SFF Reviews

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The Secret Commonwealth: It’s complicated

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (Ray  Jana)

With the release of La Belle Sauvage, readers were finally able to return to the universe of Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy after a seventeen year wait. The story was a prequel to the original trilogy (though Pullman described the new series not as a sequel, but an 'equel.') Being only a baby, it was not Lyra who took centre stage in that novel, but a young boy called Malcolm Polstead, who used his boat La Belle Sauvage to rescue Lyra from a terrible flood and an even more terrible man in pursuit.

Now in the latest addition to the series, The Secret Commonwealth Read More

Batman and Ethics: An informative take on Batman’s ethics (or lack of them)

Batman and Ethics by Mark D. White

Batman and Ethics (2019) by Mark D. White does just what it purports to do, and does so clearly, smoothly, and with a surfeit of supporting examples to bolster his claims. I had a few issues, but honestly, complaints seem a bit churlish with a book that achieves its goal so successfully.

In a brief, broad introduction, White explains why he’s decided to limit discussion to the comics version of Batman, as well as why he further narrows his scope to the time period of the early 1970s through 2011. The body of the book he divides into two broad sections, one titled “What Batman Tried to Do — and How He Might Do It Better,” and “What Batman is Willing to Do — and What He Isn’t.” The first focuses mostly on the system of ethics known as utilitarianism, the second on another system — deontology. The former advocates the greatest good, the ma... Read More

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories: A solid collection with a few standouts

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

I was a huge fan of Ken Liu’s first collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, giving it a five out of five and placing on my “best of” list that year. His newest collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories (2020), unfortunately didn’t hit the high notes as consistently as the first, though there are still several gems in the group.

Many of the stories are set in a time leading up to or following the singularity, where humans upload their consciousness to the cloud and become disembodied. Three are a direct mini-series following the same characters in linear fashion and the others change characters and shift in time (someti... Read More

The King of Elfland’s Daughter: Haunting and Lyrical

Reposting to include Sandy's new review.

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

After reading about Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter I went in search of it and found it at my university library. Reading it was quite a different experience for me, but people who aren't prepared for the style of writing like I was might be disappointed, confused or scorning of the slow, dream-like pace, archetype characters and poetical language. This might be especially true of fans of typical fantasy genre books (authors such as David Eddings or Terry Brooks) where a fantasy universe is deemed to be good only if it has a solid backing and an exhaustive array of facts and figures to add realism to the stories. Lord Dunsa... Read More

Sweep of the Blade: Planet of the Vampires

Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

With Sweep of the Blade, the fourth installment in Ilona AndrewsINNKEEPER CHRONICLES series, there is a new main character: Maud, sister of Dina, the previous main character and the innkeeper of this light SF series. We met Maud in the prior book in this series, One Fell Sweep, when Dina convinced Sean the werewolf and Arland the vampire — these are both alien races, by the way, though distantly related to humans — to help her rescue Maud and her five-year-old half-vampire daughter Helen from the desert prison planet Karhari. In the first few chapters of Sweep of the Blade, Andrews retells these scenes from Maud’s point of view.

Ar... Read More

A Queen in Hiding: A solid intro to a new series

A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

I’ve, unfortunately, been on a run lately in my genre reading of books that are perfectly, well, “serviceable.” They (mostly) keep my interest throughout, offer up some pleasurable reading for a few hours, but never rise above that “solidly decent” level. Nothing startles in the way of plot, language, structure, character. It’s smooth sailing across placid waters with no storms or reefs (i.e. bad writing), which is “nice.” But, also, no dolphins arcing out of the water, no humpback sightings, no sunken ships to explore, etc. In other words, nothing to stir the mind or soul, nothing to grab you and not let go, nothing memorable enough to have you proselytize the book to all your friends. And that’s pretty much where Sarah Kozloff’s debut novel A Queen in Hiding (2020) sits — a good book that will please most, even if it doesn’t excite them.
... Read More

The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern's eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of 'Rêveurs' – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of... Read More

