Stefan Raets (RETIRED)

STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: For a dose of crazy genius

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is the latest themed anthology edited by John Joseph Adams — and it’s another good one. This time, Adams has collected a set of short stories featuring the hero’s (or often superhero’s) traditional antagonist: the mad genius, the super-villain, the brilliant sociopath who wants to remold the world in his own image — or occasionally, maybe, just be left alone in his secret lair to conduct spine-tingling experiments that, as an unfortunate side-effect, may cause drastically rearranged geography, rampant mutation, or major extinction events.

Under the editorial direction of John Joseph Adams, this anthology offers an impressively varied view on this archetypical character. Some stories refer back to mad geniuses you’ll be familiar with (Frankenstein, Lex Luthor). Some of them feature ... Read More

The Darwin Elevator: It’s not dumb

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough

Karin Kross just posted an excellent piece on about “dumb” action movies, nominally a review of Pacific Rim (which I haven’t seen) but with broader application to anything we tend to label as “dumb”:

Respectfully, I would like to disagree. Or at least, insist that we stop using the word dumb. Simple? Sure. Uncomplicated? Absolutely. Spectacular, in the truest sense of the word? Hell yes. But none of these things are dumb.

The rest of the article is worth reading for SFF readers, even if you haven’t seen Pacific Rim, because I believe many of us have the same tendency to label action-packed novels with the term “dumb” or a variant thereof. It’s as nonsensical to me as the term “guilty pleasure,” because really folks, it’s entertainment. If you enjoy it, enjoy ... Read More

The Beautiful Land: Plot is utterly ridiculous, characters are awesome

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill

The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill,is one of those books that I could mostly enjoy as I go along thanks to some snappy dialogue and likable main characters placed in some interesting situation, but always with the nagging feeling in the back of my head that things just aren’t holding together as they should be, that the whole underlying structure is just a little shaky and were one of those moments of witty repartee to suddenly go awry, the whole thing just might collapse underneath me. The Beautiful Land never did, not wholly, but it was definitely teetering by the latter third or so of the novel and though I ended up have a good time with it, it didn’t leave me feeling totally satisfied, especially if I thought about it for very long.

The story opens up with a bang, as our main character Tak, a big star thanks to a reality show where he’d get dropped off anywhere in the w... Read More

Trafalgar: A weird and wonderful book

Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer

Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer is a wonderful and deceptively complex little book that will play havoc with your mind in general and any preconceived genre expectations you may have in particular. I highly recommend grabbing it for that reason alone, but read on if you need more convincing.

Angélica Gorodischer is the Argentine author of more than twenty books, only two of which have been translated into English thus far. The first one of these was Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, no less. (We now briefly pause to let the conting... Read More

Wolfhound Century: Peter Higgins has the chops

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

I’ve read several novels over the last few years that were compared to China Miéville by reviewers, publishers, or both. In most cases, I thought the comparison was a stretch, to say the least. In some cases, it was simply ludicrous. Setting your fantasy novel in a grimy city where it rains a lot is not enough. Not every weird/slipstream dystopia qualifies. There is more to it than that.

When Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins arrived on my doorstep, featuring a prominent quote by Richard K. Morgan that compares it to “vintage Miéville or VanderMeer”, I was understandably sceptical. Here we go again. I expected the standard mediocre descriptions of grey, rain... Read More

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Great concept, not so great execution

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

I have to confess that I spent at least the first third of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds mostly annoyed and disappointed by the writing. I found the writing flat, the world-building slim, and the character relationships implausible, simplistic, and melodramatic. But around halfway through, the book, despite its flaws, started to grow on me somewhat and by the halfway point I was mostly in, though I still had some major issues.

The setting is a far-future in a universe populated by different types of humans, including Terrans, Sadiri, and Zhinuvians, each with varying degrees and types of psionic powers, such as telepathy or emotional “broadcasting.” When the Sadiri home planet is destroyed, one group settles on Cygnus Beta and begins a search for “Cygnians with a high percentage of taSadiri genetic heritage.” The main character, a Cygnian biotechnician named ... Read More

Stormdancer: Japanese steampunk

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

The Shima Isles are on the brink of ruin. The empire practically runs on chi, a substance extracted from the bloodlotus plant which fuels its engines but also poisons its soil, kills its animals, and keeps its people addicted with its opium-like qualities. The wars of conquest against the barbarous gaijin are stalled. The citizens live in poverty and pollution while the young, murderous shogun Yoritomo and his court live in luxury.

