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In the Watchful City: Some fresh takes, but needed more development

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

In the Watchful City (2021) is a novel in story form, a structure I’m usually a big fan of, but the stories rarely felt fully developed and in the end they just didn’t coalesce for me into an entirely effective or cohesive whole, though there is a true originality in style and content here.

The setting is the city-state of Ora, which has managed to escape from under the dominating Skyland empire and, in an attempt to keep its residents free and happy, the city uses upgraded humans as “nodes” in an AI-like surveillance network (“the Gleaming”). Some specialized nodes can leap into the bodies of living creatures (though not human ones) and control them in order to intervene when necessary.

Anima is one such node and æ has been happily enacting ær role for some time. Ær regular, contented life, though, is disturbed by the appearance of a fore... Read More

The Angel of the Crows: Too faithful to the originals

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

For about the first third or perhaps half of Katherine Addison’s newest, The Angel of the Crows (2020), I was thinking I was finally off the schneid, as it had been about two weeks since I’d really thoroughly enjoyed a novel I was reading. And I was definitely enjoying the pastiche of several Sherlock Holmes stories which basically boils down to “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” Which sounds like a lot of fun, and as noted, it was, at least for that first third or so. But then, well, it never really went anywhere beyond “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” and after about the halfway point my enjoyment began to falter, the story began to sag, and by the end I was left feeling that a n... Read More

Star Gate: An innovative concept

Star Gate by Andre Norton

Kincar’s grandfather, the warlord of their Gorthian clan, is on his deathbed. Kincar assumes that he and his half-brother will soon be forced to contend for leadership of the clan but, before he dies, his grandfather informs Kincar that Kincar’s father was a Star Lord, one of the mighty (human) race who can travel to other worlds. Encouraged by his grandfather, accompanied by his trusty animal companion (a bird of prey), and armed with a handy magical amulet, Kincar leaves his Gorthian family to join his father’s people.

When he meets the Star Lords, they explain that they have had too much influence on Gorth, causing it to develop faster than it naturally would have. They will now use a gate to travel to a parallel Gorth which they hope will be uninhabited by humanoid species.

But things go awry and they end up in an alternate Gorth where, Kincar is surprised to discover, people are ... Read More

Da Vinci’s Cat: Solidly charming, but has its issues

Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock offers up a solidly charming Middle Grade portal story involving travel through time and space, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, shifting timelines, feuding Renaissance artists, and of course, a cat. With a quick pace, high stakes, and two comically mismatched young protagonists, Da Vinci’s Cat (2021) will probably satisfy most young readers, despite some issues.

In 1511 Rome, 11-year-old Federico Gonzaga is a “guest-hostage” to Pope Julius II, ensconced in the Pope’s sumptuous villa to ensure the loyalty of his aristocratic family, particularly his father, who leads the Pope’s army. It’s a lavish, pampered existence for sure, but also constraining (he’s not allowed to leave the admittedly huge complex/grounds) and more than a little lonely. That loneliness is eventually abated by a strange trio who s... Read More

The Tangleroot Palace: A solid collection

The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

I’m a big fan of Marjorie Liu’s MONSTRESS series, so I was eager to pick up her collection of short stories, entitled The Tangleroot Palace (2021). Unfortunately, while there was a lot to admire in terms of the prose itself, the stories didn’t do much for me, though they were solid enough. I’ll note, however, as I always do when reviewing a collection, that I’m a tough audience when it comes to short stories, generally preferring longer, more developed works (though one of my favorite books this year will be a collection of stories).

Liu’s collection brings together a half-dozen stories and the eponymous novella. As noted, the prose is strong throughout, especially considering the stories were written while she was still in her twenties and thirtie... Read More

Machine: Should have been more exciting

Machine by Elizabeth Bear

Dr. Jens and her alien colleagues rescue spaceships that are in trouble. After answering a distress call, they discover an old ship in which all of the human crewmembers are in cryogenic storage. Their only caretaker is an oddly sexy robot who was given instructions to build the cryogenic storage containers for the crew long ago.

When Dr. Jens and her colleagues get back to their own ship and get ready to thaw out some of the frozen humans, they discover that their own trusty shipmind, Sally, is starting to forget things. They begin to suspect a rogue artificial intelligence might be responsible for what’s been happening on both of the ships.

