SFF Reviews

Our most recent reviews are listed first. Use the tags to search for reviews of similar books.

We Sold Our Souls: Heavy metal horror

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Here at FanLit we’re working together to get all the Locus Award finalists reviewed. I’m not a fan of horror, but when I learned that Grady Hendrix’s horror novel We Sold Our Souls (2018) was about a woman who used to be the lead guitarist for a metal band, I knew this novel was for me. Hard rock and metal are my favorite music genres, I love to attend live shows, and I have often fantasized that being a guitarist for a metal band could have been an alternative career path if my mom had allowed me to take guitar instead of piano lessons. So, I was ready to love We Sold Our Souls.

The story starts by introducing a teenage Kris Pulaski in the late 1980s as she discovers metal and hard rock music and begins learning to play electric guitar in her bedroom. I could totally relate to Kris and her friend Terry (a singer) as they ... Read More

The Wonder Engine: Trying to beat the clocktaurs

The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

The Wonder Engine (2018) is the second half of a fantasy duology by T. Kingfisher that began with Clockwork Boys, and it's absolutely necessary to read that book first (a few minor spoilers for that book are in this review). Clockwork Boys relates how a company of condemned criminals ― Slate the forger, Brenner the assassin, and Caliban the paladin ― plus one straitlaced, misogynistic scholar named Learned Edmund, are assembled and sent on a mission to the distant Anuket City. This is the place where the so-called Clockwork Boys or, more properly, clocktaurs, originate: immense magical mechanical creatures that smash everything and kill everyone in their paths, and are n... Read More

Creatures of Want and Ruin: Original and entertaining

Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer

At first glance, based on the title and cover art, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin (2018) looks and sounds like it’s a sequel to her earlier novel Creatures of Will and Temper, but it’s not. The stories have different characters and settings, so I’m going to treat Creatures of Want and Ruin as a stand-alone novel.

During prohibition, Ellie West is a bootlegger in Amityville, a village on New York’s Long Island. Due to her father’s declining health and inability to work at his trade as a fisherman, her family struggles to make ends meet but is unwilling to accept charity. Ellie’s brother Lester, a smart young man wh... Read More

In the Night Wood: Immersively atmospheric despite overly-familiar plot

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey

I can’t honestly say there was much new or surprising about Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood (2018), making the plot easily the weakest element of this Locus-nominated novel. Its strength, meanwhile, lies in its vivid, evocative prose and its portrayal of the inner turmoil of its main character.

When Charles Hayden was just a child, he came across an old book entitled In the Night Wood by the 19th Century author Caedmon Hollow and was mysteriously drawn to it, so much so he stole it from his grandfather’s library where he’d found it (the old man wouldn’t notice, since it was during his grandfather’s funeral that Charles took it). Years later, looking for another copy of it at the college library, he fortuitously runs into Erin, a young woman who was “not beautiful exactly, but striking ... Out of his league anyway,” who tur... Read More

If Tomorrow Comes: Pretty balanced between positive and negative aspects

If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress’ Locus finalist If Tomorrow Comes (2018) follows up on Yesterday’s Kin, though works fine as a stand-alone. I hadn’t read Yesterday’s Kin, and thanks to the independent nature of If Tomorrow Comes, and some efficiently economical backstorying by Kress, I didn’t feel that lack at all.

Millennia ago, aliens took a group of humans from Earth and transplanted them to another planet, where they have since created a more peaceful, egalitarian, ecologically-responsible, and overall contented society than our own (though, as Kress is at pains to make clear, not utopian — they have crime, inequality, etc. — but they ena... Read More

Clockwork Boys: A company of strangers begins a suicide mission

Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher

The plot of T. Kingfisher’s Clockwork Boys (2017) is of the “misfit company of strangers on a dangerous mission” type. Their country has been invaded by the so-called Clockwork Boys, nearly unstoppable, 10-foot-tall centaur-like creatures who are laying waste to the countryside. (I like the allusion to the out-of-control gang of boys in A Clockwork Orange.) The Dowager Queen has previously sent soldiers and spies to distant Anuket City, from which the Clockwork Boys regularly emerge, to investigate and try to stop these artificially created creatures, but these prior groups have all disappeared without a trace. So the Dowager has now landed on the idea of sending a group of criminals, perhaps ... Read More

Deep Roots: A successful sequel

Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys

Deep Roots (2018), a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, is the sequel to Ruthanna EmrysWinter Tide. This Lovecraft-inspired story is about a race of Americans living in the 1940s who worship, and are related to, the eldritch gods. They are long-lived and, when they eventually mature, they may grow gills and return to the sea.

