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Standard Hollywood Depravity: Killer-robot conceit succeeds in shorter format

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Standard Hollywood Depravity by Adam Christopher

The very thing which makes Adam Christopher’s Ray Electromatic a compelling character — he’s a robot P.I.-turned-assassin for hire with a 24-hour memory — is simultaneously the best and most-frustrating thing about his RAY ELECTROMATIC series. When Christopher is restrained by the shorter word-counts of the novelette “Brisk Money” or this novella, Standard Hollywood Depravity (2017), there’s no room for unnecessary repetition or extraneous plot devices, and the “robot noir” at the heart of this series takes center stage.

Set between the full-le... Read More

The Gods of War: Is Rome worth a life?

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The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

Every reader who starts Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gods of War (2006) already knows that in this novel Caesar crosses the Rubicon, defeats Pompey, meets Cleopatra, and is ultimately betrayed by Marcus Brutus, his best friend. The point of the plot is not what happened but why. Caesar spent his life fighting for the Republic, but he betrayed it. Why? Brutus spent his life fighting for Caesar but chose to murder him. Why? The Gods of War should not work as a novel if it does not excel at character development.

When I began reading, I sadly concluded that the novel would disappoint. The initial chapters do not stand out for their complex characterization. Instead, Iggulden focuses on staging — politics without ... Read More

Mira’s Last Dance: An amusing episode in Penric’s continuing story

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Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Note: Contains mild spoilers for the previous PENRIC novellas.

Around 15 years ago, Lois McMaster Bujold published her much-acclaimed WORLD OF THE FIVE GODS series which contained three stand-alone novels: The Curse of Chalion (winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards), Paladin of Souls (winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award, nominated for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award) and The ... Read More

Sheltered by Ed Brisson

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Sheltered by Ed Brisson

Ed Brisson’s Sheltered is a short three-volume series (fifteen issues) that tells the story of one group of “preppers,” those who go off the grid, stockpile food and water, and take other precautions to weather a variety of possible apocalyptic endings. Safe Haven is a small, close community, and many of the children have grown up there. They are all good friends, so the main character, Victoria, is a real outsider since she has only recently come to live there with her father.

What makes Sheltered such a riveting series is the twist that comes in the first issue: All the adults die, and the children are left to fend for themselves. Once on their own, they get rid of all remaining means of communication and rely solely on the predictions mad... Read More

Arabella and the Battle of Venus: Arabella meets Napoleon Bonaparte

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Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levine

The adventures of the gallant-hearted young heroine Arabella Ashby continue in Arabella and the Battle of Venus (2017), David D. Levine’s warm-hearted melding of retro science fiction, à la Jules Verne, and the Napoleonic wars. In this sequel to Arabella of Mars, Arabella receives a battered letter from fiancé Captain Singh, regretfully informing her that he and his ship, the Diana, along with all his crew, have been captured by the French and are being held as prisoners of war on Venus. Though Captain Singh insists in his letter that Arabella remain on Mars, Arabella is not one to accept a bad situ... Read More

Age of Swords: Compelling novel with strong characters

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Age of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Storm clouds have been gathering since the events of Age of Myth, the first book in Michael J. Sullivan‘s new epic fantasy series, LEGENDS OF THE FIRST EMPIRE. The Fhrey (elves) have been feeling threatened by the Rhunes (humans) ever since the Rhunes shifted from a nomadic lifestyle to a more settled one, with crops and flocks of animals as well as hunting. Their population started exploding, and the Rhunes now outnumber the long-lived Fhrey by a factor of twenty to one (one million Rhunes vs. fifty thousand Fhrey). The killing of two Fhrey by Raithe, a Rhune warrior, provided the final impetus for a Fhrey attack.

As Age of Swords Read More

Borderline: A diverse cast of characters and respectful treatment of mental illness

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Borderline by Mishell Baker

In the first installment of Mishell Baker’s THE ARCADIA PROJECT series we are introduced to Millie, whose borderline personality disorder at least partly explains the title of the book. Borderline (2016) follows Millie as she is pulled into The Arcadia Project, an organization that monitors and secures the comings and goings between the world of humans and the world of mythological, fairy tale creatures. Millie’s first assignment with The Arcadia Project has her tracking down an A-list movie star who is actually a denizen of that other world, and an important one at that. Millie must balance her mental health, her physical capabilities, and a dozen new acquaintances in order to manage this new life.

