SFF Reviews

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Sourdough: Celebrates the appreciation of excellent food

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

I really loved Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (2017), but not everyone will. You probably will if you’re a foodie (I am), an introvert (I am), and a bit geeky (I am). If you love sourdough bread (I do) and magical realism (I do), you’ve just got to read Sourdough. And you must try the audio version. It’s amazing.

Lois is new to San Francisco. She moved from Michigan, where she grew up, and she’s starting a job as a programmer of robotic arms at a tech company where everyone works so hard that they basically have no other life. Most of them just eat a nutritive slurry rather than bothering to plan, shop, and prepare meals.

Most nights Lois orders her dinner ... Read More

Galactic Patrol: Book 3 of one of the greatest space operas

Galactic Patrol by E. E. “Doc” Smith

After almost 500 pages of back story … after a history of the conflict between the superraces of Arisia and Eddore that stretches back 2 billion years, and includes glimpses of Earth’s lost continent of Atlantis and the Holy Roman Empire … after at least six major space battles, explorations of any number of bizarre worlds, a look at how the Galactic Patrol was formed and how the mysterious, Arisian artifact known as the Lens was obtained by the Patrol … after campaigns against drug smugglers, dirty politicos and space pirates … after all of this and much more, E. E. “Doc” Smith’s legendary LENSMAN space opera finally begins in earnest, in Book 3 of the six-part epic, Galactic Patrol.

As I mentioned in my reviews of the first two books, Read More

Midworld: Interesting biological science fiction

Midworld by Alan Dean Foster

On a faraway planet with a dense jungle ecosystem, a human colony ship accidentally landed generations ago. The planet killed all but a few hardy survivors and their offspring evolved, along with the jungle, into a symbiotic pseudo-human race.

A man named Born is one of the descendants of those few humans. In his early manhood, he is eager to prove himself a mighty hunter and a desirable mate for a girl he has a crush on. Among his people, who live in the trees, he’s somewhat of an oddity, unconventional and curious, daring to traverse areas of the jungle that are higher or lower than his people are usually willing to go.

On one of his risky excursions, Born discovers an alien (human) spaceship inhabited by people who have recently landed on the newly discovered planet, strayed from their base, and become lost in the hostile jungle. Being adventurous and brave, and wanting to impress t... Read More

The Jane Austen Project: A realistic immersion in a Regency world

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

I’m an enthusiastic Jane Austen fan (Pride and Prejudice is my desert island book of choice) but I had never heard of her unfinished novel The Watsons until reading The Jane Austen Project (2017), a compelling time travel novel by Jane Austen devotee Kathleen A. Flynn. In this novel, an old Austen family letter has recently surfaced, indicating that Jane Austen actually did finish The Watsons but then destroyed most of it.

The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics ― a fancy title for a British government research center that has mastered the practical ability to send people back in time ― has now sent Rachel Katzman (a doctor and our narrator) and Liam Finucane (a scholar with a background in acting... Read More

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers

A People's Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams

In reaction to the Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States as well as to the rhetoric spewed by his far-right supporters such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams wrote to a diverse set of speculative fiction authors with this charge: “We are seeking stories that explore new forms of freedom, love, and justice: narratives that release us from the chokehold of the history and mythology of the past… and writing that gives us new futures to believe in.”

The “mythology” they refer to is the history we learned in school which taught us about all the great white men who accomplished all the significant events in American history. This idea ha... Read More

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: Just buy it already

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
(2018), by Robert M. Sapolsky, is, simply put, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years and, had I finished it last year, would absolutely have gone onto my Best of the Year list. Sadly, because I listened to it on audio over several months of commuting, this review will not do it justice in terms of specific references and examples. But to cut an already-brief review even shorter: if you have any interest in other people, yourself, culture, society, or science, buy this book.

Sapolsky wants to explain just why (and also how) we do the things we do, and he structures the book so as to zoom out from what happens in our brains/bodies milliseconds before an action to minutes before to weeks and months, to years, to centuries and millennia before... Read More

The Oathbound: Features a female sword-and-sorcery duo

The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey

The Oathbound (1987) is the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s VOWS AND HONOR series, a trilogy in her larger VALDEMAR saga. You don’t need to be familiar with VALDEMAR before picking up The Oathbound.

