Book Review Archives

BOOK REVIEW: Endsinger by Jay Kristoff

REVIEW SUMMARY: A stakes-raising finale to the Lotus War Trilogy.


PROS: The theme of the series is rendered in strong lines; a high-octane action draws the reader through the book.
CONS: Questions of cultural appropriation reduce the book’s appeal for readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A strongly themed finale to Kristoff’s unique steampunk trilogy

The civil war, initiated by the death of the Shogun at the hands of Yukiko, the Stormdancer, has come to full fruition in Endsinger, the third and final book in Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War Trilogy. The Great Houses now openly strive against each other. The plan for Hiro, young lordling of the Tiger clan, to marry the late Shogun’s sister and cement a marriage bond claim to the throne has gone to ruin along with his palace. The gaijin, finally getting a reprieve from the war brought to their shores, have put plans in place to revenge themselves on their oppressors on the home front. And amongst it all, a long-standing secret plan by the Guild continues to roll. For the Lotus must bloom, and for a deep, dark reason that is about to be revealed.
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BOOK REVIEW: War Dogs by Greg Bear

REVIEW SUMMARY: A slow burn of a Mililtary SF novel whose structure and pacing dilute its impact.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Skyrine (Sky Marine) Michael Venn is dropped on Mars as part of an operation against an alien force. He uncovers a far greater set of mysteries in the process.

PROS:: Intriguing if familiar basic premise differentiated by interesting worldbuilding touches; excellent grounding of reader into the action and universe.
CONS: Format of story and pacing dilute story to the point where the ending’s sting loses the emotional impact it should have.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting world and premise weakened by a sadly and frustratingly flawed execution.

The Gurus, a set of apparently benevolent aliens, come to Earth bearing gifts, but there is a price. There are hostile species out there, aliens who would regard Earth and the Gurus as prey and opposition. In exchange for new technology, Earth needs to step up and provide soldiers to deal with the alien threat, which already exists on Mars. It’s time for Marine Michael Venn to become a Skyrine and do aerial drops on Mars to deal with that alien threat, tangle with the few humans who have tried to colonize Mars (including a love interest) and try to survive.

Based on thius premise, you might expect slam-bang action and lots of technobabble — save the girl, save the planet, save the solar system, right? Well, the novel in question is from legendary SF luminary Greg Bear, and what you get instead is something rather different from expectations. What you get is War Dogs.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: Huberath asks us to become more conscious of the narratives we create and think more broadly about our place in the universe.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When Gavein Throzz moves to Davabel, he soon finds himself linked to a growing epidemic of deaths. And when he and other characters start reading a mysterious book called Nest of Worlds, Gavein realizes that his existence and perception of that existence may be terribly flawed.

PROS: This novel puts your brain on a fast-moving treadmill and asks fascinating questions about the nature of human existence.
CONS: More narrative time could have been given to the several nested worlds to flesh out some of Huberath’s philosophical questions.
BOTTOM LINE: Nest of Worlds is a wonderful introduction to the world of contemporary Polish science fiction, and a powerful, probing story that prompts thoughtfulness and self-awareness.

As part of my effort to read more scifi in translation, I jumped at the chance to check out Nest of Worlds, Huberath’s first novel to appear in English. A major force in Polish science fiction, Huberath is also a professor of biophysics and biological physics at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. And he brings everything to this metafictional tale of life, death, and reading.
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Long Hidden is a speculative fiction anthology about marginalized groups of people in history, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older and published by Crossed Genres Publications in early 2014.

The introduction of the anthology begins with this:

Before Long Hidden was a book, it was a conversation. Really, it was many conversations, over the course of many different lives; these fed into one conversation in particular, a back-and-forth on Twitter in December 2012 about representations of African diasporic voices in historical speculative fiction, and the ways that history “written by the victors” demonizes and erases already marginalized stories. That discussion became an idea that became the book you’re about to read.

We grew up reading stories about people who weren’t much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. When we looked for faces and thoughts like our own, we found orcs and deviants and villains. And we began to wonder why some people’s stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to.

