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Anthropocene Rag: Its strengths outweigh its few issues

Anthropocene Rag by Alex Irvine

I’m of mixed feelings on Anthropocene Rag (2020), by Alex Irvine. On the one hand, the writing is often quite strong, and the novel has a creative, imaginative flair to it in many moments. On the other hand, its episodic nature didn’t fully work for me, and I can’t say the novel fully met its rich potential. Still, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and there’s often a true pleasure in reading it.

The story is set in a post “Boom” America, the Boom being when AI ran free and randomly (to human eyes at least) transformed things and people, “revising” the known world and creating beings called “constructs” that can’t always be distinguished from humans. Various parts of the country are varied in their degree of change and danger, with San Francisco one of the better “boomscapes” thanks to having electricity and food. Even there, ... Read More

Children of Ruin: Scary biological science fiction

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Ruin (2019) is the second book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s CHILDREN OF TIME series, following Children of Time, which you’ll want to read first.

Children of time, which I called “an expansive and visionary epic that speculates about the future of humanity,” was fascinating. In it we watched the evolution of a species of spider that was uplifted by a man-made virus. The scientist who brought it to the terraformed but uninhabited planet had planned to uplift monkeys, but an accident resulted in spiders being uplifted instead. At the end of the long novel, humans finally arrived and befriended the spiders.
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The Institute: A horror story of the human heart

The Institute by Stephen King

Stephen King takes over 550 pages to relate the story of the mysterious Institute and its merciless dealings with kidnapped children. Given that page count, it shouldn’t be too surprising that King spends the first forty pages setting up his tale with a seemingly unrelated story of a man adrift in his life. Tim Jamieson, an out-of-work cop, takes a hefty payout to give up his seat on an overfull flight, and ends up making his rambling way from Tampa, Florida to the small town of DuPray, South Carolina, where the local sheriff gives him a job as a night knocker, an unarmed beat cop who patrols DuPray during the night. But — as King informs us not once, but twice — great events turn on small hinges.

That same summer, Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old Minneapolis boy with genius-level intelligence, loving parent... Read More

Smoke Bitten: No smoke without a fire

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs

Fresh off her clash with black witches in Storm Cursed, Mercy Thompson — the coyote shapeshifter and Volkswagen mechanic whose urban fantasy series follows her adventures with vampires, werewolves, fae, witches and various monsters — is fretting about the distance that has built up between her and her husband, Adam, alpha of the local werewolf pack. Their mating bond has been shut down for weeks, keeping her from knowing his thoughts and feelings.

But other troubles raise their heads, distracting Mercy (at least temporarily) from the problems with Adam. The ancient power that is Underhill, the underground world of the fae, manifests in their home as Tilly, a creepy young girl (“I love battles. Blood and death followed by tears and mourning.”). Tilly has opened a door from Underhill into Mercy’s b... Read More

Val Hall: The Even Years: An intriguing premise

Val Hall: The Even Years by Alma Alexander

Val Hall: The Even Years (2020), by Alma Alexander, is a series of linked stories set in a sort of retirement home for gifted or powered people (though only to a certain limited degree). Each story follows a single individual who relates their story to another character, usually sending us back in time to their first usage of their power. As is typical with collections, the stories vary in quality and effect, but Alexander does a nice job with the intriguing premise, offering up several quite moving moments, and the whole work left me looking forward to its follow-up, Val Hall: The Odd Years.

Following a prologue that explains where the idea for Val Hall came from, the collection presents eight stories — the final one a “bonus” story from ... Read More

The Secret Chapter: The one with a heist in it

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

The Secret Chapter (2019) is the sixth book in Genevieve Cogman’s THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY series. Librarian Irene and her former apprentice Kai, who is a dragon prince, hop between realities, trying to maintain a balance between order (personified by the dragons) and chaos (exemplified by the Fae). “Maintaining a balance” often involves the judicious theft of books from different realities. In this outing, Irene must barter for a book in order to save a world she spent her childhood in, and the barter takes the form of participating in an art theft. While the plot uses a “heist” structure, large parts of The Secret Chapter involve mocking and giving a critique of the James Bond films.

