SFF Reviews

Our most recent reviews are listed first. Use the tags to search for reviews of similar books.

Shadowblack: A solid, entertaining second book in the SPELLSLINGER series

Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castell

“You think you’ve had it bad? I’ve been on the run for ten years. Bounty hunters, hextrackers war mages…” He shook his head. “You steal one too many sacred books and all of sudden you’re an outcast.”

Shadowblack (2018), by Sebastien de Castell, picks up shortly after Book One, Spellslinger. Kellen, the exiled son of a Jan’Tep prince, is traveling with an Argosi named Ferius Parfax and a squirrel cat named Reichis, who will not admit that he is actually Kellen’s familiar. There is a bounty on Kellen’s head now, placed there by his people, the Jan’Tep, because Kellen showed symptoms of a demonic infestation called shadowblack. Ultimately, the demoni... Read More

Demon: Volume 2: The (extremely violent) mystery continues…

Demon: Volume 2 by Jason Shiga

In the second volume of Jason Shiga's Demon, we find Jimmy Yee pondering his options.

As he found out in the previous book, he's a demon who possesses the body of the closest physical person to him every time he takes his own life.

Across the course of that story he experimented with the limits of his power and is now close to mastering the logistics of his macabre gift.



 

 

Unfortunately (at least from his point-of-view), you can't leave behind a trail of bodies without attracting attention.

Agent Hunter leads a special military taskforce that knows what he can do and how to counteract it. His mission is to recruit Jimmy to the American government by any means necessary.

Bu... Read More

SFM: Clark, Wijeratne & Virdi, Harrow, Iriarte

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week's column features more of the 2018 Nebula award-nominated novelettes and short stories.

 

“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djeli Clark (2019, free at Fireside magazine). 2018 Nebula award nominee (short story)

P. Djeli Clark takes the historical idea of George Washington’s teeth (not wooden, as lore has it) and creates around them a series of vignettes detailing, as the title tells us, the “nine Negro teeth” that made up his set. Each brief vignette tells us a bit about the slave from whom the tooth came, how they came to be in Washington’s ser... Read More

The Municipalists: Has its moments

The Municipalists by Seth Fried

I loved the opening chapter of Seth Fried’s debut The Municipalists, writing “nice” several times in the margins just in the first few pages, as when the narrator, recalling his parents’ death when he was young, notes how the old grocery “seems to have forgotten him. The flat, glass storefront stares straight ahead without so much as a glimmer of recognition.” Unfortunately, that was the high point for me and the book, while it had its moments, eventually devolved into a bit of a slog.

In a world gone all in on urban living, Henry Thompson, an agent of the United States Municipal Survey organization and highly disliked by his peers, is forced to go into the field with a holographic AI partner to prevent a major terrorist attack in Metropolis, one seemingly being planned and carried out by a Municipal Survey chief gone rogue. Unfortunately, the AI (Owen) is more ... Read More

Demon: Volume 1: A dark and disturbing page-turner

Demon: Volume 1 by Jason Shiga

If you have a strong constitution and fifteen minutes to kill, you could do a lot worse than picking up Demon (2016), Jason Shiga’s graphic novel about a nihilistic suicidal actuary who finds a reason to go on living when he realizes he possesses the body of the person closest to him each time he kills himself.

His wife and daughter having died in a car accident, Jimmy Yee decides to end it all — only to find that his suicide attempts are thwarted each time by powers beyond his control.

The first half of the story involves him grappling to understand the rules of the new forces that govern his life, while the second sees him become the target of an elite military taskforce determined to contain him.

It's bloody, it's gory, it crosses the line more than a couple of times, but Jimmy's increasing lack of morality combined with ... Read More

The Bedlam Stacks: A charming historical fantasy

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

After her enchanting debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley returns with another multicultural Victorian adventure, this time in the form of a quinine expedition to the deepest, darkest corners of Peru.

The Bedlam Stacks (2017) follows the escapades of Merrick Tremayne, whom we initially meet in the bucolic backwaters of Cornwall. He is living under the good grace of his brother, Charles, after sustaining a leg injury working as an agent-cum-smuggler for the East India company. His mother has been committed to the madhouse (society being a little less politically correct in 1859 than today). Both Merrick's brother and mother are keen for him not ... Read More

Spellslinger: A YA novel full of magic, cons, and card tricks

Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger sounded right up my street — a young adult novel full of magic, cons, card tricks and a plucky underdog. If it didn’t live up to my high hopes I blame the misleading words emblazoned on the back cover that read “Magic Is A Con” — an enticing promise that isn’t delivered because, well, magic turns out not to be a con. Nevertheless, while it wasn’t the story I expected, Spellslinger is an enjoyable romp in its own way.

