SFF Reviews

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Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks

I am giving Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks my highest recommendation with one qualification: Unless you are easily offended by depictions of male sexual fantasies—even those written and depicted in order to critique those fantasies—then you should read this book. Without a doubt, Dylan Horrocks has written and drawn a five-star graphic novel. The book offers various answers to this question: What is the nature of fantasy? In doing so, Horrocks considers fantasy from a variety of angles, so the book is not solely about sex.

The story is about a fictional comic book author Sam Zabel and his travels inside the worlds of v... 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

Speak Easy: Dark, scintillating Jazz Age fairy tale

Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

I held off on reading Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente for a few weeks after it arrived because I knew once I started reading it, I’d want to do nothing else. When you look at the novella, this doesn’t seem like such a big problem. The advanced reader’s copy is a slim volume, thinner than my pinky finger (the signed limited-edition volumes for sale at Subterranean Press might be bigger; they are hardcovers, bound in cloth). But take a peek into the first page of Valente’s novella, and you get a sense of the denseness and beauty of her language:
There's this ragamuffin city out east, you follow? Sitting pretty with a river on each arm, lit up in her gladdest rags since 1624. She'll tell you she's seen it all, boy howdy, the deep down and the high up, champagne and syphili... 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

Halt’s Peril: Not much plot, like middle WOT

Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan

Halt’s Peril is the ninth book in John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series. It’s a direct sequel to the eighth book, The Kings of Clonmel, in which we learned Halt’s backstory while he, Will and Horace attempted to save the country of Clonmel from Tennyson, a cult leader who was planning a coup. They did manage to save Clonmel, but now Tennyson and his followers have left the country and our heroes suspect that they are on their way to Araluen with similar intentions. So, naturally, they plan to track down the bad guys and stop them before they can bring grief to Araluen. During the process, however, Halt receives a life-threatening injury. Will has to make a long detour to seek help for Halt.

To get straight to the point, Read More

The Queen of Attolia: Third time’s the charm

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen TurnerMegan 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, cool, exciting thi... Read More

Unnatural Issue: Great premise executed poorly

Unnatural Issue by Mercedes Lackey

All of Mercedes Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS novels are stand-alone retellings of fairy tales from around the world. Unnatural Issue (2011) is Lackey’s adaption of Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin,” a more obscure French tale from 1695 about a king who wanted to marry his daughter. In Lackey’s version, this king is an Earth Mage named Richard Whitestone, a country squire who was devastated by his beautiful wife’s death 20 years ago. When his daughter Suzanne, who he’s never met, grows up to look just like his wife, Whitestone notices her and decides to use necromantic arts to have his wife’s spirit displace his daughter’s in Susanne’s body. Fortunately, Suzanne has some powers of her own because she’s been trained as an Earth Mage by Robin Goodfellow. When she figures out t... Read More

The World Inside: High-Rise living in 2381

The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

In Robert Silverberg's 1970 novel Tower of Glass, obsessed business magnate Simeon Krug builds a 1,500-meter-high structure to enable him to communicate with the stars, and since 1,500 meters is roughly equal to 4,500 feet, or more than three Empire State Buildings, the reader is suitably impressed. But the following year, in his novel The World Inside, Silverberg wrote of a group of buildings that make Krug's structure look like a pip-squeak. This was just one of four major sci-fi novels released by Silverberg in 1971, the others being The Second Trip, Son of Man and A Time of Changes (all of which I have previously written of here on FanLit). The Read More

Working for Bigfoot: Three DRESDEN FILES novellas

Working for Bigfoot: Stories From the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Most DRESDEN FILES fans probably didn’t know that one of Harry’s occasional clients is a Bigfoot named Strength of a River in His Shoulders. River has a half-human son named Irwin Pounder whom he has never met. Whenever River senses that Irwin needs help, he calls Harry Dresden, wizard for hire. So, in Working for Bigfoot, Jim Butcher gives us three novellas about three cases that Harry has worked for River. This is a welcome addition to the DRESDEN FILES, as fans wait for the next novel-length installment. It would also be a great introduction to Harry for those who aren’t familiar with Chicago’s greatest wizard.

In the first story, “B is for Bigfoot,” we witness the first meeting between Harry and River... Read More

Finches of Mars: Flat, boring characters and narrative

Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss

It was with mixed feelings that I picked up Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss. On the one hand, I had fond memories of being introduced to his short stories via my father's book collection. And fond memories too of reading, much later, his HELLICONIA series and his history of science fiction. On the other hand, I'd read that Finches of Mars was to be his "last novel," and I've had some poor luck with those in the past. Unfortunately, that bad luck held true and though it pains me to write, given the circumstances, Finches of Mars was one of the worst reads I've had in a while. As usual in these cases, this will therefore be a relatively brief review.

The novel is set mostly on Mars, in a future where a consorti... Read More

The Secret Life of Wonder Woman: Weirder than I ever could have imagined

The Secret Life of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore has reissued The Secret Life of Wonder Woman, her fascinating non-fiction look at the creator of Wonder Woman, with a revised Afterword that includes information from some new sources. The book is part scholarly work, part Wonder Woman archive and part scandal sheet. Non-fiction is usually pretty slow going for me, but I couldn’t put this book down.

Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, part of All-Star Comics, a subset of Detective Comics, which was later shortened to DC. In her time she was the third most popular superhero, up there with Superman and Batman. She was a feminist icon, a beacon of strength and hope for young girls. She was a cheerleader of the war effort, encouraging women to join the WAACS and WAVES. She was reviled by critics as anti-feminine, fascist and racist. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was a femin... Read More

Hothouse: Fertile and bizarre plant life, but human characters are pretty wooden

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

Yeah, Brian W. AldissHothouse (1962) was definitely written with some chemical assistance. Maybe some LSD-spiked vegetable juice? It may have been written as a set of five short stories in 1961, but it’s a timeless and bizarre story of a million years in the future when the plants have completely taken over the planet, which has stopped rotating, and humans are little green creatures hustling to avoid becoming plant food.

There are hundreds of fearsome carnivorous plants that would love to eat human morsels, but will gladly settle for eating each other instead. As the planet has come to a stop, a massive banyan tree now covers the sunny-side of the planet, with all other plants surviving in its shade. But there are gargantuan plant-based spiders called traversers who dwell above the plant layer and actually spin webs across space to the moon and other pla... Read More

“Thief:” Gen’s childhood escapades

“Thief!” by Megan Whalen Turner

Readers who (like me) are fond of Megan Whalen Turner’s THE QUEEN’S THIEF fantasy series, and who mourn the length of time between publication of her novels, can ease their pain just a little with the short story “Thief!,” originally published in August 2000 in Disney Adventures Magazine and now posted on her website. “Thief!” is a prequel to The Thief, the first book in this series. It’s a brief adventure in the life of young Gen, who begins to develop his thieving abilities at a young age. As readers of the series are aware, Gen’s childhood was marked by frequent run-ins with his numerous cousins. Young Gen has stolen some valuable gold, c... Read More

The Kings of Clonmel: Another adventure for Flanagan’s superheroes

The Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan

The Kings of Clonmel, the eighth book in John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series, begins a new story arc that occurs after the events of book six, The Siege of Macindaw. (Book seven, Erak’s Ransom, went back in time a bit.) For the best experience, you’ll want to read all the previous books before beginning this one. Book nine, Halt’s Peril, is a direct sequel to The Kings of Clonmel.

As the story begins, Will, now a full-fledged Ranger, is at the annual Rangers meeting, overseeing the testing of other apprentices. During this process he is amazed to discover that some of his past exploits, such as the siege of Castle Macindaw, are being used in testing exercises... Read More

Horrible Monday: Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

"To believe in one's dreams is to spend all of one's life asleep." – Chinese proverb

"Every city is a ghost." – Opening line of Lair of Dreams

Dreams become traps and deadly nightmares in Lair of Dreams, the second installation in Libba Bray’s DIVINERS fantasy horror series. In 1927, a crew of men is opening up an old walled-off tunnel underneath the streets of New York City in order to build a new subway tunnel. The workers find a desiccated body in a walled-off area. Soon the men begin to die of a mysterious sleeping sickness, where the afflicted cannot be awakened and die after a few days. The sickness is blamed on Chinese immigrants, but really it attacks people regardless of age or race.

Lair o... Read More

The Good, the Bad, and the Smug: Daring to disturb the universe

The Good, the Bad, and the Smug by Tom Holt

The Good, the Bad, and the Smug is the fourth novel in Tom Holt’s YOUSPACE series, following in the footsteps of Doughnut, When It’s a Jar, and The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice. Like those previous books, this one can be read as a stand-alone; there were recurring characters and running jokes which were enjoyable to this first-time reader, but which I suspect would have made more sense had I been more familiar with the rest of the series. Still, The Good, the Bad, and the Smug is a very pleasant way to spend a few afternoons.

Goblin King Mordak is shaking up the status quo with his kinder, more socialist, “humanitarian” brand of evil. (Working title:... Read More

The Unnoticeables: Inventive, disturbing, funny and a little sparse

The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway

There was a lot I liked in Robert Brockway’s urban fantasy novel The Unnoticeables. Starting with the most superficial elements first, I loved this cover. Tor went ironic, giving The Unnoticeables a highly noticeable cover. It’s venom green, a mashup of gearwheel-eyed killer clowns, fractals, figure-ground images and spiky-Mohawked punks. It’s disturbing and kind of funny, thus the perfect cover for Brockways’s novel. The Unnoticeables is the first in a series.

The core idea of The Unnoticeables is inventive and scary. Beings of light called “angels” regulate the universe by reallocating energy. Angels are generally unhappy with how inefficiently humans utilize energy, due to our cumbersome program coding (for “coding” read “selves”). Angels really like to... Read More

City of the Chasch: Finally! PLANET OF ADVENTURE on audio!

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance

City of the Chasch (1968) is the first book in Jack Vance’s PLANET OF ADVENTURE series. I’m so excited that Blackstone Audio is finally getting these produced in audio format! City of the Chasch was just released a few weeks ago and the following books, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, and The Pnume, will be released in the next three months (one per month).

