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A Plunder of Souls: Plot issues are overcome by good characters

A Plunder of Souls by D.B. Jackson

Just last week while on vacation out west, my son and I were discussing what were the greater obstacles to our enjoyment of books and what elements allowed for those obstacles to be overcome. One of my observations was that while a strong plot will rarely overcome poor characters for me, if you give me good characters, I can overlook more than a few plot flaws. Who knew how prophetic that conversation would be? For upon my return home, I found waiting for me a copy of D.B. Jackson’s A Plunder of Souls, the third in his historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. At the series’ center lies beleaguered thieftaker/conjurer Ethan Kaille, and it was Kaille’s still-engaging voice that managed to ease me past, if not blind me to, the several plot issues in the novel.

The year is 1769 and tensions are high: British soldiers have been stationed in the city an... Read More

Vampirella: Southern Gothic by Nate Cosby

Vampirella: Southern Gothic by Nate Cosby

Vampirella is in the Witchblade tradition of pin-up lead female comic book characters. If you aren't likely to enjoy comics with this type of art, there's not even a slight chance that you'll enjoy this comic book. However, if you are already a fan of Vampirella, you probably already follow her books, and nothing I say here will make you like them any less, though I hope to help you decide whether this new book is worth seeking out. Therefore, I'm speaking primarily to an audience somewhere in the middle, an audience of readers open to the possibility that while they may be offended by certain visual aspects of a comic book, they might still appreciate other aspects of Vampirella. For that audience, I suggest that, though no... Read More

Pyramids: A stomach-jiggling delight

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

It seems there is no subject too big or too small, too esoteric or too familiar, that Terry Pratchett won’t tackle in DISCWORLD. His 1989 Pyramids, seventh in the series, sees the author exploring Egypt and just entering the groove that would become more than forty novels in the DISCWORLD setting. The humor in Pyramids is some of Pratchett’s best, but the book still leaves something to be desired for plot. As such, I’m guessing it won the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for historical grounding, wordplay, stabs at theme, and accomplishments to date, rather than consistent storytelling or characterization.

Pyramids is the tale of Teppic, son of Teppicymon XXVII who is king of the desert land Djelibeybi. Teppic was sent to the Assassin’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork for grooming into an “e... Read More

Terra Formars by Yu Sasuga

Terra Formars by Yu Sasuga 

Terra Formars is a science fiction manga that takes place on Mars, and if you aren't totally creeped out by roaches, then you might be able to deal with this very violent, but action-packed, story. The astronauts sent on this mission are not picked for their intelligence or exceptional skills; rather, this group is made up of those considered disposable. Some are poor, some are criminals, but all are not valued by those in power and running the mission. These Terra Formars are treated as science experiments to send off to Mars to deal with the roach problem.

In making Mars habitable for human beings, the scientists have introduced moss and other plant and bug life into the Mars ecosystem.... Read More

Horrible Monday: Deceiver by Kelli Owen

Deceiver by Kelli Owen

DarkFuse, an independent publisher of horror, suspense and thrillers, has a thriving novella series. For $85 per month, you can subscribe to the limited hardcover editions of the novellas, which are published at the rate of two each month. (The subscription also includes a hardcover novel every month.) Only 100 copies are printed, though the works are also available in electronic form. It’s a delight to see a publisher take an interest in publishing this shorter form, which is often exactly the right length for genre works (and for mainstream fiction, for that matter; consider William Faulkner and Henry James), but which is neglected by most publishers.

One of the June 2014 novella offerings is Kelli Owen’s Deceiver, a suspenseful work of dark fiction that opens at a post-funeral gathering. Matt’s wife Tania has been murdered while on a business trip, strangled with a necktie. The police have ... Read More

People of the Morning Star: Historical novel blends myth and intrigue

People of the Morning Star by W. Michael Gear & Kathleen O'Neal Gear

People of the Morning Star, by the archaeologist couple Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, is pretty interesting once it gets going. It is set in the Native American (Mississippian) settlement of Cahokia, a city located near modern-day St. Louis, whose population in the 1200s would have made it one of the largest cities in the world. In this book, Cahokia is ruled by the Four Winds clan, led by the Morning Star, a god incarnated into the human flesh of Chunkey Boy, a Four Winds clan youth. The social structure of Cahokia is highly stratified; the most favored clans rule the others, with merchants and traders having less status, and "dirt farmers" having the relative status of peasants or serfs.

A threat in the form of a mysterious character named "Bead" enters Cahokia, bent on killing all of the Four Winds nobles, especially Morning Star, in order t... Read More

Passage to Dawn: An Uptick for the Series

Passage to Dawn by R.A. Salvatore

Passage to Dawn, fourth and final book in author R.A. Salvatore’s LEGACY OF THE DROW quartet (and the tenth in his broader LEGEND OF DRIZZT series), is pretty good, by Drizzt standards. Hurrah! Cue the Triumph through Rome! Bring on the cheering throngs and falling rose petals! All right, so it may sound like I’m damning with faint praise here, but given the overall shakiness of the quartet it seems expected to tie together, Passage to Dawn’s being pretty good actually does seem like something worthy of a bit of celebration. That doesn’... Read More

The Forever Watch: This debut shows much promise

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from a debut novel. Sometimes they come out of nowhere to blow you away — “Really? You did that on your first try?” (OK, we all know it wasn’t really a “first try” — drafts and all — but still). Sometimes you’re left wondering if perhaps the author should have tried for “debut short story” or “debut blogging” or even “debut fly swatting.” And then there’s the more common middle ground, where you can see some strong concepts, a good character or two, maybe a singularly excellent skill (vivid imagery, strong pacing), but the entire effort falls a little short, leaving you unsatisfied with this attempt, but also interested in seeing what this author does next. And that’s squarely where The Forever Watch, a debut novel from David Ramirez, lies.

