SFF Reviews

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Horrible Monday: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

South African writer Lauren Beukes had a hit with last year’s The Shining Girls, the story of a serial killer who could travel through time. Readers of both time travel novels and serial killer thrillers loved the way Beukes melded the two genres. Beukes has again given us a genre-bender with Broken Monsters. Both a horror novel and a police procedural, Broken Monsters is even better than The Shining Girls.

Broken Monsters is set in Detroit — today’s Detroit, bankrupt yet defiant, down on its luck but searching luck out wherever it can be found. The arts community seems to be especially thriving in this down-at-the-heels city, and it is a desire to make art that is the foundation of all the problems that are visited upon the victims of an especially perverse serial killer. The first body fo... Read More

Clan and Crown: Historical military SF

Clan and Crown by Jerry Pournelle

In this second installment of Jerry Pournelle’s JANISSARIES series, the modern American military unit that was abducted by aliens and deposited on the planet Tran to oversee the harvest of psychedelic drugs for alien drug dealers is still trying to get the planet under control so they can focus on their horticultural task. Though they accomplished a lot in the first book, Janissaries, things have gotten even more complicated (politically) and they make very little progress (at least that we see) with their main goal in Clan and Crown.

Captain Rick Galloway, who is now one of the most powerful people on the planet, wishes he could give up fighting and be a teacher at the newly-formed university, but so far that hasn’t been possible. The same weather pattern changes that are increasing the growth of the psychotropic plant they... Read More

The Jesus Incident: A curious book

The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom

In Herbert’s 1966 novel Destination: Void, a story about an experiment to create artificial intelligence, a crew was sent out to space with only two alternatives: succeed or die. In the late 1970s, Herbert returned to the Destination: Void universe with a new novel co-authored by Bill Ransom. Herbert rewrote parts of the original novel which he felt were dated, and the new version was published in 1978, slightly before The Jesus Incident. According to Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert's biography of his father, the writing of this new novel was not without its challenges. They based the story on a shorter piece named Songs of a Sentient Flute. When the first draft was almost completed, copyright issues arose. The planet... Read More

Islands of Rage & Hope: This series takes a bad turn

Islands of Rage & Hope by John Ringo 

How is it possible to remain interested in the somewhat plodding description of how mankind slowly tries to save itself after a zombie apocalypse? The first book in the BLACK TIDE RISING series, Under a Graveyard Sky, had the novelty of describing how the world was falling apart and the small, at times very painful steps that were taken to keep some hope alive. The second book, To Sail a Darkling Sea, started to flirt with some of the craziness that would be completely inescapable in a world where order has been lost. Things like pregnancy after four men and one woman have spent four months confined in a small lifeboat and the PTSD like effects of being the person who was willing to kill friends and family when they began to become zombies. All of this was interesting in a bizarre, morbid kind of way. Book thr... Read More

Janissaries: Modern soldiers in ancient Rome on distant planet

Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle

Captain Rick Galloway and the soldiers he commands were surrounded by hostile enemies when the flying saucer arrived and offered them a way out of certain death. They had to take it. Now they’re on a planet called Tran where they’re expected to oversee the growth and harvest of a marijuana-like plant which their alien “saviors” collect and distribute on the black market when it ripens every 600 years. A human woman named Gwen has also been dumped on the planet after her boyfriend, who was working for the aliens, talked her into coming aboard the flying saucer.

Tran is not uninhabited. It is home to several ancient civilizations who were also delivered from Earth to Tran each time the harvest was nearing readiness. Galloway and Gwen, reluctant heroes, must somehow lead the locals to fulfill the aliens’ demands, or they risk being eradicated. This involves gaining power, allying with local go... Read More

Martian Time-Slip: In the upper echelon of Dick novels

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

It’s easy to be skeptical when you crack open a book by Philip K. Dick; his output is hit or miss. The psychotic craziness of Dick’s personal life so often leaked into his writing that on more than one occasion his work features plots and themes derailed by a chaos seemingly external to the text. In the moments Dick was able to focus his drug and paranoia-fueled energies into a synergistic story, the sci-fi world benefited. Martian Time-Slip, just falling shy in quality to The Man in the High Castle or A Scanner Darkly, is one of these occasions.

The setting is Mars thousands of years in the future when the red planet is experiencing its second wave of civilization. The Bleekmen (Dick’s less than subtle name for Africans) are being pushed to the wastelands while those of European descent terraform the planet ... Read More

Bitter Greens: Gorgeous historical novel blended with fairytale

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is a marvelous re-telling of Rapunzel, woven together with historical fiction that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force, the French noblewoman who first published the fairy tale. Forsyth, pursuing her doctorate in fairy-tale retellings in Sydney, originally published in this novel in her native Australia. It has just been released in the US.

Bitter Greens begins with the story of Charlotte, exiled from the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and locked in a nunnery. Through her narrative, we learn that she was a vivacious courtier whose passion and wit would not be contained. Early in the novel, her mother tells the young Charlotte that she could have been a troubadour; instead, as an adult, she has left scandal in her wake and written some saucy stories that h... Read More

Fated: I can’t recommend this one, but I want to try something else by Browne

Fated by S.G. Browne

“You like Christopher Moore,” the bookstore clerk said, pushing a book into my hand. “You’ll like this.” I do like Christopher Moore, and I think S.G. Browne does too, but Fated fell short of the wry Moore-like comedies it tries to emulate.

