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The Black Gryphon: Begins a VALDEMAR prequel trilogy

The Black Gryphon by Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

There are dozens of novels and stories set in Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR universe. Most of these are arranged into trilogies that can be read by themselves without familiarity of the other VALDEMAR trilogies, though there are some overlapping characters and a shared history. The MAGE WARS trilogy (The Black Gryphon, The White Gryphon, and The Silver Gryphon), though published later in the series, takes place before Valdemar and its Heralds and Companions even existed, making it a prequel trilogy.

In The Black Gryphon (1994) we meet a large and powerful Gryphon named Skandranon (Skan for short) who was created by a good mage named... Read More

Strange Toys: An odd, creepy novel

Strange Toys by Patricia Geary

Strange Toys is an odd, creepy novel. It won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1987, though apparently Patricia Geary hadn’t actually intended it as science fiction at all. I found it while exploring the labyrinthine basement of a local used bookstore, but it was reprinted in electronic form in 2018.

The heroine, nicknamed Pet, is the baby of her family. (We never learn her real name.) She is nine years old as the book begins, in the late 1950s. Her twelve-year-old sister, June, bullies her. Her sixteen-year-old sister, Deane, is worse. Deane is in some kind of unspecified trouble with the law (she’s into the occult, too), and the girls’ parents leave home abruptly with Pet and June because they fear retribution from Deane’s criminal friends.

What follo... Read More

Electric Forest: Interesting, but not one of Lee’s best

Electric Forest by Tanith Lee

Magdala Cled is an unattractive disabled woman living in a world where genetic engineering has ensured that everyone around her is beautiful and healthy. She’s a genetic misfit who has no family, friends, or social support of any type.

When a handsome rich man offers to make her beautiful, she goes along with his plan. What Magda doesn’t know is that her new body is the clone of a scientist/entrepreneur that her benefactor is competing with and for whom he has some evil plans.

I greatly admire Tanith Lee’s style, so I was pleased to have a chance to read Brilliance Audio’s new edition of Electric Forest (1979).

This stand-alone novel, however, is not one of her better titles. None of the characters are likeable and their focus on beauty, luxury, and ... Read More

Yarrow: Very early de Lint

Yarrow by Charles de Lint

I’d been meaning to read Yarrow (1986) for years. I loved Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream, in which he tells the story of a painter touched by the Otherworld. And I’m a writer (or at least a wannabe one), not a visual artist, so I figured, “if I liked his artist book so much, how much more am I going to love his writer book?” Unfortunately, the answer is “not as much.” Yarrow is very early de Lint, and not my favorite book of his that I’ve read.

Yarrow is set in Ottawa and loosely follows Moonheart; the plots are standalone, but T... Read More

Awakened: Camera-ready SF horror adventure

Awakened by James S. Murray & Darren Wearmouth

Grady McGowan has been logging lots of overtime, running a tunnel-boring machine beneath the Hudson River for the massive Z Train subway line extension that will link New York City to New Jersey with an underground express train. They’re even building a state-of-the-art underwater Visitors’ Pavilion in the middle of the Upper Bay. It’s hard work for Grady, but everything is going well … until a huge hole opens up underneath Grady and his machine.

Three years later, the mayor of NYC, Tom Cafferty, is in the Pavilion, presiding over the opening ceremony and inaugural run of the Z Train. The President of the U.S. is a surprise guest (though not a welcome one from Cafferty’s point of view) and Cafferty’s wife Ellen is one of the honored guests on the Z Train heading to the Pavilion from Jersey City. There’s a delay. A shriek over the loudspeaker. And then the train slowl... Read More

A Sword Named Truth: A feast for Sartorias-deles fans

A Sword Named Truth by Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith has been writing fantasy novels and stories in her Sartorias-deles universe for over fifty years, since she was a child. The result is a literary edifice of incredible detail, scope and imagination, which has a large wiki (including several lengthy timelines) devoted to it. Sartorias-deles is a magical world in a different solar system, but there are gates between Sartorias-deles and our world that allow people (with the help of magic) to cross between the worlds. The prior novels are a mix of children’s, young adult and adult fiction.