In this first book we meet Adam Reith, a scout on a spaceship that traveled from Earth to the planet Carina 4269 from which some sort of signal has been detected. When Adam is sent out on a shuttle to reconnoiter the planet, the spaceship and its crew is shot down and Adam crash-lands, leaving him alone an... Read More

Starlight: The Return of Duke McQueen by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov

Starlight: The Return of Duke McQueen by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov

Without a doubt, Starlight: The Return of Duke McQueen is my favorite comic book by Mark Millar. Any fan of pulp science fiction will want to read this book. It is told well, is full of wonder, and is simply delightful. Starlight both invokes and honors older science fiction stories that have as their primary aim the hope of instilling astonishment in readers as they flip quickly through the pages to find out about the hero’s adventures in space. And in Starlight, we take joy in Duke McQueen’s tale, both devouring the pages and never wanting it to end.

The ma... Read More

MPH by Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo

MPH by Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo

Mark Millar knows how to tell a story, how to hook us with a plot, how to pace the events so that we feel as if we are in that perfect summer blockbuster we yearn for every year. He’s done it again in MPH, which he wrote with his co-creator and artist Duncan Fegredo and letterer and colorist Peter Doherty. I made the mistake of starting this story at midnight, and I could not put it down until I was done. I completely lost track of time.

MPH is the story of Roscoe, a young man with a vision and hope springing eternal, even though he’s a poor black man living a life with few legal opportunities in a physically and ec... Read More

The Price of Valor: Wexler’s strongest work so far

The Price of Valor by Django Wexler

Warning: May contain mild spoilers for the preceding books.

If The Shadow Throne combined war and politics, the amalgam of these elements Django Wexler presents in The Price of Valor is much more effective and well-balanced. The latest installment in THE SHADOW CAMPAIGNS, The Price of Valor sees our protagonists battle both militarily and politically for Vordan’s freedom. After the Sworn Church persuaded the nations of the world to declare war on Vordan, Vordan finds itself in an unenviable position — strained both in terms of finances and troops, with an unstable domestic political arena to boot! Though Janus is securing the border on one front, Vordan’s nemeses are closing in on another as Queen Raesini... Read More

Alanna: The First Adventure: Swords, sorcery, and fun

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Alanna: The First Adventure is, indeed, the first volume of well-known fantasy author Tamora Pierce’s four-book series THE SONG OF THE LIONESS. First published back in the 1980s, the quartet was remarkable in many ways, tackling issues like gender roles, cultural tensions, self-determination, and inherited versus achieved power. Written at a time when “young adult” didn’t exist as a genre and feisty teenage girls couldn’t find much positive representation in mainstream fantasy, the series laid out many of the familiar paths and tropes of what has become modern YA fantasy. Since I’ve read a lot of novels influenced by Pierce’s work, the series’ 2014 hardcover re-release and their attending Author Afterwords was rather like following a river back to its ... Read More

Erak’s Ransom: Goes back in time

Erak’s Ransom by John Flanagan

Erak’s Ransom is the seventh book in John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series, but chronologically its story occurs after the events of book four, The Battle for Skandia. I would recommend reading Erak’s Ransom after book four and before you read books five and six (The Sorcerer of the North and The Siege of Macindaw). Since I had already read those stories and knew what happened to the characters, it reduced some of the tension. This review will contain spoilers for books one through four.

Will, Halt, Horace and Princess Cassandra are back from overseas after helping Skandia, their former enemy, defeat a common foe. They help broker a peace with Erak, Skandia’s new Ob... Read More

Cold Burn of Magic: Power struggles in the magical Mafia

Cold Burn of Magic by Jennifer Estep

In Jennifer Estep’s Cold Burn of Magic, a 2015 young adult fantasy novel and the first book in her BLACK BLADE urban fantasy series, the world is divided into mortals and magicks, humans who have some type of magical power. The southern U.S. town of Cloudburst Falls, a hotbed of magical power, caters to tourists who want to see magical people and creatures. It’s reminiscent of Harry Potter World, except that it contains real magic, including pixies who are household servants and monsters like the aptly named lochnesses, who lurk under bridges and require a toll of jewelry or money from all who pass over their bridges. Cloudburst Falls is controlled by mafia-like families with powerful magical abilities, particularly the Draconi and Sinclair Families.

Lila,... Read More

The Siege of Macindaw: Fans won’t care about the flaws

The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan

This review will contain a few plot spoilers for previous books in the series.

The Siege of Macindaw is book six of John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series and it’s a direct sequel to the previous book, The Sorcerer of the North. When we left Will at the end of that book, his girlfriend Alyss had been captured and imprisoned in Castle Macindaw by a man who has allied himself with the Scotti, invaders from the north who plan to use the castle to get a toe-hold in Araluen. Now Will must use all his wits and resources to get Alyss out of the castle while saving his country from the Scotti invaders.

The solution to Will’s problem seemed obvious to me right from the start, so the plot of The Siege of Macindaw Read More