Stand-Alone

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

A Shadow All of Light: The shadows grow on you

Readers’ average rating:

A Shadow All of Light
by Fred Chappell

A Shadow All of Light
(2016) is a collection of linked, chronological stories by Fred Chappell that add up to a full-length narrative if not a seamless novel. Some individual stories are stronger than others, and I would have liked more of a full sense of place, character, and culture, but I enjoyed the underlying magic system, the main character, and how the structure built up over time to a decent climax.

Our narrator is Falco, a country boy from an area of “small, muddy farms” who has run away to the big city (the port of Tardocco) and seeks to apprentice himself to the legendary shadow thief Maestro Astolfo. When they first meet, Astolfo calls Falco a “bumpkin,” a “sneak,” a “hot-blood lazybones,” a “rustic Lumpfart,” an “imbecile,” and a “lunatic.” And of course he takes him ... Read More

When the Birds Fly South: Profoundly moving, stands the test of time

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Katie's new review.

When the Birds Fly South by Stanton A. Coblentz

Never let it be said that you can’t learn anything from Facebook! It was on the Vintage Paperback and Pulp Forum there, for example, that this reader recently discovered his newest favorite author. Several of my very knowledgeable fellow members on that page happened to be discussing the merits of a writer who I had previously never even heard of before; a man with the curious name Stanton A. Coblentz. Very much intrigued, I later did a little nosing about, and managed to lay my hands on Coblentz’ highly regarded When the Birds Fly South. And I am so glad that I did. This novel, as the author revealed later, was his very favorite of all his many sci-fi/fantasy works. It was, appropriately enough, originally released in 1... Read More

The Anubis Gates: A very generous book

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Tim Powers' fourth novel, 1983's The Anubis Gates, is a book that I had been meaning to read for years. Chosen for inclusion in both David Pringle's Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels and Jones & Newman's Horror: 100 Best Books, as well as the recipient of the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award in 1984, the book came with plenty of good word of mout... Read More

Angelmaker: Zany mashup of thriller, doomsday device, and whimsy

Readers’ average rating:

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker (2012) is Nick Harkaway’s second book, after his exuberant, clever, digressive and exhausting debut The Gone-Away World. It shares the same qualities with that wild and free-wheeling tale, with relentlessly clever dialogue, quirky and in-depth characters, an intricate but playful doomsday plot, more flashbacks than most readers can handle, and chock-a-block with clever and ironic observations of the weirdly-unique world he has created, and by extension our own less colorful one.

The story skips back and forth in time just like its predecessor, to a degree some readers will get irritated by, as we learn a great deal about the back s... Read More

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr: Weird, elegiac, lovely

Readers’ average rating:

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017) is a brilliant novel. It is lovely, eerie, and heartachingly elegiac. It is also deeply weird.

I want the reader to understand me perfectly here. When I say "weird," I do not mean it's experimental, or iconoclastic, or that you'll feel awkward explaining to your friends why you wanted to read a book about a magic bird. All of those things might be true (to greater or lesser degrees), but they feel trivial when applied to Ka. This book is weird, in both the new definitions and also the older sense that implies something like "uncanny." The experience of reading this novel is like dreaming. There's the sense of progression, of ordinary storylines going about their business, but there's also a sense of unreality, of places where logic simply ... Read More

An Unkindness of Ghosts: Impressive debut novel

Readers’ average rating:

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017), by Rivers Solomon, is a book that a lot of people will absolutely love unconditionally, a lot of people will love even as they hate reading large parts of it, and that will leave some people (cough cough this reviewer) a bit cold, which they will softly note while they keep their eyes down and move quietly for the exit. Despite falling into that last category, I’d still recommend Solomon’s debut novel for its stark depiction of a slave society that has too many echoes of our own world despite the sci-fi setting and for its diverse set of characters.

The novel is a generation ship story, with the premise that the society sent out into space on the ship Matilda was a slave-based one (or regressed to one, it’s not wholly explicit, though I believe it’s the former), with the u... Read More

New York 2140: KSR imagines a future NYC

Readers’ average rating:

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is among the best there is at hard science fiction; he can write characters who feel like real people and give you ideas that keep you thinking well after you’ve set the book down. Unfortunately, New York 2140 (2017) is not up to the mark of his best work; fortunately, that still leaves plenty of room for it to be enjoyable and thought-provoking.

