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Excerpt Reveal: Blood Jade by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

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Blood Jade by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

The follow-up to Ebony Gate, the critically acclaimed debut of Vee and Bebelle’s Phoenix Hoard series.

IT TAKES A KILLER TO CATCH A KILLER

Emiko Soong, newly minted Sentinel of San Francisco, just can’t catch a break. Just after she becomes the guardian for a sentient city, a murder strikes close to home. Called by the city and one of the most powerful clans to investigate, she traces the killer whose scent signature bears a haunting similarity to her mother’s talent.

The trail will lead her back to Tokyo where the thread she pulls threatens to unravel her whole world and bring dark family secrets to light.

Meanwhile, the General rises in the East and Emiko must fight the hidden enemies of his growing army who are amped up on Blood Jade, while keeping her promises to her brother Tatsuya as he prepares for his tourney.

Her duties as Sentinel and her loyalties collide when she must choose between hiding her deepest shame or stopping the General’s relentless march.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of  Blood Jade by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle, on sale 7/16/24


SURF’S UP

I was supposed to be stopping a turf war but instead I’d been commandeered into a wet suit and was now holding on for dear life to a kiteboard. Worst of all, my weapons were in a backpack tied up high on an electric pole. I blamed the air talent in front of me for all of this. 

A spray of water kicked up from my board and a thousand droplets scattered in the air, catching the spring sunshine like a waterfall of diamonds. I had a fraction of a second to marvel at the beauty of it before the kite lines jerked me forward and the freezing salt water smacked me in the face. I blinked furiously and tensed my arms, trying to wrest control of the kite before the wind dragged me into the south tower of the Golden Gate. 

So far, I was bad at this and I despised being bad at anything. 

This was entirely Freddy’s fault.

Freddy Tran slalomed past me in a graceful arc with one hand on his kite handle and the other carelessly dragging through the bay. He leaned into his turn with an ease that I would have admired if I wasn’t resenting the fact that he had roped me into this misbegotten adventure. 

I had gone to his sister, Fiona, when the Ebony Gate had been stolen, sealing the request for aid with a Talon. I’d really been bargaining for Fiona’s help, since she was the rising head of the clan, but she’d stuck me with her pot-smoking surfer twin brother, Freddy, who had turned out to be somewhat less of a slacker than his reputation spoke of. 

Now he showed up on my doorstep at random times and tried to make me have fun. 

Against the backdrop of the bay, his royal-blue aura fanned out in a soft blur, and with his deep tan and white rashguard, he was a poster child for water sports. Jerk. He kicked up a rooster tail of green-gray bay water as his board dug deep into the surf. The kite at the end of his lines was identical to mine, a great billowing swath of sparkling silver nylon. It was a picture-perfect moment, made complete by his slicked-back dark hair and laughing eyes. 

Above our kites, the Golden Gate Bridge rose out of the water like a titan, massive supports of orange-red girders growing out of hulking concrete pilings. Road traffic rumbled over the bridge and seagulls wheeled against blue skies. 

Freddy tacked and raised his hand out of the water, waggling a shaka sign at me. “Looking good, Emiko! Sick moves!” 

The wake from his board moved past me, forcing me to bob to stay on top of my board. I yelled back at him over the wind. “This is crazy!” 

He whooped like a maniac. 

I was only out here because Freddy had kidnapped me. There was still plenty of work to do. The Trans and the Louies, the two strongest Lóng Jiārén clans in San Francisco, were on a collision course. Jiārén were descended from dragons and wore their civility like a neatly pressed jacket. It could come off at any time, and it looked like the time was here. War was brewing, and when it hit, San Francisco would be ground zero. The very city I had just bound myself to. 

Fiona, the responsible Tran, had given me assurances that she wouldn’t break the peace just yet. As the Sentinel of San Francisco, I was attuned to the heartbeat of my city and, for now, things were quiet. I trusted her word, but it didn’t resolve the sensation that my city was a simmering pot of soup, on the cusp of boiling over. 

After I ignored Freddy’s texts for several days, he’d used his air talent to funnel himself right onto my porch, setting off all my alarms. When I’d run to the front of the house, ready to take down whoever had been stupid enough to try my security, Freddy had opened another funnel and sucked us both away to Crissy Field. 

I’d gotten even with him though. Right after we landed, I threw up on his shirt. 

A sea salt aroma flared around us, cleaner and more vibrant than the seawater currently crusting in my hair. The scent had nothing to do with the water, just the unique smell of Freddy’s talent as he created a miniature vortex of air just behind his kite. He whooped as his kite took off and launched him into the air. His back arched and he executed a neat flip as he was carried into the shadow of the bridge. 

I risked unclenching one hand to quickly swipe my hair from my eyes. Around us, other surfers sped along the tops of the waves, carving neat turns and making little jumps. I was the Sentinel of San Francisco. I’d spent six years being trained as a world-class assassin by the Jōkōryūkai. This was just kitesurfing in some of the most challenging waters in the world. 

I could do this. 

I closed my eyes and shut out the world around me, concentrating on the sensations in my body, narrowing my focus down to each individual moment as it occurred. 

My father had taught this to me when I’d been struggling with even basic mastery of my qì. Rather than dwelling on past failures, or the anticipation of any future success, he trained me to instead learn what I could from each instant in time. 

The control rod in my hands twitched and jumped as my kite snapped in the wind, pulling me across the water. My legs flexed as the board bumped and bobbed under my feet, rising and falling with the swells in the water. The breath of my city whispered through the cables of the bridge, over the tops of the whitecaps, and tickled the hairs at the back of my neck. 

I hadn’t considered that my connection to San Francisco would extend out into the bay, but it made a kind of sense that the city would claim the waters around it as well. The city’s power ran under me as a cool current of energy. When I reached for it I felt an answering pulse from the . . . thing that the city had left inside my chest. I still didn’t know what it was, and my research into it had yielded little. Add in the impending clan war and a fledgling antiques business that I was still trying to run, and some things had been put on the back burner. 

Fresh energy from the city surged up my legs and I spread my toes. The choppy action of the waves calmed, and now staying balanced atop the board was as easy as standing on a sidewalk. A briny wind picked up behind me and I shot forward. I tightened my arms and pulled in, leaning to my right. My board carved through the water. I sailed through a spray of fine mist, the acceleration sending a thrill down my spine like a shot of electricity. 

Freddy whooped again, his voice sounding closer now. “Yeah, that’s how the Sentinel does it!” 

I wasn’t sure if it comported with Sentinel etiquette, but tapping into the power of the city certainly made kitesurfing more enjoyable. And, credit to Freddy, it was good being outside in the elements. With the sun on my face and the salt-tinged breeze at my back, I felt freer than I could remember. 

Taking the mantle of the Sentinel had been a scary choice, but at least it had been my choice. Well, the choice had been forced on me by my mother’s blood debt to a shinigami. But with the welfare of my adopted home at stake, I’d chosen to become the embodiment of the city’s power, and with that power I had earned back my mother’s Talon. In addition to the return of the Hiroto Talon, I retained my soul instead of anchoring the Ebony Gate for eternity as a ward against the restless demons and ghosts of Yomi. I thought it was a fair trade. 

The city and I had gotten off to a rough start. The fledgling magic sentience had tried to run roughshod over my will, but years of being someone else’s attack dog had inured me to brute-force tactics. Our relationship felt more like a partnership now, if one could be partners with a city. 

I opened my eyes and found Freddy cruising next to me as our kites towed us through the noontime shadow under the bridge. We angled slightly to the north, heading out of the bay and toward the far end of the bridge. Freddy’s discreet funnels kept our wind steady and we slewed back and forth, crisscrossing and spraying each other with our wakes. I spluttered and laughed as Freddy hit me with a spectacularly large wave that almost bowled me over. 

Freddy pointed back toward the bay and yelled, “Race you to the north side!” 

I gave him a thumbs-up.

“Loser has to show me their new temple, okay?”

He sure knew how to motivate me. The Merchants’ Association of Lotus Lane had donated a Sentinel’s Hall to honor me, with offices and staff intended to manage my calendar. It was just too much. 

“It’s not a temple, Tran!” 

Freddy’s air talent swirled around him and he gave me a lazy wink as he shot forward on the burst of air. Of course, like any respectable Jiārén, Freddy was going to cheat. As descendants of the Eight Sons of the Dragon, nearly all Jiārén “inherited” Dragon talents, like wildflowers grown near a nuclear test site. Those talents came with us when Jiārén came to this world from the Realm, fleeing the Cataclysm and the death of our Dragon gods. Our talents made us powerful and dangerous. Most of us, anyway. Some of us became powerful and dangerous through sheer training and sacrifice. 

My meridians were so blocked and twisted that I could barely do the basic things that all other Jiārén took for granted. I grew up as the Broken Tooth of Soong Clan, and I’d spent my life learning ways to overcome my failings the hard way, through work and attention to detail. 

But now, with the mantle of the Sentinel, I’d tapped into a wellspring of power bigger than I ever could have imagined. It was like going from riding a bike to suddenly piloting a rocket ship. 

I centered my energy and allowed myself a satisfied smile. This rocket ship was going to leave Freddy drenched in my wake. The thing in my chest thudded like an extra heart as I reached again for the city’s power. My stomach dropped out as I lurched forward. I tightened my grip and dug in. In an eyeblink I crested over the surf and flew past Freddy. The wake from my board pushed him to the side and I waggled my hand at him as I blew by. 

Freddy crowed as I sailed past him. I leaned my head back and let the wind and spray wash over me like a cleansing shower. As much as I hated to admit it, Freddy had been right. I needed this. Not just the sunshine and the exercise, but being with, in, a part of my city. I needed it like I needed air and water. I wasn’t going to solve the coming crisis from inside my home. Fiona had cried feud on the Louies, but that didn’t guarantee a clan war, did it? As Sentinel, I would make my intentions known to all clans and all Jiārén. Chaotic times were coming, but I needed to find a resolution and deescalate it. 

I cruised north, the beautiful town of Sausalito entering my view. 

A wave of nausea rolled through me and sent a barb of agony through my gut. My fingers went slack and the kite ripped away from me. The once-steady double thump in my chest skipped a beat and all the strength drained from my legs. My knees buckled and the world slewed sideways. The comforting weight of San Francisco’s power vanished from my body like kindling in a bonfire. 

The sensation folded me in half and then light and sound disappeared as I plunged headfirst into the bay. 

The biting cold of the water shocked my system back to functioning and I had the good sense not to open my mouth. The pain in my gut was already fading, but I couldn’t trace the sensation. My mind blanked, and my hands clenched instinctively, searching for my weapons. But I had none. 

Dim sunlight filtered in from above as I floated for a moment, trying to figure out what had happened. 

I reached for the city’s power again, trying to trace the same paths, only to find that not only was the city not there, but even the paths were gone. It was like I’d been transported to the other side of the planet. A spark of panic ignited as I called out to the heart of San Francisco, and was again answered with cold, absolute silence. 

Why was the city ignoring me? 

I bit back on the panicky sensation trying to crawl out of my throat. As far as I had researched, the only way to stop being the Sentinel was to die, and I definitely wasn’t dead yet, judging by the burning sensation in my lungs. Something had happened. I would just have to figure it out, after I dragged my butt out of the bay. I kicked for the surface. 

The ache in my lungs became a sharp ball of spikes behind my ribs, and my muscles burned as my exertions used up the remaining oxygen in my system. And still the surface looked no closer. The sour taste of panic crept into the back of my mouth even as I kept my lips glued together against the water trying to worm its way in. The chill of the water faded as my limbs went numb from the cold. 

My mind must have started to slip a gear as well, because I heard, clear as day, low throaty laughter coming from beneath me. 

“Lost little dragon. So far from home.” 

Even though I was underwater, the words rang inside my skull. It was a woman’s voice—melodious, refined, and menacing. 

I flailed my arms and legs even as I felt them weakening. Below me, from the dark depths, a single flickering point of white light grew closer, pulsing as mocking words floated past me. 

“You call yourself dragons. You are barely a fish.” 

The light stretched and spun until it was a swirl of arms reaching for me. As my movements slowed, the tug of the current dragged me down. I was going to drown, or fall victim to whatever menace was below me. 

I reached out for the city and again got nothing. My heart pounded in my chest and every instinct ripped at my jaw, clawing my mouth open. 

“This will teach you to leave your seat of power.”

The light became a vortex, sucking me deeper into the frigid depths. The cold was a living thing now, massive teeth of ice biting through my limbs, marching toward my torso, turning me bite by bite into a frozen block of numbness. My vision darkened into a long tunnel that ended at a mouth of very white, very sharp teeth.

Copyright © 2024 from Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

Pre-order Blood Jade Here:

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Excerpt Reveal: The Sky on Fire by Jenn Lyons

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The Sky on Fire by Jenn Lyons

Enter a world ruled by dragons…

The Sky on Fire is a daring new fantasy heist adventure that will thrill fans of Temeraire, Fourth Wing, and Dragonriders of Pern

Anahrod lives only for survival, forging her own way through the harsh jungles of the Deep with her titan drake by her side. Even when an adventuring party saves her from capture by a local warlord, she is eager to return to her solitary life.

But this is no ordinary rescue. It’s Anahrod’s past catching up with her. These cunning misfits—and their frustratingly appealing dragonrider ringleader—intend to spirit her away to the dragon-ruled sky cities, where they need her help to steal from a dragon’s hoard.

