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Grudging: Siege and sacrifice in a Spanish realm

Grudging by Michelle Hauck

Grudging, a newly published young adult fantasy and the first in a new series called BIRTH OF SAINTS from Michelle Hauck, is set in a country reminiscent of medieval Spain, where noble warhorses are a soldier's right arm and religious faith is a significant part of most people's lives, giving this fantasy an somewhat unusual cultural flavor.

Seventeen year old Ramiro wants nothing more than to be a respected soldier in his pelotón like his older brother Salvador: to fight in hand-to-hand combat with his sword and earn the right to grow a beard, the ultimate sign of manhood in his society. Ramiro’s people avoid the legendary witches who live in the swamps and kill strangers with the magic in their voices. But when barbaric Northern invaders besiege Ramiro's walled city of Colina Hermosa and threaten to murder all who live there, his f... Read More

Three Moments of an Explosion: Not all winners, but more than enough to enjoy

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

I am, like many, a huge Miéville fan (I’ve lost track of how many of his books I’ve placed on my best-of-year lists). I’m also more of a fan of the long-form rather than the short form, especially in the genre, greatly preferring novels and novellas to short stories. So how, I wondered, would I respond to Three Moments of an Explosion? Would Miéville’s style and deep ideas win out, or would the short story form constrain him, robbing him of some of his tools? It turned out to be a bit of both, and though I was admittedly somewhat disappointed in the collection as a whole, I’d still call it well worth reading. I’m going to give my impression of some selected stories, then discuss the work in its entirety.

“Polynia” — Icebergs over London. The story, told from a young teen’s POV, is well told with some lovely imagery of the floating ic... Read More

Ubik: Use only as directed

Reposting to include Sandy's new review.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Warning: Use only as directed. And with caution.

Written in 1969, Ubik is one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular science fiction novels. It’s set in a future 1992 where some humans have develop psi and anti-psi powers which they are willing to hire out to individuals or companies who want to spy (or block spying) on others. Also in this alternate 1992, if you’ve got the money, you can put your beloved recently-deceased relatives into “coldpac” where they can be stored in half-life and you can visit with them for years after their death.

As Ubik begins, Glen Runciter, the head of one of New York City’s top anti-psi organizations, discovers that all the operatives of the top psi organization (whose telepathic fields they like to keep track of) h... Read More

The Divine Invasion: A dense gnostic allegory about salvation

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick

Before his death, Philip K. Dick wrote several books about suffering, redemption, and the divine in the contexts of Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, anamnesis, and the dualistic nature of the ultimate divine being. After writing two books that explored his personal religious experiences in 1974, Radio Free Albemuth (written in 1976 but not published until 1985) and VALIS (written in 1978 but published in 1981), he wrote The Divine Invasion (written in 1980 but published in 1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (written in 1981 but published in 1982), and an unfinished novel called The Owl in Daylight. Radio Free Albemuth was the fir... Read More

Immortal Beloved: A light but promising new start to a supernatural trilogy

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan

Nastasya is a burned-out immortal who has spent hundreds of years trying to avoid any sort of real emotion. With her equally jaded friends, she spends all her time in endless, meaningless carousing. She’s not very likable at first, but that’s the whole point. When her friend Incy’s casual cruelty gives Nastasya a wake-up call about what her life has become, she doesn’t like herself much either.

Horrified with herself, afraid of Incy, Nastasya does the only thing she can think of. She turns to River, a woman who offered her help many decades ago. River runs River’s Edge, a halfway house for immortals that serves as part rehab, part magic school. Troubled immortals go there to relearn an appreciation for life and to study positive spellcraft. Nastasya doesn’t quite fit in at first but eventually comes to enjoy her stay at ... Read More

Crystal Mask: Another enchanting addition to the ECHORIUM SEQUENCE

Crystal Mask by Katherine Roberts

Crystal Mask is the second book in Katherine Robert’s ECHORIUM SEQUENCE. Unlike Song Quest which I first read as a child, Crystal Mask was new to me. I can’t help wishing I had encountered it as a child because I would have been far less fussy about the plot. Adulthood has come with a propensity to pick holes as you will discover if you are minded to read on. Nevertheless, Crystal Mask is a worthy successor to a story I have always loved.

