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Ninefox Gambit: Geeky, hard sci-fi for Stephenson fans

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

In an advanced, multi-planetary empire replete with advanced technology and magical mysticism, Captain Kel Cheris finds herself forced to use heretical tactics to save her troops when she puts down a sacrilegious rebellion. Unfortunately, her superiors in Ninefox Gambit (2016) aren’t quite sympathetic to her gambit, choosing to use her as a tool to revive and serve as a bodily host to the immortal spirit form of General Shuos Jedao to save the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a religious stronghold that’s critical to the civilization’s magics. It would be a difficult enough task for Cheris since the rebels have taken and are now defending what was supposed to be an impregnable fortress — but did I mention that Jedao is utterly, completely insane?

Jedao’s condi... Read More

Coco Butternut: A brisk “Texas Weird” adventure by the master

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Coco Butternut by Joe R. Lansdale

Coco Butternut, which came out in January 2017, is a short HAP AND LEONARD novella written by the inimitable Joe R. Lansdale. You may already have read some of these East-Texas, sort-of-detective stories, or seen episodes of the television show on Sundance. While Coco Butternut has no supernatural elements at all that I can spot, it is a fast-paced, enjoyable read with perfectly timed banter, strange and wonderful characters, and perfect, quirky descriptions of the landscape and countryside.

I don’t believe there is a sub-genre called “Texas Weird,” but if there were, Lansdale would own it. He owns it here with a story that kicks off in bizarre-mode from the first sentence. A man who runs a... Read More

The Heart of What Was Lost: Tad Williams returns to Osten Ard

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The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

Note: This review will contain mild spoilers for Tad Williams’ MEMORY, SORROW & THORN trilogy, but please note that it is not necessary to have read MST and, in fact, this novel can stand alone.

There was great rejoicing heard around the world when Tad Williams announced he was returning to Osten Ard. His original OSTEN ARD trilogy, MEMORY, SORROW & THORN, has been popular with epic fantasy fans since the late 1980s. I’m one of those totally devoted fans who read it way back then when I was a young adult. Since then, I’ve been recommending the trilogy to every new fantasy reader I meet (along with ... Read More

Game of Shadows: An action-packed YA adventure

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Game of Shadows by Erika Lewis

High school is hard enough on its own — there’s homework, bullies, unrequited crushes, and overprotective parents, just to name a few hurdles on the way to freedom and adulthood. But that’s nothing compared to the challenges presented in Erika Lewis’ Game of Shadows (2017); our intrepid hero must also learn sword fighting, diplomacy, and an entirely new language and culture if he is to save his mother from an evil sorcerer’s machinations. By comparison, Advanced Geometry seems a lot more appealing!

Ethan Makkai, newly fourteen, wants only one thing for his birthday: to walk to school without his overbearing mother, Caitríona, at his side. Sure, Los Angeles isn’t the safest city in the world, but what’s the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, after Ethan sneaks out of their apartment and gets into a fight with a bu... Read More

The Diabolic: Stabbing and backstabbing in the galactic Imperial Court

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The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

The Diabolic (2016) is set in some distant future, when humans have settled the galaxy using spaceships that travel through hyperspace. Humanity has also been experimenting with genetic engineering, and for a period of time it becomes fashionable to purchase so-called Diabolics as bodyguards. Diabolics are cloned humans, engineered to have superior strength and resistance to sickness and poisons, and trained from early childhood to be skilled and ruthless fighters and killers, with no regard for anyone but the person they are chemically induced to love and protect. They are given names like Hazard and Enmity to reflect their dangerous role and, one assumes, to strike terror into the heart of any who might oppose them.

Nemesis is a young Diabolic girl, raised in a pen surrounded by a force field, treated as less than human by her keep... Read More

Wondering Sight: The price of vindication

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Wondering Sight by Melissa McShane

In Wondering Sight (2017), the second book in Melissa McShane’s THE EXTRAORDINARIES series, we return to a fantasy-touched version of Regency-era England where some people have magical talents ― throwing and extinguishing fire, shaping one’s appearance, flying, teleporting, and more. Sophia is an Extraordinary, one of the very few people who have particularly strong magical abilities. As a Seer, she can cast herself into Dreams, which show her future events as a series of doors in her Dreams that she can open and explore, as well as Visions, where she can see past and current events by holding an object that has a significant history with a particular person.

