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Sweep of the Blade: Planet of the Vampires

Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

With Sweep of the Blade, the fourth installment in Ilona AndrewsINNKEEPER CHRONICLES series, there is a new main character: Maud, sister of Dina, the previous main character and the innkeeper of this light SF series. We met Maud in the prior book in this series, One Fell Sweep, when Dina convinced Sean the werewolf and Arland the vampire — these are both alien races, by the way, though distantly related to humans — to help her rescue Maud and her five-year-old half-vampire daughter Helen from the desert prison planet Karhari. In the first few chapters of Sweep of the Blade, Andrews retells these scenes from Maud’s point of view.

Ar... Read More

The Bard’s Blade: A solid enough first book that left me wanting more bite

The Bard’s Blade by Brian D. Anderson

The Bard’s Blade (2020), by Brian D. Anderson, is the first book of THE SORCERER’S SONG trilogy and as such it’s a perfectly serviceable fantasy, a comfortingly welcome invitation into a new series. If that seems a bit like damning with faint praise, that’s because while the novel goes down easily and smoothly, I can’t say there’s anything that makes it particularly stand out. I’d say it’s the vanilla flavor at a Ben and Jerry’s, save that vanilla is actually my favorite flavor. Maybe it’s a peanut-butter sandwich. It satisfies, it fills that need in your stomach, assuages your hunger, but you won’t be grabbing someone in the grocery store while they’re shopping and telling them, “You really have to try a peanut-butter sandwich!”

The story opens in Vyla... Read More

The Bronze Skies: Another adventure in the undercity

The Bronze Skies by Catherine Asaro

The Bronze Skies (2017) is the second book in Catherine Asaro’s MAJOR BHAAJAN series. In the first book, Undercity, we met Bhaajan, a private investigator who recently retired from military service. When she is hired by the royal family to track down a runaway prince, she must descend into the grimy tunnels under the capital city of Cries. This is where the lowest cast of citizens live — in the city’s underbelly — and this is where Bhaajan grew up before escaping into the military. As Bhaajan searches for the prince, it’s easy to draw parallels between the class system of Cries and our own world’s socioeconomic hierarchies.

In The Bronze Skies Read More

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water: We are interested in what Kaftan does next

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is a 2019 novella by Vylar Kaftan. The story opens with two characters, Bee, our narrator, and Chela, in jeopardy in a very unusual setting, and takes us places we did not expect.

Bee is trapped in a unique and horrifying prison: a cave complex on a planet far from Earth. She has one companion, Chela, and they have banded together to brave the dangers of the caves: the risk of drowning, narrow tunnels that could trap and suffocate a prisoner, deep shafts and large predatory insects. They have never seen another prisoner. The wardens leave boxes of goods with a guiding beacon for them to find. The boxes contain food and other necessary supplies, and sometimes a whimsical item like a postcard. It’s often a race to get to the boxes before the insects find them, and the boxes, their arbitrary placement and the str... Read More

Empress of Forever: Thrilling space opera, but it is science fiction?

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever (2019) is definitely space opera. In a far distant future, tech genius, entrepreneur and loner Vivian Liao travels from planet to planet and system to system trying to find an advantage in a losing war against an all-powerful space empress. Viv, who is plucked by that same empress out of her our-present-day life (and planned rebellion), draws to herself the usual strange pack of uneasy allies in this battle. The book is complicated, fascinating, fast-paced, and star-and-planet hopping. I’m not sure it’s science fiction.

Viv Liao is a titan of tech, a brilliant, quirky creator who has made billions of dollars and finally, become a threat to the wrong people. On the night of her birthday party she flees, enacting her own personal plan for a... Read More

Dragonfly: Adventure-filled fantasy and romance for younger readers

Dragonfly by Julia Golding

A political marriage has been arranged between 16-year-old Princess Taoshira (Tashi) of the Blue Crescent Islands and 18-year-old Prince Ramil (Ram) of the country of Gerfal. They're separated by a few hundred miles, a couple of other countries in between theirs, and a world of cultural differences. Both Tashi and Ram are completely appalled by the idea of the match, and it doesn't get any better when they meet up, as Tashi’s government sends her to Gerfal to meet and wed Ram. But their countries need an alliance to fight against an aggressive and brutal warlord, Fergox Spearthrower of Holt (one of those in-between countries), and the marriage is needed, in the views of their rulers, to cement their alliance.

