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Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus

The time: July 1864. The place: a tea shop in Edo; what modern folks would call Tokyo, Japan. After some reluctance on his part, a tea mistress named Hatsu hires a reticent samurai, Yoshida Minoru, to act as her bodyguard while she travels outside the city on a private errand. What Hatsu quickly discovers, and what the reader already knows, is that Yoshida Minoru is no samurai at all — but is actually Mirai Yoshida, a university student from New York City in the year 2042.

Mirai was part of a special group of students, all of whom were chosen for their academic excellence and dedication, who were given access to time-travel technology in order to better study historically significant events. Their trips to the Tokugawa Shogunate period were supposed to be as unobtrusive as possible, spending just a little time interacting with locals before returning home via special beacon... Read More

Watch Hollow: A nice blend of creepiness and charm

Watch Hollow by Gregory Funaro

Gregory Funaro’s just-published Watch Hollow (2019) is a charmingly spooky (or perhaps spookily charming) contemporary fantasy featuring an 11-year-old girl, Lucy Tinker, her 13-year-old brother Oliver, and their clockmaker father … and also a fearsome giant, a boy who mysteriously appears and disappears, and a full dozen magical talking animals sure to warm the hearts of middle grade readers.

After a brief prologue with a heart-stopping chase involving the giant, a traitorous crow, and a rat named Fennish Seven, the story shifts to our main characters, Lucy and her brother Oliver. Between their mother’s death from cancer two years earlier and their father’s lack of business acumen, the Tinker family is teetering on the brink of financial disaster. So it feels like a huge windfall when a str... Read More

Companions on the Road: One is good, one is great

Companions on the Road by Tanith Lee

I'm a big fan of Tanith Lee. Like many great fantasy writers, Lee understood that to truly transport a reader, it's not enough to talk about dragons or swords or magic systems. Readers are transported just as much or more by the way these things are talked about. Lee's work has that eerie, otherworldly feel that characterizes the best works of this genre. She could make a story about a squirrel looking for nuts feel like something dredged from a forgotten and more romantic epoch. And sometimes, that's… well, more or less what she did. Lee's writing has sparked life into many prosaic ideas. But where she really showed her mettle was when she settled onto an idea worthy of her.

With that said, Companions on the Road (at least as it presently exists) is a compilation work ... Read More

Black Leopard, Red Wolf: A frenetic journey through mythical Africa

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”

Thus opens Marlon James' highly anticipated Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) in a frenetic, dizzying tale of Tracker, the hunter tasked with finding a child at the centre of this fantasy steeped in African mythology.

The story opens with Tracker being interrogated by the Inquisitor in a grimy prison cell. “Truth eats lies just as the crocodile eats the moon,” he says, and it soon becomes apparent that this will not be the kind of fantasy epic fans of the genre are used to. Drawing on the oral tradition, James weaves tale upon tale, building up a highly complex narrative in which the truth is blurred in a surreal world rooted in Africa's cultural history.

Tracker is enlisted in finding the boy that disappeared under mysterious circumstances three years ag... Read More

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots: A thoughtful and, cough cough, stimulating read

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin

I confess that when I opened up Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots (2018) by Kate Devlin, I wasn’t expecting a tour of classical literature: stories about Laodamia, who had “commissioned a bronze likeness of her [dead] husband — an artificial lover that she took to her bed.” Or the Spartan king Nabis, who had a “lifelike robot designed and dressed up to look like his dead wife, Apega.” But as Devlin cautions us, “This is not a book that’s just about sex. Or robots ... It’s about intimacy and technology ... history and archaeology, love and biology.” Though that’s not to say sex and robots don’t appear. They do.

