SFF Reviews

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The Stone in the Skull: Wonderful start to a new series

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The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear

With The Stone in the Skull (2017), Elizabeth Bear returns to the world of her ETERNAL SKY trilogy with the opening book in another series, this one entitled THE LOTUS KINGDOMS. I only gave the first trilogy a 3.5, but recognized that score as being more than a little “churlish” as I put it, since the series was “So smart. So deep. So beautiful ... [with] Complex, realistic characters ... Big ideas. Strong females. Prose carved to a near-perfect edge. Moving moments ... “See, churlish. (Hmm, I may have to start rereading that series after this review). Well, all of those elements are there as well in The Stone in the Skull, a book which starts off slowly and ends with a bang (li... Read More

The Hunchback of the Morgue: Hot rats

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The Hunchback of the Morgue directed by Javier Aguirre

From the jaunty circus music that plays during its opening credits to the closing shot of a steaming, bubbling pit of sulfuric acid, The Hunchback of the Morgue, a Spanish offering from 1973, literally busts a gut to please the jaded horror fan. Co-written and starring "The Boris Karloff of Spain," Paul Naschy, the film is a wildly over-the-top, cheesy affair that yet succeeds in its primary intentions: to stun and entertain the viewer.

In The Hunchback of the Morgue, Naschy plays the title character, Wolfgang Gotho, a hunchbacked janitor in the morgue of the Feldkirch Hospital, in what the viewer must infer is Germany, in modern times (although the film, with very minor revisions, could just as easily have been set 200 years ago). Shunned, reviled and even stoned by the town's populace, Gotho's only joy in life is bringing flowers t... Read More

The Unconquered Mage: The struggle toward unification

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The Unconquered Mage by Melissa McShane

The CONVERGENCE fantasy trilogy wraps up in The Unconquered Mage (2017), as Melissa McShane continues to explore the repercussions of the magical merging of two different worlds, with different language and cultures. Balaen and Castavir were split apart centuries ago by a complex magical spell that went awry. Now the two countries are reunited physically, as are our main characters, the Balean mage Sesskia, who narrates the story through her diary entries, and her husband Cederic, head of the Castavir mages. But there’s disunity of the countries from a political standpoint, and that’s echoed in Sesskia and Cederic’s relationship to some extent as well, as t... Read More

Vengeance of the Zombies: Naschy X 3

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Vengeance of the Zombies directed by Leon Klimovsky

Psychotronic-film buffs who watch the Paul Naschy films Crimson (1973) and The Hanging Woman (also 1973) may come away feeling a bit shortchanged regarding the amount of screen time allotted to the so-called "Boris Karloff of Spain." In the first, Naschy plays a jewel thief who has been shot in the head following a botched robbery, and thus lays in a near coma for the film's first hour, while awaiting a brain transplant; in the second, he plays a necrophilic grave digger whose screen time is brief in the extreme. No such drawbacks for the eager Naschyphile crop up in Leon Klimovsky's Vengeance of the Zombies (1973 again ... quite a year for Paul!), fortunately; in fact, in this one, Spain's leading horror icon plays no less than three (3!) roles, and is marvelous in all of them.
... Read More

The Privilege of the Sword: Enjoy another visit to Riverside

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

“Whatever the duke means to do with her, it can’t be anything decent.”

The Privilege of the Sword is Ellen Kushner’s sequel to her novel Swordspoint which was about the doings of the high and low societies in her fictional town of Riverside. The main characters of that novel were the nobleman Alec Tremontaine, a student, and his lover, the famous swordsman Richard St. Vier. You don’t need to read Swordspoint before reading The Privilege of the Sword, but it will probably be more enjoyable if you do because you’ll have some background on most of the characters.

Now Alec is known as the Mad Duke Tremontaine. He spends some of his time in his mansion outside the city, but he really prefers to reside in hi... Read More

A Blade in the Dark: “I don’t want to hurt you … I only want your blood…”

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A Blade in the Dark directed by Lamberto Bava

Lamberto Bava's first film as a director, 1980's Macabre, was supposedly a bit too tame in the violence department to satisfy all the gorehounds out there, so in his next picture, 1983's A Blade in the Dark, the son of the legendary "Father of the Giallo," Mario Bava, created a bloodbath that might well have made papa proud. Filmed on the cheap in only three weeks at the country villa of producer Luciano Martino, the film is yet surprisingly effective and looks just fine.

