SFF Reviews

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In the Shadows of Men: The ghosts are the least horrific element here

In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett has become one of my must-read authors, a view arising from his brilliant DIVINE CITIES trilogy and only confirmed by his nearly as brilliant THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY. Both are fantasy works, but Bennett also turns his craft toward horror as well, and that craft is indeed evident in his newest novella, In the Shadows of Men (2020), a taut, concise work that unnerves in more ways than one.

The brothers Pugh — one our unnamed narrator, the other his older brother Bear — are near the end of their line. For the youngest, it’s been “thirty-nine days since my wife left and she packed our little girl into her car and said she couldn’t stand it anymore, she just wanted to go someplace where everything was... Read More

Driftwood: A strong story collection with a great setting

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Driftwood (2020) is a charming, meditative, and often poignant collection of linked stories by Marie Brennan that mostly succeeds both in its individual tales and as a whole, though I had a few issues. But given that one of those is it was too short, it’s still an easy book to recommend.

The book’s general setting is the titular Driftwood. Think of it as a beach whose tide, instead of washing up the pebbles and the sea’s detritus, washes up instead dying worlds. Except instead of piling up on a sandy strand, the worlds just edge farther and farther inward, getting ever smaller before eventually disappearing forever. Or as one character explains to another whose world has just started the process:
Bits [of a world] just vanish. People die... Read More

Hunted by the Sky: Engaging characters in a vivid alternate world

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena

Hunted by the Sky (2020) is the first book in Tanaz Bhathena’s YA fantasy duology THE WRATH OF AMBAR. Bhathena is an award-winning YA author, and Hunted by the Sky is her first foray into YA fantasy. Set in an alternate world based on medieval India, the story held my interest with its magic, suspense, and the conflicts the two main characters face. The descriptions of settings delighted me.

Gul has spent her life in hiding and on the run, because of a star-shaped birthmark and a prophecy. When her parents are murdered by Shayla, a Sky Warrior known as The King’s Scorpion, a group of women rebels takes Gul in. Gul lives for only one thing, revenge against Shayla and against Raja Lohar, the king.

Cavas is the son of two non-magical people, who are treated as second-class citizens and relegated... Read More

Quantum Shadows: Unpleasant

Quantum Shadows by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

What would life be like if you were living through a seemingly never-ending series of holocaust-style planetary collapses? Corvyn is a cynic. He questions everything and tries to hold himself above the mundane ideals that normal people struggle with. He’s been there, done that, is powerful enough in the world order that exists to resist almost anyone, but he refuses to take a leadership role himself.

In Quantum Shadows (2020) we follow Corvyn as he attempts to track down an apparent attempt to seize power by entities unknown. Over the next several hundred pages, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. drags us through a broad-ranging review of various religious/moral viewpoints that populate Heaven, the planet Corvyn lives on. As with almost all Modesitt books, there are plenty of semi-tongue in... Read More

Ballistic Kiss: The series gathers momentum as it heads into the home stretch

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey

2020’s SANDMAN SLIM novel, Ballistic Kiss, is the second-to-last entry in Richard Kadrey’s long-running demon-fighter punk-wizard series starring James Stark as Sandman Slim. I don’t know what I will do when the series finishes. I’ll miss the big lug.

However, Ballistic Kiss didn’t leave me too much time to fret about the future; Stark has plenty of adjustments to make in his present. Brought back to life by the Sub Rosa magical practitioners after a year dead, Stark is living in a flying-saucer shaped house owned by the Sub Rosa, struggling with PTSD, when the book opens. Returning from Hell (and death), Stark has discovered that, to his way of thinking at least, his friends’ lives have improved without him. Candy is in a muc... Read More

Deal With the Devil: Didn’t distinguish itself enough for me

Deal With the Devil by Kit Rocha

If I’m told that a new series is titled MERCENARY LIBRARIANS, that sets up certain expectations in my mind — namely, that librarian-ing is going to feature prominently in the introductory novel, or at least be a driving force behind the primary plot. And while the treasure-trove of the Rogue Library of Congress is how the heroine of Deal With the Devil (2020) is enticed into making a deal with the leader of a mercenary squad known as the Silver Devils, Kit Rocha spends far more time and attention on set pieces cobbled together from any handful of post-apocalyptic dystopian movies and television shows.

