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Fourth Mansions: Thanks, Jen!

Fourth Mansions by R.A. Lafferty

Despite it having been given pride of place in Scottish critic David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, and despite the fact that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for many years, it was only last week that I finally got around to reading R.A. Lafferty’s 1969 cult item Fourth Mansions. The author’s reputation for eccentricity, both in terms of subject matter as well as writing style, had long intimidated me, I suppose. But just recently, Jen, one of the managers of NYC sci-fi bookstore extraordinaire Singularity, was enthusing to me about her recent acquisition of a first edition of Lafferty’s 1970 short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers for only $40, and I suppose that her enthusiasm proved contagious in my case, as I manfully dove into Fourth Mansions Read More

Ready Player One: *tries to insert obscure 80s reference and fails miserably*

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My childhood consisted largely of wizarding duels and Pokemon battles (sometimes both at once), so I was a little dubious about picking up Ready Player One, a nostalgia fest about pop-culture in the 1980s. What’s more, gaming culture is at the heart of the novel. The closest I got to videogames was playing Solitaire on my dad’s computer, and I’m not even sure that counts. I was more than a little bit ambivalent about the book…

Wade Watts (alliteratively named in the hope he’ll turn out like a superhero) has a dreary life. He lives in the stacks — Ernest Cline’s futuristic interpretation of a trailer park, in which trailers are stacked on top of each other in towers — with his aunt and her knucklehead boyfriend. He spends his days plugged into the OASIS, a virtual rea... Read More

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: What if god were a drug-pushing alien?

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was the 10th and final PKD book I read last year after 40 years without reading any. I always felt as a teenager that I would get more from his books as an adult, and I think I was right. This one is a real mind-bending experience, deliciously strange and tantalizing with its ideas.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is one of the earliest PKD novels that deals overtly with drug use, hallucinations, and his thoughts on religion and the divine in our mundane lives. As usual, his near-future world is fairly dystopian, and his characters are everyday people trying to muddle through life. There are no superheroes, and his characters are filled with flaws. PKD was a champion of the downtrodden everyman, which makes sense since he himself was always struggling with poverty, mental i... Read More

The Son of Neptune: The second instalment of a series steadily cranking into gear…

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

Warning: Contains some mild spoilers for The Lost Hero

First, a brief reminder of where this book stands among Rick Riordan's collection of YA novels: it is the second book in the HEROES OF OLYMPUS five-part series, which itself is the sequel series to the original PERCY JACKSON books. Suffice to say, if you're unfamiliar with the stories published before this one, you're likely to be hopelessly lost in understanding what's happening here. Head back to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and work your way up.

For those who are all up-to-date, you'll be pleased to know The Son of Neptune doesn't waste any time in throwing you back into the action. As realized by his friends at the... Read More

The Saturn Game: The slippery slope of fantasy role-playing

The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson’s The Saturn Game, published in 1981, is a pre-Internet era exploration of role-playing games and their effect on the human psyche, which won the 1981 Nebula and the 1982 Hugo awards for best novella.

On an eight-year long voyage to Saturn, one of the more popular ways for the crew and colonists to pass time is becoming involved in psychodramas, a verbal-type role-playing game. But when a team of four people from the spaceship lands their smaller craft on Saturn’s moon Iapetus to explore the terrain, the terrain reminds three of them so strongly of the Tolkien-esque fantasy that they have spent countless hours creating and imagining that it begins to affect their judgment and discernment. Bad decisions start to cascade as fantasy impinges on their exploratory mis... Read More

The Autumnlands: Story, visuals, and theme come together for a very strong beginning

The Autumnlands Volume 1: Tooth and Claw by Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey, Jordie Bellaire

The Autumnlands, written by Kurt Busiek and visuals by Benjamin Dewey (art) and Jordie Bellaire (color), is an intriguing graphic series with lots of action, a complex character, and a visually and intellectually stimulating setting. The first six issues, which you can get separately or bundled into Volume One Tooth and Claw, resolve a particular arc, but are really mostly set up for further exploration of world and character.