The plot centers around a young composer named Bruno (appealingly portrayed by Andrea Occhipinti) and the four stunning-looking women in his life. Sandra, a film director (Anny Papa), has just hired him to compose the score for her latest horror film, and has ensconced him in a secluded country villa to get the job done. Bruno, as the viewer soon learns, in not untalented, a... Read More

Blood Sucking Freaks: Entertaining, but as sick as they come

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Blood Sucking Freaks directed by Joel M. Reed

A film that seemingly has no other goal than shocking and offending its audience, Blood Sucking Freaks (the lack of a hyphen is annoying) must be deemed a complete success. From first scene to last, this is a picture that gleefully parades its repugnant, gross-out set pieces and depraved characters for the viewer's questionable delectation. Initially appearing in 1976 under the title The Incredible Torture Show (a better, more apropos appellation, I feel; Blood Sucking Freaks suggests that a vampire type of story will be unreeling, which this film most certainly is not), it was later renamed by those wackos at Troma, which released the film on VHS and DVD with the memorable admonition "Warning: This film contains scenes of freaks sucking blood." Something of a legendary bad-taste cul... Read More

The New Voices of Fantasy: A diverse and worthy collection

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle

This collection of nineteen fantasy short works, edited by Peter Beagle, is definitely worthwhile if you like speculative short fiction. Many of them left an impact on me, and a few are true standouts. These stories are by relatively new authors in the speculative fiction genre and are all fantasy; otherwise there's no discernable overarching theme.

These stories have almost all been published previously over the last seven years, and several of them are Hugo or Nebula winners or nominees. While a dedicated reader of online short fiction can find many of these short works in free online magazines, it’s convenient to have them gathered together in one volume with other stories that... Read More

Blackwing: Dark, gritty, and well-plotted

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Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Blackwing (2017) begins in Misery, but things will get far worse before they get better. This gritty fantasy is set on a world where there are three moons ― red, blue and gold ― whose light can be woven into magical power and stored in canisters for use by sorcerers. Two unimaginably powerful magical forces face off against each other across the terrible void called the Misery ― a magic-blasted wasteland. On the side of mankind are the Nameless: ancient, unseen wizards who are nearly godlike in their powers, but who have mostly disappeared from the lives of men. On the other side are the Deep Kings, dark and malevolent powers that corrupt men into enthralled warriors, called the drudge, and other slaves.

Ryhalt Galharrow, our narrator, is a captain of a ragtag group of mercenaries, far fallen from his once-noble life, a jaded fighte... Read More

Beyond the Door: A mash-up of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist

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Beyond the Door directed by Ovidio Assonitis

“I am waiting for you inside the guts of this whore!”

A somewhat effective mash-up of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, Ovidio Assonitis' Beyond the Door (1974) yet has little of the class and sophistication of the first or terrifying shocks of the latter. Released a year after The Exorcist kicked box-office tuchus (garnering $89 million; the No. 1 highest earner of 1973, if the book Box Office Hits is to be trusted), the film suffers from an aura of déjà vu, but still has much to offer to the dedicated horror fan.

In it, Juliet Mills (daughter of John, older sister of Hayley, but perhaps best known to American viewers as Phoebe Figalilly from the early '70s sitcom Nanny and the Professor) plays Jessica Barrett, a wife and mother of two. She lives in Sa... Read More

The Genius Plague: The mycelium strikes back

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The Genius Plague by David Walton

Fungi are fascinating, successful, scary organisms, and in the past several years speculative fiction writers have been making the most of them. David Walton steers away from the brooding, surreal and creepy approach to fungi others have chosen in favor of straight-up science fiction adventure in his 2017 novel The Genius Plague. An outbreak of a fungal infection leaves the survivors smarter, more visionary… and fully loyal to mycelia. Soon a greenhorn NSA codebreaker is fighting to save humanity and his own family.

