SFF Reviews

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SHORTS: Bolander, Goss, Le Guin, Liu, Ford, Jemisin

SHORTS is our regular short fiction review column (previously SFM or Short Fiction Monday). In today's column we review several more of the 2019 Locus award nominees in the short fiction categories.

No Flight Without the Shatter by Brooke Bolander (2018, free at Tor.com; 99c Kindle version). 2019 Locus award nominee (novelette).

No Flight Without the Shatter brings together Linnea and her Aunties Ben, Dora, and Martha at the end of the world. Linnea is reco... Read More

The Gone Away Place: A book that will linger in readers’ minds

The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

Because of a stupid fight with her high school boyfriend, Ellie Frame cut school one day to took sorrowful refuge in a nearby faux lighthouse, where she falls asleep. What wakes her is a series of devastating tornadoes that rip through her small rural Ohio town of Newfoundland, killing nearly a hundred people, including Ellie’s boyfriend Noah and several of her best friends. Not all the dead are gone, however; some remain behind, visible to many of the town’s residents and especially their loved ones as they hover “in the grey place” between life and death. As Ellie tries to come to grips with the deaths of her friends and her own survivor’s guilt, she learns that not all the ghosts are benevolent, and finds out, as well, that she possesses the curious ability to free them from the grey place and send them onward by filming their most meaningful stories. Those stories make up a large chunk of Read More

Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows: It draws you in

Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows by Brian Hauser

Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows (2019) is horror writer Brian Hauser’s debut novel. The story follows three women: Tina Mori and A.C. Waite, avant-garde filmmakers in the 1970s, and Billie Jacobs, a teenage zine-publisher, in what is probably the late nineties or early oughts. The book plays with the macabre, the mysterious, The King in Yellow and the blasted shores of the city of lost Carcosa.

Memento Mori’s structure is a series of nested stories presented in the form of various manuscripts. Hauser chooses to use what I’m going to call The Colbert Maneuver, after Stephen Colbert (even though many writers have done it); introducing a character named “Brian R. Hauser” into the first page of the book. The character Hauser i... Read More

Exile’s Honor: One of the best VALDEMAR novels

Exile’s Honor by Mercedes Lackey

Alberich had been an honorable, loyal, and effective officer in Karse’s army for many years until the day the Karsite sunpriests discovered that part of his success was due to the flashes of foresight he sometimes gets. When they attempted to burn him alive as a witch, Alberich was saved by a white horse that turned out to be one of the blue-eyed mind-speaking Companions of Valdemar, an enemy of Karse. Now Alberich is in Valdemar being trained as a Herald and, since he’s such a good fighter, he’s being groomed to be the Heralds’ next weapons master.

Alberich has a lot of adjusting to do because everything about Valdemar is different from Karse. It’s more comfortable, more tolerant, the government works better, and there is far more freedom and justice, even for Alberich, an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language well.

As Alberich continues to consider his new life and... Read More

The Mere Wife: Uncomfortable but impressive

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

“… all my selves together at once, soldier, daughter, wife, victim, mother, monster.”

The Mere Wife (2018), which is up for a Locus Award this year, is billed as a “modern retelling of Beowulf.” Set in an upscale suburban housing development called Herot Hall, it follows two mothers and their sons. One of these is Willa, the wife of a wealthy plastic surgeon whose family built Herot Hall. Willa spends her days vapidly shopping, thinking about how she looks, planning parties, competing with the neighboring housewives, being coached by her own mother, and trying to defend her house and her son Dylan from any malign outside influences.

The other mother is Dana Mills, a soldier with severe PTSD who comes back to the United States pregnant with no memory of how she got that way. When she arrives home, she discovers that Herot Hal... Read More

Cross Fire: A good read for the young adults who will someday be our leaders

Cross Fire by Fonda Lee

Cross Fire (2018), which is a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel this year, is the second book in Fonda Lee’s EXO series. You need to read the first book, Exo, before picking up Cross Fire. Please note that this review of Cross Fire may spoil some of the plot for Exo.

When we left Donovan Reyes in Exo, he had been devastated by some severe losses but his loyalty to SecPac was recovering, thanks to personal pain inflicted by the terrorists/freedom fighters and thanks to the kind attention of his SecPac friends, especially his best friend, Jet.

