SFF Reviews

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B.P.R.D. (Vol. 7): Garden of Souls: Abe Sapien’s Mission

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 7): Garden of Souls by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D.: Garden of Souls starts in London in 1859 at the scene of a mummy “unrolling.” Langdon Caul puts in an appearance, and as those who have been reading the B.P.R.D. series up to this point know, Abe Sapien and Caul are the same person, so the presence of Caul is central to the overall story. And the mummy’s unrolling leads to quite a surprise . . .

In the present of the story, we check in with the main B.P.R.D. team: Daimio is receiving a mysterious treatment privately in his room. Liz seems unable to connect with anyone, though she tries, first with Abe and then with Kate. Kate is healing from the events of the last volume, and Abe is still haunted by his past and refuses to discuss it, even when Liz asks directly about it. Johann continues h... Read More

Shadow Over Mars: The author is better than the book

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh Brackett

Shadow Over Mars (1944), also sometimes reprinted as The Nemesis from Terra, was the first full-length novel by space opera author Leigh Brackett. (“Full-length” is relative here, though, as Shadow Over Mars is quite short, only 145 pages in the edition I read.) It is currently in the running for a 2020 Retro Hugo for Best Novel.

The book begins with the hero, Rick, running through a Martian city, trying to evade the agents of the Terran Exploitations Company, who want to press him into slavery in their mines. He ducks into the home of an old woman, who prophesies that she has seen his “shadow over Mars,” and then promptly tries to kill him. The prophecy, which is interpreted to mean that Rick will become the planet’s... Read More

The Relentless Moon: A tense spy thriller set on the Moon

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

With a new protagonist and definite resistance to expanded space colonization coming from Earth, The Relentless Moon (2020) provides increasing tension, drama and action, giving us, in part, a spy thriller set on a lunar colony.

The third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE LADY ASTRONAUT series follows Nicole Wargin, one of the original six women astronauts and wife of the politically ambitious Kansas governor. Nicole has been tapped for a trip to the nascent lunar colony with a group of civilian colonists, but even before the trip gets underway, accidents, technical failures and social unrest ramp up, leading to the poisoning of the Wargins’ friend, and linchpin of the space program, Nathaniel York.

Even with the looming threats... Read More

Conjure Women: Beautifully written, hard-hitting

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Conjure Women (2020) by Afia Atakora is a first novel that I can hardly believe is a first novel. It’s a beautifully written, hard-hitting story of an African American healer just before and just after the end of slavery in the US. It’s not a fantasy novel, but I’m reviewing it here at FanLit because it has a few magical realist elements, and because it’s in part about magic, and people’s belief in magic, even when none is actually taking place.

In 1867, Rue is respected as the healer, midwife, and conjure woman in the little town that grew up in the former slave quarters. She feels, though, that she’ll never be as good at it as her late mother, May Belle. Rue doesn’t actually have magical powers — instead, she has medical and herbal knowledge that she presents as magic because that’s what people expect. She keeps some other secrets... Read More

Mera: Tidebreaker: A fresh look at an oft-sidelined DC heroine

Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige & Stephen Byrne

This is one in a series of graphic novels starring DC heroines in their teenage years, not compliant with any comic-book continuity, but which are aimed at slightly younger readers who might be interested in some of the female characters to have appeared in the recent influx of superhero movies (other titles in the series include Catwoman, Raven and Harley Quinn).

Having enjoyed Aquaman starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, I picked Mera: Tidebreaker up on a whim to learn more about the character of Mera, since in the film she's mostly a supporting character. Here Mera is the teenage princess of the underwater city of Xebel, betrothed to a boy she doesn't fully love, and fighting against Atlantean rule.

When she discovers that her betrothed will inherit the Xebellian throne if he kills the current heir to Atlantis, Mera decide... Read More

SHORTS: The Retro Hugo-nominated novelettes and short stories of 1944

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. In today's column we review the 2020 Retro Hugo nominees in the novelette and short story categories, following up on yesterday's column, in which we reviewed the novellas.

RETRO HUGO NOVELETTES:

Arena by Fredric Brown (1944, published in Astounding Science Fiction, free online at Internet Archive). 2020 Retro Hugo award nominee (novelette).