The Genius Plague wastes no time getting us into the action as Paul Johns, a young mycologist, heads home from a field trip collecting specimens in the Amazon basin. The riverboat he catches back to ... Read More

Of Unknown Origin: Rat attack

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Of Unknown Origin directed by George P. Cosmatos

Speaking as a native New Yorker, I would hazard a guess that the two things my fellow residents here fear the most, when it comes to their apartment or dwelling place, are (a) bedbugs and (b) rodents. Those bloodsucking little insects were on the wane for many decades, but have unfortunately made a comeback in recent years, and while not disease carriers, are notoriously difficult and expensive to eliminate. As for the latter, well, the sight of a scurrying mouse in the house is surely enough to startle even the toughest of Big Apple dwellers. But the thought of a rat — the larger-size rodent that most New Yorkers only see on the subway tracks underground — getting INSIDE one's residence is one that is certain to engender nightmares. This fear was only made worse a little while ago, with the online emergence of a video showing how easily the whiskered horrors can clim... Read More

SFM: Palmer, Bright, Gailey, Mudie

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.



“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer (Sept. 2017, free at Clarkesworld)

Fans of WALL-E will particularly appreciate this whimsically poignant tale about an outdated robot with a can-do attitude.  Robot #9 is reactivated by its spaceship after a lengthy time in storage, and is assigned the task of ridding the Ship of a particularly destructive “biological infestation” (the bots begin to call it the “ratbug,” though Bot 9 privately questions the accuracy of that moniker) that is chewing apart bots and other parts of the Ship. Bot 9 sets to with a will, though... Read More

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC

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Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

Once upon a time, Reed Tucker reminds us in Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC, comic book fans might come to blows over the great dividing question of their time: Are you Marvel or DC? This may seem a strange debate for those who are now living through what could easily be called the Age of Marvel, as their ubiquitous heroes dominate our screens both large or small. It’s nearly impossible, after all, to go to the theater or turn on a network/cable/streaming TV channel and not come across some Marvel character flying, tromping, or speeding across the screen. Nor was Marvel-DC much of a debate in my own youth, as I grew up reading comics in the late 60s/early 70s, when upstart Marvel had beaten the staid DC almost to its knees. I didn’t know anybody wh... Read More

The Strangler Of Blackmoor Castle: Sehe Es Wegen Karin

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The Strangler Of Blackmoor Castle directed by Harald Reinl

It was back in mid-June 1967 when I — and millions of other baby-boomer boys, I have a feeling — first developed a crush on beautiful, redheaded Karin Dor. With the opening of the fifth James Bond blowout, You Only Live Twice, Dor, already a long-established actress in her native Germany (although few of us realized it at the time), was revealed to an international audience ... one that could scarcely fail to be impressed by her turn as Helga Brandt, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent No. 11, whose demise in Ernst Stavro Blofeld's piranha pool is one of the series' most memorable moments. Over the intervening 47 (!) years, this viewer has endeavored to see a lot more of Dor, but with only scant success. Her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz (1969), playing the brunette widow of a Cuban revolutionary, was easy enough to see, but other than that, I had to w... Read More

Madhouse: Mary, Mary, quite contrary

It's Shocktober! Sandy will post a horror movie review every day this month!

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Madhouse directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis

Not to be confused with the 1974 Vincent Price/Peter Cushing movie entitled Madhouse (a fun, underrated film, by the way) and certainly not with the 1990 John Larroquette/Kirstie Alley comedy sporting that same name, the 1981 Italian horror outing called Madhouse is another story entirely. I say that the film IS Italian, although the average viewer might never realize it. Despite being an Italian production, with an Italian crew and composer, the picture was shot in English, features an American cast, and was filmed in Savannah, Georgia, although the filmmakers could certainly have included more of that city's picturesque charm, had they chosen to do so.

In this film (perhaps inspired by Brian De Palma's 1973 classic Sisters Read More

Hellboy Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola (An Oxford College Student Review!)

