Mike Reeves-McMillan (GUEST)

MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

Magonia: What YA should be like

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Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Come for the wonderful voice (and attitude) of Aza Ray, the teenage narrator. Stay for a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding.

Magonia (2015) is one of those books that, while still partway through the sample, I knew I wanted to buy. It's difficult to create a truly original character voice, but Maria Dahvana Headley pulls it off with Aza Ray. She even pulls it off again with Jason, Aza's best friend, though his voice is less distinctive (this shouldn't be taken as a criticism; most voices are less distinctive than Aza's).

Sequel



There are all too few books that reflect the experience of chronic illness, what it's like not only for those who have it but for th... Read More

Heirs of Grace: Surprisingly satisfying and refreshing

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Heirs of Grace by Tim Pratt

Independent, modern young woman narrates, in First Person Smartass, how she was just an ordinary person with an ordinary life who didn't believe in the supernatural, but then it turned out that the supernatural believed in her, and around about the same time she met this guy...

There are hundreds of authors writing that exact book at the moment, many of them very badly; and when I see an instance of it, I usually move on, sometimes with an eye roll, to the next book in the hope of something I haven't seen dozens of times before. But I was vaguely aware of the name "Tim Pratt" — I think I've read one or two of his short stories — and paused long enough on Heirs of Grace to get the sample and see if he wrote it well.

He wrote it ver... Read More

Peacemaker: A well-done bit of Weird West with a likeable protagonist

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Peacemaker by K.A. Stewart

K.A. Stewart‘s Peacemaker gives us an alternate America (Kansas, to be exact) in which most people have magic, arcane-powered transports replace the horses they're modeled on, and Native American magic is strong enough that the USA stops at the Rockies. The eponymous Peacemaker (think US Marshal), Caleb Marcus, brings his magic, his staff and his familiar (a cute jackalope named Ernst) to the town of Hope, where he has to deal with a Bad Wealthy Rancher.

I give that last phrase capitals because he's a trope, one of a number of tropish characters. The friendly saloonkeeper (who's Scottish), the helpful general store owner, the grumpy blacksmith (who's Swedish), the schoolmarm, the kid who's running a bit wild but has potential, the mysterious old ... Read More

Unexpected Stories: Challenging science fiction

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Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

The late Octavia Butler wrote brilliant, challenging science fiction along more or less the same lines as Ursula K. Le Guin: the speculations are often anthropological, and she's fascinated by how people interact. I read one of her XENOGENESIS novels years ago and found it the kind of powerful, disturbing book that I can only read occasionally. I was excited to hear that a couple of her unpublished stories had been found and published under the title Unexpected Stories.

They're very fine stories. They're beautifully written, with an easy competence that I see all too rarely, and the speculations themselves — particularly in the first story — are out of the ordinary way. I don't love them so much as to give them five stars, but tha... Read More

Science Fiction Super Pack #1: A generally above-average anthology

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Science Fiction Super Pack #1 edited by Warren Lapine

Like the companion fantasy volume, Science Fiction Super Pack #1, edited by Warren Lapine, only has one story I didn't think was good, and it's a piece of Lovecraft fanfiction. H.P. Lovecraft's overwrought prose doesn't do much for me even when Lovecraft himself writes it, and much less so when it's attempted by imitators. And Lovecraft's stories at least have something frightening that happens in them; these two stories (in this volume and the other) only have visions of aspects of the Mythos and crazy people ranting, which isn't scary or interesting. Everything else was good, occasionally even amazing.

Again like the fantasy volume, it more ... Read More

The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Humane science fiction

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The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories edited by Tom Shippey

I read Tom Shippey's other excellent collection, The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories some time ago, so it was only a matter of time before I sought out this one. Like its stablemate, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories consists of a chronological collection of stories from a variety of authors with an introduction by the editor. I was struck by the idea of "fabril" literature, which is discussed in the introduction: a form of literature in which the "smith" is central. Certainly, a great deal of early science fiction in particular involves a clever engineer solving some sort of problem, and I'm sure many careers in engineering and the sciences have been launched in this way. I'd say that there is some tendency, though, as the genre matures, for technology to beco... Read More

Magic City: Recent Spells: A solid urban fantasy anthology

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Magic City: Recent Spells edited by Paula Guran