Two massive fleets hang outside the orbit of Pluto, about to engage in a furious battle to the death: Humans and the aliens they call the Outsiders. Bob Carson, a young human in an individual scout ship, is about to engage ... Read More

Ruin and Rising: A satisfying end to an engrossing story

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

The third and final instalment in Leigh Bardugo's GRISHA trilogy was far more rewarding than I had ever anticipated. Though I liked the first book Shadow and Bone and really liked the sequel Siege and Storm, it was Ruin and Rising that I truly loved.

It's difficult to summarize the finale of any book series without giving away details of its predecessors, but here goes – Alina Starkov is a Sun Summoner; a very rare Grisha that can conjure light out of nothing, a skill that's highly prized considering the country of Ravka is divided by a terrible darkness known a... Read More

SHORTS: The Retro Hugo-nominated novellas of 1944

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. In today's column we review the 2020 Retro Hugo nominees in the novella category, other than The Jewel of Bas, which we've previously reviewed here as part of The Best of Leigh Brackett. Stay tuned for tomorrow's column, where we turn our attention to the Retro Hugo novelettes and short stories.

A God Named Kroo by Henry Kuttner (1944, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, free online at Internet Archive). 2020 Retro Hugo award nominee (novella).

In remote Tibet, a minor deity named Kroo is slowly d... Read More

By the Sword: A stand-alone story about Kerowyn

By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

In publication order, By the Sword (1991) is the ninth novel in Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR saga, but if you haven’t read any VALDEMAR novels before, don’t let that stop you. By the Sword can stand alone and it’s a fine place to enter Lackey’s universe. There are several beloved VALDEMAR characters in the novel, but it doesn’t matter if you meet them now or later. In general, the VALDEMAR saga is divided into several different trilogies and a few stand-alones and anthologies. You should read the three books of each trilogy in order but you don’t necessarily have to read the trilogies in any sort of order. (I hope that made sense.)

By the Sword is about Kerowyn, the granddaughter of the sorceress Kethry who we met in the VOWS AND HONOR Read More

Mexican Gothic: A creepy gothic novel featuring fungus

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old flighty socialite living in Mexico City. She loves to dress up in beautiful gowns and high heels and go to parties with handsome young men. One evening she’s called home from a party early. Her wealthy father has received a strange letter from Catalina, Noemí’s recently married cousin. Catalina thinks she’s in danger from her new husband’s family and is begging for help. Is Catalina really imperiled, or is she suffering a mental breakdown?

Noemí’s father asks her to visit her cousin at High Place, her husband’s family’s mansion on top of a mountain in an isolated rural area of Mexico. When she arrives, Noemí is shocked to discover that, indeed, her cousin is not well. Though Catalina has moments of lucidity, at other times she rails about ghosts and other hallucinations.
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SHORTS: Gailey, Huang, Solomon

SHORTS is our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. We've previously reviewed most of the novellas, novelettes and short stories that are currently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Awards. Here are our reviews for the remaining nominees. Reviews for the Retro Hugo short fiction nominees are coming this week!

Away with the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (2019, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2020 Hugo award nominee (novelette). Read More

Across a Billion Years: An optimistic story about humanity

Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg

In Across a Billion Years (1969), Robert Silverberg introduces us to Tom Rice, a young archaeologist in training, who is writing to his twin sister on their 22nd birthday in 2375. While Tom feels some guilt that he is on the most exciting field trip in the history of Earth while his paralyzed sister is confined to a hospital bed, he is still eager to tell her about his work and he knows that she is just as eager to hear about it.

Tom’s diverse team, which includes some non-human specialists, is visiting a site where they hope to uncover artifacts of the High Ones, an ancient race of superior beings who were travelling in space before humans existed. They haven’t been seen in a long time and are presumed to be extinct. Tom’s team hopes to get clues about the High Ones’ physiology and culture as well as to find out what happened to them. When they dig up a... Read More

Sirius: The brainiest canine in all literature

Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

For all those folks out there who hold conversations with their pet dog and know for certain that Fido/Fifi understands every word; for those who have gotten a tad “verklempt” at the conclusion of such novels as The Call of the Wild and Old Yeller; for people who believe that canines just cannot get any smarter than Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Benji, all of whom starred in innumerable motion pictures; and, well, really, for anybody with a soft spot in his or her heart for man’s best friend, have I got a book for you! That book is none other than British philosopher/author Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, which, as I write these words, is in the running to win a Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1944. Originally released as a hardcover volume by the English pu... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 6): The Universal Machine: The Collector’s Shop

