SFF Reviews

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The Last Tsar’s Dragons: Less than the sum of its parts

The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

The Last Tsar’s Dragons (2019) is frustrating, both as a reading exercise and in retrospect, when I think about how universally lauded Jane Yolen is and that Adam Stemple, her son, is a well-regarded author in his own right. So take a master storyteller and her progeny, begin with the political tar pit that was the Russian court in the last days of the Romanovs, and add revolutionaries and literal fire-breathing dragons into the mix…

What should, by all expectations, be a fascinating story meanders between various viewpoints, skips through its timeline with no clear indications as to when events are occurring with relation to one another, and makes... Read More

SAGA Volume 9: A shattering volume

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Saga (Vol. 9) by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) & Fiona Staples (artist)

It’s been nine months since I read Vol 8 of Saga, which is something special. It’s the only comic series that I follow, and the characters are as vivid, complicated, lovable, despicable, cruel, and conflicted as any I know. This is a space opera that tackles the most difficult and relevant topics of our own society, doesn’t hesitate to shock readers, flip the script, and most frightening of all, doesn’t hold back from killing off major characters that we are deeply invested in. It’s a cruel message, that even the best people trying to just live their lives and maintain their ideals can be snuffed out by those with less scruples, and that those that have used violence in the past can rarely escape the consequences, even after having turned to a peaceful path. This volume wi... Read More

The Sundering Flood: An old-fashioned heroic tale from a godfather of fantasy

We welcome a new guest reviewer: Michaela Hausmann.

The Sundering Flood by William Morris

The Sundering Flood (1897) is the last fantasy romance by William Morris. Unfinished during his lifetime, the romance was published posthumously by his daughter May Morris. It relates the trials and tribulations of the young hero Osberne and his female friend and future lover Elfhild. Although both are separated from each other by an impassable river (the eponymous Sundering Flood), they can communicate with each other across the water and form a close bond. When fate strikes and Elfhild seems lost, Osberne embarks on a journey to find her and becomes involved in a greater struggle for freedom.

Osberne is in many ways a typical h... Read More

SAGA Volume 8: Real and funny and heartbreaking

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Saga (Vol 8) by Brian K Vaughan (writer) & Fiona Staples (artist)

It’s been six months since I read Vol 7 of SAGA, and after moving to London last summer we recently popped into Forbidden Planet in Soho, and that store is an absolute treasure trove of SF comics, books, and other fan goodies. There are so many enticing comics on offer there, you could spend your entire salary in one wild shopping spree. When I saw Vol 8 of SAGA with Wild West cover art among the new releases, I knew I had to have it.

SAGA is my favorite comic series, because it is always pushing the envelope in terms of content, themes, gorgeously assured and sometimes shocking artwork, and characters so charming, honest and flawed that you can’t help but cheer for them. If you like intelligent, snarky, sometimes profane space opera with a v... Read More

The Dragon Token: Did Not Finish

The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn

I tried and failed to finish The Dragon Token, the second book in Melanie Rawn’s DRAGON PRINCE trilogy (really the fifth book in her DRAGON STAR trilogy). These novels are currently being released in very nice audio formats by Tantor Audio who has generously sent them to me for reviews. I feel bad for quitting, because these are such excellent audio productions narrated by Christa Lewis, but I am just so bored with them and each book is quite long.

Readers who enjoy or feel nostalgic for a medieval-style fantasy epic with a huge cast of white nobles who try to gain power, keep power, or scheme with others to wrest power from someone else, will certainly get more enjoyment out of these books than I did.

While Rawn attempts to flip th... Read More

Bonfires and Broomsticks: Time-traveling with the magic bed-knob

Bonfires and Broomsticks by Mary Norton

In Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947), part two of Mary Norton’s BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS duology, it's two years after events of the first book, The Magic Bed-Knob. The three young siblings, Carey, Charles and Paul, get the chance to leave London and spend the summer in Bedfordshire with their spinster friend, Miss Price, who was a witch in training. And they still have the magic bed-knob that enables them to fly through time and space on Paul's old bed, which is now in Miss Price's bedroom! Good magical times ahead!

