SFF Reviews

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The Hidden Palace: Double the golems and jinnis

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

In The Hidden Palace (2021) Helene Wecker returns to the richly-imagined world of The Golem and the Jinni, fin de siècle New York City, focusing on the Jewish and Syrian immigrant communities. Chava, an intelligent golem created by an evil-hearted genius, was set free by the unexpected death of her intended husband and master, left with the ability to hear the thoughts of all humans instead of just her master. The jinni Ahmad is released from the bottle that imprisoned him, but he is bound to tangible human form with no discernable way to remove the curse. Despite their opposite natures of earth and fire, golem and jinni are drawn together in a world where neither fits in, and both are hiding their true natures from t... Read More

Twice Magic: A strong follow-up to the first story

Twice Magic by Cressida Cowell

The second book in Cressida Cowell's WIZARDS OF ONCE series does everything a good sequel should: expand the world, develop the characters, and deepen the story. As we discovered in The Wizards of Once, Ancient Britain is inhabited by two distinct races: the Wizards, who live among the magical creatures of the forest, and the Warriors, who are armed with iron weapons, the only metal that can repel magic.

In the first book, we met Xar and Wish, two young people who've grown up on each side of this conflict. Xar is the rather arrogant and vainglorious youngest son of the King Wizard, Encanzo, while Wish is the more introspective and sweet-natured daughter of Queen Sychorax, leader of the Warr... Read More

Pan’s Garden: A stunning collection from “The Ghost Man”

Pan’s Garden by Algernon Blackwood

By the time the renowned British writer Algernon Blackwood released his first collection of short stories, The Empty House, in 1906, he was already 37 years old and had led a life as full of adventure and incident as anyone you might possibly name. He had already worked as a dairy farmer and hotel operator in Canada, gone prospecting for gold in Alaska, been a bartender, and worked as a NYC reporter for The Evening Sun, among other things; occupations that would go to make good material for his 1923 autobiography Episodes Before Thirty. As the new century got under way, Blackwood, long interested in Buddhism, philosophy and the supernatural, joined several occult societies, including The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His love of nature compelled him... Read More

Scarlet: A totally fresh take on Red Riding Hood

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet (2013) is the second novel in Marissa Meyer’s LUNAR CHRONICLES. You’ll want to read Cinder first. There will be some spoilers for that novel in this review.

In Cinder we met the titular cyborg, an orphan who lives with her hateful stepmother and two stepsisters in New Beijing. Cinder is the best mechanic in town, which is how she meets the young and handsome Prince Kai. He needs his personal robot fixed because, unbeknownst to Cinder, it may contain information about the whereabouts of Princess Selene, the rightful ruler of Luna, the human colony on the moon. Nobody knows if Princess Selene is alive but, if she is, Kai may be able to avoid a marria... Read More

The Sentence: A haunted bookshop is a window into America

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“sentence (n)1. A grammatical unit comprising a word or a group of words that is separate from any other grammatical construction, and usually consists of at least one subject with its predicate and contains a finite verb or verb phrase; for example, ‘The door is open’ and ‘Go!’ are sentences.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Louise Erdrich’s metafictional ghost story The Sentence (2021) and she still managed to surprise me. Starting with the title, Erdrich addresses a number of issues in this story, told mostly by Tookie, who works at a bookstore in Minneapolis, owned by a well-known writer named Louise. Tookie is being haunted by Flora, a (dead) customer.

Tookie served ten years of a different kind of sentence, a sixty-year sentence for m... Read More

The Amber Crown: Strong main-character work, but weak plot

The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford

The Amber Crown (2022), by Jacey Bedford, contains several elements that tend to have me leaning away rather than into a book, including rape, implied rape, threatened rape, and some torture/horrid executions. I mention them upfront for the convenience of those who can tell already the book isn’t for them and so will stop reading the review now (I should note they aren’t egregiously gratuitous, mined for trauma [as characterization] rather than titillation; the book is far from torture porn). For those for whom those are not dealbreakers, Bedford delivers a solid work set against an interesting quasi-historical background but with a plot I found far less engaging than the characters. In the end, I can’t say the book’s strengths fully outweighed its weaknesses or my distaste for some of those aforementioned scenes, though one’s mileage will vary on that.