But before we get to the sex robot “Harmony” and an exploration of teledildonics (use your root words, people), Devlin works her way through that classical literature as well as various historical artifacts, such as anc... Read More

Triplanetary: The opening salvo of one of the greatest space operas

Triplanetary by E.E. “Doc” Smith

In its article on the subject of “Space Opera,” my beloved Science Fiction Encyclopedia describes the genre thus: “…loosely applicable to any space adventure story, but particularly to those in which the scale of the action is extravagant…” It is as good a working definition as any, but had the authors of this scholarly tome wished to do so, they might just as easily have explained the term by showing pictures of the six book covers of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s famed LENSMAN series. Written over the 16-year period 1934 - 1950, it is the crowning creation of the man who has been called “The Father of Space Opera,” and a series that has been embraced by generations of readers. The six books that comprise the LENSMAN series have been sitting unread on my bookshelf for many years now, intimidating me by di... Read More

Ball Lightning: How does ball lightning work? The answer may shock you…

Ball Lightning by Cuxin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen

Ball Lightning (2018) is a story about, well, ball lightning. It’s also about obsession, the travails of science research, the moral perils of military research, and quantum mechanics. And ghosts — in fact, quantum mechanical ghosts. I’m not sure that’s something for everyone, but it’s a lot.

The narrator, Chen, is obsessed with the phenomenon of ball lightning for a simple and macabre reason: his parents are incinerated by it in front of him in the book’s first chapter. As reasons for obsession go, this is a strong one; it’s not hard to believe that from that time forward understanding ball lightning is really all he cares about. So he becomes a meteorologist — not the kind that tells you what the weather will be like in a week, the kind who makes elaborate mathematical models of ball lightning. He meets a lot of people who are als... Read More

Dark Lord of Derkholm: A delightfully satirical fantasy

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998) is a delightful young adult story for those who like a heavy dose of satire in their fantasy. Similar to Diana Wynne JonesThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland, it pokes fun of the genre we love by exposing and exploiting some of its most common clichés.

The story takes place in a world parallel to ours to which people can travel and pay to have an adventure. The company that sells the tours, Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties, is from our world. Mr. Chesney’s company has constructed a medieval fantasy setting in the parallel world and employs the people who live there to act out the stereotypical characters that its customers expect.

Much to his dismay, this year Derk ... Read More

In an Absent Dream: A well-crafted, heartfelt tale

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

I didn’t have a great experience with the first WAYWARD CHILDREN book I read by Seanan McGuireEvery Heart a Doorway — which put me off the next few books in the series. But I decided to give the well-reviewed series another shot with In an Absent Dream (2019), and I’m glad I did as it certainly struck a far more responsive chord and has encouraged me to take a look at the others I’ve missed.

The series posits a series of other worlds and presents us children who have made their way to one or more worlds (and sometimes back) via various types of portals. This most recent title focuses on Katherine Victoria Lundy, a girl whose “remarkability to... Read More

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful: Linked stories exploring humanity’s potential

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Arwen Elys Dayton’s latest novel, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful (2018) is a novel comprised of six linked stories, each taking part in a different point in humanity’s future, beginning “A few years from now,” leapfrogging to various points beyond, and ending when “They have left us far behind.” Dayton doesn’t specify the precise year or time period, letting the pace and scale of scientific advancements inform the reader’s imagination. Her teenaged protagonists each experience some kind of alteration (or lack thereof) and must cope with backlash, acceptance, or rejection of their changing selves and the significance those changes have on the world around them.

“Matched Pair” — An affecting story about twins Evan and Julia Weary, who are quite ill, and whose parents have decided that one surviving child, ... Read More

Dispatches from Planet 3: A lucid and concise tour of the universe

Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak

Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
(2018), by Marcia Bartusiak, is a highly readable collection of wonderfully concise explorations of various topics in astronomy/astrophysics. Each essay is only a few pages long, making the science easily digestible while still informative. Topics include black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and the multi-verse, to name just a few.

For an audience that doesn’t regularly read in this area, Dispatches from Planet 3 is a great introduction to the field thanks to the brevity and clarity of each piece, and the overall breadth of the collection as Bartusiak moves across time from, for instance, centuries-old discoveries to Lowell’s Mars canals to the most recent discoveries of exo-pl... Read More

The City of Brass: A dream of djinni

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Nahri, a young woman living alone in 18th century Cairo, gets by doing minor cons, fake healing rituals and a little theft. She knows nothing about her parents or heritage but, in addition to being able to diagnose disease in others with a glance and occasionally truly heal them, her own body automatically heals of injuries almost instantly and she has the magical ability to understand ― and speak ― any language.

