SFF Reviews

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Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls: Younger readers will enjoy the fresh setting

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

Kaela Rivera sets her novel Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls (2021) against a backdrop of Mexican/Meso-American/Southwestern folktales and legends, sending the titular protagonist on a quest to rescue her older sister. The story will probably mostly satisfy its target Middle Grade audience but is less likely to appeal to even slightly older readers.

Tierra del Sol is a remote town surrounded by desert that each year enacts a ritualist dance to frighten away the dark criaturas that have long threatened Cece’s people. Cece herself is too young for the dance and is as well more than a little distrusted by the townspeople due to an incident from her childhood. Her sister, on the other hand, is loved by all. Unfortunately, she’s also caught the eye of El Sombreron, one of the worst of the dark criaturas, and when he kidnaps her on the nigh... Read More

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human (2021), by Jeremy DeSilva, is an eminently readable non-fiction work. I read through it in as single sitting, propelled forward by DeSilva’s prose and enthusiasm, and I was captivated throughout, as well as ending up much better informed about our species’ evolution and bipedalism (along with learning why I’ve ended up with so many sprained ankles, inflamed Achilles, bad knees, and a bad back).

DeSilva is a paleoanthropologist, but more than that, he’s an expert in the foot. More than that, he’s an expert on the ankle. If that sounds an absurdly narrow focus, I’ll let him explain it:
We are trained this way [hyper specialization] because paleoanthropology is a science of fragments. In six weeks at a fossil site, we may find a couple of hominin teeth, and if we are lucky, a hom... Read More

Exiles of Tabat: Ancient magic and more threatens Tabat

Exiles of Tabat by Cat Rambo

Everything that made the Winter Gladiator Bella Kanto who she was has been stripped from her. She’s exiled from Tabat, the city she represented and loved, sent off to a distant outpost, guarded by a woman who hates her. Her only trustworthy companion is the dog who ran away from Duke Alberic at the quay and leaped aboard her ship at the last second. Bella doesn’t know who the dog is, but we do.

Bella not only faces the loss of all the trappings of her former exalted position. Hours of torture in the Duke’s dungeons have left her vulnerable, questioning everything she was. There’s a little more to those doubts that just the aftermath of torture; Bella’s recollection of what happened in the dungeons is distinctly different, in one respect, from what readers of Beasts of Tabat remember.
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The Sunken World: An exciting first novel with some interesting points to make

The Sunken World by Stanton A. Coblentz

Ever since reading the truly beautiful and unforgettable fantasy When the Birds Fly South (1945) around 3 ½ years back, I have wanted to experience another book from the San Francisco-born novelist and poet Stanton A. Coblentz. Unfortunately, just as “Coblentz” is not exactly a household name these days, his books are hardly to be found at your local modern-day bookstores. Coming to my rescue once again, however, were the fine folks at Armchair Fiction, who currently have no fewer than five of the author’s titles in their very impressive catalog. Choosing at random, I opted for Coblentz’s very first piece of fiction, The Sunken World … and a very fortuitous choice it has ... Read More

Wraiths of time: An American grad student becomes an African princess

Wraiths of time by Andre Norton

Tallahassee (Tally) Mitford, a graduate student who studies archaeology and African history, has been asked to examine some Egyptian artifacts that appear to be very old, important, powerful, and radioactive.

When one of the relics pulls her into a parallel universe, Tally finds herself in Meroë, an ancient Nubian kingdom located on the Nile River. She is completely helpless there with no status and the inability to speak the language. She has no idea how to get back home.

When she’s rescued by some women who are the companions of the recently deceased princess Ashake, she is asked to impersonate the princess and help Queen Candace fend off the attacks of a powerful man who hopes to subjugate these women who just want to rule themselves.

Andre... Read More

A Deadly Education: Fantastic originality

Reposting to include John's new review.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I honestly had a very hard time with the beginning of Naomi Novik’s newest novel, A Deadly Education (2020). But based on my experience with her prior work, I kept going and though I don’t think this novel nears the strength of ones like Spinning Silver or Uprooted, I was happy I did.

