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Raybearer: Deserves its accolades

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Tarisai, who has the magical gift of being able to perceive the memories of objects and people, has always lived a sheltered life in her mother’s large house. She rarely sees her mysterious mother and is taken care of by unfriendly servants and tutors who are rigorously educating her for some unknown task. Lonely, Tarisai longs for companionship, travel, freedom, and a sense of purpose.

When she is 11 years old, without any explanation, Tarisai’s mother sends her to the capital to compete to be one of the crown prince’s 11 counselors. If she is chosen, she will live with the other young counselors and the Prince for the rest of her life, as they rule their country together through a magical bond called the Ray. However, Tarisai’s mother, who wants revenge for something the royal family did to her years ago, has placed a geas on Tarisai -- as soon as Tarisai is sworn in as one of the counselors, s... Read More

Project Hail Mary: Even better than The Martian

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 unique microorganisms, christened Astrophage, causing the sun’s ... Read More

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

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 Forbidden Garden: Lucky 13

The Forbidden Garden by John Taine

Once again, it has been impressed upon me how very unfair the modern-day world of publishing has been to the Scottish-born author John Taine. Taine, whose career as a novelist extended from 1924 - ’54 – while at the same time that he plied his “day job” as a mathematician and professor under his given name, Eric Temple Bell – produced 14 works of fiction during that time, the bulk of which have been OOPs (out of prints) for many years. Some cases in point: His 1934 novel Before the Dawn, which I recently wrote of here, has not been reissued since 1975. His next two novels, Twelve Eighty-Seven (1935) and Tomorrow (1939), have never been reprinted since their initial pu... Read More

Rogue Protocol: Can humans and bots be friends?

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Martha Wells’ endearingly grumpy cyborg Security Unit Murderbot returns with a vengeance in Rogue Protocol (2018), the third novella in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series. In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot heads off to Milu, a deserted terraforming facility in space, to investigate the past of a murky group called GrayCris, which we originally met in the first book in this series, the Nebula award-winning All Systems Red. GrayCris appears to be intent on illegally collecting the extremely valuable remnants of alien civilizations. To all appearances Milu is an abandoned project of GrayCris, but Murderbot sus... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear: The End of a Hellboy Universe Trilogy

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear continues the story started in volumes 10: The Warning and 11: The Black Goddess, and since it is deep into the history of the Hellboy universe, this is not the place to start reading Hellboy or B.P.R.D. Instead, start with Hellboy volume one. These volumes do not read well out-of-order.

In King of Fear, the surprising return of Lobster Johnson at the end of volume 11 is explained: He has somehow taken over Johann’s form, and Johann seems to have vanished in his being replaced by the Lobster. Kate returns to Munich with Lobster Johnson in tow, and she meets up with her romantic interest, Bruno. Bruno and Kate go on a journey together in hopes that Lo... Read More

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive by Carl Zimmer

In the past year alone, humans have landed multiple devices on Mars, retrieved samples from the Moon and not one but two asteroids, delved ever deeper into the Earth, and shattered records for the recovery of DNA from ever-older specimens. Meanwhile, plans are being hatched to zip a helicopter around Titan to examine its pools of liquid hydrocarbons, fly a probe through the geysers of Enceladus to collect samples, scoop surface ice off Europa, and use the next generation of space telescope to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets light-years away. All in the search for life.

Given all that time, effort, and money, one could be forgiven for assuming that we know what we’re looking for. But, as Carl Zimmer makes explicitly clear in his newest popular science work, Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive (2021), that’s ... Read More

One Day All This Will Be Yours: How I learned to love the time travel bomb

One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

What’s a grumpy, misanthropic time traveling warrior to do? Governments and factions have misused time travel machines, each using their time machines to remake the past in the way they want it to be, over and over again. Time travel machines really are the ultimate weapon: if you go back far enough you can change history enough that your enemy never has a chance. Except that your enemy’s time traveling agents are cut off from those changes, so they’re still around to try to change history in a different way that favors them. And then there are Causality Bombs, “[f]or when regular time travel just can’t mess up continuity enough.” Now the past is irretrievably broken into shards and splinters.

So our surly main character, the last survivor of the time soldiers, has set himself up as a gatekeeper in a distant future to make sure it never happens again past hi... Read More

Wild Sign: The call of the Wild Singer

Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

A woman goes hiking with her dog in the northern California mountains, searching for the hidden settlement her father calls home. After a long search she finds the encampment — really a small town — but her father is gone, along with every other person who lived in Wild Sign. Some time later, two FBI agents pay a surprise visit to Anna and Charles Cornick in Aspen Creek, Montana. The agents lay their cards on the table: The FBI is looking for an alliance with the werewolves, and because of past interactions they’ve concluded that Anna is likely the Marrok, the werewolf who rules them all (which leads to an amusing scene with Bran Cornick, who is).