Crystal Mask is set 20 years after Song Quest’s finale. Kherron is now Second Singer at the Echorium. Rialle is also a singer but choses to live outside the Echorium walls in order to remain friends with ... Read More

The Simulacra: Dick keeps his multiple story lines percolating

The Simulacra by Philip K. Dick

Fueled by prescription amphetamines, and in a burst of creative effort rarely seen before or since in the sci-fi field, cult author Philip K. Dick, in the period 1963 - ‘64, wrote no less than six full-length novels. His 13th since 1955, The Simulacra, was originally released as an Ace paperback in 1964 with a cover price of 40 cents. The book, written in Dick's best middle-period style, gives us a pretty whacky look at life in the mid-21st century. Scottish critic David Pringle, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, aptly describes the work as "an overpopulated novel which flies off wildly in too many directions," and indeed, readers may need a flowchart to keep track with this one. According to my careful count, the book features no less than 56 named characters (no... Read More

Hotel Ruby: “Hotel California” for the YA set

Hotel Ruby by Suzanne Young

Stories of supernaturally-afflicted hotels are easy to find, but can be hard to get right. Characters first must be brought to the hotel, enticed to stay, and then convinced to linger even when presented with evidence that they should run for the hills. Suzanne Young takes a stab at the “haunted hotel” novel with Hotel Ruby, a mostly successful YA romance-horror mash-up with really enjoyable elements of surprise.

After their mother’s sudden and unexpected death, Audrey Casella and her older brother Daniel are being relocated from Arizona to Nevada, where their father will leave them in the care of their strict, aloof grandmother. Their father claims it’s just for a summer, so he can get himself back into a parenting frame of mind, but the teenagers know better. On the drive up, they decide to stop for a night at the Hotel Ruby, so Dad can get some much-... Read More

Earth 2 (Vol. 2): The Tower of Fate by James Robinson and Nicola Scott

Earth 2 (Vol. 2): The Tower of Fate by James Robinson (writer) and Nicola Scott (artist)

Earth 2 (Vol. 2): The Tower of Fate continues James Robinson’s solid run re-inventing Earth 2’s main heroes. He killed off Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman in the first issue collected in Earth 2 (Vol. 1): The Gathering, and I’m glad he did because it allows us to see an alternative Earth start fresh with no heroes. To me, the fun of the Earth 2 series in the New 52 is that we get to see the rise and fall of an alternative Earth, all in the span of less than forty is... Read More

Wool: Not just your average dystopia

Wool by Hugh Howey

Whoever thinks George R.R. Martin is notorious for killing people off needs to take some tips from Hugh Howey. Two words: Main. Characters. You'd think this would be a slightly jarring way to introduce your novel, but it's testament to Howey's storytelling skills that this remains a compulsive tale.

Wool is another addition to the hugely over-saturated dystopia genre (not helped by the comparison to The Hunger Games on the cover of my edition). The premise of the book is not massively original. You’ve got your classic post-apocalyptic scenario: planet Earth had been left desolate and the remains of humanity live in an underground silo. Life in the silo is restricted by a series of regulations that its inhabitants can’t break without being sent for ‘c... Read More

Science of the Magical: A light look at what truth might lie behind tales of magic

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan

I was wholly intrigued by the idea behind Matt Kaplan’s Science of the Magical — an attempt to lift the thick veil of myth and see if any of its typical magical elements (elixirs of immortality, love potions, oracles, etc.) might have any basis in reality. To be honest, I ended up a bit disappointed, finding the premise stronger than the execution, but Kaplan’s charmingly breezy voice and his willingness to dive right into his exploration went a good way to ameliorate my disappointment in the substance.

The content ranges pretty wide, with Kaplan delving into the magical realms of healing (including prayers, healing water), transformation (berserkers, shifts into animal form), longevity/immortality (philosopher’s stone, bezoars), weather and sky (navigation via sunstone, rain dances), prognos... Read More

From a Buick 8: Equal parts horror, science fiction and Lovecraftian ode

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Stephen King tends to get hammered in the press and by literati. He’s pulp, they say. He’s popular, they say. Nobody can be as productive (he publishes an average of two books per year) and still write quality, they say. I remember starting college in Boston in 1988, shortly after U2 released their huge Joshua Tree album. The established U2 fans rejected it outright as a ’sell out'. They couldn’t believe that their heroes sold out to ‘the man’ and became... popular. I think King gets painted with a similar brush.