A Sword Named Truth (2019) takes many... Read More

Magic for Liars: A fresh spin on the “magical school” trope

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

I recently enjoyed Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET,” on Tadiana’s recommendation, and decided I needed to check out more of Gailey’s work. When I saw their latest novel, Magic for Liars (2019), gleaming bright red at me from the library shelf, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Magic school meets detective thriller? Right up my alley, as I like both of those things. It was like asking me if I wanted vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

Ivy and Tabitha Gamble are twins, but Tabitha has magic and Ivy doesn’t. When the two were teens, Tabitha got to go away to magic school, while Ivy stayed home and dealt with regular high school and her mother’s terminal cancer. Now in their th... Read More

The Call: Scary sadistic sidhe

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

I picked up Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call (2016) because its sequel, The Invasion, is a finalist for a Hugo Award this year (Best YA Fantasy Novel). Though I often enjoy Young Adult fiction, this book is probably not something I would have noticed had it not been for the Hugo nomination.

The Sidhe are finally taking revenge on the Irish for banishing them to The Grey Lands centuries ago. Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the world and every Irish teenager will, on some random day at some random time during their teenage years, receive “The Call.” At that moment, they disappear from earth and arrive naked in The Grey Lands where they will spend a day being chased, toyed with, and tortured by the Sidhe. Then they will be sent back to wherever they disappeared from, usually grossly deformed and dead. It will appear to the humans around them... Read More

Kill the Queen: A YA type of fantasy with adult content

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair is a member of the royal family (seventeenth in line for the throne of Bellona, to be precise) and has lived in the royal palace for fifteen years, since her parents were murdered when she was twelve. But this position of access hasn’t exactly translated into a life of privilege for Everleigh, or Evie. Partly because she lacks the powerful offensive magical powers that most royals have (she does have a super-sensitive sense of smell), Evie is treated just a few steps above a servant. She’s mostly overlooked unless there’s some boring or unpleasant duty that a royal has to perform, like making cranberry-apple pie for guests from the kingdom of Andvari or learning an intricate dance, the Tanzen Freund, for the visiting Ungerian delegation.

Evie does, in fact, have another magical power that she’s kept secret all her life, and it and her nose stand her in go... Read More

The Magic Bed-Knob: Charming, old-fashioned, and not much like the Disney movie

The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton

I was a child when I first saw Disney's 1971 movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks and have fond memories of it. So when I found out that the book that inspired the movie, Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob (1943), was nominated this year for a 1944 Retro Hugo award, I was excited to read it. It's charming and old-fashioned ... but not everything I had hoped for. Also, it's not much like the Disney movie, which is both a positive and a negative thing.

During the London Blitz, three siblings ― Carey ("about your age"), Charles ("a little younger") and Paul ("only six") ― are sent to Bedfordshire to stay with their Aunt Beatrice. (Tangentially, it’s worth noting that in recent editions of The Magic Bed-Knob, all references to the war have been redacted, perhaps in an effort to make the story le... Read More

Stronghold: A soap opera

Stronghold by Melanie Rawn

I’ve been reading Melanie Rawn’s DRAGON PRINCE and DRAGON STAR trilogies because the audio versions of this late 1980s / early 1990s fantasy epic are just now being released in audio format and Tantor Audio has sent me review copies. Stronghold (1990) is the first book in the DRAGON STAR trilogy but it’s really just book four of the DRAGON PRINCE trilogy. I have no idea why the epic was divided into two trilogies since you must read DRAGON PRINCE if you hope to have any clue about what’s going on in DRAGON STAR.

Perhaps the division is signaling a change in focus from Rohan and Sioned’s generation to that of Prince Pol. At this point in the story, Pol has taken on more and more ... Read More

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: The Serpent’s Heir: A fun adventure

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: The Serpent's Heir by Dean DeBlois, Richard Hamilton, & Doug Wheatley

This graphic novel takes place shortly after the events of the film How to Train Your Dragon 2, which finds Hiccup as the new chief of Berk in the wake of his father's death. Amidst the rebuilding of the village, the suspicious nature of Berk citizens at the presence of outsiders, and the ongoing training of new dragons, it's a struggle for Hiccup to adjust to his new role as leader.

So when an envoy named Calder arrives from the island of Nephenthe, Hiccup jumps at the chance to take some time off. Along with Toothless, Astrid, Fishlegs, Snotlout, Eret, the twins and his mother, he travels to Nephenthe at the behest of King Mikkel the Munificent to investigate strange tremors across his island.

If you're a fan of the How to Train Your Dragon films or animated television show, then there's nothing in... Read More

Embers of War: A pleasant but forgettable space opera

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Embers of War (2018), which is a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, is the first book in Gareth L. Powell’s EMBERS OF WAR series. The story is set in the far future, after humans were welcomed into the Multiplicity.

