3.5

Click on stars to FIND REVIEWS BY RATING:
Recommended:
Not Recommended:

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories: A solid collection with a few standouts

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

I was a huge fan of Ken Liu’s first collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, giving it a five out of five and placing on my “best of” list that year. His newest collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories (2020), unfortunately didn’t hit the high notes as consistently as the first, though there are still several gems in the group.

Many of the stories are set in a time leading up to or following the singularity, where humans upload their consciousness to the cloud and become disembodied. Three are a direct mini-series following the same characters in linear fashion and the others change characters and shift in time (someti... Read More

A Queen in Hiding: A solid intro to a new series

A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

I’ve, unfortunately, been on a run lately in my genre reading of books that are perfectly, well, “serviceable.” They (mostly) keep my interest throughout, offer up some pleasurable reading for a few hours, but never rise above that “solidly decent” level. Nothing startles in the way of plot, language, structure, character. It’s smooth sailing across placid waters with no storms or reefs (i.e. bad writing), which is “nice.” But, also, no dolphins arcing out of the water, no humpback sightings, no sunken ships to explore, etc. In other words, nothing to stir the mind or soul, nothing to grab you and not let go, nothing memorable enough to have you proselytize the book to all your friends. And that’s pretty much where Sarah Kozloff’s debut novel A Queen in Hiding (2020) sits — a good book that will please most, even if it doesn’t excite them.
... Read More

The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern's eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of 'Rêveurs' – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of... Read More

Shatter City: A fast-paced follow-up to Impostors

Shatter City by Scott Westerfeld

Shatter City (2019) is the sequel to Scott Westerfeld’s Impostors, a set of four novels extending his UGLIES series by picking up roughly a decade after that earlier quartet ended. As I noted in my review of Impostors, this series doesn’t quite match the high quality of those earlier books, and seems aimed at a somewhat younger audience, but still retains enough of Westerfeld’s plotting strengths to make for an often exhilarating read. Fair warning, some inevitable spoilers for book one ahead.

The first point to note is you’ll definitely want to have read Impostors before picking up Shatter City. I won... Read More

An Unkindness of Magicians: Dark and brisk with lots of good visuals

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Wizard tournaments and wizard duels are standard fare in fantasy now, and Kat Howard puts the concept to good use in her fast-paced An Unkindness of Magicians. Published in 2017, the story follows a group of families based in Manhattan, who call themselves the Unseen World. They use magic to enrich themselves, gain power and ensure their comforts. Periodically, they engage in a magical struggle for control called the Turning, in which each family or House appoints a champion who duels other champions, often to the death. The House whose champion wins the tournament becomes the Head of the Unseen World until the next Turning, which is usually twenty years. When the book opens, the Turning has been announced seven years early, and two wild card champions are set to disrupt things in a big way.... Read More

The Outlaws of Sherwood: A strong contender in an overstuffed genre

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

Robin Longbow, a lowly apprentice to the forester of Nottingham Forest, is on the way to Nottingham fair when he is waylaid by bullies. After he accidentally kills one of them, he is forced to flee and go into hiding. If he’s discovered by the sheriff of Nottingham, he’ll be hung by the regent who is sitting in for King Richard the Lionheart while he’s away fighting in Palestine.

But Robin’s friends Much and Marian see Robin’s exile as an opportunity to strike back at the regent and his Norman allies. They convince Robin to gather and lead a band of ragtag Saxon rebels against their enemies. Thus, Robin Hood becomes a symbol and a rallying point for Saxon resistance against Norman tyranny.

The Outlaws of Sherwood is a strong contender in the overstuffed Robin-Hood-legends genre. Read More

Atlas of a Lost World: An intriguing account of how people got to America

Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs

In Atlas of a Lost World (2018), author Craig Childs takes the reader on a series of outdoor adventures as he traces the various confirmed and possible paths that North and South America’s first inhabitants took to enter the New World. Parallel to his own journey, he delves into the current research, theories, and archaeological finds. The end result is a bit of a mixed bag, though Childs never is less than an engaging guide.

