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Wicked Like a Wildfire: Edgy YA heroine, unique setting, extravagant imagery

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Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popović

In Wicked Like a Wildfire (2017), magic and secrecy swirl around Iris and Malina, a pair of seventeen year old fraternal twins who live in current-day Montenegro with their single mother, Jasmina. Jasmina confides to them that all of the women in their family have a distinct gleam, a magical way to create and enhance beauty. Jasmina bakes marvelous foods that call particular visual scenes to the minds of those who eat them. Malina can sense moods and reflect them back with an amazing voice that creates layers of harmony. And Iris can make flowers (and sometimes other objects) expand and fractal into spiral blazes and fireworks of color.

Their joyful, though private, practicing of their magic together comes to an abrupt end when the twins are seven and a neighbor nearly discovers their secret. Jasmina, pa... Read More

Wearing the Cape: Good fun, but pulls punches

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Wearing the Cape
by Marion G. Harmon

Prose fiction has often seemed to have trouble dealing with the figure of the superhero. While the subgenre can boast many excellent graphic novels, and film and television adaptations have been quite successful, it has never quite seemed to find its voice in a less visual medium. There have certainly been some notable successes, but it feels as though the breakout work has yet to be written. Wearing the Cape (2011) is actually a pretty good try, though it does have its flaws.

First, though, let's talk about the fun central premise. As is pretty standard for postmodern superhero stories, some sort of cataclysmic Event has taken place that has randomly given a segment of the population super powers. No one seems to know exactly how this has happened, and it ultimately doesn't much matter — comic books have basically come to l... Read More

Starman’s Quest: Silverberg doesn’t want you to read it

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Starman’s Quest by Robert Silverberg

Editor’s Note: Being in the public domain, Starman’s Quest (1958) is available free in Kindle format. You can add audio narration for $2.99.

There’s an author’s note attached to various versions of Starman’s Quest at Amazon that goes like this: “This book is a very early and not very good work of the author, who has tried to prevent the issue of a new edition of it. Unfortunately, since it is no longer protected by copyright, he can't prevent its distribution, but he recommends that you choose some other book of his to read.” The audio version I listened to has a less dire warning: “This was my second novel which I wrote when I was 19, in my junior year at Columbia. I’ve written better ones since. But readers interested in the archaeology of a ... Read More

Tea With the Black Dragon: Refreshing romance + 1980s computer nostalgia

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Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Martha Macnamara is a free spirit. Although she’s 50 years old and has accumulated much wisdom over the years, she can also be innocent and even childlike. She’s a musician with much talent, but no fame, and she usually spends her time travelling around and staying with friends. When we meet her, she has flown to California at her grown daughter’s request. Elizabeth, who’s just as independent as her mother but is career-driven and successful, has paid for Martha to stay in an elegant hotel in San Francisco.

While Martha is waiting for Liz to call on her, she meets Mayland Long, a wealthy Asian man who lives at the hotel. Martha and Mayland are instantly attracted to, and intrigued by, each other. When Liz goes missing and Martha starts investigating, Mayland decides to help. When Martha then also disappears right in front of his eyes, Mayl... Read More

The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

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The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James Kakalios

James Kakalios structures his popular science book, The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day (2017), around following a person through a typical day and stopping periodically to explain the science (particularly obviously, the physics) behind the technology the person uses and/or engages with, such as a hotel keycard, a toaster, an LED TV, a copier machine and so forth. Both the explanations and the structure succeed to a mixed degree, and while I found at the end the book to be informative and generally rewarding, its style and structure seemed to work against its task of popularizing science/tech for the masses.

The structure’s issues tend to be that following a person progressively throug... Read More

Magic for Nothing: The youngest Price child gets her own story

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Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire

Magic for Nothing, (2017), Seanan McGuire’s sixth INCRYPTID novel, finally gives the youngest Price child, Antimony, a story of her own. The rebellious, roller-derby daughter has enough on her plate coming to grips with her newly manifested pyrokinetic abilities when she is thrown into a dangerous undercover assignment, and to her way of thinking, she has her sister Verity to blame for it.

I have only read the first two books in the series and one short story featuring Antimony, so I may commit inadvertent spoilers. In the prologue, we learn that Verity, on a live broadcast of a New York dance-competition show, revealed her cryptozoologist powers, and challenged the Covenant of St. George, a secret society, military ... Read More

Killing is My Business: An improvement on the first book but still has issues (and a giveaway!)

