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Burning Girls and Other Stories: Great opening, strong close, uneven in between

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

Veronica Schanoes’ collection Burning Girls and Other Stories (2021) started strong, hit a rough patch for a lengthy time, then ended strong. It is, therefore, the epitome of the mixed bag. Of the thirteen tales, I found one to be a standout, two others good, a few solid ones and a number that didn’t do anything for me. I won’t go through each one, but here are my responses to several of the stories.
“Among the Thorns”: This is the opening piece and is also the one I thought stood out amongst the collection. Not only is it a strong opening story, but it’s also a killer opening line and paragraph:

They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.

I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that.

They made him danc... Read More

The Russian Cage: Jailbreak and conspiracies in Russian America

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris’s alternative history/urban fantasy GUNNIE ROSE series shifts to a new setting in this third book in the series, The Russian Cage (2021), one that was foreshadowed by the ending of the prior book, A Longer Fall. Lizbeth Rose, who makes her living as a hired gun or “gunnie,” receives an intentionally cryptic letter from her younger half-sister, Felicia. For the past year, Felicia has been living in what once was California, Oregon and Washington but is now the Holy Russian Empire, ruled over by a young, married Tsar Alexei — certainly a better fate for him than his actual historical fate of being assassinated at age thirteen by Soviet revolutionaries. He's surviving his h... Read More

Death Weavers: Finally, some answers

Death Weavers by Brandon Mull

Death Weavers (2016) is the fourth of five novels in Brandon Mull’s FIVE KINGDOMS series. This is a fun adventure that I’d recommend for middle grade readers. You’ll want to read the first three books, Sky Raiders, Rogue Knight, and Crystal Keepers, before picking up Death Weavers. I’ll assume you’ve read them and I may include minor spoilers for those earlier installments in this review.

Cole and his companions continue to visit each of the kingdoms in the Outskirts a... Read More

Fireheart Tiger: The seduction and threat of power

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Princess Thanh was a royal hostage for many years in the northern country of Ephteria before being sent back to her home country of Bình Hải. Two years after her return, she’s a disappointment to her mother, the empress, who hoped that Thanh’s time in Ephteria would give her insights into that country’s government and culture, making her more useful as a diplomat. It’s especially important now that an Ephterian delegation is arriving, certain to make demands and threats that will encroach on Bình Hải’s independence. But Thanh is a quiet, somewhat uncertain person — too thoughtful and discreet, according to her mother — rather than a power player. Thanh is also hiding a secret: since a disastrous fire in the Ephterian palace, small items in her vicinity have a mysterious habit of catching on fire. And the only real relationship she had in Ephteria was a clandestine love affair with Princess... Read More

Available Dark: Chills, in more than one sense of the word

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

It’s been a few months since the events of Generation Loss, and Cass Neary, strapped for cash, has made a big mistake. In that previous book, she took pictures of someone’s death but told the police she wasn’t at the scene. She never meant to publish any of the photos. Whoops. So, with the police and the dead person’s son asking awkward questions, and Cass in need of money again, it seems like a great time to take a gig that will absent her from the country for a while.

Available Dark (2012) takes Cass to Helsinki, where she is tasked with examining a series of gory photographs and verifying that they are authentic and that the series is complete. The pictures show people killed in ways that evoke a group of spirits called the Yuleboys, and it’s pretty clear that if ... Read More

A Single Light: Exploring a pandemic-ridden world

A Single Light by Tosca Lee

It's unnerving reading a book about a devastating pandemic at this point during the COVID-19 crisis, but in fairness, this near-future SF duology by Tosca Lee was published in 2019, so Lee gets credit for anticipating a timely topic. The first book, The Line Between, tells how Wynter Roth, a young woman in her early twenties, escapes from a doomsday cult and (obligatory spoiler warning for the first book here) is entrusted with some tissue samples that may help with the development of a vaccine against the growing pandemic. It’s a rapid onset dementia virus that is — unsurprisingly, since this is a science fiction novel — almost invariably deadly to those who catch it.

At the end of The Line Between, Wyn... Read More

The Physicians of Vilnoc: Penric and the plague

The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Physicians of Vilnoc (2020) is another installment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s PENRIC AND DESDEMONA series which is set in the same world as her award-winning FIVE GODS / CHALION trilogy. You don’t need to read the CHALION books first, but I highly recommend them. Most of the PENRIC AND DESDEMONA novellas can stand alone, but it’s best to read them in order if you can.