The book seems to ... Read More

Resident Alien (Vol. 1): Welcome to Earth!: A murder mystery with an alien investigator

Resident Alien (Vol. 1): Welcome to Earth! By Peter Hogan (writer) and Steve Parkhouse (artist)

In Resident Alien, Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle is a ship-wrecked alien in a small town, acting as a general practitioner. He appears as a human to adults — only small children can see his alien appearance. So, he goes undetected. He’s a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth kind of guy, and this first volume (of six volumes so far) by Peter Hogan tells us the story of how he came to be a doctor in the first place.

When our story opens, he’s been living for two years in isolation in a cabin on the outskirts of town. He’s out on the lake in front of the cabin fishing one day when the police come to request his help, since they’ve heard he’s a doctor. When we first see him, we, as readers, can see him as an alien, but the police see only a man in a boat. The police chief, Mike, calls to the alien. When he gets to ... Read More

Last Dragon Standing: The epic finale

Last Dragon Standing by Rachel Aaron

Last Dragon Standing (2018) is the epic finale of Rachel Aaron’s self-published HEARTSTRIKERS series. I’ve been listening to the audio edition of the HEARTSTRIKERS novels and can recommend them without reservation to readers interested in this fun and heart-warming saga. I listened to them with my 19-year-old daughter and we loved the narration by Vikas Adam. If you haven’t read the previous four books, Nice Dragons Finish Last, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, Read More

Tales of the Greatcoats Vol. 1: A fond return to a warmly remembered world

Tales of the Greatcoats Volume 1 by Sebastian De Castell

“So I’m only in one of these nine Greatcoats stories?” Brasti asked, pausing his work.

“Yes,” De Castell replied. “Though to—”

“But Kest gets two?”

“The man knows talent when he sees it,” Kest said, skimming through the pages of Tales of the Greatcoats. “I especially like how you have me win a duel without actually fighting the duel. And … Hold on, I’m in only two?”

Brasti snorted. “The man knows talent.” He sighed. “I suppose Falcio is in all of ‘em.”

Falcio looked up from staring at the newborn daughter he cradled in his arms. “And deservedly so, given that—”

“Actually,” De Castell interrupted gently. “Falcio is also just... Read More

Hawkeye: Consistently enjoyable

Hawkeye on Disney+

Not as ambitious in terms of creative storytelling or theme as WandaVision or as wildly fun as Loki or What If?, Hawkeye is equally good in a different way, though it’s not without its flaws and the ending had its own set of issues. Despite those problems, it may be the most consistently enjoyable of the Marvel shows to date. Spoilers to follow.

Hawkeye tells a much smaller, much more grounded story than its counterparts, with no superpowers, time traveling, or universe hopping, and with relatively low-key stakes focused more on a personal level and with a limited geography versus the world or universe-threatening stakes of other shows. In that way it’s a nice change of pace, catch-your-breath kind of show. Not everything needs to be world-shaking after all; it gets exhausting. After Loki and What If? Read More

Where the Drowned Girls Go: A weaker installment in an up and down series for me

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

I’ve been very hit and miss on Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN series, with my rating on books ranging from two stars to four. Though the results have been more miss than hit overall, since the books’ novella lengths mean they aren’t a big time investment, I thought I’d give the latest, Where the Drowned Girls Go (2022), a shot in hopes it would be closer to the four than the two. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

While the book can, somewhat, be read independently of the others (I’d say McGuire offers up just enough exposition so someone new to the series wouldn’t be completely at sea), it will be more effective had one read the earlier installments. That being the case, I’m going to assume you’ve done so.

Unlike many of ... Read More

Leviathan Falls: Strong conclusion to one of the best sci-fi series in decades

Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey

THE EXPANSE has been my favorite science fiction series for many years now, so while I looked forward to Leviathan Falls (2021), the ninth and final book in the series, with eager anticipation, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it also came with a bit of pre-grieving. So maybe it was a bit of denial, combined with a hellish end-of-term, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, and the general fk-you-ism of 2021 that had me completely miss the book’s release in late November. But after seeing a reference to its existence in the wild, I quickly rectified my oversight, and then, for various reasons, began reading it at about 4:30 in the morning. And, because it’s an EXPANSE book, didn’t put it down until I finished it. And yeah, it was as good a return and as bittersweet an ending as I’d assumed it would be. Sigh.