Things you should know:
1. This is a reprint anthology. If you read a lot of anthologies in the field, you will probably have read some of these before. I had read three, though two of them were among the best ones, and I enjoyed reading them again.
2. It still has some worthwhile stuff in it, especially if you're a fan of the big names in urban fantasy (Jim Butcher, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs) and haven't read these stories before.
3. It isn't just "urban fantasy" by the usual definition (our contemporary world plus the supernatural). There's a sword-and-sorcery story from Read More

Pratchett’s Women: An interesting perspective on a fantasy legend

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Pratchett's Women by Tansy Rayner Roberts

I discovered something about myself by reading Pratchett’s Women, which is always a worthwhile thing. What I discovered was that, although I rejoice greatly at the presence of strong female characters in a book, I don't necessarily notice their absence as much. Now that I'm aware, hopefully that won't be true so much.

Tansy Rayner Roberts, herself an award-winning fantasy author, analyses most (but not all) of Terry Pratchett's books from a feminist perspective, and finds them... mixed. She praises the improvement from the early busty bimbos (who were, at least, people with lines and opinions and wants, if still stereotypes) to the later women like Cheery Littlebottom, Lady Sybil, Susan Death and, of course, the witches, whil... Read More

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future: Volume 30

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L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future: Volume 30 edited by Dave Wolverton

The Writers of the Future contest is held in high regard within the SFF field, largely because of the many fine writers who have had a boost to their early careers through it and the prominence of the judges (and despite its association with L. Ron Hubbard, of which more later). This volume contains some excellently-written stories and some which weren't to my taste but were well done anyway.

I'll go through the contents in detail. We start with pages and pages of boosterism from past winners, judges etc., which I skipped. Dave Wolverton's introduction can probably be skipped, too, as it just says how good it is to be a judge and how great the ... Read More

Blood of Tyrants: A world tour with plenty of dragons

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Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

I was concerned when Blood of Tyrants, the eighth volume of Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE series, began with three unlikely events, but I needn't have worried. It soon improved.

The three unlikely things were:

1. A man wearing a heavy wool coat is swept into the sea and not drowned, but washed up on shore alive. This despite the fact that the reef where he started was far enough out to sea that it apparently couldn't be seen from shore, and despite the fact that:

2. He suffered a head injury, was knocked out, and lost eight years' worth of memory, exactly corresponding to the length of the book series.

3. He was then found by probably the one person in Japan who wouldn't immediately h... Read More

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol 2: More disturbing than Vol 1

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The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by Gordon Van Gelder

I read the first volume (The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology, published 2009) before I tackled this one, published in 2014. It's only been five years, but I detected a darkening of the tone. Maybe I'm imagining it, maybe it's just me, but it seemed to me that the earlier volume contained stories that set out to go to strange places and, as a consequence, were sometimes disturbing, while this one contained stories that set out to be disturbing.

Consequently, given that "dark and disturbing" isn't my preference, I very nearly gave this one three stars instead of four — reflecting my reduced enjoyment, not reduced quality. These are still... Read More

Fantasy Super Pack #1: Something for everyone

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Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1 edited by Warren Lapine

Fantasy Super Pack #1 , which is available for 99c in Kindle format, is an enormous collection of 34 stories presumably showcasing the taste of the editor of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, an online magazine. As I'm interested in submitting to the magazine, I picked it up, and thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories, none of which I remembered reading before though I'd heard of several of them.

I like stories that have a narrative arc, that build tension and then resolve it at the end, more than the currently-fashionable type of story that just stops at a thematic moment (or, I often suspect, when the author runs out of ideas). Based on this collection, Lapine also likes the narrative-arc kind of... Read More

Annabel Scheme: A short, clever high-tech thriller

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Annabel Scheme by Robin Sloan

Set in an alternate world in which Google's place is filled by a company called Grail (a brilliant name for a search engine, by the way), and Wikipedia's by "Open Britannica," Robin Sloan’s Annabel Scheme is difficult to categorize. Is it a detective novel? An urban fantasy? A technothriller with a touch of cyberpunk? It's all of those at once. It reminds me a little of Charles Stross's LAUNDRY FILES novels with the mix of high technology and demons.

