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Piranesi: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable” indeed

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was going to start this review of Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke by stating that I was of two minds on the novel and then noting that this was both appropriate and also strong praise. Appropriate because the book is in many ways of the mind, and is as well of two worlds. Strong praise because my two minds were “I loved it” followed by “I liked it.” But then I thought more about it, and I decided my minds were really “I loved it,” “I liked it,” then “I loved it” again. But I could work with that, because really, the book functions on more than two levels. But then I thought about my reading some more, and I decided that my mind now was simply, singularly, “it’s brilliant.” Which is still, granted, strong praise, but no longer neatly appropriate. Worse, it’s also dully predictable. Becau... Read More

The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern's eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of 'Rêveurs' – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a... Read More

Lovecraft Country: Here there be monsters

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

If the recent television adaptation of Lovecraft Country (2017) is anything like the source material, I think I’m going to enjoy it immensely. Matt Ruff’s novel of interconnected tales is well-written, compelling, horrifying (all the more so because the Lovecraftian horrors experienced by the novel’s African-American characters are not that much worse than the everyday evil of Jim Crow-era America), insightful, and, at times, even funny.

Korean War veteran Atticus Turner, a fan of pulpy sci-fi and horror novels written by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Read More

In the Shadows of Men: The ghosts are the least horrific element here

In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett has become one of my must-read authors, a view arising from his brilliant DIVINE CITIES trilogy and only confirmed by his nearly as brilliant THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY. Both are fantasy works, but Bennett also turns his craft toward horror as well, and that craft is indeed evident in his newest novella, In the Shadows of Men (2020), a taut, concise work that unnerves in more ways than one.

The brothers Pugh — one our unnamed narrator, the other his older brother Bear — are near the end of their line. For the youngest, it’s been “thirty-nine days since my wife left and she packed our little girl into her car and said she couldn’t stand it anymore, she just wanted to go someplace where everything was... Read More

Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola: For All Frankenstein Fans

Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola (author) and Ben Stenbeck (artist)

One of the best books in the wider Hellboy Universe, Frankenstein Underground takes the famous literary monster and places him in a battle for light against darkness. This book is one of my favorite comics I have read recently. Frankenstein’s monster seems to have a patchy memory, and other than recalling random events here and there, he only remembers one name — Frankenstein — which he thinks is his own. In the opening scene, “Frankenstein” is on the run, as he has been throughout his long life. The comic book shows Frankenstein throughout the years as he has been chased in many different areas of the world. But in this most recent chase, he enters a cave and encounters a witch of sorts who heals and comforts him. The five-issue story will come full circle, from physical healing to spiritual healing, but there are many dire events tha... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 9): 1946: The Early Years of the B.P.R.D.

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 9): 1946 by Mike Mignola (writer), Joshua Dysart (writer), Paul Azaceta (artist), Nick Filardi (colors), Clem Robins (letters)

Hellboy first appeared in 1944, a result of German paranormal experiments. B.P.R.D. (Vol. 9): 1946 takes place two years later, when Hellboy's father figure, Trevor Bruttenholm, takes a trip to Berlin on the part of the two-year-old B.P.R.D. He wants to investigate the paranormal work the Germans were doing during the war, but the Russians have arrived first, claiming all the artifacts and papers that Trevor wants to examine. He goes to the Russians to ask for cooperation, and he meets the young, mysterious Varvara, who is in charge of the Russian operations even though she looks only twelve-years-old. She has uncanny knowledge, and she seems to know Trevor's thoughts before he speaks. And she knows of his young ward, Hellboy. She will play a major role in what is happening in the... Read More

Living on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall

Living on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall by Rob Collins

Living on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall (2020) is a lavishly illustrated glimpse at the daily lives of soldiers and others who lived in and along Hadrian’s Wall during the several centuries it was occupied by the Romans. While there are more academic works available, this is an excellent read for non-researchers or for those who might want an introduction to more difficult, comprehensive works; say, a writer planning on setting a story in Roman Britain.