But the truth is, much of his writing resonates quite deeply. His work can be touching. It’s relatable, and has as much symbolism and depth as one chooses to see. Is everything he touches great? No. But as a rule, is it schlock? Absolutely not.

I only discovered... Read More

Tales of Cthulhu Invictus: Ancient Rome does battle with the Lovecraftian mythos

Tales of Cthulhu Invictus: Nine Stories of Battling The Cthulhu Mythos In Ancient Rome edited by Brian M. Sammons

She shivers. She is cold, and she shivers, despite the blanket that wraps her, despite her mother’s enfolding arms. 
It is not the fever, but the place.
A place that feels… old.
Old when Rome was young. Old when the she-wolf gave suckle to Romulus and Remus. Old… beyond old. Ancient, and wrong.

~from “Fecunditati Augustae,” by Christine Morgan

Tales of Cthulhu Invictus adds nine new stories to the large anthology subgenre of the Cthulhu mythos built upon the cosmic horror foundations laid by H.P. Lovecraft. This collection, edited by the accomplished Brian M. Sammons, has sever... Read More

Earth 2 (Vol. 1): The Gathering by James Robinson

Earth 2 (Vol. 1): The Gathering by James Robinson (writer) and Nicola Scott (artist)

I’ve been re-reading some of DCs New 52 titles now that four years have gone by and many of the initial titles have been cancelled, rebooted, reimagined, or wrapped up after a full run. To me, the three best titles that stayed consistently great — in the 4- to 5-star range — for at least five volumes of trade collections were Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Batwoman. Snyder’s Batman went down almost an entire star per trade collection, with the first volume starting at a solid five stars. But there were other great runs that stayed consistent, if not always earth-shattering: Justice League, Aquaman, Swamp Thing, and several others. I also have no complaints about ... Read More

Star Wars: Aftermath: A fast-paced, action-packed Star Wars reset

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

I like STAR WARS but I am not a superfan. I have only seen 4.5 of the 6 current movies and to the best of my recollection I have never read a STAR WARS novel or novelization before this one. I think this daily-double of ignorance makes me the perfect reviewer for Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath, part of THE JOURNEY TO THE FORCE AWAKENS series of novels tied in to the upcoming movie The Force Awakens.

Aftermath begins soon after the ending of the movie Return of the Jedi. The second Death Star has been destroyed and Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are both presumed dead. The New Republic — formerly the Rebel Alliance — has won a decisive battle, but the war is far from over.... Read More

The Blood Island Trilogy: Filipino horror cinema at its “best”

The Blood Island Trilogy directed by Eddie Romero

Surely one of the most beloved horror offerings in the history of Filipino cinema, Eddie Romero’s so-called Blood Island trilogy has been flabbergasting audiences for almost half a century now. Here, for your one-stop shopping pleasure, I offer three mini-reviews to help guide you through these remarkable sci-fi/horror outings:

: Wow, does this flick make for one wild and woolly experience! Brides of Blood (1968), the first adventure in the Blood Island trilogy, must be deemed, along with 1959's Terror Is a Man, one of the crown jewels of Filipino horror cinema. In it, 1950s star John Ashley plays Jim Farrell, a Peace Corps worker who comes to the eponymous Blood Island in the Philippines. He is accompanied by naturalist Dr. Henderson, who wants to study the effects of recent nearby nuke tests on the island's flora and fauna, as well as by Henderson's ran... Read More

Concrete Island: Stranded in modernity like a latter-day Crusoe

Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

In the early 1970s, J.G. Ballard was busily creating modern fables of mankind’s increasingly urban environment and the alienating effect on the human psyche. Far from humans yearning to return to their agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots, Ballard posited that modern man would begin to adapt to his newly-created environment, but at what price? Ballard’s protagonists in Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975) are modern, urbane creatures, educated and detached, who embrace their technology-centric lifestyles. But when conditions change, their primitive urges and psychopathologies emerge to horrifying effect.

In Concrete Island, a modern-day retelling of Robinson Crusoe, Ballard introduces ... Read More

Who Goes There?: An influential, entertaining novella

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow…

John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?, first published in 1938 in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, formed the foundation for the thrice-made movie The Thing. John Carpenter directed the 1982 film starring Kurt Russell and it holds a significant place in my childhood memories as it was the first horror movie I was able to watch all they way through. The movie is dark and creepy, and incorporated some realistically disgusting special effects for its day and age. That version was preceded by the 1951 The Thing From Another World a... Read More

Journey to the Center of the Earth: On the Edge

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

[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.]

