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The Unconquered Mage: The struggle toward unification

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The Unconquered Mage by Melissa McShane

The CONVERGENCE fantasy trilogy wraps up in The Unconquered Mage (2017), as Melissa McShane continues to explore the repercussions of the magical merging of two different worlds, with different language and cultures. Balaen and Castavir were split apart centuries ago by a complex magical spell that went awry. Now the two countries are reunited physically, as are our main characters, the Balean mage Sesskia, who narrates the story through her diary entries, and her husband Cederic, head of the Castavir mages. But there’s disunity of the countries from a political standpoint, and that’s echoed in Sesskia and Cederic’s relationship to some extent as well, as t... Read More

The Privilege of the Sword: Enjoy another visit to Riverside

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

“Whatever the duke means to do with her, it can’t be anything decent.”

The Privilege of the Sword is Ellen Kushner’s sequel to her novel Swordspoint which was about the doings of the high and low societies in her fictional town of Riverside. The main characters of that novel were the nobleman Alec Tremontaine, a student, and his lover, the famous swordsman Richard St. Vier. You don’t need to read Swordspoint before reading The Privilege of the Sword, but it will probably be more enjoyable if you do because you’ll have some background on most of the characters.

Now Alec is known as the Mad Duke Tremontaine. He spends some of his time in his mansion outside the city, but he really prefers to reside in hi... Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also ha... Read More

Updraft: A debut novel that succeeds more than not

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Updraft by Fran Wilde

I’m of mixed feelings on Fran Wilde’s 2015 debut novel Updraft, which left me at various times enthralled, captivated, curious, and eager to continue. All of which would be great if it hadn’t at other times had me thinking it was too predictable, too familiar, too plodding, and too vague. Thus the mixed feelings, though the balance tipped me over far enough to move on to book two in the series, Cloudbound (I’ll amend this review once I’ve decided whether the sequel and/or the third book, Horizon, justify that perseverance).

Wilde sets her series in a world of bone towers grown ever upward by their inhabitants after a time of tu... Read More

The Courier: Nice action sequences but unconvincing world building

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The Courier by Gerald Brandt

The Courier (2016) was recommended to me by a bookseller. She hadn’t read it herself yet. It was recommended to her by a friend, she said, who said it was YA and “kind of like William Gibson.” My first impulse in rating this book was to base my rating on the gap between the “William Gibson” statement and my experience of the book. If I had done that, this would be a 2-star review. That would not be fair. Nothing on the cover or interior review snippets compares this book to Gibson.

I am going to review The Courier based on the story I think Gerald Brandt was trying to tell. Although it has a youthful protagonist, the book is marketed as cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic fiction. YA or not, I think this... Read More

Rocannon’s World: Ursula K. Le Guin’s debut

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rocannon’s World, published in 1966, is Ursula Le Guin’s debut novel and the first in her HAINISH CYCLE. The story describes how Rocannon, an ethnographer, became stranded on the planet he was charting when a spaceship from Faraday, a rogue planet that is an enemy to the League of All Worlds, blew up his spaceship and the rest of his crew. Rocannon thinks he’s trapped forever until he sees a helicopter and realizes that Faraday must have a secret base on the planet. If he can find it, he can use its ansible to communicate with the League, not only letting them know that he lives, but also the location of the secret enemy base. (Fun Fact: This is the book that one of Orson Scott... Read More

Wytchfire: Old-school epic fantasy

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Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhofer

Wytchfire, the first book in Michael Meyerhofer’s DRAGONKIN TRILOGY, is the image of a classic-style epic fantasy of the sort that hasn't seemed to show up as often since George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb largely took over for Tolkien as guiding lights of the genre. It's a fun and lively story, but the reader's enjoyment may depend on how much s/he enjoys old-school epic fantasy and its associated tropes.