As Stormdancer starts off, there’s been a recent sighting of an arashitora or “thunder tiger,” a near-mystical creature previously thought extinct. The shogun immediately dispatches his Master Hunter Masaru to catch the griffin-like animal, hoping it will bring glory to his name and help turn the tides of war, but it’s Masaru’s beautiful daughter Yukiko, accompanying her drug-addled father on the hunt, who will build an u... Read More

Seven Princes: Did Not Finish

Seven Princes by John R. Fultz

Trimesqua, King of Yaskatha, is murdered by Emhathyn, an ancient wizard who raises the dead to kill everyone in the palace. The young Prince D’zan manages to escape, helped by his faithful bodyguard Olthacus the Stone, and sets out on a quest for vengeance. To retake Yaskatha, he seeks the help of other rulers, including the two princes of Uurz: the strong warrior Vireon and the scholar/writer Lyrilan.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, King Vod rules the city of New Udurum where Giants and Men live peacefully together. Vod was born a Giant but became human to marry Shaira, Princess of Shar Dni. Their children are a new breed: Princes Tadarus and Vireon have the shape of humans but the strength of Giants. Prince Fangodrel, on the other hand, is pale of skin, addicted to the bloodflower drug, and lacking the strength of his brothers. Princess Sharadza rounds out the set of royal children, a y... Read More

Chasing the Moon: Heavy on laughs, light on depth

Chasing the Moon  by A. Lee Martinez

Diana’s had a tough time of it lately, but finally a stroke of luck comes along: after a long search, she finds the perfect apartment. It’s affordable. It’s furnished exactly the way she likes. There’s even a jukebox with all her favorite songs. Maybe she should have been more suspicious about how perfect it was, because once she’s moved in, she discovers that the apartment has an extra inhabitant: a monster who goes by the name Vom the Hungering and who tries to eat everything in his path. Before Diana knows it, she has acquired a small menagerie of eldritch horrors from the beyond, and she learns that the universe is infinitely more complex — and dangerous — than she ever imagined.

Chasing the Moon is an unabashedly zany comedic fantasy that combines Douglas Adams-style humor and a protagonist who could be the sister of Bridget Jones with horror in t... Read More

Initiate’s Trial: Epic high fantasy at its finest

Initiate’s Trial by Janny Wurts

Janny Wurts’s latest novel in the WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW, Initiate’s Trial, is another rock-solid installment in what has become one of my favorite series. Janny’s use of the English language, her ability to sculpt characters with concepts and characteristics that make them live and her continuing commitment to solid storytelling make her work some of the best ever. Initiate’s Trial is a perfect example of why her books are always worth the wait.

As often happens in a series, there are elements of the plot that have happened in between books. In this case, Arithon has been placed under the custody of the Koriathian Sisterhood, loathsome spiders, to continue the process of freeing Athera from the lasting threat of the Mistwraith. Janny does a superlative job of not just describing the process that it tak... Read More

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's novel Julian Comstock is set in a vastly changed 22nd-century USA — after the end of the age of oil and atheism has resulted in disaster. Technology is mostly back to pre-20th century levels, and the population has been vastly reduced due to social upheaval and disease. Society has become fully class-based, divided into a Eupatridian aristocracy, middle-class lease-men, and indentured servants. The country — which now stretches across most of the North American continent — is involved in a lengthy and brutal war with the Dutch over control of the recently opened Northwest Passage.

In this setting we meet the novel's extraordinary hero, Julian Comstock, the nephew of the dictatorial president Deklan Comstock. Julian is a free-thinker with a deep interest in the apostate Charles Darwin (whose heretical th... Read More

Context: Fascinating insights from Cory Doctorow

Context by Cory Doctorow

When you consider the entirety of Cory Doctorow's creative output, it's actually a bit surprising that the first title in his bio (on his own site) is "science fiction novelist." After all, if you add up the amazing amount of blog posts, magazine articles, newspaper columns, speeches and various other non-fiction he produces, I'm pretty sure that they would add up to more words per calendar year than his fiction, and in terms of visibility it's quite possible that more people have seen his name connected to a blog post or newspaper column than on the cover of a novel.

Adding some balance to Doctorow's bibliography, Tachyon Publications just released Context, his second collection of essays after 2008's Content. Fans of the author will know what to expect, and for readers who are only familiar wit... Read More

Faith: A science fiction debut of the highest order

Faith by John Love

Three hundred years ago, a strange and seemingly invincible alien ship visited the Sakhran Empire. Exactly what happened is unclear, because the events were only recorded in the Book of Srahr, a text only Sakhrans are allowed to read. After the ship left, the Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline.

Three centuries later, the Sakhrans have been assimilated into the larger interstellar empire known as the Commonwealth, when suddenly the strange, immensely powerful ship returns. The Commonwealth dispatches an Outsider, one of only nine in its ultimate class of warships, to stop this inscrutable enemy.

