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First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma Chapman

In First Light (2021), Emma Chapman covers the earliest eras of the universe’s existence, particularly focusing on what astronomers, due to their lack of information, call the “Dark Ages,” from about 380,000 years to one billion years after the Big Bang occurred. Even more specifically, her interest lies with the creation of the first stars and the current attempt to find out more about them.

Despite the focus, Chapman manages to bring in a host of other astronomical discoveries/investigations: the Cosmic Microwave background, inflation, dark matter, space telescopes, radio astronomy, Fast Radio Bursts, black holes, the Great Oxygenation Event, and others. She also goes on a variety of non-astronomical tangents involving King Tut’s tomb and pigeons (yes, pigeons).

Chapman does an excellent job explaining some compli... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 10): The Warning: The start of an excellent trilogy

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 10): The Warning by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters) 

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 10): The Warning, along with B.P.R.D. (Vol. 11): The Black Goddess and B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear, make up the Scorched Earth Trilogy. In The Warning, Lobster Johnson becomes an important figure, so reading the Lobster Johnson series at this point might make sense for some readers, though the series can be read on its own. In other words, in The Warning, many of the strands from various parts of the Hellboy universe are starting to come together. At this point, if you haven’t read a good portion of the Hellboy series and the B.P.R.D. series up to volume ten, then you are going to very lost picking up this book. I suggest sta... Read More

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The harrowing adventures of two brave fox kits

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

One chilly autumn night, seven fox kits beg their mother for a scary story, “[s]o scary our eyes fall out of our heads.” Don’t go to the Bog Cavern, she tells them, because the old storyteller lives there, and the tale she would tell them would be so scary it would put white in their tales. So naturally the seven kits scamper off through the woods to the Bog Cavern as soon as their mother is asleep, and beg the spooky-looking storyteller for a scary story.
“All scary stories have two sides,” the storyteller said. “Like the bright and dark of the moon. If you’re brave enough to listen and wise enough to stay to the end, the stories can shine a light on the good in the world.”
But, she warns, kits who lose heart and don’t stay until the end of the stories may lose all hope and be too frightened to ever leave their den again. Then she embarks on a se... Read More

Remote Control: A gently moving and thoughtful novella

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Remote Control (2021) is the newest novella from Nnedi Okorafor, a quiet, interior-focused and episodic work that is at times a haunting, tragic coming of age tale of magic and mystery, at other times a concisely and sharply effective observer of modern trends, and, depending on the reader, at other times a frustratingly vague story full of unanswered questions. Overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit, finding it to be the sort of story that lingers in the head.

Six-year-old Fatima lives a happy family life in a near-future Ghana despite her frequent bouts with malaria. But when a meteor shower filled with “beautiful green streaks decorating the sky” drops at the base of her favorite tree a “seed [that] glowed a bright green [with] light seeping from it like oil,” it changes her life and those of everyon... Read More

Monday Starts on Saturday: Surreal and amusing Russian science fiction

Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

In the Strugatsky brothersMonday Starts on Saturday (1965), Sasha, a young Russian man, is about to start his vacation when he picks up a couple of hitchhikers. They are excited to discover that Sasha is a computer programmer because the organization they work for is looking for someone just like him. Curious about these likeable fellows and the work they do, Sasha accompanies them to Solovets to find out what’s happening at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWIT).

The scientists at NITWIT love their work which is why Monday starts on Saturday (weekends and holidays are so boring!), and why they often clone themselves so they can get more done. But they aren’t very scientific. Sasha does ha... Read More

The Devil and the Dark Water: The ship’s cargo is murder and greed

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was one of my favorite reads of 2018, a compulsively readable and wildly original murder mystery, an homage to Agatha Christie, with a science fictional wrapper. Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020), is a highly twisty and eerie Sherlockian mystery, set in the seventeenth century on a large ship traveling from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) to Amsterdam. At first glance it’s not much at all like 7½ Deaths, except in the intricacy of the plot … and the way it mixes together different genres, and the vivid and complex characters who are far mo... Read More

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden takes on a lot in Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (2020) — a history of magic through time and space, skipping across millennia and the continents. Though “history” might be a tad misleading, in that Gosden includes our current age in his survey and then makes a call for magic to, if not “return” (he would argue it never left), to at least reclaim its equal position beside its younger siblings in what he calls the triple helix of magic, religion, and science. Such an ambitious project in terms of scale necessarily makes some sacrifice when it comes to specificity, and one might wish for a more focused exploration of cultural magic or find fault with some generalizations, but there’s certainly merit in the exploration despite the pitfalls, and Gosden offers u... Read More

