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Dreams of Shreds and Tatters: Gradually, my suspension of disbelief eroded away

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

I’m giving this book a lower rating than I expected to. Usually a 2.5-star rating from me means I found serious structural, character or writing problems with the book, and that’s not the case here. My low rating of Amanda Downum’s Dreams of Shreds and Tatters reflects the gap between my expectations and my experience. The writer did do a few things that jarred me out of the book, though, and I am going to discuss those.

First of all, I’d like to talk about what I liked. I loved the idea here, of a group of artists under the sway of a magician, searching for a portal to a mysterious city in another realm. I liked moments in the writing; when she wants to, Downum can unleash a passage of weird, lush prose that is captivating and beautiful. For the most part, I l... Read More

The Crystal World: Time and death are defeated as crystallization takes over

The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

The Crystal World (1966) is J.G. Ballard’s third apocalyptic work in which he destroys civilization, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Drowned World (1962). It seems he likes the elements, having employed floods, draughts, and now crystallization. The process somewhat resembles Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), but there is no ironic humor to be found in this book as far I could tell. In The Drowned World, the flooding of the world was used as a metaphor for diving deep into the collective racial memories of the Triassic-age, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. This time, Ballard posits a ... Read More

Empire Ascendant: A disappointingly muddy follow-up to The Mirror Empire

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

I thought Kameron Hurley’s first book in her WORLDBREAKER SAGA, The Mirror Empire, was a richly imagined, ambitious novel that landed on the positive side of the ledger even if its flaws gave the book’s strengths a run for their money. Unfortunately, the flaws do a bit more than that in the sequel, Empire Ascendant, leading to an overall weaker second effort.

The Worldbreaker setting is a multi-verse with parallel worlds that, over time, shift relative to the others and with “ascendant” and “descendant” satellites that serve as sources of magical power for select people (known as “jistas”) sensitive to a particular one. One of those worlds, facing its destruction, is in the midst of invading another, with the complicatio... Read More

Starship Troopers: A 250-page lecture on the ethics and morals of war, violence and race

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

As part of my reading routine, I like to go to the way-back machine and catch up on genre classics. Within sci-fi, a few years ago I reread Frank Herbert's Dune, which is as heavy and awesome as I’d remembered. I discovered and loved Walter M. Miller's wonderful Canticle for Leibowitz.

Robert Heinlein, of course, is one of the heavyweights of the genre, but I'd never read anything of his and my only previous exposure to Starship Troopers (1959) was from the 1997 sci-fi film of the same title. Now keep in mind, the book has only the barest Read More

Talking to Dragons: The first, fourth, and final ENCHANTED FOREST book

Talking to Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Talking to Dragons is the fourth and final book in Patricia C. Wrede’s ENCHANTED FOREST CHRONICLES, though it was actually the first book in the series to be published (1985). Wrede wrote the later three books (Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons) as prequels and now the correct reading order is to start with those three prequels and read Talking to Dragons last. So, in this review, I’ll be spoiling a bit of the plot of the prequels.

The hero of Talking to Dragons is Daystar, son of Princess Cimorene and King Mendanbar. At the end of the previous book, Calling on Dragons, Mendanbar was tra... Read More

Queen of Fire: A series goes out with a whimper

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

Warning: Will contain spoilers for previous books in the RAVEN’S SHADOW series

Anthony Ryan’s RAVEN’S SHADOW series follows the life of Vaelin Al Sorna and his comrades, from his childhood in the religious, militaristic 6th Order to his career as a general, commander, and practitioner of the Dark (magic). Queen of Fire, the third and final book of RAVEN’S SHADOW, brings the series to a conclusion that leaves much to be desired. Following the victory at Alltor orchestrated by Vaelin, Queen Lyrna, the new leader of the Unified Realm after the bloody assassination of her brother, proceeds to invade the Volarian Empire, which has been controlled by the Ally for centuries. At the same time, Vaelin sets off north to find ancient secr... Read More

The Sleeping King: Like reading the script of a LARP session

The Sleeping King by Cindy Dees & Bill Flippin

Fantasy role-playing games come in all flavors and styles: from the well-known tabletop format of Dungeons and Dragons, to live-action role-playing (LARP) sessions in which players craft armor and characters, to video games based on the D&D format (Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights), to chat forums in which players create text-based adventures, to card-based games like Magic: The Gathering, there truly is something out there for any interested person to explore. Cindy Dees, a best-selling author of suspense and thriller novels, and Bill Flippin, the creator of the Dragon Crest LARP game, have brought the world and characters of Dragon Crest to the page in The Sleeping King, the first in a planned epic fantasy series.