John Love’s stunning debut novel Faith is the story of this confrontation.

The first two sections of Faith introduce two false protagonists in extreme, dangerous situations. In the hands of a lesser w... Read More

Debris: A strong, exciting debut

Debris by Jo Anderton

Tanyana is a talented and celebrated architect. She's one of the elite, someone who can control "pions," allowing her to manipulate matter with a thought. She's high up in the air, working on a towering statue, shaping the raw matter around her into art, when suddenly she finds herself under attack by strange, uncontrollable pions. When she regains consciousness after a horrible fall, it becomes clear that she has suffered more than just physical injuries: she's lost the ability to see pions and can now only see "debris," a sludgy byproduct of pion manipulation.

In an instant, Tanyana's charmed life comes to a grinding halt. While unconscious and recovering from her injuries, a tribunal has already found her guilty of negligence. Against her will, she is fitted with a strange powersuit and assigned to a team of debris collectors. Before long, the once-proud architect finds herself reduced to poverty, trudging... Read More

The Clockwork Rocket: Hard SF with heart

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket, which is the first volume in Greg Egan's brand new hard science fiction trilogy ORTHOGONAL, is a book with three different but equally important focal points. On the one hand, it's the story of a young woman who also happens to be a very alien alien. On the other, it's a novel about a planet -- a very alien planet -- on the cusp of tremendous social change. And, maybe most of all, it's a book about a universe with, well, alien laws of physics. Greg Egan successfully weaves these three threads into one fascinating story, but be warned: if you don't like your SF on the hard side, The Clockwork Rocket may be a tough ride for you. Hard as it may be, it's worth sticking with it, though.

The Clockwork Rocket's cover blurb is a perfect way to introduce the... Read More

Theft of Swords: Juicy

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

The first thing you should know about Theft of Swords is that it’s not a fine dining experience. This book is not the literary equivalent of going to a fancy restaurant and getting one of those huge plates that are mostly empty except for a tiny stalk of asparagus artfully drizzled with a delicate sauce. Instead, it’s more like sitting down hungry and getting a big, tasty burger you can just grab and sink your teeth into. (Vegetarians, please substitute for the vegetarian equivalent of a big, tasty burger. I’ve been trying to think of one, and I can’t. A veggie burger just doesn’t feel the same.) In other words, this book is straightforward. It’s huge. It’s low on subtlety but high on enjoyment. It is (and I fully realize this is not proper Literary Theory terminology) juicy. At this point I think I’ve stretched the food metaphor about as far as it’s goin... Read More

Empire State: Full to the brim of neat ideas

Empire State by Adam Christopher

Angry Robot is one of those publishers you just have to keep an eye on, because they come out with some unique, surprising fiction. Their books tend to defy genre conventions and often are impossible to classify. To mess with our heads even more, they then stick weird little filing instructions on them, such as “File Under: Fantasy [ Aztec Mystery | Locked Room | Human Sacrifice | The Dead Walk! ]” for Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, or “[The Mob & Magic | Ancient Secrets | Zombie Wizardry | Bet Your Life]” for Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights.

So when Angry Robot announced Adam Christopher’s Empire State Read More

The Postmortal: Entertaining and thought-provoking

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

It's 2019, and the cure for aging is here. By sheer accident, scientists have identified the gene that causes aging. After receiving "the cure," people can still get the flu, or cancer, or get murdered or die in car accidents, but the actual, biological aging process is halted so their bodies can theoretically keep going forever. The Postmortal is the story of John Farrell, a young estate lawyer who receives the cure early on and witnesses its effects on society firsthand.

The Postmortal is one of those old-fashioned science fiction novels that takes current — or at least very near-future — society as a starting point, adds one big scientific breakthrough, and then extrapolates its effects. The Truth Machine by James L. Halperin had an infallible lie detector. In The Terminal Experiment by Read More

Seed: An excellent debut novel

Seed by Rob Ziegler

About a century from now, when Rob Ziegler’s excellent debut novel Seed (2011) starts, climate change has caused a new Dust Bowl in the Corn Belt, resulting in major famine across the United States. Most of the surviving population leads a nomadic existence, migrating across the ravaged landscape in search of habitable, arable land. Decades of war, resource depletion and population decline have left the government practically powerless. Gangs and warlords rule the land.

