SFF Reviews

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Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet: A bittersweet tale of magic and life

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Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg

Maire, a baker in the small village of Carmine, is notable for two unusual characteristics. First, other than her name, she has complete amnesia about everything in her life up to the time she appeared near the village four and a half years ago. And secondly, Maire has the magical gift of infusing her baked goods with feelings and abilities that will be absorbed by the person who eats her food: strength, love, mercy, patience ... even, it seems, some magical abilities.

One day a pale, translucent man, with strange wings that look more like sunlit water than feathers, appears and talks to Maire briefly. He orders her to run for her life, but it's too late: marauders on horseback are storming the village and killing or capturing everyone in sight. Maire is taken and soon sold as a slave to a very odd and sinister man, Allemas, who finds out ... Read More

Winter of Fire: A surprisingly affecting little story

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Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan

Sherryl Jordan is a New Zealand-based author of young adult and children’s fantasy fiction. In Winter of Fire (1993) she tells the story of Elsha, a sixteen year old girl born into the enslaved underclass called the Quelled. As the sun has disappeared from the world, a memory only alive in mythology, the Quelled are forced to mine for the firestones that are the people's only source of warmth. But Elsha has a rebellious spirit and is often in trouble with the brutal overseers at the mine. They are from the upper class, the people known as the Chosen.

Elsha's life is changed forever when she is chosen to be the handmaid of the legendry Firelord. The Firelord is the most important man in the world as he possesses the power to divine for firestones, the life fuel of every person alive. The Firelord's choice is re... Read More

Century Rain: Noir, hard SF, and a dash of romance

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Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Century Rain (2004) is the first novel Alastair Reynolds published outside of his REVELATION SPACE setting. It combines elements of noir, hard science fiction and time travel with a dash of romance. Reynolds also experimented with noir elements in Chasm City and The Prefect (which I think is one of his best novels). The melding of noir and science fiction doesn’t work as well in Century Rain; this book is not one of Reynold's stronger novels.

The novel opens in the late 23rd century with archaeologist Verity Auger leading two students through the ruins of Paris. Earth has been destroyed by an event referred to as the nanocaust during the 2070s. A host of tiny machines, released to correct the centuries of abuse heaped upon the ear... Read More

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge: A tasty cocktail of an urban fantasy

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Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

They live in Chicago. They’re young. They’re hip. They have tattoos. They can serve you any alcoholic drink you can name, and after last call, when the bars are closed, they go out for pancakes. And... they are part of a magical society, the Cupbearers Court, protecting innocent citizens, like you and me, from being attacked by demonic monsters. That’s the premise of Paul Krueger’s debut novel, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge.

I mean, come on... we’ve always known alcohol was magical, haven’t we? Krueger’s fast-paced, fun urban fantasy literalizes the idea of alcohol as magic, and bartenders, with their encyclopedic knowledge and their alchemical ability to mix spirits, fruit, botanicals and sometimes fizzy stuff into tasty mind-altering beverages, into wizardly members of a sec... Read More

Invaders: A high percentage of excellent stories

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature ed. by Jacob Wesiman

As with most collections, whether they be of stories, poems, or essays, I found Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature, edited by Jacob Wesiman, to be a mixed bag overall, with some weak stories, some solidly good ones, some very good ones, and several absolutely great ones, more in fact than I typically find in an anthology, making this an easy collection to recommend.

The authors collected here are non-genre writers known mostly for “literary fiction,” such as George Saunders, Max Apple, Molly Gloss, Jim Shepard, Katherine Dunn, and Junot Diaz. In his introduction, Wesiman says the idea for this anthology came out of the responses he saw to an earlier one (from 2009) entitled Read More

Helliconia Winter: Deserves the BSFA award it won

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Helliconia Winter by Brian W. Aldiss

Like an architect seeing a cathedral they’ve designed have the steeple raised, or an engineer watching the bowsprit attached to a ship they’ve built, so too must Aldiss have felt writing the final chapter of Helliconia Winter (1985). The orbits within orbits, themes revolving around themes, and characters caught in the cycle of life, come to an end. But only on the page.