The magic in Borderline centres on the presence and activities of the fair... Read More

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari: A somehow funny melding of German Expressionism, WWI, and art therapy

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The Asylum of Dr. Caligari
by James Morrow

Using a cult-class silent horror film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as the template for a speculative fiction anti-war novel might be a weird idea, but James Morrow has made a career out of weird ideas (including several books on killing God) and that experience mostly pays off in The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, though I would have preferred a shorter version of the tale.

On the eve of WWI, Francis Wyndham, artist-wannabe, makes the European circuit to try and find a mentor. But after getting pushed down a flight of stairs by Picasso and not finding much success otherwise, he’s happy to take on the job of Art Therapist at an insane asylum. Once ensconced in the gothic institution, where he offers up art instruction to a bev... Read More

Black Light Express: A strong follow-up to its predecessor

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Black Light Express by Philip Reeve

Black Light Express (2017) is Philip Reeve’s just-as-good-as-the-first-book follow up to Railhead, continuing the exhilarating romp while expanding the universe and its inhabitants, as well as digging a bit more deeply into the hidden history of the created world and offering up some more page time to some of the first book’s secondary characters. Warning: there will be some inevitable spoilers for book one (you can just stop here with the take-away that I recommend the duology). First spoiler begins in the very next line!

So at the end of Railhead, Nova and Zen had opened a gate to a whole other set of worlds, these i... Read More

The Currents of Space: “It’s a rather complicated story”

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The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov

The Currents of Space, the third entry in Isaac Asimov’s loosely linked GALACTIC EMPIRE trilogy, is a prequel of sorts to book 1, 1950’s Pebble in the Sky, and a sequel of sorts to book 2, 1951’s The Stars, Like Dust, and if you by any chance find that statement a tad confusing, trust me, that is the very least of the complexities that this book dishes out! The Currents of Space originally appeared serially in the October - December 1952 is... Read More

The Reluctant Queen: Retraces some steps while starting new paths

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst

The Reluctant Queen (2017), the second in Sarah Beth Durst’s QUEENS OF RENTHIA trilogy, follows quite closely on the heels of The Queen of Blood and reveals the consequences of Daleina’s unexpected rise to power as the Queen of Aratay. This series is meant to be read in sequence, so there will be some mild inevitable spoilers for The Queen of Blood.

Just six months after her bloody coronation, Daleina has a large problem on her hands: she is dying, which means that her control over Aratay’s spirits is weakening, which... Read More

The Backstagers Act: 1: A fantastical space for the weird kid in all of us

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The Backstagers Act: 1 by James Tynion IV (author) & Rian Sygh (artist)

Behind the scenes of the drama club, there is a labyrinth of rooms and hallways filled with creepy critters and questionable sofas alike – that is the world of The Backstagers Act: 1 (2107). The inhabitants design and build the sets and props for the actors of the drama club and are all but forgotten in their backstage rooms. The Backstagers not only cater to the needs of the drama club but have their own adventures out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the school. It’s the perfect place for the group of misfits to gather and find belonging.

The art in The Backstagers Act: 1 is perfectly whimsical. It’s bright and cheery, full of decidedly uplifting (and wonderfully ludicrous) colours and eye-twinkles (not a weird metaphor – there are literal stars ... Read More

Besieged: Stories that flesh out Atticus’ history and world

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Besieged by Kevin Hearne

In Besieged, Kevin Hearne has collected nine short stories that take place at different times in his popular IRON DRUID CHRONICLES saga. On his website, Hearne labels Besieged as book #8.5 in the series while GoodReads amusingly lists it as #4.1, #4.2, #4.6, #4.7, #8.1, and #8.6. I’d recommend reading Besieged after Staked (novel #8) or, better yet, use it as a companion collection as you read through the series. That way you could read each of the stories in Besieged in their proper timeline…

But it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, probably even a newcomer to... Read More

Æther & Empire Vol. 1: Eternal Glory

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Æther & Empire Vol. 1: Eternal Glory by Mike Horan, Bong Ty Dazo, & Tim Yates

If Victorian-era steampunk is your thing, you may want to check out Æther & Empire Vol. 1: Eternal Glory, which piles clockwork hearts, steam-driven automobiles, and an interplanetary voyage on top of a daring adventure tale. Written by Mike Horan, with pencils/inks by Bong Ty Horan and Tim Yates on colors, this trade paperback collects issues 1 – 6 of the Æther & Empire comic.