The terrori... Read More

God Country: A sentient sword comes to Texas

God Country by Donny Cates (author) and Geoff Shaw (artist)

God Country is a graphic novel you have got to check out. It is one of the best works by my favorite new comic book author, Donny Cates, who has written other great comics like Redneck for Image and Thanos Wins for Marvel. In God Country, Cates tells the story of the Quinlan family and the arrival of a powerful sword that enters their lives and changes them radically.

The sword, Valofax, is a giant sentient blade that is the embodiment of all swords and knives throughout the universe. It changes the life of a small family: Grandfather Emmett Quinlan, his son, and his son’s wife and young daughter. The story takes us from Texas to Hell and finally to the far-off home of Valofax, whose creator wants the sword back even as his planet dies all around him.

W... Read More

Exo: An exciting YA SF thriller

Exo by Fonda Lee

A hundred years ago aliens defeated and colonized Earth. For the most part, humans now live in peace with the aliens. A minority of humans have been chosen to go through the aliens’ hardening process when they are young. This gives them a type of exoskeleton that makes them very hard to kill. These Exos constitute a military upper class and they look down on “squishies” — those humans who can’t be, or refuse to be, hardened.

Donovan Reyes, the son of the Prime Liaison to the aliens, is an Exo. One of his jobs is to patrol his city, flushing out and arresting any dissidents who remain. When a raid goes wrong and Donovan is captured by a rebel group, his father refuses to negotiate with the terrorists. Donovan’s whole life is turned upside down and his loyalties are challenged.

Exo (2017), the first book in Read More

Nyxia Uprising: A somewhat predictable end to an exciting series

Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen

Nyxia Uprising (2019) is the fast-paced conclusion to Scott Reintgen’s NYXIA TRIAD YA sci-fi trilogy, an adventure with several teenage protagonists. It’s set both in space and on a distant planet called Eden that has two moons, an alien race called the Imago, and an abundant supply of nyxia, a malleable mineral with near-magical powers. These three books tell a single, unified story, and it’s impossible to appreciate this series without reading all of the books in order … and here is your obligatory spoiler warning for the earlier volumes, as I’ll briefly recap the tale thus far.

The first volume, Nyxia, had a Read More

Red Moon: Character and story fall victim to ideas

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’m a big fan of most of Kim Stanley Robinson’s output, especially his MARS trilogy, and so when I saw that he was out with a book entitled Red Moon (2018), with its echoes of said trilogy (Red, Green, and Blue Mars), that it had an AI character like Aurora, another favorite work of his, and that it came with a heavy dose of politics, which I’ve enjoyed in all his prior work, I was thinking all I was missing w... Read More

Aerie: An unnecessary and disappointing sequel

Aerie by Mercedes Lackey

Aerie is the fourth and final book in Mercedes Lackey’s DRAGON JOUSTERS series. This review will spoil some of the plot for the previous three books, Joust, Alta, and Sanctuary, so it’d be best to not read further in this review if you haven’t read those books yet.

I’m convinced that Aerie exists only because Lackey left a thread dangling in the third book, Sanctuary. After the bad guys were defeated and Alta and Tia were at peace, we kind of ... Read More

SHORTS: Bolander, Kritzer, Padgett

Short Fiction Monday Wednesday: Our exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few Hugo-nominated stories we've read recently. (Due to Mother's Day and other life events, SHORTS appears on a Wednesday this week.)

“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander (2018, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.03 Kindle magazine issue). ... Read More

The Belles: Exciting despite characterization problems

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The history books say that the God of the Sky married the Goddess of Beauty and their children populated Orléans. But when Beauty started spending all her time with their children instead of her husband, Sky cursed the people of Orléans, giving them “skin the color of a sunless sky, eyes the shade of blood, hair the texture of rotten straw, and a deep sadness that quickly turned to madness.” So, Beauty created the Belles, special girls who have magic that can bring beauty and joy back to the people of Orléans.

Camellia and her five sisters are Belles. They’ve been training and practicing all their lives and now, on their sixteenth birthday, they are on their way to Orléans to be honored and assigned their Belle duties. Camellia knows that she is the most creative and gifted of her sisters and she expects to be named as the queen’s Favorite, which means that she’ll get to live in the pa... Read More

Tyrant’s Throne: A near-perfect close to a great series

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell

De Castell turned to Kest. “How would you rate our chances?”

