SFF Reviews

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The Ghost Variations: A collection of 100 flash stories

The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier

The Ghost Variations (2021) by Kevin Brockmeier is a collection of 100 flash stories, all involving ghosts, though the meaning of that word is stretched in some of them. In structure, style, flavor, and tone, the collection reminded me most of Einstein Dreams by Alan Lightman, although it also calls up echoes of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.

The stories are grouped into various sections, such as “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Nature,” “Ghosts and Love and Friendship,” and “Ghosts and Family.” I... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 12): War on Frogs: Defeating the frogs one battle at a time

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 12): War on Frogs by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Herb Trimpe (artist), Guy Davis (artist), John Severin (artist), Peter Snejbjerg (artist), Karl Moline (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Bjarne Hansen (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer).

The events in B.P.R.D. (Vol. 12): War on Frogs do not take place between volumes 11 and 13; instead, volume 12 is a flashback of sorts and should probably be read after B.P.R.D. (Vol. 5): The Black Flame.

In the first story, Kate finds Abe and offers him a look at an old file about Abe’s seeing the two frog brothers under Cavendish Hall, both of whom probably perished with the collapse of the Hall. But since they were the first frog creatures the B.P.R.D. ever encountered, Kate thinks it wise to send out a small group to reexamine the ruins. She hopes Abe will lead them, but Roger doe... Read More

Burning Girls and Other Stories: Great opening, strong close, uneven in between

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

Veronica Schanoes’ collection Burning Girls and Other Stories (2021) started strong, hit a rough patch for a lengthy time, then ended strong. It is, therefore, the epitome of the mixed bag. Of the thirteen tales, I found one to be a standout, two others good, a few solid ones and a number that didn’t do anything for me. I won’t go through each one, but here are my responses to several of the stories.
“Among the Thorns”: This is the opening piece and is also the one I thought stood out amongst the collection. Not only is it a strong opening story, but it’s also a killer opening line and paragraph:

They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.

I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that.

They made him danc... Read More

The Midnight Library: A literary Sliding Doors

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Who hasn't fantasised what a different version of their life might look like? What if you'd become famous? Or an Olympic athlete? What if you'd become an arctic researcher? A musician? That's exactly what Matt Haig explores in his latest offering, The Midnight Library (2020).

Nora Seed (and note the pointed symbolism of her surname) is not having a great day. Her cat just died. She's been fired. Her brother is ignoring her and her neighbour, the only person she has any social contact with, doesn't need her to bring round his meds any more. So that night, she tries to kill herself.

Instead of death, however, Nora finds herself in a library where each volume on the shelf is a different version of her life. She is met by the librarian, a certain Mrs. Elm (who, coincidental... Read More

Call of the Bone Ships: A sequel that’s better than the first book

Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

Call of the Bone Ships (2020) is the second book in R.J. Barker’s TIDE CHILD trilogy. The first book, The Bone Ships, introduced Joron Twiner, first mate to a tough and effective sea captain named Lucky Meas. Sailing and politics collide when their disreputable ship Tide Child was assigned to find and protect the last of a valuable but possibly extinct sea dragon species. The Bone Ships — dark, moody, and beautifully written — was slow-going until the final scenes, which were spectacular. By that point I was eager to read this second book, Call of the Bone Ships.

Call of the Bone Ships Read More

Trouble the Saints: A deeply, darkly magical Americana novel

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Trouble the Saints (2020), by Alaya Dawn Johnson, follows three people of color — Phyllis (whose friends call her Pea), Tamara and Dev — from the late 1930s into the American involvement in World War II. Not one of them is “ordinary”; Pea and Dev have “saint’s hands” that bestow a gift … or a curse. Tamara has inherited a deck of playing cards, and she’s an oracle. When the story opens, all three are trying to make a living working for the white gangster Victor in New York City.

Phyllis is light-skinned enough to pass for white, which she does, and the hands have given her the power to throw anything with amazing accuracy. She can balance things on her knuckles and the tips of her fingers; whatever she throws a knife at, she hits. The gangsters call her “Victor’s Angel,” meaning Angel of Death, and she is his assassin.
... Read More

The People’s Republic of Everything: An experimental collection

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

I don’t know if I simply wasn’t in the right mood for Nick Mamatas’ short-story collection The People’s Republic of Everything (2018), or if I’m not the right audience for his preferred themes and overall style, but this book and I just could not mesh.