Or maybe not: Miss Price, while pleased to see them, has decided that being a witch is a Bad Idea, and she's given up magic. But, the children argue, almost anything is fine in moderation, and they never did get the chan... Read More

Hellboy (vol 3): The Chained Coffin and Others: Building the Hellboy mythos

Hellboy (vol 3): The Chained Coffin and Others by Mike Mignola (writer and artist),

Hellboy (vol 3): The Chained Coffin and Others does not continue the main storyline of Hellboy started in volumes one and two; instead, Mignola collects a handful of Hellboy tales in this trade edition:

In “The Coffin,” Hellboy makes his appearance in Ireland in 1959 as a mother cries over her baby, who she is convinced is a changeling. “Get to the crossroads by the strike of middle-night under the corpse tree,” screams the changeling-baby when Hellboy tortures it with iron. And Hellboy is off to the crossroads to make a deal with three creatures. Next thing you know, he is on a quest with a dead man hanging off his back. Only if he is successful will he be able to return the baby to her mother. “The Coffin” is one of Mignola’s best short stories.

Hellboy makes an appearance in Ireland again, ... Read More

Once Broken Faith: A solid entry

Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire

Once Broken Faith (2016) begins with a hilarious scene in which Toby & co. host a slumber party for a horde of fae teenagers, during which the kids devour unholy amounts of junk food and discover the joys of Disney movies. The festivities are then interrupted by Queen Arden Windermere, who wants Toby as a witness as she uses Walther’s elf-shot cure to wake Madden and Nolan. The High King decreed that no further use of the cure should take place until after a conclave of fae royalty can meet and discuss it, so Arden is exploiting a loophole. Madden wakes, but before Nolan can be roused, the High King shows up early.

The conclave will bring together all of the royal courts of the western United States, and Toby is also chosen to attend. Seanan McGuire introduces us to an in... Read More

The Purple Sapphire: The great race

The Purple Sapphire by John Taine

In the Rare Book Room in NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand there has resided, for quite some time now, a volume that I have greatly wanted to acquire. The book in question is Scottish author John Taine’s very first novel, The Purple Sapphire, which was first released by E. P. Dutton & Co. as a hardcover in 1924 … the same year that Dutton released Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s now-classic dystopian book We. The Strand edition is this very Dutton original, made even more collectible due to its nicely preserved dust ja... Read More

SAGA Volume 7: A valuable stepping stone

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review:

Saga (Vol. 7) by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist)

I had to wait nine months for Vol 7 of Brian Vaughan's Saga, and about a year for Vol 6, after reading the first 5 volumes back-to-back. Saga is my favorite current comic series (actually, the only one I am following at the moment), and if you haven’t read it then go out and read Vol 1 right now. If you like intelligent, snarky, sometimes profane space opera centered on a pair of star-crossed lovers who have a little girl named Hazel and an amazing supporting cast of bounty-hunters, humanoid robots, reporters, and various others all caught up in a gal... Read More

In the Shadow of Spindrift House: One day, we will all go into the water

In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant

Zoinks, Scoob. Like, this is one crazy mixed-up book.

In the Shadow of Spindrift House (2019) is a lot like if Mystery, Inc. — you know, those four meddling kids, their talking dog, and that giant green van — stumbled into investigating a Lovecraftian tale. The difference being, of course, that Mira Grant’s novella is deadly, deadly serious, with little chance that any shambling or creeping horrors will be unmasked to reveal an old amusement-park owner who would have gotten away with his nefarious plan if not for said meddlers.

Harlowe Upton-Jones and her three friends, all recent high school graduates, are real-and-true teenage detectives. They’ve spent years solving cases ... Read More

Kill the Queen: A YA type of fantasy with adult content

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair is a member of the royal family (seventeenth in line for the throne of Bellona, to be precise) and has lived in the royal palace for fifteen years, since her parents were murdered when she was twelve. But this position of access hasn’t exactly translated into a life of privilege for Everleigh, or Evie. Partly because she lacks the powerful offensive magical powers that most royals have (she does have a super-sensitive sense of smell), Evie is treated just a few steps above a servant. She’s mostly overlooked unless there’s some boring or unpleasant duty that a royal has to perform, like making cranberry-apple pie for guests from the kingdom of Andvari or learning an intricate dance, the Tanzen Freund, for the visiting Ungerian delegation.

Evie does, in fact, have another magical power that she’s kept secret all her life, and it and her nose stand her in go... Read More

This Is How You Lose the Time War: Great blend of style, structure, and imagination

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone



 

To: Reviewer

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone are coming out with a new book — This Is How You Lose the Time War — and I was wondering when you would finally get around to reviewing it.