Readers who really enjoy Read More

Terminal Uprising: Janitors save the day again

Terminal Uprising by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Uprising (2019) is the second novel in Jim C. HinesJANITORS OF THE POST-APOCALYPSE series. It follows Terminal Alliance, which should be read first. There you’ll meet “Mops” Adamopoulos, the boss of a human janitorial crew that works for the Krakau aliens. These friendly aliens saved humanity by genetically engineering thousands of humans after the Earth was ravaged by a virus that turned everyone into zombies.

It’s been a few months since Mops and her crew found themselves accidentally in charge of the spaceship Pufferfish. They had quite an adventure and they discovered a secret about their benign Krakau hosts and about what might have c... Read More

Brightstorm: A solidly enjoyable MG adventure

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

Brightstorm (2020) introduces the two resourceful twins Arthur and Maudie, son and daughter of the famed explorer Ernest Brightstorm. The story opens grimly, with news that their father was lost on his latest expedition, an attempt to reach South Polaris by airship. Worse, his competitor, Eudora Vane, returned with the accusation that Brightstorm had stolen her ship’s fuel in an attempt to reach Polaris first, before failing and being killed, along with this entire crew, by vicious beasts. The news not only destroys the family name, but turns the twins into orphans (their mother died when they were born) who are quickly sold off into servitude.

But when the youthful Harriet Culpepper mounts another expedition to race Vane back to South Polaris, they and their father’s “sapient” hawk Parthena — sole survivor of their father’s journey — join her in an attempt to cle... Read More

The Restless Girls: A light and fun retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton & Angela Barrett (illustrator)

I loved the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses when I was a little girl, but was also terribly disappointed with it. Twelve sisters sneak out of a secret door in their bedroom every evening to dance the night away in a magical fairyland, with only their worn-out shoes left as evidence of their rule-breaking.

And then their father comes along to spoil all the fun, setting potential suitors outside their door in order to find out what’s going on, and eventually marrying the youngest (or oldest, depending on the version) to the clever gardener who discovers the secret. It was meant to be a happy ending, but with fairyland destroyed and the sisters all married off, my eight-year old self felt utterly cheated.

Luckily Jessie Burton is here to gi... Read More

False Value: Magic gets a 21st century reboot

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch

It is hard to believe that we have reached the eighth book in Ben Aaronovitch's inimitable RIVERS OF LONDON series. Back with characteristic aplomb, Peter Grant returns in a somewhat unlikely position: he is interviewing for a job. He has, he explains to his new prospective employer, been suspended and is no longer working for the London Metropolitan Police. Given his previous track record of obliterating electronics, it might be surprising that Peter accepts a job at the Serious Cybernetics Corporation. But things are, as readers of the series are bound to anticipate, not quite as they seem.

The Folly, the building in which the state-sanctioned British magical institution resides, is under construction so Peter is staying at his girlfriend's. Beverly Brook is not only a river goddess, she is a... Read More

The Queen of Raiders: Satisfying, but left me wanting more

The Queen of Raiders by Sarah Kozloff

The Queen of Raiders (2020) is Sarah Kozloff’s second installment in her NINE REALMS series. In my review of book one, A Queen in Hiding, I used words like “nice,” “serviceable,” “pleasurable,” “solid,” and “satisfying,” eventually closing with “I’m hoping for more as I keep going.” Unfortunately, I can’t say I got the “more” I was looking for, but the series does remain, well, solidly satisfying.