There was one story, “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher,” which gripped my attention and had everything I look for in short fiction. The story focuses on Rosa Martinez, whose elderly grandmother might — through quirks of legality regarding her first marriage and the question of ownership of her first husband’s pulp publications — own the rights to a series of stories revolving around psychopomp Tom Silex. The character work is strong, the ... Read More

The Conductors: Slow and muddy

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors (2021), by Nicole Glover, has lots of elements I’d normally eat up like a buffet: a historical setting (late 1800s Philadelphia), a focus on social injustice, a murder mystery, magic systems. Unfortunately, the elements never cohered into a story that held my attention, making the novel a real struggle. I thought about giving up on it relatively early, but kept pushing through despite my instincts, probably helped by the fact that my Kindle wasn’t showing my progress despite my repeated attempts to force it to do so. Eventually, I picked it up on a different device, realized I’d hit the two-thirds point, and figuring that was more than fair, skimmed through the rest.

Henrietta (“Hetty”) and Benjy Rhodes are known as “The Conductors” for their fabled exploits leading slaves from captivity into the free s... Read More

A Desolation Called Peace: Wonderfully rich and nuanced

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace (2021) is Arkady Martine’s direct sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which was one of my favorite works in 2019. While not quite as strong, the standard being set so high simply means A Desolation Called Peace is an “excellent” rather than “great” read, and thus one that is easy to recommend.

As noted, this is a direct sequel, so you’ll definitely need to have read the first book before stepping into this one. The main characters — some familiar, some new — include:

Mahit Dzmare: resident of Lsel Station and former (well, technically current, but it’s complicated) ambassador to Teix... Read More

Empire of Wild: A First Nations writer on love, loss and rogarous

Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis writer and activist from the Georgian Bay Métis Nation in Ontario, Canada. She has received a number of awards for her novels and short stories, none of which I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading — but after reading Empire of Wild (2020), I’m definitely going to track them down. Her use of First Nations themes and folklore is fascinating, and a delightful change from the many fantasies based on European images and tales.

Dimaline has set Empire of Wild in Arcand, a tiny Canadian town full of halfbreeds (the author’s word, first used on p. 1 and repeated throughout the novel) — the offspring of French voyageur fathers and First Nations mothers, part of the Métis people — on the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario. The indigenous people have been constantly moved away from the shoreline, replaced by million-d... Read More

The Russian Cage: Jailbreak and conspiracies in Russian America

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris’s alternative history/urban fantasy GUNNIE ROSE series shifts to a new setting in this third book in the series, The Russian Cage (2021), one that was foreshadowed by the ending of the prior book, A Longer Fall. Lizbeth Rose, who makes her living as a hired gun or “gunnie,” receives an intentionally cryptic letter from her younger half-sister, Felicia. For the past year, Felicia has been living in what once was California, Oregon and Washington but is now the Holy Russian Empire, ruled over by a young, married Tsar Alexei — certainly a better fate for him than his actual historical fate of being assassinated at age thirteen by Soviet revolutionaries. He's surviving his h... Read More

The Year I Flew Away: Full of heart and humor

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

The Year I Flew Away (2021), by Marie Arnold, combines the timelessness of a fairy tale with the timeliness of the immigrant experience, all while being set in the 1980s amidst Whitney Houston and Prince. It’s a charming middle-grade novel full of heart and humor.

Gabrielle is a young girl living in Haiti; though she’s poor, she’s surrounded by family and friends. One day her parents have big news: Gabrielle is going to America to live with her aunt and uncle. She has to go alone, though, because of issues with her parents’ paperwork.

Gabrielle thought America would be heaven, but instead she finds herself terribly lonely; the other kids make fun of her and leave her out. And when her uncle and aunt take her to their respective workplaces, she learns that they have to deal with bigots on a daily basis. Gabrielle feels li... Read More

The Land of the Lost: A cause for celebration

The Land of the Lost  by Roy Norton

A little while back, I had some words to say concerning Roy Norton’s 1919 novel The Glyphs, the Kewanee, Illinois native’s fourth and final novel containing fantastic content, in a career highlighted by numerous Western novels as well. The Glyphs, as I mentioned, was a compact affair, and a pleasing one, dealing with a sextet of adventurers and their explorations of a lost Mayan city in northern Guatemala. It was a novel that had gone OOP (out of print) for 95 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it in the autumn of 2020 for a new generation to discover. Well, now I am here to tell you about still another novel by Norton, another lost-race affair that went OOPs for a full ... Read More

The Wood Wife: A quiet, intimate novel

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Our heroine, Maggie, is reeling from her divorce and drifting rather aimlessly through life — she considers herself a poet but hasn't written a poem in years.