Kellen and his classmates are all set to complete the trials that will secure their future as “Jan’tep” — a magical people who wield five pillars of magic — breath, iron, silk, blood, ember and sand. If they fail the trials they will be forced to live out their lives as “Sha’tep”, an under-class destined to serve through manual labour. The only problem is, Kellen has lost his magic. Howev... Read More

Crown of Feathers: Too familiar for me

Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto

If you like Anne McCaffrey’s DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN series and are looking for more of the same — elite society of beast-riders with a telepathic/empathic link between human and animal — then Nicki Pau Preto’s YA debut novel Crown of Feathers (2019), the first in a series of the same name, might be worth your time. If you’ve read enough of this type of book to pick out key plot points and character developments from seven leagues away, though, there won’t be much here to surprise you.

Veronyka and her older sister Val were orphaned as children by the war racking their country and raised by their grandmother until her recent death, at which point Val took responsibility for the pair. The two teenagers are desperate to join the ranks of the fabled Phoe... Read More

The Winter of the Witch: Beautiful and powerful

Reposting to include Marion's new review:

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Medieval Russia comes to life in Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY, which began in Lesnaya Zemlya, a small village in northern Rus’ in The Bear and the Nightingale and continued in The Girl in the Tower. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a young woman with the rare ability to see and speak with the natural spirits or chyerti of the hearth, stables, and lands and waters of Rus’. Vasya has gained the attention and respect of the winter-king Read More

The Haunting of Tramcar 015: The setting and humor charmed me

The Haunting of Tramcar 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark’s 2019 novella (140 pages in print) is a genial paranormal mystery tale set in a wonderfully evocative alternative Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century. The title pretty much sums up the plot. Tramcar 105 is indeed haunted, as is quickly established in humorous fashion by the two agents sent to investigate by the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Hamed Nasr is the veteran of the pairing, with a sharp investigative eye and an equally sharp lack of patience for having his time wasted. He’s experienced in the job enough to cause the occasional eye-roll or grumble about “rookies,” but not yet jaded or cynical. His partner, whom he’s been “saddled with,” is new-on-the-job Onsi Youssef, only four years younger but with a face that “looked as if it belonged on a boy,” and with a boyish enthusiasm (and love of candy) as w... Read More

The Iliad: An excellent graphic version of the classic tale

The Iliad by Gareth Hinds

Gareth Hinds makes a lot of good decisions in his graphic version of Homer’s The Iliad (2019), both in terms of art and narration, resulting in a book that’s easy to recommend both to young adults and also educators/parents who want to slip a little classical knowledge into their kid’s comic book.

Two of those good decisions involve cleverly incorporating each major hero’s initial into their helm or breastplate and ignoring the historical reality, and portraying the two sides in uniform garb so as to more easily distinguish one from the other. Given the number of characters, and an avalanche of names, anything that helps to separate Greeks from Trojans and tell Achilles from Agamemnon is a boon to the reader. The art is clear and vivid throughout, working hand in hand with the text to clarify, expand, emphasize, and enhance. It’s all well done, but my ... Read More

Polaris Rising: A sexy, take-no-prisoners romp through space

Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

Jessie Mihalik’s debut novel, Polaris Rising (2019), is a bit like if Leia Organa and Han Solo didn’t have that wet blanket Luke Skywalker moping about, bringing everyone down with his whinging about moisture farming and power converters. It’s a story about a runaway princess and an outlaw soldier causing all kind of space-shenanigans, evading capture by the princess’ intended fiancé and her overbearing father, and the best part is that the princess is the one driving all the action and risking everything to protect her life and the lives of her companions.

So who is this princess? Ada von Hasenberg, one of the lowest-ranked among her five siblings in terms of succession to their father’s power and holdings, whose usefulness lies in being married off to one of the two other High Houses controlling the known universe, either House Rockhurst or Ho... Read More

The Test: The cost of citizenship in a near-future world

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

Since I fell in love with Sylvain Neuvel’s giant robots and sardonic narrator in Sleeping Giants, I’ve been curious to see what he would write next. The Test (2019) is an excellent novella, quite different from THE THEMIS FILES trilogy, though some similar themes are touched on and there are similarities in the narrative technique.

