SFF Reviews

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Wonder Woman: Warbringer: A fresh look at an old favourite

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

The DC ICONS COLLECTION is a series of four YA novels that take a famous DC superhero and explores their background before they became the stuff of legends. This means having a look at their adolescence, whether it's Clark tending the farm in Smallvillle, Bruce doing voluntary work in Arkham Asylum, or Selena Kyle struggling to survive the streets of Gotham City.

In the case of Princess Diana, she's a young Amazonian warrior on the island of Themyscira, just beginning to understand her incredible power, but mostly eager to use it to impress her mother. That changes when a young woman is washed ashore, and Diana decides to break the law of the island by rescuing her.

Her new friend is called Alia, who is naturally baffled by her own environment — but has a secret of her own. After consulting with the Oracle, Diana is told that Alia is what's known as a "War... Read More

Spindle’s End: A light, sweet, unhurried fantasy

Reposting to include Tadiana's review.

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End (2000) is Robin McKinley’s delightful and very loose retelling of the Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose) fairy tale.

On the princess’s naming day, a bad fairy declares a curse, stating that, on her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. In an attempt to thwart the curse, a good fairy named Katriona takes the princess to live with her aunt in a swampy region called Foggy Bottom. There, without any knowledge of her true heritage, Rosie grows up happily with human and animal companions while her mother, the Queen, pines for her lost daughter.

After the opening scenes in which the princess is cursed, Spindles’ End Read More

Hellboy in Mexico: Mostly Fight Scenes

Hellboy in Mexico by Mike Mignola (writer) and various artists

Hellboy in Mexico is a collection of short stories. It starts out with the same story that is in Hellboy (Vol. 11): The Bride of Hell and Others:

“Hellboy in Mexico, or A Drunken Blur” is a funny story about Hellboy’s lost five months in Mexico drinking and wrestling. The story starts in 1982 with Hellboy and Abe Sapien in Mexico together. Abe Sapien finds an old wrestling poster showing Hellboy with three other wrestlers. Hellboy tells him that it was from 1956. Hellboy then tells Abe the story of how he met the three wrestling brothers who were also monster hunters. Hellboy joined the brothers to fight monsters during the day and party at night. Then one night one of the brothers is taken by the vampires, and Hellboy goes in search of his lost friend. The story takes a strange turn once they locate the lost br... Read More

Two Thousand Miles Below: The Gor hole and the blowhole

Two Thousand Miles Below by Charles W. Diffin

In November 1951, the first feature film based on a DC Comics superhero was released. That film, Superman and the Mole Men, is fondly remembered today, especially since it was later transformed into the two-part episode that aired near the end of the first season of TV’s Adventures of Superman, and shown on television under the title “The Unknown People.” In this film, Clark Kent and Lois Lane travel to the small town of Silsby, TX, to cover a story about the world’s deepest oil rig … a story that becomes even more interesting when denizens from deep below the Earth emerge from that borehole and cause panic among the populace. However, if a certain novel from almost 20 years earlier is to be believed, this was not the first time that such an operation had disturbed our underground neighbors. The novel in question is Two Thousand Miles Below, which... Read More

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen: Miracle or hoax?

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

Dexter Palmer has been one of my must-read authors since I read Version Control. It was my favorite book of 2016 and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next novel.

Here it is. It’s called Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen (2019) and it’s based on the real Mary Toft, an early 18th century English woman who claimed to keep giving birth to rabbits. Flummoxed, her small town’s doctor, John Howard, wrote to colleagues in London asking for insight. One London doctor, a gullible and self-aggrandizing man named Nathaniel St Andre, visited the woman and was similarly perplexed. He planned to use Mary’s case to promote himself.

Eventually, King George I asks for Mary Toft to be brou... Read More

A Pocketful of Crows: A short but evocative offering

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but how could I resist the artwork of Joanne Harris’ 2017 novel A Pocketful of Crows? The black background, the gold embossing, the stylized crow... I immediately snatched it up.

It's a story based heavily on the traditions and holidays of medieval England, with chapters divided into months and snippets of various ballads and proverbs added throughout, both of which help lay the foundation of the story.

A shapeshifting wild girl of the forest meets by chance a highborn noble, and soon becomes infatuated by him. The feeling seems mutual, but after a whirlwind romance, reality sets back in and the girl is asked to leave the castle.

