SFF Reviews

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Black Widow: Enjoyable, but not the best entry in the MCU

Black Widow directed by Cate Shortland

Black Widow is an almost always entertaining and often exciting film, though it has its issues. And while they’re the kind of problems that you have to think about a little, making it easy to glide by them amidst the witty banter and multiple explosions, they do lead to a sense that the movie missed some opportunities and thus prevent it from staking its place in the top tier of Marvel films (some minor spoilers to come).

The movie opens two decades ago with an absolutely great first scene that shifts from classic suburban domestic bliss to violence and terror, setting up all the plot points to follow. Natasha, having already been trained in the Red Room, is part of a Soviet sleeper cell family (think The Americans) with her “father” Alexei (aka The Red Guardian, Russia’s more boastful and less intelligent/eloquent version of Captain America), her brilliant if amoral scientist “mot... Read More

The Second Deluge: Rain, rain, go away….

The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss

It is the Indian state of Meghalaya, just north of Bangladesh, the holds the record for being “The Wettest Spot on Earth,” getting, on average, a whopping total of 467” of rain a year. (Do bring an umbrella if you’re planning a visit!) But while this 38-foot tally, 13 times what Seattle might expect annually, is certainly impressive, it pales to insignificance compared to what descends from the heavens in Garrett P. Serviss’ 1911 novel The Second Deluge, in which, due to a cosmic mischance, no fewer than 30,000 feet of rain fall upon our fair planet in under one year … enough to effectively drown the entire world, past the tippy top of Mt. Everest itself! A wonderfully written novel that is fairly epic in scope, it is a sadly neglected apocalyptic work that is surely ripe for rediscovery in our modern-day era... Read More

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: The genesis of the Hunger Games

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I loved Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, thought Catching Fire was quite good if not as great as the first one, and was only so-so on Mockingjay. Also, it's an uphill battle to write a good, enjoyable prequel if the reader already knows what's going to happen to the main character in the later books and (spoiler) it's highly unpleasant. So I hesitated for over a year to read Collin’s latest HUNGER GAMES book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2020), but when I saw it... Read More

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 3): Russia: If there is horror to be found, the B.P.R.D. will find it!

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 3): Russia by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Tyler Crook (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer).

As in all my reviews of long series, I do give spoilers for previous books in the series, so I can now mention the major event of volume 2: Abe is shot by the runaway teenager Fenix, and at the close of the volume, Abe seems to be brain dead and barely alive physically. I can also mention what happened when he was shot: Devon observed the shooting, but he not only did not arrest the girl, he let her go. And he reported officially that he had no idea who shot Abe. We find out at the beginning of this book that Devon has been sent to find Fenix (and who shot Abe, if possible). Devon travels the railroads in boxcars, seeking for word of Fenix.

Meanwhile, Johann and Kate fly to Moscow to investigate a supernatural event. They meet with the director there, who seems more fort... Read More

The Tomorrow War: Fails at nearly every level

The Tomorrow War directed by Chris McKay

There’s really no way to sugarcoat this. The Tomorrow War is one of the worst movies I have seen in years, in or out of genre. Outside of some likable performances, the film fails at nearly every level: premise, look, pace, plot, and dialogue (so of course, a sequel is already on tap). I’d say it was a waste of two-plus hours, save that it was so bad that we ended up fast-forwarding through whole chunks once we realized we somehow had over an hour left, so we only wasted about 90 minutes of our lives. So no, I don’t recommend it. One or two spoilers (though as I’ll explain that word is a misnomer in this case) to follow

The film opens with Chris Pratt’s character Dan finding out during a gathering at his house to watch a big soccer game that he’s lost out on a big job he’d been going for. After kicking over a garbage can and getting comforted by his adorable daughter ... Read More

The Midnight Bargain: A charming frolic of a book

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk 

By the bottom of the second full page of text, when the protagonist of The Midnight Bargain (2020) walked into Harriman’s Bookshop, I was hooked. When Beatrice Clayborn entered the second-hand shop and I saw it through her eyes, the book claimed me, not unlike the way a spirit might claim a sorceress in Beatrice’s magical world.

It’s bargaining season, or marriage season in Beatrice’s world, and young women of the upper classes, like Beatrice, jostle and compete for the hand of a suitable husband. Suitability is decided by their fathers, of course, and usually determined based on wealth, status and influence.