The story focuses on two heroines who suffered traumatic events, re-made themselves, and are on separate quests for revenge. Tarma is a clanswoman from a nomadic tribe that got wiped out by raiders. She became an elite warrior and has sworn to avenge her people. Kethry fled an abusive marriage, went to magic school, and became an extremely powerful sorceress. She has a sword named Need (those familiar with other VALDEMAR novels may recognize it) that compels its master to go to the aid of... Read More

Skyward: Fighting for the stars

Reposting to include Nathan's new review:

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson’s new young adult science fiction novel, Skyward (2018), replaces his intricately detailed fantasy magical systems with equally detailed dogfights between one-person starship fighters of the humans living on the planet Detritus (it’s as bleak as it sounds) and the starships of the alien Krell. The Krell chased a fleet of human spaceships to Detritus decades ago and have pinned them down on the planet since, frequently bombarding the humans with attacks that threaten to wipe out the colony, where people primarily live underground for safety.

Spensa Nightshade’s father died years ago during a major battle against the Krell. Though other families of spaceship pilots are lauded by the colony, “C... Read More

Dragon Pearl: A young girl, chasing adventure, finds herself

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

The Rick Riordan Presents imprint’s mission statement is, in part, “to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage,” leading to the publication of novels like Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time and J.C. CervantesThe Storm Runner, and most recently joined by Yoon Ha Lees Dragon Pearl Read More

A Voice in the Night: Definitely for established fans

A Voice in the Night by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt is one of the numerous authors whose work I know because my dad said, “Hey, read this!” In McDevitt’s case, the “this” was The Engines of God. Having thus been introduced to recurring protagonist Priscilla Hutchins, I read several others of McDevitt’s novels and I’ve always enjoyed them. So I was interested to pick up this book of short stories to see how McDevitt does them.

Overall, I think I prefer McDevitt’s work at novel length; I think it’s because he does well with accumulation of detail over the course of a story. But A Voice in the Night (2018) does have several stories that I enjoyed.

The collection doesn’t have one unifying theme, but there are several themes that appear more than once. There ... Read More

Gates of Stone: Worldbuilding and characters make up for the well-trod plot

Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan

Angus Macallan turns in a solid if somewhat overly familiar fantasy story in Gates of Stone (2019), the first in a series entitled LORD OF THE ISLANDS. What saves the book from sinking in that familiarity, though, are some interesting characters and a less-familiar setting/mythos.

The novel follows four characters in mostly separated story lines, though they do cross paths now and then before the stories converge. In one, sixteen-year-old Princess Katerina, robbed of what she thinks was her rightful place as heir to the Empire of the Ice-Bear (think ancient Russia) and married off to a Southron prince, kills her new husband (not really a spoiler, as it’s both telegraphed and over with in the first few pages) and sets in motion plans to achieve her own power, plans that center on the islands of Laut Besar (think ancient Indonesia) and its... Read More

SFM: Harrow, Kemper, Kowal, Lawrence

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 to share with you. 



“Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow (2019, free in Beyond Ceaseless Skies, Issue #270, Jan. 31, 2019; 99c Kindle magazine issue)

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion,” begins and ends with Eefa leaving home — she cannot bear to see her daughters and wife march to war any longer, is tired of her wife’s promises that this child (and this child and that child) will be the last marked at ... Read More

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus

The time: July 1864. The place: a tea shop in Edo; what modern folks would call Tokyo, Japan. After some reluctance on his part, a tea mistress named Hatsu hires a reticent samurai, Yoshida Minoru, to act as her bodyguard while she travels outside the city on a private errand. What Hatsu quickly discovers, and what the reader already knows, is that Yoshida Minoru is no samurai at all — but is actually Mirai Yoshida, a university student from New York City in the year 2042.

Mirai was part of a special group of students, all of whom were chosen for their academic excellence and dedication, who were given access to time-travel technology in order to better study historically significant events. Their trips to the Tokugawa Shogunate period were supposed to be as unobtrusive as possible, spending just a little time interacting with locals before returning home via special beacon... Read More

Marvel 1985: A realistic superhero story

Marvel 1985 by Mark Millar

In Marvel 1985, Mark Millar tells us the story of comics coming to real life. Young Toby Goodman sees the Red Skull one day, and wonders if his eyes might be deceiving him, but after he sees a few more Marvel characters, he realizes that the super-villains from the Marvel Universe are invading our reality. He encounters the Hulk at one point, but mainly it’s the bad guys coming to his small town: Ultron, the Blob, Sandman, and many more villains appear and begin to kill indiscriminately. But things really seem bad when the planet-destroying Galactus shows up. We begin to wonder who the mastermind is behind this invasion.