Tashi, frightened, takes refuge in stiff formality; Ram gets wasted and does his best to put Tashi off with his rude and uncouth behavior. They're off on a horse ride that Ram's father, the king o... Read More

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

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

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... Read More

The Gates of Never: Solid if a bit underwhelming collection of speculative poetry

The Gates of Never by Deborah L. Davitt

The first thing I (unfortunately) have to note is that the formatting was off in the version of The Gates of Never I read, which clearly detracts from reading, let along critiquing, poetry. Issues of line breaks and spacing popped up, and if I looked at versions in Kindle or in Bluefire or in PDF the line breaks were different in all three, making it impossible to tell which is the author’s intended.

Setting that aside, as is often the case for me and poetry collections (or any anthology to be honest), this was a bit of a mixed bag. But since I expect that, I can’t say I was disappointed; it had about the balance of good, solid, and weak I’ve come to anticipate, though I did wish there were more examples of strong or excellent poems.

The poems are mostly myth or fairy tale based, with a number of astronomical/space-based ones coming toward the e... Read More

The Secret Commonwealth: Thought-provoking and complicated

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (Ray  Jana)

With the release of La Belle Sauvage, readers were finally able to return to the universe of Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy after a seventeen year wait. The story was a prequel to the original trilogy (though Pullman described the new series not as a sequel, but an 'equel.') Being only a baby, it was not Lyra who took centre stage in that novel, but a young boy called Malcolm Polstead, who used his boat La Belle Sauvage to rescue Lyra from a terrible flood and an even more terrible man in pursuit.

Now in the latest addition to the series, The Secret Commonwealth (2019), Lyra returns in full force. She is a twenty-year-old e... Read More

Ahsoka: A fun but inconsequential tale about a Star Wars favourite

Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

It struck me on reading this YA novel that there's a definite hierarchy to the stories that are told within the STAR WARS universe. Obviously the movies are the most important: they are seen by the most people, and encompass the most important events in the overarching space epic. They're "tent-poles" so to speak.

In second place are the animated television shows such as The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels which build on the canon that's laid out in the movies, and very occasionally (usually through minor cameos) get to overlap with them.

After that come the books and comics, which are best described as "fillers". They'll usually deal with origin stories of certain characters; of filling in the gaps that couldn't be explored in the films or shows due to time constraints.

As a character who has never appeared in any of the films, but who is an ... Read More

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon: A charming historical fantasy

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon by Lisa Goldstein

Alice Wood, a recently widowed middle-aged woman, is continuing her husband’s bookselling business in his stall in the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though Alice is liked by the other vendors in the courtyard, most think that, as a woman, she’s not equipped to run a business by herself. One of her competitors, a man named George, insists that she should sell her stall to him, or at least that she should marry him and let him run their combined businesses. Everyone knows that, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, a woman needs a man around to run things.

But Alice is determined to prove George and her other detractors wrong and she continues to work with publishers to sell books and pamphlets (such as those by Thomas Nashe) to Londoners. Things are going well until her... Read More

Burning Water: Urban fantasy by Mercedes Lackey

Burning Water by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey is best known for her VALDEMAR series, a multi-volume epic fantasy that is beloved by many fantasy readers. Some of Lackey’s legions of fans may not know that she also published an urban fantasy trilogy back in the late 80s and early 90s. It stars Diana Tregarde, a romance writer and practicing witch who solves magical murders and helps protect the world from evil supernatural beings. She is a Guardian.

In the first DIANA TREGARDE novel, Burning Water (1989), we meet Diana after her friend Mark Valdez, a police detective, asks for her help with a case. It involves the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, a photographer for a travel magazine, a fashion designer, four... Read More

Remember Me: A Christopher Pike classic

Remember Me by Christopher Pike

The idea of a ghost who has to solve their own murder from beyond the grave is a slam-dunk. I'll read or watch any variation of this story, from Patrick Swayze in Ghost to all those early X-Files episodes. So having been a fan of Christopher Pike in my teen years, I'm not sure how Remember Me (1989) managed to slip my notice. But hey, better late than never!

Shari Cooper is dead, thrown from a balcony at a friend's party. Now her ghost is stuck in limbo, able to see her friends and family, but unable to communicate with them in any way. What's worse, everyone thinks she committed suicide, the police officer investigating her case is an alcoholic, and there's a nightmarish monster chasing her through the afterlife.

