Stand-Alone

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

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

Driftwood: A strong story collection with a great setting

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Driftwood (2020) is a charming, meditative, and often poignant collection of linked stories by Marie Brennan that mostly succeeds both in its individual tales and as a whole, though I had a few issues. But given that one of those is it was too short, it’s still an easy book to recommend.

The book’s general setting is the titular Driftwood. Think of it as a beach whose tide, instead of washing up the pebbles and the sea’s detritus, washes up instead dying worlds. Except instead of piling up on a sandy strand, the worlds just edge farther and farther inward, getting ever smaller before eventually disappearing forever. Or as one character explains to another whose world has just started the process:
Bits [of a world] just vanish. People die... Read More

Quantum Shadows: Unpleasant

Quantum Shadows by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

What would life be like if you were living through a seemingly never-ending series of holocaust-style planetary collapses? Corvyn is a cynic. He questions everything and tries to hold himself above the mundane ideals that normal people struggle with. He’s been there, done that, is powerful enough in the world order that exists to resist almost anyone, but he refuses to take a leadership role himself.

In Quantum Shadows (2020) we follow Corvyn as he attempts to track down an apparent attempt to seize power by entities unknown. Over the next several hundred pages, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. drags us through a broad-ranging review of various religious/moral viewpoints that populate Heaven, the planet Corvyn lives on. As with almost all Modesitt books, there are plenty of semi-tongue in... Read More

The Time Stream: Will It Go Round In Circles?

The Time Stream by John Taine

After eight novels dealing with such venerable science fiction themes as lost races, weapons of superscience, the transmutation of elements, dinosaurs, devolution, crystalline life-forms and the creation of a superman, Scottish-American author John Taine finally tackled one of the most revered sci-fi tropes of them all, namely time travel, in his ninth novel, The Time Stream. Today, this book comes freighted with a double-edged reputation, as it is said to be the author’s strangest novel of the 16 he wrote between 1924 and ’54, as well as his finest; an irresistible combination for those who are game. The novel was released just two months after Taine’s Seeds of Life had appeared complete in the October... Read More

Master of Poisons: A challenging book

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Master of Poisons (2020) by Andrea Hairston is an epic fantasy set in an African-inspired world that is facing environmental devastation. Fertile land is turning into poison desert, and void-storms are a constant threat.

Djola is called Master of Poisons because, when both men were young, he saved the Arkhysian Emperor with his knowledge of antidotes. He was rewarded with the title and a place on the Emperor’s council. Now, he thinks he might be able to save the land with a legendary spell, but he needs to find it first — and in the meantime, he recommends that everyone live more simply, to put less strain on the environment.

Human nature being what it is, this goes about as well as you might expect. Djola is banished. This is at least partly a rus... Read More

By Force Alone: King Arthur makes an offer we can’t refuse

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar has been on quite the roll, earning rave 5 out of 5 reviews from me his last three books. Unfortunately, his newest, By Force Alone (2020), didn’t rise to the same level. No, I’m sorry to say I could only see my way to giving it 4.5 stars thanks to being merely “excellent” as opposed to “great.” Slacker.

By Force Alone is an Arthurian tale, though that is a bit deceptive. Camelot this ain’t (though the musical makes an appearance or two). Think of Malory filtered through a mash-up of John Boorman’s Excalibur co-directed/written by Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. And with a whole lotta cameos and Easter eggs. It’s dark, vulgar, gritty, funny, thoughtful, profane, biting, densely referential, bloody, and makes... Read More

The Hereafter Bytes: A funny book, a fun read

The Hereafter Bytes by Vincent Scott

I believe that humorous science fiction is hard to write. I’m not talking about humorous banter or moments within a book — many writers excel at that — but books that are conceived as comical stories from the start. Humor requires the balance of many elements and crucial timing. Even if those things are present, a sense of humor is hard to quantify, and a technically funny book may fail to entertain for some ephemeral reason.

Vincent Scott, however, is unafraid, and tackles humor in his 2020 comic cyberpunk novel The Hereafter Bytes. Right on the cover, it says, “A Funny Sci Fi Novel,” allowing you to judge it by that metric. And for me, it succeeded.

I read an ARC of this book and blurbed it. I usually raise my eyebrows at comic SF, but I enjoyed this book both times I read it. It’s funny. Sometimes the humor is labored, but... Read More

Seeds of Life: High Tension

Seeds of Life by John Taine

In the 1956 sci-fi “B movie” Indestructible Man, hardened criminal Butcher Benton, played by the always wonderful Lon Chaney, Jr., is put to death by the state, but is later revivified by a mad scientist using 300,000 volts of electricity. Benton becomes not only possessed of superhuman strength but is also, as events show, impervious to bullets. But if a certain novel of 25 years earlier can be believed, this was not the first time that a human being was subjected to a massive dose of juice, and with astonishing results. The book in question was Scottish-American author John Taine’s ninth novel, Seeds of Life, which features not only one scientist suffering from the side effects of a 2 million-volt exposure, but anot... Read More

The Death of Vivek Oji: ”Beautyful” writing

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

On the same day a riot destroys the market in Ngwa, Nigeria, the body of Vivek Oji is left on his parents’ doorstep, naked except for a length of cloth. Gradually, through a variety of points of view, Akwaeke Emezi unfolds the story of Vivek’s life and death, and how that death affects Vivek’s loved ones — drawing some people closer together, driving faultlines between others.

