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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 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

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

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

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

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

Tower of Mud and Straw: A poignant tale of love and loss

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov

Lord Shea Ashcroft, a government minister, faced with a rioting crowd of protestors in the capital city, makes the call to have the military fall back rather than killing the protestors — and innocent bystanders —with poisonous gas. Some people praise his mercy, but half the city now lies in ruins from the mob’s violence, and the queen is not so appreciative of his decision. Shea is shipped off to the border city of Owenbeg as punishment, charged with overseeing the finishing of construction of a colossal tower to protect the border against enemy airships. The tower is already a thousand feet high, with plans to add another thousand feet on top.

Things get complicated for Shea in Owenbeg, on both a personal and a political level. The duke of Owenbeg, his military commander, and the chief engineer of the tower all resent Shea, especially when Shea makes it clear that he won’t just... Read More

The Cunning Man: Interesting setting, heart-warming relationship

The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler & Aaron Michael Ritchey

Hiram Woolley, 44 years old, is a slightly melancholy widower who farms beets in Utah during the Great Depression. He and his adopted son, Michael, spend their free time taking food and supplies to people who are suffering more than they are. This includes the citizens, mostly immigrants, of a mining town where the mine has been closed due to a squabble between the members of the Kimball family who own it. The miners aren’t getting paid and they’re starving. They can’t get out of the situation because they rent their homes from the mining company. Some of the workers are scared because they think the mine is haunted. Hiram thinks the Kimballs are keeping a secret about the mine.

Hiram and Michael realize that it would be best for everyone if, rather than continuing to deliver food, they could help get the mine re-opened. That means someone needs to figure out what th... Read More

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep: Odd, unsettling, lovely

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

When she was a small child, Remy was rescued from death by a chaplain who oversees the monks on a submarine called Leviathan. They carry the world’s last nuclear missile and their mission is to wait, protecting the missile, until God tells them it’s time to deploy it against the wicked Earth on judgement day.

Remy’s job is to sing in the choir of eunuchs, a crucial role that keeps up morale. Her voice will remain high because she’s a girl (a secret that only the chaplain knows), so she is not in danger of being pulled out of the choir and sent to work in the engine room where the nuclear reactor is. That’s a dangerous job that soon leads to a wasting illness and eventual death. But as Remy hears her best friend’s voice begin to change, she worries about his fate and begins to question all she’s been told about the world.

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All Systems Red: We love this introverted killing machine

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

The narrator of All Systems Red (2017), the 2017 Nebula award-winning novella by Martha Wells, is a once-nameless cyborg security unit or SecUnit that has given itself the name Murderbot (for reasons disclosed midway through the story). Using its own unprecedented and highly unauthorized initiative, Murderbot has hacked the governor module software that controls its actions and obligates it to be obedient. But instead of going on a killing spree, as one might expect given the name it adopted, Murderbot elects to spend its spare hours watching countless hours of video entertainment and trying not to interact more than is necessary with the group of eight humans that it’s responsible for protecting, a survey group of eight scientists ... Read More

MONSTRESS 5: Warchild: It never flinches

MONSTRESS 5: Warchild by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

This is my fifth review for what is the fifth volume in Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s collaborative MONSTRESS project, and it’s getting difficult not to repeat myself. Here are the basics: it takes place in a matriarchal society that’s embroiled in a devastating war between those that wield magic and those that rely on technological advancements.

The main character is Maika Halfwolf, a girl with one arm and a Lovecraftian monster living inside her, desperately trying to keep her head above the morass of political intrigue and violence that surrounds her. And the artwork in this series is exceptionally beautiful, combining Asian and Egyptian influences with an Art Nouveau style that I’ve certainly never seen anywhere outside of these books.

Volume 5: Warchild (comprised of issu... Read More

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro: An indomitable queen fights for her throne

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

I judged this book by its cover and steered clear of it for more than a year, until by a strange, convoluted road I ended up reading it.

