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The Years of Rice and Salt: What if the Black Plague killed the Europeans?

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

In The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson uses the Black Plague to remove the Europeans, leaving the Old World to the Chinese, Islam, and the many cultural groups that end up in India. The Chinese discover the Americas, their diseases spread through the Native American populations, and their armies plunder the Incans. The novel begins with the Plague, but its vignettes move from one period of history to the next until it reaches the end of the 20th century.

How do you write a novel about one set of characters that spans centuries? Robinson uses reincarnation to cast a set of souls in various times and places as he follows his alternate history. The characters can always be told by the first letter of their names. Bold, a soldier, eventually becomes... Read More

Knight’s Shadow: Great characters enrich this second installment

Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

I absolutely loved Sebastien de Castell's Traitor's Blade, first in his GREATCOATS series, having been immediately charmed by the utterly winning voice of its first-person narrator Falcio val Mond and its flamboyant Three Musketeers-like tone and narrative. So I was greatly looking forward to its sequel, Knight's Shadow. I'm pleased to say that while I had a few issues, for the most part I was wholly satisfied despite such high expectations.

The sequel picks up pretty much right after the close of Traitor's Blade and continues with the same basic goal: find a way to keep the king's thirteen-year-old heir Aline alive long enough to place her on the throne despite the continued violent oppositi... Read More

Good Omens: The harbinger of the apocalypse is an eleven-year-old boy

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

The bad news for the world is this: the apocalypse is nigh and all of humanity will soon face their final judgement. The good news? A Bentley-driving demon and an angel who is ‘gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide’ have decided that they rather like humanity and are going to try and save it.

Good Omens is the result of a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, when ‘Neil Gaiman was barely Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett was only just Terry Pratchett.’ The story centres on Crowley, said demon, and the serpent who tempted Eve (originally named Crawly). Throughout history, he has secretly liased with Aziraphale, an antique-loving, rare books... Read More

Jess: An all-but-forgotten winner from H. Rider Haggard

Jess by H. Rider Haggard

Editor's note: Because it's in the public domain, Jess is available free on Kindle.

Jess was first published in the U.K. in March 1887, and was H. Rider Haggard's fifth novel out of 58. Haggard wrote this book toward the end of 1885... and, remarkably, in just nine weeks! But then again, this is the same man who, earlier in 1885, was able to write the astounding sequel to King Solomon's Mines, Allan Quatermain, in just ten weeks, and who, in 1886, wrote the seminal fantasy She in just six! H... Read More

Wylding Hall: “It’s all a bit Wicker Man”

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand is one of my favorite writers, prose-wise, and I just love languidly relaxing into her style. I feel like I’m always looking for the same kind of writing in other authors — and having been remiss in reading Hand for the last few years, it was nice to finally enjoy the real thing again with the short novel Wylding Hall. Her prose is actually more spare than usual; it has to be, as the entire story is told in dialogue. Hand makes it work, though, and Wylding Hall is as atmospheric as her earlier works.

The frame story here is a documentary about the folk band Windhollow Faire, who in the early seventies made a brilliant album that was also their downfall. The band had retreated to the crumbling Wylding Hall to record the album and to regrou... Read More

Horrible Monday: The Devil’s Only Friend by Dan Wells

The Devil’s Only Friend by Dan Wells

This review contains spoilers for the first JOHN WAYNE CLEAVER trilogy.

John Wayne Cleaver is a seventeen-year-old boy who wants very, very much to kill people. Lots of them, one right after the other, in terrible, bloody ways. Paradoxically, because he longs to do that, he has been taking extraordinary lengths to avoid becoming a serial killer. His struggles were related in a trilogy consisting of I Am Not A Serial Killer (reviewed here), Mr. Monster (reviewed here), and I Don’t Want to Kill You (reviewed here). That trilogy showed how John’s efforts to avoid ac... Read More

Horrible Monday: Next of Kin by Dan Wells

Next of Kin by Dan Wells

“I died again last night.” It’s a compelling first sentence to a novella told from the point of view of Elijah Sexton, a demon, and it promises a different and exciting new start to Dan Wells’s JOHN CLEAVER series.

