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Troika: Russian cosmonauts explore a BDO

Troika by Alastair Reynolds

Troika is a stand-alone hard science fiction novella that was first published in the 2010 anthology Godlike Machines edited by Jonathan Strahan. In 2011 it was published on its own by Subterranean Press. The story is Alastair Reynolds’ take on the Big Dumb Object trope.

In Reynolds’ future, Russia is the world’s only major superpower and has sent three cosmonauts to examine an alien object, which they call the Matryoshka, which has arrived in Earth’s solar system through a wormhole. The story takes place years after the cosmonauts return and one has escaped the mental institution he’s been imprisoned in to visit the female astronomer who was part of their crew and now lives in poverty. Through their conversation, a... Read More

The Ship: A sinister, watery utopia

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Lalla has never had a real apple before. She’s eaten tinned apple and dried apple and apple preserve, but never a real apple. This is because sixteen-year-old Lalla is born at the end of the world, in a London where Big Ben is underwater and Regents Park is nothing but a tent city of homeless people and the British Museum is shelter to the starving masses of a dying civilisation. But Lalla’s father has a solution to the destitution her family face. The prospect of The Ship has taken on a mythical quality in Lalla’s life, as she’s heard her parents planning and arguing over it for most of her childhood, and as society teeters on the brink of collapse, the time has finally come to board the legendary vessel.

The Ship consists of 500 hundred lucky souls that her father has personally selected for his new society, though his selection process is not initially clear. On board, Lalla is astounded to... Read More

The Pool of Fire: Wraps up the TRIPODS trilogy

The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

The Pool of Fire is the third book in John Christopher’s TRIPODS dystopian series for children. If you haven’t yet read The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead, you need to go back and read those first. (And expect mild spoilers for those previous books in this review.)

At the end of The City of Gold and Lead, Will had escaped from the Masters and was heading back to the rebels in the White Mountains with the important knowledge he gained while he was a slave. In The Pool of Fire, the rebels are using Will’s intelligence to plan a way to defeat the Masters. The scientists and engineers, who are starting to re-learn some of the “ancient”... Read More

The Lie Tree: In which curiosity and intellect are definitely not ladylike

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Women, as demonstrated by their smaller skull size, are less intelligent than men. This is the bitter lesson Faith, our plucky protagonist in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, must learn. In Victorian England, girls must be seen and not heard, as too much intelligence would spoil the female mind "like a rock in a soufflé." But Faith has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a secret desire of one day becoming a scientist. This dark and twisting tale sees how far she'll pursue that knowledge and the lies she'll tell to obtain it.

The novel opens with Faith's family being uprooted to the craggy island of Vale. Her father is a reverend and an avid natural scientist, and Faith is relegated to follow her family in the rain on foot whilst her father's precious plant specimens tak... Read More

Witches of Lychford: Appealing setting

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford is a novella that was published by Tor.com last year. You can find a fairly long excerpt at the Tor.com website, but you’d need to purchase the Kindle version ($2.99) or paperback to read the entire story. I acquired the audio version at Audible during a special sale. It’s 3.25 hours long and beautifully read by Marisa Calin who has just the right voices and accents for a story set in a quaint English village.

Paul Cornell’s story is about three women who live in this village. Judith Mawson is a crotchety old woman who seems to consider herself the town’s guardian from evil supernatural forces. Lizzie Blackmore, the town’s vicar, is trying to overcome a tragic event from her past. Autumn Blunstone was ... Read More

Timescape: Intimate but slow-moving story about scientists

Timescape by Gregory Benford

Timescape (1980) has been on my TBR list for 35+ years, I've long wanted to read physicist Gregory Benford, the book won the Nebula Award, and it deals with time paradoxes, which I find fascinating but invariably unconvincing. First off, most of the book’s considerable length is devoted to a slow-moving and detailed portrait of scientists (mostly physicists, but also some biologists and astronomers) at work in the lab as well as their personal relationships with colleagues and wives/girlfriends. So to describe this as a “techno-thriller” would be inaccurate. At the same time, Benford spends a lot more time on character development than most “hard science fiction.” In the end I had mixed feeling about this book. It was interesting at times but too slow-moving to generate much excitement.

