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The Mammoth Hunters: Prehistoric Mary Sue

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The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel

The Mammoth Hunters, the third book in Jean M. Auel's EARTH'S CHILDREN series, followed relatively quickly on the heels of The Valley of Horses. After this one, the gap between books increases. It would take Auel 26 years to get the last three published. I guess it was a good thing that Auel took more time for the fourth book. The Plains of Passage is not up to the standard of The Clan of the Cave Bear, but it certainly beats this third volume. Still, there is something very readable about these books. She never managed to get close to the level of the first book, but millions have devoured the other five anyway. Unfortunately, that still doesn't make The Mammoth Hunters a good book.

Ayla and Jondala... Read More

Dark Moon: Pure genre fantasy

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Dark Moon

In writing reviews of fantasy, everybody makes mention of those derivative books of sword and sorcery which lack imagination and either borrow exclusively from previous works (think Terry Goodkind) or possess so many archetypes that the whole book becomes cliché (think the DRAGONLANCE series). Everybody knows these cardboard Conans and Gandalfs wielding battleaxes, wands, and uttering the worst one-liners published today. But these comments about garbage fantasy are always directed to the “others” — someone else — never the work under review. Nobody wants to step on any toes.

David Gemmell’s Dark Moon is pure genre fantasy. This is one of the books everyone is indirectly referring to when they mention derivative fan... Read More

Agatha Awakens: Kat loves it. Bill doesn’t.

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GIRL GENIUS: Agatha Awakens by Phil & Kaja Foglio

Adventure! Romance! MAD SCIENCE!

I don’t read many graphic novels — though I’ve tried many of them, they’re just not my thing. In fact, I only read one graphic novel and that’s GIRL GENIUS by Phil & Kaja Foglio. I love this comic and I must not be the only one —it’s won the Hugo Award three times (and lots of other awards, too). Therefore, I was thrilled to see that Tor is releasing hardback omnibus versions of GIRL GENIUS because this comic is a work of art that deserves to be beautifully bound and displayed on coffee tables everywhere.

GIRL GENIUS is a “gaslamp fantasy” set in a Victorian-style world which produces “Sparks” — admired, but also somewhat mad, geniuses who are able to create bizarre machines and biological co... Read More

Dracula: The Undead: Just plain bad

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Dracula: The Undead by Ian Holt & Dacre Stoker

Have you ever read a book that is so bad that it loops back around to being good? Well, Dracula the Un-Dead (2009) isn’t one of those books. It’s just plain bad. But it nearly provides one of those “so bad it’s good” reading experiences, creating a sense of bile fascination in the reader over the fact that someone could clearly enjoy a source material enough to write a sequel, but apparently hate it so much that they would write it… well, like this.

According to the afterword, the subject of a sequel was raised between screenwriter Ian Holt and Dacre Stoker, Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew as an attempt to “re-establish creative control over Bram’s novel and characters by writing a sequel that bore the Stoker name.” Given the copyright issues that h... Read More

The Battle of Corrin: Continues the downward trend

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The Battle of Corrin by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

One steps into the LEGENDS OF DUNE series not expecting the achievement of Dune, an unfairly high standard, but a good read with maybe some flashes of Dune's complexity of character, plot, and philosophy. The first book of this trilogy, The Butlerian Jihad, failed in the latter two areas but the plot was a good enough read to overcome those flaws.

The second book, The Machine Crusade, was a step backward, with the same weak characterization, but this time not balanced by a strongly told story. The Battle of Corrin, unfortunately, continues the downward trend. As in the other books, characterization is almost uniformly shallow, which is tough to do since we’ve followed some of the... Read More

Living with Ghosts: Mixed reviews

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Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring

It took me a long time to get through Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring. As a fantasy novel, it meets all the requirements in terms of the setting, the use of magic and the plot. I think that it took so long because I had a hard time getting into any of the characters, and for me that is essential to my enjoyment of a book.

Gracielis is a gigolo. He is well-mannered, good-looking and seemingly omnisexual in his willingness and ability to become attractive to anyone. Gracielis’ history is actually quite interesting. He is a failed novice of a group of assassin-sorcerer-priests who spend years training to become the ultimate blend of lover and killer. The process is only loosely depicted, but it’s something to ponder, and it’s interesting to imagine what could be created out of a blend of complete convic... Read More

Isle of Night: Read The Hunger Games instead

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Isle of Night by Veronica Wolff

Isle of Night is the first in a new young adult paranormal series, The Watchers. Author Veronica Wolff attempts to combine several hot fiction trends into Isle of Night: vampires, boarding school, catty mean girls, and a scenario in which teens are forced to fight to the death.

