SFF Reviews

Our most recent reviews are listed first. Use the tags to search for reviews of similar books.

SFM: T. Kingfisher, Rachael K. Jones, K.M. Ferebee, Rachel Swirsky, James Lecky

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.



“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T. Kingfisher (2014, free at Fantasy magazine, $2.99 at Amazon for magazine issue)

“The Dryad’s Shoe” is a charming Cinderella retelling that features Hannah, a young woman who is far more interested in gardens and bees than fancy gowns and dukes’ sons. When the local duke holds a masquerade ball for his son, an enchanted titmouse informs Hannah th... Read More

Games Wizards Play: A lesser novel in the series but moves things along

Games Wizards Play by Diane Duane

Games Wizards Play is the tenth book in Diane Duane’s YOUNG WIZARDS series, and while a reader could struggle through it as a standalone, I’d say it’s definitely best read in the series, as there are many references to past events, a host of characters big and small and lots of terminology that will resonate more fully to fans of the series. As far as where it stands in that series (which I highly recommend, BTW), I’d say it’s one of the weaker books, though it does advance our main characters’ lives — both their wizardly ones and their personal ones — and set us up for future adventures.

The focus of the 600-plus page book is “The Invitational,” a sort of science fair for young wizards who get mentored as they create, then present, original spel... Read More

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010: Interesting choices

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick & Paul de Felippo

Ever since high school, I’ve used David Pringle’s Science Fiction: 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984 (1985), Modern Fantasy: 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987 (1988), and The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction (1991) as excellent guides to some of the highest-quality, distinctive, and intelligent books in the SF and fantasy genres. By introducing me to many obscure and underappreciated titles and authors, including a number of UK writers unfamiliar to American fans, Pringle served to broaden my SF and fantasy horizons so much that I will always owe him a debt of gratitude. The only drawback was that he never followed up these volumes with a newer selection of titles, and after high school I... Read More

The Sleeper and the Spindle: Another treat from a favourite storyteller

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's latest offering defies the conventions of your typical fairy tale not just in content but format as well. You won't be able to sit down and read this to your child in one sitting as despite the multiple illustrations, for the story is lengthy and the font small.

Perhaps then it's better described as a fairy tale for adults, though I've always shied away from putting age restrictions on these types of stories. Let's go with calling it an illustrated short story that will be highly enjoyed by people of all ages with an interest in dark and twisted fairy tales.

The Queen of a faraway land is about to be married, at least until the arrival of three dwarfs bringing her news of events in the neighbouring kingdom. A sleeping curse has been laid upon a fair princess, but rather than th... Read More

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) completely reinvented Batman as angry and bitter older man coming out of retirement to stem a rising tide of crime in Gotham City alongside Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. This was a dark vision of a complex and troubled soul driven to fight crime to avenge his parent’s senseless death, and it resonated with a new generation of readers and gained comics greater credibility among mainstream readers. Just one year later Miller produced a four-part story arc called Batman: Year One (1987). Thoug... Read More

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen: Exploring unorthodox biology and relationships

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Note: This review discusses a major revelation for readers of this series, disclosed in the first chapter of this book.

Three years after the sudden death of her husband Aral, Cordelia Vorkosigan is still the Vicereine (governor) of the colony planet Sergyar, and is still recovering from the grief of losing Aral. Cordelia is now seventy-six, but still young both at heart and physically, since she enjoys the much longer-than-usual lifespan of a native of Beta Colony. Barrayaran Admiral Oliver Jole, who is nearly fifty, greets Cordelia as she returns to Sergyar, and as they share a lunch and some reminiscing a few days later, it soon becomes clear that Cordelia and Oliver share a deeper history: an extramarital affair by Aral with Oliver, who was his young, stunningly handsome aide many years ago, morphed into what was essentially (though not legally) a three-way marr... Read More