Annabel Scheme is narrated by an AI in the Watson role, observing events through detective Annabel Scheme's high-tech earrings. That's clever, because the point of view follows Scheme and yet ... Read More

Crucible of Gold: Dragons in an alternate Napoleonic-era history

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Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

As soon as I discovered the Temeraire series by Namoi Novik, I read all the books that were then available, so I was delighted to see a new volume after a gap of several years. The seventh book, Crucible of Gold, suffers from the problem of many long-running series that there is now a lot of backstory, and with the gap aforementioned, I spent the first three chapters trying to remember who all these people were and why they were arguing. It's a tribute to the author that I remembered most of them, and a good many of the key preceding events, by the end of the book. A quick "the story so far" and/or a list of characters would make it easier to get back in, though.

Breaking down my rating, since different books are good for different reasons: Read More

Random: Far beyond the ordinary YA fantasy

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Random by Alma Alexander

There's a group of Young Adult authors — I'm thinking of Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Justine Larbalestier, and a few others — who write the kind of books that snooty adults who look down on YA in Internet articles have clearly never read. These are books that don't get made into popular movies, because most of what happens is internal to the characters.

This kind of YA has depth and resonance and significance. It shines a light on the path for young people (young women, in particular) who are looking for courage and a place in the world. It's been some time since I was young, and I've never been a woman, but I'm glad ... Read More

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction: Packed full of excellent SF stories

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Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction is packed full of excellent science fiction stories. I've been reading anthologies lately, partly to improve my own short story writing, and this is the best I've found so far. It contains stories by authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, Catherynne M. ValenteJohn Scalzi, Jo Walton, Charles Stross, Read More

The Wood Beyond the World: Disappointing

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The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

I read The Wood Beyond the World largely because I enjoyed the author's The Well at the World's End so much. I was disappointed in it, though. It doesn't have the depth of the slightly later book (they were published two years apart), and the story itself is not as satisfying, nor is the main character as strong.

Golden Walter is what I call a spoiled protagonist. He ends up with benefits that he doesn't earn. In fact, he's not particularly admirable, despite the author's constant Mary Suing of him. When the book opens, he's having marital problems: his wife is unfaithful (totally not his fault, the author assures us). Instead of confronting this in any way at all, he tells his wealthy merchant father, "I'm off to sea on one of your ships, Dad. Deal with the unfaithful wife thing, would you?" ... Read More

The Secret History of Fantasy: Stories that redefine the genre

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The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle

The basic premise of the SECRET HISTORY anthologies (there's also a science fiction one, The Secret History of Science Fiction, which I haven't read) is that there's a type of writing that got missed or buried because other things were more popular, more commercial, or dodged the spec-fic labeling. Certainly that's the thrust of Peter S. Beagle's introduction, and the two other non-fiction pieces by Ursula K. Le Guin and editor David G. Hartwell.
... Read More

Engraved on the Eye: Ahmed writes what he knows

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Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed

The first story in Saladin Ahmed’s Engraved on the Eye is about the meeting of the two main characters in his novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, and I liked it enough that it inspired me to look for the novel. I can see what the critical fuss is about: Ahmed writes smoothly and well, has interesting protagonists, and makes their choices matter.

Early on in the collection, it looked as if all the protagonists were going to be young Muslims struggling with faith and ethical choices as well as with life, but later in the book we got a couple of stories where this wasn't the case (and another where it was). In all but the last story, though, a well-told sword-and-sorcery tale with an unusual ending (for sword-and-sorcery), the main character was either Muslim, a member of an ethnic mino... Read More

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014: An enjoyable collection

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The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 edited by Rich Horton

I've been reading a lot of anthologies lately, including another of the several "Year's Best" collections (the Jonathan Strahan one). I was pleased to find that, unlike some of the others, this one matched my tastes fairly well for the most part.

I enjoy stories in which capable, likeable or sympathetic characters, confronted by challenges, confront them right back and bring the situation to some sort of meaningful conclusion. I was worried when I read the editor's introduction and saw him praising Lightspeed and Clarkesworld magazines, because they can often be the home of another kind of story, in which alienated, passive characters are... Read More

The Lady Astronaut of Mars: Hugo winning novelette

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The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which won this year’s Hugo Award for best novelette, moved me. It was well-structured, all the ends tucked in and callbacks in the right places. It used symbolism and literary reference and pointed to issues of the human condition at large, like career versus family. All of this would usually add up to five stars from me, particularly since the author has as beautiful a voice on the page as she does when she speaks. It's the kind of strongly written, human story that wins Hugos, and it reminded me Mike Resnick's "The Homecoming," also Hugo-nominated (though that one didn't win).

But it's one of those stories that bombards the characters with pain and just doesn't let up on them. Now, that's a l... Read More

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