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The Return: Mystifying and challenging, but not without its rewards

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The Return by Walter de la Mare

In Prague-born author Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers that he has somehow been transformed into a cockroach. But this, it seems, was not the first time that a human being had undergone a baffling overnight transformation. I give you, for example, British author Walter de la Mare’s novel The Return, which was initially published in 1910, when the author was 37 and just recently retired, and which subsequently saw two revised editions, in 1922 and ’45. To tell you the truth, I’m really not sure which version of this classic tale of psychic possession I just experienced, but can say that it was in a Dover edition that came out in 1997, with a scholarly introduction by S.T. Joshi. And I can also say that my uncertainty as to wh... Read More

Rosemarked: Deadly plague plus potion equals one complicated character

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Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne

In this 2017 YA political fantasy, Zivah and Dineas infiltrate a common enemy kingdom on a spy mission to preserve their respective tribe/agrarian village from an imperial oppressor. Rosemarked follows a dual POV narrative between Zivah, a mystical healer afflicted with the deadly Rosemark Plague, and Dineas, a tribal warrior who has achieved a rare recovery from the disease.

This story is billed as fantasy, but speculative elements are limited to the mystical nature of the healing arts practiced by Zivah and a pair of crow message carriers who always mysteriously find their master and addressee anywhere. Spooks, I know, might consider the messenger crow commo plan high fantasy indeed, but to those who read the genre, this is quite low fantasy. Within the healing speculative element, however, Livia Blackburne crafts... Read More

Son of the Black Sword: Lots of fun, but should’ve started later

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Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia

J.R.R. Tolkien. Michael Moorcock. Lloyd Alexander. Brandon Sanderson. Steven Erikson. Terry Brooks. What do all of these authors have in common? Well, all of them wrote about The Black Sword™. Ah, but what, you ask, is The Black Sword™? Well, The Black Sword™ is a double-edged weapon which happens to be jet black and very magical. Generally, it is also a good bit chattier and/or more judgmenta... Read More

Dolly: Hell, oh, Dolly

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Dolly by Susan Hill

English author Susan Hill had recently been an impressive 2 for 2 with this reader. Last year, I was happy to discover that her 1983 ghost novel, The Woman in Black, is one of the scariest books that I’d read in quite some time, and just a few weeks back, her 2010 ghost novel, The Small Hand, had proved highly satisfying for me, if not quite as chilling as the earlier book. Curious as to whether Ms. Hill could possibly go 3 for 3 with yours truly, I dove into her 2012 offering, Dolly, which, like those other two, is subtitled “A Ghost Story.” So, you may reasonably ask, ... Read More

Phule’s Company: A short, entertaining, and heart-warming SF tale

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Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

Until I picked up Phule’s Company, I hadn’t read anything by prolific author Robert Asprin. I hadn’t planned to, either, but Tantor Audio is producing his PHULE’S COMPANY series in audio format, so I figured I’d give the first book a try. I liked it well enough to ask them to send me the second book, Phule’s Paradise. There are six PHULE’S COMPANY books, published from 1990 to 2006. The latter four were written with Peter J. Heck and were some of the last books Asprin penned before his death in 2008.

Willard Phule, the heir to a vast fortune, has done something to annoy his superiors in the Space Legion. As a punishment, they promote him to captain and send him off... Read More

Paradox Bound: A sweet mix of time travel, road trip, and secret history

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Paradox Bound by Peter Clines

Peter Clines’ 2017 fantasy novel Paradox Bound is a sweet, creamy double-scoop of time-travel, secret history, scavenger-hunt story and road trip, as Eli Teague, the protagonist, travels with Harriet Pritchard — she likes to go by Harry — across the continental US through various time periods, searching for something elusive: something unique to, and desperately needed by, the US if it is to continue as a nation.

Eli is eight and a half years old when he meets Harry. It is his first time meeting her, but her third time meeting him (although she doesn’t recognize him at first). Eli lives in Sanders, Maine, a town that feels mired in the 1980s. Eli longs to get out, do something with his life, but circumstances conspire, it seems, to kee... Read More

The Ship of the Dead: Rough sailing for Magnus in the Nine Worlds

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The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan

When Naglfar ― a ship made out of the fingernails and toenails of the dead, eek! ― sets sail, carrying hordes of giants and zombies warriors to fight the gods of Asgard, Ragnarok and a world-ending battle aren’t far behind. Ragnarok can’t be entirely avoided (unfortunately, it’s an inevitable prophecy), but perhaps it can be delayed for a while longer?