Most of the People of the Water were exterminated or dispersed when the American government, spooked by their foreignness, rounded them up and put them in detention camps. As far as Aphra and her brother Caleb know, they are the only ones who survived.

Now, with the help of the FBI, Aphra and Caleb are trying to track down any lost re... Read More

The Young Unicorns: Set in 1968, it’s a story as distant as a Jane Austen novel

The Young Unicorns by Madeline L’Engle

Madeline L’Engle published The Young Unicorns in 1968. It features the Austin family, who were introduced in L’Engle’s 1960 novel Meet the Austins. In The Young Unicorns, the scientific, artistic Austin family has moved from a small rural Connecticut town into New York City. They live in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which figures prominently in the story.

The Young Unicorns has no overlap with the WRINKLE IN TIME quartet except for one specific character mention, but it shares concerns and themes. This book, published for young adults, deals with science, spirituality and morality, and within its pages the ... Read More

Ahab’s Return: A well-crafted novel that didn’t quite compel

Ahab's Return: or, The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford

Ahab's Return: or, The Last Voyage (2018), by Jeffrey Ford, is a Locus finalist for fantasy novels, so one should keep that in mind while taking in this review, as I take a somewhat (though only somewhat) lesser view of the novel. Which happens to me surprisingly often with awards outside the Booker; probably something else to keep in mind.

The titular character is indeed that Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame, but what one should know off the bat is that one needn’t have read that classic American work to follow/enjoy Ahab’s Return. A good thing since not many have read it (including a number of those who say they have — you know who you are). Ford’s opening conceit is that Ahab actually survived his final ... Read More

Gather, Darkness!: Hard times in Megatheopolis

Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber

By April 1943, Chicago-born author Fritz Leiber had seen around 20 of his short stories released in the various pulp magazines of the day and was ready to embark as a full-fledged novelist. Thus, his first longer work, Conjure Wife, did indeed make its debut in the 4/43 issue of Unknown, the fantasy-oriented sister magazine of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction. In it, a college professor, Norman Saylor, discovers that his wife, Tansy, is nothing less than a practicing witch, leading to increasingly dire and supernatural consequences. Leiber’s second novel, released just a month later, was Gather, Darkness!, and it, too, featured the subject of witchcraft … but in a f... Read More

Severance: These aren’t the zombies you’re looking for

Severance by Ling Ma

Candace Chen, daughter of Chinese immigrants, lives in New York City and works for a book publisher (Bibles are her specialty). Photography is her hobby so, in her spare time, she takes photos of people and places in the city and posts them to her blog.

Candace is one of the last people in Manhattan after a viral epidemic rages across the globe, turning most of the world’s population into mindless automatons who get stuck doing some little rote routine until they starve. She joins up with a small group of survivors who are being led by an authoritarian guy named Bob to some place he calls “The Facility” where they can start a new civilization. As the group travels to The Facility, Candace tells us her story, weaving in a series of near-past and far-past flashbacks.

In Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), which is up for a Locus Award for Best First Novel... Read More

Thanos Wins: A great story about Marvel’s ultimate villain

Thanos: Thanos Winsby Donny Cates (writer), Geoff Shaw (artist), and Antonio Fabela (colorist)

Donny Cates tells one of the best stories of Thanos in Thanos Wins. The book collects Thanosissues #13-18 and Thanos Annual#1, and because it starts at issue #13, I have avoided the book, not having read issues #1-12 (though I mean to since they are by one of my favorite writers, Jeff Lemire). However, a friend recommended I skip #1-12 and jump straight to this collection because it is a standalone, self-contained story. I pass on the same recommendation to you: If you have any interest in Thanos or are a fan of Donny Cates, then you will like this book.

Many people have now heard of the Cosmic Ghost Rider, a new character in the Marvel Universe, and there is a good collection by Cates called the Cosmic Ghost Rider; however, this character was created by Cates in Read More

Record of a Spaceborn Few: Third time’s not the charm

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018) is the third book in Becky ChambersWAYFARERS trilogy but it can stand alone. You don’t need to read the previous books and reading my review will not spoil any of them for you.

Record of a Spaceborn Few follows several future humans living on the Exodus Fleet, the spaceships that left a ruined Earth centuries ago. Kip is a teenager who is exploring himself and his world in the ways many teenagers do. Tessa is a mom who’s worried about her brother and trying to raise her kids while her husband is away for his job. Isabel is an archivist, recording human history in the fleet. Eyas is a caretaker — she recycles dead human bodies by composting them. Sawyer, who has no fami... Read More

SHORTS: Yap, Lee, Bear, Jemisin, Okorafor

SHORTS: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few more Locus-nominated stories we've read that we wanted you to know about.