Kest rifled through the manuscript. “We’ll get four and five-star reviews and show up on a dozen Best of the Year lists, after which you’ll get one, no two, major nominations. People will be very sad it’s over and will repeatedly beg you for more. Falcio will appear on five or six ‘Best Characters in a Series’ lists, which won’t do much for his humility, I hate to say.”

“I’ll have you know I have the best humility of anyone.”

“My point exactly. I’ll get a Top 10 mention on a list of Best Swordsperson in a fantasy work, but poor Brasti will almost certainly be forgotten, unless someone makes a list of ‘Characters Who You Only Remember as ‘That Other Guy.’”

Brasti glanced up from polis... Read More

Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 3 & Volume 4

The Buying of Lot 37: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 3

Who’s a Good Boy?: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 4

by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

So many spiders. So, so many spiders.

Night Vale, as a town, is not for the faint of heart, especially if one has a problem with arachnids. (“Throat spiders” is a common ailment, the very idea of which makes me want to vomit until I die.) It’s also infested with deer, many of whom have extra eyes and heads, and thanks to the largesse of Night Vale Community College alumna Mrs. Sylvia Wickersham, thousands of English Angora rabbits. Because a Whispering Forest that ensnares victims with compliments, a tiny civilization underneath the bowling alley and arcade complex, and hordes of bloodied warriors wandering through the desert wastes are super-fun and scary, but not quite scary enough to make me check and double-... Read More

Soulbinder: This time, Kellen must go it alone

Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell

In the first three books of Sebastien deCastell’s SPELLSLINGER series, Kellen, son of a powerful Jan’Tep sorcerous family and follower of the Argosi way, has been able to count on a loyal and powerful support network. Reichis, a squirrel-cat, is thieving and verbally abusive, but fierce and faithful. Ferrius, an Argosy traveler, has taught Kellen much about the power of magic and of life. In Soulbinder (2018), the fourth book of six planned, Kellen finds himself alone, forced to rely only on his own resources.

(This review may have mild spoilers for the previous books.)

Kellen carries a demonic infection called shadowblack. At the end of Charmcaster Read More

Inspection: Here’s how to ruin your experience with this book

Inspection by Josh Malerman

Here’s how to ruin your experience with this book: Read the publisher’s blurb below, think it sounds sweet and thoughtful, and then order an audio copy that doesn’t have a book jacket containing quotes from Chuck Wendig and J.D. Barker. The publisher’s blurb goes like this:

J is a student at a school deep in a forest far away from the rest of the world. J is one of only twenty-six students, all of whom think of the school’s enigmatic founder as their father. J’s peers are the only family he has ever had. The students are being trained to be prodigies of art, science, and athletics, and their life at the school is all they know — and all they are allowed to know. But J suspects that there is something out there, beyond the pines, that the founder does not want him to see, and he’s ... Read More

The Oracle Year: An exciting, fast-paced science fiction thriller

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

OCTOBER 8: FOURTEEN BABIES WILL BE BORN AT NORTHSIDE GENERAL HOSPITAL IN HOUSTON. SIX MALE, EIGHT FEMALE.

One morning at about 5:00 am, Will Dando, a struggling young New York musician, abruptly awakes from a vivid dream. In his dream, a voice told Will 108 oddly specific and rather random predictions about the future, which he remembers verbatim when he wakes up. Some are potentially life-changing: warnings of the collapse of a major bridge and other disasters. Others may have a huge financial effect: a football game that will be won by the Jets by four points; a caution about a late freeze of crops in the southeastern United States. Still others are apparently mundane:
APRIL 24 – MRS. LUISA ALVAREZ OF EL PASO, TEXAS, PURCHASES A QUART OF CHOCOLATE MILK, SOMETHING SHE HAS NOT HAD IN TWENTY YEARS, TO SEE IF SHE STILL ... Read More

Buzzkill: A superhero joins AA

Buzzkill by Donny Cates (writer), Mark Reznicek (writer), and Geoff Shaw (artist)

Buzzkill, collecting all four issues of the mini-series, is a funny superhero parody by Donny Cates and Mark Reznicek, with art by Geoff Shaw. I sought it out because Donny Cates is one of my favorite new writers, with great titles like Redneck from Image and the insane Marvel title Thanos Wins, which features a cosmic Ghost Rider who is a resurrected Frank Castle, The Punisher. Buzzkill is about a superhero trying to get sober. He eventually ends up with a sponsor who is a Doctor Strange parody. Together, they get this retired superhero the help he needs.

