SFF Reviews

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The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Steward Johnson

It isn’t often that I wish for a longer book; in fact, it’s almost always the opposite. But that’s just what I found myself doing upon finishing Sarah Steward Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World (2020), which is about exactly what you would think given the title — a history of our attempts to suss out if life exists on our red-hued neighbor, from speculations about ancient civilizations creating Schiaparelli’s “canali” to Johnson’s own work with NASA’s Mars missions. It’s an excellent book throughout, but it also feels like it could have gone into material in more detail in some places and ends so quickly that I had to doublecheck on Netgallery to make sure I hadn’t gotten an excerpt rather than a full version.

Johnson is both a writer and a scien... Read More

Shadowshaper Legacy: Satisfying end to an excellent series

Shadowshaper Legacy by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper Legacy (2020) is the third and final novel in Daniel José Older’s excellent SHADOWSHAPER CYPHER series. While it was not my favorite book in the trilogy, it ends on a high note and concludes the main plot arcs in a satisfying way. This review will contain some spoilers for the first two books.

Shadowhouse Fall saw Sierra merge two magical Houses into the new House of Shadow and Light, and ended with a cliffhanger as the white supremacist Bloodhaüs emerged as a threat. The immediate Bloodhaüs situation is actually wrapped up pretty quickly — so quickly, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I missed an intervening novella, which I will have to... Read More

Siege and Storm: Despite a choppy beginning, this sequel delivers

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Siege and Storm (2013) is the second book in Leigh Bardugo's GRISHA trilogy, and does what any good sequel should do: expands the world, deepens the characters and raises the stakes. On the other hand, it can't quite avoid the pitfalls of a typical middle book — being unable to truly start or properly finish anything; it ends on a note that gives the impression the whole thing has been setup for the third and final instalment. But apart from this inevitability, Siege and Storm is a satisfying read.

Its predecessor Shadow and Bone introduced us to Alina Starkov and the concept of the Grisha. Born with the power to transmute certain elements (... Read More

Hella: Unusual protagonist, uneven pacing

Hella by David Gerrold

Hella is a harsh planet that was colonized by a few dozen humans about 100 years ago. The gravity of Hella is lower than Earth’s, so all of the plants and animals are enormous. The tilt of the planet makes its climate harsh in the summer and the winter, so the human colony migrates every season. As they migrate, they try not to contaminate the environment (who knows what effect humans will have on it?) and they must be careful of the huge carnivores that also migrate.

Kyle, a neuro-atypical 13 year-old, is our guide to Hella. He is fascinated by the planet, the past and future evolution of its flora and fauna, and the way that humans and their stuff could adversely affect Hella. He loves to learn and he loves to share his knowledge with anyone who will listen. When a ship full of new immigrants arrives in Hella’s orbit earlier than expected, Kyle is asked to produce instructional videos for the newcomers... Read More

A Book of Bones: A book too long for its story

A Book of Bones by John Connolly

2019’s A Book of Bones is the 18th book in John Connolly’s CHARLIE PARKER series. This series is dark, with a thriller plot steeped in supernatural elements. Over the years, we’ve seen Parker, his human helpers Louis and Angel, and his supernatural protectors Sam and Jennifer face a variety of entities. A Book of Bones seems to resolve most of the issues around a specific Not-God and an evil murderous cult called the Familists. The two nasty villains, a book collector named Quayle and a creepy woman called Pallida Mors — a play on “Pale Death” — return from the previous book, and Parker is on their trail.

Parker is giving evidence in a child sex-trafficking case in Texas when he is called away by his FBI connection, Special A... Read More

Wicked Wonders: The wonder and magic in our lives

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

In Wicked Wonders (2017), Ellen Klages has assembled an impressive collection of her short stories. Although almost all of these stories have been previously published (the sole exception is “Woodsmoke”), most of them appeared in anthologies and are unlikely to be familiar to most readers. These fourteen stories run the gamut from non-fiction (“The Scary Ham”) to straight fiction (“Hey, Presto,” “Household Management” and “Woodsmoke”) to science fiction and fantasy. They’re often bittersweet or wistful and frequently surreal; tales of ordinary lives in which the fantastical or unexpected element sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder, and when you turn around the world has shifted.