Fate, who uses the name Fabio, is a world-weary immortal Personification. When the book opens, he is bored with his work and disdainful of the human race. Fabio is only one of many — dozens, scores, I don’t know, maybe hundreds — of anthropomorphized states. He has a rival, Destiny, who gets all the glamor assignments. He used to be best friends with Death, who goes by Dennis (wouldn’t you?), but they had a fight and now they don’t speak. The Personifications are ruled by God. He used to be called Jehovah, but now he goes by Jerry. Je... Read More

The Merchant Emperor: Revisiting a series I fell in love with long ago

The Merchant Emperor by Elizabeth Haydon

The Merchant Emperor is the seventh book in the SYMPHONY OF AGES series by Elizabeth Haydon. This series happens to be one of the first epic fantasy series I ever read, but that was years ago. I was excited about this book, but also reluctant. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited this world, and my memory isn’t what it used to be due to numerous cancer treatments.

According to the publisher, The Merchant Emperor is a good entry point to the series for new readers. Knowing how fantastic my memory was, I decided to give The Merchant Emperor a shot without revisiting the previous books to refresh my memory first.

The good thing is that Haydon really infuses this book with plenty of backstory and character building. New readers will appreciate that. Readers l... Read More

The Secret of the Key: Premise is fabulous, execution falls short

The Secret of the Key by Marianne Malone

The Secret of the Key appears to be the final book in Marianne Malone’s SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS adventures. This children’s series has been a bit of a disappointment for me and the only reason I have continued with it is that I requested a review copy of the audiobook edition of this final book and so I felt obligated to read it. As I have noted previously, and as Bill and Kelly have mentioned, the premise is fabulous, but the execution falls short.

The stories follow Ruthie and Jack, two sixth graders who find a way to shrink and explore the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago. The two likable kids discover that the... Read More

To Sail a Darkling Sea: A credible zombie story

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo

To Sail a Darkling Sea is the second installment in the BLACK TIDE RISING series.  Ringo continues to tell the story of the Smith family who are the virtual seed of humanity that survives the Zombie apocalypse and starts the fight to save the world from perpetual barbarity.

Trying to re-establish civilization is complex work. For “Commodore” Smith and his family, that becomes increasingly difficult as numbers of people rescued and the implied logistics support begin to increase commensurately.  How do you keep more and more boats running with limited repair parts, limited fuel and even fewer trained people who know how to fix them? With no land area to grow crops or harvest them, how do you feed everyone and keep them healthy when fishing is your primary food source? All of these complexities and the challenges of managing personalities become mo... Read More

Maddigan’s Fantasia: A futuristic steampunk adventure

Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy

Early in the 22nd century, the world underwent a vast and radical change, in which the tectonic plates of the Earth shifted and a series of devastating earthquakes changed the face of the planet. As a result of these events now known as the Great Chaos the population has severely dropped and most technology has been lost. What remains is a dangerous wilderness where communities are isolated and bandits roam the unmapped highways.

Yet out of the ashes of the old world comes Solis, the shining city. It is here that the circus troupe known as Maddigan's Fantasia spends each winter before heading out every year to explore new lands, collect lost knowledge and spread some colour and joy to those living in a post-apocalyptic world.

But this year things are different. Because Solis is powered by the sun, it is in desperate need of a new solar converter if the... Read More

Stone Mattress: Nine new tales from Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is hardly an unappreciated author. Booker winner, seemingly constant nominee for the Orange and Booker prizes, Harvard Arts Medal, Orion Book Award, and the list goes on. But one thing I’d say she doesn’t get enough credit for is her humorous touch, which can be scathingly, bitingly funny, and which is on frequent display in her newest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales.

The anthology is comprised of nine “tales” (in the afterword, Atwood explains why she prefers that descriptor), the first three of which — “Alphinland”, “Revenant”, and “Dark Lady” are tightly linked by character and events. The others are independent, though they do share some similar themes and characters — vengeance, the travails (and pleasures) of aging, a deliciously macabre tone. Like nearly all such collections, some stories ... Read More

Steadfast: More like Stead-slow

Steadfast by Mercedes Lackey

Steadfast by Mercedes Lackey is another fairy-tale retelling from her ELEMENTAL MASTERS series. It recasts Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Steadfast Tin Soldier.

Katie Langford is a circus acrobat on the run. She flees to Brighton and ends up as a dancer and magician’s assistant for a small theatre. Lionel Hawkins, the magician she works for, is an elemental magician; he and his good friend Jack, the one-legged doorman of the theater, soon see that Katie also has undiscovered magical abilities. They train her in these abilities while trying to help her escape the Big Bad that is coming for her —her angry, abusive husband, Dick, who happens to be the circus strongman.

I listened to Steadfast read by Carmela Corbett, and I liked this novel okay at the beginning. The set-up was fun; it was really interesting t... Read More

Assail: Ties up some loose plot threads and raises entirely new questions

Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

Once upon a time one could speak of the “upcoming conclusion” to the tales of the Malazan Empire, the multi-volume shared world series by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. But with Erikson currently writing the second book in his prequel trilogy, and both he and Esslemont contracted for more books set in this world, it’s best nowadays to perhaps muse on “resting points” rather than “conclusions.” And so it is with Esslemont’s sixth book, Assail, billed as bringing to “a thrilling close” the “epic story of the Malazan Empire,” but which also, even as it ties up some loose plot threads, raises entirely new questions. And that’s fine; even with my admittedly mixed response to Assail, I... Read More

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