Reader



To: Reader

Contrary to what you apparently think, we reviewers don’t get the pages as the writers compose them. Plus, we do have lives. That said, I’d already requested an early copy because Gladstone... Read More

A Red-Rose Chain: Some pacing issues

A Red-Rose Chain by Seanan McGuire

This is one of my favorite of Chris McGrath’s covers for the OCTOBER DAYE series, and it’s one of my favorite titles too, so it pains me to say that this isn’t one of my favorite books in the series. A Red-Rose Chain (2015) suffers from some pacing issues and didn’t quite knock my socks off like The Winter Long did.

The kingdom of Silences, analogous to mortal Portland, declares war on the Mists. By faerie law, the Mists has three days to try to make peace instead. Toby annoys Queen Windermere at exactly the wrong moment, and her punishment is to travel to Silences as an ambassador.

There’s a good deal of setup for this, followed by several chapters of Toby and her chosen family discussing who should go along on the trip and... Read More

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past (2019), by Sarah Parcak, is an entertainingly informative mix of popular science, memoir, and even some fiction. Parcak does an excellent job of bringing the rarified field of remote sensing down to earth, in both literal and metaphorical fashion.

Remote sensing is a relatively new tool in science and, in particular, in archaeology. Parcak dates its use in the field from 1906, when a lieutenant of the Royal Engineer’s Balloon Section used a tethered balloon to take photos of Stonehenge and “a new world had been opened up from on high.” She traces the evolution of the science and engineering through both World Wars (her grandfather, “Grampy,” was a WWII paratrooper who applied his knowledge of aerial photography to forestry), government and private flights, and on into the space era, beginning in 1... Read More

Bewitched and Betrothed: Another fun few days with Lily

Bewitched and Betrothed by Juliet Blackwell

Anyone who’s been following Lily Ivory’s adventures as a witchy vintage dress shop owner who solves murders as a hobby has been looking forward to the tenth installment: Bewitched and Betrothed (2019).

As the title suggests, Lily is preparing for her wedding. The handfasting will be in a few days and Lily’s grandmother and her coven, as well as Lily’s mother, are in town. Of course, as readers have come to expect, nothing ever goes smoothly in Lily Ivory’s orbit. First, an old Alcatraz prisoner’s uniform has come into the shop, and Lily can sense the malice of the thing. Then the cousin of Carlos Romero (the friendly policeman) is kidnapped. These two events converge as Lily and her friends visit Alcatraz and try to solve the mysteries. There are some little romantic concerns, too, as usual. These will have to be taken care of before the day of the h... Read More

Limited Wish: You can’t always get what you want

Limited Wish by Mark Lawrence

As Limited Wish (2019) begins, Nick Hayes, the 16-year-old math genius that we met in One Word Kill (you need to read it first) is being pursued by a pack of drunken Cambridge students bent on beating him up. It’s 1986 and Nick has just been enrolled at Cambridge, thanks to the notice of Professor Halligan, a brilliant mathematician who recognizes Nick’s potential. What Prof Halligan doesn’t know is that Nick has to invent time travel so that when he’s older he can come visit his teenage self in the late 1980s and, in so doing, save Mia, the girl he thinks he loves and has a future with.

But there are several major problems with this scenario. Worst: (1) Nick has no idea how the mathematics of time travel might work, especially when you throw in the time paradoxes he’s ex... Read More

The Magic Bed-Knob: Charming, old-fashioned, and not much like the Disney movie

The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton

I was a child when I first saw Disney's 1971 movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks and have fond memories of it. So when I found out that the book that inspired the movie, Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob (1943), was nominated this year for a 1944 Retro Hugo award, I was excited to read it. It's charming and old-fashioned ... but not everything I had hoped for. Also, it's not much like the Disney movie, which is both a positive and a negative thing.

During the London Blitz, three siblings ― Carey ("about your age"), Charles ("a little younger") and Paul ("only six") ― are sent to Bedfordshire to stay with their Aunt Beatrice. (Tangentially, it’s worth noting that in recent editions of The Magic Bed-Knob, all references to the war have been redacted, perhaps in an effort to make the story le... Read More

The Winter Long: One of the best books in a very good series

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s OCTOBER DAYE series is one that can be divided into two types of books: ones that develop the larger “metaplot,” and ones that deal with more episodic concerns (though the events of the episodic books tend to have important consequences later in the series).

The Winter Long (2014) is a metaplot book, and it’s a doozy.