Several tales in Wicked Wonders are reminiscent of certain of Ray Bradbury’s short... Read More

Mexican Gothic: A creepy gothic novel featuring fungus

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old flighty socialite living in Mexico City. She loves to dress up in beautiful gowns and high heels and go to parties with handsome young men. One evening she’s called home from a party early. Her wealthy father has received a strange letter from Catalina, Noemí’s recently married cousin. Catalina thinks she’s in danger from her new husband’s family and is begging for help. Is Catalina really imperiled, or is she suffering a mental breakdown?

Noemí’s father asks her to visit her cousin at High Place, her husband’s family’s mansion on top of a mountain in an isolated rural area of Mexico. When she arrives, Noemí is shocked to discover that, indeed, her cousin is not well. Though Catalina has moments of lucidity, at other times she rails about ghosts and other hallucinations.

The house and its inhabitants are undeniably frightening. T... Read More

The Golden Fleece: I appreciated it as an accomplishment

The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece (1944), also sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate, was Robert Graves’s attempt to create a unified, mostly realistic version of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the titular fleece. He incorporated a variety of ancient sources, some of them contradictory, some of them fragmentary, keeping the elements he thought made the most sense and assembling them into a single narrative. The result is this novel, which has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2020.

Graves wrote The Golden Fleece in an intentionally old-fashioned style. He explains in his introduction that he couldn’t hope to write it in the style of the Argonauts’ own time, but disliked the idea of writing it from a wholly modern perspective, and so took up a position “not later than … 146 B.C.... Read More

Away and Beyond: Thanks again, Mr. Miller!

Away and Beyond by A.E. van Vogt

As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, it was one of my high school English teachers, Mr. Miller, who first got me interested in literary sci-fi. This was back in the late ‘60s, when my high school was hip enough to actually offer a course in science fiction, taught by Mr. Miller; a very popular course, need I even mention? One of the earliest books that Miller required us to read, as I recall, was A.E. (Alfred Elton) van Vogt’s 1946 novel Slan, which had originally appeared as a four-part serial in the Sept. - Dec. 1940 issues of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science... Read More

Gideon the Ninth: Macabre & original

Reposting to include new reviews by Marion and Bill.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Necromancers and their sword-fighting cavaliers star in Gideon the Ninth (2019), Tamsyn Muir’s radically original debut novel, which has been nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award. This science fantasy novel, steeped in an atmosphere of decay and decrepitude, is a mix of space opera and a gruesome treasure hunt that takes place in a spooky, crumbling castle. At the same time, it’s set in an interstellar empire consisting of nine planets, each one ruled by a different House of necromancers.

Eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav is trying to escape her forced servitude in the particularly moribund Ninth House, where she’s surrounded by living skeletons and corpses and near-dead nobles and nuns who pray on knucklebones. Gideon’s escape plan involves sneaking off the entire Ninth planet i... Read More

Kiki’s Delivery Service: A warmhearted coming-of-age tale

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 1985 children’s fantasy novel first published in Japanese as Majo no Takkyūbin (or “Witch's Express Home Delivery”), is best known outside of Japan as the basis for a 1989 Studio Ghibli anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the book won several prizes in Japan and Kadono has published five sequels over the years (unfortunately none of the sequels are currently available in English translations). Kiki’s Delivery Service was first published in English in 2003, but a new translation is now available.

Twelve-year-old Kiki lives in a small town with her mother Kokiri, a witch, and her human father Okino. Her coming-of-age day is nearing, and tradition requires young witches like Kiki to strike out on their own and find a town or village th... Read More

Or What You Will: Some strands more successful than others

Or What You Will by Jo Walton

Or What You Will (2020), by Jo Walton, is an at times charming, at times frustrating work of metafiction that reads, even distanced by the novelist’s artifice, as a warmly personal, almost intimate love letter to Florence, the Renaissance, art, reading, the classics, and creativity. I’m guessing it will receive a mixed, varied response from Walton’s readers.

Sylvia Harrison is a mid-range author of a good number of novels, including several set in the quasi-fantastical Illyria — imagine Renaissance Florence with magic where people do not die save by willful intent (their own giving up of life, murder). Or What You Will is narrated by her creative spark, that flame of imagination trapped in her “bone cave” as he’s instilled her creations with the spa... Read More

Creatures of Want and Ruin: A sheer pulpy delight

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer

At first glance, based on the title and cover art, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin (2018) looks and sounds like it’s a sequel to her earlier novel Creatures of Will and Temper, but it’s not. The stories have different characters and settings, so I’m going to treat Creatures of Want and Ruin as a stand-alone novel.