Sexton drinks memories. For a time, he killed people himself, “topping off” his memory as he pleases. Soon, though, imbued with a hundred thousand lives, he could no longer bear to kill. Instead, he works in a morgue and drinks the memories of the newly dead. He lives

from death to death, sometimes two weeks, sometimes three, holding on as long as I can while my brain slips away like sand in an hourglass, grain by grain, loose and crumbling, until I can barely remember my own name and I have to find another. I drink their minds like a trembling addict, desperate and ashamed.


Other demons mock Sexton fo... Read More

Footsteps in the Sky: a multi-layered, rewarding read

Footsteps in the Sky by Greg Keyes

Footsteps in the Sky, by Greg Keyes, is on one level a wholly enjoyable science fiction action story that offers up a whole bunch of fun surface action involving laser rifles, fusion-powered seedships, augmented humans, AIs, rebellious space colonies, and the like. You can read it for those elements alone and have yourself a good time. But the novel offers much more, as Keyes builds onto the surface elements an evocative, deeply felt exploration of identity, compassion, faith, community, and of just what it means to be human, much of it through the prism of the Hopi culture/belief system, presented here in detailed, respectful, and often touching manner and presented as well in a fashion that could clearly stand as an analogue to modern-day conflicts within such native cultures: How does one mainta... Read More

The Shadow of Elysium: A dynamic, eye-opening update

The Shadow of Elysium by Django Wexler

The Shadow of Elysium is the second novella in Django Wexler’s THE SHADOW CAMPAIGNS series. In The Penitent Damned, the preceding novella, we witnessed Alex’s untimely capture by the Priests of the Black. This installment is a continuation of Alex’s story, albeit I didn’t realize it at first because the story is told through the viewpoint of Abraham, a newly introduced character who also has demonic abilities. When the story begins, Abraham is being transported through the wilderness in Murnsk; his arresters later join in with Alex’s, and both prisoners continue on towards Elysium, where they will be imprisoned for life for containing demons. Roughly every other chapter is a flashback of Abraham’s, through which Wexler introduces us to t... Read More

Of Noble Family: A suspenseful, multi-layered finale to an imaginative series

Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal

Warning: May contain spoilers for previous books in the GLAMOURIST HISTORIES

With Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal brings to an end her GLAMOURIST HISTORIES series, set in a fantastical English Regency period. While the book resolves several issues in the lives of Jane and David Vincent, there is no feeling of “winding down.” The book is suspenseful, filled with surprises and real stakes for Jane and her beloved, troubled husband.

In Vienna, Jane and Vincent are interrupted in the midst of a family visit by a letter informing Vincent that his father, the villainous Lord Verbury, has died in Antigua. The Lord fled to Antigua after being accused of treason in England. A carriage accident led to the death of one of... Read More

The War of the Worlds: Martians come to England and they’re not here for tea

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

This classic alien invasion story from 1897 hardly needs any introduction. We all know the image of Martians descending from space, moving on giant metal tripods and using deadly heat rays to ruthlessly destroy everything in their wake. Most infamous was the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast that had average Americans convinced they were being invaded by Martians. Then George Pal had a crack at The War of the Worlds with a film version in 1953.

The funniest film inspired by this book is definitely Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, which is gloriously silly and spares no civilians. And last but not least, Steven Spielberg gave The War of the Worlds the full-budget Hollywood treatment in 2005 with perennial SF leading man Tom Cruise. So this tale is part of our culture, which is a credit to Read More

Swallow: Action, romance, and some mystical elements, too

Swallow: A Tale of the Great Trek by H. Rider Haggard

No, this is not the Linda Lovelace biography. (Oops, sorry ... bad joke.) Rather, Swallow is yet another fine piece of adventure fantasy from the so-called "father of lost-race fiction," H. Rider Haggard. In addition to some 14 novels depicting the adventures of hunter Allan Quatermain, Haggard penned some dozen or so other books that were set in the wilds of Africa. Swallow, his 22nd novel, was written in 1896, but did not see publication until January 1899. It is a somewhat unique book in the Haggard canon, being narrated, as it is, by an old Boer woman, the Vrouw Botmar, who is anything but sympathetic to the cause of British imperialism. She tells her story of the Great Trek of 1836, and all the many incidents surrounding it. And what a tale thi... Read More

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything: An excellent fantasy … in more ways than one!

