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The Empire’s Ruin: A successful return to an engaging world

The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley 

The Empire’s Ruin (2021) kicks off a new series in Brian Staveley’s universe first introduced in his CHRONICLES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE trilogy and then expanded upon via the standalone novel, Skullsworn. The new series, ASHES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE, is a direct sequel to the earlier trilogy, and I strongly recommend reading in publication order, as several of this book’s characters appeared in the first series, while the events of that series drive the plot and characters of this new one. I will note that I found Staveley’s first 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

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

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

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

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

Beowulf: He was the man!

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

A couple of years ago I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (2018) which was a finalist for the Locus Award in 2019. Set in a wealthy suburb, the story was a promoted as a “modern retelling of Beowulf” and told from the perspectives of the mothers. I admired this novel and was therefore eager to read Headley’s new translation of Beowulf which also happens to be a Locus Award finalist in the Horror category this year.

While The Mere Wife was billed as a “retelling,” Beowulf: A New Translation is, as promised, a new modern translation of the epic poem. In the introduction to the piece, Headley explains her love of the poem (she’s been obsessed with it since seeing an illustration of Grendel... Read More

Deathless Divide: Just as tense and engaging as its predecessor

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide (2020) is the sequel to Justina Ireland’s 2018 novel Dread Nation, the fresh take on zombies I reviewed previously. Much like its predecessor, Deathless Divide maintains a break-neck pace and an engaging cast of characters from beginning to end.

I enjoyed Deathless Divide just as much as I did Dread Nation. Sometimes you come across a second book that fails to live up to the promises of the first — this book is not one of them. It hits the ground running with the same intensity and ratcheting up of stakes as the first ... Read More

Race to the Sun: An exciting and educational family story

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Nizhoni Begay wants to be a star, or at least popular. She’s hoping to make the game-winning score at her middle school basketball game but, instead, she’s humiliated when she gets distracted and gets hit in the face by the ball. The reason she was distracted was that she saw a man in the stands watching her. She could tell he was a monster. When that same man shows up at her house for dinner because he’s her dad’s new boss, Nizhoni tries to warn her father that he’s a monster but her father doesn’t believe her and seems very eager to please the monster.

When the new boss tells Nizhoni that she and her little brother Mac have powers he’s interested in, and then kidnaps their dad, it’s up to Nizhoni, Mac, and Nizhoni’s best friend Davery to rescue him.

This sets them on a quest in which they will need to find a map, solve riddles, pass tests, procure special weap... Read More

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires: Hilarious and horrifying

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Patricia Campbell and her neighbors are housewives in Charleston, South Carolina. Looking for friendship and something to talk about other than their husbands, children, housekeeping, and other neighbors, they form a book club. True Crime is their genre of choice.

After the ladies read Helter Skelter, Patricia laments that nothing exciting ever happens in their neighborhood:
“But don’t you wish that something exciting would happen around here?” Patricia asked. “Just once?”

Grace raised her eyebrows at Patricia.

“You wish that a gang of unwashed hippies would break into your house and murder your family and write ‘death to pigs’ in human blood on your walls because you don’t want to pack lunches anymore?”

“Well, not when you put it like ... Read More

Cemetery Boys: A heart-warming coming-of-age tale

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Yadriel’s Latinx community in East Los Angeles practices brujería. The men are brujos who escort ghosts to their final resting place and the women are brujas who have healing powers. But Yadriel’s large close family has not supported his desire to be a brujo because he is transgender. Their community has strict gender roles, they don’t see him as a boy, and they don’t think the brujo magic will work for him (though the women’s bruja magic definitely doesn’t work for Yadriel).

Yadriel is determined to prove not only that he is a boy, but that he can be a brujo, too. Only his cousin Maritza believes in him and is willing to help Yadriel become a brujo so, together, without the rest of their family, they perform the ceremony. When they accidentally summon the ghost of a handsome boy named Julian, and when another cousin, Miguel, dies unexpectedly, the teens, though grieved, finally ... Read More

The Blacktongue Thief: Has a true sense of history

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief (2021), by Christopher Buehlman, is a book that more than most will either win you over or not by virtue of its voice. More specifically, the bawdy, vulgar, romantic, scatological, jaded, at times lyrical (sometimes literally) voice of its thief narrator Kinch Na Shannack. For me, the voice was hit and miss, not in its execution, which was always consistent, but in my reaction to it. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I didn’t care for it, but it mostly carried me smoothly along in a book that throughout my reading and at the end I felt I should have enjoyed a lot more, even with its four-star ranking.

