Novella Review: The Undefeated by Una McCormack

 

She was a warrior of words.

As a journalist she exposed corruption across the Interstellar Commonwealth, shifting public opinion and destroying careers in the process.

Long-since retired, she travels back to the planet of her childhood, partly through a sense of nostalgia, partly to avoid running from humanity’s newest–and self-created–enemy, the jenjer.

Because the enemy is coming, and nothing can stand in its way.

What a cool story!

This brief sci-fi tale follows writer Monica Greatorex, a worlds-famous journalist who’s spent her life on the front-lines of inter-planetary battles for conquest, as the Commonwealth expanded and expanded to take over and absorb the planets on the periphery.

Now in her 60s, Monica heads back to her home planet of Sienna, going against the tide of desperate humans fleeing the outer planets for the supposed safety of the Commonwealth core. Monica is accompanied by her companion Gale — a jenjer, a genetically engineered human whose people were originally created as an indentured servant class.

And now, the jenjer are ready to rise up, and it’s becoming clear that nothing can stand in their way.

In The Undefeated, Monica’s trip to Sienna brings up memories of her childhood, and in particular, a key occurrence that led to her family’s flight from their home to the structured, wealthy, bland life of the Commonwealth. Her reminiscences about her youth and everything that came after are fascinating, and are key to understanding the fear and inevitability of the story’s main sequences.

This is a short piece, but really captivating, with excellent world building and character development. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Undefeated
Author: Una McCormack
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 112 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Novella Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

 

We live in an age of wonders.

Modern medicine has conquered or contained many of the diseases that used to carry children away before their time, reducing mortality and improving health. Vaccination and treatment are widely available, not held in reserve for the chosen few. There are still monsters left to fight, but the old ones, the simple ones, trouble us no more.

Or so we thought. For with the reduction in danger comes the erosion of memory, as pandemics fade from memory into story into fairy tale. Those old diseases can’t have been so bad, people say, or we wouldn’t be here to talk about them. They don’t matter. They’re never coming back.

How wrong we could be.

It begins with a fever. By the time the spots appear, it’s too late: Morris’s disease is loose on the world, and the bodies of the dead begin to pile high in the streets. When its terrible side consequences for the survivors become clear, something must be done, or the dying will never stop. For Dr. Isabella Gauley, whose niece was the first confirmed victim, the route forward is neither clear nor strictly ethical, but it may be the only way to save a world already in crisis. It may be the only way to atone for her part in everything that’s happened.

She will never be forgiven, not by herself, and not by anyone else. But she can, perhaps, do the right thing.

We live in an age of monsters.

Mira Grant is indisputably a master of horrifying disease and science run amok. There’s the zombie apocalypse of the Newsflesh trilogy, brought about by an unfortunate mixing of two manufactured viruses. There’s the Parasitology trilogy, featuring tapeworms (ick) genetically engineered for medical use. There’s her short fiction, including Apocalypse Scenario #683: The Box, about a viral outbreak that may or may not be part of a game, and Emergency Landing, a recent release via Seanan McGuire’s Patreon that’s creepy as hell, also about a viral outbreak linked to bioterrorism and basically the end of humankind.

Which brings us to Kingdom of Needle and Bone, which is terrifying in how real and ripped-from-the-headlines it feels. It starts with a measles outbreak, but it’s a deadlier version of the disease that spreads like wildfire and kills its victims within days or even hours of the appearance of symptoms. Not only that, those who survive the disease are left immuno-compromised and their previous vaccinations rendered ineffective. Millions die. And still, the anti-vaxxer movement holds on, strangely allying themselves with the pro-choice movement and claiming bodily autonomy as a legal construct negating mandatory vaccination.

The initial section of the novella deals with Lisa Morris, the 8-year-old who becomes the first fatality of the disease bearing her name. The story of how the disease infected visitors to a theme park is almost enough to make me swear off crowds forever. From there, the focus shifts to Lisa’s aunt Isabella Gauley, a pediatrician who fights to keep the public aware of the importance of vaccination and herd immunity — until she comes up with a different way of making sure at least some people survive the unstoppable epidemics sweeping the planet.

