SFF Reviews

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Frostfire: A good MG adventure with lots of derring-do

Frostfire by Jamie Smith

Frostfire (2019), by Jamie Smith, is a middle-grade fantasy set in the mountainous land of Adranna. Adranna lies in the shadow of the great peak of Aderast, and all of its magic comes from the shimmering glacier that flows from it. A handful of young people are chosen each year to climb to the glacier and claim a small piece of it, a frostsliver, which gives them special abilities and marks them as people of importance in Adranna’s society.

Sabira is a fourteen-year-old girl who has been chosen to receive a frostsliver. The novel opens as she is making her climb. The narrative then flashes back to the previous year, when Sabira’s brother Kyran was chosen. Tensions have been growing with the neighboring nation of Ignata, and after an Ignatian raiding party attacked Sabira’s family, everything started going wrong for Kyran. Now he is missing, and Sabira is det... Read More

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club: Twelve dancing princesses meet the Roaring Twenties

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

As far as fairy tale retellings go, mingling the tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses with the 1920's New York speakeasies makes a lovely kind of sense. The prohibition, the dance halls, the high society – it all fits perfectly with the story of twelve princesses who sneak out of their rooms every night, much to the bewilderment of their father when he sees their worn-out shoes every morning.

Genevieve Valentine transports the familiar beats of the story to a Fifth Avenue townhouse in the Roaring Twenties, in which the daughters of wealthy magnate Joseph Hamilton are kept in captivity, seen by no one but themselves. He was eager for a son of course, but his wife died after twelve girls (including two sets of twins).

This leaves Josephine, the firstborn... Read More

Mapping Winter: A character and a world that will stick with me

Mapping Winter by Marta Randall

Mapping Winter (2019) is Marta Randall’s reworking of her 1983 novel, The Sword of Winter. (Randall talks more about the story behind the book here.) Its release as Mapping Winter was followed shortly by the all-new sequel The River South, with the two novels making up the RIDERS GUILD series. It’s a secondary-world fantasy, but without magic; I was about two-thirds of the way through the book when I realized, “Huh, I don’t think there’s been any magic!” What it does have is a nation poised between feudalism and industrialization.

The Riders are a venerable organization of messengers who travel around the country of Cherek. They bring the news, spread proclamations, and are responsible for... Read More

Aluminum Leaves: There are other worlds than these…

Aluminum Leaves by Marion Deeds

Aluminum Leaves (2019) is the debut novella by Marion Deeds, who is also part of the review team here at Fantasy Literature. Because Marion is one of our own, we are not going to give Aluminum Leaves a star rating — but we still wanted to highlight her work in the field of speculative fiction. We are very excited to see her share her work with the world.

Aluminum Leaves begins with a house fire; Erin Dosmanos is escaping her crumbling home in more ways than one, as it quickly becomes apparent that she is not only fleeing the fire, but plans to go through a portal to another world. This novella, the first in the BROKEN CITIES series, is the story of how Erin uses her quick wits and specific skills to protect a ma... Read More

Salvation Day: Multiple issues, some bright spots

Salvation Day by Kari Wallace

In the prologue to Kari Wallace’s debut adult novel, Salvation Day (2019), we witness the fate of the huge spaceship House of Wisdom after a biological weapon killed every member aboard except for a 12 year old boy named Jaswinder Bhattacharya, whose mother engineered his escape.

Now it’s a decade later and Jaswinder is a young man, well-educated, talented, and famous for his survival. A group of cultish separatists who are angry at the way they’ve been treated by Earth’s government plan to kidnap Jaswinder so they can gain access to House of Wisdom and get away from Earth. Their terrorist team is led by Zahra, the daughter of the man who released the virus. But when Jaswinder and the terrorists enter the ship, they make some discoveries that endanger the entire population of Earth.

To put things bluntly, S... Read More

The Confession: As magical as The Miniaturist

The Confession by Jessie Burton

After the phenomenal success of The Miniaturist (and The Muse after it), the buzz surrounding Jessie Burton's latest release should come as no surprise. Whilst The Confession (2019) might seem like a very different kind of book (gone are the elements of the fantastical and the uncanny), Burton's signature tension, suspense and an intricately characterised female cast remain.

In the winter of 1980, Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden on Hampstead Heath by chance. Connie is a successful writer. Older than Elise, she is alluring in a way that Elise has never known. The women's lives quickly become e... Read More

Priest of Lies: Is Tomas going down the wrong path?