Kindred: A complex exploration of the slave/slaver relationship

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred
(1979) is Octavia Butler’s earliest stand-alone novel, and though it features time travel, it’s not really science fiction or fantasy. It’s an exploration of American slavery and its painful legacy from the eyes of a contemporary (well, circa 1976) young black woman named Dana. So don’t expect to learn why she keeps being pulled back in time to a pre-Civil War slave plantation in Maryland every time her ancestor, a white slave owner named Rufus Weylin, finds his life in danger. It’s a plot device that allows the reader to experience all the horrors of being a powerless black female slave in 1815 while retaining a modern perspective. So this book is firmly in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple Read More

The Hounds of Skaith: Doing what all great sequels should

The Hounds of Skaith by Leigh Brackett

After a solid decade of no new fiction from the pen of Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” the author released, in 1974, the first volume of what would ultimately be called her SKAITH TRILOGY. But fortunately, her fans would only have to wait a mere matter of months before the sequel to the first book, The Ginger Star, was published. That second volume, The Hounds of Skaith, managed to accomplish what all great follow-up novels should: enlarge on the scope of the previous story, introduce new and fascinating characters, clarify and enlighten what had come before while at the same time weaving new plot threads, and leave the reader wanting still more. The book is a total success in that regard, and fans who had thrilled to Eric... Read More

The Rhesus Chart: Bob takes on a clan of vampire bankers

Reposting to include Marion's new review:

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart is the fifth and most recent novel in Charles Stross’ LAUNDRY FILES. Bob Howard has been moving up the ranks in the Laundry — not due to any particular motivation or ambition on his part, but just because he has managed, so far, to stay alive as he and his fellow agents battle the eldritch horrors who are trying to find their way into our universe so they can eat us.

While doing some data mining in his office one day, Bob happens to notice a small but statistically significant outbreak of an illness that looks like Mad Cow disease in an area of London. Curious, he begins to investigate by consulting a neurologist, looking at cadavers, and tracing the habits of the people who’ve died of the disease. Eventually this leads him to a small group of data a... Read More

Unbound: A somewhat weaker continuation of an OK series

Unbound by Jim C. Hines

Unbound is Jim C. Hines’ third book in his MAGIC EX LIBRIS series, and I had the same response I pretty much had to book two, which was that it is a light sort of fantasy which has issues that are somewhat, but not fully, balanced by the love of the genre evident in the storyline. I noted at the end of my review of book two, Codex Born, that I was worried about a sense of diminishing returns, and I think that is a bit realized here. Book four, Revisionary, has just arrived this year, and I’d say it’s good that it appears to be a concluding volume, though perhaps that should have come a book earlier.

MAGIC EX LIBRIS really needs to be rea... Read More

Dragon Wing: Not very good

Dragon Wing by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

The Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman novels make up one of those corners of the Fantasy genre that you either enjoyed in your teens (and remember fondly)... or you didn’t. I have to admit that I’m of the latter camp, and while I strongly suspect that there was a time when I could have greatly enjoyed Dragon Wing, that time has passed me by. These days, I’m a little too jaded and I’ve read a few too many works in a very similar vein. Dragon Wing isn’t bad, necessarily, but I’d be lying if I said I particularly like it.

It starts well, mind you, as master assassin Hugh the Hand is employed by the king for that most politicall... Read More

The Cassini Division: Action-packed

The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod

The Stone Canal, predecessor to The Cassini Division, saw a flurry of technical, and as a result, social developments, moving one part of humanity to post-human status. And so while Wilde and Reid’s personal matters were resolved, larger matters, that is, an agreement between standard and post-humans was left hanging, with a peaceful resolution far from certain. Focusing precisely on this schism, The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod’s third novel in the FALL REVOLUTION sequence, brings the implications of Singularity to a full head.

Set 350 years after the events of The Star Fraction, The Cassini Division is told through the eyes of Ellen May Ngwethu, captain ... Read More

A Criminal Magic: An early contender for our Best of 2016

A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly

In A Criminal Magic, Lee Kelly creates a world in which the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned sorcery rather than alcohol. Kelly combines remarkable creativity, imagination, and insight into the human condition, blending fantasy with history and ending up with a complex, entertaining, compelling novel.

