Bathing the Lion (St. Martins,$25.99), by Jonathan Carroll, begins with a rather banal setup: the separation of a seemingly ordinary couple who have been married just one year too many. The wife is sleeping with her husband’s best friend and business partner. It all seems rather run-of-the-mill until each member of the love triangle begins to see a little girl running along rooftops or following the person home. “You don’t have time to waste,” she warns. “Everything happens today.” Soon they share a bizarre dream that features a talking chair from a childhood storybook and a red elephant with a magic map drawn on its side. Through these surreal experiences, the characters remember that they were not always human, but mechanics, beings that had the tools to fix the ruptures that Chaos created. As they piece together their collective memories, they discover that Chaos is causing mechanics to disappear. To thwart this fate, they are sent into “flip,” a loop in time through which they end up at various points in the past. The novel becomes a beautiful, intricate web of narratives that show just how wondrous being human is, even in the very heart of the mundane.
In Spark (Doubleday, $25.95), by John Twelve Hawks, memory becomes a twisty beast to get rid of, especially if it is the last part of you that is really human. After a horrific motorcycle accident, Jacob Underwood believes he is dead, his Spark forever split from his Shell. With no real emotions, he becomes the perfect hit man for a corporation that will do anything to ensure order in a dystopian future where people are under constant surveillance and ruthless capitalism reigns. Jacob appears to be the company’s most efficient employee until he is asked to eliminate a boy and his mother along with the primary target. His Spark picks up children’s energy on a different level, driving him to question his employer’s directive. But what happens when logic and reason are sliced apart by his growing sense of emotion? The novel, by the author of “The Fourth Realm Trilogy,” is a fantastic blend of action and deeper questions about what it means to be human.
R.S. Belcher’s The Shotgun Arcana (Tor, $25.99) is set in the fictional town of Golgotha, Nev. — home to frontiersmen, miners, several houses of prostitution, a couple of fallen angels, a handful of Mormons and a sheriff with a few makeshift deputies trying to keep the peace. Everyone has a secret to keep, whether it’s a talking head in an underground laboratory or membership in a secret cult that guards humanity. Then a psychopath begins killing the “women of ill repute” and leaving them as prizes. The sheriff and his men must find the killer, but he’s also busy trying to stave off an invasion instigated by one of the angels, who wants to reclaim an ancient singing skull that causes people to become bloodthirsty murderers. Throw in a pirate captain, some cannibals, a host of other ragtag townspeople, and you have one fast-paced sci-fi/steampunk Western peppered with double-crosses, surprise revelations and a splendid showdown.
Hightower, the author of “Elementari Rising,” reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post.