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Lockstep: Great premise, disappointing execution

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder

I’m starting to feel like a broken record (Google it kids) here the past month or so, having had the same general reaction to a long run of books now — “good premise, flawed execution.” The latest perpetrator is Lockstep, a new YA space opera by Karl Schroeder, who has come up with a wonderfully engaging premise and setting, but has failed to create that same sense of engagement with regard to the characters and plot.

Way back in time in the Lockstep universe, Earth was controlled by the super-rich. In order to escape that highly stratified world, Toby McGonigal’s family buys Sedna (a real recently discovered trans-Neptunian planetoid smaller than Pluto’s moon) and sets up an independent colony. While there, Toby, the eldest child, is sent to claim one of Sedna’s moon’s and accidentally goes into suspended animation, only to wake 14,000 years later. Soon after he... Read More

Edge: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

I had high hopes for Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. A literary author turning his hand to a post-apocalyptic tale that would focus less it seems on zombies and cannibals etc., but take the opportunity to make some searing points about class and globalization and other current issues. But as has been the case with a distressingly large number of my reads lately, while I ended up appreciating the starting premise and also what Lee was trying to do, he lost me in the execution.

On Such a Full Sea is set in the not-too-far future U.S., ... Read More

Futurdaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction

Futurdaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction edited by Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood

In their introduction to Futurdaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction, editors Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood offer up their motivation for the collection:
We hope to inject the short-fiction market . . . with an extra serving of undisguised wonder at the possibilities the future may hold [and] give the next generation of speculative readers and writers a taste . . . of the infinite possibilities inherent in both the science fiction genre and the short story form [and to] represent a wider range of viewpoints than is typically seen in American popular culture.
That’s a lot to aim at and more power to them for putting this collection of twenty-one stories and a dozen poems together with that goal in mind. I’d like to say they fully succeed, but as with most anthologies (... Read More

The Waking Engine: Great premise, falls short

The Waking Engine by David Edison

The Waking Engine
, by David Edison, continues my unfortunately long-running streak of books that fell short of their potential. As with many of them this past month or so, The Waking Engine has a great premise — people (defined very broadly) do not die just once; instead they do so multiple times, each time waking in a new body to a new life on another world, but with all their memories intact. Eventually, however, you’ll end up in one of a few places where True Death occurs. And one such place, the City Unspoken, is the setting for Edison’s novel, which opens (after a short prologue) with the main character, Cooper, awakening in the City after only his first death, a highly unusual occurrence.

Cooper arrives in the midst of a multi-pronged crisis. The dead have stopped Dying, the Prince and his the ruling aristocracy have sealed themselves inside the massive p... Read More

Three Princes: A struggle to finish

Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Ramona Wheeler came up with a great setting premise for her novel Three Princes: an alternate Earth where neither the Egyptian nor the Incan Empires ever failed. Now, from their center in Memphis, Egypt rules an enormous swath of land across Africa, Europe, and Asia, though not all are happy with said rule, especially a resistance group led by Otto von Bismarck. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Incans rule most of that area, which they crisscross in their Quetzal airships, the secret of which they closely guard. When rumors arise of an Incan attempt to land a rocket on the moon, two royal agents of the Egyptian Empire, Lord Scott Oken and Professor/Captain Prince Mikel Mabruke are sent across the wide ocean to investigate.

Like I said, it’s a great setting premise, one refreshingly distant from the usual European-based background. Unfortunately, though Wheeler flashes some moments, the... Read More

Fates: Too many of the usual YA tropes, but lots of potential

Fates by Lanie Bross

Vampires are everywhere in teen fiction, but recently some authors have ventured outside fangland and explored a more diverse assortment of supernatural beings. And so we have Fates by Lanie Bross, a novel about, well, Fates. I was a little sad when I realized Bross’s Fates didn’t bear much resemblance to the Greek Fates, just because I’m a sucker for classical mythology, but nonetheless I was eager to see what Bross did with the concept. The gorgeous cover art didn’t hurt a bit either.

The two central characters are fine, in and of themselves. The heroine, Corinthe, was once a Fate and lived in the ethereal world of Pyralis, where she and her sister Fates were responsible for making sure people’s destines played out like they were supposed to. But Corinthe made a mistake, and for that was banished from Pyralis and is now living in Humana (Earth). She looks like a human teenager but still has a job... Read More

The Arm of the Stone: Didn’t do enough

The Arm of the Stone by Victoria Strauss

Long ago, after a battle for dominance between the power of mind (what we’d call magic) and the power of the hand (technology and tools), those with mindpower left for another world using the Stone, a magical talisman of great power. But after generations of peace, Percival stole the stone, killed the family that had wielded its power, and set up a new system of rule, with power strictly held by the Guardians, who enforced the rules against handpower of any sort.

The Arm of the Stone, by Victoria Strauss, opens with young Bron listening, as he has every night, to this tale, which has special meaning to his family, as they are the sole surviving descendants of that family Percival tried to extinguish. They tell the tale to remind each generation of the prophecy that one day “The One” will come, greater than any in mindpower, and reclaim the sword and overthrow the Guardians. It takes... Read More

Siege of Darkness: Needs more siege. Also more darkness.