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 6): The Universal Machine by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Steward (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

In B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine, the team is still reeling from the death of Roger, and given the difference between Hellboy stories and mainstream DC and Marvel comics, we have every reason to believe that Roger will stay dead, even though Johann keeps claiming that he is still alive. We still have the core team minus Roger: Liz, Abe, Johann, and Daimio, the most recent addition to the team and their appointed leader in the field under the direction of Kate Corrigan who now usually works from home base in the new B.P.R.D. headquarters.

In this arc, we see Johann and Daimio becoming a main focus and are more fully fleshed out as characters. Johann and Liz try to get Daimio to tell the story of how he died and came back to life three days later. He... Read More

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Steward Johnson

It isn’t often that I wish for a longer book; in fact, it’s almost always the opposite. But that’s just what I found myself doing upon finishing Sarah Steward Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World (2020), which is about exactly what you would think given the title — a history of our attempts to suss out if life exists on our red-hued neighbor, from speculations about ancient civilizations creating Schiaparelli’s “canali” to Johnson’s own work with NASA’s Mars missions. It’s an excellent book throughout, but it also feels like it could have gone into material in more detail in some places and ends so quickly that I had to doublecheck on Netgallery to make sure I hadn’t gotten an excerpt rather than a full version.

Johnson is both a writer and a scien... Read More

Shadowshaper Legacy: Satisfying end to an excellent series

Shadowshaper Legacy by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper Legacy (2020) is the third and final novel in Daniel José Older’s excellent SHADOWSHAPER CYPHER series. While it was not my favorite book in the trilogy, it ends on a high note and concludes the main plot arcs in a satisfying way. This review will contain some spoilers for the first two books.

Shadowhouse Fall saw Sierra merge two magical Houses into the new House of Shadow and Light, and ended with a cliffhanger as the white supremacist Bloodhaüs emerged as a threat. The immediate Bloodhaüs situation is actually wrapped up pretty quickly — so quickly, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I missed an intervening novella, which I will have to... Read More

Siege and Storm: Despite a choppy beginning, this sequel delivers

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Siege and Storm (2013) is the second book in Leigh Bardugo's GRISHA trilogy, and does what any good sequel should do: expands the world, deepens the characters and raises the stakes. On the other hand, it can't quite avoid the pitfalls of a typical middle book — being unable to truly start or properly finish anything; it ends on a note that gives the impression the whole thing has been setup for the third and final instalment. But apart from this inevitability, Siege and Storm is a satisfying read.

Its predecessor Shadow and Bone introduced us to Alina Starkov and the concept of the Grisha. Born with the power to transmute certain elements (... Read More

Hella: Unusual protagonist, uneven pacing

Hella by David Gerrold

Hella is a harsh planet that was colonized by a few dozen humans about 100 years ago. The gravity of Hella is lower than Earth’s, so all of the plants and animals are enormous. The tilt of the planet makes its climate harsh in the summer and the winter, so the human colony migrates every season. As they migrate, they try not to contaminate the environment (who knows what effect humans will have on it?) and they must be careful of the huge carnivores that also migrate.

Kyle, a neuro-atypical 13 year-old, is our guide to Hella. He is fascinated by the planet, the past and future evolution of its flora and fauna, and the way that humans and their stuff could adversely affect Hella. He loves to learn and he loves to share his knowledge with anyone who will listen. When a ship full of new immigrants arrives in Hella’s orbit earlier than expected, Kyle is asked to produce instructional videos for the newcomers... Read More

A Book of Bones: A book too long for its story

A Book of Bones by John Connolly

2019’s A Book of Bones is the 18th book in John Connolly’s CHARLIE PARKER series. This series is dark, with a thriller plot steeped in supernatural elements. Over the years, we’ve seen Parker, his human helpers Louis and Angel, and his supernatural protectors Sam and Jennifer face a variety of entities. A Book of Bones seems to resolve most of the issues around a specific Not-God and an evil murderous cult called the Familists. The two nasty villains, a book collector named Quayle and a creepy woman called Pallida Mors — a play on “Pale Death” — return from the previous book, and Parker is on their trail.