Issue #1 begins with a thrilling battle between Her Majesty’s Airship Nimbus — a craft that looks like a two-master with some horizontal sails and huge overhead balloons providing lift — and a privateer airship “[s]omewhere over the Libyan coast,” in 1879. The battle goes badly, but enough of the British crew survive and distinguish themselves, ga... Read More

Nemesis Games: Provides the backstory we’ve all been craving

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Reposted to include Marion's new review.

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Naomi swirled the milky liquid in her glass, watching it slosh against the sides, a miniature sea, complete with little icebergs. “We need to talk,” she said.

Holden winced a bit inside, but forced his words to come out lighter than they felt in his head. “You mean man-woman talk, Captain-XO talk, or . . .”

“More of the ‘or’ type.”

“So, what’s on your mind?”  He leaned back against the bulkhead. Space-grade permasteel she thought, but between man and metal, she knew which she’d count on more.

“We need to review this book.”

“We’ve reviewed books before. And survived.”  He winced again, outwardly this time. “Mostly.”

“Yeah, but there are some killer revelations and plot twists i... Read More

The Stars, Like Dust: Asimov’s least favorite of all his novels still offers much

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The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov’s very first novel, Pebble in the Sky (1950), was the opening salvo in what would later be known as his GALACTIC EMPIRE trilogy, and was set some 50,000 years in Earth’s future. It may surprise some potential readers to learn, then, that book 2 in the series, The Stars, Like Dust (the use of a comma after the word “Stars” is not present anywhere in my 1963 Lancer paperback, but Asimov’s later autobiography, I. Asimov, does present the book title with the comma, so don’t ask me!), takes place a mere 10,000 years in the future, or a good 40,000 years prior to the events in book 1!... Read More

The Refrigerator Monologues: Is your book group adventurous enough for this?

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The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

In her Afterword, Catherynne M. Valente lays out the inspiration for 2017’s collection of linked short stories The Refrigerator Monologues. Valente was inspired partly by the work of comics writer Gail Simone, who created and popularized the term “Women in Refrigerators” as a way to describe women cape-and-mask heroes, and how they are treated in conventional comics. As for structure, Valente looked toward Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking theatrical work The Vagina Monologues. To no small extent, though, Valente was galvanized into writing this collection because of her anger at how Gwen Stacy is treated in one of the rece... Read More

The Farseekers: A solid continuation of a promising series

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The Farseekers by Isobelle Carmody

I enjoyed the first book in Isobelle Carmody's THE OBERNEWTYN CHRONICLES but its follow-up, The Farseekers (1990), was even better. After a nuclear holocaust has destroyed civilization as we know it, leaving only isolated communities and small cities ruled by a totalitarian Council, those born with psychic abilities are known as Misfits. Their fate is to be either burned at the stake or sent to remote Councilfarms, the most famous of which is called Obernewtyn.

Those there were subject to terrible experimentation, but since the close of the last book the compound has been taken over by ... Read More

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a celebrated novelist, but Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a work of non-fiction about the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five separate locations, cultists simultaneously carried packets of sarin onto a subway. They each pierced their packet with the sharpened end of an umbrella and then left the subway. Twelve people died, and thousands more were harmed by the toxin.