Annelise Drew, who goes by her last name, is looking forward to escaping her abusive home life and going to college. When she gets to school, though, an issue has arisen with her high school credits and she’s unable to enroll. Drew is unsure what to do next. In swoops hunky Ronan, who convinces her to leave the country with him. He’s recruiting for a very different kind of school. Located on a remote island north of Scotland, it trains young women to become Watchers, which might be described as secretaries-slas... Read More

Haunted Heart: A biography of Stephen King

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Haunted Heart by Lisa Rogak

It must be difficult to write a biography of someone who is still living, who has not donated his papers to a library where one can get access to them, who is still active in his career, and who has a healthy sense of privacy. Even when the subject agrees to an interview, a biographer has to be aware that the subject is telling what he wants to tell and leaving out that which he does not care to discuss. If the interviewee is sufficiently charming, or is completely forthright on a particular subject that casts him in a poor light, the interviewer can easily lose sight of questions not asked. And when the subject has himself written a book or two about his past, you have to wonder just what you can come up with that’s new and interesting.

Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart, a biography of Stephen King, is ... Read More

The Forever King: Poor characterization, clichéd writing

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The Forever King by Molly Cochran & Warren Murphy

The Forever King, by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy, is almost two books blended together. One is an unusual take on the Grail legend, with some familiar characters like Merlin and Nimue. The other is a contemporary fantasy thriller about the reincarnation of King Arthur and a drunken ex-FBI agent who must help him. The Grail retelling has the most chance of being successful but ultimately both stories fail because of poor characterization and clichéd writing. The book, published in 1992, is the first of three in a series.

Hal Wozniak is a top-grade FBI agent who, in one case, fails to save a child’s life. He leaves the FBI and becomes a drunk. In the meantime, an enigmatic serial killer escapes from an asylum in England; and two crack addicts break into a vault in a Chic... Read More

Immortal: I never felt anything but déjà vu

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Immortal by Gillian Shields

Evie Johnson is a new student at Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Ladies, which resides in (you’ll never guess) a gothic mansion on the moors. Surprisingly, there are some severe headmistresses there (coiffed with scraped-back buns) and a clique of mean rich girls. They tease Evie for arriving on the train and make discourteous comments when the school mistress announces that Evie is their new “scholarship student.”

You won’t believe it, but Evie has red hair and a seemingly innocuous silver pendant which belonged to her mother (who was drowned), grandmother, and other maternal ancestors who have some connection to the area around Wyldcliffe Abbey. Needless to say, I was astonished when Evie started experiencing strange sensations and hallucinations when she arrived at school. These visions are connected to the tragic deaths of two young ladies, one o... Read More

The Fifth Sorceress: Clutters rackspace

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The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb

This ambitious debut novel is set in a realm in which two kingdoms are divided by an impassable sea. Over 300 years prior to the story's opening, a vicious war led to the exile of a coven of evil sorceresses whose lust for power would have led to the utter destruction of peaceful Eutracia had it not been for the intervention of the noble Directorate of Wizards. The book's startlingly blunt sexual politics, in which the heroes are all male and the villains female, is only one of its dubious qualities. Robert Newcomb has delivered a first novel that, while competently written, ends up little more than an amalgam of fourth-hand ideas borrowed from better books.

In The Fifth Sorceress we have, once again, a reluctant protagonist prophesied as the "Chosen One" who must face Overwhelming Evil in a battle to the fi... Read More

Vellum: Empty, pretentious twaddle

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Vellum by Hal Duncan

Forty pages into Vellum, I was dazzled. Hal Duncan's debut novel appeared to be every bit as phantasmagoric as the tidal wave of advance hype was claiming it was. A hundred pages in, my initial delight was morphing into skepticism. Yes, Duncan is a remarkably assured stylist, but is there any direction here? Is there ever going to emerge a cogent narrative to involve me beyond the author's obvious gift for lovely and visually evocative prose? By about 175 pages, I figured I had my answer.

I remember attending a critics' panel at a local convention several years ago, before I launched my site, listening to Bruce Sterling. I love Bruce to death, especially when he prattles on in that showoffy way of his, demonstrating how much more well-read and intellectually promiscuous he is than you. He was in fine form this day, ... Read More

A Young Man Without Magic: I feel like I have been punished

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A Young Man Without Magic by Lawrence Watt-Evans

A Young Man Without Magic seems to be set in 17th century Europe with characters who could have fallen right out of an Alexandre Dumas novel. So, if you liked The Count of Monte Cristo and think a novel like that with magic added would be great, then A Young Man Without Magic would seem to be a good choice. There is a problem, though… there is no Edmond in this book.