New York 2140 is, among many other things, a love letter to New York, or, as it is known in 2140, SuperVenice; the chapter titles and a number of references throughout (Archy and Mehitabel, anyone?) reference the city’s past (and, from our point of view, fut... Read More

In Other Lands: A bisexual character comes of age in a paper-thin fantasy world

Readers’ average rating: 

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Thirteen-year-old Elliot is pulled from his geography class one day, packed into a van with three other students, and driven to a random field in Devon, England, where he watches his French teacher exchanges money with a woman standing next to a high wall.
The woman in odd clothing “tested” him by asking him if he could see a wall standing in the middle of a field. When he told her, “Obviously, because it’s a wall. Walls tend to be obvious,” she had pointed out the other kids blithely walking through the wall as if it was not there, and told him that he was one of the chosen few with the sight.
When the woman asks Elliot to come with her to the magical land on the other side of the wall, he promptly tells her no one will miss him (Elliot’s problematic home life is explored later in the book) and heads over the wall with her. There he finds,... Read More

Semiosis: Oh, give me a home where the fippokats roam…

Readers’ average rating:

Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke’s 2018 debut novel, is a fascinating examination of culture, intelligence, and co-operation in the face of extreme hardship. A small group of high-minded and free-thinking colonists have left Earth for a planet they’ve named Pax, in honor of their Utopic dream of what the planet represents, though they quickly discover that peace is not easily achieved — especially when they discover that you can never go home again, but neither can you completely leave it behind.

Pax has breathable air and potable water, a higher gravity than Earth, and a terrifying menagerie of plants and animals offering constant reminders that expectations about how things will work can be deadly. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the new residents of Pax, something they butt their heads against time and time again, is their assumed sense ... Read More

American Gods: Mixed opinions

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is a bad land for Gods... The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you've been forgotten, or you're scared you're going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you're just getting tired of existing on the whims of people.

Shadow, just out of prison and with nothing to go home to, is hired to be Mr. Wednesday's bodyguard as he travels around America to warn all the other incarnations of gods, legends, and myths, that “a storm is coming.” There's going to be a battle between the old gods who were brought to melting pot America by their faithful followers generations ago, and the new gods of technology, convenience, and individuality.

That's the premise of Read More

The Brethren: Another doozy from H. Rider Haggard

Readers’ average rating:

The Brethren by H. Rider Haggard

In January 1900, British author H. Rider Haggard and his family ventured forth on a nice long vacation. As revealed in D.S. Higgins’ 1981 biography, the first part of this holiday was beset by bad weather, sickness and delays, as the Haggards made their way from London and on to Italy and Cyprus. But once the family reached the Holy Land, apparently, conditions improved significantly, and the world-famous author was so taken by the many historic sights that he saw there that the experience inspired him to write no fewer than three books: A Winter Pilgrimage (1901), a nonfiction travelogue of his journey; Pearl-Maiden (1903), which dealt with the fall of Jerusalem following the crucifixion of Christ; and the novel in question, ... Read More

84K: The value of a human life

Readers’ average rating:

84K by Claire North

Claire North brings a haunting and all-too-realistic vision of the near-future to life for her most recent novel, 84K (2018), in which an already-existing real world injustice is pushed to its natural limit: every possible crime and infraction are assigned a monetary value, from murder to petty theft and everything in between, and wealthy citizens escape punishment by simply paying the appropriate fine. Those who cannot pay their fine are, at best, interned in working penitentiaries known as “the patty line,” making cosmetics and frozen dinners and shiny baubles that they could never afford, and at worst... well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Parliament isn’t really Parliament anymore; along with stripping basic rights from every single person... Read More

Neverwhere: Wonderfully fantastical setting

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere is a novel that improved dramatically for me on reread, which actually was a surprise to me. I originally read it about six years ago when, in an odd twist worthy of London Below, it mysteriously appeared one day on my clunky Kindle 2, without my having ordered it. About a month later it just as mysteriously disappeared again (luckily I had finished it just in time). I was fascinated by the marvelous and imaginative setting of Neverwhere and London Below, but only mildly entertained by the plot, which ― other than the beginning and the end ― I found quite forgettable.