Furthermore, Nina’s job title doesn’t encompass her actual responsibilities: she’s more of a community organizer, and from all evidence, a damn good one. In her corner of Atlanta, she and her friends Maya and Dani ensure that people... Read More

Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola: For All Frankenstein Fans

Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola (author) and Ben Stenbeck (artist)

One of the best books in the wider Hellboy Universe, Frankenstein Underground takes the famous literary monster and places him in a battle for light against darkness. This book is one of my favorite comics I have read recently. Frankenstein’s monster seems to have a patchy memory, and other than recalling random events here and there, he only remembers one name — Frankenstein — which he thinks is his own. In the opening scene, “Frankenstein” is on the run, as he has been throughout his long life. The comic book shows Frankenstein throughout the years as he has been chased in many different areas of the world. But in this most recent chase, he enters a cave and encounters a witch of sorts who heals and comforts him. The five-issue story will come full circle, from physical healing to spiritual healing, but there are many dire events tha... Read More

The Memory of Souls: A mixed bag

The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Jenn Lyons’ series since book one, The Ruin of Kings, so it seems only appropriate that I had two different reactions to book three, The Memory of Souls (2020), with a lot of frustration and annoyance to the first half of the book and a greater appreciation and enjoyment in the second half. All of which leaves me still up in the air in terms of recommending what will turn out to be a relatively lengthy series. Inevitable spoilers for books one and two to follow.

I’m not going to go much into plot details as to call it labyrinthine or Byzantine would be an understatement (ma... Read More

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking: A whimsical feast, with teeth in it

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

A dead body is an awful thing to find on the floor of a bakery, especially when you’re a fourteen-year-old baker’s assistant with just a minor talent in magic, enough to make gingerbread men dance and biscuit dough turn fluffy on command. It’s worse when the city inquisitor decides to accuse you of the murder, for no particularly good reason. It’s even worse when you realize that there’s a mysterious assassin on the loose, targeting people who have magical powers, no matter how insignificant.

Mona is an orphan who works in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery, using her talent with baking (and a little magic) to help with her job. It’s not an easy life, but Mona loves being an apprentice baker … and there’s the fact that her magical powers only work with bread products. But the city government and constables are turning against wizards, even minor ones like Mo... Read More

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars: Read it for the art

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars by Alex Alice

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars
 (2020) is the fourth book in the graphic novel series by Alex Alice that follows a steampunk journey first to the moon and then to Mars. Like the others, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in its art-text balance. I’ll let you read the reviews of the first two here and here rather than recapitulate the plot, focusing here instead on the artwork and the words. The few plot points that are vitally important is that one character is searching for his lost father, another for her lost king, all while an imperialistic Prussia is readying for war not just against nations on Earth but perhaps against other worlds as well. Read More

Emerald Blaze: One handsome Italian assassin to go, please

Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews

The violence between Houston’s powerful magical families breaks out again when Felix Morton is mysteriously murdered. Felix was involved in a private contract project involving an alliance between five magical Houses who are attempting to reclaim the Jersey Village suburb of Houston, which has become a pit for wild arcane magical creatures. If the reclamation succeeds, the land is worth a fortune, but Felix’s murder at the site puts a definite damper on the project.

Catalina Baylor — still recuperating from her broken heart when Alessandro Sagredo abruptly left her at the end of Sapphire Flames, six months ago — is told by her boss Linus Duncan to take over the investigation into Felix Morton’s death. The primary suspects are the four Prime magic users who were Felix’s business partners in th... Read More

The Time Stream: Will It Go Round In Circles?

The Time Stream by John Taine

After eight novels dealing with such venerable science fiction themes as lost races, weapons of superscience, the transmutation of elements, dinosaurs, devolution, crystalline life-forms and the creation of a superman, Scottish-American author John Taine finally tackled one of the most revered sci-fi tropes of them all, namely time travel, in his ninth novel, The Time Stream. Today, this book comes freighted with a double-edged reputation, as it is said to be the author’s strangest novel of the 16 he wrote between 1924 and ’54, as well as his finest; an irresistible combination for those who are game. The novel was released just two months after Taine’s Seeds of Life had appeared complete in the October... Read More

Master of Poisons: A challenging book

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Master of Poisons (2020) by Andrea Hairston is an epic fantasy set in an African-inspired world that is facing environmental devastation. Fertile land is turning into poison desert, and void-storms are a constant threat.