When Dr. Jens is asked to figure out what’s going on, she begins to unravel a strange mystery and discovers that the benevolent organization she works with, and some of her beloved colleagues, may not be quite as wonderful as she thought. As we tag... Read More

Judgment on Janus: A good introduction to classic SF for an MG or YA audience

Judgment on Janus by Andre Norton

Naill Renfro lives in The Dipple, a ghetto on the pleasure planet of Korwar (same setting as in Catseye). He and his mother arrived there years ago as refugees when their home was destroyed by a space war. Now his mother is dying and she’s in a lot of pain and anguish. To purchase a final gift and a peaceful death for his mother, Naill sells himself into indentured servitude on a frontier planet called Janus.

When Naill arrives on Janus, he is put to work in the fields where the citizens seem to be battling the forest. They are chopping down trees as fast as they can.

Naill and the other servants are warned not to touch any artifacts they find as they work. These items are called “treasures” and they’re destroyed as soon as they’re found because they’re cursed. According to the ove... Read More

For the Good of the Realm: Genderswapped swordplay for Three Musketeers fans

For the Good of the Realm by Nancy Jane Moore

2021’s For the Good of the Realm is a gender-swapped swashbuckler heavily inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Author Nancy Jane Moore creates a world of nation-states much like France and its neighbors of the Musketeers. Against this backdrop, Anna D’Gart, a swordswoman in the Queen’s Guards, serves the queen and the realm against enemies foreign and domestic — although one domestic adversary is powerful, and Anna finds herself swimming in very deep waters.

In the opening chapter, Anna and her friend Asamir are given a secret assignment to recover a necklace the Queen gave to an admirer, because the King wants her to wear it at an upcoming ball. Fans of The Three Musketeers will recognize this plot. In this adventure, we the readers learn that the King and Queen shar... Read More

Quest Crosstime: A slightly sloppy story with some prescient ideas

Quest Crosstime by Andre Norton

Quest Crosstime (1965) is Andre Norton’s second and final story about Blake Walker, a man who has the precognitive ability to sense when he’s in danger. Quest Crosstime is combined with The Crossroads of Time (1956), the first novel about Blake Walker, in the Crosstime omnibus which was published by Baen books in 2008 and has recently been released in an audiobook edition by Tantor Media. Graham Rowat gives a nice retro-sounding performance in Tantor’s audiobook edition which is 12 hours long (for both books).

At the beginning of Quest Crosstime we meet Marfy, a young woman who has just landed on a... Read More

The Crossroads of Time: Chasing a tyrant across parallel Earths

The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton

Recently, Tantor Audio has been releasing audiobook editions of many of Andre Norton’s stories which have been combined in omnibus editions originally published by Baen Books. I’ve been reviewing each novel separately because that’s our preference here at Fantasy Literature, but I love that readers can purchase these relatively short novels in cost-effective omnibus editions, and I am especially pleased that these stories are finally available in audiobook format.

Crosstime contains two stories about Blake Walker, an orphan who doesn’t know where he comes from and has an uncanny ability to sense imminent danger. In the first story, The Crossroads of Time, which was originally published in 1956, Blake is shaving when he gets a sudden a... Read More

How to Mars: Solid but feels like a missed opportunity

How to Mars by David Ebenbach

In David Ebenbach’s How to Mars (2021), humans have made it to Mars, but not via the usual major government initiative. Instead, a group of six was sent as a reality TV show produced by Destination Mars, a corporation whose owner is “pretty eccentric.” Sadly, Mars turned out to be kind of dull (lots of rocks, no life, monotone color) and as the six scientists grew bored so did the audience, leading to the show’s cancellation after just one year. The novel though kicks off with a revelation sure to jump start ratings: despite a prohibition on sex, one of the group (Jenny) is pregnant. It’s a great premise, rich with potential for tension, drama, and an exploration of what it means to be human, especially with the added complication of Martian life, but unfortunately the novel doesn’t fully mine that potential, leaving it less than the sum of its parts.
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The Ghost Tree: A well-rendered 1980s slasher that could have gone farther

The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

After I read Christina Henry’s 2020 horror novel The Ghost Tree, I did a bit of research on the writer. It seems like she is well-known for retelling fairy tales, usually with a dark (or darker) twist than the original. The Ghost Tree is not a fairy tale, as far as I can tell, although it has some fairy-tale elements. It’s a 1980s-style slasher horror novel. By the way, that’s what I thought I was getting when I bought it, so there is no mislabeling going on here.