Naturally, a creature of the wild doesn't take rejection very we... Read More

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions: Try the audio version

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien

A surprise for me last year was how much I enjoyed Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword. I would never have picked up that book if it hadn’t been nominated for the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction. It’s about a girl named Peasprout Chen who, along with her little brother Cricket, is sent from her rural province to her country’s capital city to attend an elite school for students who practice the art of wu liu, which is basically martial arts on ice skates.

When they arrive, Peasprout and Cricket face many of the same challenges that all fantasy readers know that poor rural kids face when sent to magi... Read More

Beneath the Rising: A horror adventure about friendship and betrayal

Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
If you’ve had the good fortune to read any of Premee Mohamed’s short fiction, you know it is strange, beautiful and often horrifying. In Beneath the Rising (2020), her first full-length novel, all these things are true. This adventure novel with tentacular monsters and evil Ancient Ones will sweep you along and get deeply under your skin.

Joanna Chambers, who goes by Johnny, is more than a genius and more than a prodigy. She might be a miracle. In a world much like ours but very changed by Johnny’s inventions and discoveries, her best friend Nick, a regular guy, tries to be a lifeline for his rich, brilliant celebrity friend. Although she hasn’t turned eighteen yet, Johnny has found a vaccine for HIV, created improved solar panels that are in use around the world, developed clean water systems and food sources for hundreds of millions. When sh... Read More

The Deep: A haunting story about memories

The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Readers who pay attention to the Hugo Award category called “Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)” may recall that one of the 2018 finalists for the award was a hip hop song called “The Deep” by the band clipping which is fronted by Grammy- and Tony-Award winner Daveed Diggs who played Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton... Read More

Anthropocene Rag: Its strengths outweigh its few issues

Anthropocene Rag by Alex Irvine

I’m of mixed feelings on Anthropocene Rag (2020), by Alex Irvine. On the one hand, the writing is often quite strong, and the novel has a creative, imaginative flair to it in many moments. On the other hand, its episodic nature didn’t fully work for me, and I can’t say the novel fully met its rich potential. Still, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and there’s often a true pleasure in reading it.

The story is set in a post “Boom” America, the Boom being when AI ran free and randomly (to human eyes at least) transformed things and people, “revising” the known world and creating beings called “constructs” that can’t always be distinguished from humans. Various parts of the country are varied in their degree of change and danger, with San Francisco one of the better “boomscapes” thanks to having electricity and food. Even there, ... Read More

The Broken Ones: A fitting prequel to the MALEDICTION TRILOGY

The Broken Ones by Danielle L. Jensen

This is a prequel novel to Danielle Jensen's MALEDICTION TRILOGY, which is comprised of Stolen Songbird, Hidden Huntress and Warrior Witch. A lot of people like to read books series in chronological order, but I would highly recommend not doing that here, as The Broken Ones (2017) well and truly assumes you've already read the original trilogy.

Beneath the Forsaken Mountain is the city of Trollus, ruled over by a tyrannical king and his son Tristan. But unbeknownst to on... Read More

Phalanxes of Atlans: A well-paired yet unconvincing double feature

Phalanxes of Atlans by F. Van Wyck Mason

A little while ago. I had some words to say about Capt. S.P. Meek’s 1930 novel The Drums of Tapajos, in which a band of American explorers discovers a lost civilization in the jungle wilderness of Brazil, comprised of the cultured and scientifically advanced remnants of the 10 Lost Tribes and Troy, uneasily coexisting with the barbaric remnants of Atlantis. The book was done in by a lack of convincing detail and exciting set pieces, as I reported. Well, now I am here to tell you of my most recent read, another offering from Armchair Fiction’s Lost World/Lost Race series; a book that suffers from one of the same problems that plague The Drums of Tapajos, even though its story line has been inverted. In this c... Read More

The Assassin’s Blade: Four short stories provide extra insight

The Assassin's Blade by Sarah J. Maas

Over the past few years I've been reading Sarah J. Maas's THRONE OF GLASS series, though thanks to my dislike of e-books, never got around to reading the five novellas that explored some of the early years in Celaena Sardothien's career.

Celaena is a famous assassin in the employ of Arobynn Hamel, the ruthless master of the Assassin's Guild. Though few have seen her face, Celaena already has a fearsome reputation despite her youth, and is recognized as Arobynn's protégé among the other recruits.

