Ryan Skardal

RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a celebrated novelist, but Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a work of non-fiction about the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five separate locations, cultists simultaneously carried packets of sarin onto a subway. They each pierced their packet with the sharpened end of an umbrella and then left the subway. Twelve people died, and thousands more were harmed by the toxin.

Fans of Murakami’s novels may not be interested in this work, but they should hesitate before dismis... Read More

A Bridge of Years: Time travel to 1962

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A Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson

Tom Winter tried to find solace in a bottle when his wife left him. He lost his job and concluded that 1989 was a pretty tough year. Now, Tom is trying to make a go of it in Belltower in the Pacific Northwest. His brother has set him up with a job as a car salesman, and he has bought a house. Life seems pretty mundane, until Tom realizes that the house is a time machine that leads to New York in 1962.

Published in 1991, Robert Charles Wilson’s A Bridge of Years is his first time travel novel, but it’s the third one I’ve read by him. Here, the traveler wanders through a tunnel from one time/location to another. There is no dial for Tom to turn to 11 or to 1924 or to the future. (This is not to say that the tunnels are... Read More

The Field of Swords: Caesar abroad

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The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden’s The Field of Swords (2005) follows a Caesar who is no longer young. Though he is still eminently capable and still driven to work day and night in pursuit of glory, he is exhausted rather than energized by his work in Spain. Naturally, the real story begins when he returns to Rome to form an alliance with Pompey and Crassus.

Rome considers itself the greatest city in the world, but, to our eyes, it is consumed by corrupt political intrigue in search of power and recognition, its enemies are tortured and slowly executed in public, and its people are entertained by merciless spectacle. Julius is the hero of this text, but he is not given contemporary attitudes. He enjoys the spectacle, the fame, and the glory of Romeo a... Read More

Bios: A rare miss from RCW

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Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration by Robert Charles Wilson

Isis is not the M class planet we have been looking for, and upon landing the humans discover that it’s extraordinarily toxic to them. It’s not cheap traveling through space to distant planets, so the scientists will just have to do their best. This is the premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration. The scientists initially try to solve this problem with nifty machines and suits, but eventually one of them tries to change people at a genetic level to make them fit the planet, rather than conquering it.

Zoe carries the modified “bloodware,” and she wants to make life work on the new planet. On Earth, she was sexually abused, and though her emotions were “smooth... Read More

The Death of Kings: Julius comes into power and loss

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The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

Julius is a young soldier. He fights in northern Africa, but he is not in command. Still, he is very well trained, is charismatic and trusts his instincts, and he is beginning to learn what it means to command and why he loves everything Rome stands for. He is confident, idealistic, and capable, a potent combination that leads to many victories. By the end of the novel, he will deal with Spartacus and Sulla, pirates, and senators who wish him ill. He will taste true power, love, and loss.

Published in 2004, Conn Iggulden’s The Death of Kings, the second of four entries in the EMPEROR series (after The Gates of Rome), is... Read More

The Perseids and Other Stories: Strange nights in Toronto

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The Perseids and Other Stories by Robert Charles Wilson

I’m mostly a sceptic of both short stories and short story collections. When reading short science fiction, I can’t help thinking that if the premise were truly worthwhile, the author would have developed it into a novel — or at least a novella. I’m perhaps revealing my own limitations rather than my preferences. Still, I’ve found that the most common descriptions of short story collections are “mixed bag” or “some are duds.” And because every word counts so much more in shorts, the prose too often is so much more… overwrought. Ironic or not, considering that science fiction is often carried by an interesting premise rather than interesting characters, some part of me still insists that its best ideas be delivered as novels.

So I was pleased to realize that Read More

Trouble with Lichen: Complications of eternal youth

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Reposting to include Sandy's new review.

Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham

Published in 1960, John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen tells the story of Diana Brackley, a revolutionary, a feminist, and a scientist.

Diana is considered odd because although she is attractive, she does not want to marry. Instead, she is dedicated to her career in the lab, and it is there that she makes her amazing discovery: a type of lichen that slows the aging process. Diana decides to use the lichen to empower women, and she sets up a beauty clinic that caters to rich and influential women (more ... Read More

The Chrysalids: Forbidden post-apocalyptic telepaths

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Reposting to include Sandy's new review.

The Chrysalids by John Wynhdam

It’s no wonder that David dreams of a distant and wondrous city at night: life in the post-apocalyptic settlement, Waknuk, is difficult. Waknuk’s people are descended from the survivors of the Tribulation, which everyone knows was sent by God to punish the Old People. Though David and his community are lucky to have any land to live on, they must always guard against Deviations — in their crops, in their livestock, and in their children.