Et quacumque viam dederit fortuna sequamur
- And whatever route fortune gives, we shall follow

This IS your great-great-great-grandfather's adventure story, so reader beware. There's a lot of walking, a lot of exposition, and quite frankly, not a lot of action. But keep in mind... this is an original. Our modern day sensibilities expect high action out of our adventure stories: monsters, critters, thrill-a-minute. But in a much different time when society was in a much different state, Journey to the Center of the... Read More

The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three novellas about identity, memory, and colonization

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I don’t think I’m the only reader drawn to Gene Wolfe’s books — hoping to understand all the symbolism, subtleties, oblique details, unreliable narrators, and offstage events — and finding myself frustrated and confused, feeling like it’s my lack of sophistication and careful reading ability to blame. Wolfe is most famous for his amazing 4-volume THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN dying earth masterpiece, which has a 1-volume coda called The Urth of the New Sun, along with two companion series, THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN and THE BOOK OF THE SHORT SUN. Collectively they are known as THE SOLAR CYCLE, and these books tend to split readers into two camps: either dedicated Wolfe fans who find his works richer, deeper, and more subtle than anything... Read More

Becoming Darkness: Plenty of thrills with nary a sparkle in sight

Becoming Darkness by Lindsay Francis Brambles

Becoming Darkness is the first of the HAVEN trilogy by debut author Lindsay Francis Brambles, a YA horror series which asks “What if the Nazis won WWII?” with the added twist of a global vampirism plague. It’s mostly quite good, with allusions to literary predecessors like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and layers of complicity in nearly a century’s-worth of conspiracies. The overall concept is interesting and the narrative flows well, and many of the characters are engaging.

In this universe, Hitler and his Nazi scientists experimented with biological warfare, eventually unleashing a plague — the Gomorrah virus — which destroyed an already flu-ravaged global population. Most of those who didn’t die outright became vampires, requiring blood for sustenance and gaining immortality. The humans w... Read More

Shadows of Self: A breezy weird Western romp that left us wanting just a bit more

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 enough, although this is, as I mentioned, the middle book of a second trilogy, my promotional material is te... Read More

Tower of Glass: Enough ideas for several novels

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg

Tower of Glass (1972) is another of Robert Silverberg’s ambitious novels from his most prolific period in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In that time he was churning out several books each year that were intelligent, thematically challenging, beautifully written stories that explored identity, sexuality, telepathy, alien contact, religion and consciousness. At his best, he produced some masterpieces like Downward to the Earth and Dying Inside, as well as some dreadful books like Up the Line, but his unfettered imagination and prolific energy were undeniable.

Unfortunately, a wealth of ideas can sometimes overwhelm even the best books, and I think Tower of Glass Read More

Song Quest: An old favourite you may not have heard of

Song Quest by Katherine Roberts

I read Katherine Roberts’ Song Quest (book one of the three-book ECHORIUM SEQUENCE) as a child when it was first published in 1999. A few years later it was the first book I ever cajoled an unsuspecting customer into buying during my Saturday stint at the local bookshop. It is one those books that has stayed with me and I indulged myself with a re-read partly for stroll down memory lane and partly because I do not think it has received the attention it deserves. As with most things revisited from childhood it did feel smaller and less exciting when viewed from the tarnished eyes of adulthood (which is why I will not be returning to Disneyland) but I still think it is an exciting and, most importantly, enchanting read for the young and young at heart.

Rialle, along with her friends Fren and Chissar and class bully Kherron, are all training... Read More

The Crack in Space: Off the mark by 72 years

The Crack in Space by Philip K. Dick

Although he displayed remarkable prescience in many of his books, cult author Philip K. Dick was a good 72 years off the mark in his 18th sci-fi novel, The Crack in Space. Originally released as a 40-cent Ace paperback in 1966 (F-377, for all you collectors out there), the novel takes place against the backdrop of the 2080 U.S. presidential election, in which a black man, Jim Briskin, of the Republican-Liberal party, is poised to become the country's first black president. (Dick must have liked the name "Jim Briskin"; in his then-unpublished, non-sci-fi, mainstream novel from the mid-'50s, The Broken Bubble, Jim Briskin is the name of a DJ in San Francisco!) Unlike Barack Obama, whose campaigning centered around the issues of war, economic crisis and h... Read More