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Hella: Unusual protagonist, uneven pacing

Hella by David Gerrold

Hella is a harsh planet that was colonized by a few dozen humans about 100 years ago. The gravity of Hella is lower than Earth’s, so all of the plants and animals are enormous. The tilt of the planet makes its climate harsh in the summer and the winter, so the human colony migrates every season. As they migrate, they try not to contaminate the environment (who knows what effect humans will have on it?) and they must be careful of the huge carnivores that also migrate.

Kyle, a neuro-atypical 13 year-old, is our guide to Hella. He is fascinated by the planet, the past and future evolution of its flora and fauna, and the way that humans and their stuff could adversely affect Hella. He loves to learn and he loves to share his knowledge with anyone who will listen. When a ship full of new immigrants arrives in Hella’s orbit earlier than expected, Kyle is asked to produce instructional videos for the newcomers... Read More

Mexican Gothic: A creepy gothic novel featuring fungus

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old flighty socialite living in Mexico City. She loves to dress up in beautiful gowns and high heels and go to parties with handsome young men. One evening she’s called home from a party early. Her wealthy father has received a strange letter from Catalina, Noemí’s recently married cousin. Catalina thinks she’s in danger from her new husband’s family and is begging for help. Is Catalina really imperiled, or is she suffering a mental breakdown?

Noemí’s father asks her to visit her cousin at High Place, her husband’s family’s mansion on top of a mountain in an isolated rural area of Mexico. When she arrives, Noemí is shocked to discover that, indeed, her cousin is not well. Though Catalina has moments of lucidity, at other times she rails about ghosts and other hallucinations.

The house and its inhabitants are undeniably frightening. T... Read More

The Golden Fleece: I appreciated it as an accomplishment

The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece (1944), also sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate, was Robert Graves’s attempt to create a unified, mostly realistic version of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the titular fleece. He incorporated a variety of ancient sources, some of them contradictory, some of them fragmentary, keeping the elements he thought made the most sense and assembling them into a single narrative. The result is this novel, which has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2020.

Graves wrote The Golden Fleece in an intentionally old-fashioned style. He explains in his introduction that he couldn’t hope to write it in the style of the Argonauts’ own time, but disliked the idea of writing it from a wholly modern perspective, and so took up a position “not later than … 146 B.C.... Read More

Or What You Will: Some strands more successful than others

Or What You Will by Jo Walton

Or What You Will (2020), by Jo Walton, is an at times charming, at times frustrating work of metafiction that reads, even distanced by the novelist’s artifice, as a warmly personal, almost intimate love letter to Florence, the Renaissance, art, reading, the classics, and creativity. I’m guessing it will receive a mixed, varied response from Walton’s readers.

Sylvia Harrison is a mid-range author of a good number of novels, including several set in the quasi-fantastical Illyria — imagine Renaissance Florence with magic where people do not die save by willful intent (their own giving up of life, murder). Or What You Will is narrated by her creative spark, that flame of imagination trapped in her “bone cave” as he’s instilled her creations with the spa... Read More

Creatures of Want and Ruin: A sheer pulpy delight

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer

At first glance, based on the title and cover art, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin (2018) looks and sounds like it’s a sequel to her earlier novel Creatures of Will and Temper, but it’s not. The stories have different characters and settings, so I’m going to treat Creatures of Want and Ruin as a stand-alone novel.

During prohibition, Ellie West is a bootlegger in Amityville, a village on New York’s Long Island. Due to her father’s declining health and inability to work at his trade as a fisherman, her family struggles to make ends meet but is unwilling... Read More

The Last Curtain Call: Fortunately, not the last book

The Last Curtain Call by Juliet Blackwell

It hardly seems necessary to continue to review Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION MYSTERIES because fans are going to read them no matter what I say but, since the audiobook publisher keeps providing me with review copies, I’ll keep doing it. I love Tantor Media’s audio editions of Blackwell’s two cozy paranormal mystery series (this one and WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES) because they’re narrated by the fabulous Xe Sands. They are a pleasure to listen to and I recommend them to fans (or future fans) of Blackwell’s books.

The Last Curtain Call (2020) is the eighth novel. Each is a stand-alone mystery, so you could start here, but you’d miss the progression of Mel’s relationships, so it’s best to start at the beginning w... Read More

Under the Moon: An early look at the future Catwoman

Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle & Isaac Goodhart

I’ve been going through these YA graphic novels for a while now, each one in the series focusing on a famous DC heroine (Harley Quinn, Raven, Princess Mera, Selina Kyle) and exploring what her adolescence might have been like. They’re not canon-compliant with any other comic books, television shows or films, but usually have the aesthetic you might expect from the character’s history.