Lauren DeMucci, nearly fifteen, has weighty problems on her shoulders. The year before, her father was murdered in the woods near their house, his heart torn out. The town police haven’t made any progress on solving the murder. Lauren’s best friend since the second grade, Mi... Read More

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls: Younger readers will enjoy the fresh setting

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

Kaela Rivera sets her novel Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls (2021) against a backdrop of Mexican/Meso-American/Southwestern folktales and legends, sending the titular protagonist on a quest to rescue her older sister. The story will probably mostly satisfy its target Middle Grade audience but is less likely to appeal to even slightly older readers.

Tierra del Sol is a remote town surrounded by desert that each year enacts a ritualist dance to frighten away the dark criaturas that have long threatened Cece’s people. Cece herself is too young for the dance and is as well more than a little distrusted by the townspeople due to an incident from her childhood. Her sister, on the other hand, is loved by all. Unfortunately, she’s also caught the eye of El Sombreron, one of the worst of the dark criaturas, and when he kidnaps her on the nigh... Read More

Wraiths of time: An American grad student becomes an African princess

Wraiths of time by Andre Norton

Tallahassee (Tally) Mitford, a graduate student who studies archaeology and African history, has been asked to examine some Egyptian artifacts that appear to be very old, important, powerful, and radioactive.

When one of the relics pulls her into a parallel universe, Tally finds herself in Meroë, an ancient Nubian kingdom located on the Nile River. She is completely helpless there with no status and the inability to speak the language. She has no idea how to get back home.

When she’s rescued by some women who are the companions of the recently deceased princess Ashake, she is asked to impersonate the princess and help Queen Candace fend off the attacks of a powerful man who hopes to subjugate these women who just want to rule themselves.

Andre... Read More

Android at Arms: A prince wonders if he’s an android

Android at Arms by Andre Norton

This year Tantor Media has been producing audio editions of the Baen omnibus collections of Andre Norton’s science fiction stories. Gods and Androids (2004 in print, 2021 in audio) contains the two novels Android at Arms (1971) and Wraiths of Time (1975). I am reviewing the novels separately because that’s how they were originally released, and that’s usually been our practice here at Fantasy Literature. Each of these stories stands alone.

In the opening scene of Android at Arms, Andas Kastor comes to consciousness in some sort of automated jail cell on a harsh uninhabited planet. He has no idea how long he’s been there or how long he’s been in a state of delirium. In... Read More

Voorloper: A few humans try to make peace with a hostile planet

Voorloper by Andre Norton

Voorloper (1980) is the last novel collected in The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), Baen’s omnibus of Andre Norton stories. I’ve been reviewing the books individually (because they were originally released as separate novels), but it’s cost-effective and convenient to purchase them in the omnibus edition. Specifically, I’m reviewing Tantor Media’s new audio version of the omnibus, which is excellently narrated by L.J. Ganser.

The first three books in this omnibus are The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Read More

The Bone Maker: A solid novel

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

There’s a point almost exactly halfway through Sarah Beth Durst’s latest novel, The Bone Maker (2021), where the author teases us that the book we’ve been reading just might go in a completely different direction, prompting me to write in my notes, “Love this.” And then, well, it didn’t. Instead, as if the inertia were too great, we’re shortly steered back into a well-worn fantasy story, which, despite being mostly satisfying — with some moments that rose above that level and a few that pulled it below — had me wishing I could have gone back to that moment fifty-three percent of the way in and chosen the plot less traveled.

Twenty-five years ago, Kreya led her crew of magic-users (husband Jentt and friends Zera, S... Read More

The X Factor: An outsider makes friends on a cold planet

The X Factor by Andre Norton

The X Factor (1965) is the third short novel contained in The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), Baen’s omnibus of Norton stories that also contains The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), and Voorloper (1980). Tantor Media has recently published an audio version of the omnibus, but I’m reviewing the books separately because that’s the way they were originally published. I love that Baen and Tantor have reprinted these old novels for new readers in these formats.

Diskan Fentress thinks of himself a... Read More

Finna: It’s a LitenVärld after all

Finna by Nino Cipri

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated wandering through the endless maze of rooms that is IKEA, it’s not hard to imagine that there are hidden passages that lead, not to a secret shortcut to an exit, but to another world entirely. Nino Cipri’s Nebula Award-nominated novella Finna (2020) takes that concept and adds to it a timely set of social concerns, ranging from gender identity to the evils of capitalism generally and low-wage retail jobs in particular.