The cover of 2020’s The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, written by K.S. Villoso, is beautiful, featuring a gorgeous woman in profile, wearing body-hugging leather armor, with a sword over one shoulder and a decorative cut on one perfect cheekbone. This, combined with the blurb from a well-known fantasy writer and the back cover-copy which starts, “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf…” made me think I was taking on a gory military (or quasi-military) fantasy where a deposed queen hacked and slashed her way through enemy armies for some reason. At the time (pandemic?) I just wasn’t up for that. (The series is called THE CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN on Goodreads, although Amazon may show ... Read More

MONSTRESS 4: The Chosen: More evocative storytelling from two masters

MONSTRESS 4: The Chosen by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

The saga continues with the fourth volume of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takenda's epic fantasy MONSTRESS, which at this point is so complex and intricate that it's difficult to properly summarize it.

Set in an alternate matriarchal 19th century Asia, with a steampunk/art deco/Egyptian aesthetic, this is the story of Maika Halfwolf and the terrible demonic presence that resides within her, one that sporadically bursts forth to cause destruction and mayhem, but occasionally offering her advice and companionship as well.

Her world is in the middle of a devastating war, in which magic and science are constantly finding new ways to spread ruination, and increasingly powerful forces threaten to end all of civilization. Maika finds herself in the company of a man called the Lord Doctor, who claims to be her long-lost fat... Read More

The Glass Hotel: A modern-day ghost story

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel rose to prominence with the extraordinary Station Eleven (which, given the current state of the world, is enjoying a resurgence on the best-seller lists), but her latest novel, The Glass Hotel (2020), is a very different kind of book.

The story begins with a young woman named Vincent disappearing from a ship, the Neptune Cumberland. In what has become Mandel's signature style, the story eschews chronology to skip backwards and forwards in time, piecing together the events of Vincent's life that lead her to those final moments aboard the Neptune Cumberland.

Skip backwards a few years and Vincent is a bartender at the prestigious Hotel Cai... Read More

The Ghost Variations: A collection of 100 flash stories

The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier

The Ghost Variations (2021) by Kevin Brockmeier is a collection of 100 flash stories, all involving ghosts, though the meaning of that word is stretched in some of them. In structure, style, flavor, and tone, the collection reminded me most of Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, although it also calls up echoes of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.

The stories are grouped into various sections, such as “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Nature,” “Ghosts and Love and Friendship,” and “Ghosts and Family.”... Read More

The Midnight Library: A literary Sliding Doors

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Who hasn't fantasised what a different version of their life might look like? What if you'd become famous? Or an Olympic athlete? What if you'd become an arctic researcher? A musician? That's exactly what Matt Haig explores in his latest offering, The Midnight Library (2020).

Nora Seed (and note the pointed symbolism of her surname) is not having a great day. Her cat just died. She's been fired. Her brother is ignoring her and her neighbour, the only person she has any social contact with, doesn't need her to bring round his meds any more. So that night, she tries to kill herself.

Instead of death, however, Nora finds herself in a library where each volume on the shelf is a different version of her life. She is met by the librarian, a certain Mrs. Elm (who, coincidental... Read More

Call of the Bone Ships: The pace has picked up significantly

Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

Call of the Bone Ships (2020) is the second book in R.J. Barker’s TIDE CHILD trilogy. The first book, The Bone Ships, introduced Joron Twiner, first mate to a tough and effective sea captain named Lucky Meas. Sailing and politics collide when their disreputable ship Tide Child was assigned to find and protect the last of a valuable but possibly extinct sea dragon species. The Bone Ships — dark, moody, and beautifully written — was slow-going until the final scenes, which were spectacular. By that point I was eager to read this second book, Call of the Bone Ships.

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The Year I Flew Away: Full of heart and humor

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

The Year I Flew Away (2021), by Marie Arnold, combines the timelessness of a fairy tale with the timeliness of the immigrant experience, all while being set in the 1980s amidst Whitney Houston and Prince. It’s a charming middle-grade novel full of heart and humor.

Gabrielle is a young girl living in Haiti; though she’s poor, she’s surrounded by family and friends. One day her parents have big news: Gabrielle is going to America to live with her aunt and uncle. She has to go alone, though, because of issues with her parents’ paperwork.