In this case, you can expect Selina Kyle to be involved with cats, living on the streets, and a heist.

Catwoman has always been one of my favourite characters, so I was interested to see how her story would play out here in Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale. It’s about what you’d expect from a future cat-burglar: she doesn’t get on with her mother’s abusive boyfriend, and when he ends up killing her pet kitten (trigger warning f... Read More

Shadow and Bone: Old tropes, new story

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

YA can be more fickle than its literary cousins. It’s notorious for trends. There were wizards, vampires, and what feels like a decade’s worth of dystopias. The result is a glut of books with sassy female protagonists who discover they have a unique power, are fighting to save the world, and struggling to decide which hunky love interest to pick from in their love triangle. Shadow and Bone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of avoiding these tropes, but what it does do is tell them in a fresh and innovative way.

Alina Starkov was raised in an orphanage alongside her best friend (and future love, obviously), called Mal. They live in Ravka, a fantasy Russia of samovars and Grisha — powerful magical soldiers that work directly for the king. If you don’t have magic, you’re bumped down to the common army, where Alina and Mal find themselves. As with most YA... Read More

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water: A warmhearted wuxia fantasy

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water (2020) is a surprisingly warmhearted fantasy novella set in a war-torn Asian country. It's a queer take on wuxia, a time-honored genre of Chinese fiction based on heroes skilled in the martial arts, frequently in superhuman, fantastical ways (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or even Kung Fu Panda).

One day, in a small coffeehouse, a customer angrily accuses his waitress of using jampi witchcraft on him. The quarrel degenerates, a handsome bandit intervenes,... Read More

Witchy Eye: A creative alternate history

Witchy Eye by D.J. Butler

D.J. Butler’s Witchy Eye (2017), the first book in his WITCHY EYE series, is an alternate history set in a 19th century United States that’s almost unrecognizable.

In Appalachia, a scrawny teenager named Sarah Calhoun is being raised by her grandfather. Her most notable features are her razor-sharp wit, her willingness to stand up for herself and others, and her eye which is swollen shut and looks gross. Sarah’s life is turned upside down when a priest and his minions attempt to kidnap her. She’s saved by a travelling monk who tells Sarah the secret of who she really is. To avoid the bad guys who are trying to capture her, she sets off with the monk and Calvin, her devoted cousin, to claim her destiny.

Butler’s alternate world is creative. Americans a... Read More

Prisoner of Midnight: Vampire mystery at sea

Prisoner of Midnight by Barbara Hambly

Prisoner of Midnight (2019) is the eighth novel in Barbara Hambly’s JAMES ASHER series, which began in 1988 with Those Who Hunt the Night. It has been nominated for the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. I had never tried this series before, but having enjoyed her (non-paranormal) BENJAMIN JANUARY mystery series, I decided to give Prisoner of Midnight a shot.

(And now that I’ve read it, I can say that there are some common themes. Both series feature a fiercely intelligent male/female pair solving crimes, and explore prejudice as both a cause of violence and an impediment to the investigation.)

Hambly weaves enough backstory into the narrative that a new reader can catch up, and it’s smoothly integrated, so longtime fans of the series won’t ha... Read More

Jade War: An Asian-inspired mob drama

Jade War by Fonda LeeJade War (2019) is the second book in Fonda Lee’s GREEN BONE SAGA series and a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It follows Jade City, which won the World Fantasy Award, and which you’ll need to read first (this review will contain some mild spoilers for that novel). Jade War picks up a year after the dramatic events of Jade City. Hilo and Shae are trying to keep the Kaul clan’s empire together on the island of Kekon but ther... Read More

Fleet of Knives: Tense and exciting

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell

Fleet of Knives (2019) is the second book in Gareth L. Powell’s EMBERS OF WAR series and a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Its predecessor, Embers of War, was also a Locus finalist and won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel of 2018. When I reviewed it last year, I reported that Embers of War was “pleasant but forgettable” and, sure enough, I had to refer to my notes to recall the plot. (I keep notes about the plot on all the series books I read). There will be some spoilers for that first book in this review.