I happen to like old-school epic fantasy, so for me Wytchfire was a fun read (even slightly nostalgic, like revisiting the old neighborhood and f... Read More

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield

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Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Christine Koch

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield (2017) by Falynn Christine Koch is part of the SCIENCE COMICS series, a graphic series of books each of which explores a single scientific topic. In this case, as the title might indicate, it’s plague, but more broadly it’s an examination of how pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, parasites) infect and damage the human body, how the body (sometimes with medical help) tries to fight them off, and, to a lesser degree, how such illnesses have affected human history.

Plagues begins a bit roughly. The frame story is an unnecessarily confusing bit involving conversations inside a virtual body (that somehow still gets sick from virtual germs?) between the scientist whose virtual body it is, a T-cell, and two plagues — yell... Read More

Tinder: A twisted, terrifying fairy tale

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Tinder by Sally Gardner

Death first comes to Otto Hundebiss on the battlefield. Surrounded by Otto's friends and comrades, he offers to take Otto with him as well. Otto declines, and Death and his ghostly army vanish. So begins Sally Gardner's twisted take on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the tinderbox. And it doesn't get any more light-hearted after that...

Otto staggers through the woods in which the battle took place, a bullet in his side and a sword wound in his shoulder, and eventually passes out. When he comes round, he isn't sure whether or not he's dreaming: all around him hang boots and shoes. A beast is stoking a fire next to him, and Otto realises it is not a beast at all, but a horned animal mask on the head of a man. Otto asks about the shoes, and the half-man (as Otto calls him) explains... Read More

Owlflight: Heroic fantasy for less-experienced fantasy readers

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Owlflight by Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Owlflight (1997) is the first book in DARIAN’S TALE, one of the many trilogies/series that make up Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR saga. Though DARIAN’S TALE was first published twenty years ago, according to the series’ internal chronologically it takes place late in the overall story. I had only read four of the VALDEMAR books before picking up Owlflight. I read it because Tantor Audio has just released it in audio format and will release its sequels, Owlsight and Owlknight, in the coming months. I’m hoping this means that the other trilogies in the series that haven’t been published in... Read More

Wicked Like a Wildfire: Edgy YA heroine, unique setting, extravagant imagery

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Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popović

In Wicked Like a Wildfire (2017), magic and secrecy swirl around Iris and Malina, a pair of seventeen year old fraternal twins who live in current-day Montenegro with their single mother, Jasmina. Jasmina confides to them that all of the women in their family have a distinct gleam, a magical way to create and enhance beauty. Jasmina bakes marvelous foods that call particular visual scenes to the minds of those who eat them. Malina can sense moods and reflect them back with an amazing voice that creates layers of harmony. And Iris can make flowers (and sometimes other objects) expand and fractal into spiral blazes and fireworks of color.

Their joyful, though private, practicing of their magic together comes to an abrupt end when the twins are seven and a neighbor nearly discovers their secret. Jasmina, pa... Read More

Wearing the Cape: Good fun, but pulls punches

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Wearing the Cape
by Marion G. Harmon

Prose fiction has often seemed to have trouble dealing with the figure of the superhero. While the subgenre can boast many excellent graphic novels, and film and television adaptations have been quite successful, it has never quite seemed to find its voice in a less visual medium. There have certainly been some notable successes, but it feels as though the breakout work has yet to be written. Wearing the Cape (2011) is actually a pretty good try, though it does have its flaws.

First, though, let's talk about the fun central premise. As is pretty standard for postmodern superhero stories, some sort of cataclysmic Event has taken place that has randomly given a segment of the population super powers. No one seems to know exactly how this has happened, and it ultimately doesn't much matter — comic books have basically come to l... Read More

Starman’s Quest: Silverberg doesn’t want you to read it

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Starman’s Quest by Robert Silverberg

Editor’s Note: Being in the public domain, Starman’s Quest (1958) is available free in Kindle format. You can add audio narration for $2.99.