“How to Swallow the Moon” by Isabel Yap (2018, free at Uncanny magazine, $3.03 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Locus award nominee (novelette).

“How to Swallow the Moon,” a Locus-nominated novelette by Isabel Yap, follows the cadence and arc of a traditional fairy tale — a village periodically plies a dangerous supernatural being with strictly-cloistered maidens, called binukots, or “jewels,” in order to sate his hunger and prevent him fro... Read More

The Red-Stained Wings: Bear wields a keen eye

The Red-Stained Wings by Elizabeth Bear

Second books of a trilogy all too often suffer from BBS (Bridge Book Syndrome), and truth be told, Elizabeth Bear’s The Red-Stained Wings did at times evince several of the symptoms, including a sense of wheel-spinning and the occasional lagging of pace. Luckily, Bear was mostly able to keep the condition in check thanks to the host of remedies she has readily available in her writerly pharmacopeia, including rich characterization, fervent imagination, and vivid, lovely prose. Inevitable spoilers for the first book to follow.

In book one, The Stone in the Skull, the Lotus Kingdom lands that splintered off when the Lotus Empire fell enter a chaotic period of up... Read More

The Cruel Prince: Starts a new YA series by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

When they were young, Jude and her twin sister witnessed the murder of their parents by their older stepsister’s father, Madoc. Feeling some responsibility for the girls, Madoc took all of them to live with him in the High Court of Faerie. Bullied by the fae nobles, and made to feel like a worthless mortal, Jude learned that’d she’d have to fight to survive. Now she’s scrappy, ambitious, clever, and an opportunist. But she still has a soft side.

It took me a while to warm up to The Cruel Prince (2018), the first novel in Holly Black’s THE FOLK OF THE AIR series for young adults. There are two reasons for that. The first is that Jude is pretty one-dimensional for a significant part of the novel. She is angry. Very angry. Angry about her parents’ murders, an... Read More

Aurora Rising: A snarky space thriller

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

A lot of YA fantasy and science fiction works follow teenager characters as they attend magic or spaceflight school (I would take either!), but not nearly as many follow the characters’ lives after graduation. Aurora Rising (2019), a new YA space adventure from Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, the authors of the well-regarded ILLUMINAE FILES trilogy, take the latter approach, following a diverse cast of older teens as they graduate from Aurora Academy in the year 2380, are divided into crews of six according to their specialties, and assigned their initial mission for the Aurora Legion.

Tyler Jones, age 18, is at the top of the senior class. A natural leader and stellar studen... Read More

Human Errors: An entertaining tour of our body’s many design flaws

Human Errors by Nathan H. Lents

Human Errors
(2018), by Nathan H. Lents, is a light, quick tour of some of the ways our human bodies are evidence of poor design, from our weak senses to our way-too-fragile ACL to our seemingly constant battle with back pain. Mostly engaging, often humorous, almost always informative if at times a bit sketchy, Lents does a nice job in conveying the way nature works in not just mysterious but often random ways.

Oftentimes, people mistake evolution and natural selection as a targeted means to an improved end. What Lents makes starkly clear is, based as so much of it is on random mutation, evolution is hardly that. It’s instead a groping forward in the dark, lighting on some changes that are an improvement, but landing as well on others that are anything but. Besides detailing those changes and their impact, he also explains why those detrimental effects were “allowed” ... Read More

Half-Witch: Wonderfully creative though marred by plotting

Half-Witch by John Schoffstall

Appropriately enough, I’m of mixed mind about John Schoffstall’s Half-Witch (2018), which is itself about a young girl who is part one thing, part another, moving through a world that is also a kind of collage, a strange admixture of building blocks.

For most of her 14 years, Lizbet Lenz has been forced to flee one home after another as her lovable con-artist father finds yet another way to turn the residents against them. But when he accidentally causes a rain of mice, he is imprisoned by the powerful Margrave before they have a chance to flee, leading Lizbet to undertake a seemingly impossible quest to travel with a young witch over the never-crossed Montagnes du Monde in search of a magical talisman desperately sought by the Margrave.

The world Schoffstall creates is wonderfully creative and whimsically eclectic, set in a Holy Roman Emp... Read More

The Everlasting Rose: A disappointing sequel

The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton

The Everlasting Rose (2019) is the sequel to Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, a novel that is a finalist for the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Young Adult novel this year. I enjoyed The Belles despite some problems with characterization such as a boring romance and a totally over-the-top villain. If you haven’t yet read The Belles, but intend to, it’d be best to skip this review since I can’t help but spoil some of its plot here.

The Everlasting Rose picks up right where The Belles ends. Camellia, Amber, Edel and Remy have escaped the palace and are hiding in another ... Read More

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