Beatrice loathes the bargaining season. She wants to study magic and become a full-blown Mage, a path closed to women, especially upper-class wome... Read More

A Desert Torn Asunder: Jump on in, the series is fine! (and finished)

A Desert Torn Asunder by Bradley P. Beaulieu

If you’re like me, you’re always a bit wary of starting a new series that is obviously going to go on for some time. So much can go wrong: will the next book come out in my lifetime? Will the series go downhill at book three? Will the author actually finish it? So having just read A Desert Torn Asunder (2021), the conclusion to Bradley P. Beaulieu’s THE SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS, I’m happily adding it to my list of highly recommended DIRTI (Despite Its Required Time Investment) series. Hmm, maybe I should work on that acronym a bit more.

Beaulieu’s sixth book brings this excellent series to a proper close, offering up a number of exciting battle scenes, several one-on-one tense confrontations, and a realignment on scales ranging from the local (the desert and city of Sharakhai) to the cosmic. I’m not going to do the usual plot sum... Read More

The Witness for the Dead: A clerical elven sleuth seeking justice for the dead

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

The Witness for the Dead is the long-hoped-for sequel to Katherine Addison’s marvelous and unusual 2014 fantasy, The Goblin Emperor, in which we met Maia, a half-goblin, half-elf young man who unexpectedly inherited the throne of the elf kingdom when his father, the emperor, was killed along with his brothers in an airship explosion. Thara Celehar, an elven prelate and a Witness for the Dead, was a minor character in that novel who investigated the airship accident at Maia’s request and eventually was able to unearth the truth of why it occurred.

The Witness for the Dead is more of a companion novel set in the same world, rather than a ... Read More

Victory on Janus: A weak ending

Victory on Janus by Andre Norton

Victory on Janus (1966) is the sequel to Andre Norton’s Judgment on Janus (1963). The two novels make up the JANUS duology (Baen, 2002) which has recently been published by Tantor Media as an audiobook (2021). Gabriel Vaughan, the narrator, gives an excellent performance.

In Judgment on Janus, we met Naill Renfro, who was an indentured servant on the frontier planet of Janus. After touching a forbidden “treasure,” he turned into one of the green-skinned people who used to live and thrive on Janus. This ancient race no longer exists, it seems, but humans who find the treasures become changelings who, like Naill, are equipped with some he... Read More

A Broken Darkness: Nick’s in more trouble than ever

A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed

At the end of Beneath the Rising, the first book in Premee Mohamed’s cosmic horror trilogy of the same name, I thought narrator Nick Prasad couldn’t be worse off. Yes, he and his prodigy friend Joanna “Johnny” Chambers had closed an interdimensional rift and stopped the Ancient Ones from invading earth, but at the end Nick is left heartbroken, betrayed and disillusioned by what he has learned about Johnny. Like I said, I didn’t think it could get worse for him.

I was so wrong.

This review contains mild spoilers for Beneath the Rising.

Johnny and Nick did manage to close the rift, but it was open for nearly two minutes. In that time period,... Read More

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: Tea and empathy

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambersfirst novella in the MONK AND ROBOT series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021), is a lovely and optimistic tale of a tea monk who, while seeking an answer to the question of “What am I looking for?” meets a robot looking for an answer to the question of “What do you need, and how can I help?” More generally, the robot is trying to answer the question of what all people need, but upon the moon of Panga (or anywhere you might find humans, truthfully), that’s not exactly a simple question to answer.

Sibling Dex, the tea monk, is an acolyte of Allalae (God of Small Comforts, represented as a bear), one of the six gods of Panga. Dex has been a tea monk for only a few years, having left Panga’s only City in searc... Read More

Rule of Wolves: A time of love and war in the Grishaverse

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

Rule of Wolves, the second half of Leigh Bardugo’s NIKOLAI DUOLOGY, picks up right where King of Scars left off and flings the reader headlong into the story. In other words, if it’s been a while since you read King of Scars, you’d be well advised to refamiliarize yourself at least a little with its plot; if you haven’t yet read that book, don’t start with this one.