The Physicians of Vilnoc is the eighth story if you go buy publication order but the ninth if you go by internal chronology. The very short installment called Masquerade in Lodi was the latest to be published (as of... Read More

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: Selling books and fighting evil

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

1983-era London, with a half-twist toward the fantastic, mingles with ancient British mythology in Garth Nix’s new urban fantasy, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020). Art student Susan Arkshaw, a punkish eighteen-year-old from rural western England, takes leave of her loving, vague mother and heads to London to try to find the father she’s never met. She starts with an old family acquaintance, “Uncle” Frank Thringley, but Frank turn out to be, in rapid succession, (a) a crime boss, (b) disincorporated by the prick of a magical hatpin, and (c) a Sipper — which is a milder type of blood-sucker than a vampire.

The wielder of the silver hatpin is attractive nineteen-year-old Merlin St. Ja... Read More

The Doors of Eden: An intelligent, mind-bending epic

The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Girlfriends Mal and Lee are cryptid hunters. They don’t believe in any of the monsters they hunt, of course, but it’s fun to follow the clues and debunk the myths for their blog. But on their last adventure, they saw some weird stuff and Mal disappeared.

That was four years ago. Now, suddenly, Lee runs into Mal on the street in London and she’s with a man who looks like a Neanderthal. Where has she been and why is she with that guy? And why is a world-renowned physicist and an evil villain suddenly so interested in Lee and Mal?

Other humans are also having strange experiences. These include Julian, an MI5 agent stuck in a deteriorating marriage, his colleague Alison who’s really good with data, a retired soldier named Lucas who works for the evil guy, and Dr. Khan, the eccentric but brilliant transgender physicist mentioned above.

As the story proceeds, ... Read More

Across the Green Grass Fields: A weaker entry in a highly praised series

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

I’ve been hit and miss on Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN portal series, finding some of the novellas lyrical and emotional and others frustratingly slapdash. Her newest, Across the Green Grass Fields (2021), unfortunately falls closer to the latter end of the spectrum.

As one expects by now, we have a young girl who steps through a doorway into another world. We meet Regan first at seven, part of a best friends trio with Heather Nelson and Laurel Anderson. Quickly, though, she gets drawn into one of those cruel moments of childhood where demarcations are drawn. When queen bee Laurel arbitrarily shuns Heather, deciding she isn’t “girly” enough, Regan, learning quickly “this is what it costs to be different,” goes along with it. Years... Read More

Over the Woodward Wall: Follow the improbable brick road

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Over the Woodward Wall (2020) began its life as an imagined book, existing merely as a set of excerpts “quoted” at the end of certain chapters in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. But these excerpts were compelling enough that McGuire decided to use them as the building blocks for an actual fantasy series, using the pseudonym A. Deborah Baker (the alchemist credited with authoring this book in Middlegame).

Avery and Hepzibah (“Zib”) are two “very different, very ordinary” children who live on the same ordinary street but don't know each other at all. They’re as far apart as A and Z in their personalities: Zib is free-spirited and adventurous, ... Read More

The Somebody People: Better than its predecessor

The Somebody People by Bob Proehl

I wasn’t crazy about Bob Proehl’s The Nobody People. While the premise was intriguing (kids with supernatural powers being raised and trained in a boarding school without the public’s knowledge), the novel, for reasons I’ve described in my review, was not compelling. I struggled to finish it but, in the end, I was curious about where Proehl was going with the story. For that reason, I picked up the sequel, The Somebody People, and I’m happy to report that I found this story more entertaining than its predecessor.

Several years have passed since the events of The Nobody People. ... Read More

The Fictional Man: Could have been more

The Fictional Man by Al Ewing

A number of times while reading The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing, I felt like I was on the edge of a great book. Like one of those clichéd oases in any stranded-in-the-desert movie, I could see it glimmering and hazy just at the edge of the horizon. But every time I thought I was nearly there, I was left with just more sand. Though that’s more than a little unfair. The Fictional Man is better than sand, but as tantalizing as it is it never got beyond decent for me.