Thanks to being in debt to the Takers Guild (i.e. the usual thieves guild of fantasy works), Kinch finds himself tasked with joining a quest ... Read More

The Universe Wreckers: Interplanetary House of Pancakes

The Universe Wreckers by Edmond Hamilton

I have long been amused by the nicknames that some of our finest purveyors of sci-fi, fantasy and horror have managed to acquire for themselves. For example, both Jules Verne and H. G. Wells have understandably been dubbed The Father of Science Fiction. The great H. P. Lovecraft, due to the place that he called home, is known as The Sage of Providence. E. E. Smith, due to the fact that he was also a food engineer, was known as Doc, and Isaac Asimov, thanks to his Ph.D. in chemistry, was lovingly referred to as Doc Ike. Read More

Master of Djinn: A welcome (and longer) return to a fascinating world

Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn (2021) is P. Djèlí Clark’s first novel in the world he’s created in several short stories and a novella, and it’s clear that the setting and its characters can easily handle the expanded length, making for an exciting plot combined with some sharp social criticism.

This novel, and the other works, are set in the early 1900’s, three decades after the scholar/mage al-Jahiz opened a portal between our world and another, bringing an influx of magical/fantastical creatures across, with the djinn not only settling relatively smoothly into Egypt and other countries, but also helping expel the Western imperialists, shrinking their empires and their ability to exploit non-Western cultures for growth, labor, materials, and prosperity, Thus, Egypt is now a “great power” while Britain,... Read More

Upright Women Wanted: Subversive roaming librarians in a near-future U.S.A.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

After being betrothed to a man she doesn’t love and watching her secret lover, Beatriz, get hanged for aberrant behavior and possession of unapproved reading materials, Esther decides to run away. So she hides herself in the wagon of the traveling Librarians, the distributors of all approved reading materials, who are passing through her town.

When the stowaway is discovered, Esther attempts to convince the librarians that she always wanted to be one of them but, in reality, she is hoping their good morals and upright behavior will rub off on her so she will no longer feel deviant.

But that’s not going to happen, as Esther soon learns, because there’s a good reason why these women have chosen to remove themselves from regular society and become itinerant librarians. They don’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal social order endorsed by the approved reading materials t... Read More

The Man From Tomorrow: Past shock

The Man From Tomorrow by Stanton A. Coblentz

In Robert Silverberg’s masterful 1968 novel The Masks of Time —just one of three novels that the author released that year, during one of his superhumanly productive periods — the Earth of 1998 is visited by a man name Vornan-19, who has arrived from the year 2999, and whose advent leads to all manner of upheaval and complications. But this, of course, was hardly the first time that an author had written about a visitor from the far future. Take, for example, a novel that had come out a full 35 years earlier, San Francisco-born writer/poet Stanton A. Coblentz’s The Man From Tomorrow. Although nowher... Read More

Riot Baby: A short, intense, emotionally draining novel

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020), a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Novella, is a mind-expanding story about growing up Black in America. Kevin, the titular “riot baby,” was born in South Central Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 which were sparked by the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King after a traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase.

Before Kevin is born, Onyebuchi sets the scene by introducing Ella, Kev’s big sister. As a child, before the family moves to Harlem, we see Ella witnessing gang activity as she rides the school bus through South Central Los Angeles. On a day when it’s too hot to be inside, we see her watching a woman she calls her grandmother sweep bullet ca... Read More

Victories Greater Than Death: Share it with your teen, then enjoy it yourself

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

2021’s Victories Greater That Death is the first book in Charlie Jane Anders’s new Young Adult space opera series, UNSTOPPABLE. The book is filled with smart, heroic young people, extraterrestrials, space adventures, horrifying villains, bad food and plenty of relationships, as six Terran humans get pulled up onto The Royal Fleet warship Indomitable. The Royal Fleet is smack-dab in the middle of a war with a faction that calls itself Compassion. If you’ve read Anders before, you know that name means nothing good. Within the book, a clue is in the name of one of their ships, Sweet Euthanasia.

Tina Mains is a California girl and a true Chosen One with an extraterrestrial homing beacon in her chest. When it activates, a ... Read More

Into Plutonian Depths: Keep your lamps trimmed and burning

Into Plutonian Depths by Stanton A. Coblentz

Starting in 1906, scientists began searching for definitive proof of a theorized ninth planet; a heavenly body that would go far in explaining Uranus’ perturbations of movement that could not be wholly ascribed to the presence of Neptune alone. And it was 23-year-old astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh who, in the winter of 1930, ultimately made that discovery, while employed at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. The new planet would be dubbed Pluto on May 1st of that year, and was, naturally enough, a major news story at the time. Thus, it was this landmark discovery that led San Francisco-born author and poet Stanton A. Coblentz to pen his 5th novel (out of an eventual 23), Into Plutonian Depths, shortly thereafter. The book holds the distinction of being the first fictional wor... 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.
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

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