Djola is called Master of Poisons because, when both men were young, he saved the Arkhysian Emperor with his knowledge of antidotes. He was rewarded with the title and a place on the Emperor’s council. Now, he thinks he might be able to save the land with a legendary spell, but he needs to find it first — and in the meantime, he recommends that everyone live more simply, to put less strain on the environment.

Human nature being what it is, this goes about as well as you might expect. Djola is banished. This is at least partly a rus... Read More

The Bone Shard Daughter: A past-paced, enticing adventure

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter (2020) by Andrea Stewart is a fast-paced, enticing read, with an attractive world and a magical system that grabs the imagination with both hands and doesn’t let it go.

Stewart’s debut is the first book of a series, THE DROWNING EMPIRE. In an archipelago empire, the imperial Sukai dynasty defeated the powerful Alanga, who ruled it. The current emperor, Shiyen, uses bone shard magic to protect his citizens from the possible return of the Alanga. Shiyen runs his empire using constructs, chimera-like beings animated by chips of bone taken from every citizen of the empire, usually when they are children. At events called Festivals, chips of bone are chiseled out of each child’s skull, sometimes with fatal results. Those chips, later implanted into constructs, animate them. The magic allows the creator of ... Read More

Drowned Country: An enchanting sequel

Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

Drowned Country (2020) is the second and concluding novella in Emily Tesh’s GREENHOLLOW DUOLOGY, following 2019’s Silver in the Wood. This review will contain some spoilers for Silver in the Wood.

When we last saw Tobias and Henry Silver, Tobias had become an ordinary mortal man, and had been reunited with Silver — who had been presumed dead, but instead had been saved by the Wood itself, becoming its guardian Wild Man in the way that Tobias once was. It turns out, though, that this idyll lasted only a few months before the two men fell out. Now Silver sulks alone in his manor house, using his powers to accelerate its ruin.

S... Read More

SHORTS: Brown, McGuire, Muir, Headley, Bryski, Goss

SHORTS is our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we've recently read that we wanted you to know about.

While Dragons Claim the Sky by Jen Brown (2019, originally published in FIYAH Magazine Issue #10: Hair, available online for $3.99; free audio recording on PodCastle (Part 1 and Part 2), read by C. L. Clark)

While Dragons Claim the Sky tells the story of a skilled young mage as she takes a chance on discovering more of the world and her... Read More

Sunset of the Gods: Same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor

Sunset of the Gods by Steve White

Sunset of the Gods (2012) is the second novel in Steve White’s JASON THANOU (TEMPORAL REGULATORY AUTHORITY) series about time travelers who go back in time to study historical events. It would be helpful, but not necessary, to read the previous book, Blood of the Heroes, first.

This time Jason will accompany a couple of academics to witness the Battle of Marathon. There are a few historical debates about events that occurred while the Greeks were driving the Persians out of their country in 490 BC and the team hopes to settle these disputes. Both of them involve Pheidippides/Philippides, the runner who took news of the battle to Sparta. Legends suggest that he was confronted... Read More

By Force Alone: King Arthur makes an offer we can’t refuse

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar has been on quite the roll, earning rave 5 out of 5 reviews from me his last three books. Unfortunately, his newest, By Force Alone (2020), didn’t rise to the same level. No, I’m sorry to say I could only see my way to giving it 4.5 stars thanks to being merely “excellent” as opposed to “great.” Slacker.

By Force Alone is an Arthurian tale, though that is a bit deceptive. Camelot this ain’t (though the musical makes an appearance or two). Think of Malory filtered through a mash-up of John Boorman’s Excalibur co-directed/written by Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. And with a whole lotta cameos and Easter eggs. It’s dark, vulgar, gritty, funny, thoughtful, profane, biting, densely referential, bloody, and makes... Read More

The Hereafter Bytes: A funny book, a fun read

The Hereafter Bytes by Vincent Scott

I believe that humorous science fiction is hard to write. I’m not talking about humorous banter or moments within a book — many writers excel at that — but books that are conceived as comical stories from the start. Humor requires the balance of many elements and crucial timing. Even if those things are present, a sense of humor is hard to quantify, and a technically funny book may fail to entertain for some ephemeral reason.

Vincent Scott, however, is unafraid, and tackles humor in his 2020 comic cyberpunk novel The Hereafter Bytes. Right on the cover, it says, “A Funny Sci Fi Novel,” allowing you to judge it by that metric. And for me, it succeeded.