Readers, we have a paperback copy of Made to Kill and a hardcover copy of Killing is My Business to give away to one lucky commenter! U.S. and Canada-based mailing addresses only, please.

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Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher

I thought that the flaws in Adam Christopher’s first Chandler-esque robot PI novel, Made to Kill, outweighed the positives, and thus gave it a rating of only 2 ½ stars. The tougher-than-steel detective/hitman Raymond Electromatic is back in the sequel, Killing Is My Business (2017), and while it improves upon its predecessor in many ways, it never really breaks out of the gat... Read More

The Weight of the World: The galactic chess game continues

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The Weight of the World by Tom Toner

Note: This review contains some spoilers for the previous book,  The Promise of the Child.

I finished The Promise of the Child, the first book in Tom Toner’s AMARANTHINE SPECTRUM space opera series, rather bewildered but game to continue the series by jumping into The Weight of the World (2017). Toner begins this second book in the series with a two page summary of what actually happened in The Promise of the Child, which is extremely helpful given the complexity of the events in tha... Read More

The Jewel and Her Lapidary: A Nebula and Hugo-nominated novelette

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The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde’s novelette The Jewel and Her Lapidary was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards this year. I listened to the 1.75 hour long audiobook version produced by Macmillan Audio and narrated by Mahvesh Murad.

I loved the setting of this story — a kingdom that is protected by powerful gems which can be heard and gently manipulated by lapidaries, people who have a genetic predisposition for connecting with the gems. Think of them as gem whisperers. The lapidaries serve the royal family, at least until they go mad in later life.

This story is about two young women who are closely bonded to each other. Lin is the kingdom’s princess (referred to as a “Jewel”) and Sima is her lapidary. When we meet them... Read More

Now I Rise: Demand the crown

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

And I Darken bought us some of the best characters YA has seen in a long time: Lada Dracul, the fearsome terror of a little girl, and her gentle brother Radu. Defying stereotypes of gender, race and religion, as well as the predictable tropes of the genre itself, And I Darken was a FanLit fave of last year. Lada and Radu make their return in the follow-up, Now I Rise (2017), but can the sequel live up to its dazzling predecessor?

Lada ended And I Darken forging out towards Wallachia with her loyal Janissaries, having rejected the new sultan Mehmed's offer to stay with him, whilst Radu chose to remain. The messy love triangle — Radu's unrequited love for Mehmed, and Lada and Mehmed's impos... Read More

Obernewtyn: Post-apocalyptic YA fantasy from the 1980s

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Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody

Elspeth has dreams that come true. She can read thoughts, even the thoughts of animals, especially the strange cat Maruman. These gifts make her a Misfit, marked for death in her world.

Isobelle Carmody’s post-apocalyptic fantasy Obernewtyn, published in 1987, follows Elspeth from the “orphanage farm,” where she and her brother Jes were sent after the execution of their parents for sedition, to the strange mountain compound of Obernewtyn, a place of mystery, power and great danger.

In this world a strict government and a stricter religious order called The Herders control the population after a catastrophe, the Great White, nearly destroyed all life. It appears from the toxicity of the soil and the mention of whole sectors that are “badlands” that the event might have been thermonuclear. Any... Read More

Winter Be My Shield: A second-world fantasy from Down Under

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Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier

Winter Be My Shield, by Jo Spurrier, was nominated for an Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel in 2012, in her home country of Australia, and Spurrier herself was nominated for a Ditmar. While the roughly 30 reviews on Amazon are mixed, there are plenty of enthusiastic 5-star ones. All of this is to say that many people like this book more than I do. You’ve read my reviews, you know my taste, so be guided by that.

Winter Be My Shield is Book One in the CHILDREN OF THE BLACK SUN series. It was printed in the US in 2013. This second-world fantasy follows a fugitive mage named Sierra as she attempts to escape from the blood-mage Kell, who serves the Mesentreian king. Sierra’s magic draws power from the pain of others. So does Kell’s. More than she fears the sadistic... Read More

Black Dog Short Stories: Events in the lives of key Black Dog characters

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Black Dog Short Stories by Rachel Neumeier

This set of four short stories is an interlude in Rachel Neumeier’s BLACK DOG universe, where werewolves ― more properly known in this world as black dogs ― are adjusting to a world where humans are now aware of them, after an interspecies war that wiped out the world’s vampires and decimated many of the black dog packs. To the black dogs’ dismay, destroying the vampires also destroyed a type of mental mist or miasma produced by the vampires that kept humans from recognizing the magical creatures around them. Many humans recognize that at least some of the black dogs are worth having as allies against the more evil types, but it’s an uneasy alliance at best.