Then, her mentor dies mysteriously — drowned in a dry creekbed — and inexplicably leaves her his house in the Southwestern desert. She moves there, hoping to research a biography of him. At first, Maggie doesn't like the desert; it seems sterile, forbidding, devoid of charm. Then one night a pooka cuddles up to her in bed, and nothing is the same after that...

Maggie soon discovers a world of magic in the desert (and we, the readers, discover it right along with her), and digs up some fascinating secrets about her mentor's life. And suddenly, all the pieces come together.

Both a mystery and a fantasy, The Wood Wife (199... Read More

The Planetbreaker’s Son: Excellent introduction to this multi-faceted writer

The Planetbreaker’s Son by Nick Mamatas

PM Press’s Outspoken Authors imprint published The Planetbreaker’s Son (2021) by Nick Mamatas. The slim book includes the titular novella, the SF story “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” a personal essay called “The Term Paper Artist,” and an interview with Mamatas hosted by Terry Bisson.

Honestly, the quirky interview with these two guys was worth the price of the book for me.

In a brief statement at the beginning of “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” Mamatas thanks Jeffrey Thomas for an invitation to write in Thomas’s shared-world “Punktown” setting. (The story was originally published in 2018, in the anthology Transmissions from Punktown.) Punktown is a science-fictional megalopolis, filled ... Read More

The Echo Wife: Compelling, gripping, psychological

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is a geneticist specializing in cloning, at the pinnacle of her career: The Echo Wife (2021) begins with a banquet at which she is given a prestigious award. At the same time, Evelyn is at a low point in her personal life. She’s a prickly loner and a workaholic, and her husband Nathan has recently left her for another woman. What makes matters far worse is that Nathan, a far less brilliant scientist than Evelyn, has stolen Evelyn’s research to clone Evelyn herself to grow himself a new wife, Martine, using programming methods to make Martine a softer, more submissive version of Evelyn. Nathan even finds a way around the sterility built into the foundation of the cloning process. Martine is pregnant, while Evelyn had adamantly refused to have a child in the earlier days of her marriage to Nathan.

So Evelyn lashes out at Martine, using her cruelest words... Read More

Death Weavers: Finally, some answers

Death Weavers by Brandon Mull

Death Weavers (2016) is the fourth of five novels in Brandon Mull’s FIVE KINGDOMS series. This is a fun adventure that I’d recommend for middle grade readers. You’ll want to read the first three books, Sky Raiders, Rogue Knight, and Crystal Keepers, before picking up Death Weavers. I’ll assume you’ve read them and I may include minor spoilers for those earlier installments in this review.

Cole and his companions continue to visit each of the kingdoms in the Outskirts a... Read More

Beasts of Tabat: Vivid worldbuilding delivers a world in political upheaval

Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo

Because I got an ARC of Hearts of Tabat, the second book in Cat Rambo’s TABAT QUARTET, in 2018, I read it before the first book. I thought that would have a negative impact on my reaction to Book One, Beasts of Tabat, but as I was reading, my brain reset itself, and when I got to the end I was almost as shocked as if I hadn’t had some inkling what was coming. That’s some good storytelling!

In Beasts of Tabat, we meet Teo, a village boy. His family are shapeshifters, hunted down and killed by the ruling class of Tabat. When his family plans to send him to the Temples of the Moon, Teo flees from the docks of the capital city, Tabat, where politica... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 11): The Black Goddess: The search for a missing agent continues

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 11): The Black Goddess by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

The Black Goddess is the second volume of the Scorched Earth Trilogy, and it continues the events started in Volume 10: The Warning. But it also is a story that is far into the Hellboy universe, and thus this is not a good place to start reading. Begin with Hellboy volume one and read that series before reading the B.P.R.D. series in order as well.