Rhythm of War: A worthy continuation of an excellent series

Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

Sometimes when I’m pondering a review of Brandon Sanderson, I feel like I’m back in one of those classic middle school conversations:

Me: I heard you like Brandon.
Also Me: Maybe I do
Me: Do you like like him?
Also Me: I said I liked him.
Me: Yeah, but like, like like?
Also Me: I don’t know. What’s that like, like like?
Me: It’s like, you stay up all night thinking about how much you like him.
Also Me: Well, I do stay up all night because of him. But I think it’s just because his books are so long.
Me: Would you like die if he stopped writing?
Also Me: I don’t think so.
Me: Do you think about him when you’re reading other writers?
Also Me: No.
Me: Oh. Well, then you like him, you don... Read More

Benighted: Book vs. film

Benighted by J.B. Priestley

While growing up in the 1960s, I used to love whenever one of the local TV channels would show one of British director James Whale’s Big 3 horror movies, all from Universal Studios: Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and, perhaps best of all, the eternal glory that is Bride of Frankenstein (1935). What I was unaware of back then was the fact that there was a fourth Universal horror film directed by Whale, and that bit of youthful ignorance was not entirely my fault. Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) was, for many years, considered a lost film, and it was not until 1968 that Curtis Harrington (himself the director of such horror gems as Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter With Helen? and Read More

Network Effect: Complex connections

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Martha Wells’ Murderbot has been gathering enthusiastic fans (which would be certain to have Murderbot hiding behind its opaque armored faceplate), along with multiple Nebula, Hugo and other awards and nominations, as each of the first four novellas in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series has been published over the last three years. In Network Effect (2020), the first full-length novel in this series, Wells is able to explore a more complex plot and to more fully develop Murderbot’s character and its relationships with others.

Murderbot is now with Dr. Mensah and the other Preservation Station characters who Murderbot was protecting in the first book, All Systems Red, and the fourth, Read More

The Once and Future Witches: Rage, beauty, and sisterhood

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Our Daddy never taught us shit, except what a fox teaches chickens — how to run, how to tremble, how to outlive the bastard — and our mama died before she could teach us much of anything. But we had Mama Mags, our mother’s mother, and she didn’t fool around with soup-pots and flowers.

Once upon a time there were three sisters, in a world where women’s magic was outlawed and driven underground. They had to battle an evil man and rediscover their own power, but each was filled with so much rage, pain and loss, that seemed impossible.

2020’s The Once and Future Witches is Alix E. Harrow’s sophomore novel. Harrow excels at so much here. The book is angrier than Read More

Hilda and the Troll: An intriguing start to this graphic novel series

Hilda and the Troll by Luke Pearson

The HILDA graphic novels had been on my radar for a while, but knowing they've recently been adapted into a Netflix original made me finally give them a read (I like to read the source material before watching any adaptations).

In Hilda and the Troll, Hilda is a young girl living with her mother in an unspecified part of the Scandinavian countryside, in a little wooden cabin on a great grassy plain. She spends her days wandering outside, drawing in her sketchbook, and reading texts about mythological creatures — which, the reader soon realizes, are not mythological at all.

Hilda encounters sea spirits and giants and trolls, recording them faithfully in her sketchbook. And this isn’t treated as particularly extraordinary; it’s taken for granted that her world is filled with such things. A little man made out of wood occasionally invi... Read More

The Midnight Bargain: A charming frolic of a book, barbed with social commentary

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk 

By the bottom of the second full page of text, when the protagonist of The Midnight Bargain (2020) walked into Harriman’s Bookshop, I was hooked. When Beatrice Clayborn entered the second-hand shop and I saw it through her eyes, the book claimed me, not unlike the way a spirit might claim a sorceress in Beatrice’s magical world.

It’s bargaining season, or marriage season in Beatrice’s world, and young women of the upper classes, like Beatrice, jostle and compete for the hand of a suitable husband. Suitability is decided by their fathers, of course, and usually determined based on wealth, status and influence.