Will, a cobbler’s son with a hidden... Read More

Sorcerer to the Crown: Thematic strengths outweighed by narrative issues

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

One would think being raised to the position of Sorcerer Royal — undisputed leader of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers (i.e. magic-users) — would be something to revel in. But for Zacharias Wythe, being at the pinnacle of magic society isn’t all that fun. Mostly because that for many of the old white men who make up the Royal society, that “undisputed” part of the title doesn’t seem to apply if, like Zacharias, you’re black and a former slave. Then there are the assassination attempts, the mysterious decline in magic affecting England’s magic-users, the ghost of the former Sorcerer Royal (his former owner-turned-father-figure/sponsor whom some accuse Zacharias of murdering in order to obtain his position), a government that no longer accords the magicians their former respect (and that possibly suspects their waning power), and the constant background threat of Napoleon’s France. And,... Read More

Raphael: A bit of a struggle to finish

Raphael by R.A. MacAvoy

Warning: This review will contain spoilers for the previous books, Damiano and Damiano’s Lute.

R.A. MacAvoy winds up her DAMIANO trilogy with Raphael, a book that focuses on the angel Raphael instead of Damiano, the young man who was the protagonist of the first two books. That’s because at the end of the previous book, Damiano’s Lute, Damiano died when he sacrificed himself for Gaspar’s sister. That deed was noble, I suppose, and perhaps MacAvoy is saying something about sacrifice and redemption in this religiously-inspired story, but it probably didn’t resonate much with readers since we don’t like Gaspar and don’t even know his sister. I was hoping to get a sense of the importance of... Read More

The Black Star Passes: For a very limited crew

The Black Star Passes by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, some of my favorite reading material, sci-fi-wise, was the wonderful series of 21 “Best of” anthologies put out by Ballantine. In an early indication of my future tastes, my favorites among those 21 collections were those by C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton and Philip K. Dick, although to be truthful, I thoroughly enjoyed them all… with one exception. The Best of John W. Campbell, it seemed to me, was just OK; a... Read More

The Dinosaur Lords: Even dinosaurs can’t fully save it

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

It takes no effort at all to imagine what the “elevator mash-up pitch” for Victor Milán’s The Dinosaur Lords was: “It’s Jurassic Park meets Game of Thrones!”  And darned if that wholly predictable selling phrase isn’t the main blurb (provided by none other than George R.R. Martin himself) sitting right above the title of my copy. And herein lie two of the problems with The Dinosaur Lords. One is that, like that mash-up blurb, there are no surprises awaiting the reader here; it’s pretty much same old same old European medieval historical fantasy with the usual smidgeon of magic. And two is that it rises nowhere near the level of either of its metaphorical parents (and yes, you can include Jurassic Park 2 ... Read More

Hothouse: Fertile and bizarre plant life, but human characters are pretty wooden

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

Yeah, Brian W. AldissHothouse (1962) was definitely written with some chemical assistance. Maybe some LSD-spiked vegetable juice? It may have been written as a set of five short stories in 1961, but it’s a timeless and bizarre story of a million years in the future when the plants have completely taken over the planet, which has stopped rotating, and humans are little green creatures hustling to avoid becoming plant food.

There are hundreds of fearsome carnivorous plants that would love to eat human morsels, but will gladly settle for eating each other instead. As the planet has come to a stop, a massive banyan tree now covers the sunny-side of the planet, with all other plants surviving in its shade. But there are gargantuan plant-based spiders called traversers who dwell above the plant layer and actually spin webs across space to the moon and other pla... Read More

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carrol

Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carrol

Baba Yaga's Assistant, by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carrol, is a MG graphic novel that tries to work the frightening richness of the Baba Yaga folktales into the press of modern family life, but despite the great source material, the attempt falls short, though it has its moments.

