By Amal El-Mohtar
Lincoln Michel’s debut novel, THE BODY SCOUT (Orbit, 356 pp., $27), blends noir, cyberpunk and sports into something at once timeless and original. In an unsettlingly near-future New York where extreme climate change has made cybernetic limbs and genetic modifications — called “upgrades” — necessary and commonplace, steep income inequality and horrifying medical debt are ever more prevalent. But the book’s not really about those things. First and foremost, it’s about baseball.
Kobo is a scout in a world where baseball teams are owned mostly by giant pharmaceutical corporations. In addition to players, he scouts scientists, geneticists and neurosurgeons who help shape players into proof-of-concept displays of their latest genetic therapies. Kobo’s adoptive brother, JJ Zunz, is the star slugger for the Monsanto Mets, who’ve pinned their hopes on him for the pennant. But during the playoffs, Zunz steps up to the plate and dies a gruesome, baffling, widely televised death. Kobo, devastated, believes it’s murder — and gets recruited by the Mets to investigate. He winds his way through the hidden paths of his famous brother’s life, even as he’s stalked by medical loan sharks trying to repossess parts of his body.
Kobo’s love for and grief over his brother animates every page, and the real gravity of those feelings exists in affecting contrast to the glib, corporatized dystopia he inhabits. Michel’s writing is beautiful, too, breathing sophisticated life into stock genre types, and illuminating vast tracts of story with casual wrist-flicks of world building. “The Body Scout” is a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent.
Ryka Aoki’s LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS (Tor, 372 pp., $25.99) also mixes genres, but messily, with results that range from startlingly delightful to frustratingly incomplete. In this love letter to music, food and California’s San Gabriel Valley, Christian devils clash with extraterrestrials over the souls of a famous violin teacher and her talented student.
Shizuka Satomi has trained six brilliant violinists to soaring career heights before turning their souls over to hell in fulfillment of her own infernal contract; she’s looking for a seventh and final student to pay off her debt. Katrina Nguyen is a young transgender woman on the run from her abusive family, trying to make ends meet with a cheap violin and occasional sex work. Lan Tran is a mother, a starship captain and the owner of a doughnut shop, protecting her family of alien refugees from the Galactic Empire by passing as human refugees. Their paths cross and tangle by a duck pond in El Molino Park: Shizuka and Lan start dating, and Katrina agrees to become Shizuka’s student.
There’s a lot to appreciate here. Much recent science fiction and fantasy has modeled gender diversity aspirationally, building worlds where transgender and nonbinary identities are accepted and expected. Aoki instead grounds her novel in the real-world hardships trans people endure. Katrina lives with poverty, dysphoria and suicidal ideation; she’s always bracing for abuse and tumbling into relief when she meets kindness instead. Her love of music is a lifeline carrying her through a vibrant Los Angeles of good sounds and rich scents, fusion foods and immigrant lineages contrasted with the elite, rarefied circles of international violin competition.
That said, just as Katrina’s big heart and tremendous talent run up against the limitations of her novice technique, so too does the construction of this book. Dizzyingly frequent shifts in point of view — sometimes every few sentences — make the writing seem as though it’s always interrupting itself; there’s such a cavalcade of characters and concerns that several of them get short shrift, with some plots and dynamics feeling rushed while others feel strained and repetitive. These issues of tempo and technique are frustrating — but the book brought me to tears despite them, and bursts with love and insights on food, music, inheritance and transformation.
Cadwell Turnbull’s NO GODS, NO MONSTERS (Blackstone, 387 pp., $26.99) is an intricate sequence of moving, intimate character portraits before and after an event called the Fracture, when a pack of werewolves deliberately reveal themselves to the public. As other so-called monsters step out of the shadows, fronts emerge in a war fought between secret societies, witnessed by a mysterious narrator who slips from place to place and life to life in his sleep.
The depth and care with which Turnbull inhabits each character is riveting; despite an expansive cast spread over wide terrain, I never felt lost or confused. His attention to location detail is considered and clear: The story shifts from Massachusetts to St. Thomas to Virginia with confident ease, carried by beautiful, conversational prose that’s startlingly punctuated by reminders of who’s narrating the stories — and how.
Finishing a book without knowing it’s the first in a trilogy is a little like looking down after chasing the Roadrunner off a cliff. In retrospect, I can appreciate how thorough a grounding Turnbull has given this sprawling first act; at the time, I flailed helplessly. Hopefully I’ve spared you that, and you can let yourselves sink into this tender, ferocious book like hands into piano keys, or teeth into flesh.
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