Naturally, the passage of A Criminal Magic’s fictional amendment results in the same response as its historical analogue: sorcerers are thrust into the criminal underworld, brewing an illegal ruby-red elixir. This “shine,” as it’s known, is smuggled by gangsters into “shining rooms” across the country, fronted by legal liquor bars and raided by members of the Federal Prohibition Unit who can’t be bribed into looking the other way. Drinking shine gives reality a surreal glow, causes a wide ran... Read More

Podkayne of Mars: Heinlein gives us a smart feministic mixed-race heroine

Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein

Podkayne (“Poddy”) Fries is a pretty, mixed-race teenager who lives with her parents and her younger brother (Clark) on Mars. We learn about her family and her adventures via the diary entries she writes. Poddy tell us that her family was planning to take a vacation to visit Old Earth, but when there is a mix-up with some frozen embryos, they had to cancel the trip so Poddy’s mother can take care of the unexpected new babies. Poddy is devastated until her Uncle Tom, a man who is a respected politician on Mars, arranges to escort Poddy and Clark to earth on a luxury spaceship.

Poddy is not White.

On the spaceship Poddy and Clark make a friend and get to enjoy extravagant dinners and dances. Poddy learns a lot about how to fly a spaceship and, along the way, readers will learn quite a bit about space travel, including... Read More

Bitter Greens: Gorgeous historical novel blended with fairytale

Reposting to include Kelly's new review:

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 h... Read More

An Apprentice to Elves: A primer in in-depth worldbuilding

An Apprentice to Elves by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

An Apprentice to Elves, the third installment of the ISKRYNE series, is a book that depends on its thick world-building. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have created realistic cultures that take some cues from Norse and Roman history and dramatized a cultural conflict between them, at the same time as developing relationships and characters rooted in these cultures. Most of the narrative is set in the Northlands, an icy forested domain whose natural defenses are harsh enough to help the Northmen stay safe. But a new enemy, the fiercely disciplined Rhean, invades from the south, hoping to colonize the Northlands and bring the Northmen under their rule. The No... Read More

Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987: Introduces many lesser-known fantasy works

Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987 by David Pringle

Following on the success of 1985’s Science Fiction: 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984, it made sense that David Pringle would tackle the wide-ranging and ill-defined field of fantasy with Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1946-1987. It’s actually an amazing effort, since Pringle would have to read comprehensively in both genres for almost four decades, and I think it’s quite unusual for someone to do that. Moreover, though the borders of sci-fi are defined differently by each person you ask, this is even more so for the fantasy genre, which can include horror, epic fantasy, hallucinatory trips, magic realism, contemporary fantasy, and things that don’t fit any convenient categories. It’s almost impossible to narrow this do... Read More

The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Humane science fiction

The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories edited by Tom Shippey

I read Tom Shippey's other excellent collection, The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories some time ago, so it was only a matter of time before I sought out this one. Like its stablemate, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories consists of a chronological collection of stories from a variety of authors with an introduction by the editor. I was struck by the idea of "fabril" literature, which is discussed in the introduction: a form of literature in which the "smith" is central. Certainly, a great deal of early science fiction in particular involves a clever engineer solving some sort of problem, and I'm sure many careers in engineering and the sciences have been launched in this way. I'd say that there is some tendency, though, as the genre matures, for technology to become the problem and human factors the solutio... Read More

SFM: Adam Christopher, Alex Bledsoe, Will McIntosh, Matt Wallace, Keith Brooke and Eric Brown

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.



