SFF Reviews

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Criminal (Vol. 5): The Sinners: Will have you feeling conflicted

Criminal (Vol. 5): The Sinners by Ed Brubaker

Tracy Lawless, whom we met in Criminal (vol. 2): Lawless, returns in The Sinners, volume five of Criminal. In this volume, he’s working for Sebastian Hyde, the man behind most of the organized crime in the city. He doesn’t want to work for Hyde, but he’s given his word (due to reasons explained in volume two), and Tracy always keeps his word — which keeps getting him into trouble. When other people involved in organized crime start getting killed for seemingly no reason, Hyde makes Tracy take on the role of detective: Find out who is doing the killings and dispose of them.

For the most part, Tracy is a hired killer. But what makes him an interesting character is his twisted sense of ethics: While he goes about killing many of those Hyde orders him to, he has certain rules he follows. First, he won’t... Read More

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful: Linked stories exploring humanity’s potential

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Arwen Elys Dayton’s latest novel, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful (2018) is a novel comprised of six linked stories, each taking part in a different point in humanity’s future, beginning “A few years from now,” leapfrogging to various points beyond, and ending when “They have left us far behind.” Dayton doesn’t specify the precise year or time period, letting the pace and scale of scientific advancements inform the reader’s imagination. Her teenaged protagonists each experience some kind of alteration (or lack thereof) and must cope with backlash, acceptance, or rejection of their changing selves and the significance those changes have on the world around them.

“Matched Pair” — An affecting story about twins Evan and Julia Weary, who are quite ill, and whose parents have decided that one surviving child, ... Read More

The Winter of the Witch: From golden firebird to Golden Horde, it’s all gold

Reposting to include Bill's new review:

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Medieval Russia comes to life in Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY, which began in Lesnaya Zemlya, a small village in northern Rus’ in The Bear and the Nightingale and continued in The Girl in the Tower. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a young woman with the rare ability to see and speak with the natural spirits or chyerti of the hearth, stables, and lands and waters of Rus’. Vasya has gained the attention and respect of the winter-king Read More

The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories: The successor to Robert E. Howard

The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories by Clifford Ball

If I were to ask 1,000 people what the words “Clifford Ball” meant to them, those to whom it meant anything, I have a feeling, would reply that the Clifford Ball was the first weekendlong concert bash that the jam band Phish ever held, back in August ’96, in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Fewer, perhaps, would know that the provenance for the name of that shindig was the aviation pioneer Clifford Ball, whose moniker the Phish folks thought would be a cool and punny handle for their event. But it is not of these two Clifford Balls that I would speak here, but rather of another: Clifford Ball the author, whose claim to fame today is his being the first writer to continue on in the sword-and-sorcery tradition after the suicide of Robert E. Howard in 1936. If you have not previously heard of Clifford Ball the w... Read More

Trifles and Folly: A Deadly Curiosities Collection

Trifles and Folly: A Deadly Curiosities Collection by Gail Z. Martin

I haven’t read any of Gail Z. Martin’s DEADLY CURIOSITIES novels, but Tantor Audio sent me Trifles and Folly: A Deadly Curiosities Collection (2016) and I thought it’d be a good introduction to the series.

The premise reminds me of Juliet Blackwell’s WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES, which stars a young woman, Lily Ivory, who gets vibes from used garments. She has a vintage clothing store in San Francisco and, because of her knack, gets pulled into all sorts of mysteries which she then solves. The San Francisco setting features prominently in the tales, as do a few people in Lily’s orbit, such as the friends who help her run the shop. Read More

The Cold Between: Pleasant but mundane space opera

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel

The Cold Between is the first novel in Elizabeth Bonesteel’s CENTRAL CORPS trilogy. This military space opera focuses more on personal and romantic relationships than most in this genre do. I’m tempted to call it romantic military space opera. The publisher compares Elizabeth Bonesteel’s work to that of Elizabeth Moon and Lois McMaster Bujold. I have read both of those authors’ space operas and I can say that this comparison is inaccurate. Bonesteel is writing for the same audience, but doesn’t quite make it in this debut novel.