The protagonist is Masha, a young girl whose father has just proposed to a woman sometime after her mother's death. Her father had relegated most of Masha’s upbringing to her grandmother, also dead by now, and has also apparently sprung this new relationship on her somewhat out of the b... Read More

Beginnings: Five stories from the “Honorverse”

Beginnings by David Weber

Beginnings is the sixth book in the WORLDS OF HONOR series, edited by David Weber. WORLDS OF HONOR collects stories about Honor Harrington and other Honorverse character, often written by other writers. As Beginnings implies, these five stories mostly take place before Honor’s service in the Royal Manticoran Navy. One takes place late in Honor’s career, and explores changes to the navy of Grayson, a world with a rigid, patriarchal political system.

In “By the Book,” Charles E. Gannon provides some rollicking action, a cerebral mystery and a political coming-of-age of a young Lieutenant. Earth-sider — or “dirt-sider” as the i... Read More

Horrible Monday: The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners is a 2012 YA fantasy in the supernatural horror genre, and the first book in THE DIVINERS series by Libba Bray.  At a birthday party in Manhattan in the 1920's, a group of partying teenagers decides to play with a Ouija board. They promptly do several things they're really not supposed to do, like failing to make the spirit controlling the board say good-bye (is this really a thing?), thereby unleashing the spirit of a dead serial killer on the world.

The second chapter of The Diviners introduces our main character, Evie O’Neill, from Ohio. She's an insolent and self-centered seventeen-year-old who likes to party hard and drink too much gin. Evie spouts 1920’s slang almost every time she opens her mouth, and thinks she's smarter than everyone else around her, including her parents. Evie also has the ab... Read More

The Goshawk: Love the hawk, hated the author

The Goshawk by T.H. White

When I found out that T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, had written The Goshawk, a book about training a hawk, I jumped at the chance to read it. I love stories about birds of prey (probably fostered by a childhood obsession with My Side of the Mountain) and have often fantasized about becoming an amateur falconer.

Based on The Goshawk, these fantasies are not likely to come true. T.H. White describes the process for training a hawk in stark detail and it does not sound appealing or practical for my current lifestyle, which involves sleep and sanity and a minimum of animal abuse. Apparently you have to keep the bird awake and hungry for two or three days straight until it passes out from exhaustion, resting... Read More

Field of Dishonor: The Mary Sue goes Terminator

Field of Dishonor by David Weber

David Weber’s Field of Dishonor is the fourth book in the HONOR HARRINGTON series. I have read On Basilisk Station, the first book, but not the intervening ones (though Kat has.) This review may contain spoilers for the previous books.

I liked this book more than On Basilisk Station because there was slightly less lecturing, but the entertainment value is frequently squashed flat by Honor’s perfection and the ease with which things unfold for her. Honor plays the videogame of her fictional life on the Easy setting, even when she goes Terminator on an enemy.

At this point in Honor Harrington’s career she ha... Read More

Steal the Dragon: Fun, light fantasy with some disturbing subtexts

Steal the Dragon by Patricia Briggs

In Steal the Dragon, Patricia Briggs creates yet another strong, believable female protagonist in Rialla, a horse trainer and ex-slave from the country of Darran, who now lives in Sianim. (In fact, Steal the Dragon is technically part of a series called SIANIM, but as the books in the series do not share a lot of plot or characters, merely a setting, you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it.) She learns from the spymaster of Sianim that an influential lord in Darran would like to outlaw slavery, but that his life is in danger. Against her better judgment, she travels back to her home country in the guise of a slave to Laeth, her trusted friend and the brother to the lord of Darran. They hope to uncover the threat to Laeth’s brother and ensu... Read More

Madness in Solidar: Bleak

Madness in Solidar by L.E. Modesitt Jr

THE IMAGER PORTFOLIO has hopped all around the chronological history Solidar, from the very beginning when Imagers were feared and forced to hide or else be killed or enslaved, to the very end when they are a powerful arm of the government. Madness in Solidar falls in the middle and is one of the bleaker installments in Modesitt’s series. You need to have read the previous eight books before picking up Madness in Solidar. Understanding the plot of this book depends on knowing a lot of previous history in the series.

Alastar has recently taken over the Collegium as the Maitre d'Image. He grew up outside the capital, but, after the death of the last Maitre, he succeeded to the leadership of all the Imagers. It's a difficult job at the best of times, but for Alastar it's even more challenging because he is a relative stranger... Read More

Blood of Amber: Nice try, Wheaton.