The agents suggest that the werewolves might be interested in helping to investigate the disappearance of the town of Wild Sign, especially since part of the town was located on land now owned by the Marrok’s pack, and originally owned by Leah Cornick... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 12): War on Frogs: Defeating the frogs one battle at a time

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 12): War on Frogs by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Herb Trimpe (artist), Guy Davis (artist), John Severin (artist), Peter Snejbjerg (artist), Karl Moline (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Bjarne Hansen (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer).

The events in B.P.R.D. (Vol. 12): War on Frogs do not take place between volumes 11 and 13; instead, volume 12 is a flashback of sorts and should probably be read after B.P.R.D. (Vol. 5): The Black Flame.

In the first story, Kate finds Abe and offers him a look at an old file about Abe’s seeing the two frog brothers under Cavendish Hall, both of whom probably perished with the collapse of the Hall. But since they were the first frog creatures the B.P.R.D. ever encountered, Kate thinks it wise to send out a small group to reexamine the ruins. She hopes Abe will lead them, but Roger doe... Read More

Trouble the Saints: A deeply, darkly magical Americana novel

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Trouble the Saints (2020), by Alaya Dawn Johnson, follows three people of color — Phyllis (whose friends call her Pea), Tamara and Dev — from the late 1930s into the American involvement in World War II. Not one of them is “ordinary”; Pea and Dev have “saint’s hands” that bestow a gift … or a curse. Tamara has inherited a deck of playing cards, and she’s an oracle. When the story opens, all three are trying to make a living working for the white gangster Victor in New York City.

Phyllis is light-skinned enough to pass for white, which she does, and the hands have given her the power to throw anything with amazing accuracy. She can balance things on her knuckles and the tips of her fingers; whatever she throws a knife at, she hits. The gangsters call her “Victor’s Angel,” meaning Angel of Death, and she is his assassin.
... Read More

A Desolation Called Peace: Wonderfully rich and nuanced

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace (2021) is Arkady Martine’s direct sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which was one of my favorite works in 2019. While not quite as strong, the standard being set so high simply means A Desolation Called Peace is an “excellent” rather than “great” read, and thus one that is easy to recommend.

As noted, this is a direct sequel, so you’ll definitely need to have read the first book before stepping into this one. The main characters — some familiar, some new — include:

Mahit Dzmare: resident of Lsel Station and former (well, technically current, but it’s complicated) ambassador to Teix... Read More

Empire of Wild: A First Nations writer on love, loss and rogarous

Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis writer and activist from the Georgian Bay Métis Nation in Ontario, Canada. She has received a number of awards for her novels and short stories, none of which I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading — but after reading Empire of Wild (2020), I’m definitely going to track them down. Her use of First Nations themes and folklore is fascinating, and a delightful change from the many fantasies based on European images and tales.

Dimaline has set Empire of Wild in Arcand, a tiny Canadian town full of halfbreeds (the author’s word, first used on p. 1 and repeated throughout the novel) — the offspring of French voyageur fathers and First Nations mothers, part of the Métis people — on the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario. The indigenous people have been constantly moved away from the shoreline, replaced by million-d... Read More

The Land of the Lost: A cause for celebration

The Land of the Lost  by Roy Norton

A little while back, I had some words to say concerning Roy Norton’s 1919 novel The Glyphs, the Kewanee, Illinois native’s fourth and final novel containing fantastic content, in a career highlighted by numerous Western novels as well. The Glyphs, as I mentioned, was a compact affair, and a pleasing one, dealing with a sextet of adventurers and their explorations of a lost Mayan city in northern Guatemala. It was a novel that had gone OOP (out of print) for 95 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it in the autumn of 2020 for a new generation to discover. Well, now I am here to tell you about still another novel by Norton, another lost-race affair that went OOPs for a full ... Read More

The Wood Wife: A quiet, intimate novel

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Our heroine, Maggie, is reeling from her divorce and drifting rather aimlessly through life — she considers herself a poet but hasn't written a poem in years.

Then, her mentor dies mysteriously — drowned in a dry creekbed — and inexplicably leaves her his house in the Southwestern desert. She moves there, hoping to research a biography of him. At first, Maggie doesn't like the desert; it seems sterile, forbidding, devoid of charm. Then one night a pooka cuddles up to her in bed, and nothing is the same after that...

Maggie soon discovers a world of magic in the desert (and we, the readers, discover it right along with her), and digs up some fascinating secrets about her mentor's life. And suddenly, all the pieces come together.

Both a mystery and a fantasy, The Wood Wife (199... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 11): The Black Goddess: The search for a missing agent continues

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 11): The Black Goddess by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

The Black Goddess is the second volume of the Scorched Earth Trilogy, and it continues the events started in Volume 10: The Warning. But it also is a story that is far into the Hellboy universe, and thus this is not a good place to start reading. Begin with Hellboy volume one and read that series before reading the B.P.R.D. series in order as well.

