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Driftwood: A strong story collection with a great setting

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Driftwood (2020) is a charming, meditative, and often poignant collection of linked stories by Marie Brennan that mostly succeeds both in its individual tales and as a whole, though I had a few issues. But given that one of those is it was too short, it’s still an easy book to recommend.

The book’s general setting is the titular Driftwood. Think of it as a beach whose tide, instead of washing up the pebbles and the sea’s detritus, washes up instead dying worlds. Except instead of piling up on a sandy strand, the worlds just edge farther and farther inward, getting ever smaller before eventually disappearing forever. Or as one character explains to another whose world has just started the process:
Bits [of a world] just vanish. People die... Read More

The Time Stream: Will It Go Round In Circles?

The Time Stream by John Taine

After eight novels dealing with such venerable science fiction themes as lost races, weapons of superscience, the transmutation of elements, dinosaurs, devolution, crystalline life-forms and the creation of a superman, Scottish-American author John Taine finally tackled one of the most revered sci-fi tropes of them all, namely time travel, in his ninth novel, The Time Stream. Today, this book comes freighted with a double-edged reputation, as it is said to be the author’s strangest novel of the 16 he wrote between 1924 and ’54, as well as his finest; an irresistible combination for those who are game. The novel was released just two months after Taine’s Seeds of Life had appeared complete in the October... Read More

Master of Poisons: A challenging book

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Master of Poisons (2020) by Andrea Hairston is an epic fantasy set in an African-inspired world that is facing environmental devastation. Fertile land is turning into poison desert, and void-storms are a constant threat.

Djola is called Master of Poisons because, when both men were young, he saved the Arkhysian Emperor with his knowledge of antidotes. He was rewarded with the title and a place on the Emperor’s council. Now, he thinks he might be able to save the land with a legendary spell, but he needs to find it first — and in the meantime, he recommends that everyone live more simply, to put less strain on the environment.

Human nature being what it is, this goes about as well as you might expect. Djola is banished. This is at least partly a rus... Read More

The Bone Shard Daughter: A past-paced, enticing adventure

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter (2020) by Andrea Stewart is a fast-paced, enticing read, with an attractive world and a magical system that grabs the imagination with both hands and doesn’t let it go.

Stewart’s debut is the first book of a series, THE DROWNING EMPIRE. In an archipelago empire, the imperial Sukai dynasty defeated the powerful Alanga, who ruled it. The current emperor, Shiyen, uses bone shard magic to protect his citizens from the possible return of the Alanga. Shiyen runs his empire using constructs, chimera-like beings animated by chips of bone taken from every citizen of the empire, usually when they are children. At events called Festivals, chips of bone are chiseled out of each child’s skull, sometimes with fatal results. Those chips, later implanted into constructs, animate them. The magic allows the creator of ... Read More

Drowned Country: An enchanting sequel

Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

Drowned Country (2020) is the second and concluding novella in Emily Tesh’s GREENHOLLOW DUOLOGY, following 2019’s Silver in the Wood. This review will contain some spoilers for Silver in the Wood.

When we last saw Tobias and Henry Silver, Tobias had become an ordinary mortal man, and had been reunited with Silver — who had been presumed dead, but instead had been saved by the Wood itself, becoming its guardian Wild Man in the way that Tobias once was. It turns out, though, that this idyll lasted only a few months before the two men fell out. Now Silver sulks alone in his manor house, using his powers to accelerate its ruin.

S... Read More

Seeds of Life: High Tension

Seeds of Life by John Taine

In the 1956 sci-fi “B movie” Indestructible Man, hardened criminal Butcher Benton, played by the always wonderful Lon Chaney, Jr., is put to death by the state, but is later revivified by a mad scientist using 300,000 volts of electricity. Benton becomes not only possessed of superhuman strength but is also, as events show, impervious to bullets. But if a certain novel of 25 years earlier can be believed, this was not the first time that a human being was subjected to a massive dose of juice, and with astonishing results. The book in question was Scottish-American author John Taine’s ninth novel, Seeds of Life, which features not only one scientist suffering from the side effects of a 2 million-volt exposure, but anot... Read More

Peace Talks: But wait, there’s more!

Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Fans of Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES have been waiting for the sixteenth novel, Peace Talks (2020), for six years. It's been so long that I actually had to go back and re-read the last few novels to get back up to speed on Harry's life.

Was Peace Talks worth the wait? The short answer is “No.” Though it’s entertaining and shows us what Harry’s life has been like since the previous novel, Skin Game, it isn’t quite enough. By this point in the series, readers are expecting a thrill ride and life-shattering events with each new installment in THE DRESDEN FILES. And after we waited six years for this novel, Peace... Read More

The Death of Vivek Oji: ”Beautyful” writing

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

On the same day a riot destroys the market in Ngwa, Nigeria, the body of Vivek Oji is left on his parents’ doorstep, naked except for a length of cloth. Gradually, through a variety of points of view, Akwaeke Emezi unfolds the story of Vivek’s life and death, and how that death affects Vivek’s loved ones — drawing some people closer together, driving faultlines between others.

Readers who’ve read Emezi’s earlier work might expect more supernatural elements than The Death of Vivek Oji (2020) actually contains. This short novel is mostly a realistic story, with two exceptions: Vivek occasionally narrates from beyond the grave, and it is implied that reincarnation exists. However, I think readers who enjoy Emezi’s “beautyful” writing (you’ll have to read the... Read More

The Bird King: Magic is woven throughout the book

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson’s 2019 YA Novel The Bird King is a wonderful read: an exciting adventure with a complicated female protagonist, set in a time and place that may be unfamiliar to many of us. Magic is woven throughout the book, as young Fatima wrestles with the concepts of faith, freedom and leadership.

Fatima is the Sultan’s concubine in the last Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. She holds a precarious place in the palace hierarchy. As a slave she’s powerless; as the Sultan’s concubine she wields, or could wield, great influence, especially if she bears him a son. Fatima, born into enslavement, dreams of freedom, but the closest she gets to it is the magical maps drawn by her friend, the royal mapmaker, Hassan. Hassan can map a place that exists only in his imagin... Read More

The Heirs of Locksley: Archery and mischief with Robin Hood’s children

The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn

The adventures of Robin Hood's three children continue in The Heirs of Locksley, the second novella in Carrie Vaughn's ROBIN HOOD STORIES series. It takes a unexpected four-year leap forward from The Ghosts of Sherwood. The eldest, Mary, is now twenty and still hasn't met the young man she's semi-betrothed to, and her feelings have shifted from fear and uncertainty to irritation that William de Ros still hasn’t bothered to come meet her; in fact, she's beginning to wonder if he even exists. John (named after Little John) is in his later teens now, and the youngest, Eleanor, is thirteen.

Robin's old enemy King John died a few years ago, and his thirteen-y... Read More

White Lily: Chinese Takeout

White Lily by John Taine

For fans of mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote science fiction under the pen name John Taine, the acquisition of titles in this modern era can be somewhat problematic: Of the author’s 16 sci-fi books, only three of them are currently in print. This reader had previously experienced Taine’s first novel, The Purple Sapphire (1924), as well as his fifth, The Greatest Adventure (’29), had hugely enjoyed them both and wanted to read more … lots more. I had also managed to lay my hands on Taine’s final novel, the marvelous... Read More

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque

In the very beginning of The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers (2020), Emily Levesque notes that “of the 7.5 billion people on our planet, fewer than fifty thousand are professional astronomers.” As the title implies, and as Levesque explains toward the end of her book, the number is perhaps more likely to shrink rather than rise. Luckily for us, Levesque is one of that select group, and so is able to fill the pages in between beginning and end with a number of entertaining stories about her own experiences, as well as those of her colleagues, along with giving readers tours of some of the best known and most effective telescopes used by today’s (and yesterday’s) astronomers.

I’ll be honest. Early on, while I was enjoying The Last Star... Read More

Catherine House: A college with dark secrets

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I recently learned the term Dark Academia, and while I’m probably too old to be a part of the subculture, I wish I’d had a name for it earlier. Schools and colleges with dark secrets have long been one of my favorite forms of literary catnip. It was probably inevitable that I’d be interested in Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House (2020), the story of a rudderless young woman attending a most unusual college.

