SFF Reviews

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Troika: Russian cosmonauts explore a BDO

Troika by Alastair Reynolds

Troika is a stand-alone hard science fiction novella that was first published in the 2010 anthology Godlike Machines edited by Jonathan Strahan. In 2011 it was published on its own by Subterranean Press. The story is Alastair Reynolds’ take on the Big Dumb Object trope.

In Reynolds’ future, Russia is the world’s only major superpower and has sent three cosmonauts to examine an alien object, which they call the Matryoshka, which has arrived in Earth’s solar system through a wormhole. The story takes place years after the cosmonauts return and one has escaped the mental institution he’s been imprisoned in to visit the female astronomer who was part of their crew and now lives in poverty. Through their conversation, a... Read More

Red Queen: Reads like a YA lucky dip

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen reads a little like a YA lucky dip. You get the feeling that Victoria Aveyard just chucked a list of YA clichés into a bag and picked them out blindfolded. Katniss, sorry, Mare Barrow is a “Red”, which makes her a lower class of citizen compared to the “Silvers” who govern the world. But... isn’t that exactly the concept behind the “Reds” in Red Rising? And wasn’t the protagonist of that YA mega-franchise called Darrow? Sort-of-almost-exactly-the-same-as Barrow? Hmm, there is something fishy going on here...

So Mare Barrow is seventeen and about to be sent off to war, because that’s what usually happens in these dystopias. The Silvers are needlessly wasting thousands of Red lives — though why they’re fighting a war... Read More

The Ship: A sinister, watery utopia

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Lalla has never had a real apple before. She’s eaten tinned apple and dried apple and apple preserve, but never a real apple. This is because sixteen-year-old Lalla is born at the end of the world, in a London where Big Ben is underwater and Regents Park is nothing but a tent city of homeless people and the British Museum is shelter to the starving masses of a dying civilisation. But Lalla’s father has a solution to the destitution her family face. The prospect of The Ship has taken on a mythical quality in Lalla’s life, as she’s heard her parents planning and arguing over it for most of her childhood, and as society teeters on the brink of collapse, the time has finally come to board the legendary vessel.

The Ship consists of 500 hundred lucky souls that her father has personally selected for his new society, though his selection process is not initially clear. On board, Lalla is astounded to... Read More

The Pool of Fire: Wraps up the TRIPODS trilogy

The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

The Pool of Fire is the third book in John Christopher’s TRIPODS dystopian series for children. If you haven’t yet read The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead, you need to go back and read those first. (And expect mild spoilers for those previous books in this review.)

At the end of The City of Gold and Lead, Will had escaped from the Masters and was heading back to the rebels in the White Mountains with the important knowledge he gained while he was a slave. In The Pool of Fire, the rebels are using Will’s intelligence to plan a way to defeat the Masters. The scientists and engineers, who are starting to re-learn some of the “ancient”... Read More

Dragon Bones: Despite falling short at times, still an entertaining read

Dragons Bones by Patricia Briggs

Dragon Bones is the first book in Patricia Briggs’ HUROG duology. Ward, our main character, has lived the past seven years of his life playing the role of a simpleton, ever since his father nearly beat him to death. His pretending has kept him alive all these years, but when his father dies in a hunting accident Ward is suddenly declared the heir of Hurog. He now has to convince his remaining family and friends that he has what it takes to rule Hurog, while also keeping his eyes on the threat posed by his uncle, who he isn’t sure he can trust.

Although I’m a big fan of Briggs’ MERCY THOMPSON books, I often find myself wishing she would return to the high fantasy novels she produced earlier in her writing career. Dragon Bones and its sequel aren’t my favorite of her earlier works (in my opinion the later... Read More

SFM: Howey, Yeh, Bolander, Ford, Sullivan, Smith

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we've recently read that we wanted you to know about.