The five stories within The Assassin's Blade (2014) involve separate but connected adventures that are mentioned throughout the THRONE OF GLASS books, and shed insight as to how Celaena ended up where she is at the start of the first boo... Read More

A Heart of Blood and Ashes: A bodice-ripper

A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane

A Heart of Blood and Ashes (2020) is the first book in Milla Vane’s A GATHERING OF DRAGONS, a supposedly romantic fantasy about a barbarian warlord named Maddek who is searching for a princess named Yvenne who appears to be responsible for his parents’ death. Maddek’s council has instructed him to stay out of the matter because they value the alliance between their country and the princess’s, but Maddek wants revenge, so he ignores his council.

After Maddek finds Yvenne, she willingly allows herself to be captured and she even proposes that they get married and have a baby so they can each get what they want to fulfill their ambitions and protect their respective countries. Maddek hates her for what she did to his parents, but he’s willing to listen to her reasoning. As they travel together on the very long trip back to M... Read More

Winter of Fire: Just as powerful now

Reposting to include Rebecca's review of the new reprint edition.

Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan

Sherryl Jordan is a New Zealand-based author of young adult and children’s fantasy fiction. In Winter of Fire (1993) she tells the story of Elsha, a sixteen year old girl born into the enslaved underclass called the Quelled. As the sun has disappeared from the world, a memory only alive in mythology, the Quelled are forced to mine for the firestones that are the people's only source of warmth. But Elsha has a rebellious spirit and is often in trouble with the brutal overseers at the mine. They are from the upper class, the people known as the Chosen.

Elsha's life is changed forever when she is chosen to be the handmaid of the legendry Firelord. The Firelord is the most important man in the world as he possesses the power to divine for firestones, the life fuel of e... Read More

Children of Ruin: Scary biological science fiction

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Ruin (2019) is the second book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s CHILDREN OF TIME series, following Children of Time, which you’ll want to read first.

Children of time, which I called “an expansive and visionary epic that speculates about the future of humanity,” was fascinating. In it we watched the evolution of a species of spider that was uplifted by a man-made virus. The scientist who brought it to the terraformed but uninhabited planet had planned to uplift monkeys, but an accident resulted in spiders being uplifted instead. At the end of the long novel, humans finally arrived and befriended the spiders.
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Coyote Songs: Literary horror that rewarded me beyond my expectations

Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

I’m giving 2018’s Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias five stars, and I’m going to recommend it highly here. Then I’m going to post warnings, because this is one of those “this book is not for everybody” things.

On Twitter, Iglesias describes his writing as “barrio noir,” and also “a mix of horror and noir.” Coyote Songs follows several characters on either side of the Mexico/USA border as a mysterious rage-filled entity comes into their lives. The short book (not quite 200 pages) is lyrical, hyper-violent at times, blood-drenched, fantastical, satirical, and contains a hefty slice of body horror in the storyline with Mother (a pregnant woman) and Boy. Descriptions are as vivid as a neon sign in a desert night, and often as disturbing as the buzzing of a colony of flies on a dead animal. It starts bloody and dark an... Read More

The Institute: A horror story of the human heart

The Institute by Stephen King

Stephen King takes over 550 pages to relate the story of the mysterious Institute and its merciless dealings with kidnapped children. Given that page count, it shouldn’t be too surprising that King spends the first forty pages setting up his tale with a seemingly unrelated story of a man adrift in his life. Tim Jamieson, an out-of-work cop, takes a hefty payout to give up his seat on an overfull flight, and ends up making his rambling way from Tampa, Florida to the small town of DuPray, South Carolina, where the local sheriff gives him a job as a night knocker, an unarmed beat cop who patrols DuPray during the night. But — as King informs us not once, but twice — great events turn on small hinges.

That same summer, Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old Minneapolis boy with genius-level intelligence, loving parent... Read More

Practical Magic: The superior book behind the cult film

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Like most people, I became aware of Alice Hoffman's 1995 novel Practical Magic through the nineties film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It's not a great movie, but it has a charm of its own, and it led me to the original story upon which it's based. It's striking to see the differences and similarities between the two.