Beatrice loathes the bargaining season. She wants to study magic and become a full-blown Mage, a path closed to women, especially upper-class women. Instead of being able to pursue their talents, magical women are... Read More

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue: A memorable book about what’s-her-name

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) is a charming, thoughtful, sometimes-dark, sometimes moving, story about memory, love, rash decisions, female agency, stubborn defiance, mortality, resilience, and the power of art. In this time of Covid, a novel focused so much on the desire for human contact and fear of dying without leaving “a mark” is especially timely, though The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue would have been a highly recommended book in any other year.

Addie LaRue is a young woman in 18th Century France who yearns to be her own person, like the old woman outside town, Estele, “who belongs to everyone, and no one, and herself” and who is sai... Read More

The Entity: A nerve-racking horror wringer

The Entity directed by Sidney J. Furie

According to the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey of 2016, a full 80 percent of all rapes in the U.S.A. go unreported. When asked to account for this staggering statistic, 20 percent of all victims surveyed said that the reason for this lack of reporting was a fear of retaliation; 13 percent said they felt the police would be ineffective at helping them; another 13 percent said that it was a personal matter that they wished to keep private; 8 percent seemed to feel that it was no big deal (!); and, stunningly, 7 percent did not wish to get their attacker into trouble with the law. The net result is that out of every 1,000 rape attacks in this country, only five of the perpetrators ever wind up going to jail. And these statistics, as I say, are from just four years ago. So one can only imagine the stigma that a rape victim might have endured 40 years ago, and the hesitancy that that victim might ... Read More

The Power of the Dark Crystal: Volume One: A return to the world of Thra

The Power of the Dark Crystal: Volume One by Simon Spurrier

With the recent release of Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel to the original 1982 film, I’ve been treating myself to all the supplementary material that's been released in the show's wake. Given that Thra is one of my favourite fantasy worlds (along with Middle Earth and Narnia), it’s been a dream come true to have so much new content.

According to the afterword, The Power of the Dark Crystal was originally written as a script by screenwriters David Odell, Anette Odell and Craig Pearce – though it was never adapted into a feature-length sequel to The Dark Crystal. Thank goodness for graphic novels, another visual medium that has no need for an extensive budget.

... Read More

Before Adam: The Folk, meet the Folk, they’re a mid-Pleistocene Era family…

Before Adam by Jack London

Today, more than a century after Jack London’s passing in 1916, most people probably remember the San Francisco-born author for his books of rugged adventure, such as his third novel, The Call of the Wild (1903), his fifth, The Sea-Wolf (1904), and his seventh, White Fang (1906). Fewer will recall that amongst London’s 23 novels, 21 short story collections, three memoirs, three plays, 22 books of nonfiction and 45 poems – all written during a life span of only 40 years – this most superhumanly prolific of authors also produced four books that must be classified as either fantasy or sci-fi. I have already written here of London’s 13th novel, The Scarlet Plague... Read More

Six of Crows: An exciting fantasy heist

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo, best known for her GRISHA young adult magical fantasy trilogy, explores a different corner of the Grisha world in her new young adult novel, Six of Crows. In the city of Ketterdam, an analog for Amsterdam, criminal gangs control the waterfront, and the surrounding area is a den of iniquity where everything can be bought and sold, including people. One of the gangs, appropriately called the Dregs, is led by 17 year old Kaz Brekker, nicknamed “Dirtyhands” because of his willingness to stoop to any level to maintain and grow his power and control. His young crew has been gaining in power and influence during the few years he’s been in charge of it.

One day a wealthy merchant abduct... Read More

Hunted by the Sky: Engaging characters in a vivid alternate world

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena

Hunted by the Sky (2020) is the first book in Tanaz Bhathena’s YA fantasy duology THE WRATH OF AMBAR. Bhathena is an award-winning YA author, and Hunted by the Sky is her first foray into YA fantasy. Set in an alternate world based on medieval India, the story held my interest with its magic, suspense, and the conflicts the two main characters face. The descriptions of settings delighted me.

Gul has spent her life in hiding and on the run, because of a star-shaped birthmark and a prophecy. When her parents are murdered by Shayla, a Sky Warrior known as The King’s Scorpion, a group of women rebels takes Gul in. Gul lives for only one thing, revenge against Shayla and against Raja Lohar, the king.