We’ve got some new characters in Fleet of Knives Read More

Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop (Rebirth): A fun range of stories to finish up the series

Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop (Rebirth) by Hope Larson & Scott Godlweski

This is the fourth volume in Hope Larson's Batgirl run, one which has focused not only on crime-fighting, but also community spirit — what I've liked most about Larson's stories is that Barbara Gordon gives just as much to the suburb of Burnside as her civilian self than she does as a vigilante. In this, she's assisted by a group of friends who also contribute to society in meaningful ways, as well as enriching Barbara's day-to-day life. I didn't realize that members of the Batfamily could be this emotionally stable!

Strange Loop isn't my favourite collection, simply because it's made up of seven shorter stories, which inevitably don't have the same level of depth and detail that longer plots can manage. Still, there's some fun... Read More

Tomorrow, the Killing: Another mystery set in Low Town

Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky

Tomorrow, the Killing (2012) is the second book in Daniel Polansky’s LOW TOWN series, a noir-flavored fantasy set in the grimy underbelly of a fictional city. Tomorrow, the Killing takes place three years after the events of Low Town (UK: The Straight Razor Cure). You don’t necessarily need to read Low Town first because the stories stand alone, but it will be most enjoyable if you do.

In Low Town, we met a man whose friends and acquaintances call him Warden. Warden is a former soldier and police officer who’s now a crime boss. He sells (and uses) drugs, but... Read More

The Girl and the Stars: The underground icy setting is the best part

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Stars (2020) is the first book in Mark Lawrence’s BOOK OF THE ICE series. It’s about a society that lives in an extremely harsh icy climate. They have a spiritual leader called “the regulator” who looks for children who are “broken” — children who are too weak or who have character traits that will not benefit the survival of their tribes when they become adults. Every few years, to cull the herd, the regulator identifies these kids and has them thrown into a hole in the ice where, presumably, they die.

When Yaz’s brother is assessed by the regulator, he is found lacking and pushed into the hole. Distraught, Yaz jumps in after him. She is surprised when she doesn’t fall to her death. Instead, she’s saved by a group of oth... Read More

Batgirl Vol. 2: Son of Penguin (Rebirth): Batgirl versus the Penguin’s son

Batgirl Vol. 2: Son of Penguin (Rebirth) by Hope Larson & Christian Wildgoose

At the end of Volume One of Hope Larson's take on Batgirl, a new face had arrived in Burnside, Gotham, who answered to the name "Cobblepot" at the airport.

Turns out he's Ethan Cobblepot, son of the Penguin, though has never had any kind of close relationship with his father. He's handsome and clever, and wants to improve the world through technology, launching a variety of apps to ensure public safety. Barbara is charmed, and agrees to go on a date with him — though given the spate of tech-related crime happening in the area, she does have an ulterior motive in spending time with him.

The interesting thing about this series is that it doesn't just deal with big, bombastic, supervillain crimes, but issues such as homelessness, gentrification... Read More

Batgirl Vol. 1: Beyond Burnside (Rebirth): Batgirl visits Japan

Batgirl Vol. 1: Beyond Burnside (Rebirth) by Hope Larson & Rafael Albuquerque

Now is the right time to admit that I don't read many DC comics — or many comics, period. I jumped straight into this series without any context of Barbara Gordon's life or background, beyond the general basics of the character. (For instance, I know she's the daughter of Commissioner Gordon and spent some time in a wheelchair, but I have no idea how she regained the use of her legs, or who Frankie is).

So how does this story hold up for someone with just a tenuous understanding of Batgirl? Pretty good.

Barbara is on holiday in Japan, catching up with her old friend Kai, enjoying the sights, and hoping to interview Chiyo Yamashiro, a one hundred and four year old superhero known as Fruit Bat.

But of course, events transpire that disrupt her holiday groove. Criminals adept in a range of martial arts are in pursuit of so... Read More

Deeplight: A new take on the Cthulhu mythos

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

They say that the Undersea was the dwelling place of the gods. They say many things of the Myriad, and all of them are true. The gods were as real as the coastlines and currents and as merciless as the winds and whirlpools.

No one knows who or what the gods were, the giant creatures who lived in the sea and then, mysteriously, all died. But everyone knows that a piece of a dead god can make your fortune. Hark is still a child himself, all of 14 years old, but he knows it, too. That’s why he’s in the crowd when a submarine brings back parts of the Hidden Lady, the god that used to live in the waters around the archipelago on which he lives. His friend, Jelt, knows it too, and he has plans that call for Hark to do some hazardous things to make them both rich. Hark pays the price for Jelt’s foolishness, sold into indentured servitude.