There’s only one problem: the hoard in question belongs to the current regent, Neveranimas—and she wants Anahrod dead.

From Jenn Lyons, the acclaimed author of the Chorus of Dragons series, this soaring standalone fantasy combines conniving dragons, lightning banter, high-stakes intrigue, and a little bit of heat.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Sky on Fire by Jenn Lyons, on sale 7/16/24


HELL

 

Skylanders had another word for the Deep.

Hell.

A more appropriate brand, without question. The Deep was too bland a label, applied so vigorously to any land ranging from sea level to five thousand feet above it. Skylanders felt secure in the label’s accuracy only because they measured from altitudes so much higher. Whereas Hell, as a place of punishment hot enough to scorch, occupied by monsters and the damned, served as a far more accurate warning. Those people
who made their homes in the Deep had their own feelings on the matter, but their opinions were never consulted. If Skylanders considered the Deep a punishment, then it was also true that one could, by effort and necessity, learn to love Hell.

Anahrod had.

The Deep bore no resemblance to the indifferent mountaintops or the apathetic sky. The Deep demanded focus, insisted on attention. Anahrod might fear and hate her adopted home, but she couldn’t deny that every part possessed a wild beauty, a riotous curve of unmolested nature too rebellious to be conquered, too perilous to be ignored. The suffocating, sticky air and the boiling heat were a mild irritation compared to the Deep’s genuine threats: explosive oceans, howling storms, and giant, carnivorous animals.

In the Deep’s jungles and savannas, its deserts and forests and violent, evershifting green waters, dwelt every monster unfriendly to humanity. The worst of which—Hell’s true demons—would always be humanity itself. A point Anahrod considered as she stared down the two Scarsea recruiters. The Scarsea eschewed the green body paint worn by most jungle tribes in favor of shadow-valley violets. Ocean-green spikes thrust out in all directions from the shoulder plates strapped to their arms, lest one make the error of thinking them too friendly.

Anahrod had neither asked for nor been given introductions. She’d decided to call one man “Braids” because of his hair. Anahrod nicknamed the other one “Scratch” since he kept picking at his paint, the cracked mud flaking away from one arm to reveal brown skin underneath. “We won’t make this offer again.” Braids tightened his hand on his sword pommel. As they “wouldn’t make this offer again” on the last four occasions the Scarsea had found her, the threat’s value had begun to wane. She allowed silence to be her answer. If they decided her consent was no longer necessary, Overbite waited, hidden behind a nearby hillock.

They didn’t seem inclined to press the issue. Still, Scratch wore a sour expression, the look of a man trying to understand why Anahrod wasn’t leaping at the opportunity offered. “Your refusals have grown tiresome, but if you return with us now, His Majesty won’t hold a grudge.”

“Sicaryon, you mean?” She’d heard far too much of Sicaryon lately, none of it good. Not so long ago, he’d been “Chief ” Sicaryon, after killing his uncle for the position. Then he was “warlord,” gobbling up neighboring tribes with frightening speed.

Now he was “king.” Anahrod avoided Scarsea territory, but what did such matter when they sought her out instead? “King Sicaryon,” Braids corrected. He clearly expected her to be impressed. She leaned forward as if to share a confidence. “I must know. Does he really have forty spouses that he keeps imprisoned by the sea?” Scratch sputtered. “What? What rumors—”

“I know,” Anahrod agreed. “The idea is ridiculous. Why would I think Sicaryon could handle forty husbands and wives when he couldn’t even handle—”Anahrod paused. She felt a spike of concern from Overbite, whose senses far surpassed Anahrod’s own. “—me?”

Sharp, high-pitched screams echoed from the jungle. Not human sounds, but she recognized them. Rock wyrms. Hunting. A half second later, rock wyrms began calling to each other. Anahrod drew her sword—but it was a pointless gesture. Rock wyrms grew to over fifteen feet long, with tough hide and razor-sharp teeth. They used four of their legs for running and the remaining two limbs, which each ended in sharp, spiny points, to impale their prey. The females were solitary, but as there was no justice in the world, the males traveled in packs. Anyone hunting rock wyrms used spears, arrows, pit traps, or best of all, sorcery. They didn’t use swords. Swords weren’t long enough to scratch a rock wyrm’s hide before the monster was close enough to impale the wielder. “You’re the sorceress who can control animals!” Scratch snapped. “Can’t you
do something?” Something ugly and bitter twisted her guts. So Sicaryon had told them what she was. “Yes. One at a time.” Anahrod pointed into the jungle with her blade. “So, flee.”

Scratch started to follow her order, which would’ve been hilarious in other circumstances. He caught himself, a stubborn look finding root on his face. “I’m summoning my titan drake,” Anahrod elaborated. “Run!”
Braids grabbed Scratch’s arm. “Let her deal with them.” He pulled the other man into the underbrush. More baying sounded, but none in the direction the two men had fled. The two recruiters might yet escape.

[Overbite, sweetheart, I need you. We’ve work to do.]

Anahrod used a root vine to pull herself onto a branch. It was always easier if she kept herself tucked out of the way. Not safer (because rock wyrms climbed trees), but at least she wouldn’t be underfoot. Behind that hillock, the titan drake called Overbite pushed herself up on six thick legs. She was a massive specimen: twenty feet at the shoulder and fifty feet long. Striped scales camouflaged her in the dappled light of the jungle canopy. Despite her bulk, she moved with barely a rustle of foliage. A perfect hunter with teeth the size of swords, she could take down anything smaller than a grown dragon. In the Deep, that was everything, including most other titan drakes.

[Let’s hunt.]

Overbite tossed her head in excitement. She was always eager for a hunt, even if she wouldn’t technically be the one hunting. Anahrod slumped back against the tree branch, body abandoned. Transfer-
ring her consciousness to an animal felt like swimming through an ocean of sap to gasp at clean air. Rising from the depths and taking in a deep breath of new reality. Her senses expanded as she settled into Overbite’s mind. The world transformed into a tapestry of colors, odors, sounds. The nearby dama trees, the rock wyrms, the flowering coremfells—and the nasty stench of humans. Her hearing became hyperacute, distinguishing rock wyrms from birds, humans, and other predators. Anahrod would’ve given Overbite her lead if the men had run farther, but they were too close. She had no faith in her pet’s ability to control her hunting instincts. If it ran, Overbite would chase.

The rock wyrms loped into the clearing on four legs. They all stiffened and raised their heads, scenting a larger predator. Anahrod stood to her full height, or rather, to Overbite’s full height. She advanced on the pride, a lethal monster who had nothing to fear. The rock wyrms turned to face her, heads down and growling. Which wasn’t the correct response. The wyrms should’ve gone after the weaker prey, fled before the stronger. They should’ve chased the Scarsea, allowing Anahrod to pick off the rock wyrms from behind.

She was committed now. Anahrod ran into the clearing, straight at one of the “little” monsters. She sank her teeth into a rock wyrm neck, snapped the spine. Hot blood flooded her mouth as the creature let out a pitiful yowl. She smelled something new then, something familiar: Scratch’s scent. That wouldn’t have been so special, but the scent was on this rock wyrm. Along with many other human scents, none of which belonged. When would a Scarsea soldier have had contact . . . ? She studied the wyrms a second time. Ropes. Scraps of leather. The clink of metal rings slapping against thick hide necks. This wasn’t a wild pride.

These were . . .

These were trained animals.

She tossed the rock wyrm corpse to the ground as she searched for the warriors. She still smelled them, so where had they gone? The pride was attacking. She roared, the sound vibrating through her borrowed body, barely audible to humans but a thunderclap to Deep animals. She bit a rock wyrm, gouging out a giant chunk of his flank. The rock wyrms encircled her. She heard metal clang against stone, followed by cursing.
When she turned, she saw the little Scarsea bastards hadn’t fled. Instead, they’d circled around to the tree where Anahrod had hidden her body. Scratch carried Anahrod’s unconscious form slung over a shoulder. Her sword had caused the warning sound as it slid free from its sheath and hit a rock on the jungle floor.

Anahrod growled. Sicaryon had told them everything she could do. It felt like a betrayal. Braids rushed back to retrieve the sword. “Go!” he screamed at Scratch. “The others are waiting!”

The others.

Her pulse thundered in her ears. This encounter had been a trap from the start. Sicaryon had no intention of suffering a fifth refusal. This wasn’t a recruitment: it was a kidnapping. A rock wyrm took advantage of her distraction to stab both spear arms into one of her—one of Overbite’s—legs. She twirled, swept aside that attacker plus several pack mates who failed to dodge. But the damage was done. Anahrod felt the icy sting of blood flowing too fast. She kicked out with a middle leg, caught another wyrm in the ribs; she was rewarded with a satisfying snap of bone.

Another rock wyrm tried the same trick, stabbing at Overbite’s front legs. She wasn’t distracted this time, whereas he’d just wandered into the reach of her jaws. She savaged his neck and tossed the corpse to his pack mates. Perhaps she could’ve fought them off, even outnumbered, but more humans approached. Likely the other Scarsea soldiers, coming to finish the job. The implications made her gut clench: Sicaryon had learned to train rock wyrms. His great successes against so many tribes became easier to explain. Worse was the certainty that she knew where her sword-brother had come up with such an idea: from her. The scent of fresh blood swelled in the air. Human blood. The smell confused both her and Overbite’s lurking consciousness. No humans had been hurt. Yet the unmistakable, caustic scent of human blood flooded her senses.

Scratch stopped running. He, too, seemed confused. He dropped Anahrod’s body in an ungraceful heap. She winced: that would bruise. Anahrod still saw no sign of injury, even if Overbite’s nose screamed
otherwise. Then Scratch made a choking sound. Blood poured from his eyes, his nose, his mouth—from every orifice.Not a trickle, but a gushing exsanguination. His partner, Braids, shouted something at Scratch. His real name, perhaps. She had no idea why Scratch had died in such a way, but she could guess.

Sorcery.

That was when Anahrod scented the new arrivals. Not the second Scarsea group. These were something else. They smelled of perfumed lye soap and clean skin, weapon oil and writing ink, but it was the scent of spiced musk and hot metal that raised her frills. Overbite knew that scent too well, because it belonged to her only natural predators.

Dragons. Copyright © 2024 from Jenn Lyons

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Excerpt Reveal: Foul Days by Genoveva Dimova

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foul days by genoveva dimova

The Witcher meets Naomi Novik in this fast-paced fantasy rooted in Slavic folklore, from an assured new voice in genre fiction.

As a witch in the walled city of Chernograd, Kosara has plenty of practice treating lycanthrope bites, bargaining with kikimoras, and slaying bloodsucking upirs. There’s only one monster she can’t defeat: her ex, the Zmey, known as the Tsar of Monsters. She’s defied him one too many times and now he’s hunting her. Betrayed by someone close to her, Kosara’s only choice is to trade her shadow—the source of her powers—for a quick escape.

Unfortunately, Kosara soon develops the deadly sickness that plagues shadowless witches—and only reclaiming her magic can cure her. To find it, she’s forced to team up with a suspiciously honorable detective. Even worse, all the clues point in a single direction: To get her shadow back, Kosara will have to face the Foul Days’ biggest threats without it. And she’s only got twelve days.

But in a city where everyone is out for themselves, who can Kosara trust to assist her in outwitting the biggest monster from her past?

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Foul Days by Genoveva Dimova, on sale 6/25/24


Chapter 2

Earlier that day, Kosara took out a lock of the Zmey’s hair, carefully pressed between two sheets of paper in an old spell book. She’d kept it on her bedside table all year, worried that if she let it out of her sight for too long, it might disappear.

It hadn’t been easy to obtain. Kosara and the Zmey had developed an annual ritual in the last seven years, ever since she’d left his palace. Every year, she did her best to avoid him. Every year, he found her. He’d smile his handsome smile and ask in his sweetest voice, “How about a game of cards?”

The wager? A lock of hair.

It wasn’t simply a sentimental keepsake. For a witch, a lock of hair had power. It meant that if she won, Kosara would finally have a weapon she could use against him. Not strong enough to hurt him, but perhaps strong enough to keep him away.

Which was why the Zmey enjoyed the game so much. He always won—until last year.

Kosara walked downstairs to the kitchen and hung her cauldron over the hearth. The room was aglow with the light of the fire, reflecting in the copper pots and pans hanging on the walls. The brighter it grew, the darker the shadows became, her own swirling and whirling around them.

Sweat beaded on Kosara’s skin, the droplets mirroring the flames, as if she were covered in hundreds of small fires. She’d stripped down to her underwear, and her chemise clung to her wet skin. Instead of subduing the hearth, she stoked it. She needed all the power she could get.

It wasn’t as if anyone else was around to complain about the heat. Kosara lived alone.

There was a loud bang from one of the upstairs bedrooms.

It wasn’t as if anyone else alive was around, Kosara corrected herself. The ghost of her sister haunted a bedroom upstairs.

A few more bangs followed. Strange, Nevena wasn’t this active usually. Perhaps she could feel the heat after all, or the magic Kosara wielded.

“Nevena!” Kosara shouted. “Will you please stop it? I’m trying to concentrate.”

The banging continued. Kosara sighed. No point trying to reason with kikimoras.

First, Kosara fished inside a bucket of salty water for two rusalka ink sacs. She pierced them with her knife, letting the dark liquid drip into the cauldron, hissing as it hit the copper surface.