Nahri's life gets upended when she accidentally summons Darayavahoush, a fiery, handsome djinn warrior, to her side while performing a sham healing ceremony. After he gets over his murderous rage at being involuntarily summoned, Dara saves Nahri from murderous ifrit and ghouls who have become aware of Nahri and her abilities. Dara quickly enchants a magic carpet and, dragging along the reluctant Nahri, he flees with h... Read More

A Conjuring of Light: A few issues, but still a nice close to a strong trilogy

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of Light (2017) brings V.E. Schwab’s multi-world trilogy to a close while leaving plenty of room for future stories in the SHADES OF MAGIC universe. We (Bill and Marion) both read it, and we share their thoughts about the third book below. This review may contain light spoilers for A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows.

A Gathering of Shadows ended on a cliffhanger. In the opening chapter of A Conjuring of Light, Delilah Bird has entered the world of White London to save Kell, who has fought off posse... Read More

Norwegian Wood: Murakami’s breakthrough novel

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Toru Watanabe is just another kid studying drama at university when he falls for his friend Naoko, who is in a relationship with another of Toru’s friends, Kizuki — until Kizuki commits suicide. Emotionally confused because she feels “split in two and playing tag with myself,” Naoko escapes to a mountain retreat, though not before sleeping with Toru. Watanabe pines for Naoko as he passes time in Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Nagasawa likes The Great Gatsby, and he has no trouble finding women to sleep with him — and with Toru, who feels disgusted with himself after these one-night stands. (Nagasawa, by the way, is in a relationship with Hatsumi, who is devoted to Nagasawa even though she seems too nice for him.) In the midst of these split loyalties and the emotional turbulence they cause, Watanabe meets Midori. Though she also has a boyfriend, Midori and Toru hit it off bec... Read More

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Meandering across the continent

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

With so much to recommend about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, from Theodora Goss’ fresh takes on nineteenth-century novels and characters to the inventive way she brought all of them together, I had extremely high hopes for its first sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018). And while it was great to have the Athena Club back together again, the overall tone and pace of this novel were so different from its predecessor, so committed to following the glacial speed of a contemporary railway journey across Europe (twice, no less), that it was surprisingly easy for me to take reading breaks. However, the fin... Read More

Abbott: Elder gods and tough reporters in 1970s Detroit

Abbott by Saladin Ahmed & Sami Kivela

BOOM! Studios has released the trade edition of the first series of the period dark fantasy Abbott (2018), words by Saladin Ahmed and art by Sami Kivela. Set in 1972, the story follows Elena Abbott, a reporter for the Detroit Daily. Abbott may not be the paper’s only woman reporter, but she is probably its only Black reporter and definitely the only Black woman reporter. Currently, she is in trouble with the paper’s owners for her accurate expose of the police murder of a Black teenager. She is sent to cover the mutilation of a police horse. To further punish her for her stand against police lawlessness, the paper has taken away her photographer and given Abbott a camera. This is a status hit that her white male competitors immediately comment on.

To ... Read More

Astounding: Four men who, despite their flaws, helped form science fiction

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is generally pinned to the decade from 1939 to 1950, and while a host of people contributed in various ways, pretty much everyone agrees that if one could point to a single dominating figure it would John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the pre-eminent magazine for science fiction at the time. In Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018), Alec Nevala-Lee explains how Campbell, and the trio of quite different authors who made up his highly influential stable of writers, came to have such outsized influence and then, for Campbell, how it was lost over the decades to follow.
Read More

Fear: Hubbard’s classic horror thriller demands to be read at a breakneck pace

Fear by L. Ron Hubbard

The professional reputation of Nebraska-born writer L. Ron Hubbard, it seems to me, has taken a double hit since his heyday in the 1940s. Hubbard, of course, was the founder of the cultish sect known as Scientology, and ever since the release of his initial article on Dianetics in the May 1950 issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction, and the founding of the group two years later, his name has been unavoidably linked to this oft-maligned pseudoreligion. And then there was the notorious film version of Hubbard’s 1982 doorstop of a novel Battlefield Earth, featuring Scientologist John Travolta in a picture that most viewers seem to have found dreadful, if not laughable. (Full confession: I have never read the... Read More

Bright Ruin: Rebellion against magical tyranny

Bright Ruin by Vic James

"Fear was the superpower they all possessed. And unlike Midsummer’s monsters, there was no limit to the number of people they could control with it."