In the prologue we meet Captain Sally (“Sal”) Konstanz and the sentient spaceship she captains, Trouble Dog. They belong to the House of Reclamation, an ancient organization that serves the Multiplicity by rescuing the crews and passengers of injured or stranded spaceships. Trouble Dog used to be a warship but after being ordered to nuke the planet Pelapatarn, killing a sentient forest and many people, Trouble Dog felt remorse and left the military.

Also aboard the Trouble D... Read More

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune: Like a Chinese-American Hallmark movie

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

A bitter, ongoing quarrel with her mother about her career plans to be a chef led Natalie Tan to leave her San Francisco home in anger. Seven years of stubborn silence and globe-wandering later, Natalie is called home by a neighbor at her mother’s passing. She still deeply desires to be a chef and to have her own authentic Chinese restaurant, like her grandmother Qiao had done many years earlier, and now she’ll have the chance: Natalie has inherited her laolao’s (maternal grandmother’s) long-abandoned restaurant below their apartment. It’s still operable, though dusty and dirty, but their Chinatown neighborhood is fraying, with family-owned businesses dying and a steep rise in real estate prices causing Chinese families to move away.

A psychically-gifted neighbor returns Qiao’s old, handmade recipe book to Natalie, along with a prediction: if Natalie cooks three rec... Read More

Exile’s Valor: Important events occur, but there’s a lot of down-time

Exile’s Valor by Mercedes Lackey

Exile’s Valor (2003) is the sequel to Exile’s Honor (which is the best VALDEMAR novel I’ve read so far). Both of these books are prequels to Mercedes Lackey’s first VALDEMAR trilogy (HERALDS OF VALDEMAR). You should read Exile’s Honor before starting Exile’s Valor but you don’t need to read any other VALDEMAR novels in order to understand and appreciate Exile’s Valor.

Alberich, formerly an enemy of Valdemar, is now the weapons master of its heralds and is a chief advisor and bodyguard to queen Selenay. He also continues to en... Read More

If Tomorrow Comes: Pretty balanced between positive and negative aspects

If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress’ Locus finalist If Tomorrow Comes (2018) follows up on Yesterday’s Kin, though works fine as a stand-alone. I hadn’t read Yesterday’s Kin, and thanks to the independent nature of If Tomorrow Comes, and some efficiently economical backstorying by Kress, I didn’t feel that lack at all.

Millennia ago, aliens took a group of humans from Earth and transplanted them to another planet, where they have since created a more peaceful, egalitarian, ecologically-responsible, and overall contented society than our own (though, as Kress is at pains to make clear, not utopian — they have crime, inequality, etc. — but they ena... Read More

Nyxia Uprising: A somewhat predictable end to an exciting series

Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen

Nyxia Uprising (2019) is the fast-paced conclusion to Scott Reintgen’s NYXIA TRIAD YA sci-fi trilogy, an adventure with several teenage protagonists. It’s set both in space and on a distant planet called Eden that has two moons, an alien race called the Imago, and an abundant supply of nyxia, a malleable mineral with near-magical powers. These three books tell a single, unified story, and it’s impossible to appreciate this series without reading all of the books in order … and here is your obligatory spoiler warning for the earlier volumes, as I’ll briefly recap the tale thus far.

The first volume, Nyxia, had a Read More

Inspection: Here’s how to ruin your experience with this book

Inspection by Josh Malerman

Here’s how to ruin your experience with this book: Read the publisher’s blurb below, think it sounds sweet and thoughtful, and then order an audio copy that doesn’t have a book jacket containing quotes from Chuck Wendig and J.D. Barker. The publisher’s blurb goes like this:

J is a student at a school deep in a forest far away from the rest of the world. J is one of only twenty-six students, all of whom think of the school’s enigmatic founder as their father. J’s peers are the only family he has ever had. The students are being trained to be prodigies of art, science, and athletics, and their life at the school is all they know — and all they are allowed to know. But J suspects that there is something out there, beyond the pines, that the founder does not want him to see, and he’s ... Read More

Kingdom of Needle and Bone: Preachy, but interesting

Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

Lisa Morris, Patient Zero, is only eight years old when she contracts a mutated and vicious form of measles, infects hundreds of other people while visiting Disney World, and dies. The disease races across the planet, killing millions, because “the virus always spreads.”

Lisa’s Aunt Isabella, a pediatrician who feels guilty about Lisa’s death, goes on a crusade to protect those who haven’t yet been exposed to the virus. Her pediatric clinic is targeted by anti-vaxxers, but she continues to champion — and try to explain — herd immunity. Then her youngest sister discovers something even more terrifying than the obvious initial effects of the new virus, making Isabella change course and launch an elaborate plan that may not be entirely ethical but just may save the human race.