The book opens with Childs overlooking probably the best known route, and the one most people of a certain age and older were taught as “the” route into North America: the Bering land Strait. Each chapter follows Childs as he explores a different possible entry point, including but not limited to hiking across the Harding Ice Field in Alaska, kayaking along the Pacific coastline, playfully performi... Read More

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse: A fun feminist SF fairytale

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason

Billed as “The Princess Bride meets Princess Leia” and “a feminist reimagining of familiar fairytale tropes,” How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (2019) is a science-fantasy starring the first princess born to the royal family of her planet in generations (usually they have boys).

At her naming ceremony, the fairies bless Rory with all the usual fairytale drivel: golden hair, blue eyes, sweet disposition, embroidery and harp-playing skills, and all the other things she’ll need to please a husband. The last two fairies, though, give her some actually useful skills: the ability to always see what is true, and the ability to always find a way out.

Childhood is easy for Rory until her father is assassinated and a war begins. To ... Read More

Fortress Frontier: A captivating adventure

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

It’s amazing how a main character can spoil a book. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is the second book in the SHADOW OPS series by Myke Cole. I didn’t like the first book, Control Point, very well because I loathed Oscar Britton, the main character. He offended my pride as a soldier. Yet I decided to try the second book and this time I have to give Myke Cole some real credit for giving me a reason not to hate his SHADOW OPS series.... his name is Alan Bookbinder.

Back in a 21st Century world that has experienced the return of magic, the US Army continues to run pretty much like it always has. There ar... Read More

The Quantum Garden: A worthy sequel

The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

The Quantum Garden (2019) is the second installment of Derek Künsken’s QUANTUM EVOLUTION series, following the adventures of conman Belisarius Arjona, one of a few thousands of “Homo quantus” — a bio-engineered species able to deal with floods of data, strange math, and quantum effects. The first book in the series, The Quantum Magician, saw Belisarius gather a crew of misfits in order to help an oppressed “client culture” smuggle a fleet of uniquely advanced spaceships through a wormhole so as to gain their independence from the powerful Congregate. Belisarius, however, was running a con-within-a-con, and while he succeeded in helping the Sub-Saharan Union get ... Read More

The Labyrinth’s Archivist: A hero with a physical disability must prove herself

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

Before I review The Labyrinth’s Archivist (2019), some disclosure. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, and I share a small press publisher, Falstaff Books, and we shared an editor. The Labyrinth’s Archivist shares a general theme with my novella and both are part of the press’s BROKEN CITIES line. I haven’t met Al-Mohamed and I get no compensation for reviewing the book. I bought the book on my own. If I hadn’t enjoyed it, I wouldn’t review it.

Azulea is the daughter of the Head Archivist and the granddaughter of a former one. She has a nearly perfect memory; she remembers anything she’s heard, tasted, smelled or felt. Azulea is prepared to continue the work of mapping the vast labyrinth of worlds, but she is visually impai... Read More

Waste Tide: Painfully thought-provoking but lacking in story

Waste Tide by Chen Quifan

Waste Tide (2019) by Chen Quifan (tr. Ken Liu) is a book that I wanted to like thanks to its compassionate exploration of its topical subject. And it’s certainly not a bad book by any stretch. But it also wasn’t a compelling book, and I found myself putting it down way more than is usual for me and being at least a little resistant to picking it up again each time.

The novel is set on the modern hell (a comparison made explicit — perhaps too much so — by a Dante reference) that is Silicon Isle, a giant electronics waste garbage dump/recycle and reclamation center, where the poor resident sorters are horribly, brutally exploited by a hierarchy of perpetrators: hyper-local gangs, a trio of powerful clans who divvy up the spoils and profits from the reclamation, and the developed nations and transnational corporati... Read More

Broken Homes: Changes the direction of the story

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant, mediocre policeman and inferior wizard, is back. Broken Homes (2013) is the fourth instalment of Ben Aaronvitch’s PETER GRANT series, and the detective returns with his love of acronyms and Red Stripe. Once more under the supervision of DCI Thomas Nightingale, Peter, Lesley and (the newly initiated) thirteen-year-old Abigail, must police the supernatural elements of London’s crime scene.