But at only eighteen years old, Shari knows she didn't kill herself — someone pushed her off that balcony. And... Read More

Grave Importance: Greta gets what she deserves

Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

Grave Importance (2019) is the third DR GRETA HELSING book by Vivian Shaw, following Strange Practice and Dreadful Company. For the best experience, you should read those books first, though it’s not strictly necessary. Each book’s main plot stands alone, but the characters’ relationships (including a romance) develop over the course of the three novels.

After the events of Dreadful Company, Greta is back in England, helping vampyre Varney take care of the new monsters they’ve brought back from Paris. When a colleague who runs a clinic for ... Read More

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal: A flawed but fun wuxia-fantasy…

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal directed by Peter Pau

I always enjoy a good wuxia-fantasy, and Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal ticks the expected boxes of the genre: noble warriors, beautiful maidens, impressive stunt-work, a twisty-turny plot — but despite its length, it doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it should have.

The city of Hun is ruled by the lesser god Zhang Diaoxian, who protects its people from the demons of Hell by turning a simple scholar called Zhong Kui into a mighty demon-slayer. The two of them have kept Hell’s demons at bay for many years, but now the fifteenth of July approaches, a day in which the Earth is vulnerable from attack.

After the theft of the Dark Crystal from the underworld, and the arrival of Zhong Kui’s former lover – a mysterious maiden called Little Snow – to the city, Diaoxian gives his protégé an elixir that transforms him into a demon warrior, insisting that it’s the... Read More

Dreadful Company: Greta goes to Paris

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company (2018) is the second book in Vivian Shaw’s warm-hearted DR GRETA HELSING series. It follows Strange Practice which, for best results, I’d recommend reading first. The stories are self-contained, but the characters’ relationships with each other evolve a bit throughout the series.

Greta has been asked to present a paper at a medical conference in Paris. She travels to the City of Lights with her vampire friend Lord Ruthven and, on one of the evenings, they plan to attend the opera. As they get ready, Greta notices a little monster in her sink at the hotel and knows that this type must be summoned, meaning that there is a practitioner in Paris.
... Read More

Sabbath: It’s strange. It’s interesting.

Sabbath by Nick Mamatas

I don’t always agree with Nick Mamatas or his views on humanity, but I think he is one of the most interesting writers working right now, and Sabbath (2019), while it’s strange, is definitely interesting. The story behind the story is interesting and a little strange too. Sabbath (2019) is a novelization of a graphic novel called Sabbath: All Your Sins Reborn, by Matthew Tomao, which does not seem to be well known or much admired on the internet.

Mamatas writes a book that has some wonderful, hallucinatory prose, gallons of gore, a passel of severed heads, attack poodles, several actiony set-pieces and social observations as astringent as shot of cold gin. To crib a line from the Buffy-spinoff Angel, who doesn’t love... Read More

Strange Practice: Great premise, bland plot

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Greta Helsing, a 34 year old doctor, has a discreet medical practice in modern London. Her life’s mission is to study, help, and heal all of the supernatural creatures that most of the world is unaware of and would view as monsters if they did learn about them. As you might expect, this gets her into all sorts of weird situations that have been documented in Vivian Shaw’s DR GRETA HELSING series.

In this opening volume, we meet a couple of Greta’s best friends: Lord Ruthven, an ancient vampire who lives in a large gracious mansion in London, and Fastitocalon, a math-loving accountant’s assistant with COPD who can read minds and happens to be a demon.

When a brooding guilt-ridden vampyre named Sir Francis Varney (of the penny-dreadful called Varney the Vampyre) s... Read More

The Line Between: Apocalyptic thrills and doomsday cult chills

The Line Between by Tosca Lee

The Line Between (2019) is a chilling and believable take on what happens when a long-extinct disease emerges from the frozen tundra in Alaska. Apparently free-range hogs will eat almost anything, including a disease-infested caribou carcass exposed by the melting permafrost (nod to global warming here). The prion-based disease promptly teams up with a modern flu virus. Invariably fatal cases of rapid early-onset dementia ensue.