Following the introduction, Collins divides the book into eight sections: the makeup of the communities and homes, dress, food and drink, weapons and armor, daily business and entertainment, religious beliefs, “unknowns” (more on this later), and the post-Roman years of the wall. As noted, the book is chock-full of photographs illu... Read More

Gideon the Ninth: Macabre & original

Reposting to include Tim's new review.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Necromancers and their sword-fighting cavaliers star in Gideon the Ninth (2019), Tamsyn Muir’s radically original debut novel, which has been nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award. This science fantasy novel, steeped in an atmosphere of decay and decrepitude, is a mix of space opera and a gruesome treasure hunt that takes place in a spooky, crumbling castle. At the same time, it’s set in an interstellar empire consisting of nine planets, each one ruled by a different House of necromancers.

Eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav is trying to escape her forced servitude in the particularly moribund Ninth House, where she’s surrounded by living skeletons and corpses and near-dead nobles and nuns who pray on knucklebones. Gideon’s escape plan involves sneaking off the entire Ninth planet in a space shut... Read More

Red Mantle: Finishes an excellent trilogy on a high note

Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff

Maria Turtschaninoff’s Maresi told the story of the Red Abbey — a feminist, goddess-worshipping sanctuary for women — and the young novice whose special powers helped her save it from invaders. The sequel, Naondel, was really a prequel, going back to the founders of the Abbey and explaining how they came together to form it. Red Mantle (2018), the conclusion of the RED ABBEY CHRONICLES series, returns to Maresi, the heroine of the first book, as she enters young womanhood and ventures into the world beyond the isle of Menos.

Red Mantle is an epistolary novel, told through Maresi’s letters home to the Abbey. This structure works well, giving the ... Read More

Desdemona and the Deep: “The bright-winged, the beautiful, the bizarre”

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney

Desdemona and the Deep (2019) is C.S.E. Cooney’s third novella in the DARK BREAKERS series, but is a self-contained story that can stand alone. A finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novella, Desdemona and the Deep is a dreamy, sensual trip through the otherworlds. I’ll let Cooney set the scene:
Four stories above the Grand Foyer of the Seafall City Opera House, each painted panel in the barrel-vaulted ceiling depicted a scene from one of the three worlds. Which world it happened to be depended on the tint and tone of the panel: daylight was for Athe, the world of mortals; twilight represented the Valwode, where the gentry dwelled; and midnight belonged to Bana the Bone Kingdom, home to all the koboldkin. Through these wheeling coffers of world... Read More

Odd John: Lo And Behold!

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

Just recently, I had some words to say regarding Olaf Stapledon’s superlative novel entitled Sirius (1944), which featured as its protagonist a German shepherd/border collie mix who, thanks to his owner’s experiments in genetic engineering and hormonal supplements, winds up a canine with the mentality of a human genius. It was the first book that I had experienced by this British author, and I loved it so much that I immediately began reading an earlier Stapledon novel, Odd John (1935), which can happily be found in the same 1972 Dover edition as the 1944 work.

As it turns out, the two make for a supremely well-matched double feature, as Odd John also deals with the subje... Read More

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 4: Fortress Vader: The construction of Vader’s base

Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 4: Fortress Vader by Charles Soule & Giuseppe Camuncoli

Have you ever wondered as to how Darth Vader came to have a giant castle on Mustafar, the planet where he was left to die by Obi-Wan Kenobi before Emperor Palpatine gave him his cybernetic body? I mean, it seems a really weird place to have your headquarters, right?

Charles Soule has clearly wondered that too, and like most of the questions raised throughout this Vader-centric series, he supplies some pretty satisfying answers in Dark Lord of the Sith Vol. 4: Fortress Vader. Vader's castle was glimpsed only briefly in Rogue One (and at the time of this review, the films have yet to return to it) but it was a striking image that immediately threw up a ton of possibilities as to what Sith Lords get up to on their days off... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 7): Garden of Souls: Abe Sapien’s Mission

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 7): Garden of Souls by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D.: Garden of Souls starts in London in 1859 at the scene of a mummy “unrolling.” Langdon Caul puts in an appearance, and as those who have been reading the B.P.R.D. series up to this point know, Abe Sapien and Caul are the same person, so the presence of Caul is central to the overall story. And the mummy’s unrolling leads to quite a surprise . . .