Priest of Lies by Peter McLean

Priest of Lies (2019) is the second book in Peter McLean’s WAR FOR THE ROSE THRONE. You’ll need to read the first book, Priest of Bones, first. This review will have some spoilers for that first novel.

It’s been six months since the events that happened at the end of Priest of Bones. Tomas is now married to Elsa, the Queen’s Man who has been (unbeknownst to the rest of the Pious Men) directing his behavior in service of the crown. The marriage is a sham and Tomas has soured on Elsa after the explosion that she orchestrated killed hundreds of people in his city. He isn’t sure (and neither am I) that it was necessary or wise. He also does... Read More

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter: A Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes pastiche

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Captain John Wyndham has returned to Khelathra-Ven after being away with the army for several years. Rents are high, so he decides to answer an ad for a housemate. When he moves in, he discovers that his new companion is Shaharazad Haas, a renowned and powerful sorceress who’s addicted to opium. When Ms. Haas is asked to find out who is blackmailing her ex-girlfriend, Captain Wyndham tags along and starts getting involved in a case which turns into a weird and wacky adventure.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (2019) is a gender-bending Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Shaharazad Haas is Sherlock Holmes and Captain Wyndham, who was female when he was young, is Watson. The plot, which is quirky... Read More

Chronin Vol. 2: The Sword in Your Hand

Chronin Vol. 2: The Sword in Your Hand by Alison Wilgus

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back introduced readers to Mirai Yoshida, a wise-cracking time-traveling university student who became stranded in the city of Edo (current-day Tokyo) just before Japan’s Meiji Restoration period. Posing as a male ronin and running errands for the locals has kept her alive and fed, but she was never intended to spend years living in the past, and the danger that her multiple secrets could be exposed is very real. While acting as bodyguard for Hatsu, who works in a local tea shop and needs protection on her way along the Tokkaido Road to Kyoto, Mirai encounters new and familiar faces — not all of whom are pleased to be in her presence.

As Mirai quickly discovers, other time-travelers have used this futuristic technology to... Read More

The Gossamer Mage: A mixed bag

The Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda

I really wanted to like The Gossamer Mage (2019) by Julie E. Czerneda, because there is so much to like in it: the premise, the themes, the character cores. But more than usual, I felt the book was fighting me the whole way, so that while it always was in the realm of wholly enjoyable, something always got in the way of it reaching its full potential.

The story is set in the relatively small, isolated land of Tananen, apparently the only place in this world that still has magic, though it’s a particularly costly form. The magic is a “gift” from the Deathless Goddess, who bestows her magic words in different fashion to men and women. Men with the “gift” can be mage scribes, people who can write the Goddess’ words with “intention” and thus create made creatures such as unfailing oxen, powerful bodyguards, illuminating insects, etc. (Som... Read More

Starfish: A scary deep-sea biological horror story

Starfish by Peter Watts

In a future overpopulated and under-resourced Earth, a geothermal energy plant has been constructed in a trench thousands of miles under the Pacific Ocean’s surface. The humans of the maintenance crew who live and work in and around the power station have been genetically engineered to withstand the harsh deep-sea environment. But the only people who are willing to undergo this biological manipulation and unpleasant living situation are outcasts, misfits, the psychologically damaged, and criminals.

We meet them aboard the Beebe station where they live together in a cramped environment that can be tense, not only because of the difficulty of their job, but also because of the personalities involved. Ratcheting up the tension is the presence of the unearthly creatures that inhabit the deep trench and the crew’s realization that, in some ways, they are more akin to those monsters than they are to the human... Read More

The Nightjar: A decent debut that promises more and better to come

The Nightjar by Deborah Hewitt

Deborah Hewitt’s The Nightjar (2019) is one of those debut novels that in many ways feels like a first novel, with all the issues that may conjure up, but that despite those issues leaves you eager to see where the author goes with her next novel.