The story is set in a world peopled by animal races, themselves apparently separated into those who dwell in seventeen floating cities — masters of magic and technology — and land-dwellers (“the lesser ones”) who slave for them. The magic of their world, however, is failing, and so in a last ... Read More

Zer0es: Be careful what you hack

Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

In Chuck Wendig’s new techno-thriller novel, Zer0es, five hackers — some highly skilled, some not so skilled — are not-so-innocently going about their daily business when they are unpleasantly interrupted by a tall African-American man who introduces himself as Hollis Copper or (in one case) “Mr. Government.” This motley crew of five consists of Chance, an aspiring Anonymous-style hacker who’s more con man than computer whiz; DeAndre, a talented hacker who specialized in stealing credit card data; Aleena, an Arab Spring hacktivist; Reagan, an unhappy and vindictive Internet troll; and 63-year-old Wade, a grizzled conspiracy nut and cipherpunk who collects classified information and deeply distrusts the government.

Hollis whisks his five hackers away, less than voluntarily, to an u... Read More

Distrust That Particular Flavor: Gibson’s “Best of” non-fiction album

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson

Distrust That Particular Flavor is William Gibson’s non-fiction compilation album. These entries, which are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically, touch on a variety of subjects, ranging from Japanese culture to Steely Dan to how recent technologies will evolve.

Gibson begins the work explaining how he learned to write fiction. He further admits that many of his non-fiction works were done primarily because Wired and other publications offered to fly him abroad if he’d comment on his experiences. Given the introduction, readers might not expect much from Distrust That Particular Flavor, but I often enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I do most compilations of non-fiction written by novelists, perhaps in pa... Read More

The Man in the High Castle: Axis Powers win WWII, and then things get weird

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This is a strange and sinister book, even for Philip K. Dick. It’s a carefully-crafted alternate history about a world in which the Axis powers won WWII and now dominate the globe (other notable books in this vein include Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore and Pavane by Keith Roberts), but being PKD that is just the beginning. It prominently features the I Ching (Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese classic that serves as a sort of oracle or fortune telling device for several of the characters. The Pacific States of America are dominated by the Japanese, while the former Unites States of America on the East Coast a... Read More

Film: Zotz!

Zotz! directed by William Castle

Today, the name "Tom Poston" might not resonate with anyone who happens to be younger than those in the baby boom generation. Boomers and their parents will surely remember Poston, however, from his numerous appearances on 1960s game shows such as To Tell the Truth and What's My Line?, not to mention any number of sitcoms, including The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. His film appearances, however, were scarce and infrequent, making his comedic turn in producer/director William Castle's 1962 offering, Zotz!, one to especially cherish. Castle, at this point, was on a genuine roll, having released, over the four previous years, no less than five wonderful, gimmicky horror films that are still much beloved five decades later: House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus and Homicidal. Zotz! was something of a departure, ... Read More

Supreme: Blue Rose by Warren Ellis & Tula Lotay

Supreme: Blue Rose by Warren Ellis & Tula Lotay

I have to admit that there are a few red flag elements in Supreme: Blue Rose, written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Tula Lotay, that might give some potential readers pause. One is the whole “inside game” element to it thanks to how it plays off of the old Supreme comic universe, meaning lots of its references will go completely over the head of those wholly unfamiliar with that fictional world (and I, I confess, am nearly so, only having picked up on this from recognizing a few names and references from prior reading not of Supreme itself but from some non-fiction about Alan Moore, who wrote some of that comic). I don’t know if one has to have read Supreme to... Read More

Way Station: A solitary Midwesterner holds the key to the stars

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Way Station is Clifford D. Simak’s 1964 Hugo Award-winning novel. By many readers it is considered his best, and it features some his favorite themes: a rugged Midwesterner who shuns society, human society flirting with nuclear disaster, a more enlightened galactic society that is wary of letting unruly humans join in, an appeal to common sense and condemnation of man’s penchant for violence.