The series has covered millennia. The third and final book, Helliconia Winter, continues to tell a human-scale tale in harmony with the larger forces at play — geology, astrophysics, and biology all heavily influencing the narrative. This time around, however, Aldiss wields a heavier thematic hammer. The understated Gaian theme of Helliconia Spring and Helliconia Summer i... Read More

The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold: Stealing gold from dragons? What could go wrong?

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The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins

If you’re a fan of heist stories — particularly the planning, the bickering between co-conspirators, the moments when it all goes dreadfully wrong or sublimely right — and you also happen to enjoy epic fantasies with vicious fire-breathing dragons and their vast caches of filthy lucre, then you’ll be happy to know that there’s a Venn diagram where those two genres meet, and the center is filled by Jon Hollins’ debut fantasy novel, The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold.

In the lovely but oppressed Kondorra valley, humans farm and fish and pay taxes to the Dragon Consortium, a united band of dragons who demand exorbitant amounts of gold every year and take pleasure in using their subjects for aerial target practice. The people are downtrodden, miserable, and in desperate need of salvation from a... Read More

The Seed of Earth: A generally pleasing work from one of sci-fi’s best

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The Seed of Earth by Robert Silverberg

Men of a certain age may recall a particular trepidation that was attendant with the coming of their 18th birthday; i.e., the fear of being drafted into the armed forces. From 1940 until January ’73, males here in the U.S. could be drafted, even during peacetime, to fill vacancies in the Army and other services, and well do I remember the sigh of relief that many breathed when the draft disappeared, in favor of an all-volunteer system. But, as Robert Silverberg’s 1962 novel The Seed of Earth had already demonstrated, conscription could entail far more intimidating prospects than a mere two-year Army hitch.

For the future Grand Master and multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, The Seed of Earth came at... Read More

It Happened One Doomsday: This urban fantasy goes vroom-vroom

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It Happened One Doomsday by Laurence MacNaughton

It Happened One Doomsday is the first book I’ve read by Laurence MacNaughton. It looks like most of his other work would be classified as supernatural thrillers, although Conspiracy of Angels has a definite urban fantasy vibe. It Happened One Doomsday lands on the border of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, with a brisk plot and characters who are, for the most part, likeable. The story relies on the old biblical story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and by far my favorite thing in this book are the steeds of the horsemen; instead of riding dragons or generic monsters (or even motorcycles), the four horsemen drive muscle cars.
“A 1969 Dodge Daytona,” he said. When she didn’t reply right away he seemed to mistake her silence for encour... Read More

Voodoo Island: For Uncle Boris completists only

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Voodoo Island directed by Reginald LeBorg

The 1957 Boris Karloff film Voodoo Island seems to have a widespread reputation as being one of the actor's all-time worst, so it was with a feeling of resignation and borderline cinematic masochism that I popped this DVD into the player the other night. Voodoo Island was Karloff's first horror picture in four years, his only release for 1957; he would rebound a bit the following year, with the releases of the fun shlockfest Frankenstein 1970 and the even better (British) film Grip of the Strangler. Filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai on the cheap, the picture turns out to be a modest little B film that, despite its many flaws, still retains a certain strange charm.

In it, Boris plays a character named Phillip Knight, who seems to be a professional debunker of popular myths. Knight, when we first encounter him, has ... Read More

SFM: Hurley, Valentine, Miller, Campbell-Hicks, Warrick

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. 



“Elephants and Corpses” by Kameron Hurley (May 2015, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version).

Nev has the ability to jump from a dying body into a nearby dead one, as long as he's actually touched the dead body. He keeps a cache of dead bodies on hand so he's never stuck for something for his soul to jump into. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s some demand for... Read More

Life Debt: Fast-paced, cinematic entertainment

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Life Debt by Chuck Wendig

Before I begin my review of Chuck Wendig’s Life Debt, book two of the STAR WARS: AFTERMATH trilogy, I want to talk about myself for a minute. I like STAR WARS. I loved the original three movies. I didn’t like The Phantom Menace, surfed away from Attack of the Clones about two-thirds of the way through, and never saw Revenge of the Sith. Remember that I’m the person who couldn’t figure out why commenters on various sites kept talking about the European Union as part of the Star Wars cycle because I didn’t know that “EU” meant “Extended Universe.” I’m not a capital-F Fan.

