SFF Reviews

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SFM: Brennan, Edelstein, Kress, Sterling, Sobin, Grant

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.




“From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review” by Marie Brennan (2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Have a little pity for the editors of the Falchester Weekly Review — when they published Mr. Benjamin Talbot’s news that he had recently come into po... Read More

Agents of Dreamland: An atmospheric, disturbing tale of horror from space

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Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Caitlín R. Kiernan delivers another atmospheric, disturbing horror story with her novella Agents of Dreamland, published by Tor in 2017. Kiernan shifts between the tropes of secret agent thriller, creepy death-cult horror and Lovecraftian terror from space, as agents from two competing intelligence agencies try to parse a mass-murder atrocity that took place at Moonlight Ranch, on the banks of California’s Salton Sea.

Kiernan gets style points for including the Salton Sea. It’s a perfect metaphor for the idea of poisoned dreams and it functions well in this short work as an isolated place where a charismatic cult leader prepares his followers to be, well, I guess “transformed” would be the word.

The Sig... Read More

In the Labyrinth of Drakes: Come for the dragons, stay for the voice

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In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

In the Labyrinth of Drakes is the fourth book in the MEMOIRS BY LADY TRENT series by Marie Brennan, and in terms of quality I’d place it just behind the second one, The Tropic of Serpents, which so far is my favorite. And if it has a few of the same issues that have detracted from prior books, as always, these are outweighed by the wonderful voice of the narrator, which is really the number one reason for picking up this series.

As has been the pattern, In the Labyrinth of Drakes sees Lady Trent looking back on a trip to yet another foreign setting in order to study the native dragon species. And again, as usual, other issues arise that complicate her endeavor. In this case, the setti... Read More

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

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Spill Zone written by Scott Westerfeld illustrated by Alex Puvilland

Scott Westerfeld’s newest story, Spill Zone, is a graphic novel illustrated by Alex Puvilland that takes place several years after Poughkeepsie suffered a major “spill,” and while nobody knows exactly what that entailed, nanotechnology and a nuclear power plant are mentioned as being involved. Whatever it was changed things inside the city, leaving behind fantastical creatures, changed animals, and “meat puppets” (think zombies). Addison’s twelve-year-old sister Lexa escaped that night, driven out on a bus with some other school children by a mysterious driver. Her parents, working at the hospital that night, did not. Addison herself was out of the city that night partying. Now she tak... Read More

The Collapsing Empire: Entertaining setup for a new space opera series

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The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Marion Deeds: John Scalzi’s “brand” is generally known for thoughtful premises, fast-paced action and a humorous tone (certainly there are exceptions). The Collapsing Empire hits all the right Scalzi-notes: it provides a big problem that will have long-reaching influence on human society; it has smarter-than-average characters working to fix things; it has action, snark, and humor. While one storyline is resolved, somewhat, by the end of this book, what The Collapsing Empire does best is set up the problem and introduce characters for the rest of this series.

The Empire of the Interdependency spans many star systems, and is itself dependent on the Flow, an extra-dimensional field with “s... Read More

Agent of the Crown: The princess spy

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Agent of the Crown by Melissa McShane

Agent of the Crown (2016), the third book in Melissa McShane’s CROWN OF TREMONTANE fantasy series, shifts to a third generation of the royal North family: Princess Telaine North Hunter has been secretly working for her uncle, the king of Tremontane, as a spy for the last nine years, since she was 15. She’s deliberately created a public image as a frivolous, bubble-headed socialite, while she works behind the scenes to uncover plots against her country. Only the king and her maid (who is also an agent) are aware of her double identity. Telaine’s job is made somewhat easier by an inherent magical talent that she also guards as a close secret: she can instantly tell if anyone is lying directly to her. (A lie is indicated by bold font in the text, a trick that took me a few pages to catch on to.)

One night... Read More

Voyage of the Basilisk: Science and curiosity

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

Warning: Some inevitable spoilers for the previous novels, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, will follow.