The Russia-inspired country of Ravka and its king, Nikolai Lantsov, are beset by threats from both without and within. To the north, the wintry country of Fjerda, which rejects the magical Grisha as evil, is making preparations to invade, and Fjerda has a substantial edge i... Read More

Judgment on Janus: A good introduction to classic SF for an MG or YA audience

Judgment on Janus by Andre Norton

Naill Renfro lives in The Dipple, a ghetto on the pleasure planet of Korwar (same setting as in Catseye). He and his mother arrived there years ago as refugees when their home was destroyed by a space war. Now his mother is dying and she’s in a lot of pain and anguish. To purchase a final gift and a peaceful death for his mother, Naill sells himself into indentured servitude on a frontier planet called Janus.

When Naill arrives on Janus, he is put to work in the fields where the citizens seem to be battling the forest. They are chopping down trees as fast as they can.

Naill and the other servants are warned not to touch any artifacts they find as they work. These items are called “treasures” and they’re destroyed as soon as they’re found because they’re cursed. According to the ove... Read More

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 2): Gods and Monsters: Abe confronts a teenager with second sight

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 2): Gods and Monsters by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Tyler Crook (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Clem Robins (letterer).

This volume consists of two stories: “Gods” and “Monsters”. “Gods,” the primary story in this volume, introduces us to a great new character: Fenix, a sixteen-year-old girl who seems to be able to sense things before they happen. She is on the road as a runaway, but she befriends other teenagers on their own for various reasons. Given that she got them out of town before the last catastrophe hit, they trust her for her intuition to keep them ahead of impending doom, particularly in Houston, which was destroyed by a volcano. Fenix got her friends out of town at the last possible second.

Back at the base of operations for the B.P.R.D., Kate forces a sit-down conversation between Devon and Abe. Abe wants Devon fired because Devon has a... Read More

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).

Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square k... Read More

The Rock Eaters: Strongest story collection I’ve read in some time

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado

It has been quite a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories that so completely and consistently won me over. I’m typically satisfied if roughly half the stories in a collection work for me and thrilled if three-quarters do. But Brenda Peynado hit it out of the ballpark with The Rock Eaters, with stories that range almost entirely from good (a few) to excellent (most) to wonderfully, lingeringly strange and powerful (many). It’s easily the best story collection I’ve read in years, a must-read mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fabulist fiction, horror, and even a realistic story in there, with all the inherent blurring of genre lines those arbitrary categories convey. Think of a George Saunders or Kelly Link type of story, though Peynado is absolutely her own writer; there is nothing derivative here.

The book’s strengths are both plenti... Read More

Theodore Savage: An absolutely splendid post-apocalyptic work

Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton

By the time WW1 ended in 1918, London-born Cicely Hamilton had already earned a name for herself as an advocate for both women’s rights and marriage equality. As one of Britain’s most vocal suffragettes, she’d campaigned for the right of women to vote; as a renowned playwright, she’d written socially biting works for the stage, and indeed, her suffrage dramas How the Vote Was Won (1909) and A Pageant of Great Women (1910) were both highly successful. But during the Great War, Hamilton also served in France, both in a nursing unit and in a revue for the entertainment of the troops, and her wartime experiences soon resulted in her penning her one and only science fiction novel, entitled Theodore Savage.

A wonderfully well written and emotionally affectin... Read More

For the Good of the Realm: Genderswapped swordplay for Three Musketeers fans

For the Good of the Realm by Nancy Jane Moore

2021’s For the Good of the Realm is a gender-swapped swashbuckler heavily inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Author Nancy Jane Moore creates a world of nation-states much like France and its neighbors of the Musketeers. Against this backdrop, Anna D’Gart, a swordswoman in the Queen’s Guards, serves the queen and the realm against enemies foreign and domestic — although one domestic adversary is powerful, and Anna finds herself swimming in very deep waters.

In the opening chapter, Anna and her friend Asamir are given a secret assignment to recover a necklace the Queen gave to an admirer, because the King wants her to wear it at an upcoming ball. Fans of The Three Musketeers will recognize this plot. In this adventure, we the readers learn that the King and Queen shar... Read More

We Are Satellites: A science fiction novel that will stay in your head

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Often in magical realism, a writer takes one little bit of magic and plunks it into an otherwise entirely realistic story, like adding a single drop of blue food dye into a glass of water that remains water, but water newly, wholly colored by that one tiny drop. In Sarah Pinsker’s novel, We Are Satellites (2021), we have what one might class science-fictional realism; she eschews building the usual futuristic world full of advances and instead offers up a single drop in the form of the Pilot, a brain implant that allows the wearers to multitask without loss of focus, making them incredibly efficient.

