SFF Reviews

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Edge: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

[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.]

Of Things Gone Astray is Janina Matthewson’s debut novel, and it is charming and heartfelt magical realism. Using short chapters that cycle through different character perspectives, Matthewson tells the story of several people who have lost something of value to them, ranging from piano keys or the front of a house to a girlfriend or a father.  As these characters struggle with their losses, a young boy named Jake begins to find the things that are lost, developing a magical sense for where the items came from and their meaning... Read More

The Gripping Hand: Boring sequel

The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

The Gripping Hand (1993) is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s sequel to their popular 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, which you probably want to read first. This review will have a couple of spoilers for The Mote in God’s Eye.

Recall that by the year 3017 AD, humans had designed the Alderson Drive — an interstellar transporter which allowed them to jump out of our galaxy to colonize different star systems. Then they discovered the first alien species — the Moties — who were excellent engineers but did not know the science behind the Alderson Drive. The Moties must breed to survive and were quickly overpopulating their own star system. Because they represent a major threat to our species, the human space navy ha... Read More

A Different Kingdom: Rich with details and surprising maturity

A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

A Different Kingdom is a reprint of one of Paul Kearney’s first novels, first published in 1993. The good news is that this doesn’t read like an early novel in an illustrious career: it actually reads like something a well-practiced author would produce after a lot of hard work.

A Different Kingdom is set in the picturesque countryside of Ireland and the farm where Michael lives. Alongside this, perhaps on top of it or layered throughout it, is a fantasy world where other creatures live, creatures that seem to spring out of our own myths and legends. The fact that this other world is set in a landscape that has thrilled many (myself included) with beautiful myths and legends is just perfect. This is a book for dreamers.
When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the... Read More

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

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 analysts who work for a London bank. One of them accidentally progr... Read More

Recalled to Life: Ungrateful dead

Recalled to Life by Robert Silverberg

True to his word, after announcing his retirement from the science fiction field in 1959, future Grand Master Robert Silverberg’s formerly prodigious output fell off precipitously. Although he’d released some 16 sci-fi novels from the period 1954 – ’59, not to mention almost 250 (!) sci-fi short stories, AFTER 1959 and until his major return in 1967, his sci-fi production was sporadic at best. In 1960, Silverberg only released one sci-fi book, Lost Race of Mars (a so-called “juvenile”), and in 1961, not a single full-length affair; only two short stories. In 1962, however, in a slight return to form, Silverberg released Recalled to Life and The Seed of Earth. The year 1962 was hardly an idle one for Silverberg, however; besides those two novels, he also released one sci-fi shor... Read More

The Cadwal Chronicles: The first two books are some of Vance’s best

THE CADWAL CHRONICLES by Jack Vance

The 1980s found Jack Vance moving into his sixth decade of life. Imagination still sharp, he produced such works as the LYONESSE trilogy, the second half of the DYING EARTH saga, as well as began THE CADWAL CHRONICLES with Araminta Station published in 1989. The novel is on par with the best of Vance’s oeuvre. The second novel in the series, Ecce and Old Earth, sees only a slight decline in quality, the story furthered in fine fashion. However, Throy, the third and concluding volume, is like a different writer took hold of the script. It is dry and bland and does not come close to the bar set by the first two, but it is fortunately not bad enough to destroy the integrity of the series. THE CADWAL CHRONICLES contain all of the tropes that make Vance, Vance, and likewise mak... Read More

Vergil in Averno: Read Avram Davidson, but don’t start here

Vergil in Averno by Avram Davidson

Vergil in Averno is the second book in Avram Davidson’s trilogy about Vergil Magus. It was published in 1986, 20 years after its predecessor The Phoenix and the Mirror which told how Vergil (yes, that Vergil) created a magic mirror for Queen Cornelia. I enjoyed that book for its interesting period details and the appealing humor. You don’t need to read The Phoenix and the Mirror to understand Vergil in Averno. This story can stand alone.

In Vergil in Averno, Vergil travels to (surprise!) Averno, a region in Italy where volcanic activity has created a toxic lake and boiling water travels just below the surface of the earth. (Early Romans thought Averno was a gate to Hell and ... Read More

Sailing to Sarantium: An epic collision of fantasy and a history textbook

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Sailing to Sarantium is the first in Guy Gavriel Kay’s THE SARANTINE MOSAIC duology. In true Kay fashion, Sailing to Sarantium introduces the reader to an expansively realized world, complex characters, and life-changing events. THE SARANTINE MOSAIC is not strictly historical fiction, but it reads like it. Sarantium, the glorious empire ruled by the thrice exalted emperor, would feel right at home next to histories of ancient Greece or Rome. It was that feeling of reality, however ancient, that kept me eagerly reading.