I went into reading The Test totally cold, without reading even the blurb ― just knowing that Neuvel wrote it was good enough for me to spend my $3.99 on the Kindle version ― and I strongly recommend doing that. But if you want a little more information about the novella’s setting and merits, this review does t... Read More

The Osamu Tezuka Story: A must-read for manga fans

The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Manga and Anime by Toshio Ban & Tezuka Productions & translated into English by Frederik L. Schodt

“They say if you try making anime for 3 days, you’ll never be able to quit and that in 3 days you’ll also be broke. But even if I were to go broke, I still don’t think I’d be able to quit.” These words from Tezuka, upon receiving an award late in life, express his passion for his work in anime, but he had an equal passion for manga. But doing experimental anime proved so expensive, that he had to produce over three hundred volumes of manga in his lifetime to support his ongoing anime work. The more anime work he did, the more money he needed. The more money he needed, the more manga he produced. He was such a workaholic that he rarely left his office, where he often slept and usually ate his meals. Towards the end of his life, he even had multiple desks set up in his office with different ongoin... Read More

City of Golden Shadow: A fascinating virtual world

City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

City of Golden Shadow (1996) is the first book in Tad WilliamsOTHERLAND quartet. The complicated plot, which is set in the near future, follows a large cast of characters all over the world who have some connection to a huge but secret virtual reality simulation that eventually becomes known as Otherland. The main characters are:

Renie Sulaweyo, a college instructor in Africa, is teaching Xabbu, a bushman from a remote African tribe, how to use the net. When Renie’s little brother Stephen, who spends a lot of time on the net, suddenly becomes comatose and the doctors can’t figure out what’s going on, Renie uses her research skills to try to discover what ails him and Xabbu offers to help.
Orlando Gardiner, a brittle boy who is dying from pr... Read More

Unholy Land: A twisty, mentally challenging story

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

I absolutely loved Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (and was not alone in that), and while his newest, Unholy Land (2018), didn’t blow me away quite to the same extent, it kept me on the couch in “don’t talk to me I’m reading” and “uh-huh, uh-huh, ya don’t say, uh-huh” mode all afternoon while my family just rolled their eyes and gave up, as they know to do when all the signs of being engrossed in a great book are manifest (luckily, they live those moments as well, so it’s a fond eyeroll... )

The novel is set in an alternate universe setting where the Jewish homeland of Palestina appears not in the Middle Eas... Read More

A Brother’s Price: An amusing “what-if” story

A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer

In a frontier land on some other world, a close-knit family of outlaws lives in the same sort of manner that you’d expect such a family to live in the American Wild West. They’re tough, they wear cowboy hats and ride horses, they speak coarsely, they curse and brawl, they shoot and hunt, they drink whiskey and smoke cigars, they protect their spouses... Oh, and I’m talking about how the women behave.

In A Brother’s Price (2005), Wen Spencer twists this classic Wild West tale by switching the genders. Because, in this world, male babies are rarely born alive, there is a gender role reversal. Women have the power, they rule, they do the dangerous jobs, and they compete for men (a limited resource). They choose, own, shelter and protect their men. Men are kept in the ... Read More

SCHOOL BUS OF HORRORS: Short, scary stories for young readers

SCHOOL BUS OF HORRORS by Michael Dahl, with illustrations by Euan Cook

If you know a young reader who likes scary stories but who isn’t quite up to tackling something the length of, say, a GOOSEBUMPS book, give Michael Dahl and Euan Cook’s SCHOOL BUS OF HORRORS series a shot. Four new titles are being released at once: Night Shift, Auto Body Parts, Ooze Control, and Shocks! (2019). The series is recommended for readers in the 9-to-13-year-old-range, though I would guess that’s more due to the thematic content than complexity of language; the stories are engaging though told very simply, and seem perfectly matched for “hi-lo readers” or “ Read More

Oathbreakers: Better than the first book

Oathbreakers by Mercedes Lackey

Oathbreakers (1989), the second book in Mercedes Lackey’s VOWS AND HONOR series, is much better than the first book, The Oathbound. You probably don’t need to read The Oathbound first, unless you want the backstories on the main characters.