Pinsker further narrows the story by focusing like a laser on a single family and the varying impact the introduction of the Pilot into society has on each member, crafting a quiet, character-drive... Read More

Quest Crosstime: A slightly sloppy story with some prescient ideas

Quest Crosstime by Andre Norton

Quest Crosstime (1965) is Andre Norton’s second and final story about Blake Walker, a man who has the precognitive ability to sense when he’s in danger. Quest Crosstime is combined with The Crossroads of Time (1956), the first novel about Blake Walker, in the Crosstime omnibus which was published by Baen books in 2008 and has recently been released in an audiobook edition by Tantor Media. Graham Rowat gives a nice retro-sounding performance in Tantor’s audiobook edition which is 12 hours long (for both books).

At the beginning of Quest Crosstime we meet Marfy, a young woman who has just landed on a... Read More

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 1): New World: Abe Sapien Tackles Monsters with an Old Friend from the B.P.R.D.

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 1): New World by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer).

This volume jumps back and forth between Abe out in the field and what is going on at the B.P.R.D. base back in Colorado. At the base, Kate is trying to manage all the teams in the field, Johann is still obsessed with the possibility of getting another body so he can feel physical sensations again, and Devon is assigned his own mission in France. Meanwhile, come-to-life mummy Panya seems to be manipulating creatures on the base for her own secret purposes.

Out in the field, Abe tracks down an old friend and fellow-agent who went missing in previous B.P.R.D. volumes. The two of them work together to figure out what mysterious creature is haunting the woods and what connection it might have to the large number of disappearances in a nearby small town. At the center of the... Read More

The Golem and the Jinni: A magical mural of the immigrant experience

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

A Genie. A golem. Nineteenth-century New York City. Boy, did I want to love this book. Drawn by its come-hither characters, its promise of poetry, and by its dark side in the form of a truly nasty character, I really, really wanted to love it. And truth is, I liked The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. But in the well-trod words of middle school, I didn’t “like like” it. Oh, it was fun, it made me smile sometimes and think sometimes and feel a bit sad at other times. I enjoyed hanging out with it for the length of its near-500 pages. But, despite that fire-genie at its heart, there just wasn’t that spark. I just wanted to be friends.

We meet our two fantastical characters early on via two different storylines. The Golem, Chava, travels to 1899 New York on a steamer and finds herself ashore in... Read More

This Virtual Night: An entertaining SF thriller

This Virtual Night by C.S. Friedman

C.S. Friedman’s This Virtual Night (2020) is billed as book two in her OUTWORLDS/ALIEN SHORES series but these novels are, so far, stand-alone stories set in the same universe. Thus, you don’t need to have read the first book, This Alien Shore (1998), though I’d recommend doing so anyway because it was fabulous. All you need to know about Friedman’s world is that, long ago, the humans who left Earth to colonize other galaxies evolved in ways that their fellow humans who remained on Earth find repulsive. There is little communication or cooperation between Earth and the outworld “Variants,” though some people on earth are trying to reconcile the two groups.

... Read More

The Crossroads of Time: Chasing a tyrant across parallel Earths

The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton

Recently, Tantor Audio has been releasing audiobook editions of many of Andre Norton’s stories which have been combined in omnibus editions originally published by Baen Books. I’ve been reviewing each novel separately because that’s our preference here at Fantasy Literature, but I love that readers can purchase these relatively short novels in cost-effective omnibus editions, and I am especially pleased that these stories are finally available in audiobook format.

Crosstime contains two stories about Blake Walker, an orphan who doesn’t know where he comes from and has an uncanny ability to sense imminent danger. In the first story, The Crossroads of Time, which was originally published in 1956, Blake is shaving when he gets a sudden a... Read More

Project Hail Mary: Mixed opinions

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

It’s alarming to wake up from a coma in completely unfamiliar surroundings, tethered to a bed by tubes and electrodes, with a computer voice quizzing you and robotic arms controlling your movements. It’s even more disturbing when you realize that you have no recollection of your name or your past life, and that there are two long-dead bodies in the room with you.

But gradually, through a series of flashback memories, Ryland Grace remembers that Earth is facing an extinction event: a Russian scientist discovered that a strange line has developed between the sun and Venus, and it’s causing the sun to lose energy at a rate that’s high enough to cause a worldwide ice age in the next few decades. Grace, a disgraced molecular biologist who abandoned academia to teach middle school science, was one of the scientists investigating the un... Read More