SFF Reviews

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A Clockwork Orange: A malenky bit of ultraviolence makes for a horrorshow jeezny

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Not everyone may be a fan of Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange, but we all know of it thanks to the iconic film by Stanley Kubrick. The image of juvenile delinquent Alex and his droogs with their frighteningly ruthless smiles, black hats, suspenders, and kicking boots as they terrorize helpless citizens while singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in a dystopian near-future London is impossible to forget.

The story is simple: Alex’s little gang goes on a horrifying crime spree until he is caught, put into prison, but is offered a new experimental therapy, the fictional Ludovico technique, which involves forcing the subject to watch violent imagery for extended periods while administering drugs that induce nausea. At the end of this treatment, little Alex cannot even think violent thoughts without being crippled with pain and nausea, with the uninte... Read More

Tokyo Raider: A quick GRIMNOIR fix

Tokyo Raider by Larry Correia

Tokyo Raider is another of Larry Correia’s audio “shorts” in his popular GRIMNOIR CHRONICLES series. There’s not much to these little stories, but they’re hard to resist because they’re narrated by the amazingly awesome Bronson Pinchot and they give fans a little fix while we wait for another GRIMNOIR novel.

A couple of decades have passed since Warbound, and the United States and Japan are not friendly. But that doesn’t stop Japan from asking Joe Sullivan, a heavy, for help in banishing a demon summoned by the Russians to terrorize Tokyo. Joe is the son of Jake Sullivan, the protagonist of the previous GRIMNOIR CHRONICLES books. Joe’s mother is Japanese. The Imperium has built a 12-story high... Read More

The Martian Chronicles: A melancholy meditation on failed American ambitions

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

I really didn’t like The Martian Chronicles when I first read it last year. Considering its legendary status in the genre and its very high ratings by other reviewers I respect, I was really looking forward to finally reading this classic SF tale. But what I discovered was a series of loosely-connected vignettes with some connecting material that seemed fairly superfluous. While I found the first few stories actually featuring Martians very well written and intriguing, once the Martians went offstage and were replaced by an endless series of annoying, hokey Midwesterners from 1950s America, my interest died more quickly than the Martians themselves.

However, I knew I must be missing something.  This is considered one of the greatest works of mid-20th century science fiction, and is highly regarded even by the literati outside the genre. So I decided to try the aud... Read More

Undercity: An underground society with real-world social concerns

Undercity by Catherine Asaro

I’m a sucker for stories that take place underground, so when I saw the cover and title of Catherine Asaro’s new book, Undercity, I knew I had to break my commitment to not start a new series until I’d finished all the other ones first. (For the last seven months I’ve read only books that continue or finish a series I’ve previously started.)

When she was an orphaned child, Major Bhaajan used to live in the dark dirty tunnels under the city of Cries. She was one of the dust rats — the kids who run in packs through the tunnels. They live in poverty, are malnourished, don’t go to school, and have few opportunities. Bhaajan was hard-working and motivated, though. She left the Undercity when she joined the military, and she hoped never to return to Cries. Now, retired from t... Read More

A Darkling Sea: Enjoyable and raises thoughtful questions

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

A Darkling Sea is a fast-paced adventure set in a challenging environment. Part cat-and-mouse war-game, part first contact story, James L. Cambias’ first novel is an engrossing read.

The planet Ilmatar is sheathed in ice. Under the kilometer-thick ice crust is a cold ocean, and a group of Terran human scientists are studying it from within an undersea habitat. Ilmatar has at least one intelligent, sentient ocean-dwelling species, and the humans are under strict orders from another non-human race, the Sholen (who act as self-appointed den-mothers for everyone) not to engage with the locals. When two of the humans disregard this rule, one of them is killed by the locals. This prompts the Sholen to try to shut down the project, and the human scientists disagree. Soon things have spiraled out of control.

Cambias’ style and the structure of... Read More

Solaris: Can we communicate with an alien sentient ocean? If so, about what?