Toby is ready to crash after the new Queen’s winter solstice party, when the doorbell rings. It’s Simon Torquill: twin brother of Toby’s liege lord, and the man who turned Toby into a fish way back at the beginning of Rosemary and Rue. And he wants to bury the hatchet. He wasn’t trying to ruin Toby’s li... Read More

Stronghold: A soap opera

Stronghold by Melanie Rawn

I’ve been reading Melanie Rawn’s DRAGON PRINCE and DRAGON STAR trilogies because the audio versions of this late 1980s / early 1990s fantasy epic are just now being released in audio format and Tantor Audio has sent me review copies. Stronghold (1990) is the first book in the DRAGON STAR trilogy but it’s really just book four of the DRAGON PRINCE trilogy. I have no idea why the epic was divided into two trilogies since you must read DRAGON PRINCE if you hope to have any clue about what’s going on in DRAGON STAR.

Perhaps the division is signaling a change in focus from Rohan and Sioned’s generation to that of Prince Pol. At this point in the story, Pol has taken on more and more ... Read More

An Earthman on Venus: Formian follows function

An Earthman on Venus by Ralph Milne Farley

Sometimes, it seems, a man must go through any number of occupations before hitting on the one for which he will be best remembered. Take, for example, the case of Massachusetts-born Roger Sherman Hoar, who, before he turned 37, was an assistant attorney general and state senator, taught classes in engineering and math, and wrote books about patent, tariff and Constitutional law; after moving to the Midwest, Hoar would also become a state senator in Wisconsin. An impressive enough career for any man, to be sure, but today, Hoar is undoubtedly best remembered for the science fiction novels that he somehow found the time to write, hidden behind the pen name Ralph Milne Farley.

The first novel of Farley’s to see the light of day, The Radio Man, was initially serialized in the pages of the 10-cent weekly Argosy magazine, a... Read More

A Spectral Hue: Weird in the best possible way

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney

I don’t know how to categorize Craig Laurance Gidney’s 2019 novel A Spectral Hue. It has an eerie, otherworldly story, and it’s published by a noted small horror press, but I didn’t think it was horror. I didn’t think it was fantasy either. And maybe categories don’t really matter for this slim novel that gave me a genuinely original reading experience.

Gidney’s story is set in a small town, a village really, nearly surrounded by marshlands, in Maryland. Many escaped or emancipated enslaved people ended up in Shimmer, working as crab fishers or taking other jobs associated with the water. There is an entity in the marsh, and some people are sensitive to it. Whether they are drawn to the somewhat rare marsh bell orchid flower, with its pink-purple flowers, or something else, they began to create things. Hazel Whitely, an enslaved woman, made strange qui... Read More

SAGA Volume 6: All about reunions

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Saga, Vol 6, Issues 31-36 by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist)

Saga Vol 6 is the first one I had to wait for, as I read the first 5 volumes back-to-back. This is such a popular, excellently-written, and amazingly-illustrated series that the main question fans will have is, “Is it still as greater as ever?” Well, I’d say it isn’t quite as brilliant as the first 4 volumes, but Vaughan and Staples have established a very high level of storytelling and can probably maintain it for quite some time. So rest assured, fans will not be overly disappointed. This series remains centered on the characters, though thi... Read More

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: The Serpent’s Heir: A fun adventure

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: The Serpent's Heir by Dean DeBlois, Richard Hamilton, & Doug Wheatley

This graphic novel takes place shortly after the events of the film How to Train Your Dragon 2, which finds Hiccup as the new chief of Berk in the wake of his father's death. Amidst the rebuilding of the village, the suspicious nature of Berk citizens at the presence of outsiders, and the ongoing training of new dragons, it's a struggle for Hiccup to adjust to his new role as leader.

So when an envoy named Calder arrives from the island of Nephenthe, Hiccup jumps at the chance to take some time off. Along with Toothless, Astrid, Fishlegs, Snotlout, Eret, the twins and his mother, he travels to Nephenthe at the behest of King Mikkel the Munificent to investigate strange tremors across his island.

If you're a fan of the How to Train Your Dragon films or animated television show, then there's nothing in... Read More

NOS4A2: Skip the show and read the book

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Everyone on the same page? Okay… Hill has delivered a deeply satisfying and literate novel in NOS4A2. He is absolutely his own man, and he’s very good. But he’s also picked up some tricks from his father. He writes children well, especially those that have some unique ability. In this case, Victoria McQueen has a special gift: she can find lost things. And this skill tends to transport her to wherever those lost things happen to be.

The book is most successful in its character development. Many a page is dedicated to the growth and transformation of Vic McQueen’s personality, as we see her grow from a young girl overwhelmed by her unique capabilities, to a mother equally as overwhelmed by h... Read More