Any story about epidemics and killer viruses creeps me the hell out… but also really fascinates me. Kingdom of Needle and Bone has plenty of creep factor, scary medical scenarios, and slightly off-kilter people who may or may not be mad scientists and/or unhinged survivalists. So yeah… I loved it.

And shuddered extra hard when I picked up this morning’s newspaper and saw a headline about yet another measles outbreak.

Maybe I need to consider a hermetically sealed bug-out shelter… just in case?

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The details:

Title: Kingdom of Needle and Bone
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: December 31, 2018
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

My Thoughts:

I’m not sure what to say about Elevation, or even how to categorize it. Is it horror? Not in the jump-scare, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, monsters-eating-your-face sort of way. But does the idea of losing weight without losing size, and with a day you’ll weigh zero pounds looming, scare you? Then yes, you might call this horror. Or fantasy, in that I’m pretty sure there’s no such documented case of a person being perfectly healthy, losing weight, and causing anything he/she touches to have zero weight — sounds pretty fantastical to me.

All that being said, my main take-away here is that Elevation is a truly excellent read — brief, spare, and finely crafted, with sharply defined characters, mounting tension, and an overall feeling of both well-being and loss permeating the entire story. Scott Carey is a likable guy stuck in a weird situation, who tries to make the best of things by doing his part to make a small difference in the lives of the people he cares for.

And despite the short length of the story, it was plenty of time to get emotionally involved. Was that a lone tear making its way down my cheek as I read the last few pages? I’ll never tell.

Beautifully written, Elevation is a quick, low-commitment read that will leave you feeling — dare I say it? — elevated.

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The details:

Title: Elevation
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: October 30, 2018
Length: 146 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror
Source: Purchased

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Murderbot is back! Rogue Protocol – book #3

Murderbot returns for a 3rd adventure!

Thank you, Tor Books, for the review copy of Rogue Protocol!

The Murderbot Diaries
Book #3 – Rogue Protocol

(160 pages, published August 7, 2018 by Tor)

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

My thoughts:

What’s not to love about a cantankerous SecUnit who’d really rather just be left alone? Too bad for Murderbot that those darn softy, squishy humans keep getting in its way and requiring its protection. So what’s an exasperated AI to do? In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot once again sneaks its way onto a transport filled with humans on a secret mission, this time looking for evidence against the nefarious GrayCris Corporation. But of course, nothing goes as planned, since the humans involved end up needing looking after, even though they’re not technically Murderbot’s to worry about.

I’ll be honest and say that the action feels a little opaque to me. Lots of hatches and corridors and whatnot… lots of energy blasters and armor and drones… It’s all quite energetic and high-speed, but the technical mumbo-jumbo tends to make my eyes glaze over.

Still, what redeems these novellas for me is the fabulous voice of Murderbot itself, who is just as fed up as always. Why can’t the poor AI just enjoy its media feeds in peace?

I’ll leave you with a few choice snippets of Murderbot ruminations:

This was going to be even more annoying than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated a pretty high level of annoyance, maybe as high as 85 percent. Now I was looking at 90 percent, possibly 95 percent.

Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas.

(Yes, that was sarcasm.)

Right, so the only smart way out of this was to kill all of them. I was going to have to take the dumb way out of this.

If you’re a sci-fi fan and haven’t yet experienced Murderbot, definitely give these novellas a try! Now is a great time to jump in — the 4th (and final?) book is due out in October.

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Novella Review: How to Marry a Werewolf by Gail Carriger

 

Guilty of an indiscretion? Time to marry a werewolf.

WEREWOLVES

The monsters left Faith ruined in the eyes of society, so now they’re her only option. Rejected by her family, Faith crosses the Atlantic, looking for a marriage of convenience and revenge.

But things are done differently in London. Werewolves are civilized. At least they pretend to be.