Then, she rummaged for the rest of the ingredients among the many jars and bottles scattered around the kitchen. Aspen tree sap served as a binder, a rusty nail used to kill a karakonjul as a mordant, thyme oil and soda ash as preservatives. Finally, she threw the lock of the Zmey’s hair into the cauldron.

The mixture came to a boil fast, large bubbles rising to the surface and popping, splattering the walls with sticky black liquid.

As she watched it, Kosara wondered if she was making a mistake. What if her attempt to keep the Zmey away angered him too much?

He’d told her before that if she ever tried to defy him again, he’d take more than a lock of her hair. He’d take her. He’d force her back under his control. He liked her knowing that her freedom was conditional on his goodwill.

No, she decided. She was toeing the line, but she wasn’t crossing it. He’d see this as a challenge—a part of their game of cat and mouse. Next year, he’d arrive prepared to fight her spell, but by then, Kosara would have devised a different one to throw at him.

Or maybe her spell wouldn’t be strong enough to stop him. He’d laugh that annoyingly pleasant laugh of his, like hundreds of chiming bells, and then she’d have to sit through another card game. She’d squirm under his icy stare for hours, as he threw stronger and stronger cards on the table. Finally, she’d chop off a lock of hair to give him, and the missing chunk would remind her of him whenever she looked at herself in the mirror.

Kosara sighed. She had to make sure her spell would hold. She’d spent all year preparing it: a ward strong enough to keep the Zmey out. She’d read every book on the subject she could get her hands on. She’d practised all the runes. It would hold.

Unless someone invited the Zmey in, that was. But who would do that?

At last, Kosara took the cauldron off the fire and emptied the liquid into a glass vial. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Then, she put out the fire with a click of her fingers.

The kitchen went dark, only the flickering of the gas lamps remained. The cold from outside immediately began to seep through the walls.

Kosara got dressed: black woollen trousers, a warm sweater, her long coat, leather boots she’d worn so often the soles were starting to rub through. She couldn’t do the spell in her house—it would be the first place the Zmey would look for her after he arrived at midnight.

“Bye, Nevena!” Kosara shouted.

The ghost remained silent. Sometimes, Kosara wondered if Nevena could even understand her.

Most ghosts were little different from the people they’d been while still alive. But Nevena wasn’t like most ghosts. She was a kikimora: a wraith who rose from the blood spilled after a murder. All that was left of the sister Kosara remembered was her pain and her anger.

Kosara sighed and opened the front door. She braced herself against the winter wind, burying her chin in the neckline of her sweater. After the warmth of the kitchen, stepping outside felt like diving into a cold swimming pool.

She stumbled through the muddy snowdrifts, past dark houses and snow-covered gardens, gripping the vial of inky liquid in her pocket. Her bag hung heavy on her shoulder, filled with notes and sketches copied from spell books.

Granite spires rose high above, icicles hanging off their elaborately carved buttresses. Their grand shapes were a reminder of Chernograd’s more prosperous past before the Wall was built. Now, their stonework was black with dirt and soot, and their arches were crumbling.

In the distance, magic factories coughed dark smoke out of their long chimneys, contrasting against the white streets and the pale sky. Most of them manufactured medicine, cosmetics, or perfumes for export over the Wall to Belograd. Ironically, few in Chernograd could afford their products.

People in dark clothes passed Kosara, their grim faces peeking over ugly hand-knitted scarves and even uglier hand-knitted jumpers. Their coats were more like patchwork blankets, sewn together so they’d last another winter. Occasionally, a horse-drawn carriage flew past, spraying muddy water over the pavements. The swearing of the now-soaked pedestrians was drowned out by the drumming of the horse’s hooves.

Kosara elbowed her way through the crowds gathered in front of the Main Street shops. It was the last day of the year: the last chance to stock up on holy water and aspen stakes in peace, to melt any remaining family heirlooms into silver bullets, to hire a witch to draw a protective ward around the house’s doors and windows. Customers and merchants bargained quietly, in tense whispers, as if shouting would break whatever fragile peace they still had until midnight. Some of them clutched steaming cups of coffee, brown and thick as mud, and others were already well into their wine, their breath coming out in pungent plumes.

Finally, Kosara reached the pub. The barkeep, Bayan, waited for her in front of it, only a thin sliver of his face visible between his karakonjul fur hat and his scarf. He narrowed his eyes at her in question.

Kosara nodded at him, and he unlocked the door.

She went to her knees on the icy ground. Then, she unscrewed the lid from her vial, dipped her finger in it, and began drawing.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

“Kosara!” a familiar voice called outside the bar, just after midnight. He didn’t shout, but his words nevertheless carried over the wind’s howling, the monsters’ cries, and the people’s screams. “Kosara!”

The blood rushed to Kosara’s head. Her nails left crescents in the soft skin of her palms.

He was here already. How the hell had he found her so fast?

She looked down at the ward she’d drawn. Half of it was visible on the floor inside, arching around the door and windows: a series of runes drawn in black ink. The other half was outside. If Kosara had done her job right, no amount of snow or hail or rubbing of shoes would erase it for the next twelve days.

She’d hoped to have an hour or two to test it on lesser monsters, like the karakonjuls. To recharge it if needed, or maybe try a different recipe if this one proved too weak—but the Zmey was here already.

“Kosara!” His voice came closer and closer. It sent shivers down her spine.

Calm down, for God’s sake. It would be the same as every year. He’d come, he’d make her feel small, weak, and helpless, and then he’d leave.

But, for some reason, this time it felt different. There was something in his voice—something she hadn’t heard in a long time. Something taut like a guitar string.

Anger.

“Kosara!”

His shadow ran past the window. He wiped the frost away with his palm and peeked inside.

His eyes were the bright blue only found in the centre of a flame, and his hair was like molten gold. When his gaze fell on the mirror above the bar, it shattered.

“Here you are.”

The doorknob rattled.

Kosara inhaled sharply. She watched, petrified, as the lines of her ward twisted and strained under the pressure, but they didn’t break. For now.

Copyright © 2024 from Genoveva Dimova

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Excerpt Reveal: Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson

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icehenge by kim stanley robinson

SF titan Kim Stanley Robinson’s breakout novel, now in a Tor Essentials edition with a new introduction by Henry Farrell

Tor Essentials presents new editions of science fiction and fantasy titles of proven merit and lasting value, each volume introduced by an appropriate literary figure.

Decades before his massively successful The Ministry for the Future (2020), Kim Stanley Robinson wrote one of SF’s greatest meditations on extended human lifespan, the limitations of human memory, and the haunted confabulations that go with forgetting.

On the North Pole of Pluto there stands an enigma: a huge circle of standing blocks of ice, built on the pattern of Earth’s Stonehenge—but ten times the size, standing alone at the edge of the Solar System. What is it? Who could have built it?

The secret lies in the chaotic decades of the Martian Revolution, in the lost memories of those who have lived for centuries.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson, on sale 6/11/24


EMMA WEIL

2248 AD

The first indication I had of the mutiny came as we approached the inner limit of the first asteroid belt. Of course I didn’t know what it meant at the time; it was no more than a locked door.

The first belt we call the dud belt, because the asteroids in it are basaltic achondrite, and no use to miners. But we would be among the carbonaceous chondrites soon enough, and one day I went down to the farm to get ready. I fed a bit more light to the algae, for in the following weeks when the boats went out to break up rocks there would be a significant oxygen depletion, and we would need more chlorella around to help balance the gas exchange. I activated a few more bulbs in the lamps and started fooling around with the suspension medium. Biologic life-support systems are my work and play (I am one of the best at it), and since I was making room for more chlorella, I once again became interested in the excess biomass problem. Thinking to cut down on surplus algae by suspending it less densely, I walked between long rows of spinach and cabbage to the door of one of the storage rooms at the back of the farm, to get a few more tanks. I turned the handle of the door. It was locked.

“Emma!” called a voice. I looked up. It was Al Nordhoff, one of my assistants.

“Do you know why this door is locked?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I was wondering myself yesterday. I guess there’s classified cargo in there. I was told to leave it alone.”

“It’s our storage room,” I said, irritated.

Al shrugged. “Ask Captain Swann about it.”

“I will.”

Now Eric Swann and I were old friends, and I was upset that something was going on in my area that he had failed to tell me about. So when I found him on the bridge, I came straight to the point.

“Eric, how come I’m locked out of one of my own storage rooms? What have you got in there?”

Immediately he blushed as red as his hair, and hung his head. The two rocketry and guidance officers on the bridge looked down at their consoles.

“I can’t tell you what’s in there, Emma. It’s classified. I can’t tell anyone until later.”

I stared at him. I know I can intimidate people if I look at them hard enough. His blush got deeper, his freckles disappeared in the general redness, his blue eyes gave me a watery stare. But he wasn’t going to tell me. I curled my lip at him and left the bridge.

That was the first sign: a locked door, a secret reason for it. I thought to myself, We’re taking something for the Committee out to Ceres, perhaps. Weapons, no doubt. It was typical of the Mars Development Committee to keep secrets. But I didn’t jump to any conclusions; merely stayed alert.

The second sign was one I probably would have missed, had I not been alerted by the first. I was walking down the corridor to the dining commons, past the tapestry lounges between the commons and the bedrooms, when I heard voices from a lounge and stopped. Just the voices sounded funny, all whispery and rapid. I recognized John Dancer’s voice:

“We can’t do anything of the sort until after the rendezvous, and you know it.”

“No one will notice,” said a woman, perhaps Ilene Breton.

“You hope no one would notice,” Dancer replied. “But you can’t be sure that Duggins or Nordhoff wouldn’t stumble across it. We have to wait on everything until after the rendezvous, you know that.”

Then I heard steps across the velcro carpet behind me, and with a start I began to walk again, past the door of the lounge. I looked in; John and Ilene, sure enough, among several others. They all looked up as I appeared in the doorway, and their conversation abruptly died. I stared at them and they stared back, at a loss for speech. I walked on to the dining commons.

A rendezvous in the belt. A group of people, not the superior officers of the ship, in on this event and keeping it a secret from the others. A locked storage hold   Things were not falling together for me.

After that I began to see things everywhere. People stopped talking when I walked by. There were meetings late at night, in bedrooms. I walked by the radio room once, and someone was sending out a long message through the coding machine. Quite a few of the storage room doors were locked, back behind the farm; and some of the ore holds were locked as well.

After a few days of this I shook my head and wondered if I were making it all up. There were explanations for everything I had noticed. Shipboard life tends to become cliquish on the best of runs; even though there were only forty of us, divisions would spring up over the year of an expedition. And these were troubled times, back on Mars. The consolidation of the various sectors under the central coordination of the Committee was causing a lot of dissatisfaction. Sectionalism was rife, subversive groups were everywhere, supposedly. These facts were enough to explain all the little factions I now noticed on the Rust Eagle. And paranoia is one of the most common shipboard disorders   seeing patterns is easy in such a heavily patterned environment.

So I began to discount it all. Perhaps we were carrying something to Ceres for the Committee, but that was nothing.

Still, there was something about the atmosphere of the ship in those days. More people than usual were jumpy and strained. There were mysterious glances exchanged   in an atmosphere of mystery.

But here hindsight may be influencing me. The facts are what I want here. This record will help me to remember these events many years, perhaps centuries, from now, and so I must set down the facts, the sharpest spur to the memory.

In any case, the third sign was unmistakable. By this time the sun was nearly between us and Mars, and I went to the radio room to get a last letter off to my fool of a father, in jail temporarily for his loud mouth. Afterwards, I went to the jump tube, and was about to fall down to the living quarters when I heard voices floating down the tube from the bridge. Had that been my name? I pulled myself up the rail to the steps that led to the bridge, and stayed there, eavesdropping again. A habit of mine. Once more, John Dancer was speaking.

“Emma Weil is pro-Committee all the way,” he said as if arguing the point.

“Even so,” said another man, and a couple of voices cut over so that I didn’t hear what he said.

“No,” Dancer said, interrupting the other voices quickly. “Weil is probably the most important person aboard this ship. We can’t talk to her about any of this until Swann says so, and that won’t be until after the rendezvous. So you can forget it.”

That did it. When it was clear the conversation was over I hopped back to the jump tube and fell down it, aiding the faint acceleration-gravity with some pulls on the rail. I ticked off in my mind the places Swann would most likely be at that hour, intent on finding him and having a long talk. It is not healthy to believe yourself the focus of a ship-wide conspiracy.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

I had known Eric Swann for a long time.

Before the turn of the century, every sector ran its own mining expeditions. Royal Dutch looked for carbonaceous chondrite; Mobil was after the basaltic chondrites in the dud belt; Texas mined the silicate types. Chevron had the project of pulling one of the Amors into a Martian orbit, to make another moon. (This became the moon Amor, which was turned into a detention center. My father lived there.) So each sector had its own asteroid crew, and I got to know the Royal Dutch miners pretty well. Swann was one of the rocketry and guidance officers, and a good friend of my husband Charlie, who was also in R and G. Over the course of many runs in the belt I talked with Swann often, and even after Charlie and I divorced we remained close. But when the Committee took over the mining operations in 2213, all the teams, even the Soviets, were thrown into a common pool, and I saw all of my friends from Royal Dutch a lot less often. My infrequent assignments with Swann had been cause for celebration, and this present assignment, with him as captain, I had thought would be a real pleasure.

Now, pulling around the ship I was the most important person on, I was not so sure. But I thought, Swann will tell me what’s going on. And if he doesn’t know anything about all this, then he’d better be told that something funny is happening.