So, as you might have gathered, Long Hidden is an anthology meant to tell the stories of marginalized people in history (in speculative fashion). The setting varies, as well as the particular marginalized group, though the time period seemed to be most often between the 1600s and the 1800s. I’ll highlight a few of my favorites here.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A brilliant short story collection, which deserves a spot right next to your volume of fairy tales and I’m not talking about the child-friendly variety here.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Interconnected stories of dangerous books, witches and wise women, fey folk from a different realm and girls trained to be assassins, professional poisoners and healers. This collection introduces the sisterhood of Little Sisters of St Florian and is set in the world of Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, acting as an origin story for the events in the previous collection.

PROS: Exquisite prose; a shared world where the stories bleed into each other to establish a vibrant and sprawling mythology; complex portrayal of women as protagonists and antagonists; the breathtaking pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.
CONS: The collection ended. Honestly, I could read at least three more volumes with tales in this world.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s among the strongest short story collections on the market and it will fill your heart with darkest wonders.

With The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings Angela Slatter proves why she’s one of the most important voices in fantasy. Fairy tales have seen a strong resurgence in recent years, but only Slatter understands them well enough to distill the essence that made them influential and prevalent and create her own mythos. She succeeds in her task and her short stories rival Grimm’s fairy tales in their darkness, danger and viciousness.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hawk by Steven Brust

REVIEW SUMMARY: Feeling like a who’s-who of Vlad’s friends in Adrilankha, Hawk balances fatalism with hope, and never misses a beat with the humor and rapid fire dialog for which Brust is known. Long time fans of the series will appreciate seeing their favorite supporting characters.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Done with running from the Jhereg, Vlad returns to Adrilankha. But this time, he has a plan to get the Jhereg off his back for good.

PROS: A surprisingly great starting place for readers new to this series; perfect pacing; spotlights Brust’s famous dry wit.
CONS: The trendy-sounding slang may sound dated after a few years.
BOTTOM LINE: Brust succeeds wildly in playing the long game, and in making this “nearly the end of a series” book completely accessible to brand new readers. Fans of the series will appreciate that Hawk moves the chronological plot line forward.

This is Brust’s 14th Vlad Taltos book, a series that stars its titular character and takes place in and around the Dragaeran empire. Each of the seventeen Dragaeran Great Houses are named after an indigenous species, and members of that House are rumored to share the qualities and mannerisms of that animal. Vlad, an Easterner (that means he’s a human), obviously wasn’t born into a Dragearan house, so his father did the only thing one could do it that situation: he purchased a title in the house of Jhereg. Lord Vladimir Taltos, Count Szurke, sometimes-friend of the Empress, broke the rules and has been running from the House of the Jhereg ever since. It’s an issue, because the Jhereg don’t just want him dead, they want him soul dead, the type of assassination that can only be done with a rare Morganti weapon. Oh, didn’t I mention? The House of Jhereg runs all the organized crime in the empire.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong, character-focused story that serves as an excellent introduction to the Pathfinder universe


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Salim Ghadafar, reluctant minion of a Goddess of Death, investigates a set of missing souls, and so becomes caught up in machinations ranging from Heaven to Hell and the mortal plane between.

PROS:: Strong, focused characterization; intriguing and diverse settings.
CONS: A couple of subplots don’t hold up quite as well as the rest of the book.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid, entertaining fiction that works for both those already familiar with the Pathfinder universe and newcomers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Younger Gods by Michael R. Underwood

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong urban fantasy novel that shows the author’s diverse tastes and skills in the subgenre.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Former cultist Jacob Hicks’ relatively innocuous life in New York City gets a kick in the rear as his sister comes to town to start the Apocalypse.

PROS:: A pair of strong characters as family protagonist and antagonist; excellent overall use of New York City as a setting.
CONS: Almost too much worldbuilding and things thrown into the Urban Fantasy blender; one tiny mistake regarding a locale in Staten Island.
BOTTOM LINE: A strong story that introduces a delightfully tasty and complicated urban fantasy world that consistently keeps the reader turning pages.

It’s a classic story as old as time. Farm boy from North Dakota goes to the big city (in this case New York City), gets into big trouble because he is a hick from the sticks. In Michael R. Underwood’s urban fantasy novel The Younger Gods, he even has the adopted last name to prove it. Jacob Hicks née Greene has bigger problems than just managing his classes and his job, and even dealing with the confusing maelstrom of culture that is New York. Jacob’s big sister is coming to town, and she is not happy with her baby brother at all. How does the farm boy, already somewhat adrift in an alien and confusing world, handle family coming to town on top of it?