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris is an amazing little novel with a colorful history. First written in 1961 by Stanislaw Lem in Polish, it was then made into a two-part Russian TV series in 1968, before being made into a feature film by famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. It only reached English publication in 1970 in a Polish-to-French-to-English translation. And just when you thought it had faded from attention, both James Cameron and Steven Soderbergh expressed interest in doing a remake, with Soderbergh getting the nod in 2002 because Cameron was busy with other movies. Finally, a direct Polish-to-English translation by Bill Johnston was made available as an ebook and audiobook in 2011. In my case, I saw the Tarkovsky film back in 1995, watched the Soderbergh film in 2002, finally read the 1970 translation in 2013, and listened to the audiobook version in 2015.

Are the book and films wort... Read More

Uprooted: Utterly satisfying and enthralling

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agniezska is the brave, stubborn, sensitive heroine of Naomi Novik’s recent release, Uprooted — and she’s about to steal your heart. She comes from Dvernik, a remote village on the edges of the enchanted Wood, the dark forest that creeps like a blight over interior Polnya. The only thing holding the Wood back from engulfing the land is the Dragon, a feared sorcerer who lives nearby. For his work keeping the danger at bay, every ten years the Dragon demands one young woman from the village. As the time for “the taking” approaches, everyone in the village expects the Dragon to choose Kasia, Dvernik’s golden girl and Agniezska’s best friend. However, something about Agniezska catches the Dragon’s eye and she is the one chosen to leave her family and friends for ten years to serve him in his tower.
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James and the Giant Peach: Not for kiddies only

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Perhaps I should confess right up front that this review of what is popularly regarded solely as a children's book is being written by a 50+-year-old male "adult" who hadn't read a kids' book in many years. For me, Welsh author Roald Dahl had long been the guy who scripted one of my favorite James Bond movies, 1967's You Only Live Twice, and who was married for 30 years to the great actress Patricia Neal. Recently, though, in need of some "mental palate cleansing" after a bunch of serious adult lit, I picked up Dahl's first kiddy novel, James and the Giant Peach, and now know what several generations have been aware of since the book's release in 1961: that this is an absolutely charming story for young and old alike, with marvelous characters, a remarkably imaginative story line and some quirky humor scattered throughout.

As most baby boom... Read More

Swords Against Wizardry: Two lovable rogues and their adventures

Swords Against Wizardry by Fritz Leiber

This is the fourth collection of stories in Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, and is better than the previous volume, Swords in the Mist. It features four stories: "In the Witch's Tent" (1968), "Stardock" (1965), "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" (1968), and "The Lords of Quarmall" (1964). My personal favorites are “Stardock” and "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar." The first story is just a short framing piece, so I’ll focus on the main three stories.

“Stardock” is a fast-paced and amazingly-written adventure in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser climb Stardock, an imposing ice-covered mountain that is the Newhon equivalent of Everest, in a quest to retrieve a pouch of gems that legend holds were made by the gods as test-models for ... Read More

Leviathan: What Would Jack Do?

Leviathan by Jack Campbell

Leviathan is the most recent book in Jack Campbell’s LOST FLEET: BEYOND THE FRONTIER series. It wouldn’t make any sense to read Leviathan before reading the ten books that precede it. This review will contain spoilers for the previous books, but not for Leviathan.

At the end of Steadfast, Admiral Blackjack Geary’s fleet had been escorting their new alien friends back to the hypernet gate to their own star system when they discovered a fleet of invisible ships laying waste to a nearby planet. They realized that a virus in their own software made the ships invisible, that the “dark ships” were nearly invulnerable, and that when Geary’s ships engaged them, they seemed to be programmed... Read More

The Pilgrims and Shadow: A solid opener followed by a more flat and meandering bridge book

The Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott

The Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott are the first two books of the PENDULUM TRILOGY. Book one came out a little more than a year ago, while its sequel was published in February of this year. I read The Pilgrims while on a long trip last year, and so never wrote up a review (camping and hiking not being conducive to such activity). Which means this dual review will focus heavily detail-wise on Shadow while making reference to the first book based on some fuzzy recollection, some quick skimming to refresh, and an old hand-scrawled note or two in the margin I may or may not have deciphered correctly.