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2015) is the third in Marie Brennan’s series A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, and I found it falling somewhere between books one and two in terms of the reading experiences (better than the first, but not quite as good as the second). As always in this series, the narrative voice is the strongest aspect and managed to (mostly) outweigh the book’s weaknesses.

Readers will most likely note the resemblanc... Read More

Dragon and Thief: The boy with the (living) dragon tattoo

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Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn

Dragon and Thief (2003, issued in trade paperback in 2016) blends dragons and space opera in an exciting middle grade science fictional adventure. The dragon in the title is Draycos, a warrior-poet of an alien species called the K’da, who are able to shift from a three-dimensional being to a two-dimensional tattoo that attaches to your skin, moving around your body at will. The K’da are also a symbiont species, requiring a host to attach themselves to at least every six hours, or they fade away and die. In return, they offer their host protection and companionship.

The K’da have been linked with the humanoid Shontine people for years, but recently both have been under attack from a vicious people called the Valahgua, who are doing their best to exterminate the K’da and the Shontine and gain control over their part of spac... Read More

Riders of the Purple Wage: One of the most unique SF texts

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Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer

At the risk of being overly simplistic, Jacque Derrida’s concept of deconstruction/post-structuralism (whichever you want to call it) is at heart the perspective that any ideological paradigm can be picked apart, bone by bone, until the skeleton lies in shambles on the floor. The purpose is not nihilistic in nature; it is intended, rather, to cast a wrench of relativity into such lofty ideals as modernism, and the rigid mindset of structuralism that came in tow. In practice, I have yet to read a science fiction text that deconstructs the Silver Age better than Philip Jose Farmer’s 1967 Riders of the Purple Wage. From its irreverent title to the telling conclusion, the bones are dust.

Anything but a modernist vision of man as hero... Read More

WWWednesday; April 19, 2017

This week’s word for Wednesday is a noun, zounderkite, which you may have heard if you watched Penny Dreadful. It means a person who does very stupid things; “Chester, you zounderkite, I said ‘Don’t push the big red button!’” The word is believed to be Germanic in origin and was popular in Victorian times. It looks like it would be a good Scrabble word.

Rain Puddles on Mendocino Headlands



Awards:

Courtesy of File 770, here are the winners of the British Science Fiction Awards. The winner for Best Novel was Europe in Winter by David Hutchinson.

The finalists for the Eugie Foster Award for short fiction were announced and include work from Alyssa Wong, Read More

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Hard as it may be to fathom, once upon a time (the early 1900s), radium was thought of as a miracle substance, enhancing all it touched. And so companies flooded the market with products like radium makeup, radium water, radium butter, radium toothpaste, and radium paint. The last was used by the young women who painted luminescent numerals on watch dials (a tool that became all-important to the war effort), though they also snuck some paint now and then to paint their nails, their dresses, even sometimes in sillier moments their teeth and faces. They had no idea, of course, that they were poisoning themselves, and the story of the devastation that poison wreaked on their bodies, and their subsequent fight for compensation from the companies who knew of the substance’s danger makes for compelling, infuriating, heartbreaking re... Read More

Blackout: If you think you’re fed up with zombies, make an exception

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Blackout  by Mira Grant

This review contains spoilers for the first two books in the NEWSFLESH trilogy, Feed and Deadline.

Mira Grant’s Blackout (2012) ends almost exactly where Deadline (2011) ended. Georgia — George — Mason has awakened to find that she has made a miraculous recovery from being shot in the brainstem, and without retinal Kellis-Amberlee (the virus that causes people to become zombies, named for the discoverer of a cure for the common cold and the discoverer of a cure for cancer, which combined with obviously horrible results; and a reservoir condition like retinal Kellis-Amberlee is one in which the virus is resident in a single organ, but the individual never amplifies to... Read More