As The Ship of the Dead (2017), the third and final book in Rick Riordan's MAGNUS CHASE AND THE GODS OF ASGARD series, begins, Loki has escaped from his imprisonment by the gods and is getting the dreaded ship Naglfar ready to sail against the gods, tr... Read More

Hellboy Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola (An Oxford College Student Review!)

In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I post the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Carter Eldreth: 

Carter Eldreth is a freshman at Oxford College of Emory University and is pursuing a degree in literature with the intent to go to law school. His home is Bristol, Tennessee, and his hobbies include reading, writing, and video g... Read More

The Accelerators Vol. 3: Relativity

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The Accelerators Vol. 3: Relativity by R.F.I. Porto, Gavin Smith, Tim Yates

Warning: There will be some spoilers for both The Accelerators: Time Games and The Accelerators: Momentum. As with any time-travel story, the best place to begin is at the beginning.

At the end of Momentum, Spatz was separated from his fellow time-travelers and held back in the last years of the third millennium with an old Spatz while the rest of the group skipped ahead to the 88th century and met yet another Spatz — this one just a little older, and with an accelerator design scarring his torso. In The Accelerators Vol. 3: Relativity... Read More

She Said Destroy: A good introduction to Bulkin’s beautiful, creepy prose

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She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin’s horror stories are surreal, subversive, often political. 2017’s short story collection She Said Destroy offers 13 stories, some set in our world, some set in worlds almost exactly like ours and some set in strange, feverish landscapes unlike what we’ve seen before.

“Intertropical Convergence Zone” and “Red Goat, Black Goat,” are set in an imaginary country that looks more than a bit like Indonesia. (Bulkin writes many stories set in this place.) “Intertropical Convergence Zone” follows the country’s dictator, the General, as he ingests more and more magic. In the opening passages, he eats a bullet — literally. He eats a bullet that was used to shoot a man in the heart; it protects the General from bullets. The narrator, a faithful member of the inner circle, distrusts the dukun... Read More

The Black Wolves of Boston: Complex and funny new series perfect for late-teens

The Black Wolves of Boston by Wen Spencer

Joshua is a teen runaway; a college-bound senior who survived a horrifying massacre of his classmates during an extracurricular project. Silas Decker is a vampire who lives in Boston, one who has the magical ability to find lost things – and people. Seth is the werewolf Prince of Boston. Elise comes from the Grigori family, who trace their bloodline back to the first angelic-human hybrids. She kills things — mostly, evil things. These four characters find their paths intersecting and tangling in The Black Wolves of Boston, the first book in a new urban fantasy series by Wen Spencer.

The hardcover edition of this Baen publication, issued in 2017, has illustrations by Kurt Miller. They add a lovely touch although the book does not depend on the artwork. Spencer’s story is complicated, and many, many characters are introduced, particularly among the various wer... Read More

House of Names: Thoughtful and strongly-voiced in spots, but a disappointment in the end

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House of Names by Colm Tóibín

The Ancient Greeks didn’t invent murder, sex, and vengeance, but they did realize the staying power of stories centering on them. As, apparently, does Colm Tóibín, whose newest work, House of Names (2017), is a retelling of the House of Atreus tale involving Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes (spoiler alert — it’s not a happy story). Nor does Tóibín bother to dress it up in contemporary garb, eschewing the usual “updating” into modern times and dress. Though perhaps that’s not wholly accurate.

While Tóibín keeps the classical setting, he strips the story of one of the aspects that made it so Greek — the gods. Whereas Aeschylus and the other Greek dramatists placed the gods at the center of things, as prime movers, as ju... Read More

Snowspelled: A Regency magician without her magic

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Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Snowspelled (2017), the first book in the new HARWOOD SPELLBOOK fantasy series by Stephanie Burgis, is a fun, light read, right at the intersection of magical fantasy and Regency romance, with a twist of alternative history. We are in Angland, not England, and there's a time-honored treaty between humans and elves, with the humans paying a toll to live on elven lands. Cassandra Harwood, her brother Jonathan, and sister-in-law Amy travel to a week-long house party at Cosgrove Manor, deep in elven lands, an area guarded by trolls who allow you to pass only if you have paid the necessary tax and have an official, glowing stamp on your carriage.