With one exception, these stories are set after the first book in t... Read More

The Promise of the Child: Ambitious but confusing space opera

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The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child (2015), an ambitious space opera that spans centuries and multiple planetary systems, begins with a prologue set in in fourteenth century Praha (Prague), where Princess Eliška, married to King John of Bohemia, meets with a man named Aaron to discuss his help with her son’s ill health. The story then jumps to AD 14,647 … but we will meet Aaron (“the Long-Life”) again.

In this distant future, humanity has spread to many worlds and "prismed" into many vastly different races, including giants (the Melius, who can change their skin color at will, and who inhabit Earth, now known as the Old World), a fairy-like race known as the Oxel scouts, and others in between. Overseeing all of the Firmament empire is a small, powerful group of humans known as the Amaranthine, who are virtually immortal due to ... Read More

A Bridge of Years: Time travel to 1962

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A Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson

Tom Winter tried to find solace in a bottle when his wife left him. He lost his job and concluded that 1989 was a pretty tough year. Now, Tom is trying to make a go of it in Belltower in the Pacific Northwest. His brother has set him up with a job as a car salesman, and he has bought a house. Life seems pretty mundane, until Tom realizes that the house is a time machine that leads to New York in 1962.

Published in 1991, Robert Charles Wilson’s A Bridge of Years is his first time travel novel, but it’s the third one I’ve read by him. Here, the traveler wanders through a tunnel from one time/location to another. There is no dial for Tom to turn to 11 or to 1924 or to the future. (This is not to say that the tunnels are... Read More

Flame in the Mist: In this forest, there is no place to hide…

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Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

We meet our protagonist, the rather precious Mariko, being carried roughly through the forest in her palanquin. Next thing she's the target of an attempted assassination. So begins our tale of magic, samurai and deception in Flame in the Mist's ancient, feudal Japan.

Mariko is on the way to the Imperial Palace to meet her betrothed when her convoy is attacked. At just seventeen years old, she has little say in such minor matters as her future husband. What's more, this is a political move set to cement her family's social standing. So when her convoy goes up in flames (along with everyone in it except Mariko), her first thought is for her family's honour. She reasons that if she can find out who exactly tried to murder her and why, she can save her family face and return home without having to marry the emperor's son. She murders... Read More

The Kill Society: There are parts of Hell even Sandman Slim hasn’t seen

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The Kill Society by Richard Kadrey 

The Kill Society (2017) is the ninth SANDMAN SLIM book, even if Stark prefers to go by Stark now, rather than the name he was given when he fought in the arena in Hell. Hell is not the eternal absence of God, or some theoretical dimension of punishment; it’s a county, a landscape. And Stark, alive or dead, is very familiar with it. In The Kill Society, Kadrey takes Stark, and us, on a tour of a previously unseen area of Hell, the Tenebrae. Even Stark is not very familiar with the desert-like stretch of Tenebrae with its mummified ghost towns. He’d prefer to be in Pandemonium, the capital, but he has no choice, because he’s been captured by a charismatic, mad soul who calls himself The Magistrate, and his caravan of killers called the horde.

(This review... Read More

Dead Man’s Hand: Companion to Ace in the Hole

Dead Man’s Hand edited by George R.R. Martin

This review will contain mild spoilers for the previous WILD CARDS novels.

Dead Man’s Hand (July 1990), the seventh WILD CARDS novel, was published merely six months after the previous novel, Ace in the Hole (January 1990). Supposedly, Martin had planned for the stories in each to be combined into only one novel but his publisher (Bantam Books) said it would be too long, so it was divided into two books. Only two writers, John Jos. Miller (who created Chrysalis) and George R.R. Martin, contributed to Dead Man’s Hand, in contrast to the five authors involved with Ace in the Hole. The result is a ti... Read More

The Field of Swords: Caesar abroad

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The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden’s The Field of Swords (2005) follows a Caesar who is no longer young. Though he is still eminently capable and still driven to work day and night in pursuit of glory, he is exhausted rather than energized by his work in Spain. Naturally, the real story begins when he returns to Rome to form an alliance with Pompey and Crassus.