Before this book begins, Sophia, like Elinor in the first book, Burni... Read More

The Stone of Farewell: A long rambling middle book

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The Stone of Farewell by Tad Williams

Twenty-five years ago I read Tad WilliamsMEMORY, SORROW & THORN trilogy and since that time I’ve considered it one of my favorite fantasy epics. For years I’ve been planning to re-read it when an audio version was published and that happened recently, so here I am. A few weeks ago I reviewed the first book, The Dragonbone Chair, which you need to read before picking up this second book, The Stone of Farewell (1990). If you haven’t, stop right here because there be spoilers (and dragons) beyond this point.

After a quick synopsis of the first book, The Stone of Farewell begins wh... Read More

Dr. Futurity: An underrated Dick outing

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Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick

As I mentioned in my review of Philip K. Dick’s 1960 novel Vulcan’s Hammer, by 1959, the future Hugo winner was feeling decidedly disenchanted with science fiction in general, despite having had published some 85 short stories and half a dozen novels in that genre. The author, it seems, was still pinning his hopes on becoming a more “respectable,” mainstream writer, and had indeed already completed nine such novels: Return to Lilliput, Pilgrim on the Hill and A Time for George Stavros are considered lost, probably never to see the light of day, whereas Gather Yoursel... Read More

The Conclave of Shadow: Dragons, magic and Alcatraz have the starring roles

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The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms

In The Conclave of Shadow (2016), the second MR. MYSTIC / MISSY MASTERS novel by Alyc Helms, Missy, AKA “Mr. Mystic,” a shadow mage, has saved the spirit guardians of China at great cost to herself. Now back home in San Francisco, she makes a reluctant rapprochement with the corporate superhero group called Argent. Increasingly frequent earthquakes, a surprise encounter with the twin dragons Mei Shen and Mian Zi, a shadow attack at the Academy of Sciences, and the theft of super-secret technology soon put San Francisco, this dimension, and Missy herself at risk. To prevail, and hold back the forces of both the Shadow Realms and the Voidlands, Missy may have to reach out to people she does not want to trust. Along she way, she, and ... Read More

The Dragons of Heaven: A rowdy festival of fantasy genres

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The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

The Dragons of Heaven (2015), by Alyc Helms, is a rowdy festival of fantasy genres, expertly managed by the writer. You’ve got an urban fantasy set-up with the caped-heroes angle; you’ve got Chinese folklore, dragons, shadow realms, and conventional magic; and also, for part of the book, a family saga. It’s an exciting, eclectic read.

Here is the visual of this book for me: Helms is juggling many tropes and themes. It’s like she’s got three flaming torches, a couple of clubs, a pineapple, a strawberry, and a chainsaw all whirling through the air. I may think she doesn’t need the strawberry, but everything’s moving in rhythm, so maybe I’m wrong. The story has good momentum and the characters are engaging. Helms’s visual descriptions, especially of dimensions that are different from our... Read More

Department Zero: Nifty mashup of humor and Lovecraft

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Department Zero by Paul Crilley

Department Zero by Paul Crilley is a neat mashup of humor and horror, of interdimensional fantasy and Lovecraft. First person narrator Harry Priest has a lively voice and a lot to learn when his life gets turned upside down after one really bad day at work. If you like acerbic British humor and the Old Ones of H.P. Lovecraft, this is a book for you.

Priest is a crime-scene cleaner in Los Angeles. He is separated from his wife and daughter, and bitter about it. Priest hates everything about his life and takes no responsibility for anything that has gone wrong in it. Then he and the boss’s son go to a scene of carnage at a motel. Soon Priest is encountering wizened, S... Read More

Metallic Lover: An unusual sequel to an unusual book

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Metallic Love by Tanith Lee

Metallic Love (2005) is technically a sequel to The Silver Metal Lover, but (despite the same premise and a few reappearing characters) is so drastically different in tone and content that it barely counts as a continuation of Tanith Lee's earlier unorthodox love story between a young woman and a silver android.