“Peace in Amber” by Hugh Howey (2014, $1.99 Kindle, $3.95 Audible)

“Peace in Amber” is Hugh Howey’s tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a surrealistic novel in which Vonnegut explores his personal memories of the bombing of Dresden. Like Slaughterhouse-Five, “Peace in Amber” is also a personal reflection: Hugh Howey’s experiences on September 11, 2001, when he witnessed the collapse of the Wor... Read More

Zero K: I’ll take a second-tier DeLillo any year

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo, I’ve found, is one of those authors that splits readers down the middle. For myself, I definitely and whole-heartedly fall into the fan camp, with White Noise and Underworld being two of my favorite all-time novels, and Mao II and Libra not far behind. His newest, Zero K, doesn’t rise to their level (most novels don’t), but it is still classic DeLillo, filled with great sentences, dialog that sounds less like real people talking and more like a pair of students work-shopping their dissertations (one of the reasons he tends to split readers), cool musings on the intersection of technology and modern culture, and explorations of wealth, violent (almost apocalyptic) events, the modern senses of dislocation and isolation, the impact of media, and (a true DeLillo st... Read More

Camouflage: Species meets The Abyss

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

How did Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage beat Susanna Clarke’s monumental work Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for the Nebula Award in 2005? Granted, I haven’t read that book, but I have read many glowing reviews from my fellow FanLit reviewers and Goodreads friends. It was also made into a major BBC miniseries and received many accolades. Clarke’s book is incredibly long and filled with dense footnotes that show the depth of research and creative energy, perhaps too much for some readers but showing great effort on the author’s part. It is a major literary work of speculative fiction, and won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, and was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize and... Read More

The City of Gold and Lead: Will infiltrates the Tripod city

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher

This is the second book in John Christopher’s TRIPODS series, one of (if not THE) first dystopian series for children. If you haven’t read The White Mountains yet, you should start there first, though there is a short recap in this instalment.

At the end of The White Mountains, the boys Will, Henry, and Beanpole had fled their towns because they didn’t want to be “capped” by the alien Tripods who had conquered Earth and turned humanity into docile sheep. After much adventure, the boys finally arrived at the rebel base in the White Mountains where they’ve been learning and training for a year. The rebels are not content to just hide out. They hope to overthrow the Tripods and restore humanity to its rightful place as Earth’s ruler.

To do this, they’ll need information. Th... Read More

Injustice: Gods Among Us (Year One, Volume One) by Tom Taylor

Injustice: Gods Among Us (Year One, Volume One) by Tom Taylor

DC often puts out comic books that are connected to their video games, and I generally ignore them because 1. I don’t play video games because they give me migraines and 2. Most video game-related comics are just not that good. However, I started hearing a lot of good things about Tom Taylor’s Injustice: Gods Among Us, so I gave it a chance. It turns out, all that was said about Injustice is true, and apparently, it just keeps getting better after this first volume. So far, they’ve put out seven trade collections of Injustice: Year One (Volumes One and Two), Year Two (Volumes One and Two), Year ... Read More

The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House

The Sandman (Vol 2): The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman (author), Illustrated by Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, & Steve Parkhouse, Todd Klein (letterer) 

"If you leaf through the series, you'll find either an image of a heart or the word HEART in virtually every issue. Hearts are a major part of what Sandman is about."     ~Neil Gaiman (interview with Hy Bender)

Gaiman's words should be kept in mind as one continues to read what is essentially a horror comic. As we peer into the abyss, Gaiman makes sure we know we are not alone. I think Gaiman always offers hope through the possibility of human connection, often established through the power of telling stories. Keep these words of hope in mind as I summarize some stories that sound solely horrific; my overview can be misleading since I'm trying not to give spoilers. Assume the missing spoilers are often the essential moments in the stories when Gaiman... Read More

Teaching the Dog to Read: A surreal trip

Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll

Anthony Areal, a forgettable, average man, trending toward wet noodle, is astonished one day to receive an anonymous gift in the mail containing the watch of his dreams: a gorgeous $9,000 Lichtenberg ‘Figure’ wristwatch. For a few minutes he’s afraid it is a dream: the watch will probably disappear or turn into a pumpkin when he touches it. But the watch stays on Tony’s arm when he puts it there, and it’s followed a week later by his fantasy car, an $80,000 gray Porsche Cayman GTS, registered in his name. Tony is delighted. His co-workers are astounded. Lena Schabort, the office temptress, suddenly reevaluates Tony’s worth, personal as well as net.