Honestly, from... Read More

A Dragon of a Different Color: Not the best, but an essential, installment

A Dragon of a Different Color by Rachel Aaron

Rachel Aaron’s HEARTSTRIKERS series continues with the fourth novel, A Dragon of a Different Color (2017). It’s really no use to start this story here – you should first read Nice Dragons Finish Last, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, and No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished. At this point in the story, it’s hard to avoid a few spoilers for the previous books, but I’ll do my best.

In the prologue of A Dragon of a Different Color, we finally learn the history of the Detroit Free Zone (t... Read More

Black Magic: Sandy’s Favorite Read of 2021

Black Magic by Marjorie Bowen

The British publishing firm Sphere Books had a really wonderful thing going for itself back in the 1970s: a series of 45 books, both fiction and nonfiction, curated by the hugely popular English supernatural novelist Dennis Wheatley, and titled Dennis Wheatley’s Library of the Occult. This reader had already experienced seven of these novels in the natural order of things, in other editions – titles such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Read More

Christmas break!

We are on Christmas break with limited reviews/columns for the next several days.

Next week (on Thursday) we'll announce our favorite books of 2021 and we'll ask you about yours.

We wish you a Merry Christmas!
(And for those who don't celebrate Christmas, we wish you a lovely holiday season!)

We hope you'll have time to spend with some wonderful books.

Stay safe and healthy! Read More

Foundation: Season One: A mixed bag, but generally good

Foundation: Season One on Apple TV+

In my first review of Apple TV’s Foundation series, written after the first two shows, I said it wasn’t “great” TV (at least not yet) but ranged consistently between good and very good. Having just finished all ten episodes of season one, I’d broaden that range from “occasionally annoying to occasionally great.” In other words, it’s a mixed bag, which I suppose shouldn’t be much of a surprise for a series that mostly follows three plot strands, has multi-decade time jumps, and is itself based on a series of loosely connected short stories that were later retconned into a larger universal narrative. I’ll send you to my earlier review for the plot summation. Here, I’ll assume you know the basic plot. I will look at the three narrative strands separately, then consider the series as a whole. Some spoilers for various episodes t... Read More

Abbott: Elder gods and tough reporters in 1970s Detroit

Reposting to include Brad's new review.

Abbott by Saladin Ahmed & Sami Kivela

BOOM! Studios has released the trade edition of the first series of the period dark fantasy Abbott (2018), words by Saladin Ahmed and art by Sami Kivela. Set in 1972, the story follows Elena Abbott, a reporter for the Detroit Daily. Abbott may not be the paper’s only woman reporter, but she is probably its only Black reporter and definitely the only Black woman reporter. Currently, she is in trouble with the paper’s owners for her accurate expose of the police murder of a Black teenager. She is sent to cover the mutilation of a police horse. To further punish her for her stand against police lawlessness, the paper has taken away her photographer and given Abbott a camera. This is a status hit that her w... Read More

Roar of Sky: A solid conclusion to this magical alternate-history trilogy

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Roar of Sky by Beth Cato

Beth Cato concludes her BLOOD OF EARTH trilogy with Roar of Sky (2018), bringing the story of clandestine geomancer Ingrid Carmichael, which began in Breath of Earth and continued in Call of Fire, to an action-packed close. This review will contain some spoilers for events in previous books, so proceed with caution.

Badly wounded and permanently debilitated after her desperate fight in Seattle against Ambassador Blum, Ingrid and her friends Cy Jennings and Fenris Braun flee to Hawaii aboard the Palmetto Bug, a sma... Read More

Absynthe: Read it with the titular drink in hand for some extra fun

Absynthe by Brendan P. Bellecourt

Absynthe (2021) is the new novel by Brendan P. Bellecourt, the pen name of Bradley Beaulieu, author of the excellent SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS series. Talk about a change. Beaulieu leaves the desert far behind to head for the big noisy city in a complex Jazz Age/Psi-powers tale set in an alt-history US.