Norse Mythology: A master storyteller relays the myths he loves

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman makes no secret of his love of Norse mythology and folklore. It shows up over and over in his fiction (Sandman, American Gods, Odd and the Frost Giants to name a few); and he has mentioned his love of the stories in interviews and essays. In Norse Mythology (2017), Gaiman puts his distinctive narrative voice in service to this mythological cycle and tells us the tales of the beginnings of the Norse gods, all the way through to beyond their ending, the dre... Read More

House of Suns: Truly epic time scales, but characters also shine

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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

This is the first Alastair Reynolds’ book I’ve read not set in his REVELATION SPACE series, and many of his fans claim House of Suns (2008) is his best book. I’d have to say it is pretty impressive, dealing with deep time scales rarely seen for any but the most epic hard SF books. What’s unique about House of Suns is not simply that the story spans hundreds of thousands of years, but that the characters actually live through these massive cycles as they loop around the Milky Way galaxy, experiencing everything it has to offer. It staggers the imagination to think that humanity has survived over 6 million years into the future without annihilating itself, splintered into myriad post-human civilizations that flower a... Read More

The Edge of Everything: For the perfect love, what would you be willing to lose?

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The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles

It's not been the best year for Zoe. What with her father’s death in a caving accident, her neighbour’s disappearance and then the fact that she is brutally attacked with her younger brother in a cabin in the woods, it's fair to say things have been better. But with the arrival of the mysterious paranormal bounty hunter “X”, everything is about to change.

On the surface, The Edge of Everything might look like your average contemporary YA novel, but it is far darker than many readers will expect. The tortured (and suitably broody) X has been tasked with hunting those that have done evil deeds in their life. He then plays them their life events before brutally murdering them and sending their soul to hell. He is not supposed to reveal himself to anyone other than his victims, and when he reveals himself to Zoe, it is un... Read More

Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew

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Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John Pickrell

I don’t know if I’d call the creatures detailed in John Pickrell’s Weird Dinosaurs all that “weird,” to be honest. One gets the sense that the main title is more marketing than description. But the subtitle — The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew — is nearer to the mark with regard to the book’s contents, even allowing for perhaps a bit of hyperbole.

Really, what we have here is a mostly excellent up-to-date rundown of new discoveries in the field and how those new discoveries confirm current theories or, just as often, either overturn them or, at the least, force some careful reconsideration/modification. This should come as no surprise, given how rare fossilization is and thus ... Read More

Wonder Woman by Jill Thompson

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Wonder Woman by Jill Thompson

Wonder Woman by Jill Thompson is the story of Diana’s life before she becomes the superhero we all know and love. Jill Thompson is the recipient of seven Eisner awards and is well-known for her work on Sandman with Neil Gaiman. Her artistic style can vary greatly, and in this comic she uses one that lends the tale the quality of a myth told many times, which suits this graphic novel perfectly since Thompson shows us Wonder Woman’s coming-of-age, and young Diana exists in the first place only because of intervention on the part of Greek... Read More

Lincoln in the Bardo: A uniquely structured tale of great empathy

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’ve long been a huge fan of George Saunders’ short stories, which I consider to be generally brilliant both individually and taken as a whole in terms of their commentary on this world and the strange creatures (us) who inhabit it. That commentary is often a blend of satirical fireworks and a warmer, more human exploration of the human condition, and it is the latter of those two that one recognizes most often in his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, though Saunders doesn’t wholly dispense with the darkly comical.

The precipitating event for Lincoln in the Bardo is the death in 1862 of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln and his entombment in a Georgetown Cemetery, and Abraham Lincoln’s ensuing grief, expressed by several visits to the tomb that go so far as to see him removing th... Read More

Deadline: Couldn’t stop reading

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Deadline by Mira Grant

I advise against reading this review if you haven’t yet read Mira Grant’s Feed, the first volume in her Newsflesh trilogy, but intend to. The review necessarily contains spoilers, without which discussing the second volume, Deadline, would be impossible.