When Tony meets his benefactor, it is the “night shift” version of Tony himself, who lives in Tony's dreams and can in some measure actually direct and control those dreams, making them become reality. Tony Ni... Read More

Soon I Will Be Invincible: Sometimes Postmodernism gives me a headache

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Sometimes post-modernist novels, like time-travel novels, give me a headache. It’s because I’m confused. Is the writer subverting expectations with the ending, or it is just that they can’t wrap up a story? And that really shallow character, is that a flaw, or a comment on society’s view of that “type?” Did the novelist really just lift points and themes wholesale from other works because it was easy, or this is an “in-depth analysis and critique of mainstream culture’s tropes and values?”

So, sometimes these kinds of books give me a headache. On the other hand, the 3D glasses at the cinema give me a headache too, but sometimes I still want to watch something in 3D. It’s a price I pay.

I’m willing to pay that price for Austin Grossman’s novel ... Read More

Icehenge: Makes the reader doubt, puzzle and think

Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson

Icehenge is Kim Stanley Robinson's second published novel. It was published the same year as his first novel The Wild Shore, the first part in his THREE CALIFORNIAS triptych. The subject of Icehenge is very different from The Wild Shore. It would be selling the book short to say it is a first step towards his popular MARS trilogy because Icehenge is a very good novel in its own right, but fans of the MARS books will find many themes in this book have returned in the trilogy.

On the north pole of Pluto a mysterious construction of ice is found, reminiscent of Stonehenge. Three linked novellas in Icehenge explore the origin of this construct. The first two novellas had been published before ... Read More

The Lie Tree: In which curiosity and intellect are definitely not ladylike

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Women, as demonstrated by their smaller skull size, are less intelligent than men. This is the bitter lesson Faith, our plucky protagonist in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, must learn. In Victorian England, girls must be seen and not heard, as too much intelligence would spoil the female mind "like a rock in a soufflé." But Faith has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a secret desire of one day becoming a scientist. This dark and twisting tale sees how far she'll pursue that knowledge and the lies she'll tell to obtain it.

The novel opens with Faith's family being uprooted to the craggy island of Vale. Her father is a reverend and an avid natural scientist, and Faith is relegated to follow her family in the rain on foot whilst her father's precious plant specimens tak... Read More

Unearthly Neighbors: A hugely satisfying novel of first contact

Unearthly Neighbors by Chad Oliver

The conventional wisdom for aspiring writers has long been “Write what you know,” a piece of advice that Cincinnati-born author Chad Oliver apparently took to heart. Greatly interested in the field of anthropology, Oliver, over the course of seven novels stretching from 1952 - ’76, as well as four collections of short stories, eventually carved out a place for himself as one of the leading lights in that curious subgenre known as anthropological science fiction. And the author was hardly a dabbler in his chosen scholarly field. In 1961, he wrote a doctoral thesis (under his real name, Symmes Chadwick Oliver) entitled Ecology and Cultural Continuity as Contributing Factors in the Social Organization of the Plains Indians (you can purchase it in book form on Amazon, if that title doesn’t intimidate you too much!); his textbook Read More

The White Mountains: One of the first dystopian novels for kids

The White Mountains by John Christopher

The White Mountains, the first book in John Christopher’s TRIPODS series for children, has been sitting on my TBR list (and in my Audible library) forever. I was finally inspired to pick it up when Gary K. Wolfe, in his series of lectures entitled How Great Science Fiction Works, mentioned the book as probably the first YA dystopian novel (though Middle Grade is more accurate, I’d say).

The White Mountains was published in 1967 and takes place in an alternate version of our world where aliens called Tripods have conquered Earth and enslaved humans. (These tripods were inspired by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ Read More

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories: Presents all the flavors of life

Reposting to include Bill's new review:

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is a writer of many talents, all of which are on full display in his first short story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Each of the fifteen pieces presented here is well-executed; many don’t have happy endings (as much as I would like them to), though Liu makes the best choices possible for the tales he’s telling, and I will admit that the end results frequently left me crying or stunned. He brings characters to life and makes you care about their situations, whether his fiction is based in historical fact or speculation upon a potential future. Despite the fact that these are all short works, dialogue is well-written, plots arc nicely, and character motivations ring true. Liu displays a remark... Read More

Witches of Lychford: Appealing setting

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford is a novella that was published by Tor.com last year. You can find a fairly long excerpt at the Tor.com website, but you’d need to purchase the Kindle version ($2.99) or paperback to read the entire story. I acquired the audio version at Audible during a special sale. It’s 3.25 hours long and beautifully read by Marisa Calin who has just the right voices and accents for a story set in a quaint English village.