The Bard’s Blade: A solid enough first book that left me wanting more bite

The Bard’s Blade by Brian D. Anderson

The Bard’s Blade (2020), by Brian D. Anderson, is the first book of THE SORCERER’S SONG trilogy and as such it’s a perfectly serviceable fantasy, a comfortingly welcome invitation into a new series. If that seems a bit like damning with faint praise, that’s because while the novel goes down easily and smoothly, I can’t say there’s anything that makes it particularly stand out. I’d say it’s the vanilla flavor at a Ben and Jerry’s, save that vanilla is actually my favorite flavor. Maybe it’s a peanut-butter sandwich. It satisfies, it fills that need in your stomach, assuages your hunger, but you won’t be grabbing someone in the grocery store while they’re shopping and telling them, “You really have to try a peanut-butter sandwich!”

The story opens in Vyla... Read More

The Bronze Skies: Another adventure in the undercity

The Bronze Skies by Catherine Asaro

The Bronze Skies (2017) is the second book in Catherine Asaro’s MAJOR BHAAJAN series. In the first book, Undercity, we met Bhaajan, a private investigator who recently retired from military service. When she is hired by the royal family to track down a runaway prince, she must descend into the grimy tunnels under the capital city of Cries. This is where the lowest cast of citizens live — in the city’s underbelly — and this is where Bhaajan grew up before escaping into the military. As Bhaajan searches for the prince, it’s easy to draw parallels between the class system of Cries and our own world’s socioeconomic hierarchies.

In The Bronze Skies Read More

Shatter City: A fast-paced follow-up to Impostors

Shatter City by Scott Westerfeld

Shatter City (2019) is the sequel to Scott Westerfeld’s Impostors, a set of four novels extending his UGLIES series by picking up roughly a decade after that earlier quartet ended. As I noted in my review of Impostors, this series doesn’t quite match the high quality of those earlier books, and seems aimed at a somewhat younger audience, but still retains enough of Westerfeld’s plotting strengths to make for an often exhilarating read. Fair warning, some inevitable spoilers for book one ahead.

The first point to note is you’ll definitely want to have read Impostors before picking up Shatter City. I won... Read More

Strange Exit: Muddled plot and mostly flat characterization

Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse

Decades after the Earth was destroyed by nuclear war and its aftermath, a group of teens aboard an orbiting spaceship meant as a refuge are stuck in a VR stasis while their ship falls apart around them. Only if all them “wake up” and exit the VR simulation will the ship allow them to leave. One girl, 17-year-old Lake, has made it her mission to return again and again into the sim, despite the danger of getting stuck in there, to wake those still “living” there. She’s joined by her younger sister Willow in the form of a sim “figment” (her sister is lost in real life) and a young boy, Taren, whom she recently awakened, as they race against time to save the teens and the ship.

Such is the premise of Parker Peevyhouse’s 2020 YA novel Strange Exit. The premise is in... Read More

Exhalation: A strong collection by Ted Chiang

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s stories are the very best kind of speculative fiction. They’re modern, sophisticated, intelligent, clever, thoughtful, and entertaining. Best of all, they’re full of futuristic science and explorations of the personal, sociological, and ethical considerations we may be facing as science and technology advance.

Most of the stories in Exhalation have seen print before; only two are new. Here are my thoughts on each:

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" — Originally published in 2007 by Subterranean Press, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards. A man in Baghdad visits a merchant who shows him a gate that allows his customers to go backward and forward in time. Both amusing and poignant,... Read More

Come Tumbling Down: An entrancing world of heroes and monsters

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children was an island of misfit toys, a place to put the unfinished stories and the broken wanderers who could butcher a deer and string a bow but no longer remembered what to do with indoor plumbing. It was also, more importantly, a holding pen for heroes. Whatever they might have become when they’d been cast out of their chosen homes, they’d been heroes once, each in their own ways. And they did not forget.