The titular Catherine House is “not just a school, but a cloister.” Students who are accepted into its selective three-year program are confined to the rambling House and its grounds for the duration of their education. Catherine is cagey about its admissions criteria, but they don’t involve wealth or family legacy, so the novel... Read More

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking): Informative and engaging if not all that uplifting

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack

In case these times weren’t providing enough anxiety, astrophysicist Katie Mack has arrived on the scene with something else for you to worry about — the end of the universe. More precisely, in The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) (2020), Mack explores five ways the universe might die: The Big Crunch, Heat Death, The Big Rip, Vacuum Decay, and a Bounce. Luckily, most won’t be coming along for some billions of years, so you can probably still get in everything you’ve been planning on — cleaning out the garage, binging that TV show, learning to make cocktails, etc. (Those of us with TBR shelves, though, are out of luck — billions of years just won’t cut it.)

Mack opens with a tour of our current understanding of the universe’s lifetime, from the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago up to now. Then eac... Read More

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 3: The Burning Seas: The Empire tightens its grip

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 3: The Burning Seas by Charles Soule & Giuseppe Camuncoli

The early years of Darth Vader continue in Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 3: The Burning Seas, in which Charles Soule explores Vader and the Empire in the near-immediate aftermath of The Revenge of the Sith. As the Empire consolidates its rule over the galaxy, Vader is sent on various missions that test his abilities in the Dark Side and allow him to grow more comfortable with his ever more destructive powers.

Most of the action takes place on Mon Cala, which readers will recognize as the home planet of fan-favourite Admiral Akbar. It was also featured heavily in The Clone Wars television series, and King Lee-Char has a significant role to play here — as do Raddus and Akbar, who appear in Rogue One and... Read More

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 2: Legacy’s End: Vader hunts a familiar face

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 2: Legacy's End by Charles Soule & Giuseppe Camuncoli

Charles Soule’s DARTH VADER comics explore the character’s thoughts, decisions and actions in the immediate aftermath of The Revenge of the Sith, in which the Empire is still consolidating its power and Vader himself grappling with his new identity as the Emperor’s apprentice.

This volume sees him training the Inquisitors (which featured so heavily in the first two seasons of Star Wars Rebels), an elite team of former Jedi who are now tasked with finding and killing any survivors of Order 66. Among the target list that’s assigned to them, one name in particular stands out…

Legacy’s End spotlights a character I never thought we’d learn more about: Jocasta Nu. You know,... Read More

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 1: Imperial Machine: Vader’s early years

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 1: Imperial Machine by Charles Soule & Jim Cheung

Although Charles Soule’s DARTH VADER: DARK LORD OF THE SITH was released after Kieron Gillen’s DARTH VADER, it’s chronologically set several years before, in what is almost the immediate aftermath of The Revenge of the Sith (whereas Gillen’s story was set after the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope).

So the character featured here is a “young” Vader, one still getting used to his new body, title and role in the fledging Empire. Heck, things kick off when he’s literally still in the laboratory where he learns of Padme’s fate.

As such, Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 1: Imperial Machine is not a portrayal of Vader at the height of h... Read More

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders: Mystery and court intrigue in a cool setting

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard

Last Friday night, I was feeling indecisive about what to read, so I emailed Jana and listed the options I was considering: YA Historical Fantasy? Creepy Medical SF? I admitted I was leaning toward Snarky Murder Novella. “It’s Friday,” she said, encouraging me to treat myself with Snarky Murder Novella, and I’m very glad I did.

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is part of Aliette de Bodard’s DOMINION OF THE FALLEN series, coming between book three, The House of Sundering Flames, and a fourth book yet to be released. However, it is written to stand on its own; you don’t have to have read any of the previous books. I hadn’t, but I definitely wi... Read More

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor: An exciting story that asks a lot of questions

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

Hank Green’s A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (2020) is the sequel to his 2018 debut, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing which you’ll need to read first. There will be spoilers for An Absolutely Remarkable Thing in this review.

It’s been a few months since the life-shattering events that occurred at the end of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. The Carls are all gone and it appears that April died in a fire that was set by some extremists influenced by anti-April vitriol on social media. Yet, her body has never been found. Her friends, who’ve been split up due to the absence of April’s coalescing force, are su... Read More

Labyrinth Lost: Lots of imagination and a sense of family warmth

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Labyrinth Lost (2016) is the first in Zoraida Córdova’s BROOKLYN BRUJAS series.