The Pilgrims introduces us to Eric Albright, and young and not-particularly-upcoming journalist, and Stuart Casey ... Read More

Voyage of the Basilisk: H. Rider Haggard would clap his hands in glee

Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

What I enjoy most about Marie Brennan’s LADY TRENT MEMOIR series is the narrative voice. Isabella Camherst engages in adventures and feats of derring-do that would have H. Rider Haggard clapping his hands in glee, and they are related in the crisp, slightly sardonic tone of a well-educated and witty Victorian gentlewoman. Voyage of the Basilisk is no exception. The third book of series moves several plot points forward and has Isabella learning new things about dragons and herself.

Isabella’s dry and scientific tone make the dramatic descriptions somehow more plausible. Here she contrasts her personal experience with the “tall tales” common with sailors:
I am not a sa... Read More

SevenEves: You might love this book; I only loved the end

SevenEves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson doesn't shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,00... Read More

Steadfast: Episodic and teachy, but fun

Steadfast by Jack Campbell

Steadfast is the tenth book in Jack Campbell’s LOST FLEET series and the fourth in the BEYOND THE FRONTIER subseries. You really need to read all of the previous nine LOST FLEET books to best enjoy Steadfast. I’ll assume you have. There will be spoilers for previous books in this review.

Steadfast has an episodic and teachy feel. Geary and his crew have several different missions, some more exciting than others, and each seems to give Campbell a chance to speak to something going on in our world today. I agreed with Campbell’s “lessons” more often than not, but I was always aware that the lessons were there and that Campbell was using his story as a platform.

Rec... Read More

Why Call Them Back From Heaven?: Cold storage

Why Call Them Back From Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak

Although the concept of cryogenically preserving the bodies of the living had been a trope of Golden Age science fiction from the 1930s and onward, it wasn’t until New Jersey-born Robert Ettinger released his hardheaded book on the subject, 1962’s The Prospect of Immortality, that the idea began to be taken seriously. Ettinger would go on to found the Cryonics Institute in Michigan around 15 years later; over 1,300 folks have subscribed to this facility as of 2015, agreeing to pay $30,000 to have themselves turned into human “corpsicles,” and 130 are currently “on ice” there. (And let’s not even discuss Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, whose head is currently in deep freeze at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona!) But getting back to Ettinger’s book: This volume apparently impressed sci-fi author Cliffor... Read More

The Long War: One war short of a decent novel

The Long War by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Warning: May contain spoilers for The Long Earth.

Another day, another Terry Prachett novel — this time the second instalment of his Science Fiction collaboration with author Stephen Baxter. A multiverse of alternate worlds is not a new concept, but it is a cool one, one which Pratchett and Baxter explore the endless possibilities of. The Long War picks up a couple of decades after where The Long Earth left off. The premise behind the books is that William Lindsay (an as yet unmet rogue scientist) had designed a potato-powered device that allows users to ‘step’ between worlds. Oh, P.S., there are a bazillion worlds.

In the first book, we meet Josh Valienté, orphaned prod... Read More

Magazine Monday: Nebula-Nominated Short Stories, 2014

Here are the short stories nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award:

In “The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard, the main character, Rechan, is pregnant. She must find her breath-sibling before she gives birth, or the baby will be stillborn. That, and the fact that they are carved by adolescent women from a special stone called lamsinh, are all we know about breath-siblings at first. Most women have their breath-siblings with them once they are created, but Rechan’s has remained in the mountains from which it was carved during a time of war on her planet. “The Breath of War” is a very alien story, setting up a world and a biology that are so different from ours that the wonder of the story comes from discovering the natu... Read More

Of Noble Family: A suspenseful, multi-layered finale to an imaginative series

Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal

Warning: May contain spoilers for previous books in the GLAMOURIST HISTORIES

With Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal brings to an end her GLAMOURIST HISTORIES series, set in a fantastical English Regency period. While the book resolves several issues in the lives of Jane and David Vincent, there is no feeling of “winding down.” The book is suspenseful, filled with surprises and real stakes for Jane and her beloved, troubled husband.