El (short for Galadriel) Higgins is a student at the Scholomance, a sort of sentient, no-professors-here, boarding school for sorcerers. Students have various tracks of magic, the school presents them with lessons, supplies,... Read More

Fugitive Telemetry: Murder on the Preservation Express

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Martha Wells continues her popular and highly-acclaimed MURDERBOT DIARIES series with another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (2021), which actually takes place before the only novel in the series so far, Network Effect. (So you could read this one before that novel, but you do need to read books 1-4 first.) At this point in time Murderbot, the introverted and snarky cyborg who is the narrator and the heart of this series, is a fairly new resident on Preservation, a planet outside of the callously capitalistic Corporate Rim. Murderbot is a companion to and protector of Dr. Mensah, one of the few humans Murderbot has gradually learned to trust. Although Preservation society isn’t entirely accepting of s... Read More

The Ikessar Falcon: Come for the fight scenes, stay for the dragons

The Ikessar Falcon by K.S. Villoso

The thing I loved the most about The Ikessar Falcon is the dragons. This second book in K.S. Villoso's CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN, published in 2020, has plenty of action, world-building, political intrigue and romantic conflicts, but in this book, we learn much more about the dragons, their connection to the magical substance agan, and their role in the nation of Jin-Sayeng.

This review may contain spoilers for the first book, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. By the way, Orbit, the publisher, has put the words “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen” right on the spine of the hardcopy books, so that’s what I’m calling it. Amazon chooses to call this series the “The Chronicles... Read More

Android at Arms: A prince wonders if he’s an android

Android at Arms by Andre Norton

This year Tantor Media has been producing audio editions of the Baen omnibus collections of Andre Norton’s science fiction stories. Gods and Androids (2004 in print, 2021 in audio) contains the two novels Android at Arms (1971) and Wraiths of Time (1975). I am reviewing the novels separately because that’s how they were originally released, and that’s usually been our practice here at Fantasy Literature. Each of these stories stands alone.

In the opening scene of Android at Arms, Andas Kastor comes to consciousness in some sort of automated jail cell on a harsh uninhabited planet. He has no idea how long he’s been there or how long he’s been in a state of delirium. In... Read More

The Cosmic Geoids and One Other: Take your vitamins!

The Cosmic Geoids and One Other by John Taine

It was Polish biochemist Casimir Funk who, in 1911, isolated the substance now known as vitamin B3. In 1912, Funk wrote a book called The Vitamines (he’d coined that term as a contraction of the words “vital amines”), in which he spoke of other, similar substances and their abilities to prevent various ailments. And then, the vitamin ball really got rolling, with sales of vitamins A and C rising steadily in the 1920s and ‘30s. Before the onset of WW2, it was learned that fully 1/3 of America’s enlisted men were suffering from assorted illnesses due to malnutrition, resulting in FDR convening the National Nutrition Conference for Defense. And in 1943, the very first “one-a-day” multivitamin was introduced to the U.S. populace. So yes, vitamins were indeed very much in the spotlight at this time, and it was perhaps these news reports that caused Scottish-born mat... Read More

Voorloper: A few humans try to make peace with a hostile planet

Voorloper by Andre Norton

Voorloper (1980) is the last novel collected in The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), Baen’s omnibus of Andre Norton stories. I’ve been reviewing the books individually (because they were originally released as separate novels), but it’s cost-effective and convenient to purchase them in the omnibus edition. Specifically, I’m reviewing Tantor Media’s new audio version of the omnibus, which is excellently narrated by L.J. Ganser.

The first three books in this omnibus are The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Read More

The Bone Maker: A solid novel

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

There’s a point almost exactly halfway through Sarah Beth Durst’s latest novel, The Bone Maker (2021), where the author teases us that the book we’ve been reading just might go in a completely different direction, prompting me to write in my notes, “Love this.” And then, well, it didn’t. Instead, as if the inertia were too great, we’re shortly steered back into a well-worn fantasy story, which, despite being mostly satisfying — with some moments that rose above that level and a few that pulled it below — had me wishing I could have gone back to that moment fifty-three percent of the way in and chosen the plot less traveled.

Twenty-five years ago, Kreya led her crew of magic-users (husband Jentt and friends Zera, S... Read More

A Question of Navigation: Ghastly, gory, and entertaining

A Question of Navigation by Kevin Hearne

While on a hike, Clint Beecham gets abducted by aliens. The aliens have decided that humans are tasty and that Earth will make a wonderful buffet for them. Along with Clint, they’ve kidnapped 50,000 humans and are on their way back to their mother planet where they will report the location of this big delicious feeding trough.