In the present of the story, we check in with the main B.P.R.D. team: Daimio is receiving a mysterious treatment privately in his room. Liz seems unable to connect with anyone, though she tries, first with Abe and then with Kate. Kate is healing from the events of the last volume, and Abe is still haunted by his past and refuses to discuss it, even when Liz asks directly about it. Johann continues h... Read More

Conjure Women: Beautifully written, hard-hitting

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Conjure Women (2020) by Afia Atakora is a first novel that I can hardly believe is a first novel. It’s a beautifully written, hard-hitting story of an African American healer just before and just after the end of slavery in the US. It’s not a fantasy novel, but I’m reviewing it here at FanLit because it has a few magical realist elements, and because it’s in part about magic, and people’s belief in magic, even when none is actually taking place.

In 1867, Rue is respected as the healer, midwife, and conjure woman in the little town that grew up in the former slave quarters. She feels, though, that she’ll never be as good at it as her late mother, May Belle. Rue doesn’t actually have magical powers — instead, she has medical and herbal knowledge that she presents as magic because that’s what people expect. She keeps some other secrets... Read More

Sirius: The brainiest canine in all literature

Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

For all those folks out there who hold conversations with their pet dog and know for certain that Fido/Fifi understands every word; for those who have gotten a tad “verklempt” at the conclusion of such novels as The Call of the Wild and Old Yeller; for people who believe that canines just cannot get any smarter than Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Benji, all of whom starred in innumerable motion pictures; and, well, really, for anybody with a soft spot in his or her heart for man’s best friend, have I got a book for you! That book is none other than British philosopher/author Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, which, as I write these words, is in the running to win a Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1944. Originally released as a hardcover volume by the English pu... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 6): The Universal Machine: The Collector’s Shop

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 6): The Universal Machine by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Steward (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

In B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine, the team is still reeling from the death of Roger, and given the difference between Hellboy stories and mainstream DC and Marvel comics, we have every reason to believe that Roger will stay dead, even though Johann keeps claiming that he is still alive. We still have the core team minus Roger: Liz, Abe, Johann, and Daimio, the most recent addition to the team and their appointed leader in the field under the direction of Kate Corrigan who now usually works from home base in the new B.P.R.D. headquarters.

In this arc, we see Johann and Daimio becoming a main focus and are more fully fleshed out as characters. Johann and Liz try to get Daimio to tell the story of how he died and came back to life three days later. He... Read More

Utopia Avenue: Playing in the band

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

If you’re a fan of David Mitchell (I am) and think five years is way too long to go without a Mitchell novel (I do), you’ll probably eat up his latest, Utopia Avenue (I scarfed it down in two sittings). If you love music (yep) and are particularly a fan of the incredibly fertile 1960s music scene in both England and America (check), you’ll almost certainly absolutely revel in the novel (revelry was had). If you enjoy vivid characterization, crisp natural-sounding dialogue, multiple character POVs that sound utterly distinctive, and master craftsperson use of language via word choice, syntax, allusion, etc., (yes, yes, yes, and yes), then your readerly love of great writing will most likely be fully sated (it was). Utopia Avenue (2020) isn’t my favorite or most ad... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 5): The Black Flame: Echoes of Lovecraft

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 5): The Black Flame by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D.: The Black Flame is another great entry in the B.P.R.D. series. This volume opens up with a board meeting at a company called Zinco. We are quickly led to see they are a company unlike any other: In the basement, they are running tests on and trying to communicate with frog creatures. Upstairs off of the boardroom is a secret chamber hiding the CEO’s secret Nazi memorabilia. Zinco will have an important part to play in upcoming events.

Back at the new B.P.R.D. headquarters, we find out that Abe is no longer working in the field even though Kate keeps asking him to do so. Abe remains haunted by his past life, which he uncovered in volumes three and four. Meanwhile, in Western British Columbia, the B.P.R.D. team is hunting frog monsters in a snowy... Read More

The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A literary puzzle-box

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Cleric Chih and their hoopoe, Almost Brilliant, are on a journey to the capital — both to view the next month’s impending eclipse and to be present at “the new empress’ Dragon Court” — and along the way, the two make a stop at Lake Scarlet, where an old woman invites the pair to stay and catalogue, for the first time, the treasures held there. Chih soon discovers that the old woman, named Rabbit, has a fair number of stories to tell as well: stories of The Empress of Salt and Fortune, who came from the mammoth-filled north and wielded great power despite her exile, eventually changing the Ahn empire forever.