Ewing sets the story in an LA not too different from our own — still filled with movie stars, sun, diners, loudly rude producers, corrupt agents, etc. What separates this world from our own is the creation of Fictionals in 1977 — clones created by the entertainment industry with the look and pre-programmed personality/mind of characters (already in existence or origin... Read More

The Tower of Fools: Historical fantasy by the author of THE WITCHER

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

Fans of THE WITCHER will be happy to see that another of Andrzej Sapkowski’s works has been translated into English. The Tower of Fools, the first in his HUSSITE TRILOGY, was published in Polish in 2002 (Polish title: Narrenturm), then other Eastern European languages, and has this year been translated into English by David French (translator of THE WITCHER) and published by Orbit (US) and Gollancz (UK).

The HUSSITE TRILOGY is a historical fantasy set in the time of the Hussite Revolution (the Bohemian Reformation) of the early 15th century. For those not as familiar with these h... Read More

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media (2020), by Valerie Estelle Frankel, pretty much lays it all out in the title. Starting in the earliest days of comic books and progressing through the decades to the present, Frankel explores a boatload of characters, the famous and expected (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Black Widow, Storm, Catwoman) and the lesser known and unexpected (Rulah Jungle Goddess, Pow-Girl, Veda the Cobra Woman). The breadth is a definite strength of the book, though I found myself wanting more depth, especially as when it was there it was insightful.

After a brief introduction, Frankel first moves chronologically through “The Classic Super Eras,” discussing Sheena, The Wasp, the Powerpuff Girls, and Captain Marvel, amongst others. Then the sections ar... Read More

Elatsoe: A strong story exploring complex societal issues

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Elatsoe (2020), a YA debut by Darcie Little Badger, creates a richly woven world of folklore, myth, story, friendship, and family, all set in “a slightly stranger America,” one “very similar to our own … [but] shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and not.” As a debut, it shows some of the typical first-book characteristics (issues with pacing, transitions, etc.), but it’s overall a warmly rewarding and enjoyable read.

Elatsoe — “Ellie” for nearly all the book — is a 17-year-old Lipan Apache girl with the ability to raise ghosts, a skill passed down through generations of her family. Ellie used her gift most recently to raise the ghost of her dead springer spaniel, Kirby, who is now always by her side as companion and protector. While Ellie and her ancestors can raise human ghosts, it is stric... Read More

Involution Ocean: Bruce Sterling’s first novel, now on audio

Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling

John Newhouse is a middle-aged man addicted to a drug called Flare which is synthesized from the oil of a whale that lives in a large sea of dust on a hostile planet. John lives with several other drug addicts. When Flare is declared illegal and their stash runs dry, John and one of his roommates decide to join a whaling ship’s crew so they can get access to the oil they’ll need to manufacture the drug for themselves. John is hired as the ship’s cook while his friend comes aboard as a deckhand.

The crew of the ship is odd. John is attracted to the woman who has wings like a bat and can fly, but she’s allergic to human touch. The captain of the ship, who is obsessed with the strange creatures that live in the dust sea, might be crazy. John wonders why he’s hiding a propeller and other odd things in a secret storehouse.

When John and his friend manage to get hold of some wh... Read More

Anya and the Nightingale: Into the woods

Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack

Last year, Anya and her friends Ivan and Håkon defeated a bloodthirsty Viking named Sigurd, who wanted to murder Håkon for his river dragon magic. Since then, Anya’s been bat mitzvahed, Ivan’s family has settled into their lives in Zmeyreka, and the local magistrate has been expelled, with the result that Anya’s family has been openly welcomed among the other villagers, but her papa still hasn’t returned from war. When Anya learns that there’s been a miscommunication and her papa has been sent to Rûm rather than home, she embarks upon a secret journey to bring him back, accompanied by Ivan and Håkon — who, thanks to a friendly forest spirit named Lena, has been transformed into a human boy. Additionally, Lena magically transports the trio to Kiev, saving them from what would certainly be quick deaths along an arduous journey, but is nowhere near Anya’s papa.

As fate w... Read More

Anya and the Dragon: The magical adventures of a plucky young heroine

Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

With just a month before her bat mitzvah, Anya’s life is mostly preoccupied with keeping her family’s goats out of the garden, her worries over being unable to see the hidden threads of magic connecting everything in the world, and staying out of trouble both at home and in the neighboring village of Zmeyreka, since the local magistrate is actively working to throw Anya’s family out of their home. If only her beloved papa would come home from the Tsar’s faraway war against Sultan Suleiman! But then she stumbles across a bright-red river dragon named Håkon, a brand-new family of fools (literally; they utilize fool’s magic, and the seven sons are all named Ivan) moves into town, and dangerous men in the tsar’s employ arrive in pursuit of the dragon. Eventually, Anya is forced into a terrible position: help her family by not involving herself in the sudden swirl of activity, or help her newfound... Read More

Sleep Donation: A strange and thought-provoking tale

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

In the near future, an insomnia epidemic has struck the United States. It’s caused by a dysfunction in orexin and those who acquire it can’t sleep. Eventually, they die. But there is a therapy that can help prolong life and, in some cases, even cure people. Donors can contribute sleep to those afflicted with the disorder. Babies make the best donors because their sleep isn’t contaminated by nightmares.

