Stand-Alone

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

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 constellation Virgo, the Rockhopper is the only ship close enough to h... 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

The Swan Book: Moments of brilliance, but never engaged me (Did Not Finish)

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The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

I really wanted to like The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. I mean, it has so many elements I would usually find enticing by themselves or a few at a time, let alone all at once: magical realism, non-linear structure, multiple POVs, moments of high-flying lyricism, biting wit and satire, dystopia, sharp dialogue, a social conscience. But man, did I struggle with this one from just about the beginning. But I kept going. Like I said, all those elements. Plus, rave reviews and awards — those people couldn’t all be wrong, right? And there absolutely were early moments of sheer brilliance, enough so that I kept going, sure I would soon turn the corner and fall in love with it. Sure that the moments would turns into pages then into chapters. And I’d look back ... Read More

The Tale of Tales: Italian fairytales come to life in recent translation

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The Tale of Tales by Giambattisto Basile (translated by Nancy L. Canepa)

The Tale of Tales is a book of fifty Italian fairy-tales collected by Giambattista Basile in the 17th century. Like the famous Middle-Eastern tale collection 1001 Nights, which is told by the queen Scheherezade, these stories are all connected by a larger frame story, in this case that of the melancholy princess Zoza. Zoza cannot laugh, so her father concocts a trick to amuse her. However, when she does laugh at an old woman, the woman curses her, saying that she can only marry a certain prince by performing a specific task. When Zoza has almost completed her mission and won her love, a Moorish girl steals the prince from her and marries him herself. Zoza then crafts a story-telling competition that lasts five days, with ten different storytellers recou... Read More

Cyteen: Exhausting study of clones, identity, and power

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Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

After enjoying C.J. Cherryh's 1982 Hugo Award winner Downbelow Station, it was a natural thing to move on to her 1989 Hugo winner, Cyteen. I know that Cyteen is a very different creature, of course. It is a hefty 680 pages long, and extremely light on action. In fact, if you removed the extensive dialogue and exposition, I think the story would be about 50 pages long. That means the story had better be pretty compelling or it could be quite an ordeal to get through. Unfortunately, at 36 hours in audiobook format, I found Cyteen to be more of a chore than a pleasure. There’s no question of the seriousness and rigor of its exploration of power politics, the ethics of cloning, genetic engin... Read More

Cuckoo Song: Weird, scary and utterly unexpected

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

As usual, I am late to the party. Published in 2014, Cuckoo Song is Frances Hardinge’s sixth novel. Her debut novel, Fly by Night, won the Branford Boase First Novel Award and her 2015 novel The Lie Tree won the Costa Book Award, (the fi... Read More

The House: Genuinely creepy domestic thriller

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The House by Christina Lauren

Parental figures can be hard to deal with, especially when you’re a teenager. It seems like they’re always yelling at you to study, or to stop going out all the time, or else they’re stalking your significant other, or they’re making doorknobs vanish so that you’re trapped inside your own house as punishment for wanting to move out after you graduate from high school. It’s a rough time, no mistake, and explored to chilling effect in Christina Lauren’s The House.

Delilah Blue, seventeen years old and obsessed with horror movies, has returned to her childhood home after several years at an expensive private school back East. Her wealthy grandmother’s money has been forcibly reallocated to her end-of-life care and her father has lost his ... Read More

The Futurological Congress: An endlessly imaginative novel

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The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

Numerous are the stories in science fiction in which populations have been brainwashed to believe an ideal, most often the opposite of what we hold dear. A sub-genre in itself, advertisements have been used (The Space Merchants), narcotics (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), propaganda (We), technology (Brave New World), emotions (The Giver), totalitarian control ( Read More

Lone Star Planet: The Wild West in space

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Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper

Lone Star Planet (1957) is a fun science fiction murder mystery novella by H. Beam Piper. The murder occurs on a planet colonized in the future by the citizens of Texas who wanted to escape the intrusive United States government on Earth. They set up a system where there’s not much centralized government and it doesn’t have much authority, for they all agree on this tenet:

Keep a government poor and weak and it’s your servant; let it get rich and powerful and it’s your master. We don’t want any masters here on New Texas.