Anrel Murau is a young man without magical talent growing up in an imperial setting where sorcerers are the aristocracy and all others are simply cattle to be cared for. While there are rules under which they have to operate, sorcerers are lightly constrained as long as they can justify how what they are doing is for the greater good. The unmagical masses seem ripe for revolt. Read More

Dragongirl: It’s well past time to put Pern to rest

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Dragongirl by Todd McCaffrey

The steep fall in the quality of the PERN series can’t be laid solely at the feet of Anne McCaffrey’s son Todd McCaffrey, as Anne’s later books in the series themselves widely varied in quality, ranging from downright bad (a few) to mediocre/adequate (most) to not-great-but-pretty-good (a few). But at least one could kind of justify the existence of most of them, as they wrapped up characters we’d grown to love, or gave us the backstory of how the whole setup began, or kept us in the familiar and beloved setting but gave us new situations. But since Todd began co-writing the books with his mother, and later writing them on his own, it isn’t just the quality of the books that’s questionable but their very reason for being. The simple fact is we’ve seen these types of characters and these specific plots too many times and the bo... Read More

By Midnight: Dull and unimaginative

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By Midnight by Mia James

April is deeply upset when her father takes a job at a small paper in London, and moves his wife and daughter from Edinburgh to do so. At first she is just miserable because she misses her friends and has to start a new school, Ravenwood, where many of the students are either stunningly beautiful or frighteningly clever. But then the deaths start, and April realises that she might be in danger as well. Suddenly there is no one she can trust — not even the beautiful and mysterious Gabriel, who April is drawn towards. Set against the backdrop of Highgate in London, By Midnight tells a tale of love, loss and quiet horror.

There are a lot of vampire stories around now, mostly thanks to the massive success of Twilight, and I have read a number of ... Read More

The Leopard Mask: Probably better as manga

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The Leopard Mask by Kaoru Kurimoto

The Leopard Mask, the first installment of The Guin Saga, is a rather uninspiring tale of two twins (Remus and Rinda) whose kingdom has fallen to an evil army and who are now trying to stay alive among all of the ghouls, demons, and other nasties who live in the marches. They are saved by an amnesic warrior (Guin) who, for some unknown but intriguing reason, has an irremovable leopard mask fused to his face.

The writing style is only serviceable. I don't know if this is due to the original Japanese text or to the English translation but it just doesn't grab me. The perspectives change abruptly, the dialogue is stilted, and the omniscient narrator tells too much — sometimes in a tone that would be used to teach children.

The plot of The... Read More

Shroud of Shadow: Ugh

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Shroud of Shadow by Gael Baudino

Natil is the last of the Elven race, and in this novel she takes a runaway nun, Omelda, under her wing during the time of the Inquisition. Natil's powers are mostly gone, except for her miraculous harp playing, which is the only thing that saves Omelda from suicide. Natil herself is suicidal, and wants nothing more than to crawl under a rock and cease to exist. Obsessed with this goal, she doesn't do much for Omelda except get the two of them indentured to a selfish rich man, his greedy sons, and his perverted grandsons. Much description of sadistic rape follows.

Natil keeps herself going because she has visions of Elves reawakening in the twentieth century — the only trouble is that these elves are this rather boring couple who spend all their time navel-gazing and talking about how groovy their new powers are. So anyway, they're the hope of the Elven ... Read More

The Extra: A fast action-packed read

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The Extra by Michael Shea

In The Extra, a near-future science fiction novel set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles, Val Margolian is the creator and most successful director of a new genre of action movies, in which crowds of real people are cast as extras and have to defend themselves against movie monsters. The action is real, and so are the deaths. Whoever manages to kill one of the monsters, and anyone who survives the shoot, gets a huge cash reward. Naturally, with rampant poverty in LA, the expression "cattle call" takes on a whole new meaning, with thousands of people applying to become cannon fodder for this new blood-thirsty form of entertainment, and only a small percentage surviving with enough cash to move out of the urban jungle and on to a better life.

The Extra combines elements of The Running Man and The ... Read More

The Seven Rays: In search of a target audience

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The Seven Rays by Jessica Bendinger

Beth Ray is beginning to realize she's not just your average teenage girl. She's seeing strange visions, and then there are the letters: shiny gold envelopes containing hints of a great destiny. Her mother tries to keep them from her, but the envelopes manage to find Beth wherever she goes.

And then a big hairy bloke shows up on a flying motorbike and takes her to a wizard school in Scotland... wait, wrong book.