Trish is the top recruiter for a charity organization that finds sleep donors. Her sister died from the disorder and, when she tearfully tells the story to potential donors, she can get many of them to sign up. When she discovers a baby who turns out to be a rare universal sleep donor, Trish works with the baby’s parents to keep them on... Read More

The Guinevere Deception: King Arthur’s a hot teen. Must be Tuesday.

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

At this point, I think the teen heartthrob version of King Arthur might be displacing the venerable monarch version. Between that BBC Merlin series, Avalon High, and the seemingly never-ending Mordred in Leather Pants novels that just keep coming and coming like my own personal karmic retribution, people just seem to have a lot of interest in Young Arthur lately. It's probably a symptom of our youth-obsessed culture or something. I tell you, back in the good old days, young Arthur got shamed — shamed! — for his beardless face. Granted, in this case "the good old days" means Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so perhaps a bit of change is to be expected by now.

Grumpy Arthurian fanboy that I am, I sigh over the trend but also can't stop myself from reading anything Arthur-related that comes under my nose. Which brings us to Read More

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It: Entertaining sequel

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K.J. Parker

I wasn’t expecting a sequel to K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, but was delighted to see one because Parker is on my (very short) must-read list. While How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It (2020) is marketed as book #2 of his THE SIEGE series, it takes place several years later and has a different set of characters, so it’s not a requirement that you read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first. I’d recommend that you do read these books in order, though, because the background is a bit helpful and, in my opinion, the first book is better.

Despite the actions of Orha... Read More

The Wizards of Once: A rock-solid premise

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

What caught my attention with The Wizards of Once (2017) was the opening paragraph, which describes the forests of ancient Britain thusly:

These were forests darker than you would believe possible, darker than inkspots, darker than midnight, darker than space itself, and as twisted and as tangled as a Witch’s heart.

Who wouldn’t want to read a story set in such a place? The hook continues with an introduction to the two main characters: a boy from a wizard tribe with no magic, and a girl from a warrior tribe with a banned magical object. The boy Xar is desperate for magic, and the girl Wish is just as determined to keep hers a secret.

Naturally their paths will cross, and it should come as no surprise to learn that because their respective tribes have been at war for so long, they don’t exactly get off on the righ... Read More

And Go Like This: For readers and writers

And Go Like This by John Crowley

I don’t usually pay attention to the media blurbs on the covers of books, but the Newsday quote on the cover of John Crowley’s And Go Like This (2019) so perfectly describes this story collection that I must share it:

“Transforms the lead of daily life into seriously dazzling artistic gold.”

“The lead of daily life” in these stories comes from mostly average people going about their mostly average lives. In this collection you won’t find many of the plot fixtures we’re used to seeing in speculative fiction. There are no spaceships, battles, dragons, kings, or magic spells. There are a few speculative elements, but what makes Crowley’s fiction most compelling is the way he closely examines the souls of normal folk, portrays them in such a charming wa... Read More

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy: Diez perfecto on the fun scale

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy directed by Rafael Portillo

It was at NYC’s legendary Thalia Theater on W. 95th St. in Manhattan where I first saw the Mexican wonder known as The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964), paired with the Ed Wood-scripted The Bride and the Beast (1958) to make for one truly mind-boggling double feature. Ah, what a great theater that was! OK, time for Tales From My Misspent Youth, chapter 135: The Thalia, back when (I’m talking about the late ‘70s/very early ‘80s here), was a wonderful place to see a double feature of this sort, its rear section (a “balcony” reached by climbing one or two steps, if memory serves) permitting smoking…of all manner of dry goods. As for the first film on the bill, my main recollection of that showing was the stoned-out audience laughing uproariously every time one of the characters therein mentioned the word “codex,” an object that served as the Hitchcockian MacGuffi... Read More