That said, it is preferable if you read The Silver Metal Lover before Metallic Love, as it is a story that exists within this one: Jane's manuscript is found by new protagonist Lr4eoren and constantly referred to over the course of her experiences. Growing up in a strict religious cul... Read More

The Rising: Fast-paced alien invasion adventure

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The Rising by Heather Graham & Jon Land

In The Rising (2017), Alex Chin is a rising star, the handsome blond quarterback of his high school football team, dating the head cheerleader. His Chinese adoptive parents are concerned about his grades not being good enough, and his nerdy tutor Samantha, a classmate with plans for a career at NASA, hounds him to work harder at school, while nursing a secret and seemingly hopeless crush on Alex. He also has strange dreams that cause him to fill a drawing pad with detailed drawings of a world filled with menacing machines. Other than those minor drawbacks, though, Alex has what he thinks is an ideal life.

But Alex’s plans for football glory may be crushed when he’s severely injured playing football in a regional championship. When the hospital doctor takes a CT scan, it shows a mysterious shadow in his brain. A sec... Read More

Vulcan’s Hammer: Minor Dick, but still very entertaining

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Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick

According to Philip K. Dick authority Lawrence Sutin, in his well-researched biography Divine Invasions, by 1959, although Dick had already had some 85 short stories as well as half a dozen novels published, his interest in creating more sci-fi had reached a low point. The future Hugo winner was at this point hoping to become more of a mainstream author, having by this time already written nine such novels, none of which had been published … yet. Still, with bills to pay, a wife (his third of an eventual five) to support, and his first child on the way, economic necessities did, it seem, perforce drive him back, unenthusiastically, to the sci-fi realm. Tw... Read More

Mixed Magics: A short story anthology for Chrestomanci fans

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Mixed Magics by Diana Wynne Jones

Mixed Magics (2000) is comprised of four short stories set in the fantasy worlds of Diana Wynne Jones's CHRESTOMANCI; an enchanter responsible for the proper use of magic wielded by the various witches, warlocks, sorcerers and enchanters prevalent throughout his world (and several others). Although the stories are readable enough by themselves, filled with Wynne Jones's trademark humour and originality, it's best if you're already familiar with her previous work in the series, these tales being filled with plenty of in-jokes and cameo appearances.

It starts off lightly with "Warlock at the Wheel", concerning a hapless warlock who inadvertently kidnaps a little girl and her dog after he steals a car. The most humorous ... Read More

Survival Game: Played out across multiple universes

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Survival Game by Gary Gibson

Humankind has a weird fascination with its own demise. It's the reason apocalyptic fiction has been a staple for decades. You've read zombie apocalypse, imminent meteor, killer virus stories a million times, so the real challenge now is finding an interesting way to explore said demise. Gary Gibson's take on the genre is surprisingly refreshing in the second instalment of his APOCALYPSE DUOLOGY series, The Survival Game.

We first meet Katya Orlova as she is jumping off a train. She is a scientist working for the Russian Empire, but due to her knowledge of alternate worlds, she has been blackmailed into obtaining an item that will grant the Tsar new life. This item is the Hypersphere: an artefact which allows the user to move be... Read More

Eternal Frankenstein: A Frankenstein horror story for practically everybody

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Eternal Frankenstein edited by Ross Lockhart

Eternal Frankenstein (2016) asks horror writers to imagine, or reimagine, the life of Mary Shelley’s infamous doctor and his “creature.” The book includes 16 stories, all of them original to this anthology, with one that appeared in a different form in the publication Perihelion.

Make no mistake, these are horror stories. Some may glance at science fiction, and some flirt with fantasy, but their primary purpose is to scare us, or make us uncomfortable as we read, and this collection succeeds at that.

The story that succeeded the best for me, because I felt the horror on multiple levels, was “Post Partum,” by Betty Rocksteady. The first-person n... Read More

Shadows of Self: A breezy weird Western romp

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

Bill: Let’s see, last week in September. That means I’ve got to grade my first-years’ first essays. Call the guy to clean the gutters. Make sure the furnace and gas fireplace are set to go. And, oh yeah, it’s been a month, that must mean I have a new Brandon Sanderson novel to review. Yep, Shadows of Self, the second book in his second MISTBORN trilogy (or, if you prefer, the fifth book in the entire MISTBORN series). Apparently it’s due out in two weeks, which means I better get on this now or the third book will be out before I review the second (I swear, if Brandon Sanderson and Joyce Carol Oates ever had a child, their love child would be a high-speed printing press).