During prohibition, Ellie West is a bootlegger in Amityville, a village on New York’s Long Island. Due to her father’s declining health and inability to work at his trade as a fisherman, her family struggles to make ends meet but is unwilling... Read More

The Last Curtain Call: Fortunately, not the last book

The Last Curtain Call by Juliet Blackwell

It hardly seems necessary to continue to review Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION MYSTERIES because fans are going to read them no matter what I say but, since the audiobook publisher keeps providing me with review copies, I’ll keep doing it. I love Tantor Media’s audio editions of Blackwell’s two cozy paranormal mystery series (this one and WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES) because they’re narrated by the fabulous Xe Sands. They are a pleasure to listen to and I recommend them to fans (or future fans) of Blackwell’s books.

The Last Curtain Call (2020) is the eighth novel. Each is a stand-alone mystery, so you could start here, but you’d miss the progression of Mel’s relationships, so it’s best to start at the beginning w... Read More

Under the Moon: An early look at the future Catwoman

Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle & Isaac Goodhart

I’ve been going through these YA graphic novels for a while now, each one in the series focusing on a famous DC heroine (Harley Quinn, Raven, Princess Mera, Selina Kyle) and exploring what her adolescence might have been like. They’re not canon-compliant with any other comic books, television shows or films, but usually have the aesthetic you might expect from the character’s history.

In this case, you can expect Selina Kyle to be involved with cats, living on the streets, and a heist.

Catwoman has always been one of my favourite characters, so I was interested to see how her story would play out here in Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale. It’s about what you’d expect from a future cat-burglar: she doesn’t get on with her mother’s abusive boyfriend, and when he ends up killing her pet kitten (trigger warning f... Read More

Shadow and Bone: Old tropes, new story

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

YA can be more fickle than its literary cousins. It’s notorious for trends. There were wizards, vampires, and what feels like a decade’s worth of dystopias. The result is a glut of books with sassy female protagonists who discover they have a unique power, are fighting to save the world, and struggling to decide which hunky love interest to pick from in their love triangle. Shadow and Bone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of avoiding these tropes, but what it does do is tell them in a fresh and innovative way.

Alina Starkov was raised in an orphanage alongside her best friend (and future love, obviously), called Mal. They live in Ravka, a fantasy Russia of samovars and Grisha — powerful magical soldiers that work directly for the king. If you don’t have magic, you’re bumped down to the common army, where Alina and Mal find themselves. As with most YA... Read More

Cinderella Is Dead: Heroines to cheer for

Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

It’s been two hundred years since Cinderella met her Prince Charming. Her dream come true has become a nightmare for the girls of Lille. Every year, all eligible young girls must attend the royal ball, where they vie to be selected as brides for Lille’s men. For the girls who are not chosen, there are dire but mysterious consequences.

It’s time for Sophia to debut at the ball, and it’s the last thing she wants to do. For one thing, she’s gay and doesn’t want to marry a man at all. She’s also noticed that many of the marriages that result from the ball are anything but happy. But refusing to attend would ruin her family, so Sophia goes. Disaster strikes, and soon Sophia is on the run with another girl. Constance, and they become a fierce two-woman resistance against the king. Along the way, Sophia discovers that the official version of the Cinderella story is a lie.

I... Read More

Utopia Avenue: Playing in the band

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

If you’re a fan of David Mitchell (I am) and think five years is way too long to go without a Mitchell novel (I do), you’ll probably eat up his latest, Utopia Avenue (I scarfed it down in two sittings). If you love music (yep) and are particularly a fan of the incredibly fertile 1960s music scene in both England and America (check), you’ll almost certainly absolutely revel in the novel (revelry was had). If you enjoy vivid characterization, crisp natural-sounding dialogue, multiple character POVs that sound utterly distinctive, and master craftsperson use of language via word choice, syntax, allusion, etc., (yes, yes, yes, and yes), then your readerly love of great writing will most likely be fully sated (it was). Utopia Avenue (2020) isn’t my favorite or most ad... Read More

Light of Impossible Stars: A satisfying but not great conclusion

Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell

Gareth L. Powell brings his EMBERS OF WAR trilogy to a satisfying conclusion with Light of Impossible Stars (2020). You’ll need to read Embers of War and Fleet of Knives first. There will be some spoilers for those novels in this review.