What I am is an enthusiastic reader. I enjoy... Read More

The Neutronium Alchemist: Like a soap opera

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The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton

Warning: Contains a few spoilers for the previous book, The Reality Dysfunction.

“Jesus, I can’t believe that’s all there is: life and purgatory. After tens of thousands of years, the universe finally reveals that we have souls, and then we have the glory snatched right back and replaced with terror. There has to be something more, there has to be. He wouldn’t do that to us.”

The Neutronium Alchemist is the second book in Peter F. Hamilton’s massive (and I mean massive) NIGHT’S DAWN science f... Read More

Saga Vol 6, Issues 31-36 by Brian K Vaughan

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Saga, Vol 6, Issues 31-36 by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist)

Saga Vol 6 is the first one I had to wait for, as I read the first 5 volumes back-to-back. This is such a popular, excellently-written, and amazingly-illustrated series that the main question fans will have is, “Is it still as greater as ever?” Well, I’d say it isn’t quite as brilliant as the first 4 volumes, but Vaughan and Staples have established a very high level of storytelling and can probably maintain it for quite some time. So rest assured, fans will not be overly disappointed. This series remains centered on the characters, though this time the surprises an... Read More

A Toxic Trousseau: Every summer I look forward to visiting Lily in San Francisco

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A Toxic Trousseau by Juliet Blackwell

Every summer I look forward to spending a few days in San Francisco with Lily Ivory, her employees at her vintage clothing shop, her gluttonous familiar Oscar, her sexy boyfriend Sailor, and various other inhabitants of the Haight district where Lily works and lives. These are charming folks who, since they’re set in a paranormal cozy mystery series, tend to bumble into a crime scene every few weeks.

This time, Lily goes to visit a woman who owns a competing vintage clothing shop and who has filed suit against Lily for something Oscar did. Readers won’t be surprised that the woman dies soon after this confrontation and that Lily is, once again, being questioned by the San Francisco police. Being a bit nosey, and having a flexible working schedule, Lily (again) sets out to uncover the culprit and, in the process, explores more of San Francisco (sh... Read More

Dracula: Stoker original drips with Gothic dread

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

It's Gothic, intricate, romantic, tragic, fun and surprising. I haven't read Bram Stoker's original Dracula in about 20 years and most of the details I'd either forgotten or had been smudged, smeared, and overwritten by a lifetime of modern vampire stories and myths.

Dracula is set in the late 19th century and is presented through a series of letters, memos and recordings between numerous characters who, through no fault of their own, become entangled in Dracula's plot to move away from his rapidly dwindling (and more "vampire-aware") food supply in Romania to the hip and crowded urban life of London.

Stoker's mythology around vampires had a few surprises (to me, at least ... apologies in advance if any of these are common knowledge to Read More

Escape from Kathmandu: Four linked stories set in Nepal

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Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily known as a science fiction writer, but that category doesn’t fit all of his work. For example, just before he published the novel A Short, Sharp Shock (1990), which could be labeled as surrealistic fantasy, he published Escape from Kathmandu, a collection of four linked novellas set in contemporary Nepal. Three of the novellas — Escape from KathmanduMother Goddess of the World and The True Nature of Shangri-La — were printed in Asimov's in 1986, 1987 and 1989 respectively. The first three can be read independently. The fourth one, The Kingdom Underground, can be read independently as... Read More

The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway: It’s hard to believe in Cherry

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The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway by Karina Cooper

I picked up The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway (2013) because it was free at Audible a while back. It’s the prequel to Karina Cooper’s ST. CROIX CHRONICLES which is set in Victorian London and begins with the novel Tarnished. In The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway, we meet Cherry St. Croix, an opium-addicted tomboyish teenage orphan who lives with a wealthy benefactor and sneaks out at night to earn money to support her addiction. She does this by being a “collector,” which is something like a bounty hunter.