Buzzkill opens with our hero, Ruben, in a self-help group trying to get assistance as he decides to quit all drinking and drugs. Unfortunately, we find out, that is whe... Read More

Storm Cursed: That old black magic

Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs

Storm Cursed (2019), the eleventh book in Patricia BriggsMERCY THOMPSON urban fantasy series, kicks the series up a notch with some clashes with black magic witches, and no one is safe. Mercy, a coyote skinwalker and the shapechanger daughter of the god Coyote, is back in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state after her hair-raising adventures in Europe in Silence Fallen.

Storm Cursed begins with a seemingly tangential event: Mercy has tagged two of her husband Adam’s werewolf pack, firefighter Mary Jo and computer nerd Ben, to go on a goblin hunt with her, tracking down a goblin suspected of killing a policeman. She calls Larry, the goblin king who we ... Read More

Kingdom of Needle and Bone: Preachy, but interesting

Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

Lisa Morris, Patient Zero, is only eight years old when she contracts a mutated and vicious form of measles, infects hundreds of other people while visiting Disney World, and dies. The disease races across the planet, killing millions, because “the virus always spreads.”

Lisa’s Aunt Isabella, a pediatrician who feels guilty about Lisa’s death, goes on a crusade to protect those who haven’t yet been exposed to the virus. Her pediatric clinic is targeted by anti-vaxxers, but she continues to champion — and try to explain — herd immunity. Then her youngest sister discovers something even more terrifying than the obvious initial effects of the new virus, making Isabella change course and launch an elaborate plan that may not be entirely ethical but just may save the human race.

Mira Grant Read More

Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 & Volume 2

Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1
The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2


by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, created in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, which takes the form of twice-monthly, roughly-30-minute dispatches from the community radio station in a small, exceptionally weird and yet utterly normal desert town. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, now in its seventh year, perhaps you’ve read the stand-alone novels Welcome to Night Vale or It Devo... Read More

Lands of the Earthquake and Under a Dim Blue Sun: Another winner from DMR

Lands of the Earthquake by Henry Kuttner  &  Under a Dim Blue Sun by Howie K. Bentley

The publishing company known as DMR Books had previously been a very solid 2 for 2 with this reader.

Earlier this year, I had hugely enjoyed DMR’s recent releases The Sapphire Goddess and The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories, showcasing as they did two undersung authors who had been popular with the Weird Tales audience of the 1920s and ‘30s; respectively, Nictzin Dyalhis and Clifford Ball.

So when I heard that DMR’s m... Read More

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword: Charming and quirky

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

Peasprout Chen and her little brother Cricket have been chosen by the dowager empress to represent their province at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword in the famously beautiful city of Pearl. In exchange, the mayor of Pearl has sent two of his children to Shin, the poor rural area where Peasprout and Cricket grew up.

The Chen siblings were chosen because Peasprout is the best wu liu competitor in her entire province. She’s a celebrity there. But when Peasprout arrives at their new school, her classmates are not impressed. Right away, Peasprout and Cricket don’t fit in. They don’t have fashionable clothes or extra skates. Peasprout sets out to prove herself as the best in her class while she tries to protect her little brother, not nearly as accomplished in the martial art, from bullies.

Peasprout is a great skater, but she’s at a major ... Read More

Other Words for Smoke: A dark and twisting almost-fairytale

Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Other Words for Smoke (2019) is not a traditional coming-of-age story. Its composite parts include a magical house, a witch, her apprentice, their talking cat and an evil owl fed on bones that materialises through the walls. And yet, at its heart, the tale is universal: it explores the pain of adolescence, unrequited love and the turmoil of a family falling apart.

The story opens with twins Mae and Rossa huddled outside the wreckage of a burnt house. Found by the police, they are unable to speak of what had happened. Their aunt Rita and her teenage ward Bevan both perished in the blaze, yet townsfolk and journalists alike will never find out exactly what happened.

Rewind to three years previously, and Mae and Rossa find themselves on Rita's doorstep for the first time. They have been sent to spend the summer with their aunt in the countryside. Th... Read More