Most of the captured humans have been put into a cargo hold and are being harvested for food, but Clint and a few others have been set aside for a special purpose. They are scientists and mathematicians and are not only required to help the aliens with their calculations, but are also providing the entertainment. Because it’s fun for them, the aliens give them just enough hope and resources to induce these smart humans to try to get out of their predicament.

Can Clint and his new allies save themselves from being eaten by aliens? And do they care en... Read More

The X Factor: An outsider makes friends on a cold planet

The X Factor by Andre Norton

The X Factor (1965) is the third short novel contained in The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), Baen’s omnibus of Norton stories that also contains The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), and Voorloper (1980). Tantor Media has recently published an audio version of the omnibus, but I’m reviewing the books separately because that’s the way they were originally published. I love that Baen and Tantor have reprinted these old novels for new readers in these formats.

Diskan Fentress thinks of himself a... Read More

Finna: It’s a LitenVärld after all

Finna by Nino Cipri

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated wandering through the endless maze of rooms that is IKEA, it’s not hard to imagine that there are hidden passages that lead, not to a secret shortcut to an exit, but to another world entirely. Nino Cipri’s Nebula Award-nominated novella Finna (2020) takes that concept and adds to it a timely set of social concerns, ranging from gender identity to the evils of capitalism generally and low-wage retail jobs in particular.

Ava is a sales associate at LitenVärld (Swedish for “small world”), the fictional equivalent of IKEA, down to the gigantic parking lot and blue-and-yellow box-shaped exterior, not to mention the labyrinthine interior layout. Ava is disgruntled because she’s been called in to work on her day off, when her only desire is to stay home, binge on Netflix and Florence and the Machine, and try to recuperate from her... Read More

Eye of the Monster: Colonized crocs get revenge

Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton

Tantor Media has published an audio version of Baen’s The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), an omnibus that contains these four novels by Andre Norton: The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), The X Factor (1965), and Voorloper (1980). Each of these short novels stands alone and they are all set in Norton's Council/Confederation universe. I’m reviewing them separately, because that’s what we like to do here, but it’s wonderful that they’re now available in these cost-effective omnibus editions.

Like The Sioux Spaceman... Read More

B.P.R.D.: 1948: A Great Follow-Up to 1947

B.P.R.D.: 1948 by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Max Fiumara (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer)

This is another early B.P.R.D. story, this one taking place in 1948. The B.P.R.D. headquarters have been moved from New Mexico to New England. The professor is still magically visited in his office by Varvara, the little Russian girl who oversees the supernatural branch of the Russian government. She is always written well by Mignola, who is accompanied by Arcudi on writing duties this time. And I particularly like it when she tells the professor that he is a “strange little moth. . . . You can’t find enough flames to burn your wings on, so you light your own.” This line captures well the uncanny insight of the young girl who is wise beyond her apparent years.

The professor and the B.P.R.D. are called to a science facility in Utah when scientists start getting killed by a giant bird-like cr... Read More

The Sioux Spaceman: Beware the Horsemen of the Stars

The Sioux Spaceman by Andre Norton

Tantor Media has published an audio version of Baen’s The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), an omnibus that contains these four novels by Andre Norton: The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), The X Factor (1965), and Voorloper (1980). Each of these short novels stands alone but they are all set in Norton's Council/Confederation universe. I’m going to review them separately, because that’s what we like to do here, but it’s wonderful that they’re now available in cost-effective omnibus editions in print and audio formats.

In The Sioux Spaceman we meet Kade Whitehawk, a young man of Native American (Lakota) desce... Read More

The Twilight Zone: One of the finest anthology series of all time

The Twilight Zone created by Rod Serling

Viewers who tuned in to CBS at 10 PM on October 2, 1959, a Friday, to try out the brand-new show with the unusual title The Twilight Zone could have had little idea that the program they were about to watch would soon develop into one of the legendary glories of 1960s television. Today, of course, The Twilight Zone needs no introduction. For most of us — at least, for those of us younger than 65 years old — it is a show that has always been with us, and one that has been in constant rotation on cable TV. The very name of the program has entered into the everyday lexicon of the average man on the street, supplanting the dictionary definition of “twilight zone” as “a narrow zone in which a pilot flying at the edge of the on-course radio beam can detect both the on-course and off-course signals.” For most of us now, thanks to the ageless power of this program, the “twilight zone” re... Read More

Machinehood: A near-future SF thriller that feels realistic

Machinehood by S.B. Divya

“If they get everyone to stop taking pills and give bots equal rights, humanity is screwed.”