Still, when I was offered the chance to read a 2016 edition of Neverwhere with the “author’s preferred text” and illustrations by Chri... Read More

Three-Bladed Doom: Howard’s only El Borak novel

Readers’ average rating:

Three-Bladed Doom by Robert E. Howard

Even those readers who have previously thrilled to the exploits of such Robert E. Howard characters as Conan the Barbarian, King Kull of Valusia, the Puritan fighter of evil Solomon Kane, the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, the piratical Cormac Mac Art, and boxer Steve Costigan might still be unfamiliar with the author’s El Borak. And, I suppose, there may be good reason for that. Howard only managed to sell five stories featuring the character before his suicide death, at age 30 in 1936, although 11 more would surface in later years. Of those 16 tales, only one was of a full novel length: Three-Bladed Doom. Like many other fans, this decades-long Howard buff had never run across this character before, and so, when I spotted the 1979 Ace edit... Read More

Circe: A winningly feminist retelling/expansion

Readers’ average rating:

Circe by Madeline Miller

“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Thus begins Circe’s self-told tale, and the yet-to-be-invented descriptor she references here is “witch,” though it could just as easily, and perhaps more significantly for this story, be “independent woman,” since both concepts, it turns out, are equally confounding to Titan, Olympian, and mortal alike, much to the reader’s satisfaction.

Beyond that bedeviling of the uber-powerful, there’s a lot that satisfies (and more) here: Madeline Miller’s lovely prose, how she stays faithful to the myths but fills the spaces between them with a rich originality, the manner in which the tale creates tension despite the fact we know how many of its parts end, the many times we dip into and out of storytelling as we hear of Theseus and the Minotaur or Achilles and Hector, and the way... Read More

The End of the Day: Before Death, meet Charlie

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The End of the Day by Claire North

“I am the Harbringer of Death,” Charlie explains countless times to airport security, friends of friends, nurses, doctors, strangers in bars, passengers on trains. Because before Death, comes Charlie: sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, but always before. Meeting people from every possible walk of life, Charlie discovers what it is to be human in The End of the Day, a genre-defying tale.

When we first meet Charlie he’s somewhere in Central America, trying to locate an old woman called Mama Sakinai. He explains to a mule driver that he is the Harbringer of Death. He is here to bring Mama Sakinai some whisky. Sometimes Charlie comes to mark the end of the world, or a world. In this case, he is marking the end of an era: Mama Sakinai is... Read More

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land: A disquisition on the value of all books

Readers’ average rating:  

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis

Jim is visiting Manhattan, doing publicity for his blog, Gone for Good, and hoping to sell it as a book to a publisher. The point of Jim’s blog, and his sincere belief, is that things dying out and disappearing ― payphones, elevator operators, VHS tapes, and books nobody cares about ― is part of the natural order, a sign that society doesn’t need these things any longer. If society changes its mind, they can always be brought back. Books are generally digitized, after all. Or so Jim asserts.

When a meeting with a publisher gets cancelled, Jim wanders the streets of Manhattan until a downpour of rain drives him into an old-fashioned bookstore, Ozymandias Books, which appears to deal in rare titles. Jim wanders through the shelves, bemused at the odd variety of obscure books that he sees.
Pr... Read More

Sky in the Deep: Axe-wielding star-crossed lovers

Readers’ average rating:

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Eelyn lives only to fight with her father, her best friend Mýra, and the rest of the Aska clan against their mortal enemies, the Riki clan. Every five years, the clans meet on the battlefield and do their very best to slaughter one another, then return home with the survivors to heal their wounds and train for another five years. Eelyn doesn’t question why the Aska are bound up in this eternal blood-feud; this is how things have always been, this is how they will always be, and the best death Eelyn can imagine is in battle against the Riki. Should she die ingloriously, however, or be captured as a slave, she will be denied entrance into the Aska afterlife, and will lose all honor.

Her older brother, Iri, died while fighting the Riki five years previously, so when Eelyn sees him fighting alongside the Riki, she becomes obsessed with determining whether ... Read More

The Scarlet Plague: Jack London makes London Magazine

Readers’ average rating:

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Editor's note: Because it's in the public domain, it's easy to find an inexpensive electronic copy of this book.

By the time Jack London released his post-apocalyptic novel The Scarlet Plague in 1912, the author was 36 years old — just four years shy of his premature passing in 1916 — and yet had already managed to cram in more incident and adventure into those three dozen years than most folks do in their lifetime. Since his birth in San Francisco in 1876, he had worked on a sealing schooner, done a stint as an oyster pirate, participated in the Klondike Gold Rush (in 1897), played the part of a war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War (1904), operated a ranch, been married twice, and had released over 100 short stories... Read More

Good Morning, Midnight: Your book club might enjoy this

Readers’ average rating:

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton’s general fiction novel, Good Morning, Midnight (2017), is literary in nature but uses speculative elements to contemplate isolation, hope, despair and human connection. The book has beautiful prose, especially in some of the descriptions of the arctic, and interesting insights into human nature, but it was not a completely satisfying book for me. In a few places, the hand of the author can be seen forcing events in order to make the story work, and some of these tropes, particularly the literary ones, felt too familiar. Still, it’s worth checking out for the writing alone.

