Stand-Alone

These are stand alone novels (not part of a series).

Stand on Zanzibar: It’s time for everybody to read it

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Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were two writers who initially established themselves not only in the world of realist fiction, but also as effective observers on society. As a result, their later novels Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are heralded as two of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, with literary purists even willing to make allowances despite the sci-fi leanings. Perhaps it is John Brunner’s misfortune that his career was established in the world of science fiction. When Stand on Zanzibar was published in 1968, only those within the genre took notice of its qualities. As poignant literature that transcends genre, it too comments with profound relevance on the human condition.

The book’s title is based on the idea that 7 billion people ... Read More

The Last Days of New Paris: Surrealism comes for us all

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The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Putting it simply, China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris is a “China Miéville” story. For many readers, that’s sufficient information to begin reading.

But here are some additional details, just in case. The Last Days of New Paris is a novella length alternate history in which the Nazis and the resistance fight to control Paris. Something weird is going on in this timeline: surreal creatures called “manifs” wander the streets of Paris after an S-Blast took the surreal creatures out of the artworks and into the world. The “manifs” don’t like Nazis, and so the latter counter the former by m... Read More

The Sunlight Pilgrims: Chills to the bone

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The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

The premise of Jenni Fagan’s 2016 novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, is entirely plausible: in the not-so-far-off future of November 2020, winter has descended upon the globe, the Gulf Stream is both slowing and cooling, a gigantic iceberg is making its way from Norway to Scotland, and the Thames is overflowing from the extra water created by melting polar ice caps. Rather than focus on climatologists or environmental and economic protestors, however, Fagan presents three average people and the ways their lives intertwine and change as they try to survive the worst winter on record.

Until recently, Dylan McRae lived in a Soho art-house movie theatre with his mother and grandmother, distilling homemade gin and sharing the joys of classic cinema with their dwindling patrons. Both women have died, unfortunately, and... Read More

The High Crusade: Science fantasy silliness

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The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

In his wonderful breakdown of the genre in The Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Atterbery devotes an entire chapter to the sub-genre of science fantasy, stating that of the “works that mingle the rhetoric of science fiction with that of fantasy, nearly all can be classed as either humorous or mythological.” Though citing a scene from A Princess of Mars wherein love develops between a human male and an egg-laying Martian, what Atterbery is too coy to say directly is that humor and absurdity go hand-in-hand. But he does not mention Poul Anderson’s 1960 novel The High Crusade, which may, in fact, be the po... Read More

I Am Princess X: Tense, exciting, a little scary

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I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

My 14 year-old daughter (Tali) and I recently listened to the audiobook version of Cherie Priest’s I Am Princess X. We took a look at the print version, too, since the story is part novel, part comic. It’s about a slightly awkward girl named May who, back in fifth-grade, became best friends with a girl named Libby during recess when the two of them, both new to the school, had to sit out. Bored on the playground, together they created a cartoon heroine named Princess X. She has blue hair, wears red Chuck Taylors with her princess dress, and carries a katana instead of a wand (because “anyone can be awesome with magic” but “a sword takes skill.”). Libby did the artwork while May created the story. Their friendship, and Princess X, en... Read More

The Dark Light Years: Worth a wallow

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The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss

It had been a good 30 years since I last read anything by British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss. Back in the mid-‘80s, spurred on by three highly laudatory articles in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, I had eagerly read Aldiss’ classic novel of a generational starship, Non-Stop (1958); his equally classic tale of an Earth billions of years hence, Hothouse (1962); and his underrated novel of an Earth gone sterile due to fallout radiation, Greybeard (1964), back to back to back (as well as his volume of linked stories, 1959’s Galaxies Like Grains of Sand) ... and had loved them all. But, between this and that... Read More

The Unlimited Dream Company: More art than story

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The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

Looking at the spread of colors, shapes, and lines smeared across the canvas that is J.G. Ballard’s 1979 The Unlimited Dream Company, it’s easy to get lost in the details, the view to the whole submerged. Superficially disorienting to say the least, the narrative packs a bewildering visual punch while beneath the surface lurk the powers of nature, myth, and beast — the book is certainly art more than story. Surreal is only the beginning of the description. For those uninitiated to Ballard, strap yourselves in and prepare for a ride — on erotic wings.