A decade ago America fought the Great War with the St. Lawrence Pact made up of Great Britain, Canada, France, and Germany. Liam Mulcahey is a veteran of that war, now working as a mechanic in Chicago, hanging out with his best friend and employer’s son Morgan, and taking care of his grandmother Nana. When he and Morgan attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new train and overseen by the current President, Leland De Pere (Liam’s former commander), viole... Read More

Dare to Go A-Hunting: You can safely skip it

Dare to Go A-Hunting by Andre Norton

The final novel in Andre Norton’s MOONSINGER series is Dare to Go A-Hunting (1989), which is packaged with the previous novel, Flight in Yiktor, in the Baen omnibus edition called Moonsinger’s Quest (2013). I’ve been listening to the excellent audiobook editions narrated by Chris Abernathy and published in 2021 by Tantor Media. Dare to Go A-Hunting is a direct sequel to Flight in Yiktor, so you’ll want to read it first (there will be some spoilers for that novel in this review).

At the end of Flight in Yiktor, Farree learned that he (and here’s the spo... Read More

First He Died: No Excedrin needed

First He Died by Clifford D. Simak

As I think I may have mentioned elsewhere, stories about time travel can sometimes give me a headache right between the eyes. And really, who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, come close to getting a major-league migraine when trying to suss out the temporal conundrums inherent in many of these tales? Fortunately for me — and my head — the novel that I have just experienced is one that does indeed feature time travel in its story line, but that lays out its complexities in a manner that leaves the reader blissfully headache free. The book in question is Clifford D. Simak’s second novel, First He Died; an early and surprisingly superior outing from the beloved future Grand Master.

First He Died has a some... Read More

Flight in Yiktor: Introduces a compelling new protagonist

Flight in Yiktor by Andre Norton

Flight in Yiktor (1986) is the third novel in Andre Norton’s MOONSINGER series. It’s bundled with the fourth novel, Dare to Go A-Hunting, in an omnibus edition titled Moonsinger’s Quest which was published by Baen in 2013 and, in audio format, by Tantor Media in 2021. It’s not necessary to read the first two novels, Moon of Three Rings and Exiles of the Stars, which you can find in the Moonsinger omnibus, also published by Baen and Tantor, but it would be helpful. I’m enjoying Tantor’s audio... Read More

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: Part Lovecraft pastiche, part academic novel

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

With the title, you figure out pretty quickly that 2016’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson, is a Lovecraft pastiche, modeled on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. If you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that the beginning at least is a gentle send-up — or, to be polite, a “nod” — to academic novels.

Vellitt Boe, the book’s protagonist, is a professor at the Women’s College in the University in Ulthar. In the opening pages, she wakes from a strange and powerful dream to the news that a star student, who... Read More

No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished: Another fun Heartstriker story

No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished by Rachel Aaron

No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished (2016) is another fun installment in Rachel Aaron’s HEARTSTRIKERS series about a race of shapeshifters who can take on both human and dragon forms. The main character, Julius, is the youngest member of the powerful Heartstriker dragon clan, which is led by his ruthless mother. Unlike the rest of his family, Julius is a nice guy who, for most of his life, has felt like he doesn’t fit in. His mother, his siblings, and the members of the other dragon clans think Julius is a weakling. He gets absolutely no respect… until recently, when everything has turned around for Julius.

If you haven’t read the first two books, Nice Dragons Finish Last Read More

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Volume 5): The Pickens County Horror and Others: Three stories of regular B.R.P.D. agents facing the supernatural

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Volume 5): The Pickens County Horror and Others by Mike Mignola (writer), Scott Allie (writer), Jason Latour (art), Max Fiumara (art), James Harren (art), Dave Stewart (colors), Clem Robins (letters)

This volume collects three stories: “The Pickens County Horror,” “The Transformation of J. H. O’Donnell,” and “The Abyss of Time.” Liz is still missing and Abe Sapien is near death, so there are more regular B.P.R.D. recruits being sent out alone to deal with reports of the unnatural. That’s when two agents get called to Pickens County, a place that seems to be inhabited by vampires and perhaps other creatures. One of the agents, Vaughan, tells his partner about the time he went out on a mission with Hellboy and nothing happened. They are beginning to think this is another case with nothing to show. As they explore the countryside they discuss the tragedies occurring throughout the world as hell on earth seems... Read More