Come Tumbling Down (2020), the fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN YA fantasy series, returns to the conflicted relationship between twins Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill Wolcott, in a some-months-later sequel to where we left them at the end of Read More

An Unkindness of Magicians: Dark and brisk with lots of good visuals

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Wizard tournaments and wizard duels are standard fare in fantasy now, and Kat Howard puts the concept to good use in her fast-paced An Unkindness of Magicians. Published in 2017, the story follows a group of families based in Manhattan, who call themselves the Unseen World. They use magic to enrich themselves, gain power and ensure their comforts. Periodically, they engage in a magical struggle for control called the Turning, in which each family or House appoints a champion who duels other champions, often to the death. The House whose champion wins the tournament becomes the Head of the Unseen World until the next Turning, which is usually twenty years. When the book opens, the Turning has been announced seven years early, and two wild card champions are set to disrupt things in a big way.... Read More

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans & Sara Read

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 (2017) is an always informative, often fascinating, at times wince-inducing look at the various illnesses diagnosed in in the early-modern period, as well as their various treatments, although both “illnesses” and “treatments” can be misleading terms, given that not all such sicknesses were actual ailments and that the vast majority of treatments not only didn’t do much for the sufferer but may have (in the case of mercury treatments, for instance) made things far worse.

Authors Jennifer Evans and Sara Read open with a general overview of medicine of that time, discussing the belief in bodily humours, astrological medicine, the impact of religion, how gender affected diagnosis, and the division of the... Read More

Antarctica: Familiar, but well-written and fun

Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson

X follows his girlfriend, Val, to Antarctica, only to learn that she is dumping him. A mountaineer, Val becomes an expedition leader while X becomes a grunt. While driving a convoy, one of his vehicles is hijacked, which is odd enough that the American Senator Phil Chase sends one of his staff, Wade, to investigate. Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica is an adventure, a near future climate change allegory, and an overview of Antarctica's history, geography, geology, politics, and more.

In other words, Antarctica, published in 1997, is almost exactly the mix of detail, thoughtful speculation, and fun that KSR's readers might expect. The details are laid out in a familiar way: a lot of political and philosophical theorizing is dressed up as conversatio... Read More

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water: We are interested in what Kaftan does next

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is a 2019 novella by Vylar Kaftan. The story opens with two characters, Bee, our narrator, and Chela, in jeopardy in a very unusual setting, and takes us places we did not expect.

Bee is trapped in a unique and horrifying prison: a cave complex on a planet far from Earth. She has one companion, Chela, and they have banded together to brave the dangers of the caves: the risk of drowning, narrow tunnels that could trap and suffocate a prisoner, deep shafts and large predatory insects. They have never seen another prisoner. The wardens leave boxes of goods with a guiding beacon for them to find. The boxes contain food and other necessary supplies, and sometimes a whimsical item like a postcard. It’s often a race to get to the boxes before the insects find them, and the boxes, their arbitrary placement and the str... Read More

Empress of Forever: Thrilling space opera, but it is science fiction?

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever (2019) is definitely space opera. In a far distant future, tech genius, entrepreneur and loner Vivian Liao travels from planet to planet and system to system trying to find an advantage in a losing war against an all-powerful space empress. Viv, who is plucked by that same empress out of her our-present-day life (and planned rebellion), draws to herself the usual strange pack of uneasy allies in this battle. The book is complicated, fascinating, fast-paced, and star-and-planet hopping. I’m not sure it’s science fiction.

Viv Liao is a titan of tech, a brilliant, quirky creator who has made billions of dollars and finally, become a threat to the wrong people. On the night of her birthday party she flees, enacting her own personal plan for a... Read More

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife

“If you want to know history, read a book. If you want a story, take a tour.” — Christopher Skaife

The Ravenmaster was published in 2018. It’s nonfiction and it isn’t particularly about science, even the science of ravens. It’s got some history, some memoir, and some ghosts, but it isn’t about those things. I’m reviewing it here for one reason only: ravens.

Christopher Skaife, who authored The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, is the Yeoman Warder of the Tower, and his first responsibility is caring for the seven ravens who currently inhabit the compound. He also, along with several other warders, gives tours to the public. Skaife has a YouTube presence and a twitter account (@ravenmaster1) if you want to see an... Read More

The Outlaws of Sherwood: A strong contender in an overstuffed genre

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

Robin Longbow, a lowly apprentice to the forester of Nottingham Forest, is on the way to Nottingham fair when he is waylaid by bullies. After he accidentally kills one of them, he is forced to flee and go into hiding. If he’s discovered by the sheriff of Nottingham, he’ll be hung by the regent who is sitting in for King Richard the Lionheart while he’s away fighting in Palestine.