When we left Captain Sal, she had just brought a few new crewmates aboard Trouble Dog: Captain Johnny Shultz, who lost his ship to ferocious dragon- and crab-like aliens; one of his crew with whom he had just begun a romantic relationship; and Lucy, the ship’s avatar in human form. Captain Sal had also just suffere... Read More

Scarlet Odyssey: Promising new series by a promising new author

Scarlet Odyssey by C.T. Rwizi

Scarlet Odyssey (2020) is the debut novel by C.T. Rwizi and the beginning of a new series, RED PLAINS. It’s an epic fantasy set in a world based on sub-Saharan Africa, featuring a group of young people who might have the chance to stop an evil plan — or might unwittingly put it in motion instead.

The central point-of-view characters are Musalodi (“Salo”), a young man who wants to learn magic even though his people forbid that study to men; Ilapara, a young woman who rebelled in the inverse way, by becoming a female warrior, and starts the novel working as a mercenary; Kelafelo, a woman whose village is destroyed by a brutal warlord, and who apprentices in sorcery in the hopes of taking vengeance on him; and Isa, a spoiled princess who will have responsibility thrust upon her unexpectedly. Also among the POVs are several shadowy charac... Read More

Remarkable Life of the Skin: Always informative, often fascinating

Remarkable Life of the Skin: An Intimate Journey Across Our Largest Organ by Monty Lyman

The brain and the heart tend to get all the good press as far as bodily organs go, each with a slew of books focused only on them. The other organs either don’t get mentioned at all or get thrown in with a bunch of others as part of the discussion of a particular system or the body entire, as in Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal or Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants. But skin, as New York Times crossword aficionados know, is the largest organ in the body, and though it’s a relative newcomer to the classification, only making the organ club in the eighteenth century, it’s about time it got its own tour book. And author Monty Lyman, a doctor at Oxford, makes for an engaging and knowledgeable guide in The Remarkable Life of the Skin (2... Read More

The Light Brigade: A bearer of light in the darkness of war

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously said in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade (2019), a Hugo and Locus award nominated novel, drives that point home. The brutality of a soldier’s life combines with dystopia and hellish corporate behavior, but it’s lightened by the gritty determination of the main character, Dietz, and a handful of others to find the right path out of the nightmarish war, and by a hopefulness that refuses to be beaten down.

In a near-future day, six huge corporations, called the Big Six, control most of Earth’s society, doling out vital services only to people who are citizens. Dietz, a non-citizen of São Paulo, has suffered the loss of family and friends in “The Blink,” a mysterious eve... Read More

City of Lies: Appealing characters in this debut

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

Sam Hawke’s debut novel, City of Lies, is the first book in her POISON WARS series. It features two protagonists, Jovan and Kalina, who are brother and sister. They work for their friend Tain, a young man who has suddenly become the Chancellor of their country after his uncle was poisoned. As the Chancellor’s proofer, Jovan tests everything Tain eats or drinks. He knows how to detect most poisons, he’s inoculated against many of them, and he carries the antidotes. With a successful poisoner on the loose, Jovan’s job is more important than ever.

Kalina is trained in diplomacy, so her job is to advise Jovan in his interactions with his people and their enemies. This has also suddenly become an essential duty because an army has arrived at the gates a... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 5): The Black Flame: Echoes of Lovecraft

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 5): The Black Flame by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D.: The Black Flame is another great entry in the B.P.R.D. series. This volume opens up with a board meeting at a company called Zinco. We are quickly led to see they are a company unlike any other: In the basement, they are running tests on and trying to communicate with frog creatures. Upstairs off of the boardroom is a secret chamber hiding the CEO’s secret Nazi memorabilia. Zinco will have an important part to play in upcoming events.

Back at the new B.P.R.D. headquarters, we find out that Abe is no longer working in the field even though Kate keeps asking him to do so. Abe remains haunted by his past life, which he uncovered in volumes three and four. Meanwhile, in Western British Columbia, the B.P.R.D. team is hunting frog monsters in a snowy... Read More

Silver in the Wood: A hopeful tale about renewal

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Silver in the Wood (2019) is an enchanting novella by Emily Tesh, who is a finalist for the 2020 Astounding Award. It is the first in Tesh’s GREENHOLLOW DUOLOGY; the sequel, Drowned Country, will be released in August.

Tobias has lived alone for a long time. He’s a sort of guardian of the forest, keeping its assorted supernatural creatures from getting out of hand. (He’s also a couple of other things, which you’ll find out about later.) Tobias is shaken out of his routine when he has a meet-cute with Henry Silver, the new owner of the manor house at the edge of the wood.

I don’t think the word “England” is ever technically mentioned, but this feels like the folkloric English forest. Reading Silver in the Wood, the reader feels like one wrong turn might lead th... Read More