The Unlimited Dream Company, if it were the work of a visual artist, would be part of Dali, Paalen, or Ernst’s portfolio. With imagery jumbled and intense in semi-... Read More

Planetfall: An SF exploration of mental illness

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Reposting to include Marion's new review:

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall, the first science fiction offering from Emma Newman, is about a colony of humans who left Earth to follow Suh, an alleged prophet who received a supernatural message giving her the coordinates of an unknown distant planet where she was supposed to travel to receive instructions about God’s plans for humanity. Suh and her best friend Ren, a brilliant geneticist and engineer, gathered a team of like-minded believers and they landed on the planet 22 years ago. After “Planetfall,” Suh disappeared into “God’s City,” where she continues to live and send yearly messages and instructions to the rest of the colonists. All is going well until a visitor arrives and claims to be Suh’... Read More

The Graveyard Book: Even Gaiman’s dead characters seem alive

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Ignore the YA label slapped on this one if that gives you pause. Though that won’t be hard to do because The Graveyard Book opens with a hand in the darkness holding a knife wet with the blood of almost an entire family: father, mother, and older child. The knife lacks only the blood of the toddler son to finish its job. Luckily for the reader (and the boy) he escapes into a nearby cemetery where a mothering ghost convinces the cemetery community to protect him. Another reason to ignore the YA label, or better yet, to revel in it, is that Neil Gaiman’s YA-listed material is stronger than his adult work: tighter, more focused, more intense all around. All that holds true here and The Graveyard Book’s clarity and brevity, often seen as constraints i... Read More

Underground Airlines: A chilling alternate history thriller

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Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

“Time makes things worse; bad is faster than good; wickedness is a weed and does not wither on its own — it grows and spreads.”

Imagine that Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the Civil War started and that the North and South, instead of fighting, compromised, drawing up an agreement that allowed slavery to exist in perpetuity in four Southern states. Fast forward to the modern day and imagine that you were a black man in one of those states, that you had escaped your slavery in a cattle slaughterhouse, and had been living a free life in a Northern state for two years. Imagine that the U.S. Marshals Service finally caught you and gave you the choice of going back to the slaughterhouse or working for the Marshals, hunting down escaped slaves like yourself and turning them over to the government.

That is the disturbing ... Read More

Vicious: Beautifully exploits the concept of the ambiguous superhero

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Note: Find "Warm Up," a short-story introduction to Vicious, for free at Tor.com. You can also purchase it for 99c on Kindle.

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab, is another offering in the ever-more popular folks-with-powers genre, and fits as well in the equally popular sub-genre where those folks-with-powers don’t’ fall neatly into the quaint “superhero” mode but have a bit more edge, a bit more (OK, a lot more in this case) grey to them.

Chronological... Read More

Tau Zero: A mythological journey in hard SF form

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Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson is, and mayhap always will be, the speculative fiction writer who most integrates myth and legend into fantasy and science fiction. The former is relatively easy given that myth and legend are typically already half fantasy, the latter is the more difficult given that one of the aims of science fiction is believable futuristic extrapolation. Failing spectacularly with The High Crusade (a novel that sees Medieval knights take a space ship to another planet to fight blue-skinned aliens), his 1970 Tau Zero is a more subtle mix. While lacking in fully humanized characters, it nevertheless captures the ideal of a mythological journey in hard SF form.

Tau Zero is the story of a group of fifty astronauts on a mission to a distant star system. The journey was planned to tak... Read More

Pushing Ice: Stand-alone hard SF from Reynolds

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Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Pushing Ice (2005) is a standalone novel. It is not set in Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE universe and as far as I can tell it is not related to any of his other works either. On his website, Reynolds mentions that there may one day be a sequel though. Pushing Ice is space opera on an intimidating scale but, unfortunately, I don't think it gets close to the best the REVELATION SPACE universe has to offer.

