SFF Reviews

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Thorn Jack: Don’t drink the blackberry wine!

Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

For us readers of a certain age, “Tam Lin” and “college” in the same sentence are going to remind us of Pamela Dean’s quirky retelling. But other than profuse quoting of poetry, Dean’s Tam Lin and Katherine Harbour’s Thorn Jack are not much alike and don’t really invite comparisons. You might also think of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight a time or two, as a few of the story’s bones are similar, but I never once felt like I was reading a Twilight copy while reading Thorn Jack — which  goes to show you tropes need not be poison if woven into a good tale. What Thorn Jack reminded me of, more than an... Read More

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone: A fascinating pilgrimage

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian McDonald

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is a fascinating short novel by Ian McDonald. At the beginning of the story we meet Ethan Ring, who’s feeling conspicuously tall and red-headed as he chants in a Buddhist temple. Ethan and his friend, a famous Japanese manga artist, are on a bicycle pilgrimage in Japan. Neither of them knows what kind of demons the other is struggling with, and neither does the reader at first, but as they journey on, their stories come out and even though each man’s tale is different, they realize that both of them are searching for redemption and peace.

Many stories deal with a hero’s search for redemption, but Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is unique. The setting is a neo-feudal Japan where tech corporations are the fiefdoms and gangs of armed vigilantes threaten citizens’ peace and security. This is jarringly j... Read More

WWWebsday: July 23, 2014

On this day in 2012, Sally Ride passed away from pancreatic cancer. She was the youngest American astronaut to travel to space, the third woman in space, and a total badass. Lift a glass to Sally Ride today.

The Red Queen questions Alice

Writing, Editing, and Publishing:

Kate Bernheimer writes this essay for NPR on the predicament of immigrant children in the US, and the timely value of fairy tales for today’s young readers. “These aren't escapist fantasies; they're stories of kids facing unimaginable terror,” she writes about Maria Tatar’s collection of Grimm fairy tales.

James A. Moore recalls his childhoo... Read More

The Spectral Link: Subterranean Press provides two spectral short stories.

The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti

Subterranean Press has issued two original stories by Thomas Ligotti in a special edition volume titled The Spectral Link. Ligotti is best known for a brooding, gothic style of psychological horror that avoids slashing, gore and disgusting body fluids for a deep, dark, almost spiritual sense of wrongness. He delivers that creepy sense of wrongness in both these tales.

Ligotti’s prose is masterful, as is his control of tone. Tone is not as easy to manage as people might think; very often an historical story or an epic fantasy founders for me when the author slips into modern-day diction, or a gloomy, gothic tale suddenly sprouts a sentence that reads like it came right off of Facebook. Ligotti does not make these errors. Each word, sentence and paragraph is crafted to draw you in, leading you along a downward spiral of otherness and disconnection. Read More

The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis: The Sword in the Stone

The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis by Jack Whyte

Merlyn does not want to return to Camulod. He has found happiness in Mediobogdum with his wife, Tressa, and his charge, Arthur Pendragon. However, war is coming. Merlyn’s enemy, Peter Ironhair, has hired mercenaries to attack the Pendragon lands in order to advance the claim of Carthac, a distant relative of Uther Pendragon and a monstrous — some say invincible — psychopath. Meanwhile, the Saxons continue to invade along the southeast coast and there are also rumors of an invasion from the northeast.

Clearly, the Britons need a savior king, but Merlyn still worries that Arthur’s metamorphosis into the Riothamus — the high king — is not yet complete. They return to Camulod, where Merlyn and his brother, Ambrose, prepare to ... Read More

The Fort At River’s Bend: Half a story

The Fort At River’s Bend by Jack Whyte

The Fort At River’s Bend is the first half Jack Whyte’s The Sorcerer, which publishers decided to divide into two novels: The Fort At River’s Bend and Metamorphosis. Whyte apparently preferred that they would have been read as one entry.*

When The Fort At River’s Bend begins, our narrator, Caius Merlyn Brittanicus of Camulod, is reaching middle age. He is a warrior, a soldier, and a governor who has lost friends, family, and his wife to treachery and war. Now, he commits his life to raising Arthur Pendragon in safety.

Given that their enemies have already tried to assassinate Arthur, Merlyn has decided to remove the boy from danger and to raise him in secret. Merlyn sails to Read More

The Long Mars: Finally getting somewhere

The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter 

The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter still features egregious prose, but it finally begins to tie in some of the unresolved plotlines from earlier books in the LONG EARTH series. We now understand why Roberta (from The Long War) seemed so different; we find out where Willis Linsay, Sally Linsay's dad and the inventor of the Stepper, has been hiding; and we see more of the Long Earth exploration as the Chinese and the Americans team up to go "where no man has gone before."

This book also provides the most stunning portrayals of different Earths so far — chilling and inspiring answers to the "What if?" question that haunts our life-lucky planet. Landscapes full of masses of bacteria, of monument-building crabs, of plant life that approaches sentience, all of... Read More

Sacrifice of Fools: Aliens in Belfast

Sacrifice of Fools by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald grew up in Belfast, a city known for the turmoil and unrest it has endured because of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Some of McDonald’s novels allegorically explore the causes and results of a divided city. In Sacrifice of Fools, McDonald presents a vivid and lively conflicted Belfast, and then he throws a third element into the mix: aliens.