AMERICANS

Backward heathens with no culture, Major Channing has never had time for any of them. But there’s something special about Faith. Channing finds himself fighting to prove himself and defend his species. But this werewolf has good reason not to trust human women.

Even if they learn to love, can either of them forgive?

From the New York Times bestselling author of the Parasol Protectorate series comes a stand alone romance set in the same universe. Look out for appearances from favorite characters and the serious consequences of unwarranted geology.

Another adorable and slightly steamy romantic adventure from the talented Gail Carriger!

When a young American lady of good standing is indiscreet, kind parent retire her quietly to the country with a maiden aunt and a modest stipend. Faith’s parents decided to marry her off to a werewolf.

Faith Wigglesworth is an American young woman in disgrace, whose absolutely horrible parents are shipping her off to London to land a werewolf husband, hoping to both be rid of her and to subject her to the humiliation they believe she deserves.

A werewolf was lower than a Californian, all things considered — rough rural hillbillies with too much hair. And open shirt collars. And no table manners.

Major Channing is instantly entranced by Faith’s brash American manners, her ability to stand up for herself, and those amazing blue eyes of hers. What follows is a playful, tempestuous courtship, as each must learn to trust enough to share and then put aside the painful secrets of their pasts. At the same time, there’s instant chemistry and heat between Faith and Channing, and sparks fly. Channing’s Alpha wants him to find happiness and to treat Faith as she should be treated, and Faith yearns to find someone to love, someone to enjoy intimacy with, and a place to belong and be herself.

This is a charming novella that works as a stand-alone, although prior experience with Gail Carriger’s steampunk/supernatural world certainly is helpful (and possibly even essential). I love everything about her books, and this piece fits nicely into the world she’s created, featuring a lovely story all its own as well as a chance to spend time once again with favorite characters like Biffy and Lyall.

A must-read for Carriger fans!
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The details:

Title: How to Marry a Werewolf (Claw & Courtship, #1)
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher: Gail Carriger LLC
Publication date: May 13, 2018
Length: 196 pages
Genre: Supernatural/steampunk/romance
Source: Purchased

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Murderbot! Books 1 & 2 of Martha Wells’s amazing sci-fi adventure series.

For sci-fi lovers looking for something fresh, new, and quick, the Murderbot Diaries novellas are sure to rock your world!

Thank you, Tor Books, for the review copy of Artificial Condition!

Book #1 – All Systems Red
(144 pages, published May 17, 2017 by Tor)

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

My thoughts:

This novella is fast, fun, and engaging, with plenty of action and lots of humor to go with it. First of all, what makes this a great read is the first-person narration by Murderbot itself (or SecUnit, as the rest of the team refer to it). Murderbot, having hacked the module that forces it to blindly follow orders, really just wants to be left to its own devices — mainly so it can focus on watching all the serialized entertainment feeds that it’s downloaded.

As Murderbot and the crew of the expedition find themselves in unexpected danger from an unknown enemy, Murderbot — uncomfortably and unwillingly — ends up caring much more than it intends to about its group of humans. Its attempts to protect the humans earns it their trust and friendship, and that’s almost too weird for it to be able to deal with.

I really love the Murderbot character and the many funny moments focused on its reactions to social settings and interactions. While some of the action is a bit hard to follow, it doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s a good, well-drawn, fast-paced adventure, with ups and downs and high drama. The ending makes clear that there’s much more to come and much more to know about Murderbot, which leads us to…

Book #2 – Artificial Condition
(159 pages, published May 8, 2018 by Tor)

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”.

But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

My thoughts:

Artificial Condition picks up where All Systems Red leaves off, and it’s just as awesome this time around to accompany Murderbot on its quest for the truth about its own past. Murderbot’s partnership with ART starts off with annoyance, but before long they’re watching the serials together on their feeds and doing some truly masterful hacking of pretty much every security system they find.

Murderbot gets the answers it’s looking for, and meanwhile gets involved with yet another group of vulnerable humans who desperately need its protection. Of course, it can’t help feeling responsible for them, and takes care of them and resolves their crisis in the most Murderbot-ish way possible.