The story opens with a series of seemingly unconnected crimes: a car accident, a body half-buried in some scrubland, a suicide and the theft of a magic book from a home of a famous architect. And the missing link? The Faceless Man, of course, the other recurring character and supe... Read More

Laughter at the Academy: A must for ardent fans

Laugher at the Academy by Seanan McGuire

Laughter at the Academy
(2019) is Seanan McGuire’s first short story collection as Seanan McGuire (apparently there is a Mira Grant collection). McGuire is amazingly prolific, and this expensive Subterranean Press anthology showcases that. In her foreword, McGuire tells us that she chose these specific stories because she loves them the most. The contents were published between 2009 - 2017. They all take place outside her “pre-existing universes,” as she calls them, but there are resonances with October Daye, the Wayward Children, and others. The collection lets us see the issues that preoccupy McGuire in her writing.

Many (most) of these tales ended up in antho... Read More

Supernova Era: A disturbing vision of a world of children

Supernova Era by Cixin Liu

Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu has had a successful career in China for many years, winning China’s prestigious Galaxy Award nine times. But it wasn’t until 2014, when his 2007 novel The Three-Body Problem was first published in English, that he became well-known outside of Asia. Since then, some of his earlier novels, like Ball Lightning (originally published in China in 2004), have been translated and published in English. Supernova Era (2019, originally published in 2003 in Chinese, but written even earlier, in 1989) is one of Liu’s earlies... Read More

Fate of the Fallen: Has its issues but solidly enjoyable

Fate of the Fallen by Kel Kade

Fate of the Fallen is the first book in Kel Kade’s SHROUD OF PROPHECY series and makes for an enjoyable if meandering invitation despite some issues. It’s going to be pretty impossible to discuss what Kade does here without an early spoiler, though since the event happens only 40 pages into the nearly 400-page book, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. That said, you’ve been warned.

The novel opens by introducing two close friends: charming, roguish, master swordsman/fighter Matthias and his “brother” Aaslo, a shy unassuming semi-reclusive “Forester.” In short order the two learn that Matthias is the “Lightbane” — the prophesied chosen one who is literally the only thing stopping all life in this world from being wiped out —and that “Grams” is actually the High Sorceress who has been guarding Matthias as well as surreptitiously train... Read More

The Name of All Things: Shows nice improvement from book one

The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons

The Name of All Things (2019) follows up Jenn Lyons’ debut novel The Ruin of Kings, though “follows” is a bit of a misnomer since the vast majority of the book actually takes place concurrent with its predecessor’s action. I had some issues with book one, mostly with the structure, and while some of that carries over, albeit in different fashion, I found The Name of All Things to be an improvement overall.

The story opens shortly after the ending of The Ruin of Kings, with that novel’s main character Kihrin meeting Count Janel Teranon and her companion Brother Qown, who seek his help to kill a dragon. As Janel and Qown wait for a third compatriot,... Read More

The Water Dancer: Sharply moving but also oddly distant

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is, of course, supremely well-known, and justifiably so, for his non-fiction, whether that be his essays/columns, or his long-form works such as We Were Eight Years in Power or Between the World and Me. Now he’s out with his first fiction work, The Water Dancer (2019), a blend of realism and the supernatural set in the antebellum period. While Coates’ already-documented strengths as a writer are evident, particularly on a sentence level, the book does suffer from typical debut novel issues, though it still carries an emotional power in many places.

The novel opens in pre-Civil War Virginia, specifically on the dying Walker plantation of Lockless whose master has two sons. One is his white son by marriage, Maynard: a feckless, vulgar, ignorant young man whose many flaws are in star... Read More

Naondel: Pushes the boundaries of YA

Naondel by Maria Turtschaninoff

Naondel (2016) is the second book in Maria Turtschaninoff’s RED ABBEY CHRONICLES series, but it’s not a sequel; it’s a prequel. Set many years before the events of Maresi, Naondel tells the story of the women who, fleeing their own oppression, founded the Red Abbey as a sanctuary for themselves and others. It is set in what seems to be an amalgam of several Asian cultures, and we see glimpses of other parts of Turtschaninoff’s world as well.

If I didn’t know anything about Naondel before I started it — if I didn’t know it was the follow-up to a young adult novel that won a prize for youth literature — I w... Read More

The Red Magician: A moving story about the Holocaust

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Winner of the National Book Award, Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician (1982) is such an unusual fantasy novel. I read it because Tantor Audio has just released the first audio edition of the book.