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A multifacted set of essays that has proven unexpectedly topical.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: The Mad Norwegian Chicks dig… series continues with three dozen essays by women on gaming from video games to Dungeons and Dragons.

PROS: High profile contributors on a variety of types and aspects of games; strong personal stories; many “I didn’t know that!” moments to be had reading essays.
CONS: Some of the essays feel like filler.
BOTTOM LINE: A set of essays made more timely by recent events than when the anthology was first conceived and essays written.

Stereotypes of women and their relation (or lack of relation) to games, particularly videogames and roleplaying games, have abounded since the dawn of both. From the old anti-D&D movie Mazes and Monsters to Felicia Day’s The Guild and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, depictions of games and videogames as a male-only activity rarely touched by women have been stereotyped, parodied and deconstructed. And on the face of it, the idea that half of the human population neither plays “real” videogames (whatever that means) or roleplaying games is ludicrous. And yet this misperception persists.

Even the idea that the gaming industry is exclusively male and therefore targeted to males is completely at sea with reality. Fantasy authors like Carrie Patel and Erin Hoffman write fantasy novels and work in the videogaming industry. Authors and publishers like Shanna Germain write and publish high-profile roleplaying games.

For answers — and real essays and thoughts by women on their relationship to games — one can come to Chicks Dig Gaming, the latest in the Chicks Dig… series put out by small press publisher Mad Norwegian Press. This latest volume is edited by Jennifer Brozek, Robert Smith and Lars Pearson. Brozek, like the aforementioned Shanna Germain, works both in roleplaying games and as an author and anthologist herself.

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BOOK REVIEW: The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

REVIEW SUMMARY: With playful language, distinctly drawn characters, and a cavalcade of action in service to a coherent plot, this book is a winner.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A team of adventurers fracture over differing motivations while wading through the early efforts of a rising demon-god.

PROS: Distinct characters; well-drawn world; engaging plot; a cascade of action from start to finish.
CONS: “Firework” action; waiting for the rest of the trilogy.
BOTTOM LINE:  A good book, whose characters and plot take turns drawing the reader in again and again. No need to have read the preceding Aeon’s Gate trilogy; The City Stained Red grips the reader on its own merits while leaving one looking for the sequel.

From the first, The City Stained Red reveals a desperation in our main character, a desperation which is reflected in turns by his companions, by their situation, and by the city in which they find themselves fighting. Sam Sykes’ story unfolds with constant action, and every event increases the intensity. I read the whole thing in one long marathon read, because I simply never reached a moment when I wasn’t even more invested than the moment before in “what happens next.”
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A masterful narrative about alien contact, physics, virtual reality, and Chinese culture and history.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When a Chinese astrophysicist succeeds in contacting aliens in Alpha Centauri, the resulting impact on human society reveals just how fractured our planet truly is.

PROS: Fascinating word-paintings of abstract physics problems; thoughtful consideration of potential human-alien contact; deft toggling between time-periods.
CONS: We have to wait until July to get our hands on the next book in the trilogy.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a superb translation of a brilliant work of Chinese science fiction, where physics, philosophy, and history combine to push us to reconsider our place in the universe.

Over the past few months, I’ve been paying more attention to the state of fiction in English translation and have discovered many great publishers and translators. And while the number of contemporary novels translated into English could always be higher, I think we’re headed in the right direction. In terms of international science fiction, writers and translators like Lavie Tidhar and Ken Liu have introduced us to many voices we English-language readers might never have read.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: Whether you are a Harrison fanatic, a reader of one of his series or just someone who likes history, Harrison’s memoir provides not only insight into his own life, but context of the world that influenced him.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Harry Harrison grows up in the depression, gets drafted for World War II, forms a dislike of the military, learns Esperanto, relocates from NYC to Mexico,  and in his thirties starts writing Science Fiction. From Italy to England to Denmark and several places in between, Harrison’s memoir follows a man bent on writing, unafraid to move to (at the time) far off places to seek a better life for his family. Subtitled “It seemed like a good idea at the time”, the memoir includes several excellent essays in Part II that could not be integrated into the memoir before the writer’s passing.