Deviations are not made in God’s True Image. Children that, say, have six toes, have the Devil in them, so they are either destroyed or else sent to the Fringes after they are sterilized. Though these exiles may later return as raiders, life in Waknuk is — if not always peaceful — still much better than life in the Badlands.

David Str... Read More

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: How can one resist?

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is (breathe in) an alternate history science fiction noir police procedural that won plaudits from the literary mainstream as well as several top honors from the science fiction community (breathe out).

There’s a great deal going on, but perhaps it’s best to introduce the setting. In this alternate history, America created a temp... Read More

Never Let Me Go: A quiet exploration of the human condition

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.

That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.

Ther... Read More

The Lathe of Heaven: Dreaming of Utopia

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

When George Orr sleeps, he sometimes has “effective” dreams that alter reality. Believing that he has no right to effect such changes, George begins taking drugs to suppress the dreams. As the drugs lose their efficacy, George ups the dosage, exceeding legal limits. George is caught and ordered to choose between therapy and asylum. He chooses therapy and is sent to Dr. William Haber. When Haber realizes that George is not crazy and that these “effective” dreams indeed change reality, the psychiatrist decides to make the world a better place.

And why not? Overpopulated, polluted, radioactive, and starving – humanity’s near future is an age of terrible consequences. The world could use a dreamer, figures Haber, so he hypnotizes George to shape the future.

By t... Read More

Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven

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Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar (writer) & Steve McNiven (illustrator)

Logan, a grizzled west coast farmer whose only joy is his wife and two children, knows that the rent is due. He doesn’t have the dough, and when the cannibalistic Hulk Gang arrives, he will suffer a beating – if he’s lucky.

What if… all of the villains teamed up to defeat the heroes and then took over the country? Written in 2009, Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan was not released as a “What If…?” adventure, but it might as well have been. The heroes were wiped out long ago, and Logan, who has sworn to never do violence again, takes his beating to protect his family.

Hawkeye, now equal parts blind samurai and archer, hopes there might still be a bit of Wolverine left in the old farmer. He offers to pay Logan to drive with him in the Spider-... Read More

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: In search of lost things, including a cat

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

At first glance, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada, a legal assistant who has given up his job in the hope of finding a more fulfilling purpose. Though happily married, his cat, Noboru Wataya, has gone missing. If a missing cat sounds too straightforward for a novel often described as the masterpiece of a man who is often mentioned as a dark horse to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, there’s a lot to unpack in this summary. Also, Toru is about to learn that his brother-in-law defiles women and his own marriage with Kumiko is in serious trouble.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be interpreted along several lines, but perhaps our struggle to form meaningful rel... Read More

A Clash of Kings: No one will escape

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Renly Baratheon explains, “I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient…” Renly’s only problem, besides arrogance, is that he has no legal claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros — excepting the strength of his army. Luckily for Renly, Westeros’ leaders no longer seem to require any legitimacy beyond the power of their armies and the ruthlessness of their bannermen. Perhaps the laws of the realm were always a whitewash, but now even Sansa Stark has begun to realize that the laws of the state are twisted to strengthen the powerful rather than enforced to protect the powerless.

In a realm like this, it should come as no surprise that Renly is only one of many ... Read More

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

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Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (2016) is an edited transcript of several conversations between Haruki Murakami, the novelist, and Seiji Ozawa, the conductor.

I came to this book as a fan of Murakami’s writing, as many of this site’s readers would. SFF readers may be disappointed to read that these conversations rarely touch on writing, let alone the imagined mirror worlds that give a haunting quality to his novels. Instead, they focus on Ozawa’s memories about his peers like fellow conductor Robert Mann or famous performers like Glenn Gould, of composers like Beethoven and Mahler, and of the day-to-day challenges of m... Read More

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: A companion book from the series’ halfway point

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The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a companion for readers of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME novels. Although I enjoyed the ~14 (15, if New Spring is included or fewer if the final three novels are counted as one, the way Jordan intended) WOT novels, I don’t recommend this companion. Here’s why.

The book is written from the point of view of fictional historians from within Randland, but the device doesn’t work. It seems odd that many characters of little renown are mentioned in a history of Randland. Prominent characters from the se... Read More

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

During a stressful stretch at work, and the persistently weighty negativity tied to the 2016 U.S. election campaign season, I found myself turning to ‘comfort reading.’ The negative vibes, for me, carried through Election Day and I looked toward J.R.R. Tolkien for relief. I knew I wouldn’t have time to return to the warm depths of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so instead I read something I’d downloaded a few months earlier: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friends, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, by Joseph Loconte.