In Vienna, Jane and Vincent are interrupted in the midst of a family visit by a letter informing Vincent that his father, the villainous Lord Verbury, has died in Antigua. The Lord fled to Antigua after being accused of treason in England. A carriage accident led to the death of one of... Read More

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones: Wise kings will read it

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García, and Linda Antonsson

George R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones is a companion to his A SONG OF ICE & FIRE novels. It provides modest spoilers for the series and is probably best if not read until readers have finished the third novel, A Storm of Swords, or finished watching the third season in the television series. (And the same is true of this review.)

Given that the title of this book — The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones — references both Martin’s ... Read More

Guardian: Trying to get home… again.

Guardian by Jack Campbell

Guardian is the ninth book in Jack Campbell’s LOST FLEET series and the third in the subseries called BEYOND THE FRONTIER. You really need to have read the previous eight books to fully understand the background, so I’ll assume you’re familiar with the series if you’re reading this review.

Admiral Blackjack Geary and his wife Tanya Desjani (captain of the warship Dauntless which is the admiral’s flagship) are once again far from home and trying to get back. Now that the war with the evil Syndicate Empire is supposed to be over, Geary’s fleet has been sent by the Alliance “beyond the frontier” to investigate the first alien species that humans had ever encountered. (It’s a little hard to believe that the Alliance government would... Read More

Swords in the Mist: Uneven volume, but “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is good

Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber

This is the third collection of stories in Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, and the quality is quite varied. "Lean Times in Lankhmar" (1959) and "When the Sea-King's Away" (1960) are good, swashbuckling fun, and “The Cloud of Hate” (1963) is short but creepily effective. However, "Their Mistress, the Sea" (1968) and "The Wrong Branch" (1968) are just short connective stories of little consequence. Finally, “Adept’s Gambit” (1947), is an odd fish that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series, a novella in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are placed in our ancient world and sent on a long quest by Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.

The highlight is definitely “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser part ways to settle down and give up ... Read More

After Dark: Staying up late

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

The bars are closing and the night’s last trains are shuttling people out of the city to their suburban beds. The city would be empty if it weren’t for the few remaining people who have decided to stay up After Dark.

Mari Asai, who studies Mandarin, sits in a Denny’s, reading a novel, when a stranger, Takahashi Tetsuya, joins her. Technically, Takahashi is not a stranger. He went to school with Mari’s sister, Eri, and he and Mari actually met once at a party the year before. Takahashi is staying up all night be... Read More

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland: Weakest of the series

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is the fourth in the FAIRYLAND series by Catherynne M. Valente, the second in a row that has been somewhat of a disappointment to me, and the first whose strengths I thought were not enough to fully overcome its flaws.

Valente takes a bit of a risk here in book four, shifting focus from her primary protagonist, September and her friends, to a whole new cast of characters. The titular “boy” of the book is Hawthorn, a young troll scooped up by the Red Wind and dropped off in our world as a changeling, where he lives as a “Not Normal” boy for some years before encountering Tam, another changeling. Eventually, the two of them realize their true selves and make their way back to Fairyland, and it is there that t... Read More

Swords Against Death: Sword and sorcery’s most famous duo are in top form

Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

This is the second collection of stories in the FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, but the majority of the stories were written well before the stories of the first book, Swords and Deviltry. Again Fritz Leiber took a group of independent stories written in the early 1940s and added connective and framing material to make the book more cohesive. As a result, I think some the best stories are the earliest ones, written for the pulp magazines like Unknown, though the final story is also excellent.

There are ten stories altogether in Swords and Deviltry, though seven of them first appeared in a collection called Two Sought Adventure published in 1957. All of the stories are filled with the rough-and-tumble adventures of F... Read More

The Warring States: A step backwards

The Warring States by Aidan Harte

The Warring States is the second book in Aidan Harte’s THE WAVE trilogy, coming after last year’s Irenicon, to which I gave a three-star rating recently. Unfortunately, I’d describe The Warring States as a bit of a step backwards, mostly due to pacing issues.

You can take a look at my review of Irenicon for the detailed back-story. Suffice to say here that the setting is a roughly alternative Renaissance Italy in a world where Christ was killed by Herod, and Mary (a far cry from Christianity’s Mary) becomes the progenitor of a religion; where Concord, not Rome became the imperialistic head of an Empire; and where Concord’s Master Engineer Bernoulli mastered a quasi-science/quasi-magic sys... Read More