Cavas is the son of two non-magical people, who are treated as second-class citizens and relegated... Read More

Ballistic Kiss: The series gathers momentum as it heads into the home stretch

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey

2020’s SANDMAN SLIM novel, Ballistic Kiss, is the second-to-last entry in Richard Kadrey’s long-running demon-fighter punk-wizard series starring James Stark as Sandman Slim. I don’t know what I will do when the series finishes. I’ll miss the big lug.

However, Ballistic Kiss didn’t leave me too much time to fret about the future; Stark has plenty of adjustments to make in his present. Brought back to life by the Sub Rosa magical practitioners after a year dead, Stark is living in a flying-saucer shaped house owned by the Sub Rosa, struggling with PTSD, when the book opens. Returning from Hell (and death), Stark has discovered that, to his way of thinking at least, his friends’ lives have improved without him. Candy is in a muc... Read More

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking: A whimsical feast, with teeth in it

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

A dead body is an awful thing to find on the floor of a bakery, especially when you’re a fourteen-year-old baker’s assistant with just a minor talent in magic, enough to make gingerbread men dance and biscuit dough turn fluffy on command. It’s worse when the city inquisitor decides to accuse you of the murder, for no particularly good reason. It’s even worse when you realize that there’s a mysterious assassin on the loose, targeting people who have magical powers, no matter how insignificant.

Mona is an orphan who works in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery, using her talent with baking (and a little magic) to help with her job. It’s not an easy life, but Mona loves being an apprentice baker … and there’s the fact that her magical powers only work with bread products. But the city government and constables are turning against wizards, even minor ones like Mo... Read More

Emerald Blaze: One handsome Italian assassin to go, please

Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews

The violence between Houston’s powerful magical families breaks out again when Felix Morton is mysteriously murdered. Felix was involved in a private contract project involving an alliance between five magical Houses who are attempting to reclaim the Jersey Village suburb of Houston, which has become a pit for wild arcane magical creatures. If the reclamation succeeds, the land is worth a fortune, but Felix’s murder at the site puts a definite damper on the project.

Catalina Baylor — still recuperating from her broken heart when Alessandro Sagredo abruptly left her at the end of Sapphire Flames, six months ago — is told by her boss Linus Duncan to take over the investigation into Felix Morton’s death. The primary suspects are the four Prime magic users who were Felix’s business partners in th... Read More

By Force Alone: King Arthur makes an offer we can’t refuse

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar has been on quite the roll, earning rave 5 out of 5 reviews from me his last three books. Unfortunately, his newest, By Force Alone (2020), didn’t rise to the same level. No, I’m sorry to say I could only see my way to giving it 4.5 stars thanks to being merely “excellent” as opposed to “great.” Slacker.

By Force Alone is an Arthurian tale, though that is a bit deceptive. Camelot this ain’t (though the musical makes an appearance or two). Think of Malory filtered through a mash-up of John Boorman’s Excalibur co-directed/written by Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. And with a whole lotta cameos and Easter eggs. It’s dark, vulgar, gritty, funny, thoughtful, profane, biting, densely referential, bloody, and makes... Read More

The Space Between Worlds: An excellent debut

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Multiple worlds and parallel universes are a staple in science fiction, and Micaiah Johnson does a nice job bringing some freshness to a well-worn concept in The Space Between Worlds (2020), mostly thanks to some sharp characterization, intricate plotting, and stylish prose.

Cara is a “Traverser,” one who travels from her Earth (Earth Zero) to parallel Earths collecting data for the Eldridge Corporation whose leader, Adam Bosch, invented the technology. In the rules of the narrative, one can only travel to a parallel Earth if their double there has died: “It took a lot of smart people’s corpses before they learned that If you’re alive in the world you’re trying to enter, you get rejected. You’re an anomaly the universe won’t allow.” It didn’t take long for the corporation to realize “they needed trash people. Poor black and brown people,”... Read More

Harrow the Ninth: The haunted palace is Harrow’s mind

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Last year’s Gideon the Ninth was a delightfully over-the-top space fantasy that ended with a gut punch that had readers shouting “Damn you, Tamsyn Muir!” and clamoring for the sequel. The sequel, Harrow the Ninth (2020) is here, and I enjoyed it a lot, though there are a few things you’ll want to know going in.

One is that there is a lot going on, much of it cryptic, some of which ties back into details from the first book that might be hazy by now. I would recommend rereading Gideon the Ninth first, or at least keeping it close at hand, so you can refer back to it if you have que... Read More