The film leans more heavily on its magical elements, even becoming something of a supernatural thriller at some points, whereas the book is more interested in the three generations of Owens women and their lives, whether it be the tragedy of the aunts, the love stories of Gillian and Sally, or the coming-of-age rites of Antonia and Kylie.

As children, Sally and Gillian Owens were ostracized from their New England community due to the persistent rumour that they and their extended family were witches. Onc... Read More

SHORTS: Sen, Yoachim, Wise, Ramdas, Greenblatt

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. In this week's column, Skye and Tadiana review several of the current crop of 2019 Nebula nominees in the short story and novelette categories.

 



“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen (2019, free at Nightmare Magazine)

This Nebula Award finalist is precisely what the title promises, as it takes the form of ten excerpts from an annotated bibliography.

I thoroughly enjoyed the form of this story — I would almost describe it as delightful, if it weren’t published in Nightmare Magazine and didn’t centre around cannibalism. From the ten excerpts, you get the gist of two related events in his... Read More

King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats: Uplifted dogs and cats

King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly

In James Patrick Kelly’s novella, King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats, we visit a backwater planet called Boon where humans live with uplifted dogs and cats.

Our protagonist, Gio Barbaro, is the clone of the man who created the government, called The Supremacy, generations before. Gio’s job is to maintain the family’s position and power in the senate.

The Supremacy, though, is losing control as dogs are walking off the job and cats are forming unions. The cats and dogs are just as intelligent as humans, but they’ve been relegated to boring and/or dirty menial jobs. They want more out of life, but the conservative Supremacy won’t recognize them as equal.

Another problem for the Supremacy is the looming clone cris... Read More

Kingdom of Ash: The grand finale

Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas

So I finally made it. Kingdom of Ash (2018) was almost three times as large as the first book in the THRONE OF GLASS series, but I got there in the end.

In the seventh book of Sarah J. Maas's fantasy epic, the combined forces of humans, faes and witches are moving their armies into position to fend off the Valg demons that are advancing across the continent of Erilea.

But their leader Aelin Galathynius is missing, having let herself get captured by the Fae Queen Maeve at the conclusion of Empire of Storms. Now she's locked in an iron coffin, undergoing daily torture as her nemesis tries to wrest the location of the Wyrdkeys from her mind.

In... Read More

Smoke Bitten: No smoke without a fire

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs

Fresh off her clash with black witches in Storm Cursed, Mercy Thompson — the coyote shapeshifter and Volkswagen mechanic whose urban fantasy series follows her adventures with vampires, werewolves, fae, witches and various monsters — is fretting about the distance that has built up between her and her husband, Adam, alpha of the local werewolf pack. Their mating bond has been shut down for weeks, keeping her from knowing his thoughts and feelings.

But other troubles raise their heads, distracting Mercy (at least temporarily) from the problems with Adam. The ancient power that is Underhill, the underground world of the fae, manifests in their home as Tilly, a creepy young girl (“I love battles. Blood and death followed by tears and mourning.”). Tilly has opened a door from Underhill into Mercy’s b... Read More

Val Hall: The Even Years: An intriguing premise

Val Hall: The Even Years by Alma Alexander

Val Hall: The Even Years (2020), by Alma Alexander, is a series of linked stories set in a sort of retirement home for gifted or powered people (though only to a certain limited degree). Each story follows a single individual who relates their story to another character, usually sending us back in time to their first usage of their power. As is typical with collections, the stories vary in quality and effect, but Alexander does a nice job with the intriguing premise, offering up several quite moving moments, and the whole work left me looking forward to its follow-up, Val Hall: The Odd Years.

Following a prologue that explains where the idea for Val Hall came from, the collection presents eight stories — the final one a “bonus” story from ... Read More

Misery: Imprisoned in Nurse Ratched’s guest bedroom

Misery by Stephen King

If you've read one Stephen King novel, you've read nearly all of them. And yet people keep coming back for more. Published in 1987, Misery explores King's relationship with his most obsessive readers while also wrestling with his own addictions.

Misery's plot is pretty straightforward: Paul Sheldon is an author of best-selling novels who one night drunkenly drives into a blizzard and crashes. When he wakes up, he has been (not rescued, but) kidnapped by Nurse Ratched, here named Annie Wilkes.

Annie is a nurse who has access to painkillers and although she helps Paul to heal, she is obsessed with his novels. She insists that he write for her.
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