I found him in one of the little window rooms, seated before the thick plasteel separating him from the vacuum. His long legs were crossed in the yoga position, and he hummed softly: meditating, his mind a floating mirror of the changing square of stars.

“Hey Eric,” I said, none too softly.

“Emma,” he said dreamily, and stretched his arms like a cat. “Sit down.” He showed me a chunk of rock he had had in his lap. “Look at this Chantonnay.” That’s a chondrite that has been shocked into harder rock. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

I sat. “Yes,” I said. “So what’s happening on this trip?”

He blushed. Swann was faster at that than anyone I ever saw. “Not much. Beyond that I can’t say.”

“I know that’s the official position. But you can tell me here.”

He shook his head. “I’m going to tell you, but it has to wait a while longer.” He looked at me directly. “Don’t get angry, Emma.”

“But other people know what’s going on! A lot of them. And they’re talking about me.” I told him about the things I had noticed and overheard. “Now why should I be the most important person on this ship? That’s absurd! And why should they know about whatever it is we’re doing, and not me?”

Swann looked worried, annoyed. “They don’t all know  You see, your help will be important, essential perhaps—” He stopped, as if he had already said too much. His freckled face twisted as his mouth moved about. Finally he shook his head violently. “You’ll just have to wait a few more days, Emma. Trust me, all right? Just trust me and wait.”

That was hardly satisfactory, but what could I do? He knew something, but he wasn’t going to tell it to me. Tight-lipped, I nodded my good-bye and left.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

The mutiny occurred, ironically enough, on my eightieth birthday, a few days after my talk with Swann. August 5, 2248.

I woke up thinking, now you are an octogenarian. I got out of bed (deceleration-gee entirely gone, weightless now as we coasted), sponged my face, looked in the mirror. It is a strange experience to look inside your own retinas; down there inside is the one thinking, in that other face . . . it seems as if, if you could get the light right, you could see yourself.

I grasped the handholds of my exerciser and worked out for a while, thinking about birthdays. All the birthdays in this new age. One of my earliest memories, now, was my tenth birthday. My mother took me to the medical station, where I had to drink foul-tasting stuff and submit to tests and some shots—just quick blasts of air on the skin, but they scared me. “You’ll appreciate this later,” my mom said, with a funny expression. “You won’t get sick and weak when you’re old. Your immune system will stay strong. You’ll live for ever so long, Emma, don’t cry.”

Yes, yes. Apparently she was right, I thought, looking into the mirror again, where my image seemed to pulse with color under the artificial lights. Very long lives, young at eighty: the triumph of gerontology. As always, I wondered what I would do with all the extra years—the extra lives. Would I live to stand free on Martian soil, and breathe Martian air?

Thinking these thoughts I left my room, intent on breakfast. The lounges down the hall from the bedrooms were empty, an unusual thing. I walked into the last lounge before the corridor turned, to look out the small window in it, with its view over the bridge.

And there they were: two silver rectangles, like asteroids crushed into ingots of the metals they contained. Spaceships!

They were asteroid miners of the PR class, sister ships of our own. I stared at them motionlessly, my heart thudding like a drum, thinking rendezvous. The ships grew to the size of decks of cards, very slowly. They were the shape of a card deck as well, with the mining cranes and drills folded together at their fronts, bridge ceilings just barely bulging from their sides (tiny crescents of light), rocket exhausts large at their rear, like beads on their sides and front. Brilliant points of light shone from the windows, like the fluorescent spots on the deep-sea fish of Earth. They looked small beside an irregular blue-gray asteroid, against the dead black of space.

I left the lounge slowly. Turned and walked down the corridor—

In the dining commons it was bedlam.

I stopped and stared. Of the entire crew of forty-three, at least twenty-five must have been in the commons, shouting and laughing, six or seven singing the Ode to Joy, others setting up the drinks table (Ilene maneuvering the mass of the big coffee pot), John and Steven and Lanya in a mass hugging and laughing-sobbing, tears in their eyes. And on the video screen was a straight-on camera shot of the two ships, silver dots against a blue-gray asteroid, so that it looked like a die thrown through the vacuum.

They all had known. Every single one of them in the room. I found myself blinking rapidly, embarrassed and angry. Why hadn’t I been told? I wiped my eyes and got out of the doorway before I was noticed by someone inside.

Andrew Duggins flew by, pulling himself along the hall rails. His big face was scowling. “Emma!” he said, “come on,” and pulled away. I only looked at him, and he stopped. “This is a mutiny!” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the commons. “They’re taking over the ship, and those others out there too. We’ve got to try and get a message off to Ceres—to defend ourselves!” With a hard yank he pulled himself away, in the direction of the radio room.

Mutiny. All of the mysterious events I had noticed fell together, into a pattern. A plan to take over the ship. Had Swann been too afraid of the possibility to discuss it?

But there was no time for a detailed analysis. I leaped off the floor, and with a strong pull on the rail was after Duggins.

Outside the radio room there was a full-fledged fight going on. I saw Al Nordhoff striking one of the ship police in the face, Amy Van Danke twisting furiously in the hold of two men, trying to bite one in the throat. Others struggled in the doorway. Shouts and Amy’s shrieks filled the air. The fight had that awkward, dangerous quality that all brawls in weightlessness exhibit. A blow that connected (one of Al’s vicious kicks to the head of a policeman, for instance) sent both parties spinning across the room. . .

“Mutiny!” Duggins bellowed, and diving forward crashed into the group in the doorway. His momentum bowled several people into the radio room, and an opening was cleared. I shoved off from the wall and grazed my head on the doorjamb going in.

After that things were blurry, but I was angry—angry that I had been deceived, that Swann and the general order of things were being challenged, that friends of mine were being hit—and I swung blindly. I caught one of the policemen on the nose with my fist, and his head smacked the wall with a loud thump. The room was crowded, arms and legs were swinging. The radio console itself was crawling with bodies. Duggins was bellowing still, and hauling figures away from the mass on the radio controls. Someone got me in a choke hold from behind. I put heel to groin and discovered it was a woman—put elbow in diaphragm and twisted under her arm, nearly strangled. Duggins had cleared the radio and was desperately manipulating the dials. I put a haymaker on the ear of a man trying to pull him away. Screams and spherical droplets of blood filled the air—

Reinforcements arrived. Eric Swann slipped through the doorway, his red hair flying wild, a tranquilizer gun in his hand. Others followed him. Darts whizzed through the air, sounding like arrows. “Mutiny!” I shrieked. “Eric! Mutiny! Mutiny!”

He saw me, pointed his gun at me and shot. I looked at the dart hanging from my forearm.

. . . The next thing I knew, I was being guided down the jump tube. Leaving it at my floor. I saw Swann’s face swimming above me. “Mutiny,” I said.

“That’s true,” Eric replied. “We’re going to have to put you under arrest for a few hours.” His freckle-face was stretched into a fool’s grin.

“Asshole,” I muttered. I wanted to run. I could outrun all of them. “I thought you were m’friend.”

“I am your friend, Emma. It was just too dangerous to explain. Davydov will tell you all about it when you see him.”

Davydov. Davydov? “But he was lost,” I muttered, fighting sleep and very confused. “He’s dead.”

Then I was in my bed, strapped securely. “Get some sleep,” Swann said. “I’ll be back in a few hours.” I gave him a look planned to turn him to stone, but he just grinned and I fell asleep in the middle of it, thinking, Mutiny. . . .

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

When I woke up again, Swann was by my bed, tilted in the no-gee so that his head hung over me. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Bad.” I waved him away and he pushed off into the air above the bed. I rubbed my eyes. “What happened, Swann?”

“A mutiny, you’ve been calling it.” He smiled.

“And it’s true?”

He nodded.

“But why? Who are you?”

“Did you ever hear of the Mars Starship Association?”

I thought. “A long time ago? One of those secret anti-Committee groups.”

“We weren’t anti-Committee,” he said. “We were just a club. An advocacy group. We wanted the Committee to support research for an interstellar expedition.”

“So?”

“So the Committee didn’t want to do it. And they took us to be part of the anti-Committee movement, so they outlawed us. Jailed the leaders, transferred the members to different sectors. They made us anti-Committee.”

“Didn’t all that happen a long time ago?” I asked, still disoriented. “What has that got to do with this?”

“We regrouped,” he said. “Secretly. We’ve existed underground for all these years. This is our coming out, you might say.”

“But why? What good does it do you to take over a few asteroid miners? You aren’t planning to use them as starships, are you?” I laughed shortly at the idea.

He stared at me without answering, and suddenly I knew that I had guessed it.

I sat up carefully, feeling cold and a touch dizzy. “You must be joking.”

“Not at all. We’re going to join the Lermontov and the Hidalgo, and complete their life-support systems’ closure.”

“Impossible,” I breathed, still stunned at the very idea.

“Not impossible,” he said patiently. “That’s what the MSA has been working on these last forty years—”

“One of those ships is Hidalgo?” I interrupted. My processing was still impaired by the drugs he had shot me with.

“That’s right.”

“So Davydov is alive….. ”

“He certainly is. You knew him, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” Davydov had been the captain of Hidalgo when it disappeared in the Achilles group three years before. I had thought him dead. . . .

“There’s no way I’ll go,” I said after a pause. “You can’t kidnap me and drag me along on some insane interstellar attempt—”

“No! No. We’re sending Rust Eagle back with all the non-MSA people from the three ships.”

I let out a long sigh of relief. Yet sudden anguish filled me at the thought of the mess I was suddenly in, of the fanatics who now had control of my life, and I cried out, “Eric, you knew this was going to happen out here. Why didn’t you arrange to keep me off this flight?”

He looked away from me, pushed himself down to the floor. Red-faced, he said, “I did the opposite, Emma.”

“You what?

“There are MSA people in the expedition scheduling office, and”— still staring at the floor—“I told them to arrange for you to be aboard Rust Eagle this time.”

“But, Swann!” I said, struggling for words. “Why? Why did you do that to me?”

“Well—because, Emma, you’re one of the best life-support systems designers there is on Mars, or anywhere. Everyone knows that, you know that. And even though our systems designers have got a lot of improvements for the starship, they still have to be installed in those two ships, and made to work. And we have to do it before the Committee police find us. Your help could make the difference, Emma.”

“Oh, Swann.”

“It could! Look, I knew it was imposing on you, but I thought, if we got you out here ignorant of our plans, then you couldn’t be held responsible. When you return to Mars you can tell them you didn’t know anything about the MSA, that we made you help us. That was why I didn’t tell you anything on the way out here, don’t you see? And I know you aren’t that strong a supporter of the Committee, are you? They’re just a bunch of thugs. So that if your old friends asked you for help that only you can give, and you couldn’t be held culpable, you might help? Even if it was illegal?” He looked up at me, his blue eyes grave.

“You’re asking for the impossible,” I told him. “Your MSA has lost touch with reality. You’re talking about travel across light-years, for God’s sake, and you’ve got five-year systems to do it with!”

“They can be modified,” Swann insisted. “Davydov will explain the whole project when you see him. He wants to talk with you as soon as you’d like to.”

“Davydov,” I said darkly. “He’s the one behind this madness.”

“We’re all behind it, Emma. And it isn’t mad.”

I waved an arm and held my head in my hands, as it was pulsing with all the bad news. “Just leave me alone for a while.”

“Sure,” he said. “I know it’s a lot to take in. Just tell me when you want to see Davydov. He’s over on Hidalgo.”

“I’ll tell you,” I said, and looked at the wall until he left the room.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

I had better tell about Oleg Davydov here, for we were lovers once, and for me the memory of him was marked with pain and anger, and a sense of loss—loss that no matter how long I lived could not be recouped or forgotten.

I was just out of the University of Mars, working at the Hellas Basin, in the new settlement near the western edge of the Basin where underground reservoirs and aquifers had been discovered. It was a good supply of water, but the situation was delicate, and the use of the water caused ecologic problems. I was set to work with others to solve these problems, and I quickly proved that I was the best among the systems people there. I had a grasp of the whole Hellas set-up that seemed perfectly natural to me, but was (I could see) impressive to others. And I was a good middle-distance runner—so that all in all, I was a confident youth, perhaps even a bit arrogant.

During my second year there I met Oleg Davydov. He was staying in Burroughs, the big government center to the north, doing some work for the Soviet mining cartel. We met in a restaurant, introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

He was tall and bulky, a handsome man. One of the Soviet blacks, they call them. I guess some of their ancestors came from one of the USSR’s client countries in Africa. The color had been pretty well watered down over the generations, and Davydov had coffee-and-cream-colored skin. His hair was black and wooly; he had thick lips under a thin, aquiline nose; a heavy beard, shaved so that his lower face was rough; and his eyes were ice blue. They seemed to jump out of his face. So he was a pretty good racial mix. But on Mars, where ninety-nine percent of the population is fish-belly white, as they say, any touch of skin color is highly valued. It made one look so . . . healthy, and vital. This Davydov was really extremely good-looking, a color delight to the eye. I watched him then, as we sat on adjacent stools in that Burroughs restaurant, talking, drinking, flirting a little . . . watched so closely that I can recall the potted palm and white wall that were behind him, although I don’t remember a word we said. It was one of those charmed nights, when both parties are aware of the mutual attraction.