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything by John D. MacDonald

Having never read anything previously by renowned author John D. MacDonald, I discovered his 1962 paperback The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything after reading about it in David Pringle's excellent overview volume Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels. Writing about the novel in that volume, the British critic tells us that it is "an amusing romp," and MacDonald's "only full-length fantasy." There may perhaps be many readers who are surprised to hear of MacDonald being mentioned in the same sentence as the word "fantasy"; after all, he is an author more well-known for almost 50 hard-boiled crime thrillers, not counting the 21-book series featuring his most famous character, Florida-based private investigator Travis McGee, which started in 1964. But in truth, MacDonald was, early in his ... Read More

The Darkest Part of the Forest: A fairy-tale remix with a touch of realism

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Holly Black's latest book, The Darkest Part of the Forest, is a marvelous YA fairy-tale remix. It follows siblings Hazel and Ben as they work to unfold the mystery surrounding the sleeping prince in the forest outside of Fairfold, a town where humans live in close contact with the fairies the rest of the world doesn't believe in. As Hazel and Ben get closer to understanding the history of the town and the forest, they begin to hide secrets from each other and themselves. Only when all the secrets are told can they work to save the people they love.

Jana and I read this book at the same time. I listened to the audio version. Here are our thoughts.

Kate: The Darkest Part of the Forest combines the favorite themes of young adult fi... Read More

The Affinities: What if online dating worked?

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Adam Fink was just another graphic art student in Toronto before he took InterAlia’a affinity test. The affinity test examines a person’s genes, brain patterns, and behavior and sorts people into one of twenty-two affinities (or into none of them). InterAlia has an algorithm that’s sort of like online dating, but it looks like they got it right this time.

The Affinities are still new when Adam takes the test. Not a lot is widely known about them, but there are twenty-two Affinity groups. The Taus might be the largest Affinity, and though it’s wrong to generalize, their members tend to smoke pot, they tend to enter open relationships, and they tend to prefer decentralized groups to hierarchical leadership. The Hets, meanwhile, are extremely hierarchical and deeply concerned with power and dominance. Given that Read More

The Island of Dr. Moreau: A dark fable of mad science and Beast Men

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells’ 1896 novel is dark, disturbing and thought-provoking. Coming just several decades after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), it tells the tale of a man named Edward Prendick who gets shipwrecked on a remote island, subsequently encountering a sinister figure named Dr. Moreau, who he discovers conducts vivisections of animals, combining various creatures to make subhuman beasts who he then loses interest in and releases to roam the island. Some of these Beast Men have banded together and recite a Law that rules their actions:
Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law.... Read More

Dandelion Wine: A perfectly-distilled small-town summer

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Can you be nostalgic for a place you never lived in, for a time long gone before you were born? I certainly never lived in Waukegan, Illinois in the summer of 1928 as a 12-year old boy named Douglas Spalding, but Ray Bradbury has perfectly evoked a magical world of a long-lost Midwest small town as seen from the eyes of a bright, energetic young boy.

You would think small town life is fairly boring and uneventful, but in the lyrical hands of Bradbury, think again. The short vignettes he tells are always unexpected, and verge from wryly-amusing to heart-breaking to outright terrifying, all because of the skill and love with which Bradbury approaches these characters.

Strangely enough, I didn't like The Martian Chronicles much, because it merely used Mars as a stage to ex... Read More

The Buried Giant: I Enjoyed It. Others Might Not.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I enjoyed it. Others might not. I suppose I could put that title on a lot of my reviews without sacrificing much for accuracy, but I mean it to be suggestive here that The Buried Giant is going to be a bit divisive. It’s a well-crafted book, certainly, and it has as much thematic heft to keep anyone happy, but whether or not it’s an appealing book may be a bit less cut-and-dried.