Tarma and Kethry are a female sword-and-sorcery duo. Tarma, a swordsmaster, is the last remaining member of her clan after they were obliterated by raiders. Kethry became a powerful sorceress after escaping an abusive arranged marriage. The women have become sworn sisters and they plan to revive Tarma’s clan after starting a sword-and-sorcery school. For now, they are working as mercenaries, tryi... Read More

Wild Country: Did Not Finish

Wild Country by Anne Bishop

Wild Country (2019) is the seventh book in Anne Bishop’s series THE OTHERS and, also, the second book in her THE WORLD OF THE OTHERS series.

In Bishop’s fictional universe, the world is made up of humans — who, near as I can tell, are mostly descended from white Europeans — and the “terra indigene,” also called The Others, monstrous creatures with the outward appearance of human beings and who are, apparently, the indigenous peoples of the American continents, Africa, etc. There are shapeshifters who can shift from, say, an eagle or wolf into a human body, and Sanguinati, a cabal of blood-suckers who specialize in legal and financial matters. (It was at these realizations that I decided this was not the book or series for me, and in checking around onl... Read More

The City in the Middle of the Night: On my “Best of 2019” list

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

The second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night (2019), surprised me. Having read her fantastical debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, and her sociological science fiction novella Rock Manning Goes for Broke, I was not expecting a story set on an exo-planet and a society vastly distant from Earth in time and space. While the story has the modern sensibility Anders personifies, the challenges the human settlers face hark back in some ways to the golden age of SF. It’s a thoughtful, heartful take o... Read More

SFM: Harrow, Greenblatt, Larson, Schoen

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we've read that we wanted you to know about, including three 2018 Nebula nominees.

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (2018, free at Apex magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2018 Nebula nominee (short story).

Our narrator is both a librarian and a witch (all good librarians are, she claims), and one of her joys is giving library patrons the book they ... Read More

Mahimata: Concludes the ASIANA duology with more questions than answers

Mahimata by Rati Mehrotra

Rati Mehrotra follows up her YA debut, Markswoman, with Mahimata (2019), the other half of her ASIANA duology, a bubbling cauldron of fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic Earth, and telekinetic metal forged into guns and swords. Brief, but unavoidable spoilers for Markswoman will follow; I’ll keep them to a minimum.

Kyra, still gravely wounded from her battle with Tamsyn, carries much doubt and anger both as a result of what she learned about Tamsyn during their duel and how Kyra ended that duel. The Order of Kali’s elders have spent the past few months since then in conference, and have arrived at a decision: Kyra will be named Mahimata, the le... Read More

Ghosted (Vol. 1): Haunted Heist: Haunted houses, possession, and revenge

Ghosted (Vol. 1): Haunted Heist by Joshua Williamson, Miroslav Mrva, Goran Sudzuka

In Ghosted (vol. 1): Haunted Heist by Joshua Williamson, we meet Jackson T. Winters, currently in prison after an armed robbery gone wrong. It turns out that his death wish is not simply because he hates living inside a prison; rather, it’s because of a supernaturally disturbing vision he had the day of the robbery — it turns out the casino they were robbing was built on an ancient and sacred burial ground. Also, in the course of the robbery, every member of his team dies but him, and he is left alone to be caught by the police. The story takes off when he hears gunshots while sitting on his bunk in his cell. In minutes, a woman, Anderson Lake, opens his cell, kills his two cellmates, and knocks him out. When he wakes up again... Read More

Xander and the Rainbow-Barfing Unicorns: Technicolor gross-out fun

XANDER AND THE RAINBOW-BARFING UNICORNS: Fairies Hate Ponies & Who Turned Off the Colors? by Matthew K. Manning & Joey Ellis

XANDER AND THE RAINBOW-BARFING UNICORNS is a sweet, silly children’s series written by Matthew K. Manning and illustrated by Joey Ellis; the two most recent entries are Fairies Hate Ponies (2019) and Who Turned Off the Colors? (2019). The series is marketed toward kids in the 8-to-10-year-old range, though some of that is going to be dependent upon the reading proficiency and intestinal fortitude of the kid in question. Be prepared for plenty of gross-out humor and copious amounts of technicolor vomit issued by unicorns afflicted with a zombie virus.

Fortunately, the unicorns themselves appear to be caught in a state of semi-decay, with various body p... Read More