Blood of Amber by Roger Zelazny

It’s at this point in Roger Zelazny’s AMBER CHRONICLES that things start going downhill. Don’t even try to pick this up if you haven’t read the previous six books. It will make no sense. Expect spoilers for those earlier books in this review.

Blood of Amber (1986), the seventh book, begins right where Trumps of Doom left off. Merlin, like his namesake, is trapped in a crystal cave. Then he escapes. During the rest of this short story, he finds out more about his frenemy Luke, who now needs his help after deceiving and even trying to kill Merlin for many years, not to mention imprisoning him in the cave. Merlin, who I’m starting to realize isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, or who at least has some pathological need to trust people who don’t deserve it, or who maybe is simply at the mercy of an author who needs to... Read More

Lady-Protector: A little better than the predecessor

Lady-Protector by L.E. Modesitt Jr

Lady-Protector is the last (so far) book in L.E. Modesitt’s COREAN CHRONICLES and a direct sequel to The Lord-Protector’s Daughter. You can read this duology without having read the first six COREAN CHRONICLES books, but you do need to read The Lord-Protector’s Daughter before picking up Lady-Protector. This review will necessarily spoil some of the plot for that earlier novel.

In The Lord-Protector’s Daughter, Mykella (the titular character) discovered that her father’s brother was stealing money from the treasury and planning a coup. Thanks to the magical powers that Mykella recently acquired, she was able to kill him and her schemi... Read More

All is Fair: I still don’t connect with these characters

All is Fair by Emma Newman

Note: You really must read the first two books before coming to book three or you’ll be hopelessly lost. I’ll assume you’ve done that if you’re reading this review, so expect spoilers for those previous books.

All is Fair is the final novel in Emma Newman’s SPLIT WORLDS trilogy. I thought the first novel, Between Two Thorns was dull and confusing, and I wouldn’t have bothered with the sequel, Any Other Name, except that the audio version was already loaded onto my phone before I realized I didn’t like Between Two Thorns. So I listened to it anyway, and I thought that (contrary to my experience with most second books) it was a vast improvement over its predecessor. Still, I didn’t ... Read More

Coming Home: Searching for the past in the distant future

Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

In the distant future, humanity will remember the period when NASA landed on the moon and explored our galaxy as the Golden Age. The people of the future won’t remember much else from our century because of the Internet crash that caused so much literature and scientific knowledge to be lost forever.

Alex Benedict and his pilot, Chase Kolpath, are in the artifact business. Benedict’s profession consists of finding rare items and selling them to the highest bidder – and Benedict has a lead on a bunch of Golden Age artifacts. He suspects that Garnett Baylee, one of his predecessors, may have uncovered and hoarded a cache of Golden Age artifacts. So Alex and Chase return to Earth to see if they can find the past again.

Meanwhile, Alex and Chase also find themselves caught up in the Capella affair. The Capella is a spaceship trapped in transwarp space, which means tha... Read More

The Pilgrims and Shadow: A solid opener followed by a more flat and meandering bridge book

The Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott

The Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott are the first two books of the PENDULUM TRILOGY. Book one came out a little more than a year ago, while its sequel was published in February of this year. I read The Pilgrims while on a long trip last year, and so never wrote up a review (camping and hiking not being conducive to such activity). Which means this dual review will focus heavily detail-wise on Shadow while making reference to the first book based on some fuzzy recollection, some quick skimming to refresh, and an old hand-scrawled note or two in the margin I may or may not have deciphered correctly.

The Pilgrims introduces us to Eric Albright, and young and not-particularly-upcoming journalist, and Stuart Casey ... Read More

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland: Weakest of the series

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is the fourth in the FAIRYLAND series by Catherynne M. Valente, the second in a row that has been somewhat of a disappointment to me, and the first whose strengths I thought were not enough to fully overcome its flaws.

Valente takes a bit of a risk here in book four, shifting focus from her primary protagonist, September and her friends, to a whole new cast of characters. The titular “boy” of the book is Hawthorn, a young troll scooped up by the Red Wind and dropped off in our world as a changeling, where he lives as a “Not Normal” boy for some years before encountering Tam, another changeling. Eventually, the two of them realize their true selves and make their way back to Fairyland, and it is there that t... Read More