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To Hold Up the Sky: A bit too cool and hard sci-fi for me

To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu

In my review of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I stated I thought the novel had gone on too long and noted that while it wrestled with “a lot of big ideas … I just wished such questions had been surrounded by richer characterization and a defter writing style.” It turns out I had pretty much the exact same reaction to Liu’s recent collection of short stories, To Hold Up the Sky (2020).

To speak generally of the collection, Liu offers up a lot of intriguing thought experiments and creates some truly evocative imagery. Unfortunately, these strengths were, for me, mostly outweighed by a paucity of engaging or compelling characters, a lot of heavily talky exposition in nea... Read More

Storm Rising: Enemies become allies

Storm Rising by Mercedes Lackey

Storm Rising is the middle book in Mercedes Lackey’s MAGE STORMS trilogy which is part of the VALDEMAR saga. You’ll want to read the first book, Storm Warning, first. (There will be spoilers for that book in this review.) You don’t have to read any of the previous VALDEMAR books, but it would be helpful to read the MAGE WINDS trilogy, even though it’s (in my opinion) an inferior story.

The mage storms continue to increase across the land, wreaking havoc and endangering the entire world. Not only are there numerous natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, but there are mutated animals preyin... Read More

Storm Warning: New characters bring some life to this story

Storm Warning by Mercedes Lackey

Storm Warning is the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s MAGE STORMS trilogy which is part of the VALDEMAR saga. MAGE STORMS can be read without reading other VALDEMAR novels but, because it features many characters from other trilogies, it would be best to read it directly after reading the MAGE WINDS trilogy (Winds of Fate, Winds of Change, Winds of Fury).

I was not a fan of MAGE WINDS. I didn’t care for the c... Read More

Pirates of the Timestream: Jason Thanou meets Captain Morgan

Pirates of the Timestream by Steve White


Jason Thanou is back in action in Pirates of the Timestream (2013). In this third novel in Steve White’s TEMPORAL REGULATORY AUTHORITY series, Jason is again sent back in time to witness important historical events.

In the previous two novels, Blood of the Heroes and Sunset of the Gods (which it would be helpful, but not necessary, to read first), Jason and his colleagues had discovered that the Temporal Regulatory Authority they work for is not the only institution that owns a time-travelling device, and that an evil cult of future transh... Read More

Yellow Jessamine: A paranoid antiheroine in a dissolving city

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Having thoroughly enjoyed Caitlin Starling’s 2019 novel The Luminous Dead, I was very happy to learn that I wouldn’t have to wait long to read more of her work.

Yellow Jessamine (2020), Starling’s new novella, is completely different from The Luminous Dead but similarly features creepy atmosphere, a background of family trauma, and relationships filled with dysfunctional tension and longing.

Evelyn Perdanu is a wealthy woman in the city of Delphinium, a city that is slowly dying now that its surrounding empire has fallen to a coup. Evelyn is involved in shipping, and is also an herbalist specializing in “fixes to unfixable probl... Read More

Deal With the Devil: Didn’t distinguish itself enough

Deal With the Devil by Kit Rocha

If I’m told that a new series is titled MERCENARY LIBRARIANS, that sets up certain expectations in my mind — namely, that librarian-ing is going to feature prominently in the introductory novel, or at least be a driving force behind the primary plot. And while the treasure-trove of the Rogue Library of Congress is how the heroine of Deal With the Devil (2020) is enticed into making a deal with the leader of a mercenary squad known as the Silver Devils, Kit Rocha spends far more time and attention on set pieces cobbled together from any handful of post-apocalyptic dystopian movies and television shows.

Furthermore, Nina’s job title doesn’t encompass her actual responsibilities: she’s more of a community organizer, and from all evidence, a damn good one. In her corner of Atlanta, she and her friends Maya and Dani ensure that people... Read More

The Memory of Souls: A mixed bag

The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Jenn Lyons’ series since book one, The Ruin of Kings, so it seems only appropriate that I had two different reactions to book three, The Memory of Souls (2020), with a lot of frustration and annoyance to the first half of the book and a greater appreciation and enjoyment in the second half. All of which leaves me still up in the air in terms of recommending what will turn out to be a relatively lengthy series. Inevitable spoilers for books one and two to follow.