The prologue of The Cold Between takes place 25 years before the events of the trilogy and briefly introduces us to Kate and her co... Read More

Kingdom of Exiles: Fae fantasy and sentimentality

Kingdom of Exiles by S.B. Nova

Here we have the tale of Serena Smith, blacksmith’s daughter exiled from her puritan-like settlement and then kidnapped by fairies and sold in the Kingdom of Aldar, which has much worse political problems than the oppressive community from which she’s taken. The difference is, she finds a way of making a difference — a thing she could not do in her human home.

I feel like this kind of fairy story is a bit at war with itself. Kingdom of Exiles (2017) bills as a feminist tale and means to make Serena fierce and self-actualizing, but there are at least as many times when the story can’t be served by this kind of persona and it falls into sharp conflict with its own ideals. Women ought to be playing heroic roles, but human power is never as good as fairy power in this story. When humans are amplified with magic, we’re again, not talking about feminine power. What is it... Read More

Dispatches from Planet 3: A lucid and concise tour of the universe

Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak

Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
(2018), by Marcia Bartusiak, is a highly readable collection of wonderfully concise explorations of various topics in astronomy/astrophysics. Each essay is only a few pages long, making the science easily digestible while still informative. Topics include black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and the multi-verse, to name just a few.

For an audience that doesn’t regularly read in this area, Dispatches from Planet 3 is a great introduction to the field thanks to the brevity and clarity of each piece, and the overall breadth of the collection as Bartusiak moves across time from, for instance, centuries-old discoveries to Lowell’s Mars canals to the most recent discoveries of exo-pl... Read More

Paper Girls (Vol 5): Story gaining momentum and richness

Paper Girls (Vol 5) by Brian K Vaughan (writer) & Cliff Chiang (artist)

This is the fifth volume of  Brian K. Vaughan’s PAPER GIRLS, and the larger story is really starting to take shape. The early volumes were quite elliptical and disorienting, so it’s great to be able to understand the various storylines and the larger world-building that is revealed, and get to know and like the four main protagonists even more as they are thrown into a series of tense adventures across time.

[SPOILER TERRITORY AHEAD - DON’T READ UNLESS YOU’VE READ VOLUMES ONE-FOUR]

Finally we get to delve into the far-future world inhabited by the old-timers, with the sleek and beautifully-colored futuristic cityscapes that were just hinted at in previous volumes. The girls find themselves in a far future city that is surp... Read More

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale: Grim undertones to Grimm

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One year after Tachyon Publications published The Emerald Circus, a collection of Jane Yolen's fantastical short stories based on various fairy tales and legendary people (both fictional and real), it has followed up with a similar collection, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018). Like The Emerald Circus, this is a compilation of Yolen’s older, previously published stories, spiffed up with new author’s notes in which Yolen briefly discuss each story and how she “fractured” it with significant departures from its original source material. These end notes for each story also include a poem by Yolen that’s linked to the same original source material. The source material varie... Read More

The Consuming Fire: A pure delight

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

In The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi introduced us to an interstellar empire called The Interdependency, a collection of far-flung human habitats connected by a quantum event called the Flow. The Interdependency is ruled by an Emperox, and a new Emperox, one who never considered herself in the line of succession and never wanted the role, had just been crowned. At this time, Grayland II, as she named herself, discovered that the Flow was starting to collapse. There was powerful mathematical and empirical evidence that the collapses or shifts in the Flow would continue, cutting off planets from one another for millennia.

Book two of THE INTERDEPENDENCY, The Consuming Fire Read More

The Sapphire Goddess: A very fine and long overdue collection

The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis by Nictzin Dyalhis

Unless you have perused the pages of the dozen or so Weird Tales anthologies that have been released over the past 50-plus years, odds are that you have not come across the name “Nictzin Dyalhis.” But during the 15-year period 1925 - 1940, Dyalhis was extraordinarily popular with the readers of that legendary pulp magazine, despite the fact that he only had eight stories published therein during that decade and a half. And of those eight, four were voted by the readers as the most popular of the issues in which they appeared, and five of them copped the front-cover illustration. This reader had previously encountered three of those tales in various anthologies, had loved them all, and was curious to read more. The only problem was, an anthology of Dyalhis’ work had never been compiled, until the fine folks at DMR released, this past summer, ... Read More

Thin Air: An intense, foul-mouthed, high-octane thriller

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan’s stand-alone novel Thin Air (2018) is set on Mars in the universe of his novel Thirteen. His protagonist, Hakan Veil, is a disgraced “enforcer” who’s just been dumped on Mars by the corporation to whom he had been indentured since childhood. They recently fired him. Hakan would love to get back to Earth, but that’s nearly impossible these days because it costs too much to get there and Earth lets very few people in. Mars is a hostile and decadent world with a populace made up of many criminal elements.