The year is 2057 and humanity has escaped the Earth's gravity well. The outer planets and asteroid belt are frequently visited by mining ships, of which the Rockhopper is one. When Saturn's moon Janus inexplicably leaves orbit and heads out of the solar system in the direction of Spica, a star in the cons... Read More

Non-Stop: A classic that is vivid, brisk, entertaining

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Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss

Number 33 of the Science Fiction Masterworks series, Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop is indeed a classic of the genre (variant title: Starship). Standing well the test of time, the story is vivid, brisk, and entertaining — facets complemented nicely by intelligent commentary and worthwhile purpose. With Aldiss examining human nature in unusual circumstances to say the least, the underlying assumptions nevertheless exist closer to reality than the majority of sci-fi. Readily enjoyable on the surface, there remain several thought-provoking undercurrents waiting for the reader to explore.

Non-Stop is the story of Roy Complain, a disgruntled hunter of the Greene Tribe in Quarters. His brother was lost to the tangles years before and, in the first few pages, his wife is ab... Read More

Dark Matter: The yellow wood contains more than just those two roads

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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Dark Matter (2016) is a tense science fiction thriller that was nearly unputdownable. It sucked me in almost immediately and didn't spit me out again until I was on the other side of about a four hour reading marathon.

Jason Dessen is a brilliant physicist who in some respects has "settled." Fifteen years ago, on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough in quantum mechanics, his girlfriend Daniela, a gifted artist, unexpectedly told him that she was pregnant. After an internal struggle, Jason proposed to her. Their son Charlie was born prematurely, weighing less than two pounds, and required expensive medical treatment. Between that and Daniela’s crippling postpartum depression, Jason was unable to spend enough time on his research, lost his funding and career momentum, and dropped off the fast track to scientific recognition. He now ... Read More

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet: A bittersweet tale of magic and life

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Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg

Maire, a baker in the small village of Carmine, is notable for two unusual characteristics. First, other than her name, she has complete amnesia about everything in her life up to the time she appeared near the village four and a half years ago. And secondly, Maire has the magical gift of infusing her baked goods with feelings and abilities that will be absorbed by the person who eats her food: strength, love, mercy, patience ... even, it seems, some magical abilities.

One day a pale, translucent man, with strange wings that look more like sunlit water than feathers, appears and talks to Maire briefly. He orders her to run for her life, but it's too late: marauders on horseback are storming the village and killing or capturing everyone in sight. Maire is taken and soon sold as a slave to a very odd and sinister man, Allemas, who finds out ... Read More

Winter of Fire: A surprisingly affecting little story

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Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan

Sherryl Jordan is a New Zealand-based author of young adult and children’s fantasy fiction. In Winter of Fire (1993) she tells the story of Elsha, a sixteen year old girl born into the enslaved underclass called the Quelled. As the sun has disappeared from the world, a memory only alive in mythology, the Quelled are forced to mine for the firestones that are the people's only source of warmth. But Elsha has a rebellious spirit and is often in trouble with the brutal overseers at the mine. They are from the upper class, the people known as the Chosen.

Elsha's life is changed forever when she is chosen to be the handmaid of the legendry Firelord. The Firelord is the most important man in the world as he possesses the power to divine for firestones, the life fuel of every person alive. The Firelord's choice is re... Read More

Century Rain: Noir, hard SF, and a dash of romance

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Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Century Rain (2004) is the first novel Alastair Reynolds published outside of his REVELATION SPACE setting. It combines elements of noir, hard science fiction and time travel with a dash of romance. Reynolds also experimented with noir elements in Chasm City and The Prefect (which I think is one of his best novels). The melding of noir and science fiction doesn’t work as well in Century Rain; this book is not one of Reynold's stronger novels.

The novel opens in the late 23rd century with archaeologist Verity Auger leading two students through the ruins of Paris. Earth has been destroyed by an event referred to as the nanocaust during the 2070s. A host of tiny machines, released to correct the centuries of abuse heaped upon the ear... Read More

The Seed of Earth: A generally pleasing work from one of sci-fi’s best

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The Seed of Earth by Robert Silverberg

Men of a certain age may recall a particular trepidation that was attendant with the coming of their 18th birthday; i.e., the fear of being drafted into the armed forces. From 1940 until January ’73, males here in the U.S. could be drafted, even during peacetime, to fill vacancies in the Army and other services, and well do I remember the sigh of relief that many breathed when the draft disappeared, in favor of an all-volunteer system. But, as Robert Silverberg’s 1962 novel The Seed of Earth had already demonstrated, conscription could entail far more intimidating prospects than a mere two-year Army hitch.