I’m not going to go much into plot details as to call it labyrinthine or Byzantine would be an understatement (ma... Read More

Hex Hall: Tropey but fun

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

Hex Hall (2010) is Rachel Hawkins’s debut novel, a young adult paranormal boarding school story.

Sophie Mercer is half-witch and half-mortal, but lives alone with her single human mother and knows little about her magical father. After wrecking her high school prom with a disastrous spell, Sophie is sent to Hecate (nicknamed Hex) Hall, a school for delinquent magical beings.

In her human school, Sophie was outcast for her witchy powers. At Hex Hall, her magic is not at all unusual, but the social hierarchy is no less daunting. Sophie quickly runs afoul of the in-crowd: befriending her roommate, Jenna, who is ostracized for being a vampire and suspected of murder; turning down the elite girls’ offer of coven membership; and developing a crush on the queen bee’s boyfriend, Archer.

A series of near-deadly attacks begins taking ou... Read More

The Bone Ships: Slow start, spectacular end

The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

Joron Twiner, an ineffective drunkard with low self-esteem, is the shipwife (captain, basically) of Tide Child, a bone ship made of the bones of a supposedly extinct species of sea dragons. When we meet Joron, he’s in port, sleeping off the booze, when a fierce woman named Lucky Meas attacks and easily subjugates him. As the new shipwife of Tide Child, with Joron as her second-in-command, she plans to whip the pathetic crew into shape and to redeem the reputations of both Tide Child and herself.

When Tide Child is given orders to chase down the rumored sighting of a sea dragon and secretly work with enemies to escort it to safety, Joron wonders who his new commander is really loyal to. After acquiring a new crew of mostly prisoners and outlaws, Joron and the Tide Child set off on a (slightly) Moby-Dick-like adventure which will involve dangers that come f... Read More

The Ghosts of Sherwood: Too short, but has good heroic characters

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn

The Ghosts of Sherwood (2020), a novella by Carrie Vaughn, was for me a frustrating story, with several strong aspects but also some elements that drove me crazy, leaving me overall disappointed but hopeful for its follow-up, The Heirs of Locksley.

As the titles make clear, Vaughn is working in Robin Hood territory here. More precisely, she picks up the story many years later. Robin of Locksley and his wife Marian live on the edge of Sherwood Forest with their three children: Mary, John, and Eleanor (in that order) and have thrived in relative peace after Robin oh-so-painfully swore fealty to King John after the death of King James. While bowing the knee gave him influence within the... Read More

The Second Star: Strong first half marred by final third

The Second Star by Alma Alexander

At one point while reading Alma Alexander’s The Second Star, I wrote a marginalia note hoping the book wasn’t going to go where I feared it might. Some chapters later, it turned out that was indeed our destination, and I have to confess I was sorely disappointed. That said, Alexander’s novel has an excellent, compelling premise and a quite strong first two-thirds, and I think the vast majority of readers will enjoy the book to that point. After that, one’s mileage will vary.

Two centuries ago, humanity sent out its first interstellar starship, the Parada, propelled by an experimental drive. When all communication was lost, the six crewmembers were assumed dead and that failure kept humanity safely close to home for hundreds of years, until recently, when a second... Read More

The Empire’s Ghost: A solid start

The Empire’s Ghost by Isabelle Steiger

The Empire’s Ghost (2017) is the first novel in Isabelle Steiger’s PATHS OF LANTISTYNE series. I was sent book two to review and while I don’t often review books whose predecessors I haven’t read, The Rightful Queen looked intriguing enough that I went back and read The Empire’s Ghost.

Long ago, the empire of Elesthene encompassed the entire continent. But the Empire, as empires are wont to do, eventually faded, along with magic, into mere legend, and the continent is fractured into several kingdoms. But now, Elgar, the Imperator of one such kingdom (Hallarnon), home to the Empire’s old capital of Valyanrend, seeks to bind the continent under one-person rule again, waging war via armies and other means against the other kingdoms.

Arrayed against him (bea... Read More

The Beautiful: A vampire novel set in New Orleans

The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh

It’s 1872 and Celine Rousseau, who’s seventeen years old, has just arrived in New Orleans with several other girls who will work in a convent until they can make matches with respectable young men in the city. Celine is from Paris, where she made gowns for the upper class. She had to flee Paris, and her father, after a tragic event that she won’t talk about.