Rome considers itself the greatest city in the world, but, to our eyes, it is consumed by corrupt political intrigue in search of power and recognition, its enemies are tortured and slowly executed in public, and its people are entertained by merciless spectacle. Julius is the hero of this text, but he is not given contemporary attitudes. He enjoys the spectacle, the fame, and the glory of Romeo a... Read More

A Taste of Honey: A love story with a very particular style

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A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Another 2016 Nebula nominee today, this time for best Novella. A Taste of Honey (2016) is set in the same world as a previous work by Kai Ashante Wilson, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which I confess I have not read (it’s not necessary for the understanding of this story, though it may provide some useful background to the setting and its institutions).

At its heart, A Taste of Honey is a love story between two men from different lands — wealthy nobleman, Aqib, from Olorum (where the story is set), and battle-hardened warrior, Lucrio, from Dalucan. The story moves through time, alternating ... Read More

The Death of Kings: Julius comes into power and loss

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The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

Julius is a young soldier. He fights in northern Africa, but he is not in command. Still, he is very well trained, is charismatic and trusts his instincts, and he is beginning to learn what it means to command and why he loves everything Rome stands for. He is confident, idealistic, and capable, a potent combination that leads to many victories. By the end of the novel, he will deal with Spartacus and Sulla, pirates, and senators who wish him ill. He will taste true power, love, and loss.

Published in 2004, Conn Iggulden’s The Death of Kings, the second of four entries in the EMPEROR series (after The Gates of Rome), is... Read More

THE DESCENDANTS: The conflict between good and evil Disney characters shifts to the next generation

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The Isle of the Lost, Return to the Isle of the Lost Rise of the Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz

Disney’s THE DESCENDANTS series of interrelated middle grade books (fairly easy chapter books) and television musical movies follows the adventures of the children of all of your favorite Disney animated film characters ― both the ones you love and the ones you love to hate. In this series, all of the villains from the various animated films were banished years ago to an isolated island called the Isle of the Lost. The island was then enclosed in a magical force field, an impenetrable dome that keeps the villains locked inside and all magical power locked outside. The Isle of the Lost is a rundown, grimy and unhappy place, while the non-wicked Disney characters live it up in the lovely nearby kingdom of Auradon, ruled over by Beauty and a no-longer... Read More

Seeker: Seek and you shall find

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Seeker by Veronica Rossi

Warning: Will contain some spoilers for the previous book, Riders.

Readers of the explosive finale to Veronica Rossi's Riders will remember the fate the four horsemen of the apocalypse came to: Daryn sealed War (our hero Gideon) in a dark dimension with Samrael, the last surviving demon of the Kindred. Now, plagued with guilt, it's up to her to rescue him in Seeker (2017).

Whilst Daryn's role in Riders was shady at best — she was unable to adequately explain why she was forcing Gideon to round up the other horsemen of the apocalypse — we find out that she is a Seeker: she gained Sight and the ability to see the future. But she has made a fatal mistake: Gid... Read More

The Regional Office is Under Attack: Lots to like but overall frustrating

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The Regional Office is Under Attack
by Manuel Gonzales

As I kept reading The Regional Office is Under Attack (2016) by Manuel Gonzales, whipsawing back and forth between being impressed and being annoyed, I found myself pulling for Gonzales to pull it off, and it was a near thing. In the end, I think I come down on the side of the novel frustrating somewhat more than it delights, though it leaves me intrigued to see what Gonzales comes up with next.

The titular office is an agency that, according to their own sign (written in light-blue calligraphy), is:
Uniquely positioned to Empower and Strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk Young Women to act as a Barrier of last resort between the survival of the Planet and the amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten, at nearly every turn, to Destroy it.
Employed to that end are a trio of Or... Read More

Riders: Can you outrun destiny?

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Riders by Veronica Rossi

Eighteen year old Gideon Blake has waited his whole life to become a US Army ranger, but when his whole life comes to an abrupt end, those dreams can no longer become a reality. Instead, he finds himself wearing a mysterious metal bracelet he can't remove and most certainly not as dead as he should be. Gideon discovers that he is, in fact, living out (ahem) his true destiny: he has been reincarnated as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, War.

Gideon should have died. Waking up instead with a metal bracelet he can't remove, and the ability to affect the behaviour with his own rage (using said metal bracelet) he realises something is amiss. He does what would come naturally to all twenty-first century teens: he Googles it. When the results come up with nothing short of super hero websites, he laughs it off.

Enter Daryn. Daryn explains to our unwit... Read More