Cassandra is a brilliant, dedicated magician. Though still held back by the ... Read More

The Summoned Mage: Diary of a misplaced mage

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The Summoned Mage by Melissa McShane

Editor's note: At the time we are posting this review, this title is free at Amazon.

The Summoned Mage (2017) is the diary of Sesskia, a 27 year old thief and secret mage: secret because being a mage is viewed as an executable offense in her country of Balaen. But her magical powers have saved Sesskia’s life before, and in any case are a part of her very self that are both exhilarating and terrifying. So Sesskia wanders from place to place, seeking new magic spells (called pouvrin) and leaving clues behind her for other mages. So far Sesskia has gathered pouvrin for summoning fire and water, seeing through things, walking through walls, and moving objects with her mind.

Then one morning she is suddenly and magically hauled into a strange new world, where she recog... Read More

The Magician’s Key: An amenable Middle Grade fantasy

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The Magician’s Key by Matthew Cody

I have to admit at the outset that I didn’t read Matthew Cody’s first book (The Peddler’s Road) in THE SECRETS OF THE PIED PIPER trilogy. But that turned out not to be much of an obstacle as Cody does a very efficient job early on of catching the returning reader up on the events of book one, so I never felt lost in what was happening. Obviously, I can’t comment on the quality of that first book, but book two is a solidly entertaining story in its own right, though not a complete one; readers will have to wait for the third book to conclude the tale. If you haven’t read book one either, fair warning that there will be some inevitable spoilers below.

Thanks to the concluding events of The Peddler’s Road, the brother-sister team at the story’s core have be... Read More

The Tourist: Twisty-wisty, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff

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The Tourist by Robert Dickinson

The good news is that, in terms of time-travel novels, Robert Dickinson does quite a lot of interesting things with The Tourist (2016): dual narratives — one straightforward and one circuitous, commentary on human nature, and the mechanics of time-travel itself, along with its social and economic effects on the 21st-century. The bad news is that the novel stumbles in the third act and never regains its footing, sacrificing clarity and plot in favor of poetic imagery.

The Tourist begins by describing the prison “you” reside in, an arrangement which has been going on for seemingly quite some time. Eventually, it is revealed that “you” are Karia, and the terms and reasons for this captivity are complex. Karia is released into the custody of a young man, Riemann, a man she recognizes... Read More

The Hike: A surreal and often humorous journey

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The Hike by Drew Magary

I’m of two minds on Drew Magary’s The Hike (2016). On the one hand, it’s a fast, energetic, often funny and sometimes moving work. On the other hand, its plotting feels wholly capricious and arbitrary and some of the territory it wanders is well-worn or less profound than it seems like it wants to be taken. I mostly like my books with a bit more structured depth, and if you do as well, then I think you’ll zip through and enjoy The Hike while also being a bit annoyed. But if you’re looking for is a fun video game kind of ride with a smattering of emotionality, you’ll just enjoy.

Magary begins pretty mundanely, with the main character Ben on a business trip in a mountaintop motel in Pennsylvania. He sets off on a t... Read More

The Greatest Adventure: Dinosaurs and dynamite

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The Greatest Adventure by John Taine

In the 1957 Universal film The Land Unknown, a quartet of men and one woman discover a tropical wonderhell 3,000 feet below sea level in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, replete with killer plants and savage dinosaurs. But, as it turns out, this was not the first time that four men and one woman had battled prehistoric monsters and inimical flora in a surprisingly balmy valley on the frozen continent. That honor, it would seem, goes to a book called, fittingly enough, The Greatest Adventure, written by John Taine. In actuality, “John Taine” was the pen name of Scottish mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who used his own name only when he authored books on science and math, reserving the pseudonym for when he wrote works of science fiction, of ... Read More

Shattered Warrior: Tale’s too familiar but artwork shines

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Shattered Warrior written by Sharon Shinn &  illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag

Shattered Warrior (2017) is a new graphic novel written by Sharon Shinn and illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag. The artwork is excellent, but as far as plot, it’s an overly familiar one and, as usual for me with graphic novels (fair warning), neither story nor characters are rich enough for my deep engagement.