The book is set in two time periods — the first is 1962 in La... Read More

Serpent Mage: Fair to middling

Serpent Mage by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

Serpent Mage, book four of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's DEATH GATE CYCLE, is not as good as its immediate predecessor but also manages to be significantly superior to the first two installments in the series. For the most part, the focus on Alfred and Haplo continues to be a good move and the tension is certainly ratcheting up as we get closer to the endgame, but on the other hand this one just didn't feel as tightly constructed as the more gripping Fire Sea.

Following our cliffhanger ending last time, Haplo's master has discovered that his disciple is lying to ... Read More

The Sunless Countries: Introduces a new heroine

The Sunless Countries by Karl Schroeder

The Sunless Countries is the fourth book in Karl Schroeder’s VIRGA series. This book introduces a new town (inside Virga) and a new protagonist. There are explanations of what’s gone on before, so you don’t have to read the first three VIRGA books (Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce, Pirate Sun) first, but you’ll probably feel more at home if you do.

Our new heroine is Dr. Leal Maspeth, a tutor in the history department at the university on the wheel/town of Sere. Sere is compiled of several spinning wheels and it has no sun. Its citizens’ only sources of light are the artificial lamps they use. That’s why Leal got lost one night as she was travelling home... Read More

The Wasp Factory: A flash piece of entertainment

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain. They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny — all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker. There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny. Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation,’ the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational.’ Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity. It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Read More

Pirate Sun: Wants to be a movie

Pirate Sun by Karl Schroeder

Warning: Review contains minor spoilers for the first two books, though nothing not mentioned in the publisher’s blurb.

Pirate Sun is the third book in Karl Schroeder’s VIRGA series. You probably don’t need to read the previous two books (Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce) to enjoy Pirate Sun, but the story will make a little more sense if you do. In Sun of Suns we learned of Virga, the huge balloon like structure near the star Vega that contains its own little universe with man-made suns and planets that are often constructed of metal, gears, and cables in a wild steampunk style. Virga’s inhabitants don’t realize they’ve been closed off from the rest of... Read More

Jackaby: Fun start to a fresh YA fantasy series

Jackaby by William Ritter

William Ritter’s Jackaby is a pleasant young adult mystery with a smart girl main character and a title character who is the Sherlock Holmes of the paranormal.

It’s 1892 in New England, and Abigail Rook has just stepped off a freighter onto the waterfront of New Fiddleham. Abigail is British, the daughter of a socialite mother and a globe-trotting paleontologist father. Raised to be a lacy, docile, obedient girl, Abigail kicked over the traces and went to Europe on a “dinosaur dig” of her own. The funds ran out, and now she is stuck in New England.

Her first night in the new town, Abigail encounters a young man who can describe just where she’s been in Europe. He says he is doing it from observation, but what he claims to be observing are the supernatural creatures who tagged along with Abigail, unbeknownst to her. She writes him off as e... Read More

Fridays with the Wizards: Wizard-hunting in the castle

Fridays with the Wizards by Jessica Day George

Fridays with the Wizards is the fourth and most recent book in Jessica Day George’s CASTLE GLOWER series about twelve year old Princess Celie and the magical, semi-sentient castle where she lives. Celie and her brother and sister and friends have just returned from an unexpected adventure in another land, as related in the previous two books in the series, Wednesdays in the Tower and Thursdays with the Crown, where they tangled with the local wizards, befriended the king and queen of the griffins, and searched for the m... Read More

The Rithian Terror: A pleasing blend of hard SF and hard-boiled espionage

The Rithian Terror by Damon Knight

A pleasing blend of futuristic science fiction and hard-boiled espionage caper, The Rithian Terror, by Damon Knight, first saw the light of day in the January 1953 issue of Startling Stories, under the title Double Meaning. For 25 cents, readers also got, in that same issue, a Murray Leinster novelette entitled “Overdrive,” as well as five short stories, including Isaac Asimov’s “Button, Button” and Jack Vance’s “Three-Legged Joe;” that’s what I call value for money! Anyway, the Knight novel later appeared in one of those cute little “Ace doubles,” and, later still, in a 1965 paperback... Read More

Rage of the Fallen: Tom et al go to Ireland

Rage of the Fallen by Joseph Delaney

In Rage of the Fallen, the eighth book in Joseph Delaney’s LAST APPRENTICE / WARDSTONE CHRONICLES horror series for children, Tom flees with Alice and the Spook to Ireland to avoid the war that has engulfed their county. The evil creatures who live in Ireland are different from those they’re used to, so Tom gets to learn about, and attempt to defeat, these new threats to the world. Basically it’s the same sort of trouble he’s always been dealing with, just more Celtic-inspired. There are Irish gods, Irish witches, Irish mages, Irish ghosts, Irish blood-suckers, etc.