Sailing to Sarantium follows Crispin, a master mosaicist who makes a journey to the golden city of Sarantium upon the summons of the Emperor himself. It is also the story of the Emperor and Empress and their plans to change the world. It is also ab... Read More

Whipping Star: One of Herbert’s more interesting novels

Whipping Star by Frank Herbert

Whipping Star is one of Frank Herbert’s non-Dune books that Tor has been reprinting in recent years. This 1970 novel is the first full novel in the ConSentiency universe, which up to this point consisted of only two short stories. Both of them are contained in the collection Eye and may very well be included in other short fiction collections. Like these short stories, Whipping Star features the unusually observant BuSab agent Jorj X. McKie as a main character. This universe is also the setting of what I consider to be Herbert’s best non-Dune book: Read More

Half a Crown: The most optimistic, but weakest, book of the trilogy

Half a Crown by Jo Walton

(Warning: may contain spoilers of the two previous books.)

In the foreword to Half a Crown, Jo Walton says that she is by nature an optimistic person and that’s why she wrote the SMALL CHANGE series (which she refers to as Still Life with Fascists). Half a Crown, the final book in the trilogy, is admittedly more optimistic that the first two. Sadly, in several ways it’s the weakest of the three, although still worth reading.

The final book is set in 1960, more than ten years into the repressive fascist regime of Prime Minister Mark Normanby. Peter Carmichael is now the head of the Watch, Britain’s Gestapo. Within the Watch, Carmichael and his lieutenant Jacobson, the agency’s “model Jew,” run the clandestine Inner Watch, an underground railroad that sends Jews and other people deemed ... Read More

Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart: Two classic tales of adventure

Elissa & Black Heart and White Heart by H. Rider Haggard

Editor's note: Because they are in the public domain, both Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart are available for free on Kindle. To find them, click on the Kindle covers in this review.

The H. Rider Haggard novels Elissa and Black Heart and White Heart are usually to be found (when they can be found at all) together in a single volume, and for good reason. They are both shorter works by this great author (indeed, at a mere 105 pages, Black Heart and White Heart must be considered more of a novella or longish short story), and both are tales of adventure in the African milieu that Haggard knew so well, although the tales take place in ti... Read More

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: Charming and original

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

You can’t deny that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been packaged well. And I mean literally packaged well. The cover bears the picture of a deliciously weird girl, floating a foot above the ground. The book itself is printed on thick, high-quality photographic paper, and a flick through will quickly reveal it’s interspersed with collections of old, grainy photographs of various oddities and peculiar children. It’s heavy and glossy and feels like a relic in and of itself — and with a price tag of $20 you better hope they’ve shelled out on making it swanky.

Jacob Portman is a sixteen year-old boy who is disillusioned with life. We open, rather comically, with him building a replica Empire State building out of adult nappies in the chain of pharmaceutical stores he’s going to inherit from his parents. The... Read More

Horrible Monday: The Three by Sarah Lotz

The Three by Sarah Lotz

Sarah Lotz’s The Three is a stand-alone horror novel which should, by all rights, have a terrifying plot: Four high-capacity passenger jets crash on the same day, with no warning or clues as to the cause. After three of the crashes, a single child is found alive among the wreckage: one Japanese, one American, and one Briton. Global media coverage focuses on these three children (and the possibility of a fourth in Africa), creating a maelstrom of controversy over what may have happened and whether these children are symbols of hope or something far more sinister. Complicating the issue is the last known communication from an American woman, a voicemail which is appropriated by her pastor for self-aggrandizing purposes.

These events are bookended by a framing device: A journalist, Elspeth Martins, has taken it upon herself to better understand the plane crashes and the effect they ... Read More

Heart of Venom: Pretty much the same

Heart of Venom by Jennifer Estep

Heart of Venom is the ninth book in Jennifer Estep’s very popular ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN series. I skipped it a while back because I’m not crazy about this series and I didn’t want to purchase it. I had the later volumes and went on. (I’ve only continued to read ELEMENTAL ASSASIN because I already owned most of the books and I wanted to report on it for FanLit.) However, a copy of Heart of Venom fell in my lap recently, so I read it. I feel the same way about it as I do about all the other books in this series, so I’ll be brief here.

Gin’s friend Sophia (the goth dwarf) is kidnapped by the man who tortured her many years ago. Gin must get her back because she has a hero complex — she sees it as her job to protect everyone she loves. So instead of asking her sister Bria, a top cop in the Ashland police fo... Read More

Supreme Power: Powers and Principalities by J. Michael Straczynski

Supreme Power (Vol. 2): Powers and Principalities by J. Michael Straczynski

In this volume, the shinola hits the fanola. Turns out alien superbeings don’t like being lied to or manipulated in the way they were raised . . . Who knew?! In Powers and Principalities, the second volume of Supreme Power, Hyperion now knows that the government sponsored fiasco that he calls his childhood was all just a scam so the U.S. of A. could have a super-weapon in its back pocket. He’s not impressed. Add to that the awakening of a possibly schizophrenic super-woman who wants to help Hyperion take over the world and the fact that the government’s only other superhero, Joe “Doc Spect... Read More

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