I absolutely adore being in Murderbot’s head. I will never get tired of how it thinks, especially how it thinks about humans.

Part of my job as a SecUnit was to give clients advice when they asked for it, as I was theoretically the one with all the information on security. Not that a lot of them had asked for it, or had listened to me. Not that I’m bitter about that, or anything.

I felt this would be the point where a human would sigh, so I sighed.

“Tlacey bought us passage on a public shuttle,” Rami told me. “That could be a good sign, right?”

“Sure,” I said. It was a terrible sign.

A self-aware, self-determining robot with a sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for watching TV will never get old for me. The Murderbot books are a blast. Can’t wait for #3, coming in August.

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Novella Review: Time Was by Ian McDonald

 

A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Time Was is a haunting, lovely story of love and loss, war and suffering. It’s also a bookish mystery of sorts, all served up in a compact 176 pages.

The framing of the device revolves around a man named Emmett, a book dealer who surrounds himself with stacks of archaic volumes and keeps himself housed and fed through his EBay sales. When he’s sorting through the book-filled dumpster outside yet another failed rare book store, he comes across what he thinks may be a valuable find — an odd little book of poetry, with an “inclusion” — a letter tucked inside. Both are clearly old, and could be worth quite a lot to a collector.

But as Emmett reads the letter, he realizes there’s more to the story. The letter is between two WWII soldiers, Tom and Ben, and it’s clearly a love letter. But there’s something strange about it too, and Emmett decides to try to find out more. He tracks down another person with artifacts related to Tom and Ben, but these are from World War I. And photos show young men who don’t appear to have aged. Are they some sort of immortals? Is it all a joke? How can this be?

Emmett becomes obsessed with finding out more about Tom and Ben, and meanwhile, we see bits and pieces narrated by them as well, as we learn of their meeting during World War II and the top-secret experiment that Ben is involved in. As Emmett discovers, it would appear that something — something inexplicable — happened, and the two have become unmoored in time, using notes tucked into copies of this unusual poetry book, to find one another again and again and again.

At first, it’s hard to see how it all fits together, and yet it works. The writing builds a sense of wonder, informed by a deep, passionate love that keeps Tom and Ben forever seeking and sometimes finding one another, no matter where in time they end up. It’s lovely and mysterious, and unlike anything I’ve read lately. I do love a good time travel story, when done well, and Time Was is done very well indeed.

The best types of time travel books make me feel like starting over again once I’ve reached the last page, so I can go back and see the chronological displacements and events out of order for what they truly are, catching the hints and clues I missed the first time around. Time Was is one of those books.

Highly recommended. It’s a fast, absorbing, and deeply touching story. I only wish we could have spent more time with Tom and Ben. There’s a tragic undertone to every moment they’re together, and I’d like to think they had plenty of happiness along the way as well. If you measure the success of a story by how much the reader comes to care about the characters, then I’d say this one is absolutely a success.

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The details:

Title: Time Was
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: November 5, 2017
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Time travel/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Novella: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander


In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is weird and wonderful, cruel and beautiful. Can you possibly believe that two awful chapters from history — the “radium girls” and an electrocuted elephant — would fit together in one story? Author Brooke Bolander pulls off this seemingly impossible task in a new novella that almost defies description — you just need to experience it.

The narration shifts between elephant and human characters, in language that’s often hauntingly strange and beautiful.

At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.

The human parts of the story are heart-breaking and outrage-inducing… but so are the elephants’ sections. As I read, the story of the radium factory workers’ treatment left me feeling furious. The involvement of elephants in the radium story is startling but makes sense in this alternate world in which humans and elephants converse via sign language, and the elephant language (Proboscidian) is taught in universities.

Then came the Atomic Elephant Hypothesis.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a quick but powerful read, unusual and a little crazy and definitely something that will stick in my mind for quite some time. It made me angry and sad, and also made me think. Highly recommended.