In addition to these new challenges, the old ones remain. The Fiend continues to dog him as we wait for their final confrontation. Witches are trying to get revenge on Tom.... Read More

Down and Dirty: Lacks cohesion, but still entertaining

Down and Dirty edited by George R.R. Martin

Jube: Hear who won the Miss Jokertown Beauty Pageant last week?
Croyd: Who?
Jube: Nobody.


I continue to listen to the new audiobook version of the WILD CARDS books as they are released by Random House Audio. Down and Dirty, the fifth volume, was published a few weeks ago. If you haven’t read the previous volumes (Wild CardsAces High, Jokers Wild, Aces Abroad), you should do so before reading this review. I’ll assume you’re familiar with the format of these anthologies / mosaic novels, and the story so far.

Down and Dirty (originally published in 1988) has a strange structure which, as George R.R. Martin admits in the boo... Read More

The Silkworm: Writing about writing

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

The second novel in Robert Galbraith’s crime series is, in large part, a musing on the nature of writing itself. This is all the more poignant when you consider the Galbraith is none other than the (far less obscure) J.K. Rowling herself. The eponymous silkworm was said to be boiled alive to extract its precious silk threads in tact; a metaphor for the writer, it seems, who has to “go through the agonies to get at the good stuff.” Sound gruesome? That’s not even the half of it.

The Silkworm sees the return of Detective Cormoran Strike and his secretary-cum-sidekick, Robin Ellacot. They are investigating the disappearance of author Owen Quine, a once-successful novelist whose most recent manuscript, Bombyx Mori (Latin for silkworm) has a... Read More

The Emperor’s Railroad: Doesn’t quite fulfill its potential

The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley

Novellas, as their name attests, are a betwixt and between sort of narrative form. At their most effective, they find the perfect balance between not sacrificing too much in character development or (especially in fantasy/sci-fi) worldbuilding by stopping short of a novel’s typical length and not overly attenuating the impact of a short story by writing past their ending or diluting it with too much physical detail. It’s a fine line to walk, and unfortunately, I can’t say that Guy Haley toes it with any consistent success in The Emperor’s Railroad, leading to a work that has intriguing moments but as a whole falls frustratingly short.

The setting is a bleakly devastated future section of the United States (roughly the Ohio River valley), with most of humanity’s great works and technologies either already disappeared or badly rusting/rotting ... Read More

The Diamond Thief: Popcorn-fun YA steampunk

The Diamond Thief by Sharon Gosling

The Diamond Thief is the first book in the trilogy of the same name by Sharon Gosling; it’s a YA steampunk series set in Victorian England featuring Rémy Brunel, a circus acrobat by day and a jewel thief by night. Rémy seems to have some sort of metaphysical or psychic connection with jewels, and can determine just by holding a gem whether it is valuable or a piece of fancy glass.

Thaddeus Rec is an orphaned teenaged detective who is determined to rise through the ranks of Scotland Yard and prove, with the help of an eccentric and elderly mentor, that he is more than the son of common thieves. That mentor, The Professor, functions as the Doc Brown to Thaddeus’ Marty McFly, providing him with a surrogate parent’s guidance as well as all sorts of nifty toys which aid Thaddeus in his investigations. When a valuable diamond goes missing and both Ré... Read More

Against the Fall of Night: Historically interesting, difficult to read

Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke, originally appeared as a novella in 1948, in Startling Stories. Clarke expanded the story and published it as a novel with Gnome Press in 1953. Still later he wrote The City and the Stars which expands some of the themes posited in Against the Fall of Night.

Against the Fall of Night would be considered a novella by today’s standards; it’s probably about 40,000 words in length. Other aspects of the work contribute to a “novella” feel; the story is not fleshed out and large sections are told to us via indirect narrative. The things that are shown, though, are imaginative and gorgeous.