Mira Grant Read More

Planetfall: An SF exploration of mental illness

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall, the first science fiction offering from Emma Newman, is about a colony of humans who left Earth to follow Suh, an alleged prophet who received a supernatural message giving her the coordinates of an unknown distant planet where she was supposed to travel to receive instructions about God’s plans for humanity. Suh and her best friend Ren, a brilliant geneticist and engineer, gathered a team of like-minded believers and they landed on the planet 22 years ago. After “Planetfall,” Suh disappeared into “God’s City,” where she continues to live and send yearly messages and instructions to the rest of the colonists. All is going well until a visitor arrives and claims to be Suh’s grandson. His presence threatens the colony’s peace and it’s up to Ren, the story’s protagonist, to pr... Read More

Alta: Multiple plot problems, but I want to know what happens next

Alta by Mercedes Lackey

Alta (2004), the second book in Mercedes Lackey’s DRAGON JOUSTERS quartet, starts where Joust left off. Vetch, formerly a slave and more recently a “dragon boy” in the land of his enemies, has escaped with the dragon he raised from an egg. They are now in Alta, the land of his birth, which has been occupied by Tia, the land he just escaped from.

Vetch (now called by his real name, Kiron) arrives with much knowledge about how Tians train their jousters, and about how to best raise and train dragons. He hopes to meet the right people and convince them to try his training methods so that, in the future, Alta will be better prepared to win their country back. He worries a bit that so... Read More

The Chaos Function: No matter how bad things seem, they can always be worse

The Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead’s latest novel, The Chaos Function (2019), has a fairly straightforward premise: a young journalist accidentally receives the ability to shift reality from one possible timeline to another, though not without disastrous consequences. The first time she performs this shift, it’s purely by accident, though that doesn’t make the new future any less grave. Each time she shifts to another possible timeline without returning to the original, the consequences become more and more dire, until she is left with a terrible choice: return reality to its intended course or watch the entire world destroy itself.

At its heart, it’s a gripping conceit, and watching the various permutations of reality spin farther and farther out of control was enough to keep me turning the pages to see how things could possibly become more dire. What sta... Read More

That Ain’t Witchcraft: A standard entry in this entertaining series

That Ain’t Witchcraft by Seanan McGuire

The crossroads have always been a place of power and magic, a place where humans could go to make bargains. In the late 15th century, though, the nature of those bargains changed, becoming cruel and tricky, often with deadly results for the humans. In Seanan McGuire’s That Ain’t Witchcraft (2019), Annie Price and her incryptid friends must confront the crossroads to help an ice sorcerer (and get back Annie’s magic, which the crossroads are holding as collateral), all the while dodging Leonard, the loyal heir to the leadership of the Covenant of St. George, a deadly organization intent on destroying all the incryptids on earth. Once again, Annie must function without the help of the loyal and wonderful Aeslin Mice.

After Annie and her boyfriend Sam, who is a furi, a ... Read More

In Evil Times: Exciting and entertaining, despite the problems

In Evil Times by Melinda Snodgrass

In Evil Times (2017) is the second book in Melinda Snodgrass’s IMPERIALS saga. You’ll want to read The High Ground first. (Expect spoilers for that novel in this review.)

At the end of The High Ground we left Tracy (smart low-class scholarship student) in despair when his friend/nearly lover Mercedes (heir to the imperial throne) ditched him for a more suitable (noble) match. Poor Tracy.

After enduring his graduation ceremony and Mercedes and Boho’s wedding, Tracy is assigned to a spaceship at a much lower rank than his higher-class fellow students. As he goes about his duties for his empire, he keeps getting passed ... Read More

A Hawk in the Woods: Monsters may be scary, but it’s family that’ll get you

A Hawk in the Woods by Carrie Laben

Abby Waite, a moderately successful internet celebrity, is diagnosed with a terminal disease. The prognosis, even with treatment, isn’t good, so Abby decides it’s time to break her twin sister Martha, serving a twenty-year sentence for murder, out of prison, and go to the family cabin in Minnesota. It should come as no real surprise that the prison-break is the easiest thing to accomplish in A Hawk in the Woods (2019), by Carrie Laben, a road-trip-family-reunion-horror-story inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.”

Both Waite daughters have powers. They are orphaned, and now that they are out on the road, it seems that they have attracted the attention of various horror-style predators. The story alternates between the weird road trip and flashbacks to ... Read More