Hewitt starts off with a gripping, chilling prologue, then shifts to present-time London where Alice Wyndham receives an odd gift that precipitates her being flung into a long-running conflict between a species of people with special abilities, most of whom live in an alternate near-copy 1930’s-style London (called The Rookery), and a secret society (unfortunately known as the Beaks) who seeks to destroy them. There’s also a death-cult trying to instigate a world-ending apocalypse thrown into the mix for good measure. Alice herself, she learns, is one of those who can perform “magic.” More precisely, she ... Read More

Sapphire Flames: The siren takes the lead

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Sapphire Flames (2019) is the fourth novel in Ilona Andrews' HIDDEN LEGACY urban fantasy/romance series, in which powerful magical families control most of society. (Note: You really do have to start at the beginning of this series, with Burn for Me; each book builds on what came before.) Having wrapped up the romance of Nevada Baylor and Connor Rogan in the first three books in this series, Sapphire Flames and the interim novella that precedes it, Diamond Fire, shift the focus of the series to a new main character, Nevada's younger sister Catalina Baylor, a so-called ... Read More

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man: Jennifer Lawrence of Arabia

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Tamora Pierce

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man is the third volume of the SONG OF THE LIONESS quartet and the weakest volume of the series. Tamora Pierce makes a good effort of exposing Alanna (and thus, the reader) to some of the varying peoples and customs within the Tortallan kingdom and its neighboring countries, but relies too much on the White Savior trope, and the entire book suffers as a result. As I’ve said before, readers should start with the first book, Alanna: The First Adventure and work forward, though Pierce does a great job of summarizing key events from previous books.

The entire SONG ... Read More

Hellboy (vol. 6): Strange Places: Two More Mythos-Building Hellboy Tales

Hellboy (vol. 6): Strange Places by Mike Mignola (writer and artist) & Dave Stewart (colorist)


Strange Places is a collection of two top-notch Hellboy stories. “The Third Wish,” the first story, takes Hellboy to Africa. Mignola expertly weaves together several African tales of folklore before taking Hellboy beneath the sea. There he is captured by three mermaids who turn him over to their grandmother, the Bog Roosh, a large fish-like creature. The Bog Roosh traps him in bones made from a man who blames Hellboy for his murder. Each of the mermaids makes a wish but gets more than she bargained for, until the third, only somewhat smarter than her two sisters, makes a wish that will have an impact on Hellboy. And as always, in the end, Hellboy makes his own destiny. It is a story with a beautiful, haunting ending.

“The Island” is the second, and final, story in this coll... Read More

Walking to Aldebaran: Literary musings in an alien cavern of horrors

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I never know what to expect from Adrian Tchaikovsky, but he’s always entertaining. Walking to Aldebaran (2019) is unlike anything I’ve read from Tchaikovsky to date, a powerful, literary SF novella with an edgy, dark sense of humor and a strain of horror that gradually intensifies until its shocking ending.

British astronaut Gary Rendell is part of an international space team sent from Earth to explore a moon-sized, alien-made object ― officially called the Artefact, unofficially called the Frog God because of its appearance in photos ― that a space probe has found lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system. Through a series of events that are gradually unfolded to the reader, Rendell is now wandering alone inside the cold, endless, crypt-like tunnels i... Read More

Priest of Bones: A brutal beginning

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

Tomas Piety, a foul-mouthed army priest who recently promoted himself to captain after the death of the former captain, is on his way home with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Bloody Anne, and some of their soldiers. The war is over and Tomas is looking forward to returning to Ellinburg, his hometown, where he owns several small businesses such as taverns and brothels.

Actually, to call Tomas a businessman is slightly generous. In fact, he’s a mob boss and much of his wealth comes from selling protection to those who are weaker. He can be savage when necessary but, generally, he’s a nice guy who cares for the people he feels responsible for, including the citizens of his town. The men who work for him in Ellinburg are known as the Pious Men and Tomas has invited his remaining veterans to join them. (I’m not sure why they didn’t go back to their own hometowns.)

When Tomas and... Read More

Astounding: Four men who, despite their flaws, helped form science fiction

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is generally pinned to the decade from 1939 to 1950, and while a host of people contributed in various ways, pretty much everyone agrees that if one could point to a single dominating figure it would John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the pre-eminent magazine for science fiction at the time. In Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018), Alec Nevala-Lee explains how Campbell, and the trio of quite different authors who made up his highly influential stable of writers, came to have such outsized influence and then, for ... Read More

Dead Voices: I’m hooked on this series

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden

I loved Small Spaces, Katherine Arden’s first foray into children’s horror, and so I jumped right into its sequel, Dead Voices (2019). A few months have passed since Ollie, Coco, and Brian outsmarted the Smiling Man who wanted to turn them, and all their classmates, into scarecrows. The ordeal left them with recurring nightmares, but also made them best friends. It’s December now, and Ollie’s dad has won a stay at Mount Hemlock, the new ski lodge a few hours outside of town. He’s taking all three kids, along with Coco’s mom.