In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I post the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Carter Eldreth: 

Carter Eldreth is a freshman at Oxford College of Emory University and is pursuing a degree in literature with the intent to go to law school. His home is Bristol, Tennessee, and his hobbies include reading, writing, and video g... Read More

The Accelerators Vol. 3: Relativity

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The Accelerators Vol. 3: Relativity by R.F.I. Porto, Gavin Smith, Tim Yates

Warning: There will be some spoilers for both The Accelerators: Time Games and The Accelerators: Momentum. As with any time-travel story, the best place to begin is at the beginning.

At the end of Momentum, Spatz was separated from his fellow time-travelers and held back in the last years of the third millennium with an old Spatz while the rest of the group skipped ahead to the 88th century and met yet another Spatz — this one just a little older, and with an accelerator design scarring his torso. In The Accelerators Vol. 3: Relativity... Read More

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: Poe shines in his only novel

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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

Note: This public domain title is free on Kindle.

In his short story entitled “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833), author Edgar Allan Poe told a tale of shipwreck on the high seas, following the mother of all storms. Along with one other survivor, our narrator drifts helplessly on the surface of the water, later encountering what seems to be a ghost ship, on which he climbs aboard, only to be swept toward the south polar regions and to an unknown fate. Flash forward five years, and Poe has now enlarged on some of this story’s set pieces and themes, and turned them into the long-form work known as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Although Poe would ultimately write 50 poems (Poe-ems?), 68 short stories,... Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also ha... Read More

Magonia: What YA should be like

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Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Come for the wonderful voice (and attitude) of Aza Ray, the teenage narrator. Stay for a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding.

Magonia (2015) is one of those books that, while still partway through the sample, I knew I wanted to buy. It's difficult to create a truly original character voice, but Maria Dahvana Headley pulls it off with Aza Ray. She even pulls it off again with Jason, Aza's best friend, though his voice is less distinctive (this shouldn't be taken as a criticism; most voices are less distinctive than Aza's).

Sequel



There are all too few books that reflect the experience of chronic illness, what it's like not only for those who have it but for th... Read More

She Said Destroy: A good introduction to Bulkin’s beautiful, creepy prose

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She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin’s horror stories are surreal, subversive, often political. 2017’s short story collection She Said Destroy offers 13 stories, some set in our world, some set in worlds almost exactly like ours and some set in strange, feverish landscapes unlike what we’ve seen before.

“Intertropical Convergence Zone” and “Red Goat, Black Goat,” are set in an imaginary country that looks more than a bit like Indonesia. (Bulkin writes many stories set in this place.) “Intertropical Convergence Zone” follows the country’s dictator, the General, as he ingests more and more magic. In the opening passages, he eats a bullet — literally. He eats a bullet that was used to shoot a man in the heart; it protects the General from bullets. The narrator, a faithful member of the inner circle, distrusts the dukun... Read More

SFM: Marshall, Campbell, McBride, Hawthorne

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. 


“Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall (Aug. 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies99c Kindle magazine issue)

Sarai is forcibly taken from her paradisiacal island home by the queen’s men when they discover that the young girl has the magical ability of a scent-maker, one who can concoct fragrances that will powerfully affect people, evoking memories and calling forth emotions. She is sent to live permanently o... Read More

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: An excellent exploration of the human genome

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (UK 2016, US 2017), by Adam Rutherford, is a nicely measured work of popular science that, unlike far too many popular science books/articles, doesn’t overhype its subject matter — advances in deciphering the human genome and how such advances can be applied. Always seeking to inform rather than sell, Rutherford makes for a trustworthy guide whose down-to-earth, realistic perspective doesn’t at all detract from the inherent wonder of science.

He divides the work into two large segments: “the rewriting of the past using genetics, from a time when there were at least four human species on Earth right up to the kings of Europe in the eighteenth century” and an exploration of “who we are today, and what the study of DNA in the 21st century says about families, ... Read More

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders by Hirohiko Araki 

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders by Hirohiko Araki (An Oxford College Student Review!)

In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I post the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Nicolas Ingle:

Nicolas Ingle is a sophomore at Oxford College of Emory University. Nicolas is intending to major in chemistry and Japanese with the intent to go to medical school. Hailing from Knoxville, Tennessee, Nicolas loves hanging out with frie... Read More