Deadline (2011) picks up several months after the end of Feed (2010). The first-person narrator, Shaun Mason, is not the same since the death of his sister by his hand, after she had been infected by the virus that causes one to become a zombie. Not only is he no longer an Irwin (a journalist who courts danger, usually by going out into the field to poke zombies with... Read More

Void Star: An ambitious, richly imagined world of wealthy, poor and AIs

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Void Star by Zachary Mason

Void Star (2017) is a brilliant, dense and challenging hard science fiction novel with a literary bent, rich in descriptions and imagery. It’s set in a relatively near future, perhaps a hundred years or so in our future. The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of three characters from vastly different social strata:

Irina has a vanishingly rare type of cranial implant that enables her to communicate wirelessly with computers, from the simplest electronic devices to the most complex artificial intelligences, in addition to giving her perfect recall ― a true photographic memory. She’s an independent consultant who acts as a troubleshooter for people who are having trouble with their information systems and AIs. But now her latest employer, a vastly wealthy and powerful tycoon, is mounting a chillingly deadly effort to captu... Read More

The Mindwarpers: An oddball addition to Russell’s canon

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The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell

For his ninth novel out of what would ultimately run to 10, English sci-fi author Eric Frank Russell pulled a bit of a switcheroo on his readers. The book in question was initially released in the U.K. in 1964 in a hardcover edition by British publishing house Dennis Dobson, sporting the title With a Strange Device. A year later, it was released here in the U.S. as a 50-cent Lancer paperback (the edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire at Brooklyn bookstore extraordinaire Singularity), as its author was turning 60, but with a new and perhaps catchier title: The Mindwarpers. Written at the height of Cold War tensions, and at the peak of the world... Read More

WWWednesday; April 12, 2017

Awards:

China Mieville’s novella “This Census Taker”, which is nominated for a Hugo, is also nominated for the 2017 Rathbone Folio Prize, a literary award which celebrates “the best literature of our time, regardless of form.” Well!

Congratulations, Tennessee! You didn’t win an award, but you got an element named after you! So did Japan, Moscow and Yuri Oganessian. You can read the details here.

Books and Writing:

N.K. Jemisin reviews Read More

Caraval: Remember, it’s only a game

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

I was so excited by the premise of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval (2017) that I listed it as one of my most anticipated books of 2017. Word has it that there are already plans to make Caraval into a film and I expect it is going to get a fair amount of hype. I can understand why and yet I find I cannot give it more than three stars. I will attempt to justify the reasons why.

Scarlett spent her childhood dreaming of the magical show called Caraval and its mysterious proprietor, Master Legend. Over the course of ten years she write him letters, begging him and his players to come to the small island where she lives with her sister, Tella, and her oppressive, violent father. Now grown-up and engaged to be married, Scarlett finally rece... Read More

Raft: A provocative amalgam of sub-genres

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Raft by Stephen Baxter

What if we exponentially reduced the scale of the galaxy so that the sun was only 50 yards across, extinguished its raging burn so that only a solid metal lump remained, and set a chain of a few hundred dwellings to orbit around the cold sphere that remained? Imagining as such, you would have the opening of Stephen Baxter’s 1991 Raft. By its conclusion, however, Raft reveals itself as a highly original mix of science and fantasy that continues playing with the scale of the universe while telling an uplifting yet sobering tale of personal and societal evolution.

The title of the book comes from the remodeled spacecraft that hangs above the mini-ringworld orbiting the dead star. Exactly like a raft in space, this large disc of metal is home to a few thousand that depend on the metals the miners extract below, ju... Read More

Exile of the Crown: A queen in hiding

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Exile of the Crown by Melissa McShane

Note: this review contains a few spoilers for Servant of the Crown and many spoilers for the bonus short story “Long Live the Queen” at the end of that novel, which sets up Exile of the Crown.

In “Long Live the Queen,” a “five years later” short story that appears at the end of Servant of the Crown (2015), the first book in Melissa McShane's CROWN OF TREMONTANE series, Queen Zara North of Tremontane comes to terms with the realization that she has inherent magical power, a type that rapidly heals her f... Read More