Thus, New Texas looks a lot like the Wild West. Men wear Levis and cowboy hats and carry pistols on each hip. Everything is super-sized and even the cattle whose beef they export (which they... Read More

Dead Ringers: Mirror, mirror

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Dead Ringers by Christopher Golden

During my final college years, I was frequently greeted with warmth by complete strangers who thought they knew me. It was disconcerting to be hailed across the quad only to have these folks say, “Oh, you’re not her,” when they got a bit closer to me. Apparently I had a doppelganger! It happened again a few years later, when my college boyfriend (with whom I had broken up) got a new girlfriend who looked enough like me to be my mirror image. That was creepy.

So I could easily sympathize with Frank Lindbergh, one of a group of protagonists in Dead Ringers, when a man enters his home late one night who looks exactly like him — “His own eyes. His own smile. His own face.” The man beats him to a pulp and makes himself at home. As far as anyone can tell, Frank continues to go about his business, but in fact the ... Read More

Railhead: Imaginative and entertaining from beginning to end

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Railhead by Philip Reeve

If the idea of a heist aboard a sentient train traveling at faster-than-light speeds appeals to you; if said heist involves assumed identities, the theft of a very old and valuable artifact, and a criminal thumbing his nose at a family-run corporation/empire; if you like believable romance and honest-to-goodness fun, then Philip Reeve’s latest YA novel, Railhead, is for you. (If none of that appeals to you, read on anyway: I may be able to change your mind.)

In a galaxy filled with novelties like sentient trains who travel at faster-than-light speeds on specially crafted rails through K-gates stationed on nearly a thousand worlds and moons, Zen Starling is a light-fingered teen wh... Read More

Titanborn: Detective fiction goes solar system-wide

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Titanborn by Rhett C. Bruno

Titanborn, a future noir tale, follows “collector” Malcolm Graves as he travels around the solar system in the year 2334, resolving problems for his employer in a largely permanent and deadly way. As a collector, Malcolm is a combination of an investigator, bounty hunter and hired gun for Pervenio Corporation, one of the huge corporations that now effectively control Earth’s solar system. Malcolm, who's a veteran of thirty years in the business, travels around taking care of problems like workers' rebellions and incipient revolutions ― usually by assassinating the people causing trouble, with little care for anything but getting the job done.

Three hundred years before, in 2034, a huge meteorite nearly wiped all life off the Earth. Since then, the surviving members of the human race have reached out to other planets and even th... Read More

The Cyberiad: The joy of reading

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The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

“Mighty King, here is a story, a nest of stories, with cabinets and cupboards, about Trurl the constructor and his wonderfully nonlinear adventures.”

I can think of no better introduction to Stanislaw Lem’s 1967 The Cyberiad (Cyberiada in the original Polish) than the line above taken from the text. Capturing the atmosphere of storytelling, the quirky, entirely singular imagination behind it, and the meta-human perspective suffusing every word, thought, and concept innate to the stories, the quote is a mini-excerpt of one of the most timeless, creative, and insightful collections science fiction has ever produced. There is nothing like the constructors Trurl and Klaupacius in literature, and never will be.

With imagination oozing off the pages and pooling on the floor, ... Read More

Burn: This Nebula winner was inspired by Walden

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Burn by James Patrick Kelly

James Patrick Kelly’s Burn (2005) was a finalist for the Hugo Award and won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2007. As Kelly explains in the afterword, the story was inspired by his dislike of Henry Thoreau’s Walden which depicts a pastoral utopian society where simplicity is valued and technology is shunned.

In Kelly’s version of Walden, an entire small planet has been purchased and terraformed into a forested utopia in keeping with Thoreau’s vision. Those who move there from Earth adopt a simplistic agricultural lifestyle, rejecting technology and all influence from the humans who make up all the other planets in space (the “Upside”). The only problem is that Walden was n... Read More