Good Morning, Midnight follows two characters who are about as far apart spacially as one can imagine. Augustine is an astronomer who has remained behind at an arctic observatory site... Read More

The Gone-Away World: Relentlessly ironic, digressive, and clever

Readers’ average rating:

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World (2008) is a post-apocalyptic comedy/tragedy about our world before and after the Gone-Away Bombs have wiped up out much of humanity and the world we know. It is about Gonzo Lubitsch and his nameless best friend, who work for a special crew that is assigned to put of a fire along the Jorgmond pipeline, which produced the special material “Fox” that can eliminate the Stuff, the matter that is left over after gone-away bombs have removed the information from matter so that it no longer can form coherent form and structure. Stuff takes on the shape of the thoughts of people near it — nightmarish monsters, ill-formed creatures, and “new people.” Nightmares become real, and the world itself is a nightmare of sorts.

And very soon after the story begins, we are wrenched back into Gonzo and his friend’s ... Read More

Exit West: A slightly speculative exploration of love, migration and nationality

Readers’ average rating:

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

2017’s Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is definitely not speculative fiction. It is general fiction, literary in nature, which uses a trope of speculative fiction as one way to explore the nature of war, love and human migration.

There is always a risk when a general fiction writer “discovers” speculative fiction and tries to write it without having read within the genre. The story often contains hackneyed, tired-out elements which the writer trumpets as new and amazing. Hamid dodges this risk completely. His strange black rectangles, which appear in doorways, like in closets or storage sheds, and lead to other parts of the world, are not explained. Even though they lead to mass migrations, they are a minor part of the story. Exit West focuses on the impact of migration on nations, communities, ... Read More

The Oracle Year: An exciting, fast-paced science fiction thriller

Readers’ average rating: 

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

OCTOBER 8: FOURTEEN BABIES WILL BE BORN AT NORTHSIDE GENERAL HOSPITAL IN HOUSTON. SIX MALE, EIGHT FEMALE.

One morning at about 5:00 am, Will Dando, a struggling young New York musician, abruptly awakes from a vivid dream. In his dream, a voice told Will 108 oddly specific and rather random predictions about the future, which he remembers verbatim when he wakes up. Some are potentially life-changing: warnings of the collapse of a major bridge and other disasters. Others may have a huge financial effect: a football game that will be won by the Jets by four points; a caution about a late freeze of crops in the southeastern United States. Still others are apparently mundane:
APRIL 24 – MRS. LUISA ALVAREZ OF EL PASO, TEXAS, PURCHASES A QUART OF CHOCOLATE MILK, SOMETHING SHE HAS NOT HAD IN TWENTY YEARS, TO SEE IF SHE STILL ENJOYS THE TASTE AS ... Read More

Will Do Magic For Small Change: Interesting characters, great ideas, and theater arts

Readers’ average rating:

Will Do Magic For Small Change by Andrea Hairston

Andrea Hairston’s 2016 novel Will Do Magic for Small Change spills out across traditional fantasy subcategories like the foamy head of a beer. There are urban fantasy elements, historical fantasy, science fiction and coming-of-age themes in this tale, which is set alternately in 1987 and the turn of the 20th century. And while I don’t think there is a subgenre called “performance magic” or “theater magic” yet, when there is, this book will be a seminal example because the love of the theater and performance runs all the way through it.

In 1987, Cinnamon struggles to find acceptance. She is African-American, tall for her age (fourteen), heavy, super-smart and a motor-mouth in a very particular way. She wants to sing and act on stage and she’s gifted, but racism and sexism blo... Read More

The Valley Of Creation: Clan brothers

Readers’ average rating:

The Valley Of Creation by Edmond Hamilton

One of the crowning events in the sci-fi/fantasy year 1948 was most assuredly the release of Jack Williamson’s 1940 novella Darker Than You Think as an expanded, full-length novel; it has since gone on to be acclaimed one of the greatest fictional books on the subject of lycanthropy ever written. In it, reporter Will Barbee learns that he is a primordial shapeshifter and, in one memorable sequence, runs through the night in the form of a wolf, relishing his exhilarating swiftness and grace. But this was not the only time in 1948 that the reader was presented with such a scenario. In the July issue of the 20-cent Startling Stories magazine that year, Williamson’s close fri... Read More