A Dry Future: THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi

3Originally published at Bookpage.

No book will ever make you thirstier than The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s (The Windup Girl) action-packed return to hard science fiction, in which the American Southwest is ravaged by drought.

In the not-too-distant future, climate change has turned the Colorado River Basin into a dust bowl. California, Nevada and Arizona wage hot and cold war over aquifers, dams and water rights. The wealthiest 1 percent live in lush, self-sustaining “arcologies” (architecture + ecology), while the cities and suburbs of old are riddled with crime and desperation.

California has the upper hand thanks to foreign water corporations, and Arizona is a militarized backwater. But the most powerful woman in Las Vegas—Catherine Case—has a secret weapon named Angel Velasquez. He’s one of her “water knives,” soldiers trained to secure fresh water resources by any means necessary.

“Angel wondered what the river looked like back when it still ran free and fast…Children down in the Cartel States grew up and died thinking that the Colorado River was as much a myth as the chupacabra that Angel’s old abuela had told him about. Hell, most of Utah and Colorado weren’t allowed to touch the water…”

Angel is sent to investigate a potentially game-changing source of water in the most unlikely of places: Phoenix. There, his fate becomes entwined with those of a determined journalist and a teenage refugee from Texas. Together, they follow the trail of a near-mythical artifact that could shift the balance of power in the war for water.

Bacigalupi’s nightmarish vision of a dystopian America ruined by greed, bureaucracy and environmental disaster is both horrifying and prescient. It takes a few chapters to gather momentum and orient the reader, but once the story finds its stride, the pages turn themselves. The Water Knife is a thoughtful, frightening, all-too-likely vision of the future.


The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Knopf)

The Unsolvable Ripper: New Books by Alex Grecian and Stephen Hunter

5Originally published at Bookpage.

More than 100 years have passed since the Autumn of the Knife, when the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. Amy Carol Reeves, author of the YA Ripper trilogy, says, “writers and readers are drawn to this story because it’s a case that will never be solved,” leaving plenty of space for imagination. Such is the case with two new Ripper-themed books by celebrated historical crime novelists Stephen Hunter and Alex Grecian, out today, May 19, 2015.

Both, of course, begin with blood. Stephen Hunter’s brisk, gory epistolary novel, I, RIPPER, combines the memoirs of an ambitious j6ournalist with the Ripper’s secret diary. The journalist, an Irishman who goes by “Jeb” to protect his identity, warns readers straight away:

“Make peace now with descriptions of a horrific nature or pass elsewhere. If you persevere, I promise you shall know all that is to be known about Jack. Who he was, how he selected, operated, and escaped. . . . Finally, I shall illuminate the most mysterious element of the entire affair, that of motive.”

Hunter’s version of Jack the Ripper is a cold, verbose intellectual. Beginning with the first canonical Ripper murder of Mary Ann Nichols in 1888, it’s a well-researched retelling of history full of surprising revelations. Hunter’s 19th-century London is full of striking and authentic period details—including racism, class warfare and the treatment of Jews in Victorian England—but women are relegated to the alcoholic prostitutes at the other end of a knife. “I needed to puncture her more,” the Ripper says. “Why? God in heaven knows.”

In Alex Grecian’s fourth Scotland Yard Murder Club book, THE HARVEST MAN, the Ripper returns to London after last wreaking havoc in The Devil’s Workshop. But in this installment, Jack plays second fiddle to a villain even more horrifying: the Harvest Man, who wears a medieval plague mask and slices the faces off his victims, continuously mistaking them for his parents.

“He stared intently at the mother and father, tried to gauge the shapes of their skulls beneath the masks they wore. . . . Those were features they couldn’t hope to hide from him. He had chosen the right people this time, his own parents, spotted among the teeming masses. He was nearly sure of it.”

The Murder Club regulars are back: Detective Inspector Walter Day, his old partner Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, the forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley and even their favorite criminal informant, Blackleg. More pulpy and hardboiled than I, RIPPER, Grecian’s newest trades Hunter’s intricate prose for snappy dialogue in another gripping Victorian team-up. Where Hunter excels at a carefully constructed, suspense-driven plot with clear ties to history, Grecian supplies a strong cast of beloved characters and great one-liners. Although, for the record, Hunter packs a few jokes in, too (“‘Can I say ‘belly?’’’ I asked. ‘It seems rather graphic.’”).

Unfortunately, female characters in both books are largely either victims or hero’s wives. “A surface reading of the case shows only Jack the Ripper, the all-male Scotland Yard investigators, and the female victims,” says Reeves. “But we have so many cases of extraordinary women like Aphra Behn who are under-recognized in history.” Regardless, both I, RIPPER and THE HARVEST MAN are frightening, well paced, effortless reads.


I, Ripper by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster)

The Harvest Man by Alex Grecian (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 

Where to Visit “Uru: Ages Beyond Myst” in Real Life

Previously, I’ve tried to find the closest real-life approximations to the ages of MYST and the islands of RIVEN. Continuing that trend, here are your best options for visiting the first ages of URU: AGES BEYOND MYST (later known as Myst Online), the 6 worlds available when the game went live in 2003: the Cleft, Gahreesen, Eder Gira, Eder Kemo, Kadish Tolesa, and Teledahn.