Gabrielle thought America would be heaven, but instead she finds herself terribly lonely; the other kids make fun of her and leave her out. And when her uncle and aunt take her to their respective workplaces, she learns that they have to deal with bigots on a daily basis. Gabrielle feels li... Read More

The Echo Wife: Compelling, gripping, psychological

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is a geneticist specializing in cloning, at the pinnacle of her career: The Echo Wife (2021) begins with a banquet at which she is given a prestigious award. At the same time, Evelyn is at a low point in her personal life. She’s a prickly loner and a workaholic, and her husband Nathan has recently left her for another woman. What makes matters far worse is that Nathan, a far less brilliant scientist than Evelyn, has stolen Evelyn’s research to clone Evelyn herself to grow himself a new wife, Martine, using programming methods to make Martine a softer, more submissive version of Evelyn. Nathan even finds a way around the sterility built into the foundation of the cloning process. Martine is pregnant, while Evelyn had adamantly refused to have a child in the earlier days of her marriage to Nathan.

So Evelyn lashes out at Martine, using her cruelest words... Read More

Beasts of Tabat: Vivid worldbuilding delivers a world in political upheaval

Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo

Because I got an ARC of Hearts of Tabat, the second book in Cat Rambo’s TABAT QUARTET, in 2018, I read it before the first book. I thought that would have a negative impact on my reaction to Book One, Beasts of Tabat, but as I was reading, my brain reset itself, and when I got to the end I was almost as shocked as if I hadn’t had some inkling what was coming. That’s some good storytelling!

In Beasts of Tabat, we meet Teo, a village boy. His family are shapeshifters, hunted down and killed by the ruling class of Tabat. When his family plans to send him to the Temples of the Moon, Teo flees from the docks of the capital city, Tabat, where politica... Read More

The Glyphs: A highly credible lost-world adventure

The Glyphs by Roy Norton

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, explorations began in the ancient Mayan city complex known as Tikal, in a remote and inaccessible area of northern Guatemala. In the 1880s, a systematic clearing of the area commenced, as well as a recording of the manifold marvels that were being discovered in this centuries-old site. (And when I say “centuries,” that is perhaps an understatement, as it has since been established that Tikal’s heyday was from A.D. 200 – 900.) Perhaps stimulated by news reports of this Central American wonder, Kewanee, Illinois-born author Roy Norton sat down to write the lost-world novel entitled The Glyphs, which dealt with a modern-day discovery of another Mayan city, also in northern Guatemala, a fairly unusual setting for this type of tale. Norton had been born in 1869 and so was almost 50 years old when The Glyphs Read More

Cathedral of Bones: Lovecraftian YA done right

Cathedral of Bones by A.J. Steiger

Young teen Simon Frost has had a rough start to his early life. His twin sister was murdered several years ago, his mother vanished shortly thereafter leaving only a note, his father was expelled from the Foundation amid darkly ominous rumors about his research, and Simon himself has shown so little talent as a Foundation animist not a single mentor will take him on, leaving him relegated to working in the mailroom sorting requests for the Foundation’s aid from citizens and towns/cities. When the Foundation ignores a letter from a small asking for assistance against a dangerous monster, Simon takes it on himself to come to their aid, the first step on a journey that will find him an unexpected ally and change everything he knows about the Foundation, himself, his family, and his world.

In Cathedral of Bones (2020), A.J. Steiger has crafted a Lovecrafti... Read More

On Fragile Waves: Lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

In the opening pages of On Fragile Waves (2021), by E. Lily Yu, young Firuzeh, her brother Naur, and their parents are on the start of a long journey from war-torn Kabul to the hope of a better life in Australia. To pass the time on that first leg, Firuzeh’s mother entertains them with a fairy tale. But the novel will be no fairy tale, as the family makes its way through Pakistan to Indonesia to an immigration detention camp on Nauru Island and finally to Australia itself, facing loss and discrimination, poverty and indignity, and a long-standing instability and uncertainty that erodes their family ties. Filled with poetry, fairy tales, and flashes of magical realism in the form of a drowned girl who remains Firuzeh’s best friend, On Fragile Waves is a lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending story.

The journey is fraught with... Read More

Crystal Keepers: An exciting installment in this fun middle grade series

Crystal Keepers by Brandon Mull

Crystal Keepers (2015) is the third of five installments in Brandon Mull’s FIVE KINGDOMS series for kids. It follows Sky Raiders and Rogue Knight, which you’ll want to read first. There are a couple of spoilers for those novels in this review.

The story is about some middle grade kids who went to a haunted house on Halloween and were kidnapped and sold into slavery in a parallel universe called the Outskirts or the Five Kingdoms. Cole Randolph, a classmate of the kidnapped kids, managed to hide from the kidnappers and follow his friends into the Outskirts. He’s been trying to find them, save ... Read More