The work at the convent is boring, but Celine has found a new best friend — Pippa from England — and she’s fascinated by the sultry city of New Orleans, especially after she and Pippa meet a group of gorgeous and mysterious young people in the upstairs room of an elite restaurant. Celine is drawn to their beauty, sophistication, and power, especially to the young man named Sébastien Saint Germain, who seems to be their leader, as well as the richest boy in the city. It’s obvious that Sébastien is also attracted to Celine, but she ... Read More

Where the Veil Is Thin: A mixed bag of fairies

Where the Veil Is Thin edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbott

Where the Veil Is Thin (2020), an anthology of stories about fairies and spirits, began as a Kickstarter. The project was successful, and the book is now widely available. Editors Cerece Rennie Murphy and Alana Joli Abbott have brought together a diverse group of authors with a wide variety of writing styles and approaches to the fae. While the tag line on the back cover says “These are not your daughter’s faerie tales,” some of the stories do read as if they might be intended for a youthful audience, while others are definitely not for kids. The stunning cover art is by Anna Dittmann.

The collection begins with a brief introduction by Jim C. Hines. In it, he... Read More

TRUEL1F3: The final battle for control of the Yousay

TRUEL1F3 by Jay Kristoff

Jay Kristoff’s TRUEL1F3 (2020) wraps up his YA dystopian LIFELIKE trilogy with a long buildup to an epic battle, set in a nuclear-blasted future version of the “Yousay.” Some humans have (presumably due to radiation-induced mutations) developed superpowers and are often treated as deviants by normal humans; most of our main characters, like Lemon Fresh (named after the detergent box she was found abandoned in as a baby) are in this group. Intelligent robots are everywhere and are bound by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics … other than a rebel group of advanced "Lifelike" robots, who were treated years ago with a Libertas virus that reprograms them without the Three Laws.

Several of the Lifelikes have b... Read More

The Harbors of the Sun: A lackluster ending

The Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells

The Harbors of the Sun (2020) is the fifth and final novel of Martha WellsBOOKS OF THE RAKSURA (or at least this part of the RAKSURA series). It won’t make any sense if you haven’t read the previous books, so please do that first. There will be some spoilers for the previous novels in this review.

The Harbors of the Sun begins where the previous installment, The Edge of Worlds, abruptly ended. The Raksura were on a quest with some groundlings. They had entered an ancient city and discovered a powerful artifact and were on a ship heading away from the city when they were betrayed and poisoned. The artif... Read More

Shadow Over Mars: The author is better than the book

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh Brackett

Shadow Over Mars (1944), also sometimes reprinted as The Nemesis from Terra, was the first full-length novel by space opera author Leigh Brackett. (“Full-length” is relative here, though, as Shadow Over Mars is quite short, only 145 pages in the edition I read.) It is currently in the running for a 2020 Retro Hugo for Best Novel.

The book begins with the hero, Rick, running through a Martian city, trying to evade the agents of the Terran Exploitations Company, who want to press him into slavery in their mines. He ducks into the home of an old woman, who prophesies that she has seen his “shadow over Mars,” and then promptly tries to kill him. The prophecy, which is interpreted to mean that Rick will become the planet’s... Read More

Mera: Tidebreaker: A fresh look at an oft-sidelined DC heroine

Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige & Stephen Byrne

This is one in a series of graphic novels starring DC heroines in their teenage years, not compliant with any comic-book continuity, but which are aimed at slightly younger readers who might be interested in some of the female characters to have appeared in the recent influx of superhero movies (other titles in the series include Catwoman, Raven and Harley Quinn).

Having enjoyed Aquaman starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, I picked Mera: Tidebreaker up on a whim to learn more about the character of Mera, since in the film she's mostly a supporting character. Here Mera is the teenage princess of the underwater city of Xebel, betrothed to a boy she doesn't fully love, and fighting against Atlantean rule.

When she discovers that her betrothed will inherit the Xebellian throne if he kills the current heir to Atlantis, Mera decide... Read More

A Book of Bones: A book too long for its story

A Book of Bones by John Connolly

2019’s A Book of Bones is the 18th book in John Connolly’s CHARLIE PARKER series. This series is dark, with a thriller plot steeped in supernatural elements. Over the years, we’ve seen Parker, his human helpers Louis and Angel, and his supernatural protectors Sam and Jennifer face a variety of entities. A Book of Bones seems to resolve most of the issues around a specific Not-God and an evil murderous cult called the Familists. The two nasty villains, a book collector named Quayle and a creepy woman called Pallida Mors — a play on “Pale Death” — return from the previous book, and Parker is on their trail.