There’s an author’s note attached to various versions of Starman’s Quest at Amazon that goes like this: “This book is a very early and not very good work of the author, who has tried to prevent the issue of a new edition of it. Unfortunately, since it is no longer protected by copyright, he can't prevent its distribution, but he recommends that you choose some other book of his to read.” The audio version I listened to has a less dire warning: “This was my second novel which I wrote when I was 19, in my junior year at Columbia. I’ve written better ones since. But readers interested in the archaeology of a ... Read More

Tea With the Black Dragon: Refreshing romance + 1980s computer nostalgia

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Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Martha Macnamara is a free spirit. Although she’s 50 years old and has accumulated much wisdom over the years, she can also be innocent and even childlike. She’s a musician with much talent, but no fame, and she usually spends her time travelling around and staying with friends. When we meet her, she has flown to California at her grown daughter’s request. Elizabeth, who’s just as independent as her mother but is career-driven and successful, has paid for Martha to stay in an elegant hotel in San Francisco.

While Martha is waiting for Liz to call on her, she meets Mayland Long, a wealthy Asian man who lives at the hotel. Martha and Mayland are instantly attracted to, and intrigued by, each other. When Liz goes missing and Martha starts investigating, Mayland decides to help. When Martha then also disappears right in front of his eyes, Mayl... Read More

The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

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The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James Kakalios

James Kakalios structures his popular science book, The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day (2017), around following a person through a typical day and stopping periodically to explain the science (particularly obviously, the physics) behind the technology the person uses and/or engages with, such as a hotel keycard, a toaster, an LED TV, a copier machine and so forth. Both the explanations and the structure succeed to a mixed degree, and while I found at the end the book to be informative and generally rewarding, its style and structure seemed to work against its task of popularizing science/tech for the masses.

The structure’s issues tend to be that following a person progressively throug... Read More

Magic for Nothing: The youngest Price child gets her own story

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Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire

Magic for Nothing, (2017), Seanan McGuire’s sixth INCRYPTID novel, finally gives the youngest Price child, Antimony, a story of her own. The rebellious, roller-derby daughter has enough on her plate coming to grips with her newly manifested pyrokinetic abilities when she is thrown into a dangerous undercover assignment, and to her way of thinking, she has her sister Verity to blame for it.

I have only read the first two books in the series and one short story featuring Antimony, so I may commit inadvertent spoilers. In the prologue, we learn that Verity, on a live broadcast of a New York dance-competition show, revealed her cryptozoologist powers, and challenged the Covenant of St. George, a secret society, military ... 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

The Weight of the World: The galactic chess game continues

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The Weight of the World by Tom Toner

Note: This review contains some spoilers for the previous book,  The Promise of the Child.

I finished The Promise of the Child, the first book in Tom Toner’s AMARANTHINE SPECTRUM space opera series, rather bewildered but game to continue the series by jumping into The Weight of the World (2017). Toner begins this second book in the series with a two page summary of what actually happened in The Promise of the Child, which is extremely helpful given the complexity of the events in tha... Read More

The Jewel and Her Lapidary: A Nebula and Hugo-nominated novelette

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The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde’s novelette The Jewel and Her Lapidary was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards this year. I listened to the 1.75 hour long audiobook version produced by Macmillan Audio and narrated by Mahvesh Murad.

I loved the setting of this story — a kingdom that is protected by powerful gems which can be heard and gently manipulated by lapidaries, people who have a genetic predisposition for connecting with the gems. Think of them as gem whisperers. The lapidaries serve the royal family, at least until they go mad in later life.

This story is about two young women who are closely bonded to each other. Lin is the kingdom’s princess (referred to as a “Jewel”) and Sima is her lapidary. When we meet them... Read More

Now I Rise: Demand the crown

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

And I Darken bought us some of the best characters YA has seen in a long time: Lada Dracul, the fearsome terror of a little girl, and her gentle brother Radu. Defying stereotypes of gender, race and religion, as well as the predictable tropes of the genre itself, And I Darken was a FanLit fave of last year. Lada and Radu make their return in the follow-up, Now I Rise (2017), but can the sequel live up to its dazzling predecessor?