Ava is a sales associate at LitenVärld (Swedish for “small world”), the fictional equivalent of IKEA, down to the gigantic parking lot and blue-and-yellow box-shaped exterior, not to mention the labyrinthine interior layout. Ava is disgruntled because she’s been called in to work on her day off, when her only desire is to stay home, binge on Netflix and Florence and the Machine, and try to recuperate from her... Read More

The Sioux Spaceman: Beware the Horsemen of the Stars

The Sioux Spaceman by Andre Norton

Tantor Media has published an audio version of Baen’s The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), an omnibus that contains these four novels by Andre Norton: The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), The X Factor (1965), and Voorloper (1980). Each of these short novels stands alone but they are all set in Norton's Council/Confederation universe. I’m going to review them separately, because that’s what we like to do here, but it’s wonderful that they’re now available in cost-effective omnibus editions in print and audio formats.

In The Sioux Spaceman we meet Kade Whitehawk, a young man of Native American (Lakota) desce... Read More

A Beginning at the End: Personal struggles in a post-apocalyptic world

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

A Beginning at the End (2020) is set in a near-future world where, in 2019, a deadly worldwide pandemic kills some five billion people, including seventy percent of the U.S. population. Johanna Moira Hatfield, a teenage pop music star known as Mojo, tired of being browbeaten by her stage father, Evan, uses the sudden panic at her Madison Square Garden concert to disappear into the crowd in search of a new life.

Six years later, in San Francisco in 2025, MoJo has a new name, Moira Gorman, a job, and a fiancé who she’s not really in love with, but he represents stability in a society that’s still fragile and unstable, as well as safety from her father, who’s still looking for his MoJo. Moira’s wedding planner, Krista Deal, has a somewhat similar backstory: Krista faked her own death years ago to escape her drug-addicted, dysfunctional mother. Wedding planning isn... Read More

A Hole in the Sky: An audio-only story by Hamilton

A Hole in the Sky by Peter F. Hamilton

Hazel, who’s 16, lives on a huge starship called Daedalus. It left Earth around 900 years ago with plans to terraform a new habitable planet. But when they arrived, they found a nearly sentient species that they didn’t want to disturb, so they decided to try another planet. A few decades later, citizens who were disgruntled about that decision mutinied and, in the battle, much of their knowledge and technology was destroyed.

Now, 500 years later, most of the people of Daedalus live in separate primitive farming communities where they work hard to eke out an existence. To protect resources, those who can’t work and adults over age 65 are “recycled.”

When Hazel’s brother has an accident that prevents him from working, he and Hazel run away. That’s how they find the “cheaters” — the old people who escaped from the villages and hide in the forest so they won’t... Read More

The People’s Republic of Everything: An experimental collection

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

I don’t know if I simply wasn’t in the right mood for Nick Mamatas’ short-story collection The People’s Republic of Everything (2018), or if I’m not the right audience for his preferred themes and overall style, but this book and I just could not mesh.

There was one story, “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher,” which gripped my attention and had everything I look for in short fiction. The story focuses on Rosa Martinez, whose elderly grandmother might — through quirks of legality regarding her first marriage and the question of ownership of her first husband’s pulp publications — own the rights to a series of stories revolving around psychopomp Tom Silex. The character work is strong, the ... Read More

A History of What Comes Next: Good concept, weak execution

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

Sylvain Neuvel’s A History of What Comes Next (2021) has both an intriguing premise and a potentially tense conflict at its core, but due to some issues with structure and style, the execution didn’t allow the book to achieve its potential.

Two women, Sara and her daughter Mia, are sort of Space Race Zeligs (look him up, youngsters), inserting themselves in key times and places to push humanity toward the stars. To that end, we see Mia go undercover in Germany at the tail end of WWII to spirit Wernher von Braun and key assistants to the US as part of Operation Paperclip (a real mission). Later, the two move to Russia where they jumpstart the Russian space program in the (correct) belief that it wo... Read More

Winterkeep: Return to a favorite series not fully successful

Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore

Winterkeep
(2021) is the fourth book set in Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING REALM fantasy world, the prior novels being Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue. The first was a five-star, best-of-the-year choice for me, and Fire was nearly as good. The third book was a bit of a drop-off, though not far. Unfortunately though, Winterkeep continues that downward trend, leaving me, I confess, more than a little disappointed, though the book does end well.

In the past, Cashore has eschewed the traditional sequel mode of following the ... Read More