With two mysteries-cum-morality tales featured in this month’s science fiction and fantasy selections, the themes for our New Year’s picks are clear—even though the characters and their actions may be questionable.

Mike Resnick’s Starship series has taken Captain Wilson Cole and his crew from mutineers to a navy capable of fighting the Republic’s multi-million-ship Navy. Throughout, Resnick has kept the story narrowly focused on the behavior and morality of the crew: the level of weapons are described only by numbers, the power of starships by letters. The previous novel in the series considerably raised the consequences and the seriousness of Resnick’s plot as the captain’s best friend was tortured to death. Now, in Starship: Flagship, Resnick directly confronts the issue of whether torture is ever morally acceptable and concludes that indeed it is (provided that the victim is not seriously physically harmed), psychological damage be damned. While the novels are enjoyable and Resnick should be lauded for bringing cold logic to a genre that sometimes emphasizes force over diplomacy, this last novel suffers slightly from a lack of perspective (Wilson Cole is clearly a mouthpiece). However, the series and this novel are highly recommended, developing a hero that is the antithesis of most heroes and a Republic that is in stark contrast to most utopian federations, and confronting a moral issue in a manner that should nonetheless generate a serious, thoughtful response worthy of Wilson Cole’s hard logic.

The weaknesses of man
Many fantasy novels portray magic as an unquestioned fact of life for the characters, but Carol Berg’s The Spirit Lens builds a medieval world where magic is indeed real, even as natural science and its practitioners successfully argue that magic is nothing more than, well, smoke and mirrors. The king is a proponent of natural science, but the queen, who has lost a child, employs sorcerers to explore the possibility of bridging the gap between her world and the afterworld. When a murder is committed that potentially involves blood magic and implicates the queen, the king employs failed magician Portier de Savin-Duplais to solve the crime and exonerate his wife, failing to realize that unmasking the murder may unleash an even greater evil. Aiding Portier are a Shakespearean fop and a brilliant but unsophisticated sorcerer. In an ever-shifting landscape of alliances and betrayals, half-truths, lies, violence, cruelty and evil magic, Berg builds a unique world of science, magic and divinity, cumulating in a disturbing conspiracy. This is a unique world in the fantasy genre, an excellent story and a morality play that bases the threat to order not on the embodiment of evil, but on the familiar weaknesses of women and men.

Science fiction pick of the month
In the fourth installment of Timothy Zahn’s detective series, Frank Compton and his partner Bayta are aboard a galactic train, the Quadrail, continuing their search for the mind-controlling alien known as the Modhri. They are sidetracked when, despite the supposed impossibility of bringing weapons or poisons aboard, passengers are inexplicably turning up dead. The Domino Pattern is a pitch-perfect blend of mystery and technology that owes as much to Agatha Christie as Larry Niven. Borrowing from the English mystery genre, the novel is populated with numerous fully developed characters harboring believable secrets. Full of red herrings, false leads and dead ends, the complex novel is driven by terse dialogue. While the set-piece climax is a little too long and elaborate, Zahn redeems himself with an ending that uses the carefully drawn backstory to propel his characters into the next novel—all the while raising the stakes from the relatively slow Modhri to a much more immediate and inhuman danger. This is an exceptionally enjoyable series that will appeal to both science fiction and mystery fans.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

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