The Shian are a peaceful alien species who, upon arrival on Earth, are allowed to settle in Belfast in exchange for sharing the secrets of their technological superiority. The Shian are humanoid in appearance, but have enough biological differences that they cannot successfully mate with humans. They also have very different languages, laws, culture, and customs. While their similarities make them attractive to many humans (and weird fetishes evolve), the differences cause misunderstandings and culture... Read More

Horrible Monday: Shakespeare in Hell by Amy Sterling Casil

Shakespeare in Hell by Amy Sterling Casil

Shakespeare in Hell is an intriguing title. Think of all it can conjure up - allusions to Milton and Dante, who both had more luck finding stories in the darker realms of the afterlife, and with the villains of their pieces, than with an antiseptic realm of winged creatures playing harps, come to mind; one can imagine Shakespeare choosing Hell as a better stage for his plays and poetry. Or perhaps Shakespeare sinned with his Dark Lady, landing him in eternal flame. Or — well, the possibilities seem endless.

But Amy Sterling Casil has not taken full advantage of the myriad plotlines available to her. We are given no moral structure for this Hell, and no hint of a Deity meting out punishments and rewards. We never do learn precisely why Shakespeare is in Hell, though it does appear to have something to do with the Dark Lady, who is here given the... Read More

Beauty Awakened: Did Not Finish

Beauty Awakened by Gena Showalter

I’d never read any of Gena Showalter’s books before trying Beauty Awakened, but I’d gotten the idea they were fun reads. Unfortunately, I did not have fun with Beauty Awakened — in fact, it made me angry — and I abandoned the book partway through.

The setup is that Koldo, a physically and emotionally scarred dark-angel type, and Nicola, a self-sacrificing young woman with a heart condition and a dying twin sister, meet and eventually fall in love. But Showalter made Koldo so insufferable that I couldn’t root for them as a couple. At one point, he performs a miraculous task and Nicola asks him what he is, to have this ability. He berates her for not doing research. The woman is working two jobs and her sister is in the hospital! She explains, but he keeps lecturing her about priorities and excuses. After a while, even the fact that I w... Read More

The Left Hand of Darkness: An important thought experiment

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Given science fiction’s near infinite palette of available colors, it was bound to happen one day. Thankfully, Ursula Le Guin was the one. The idea: androgynous humans. Winner of several awards, the social significance of science fiction has never had a stronger proponent than The Left Hand of Darkness, the meaning of gender never so relevant to mankind.

Genly Ai is an envoy sent to the planet Gethen to convince the nation of Karrhide to join Earth’s Ekumen (a politically neutral organization supporting the dissemination of knowledge, culture, and commerce). What he encounters are the native Gethens, an androgynous people who go into kemmer once a month, physically adapting to the features of any mate they encounter during that time. Mixed up in the local politics is Estraven, a Gethen Genly meets as part of his inter-planetary task, and the two sub... Read More

Veil of the Deserters: Salyards’ world-building is fascinating

Veil of the Deserters by Jeff Salyards

Jeff Salyards’ BLOODSOUNDER’s ARC is a fantasy series in the gritty vein: harsh and bloody, though with a bit of humor mixed in. Veil of the Deserters, its second installment, is an interesting blend of political maneuvering and realistic tactical combat in the era of swords and crossbows.

Arki is the historian/scribe for the company of Captain Braylar Killcoin from the Syldoonian Empire. Momentous events have happened in the previous book as CPT Killcoin and his soldiers continue their mission to create chaos in the city of Alespell. For Arki, it’s a culture clash; his background as a highly educated archivist gives him a very different perspective on life and death than the members of the Jackal Tower who employ him. Arki must learn that mercy and justice often have no place in the murky, violent world in which he now lives.

Salyards’ world-building is... Read More

Vampirella: Southern Gothic by Nate Cosby

Vampirella: Southern Gothic by Nate Cosby

Vampirella is in the Witchblade tradition of pin-up lead female comic book characters. If you aren't likely to enjoy comics with this type of art, there's not even a slight chance that you'll enjoy this comic book. However, if you are already a fan of Vampirella, you probably already follow her books, and nothing I say here will make you like them any less, though I hope to help you decide whether this new book is worth seeking out. Therefore, I'm speaking primarily to an audience somewhere in the middle, an audience of readers open to the possibility that while they may be offended by certain visual aspects of a comic book, they might still appreciate other aspects of Vampirella. For that audience, I suggest that, though no... Read More

Tales from Oz (Vol. 1) by Joe Brusha

Tales from Oz (Vol. 1) by Joe Brusha

Grimm Fairy Tales presents Tales From Oz (Vol. 1), unfortunately, was a bit of a disappointment. I was interested in reading the four short stories about the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow, and Toto. The general storyline is written by Joe Brusha, but four separate authors took over the task of taking his plot and writing the individual stories.  The background of this version of Oz is told to us at the start of the collection: There was an evil sorceress Zamora who once tried to take over Oz. She has been defeated, but now her daughters, Lynessa and Zinna, are attempting to rule over Oz. All four stories take place within this context.

The first story is abo... Read More

Scourge of the Betrayer: Surprisingly gripping

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Arkamondos the scribe has just been given a new and unusual commission. He’s been hired by a notorious band of Syldoon soldiers to travel with them and observe and transcribe their adventures. The leader of this motley crew is Captain Killcoin, a brooding authoritarian figure whose weapon of choice is a frightening looking flail that has magical properties. Killcoin is accompanied by a few loyal companions who are just as scary and tough as he is. Arkamondos is intimidated by all of them, and he wonders if he’s made a big mistake, but Killcoin’s insistence that important events are about to occur makes Arkamondos decide that it will be best for his career if he stays... Plus, they’ll probably kill him if he leaves.

So off he goes with Killcoin’s band. They are coarse and vulgar but their dialog is frequently sharp and witty. There is much drinking, cursing, barfing, bleeding, piss... Read More

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