The story is set on a human world conquered years ago by an alien race (the Derichet) and mostly wholly subjugated, though there a rebel group known as the Valenchi sabotages the occasional convoy or bridge. The planet’s main mineral is used to fuel the Derichet spacecraft. The main character, Colleen, was once the daughter of one of the Great Families (rich aristocrats in a highly strati... Read More

Joe Golem: Occult Detective by Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden

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Joe Golem: Occult Detective by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden blends the private eye genre with the golem legend and takes place in a future world in which part of New York is under water and people get around by boats, makeshift bridges, and unstable-looking planks. This first Joe Golem trade includes two stories — one three issues long and the other two issues. However, they are connected as Joe meets a young woman in the first story (Lori Noonan), and we see her again in the second, and Joe’s character develops from one tale to the next. The Joe Golem stories spin out of an illustrated novel by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden entitled Joe Golem and the Drowning City; h... Read More

Strange Alchemy: Working out the kinks

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Strange Alchemy by Gwenda Bond

Strange Alchemy (2017) has the unusual distinction of being Gwenda Bond’s first and latest published novel — originally released in 2012 as Blackwood by Strange Chemistry, indie publisher Angry Robot’s YA imprint, this novel is one of many to find new life elsewhere after Strange Chemistry’s brief tenure. For readers who, like myself, are reading Strange Alchemy after already becoming familiar with Bond’s style, this novel is an interesting look at where her career started, with glimpses of the characterizations and themes she’s frequently implemented in subsequent books like Girl in the Shadows... Read More

Dinosaur Empire: Earth Before Us Volume 1: Dinosaur evolution for kids

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Dinosaur Empire: Earth Before Us Volume 1 by Abby Howard

Dinosaur Empire is a dense, fact-filled graphic exploration of the rise and fall of dinosaurs that conveys a lot of information for readers in the MG and YA range, though it could use a bit more spark in its storytelling.

Ronnie has just failed her test on dinosaurs horribly, though she has a chance to retake it the next day. Resigned to failing it yet again, and wondering “Who needs to learn about dinosaurs anyway,” she tosses her test into a nearby recycling bin. Lucky for her, a neighbor, Miss Lernin, happens to be hanging out inside the bin. Even better, the bin is a time machine and Miss Lernin is a former paleontologist, who after a quick lesson in general evolution theory quickly whisks Ronnie away to the Mesozoic Era to show her firsthand all she needs to know (and more) for tomorrow’s test. Read More

Bannerless: A thoughtful detective story in a post-apocalyptic world

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

In Bannerless (2017), Carrie Vaughn ― perhaps best known for her KITTY NORVILLE urban fantasy series inhabited by werewolves and vampires ― has created a reflective, deliberately paced post-apocalyptic tale with some detective fiction mixed in. It's about a hundred years in our world’s future and after an event simply called the Fall, when civilization collapsed worldwide. The cities are now ruins, abandoned by all but the most desperate people. Climate change has resulted in, among other things, deadly typhoons that periodically hit the California coast, the setting for our story. What's left of humanity is living a far simpler lifestyle than most of their twentieth centur... Read More

Amatka: Defies conventions, with mixed results

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017) almost reads as a callback to the experimental and dystopian science fiction of the 1970s: a slim novel, packed with examination of the self as an individual unit within a larger social machine and the cost-benefit analysis thereof, with strange imagery and twisting narrative threads, and no easy answers to be found. Once, generations back, a group of people mysteriously found themselves in a new place, and were unable to make their way back home. They formed five colonies (though there ... Read More

Killing is My Business: An improvement on the first book but still has issues (and a giveaway!)

Readers, we have a paperback copy of Made to Kill and a hardcover copy of Killing is My Business to give away to one lucky commenter! U.S. and Canada-based mailing addresses only, please.

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Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher

I thought that the flaws in Adam Christopher’s first Chandler-esque robot PI novel, Made to Kill, outweighed the positives, and thus gave it a rating of only 2 ½ stars. The tougher-than-steel detective/hitman Raymond Electromatic is back in the sequel, Killing Is My Business (2017), and while it improves upon its predecessor in many ways, it never really breaks out of the gat... Read More