The Cleft: Black Volcano, New Mexico

There may not be a fissure, or an airstream trailer, or an entrance to D’ni at this long-inactive volcano near Albuquerque, but it sure does feel like Atrus’s first home.


Gahreesen: Wulingyuan, China

These towering karst formations in Hunan Province are laced with rivers and waterfalls, just like the age of the Maintainers.


Eder Gira: Havasu Falls, Arizona

There’s even a rock shelter behind the falls. Thankfully, you don’t have to kick any fish traps around to access it.


Eder Kemo: Ik Kil Cenote, Yucatán, Mexico

One of many cenotes near Chichen Itza, Ik Kil is open for swimming (no linking books, though).


Kadish Tolesa: Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Visit Sequoia National Park for that same dwarfed-by-trees sensation you get in Kadish, minus the constant threat of walking off a cliff or getting stuck in a pyramid.


Teledahn: Kew Gardens, London, United Kingdom

Sadly, there are no real-life mushrooms as enormous as Teledahn’s, but the mushroom sculptures at London’s Kew Gardens are a decent facsimile.

Next time, I’ll tackle the URU expansion packs and its other added ages.

From Sarajevo to Chicago: “The Making of Zombie Wars” by Aleksandar Hemon

zombie-warsOriginally published at Bookpage.

Bosnian-born author Aleksandar Hemon’s fiction has always been a sobering, sometimes bleak look at the lives of immigrants and exiles in Chicago who are not unlike the writer himself (see The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles). But in a dramatic change of pace and tone, his new novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, is an eccentric comedy, albeit one with the same level of subtlety and resonance we’re accustomed to from Hemon, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner.

An aspiring writer from an affluent Chicago suburb who never finishes anything he starts, Joshua Levin has never had to suffer much. His life is “a warm blanket,” in contrast to the lives of the immigrants he teaches as an ESL instructor, and his creative endeavors have been as futile and disheartening as the Cubs at nearby Wrigley Field. That is, until Joshua comes up with an idea for a script called Zombie Wars that could be his big break, and the sad but beautiful Bosnian woman in his class, Ana, starts to seduce him.

When he looked up, Ana was shutting the door, foreclosing all retreat routes. She stood in front of him, taking deep breaths.

“My heart hits very much,” she said.


“My heart beats, Teacher Josh.”

“Joshua,” Joshua whispered, but only because all the wind was gone from his windpipe.

“Joshua,” she repeated. “You want to touch it?” She took his hand and put it on her left breast.

Of course, Ana is married, and Joshua just moved in with his girlfriend. As Ana turns his life upside down, Joshua finally has some real-life drama to funnel into his writing. Excerpts from Joshua’s script draw parallels between a zombie apocalypse and the culture-cannibalizing effects of war and exile, be it in Hemon’s native Bosnia or in Iraq, which U.S. forces have only just begun to invade when the novel opens in 2003.

As the story oscillates between hysterical and heartbreaking, Hemon once again renders the city of Chicago authentically, forgoing the whitewashed suburbs of John Hughes movies and invoking the city’s social and cultural realities as faithfully as Alex Kotlowitz. The wit and intelligence of The Making of Zombie Wars should please Hemon fans and entice new readers.


The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon (FSG Originals)

Twin Peaks in Upstate NY: “House of Echoes” by Brendan Duffy

mediumOriginally published in Bookpage.

Brendan Duffy’s fantastic debut novel is gloomy, small-town Gothic horror in the vein of “Twin Peaks,” Alan Wake and The Shining.

After a few rough years in Manhattan, a “semi-famous” author named Ben Tierney relocates his wife and sons to a remote village in the Adirondack Mountains. He hopes that renovating a sprawling, neglected estate called the Crofts and turning it into an inn will provide his family with a new sense of purpose. But isolated on a forested cliff overlooking town, it doesn’t take long for things to get thoroughly weird.

Deer carcasses appear on the Tierneys’ property, the remains ripped apart and barely recognizable. Strange artifacts turn up in the estate’s cavernous cellar, maps and letters and ancient books. Townspeople stare and whisper about “the winter families” whenever Ben ventures down into the valley. And one night, while Ben’s wife is cooking dinner, an explosive sound vibrates through the house. Ben finds a back door swinging open and shut in the wind, the lock smeared with tree sap.

“He turned on the exterior lights and looked out the glass. Placed in the center of the stoop like the morning’s newspaper was a severed deer’s head, staring at him with black, blood-flecked eyes.”

Most disturbing of all, Ben’s older son Charlie is convinced that someone, or something, is watching them from the woods. As a neo-Gothic horror novel, House of Echoes succeeds because it contains no familiar creatures. There are no ghosts here, despite some surface similarities to Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers. There are no witches or werewolves. Duffy knows that true horror has neither name nor face. Grounded by emotional realism and nuanced characters, House of Echoes is intense, addictive and genuinely creepy.


House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy (Ballantine)