Having recently read Simak’s 1952 fixer-up novel City, in which dogs and robots take over Earth in the far future, I’m getting a pretty good sense of the author’s likes and dislikes. He was born in a small Wisconsin town (just like my father, incidentally), attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison (also like my father), spent time working as an editor ... Read More

The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection: Four delightful stories read by the author

The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, Cinnamon, Crazy Hair) by Neil Gaiman

The only thing better than one of Neil Gaiman’s children’s stories is one of Neil Gaiman’s children’s stories read to you by Neil Gaiman. Do not pass these up when you see them. I found these four stories in audio format at my library, both individually and as the cleverly titled The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. If your library doesn’t have them, you can purchase them separately for less than $2 each at Audible, or you can purchase the entire collection, which was released by HarperAudio in January 2015, for $9. (Ummmm.... let’s do the math here... purchasing them separately seems like a better deal, however, the complete collection ends with Maddy Gaiman interviewing her ... Read More

The Invasion of the Tearling: A clash between the past and future

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Warning: May contain mild spoilers for the previous book.

At first glance, a mash-up between epic fantasy and futuristic dystopia just shouldn’t work. It’s as though someone has cherry-picked a bunch of best-selling ingredients and bunged them all together in a weird genre-bending cake. Even more disconcerting is a comparison made to Panem, Hogwarts and Westeros on the cover. But Erika Johansen manages to weave genres together successfully. In this second instalment of the QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy, Kelsea Glynn (a name that will soon be as familiar as Katniss Everdeen, with a major film franchise in the pipeline) faces the invasion of her newly acquired kingdom, the Tearling.

With the Mort army (quite literally) sitting on her doorstep, thousa... Read More

Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero: A lucid and well-written exploration

Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero by Aldo J. Regaldo

Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero, by Aldo J. Regaldo, is another entry in the getting-crowded field of cultural analysis of superheroes/comics. I can’t say Regaldo offers a lot that is new here, especially in some of the examinations of specific well-plumbed comics, but Bending Steel still has a lot to offer as it is a well-organized, clearly and often sharply written exploration of the topic with lucid, thoughtful points well supported by frequent concrete examples.

The focus, as the title states, is on “modernity” and what the superhero genre tells us about the cultural response to it. He opens by defining his terms, with modernity described as “the allegedly more liberalizing arrangements that found expression through rationalism, capitalism, representative gover... Read More

Servant of the Crown: Romantic fantasy with a twist

Servant of the Crown by Melissa McShane

Servant of the Crown is a steampunk-flavored young adult romantic fantasy by Melissa McShane, published in July 2015. It is set in a well-imagined Victorian-era type of world where magic plays a lesser and socially suspect role. Alison, the young Countess of Waxwold, is summoned from her city to be a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Consort of the kingdom for six months. This seems like a prison sentence to Alison, who enjoys her work in the budding printing industry and as a theater patroness, has no taste for court or social games, and no inclination to “sit around in an uncomfortable dress and keep the former Consort company” for half a year. But the royal summons from the queen cannot be gainsaid, so Alison grits her teeth and heads to the capital city of Aurilien, consoling herself with the thought that at least she’ll have access to the famous royal libr... Read More

Dark Orbit: A rewarding high concept sci-fi novel

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit
by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a smart, thought-provoking First Contact novel that delves into questions of human perception, identity, and knowledge construction. The philosophical questions are layered atop a plot that, even if it isn’t the strength of the novel, is more than serviceable, keeping the reader’s surface attention even as the larger ideas beckon one into deeper waters.

Centuries ago the human race sent out “Quest” ships in search of habitable planets. Ship travel has since been replaced by transportation via light beam through a “Wayport,” which while overcoming the vast distances still has the problem of relativity, so that those “Wasters” who regularly travel this way give up family and friends, returning to planets where decades have passed while they themselves aged only a few months or years. Now, one of the Quest... Read More

Deep State by Justin Jordan and Ariela Kristantina

Deep State by Justin Jordan and Ariela Kristantina

Boom! puts out some fun comics, very much in the Mark Millar, block-buster movie style, and Justin Jordan’s Deep State is certainly a page-turner. I read it in about an hour and could hardly take a breath the entire time. This first volume collects issues one through four, and though it ends on a cliffhanger, the book does tell a complete story. It’s just that the last page will make you want to read issue five immediately to see where the larger arc is taking us.