In The Black Goddess, Abe, Kate, Johann, and Devon are still on the hunt for Liz and her captor Gilfryd, who has warned Liz and Abe repeatedly that the frog creatures will lead the world to a massive catastrophe. Abe apparently has some important role to play in these future events, as does Liz, but we are still unclear about what thos... Read More

The Glyphs: A highly credible lost-world adventure

The Glyphs by Roy Norton

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, explorations began in the ancient Mayan city complex known as Tikal, in a remote and inaccessible area of northern Guatemala. In the 1880s, a systematic clearing of the area commenced, as well as a recording of the manifold marvels that were being discovered in this centuries-old site. (And when I say “centuries,” that is perhaps an understatement, as it has since been established that Tikal’s heyday was from A.D. 200 – 900.) Perhaps stimulated by news reports of this Central American wonder, Kewanee, Illinois-born author Roy Norton sat down to write the lost-world novel entitled The Glyphs, which dealt with a modern-day discovery of another Mayan city, also in northern Guatemala, a fairly unusual setting for this type of tale. Norton had been born in 1869 and so was almost 50 years old when The Glyphs Read More

Fireheart Tiger: The seduction and threat of power

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Princess Thanh was a royal hostage for many years in the northern country of Ephteria before being sent back to her home country of Bình Hải. Two years after her return, she’s a disappointment to her mother, the empress, who hoped that Thanh’s time in Ephteria would give her insights into that country’s government and culture, making her more useful as a diplomat. It’s especially important now that an Ephterian delegation is arriving, certain to make demands and threats that will encroach on Bình Hải’s independence. But Thanh is a quiet, somewhat uncertain person — too thoughtful and discreet, according to her mother — rather than a power player. Thanh is also hiding a secret: since a disastrous fire in the Ephterian palace, small items in her vicinity have a mysterious habit of catching on fire. And the only real relationship she had in Ephteria was a clandestine love affair with Princess... Read More

A History of What Comes Next: Good concept, weak execution

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

Sylvain Neuvel’s A History of What Comes Next (2021) has both an intriguing premise and a potentially tense conflict at its core, but due to some issues with structure and style, the execution didn’t allow the book to achieve its potential.

Two women, Sara and her daughter Mia, are sort of Space Race Zeligs (look him up, youngsters), inserting themselves in key times and places to push humanity toward the stars. To that end, we see Mia go undercover in Germany at the tail end of WWII to spirit Wernher von Braun and key assistants to the US as part of Operation Paperclip (a real mission). Later, the two move to Russia where they jumpstart the Russian space program in the (correct) belief that it wo... Read More

Silence of the Soleri: Stopped halfway through

Silence of the Soleri by Michael Johnston

I gave a 2½-star rating for Michael Johnston’s Soleri, and was hoping to see some improvement in the sequel, Silence of the Soleri (2021). Unfortunately, the book tipped in the other direction, so much so that I gave up at the halfway point. As usual with DNF reviews, this will be brief.

The problems here were pretty much the same as I noted in my review of book one. Characterization was thin, prose was only adequate, plotting felt scattershot and unbalanced. Several scenes I wasn’t sure of the point.

And worse here than in book one was the logistics — multiple times I had no idea how settings related to one another, how many people we... Read More

Cathedral of Bones: Lovecraftian YA done right

Cathedral of Bones by A.J. Steiger

Young teen Simon Frost has had a rough start to his early life. His twin sister was murdered several years ago, his mother vanished shortly thereafter leaving only a note, his father was expelled from the Foundation amid darkly ominous rumors about his research, and Simon himself has shown so little talent as a Foundation animist not a single mentor will take him on, leaving him relegated to working in the mailroom sorting requests for the Foundation’s aid from citizens and towns/cities. When the Foundation ignores a letter from a small asking for assistance against a dangerous monster, Simon takes it on himself to come to their aid, the first step on a journey that will find him an unexpected ally and change everything he knows about the Foundation, himself, his family, and his world.

In Cathedral of Bones (2020), A.J. Steiger has crafted a Lovecrafti... Read More

On Fragile Waves: Lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

In the opening pages of On Fragile Waves (2021), by E. Lily Yu, young Firuzeh, her brother Naur, and their parents are on the start of a long journey from war-torn Kabul to the hope of a better life in Australia. To pass the time on that first leg, Firuzeh’s mother entertains them with a fairy tale. But the novel will be no fairy tale, as the family makes its way through Pakistan to Indonesia to an immigration detention camp on Nauru Island and finally to Australia itself, facing loss and discrimination, poverty and indignity, and a long-standing instability and uncertainty that erodes their family ties. Filled with poetry, fairy tales, and flashes of magical realism in the form of a drowned girl who remains Firuzeh’s best friend, On Fragile Waves is a lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending story.

The journey is fraught with... Read More