SFF Reviews

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New Amsterdam: Forensic sorcery

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

New Amsterdam is billed as “the hardcover debut” from Elizabeth Bear, who had been winning awards for her short stories and novels before this work was published in 2007. Though not exactly described as such, New Amsterdam is a compilation of six short stories, each connected to and increasingly dependent upon the others as the overarching plot progresses. While each story is ostensibly a mystery which requires investigation and the use of forensic sorcery in order to arrive at each solution, characters and world-building are the primary focus of Bear’s writing. For the most part, this works well, though there are some pieces which could have benefitted from closer authorial scrutiny, and I wish the concept of “forensic sorcery” had been brought to the fore. Read More

Timeless: A little goes a long way

Timeless by Gail Carriger

Timeless is the fifth and final book in Gail Carriger’s popular PARASOL PROTECTORATE series which takes place in a Victorian London where vampires and werewolves and other immortal paranormal creatures are integrated into society. Alexia Tarabotti, our spunky heroine, is a “preternatural” — she has the rare ability to cancel out the powers of other supernatural creatures when she touches them.

Over the course of the previous books, Alexia met, fell in love with, and married Lord Conal Maccon, an alpha werewolf. Their relationship is sometimes sexy and sometimes rocky. For example, he banished Alexia during her pregnancy because he thought he was sterile. Now the couple is back together and baby Prudence has entered their lives. Prudence is an enigma — she has some unique powers that nobody understands yet. Will she be some sort of abomination? Quite pos... Read More

The High Lord: Too much action crammed into too few pages

The High Lord by Trudi Canavan

Published in 2003, The High Lord is the action-packed third and final book of Trudi Canavan’s THE BLACK MAGICIAN trilogy. In The High Lord, Canavan brings us back to Sonea’s troubles and her “capture” by Akkarin, the High Lord of the Magician’s Guild. It’s hinted throughout book two, The Novice, that Akkarin might not be as evil and corrupted as his practice of black magic seems to suggest, but it’s in book three that we finally discover some of Akkarin’s motives and end goals. After hearing Akkarin’s life story, Sonea is convinced that her newfound mentor’s actions are justified and begs to assist him in his endeavors, even going as far as to learn black magic herself. Meanwhile, Canavan introduces several subplots into the series that make things vastly more interesting. While I enjoyed the multiple... Read More

The Story of the Amulet: A charming classic

The Story of the Amulet by Edith Nesbit

The Story of the Amulet is a sequel to Edith Nesbit’s famous story collection, Five Children and It, in which five siblings discover a wish-granting sand fairy named The Psammead. Each story in Five Children and It tells of a single day when the children ask the Psammead for something they think they want. Their wishes always backfire and give Nesbit the opportunity to humorously illustrate the adage “be careful what you wish for.” At the end of Five Children and It, the siblings have learned their lesson and promise to never ask the sand fairy for another wish, but they mention that they hope to meet the Psammead again someday. And indeed they do in The Story of the Amulet. The children wander in... Read More

Aurora: Overly long but powerful

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, has major issues with pacing, characterization, and to some extent, plotting. Which would seem to make this review a no-brainer “not recommended.” But if one can overlook issues of plot, character, and pace (and granted, that’s a Grand Canyon-level overlook), there’s a lot here to often admire and sometimes enjoy, and a reader who perseveres will, I think, not only be happy they did so, but will also find Aurora lingering in their mind for some time. (Note: While I don’t think anything revealed ahead will mar the reading experience, it’s pretty nigh impossible to discuss this book substantively without some plot spoilers. So fair warning.)

Generations ago, a starship left Earth with plans to set up a colony ... Read More

Superposition: A quantum-physics courtroom thriller

Superposition by David Walton

David Walton’s new book Superposition is billed by the publisher as a “quantum physics murder mystery.” Clearly, Walton loves quantum physics and can explain its concepts in an understandable way. Choosing alternating first-person narrators was a stroke of brilliance, upping the suspense, at least in the beginning as the story unfolds.

Jacob Kelly is a physicist who resigned from the New Jersey Super-Collider (Yes! New Jersey has the biggest super-collider in the world in this book!). Now he teaches at Swarthmore College. A former colleague of his, Brian Vanderhall, comes to Kelly’s house, claiming he has made an extraordinary breakthrough, which he has. Things don’t go well in the meeting. A day later Vanderhall is dead, and Jacob is the obvious suspect. Jacob must work to get acquitted, and also contain the result of Brian’s experiment. Jacob... Read More

Earth Abides: Not with a bang, but a whimper…

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) won the International Fantasy Award and was selected as one of David Pringle’s Best 100 SF Novels, but I’m guessing many SFF readers have never heard of it. You may have heard of pastoral SF (ala Clifford Simak), and this book may be best classified as post-holocaust pastoral SF, perhaps even "bucolic SF" (similar books include Leigh Bracket's Long Tomorrow and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon). In Earth Abides, civilization is wiped out by a mysterious and never-explained virus, but our intrepid protagonist Isherwood Williams ("Ish" to his buddies) makes the best of a primitive existence, first surviving alone by scavenging from the bountiful remains of grocery stores, hardware shops, and gas stations, and eventually gathering together a few stragglers t... Read More

