COMPANY TOWN
by Madeline Ashby
(St Martin's Press, $40)

The company town is New Arcadia, a future oil rig community off Newfoundland that is under new ownership. Unenhanced and unaugmented in a place where everyone is gene-cleaned and plugged in, Hwa has her niche figured out. She works security for the sex workers' union and teaches martial arts, but her unique limitations and abilities bring her to her new corporate overlord's attention. A gnomic message from the future convinces her to become bodyguard to 14-year-old heir Joel Lynch, which puts her in the path of an invisible serial killer. Hwa finds herself caught in a rich, old man's quest for immortality as she fights to keep Joel and herself alive. Ashby's action scenes come thick and fast, giving the protagonist - and the reader - little time to take in what is happening, but it is the ideas, setting and relationships that make the story really worth reading.

TOMORROW'S KIN
by Nancy Kress
(Tor Books, $43)

Aliens arrive in New York City to warn of an impending apocalypse and claim humanity as long lost cousins. Geneticist Marianne Jenner finds in her family a microcosm of humanity's reaction to events: isolationist Elizabeth, who views them as a security threat; ecologist Ryan, to whom they are no longer Terran, while drug-taking Noah may have finally found somewhere he belongs. Expanding an award-winning novella into a novel (which Kress has done before with Beggars in Spain) can have varied results. Here the 2014 novella, Yesterday's Kin, stands unaltered as the first part of the book, counting down to planet-wide catastrophe. The new story is about what comes after, revisiting another Kress theme, as Marianne champions a new generation of children with abilities that may change our future. Tomorrow's Kin is a smooth read. Its squabbling factions, many of whom are inclined to ignore scientists and shoot the messenger, make it topical.

THE PREY OF GODS
by Nicky Drayden
(HarperCollins, $30)

In this future South Africa, personal robots are as embedded and ubiquitous as smartphones. Muzi is about to undergo circumcision to please his Xhosa grandfather; the child Nomvula, neglected by her damaged mother, is drawn to a man who offers her power; Stoker, a rising politician, longs to be the singer Felicity; and Sydney, a dwindled goddess working as a manicurist, plots her rise by channelling humanity's drug-revealed divine powers. She sets events in motion at a rock concert that will change all their lives as they battle to stop her. The Prey of Gods is a fresh and inventive blend of sci-fi and fantasy, encompassing laboratory-created chimeras, creation myths, resurrections, genetically engineered viruses, flying gods, feuding robots, a plague of dik-diks and more. Some parts of the story work better than others as it careens between horrific murder and amusing hallucinatory sex, but this is an impressive debut novel.

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THE JANE AUSTEN PROJECT
by Kathleen A Flynn
(Harper Perennial, $28)

This has a great premise: two time travellers are sent back to 1815 to befriend Jane Austen and steal her secretly completed (and as secretly destroyed) manuscript of The Watsons. They are well prepared, with forged money and a Jamaican backstory, and have been warned to make as few ripples as possible in the time stream but, of course, changes start to happen. Flynn knows her Austen and some of the best parts are about traveller Rachel trying to reconcile her imagined Jane with the real one she meets. The attempt to contrast an Austen-style romance with a modern, sexual one that still depends on misunderstandings and self-denial for its tension only partially works and I was left expecting more secrets and revelations than were apparently intended. The Jane Austen Project is well-written and engrossing but the sci-fi and the romance plots fall flat.

Short takes - sci-fi and fantasy reviewed by Annabel Gooder
Short takes is a weekly round-up of books from specific genres and appears on Saturdays in the NZ Herald's books section.