Paul Cornell’s story is about three women who live in this village. Judith Mawson is a crotchety old woman who seems to consider herself the town’s guardian from evil supernatural forces. Lizzie Blackmore, the town’s vicar, is trying to overcome a tragic event from her past. Autumn Blunstone was ... Read More

Ash: A Secret History: One of the most important books in the genre

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

I have long had a debate in my mind about the place of the woman warrior in fiction, particularly the type most often presented in epic fantasy/sword & sorcery. Robert E. HowardJoe AbercrombieGeorge R.R. MartinDavid Gemmell, and Tobias Buckell, for example, have all included the undaunted, sword-wielding, occasionally bra-defying warrioresses in their tales of adventure and battle. But in these stories, the women are most often just men with breasts. A distracting veneer is lacquered on the character: she is sexuali... Read More

Time and Again: A leisurely tribute to 1882 New York

Time and Again by Jack Finney

Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) has been a long-time favorite among time-travel tales, and has remained in print since its first publication. It was also selected by David Pringle for his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. Since I’ve been on a time-travel trip lately, this was a must-listen. It’s narrated well by Paul Hecht, and is a long, leisurely, and loving tribute to the long-gone New York of the 1880s. Sure, there are some token mentions of poverty among the lower classes, diseases like polio, pocked faces, coal-fired factories spewing smoke, and Horatio Alger street kids scrabbling to survive. But the vast majority of the story is unabashed nostalgia for a more humane time, before modern life had crushed the spirit of man. It also features more rapturous details of classic NY architecture and city life t... Read More

Blood and Bone: One of the best in this series

Blood and Bone by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Blood and Bone is the penultimate book of Ian Cameron Esslemont’s main MALAZAN EMPIRE series (I say “main” because he has just begun a prequel trilogy) and while it has its issues, it easily ranks in my top three of the main series’ six titles thanks to a few well-drawn characters and, especially, thanks to its relatively unique setting.

That setting is the jungles of Jacuruku, one of the as-yet-unexplored continents of the Malazan universe. The continent is mostly split in half, with one side under the dominion of a group of sorcerers known as Thaumaturgs and the other half, referred to as “Himatan,” is ruled by the powerful and mysterious Ardata, worshipped by some as a goddess and by others as the Queen of Witches. As has periodically ... Read More

The Junkie Quatrain: Four connected zombie stories

The Junkie Quatrain by Peter Clines

I don’t read much zombie fiction, but I enjoyed Peter Clines14, and his The Junkie Quatrain has been sitting in my Audible library for two years, so I decided to give it a try. It contains four inter-connected zombie stories that are actually the same story told from four different perspectives. Each story starts with the sentence “Six months ago, the world ended” and proceeds to tell of events that have happened since a virus outbreak in China six months previously. Those who’ve been infected quickly lose their humanity and become mindless killer “Junkies” who prey on other humans. They don’t live long. The world’s population has been decimated, most government and civil structures have bee... Read More

SFM: Dickinson, Sanderson, Hill, Kelly, Valentine, Simak

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we've recently read. 



“Please Undo this Hurt” by Seth Dickinson (2015, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)

This is a really beautiful story about compassion, pain, and what it means to burn out. “Please Undo This Hurt” seems very realistic and not so much fantasy for a little while. I spent some time at the beginning waiting for the other shoe to drop. This “waiting” feeling didn’t last long, though, as the story... Read More

Central Station: A snapshot of a strangely familiar time

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Central Station is a thoughtful, poignant, human take on a possible future. For the most part Central Station occurs at the titular port on planet earth. This space resides in what we know today as Tel Aviv, but in the distant future it has gone through many names and many people. Everything seems to begin in earnest when Boris Chong arrives in Central Station after spending a great deal of time away — some of which on Mars. Central Station, the place, is a half-thought meeting of a variety of worlds. Central Station the book is more thoughtful than I think I know how to express, but I’ll give it a try.

Central Station occurs in the very spot where humans expanded from our first planet throughout the solar system. Humans, robotniks, children who live and breathe the virtuality known as The Con... Read More