The story picks up where book one ended (I’m going to assume you’ve read it) and mostly follows two main characters: Cerulia, the queen in exile, as she tries to escape Lord Marwyck’s attempt to track her down and capture/kill he... Read More

Dispel Illusion: A satisfactory ending to this time travel trilogy

Dispel Illusion by Mark Lawrence

Tadiana:   Kat:

Dispel Illusion (2019) is the final book in Mark Lawrence’s IMPOSSIBLE TIMES trilogy. Readers will need to finish One Word Kill and Limited Wish before beginning Dispel Illusion, so we’ll assume you’ve done that. Kindly, Mark Lawrence provides a recap of previous important events at the beginning of this book. (Thank you, Mr. Lawrence!) Then the story begins, literally, with an explosion. It’s a singular explosion, though: time itself is exploding in their lab, affecting various things in different ways. Dangerously ... Read More

Skin Folk: Fifteen masterful stories

Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

In Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk, you’ll find 15 diverse Caribbean-inspired fantasy stories that are full of vividly-drawn characters, powerful prose, masterful storytelling, and imagery that is sensuous and haunting.

Skin Folk, Hopkinson’s first story collection, deservedly won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection.

Some of Hopkinson’s stories are metaphors, many having to do with the theme of “skin” — whether it’s characters who are hiding, changing, or pretending to be something they’re not. Many also deal with the unique experiences of the Caribbean people as well as people who are black and/or queer or transgender.

Here are the stories:

“Riding the Red” — An intriguing metaphor base... Read More

The Pursuit of William Abbey: Brilliant but painful

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

“I do not know whether death is mercy, or love is easy, or vengeance is peace, or if all these things are lies or truth. Or if it is the truest thing of all to say that life is all of these things, all of these truths together in perfect contradiction, blinding us to a greater truth that lies beneath.”

My husband and I are foodies. We love to try new foods, new cuisines, and new restaurants. When we order off the menu, we each order different meals so that we can share and try multiple items. When we re-visit restaurants, we rarely order what we’ve already tried. At our favorite restaurant, the chefs are always experimenting. We like to sit at the chef’s table and order the six-course tasting menu which is different every time. It’s innovative and original and delicious.
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Remembrance: Flaws overcome by vivid depictions of time and place

Remembrance by Rita Woods

Remembrance (2020) is a solid historical fantasy by Rita Woods that doesn’t quite meet its potential but is still well worth a read thanks to several strong characterizations and some vividly immersive historical scenes.

Woods moves us back and forth between three time periods. In modern times, Gaelle is a young woman who moved to the U.S. after the earthquake in Haiti, which is also where she lost her grandmother. Gaelle works at a home for the aged, where she is the primary tender of a mysterious Jane Doe woman who seemingly has no family or friends and neither speaks nor moves. This changes one day, though, when Gaelle finds a strange old man in the room who tells her, upon being asked to leave, that the woman’s name is Winter.

Another storyline takes place in the mid-1800s, and follows a trio of house slaves in New Orleans: Margot (the main character of this plotlin... Read More

The Flowers of Vashnoi: Hope blossoming in harsh circumstances

The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold

This VORKOSIGAN SAGA novella is a blast from the past, accompanied by a large dose of radiation. After Lois McMaster Bujold apparently wrapped up this long-running series in 2016 with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, she returned once again to her immensely popular series with this brief novella, backtracking in the series timeline to just a few years after Miles Vorkosigan’s marriage to Ekaterin, when their oldest children, twins Sasha and Helen, are toddlers.

In The Flowers of Vashnoi (2018), told from Ekaterin’s point of view, she, Miles, and Enrique Borgos — a brilliant but odd scientist who we first met in Read More

Spindle’s End: A light, sweet, unhurried fantasy

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End (2000) is Robin McKinley’s delightful and very loose retelling of the Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose) fairy tale.

On the princess’s naming day, a bad fairy declares a curse, stating that, on her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. In an attempt to thwart the curse, a good fairy named Katriona takes the princess to live with her aunt in a swampy region called Foggy Bottom. There, without any knowledge of her true heritage, Rosie grows up happily with human and animal companions while her mother, the Queen, pines for her lost daughter.

After the opening scenes in which the princess is cursed, Spindles’ End bears little resemblance to the source material. The plot... Read More

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