most sincere thanks to William Morrow for the Advance Reader Copy of The Fireman, acquired at PLA 2016]

Election day has come and gone. I have mixed feelings about the results, but I’m feeling positive for Colorado overall. That’s about as political as I’m going to get here, at least as far as real-world politics go. However, it did get me to thinking about the concept of politics within fictional realms.

Some stories revolve almost entirely around political intrigue. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the most prominent examples of this today. With plot details inspired by The War of The Roses, among other things, ASOIAF is filled with characters who live for gain of power and wealth. They don’t care if they have to spy, steal, or murder to achieve it, and no one will stand in there way, neither kings nor innocent children.

Writers like Tom Clancy became famous for writing thrillers inspired by real-world political events, focusing on them in a modern setting. Drug wars, assassinations, and bids for the US presidency serve as the core for Clancy’s books. Events could easily be pulled from headlines and adapted to fit a plot, provided that it be done carefully.

How much sway should politics hold over your story? That’s really up to you. Do you want your piece to become an Author Tract, where it’s little more than a way to express your opinions via fictional characters? That’s okay, it can be done well. Do you want your piece to be critical of existing political systems in the real world? Or would you prefer to establish a new system as a thought experiment?

Frankly, I like the idea of trying all of them on for size, along with things that involve a complex world without getting into politics whatsoever. Developing a somewhat functional political system can be a fun part of world building, but be sure that you don’t let it overwhelm the story.

Sometimes it’s the little victories that bring us the most joy. For me, one of the biggest such triumphs is knocking out a title from my “to-read” list. I’ve finally gotten it under control recently, though one of my coworkers at the library has described making progress on a reading list as a feat akin to slaying a hydra…

No, not the kind from “Captain America”

In my line of work, I’m generally adding a new book to my to-read list every other day. After a staff meeting a few weeks ago where one of my coworkers introduced us to the concept of the reading map via this example she created, I knew that I had to add yet another. You see, this reading map introduced me to Erin Morgenstern and her debut novel, The Night Circus. I was absolutely blown away by the book, which is a strange and fantastic combination of the magic competition presented in The Prestige and the environment presented in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Morgenstern weaves a tale of intrigue and romance as two young illusionists compete in a game with a mysterious circus serving as the venue. Celia and Marco are bound to the game by their masters, neither of them fully aware of the rules, including the fact that only one of them can survive. The Night Circus is a series of complex rings, much like the black and white striped tents that make up the titular location. I couldn’t put it down. Finishing it is one of those little victories. I can’t recommend it enough.

Next up on the reading list is another debut novel, A Once Crowded Sky. See you soon.

I woke up a few days ago and I found this in my twitter feed. Now I like good zombie fiction as much as anybody else (and probably a hell of a lot more than some of you), but the topic is one that I’d tried to avoid mainly due to the over-saturation of modern popular culture. Well, that and I’ve worked in retail over Christmas, so I’m pretty certain I’ve already had some first-hand experience with fending off zombies. NO! BACK! YOU CAN’T HAVE MY BRAIN! HAVE THIS DELICIOUS HOMELESS MAN WHO HAS BEEN CAMPED IN FRONT OF THE STORE ALL WINTER INSTEAD!

The zombie craze has been going strong for several years now, and I am pleased to say that I think the vampire sex fantasies are dying off slowly, as exposure to light generally shows how stupid that concept is. (Disclaimer: I have read the Twilight books, and once I was done, I found myself wondering if I hadn’t briefly been turned into a zombie… I got better once someone handed me a copy of A Game of Thrones, and I am fully convinced that this is a legitimate cure. If nothing else, you can use the hardcover editions for bludgeoning weapons and a layer of the paperbacks as a sort of lightweight but still nearly bulletproof armor. Thank you for saving me, George.) Not that vampire stuff can’t be done well. Bram Stoker’s Dracula give me chills, three readings later, and Anne Rice had a great thing going with her earlier work. Or there’s always the Sookie Stackhouse books. You might know them as those stories that Stephanie Meyer completely ripped off when she wrote Twilight, or like A Game of Thrones, you might know of the story from the sexy HBO adaptation (I’m still waiting for the HBO version of my own life to kick in).

This isn’t to say that the zombie fiction isn’t just as ridiculous as the vampire fiction. Far from it. However, it is technically a little more plausible, especially given recent events. People are even catering to the zombie apocalypse with “anti-zombie” ammunition, bladed and blunt weapons, and fortresses. Zombies are in our video games, our movies, our books, and even our news articles. Combine pop culture’s love of this kind of shit with the fact that some people are legitimately convinced that the world’s going to end because a calendar carved in stone around 2600 years ago is running out of room (oh, hey, look, my calendar printed on paper is going to end this year too, I wonder if that means that the world really WILL end…) and people start to get a little twitchy. I must admit, though, that I am curious as to how a civilization that has supposedly predicted the end of the world couldn’t have foretold their inevitable downfall… I mean, it’s not like anyone who’s ever predicted the end of the world has ever been wrong. Wait, what? You mean they’ve ALL been wrong? Oh man, I need to rethink my strategy… But I digress. In all seriousness, the zombie apocalypse could be a lot of fun. There are some great depictions of it. I just can’t help thinking that any disease or thing like that might likely just kill everyone rather than creating living dead. You can blame my recent reading of Margaret Atwood for this.

Anyway, I should get some sleep. Zombies are making me sleepy. What’s that sitting beside me, you ask? Nothing, nothing, just a little shotgun in the event that you start moaning and craving brains in the near future. Can’t be too careful.