Parker is giving evidence in a child sex-trafficking case in Texas when he is called away by his FBI connection, Special A... Read More

Wicked Wonders: The wonder and magic in our lives

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

In Wicked Wonders (2017), Ellen Klages has assembled an impressive collection of her short stories. Although almost all of these stories have been previously published (the sole exception is “Woodsmoke”), most of them appeared in anthologies and are unlikely to be familiar to most readers. These fourteen stories run the gamut from non-fiction (“The Scary Ham”) to straight fiction (“Hey, Presto,” “Household Management” and “Woodsmoke”) to science fiction and fantasy. They’re often bittersweet or wistful and frequently surreal; tales of ordinary lives in which the fantastical or unexpected element sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder, and when you turn around the world has shifted.

Several tales in Wicked Wonders are reminiscent of certain of Ray Bradbury’s short... Read More

The Golden Fleece: I appreciated it as an accomplishment

The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece (1944), also sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate, was Robert Graves’s attempt to create a unified, mostly realistic version of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the titular fleece. He incorporated a variety of ancient sources, some of them contradictory, some of them fragmentary, keeping the elements he thought made the most sense and assembling them into a single narrative. The result is this novel, which has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2020.

Graves wrote The Golden Fleece in an intentionally old-fashioned style. He explains in his introduction that he couldn’t hope to write it in the style of the Argonauts’ own time, but disliked the idea of writing it from a wholly modern perspective, and so took up a position “not later than … 146 B.C.... Read More

Away and Beyond: Thanks again, Mr. Miller!

Away and Beyond by A.E. van Vogt

As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, it was one of my high school English teachers, Mr. Miller, who first got me interested in literary sci-fi. This was back in the late ‘60s, when my high school was hip enough to actually offer a course in science fiction, taught by Mr. Miller; a very popular course, need I even mention? One of the earliest books that Miller required us to read, as I recall, was A.E. (Alfred Elton) van Vogt’s 1946 novel Slan, which had originally appeared as a four-part serial in the Sept. - Dec. 1940 issues of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science... Read More

Gideon the Ninth: Macabre & original

Reposting to include new reviews by Marion and Bill.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Necromancers and their sword-fighting cavaliers star in Gideon the Ninth (2019), Tamsyn Muir’s radically original debut novel, which has been nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award. This science fantasy novel, steeped in an atmosphere of decay and decrepitude, is a mix of space opera and a gruesome treasure hunt that takes place in a spooky, crumbling castle. At the same time, it’s set in an interstellar empire consisting of nine planets, each one ruled by a different House of necromancers.

Eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav is trying to escape her forced servitude in the particularly moribund Ninth House, where she’s surrounded by living skeletons and corpses and near-dead nobles and nuns who pray on knucklebones. Gideon’s escape plan involves sneaking off the entire Ninth planet i... Read More

Kiki’s Delivery Service: A warmhearted coming-of-age tale

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 1985 children’s fantasy novel first published in Japanese as Majo no Takkyūbin (or “Witch's Express Home Delivery”), is best known outside of Japan as the basis for a 1989 Studio Ghibli anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the book won several prizes in Japan and Kadono has published five sequels over the years (unfortunately none of the sequels are currently available in English translations). Kiki’s Delivery Service was first published in English in 2003, but a new translation is now available.

Twelve-year-old Kiki lives in a small town with her mother Kokiri, a witch, and her human father Okino. Her coming-of-age day is nearing, and tradition requires young witches like Kiki to strike out on their own and find a town or village th... Read More

Or What You Will: Some strands more successful than others

Or What You Will by Jo Walton

Or What You Will (2020), by Jo Walton, is an at times charming, at times frustrating work of metafiction that reads, even distanced by the novelist’s artifice, as a warmly personal, almost intimate love letter to Florence, the Renaissance, art, reading, the classics, and creativity. I’m guessing it will receive a mixed, varied response from Walton’s readers.

Sylvia Harrison is a mid-range author of a good number of novels, including several set in the quasi-fantastical Illyria — imagine Renaissance Florence with magic where people do not die save by willful intent (their own giving up of life, murder). Or What You Will is narrated by her creative spark, that flame of imagination trapped in her “bone cave” as he’s instilled her creations with the spa... Read More