Alejandra “Alex” Mortiz is the middle daughter of a Puerto Rican bruja (witch) family in Brooklyn. Alex has been trying to suppress her power for years, because she believes it was the reason her father left the family.

Her sixteenth birthday is approaching, however, and with it her Deathday ceremony, a coming-of-age ritual during which she will receive a blessing from her ancestors.

Alex casts a spell during the Deathday ceremony that she believes will permanently suppress her abilities; the ritual goes wrong, and Alex’s entire family is swallowed into the magical realm of Los Lagos. (This seems like it’s going to have an obvious moral of “her family was her strength all along,” but while there’s truth in that, ... Read More

The Relentless Moon: A tense spy thriller set on the Moon

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

With a new protagonist and definite resistance to expanded space colonization coming from Earth, The Relentless Moon (2020) provides increasing tension, drama and action, giving us, in part, a spy thriller set on a lunar colony.

The third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE LADY ASTRONAUT series follows Nicole Wargin, one of the original six women astronauts and wife of the politically ambitious Kansas governor. Nicole has been tapped for a trip to the nascent lunar colony with a group of civilian colonists, but even before the trip gets underway, accidents, technical failures and social unrest ramp up, leading to the poisoning of the Wargins’ friend, and linchpin of the space program, Nathaniel York.

Even with the looming threats... Read More

Shadowshaper Legacy: Satisfying end to an excellent series

Shadowshaper Legacy by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper Legacy (2020) is the third and final novel in Daniel José Older’s excellent SHADOWSHAPER CYPHER series. While it was not my favorite book in the trilogy, it ends on a high note and concludes the main plot arcs in a satisfying way. This review will contain some spoilers for the first two books.

Shadowhouse Fall saw Sierra merge two magical Houses into the new House of Shadow and Light, and ended with a cliffhanger as the white supremacist Bloodhaüs emerged as a threat. The immediate Bloodhaüs situation is actually wrapped up pretty quickly — so quickly, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I missed an intervening novella, which I will have to... Read More

Wicked Wonders: The wonder and magic in our lives

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

In Wicked Wonders (2017), Ellen Klages has assembled an impressive collection of her short stories. Although almost all of these stories have been previously published (the sole exception is “Woodsmoke”), most of them appeared in anthologies and are unlikely to be familiar to most readers. These fourteen stories run the gamut from non-fiction (“The Scary Ham”) to straight fiction (“Hey, Presto,” “Household Management” and “Woodsmoke”) to science fiction and fantasy. They’re often bittersweet or wistful and frequently surreal; tales of ordinary lives in which the fantastical or unexpected element sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder, and when you turn around the world has shifted.

Several tales in Wicked Wonders are reminiscent of certain of Ray Bradbury’s short... Read More

Away and Beyond: Thanks again, Mr. Miller!

Away and Beyond by A.E. van Vogt

As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, it was one of my high school English teachers, Mr. Miller, who first got me interested in literary sci-fi. This was back in the late ‘60s, when my high school was hip enough to actually offer a course in science fiction, taught by Mr. Miller; a very popular course, need I even mention? One of the earliest books that Miller required us to read, as I recall, was A.E. (Alfred Elton) van Vogt’s 1946 novel Slan, which had originally appeared as a four-part serial in the Sept. - Dec. 1940 issues of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science... Read More

Kiki’s Delivery Service: A warmhearted coming-of-age tale

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 1985 children’s fantasy novel first published in Japanese as Majo no Takkyūbin (or “Witch's Express Home Delivery”), is best known outside of Japan as the basis for a 1989 Studio Ghibli anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the book won several prizes in Japan and Kadono has published five sequels over the years (unfortunately none of the sequels are currently available in English translations). Kiki’s Delivery Service was first published in English in 2003, but a new translation is now available.

Twelve-year-old Kiki lives in a small town with her mother Kokiri, a witch, and her human father Okino. Her coming-of-age day is nearing, and tradition requires young witches like Kiki to strike out on their own and find a town or village th... Read More