For the future Grand Master and multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, The Seed of Earth came at... Read More

Dracula: Stoker original drips with Gothic dread

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

It's Gothic, intricate, romantic, tragic, fun and surprising. I haven't read Bram Stoker's original Dracula in about 20 years and most of the details I'd either forgotten or had been smudged, smeared, and overwritten by a lifetime of modern vampire stories and myths.

Dracula is set in the late 19th century and is presented through a series of letters, memos and recordings between numerous characters who, through no fault of their own, become entangled in Dracula's plot to move away from his rapidly dwindling (and more "vampire-aware") food supply in Romania to the hip and crowded urban life of London.

Stoker's mythology around vampires had a few surprises (to me, at least ... apologies in advance if any of these are common knowledge to Read More

Escape from Kathmandu: Four linked stories set in Nepal

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Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily known as a science fiction writer, but that category doesn’t fit all of his work. For example, just before he published the novel A Short, Sharp Shock (1990), which could be labeled as surrealistic fantasy, he published Escape from Kathmandu, a collection of four linked novellas set in contemporary Nepal. Three of the novellas — Escape from KathmanduMother Goddess of the World and The True Nature of Shangri-La — were printed in Asimov's in 1986, 1987 and 1989 respectively. The first three can be read independently. The fourth one, The Kingdom Underground, can be read independently as... Read More

Cosmic Engineers: Simak’s first novel

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak

Every great novelist has to begin somewhere, and for future sci-fi Grand Master Clifford D. Simak, that beginning was his first novel, Cosmic Engineers. This is not to say, of course, that this novel was the first attempt at writing that Simak had ever made. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Cosmic Engineers originally appeared as a three-part serial in the February - April 1939 issues of John W. Campbell’s highly influential Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, and in a slightly expanded book form 11 years later. But before 1939, Simak had placed no fewer than 10 short stories in the pages of ASF and Thrilling Wonder Stories, while at the same time working as a... Read More

Song of the Deep: An engaging character placed into an intriguing world

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Song of the Deep by Brian Hastings

“Multi-platform” is one of those buzzwords you hear a lot, and Insomniac Games is taking the concept and running with it, with their most recent game, Song of the Deep, sharing a release with a same-titled Middle Grade book, written by Brian Hastings. I don’t know anything about the game itself, but one can see the pedigree of game elements in the story to, I’d say, both good and ill effect. But generally Song of the Deep is an engaging, quick-moving story with a determinedly likable character at its center.

Twelve-year-old Merryn lives with her fisherman father (her mother died a few years earlier) in a cliff house overlooking the sea. Every day she hopes to go out with her father on his one-man boat, but every day he tells her it’s too dangerous. So instead she’s relegated to standing ato... Read More

Last Song Before Night: Interesting world, lovely prose, weak plot

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Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer

Last Song Before Night is the debut novel from Ilana C. Myer, and while many aspects of the work shine — detailed world-building combined with protagonist backstory and development — they come at the expense of antagonist development, prose ranging from lovely to overly ornate, and, most importantly, the plot of the novel itself.

The novel ranges far and wide, but at its crux, there is a woman named Lin who seeks to achieve the impossible by becoming a female poet, forbidden in the land of Eivar for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained. It comes across as nothing more than a deliberate authorial obstacle intended to make Lin’s against-the-odds journey that much more difficult and her successes that much sweeter. Academy-sanctioned poets are restricted by law to only sing certain songs, upo... Read More

Black Hills: A Lakota Indian channels General Custer

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Black Hills by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has impressed with the variety of themes and settings he takes on in his novels. He has written science fiction, horror, historical novels, crime and literary fiction. The man's a very versatile writer. Black Hills, like his previous two novels The Terror and Drood, could be considered historical fiction with a clear supernatural theme.

The novel tells the story of the Paha Sapa. His name means Black Hills in Lakota but it is only used by those he is most intimate with; to the rest of the world he is Billy Slow Horse. Born in 1865, Paha Sapa lives through the final days of the independent buffalo-hunting lifestyle of his people. In 1876 he is present when a coalition of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapah... Read More