I didn’t fall in love as immediately this time, and I think I’ve distilled that down to two reasons. One is that, from an adult perspective, it seemed... Read More

Dragonslayer: Never transcends its overly familiar nature

Dragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton

Duncan M. Hamilton’s Dragonslayer (2019) has all the elements one might expect from a fantasy novel: a quasi-medieval-Europe setting, swordmasters, mages, powerful talismans, ancient half-forgotten lore, quests with slim odds of success, powerful clerics, secret societies, etc. And that, unfortunately, is just the problem. It has all the expected elements but little unexpected, and the elements as presented are somewhat flat, as are the characters.

Gill (Lord Guillot) was once the greatest swordsman in the land and a member (currently the last living one) of the Chevaliers of the Silver Circle, a legendary cadre of enhanced mage-warriors who long ago devolved into far lesser men whose rituals were more excuses for drinking. Gill’s drinking became even worse after the death of his wife and son and his ensuing (unfair) expulsion from the court several ... Read More

Small Spaces: A delicious autumn read

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

I fell in love with Small Spaces (2018) from the first paragraph. Before I even realized this was the same Katherine Arden whose adult fiction I’ve been meaning to read for years, and before I got caught up in the richly drawn characters and the spooky plot, I was smitten by this:
October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples. Olivia Adler sat nearest the big window in Mr. Easton’s math class, trying, catlike, to fit her entire body into a patch of light. She wished she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine. Soon the old autumn sun would bed down in cloud blankets, and there would be weeks of gray rain before it finally decided to snow. But Mr. Easton was teaching fractions and had no sympathy for Ol... Read More

Court of Fives: The dangers of imperialism, racism, and ambition

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott has a well-deserved reputation for writing excellent science-fiction and fantasy for adults. Her characters, world-building, and societies are not only entertaining but well-crafted. It seems only natural that, at some point in her career, she would try her hand at Young Adult fiction. The result is Court of Fives, the first in a planned fantasy trilogy which is sure to appeal to younger readers as well as Elliott’s established fan base. While I’ve seen the novel described as “YA meets Game of Thrones,” Elliott herself has said, “I prefer Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior,” which is far more relevant to my personal interests (and a more unique combination). Read More

Dark Age: This series is starting to feel its length

Dark Age by Pierce Brown

Dark Age (2019) is Pierce Brown’s fifth installment in his Homeric-styled RED RISING space opera, and it comes pre-loaded with many of the set scenes fans have come to expect: major space battles, desperate fights against overwhelming odds, brutal deaths and torture scenes, labyrinthian scheming, verbal volleys nearly as nasty as the physical ones (though with less decapitation), great names, the slaughter of millions, painful introspection. It’s all here and all handled with the same effectively, skillfully bombastic style as the prior four novels in the series.

Which is both the strength and weakness of this latest episode. On the one hand, all of those story elements, combined with Brown’s stylistic gifts, are what have made this series so compulsively readable. On the other hand, for the v... Read More

In the Hand of the Goddess: Squire Alan(na) delivers some hard knocks

Reposting to include Rebecca’s new review.

In the Hand of the Goddess by Tamora Pierce

In the Hand of the Goddess is the second installment of Tamora Pierce’s SONG OF THE LIONESS quartet, and while Pierce does provide a fair amount of backstory and repetition of key details from the previous book, Alanna, I recommend reading the books in sequence. By starting at the beginning, readers will have a better appreciation for the trials and challenges Alanna experiences in her quest to become a knight, as well as her struggle to maintain her false identity as “Alan,” since only boys are allowed to train in the king’s service. This review may contain a few spoilers for key events in Ala... Read More

The Unbound: Not your typical high school drama

The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

The Unbound is the sequel to Victoria Schwab’s The Archived, which you should read before starting this book. There will be some spoilers for The Archived in this review, so beware.

Summer is over for Mackenzie Bishop, the Keeper whose secret job is to escort the “Histories” of dead people back to their resting place in the Archive. When we met Mac in The Archived, she had just moved into an old hotel in a new town and solved some murders that had occurred there decades ago. Also, she met Wesley, a spiky-haired eyeliner-wearing boy who turned out to have a lot more in common with her than she ever could have guessed.

... Read More