Interestingly... Read More

Spellbreaker: An imaginative and challengingly complex fantasy

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Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton

If someone is offering to sell you a spell that predicts one hour into the future, one excellent way to test whether the spell really works is to try to murder the man selling it to you. If you succeed in killing him, clearly it wasn’t a valid prophetic spell. In any case, that’s Leandra Weal’s rationale for poisoning the blackrice liqueur she offers to the smuggler selling her the spell. Luckily for both Leandra and the smuggler, the spell warns the smuggler not to drink the puffer fish liver-infused drink. Unfortunately, once Leandra tries the spell, making a small spelling adjustment to allow her to see twenty-four hours into the future, she sees that she will either have to murder someone she loves or die herself. If she tries to run or avoid the prophecy, everyone she loves will suddenly die.

With this compelling start, Spellbreaker Read More

Unquiet Land: A redemptive story of parental love

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Unquiet Land by Sharon Shinn

In Unquiet Land, Sharon Shinn’s fourth book in her ELEMENTAL BLESSINGS fantasy series, the story returns to the country of Welce, the setting for the first two books in this series. Leah, who was introduced to readers in the third book, Jeweled Fire, lived in the country of Malinqua for five years, helping Darien Serlast, the ruler of Welce, by acting as a spy and, for the last few months of her stay, keeping an protective eye on the princess Corene, who was on an extended visit with the ruling family of Malinqua. More to the point, at the time Leah was running away from personal issues in her life: a lover who deserted her when she told him she was pregnant, and ... Read More

The Chemist: The torturous path of revenge and love

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The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Stephenie Meyer changes it up fairly dramatically in The Chemist (2016), her second adult novel, where there is nary a vampire, werewolf or space alien to be found. It’s a rather pulpy but absorbing thriller in the vein of a Jason Bourne novel (to whom she’s dedicated this novel, among others). There’s no real speculative element here, other than perhaps some new developments in chemical-based torture and some startlingly smart dogs.

The narrator, a bright, rather repressed molecular biologist, was originally hired by a nameless government agency to do cutting-edge medical research, but ended up being pressured to use her medical skills to create biological compounds that cause severe pain without permanent physical damage, and then... Read More

A Taste for Monsters: Strong characterization and premise but plotting a bit pale

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A Taste for Monsters by Matthew Kirby

Matthew Kirby’s first two books, The Clockwork Three and Icefall are, I think, two of the best constructed and ambitious YA books out there. I haven’t been equally impressed with the ones since, though they still show marks of a fine craftsman in various aspects. Where then does his latest, A Taste for Monsters, fall? I’d say somewhere in between — better than the last few thanks to more vivid characters, a fine sense of the macabre, and deft handling of suspense; but not rising to the level of the first ones due to so... Read More

Wrath of Betty: Has its issues, but will still make you laugh (and think)

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Wrath of Betty by Steven Erikson

If you’re going to parody a TV series, as Steven Erikson did with Star Trek in Willful Child, then you can’t stop at just one book, can you? Think of all those other episodes ripe for the plucking! And so we’re back for more interstellar hijinks with the crew of the Starship Willful Child and their erstwhile leader Captain James T--, er, Captain Hadrian Sawbuck as they face hostile aliens, robots run Amok, Time (see what I did there?) travel, hostility from their own Federation, and perhaps most dangerous of all, rampant consumerism. The laughs come at warp speed, making Wrath of Betty a mostly successful mission, though as I noted in my review... Read More

Chapel of Ease: A romantic ghost story

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Chapel of Ease by Alex Bledsoe

I love that each of the novels in Alex Bledsoe’s TUFA series can stand alone. They are all set (at least partly) in the same area of Appalachia and have overlapping characters, but they each tell a self-contained story. They can be read in any order, though it would probably be ideal to read them in publication order: The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl and now, Chapel of Ease (2016).

Chapel of ... Read More

The Purloined Poodle: Oberon solves a mystery

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The Purloined Poodle by Kevin Hearne

If you haven’t been reading Kevin Hearne’s IRON DRUID CHRONICLES series, you are really missing out. These are fun fantasy adventures featuring a cool modern-day druid named Atticus and his canine familiar, an Irish Wolfhound named Oberon, possibly the most awesome sidekick in all of fantasy literature.

Everyone loves Oberon, so it’s not surprising that Hearne would spawn a series (called OBERON’S MEATY MYSTERIES) that gives Oberon center stage. As the name of the series implies, these are fantasy mysteries and the first one, a novella, is called The Purloined Poodle. You do not need to be familiar with the IRON DRUID CHRONICLES to enjoy The Purloined Poodle Read More