But Robin’s friends Much and Marian see Robin’s exile as an opportunity to strike back at the regent and his Norman allies. They convince Robin to gather and lead a band of ragtag Saxon rebels against their enemies. Thus, Robin Hood becomes a symbol and a rallying point for Saxon resistance against Norman tyranny.

The Outlaws of Sherwood is a strong contender in the overstuffed Robin-Hood-legends genre. Read More

Atlas of a Lost World: An intriguing account of how people got to America

Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs

In Atlas of a Lost World (2018), author Craig Childs takes the reader on a series of outdoor adventures as he traces the various confirmed and possible paths that North and South America’s first inhabitants took to enter the New World. Parallel to his own journey, he delves into the current research, theories, and archaeological finds. The end result is a bit of a mixed bag, though Childs never is less than an engaging guide.

The book opens with Childs overlooking probably the best known route, and the one most people of a certain age and older were taught as “the” route into North America: the Bering land Strait. Each chapter follows Childs as he explores a different possible entry point, including but not limited to hiking across the Harding Ice Field in Alaska, kayaking along the Pacific coastline, playfully performi... Read More

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse: A fun feminist SF fairytale

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason

Billed as “The Princess Bride meets Princess Leia” and “a feminist reimagining of familiar fairytale tropes,” How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (2019) is a science-fantasy starring the first princess born to the royal family of her planet in generations (usually they have boys).

At her naming ceremony, the fairies bless Rory with all the usual fairytale drivel: golden hair, blue eyes, sweet disposition, embroidery and harp-playing skills, and all the other things she’ll need to please a husband. The last two fairies, though, give her some actually useful skills: the ability to always see what is true, and the ability to always find a way out.

Childhood is easy for Rory until her father is assassinated and a war begins. To ... Read More

Close Encounters with Humankind: A clear tour of how we became human

Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee

Close Encounters with Humankind
(2018) is based on a collection of a series of essays by paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee on human evolution published between February 2012 and December 2013 and appearing in a popular science magazine as well as a South Korean newspaper. Lee writes in a clear, conversational style and though sometimes one wishes for a bit more detail or depth, she makes for an entertaining and informative tour guide of our species’ history.

Lee eschews the usual chronological approach, with each essay instead focusing on a particular step along our evolutionary journey, placing it in historical context (as much as possible given inherent uncertainties over ascribing anything so ancient to a particular timeframe) and explaining our best theories on the topic. Lee answers the When, Why, and How with regard to stops along the... Read More

Fortress Frontier: A captivating adventure

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

It’s amazing how a main character can spoil a book. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is the second book in the SHADOW OPS series by Myke Cole. I didn’t like the first book, Control Point, very well because I loathed Oscar Britton, the main character. He offended my pride as a soldier. Yet I decided to try the second book and this time I have to give Myke Cole some real credit for giving me a reason not to hate his SHADOW OPS series.... his name is Alan Bookbinder.

Back in a 21st Century world that has experienced the return of magic, the US Army continues to run pretty much like it always has. There ar... Read More

Radicalized: A sharp-edged look at where we’re going (or where we’re at)

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized (2019) is a collection of four near-future novellas that cast a critical eye on current societal trends. As is nearly always the case with collections, the story quality/impact varies, but the floor here is relatively high.

In the first, “Unauthorized Bread,” Doctorow takes on digital rights/permissions, mergers and monopolies, and the growing movement away from creating tech the average person (or non-average for that matter) can easily modify/repair themselves. The protagonist is Salima, faced one day with a broken Boulangism toaster-oven which only accepts the company’s proprietary bread — “unauthorized bread had consequences ranging from kitchen fires to suboptimal toast.” Not having the money to buy a new one, Salima goes online and teache... Read More