Fortunately, Hakan still retains some of the genetic enhancements his company supplied before cutting ties with him. This makes him a total badass. Corporate enforce... Read More

Wild Seed: Two African immortals battle for supremacy in early America

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

Wild Seed (1980) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 5-book PATTERNIST series, but comes first in chronology. The next books, by internal chronology, are Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976). Butler was later unsatisfied with Survivor (1978) and elected to not have it reprinted, so I will focus on the main four volumes. Wild Seed is an origin story set well before later books and can stand on its own. It’s one of those books whose basic plot could be described in just a few paragraphs, but the themes it explores are deep, challenging, and thought-provoki... Read More

The City of Brass: A dream of djinni

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Nahri, a young woman living alone in 18th century Cairo, gets by doing minor cons, fake healing rituals and a little theft. She knows nothing about her parents or heritage but, in addition to being able to diagnose disease in others with a glance and occasionally truly heal them, her own body automatically heals of injuries almost instantly and she has the magical ability to understand ― and speak ― any language.

Nahri's life gets upended when she accidentally summons Darayavahoush, a fiery, handsome djinn warrior, to her side while performing a sham healing ceremony. After he gets over his murderous rage at being involuntarily summoned, Dara saves Nahri from murderous ifrit and ghouls who have become aware of Nahri and her abilities. Dara quickly enchants a magic carpet and, dragging along the reluctant Nahri, he flees with h... Read More

Paper Girls (Vol 4): The most satisfying of the series so far

Paper Girls (Vol 4) by Brian K. Vaughan

This is the fourth volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls, and we are finally given enough glimpses of the larger plot to make sense of what’s happened until this point.

[SPOILER TERRITORY AHEAD - DON’T READ UNLESS YOU’VE READ VOLUMES ONE-THREE]

After being thrown into the distant past and battling cavemen and befriending fierce natives, the girls once again in their future (and our past), namely during Y2K before the millenium. There are all kinds of strange things happening, not least of which are giant robots duking it out like Transformers in the streets of quiet Stony Stream, but for some reason only one of the girls can see them.

We also get far more details on who the old-timers and young ones are, and why they are fighting a war across multipl... Read More

Sandy’s 2018 Film Year in Review

Anyone who knows me well could tell you that I don’t see a lot of new films. As a matter of fact, of the 80 films that I saw in 2018 (a paltry total for me … maybe I’ve been reading too much?), only eight were new, and 72 were old. Thus, my annual Top 10 Best and 5 Worst lists are necessarily different than most. With me, any film that I saw for the first time in 2018 was eligible for either list. If the film made me laugh, or think, or tear up, or sit suspensefully on the edge of my seat, or amazed me with something that I had not seen before, it had a good shot at being considered. On the other hand, for me, boredom is the worst thing that any film can be guilty of; I don’t care if a film is cheaply made, but please do not torture me with tedium. Anyway, with no further ado, my Top 10 Best and 5 Worst Lists of 2018. The films are listed in the order that I saw them…

TOP 10 BEST:







1) Crisis... Read More

The Harsh Cry of the Heron: How a finale can undermine a series

The Harsh Cry of the Heron by Lian Hearn

Whilst it never gained the traction of the likes of Pullman and Potter, the TALES OF THE OTORI series has all the same ingredients: the epic scope, mystery and intrigue, impossible love and an entirely immersive setting. Whether it was luck or timing that never saw the series reach the same heights as its contemporaries, its same crossover appeal proves it is surely one of the great YA fantasy series. So how is it possible that Lian Hearn (pseudonym of Gillian Rubinstein) can undermine this entire sweeping epic in one fell swoop?

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (2007) begins sixteen years after the trilogy's finale in Read More

A Conjuring of Light: A few issues, but still a nice close to a strong trilogy

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of Light (2017) brings V.E. Schwab’s multi-world trilogy to a close while leaving plenty of room for future stories in the SHADES OF MAGIC universe. We (Bill and Marion) both read it, and we share their thoughts about the third book below. This review may contain light spoilers for A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows.