The Adventure of the Ring of Stones: A Langdon St. Ives novella

The Adventure of the Ring of Stones by James P. Blaylock

The Adventure of the Ring of Stones is one of several novellas written by James P. Blaylock that Subterranean Press has published. Each of these is a stand-alone steampunk adventure featuring Langdon St. Ives, the gentleman scientist/adventurer who stars in Blaylock’s LANDGDON ST. IVES novels. It would be helpful, but not at all necessary, to have read the novels Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and The Aylesford Skull before reading this novella. Not so much for the history of the character, but really more so you’ll be in tune with Blaylock’s very particular sense of humor. It may not seem like it at first, but these books are comedies and I’m not sure how well that comes across in Blaylock’s shorter works if you’re not already familiar with his style. Read More

Discount Armageddon: Displays fancy footwork

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

I’m not an expert on paranormal romance versus urban fantasy, especially when the book seems to land right on the border of those two sub-genres. Based on the sexiness of the female hero,  the hotness quotient of the boyfriend/adversary, the quality of the sex (steamy!) and the speed at which, after that first passionate connection, they are arguing again (mere minutes!) I’m categorizing Discount Armageddon as paranormal romance (PR). I’m also categorizing it as fun.

Seanan McGuire is one of the busiest writers in the field; she writes urban fantasy (the OCTOBER DAYE series), SF-horror under the name of Mira Grant, and paranormal romance, as well as novellas and shorter fiction. Read More

Darwinia: Europe, suddenly terraformed

Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

In 1912, continental Europe suddenly changed into a foreign wilderness. Where there once were European nations arming for war, there are now new ecosystems and alien creatures. There is even a baffling, new evolutionary history. Christians declare “Darwinia” a miracle — what else could explain what’s happened but Biblical precedent? America, meanwhile, declares the continent open for exploration and settlement.

Guilford Law, originally from Boston, is an ambitious photographer who travels to England with his wife and daughter. He leaves them there before traveling alone with the Finch expedition. The expedition hopes to penetrate the European wilderness, and Guilford hopes to make a name for himself.

Elias Vale, meanwhile, is an American con man who suddenly realizes that he has been inhabited by a demon that grants him strange powers. Vale begins making a name for himself ... Read More

The Black Wheel: A must for all Merritt completists

The Black Wheel by Abraham Merritt & Hannes Bok

When Abraham Merritt died of a heart attack on August 21, 1943, at the age of 59, the world lost one of the greatest writers of adventure fantasy of all time. He left behind a number of novels in various stages of completion, including the first quarter of The Black Wheel. Hannes Bok, an artist and illustrator who did almost 150 covers for assorted pulp magazines, starting with the December 1939 issue of Weird Tales, took on the formidable task of completing Merritt's story. Bok was the first artist, by the way, to win a Hugo award, and went on to pen several other novels of his own. I must say that he does a rather good job at pastiching Merritt's style;... Read More

The Octagonal Raven: Be patient with it

The Octagonal Raven by L.E. Modesitt Jr

His fantasy, in particular the RECLUCE saga, is a lot more popular but L.E. Modesitt Jr. has also written quite a few science fiction novels. I've read a number of these now and they are usually an all or nothing read for me. Some I enjoyed tremendously (Flash, Adiamante, The Forever Hero), others I will never read again (The Ethos Effect, Archfrom: Beauty). The Octagonal Raven has the unusual distinction of combining these two feelings in one book. I have never come across a book that is so much in need of some serious editing in the first part of the story, yet managing such a thrilling climax that I read the second part of the novel in one sitting.

The main character in The Octagonal Raven is ... Read More

Inside a Silver Box: Too-unorthodox storytelling and a jumbled plot. DNF.

Inside a Silver Box by Walter Mosley

Sometimes you read a book and think, “Well, that was a bad book.” And sometimes you read a book and wonder, “Was that a bad book?” Walter Mosley has been a widely praised author for decades, has won a host of major awards, and is known for his sharp characterization and compelling plotting. So when I read a book of his that just throws me wholly for a loop, one in which I can’t abide either the characters or plot at all, so much so that I have to force myself to reach the halfway point before finally giving up, I have to wonder, “Was that a bad book, or did I miss something?”

Inside a Silver Box offers up an all-powerful being/machine — the titular silver box — whose goal is to stop the last of a genocidal alien race from regaining control of the box (it had been the aliens’ super-weapon) and using it to wipe out an entire species y... Read More

Surface Detail: Another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail (2010), the penultimate CULTURE novel, is another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe. Interestingly (or at least I think so), this novel deals with the afterlife, as does the final CULTURE novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, which was published several months before Banks’ unexpected death of gallbladder cancer in 2013.

Though speculation about what happens beyond death is a heavy subject, Banks deals with it flippantly in Surface Detail (and also to a lesser extent in The Hydrogen Sonata). The premise here is that Hell is simply a virtual reality computer simulation. That’s an interesting idea that becomes pretty funny when you consider that if hell is an MMORPG, then someone must be “hosting Hell” and others are trying to hack it. The ... Read More

Hive Monkey: This fun, fizzy concoction is not completely satisfying

Hive Monkey by Gareth L. Powell

Hive Monkey is the second book in Gareth L. Powell’s ACK ACK MACAQUE series, originally dubbed a trilogy but now, apparently, fated to be a quartet. The eponymous monkey, who likes cigars, rum and flying a refurbished WWII Spitfire, plays a large role in this book, gleefully wreaking mayhem on the bad guys. His sidekicks, Victoria Valois, journalist-turned-airship-captain, K8, plucky girl hacker, and Paul, a hologram, also have roles to play as they battle the colonized drones of an evil hive-mind.

It all gets very exciting, so I was baffled to start Chapter One with a boring, stereotypical character, William Cole. Cole is a meth-addled science fiction writer. He opens the book by standing on a wharf looking at scenery and mourning his dead wife ... Read More

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