The setting is a familiar sci-fi one — a generation ship midway bet... Read More

Samurai Jack and the Threads of Time: A good comic for children

Samurai Jack and the Threads of Time by Jim Zub

Samurai Jack and the Threads of Time is a fun comic book for kids. It is an episodic battle adventure with better-than-average art and excellent coloring. Samurai Jack was created by Grenndy Tartakovsky, so apparently Threads of Time isn't the first Samurai Jack story. However, he's a new character to me. Author Jim Zub writes a good story for his primary audience of kids, but Andy Suriano's artwork is appealing to any reader. It's the part of the book I enjoyed the most.

From what I can tell, the background story of Samurai Jack is that he's stuck in the future and wants to get back to his own time period. He has an arch-nemesis named Aku who, I think, has caused him problems in both the past and the future, which is the present of the story. In this comic book, we follow Jack on a series of adventures that will lead to his final confrontation with this Demon Wizard ... Read More

Edge: September Girls: This book does not stay safely in the shallows; it takes risks.

September Girls by Bennett Madison

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]


September Girls, by Bennett Madison was nominated for a 2014 Andre Norton Award for best YA fiction (it didn’t win; Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine did). I see why September Girls was nominated. It’s beautifully written, a sad and sweet story about love, dysfunctional families, and growing up. Oh, and mermaids.

According to Goodreads, the book is also controversial, with some readers embracing it as a surgically precise criti... Read More

Beggars in Spain: Liked the ideas, didn’t love the characterizations

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress won a Nebula and a Hugo in 1991 for her novella “Beggars in Spain,” about genetically altered humans who don’t need to sleep. In 1993 she expanded the novella into a novel and ultimately into a series.

The first quarter of Beggars in Spain is basically the original novella, in which the reader meets Leisha Camden, the genetically altered child of multi-billionaire Roger Camden. Lithe, golden-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful, Leisha is also extraordinarily intelligent and sleepless. How do people feel about Leisha and the others like her, dubbed The Sleepless? The question is more pointed in Leisha’s case — and more personal — because she has a fraternal twin, Alice, who is a Sleeper.

This book is an “idea” book, less about the character and more about how humans, on the individual level, in the aggregate and in the political aggregate, react to cha... Read More

The High Place: An anti-romantic fantasy

The High Place by James Branch Cabell

James Branch Cabell was a phenomenal talent. He writes with wit and style, with turns of phrase that can take your breath away and displays of keen insight into human nature. Despite all this I find myself unable to love his works wholeheartedly. I’ve been accused of being something of a cynic or pessimist myself (I prefer the term pragmatist, thank you very much), but Cabell makes me look like a doe-eyed boy scout. While I certainly do not always disagree with many of his points about the incongruous and laughable aspects of human nature, I just can’t bring myself to wholeheartedly condemn even the best parts of it as mere illusion and wish fulfillment as he does. I also find that many of his stories in the great cycle of Poictesme, known collectively as “The Biography of Manuel”, lean a little too far towards the allegorical for my taste, though I readily admit that even Cabell’s allegorical characters have ... Read More

Edge: The Word Exchange: Literary thriller with a side of doomsaying

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

When I started listening to Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange on audiobook (read by Tavia Gilbert and Paul Michael Garcia), I was bowled over. The sheer beauty of Graedon's language, the book's inventive dictionary structure, its references to Alice in Wonderland, and the compellingly plausible mystery of the Word Flu hooked me from the beginning. But... ah, there's always a bu... Read More

The Elfin Ship: Charming, light-hearted and funny

The Elfin Ship by James P. Blaylock

Audible has recently put several of James P. Blaylock’s novels in audio format, so I’m giving a few of them a try. The Elfin Ship, first published in 1982, is the first book in Blaylock’s BALUMNIA trilogy about a whimsical fantasy world filled with elves, goblins, dwarves, wizards, and (because it’s Blaylock), a few steampunk elements such as submarines and airships.

In The Elfin Ship we meet Jonathan Bing, a cheesemaker who lives in a quaint little village with his dog Ahab. It’s just before Christmas, a time when Bing should be selling his famous cheeses to neighboring towns. However, something is afoot in the outside world and trade is drying up. Not only is Bing’s business in danger, but all of the villagers will have a dreary holiday if they are unable to buy their traditional toys and treats. Somebody must be sent to investigate what’s happening outside... Read More

Watt O’Hugh Underground: Better than first book

Watt O’Hugh Underground by Steven S. Drachman

Watt O’Hugh Underground
is the follow-up by Steven S. Drachman to his early Western fantasy The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh. I was pretty “meh” toward the first book, though it had a strong close, but I mostly enjoyed Watt O’Hugh Underground throughout, despite having some issues.

Watt O’Hugh Underground picks up not too long after the events of Ghosts, with Watt hiding out in the desert trying to keep out of trouble, drinking up a storm, and plotting how to get even with the Sidonian for what they’ve done to him. Not too far into the book, though, his door is knocked down by Hester Smith, who says she has his means of vengeance at hand, if he’ll just help out with a little train robbery (it is a Western, after all). While Watt is busy robbing trains and then planning his assault on Sidonia, over in San ... Read More

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