Readers who’ve read Emezi’s earlier work might expect more supernatural elements than The Death of Vivek Oji (2020) actually contains. This short novel is mostly a realistic story, with two exceptions: Vivek occasionally narrates from beyond the grave, and it is implied that reincarnation exists. However, I think readers who enjoy Emezi’s “beautyful” writing (you’ll have to read the... Read More

The Space Between Worlds: An excellent debut

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Multiple worlds and parallel universes are a staple in science fiction, and Micaiah Johnson does a nice job bringing some freshness to a well-worn concept in The Space Between Worlds (2020), mostly thanks to some sharp characterization, intricate plotting, and stylish prose.

Cara is a “Traverser,” one who travels from her Earth (Earth Zero) to parallel Earths collecting data for the Eldridge Corporation whose leader, Adam Bosch, invented the technology. In the rules of the narrative, one can only travel to a parallel Earth if their double there has died: “It took a lot of smart people’s corpses before they learned that If you’re alive in the world you’re trying to enter, you get rejected. You’re an anomaly the universe won’t allow.” It didn’t take long for the corporation to realize “they needed trash people. Poor black and brown people,”... Read More

The Bird King: Magic is woven throughout the book

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson’s 2019 YA Novel The Bird King is a wonderful read: an exciting adventure with a complicated female protagonist, set in a time and place that may be unfamiliar to many of us. Magic is woven throughout the book, as young Fatima wrestles with the concepts of faith, freedom and leadership.

Fatima is the Sultan’s concubine in the last Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. She holds a precarious place in the palace hierarchy. As a slave she’s powerless; as the Sultan’s concubine she wields, or could wield, great influence, especially if she bears him a son. Fatima, born into enslavement, dreams of freedom, but the closest she gets to it is the magical maps drawn by her friend, the royal mapmaker, Hassan. Hassan can map a place that exists only in his imagin... Read More

White Lily: Chinese Takeout

White Lily by John Taine

For fans of mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote science fiction under the pen name John Taine, the acquisition of titles in this modern era can be somewhat problematic: Of the author’s 16 sci-fi books, only three of them are currently in print. This reader had previously experienced Taine’s first novel, The Purple Sapphire (1924), as well as his fifth, The Greatest Adventure (’29), had hugely enjoyed them both and wanted to read more … lots more. I had also managed to lay my hands on Taine’s final novel, the marvelous... Read More

The Second Star: Strong first half marred by final third

The Second Star by Alma Alexander

At one point while reading Alma Alexander’s The Second Star, I wrote a marginalia note hoping the book wasn’t going to go where I feared it might. Some chapters later, it turned out that was indeed our destination, and I have to confess I was sorely disappointed. That said, Alexander’s novel has an excellent, compelling premise and a quite strong first two-thirds, and I think the vast majority of readers will enjoy the book to that point. After that, one’s mileage will vary.

Two centuries ago, humanity sent out its first interstellar starship, the Parada, propelled by an experimental drive. When all communication was lost, the six crewmembers were assumed dead and that failure kept humanity safely close to home for hundreds of years, until recently, when a second... Read More

Catherine House: A college with dark secrets

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I recently learned the term Dark Academia, and while I’m probably too old to be a part of the subculture, I wish I’d had a name for it earlier. Schools and colleges with dark secrets have long been one of my favorite forms of literary catnip. It was probably inevitable that I’d be interested in Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House (2020), the story of a rudderless young woman attending a most unusual college.

The titular Catherine House is “not just a school, but a cloister.” Students who are accepted into its selective three-year program are confined to the rambling House and its grounds for the duration of their education. Catherine is cagey about its admissions criteria, but they don’t involve wealth or family legacy, so the novel... Read More

Winter Lord: Old-school faeries with teeth

Winter Lord by Jean Brooks-Janowiak

Winter Lord (1983) was an impulse Alibris buy for me. Under a different name, Jean Brooks-Janowiak wrote a Tudor romance that’s been one of my comfort reads since I first read it in high school. That book had an eerie little vein of the supernatural running through it, so when I learned that Brooks-Janowiak had also written a fantasy novel, I decided to check it out. What with it being an earlier book, in a different genre, and sporting a rather uninformative cover, I went in with no idea of what to expect. As it turns out, I enjoyed it quite a bit, though with some caveats.