Why is this story so good? Because it’s grounded in the reality of a young boy’s daily struggles: Toby’s parents are divorced, and he doesn’t like his stepdad. He seems to get enjoyment only by escaping through comics, going to the comics shop, and han... Read More

First Lensman: Book 2 of one of the greatest space operas

First Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Although a fairly direct sequel to Triplanetary, which is now almost universally regarded as the opening salvo in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s famed LENSMAN series, Book 2, perhaps misleadingly titled First Lensman, was actually the last of the six books comprising this most famous of all Golden Age space operas to be written. As I mentioned in my review of Book 1, Smith had originally written Books 3 through 6 over the 13-year period 1934 - ’47, but then felt that something in the order of a prequel for his remarkably complex story line was needed. Thus, Triplanetary first appeared in 1948, with First Lensman eventually showing up i... Read More

They Shall Have Stars: The technical details of how we’ll achieve this dream

They Shall Have Stars by James Blish

The optimism of Modernism expressed itself in a variety of fashions. Silver Age science fiction perhaps the grandest of them all, the infinite potential of technology was a playground which hundreds of writers rushed to frolic on. Jaunts to Mars, telekinetic communication, robot servants — a universe of ideas was the genre’s oyster. Space flight perhaps the most utilized trope, there was no shortage of schemes and inspiration about how mankind could achieve the stars. Approaching in realist mode (chronologically, that is), James Blish and his CITIES IN FLIGHT sequence posited that discoveries in mathematics and solar system exploration would be the ticket to the galaxy. After publishing a series of short stories wherein mankind’s urban environments were ‘launched’ into space, he realized the larger potential... Read More

The Initiation: Classic YA paranormal romance

Reposting to include Kelly's new review.

The Initiation by L.J. Smith

Cassie Blake is distraught when her mother decides to uproot to the small town of New Salem in order to take care of a grandmother who Cassie had never even met before. But that is only the start of her problems. Starting a new school, trying to make new friends — and discovering that some of the people she would most like to befriend are all part of some secret Club that Cassie is not permitted to join. Then a girl dies and Cassie is finally initiated into the Secret Circle, learning that magic is more than just a folktale.

These days the YA market is flooded with paranormal activity — witches amongst them. But in 1992 when LJ Smith first wrote The Secret Circle trilogy it was something fresh and new — and should be reviewed with that in mind. LJ Smith was producing w... Read More

Damsel: A disturbing feminist allegory in fairy tale form

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

Damsel
(2018) has an absolutely gorgeous cover, one of the loveliest I’ve seen, with a glowing title wound about with vines, bleeding hearts and other flowers. But on closer examination there’s something just a little bit off about the cover image. An anatomically correct heart. A golden spur with a myriad of sharp points. A dragon’s pointed tail. It’s a bit disturbing. And it’s an apt metaphor for the contents of Elana K. Arnold’s book, where the fairy-tale details initially mask an allegorical story that is far, far darker.

Prince Emory is on a quest, a traditional rite of passage in his kingdom: He is traveling to the gray lands to conquer a dragon, rescue a beautiful young damsel, and bring her back to his kingdom to be his wife, as his father and forefathers have done before him. The hazards of his journey to the dragon’s lair and his tension-f... Read More

Archenemies: Convenient tensions that irritate but don’t penetrate

Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Archenemies (2018) is the second installment in the popular YA trilogy RENEGADES, by Marissa Meyer. The story revolves around a team of superheroes who police Gatlon City against crime. In Gatlon, superhuman powers abound and their possessors have polarized int two antagonistic groups — The Renegades and The Anarchists. With names like that, you may have a difficult time knowing which are the good guys and which are the bad — and that’s kind of the point. Marissa Meyer has drawn up a plot where she means to ask questions about who can be trusted with extraordinary power. And can we trust any of them to be good? On its face, the story has possibilities, but it’s too ambitious for Meyer. Her execution comes off clunky and heavy-handed.