We spent that night together, and the next several nights as well. We visited the first colony in the area, The Can, and marvelled at the exhibits in the museum there. We scrambled around the base of the Fluted Cliffs in Hellespontus Montes, and spent a night out in a survival tent. I beat him easily in a footrace, and then won a 1500-meter race for him at a Burroughs track. Every hour available to us we spent together, and I fell in love. Oleg was young, witty, proud of his many abilities; he was exotically bilingual (a Russian!), affectionate, sensual. We spent a lot of time in bed. I remember that in the dark I could see little more than his teeth when he grinned, and his eyes, which seemed light grey. I loved making love with him . . . I remember late dinners together, in Burroughs or out at the station. And innumerable train rides, together or alone, across the sere rust deserts between Burroughs and Hellas—sitting by the window looking out at the curved red horizon, feeling happy and excited. Well, those are the kind of times that you only live through once. I remember them well.

The arguments began quite soon after those first weeks. We were an arrogant pair and didn’t know any better. For a long time I didn’t even realize that our disagreements were particularly serious, for I couldn’t imagine anyone arguing with me for very long. (Yes, I was that self-important.) But Oleg Davydov did. I can’t remember much of what we argued about—that period of time, unlike the beginning, is a convenient blur in my memory. One time I do remember (of course the rest could be called up as well): I had come into Burroughs on the late train, and we were out eating in a Greek restaurant behind the train station. I was tired, and nervous about our relationship, and sick of Hellas. Hoping to compliment him, I made some comment about how much more fun it would be to be an asteroid miner like he was.

“We aren’t doing anything out there,” he said in response. “Just making money for the corporations—making a few people on Earth rich, while everything else down there falls apart.”

“Well, at least you’re out there exploring,” I said.

He looked annoyed, an expression I was becoming familiar with. “But we aren’t, that’s what I’m saying. With our capabilities we could be exploring the whole solar system. We could have stations on the Jovian moons, around Saturn, all the way out to Pluto. We need a solar watch station on Pluto.”

“I wasn’t aware of that fact,” I said sarcastically.

His pale blue eyes pierced me. “Of course you weren’t. You think it’s perfectly all right to continue making money from those stupid asteroids, and nothing more, here at the end of the twenty-second century.”

Copyright © 1998 from Kim Stanley Robinson

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Excerpt Reveal: Rogue Sequence by Zac Topping

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rogue sequence by zac topping

It’s 2091 and independent contract companies around the world are producing genetically modified soldiers…to be sold to the highest bidders.

Ander Rade is a super-soldier, a genetically engineered living weapon, and has been dutifully following orders since he gave himself to Xyphos Industries’ Gene-Mod Program several years ago. But when a mission goes sideways, he’s captured, imprisoned, and forced into brutally violent fighting pits for the better part of the next decade…until agents from the Genetic Compliance Department of the United American Provinces appear in the visiting room.

Things have changed since Rade was captured. Shortly after his incarceration, the World Unity Council banned human genetic engineering and deemed all modified individuals a threat to society. Overnight, an entire subculture of people became outlaws simply for existing. But instead of leaving Rade locked behind bars, the GCD agents have come with an offer: Freedom in exchange for his help tracking down one of his former teammates from that ill-fated mission all those years ago.

It’s an offer Rade can’t refuse, but he soon realizes that the situation is far more volatile than anyone had anticipated, and is forced to take matters into his own hands as he tries to figure out whose side he’s really on, and why.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Rogue Sequence by Zac Topping, on sale 6/11/24


PROLOGUE

Yunnan conflict zone
Myanmar/China border
August 14, 2091

Dusk had settled by the time the assault was over, the horizon turned a red smear choked with streaks of oily black smoke that drifted out over the surrounding jungle. The gunfire had stopped, the silence sinking down over the village like a weight, blanketing the stillness and filling the void left by the abrupt absence of chaos. No more belching rounds or snapping arc charges, no more screaming confusion. Just the gentle breeze scratching across the dirt, and the crackling of fire as the village’s fuel tanks burned.

The battle had been swift, and violent. More a slaughter, really.

The thought made Ander Rade uneasy, but he buried the feeling and continued moving through the ruined village. He remained cautious, keeping his SA-68 burst rifle tucked to his shoulder, letting his senses reach out to search for any sign of remaining opposition. The mission had been straightforward: locate a small rebel outpost, eliminate all resistance, and secure a weapons cache reported to be hidden somewhere in the area. But now that the chaos was over it was clear this had been nothing more than an ordinary village occupied by ordinary villagers. They’d been no match for the brutality of Xyphos Industries’ custom-built assault team, each member having been fine-tuned at the genetic level to be a perfect killing machine. Strong, fast, accurate, near impervious to damage. Utterly fearless and addicted to aggression. Few companies in the world produced such spectacular products as Xyphos Industries’ gene-modified combat operatives, and the company, based out of the United American Provinces, had no shortage of clients willing to pay top dollar for their services. This particular client—the Myanmarese government—had purchased Xyphos’s aid in quashing a rebellion that was trying to take control of the country.

The details didn’t interest Rade, though. Too many conflicts in too many war-torn parts of the world to bother keeping track of. None of it mattered. Xyphos pointed, and the team went.

Rade stopped in the street and kicked over a corpse with the toe of his boot. It flopped in the dirt, vacant eyes staring up at nothing. A battered and rust-spotted arc rifle two decades out of fashion lay just beyond the body’s curling fingers. One of the local government’s older models, and one often found in the possession of government sympathizers, not rebels. The weapon was so old it was a wonder it hadn’t exploded on the first pull of the trigger. The weapon’s operator, however, was just the opposite. Young. Too young. Not a man yet, and certainly not a rebel. Something wasn’t adding up.

Rade sensed movement to his left. The enhanced neocortex of his brain recognized the familiar pattern of footsteps as that of his team leader, and relaxed. A second later, Sevrina Fox pushed through the doors of a shack on the opposite side of the road, her own burst rifle held at the low ready. “Southeast clear,” she said as she approached.

Rade tore his gaze from the corpse at his feet and squinted at the smoke-filled sky. “These people had government-issue weapons,” he said.

“Your sector. Is it clear?” Sevrina asked.

Rade looked at the carnage around them. “These weren’t rebels.”

“Ander,” Sevrina said with an edge.

“Sector’s clear.”

The sound of a gunshot brought them both around, rifles up. Combat endorphins spiked, temporarily dampening Rade’s sour mood and making him hope for something to fight. The sound of a scuffle, followed by the familiar four-round burst from an SA-68. The door to a hut a few rows down flew open and a young woman stumbled into the street. She was unarmed, shoeless, clad in threadbare clothes. Blood spattered across her face and neck, her eyes wild with fear. She lost her footing and fell to the dirt, crawling desperately as she tried to keep moving. She caught sight of the armed mods in the street watching her and froze.

Sevrina lowered her weapon. “Handle this, Ander.”

The woman was locked in Rade’s sights, and her eyes were locked on him.

He didn’t move. Couldn’t move. The sheer terror on this woman’s face pinned him like an accusation, like she was seeing him for the monster he was. And for the first time in his life, he wondered if she was right. The thought grated against everything he’d ever believed, ever wanted to believe. Pulled back the layers of psychological conditioning he’d successfully endured to become the warrior he was.

He’d never hesitated before. Never felt doubt about the morality of his orders, but here, now, in this burnt-out and bullet-riddled village in the jungles of some distant country he barely understood, he’d been laid bare by nothing more than a look from a complete stranger.

He was a monster.

“Ander.”

He could feel Sevrina’s eyes on him. The team leader had given an order, an order handed down by the indisputable authority of Xyphos Industries. Yet his finger stayed braced on the upper receiver, and off the trigger. This was a noncombatant, no threat to himself or the team. The assault was over. There was no need to end this person’s life.

Out of the same hut the woman had stumbled from came the third member of the team, Darius Turin, marching out into the street with his burst rifle slung across his chest and a furious snarl plastered across his face. He saw the woman, saw Rade standing frozen before her, then, without losing stride, ripped the sidearm from his thigh holster and shot her through the back of the head.

Rade stared at her lifeless body and felt something inside him break.

“Sons of bitches were playing dead until I was right on top of them,” Turin said as he holstered his sidearm and rolled up his sleeve to expose a bullet hole in his forearm. He pulled a snap knife from his belt and used it to dig the bullet out, and, once freed of the foreign object, the wound immediately began to heal. “They’re not playing now, anyway.”

Maybe it was the stress, or the combat endorphins, or the unsettling feeling coursing through every fiber of his being, but Rade’s focus locked on Turin. “You son of a bitch.”

Turin squared up. “The hell’s your problem?”

“Both of you lock it up,” Sevrina said. “We still have a mission to complete, so focus and follow orders. Did anybody locate the cache yet?”

“Negative,” Turin said, making a production of putting the knife away.

“Nothing on the sweep,” answered Hab, the fourth and final member of the Xyphos hit team, as he appeared from around the corner of the village’s only satellite station house. He was clutching a handheld frequency scanner, his short-barreled submachine gun hanging from his chest. His left eye was entirely milk-white, indicating he was still receiving video from the surveillance drone buzzing overhead, the images feeding directly into his optic nerve. The neural linkage grafted to his skull blinked rhythmically as it maintained connection to Xyphos’s private satellite network, relaying their comms and location. “The waves are dead,” he said. “There’s nothing here.”

“Not anymore,” Rade added, feeling the combat endorphins recede, and the deep unsettling feeling creep back in.

Sevrina turned narrowed eyes on him. “What’s with you, Ander?”

He was no stranger to killing. No stranger to following orders. It had never been his place to question the mission. Xyphos gave the commands and they executed. That was it. But something here had opened him up. Revealed the awful truth of what he was. Like there’d been only so much he could ignore, only so much he could bury and suppress before the dam broke, and now he could finally see.

All around him lay the lifeless husks of what had been people only moments ago. People with hopes and dreams and loved ones who had no idea what had been coming for them. Innocent people. Noncombatants, armed only with rudimentary government-issued weapons barely capable of protecting their meager village.

Rade felt Sevrina staring at him, waiting for an answer. “I . . . don’t know,” he said. “Nothing.” He wanted to tell her that this was wrong. That what they were doing was wrong and that they maybe didn’t have to do it at all. But he knew it would fall on deaf ears, and only further complicate an already unraveling situation.

Her hand gripped his shoulder. Firm, but not threatening. Her eyes grew softer, and Rade wondered if she knew how easily she pierced his armor. A smaller part of him wondered how much of that was just another of Xyphos’s psychological conditioning parameters, reinforced through pheromone-induced obedience protocols.

“We have to lock it down,” she said, the edge gone from her tone. “We’re not done here until we locate the cache and mark the location for the Myanmarese troops. Understood?”

“Understood,” he replied, wanting nothing more than for her hand to stay where it was.

But she pulled it away and turned toward Turin. “You were point man on this one. You sure your intel is good?”

Turin finally looked up, something dangerous hiding behind his eyes. “I spent weeks grooming contacts and building a network in this goddamned country. This is what I do. The intel’s good.” He was doing a poor job of holding back the venom in his voice. He stared at Sevrina long enough for Rade to wonder if he should step in, but then Turin’s glare shifted back to him. Like he knew what Rade was thinking. Which maybe he did, considering he was the team’s advance recon specialist and reading the terrain was his field of expertise.

“Fine,” Sevrina said, cutting in before things started to escalate again. “We split up, make another sweep of the village. Keep peripherals up, there may be more stragglers waiting to get the jump on us.”

“I hope there are,” Turin said before breaking contact and heading back toward the northwest sector.

Rade let it go. He had enough to contend with already, he could deal with Turin later. Right now he had to get a grip because whether he liked it or not, Sevrina was right. In order to get out of there they’d have to complete the mission.

But everything about this op was wrong. From the locals armed with government weapons to the possibly stale intel, it was all congealing into one big rotten mess. And something was prickling Rade’s senses, something dangerous, like feeling the eyes of a predator watching from the shadows.

His thoughts were cut off by a sudden piercing screech through his earpiece. The shock sent a wave of combat endorphins spiking through his blood as he ripped the earpiece out and threw it away.

Hab shouted and clutched at his head, his left eye clearing from white back to normal as the drone fell from the sky. The neural linkage blinked out.

“The fuck was that?”

“Interference?” Sevrina asked, her pupils dilated, tendons in her neck and hands flexed tight as her own combat endorphins surged through her body.

Hab was punching furiously at the controls of a manual sat-linkage device as he tried to work through the problem. He stopped suddenly, and his head snapped up. “Negative. We’ve been cut off. And we’ve got incoming.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

Rade swept the barrel of his burst rifle toward the perimeter of the village. Dusk had turned the tree line into a black wall just visible between the small block buildings that made up the village. He should’ve trusted his instincts and voiced his concerns earlier. Might’ve been just enough of a warning to give them the jump. “How?” he growled.

“Not important,” Sevrina said. “Right now we need to—” She was cut off by the high-pitched whine of turbine engines as a heavy gunship cleared the canopy and swooped down over them, floodlights snapping on. The ship’s rotary turrets spun up and swiveled around, tracking them where they stood.

Roughly armored vehicles burst from the forest and came roaring into the village, rebels jumping out and pointing weapons at the three genetically modified mercenaries standing among the dead bodies scattered through the streets. Several of the rebels were clad in heavy black-market exosuits and carried sparking stun suppressors.

Rade lifted his rifle, but Sevrina placed her hand on the barrel and pushed it toward the ground. “We can’t win this,” she said, and he knew she was right. The rebels had come prepared.

A setup, no two ways about it. The thought made Rade want to erupt, and it took every ounce of will to deny the storm of combat-tuned chemicals pulsing through him, begging for violence, but he did as Sevrina ordered.