“Brisk Money” by Adam Christopher (2014, $0.99 for Kindle, free at Tor.com)

Ray is an electromatic man — a full-metal private investigator in 1960s Los Angeles — with a functional memory which must be reset every twenty-four hours. He relies on his assistant, Ada, an artificial intelligence who lives in a bank of computers, to keep him up-to-date on jobs, assignments, and information that isn’t hard-wired into his behavioral circuits. When Ray starts se... Read More

Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum: Fairy dust magic and steampunk mechanics

Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum by Gregory Funaro

The strange adventures of Grubb, a young boy and former chimney sweep swept away to hair-raising magical escapades in Gregory Funaro’s Alistair Grim’s Odditorium, continue in Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum, the second volume in the ODDITORIUM series set in Victorian-era England. Grubb is starting to feel at home in the Odditorium, a magically mechanical ― or perhaps mechanically magical ― flying mansion of wonders built by Alistair Grim, an inventor and sorcerer. Magical energies in this universe are color-based, a detail that is likely to enchant young readers. They include yellow fairy dust from Gwendolyn the Yellow Fairy, which enables the Oddi... Read More

The Master: An epic game of chess

The Master by Claire North

The Master is the third and apparently final entry in Claire North’s wonderful THE GAMESHOUSE series of novellas. These stories are about a mysterious organization called The Gameshouse where elite patrons are invited to play for very high stakes. For example, they might win a prestigious political office, or they might lose the memories of their first love. Once they become involved with the Gameshouse, they belong for life and may be called on to participate in other players’ games.

In the first GAMESHOUSE novella, The Serpent, we met a 17th century Venetian woman who attempted to gain personal freedom from an abusive husband by helping another man become the doge of Venice. In the second novella, The Thief... Read More

The Coldest War: An alternate look at the Cold War

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

I loved Bitter Seeds, the first volume of THE MILKWEED TRIPTYCH. Ian Tregillis is executing a brilliant spin on twentieth-century world history with this series. The Coldest War begins roughly twenty years after the events of Bitter Seeds, and the name is fitting. Not only is this the Cold War, but it’s also a very cold part of the lives of the protagonists. In fact, the first half of the book is downright depressing as characters realize what an unfortunate life March lives, and while Will seems very lucky, his life takes a negative spin as well. Then, you insert Gretel (who makes my skin crawl) and her brother Klaus, and you have a simmering pot of dark tension just waiting to boil over.

Gretel is, perhaps, on... Read More

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (writer/artist) and Klaus Janson & Lynn Varley (Artists)

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-87) are generally considered the watershed graphic novels that revived and reinvented the comic book industry, forced mainstream critics and readers to take the genre more seriously, and laid the groundwork for a massive superhero movie industry eager to bring classic comic superheroes to the big scr... Read More

Kingfisher: Enchanting to the last word

Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip

Knights dress in black and ride motorcycles, sorcerers and sorceresses run restaurants, and maybe your grandpa isn’t actually crazy. Such is the world in which Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher takes place. Though it may begin with a deceivingly simple quest of a young man looking for his long-lost father, Kingfisher becomes much more than that very quickly. It ends up following the stories of four young people as they navigate their changing worlds and values as well as deftly interweaving their lives in surprisingly satisfying ways. I was leery (and a bit confused) at first, but Kingfisher delivers an enchanting tale of ancient-feeling magic in the modern day.

This isn’t a book in which you’re going to find in-dept... Read More

The 5th Wave: One too many apocalypses in this YA alien novel

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

An alien apocalypse is Rick Yancey’s take on a new challenge for the plucky heroine prototype that has emerged in the wake of Katniss Everdeen. Whilst The 5th Wave is not quite a dystopia, there is something startlingly familiar about the feisty female lead who attempts to single-handedly take down the alien race that’s oppressing humankind in a post-apocalyptic world. With the film adaptation just released in the US, could this be the next YA mega-franchise?

First things first, how did the world fall to its knees? It seems Yancey couldn’t decide on his weapon of choice to wipe out humanity, so he chose them all. To begin with, there was an electromagnetic pulse that wiped out electricity, sending humanity back... Read More