But chains can be snapped, O best beloved mooncalf. Sticks can be knocked out of a Man’s clever hands. And one chain snapping may cause all the rest to trumpet and stomp and shake the trees like a rain-wind coming down the mountain, washing the gully muddy with bright lightning tusks and thunderous song.

PS – The story of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island, is changed and reinvented here in this novella — but yes, there was a real Topsy, and she really was put to death in 1903 by being electrocuted in front of a crowd as part of a public spectacle. It’s a horrible story that seems too outrageous to be true, but sadly, it really happened. You can read more about Topsy’s awful fate here.

PPS – Reading this novella reminded me that I picked up a copy of the non-fiction book The Radium Girls (winner of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for history and biography), and really need to read it!

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The details:

Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 23, 2018
Length: 96 pages
Genre: Alternate history
Source: Purchased

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Novella Review: Romancing the Werewolf by Gail Carriger

 

Werewolf in trouble…

Biffy, newly minted Alpha of the London Pack, is not having a good Christmas. His Beta abandoned him, his werewolves object to his curtain choices, and someone keeps leaving babies on his doorstep.

Professor Randolph Lyall returns home to London after twenty years abroad, afraid of what he might find. With his pack in chaos and his Alpha in crisis, it will take all his Beta efficiency to set everything to rights. Perhaps, in the process, he may even determine how to mend his own heart.

New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger presents a charming gay love story set in her popular steampunk Parasolverse. Featuring the long-awaited reunion between everyone’s favorite quietly capable Beta and the werewolf Alpha dandy who let him slip away. This sweet romance is full of unexpected babysitting, holiday decorations, and no small amount of pining.

Delicate Sensibilities?
Contains men who love other men and have waited decades to do so.

Wait, where does this one fit?
The Supernatural Society novellas stand alone and may be read in any order. But if you’re a stickler, this story chronologically follows Imprudence and ties specifically to events in Timeless. Look for surprise appearances from popular side characters and the occasional strategic application of italics.

What a treat!

I love, love, love the world of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate (and also the Finishing School series and The Custard Protocol series), with their remarkable mix of supernatural shenanigans, intrigue, mayhem, and manners. The novella Romancing the Werewolf reunites two wonderful characters from the Parasol-verse, Biffy — the dandy who wanted to be a vampire but ended up an Alpha werewolf — and Lyall, the 400-year-old Beta werewolf who takes responsibility for the woes of the world and his beloved pack.

Here, Lyall finally comes home after 20 years away to resume his place as pack Beta… and to figure out if the connection between him and Biffy has stood the test of time during their years apart. Meanwhile, Biffy has the power of an Alpha but is so new in the role that he constantly second-guesses himself, and wonders if perhaps a romance with his Beta isn’t exactly appropriate any longer.

For fans of Carriger’s worlds, this novella is a total delight. The romance is sweet, sexy, and adorable — but before Biffy and Lyall manage to figure out where they stand, they also have to deal with all sorts of chaos involving the babies that keep getting left on their doorstep. There are plenty of laughs involving the pack and their sense of style (and inability to deal with infants), and some more serious moments as well as the pack settles into their new home and their new leadership.

I don’t think readers without a basic familiarity with the Parasol-verse will have an easy time following the story — but that just means that if you haven’t read the Parasol Protectorate yet, now is the perfect time to go ahead. (Let’s face it, it’s ALWAYS the right time for the Parasol Protectorate!)

Such a wonderful gift to Gail Carriger’s readers! If you love her characters and stories, get this one NOW.
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The details:

Title: Romancing the Werewolf
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher: Gail Carriger LLC
Publication date: November 5, 2017
Length: 140 pages
Genre: Supernatural/steampunk/romance
Source: Purchased

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Feral Hippos!

I don’t know why, but I’m ridiculously excited for the release of this new novella:

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey releases tomorrow (5/23/2017), and is an alternative history with a truly weird premise:

In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

Sounds crazy, right?

I can’t wait for this to hit my Kindle tomorrow. Stay tuned for my reaction once I get to read the darn thing!