PROS: History and environment puts writing in context, and Harrison’s memoir provides great context; the essays in Part II are worthy of publication on their own.
CONS: Part I becomes a bit incoherent at the end.
BOTTOM LINE: Though incomplete, this book details the unique life story of one of science fiction’s grand masters, told partially as memoir and partially through targeted essays.

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BOOK REVIEW: Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

REVIEW SUMMARY: McDevitt encourages hope for humanity’s future in this far-future adventure.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When an ancient FTL transmitter is unearthed, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath go hot in pursuit of the missing Apollo artifacts buried in the mists of nine thousand years of history. Meanwhile, the once-lost ship Capella will soon return from a space/time warp with Alex’s uncle and mentor aboard.

PROS: Relatable characters; easygoing storyline; breezy read; interesting concepts; Apollo!
CONS: The Capella subplot may require having read Firebird.
BOTTOM LINE: Reading Coming Home revitalizes proper pride in humanity – what it has accomplished today and what it will design, do, and discover tomorrow.

Nine thousand years into the future, Alex Benedict operates a successful antiquarian firm. Acting as a broker, Alex and his assistant Chase Kolpath seek out new artifacts for clients. Their for-profit motive often angers traditional archaeologists but their love of history and the thrill of discovery always spurs their pursuit of new and alluring artifacts.
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BOOK REVIEW: Frostborn by Lou Anders

REVIEW SUMMARY: Lou Anders’s debut novel for young readers is an engaging and fun fantasy adventure. Younger readers will enjoy the novel and find identifiable characters while older readers will enjoy the rich world.


PROS: Fluid storytelling, engaging characters and spectacular worldbuilding.
CONS: Some dialogue felt forced, some characters a little telegraphed (though that may be because of my age).
BOTTOM LINE: Were I the target age for Frostborn, I would have gobbled up this book. At my current age I enjoyed and want more Thrones and Bones.

Thrones and Bones is not just the series title for Lou Anders’s debut novel Frostborn, it is also the game with which Karn, one of the novel’s young protagonists, is obsessed. Our other protagonist, the young half-giant Thianna, is an outsider in her land because of her dual heritage. Of course their paths intertwine in Anders’ Norse-inspired fantasy, set in the land of Norrøngard, with undead kings, Afterwalkers (undead warriors), magic horns, wyverns, dragons and dead cities.
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BOOK REVIEW: Tainted Blood by M.L. Brennan

REVIEW SUMMARY: Another great entry in the American Vampire series.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Fortitude Scott must investigate the death of a werebear while the supernatural community prepares for a change in leadership.

PROS: Great characters; believable and compelling relationships; original vampire mythos; sets up for one hell of a sequel.
CONS: Murder mystery could use more immediacy; lack of werebear mythos.
BOTTOM LINE: Another solid American Vampire novel that builds on its predecessors and sets up a big change in the series.

I did not expect to receive an ARC of M.L. Brennan’s third Fortitude Scott book so soon. I reviewed Generation V and Iron Night (American Vampire Books 1 and 2) and absolutely adored them, so it was a pleasant surprise when I opened my mailbox to find Tainted Blood. Brennan’s American Vampire series is a bit of an anomaly, I must admit. In recent years I’ve become far more accepting of the urban fantasy genre but I’m still not keen on the usual suspects: vampires, werewolves, and the like. Yet Brennan has me waving the Team Fortitude flag.
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Skullkickers Treasure Trove V1

Over on the Kirkus blog this week, I take a look at Skullkickers Treasure Trove: Volume 1.  From the post:

I’m gonna be honest. I picked up SkullKickers Treasure Trove: Volume 1 before Pathfinder: Dark Waters Rising. But I read and reviewed the Pathfinder book first. I bring this up because the two books share a writer – Jim Zub. SkullKickers is almost a resume for Zub to be able to write the Pathfinder comic. As a stand alone, SkullKickers is a fun homage to that dark corner of genre where sword and sorcery meets fantasy and gaming to become something irreverent and well worth your time, and mine. In fact, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  The book follows the adventures of two mercenaries. As near as I can tell, we never know their real names. We have a Dwarf (Shorty?) and a Human (Baldy?) working for hire. The story begins in the town of Mudwich where our heroes are dealing with an overweight werewolf and his cult of followers.