These sobering events are seen through the eyes of twenty-two-year-old Wynter Roth, who, as the story begins, is escaping/being kicked out of her apocalyptic cult in rural Iowa. It's a combination of both: she did want out, but the method and timing were taken out of her hands, and she’s deeply torn because her older sister Jaclyn and her four-year-old niece Truly are still locked into the New Earth cult's life. Plus, Wynter has spent fifteen years ... Read More

Winterwood: Atmospheric but glitchy winter tale

Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw

Nora Walker is all alone in the world. Her whole family are rumored to be witches, which sets her apart from other kids her age. Her grandmother is dead, and her mother is something of an absentee parent. And now that winter has set in at Jackjaw Lake, all the tourists are gone, leaving behind only Nora in her cottage and the residents of the nearby camp for delinquent boys. Nora’s isolation increases still further when a storm drops four feet of snow on the area, cutting off the roads and knocking out the phone lines.

Everything changes when Nora ventures into the oldest, spookiest part of the woods on the full moon and finds Oliver Huntsman, a boy who went missing two weeks ago from the camp. She helps him recover from hypothermia and takes him back to the camp, but in the process learns that there is more to the story than just one boy getting lost in the woods. Another boy died the same night, and ... Read More

Street Freaks: A new genre for a well-known author

Street Freaks by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks is best known for his fantasy novels (particularly the SHANNARA series) but with Street Freaks (2018) he tries his hand at science fiction for the first time. The results are ... fine. This is hardly a game-changing or genre-bending novel, but a fast-paced, reasonably interesting story that belongs as much in the dystopian genre as it does science fiction. Brooks's distinctive prose (clear but liable to repeat itself) is matched well with a collection of interesting characters and some fun world-building.

The story begins when teenager Ash Collins receives a warning from his father through his vidview, telling him "Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks. Don't wait ... "The connection ends before the message is complete, and minutes later Ash's apartmen... Read More

The Last Town: … or this could be hell

The Last Town by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch wraps up the WAYWARD PINES trilogy in The Last Town (2014). If you haven’t read the prior two books, Pines and Wayward, be warned that here there be spoilers, as well as monsters and a bloodbath.

David Pilcher was a visionary man, convinced that the town of Wayward Pines, Idaho would be a new Eden, a place where people could start over again. The sign outside of town even proclaims “WELCOME TO WAYWARD PINES — WHERE PARADISE IS HOME”! Though Pilcher was right in many ways, life there was far more difficult and dangerous than he foresaw. Between that and Pilcher’s mania for control, Wayward Pines has been more of a prison for its inhabi... Read More

The Queen’s Advantage: Another jaunty space opera

The Queen's Advantage by Jessie Mihalik

The Queen's Advantage (2019) is the second story in Jessie Mihalik’s ROGUE QUEEN series. These are short and entertaining science fiction novellas. I enjoyed the first one, The Queen's Gambit, because it’s fast-paced, has a strong female protagonist, an appealing love interest, and a nice sense of humor. You’ll want to read it before picking up The Queen's Advantage.

I listened to Tantor Audio’s edition which is narrated by Rachel Dulude. The cover art of the audiobook is horrendous, and Dulude could use a bit of coaching for her prosody, but don’t let this scare you away. It’s a good format for this story.

... Read More

The Last Conversation: Somber and disturbing

The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay

A person — whose name and gender are never specified, because that person is "you" — wakes up, alone in a room. You’re blind and in intense pain, and at first you remember nothing at all of your past. You only hear one person, Dr. Anne Kuhn, who instructs you through a speaker: testing you mentally, badgering you to exercise, and, little by little, giving you bits of information about your past life and about why you are where you are now. Gradually it becomes clear that something disastrous has happened.

The Last Conversation (2019) is an odd but compelling and ominous science fiction novella from Paul Tremblay. It’s reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode: strange, somber and slightly horrific in a slow-burn way, with a surprising reveal at the end (or perha... Read More

Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit

Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit by Helene Saucedo

October is here, Halloween parties are incipient, and that means group activities will be in order — spooky card games, spine-chilling board games, and, yes, palmistry kits. Helene Saucedo’s Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit (2019) declares itself to be “everything you need to read and create a print of the hand,” and I was curious to see how well the kit actually met that challenge.

The guidebook is slim, covering the major steps of palm-reading and touching lightly on the history of palmistry, or chiromancy, as it was once known. While the lines on a person’s palm were once thought to contain such portentous information as the number of successful romances or the limit of a person’s life span, current palmistry seems to be more of a self-reflection or self-assessment t... Read More