Parker is giving evidence in a child sex-trafficking case in Texas when he is called away by his FBI connection, Special A... Read More

Light of Impossible Stars: A satisfying but not great conclusion

Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell

Gareth L. Powell brings his EMBERS OF WAR trilogy to a satisfying conclusion with Light of Impossible Stars (2020). You’ll need to read Embers of War and Fleet of Knives first. There will be some spoilers for those novels in this review.

When we left Captain Sal, she had just brought a few new crewmates aboard Trouble Dog: Captain Johnny Shultz, who lost his ship to ferocious dragon- and crab-like aliens; one of his crew with whom he had just begun a romantic relationship; and Lucy, the ship’s avatar in human form. Captain Sal had also just suffere... Read More

City of Lies: Appealing characters in this debut

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

Sam Hawke’s debut novel, City of Lies, is the first book in her POISON WARS series. It features two protagonists, Jovan and Kalina, who are brother and sister. They work for their friend Tain, a young man who has suddenly become the Chancellor of their country after his uncle was poisoned. As the Chancellor’s proofer, Jovan tests everything Tain eats or drinks. He knows how to detect most poisons, he’s inoculated against many of them, and he carries the antidotes. With a successful poisoner on the loose, Jovan’s job is more important than ever.

Kalina is trained in diplomacy, so her job is to advise Jovan in his interactions with his people and their enemies. This has also suddenly become an essential duty because an army has arrived at the gates a... Read More

Watermark: Mythic fiction with lush prose

Watermark by E. Catherine Tobler

Watermark (2014), by E. Catherine Tobler, is the story of Pip, a kelpie who is cast out of the Otherworld of the fae and into the human realm. Before that, she was being held in a tower in iron chains. She remembers very little before that; she doesn’t know what she was being punished for, or why she now finds herself in the town of Peak, Colorado, or why there was a dead girl lying next to her when she got there.

I first tried to read Watermark a few years ago and had trouble getting into it. I recently decided to give it another shot and … yet again had trouble getting into it. The early chapters of the book are confusing and sometimes frustrating, as Pip doesn’t know what’s going on and no one else will tell her either. The story moves quick... Read More

A Choir of Lies: A book I enjoy thinking about

A Choir of Lies by Alexandra Rowland

I enjoy thinking about A Choir of Lies, Alexandra Rowland’s 2019 novel, more than I enjoyed reading it. I usually like stories where the writer plays textual games, whether the story is epistolary, based on ephemera, uses marginalia, or even footnotes, upon which A Choir of Lies relies. I like stories that explore the nature of stories, and storytellers, which A Choir of Lies does. Rowland employs the clever turn of phrase and creates interesting characters. Still, with a 450-page book, in the first 171 pages nothing much happens. Reading the numerous footnotes against that backdrop was exhausting.

A Choir of Lies follows Ylfing, who was apprenticed to the Master Chant,... Read More

The Monstrous Citadel: A fun, lively summer read

The Monstrous Citadel by Mirah Bolender

2019’s The Monstrous Citadel is the second book in Mirah Bolender’s fantasy trilogy THE CHRONICLES OF AMICAE. This review may contain mild spoilers for the first book, City of Broken Magic. In this world, the main characters, called Sweepers, function like the people in an old British series called UXB, disarming undetonated magical weapons left over from an ancient war. Some of the magical infestations are like Japanese kaiju, and all require confinement in some kind of container.

Laura and Okane are Sweepers in Amicae, trained under the eccentric and controversial Sweeper Clae Sinclair. In the aftermath of City of Broken Magic Read More

Time Patrol: Classic time travel stories by Poul Anderson

Time Patrol by Poul Anderson

Between 1955 and 1995 Poul Anderson published a series of short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels, about the Time Patrol, a secret group of people from all over the world whose job is to protect the world history we know. They jump up and down the timeline, making sure that terrorists and other disruptors don’t use time travel to remake history to suit their own malign purposes. Or any purposes, actually. Their goal is to keep history the same, even with all its evils, so as not to accidentally wipe out human civilization so that we can eventually evolve into the Danellians, a post-human species that is highly invested in making sure history doesn’t change.

Though there are many Time Patrol agents, the one we see most often in these stories is Manse Everard, an American man who was recruited by the ... Read More