Siege of Darkness by R.A. Salvatore

The major problem with Siege of Darkness is not, hopefully, R.A. Salvatore’s fault. The issue is that this is the point in THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT saga when a particularly noxious example of the “Shared Universe Event” decided to rear its ugly head, getting in everyone’s way and disrupting the meta-narrative. Its long-dreaded appearance does absolutely nothing aside from ticking a box on a checklist, so much so that I’m giving Salvatore the benefit of the doubt here and imagining that the material “had” to be there on the word of the mighty Wizards of the Coast, despotic lords of all Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novels. If that was indeed the case,... Read More

Children of Dune: Better than Messiah, but doesn’t return to Dune’s standard

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Based on the polar nature of the first two books in the DUNE series, Paul’s ascension in Dune and his descent in Dune Messiah, not much would seem left to be told in the House Atreides saga. Publishing Children of Dune in 1976, ten years after Dune, Frank Herbert proved there was still more to tell, telling a solid but not spectacular tale that has some big shoes to fill if it is to live up to the success of Dune Read More

The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black

The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth

The first 65 pages of The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth is a fascinating “biography” of the titular doctor, a man who believed that the creatures of mythology actually existed at one time and could be reborn into our world with the proper surgical technique. It’s a tragic tale of a medical prodigy who had already completed medical school with high honors at the age of 20. Black was a man of intense curiosity who reveled in dissecting every type of animal, including humans (which he had dug up from their graves for his father’s scientific work when he was a child, hence the “resurrectionist” label). But his curiosity took a tragic turn when he began his work of recreating mythological creatures, starting with the grafting of wings onto his beagle. His brother describes the scene in his journal, making one remarkable... Read More

Forever Free: Nothing like the original

Forever Free by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War and 1997 Forever Peace were huge successes for the author, winning many of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, not to mention garnering him a solid fan base in the process. Though they share similar sounding titles and a military motif, little else between the two novels resembles the other. When it was announced in 1999 that Haldeman would be publishing a true sequel to The Forever Warentitled Forever Free, the sci-fi community was abuzz: William Mandella was returning. Opinion in the aftermath could not be more divided. Read More

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs: The plot never quite gets airborne

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs, by Mike Resnick, is part of his WEIRD WEST series, featuring Theodore Roosevelt in an American frontier where colonial westward expansion was delayed for many decades by native magic. I read this book because I remember Resnick as being a writer with interesting ideas; “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” was good, and Kirinyaga was thought-provoking. With The Doctor and the Dinosaurs, I was disappointed. I felt like I was in an overloaded, underpowered cargo plane that was lumbering down the runway, gathering speed but never getting airborne.

The “doctor” of the title is Doc Holliday, famous gunfighter and gambler, who is coughing away the last days of his life in a tuberculosis sanitarium. He is visited by the Apache shaman Geronimo (Geronimo is not a war chief in this reality). Geronimo needs his help, and he rest... Read More

Bared Blade: Light fast-paced adventure

Bared Blade by Kelly McCullough

Bared Blade is the second book in the FALLEN BLADE series. Kelly McCullough continues the story of Aral Kingslayer, survivor of the destruction of the Goddess Namara turned petty thief and spy.

Aral is still struggling with the revelation that other members of his cult survived the fall of his goddess. His experiences in Broken Blade have started to give him an inkling that there may be more to look forward to than alcoholic oblivion. The relationship between Aral and his familiar/partner Triss has been an interesting twist on typical sword and sorcery tropes.

When a couple of oddly matched women are suddenly attacked in front of Aral, he chooses to get involved. The women have powers and skills far beyond the ordinary, which changes everything immediately. As further evidence of Aral’s re-orientation away from self-destruction via Kyle’s whiskey, Ara... Read More

The Defiant Agents: Not one of Norton’s best stories

The Defiant Agents by Andre Norton

The Defiant Agents is the third book in Andre Norton’s TIME TRADERS series about a secret United States government program that uses time travel to solve geopolitical problems, especially those involving the Cold War with the Russians. In the first book, The Time Traders, we met Ross Murdock, a criminal who avoided his sentence by signing on with the Time Traders and discovering the source of the Russians’ new powers. In the second book, Galactic Derelict, we met Travis Fox, an Apache who joined the Time Traders and was sent to recover an alien spaceship.

In this third book, the United States has tossed all ethics out the window and decided that the end justifies the means. They’ve used a process called Redax on Travis Fox and some other unknowing Apache volunteers which causes them to forget their modern selves and embrace their inner Apache. The govern... Read More

Dream London: In which the antihero stumbles

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Antihero (n): Protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, such as nobility of mind or spirit.

Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London opens with a stunner of a first chapter. Captain Jim Wedderburn awakens in his room to find two fiery salamanders munching on a green beetle the size of a dinner plate. It only gets stranger from there, as he confronts a business rival (Wedderburn is a pimp); bumps into his old girlfriend who hands him a scroll with his fortune on it; and meets a stranger who offers him a job. The first line on the fortune scroll reads, “You will meet a stranger…”

Captain Jim, who also goes by “James,” lives in Dream London. Original, mundane London has changed. Different dimensions now intrude into the city’s reality. Buildings disappear, train tracks and rivers shift, entire neighborhoods change. Whatever is causing the strange... Read More

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