The only thing staving off full-blown starvation is Satori, a hive-like living city that produces genetically engineered drought-tolerant seed. Its population is a mix of transhuman Designers, Advocate warriors and "landrace" Laborers. When one of Satori's Designers leaves the fold and goes rogue, the desperate U.S. government sends the ex-military Secret Service Agent Sienna Doss to track her down. Read More

The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow: As grim as it gets for Cory Doctorow

The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow by Cory Doctorow

When we meet Jimmy Yensid, the hero of Cory Doctorow's novella The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, he is aboard his giant mecha and hunting down a wumpus in the abandoned city of Detroit, until he comes under attack from a rival group of mechas. The resulting action scene is spectacular — and really made me want to dig out my ancient Mechwarrior games — but as you'd expect from Doctorow, there's much more going on than meets the eye.

Jimmy is a transhuman boy, genetically engineered to be as close to immortal as you can get. The wumpuses are ravenous mechanical monsters who consume any non-organic matter they find and recycle it into arable soil. Meanwhile, Jimmy's father is actually trying to preserve Detroit, the last standing city in the United States, as a historical artifact.

The Great Big... Read More

Planesrunner: Airships, quantum mechanics and a hero you care about

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

I’m a pretty big fan of Ian McDonald, so when I learned that a brand new novel by the author was on the way, I got suitably excited. Then, when I found out that the new novel would be the start of a series, and that this series would deal with alternate dimensions and multiverse-type ideas (very different from his last few books), I got really excited. And then, when I discovered that the series would be a young adult series — well, it took me a while to come down from that one.

So, here it is: Planesrunner, book one in Ian McDonald’s brand new EVERNESS series, which — based on this first novel — I hope will be a very long series of YA science fiction novels. Boy, this book was fun.

One night in London, fourteen-year-old Everett Singh is witness to his father’s kidnapping. The man disappears without ... Read More

Scholar: A new beginning in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO

Scholar by L.E. Modesitt Jr

In a pattern that’s by now familiar for L.E. Modesitt Jr., Scholar marks a new beginning in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO series. The book is set several hundred years before the events portrayed in the three “Rhentyll” novels Imager, Imager’s Challenge, and Imager’s Intrigue. Because of this, Scholar shares no characters with the earlier novels in the series and can be read separately. However, if you haven’t read the Rhentyll novels yet and are in the mood for some good, thoughtful fantasy, I still recommend reading them first, just so you can see the events of the new novel in the broader historical context L.E. Modesitt Jr. likes to build for his fantasy worlds.

Scholar is set in a time when Solidar hasn’t b... Read More

Necropolis: Wildly entertaining mish-mash

Necropolis by Michael Dempsey

Paul Donner, a New York police officer who was murdered in the early 21st century, finds himself brought back to life several decades later, in the wake of a viral attack that caused the “Shift.” Donner becomes part of the new underclass known as the “reborn”: reanimated corpses who gradually grow younger and who aren’t exactly appreciated by the living segment of New York’s population, trapped under the geodesic Blister that protects the rest of the world from the Shift virus. Lost in an unfamiliar future, Donner begins a quest for vengeance, uncovering secrets that are much larger than he initially expects. So begins Necropolis, the darkly entertaining “debut” novel by Michael Dempsey...

The quotation marks around the word “debut” are intentional: even though this is Michael Dempsey’s first published novel, he has an impressive writing... Read More

Stormed Fortress: Intellectually challenging, incredibly rewarding

Stormed Fortress by Janny Wurts

Stormed Fortressis the eighth novel in the WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW series by Janny Wurts, and the fifth and final novel in the Alliance of Light sub-arc. I’ve reviewed every novel in the series so far, and all of those reviews have been extremely positive, so by now it’s probably no secret that I’m a huge fan of these books and their author. That being said, Stormed Fortress is an outstanding novel even by the incredibly high standards of this series.

The conflict between the half-brothers Lysaer and Arithon continues unabated. The fortress mentioned in the book’s title is Alestron, home of the s’Brydion family which has played such a large and complex role in the conflict between Lysaer, the false avatar of the Light, and Arithon, the Master of Shadow. Lysaer leads the forces of his Alliance of Light to the s’Brydions’ doors... Read More

The Highest Frontier: One of the best pure SF novels I’ve read this year

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski

It’s been about a decade since Brain Plague, Joan Slonczewski’s last novel, came out, but I’d bet good money that more people instead remember the author for a novel that’s by now, unbelievably, already 25 years old — the wonderful and memorable A Door into Ocean, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Now, ten years after her last novel, Joan Slonczewski presents The Highest Frontier, another insightful exploration of hard SF concepts, married to a thrilling plot and filled with believable and fascinating characters.

The Highest Frontier is one of those novels that kicks into high gear right from the beginning, throwing a ton of new concepts and terms at the reader and then gradually filling in bits of inf... Read More

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