Click over to the Kirkus Blog to read the rest of the review.

BOOK REVIEW: The Free by Brian Ruckley

REVIEW SUMMARY: Stock characters but great action and even greater magic.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: With war drawing to a close Yulan and his mercenary company accept one final commission — to hunt down an old foe and bring him to justice before he can kill more innocents.

PROS: Intriguing setup and setting; better-than-usual revenge motivation; husband/wife dynamic; dynamic action; memorable scenes; stunning magic; Permanences!
CONS: Stock characters.
BOTTOM LINE: Brian Ruckley crafts a fun and satisfying revenge story.

It seems my choice in video games has influenced my reading habits of late. Playing Bungie’s Destiny reignited my desire for military science fiction and so I read Henry V. Neil’s Glory Main and was not disappointed. Last week I started playing Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and just had to get my hands on some quality fantasy. Fortunately Brian Ruckley’s The Free showed up around this time. This being the first time I’ve read Ruckley’s work, a nice thick standalone seemed a good place to start. I love the current state of the fantasy genre but there are so many different series that a standalone story has a special sort of appeal to it…or at least it did until I finished The Free and immediately wished I could read more about the world Ruckley has created.
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BOOK REVIEW: Pennsylvania by Michael Bunker

REVIEW SUMMARY: A refreshing new voice in science fiction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A young Amish man leaves home to help colonize a distant planet, finds love and war and a slew of mysteries.

PROS: Uses Amish perspective of colonialism, survival and peacefulness as a nice twist on exploring a new world set in tyranny and war; solid use of the serial formula and mystery reveals to drive the reader along; SciFi elements and technologies add excitement and wonder.
CONS: The main character felt passive at times; the romance element did not deliver as strongly as I would have liked; a few times the story slowed down as the main character reflected on Amish philosophy in relation to new world around him; ending was more of a stay-tuned-for-the-next-book finale than a strong climax.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong set of stories that joyfully show new and extended aspects of a fascinating fantasy world.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Explores the present and past of the Indigo Cloud Court with stories that look into the past history of characters.

PROS:: Detailed and vivid worldbuilding; intriguing non-human politics and character interactions; welcome return of favorite characters.
CONS: Worldbuilding and explanation inserted to allow new readers to catch up sometimes drags a bit on story flow.
BOTTOM LINE: A set of novellas that introduce and extend the Three Worlds to new and returning readers.

Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads introduced a new fantasy universe to her readers. Set in the “Three Worlds”, The Cloud Roads started the story of Moon, an orphaned humanoid with a secret (and terrifying) ability to shapechange into a monstrous flying form. Discovered by a tribe of creatures similar to himself, Moon learned who and what he really is, even as the court of Raksura was under threat by their mortal enemies, the Fell. The subsequent novels (The Serpent Sea and The Siren Depths) continued the story of Moon and Indigo Cloud as they return to their ancestral homeland, only to be immersed into adventure and old rivalries with other Raksura as they seek to reestablish themselves in the Reaches.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A diverse, eclectic, and fascinating collection of steampunk stories.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor Sean Wallace has brought together stories from such writers as Cherie Priest, Ken Liu, Gord Sellar, and others, that push the boundaries of the steampunk genre in new and exciting ways.

PROS: A broad range of steampunk tales that range from fantasy to hard scifi, and folk-tale to alternate-history.
CONS: Grouping the stories into themed sections would have made the similarities and differences among the approaches more apparent.
BOTTOM LINE: A fascinating romp through the steampunk imagination. (And there are pterodactyls. Just sayin’.)

The twenty-five steampunk stories in Sean Wallace’s The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures reveal just how rich and varied the genre can be. From fantasy to hard scifi, historical fiction to diary entries, they show us a whole range of ways to conceptualize and understand our world and many of its alternatives. Included are stories about circuses and mechanical birds, shape-shifters and pterodactyls, “mechanika” uprisings and political intrigue. Oh, and lobsters and golems. You get the picture.
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