The unique relationship betwee... Read More

The Book of Imaginary Beings: Would make a great gift

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The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969) introduces readers to the origins and characteristics of creatures like the Chimera, the Chinese Dragon, the Jinn, and the Western Dragon. Although I am hardly a scholar when it comes to monsters and imaginary beings, I was still impressed by how many of 155 creatures included here were entirely new to me.

This book might seem limited to some twenty-first century readers, so let’s acknowledge these concerns (if only to get them out of the way). First of all, there is no entry on the demogorgan because this book was published decades ago. Second, many of the creatures listed here have longer entries on Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s article about the Read More

Last Year: Time travel tourism

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Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Jesse Cullum works security at the City of Futurity – in fact, he just saved President Ulysses S. Grant from an assassination attempt, though he lost his Oakleys in the process.

The science fiction premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year (2016), is outlined in its opening scene. Oakleys are sunglasses that come from our time, but Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most important generals in the American Civil War. How can both exist in the same place? Well, in this novel, a “mirror” allows people to travel back in time, but to a specific point in the past — and it will produce a different a future. The people who travel back are tourists, and the City of Futurity, run by August Kemp, makes money from the past’s weal... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: Happy Thanksgiving!

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them



Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday. There are no gifts. Instead, we set time aside for family, friends, and good food. And we are invited to consider those things we are grateful for, a reminder to keep things in perspective.

Well, one thing I'm grateful for is science fiction and fantasy stories. They were the first books that appealed to me when I was a young reader. Though I've met readers who dismiss these genres, I would like to think SFF can inspire us to be better people and to live more fully realized lives.

These novels often follow heroes who stand up for others. I'm especially grateful for those who stand up to injustice, bigotry, and bullying, even if it might cost them in the short term. Of all these characters, the best might be Harry Potter, who stands up for himself and his friends and who endures the taunts of bullies. In an interview, Read More

Green Mars: Revenge of the lab rats

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Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

It took me about 200 pages to get into Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (1994), the first sequel to Red Mars, and even after I connected with it I found myself working through slow patches. Although the inside cover of the edition I read describes KSR’s novels as “thrilling,” I would describe this novel as dense, philosophical, purposeful, detailed… Well, a lot of words come to mind before I’d mention a fast pace.

When Green Mars begins, the surviving members of the First Hundred live in hiding on Mars. Earth, meanwhile, suffers from overpopulation, inequality, political instability, and many ecological pr... Read More

The Last Days of New Paris: Surrealism comes for us all

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Putting it simply, China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) is a “China Miéville” story. For many readers, that’s sufficient information to begin reading.

But here are some additional details, just in case. The Last Days of New Paris is a novella length alternate history in which the Nazis and the resistance fight to control Paris. Something weird is going on in this timeline: surreal creatures called “manifs” wander the streets of Paris after an S-Blast took the surreal creatures out of the artworks and into the world. The ... Read More

Some Remarks: The glory of infodumps separated from narrative

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Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks compiles eighteen short texts by Neal Stephenson. Aside from a couple short stories, this is a book of essays, interviews, and speeches. These short texts should please most Stephenson fans because they combine humor, insight, and exposition — in other words, these are infodumps gloriously freed from narrative.

Hesitant readers would do well to test this book by reading its opening essay, “Arsebestos.” Stephenson points out that although sitting all day is unhealthy, much of corporate America requires its office drones to sit in cubicles. People would be better off doing their work while ambling along on a treadmill, as Stephenson does, but managers are too cowardly to risk changing the status quo. After all, what if w... Read More

A Slip of the Keyboard: Too comprehensive, or not comprehensive enough

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A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

A Slip of the Keyboard collects much of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction. In speeches, articles, and letters, Pratchett holds forth on a variety of subjects, ranging from book tours to hats to policies relating to Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. He also discusses Australia, conventions, and his development as a writer.

The book is divided into three sections, and I found the third section, entitled “Days of Rage,” the most powerful. Most of these texts touch on either Alzheimer’s or assisted dying. Eager to move past any taboo related to his disease, Pratchett concisely and generously shares what he experiences before urging his audience to take action. Though many lines stand out in this section, here is one that struck... Read More

Gentlemen of the Road: Swashbuckling historical fiction

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Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road (2007) is a swashbuckling historical fiction about a pair of Jewish vagabonds in 10th century Khazaria. Amran is a large Abyssinian, while Zelikman is a somber doctor who explains that he does not save the lives of his patients — he only “prolongs their futility.” We meet our heroes in the midst of a con game and the two rogues soon find themselves in the middle of a royal plot.

Though Gentlemen of the Road is a pretty straightforward historical fiction — there are no sorcerers — there is still plenty here for fantasy fans to enjoy. Chabon’s heroes, for example, strongly recall Frit... Read More

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