As the story begins, a young girl named Kisci is growing up in a small, isolated Jewish community in Eastern Europe. Her family’s rabbi is visiting Kisci’s home and expressing his displeasure at the way Kisci’s school is teaching Hebrew as if it were a common language. When Kisci’s father refuses to obey the rabbi’s command to remove his children from the school, the rabbi, who has some magical abilities, sets a curse on the school and its students’ families.

Soon after, a visitor named Voros appears in the village and Kisci’s family extends their hospital... Read More

The Wild, Wild Planet: Colorato e fantasioso

The Wild, Wild Planet directed by Antonio Margheriti

The mid-1960s was a very interesting time for Italian sci-fi on the big screen. In September '65, future giallo legend Mario Bava gave the world the artfully done Planet of the Vampires, a film whose set design, it has been suggested, very possibly influenced the look of the movie Alien over a decade later. In December '65, director Elio Petri delivered the film that is, for this viewer, the best of the Italian sci-fi bunch to this date, The 10th Victim, based on the short story "Seventh Victim" by Robert Sheckley. Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, the film remains a knockout more than half a century later. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, director Antonio Margheriti, once again working under his alias of Anthony Dawson, was working on a string of relatively low-budget fi... Read More

Wayward: We are all just prisoners here

Wayward by Blake Crouch

Wayward (2013), the second book in Blake Crouch’s WAYWARD PINES trilogy, picks up right where book 1, Pines, left off. I'll avoid THE major spoiler for Pines, but minor ones are inevitable, and if there was ever a series where you absolutely need to read the books in order, this one is it. Ethan Burke is the newly-minted sheriff of the small town of Wayward Pines, Idaho (population 461), the prior sheriff having come to an eyebrow-raising end (after reading a few of the flashback scenes in Wayward, one becomes more sympathetic to the urge to dispose of former sheriff, Pope).

Having survived a life-and-death battle with The Powers That Be that control all aspect... Read More

The Queen’s Gambit: Short, fast, fun, and sexy

The Queen's Gambit by Jessie Mihalik

I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed The Queen's Gambit (2017), the first novella in Jessie Mihalik’s ROGUE QUEEN series. It’s about Samara, the queen of a nation that stayed independent in a war between two powerful galactic empires. But, without allies to trade with, the people of Queen Samara’s Rogue Coalition are practically starving.

To earn some money for her country, Samara decides to attempt to rescue emperor Valentin Kos from the Quint mercenaries who are holding him captive, and then to collect a reward from the Kos Empire for his safe return. Things are going as planned until Samara is sold out by her partner. Now she’s in just as much trouble as the emperor is…


The Queen's Gambit
is short,... Read More

Emergency Skin: A fun story with a serious message

Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

A single spaceman arrives on Earth (which he calls "Tellus," a Latin word similar to Terra) on an important mission from a far-off planet that was colonized by a group of rich white men who left Earth centuries ago. The spaceman, as well as the collective AI that was implanted in his brain and constantly speaks to him in his mind, expected to find a world completely barren of life, decimated by climate change and toxic pollution. What they actually find is far different, and both the man and his chatty AI have huge problems adjusting to this new reality.

But can the man still fulfill his mission? If he succeeds, he’s been promised a beautiful pale (read: Aryan) skin when he returns home. On his planet, everyone except those in the highest class of society wears a featureless, high-tech artificial skin called a composite. But this man’s composite has the ability, in an emergency, to turn into huma... Read More

The Hills Have Spies: A good introduction to Lackey’s VALDEMAR universe

The Hills Have Spies by Mercedes Lackey

If, like I was, you’re utterly unfamiliar with Mercedes Lackey’s hugely popular and wide-ranging VALDEMAR series and the various interconnected novels set within that kingdom, The Hills Have Spies (2018) is a good entry point. The narrative flow is familiar in a retro, 1980s kind of way, evoking the fantasy genre I immersed myself in during my adolescence, with an appealing and likeable main character, various clever animal companions, a dastardly villain who spends most of the novel off-page, and just enough tension to keep me turning the pages to the comfortable, heartwarming conclusion.

Peregrine is the oldest of three children born to Mags (Herald Spy of Valdemar) and Amily (the King’s Own Herald), and Perry and his siblings have spent their chil... Read More