The story, in brief, is as follows: sometime in early British history, an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice set out on a quest to find their son. They have a general idea that he left them at some point, but they aren’t sure how long ago that was or what drove the family apart. The land is swathed in what our protagonists call “the mist,” a kind of metaphysical force that fogs the memories of anyone who lives in it to the extent that they might forget events that occurred... Read More

Childhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

There's something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite of the Big Three SF writers of the Golden Age (the other two being Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov). His stories are clearly-written, unembellished, and precise, and they focus on science, ideas, and plot. Though some claim his characters are fairly wooden, I don’t see it that way. They tend to be fairly level-headed and logical, and focus on handling the situations on hand in an intelligent manner. In Clarke's world, the average protagonist is a smart and scientific-minded person, much like ... the author himself. And I think his target audience is also readers who think scie... Read More

The Rediscovery of Man: The strangest future mythology you’ll ever read

The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

The universe that Cordwainer Smith created has captured the imagination of many SF fans and authors thanks to the short stories that have been collected in The Instrumentality of Mankind (1974), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975), and The Rediscovery of Man (1993). It is without doubt one of the strangest and most memorable creations in SF, even if it only affords short, tantalizing glimpses of a much greater tapestry that the author was never able to fully reveal due to his untimely death at age 53.

The most famous of those stories are included in the Gollancz edition:

Scanners Live in Vain (1950)
The Lady Who Sailed the Soul (1960)
The Game of Rat and Dragon (1955)
The Burning of the Brain (1958)
Golden the Ship Was — Oh! Oh! Oh! (1959)
The ... Read More

How to Clone a Mammoth: Highly informative and readable

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro

Those very few times we have covered non-fiction titles here, they’ve all been pretty firmly and directly connected to our main focus, limited to reviews of biographies or critical of well-known fantasy/science fiction authors.

Today though, I’m going to wander a bit further afield with a review of Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth, a straight popular science book. Why? Three basic reasons:

Jurassic Park, a science fiction franchise which made use of the concept of bringing back extinct creatures to the tune of some several billion dollars (and counting with the upcoming release of the fourth film). Other authors as well have used the idea, so while this book isn’t a genre title, its subject matter of “de-extinction” continues to have an impact on the genre
It’s science, it’s Pleis... Read More

The Knife of Never Letting Go: A voice that will stay with you

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk,” opens The Knife of Never Letting Go, “is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” This has been described by one critic as one of the best opening sentences he’d ever read, and boy does the rest of the book deliver too. It marks the first instalment of Patrick Ness’s CHAOS WALKING trilogy, a science fiction series set in a dystopian world where the thoughts of animals and men can be heard in a phenomenon called Noise. Unlike some of the other heavyweight dystopian trilogies, CHAOS WALKING has remained somewhat under the radar (although the film adaptation in the pipe line may soon change that). But it is unlike any of the other dystopian YAs out there, with their prescript... Read More

Horrible Monday: Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Honestly, I’ve never read anything like Bones & All. Camille DeAngelis makes clear from the very beginning that this is not your typical fluffy YA novel — there are real stakes, real consequences to everything that happens. It’s fascinating to watch Maren’s evolution from shy, awkward teenager to self-assured predator, like reading about the humble beginnings of a fairy-tale villain rather than the plucky prince who must vanquish her in order to fulfill his destiny.

So who is Maren Yearly? An introverted sixteen-year-old girl who loves to read books and wants to find her place in the world. Maren’s not concerned with make-up or boys or fitting in with the cool kids; she’s more concerned with survival and how to hide the compulsion in her belly. Maren is an eater: she consumes human flesh, bones and all, except for certain inedible or in... Read More

We: An early dystopian masterpiece from Russia

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is widely recognized as a direct influence on George Orwell when composing his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, and there are certainly strong signs of influence in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as well. Zamyatin edited Russian translations of works of Jack London and H.G. Wells, and We can be viewed as a reaction against the optimistic scientific socialist utopias promoted by Wells. (Note: Aldous Huxley claimed no influence from We, stating that he was also opposed to the utopian ideals of H.G. Wells.)

How does the book read now, almost 100 years after its first English publication? Wo... Read More

The Man in the Maze: Your attention, please, Mr. Cameron

The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg

In one of Robert Silverberg’s novels from 1967, Thorns, the future sci-fi Grand Master presented his readers with one of his most unfortunate characters, Minner Burris. An intrepid space explorer, Burris had been captured by the residents of the planet Manipool, surgically altered and then released. Upon his return to Earth, Burris was grotesque to behold, resulting in one very withdrawn, depressed, reclusive and psychologically warped individual indeed. And a year later, in the author’s even more masterful The Man in the Maze, we encounter still another space explorer who had been surgically altered by aliens, but this time, the alterations are mental, rather than physical, although no less devastating to the subject’s sense of... Read More