Jane O’Neill travels to the remote town of Winterburn, with her brother Brian and their friend Audrey, to attend the funeral of her ex-husband, Rob, who has drowned there under mysterious circumstances. Found with him were his ruined camera and a note with a cryptic quote from Read More

The Angel of the Crows: Too faithful to the originals

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

For about the first third or perhaps half of Katherine Addison’s newest, The Angel of the Crows (2020), I was thinking I was finally off the schneid, as it had been about two weeks since I’d really thoroughly enjoyed a novel I was reading. And I was definitely enjoying the pastiche of several Sherlock Holmes stories which basically boils down to “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” Which sounds like a lot of fun, and as noted, it was, at least for that first third or so. But then, well, it never really went anywhere beyond “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” and after about the halfway point my enjoyment began to falter, the story began to sag, and by the end I was left feeling that a nea... 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

The Court of the Midnight King: History with a twist

The Court of the Midnight King by Freda Warrington

The Court of the Midnight King (2003), by Freda Warrington, is an alternate history of England’s King Richard III with some supernatural elements. I’m kind of bummed that I didn’t discover it in 2003, because I’d probably have liked it even more. I was going through a big Plantagenet and Tudor phase, and if you could find a way to work Goddess religion into the plot, so much the better. As it is, I found the novel slow for a long stretch, but it won me over in the end.

Warrington tells the story primarily through three original characters. Raphael is an orphan who is taken into Richard’s service and is deeply devoted to him. Kate is the daughter of a pagan priestess and has a liaison with Richard in her youth, then later becomes a lady-in-wai... Read More

Shadow Over Mars: The author is better than the book

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh Brackett

Shadow Over Mars (1944), also sometimes reprinted as The Nemesis from Terra, was the first full-length novel by space opera author Leigh Brackett. (“Full-length” is relative here, though, as Shadow Over Mars is quite short, only 145 pages in the edition I read.) It is currently in the running for a 2020 Retro Hugo for Best Novel.

The book begins with the hero, Rick, running through a Martian city, trying to evade the agents of the Terran Exploitations Company, who want to press him into slavery in their mines. He ducks into the home of an old woman, who prophesies that she has seen his “shadow over Mars,” and then promptly tries to kill him. The prophecy, which is interpreted to mean that Rick will become the planet’s... 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

By the Sword: A stand-alone story about Kerowyn

By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

In publication order, By the Sword (1991) is the ninth novel in Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR saga, but if you haven’t read any VALDEMAR novels before, don’t let that stop you. By the Sword can stand alone and it’s a fine place to enter Lackey’s universe. There are several beloved VALDEMAR characters in the novel, but it doesn’t matter if you meet them now or later. In general, the VALDEMAR saga is divided into several different trilogies and a few stand-alones and anthologies. You should read the three books of each trilogy in order but you don’t necessarily have to read the trilogies in any sort of order. (I hope that made sense.)

By the Sword is about Kerowyn, the granddaughter of the sorceress Kethry who we met in the VOWS AND HONOR Read More

Mexican Gothic: A creepy gothic novel featuring fungus

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old flighty socialite living in Mexico City. She loves to dress up in beautiful gowns and high heels and go to parties with handsome young men. One evening she’s called home from a party early. Her wealthy father has received a strange letter from Catalina, Noemí’s recently married cousin. Catalina thinks she’s in danger from her new husband’s family and is begging for help. Is Catalina really imperiled, or is she suffering a mental breakdown?

Noemí’s father asks her to visit her cousin at High Place, her husband’s family’s mansion on top of a mountain in an isolated rural area of Mexico. When she arrives, Noemí is shocked to discover that, indeed, her cousin is not well. Though Catalina has moments of lucidity, at other times she rails about ghosts and other hallucinations.

The house and its inhabitants are undeniably frightening. T... Read More

Across a Billion Years: An optimistic story about humanity

Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg

In Across a Billion Years (1969), Robert Silverberg introduces us to Tom Rice, a young archaeologist in training, who is writing to his twin sister on their 22nd birthday in 2375. While Tom feels some guilt that he is on the most exciting field trip in the history of Earth while his paralyzed sister is confined to a hospital bed, he is still eager to tell her about his work and he knows that she is just as eager to hear about it.

Tom’s diverse team, which includes some non-human specialists, is visiting a site where they hope to uncover artifacts of the High Ones, an ancient race of superior beings who were travelling in space before humans existed. They haven’t been seen in a long time and are presumed to be extinct. Tom’s team hopes to get clues about the High Ones’ physiology and culture as well as to find out what happened to them. When they dig up a... 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

The Golden Fleece: I appreciated it as an accomplishment

The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece (1944), also sometimes known as Hercules, My Shipmate, was Robert Graves’s attempt to create a unified, mostly realistic version of the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the titular fleece. He incorporated a variety of ancient sources, some of them contradictory, some of them fragmentary, keeping the elements he thought made the most sense and assembling them into a single narrative. The result is this novel, which has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2020.

Graves wrote The Golden Fleece in an intentionally old-fashioned style. He explains in his introduction that he couldn’t hope to write it in the style of the Argonauts’ own time, but disliked the idea of writing it from a wholly modern perspective, and so took up a position “not later than … 146 B.C.... Read More