Fans of Murakami’s novels may not be interested in this work, but they should hesitate before dismis... Read More

Saga (Vol. 7) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

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Saga (Vol. 7) by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist)

I had to wait nine months for Vol 7 of Brian Vaughan's Saga, and about a year for Vol 6, after reading the first 5 volumes back-to-back. Saga is my favorite current comic series (actually, the only one I am following at the moment), and if you haven’t read it then go out and read Vol 1 right now. If you like intelligent, snarky, sometimes profane space opera centered on a pair of star-crossed lovers who have a little girl named Hazel and an amazing supporting cast of bounty-hunters, humanoid robots, reporters, and various others all caught up in a galactic war between Wreat... Read More

Mad About Men: Miranda returns for another fish-out-of-water adventure

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Mad About Men directed by Ralph Thomas

When we last saw the mermaid Miranda, in the 1948 British fantasy film that bears her name, she was sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean, bearing on her lap an infant merbaby, the sight of which was apparently meant to stun and amuse the viewer. Although the charming Miranda had almost caused the breakup of no fewer than three relationships in that film, she had not been intimate with any of the men involved (and really, how COULD she be?), and so ... just whose baby was this? In hindsight, the baby was apparently hers as the result of a previous underwater fling, casting a whole new light on just why the frisky mermaid wanted one above-water adventure before becoming a mermom herself. Or perhaps she was merely merbabysitting in that final scene?

I suppose that we will never know for sure, as the... Read More

An Augmented Fourth: Otherworldly, rock and roll horror

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An Augmented Fourth by Tony McMillen

Tony McMillen’s An Augmented Fourth (2017) is heavy metal rock and roll horror at its wailing-guitar best. Set in 1980, the point of transition from heavy metal to punk, An Augmented Fourth blends inter-dimensional eldritch horror, David-Cronenberg-movie grotesquerie, and psychedelia in a thrash-metal twenty-minute-guitar-solo of a story.

It’s December, 1980, and Codger Burton, bassist and lyricist of the UK’s once-premiere heavy metal band, Frivolous Black, wakes up in a Boston hotel to find the city snowed in. Codger slept through the evacuation call — at least, that’s what he thinks happened.

The power is off and the city center is eerily empty, but the Hotel Alucinari is not exactly deserted. Before too long, a hungover Codger meets John, a bellho... Read More

A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life

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A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life by Ben McFarland

A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life
(2016), by Ben McFarland, can at times be a difficult read, but despite that, and regardless of some writing/structural issues, it’s an often engaging and always confidently informative exploration of how life was driven down certain paths by the implacable requirements of chemistry.

McFarland’s perspective contrasts directly, as he describes on several occasions, with Stephen J. Gould’s pronouncement that if the “tape of life” were rerun from the beginning, the end result would be wildly different (meaning we humans most likely wouldn’t be around to notice that). McFarland argues that Gould may have a point in a very narrow sense, but is incorrec... Read More

Doomstar: Hamilton goes out like a pro

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Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton

As I have mentioned elsewhere, sci-fi pulpmaster Edmond Hamilton, during the early decades of his career, destroyed so many planets in his stories that he managed to acquire for himself the nickname “World Wrecker.” But in his final novel, Doomstar, the destruction of a mere planet seemed to be small potatoes for the Ohio-born author, and nothing less than the death — or, in this case, the poisoning — of a solar body would suffice! Doomstar was initially released as a 50-cent Belmont paperback in January 1966, almost 40 years after Hamilton’s first story had appeared in Weird Tales magazine. (I was fortunate enough to acquire the 1969 Belmont paperback, also with a cover price of 50 cents.) Hamilton was 62 when he... Read More

Archangel: A grand sweeping love story

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Reposting to include Kelly's new review.

Archangel by Sharon Shinn

Gabriel is about to become Archangel. He is required to lead the annual singing of the Gloria on the Plains of Sharon in just a few months with his wife, the angelica, at his side. There is just one problem: Gabriel isn’t married. Faced with this dilemma, he goes to the oracle to find out who he is supposed to marry, and is given the name of a woman, Rachel, but he has no idea where to find her. With the months slipping away before his voice raised in song is the only thing that can turn away the wrath of the god Jovah, he crisscrosses the land, and finally locates her — an Edori slave girl who has no intention of marrying an angel and spending her life in a different type of servitude. To make matters worse, the current Archangel, Raphael, seem... Read More