Hark is lucky that he has a golden tongu... Read More

Sweep with Me: Battling space chickens and other troublesome guests at the inn

Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews

Sweep with Me (2020), the fifth book in Ilona Andrews’s INNKEEPER CHRONICLES series, finds Dina DeMille fretting with her boyfriend Sean about an upcoming official review of Dina and the Gertrude Hunt, her magical inn for interstellar travelers. The innkeepers’ Assembly is concerned about some of the goings-on at the Gertrude Hunt and whether Dina and Sean have been keeping their rules, including not letting anyone on Earth know that their inn isn’t an ordinary one.

In the meantime, though, it’s the annual Treaty Stay holiday for earth’s galactic inns, and the tradition is that no innkeeper may turn away a guest during Treaty Stay. So, naturally, Dina and her inn are asked to host a set of particularly troublesome guests: the Drífan liege lord of Green Mou... Read More

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 3: The Shu-Torun War: Vader has a go at political intrigue

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 3: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen & Salvador Larroca

The fourth volume in Kieron Gillen’s DARTH VADER series focuses more on political strategy and warfare than the earlier volumes (which were more to do with espionage). In the wake of the first Death Star’s destruction, the Empire is desperate to regain a foothold on the galaxy and reverse the morale acquired by the Rebellion through the loss of their great weapon.

Vader is sent to the planet of Shu-Torun, a place rich in natural resources that help fuel the Empire, where Ore Barons are fighting against their new ruler. Queen Trios was crowned by Vader himself after he assassinated her father, and in what feels like a deliberate reflection of Padme Amidala, she’s beginning to flex the boundaries of her power. To keep Shu-Torun under the control of the Emperor, Vader goes to support her rule.

... Read More

The Court of Miracles: A quick-paced series-opener with a few issues

The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant

There’s a scene in Kester Grant’s The Court of Miracles (2020) where an entire room of nobles is hypnotized by the head of the assassin’s guild into doing something horrific, but which they are wholly oblivious to. It’s an apt scene to note, because while this first book in the COURT OF MIRACLES trilogy is far from horrific (really, far from it), Grant is such a fluid writer that she lulls you into a sort of readerly trance, a smoothly flowing journey that carries you effortlessly along, leaving you if not oblivious at least uncaring with regard to the story’s several flaws. As such, it’s one of those occasional odd novels where I’m going to say there are lots of places it isn’t very good, but you still may find yourself enjoying it anyway.

The blurbs label it a retelling (of sorts) of Les Misérables,... Read More

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe: A wacky MG SF story

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Readers who enjoyed Carlos Hernandez’s Nebula-nominated Sal and Gabi Break the Universe are likely to also enjoy the sequel, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe (2020). The story picks up where the previous one left off. Sal’s “magical” abilities have left holes in the universe and his father (Papi) is building a machine (in the living room) that he hopes will fix the holes. But Sal notices that the machine makes him feel sad when he’s around it… and it might be developing consciousness.

Other weird things are happening, too. Sal meets a Gabby from another universe who has come to warn him about Papi’s machine. The new toilet at school wants ... Read More

Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows: A look at Vader through unexpected eyes

Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows by Tim Siedell, Gabriel Guzman, Michael Atiyeh, Felipe Massafera

From the same author that released Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin, Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows is a graphic novel set a few months after The Revenge of the Sith, in which the Empire is consolidating its power across the galaxy.

Despite Vader’s name being in the title, it’s really the story of a clone soldier who is left for dead by his Jedi general during the Clone Wars.

Defecting from the army he hides away for years on a backwater planet, only to become intrigued by rumours of the terrifying Darth Vader. He signs up to become a Stormtrooper, and once again finds meaning on the battlefield – though it isn’t the same as when he fought under Jedi lead... Read More

Nevertell: Occasionally rises above its mostly solid nature

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

Nevertell (2020), by Katharine Orton, is an engaging if somewhat limited Middle Grade book set in the wild north of Stalinist Russia and focused on a young girl trying to escape a brutal work camp and make her way south to Moscow and the grandmother she’s been told would be able to take her in.

Twelve-year-old Lina was born in the camp (her father is rumored to be the cruel commandant Zima) that her grandfather, mother, and uncle had been brought to years earlier. Only she and her mother Katya have survived, and when a trio of prisoners come up with a desperate escape plan, Katya provides the distraction that allows them, along with Lina’s best friend Bogdan, to get beyond the fence and into the frozen Siberian woodland. The weather is deadly enough, but the forest is also home to a powerful sorceress known as the “Manhunter.” And Lina and Bogdan’s fellow prisoners may not b... Read More