Alvin lives in the city of Di... Read More

Parable of the Sower: A new religion born from societal collapse

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower (1993) is the first book in Octavia Butler’s PARABLE (EARTHSEED) series. It is one of her most well-regarded novels, along with Kindred (1979) and Wild Seed (1980), and depicts a near-future United States that has collapsed due to environmental catastrophe into roving bands of thieves, drug addicts, rapists, murderers, scavengers, corporate towns that impose wage slavery, and gated communities protected by armed guards that strive to survive amidst the chaos.

It is an unforgiving world in which the strong, violent, and ruthless dominate the weak and powerless. The story centers around Lauren Olamina, a 17-year old girl born to a Black Baptist preacher and Hispanic mother. Due to drugs... Read More

Aces Abroad: Aces and Jokers tour the world

Aces Abroad edited by George R.R. Martin

Aces Abroad is the fourth WILD CARDS anthology edited by George R.R. Martin. It was originally published in 1988, released in a new print edition by Tor in 2015, and released in audio format by Random House Audio in March 2016. It would be best to read the previous volumes (Wild Cards, Aces High, Jokers Wild) first, not only because they introduce the most important characters and provide a lot of background information that you’ll need to fully appreciate Aces Abroad, but also because those first three books are more entertaining than this one is and represent the series better, I think.

WILD CARDS is a shared universe written by sev... Read More

Rise of the Huntress: Bony Lizzy escapes

Rise of the Huntress by Joseph Delaney

Rise of the Huntress is the seventh of Joseph Delaney’s LAST APPRENTICE / WARDSTONE CHRONICLES popular horror series for children. The series deservedly has legions of young fans and it’s likely that nothing I, a jaded adult, has to say about a seventh book will mean anything to anybody, so I’ll make this short.

Rise of the Huntress delivers exactly what we expect. The formula has become clear by now. Each book is a scary little adventure which gives Tom and his friends an evil foe to fight while advancing the overall plot slightly. This time Tom, the Spook, and Alice flee the Spook’s house because it has been overrun by soldiers involved in the war we keep hearing about. Bony Lizzy, the evil witch that th... Read More

Life, the Universe, and Everything: Still funny, but losing coherence

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

I loved THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY series when I read it back in 5th grade. It was one of the first science fiction series I read, shortly after THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN. I was just forming my taste in fantastic fiction, and this was the first series I read that was truly funny, featuring dry, ironic British humor no less. It was completely new to a kid growing up in sunny Hawaii, pretty much as far from rainy, overcast England as you can get. In many cases I knew it was clever dialogue, but had no idea what Adams meant.

Listening to the audiobook read by Martin Freeman more than 20 years later, working with several very British co-workers who love to debate about the Tory & Labor parties, cricket (especially The Ashes), how rubbish Man U is this year, and whether Diego Costa is... Read More

The Lucky Strike: A useful primer to Robinson’s style and themes

The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Lucky Strike collects a short story and an essay about alternate history by Kim Stanley Robinson. At the end, readers are treated to an interview with the author. It is part of a larger series of publications that highlight “outspoken authors.”

“The Lucky Strike,” the short story, is an alternate history about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this world, however, Frank January chooses to drop the bomb early so as to minimize human casualties. He hopes that the Japanese will surrender when they realize the destructive power of atomic bombs.

It is difficult to discuss the text without spoilers, so what follows is full of them:

Begin highlighting here to read the spoiler:  When Frank... Read More

Sin City (Vol. 2): A Dame To Kill For by Frank Miller

Sin City (Vol. 2): A Dame To Kill For by Frank Miller

Frank Miller’s SIN CITY series is famous for its hard-boiled crime noir stories, characters and black-and-white artwork. In the second volume, A Dame To Kill For, Miller gleefully tackles that most classic of noir tropes, the seductive and deadly femme fatale. Ava is her name, and when she beckons, men cannot resist. Our lead this time is Dwight McCarthy, a photographer who is trying to live a clean, modest life in that cesspool of vice, crime, and violence known as Sin City. But four years ago he was involved with Ava, a dame with a perfect body and hypnotic eyes who can make men do her bidding with ease. Bu... Read More