Vic James wraps up her hard-hitting DARK GIFTS fantasy trilogy with Bright Ruin (2018), which picks up right where the second book, Tarnished City, left off. This series is set an alternative version of our world where a minority, called the “Equals,” has powerful magical gifts. What they are supposed to be “equal” to is a good question, since ― in England and several other countries ― they have used their powers to cruelly oppress the non-magical majority. Among other abuses, all “Skilless” are forced to sp... Read More

The Penelopiad: A razor-sharp retelling

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

It is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions.” Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail. Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.

Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave. Atwood utilizes not only The Odysse... Read More

Skyward: Fighting for the stars

Reposting to include Nathan's new review:

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson’s new young adult science fiction novel, Skyward (2018), replaces his intricately detailed fantasy magical systems with equally detailed dogfights between one-person starship fighters of the humans living on the planet Detritus (it’s as bleak as it sounds) and the starships of the alien Krell. The Krell chased a fleet of human spaceships to Detritus decades ago and have pinned them down on the planet since, frequently bombarding the humans with attacks that threaten to wipe out the colony, where people primarily live underground for safety.

Spensa Nightshade’s father died years ago during a major battle against the Krell. Though other families of spaceship pilots are lauded by the colony, “C... Read More

War of the Wolf: Swords, Saxons, and superstitions

War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell

War of the Wolf (2018) is the eleventh book in Bernard Cornwell’s THE SAXON STORIES series, which was adapted into The Last Kingdom, on Netflix. It’s easy to see why the series was optioned for a visual adaptation — Cornwell’s prose neatly balances battle scenes and moments when plots are quietly hammered out, and his faithfulness to his faithfulness to 9th and 10th century Britain is admirable without becoming slavish, allowing his room to invent his own characters or scenarios and fold them into established historical precedent.

Not having read any of the preceding books in the series, I was at a disadvantage when it came to jumping into Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s life; Cornwell doesn’t spend much time with exposition or info-dumps, and the... Read More

The Overstory: The secret life of trees

The Overstory by Richard Powers

… when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

The Overstory (2018) is a powerful, literary novel, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It sings, in part, a paean to the wonders of trees and the multitude of wonders that old-growth forests and a variety of trees brings to our world. It also mourns a tragedy: how humans relentlessly annihilate these priceless resources, and what drives some people to eco-terrorism.

The Overstory is brilliantly organized in a form that reflects an actual tree. It begins with a section aptly titled "Roots,” a set of eight apparently unconnected stories in which we meet nine disparate characters: An artist whose family home in Iowa boasts one of the last healthy American chestnut trees. The engineer daughter of a Chinese immigra... Read More

The Book of Never Vol 1 – 3: A stranger on a mysterious quest…

The Book of Never Volumes 1 – 3 by Ashley Capes

Never is a man with a magical gift and a history that's as mysterious as his name. Hunted by the soldiers of ruthless Commander Harstas, Never is known for having blood with an usual trait: every time it mingles with that of another person (usually in combat situations), he takes on their memories, personality, and — at the start of this story — any illnesses they might carry.

Now struck with a strange fever that he can't seem to break, Never's ongoing quest to find answers to his condition and his past is endangered by the vulnerable state he finds himself in.

Teaming up with some companions that promise a cure (but who may or may not be trustworthy) the story is divided into five distinct parts (or novellas) which can be purchased separately or in collected editions. Since I've read the first three, “The Amber isle”, “A Forest of Eyes”, and “River God... Read More

Roar of Sky: A solid conclusion to this magical alternate-history trilogy

Roar of Sky by Beth Cato

Beth Cato concludes her BLOOD OF EARTH trilogy with Roar of Sky (2018), bringing the story of clandestine geomancer Ingrid Carmichael, which began in Breath of Earth and continued in Call of Fire, to an action-packed close. This review will contain some spoilers for events in previous books, so proceed with caution.

Badly wounded and permanently debilitated after her desperate fight in Seattle against Ambassador Blum, Ingrid and her friends Cy Jennings and Fenris Braun flee to Hawaii aboard the Palmetto Bug, a small airship designed by Fenris, seeking information about Ingrid’... Read More