In The Black Goddess, Abe, Kate, Johann, and Devon are still on the hunt for Liz and her captor Gilfryd, who has warned Liz and Abe repeatedly that the frog creatures will lead the world to a massive catastrophe. Abe apparently has some important role to play in these future events, as does Liz, but we are still unclear about what thos... Read More

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma Chapman

In First Light (2021), Emma Chapman covers the earliest eras of the universe’s existence, particularly focusing on what astronomers, due to their lack of information, call the “Dark Ages,” from about 380,000 years to one billion years after the Big Bang occurred. Even more specifically, her interest lies with the creation of the first stars and the current attempt to find out more about them.

Despite the focus, Chapman manages to bring in a host of other astronomical discoveries/investigations: the Cosmic Microwave background, inflation, dark matter, space telescopes, radio astronomy, Fast Radio Bursts, black holes, the Great Oxygenation Event, and others. She also goes on a variety of non-astronomical tangents involving King Tut’s tomb and pigeons (yes, pigeons).

Chapman does an excellent job explaining some compli... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 10): The Warning: The start of an excellent trilogy

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 10): The Warning by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters) 

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 10): The Warning, along with B.P.R.D. (Vol. 11): The Black Goddess and B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear, make up the Scorched Earth Trilogy. In The Warning, Lobster Johnson becomes an important figure, so reading the Lobster Johnson series at this point might make sense for some readers, though the series can be read on its own. In other words, in The Warning, many of the strands from various parts of the Hellboy universe are starting to come together. At this point, if you haven’t read a good portion of the Hellboy series and the B.P.R.D. series up to volume ten, then you are going to very lost picking up this book. I suggest sta... Read More

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The harrowing adventures of two brave fox kits

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

One chilly autumn night, seven fox kits beg their mother for a scary story, “[s]o scary our eyes fall out of our heads.” Don’t go to the Bog Cavern, she tells them, because the old storyteller lives there, and the tale she would tell them would be so scary it would put white in their tails. So naturally the seven kits scamper off through the woods to the Bog Cavern as soon as their mother is asleep, and beg the spooky-looking storyteller for a scary story.
“All scary stories have two sides,” the storyteller said. “Like the bright and dark of the moon. If you’re brave enough to listen and wise enough to stay to the end, the stories can shine a light on the good in the world.”
But, she warns, kits who lose heart and don’t stay until the end of the stories may lose all hope and be too frightened to ever leave their den again. Then she embarks on a se... Read More

Remote Control: A gently moving and thoughtful novella

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Remote Control (2021) is the newest novella from Nnedi Okorafor, a quiet, interior-focused and episodic work that is at times a haunting, tragic coming of age tale of magic and mystery, at other times a concisely and sharply effective observer of modern trends, and, depending on the reader, at other times a frustratingly vague story full of unanswered questions. Overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit, finding it to be the sort of story that lingers in the head.

Six-year-old Fatima lives a happy family life in a near-future Ghana despite her frequent bouts with malaria. But when a meteor shower filled with “beautiful green streaks decorating the sky” drops at the base of her favorite tree a “seed [that] glowed a bright green [with] light seeping from it like oil,” it changes her life and those of everyon... Read More

Monday Starts on Saturday: Surreal and amusing Russian science fiction

Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

In the Strugatsky brothersMonday Starts on Saturday (1965), Sasha, a young Russian man, is about to start his vacation when he picks up a couple of hitchhikers. They are excited to discover that Sasha is a computer programmer because the organization they work for is looking for someone just like him. Curious about these likeable fellows and the work they do, Sasha accompanies them to Solovets to find out what’s happening at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWIT).

The scientists at NITWIT love their work which is why Monday starts on Saturday (weekends and holidays are so boring!), and why they often clone themselves so they can get more done. But they aren’t very scientific. Sasha does ha... Read More

The Devil and the Dark Water: The ship’s cargo is murder and greed

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was one of my favorite reads of 2018, a compulsively readable and wildly original murder mystery, an homage to Agatha Christie, with a science fictional wrapper. Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020), is a highly twisty and eerie Sherlockian mystery, set in the seventeenth century on a large ship traveling from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) to Amsterdam. At first glance it’s not much at all like 7½ Deaths, except in the intricacy of the plot … and the way it mixes together different genres, and the vivid and complex characters who are far mo... Read More

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden takes on a lot in Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (2020) — a history of magic through time and space, skipping across millennia and the continents. Though “history” might be a tad misleading, in that Gosden includes our current age in his survey and then makes a call for magic to, if not “return” (he would argue it never left), to at least reclaim its equal position beside its younger siblings in what he calls the triple helix of magic, religion, and science. Such an ambitious project in terms of scale necessarily makes some sacrifice when it comes to specificity, and one might wish for a more focused exploration of cultural magic or find fault with some generalizations, but there’s certainly merit in the exploration despite the pitfalls, and Gosden offers u... Read More