A Gathering of Shadows ended on a cliffhanger. In the opening chapter of A Conjuring of Light, Delilah Bird has entered the world of White London to save Kell, who has fought off posse... Read More

It Happened at the Ball: 13 stories with ballroom settings

It Happened at the Ball edited by Sherwood Smith

This collection of thirteen (mostly) fantasy short stories and a novelette or two is tied together by their ballroom settings, whether it be the Almack’s Regency ballroom (where a group of young ladies happens upon an overly potent magical love potion in Marissa Doyle’s “Just Another Quiet Evening at Almack’s”) or a Civil War-era ball in Galveston, Texas (P.G. Nagle’s “A Waltz for May”). There are also some other themes that surface and resurface: masks and hidden identities, romance, and ― as editor and author Sherwood Smith freely admits in her foreword ― escapist wish-fulfillment. Here be faeries, vampires, thieves, pirates and lots of other intriguing ... Read More

Norwegian Wood: Murakami’s breakthrough novel

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Toru Watanabe is just another kid studying drama at university when he falls for his friend Naoko, who is in a relationship with another of Toru’s friends, Kizuki — until Kizuki commits suicide. Emotionally confused because she feels “split in two and playing tag with myself,” Naoko escapes to a mountain retreat, though not before sleeping with Toru. Watanabe pines for Naoko as he passes time in Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Nagasawa likes The Great Gatsby, and he has no trouble finding women to sleep with him — and with Toru, who feels disgusted with himself after these one-night stands. (Nagasawa, by the way, is in a relationship with Hatsumi, who is devoted to Nagasawa even though she seems too nice for him.) In the midst of these split loyalties and the emotional turbulence they cause, Watanabe meets Midori. Though she also has a boyfriend, Midori and Toru hit it off bec... Read More

Breach: A decent start to a Cold War fantasy series

Breach by W.L Goodwater

Breach (2018) is an interesting Cold War fantasy premise (think John le Carré with magic) that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise, though it’s a solid enough start to what is apparently going to be a series, COLD WAR MAGIC.

W.L Goodwater sets his novel in an alternate history where WWII was fought and won as in our own world (though with the Nazis apparently gaining more ground before eventually losing) with the exception that magic was wielded as a horrific weapon throughout, particularly by the Nazis, whose “research” into magic often involved Mengele-like methods. As in our world, Berlin was carved up into sectors and the Russians/East Germans built a wall, though this one is made out of magic rather than cement and brick.

Unfortunately, the wall is starting to fail (the titular “breach”), which on the surface sounds l... Read More

Nightflyers: Mystery and horror aboard a haunted spaceship

Reposting to include Marion's review of the new SYFY channel adaptation of Nightflyers. You can find it below our reviews of the novella.

Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin

Nightflyers was first published in 1980, won the Locus Award for best novella, and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It was made into an unsuccessful film in 1987. It’s recently been on people’s radars due to the upcoming SYFY series based on the novella. You can purchase it in several new (2018) formats including an illustrated edition, a story collection, and an audio version. I listened to the audio version, which was narrated by a... Read More

Criminal (Vol. 4): Bad Night: The twists and turns in plot are some of Brubaker’s best

Criminal (Vol. 4): Bad Night by Ed Brubaker

Jacob Kurtz is the focus of Bad Night, the fourth volume of Ed Brubaker’s wonderfully disturbing noir series Criminal. His job is writing the newspaper comic strip that shows up in Criminal (vol. 1): Coward. The comic, based on Dick Tracy, is entitled Frank Kafka, Private Eye, and it’s as puzzling as the stories written by Franz Kafka, after whom he’s named. Frank is put on cases that go nowhere with leads that could never result in understandable clues. As the comic opens, our cartoonist goes wandering the streets at night, as is his custom because of his constant insomnia. He goes into a diner and has an uncomfortable verbal exchange, a near-violent one, with the boyfriend of a woman named Iris, a red-headed woman who is this comic’s femme fatale.

The story’s tension begins immediately, as Jacob’s... Read More

Christmas Break!

We are on Christmas break with limited reviews/columns this week.

On Thursday we'll announce our favorite books of 2018.

We wish you a Merry Christmas!
(And for those who don't celebrate Christmas, we wish you a lovely holiday season!)

We hope you are able to have a joyful time with the people you love.

We also hope you'll have time to spend with some wonderful books. Read More