It’s 2095 and humans rely on drugs to stay healthy as well as physically and cognitively competitive in a gig economy where they must compete with artificial intelligence for jobs.

Cameras everywhere tend to keep violent urges in check, so life is fairly peaceful for Welga Ramirez, a 35-year-old physically-upgraded bodyguard who’s happy to have steady employment (most people don’t) and is looking forward to being transferred to a desk job soon. She’s also thinking about turning her passion for “slow cooking” into a business in which her hired chefs will use performance-enhancing drugs to speed up their kitchens.

But when the Machinehood strikes, publicly assassinating Welga’s current client and threatening all of the pill producers, the government asks Welga... Read More

Hilda and the Black Hound: A slightly scarier adventure for our Hilda

Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson

The fourth book in the HILDA series by Luke Pearson sees our little blue-haired adventurer grappling with two brand new mysteries. Taking place in a Scandinavian-inspired setting filled with all sorts of mythological creatures, Hilda and her mother have recently moved to the city after their log-cabin was destroyed — and Hilda is finding it a bit difficult to adjust.

Her mother suggests she join the Sparrow Scouts, something she was involved with as a little girl, which will give Hilda the opportunity to once again enjoy the outdoors. Immediately struck by the idea of collecting badges, Hilda embraces the club and its motto: to be a friend to all people, animals and spirits.

It’s for this reason she’s confused when her mother refuses to let he... Read More

Hummingbird Salamander: VanderMeer’s unique take on the eco-thriller

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Hummingbird Salamander
(2021) is Jeff VanderMeer’s newest work, and it may also be his most accessible. Certainly it’s his least strange, though admittedly with VanderMeer that’s not saying much. Though if he’s working in more familiarly popular territory — the thriller novel — there’s no doubt VanderMeer puts his own stamp on the genre, whether he’s working within its tropes or subverting them.

Chapter One opens ominously enough, as any good thriller should — “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this” — and ends even more so — “I’m here to show you how the world ends.” The stakes have clearly been set. Our narrator, who won’t tell us her real name, offering up “Jane Smith” as her none-too-imaginative alternative, is seemingly set... Read More

Hilda and the Bird Parade: Hilda’s adventures continue

Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson

The third book in the HILDA series by Luke Pearson sees our blue-haired adventurer in quite different surroundings. After the events of Hilda and the Midnight Giant, Hilda and her mother have moved to the city, far away from the open spaces of the countryside and the multitude of magical creatures that live there.

Still, Hilda is trying to make the best of it, even if her mother is far more nervous about her roaming the city by herself than she was the country. But when some friends from school unexpectedly turn up at her door, Hilda is allowed to accompany them as they show her the sights of the neighbourhood.

Pearson writes with nuance: y... Read More

Time Jumpers: A satisfactory ending to this MG fantasy series

Time Jumpers by Brandon Mull

Anyone who’s read the first four installments of Brandon Mull’s FIVE KINGDOMS series for middle graders will undoubtedly want to read the fifth and concluding volume, Time Jumpers (2018). We all want to know if Cole and his friends will be able to escape the Outskirts and return home, and we want to know if the kids’ families and friends will still remember them!

This time Cole is visiting the last of the five kingdoms: Creon. Here he will confront the high king (whose daughters he’s been rescuing as he travels around the five kingdoms), attempt to stop an evil shaper from destroying the world, and investigate a rumor suggesting there may be a way to get himself and his friends home and restore their parents’ memories.

In Time Jumper... Read More

Exit Strategy: Murderbot to the rescue

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Murderbot, the snarky, introverted cyborg hero of Martha WellsTHE MURDERBOT DIARIES series, returns from its trip to Milu, the deserted terraforming facility in space. The cyborg Security Unit ― which has committed the unprecedented crime of hacking its “governor” that required it to obey orders ― was searching on Milu for additional evidence against the evil-ridden corporation GrayCris, as related in the third novella in this series, Rogue Protocol. Because of key evidence found on the Milu trip, Murderbot decides it needs to meet face-to-face with Dr. Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s owner and possibly also its friend … though Murderbot would s... Read More