Nghi Vo’s debut novella is painstakingly crafted, slowly teasing out crucial information with richly-layered and gorgeous prose. The method by which the story of Empress In-yo is told echoes the ways in ... Read More

The Ascent to Godhood: A powerful ending to a groundbreaking series

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang

The Ascent to Godhood (2019) is the fourth and final novella in JY Yang’s TENSORATE series. It’s a finalist for the Locus Award in the Novella category — something that doesn’t surprise me at all. This series is a rollercoaster of deeply emotional stories with a rich and varied setting.

As the final installment, The Ascent to Godhood had to somehow tie together the threads of the other stories. I think it delivers on this spectacularly by giving the reader another new format for the series that focuses on a compellingly unlikely protagonist whose life has bisected the story thus far in surprising ways.

I loved how this novella, through a narrative that stays very close to one key character, not so much reveals the missing ... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 4): The Dead: The B.P.R.D. Relocates

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 4): The Dead by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D.: The Dead is the second main arc of the B.P.R.D. series since the first two volumes were collections of short stories. The Dead advances the plot started in B.P.R.D. (Vol. 2): Plague of Frogs. In this volume, we find out that the frog cults continue to spread, moving quickly and resulting in the deaths of many people. The B.P.R.D. so far has not had any luck in stopping them. While Roger, Liz, and Johann are back at the bureau worrying about the frog monsters, Abe and Kate go in search of the history of the man Abe saw in his vision in the fifth, and last, issue of Plague of Frogs. In doing so, they uncover more of Abe’s past, another tie to the first Hellboy storyline, and a haunted house.... Read More

Lysbeth: Dutch Treat

Lysbeth by H. Rider Haggard

In the summer of 1897, English author H. Rider Haggard took a short vacation in Holland, and just as his winter holiday to the Holy Land in 1900 would inspire him to pen no fewer than three works — the nonfiction book A Winter Pilgrimage (1901), Pearl-Maiden (1903) and The Brethren (1904) — this sojourn to the land of the Dutch would also bear literary fruit. Thus, in 1899, Haggard began writing his new novel, provisionally entitled The Secret of Sword Silence. By the time this tale of the Dutch first appeared in The Graphic (a British weekly newspaper, in existence from 1869 to 1932, that dealt with news items of the day, as well as the arts, s... Read More

The B.P.R.D. (Vol. 3): Plague of Frogs: The Hellboy Mythos Grows

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 3): Plague of Frogs by Mike Mignola (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

The B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs is the first extended B.P.R.D. volume since the first two volumes were collections of short stories. Plague of Frogs is a five-issue mini-series. The comic book opens with bloodshed: One scientist visits another to see the fast-growing fungus being watched at a facility. The visiting scientist, out of the blue, shoots the other man in the back, claiming that "the Master commands." Security guards enter and shoot him.

Quite a dramatic opening for an excellent B.P.R.D. story. After this violent start, the comic shifts focus to Abe Sapien who is dreaming of being under the ocean watching an endless flow of dead bodies. We are given the impression that this is a dark premonition. He is still disturbed by the bad dream when he ... Read More

Pet: The human meets the divine, and both are changed

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

“There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.” The city of Lucille is a utopia. A generation ago, a resistance toppled all the monsters — monsters in this case meaning people: unjust politicians, bigots, predators. The leaders of the revolution are now called “angels” and are revered as elders. Jam is a teenage girl growing up in Lucille, and she appreciates the better world the angels built; as a black trans girl, she knows the world that came before would not have been as welcoming to her. But she still has questions that her teachers are hesitant to answer.

Jam’s life changes when she accidentally brings to life a strange, feathered creature from one of her mother’s paintings. The creature tells Jam to call it Pet, and that it is here to hunt a monster. The monster, Pet says, lives in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Jam’s parents insist that Pet must be mistaken, because t... Read More

A Skinful of Shadows: A captivating read

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Here in the UK, Frances Hardinge is everywhere. Her new book, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), was plastered all over the London underground in the run-up to its publication, thrusting Hardinge into the mainstream.

I heard Hardinge talk about A Skinful of Shadows at a local bookshop and she admitted that she’d felt some pressure when writing. I can’t help wonder if this pressure somehow seeped into the novel as she wrote.

Like all of her books, A Skinful of Shadows is an adventure. There’s a plucky heroine, plenty of ghastly enemies and best of all, murderous ghosts. But the story lacked the originality of her previous work and felt alto... Read More