What happens to Beth, instead, is that she undergoes laser eye surgery to try to correct her sight, and when that just makes the visions more intense, the next stop is psychiatric help. Meanwhile, she's having a whirlwind romance with an older "bad boy," Richie McAllister. And when I say whirlwind, I mean whirlwind. Beth and Richie go from mere acquaintances to making out in about 2.5 seconds, and for no discernible reason. This ... Read More

The Magician’s Apprentice: Not recommended

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The Magician's Apprentice by Trudi Canavan

The Magician's Apprentice is the stand-alone prequel to Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy. It tells the story of young healer and magician apprentice Tessia who is caught up in the struggle between her native Kyralia and the Sachakan invaders who are trying to reestablish rule over their prior province.
I haven’t read the trilogy and am evaluating the book as the solo novel it is purported to be.

The first sentence of The Magician's Apprentice reaches out and grabs your attention. Unfortunately, the story goes down hill from there. You join the story as Tessia is assisting her father in an amputation. She is in training to become a healer, but when her magical ability surfaces she is forced to give up her hopes... Read More

Dressed to Slay: No delusions of grandeur

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Dressed to Slay by Harper Allen

I’ve got a theory. I think Dressed to Slay is actually a long-lost episode of Buffy. The Scooby Gang has been hit by another demonic curse. This time, instead of falling silent or bursting into song, they’ve all been turned into Cordelia, and I mean first-season Cordelia. (All but Giles, that is. He miraculously escapes the Cordelia curse, but picks up a Russian accent.)

The comparison breaks down pretty quickly, though, because if Joss Whedon had written Dressed to Slay, I’d probably like it better. I’ll say it right up front: Dressed to Slay was not my cup of tea.

The first chapter consists of the three Crosse sisters infodumping their entire life histories to each other. These girl... Read More

Jailbait Zombie: An undead and unclever version of Get Shorty

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Jailbait Zombie by Mario Acevedo

I confess I sometimes wonder about writing bad reviews (not reviews that are bad, but reviews of bad books). With so much out there, is it better to point people to the good stuff or warn them of the not-so-good? The feeling is exacerbated when the book is one by a popular author, let alone, as in this case, part of a popular series. Obviously somebody (a lot of somebodies) likes these books, so who am I to say they’re wrong? Or to warn people off who may have, like those other somebodies, enjoyed the book.

On the other hand, the publisher sent me the book to review it, so I’ve got to balance that responsibility as well. So here’s my compromise: I’ll give an explanation of why I found Jailbait Zombie to be not so good, but I won’t hammer away at all the flaws I felt it had. And, as I’ve already done, I’ll preface my... Read More

Mirrorscape: Flat characters ruin a great idea

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Mirrorscape by Mike Wilks

Mel is living his dream. He’s been plucked from his meager existence in his sleepy town and has been brought to the big city to study as an apprentice under a great Master painter. Once there however, Mel finds that life in the big city is not exactly what he pictured.

The head apprentice Groot has it out for him because he knows how much more talented Mel is, and Groot’s big-shot uncle also has Mel on his short list and will go to any lengths to fatten his own pockets and squash Mel like a bug.

But not everything is dim for Mel. He’s made friends for the first time in his life: Wren, a kitchen girl, and Ludo, a fellow apprentice. When running from Groot one day, the friends see the Master doing something in his office they were not supposed to see, and are suddenly thrown into a mystery and a great adventure that could be the difference bet... Read More

The Phoenix Endangered: Silly and boring

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The Phoenix Endangered by Mercedes Lackey

I got through about three quarters of The Phoenix Endangered on audio. This was a sluggish and clunky second installment in The Enduring Flame trilogy. The writing was dull and not much happened to advance the plot. By the time a battle finally started, I couldn't muster up enough interest to participate.

Even more than the last book, this one was full of two teenage boys brooding, bickering, whining, and being noble. Half of what they say is said "sulkily," "rudely," "darkly," or "huffily." I got tired of hearing how they didn't want to be heroes and didn't want to kill anybody (even when a huge evil army which had destroyed a few cities and killed thousands of people had them under siege).

And the plot (what little there was) was just plain ... Read More

Nobody’s Princess: Helen of Troy is a spoiled brat

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Nobody’s Princess by Esther Friesner

Nobody’s Princess is the story of Helen of Troy as a young woman. Because the world knows who she is as an adult, but there is no record of her childhood, Esther Freisner presents us with a determined, independent woman who wants to learn how to fight like her older brothers and go on adventures and see the world.

The story kind of meanders along following Helen’s realization that she is beautiful and her decision that she wants to be more than just a pretty face. She learns how to fight with a sword and bow and arrow, and later to ride a horse.

My biggest problem with Nobody’s Princess is that Helen isn’t very interesting. She’s in a position of privilege but wants freedom to make choices that are typically not given to females. However, her quest for freedom never seems t... Read More