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Book reviews: Strange mysteries in alien worlds

On the face of it, science fiction has little time for religion. But scratch a little deeper and you’ll find a world rife with religious and mythological tropes. Even when overt faith is absent, a kind of piety looms large in the genre’s worship of science and the cult of rationality.

Take Justin March. At the start of Richelle Mead’s Gameboard of the Gods (Dutton, $26.95), Justin is leading a miserable, dissolute existence in exile. Why? After a virus wiped out half of Earth’s population, his home country, the Republic of United North America, banned the causes: “biological manipulation, religion and cultural separatism.” As a government investigator of religious extremists, March’s job was to enforce the prohibition against most kinds of worship. But then he witnessed something supernatural – and had the nerve to make an official report of it. Nevertheless, he is called back from the provinces to work with the praetorian Mae Koskinen, a gorgeous supersoldier. The two team up (reluctantly, of course) to figure out what’s behind a series of bizarre murders. Could it be some kind of sophisticated technology or something science can’t explain? Gameboard of the Gods is billed as the first in a series, and it will be particularly worthwhile to see what happens next for March’s protegee, Cruz, a clever teen from the provinces who brings a somber eye to the smug pretensions of the Republic’s technologically obsessed society.

Architectural historian Annie Kendall experiences a different sort of exile. As Beverly Swerling’s Bristol House (Viking, $27.95) begins, Annie, a recovering alcoholic, has taken on a peculiar assignment: She is sent to London to investigate a historical mystery that could lead to a trove of priceless Judaica from the time of the Second Temple. Annie is staying in a large flat that may or may not be haunted by a 16th-century Carthusian monk, who bears a strong resemblance to her present-day romantic interest. As she starts to put the pieces of the ancient puzzle together, her personal story overlaps with that of the monk in Tudor England. Mysterious quail eggs, a contested papacy and conspirators driven by misguided faith shape both time frames. Swerling’s book wears its research lightly and ambles along to an exciting, if belief-stretching, conclusion.

The most interesting character in Abaddon’s Gate (Orbit; paperback, $17) is Pastor Anna. She’s a familiar type: inspirational, tough and unwilling to be a pawn in others’ games. But she’s also a Russian living in the asteroid belt with her Ugandan wife and their toddler daughter. Anna is invited by the United Nations to join a prestigious humanitarian mission to the Ring, a massive alien structure that has appeared near Uranus. “I’m very afraid of that thing,” Anna tells her wife. “I’m afraid of what it will mean for everything we care about. Humanity, God, our place in His universe. I’m afraid of what it will do, of course, but much more afraid of what it means.” She doesn’t get a lot of time to worry about that, however: Ships from Earth, Mars and the outer planets are closing in on the ring. One wrong move could prompt the aliens to wipe out the human race. This is the third novel in the Expanse series from James S.A. Corey (the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). As in any space opera worth its stardust, good use is made of the properties of physics: As ships pass through the ring, their crews confront a huge expanse that doesn’t conform with space as they know it. And the authors are superb with the exciting bits: Shipboard coups and battles are a thrill to follow – no faith required.

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