I read an ARC of this book and blurbed it. I usually raise my eyebrows at comic SF, but I enjoyed this book both times I read it. It’s funny. Sometimes the humor is labored, but... Read More

Seeds of Life: High Tension

Seeds of Life by John Taine

In the 1956 sci-fi “B movie” Indestructible Man, hardened criminal Butcher Benton, played by the always wonderful Lon Chaney, Jr., is put to death by the state, but is later revivified by a mad scientist using 300,000 volts of electricity. Benton becomes not only possessed of superhuman strength but is also, as events show, impervious to bullets. But if a certain novel of 25 years earlier can be believed, this was not the first time that a human being was subjected to a massive dose of juice, and with astonishing results. The book in question was Scottish-American author John Taine’s ninth novel, Seeds of Life, which features not only one scientist suffering from the side effects of a 2 million-volt exposure, but anot... Read More

Peace Talks: But wait, there’s more!

Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Fans of Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES have been waiting for the sixteenth novel, Peace Talks (2020), for six years. It's been so long that I actually had to go back and re-read the last few novels to get back up to speed on Harry's life.

Was Peace Talks worth the wait? The short answer is “No.” Though it’s entertaining and shows us what Harry’s life has been like since the previous novel, Skin Game, it isn’t quite enough. By this point in the series, readers are expecting a thrill ride and life-shattering events with each new installment in THE DRESDEN FILES. And after we waited six years for this novel, Peace... Read More

The Death of Vivek Oji: ”Beautyful” writing

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

On the same day a riot destroys the market in Ngwa, Nigeria, the body of Vivek Oji is left on his parents’ doorstep, naked except for a length of cloth. Gradually, through a variety of points of view, Akwaeke Emezi unfolds the story of Vivek’s life and death, and how that death affects Vivek’s loved ones — drawing some people closer together, driving faultlines between others.

Readers who’ve read Emezi’s earlier work might expect more supernatural elements than The Death of Vivek Oji (2020) actually contains. This short novel is mostly a realistic story, with two exceptions: Vivek occasionally narrates from beyond the grave, and it is implied that reincarnation exists. However, I think readers who enjoy Emezi’s “beautyful” writing (you’ll have to read the... Read More

The Space Between Worlds: An excellent debut

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Multiple worlds and parallel universes are a staple in science fiction, and Micaiah Johnson does a nice job bringing some freshness to a well-worn concept in The Space Between Worlds (2020), mostly thanks to some sharp characterization, intricate plotting, and stylish prose.

Cara is a “Traverser,” one who travels from her Earth (Earth Zero) to parallel Earths collecting data for the Eldridge Corporation whose leader, Adam Bosch, invented the technology. In the rules of the narrative, one can only travel to a parallel Earth if their double there has died: “It took a lot of smart people’s corpses before they learned that If you’re alive in the world you’re trying to enter, you get rejected. You’re an anomaly the universe won’t allow.” It didn’t take long for the corporation to realize “they needed trash people. Poor black and brown people,”... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 9): 1946: The Early Years of the B.P.R.D.

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 9): 1946 by Mike Mignola (writer), Joshua Dysart (writer), Paul Azaceta (artist), Nick Filardi (colors), Clem Robins (letters)

Hellboy first appeared in 1944, a result of German paranormal experiments. B.P.R.D. (Vol. 9): 1946 takes place two years later, when Hellboy's father figure, Trevor Bruttenholm, takes a trip to Berlin on the part of the two-year-old B.P.R.D. He wants to investigate the paranormal work the Germans were doing during the war, but the Russians have arrived first, claiming all the artifacts and papers that Trevor wants to examine. He goes to the Russians to ask for cooperation, and he meets the young, mysterious Varvara, who is in charge of the Russian operations even though she looks only twelve-years-old. She has uncanny knowledge, and she seems to know Trevor's thoughts before he speaks. And she knows of his young ward, Hellboy. She will play a major role in what is happening in the... Read More

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

In 2013, science journalist Kate Greene, along with five others, spent four months on Mars. Well, OK, it was four months on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii as part of NASA’s Hi-SEAS, a Mars simulation designed to test various aspects of an actual Mars mission: the effects of long-term isolation on a small group, how interpersonal relations can be maintained, the role of food on morale, sleep habits, etc. In Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth (2020), Greene conveys her experiences during the simulation via a series of essays, all of which range well beyond her small geodesic dome.

Several strands run through the collection. One, obviously, is her time preparing for and then living through her simulation experience. Several other highly personal ones are the life and... Read More