Lada ended And I Darken forging out towards Wallachia with her loyal Janissaries, having rejected the new sultan Mehmed's offer to stay with him, whilst Radu chose to remain. The messy love triangle — Radu's unrequited love for Mehmed, and Lada and Mehmed's impos... Read More

Obernewtyn: Post-apocalyptic YA fantasy from the 1980s

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Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody

Elspeth has dreams that come true. She can read thoughts, even the thoughts of animals, especially the strange cat Maruman. These gifts make her a Misfit, marked for death in her world.

Isobelle Carmody’s post-apocalyptic fantasy Obernewtyn, published in 1987, follows Elspeth from the “orphanage farm,” where she and her brother Jes were sent after the execution of their parents for sedition, to the strange mountain compound of Obernewtyn, a place of mystery, power and great danger.

In this world a strict government and a stricter religious order called The Herders control the population after a catastrophe, the Great White, nearly destroyed all life. It appears from the toxicity of the soil and the mention of whole sectors that are “badlands” that the event might have been thermonuclear. Any... Read More

Winter Be My Shield: A second-world fantasy from Down Under

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Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier

Winter Be My Shield, by Jo Spurrier, was nominated for an Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel in 2012, in her home country of Australia, and Spurrier herself was nominated for a Ditmar. While the roughly 30 reviews on Amazon are mixed, there are plenty of enthusiastic 5-star ones. All of this is to say that many people like this book more than I do. You’ve read my reviews, you know my taste, so be guided by that.

Winter Be My Shield is Book One in the CHILDREN OF THE BLACK SUN series. It was printed in the US in 2013. This second-world fantasy follows a fugitive mage named Sierra as she attempts to escape from the blood-mage Kell, who serves the Mesentreian king. Sierra’s magic draws power from the pain of others. So does Kell’s. More than she fears the sadistic... Read More

Black Dog Short Stories: Events in the lives of key Black Dog characters

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Black Dog Short Stories by Rachel Neumeier

This set of four short stories is an interlude in Rachel Neumeier’s BLACK DOG universe, where werewolves ― more properly known in this world as black dogs ― are adjusting to a world where humans are now aware of them, after an interspecies war that wiped out the world’s vampires and decimated many of the black dog packs. To the black dogs’ dismay, destroying the vampires also destroyed a type of mental mist or miasma produced by the vampires that kept humans from recognizing the magical creatures around them. Many humans recognize that at least some of the black dogs are worth having as allies against the more evil types, but it’s an uneasy alliance at best.

With one exception, these stories are set after the first book in t... Read More

The Promise of the Child: Ambitious but confusing space opera

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The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child (2015), an ambitious space opera that spans centuries and multiple planetary systems, begins with a prologue set in in fourteenth century Praha (Prague), where Princess Eliška, married to King John of Bohemia, meets with a man named Aaron to discuss his help with her son’s ill health. The story then jumps to AD 14,647 … but we will meet Aaron (“the Long-Life”) again.

In this distant future, humanity has spread to many worlds and "prismed" into many vastly different races, including giants (the Melius, who can change their skin color at will, and who inhabit Earth, now known as the Old World), a fairy-like race known as the Oxel scouts, and others in between. Overseeing all of the Firmament empire is a small, powerful group of humans known as the Amaranthine, who are virtually immortal due to ... Read More

A Bridge of Years: Time travel to 1962

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A Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson

Tom Winter tried to find solace in a bottle when his wife left him. He lost his job and concluded that 1989 was a pretty tough year. Now, Tom is trying to make a go of it in Belltower in the Pacific Northwest. His brother has set him up with a job as a car salesman, and he has bought a house. Life seems pretty mundane, until Tom realizes that the house is a time machine that leads to New York in 1962.

Published in 1991, Robert Charles Wilson’s A Bridge of Years is his first time travel novel, but it’s the third one I’ve read by him. Here, the traveler wanders through a tunnel from one time/location to another. There is no dial for Tom to turn to 11 or to 1924 or to the future. (This is not to say that the tunnels are... Read More