Diving in, you need to know... Read More

Watch Hollow: A nice blend of creepiness and charm

Watch Hollow by Gregory Funaro

Gregory Funaro’s just-published Watch Hollow (2019) is a charmingly spooky (or perhaps spookily charming) contemporary fantasy featuring an 11-year-old girl, Lucy Tinker, her 13-year-old brother Oliver, and their clockmaker father … and also a fearsome giant, a boy who mysteriously appears and disappears, and a full dozen magical talking animals sure to warm the hearts of middle grade readers.

After a brief prologue with a heart-stopping chase involving the giant, a traitorous crow, and a rat named Fennish Seven, the story shifts to our main characters, Lucy and her brother Oliver. Between their mother’s death from cancer two years earlier and their father’s lack of business acumen, the Tinker family is teetering on the brink of financial disaster. So it feels like a huge windfall when a str... Read More

Early Riser: Solid enough but has pacing issues

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde offers up his trademark sardonic wit in his new novel Early Riser (2019), though it’s more chuckle-worthy than laugh out loud and has several issues that relegate it to the category of a lesser Fforde. I was, to be honest, a bit disappointed, at least partly because I so love much of his earlier work, but despite that disappointment, the book still manages to (just) tip on the side of being a worthy read.

Early Riser is set in a world (limited to Wales for the novel’s plot) where the human race hibernates through each brutal winter, save for a stalwart group who does all the necessary work to keep the world working and the sleepers alive. This isn’t some recent apocalypse; in this universe, winters have always been far worse than our own, i... Read More

SFM: Reiss, Bisson, Wells, Spahn

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.

 

“Double or Nothing” by Alter S. Reiss (free at Daily Science Fiction, March 27, 2018)

A man has an android made that is an exact copy of himself, so the android can do all his work and tedious chores while the man enjoys his newfound free time. He’s actually not surprised when the android gets deeply annoyed with the system, though it is unfortunate (from the man’s point of view) that the man is naked in the bathtub when the android shows up with a gun.

This is, for lack of a better word, what I call a “cute” story. Not a lot there, but it’s well executed in how it plays with the do... Read More

Breach of Containment: Doesn’t live up to the advertisement

Breach of Containment by Elizabeth Bonesteel

This third novel in Elizabeth Bonesteel’s CENTRAL CORPS series needs to be read after you’ve finished the previous novels, The Cold Between and Remnants of Trust.

When publishers make promises such as “a page-turning hybrid combining the gritty, high-octane thrills of James S. A. Corey and the sociopolitical drama of Ann Leckie” I just can’t help but point out when the book doesn’t deliver. I have enjoyed Elizabeth Bonesteel's CENTRAL CORPS novels enough to continue the series when I already have the audiobooks loaded onto my phone, and I was multi-tasking by doing a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, but that’s about it. I object... Read More

Empress: So much action!

Empress by Mark Millar

Empress is another one of Mark Millar’s big-action comics. It’s about Earth’s first rulers, long ago, when apparently they had technology beyond anything we could imagine. The Empress, Emporia, lives with a terrible husband, King Morax, who is all-powerful and likes to express that power by killing his people for the smallest possible infraction. This story is about her escape from the misery of his company as she goes on the run with her family across the galaxy.

The story is fairly simple and lacks the complexity of Millar’s best work. Emporia’s bodyguard has agreed to help her escape along with her three kids, one of whom is a small baby. The action often involves monsters and other dangers, and the baby, Puck, frequently is thrown from his mother’s, brother’s, or sister’s arms as we watch what we assume will be his immediate death. At one point, he is thrown towa... Read More

BINTI: The Complete Trilogy: Diverse opinions for a story of diversity

Editor's note: BINTI was originally published in three separate novellas but has recently been released in a complete trilogy. We've combined all of our new and previous BINTI reviews in this post.

BINTI: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

As Binti, a mathematically brilliant, 16 year old member of the African Himba tribe, sneaks away from her home in the dead of night, I felt almost as much anticipation as Binti herself. Binti has decided, against massive family pressure, to accept a full-ride scholarship to the renowned Oomza University on a planet named ― wait for it ― Oomza Uni. (Perhaps the university sprawls across the entire planet? Certainly it covers several cities many miles apart.) Himba tribe members are technically advanced but socially isolated from other people, and Binti’s breaking away from her tribe evidences her courage, but leaves her isolated, an outsider.
Read More