The rebels closed in, shouting in Burmese. Rade didn’t speak the language but he guessed their meaning all the same. He set his weapon on the ground and lifted his hands. The only option they had now was to survive, and trust Xyphos to come get them out.

A crackling bolt ripped through the night. Sevrina grunted and fell, twitching.

Hab went to draw his sidearm. Another stun bolt flashed. He hit the dirt, electricity arcing across his fried biohardware. Rade’s heightened reflexes went into overdrive as he dove to his right and dodged a third stun bolt that passed close enough to make the hairs on his body stand up. He rolled and came up with Sevrina’s rifle, emptying the magazine at the rebels around him, trying to drive them back. Three fell to the dirt and another screamed as he spun around backwards under a barrage of bullets. There was no plan. Rade was only reacting. Someone grabbed him from his left, mechanical hands clamping down around his arm and wrenching the rifle away as another jumped on him from the right. Rade growled, twisted, and threw one of the attackers into the side of an armored vehicle. Fueled by rage and the combat-tuned endorphins, Rade gripped the frame of the exosuit still clinging to him and fought against the mechanically powered strength of the rebel who was trying to wrestle him to the ground. A brief flash of wide, terror-stricken eyes beneath the soldier’s helmet, and Rade tore the offending hand away, snapping the limb backwards to the sound of screams and grinding servos.

Someone opened fire. Rade felt the air ripple as rounds came flying in. The slap and clang as lead met steel and flesh, and the rebel in the exosuit went down. An impact in Rade’s thigh, searing heat as the bullet burned its way into the muscle. Rade fell to one knee, doing everything he could to not topple over completely.

An older rebel wearing a tattered jacket covered in mismatched ribbons started shouting and waving his arms. The gunfire stopped. Rade bared his teeth, glancing about for a weapon he might be able to reach . . .

There was a click and whine as a stun suppressor primed its charge. A bright flash, a cold, numbing punch to the chest, and Rade crumpled to the ground. He couldn’t move. Could barely breathe. All he could do was look at Sevrina lying facedown in the dirt next to him, gasping like a fish as they clamped a suppression collar around her neck.

The old rebel in the decorative jacket crouched down beside Rade and patted him on the face. Rade could do nothing to fight back. In broken English, the old rebel said, “No death. You come alive.” He leaned in, smiling. “Buyers already waiting.”

The suppression collar closed around Rade’s neck before he could even scream.

Copyright © 2024 from Zac Topping

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“5 Tips for Dating a Werewolf” by TJ Klune

heartsong by tj kluneCongratulations! An individual of the lycanthropic persuasion has expressed interest in you. What luck! What a fortunate event! Given that you might be new to the idea of people capable of changing form into a four-legged beast (if not friend, why friend shaped?), below you will find a handy guide to ensure your new relationship stands the test of time.


by TJ Klune

  •  If a werewolf has locked onto your scent, it is best to let them get as much of it as they can. If they are in shifted form, it might mean a wet nose to your face or a tongue in your hair. Fear not! They are, in a way, like a large dog, if a large dog were capable of human wants and whims. If you find yourself in such a position, do not move! Let the werewolf finish its scent-marking. It could take anywhere from five minutes to six days, so get comfortable!
  • Should you find yourself in possession of a dead animal left upon your doorstep, don’t scream and/or vomit! Chances are, it is from the same werewolf who sniffed you, wanting to make sure you are provided for. This is how a lycanthrope expresses interest. Be careful not to offend the wolf, as they might be watching from behind a tree or a bush. If you are averse to blood and gore, pretend someone dropped a cherry pie filled with bones on your porch.

(On the off chance that the dead animal was left by a cult and not a werewolf, please be prepared in case you are marked for a ritual sacrifice.)

  •  Going on a date with a werewolf can be a fun event! Given that you might be in public, it would be best not to ask your werewolf suitor to “shift in the middle of an Applebee’s just to see if it scares the server into giving free appetizers.” While many people enjoy mozzarella sticks (especially when given under threat of fangs), using your werewolf in such a way to get fried cheese is considered bad form. Your werewolf has feelings, and no one likes to be used.

(If your werewolf does shift to get you cheese, reward them by telling them you think they are the greatest creature in existence. Positive reinforcement goes a long way!)

  •  Uh oh. Your werewolf has driven you home, arches a single, devastating eyebrow, and says, “Are you going to invite me inside?”

Remember, werewolves aren’t vampires, meaning they do not need permission to enter your residence. However, good wolves always wait for permission before entering a dwelling that is not their own.

In this case, given the arched eyebrow, the werewolf is hoping to be invited inside for “adult activities.” This might include rolling on the carpet or having sex in the kitchen and/or up against a wall. If you choose to do this, you might see the werewolf’s eyes flashing. Good news! This means the wolf is having a wonderful time.

  • Your wolf stayed the night! How lucky are you? If you wake up the next morning with the shifter lying on top of you, it is very important that you do not move until they have decided to move on their own. Waking up a sleeping wolf can sometimes be difficult work, but if you keep a squeaky ball next to your bed, now is the time to put it to good use. Squeeze it near the wolf’s ear and ask, “Who’s a good boy? Who wants to play with the ball? Is it you? Is it you?” Your wolf will most likely glower at you and threaten your life, but if you squeeze the ball three times, the wolf will be distracted. Throw it to the floor, and as the wolf chases after it, consider making waffles! Werewolves love waffles.

(God help you if you make pancakes. You have been warned.)

If you have survived these first five steps, you are to be commended! That means you most likely will have a werewolf for the rest of your life. A werewolf is a commitment. Adopt, don’t shop!

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Excerpt Reveal: The Silverblood Promise by James Logan

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the silverblood promise by james logan

Set in a city of traders and thieves, monsters and murderers, this fast-paced epic fantasy debut is a must-read for fans of Joe Abercrombie, Nicholas Eames, and Scott Lynch.

Lukan Gardova is a cardsharp, academy dropout, and—thanks to a duel that ended badly—the disgraced heir to an ancient noble house. His days consist of cheap wine, rigged card games, and wondering how he might win back the life he threw away.

When Lukan discovers that his estranged father has been murdered in strange circumstances, he finds fresh purpose. Deprived of his chance to make amends for his mistakes, he vows to unravel the mystery behind his father’s death.

His search for answers leads him to Saphrona, fabled city of merchant princes, where anything can be bought if one has the coin. Lukan only seeks the truth, but instead he finds danger and secrets in every shadow.

For in Saphrona, everything has a price—and the price of truth is the deadliest of all.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Silverblood Promise by James Logan, on sale 5/7/24


Chapter 1

THE LADY OF LAST CHANCES

The tavern was called the Pathfinder’s Gambit, though its patrons referred to it as “the Armpit,” or simply just “the Pit,” on account of its stale odor and the fact that its interior rarely saw sunlight. The Pit had a particular reputation for violence, and tonight had proven no exception. The evening’s current tally stood at three assaults (two stabbings and an attempted strangulation), two brawls, and—so far, at least—just the one death. Still, the night was young, the drink was flowing, and half the card games taking place in the tavern’s smoke-filled common room were rigged. It was only a matter of time before someone else took a blade between the ribs.

Could be me if I’m not careful, Lukan Gardova mused, eyeing the small pile of coins he’d won over the past half hour. The Pit’s one saving grace was that it was an excellent place to win a bit of silver, and it was for this reason that Lukan found himself sitting at a table with several companions of dubious virtue, drinking gin of dubious quality, and holding two cards of dubious value. Peasant of Crowns and a Priest of Blades, he thought, studying the faded illustrations. Bloody hells. It was a miserable hand, but that didn’t matter. In rummijake you played your opponents first and your cards second.

“I’ll raise,” the sharp-featured man to Lukan’s left finally declared, after squinting at his cards for what seemed like an eternity. “Three coppers.” He scratched at his straggly beard. “No, four coppers.” He nudged the coins toward the center of the table, only to pause and glance at his cards again. “No, wait . . .”

“You know,” Lukan said amiably, “entire wars have been fought in the time you’ve been staring at those cards.”

The man glared at him, dark eyes glinting with a base cunning that hadn’t yet manifested in his cardplay. “I’m trying to think.”

“I suspect that’s the problem.”

The man muttered an insult under his breath as he turned back to his cards. Lukan took a swallow of gin to hide his smile. He’d seen this man’s type many times before: the small-time rogue who owed too much money to the wrong people and thought that gambling would be a good way to raise the necessary funds. It might have been, had he been a good player. But he wasn’t.

“Five coppers,” the rogue grunted, pushing his coins into the growing pile at the center of the table.

Lukan studied his own cards again, just for show. The only question in his mind was by how much to raise the bet. Eight coppers should do it. Hells, may as well make it a silver—

Shouting interrupted his thoughts and he glanced toward the bar, where a familiar scene was playing out: two adventuring companies squaring up to each other, the crews trading insults while their captains exchanged glares. Steel glinted in the candlelight as blades were drawn, a hush falling across the tavern as games and conversations were abandoned. The taller of the two captains, a woman who wore a wide-brimmed hat tilted at a jaunty angle, said something that Lukan didn’t catch. Her opposite number blinked in surprise, his face—already flushed with drink—reddening even further. Then he bellowed a laugh and held out his hand, which the woman gripped in her own. Blades were returned to their sheaths as the two crews exchanged smiles instead of blows, and a cheer rose to the rafters as the red-faced captain called for a round of drinks.

Lukan wasn’t surprised by how quickly the threat of violence had faded; he’d seen this sort of scene play out a dozen times in the three weeks he’d been in Torlaine. Tensions ran high among the adventuring crews who made a living scavenging Phaeron relics from the Grey Lands, a couple of leagues to the north. This sort of behavior was Just their way of blowing off steam after surviving the dangers of that shadow-haunted landscape. For those who returned, at least.

How did it come to this? He asked himself, his gaze passing over the adventurers and opportunists who packed the tavern. How did i end up in this den of rogues at the edge of the world?

He knew the answer all too well.

Agreeing to a duel with the heir of one of the most powerful families in the old empire had been a bad mistake. But not nearly so much as winning it. Memories pressed in—a cry of rage, the flash of steel, and blood spilling across pink cherry blossoms . . .

No, he thought, forcing the images aside. Not here. Not now. Such thoughts would only spark the old anger, and then he would think of her, and—

“Who’s taking their time now?”

It was the woman sitting to his right who had spoken. Another adventurer, judging by the sword strapped to her back and the old leather armor she wore. By lukan’s reckoning she had so far made at least three bluffs and had downed twice that many shots of vodka. She sank another one now, mouth curling in what might have been amusement. The scar that split her lips made it hard to tell.

Lukan glanced at his own cards again but found that his enthusiasm for the game had faded. He almost folded his hand there and then, only for the rogue’s coins to glint seductively. Might as well see this through.

“I raise,” he said, plucking a silver coin from his pouch and dropping it onto the coppers in the center of the table. The rogue hissed through his teeth and threw down his cards even though it wasn’t his turn. The adventurer did likewise, albeit with more dignity. That just left the well-dressed stranger sitting opposite lukan, whose subtle plays had revealed him as a cut above the others. His clothes were more refined too. Dust clung to his velvet jacket, and his silken shirt was badly creased, but there was no mistaking the fine tailoring. Nor was it possible to ignore the way his emerald ring flashed when it caught the candlelight. In the gloom of the tavern, the man might have been mistaken for one of the few treasure hunters lucky enough to find their fortune out in the Grey Lands, or even one of the moneylenders who financed the adventuring companies.

Lukan knew better.

“Well, isn’t this a conundrum,” the man said with a smirk that carried more than a hint of the aristocracy. “What’s a fellow to do . . .”

“A fellow could lay down his cards.”

“Oh, I think not,” the man replied, drumming his fingers on the table. “That would be so dreadfully dull. Besides”—his ring gleamed as he gestured at the pile of coins—“there’s too much of my money in there for me to walk away.”

Too much of your family’s money, you mean. Lukan could see the man for who he was: a child of privilege, a spoiled dandy, who had taken it upon himself to gamble away a sliver of his family’s fortune. And why not, Lukan thought, his gaze flitting to the two heavyset men watching from a nearby table, when you can just have your hired muscle retrieve it for you afterward. They were the only reason the dandy wasn’t lying dead in a gutter, his corpse stripped of valuables. What he was even doing in Torlaine Lukan could only guess. Perhaps he was intending to take a short trip into the Grey Lands and poke around some of the ruins, or try to catch a glimpse of a gloomfiend. Something to boast about to his friends over a brandy or two in the smoking rooms of Amberlé, or Seldarine, or wherever the hells he was from. Well, whatever his plans are, I’ll ensure his purse is that little bit lighter.

“What say we liven things up a little?” the dandy said, producing a gold ducat and sliding it into the middle of the table with deliberate slowness. Lukan heard the rogue’s sharp intake of breath to his left; no doubt that coin alone was more than enough to pay off his debts. Its value far exceeded the assembled pile of copper and silver. Which makes it more trouble than it’s worth. Lukan made to toss his cards away, only to pause as the dandy reached for his glass of wine.

A flash of white.

Well, well. That changes things. Lukan considered his options. He could still back out and walk away, but what he’d just seen now made that option harder to bear. Sometimes you owed it to yourself to do what was necessary, not what was easy.

Especially when some arsehole was cheating you at cards.

“So what’s it to be?” the dandy asked, smirking as he toyed with his ring.