Deep State introduces us to the very intelligent, very capable, and very curious Ms. Branch. The combination of these three qualities leads ... Read More

Film: The Leech Woman

The Leech Woman: A fun Sci-Fi/Horror outing with a surprising feminist subtext

Coleen Gray, who passed away this week at the age of 92, was an actress best known for her work in the film noir genre, but did dabble on occasion in the sci-fi and horror fields. Here is a review of one of her more sci-fi/horror-oriented projects, the cult item known as The Leech Woman (1960).

On a recent TCM special presentation entitled Cruel Beauty, four great actresses of the film noir genre — Marie Windsor, Audrey Totter, Jane Greer and Coleen Gray — were brought together for a fascinating discussion of this most American of cinematic contributions. And in the case of Nebraska-born Coleen Gray, her credentials for inclusion were impeccable, having previously starred in such noir classics as Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley, Kansas City Confidential and The Killing. But noir, of course, wasn't the onl... Read More

Dead Man’s Reach: Best in the series so far

Dead Man’s Reach by D.B. Jackson

Despite the series having some flaws, I’ve been a fan through the first three books of D.B. Jackson’s historical noir fantasy set in Pre-Revolutionary Boston and centered on the character of Ethan Kaille. In the fourth installment, Dead Man’s Reach, Jackson turns in if not a perfect novel, perhaps the best in the series. One which would also serve as an excellent close to Ethan’s arc, though I for one hope Jackson finds it in himself to give us more of Ethan’s adventures.

From the start, this story has played out against the backdrop of pre-war tension in the city, and now, having reached 1770, that tension will culminate in one of the most notorious scenes in American history — the Boston Massacre. Though in this world, with magic and “conjurers,” the events surroun... Read More

Burn for Me: A hot urban fantasy

Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews

The husband-wife author team of Ilona Andrews began their new HIDDEN LEGACY urban fantasy series in 2014 with Burn for Me.

In an alternative reality to our world, a serum discovered in 1863 unleashed people’s magical talents. As the powerful and rich sought the serum as a new way for their families to gain more power and wealth, others realized the potential it raised for chaos and destruction, and locked it away — too late. Magical talent now runs in families, with magical dynasties forming, and the strength of a person’s magic becoming a major factor in whom they might marry in these families. The most powerful magical users are known as Primes.

Nevada Baylor has magical powers — among other things, she always knows when someone is lying — bu... Read More

Margaret: A full-blooded swashbuckler

(Fair) Margaret by H. Rider Haggard

Every schoolchild knows that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But what about the year before that? Did anything of note happen in 1491? Well, as any reader of H. Rider Haggard's 31st novel, Margaret, will discover, the answer is: plenty! Margaret, which Haggard wrote from 1905 - ‘06, was initially published in London in September 1907 under the title Fair Margaret, and here in the U.S. with the shortened title a month later. It is one of Haggard's historical fictions, but unlike some of his other historicals, such as 1911's Red Eve, this one contains absolutely no fantasy elements to speak of (my editors here on FanLit are perhaps being indulgent and generous for allowing me to even post ... Read More

Endless Sky: The Story of a Swiss in America by David Boller

Endless Sky: The Story of a Swiss in America by David Boller

In the past few years, I’ve gained an appreciation for comic book memoirs, and Endless Sky by David Boller is another enjoyable work in this category. It doesn’t have the brilliant poetry of Fun Home or the powerful genius of Brooklyn Dreams, but it’s still worth seeking out, particularly if you are interested either in the story of a comic book writer trying to make it in the industry or in the culture-shock a man from Switzerl... Read More

Edge: Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

[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.]

This year I read or reread my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books after a two-decade gap: The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). In these works, his trademark cynicism and resignation towards humanity’s recurrent vanity and folly was mitigated by his gallows humor and simple, unadorned prose. It’s a formula that r... Read More

The Queen of Attolia: Third time’s the charm

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen of Attolia, the second book in her THE QUEEN’S THIEF fantasy series, begins much the same as The Thief, the first book in this series: Eugenides (Gen) the thief is in prison. This time it is the Attolians who have captured him, but he’s made them, especially their queen, even more angry than he had the kingdom of Sounis in the first volume. From this similar beginning, however, the plot veers in some completely unexpected directions. Whalen Turner explained this in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:
I could have written a whole series about fun, co... Read More