This is the story of her first collection attempt. She must bri... Read More

The Mothman Prophecies: Genuinely freaky

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The Mothman Prophecies directed by Mark Pellington

Laura Linney, one of Hollywood's preeminent mainstream actresses of the early 21st century, made a pair of highly effective horror pictures in 2002 and 2005 that share a number of notable similarities. The Mothman Prophecies, the earlier film, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, are both products of the Screen Gems/Lakeshore Entertainment production company, and both deal with supernatural events that are purportedly based on real-life incidents. Both films go far in convincing the viewer of the possibility of the bizarre happenings portrayed as being genuine and real (unknowable, highly advanced life forms watching over mankind in the first; demonic possession in the latter), and both, strangely enough, clock in at precisely 119 minutes. But whereas the exorcism film was based on a German ... Read More

Helliconia Summer: The big ideas punch deep

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Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss

The shape of Brian Aldiss’s SF Masterwork HELLICONIA could be said to be parabolic. If Helliconia Spring is the slow, curving entry point, then Helliconia Summer, the middle volume, is the zenith story-wise. Or at least that’s the feel two-thirds of the way through the series. As Aldiss is trying to paint a historical and evolutionary picture of humanity’s existence on a distant planet, Helliconia Summer’s narrative does not pick up where the first volume left off, and instead focuses on a point in the society’s development loosely equivalent to the Baroque Era many centuries in the future from Helliconia Spring. Were the lives of the kings and queens the onl... Read More

WWWednesday; July 13, 2016

The Helix Nebula



Awards:

Once again, it’s awards season, and the short lists for the World Fantasy Awards are out. File 770 has the entire list, but here are some highlights:

Novel: The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro; The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin; Uprooted, Noami Novik; Savages, K.J. Parker; The Chimes, Anna Smaill; Head Full of Ghosts Read More

Arabella of Mars: A fantastic voyage

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Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

What if Isaac Newton, instead of watching an apple fall from a tree and being inspired to develop a new theory of gravity, had observed a bubble rising from his bathtub and begun to meditate on space travel? Well, in the world of Arabella of Mars, a delightful and unique blend of a Regency-era nautical adventure and the pioneering science fiction of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, it resulted in Captain Kidd commanding the first voyage to Mars in the late 1600s. A little over a hundred years later, in the year 1812, there are plantations on Mars that grow valuable khoresh wood, watched over by their British masters, with the assistance of Martian servants, who have a vaguely... Read More

The Shadowed Sun: Mature, intelligent, challenging, unafraid

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The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

The Shadowed Sun (2012) is the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s DREAMBLOOD two-book series, inspired the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia. However, rather than simply changing some names and using thinly-disguised history as her template, she introduces an entirely new religious and social system, one centered around worship of Hananja, the dream goddess represented by the moon. The story this time is set a decade after the events of the previous book, and features some of the same characters like Nijiri, now a full-fledged Gatherer, and Sunandi, member of the Kisuati Protectorate now ruling Gujaareh. However, Jemisin introduces three new main characters: Hanani, a young Sharer priestess, the first female granted this position; Prince Wa... Read More

Fragment: Monster Mayhem

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Fragment by Warren Fahy

I've read a number of reviews and comments that compare Warren Fahy's Fragment (2009) with Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park. Fragment and Jurassic Park have similar themes and bare bones basic concepts. Both stories involve humans battling supernatural, prehistoric monsters and self-centered murderous villains on the remotest of islands. Let's be clear: stop there and consider the comparisons complete. Don't get me wrong. I really enjoyed Fahy's debut novel. It's the perfect summertime beach or pool-side read, and its 500 pages fly by faster than the Hender's Island Spigers rip apart defenseless characters in Fahy's book.

Sequel


... Read More

Articulating Dinosaurs: A dense academic book, but rewarding even for a lay fan

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Articulating Dinosaurs by Brian Noble

I have to confess that Articulating Dinosaurs (2016) by Brian Noble wasn’t quite what I’d expected, though that was certainly more my fault for not reading the description closely and in its entirety. Basically, any author/publisher has me at “dinosaurs,” so everything after that is just so much superfluous verbiage. So yes, I can’t say I was at all fully prepared for the academic/critical theory nature of the work, though it didn’t take too many early references to Lacan or Foucault before I figured out my misperception and readjusted my expectations. It’s been a few years (OK, decades) since my crit days, and I can’t say that even when I was reading critical theory that I was wholly enjoying or comprehending it (I do recall doing a lot of back-and-forth page-flipping re-reading with Lacan, for instance. ... Read More