Lukan laid his cards down on the table.

“Pity,” the man said, reaching out to gather his winnings. “I was hoping the two of us might go another round—”

“The three of us, you mean.”

The dandy hesitated, hand outstretched. “I beg your pardon?”

“The three of us,” Lukan repeated. “You, me and the Lady of Last Chances you’ve got tucked up your right sleeve.”

The words hung in the air between them.

“You dare accuse me?” the dandy said, with an edge to his voice that might have sounded threatening if used by someone else. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“A dead man if you’ve cheated us,” the adventurer replied.

“Enough!” the dandy snapped, rising from his chair. “I don’t answer to gutter scum like you—” He gasped as the rogue hauled him back down. “Get off me, you filth—” He fell silent as the man pressed a dagger against his throat.

“You don’t have to answer to them,” the rogue said, nodding at Lukan and the adventurer, “but you’ll damned well answer to me.”

He’s not much of a cardplayer, Lukan thought, but he knows how to handle a blade. And make a threat.

As the dandy squealed for help, his guards decided they should probably intervene—after all, neither of them was going to get paid if their employer was busy choking on his own blood. They rose from their table, hands reaching for their weapons.

“One more step and I’ll open his throat,” the rogue announced, the cold gleam in his eyes more convincing than any bluff he’d made at cards.

“Do as he says,” the dandy squeaked.

The two guards traded glances and remained still.

“Now,” the rogue said to the dandy, “let’s see about this lady friend of yours, shall we?” He nodded at the adventurer, who slid her fingers under the man’s lacy cuff and withdrew a dog-eared card that bore a depiction of a woman with her arms spread wide, a wry smile on her lips.

“Well, would you look at that,” the rogue said, applying more pressure with his blade.

“P-please,” the dandy stuttered, his earlier bravado leaking out of him along with the blood now trickling down his neck. “I-I can explain—”

“Not without a tongue you can’t,” the rogue snarled. He rose to his feet, dragging the dandy up with him, and glanced around the tavern, clearly sensing the opportunity to make a statement. “No one crosses Galthan Adris and lives,” he said loudly, drawing nothing more than a handful of stares and a snigger.

“Idiot,” the adventurer muttered.

“The hells did you say?” the rogue demanded, clearly ruffled that his grand announcement hadn’t had the effect he’d desired. Sensing that his captor’s attention was elsewhere, the dandy chose that moment to try to struggle free.

“Stay still, you dog,” the rogue hissed, a rather unfair request to put to someone whose tongue you’d threatened to remove. As the two men struggled, the rogue’s foot slipped in a puddle of stale beer, and he fell, dragging his opponent down with him. A ragged cheer rose from the handful of patrons who had been watching the little drama unfold, causing others to turn and stare.

“A fight!” someone shouted, quite unnecessarily, and suddenly everyone in the tavern was crowding around the two figures flailing at each other on the floor. The dandy’s two guards strode over to the struggling pair and tried to separate them, while the crowd shouted insults. Someone hurled a bowl of soup, which struck one of the guards on the shoulder and exploded all over the side of his face. The guard spun round, eyes blazing as he wiped the crowd’s laughter quieted as the guard drew his sword.

Time to get out of here.

Lukan opened his money pouch and swept the pile of coins— including the dandy’s gold ducat—inside. As he pulled the drawstrings he caught the adventurer looking at him, one eyebrow raised. “I won the hand,” Lukan said. “The pot’s mine.”

“You folded.”

“So did you.”

“He cheated us both.”

True enough. Lukan dug a silver coin out of his pouch and flicked it to the adventurer. “If we’re being fair,” he said, “we ought to give our friend down there his share.”

“I don’t think he’s in a position to accept it,” the adventurer replied, pocketing the coin. “Do you?”

“No,” Lukan replied, watching as the rogue snarled in his frustrated attempts at opening the dandy’s throat. “I don’t think he is.” While the soup-drenched guard continued to bellow at the increasingly unruly crowd, his comrade was trying his best to stop their young charge from meeting a messy end on the tavern floor. He grabbed hold of the rogue’s jerkin, only to lose his footing and fall back against a table, spilling beer everywhere.

Another cheer rose to the rafters.

“Good luck,” the mercenary said, lips curling in what might have been a smile.

“You too.”

With those words Lukan slipped through the crowd and out of the tavern.

Copyright © 2024 from James Logan

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Excerpt Reveal: Web of Angels by John M. Ford

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web of angels by john m ford

From the brilliant author of The Dragon Waiting and Growing Up Weightless, a novel that saw the cyberpunk future with stunning clarity, years before anyone else.

Originally published in 1980, the legendary John M. Ford’s first published novel was an uncannily brilliant anticipation of the later cyberpunk genre—and of the internet itself.

The Web links the many worlds of humanity. Most people can only use it to communicate. Some can retrieve and store data, as well as use simple precoded programs. Only a privileged few are able to create their own software, within proscribed limits.

And then there are the Webspinners.

Grailer is Fourth Literate, able to manipulate the Web at will—and use it for purposes unintended and impossible for anyone but the most talented Webspinner. Obviously, he cannot be allowed to live.

Condemned to death at the age of nine, Grailer must go underground, hiding his skills, testing his powers until he is ready to do battle with the Web itself.

With a new introduction from Cory Doctorow, written especially for this edition.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Web of Angels by John M. Ford, on sale 4/30/24


Chapter 1

THE DARK LADY

The boy ran for his life, across the City Juvenal on the planet called Brass. Past lights and mirrors he ran, through blocks of shadow and dark glass, short legs running, small heart pounding, seeking a street to hide him from those that came after; for if the City would not have him he would surely die.

(Oh, said the serpent, thou shalt not surely die.)

He was blond, dark-eyed, dressed in soft parti-colored felts and high glossy boots turned down at the tops. To his chest he clutched a box covered in gray leather, resembling a large book; held it with both arms, looking more often at it than at the streets ahead, Finngers spread wide to grip as much of its surface as he could.

The City Juvenal sat on the shore of the great golden sea that gave Brass its name. It was a city of colors not too bright, of sins not too black, of comfortable means and reputation. Its people took Lifespan to stretch their years into centuries, and took other things to fill up those centuries, and sometimes quietly did certain acts that ended their Lifespanned lives all at once; but this was the City Juvenal, not New Port Royal or Granmarque or Wicked Alexandria.

So the black “oaters over the city were a strange sight, like dark clouds the size of a man’s hand, small shadows on the land. The Combined Intersystem Regulation and Control Executive was like a shadow. You could look away from it, or put it behind you, but there it always was; and the brighter the light shone upon it the starker and blacker it stood. The only way to be free from the shadow was to enter a darkness so deep that it was lost in the shadow of the whole universe.

The CIRCE “oaters seined the city, all in pursuit of one small running boy, running before the edge of a net that tightened toward the sea.

When he entered Swann’s Way, the old ones stopped chewing their cream pastries to look at him. Lips moved, hands went to brows.

“He’s young.”

“Not real, not real. Too many éclairs.”

They “oated around him on their singing Hellmann chairs, looking down on him.

“Are you a boy, or a Prousty surfeit?”

“He’s an angel. He’s a hologram.”

“He’s real enough; angels cast no shadows.”

Cakes fell to the pavement. The boy looked at one, stepped toward it; but he would not take a hand from his box to reach out for it.

“He’s hungry! He’s not a dream. My memories aren’t ever hungry.”

“Mine are mostly of food. Are you edible, boy?”

“Tell him not to touch the pastry. I don’t want to see the womb again.”

The chairs, humming off the ground, closed in. The boy stepped back.

“His eyes! Look at his eyes!”

The Hellmann hum changed pitch. Fingers, heavy with gems and age, pointed.

“Oh, me. Running, he is.”

“Running. My memories don’t ever run.”

“Who cares for real youth? Waiter! Champagne and éclairs—a hundred trays of them!”

A young man came out with a silver salver of memory-cakes and a silver-handled broom. He shook the broom at the shivering boy.

“Go on, please,” he said, not harshly. “You couldn’t outlast them anyway.” The man set the fresh éclairs down and began sweeping up the scattered crumbs.

The boy ran on, watching his shadow shorten. The big red sun of Brass was soon before him, so he stared at the box instead. He was better than halfway across the city, and the city ended at the yellow sea.

He ran into Peridot Street, where the Goliards were dancing a late-afternoon step. They chittered and giggled, praising the right people, scandalizing the right names, drinking the right drinks with the right pills following after.

The boy stood no chance in the Dance of the Goliards, though he did not know it; he was not schooled in the steps.

He stopped, boots swishing and clunking. The noise caught the Goliardic ears, always alert for such a disturbance and thoroughly numbed to each others’ voices anyway.

The Dance stopped in midturn.

Eyes roved over the boy, measuring his smallness. Daggers came out to pin him down, cut him up.

“He does not Dance.

“One, two, doesn’t Dance, doesn’t Dance.”

A Goliard in a red-and-white uniform and boots like the boy’s came forward, stepped round him. “If he’s not one of us, he can’t Dance and can’t pay forfeit.” The soldier dropped to his knees with a clank of deadly metal. He spoke very softly: “You can run, I can see. Can you shoot? Can you stab? If not, you must keep running.” The soldier’s eyes held the boy’s, then moved low. His voice fell to a whisper. “Run, child, when I say. Live and Dance when you know how.”

The man stood, smacked the dust from his knees. “I don’t think he’s what he appears at all,” he said loudly. “Some sick joke, some juvenile whim—look! Does he bear himself like a youth?”

The crowd revolved to look, and murmured that he did not, that his carriage was wrong somehow.

“Of course. Joke or whim, but not youth! When was your Lifespan given, sir? How many years have you been that age? I would not have stretched the time to my maturity.” The soldier stepped aside, breaking the cordon of people; gave the boy an urgent nod.

Without nodding back, he dashed through the gap and departed Peridot Street.

He came to the Quarter, which could hide anyone and hid nearly everything. A gleam peddler scouting for a fad to start spotted the box in the desperate clutch and blocked the clutcher’s path. The boy dodged, but gleam peddlers are of slicker stuff; a slippered foot went into his path.

He stumbled, boot tops “opping, then lost balance and fell, felt shirt gliding on the smooth stone veneer of the Quarter’s streets.

Heads came out of dark Quarter corners, not wanting to miss a killing or be left out of a brawl.

“It’s one of Ildrahim’s dwarf pickers,” someone said in the mutter that Quarterfolk favor.

“Na-na, ’tis that new cannon larkey, the devil’s own child.” Mutter again; a whisper is too sibilant, carries too far. The Quarterfolk have a saying that all ears are wrong save the one you’re nibbling.

“Ah, your noses are full o’ dream. It’s none of our Quarterfolk. I want to know what’s the commotion? Where’s the jolly ruckus?”

The boy had come to a stop, had lost his tight hold on the case but not quite his grip. The gleam peddler was near, though, straddling him and reaching, hating to hurt a soul without profiting some thereby. Down came her arms, twinkling with plexy jewelry.

The boy’s breath whistled, and he rolled, but his elbows slid on the pavement and he could not pull the case in.

Then the peddler’s eager eyes opened in great surprise, and she lay down quietly next to the boy and did not move. Did not breathe. Only bled a last trickle from a star-shaped wound in her back.

The boy rolled away, scraping the gray package. At the end of the street, looming awful from so low a view in the setting sunlight, were two figures in black, almost human in shape. One had a hand outstretched, and something in that hand. The something moved down.

The boy struggled with his frictionless clothes, squirming on the ground. Keeping one hand locked on his case, he grabbed the peddler’s clothing with the other, used her body to lever himself up. He hesitated, looked at the CIRCE pair, saw them walking toward him. The one with the quiet gun holstered it.

The boy stopped hesitating. He jumped up from the body in the street and in a few clip-clopping steps was at one of the thousand locked doors of the Quarter. He knocked, double-knocked, triple-knocked. There was a scuf”ing behind the door, but no other answer.

Another door: rap, rap-rap, rap-rap-rap. A bolt slammed hollowly home.

Another door, and this time the knock was punctuated by the double click of boots coming closer.

“Find another door,” said the door. “Find another street, another city. Leap into the sea and swim to another world. That’s CIRCE chasing you, lad.”

The boy hung back an instant, then repeated the knock.

“Go away, boy, if that’s what you are. We’ll fight any man living, but CIRCE isn’t man or living. We’re scared, if you’re not. Go away.”

Black-gloved hands swung into view, impact gloves that stiffened a slap to break bones. Black boots shod with steel, black jackets and trousers of bulletweave. Black helmets with black shiny shields instead of faces.

There were human bodies beneath all the black—at least, bodies born of man/woman/creche unit. But on the march, with the wands in their belts black for kill instead of brown for stun or red for pain, with a quiet gun issued them, they were CIRCE with its boar tusks bared. Real pure nova death on the march.

And they were not so very far to the rear of a gasping boy with light hair askew and face gray-pale as the box he still pressed to himself, feeling his colored clothes burning his skin, the leather case heavy as a shoplifted sweetchip.

Behind him, CIRCE; ahead, the butter-colored sea and the sun now drowning in it; between, only one more place: Romany Court.

And Romany Court was still asleep.

The sour dust of the day was still settling on the pavilions and doorsills when the boy came there. The clean air of night would soon blow in from the sea, waking the inhabitants from their beds with the home soil spread beneath them. Then the streets would ignite, and those who dared would revel under the colored “ames for as long as they could stand it, or until dawn.

But now there was only dust, and dark lanterns, and the boy with the black knights following behind.

He played dodge-me with them for five minutes, ten, trying to outlast the light. But however he turned in the high narrow streets, the click of their boots soon came after. Clever the black knights might not be, but determined they always were. And the doors were locked, the windows shuttered; not a whisper stirred.

It was twilight. Almost night. Down an alley the boy ran, case in both hands, head bent down, CIRCE behind him.

And suddenly ahead of him as well. No more fox and hounds, now. Piston and cylinder. Hammer and anvil.

He looked at the case, held it before him. Chest rising and faling, hair in his eyes, he put his thumbs reverently on the latches.

In the middle of the crooked street with death at both ends, an open door caught his eye: the slit in the cylindrical shell of a public Web terminal. And though it was no exit, he ran for it, as cornered people will. He reached the opening, shoved it wide.

Inside, filling the booth, was a man in coarse green cloth, a hood over his face. He held something golden in one hand. He looked taller than the sky.

With his empty hand the man slammed the door.

The boy landed on his backside, bringing his knees up and his arms in close. He looked right, left—

The black knights were gone.

“And what are you, there, on your back like a beetle? Get up, little tumblebug.”

He got up, looked all round once more. The CIRCE killers had vanished entirely.

Before the boy stood a very black woman in a very white dress that reached to the ground. A blue shawl was over her shoulders, and her hair was gray.

She smiled whitely, spat on one thumb and rubbed it against her foreigner. Her skin was lined and dry, like rubbed mahogany. The stuff of her dress was rough, burlap or sacking; the shawl was glossy metal-silk.

“They’ve not gone forever, little bug, but they won’t be back for a while. Come with me, now.” She stretched out a knuckly hand.

The boy stepped back, turned to face the Web terminal, which still stood closed and impenetrable.

“Come with me,” the woman said. “There’s not a thing for you in there now.”

He took another step, pushed the door open. The booth was empty save for seat and keyboard and mirrorlike Web-screen.

The woman clucked her tongue. “Not any thing, do you see. I would God to see how he does it, but he does. Now come with me, little bug. You should rest. You want a rest, no?”

He held his gray case so that his knuckles swelled white.

She laughed. “And you may sleep upon that if it pleases.”

He nodded, and followed her, but did not take her hand.

“I am Celene Tourdemance,” she said.

No reply.

“I am not so of the night as the others here. Good for you, I think; the black samedis might yet have found you, but they would not have taken you home with them.”

They walked from one end of Romany Court to the other. Shutters opened as they passed, and steps were heard in the street as night stole in. Romany eyes followed them. The boy looked once at those dark eyes and did not again; few people did.

“How much farther?” he said finally, annoyance in his voice painting over the fear in it.

“Right here.” They were at a low wooden door in a white wall. The door-panel was deeply carved, the wood strongly figured, and when the woman put her hand on the old brass knob the boy thought how similar in texture she and the door were.

It was dark inside, close but not oppressive, smelling of ancient furniture and being long closed up. Thick cloth hangings covered the walls, and small two-dimensional pictures with glass over them, and strange things like cane-stalks and snakeskins. A furry rug had claws and a head with teeth and eyes. What light there was came from colored glass globes at an adult’s eye level; he thought at first that they were Hellmann hoverlamps, but as his sight got better saw the chains that hung down from the beamed ceiling. One globe only was white and bright. It hung above a round table with two chairs covered in deep blue fibersilk.

Behind one of the chairs was a painted picture of a young woman, black-skinned, holding a ball in one hand and something rectangular in the other. He could see in a moment that the picture was of Celene Tourdemance, maybe a thousand Lifespanned years ago; and she was wearing a silver crown. He moved closer, to see the thing she was holding in her left hand.

“Come, come,” the old lady said. “There is all the time for that later. We will ask later.”

Between the cool and the darkness and the curious music of her voice, he was suddenly very tired. He took off his boots, which felt wonderful once done, and lay down on a couch with feathers puffing out at its corners, which felt better still. She tried to cover him with a brocade shawl, but he turned it back to his waist.

He had seen the painting close, just for an instant. The white thing was a card, with a colored picture of a man; and for that moment it had seemed that the man was dressed like him.

He fell asleep with the gray case under his head, still in one hand’s grip.

Copyright © 2024 from Daniel M. Ford

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Excerpt Reveal: A View from the Stars by Cixin Liu

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a view from the stars by cixin liu

“We’re mysterious aliens in the crowd. We jump like fleas from future to past and back again, and float like clouds of gas between nebulae; in a flash, we can reach the edge of the universe, or tunnel into a quark, or swim within a star-core. . . . We’re as unassuming as fireflies, yet our numbers grow like grass in spring. We sci-fi fans are people from the future.”—Cixin Liu, from the essay “We’re Sci-Fi Fans”

A VIEW FROM THE STARS features a range of short works from the past three decades of New York Times bestselling author Cixin Liu’s prolific career, putting his nonfiction essays and short stories side-by-side for the first time. This collection includes essays and interviews that shed light on Liu’s experiences as a reader, writer, and lover of science fiction throughout his life, as well as short fiction that gives glimpses into the evolution of his imaginative voice over the years.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of A View from the Stars by Cixin Liu, on sale 4/2/24


“We’re Sci-Fi Fans”

We’re mysterious aliens in the crowd. We jump like fleas from future to past and back again, and float like clouds of gas between nebulae; in a flash, we can reach the edge of the universe, or tunnel into a quark, or swim within a star-core . . . We’re now as weak and unassuming as fireflies, yet our numbers are growing like grass in spring.

Chinese sci-fi has peaked twice, once in the 1950s and again in the eighties. But no clear boundary then existed between sci-fi and main- stream literature, so no legitimate fan base formed around the genre. After sci-fi came under siege in China in the eighties,* it was abandoned by science and literature alike and left for dead. Then, in an incredible turn, a sci-fi fan base quietly emerged in China. We gave shelter to that half-dead outcast and kept it alive. It went on to sever its umbilical cord to literature and science, establishing an independent identity for itself. This happened in the early nineties, when sci-fi fans were still few and far between.

The third bloom of Chinese sci-fi is currently underway, and though our fan base has expanded dramatically, we’re still much smaller than other, comparable communities. Science Fiction World, which most of us read, sells between four and five hundred thousand copies each month, which are read by somewhere between one and fifteen million people. Excluding casual readers, we can put the total number of sci-fi fans in China somewhere in the range of five to eight hundred thousand people. This figure includes its share of senior citizens, but secondary school and university students make up its vast majority.

We scrupulously follow the Chinese sci-fi endeavor and hope for it to thrive and achieve liftoff. Many of us read each new story as soon as it’s published, regardless of its quality, as if we were duty-bound to do so. Such a phenomenon is rare for other forms of literature. In this regard, we’re a lot like China’s soccer fans—except they seldom kick a ball themselves, whereas most sci-fi fans, at a certain point, feel com- pelled to write stories of their own. Very few of us are lucky enough to have our work published; we post most of our stuff online. In dim internet cafés, we type word after word of our very own works of sci-fi, some of which are as long as War and Peace. We’re the bards errant of the electronic era.

But what’s truly essential about our group is this: To us, sci-fi is not merely a genre of literature, but a cohesive world of the spirit—a way of life. We’re an advance party, a team of explorers; we travel ahead of oth- ers to all manner of future worlds, some foreseeable, others far beyond humanity’s potential. We begin with what’s real, and from there, our experience radiates outward to every possibility. We’re a lot like Alice, there at that convoluted fork in the road: She asks the Cheshire Cat which road to take, and he asks her where she wants to go.

I don’t know, she says.

Then it doesn’t matter.

Twenty years before all the hype around cloning technology, we’d already tracked down twenty-four young Adolf Hitlers in the world of sci-fi. Now, the sort of life that interests us exists in the form of force fields and light. And it was as many years before nanotechnol- ogy entered popular consciousness that a nanosubmarine in sci-fi took its fantastic voyage through the veins of the human body. Now, we’re occupied with whether each fundamental particle is its own universe, replete with trillions of galaxies—or whether our universe itself is a fundamental particle. When we’re at a newsstand, deciding whether to spend our five yuan on breakfast or a copy of Science Fiction World, our spirit has gone to a world of infinite abundance, where each household has a planet of its own. When we’re cramming for our final exam, our other self in the spiritual world is on a hundred-billion-light-year expe- dition into the deep end of the universe. The spiritual world of sci-fi fans is not that of scientists, whose feelers stop far short of where we go. Neither is it that of philosophers, whose world is much less vivid and dynamic than ours. And less still is it the world of myth, as everything in the spiritual world of sci-fi fans might someday come to pass—if it hasn’t already, somewhere out there in the far reaches of the universe.

Other people, they don’t care for us aliens. When one of us gradu- ates and enters society, we find ourselves surrounded at once by for- eign gazes. In this increasingly practical world, lovers of fantasy inspire intense loathing in others. We’re forced to hide ourselves deep inside shells of normalcy.

This group of ours may be weak today, but whoever underestimates it is taking their life in their hands. These kids and teenagers are grow- ing up fast. Already, there are Ph.D.s from Beijing and Tsinghua Uni- versities in our midst. More importantly, ours are the most vivacious intellects in society. Ideas that might blow a normal person’s mind are nothing but insipid old clichés to us. No one is better prepared than we for the shocking concepts the future holds. We stand far off in the dis- tance and wait impatiently for the world to catch up—and we’ll create more astonishing things yet, things that will shake the world.

We sci-fi fans are people from the future.

Copyright © 2024 from Cixin Liu

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Excerpt: One Wrong Word by Hank Phillippi Ryan

One Wrong WordA heart-racing new psychological thriller from USA Today bestselling and multiple award-winning author, Hank Phillippi Ryan. Coming February 6th, 2024!

One Wrong Word stars crisis management expert Arden Ward. And here, in her beloved office, she is about to get a surprise from her boss, Warren Carmichael. This scene picks up in the middle of the chapter.


Warren actually gulped. She’d never seen his face so ashen.

“Listen, Arden. I don’t like this any more than you will. But understand.

The Swansons are major clients. Lucrative clients. Company-supporting clients.”

“Well, I know. I brought them to you. When we met at my Saving Calico childhood leukemia fundraiser. Remember?”

“Oh. Right.” Warren picked up his glass, rattled the ice. “I didn’t think anything could make this more difficult.”

“Make what?”

“So Patience Swanson thinks you and her husband have a . . . thing. That he gave you the Joy.”

“The perfume?” Arden clapped a palm to her chest. “She’s insane.”

“Possibly. Probably. But that doesn’t change anything. She demands that we let you go.”

“She? Demands? You let me go?” Every nerve cell in Arden’s brain burst into flames.

“I have no choice.”

“Choice? Of course you do.” Arden took a step toward him, arms spread in exasperation and disbelief. “Who does she think put her husband where he is today?”

“I’m sorry, Arden. It’s a situation. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t? Well, I do.” She jabbed toward him with a forefinger. “You can say ‘she’s lost her freaking mind.’ You can tell that woman I’m a valuable employee who brings in big bucks, and new clients, and will continue to do so. And who, it goes without saying, is not having some sort of sordid affair with her vile entitled husband who clearly she has problems with. But the ‘problems’ are not me. A situation? It’s my life!”

“I’m sorry, Arden. Unless you can prove he didn’t give you perfume. Unless you can prove he didn’t—”

She rolled her eyes to the heavens, then harnessed her outrage. “I’m not going to prove one thing on this planet. Ask him, right? First of all, I can’t prove something that didn’t happen, that’s through the looking glass, and I cannot believe you’re even asking me that. Is that what you think of me? Let me ask you that. That this is true?”

“No, of course not, no.” Warren lurched to his feet, turned away, not looking at her, looking at every place else but her. “He’ll deny it. So I can’t force him to—”

“Ah. I see. Warren. Look at me. So you believe her, not me? Is that what you’re saying? Because if that is what you’re saying, Warren, I could file so many lawsuits it’d make your head spin. Hey. You’re a pro.Imagine the headlines. Blame the victim? Or wait, would you paint me the vixen, the temptress? Oh, yeah, do it. Please do that. I’d love that. Bring it.”

Warren had to know this was bull. “Are you hearing me?” she persisted.

“Are you ignoring me? Look at me. I know the rules. I know the deal. You cannot do this. I’ll go to HR so fast it’ll—”

“Be careful, Arden.” Warren interrupted her. “Take a beat. If you sue me, well, that’s not gonna help you, is it? Suddenly you’re . . . a problem employee. A liability. On the defensive. It’s not a good look. You know that.”

“What I know—and what you know—is that it’s not true.”

“What I know is that if the Swansons leave us, if they take their billings, I’d have to fire three other people to make up for it. Do you want to be responsible for that?”

“Oh, no. No. That’s not fair.” Arden wiped away the space in front of her, erasing Warren’s words. “Do not make me feel guilty about people losing their jobs over a lie.”

“We won’t let this get out,” Warren said. “It’ll stay between us.”

“Right. Between us.” She choked down a bitter laugh, focusing her anger. “And Patience Swanson. And Arthur Swanson. And whatever gossip mongers and sycophant confidantes and social media jackals—I cannot believe I’m saying this. A secret. As if anyone could keep a secret.”

She drew in a breath, her judgment obliterated by expanding rage. Narrowed her eyes. “Unless they’re dead.”


Click below to pre-order your copy of One Wrong Word, available February 6th, 2024!

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